Title: Monkey Screaming : Mirror Image

Author : SGCBearcub

Warnings : Profanity

Pairings : implied Sam / Jack UST , Jon / Alex UST

Spoilers : Season Eight


Summary : Mirroring is the psychological concept that self-perception is based on the image reflected back by others. What if that mirror were deliberately broken?


Author's Notes :


This story was originally posted as Monkey Business. Thanks to some critical feedback , I am re-posting this edited version. While the basic storyline remains unchanged, hopefully this second version is more precise and less confusing :) Parts two and three were originally designed as one story, and are meant to be read together .


Disclaimer: Stargate and its characters belong to MGM. Also, I am not a mental health professional. All inaccuracies are purely my own invention and any opinions or perceived opinions herein should not be taken as fact about the field of psychology or psychiatry .


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


The stands were empty.


Ignoring the burning in her side, she ran for the Gate. That was how she thought of it these days. Running for the Gate. Her brain remembered, even if her body did not, what it had felt like. What she would need to be capable of doing. What she could not afford to lose.


The burn escalated, and she drew a practiced breath, forcing her body past rebellion. They had run further on P3R-478, carrying full packs and loaded weapons. It had been colder, too. A bloody bitch goddess of a world that had almost killed them half a dozen times. Running had been their only hope.


She lengthened her stride.


Two casually dressed teens in jeans and t-shirts wandered past the stands to lean on the fence separating the rough wooden benches from the school track. Hot fury and something she refused to name spiraled perilously close to the edge of her control. Rage carried her past the two of them: the one who knew her best, and the one who should have known better


Her feet slammed into the beaten dirt track, the pain almost welcome. At least it was real. She pushed herself to go faster, willing her body to accept the fact that she knew what she was doing. She was not even close to the edge of her limits, no matter what it felt like. She was hurt, not injured.


Her watch beeped, signaling the end of her running time. Sucking in what air she could, she threw herself into the last lap, pushing as hard as she could go. Her ribs screamed and her vision darkened dangerously as she barreled past the two watchers and slowed to a halt near the end of the stands. Sweat rolled down her face as muscles stretched to the breaking point shuddered and twitched, hovering on the edge of outright cramp as they adjusted to the sudden cessation of demand.


She stretched slowly, carefully, walking aimlessly in pointless circles to keep the blood from pooling. She shivered as the early morning breeze slid over her flesh. Before she could turn towards the benches, she became aware of someone stepping up beside her. Turning her head, she saw Jon's hand outstretched toward her. She stopped abruptly, and he danced aside barely in time to avoid running her over.


Bitterly she eyed the jersey dangling from his fingers. A harmless gesture of caring, she thought. Perfectly harmless, and perfectly worthless. Brown eyes skimmed over her body as if looking for injury, then politely returned to her face. Before he could say anything, his gaze was sucked past her shoulder and she did not even bother turning. It would be Daniel, also arriving late.


Of course.


"You picked your extracurricular activity yet?" Jon asked, gaze bouncing back to her face.


She grimaced. As far as she was concerned, that was one of the most insane ideas Harper had come up with. Learn to socialize with other people, her ass. She did not socialize with her team as it was. The summer school courses they had taken to ease themselves back into the high school routine were bad enough. School officially started in another two weeks and Grade Ten would see them spread across different classrooms and different teachers. Harper wanted to reduce the time they had left with each other?


"Come on Alex, we have to reacquaint ourselves with the teenage mentality."


His hands scribed quotes in the air as his voice deepened dramatically.


"I think you're reacquainted enough for all of us," she heard herself say before she could censor herself. Military training cringed, but that same part of her was abruptly and defiantly glad. It crouched and waited eagerly for his response. Something. Anything that would let her see somebody other than this stranger wearing his body.


He frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"


Way too politely.


Tearing the jacket from his hand, she jamming her arms into it, pride and practice overcoming disappointed anger.


"It means I'm tired of wasting my time on people who can't even be bothered to show up," she snapped. Twenty minutes to shower and get to class. She did not even have time to argue with him. A fact he knew all too well.


Daniel tossed a gym bag onto the nearest bench and strolled forward, arms swinging as he stretched out in preparation for a run. She had a partial glimpse of his startled face as she pushed past him. She paused just long enough to snap an angry, "Nice of you to join us," on her way to the showers. She heard a questioning note in the rumble of his voice, heard Jon reply, but did not bother to turn back to the three men who should have been the most important people in her world.


Panic shivered beneath the iron control she used to hold herself in place. It had all been going so well, at first. Now it was falling apart, and the harder she tried to hang on to who she knew herself to be, the worse it got. Her family. Her team. Jon, Will, and Daniel. The one who knew her best. The one who should know better. And the one who could care less.


Twenty minutes later, life was not improving.


The water heater in the girl's shower room was broken and her hair blower had died. She stared at it with fury, wet hair hanging in sopping, dripping hanks around her face. Slamming her brush on the counter she ignored the odd looks from the girls getting ready for gym class and yanked the tin-snips from the first aid kit she obsessively carried these days. She supposed it was appropriate that the first patient to benefit was her mangled identity. Blades designed to cut metal and bone sliced through her hair before she could reconsider When it was done, she found some of her rage bleeding away as an almost familiar face appeared in the mirror.


Not exactly her face, but at least it was close to military.


A quick rub with her towel and she stared hard at her reflection. The short spiky cut revealed by the silvered glass was not cute or sassy. The blunt, awkward edges framed her eyes and lent her face a no-nonsense toughness not possible with long blonde hair. It had been a stupid idea, she decided, to grow it out. For better or worse, this was who she was. It had been for a very long time now, she realized.


Jon could damn well get used to it.


Tossing her bag over her shoulder, she strode from the room. Speak of the devil. She jerked to a halt as she caught sight of the lanky figure leaning casually against the far wall. The bell rang and the hallway cleared of jostling bodies. She glared at him, resenting the fact that she was late. Resenting that she had waited for him. Not Will. Not Daniel.


Him.


His eyes flicked briefly to her butchered hair, then ignored the change as unimportant. Of course. He straightened his spine, pushing away from the wall and pinned her with a deliberately calm stare that should have made her feel better, but did not. There was nothing of who he was supposed to be behind it. Her resentment and anger rose anew, an ever-present slow burn that defined her emotional state these days. Something in her warned her she was spinning out of control, but the part of her he had helped nourish kept screaming to push push push until he pushed back and revealed a weakness.


"You want to explain what that was, Alex?"


She eyed him consideringly. "You know what? I don't think I do," she said, moving to brush past him. He reached for her arm, letting go when she turned on him with a snarl. His hands went up reflexively to show open palms but now he was glaring too. About damn time, she thought with some satisfaction.


"You've been chewing my ass all week. Now you're starting on Daniel? I want to know why."


Her facial repertoire these days all seem to have been learned from him. Her eyebrows rose insolently. "Do you care?"


He rolled his eyes. "Jesus Alex, of course I care. We're a team."


"A team." she repeated thoughtfully, as if she had never tasted the words before.


He sighed, exasperated. "Yes, Alex. A team. My team. Your team. Our team. Or did I imagine the whole reason you did this in the first place?"


Those words were beginning to ring hollow. The words she had been longing to say leapt to her tongue and this time she did not try to censor them. "They're dismantling your team in front of you, Colonel," She practically spat the accusation in disgust. "And you don't seem to notice or care."


His eyes narrowed dangerously. Finally.


"Alex..."


"Don't call me that," she said warningly.


An expression of sadness crossed his face. "You know it has to go down this way." he said softly.


She bared her teeth in something only Teal'c would have called a smile. "What happened this morning?"


The expression on his face altered slightly and he hesitated, then shrugged. "We got hung up. Early morning lab class."


Hung up. While she waited.


Alone.


"I thought you and Will weren't allowed to be lab partners anymore," she said bluntly.


He grinned unexpectedly, bright emotion cresting with evil glee. "This was not exactly an official assignment. More like extra credit. Except we don't get the credit."


The sheer delight in his eyes as he contemplated whatever experiment the two of them had cooked up was almost enough to make her want to forgive him. Almost. Part of her desperately wanted to laugh. But he had blown off today's run to do it. The same way he had missed yesterday's run to help his real lab partner finish a report and missed Saturday's hand-to-hand class to see a movie with Daniel.


He was still training. He was just not training with her. Daniel missed more runs than he made and even Will was finding it easier to skip training sessions in favor of whatever devilry Jon invented for the two of them.


They were adapting nicely, she acknowledged bitterly.


She could not even explain how she felt to Harper. He thought she needed to move on. Create something beyond the team. She had tried to explain. She was trying. She knew things had to change. But lately her dreams were filled with screaming, and she had stopped looking in the mirror for fear she would see her reflection melting. Dorothy lost and broken.


She ignored the pleading look in his eyes. The one that begged her to forget the running. Forget the hand-to-hand. Forget everything she was supposed to be and come play Susie-Homemaker. Or at least her teenage equivalent. He was so close, standing there watching her. All she had to do was reach out her hand, and she could touch him.


He was right there, but she could no longer feel him. She could no longer see him, and the woman she was trying to hang on to, needed him. Needed to see the person he had forced her to become reflected back at her. She could give up being Samantha.


She would not give up Carter.


Every instinct told her she was teetering on the edge of a cliff. She was about to lose her balance, and if she reached for him, nothing would stop her as she fell screaming into the darkness below. Fingers of will she did not remember creating tightened her grip on what she knew. On who she was, refusing to give in. She knew. She knew she was the one standing on the outside, refusing to come inside. She did not know why she was fighting. Hell, these days, she didn’t know who she was fighting. But be damned if she would let them win.


"Alex...?" he said softly, as she slung her gymbag and headed away from him.


She paused, turning her head just enough to show him she was listening, but not enough to meet his eyes.


"Don't call me that," she said.


***********


Michael Gardner tapped his pen against his hand thoughtfully and regarded the figure slumped sullenly at the back of the room. At the moment, she was gazing out the window, her attention apparently fixed on the distant shouts and cheers coming from the football field. Coming to a decision, he waited until the bell rang, watching as she gathered her books slowly. Most of his Grade Nine Summer Math class had made it to the hallway before she passed his desk.


"Alex?"


She hesitated, then squared her shoulders.


He eyed the tense set of her features and gestured toward the door. "Walk with me for a moment."


She blinked, then moved stiffly toward the door. Michael paused as he caught sight of bruises just beneath the edge of her shirt collar. He forced himself to smile at her blandly as she watched him lock the classroom door, then led the way down the hall. From the corner of his eye, he saw a resigned expression on her face and he suspected she assumed this was going to be a discussion regarding her entrance to his class 15 minutes late.


Confusion and a certain wariness entered her eyes as he pushed open one of the doors leading to the sports field, but she followed him without protest. Combined with the bruises, her meekness was disturbing, and Michael had to force himself not to jump to conclusions. He had already mentioned his suspicions to the Guidance Counselor who had said that since she was an emancipated minor, there was not much they could do. If someone was hitting her, it was not a parent. But she was too angry not to have something seriously wrong in her life. Much as he hated it, the best he could do was try and make her see she had options.


"Interested in the military?"


She blinked at him, face blank.


"Math Applications for Nanotechnology on the 21st Century Battlefield," he reminded her. "Your essay? Nice work."


Her expression cleared and she smiled perfunctorily. Unfortunately, while the praise appeared to be appreciated, she did not seem to care whether or not more was forthcoming. Which did not bode well for further attempts at ego boosting through praise of schoolwork. He was casting about for another topic when he noticed her expression sharpen and he followed her gaze, curious.


Ah...crap.


Oblivious to her scrutiny, Jon O'Neill capered and cheered from the stands, apparently unaware of the ridiculous picture he made as he shouted encouragement to the handful of teenagers trying out for the cheerleading squad. Michael searched the small group reflexively, unsurprised when he spotted Will Franklin standing calmly in the center of the group of athletes. Considering that the cheerleaders were not doing anything particularly strenuous, Michael suspected Jon was making an ass of himself on purpose. Given the smirks on the faces of the male cheerleaders and the annoyance from the unusually silent football players--probably because they could not be heard over Jon's yelling--Michael had a fairly good idea who won.


Michael found himself grinning. He had to give the kid credit. O'Neill was a Class A pain in the ass, and his mouth kept writing tickets somebody was going to punch. Damned if he did not have style, though. A loud, grating sort of style, but he could not blame the kid for that one. The boy practically had 'made in the USAF' stamped on his ass. Fighter-jock gene pool if Michael was putting money on the table.


Alex was going to get her heart broken with or without his interference. It sucked, but it was not really his problem. He returned his attention to the mission at hand and headed for another section of the field. He ignored the startled look that darted across her face when he pointedly asked her if she had a minute to wait while he delivered a message. She hesitated, then shrugged, and he left her standing there idly studying the true purpose of this little jaunt: the girls' self-defense class. Hopefully, Melanie and her group of pint-sized dynamos could convince Alex to join the team.


He loitered as long as he reasonably could, giving the instructors plenty of time to show off. He had already warned Melanie he was bringing by a potential student and she had agreed with his assessment that Alex needed a focus for her frustration before her anger turned self-destructive. Melanie had shared his fears that Alex was letting herself be victimized and he was hoping some training might give the girl more confidence. From what Michael had seen, the girls were putting on a good show.


All of which was wasted on Alex, apparently.


For one moment, he thought she had given up and left. Then he turned slightly and saw her standing next to the bleachers. He headed toward her, swallowing a sigh. As he drew close, he recognized Jon sitting in the bleachers two rows ahead of where she was silently standing. Michael closed his eyes in a brief grimace. Double-crap. Completely aside from Jon's serious emotional issues, chasing him was not going to do anything for her self-esteem. Michael was fairly certain...


Her head snapped up and Michael blinked as a misdirected football spiraled out of the sky. She took three steps to the left and the ball dropped into her hands. Michael saw Jon spin around curiously, then freeze momentarily when he saw her standing there. A wary expression darted across Jon's face before he smiled.


"Alex!" he said brightly.


Her fingers tightened on the football, then with a sharp forward snap of her arm, sent it spinning in a high controlled arc toward the center of the field. Michael watched, stunned, as it sailed gracefully toward Coach Rivers. Luckily the coach was looking in her direction and dropped his clipboard just in time to keep it from smacking him in the chest. Rivers stared at it, jaw hanging. Jon had followed the flight path with an annoyed expression on his face.


"That is so unfair," Michael heard him complain.


Will approached the two of them, eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at Jon. Then he inclined his head toward Alex.


"Have you come to chose a recreational activity, Alexandra?" Will asked politely.


Alex must have looked confused because Jon sighed. "Will is trying out for the cheerleading team."


Will straightened his shoulders with a proud gesture. "Indeed I am not O'Neill." He held up a colorful handful of Spandex. " I have been accepted."


Jon moaned. "You're killing me, Will. You know that right?"


Will ignored him and turned back to Alex. "Coach Rivers is currently unhappy with the applicants for the position of field commander. Perhaps you should apply."


Jon blinked at Will for a long moment. Will stared back at him expressionlessly and Jon lowered his eyes to the ground suddenly. Alex shifted, then looked at Jon. He grimaced when he realized she was looking at him.


"He means quarterback," Jon explained. Then he looked at Will. "And it isn't going to happen."


"Do you doubt Alexandra's ability to master this field of battle?"


"It's football, Will. Football. And if she blows her knees the President will shoot her. Hell. No he won't. He'll shoot me."


Michael watched in disbelief as Alex abruptly started walking toward the middle of the field. This was a joke, right? She was joking. Except the cursing Jon was doing sounded anything but humorous.


"Alex? Come on, Alex...this isn't funny. Do you see the size of those guys? Alex? What...you miss getting sent to the infirmary on a regular basis? Alex..." Michael stared as Jon's voice rose as she ignored him. The boy lost his temper suddenly and his voice snapped out, sharp and cutting.

"God damn it...Carter!"


Michael froze as she halted in mid-step, obviously as surprised as he was by the unexpected command presence in that voice. Michael eyed Jon thoughtfully, mentally reevaluating his impression of the kid. Oddly, the look on her face when she turned was not surprised, or intimidated, but triumphant. Jon cursed again as a brilliant smile bloomed across her face. Then she turned smartly and her long legs ate up the distance between her and the curious eyes of Coach Rivers.


Jon watched her go.


He spun abruptly to face Will. "Why the hell did you do that?"


Will stared down expressionlessly. "You know the answer to that question already, O'Neill."


The two boys stared at each other, then Jon's shoulders tightened. Michael saw a guilty expression flash across his face before all emotion seemed to leech from his features. Michael tensed uneasily. Will seemed oblivious to the change. Will moved and Michael almost leapt out of his own skin, fight or flight instincts screaming at him. O'Neill ignored the hand Will placed on his shoulder and Michael wanted to dash forward and move the other boy out of range. Remembered conversations about O'Neill, whispers about a breakdown, came back to him.


"He trained her well, O'Neill."


Michael did not understand the small quirk of the lips Jon directed toward the football field. He thought he understood the hand Jon used to pat Will's arm. Neither action boded well for Alex. Michael could barely hear Jon's low-voiced and confusing rejoinder.


"That's what I'm afraid of."


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


She had done it to piss him off.


She could admit that.


The last thing she needed was to wreck her knees. One bad hit and she could kill her career, kill any chance of going offworld. God, that would be the ultimate irony. They get cloned and she ends up being the one with the ACL problem. But if she did not find a way to focus her anger, she really thought she was going to kill someone. Although, she doubted getting the crap beaten out of her was going to help much.


Still, it pissed him off.


For one split second, as he glared at her, everything had snapped into place.


She had felt normal.


She had not played before, but she knew every move, every play, by heart. Her father loved football and it had been the only way to reach him some days, even before her mother died. They might not have anything to say to each other, but they could always talk football.


And football was all about physics.


Coach Rivers stared at her narrowly, as her fingers slid along the edge of the ball, seeking purchase. She had learned to throw in an attempt to impress her father. That had been before she understood that her father had no interest in PLAYING football. He just liked the strategy of it. Some days, she thought he just liked the violence of it.


Her whole life had been about making compromises for the fact she was female. Then she met Colonel Jack O'Neill and discovered the true meaning of intractable. God, he was stubborn. No more compromises. He did not expect them. Hell, he would not let her get away with them. Succeed or die, and dying was not an option. End of story.


She sent the ball in a snapping arc, and watched unsurprised when it settled neatly into the running back's arms. Environmental conditions, the drag coefficient of the football, the maximum amount of power she could apply in a given direction with the reduced length of her arms, all math.


When it came to math, she was a freaking genius.


She threw herself into the try-out exercises, knowing he was watching. Then she was hit. As she felt the pain, felt the ground reach up and grab her, felt the bone-jarring thud as she hit the field, something inside raised its head and snarled. She rolled to her feet and hit back, feeling her opponent go down, and go down hard.


She was too short, too light, too female. But by god, she thought, as astonished players stopped to look her way, she was still Major Samantha Carter, US fucking Air Force and no one better forget it. She felt a Jaffa growl rise to her lips and watched a slow smile break across Rivers' face.


Bring it on.


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


Extra-curricular activities.


Somehow, Jon did not think this was what Harper had in mind.


He settled into his regular seat, getting a good angle on the field. Unless she happened to be looking at the right place at the right time, she would not see him, and she had stopped looking weeks ago. Jon grimaced. Will joined him, carrying three hotdogs and a bag of buttered popcorn. He relinquished one of the dogs, then looked around for the third member of their little party.


"He's late," Jon said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. Alex had been right about that one. Daniel had been steadily withdrawing from the group for weeks now. Not even the regular movie outings seemed to be having an effect. If anything, after the last movie, Daniel had seemed quieter than ever. A disturbing fact considering how talkative he was normally.


Together, he and Will watched the team on the field running drills. He winced suddenly as one of the figures reached out and whacked another player across the back of the helmet. He did not have to hear what she was saying. It was not the first time she had whacked this particular idiot, and the last time he had heard her yell at him in practice, she had sounded disturbingly like one of Jack's old Ranger instructors.


Will stopped chewing. "Did not Lt. Colonel Harper suggest we broaden our social circles?"


Jon winced again. "Yes."


Will contemplated the field below. "I do not believe Alexandra has grasped the concept."


Jon snorted before he could think about it and spent the next minute trying to chew and laugh without choking. Will raised an eyebrow. Jon grinned when he could speak.


"She's too angry to be likable."


No, they did not like her. They watched her. They listened to her, even if they did think she was insane. It did not hurt that she had blond hair, blue eyes, and that the day after try-outs one of the bigger jocks had tried to grab her in the hallway and had promptly gotten a full-power backhanded fist to the face. She had dropped him on his ass and instead of being horrified at pounding one of the pretty boys, she had rung his ears for being stupid. Jon had blinked uncertainly when Will and Daniel both looked at him with amusement.


He did not sound like that.


Did he?


Male ego being what it is at sixteen, Pretty Boy promptly fell in love. The coach had almost swallowed his gum when she had stalked onto the field and informed him she wanted to try out for quarterback. Personally, Jon had expected her to join the astronomy club. Track and field at the outside. Women's rugby?


By whatever conjunction of stars, the coach was ex-military and he damn well recognized the command training in her. Jon had seen more than one narrow-eyed look being sent her way as she verbally kicked one of the more recalcitrant players up one side of the field and down the other. She had no compunctions about chasing one of them around the field either. Or bouncing a football off the back of someone's helmet when he cut left instead of right.


She had no idea what she was really doing of course. She was simply reacting the way she had been trained. The team's quarterback had gotten seriously injured over the summer and the second string was not good enough, strong enough, or personable enough to hold them together. In spite of the Coach's best efforts, his fill-in quarterback had done more damage than good. These kids were not working as a team and she damn well knew it. Angry as she was, their lack of cohesiveness offended every tactical nerve she possessed, and Major Carter was not shy about telling them to get their asses in gear. Her attitude carried some of it. Rivers was backing her, and the fact she could throw like a demon, and run like the wind carried the rest.


These were not SGC recruits, but her experience told her they could run harder, work smarter, and she was not satisfied until they did it. She was even-handed with the yelling and, even in her anger, seemed to have a good grip on what was insolence and what was true lack of comprehension. She was also free with the praise when it was deserved. As much as some of them were coming to hate the sound of her voice, they treasured those moments of praise because they damn well knew they had earned them.


A rustle behind him informed him that Daniel had arrived.


"Nice of you to join us," Jon said without thinking.


Daniel ignored him. Instead, he was staring off toward the sidelines. "Am I imagining things, or is Alex being stalked by her Math teacher?"


Jon sighed. "Poor bastard."


Daniel blinked.


"He's ex-Special Forces, Daniel."


Colorado Springs was a military town. Those who were not military themselves were either dating it, married to it, or lived next door to it. The background checks on their teachers had turned up Gardner's slightly grey history relatively quickly. Unlike Rivers, whose knee had had a disastrous introduction to a sniper's bullet while the ex-Marine had been on a UN tour in Kosavo, Gardner had left the military voluntarily. He had joined the Special Forces out of patriotism, but his original reason for enlisting had been the education financing.


Daniel tilted his head. "Is this another one of those military things I don't get?"


Jon shrugged. "He knows what she is, on some level. He's reacting to it. Poor guy probably can't decide if he wants to feed her chicken soup or call the cops."


"So he just wants to help?" Daniel asked uncertainly.


"Just wants to help," Jon confirmed.


Will sighed as Alex whacked the same idiot from before. Daniel's eyebrows started climbing as she reamed him out.


"Okay..." Daniel said finally, "that's just creepy."


Jon could feel Daniel's curious gaze bouncing back and forth between him and Alex, and refused to respond. Not much he could say, really. He was beginning to think he might have miscalculated.


She was angrier than he had expected, although he had no clue why he was this surprised. This was what he had been training her to fight, wasn't it? Never give up. Never surrender.

It was just unexpected. That was all.


He had been taught to see each battle as a series of steps. If one failed, regroup and try again. Each step became its own battlefield and there could never be true defeat, because there would always be one more battle to fight. Well, until you were dead. The Goa'uld, not to mention Daniel, had made even that point a bit fuzzy over the years.


It was what he had tried to teach her.


Carter had somehow missed that underlying philosophy and had come away with a bone deep inability to give up while the problem remained unsolved. Had she been a bit less gifted and a whole lot less stubborn, she would have crashed and burned years ago. She had learned there was always another solution. He had forced her to chase it down a dark alley and whack it with a P90. If that did not work, she went after its children, grandchildren, and second cousins twice removed. From a tactical point of view it was highly effective.


From a real world perspective, she was damn scary.


She should have taken the solution he had carefully crafted for her. It was a wide-open move, all the game pieces cleanly positioned. Anger, pride, and rueful amusement made a strange mess of emotions as Jon watched her marshal her forces, rally her teenage army and prepare for battle. She was not giving in, he realized. He had taken Colonel Jack O'Neill out of the equation and she found a way to put him right back in.


Part of him--a large part, he acknowledged regretfully--wanted to chase after her every time she deliberately baited him and give her the dressing down of a lifetime. He had not expected the ease with which she could enrage him or the fact that every damn time, he wanted to let Colonel O'Neill loose on her ass.


She made him want to take any excuse to be whole again.


It would be well and truly out of the bottle then, and there would be no going back. One look at those accusing blue eyes and Colonel O'Neill was kicking and clawing to escape. To continue to prove himself worthy of her regard. Be who she needed him to be and the devil with the consequences to Jon.


Well too damn bad.


Jon glared down at the field, oblivious to the fact Daniel had disappeared and that Will was sitting silent and still by his side. He came back to himself to discover Will watching him with sorrow.


"What?" he demanded harshly.


Will spoke slowly. "Among the Jaffa, it is the responsibility of the Master Jaffa to train the Cha'lao'ti, the warriors of the future." His eyes were dark and he paused as he looked at Jon, clearly waiting for a response.


There was none.


Will spoke even more slowly. Carefully. As if he feared his words were weapons that would cut them both. "Many are called Master, and yet, the true Master does not become so until the day he finds his Cha'loa'tek, the student of his soul."


Jon drew a long breath, refusing to acknowledge what was being said.


This was not what he wanted to hear right now. Come to think of it, he did not want to hear this at all. Ever. He started to rise only to stop in shock when a dark hand clamped unmercifully around his wrist and forced him to a halt. Jon stared at it incredulously.


Will's voice sharpened. "The Master teaches the Student to be a Warrior. The Student teaches the Warrior to be a Master. Neither can be whole without the other. A Jaffa Master may have many students, many Cha'loa'ti, yet only one will be his Cha'loa'tek, and only one with the capacity to be Master can become so. This is not an easy thing. A Warrior capable of being Master is driven by an inner hunger that cannot be satisfied until he has found the two people destiny has given him. His Master, and his Cha'loa'tek."


Jon fixed his eyes on Alex.


"You cannot deny who you are O'Neill, not without denying everything she makes you and what you have made of her."


Jon did not respond. A flicker of disappointment crossed Will's face as he stared up at Jon's tight expression and tense body language. Will sighed and let him go. Jon wanted to yell at him. Wanted to shout at him for going all mystic Jaffa Master when he really REALLY needed him to stay out of his way.


He did not need reminders of who he used to be, right now.


He shocked himself, when he heard a soft question and recognized the voice as his own.


"What if I want a different destiny?"


Will frowned. "Everything grows from something else, O'Neill. What you wish from her is not impossible. Only complicated. Do you truly believe, however, that something good can grow from seeds watered with betrayal?"


Jon could not answer him.


Will stood, and turned to leave. Before he could move out of earshot, Jon spun around.


"Will!"


The Jaffa turned and stood patiently as Jon searched his face.


"Shan'auc called me your apprentice," Jon finally blurted awkwardly.


Will smiled, pleased. "Shan'auc was a Jaffa Priestess, and very wise. It has been my privilege to learn from you, O'Neill."


Jon kicked at the ground for a moment, then looked up pensively. "What would she have called me, if she had said it in Goa'uld?"


Will bowed deeply.


"Cha'loa'tek."

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


Her exquisite savagery on the football field started earning her a reputation. She never took it too far, taking most of her anger out on her own body. Driving herself through drill after drill, reminding herself who she was and what she was missing. There were days Jon looked into her eyes and was truly frightened by what he saw.


She could hate him so easily.


Then two SFs showed up at her door and left her sanity bleeding on the Gateroom floor. The Gate had trashed the dialling computer and Siler was in the infirmary. Seven teams were trapped offworld, including SG-1. It was nothing Sam had not done before. Alex had been happy. For three whole days the the sheer joy in her had been incandescent. He bled for her, it was that painful to watch. Because it had to end.


That life was not coming to reclaim her.


He hated himself, then. Jack. General and Colonel. They were equally as guilty. General O'Neill for making the decision and Jon because he would have made the same one. Then he thought this might be his chance, that this time she would be ready. The bastard had betrayed her, and Jon was willing to pick up the pieces.


She shut him down.


She spent two hours watching him, confusion and exhaustion in her eyes. Then she asked him to leave. It would have been easier if she had been angry. Instead, the silence from the SGC whittled away at her, day by day, until he fancied she was disappearing as he watched. That was when he got angry back. He could not have her friendship. He could not have her love. Then, by God, he would have her hatred.


Yes, let her hate the bastard.


Jon hauled her out of bed, and it was Colonel O'Neill, not Jack who chased her around the block. Simple disbelief kept her silent. The next morning, the only thing keeping her from attacking was the fact she did not care enough to get violent. It was easier to give in than to fight him, and her listless acquiescence as they jogged around the school track pissed him off as badly as it hurt.


Will was irritatingly placid about the fact Jon seemed to have lost his mind. Daniel just seemed confused. Even Jon was beginning to wonder if his body had been possessed by a manic drill sergeant as he pushed them through a routine his Ranger trainers would have envied. When she finally began to protest, he flat out ordered her to get her ass in gear. When she snarled back that she was no longer under his command, he ordered her to go home, if she could not keep up when he was not handicapped by fifteen years of extra mileage.


That had worked.


That had worked oh so well.


As fall moved into winter, he drove her up one side her anger and down the other. Insulted her. Mocked her. Pushed her until he was vaguely surprised someone did not have to call the cops. If Daniel and Will had not been equal victims, she probably would have killed him. She was not just angry any longer. She was so far beyond angry, so focused on beating him at whatever game he was playing, there were times he did not fear she hated him...


...he knew she did.


The morning Will found him sitting dazedly against the lockers in the boy's shower room, desperately trying to tell himself it was just soap in his eyes, he knew she would never forgive him.


Will had sat quietly on a nearby bench, wincing as stoically as possible as he rubbed muscle relaxant into his calves. Jon and Daniel were a mess, and even the normally indefatigable Jaffa was hurting. Harper was staying silent on the matter, but Jon suspected he thought they had taken that last step over the edge of reason. Without parachutes. Unbelievably, neither Daniel nor Will complained, and the fact was, Alex had been training hard for peak cardio endurance as well as strength for months, while half her team had been content to pass SGC targets on the push-ups and three mile run. Daniel was mostly collateral damage, but she was kicking Colonel O'Neill's ass deliberately and looking good doing it.


Psychotic, but very sexy.


It occurred to Jon that his definition of sexy had gotten a bit twisted over the years.


The first time she laughed again at one of Daniel's jokes, she surprised herself. After that, it was a downward slide into familiar territory. SG-1 territory. Colonel O'Neill knew he had won the morning she handed Daniel a coffee as he walked in the door, then absentmindedly took Jon's bacon and egg sandwich when he made the mistake of gesturing in her direction with it. He had stared at his empty hand with a goofy grin on his face until he realized he had a five mile run ahead of him on an empty stomach.


The bastard had done what Jon could not.


And Jon hated him for it.


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


Jon watched as she paced the length of Harper's office, anger seething in every line of her body. Back and forth. Back and forth. He felt his own muscles tense as she grew closer to the inevitable explosion. The point of no return. Ironically, it was General Jack O'Neill who had done it. Made this possible.


This was it.


The moment Jon killed Colonel fucking O'Neill for good.


He was being given a chance to end it. She had forgotten who she was. All three of them had. As they sat there and protested Harper's recommendation, they were SG-1 stubbornness and commitment personified. All he had to do was be who she wanted him to be, stand with them, and she would forgive him.


Forgive, but not love.


And time would take SG-1 as sure as Loki had stolen his past, his present, and his soul.


He stood slowly, drawing her eye towards him. Colonel O'Neill kicked and protested, heaving himself against the mental bars Jon had wrapped around him. They shuddered and groaned, but did not break. Which sort of proved just how weak the bastard really was, if he could let Jon do this to her.


He deserved to die.


Harper was still trying to explain why the mission Hammond and General O'Neill had approved for them, a cakewalk meet-and-greet on a planet of clones, was not something he felt he could approve. Jon knew why, of course. He was reminding them of who they were. Forcing them to accept what they would never be again.


In the end, it was easy.


All he had to do was say her name.


Alex.“


He watched the light die in her eyes as Colonel O'Neill betrayed her again. Disappeared as she reached for him. Jon looked at her with eyes that denied who she was. Denied Major Carter. He reflected nothing of what Colonel O'Neill saw when he looked at her, because it was no longer Colonel O'Neill watching her. The bastard screamed in rage, and for a split second, Jon thought he was going to escape Jon's hold on him. If she had had any idea what Jon was doing, none of this would have worked. But she did not. She did not have the bastard's training. His history.


His weapons.


One step, that was all he needed. Her combat-trained instincts were telling her to find Colonel O'Neill. Protect her team. Resist at all costs. Her reflexes knew what was missing, even if her conscious mind did not. All he had to do was break the conditioning. Force her to accept that Colonel O'Niell was a casualty of war and leave him behind. Once she gave in to Jon, accepted him, he won. Alex would take what Major Carter denied herself. No one would never be able to take her away from him again. One step. Just...


Harper moved.


Jon watched in shock as the psychiatrist made an unforgivable rookie mistake. Something he would never have done if she had been male and ten years older. Damn it, Harper knew better. Even if he had no idea why she was reacting so defensively, he could see it. He knew what she was. Colonel O'Neill watched with narrow-eyed bemusement as Harper stepped into her blind spot and reached out his hand.


The idiot saw the moment her reflexes decided to kill him.


Combat reflexes saw only an enemy. The man taking her team. She might not understand what Jon was doing, but her instincts understood that she was losing something she valued. She just did not know enough to blame Jon instead of Harper. Jon had no way to stop her. Will was already moving, but he would never reach her in time.


Colonel O'Neill, however, had all the time in the world.


Bastard.


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


Harper ignored the unfriendly look on Jon's face and waited patiently for the clone to let him in. Jon stood staring at him until Harper sighed.


"We're not doing this out here, are we?"


Jon frowned, then led the way to the kitchen. Harper studied the tiny apartment with concern. It was not unkempt. If anything, it was too spotless. Inexpensive art prints lined the walls, fresh flowers decorated the end tables in the miniscule living room. The sofa and the chair did not match in shape, and presumably color, but inexpensive dust covers and half a dozen cheap pillows disguised that fact. Candles and plants had been placed with military precision and Harper got the uneasy feeling the entire room was nothing more than a staging area.


It was too neat. Too comfortable.


Too...civilian.


Harper had seen Jack O'Neill's house. His love for the military, his very identity within it was not hard to see. Astronomical prints, pictures of his teams, medals and models. Those were the things that defined Jack O'Neill. Nothing here began to suggest a shared history.


He had a sneaking suspicion that Jon had had a very specific goal in mind when he bought those candles.


He excused himself to go to the bathroom and looked around grimly. Clean fluffy bath towels--the big ones--filled a towel rack. More candles, a couple of plants and a terry cloth bathrobe set this scene. Harper opened the lower cupboards and swore softly. Bubble bath, air freshener, and several new toothbrushes still in the original packaging greeted him. A soft bath mat on a ruthlessly scrubbed tile floor completed the picture.


If there had been a single model, a photo of a fish, even a Simpsons' toothbrush, Harper would have assumed this was just the apartment of a man in his fifties. He might have been willing to accept that Jon was trying to move on. Except he was not trying. He was falling apart.


Without medals or models, this apartment was the most military thing Harper had ever seen.


It was bait.


Harper sighed and scrubbed at his face. He had wanted a challenge, he reminded himself. He just had not expected his patients to drive him nuts. Jon was panicking. Alex was panicking. Daniel had zipped right past panic and gone straight for traumatized. Will was resisting panic for the moment, but if things got much worse, Harper figured he would leap over the cliff with the rest of his team.


Did these boneheads understand the meaning of the word 'irony'?


The worst part was that he had no idea what had set this crap off. Jon had been fine. Alex had been fine. They had all been fine. He had even been seriously considering giving that mission to P6X-99R a green light. He had known it would be a mistake, but he had figured they could handle the fall-out.


Then Alex lost her ever-loving mind.


Although, looking at the bathroom again, he was beginning to think she had had help.


He flushed the toilet and washed his hands to cover his snooping and wandered back out into the kitchen. Jon was leaning against the counter and Harper noted that there was no coffee in sight. No food either, just plants and candles and more plants.


"So..." Harper said, letting his voice trail leadingly.


Jon rolled his eyes.


"Aggravating son-of-a-bitch, aren't you?" Harper asked politely.


Jon bared his teeth. "I try."


"Yes," Harper said contemplatively. "You do. Makes me wonder what you are hiding."


Jon shrugged and gestured around the apartment as though to ask what could possibly be hiding. Several magazines were sprawled almost carelessly across the coffee-table, their brightly colored covers drawing his eye as he recognized the lure, the subtle and deliberate invitation to take a peek into Jon's mind.


"Why did Alex move?" Harper asked abruptly, looking at the apartment again, something occurring to him. Alex had been renting a room in a large Victorian owned by a retired schoolteacher. Cheap. Close to the school. Roach and rodent free.


"Nightmares," came the succinct reply.


Harper grimaced. He had wondered. Will and Daniel had taken an apartment together to save money. Alex had rented the room for the same reason. Her new apartment had to put a strain on her budget.


"Why didn't she move in with you?" he forced himself to ask casually, eyeing the plants and candles and carefully arranged furniture. "You have a second bedroom."


And why oh why had he not remembered that fact weeks ago?


There was a long pause. "Not interested I guess," came the low-voiced reply.


Son-of-a...


"What happened this afternoon?" Harper asked finally, getting to it.


Jon eyed him narrowly, then shrugged. "You screwed up."


Depressingly true.


Not the whole answer, but enough to piss him off.


"You threatened SG-1," Jon added simply.


Harper was beginning to view that reasoning with a slightly jaded eye. It had begun to feel like an awfully convenient excuse for anti-social behavior for these four. Unfortunately, as Alex had so amply demonstrated, it was not an empty threat. Given the circumstances, he was even willing to admit it was understandable. However, it was also damn annoying.


Not to mention embarrassing.


"I'm not trying to take your team away from you, Jon."


The short laugh the clone gave was bitter and Harper flinched from the raw pain suddenly evident in his eyes. Honest emotion Jon did not care enough to try and hide.


"You don't have to try," Jon said bleakly.


Harper watched him warily and Jon studied his own whitened knuckles with something like remote curiosity. When he finally looked up, his brown eyes were emotionless: an ingrained, trained response Harper recognized. The problem was, the next part of that training involved resistance and attack.


"How long do you really think they'll give us, once we're stable?" Jon asked flatly.


Harper did not bother to pretend to misunderstand. It was one of the reasons he had resisted allowing the four of them to participate in the offworld mission to P6X-99R. Once everyone was convinced they could be trusted, it would not be long before small consulting assignments started coming their way. Translations for Daniel. Laboratory work for Alex. A day here and there could easily stretch into weeks. Jon was right to be terrified.


It would not be hard to take his team at all.


"We've never had to learn how to be just friends," Jon told him, a quiet desperation audible and uncensored. "Not all four of us." His mouth tightened. "Definitely not Carter and me."


A small alarm went off in Harper's mind.


Jon tilted his head and contemplated Harper with an oddly flat smile. "I trained her too well. "


Harper rolled that comment around, testing it for meaning. Was that an explaination or an apology? Alex was resisting all attempts to socialize outside of her team. Was she refusing to see Jonathan as anybody other than Colonel O'Neill simply because his military identity was tied into her own? A threat to Major Carter was a threat to her team. It made sense.


So why did it feel like only half an answer?


Jon faced him squarely, expressing as much open honesty as Harper had seen yet. That, Harper realized, was the problem. Jonathan, with his sixteen year old face and fifty year old mind made it too easy to forget. First rule of interrogation. A lie is never as effective as truth and misdirection.


"You're being suspiciously co-operative," he said bluntly.


Jon's smile was bitter. "Don't think this is easy."


Harper considered the magazines again. They constituted a deliberate violation of Jon's deepest instincts. Yet there they were. A sacrificial enticement for a curious mind. Not easy, no. But...


It was too much.


It was too careful. Too well staged to be that simple.


Alex had almost killed him today. In a blind panic, she had almost attacked because he had--in all innocence--accidentally threatened to take her team away from her. She would never have reacted like that unless she had believed in her bones that he could have succeeded. Not unless someone with a hell of a lot more power over her than Harper had been messing with her head.

He had seen Jon pushing lightly. Edging away from her, showing her aspects of his personality that had nothing to do with Colonel O'Neill. Encouraging her to meet him halfway. Encouraging her to learn to be friends. Harper had even approved of what he was doing. That was what he had seen, and that is what he had assumed Jonathan had been doing away from Harper's scrutiny. Hell, O'Neill knew better than anyone what would happen if he...


"Jesus Christ," Harper breathed, the picture in his head shattering abruptly. "You son-of-a-bitch."


Lethal tension flared to life and Harper felt a cold knot fist itself beneath his ribs as Jon froze. There were times in his life Harper had done things to the soldiers under his care that had turned his stomach, but at least he had known he was doing it for their own good. He did not bother to try to hide the horror in his eyes as he stared speechless at the clone.


Jonathan had the grace to flush, but his eyes were steady. "You don't know what you're talking about."


"You're tearing her apart," Harper accused. "Ripping apart the soldier--a soldier you trained--so that the woman has no choice but to turn to you."


"So that Alex has no choice but to turn to Jonathan," Jon snapped back.


"Why?" Harper asked, bewildered.


Anger blazed in Jon's eyes. There was a split second hesitation and even with the terror he could see, Harper got a sense of cold calculation behind the fury. Jon leaned forward and deliberately placed his hands on the table and glared with burning intensity.


"Because," Jon stated softly, " it's going to be Jonathan O'Neill fucking Alexandra Carter, not Colonel O'Neill taking advantage of an officer under his command."


Shocked into silence, Harper stared.


Jon smiled coldly and straightened, every motion an unspoken threat. For the first time Harper understood just how far O'Neill was willing to go. Just how far events had pushed him. Christ, he had known the man was terrified of losing his team, but Harper would never in a million years have thought he was this far gone.


"Is it enough?" Harper managed finally.


Jon stood there unresponsive, but listening.


Harper chose his next words with exquisite care. "The man you are offering is a construct. He doesn't exist. He's another version of the Jack who married Sara twenty years ago."


The tension in the room tightened as the emotional temperature dropped.


There was a brittle silence as Jonathan continued to gaze inward, giving no indication that he had heard what Harper had meant as a brutal shock tactic. Anything to shake the clone out of his reflex driven focus. It was the sudden flash of quiet desperation in Jon's eyes that gave him a clue that maybe he had not said anything the clone had not already considered.


Jon finally looked at him. "There was always potential," he said slowly, carefully, "when she looked at Colonel O'Neill." He turned his head and gazed out the kitchen window. "It's not there anymore," he said quietly.


Jon continued to stare out the window, his finger tracing circle after slow circle on the wood of the battered table. He stopped abruptly, hand freezing in place. For a long moment he said nothing, then his hand fell flat on the table as his shoulders slumped in defeat.


Harper shivered as he realized he had tripped over something a lot deeper and more painful than he had expected. Given the situation, that was saying something. Why was Jon admitting this? Confession? Plea?


A warning?


Harper met guarded brown eyes squarely."SG-1 is one of the most resilient, brutally honest, and emotionally solid constructs I've ever seen, but it comes with a price. If you rip away that part of her, force her to come to you out of desperation, the only thing you'll prove is that you didn't have the guts to see if she'd chose the man you really are."


Jon's brown eyes hardened. "I'll take what I can get."


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


Restless anger ebbed and flowed as she paced the darkened apartment. Only, somehow, it did not feel like anger. Not completely. Not frustration. Not quite. Almost anger. Almost pain. Her skin pulled too tight against the emotion coiling in her muscles. She groaned as she stretched painfully, trying to relieve the internal pressure that had been growing ever since this afternoon. God, she ached. Everywhere.


She had almost killed Harper.


She, who still saw a scientist first, when she looked in the mirror, had turned on the man with a cold fury she did not even recognize. Her experiences with hand to hand combat had usually been long moments of silent terror, broken by sporadic efforts at frantic self-survival. She had killed in anger, in fear, in self-defense, and a couple of times, with raw hatred. The woman who had seen Harper as a threat to be eliminated was not Major Samantha Carter. Not Sam. Not Carter.


She prayed she was not Alexandra.


The Colonel was never cold when he killed. Calm, controlled, and ruthlessly practical, but not cold. Her one brush with a similar reflex had been born of fear and disbelief. Hot emotion, not this cold, pulsing fury. That day when Hammond had told her that Lt. Tyler did not exist, that they would not be going back for Colonel O'Neill, her hindbrain had fired and her weapon had somehow just fallen back into her hands. Her reflexes had seen opposition, an enemy, and her body had reacted accordingly. But not her mind. That had still expected Hammond to play his part and send her back through the Gate to rescue her CO. She kept stumbling over herself when Hammond missed his cue and spoke the wrong lines.


Today, mind and body had been in perfect accord.


Worse, far worse, she thought numbly, was the flicker of dismay she had seen in Colonel O'Neill's eyes.


She grabbed her jacket as she tried to escape through the front door. Movement helped, barely. But she could not run fast enough to erase that last damning image. Will had been moving to stop her even as the Colonel rapped out her name in warning. Ordered her to stand down. There had been no condemnation in Jaffa eyes, but for one moment, as she looked at Jon, she had almost disobeyed. Almost. Because there was a threat moving to stand at his back and he had not even turned to look at it.


Her feet pounded the icy pavement as she tried to outrun the truth. Colonel O'Neill had not turned, because he was already facing the real threat. Something she could not identify had broken when he turned away. He had spent the rest of the session staring at his hands. No matter how many times she looked at him, he was never looking back. She struggled to breathe, dragging in great gulps of air as her lungs burned and the broken something screamed. She needed...


She had to...


A car horn blared and startled reflexes tried to throw her out of the path of the car. Brakes squealed and her hands took the brunt of the pavement as she rolled away from the impact. Loud male voices demanded something from her and hands grabbed her shoulders. She batted them away, too stunned by her own clumsiness to listen to the demands. Large hands fumbled for her wrists. She staggered to her feet, mind blurrily convinced she was under attack.


Reflex sent them spinning away from her and something in her steadied as habit took over. She snarled, striking out angrily. More hands, spinning away. She froze when her cold gaze clashed with surprised brown. Black leather flexed beneath her hand, instinct holding the blow. For a long moment her attacker stared back, equally startled. He smiled hesitantly, then waved off the man to her right in a familiar gesture. Rational thought seeped back and she felt bewildered tears start to fall.


What the hell was she doing?


Blurred shapes resolved themselves into four concerned faces. Black t-shirts and khaki pants. Military haircuts and sneakers. Off-duty soldiers heading for the pounding music and bright lights she could suddenly see behind them. She turned her head and gazed dumbly at the cars around her. Parking lot.


She let the brown eyes lead her into the music, a warm hand and familiar attitude drawing her to an empty table. She let one of his friends push a glass of something raw and sweet into her hand. Let the concern in his face draw her in. Drown the pain and bewilderment and loss.


"What's your name, darlin'?"


She stared at him, trying to make sense of the words. Trying not to resent him for asking the one question she did not know how to answer.


"Alex," she said finally.


He smiled. "Alex, huh? You got some moves on you, Alex."


Approval and male appreciation flowed like ripples in an event horizon, soothing her pain as the alcohol eased her mind further from the problem. Samantha thought too much. Alexandra felt too much. To hell with both of them.


She smiled back.


His mouth widened into a roguish grin and she did not protest as he washed her palms clean of grit and blood using water and paper napkins. He forgot to let go of her hand as he rubbed her uninjured skin with strong thumbs. Mature thumbs, she thought hazily. Strong and confident. They matched the eyes and the face. Too much confidence, she thought. There was darkness there, but none of the emptiness she had seen...somewhere else. Whatever tragedies might be hidden in his life, they had not marked his eyes. Not yet.


Heat flickered, then blazed as her inner tension shifted into something she recognized. Something she could handle. She let him draw her to her feet and went willingly onto the dance floor. The heat and pounding music drew something wild and reckless into her blood and she let it fill her. She saw his eyes flicker with uncertainty, then that vanished as she danced closer. Taunting him. Teasing him as she had never dared to do with...


Angrily she whirled into the music. She forced her body to her will and let her body follow age oldage-old instincts. Brown eyes looked startled, then gleamed with amusement. He matched her. By the time the music was over, they had drawn a ring of watching eyes, some amused, some envious. She was laughing when he led her back to the table. He smiled down at her.

"Where the hell did you learn to dance like that?" he asked.


She shrugged, then let her eyes rest on his face as he gazed at her speculatively for a moment. Whatever his concerns, he shook them off as she let her eyes move down his body. Across the broad shoulders that filled his leather jacket with the confident strength of a man just entering his prime. Thirty, she would guess.


"So what do you want to..."


His voice broke off as she pulled his head down and kissed him. For one moment, his reflexes protested the sudden contact, the unexpected closeness of her body. He pulled back from the kiss, his eyes dazed and a bit confused. He shook his head once as if to clear it, then smiled raggedly.


"Not that I'm protesting, but are you sure you know what you're doing?" he asked.


She moved her hands to the front of his jacket and let her fingers explore the soft leather. She tilted her head. "Yes."


He paused, then tried another half smile. "Good. Because I did hit you with my car. You could have a concussion or something."


"I don't," she told him seriously.


He twisted around as if looking for his vanished friends, then he gave her a hunted look that was half wary, half hungry. As if he did not quite believe his luck, but was not certain he wanted to question it too closely. The fact he did question it was the reason she was going to go home with him, she decided. That and the way his eyes roved over her, untainted by any prior knowledge of who she was or who she was supposed to be.


This time, when she kissed him, he kissed her back.


When she pulled away to catch her breath, the slow, confident smile that broke across his face set her heart pounding and her palms sweating.


"I'm convinced," he said thickly.


He reached back for her jacket, then bent down as something fell out of the pocket. She was about to ask him whether he wanted to take a cab when the stunned look on his face stopped her. Her eyes fell to his hand and everything seemed to fade away as she saw her own face looking back from a school ID. Rage flared, then died and she wanted to laugh. Worse, she could feel the tears hot on her cheeks as they fell.


She turned and walked away.


Outside, the winter chill smacked her in the face and she wished she had taken the time to take back her jacket. The door behind her swung open, then closed with a bang. She managed to keep from flinching when her jacket settled across her shoulders. The silence behind her was a strange counterpoint to the music still pounding within and the fury shrieking in her blood.


"I don't make a habit of this, if that's what you're wondering," she said finally.


The silence stretched out, and she could almost taste the anger boiling inside him. That was when she remembered what he was...and who she was. Her eyes closed, and this time it was for what she had almost done. He could have been brought up on charges. The damage to his career if rumoursrumors got to the wrong people did not bear thinking about. She could have destroyed him.


All for a kiss.


"I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I never meant to hurt anybody."


She had just wanted to forget.


Finally he moved. "Get in the car, I'll take you home."


Miserably she followed him to the battered jeep and climbed into the passenger seat. She buckled the seat belt and waited for him to start the car. When a low curse sounded, she turned in time to see him beat his hand against the steering wheel in angry frustration. The eyes glaring back at her were filled with a furious mix of temper and concern.


"Do you have any idea what I could have done?" he asked finally, voice tinged with anger and horror. "Jesus Alex, I thought you knew what you were doing."


"I know," she said softly.


"I could have hurt you!" he shouted. "Badly. I wasn't in any mood to go slow."


His cheekbones flushed red as he looked at her again and when his eyes closed she realized he was regretting his choice of words as he reconsidered her age. She hesitated.


"Neither was I," she said finally.


He gave a short bitter laugh, then tilted his head back against the headrest. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that. If you really mean that, I've got a bullet with some bastard's name on it."


"He was my age," she said more or less honestly, pain lacing her voice.


His head snapped around and he looked at her with surprise. Then he frowned slowly. "What happened?"


She closed her eyes against the reality of his concern "I don't know," she answered softly.


There was a long silence. "I'm sorry," he said.


She looked out the window at the laughing faces and flickering lights. "So am I."


He kept staring at the side of her face. "What were you hoping to find, Alex?"


Life. Pain. Something that felt familiar. She did not know anymore. Some of what she was feeling must have shown in her eyes because he flinched suddenly.


"Never mind," he said.


She did not protest when he started the car. It was not until he pulled up in front of a familiar house that she realized she had inadvertently given him the wrong directions. Silently he braked and peered at the darkened house. He looked at her doubtfully, then tightened his hands on the steering wheel as she got out of the car.


"Alex..." his voice trailed off as she turned to look at him. "Be careful, okay?"


She found a smile for him. She did not want him wondering if the haunted teenager he was leaving behind was about to go into that dark house and slice her own wrists. He did not deserve the backlash from the insanity that was her life. He was just trying to do the right thing.


"Tonight was an aberration. I'm going to crawl into bed and eat a gallon of chocolate ice cream. I'll cry over whatever sappy movie is playing on TV and tomorrow I'll be fine." She forced sincerity into her voice. Acknowledged his concern. "Thank-you."


He tilted his head carefully. "Are you sure you're fifteen?"


She smiled, surprising herself. "Unfortunately."


He blinked as he thought about that, then sighed. "You sure you'll be okay?" His eyes drifted again to the dark windows.


No, she thought sadly.


But she could learn to fake it.


****


He had not meant to follow her.


He sat in the apartment after Harper left, mind tracing circles as aimlessly as his fingers on the tabletop. He did not want to think about anything Harper had said. He had already made his decision. Decided what he was willing to do to achieve his objectives.


Harper's words echoed in memory <if she comes to you in desperation...>


It was not like that, he told himself. Harper did not understand. Alex was strong, and she had made her decision. She had come after him, all by herself. His team was a gift he did not dare contemplate too closely, but Alex had chosen first. She had chosen him, not just Colonel O'Neill.


Hadn't she?


He contemplated his hands as his fingers curled slowly, as if cupping something delicate. He had waited. He had done the mandatory counseling. He waited through the nightmares, and the night-terrors and the desperate need to call them at three in the morning just to make sure they were real. He had waited until he had felt like himself again. Then he had waited until they had found themselves, in this new life.


He had waited for her.


Jon felt a wild desire to laugh bubble up inside. It was not humor of the gentle, funny variety. More like the raucous laughter of the Goa'uld. On bad nights, it wore Ba'al's face. For all Harper's good intentions, he had missed the point. Alex was making a new choice.


It was not him.


There were moments when he wondered if he were quite sane. He suspected he would not like the answer, so he did not look too hard. He vaguely recalled thinking he should care more whether she actually loved him. He should at least feel more regret at what he was doing. Colonel O'Neill would have cared. Would have loved her enough to watch her walk away--if that was what she needed.


Colonel O'Neill was a fool.


Jonathan O'Neill was so damn tired of doing the right thing, of being scared and alone, he would take anything she would give him. He could make her happy. He could certainly give her more than Sam had now. He paused, confused for a moment as he considered who exactly it was that Sam had, and what Alex was losing. Guilt flared, then died, strangled before it could accuse him of betrayal. This was not what he wanted, but in retrospect, it was not much different than Jack had had with Sara. Jack and Sara had been happy for a lot of years in that relationship.


Hadn't they?


Jon had considered that question broodingly. Before he could reconsider his next action, he headed for her apartment. He was not sure what he had been going to say to her. He had no idea if he had even been prepared to change his course of action. He had just needed to know...


He had been standing in the shadows, contemplating her doorway when she burst through it like a horde of Jaffa were on her tail. Truth be told, he had frozen for one split second, just to make sure. Then he had cursed and thrown himself on his bike and chased after her.


He barely had time to draw a breath to call out to her when she darted out across the road and came up rolling from under the wheels of a black Jeep. He had vaulted off the bike, then stood there, time crashing down around him as it fell. He remembered being absolutely stone-cold certain his life had just ended. Again. And there was no damn way he was coming back from it this time.


<Your fault.>


The words raced through his head and he remembered falling to his knees. He remembered watching her with a sort of dazed incomprehension as she lashed out at the confused soldiers spilling from the Jeep that had managed not to kill her after all. The only reason the idiot in the black leather jacket was still alive was the fact her training had not caught on to the changed dimensions of her body. That, and the fact that she pulled the strike for some reason.

He had no idea how long he stayed there. No one seemed to notice. No one seemed to care when he slowly climbed to his feet and pushed his bike up to the edge of the bar and sank to the ground beside it. Then he remembered waiting. The people, the cars, even the loud pounding music faded as he remembered the bright blue of the sky over his cabin. The clean smell of the water. The hum of the mosquitoes. Then the hiss of the line as it sliced through the air.


He waited.


On the third mental cast, she reappeared. Or was it the thirtieth? It did not matter. He existed. She existed. That was all that mattered, under that blue sky.


His eyes traced her body carefully as she walked to the Jeep, then his gaze shifted expressionlessly to the man walking beside her. Tall, rangy, moved like he knew what he was doing. Pissed as hell at the moment. Jon stood silently and watched as they argued. He could not hear what they were saying, but that was beside the point. He knew what she was planning to do.


If Skippy had seemed a whit less furious, Jon would have left it where it was. Gone home. Given serious thought to what he was going to do in the morning. A Saturday night pick-up was not a threat. Jon envied him. For a split second, he let himself imagine what it would be like, to have her look at him, to see him, and still smile as she held out her hand. He touched his fingers to his face and traced smooth, unlined skin.


His hand fell away.


He told himself he was not going to interfere. He just needed to know she was safe. That his actions had not placed her in jeopardy. He was still telling himself to turn his bike around and go home, when he recognized the street the Jeep was heading towards. He frowned, then slowed his bike. It had not been difficult to follow them. Skippy was either a cautious driver or he had no idea where he was going.

Why...?


He melted into the shadows out of habit as the Jeep came to a smooth halt. He watched, confused, as she climbed out onto the sidewalk. Skippy was just the driver? Jon was close enough to hear the note of concern in the man's voice as he said his good-byes. Jon watched with mingled relief and pain as she watched the Jeep drive away, then turned to face the house.


Just walk away, he begged silently. Please, Alex...


He willed her to change her mind. To call Daniel. To call Will. He even had the wild impulse to step from the shadows and promise her...


What?


He asked himself the question brutally. Was he willing to promise he would be who she wanted? He felt a bitter laugh bubbling inside. What a joke. He could be who she needed. For now. What she wanted was someone else. He watched with a sense of fatalism as the front light flared to life and the door opened. His own face, looking older than he remembered, peered out into the darkness.


"Carter?" the gravelly tones held disbelief and a hint of worry.


Brown eyes scanned the rest of the yard, reflexively searching for threat. Sleepy eyes sharpened and swung back to the woman standing huddled in the middle of his driveway, arms wrapped tightly around herself. Even then, Jon still had hope. He hoped she would see his face and realize that what she wanted was elsewhere. She would...


She took a shaky breath that sounded more like a sob and stepped forward. Jon's feeble hope shriveled and died. There was more in her expression than he had seen since the day Selmak delivered the bad news. Pain, anger, and loss. Desire and need. Defeat and shattered pride. Everything she was, laid out at that bastard's feet like the priceless gift it was. Fool that he had always been, Jack had no idea.


At least he knew enough to worry about her.


Jon watched silently as Jack moved back to let her step into the house. He crouched down to wait. Not because he wanted too, but because that was what he did. There was no grace in his movements, and he felt very much like a puppet whose master had just cut his strings.


An SGC Pinnochio who had finally accepted that he could never be a real boy.


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



Jack ran his fingers through his hair and wished like hell that Daniel were here.


The real one.


Daniel did the talking...thing.


He debated with himself for one half second, then headed for the kitchen. Another half second and he wandered back, trying to look like he knew what he was doing. Carter eyed the second beer in his hand with an odd look on her face, then wordlessly reached for it.


"So..." he said helpfully, then looked at her over his beer bottle.


She stared intently, eyes tracing his features slowly and he twitched uncomfortably. She immediately dropped her gaze to her hands and he found himself staring in baffled helplessness at the top of her head.


"You know," he said finally, "you're getting almost as good at this communication thing as I am."


A muffled snort sounded from her general direction. When she looked up her expression was wry and he raised his beer in salute to their mutual recognition of the ridiculous. That was the one thing about Carter. She almost always got his jokes.


He eyed her curiously He had deliberately stayed away from the clones as much as possible. Harper had made an excellent case for distance, and it had been surprisingly easy to forget they were not teenagers. Without the clothes or the day to day contact, they just did not look or feel like an SG team. They looked, he thought, like any typical pack of military brats. It was rather lowering, come to think of it.


So much for command presence.


"Alex..." he started to say, tasting the name with interest. He was unprepared for the explosive force of her lunge to her feet or the fury as she turned on him.


"Don't call me that!" Her hands clenched spasmodically, "Not you."


He lowered his beer slowly. Carefully. He was about to ask her what she wanted to be called when he noticed the almost desperate way she was watching him, the wide-eyed plea in her blue eyes.


"Carter?" He asked softly.


Tears cascaded down her face and sobs abruptly wracked her slender frame. He stumbled as he came to his feet.


"Jesus, Carter. What's wrong?"


She just shook her head. It was not until he stepped over the coffee table that he considered his instincts might be ass backwards from Sunday. This was not a good idea, he thought as she looked at him without retreating. Whatever—-whoever--she might be, she was still Carter. It screamed at him from every inch of her, from the way she looked at him, to the way she was standing. Everything was still so much the same.


So different.


He froze in panic as she reached for him. Her hands settled against his skin and primitive instincts held him motionless as she traced her fingers lightly across his face. None of the hesitation or embarrassment he would have expected showed in her upturned face. Instead, there was a sort of desperate seeking in her piercing blue eyes. A familiar look. The same one he had seen every time she tried to break down his commands into building blocks she could use to weigh her own decisions. Every time she tried to wrap her mind around what it was he wanted from her and how she was supposed to perceive her duty. In spite of the way his body was reacting, it was a soldier's look.


"Carter?" he asked again, awkwardly.


Grief etched years on her face and her lips trembled as she met his confused gaze. "I never got to say good-bye," she whispered.


A cold knot fisted in his stomach.


"Carter?" he demanded, voice harsh.


She looked at him, confused. Then her eyes widened. "No! He's fine. They're..fine. I..." She backed up a step and dropped her hands. "I just...missed you."


Jesus. He dragged in a long breath and let it out slowly. Then counted backwards from ten. Tried again from twenty. He narrowed his eyes at her with adrenalin driven irritation. "Why?"


Hurt and shock pinwheeled in blue eyes. "What do you mean why?"


He rolled his eyes. "Carter...there's a pint-sized version of me who would be lurking in the bushes right now if he knew you were here. If he isn't camped on your sofa making sure you haven't been spirited away by the Goa'uld or the Asgard or the Toothfairy, he's thought about it. How can you be missing me? I'd think you'd rather drop kick me through the Gate right about now."


There was a long silence.


"You adjusted well," she said flatly.


Jack resisted the urge to roll his eyes again. "Yeah, right."


She crossed her arms and looked familiarly stubborn.


He snorted. "Carter...this is me we're talking about. Well-adjusted is not exactly the phrase I would use for him. Me. Whatever." He frowned as he tried to decide if that made sense. Scarily, it did. SG-1 was nothing if not internally consistent when they went nuts.


They just did not normally go bonkers all at the same time.


Speaking of which...


"What's with you and this name thing anyway?"


Her lips tightened.


He pressed the point. "It was your idea."


He had had better luck browbeating Jaffa warriors, he thought, as she turned away. Bedamned if it was going to turn out to be something simple. Carter was complicated. Of course, she was probably making this whole thing way more difficult than it had to be. There were days the geek in her simply could not resist.


He was not prepared for the bone-deep weariness he saw in her eyes when she turned around. Nor the despair that radiated with near painful intensity. He caught his breath in sympathy. Christ. He knew what it felt like to be trapped inside those emotions. What the hell was Harper doing to her? And where the hell had his clone been while it was happening?


Her lips quirked with a self-deprecating smile. "Option four hit a speed bump."


Well... crap.


"Jon?" he asked quietly.


Her laugh was brittle. "No. Me."


He shifted uneasily, then moved back to reclaim his seat and his beer. His fingers worked at the label nervously. He had no idea what to say and yet she was standing there, expecting him to ...what? Come up with the answers? That was her department. Restate the question, maybe? Redefine the problem. Give her a direction to sink her scientist's teeth into. Probably. He had a supersized sense of respect for her problem solving abilities, probably because they tended to involve large explosions.

Like all prototypes, however, she was a work in progress. She had a nasty tendency to doubt her military instincts once the shooting was over. Which was something they would have to work on, because her instincts were damn good and getting better. In hindsight, it really sucked that she had not waited a couple months to get herself cloned. So...was Alexandra Carter stuck in her unreasonably large, oddly shaped box? Or was she listening to gut-level tactical instincts she did not quite trust yet?


"Alex..." he said deliberately.


He watched as she reacted almost instinctively to reject the name. Her gaze shifted past him and she ignored him with a singlemendedness he recognized all too well. He lowered his voice, "Alex..." he said in a chiding tone, hoping to spark a defensive response that might tell him more about the problem. When she shivered, he thought he had succeeded. Then she focused on him, eyes flaring with a heat he was not expecting.


His body reacted with appalling swiftness and he sucked in a sharp breath. Oh crap. This was not Carter, he reminded himself sternly. Even if it was, this was not something they let control them. Which was the problem, he acknowledged ruefully. She was not exercising any control and that lack was tripping fantasies and reactions he really did not want to contemplate right now.


Especially now.


He was unprepared for the sudden explosion of shocked understanding that washed everything else from her face; the odd contemplative look that turned itself inward. Carter was not a safe person when she got that look on her face. When she looked back at him, the mind behind the blue eyes was in complete control, feminine awareness firmly leashed and hidden.


"I think I always knew that's how my name was supposed to sound," she said.


Or not. Jack eyed her warily.


He could almost see tumblers spinning wildly, the manic energy of the mad scientist unleashing as the rods and pins slammed home with devastating swiftness.


"Carter?" he asked carefully.


For one moment, he saw an expression he had never seen directed at him before. It was the face of a highly trained, combat-hardened soldier, calmly calculating the odds of survival against an enemy she had just recognized. When she searched his face, military experience recognized the difference immediately. Alex had stopped looking for answers; Carter was looking for information.


Confirmation, he thought remotely, his own reflexes kicking in as they recognized threat.


Reflex only, of course. Neither of them had any intention of hurting the other. Jon, however, might want to leave the planet for the next year or so. Jack winced as he saw anger, hurt, and betrayal chase itself across her face. Confusion. Not confusion about the situation, but confusion as to how she wanted to deal with it. He knew the feeling. Now, if only she would explain it to him.


"The cabin," she said finally.


Daniel really needed to create a Carter-English dictionary the next time he had a spare moment or two.


"That's when you changed," she told him.


He did not bother to point out that it really had not been him doing the changing. He placed the memory. She had tracked him down in the mountain and awkwardly asked permission to take Jon and the others up to his cabin for a week. Harper had thought it was a bad idea, which surprised Jack until he realized Harper must not have access to all the old training files. Either that, or the truth had never been put down in writing. Either way, Harper had missed the point Alex had sensed instinctively. Jack had heard later that things had gone well and Harper was pleasantly surprised by the change in Jon. Jack had shrugged, and thought nothing more about it.


She was eyeing him carefully, weighing her words." I don't think he believed we were real until then."


No, Jack thought, he would not have.


"I thought I'd made a mistake. That first day, he just sat on the dock and ignored us. Never said a word. Will thought we should leave him alone, so we did."


And Jack would bet serious money that she had sat in the cabin and watched him through the window the entire time. Worried about her decision. Dreading the possibility that everything had been for nothing. That Jon was too far gone, that she had failed him so badly. Jack could have told her that Jon never blamed her, but the problem was that she blamed herself.


"The next day it was like nothing had changed. As if we had not changed. He was completely back to normal. He even made us go fishing. It was...nice."


SG-1 again, Jack thought shrewdly.


She stared past his shoulder as she remembered. "The rest of it was normal, too. Like being offworld again, only without the threat I was surprised. I never expected it to be fun." Her face showed more than bewilderment.


He saw a deep sense of loss for what the four of them had found. Rediscovered.


"I never thought it would be easy, later. But..."


Jack wanted to tell her that it had simply been bad timing. But he could not. He suspected that Jon had known exactly what he was doing. Colonel O'Neill and SG-1 gave her the same defenses that had tripped up Jon's initial attempt at identity reintegration. It was probably why he had gotten the idea in the first place. Take away Colonel O'Neill--and by default, Major Carter--and Alex should have reached desperately for whoever Jon had offered in their place.


Five years ago, it would have worked.


Five years ago, Carter had been closer to Captain than Colonel.


Jack ground his teeth and considered calling up Thor and telling him how massively he had understated the problem with cloning living personalities. Then again, it was not fair to blame the aliens for SG-1's personality quirks.


No matter how much he wanted too.


He watched silently as she pulled out her cell phone and called a cab. He supposed he should offer to drive her home, but he had a feeling that would be a bad idea, for many reasons. Instead, he sat quietly as she stood in the center of the room and studied his coffee table. Once or twice he saw her glance up at his face, but whatever she was thinking was locked behind walls as high as he had ever built.


When the horn honked in his driveway, he thought she was going to leave without saying a word. Without intending to, he found himself trailing after her, unable to stop the worry that gnawed at his gut. There was something in the way she was holding herself...


He stopped in the doorway, not quite trusting what either of them might say if he followed her further. There were things he wanted to know. Things he had never dared ask her. It would be a betrayal of everything if he asked those questions now, but he did not quite trust himself. Not after this last week. Not when his future now reflected back at him, compromised and broken in diamond facets.


"Carter?" he asked, not quite certain if he was asking her intentions or about her state of mind. Both, he supposed.


She turned around, and for a split second, everything he had ever wanted to see, was in her eyes.


"Good-bye," she said softly.


Like she meant it.


Then she was gone. He stared down the empty street for a long moment, then went back inside the house and closed the door. This was their problem, he thought. There was nothing he could or should do. Which did not explain why his hand was reaching for his cell phone.


"O'Neill."


Jack frowned at the subdued voice on the other end of the line. He shifted uncomfortably before speaking. "I can't believe I'm getting involved in this-- but what the hell are you doing?"


"None of your damn business."


Not that he expected cheeriness and welcome, but that had been curt even for him. And what the heck was Jon doing that had his teeth chattering like that? Jack paused as something occurred to him.


"You followed her?"


Silence.


"Oh for crying...this is ridiculous. Get your ass in here before someone calls the cops. With my luck, we'd get Pete."


"Who?"


Jack cursed softly, then sighed and ran his fingers through what SG-1 had left of his hair. "Never mind. Just get inside will you?"


Dead silence, then the sound of a disconnected line. Before Jack could decide what to do next, the front door opened and Jon stalked inside. The body language said petulant teenager, but the look in his eyes was pure Colonel O'Neill. Which was beyond ironic, considering.


Jack glared defensively. "Nothing happened."


Jon snorted and Jack winced. He obviously knew himself well enough to realize nothing physical had happened. That wasn't the point. Carter came here.


"She needed to say good-bye," he told him softly.


Jon did not move. Jack tightened his lips and put some heat into his voice. "You apparently weren't around."


For a moment he thought Jon was going to continue to ignore him. He was startled when his clone flinched. Well Hallelujah. Jack wanted to stand up and cheer. Served him damn right if he knew he'd been busted.


"You screwed up big time buddy," he said bluntly. " I won't even pretend to understand why. You know better than this."


Jon gave a short, bitter laugh, then looked sideways at him. "She find who she was looking for?"


Murderous fury swept through him and it was all he could do not to leapt toward that foolish young face and pound it into the hardwood. Bastard had no clue what he was playing with. What he was giving up, having her look at him like that.


"If you mean did she find me, yes Did she find herself- I don't know. You did a lot of damage," he said tightly.


Regret and shame crossed Jon's face, but Jack did not mistake that for a weakening of intent. He would have regretted blowing up the Gadmeer and, on nights when he was not careful, he regretted what he had done to Fifth. General Jack O'Neill had a lot of regrets.


Lt.Colonel Samantha Carter, however, was not one of them.


Whatever the personal cost, he had kept her alive long enough for her to save Earth several times over. He had taught her how to be the best officer he knew how to be. Together they had been part of the most amazing team it had ever been his privilege to serve with and now it was her job to pass that on. So, no, he had no regrets about Colonel Carter or SG-1.

Jon met his eyes squarely. "Carter's strong. She'll survive."


"No thanks to you," Jack said coldly.


"No," Jon said softly. "Thanks to you."


Jack hesitated as he registered the simple acceptance in those words. No anger. No heat. Just...acceptance. He shook his head, baffled by the undercurrents and cross-plots He glared at his other self, the one making him less than proud of himself.


"Bottom line this for me. What in the hell do you think you are doing?"


Jon shrugged and looked at the floor. "I'm trying to get her attention," he said carefully.


Jack stared in disbelief, then felt a horrible desire to laugh as he remembered the look on Alex's face when she left. "Oh I think you managed that."


Jon smiled bitterly. "None of you get it."


He ran his eyes over Jack's body in a way that left his brain blinking in confusion. Loss and anger; those he understood. It was the calculation and remote consideration that left him scrambling.


Jon tilted his head." Who do you see when you look at her? Carter? Alex? I see that brilliant mind and it just blows me away every time. I see her tired I see her happy. I see her covered in lime green slime that time we fell over the cliff on P7X-339. I see all the times she's never left me behind. All I see is her."


He blinked once, then let Jack see the fear and desperation inside him. "You know what she sees?" He held his arms away from his body, mutely displaying his fifteen-year-old form. "This." Jon's mouth twisted. "On good days, she occasionally sees her commanding officer, and only her commanding officer. It's all she allows herself to see."


The confused recognition of loss on the clone's face was painfully familiar.


Jack flashed back to the first briefing after the Prometheus had limped home. He had sat by her bedside, knowing she needed a familiar face when she woke up and knowing he had to be there. Clueless bastard that he was, he had bantered about cake, never realizing what he had lost. Not until the briefing room, and Jonas, and the hour he spent trying to figure out what was wrong.


She had seemed normal. She had said all the right things, but something had been missing. Eventually he had put it down to a lingering reaction to being stranded. It was not until Pete that he had finally understood. General O'Neill had her loyalty, her friendship, and everything the soldier could give him, but Jack had finally run out of time.


"Carter was always aware of you. There's nothing there when Alex looks at me," Jon said quietly.


"So...what? You thought you'd punish her for it?" Jack asked, bewildered.


"No!" Jon shouted. "I'm trying to get her to see me, before it's too late. Before they take SG-1 and there's nothing left holding us together," Jon flexed his fingers contemplatively." As long as she has Colonel O'Neill and SG-1, she is safe. She doesn't need anything else."


Jack tilted his head. "So?"


Jon smiled tightly. "So consider this a preemptive strike."


Jack was silent for a long moment as he grappled with the implications. That unlike Jack, Jon was not prepared to step back. Then he exploded. "This doesn't have anything to do with you, you nit. You'd know that if you weren't so busy looking for an excuse to go after what you want. She just lost everything."


"The rest of us didn't?" Jon demanded.


"That's different and you know it," Jack snapped." She's never had a real chance at command and you know damn well she was getting itchy for it. She's still trying to figure out what she's lost. Give her time to grieve."


Jon gave him a pitying look. "She didn't come to cry on my shoulder," the clone reminded him.


Jack sighed, suddenly tired of it all. Tired of a world that seemed determined to punish him for trying to do the right thing. Tired of seeing aspects of his personality, things of which he was not particularly proud, prancing around in front of him. Just...tired. "Then be who she needs you to be, Colonel."


Jon watched him with dark eyes, holding himself completely still for a long moment. Then he nodded once and spun around, heading for the door. Not, unfortunately, fast enough to completely hide the too brilliant shine of his eyes.


Hand on the knob, he paused, then spoke without looking back. "Carter's doing really well with the football thing. She tell you?" His head turned just enough to meet Jack's eyes obliquely. "She'll probably make Captain next year."


What the hell did he say to that?


"She'll be good at it," Jack said finally.


Jon nodded his head, then smiled painfully. "Will is cheerleading, can you believe that? He wanted me to join. Talk about your bad cliches."


The cheerleader and the team captain.


Jack rolled his eyes. "Subtle."


Jon shrugged. "Hey...maybe it's not too late. I hear those try-outs are a blast. All those girls in short shorts. Can't be all bad, right?"


Jack winced. Jon leaned his forehead against the door then twisted to face Jack squarely, eyes black.


"I never chose this. I never got promoted. I never got to retire. Someone walked in and stole my life," he paused, then spoke carefully, "It's not happening again."


He opened the door and left. Jack stood where he was, listening to the echoes of the door closing. Remembering the look in Colonel Carter's eyes as she needed him to be her commanding officer while holding another man's ring in his hand.


"I know," Jack said quietly.


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


"You know," Major Carson said, tightening the straps on his snowshoes,"it's a good thing you're a civilian now, or I'd be dragging your ass down to Mental Health."


Michael ignored him. "What are they doing?"


Master Sergeant Thomas rolled his eyes, glancing over at the three students dumping out their packs and sorting through the gear. "Driving you crazy?" he muttered.


The Corporal next to him snickered.


Carson finished adjusting his pack and settled into a relaxed stance, fairly certain it was going to take a depressing amount of time for the thirty-six teenagers surrounding them to get their asses in gear. Especially if some of them insisted on repacking perfectly good equipment packs.


"How'd you get permission for this little PR exercise anyway?" Carson asked.


"Not sure," Michael said absently. "I submitted the proposal months ago. Thought it got lost in the mail, actually."


Thomas tilted his head thoughtfully. "They approved it just like that? It didn't strike you as a bit odd that they were willing to assign yours truly to a high school field trip?" His hand gesture took in the three soldiers standing with Michael, all active members of Gardner's former team.


Michael tipped his chin toward the three boys silently tossing bits of gear in a pile. Thomas scanned the pile with absent attention, then realized abruptly it was a discard pile. Green eyes widened as he noted four tents, a sleeping bag, and two mess kits. Four smaller piles of random items rapidly disappeared into tactical vests. Corporal Dunst started to open his mouth, then shifted uneasily as he caught the look on Carson's face.


"Sir?" Dunst asked curiously.


Carson responded absently. "You ever done any winter work?"


Dunst frowned. "It's a bit sandy where I've been. Arctic survival training count?"


Carson shook his head.


Before Dunst could ask the next question, Alex strode up to the trio and dumped a box of extras on the table. Extra chocolate bars, extra power bars, four extra canteens, an extra roll of toilet paper, and several packages of MREs that were quickly swapped for a handful still on the table. Three lightweight nylon tarps and four K-bars also joined the pile.


"Knives?" Carson demanded.


Michael shrugged. "Major Green said the students could ask for anything they wanted. I guess they took him at his word."


"Am I the only one wondering why they are only taking three sleeping bags?" Dunst asked.


"Especially considering that the mouth is in the doghouse right now." Thomas remarked.


Michael frowned slightly, "I don't think she's his type."


Thomas looked at him with elevated eyebrows. "Buddy, I'm not sure whether to be more concerned about whether or not that's wishful thinking, or slap you for thinking about it at all. She's fifteen if she's a day dipshit."


Michael let out a frustrated sigh. "I just mean...I think he's...he and Will..." he trailed off helplessly as Thomas regarded his flip-flopping hand with disbelief.


"Your delusion," Thomas said finally.


Dunst grinned. "Five bucks says she decks him within the next twenty-four hours."


Carson raised a curious eyebrow. "He always this devoid of survival instincts?"


"Yes," Michael said glumly.


"His father a pilot?" Thomas asked.


"Bet his mother was a Marine," Dunst mumbled as Michael nodded. "An evil Gunnery Sergeant of a Marine."


"They've got some weird-assed history together and the military is keeping a close eye on them. I really think they're the reason this project got approved," Michael said.


Carson grimaced. "I'm less concerned about that thought, than the fact that Kerrigan wanted us to play babysitter. Which makes me really unhappy about those knives."


"You want me to tell them to leave them behind?" Michael asked.


Carson considered the idea, eyes on Major Green across the room helping several of the other students get their packs settled. The students had already broken themselves into teams of four as instructed and the other two teacher/chaperones were wandering, trying to look useful as the kids got themselves organized. Green had a direct line of sight to the four students strapping on combat knives and donning packs and tactical vests that were a bit too individual to meet military spec, but far too close to cold weather combat for comfort. Green did not seem surprised or worried.


Carson had not missed the fact that once they dropped their packs in favor of paintball guns, their rearranged vests would still hold everything they would need to survive in semi-comfort. While Carson had never had a mission where he had left behind tents in favor of a bag of marshmallows--well, it was a field trip after all. Especially if they knew what they were doing with those tarps.


He started to answer, then closed his mouth with a snap as Alex pulled a box of tampons from her jacket pocket and cracked it open. The boys did not even seem to notice as she added three tampons each to four Ziploc baggies. Thomas grunted softly when Daniel unhesitatingly grabbed the baggies and divided four pairs of disposable contact lenses and a box of anti-histamine tablets among them. Will added small cylinders Michael had identified earlier as some sort of experimental insulin delivery system, while Jon divided a sheet of over-the-counter painkillers, shrugging when his three friends looked at him in surprise. They sealed the bags and casually tucked them into a spare pocket on their tactical vests.


"Let's see how it plays out," Carson said, intrigued.


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


He had lied to her.


Alex focused on the rise and fall of his snowshoes in front of her. In contrast to her earlier anger, her raw fury, she had been numb ever since talking with General O'Neill. Oddly clear-headed, but her emotions were as frozen as the snow surrounding them.


She was not sure what to feel.


He had lied to her.


Some part of her told her that she should want to rage at him. Rip off his arm and beat him with it. Instead, she felt nothing. More than a little terrified of what might emerge when the ice around her shocked emotions fractured, she avoided him. Emotionally, if not physically.


He had lied to her.


He had tried to take away who she was, and then he had let her think it was her fault. She wanted to scream at him that Jack O'Neill would never have done that to her--except he would, because he did, and Jon would just have used it as an excuse to tell her that she was right.


If he did that, she was worried she might kill him.


She knew she should be angry. She was angry, in a distant fashion. Dark emotion seethed beneath the ice, threatening her control the closer she stood to him. Which was unfortunate, because when she could not see him, or sense him, the raw edges of her fear and panic threatened to shatter more than her control. Damned if she did, and damned if she did not. So she chose anger over fear, because he deserved the one, and she despised the other.


He knew.


Or suspected.


He was carefully Colonel O'Neill these days, and she ignored the hint of sadness and resentment that sometimes appeared in his eyes when he looked at her and she refused to respond. Truthfully, she did not do it on purpose. She just...did not know how to react. She fell back on reflex and waited for something to break.


Oddly, beneath what she thought was anger, she felt an unfamiliar dizzying feeling of exultation and triumph. Unfamiliar, because it was not an emotion she had ever associated with him.


She had won.


She had gone head to head with Jack O'Neill and she had won. Without knowing what she was fighting for, she had lived up to his expectations. She had clung to SG-1 with every fiber in her soul, and she had won. It was in his eyes when he looked at her. It settled into the empty corners of her mind, where her uncertainties had lived. Her fears. Her worry that one day she would be tested, not on the battlefield, but as he had been, in Iraq. In Ba'al's fortress. She had tested her physical limits when the Alpha site blew. This had tested something else.


Bitter though the lesson had been, she had won.


He had stripped her down to white bone and reflex.


And she had not failed him.


A small shiver of anger darted through her. Resentment as she stared at his back. The hot trickle of emotion surprised her, because it was not resentment for what he had done. It felt strangely like resentment for something he had failed to do. As if she were waiting for something, and yet, she had no idea what it could be. She wanted...


She did not know what she wanted.


Angrily she picked up the pace, stomping by him, driving her anger against the unbroken powder in front of her. She thought she heard him say her name, but if he did, it was lost on the wind and he did not repeat himself. Something twisted inside her, a demand. A formless need she did not know how to categorize. Will had taken to watching her thoughtfully, and surprisingly, it did not bother her. In fact, something in her almost knew what he was looking for and stared fearlessly back.


Daniel...


Thank-god for Daniel. He had no idea what had happened, or why, but he trudged along determinedly in their wake. He knew she was pissed at Jon, and he had silently offered his support without choosing sides. It was enough. She would not have explained what had happened even if he had asked. It was too...personal, in a way that was more about Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter than Jon and Alex. Not just a military thing.


A command thing.


He should have known this would happen. If she was everything he had trained her to be, he should have known. Her failure would have been his failure, and if he had succeeded, he would have proven that a large part of the person he had helped create, was mere illusion. That Major Samantha Carter did not exist, not as he knew her. So had he wanted to succeed, or had he wanted to fail?


She had no idea how to react to the conclusion that the answer might be both.


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


"What the hell are they talking about?" Dunst asked, annoyance getting the better of him.


Carson smothered a grin. The two chatterboxes seemed cheerfully oblivious to the day's physical effort now that it was over, and had spent the past four hours rambling in some foreign lingo. Jon and Will had contributed the odd comment-- in the same language--until sunset. Jon had crawled into his sleeping bag and promptly fell asleep in spite of the chatter not ten feet away.


"He's teaching her Latin," Michael said softly.


Thomas raised an eyebrow.


Latin? Carson considered the small group thoughtfully. Arabic or Spanish he could have understood. Classified bases tended to be situated in foreign countries, he noted wryly. German might have made sense considering the thousands of wounded and disabled soldiers currently being warehoused in Germany. But Latin? And why would Alex be the only one not apparently fluent?


He was beginning to understand Michael's obsession.


The kids had shown a surprising skill with setting up camp. The tarps had been strung over depressions hollowed out from the snow, the snow removed being banked efficiently on the windward side of the depression. The spacing had niggled at him until he had realized the placement allowed for clean lines of fire if one treated the depressions as modified foxholes. He had not said anything yet, but he could see the same thought slipping into Thomas's steady gaze.


These kids worked too well together.


It was not anything they did. In fact, they had been suspiciously low-key considering how aggressively competent they had been at the start of things. They listened to the mini-lectures the soldiers gave the group, asking no questions and generally following instructions with unassuming competence. During the confidence building exercises, they faded into the background and it was not until he went looking for them, that he realized they had spent the time quietly assisting the kids around them.


It was what they did not do.


They did not complain. They did not brag about their scores or how they had handled the paintball rifles during the range exercise. They did not tell stories about their fathers, mothers, brothers, etc and all about how one relative or another had seen combat overseas. They did not take off both boots at the same time when drying out their feet and they did not change socks or clothes if another of the four was doing the same thing. They did not discuss who was supposed to do what, but somehow, the camp chores got done. They did not chose each other as teammates during any of the exercises, yet every instinct in his body wanted to see them as a team of long standing.


He glanced up as Thomas settled beside him.


"I think it must be contagious," Thomas said succinctly.


Carson shrugged. " Like you aren't a bit curious."


A quick smile touched the Master Sergeant's lips, then faded as a serious expression settled into his eyes. He studied the tiny group pensively. "What has Gardner gotten us into, Sir?"


Carson tilted his head in an invitation to continue.


Thomas hesitated. "Michael believes in this program, Sir. You know he was going to run it civie-side if the military had not approved it. He would have asked us to help him. I can't help thinking maybe this is damage control."


Carson mulled that over. "You think he saw something he wasn't supposed to?"


Thomas nodded toward the teens chattering away in Latin. "Take any four of us away from the team and we work damn well in the field. But we're not that smooth, Sir. We're...part of a whole That's one unit, Sir. I'd stake my life on it."


Two Sirs in one breath, Carson thought. Thomas was serious. He was about to reply, when the chattering suddenly died away and he turned to see Will standing and heading for the designated latrine area. With a quick smile, Daniel fixed Alex a cup of coffee, then joined him. No camp coffee for these kids, Carson remembered thinking. The discarded sleeping bag had allowed them to pack a Ziploc-sealed bag of specialty coffee grounds and a cheap reusable filter, the kind used to make one cup of coffee at a time. He had seriously considered seeing if they would share when the smell reached him the one time he had wandered by their fire-pit.


Will and Daniel slid into sleeping bags pre-warmed by the fire and gave all indications of being asleep within minutes Jon seemed undisturbed by their preparations and when Alex took Will's previous seat Carson narrowed his eyes as he realized it gave her a clear view of the area without placing her in the line of fire from any of the three boys under the tarps. If they had had weapons. Nor did she stare into the fire. In fact, now that he thought about it, Alex had stopped facing the fire a good half hour before Will went to bed and Daniel getting her coffee had protected her night vision. Casually. So casually.

Like a habit.


Thomas and the others settled in for night, leaving Carson to his thoughts. He and one of the teachers had first watch. In spite of the fact they were on National Parks land, they had seen no sign of other humans all day. Most of the day-trippers and snowmobilers kept to different parts of the Park, and mainly on marked trails. There was little danger from other people, and geographically, there was no danger of avalanche. For the most part, it was keeping kids from getting lost on the way to the latrine. Making sure the odd mixed gender pair had no opportunity to do anything their parents would not approve.


Mostly, it was habit.


Carson made a circuit of the camp, coming up on Alex sitting quietly against her tree. Without intending to, he flashed a hand signal asking if it was okay to get coffee. He was unsurprised when her hand flashed back an affirmative--both for the coffee and a refill. She took the cup he handed her and the silence was not uncomfortable when he took a seat near her. She unthinkingly shifted so that they split visual coverage of the camp and for the first time, he realized she knew what he was. His cup froze momentarily in midair as he mulled that over.


Michael had told the kids his friends were soldiers, not Special Forces.


Every which way he twisted it, nothing added up. They had spent time training together, no doubt about it, and their habits felt too American to have picked it up running with foreign guerilla forces. They acted too much like Special Forces for a rebel or refugee camp to be the answer. Child soldiers were not unusual overseas, but girls caught up in that machinery were treated little better than prostitutes and Alex had none of the reflexes, surviving something like that. Even if her friends had protected her, there would have been a different sort of evaluation in her eyes when she looked at Carson and the others. More to the point, all four of them were too competent. An army of children might carry weapons, but they were far from highly trained, disciplined, professionals.


Criminals and cannon fodder mostly, not soldiers.


He supposed it was remotely possible the four of them had been trapped in the field with a Special Forces team, possibly after being extracted from a combat zone. An exfiltration across land might explain their comfort with each other and the smattering of Special Forces habits, but it begged the question of their cold weather competence. Although, if Carson had four half-trained soldiers fresh off the battlefield he supposed the first thing he would do is put them through the whole training routine just to keep them from becoming a danger to everyone around them. Besides, the training was rigorous enough to bring them down off the edge under controlled conditions.


It might explain the tension and anger. Post-Traumatic Stress was a bitch at the best of times. Weeks or months of survival on a foreign battlefield would unnerve anyone. Being teenagers thrust back into the land of MTV and armchair warriors could probably drive a body crazy. Which is no doubt where Carson and his team came in.


Who better to control them if they snapped?


The only problem with that sort of scenario, was that it did not explain what the four of them had been doing in the combat zone in the first place. A combat zone their parents had not survived. It also did not explain why Carson and crew had not been briefed on what they were dealing with.


He was startled to realize how much time had passed when she glanced at her watch-–dial, not digital--he noted absently. She fixed a cup of coffee, dumped more snow into the coffee pot to melt, and wandered over to Jon. A light touch on his shoulder brought him awake and she waited patiently for him to crawl into his boots, then the boy sipped his coffee while she made a quick run to the latrine. She slipped into the still warm sleeping bag and dropped instantly into sleep.


There was no tactical reason for them to stand watches, so he had to assume it was a psychological need--and he was so far out of his depth on that he was not even going to try. He did note that Jon seemed unfazed by his presence at the fire-pit However, unlike Alex who had tuned him out in favor of her own thoughts, Jon studied him with disturbing intensity. Carson drank his coffee and eyed the boy warily. There was a blatant thread of sexual threat twisted around that narrow-eyed tactical assessment strong enough to put his nerves on edge.


The last time he had seen that sort of threat in a face that young, he had been desperately trying not to get himself engaged to a thirteen year old bride--without offending her father, the village, or the girl the village was trying to trade for weapons. Her fourteen-year-old suitor had not been impressed. Carson was trying to decide how to let the boy know he was not any sort of threat, when Jon blinked suddenly and relaxed. The threat vanished, although there was a speculative edge to his gaze that was disturbing for the sole reason it asked the same question Carson was asking himself. What was he looking to find?


He finished his coffee and glanced at his watch--dial not digital--and noted with relief that it was time for Thomas to take watch. Signing his thanks for the coffee, Carson walked back to his camp, ignoring the eyes on his back, and woke up Thomas. Thomas took over as silently as Jon had for Alex and it was not until Carson was halfway to sleep that he remembered something else they had not done.


They had never asked if he had killed anybody.


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


It was almost over.


In spite of the glacial pace she was maintaining as she squirmed up to the edge of the snow-covered embankment and peered over, she could feel herself hurtling toward...something. The feeling had started earlier in the day as she and Jon had driven their respective teams through a crash course in winter warfare, picking off the slow and the slow-to-learn. Will and Daniel had avoided their head-to-head, no-holds-barred battlefield and in the distance she had heard the regular popping sounds of other teams taking each other out on the other side of the ridgeline.


She had drawn first blood, climbing a sheer rock face then swinging her rifle across the shoulder of Corporal Dunst as he froze in shock as she slithered over the edge. Training and astonishment held the soldier immobile as her rifle braced on his shoulder and Jon never looked in their direction. Why would he? He already knew the observer was harmless. Neon pink paint--someone's idea of a joke--exploded across the chest of the boy standing next to the Colonel and she was rappelling down the cliff face before Dunst closed his mouth.


Nine teams of six.


She and her team eliminated one of the nine for practice. That, and they pissed her off, plinking away at shadows, and generally splattering the trees with neon paint. Damned if she was going down due to accidental fratricide. Jon had the same idea, a fact she confirmed when six disgruntled teenagers wandered back to camp covered in lime green paint. Then things got serious.


One by one they lost their stragglers. Twice she yanked Bryan Jennings out of the line of fire only to have the idiot pop his head above cover to check out the view. A lime green pellet exploded across his goggles, hitting the protective plastic in the exact location a bullet would have taken him right between his eyes.


Her team kept their heads down after that one.


She used herself for bait on the second kill. While she was setting herself up to be "killed", his team followed his lead as he tracked her carefully over two kilometers of snow and rock. She left her team in safe locations, protecting her back but leaving her vulnerable to ambush from the front. Predictably, he thought she was taking all the risk and he forgot she knew him as well as he knew her. He knew she was pissed at him--and he assumed she would be as unwilling to risk her people as he was to risk his.


But that was where they differed.


He instinctively shied away from trusting the geeks.


Cindy Langley sat quietly in her tree until Jon and his team crept past her, then she took out the football player bringing up the rear and ran as fast as her snowshoes would take her. Taking a leaf from Alex's earlier attack, she dove over the edge of the cliff just as Jon and team broke cover. The cheerleader covering her retreat almost took out Jon himself before he realized he had been suckered.


He was a bit pissed about that one.


Jon staked one of his rabbits out like dinner and got one of her wolves. She had not seen that one coming. On the other hand, the sound of Thomas's "Jesus Fucking Christ" echoed pleasantly in her ears when lime green exploded across his chest as she dodged behind him before taking out Jon's best shooter None of the soldiers had even known she was pacing them, using them as cover. She could not help the delighted laughter that rippled from her throat as she high-tailed it out of range, dodging paintballs as she went.


Dunst would probably need therapy when this was over.


She was worried initially, when she realized what they were. It was impossible to hide SGC training and experience. Frankly, she did not want to try. Carson and the others knew enough not to get in the way. It was a relief, knowing she was not scaring the living daylights out of civilian chaperones. It was also liberating, in more ways than one. They knew something of what she was, but they did not know who she was. They did not see Major Samantha Carter--so she was free to be Alex.


She would have to remember to thank Harper for that one.


Her rabbits tried, but they just did not have the physical fitness levels to stay sharp. Jon got both of them when they tripped a bloody ambush she still could not believe she had escaped, dragging her surviving wolf with her. It was almost dusk before she got the last of Jon's team, Jon having eliminated her last team member a half hour before. By her watch they had only an hour left and while they had driven each other across ice and snow, neither of them had headed for the flag waving in the distance. Too easy for ambush, too risky to carry, both of them too focused on testing the other, the flag was the thing that would decide the winner if neither killed the other.

As she carefully settled into another waiting position, she could see the flag gently waving in invitation. A lure to the unwary. She held her breath and strained for any sound above the gentle sigh of wind-blown snow. Fifteen minutes was all that remained and she waited patiently. He was here somewhere, she could feel it.


She was also certain that this was the moment she had waited for. Something in her had settled and watched patiently, waiting for whatever was to happen, to happen. Almost, she moved. Almost. Then instinct held her body frozen and she heard it. The faintest hint of fabric on snow. She blinked and refocused, eyes suddenly seeing shadows coalescing out of the snow.


He lay in a slight depression not ten feet in front of her. The wind had covered his stealthy movement and dusk had disguised his winter fatigues. The same wind that had covered his advance had unwittingly hidden her approach by carrying any sound she might have made into the trees behind her and their accidentally convergent paths had kept him from seeing her. Looking past the flag she could see Thomas and Carson watching her, astonishment on their faces.

She made no sound. She knew that. Not one. Yet, somehow he knew. She watched his head turn and then his expressionless gaze was meeting hers across the snow. She had no idea why she did not shoot him. She had the advantage and she could see the knowledge in his eyes. She could see the same indomitable will to succeed, the refusal to give up gather itself and she knew, she just knew he was going to run for it.


She never knew what made her make the choice she did.


All she knew, was that when he heaved himself to his feet, she was moving with him. In their adult bodies, he was stronger. His legs were longer and in a straight run, he was faster. But in the scramble, her center of gravity was lower and she got moving faster. He had barely taken three long-legged steps when she tackled him. Took him clean across the hips and dropped them both into the snow.


Someone had used a snowmobile to flatten the area around the flag, and the comings and goings of thirty-odd teenagers had trampled it further. It was packed hard and he grunted as he landed, and she let go and scrambled for the flag. She almost made it, then one of his feet hooked hers and she was auguring face first into the ground. She barely missed getting pinned as he twisted around, his sixteen-year-old body faster and more flexible than ever she had known him to be.


She got one snowshoe planted square in his stomach and sent him flying in a high overhead somersault that took him away from the flag. When she got to her feet, she ignored the sting of her broken lip and the flecks of blood she knew were dotting the snow. He watched her warily and the anger that had been so elusive all week was forcing itself through the broken crust she had used to contain it. It spiralledspiraled upward with dizzying speed, carrying a giddy recognition of timing with it. Now, it cackled. Now. Now. Now.


Now.


When he moved, she moved to block him, her body light and centered. Pain and exhaustion fell away as time seemed to stop, then speed forward, crashing into the now. He charged and it was with a feeling of distant surprise that she saw her own hand reach out and break his momentum with a clean shot to the jaw. He dropped and rolled, coming to his feet, his face almost as astonished as she was. Not that she had hit him--she had meant to do that.


She was surprised she had connected.


Somewhere in the periphery of her mind, she was aware of the adults staring at them in shock, at the kids cheering uncertainly. She saw Will nod suddenly, pulling Daniel backwards. Daniel looked at him, then both of them were pushing people away from the hard-pack.


She bent slowly, keeping her gaze steady, and removed her snowshoes.


He raised a hand to his jaw, then shook his head. "You don't want to do this, Carter."


She circled slowly and he watched her, eyes dark. The anger spiked and without consciously making the decision, she feinted in and he avoided another smack on the jaw by the barest of margins. Her hand passed so close, the skin of his face brushed her knuckles in the barest kiss of contact. He rolled away from her and this time when he came to his feet, his snowshoes were dangling from his fingers. As he tossed them away, she felt something loosen inside her and surge forward eagerly.


Now.


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


Michael fully expected Jon to walk away. The ferocity and skill the two had shown during the day had bewildered him, but this was not in question. The kid had his issues, but Michael had never seen him act violently toward another student and he was unfailingly courteous to the female teachers and protective of the female students. So it was with true shock he saw Jon's foot snap forward and connect solidly with her ribs. Jon watched Alex narrowly as she spun away, absorbing the blow, then waited as she touched cautious fingers to her ribs and regarded him thoughtfully.


Michael was moving forward to stop them when he felt a hand close around his wrist and Thomas stepped into his path. He stared at him with astonishment. He looked down at his wrist and followed the hand up to Carson's steady gaze.


"Don't," Carson said softly.


Michael felt his jaw drop. "Are you insane?" he asked finally. "We have to stop this."


Carson gestured for Dunst to hold back the two other chaperones. Dunst looked almost as shell-shocked as Michael felt, but he moved fast enough to obey.


"What the hell do you think you are doing?" Michael demanded.


Carson jerked a thumb toward the circling teens. "Does that look like a domestic dispute?"


Michael started to protest, then narrowed his eyes. He stopped pulling against Carson's restraining hand and for the first time in months, really looked at Alex. Something he had resisted doing since he guiltily acknowledged his confusing obsession for his fifteen-year-old student.


All this time, he thought she had been testing Jon. Trying to get him to react angrily. He supposed, if he thought about it, he had assumed it was some fucked up form of self-protection. Dime-store psychology wanted to see an abused girl trying to cope with her fear of getting hurt by forcing the males in her life into hurting her. Testing their limits.


Testing Jon's limits.


Problem was, she was not scared of him.


There was satisfaction in her eyes, but it was not tinged with bleak disappointment. If anything, her body language shrieked eager anticipation. There was no surprise when he hit her. The surprise and delight came when she succeeded in connecting in return. Nor, Michael realized, was it as simple as a fifteen-year-old girl recognizing that she was not powerless. She was too good. Too comfortable. As he watched them trade strikes and blocks--deadly moves at the best of times--he uneasily recognized a skill level beyond anything he had anticipated.


She was not forcing Jon to hurt her.


She was forcing him to acknowledge her.


A bone deep trust and respect for his abilities radiated from her. It was impossible to miss. Some of those moves were potentially fatal. No one took a hit from those blows unless they damn well had no choice--or they had enough trust and knowledge of the other person to know they would not be damaged beyond repair. She was too good not to know how much damage she was going to take. How much it was going to hurt. He did too.


And he trusted her in return.


That was the terrifying part.


A pervasive sense of exhilaration and joy shimmered from her body as she strove against him and Michael uneasily recognized something else. She was not just testing herself. She was testing herself against the highest standard she knew. That was what he finally saw in her face. He did not understand it. It was not an expression he should ever have seen directed at a sixteen-year-old boy. Nor did he completely understand the mixed emotions on Jon's face. The anger and fear, those he understood But past those were pride, and surprise, and an odd mixture of delight and respect and loss.


Acceptance.


And strangely...a slightly shocked curiosity as he recognized her limits and tentatively started reaching out to test his own. One moment, Jon was in control. The next--he was not. No, that was not true. He was in control of himself, and only himself. Not Alex. Not the situation.


Alex hesitated, temporarily breaking off her attack. She stood staring at him, eyes wide, pinwheeling with the same surprise looking back at her. Then she did something Michael would never forget. She smiled. A bright cresting smile of acceptance and joy tinged with a bittersweet sense of loss.


This time, it was Jon who attacked.


He leapt forward and she danced to meet him. Strike and defend. Attack and counter attack. Hands and feet were in constant motion, bodies twisting through moves Michael would never have dared to try. Frankly, he was not that good. He would never have trusted himself not to hurt his partner. And he would never have had that level of confidence he would not be hurt in return.


Pound for pound, Jon had more power, and she was going to have more difficulty when he finally started putting on height and muscle. For now though, they were well matched. She was more elegant, her moves displaying a polish and precision that could only have come from hours of formal training and practice. Her style was cohesive, elements of various forms welded into a seamless and lethal weapon.


Jon's style was blunt and effective. Whatever worked best in a given situation. He favored quick and decisive over elegance, capability over art. Michael suspected that Alex trained in the martial arts as much for the mental discipline as for the physical training and it showed. Jon simply appropriated the move that got the job done. Special Forces hand-to-hand mixed with back-alley sneak attacks and a scattered handful of lethal moves ripped from a dozen different styles The result was flexible, straight forward, and deadly.

For all that Jon lacked art, he was not blind to its beauty or effectiveness. The appreciative gleam in his eyes when she caught him off guard and sent him flying held a strangely possessive edge.


For all their control, they were still hurting each other. Split lips and battered ribs started to slow them down. They went down hard and got up more slowly. The students around them had fallen into an uneasy silence and the air was broken only by the the harsh sound of labored breathing and an increasing number of gasps and grunts as they forced bruised flesh and overtaxed muscles to obey.


Alex was blind on one side, her left eye swollen shut from a mis-timed fall that left the entire side of her face scraped and raw. Jon was limping badly, his right leg still refusing to carry his full weight after she connected squarely with the sensitive nerves running along the length of his outer thigh. Twice. He had dropped so abruptly each time, that if Michael had not known what he was seeing, he would have assumed she had broken his leg Jon would be fine in an hour, but Michael had vivid memories of learning just how painful that little attack could be.


They were beginning to weave on their feet and Michael was relieved to see they knew enough to stop the more dangerous attacks once they were too tired to control them properly. The end was anti-climatic.


Jon caught her off-guard with a sweep to the feet, but was too slow to follow through as she landed heavily. She rolled away and stumbled to her feet. They stared at each other as they panted for breath and Jon must have seen something in her face because he relaxed suddenly.


"Oh good," he said with relief, and collapsed to his knees.


She staggered forward as he fell over backwards and dropped down to sit beside him. They stayed like that for a moment as everyone around them glanced at each other, uncertain what had just happened, and if it was over. Daniel finally broke from the crowd and wandered over to peer down at them with an expression of wary curiosity on his face. Jon flipped a hand at him in a weak greeting.


From the crowd, one of the boys raised small voice. "Who won?"


Alex snorted and Jon smiled painfully. Will produced a book of matches from his pocket and no one thought to stop him as he set the flag alight. Everyone watched solemnly as it flared against the darkness, then died out.


"Ashes to ashes..." Daniel murmured quietly, then looked down at his friends. "You okay?"


"No..." Alex said slowly, looking at Jon contemplatively, "...but we will be."



~fin












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