Disclaimer: Don't own them. Wish I did... darn. Will give them back when I'm done playing with them. Promise.

Author's Note: This story is an addition to the eighth season episode Full Alert.

And anything I include pertaining to the military, or its affiliates, is completely made up. I have never been part of any of the US military branches, therefore know few specific details about any of them. So if you are a member of one of the US military branches, please don't bite my head off for including a 'wrong' detail that I inserted into this story simply for the sake of this story.

Final Alert

by Linda Bindner

Jack fell into rather than sat in his office chair, and groaned before covering his eyes with his hands. This day had been absolute hell so far, he noted to himself. The fact that he had been part of a successful effort to avert a disastrous war made little difference to him; he was still more tired than he had ever been, and felt like falling into a hole and staying there till morning. All he wanted now was dinner and bed.

He had just sighed in extreme aggravation when he heard his office door open. Damn, should have locked the thing, Jack thought as he heard, rather than saw, a person approach his desk.

Sir, if I can have a word with you...? asked a voice that was able to only partially soothe O'Neill's battered soul on this particular evening.

Carter, Jack realized, and didn't have to look at her in order to make a positive identification. He'd recognize her voice anywhere. Or her footsteps, come to think of it. The fact that he hadn't realized who had come into his office before she had spoken only told him that he was more than just a little tired today. You can only talk to me right now if you have good news to tell me. Otherwise, I just want to go to bed, and wake up tomorrow on another planet. So, go on home.

Jack continued to stare into his hands, and didn't hear the door shut behind her on her way out. But that wasn't strange, as he immediately issued a sigh so loud and so long that even a Goa'uld who knew nothing of human physiology could have heard his exhaustion in the sound.

Carter. Just the thought of her brought unwanted images to his mind, and he could do nothing to stop them. The only reason that he wanted to put a halt to them on this day was because his brain was already so full of tactical strategies and battle plans that he didn't have the time or the room to indulge in thoughts about his relationship with Carter.

O'Neill chuckled a little bitterly behind his hand as that thought entered his head. What relationship? he asked himself. She was wearing another man's engagement ring, for crying out loud! She was making plans to move on with her life, away from the illicitness of their recently unspoken feelings for each other, and he had to do the same. At that thought, a new sense of determination, all that he could dredge up after the tense events of this day, entered his blood, and he dropped his hands as he leaned forward into his desk.

He was very suprised to see Carter, still sitting in one of the chairs across the desk from him, looking at him in expectant sympathy.

Jack realed back. Whoa, there, Carter! he yelled and tried to regain control of his pounding heart; she had scared the daylights out of him.

Carter immediately spoke, Sir, what I have to tell you can't really wait...

Jack sighed again, cutting her off. Out with it, Carter; what's the problem?

She gazed at him in some concern. You don't look so well, Sir. She straightened, as if she had come to some sort of decision. Come on, let me drive you home; we can talk on the way.

O'Neill gave her a grimace of a smile, groaned, then slapped his hands down on his desk. Why not? he defiantly asked of no one in particular. It's been one hell of a day, and I deserve a ride home every now and then, I suppose. But my truck's in the parking lot here; I won't have any way to get to work tomorrow. He sounded regretful now; a ride with only Colonel Carter for company suited his bruised soul just then.

I'll come by early and take you in, she promised. Then she smiled at him. Come on, let's go. Things will seem a lot better at your own house, she said.

From anybody else, Jack would have wondered what the speaker's ulterior agenda was, but with Carter, he knew he could trust her smile for the smile it was. In fact, he felt his tired heart melt the second she sent him the expression, but he knew that if he accepted her offer of a ride home, nothing would come of her overture... nothing ever could. And he had to be ready to believe that.

But he had always been a sucker for that smile of hers. Jack felt himself giving in even against his better judgement. All right. Let's go, he muttered as he stood up and prepared to follow her out of his office.

Sam's smile widened, then softened into one of the few grins that she had always reserved just for him on the rare occasions that they found themselves alone and in a time that she could use it. Getting such a gesture now was slightly bitter sweet, as Jack knew that he could never respond to the gesture, especially while she was wearing another man's ring on her finger. But he wasn't choosy, either, and would take whatever tiny grains of affection that he could get.

They walked down the corridors together, entered and exited the elevators, and crossed the parking lot side by side without saying a word to each other. O'Neill was glad of the quiet; after the strife he had lived through on that day, he was glad for a bit of silence now that its end was drawing near. Carter fished her car keys out of her coat pocket, unlocked the driver's door, then pushed the button that unlocked the rest. Jack pulled the passenger door open, then slid into the front seat next to Carter. She started the engine as a stray thought entered his mind that he had better enjoy this little intimacy that this ride home represented to him. It was probably the closest he was going to get to her for days to come.

Which was rather pathetic for a man who was a General and in charge of the entire Stargate Program, he thought. Yet, he could do nothing to stear his emotions onto a safer course; Lord knows he had tried in the past and been highly unsuccessful. So, pathetic or not, Jack sat back and swung his head towards her, ready to enjoy the view.

A moment later, they had passed by the front checkpoint and swung out onto the highway. Then, Carter sighed with obvious relief. Okay, now it's safe to talk, Sir, she said.

His eyebrow rose so high that even Teal'c would have been proud of his effort. 'Safe?' he repeated.

Yes, she answered, then wriggled further into her seat. I have so much to tell you, and none of it will sound very plausible for another few minutes, but you have to trust me.

The hairs on the back of O'Neill's neck prickled at her enigmatic words. What are you talking about? he asked, while a new attack of butterflies pierced his stomach.

Bugs, Sir, Carter said.

O'Neill's second eyebrow rose to match his first. As in, the flying kind? he inquired.

No, she told him. As in, the listening device kind.

Ah, he said, as if he were understanding the implications of what she was saying, but in truth, wasn't comprehending much of anything. This day keeps getting better and better, he muttered to himself.

Carter ignored his sarcastic remark, as she had ignored many others before. I found one in my bedroom, my living room, my car, and my lab this morning.

Jack gaped at her then. You found them in your house? he asked incredulously.

Carter nodded. It's a good bet that your office has one, too, so I knew that I had to get you out of there without making it look like I was trying to get you out of there...

Jack groaned again. It might have been nice if you'd told me about this little problem this morning! he said, emphasizing the time frame.

I didn't know which parts of the SGC are safe and which aren't, and while I was trying to come up with a way to figure out this 'little problem,' the much bigger problem of the Russians and nuclear war took over my attention. I only thought of it all again when I entered my lab this evening before going home for the day. When I remembered our newest 'little problem,' I turned around and went right to your office.

Jack groaned, sighed again, then rubbed dispiritedly at his face. He could hardly blame her for behaving exactly as he would have acted on this day. You're sure the car is bug free? he asked then, tentatively opening the glove compartment and peering inside.

Carter smiled suddenly. Well, I found a device of some kind taped to the underside of the dash board. I took it off, right away, of course.

Jack tried to sit as far from the dashboard in front of him as possible. What did you do with it?

Carter's grin widened even further. I waited until I was quite a distance from home, then threw it out the window. She looked at him. I figured that I should let whoever put it in my car listen to traffic noise for awhile before he or she finally figured out that it wasn't my car's sounds that they were hearing.

Jack appreciatively cocked his head. Good thinking.

The devices I found in the living room, the bedroom, and the lab, I flushed down the toilet.

Jack's appreciation moved up another notch. Maybe this day is getting better.

And I smashed the camera in the living room so that no one could ever use it again.

Jack's gape was back on his face when she said those words. Camera? he asked. As in, security type camera? As in, they could see everything you did in your own house?

Yes, Sir, that's what I mean, Carter answered.

Jack ran a hand through his hair, almost too scared to ask the question that popped into his mind. Did you find one in your bedroom, too?

Carter smiled again at his muttered question. No, Sir, I got extremely lucky in that I only found a listening device in there.

Jack announced, That's bad enough, as she continued to drive down the road.

That's what I thought, Carter divulged with another sigh of her own.

Jack shifted in his seat again. Who is this 'they' that we keep talking about? Any theories?

Trust, she immediately announced. They're the only group that I know of who has the Asgaard beaming technology necessary to get into my house, lab, and car, without being seen. She glanced at him again. It's the sneak-safe way to get in, plant the necessary devices, and get out all in one day, and all anonymously. And I've seen that beam at work. All they would need is a marker to lock onto for them to beam in, do their dirty work, then beam out again.

She made it sound so easy. But Jack looked at her in irritation. When did they place those original markers? he asked, then answered his own question the moment he voiced the words. When they marked the Stargate, of course.

And the man who did that is already dead, Carter said. Pretty handy way to spy, if you ask me.

I'm not, Jack said in a soft, low voice, but she heard him anyway.

Carter gave an indulgent smile as she turned a corner to the left. I know this isn't exactly what you want to hear tonight...

That's all right, Jack muttered apologetically. Then, he grimaced. They put one in your bedroom? The implications of that were hard to reconcile; they would have been privy to anything she, or anybody else, had been doing while in her bedroom. Surreptitiously, his eyes edged towards the ring around her finger.

Sam noticed his look, and her smile grew. There's nothing you have to worry about, Sir, she said in a much softer, less businesslike tone than she had used all evening. I have it all under control.

At any rate, you won't want to be entertaining house guests any time soon, Jack quipped, then sighed and rubbed his hand over his face again. This really wasn't something he wanted to deal with right now. Then, he looked up at some trees passing by his window. Where the hell are we, anyway?

Carter explained, Your house isn't safe to talk in right now, even though we know about the threat of surveillance. I'm taking you home the long way, around by Miller Park, so we can talk in what I know is a listening-device-free environment.

So I can say whatever I want to say? Jack queried.

Carter nodded. And you can feel totally sure that no one is listening, and there won't be any dire consequences that you don't have any control over.

Jack immediately said, Then, even though I know nothing can, or ever will, come of this, I want you to know that I... I... still care... even though you plan to marry... what'shisname, he ended, rather helplessly. It didn't bode well that he could never remember Carter's fiancÚ's name. Not that I want anything from you, or anything, I just... want you to know.

Where had that comment come from? he wondered. He noticed that he couldn't voice his fear that he might not ever have another chance to say it to her again, and he wanted to say those words at least once. Saying them now, and at all, must have been his subconscious instigation to say something to her in the first place, he decided.

Surprisingly, Carter smiled again, that soft, slow smile that she had always reserved for him. She held out her left hand and studied her ring, watching it sparkle as they drove under a street light. Well, she said, drawing the words out, I need to talk to you about that engagement you're referring to, Sir.

That surprised O'Neill a bit. What is it, Carter? he asked, then couldn't resist his sarcastic comment, Trouble in paradise?

Carter still smiled, though now her grin had fallen into one more of affectionate tolerance. I'll tell you all about it when we reach your home, Sir, and make sure it's free of surveillance of any kind. But my car has no heat right now... the thermostat went out in it yesterday... and if we get into that discussion here, we'll freeze before I can... um, she hesitated. ... say what I need to say.

O'Neill watched her watching the road. Fair enough, he said, and sighed again, and looked out the front windshield, too., to watch the blurry scenery wizz by, but ttook in none of it as his thoughts wandered. Did Carter wish to ask for time off for the wedding? For planning the wedding? Did she - God forbid - want him to be in the wedding? He didn't think he could stomach doing that right now. He didn't really want to be on the same planet when that wedding was scheduled to take place, let alone be part of the actual event. He didn't think his battered psyche could handle being that close to her, then watch her promise to love and be true to someone else.

Although... She hadn't said anything remotely resembling afection for what'shisname. Which was odd, as she had definitely mentioned that she needed to speak to her Commanding General about her engagement. But Jack also dully noticed that Carter had not offered any reciprocation of his own feelings. He chose not to remark on his observation. His heart was thundering in his ears, as it was; he suspected that he would have had a difficult time hearing her, anyway. He simply couldn't believe what he'd said to her by using the one word that was, and always had been, some sort of unspoken taboo between them.

At least, he hadn't used the 'l' word. All of his dignity wasn't completely lost yet. Even if he'd actually said the 'l' word, and claimed that he knew nothing would ever come of his declaration, it had been her comment about not suffering any consequences that had encouraged him to open that can of worms his feelings represented in the first place. Geez, what a jerk I am, he thought, and gave in inner groan. She doesn't need that kind of pressure right now, or at any time, he told himself.

They were silent after that... Thank God, Jack thought... until Carter turned the car into his own driveway. She parked the car, they both climbed out, she locked the doors, then pulled out something from her back pocket. Surgical gloves, she explained then. I don't have any proof that these devices are in any way poisoned to Human DNA, but better to be safe than dead.

Jack climbed up his outside steps, but was so tired that he couldn't quite make his hands work right with his keys. He dropped them twice to an area of ice on his front step, sighed in irritation at himself both times, before Carter picked them up for him and unlocked his door. She placed a finger cautiously to her lips to signal a need for silence, then pushed the door open.

It creaked slightly on hinges that needed oil, but she stopped O'Neill from turning on the hall lights by laying her gloved fingers momentarily over his on the light switch. He was still trying to grasp the fact that she recognized his house key, and what that could mean, when she moved into the living room while pulling a small flashlight from her other back pocket, and flashed it's tiny light around the living room and hall.

Carter moved with assuredness to his fireplace mantel, where she began shoving aside the picture frames he had displayed on it. She found what she was looking for when she moved aside the second frame, one showcasing his admittance into the Air Force. She pulled out a tiny, black... thing... which he would have never known was there.

Well done, he mouthed at her, but she was studying the framed certificate instead of looking at him. She smiled, rather shocked at something she had seen in the information it gave. Then, she turned abruptly to him and mouthed a surprised 1968? at him before replacing the frame to its original place on the mantel. She picked up the... thing.., then flashed her light at the ceiling of the room. There, in a corner, Jack could clearly make out the sight of a tiny black camera attatched to the ceiling. Yet, it was installed in such a place that if he didn't know to look for it, he would never have thought to peer into that particular corner of the room.

Carter indicated with her finger pointed at him that he should dispose of the camera attached to his ceiling while she went through the rest of his house to find the other planted listening devices. She knew where to look for the bugs that had been left behind in his house, and she knew what to do with them once she found them. Jack nodded, showing that he understood her assignment to him, and she disappeared down the hall, leaving him in the growing darkness in the living room.

Trying not to think of Carter being in his bedroom, Jack went to a lamp and purposefully flicked it on, thus giving almost a certain view of the room and its occupant to anybody manning the camera at its receiving end. Then he scooped up a book about Mars from the coffee table, climbed to the arm of an easy chair, and peered closely at the camera. Anybody on its other end would have to be getting such a close up of his face that they should have had no trouble seeing the grin he abruptly gave the machine. He waved, then took the book and smashed the camera clean off its ceiling attatchment.

Jack watched the glass shiver and tinkle across his floor for a moment. It was actually rather pretty, now that he didn't have to worry about what it was showing him doing. He would clean up the remains of the glass camera later, after Carter had said what she wanted to say. Slightly befuddled by that thought, O'Neill lowered his tired body back down to sit in the chair he'd been standing on. He didn't even remove his leather coat. He simply dropped the book on Mars that he was holding to the floor beside the chair.

A few moments later, he heard his toilet flush, and knew that Carter had found what she had been looking for in his bedroom. Jack groaned, but also knew that whoever had been listening to his bedroom sounds had been utterly disappointed in their quarry - Jack hadn't done anything of interest in his bedroom other than sleep for years. So, no matter how long the listening device had been in residence in his room, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he must have bored his listener almost to death. Still, he felt a twinge of violation when he thought that someone had been in his bedroom to hide the device in the first place. He couldn't say that he wanted anybody in his bedroom, except maybe for Carter, and that was never going to happen, he knew. So he chose not to dwell on the thought of someone else sneaking into his sacred sleeping domain.

Carter came bounding down the hall, her surgical gloves already removed and thrown in the trash. She then pulled the curtains at the two windows before she lit another lamp sitting on a side table. There was just enough light in the room for her to see O'Neill stand in her presence, and give a shiver and a scowl.

The idea of someone being in my bedroom... Jack didn't finish his statement. Ugh! Glad you had to find that one and not me; I might have lost my lunch on a day like today if I had.

Carter grinned again. Sorry, Sir, she said, placing her flashlight in an inside coat pocket. I would never want to be the cause of you losing your lunch, she teased.

He glared at her. This is sass, he said. You're sassing me, right?

I would never do such a thing, she declared, while trying to school her mouth into a serious, straight line, and failing utterly.

Um, he grunted. So, where did you find it?

On your bookcase, beside that display of the solar system that you have. According to the amount of dust on that particular model, you don't seem to pay much attention to it. It's no wonder that they chose that site. She paused, then. I also found the marker that they used in order to beam in - it was behind the picture of Earth that you have on your dresser.

Jack laughed when she said that. Talk about needing to clean... that hasn't been moved for a long time. After a moment, he went on. Uh, sorry about the dust, he spluttered. I've been meaning to clean my room for quite a while, but... he innefectually started to say.

No! Carter exclaimed. Then she seemed to recover herself. I mean, the dust told me right where to look, she said a little self-consciously.

Jack cleared his throat, realizing that she and he were alone in his house for the first time in a long time. That thought was enough to discomfit him a bit, especially after what he had said to her in the car on their way to his house. Instead of voicing what was on his mind, he asked, Now, what did you want to talk to me about?

Carter appeared uncomfortable again, almost nervous, something she had never been in his presence before. She slowly lifted her left hand, and gazed at her engagement ring. Then, she did something completely unexpected. She slipped the ring off her finger, and placed it in the pocket of her jeans. I... um... I... Her voice trailed off, and simply hung there in the air.

O'Neill watched her pick at a hangnail on her thumb, wondering what the hell was going on, but knowing that he couldn't ask her after what he'd said to her in her car.

Taking a deep breath, Carter seemed to find the courage to continue. I'm sorry... This is much harder to say than I thought it would be.

Now, he could ask. What is it?

I'm not getting married, Sir, she said, then met his eyes in the semi-gloom of early evening.

Ever? he blurted before he thought better of the question.

Carter smiled at the near-panic that overlayed the typical warmth she knew was often in his eyes. It glowed through the darkness at her, and the sensation encouraged her to go on. No, I mean now. I can't... can't... um... get married.

O'Neill was silent for a minute, trying mightily to contain the sense of jubilation he was feeling at her announcement. He tried not to get too excited, as he instinctively knew that her news changed absolutely nothing between them, but he couldn't help the lifting in his heart. Uh... Why are you telling me this? Shouldn't you be telling... He halted awkwardly. ...what'sshisname?

Carter lifted her hands until they were just at the edge of her pockets, then she stopped to hunch her shoulders. She had never seemed more insecure to O'Neill as she seemed in that moment, and the urge to draw her into the close comfort of his embrace was almost overwhelming. Stoically, Jack resisted the urge. He simply stood, rooted to his place on the floor.

At last, Carter spoke up. I know that I should be talking to Pete about this, and I plan to, this weekend when I see him, but you're my Commanding Officer... You have a right to know as well. She stopped to look at him standing in the shadows of his living room. I had already decided this morning to break things off when I found the black bug in my room as I was lying the ring on my dresser top. If I hadn't wanted to lay it down... She shivered at the implications of that suggestion. Then I knew I was under surveillance, and if I was, you were, and Daniel and Teal'c, and maybe other teams in the SGC... I had to replace the ring, or whoever was watching us would get suspicious that something was suddenly different. She sighed, then, and rubbed at her temples as if she had a sudden headache. I just wanted you to know.

Because..? Because he sort of had helped her decide to accept that ring in the first place, and therefore had a strange right to hear of her decision to un-accept it? Or because she had certain feelings for him that, while unvoiced, prompted her in this new decision of hers?

Okay, Jack finally managed to say. Thanks for telling me, and nice work on figuring out about the surveillance; forewarned is forearmed, he said, then angrily scolded himself that he had taken a personal moment, and one with Carter to boot, and had turned it into something in which he was more comfortable and familiar, one that he was accustomed to dealing with. Nice job, he repeated, hoping that a repetition would at least make her feel more complimented. Then, he added, On the... ring thing... as well as the surveillance bit. The ring thing? Oh, that was smooth, O'Neill! he railed to himself, and groaned again.

But to Jack's credit, Carter didn't have any clue what was passing through his mind at the time. She just grinned a tiny grin, and said, Thank you... Sir. She turned then, aiming for his front door. I just wanted to tell you... I'll let myself out now that we're pretty sure your house is clean of all surveillance equipment.

Uh... Fine, he said. You go ahead... I'll... uh... see you tomorrow. Then she was gone, and Jack felt colder with her absence, as if she had let in all the chilled, desolate air in the world when she left.

* * *

A week and a half later, when all bugs had been promptly removed from any place relegated to SG-1, and the threat of constant observation was becoming more innuring than upsetting, Jack arrived at work after a fairly relaxing weekend filled with hockey games seen on the television to find a single, large, yellow envelope in his in-box tray on his desk. Which was odd; he rarely got anything in yellow envelopes, and his in-box tray had been empty when he'd gone home on Friday, as he had stayed late catching up on writing reports.

Must have been sent over after the late shift started, Jack thought. He reached hesitantly for the envelope on his desk.

One minute later, he was on the phone to Daniel Jackson, asking him if he'd heard anything about a retirement request to General O'Neill due to his gradually escalating age. Daniel was as surprised as Jack was, and said, No, I haven't heard a thing, before inquiring, Who sent you that request letter?

Uh, Jack answered, and grabbed at the piece of paper lying on his desk. Defense Committee.

There's a Defense Committee? Daniel asked in astonishment. Never heard of them.

Yeah, Jack answered, fully aware that as a nonmilitary friend, he was bound to see anything suspicious about the letter simply by not knowing what was a right question to ask, and what was a wrong question to ask; he simply inquired about everything. Part of the uppers... the Joint Chiefs. It's full of ten or so Generals of all ranks... They deal with laws... personnel problems... promotions... things like that.

So, your own promotion to General came from them?

Yeah, Jack answered, wondering where this line of questioning was going.

He got his answer sooner than he expected. Specifically, who's on this 'committee?' Daniel asked.

Uh... O'Neill scrabbled for another paper on his desk. I have a list somewhere...

Daniel's voice was slightly irritated as he responded. Well, when you find it, why don't you fax it to me, and give me the phone numbers of some of those 'uppers'? Then we can check up on this request. I mean, it's downright weird that this thing sort of came out of the blue, you know what I mean?

Jack squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed them with his fingertips, and tried to ignore the building sense of dread in his stomach as Daniel spoke. But it was hard. I'll get back to you, he promised, hung up the phone, then bent on finding that list he'd been talking about.

Thirty minutes later, he'd found the list, found the phone numbers of everyone on the list, and had sent a runner to Daniel's office. At the last minute, he realized that a fax machine left a phone number. He didn't want anybody tracing his phone calls concerning his retirement issue. Daniel sent the runner back ten minutes later with a note saying that he, Daniel, would handle calling the top five candidates on the list if O'Neill would call the last five. Then, they would get together and compare notes.

Two hours later, they met over coffee and sandwiches in the Commmisary, as innocent a place for a meeting as they could get in a top secret military installation, and compared notes.

Uh, Daniel said, flipping through the yellow legal pad that seemed attached to his right hand when he was at the SGC. I got... three 'never heard of anything about young O'Neill retiring' calls, one 'I'll have him call you back later when he's out of his meeting,' and one 'she's on vacation in the Virgin Islands. Can I have her call General O'Neill again in a week?' He glanced up at Jack. What did you find out?

Same thing - That about sums up my morning, Jack said over his sandwich. And considering the surveillance stuff we found among our personal items last week, it's highly suspicious that no one's ever heard of such a retirement command.

You think it's The Trust again? Daniel asked quietly.

Well, it had crossed my mind, Jack divulged, but was cut off from saying anything more as Carter suddenly appeared at his elbow, a lunch tray in hand.

Hi, guys, she said. Mind if I sit with you for awhile?

No, not at all, Jack said, proud of his casual tone of voice. Take a seat. We're just... He sighed then, going with his instinct to decide that he should play along with the directives of the letter he had received, at least for the time being. He scooped up the letter and handed it to her. I was going to say that we were grabbing an early lunch, but that's not entirely the truth. Look what I found in my in-box this morning.

Carter set her tray on the table, pulled out a chair next to O'Neill, and perused the letter. Then, all the blood literally drained towards her toes, leaving her face as pale as her hair.

Sam, are you okay? Daniel asked, alarmed by her abrupt pallor.

Uh.., she spluttered. Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, Sam stated, her denial sounding almost automatic. I'm just... surprised, she ended.

Aren't we all? Jack asked, sitting back in his chair. Then he added, But we all knew it was coming sometime soon...

Did they do this to General Hammond, too? Carter bluntly asked.

Jack loved that tenacity of hers, her inner force that caused her to question everything, even if her habit of giving everything the third degree could ultimately make things trickier for him. Following an inner sense of what could possibly become secret information, O'Neill went on, It's new orders from a bunch of old guys... I think they're a little overzealous in their duties, but they didn't ask me about what I thought first, he groused. Then, while Sam was going over the letter one more time, he quickly scribbled on the top page of Daniel's legal pad, Not a word!

Daniel read the quickly written message, and his brow furrowed, but slowly he nodded once, then rubbed his neck, as if it had become stiff with his duties of the morning. Spent too long bent over those new artifacts, I think. My neck is rebelling.

Carter looked up and tried a smile, but even Jack could see that it was forced. What did you find written on those artifacts, Daniel? she asked, but the usual sparkle was not in the question as she asked it. However, O'Neill was fairly certain that he was the only one who noticed the lack of vibrancy in her voice.

Daniel started rambling on about Goa'uld dialects and Ancient Egyptian Heiroglyphics... Jack soon grew so confused that his mood was moving quickly into the realm of intense boredom. A second later, he excused himself, shamelessly using the justification of having to finish with the reports on his desk in order to get out of the Commissary. A minute later, he was gone, but he felt Carter's eyes glued to his back the entire time.

* * *

By late that afternoon, O'Neill looked up to the sound of strident knocking on his office door, and he called, Come in, once again too distracted by his paperwork duties to glance up right away - even if it was Carter on the other side of the door, he wanted to finish writing his sentence first.

But the mysterious caller wasn't Carter. Another blast from Jack's past surprised him into complete speechlessness when he looked up at last.

General O'Neill... Son, how are things? asked the man who stood on the balls of his feet on the other side of Jack's desk.

Jack gathered his brow down in a frown. General Hammond? A minute passed while they just stared at each other, then Jack's face split into a grin. Hey, you old dog! he greeted jovially, coming around his desk to give a hug to his one-time Commanding Officer and friend. No simple handshake would ever represent the relationship Jack had once shared with the older man.

There was a light chuckle, and Hammond embraced him back. He asked, Well, who did you expect, the tooth fairy?

That question made Jack smile even more. No, Sir, haven't you heard? She's Goa'uld, has been for years...

Hammond laughed as well. Good one, Jack. I see that you haven't lost your sense of humor yet.

That will never happen, Sir, Jack answered, still grinning.

At least, we can count on something! Hammond exclaimed, his own amusement evident in his voice.

What can I do for you, General? Jack asked next.

There was a pause, and Jack had to repeat his question before Hammond did anything more. What he did do made Jack cringe slightly at the unspoken commentary the General was making on Jack's more relaxed command style. Jack knew that Hammond had been totally professional, and Jack preferred things to be much more comfortable for everyone in the SGC, as evident by the BDUs he always wore compared to Hammond's previous use of the traditional military uniform.

Hammond quickly opened his briefcase, and ran a scan of the room with the small hand device he had extracted from its bowels. He found what he was looking for almost immediately. After donning a surgical glove on his right hand, he pulled a listening device from between two of O'Neill's books on the bookcase behind his desk.

Jack opened his mouth to say something about the fact that he'd thought Carter had found all those devices just the week before, but Hammond put a fingr to his lips to indicate the need for silence. Then the major General made a quick trip to the nearest restroom to flush the listening device he'd found down the toilet. When he returned, Jack was seated again behind his desk, a scowl etched on his forehead. Wordlessly, Hammond handed Jack the scanner. I think you might have a bigger need of this than I do, he grimly stated. Besides, we can get more where that came from.

Jack stared at him. I won't even ask, he said.

Smart idea, Hammond answered.

Well, Jack said, with a disappearing scowl and only a small sigh in his voice as he took the device that Hammond offered to him. At least, now we know that The Trust can beam in and out of anywhere they want to at will, without any markers set in place ahead of time. Then, he explained, Carter found the original marker in here, too.

Hammond nodded his approval. She probably knew right where to look.

Jack remembered her comment about his dusty solar system display. Yeah, sort of, he agreed.

Hammond peered at Jack, and continued in a much more serious tone of voice, How much do you know about all this spying and counter spying?

Spying? Was that what was going on? That was stating it bluntly. The same sense of dread churned in Jack's stomach. Is that what we're calling it, Sir?

Hammond said, Might as well call a spade a spade, Son. He paused, still clearly assessing his replacement. He must have come to some positive decision, for he said, Of course, you know that anything I say now will have to be considered top secret, and should never leave this office.

Jack straightened minutely at the words 'top secret.' Of course, Sir. What's up?

Hammond sighed, and muttered, asking himself, Where should I start?

O'Neill couldn't resist answering that challenge. The beginning, Sir? he suggested.

General Hammond smiled. I see that you haven't changed a bit... still as sarcastic as ever.

Yes, Jack said, straightening his stapler a tad self-consciously. Daniel keeps telling me I need to cut back on that...

And how is Dr. Jackson? Hammond inquired with a smile.

Jack grinned as well, now. Oh, you know Danny boy... He's fine as long as he has some new writing symbol to try to decipher. Carter and Teal'c are doing their best to supply him with enough to keep even him interested.

Hammond's smile widened. I take it Colonel Carter and Teal'c are well?

Jack tried to respond quickly, as even the most basic reference to Carter had the tendency to fog his eyes over in dreams that he shouldn't ever indulge in. They're fine... A little concerned about this 'spying' situation we have going on here in the SGC.

And I can't say that I blame them, Hammond said. Then he pulled a file out of his briefcase and handed it to Jack.

Jack rifled through the manila file folder, and found it full of pictures. Some were even of his house, he was disconcerted to note. What's this?

That's what we've managed to snag from feeds from the secret security cameras that were installed. And you apparently know all about what I'm speaking of.

Jack nodded. Carter found one in her house, and one in mine just last week.

We only discovered the trail of photos last week as well, Hammond explained.

Suddenly, Jack's brow wrinkled. This is fascinating, really, he said, then thought that the picture of Carter sitting in her living room, reading a book, was especially fascinating, but only in a voyeuristic sense. He went on, What's this got to do with me?

I'm getting to that: have patience, Hammond chided.

Jack smiled again. I think I left any patience that I'd been born with behind on Abydos, Sir.

Hammond smiled back. Good thing: the people there probably have more need of it than you do.

Oh, I don't know, Jack answered. With the kind of time the Russians gave me the other day, I need all the patience I can get.

Hammond grinned. Well, the trials of the position aside, has... whoever... done anything more to you than bug your office? It was obvious he was trying to be diplomatic and assume nothing. But according to the expression on his face, it was hard not to assume. He went on, Have they sent you anything or made contact in some other way?

Jack rifled through some papers on his desk. As a matter of fact, they have. He pulled the retirement plea from his desk and handed it to Hammond. What do you make of that?

Hammond took it, then smiled, grim once more. It was a reaction that O'Neill hadn't expected. I was afraid of that, he said.

Jack gazed at him in some confusion, then prompted, Care to explain?

Hammond went on, You know that I'm on the Defense Committee...

Yes.

Hammond's sigh split through the air in the tiny office. This request didn't come from us. It has, however, generated more talk among the members of the Committee than the debate on the use of nuclear submarines in World War II.

Jack laughed, in spite of the serious issue being discussed.

Hammond went on as he handed the letter back to O'Neill. We want you to play along with this farce for now.

I already was, just in case, Jack told him.

Good. We want you to pretend that this is a real letter from the Defense Committee, asking for your retirement... which would never happen, incidentally. You retire when you're good and ready to retire, not when we tell you to retire.

Jack grinned. I thought this didn't sound like the Committee. He gestured with his hand holding the letter, indicating that he was speaking of it with his comment. What do I need to do?

Go along with it, for now, Hammond said. Retire, as it requests that you do. Have a party or two, drink some champagne... Then, we'll send you to Florida, or the Bahamas, or someplace warm where you can enjoy yourself. Meantime, we keep you as a covert Air Force officer, and wait and see what... whoever... is really up to. At least, that's the plan for now. Things may change, depending on what we discover.

Jack considered Hammond's request, but there was no reason for him to argue with the General. No known reason, anyway. Jack briefly wondered how Carter would take the news of his leaving, if the way her face had grown so pasty in the Commissary today was any indication as to how she would feel. But he tried not to dwell on that point. It'll be strange being paid by the Air Force, but not be employed by them anymore, at least, not officially.

Hammond grimmaced a bit. That's part of the sacrifice you'll have to make for this. The Air Force will, of course, reimburse you for any backpay and expenses that you may incur.

The dread in Jack's stomach tightened and whirled. But..?

But we can't outright pay you anything right now... a pay stub leaves a paper trail that can be followed.

Jack stared at Hammond in irritation. Oh, of course I'll get reimbursed... in a year or two, he growled.

That's the best we can offer, and our gratitude, naturally.

Naturally, Jack echoed. I know how deals like this are supposed to work, he semi threatened. He sighed then, resigned. What kind of time frame are we talking about here?

No idea, Hammond said with a shake of his head. Just that we need to know what's going to happen before it happens. Then he looked meaningfully at O'Neill. Or the Russians will be the least of your concerns.

* * *

It happened so fast, it made even Jack's head whirl to remember the chain of events. One minute, he was buried in paperwork at the SGC, the next he had announced that due to the stress highlighted by the Russian alert situation, he was retiring.

Unofficially. Officially, he was supposed to ferret out what information he could while he was 'retired,' but that was difficult, as his security clearance had been revoked along with his position. He used Daniel as an intermediary to the information he knew the Defense Committee sought, always using a pseudonym, and always using a different computer terminal. But his access was severely limited compared to what he was used to, and that was frustrating.

The fact that he had avoided the 'warm' option the military had offered him, and advocated the 'free' choice to travel to his cabin in Minnesota, where there was no phone, further frustrated his attempts at prying into the affairs of whoever had tagged him. He had to rely on the two letters he had received from Daniel and simple word-of-mouth. It was a far cry from the technological gadgetry that he was more used to.

A General Brooks had replaced him, he knew, and Daniel reported that the man was far more of a hard-liner than O'Neill had been. Of course, Jack considered, that wouldn't be too difficult. Brooks had the off-world teams on such a tight schedule that even Daniel was beginning to complain about the workload being heaped on his shoulders.

And that was where the complaints went from being based in reality to becoming hypotheses that were based in theory. It was Daniel's theory that The Trust, through Brooks, meant to run them all so haggard that eventually they would all make mistakes and be killed. Jack laughed aloud at that guess, but didn't comment and offer to come back out of retirement for a fourth time to save Dr. Jackson's behind.

The cabin was under surveillance, Jack knew from the second day he spent at the lake, and because he had few... well, actually, no... visitors to give any sensitive information away to, he just left the listening devices in place, figuring that ignorance and overconfidence might prove to do more for his case against... whoever... than any other effort on his part.

Then, almost one month to the day of his 'retirement' from the SGC, he received a letter from Teal'c that changed everything in an instant.

The letter was sent through three different forwarding agencies... proof of the Joint Chief's paranoia at the possibility of someone who wasn't supposed to be finding Jack discovering his whereabouts. At first Jack didn't recognize the name of the sender at all. As far as he knew, he had never met the Murray Fraiser of the letter's return address, but finally he connected the two disparate names to the man who'd been on his team for years, and the late doctor's borrowed last name. It was true that 'Murray' was a bit of an SG-1 code name, and thus, too hard to forget, but the man Jack knew didn't have a last name, and the presence of a full name was, at first, quite confusing, though Janet would have been undeniably proud that Teal'c had chosen to use her name. Otherwise, the letter was brief, terse, and to the point:

O'Neill,

I hope this letter finds you well.

That is not the case here, unfortunately. You must seek out Colonel Carter as soon as possible, and convince her that she is clearly not healthy. When asked about her fitness level, she insists that she is 'fine.' But I no longer believe her, and maintain that she needs to be examined in our medical facility. Yet she refuses to listen to me.

However, I am sure that she will listen to you.

Good luck,

Murray

Ten minutes later, Jack was gone.

* * *

Jack pulled into his driveway, intending to take a shower, put on clothes that weren't travel stained, and drive over to Carter's house as soon as he could. Except George Hammond got to him first, just as he was about to go back out the front door.

Jack did get to Carter's house... eventually.

* * *

Hours later, Jack was finally staring at Carter's wooden back door, debating about whether or not he should knock. How would it look, really, for an officer's ex-CO to be knocking on that officer's personal back door on a Saturday afternoon? Too desperate? Too pathetic? He never wanted to appear to be pathetic in front of Carter. But then, was he already being pathetic by standing outside her house and not knocking? Wasn't it already pathetic to even be worrying so much about something so stupid?

Of course, just the fact that he was staring at her back door showed how apprehensive he had become when he had spoken to General Hammond. He had also taken a taxi to within several blocks of her house after entering that taxi from several blocks of his own house. He had left his truck in his driveway, and then darted on foot through both his and her neighborhoods, a perfect illustration of his anxiety. His nervous state of mind was especially understandable considering the surveillance he had fallen under lately. So being pathetic, too, was practically expected.

Oh, for crying out loud! he thought to himself. Just knock and don't be so concerned about seeming so pathetic! So, heart racing, he knocked.

Carter, wearing sweats and a t-shirt that hung on her frame promptly answered the back door, as if she had been in the kitchen when he knocked. The second she opened the door, Jack knew what Teal'c had been referring to in his letter. Carter was now so thin, that a stiff wind would blow her away.

Practically rendered speechless by suprise, Jack mentally asked himself, How can this happen in a month?

Hi, he said... croaked, actually. Jack could only say that one word, and stare at her, his brows raised in shock. Teal'c hadn't been kidding that something was obviously wrong with her! Carter, what the hell have you done to yourself? Jack blurted his astonishment.

But Carter's hand had flown to her mouth when she had thrown open the door, clearly just as surprised to see O'Neill as O'Neill was to see her, especially at her back door. Her eyes grew as wide as the proverbial saucers. She whispered in a tragic voice, Oh my God, where have you been? I didn't think I would ever see you again! Then, to Jack's everlasting astonishment, she started to cry, right there in the doorway. She flung her arms around his neck in as tight an embrace as she could give.

Jack was surprised, but not that surprised. He hugged her back, hard, and treasured the feel of her in his arms for the first time in years. But this wasn't real, he told himself, couldn't be real. At any moment she would pull back and they would just be friends again...

How he hated that phrase, 'just friends.' He could never be just a friend to Carter, and she knew that, had to know that...

I've missed you so much, she whispered. You're all I see at work, you're everywhere, in everything. I just... I just... She paused, overcome again by emotion, or something that made it almost impossible for her to talk. I'm so sorry, I shouldn't bother you with what's on my mind, but I...

Jack held up a finger to help enforce her silence for just a little while longer; he knew that it wasn't safe to talk, not yet... Sh, I'm sorry, he whispered. He led her inside and helped her to sit on the sofa. Remember.., he continued to speak softly into her ear. Then, before she could react to his presence in her house one way or another, he pulled from his coat pocket the scanner that General Hammond had given him a month ago. While she sniffed, then turned on the TV to add a cover of noise once she had figured out what he was planning to do, she sat still on the sofa and watched as he waved the scanner over her furniture, searching for those little black objects that meant her personal space had been violated again. Jack hoped he didn't find anything, but knew that she would probably not be so lucky.

Jack found the first device inside a candle sitting atop her TV. The dust gathered on the candle also indicated that she lit it about as often as he noticed his model of the solar system. He slipped on the surgical glove that Hammond had just given him, then carefully dumped the tiny, black listening device into his waiting palm before he took a quick trip into her bathroom and tossed it unceremoniously into the toilet. Her bedroom turned up a device on her dresser, and he found one in her kitchen, between the flour and sugar canisters on one of the counters.

Jack took them all into her bathroom, one at a time, then flushed the entire entourage into the city sewer system before going back into the living room, and looking towards her ceiling, intent on finding the tiny security camera that had to have been installed. But, for a change, the camera that he expected to find wasn't there; someone, probably Carter herself, must have surprised the person installing the devices before a camera could be mounted on her ceiling. Jack shuddered at the thought of Carter almost catching the person red handed while he or she did his or her dirty work.

The scanner no longer registered any anamolous devices, listening or otherwise. That should do it, Jack announced, then took of his surgical glove and used the remote to turn off the TV. Nothing else registers on my scanner, so I think we can talk in relative safety...

'Relative safety?' she repeated with her nose all screwed up in disbelief.

Safety, he insisted. Complete safety, Jack insisted again. Not that it really matters much, anyway. They've known since January that we're on to them.

Again, his speech was interrupted by her standing up only to throw herself into his arms. I'm so sorry, Sir, and I know I'm being disloyal to our new base commander, but... I... care.., too, and you should especially know how things are now that you're retired, and please don't...

But Jack was peering at her in an unflinching, piercing way. Just... Just 'care?' he asked in a fierce whisper.

Carter looked a bit surprised, as she had repeated exactly the word he himself had used a few months before. But he could also see the hesitation that swiftly crossed over her eyes before it disappeared. Slowly, a frozen look of absolute terror on her face, she shook her head.

The half confession rocked Jack to his toes, even while it sent a thrill of giddy relief coursing through him. Good, he thought. Even as he had the thought, he whispered it aloud. Good, he breathed.

Carter stared at him, indecision blanketing her eyes, mixing with a tentative desire to be honest with him, at last. Sir, she choked. Jack, she changed his name at the last minute.

Carter, Jack whispered back before he thought to amend his comment to, Sam.

She looked at him in extreme uncertainty, her expression now growing into one more of intense desperation. I'm sorry, Jack, she sobbed as he tightened his arms around her.

I'm not, he managed to get out before he couldn't say another word as Carter covered his lips with her own in a kiss that was as fierce as it was sweet.

Jack would have instantly thought he was just dreaming again, but the touch of her skin was so feverish and frightening that it had to be real. He could never make up so much emotion that she poured over him as they stood, clutching each other in her living room.

Tears were sreaming down her cheeks when she reluctantly drew back from him. She looked like she wanted to make no movement of the kind, but was forcing herself to comply to some hidden instructions. I'm sorry, she choked again. She sniffled. I don't care if you don't feel the same, but I need to tell you, just once...

God, I love you, Jack tragically told her in a low voice. The divulgence sounded almost wrung out of him. I may never be able to say it again, but...

She cut him off this time by swooping in closer to him and kissing him resoundingly on his mouth. The sense of desperation was back, heightening his emotional response until he almost burst into flames and rocketed from the house.

Don't leave me, don't.., Carter was in the middle of begging... an uncharacteristic action coming from her.

I can't, Jack declared, his eyes shut tight. I tried...

I tried, too, she added.

Didn't... didn't work... not too well, Jack admitted in a confession that was as heartfelt as it was broken.

Carter giggled then. No, she burst out on a gust of laughter. For me neither. Iloveyou, she blurted, still crying into the side of his neck.

Sh, he commanded. I know, I know, he told her.

I'm sorry! she blurted next. So sorry, for everything. She drew in a shaky breath. I know that you're retired and gone and...

Jack set her back on the floor in front of him where she wiped away the last of the tears from her cheeks.

Which was almost a pity. Jack had liked they way they sparkled against her skin. He took a deep breath to clear his mind; he had a job that he needed to discuss now. Carter, he softly said, and took her hands in order to lead her back towards the sofa. In spite of his intentions to be professional and detached right now, he couldn't help the whiff he caught of her skin just then. God, she smelled good, and it took all his concentration not to give in to his more compelling emotions that told him to kiss her again as hard and as long as he could. But she would want to know about his recent actions. I'm not retired.

She stopped just before she resumed her seat, so she was frozen in a half standing, half sitting stance. You're what? she blurted.

This disregarding of his emotions was going to be harder than even Jack thought it already was. He swallowed painfully. Boy, she sure looked cute with several tear drops on her cheeks in spite of her recent administrations, there to seemingly do nothing but reflect the afternoon light pouring in through her living room windows. He tore himself away from her long enough to cross to each window, and pull the curtain over the two portals, keeping out any potential prying eyes with the motion. A strange, unearthly twilight bathed the room as he took a seat on her coffee table fronting where she sat on her sofa. He pulled her hands into his once more and leaned forward a little so that their knees bumped. The thrill of that contact ignited his blood, and encouraged it to pound in his ears like a teenager's.

This heightened emotion that he had to contend with didn't bode well for calmly explaining his mission, but Jack refused to move, even if his life depended on it. However, he couldn't quite keep himself from continuing to whisper, I'm not retired, but I am under cover. He went on, And I have something for you.

He reached into the confines of the jacket he was wearing, and pulled out a long, white, envelope. I just recently had a visit from General Hammond, who...

Carter gasped in surprise. Hammond?! she blurted.

He came to see me on behalf of the Defense Committee of the Joint Chiefs. Jack pulled a letter, one of many, from the envelope that he had pulled from his pocket, then handed it to her. Today is the first day that I've refused a direct order given to me by a superior officer. Then he amitted, Well, not the first, but... you understand.

Carter gasped again. Then you should know that refusing a direct order is a court-martiable offense, she protested. I don't want anything to happen to you.

He grinned at what she had said. Nothing bad's gonna happen, he insisted. Hammond told me The Committee wants me to 'acquire a girlfriend' to make it look more like I'm moving on in my life, to help with my under cover image. Then, he shook his head in obvious disgust. A bunch of old men with not enough to do... He looked at her with an extreme sense of honesty burning in his eyes. I couldn't do it, Sam, couldn't do that to you. Even the thought of finding someone else for the sake of the country... I couldn't.

Gen... she started to protest, then changed her mind again. Jack, she said, the beginnings of a silly little grin lifting the corners of her mouth.

Sam, he answered, also grinning like he couldn't help himself. Then he pulled a paper sized picture, folded several times, out of his back pocket, and, a bit guiltily, handed it to her. I'm sorry, but I've had this for a long time.

Curious, Sam took the paper that had been folded so many times that she had difficulty laying it out flat on her thin leg. She drew a quick, deep breath when she realized what it was. It was the laser printout of her, reading a book while sitting in her living room. This.., she stuttered, bewildered. This... It's a picture of...

You, O'Neill unapologetically finished for her. He may have been less than sorry for his actions, yet he still appeared to be slightly uncomfortable. With trepidation, he took the picture from her hand. I... um... got this from... General Hammond when he... um... came by to see me over a month ago, and... um... showed it to... um... me to...

Sam stared at him in incomprehension. You carried a picture of me in your pocket?

Which wasn't too much of leap of in her disbelief as he had just revealed the depths of his feelings for her, but Jack was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt in this situation. He gave her a goofy grin, one he tried to hide as he ducked his head into his leather jacket collar. I.. . um... well... yeah, he finally admitted. That's kinda stupid, I know, to carry proof of... on me... and... Geez... just don't tell your Dad...

Sam smiled. It's not stupid... I think it's kind of sweet.

Sweet? Then she wasn't angry? Jack tried to discern her mood by looking into her eyes.

Sam was going on, though, and Jack only got the briefest of flashes of her ability to forgive and forget before she was in her more typical problem-solving mode. But it's a good bet that General Hammond realized that you were stealing that picture from him when you did... he's not an idiot, you know... He can figure something like that out in a heartbeat.

My heartbeat, whispered Jack as he stared at her. He'd been so careful in the past not to be this close to her, ever. The bones of her ribs might have shown through her t-shirt, but she had never smelled so good. Jack fancied he could even smell the fragrance of the soap she used on her skin. As dumb as this sounds, my heart only beats for you.

Jack, Sam protested again, her voice an agonized whisper. Please... She closed her eyes against the pain that what he had said caused her. She swallowed, and made the motion look just as aching as anythinig he had done while in her house had aopeared. For the last month, she had been living under the impression that he had retired, and was, therefore, free. Now, she had just found out that he wasn't retired, but working undercover. She was naturally torn by her desire to follow the regulations, as she and he always had since they'd met, and her desire to continue to think of him as available. Tears threatened to spill from her eyes once more, but she felt she had to warn, You'll get yourself court-martialed at the least if you don't stop... my hands... She glanced down at the way he was firmly and openly holding onto her hands. But, determined, she went on, I can't stand the thought of you...

No, I won't, Jack insisted back. I won't face a court-martial. He bent to pick up the envelope that he had pulled out of his coat pocket. Now he gestured again to the letter that she still held in her hand. Have you looked at this?

Sam seemed surprised that he could be interested in what looked to her like official military business at a moment like this. Well, no, there wasn't time.

Read, Jack commanded, and she read, with a brow puckered in doubt. Then she looked up at him in open-mouthed amazement. Jack, this... She stopped again to stare at the letter that she held. The Air Force just doesn't do things like this. She looked up again, completely baffled. And I should know... daughter of a General, and all that. Then, the threatening tears began to leak out from behind her protective lashes again to mix with the stunned expression on her face.

Jack grinned. I thought you might find this interesting. I have a copy at home, one in my safe deposit box at my bank, and one in a completely different bank altogether. I would keep copies in several different places, if I were you... In case of fire, or any other catastrophe... That is, if you care to...

But Sam's abrupt explosion of sobs stopped whatever more he had to say. Her sudden movement off the couch halted him, too. Still sobbing, she wrapped her arms around him to hold him tight. I don't believe this... This is too good... I'm dreaming, and I'm going to wake up in a minute.

If this is a dream, then this is a really good dream, Jack said, that goofy grin of his back again to light up his face. Sam, I'm not good with words... You know that I'm not... I'll say the wrong thing... I always do... Finally, he confessed in a whisper, I don't know what to say in this type of situation...

Sh, Sam said. Just read that letter to me... I'm too busy stupidly crying to see.

Jack peered at the paper over her shoulder, and, one arm still wrapped tightly around her waist, read aloud, 'There will be no punishment whatsoever taken towards General Jack O'Neill and Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter if they choose to appear involved in a previously unauthorized relationship that is, and has been, strictly prohibited by the current Air Force fraternization policy.' And it's signed 'General George Hammond, C/O Miltary Joint Chiefs Personnel Defense Committee, Washington D.C., April 2, 2005.' Then, in a softer voice, he continued, That way I can seem to be complying with The Committee's order to become involved while I remain under cover for that Committee, and I still can become involved with you...

Suddenly, Sam sat up straighter on the couch cushion as a new idea occurred to her. Hammond knew, she announced as she tried to gather her emotions together.

What? Jack asked, confused.

This is a plot.., Sam began to say, clearly thinking, according to the bemused expression on her features. He did this on purpose...

What do you mean? Jack queried, his voice still soft.

Even you mentioned that you thought this new order to find a girlfriend was stupid... Don't you see, now, though? Hammond orchestrated the entire thing.

Jack sat back, thinking hard. Analyzing had never been his strongest suit. He preferred to blow something away rather than to contemplate any particular consequences of said item to the 'n'th degree... Do you think so?

Who did you get this picture from? she asked.

Hamm.., Jack started to say, then stopped himself as the truth slapped across his mind. Damn.., he whispered in appreciative amazement.

Sam stared at him. Maybe he's as crafty as those guys in The Trust.

Jack laughed for a minute. Maybe...

And he had some help from the Tok'ra... or a certan Tok'ra....

That supposition made Jack laugh even harder.

What? Sam asked.

Speaking of the Tok'ra... Anise.., Jack spluttered.

What about her?

She's going to crack a seam, he predicted. Your dad may have done us more favors with this than even he knows about, Jack said.

Sam grinned at him with a tiny pucker of puzzlement on her forehead. Is there something I should know? she inquired.

Still laughing, Jack shook his head. Not a thing, he told her, and shook his head again as he caught his breath. Not a thing, he repeated.

Yet he barely had enough time to recover before Sam trailed her fingers down the sides of his face. Jack, I've wanted to do this for years... She moved off the couch and slid into his lap in order to be closer to him. She whispered, I just want to touch you. The thrill of skimming her fingers lightly along his chin was way too enticing for her own good. Her eyes flicked back and forth between her hand and his lips, which she kissed ever so lightly.

Jack's heart did a backflip inside his chest. He kissed her hand as it rested against his mouth; he simply couldn't resist. But he made a Herculean effort to remember his particular mission. Don't get me wrong.., he said, furiously blinking his eyes to get rid of his own haze. This isn't why I'm here... but I need your help, Sam.

My help? Sam asked in the fog of desire that had swamped her the second she had come in contact with his skin.

Sam... Jack had to pause and kiss her only seconds after she had first lightly kissed him. Before he was aware of it, he only knew that he wanted more of her. He peered into her eyes, and saw that chord of connection between them again. His sweet desire swirled delectably in his stomach, twisting it into a hot ring of passion. Sam, I...

Jack, Sam whispered, and answered his suddenly more tentative emotions. Do you still l..?

Yes, he said emphatically. Do you still feel the same way I always thought you did?

Yes, she interrupted, and as their third... or was it fourth?... kiss ended when she spoke, wrapped him again in an embrace that was as adamant as it was soft as velvet; she was sure it felt right to have him finally in her arms. Yes.

O'Neill smiled over her shoulder. He held on to her so tightly.

Are those tears I hear in everything you say? she asked, then, in astonishment.

Don't you dare tell anyone about it...

Not even Daniel and Teal'c?

Especially not Daniel and Teal'c, he said. They're letters were helpful, I admit, but... they'd never let me live this down.

Sam ignored the end of his statement. They sent you letters? she asked.

Two from Daniel, and one from Teal'c. Hey, why didn't you write to me?

I did, so many times!

Jack shook his head. I never got those letters...

She stared at him guiltily now. That's because I didn't send them.

Didn't send them? he asked in surprise.

She glared at him defensively. I was afraid of bothering you in your retirement, and then I couldn't find you, and when I got worried, I did some research, and found out you had gone to your cabin in Minnesota... But then I realized your cabin doesn't have a phone, and... Teal'c's the only one who's been to your cabin, but the town you had your mail sent to was a different town than the one that Teal'c recognized as being the location of your cabin...

No Post Office in Dunlop, Jack explained.

Sam went on, And Teal'c didn't remember precisely where your cabin was located for sure...

Actually, I got a letter from him about you, and came back because of it. He handed her the sloppily folded letter. He was worried about you, and that made me worry...

She unfolded the envelope he had handed to her, and pulled out the letter inside. Throughout the entire process of reading the letter, she rested her head serenely on his shoulder. She chose not to read the letter aloud, but stared at it in suspicion. That's all?

Teal'c's not a very talkative guy, answered O'Neill.

You drove all the way up here because of this? She held out the letter in disbelief.

Jack nodded. You bet, he told her. There wasn't even a hint of hesitation in his voice.

Sam hugged him once more for good measure. Thank God that you're such a worriwart.

O'Neill reared back so that he could see her entire face. Who told you that?

Sam looked at him in truthful irritation. I kinda figured it out on my own. So many years together will do that to a person.

Jack smiled then, and said with a proud note in his voice. You're so smart... Just one of the many reasons why I love you.

I can think of many more, Sam fliratatiously said, and grinned into his eyes. She kissed him once again before more briskly asking, Now, you said something about wanting my help?

Jack had the decency to look slightly mortified. This may not be the most appropriate time...

What is it? she asked, sounding patient.

Jack didn't beat around the bush, as someone perhaps more polite would have done. I need to find out what's going on, what The Trust has in mind for the SGC... I couldn't find out anything from the remote access of my cabin, so I think it's time to go right to the source...

The Embarkation Room, she predicted.

It makes sense... But my clearance will be denied... Can you request to see the tapes from the security cameras in the SGC Embarkation Room?

She nodded. I'll request the most recent ones tomorrow. What are you looking for? she inquired.

Jack shook his head. I'm hoping that I know it when I see it.

* * *

The instant Jack popped the most recent tape into her VCR, he knew right away that something, at least, was very wrong. The SGC personnel! They're all so... so... skinny! he exclaimed in a voice of amazement as the teams left on the ramp leading to and from the Stargate.

Sam, sitting beside him on the couch, relaxing on her Sunday off, leaned forward, trying to see what he saw. But her eyes had grown too accustomed to the sight of her fellow SGC colleagues to discern anything beyond their uniforms. Are they? she asked, squinting towards the TV.

Not them. Jack brushed away at the staff helping the team as they were heading out through the 'Gate. I mean them. He pointed to the team members themselves. With a confused glare, he eyed the TV remote in his hands. Does this thing have a fast forward?

Sam indicated the appropriate button. Why? What's the hurry?

I want to see what happened when SG-11 got back, Jack explained absently, concentrating on forwarding the scratchy picture. He paused as the team descended the ramp again, and met a medical team at the bottom of the currogated metal. Looks like they needed help, he noted softly, then continued to watch. He paused the tape again when the head of the medical team inserted an I.V. into a wounded man's arm. Ouch, Jack said, and winced. That had to hurt.

It's nothing more than always happens after a mission, Sam said with a sigh. We always get poked more than we want.

Yeah? Jack said with a smile now, recalling fond memories. Remember how Doc Fraiser always was... That woman had a thing for needles, is how Daniel always described her.

Sam scratched her chin, not entirely comfortable with the way the conversation was heading. Yeah, I think I spend more time in the infirmary than I do on an entire mission, she admitted.

Jack rewound the tape back to its beginning, and started watching again. Hope you have something to work on.., he said with a lilt in his voice. This could be very boring...

Two hours later, Jack rubbed wearily at his eyes. What did you say? he asked.

Nothing, Sam said with a shrug. You're the one who says that everyone is so thin, not me.

Well, everyone is thin! Jack insisted. Take you, for example. You're so thin, a stiff wind would blow you away. How you survive on missions is beyond me.

Well, Sam admitted sheapishly. I haven't been particularly interested in food lately. I've been a little depressed.

Suddenly Jack sat up a bit straighter. What did you just say?

I was kind of missing a certain General.., Sam said. I was a bit depressed.

No, that bit you said about surviving missions? Jack asked.

You made the comment about wondering how I survive missions, not me, Sam told him, then returned her attention to the report she was manually correcting on her lap.

'I don't know how you survive your missions,' Jack thoughtfully repeated himself. He turned to peruse her entire body.

She widened her eyes in puzzlement. What? What is it?

Jack stared at her again. As much as I always appreciat how you look... fat or thin... Here, he pulled out her arm and gazed at it assessingly. But I think you're too thin, now. Why?

I told you, Sam said, and nervously cleared her throat. I've just not been too interested in food lately.

A situation we'll rectify tonight, O'Neill promised. With a steak... or French Fries...

Sam grinned. I can't eat French Fries... All those empty calories!

Calories that you need, Jack confirmed with finality.

What, we're going out to eat right now? Sam questioned in slight incredulity.

No time like the present, Jack said, and smiled.

Sam set her report on the coffee table beside O'Neill's booted feet. Ready when you are, she said, though she wasn't particularly hungry. But as it promised to be time she would spend with him, she was more than willing to eat.

Is that what you're wearing? Jack asked, and gestured at the sweats and t-shirt she had on.

Sam looked uncomfortable again. Well, my jeans are too big, now, and... So you think I'll need a sweatshirt?

We have to figure out why everyone's so thin, Jack stated, and held out his hand for her to take. And it's cold... you'll definitely need a sweatshirt. He was teasing her again about the way she always seemed cold, even when it was seventy degrees outside.

She slipped her fingers into his, again marvelling at the feel of his skin touching hers. What if we see someone who recognizes us?

Then we'll smile at them, and wave, Jack suggested, squeezing her waist and nuzzling her neck with his nose. Then, hopefully, we'll come home and have a repeat performance of last night.

Sam smiled, and kissed his cheek, thinking how much she enjoyed his smell. How had she resisted it for so long? That can be arranged, she told him.

* * *

Later that night, his belly full of hamburger, French Fries, and a shake, Jack was once more staring at the image on the TV screen, wondering what he was missing. The last mission with SG-11 was up again, and he watched them come back through the Stargate, only to be met on the ramp by the medical team. He watched the I.V. slip into the injured man's arm once more, wondering what the heck was bugging him about that needle he kept staring at. With a sigh, he rewound the tape and started at the beginning again.

After each mission, whether completed successfully or not, the team was debriefed at the bottom of the ramp before Brooks, the new commanding General, sent the entire team to the infirmary for a checkup, standard post mission operating procedure... nothing too interesting about that.

As O'Neill watched, he peripherally noted how many people left, and how many came back. The number of returnees was beginning to dwindle.

Hey, he called to Sam, who was currently in the kitchen, heating up water in the microwave for tea. Has anything strange happened to you guys on a mission?

What do you mean by 'strange?' she called back, wondering.

O'Neill blushed before admitting, Anyone died?

What a question! Sam exclaimed as she carefully carried two full mugs through the door, and into the living room. She crossed to the couch.

Here, let me get that for you.., O'Neill said, and took the two mugs, lowering them down to the coasters he had already placed on the coffee table. He looked up then, right into Sam's eyes, level with his own. Their gazes locked, and it was just like his daydreams of her back from when he was at the SGC... only this time, his daydream ended with a very real kiss on her lips.

Jack sighed, his eyes closed to better savor the sensations swirling around inside him. This is exactly what I always wanted, he whispered. Every time I was doing paperwork, on a mission off-world, standing in your lab, being poked in the butt with a needle in the infirmary... He paused, arrested by that vision of the needle he was having. He sat up, thinking furiously. What do you do every time after a mission? he asked then as the image of SG-11 and the wounded man being pierced by that needle filled his head.

Sam sat back onto the couch cushions, and took a sip of her steaming tea. It tasted good after the cold air outside her house. We all go to the infirmary, she promptly said. You know that as well as I do. Why?

Jack stayed where he was, awkwardly bent, as he was half way on the couch, and half off. The infirmary, he whispered. Needles...

Yeah, what about them? Sam asked. You said something about Janet, and her love for needles... If she were alive right now, I don't think she'd ever live to forget that saying. I'd heard that about her and needles before.

That's it, Jack dumbly reported as he sat back down beside her on the couch.

What is? she queried.

Needles, Jack said, clearly only half listening to her.

Now Sam was getting irriated; she hated not understanding something. What about them?

Jack turned to face her. Can't you see? he asked.

See what?

He wondered how she couldn't see what was right in front of her nose. But then, the fact that it was right in front of her nose might be part of the problem, he conceded. People are too thin, as if it were being caused by something.

Not a coincidence, like we thought?

You've thought this before, and never mentioned it to me?

I figured it wasn't important. And I did tell you that I was depressed...

You do usually think too much, Jack commented affectionately, and rubbed her cheek with his thumb. That's why you were so depressed. See, too much thinking isn't good for a person. And this one time when I need you to think too much, you're not thinking enough.

Sam looked irritated again. What should I be thinking about? Needles?

Jack turned back to the image of the I.V. he had paused on the TV. Maybe.., he absently said.

Jack, you're not making sense, Sam complained.

He held up his first finger in a clear message that he needed her to be quiet. I have to think...

There's a first, she said accusingly.

Oh, ha, ha, very funny, he groused.

Sam grinned, I try to be, she said.

Again went up the finger. I'm hypothesizing.

Big word, she noted dispassionately.

He grinned at her. You taught it to me.

Sam took another sip of her tea, noting that it wasn't so hot now. What are you hypothesizing?

After every mission, you go to the infirmary, Jack began.

Where you are stuck with a bazillion needles, all in unmentionable places, Sam went on for him.

And before you get a shot from a needle...

You're rubbed down with a cotten swab moistened with alcohol, she finished for him.

Jack looked at her. They could never control all the needles used in the infirmary. It's gotta be in the alcohol, he announced.

What does? Now she was really getting irritated.

Jack's brow furrowed. How should I know. Whatever's making you all so... He gestured at her. So thin.

We're not all so much thinner.

Jack reared back again. I've seen this tape from beginning to end a dozzen times; you're thin. You're all thin. Teal'c's even lost weight. Daniel's a skinny archeologist in BDUs.

Sam smiled at his comment. Is it that obvious?

Only to an eye that hasn't been staring at your beautiful form for a month, Jack answered with a shake of his head.

So... what have they put in the alcohol? Sam asked again.

A virus, Jack said firmly. A bacteria. One hell of a weight loss program... I don't know, he told her. That's why I keep you around, to figure this stuff out in that lab of yours.

That's the only reason? Sam questioned, enjoying the razzing she was giving him.

Jack grinned appreciatively. For a girl in sweats, you're awfully cool, he said, and wrapped his arms around her, astounded once again at his good fortune.

* * *

The following morning, Sam went to work as if it was any other normal day at the SGC, but had instructions to lift the bottles of alcohol being currently used in the Infirmary, and replace them with alcohol bottles she and Jack had bought from a medical supply store located far away from her house and from the SGC. At least, she was to lift the curent alcohol bottles as long as she could replace those bottles surreptitiously. Once she did that, she and Jack needed to take a blood sample from her, compare it to the same thing drawn from him, and then compare both to a few drops of the alcohol being used in the Infirmary. For that, they would need the microscope in Sam's lab at the SGC. Jack hadn't quite reached the point where he was concerned about how he was going to get down to that level in a top secret military compound, but he wasn't worried; he was sure something would come to him before the need was upon him.

In the meantime, he needed a shower, a shave, and a change of clothes. To get those things, he had to go back to his place.

Ten minutes later, he was hiding among the bushes in his own neighborhood, staring in the direction of his house.

Ten astonished seconds after that, he was backing carefully through his own neighborhood, and was on his cell phone, calling Sam on her cell phone. Thankfully, she picked it up on the first ring.

*Carter,* she answered nonchalantly.

Sam, it's me, Jack whispered. I want you to do something for me, he urgently continued to whisper.

*What?* Sam asked quietly.

You at the SGC? Jack inquired.

*Just walking toward my lab,* Sam replied. *Why?*

Jack went on whispering. I want you to go to Daniel... casually... and tell him to take Teal'c and go visit his long lost Grandma in Albuquerque or somewhere... anywhere... just get away from the SGC, and tell him not to tell anyone where he and Teal'c plan to go, not even me!

*Anything else?* Sam asked without requesting an explanation, caught by the urgency in his tone.

Jack instructed her, Go to the Infirmary... lift all the alcohol... carefully! And stay away from General Brooks if you can! Don't do anything to arouse suspician. Then meet me at the food court in the mall on 32nd street in half an hour. And make sure you're not followed. But above all, get out. And don't go home... I'll meet you, if all goes well, and I'll explain everything then. Go!

Sam flipped the connection off, then strolled down another corridor on her way to see her friend as soon as she had arrived in the SGC. One person she trusted enough to follow his orders without explanation was Jack O'Neill, and follow them she would.

* * *

Twenty-five minutes later, Sam slowly navigated the heavy entrance door at the mall on 32nd street. The bustle of the food court was considerably less than what she was used to, as it was before any of the stores opened. She found Jack right away, seated at a tiny table for two, glancing at his watch, tapping his knees, then looking relieved as she approched his position.

Oh, thank God! Jack blurted. And I don't mean the fake kind. He stood, and wrapped his arms around Sam for a fierce hug.

Did you miss me? Sam asked, a bit surprised at his show of emotion, and that his show was so extreme.

You have no idea, Jack said. I think I'm still shaking from the fear.

Fear? Sam questioned as she hugged him in return.

God, Sam, they burned down my house, and yours is crawling with agents right now.

She gaped at him. They burned down your house?

To the ground, Jack repeated. It's too much of a coincidence that it happened to burn down last night, of all nights. It's only luck that you left your own house early this morning. Another five minutes, and we both would have been toast. Jack shivered at the thought, and clung to her all the harder. Look, I need to make a phone call, and ask for some help. He turned briefly to Sam. Did you get the alcohol?

Sam grinned and pulled one of the bottles out of the pocket of her coat. Teal'c and Daniel are carrying more, she said, though she was still a bit off balance from the news about his house. He'd left his truck there, she knew, so The Trust must have suspected that he had spent the night at home. The burning of his house must have been an attempt to kill him, and make it look like an accident...

The horror of such a discovery was just infiltrating her thoughts when O'Neill went on, Did anyone see you?

Sam shook her head in the negative. I don't think so. When I was followed after leaving the SGC, I got on the interstate, and lost whoever was behind me in the crowd of fast cars full of people who were heading to work.

Smmmaaaarrtt, Jack said admiringly. I never would have thought of that. He kissed Sam on her forehead, not caring who saw such an act of affection. Then, he yanked his cell phone from the pocket of the leather jacket he always wore. He also pulled a piece of paper from the same pocket, stared at the phone number he had written on it, then punched the numbers into his cell phone. Hammond, he requested brusquely, then must have been patched through to the appropriate office, for he said, General? No, don't say my name. Remember... bugs in your office. Go to a pay phone and call me back in ten minutes. Then he hung up the phone.

Five minutes later, Jack's cell phone rang as it lay innocently on the table. Jack answered it immediately. General Hammond?

*Jack?* Hammond asked in response.

Pay phone?

*Yes. I'm two blocks away from my office building, and one block over, at the courthouse. Now, what's going on?*

General, I have Sam with me, and we need help, big time.

*I would think you would want to handle this one on your own,* Hammond commented.

We were alone, then The Trust upped the price a bit. We need some help with this one.

Hammond's voice grew concerned. *Is there reason to worry?*

Oh, yeah, Jack emphatically told him. You might say that.

*What do you need?* Hammond asked, cutting to the point of this phone call.

A microscope, vials, syringes to draw blood...

*Can't you find those in the SGC?*

Compromised, Jack told him briefly. I wouldn't let any of SG-1 within a mile of the SGC right now. But we've lost all our resources with it.

Hammond sighed loudly over the phone. *So they know you're investigating them?*

Jack grimaced. You could put it that way.

*Okay. I'm in Washington right now, but I'll fly out...*

Bring money, lots of it, Jack said. I have the feeling we're going to need some.

Hammond paused. *This is the second time I've loaned you money,* he said, his tone moving more into the realm of resigned regret. Do I get to charge interest this time, too? he jokingly asked at last.

Jack ignored the joshing tone of General Hammond's voice, and went on, If we make it out of this, I promise to pay you double interest.

Hammond sounded surprised when he noted, This is bad, then.

Jack's tone was perfectly serious when he said, You have no idea how bad. Then he quickly took the conversation back to his and Sam's immediate concerns. Sam and I should be fine until you get here. I have my credit cards... Sam has hers... He turned to regard Sam quietly standing beside him while he spoke to General Hammond on the phone. You do have them, right? he asked her, just to make sure.

She patted a pocket in her sweatpants. I always carry money... you never know...

Wow, Jack commented as he slowly returned his attention to his phone. I taught you well...

Yep, Sam quipped, marvelling that she could still think in joking terms. You can rest quiet, knowing that your team is now as paranoid as you are.

Jack scowled at her, but had to concede that what she said had a grain of truth in it. Better to be paranoid than dead, he told her, then went back to his phone call as if he'd never left it. General, Sir?

Jack, call me 'George.' Hammond said on a sigh. When a person borrows money from me... twice... he gets the pleasure of using my first name.

Guess I earned it, eh, George? Jack teased back.

Hammond chuckled. Something like that.

Okay... Can you arrange a lab for us to use?

Sam piped up, I have friends at the Academy in the Science Department... they'll have what we need.

Jack instantly incorporated what she'd said into a report for Hammond. Never mind... Sam has it covered. It appears she has friends in high places over at the Academy...

She trusts them? Hammond queried.

Jack quickly pulled the phone away from his mouth, then quietly asked Sam, Do you trust your Acadamy friends?

Almost as much as I trust you, Sam immediately said.

Her sincere answer made him grin at her and take her hand with his free one. He said to Hammond, She's good, Sir... uh, George.

All right, he answered. Set up what you need.

We need to shop first before we do any tests. We'll meet you in... He glanced at his watch. At 1500 this afternoon?

I can make it by then, Hammond promised.

And remember to bring lots of cash. No one can trace cash, Jack explained.

Will do, Hammond responded. See you...

We'll be waiting at the food court in the 32nd street mall.

Fine. I'll find you there.

Come alone, and don't let anyone see you, Jack advised.

1500, Hammond repeated, then hung up.

Jack snapped his own cell phone shut. Time to shop, he said as he returned the phone to the pocket of his jacket.

Sam couldn't help but sport a grin. Even a girl who likes to shoot bad guys while wearing BDUs is glad to hear those words.

Jack smiled down at her, even if his expression was a bit grim. Let's go.

* * *

1425 came... and went... and Jack moved Sam from the Target store they were currently checking out, to the corridor beside the food court marked 'Personnel only.' It made a nice hiding place for them both. They huddled in the semi-secrecy of the tiny corridor as Jack and Sam watched a family of four nonchalantly enter the mall. The parents looked around, then they all wandered in the direction of the Chinese restaurant in the court. They passed right by Jack's and Sam's hiding place in the hallway and never saw them.

Sam hefted her shopping bag in her hand a little higher as she noted that the family wasn't the General she was currently waiting for. Where is he?

I was talking in code on the phone before, Jack answered as a way of explanation. George knew that in a possibly compromised situation, there's always that chance that my cell line will be tapped. We agreed years ago that if either one of us mentions a time to meet, the other should instantly take thirty minutes off that time. Hammond should be here... Just then, the large double doors opened to reveal the DC General dressed in civilian clothes, looking around at all the shoppers currently in the food court.

A code? Sam asked in some puzzlement. And he went along with this paranoia of yours?

Jack grimaced at her, but said, This 'paranoia' of mine may be a bit extreme, but it's kept us alive so far. He frowned even deeper. And paranoia may be in order this time. You don't now have a smoking hole instead of a house.

Good point, she whispered back to him, and gave his hand a comforting squeeze. He queezed back.

When Jack was certain that General Hammond hadn't been followed by overzealous Trust members who were as paranoid as he was, he allowed Sam to lead him from their place of concealment and join Hammond. Did you bring cash? Jack immediately inquired in a low voice.

Nice to see you, too, General, Hammond sarastically commented.

Yeah, yeah, Jack said, his voice still just as low. Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes, and I'm not kidding, he continued as he glanced surreptitiously at the people in the food court. I've never been so glad to see you in my life, he added for Hammond's benefit. Now, did you bring some cash?

Hammond chuckled as he reached into a front coat pocket. Same old Jack I see...

Minus a house, Jack grimly told him. And Sam barely made it out of hers before the agents moved in. Now, can we please dispense with the pleasantries, and get down to the business of an emergency fund?

Hammond didn't seemed phased by the words that were coming from his former second in command. But he did look a bit disappointed that his friend was right to be so worried. Got it, he said. Right here. He patted his coat pocket. And a car...

Not provided by the military, right? Jack asked.

Hammond sighed, but said, Borrowed from my daughter's coworker. No trace possible...

Good, Jack said before turning back to Sam. Can you think of any other lab besides those at the Academy that we can use?

Sam appeared flabbergasted by his request, but she answered, Uh, yeah, there's Captain Boils... She went to work in the private sector a few years back. I didn't know her all that well, but I know that she went to work for Gentech after she had her baby...

Sounds good, Jack quickly said. Call her from a pay phone... Your cell is probably being monitered, too. We shouldn't take any chances.

Okay, Sam said as she tagged after Hammond and O'Neill, feeling slightly like leftover baggage. It was apparent that she was too trusting of other people and their motives, she thought to herself. She was sure, however, that life with Jack O'Neill would cure her of any automatic overly zealous friendliness on her part, she ruminated. It was just too bad that his paranoia was so often correct.

* * *

Thanks for this help, Patricia, Sam was saying as the three entered Patricia Boils' lab at Gentech in downtown Colorado Springs an hour later. I know that it's been several years since you were at the SGC...

No problem, Major... uh... Colonel Carter, Patricia Boils was saying as she held the door aside for them. I have the Colonel... She sighed in aggravation, and the sound filled the room. I mean, the General... She glanced once between Jack and Hammond, then cleared her throat and corrected herself, General O'Neill to thank for saving the base that time that alien entity was trying to take it over. By saving the base, he saved my life. Helping now is the least I can do. She smiled, and nervously played with the lank brown hair that was hanging over her shoulder. She was a bit overwhelmed at being in the presence of not one, but two Air Force Generals, as well as a Lieutenant Colonel. Her nervousness showed when she began tying the several strands of her long hair into knots. She went on, rambling, Though I have to say that I was a bit surprised when I got your phone...

Hammond interrupted her to gently suggest, Perhaps you can show us where you keep your microscopic equipment?

Spurred into action then, Patricia Boils led them to a corner beside two windows that lit up a work area with natural light. Right here. There's vials, test tubes, petrie dishes.... Use what you need, she invited.

Thank you, Sam said with a lilt in her voice as she automatically moved toward the familiar equipment. This is more than generous of you.

Blood first, Carter? asked Jack, falling back into his familiar form of address in the accustomed situation. Seeing Sam in a science lab was bringing back some very nice memories. He tried to keep his mind on the situation at hand as he unbuttoned the long sleeves of his shirt, but as he began rolling the left sleeve up, Sam stopped him.

I was thinking, Si... She stopped herself before she could complete the dreaded title. She began again. I was thinking, Jack, that I don't have to take blood samples from the two of us. I mean, it's pretty obvious that something's been added to the something that's making me so thin... something that you're not taking in. Instead, alcohol samples, one tainted, and one not, when compared to each other, should show us what we need to see. Before anybody could comment, Sam reached for two Petrie dishes, and pulled them towards her along the counter. She carefully pulled the bottle of alcolhol that she had lifted from the SGC Infirmary from her coat pocket, and poured some of the liquid into the glass dish. She then looked around the lab, found a bottle of alcohol on the far counter, then poured some of that into the second receptacle. She slid one sample onto the tray of the microscope by the window, studied it for a minute, then replaced it with the second, careful to keep the two samples separate.

She studied the second sample, replaced it with the first, then the second again, then wrinkled her forehead.

A wrinkled forehead rang the warning bells in Jack's mind. What is it, Sam? he asked. What do you see?

Sam's forehead wrinkled even more. She stood staring off into space, a puzzled expression on her face.

Jack shook her shoulder. Sam? he inquired.

Sam did a double take. What? Oh!

What is it? Jack asked, suspicion loud in his voice. Are you succumbing to weird alien alcolhol fumes, or something?

Sam gazed at him as if she didn't know what he was talking about. Huh?

Hammond broke in on the conversation now to say, You were thinking... I think.

Sam caught sight of a clear cannister of cotton swabs resting on the counter near a sink. Yeah, she thoughtfully drawled before returning her wandering attention back to the microscope. These samples are exactly the same, she reported, sounding disheartened.

What? Jack's voice was as disbelieving as his expression. Are you sure you're testing them right?

I'm sure I'm doing things in the correct order, Sam absently answered. Still staring off into space, thinking, she muttered, I thought sure it was something in the alcolhol.

Jack continued, asking, You're sure you're looking at them right?

Sam waved a hand at the microscope and the two Petrie dishes. Take a look yourself if you don't believe me.

Jack did his own hand wave then. No, that's all right... You said they're the same... That's enough for me.

But Sam wasn't listening to him, even though he'd given voice to a rare vocal compliment of sorts in her hearing. Though he'd often given roundabout compliments about her while he was the comanding General of the SGC, he didn't often give those compliments directly to her. It was ironic that she wasn't even listening to him when he said his words, but was instead lost in the 'thinking haze' that he often complained that she spent a great portion of her time in. If she was thinking, then she wasn't paying any attention to Jack, as the current situation perfectly illustrated.

Jack gave a grimace in Sam's general direction, but she missed his expression, too. She continued to stare instead at the jar of cotton swabs resting on the counter beside the lab's sink. Still lost in her own little world of 'What if..?' and 'Maybe..,' her brain was chugging away at perplexing scenarios that no one but she was even aware of. It was only when Jack barked the word, Carter! that she even glanced up to find the few people in the room staring at her in abject befuddlement. Care to share with us simpletons what's going on in that complexly wired brain of yours?

Sam seemed to give a start by shaking her head. Oh, sorry, she apologized. I was just thinking...

Of course you were, Jack said interrupting her. Then he went on to ask, You were thinking about..?

She finished the question for him. I was asking myself the question of how it's possible that both sets of alcolhol could possibly be the same?

Jack continued with an inviting wave of his hand, And you answered yourself... how?

Sam turned back to regard the cotton balls again. Following an inner urge that was telling her that she was onto something important, she reached out her hands to grasp the container in her fingers. Cotton, she declared, as if that explained everything. The look of inquiry on Jack's face prompted her to continue, If I mix a few strands of the cotton swabs with the alcohol samples... She crossed back to the windows and the microscope set up beside those windows. We're not accounting for all the variables in this experiment, she told them.

Huh? Too many large words. Jack's face wrinkled with his confusion.

Sam plunked the jar down on the counter. Just.., she began, her voice sounding irritated now that he didn't understand... again. Just trust me, she told them. I know what I'm doing.

We don't doubt that, Colonel, Hammond told her.

Sam sent him a brief flash of a small, grateful smile as she used a pair of tweezers to pull a few strands off the cotten ball she had snagged between fingers. The latex gloves she had put on made the cotton slippery, but she gave a slight tug with both hands until she had dropped a few cotton strands in each of the petrie dishes filled with alcolhol.

First, Sam slid the dish holding the lab's alcohol that she was using as a comparison for the Infirmary based alcohol under the microscope. After peering at it for several seconds, she then pushed out that particular speciman, and replaced it with the lifted alcohol sample. Her reaction was instantaneous.

Whoa, she breathed.

Jack was now so irritatedly excited by the meticulousness of the scientific approach to problems that he was dancing from one foot to the other. He hated the 'roteness' of science, he reminded himself with a frown. But Sam's exclamation halted even him. What?

Sam straightened up and invited, Take a look for yourself. She moved aside so that Jack could take her place. This is the sample from the alcolhol from the Infirmary, she told him as he peered into the scope, and adjusted the focus a tiny bit. And this is the lab's alcolhol, she told him at last, handing him the Peetrie dish full of liquid. Careful, she warned. Don't mix them up.

Jack swapped the dishes, looked at the lab sample, then traded them once more. He then replaced the secnd sample again with the Infirmary sample. Finally he said, I don't think we have to worry about us mixing them up.


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