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The Happiest Place (1/4)

Title: The Happiest Place
Author: laetificat 
Artist: sarah_jones
Fanmixer: harmoniouschild 
Genre: Gen
Rating: R
Characters: Samantha Carter, Cameron Mitchell, Jack O'Neill, and just about everybody else
Pairings: Cam/Sam, Jack/Sam
Warnings: Major character death.

Summary: After the Ori invasion and the fall of Cheyenne Mountain, the last hope for humanity lies in what was once the happiest place on Earth: Disney's Magic Kingdom, where theme park moguls collected the last alien technology known to exist on Earth. In a post-apocalyptic world where both Christian and Muslim bow to the power of Origin, amid abandoned rides and the death of dreams, a broken SG-1 races against time and treachery to save their homeworld.

Notes: Much of this story was originally written as standalone vignettes that used different tenses. I've tried to catch it all, but the spare past-tense word might sneak in here or there. This story never received a beta, so any mistakes are my own. Many, many thanks to my awesome art and music contributors!

At laetificat: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Read the entire thing at AO3.

Fabulous and Amazing Enhanced Content

super cool artwork by sarah_jones 
a pretty-much-perfect fanmix by harmoniouschild

- - - -
 

The Harley breaks down in Orlando. It's midsummer and hotter than Abydos, or so Carter says; they swim in sweat as a rule and there's never enough water. They're both lobster-red, sunburned, dragged into a losing battle with the Southern sun. Florida is pancake-flat, tangled in riotous green and lined with little shotgun houses with cathedral ceilings and broken windows and gaping-wide doors. They check some of the crashed-out cars on the highway. Some of them have keys. None have gas.

They've traced the stories here. Whispers of a grand exodus, of a military machine pushing through the dead South. Which makes sense, Carter'd said somewhere in the choking heat of the Alabama summer. If you want to break orbit, Florida's a great place to do it from.

And if the tales are false, there are still orange groves in Immokalee, and Mitchell can think of less interesting ways of living his life than eating oranges and fending off zombies with Carter.

"Goddamn it, I miss flying," says Mitchell, dropping a rock off the highway overpass. They're downtown; around them, burned-out skyscrapers proclaim the names of banks that no longer exist. There's an arena not far, a theater, a parking garage; figures move in the shadows. Ragged survivors wearing shorts and tees and black armbands gather at the bottom of the exit, hungry gang-ghosts examining possible prey. He draws his gun and lays it on the metal divider, displaying his possible intentions and staring at the small group in the ancient language of back-the-hell-off.

Carter's elbow-deep in the Harley's engine, the back of her tank top grey with dirt and sweat. "I miss food. Cam, I don't think I can fix this," she says. "Not without tools."

"I call bullshit. Since when do you say 'can't?'"

"This time," she says, biting back a retort. "It's completely fried."

"Fine," he says, heaving a sigh. The group is muttering and eyeing them hungrily. "Let's get going before we have to shoot somebody."

He hates having to shoot civilians.

She rises and kicks the bike's near-bare tire. Heat radiates through the thin soles of the shoes she's been wearing since Colorado. The heel's nearly worn through with all the walking, and she's not looking forward to doing the walk to Tampa with a road-burned foot. They discuss pushing the Harley and decide they're starving and tired enough that saving their energy was paramount. Carter's lips come together in an annoyed little line -- even after the end of the world she retains that obedient but rebel-edged reservation she held so dear at the SGC -- and Mitchell shoves his gun back into his waistband like the common criminal he's become. No more motorcycle. That's all right, he thinks. I have slain gods.

Some time later they pass a Harley dealership and Mitchell swears on the grave of his dear departed grandmother that when he gets to talk to God he'll give him a piece of his goddamned mind about his goddamned timing.

"But it can't hurt to check," says Carter, suddenly pleasant, and she starts clambering down the interstate embankment like she's Mary Fucking Poppins with a lug wrench.

Mitchell follows. They fall into old patterns: take point, cover me, watch for assholes. She drags a crate from the dumpster and peeks through a window. The place is mostly cleaned out, cannibalized, the bikes long stolen or raided for parts, and what's left is piled in the center like a silver-rust volcano, guarded by well-fed men with guns. A fire burns near their feet; a woman twirls a spit. They're on the defensive, expecting an attack. Mitchell knows before she speaks that with just a few bullets left and no real advantage that they'd be fucked before they started an attack. Plus, these men aren't Jaffa, aren't Priors or even Tomin's men. They're human. There's a chance they're not raiders; that they're just protecting what's theirs. And he's still technically a member of SG-1, God damn it, sworn to protect humanity.

"Am I smelling rabbit?" Mitchell says.

"Raccoon, probably," she replies. "We've got six potential hostiles with semi-automatics. No indication that they're Ori, but I can't really tell. I say we move on. Doesn't look like we'd have anything to trade."

"Damn," he replies.

They open the last of the beef jerky and eat it in the shadows of a dead restaurant in the late afternoon. Scrub grass pushes up where the asphalt has broken in the heat. Ivy's quickly reclaiming the nearby strip mall. The crickets are louder than a rock concert. They take note of the shops: Target, Home Depot, David's Bridal. There are bodies scattered in the parking lot. What they'd both sworn to protect: Earth in all its antebellum glory. Dead, broken and gone.

They chew slowly. Mitchell watches her take out her pen and write a shopping list on the inside of her ankle. In the absence of paper or something to write on over the past few days' traveling push, Carter's made of herself the kind of whiteboard she'd once had at the SGC with black pen, running in places from the sweat; physics problems and diagrams for weapons and machines he doesn't understand. When he asks Carter about them she pauses and launches into the kind of technobabble-laden explanation that he used to hear at the briefing table at the SGC. He generally lets her talk. It usually results in something that'll keep them alive for a few more days.

He traces the lines of a gun on her bare shoulder. It intersects with a physics equation that he couldn't hope to understand. Some sort of architectural drawing. More things he guesses are weaponry, or generators -- things that'll work with the junk in the bags they're carrying, things that Carter will invariably turn from cold, dead metal to something entirely too useful for words. Below all of that, just above where her tank top begins, the symbol for Earth.

She draws it on him, too, above his heart, when he lets her.

"We're nearly out of bullets," she says, apologetically. "We still have a few hours 'till nightfall. If there's enough left in the Home Depot, I can rig up a --"

"Sam," Mitchell says, reaching out for her hand. He holds it tight, tracing patterns into her palm. "Target first."

She tilts her head in the way that causes her too-long hair to wisp and drop into her eyes where it's escaped her braid and hair tie. It's one of those things that helps Mitchell to understand why he wasn't the first man to fall for her. "We need weapons. And a new pot, a water filter, this lake water isn't safe to drink --"

"Come on, Sam. There might be -- well, you know. Jello. Powdered packets. Might still be there. It's not really survival food. And I think we need a treat."

For the first time in a few days, a smile quirks her lips. "You're sweet. But you know we don't have the time."

No, he thinks. I have slain gods. And she is the destroyer of worlds.

He doesn't respond. Instead, he reaches up to touch the cold metal of the gun -- the only damned cold thing in this godforsaken state. She remains quiet for a moment and then rests her head on his shoulder. "Home Depot," she says, with her characteristic cool assuredness. A feeling of -- fear? Excitement? Adrenaline -- floods his stomach. "We camp for the night, and then tomorrow start walking. They won't have left without us."

Vultures wheel above them in the empty blue sky. Mitchell lifts his chin to the heavens and thinks of flight. Of Daedalus, of bloody, screaming Carolyn Lam, of Daniel Jackson illuminated and bisected by the rings of an al'kesh, cursing Mitchell's name; of Vala, her hair shining and wild, facing down the hordes with a gun and a cry. Of Sam with her fingers running with motor oil and her temple running with blood. Of Teal'c, and the ten it had finally taken to drag him to the floor. Sam again, always Sam in the end, the two of them huddled against the cold and against all comers.

The sky answers with silence as dead as space.

And Carter, bless her, squeezes his hand. "We'll fly again," she says. "It won't be long now."

----

Life was the smell of napalm in the morning, as they'd said once upon a time in a world where war still made some sort of twisted sense. It is breakfast like ashes on his tongue: a few bites of unleavened bread, rotten apples, MREs far past their expiration date, the constant growl of his stomach. Morning means the descent into the tunnels underneath the island, the sick song of the anti-Prior cage rattling his nails, slipping under his skin, underlined by Bill Lee's nervous breaths, his shaky-dangerous civilian trigger finger on a P90 the scientist had never been allowed to even be in the same room with before the invasion.

But if things still made sense, Jack O'Neill wouldn't start every morning at Camp Phoenix breaking bread with the thing that used to be Daniel Jackson.

And this morning in particular starts with sunshine and roses and fairy glitter at fuck-thirty in the morning with Woolsey – no, President Woolsey, head of Camp Phoenix, Lizard King, God-Emperor of The Happiest Fucking Place On Earth -- clearing his weasel-throat in the cracked, peeling Main Street quarters where most of them slept, slipping into Jack's curtained-off half-room, Jack coming awake before Woolsey stopped moving, his hand on his gun (damned combat readiness, even though he's fantasized about shooting Woolsey once or twice this week). Jack breathes out, lowering the pistol, looking beyond Woolsey's shaded face to hear some kid airman wailing a nightmare into existence.

"Can't you just -- damn it, sir --"



"This can't wait," the President says.

This is Woolsey in the Armani suit he's been wearing for weeks, ill-fitting and picked up on the some mall raid months ago as they made their way south across what used to be the United States of America. Smelly, showerless Woolsey in plastic Payless shoes and frayed laces and the haunted look he'd had ever since returning from Atlantis. Woolsey doing his own dirty work for once.

“It's gone on long enough.” the politician says, like he actually knows about this sort of thing.

"Oh, come on," Jack replies. "This is Daniel. If there's still any chance --"

Woolsey's voice is characteristically businesslike. "That's a Prior in there, General O'Neill. Not Doctor Jackson. If his blood cannot be used to fly the ship, then he is a danger to Phoenix Base. I don't need to remind you that keeping a Prior locked up is dangerous, and we no longer have the proper cryogenic facilities – we must have his blood. Doctor McKay says there's no other way."

He doesn't have to say the inevitable: before the Ori find us and we run out of C4, he thinks.



Jack bets Woolsey fantasizes about feeding the Daniel-thing to Todd the Wraith, when he's not picking the wings off butterflies.

“President, sir --”

Woolsey goes on, obviously expecting Jack to throw up more objections. “It is utterly imperative that we get to the search for the Ark of Truth, which we cannot do sitting here, the Ori nearly at our door --”

“So we bleed him dry. Who the hell do we send to do that, because I sure as hell won't. You? McKay? Mister President, there's still a chance --”

But Woolsey's eyes are incompatible with common sense, and haven't been for years. “Make. It. Happen.”

And so Jack descends, his uniform coat dirt-stained and akimbo on his shoulders.

The grey-sky, death-pale thing sitting blithely across from him drags Jack back into the present by inviting him once again to consider the truth of Origin, his shoulders restful despite the restraints holding it in place. It is far from the taut, righteous wariness of his friend, his conscience, his comrade-in-arms for over a decade. He knows Woolsey's right.

He watches the Prior's pulse, and wonder if that's still blood pushing its way through Daniel's stolen body.

“Do you wish to know the truth?” the Daniel-thing says.

“Ah, truth,” Jack replies. It's not his best retort, but he's not at his best today. Today is different. Today is dust in his heart and damnation in his soul. Today is duty. Today is something he ought to have done a long time ago, except that he somehow managed to fish his stupid human heart out of the rubble of Cheyenne Mountain and put it back in a chest that should have remained broken to best serve his country.

He rubs his eyes and thinks: it's not Daniel, it's not Daniel, it's not Daniel. It's no worse than a Goa'uld. If he'd been snaked, like Kawalsky. Or Carter. If Jolinar had been just a little more fanatical.


“You will soon find the untruth of your misguided beliefs,” the thing says, as if talking to a child. “The light of Origin will break over this world, and true peace will descend upon all believers.”

“There has to be a way to fly the ship,” he says -- one more time.

“Heretics and unbelievers cannot be granted the gifts of the Ori,” the thing intones. “You will burn from the inside out; it will tear out your heart and burn your veins --”

“God damn it, Daniel, you know what comes next,” he said.


The thing levels its gaze. Inside its whitening eyes is the fire of the Ori, the steady burn of a soul already gone. “Tell me, General,” it says, the enunciation poison caramel. “Have you heard the parable of the faithless friend?”

A response turns to ashes in Jack's mouth as he scrambles to his feet. He's given some crappy orders in his day, clusterfucks that still show up in his dreams, had to send good men on suicide missions -- and this is bad, too, possibly one of the worst. Best thing to do is just give the order and not think about it too much. He turns away from the Daniel-thing for the last time and stares at Lee's jumpy form. The scientist is holding his breath and his knuckles show white where his hands clench the P90.

“Take a blood sample, Dr. Lee,” he says, quietly. “Have one of the guards outside take it to the Mountain lab.”

“Oh,” Lee responds, his voice too soft. “Um. Okay. I'll probably need Marines.”

The Prior just stands there, silent as an oak tree, a terrific smirk on his Ori-scarred face, as if Lee and O'Neill are an entertaining commedia del'arte. O'Neill feels a shiver run down his spine and he waves his hand. “Yes, yes, whatever you need,” he says, and leaves the room before he feels even worse.

Afterwards, Jack stalks to the back of the labs in the gift shop near the big statue of Buzz Lightyear and rags on the scientists to make himself feel better. No, they still haven't finished going through the alien tech below Adventureland; there was a stash in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, of all places, stuffed into Jack Sparrow's treasure chest. One of the scientists – a mousy engineer they picked up in the ruins of some Midwestern college – said it was mostly Goa'uld communications devices and Asgard holographic matrices; Jack would have bet his left foot that Disney'd had some deal with the NID.

Now he'd never know.

“Uh, sir,” a scientist mutters, a circular communications device in his hand, cupped like a baseball or a Chinese stress ball, “some of these still work. What should we do with them?”

Jack eyes it. The thing is darkened, burnished brass; he wills some familiar face to appear. Hell, at this point, he'd make a deal with Ba'al if it meant he was able to get his team meant to search for the Ark of Truth off this rock.

It remains quiet, taunting him with silence. Yeah, he thinks. There's nobody out there. For God's sake, if the Ori wiped Ba'al off the face of the universe, his borrowed Kull Warriors so much undead meat in piles at the Delta Site, his fleet of ha'taks broken and burning in the grasp of the black hole that was once his central planet's sun... who the hell else was going to call?

Carter would know what to do with it, he tries not to think.

He has that thought a lot. Carter would know.

“Give it to McKay,” he says, before he spins on his heel and makes his way back outside. “Maybe he can use it for spare parts or something.”

O'Neill emerges into the morning sunlight. It's not even nine a.m. and the humidity's already wrapped its claws around his throat. I'm too old for this shit, he thinks.

Around him, the hole formerly known as Disney World is waking up. The place almost reminds him of trips to theme parks with Charlie, this place, but for the stinking humidity and the fucking lizards everywhere and the roaches the size of tactical nukes and the way they're all living on top of each other at the end of their respective ropes. A lizard watches him impassively from the top of a statue of a grinning mouse, its beady eyes glassy as a drunkard's. Jack shoves the magazine back into the gun, feeling the satisfying click, staring up at the orrery and the castle and the tattered flags and the thing that had become Space Mountain in more ways than one.

Damn it, he thinks to himself, at least the others are dead. Gone. Kaput. Not worrying about how we live these days. 

But the camp was as silent as the near-dead at fuck-thirty in the morning, and you don't get to be a General in this man's Air Force by acting like a child when a friend is injured in the line of duty. He shoves Daniel into the dark place where he's put the memories of Kawalsky, Carter and the others, and starts the long, terrible walk back to the hangar.


There is still a world to save.

----

Atlanta burned.

The tall spires of downtown hotels are blackened and jagged against the blue-egg summer sky. Mitchell remembers seeing something like this on television once – Atlanta, dead and gone, buildings like ragged and broken teeth against the sky, zombies roiling the streets, screaming for brains. The walking dead, living still.

They meet other survivors; all from outside the city. No zombies, unless you count the Ori-sick in their well-fed compounds. The few friendly survivors they find talk about the beautiful, predatory silver ships and the curtains of fire that descended from the sky, and the way the city seemed to burn for weeks upon weeks.

“For Ori, it's probably like cauterizing a wound,” Carter says, neatly slaughtering a few birds for dinner with a few pilgrims who were trying to make it to Texas, where they had family. “Makes sense. City's a huge population center. They probably did this for New York and Chicago, too. To keep people in small groups. Easier pickings.”

Over half-burnt pigeon and a fire, Mitchell quotes Scarlett O'Hara. Carter tries a Southern accent and fails. Not far, the bodies of the dead lay motionless, burnt and unburied, and soon the only thing that rises is Carter's chest, rapidly, as the nightmares take over. As usual, Mitchell does not sleep.


----

Everyone copes with the stress of the job differently, the psychologist had told Sly Siler the second or third time he'd been electrocuted – but before the fourth time, which had been a staff blast through the Stargate, or the fifth time, which he couldn't remember.

When he was at Cheyenne Mountain, Siler could almost pretend that he had an ordinary job, that he could very well be poking at engines and electronics in Kandahar or Patrick AFB or somewhere else. He didn't go through the Stargate; he fixed things there like he'd fixed things before he knew about wormholes and astrophysics and little grey aliens who didn't wear pants.

Siler didn't pretend to know much about the inner workings of the human heart or poetry or psychology. Instead, his mind knows the curves of crackling electricity, the sines and cosines of wires and transistors, and how to coax miracles from the broken bones of dead machines. He can stay awake through a point-blank zat blast at nine in the morning and be back to work by lunch. But even Sly Siler – he of the thousand concussions, the guardian of the generators that thrummed on the bottom floor of the castle, the steady hand that keeps Phoenix Base from falling into the stinking Seven Seas lagoon, the man who nearly forgot once upon a time that he wasn't a human pincushion – knows when there's something wrong with his commanding officer.

It's in his eyes.

Siler's been on the Phoenix Program since they left the smoking bones of the Mountain for Florida, the last place on Earth where accessible alien tech was still rumored to exist. He wakes up in the morning, drinks his thin hot coffee, pretends he was just deployed somewhere gross and bothersome and that he'll be heading home for leave at some point to a place where his hands aren't always sweaty from the humidity and he doesn't have to listen to other soldiers work through their PTSD not three feet from his bedroll in the barracks. And Siler's done his share of stupid things in his time, sure, but he's not a stupid man, and he had been in that gate room the very first time it was opened, when Daniel Jackson was only a flap-mouthed dreamer and Jack O'Neill had carried his death wish in the form of a nuclear bomb.

He's spent enough time working with all of them to know, and Siler knows: after the fall of the mountain, it was like Charlie all over again for the General.

Not the fairest damned thing in the world, but if life were fair none of us would've enlisted and I'd be selling cars in Montauk, he thinks, missing his toothbrush.

It wasn't all bad, Siler knows. Like any of the technical specialists, he appreciates a well-run base where things got done with a minimum of paperwork, and at the end of all things 'well-run' meant more than just making sure the right sort of potatoes were being peeled. It means making sure the Ori ship they'd stolen flew. And despite his quirks, General O'Neill was that man.

Or had been, at least, until the capture of the Prior.

He nods to the soldiers at the gate to Tomorrowland and walks down the deserted lane to the hanger – Space Mountain, how absurd, he thinks for the thousandth time. O'Neill is already there in front of the door, flanked by two guards, his arms crossed.

“Siler. You're late.”

“Very sorry, sir, it won't happen again,” Siler apologizes.

“It's not like it's the end of the world,” O'Neill says, a dry note in his voice, his lips pressed together in a tired line.

Siler chokes.

“You ok, Sergeant?”

“Always, sir,” says Siler, his mouth dry.

O'Neill crosses his arms. “Make my day, Siler.”

Siler clears his throat, and the two of them start walking into the hangar, down the stairs and through the tunnel, Siler behind the General. Just another day at work, he reminds himself, and reachs into his pocket with his notes for the full report. “We've gained some headway on adapting the Ori interface for those with the ATA gene, although it's just in theory. Doctor Lam still thinks that some work needs to be done before we start the actual tests, and she's not sure she can do anything without further material from the Prior and some from the pilot. If we had Carter's research on the Asgard devices aboard the General Hammond --”

“No use crying over spilt... whatever.” O'Neill interrupts, as he always does whenever someone mentions his former 2IC. “You'll have the Ori blood. Lee's getting it now. We hope. Can we make it fly?”

“Well, sir, I --”

And before Siler can say another word, they emerge into the guts of the Mountain, a slew of sweaty, dirty scientists converging on them like hungry, white-coated locusts. An ashen-faced Bill Lee is at point, scarred Lam with her dead arm in a sling flanking him and shoulder-cowed Felger behind them both, somehow still wearing his SGC jacket even in the choking Florida heat as if it were some kind of talisman (which made Siler thinks of his favorite wrench; his stomach clenching as he forces himself to regain his professionalism through the onslaught of memories of Cheyenne Mountain, his work, the Stargate). Above them the only electronic lights in the base shine bright, reflecting against the long-dead remains of painted holographic galaxies and fake neon planets. The old rollercoaster is long gone, its struts and steel cannibalized for this purpose and that around the base.

In its place was an alien ship, a lean silver monstrosity -- one of the prides of Phoenix Base. An Ori vessel, captured by Disney agents, just waiting to take a team to search for the Ark of Truth.

It isn't the only alien technology here; Siler has only seen the others, locked up below the Magic Kingdom in the vast warren of tunnels and offices. Asgard holographic devices, stolen from Lucian tourists and Goa'uld devices from God knows where, all of it dragged together by long-dead Disney executives and hidden from the world, now being cobbled together to save the world. But this ship was more than just leftovers: This was a ship once flown by Daniel Jackson, an Ori vessel with its guts spilled and destroyed and replaced by Ancient goo and crystalline Asgard intestines. This would be salvation.

Unless we can't make it fly, he thinks.

Unless the Ark doesn't actually exist, and we're all dead anyway.

Carolyn Lam's breathless, shoving a dirty sheet of paper towards the General. She's written diagrams on the back; it had once been some kind of Disney interdepartmental memo talking about Hannah Montana sales receipts. For a moment, Siler hears his nieces and nephews in the back of his mind – they're dead, but they'd be over Hannah now, they'd be on to whatever it was going to be next, a Miley clone or the Jonas Brothers, but they're all dead, even the boy bands – and shakes his head to clear the cobwebs.

“That did it,” she says, her enthusiasm nearly palpable in the heat. “Whatever you did this morning, sir. We broke through the last problem in the bio-equation.”

O'Neill's eyes are hard like diamonds. “Does it fly?”

“We're not sure, sir.” Lee says. “We're currently doing blood replacement with one of the pilots, but so far the ship isn't recognizing him as a proper pilot. We still think it might need to operate with a Prior at the controls. That could be tough – we'll need at least two weeks --”

“Maybe two and a half --” Lam corrects, stepping forward.

O'Neill speaks sharply, and Siler shudders to hear this voice, the one that could freeze a major's boots to the ground and make false gods squirm where they sit. “We don't have any more time.”

“No,” Lee said, breaking eye contact to stare at the ground. Keller takes a breath and bites her bottom lip. Siler itches for his wrench, his palms sweating. Behind them, there's a feed to the conference room where Woolsey and the tiny unconstitutional Congress sit in session; his eyes register on the group of them.

“No, sir, we don't,” he says.

----

In Kansas, they almost forget what happened.

They pick up the Harley from a looted gas station garage on the Colorado border and fly across fields and fields of growing golden corn, the stalks touching the horizon for as far as they could see, whispering their secrets to an unfeeling sky. There weren't too many people out here to begin with, so avoiding the Ori is easy. With his arms around her waist, the smell of war-waste behind them and her blonde hair whipping against his face as they drive, Mitchell can almost forget the burning hulk of their ship and the massive conflagration that took the Mountain.

Carter gets a fever just outside of some small town, and they stop long enough to find that the pharmacies have been looted. But they defend a homesteader and his wife just outside of town from being booted from their home by a bandit gang, and for a week they stay in the old couple's guest room until she feels good enough to move and starts to rag on Mitchell whenever his hand goes to her forehead.

They eat a lot of corn in Kansas.


----

“Cam, bandits,” Carter whispers.

They stop for the first time that day. The heat is oppressive and the humidity choking; even the birds, normally twirling Ori-ignorant and brainless in the sky, seem to have quieted because of it.

The signs of trouble are so obvious, just like they always are when dealing with road bandits. To Mitchell's trained eye, amateurs leave signs of tactical stupidity like folktale breadcrumbs, and the crew at the next bridge is no different. They've left footprints in the dirt near a fabulous lookout point. There's a gunman half-hidden in the bushes wearing bright clothing, his dirty Nikes reflecting sunlight. Finally, Mitchell hears the noises of men shuffling their feet and coughing, made nervous by the thing they mean to do.

“God damn it, I am not interested in going to this party today,” he grumbles.

Carter swings her dead P90 from her back and aims it, cracking her neck and taking a deep breath; Mitchell cocks his gun and points it towards the sky, his palm and the gun shown openly towards the bridge in a gesture of I'll-screw-you-if-I-have-to.

They don't have many bullets left, but the bandits don't need to know that.

“My name is Shaft,” Mitchell drawls, “and my friend here is Dorothy, and we are going to pass through this here checkpoint of yours without any trouble. We've nothing of value except a whole lot of pain to give if you choose to interfere.”

They've done this dozens of times for hyped-up, would-be assailants: violent, desperate mothers with their husbands' pistols and too many mouths to feed. Greedy men with gun-shop memberships and delusions of grandeur. Gangs of teenagers who had their shaved-serial guns under their pillows before the Ori even arrived. Most of the time their shock-and-awe routine works; someone recognizes the P90, someone recognizes the training, someone recognizes the dog tags. Sometimes Carter has to play target practice with someone's possessions to make their intentions known. Sometimes they act crazier than they really are (although Mitchell's wondering about Carter, late at night, when he holds her and she whispers in her sleep.)

Sometimes nothing works at all.

Sometimes the bandits still insist on being stupid, and human blood runs despite their best intentions, and Carter dreams up anti-Ori weapons in the dirt to drown out the shame as the sun goes down, her back to Mitchell's, whose mouth is always dry with the prayers he can no longer say.

There's a rustling in the bushes behind the bridge, and five men built like club bouncers, wearing ripped How The Grinch Stole Christmas tee-shirts, jeans and flip-flops emerge; their leader is tanned and black-bearded with grey eyes that look to Mitchell to be more dead than alive. They've got guns, but they're still too far away to properly identify the make.

This could be a dangerous one, Carter thinks, and makes a show of aiming the P90.

“And for sure, you and your lady friend look damn serious,” the leader says. “But so are we. This here is the land of the Savior, and you got two choices: join us and our worthy cause, learn the secrets of life everlasting, worship the worthy one who fights the Ori -- or give up what you got in toll. It don't have to be your lives, just everything else you got.”

Mitchell raises his gun. “I'm not one for fundamentalism, coercion or people trying to steal my hard-earned stuff. Step aside.”

The man laughs. “She can show you life, and life again. You need not fear the Ori with the Savior. She can protect you.”

“I fear the Ori like I fear Mickey Mouse. This is your last chance,” Mitchell said. “See, Dorothy and I here, we're professionals. You do not want to buy what we're selling.”

Beside him, Carter straightens, squints, and makes a noise of amazement, her hand tightening on her weapon. Mitchell recognizes the warning for what it is, and doesn't take his eyes off the bandits. “What?”

“Cam,” Carter says breathlessly, reaching for her gun. “Hold off. They've got zats.”

Far above the stalemate, a vulture circles.

“So, Shaft. What do you say?” says the lead man.

“I say you tell us where you got those fancy ray guns,” Mitchell tosses back.

The man's eyes narrow as he realizes his zat has been recognized. “Shit, they're from Phoenix, shoot 'em before she finds out we fucked up,” he says, and urges his men forward.

There's something bleakly comforting about having Carter's back in a firefight, the two of them doing their thing like they've always done, the targets and the adrenaline and the way they know exactly what the other's next motion is going to be. Carter drops the dead P90 and picks off two of the bandits with her handgun as they approach; Mitchell gets a third before they both realize at the same moment that the warnings they'd seen were actually a trap. There were a few more men hidden well away that they hadn't seen, and soon Mitchell and Carter are encircled by bad guys, five zats primed in their faces and the leader's mouth in a smirk she hasn't seen since her last run-in on an alien world.

“Well,” Carter says, “At least we know we're close.”

In the half-second between the blast and the blackness, Mitchell thinks: This would have never happened to General O'Neill.

----

When Mitchell wakes up, he's on his belly inhaling a mouthful of rusty dust, and Carter's kneeling over him ripping up the bottom of her tank top.

“But honey,” he says, spitting some of the dirt out of his mouth. “I have a headache.”

Her lips twitch – classic Carter in a crisis, entirely too wired and focused to show too much amusement, but these days making Carter smile takes his mind off the pain better than morphine.

“You took a zat blast, and a bullet that just grazed your leg. Lucky bastard. It's mostly stopped bleeding, but this is the only thing I have right now that's relatively clean, and your wound's filthy. Whoever has us didn't exactly think about proper wound care when they were dragging us here,” she says.

“Speaking of,” Mitchell coughs. “Lucians? Trust? Goa'uld? Idiots?”

He pushes himself up, trying to ignore the pain from the bullet hole and the zat hangover that felt like shrill kindergarteners and rusty nails tearing holes in his cerebral cortex. The room is tiny – a broom closet, he guesses, emptied and used as a holding cell. Carter sits on the ground behind him, looking like hell, ignoring the sandy mud coating her long blonde hair. He checks his belt, and then Carter's; both of them are stripped of weapons, outerwear and equipment, including the Sharpie Sam had used to write equations on the backs of her hands.

He looks around. No windows, but there's hard, unstinting light, and Mitchell's fascinated to see a plain lightbulb above them, screwed into a socket and functioning quite well.

“Wherever 'here' is, they have electricity,” he says. “And zats. And that means --”

“Things we can use,” Carter responds. “And generators. Possibly offworld technology, if they have that many zats. Maybe we'll get lucky, and there'll be something we can use to escape. Or contact the General, if he's alive.”

She always runs that conditional. If he's alive. If they're alive. If, if, if.

Pain slices through Mitchell's leg as Carter starts to clean his wound as best she can. Her fingers feel like tattoo needles set on fire and drenched in acid, and it's all he can do to grunt his pain and bite his lip. “Anyone ever told you that you're the most aggressive optimist in the universe?”

She laughs again, just as the door opens to reveal Blackbeard and two of his grunts, holding old rifles – older AK-47s, of all things, which makes Mitchell even more keenly aware of the fact that he's living in a Mad Max sequel.

“The Savior wants to see you,” he says.

Mitchell and Carter exchange a look.

“So, you Trust?” Mitchell says. “Or just a dumbass?”

“When you bring someone back from the dead, you can talk,” says Blackbeard, and whacks Mitchell in the head with the gun. Carter moves to fight, and gets a few kicks in before being restrained by the men pouring into the room. Mitchell, disabled by a kick to his wound and dragged up by grunts, shakes his head to stop her. They're shoved out into a dark, hot hallway, first, and then out a set of doors limned with the light to the most ridiculous place he's ever seen.

“Oh, sweet baby Jesus,” Mitchell moans.

“We could be offworld,” Carter says cheerfully. “We could find the Stargate --”

Mitchell inhales humidity, and coughs out a laugh in between the pain. “Nope,” he said, because he knows this place, he'd been talking about it with one of the SFs who'd just returned from a Florida vacation three days before the Battle of Cheyenne, and had talked about the places he'd taken his kids. The laughter escapes from his mouth in shattered little bursts as they turn a corner and come face-to-face with a grey-brown castle on a hill, all neo-Gothic cathedral spires and forced perspective.

“Sam, we're still in Florida. That's the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, this is Universal Studios, and I'm getting the feeling that we are well and completely fucked.”

Carter's face was confused for a moment, and then resolved. “Oh. Well, if it's a theme park, we'll be contending with crowd-control measures, checkpoints – if they're organized enough to take us down, escape could be a little more difficult than I'd planned. You gotta admit, it's a great place for a Goa'uld.”

“Or impossible,” said Mitchell.

“Oh, come on, you know I hate that word.”

The streets of Hogsmeade are lined with ragged, scraggle-headed, dirt-stained people who'd obviously raided the Universal gift shops for clothing – Grinches and Shreks and Spider-men gathered in rough family groups, men standing in front and women holding their children to their shorts and skirts, the whole lot of them clutching at the door lintels to keep out of the sun. Carter watches their dirty faces as they pass and thinks of dead Daniel, taken on an alien planet years ago by the Orici, with some sadness. He'd get such a kick out of this, she thinks. He'd be chattering all the way up to wherever it is we're being taken, wondering if their shirts indicated some kind of rank or status, wondering if the traditional American nuclear family unit solved the holocaust --

And then all thoughts of dead Daniel stop as she comes face-to-face with the person that could only be the Savior.

At the apex of the crowd, surrounded by people with clipboards and computers, is a skinny teenage girl in a throne, red-haired and gowned and terrible, lips ruby-red and eyes kohled. The sight of it causes Carter's breath to catch; she's never met her. On sight, she's one of the nameless millions she's sworn to protect, but her veins are buzzing with naquadah, and Jolinar's sweet dead voice is whispering, and that's all she needs to know.

She reaches for the gun she no longer has.

The snake is sitting in Dumbledore’s chair like a wizard’s throne is where she belongs, her fingers wrapped gracefully in her lap and her chin raised regally. Mitchell stares at the girl for a moment, and then looks to Carter. Next to him, she's gone stiff; she licks her lips, feels the naquadah thrill in her veins, and meets Mitchell's eyes.

Goa'uld, she mouths.

“Kneel before your God,” Blackbeard says, and four hands each press them to the stony ground. “Our Savior, I give you the interlopers from Phoenix Base.”

And it's all Mitchell can do to keep from laughing.

And the snake just looks at them sadly. “Well, this is fascinating,” she says, and her eyes flick up to Blackbeard and his cronies. “I'll see them in my office. As for you --" her eyes flicker to Blackbeard -- "You should have recognized them on sight and enacted the protocols. Lock him up."

They are swept into Hogwarts Castle to the sound of pleading.

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