Everything looked okay in the near-empty meeting room. He'd trusted Daniel to set things up, the guy understood things like protocol. Not that the Asgard were as fussy as the System Lords, but it made sense to be careful. O'Neill's fingers twitched with the need to rearrange the precisely positioned blue pencils.
"Daddy, can I do drawing?"
"Sorry, sweet. This has to stay tidy."
"Harry?" She appealed to an alternative authority.
Maybourne pulled a face at her. "Princess, your dad said 'no'."
The sound of the door opening pulled their attention to Major Davis's hurried entrance.
"Colonel, General." His attention flicked between them, uncertain which to focus on. "Air Force One just landed. The President will be here in fifteen minutes."
"I thought he was sick?" O'Neill said.
"He died in the early hours of the morning. Vice-president Kinsey was inaugurated as President four hours ago. He wants to be present at the negotiations."
"You mean, wants to claim the credit," Maybourne said.
"Over my dead body," O'Neill muttered.
"Shouldn't that be over mine?"
"Do I take it that you know him?" Davis asked.
"Do I know the scum-sucking-"
"Jack... It's bad form to insult the President, especially when Major Davis has a job to do. I take it, Major, that you are about to fill us in on how much he knows?"
Davis rubbed his hands together in agitation. "I only found out myself ten minutes ago that he was coming. He didn't want anyone to know. He doesn't care much for Colonel O'Neill."
"Now there's a surprise," O'Neill said sarcastically.
"I take it he knows Colonel O'Neill is from another reality," Maybourne said. "How about myself?"
Davis shifted his balance from one foot to the other and back again. "I didn't put that in my report. The Pentagon would have appointed a replacement and I judged that would have been detrimental to the situation. We weren't making any progress until SG-1 arrived."
"We'll cover your back," O'Neill said, "if that's what you're worried about."
"Thanks. Incidentally, what did happen to General Maybourne?"
"Heart attack," Maybourne said instantly. "Seeing Jack can have that effect on people. Especially when you've been blackmailing him and you thought he was safely dead."
O'Neill caught Sunlight who had taken advantage of the distraction to go and help herself to a collection of pencils. It was better to get her away from this discussion.
"Has anyone seen Carter?"
Davis nodded. "She's in the control room, or was a couple of minutes ago."
"Okay." O'Neill pulled a videotape out of his pocket. "Sunlight, go to the control room and give this to Auntie Sam. Tell her it's from me and she's to play it in her lab with Daniel and Teal'c. Tell her it's a secret and no one else is to see it. Got that?"
"It's for Auntie Sam," she recited, "and it's a secret."
I was beginning to think you'd never tell her. Are you that embarrassed by me?
"Aren't you worried, letting Sunlight go on her own?" Davis asked.
"There's no one here who would hurt her. Not any longer." The anger slipped through in his voice and Davis reacted to it.
O'Neill swopped looks with Maybourne.
"I think he needs to know," Harry said. "With Kinsey in the picture..."
"...who'll be trying to cover his ass." He waved a hand at Davis. "Hey, Mom, we got company. Lay another two places."
Obedient to the niceties of rank, Davis moved chairs and redealt notepaper and pencils. As he worked, O'Neill began: "General Maybourne threatened Sunlight. Used her to control my alternate and hide his illegal activities. Understand this: you must make absolutely clear to Kinsey is that no mention whatsoever is to be made of alternate realities. We're selling the Asgard a pig in a poke. Only Thor knows the full story and he can't get the backing of the rest of them unless they think they have the genuine Maybourne."
"Maybe we could give them Kinsey instead?"
I thought I told you to keep quiet?
I got bored.
Davis looked down at the pencil he'd just snapped.
Maybourne smirked. "I quite like the idea," he said, "but I don't think it will wash. There's no way Kinsey will confess, not with the presidency in his hands, and I can't access my computer files to prove a connection."
"Always assuming there is one," O'Neill said. "This reality might be different."
Davis still looked as though he'd been hit on the head by a large sledgehammer.
"What's bugging you? The fact that Jack's tok'ra, that Maybourne broke the Asgard treaty, or the fact that Kinsey knew all about it and actively supported what was being done?"
Davis pulled himself slowly together. "I think it started with you saying you were going to give them General Maybourne."
"Oh, it gets worse than that," O'Neill said softly. "Sorry, Harry," he added with an apologetic look sideways.
Maybourne picked up the thread. "The other half of the price is Jack's daughter. I wonder... Did Kinsey know the General was holding her over you?"
"He knew about the threat to Hammond's grandchildren."
"You're trying to tell me..." Davis half-choked, then recovered. "...that the President of the United States..."
"Is a lying scumbag who worked with the NID to manipulate the Stargate program to their own ends," O'Neill said.
"In fact," Maybourne added, with a particularly twisted grin, "a man after my own heart who probably helped get me this job in the first place."
He's enjoying this, Kantele said.
He always does. And don't ask me how much is an act and how much is real.
"But you don't have to take my word for it," Maybourne said. "When you get back to Washington, see if you can access his computer files. He strikes me as a man of limited imagination. He'll probably have the same password in both realities."
"Oscar," said O'Neill.
"His dog," added Maybourne, by way of explaination. "And if that fails, try his wife and grandchildren's names."
Davis fumbled his way into a chair.
"Someone has to have a hold over him," Kantele said. "The SGC can't afford another General Maybourne. Hammond moved with his family to Minnesota. Is he still alive?"
"I think I can push that one onto Kinsey," Maybourne said. "A touch of persuasive blackmail. He's no way of knowing I don't have the files. Let's put it this way," he added with indecent cheerfulness, "if he appoints Hammond as my replacement, you'll know he's guilty."
"Davis, if that happens," O'Neill said grimly, "get the data, give Hammond a copy and hope he can use it to cover his back."
"You're asking me to commit treason!"
"We're asking you to help avert another disaster like this one."
"I'll think about it."
"And watch out for any surviving tok'ra. We're 'a parasitical infestation masquerading as an ally and corrupting the human soul of God's living creation'. Something like that, anyway."
"So I don't tell him you're here?"
"No. Jack says not to tell anyone at all, and preferably forget you ever knew yourself."
"And you are?"
"Sorry, I forgot we hadn't been properly introduced this time around. I'm Kantele."
Davis held up a hand. "That's it. I don't want to know any more. I don't want to know where or when or how, or even what time it is. Just get me out of this madhouse."
O'Neill checked his watch. "You've got five minutes. Better go and brief the President."
"Mr President," Major Davis ushered him through the door with appropriate formality and no apparent show of nerves. "I believe you already know General Maybourne and Colonel O'Neill."
"We've met," Kinsey said with a curt nod in Jack's direction. "General," he buttonholed Maybourne and drew him to one side, "I understand you've found a solution to our problems with the Asgard?" His voice was smooth with just a hint of condescension.
"Oh, I've done better than that. I've kept your neck out of the noose."
A bland expression and an interrogative eyebrow. No doubt about it, Kinsey was good. "After all, it would never do for the President to be charged with treason." Yes! Definitely a reaction there.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I recently accessed some very interesting NID files. I found proof of the NID's contribution to your campaign finances and of your support for my illegal activities."
"Now look here, General," - always entertaining to watch Kinsey climbing onto his high horse - "I supported your appointment to this post because I felt you had a detailed understanding of the policies that were necessary to defend this country."
"Oh, I'm very appreciative, but unfortunately with a high likelihood of soon being very dead. Here's the deal: I keep your name out of it, and in turn you appoint whomever I tell you as my successor."
"I wouldn't expect to have any problem with someone you choose."
"Hammond. If he's dead, someone who thinks the same way."
"I know." Maybourne allowed himself a slight sigh. "Namby-pamby, liberal-minded, way too fond of aliens, forever landing us with refugees, far too weak-willed when it comes to obtaining alien technology, and overly cautious when it comes to weapons development. Did I miss anything?"
"I sometimes wonder that myself... You need someone who can work with the Asgard. You simply can't afford to annoy them again. I'm not exactly happy with what it's costing this time."
"Me." He smiled, because he knew it would disconcert Kinsey. "And if you're thinking that lets you off the hook with regard to our agreement - don't worry. I've left a copy of the disc with a friend."
Three simultaneous cylinders of light deposited three Asgard in three curved seats. Jack spoke rapidly: "Kantele är här med mig. Jag skulle uppskatta om ni inte nämnde honom över huvud taget."
So what was that about? Maybourne wondered. Wasn't one of his languages. Why did aliens never have the decency to speak Russian?
"What was that?" Kinsey said sharply.
"A greeting Daniel taught me."
One of the Asgard inclined his head slightly. "I am Thor. I extend greetings to all friends here."
"I am Odnir."
"I am Freyr."
They might have been identical triplets. Maybe they were.
O'Neill stood. "I am Colonel Jack O'Neill. May I present Ron Kinsey, President of the United States of America; Major Davis, liaison between the President and the SGC; General Maybourne, commanding officer of the SGC; and my daughter, Sunlight on Water."
Jack sat down, and Sunlight promptly scrambled onto his lap. She was quiet and subdued, clinging to the lapels of Jack's uniform jacket. Jack in dress uniform ought to be a fish out of water, but there was no denying he looked good in it. Maybourne resisted the urge to touch the fabric of his own jacket. It had been good, while it lasted, to have the uniform and everything that went with it. Cassandra had been right about it though; Sunlight was looking at him more dubiously now. Damn it, he was going to miss Cassie.
"Please recount the events which lead to the breach of the treaty." That was Odnir. Or was Odnir the one on the left?
"But do not make the account a lengthy one. It is not wise for us to remain here for long." That one was definitely Thor.
Okay, in with the tag team. Operate on the assumption that the Asgard have lie detectors whether you can see them or not. Here goes.
"One of the remits of the NID was to oversee the Stargate program. I was in charge of the section detailed to do this. We soon became convinced that the Stargate was not being used efficiently. Opportunities to gain valuable knowledge were being passed over and alien races such as the Tollan were still being treated as allies in spite of their refusal to share their technology with us.
"When a second gate was discovered in Antartica, we made sure that it ended up in Area 51 and we used it to visit worlds which had not been properly exploited by the SGC. This operation was detected and closed down by the SGC and the second gate mothballed.
"I needed another option. Some of my team had escaped off-world before the second gate was shut down. I was able to re-establish contact with them and set up a base on another planet. We used the gate there to visit worlds and our contact in the SGC smuggled items back to Earth for us. Research on items too large to conceal on the person was conducted off-world. We obtained items from many planets, including those protected by the Asgard. This was in direct violation of the treaty between Asgard and Earth.
"I needed more people. I only had those who were already off-world, and with the second gate non-operational could only bring out new people via the SGC. This presented an obvious problem as I had no way to use the SGC gate.
Pass the baton. "Colonel O'Neill..."
"General Hammond was requested by both the Asgard and the Tollan to discover who was stealing from them. The NID were natural suspects, but we had no proof of what was being done or how the operation was being worked. The Asgard wanted me to investigate. I pretended to be dissatisfied with the way the SGC were handling things. I stole an artifact from the Tollan, with their prior agreement, and presented it to Hammond who offered me, as part of the set-up, a choice of court-martial or early retirement. I took early retirement and within a week, I was contacted by Maybourne, who had fallen for the act."
"Colonel O'Neill and I weren't exactly on the best of terms, but he was one of the best, and he had access to the Stargate."
"I accepted Maybourne's offer, and told General Hammond that I wished to make one final visit to Edora in order to keep a promise I'd made. I shipped out from the SGC and promptly used the Edora gate to reach Maybourne's base. I found out exactly how his operation was run..."
"However," Maybourne prompted him. Did Jack even realise what he was doing? He was holding Sunlight to his chest, one hand over an ear to cut her off from as much of the conversation as possible, but one finger was obsessively stroking the same short strand of hair again and again.
"However," Jack continued, "Maybourne made threats."
"Colonel O'Neill had one weakness, one thing that he valued more than life, honour or duty. Colonel O'Neill had a daughter."
Jack glanced down at the still form pressed against him. His voice was quietly intense. "Maybourne threatened to kill her."
That voice sent a shiver down his spine. Just remember, Jack, I'm the other one.
"Would you have done it?" Kinsey interrupted suddenly.
He smiled, to give himself time to think. Besides, it enhanced the 'bad guy' image. "It might have happened that way, but I think it more likely she'd have been adopted by complete strangers who genuinely believed she was an orphan." Didn't Kinsey realise what he was doing? This story was like a ballet. Get caught on the hop and they'd lose all the balls they were juggling. Now where had he been? Ah, yes.
"Colonel O'Neill failed to put in a report. He came back to Earth and retired."
"Maybourne was never caught. He realised how close he'd come and closed down his off-world operation. In time, the political climate shifted and he was made commander of the SGC by people who supported his hawkish stance."
"I've requested that General Hammond be reappointed after my departure. Mr President?" You put me on the spot, let's see how you like it.
"I have agreed to this request."
That was worth it just for the look of shock on Major Davis's face.
He rested his hands on top of the table and waited. Jack was as still as the grave. Only Kinsey seemed at ease; but then he had nothing to lose.
"You are aware of the law in these matters?" said Freyr.
"General Maybourne, as the man responsible for the theft of Asgard property in direct violation of treaty, and furthermore responsible for the deaths of those who died trying to protect that property, you are sentenced to death."
Kinsey blurted out "But..."
Maybourne treated him to a withering stare. Care to take responsibility, Pal? No, I didn't think so.
"Colonel O'Neill, as signatory to the treaty, you were responsible for enforcing it. You failed in that undertaking because of your unwillingness to sacrifice your daughter. You are sentenced to the loss of your child."
"They're aliens," O'Neill said with scorn. He turned to Thor and spoke rapidly. "Members of the Asgard High Council, I accept the judgement passed and request that you also consider the penalty that should be applied against General Maybourne for his contractual violation in threatening the child of someone under his command."
It was Freyr who replied. "It may be considered."
"Harry..." O'Neill barely got the word out.
He nodded in understanding, took the case that Ke'ra had prepared and slid it over the table. "This is the treatment for the plague. The pile of stuff in the corner is for Sunlight on Water. She will need what is there, if you are to fulfil the legal obligations that you have inherited, in loco parentis, from Colonel O'Neill."
Jack's eyes were closed, his face taut. "Whatever you are going to do," he said in a rough voice, "you have about one minute to do it, before I change my mind." He buried his face in Sunlight's hair and inhaled deeply.
"Jack." He reached out to touch his friend on the shoulder, but before he could complete the gesture-
-They were gone. O'Neill's arms were empty and his heart with them.
Only Thor remained of the Asgard, large eyes gazing gently at him. "You are a brave man, O'Neill."
"Do you think I give a damn?" The tears were flowing freely and he didn't care.
"She will be taken care of."
"And what about Maybourne? You know, don't you? He didn't have to do this."
You could drown in your own reflection in those dark eyes.
"What I know and what I may conjecture are different things. It is better that they remain that way. I will do what I can, but I can make no promises. You know, as well as I, that his crimes are genuine."
"Colonel." Kinsey cleared his throat awkwardly. "I truly appreciate what you have done for us. Remember the ram caught in the thicket. If you put your trust in the Lord, your sacrifice will not be in vain."
"If you think-"
Jack, he means well.
I don't care if he wants to marry me, he's a sanctimonious pain in the ass.
"Colonel O'Neill," Thor said in that quiet, but penetrating voice of his, "will I see you again?"
"Not unless you allow visiting rights."
"I am sorry, but that is not possible. It would be a violation of the terms of your sentence."
"Then I'm out of here already."
"Colonel, we will need a new signatory for the treaty."
It was with a certain degree of satisfaction that he turned to Kinsey. "Mr President, will you pledge your life, your fortune and your sacred honour?"
"I will." You had to give it to the man, he was no coward. "But I want to go over the wording first."
"That is not possible," Thor said. "To change the wording would require renegotiating the entire treaty with the System Lords. The people of your planet have killed many of their number. They would require harsher terms, if indeed they were willing to negotiate at all."
Kinsey produced a stainless steel pen from his jacket pocket. "Where do I sign?"
With every step, he trod on sharp splinters of glass, broken fragments of a lost future and shattered dreams. Familiar with his blacker moods after so many years, Carter, Teal'c and Daniel gave him what he needed: they were with him, but silent, neither intruding on his grief, nor asking unwanted questions about Kantele. Kantele was a living presence in his mind, sharing the raw pain of loss, and O'Neill fed back what little comfort he was able. He had known this would push him to the brink, had not fully realised that the symbiote's pain would be as great as his own. They would sink or swim together.
It was Daniel who told him he wasn't fit to drive and took him to the SGC, Teal'c who sat next to him in silent support, and Carter who gently steered him up to Hammond's office.
The discipline needed to make a verbal report helped him focus on the moment. Hammond's office seemed oddly strange; the furnishings were different from Maybourne's. It had taken so little time to become used to something different.
Hammond was looking at him with a concerned expression. "Colonel? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Sir. Just a little tired." He caught Carter's look and ammended his reply. "All right, I'm not all right. The Asgard fixed the plague, but their lawyers demanded Sunlight and Maybourne in exchange." And that had better be enough for you for now. "I'll put the details in my written report, once I've figured which bits won't burn the paper."
"Jack..." Hammond was struggling to find words. O'Neill focused carefully on the flag behind the desk so that he wouldn't have to meet his old friend's eyes.
"I'm truly sorry," Hammond said finally. "I know how hard this must be for you."
"Forget it," O'Neill said roughly. He straightened up and came to attention. "I'd like to introduce you to the newest member of SG-1."
"Kantele?" Hammond's eyes flicked from O'Neill to Carter and back again.
"Yes, Sir," Carter said. "It's Kantele. Maybourne ran them both through the lie detector."
"And you agreed to this, Colonel?" Hammond sounded decidedly sceptical.
"Then why the hell-" Hammond slammed both hands on his desk "-didn't you consult me first?"
O'Neill stared fixedly at the wall just behind the General's head.
"I had to leave Sunlight, before she became dependent on me among strangers."
"I didn't ask you," Hammond said sharply. "I asked Colonel O'Neill."
"It was a personal matter between myself, my daughter and Kantele."
"I see. And you expect me to accept, without question, an entity who has taken no oath of loyalty to this country, who could take over your mind and body at a moment's notice and who self-evidently has no sense of military discipline?"
"What's Selmak got that I haven't?"
"Colonel!" Hammond barked. "You will tell your symbiote to be quiet or you will both be out of the Air Force so fast that you won't even see the door on your way out."
He means it. Let me handle this one.
"Sir, he'll behave." You'd better. "You have my word on it." So don't make a liar out of me - us.
"Very well." Hammond sighed. "Jack, do you realise what you've gone and done?" He held up a hand. "I'm sure you had your reasons, but that's not good enough. You have enemies out there and you've just given them a whopping big stick to beat you with. May I remind you both that General Carter does not work for the SGC; furthermore, he is not in direct command over anyone here. Must I spell out to you the impossibility of maintaining a chain of command when an order might be given by either yourself or Kantele?"
Dammit, Hammond did have a point there.
Jack, I've screwed things up for you, haven't I?
Forget it. I was thinking of quitting the Air Force anyway.
That was so you could have time with Sunlight.
And now I need time to get used to being without her.
For an instant, they were one, caught in the twist of emotion that intertwined them ever tighter together. Images flowed between them, seen from different angles. Even as he watched Sunlight chase a butterfly, he was the little girl running after the pretty colours. As he held her through the terror of a nightmare, he was the one being comforted by himself. He was the focus of her everything: the companion of her day, the security of her nights.
He was dead. No, he was alive, but she was going to lose him. Daddy!
Carter's voice. Her hand gripped his arm.
"I'm sorry." He sounded shaky even to himself. "It was Sunlight. She..."
"Colonel," Hammond said, "you will go and get Dr Fraiser to check you over, then you will take a week's compassionate leave. When you return after that, we will determine if you still have a future with the SGC." His voice softened. "I'll see what I can do, but I think it's best to assume that your days with SG-1 are over."
In the same mountain in another reality, President Kinsey looked up from the document he was studying. A deep-throated thrumming vibrated through the table he rested on and through the very walls of Cheyenne mountain itself. Pale blue, search beams shone through the solid rock, seeking life. With deliberate motion, they swept every inch, first of the SGC and over the course of the next two days, the entire planet from the tops of mountains and aircraft in flight to the bottom of the ocean and the deepest diamond mines. Wherever they encountered a human being, someone vanished to reappear instantaneously on an impossibly large ship a mile above the surface. How many people the ships held, no one ever knew. Each individual could only sense the thousands around him, jam-packed into a hold the size of a baseball pitch. The clamour of a myriad voices calling out in confusion mingled with the cries of children and the moans of the dying. Scents of sweat and fear joined with the ozone smell of the moist air and the sick smell of too many perfumes and cosmetics competing in too close a proximity to one another. Something crackled in the air, stinging the skin briefly. The hubbub rose to even greater levels and then with the suddenness of a breaking thread, it was gone as familiar surroundings snappped back into place.
Skeptical souls recorded it as the greatest mass hallucination in human history. Many had no memory at all of the event, just a sense of a moment's dislocation. Some claimed to have seen aliens with tentacles and mouths full of teeth; others reported indescribably beautiful beings with voices like angels. The only thing to be agreed on by all was that the plague victims started to recover. Membership of most churches doubled overnight, so did the membership of every new-age, UFO, SF and conspiracy group.
The US President claimed that he had negotiated a treaty with aliens.
"The word of God can be an inspiration and guidance to those of many races. The kindness and forgiveness of those who have helped us is matched only by the wickedness of the man who broke faith with them and caused them to withdraw their protection from this world."
In this manner, Kinsey's world finally came to know of the Stargate programme and of the evil of a man who cast Adolf Hitler into the shade: General Harold Maybourne. The backbone of the story was soon known to all, but there was little available in the way of accurate details - knowledge of an alternative reality was judged to be more than the masses were capable of dealing with. Members of the SGC and the NID were forbidden to speak to the press under any circumstances. In return for immunity from prosecution, men who had served under Maybourne came forth to give evidence in closed court. The National Enquirer, never hindered by the need for factual accuracy (especially when the subject wasn't around to sue them), found plenty to fill its pages and wrote a detailed biography of Maybourne's entire life and his career in intelligence work along with tasty details of his numerous lovers, illegitimate children and suspected membership of a Satanic cult.
The location of Colonel O'Neill was sought by TV crews from five continents. Reporters massed at the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain, kept back only by armed guards. A rumour that he had retired to a monastery in Tibet sent dozens scurrying there. Other stories claimed that he had left through the Stargate to seek solace on another planet for the loss of his wife and child. There was another rumour that he had in fact died a week before and was buried with his wife, but the gravestone in the small, quiet cemetery carried only one name: Samantha O'Neill, beloved wife and mother.
Sam got out of her car and hesitated. To walk towards the log cabin beside the lake felt oddly like trespassing. This was a part of Jack's life that she'd never touched - every time he'd invited her here, she'd found a reason to say no. This place offered too many dangers.
From somewhere close by, she could hear music: a guitar playing a quiet, sad melody. She put her keys into her pocket and felt the stump of the broken match. Why did they call it drawing straws, when you always used matches?
Nearly a week now, and the Colonel still hadn't contacted any of them, hadn't replied to any of the messages left on his voicemail.
The music drew her round the side of the house to where he sat, bending over the guitar, his back towards her. She could see the curve of his neck and shoulder, the grey of his hair as the sun shone through it. When had he gone grey? It must have happened over the years she'd known him and yet it had never sunk in consciously until now. His silhouette had the quality of a stone carving, a form that captured the stillness at the heart of his effervescent personality. This was the part of himself that he concealed behind all the layers. She wanted to speak, but held back, unwilling to intrude.
He hummed a phrase as if trying to recall it, then tried the words quietly to the music: "I have a photograph, preserve your memory, it's all that's left to me."
She could see him now, the child in his arms, holding her as though she was the only thing in the world that had any meaning to him.
It was a funny thing to find yourself a liar - I thought I wasn't ready to settle down, but I've opened the box and I can't close it again. I've seen too much of you now; I know what love means to you. You told me once and I hid from it, tucked the knowledge in a box and nailed down the lid. I don't want to hide any more. If I haven't left it too late, I want you to love me that intensely. Someday, and I know it will be hard for you after the loss of two children, I want a family. I never had the chance to get to know Sunlight and it's only just beginning to hit me. I wonder if having a miscarriage is like this, feeling grief for a child that you never knew?
He turned in surprise - wary, guarded, as though he would dismiss her any moment.
"Jack, she was my daughter too. I need to..."
He nodded slowly, accepting her right to be there. "Sit down.
Sitting beside him on the wooden bench, hands resting on the table, she looked out at the trees that hung over the edge of the water. It was an incredibly beautiful place, quiet and peaceful. It was easy to see why the Colonel came here.
"She loved you," Kantele said. "She loved many things: kittens, paddling in the sea, feeding ducks, orange jello. She loved bright colours, Barbie dolls, playing on swings, being tickled, even fishing, but most of all she loved you and Jack."
"I wish," Jack said, "I wish I could share the feeling with you. You deserve that."
She wanted to touch him, didn't know how to breach the barriers that they had built up over so many careful years. What were the rules now? He wasn't her CO any more. They were in uncharted territory.
The sun was warm on her arms. If she listened, she could hear the sound of birdsong, though she didn't know the species. A light breeze rippled the surface of the water, sending the reflection of the sunlight dancing in a myriad of patterns. She stared at it, entranced. You could lose yourself in that dark water, in the patterns of the light.
"Sunlight on Water," she said softly. "This is where she got her name, isn't it?"
"Yes. The first time you came here with Jack... She was conceived here."
She was close to them, so close. The faint scent of masculine skin was unsettling. She'd been this close to O'Neill a thousand times before, never been aware of him so intensely.
He stared out at the water, avoiding her gaze. "Kantele has a personal question he wants to ask you. Do you mind?"
"Tell him to fire away. If I decide not to answer, I'll try not to hold it against him."
"Martouf," Kantele said. "I sense the remnant of Jolinar within you - it wasn't that way in my reality. Jack says that Martouf loved you because of Jolinar, but how did you feel about him?"
"I liked him. I was very - fond - of him."
She was quiet for a moment, remembering how Elliot and Lantash had died. "Lantash loved me too."
"No," he sounded awkward, "how did you feel about Lantash?"
"To be honest, I tended to think of them as one person. I didn't really distinguish."
"What he means," Jack said, "is that..."
"Well, he..." He was fumbling with his words and she found the uncertainty rather endearing. "Actually, I..." He turned and looked helplessly at her.
She touched his hand lightly with her fingers and watched his wordless reaction. "If you mean," she said softly, "can I love a tok'ra, then I think the answer is yes."
"We need you, Sam. Both of us."
Jack wrapped his fingers around hers, burying her hand in his larger one. She sat, perfectly still, accepting the wonder of something so simple as being able to hold his hand. Daring, she leant close and rested her head against his shouder and felt the warmth of his arm encircle her waist.
For an unknown length of time, they sat there, watching the breeze ruffle the leaves and the reeds on the water's edge. There was peace here, peace of the kind that allowed her to gradually unwind and let the knowledge seep in that this time, nothing would separate them.
"Are you going to kiss him or not?" Kantele demanded. "He's trying very hard to be virtuous and let you have first dibs, 'cause he snuck one in on you one time when you were caught in a time loop and he knew you wouldn't remember."
She laughed. It was impossible not to. Jack looked like a three-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Reaching up, she took his face between her hands and kissed him gently on the lips. Her fingers touched the lines of strain that showed under the darkness of his eyes and under her palms she could feel the springiness of the hair that was well on its way to becoming a beard. World-weary and battered he might be, but he was hers.
"Colonel," she said, and it still sounded right. He was still what he always had been, the man she had given her respect to long before she gave him her heart.
She kissed him again, let him take control as he kissed her back, felt the strength of the need and the passion within him. Subconscious desires rose with the heady fizz of champagne, leaving her breathless with the depth of her own response.
Alert to every nuance of him, she felt the change the moment it happened - the sudden bone-crushing intensity of his embrace, the deep shudder within him, the awkward catch in his breathing - and understood what it meant. He was afraid.
"Would it be all right if I stayed tonight?"
"I... We'd be glad of the company."
Sometime in the night, he cried out, the sound that of a man torn apart by pain and loss.
Waking, she rolled over and took him in her arms, pillowing his head against her breast. Stroking his hair, she wondered anew at the fragility of humankind.
"Kantele," she whispered, "how do I help him?"
"You are helping. You're helping us both, just by being here."
She could feel the weight of him against her, touch the scars on his skin, remember the passion with which he had made love to her, but it wasn't enough. There was a distance between them that shouldn't have been there, a part of him she couldn't reach. There was a scar that would never heal over, unless he could come to terms with Sunlight's loss. And how could he do that while she was alive and alone in the company of strangers?
How? How did one achieve the impossible?
"Will the Asgard ever give her up?" she asked.
"No. They've passed sentence. Their laws don't change. But then again their laws are also incredibly complex. Give the Aesir a reason to help you and they might look for a loophole."
"Colonel." She held him close, feeling the beat of his heart against her. "We'll find her. I don't know how, and I don't know when, but somehow we'll find a way."
O'Neill said nothing, words had never been his forté in emotional situations, but his hand sought hers and held it for the rest of that long night.
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