Coming Apart at the Seams -- Part 1 by Pink Rabbit Productions

Title: Coming Apart at the Seams
Author: Pink Rabbit Productions -- pinkrabbit@altfic.com
Date:
10/28/00
Rating: PG-13
Website: www.altfic.com
Pairing: Sam/Janet � Established relationship
Series: Yes � Sequel to Whispered Promises.
Disclaimer: The characters belong to Showtime, MGM, Gekko, and Double Secret and I am thieving scum who is merely joyriding about with them. This contains a romantic relationship between two women. If you find it offensive, don't read.
Author's Notes: As God is my witness, I don't know why I wrote this story, how to classify it, or whether anyone will actually like it, as it may well be utter overly-angsty dreck (hmm, possible subtitle: A Study in the McGuffin). I suppose it's sort of a bit of a character and relationship study, but not always the ones you might expect.  Btw, if you're reading this one for lots of sex...erm...boy, are you gonna be disappointed, same for booms and bangs. Oh, and btw, this is undoubtedly the last time Samuels will be making an appearance in a story of mine (hold the applause until you finish the story, 'kay?).

| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |

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Part Two

"Buy you a drink?" the offer was clearly intended to be seductively smooth and irresistibly sexy. It failed miserably.

Janet Fraiser looked up from the pyramid she was building out of emptied shot glasses, eyeing the young man leaning over her, crowding her with his overconfident attempt at charm. Her eyes slid past him to where his three pals--they'd each already made their best play and been firmly rebuffed--were cheering him on. The little weasels probably had a bet going, she mused sourly. Probably thought hitting on the mature woman--she was honest about that part; she had socks older than they were--who was drinking heavily was a sure-fire score. She barely resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at them in a childish taunt as she diagnosed their condition with automatic disdain; frat-boys out on a toot, drunk, too arrogant by half, and walking on the wild-side by going to a dive where airmen and marines were occasionally known to bust heads. She recognized all of the symptoms from her undergraduate years, since she'd spent enough time being pursued by like-minded boys back then. Then she realized he was still waiting for her answer, smiling a smarmy smile, and leaning into her personal space. "No thanks," she muttered, gesturing to the Scotch bottle that sat nearby, complete with a metal pouring spout, and the tray of clean shot glasses waiting to be filled, emptied, and stacked. "I'm covered."

His lip curled ever so slightly, just a hint of a sneer there, but enough to show he didn't like her refusal to play along one bit. Well, the truth of the matter was she didn't really care. She was in no mood to be bullied by some idiot frat-rat who thought he was far more attractive than he actually was.

He leaned even farther into her space, leering openly now, and amazingly, she could smell the liquor on his breath over the smell of alcohol on her own. Nothing like cheap bourbon to draw attention to itself. "Then what say we skip the drink and go straight to the mind-bending sex?" he drawled.

Janet raised an eyebrow in an expression of polite disbelief. "No thanks," she dismissed him with casual disdain and calmly retrieved the Scotch bottle to pour a fresh measure of the amber liquid into a clean shot glass from the tray. She looked up when she realized he was still standing there, waiting expectantly, as though the mere smell of his cologne would mesmerize her into changing her mind.

As if.

"You wanted something else?" she questioned with mocking courtesy.

He ran his eyes over her. "Just wondering if my sister'd have a better shot," he sneered.

Janet couldn't restrain a smirk. "Why do men always assume that's the only reason a woman would say no?" she mused out loud. She retrieved the newly filled shot glass, tossing the alcohol back with obscene ease. "However, to answer your question," she croaked when she came up for air, "I assure you, no one in your immediate gene pool would have a shot." She met his angry glare with a quelling stare, backing him down through sheer willpower.

"Too old anyway," he muttered, slinking back to the table with his pals.

Good riddance as far as she was concerned. Little boys with little toys were the last thing she was in the mood to deal with. Not that she had much choice with Samuels skulking around, doing his damnedest to open old wounds.

Old, deep wounds.

Images flared in her head and she reached up to massage her temple as though she could physically remove the unwanted memories. Maybe she could volunteer herself for a bit of modern day trepanning and just carve them right out of her skull. Find a good surgeon, make a few cuts and merrily drill away, then, 'Here, Ma'am, the bad stuff's all gone.' God, if only it were that simple.

She poured another drink and tossed it back in a way that would have appalled her father, with his love of good sipping whiskey. The Scotch was cheap anyway, not really meant for sipping. She spilled a fresh two fingers in a clean glass, then leaned forward until her eyes were level with the nicely developing pyramid, idly wondering how high she could get it this time. Her hands were perfectly steady--a genetic trick of fate that her friends in college had all found perversely fascinating as they remained that way, no matter how much alcohol or marijuana she consumed with youthful abandon--as she placed first one glass, and then the second, upside down on the latest level. Finished, she was just straightening and leaning back when a mocking voice reached her ears.

"What's that, Fraiser, the new Lego set for alcoholics?" Jack O'Neill questioned, slicing through her efforts not to think or feel as he stepped up to the table.

Her eyes lifted, taking in his deceptively relaxed pose--shoulders slumped, hands in pockets, fatigue jacket unbuttoned to reveal the black t-shirt underneath--but not buying the act. He was tense, too tense, his shoulders braced, eyes wary as he snatched a chair from under the table and dropped into it. No accident he was here, she realized in a drunken burst of insight. "Out playing white knight, Colonel?" she asked dryly, proud that she kept most of the slur out of her voice.

He shrugged. "It's a job," he allowed, not even trying to deny the implied accusation that he'd been sent to retrieve her. He gestured toward her building project. "You actually drink all that?"

She shrugged, not answering as she told him, "I'm not really in the mood to be rescued, sir." Maybe he'd just go. Her mouth twisted. Right, and maybe the general would start letting tourists use the gate for fun jaunts across the galaxy.

He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the tabletop. "Funny," he observed, still watching her with eyes that saw too damn much, "you look just the opposite to me." His eyes tracked her hand as she poured herself another shot glass of Scotch. "Didn't those fancy psych courses you took in college catalogue this sort of behavior under the heading, 'Crying out for help?'"

She raised an eyebrow, thinking back on the drunken revelry that had defined her undergraduate years and the often wild, chandelier swinging parties the exhausted med students had thrown when they couldn't take the pressure anymore and needed to cut loose. "Actually, when I was in college, this would have qualified as a rather sober Saturday night." There, let him chew on that. She took another swallow of alcohol, though only half the glass this time as the world threatened to spin around her. It wouldn't do to throw up all over O'Neill's boots. Nosiree, not when she was trying to convince him she was just fine, thank-you-very-much.

Just goddamn fine.

The drunken college boys made a joke more than loud enough to be heard at her table, their laughter indicating that the punchline was directed her way. Little creeps.

O'Neill followed the line of the dirty look she threw their way. "Hey, if you'd rather I leave so you can pursue a meaningful relationship with Huey, Dewey, and Dumbass over there, just let me know," he challenged mockingly.

She turned her glare on the colonel. "Don't be an asshole, O'Neill."

His brows lifted in surprise at hearing her curse that way. He couldn't remember ever hearing her say anything harsher than hell or damn before.

She noted his look and snorted. "I do know the words, Colonel. Some of us just don't choose to use them all of the time." She drained the liquid remaining in the shot glass and leaned forward to carefully place the newest empty on her creation, fully aware that O'Neill was watching her closely.

He leaned down, peering at her through the distorting layers of glass. "Long term hobby?"

Janet shrugged as she settled the glass on the neatly balanced layers. "Just something I like to do now and then."

He nodded slowly, absorbing the admission she hadn't meant to make. "Like when you think about whatever it was that happened in Africa?" he questioned without missing a beat.

Her hand faltered ever so slightly as she pulled it away, nearly toppling the pyramid. Janet's head periscoped up and she glared at him over the top of the stacked glasses. "Go away, sir," she said without emotion.

He met her angry glare with a calm stare, leaning back in his chair without losing her hard gaze. "I don't think so."

Janet poured another glass of alcohol, silently willing Jack to leave. She didn't want him here, didn't want him of all people seeing her like this. She just wanted him to go away and leave her the hell alone. "I'm sleeping with Sam." There, it was out, bald-faced and inescapable, the one thing she never would have said if she weren't sitting there with a blood alcohol level that approached the medical definition of poisoning. She waited a beat, staring at him in expectation of his angry exit that would leave her alone with the bottle and her private agony. Sam was gonna kill her, her career would be fucked up, and she was officially destroying herself, but, what the hell, he'd be gone.

"I'm sorry," Jack said after a long moment of the staring game they were playing. "Was that my cue to let out a girlish squeal of horror and run for cover?" If he was feeling gut-punched, he didn't let it show.

Janet stared at him, then down at the still full shot glass in front of her, then back up at Jack, wondering if maybe all of this was just an unpleasant hallucination. She instinctively checked behind him to see if any pink elephants had entered the bar, then had to force down a bubble of hysterical laughter. Whoa boy, she was finally losing it. "I think it probably was," she admitted unsteadily and started to reach for the glass. If it was a hallucination maybe another would make it go away or at least replace it with one that was less irritating.

He covered the glass with his hand, effectively blocking her. "Which ought to be a cue that you've had more than enough of this."

Then she did laugh hysterically. "Sorry, sir, I'm still conscious, so that can't be right." Still amazingly quick and steady handed, she snatched the shot glass out from under his palm, tossing it back before he could stop her. The scotch hit the back of her throat like with all the finesse of kerosene. The distant thought occurred to her that her father wouldn't have used this stuff as firestarter as it left a trail of fire down to her stomach, the sensation bordering on physical pain.

"Feel better now?" Jack asked acidly as she set the glass down again, carefully placing it in position on the glass pyramid.

"Am I still alive?" she asked rhetorically, then answered her own question, "Yes...so I guess the answer's no."

Jack sighed softly. "You are going to be so embarrassed when you wake up," he murmured, a trace of pity in his voice.

"Maybe I'll get lucky and I won't wake up," she sighed, still staring into the pyramid as though it might offer some kind of answers. She reached out and picked up a shot glass, slowly rolling it round and round between her thumb and forefinger.

O'Neill was startled by the cold bolt of fear that went through him at that statement. "Now, that's a stupid thing to say, he growled, angry that she would even be thinking like that when she had everything he could possibly�

He cut the thought off right there. That was a place he was best off not going.

She looked up and he had the sense that she was looking for something. "Is it?" she questioned idly.

"You've got Cass and Sam," he reminded her and saw her flinch, wide dark eyes sliding closed. "I can't think of any better reason to live."

Janet swallowed hard.

He reached out and carefully took the glass out of her hand to set it down on the table. As much as a part of him wanted to be angry at her for being ready to throw so much away, even punish her for the compulsive stupidity of it all, he couldn't hold on to the dark emotions as he stared at the hell reflected in her eyes. "What the hell is going on here? Talk to me."

She reached up, massaging her temple in hopes of relieving the alcohol induced headache that suddenly began throbbing there. She closed her eyes tightly for a moment, then opened them again only to find that it hadn't helped the blurriness at all. Maybe it had even made it worse. And joy of joys, O'Neill was still there staring at her with a look that managed to mix sympathy and disapproval in a way that got on her none-too-sober nerves. She looked away from him then, eyes sliding around the darkened, smoky interior of the bar as she felt the crash and burn start. Oh, this wasn't good. A fine-boned hand curled in to a tight fist where it rested on the table as dark walls started to close in on her. Caught in the sudden grip of crushing claustrophobia, she could feel her pulse accelerating with every beat. She was trapped again, caught like a bug in a jar, but this time there was no one to pull her back from the brink of madness, no warm gaze holding her own and silently promising it was going to be all right.

Without that lifeline, she couldn't fend off the crushing terror.

"Janet?" O'Neill's voice echoed distantly in her ears, but she was barely aware of it. She didn't even notice the four frat rats who'd been bothering her earlier come back as she staggered to her feet.

"I've gotta get outa here." That was her own voice, but somehow disjointed and unrecognizable. The stench of death was everywhere, sweet, putrid, and inescapable; a sensory memory she couldn't escape, leaving her barely able to breathe.

"Get lost." Jack O'Neill's voice. Not to her, but to the frat boys. She tried to concentrate on it, but it didn't work. And then someone grabbed her around the waist and she was yanked against a hard male body. In an instant, she was out of the past as she concentrated on the immediate threat, relieved to have the distraction from those distant horrors.

"Come on, babe. Ditch the old guy...my buddies and I can show you a very good time..." Working on instinct, she dropped her hand to where his fingers were leaving bruises at her waist. "...and I know how grateful you old broads can be." She supposed it was meant to be seductive, though if he'd had less alcohol or more common sense, he probably would have known it was an approach doomed to failure.

Before he quite knew what hit him, she'd bent his hand back double, thumb braced at the bend point in his wrist to inflict the maximum amount of pain. He started to go down with a gasp, and she drove her knee into his groin as he dropped for good measure, letting go of his hand to watch him topple with objective curiosity. It occurred to her that she could never have done it so smoothly had she been sober. It was like juggling, another skill she lacked when facing the world through sober eyes. Maybe it was all about relaxing and not thinking she couldn't do it, she mused drunkenly.

Jack and the three frat-boys still on their feet all stood paralyzed for a moment as he collapsed, staring first at the groaning student and then at the woman who'd taken him down with such perverse efficiency.

"Never call a woman old or a broad if you ever wanna get laid," Janet lectured the four young men with ironic practicality. "Otherwise, you boys will just spend the rest of your lives as virgins...and really, hasn't that gone on long enough."

His mouth hanging open, Jack could only admire the performance. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn she was stone-cold sober as she smiled with a certain vicious glee. Then his eyes shifted to the three remaining frat boys and his hackles rose when he saw the way they were flushing with raw fury. Add that to the fact that he suspected that they were nearly as tanked as she was and it made for a volatile mix.

Janet, meanwhile, was still enjoying her little lecture, letting out a little of acid in her soul. "When you're trying to pick up a woman, you want to create at least the illusion that there is something vaguely attractive about you...you don't want her to know that you're just some flea-brained, needle-dicked little nitwit with all the sexual aptitude of Gomer Pyle--"

"All right, Doc," Jack cut her off in a hard voice, stepping around the edge of the table and catching her by the upper arm. "I think it's time we were going." This whole scene was so completely un-Fraiserlike that his brain was threatening to overload at the sheer impossibility of it all. He just wanted to get out before everything exploded.

"Oh, I don't think so," one of the boys snarled, stepping to block their way. They were angry now, really seriously angry. They no longer wanted to get laid. They wanted to hurt in revenge for the slam to egos that used sex and intimidation to bolster self-image.

Jack glared at the young man who stood several inches taller than he did. "Let's all just go home before somebody gets hurt," he said softly, already calculating the quickest way to take the three college kids down without seriously hurting them.

"The problem is that Steve, here, is already hurt, cos your little, bitch girlfriend can't handle a guy bein' a li'l friendly."

Jack bit back several choice retorts, instead choosing to fasten a hard stare on the punk standing between them and the door. He was still working on coming up with something that might defuse the situation when Fraiser added her two cents.

"Oh, I thought I handled it relatively well," she chuckled. "So, he'll be little higher pitched than usual for the next few days. It's not like he was going to get a chance to use any of that equipment anyway."

"Oh thanks, Doc, that should help," Jack muttered acidly. He was trying to decide which of the three to hit first when he suddenly felt a drag on her sleeve where he gripped it tightly. "Doc?" he muttered and glanced over as she collapsed downward, going boneless in a split second. He caught her with an arm under the small of her back and a muttered curse. "Now, she passes out," he complained. She couldn't have done that before insulting the frat boys.

"This is cute," one of the three boys murmured, an edge of expected triumph sneaking into his voice. He grinned. "Looks like you've got a real problem."

This was definitely not playing out the way Jack would have preferred. Not even a little bit. He ducked his shoulder, hefting Fraiser's limp frame up in a fireman's carry that left her arms dangling down his back. "Don't count on it, kiddies," he growled. "I've carried men a lot heavier than her through swamps while taking out thugs a whole lot tougher than you three." He stood perfectly still, just staring them down with his best intimidating glare. Unfortunately, they were either too drunk or too stupid to take much notice.

"I dunno, old man," one of them sneered, "she looks a little heavy for you."

"And what kind of guys would we be if we didn't offer to help you with your burden."

"Yeah, you're a regular bunch of boy scouts," Jack sighed sarcastically. He had a bad feeling there was no way this was going to come out well. These guys were definitely the type who preferred their women unconscious. He supposed it was the only way they could get dates. He was still debating which one to drop first when the soft clatter of the bell attached to the front door of the bar reached his ears, signaling someone's entry.

"Hey, Colonel," Lieutenant Simmons called out in his most 'gee whiz' voice, while six of the largest marines at the SGC quietly entered behind him, all doing their best, 'Let's bust a few heads," looks.

Jack glanced over and noted Mike Halloran smirking behind the bar. Obviously, he'd called for backup when the frat boys first started bugging Fraiser. Jack reminded himself to tip Halloran better the next time he actually had time for a drink.

"These boys bothering you, sir?" the largest of the bunch questioned as he stepped around the slight figure of the lieutenant to eyeball the three college kids. "The general said you might need some rescuing." His eyes glittered with cheerful menace directed at the three young men as he visibly enjoyed the opportunity to get one-up on O'Neill.

Jack stuck out his free hand and pushed the kid blockading him aside. "I don't think so."

"Too bad," the marine drawled, then grinned. "I hear you're paying for drinks tonight, O'Neill."

Jack threw a glare at the bar owner, but nodded. So that was how Halloran had gotten the jarheads there so quickly. "One round. Tell Mike to put it on my tab." He moved to exit, well aware that one of the punks made a move as if to follow him, only to find himself blocked by three fight-happy marines. He quickly opted to back down. Well, at least they weren't quite as stupid as they looked.

"She okay?" Simmons asked worriedly as O'Neill moved to step past him.

"She'll be fine," O'Neill assured the younger man. "She's just having a rough time tonight." He saw the look of understanding on the marines' faces. Most of them were combat veterans. They'd all gotten drunk to escape their own thoughts a few times, some of them, more than a few times. "Thanks," he muttered, then stepped out into the chill night air. He felt Fraiser stir as a cold breeze struck her and lowered her feet to the ground as he reached his car. She was still dishrag limp and flopped against his chest so he kept an arm around her waist and unlocked his car at the same time.

"Hey, O'Neill."

The colonel looked up to find himself face to face with one of marines; large, a forbidding expression on his face, while his arms were folded across his chest, the pose highlighting powerful biceps. "You want something, Michaels?"

"Yeah, Colonel, just wanted to remind you that the marines in the SGC...we're all real fond of Doc Fraiser." He smiled in a way that was clearly meant to be intimidating. The marines and airmen had almost no use for each other, but apparently, they both agreed on the doctor's medical skills. Not surprising, he supposed, since she treated everyone's injuries at the SGC; poked, prodded, teased, and occasionally slapped them upside the head, all to protect her patients' health regardless of which branch of the service they were in to the best of her abilities. Or maybe it was just that the airmen weren't the only ones with crushes on the lady. "We would be very upset if anything untoward were to happen to her." As warnings went, it wasn't even remotely subtle. For his part, O'Neill was mostly impressed that the kid actually knew the word untoward.

"Sheez," Jack muttered as he yanked the door open and fumbled to settle the limp woman into the passenger's seat. "Do I look like some kind of date rapist?"

"Just remember what I said," the marine growled.

"Yeah, right." Jack finished latching the seatbelt around Fraiser and slammed the door. "Don't worry. I'm just trying to keep the lady from hurting herself."

The marine nodded. "If I thought otherwise, I'd smash your teeth in now and ask questions later. I just figure it's never a bad idea to make sure everyone knows the rules."

"Right." Jack climbed in and started the engine, gunning it to life as he pulled out of the parking lot. He glanced over at the woman in the passenger's seat. "You've got some interesting champions, Doc."

"No' m' faul' th' marines like me," she mumbled weakly.

Jack's mouth twisted into a thin smile. "Glad to see you're back with us. I was just debating whether to take you to my place or the hospital."

She reached up to massage her temple and he noted that her hands finally showed some signs of unsteadiness. "Jus'...home..." she groaned.

Jack shook his head stiffly, tamping down several angry responses to bite out, "There's no way in hell I'm going to let Cass see you in this condition."

She stiffened at the reminder of her adopted daughter and didn't argue. "Yeah...jus' get me to a motel...'ll go home tomorrow."

"Sorry, Doc, it's my place or the hospital...your choice," he offered grimly.

She shook her head. "I don' need a hospital--"

"Then it's my place," he decided, his tone obdurate. He waited for an argument, glancing over when none was forthcoming to find that she'd passed out again. "Well, you're definitely an adventure, Doc." He shook his head. "Wonder how Sam puts up with it?" he mused out loud without meaning to.

"...loves me..." came the mumbled response, though she never fully wakened.

"Yeah..." he muttered, the soft words unheard, "she does."

* * * * * *

Sam Carter stared at the information on the computer monitor in front of her, not quite believing what she was seeing. The dates, the times, the names; it was almost too impossible to be believed, though as she stared at the truth, she was amazed it hadn't occurred to her sooner. The coincidence had struck her from the first, but the report had indicated that Janet had been sent home by the government. She'd had visions of her being escorted onto a flight out...not....

She couldn't finish the thought, instinctively shying away from memories that refused to be forgotten.

"They were removed by a U.S. military airlift," Daniel read the report over her shoulder. "Organized by USAMRIID in conjunction with the CDC. Why wasn't any of this in Samuels' report?"

A muscle pulsed in Sam's jaw as it all came crashing back. "It was probably sealed," she bit out absently, her mind a million miles and ten years away.

She was standing on hot tarmac, her flight suit sticking to her skin as though it had been glued there by her own sweat. Carter tipped mirrored aviator glasses up, staring across the shimmering surface of the runway with an annoyed look. She was supposed to be flying an F-16 Falcon out of Riyhad, but they'd pulled her off that duty for the temporary gig into Zaire, flying a C-130, which was the equivalent of driving a bus as far as she was concerned. She glanced back at the big, blunt featured plane, her lip curling with dislike. It was like flying a clumsy elephant--and she was stuck doing it for the army no less, which was definitely adding insult to injury as far as the flier was concerned. At least with luck it would only be another few days before she was back in a fighter cockpit, since the C-130 was due to return to Andrews AFB in the states. Hopefully, once that was done, she'd be released back to her squadron.

She glanced at the other C-130 parked another hundred yards off to the side. They should be able to handle removing any equipment and additional personnel that needed to come home and she wouldn't have to remain attached to the mission any longer than necessary.

The lieutenant glanced at her watch, noting the time. The Colonel had radioed in several hours before to put the flight crew on standby. A truck was returning with infectious cargo to transport--apparently, of the living variety, since she'd ordered Sam to set up the quarantine unit ready to be deployed inside the plane. If it were just sample boxes, that wouldn't be needed, but if they were bringing in coffins--slang for the self-contained units that could be used to transport live subjects, while keeping them in total quarantine--they'd need to be properly secured and hooked up to the oxygen and air purification lines and locked away behind an additional layer of protection for the flight. The design was a prototype to allow for safe transport of extremely contagious live subjects back to a containment facility. With the fear Saddam Hussein might use biological warfare, the army had to have viewed it as a gift to have a chance to field test the equipment ahead of time.

The lieutenant sighed softly, under no illusions about her purpose on the mission. With her background in the sciences, she was probably one of the few pilots they could scare up who also had the experience to oversee the quarantine procedures and work with the equipment being field-tested for the first time. In her studies, she'd worked with any number of highly volatile substances and God knew, she had experience with experimental technology.

"Lucky me," Sam muttered disgustedly. Normally, she would have been good-natured about the temporary assignment, but with things threatening to explode in the Gulf, ferry duty wasn't her idea of how to spend her time. Not when her squadron could find themselves in real combat at any time. She was a fighter pilot, not a bus driver, and not without a certain arrogance about her skills. If Desert Shield did blow, the last place she belonged was running transport for the Army Medical Corps in Africa.

She was still standing there when she finally saw the dust trail the heralded the returning truck. It stopped at the far end of the runway, where a decontamination tent had been set up to wash down returning vehicles, supplies, and people. She didn't know much about the disease they were dealing with, but rumor had it it was nasty, and there was no doubt that the medical teams were taking every precaution.

"Heads up, guys," Sam called out to her copilot and navigator where they were running last minute checks on the plane. "Mommy's home."

Both men waved that they'd heard her, and her copilot quickly boarded. He'd run another check from the cockpit, and knowing that he'd flown a lot more of the huge cargo planes than she had, Sam was more than willing to trust him to do it right. She moved to the back of the plane, dropping the rear hatch ramp used for loading heavy equipment and was just running a final check on the quarantine systems when she heard the sound of a jeep pulling up to the rear of the plane.

Sam climbed out, eyes going to the woman seated in the front seat of the jeep, her short, dark hair damp from disinfectant spray, fresh clothes sticking to her still drying skin.

"Lieutenant Carter," the colonel called, hopping out of the jeep the instant it stopped, "is everything ready?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Carter nodded, eyes sliding past the colonel's lanky frame to land on the small truck headed their way.

The older woman turned, following the line of the pilot's gaze. "We've got three coffins coming in that'll need to be put in quarantine and hooked up to oxygen and power...they're on external tanks right now." She looked back at Carter. "I'd appreciate it if you'd oversee the operation personally, Lieutenant."

"Of course, Colonel," Sam said instantly, still tracking the advancing truck. She nodded toward it. "What's in the coffins?" She knew the Air Force had pulled out infected monkeys in the past for further study. The US Army and the Air Force both had whole divisions of doctors and veterinarians who did nothing but study a wide array of infectious agents and she supposed with Hussein threatening to use biological weapons, they were probably trying to pull in any available information as fast as possible.

A frown creased the colonel's brow. "A doctor and two nurses...."

Sam's brows lifted in surprise. It had never occurred to her they might be moving human cargo. "And they're sick?" She wasn't sure how she felt about the notion of transporting someone who might just be carrying something known to be infectious to humans, especially if they'd been dumb enough to put themselves in danger in the first place.

Harris shrugged. "I don't know...but they're Americans and if we don't pull them out, the local government may just try and put them on trial to cover up their own screwups." Her mouth pursed. "And I'll be damned if I'll let a bunch of kids get shot for trying to do the right thing." She sighed softly as she looked at Carter again, well aware of the young officer's resentment at being pulled away from the drama of impending war, even temporarily. "Look at it as an opportunity to practice for what we may have to do if Saddam actually does have biological agents." That was the only way she'd managed to actually get support for the mission, truth be told. The Army and the Air Force had both looked at it as a way to field test the quarantine prototypes.

Carter tensed, momentarily flushing at the colonel's tone of disapproval. "No insult intended, Colonel."

"Of course there wasn't," the older woman said dryly, her tone indicating she was well aware of Carter's feelings about the mission. Hell, about most of the military's feelings about the mission. With Desert Shield moving into position, she'd barely managed to scrounge enough support together to send a small team and transport the CDC and WHO teams. "We also have a lock box of blood and fluid samples on the truck. That'll need to go into secure lockdown."

"Yes, Ma'am," Carter said sharply, and wisely remained otherwise silent.

"I'd appreciate it if we could be moving as fast as possible." Carter wasn't the only one feeling the pressure of other responsibilities. Her eyes swung back out toward the tarmac runway. "Our guests have had a mild sedative to make the transport easier, so you shouldn't have any problems from them--with luck they'll just sleep through the trip-- but try to keep it gentle as you move the containment chambers aboard. Those people have already been through hell. We don't need to make it any worse."

The truck carrying the coffins arrived at the foot of the cargo plane and the colonel nodded toward it. "I'll leave you to oversee the loading, Lieutenant. I need the radio to contact Colonel Amherst at Detrick to apprize him of the situation and let him know we'll need secure ground transport from Andrews."

"Understood, Colonel," Sam said sharply, and stepped back into the bright sunshine.

Four hefty army medics had traveled with the transport and hopped down to the ground, boots kicking up dust as they waited for their orders.

A moment later, Harris dropped to the ground and spoke briefly to the men, putting Carter in charge before disappearing inside the plane.

"All right." Carter quickly took control of the situation. "We'll load that one first." She pointed at the unit nearest the end of the truckbed, noting as she did so that every possible joint had been taped into place. They really didn't mean for there to be any air leakage. "The bottom end needs to go in first...then inside the plane, we will be entering the quarantine area through a reverse pressure portal. It's not a true airlock, but space will still be tight." She made a sharp gesture with her hands. "Set the coffin down on the assigned pallet, then slide the end into place until it locks. A kicker plate comes up and locks the header into place. Once that's done, we'll strap it all down with a webbing net just to make certain everything's solid. Understood?"

The men nodded grimly, and focused on the task at hand, Carter never noticed their uneasiness with her casual use of the slang for the quarantine units.

Loading the first two units went surprisingly smoothly, with Carter watching from the side, so thoroughly distanced from it all, she never really even saw the human beings inside the containment units. She'd been well-trained to remain distant and unemotional and to her they were simply cargo to be transported.

And then it was time for the third unit to be loaded. Standing out of the way, her attention more focused on the clipboard and manifest she had in hand, Carter didn't realize there was a problem until she heard the grunt as one of the medics on a bottom corner of the coffin stumbled about halfway up the ramp that led into the plane. Her head came up as the heavy steel and glass chamber got away from them, skidding in a barely controlled slide down the steep incline, the men's effort to catch it, only slowing it down, not stopping it. The manifest forgotten, Sam lunged forward, sliding to her knees beside the chamber as it skidded to a halt at the bottom of the ramp. Her first thought was simply for the integrity of the chamber's seals as she braced a hand against the curved plexiglass, hunting desperately for any signs of cracks or broken joints. She didn't know anything about the disease they were dealing with; had no way of knowing if it was capable of airborne transmission.

And then her focus moved past the surface of the plex, touching almost unwillingly on the slender figure crumpled into the downside end of the chamber. Far too small and delicately made to be a man, she wore a black t-shirt that hung loose on a too-thin frame and camo pants that were at least three sizes too large, while her feet were bare. She lay where she'd been thrown at the end of the chamber, half on her stomach and half on her side, a curtain of light brown hair streaked with blond falling across her face. As Sam watched, momentarily frozen in place, a hand lifted unsteadily and braced against the glass ceiling of the tiny prison, the delicate fingers a strange contrast to Sam's larger, heavier hand where it rested on the outer surface of the plex shell, their palms separated only by half an inch of clear plastic.

Then her head lifted, and Sam found herself face to face with a pair of chocolate eyes so deep, a person could get lost in them. For a moment, she almost couldn't breathe as she saw the terror and confusion reflected in that doe brown gaze, every protective instinct flaring to life in an instant.

And suddenly it wasn't about transporting cargo anymore.

It was about human beings--specifically the woman caught in that damn glass casket.

Then dark eyes swept past her, breaking the momentary contact and lifting to the edges of the glass prison. Sam distantly heard one of the medics run to get the colonel, but her entire attention was focused on the woman in front of her. She saw the moment she started to panic, her breath coming in sudden gasps, her hand trembling where it was braced against the plexiglass.

"Easy...easy..." Carter soothed instantly, tearing off her sunglasses and throwing them aside as she tried to catch the woman's attention and hold that dark gaze. She held up in hands in a calming motion. "It's okay...the chamber just slipped...you're all right." She became aware of the soft sound of the blowers circulating air through the small casket and keeping up the reverse pressure so that if a seal had been broken, air would be pulled into the chamber and not pushed out, and realized there was no way the woman could hear her with that going and heavy layers of steel and plastic between them, but she kept gesturing and talking softly anyway. Finally, dark eyes met Sam's pale gaze, their expression painfully uncertain, leaving Carter with the strangest sense that she was seeing someone who wasn't entirely confident of her own sense of what was real and what wasn't.

"It's all right," the lieutenant mouthed, seeing the other woman's confusion written plainly in her expression. "You're safe."

A tentative hand lifted, the small palm pressing against the curved surface of the plex.

Sam had lost track of everything but the dark eyes searching her face, hunting desperately for some kind of reassurance. "It'll be okay," she mouthed and lifted her hand, pressing it to the plex over the caged woman's smaller one, offering what little contact she could. She was unaccountably relieved when that seemed to calm the woman, and she collapsed back to the thin layer of padding that edged the bottom of the plexiglass and steel cage, shading her face with a trembling hand, while the other remained pressed against the plastic wall just under Sam's.

Carter was still staring at her with a shell-shocked expression, not knowing what to say or do when Harris bellowed angrily.

"What the hell's happened?" the colonel demanded furiously as she stormed down the ramp. She batted Sam aside with an angry gesture, forcing the lieutenant to scramble back out of the way and stand by uselessly, while she dropped to one knee beside the fallen chamber, already checking the monitoring controls to see if there had been a breach. Satisfied there hadn't been, she refocused on her patient, who was lying sprawled inside the quarantine unit.

Carter's hand fisted at her side as she watched the hand pressed against the plex drop to the floor of the chamber.

Harris yanked a small notepad from one of her pockets and rapidly jotted something on a sheet of paper before holding it up so her patient could see.

The woman in the coffin nodded dazedly, her eyes already growing heavy again, the sedative still in her system not allowing her to remain awake for long.

"Okay, let's get her loaded," Harris growled as she rose easily, stepping back from the chamber a pace while the medics moved in to retrieve their load. "And let's see if we can avoid dropping her this time," she added, anger leaking through every word.

Still feeling poleaxed, Carter oversaw the operation as the containment chamber was loaded and locked into place, well aware that the colonel was standing off to the side the entire time, anger written in every line of her expression and stance. As they finished locking down the netting that offered additional protection and stability to the chamber, she released the medics that had carried it in. Sam crouched, readying to hook it in to the quarantine unit's lines, when a hard hand caught her upper arm, dragging her up and back several steps.

"She's still on the onboard tank and battery," the colonel growled, "that can wait another minute or two." Her tone made it obvious that while she had withheld the dressing down until the patient was seen to, that didn't mean there wasn't one coming.

"Colonel, I--" Sam started to apologize for the accident, but Harris misread her intention, expecting some kind of defense.

"Lieutenant, I realize you didn't want this mission," the colonel bit out, landing hard on Carter with both feet, "but, by God, you had better grow up and accept that the military is about a hell of a lot more than fast planes and kill counts." Her voice lashed Carter with every angry syllable, further shaking her already wavering view of the world. "This job isn't about killing, it's about protecting, and until you get that through your thick, flygirl skull, you are one piss poor excuse for a soldier."

"Colonel--" Sam began shakily, only to find herself cut off as she was reamed from one end to the other.

"I left those people in your care, Lieutenant, assuming you could handle the responsibility," the colonel growled, uninterested in excuses. Later, it would occur to Sam that the woman was simply relieving some of the stress of the mission on an available target, but at that moment, she could only hang her head in shame. "I'm disappointed to find you dropped the ball so literally." Harris nodded toward the containment chamber. "That woman's already been through hell, and she's got another month of it ahead of her in the states while she waits to see if her body's going to start breaking down from the inside out. I don't think she really needed any more stress. Do you?"

Blue eyes locked firmly on the floor and did not lift. "No, Ma'am."

"Goddamn, fucking right," the colonel growled. She ran a hand through her hair, her anger blown out in the face of the younger officer's obvious contrition. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before continuing. "You'd better finish hooking that up," she dismissed Sam with a wave of one hand. "We need to get the hell out of here asap." She started to turn away, but Carter's voice low and tense stopped her.

"Is she dying?"

Harris turned back, her expression unreadable as she stared at the young Air Force lieutenant, seeing regret and guilt in her pale blue eyes. "Probably," she sighed after a long beat.

Sam closed her eyes tightly, wondering why the hell it hurt so much when she didn't even know the woman in the coffin. She flinched away from the word even as it floated through her head. The dead wound up in coffins, and she suddenly did not want that woman to wind up dead; didn't want her to wind up in a real coffin.

"A little different when they become people and not just cargo, isn't it, Lieutenant."

A muscle pulsed in Carter's jaw, but she didn't respond...couldn't respond.

"I've got to get back to that radio transmission," Harris said after a beat. "I assume I can trust you to see to the rest of the arrangements?"

Carter nodded her head jerkily. "Yes, Ma'am."

"Good." Harris slipped out of the quarantine area, leaving the young lieutenant with her duties and her thoughts.

Minutes later, she had finished hooking up the oxygen and power feeds and stood over the glass coffin, staring down through the webbing net strapped over the top, trying to catch a glimpse of the figure inside, but the woman lay limp, one arm folded over her face, and it struck Sam that she wasn't even sure what she looked like. All she could remember was those incredible brown eyes.

It was a memory that was still with her as she blinked free of the past. Less than a week later, she'd been back on duty in the gulf, and a month and half after that, flying sorties over Baghdad. And those frightened brown eyes had remained with her the whole time. More than once, she'd wanted to call and try and find out what had happened, but she'd never had the courage, long afraid of finding out the worst.

"Sam?" Daniel interrupted her thoughts, his tone worried.

"We need to contact General Harris...US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease," Sam said softly. "If anyone has the answers we need, she will." She glanced at her watch. "And I want to try and call Jack again...see if they're back yet."

* * * * * *

Jack's phone was ringing off the hook when he stepped inside the front door and he had to shift the woman in his arms around until her feet were on the floor and he was holding her pinned against his side. "Sorry, Doc," he muttered, wondering if he could be accused of copping a feel when all he was really trying to do was keep her from crashing to the floor.

"O'Neill here," he barked into the phone.

"Sir, it's Carter."

She sounded breathless, worried, like a woman in love and scared. He wondered how she thought she was fooling anyone. "I just wanted to know if Ja--Doctor Fraiser's all right. General Hammond said Mike Halloran called and suggested we might want to send a few of the big guys down there just after you left."

"Relax, Carter," Jack muttered. "She's fine." He eyed the woman hanging from his arm. "Though she's gonna have one hell of a hangover tomorrow." He could almost see Carter vibrating on the other end of the line, wanting to know what had happened. "A coupla boneheaded college kids were just making nuisances of themselves. They thought better of it when a half dozen marines arrived." He snorted softly. "Never thought I'd be glad to see those guys."

She sighed heavily, the sound soft and relieved.

"You guys have any luck on your end?"

There was a brief pause before she answered, leaving him with the sense that she was momentarily lost in her own thoughts. "Yes, sir. I've got a lead on the situation...with luck, we'll have the answers we need in short order."

"Good." Jack didn't know what else to say and apparently neither did Carter because she fell conspicuously silent until he could almost feel her desire to just get in her car and come over like a palpable thing. "She's gonna be fine, Carter," he assured her without being asked.

A long moment of silence followed. "I'm glad to hear it, sir," Carter murmured uncertainly. "Just...just take care of her...willya?"

"Don't worry. I'll make sure she's okay," he assured his teammate. The woman in his arms stirred ever so slightly. "Speaking of which, I've gotta go now."

"Right, sir. Tell her I'm--we're all--thinking of her."

"I will," he sighed, then said his goodbyes and hung up. Finished with the call, he peered down at the woman hanging limp against his side. "Don't make a liar outa me, okay, Doc."

She mumbled something unintelligible, signaling there were still signs of life.

Jack dragged her arm across his shoulders, wincing at the posture that forced due to the difference in their heights. "Time to make you really hate my guts," he sighed with remembered distaste. It wasn't a fun treatment. Not at all. He knew from personal experience.

Continue to Part 3

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