Title: Monkey Screaming : Silk and Chains

Author : SGCBearcub

Warnings : Profanity, graphic consensual sex

Pairings : implied Sam / Jack, Jon / Alex RST

Spoilers : Season Eight/Nine


Summary : Fixing what was broken was the easy part.


Author's Notes:


This story was originally posted as Monkey Shines at MiniOTP. It has undergone some editing and revision and is being re-posted. Although it can be read as a stand-alone story in a series, it was originally part of Monkey Screaming: Mirror Image (originally posted as Monkey Business).

Due to the nature of the relationship arc between Jon and Alexandra, Part 4(Hellbringers-not yet completed) WILL NOT be posted at Gateworld. Nor will any subsequent installments in the series should there be any. The entire series(as available) will be posted at: http://wintersong0.tripod.com/jinxingfate/stargate.htm as well as Heliopolis and Fanfiction.net


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.


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



"You did what?"


Jon rubbed his palms nervously against his jeans and smiled at Alex brightly.


"I signed us up as flyer carriers. We start next week," he repeated, determinedly ignoring the varying expressions of shock being directed his way.


Daniel stared at the Life Skills textbook in his hand with dismay."I thought Harper approved us doing our job skills credits with the SGC."


Jon grimaced."He did. But Mckenzie and Warner are both concerned it's too close a connection, too soon. They think the SGC is too adaptable. They want us to have more of a history away from our other selves first."


"They have a point," Alex said quietly.


There was no response other than a grunt from Daniel. Jon knew his face was expressionless, but when he looked away from Alex, he saw Will watching him with sympathy. It had been hard on them all, adjusting. She had tried hard to forgive him, but in her eyes, he could see that she had not forgotten. It was a bitter reminder of his failed marriage, and it was made worse by the fact that this time, it really had been his fault. Not an accident. Not a miscalculation. He had known what he was doing.


Things had been...tense.


Jon looked at the Life Skills project brochure in his hand and his smile faded. He had won a partial victory. Won back Major Carter. Won back the right to be her commanding officer, even if that was not what he was anymore. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he had won back his soul. His team. The person he was when they looked at him and saw Colonel O'Niell. It was going to have to be enough.


He could not risk it again.


Jon had taken one look at the unfilled positions left in the Life Skills program and nearly had a heart-attack. He had been hoping for a video store job for Will, and maybe something at the University for Daniel. Nothing. Fry guy at Mcdonald's was still available. Carter...god, what a disaster in the making that would be. With her twitchy reflexes and current state of mind she needed something physically exhausting or mentally challenging. Otherwise Harper would be prescribing medication.


Or they would be bailing her out of jail.


He had stumbled over Mrs Martin while she tried to talk her sociopathic cat out of a tree. Fluffy and he had had an interesting chat, and after a hero's reward of a dozen really good chocolate chip cookies, he had clued into the fact that Mrs. Martin had spent the last fifteen minutes complaining about her flyer delivery people. Something about rose bushes.


Flyer routes.


Before he could reconsider, he walked into the largest distributor he could find and asked the manager if he could use four reliable delivery people. Jon dropped Jack's name as a reference and after the startled manager made a quick call to the SGC, he hired Jon on the spot.


Flyer routes were perfect for them. Forget the money, the independent nature of the work would keep them from suffering close contact with management and customers alike. The deliveries were on a deadline, but they would be free to work them into existing timetables rather that the other way around. All in all, a good thing for them. It was not until he watched them flip through the file folders and start hashing out a plan of attack that he admitted another reason.


SG-1.


They never blinked twice when they discovered their file folders stuffed with photocopies of road maps with transparent overlays showing elevations. They all had bikes, and Jon had used his own money to purchase two equipment trailers, the kind that bolted onto the rear wheel of the bike and were pulled along behind. Once the flyers were bundled into individual plastic bags, they could probably carry about a hundred and fifty each load. That would mean several trips back to whichever apartment was acting as command central, as well as careful coordination between all four bikes and riders, including due consideration for hills, one-way streets, and roads with no shoulders.


Within two hours, his kitchen wall looked like they were about to launch on Goa'uld occupied territory.


Which was fine with him.


If he was going to keep them, first he had to get them back.


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


Jon waited for his team to clear the room. Harper glanced at him, startled when he quietly shut the door behind them. He knew they would wait for him. He looked at Harper soberly and saw the man's curiosity shift cautiously. In a moment, a bland expression regarded him with pleasant interest.


Jon planted his feet and squared his shoulders in a manner Harper should have no difficulty recognizing. He did not bother with his normal 'I'm not challenging you, but you have rocks in your head, Sir' posture. Harper was not his superior officer and Jon damn well was challenging his authority. Harper straightened in his chair.


"Lay off Carter about the money, Harper. She's doing the best she can," Jon said bluntly.


Harper considered him thoughtfully, then steepled his fingers as he casually leaned back in his chair. Jon resisted the temptation to roll his eyes.


"All I did was suggest she try harder to control her budget," Harper said mildly.


Jon snorted."Asking Carter to try harder is like asking a bomb to blow up. It's redundant. And stupid. You do not want to be at ground zero when Carter runs out of reasonable options."


Jon yanked their Life Skills homework from his backpack and dropped the papers on the desk. The psychiatrist regarded them warily. They were copies of the weekly Money Management budgets the teachers wanted to see tracking what they did with the money they earned from their internship positions, and his team did not know he had kept them. Out of habit more than anything, Jon had taken over being their contact with the Life Skills project, and every Friday morning he got their reports and turned them in with his own. Last Friday, one item on Daniel's budget caught his eye and he had taken a closer look.


He supposed he should feel guilty.


From his expression, Harper obviously thought he was invading their privacy.


On the other hand, Harper had no idea what those budgets were really saying.


The clones had restricted their budgets to the income from their flyer routes, not wanting to draw attention to their pensions from the military. While the school had the information about their legal status as emancipated minors, expenses like rent and cable were none of their business. The school project called for the students to practice budgeting, so they had kept records of what they were doing with the income from the flyer routes.


It was a good idea. Students had been instructed to budget for one low, medium, and high ticket want or need. Income was allocated based on how the students wanted to "save" for their purchases. Every expense then had to be deducted against one of the three. There was no deducting random expenses like chocolate bars from the income first and then moving any remainder into the accounts. Every expenses meant that something else had to be sacrificed and by choosing which want or need to delay, the students were able to see immediately how small uncontrolled purchases delayed other purchases. Normally, Jon would have said it was a great idea. Wonderful. When it was used as a tool.


His team's records had become a documentation of deprivation.


Their primary needs were being purchased by their pensions. Uniformly, his team seemed to have adopted the idea that their flyer money was their "fun" money. The money they spent on luxuries and wants, rather than basic needs. Jon had discovered that what they chose to purchase as a luxury--and what they chose to sacrifice--more revealing than he thought they would ever have intended. On the other hand, why would the teachers have a clue what their choices said about them?


Will's wants were fairly simple. DVDs. Art sculpture. A big-screen TV. Whenever he had to choose, it was the art that was sacrificed. Will planned for the long-term, and a TV he could not buy for three years was as real to him as a DVD he could buy next week. Two things bothered Jon. The fact that Will had increasingly needed to dip into his flyer money to pay for his martial arts club fees, and the sudden DVD shopping spree.


From the timing, Jon suspected Will had been sandbagged by his December electric bill. They had known he was having a bit of difficulty, but he had not started changing his eating habits so they had shrugged it off. Jon was the only one who had seen the change on his high-ticket account from TV to a piece of Shona sculpture he must have discovered on the web. Everything else was sacrificed for weeks until suddenly the high-ticket account was back to being a big screen TV. Unlike before however, the amounts going in on a weekly basis were smaller, and Will had cleaned the pot. Taken every penny he had saved and gone shopping for every DVD he had denied himself over the previous months.


A small thing maybe, something every American took for granted. Sacrifice and patience sometimes meant only that. Denial. Deprivation. It was a basic change in his friend, this shift closer to understanding the desire for instant gratification. To understanding the greed of the consumer culture. It was a loss of Jaffa certainty and innocence that hurt because it was inevitable, and there was nothing Jon could do about it.


Except mourn.


Daniel had been harder to read. At first glance, Jon had thought his book-buying habits had simply spilled over onto the flyer route budget. Daniel buying books was nothing new. Then Jon had recognized the titles. Daniel's books fell into one of two categories: those he wanted and those he needed. Jack had signed off on enough lost or destroyed books over the years to recognize the difference. Daniel's high-ticket want was a rare book on Egyptology by Claire and Melburn Jackson. Disturbingly, it was consistently sacrificed for inexpensive but basic texts that any archaeologist usually possessed as a matter of course. Daniel should have been able to buy them from his military pension. The fact he was not doing so, meant he could not. When Daniel deducted ten dollars to buy half a pound of his favorite coffee, Jon had wanted to hit something.


When he saw Carter's list, he wanted to cry.


He traced a finger over one of her entries. His smile was sad, but his eyes, when he looked at Harper were bitter.


"Strawberries," Jon said carefully.


Harper frowned, confused.


Jon laughed shortly. "All that money on food and you never once noticed that she never buys strawberries. She can't justify the expense when she's barely meeting her protein requirements as it is. The point is, Carter loves strawberries. She eats them three times a day when they are in season. The commissary has to lay in extra supplies when she's not offworld and Spellman won't go near her lab for fear of going into anaphalactic shock."


Jon held up her flyer budget, pointing at the entry that showed she robbed her high-ticket item last week for a box of strawberries. Once. "One box,"Jon said. "One box in a six week period, and look where she stole the money from."


Harper looked at the neatly printed words "Indian Motorcycle" and frowned.


"We make two hundred dollars a month each, delivering flyers. Do you know what an Indian costs?" Jon asked quietly.


"Do you?"


Jon smiled tightly. "Too damn much."


Harper sighed. "Jon, I understand that things are difficult. That you can no longer buy the things you once owned. But these are just things."


Jon looked at him blankly, before replying softly,"No, they're not."


They were unacceptable sacrifices.


Will losing his certainties. Daniel giving up his only link to his parents. Carter giving up the closest thing to the freedom of flying since they had stripped her of her wings. Did Harper even know what she had had to do to join the Stargate program? Hammond had let it slip once and Jack had filled in the gaps by asking strategic questions here and there.


Jack had been intrigued when she had calmly mentioned flying an F-16. Those were no twin seaters. If you flew one of those babies, you had your hand on the stick. There had been rumors of women flying in the Gulf. Hell, he had met two of them. He had looked curiously at her file one night and been disturbed to find nothing in it. He had expected classified, especially considering the "no female pilots in the combat zone" rule. He had assumed she simply chose not to wear the awards to which she would have been entitled. That was not exactly new in his career path. Instead, he found that her file had been rewritten, the blandly damning fiction erasing her time in the Gulf more completely than any of his missions had ever been. No hint. No sign.


Definitely no medals or awards.


Without those awards, she could kiss good-bye any chance of getting into NASA as a pilot. She could not compete. Two months later she switched career tracks. Went in as a weapons systems officer on the strong reccomendation of what Jack realized must have been one hell of a guilty CO. The same bastard who had rewritten her mission profile.


Six months later, George Hammond went pushing for the Stargate project, and actively campaigned to have her transferred to Washington in order to help him prove viability. The Pentagon agreed, on one condition. She had to give up her active flight status. Jon felt a shiver work its way down his back as he considered what it must have been like to hear those words. Jack had wondered if the politicians had simply wanted her out of the combat zone in case a very photogenic young woman came back in a bodybag, or if there had been a darker agenda. Hammond had hinted that if she had refused, he had been so far out on a limb using her as leverage there could have been some nasty fallout for the Stargate program.


But to give up her wings...


There would be no going back. A voluntary was forever. There was no combat pilot alive who would ever think she had done it for duty and not lack of ability or courage. She had too few years in the seat.


The one thing Hammond had promised her, the only thing she asked, was that she go through the Gate with the first expedition. Then General West was assigned to the SGC and saw only a scientist using political favors to gain something she had not earned. From a military perspective, she had not been qualified. But the same reasoning that allowed Daniel to go should have applied in her case, and it had not.


Hammond had not said much about that other than the fact he had miscalculated badly. Looking back, Jack could see that Hammond must have spent his whole life preparing her for SG-1. Hell, Hammond was one of the officers instrumental in lobbying for women in the combat zone. He also would have been able to find Jack easily enough, his name had been on his confiscated tags. Then West refused to allow her through the Gate. Had in fact, ordered her to remain in Washington where she belonged.


Where she belonged. Good God.


True enough, without the Stargate program it was not as if there were many places for her to be Carter. The scientist part of her would have been bored silly as Special Ops. Stuck in a lab, the parts of her that made her a soldier, starved for proper training and experience, and combined with her IQ, could very easily have gotten tired of being surrounded by idiots. Carter had not been dangerously arrogant when he met her, just confident in her own abilities and frustrated by not being able to find an outlet to challenge her. Given another ten years, however, and more gross mismanagement by her superiors, and she could have been.


The rest was history. Jack went through and came back without Daniel. The project was shut down. Jon could not imagine even now, what it must have been like for Hammond, wondering if everything was still to come, or if he had screwed up somewhere and changed the future. Worse, Carter had given up. She had given in to her hurt and frustration and angry resentment and handed in her resignation. He was not even sure he blamed her. It boggled the mind that West had not seen the potential in her.


Then again, maybe he had.


Captain Carter had been a brilliant weapons officer with a slightly bent SpecOps fiance. She would have recognized the extra baggage Jack had taken with him, emotional and technological. Odds were high she would have found the "faulty switch" that had nearly cost 5000 innocent lives.


Forget suicide. The phrase that had reverberated in his nightmares was the more accurate. Mass murder. In his grief, he had allowed himself to come too close to doing the unforgivable. West had betrayed everything Jack believed in when he gave that order. Not because he had been protecting Earth, no. West had been protecting Earth's Stargate. Earth's wonderful new toy. As Daniel had pointed out, Jack would have been blowing up the wrong damn Gate.


Aside from her damage potential as a scientist and soldier, Carter also physically resembled his then-wife to an unnerving degree. Everything except the eyes. Carter had always looked at him with admiration and trust and respect instead of anger and disappointment and needs he could do nothing to fix. Captain Samantha Carter hit every button Colonel Jack O'Niell owned, and Jack had suspected West had known exactly how she might affect Jack's resolve.


Not that anyone could or would ever have explained any of this to Carter.


Hammond put his career on the line to convince her to stay. He had given her Jack's highly classified file, leaving out only the more personal details. Then he had made her a promise. Continue her research, time travel this time. Get the Gate working again and the next time it opened, he had the President's signature on a piece of paper promising she would go through under Jack's command.


Jack had not known whether to be stunned, honored, or humbled that she had said yes.


All three, Jon decided.


It HAD been an honor. He just had not known at the time that she had wanted his approval in specific. That her minor hero-worship and eager-beaver attitude had not been the normal reaction of any new SpecOps soldier, but belonged to someone who had already been burned by the very men who should have moved Hell on Earth to maximize the asset she represented. Jack had decided it was a very good thing he had not known any of this back in the early years.


Not that it would have changed a damn thing.


Those had been very good years.


Jon's eyes darkened abruptly, and guilt washed over him. So much for Plan B, he thought, self-loathing briefly strangling him. What he had done to Carter was bad enough, but what he had done to Daniel was almost worse. Carter was right. He had been tearing his team apart, and he had not even noticed. He had relied on their loyalty to forgive him. On her loyalty. But he had not anticipated Daniel's reaction. He should have. It had taken dying for Daniel to truly accept where he belonged and Jon had unintentionally taken that away from him. He truly had not expected Daniel to notice the difference in him.


He had a feeling he would forgive himself for Alex long before he forgave himself for Daniel.


She, at least, was equipped to fight back.


So...Plan B was dead, defunct, no longer in operation. The risk was still there, however. He could still lose them. He might have to accept that Alex would never see him the way he wanted her to see him. He could accept that. He would. But Ba'al could roast his guts for garters before he gave up anything else.


Time to look for Option Three.


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


"Are you insane?" Daniel asked politely.


Will stood on the ice and slush-covered excuse for a lawn and stared at the old farmhouse in silent contemplation. For the first time in months, Jon could not read a thing on that impassive face. Alex was doing a good guppy imitation. Her mouth kept opening, but nothing came out. Finally, she shook her head incredulously.


Jon dug mental heels in and prepared for the fight of his career. "Look guys, I know it looks bad. But most of this is just garbage."


"Literally," Daniel muttered. "About forty years worth."


Jon gave him points for being close. The original farmhouse had been replaced by the commune that had purchased the property after the first World War. At least, the group would have been called a commune in the Sixties. Back then it had been labeled an experiment in Utopian social engineering. Patterson had bought the place in the Fifties, and Jon did not think he had been to the dump since. Most of the rooms were down to a single narrow pathway threading through groaning piles of junk and trash.


"Sergeant Patterson inherited from his father. The guy was a mean drunk so Patterson has no fond memories of this place. Unfortunately, the IRS is assessing at three times what the real estate agent thinks he can get for it--and that's if he can sell it in this condition," Jon explained.


The looks on the faces around him summed up that possibility quite nicely. Or badly in this case, for Patterson. The place was on the wrong side of Colorado Springs to be attractive to the military crowd, it was on a rural access road without a bus route, and the place was a serious fixer-upper.


Which was exactly what Jon wanted.


Alex ticked the negative points off on her fingers one by one. "No water, no electric, no plumbing, god knows what shape the roof and walls are in, I can see five windows covered by black garbage bags, and the rats are renting by the hour."


"Mice."


"Whatever," she said sourly.


Jon acknowledged her points with a nod, then marshaled his counter-arguments. "The roof is good. Remember that storm a few years back? Patterson was low-income. He got a grant to help rebuild since he also ran his business from here. Half the walls need to be gutted, but we'd have to do that anyway to redo the wiring and put in the bathrooms. The floors actually seem to be in good shape. The basement is mostly a dirt floor cellar, but it has good airflow and I didn't see any evidence of flooding."


"What about the rest of the house?" Daniel asked, pointing to the tar papered walls.


Jon had to admit, they looked bad.


"He got tired of painting. Patterson said his father planned to put up siding but could never afford to finish the job. So the outer walls are good under there. The porch needs to be replaced, and a few of the windows, but that's about it."


Alex studied the house incredulously,"You actually think buying this money pit will save us money?"


Jon held his hands out,palms up. "The mortgage and property taxes will be a third what we're paying in combined rent. And what we'll save not having four separate cable/Internet and phone accounts will offset anything extra we would pay in electric over what we're all paying now. We're wasting money living like we are and look at what it's getting us. No space, no privacy, living in the cheapest parts of town."


"So why don't we look at buying a house closer to the school?" Alex asked reasonably.


Hot damn, she was considering it.


"Because they're too expensive. And it's not just the house, Carter. Look..."


He grabbed her arm and dragged her past the first barn. Daniel and Will followed curiously. They rounded the second barn and stared in confusion at the point he was indicating. He grinned as he carefully moved some of the waist high weeds and stepped down. It was not until Alex leaned over and moved more weeds, that they realized the glass they had thought was just another pile of half-buried junk, was actually the roof of a pit greenhouse.


Jon emerged, coughing slightly, and proudly deposited a large clay pot in Alex's arms.


"We could turn this into a year-round greenhouse! You could grow strawberries," he said temptingly. He swept his hand out past the barn, "There's 183 acres of land out there. Forty of it is hayfield and the farmer who leases it pays for it in hay bales. Enough that we could keep a couple cows if we wanted, maybe a milk cow and a beef one. Those fifteen acres over there used to be a farm market garden. We could put a hell of a dent in our food bills with a little effort."


Daniel looked blank,"You want us to become farmers?"


Jon snorted,"Hell no, but Carter and Will's protein needs alone are twice what you and I pay for our entire grocery bills. I'm not saying this would be easy. But we're cash poor and what we are spending isn't buying us anything we want. I don't know about the rest of you, but I couldn't afford to put gas in a car right now let alone insure one. I'd kinda like to start driving again before I'm twenty."


Will raised his eyebrows slightly at the vehemence in Jon's voice, but both Alex and Daniel looked wistful.


"We'll need a car, to live here," Alex pointed out.


No one disagreed.


They could bike to school from the farm, barely. It would be tough on Carter, adding that much extra cardio work on top of her training schedule--and they were just coming into Spring Training. Jon figured she'd have to sacrifice her morning run to do it. But it would be impossible to deliver the flyers and catalogues from this location. It was just too far outside of town. Until they had a vehicle, something would have to be arranged.


Daniel looked thoughtful."The mortgage is cheap enough. I suppose even if we had to sink a couple hundred into repairs every month, we'd have enough to pay for gas and insurance on a car."


Jon's grinned smugly. He led them back to the first barn, the one nearest the house. Hauling open a door at one end he pointed at a battered old truck.


"It comes with," he said.


Then his smile widened and he swung open the inside door and they stepped cautiously through. Alex gasped as she stared at the oil covered equipment lying carelessly on several battered benches. Some of it might be beyond repair, but even from where she was standing, the welding equipment looked to be in decent shape. Alex sucked in a breath as she realized the reason there were so many dead cars lying out in the fields.


"He was an auto mechanic," Jon told them. "Patterson said anything on the property goes with the property. That includes the contents of the house and outbuildings. I doubt there's much of value in the house, but think we can piece together a working vehicle or two?"


From the look in Alex's eyes, she wanted to go treasure hunting right then and there.


Jon looked at his team seriously. "We need space guys. Our own space. There's enough room here for all of us to have privacy. Carter can blow stuff up without getting arrested. Daniel--you can put up all the bookshelves you want, and Will, there's another barn over there that's the perfect size for training."


Will had yet to say anything and Jon was beginning to worry he hated the idea. The Jaffa cocked an eyebrow."Did not Sergeant Patterson's wife recently have a baby?"


Jon grimaced." Twins. And the estate taxes on this place are due."


"How much?" Daniel asked.


Jon shifted, then said slowly,"He's asking a lot less than it's worth because of the taxes. He needs to sell. But I was thinking we could offer what he could get if this place were cleaned up a bit more. Something fair. He needs thirteen for the taxes. If we give him fifteen thousand for a down payment, that still leaves us $5000 for unexpected expenses."


"Like wiring?" Daniel asked wryly.


Jon was a bit surprised no one called him on the obvious source of that down payment. When the clones had started their new lives, each of their SG-1 "parents" had handed them a check for $5000. There had been no stipulations placed on the money although the expected use had been university or cars. By unanimous vote, they had each agreed that the money was best held as emergency funds in case they ever needed to disappear. Or something.


This was something.


Alex snorted, then looked thoughtful."Actually, I don't think it will be that difficult to rewire. Especially with the walls coming down anyway. The expensive part is the fuse box and we might be able to get one at a salvage yard for a good price. Same with the windows."


Jon hesitated."So you're on board with offering him more than the asking?"


Daniel eyed the house doubtfully,"He's holding the mortgage right? At short-term rates?"


Jon nodded."Yeah. He owns the place free and clear except for the taxes."

Alex shrugged. "Win-win as far as I can see. He gets a fair price and a monthly income, we get a mortgage. Personally, I'm happy enough not to have to try approaching a bank."


Even Will looked appalled at that thought.


The Jaffa inclined his head slightly. "With young children and his responsibilities at the SGC, it would be quite impossible for Sergeant Patterson to do the work necessary to achieve an appropriate selling price. I, for one, would be pleased to assist in making sure he does not suffer for doing his duty as a warrior of Earth."


Jon looked back at his team and found them watching him, a slightly scared, slightly excited look beginning to grow in their eyes. He almost closed his with relief, clamping down tightly on the spiralling hope beginning to sing through him.


It was going to work.


Daniel and Alex stared at each other in disbelief, as if shocked at what they had just agreed to do. Then Daniel muttered something about making a list and headed for the front door. Alex followed him, looking dazed. Will placed his hands behind his back and regarded his retreating friends with a slight smile. He looked around the overgrown yard, taking in the dilapidated house, barns and various outbuildings.


"This will require much work, O'Niell."


Jon smiled, content."Yep."


"I also do not believe that the care and feeding of domesticated bovines to be enjoyable in the wintertime."


Jon blinked, then laughed. "Maybe we'll start with the garden and work our way up."


Will smiled softly after a brief silence. "This is a wise idea, my friend."


Jon felt something deep inside settle into a place. A part of himself he did not even realize had been missing, but now that it was found, left him with something to look forward to, instead of something to mourn. Jon laughed again for the sheer joy of being able to do so, truly, for the first time in months. He saw an answering excitement in Will's eyes when he turned to look at him.


"Tell me that again if the bathroom isn't ready by November." Jon told him.


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


"Where are my socks?"


Jon looked at him incredulously. "How the hell would I know?"


"You packed them, didn't you?" Daniel asked, resigned.


Jon looked affronted. "I did not. Check your backpack."


Manfully refraining from pointing out that this was the first place he would have looked, Daniel made his through the cardboard jungle and camping gear that had taken over Jon's apartment. Where in the hell had all this stuff come from? For the love of all that was holy, they were broke. His books and Will's DVD collection, as well as the few pieces of furniture they owned had already been stored in Alex's apartment. How had they acquired all this stuff?


The last month had been insanity personified. They had taken ownership on April 1. Handed over the better part of twenty-thousand dollars and signed on the dotted line. Jon's lease wasn't up until the end of May, so Daniel and Will had given their notice for the end of April and moved in with him. Truthfully, it was the only way they could comfortably afford to pay the rent on Alex's apartment without dipping into their last $5000. Her lease was not up until November, and they figured they could use it as Command Central for their flyer routes at least until Alex got one of the vehicles working and Jon was legal to drive. It also gave Alex a place to stay when football season started and biking back and forth on the same day became impractical.


Personally, Daniel thought it a bit unfair that the military had not given them all November birthdays. He had to wait until next April before he could drive. Jon just grinned smugly whenever he complained and Daniel had seriously considered hiding his Gameboy.


"You may borrow a pair of mine, Daniel," Will said calmly.


Daniel still heard a "Jackson" on the end of those sorts of sentences. Will had tried to use his chosen last name, Igashu, but it had never felt comfortable for either of them. Not to mention people looked at them funny. So, Will got to practice using just Daniel. He figured he might get used to it. In five years or so.


Pulling on the proffered pair of socks, Daniel went down a mental checklist. He knew Jon had done it already, but he could not help it. It came from being shuffled around as a child. Anything left behind was lost forever.


"Did you remember to get ice?" he asked abruptly.


"Yes, Daniel."


"What about fuel for the lanterns?"


"Yes, Daniel."


"What about..."


"Daniel!" Jon barked,"We have everything."


Daniel slumped onto the sofa. "Just ignore me. I'll be sane again tomorrow." He untied and retied his boots, then said with a sigh,"I hate moving."


Jon blinked."Who's moving? We're just changing locations."


Will raised an eyebrow at this blatant absurdity, then smiled slightly. "Do not the Tau'ri have a saying, 'Home is where the heart is'?"


Daniel groaned,"If you've overdosed on Hallmark cards, yes."


Will shrugged. "Then O'Neill is correct. We are not moving."


Daniel was about to explain that phobias were not logical, when he realized that there was nothing logical about that sentence, and--go figure--he actually felt better. Strange but true. Then again, his friends had a point. All those years ago, every time he moved, he lost something or somebody. Even when he had Ascended he had left something precious behind. It had taken him almost a year of linear time to see that. The commercials were right. Home was where the heart was. Which meant he wasn't moving.


He was changing locations.


"You got the pizza money? Alex promised this kid gas money and pizza," Jon asked.


"Tim," Daniel corrected reflexively.


"What?"


"The kid. His name is Tim."


Jon raised both eyebrows,"He has a truck. Do I need to know more?"


"He is greatly enamored of Alexandra," Will said smoothly.


Daniel coughed slightly to hide a snicker as Jon jerked upright and stared at Will suspiciously. Gods, he was so easy sometimes.


Jon sniffed disdainfully,"She's not into younger men."


Daniel plastered a thoughtful look on his face."I don't know. He's got a truck. You know it's always the vehicles that impress the babes."


Jon widened his eyes."I am so telling Carter you called her a babe."


"Will not."


"Will too."


"Will not."


"Will what?" an amused feminine voice asked from the doorway.


"Daniel thinks you're a babe," Jon answered promptly, with an unhealthy disregard for the seventeen-year-old hunka testosterone and football fury looming just behind Alex.


"That's not what I..." Daniel started to say, stopping when he realized what he would say if he finished that sentence. He glared at Jon who was calmly picking up a box of camping gear and moving toward the front door. Daniel narrowed his eyes and considered upgrading to Gameboy assassination.


"Do you all live here together?" Tim asked curiously, eyeing the postage stamp-sized apartment.


Ah jeez. Too easy.


Daniel smiled slowly. "No, not at all. I was just here for the month while we were getting everything arranged for the move," he said, carefully neglecting to mention that Will had also been a recent addition.


Alex stared at him with astonished eyes. He ignored her and watched with satisfaction as Tim's eyes flicked from Jon to Will, added two plus two and came up with five. Tim's eyes flicked to Alex and the kid relaxed. Well, keep the man with the keys happy, Daniel supposed. How the hell had THAT rumour started, anyway? Alex had fallen over laughing when she figured out why half the football players kept eyeing Jon guardedly whenever he came out to the field. Then she had sworn Daniel to secrecy.


Yep, revenge was sweet.


Now where the hell were his socks?


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


Alex shifted the box on her lap and leaned forward to get a good look at the farmhouse as it came into view.


God, what a mess.


She chuckled as she considered the insanity of this plan. On the other hand....


Her eyes shifted to a large lump safely hidden under a dirty canvas tarp she had dug out of the second barn. She had found it last week, snooping on her own time, and none of the guys had seen it yet. To be honest, she was beginning to think there was a lot more hidden under all this grime than they had first thought. However, Jon had been right. It was not only about the money. They were buying back their souls. She had been determined not to say anything, not to give him a reason to feel guilty, but the grinding poverty of their situation had been killing her. Without the resources of the SGC, she had lost her lab, her free work-out facilities, and access to the commissary.


She had taken so much for granted.


Not that she had not earned it. She had. But she had never really known what it meant to be poor before, not even as a kid. Her Dad had never been rich, but they had been comfortable. Oddly enough, she had always thought she did not care about money. However, not having it sure as hell made it difficult to do the things one loved to do.


Especially when what she loved were fast cars and high explosives.


The military so owned her ass. There was not a doubt in her mind where she was going. With or without a war with the Goa'uld, she was going through that Stargate again. It had been driven home with a trinium stake that she belonged there, body and soul. Just not yet. She could wait, she realized. Time was no longer an issue and she thought maybe she was beginning to feel...normal.


Well, as normal as any fifteen-year-old could be whose ex-CO had coaxed her into buying a quarter-share of a rundown mice factory by dangling the lure of strawberries and exploding objects.


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



Will eyed Alexandra as she dropped her end of the tent and bolted for the dirty mound sitting in front of the nearest barn. He tilted his head and wondered when she had had time to move the object. Then he frowned and he wondered how she had moved it.


"Don't touch it."


Will turned to look at his friend with concealed amusement. Jon's eyes were gleaming with much-missed laughter as he waggled his fingers in Will's direction.


"She threatened to break 'em if we so much as peeked. Says she doesn't want us breathing on it."


Daniel trudged up and lowered the box of lanterns carefully."Ten bucks says it's a car."


Jon nodded sagely. "Yes, but what kind of car? And will it run anytime this century?"


Will eyed the woman patting the tarp lovingly and carefully testing the ropes holding the canvas to the car underneath. "Alexandra was most insistent that we needed a car that would be inexpensive to operate."


Daniel sighed."Ten bucks says its a Tempo."


Jon looked at him disdainfully."Please. The woman drives Volvos."


"Too big to be a hatchback," Daniel pointed out.


"You know she's gonna put a chain on that barn door, don't you?" Jon said mournfully. "Five seconds after it's cleaned out."


Will tilted his head. "Perhaps we could offer to help."


Daniel looked scandalized. "Are you joking. She thinks it's fun to take those things apart."


Jon nodded a solemn affirmation. "Piece by agonizing piece."


Will smiled."Did you not spend much time repairing the vehicle of Michael and Jennie while we were in 1969, O'Neill?"


Jon looked appalled. "Fix, yes. Carter rebuilds. Whole other level of obsessiveness." He shuddered dramatically to illustrate the point.


"Then perhaps we should not disturb her," Will said pointedly.


Jon muttered something that sounded like "not bloody likely" then he hollered,"Carter! Get your ass over here. You can commune after the tents are up."


Alex jerked her head up, eyes refocusing on the problem at hand. Giving the lump one last pat she trotted over to help Daniel unroll one tent while Will and Jon went back for the second. By the time most of the gear was unloaded, the first tent was up. Tim munched on a slice of cold pizza and gazed wistfully at Alex as she puttered about filling lanterns and finding a safe place for the camp fuel.


"Hey Jon!" Daniel yelled, waving a cell phone in the air. "Patterson wants to know if we are still planning to start the big clean-up tomorrow. Says he needs to drop off some papers."


Jon stepped away from the campfire he was building. Stretching out his back muscles, he took the phone. Alex handed Will a can of pop and sat down in the lawn chair beside him. Tim politely excused himself and went home. Will took the quiet moments to study his friends. He was relieved to see a weary but contented expression on Alexandra's face as she watched the fire slowly gather strength. These last few months had been difficult. He was pleased that O'Neill had finally backed away from his disastrous attempts to force a change in his relationship with her. Will understood his desperation, but he could not condone it.


His eyes drifted to Daniel lazily leaning back in his lawn chair and staring at the sky.


There had been more than one casualty in that battle.


He mourned the fact O'Neill now thought what he wanted was out of reach. Truthfully, he suspected his brother still did not understand how important he was to Alexandra. Will had wondered if he had erred by not speaking sooner. For a while, he had feared they would destroy each other. Although rare, such was not unknown among Master and Cha'loa'tek who had not yet accepted the truth of their bond to each other. Stories of bitter betrayal and loss were great tragedies among the Jaffa.


It was not common for Master and Cha'loa'tek to seek to become lovers. Of personal experience, he had met none, nor heard of any such among the ranks of the Jaffa of Apophis. He had floundered with the unfamiliar, not certain if this was something he understood, or was something of the Tau'ri. He had seen what Jon was doing--and the result--but he had not understood the why. In the end, he had trusted to the honor of his friend, and the heart his brother hid with such poor disguise.


This project that O'Neill had discovered for them was a very good thing.


He himself had regretted the loss of the training facilities of the SGC, and the chance to spar and train with warriors of a similar skill level. He had also discovered a contradictory loss of the privacy that came with not having to watch everything he said and everything he did. While he had not regretted the loss of things, even he, whose needs were few, had found himself budgetting carefully.


Better still, was to have an objective once more.


Always there had been the war against the Goa'uld. Yet, in this life, they could do so little to assist in that battle. Training was difficult, and the realities of their unknown futures meant that they had been marking time waiting for something to happen. Now, they were building something. Perhaps it was only a house, and perhaps it would not shelter them for all that many years, but it was solid and tangible. It gave them the chance to regain something of what they were, and, in so doing, would allow them to train for the future as an outgrowth of who they were, rather than as a pointless end in and of itself.


It was a great gift, this new mission.


One he would not squander.


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

Jon listened as his friends settled into sleep, breath smoothing out and deepening. It had been a good day. Canvas tents were not the norm on SGC missions, and they never used cots or Coleman lanterns. Nevertheless, this felt familiar. Painfully and wonderfully familiar, and he sometimes forgot how much he lived for this. It was not just the uncertainty or the mystery. It was this, being with his team and wanting to see what would happen tomorrow. See what strange twists the universe could come up with and how SG-1 would bite back.


It was...fun.


Essential.


Jon smiled as he relaxed. Option Three.


Worked every time.


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



"Good morning, Campers. Rise and shine."


Daniel mumbled something that would have gotten him court-martialed if he had been military. Just as well he was not, because after seven years in the field, the comments were not unfamiliar. Jon held a steaming cup of coffee near Daniel's head and waited. Daniel groaned, flipped the sleeping bag away from his face and glared blurrily.


"That's just plain evil. You know that right? It's Saturday. Go away until 7am."


Jon moved the cup enticingly.


"Crap," Daniel muttered, found his boots and crawled off the cot. Jon surrendered the coffee without so much as a sarcastic comment, then stepped out of his way as species Archaeologist Danielus staggered from the tent in the general direction of the outhouse.


Will would be more approachable with food as an offering. Jon headed back to the campfire to see how breakfast was doing. Bacon could usually get the Jaffa moving without any additional prompting and he did not even bother looking for Carter. She had risen as soon as he had woken and made an instant beeline for her mystery lump after a brief pitstop to pour a cup of coffee. She would return before Will had a chance to eat all the bacon. Carter might miss lunch, supper, and everything in between, but God help the man or alien who stood between her and breakfast.


By the time everyone was gathered around the campfire, the sun had risen enough to begin drying off the morning dew. In spite of the fact this was only the first week-end in May, it looked like the day was going to be sunny and warm. Just cool enough to keep the bugs away.


They stared at the house, the reality of the work ahead of them sinking in. The week-end before, Will and Jon had taken a weed-whacker to a flat part of land to the right of the driveway. Jon suspected it was supposed to be a lawn, but years of neglect and parked vehicles had left it rutted and hard-packed. It was a large space, and near the road, so they figured it was the best place to use for a bonfire. God knows what might end up in the flames, and they did not want melting plastic anywhere they might grow food later.


The plan was simple.


Burn everything.


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


"What do you think?" Daniel asked, panting slightly.


Jon eyed the frame of the old man's bed critically. "Yeah, might as well," he said. The wrought iron was in decent shape, just rusty. They could fix that.


Daniel nodded and started dragging it out the door. Will and Carter returned from hauling the mouse-eaten mattress to the bonfire pile and Will gave him a hand.


"The tarp for the stuff we're keeping is laid out by the barn," Alex yelled after them.


Daniel waved one hand in acknowledgement and Jon paused when he failed to hear a crash as they reached the front door.


"Took the door off," Alex explained without prompting."Gave us more room than tying it."


"Ah," he said, then grabbed the empty dresser and tilted it toward him. Without a word, Alex took the other end and they silently manouvered it out to the bonfire pile. He eyed the growing collection of empty beer and wine bottles next to the driveway. At the rate they were piling up, they would have to borrow Tim's truck just for what they were hauling out of the old man's bedroom. Jon shook his head in disbelief.


The magazines and newspapers would have been easier to move if they hadn't discovered that the old man's filing system had been less than logical. So far they had found photographs, a twenty-dollar bill, a copy of Sergeant Patterson's baptismal certificate, and a dead mouse layered amongst the paper. So they had to proceed carefully, lifting one item at a time. The certificate and the photos joined an engraved lighter and several framed photos in a box marked Patterson. The twenty went in a big jar containing three fives and about ten dollars in change. Patterson had either had a habit of losing track of his money or he had liked to hide cash in odd places. Between the money and the bottles, Jon figured they might just cover the first few dumping fees.


He was reaching for the broom when the sound of a truck outside had him wondering if Tim had dropped by to lust after Alex. The startled look on her face matched his and she whacked him on the arm as he headed for the doorway.


"Be nice," she hissed.


"What do you mean, I'm always...uh, Patterson. Hi," Jon managed, then remembered that the Sergeant was supposed to be dropping off some papers. Later. He glanced at his watch, confused. 9:30am. Definitely not later.


Patterson grinned awkwardly, then reached into the truck and grabbed a cooler before his wife could lift it.


Angela Patterson smiled brightly."We came to help."


Two more battered trucks rumbled into view and he recognized the rest of SG-18. Patterson grinned at his pole-axed expression. "We figured you could use a hand hauling stuff to the dump and the General said it was okay since we were on downtime."


Two cars joined the truck and when Angela waved and started directing the set-up of tables and chairs, Jon realized with horror that they had just become victims of the Air Force Wive's Club. Oh hell. He knew that look. He had seen it often enough in Sara's eyes. Just before she volunteered him to help someone move.


He looked at Carter."We're doomed."


She giggled and Patterson chuckled. Daniel and Will wandered over, looking confused.


"What have you told them?" Carter asked quietly.


Patterson shrugged."Your parents were killed in a surprise attack on an undisclosed base. The four of you took shelter with the family of a local boy you had befriended and spent several months fighting with guerrillas until you could be returned to a US military base."


Daniel turned to Jon and mouthed,"Guerrillas?"


Jon smirked."And..ummm, what country are we talking about?"


Patterson smiled slowly."Classified."


Carter hooted, then smiled at Patterson. "Thank-you. The trucks are very much appreciated."


"Especially since we can't drive yet," Daniel added.


Patterson chuckled with wry sympathy at the disgust in his voice. Then, before anyone them could leave, he glanced around to make sure no one else was in hearing distance. "Look, I wanted to thank you. All of you."


Will cocked his head."It is in fact, we who have benefited."


Patterson shook his head."No, I'm serious. I'm not just talking about the taxes either, although I had no idea how I was going to pay those. You didn't have to offer what you did, and the fact is, if something happens to me, I know I can trust you guys. With what you are paying and my pension, Angela and the kids will do okay. I just wanted you to know that."


Patterson held out his hand and one by one they shook it solemnly. Before things could become awkward, Angela hollered that she needed help setting up the food. Patterson grinned and rejoined his team who were unloading a BBQ and several coolers from Lt. Radner's truck.


Radner looked over at the clones and waved, then he pointed at the cars."Where do you want these?"


Jon looked at him blankly, then shrugged."They're fine."


Radner shook his head."Hailey said she was going to try and get a truck from her Academy roommate. And she drafted Grogan and Satterfield. We'll need more parking space."


"Well..crap," Jon muttered as he scanned the driveway. Something was wrong with the road? He turned toward Alex."Carter, have we got anything you can use to get cars across a ditch?"


She mirrored his earlier blank expression, before remembering the small field further down the road. It was dry enough to drive on and there were no fences in the way. The only problem was the ditch. She pointed to the pile of railroad ties beside the barn. Signalling to SG-18 she directed Patterson to drive his truck around to pick them up. Daniel and Will went hunting for something to cover them with and came up with a few sheets of battered plywood. They were heading off to build a bridge when Hailey and an unknown female pulled up in a green pick-up. The unknown female leaned out and waved.


"We brought the pump," she yelled.


Jon waved back reflexively. Huh?


Then she and Hailey were unloading a heavy-duty portable water pump and about a thousand feet of hose. The friend trotted over, dragging hose and slightly out of breath. "Where's the pond?" she asked.


Jon dumbly pointed in the right direction. Hailey staggered after her, pump and all. Two of the wives had taken over what had suddenly become the outdoor kitchen area, while Angela and Radner's wife Victoria headed for the house carrying buckets and cleaning supplies.


Then all hell broke loose.


One after another, cars trickled up to the house dropping off loads of coolers, cleaning supplies, and people. They were then redirected to the new parking lot by Daniel. Two more BBQs appeared, along with three more trucks and Jon watched dazedly as two dozen Academy Grads who were definitely NOT part of the SGC cheerfully turned over food and beer to the wives and headed for the house at Hailey's direction.


"Ah...Daniel?" Jon asked.


Daniel and Will both looked at him dumbfounded.


Jon flapped a hand toward the kitchen area. "You're now official liason to the Wives' Club. Let them know where everything is. Will...make sure they don't breathe on Carter's car."


Will spun around to see six husky young men wearing steel-toes, Academy t-shirts and gloves heading for the barn. Without a word he ran after them and Jon was pleased to see they accepted the direction of a fifteen year old reasonably well. Nothing like military training. Not to mention who knows what kinds of stories Hailey had made up about their time with the rebels. Er...guerrillas.


He chased after Angela who--happily--had the kids indoors well in hand. Nothing like an Air Force wife with experience under her belt. After he told her about the old man's penchant for hiding stuff the kids were suitably careful as they sifted through the garbage.


Music started blasting from outside and he did a quick one-eighty to find Grogan had a buddy with a tailgate boom-box. The wanna-be DJ was setting up his equipment even as Grogan and SG-14 started unpacking power tools. Jon noted one chainsaw, two brush saws and a weed-wacker. Three wives and a husband joined the Club and the smell of hotdogs and hamburgers was soon filling the air.


He snagged Hailey as she ran by."Hey!"


She rubbed a hand across her forehead and grinned at him. "Cool huh?"


He nodded dumbly, then flapped his hands,"Who ARE all these people?"


She laughed. "Grogan knows some. Satterfield made some calls and I know a couple. The others just came for the party."


Okay, so it had been a while since he was twenty. "You're joking."


She gestured around. "BBQ, beer, music and the presence of cool, older, soldier-type people who have done mysterious classified things. Party."


Her cheerful irreverence was contagious. Jon shook his head and smiled. She gave a mocking salute and headed for her ex-roommate who was busy making poster-board signs pointing to the different piles growing with staggering speed, plus ones for the parking lot and outhouse.


Speaking of which. He grabbed his cell phone and dialled Daniel.


"Jon?" Daniel answered, sounding confused.


"How much toilet paper have we got?"


There was a slight pause, the Daniel came back on the line."Not enough."


"Grab a truck with a driver over the age of twenty-one and take my bank-card. Find out if the wives need anything. The least we can do is help feed these folks."


He hung up before Daniel could acknowledge him, but he saw him wave in his general direction. Five minutes later, Daniel and one of SG-18 were heading for town, just passing six more cars of wives, husbands, kids and two dogs. Two minutes later, Satterfield and SG-19 showed up, along with three SFs, half of SG-12 and two nurses.


One of the SFs had brought another weed-whacker and Jon set him to work trimming a flat section behind the barns that the kids could use to play baseball or horseshoes.


There were now nine trucks, two of which had already headed for the dump with full loads. A third was well on its way to being filled with bottles and Jon overheard Alex tell the driver to fill his truck with gas first, then use the rest of the money to bring back more beer and soda. That handled, Jon ducked into the house.


Only half of the spouses were needed on food and kid-watching duty, the rest were working with Hailey's bunch. Surprisingly, he had seen several of them talking on their cell phones inviting friends to join them. He had noticed some of the SGC personnel doing the same thing and crazily, everyone seemed to be taking on the disaster zone with cheerful goodwill.


Grogan's buddy keep the music pumping, while most people seemed to be morphing into amateur treasure hunters. One of Hailey's poster boards got turned into a scorecard and a list of the coolest finds developed. So far, people seemed torn between voting for the collection of World War Two medals that Daniel immediately presented to Patterson, or the tractor.


Jon was still in awe about the tractor.


It had been buried under fifteen years worth of hay, and thankfully more of Grogan's friends had shown up because the barn was worse than the house. Not to mention larger. According to Patterson, the tractor had not worked in twenty years, but it had been under cover, protected by the barn, and Jon was confident that Carter could fix it.


The bonfire pile had grown unreasonably high and when two yellow Academy fire trucks pulled up and parked on the road, Jon began to wonder if things were beginning to get out of hand. Before he could do more than look up from where he was sorting junk from potentially useful, a muffled WHUMP sounded and all the SGC personnel cringed momentarily. Then flames erupted from the bonfire and almost one hundred people started cheering.


They hit critical mass somewhere thereabouts.


Daniel returned with the toilet paper and was promptly sent back for more burgers, buns, and ketchup. The kids from the Academy were being good about bringing the beer, but they were rapidly running out of ice. Three more truck loads headed for the dump and although he tried to pay for the gas, he could not help a sigh of relief when he was told it was covered. Alex quietly suggested they buy dessert, so he called Daniel and asked him to see what he could do with $200.


With forty people and six wheelbarrows(specifically requisitioned from friends and family after people got a good look at the house), most of the house was cleared and ready for cleaning by early afternoon. In the kitchen, six women were prying rusted lids off fifteen year old preserves and dumping the contents in a wheelbarrow heading for the bonfire. The lids were heading for the dump, but two more women were carefully washing the jars with pond water boiled on the Coleman camp stove. Jon just sighed when they told him the kitchen sink was draining into a ditch behind the house, and did he know there was no septic system?


More money had been found. He added it up, called Daniel on the cell and told him to add another $100 in groceries. Everyone had brought something--salads, potato chips, burgers, buns or beer--but the horde was already working on the food Daniel had brought back on the first run. People who were just delivering requested tools were choosing to stay and join the party.


He breathed a sigh of relief when Daniel and driver pulled into the driveway with a fully loaded truck. Daniel was grinning from ear to ear as he pointed.


"Strawberries!" he caroled.


Jon looked at him in disbelief, then glanced reflexively for Carter. Daniel explained as they carried the flats over to the tables. The imported crop was a bit overripe for table eating so the store was selling at half price. The owner of a local bakery outlet store had happily cut him a deal on shortcake shells since it was Saturday and they would have been tossed on Sunday anyway.


The kids screamed in delight and came running. It was not until Jon escaped back to the truck and started to unload bags of hamburgers, hotdogs, and condiments that he realized something else.


"There's more than three hundred dollars worth of food here, Daniel," he said quietly.


Daniel scuffed a foot and shrugged.


"Daniel..."


Daniel glared at him."Look, I had a couple hundred left from last month's flyer run. Alex can't afford it and don't tell me you haven't been paying for the dump fees yourself."


Jon started to reply, then sighed. Actually, the cash he was using to pay the fees was originally supposed to be for Carter's rent. He would have to make up the difference from the emergency account when he got to a bank machine. Between the toilet paper and the first six dump runs, he was tapped out of personal funds. They had planned for the dump, just not all at once. Not that he was complaining or anything. These people had done more in half a day than what the four of them could have done in a year. Food was the least they could do. They had the money. They just had to be careful.


Daniel handed back his bank card. "Will says he has a couple hundred you can use for supper."


Supper. Crap.


He gave the card back, since it accessed the emergency fund. "Might as well head back now."


Daniel shook his head. "No cooler space. Besides, Angela says they put the meat on sale on Saturdays. We might get lucky if we wait."


People continued to arrive. By late afternoon, Jon estimated there were almost three hundred people running around the property. Forty of them were in the house. Twenty were watching the food and the kids. Fifty were in Carter's barn while another fifty or so were helping Will on the other barn. A dozen were engaged in various lawn and brush cutting activities while about three dozen had spread out to haul garbage and dead appliances out of the fields around the outbuildings. A team of four had found a come-along and in the distance Jon could see lines of sagging barbwire deer fence tightening around the half acre Patterson had identified as the kitchen garden. Maybe twenty were resting at any given time, while another thirty were under the age of twelve.


Jon grinned as SG-9 lost a round of Super Soaker.


SG-17 had decided they were in the way and Jon could hear the sounds of hammers and power tools as they cleaned and repaired the shelves and doors on the outdoor root cellar. Grogan had pointed out they wouldn't have refrigeration for a while, and if they had a garden, they would need a place to put the harvest. One of Hailey's friends had inspected the wood stove in the kitchen and pronounced it safe after she and her two helpers knocked a wheelbarrow load of creosote and two bird's nests out of the stovepipe. However, she warned that if they wanted to get insurance on the house they would have to invest in some insulated pipe. Jon had blanched when she told him the price, then thanked her gravely and went off wondering what other expenses they did not know about yet.


Five of the new arrivals arrived with rototillers. With the fire trucks to back them up(and a burn permit Jon had bought a week earlier), a half dozen people cheerfully lit off a fire that torched the entire area inside the barbed wire fence. Fence posts were extinguished, then the roto-tillers quickly joined the hammers and brush saws, adding to the general noise-level. Watching narrowly, Jon wondered if it was wise having so many people trained to use explosives in such a confined space.


Nearly a dozen people cleared out the greenhouse, weed-whacking the grass around it and carefully washing the windows. Afterwards, two engineers he vaguely recognized from SG-7 discussed solar..things. He beat a hasty retreat when he understood they were discussing the efficiency of the design here to others they had seen elsewhere. When he passed four of the original cleaners heading back with a wheelbarrow and a bag of concrete mix someone had found in the barn, he realized they were another repair crew.


There was something to be said for a small army made up of highly trained, self-motivated problem-solvers. Amused, he looked around and picked out small groupings of various specialties, people used to saving the world, seriously discussing the best way to fix things like a squeaky barn door. Small things, but things that made a difference.


There had been a definite shift in people. Most of the early heavy-lifting crew had relaxed, moving onto light cleaning, cooking duties, or kid-watching. Newer arrivals dutifully took over hauling junk and separating said junk from the potentially useful. From the greetings, most of the new arrivals were just getting off work or out of class. Curiosity and a chance to relax among friends had drawn them here and Jon considered telling Jack he needed to look into holding a few big family events.


Some of the problem-solvers were working on things they had seen while cleaning. Others just wandered until they found something that caught their attention. Spouses gossiped, kids ran and screamed, and Will was holding court with a dozen young teens, leading them through some basic Jaffa training patterns.


Life was good.


It was also time to send Daniel for more food.


Turning to locate his missing archaeologist, he almost did not recognize the two men stepping from a large black truck parked in the driveway. He jerked to a halt when he saw General Jack O'Neill watching the chaos with bemusement. When the other man turned from staring at the fire trucks, Jon gulped as he recognized General Kerrigan. A General who was probably wondering why he was seeing his fire trucks parked there.


"There's a real good explanation," he stated baldly.


Kerrigan glanced at his fire trucks again and politely tilted his head.


Jon's mind went blank. "It's Hailey's fault," he finally blurted.


Jack rolled his eyes. Then his eyes widened and both he and Kerrigan stood rooted to the ground as Colonel Edwards drove up in a horse trailer and three members of SG-11 started unloading ponies. Several parents lounging near the bonfire got up to help. Kerrigan looked at Jack who just shook his head.


"For the kids," Jon explained. "Edward's brother has a riding stable."


"Ah," Jack said, then watched with interest as laughing Marines hoisted kids on their shoulders and followed the ponies toward the newly brush-sawed field just past the garden. Next to that came the distant screams of more kids as they pushed each other into the pond.


Jon sighed,"Turned into a bit of a carnival, Sirs."


And it was good for them. He could see Jack notice that too.


"How are you feeding this lot?" Jack asked abruptly.


Kerrigan raised his eyebrows, then looked at Jon keenly when he shrugged.


"Hot-dogs. Hamburgers," Jon said, then grinned,"Strawberry shortcake."


Kerrigan bit off a laugh at the expression on Jack's face. Jack turned to Kerrigan and jerked his head back to the truck. "You interested in some supply acquisition?"


"Of the alcoholic kind? Lead the way," Kerrigan said.


"We'll be back," Jack promised.


Assuming he was planning to pitch in for some beer and hotdogs, Jon smiled gratefully. Before he could say anything though, a ripping sound had him spinning toward the house in panic. Standing on a ladder, Patterson poked at the wood he had just revealed.


"Looks good," Patterson yelled.


His helpers grinned and before Jon could draw a breath to say, well, anything, tar paper came down off the house by the handful. Luckily they added it to one of the trucks headed for dump. He did not think anyone wanted to breathe tar smoke for the next hour.


He groaned.


Someone nudged him, and he spun to see Alex watching him sympathetically, amusement bright in her eyes.


"Seen the greenhouse yet?" he asked, eyeing her oil-stained coveralls.


She grinned."The shop is amazing. I'll do an inventory tomorrow, but can you believe they actually have that barn entirely cleared out? They stored everything in the toolshed so I can finish any structural repairs,then took the pump hostage and sprayed it down from the inside. They even scrubbed the concrete. It's a bit wet in there, but there's not a cobweb or mouse dropping in sight. Same with the greenhouse. Lt. Hiller found a small drainage problem but she thinks they'll have that fixed in an hour. And Private Wheeler is using some epoxy to reseal the glass."


She fell silent and they watched quietly as people around them chatted and laughed as they worked.


"I can't believe they've done this for us," she said softly.


Not just them, but he got the point. Some were helping out the kids of fallen soldiers. Others were helping SG-1. And maybe in a small way, some were helping themselves. There wasn't a single SGC soldier who had not considered what he would have lost if he had been the one cloned. It could happen. With their jobs, anything could happen. But ultimately, when it came down to it, there was only one reason all these people were here.


"They're good people," he said. "They wanted to help."


She looked at him and smiled. "That, and they were afraid of Hailey."


Jon snorted. Grogan had let it slip that Hailey had been the hurricane force behind the additional troops. After she overheard Patterson talking to his team, and how it was okay to help, she went on a recruitment drive. Of course, it could have had something to do with the fact she was confined to base due to getting hit with an offworld toxin that had her acting like she'd just drunk fifteen cups of Daniel's coffee.


Apparently Jack had told her to find something to do.


The sound of crashing glass had both of them cringing. An apologetic Satterfield poked her head out an upper window. "Sorry. Sorry," she called down."Don't worry. It was broken anyway. I'm fixing it."


Jon started to laugh and Alex just shook her head before heading back to her barn. He waved a hand at Satterfield who brightened and disappeared. One of the Marines started picking up broken glass before any of the kids could step on it. Jon heard Satterfield yelling measurements out to someone so he figured she had everything well in hand. It wasn't until he got closer to the door and realized the cleaning crew was hauling out wheelbarrow loads of plaster and bits of wood that he began to get concerned.


Angela grabbed him just as he cleared the door and smiled brightly. "Hey! How are you? Did you know that one of these guys is a carpenter by trade? Married to a computer tech working out of Cheyenne Mountain. He says your framing is good, but all of the interior plaster is rotting and the walls have sawdust and limestone for insulation."


She cringed, then turned up the wattage as multiple crashes came from upstairs. Jon stared upwards in horror.


"Anyway,"Angela continued," once the sawdust and everything is gone he says you can install regular pink insulation and gyp-rock. He's also marking your interior support walls so you know which ones you can't move."


"Aren't they getting in the way of the cleaning crew?" Jon asked numbly.


"Oh. We're done," Angela told him."We finished an hour ago. That's how we discovered the problem with the plaster. When we washed it, it sort of...er...fell down."


Jon blinked. Fell down? How fell down?


"Was anyone hurt?" he asked instead.


"Not at all," Angela reassured him."They're having fun. You know, being allowed to bash at walls with mallets. But Larry's watching to make sure they only get the lathe and plaster. They won't take out the framing."


Jon drew a deep breath and reminded himself that this was something they were going to have to do anyway. Problem-solvers, he chanted mentally. Just remember that they are all problem solvers.


"Okay," he said finally.


A brief look of relief passed over her face, then she patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry. I won't let them hurt your house."


Jon cocked his head. "You don't mind? This could have been your house."


A look of extreme horror took over her features. "Oh God, don't even joke about that. We have three children aged two and under. I'm just grateful you wanted the place. Jason was so worried what with the taxes and the twins."


Jon doubted that her husband had told her he had worried how she would pay the bills if he died in combat. Not the sort of thing a man told a woman who thought he worked under a mountain. He drew a deep breath and looked around the kitchen. Someone must have gone out for boxes because the familiar logo of a moving company under USAF contract for military personal was stamped on every box. Fully half were labelled "Jars". There were others labelled "dishes", "canning", "cooking", "misc", and "beer-making".


Beer-making?


Before Jon could investigate Angela shuffled her feet and pointed to a box filled with photo-albums and a few knick knacks.


"I hope you don't mind," she said softly. "It's mostly photos and a few mementos of Jason's mother."


Jon shook his head. "Don't even ask. We were planning to have you go through the boxes anyway. Actually, this worked out well, because we were terrified we'd throw out something important."


Angela's uncertain smile grew more confident and Jon meant what he said. Hell, she could be taking home real crystal for all he cared. They owed her for what she had done for them.


He placed a hand on her shoulder."Thank-you very much for today. This has just been...amazing."


She giggled."It did get a bit out of hand, didn't it?"


Jon tilted his head."Big, yes. Out of hand? I don't know. They seem to be managing quite well."


Another crash, then the sound of cursing from upstairs. Jon froze, then smiled weakly and pointed to the door. "I'm gonna go find Daniel."


Angela rolled her eyes, then went barrelling toward the stairs. "You better not have knocked down the wrong wall,David Radner."


Jon dashed for the door, only to just miss being hit with the high pressure jet of a power hose. Rubbing the spray from his eyes he found SG-18 beating the crap out of his house with water from Hailey's pump. Bits of paint were flying everywhere and the wisdom of the goggles SG-18 were wearing quickly became apparent. From the semi-obscene comments made by the college kids attacking the remaining paint with hand scrapers, he gathered house painting was how this crew earned their beer money. Which meant they were not Academy or military.


Good grief.


He spend twenty minutes helping sort through another pile of junk for the dump, then was distracted by a threesome carting a strange-looking contraption he did not recognize. The conversation sounded ominous, however.


"We don't have enough red."


"So add white, We've got a lot of white."


"What? Pink? Red and white stripes? It'll look like a circus tent. And they need the white. Why don't we use the blue. Blue would be cool."


That comment did not get the disdain Jon expected. Instead, the first speaker let out a delighted whistle. "Blue? You're kidding? How many cans?"


A true testament to good orthodontics gleamed smugly. "More than enough." More smugness. "Cory said his Mom changed her mind about the color and his Dad was just glad not to have to pay to dispose of it. If we dilute it, it'll act like a stain. We should be able to get at least one good coat on both barns."


"Well save some. We can match the trim on the house and outbuildings."


Whoa. What?


They were not doing what he thought they were doing were they? Oh hell, these were problem-solvers. They damn well were. Blue? Who the hell painted a barn blue? Come to think of it, who was Cory and why was paint arriving instead of leaving?


Jon trotted after the three. When he caught up to them he found them scrutinizing a sizable pile of paint cans. The second speaker pointed to a stack of uniform labels. Jon finally remembered what that contraption was for. It was one of those home spray gun attachments for the do-it-yourself house painter.


He cleared his throat.


The kid with the teeth looked up and waved. "Hi, we're just about ready."


Jon looked down. "Where did all this paint come from?" He was almost afraid to ask.


"We texted out a paint request," came the matter of fact answer.


Ah. Of course they did. They took pity on his ignorance.


"When Grogan called this morning he asked us to text message everyone and ask if they had any extra paint lying around. You know...the half a can most people have sitting in their garage that they'll never use but they can't throw away."


Right. Text. Of course. Jon nodded, then looked at the pile of paint he had assumed came from the barn. Now that he was looking he could see dozens of different labels and the paint seemed to be grouped by color and type. Dollar-store drop sheets protected the newly shorn grass and about a hundred feet of extension cord was hooked to the vacumn cleaner attached to the sprayer. The kids diluted the blue paint by some mysterious alchemy that Carter would probably have understood and started spraying.


The paint seemed extremely bright for a dark blue, but they assured him it would darken as it soaked into the wood. He decided ignorance would be wise and headed back to the kitchen area. Almost five o'clock and they were running out of food again. He was searching for a free truck and driver when Jack's truck followed by two SGC suburbans pulled back into the driveway. Excellent. Jack would do.


Before he could shanghai the General, Jack hopped out of the truck and pointed at the first Suburban. Puzzled, Jon opened the back only to gape at the defrosting boxes in the back. Steaks. Lots and lots of steaks. In boxes with SGC shipping labels on the side.


"The cooks are going to kill you," he managed, swallowing shock.


Jack sneered. "I so have that covered. I took the mash potatoes hostage."


Cartons of beer exited the second Suburban, and Jon blinked at the two items tied securely in the back of Jack's truck.


"You gotta be kidding me."


Jack looked affronted."Hey, if Edwards can bring ponies, I can bring popcorn and cotton candy machines. Don't break them. They have to go back to NORAD tomorrow."


Back to NOR...what?


Jack commiserated."Yeah, I know. Who knew? Apparently they have a lot of family events."


Jon was sure this conversation would make sense after a couple of beers. NORAD and cotton candy. Uh huh.


General Kerrigan gripped a box of steaks and stared around in amazement. "I still can't believe this. How many people are here?"


Jon threw up his hands."I've lost count. I know we had to start parking cars in a different field."


"How much is left to do?" Jack asked.


"Actually, they're almost done. The junk pile should be gone in another hour. Everything that can burn is piled over by the bonfire. They're done cleaning the barns and are actually working on small repairs for the most part. Hopefully they'll be finished knocking down walls by dark. They're mostly looking for things to do at this point."


As if to emphasize the comment, a dozen college-aged girls wandered by, armed with paint and paint brushes. Jon watched narrowly as they started on the fence posts along the road that the weed-whacking had revealed earlier. Someone else had already rebraced the end posts and tightened the barbwire. Jon heaved a sigh of relief when the paint turned out to be white.


Jon shook his head."To be honest, they've been great about leaving the yard around the house alone. We wanted to work on that ourselves. Especially since we don't really know what we want to do with it yet. The dead cars are an eyesore, but Carter doesn't want to move anything until she has a look at them." He started to grin."It's looking damn good, isn't it?"


Jack looked at him for a long moment, then smiled and nodded.


Kerrigan slapped Jon on the back lightly, then paused. "Son, are they painting that barn blue?"


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


Daniel made another run for ice and most of the coolers were now holding some form of refreshment. Jon cursed the fact that with so many civilians and non-SGC military personnel around he could not drink any of the beer, but he figured Jack would manage to leave a six-pack or two behind.


With the last of the junk sorted, he could leave the trucks and their loaders to their work. The people in the house knew what they were doing--hopefully--and the potentially useful pile was being hauled into two recently cleared and swept outbuildings that Jon assumed had once been storage sheds of some kind. The last of the bottles had been returned and the deposit money used for juice and soda.


Now that the cleaning in the barns was finished, anyone not actively fixing something divided themselves into painting crews. The odds and ends of the white paints were mixed to get a uniform shade, and in addition to the fence posts, the garden shed, the two storage sheds, the outhouse and a chicken coop were rapidly acquiring a fresh coat of paint. The doors and trim on the outbuildings were painted blue. They left the house alone, but only because the wood was still wet.


Strings of Christmas lights had been discovered in the attic. In the interest of keeping them out of trouble, the younger kids had spent most of the afternoon untangling them. Most of them worked, and Jon and Will hastily hammered stakes into the ground, mapping out a big flat square away from the bonfire. They strung lights from stake to stake, creating a makeshift dance floor that would be lit up when it got dark.


Given the fact he had no electricity, Old Man Patterson had owned a staggering number of boxes of candles. Not just candles. Boxes of candles. Dozens of candles were chopped in half, then placed in old jam jars with recycled wire wrapped around the lip to form a handle. People hung them by the dozen from bare tree branches and the oaks and maples began to take on a fairy glow as the light faded from the sky.


The painting crews let out a cheer as they finished with fifteen minutes of daylight left. The potentially useful pile had vanished completely and people staggered over to grab a cold beer before flopping onto blanket covered tarps or settling gratefully into whatever lawn chairs they might have brought with them. The first wave of people cleared the BBQs just in time for the house and repair crews as they wrapped up and headed for the fragrant smell of roasting beef.


It was a slow, peaceful transition, and by the time the last steaks had been handed out, most of the parents had made their good-byes and carried sleeping children to their cars. Jon and Alex moved with them, quietly thanking the military volunteers while Daniel and Will thanked the civilians.


As Jon felt the mood start to relax, he stepped up to where the DJ had moved his car next to the makeshift dance floor and gestured for the microphone. People turned their heads expectantly as he tapped the mic and he smiled.


"I know you can probably guess what I'm about to say, but that doesn't mean it doesn't need saying. You people have been fantastic. There's no way we can ever adequately repay you for what you've done. You saved us months if not years of work, and the four of us want you to know we deeply appreciate everything. Even those of you who started knocking down walls!"


A small chuckle went through the crowd and Jon smiled wryly."So here it is. Thank-you. And now that we've got the food portion of this exercise completed, and most of us here are old enough to drink..." another chuckle turned into outright laughter as Jon pointed at the DJ who obligingly cranked up the volume and the bouncing strains of Pink's "Let Get this Party Started" exploded from the amplifiers.


Daniel smiled at him as Jon wandered back to join him at the edge of the crowd. "Nice," he commented.


Will materialized out of the darkness, eyes on the dancers.


Carter appeared at his side and nudged him gently."Not bad for a man of few words."


He smiled and the four of them stood quietly, enjoying the moment.


The music slowed for a couple's dance and Alex grabbed his arm, pulling him toward the dancers. He froze momentarily, surprised and inadvertently jerked her to a halt. She smiled, her eyes mysterious in the glow from the candles and bonfire.


"I feel like dancing," she said simply.


He unglued his feet and followed her into the music. He did not get to wrap his arms around her. She did not rest her cheek against his shoulder. They did get a few surprised glances as they danced with the ease of people who had spent decades dancing at formal parties. As she flowed gracefully back into his grasp he almost asked the question out loud. Is this real?


Was any of this real?


Then the candlelight ran molten over her hair as she spun and he answered his own question.


Real enough.


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


The civilians and the Academy grads started wandering home sometime after midnight. Many of the spouses of the SGC personnel had wisely come in separate cars and were unsurprised when the soldiers stayed behind. A few of the SGC personnel left as the conversation shifted to the military and civilian girlfriends or boyfriends began to stick out.


Jack considered the aura of relaxed contentment that emanated from the bunch. The DJ had gone home an hour earlier and someone had, inevitably, pulled out a guitar. The soft strains of the instrument and the cheerfully out of tune sing-a-long

it was leading had him wincing as often as smiling.


"They needed something like this," Jack said softly, turning to meet Jon's eyes as the clone stepped up behind him.


"Bad year?" Jon asked quietly.


"It's been rough," Jack sighed."Too many battles, not enough downtime. Same old."


Stakes too high. One step forward, two steps back. Not enough time to just appreciate living. He looked again at the chatting soldiers, and decided those steaks had been a very good idea. Good enough that he was going to make sure they started holding more events like this. Christmas parties didn't count. They needed something where everyone could feel useful and have fun at the same time, the whole family. Other branches did it. Charity baseball, stuff like that. Something tangible. The SGC had avoided it due to the fact they had not wanted anyone noticing the high numbers of Special Forces type people working a geek posting, but hell, no one believed their cover story anyway. Too many of their so-called telemetry techs had died in ways requiring closed casket funerals. The SGC had chosen to stop using the training accident story so their spouses could receive full combat pensions.


It was time.


He was certain Davis could come up with something.


"So...you leaving any beer?" he heard Jon ask hopefully.


He smiled slightly. "Check the cooler in the kitchen pantry. I may have forgotten a bottle or two. And consider the generator a summer-time loan. We can survive without it for a few months. I'm leaving a drum of gas behind too."


He saw Jon nod in peripheral vision.


He looked at the dark silhouettes of the barns and the house. "I have to admit, this is not what I expected you to do."


He heard the smile in Jon's voice as he replied,"Daniel calls it Project Sinking Ship. Although after today, we're looking a hell of a lot more seaworthy."


"And the hard work starts tomorrow."


Jon chuckled."Oh yeah. I haven't had the nerve to go in the house since they started swinging at the walls. But it's going to be good for us."


Jack nodded. "Yes, I think it has."


Jon quirked his lips as he caught the change in tense but did not reply. Jack knew himself too well. The bonfire flared as someone threw more newspaper onto the pile and Jack shook his head.


"You know, Kerrigan is going to want his fire trucks back."


"Yeah, " Jon said. "We figured." He gestured toward the pond. "Hailey lent us the water pump for the week."


"I'm not even going to ask where she got it. If it has SGC stickers on it - don't tell me."


Jon nodded.


Jack listened to the party some more, then glanced over."So...I'm heading out."


"Got everything? BBQ? Cotton Candy machine?"


Jack snorted and started walking toward his truck. Jon paced him quietly and watched him climb into the truck. Jack rolled down the window. "You know, you may want to check that cooler. I think I may have forgotten a few steaks as well."


A soft chuckle reached his ears and for the first time he truly believed that this time, the clone was going to be alright.


"Don't be a complete stranger," Jack said deliberately.


Jon froze, then nodded. He tapped the open window once, then paused as something occurred to him.


"Hey Jack,"Jon said slowly,"ask Bra'tac about the meaning of the word Cha'loa'tek sometime. It's...interesting."


Curious, but willing to take him on faith, Jack raised his eyebrows, then shrugged agreement. Jon tossed him a mock salute and disappeared into the darkness. Jack watched him go, absolutely certain he was heading back to his team and the soldiers temporarily in his care. Yeah.


He was going to be alright.


They all were.


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


"Good morning, Campers!"


Alex groaned and covered her head. He had to be kidding. If it was any time before noon, he was a dead man.


"Rise and shine," the obnoxiously cheerful voice continued.


She uncovered one eye and glared at him. "You have the metabolism of a fifteen-year-old boy. Aren't you supposed to want to sleep for like 10 hours at a time?"


She had vivid memories of trying to haul Mark out of bed in time for school.


Daniel just groaned and huddled deeper into his sleeping bag.


"If we move swiftly, I believe we will be able to hide the body with a minimum of effort, Alexandra." Will said thoughtfully from the other side of the tent.


A Jaffa on Tretonin was not a morning person.


"Ah come on guys, don't you want to see what they did to our house?"


Alex relented and poked her head out from under the covers and peered at him suspiciously. "You waited?"


Daniel's head appeared over the edge of his sleeping bag to look in Jon's direction. Jon shuffled his feet, then sighed. "I thought we should all see it together."


Well...crap.


There went another two hours of sleep.


Jon handed her a cup a coffee before she was halfway out the door of the tent and she turned idly to look around. She felt her jaw drop in absolute shock. Stepping away from the tent to get an unobstructed view, she joined Daniel in open-mouthed astonishment. The ground was still muddy and rutted, the area dotted with the rusting corpses of almost two dozen vehicles. But empty of visiting cars and people, with the grass trimmed, the brush cut back to the actual trees, and the visible fence straightened and neatly painted, the bones of the property sprang out of the landscape in sharp relief.


"It's beautiful," she murmured.


The stain had darkened as promised, and combined with the weathered silver of the wood, the barns glowed with rich multi-toned hues of deep ocean blue. The white of the outbuildings, gleaming with matching trim, sparkled in the sunlight. Even the house, with its dull grey wooden siding and black roof looked more tired and sad than halfway to condemned.


Daniel blinked. "Are those apple trees?"


Alex turned to where he was studying the trees clustered off to the right, past where the ashes of the bonfire made an ugly scar across the lawn. With the overgrowth of brush and weeds cleared away, and the grass trimmed neatly around the trunks, it was suddenly easy to see the underlying pattern of a small orchard. The trees had obviously not been pruned in decades, and it was hard to tell how many trees there actually were, but those were green buds on the branches she could see, Alex realized.


"I didn't realize it was so big," Daniel said quietly.


She thought he was referring to the orchard until she saw him gazing at the house with a look of uncertainty. Lord, he was right. It was huge. Somehow, the tarpaper and garbage, and overgrown weeds had made it look smaller. Or maybe she had just assumed that parts of it were tacked on additions they would probably remove. Whatever she might have thought, this house had been solidly built.


Crossing her fingers, she climbed the steps and opened the front door. She noted absently that someone had reseated the hinges when they put the door back on. They had also oiled them and adjusted the jamb. The door opened smoothly and noiselessly, swinging back easily.


Daniel chuckled softly behind her."I'm scared to look."


She smothered a giggle at the thought of four fearless space explorers huddled in the doorway like frightened mice, scared to go into their own house. When she glanced over her shoulder, Will was smiling slightly and Jon had a sheepish look on his face. Oh yeah. Fearless explorers.


"Ladies first," Jon quipped.


"I was armed last time," she replied.


His anxious smile melted into a full-fledged grin. Daniel rolled his eyes and pushed her inside. They stepped quietly into the hall and walked slowly through the first floor. In spite of best efforts, sawdust littered the floor and lingered in the open walls. They would need an industrial-strength vacumn cleaner to get it all up, more than likely. Something else they would have to rent.


"Why are the insides of these walls covered in newspaper?" Will asked abruptly.


Daniel frowned."It was a cheap way to windproof the outer walls without plastic. And the paper kept the sawdust they used for insulation from falling through the cracks in the wood."


"They paper-mached the house?" Jon said, picking at the white paste the papers were covered in."Talk about the ultimate in recycling."


"They were hippies," Daniel pointed out.


Whoever they had been, they had used six inch studs in the outer and inner walls. And that was about all that was left. Someone had gone through and closed all the doors, and Alex found her eyes crossing as she tried to fit the concept of door into a framework where she could see through the walls. They hadn't left a single wall intact. Not that there were that many, she realized. The layout was fairly simple.


Two-thirds of the space came from a large two story rectangle with an eight foot wide hallway running lengthwise down the middle of both floors. The space on either side had been divided in half, resulting in four large rooms on each floor. Coming into the hallway from the kitchen, a wide staircase on the left-hand side contained a door down to the cellar, the stairs starting at the other end, near the front door.


The kitchen itself was the bottom storey of a smaller rectangle sitting at a 90-degree angle to the first, slightly off-center so that the right-hand wall met the larger rectangle at the point where the hallway began. A door on the right led from the kitchen into the hallway. A door about a quarter of the way in from the left hand wall led into the room behind the shared wall. Patterson had used it as a dining room before his family had moved away and a long butcher block counter with two large sinks had run the length of the shared wall between the two doors, before it, and the shelves above, had been removed along with the plaster behind it. The sinks and the butcher block had been saved, the rest had gone to the fire.


"Whatcha thinking about, Carter?"


"I want to see the upstairs first," she said absently, looking again at the walls.


The kitchen extended past the left-hand edge of the larger rectangle and wrapped around the wall, forming a large pantry. A narrow staircase along the left-hand wall led upstairs to a narrow hallway running the length of the shared wall on the left, with two more large rooms on the right. Two doorways opened from the hallway into the main rectangle, the first into the room above the dining room, and the one at the far end leading into the wide upper hallway.


Alex pointed to the door where the two hallways met. "If we seal that door and do the same with the door from the kitchen into the hallway below, we effectively seal the kitchen, the dining room, this hallway and these three rooms off from everything else. If we turn the dining room into a temporary living room, and this room above it into a bathroom, we could sub-divide the remaining two rooms into four temporary bedrooms."


She waited as the guys contemplated her plan with various frowns and thoughtful looks.


"The woodstove should keep the kitchen warm enough," Daniel said slowly."Maybe even the bedrooms."


Alex shrugged apologetically."I know it'll be cramped, but I'm worried about these six inch walls. I think the insulation is going to be alot more expensive than we planned. This way, if we can't get it all done by October, the heating bill won't sink us."


Will's frown deeped. "I concur."


Daniel nodded." Sounds good to me."


"I guess that's the plan then," Jon said quietly.


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


Jon redid his figures and chewed on his lip thoughtfully. Between dump fees and food for the clean-up crew, they had spent almost $1000 of their nest egg. All of them were tapped out personally for at least two weeks. The extra flyer routes would add up nicely, even with the added expense of Carter's apartment, and they should definately have enough to buy what they needed to complete Phase One. Unfortunately, it would be four weeks minimum before they had any cash to spend.


He tapped his pen against the paper, causing Daniel to look up, startled, as the Coleman lantern threw strange shadows across the book he was reading. Jon grimaced apologetically, then turned back to his figures.


They could buy the insulation outright using the nest egg money. All of them were itching to get started. The problem was that the electrical hook-up could run $1000 or more, and none of them wanted to spend the winter reading by lantern. They could do it, if they really had to, but Carter and Daniel would probably go into PC withdrawal. He was also worried about any other unexpected expenses they might not have included in the budget. If they spent the nest egg now, they might regret it.


Much as they wanted to dive into working on the house, they were just going to have to focus on the physical chores for the next month. Things that did not cost much money. Collecting and splitting firewood. Getting the tractor running. Fixing the truck. Digging trenches for the water and electrical lines. That last was going to be a bitch. Between the wood chopping, and the digging and the biking on the flyer route, they would either be in Olympic class shape by the end of the summer, or they would be dead.


Carter actually had her last day of Football practice circled in red on the calendar.


"Semtex."


Huh? What?


"Homemade Semtex," she said again, way too calmly for someone who had just said what he thought she said. "There's got to be some solid rock around this place near to the surface. We blast the crap out of it and use the truck to carry it back here. It doesn't have to be road gravel to work in a leech field."


The light went on.


"If I can get the tractor working, we should be able to use the harrow and blade to get down deep enough. If we hit bedrock, so much the better. We can blast that too and reduce the amount we have to move. It won't be fast, but our only out of pocket cost will be the pipe."


Saving themselves several thousand dollars they did not have.


"Sweet."


They had not even considered a septic field. Sad, but true. More so for Jon because with Jack's cabin, he should have known better. But hey, he never installed the damn thing. It came with.


They were sacrificing a part of the field along the road, on the opposite side from the apple orchard. Roots aside, it probably was not healthy to have it too close. They were putting it far enough from the house that the part in between could still be used as lawn, maybe a pool. Who knew? It was lower than the garden and that was a good thing. There was also a swampy area just beyond that Will had suggesting turning into a duck pond. If the tractor could not get deep enough, they would have to do just that. Dig out enough mud to drop a foot or two of soil on top of the leech field.


His back hurt just thinking about it.


"Will the authorities permit us to utilize homemade explosives," Will asked curiously.


Daniel coughed and muttered something about the FBI and blowing up that bridge when they came to it.


Jon idly calculated how much Semtex they would need to blast a big enough hole for a pool. Do-able, he thought, chewing on his pen. Maybe a project for next year. In the meantime, they needed to get those chainsaw pieces he saw yesterday reassembled. If they were relying on wood heat this winter, they would need to get a move on. He figured the apple orchard would be a good place to start looking for deadfall. He doubted they would be able to find enough usable hardwood on the property--Patterson had sold or used a lot of it over the years, but every face cord they cut was one less they would have to buy.


He needed to get that truck fixed, though.


Soon.


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


Jon's whistle brought her head around and Alex gaped at the sight of a low-slung Jaguar inching along the country road, the driver taking extreme care not to stir up any rocks that would damage the expensive sports car. The driver stopped in front of the house, waiting long enough she began to wonder if he had the wrong address. Then the car turned into the driveway and parked carefully on a flat stretch away from the trees. The brightly polished skin of the car winked in the late June sun.


The tailored three-piece suit and leather shoes were an interesting contrast to the ragged jeans and lightly bronzed skin worn by the guys. He stared up at the house, then noticed them staring at him from the field. He glanced down at his feet, obviously considering whether whatever he wanted was worth risking his shoes. He stepped carefully across the grass and when he got close enough she could see him appraising the four of them with sharp eyes.


Smart. Confident.


Daniel finally noticed the visitor and he straightened warily from where he was shoveling earth into a wheelbarrow. The visitor eyed the large muddy pit they were excavating inch by agonizing inch. She saw his jaw loosen slightly when he realized they had done the whole thing by hand. Well, almost. They used the tractor to harrow and loosen each successive layer of earth to make it easier to dig.


"You lost?" Jon asked politely.


The man studied Jon for a moment, then smiled pleasantly. "I'm looking for Alex Carter."


His gaze rested on each of the guys in turn, pausing on Will. All three of her teammates tensed reflexively and a wary look crept into the man's eyes. Alex gave him points for noticing. Most civilians would have missed it.


"I'm Sean Turner," he said.


Ah, crap. She knew that Jaguar looked familiar. This was so the last time she did a favor for a drunken 17-year old. Even if he did have a truck and had scared the daylights out of her with that phone call.


She sighed and stuck her shovel into her wheelbarrow. "I'm Alex."


Like a well-trained corporate executive, he stilled when confronted by the unexpected. She saw his eyes drop and she waited patiently as he absorbed the dirty tank-top and ripped jeans. He hesitated as he noted the unexpected swell of muscle glistening under a layer of sweat and she saw him swallow carefully. She heard Jon sigh as it suddenly occurred to Mr. Turner that he was facing four healthy, young predators. They did not mean to intimidate people. Lately it just sort of happened. They must lack some of that trustworthy air their BDUs and maturity gave their older selves. Alex was getting used to getting uneasy stares, especially when she was with the guys.


Sam had been in good shape, but she had never really trained for bulk like Teal'c or even Daniel. Like Colonel O'Neill, her advantage had been her speed and endurance. However, even before the house, Alex had been training hard with the weights. With all the heavy lifting she had been doing digging the septic field, stripping the rusty hulks and dragging back and splitting her fair share of winter wood, she was more heavily muscled than she had ever been in her life. It was more muscle than most people expected, but it was not unsightly and if the covert attention she sometimes got from the football players was any indication, it was not unattractive.


All that really mattered was that she felt damn good.


Strong.


Turner tilted his head."Dean said you were the quarterback of his football team?"


She supposed he could not help the brief darting glance he sent towards Will's muscular frame. It was a boy's team after all.


"That would be me," she said easily.


She did not ask if something was wrong with the car. She had gone over that baby with a fine tooth comb. It had damn well been working when Dean drove it home, going all of five miles an hour the whole way. He had called her, panicked and babbling something about his father being on a business trip, a drunken dare, a drag race on a deserted road and a mysterious rattle that was going to get him killed. Or grounded until after football season, which was worse.


She had found the problem, sent Daniel on a trip for parts, and gave the drunken idiot hell for not respecting such a beautiful work of art. Dean had practically kissed her feet before he scrambled into the front seat and inched the car home. After sobering up under the watchful gaze of Jon and Will, of course.


"That car purred when it left here last week," she stated.


Turner startled her by grinning. "I know," he said, an expression of high-wattage delight appearing on his face."How would you like to be my mechanic?"


Huh?


In peripheral vision she saw Jon's startled look give way to suspicion. Not that she blamed him.


What the hell?


Leaning over to pick up a relatively clean towel slung over the cooler, she wiped her hands and stared at him contemplatively. Now that the question was out, Turner rushed through a quick explanation, excitement in his eyes.


"I've been trying to get that vibration fixed for months. And that rough shift on the down from fourth to third, I don't know what you did but it's smooth as silk."


Alex felt like groaning. Double crap. Never trust a drunk, she told herself. They were morons by definition. Especially young male ones. She had wondered at the time, but Dean had been absolutely certain the damage was new. Drag-racing drunken buddies in the dark. God. Stupidity aside, it had been sacrilege the risk he had taken with such a high-test vehicle.


Turner gave her a wry smile. "Dean told me you tore him a new one for the drunk driving. Thank-you for that. I gather you made quite an impression."


His brief flicker of appraisal might have been insulting if it had contained even a hint of leering. Alex decided to let him live; he just seemed politely amused. Some things were hardwired into the male brain, after all. If he stared at her butt when she bent over the car, however, all bets were off.


Did she want to do this?


The thought of getting her hands on the beauty in the driveway almost had her yelling "yes" right then and there. The money would come in handy, she acknowledged. But...


"Turner, you don't know me," she said bluntly. What kind of man made an offer like that to a teenager? Especially one whose shop and resume he had not even seen yet.


"I know what you did for my car. The results speak for themselves," he said seriously, with all the confidence of a man used to making rapid decisions. Maybe not life or death, but the kind that involved large sums of money.


"And," he continued," I know that drunk and scared and feeling damn stupid, Dean called you. I know you picked him up at three in the morning when he was too drunk to walk straight let alone drive. Then you spent the night fixing my car because a teammate was in trouble and you threatened a 17-year old boy so successfully he actually called a cab from a party this past Saturday night. I'd say that tells me all I need to know."


He glanced around the yard, taking in the weathered house still without a new coat of paint, the canvas tents on the other side of the driveway,and the fact they were digging a septic field by hand and smiled invitingly. "So how much do you charge by the hour?"


Her eyes widened and she heard Daniel cough at the blatantly sexual edge to the question. The funny thing was, it was amusing. He was treating her like an equal, and laughing at himself at the same time. At the fact he was ruining a pair of two hundred dollar shoes over a car. She smiled slowly. Turner could give Special Forces lessons in cheerful arrogance. On the other hand, she was used to arrogance. And high-powered testosterone was nothing new.


"Eighty an hour, three hour minimum," she said confidently. If he wanted her time, he could pay her what she was worth. Ever at her back, the guys just looked bored as she coolly named a price three times Major Samantha Carter's hourly equivalent.


Turner never blinked.


Pulling out a checkbook, he calmly wrote a check for twelve hours worth of work. When he handed it to her, he kept a hold of one end making sure he had her attention. "That's for the work you did last week."


She knew she looked surprised, but he did not look away. She nodded slowly as she realized he was worried she would see this as a bribe or an insult, a rich man buying forgiveness for his son. She studied his face, seeing nothing but respect in his eyes. He really did want her to work on his car, and she suspected this was partly to tell her he was serious. But there was also a thank-you in there somewhere. He smiled again, then gestured toward the driveway.


"So, have you got time to give it a summer tune-up?"


She mentally flipped through her schedule. "How's Thursday afternoon sound?" she asked casually, testing the waters.


The guys would not mind if she abandoned them today, not when she had a check in her hand that exceeded her monthly pension from the military. Hell, it was several hundred dollars more than the four of them combined had made with their first flyer routes. But this was new, and she wanted to make it clear she was not jumping through hoops for anyone. Her rules, her boundaries.


She had friends and commitments that came first.


If Turner noticed, he was astute enough not to reveal it. Or maybe he was just better at playing the game. In any case he happily discussed bringing the car out for her to look at. He never mentioned the fact that she was not old enough to pick the car up herself. Nor did he seem to care. She decided he was a lot like Colonel O'Neill in that regard, confident enough in his abilities to stand by his own decisions--even when they made no sense on the surface.


"Coffee?" she asked.


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


Ka-WHUMP.


Concussive shudders reverberated through the soles of their steel toed boots. Daniel pulled his fingers out of his ears and unhunched his shoulders.


"That's it?" he asked.


Will stared toward the leech field. "It does seem less than spectacular."


Jon ignored them and hopped up on the tractor he was convinced was one of their best finds. Ultimately the biggest problem had been a twenty dollar part rusted solidly in place. One seventy-dollar drill bit later, Project Sinking Ship had had a working tractor.


Daniel and Will hooked the chains attached to the back of the tractor into the rings woven into the top blast mat, then stood back as Jon carefully inched forward, dragging the mat away from the leech field. One of the things that had not been taken to the dump, mostly due to the recycling fee imposed on each, had been several hundred tires. Carter had picked through the mess until she had found all the ones she felt were road worthy, then they had tried to decide what to do with the rest of the less than environmentally-friendly garbage.


It was Will who gave them the idea to cut them apart and attach them together to form blast mats. Construction at a local mall had involved several days of blasting and they figured the same precautions that kept local residents safe from flying rocks and debris would protect their house from Jon's homemade Semtex. Not to mention help focus the blast downwards so as to break the rock into the smallest possible pieces.

"The mat is attached, O'Neill."


Jon waved and pulled the second mat away from the blast zone.


General O'Neill had not even asked why Jon and Carter needed demolition ratings. The papers arrived by courier two days later and they had filed for their blast permits by mail. The city had been reluctant to issue a blast permit to minors, regardless of their legal status, and it had taken some fancy talking by Daniel and a phone call to Jack, but they had gotten their permit. It helped that their property was zoned for rural use. The FBI had been out twice to investigate, but had left satisfied they were not a security threat--although they appeared to have doubts about their sanity.


Carter had doggedly kept up with both her studies and her football training schedule, something that was not easy as she had mostly chosen the relatively unfamiliar arts and history electives instead of science for this time around high school. Wiring, fixing the tractor, and studying were restricted to rainy days and the few evening hours they kept the generator running. Jon had taken to marking her schedule on a large white-board and after the first two weeks, he stopped wasting wireless air-time asking her if any changes were okay. He just pencilled her in where she was needed. He figured she approved when he started getting text messages updating him to anything changing in her school or fitness training schedule.


To be honest, it worked. Their schedules were so varied, and any change potentially affected everyone. With Jon taking over Carter's schedule, Daniel and Will got into the habit of informing him of where they would be. Jon found himself doing pretty much the same thing he had done for seven years with SG-1, and no one commented on the four white-boards now hanging in the hallway. He supposed it might have been different if they had not had years of memories that included a highly structured and regimented timetable controlled by other people, but they had and it worked for them.


School ended just in time, though.


They had planted the kitchen garden and two extra acres back in June. It had gone from a vast field of sprouts to a monstrous tangle of greenery that grew higher every time they glanced away. Weeding became a regular chore, burning a good hour of daylight each day. Gas prices jumped, forcing them to be more careful with the generator. Luckily the extended days helped reduce the need for it. The truck was non-operational, and non-repairable, so they used a torch to cut the bed off. A few chains and a curved piece of metal welded to the leading edge gave them a makeshift sled they could haul with the tractor.


At the moment, they were blasting a hole for the septic tank. The pulverized rock would be used to help form the bed for the leech field system. They would need more,so once they were done this hole, they were going to start blasting a larger one conveniently located in the perfect spot for an outdoor swimming pool. Two birds with one stone, and they did not have to haul the rock very far. The dirt they got from the pool area would be used to smooth out and build up the lawn area where decades of erosion had left bare rock and tree roots showing through.


Jon parked the tractor and rested for a moment, watching his friends as they investigated the results of the explosion. Will said something that caused Alex to laugh and Daniel to jump hastily away from the blast zone. Jon felt a small smile creep across his face.


It had been a hard three months.


Lack of time. Lack of sleep. Lack of money. Lack of privacy. About the only thing they did not lack was more to do. The fact they had done so well, had a lot to do with experience, he admitted. Trained to work together, to think outside the box, and use what they had to the best of their abilities, SG-1 did not see "lack". They saw a problem to be solved. They also knew how to pace themselves and knew their capabilities well enough that they did not discourage themselves with unrealistic goals. They knew enough not to take the inevitable explosions personally and knew when to give each other space. Project Sinking Ship was just another mission.


Thank-god.


Day by day, he had felt the bonds snap back into place. The attitudes. The coping mechanisms. With every back-breaking day, they found themselves a bit more, as a team this time. Earth was just geography. Harper still had concerns, but SG-1 had none. They knew who they were. They were not together because they had nowhere else to go. They were together because this is where they chose to be.


Amen.


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



"Alex, Stevens is on the phone," Daniel called out, not moving from the table groaning under the weight of several oil covered car parts. At least, Harper assumed they were car parts.


"Tell him no," a muffled voice replied from under a classic Thunderbird that gleamed with a newly restored and lovingly waxed paint job.


Harper watched with interest from his position on an old stool near the open door. Daniel rolled his eyes at whatever the man on the other end of the phone was saying. Then, he called back to Alex, "He says it'll be a ten hour job, minimum."


Jon snorted and yanked the cellphone out of Daniel's hand. "You grabbed her ass, moron. The answer is no." He flipped the phone closed and handed it back to an amused Daniel. Harper saw an approving smile crest on Will's face from where the Jaffa was handing tools to Alex. A snicker was the only thing heard from under the car.


"Interesting customer service skills, Jon," Harper commented mildly.


Jon grimaced."Side effect of her particular niche market."


Reflexively, Harper looked to Daniel for a translation.


"Men with money," the former archaeologist advised helpfully.


"Men used to power and the attentions of women," Will added.


Alex rolled out from under the car, her hair damp and sweaty from the August heat. She frowned."Most of them are okay."


"Most of them belong to the My-Car-Is-My-Baby Club," Jon corrected, "Of which you are a charter member."


Harper watched the interplay with interest, mildly amused by the concept of conducting a group session in an old barn, while sipping lemonade in an attempt to survive the dog days of summer. It occurred to him that most people their biological age, would have headed for the beach by now. Especially with only a week until school started again.


Jon wrinkled his nose in Alex's direction as she protested. "Carter, if you touched me the way you do that Jaguar, I'd have to marry you."


Harper choked on his lemonade, but apparently it was a Colonel O'Neill sort of comment because all she did was raise an eyebrow before disappearing back under the Thunderbird. Jon saw Harper's expression and defended himself,"Seriously. President and Charter member."


Harper could not understand the evil look Jon gave the tarp covered vehicle at the other end of the shop, but when Will and Daniel both smirked, he figured it was an inside joke.


Daniel resumed the earlier explanation. "Stevens is more the I'm-Bored-And-Looking-For-A-Challenge type."


Harper shook his head."I admit, I don't really get it."


Jon yanked his hand away from the box Daniel was cataloguing when the archaeologist glared at him. He gave Daniel an exaggerated look of apology, then answered Harper. "Aside from the fact she's very good, it's a bit of a status thing. She only takes jobs by referral," he said, poking at something that clattered on the table.


"And if she likes the car," Daniel added. He frowned at his inventory list, then peered into the box in front of him suspiciously.


As Carter's schedule grew tighter and with the completed septic field giving them more time to work on other projects, Daniel had decided to help by organizing the growing inventory of parts she was methodically stripping from the Graveyard. The hulks around the barn had been dragged away by a scrap metal company as soon as she got everything usable, and the money they received paid for the weed-whacker they needed now that the grass seed they had scattered had started to grow.


About three-quarters of Alex's barn was her auto shop. The remaining quarter had a sturdy loft, and the area underneath was divided from the shop by a solid wall and had contained four large stalls with a small tack room attached. Daniel had knocked out the stall walls and turned the resulting space into an office. Will and Jon had repaired the stairs leading up to the loft, and it quickly acquired several rows of free-standing shelving holding various spare parts. All his years of cleaning and cataloguing artifacts had translated surprisingly well. Using books and several manufacturers' guides, Daniel slowly identified and shelved the large mountain of parts Patterson had accumulated over the decades, and the smaller mountain resulting from Alex's recent forays into the Graveyard.


Initially, Alex had assumed the best cars had been located near the shop. Instead, after investigating the almost five acre field of dead cars they had started calling the Graveyard, she discovered that the ones near the barn were just the parts cars Patterson had needed most recently. They represented only a handful of the cars he had actually collected over the years. Some in the Graveyard were not much more than scrap, Patterson having already stripped many of the best parts, but a couple hundred looked like they contained saleable pieces. Better yet, about two dozen had been cars he had obviously planned to repair someday. He had taken care with those, parking them over sheets of metal and covering them with tarps.


Even with the added precautions, the years of neglect had not been kind. However, she was hopeful she could get one or two vehicles working for them, once she had more time to work on them. Daniel had found her "Want List", and without telling her, started contacting the local auto salvagers. Jon had watched with amusement as a man used to negotiating intergalactic trading agreements successfully traded a box of parts Alex would never need for six parts on her list.


A week later, a local salvager called looking for a heater core and radiator for a Mercury Topaz, two things Daniel had just catalogued. In return, he crossed off a set of road-worthy tires for a 1964 Volkswagen. As a result, Daniel decided to inventory the entire Graveyard.


The first time Daniel had Jon block out a four hour period for Alex to strip a particular vehicle he had discovered, she had raised a curious eyebrow, then shrugged. She dutifully followed the roughly scrawled map out to the Graveyard and left the parts in the office. By sheer chance, Daniel got a call that week from a salvager looking for three parts for that model of car. Daniel had all three and managed to scratch off four more items on the list.


Jon had literally walked into the tow truck while weed-whacking around the Graveyard. It was dirty, in need of a good tune-up, and if the primer on the body was any indication, Patterson had planned to repaint it before he either changed his mind, ran out of money, or died. But it ran. Daniel had informed Jon that as soon as he had his license they needed to start going to the car auctions in Denver. Considering how much money Alex was starting to make, Jon had no objections.


It was a sign of how crazy their lives were that it took two weeks for Daniel to realize Alex had put him on the payroll. She had casually brought the topic up in conversation one day, and Daniel--being distracted by his inventory list--had deemed it to be one of those theoretical what-if scenarios, and promptly forgot about it. Jon had dutifully transferred the funds into Daniel's account for two weeks running before Daniel noticed. He had promptly choked on his coffee, then cheerfully turned the money over to Jon to buy a washer and dryer.


Harper took another sip of his lemonade and considered the positive changes in the group. He knew they were not looking forward to going back to school. In their minds it was a waste of valuable time, especially since they had deliberately left off doing any work inside the house unless it was raining. The part they called Phase One was completely wired for electrical and internet, the septic pipes were installed, and most of the water pipes were ready although the water pump still needed to be attached. Once the insulation and gyp-rock were installed, the rest would proceed quickly, but Harper thought it had to grate that they were running out of summer and the house still looked so unfinished.


Harper was never more grateful that the military had agreed to his recommendation to make graduating high school a requirement for their pensions. They were too self-reliant, too comfortable with each other, and even if they did not see it, there was a real risk of them losing touch with the outside world.


Their previous lives had been much the same, but at least the SGC had given them some form of social interaction with other people, even if most of it had been with aliens or non-resident humans. It would be too easy for them to focus on the farm and lose touch with the fact that they were supposed to be reestablishing themselves in this reality, learning the vernacular and cultural references that would allow them to pass comfortably as members of their new generation.


He was lost in his observations when the sound of several cars arriving had him swivelling in surprise. Loud pounding music accompanied laughing conversation and he watched, slack-jawed, as two dozen young people clad in camouflage BDUs spilled onto the lawn. Coolers, lawn chairs and several items that looked disturbingly like automatic rifles were quickly piled on the newly levelled, and rapidly regenerating grass.


Jon rolled his eyes. "The children are here."


In contrast to the possible negative interpretation of the words, Jon's tone was upbeat and cheerful. He dropped whatever he was playing with and headed for the cars. Daniel peered at the horde, then saw Harper's confused expression.


"Paintball Academy," he said.


Harper blinked. Paintball?


Will exchanged tools with Alex, then took pity on the psychiatrist. "During the Big Clean-Up, O'Neill overheard several of Lt. Hailey's friends speculating whether they would have to cancel their annual competition. The location they routinely used had been sold and was now unavailable to them. We agreed that offering to hold the competition here would be a fair return for the assistance rendered by the people in question."


Alex poked her head out briefly to smile at Harper. "We won," she said smugly.


Daniel snorted. "We kicked ass."


Will nodded complacently. "Indeed. As befits young warriors informed of their weakness, the group sent a representative to ask if we would be willing to instruct them in how to improve their tactics and strategy."


Harper felt the blood drain from his face. Academy students here?


"It just sort of happened,"Daniel said." They started plinking away at each other, no sense at all, and the next thing you know Jon's banging heads together and giving lessons in basic tactics." He frowned. "Although you would think they'd learn that at the Academy."


Alex snorted."No time to practice, Daniel. And this is serious stuff he's teaching them, not basic training."


"Those who were less than dedicated did not return," Will commented disapprovingly.


Harper felt his eyebrows climb, eyeing the number of people getting ready. "That many returned?"


"Indeed," Will said. "And they have continued to improve under O'Neill's guidance."


Harper paused as he absorbed that. Two dozen Academy students hard-core enough to play war games on their off time. And smart enough to take advantage of any resource, no matter how unlikely.


"He's a good teacher," Alex said quietly, "And he makes it fun for them." She sat up slowly and stared at her grease-stained hands for a long moment. When she looked up, her blue eyes were dark. "Some of those kids will go offworld in the next two years. We can't prepare them for that, and that's not our job. But...he's damn good Harper, and they need that. And he needs them. Please don't take that away from him."


He thought at first she was begging.


It was not until he was driving home, remembering the way her two teammates had fallen silent, that he considered that maybe it had also been a threat.


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


Damn it. Damn it. DAMN IT.


Alex resisted the urge to throw the wrench across the barn and considered taking the vehicle in front of her and dousing it in gasoline. Big explosion. BIG.


"So there," she told the uncooperative beast.


It did not reply. Which was just as well. Right now, she was in the mood for some explosions.


The worst part, was that nothing was taking longer than it should. She just did not have enough time. For anything. The guys had been great, as aware as she was that the lease ran out on her apartment at the end of October. God, five weeks. Daniel was smoothly managing the administrative side of the business. In fact, he was the one responsible for finding and trading for all the parts she was currently installing on the Ford Taurus in front of her. Food mysteriously appeared, dinner in the shop, brown bags in her backpack. It was not just Jon either. Will's hand could be clearly seen in the peanut butter and banana sandwiches she discovered this morning.


She would have felt more guilty if she had been less tired.


She had been quietly exempted from almost all household chores and Jon had taken over stripping the cars in the Graveyard for Daniel. He was also picking up her slack in other areas. She had discovered that fact when she came home one afternoon last week, seriously thinking she should have stayed at the apartment instead of biking another hour after a grueling three hour football practice. She was sore, she was exhausted, and that damn second-hand water pump still needed to be rebuilt. So did the transmission Daniel had booked for that GTO. She did not understand. She was used to long hours and physically exhausting offworld missions, not to mention she was younger. So why was this so hard? Standing alone in the girl's locker room she had felt like crying for no particular reason she could determine.


She had intended to go to the apartment. Instead, she found herself biking back to the farm and not knowing why until she pulled in the driveway and found Jon cursing at the tow truck as he finished the tune-up she had wanted to do the week before. She had felt herself smile for the first time all day and when she went into the tent to change, she stood staring down at her bag of dirty clothes--something else she had meant to do--now neatly washed and folded and sitting on her cot.


She had changed into clean coveralls, then wandered over to the shop. He waved absently, then went back to cursing at the truck. They had spent a companionable four hours working side by side, him on a battered tow truck, her on a sports car worth almost as much as they had paid for the farm. Daniel brought them dinner, and she had smiled at both of them before turning on the generator. The guys were canning tomatoes again--and wasn't that a hoot and a half to watch--so she did not feel guilty about plugging in a couple of work lights. It had taken her until midnight, and the guys had been asleep when she finally tip-toed into the tent, but she had gotten the water pump working. She would not be able to install it in the old hand-dug well the guys had discovered until the sun came up. But it was working.


Just in time, too.


The insulation and gyp-rock had arrived the next day. They had lucked into a sweet deal on the gyp-rock. It was money they really did not have, buying enough for the whole house, but the savings had been impossible to pass up. Same with the paint for the exterior of the house. A pallet had fallen off a forklift leaving severely damaged cans selling at 50% off.


After the insulation arrived, she had stayed in town for two nights as a result of back-to-back evening and early morning practices. She arrived home four days ago to find the house sparkling with a fresh coat of white paint behind trees turning red and yellow with the first hints of winter. When she stood there staring at the white house with its blue painted doors and shutters, at the neatly trimmed yard and the barns glowing with rich multi-hued shades of blue, it suddenly hit her that Project Sinking Ship was sinking no longer.


Jon had found her in the driveway, sitting cross-legged and smiling at the house. He sat beside her and they both enjoyed a few minutes of silence. Then she had noticed the baskets of bright red apples on the porch. And the picnic table. And the ground.


"What...?"


Jon pinched the bridge of his nose and grinned sheepishly.


"Apparently we have more apple trees than we thought we did. Will found them yesterday."


She had gaped for several seconds, then exploded in laughter. Dear God. There were enough apples here to feed the SGC for a month.


"Apple sauce, apple crumb cake, apple pie," Jon started, ticking the desserts off one by one.


"Baked apples, apple crisp, apple juice," she shot back.


He grinned."Lots of apples. Oh and the cow arrives tomorrow."


Yes, the cow most certainly had arrived, right after the farmer who leased the hayfields showed up with 300 bales of hay. The cow was pregnant too, by all accounts and very friendly, as they unfortunately discovered when she got out of the barn and walked into their tent. At three in the morning. A member of the family only one day and she almost ended up hamburger as ex-SGC soldiers bailed out of their cots and reached for non-existent weapons.


It was getting cold at nights, but the days were still warm enough for milk to spoil. Jon solved the immediate refrigeration problem by making cheese out of the milk and feeding the leftovers to the pigs. Which was the first time she knew they actually had pigs. No one else had seemed surprised by the pigs. Three of them, purchased from a farmer selling a late litter that were still too small for a proper kill weight. Jon had assured them they would be big enough by Christmas. Hmm. Roast pork with apples...


She narrowed her eyes at the Taurus causing her to miss her memos.


"You were supposed to be a truck," she accused it.


It appeared unaffected by guilt. Unfortunately, the only truck close to being repairable could only seat two people comfortably, and they were still missing a few parts. It was useless for the daily commute to school, but if they ever got it fixed, it would be great for the flyer runs. As it was, they would be making three, maybe four trips if they were limited to the trunk space of a car. And it would be hell when the Christmas catalogues came out. The extra flyer routes they were doing committed them to every Friday night and all day Saturday. Parts of Sunday too if they had to bundle samples in with the flyers or if she had a game that week-end.


Still, she was not complaining.


The flyers were her only chance to spend time with her team.


She slid her eyes to the tarp-covered shadow in the corner of the barn. There was no way she would be able to work on it anytime soon. Which meant it would never be ready before the snow fell, she thought sadly. On the other hand, it was not like it was going anywhere. So...


Back to the Taurus.


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


"We need chickens," Jon announced, carefully watching the gauge on the pressure canner.


Daniel glared at the basket of green beans Will dropped onto the picnic table and muttered,"We need another pressure canner."


Maybe planting the extra ten packages of green beans for a fall crop had not been such a good idea.


Will silently stirred the 20-quart pot of tomato base bubbling on the rusty old wood-stove they had pulled from the Storehouse of the Potentially Useful. With the kitchen only half assembled, they had dragged the stove out near the garden, built a jury-rigged lean-to out of old plywood, and reused the black-pipe they had pulled out of the house when they installed the insulated chimney for the kitchen woodstove. A quick coat of white paint kept the lean-to from standing out too badly and helped waterproof the wood. Several pieces of plywood on recycled saw-horses sporting cheap plastic table cloths from the local dollar store acted as workspace. A dozen of the large water jugs regularly taken and filled by the kids from the Paintball Academy sat nearby.


All in all, not a badly designed set-up, if a bit smoky when the wind shifted.


The wood-stove was large enough to accommodate four 20-quart pots, so it was relatively easy to boil water for cleaning and blanching, boil the jars, heat the canner and still simmer a pot of anything from chili-base to stewed tomatoes. Who knew tomato plants grew so many tomatoes? Daniel had a feeling they would be eating a lot of chili and spaghetti this winter.


The propane-powered freezer let them freeze things like broccoli. Alex had checked it out last week and declared it safe. Thank god. Daniel shuddered at the thought of canned brussel sprouts. They had cleaned it up and moved it out of the Storehouse of the Potentially Useful and into the second barn.


Well, The Barn actually, since Alex's barn was officially known as The Shop. With the growing space in the Storehouse, and half of the stuff in the other toolshed either relocated back into the Shop or turned to other uses, Daniel suspected The Toolshed was about to become The Lab. He had noticed Alex eyeing the building speculatively. To be honest, he was surprised how much of the stuff they had reused. Jon, along with the Academy kids, was slowly building a kick-ass Obstacle course and things just disappeared. They all ran the course weekly. Alex ran it daily, and last week, Jon and Will had been discussing adding a couple of water features and inventing some sort of Indiana-Jones-swinging-logs-sixty-feet-above-the-ground thing. Daniel shuddered.


He did not want to know.


Since September they had pickled cucumbers, pickled beets, and pickled onions. They mentally got down on their knees and thanked SG-17 as they hauled potatoes, pumpkins, onions, carrots and squash into the root cellar by the wheelbarrow load. The apples went into the basement cellar as apparently apples and onions did not get along together.


He was heartily sick of peas. Everyday, more peas, and an hour's worth of work never added up to much. Unless there was a handy dandy hand-operated pea sheller out there somewhere, next year, he was planting snow peas.


Will was nodding his head thoughtfully as Jon rambled on about chickens. There were three rolls of chicken wire in the Storehouse now that Daniel thought about it. The old chicken coop was fit only for storage, not livestock, but Bessie and the three pigs were living happily in the appropriate areas under the half loft in the barn. He supposed they could build a chicken coop off the side.


They were getting good at building things.


A small feeling of accomplishment glowed softly as he contemplated the house. Once the insulation had arrived, it had been quick work to get it installed. Paper backing had made it easy to attach to the studs with a staple gun and the plastic barrier and gyp-rock had quickly followed. Early sunsets had justified the use of the generator, and in the space of five days, walls and open ceilings that had mocked them all summer were suddenly looking like walls and ceilings should. They would get the last of the mortar sanded tonight, then after the week-end, they could start painting.


Alex had already told him not to book any shop work for the next two weeks. Jon figured Alex could start installing electrical fixtures on Wednesday while he, Will, and Daniel sanded the hardwood floors. Thursday was for installing the toilet and cupboards in the bathroom, and installing the kitchen cupboards and counters. The cupboards had already been pre-sanded and painted and were waiting in the barn. They would spend Sunday laying tile in the bathroom, kitchen, and the living room. All the major appliances would be moved in on Tuesday after the grout dried. Alex had hired Tim to help them move everything from the apartment the following Friday, the day before Jon's birthday.


Two Fridays from tomorrow, they would be finished Phase One.


Finished.


It was hard to believe it was almost over.


Hard to believe he did not want it to be over.


This summer had been a second chance. He knew damn well Jon had not had them building a house these past few months. He also knew, however, that Jon had owned something he had not. Jon had always known his team, his family, would come for him. He had believed it so strongly he had been willing to die if he was wrong. All the SG teams were close, but even Daniel had been able to see that SG-1 had been something special. Up close, however, the reasons had partly rested on the fact that none of them had anyone else.


There had always been the fear that someday it would all disappear.


Teammates moved on, only family was for life.


Maybe it was because he was not military, but he had never quite trusted himself not to let them down. As the war with the Goa'uld shifted, as things became more military and there were less chances for him to be himself, he began to question his ultimate value to the team. In his darkest moments he had wondered what would happen when he let them down one too many times.


So he had left, because he had stopped being able to see what he contributed. And, in some small part, he left before they could leave him. Because people died, and with all the powers of the universe maybe he could stop that from happening. Because if he could love them from a distance, he could pretend he was doing it for the right reasons and not because he was terrified he no longer belonged.


He had thought he had conquered that fear when he Descended. Seeing the looks on their faces when he came back, he had known he was missed. While they had truly accepted Jonas as part of the team, for the first time he had seen the difference when they said good-bye. No memory of who he was, but he had seen that. Jonas was a teammate. Daniel was family.


Then it had disappeared and he still did not know why.


It had seemed okay, at first. That week at Jack's cabin had been...good. Very good. Then, over the weeks that followed he had felt something inside start to shake and cower in fear. An amorphous terror had gripped him every time he was around Jon, around his team, and he had had to run, get away from them, before he threw up. It had been slipping away and his only grip on sanity was the thing driving him crazy.


Things had gotten better after Jon had gotten the flyer route for them.


Here, this summer, listening to his friends breathe, he had almost felt like a kid sharing a bedroom with his brothers and sister. Like they were truly growing up together. They were part of him now and he no longer feared to lose them. They might grow apart, things might change, but he belonged to them and for the first time in his life he was ready to believe that.


Hard work still waited on them. The farm chores, splitting wood, and the flyer routes they had decided to maintain. School. The rest of the house. But this summer had been the first step. The adventure. Looking back, he had not expected it to be so hard. But...


Life was good.


He found himself smiling as he listened to Jon and Will discuss the relative merits of brown eggs over white. He supposed they could get half a dozen layers of each. They'd need a rooster too. Crap. They had been to enough farm planets to discover that the rooster crowing at dawn was a myth. Those suckers crowed ALL the time.


The power company was coming next week, the cable and internet people the week after. Jon's birthday was officially October 15 and Daniel knew for a fact Jon had already booked his driver's test. The car insurance was set for the 15th and Alex had arranged for the car to be inspected and certified next week. As soon as she had the papers in hand, she was heading to register it in Jon's name. Just in time for his birthday. A car and Phase One and cake. Daniel grinned.


Maybe they should get him a couple of chickens.


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



It had snowed.


Alex peered out the apartment window and rubbed away some of the fog. Yep, snow. Lots of it.


"Well, if that isn't good timing," Jon mumbled, coming to stand at her shoulder. He considered that statement."Or bad. Depending on how you look at it."


"I'll see if Tim is interested in making some extra money," she said, pulling out her cell phone. As she walked toward the now empty kitchen, she let out a small sigh of relief. Very good timing. Once she was out of sight, she put her cell phone in her pocket. She did not have to call Tim. He had already agreed to help them finish the flyer route this morning, as well as give them a lift back to the farm.


Jon had very vocally wondered why they had moved everything out of the apartment yesterday, two weeks before the lease expired. He had also been more than a little argumentative about moving the furniture while they were still relying on bikes to deliver the flyers and he would not be able to drive the car until after his driver's test on Monday. Since they had spent the evening bundling flyers, and then sleeping on the living room floor of the empty apartment, he had had a point. The argument they had used was the fact that Friday was an in-service day and Tim had been willing to put himself and his truck at their disposal. Truthfully?


They absolutely had to be home this evening.


Tim was as good as his word and they managed to get everything delivered by five-thirty. As they loaded the bikes in the back of the truck she saw a slight look of disappointment cross Jon's face. For all the years they had known him, a birthday dinner out had been traditional. Mostly it had resulted from the fact that gifts to military personnel were constrained by very rigid rules and amounts. She especially had not had a choice in the matter. So a birthday dinner at a nice restaurant had become the norm.


She, Will, and Daniel had decided it was time to start a new tradition.


Sadly, a telescope had been out of the question. The system he wanted was too expensive. They had known that Phase One would take most of their resources so had been restricted to saving small amounts all summer from the personal allowances they had given themselves. While it would have been easy to hide some of the money she earned through the shop, it had been the principal of the thing. This was a gift from them to him, and it had been right to use personal funds for this purchase.


Motion sensitive lights came on, and she marvelled at the difference a single day had made. They were home. This was their house. Tim--who had finally gotten over his crush--helped them unload their bikes and sleeping bags, then promised to pick them up Monday morning. Daniel and Will headed off to feed the cow and pigs, while Jon got a fire going in the wood-stove. Technically, he had a chore-free day today as it was his birthday. In reality, it was a new tradition they had invented to keep him out of the barn.


Daniel gave her a discreet wink when he and Will returned, stamping snow off their boots and flexing chilled fingers. She gave a quick sigh of relief. So far, so good. Daniel mopped the melted snow from the floor; they really were going to have to look into building a mud room, she thought absently. She suspected they would be using the kitchen as their primary entrance since it faced the barns and the garden.

The electric heat was permanently set to keep the house just above zero to protect the pipes, and while the kitchen was starting to warm up nicely, she ducked into the living room to turn up the heat in that room. The room was enormous, and eventually, the room would be partitioned. They were thinking second bathroom and utility room, the location of the shared wall making it the ideal place for the hot water heater. Maybe some sort of still room for Jon's cheese-making and wine-making projects, as well. Something easy to keep clean and disinfected. For now, at Will's suggestion they had hung inexpensive fabric around the section containing the washer/dryer and water heater. Their combined furniture turned the remainder into a comfortable living area.


It was a bit odd with the tile on the floor, but a throw rug from her apartment warmed it up visually, and between her computer, Will's TV, Jon's Playstation, and Daniel's stereo, they were wired for sound. She began lighting candles. She could hear Will and Daniel rummaging around upstairs and knew they were gathering packages.


Dinner was right where they left it, hiding in a cooler of ice,


Stuffed baked potatoes and Louisiana ribs were pulled out of boxes and popped into the wood-stove while Jon was in the bathroom. The birthday cake was in another cooler and the niblet corn came with its own butter sauce. All she had to do was throw it in the microwave seven minutes before the ribs were done.


Sweet.


Dinner accounted for, they quickly moved the coffee table into the kitchen and moved the kitchen table into the living room. A cheap vinyl tablecloth pressed to look like lace went over the top. Daniel set the table while Will kept an eye on the food and she hung a few balloons and a Happy Birthday banner. By the time Jon was out of the shower, everything was ready.


He brightened as the smell hit him, and he hammed up the double-take, taking true pleasure in the surprise. Dinner was cheerful and filling.


"Time to open your presents," Daniel announced.


Jon paused, scraping at the last of his corn. "No cake first?"


Will leaned back slightly. "I'm full, O'Neill. Why do we not partake of the cake later?"


A muffled cough came from Daniel as Jon's eyes practically crossed. Will, full? On what planet? He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Alex hastily dropped a manilla envelope in front of him.


"This is not really a birthday gift, more of a housewarming present."


Slender fingers slid the heavy bond ivory paper from the envelope. He read it slowly, a confused look in his eyes until he got about halfway through. Then his eyes widened and dropped to the three signatures at the bottom. The paper settled onto the table and he rubbed the tips of his fingers over the textured paper carefully.


"I don't know what to say," he said, the stunned look in his eyes still pinwheeling.


Daniel shrugged."You don't have to say anything. You do an insane amount of work around here, and you're the only one not getting paid for it."


They were pooling their funds for the moment, but the general idea was that once they knew what their household expenses were--food, car, mortgage, cable, etc--they would divide it by four and that would be their monthly "rent". In addition, they had all agreed to pay 10% of their net income into the household account to cover on-going investments into the property. The amount was never expected to cover major construction costs, but small renovations were possible. Daniel had laughingly called it a tithe.


What that piece of paper stated, was that the three of them agreed to pay an additional ten percent, the amount to be used to pay the salary of the household manager. In this case, one Jonathan O'Neill.


The fact was, Jon was the one keeping everything coordinated. Personal schedules aside, out of habit if nothing else they were informing him of any problems and the suggested solutions. Ruefully she acknowledged that when she and Daniel got focused on something, they might as well be offworld for all they noticed anything else around them. It had become Jon's responsibility to make sure that all suggestions meshed well with everything else going on. With multiple projects, multiple schedules, and now multiple incomes deriving from the property, Jon was the one to juggle the budget,pay the bills, and generally make sure nothing conflicted. It had been a simple translation of his duties as CO of SG-1, and it was a role in which he felt comfortable.


The result however, was that even had he wanted too, he did not have the time to take a part-time job. He was the one filling in the gaps, taking the chores that conflicted badly with existing schedules, cooking half the meals because they were too busy, spending his time making small repairs and keeping track of the odd jobs that needed doing and whose turn it was to do them. Hell, those white boards were her lifeline.


Several of the parents had noticed Will's manner with the children during the Clean-Up. One of them, an SGC tech, had approached him about martial arts lessons for his daughter. When Will had admitted he was interested, Jon had immediately sat down and helped him figure out the details. Taxes, contracts, insurance. Then, when the tech sergeant had told his friends at the SGC and a few of them had thought the idea marvelous, Jon cheerfully answered the phone, answered questions, and did the whole business routine that would have frustrated and confused Will.


The Paintball Academy was a labor of love, one they were all committed to, but one where the lion's share of the work fell to Jon. When they added it up, he was working as hard as the rest of them, and providing essential service and support. That he had not complained or even seemed to notice an injustice was a side-effect of the strength of character that defined a man committed to a life of service.


So...


Less than he was worth, but that would have been true no matter how much they paid him. And if they had set the amount too high, he would have protested. Matching the household investment amount had seemed poetic, after all, the work he did was an investment in their incomes. They estimated that with 10%, he could afford to buy the telescope system he wanted in just over a year.


Watching him trace the lines of their signatures however, Alex had a feeling the paper under his hands was literally more valuable to him. He gently slid the paper back into its protective envelope and carefully placed it out of reach of candlewax or drink spills.


"You still have presents to open, O'Neill," Will advised, impatient to get to the final gift.


Alex rolled her eyes and handed over a gaily wrapped parcel. His eyes lit up with pleasure when he saw the cover of the Playstation game. Truthfully, she had no idea what the game was about, she had picked it for the theme. Poochinski's Revenge, it was called.


Daniel's gift was also welcomed, although she noticed a slight frown starting to build. She supposed DVD versions of 'Old Yeller', "Lassie Come Home', and "Rin Tin Tin" were a bit odd, but then--dogs were his favorite people.


By the time he slowly opened Will's gift, a brightly colored dog collar, they were all grinning madly. She could not read his eyes, but when she handed him his boots, there was a slight tremble in his fingertips.


They ran all the way to the second barn and he followed.


The puppy raised a sleepy head to peer at the man who cautiously approached the cage and fell to his knees. Alex chewed on the inside of her lip when Jon did not move, just stared at the pup.


Maybe they should have gotten the purebred. They had meant to get the purebred. Hell, they had discussed it for hours trying to decide what breed. It had to be an active dog, a sporting type dog. Intelligent and loving. They also wanted a dog good with kids and strangers considering how many of each would be dropping by. They had settled on a collie and had researched the local breeders obsessively.


Five weeks ago they had biked out to their first choice, a professional Collie breeder with a top-notch reputation for show-quality flyball dogs. She was also involved with training Search and Rescue dogs. They had studied the puppies carefully, uncertain which they wanted. Then Will had gone to his knees near a far pen and stared inside. The breeder had looked surprised and apologized profusely. Those puppies were not supposed to be there in the display pens. The mother had been purchased recently and no one had known she was pregnant. They had no idea who or what the father was.


Will had looked up."We should take this one."


The puppy in question was determined to get out of the cage and explore. His paws were enormous and Alex suspected they were a good indicator of his eventual size. A wicked intelligence gleamed in his eyes and the semi-erect ears combined with his muddled markings suggested some sort of Sheppard ancestry. Maybe.


In spite of his aggressive exploration, when she cradled him on his back, he lay quiescent and gazed at her calmly. A shiver had gone through her, and as much as she believed in the list they had made, something told her that Will was right. This was Jon's dog. Daniel, playing with the puppy's paws, just nodded when she had asked if he agreed. The breeder had looked doubtfully at the puppy when they asked how much, then named a price that was almost over their budget for a purebred dog. The mother, apparently, was an extremely valuable animal.


The breeder assured them that if they changed their mind, they were welcome to use their deposit toward any of the other puppies that might remain later. They told her they would think about it, then Daniel asked if it would be okay to visit. Not to stay long, but just to get the puppy used to them so he would not be scared when he went home.


The breeder had given them a long look, then nodded. They visited twice more, but did not handle the puppy too much. The breeder had asked why and Will had advised her that the puppy was to be the dog of another, so they did not wish to bond with the animal before the two had a chance to meet. The breeder had blinked, then spent ten minutes watching them play gently with the other puppies.


Alex fell in love with one young female and when they went to pay for the puppy, she could not help one last wistful look at the collie pup. The breeder had paused while filling out the paperwork to look at her shrewdly. She had commented casually that the young Collie was only a hundred dollars more.


Alec had smiled wryly,"You have no idea how tempting that is, but we're buying the dog for someone else. Don't get me wrong, Jon would love her. But that other pup was born for him. If you ever met him, you'd know."


In fact, the older the puppy got, the more it became evident--at least to them. The intelligence and warmth of the dog's character shone in his eyes every time he saw them. One ear had started to straighten, but the other had remained at half mast giving him a cocky attitude. Take me or leave me, he seemed to say, but if you love me, I'm going to love you back with every thing I am.


Alex had smiled softly and laughed."That's Jon's dog."


Before she could think about it, she had pulled out an envelope containing carefully counted twenty dollar bills. With only a slight twinge of doubt, she handed over the money. The dealer had weighed it in her hand carefully, then handed it back.


"The pup's yours. The deposit will cover my costs on his shots, so call it even."


Alex had looked at the money in confusion."I don't understand."


The breeder glanced over to where Will and Daniel were sitting beside Jon's puppy. "If you were to ask me to point out the two puppies who will make the best show dogs, you walked right by them. None of you glanced at either of them." The breeder shook her head. "But if you were to ask me which two I'd train for Search and Rescue, the kind of dog that will give you everything he has because you ask, in other words, which two puppies have the most heart, you picked both."


Alex looked over at the puppy, then shook her head. "I just know that's Jon's dog."

The breeder smiled."Then that's your answer."


Watching Jon stare at the puppy, she began to wonder if maybe a dog had been a bad idea. Maybe he did not want to be tied down by the kind of commitment a dog represented. Maybe he would have preferred to chose the dog himself. But it had felt right. They had all agreed.


She almost jumped when Jon carefully opened the cage door and let the puppy sniff his hands. Without hesitation, the puppy tried to climb into Jon's lap and Alex heard a soft laugh. Then Jon was cradling the puppy in his arms and when he turned around her heart jolted so hard she thought it had stopped. He was happy. Bright, uncomplicated, wide-eyed wonder and delight shone in his eyes as the pup squirmed to lick at his face, then settled into his arms trustingly.


"I can't believe you got me a dog," he said softly.


"To be completely accurate O'Neill, the dog was always yours. We simply located him for you," Will told him.


Jon rubbed his face against the puppy's fur and smiled. "I like the sound of that. Don't understand it, but I like the sound of it."


The puppy had promptly fallen asleep and Daniel grinned. "That's definitely your dog, Jon."


Jon glanced down at the sleeping puppy, then up, a searching look that encompassed the entire team appearing in his eyes.


"Mine, huh?" he asked softly.


Alex smiled contentedly.


That was the answer.


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

Sergeant Harris winced as his daughter stumbled over her own feet and only saved herself by making a wild grab for the counter top. She flushed a vivid shade of purple and fled through the hallway door into the unfinished part of the house.


Jon shook his head sympathetically.


"You know,"Harris said,"I thought the martial arts lessons would help her coordination, improve her confidence."


Which only worked if the teenager in question was watching where she was going.


Jon sighed. "She's doing fine with the lessons. Will says she will be, and I quote, an accomplished warrior who will give much credit to her family, end quote"


A baffled expression entered Harris's eyes."Do you think it's magic?" he asked in a mocking semi-whisper.


Jon followed his gaze to the kitchen table where Daniel sat reading, completely oblivious to both teenage adoration and the chaos around him as parents dropped off children for one last lesson before the Christmas break. Wanting to enjoy the school vacation, both Will and Alex were taking the time off between the end of exams and the New Year.


Jon contemplated his friend for a moment. "I don't think he does it on purpose," he replied doubtfully.


Harris chuckled.


They had hoped to use the barn as a training room, but two of the students had allergies. Between the tractor, the animals, and the hay, they decided that using the unfinished rooms on the first floor of Phase Two would be best until they could build something better.


Daniel suspected that the two rooms on the right had originally been some sort of dining room for the commune. In fact, all the dividing walls in the house appeared to have been added by Patterson about thirty years ago. They had reopened the long, rectangular room when they cannabalized the dividing wall to build the temporary bedrooms upstairs. So when Will's single class of five morphed into two classes of twelve, three days of sanding with belt sanders and several coats of varnish had smoothed the floor to a splinter-free finish appropriate for the use of bare feet. When it started getting colder, they hurriedly installed insulation, gyp-rock, and baseboard heaters running off the generator. Ironically, the training room had been finished and in use long before Phase One.


Given that everyone at the SGC knew what they were, they had not been completely surprised to find several parents willing to place their kids in the nominal care of a fifteen-year-old boy without an official black-belt. Following Alex's lead, Will and Jon had settled on a price consistent with the market and his experience, and made no compromises as a result of his apparent age. No one seemed to think this unreasonable. As Harris had put it, he was damn sure Will would keep his daughter from hurting herself. Nor did he have to worry about the other sorts of dangers that haunt the minds of parents with pretty young daughters. And, Harris had added bluntly, all said and done, he was relieved his daughter would know how to defend herself against Jaffa fighting techniques.


The shock had been the slow but steady trickle of Special Ops parents starting to drift in on a carefully worded SGC referral. Jon recognized the body language of several of the soldiers casually evaluating Will. The soldiers had known what skill sets they were seeing and astonishingly, those open-minded enough to check them out in the first place, seemed willing to overlook their nominal ages. Jon had a feeling that Hailey's story about training with the "guerrillas" had begun making the rounds, but he also made a note to pass the soldiers' names on to Jack for consideration. Open-mindedness and Special Ops training were combined traits the SGC needed badly.


There was no doubt that Will was good for the kids. Uncompromising in what he expected from them, he never asked more than they could give, and his Warrior approach and peaceful attitude had already made a big impression--especially with some of the more rebellious teen-age boys. Several of the parents had watched in disbelief as grades immediately started going up in school, and one timid young girl, after meeting Alex, announced she wanted to join the school hockey team. Will was happy. The parents were happy. His team was happy, so Jon was happy.


Life was damn good.


Actually, Will was more than happy. The frustrated instincts of a Jaffa Master had found a new purpose in training the young warriors of the Tau'ri. Aided by the awe and respect he was accorded by the members of the Paintball Academy and the tacit approval of the warriors of the SGC who were leaving their children in his care, Will was becoming content. It still bothered him, not being able to fight the Goa'uld directly, but unlike the rest of them, he was used to taking the long view. The fact that most of these kids--if any of them--were a decade away from joining the battle, bothered him not at all.


Alex was making an obscene amount of money doing something she loved. Her small cadre of clients had grown again after Stevens was given the boot. These were powerful men familiar with being used for their money, and many of them were finding a haven in being able to safely discuss, ramble, and otherwise share their passion with another enthusiast. Jon had not been joking when he said she loved those cars. That she was pretty and unavailable did not hurt. The competitive warrior instinct was alive and well in these men, Jon admitted wryly. But they had no qualms about taking her advice. Not that she would let them. Her personal sense of worth shone through and the men were instinctively reacting to her command training and the confidence her military experience gave her. As men with nothing to prove, they were okay with that.


More than okay.


Alex had thought the winter months would be a slow period, but apparently they just meant a chance for the cars to receive overhauls and restoration work that would have kept them off the roads during the too brief summer months. Alex had warned Daniel to keep her shop schedule to no more than 20 hours a week, and she was already booked until February. Which did not mean that at any given time two or three of her fellow enthusiasts could not be found lounging in the shop during official open hours and communing with the owner of the vehicle currently being repaired. They came, nominally to ask a question, drop off a car, get some advice,or hire her to accompany them to an auction so they could get her opinion on a potential purchase. Then they stayed to chat.


It was,Jon thought with amusement, not unlike the way Special Forces soldiers tended to gather in bars.


Helping out with the Paintball Academy and, occasionally, with Will's training classes, was going a long way to soothing her need to actively help fight for the planet. Ironically, the taking of Dakara was both a good thing and a bad thing. The guilt for sitting on the sidelines while Earth fought a losing war was lessening, but her need to explore, to just see what was out there had taken its place.


As a result, she had thrown herself into her classes with such a will to absorb everything that might be of use, she was finding school a challenge for the first time. Carter's genius was math-based, thus her ability with science and computers. History and people, political motivations and such, were things she had tended to ignore, relying on Daniel for that sort of expertise. Now, it was not unusual for the dinner-time conversation to include a rapid-fire four-way analysis of ancient and not so ancient battles from tactical, scientific, historic,and political points of view.


It made for interesting meals, anyway.


Their teachers had started to run for cover.


Daniel was in his element and his inventory control system was frankly a little scary. While the car parts themselves held no particular interest, his inner negotiator was gleefully plotting to take over the world as each new discovery got him one step closer to wringing parts on the Want List from salvagers far and wide. As soon as Jon's license came through, Alex and Daniel had tossed him behind the wheel of the tow truck and headed for Denver.


With four trips behind them, they had yet to come home without something. The first had been a RAM350 Diesel Crewcab with serious bodywork issues and an engine with warped heads. Alex had muttered something about getting Siler to give her access to the base Mech shop and they bought it for less than $700. On the trip home, she and Daniel began discussing the practical and economic aspects of manufacturing bio-diesel. It was a subject Jon had some interest in ever since the military went 80/20 in an attempt to reduce their dependence on imported oil and he joined in the conversation with enthusiasm.


If they could generate enough bio-diesel to run the truck, tow truck, and tractor, that would increase the farm's ability to support itself without relying on Will or Alex. In spite of the money they were earning, cash was tight. There was a training facility to build come spring and Alex continually needed to invest in several expensive tools for the shop. She had also just purchased a used computer for Daniel's office in order to help speed up and streamline the inventory process.


Twice, Daniel had them purchase particular cars. Alex had protested saying she would never be able to repair them. Daniel had told her that he knew someone selling parts on a certain sub-section of her Want List and that this guy was always looking for parts from these models. Daniel figured he could trade the parts and get what she wanted for a fraction of the asking price.


Alex stopped protesting.


The fourth car was a crumpled old Buick that Alex bought solely for the transmission--although Daniel assured her he could trade anything else she got off it. The transmission had been on her Want List and she practically cackled with glee when she got the car for $100.


The fifth car was a gift for Daniel. During the same auction where they got one of his parts cars, they had seen him gazing longingly at a Volkswagen, of all things. For some reason, he had fallen completely in love with it. It was only about fifteen years old, but it had been badly maintained and the body needed serious work. The insurance company had written it off and the bid minimum was practically non-existent. The time it would take to rebuild it made it impossible for the average mechanic to make any money given current market prices. And most of the salvagers would have no use for it as Daniel had mentioned that the resale value on the parts for this model was minimal.


Alex left during the bid process, saying she had seen someone she needed to talk to. Jon saw her slipping her cell phone out of her pocket as she went, and when the Volkswagen went to a call-in bidder at a ridiculously low price, Jon was not surprised when she whispered that he would need to come back later for the car. It was now hiding in the shop under four layers of tarps and a solemn promise from Alex that if anyone so much as coughed on her client's car, she was going to shoot someone.


Given the worth of some of her clients' cars, Daniel believed her.


Much to Daniel's ongoing disgust, his USAF-created birthday was not until April 3. Alex was street-legal on January 28 and Will's nominal birthday was March 17. Daniel's personal opinion was that someone had taped up a calendar and thrown darts at the wall. Alex was confident she could get the Volkswagen restored in time, and Jon and Will both volunteered labor and money.


"So, Jon...Merry Christmas."


He tuned back into the conversation to see Harris grinning at him slyly and holding out a bottle of wine.


"Nothing wrong with a little wine at Christmas is there?" Harris asked conversationally.


Jon smiled back. "Nothing at all. Thank-you."


He would be drinking more wine than beer over the holidays he thought as he opened a cupboard and placed the bottle next to three table wines, a dessert wine and four boxes with a duck on the front. There was a pleasant conspiracy of forgetfulness taking over the SGC. Carmichael would have to look into that, Jon thought with a smile.


Military personnel did not buy alcohol for minors. Not going to happen. He still regretted asking Harley to buy him that six-pack. But military personnel might, oh, bring a case of beer to drink while they waited for their children to finish a martial arts lesson. If said soldier did not actually stay for the lesson, or actually drink any of the beer, who was to say he did not just accidentally forget to take the beer with him when he left.


It did not happen often, but enough that he was not feeling deprived. He had never been a heavy drinker, but he liked beer and it had been one of the hardest things to adjust to, not being allowed to buy it anymore. So far, his attempts to brew the stuff had not gone well. Such a small thing in many ways, but he had lost track of the times where a good steak and a beer had been the only thing on his mind after a long mission. The meal had just sort of signified that he was home.


Daniel could care less, and Will did not like the taste, so it was mostly he and Carter sharing the forgotten beer after dinner.


And that was nice too.


Merry Christmas.


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


"Hey Alex,"Daniel said cautiously,"there's a guy here to see you."


There had been no way to hide her little project from him, not when he was running all over the shop at all hours and only a week before Christmas. Not to mention, he was the one trading for the parts. But he had been sworn to secrecy and knew enough to keep an eye over his shoulder when she was working on it.


She cocked a curious eyebrow.


"I think he's the guy with the horse-trailer," Daniel responded.


She dropped her tools immediately and followed him into the office, carefully locking the door behind her. The man standing there glanced over her shoulder, then when no one else appeared, looked at her with surprise.


She must be getting used to the reaction, she thought, when the usual feeling of annoyance did not arise. More likely she just wanted to get her hands on his merchandise, she countered herself with a mental chuckle.


"I understand you need a car for your daughter," she said leadingly.


Surprise vanished and the man instantly nodded. Points to him, Alex thought approvingly.


"Yes... she goes to school in September and she won't have much money. I wanted to get something reliable, good on gas." the expression of hope in his eyes had her discretely scanning his clothes. Inexpensive and well-cared for, but not new. The same for the car she could see out the office window.


She chewed her lip thoughtfully.


Daniel smiled."You said she was taking Biochemistry?"


The man's eyes lit up and he proudly launched into a brief description of his daughter's hopes and dreams. The perfect picture of a devoted parent. As she listened, she realized Daniel had steered the conversation toward the trailer.


"...really her mother's horses, and when she died two years ago I wasn't ready to sell them. But we need the money to pay for Julie's tuition next year. Without the horses we don't need the trailer, so I'd like to try and get a good car. If she can live at home, we can save on the residence costs."


She saw Daniel frowning thoughtfully. The Buick was ready to go, and while it would be safe, it would guzzle gas on a long daily commute. It might also not be the easiest car for a young driver to manage. The '64 Volkswagen would be an easy sell, the body work and lime green paint job she had given it were guaranteed to appeal to a young college student, but again, the kind of mileage the girl would put on the car would be...


She made up her mind and gestured for the man to follow her.


With the experienced eye of an archaeologist, Daniel had seen the faint outlines at one end of the barn suggesting cellar-type doors under a forty year covering of earth and grass. Excavation had revealed two large hinged doors that looked like they might be original. When they swung them open, they realized that the original farmer had built the basement to house cattle. The stalls had been removed, and someone had laid a cement floor. The entire space had been empty except for a few scattered bits and pieces of rope and metal hanging from the walls. She suspected the commune had used it for storage and Jon and Will had built an interior stairway leading down from Daniel's office.


The same gradual slope that had made the entrance safe for cattle had made it the perfect driveway, and the barn was wide enough to sit the cars three to a row with room to work. Alex and the guys had spent one Sunday moving all the vehicles she thought she could repair into the basement, with the cars being first in line to be repaired, being closest to the exit. The Buick and the Volkswagen were clearly visible near the outside doors and predictably, the man's hopeful gaze fixated on the lime green paint.


When Alex headed for a car in the middle of the pack, he trailed after her a bit confused. Daniel raised both eyebrows when he saw where she was heading, but he stayed silent.


She turned to look at the man behind her.


"Mr..."


"Jennings,"he responded automatically."Frank Jennings."


She smiled. "We're looking for Christmas gift, Mr. Jennings, for a very good friend. If you are open to something a little out of the ordinary, I have a car I think you'll be happy with."


She pointed to boxy four-door sitting on blocks next to him. "That is a 1989 Volvo, with moderate mileage and a lot of rust. It needs the engine rebuilt, new brake lines, a gas tank, and a few other misc repairs. The transmission however, is in great shape. If you are interested, I promise to have this car running properly, and looking as good as that Volkswagen by the end of April, and Julie can even pick the paint color. I'm willing to guarantee my work for a year. I'll have Daniel add it to the contract."


Jennings' eyes had widened at the word Volvo and kept on going. His worried look eased when the word contract appeared and he studied the rusty car, then looked back at the Volkswagen, attempting to imagine the way the Volvo should look. He had done his research and was obviously aware a running Volvo, completely overhauled, was worth a lot more than the advertised price of his horse trailer.


"I can't afford to give you any money. I've just got the trailer," he said slowly.


"And I can't get this car finished sooner than April," Alex pointed out.


Jennings flicked his gaze back and forth between Alex and Daniel, and a split second of curious appraisal entered his eyes. Before she could wonder what he was thinking, he smiled abruptly, and held out his hand,"What say we call it even?"


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


Jon walked around the horse trailer and whistled through his teeth.


"This is fantastic. And he's willing to wait for the car?"


Daniel sprayed some Windex on a rag and started on the tiny windows. "He's getting a good deal and he knows it. The Volvo will be worth three times what he could get for the horse-trailer. He's mostly just happy his daughter will be driving a reliable car, though."


"Good man," Jon said.


Daniel paused, then nodded."I think so."


Alex rounded the other end of the trailer with a rotary sander and a handful of safety gear.


"Is the paint going to have time to dry?" Jon asked.


She nodded.


Jon grinned happily."Cool. Very cool."


It had taken some careful timing, but they had managed to get the doors shovelled off and Jon had taken Will out to the movies not ten minutes before Jennings arrived with the trailer. It was now safely stored in the basement of the barn, near enough to the doors that Alex could get good venting while she repainted it. The faded yellow color had probably been cheerful ten years ago, but a quick coat of paint would brighten it up. They were painting it black, to match the eventual color of the Ram 350.


Jon had suggested yellow and orange flames down the sides. Muttering that it was going to look like it was hauling dirt bikes instead of horses, Daniel had nevertheless hopped online and found a pattern they all liked.


Will's desire to raise horses had taken them all by surprise. They had been sitting in the living room, Daniel and Carter reading, Will and Jon watching TV. Jon had muted the commercials and was about to head for the kitchen when Will had looked around the room.


"I wish to purchase some Canadian horses."


Jon had blinked,then said the first thing to come to mind."Something wrong with the American ones?"


Daniel, who had dropped his book, had frowned, "That's the name of the breed." He continued to gaze at Will, thinking hard."Didn't we watch a documentary on them a week ago?"


Will inclined his head."Indeed. They are a noble animal." He turned to face an astonished Jon."Were you aware O'Neill, that almost 200,000 of these horses were imported into the United States over the course of the Civil War as mounts for soldiers, and to pull cannons and wagons. Their stamina, steadfastness of character, strength of body, and loyalty made them ideal for this purpose and they are, in fact, the foundation stock for many popular modern breeds including the Morgan and the Tennessee Walking horse."


Will appeared completely unaware of the fascinated gazes of his friends as they listened to him extol the virtues of an animal they did not even know if he could ride.


"As a direct result of heavy losses during battle, and the desire of many farmers to crossbreed the characteristics of this race of horses into their own herds, this animal has been driven almost to the point of extinction. They were bred to serve and their masters failed to protect them. This is not the fate deserved by so fine a beast, O'Neill."


Jon just nodded dumbly.


"Such an animal would be welcomed among the warriors and on the farms of Dakara," Will said.


"It will take decades to breed a large number of horses, Will," Alex said softly.


"It will take generations to build Dakara," Will replied. "And I have decades."


The room was silent.


"You could look at raising breeding stock, selling them as breeding pairs," Daniel said hesitantly.


Jon had looked at Will as Alex and Daniel hopped on-line to research the breed.


"You know this is nuts, right?"


Will smiled calmly."It is the honorable thing to do."


Jon sighed."Yes. Well...how much do they cost?"


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


They had considered buying him a foal, but felt it would not be appropriate. This was something Will was doing for his people. Besides, it would not be fair, to take his first purchase from him. He was researching the situation meticulously, reading everything about the six active genetic lines. He was having difficulty making his final decision on whether to focus on one line or all of them.


He had decided to keep the dominant black coat with the long kinky mane and tail. He wanted a horse that was visually distinctive and Daniel thought it was a cool marketing idea. Unfortunately, the temperament traits Will wanted belonged to two lines containing alternate coat colors. He had been torn between compromising what he wanted temperamentally, or cross-breeding for temperment, and then inbreeding for the coat color. Alex suggested cross-breeding. It would take longer, but they could reduce the number of generations needed by DNA-testing for any recessive genes determining coat color, once he had the right combination of personality traits in the parents. Daniel pointed out that his culls would still be highly desirable on Earth, which meant he could sell them for cash or trade them for a different horse.


The vote to put the RAM 350 in Will's name was unanimous. Since they all had access to the vehicle, it was a purely symbolic gesture, but it had felt right. They had settled on a horse trailer as the perfect Christmas gift and Jon and Daniel had both worked like demons to help her get the Buick and Volkswagen ready to sell before Christmas. Unfortunately, no one was buying. Daniel had been looking into trading one of the vehicles when he stumbled across Jennings' newspaper ad requesting cash or trade.


Alex did not regret the deal she had made. The actual cost of the parts and labor for the Volvo were equal to what the trailer was worth. The fact she could ultimately sell the Volvo for three times that price was a null issue as far as she was concerned. They got a Christmas gift in time for Christmas and Jennings got a reliable car that was not going to cost a fortune in gas or need repairs three months into his daughter's first semester.


As Jennings said, call it even.

The downside was that now she had two last minute projects to complete and only four more days until Christmas. Leaving Daniel to finish the the sanding on the trailer, she locked the door to the shop and turned to look at project number two.


Hot damn, she was good.


Now, she just needed to be fast.


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


A Christmas elf named Daniel had exploded all over Project Sinking Ship.


"Can I go into sugar shock, now? Please?" Jon requested plaintively as the strains of Bing Crosby's 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' started again for the 84th time. In the living room, Jim Carey stole Christmas, their electric bill from the Christmas lights was going to rival the National Debt, and there was tinsel, tinsel, everywhere.


Except below four feet, because T.J. tried to eat it.


"You're one to talk," Alex muttered.


"What?"


Alex smiled brightly."Nothing."


Jon stared suspiciously, then hurumphed. T.J. barked once in counterpoint, then went back to mauling a red and white knitted Santa Claus toy. The one lazy ear that had never straightened flapped manically with every growl and bob of his head. Alex stared morbidly at his paws. The dog was going to be a monster by the time he stopped growing. Her Tazmanian Devil slippers had been the latest casualty in the canine-human conflict called social understanding. He had been suitably contrite when she discovered he had killed the left one. However, the minute she went hunting for his absent master, he terminated the right one.


Good thing he was cute.


"Hey Alex!" Daniel carolled,"Mistletoe!"


This was the third time in an hour and she was beginning to think the Baby Duck and orange juice had gone straight to his head. Before she could react, Will grabbed Daniel's face and planted a noisy kiss on his cheek.


Daniel dropped the mistletoe in shock.


In a flash T.J. was across the kitchen and up the stairs. Jon, who was doubled over laughing, gasped,"Oh crap. T.J. come back here. Drop that." Then he, Will, and Daniel were barrelling up the stairs after the fleeing dog and she could hear the thunder of paws and feet across the ceiling.


She picked up Daniel's abandoned Mimosa and tasted it. Not bad. She continued to drink as she rearranged the contents of the Christmas baskets on the counter. There was one for General O'Neill, one for Harper, one for Coach Rivers, and one for each of their teachers--although those were more in the nature of apologies rather than thank-yous. One for Patterson, one for Lt. Hailey, and one for Tim. There was even one for Mr. O'Reilly from the building salvage yard. He had helped them out a lot this summer, holding stuff on credit and delivering it at no extra cost. There was also one for the dog breeder-- Alex had tucked in a couple of pictures of T.J.--and one for each of the Paintball Academy students.


They had originally planned to donate some baskets to the local Food Bank, then decided to target some of the kids at their schools who did not officially require aid, but whose families might be having a tough time this Christmas. A handful had family members in the hospital or had a parent who had just lost a job for one reason or another. Nothing unusual enough to put them on the radar for an official charity group, in fact, most would probably not consider asking for help as they were not going hungry. But recent events for those families were enough to strain budgets and make Christmas something stressful rather than joyful. They had quietly gathered fifteen names and added them to the list.


She smiled at the bottles of wine clearly marked 'Do Not Open 'til Christmas'. These were the results of Jon's first attempts at apple wine, and the results were surprisingly good. While it was illegal for minors to buy wine, it was apparently not illegal to buy wine-making equipment. Jon had purchased the pails and tubing back when the second orchard proved to be larger than they thought. Almost three acres larger.


He wanted to try a strawberry wine next.


She went down Daniel's checklist as the guys returned to the kitchen. Jon went back to working on something that smelled like pumpkin pie, while Will and Daniel continued to decorate the living room. Wine, check. Block of homemade cheddar, check. Block of homemade smoked cheddar, check. Strawberry jam, pumpkin marmalade, apple jelly, and salsa sauce, all checked. One jar of either bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, pickled beets, or pickled baby onions. All checked. One small container of honey, che...


"We don't have bees," she said, brow furrowed."Do we?"


"Clarence Atkins," Daniel said.


And he would be...?


"Jon pulled him out of the ditch in September. You fixed his Chevy."


Oh right. That had appeared on her schedule one morning. Jon never explained, she never bothered to ask.


"We got honey?"


"Lots of honey," Jon said smugly."And maple syrup. Daniel gave him a set of tires. We're also getting some plum trees in the spring, when it's warm enough to plant."


Oh.


One small container of honey, check. One small jar maple syrup, check. The guys must have rebottled both because she doubted Clarence Atkins used baby food jars with Christmas trees painted on them. Mint jelly, check. String of garlic,check.


"You realize these things are going to weigh a ton," she pointed out.


"It's Christmas," Jon replied.


The baskets, which were actually copy-paper boxes wrapped in cheap Christmas wrap, were beginning to look like miniature fields of red and green mushrooms. Will had disguised the recycled nature of the jars by attaching a red or green square of fabric to the metal lid with a colored elastic. Someone had been reading decorating magazines again, she could see. Jars on the bottom, everything else on top. Five pounds of apples, two pounds of pears, and a pound of walnuts completed the package. She added a bag of homemade cookies, and a card with their names and return address to each of the fifteen boxes headed for the kids from school. Since the food was not store-bought, and the recipients did not know them, Daniel thought they might feel uncomfortable eating it if they did not know where it came from.


Will and Daniel murmured approvingly as the lids were finally fitted on. Jon just rolled his eyes.


The walnuts had been a pleasant surprise. The harvest was relatively small given that the trees had not been pruned recently, but the tree doctor they had out to look at them assured them that with a little TLC, they would produce large harvests for years to come. The commune had planted several acres of walnut trees almost six decades previous. Twenty years ago, Patterson had sold most of the maturing trees as lumber. About a dozen of the smaller trees had survived the thinning, and the reduced competition had allowed them to grow unhindered and they were just starting to reach their peak productive years.


The pears were an even bigger surprise. For the most part, the fifty or so acres they used for the Paintball Academy was not usable farmland. Too rocky, too hilly, or too swampy. The real estate agent had written those acres off as worthless when appraising the land, although Jon had mumbled something about some of the trees being almost mature maples. Still, any maple syrup they managed to acquire would be sufficient for personal use only, not sale, so she supposed the agent had been technically correct.


The Paintball Academy had stumbled over the orchard during one of their exercises. The field had been little more than two and a half acres surrounded by a bowl of swamp and high rock. Too small to cut hay, too far away to comfortably graze cattle or grow vegetables, the running water from the brook that cut through it and the nearby swamp created a small micro-climate that left it frost free about six weeks longer than the land around it. The commune had taken advantage of the fact to turn it into a small pear orchard. Even without regular pruning, the harvest had been substantial. The tree doctor had identified two seperate varieties(apparantly two varieties were needed to pollinate), a soft pear he advised canning and a firmer pear he said would keep like apples right into the winter months. The Academy kids started bringing them bags of recycled jam jars, jelly jars, pickle jars, and baby food jars. They did not trust the recycled jars in the pressure canner, but anything that could be boiled was fair game.


They still ran out of jars.


And Daniel still wanted to plant cherry trees next spring.


The teachers were probably not going to be thrilled that they knew their home addresses, but they had not had time to get everything completed before school ended. Jon and Will started loading the boxes into the car. With almost sixty baskets to deliver, Jon and Daniel had promised to keep Will away from the farm for the entire afternoon and evening. With all of them gone, she could easily get everything else finished in plenty of time.


Jon was driving them all into Denver tomorrow to finish their Christmas shopping. She knew most people hated shopping on the 24th, but she loved it. Half the time, the stores were almost empty and the sales were great. After fighting Goa'uld, mud, bugs, and alien life-forms, she had never been in the mood to battle the Christmas shopper.


T.J. flopped down beside her and rested his head on her foot.


"Still alive are you?" she asked.


The puppy sighed.


"He's only been gone ten minutes. I think you'll survive."


Canine disbelief looked back at her. She groaned and rubbed his ears. He followed her into the living room and when she settled down to watch the rest of the Grinch, he stretched out beside her, head in her lap.


"It's a good thing, you're cute," she told him.


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

Christmas morning and it was a race for the bathroom in reverse.


He whose bladder caved first, got to freeze his--or her--feet on the cold tile. They had installed electric baseboards, but it took ten minutes for the bathroom to warm up. Being third in line was best. One of the guys would have had a shower leaving the bathroom nice and tropical. Plus, there would still be a reasonable chance of hot water. Three showers in a row was the limit on their hot water tank.


They were definitely making a second bathroom a priority.


Jon must have been up early because the wood-stove was roaring and the kitchen was toasty. Daniel was pouring coffee and she was just reaching for a mug when the front door opened and T.J. bounded in, covered in snow. Jon was right behind him and from the looks of him, he had been shovelling snow for a while.


Will appeared in the door of the living room. Reflexively she glanced upwards, but Daniel must have reconsidered the wisdom of the mistletoe.


"It is time to unwrap our stockings O'Neill."


"Jeez,"Jon protested,"Give me a minute will ya? I've been up for hours."


"Aren't we eating breakfast first?" Alex asked, confused.


"We are not," Will said.


Jon gazed after the Jaffa as he disappeared into the living room. "Apparently not," Jon answered.


Daniel grinned, then handed them mugs with snowmen on the front.


They trooped into the living room, Alex and Daniel grabbing spots on the sofa. Jon took the overstuffed chair they had found at a garage sale and after handing out the stockings, Will settled cross-legged on the floor near the Christmas tree. T.J. scampered and grabbed for the discarded paper as they unwrapped the obligatory pairs of socks and sticks of deodorant. Several pounds of candy and fruit later, they were ready to hand out the big gifts.


Will handed a gaily wrapped package to Jon. "This is from me, O'Neill."


Daniel leaned over to mock-whisper in Alex's ear,"As if we could not guess."


Alex snickered. The Star Wars wrapping paper was a bit of a clue.


Investigation revealed the first three seasons of the Simpsons collection on DVD, something Jon had refused to buy for some unknown reason. Whatever that reason was, either Will had decided to push the issue, or it had changed, because Jon looked genuinely delighted.


Will's expression was a bit more anxious as he handed over his gift to Daniel. Daniel unwrapped the package gingerly, then Alex heard nothing but a soft gasp as the wrapping fell away to reveal a wooden mortar and pestle. She heard him whisper,"Abydos." and she understood. Flashing back to Teal'c holding a 3000 year old Egyptian game piece and describing how Daniel connected to the past, she knew that for Daniel, touching the smooth surface of the bowl meant touching the sand that had rubbed it smooth. Sand that might still hide in cracks and lines of the bowl Will must have asked Teal'c to find for him. She wondered if this had somehow survived the blast, hidden in a cave somewhere, perhaps. Maybe even the same caves Skar'ra and the boys had hidden Daniel and Colonel O'Neill on that first trip through. Or maybe it had been sent through the Stargate along with the shipments of Naquada at some point in time and ended up at an offworld flea market. She supposed it did not matter.


Daniel closed his eyes and brought the bowl to his face, breathing deeply. When his eyes opened, they glistened with unshed tears.


"Thank-you," he said simply.


Will nodded, pleased, and reached for the next package.


Seeing the bright red wrapping paper, she shook her head. "Ah, not that one Will. Not yet."


Will gave the box a puzzled stare but obediently moved his hand to the next package.


"Er...not that one either," Daniel said sheepishly.


Will gave them exasperated glares.


Jon snorted and reached over and snagged an envelope off the tree and handed it to Daniel. A piece of plastic fell out and Alex saw Daniel's eyes widen. She leaned over and felt her own mouth drop in shock. How the heck...?


"It's an all-access pass to the university research library," Jon explained unnecessarily. "They said that since you're in the system, you'll also have access to online materials from other universities even though you're not faculty.


"I..."Daniel stammered,"I don't know what to say."he admitted. "How the hell did you get this?"


See a problem, solve a problem, Alex thought. And his casual shrug meant they were not going to get an answer. Obviously he had gotten someone involved. General O'Neill, maybe. Or Daniel.

"Who's next, Will?" Jon asked.


Will turned obediently toward the tree, then frowned in consternation. "I do not know."


Daniel scooped a variety of packages from beneath the tree and handed them to Will. They were themed to match the horse-trailer hiding in the barn. Daniel had gotten him a veterinary textbook on horses. Alex had given him a DVD copy of the Horse Whisperer, and Jon had decided on a VHS seminar on horse training given by the real horse whisperer, the man Robert Redford's character was based upon. Will studied the license plate that fell out of the last package with confusion.


Jon grabbed the plate,"Field trip, Will. We'll explain after Alex opens her gift."


"You might as well open your gift from me first," Daniel told him.


Jon ripped the paper off the box Daniel handed him, his eyes lighting up as he saw what it was. He looked up, curious, when only the removable face of the CD player fell out of the box.


"Alex has already installed it," Daniel said truthfully.


Jon grinned,"Excellent." He had been complaining about the lack of a CD player in the car for weeks.


Daniel bounced slightly on the sofa."Okay...Alex."


Will obediently picked up a large wicker basket and carried it to the sofa, a smug expression on his face. Alex gaped as he placed it at her feet.


The whole basket?


A seemingly endless array of gaily wrapped packages in all shades of red filled the basket and as she started to unwrap them, it did not take long for the underlying theme to become apparent. Strawberry. Soap, shower gel, shampoo and bath oil. Strawberry body spray, strawberry facial masque. Strawberry flavored lip gloss. When she got to the pink silk panties with strawberries on them, she lost it. The giggles shook her hands so badly that she almost dropped the book of strawberry recipes. The last item in the very bottom was a strawberry shaped card. She was not surprised to see all their signatures, but the key attached to a strawberry-shaped keychain was unexpected. She glanced at them, puzzled.


"And this would be why we haven't had breakfast yet, Carter," Jon told her gleefully."Field trip."


The guys dove for the door and shoved her into her winter clothes. Then they dragged her past the barn and stopped at the greenhouse. Jon and Will immediately began pulling back the hinged plywood covers and she realized this must have been what Jon had shovelled off this morning. Nor were they the simple covers Jon had led her to believe they were when he built them back in August. These were insulated with the same type of six-inch R-19 batts they had in the house.


The windows of the greenhouse had moisture on the inside, something that should have been impossible at the current temperatures. Unless there was something growing inside and a supplemental heat source...


She looked at the key in her hand, then at the guys who almost pushed her down the stairs. The rush of humid air was scented with the smell of green growing things and she involuntarily took a deeper breath. The guys crowded in behind her and closed the door to keep out the cold.


Strawberries. Pots on the floor, long rows of planters and hanging pots by the dozen. Some flowering. Some bearing bright red fruit in defiance of nature.


Strawberries in the dead of winter.


Her eyes picked out the florescent lights, the automatic timers and the fact the beds were filled with white reflective rocks and not earth. Hydroponics.


"How is it powered?" she heard herself ask.


"The solar panels on the barn." Jon replied proudly.


They must have buried the lines because she had never even seen the shunt. She had seen the panels when Jon bought them at the salvage yard, but he had never told her what they were for, and she had just assumed they ran the lights on the barn. The guys must have come down every morning to open those covers, and closed them again every night for months. And coordinated the chores so that she never had reason to walk past the greenhouse during the day. Good lord.


Without thinking she picked a strawberry from one of the plants and bit into it.


"There's a bowl of them in the fridge," Jon said dryly.


She licked the berry juice from her fingers and smiled happily. Alexandra Carter had died and gone to strawberry heaven. And she had a whole BOOK of strawberry recipes. She hugged them all and they ignored the fact that she was crying.


The guys slapped each other on the back, delighted by the success of their gift.


"Field trip," Alex reminded them.


Daniel grinned when she snagged a second strawberry on her way out the door.


Will came to a dead stop when they pulled open the basement doors and the horse-trailer was revealed. He looked at the license plate Jon shoved back into his hands and walked slowly toward the trailer glistening with its new paint. He traced the bright flames curling down the side, then stood staring at the logo Daniel had carefully air-brushed onto the upper rear corner on each side.


The glyph for persistence.


Jon had muttered that it really translated as "mule-stubborn".


Daniel handed Will the printed design they had used, the color print showing the other half that would be painted on the truck. The purifying flames, the open mouth of the fire-breather, literally out of the mouth of the dragon. Jon solemnly handed him the ownership papers for the RAM 350, the first vehicle Will had ever owned. Then Alex handed him an envelope containing gift certificates for both US and Canadian gas stations.


"Round-trip to Quebec," Alex said. "The truck will be ready by foaling season."


The lime-green Volkswagen had sold two days before Christmas. Only half the amount would be needed for the remaining parts for the Volvo, so three maxed out credit cards and Fedex got the certificates delivered just in time.


This was only the second time she had ever seen the stoic warrior this close to crying.


Jon grinned nervously and slapped Will on the back.


"I only muck out stables on Tuesdays."


Will looked at him in disbelief, then they stared in astonished delight as he roared with joyous laughter.


Alex hugged him, then Daniel yelped when he was unexpectedly engulfed in a Jaffa bear hug. Jon rolled his eyes and hugged his friend, mumbling "might as well make it O for 3."


Then Will stood grinning at all of them and they grinned back until Jon coughed. "Breakfast anyone?"


Daniel did a double-take and glanced at Alex. "Uh..."


Alex solemnly slipped an envelope from her pocket and handed to Jon. The only thing inside was a key. A key that represented seven months work, stealing time where she could find it. She had hoped to have it done in time for his birthday, but with all the emotionally laden gifts this Christmas season, this was better.


"A car?" he raised eyebrows in astonished delight.


Daniel snorted and even Will rolled his eyes.


She pointed at the stairs.


He galloped up the stairs eagerly and she shook her head. Daniel met her gaze, a slightly evil look of anticipation in his eyes.


"He has no idea..." Daniel murmured.


Will stopped and stared accusingly at the two of them.


"He peeked!" Alex protested."Besides, he does the books."


Will tilted his head."Would it be correct to assume this vehicle is something unusual."


"Mystery Beast, Will," Daniel said gleefully. "It's the Mystery Beast."


Alex flicked a gaze between them,"Excuse me?"


"Gotta go..." Daniel yelped and raced past Will.


The Jaffa snorted, then grinned and pounded after him. Since she had the key to the door, Alex followed more sedately. She arrived behind them just as Daniel told Jon she would murder him if he picked the lock. Muttering under her breath she pushed him firmly out of the way and told him to stay put. She wanted to see his face when he saw the car inside. Will and Daniel each grabbed an arm as he leaned forward reflexively when she opened the door.


"I'm standing. See? This is me standing."


Lord save her if this was genetic. Daniel closed the door firmly after she slipped through. Anticipation shot through her and she ran to the lights on the far side of the room. Oh yes, this was going to be good. Even Daniel had not seen it fully assembled, with the new coat of paint. He knew what it was, but oh...he had no clue.


She practically danced over to the car, and gave the big white bow on the hood one last minute pat.


She took a deep breath and moved out of the way so he had an unrestricted view. She had already tested the angle, making sure the best view showed as soon as he walked through the door.


"Carter? I'm dying here."


She crossed her fingers. "Okay," she yelled.


He was three steps into the room when he jerked to a halt so abruptly Daniel crashed into him. Will grabbed them both,then looked between Jon's dazed face and the car sitting under precisely angled lights.


One bright red 1957 Corvette Roadster.


Before they went with the new body style.


She shivered reflexively as Jon paced forward and ran his fingers over the hood. He caressed the satin paint job, then ran his hands over the pristine red vinyl of the newly reskinned seats. Luckily Eric Chandler had wanted custom upholstry in his Viper. That job had paid for the industrial-strength sewing machine she needed. Daniel had gotten a sweet deal on both the vinyl and the carpet. He had even found the patterns for her on eBay.


Jon slid into the front seat and breathed deeply as the vinyl creaked. Sensitive fingers danced along the steering wheel, then brushed against the one modern piece of equipment, a brand new stereo CD player missing the removable face.


Every minute she had spent was worth it, just to see the soft nostalgic smile on his face. Every blister, every painstaking second since she had found it during her first solo explorations of the farm and had bribed Tim with forty dollars and a pizza to help her tow it back to the barn.


"How in God's name did you do this, Carter?"


She stuffed her hands into her pockets and grinned. "Daniel traded for all the parts. I bribed Siler to let me use the mech shop to rebuild the engine and the transmission. And Corvette used fibreglass, so the body was easy to repair."


In fact, the fibreglass would have been the most expensive part except there was always a little left over whenever she did bodywork for someone else. No sense in throwing it out. The body of the Corvette had literally been rebuilt one piece at a time. The paint, carpet, and vinyl were the only things for which they could not trade parts - and Daniel had worked his magic there by tracking down a warehouse selling deeply discounted products, including discontinued product lines.


The owner was an American import/exporter handicapped by the fact he only spoke English. Daniel started trading translation and negotiation work for warehouse inventory. The owner was esctatic, especially when Daniel was able to turn a one-off purchase from a vital overseas supplier into a permanent contract. Alex charged her clients the discounted wholesale price instead of the discount retail for anything Daniel "bought" from the warehouse and gave Daniel the cash. They had agreed on a flat rate reimbursement for any of the repairables that might be sold and Daniel was happily making a list of several reference texts he planned to buy. As a perk, Daniel had promised Alex all the automotive paint, carpet, and material she could ever want for her private projects.


She felt her grin widen.


Jon blinked,"You bribed Siler?"


Alex laughed softly,"He hates doing Gate diagnostics."


And everyone from the security guards to General O'Neill had looked the other way.


She ran a gentle fingertip down the line of the hood. The car had originally been stored extremely carefully, probably before Patterson got too close to the bottom of the bottle. Several other vehicles had shown similar care, but thirty years of neglect had done damage. Luckily, not so much to the basic metal as the interior of the engine compartment had been well coated with years of oil build-up, but she had still had to take the car completely apart and rebuild it.


It had been worth it.


It was always worth it, when she got to see the final product, but this project had been different. Touching this car had grounded her. Anger, uncertainty, and fear had faded away as she welded and sanded. Cleaned and rebuilt. Repaired what time had broken. As the smooth curves reappeared beneath her hands she had felt the last of her resentment, the last of her fury crumble and fall away. It was too soon, and too complicated for her to reach out to the man. The car had allowed her to touch, and feel, and remember.


He would never know, but that was okay, too.


That was not what she had needed.


Oblivious to her thoughts, Jon shook his head at her and chuckled,"The insurance company is going to shit a brick, you know that right?"


"The police are going to be investigating us for drug dealing," Daniel muttered.


Alex snorted. Good thing Daniel kept excellent records, then. The Graveyard had revealed three more classic cars, two of which she felt she could cost-effectively repair. The third she would strip for the parts and see what Daniel could do with them. One car she was definitely keeping for herself, and the insurance company really was going to throw a fit. The other...


She rather thought it would make a nice wedding present.


So much could have been lost, but for a single decision. And that loss, she mused, studying Jon's downturned head, would have been unacceptable. So, for the life that choice had saved, for the life Alex herself had been given, there would be a thank-you, somewhere in there.


Merry Christmas, Colonel Carter.


It was worth it.


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


It was an hour before she could pry Jon from the car, which was fine because Will and Daniel were online mapping a least-time route to Canada. Three hours and two dozen strawberry waffles later, Will remembered the red package still under the tree.


"This belongs to you, Daniel." he said.


Daniel sat down on the sofa after a quick smile at Alex and started tearing into the paper. Alex sat beside him hesitantly. Of all the gifts today, this one...


She had no idea how he would react.


She curled up in a tight ball on the sofa and watched anxiously. She was probably wearing the exact expression Will had earlier and for the same reason. Daniel was highly visual, and he used photos to connect to the events in his own life the same way he used artifacts to connect to the past. A quick glance at Jackson's office showed that.


One of her first referrals from Turner was a professional photographer. World-class photographer at that, although she had not known how good until she had seen the photos. If she had had any idea, she never would have had the guts to approach him. Especially not for something like this.


She had asked him to create a family photo album.


In exchange for the work he wanted done on his car, she wanted him to take pictures of the four of them, with Daniel as the focus. Bending the truth only slightly, she told him that Daniel had been in foster care most of his life and had taken his foster father's 'death' extremely hard. He needed to know he was not alone any more, so she wanted Mark to create what most people took for granted. A family history. Continuity. Something Daniel could see.


Mark had looked intrigued and had slowly agreed.


She had expected him to take a few photos here and there while she was working on his car. Instead, he became one of the regular drop-ins, taking pictures with several ever-present cameras. People got used to seeing him tramping around the property, snapping away.


She had anticipated a few dozen photos. She had gotten almost one thousand, with negatives on both film and CD. Mark just shrugged away her stunned expression and said that was how he worked. When she stammered that there was no way the work she had done had covered this, he had gotten a strange expression on his face, then smiled.


"Go show your friend the truth," he said lightly.


She had cried when she looked through them for the first time. With an artist's eye, Mark had captured in black and white and color, something she had never been able to quantify satisfactorily.


SG-1.


Home.


With the first few rolls, he had been getting to know them. Candid shots of the four of them together, then paired off, each of them with Daniel, then with each other. He had started to peel back the layers, trying to get inside who they were, and who they were to each other. Abruptly there were rolls dedicated to individuals alone. Long shots. Tight shots. Close-ups. She had shivered uneasily as the photos ripped away pretense to reveal hidden passions and motivations. Mark peered inside their souls, trying to know them.


His camera stripped them naked.


They were completely vulnerable to its merciless lens. Worse, he SAW them. Somehow, he knew what he was seeing. The military officer who spent eight years hiding herself from the world cringed in horror. The photos became more deliberate. A patient stalking of prey, the photographer knowing what he wanted to show and not afraid to take the moment. Pieces of their souls, she had thought numbly. That camera had stolen pieces of their souls.


Or revealed them.


The four of them, exhausted and filthy, shoveling dirt into wheelbarrows. Mark had caught a moment when Will had been reaching down to help Daniel out of the pit. Some trick of light and focus pulled the eye into the picture and the viewer saw not the two men, but their clasped arms, Will's hand wrapped firmly around Daniel's wrist, fingers digging into skin and sinew. A simple shot...and the blindest of men could see that Will would die first, before letting Daniel go.


Jon resting against a tree, expression soft as he watched the three of them snooze in the sunlight.

The four of them laughing at something Daniel had said, the camera capturing the moment they had been looking at Daniel, and the eye followed their gazes, drawn inevitably to the sheer joy on his face.


Happy moments.


Sad moments.


A slumped Daniel sitting on the porch, the shadows emphasizing the exhausted lines of his body. Alex sitting next to him, collapsed against his shoulder. Jon on the stairs below them, his head resting against Daniel's knee, his hand clutching Alex's outstretched leg while Will leaned wearily against a shovel at their feet, head bent, face in shadow.


Reaching moments.


Alex reaching for the wrench Daniel was playfully holding out of her reach.


Daniel reaching absently for a glass of lemonade as he peered between an open book and the part in his hand. His expression was puzzled and he was blind to the tolerant care with which Will was reaching for Daniel's hand, his intent clear to make sure Daniel had a good grip on the glass before he let it go.


Jon reaching over to tickle the back of Daniel's ear with a blade of grass, evil glee in his eyes.


SG-1 moments.


Daniel and Alex crouched in the grass, Daniel watching Alex intently as she signalled with an open handed gesture.


The four of them relaxed and casual around the picnic table, dressed in BDUs and paintball guns. Will was smearing a splash of yellow paint across Daniel's cheek with his thumb while Daniel rolled his eyes at Jon.


The four of them in formation, alert and weapons ready, the forest vaguely threatening behind them.


Together. Helping. Reaching. Laughing.


Together.


There were more shots. Some taken in the summer. Some in the fall, as the leaves changed color. There were even a few dozen after the snow fell. A few times he had taken pictures of just the farm. The light glinting off the pond. Bare tree branches reaching across the snow as a warm golden glow spilled from the kitchen window. A basket of vivid red apples on the silver-grey picnic table, the rich blue of the barn wall behind. Many were not photos that belonged in the album she was creating, but she would be framing some of them to hang on the walls.

With the changing seasons, the pictures acquired a sense of continuity, of history. This was not the pictographic record of a brief moment caught out of time. Of a summer interlude. It had been hard, choosing the pictures to include in the album. Some, she had wanted to include for their sheer beauty, but that was not the point. This gift was about Daniel. In the end, Mark had made it easy for her because the one constant he had been able to capture was the one common element Daniel needed to see.


Love.


Pure and absolute. Uncompromising and demanding.


Jon and Will sat quietly as Daniel flipped through the album. They could not see the pictures, but unlike Alex, they could see his face. Without a word, Daniel closed the album gently and handed it to Jon. Will peered over his shoulder and Alex heard a quick intake of breath as Jon flipped to the first page.


"Oh...my," Jon said softly.


Alex tensed as Daniel lifted his head and she was not surprised to find him crying. Hell, she was crying. He leaned over and wrapped his arms around her in a hard, brief hug. Then he snuffled and she giggled because it was better than crying and wasn't this supposed to be a happy moment?


Well, truth hurts.


And pain lets you know you're not dead yet.


Jon finally closed the album and sat there breathing slowly, carefully. Behind him, Will was doing the same.


"Well...shit," Jon said reverently.


She sighed. "Yeah. I know."


Will seemed to shake himself awake. "There are planets where the man who took these photos would be burned for witchcraft, Alexandra." He hesitated. "These photos are...unnerving."


Unnerving. Terrifying. Exhilarating.


Powerful and humbling.


Mark had not created something from nothing. He had revealed what was already there, and people did not normally stand so naked before one another. Not even their loved ones.


Jon raised a cautious eyebrow at Daniel,"You get it now?"


Daniel drew in a shaky breath. "Yeah. I get it."


Jon nodded sharply."About damn time."


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


The day passed.


They watched 'Miracle on 34th Street', the original, and 'It's a Wonderful Life', reintroducing Will to the ultimate irony of Tau'ri Christmas traditions, the fact that there is never any half-decent Christmas programming scheduled on Christmas. Hence, the miracle of DVDs. They watched 'Scrooge', and 'Garfield's Christmas', and somewhere between 'The Santa Clause' and 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation', they devoured the better part of a twenty-pound turkey and all the trimmings.


Sometime after dark, the house sank into a peaceful silence. Will retreated to meditate, while Daniel had taken his photo album off to study in private. Jon handed Alex a beer and the two of them settled into a semi coma-like somulance induced by too much emotion, too much turkey and lulled by twinkling tree lights, flickering candles, and the haunting sound of Christmas music playing quietly on the stereo.


He could feel her watching him. Off and on, all day. Not angrily. Mostly just...watching. Or maybe observing might be a better word since he was not supposed to know. He had no idea what she was thinking, but her body was relaxed and comfortable, much of the driving tension of the last year, seeping away.


He told himself not push it.


Carter was thinking. Gathering data. Working through some conclusion.


Whatever answer she was looking for, she did not find it by the time the movie ended. He thought he saw a hint of regret in her eyes as she stretched lazily and smiled at him before telling him she was heading to bed. Trained instincts, or maybe just bastard hope had him off the chair before his brain could advise him that this was a really bad idea.


He caught her in the doorway and when she swung back around to face him, he saw an instant of fear, a moment of anger directed solely at him. But he also saw--he hoped he saw--a deep flicker of curiosity. He did not see retreat. He could always get a Carter with curiosity he thought with amused resignation. He told himself he was just giving her more data to consider.


He kept the kiss light, their identical heights making it easy. He had grown taller sometime in the past six months, he realized. The soft warmth of her mouth sparked a frantic need to pull her to him tightly, to deepen the kiss until she either responded or pushed him away. Anything except the emotionless feel of her lips as she politely returned the kiss.


Loss and anger crashed through him. Anger at her for not being able to give him what he wanted. Anger at himself for putting her in this position on a day when she had been relaxed and happy. Anger at a situation where truly, there was no one to blame.


He pulled back, careful not to let her see his eyes. He did not want to see the sorrow and regret in hers. Or the flash of anger he knew she would be feeling, if only for forcing her to hurt him again. He desperately did not want her to see the trained emptiness in his. Of course, that flat gaze was better than the bleak loss behind it.


Never let it be said, however, that Airman O'Neill never had a Plan B.


He forced a wry twist onto his lips and a note of light humour into his roughened voice. "Mistletoe, Carter."


Eyes bright with unshed tears, she touched gentle fingertips to his face before leaving him alone with shadows and regret.


She never once looked up to confirm he was lying.


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


Time slipped away from them.


While Alex spent every spare moment in the shop, the guys slowly finished the rest of the house. It was decided that once the training facility was completed, they would turn the training room into a library and general living area. Their existing living room would be divided into a still room, a second bathroom, and a utility/storage closet. The last room on the first floor would become Jon's office.


The four temporary bedrooms would be turned back into two much larger bedrooms, and as that meant they would have five bedrooms when they were finished, they voted to turn one of them into an Arts and Crafts room. Jon had protested the name, but could not deny the function. Daniel needed a place to work on restoring some of his more badly damaged books. Will had a full-blown case of decorating fever and needed a place for his paint and fabric projects. After six months of being forced to look at various Home and Garden magazines, Jon had unwillingly fallen victim to an article on stained glass.


The mud/laundry room that Alex wanted built meant the two bedrooms above the kitchen would have a shared walk-out deck if they kept the mudroom roof flat. They decided the Arts and Crafts Project Room would benefit from having access to an outdoor work area while giving all of them access to the deck. Jon claimed the second room. He had plans to add a stairway from the deck to the flattened area on the roof they had already voted to build for the telescope he intended to buy.


Will's truck was finished by mid-February, and with the second vehicle cutting the delivery time of their flyer routes by almost a third, they decided to keep the routes for a while longer. Alex was the only other licensed driver before March 17, but she did not protest when Jon asked her not to drive the truck to school. Her fitness routine was brutal and it was not unusual for her to fall asleep bare seconds after crawling into the vehicle.


Jon scheduled her training sessions on the same days as Will's cheerleading practices and Daniel was happy enough to be dropped off at the University library for two or three hours. Rather than drive out to the farm and back again, Jon used the time to shop for groceries and whatever other items were on the lists people kept sticking on his white boards. Daniel took advantage of the fact he was available and Jon soon found himself exchanging boxes of parts at the local auto wreckers. Any extra time, he spent haunting the building salvage yards.


Between the tithe and discounted building supplies, they estimated they would have enough money by May to build the mudroom and the fireplace in the library. The Buick sold just in time to purchase a set of tools that Alex needed for a big job Daniel had booked for March, and Jon and Daniel started going to the auctions alone. With Jon's understanding of automotive basics and Daniel's knowledge of the market, they managed to get the parts Alex needed for Julie's Volvo a full month ahead of schedule.


Frank Jennings was stunned by the results and while Julie and Alex discussed paint colors, Will gave him a tour of the farm. The two of them talked horses until Julie was ready to leave, and he shocked the hell out of them two weeks later when he drove her back to pick up the finished car. While Julie was going into raptures over the snazzy silver paint job and powder blue interior, Jennings quietly unloaded several saddles, tack, books, magazines, and various bits of mysteriously equine equipment from the back of his truck. Will offered to pay for the gear, but Jennings just shook his head and smiled as he said that he did not need the equipment anymore, but he had never felt comfortable selling it.


Then he left with his daughter, both of them grinning happily.


Jon and Daniel had fallen into the habit of stripping the auction vehicles themselves. While Alex worked on her clients' cars, Daniel cleaned and inventoried the parts Jon stripped. Anything they could not repair, they left for Alex. The time spent together became a companionable habit, and it was not long before Will started to wander in while they worked; sometimes to offer a hand, sometimes to work on a project of his own. Occasionally, he would simply sit on the sofa Alex had purchased for her clients, and study one of his horse books. For his birthday they had gotten him a copy of the best Stable Management and Breeding software they could find, and for the last two weeks of March, his nose could usually be found buried in the User Guide.


By unspoken agreement, they stopped scheduling outside activities on the day following an auction.


April zipped into being and Daniel fell in love with his birthday gift. The restored VW bug, quickly nicknamed the Naqua-Beetle after its distinctive two-toned blue paint job, eliminated their dependence on Jon as chauffeur. The bug was much more fuel-efficient than the truck although they still used the truck to deliver the flyers. Unfortunately, another full-time vehicle meant more gas and higher insurance costs, and Jon was beginning to worry as he worked on their budget, reworking the numbers yet again.


They were not going to have any trouble making ends meet. They might have no time, but they finally had enough money. With adding one of the pigs to the menu, their food costs had been minimal over the winter, and would be cheaper still next year once they put Bessie's calf in the freezer. The hay bales fed the cattle, and between the apples, whey, and table scraps, the pigs did not cost any extra. The chickens paid for their food through the sale of any extra eggs. Even factoring in the higher heating bill they would incur once they opened up the rest of the house, their monthly cash outley was still cheaper than their expenses had been in the city and that was including all the extra vehicles - minus the Corvette.


The problem was the training facility.


Even dedicating all income deriving from either the shop or the martial arts classes, minus whatever was needed for tools, electricity, or parts vehicles, they would not have enough cash to complete either the foundation or the roof by August. They had focused on repairing several of the remaining cars, hoping to make up the difference. Unfortunately, by April, Daniel had still only been able to find all the parts for one of them, and no one had been able to spend more than a few hours a week on the project. The one car, a station wagon, was ready to go, and they had already traded that one for something else.


They had brainstormed every idea and construction technique they could think of, including some never used on Earth. It all came out the same way. If Alex and Will both worked full-time all summer, they might - might - have enough cash by November. Jon considered - for one tenth of a second - selling the Corvette. The thought was rejected. Instantly. Immediately. Absolutely.


No freakin' way.


If it came down to it, they could live without the library for another winter.


The last week in May, Jon was rubbing his forehead and acknowledging that there was simply no way they could complete the training facility that summer when the sound of military trucks rumbling past the house brought his head up. T.J. bolted for the back door, and following him, Jon was greeted by the sight of three SGC suburbans disgorging various members of SG-11 and several people he did not recognize. Alex popped out of one of the Suburbans, a maniacal expression of glee on her face. Out of habit, Jon began to sweat nervously.


He knew that look.


It was the one that said,'I'd like to blow up a sun, now. You have thirty seconds to say yes.'


He narrowed his eyes as Alex came bouncing up to him and shoved a package of papers into his hands. People in fatigues were no strange sight with the Paintball Academy and the parents dropping their kids off after work. However, they generally did not come accompanied by US Army transports. He started to leaf through the papers when a banging crash snapped his head around and his jaw dropped as he recognized the pieces of an offworld base under construction coming off one of the trucks.


"Carter...what's going on?" he managed.


She all but danced in place. "It's the solar-aquatic recycling system the Engineering team designed for the old Alpha site." She said enthusiastically.


He watched dumbfounded as SG-11 waved and trooped past the house carrying survey equipment. His eyes narrowed as he realized they were heading for the flagging tape marking the place where the training facility was supposed to go. Okay. The Sol-Aq project. Uh huh. He remembered. Captain Dale had not been a happy camper when they built the new Alpha site under a mountain.


"What's it doing here?" he asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.


Alex threw her arms around him and hugged him in delight. Then she whirled out of reach, oblivious to his shock. "They're giving it to us," she crowed.


The story tumbled out in typical Carter detail and for once he had no desire to fast forward. He listened in stunned silence as she told him about working on some Gate code for Siler and overhearing various techs discussing the budget approvals. That was when she had realized that the Sol-Aq project had been axed in the last budget.


Originally designed to be a self-contained, low-impact, low-powered recycling system for off-world bases, the prototype was being readied to be shipped to the old Alpha site when Anubis attacked. The new Alpha base was useless to Dale's team as it had a completely different set of environmental conditions from the ones the prototype was designed to test. They also could not use any of the offworld research posts, because the prototype had been built for a base with an ongoing and fluctuating capacity between 100 and 500 people. None of the research stations had the necessary numbers.


"Captain Dale still had budgetary approval for the installation of the prototype, but without a test site, the money and supplies were about to be reallocated." Carter was saying.


Which was a polite way of saying everything that could be cannabalized would be given to other projects. Dale could not even try to find the usual sort of cooperative test location on Earth. The system was designed to be capable of integrating into an existing offworld computer network and as a result, all the components had been classified as a potential security risk. None of the possible test locations in the Colorado Springs area had the right security clearances.


The Sol-Aq project was headed for a drawer, and Dale and his team would lose years of research data as well as any chance of getting the system approved for general construction in the near future. Jon knew what sudden fluctuations of people had done to the old Alpha Site. Sanitation had been a nightmare and while the water supply was good, a colony or base suddenly cut off from Earth was vulnerable. A bacteria, a storm that polluted the water table, an heretofore undiscovered contaminant, were all things that gave base commanders nightmares. Jack had immediately signed off in favor of Sol-Aq when Hammond first asked his opinion regarding using the Alpha Site to test the prototype.


Alex had convinced Dale to request Sinking Ship as the new test site.


The system was entirely built to spec, which meant the engineers were responsible for constructing the underground storage facilities for the water and pre-processing tanks. Since the equipment needed more room than could be easily fit under the greenhouse, and since the greenhouse itself needed to be partially embedded in the ground, the protocol called for the tanks and processing equipment to be stored under the nearest building in order to provide easy access and protection from environmental extremes.


Which meant...


Jon watched the transports dazedly as Alex cheerfully informed him that General Landry had already approved Dale's request. SG-11 was surveying the site now, SG-24 would start blasting in an hour. As the engineers needed to see how quickly they could get the equipment installed under real world conditions, the military would be building the basement of the training facility just as they would if presented with a plan for an offworld base or building. Dale had not even blinked when Alex handed him the proposed building plan on a paper napkin.


Problem-solvers, Jon whispered to himself, in disbelief.


Son-of-a-bitch.


Six hours later, Jon was damn glad they lived south of nowhere. SG-24 had blown a good sized hole in the ground and the half-sized construction equipment the SGC had built to fit through the Gate was rapidly clearing the pit and mixing cement. Generators were being connected to displays of Halogen work lights for use when the sun went down, and Jon half expected to hear the Gate activate any second. Prefabricated panels of rigid insulation held apart by metal separators snapped together to create forms for the basement as well as the greenhouse foundation. Rapid cure cement had already set in the footings and they were getting ready to pour the lower walls.


"This is insane." Daniel mumbled, he and Will having arrived home from the movies to discover they had been invaded.


Even Alex looked a bit daunted by the sheer speed and energy scrambling around the property. These folks were taking things seriously. Dale was conferring with several of his teammembers and Jon could overhear them discussing several small problems that had cropped up - mostly in coordination. They were already brainstorming potential changes in protocol to improve the work flow.


Dale had not stopped grinning the entire time he had been here.


A handful of people were adjusting the greenhouse structure for Colorado Springs. Sol-Aq relied on solar energy to grow the plants filtering the sewage, and to heat the greenhouse. Each greenhouse was optimized for passive solar collection, the glass panels angled precisely for maximum solar gain during the winter months at a given latitude. The North wall (or its wintertime equivalent in the case of offworld construction) was solid rather than glass, and heavily insulated. The glass walls were coated for strength, and double-paned. Small balls of insulating material would be sucked into the space between the panes every night to help retain heat energy without the need for the labour intensive covers used on Alex's strawberry greenhouse.


By midnight, the work lights had turned the yard into the blue-white, over-bright glow of a Friday night football field. The foundations of the two structures had been completed and the team was now working on pouring the floors. They could have used less expensive cement, one that cured in days rather than hours, but Dale wanted to test for a Genesis scenario and needed to see just how fast his people could move if they needed too.


Pretty damn fast, Jon thought.


By six am the greenhouse was being sealed and the HEPA-filters and airlocks installed. The tanks had all been lowered into place in the basement and half a dozen people were running computer cable through underground conduit laid between the greenhouse and the control room. A large blast door was being guided into place on one end to provide access in the event any of the tanks needed to be removed or replaced, and a reinforced ceiling would be poured as soon as they were done.


By noon, the entire system was being flushed and sterilized, nominally to remove any offworld contaminants introduced during the constructions phase.


By four, fresh water had been cycled through the system and the processing tanks in the greenhouse had been filled with plants. Until the system was actively online, the clones would be responsible for adding a nutrient mixture to the water to keep the plants alive. Portable solar generators were providing the power for the electrical system. Dale advised them that when they had the facility built, he would send a team over to install solar panels on the roof.


Exactly 24 hours from the moment they arrived, the Army transports left carrying empty pallets, tools, and generators. They even took the garbage. Except for the pile of dirt and two huge piles of gravel left over from the blasting, and the deep muddy ruts around the construction zone, the only evidence of Dale's small army was a rectangular cement foundation covered in plastic, and the bright glass of the Sol-Aq greenhouse winking in the sunlight.


"Well," Daniel observed blandly,"that was...fast."


"Fast," Jon echoed.


They stared at the greenhouse a bit longer, waiting for it to disappear.


It didn't.


"Carter..." Jon said slowly,"How wide are the walls on that foundation?"


Her lips curved smugly."Eighteen inches."


Daniel and Will both turned to look at her.


She shrugged,then grinned. "Dale asked how wide we needed them."


Jon gazed at the foundation in disbelief. Eighteen inches. Holy crap. They could do the cordwood thing.


The station wagon had been traded to Clarence Atkins back in February. Atkins made part of his living using a portable saw to mill trees for people with small woodlots and the commune had planted ten acres of pine trees almost a half-century ago. They had deliberately planted too close and Patterson should have thinned them out decades ago. He didn't, and the result was a tangled, dying forest of skinny pine trees almost a hundred feet high and no branches at all except at the very top.


They had ruthlessly thinned the largest pines, but they had not produced enough lumber to finish more than half of the building. Because of the large amount of undersized pine still available, Atkins had suggested cordwood, a technique that used mortar to join firewood sized pieces of wood, stacked together. The technique was easy, and resulted in a soundproof, fireproof, and extremely coldproof wall. The downside?


The walls of the foundation had to be extra wide to accommodate the length of the wood stacked on it.


Atkins had helped them to identify which of the smaller trees were dying or near death. They chainsawed them into one foot lengths and stacked them where they fell. Until they could get the tractor and sled out to them, cheap blue tarps dotted the landscape, identifying and protecting the wood from the elements.


Even thinned, the pine forest was not pretty, with its naked trunks and ragged tops. However, since they had more than enough cordwood for the lower walls, they decided to leave a few hundred of the healthier trees to continue to grow. Jon had tentatively suggested they might want to use the logs to build a log cabin someday, somewhere on a lake. A cooperative vacation spot as it were.


No one disagreed.


They had enough milled lumber air-drying in the barn to finish the outer wall of the second floor, the roof trusses, and the floors. It would look a little bumpy, but Atkins assured them that the bark-covered edges he had trimmed from the lumber trees, wood they had thought was wasted, could be used for the roof decking. They just had to lay it like shingles and use extra heavy support beams. They would need to purchase insulation and gyp-rock for the inner walls of the second floor and any dividers, but their three big expenses had been the foundation, the shingles, and the mortar they needed for the cordwood walls.

The military had just built the foundation and septic system.


They had enough money saved for the mortar and insulation.


Surely they could earn enough to buy shingles by the end of the summer.


Jon started to grin.


"Hot damn," he said wonderingly.


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


"Six bells and all is well," Daniel said."The pressure is fine. Alex says a bubble got stuck in the gauge."


Jon sighed with relief.


The Sol-Aq system was highly automated and relatively maintenance free, but did require regular checks to manually confirm the readings the computers were getting. One of the reasons Dale had been willing to push for Sinking Ship as a test site had been the presence of four people he could trust to take those readings and follow the sterile environment protocols. The fact Alex could do basic troubleshooting and not keep his engineers running back and forth for the electronic equivalent of a hiccup had been another. Other than readings, about all they had to do was keep the place clean. Dale and his team did the maintenance on the system itself.


There had been too damn many things to do. As it was, they had had to take several days off from school in order to get the planting finished the first week of June. The school was not happy, but no one was too worried. Alex was the only one who had ever failed a test and that only because she fell asleep halfway through her essay on the Fall of Rome.


Something had to give.


Daniel and Will had left with an empty horse trailer during March break and come back with one heavily pregnant mare and a truck bed full of river rock. Jon and Alex had both regretted not being able to go with them, but figured they would go next trip. The Paintball Academy had surprised them by showing up last Sunday after the planting was over, ready to go to work. Half of them helped Daniel and Will with the fireplace, the other half started construction on the mudroom and the kids had promised to come back over the next few week-ends to help them finish. They had also volunteered to help with the cordwood construction when that began.


Construction projects aside, there were not enough hours in the day. They had hung on by their fingernails until school finished for the summer. In the meantime, there were barn chores, household chores, sanding and painting of the finished bedrooms, Sol-Aq chores, garden chores, hauling back cordwood, the Paintball Academy, the martial arts classes, the car auctions, stripping the vehicles, repairing the vehicles they needed to sell to buy the shingles, and the flyer routes on top of all that.


Plus building the training facility.


They just kept telling themselves it was temporary. The flyer routes took large, inconveniently located chunks of time and they had all agreed to give them up once the training facility was finished. With several working vehicles, they had concentrated on clearing the Graveyard. Jon and Daniel were stripping the cars as quickly as possible. It was easier to strip a car when they had an hour to spare, than to get involved in a huge bodywork project. They had wanted to save rebuilding any vehicles until Alex had more time.


On the bright side, Hadden had worked out well.


An SGC Marine, Corporal Hadden was dedicated, hard-working, intelligent, and exactly the sort of soldier the SGC had needed until a staff blast amputated his lower left arm and damaged his left leg so badly he would never again walk without a limp. Hadden had tried to get transferred to a desk job within the SGC, unfortunately, there was no place for him to go. He had no family, no job, and Harper had become seriously concerned about his mental health.


He had asked them to find something for Hadden to do.


Jon had just blinked. Harper was joking right? He wanted them to take on a severely depressed, disabled soldier, and keep him from going over the edge. Jon had asked politely if Harper had considered this was sort of the blind leading the blind. Harper had just commented blandly that at least they would all go splat together. The clones' existence was an open secret at the SGC so Hadden had known who they were and Harper made volunteering at the farm a part of Hadden's treatment.


With some regret, Jon had handed over most of the Paintball Academy duties near the end of April, just before the Sol-Aq invasion. He was still doing the in-field exercises and some of the training classes, but for the most part, it was Hadden's responsibility now. The kids had reacted well, and Hadden had no shortage of volunteers to act as a second pair of hands when he needed it. Frankly, Jon was glad of the object lesson. The kids had been getting a bit cocky with their new abilities. Especially since they were blowing the top off the scorings in their tactical classes at the Academy. Random members of Hadden's former team made it a point to drop in once or twice a week to see how he was doing, and Hadden lost no time in drafting them to take the kids down a peg or two.


Hadden had been doing an excellent job, but Jon could see the few hours he had with the kids was not enough. The soldier needed to be needed. So the last week in May, after they had finished harrowing the five acres of the garden fields they planned to use, Jon handed Hadden the keys to the tractor, pointed at the fallow acres of farm market field and told him to do something useful with them. Something that would benefit the SGC.


Then he walked away.


Jon suspected the dumbfounded Marine had cursed him more than once over the following days. None of the clones asked him what he planned to do, leaving it up to Hadden how he wanted to proceed. Will did make it a point to casually explain the reason the clones had purchased the farm in the first place and the next day, Jon found Hadden painstakingly measuring the field and scribbling in his notebook. Hadden borrowed Daniel's computer to make up some flyers, but told no one what he was actually doing.


Daniel figured he was just worried the project would be a bust, but the resulting secrecy meant that when forty-odd kids and adults showed up the second Saturday in June, all of them carrying registration forms for the "Garden Patch Project", Hadden was the only one who had a clue what was going on. And he was in shock. He had haltingly explained that he had circulated the flyers at the local military family resource centre, as well as the SGC. His plan was to make patches of land available for anyone who wanted to use them. People were responsible for their own patches, and Hadden had expected to get a few kids, maybe a couple frustrated city gardeners.


He had gotten more than that. Most were spouses and children of serving members, and their reasons ranged from wanting to grow a few luxury items like strawberries and watermelons, to a widowed mother of four trying to make ends meet on a military pension. Hadden quickly realized his original strategy was not going to work when a sixty-year old veteran had wryly pointed out that World War Three would commence the first time someone's climbing beans cast a shadow over someone's cauliflower.


Showing rare good sense, and having the luck to be dealing with military families, Hadden rounded everyone up and explained the change in plans. Garden Patch would be run as a co-op and the hours people worked would earn credits that could be redeemed for produce. Hadden promised a breakdown of exactly how it would work by the following Saturday and everyone seemed to take the change in stride. In fact, one mother commented with relief that it meant she could bike out when she had a babysitter, rather than having to work her babysitter around when the garden needed to be weeded.


Hadden drafted several veteran gardeners, and within an hour, people had pooled their seed packages and were being assigned duties on the fly. One of the veterans kept a careful tally of names, seeds donated, and hours worked, and by the end of the day, half of the ten acres had been planted. Although there were fifteen in total, Jon and the others had already planted one for their own use and four in a high-oil crop for the bio-diesel project.


By the time the first sprouts appeared, Hadden and three retired veterans had mapped out a complicated formula based on expected yields vs hours worked to determine how many hours equaled what number of credits. Hadden dug out one of the canvas tents to use as Garden Patch Command and a white board soon listed the credit cost of a given fruit or vegetable. Jon did not ask for details. People showed up, signed in, went to work, signed out, and went home happy. That was all he needed to know.


Although he had asked O'Reilly to keep his eye out for some used bike racks.


By mid-July they moved into their new bedrooms. The mudroom was complete, although the rooftop deck was unfinished. Daniel's fireplace was done, the pigs had had piglets, the calf had been weaned, resulting in a resurrection of cheese production, and Will's mare had given birth to a beautiful black colt. Will was a bit disappointed as he had been hoping for a filly, but he got over it quick enough once the colt started following him around.


The Garden Patch Crew took over all the garden chores, including the bio-diesal acres(Hadden had gotten permission to cover the extra credit hours with apples and pears from the coming harvest if necessary), and with Hadden handling most of the Paintball Academy, Jon was able to strip at least one car a day, sometimes two, and the scrap metal truck became a familiar sight as they whittled away at the Graveyard. All four of them put in a minimum of two hours per day on the training facility the day after school ended, and within a week the lower walls were complete. They were giving the mortar a few days to dry and settle, then they were going to start work on the upper floor.


With Sundays sacrificed to the recent construction and car repair, they had not had a day off in months. When the last Wednesday in July dawned bright and hot, Jon handed the keycard for the Sol-Aq greenhouse to Hadden, packed the Corvette with a picnic lunch and dragged Alex kicking and protesting from the shop. Will was pried away from his horses, and Jon had to pull the plug on the computer to get Daniel's attention. T.J., at least, hopped in the Naqua-Beetle without a whimper. They spent the day driving with the top off and the windows down (respectively), eating ice cream cones, and relaxing in the sun.


It had been a good day.


Alex started talking about fixing the two seater truck they had ignored in favour of Will's 350. The Garden Patch Project needed a vehicle for harvest time and the tractor was too bulky and awkward. The early harvests had already yielded several tonnes of food, and what people did not take home, Hadden and his crew had been selling to the various drop-ins, mostly SGC parents. Hadden had pitched their second canvas tent next to the driveway and it quickly acquired rough tables holding crates of produce selling at a serious discount from city prices.


Word of mouth was spreading, and Jon had noticed a significant increase in traffic the last two paydays. Garden Patch Crew could exchange credits for cash, with priority going to those who committed to specific shifts. Hadden held back a portion of the money as profit, and planned to use it to invest in seeds and rootstock for next year. A local newspaper had picked up the story as a special interest piece, and Hadden had worn a permanent blush for three days after the article printed. The market would never make enough to pay Hadden a salary, but Will had been discussing hiring him to help with the martial arts facility during the fall and winter.


So...


Jon sighed and stretched, then bent back over the car. Eventually he and Daniel were going to strip themselves out of a job. Once the Graveyard was cleaned out, that would be it. Alex had no interest in fixing normal cars. He had seen the desire growing in her, for a lab to play in, especially now that he, Daniel, and Will were taking over more of the general body and repair work. It was good to see, finally, if he was honest with himself. That part of her had been supressed far too long, first by anger and then by necessity.


Will got to be Jaffa Master for his students, Daniel had his translation work, and Jon was doing what a Colonel was expected to do - give the next generation a shooting chance at coming back alive. Alex was the only one who had not had a chance to reclaim some portion of who she had been for SG-1. Football did not count. That was about anger, and the need to play hard, hit hard, and win. In some ways, it was about pain. The fact that she brought something of Major Carter to the game was a side-effect. She loved fast cars, but that was Sam peeking through, not Dr. Samantha Carter, PH.D. and all-around genius. The bio-diesal project had intrigued her, though, as well as the gene-testing project for Will's breeding program. He had no doubts she would eventually find something to occupy the scientist side of her brain.


Daniel was confident he could turn the remainder of the Graveyard into the needed parts for the dozen or so repairables still in the barn, but once he was done, he would be happy enough to get time back to do other things.


He was going to miss this time, Jon admitted.


The hours they gathered in the shop, or the few times they all got together for a single project was the closest thing he had discovered to working with them offworld. He supposed they would find other projects, but it would never be the same again. Once they turned eighteen, once he and Carter were able to go back to the Academy, it would all change. Even if they all ended up at the SGC, they would never go offworld as a team again.


So...


So he was going to enjoy it while it lasted.


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


"That greenhouse looks disturbingly familiar," Jack commented.


Daniel glanced at it without interest. He had assumed Jack had known about the Sol-Aq project, Dale had certainly talked enough about it. Ah well, he would figure it out eventually. In the meantime, Daniel wanted more time with the photos in the living room. The style looked very familiar. He yelped as a volleyball unexpectedly bounced off his shoulder and headed for the Corvette next to him. Jack made a desperate grab for the ball, clutching it tightly. A freaked out Marine came dashing up, a relieved expression on his face.


Jack made a pushing motion in the general direction of the field behind the barn before handing over the ball.


"Jeez, and I thought last year was a circus," Jack commented, watching as SG-3 and 5 moved further away from the driveway.


A monster of a dog, some sort of Sheppard cross went racing past them, a Frisbee clutched in his teeth. Half a dozen children scrambled after him, laughing and yelling. A three year old trundled along behind, gnawing happily on a candy apple. The sound of paintball guns popped in the distance and Daniel eyed the speculative look on Jack's face nervously.


"I'm not crawling through the swamp today," he declared, without much hope.


Jack just widened his eyes innocently and Daniel groaned. He looked around for Sam. He would have thought she would be out here with Jack, drooling over the Corvette.


"Beer?" he asked, hoping to distract Jack from his incipient paintball fantasies. Jack held up two fingers and Daniel obediently headed for the house. A beer sounded good right about now. Besides, he wanted to get another look at those photos in the living room.


Jack watched him go, then ran his eyes enviously over the red paint of the Corvette. They really had made a mistake when they...


"Gorgeous car," came a voice behind him.


Jack turned his head to see Sean Turner, CEO of Bio-Len Enterprises watching him with a slight smile on his face. Turner tilted his head and admired the car.


"I think Mike is still sulking they won't sell it to him," he said with wry amusement.


Jack smiled perfunctorily, knowing Turner knew he did not have a damn clue who Mike was. "So you're the one who started this whole car thing." Jack shook head." Pretty gutsy move, putting a Jag in the hands of a 15 year old."


Turner chuckled."You know, you folks really have to learn to be more subtle."


"Haven't a clue what you mean," Jack said virtuously.


Turner snorted. "Mr....?"


"General. General O'Neill," Jack said helpfully."That's General Kerrigan over there by the BBQ and the bald man with the two holy terrors by the ponies is General Hammond. And I think General Landry is out leading the green team to victory."


"General O'Neill," Turner said, tone slightly mocking."In the past two hours I've been politely threatened by four Marines, two Tech Sergeants, half a dozen scientists and someone named Murray. I'll tell you what I told them. I limit my mid-life crises to fast cars, end quote."


Jack eyed the amused glint in Turner's eye and smiled broadly."Cool."


Daniel arrived holding three beers and Jack obligingly relieved him of two.


"Meet Sean Turner," Jack said.


Daniel blinked,"Turner? The man with the Jag?"


"Are you going to threaten me too?" Turner asked curiously.


Daniel blinked again. "Wasn't planning on it." He refocused on Jack,"I'm serious, Jack. The photos are amazing."


Jack held one of the beers toward Turner. "Beer?"


Turner sighed and took the bottle,"The next time I have a problem with the unions, I'll know who to hire." He took a long swallow."So..what do you want to know?"


Jack shrugged."Just curious."


"Yeah, right." Turner muttered. He studied his beer for a moment, then smiled wryly. "To be honest, I didn't come out that day to hire her. I just wanted to meet the girl who had so much power over my son that every second sentence started with 'Alex says...'." Turner shrugged, then took another swallow of beer."I was half-expecting to meet my future daughter-in-law."


Jack said nothing.


Turner glanced at his mild expression, then snorted at the memory."That idea lasted all of three seconds."


"So..." Jack drawled,"just a harmless crush? On your son's part, I mean," he added hastily when Turner shot him a disgusted glare.


"Crush?" Turner mused."I suppose you could call it that. But not the way you'd think you'd mean it."


"Ah," Jack said, as if that explained everything.


In a way, it did. The military was no stranger to hero-worship, and Carter was a good officer. He was not surprised it translated.


"They scared me," Turner admitted abruptly, softly. Then he checked,"No, that's not right. They...unnerved me. I've faced Chinese Generals and corporate raiders with less self-possession."


The speculative look Turner sent him was disturbing. A cold shiver work its way down his spine. Turner's primary business was biotechnology. Bio-Len was smaller than Colson Industries, but the only reason they had been turned down for the gene sequencing project, was that Colson could do it faster. The two men might not have been friends, but they had met. Ran in the same circles.


Turner took another sip of his beer.


Jack met Daniel's worried eyes and forced himself to shrug casually."You know how it is. Teenagers think they are invulnerable."


"They've had a rough life,"Daniel added truthfully.


And if Turner thought he could take what little peace the clones had found away from them, Jack had a nice little black hole he thought Turner might find interesting. There were also fire planets, ice planets and that damn planet where the trees had tried to eat Teal'c. Yes, he had a whole list of interesting planets for Turner to enjoy.


Screw non-disclosure agreements.


"Hey Jack," Daniel demanded, forcibly changing the subject." Have you seen the photo in the living room?"


"Which one?" Jack asked.


Daniel stared, aghast. "Which one? The...the..." his hands waved in the air as Jack bit his lip trying to hold back laughter.


Too easy, sometimes.


Daniel glared as he saw Jack smirking at him.


"Have you taken a good look at the faces under the dirt?" Jack asked.


Daniel rolled his eyes,"Yes, Jack. I'm telling you, I could swear I've seen that photo before."


"Have you been to New York lately?" Turner asked dryly.


Daniel frowned."New York? Why would I...oh...." Daniel's voice trailed off uncertainly.


Trailing prepositions were never good, not with Daniel.


"What oh?" Jack asked warily.


Daniel's voice dropped,disbelief and shock in his eyes. "Mark Canning is being displayed at the New York Museum of Art. It's the first showing he's done in over five years. I read an article about it last week."


Jack's eyes widened."And you're telling me this now?"


"Told you what?"


Daniel jumped and spun around to see Jon gazing at him curiously.


"Er..."


Jon shook his head. "Never mind. Daniel ...meet Mark Canning. I saw you communing with the photo over the fireplace. Can you believe Carter wanted to put that in the hall? The least we can do is let people sit down before making them cry. Anyway, I thought you'd like to say hi. You know, convince him I actually know people with culture. Daniel...Mark. Mark...Daniel."


"Why didn't you tell us about the exhibit?" Jack demanded, exasperated.


A wary look entered Jon's eyes."What exhibit?"


"The one in New York!"


Jon's mouth opened then closed. "I have no idea what...oh crap." He snapped his head around to stare at the man who had followed him from the house. "Your exhibit?"


Mark shifted uncomfortably.


Jon closed his eyes and visibly counted to ten. "Which photo did you use?" he asked finally.


"The whole exhibit," Daniel said flatly.


Jon's mouth opened again, this time it was a minute before he remembered to close it. "You told Carter one or two photos," he said weakly. "Locally."


Canning blinked."I never said local."


Jon's expression shifted, suddenly looking alarmed."You used Carter, right? Or Daniel? Daniel's cute."


The older Daniel raised an eyebrow.


Turner's eyes danced merrily. "The signature photo is a four by six of the one you have above the fireplace."


Jon stood there blinking as Jack stared in horror. Then Jon turned dazedly toward the pig-roasting pits. "I'm gonna go show Teal'c the roses," they heard him mumble as he walked away. "I'm doomed. Perfectly good bad-ass image shot to shit."


Canning looked at Turner, a wicked look of glee appearing on his face."He took that better than I expected."


Turner shook his head as Canning nodded at Daniel, then trotted after Jon. He eyed the retreating pair for a moment, then chuckled."He's still going to be complaining about this twenty years from now, isn't he?"


"Yes," Daniel said firmly.


Turner laughed as Jack glared. His smile faded after a moment." At least he'll complain to Mark's face. That's...good. For Mark, I mean. A gift like his is not...comfortable."


Daniel tilted his head."He's brilliant."


Turner quirked one side of his mouth contemplatively."Some might say he's cursed." Turner sighed."Most people don't want to see the truth."


Daniel and Jack watched him silently.


Turner eyed them contemplatively. "His last exhibit? His model's name was Gina," he said finally.


Daniel looked startled."His fiance?"


"Ex-fiance." Turner corrected softly. "She didn't like what she saw."


Jack winced and Daniel shifted uncomfortably.


Turner slapped his right thigh."So...if we're done, I'm going to track down some corn-on-the-cob. That's real homemade butter over there. And then I think I'm going to have some watermelon."


Jack watched him with narrowed eyes as he headed toward the makeshift kitchen area.


"What do you think?" he asked slowly.


Daniel took a sip of his beer. "I think he's more dangerous than Colson."


Jack watched as Turner paused to talk with a high-powered lawyer trying to wrap his mouth an overstuffed BBQ pork sandwich. Both men shook their heads and laughed. Another man Jack recognized as CEO of a company that developed avionics and aeronautical software wandered by carrying a plate full of watermelon. The man jerked it away when Turner reached for it and stuck out his tongue before heading in the direction Carter's lab. Alex's lab. He suspected both Carters were in the old storage shed arguing about the explosive side-effects of processing bio-diesel.


Sam and the Envi-Sci lab had been pushing for offworld bio-diesel facilities.


"The question is, dangerous to whom?" he asked pointedly.


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

Alex escaped from her lab, leaving Sam and two engineers from SG-7 discussing the automation and safety system she was building for the bio-diesel project. The conversation had been enjoyable, but being that close to Samantha, seeing the happiness in her eyes, Alex had started to feel claustrophophic.


She did not begrudge Sam anything she had found. She had damn well earned it. It was just...


Alex had earned it too.


Shanahan had been a shock. All anyone on the base had talked about was Dakara and all the things that followed. A new General. O'Neill's promotion. The change in the relationship between Colonel Carter and General O'Neill had been mentioned, but not belaboured and frankly, Alex did not want to listen to it. She was happy for Sam, she really was. But it hurt.


Finding out a year later that her other self had almost married someone else, someone Alex had never met...


That had been disturbing.


And it made her angry all over again.


She was so tired of being angry. At least these days, she was angry for the things she had lost, not the things Jon had tried to take away from her. When he had come back, when he had let Colonel O'Neill out of whatever hole he had stuffed him into, when her anger and survival-driven panic had died down a little, she had been able to see what he had tried to do. She even knew why he had tried to do it.


He could be Colonel O'Neill.


He could not be Colonel Jack O'Neill.


That fact was confusing the hell out of her, because she loved Colonel Jack O'Neill. She had always loved him. As a soldier. As a woman. She knew he had never understood that fact. He thought Jack was the man he had been for Sara. For Laira. She sometimes thought maybe that had been true ten years ago, but when he rebuilt his life after Abydos, Jack had merged with Colonel O'Neill.


At least, for SG-1.


She had never had a moment's doubt who he was. Hell, every alien from the Asgard to the Tok'ra knew what he thought about their people, their planets, and their mothers. He had never been less than a whole person out there. An arrogant, not-very communicative person sometimes, but whole. She had always believed that was why he was so successful with all of them. The Jaffa. The Tok'ra. After thousands of years of being lied to, of pretending to be something they were not, he was something of a relief. They did not have to pretend with Colonel O'Neill. They did not have to worry about interspecies and intercultural miscommunication. He was a spectacular failure as a diplomat...


But they damn well knew where he stood.


Alex froze as a pack of screaming children raced by, followed by a grinning T.J. His fur was sticking up in all directions and Alex groaned when she realized he had been swimming in the pond again. Chasing the ducks, she thought darkly. He never touched them, but the stupid ducks never remembered that. She half expected to come out one morning and find them all dead of coronary arrest. She half suspected the dog did it on purpose, wanting her to chase him hither and yon.


Damn good thing he was cute.


Shaking her head she studied the scene around her. Laughing soldiers. Laughing civilians. Edwards had brought the ponies again, and the children not dragging parents off to watch the martial arts demonstrations or begging to be allowed to join the growing crowd of people streaked with mud and neon paint were waiting patiently for their turn.


She stretched, and let her gaze follow the line of people wandering to and from the new training facility. It was just visible past the oak trees on the other side of the house, and she shook her head in amazement. She could not believe they had got it done in time. Will had cancelled his classes for these last two weeks of August and with all of SG-1 available, they had gone at the facility with determination. Sixteen bloody hours a day. She still had splinters.


They got it done.


The ends of the cordwood had been stained the same blue as the trim on the house and glowed softly amid the stark white of the mortar. The rough cut lumber of the upper wall had been left exposed, and they planned to wait until it turned silver grey before they stained it. Hopefully they could match the multi-toned effect on the barns. The doors and trim were blue as were the flowers decorating the roof.


She could not help smiling, looking at the roof. It had been Daniel's idea and she had to admit, it would never have occurred to her. Using the rough cut pine as roof decking, they had covered the wood with tar paper and plastic before layering the roof with haybales and grass seed. The money they saved on shingles allowed them to finish the inside and buy a couple pieces of essential equipment for the bio-diesal project. All in all, with Will's recent rosebush obsession, it looked more like a Hobbit House on crack than a martial arts academy, but people seemed to liked it.


The look on Daniel's face the first time Jon told him to go mow the roof had been priceless.


They had cannabalized the hardwood floor from the second barn to finish the first floor of the facility. The effect had been to give the building an immediate feeling of age, and permanence. It was solid too, with the reinforced concrete underneath. Will had covered the floor of the training room in blue exercise mats, while the area to the right of the foyer contained a lounge at the front and a briefing room for the Paintball Academy at the back. The walls of the lounge were already filled with bulletin boards and white-boards and the subjects ranged from training schedules, to ads for paintball rifles, to the latest Job-Jar List for the Garden Patch Crew.


The second level was bonus space. They had finished the floor using lumber from a few unhealthy oaks Atkins had milled for them, and there had been enough insulation and gyp-rock left from renovating the house to do most of the inner walls. Half the area had been turned into two large mission rooms for the Paintball Academy and the walls were quickly acquiring maps and aerial photos of the farm, as well as white-boards and tactical training aids. Jon had plans for the other half, but he would not tell them what they were yet. A scale model of the farm was slowly being assembled by the Paintball Academy. Eventually it would be used as a training aid for after-action analysis of the Paintball missions. For now, the kids were practicing surveying techniques.


Except for the time they stuck the apple orchard in the duck pond, they weren't doing badly.


Most of their budding military geniuses were over by the garden wood-stove waiting for their corn to boil. Will's truck was loaded with watermelon, and the adults in the general area were keeping an eye out to make sure none of the children chopped off a finger. People were cheerfully shucking their corn, Garden Patch volunteers were demonstrating how to make corn husk dolls, Jon's homemade butter was disappearing as fast as he could restock the coolers, and Grogan's D.J. friend was keeping the music pumping.


Everyone appeared to be having a grand time.


"You know...boys can be almost as interesting as cars," came an amused voice behind her.


She shifted position enough to see Turner watching her, a small smile on his lips. It took her a minute to realize she had been studying Jon as he bounced from location to location, making sure everything was in order. Turner's head tilted thoughtfully as he flicked a glance in Jon's direction, then his smile faded.


"I think someone is waiting for you," he told her seriously.


Alex resisted the urge to sigh. Whatever it was that made the men in her life want to protect her had struck again. She told herself he was just being a parent. Granted, he wasn't her parent, but he was the parent of a teenager. Something about that state must flick a genetic switch about the time their children turned thirteen.


"I know," she said.


He hesitated, then shrugged. He handed over a piece of watermelon and headed off in the direction of the lab. Alex debated the wisdom of having him meet Sam, but decided it would be okay as long as he never saw them in the same room together. Or got Sam near his Jaguar. Or met Jack and Sam together.


Anger surged again, this time at herself as she watched Jon go down under a full body tackle by Hammond's granddaughters when he held their football out of their reach. He hammed up being laid out for the count and from the disbelieving stares they sent her, he had just told them what she did for fun. One of the girls looked awed and Alec anticipated being cornered later in the day.


Jon shot a wicked grin in her direction and she realized he had caught her watching him.


For a split second, all she wanted to do was grab for him. Wrap her arms around him and never let go. It hurt, when he looked at her like that, with just the right amount of evil glee. Then she would get angry again, because he was still Colonel O'Neill, but not Jack, and she could see both, but she could never see them both together.


Damn it, women were not supposed to be so visual, sexually.


She knew she loved him. She wanted to be in love with him. Unfortunately, that had been an issue even before she was cloned. Doubling their DNA had not made things easier. Her body simply did not react to him. There were days she woke up terrified he had left again and days she was terrified she was losing her mind. Again. Sometimes, when he looked at her, she wanted to slam him up against a wall and kiss him until she felt something. Until her body figured out what her head already knew. But something was missing and she was terrified it was her heart. The one she had given to Jack before Alex was born and could never get back.


God help her, she had reacted to Jack.


He had looked at her and all she had ever seen when she looked at him had been looking back. Then he had called her Alex and her world imploded. One small push and she would have fallen. She would have betrayed Sam, betrayed Jon, betrayed herself, and betrayed Jack. One push and she would have taken him on his living room floor and counted her regrets well spent. Worse, far worse, had been the knowledge that he might have let her.


So she left.


Ran.


She no longer knew how to stop running. She did not know if she was running away from herself or Jack or towards something else. She just did not know. Everything she had ever wanted was waiting for her and all she could feel was anger.


She would sell her soul to feel desire.


Problem was, she did not know if it was still hers to sell.


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


Jack found Turner in the training room turned library, staring at the large black and white photo displayed against the soft grays and gentle curves of a natural river rock fireplace. Daniel had not been exaggerating. Exhaustion and pain emanated from the photo, in their slumped forms, the lines and shadows etched on their faces. Even Will, leaning against the shovel, looked defeated.


Until the viewer looked closer.


Daniel was huddled into himself, half turned away from the others. But even there, one arm had crept around the shoulders of the girl leaning trustingly against him. Jon's posture was even more revealing. Uncomfortably so. His head tilted back to rest against Daniel's knee, his body stretched out, exposed and vulnerable. Looking carefully, it was possible to see his left hand curled around Alexandra's outstretched leg, and one foot braced against the booted foot of the Jaffa standing guard at his feet.


A trick of light and shadow drew the eye to his exposed throat, and Jack stared broodingly, pondering truth and illusion.


"We need to talk," he said finally.


Turner met his eyes, unsurprised. Jack wondered what he was supposed to say. How the hell did one start a conversation like this? Nice to meet you. Met any clones lately? Turner took the conversation out of his hands.


"I knew Alec Colson."


Well...son-of-a-bitch.


This was not what he had wanted to hear. Jack forced himself to raise a mildly curious eyebrow."Oh?"


"I won't pretend to understand what really happened,"Turner said flatly," but Alec would have cut his own wrists before knowingly hurting that company. Someone set him up."


Jack wondered about Turner's definitions. Colson should have been able to figure out that someone would have wanted to shut him up. Maybe Jack had spent too much time with the politicians, lately. Had his fingers burned too many times. He just remembered being surprised that Colson was surprised he was under attack. He remembered thinking the man rivalled the Goa'uld in feeling untouchable, and with a hell of a lot less reason. Colson had been worse than naive. He had been stupid. He was willing to believe in assassination attempts but had been surprised by a basic scum-ball business tactic. A tactic that surprised no one but Colson. Then again, Colson had his right hand man to shield him from reality. He had been a geek pretending to be a shark.


Turner was the real thing.


"You have proof?" Jack asked mildly.


Turner's smile grew teeth."I don't need proof. I don't give a damn about what Alec thought he discovered."


Jack considered the fact he really hated these sorts of conversations.


"Then why bring it up?" he asked, exasperated.


"Think of it as a friendly warning."


Jack groaned. "For crying out loud, could we please cut with the cryptic?" he begged plaintively.


Turner raised an eyebrow, evaluating Jack with some interest. He shrugged. "I'm drawing a line in the sand. Stay away from me, stay away from my family, stay away from my company, and stay away from Alex and her friends. You won't like what will happen if you don't."


Jack stared. "I don't respond well to threats," he said finally.


Turner met Jack's flat stare without flinching. "Neither do I. Those of us who knew Colson, we haven't been sitting on our asses since it happened. Colson made a mistake. He left himself vulnerable to the actions of one man. I've spent the last two years turning my company and my personal life inside out to third party audit and security teams. Nobody signs anything without third-party verification and good-luck trying to plant false documents. Bio-Len is damn near bullet-proof. And I'm not the only one."


Tactical instincts fired as Jack considered the implications of a network of business people as powerful as the Trust mobilizing against them. Shit. The NID had fried their asses good this time. The irony was almost painful. These men were too close to the truth to ignore. The SGC could not afford to have them looking for conspiracies that did not exist. Not blindly. They would start a bloody war with the conspirators who did. Exist.


Shit.


Where was Daniel when he needed him?


Turner glanced at the photo above the fireplace, then shook his head. "I don't know what they are. Frankly, I don't care. I know they are worth protecting. So here it is. If they ever come to me for help, they are going to get it. And if anything happens to me, Alex and her friends are going to inherit both money and power. Not to mention a network of contacts that should make anyone nervous. You've seen what they can do with a broken down farm. Imagine what they could do with Bio-Len."


"It boggles the mind," Jack said truthfully, an involuntary grin cresting as he considered the look on Carter's face when she saw all the toys.


Turner tilted his head, caught off guard by Jack's reaction. He flinched as Jack slapped him on the shoulder.


"Sounds like we're on the same page," Jack said cheerfully.


Giving him even that much was dangerous, but not as dangerous as having the man on an active hunt. The man was probably envisioning military breeding programs turning out genetically enhanced super-soldiers. Hell, it was more believable than the truth, and that was saying something. Jack suspected Turner would be happy enough to simply remain vigilant as long as he did not suspect dragons around every corner.


He turned to leave, then paused as if a thought had just occurred to him,"Why DID you put a Jaguar in the hands of a fifteen year old?"


Turner hesitated, gaze suspicious.


"She saved my son's life," Turner said finally. "He took a cab one night because she threatened to have him kicked off the team if he was ever involved with drunk driving again. He believed her. " Turner hesitated, then continued slowly. "The other three kids never made it home. The police say they flipped the car going eighty miles an hour, on a straight stretch of dry pavement."


Jack waited.


Turner shook his head angrily."Thirty people watched those kids get into that car and did nothing. No one wanted to get involved. I'm not prepared to do the same. Not anymore. Power has to exist for a reason. I'm finally deciding on the reason for mine."


Jack nodded, finally satisfied. That was an answer he could understand. He paused at the door, then looked back.


"Sometime in the next few weeks, a military tender will be issued for a project being run out of Nevada. If it was me, I'd put a proposal together. You might find the results...enlightening."


Maybe it was time to get the crusaders all pointed in the same direction. Jack shrugged at the look on Turner's face, then left him alone with his thoughts and the shadows on the wall.


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


Harper gave the side of her face a startled glance before reaching to unlock his office door. She ignored it. Most of the SFs had done the same, although it was interesting, the difference in reactions here than at school. Her teachers were uniformly horrified, their gazes swinging between her face and the rest of the class with fascinated regularity. The SFs and other SG personnel just gave the vivid bruising the same sympathetic wince they would have given any Gate-induced injury.


It was ridiculously cheering.


"Helmet came off during yesterday's game," she responded, before sitting down.


Harper nodded and she could see him visibly file the black and blue half of her face into the 'not the reason Alex called' section of his brain. Alex twisted her fingers nervously, then forced them to lie flat against the fabric of her jeans. Harper eyed her hands for a moment, then settled into his chair and gave her his complete attention.


"I need this off the record," she blurted.


She clenched her fingers again, as a concerned look crept into his eyes.


"Why?" he asked.


Why? Because she should not even be having this conversation, not with him. If life had any sort of sense at all, she would be having this conversation with Jon. But life was not normal and there were other people involved.


"Because I actually care if the NID gets their hands on this tape," she snapped, frustration and anger raising her voice in defiance of her control. She forced herself to take a deep breath. Harper was not the enemy. He was also not NID. She had ninety-nine percent confidence in that fact, or she would not be here. But his records went in her permanent file. And her file was Sam's file, in a twisted way.


"Off the record,"she said again. "Please."


Harper was no fool. He knew she knew she was putting him in a no-win position. He had tried for over a year to get the clones to talk. That he had gotten as much as he had said more about their desire for success than his persistence. But he had persisted, and she gave him credit for that fact. However, she was not saying a damn word until she knew for certain that tape recorder was off.


Harper slowly reached out and hit the stop button. Then, before she could decide where to start, he shocked her by reaching into his desk drawer. A distinctive click could be heard as he tripped the stop button on the tape recorder she had not known was there. She watched him for a long moment.


"Why?" she asked softly. He seemed to understand the question.


He placed his hands on the desk, carefully in sight. Something he had always done, she realized abruptly.


"Because you don't trust me,"he said evenly,"but you're here anyway."


She felt her body go completely still as she absorbed that offer of help.


"I don't..." she started, then broke into a sweat. Panic surged and she beat it back with a mental fist. She wasn't gentle about it either. She was damn well good and tired of her own reactions.


"I want to have sex with Jon," she said bluntly.


She felt her entire face begin to burn as a slightly panicked look appeared in his eyes and he tried to navigate the minefield she had just dropped him into. Forget that Jon was his patient too. As far as she knew, Harper was not a sex therapist and he mostly dealt with male patients. But he had to have run into soldiers with sexual...dysfunction. Right?


Right?


Harper coughed slightly. "I don't think he would object," he said cautiously.


Entirely too conscious of the mental swearing her inner voice was doing, she flexed nervous fingers. "He's not the problem."


Harper waited.


"I thought I was angry with him," she explained stiffly, desperate to get the words out while she could. "I thought it would come back when I forgave him. But it didn't and I don't know what to do." She slammed her clenched fists down on her thighs, feeling the sting with a sort of remote relief.


Harper leaned back slowly, eyes on her hands. Then he met her pleading gaze with professional curiosity. "Alex, are you trying to punish yourself for not feeling the way you think you should?"


She blinked, then dropped her eyes to her hands. Oh.


"No," she said.


He waited.


"I'm not..." she stopped, then tried to explain."It grounds me."


It was all she could feel sometimes, and she needed to feel. It was the only way she could talk. To push past the anger.


Harper leaned forward and looked at her sympathetically."Alex, you're being too hard on yourself."


She catapulted out of her chair. "I'm wasting time,"she snapped, barely keeping herself from yelling.


Harper did not flinch, just tipped his head back and met her eyes gravely. "Time is the problem,"he said softly.


She could feel the silence collapse around her as he stared at her. Slowly she settled into her chair and looked at him in confusion. A soft snort came from across the desk and he was looking at her with gentle amusement.


"You're over-thinking the problem, Alex."


<You think too much, Carter.>


She shuddered.


Harper gazed at her sympathetically, but his voice was clinical. "You've been hovering on the edge of a full-blown combat reflex for almost two years, Alex. Cut yourself some slack."


"I don't know what you mean," she heard herself say.


Harper sighed."This isn't PTSD. Although how in the hell you four have managed not to go completely insane is a mystery to me."


She smiled, unintentionally amused. "Our dysfunctions protect us," she said, remembering a long ago offworld conversation.


"In a way, yes. And that's part of your problem," Harper said seriously."Alex, you rely on each other to keep you sane. Jon pulled the rug out from under you and you're having problems putting yourself back together. That's normal."


A small voice inside told her that Harper was wrong. "You think I'm still angry with him," she said flatly.


Harper looked at her intently. "Aren't you?"


"I'm angry," she said bluntly,"at everything."


"At everything?"Harper asked quietly."Or everything connected to Jon?"


Panic-surged and she dug her fingers into her chair. Harper jerked forward. "Think. Why are you angry now?"


She panted, trying to control the urge to swing at him as the anger spiralled. She needed to run. To move. Only the fact she needed even more to end this nightmare kept her in her seat. Tears of anger trickled uncontrollably down her face.


"I just want to be me again," she pleaded. "Just tell me how to get him back."


It. She meant to say it.


"Alex...you never lost him," Harper said. "You're just terrified you're going to."


Her knees hit her chest and she wrapped her arms around them, shaking her head. Rocking slightly, she wished it were that easy. Didn't he understand? She wanted the wrong man. When Jon finally realized she could not be what he wanted, he would go away again. Maybe he would still be there in body, but the things she saw in his eyes, the things that helped tell her who she was, the things she had never thought she would ever need to question, would go away.


"Jesus, Alex. Look at me. Come on, look at me. He's not going anywhere. Ease down. You're okay. You haven't lost him."


She became aware of Harper kneeling at her side, holding her arm in a solid grip. She stared at him in confusion. When had he moved? She met his eyes and realized with a start they were green. Why had she never noticed they were green?


"I don't think I'm in love with him," she whispered.


The truth sounded painful and raw and hollow. She was shocked when he snorted.


"That has got to be the dumbest thing I've ever heard you say."


Her jaw dropped and he chuckled."Alex...you're still here. You aren't running. You aren't living with the Tok'ra. You're here. What does that tell you?"


"That I'm pathetic?" she mumbled.


Harper shook his head, his hand still pinning hers to the arm of the chair. She wondered if it was to keep her from going anywhere.


"Jon tried to make you face something you weren't ready to face. Not to mention the fact he took away SG-1 at the worst possible time. He made a mistake. He didn't understand why you were protecting yourself. He probably still doesn't."


"That makes two of us," she muttered, wiping her face with her free hand.


Harper was silent for a long moment as he studied her carefully. When he spoke, his voice was pensive."How long have you been attracted to Jack O'Neill, Alex?"


She tensed, but the panic and anger stayed silent. She scratched at the fabric of her jeans, feeling the tug and pull of the fabric. He waited patiently until she looked up.


"Forever," she admitted painfully.


Harper nodded,settling more comfortably on his heels. "Then why didn't you do anything about it?"


"If you're about to tell me it's because I was using him to stay safe, I've had this conversation already," Alex told him.


Harper smiled,"Then they got it wrong. Partly. Ask yourself how valuable your relationship with Colonel Jack O'Neill must have been, to make it worth giving up what you could have had with just Jack."


Just Jack.


That had always been the problem.


"Do you have any idea what it was like, walking through the Gate with him?" she asked abruptly.


Harper tilted his head with interest.


"It was perfect," she said simply.


Oh god, it had been perfect.


"He was everything I wanted to be, when I was growing up. My father was stationed at Hurlburt when I was a kid and I used to meet them sometimes. You could always tell who they were if you knew where to look. It was in the eyes, and the way they walked. They knew exactly who they were and that what they were doing was important. They didn't need to prove themselves to anybody."


Her smile turned wistful, remembering the seven years previous to her existence as Alex. "It was perfect."


Learning to be the kind of person, the kind of officer she wanted to be. Learning that she could live up to his standards. Discovering that her death had meaning only if she made it count. Seeing the utter confidence in his eyes when he looked at her. Knowing the kind of man he was, knowing it was her responsibility to bring him home. Knowing he counted on her to bring his team home. Or sacrifice everything if that was what was needed to get the job done.


"It was perfect," she said again. Not easy. Not pain free.


But she had been alive.


Vibrantly, painfully alive.


"It was worth it," she told him.


For a moment she thought she saw envy in his eyes, then it was swept away by a curious smile.


"Exactly," Harper said.


Alex stared at him in confusion.


He sighed,"Alex, sometimes fear is there for a good reason. You made an incredibly sane decision in a no-win situation, especially given your personal history. What were you supposed to do? Let him go through the Gate without you? Let Daniel and Teal'c go through without you? Would your relationship with him have survived if he came back without them?"


No.


Because she would never have forgiven herself.


Jack might have forgiven Sam, but Colonel O'Neill would never have forgiven Major Carter. Or himself. Not if their personal desires had cost their friends their lives. Not if Earth had been the price. SG-1 had just been too damn good at surviving and succeeding where logic said they should fail. More than that, this was their fight. She had needed to be where she had been even more than she wanted to be there.


They had not been born to stand on the sidelines.


Her lips quirked."I never thought we'd have seven years and I'd sell my soul to have seven more. Whatever it cost us...it was worth it."


"But...?" Harper prompted.


She frowned, confused.


Harper pointed a finger at her. "You said it yourself. You never thought you'd have seven years. Assuming you survived, you couldn't continue to be SG-1 forever. O'Neill was only a year away from mandatory retirement. What did you think would happen then?"


The Joint Chiefs had been discussing making the Alpha Site a Major Command. Still were as far as she knew, although the Army and Navy were protesting. Originally, with the Jaffa and the Tok'ra both present on the base, O'Neill would have been the ideal choice to command. The old Alpha Site had been much more independent, more dynamic, more of a forward staging area back then. Aliens coming and going. Research projects. Genesis evacuees. Now, it seemed to exist as a quiet extension of the SGC, and she had no idea if that would or should change.


She knew why Samantha had given up hope.


No more Alpha Site.


No way out.


A body that could flip into early menopause at any moment. Increased risk of birth defects. The ever increasing certainty she would not live to see her fortieth birthday. She had known that last was partly a normal reaction to her mother's death at the same age, but...


She guessed Pete had just made things easy. Samantha could not have it all, but she could have General O'Neill, and SG-1, and someone who loved her for the time she had left. Someone who was easy. Someone who let her forget who she was...for a while.


Someone who could not destroy her if he left.


Oh yeah. She knew why Sam had said yes.


"Do you think he wants me for the wrong reasons?" she asked quietly.


Harper hesitated, then chose his words carefully. "Were you ever scared that Jack wanted you for the wrong reasons?"


Anger splintered and crashed at her feet. Yes.


God, yes.


Tears of pain, the kind that made it hard to breathe, burned in her eyes as she nodded. Harper tightened his grip, then backed away, sensing his nearness was making her claustrophobic.


"Alex...you had something extraordinary for seven years, with the promise of something else when it was over. Jack was a sure thing. He was not going anywhere. If you survived, someday you could work on a relationship. Once he retired. Once he was safe. Jon is sixteen biological years old. He'll never be safe."


Never be safe.


She could not control time, and it no longer marched in her favour. Jon could outgrow her, now that he had time. And he was heading back into the field, not a different, safer part of the war. Nor was it a part she could control by watching his back or dying with him. Seven years. Seven years she had told herself it was just a matter of time and it would be safe to love him. Jack was a safe bet. A low-risk gamble with a high-risk reward.


Jon would never be safe.


Bitterly she finally recognized the defensive anger, the panic-stricken fight or flight reaction. She recognized it...and wished she did not. She wished she had never started this conversation. Never asked for Harper's advice. There was no solution. No loophole. No SG-1 magic. No way out.


Simply the choice to run or to fight.


And Alex had already decided to stop running.


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


Jon yawned and stretched as he ambled toward the shop. The barn walls gleamed silver in the moonlight, casting eerie shadows on the ground. He frowned at the hint of winter he could just smell on the edges of the light breeze blowing against him. It was early, for snow. Even for Colorado. The garden was taken care of, thanks to the Garden Patch Crew. Root cellar, basement and freezer were all packed to bursting, but they still needed a few more cords of wood or their electric bill was going to be a nightmare.


Things were finally settling down, he thought with some regret.


The BBQ had gone well, and Will had even gotten a few more students as a result of the demonstrations. They had given up their flyer routes, and although he missed working as a team, he had to admit it was time. He and Daniel had moved the best of the remaining parts cars into Alex's basement, packing them in like sardines. He doubted they would get the remainder in the field finished before the snow fell, but better to get as many under cover as possible while they could.


Now that the cash needs created by the training facility had ended, they could relax a bit. Work on new hobbies. Will was working on decorating the library. Daniel was writing a book of some kind. Jon was toying with the idea of a set of french-style patio doors inset with a stained glass mural for his entrance onto the rooftop deck from his bedroom. Alex...


...Alex was getting there.


She had been quiet and withdrawn during September. He put it down to the higher level of competition now that she was a senior. During the past year most of her teammates had put on height and muscle. She was still kicking ass, but when she got hit these days, it was like being tackled by a Jaffa.

He should know, he had seen the bruises.


He could not help the involuntary flinch as he thought about the reason he saw them in such detail. Three weeks ago she had tentatively asked if he would be willing to help with a therapeutic massage program Harper had prescribed. His mouth twisted at his own folly. Fool that he was, he had said yes. He supposed he had had some thought in the back of his mind about getting her to trust him again.


So...now he knew.


He only looked sixteen. He knew when a woman was responding to his touch and Alex most definitely was not. At first he had put it down to tension. At the unfamiliar feel of his hands on her body. Then he had tried to blame it on the bruises. But she had been bruised before and still looked at Jack with a subtle heat in her eyes. She had learned to relax as he gently kneaded the knots and tension from her abused muscles, but not once had he ever gotten the impression his touch had sparked even the smallest desire for anything more.


So...now he knew.


He supposed the only thing left was to decide what he was going to do about it. A hard knot of something that felt like panic twisted nauseatingly in his stomach. If it was just his face, he could wait. Another year, two at the most, and maybe she would be able to see Jack again, when she looked at him. Maybe...


Maybe it would be a good idea to start dating.


That was, as soon as dating women his own age did not make him feel like a pedeophile. On the other hand, once he was eighteen, he could legitimately start dating women in their thirties. Take the edge off. Maybe if he was not so desperate around her, she would feel safer. Less pressured. Maybe...


He contemplated the idea without any real enthusiasm. His body thought he was brilliant. Then again, his teenage body was not very picky. Never had been. And he missed sleeping with someone. He missed all the things Sara had never known he had valued, because telling her would reveal too much about why he had valued them. Sara had loved him. But he had known without a doubt that he sometimes scared her. And not in a good way. Not in a 'I-will-miss-you-if-you-die' way.


Sara had loved him.


But she had never really known what he was.


Was it wrong to want more?


He pulled open the shop door and stepped inside. Surprised to find the shop entirely in darkness, he felt for the switch and flicked it. Nothing.


"Don't bother. The light's broken," came a low voice off to his left.


He jumped reflexively."Jeez, Carter. Give a guy some warning next time."


He took a couple steps forward, stopping when he felt his toe strike something solid,and heard glass crunch under his foot. Bending carefully, he reached for the solid something. He had just wrapped his fingers around the object when he heard a slight sniffle. He snapped his head up and stared blindly in her direction.


"Carter?"


Another sniffle, more of a quickly indrawn breath. The kind someone made when they were trying to hide the fact they were crying. He was about to demand she tell him what was wrong when he recognized the feel of the object in his hand. He lifted it and sniffed to confirm his suspicion. It was the container of muscle cream she had given him to use on her bruises. From the feel of the glass underfoot, and the location, it had also been the reason the light bulb was now in a hundred pieces on the floor.


His eyes had adjusted enough that the moonlight seeping in through the upper windows let him pick out her huddled form. She was sitting on the floor, back leaning against a tarp covered car, one of the sports cars from the Graveyard that she was rebuilding. He could not see her expression, but the moonlight turned her tears silver, leaving lines on her face that were impossible to miss.


His fingers clenched involuntarily, squeezing the container in his hand. For a moment, he tried to remember how to breath past the pain and regret. Then he looked down sightlessly at his damn hands. She knew he knew. Ah damn. He fumbled for some way to tell her that it was okay. That she did not have to hurt for him so badly. It was not her fault. He would survive. That's what he did, and it was not so bad being alive these days.


"It's nobody's fault, Carter," he said finally. "Actually, it's Loki's fault, but it sure as hell isn't yours. I just...I shouldn't have pushed for more than you could give. I'm sorry. I won't..."


She climbed slowly to her feet and stood silently. When she did not say anything, he tried a smile. It wobbled a bit, but it might pass in the dark. "So...do you think the college girls will go for the skinny but cute look? At least the acne has cleared up. I..."


He grunted involuntarily when she tackled him. Got her shoulder right under his ribcage and lifted him clear off his feet. He hoped like hell it was the hood of the Corvette he had just landed on, because he was damn sure he had left dents. He was shaking his head and trying to catch his breath when she scrambled up on top of him and planted her knees on either side of his hips, pinning him to the car beneath. She threaded her fingers into his hair and clenched hard enough to hurt.


"Don't you dare," she ordered fiercely.


Then her hands were sliding down his body and she fastened her mouth onto the side of his neck. Sprawled like a pagan sacrifice across his own car, he could not get any leverage. Not unless he wanted to go sliding off, taking her with him. Bad idea. Glass everywhere.


His hands settled on her hips and he had some vague idea of asking her what she was doing when she sank her teeth into his shoulder. He yelped, too confused and not turned on enough for it to be anything but painful. Then her hand slid under his t-shirt and oh thank god for track pants. Her hand wrapping around his balls got his complete attention.


He banged his head when he arched reflexively, one foot kicking back against the grill. He tightened his grip on her hips, unintentionally pulling her against him. Her hand got in the way, but oh, shit, his body did not mind. He couldn't thrust against her, but he did not need to. She moved her hand, then settled against him, her groin making full-contact with his aching hard-on. He groaned as she rocked, her open body cradling his hips, the fabric of her jeans rough against his skin.


She was whispering something against his neck and he tried to focus, some distant brain cell not trapped by sixteen year-old hormones shrieking that it was important. He tried to hold her still, only to have her grind her hips frantically against him, nearly ending everything right there. Shit. Had he really been this fast when he was sixteen? Christ, he had a shorter fuse than a damn bottle rocket and would she please slow down?


"Carter...?" he managed.


Her whispered words started to line up into coherent syllables. He caught the word, "please" over and over again. Not knowing what she wanted, but responding to the frantic tone and forceful thrusts of her hips he fumbled with the zipper of her jeans. She did not seem to notice, too intent on rubbing herself against him and he was about to make some smart-assed comment about teenage hormones, when he slid his fingers across her clit and found her absolutely dry.


He froze.


Her words abruptly untangled themselves and he thought his heart had stopped when he realized what she was saying. "Don't leave" and "I'm sorry" rang in his ears and when he turned his head and caught the side of her face with his lips, he tasted tears.


"Carter...?" he asked softly.


She did not hear him, not even seeming to notice the sudden slackness of his body. He wrapped his arms tightly around her waist, pulling her to him, belly to belly and pinning her in place.


"Carter, stop," he ordered sharply.


The command filtered through; luck or training, he was not sure. She froze, then a long slow shudder worked its way through her body and she collapsed against him. Not, he thought bitterly, for the reason he would have hoped. He lay still, feeling her breath coming in short pants against his throat. She scared him then, giving a low animal moan, like something dying.


Broken in a way he had never heard from her.


Ever.


His pulse started to trip-hammer. *Don't panic, Jack,* he told himself. *This would be a bad time to panic.* But he had no idea how to fix this, and when she started to cry, panicking began to look like a damn good idea. He tightened his grip on her body, trying to convince her she was not alone. One thought kept circling in his head.


This was bad.


It was completely Carter to try and solve a problem on her own, to blame herself for not seeing the obvious solution. That was Carter. She thought big. Really big. All the 'possibles' and the 'could be's' and the 'what if's' mounted a rearguard action and took over her brain. Too many damn trees. Pink ones, with purple polka dots.


Carter attacked a problem with logic. With facts. With dizzying, convoluted, gravity defying science that masked the fact that she was beating the square peg on the head until it surrendered. Scarily, for her, it usually worked. When it didn't, she confessed all to SG-1 until one of them gave her an idea and off she went swinging her mallet. She was his own personal secret weapon in BDUs and strawberry-flavoured lip chap. Aim. Fire.


Target eliminated.


Very cool. Very sexy.


This emotional meltdown was not her. She should be arguing with him. Telling him the problem in dizzying detail. Explaining very carefully why it could not be fixed, right before she went ahead and fixed it anyway. So why had she been trying to fix this on her own? Considering the problem she was dealing with, it sort of made sense to have the both of them involved.


Last he heard, couple's therapy required couples.


Unless...


Unless she did not really want to solve the problem.


He brooded on that for a moment, then dismissed it. Carter had made the first move. She had obviously been working on something with the massage gig. And he assumed that being thrown across the hood of his car sort of implied she was interested in sex. He was not exactly thrilled with her solution to the problem at hand, but he guessed it made a fuzzy sort of mallet-swinging logic.


The car part was cool.


"I wanted this," she said suddenly, voice and tone defeated. "I just..."


She dug her face into his throat, and inhaled deeply, her hands clutching at his shirt.


"No option four," he heard her whisper sadly.


She yelped when he rolled, got his feet under him and yanked her off the hood of the car. She stared at him in shock as he glared.


"The hell there isn't," he told her.


No way. No damn way was she giving up. She pulled him into this fight. Fired the first salvo. He was damn well going to finish it. She was his. Or she wanted to be. He was not going to lose her. Not because of his body, and certainly not because of his face. He had spent two years trying to be someone else. Trying to be Jonathan. Fuck it. She wanted Colonel Jack O'Neill?


She could have him.


She had avoided looking him in the eyes the whole time she had tried to seduce him. He noted almost absently that she was still using peripheral vision to drift along the edges of his face, not line of sight. Easily solved. She did not resist when he spun her around and trapped her against the front of the car. As much as he wanted to believe it was because of curiosity, he would have to be careful.


Be damned if he would let this become rape.

Her knees braced against the grill and he wedged his own knee between hers, pushing her legs apart and settling against her. He walked her hands forward until she was bent over the car from the waist up. Stretching her arms above her head, he pressed forward, letting her feel him. Tension gripped her body as she considered what he planned to do.


"You think too much, Major," he rasped against her ear, his voice a good octave lower than normal. Whiskey harsh.


A shiver rippled down her spine. He could feel it. And he heard her breath hitch in shock.


"Don't think, Carter," he commanded bitingly, snapping the order out. He drew the tip of his tongue across her shoulder to the base of her skull in a disturbing, sinuous path. Before her brain could catch up, he bit her. Right at the base of her neck. She jerked in panic, reflexively fighting the remembered pain of a scar that no longer existed.


"Don't think, Carter," he snapped again, before she could recover, and she shuddered as he thrust powerfully against her, leaning his full weight across her back, trapping her against the car. Surrounding her with his body. Reminding her that she was safe. For a moment, when she cried out, he was scared he had gone too far. But when he released her hands, she did not move. And when he slid his hands beneath her, she arched her back to give him access to her breasts.


Cautiously, he rubbed and circled and rumbled fractured orders against her ear until he heard her moan slightly. He kept it up until he could feel her hips begin to press rhythmically against the car. In time to her motions, he thrust against her, dry-humping until she stopped pressing against the car and started pushing against him. He lost the ability to touch her breasts when her clothing began to frustrate her and she dropped flat against the car to get a better angle, better contact.


He smiled against the back of her neck.


He spoke as little as possible, keeping his voice low. At first, he simply tried to be what she wanted. Heavier. Older. Stronger. Then he forgot the part he was playing and it was 1969 again and he was doing what he had not even fantasized about doing the second time around. He ignored everything but the feel of her hot skin sliding across red paint as her shirt disappeared, and the logistics of tight Levis threatened to fuck up his perfect scenario.


His knife was in his hand before he had time to rethink the matter and she hummed approvingly as he sliced the tight fabric from waist to knee on either side. The fabric fell away and the smell of her arousal, and the slippery wetness that coated his fingers nearly drove him over the edge. As he cut away her underwear, he had just enough presence of mind to remember that her body was not as experienced as her mind: to kept from shoving himself inside her and pounding away until she screamed.


He let his fingers do the walking.


She groaned as he pushed a finger deep inside. From the frantic way she started to flex and squirm, she was hovering on the edge. However, he did not want her to simply feel release. He wanted her begging. He wanted her screaming his name when she came. He wanted to know she wanted him buried inside her and he wanted to believe her.


She started to whimper as he curled his finger, looking for the sweet spot. He figured he found it when he pressed hard against muscle and bone and she tried to impale herself on his hand. He pushed two fingers inside her and started stroking. Hard. Soft. Slow. Hard. Never deep enough or hard enough to trigger her orgasm. She began to thrash her head in desperation and he waited for her to start begging.


He waited.


And waited.


She was grunting deep in the back of her throat with every thrust of his hand, but she would not beg.


He snarled and stopped. A sob broke from her and he leaned forward, fingers embedded deeply, but no longer thrusting. Just scissoring gently from side to side, stretching her, widening her. Her body began to shake as he put his mouth near her ear.


"Do you trust me, Alex?" he asked, low voiced and harsh.


She stilled completely, but he could feel her inner muscles contract in surprise, tightening against his fingers. Slowly she nodded.


He kissed her gently along her shoulder.


"Then beg."


Her eyes were closed, and he waited patiently.


He was caught off guard when a sudden, brilliant smile curved her lips.


"Never," she said defiantly.


He pulled his fingers out. "Never is a very long time, Major," he warned her.


She braced her hands on the hood of the car, elongating her body as she spread her knees wider and tilted her ass toward him. Wide open. Inviting him in. Oh...crap. Carter locked and loaded.


He was a dead man.


He began stroking with his fingers again, only to stutter to a halt when she moaned throatily, long and low. The sound rippled from his spine straight to his dick and he swallowed tightly as it jumped in shock. He stroked again and she moaned once more, arching her back. Stroke, moan. Thrust, groan. A hard press of his fingertips against her g-spot, and she writhed on the hood of the car, grinding against it, trapping his hand as she moaned and sighed, and flexed her ass invitingly, visibly savoring every second of his touch.


He surrendered.


One flex of his hips and he was home. She flinched slightly as she tore, but when he seated himself deep inside her, the moan she let out was harsh and no longer playful. It curled around his spine and tripped something hot and primitive and he forgot who he was. Forgot who they were. Forgot everything except the sound of her pleasure as he surged into her and she took him as violently as he gave himself away.


"Let it go," he told her."Let it go."


Her hands slipped on the slick hood as he thrust harder, and she shook her head.


He wrapped his hands around the front of her thighs and hoisted her against him, aiming for maximum penetration.


"Let it go, Alex," he ordered.


She shook her head again and he growled, refusing to lose this battle. He leaned into her, pinning her to the hood and used the car for leverage to thrust again and again. The car rocked wildly as he nailed her, hard and fast. She cried out repeatedly and the shocks squealed, collapsing with the rhythym and then throwing her back towards him, up into the next thrust. Her hands flexed and scrabbled for purchase as she struggled to hold her position, as she tried to balance, spreading her knees as wide as they would go, twisting and straining to open wider as he pounded into her.


She ordered him to go faster. Harder. Deeper. He jack-hammered away as he had not been able to do since he was thirty-five and wrecked his knee for the first time and he heard her laugh insanely as her name became a chant on his lips as he plunged into her, going as deep as he could go. Carrying her name with him.


Jack groaned one word brokenly against her ear as his own need claimed him.


"Carter..."


She screamed as she convulsed in his arms, taking him with her.


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


They were sprawled wet,tangled,and boneless across the hood of his car. Her brain struggled to wrap itself around that particular cliche, but the neurons were short-circuited. Fried beyond repair. Apophis himself could come crashing through the door and she did not think she would care. His weight felt good, surrounding her, inside her, and she had no desire to move him. Besides, it would probably be three days before she could walk again.


She felt him start to tremble. It took her a minute to realize he was laughing. He brushed his lips across her bare shoulder and she felt him smile.


"Think this counts as Option Five?"


She snorted at the lazy satisfaction in his voice. He was going to be impossible to live with after this. On the other hand...


"I guess there are advantages to having two good knees," she said, with some satisfaction of her own.


He danced his fingers up and down her arm. "Want to try it again sometime?" he asked hopefully, tone carelessly light. "If I remember correctly, in addition to the acne and mood swings, I'm quick to reload."


Considering that he had lodged himself possessively inside her body and she was making no attempt to get away, the question seemed pointless. Then again, that was not what he was really asking. She considered how to answer him. She knew what she wanted. She knew who she wanted. While she was not prepared to make promises she did not know if she could keep, her last excuse was now a complicated mess of collateral damage.


She was tired of hurting him.


She was tired of being afraid, too, but she would have to learn to live with that.


There was a momentary silence, then he kissed her softly on the shoulder. He did not say anything and she knew if she looked at him, his eyes would give nothing away. It was the tentative way he was holding her that gave her the only clue to his thoughts. The nervous way he kept running his hand down her arm. Soothing. Petting. Betraying a need for contact, yet light enough to let her escape if that was what she needed.


Offering her the freedom to walk away.


He belonged to her. One way or another that had always been true. There was no other choice. Jon or Jonathan, he was still Jack. If he wanted her for the wrong reasons...so be it. She did not expect the words. Not yet. Maybe not ever. He was still Jack and all that implied. She was still Samantha Carter and terrified of losing him.


But when had they ever done easy?


"You're over the limit," she told him seriously. "I think I'll keep you."


He froze against her back, then she heard him snort softly and he relaxed as he accepted that much of her claim. Maybe someday she could say the rest of it. That she loved him, every annoying, frustrating, exhilarating, military-begotten piece of him. Even the parts she sometimes hated.


It was not perfect.


It was going to be painful, and terrifying, and annoying as hell. But she was determined that someday, she would look back and be satisfied that it had been perfect for her.


Whatever it took.


He was worth it.