Pairings: Just my main girlie couple.
Category: yet another mirror universe for the SGC.
Disclaimer: Stargate SG1 and all their characters belong to MGM, Showtime and Gekko Productions. But I think we all knew that, hmm?
Spoilers: References aplenty to the majority of the third season here, consider yourselves warned…
Summary: While a teammate is lost on another world, life moves on at the SGC and the dog population explodes…
When I was called to the Gateroom, my heart leapt up into my throat. SG1 only been gone for three days… They weren't due back till tomorrow. I ordered my team to fall in line and we rushed off to aid our teammates. When I recognized Noral, Neal and Masters, I was relieved for the split second it took me to realize that Taylor was sprawled out on the ramp by her teammates crouched bodies. “Back off guys,” I instructed firmly but kindly and they reluctantly obeyed. One ear listened to the men explain in fits and starts. The rest of my concentration was for the unconscious officer under my busy hands. There had been something about a tangled forest, foggy darkness and Taylor falling into a root-choked ravine. There were lacerations on her face and a hasty but acceptable splint laced around her left arm. “Okay, let's get her to the Infirmary,” I instructed my own staff and they used the makeshift sling of fatigue jackets to lift the tall woman onto the gurney. While that was being accomplished, I turned to the men of SG7. “You three as well. Let's make sure all of you will be okay.”
It was a long surgery to reset the shattered bones in Taylor's arm and hand. Thankfully, she had managed to leave the delicate wrist bones intact and the hairline fracture in the metacarpal in her palm would heal quickly. How the hell she had managed to spiral fracture the ulna in three separate places while leaving the radius unharmed was a mystery. Once Warner and I finished with the arm, I gave the stitches in her cheek and scalp a quick once-over, relieved to see that it had been done without damaging her glorious hair. There were some nasty contusions on her torso, but her breathing appeared to be easy, despite the fading anesthesia.
“Good job,” I complimented my staff and left them to finish up with our damaged teammate. “We'll put her in room four to recover.”
“Yes ma'am,” they chorused softly and bent to their tasks. When I stepped out of surgery, pulling off mask and cap, I noticed that SG1 was sitting in the central Infirmary. Daniel, Sam, Teal'c and my beloved were there and the looks on their faces made my blood run cold. Three pairs of blue eyes regarded me beside Teal'c's somber dark gaze. What on earth had put those shadows in their eyes? Only then did I notice that Sam and Teal'c looked singed and there was only the four of them in the room with my staff. Where was O'Neill?
It felt like longer since he had been left behind. I watched the stress of SG1, unable to retrieve the man that led them. It would be a very long time before anyone could tear Sam away from creating the particle cannon that would find O'Neill, dead or alive, on the other side of the Gate.
“C'mon Doc, please.”
And that wheedling voice was one of the primary reasons that the last five days had stretched on so interminably. Karen Taylor had begun making a nuisance of herself within twenty-four hours of coming out from under anesthesia. Oh, at first the flirtatious cajoling had been cute, but now it was becoming annoying. Simply put; Karen was bored. At the rate she was whining and fidgeting, she would soon replace O'Neill as my most exasperating patient. That thought sobered me again and I left Karen's room without a word. When I tapped on General Hammond's door, his voice called out wearily, “come in.”
“You look terrible sir,” I observed without preamble and he smirked humorlessly.
“What can I do for you doctor?”
Looking at the obvious chaos on his normally clean desktop, I began to wonder if I shouldn't be offering help instead of asking for it. Shaking the thought off, I answered the question. “Major Taylor is driving me crazy sir. And unlike certain other terrible patients of mine, I think that she can remain focused on a task for longer than a few hours while bedridden.”
Now the man's eyes were on me, humor and confusion in their depths. “So what did you need from me?”
“I'm out of ideas. She's still bedridden and only has use of one arm.”
Hammond leaned back in his chair and regarded me thoughtfully. “Taylor, huh? I think I may have an idea.”
When we bustled into Karen's room an hour or so later, she lit up for a moment at the prospect of company. Then she saw the box of papers in Hammond's arms and the tangle of wires and computer hardware in mine. “Uh-oh.”
“Congratulations Major,” Hammond said with frightening cheer and plopped the box down within easy reach of her undamaged hand. “You've been volunteered to serve your country,” he paused dramatically to fire off a positively sadistic grin. “As my secretary. Doctor Farazell has been nagging me to assign someone to the job. Congratulations. The program basics are under the 'stores' file in the laptop. It's interfaced with the system in my office, have fun.” And with a few things expertly plugged in, Karen was left with a project that would keep her occupied for days. Maybe weeks. I suspected that my grin was just as evil when Karen glowered and grumbled under her breath.
It was with great pleasure that I left my restless patient to her non-strenuous work. Now if only I could get Sam to take a break…
Oh, I knew I sounded as dumbfounded as I felt. I had to give Taylor credit for her modesty, as she only smiled slightly and kept her gaze steady on me. “And she didn't even work herself to death over it,” Janet added breezily as she bustled in to check on the prone Major. Now Taylor smiled for real, making her extraordinary eyes twinkle.
“Thank you for the vote of confidence, Doc.”
The wheels in my head were turning fast as I looked down at the organized files of months of backlogged paperwork and the dormant laptop. “Tell you what Major,” I mused softly. “What would it take for you to take on being my administrative assistant for good?”
Both women looked startled at what was essentially an admission of weakness from me. But I knew that Farazell's thinly veiled 'suggestions' about getting someone in that role were bang on. This position was murder and I desperately needed someone to help me navigate miles of red tape and oceans of official military paperwork. Some of my desperation must have shown in my eyes and Taylor regarded me thoughtfully.
“Well,” she started with uncharacteristic awkwardness and ran her good hand over her hair. “Funny you should mention that.” I was lost as to where she was going with that comment and my expression must have said as much. Suddenly her eyes were as tired as I felt and a distinct twinge of empathy for this capable young woman rang through me. “I think I'm ready to hand the reins off to somebody else sir. I've been in this facility since long before the Stargate was first activated and I think I've had enough of the front lines. I've held just about every post this place has ever offered to an officer with no specialized training in a specific science and…” Again she shifted uncomfortably and I understood how she felt. We were both the kind of alpha personalities that despised weakness. Especially in ourselves. I admired that about her. What I admired even more was the strength of character she was showing with her honesty.
“I understand exactly what you mean Major,” I sympathized with her in my gentlest tone. When her emerald eyes met mine once more, there was empathy and appreciation shining.
“General Hammond,” she smiled in a wonderful combination of respect and warmth. “I would be honored to be your assistant.”
It was amazing how good that felt. The General I respected with every bone in my body, who I would unhesitatingly lay down my life for… he needed me. Wow. As a military officer, the position he was offering me may have been seen by some as nothing more than a glorified secretary, but I knew that the confines of the Stargate Project would make this desk job as challenging as actually stepping through the Gate. And I was truly weary of the constant danger and unknown. The men of my squad were going to be horrified, and I'd miss their constant presence like a pack around me, but this felt right.
Besides, it would keep me around cute Doctor Farazell…
“Quit fidgeting, fer crying out loud,” Jo grumbled and elbowed me in the ribs. “You're making Lucky nervous.”
Truth be told, Lucky seemed more curious that nervous, but I didn't argue with Jo. The three new men joining my fledgling squad were no more than files to me. In just a few minutes they would walk around that corner and I would have to prove to them that I was fit to lead this team. I was the youngest and the lowest in rank and understandably nervous. Behind me, Burt slapped my shoulder and flashed a grin when I glanced back. “You'll knock 'em dead.”
“I just hope they're better prepared for the SGC than I was.”
As if in response to my mutter, masculine laughter echoed down the hallway from around the corner. My first impression was that they were all dark, but with bright smiles. It immediately put me at ease and brought an answering grin to my face. Two Master Sergeants and a Major they were, with handsome dogs by their sides and rucksacks over their shoulders. Short, medium, tall, I noted and my smile deepened. “Welcome to Stargate Command,” I said and snapped off a crisp salute. There was only the briefest pause before they returned the traditional gesture and the ranking officer held out a hand.
“Thank you Sergeant. I'm Major Patrick O'Connor and this is Turtle.”
At his boots, the pretty girl cocked her head and regarded us with calm curiosity. I was introduced to Frank Striker, the painfully tall Marine with the sparkling smile and his handsome partner, Mac. Manuel Gugliamo was the graying pit bull of an Army Sergeant that I was extremely pleased to have on the team. He stood only a couple of inches taller than my wife, but carried himself like someone twice that size. His alert dog Bandito was almost uniformly black and very longhaired, only recognizable as a German Shepherd by his conformation. They remembered Jo from the Academy and were warm to Burt when he was introduced. All of them had been thoroughly briefed on the Stargate Project and seemed unfazed that their leader was a mere Sergeant First Class. Our first stop was the newly completed kennel that Jo would kennelmaster for now. Eventually, we would have someone permanently in the post, but we would make do for now. “It's small,” Striker said offhandedly and I almost bristled. “But it will certainly do, since there obviously wasn't much room to begin with. How does Lucky hold up to being underground so much?”
“She and Grover have only been here three weeks, but a romp in the sunshine once a day seems to keep them happy and alert. When offworld, it's rarely a problem.”
That made Striker grin wickedly and rub his hands together in childish glee. “I've always wanted to be a spaceman. Can't hardly believe I actually get to do it!”
We all chuckled and continued the tour. After showing them the main sections of the base and their quarters, we headed for the commissary to get everyone fed. The small room was virtually taken over by K9 officers and our bulky dogs. While everyone chatted and got to know one another, I snuck some time to get to know each dog. While Turtle may have been aloof when I first met her, she bounced over to rub up against my hand like a friendly kitty. Bandito was a gregarious flirt while Mac was focused and precise in personality. Like their Handlers, they were a diverse, adaptable lot. Exactly what was needed by the SGC.
Now the real work began.
It was a wonderful and humorous experience to watch Art trying to teach these seasoned men what was required of them. There was still an element of amused disbelief among them… Heck, even I still felt that way and I'd seen first hand some of the results of Gate travel. It frustrated Art, but she was handling it admirably. Finally, she raked fingers through her curls and eyed us all sharply. “I suppose this is all bullshit to you until you step through the Gate.”
We all chuckled lightly and O'Connor chimed in. “It does seem a bit like a bad science fiction movie.”
“It would probably make a great movie,” Manny laughed and the we all joined in. “Or even better, a TV show.” He had insisted, with stereotypical Hispanic charm, that we girls called him Manny. It was an easy compromise to make for his comfort. We laughed at the joke, the men suddenly stopping as something caught their eye. When Art and I turned to look, we understood why. Seems Carter had finally left her hermit's life in her lab, if only for the cup of coffee she was shakily pouring into a thermos. She looked like hell, stress and overwork and too little sleep making her fragile and vulnerable. In an instant, Art was beside her, hand on the arm pouring, speaking in a low, soothing tone. I was proud of her as she showed all the traits that made her such a great Handler. Patience, empathy, firmness and kindness were slowly wearing away Carter's reluctance to whatever Art was gently suggesting. So Art placed a hand on Carter's crown and pressed her thumb firmly into her forehead, making Carter hiss and jerk her head away. Anger flashed across her features before she gave into Art's pleading expression.
In moments she was wedged in beside me with a tray of food, staring at it as though she had forgotten what it was and was trying to remember. Art held a fork under her nose as she flopped down beside Carter and continued where she left off. “The trip through the wormhole is bad enough, and the dogs will hate it even more than you will the first couple of times. I'm certain that General Hammond will authorize a series of safe jumps before anyone is sent off on missions. That's what Cooper and I did, and Lucky here got to do the same. It'll be more energy efficient to send the whole gang of us when you're all ready. You too Jo. In fact, we should take Doctor Farazell with us as well. Give everybody a taste of Gating.”
“Is it dangerous?” Frank asked and Art shook her head.
“As long as both Gates are intact and open, there's little danger. It's what's on the other side that can kick your ass.” Again we chuckled, but it was subdued this time.
“So it's dangerous,” Pat mused thoughtfully.
“Sir, it's dangerous every time we dial in or out. There's stuff out there that can have a level of terror I can't describe. There's also beauty and function and cool societies and stories that'll keep you occupied forever. Somebody has to do this, and we're the lucky ones.” Her partner's head came up and Art reflexively rubbed her head while studying her new squad. A glance over her shoulder took in the whole room and her grin made me chuckle. “Hey Astor, c'mere for a second.”
A small, pretty woman with honey-brown hair paused and flashed Art a look that was oddly uncomfortable. Her eyes flickered from Art to the gold crown of Sam's head. Then a determined look flitted across her features and she strode over to the table. “What can I do for you Sergeant?”
I saw the play of facial muscles on Art's profile, as she was turned away to talk to the new woman. Here came the famous Goldston charm. “I was hoping that you'd help me educate these guys on the wonders and terrors of Gate travel. You've been doing it a hell of a lot longer than I have.”
The woman could shmooze with the best; there was no doubt about that. Chuckling, I stood and waved at my chair. “Sit here Lieutenant, I'll move over by Burt so that you can eat.”
“Thank you Captain,” she demurred as Art rattled off introductions again.
Giving Astor time to eat, Art launched into a basic personnel rundown of the base and where things were. I snaked a chair from an adjoining table and elbowed Burt into scooting over with a chuckle. Halfway through the spiel, Carter half placed and half dropped her fork to her plate and leaned forward as though she was going to face plant into her leftovers. It was Astor's quick reflexes that got an elbow in Sam's chest to keep her upright, where she blinked groggily. Ah, behold the power of lack of sleep and warm food. “Hey,” Sam whispered wearily and smiled at Astor. One hand came up to grip the green cloth covering the supporting arm. “I forgot how strong you are.”
Between Sam's flirtatious tone, Astor's pink blush and Art spluttering into her coffee hard enough to send half of it down her shirt, the rest of us started cracking up. Despite the fact that we didn't understand what was obviously an inside joke, it was hysterical anyway.
“Yeah, well it wasn't me that carried your naked body in from the Gateroom.”
Now Art was cackling up while Sam merely blinking in confusion. “I'll tell you the highlights of that mission later guys, but only the highlights. The gory details are too embarrassing to relive.”
Carter snorted softly in agreement.
Astor and Art let us laugh again for a moment before telling a handful of stories about Gate travel. The Handlers kept an eye on Carter's exhaustion, but didn't divert from their training session again. When she started drifting again, Art slid back a couple feet and gently coaxed the drifting Major to rest her head in her lap. In seconds, I could see her grow limp with sleep. With Carter's backside pressed against her hip, there was nowhere for a flustered Astor to go and nowhere to put her left elbow. Art reached out to grab the hovering limb and press it to Carter's leg and hip. “It might comfort her,” was the explanation and Astor nodded awkwardly. Only then did Art let her concern really show clearly in the clouding of her expression.
“So what happened?” O'Connor asked softly and Art looked up from where she was lightly stroking Carter's hair.
“We lost our team CO eight days ago,” Art answered even more softly. “And there's a good chance that he's alive and stranded on the other side of the Gate. She's been trying to figure out some particle accelerator to fix the problem, but it's looking to take months of research and testing and building the damn thing. This is probably the first time she's done more than catnap in a week.” Clearing her throat harshly, Art forced a tone of normalcy into her voice. “So you understand that I'm going to be unwilling to move until I absolutely have to.”
“Could we help you move her?” Frank asked quietly, his blue eyes concerned.
“Maybe once she's good and out we can try.”
In a few minutes, we'd all forgotten completely about the officer sleeping in Art's lap and continued to get to one another and our new assignment.
My new squad scared the hell out of me when they all abruptly scrambled to their feet and saluted. There was a presence at my back and Jo's eyes rounded with awe and something that was almost amusement. Not to mention no small interest. I looked up to see Bob returning the salute before dropping his gaze to me. “How you two holding up?” He asked gently and I smiled with all the pain and weariness in my heart.
“Lousy,” I answered honestly. This man had been a good friend and Sam really liked him. Bob returned the sad smile and gave my shoulder a squeeze.
“You gonna leave her here? Or should we try and get her back to her quarters?”
“It's been a half-hour or so. If we're going to try, I guess we should do it now.” Bob's touch was less likely to rouse Sam than the complete strangers in my new squad, and neither Carol nor I were capable of moving her easily. So Bob wriggled his thick arms under Sam's slender frame while I carefully pulled the plastic chair away and tilted her head into his chest. There was a sleepy moan that made us all freeze until Sam burrowed comfortably into Bob's shirt and sighed contentedly. It was more than a little amusing to see how flustered he became.
“I'll see the five of you tomorrow,” I addressed my team and dismissed them into Jo's care to get their quarters assigned. Carol looked weirded out and I gave her a measured stare. Sam had told me about the wild night with this pretty woman and I knew there was some unfinished business between them. Eventually, they were going to need to talk and my expression said as much. In those endless and brief moments, Carol's eyes registered my demand and she nodded faintly in compliance.
“I hope she sleeps okay,” Carol told me quietly and I forced a smile past my pain.
“Me too. Thank for your help with everything. See you around?”
Carol nodded at my questioning tone and I followed Bob into the hallway where we made our way to Sam's quarters. There were a few weird looks, but everyone knew what had happened to O'Neill and we were left in peace. “You in a hurry to be anywhere?” I asked as I let Bob into the small room. It looked like every other of the miniature living spaces in the base. Only a few personal touches identified it as Sam's.
“No,” Bob answered shortly as he prepared to set Sam's limp body on the cot.
“Then hold her for awhile, won't you?”
Surprised, Bob glanced over his shoulder and I gestured at his welcome burden. “Let her rest somewhere where she feels safe for a bit. Just trust me on this, okay?”
Still taken aback, Bob sat on the cot and rearranged Sam gently so that she was tucked up under his chin. “This is what we end up doing most nights,” he mused softly and I nodded. “She's always so tired.”
“I know. It takes exhaustion to get her off this damn base. Sometimes she's hard to get personal with.”
We smiled together in unification over this chimera of a woman and the genuine affection between us.
If I'd been surprised when the K9 corps wanted to pair me off with a dog, I'd been even more shocked as to why. Officers were rarely, if ever, K9 units, but the SGC was looking for people who were adaptable and not a little off the wall. Not generally the type of folk you find in uniform. My past of esoteric ideas regarding science and humanity had caught somebody's attention enough to get me assigned to this prime spot. That somebody of course was the ever lovely and observant Jolynne. My brief stint as a K9 all those years ago when she'd been barely out of boot camp was still stored in her amazing memory. I still remembered the pain of my poor Rocky convulsing in his death throes from inhaling most of the broken bag of cocaine he'd been so proud to find in the smuggler's suitcase. Years later, I could still feel and hear and smell his agony and fear. It hadn't been easy for me to take on sweet young Turtle and this bizarre task set before us. But in even just two days, it was becoming well worth it.
Blinking back to present, I snapped to attention along with all the others present. General Hammond eyed us all sternly, but there was a sparkle of pleasure in his eyes. “Sergeant Goldston, it my honor and pleasure in instating your team officially as the Stargate Dogs. Your teamwork and expertise will be invaluable to what we are trying to accomplish here. Welcome to your first command soldier.”
Art grinned widely as she saluted the General before shaking his hand. It really didn't faze me that she was put in command of the rest of us. Art had been through the Stargate and been through things that the rest of us could only dream about. But not for long. As Hammond pulled out a patch and regally applied it to the Velcro circle on Art's right shoulder, I eyed the piles of gear awaiting us. Once this informal ceremony was over, we were finally going through the Gate!
Manny was next, snapping off a stiff salute before thrusting out his shoulder for the coveted patch. I'd seen the design in a computer sketch yesterday and loved it. Just like all the SG teams, it was a blown-up image of one of the Stargate's chevrons with the upper arch of the Gate above it. Instead of a number, there was Cooper's silhouette in honor of the first Military Working Dog through the Gate. Frank was barely able to keep himself from bouncing like a kid waiting in line at the mall to meet Santa. Of all of us, I think he was the most eager to Jump. Spaceman indeed.
“Major O'Connor,” Hammond smiled under his salute and shook my hand before adding the patch to my arm and I couldn't help but preen a little just as the others were subtly doing. We were unique in our positions. Unique on earth and maybe in the whole universe! Jolynne was congratulated and patched as well and Hammond stepped away to flash a truly warm grin. “Well, what are you waiting for? Davis!”
A tinny voice came over the Gateroom's speakers as a spectacled man in the control room above straightened up. “Yes sir?”
While I'd seen the Stargate dial out yesterday, I had a feeling watching up close like this would be far more impressive than from the comparative safety of the Control Room. The dogs waited patiently in a furry line up while we struggled into our backpacks and retrieved our ordinance from the waiting guards. While this place we were going was considered a safe world, we were all suited up to expect anything.
“Now don't be too rough on those boys,” I heard colonel Makepeace teasing Art as he gallantly helped her shrug into her pack. “You might scare 'em home to their mommies.”
“Hardy har har,” Art scoffed at him and they laughed together. “Hey Teal'c.”
The big Jaffa had strode in with Staff Weapon in hand and suited up to Jump. “Greetings Sergeant Goldston and congratulations on your increased responsibility.”
“You always do have a way with words Teal'c, thanks.”
There was a skeptical eyebrow raised and the small woman behind him grinned. I noticed that there were no rank tabs or patches on her cammies. “Members of the Stargate Dogs, may I introduce Doctor Farazell. She will be accompanying us on the upcoming safe Jump.”
Any acknowledgement to the introduction was halted by a massive 'kawhoosh' of sound that accompanied that great watery effect. Despite myself, I flinched in response and watched the mass of energy settle placidly into the rippling event horizon
“So let's do this,” Doctor Farazell grinned wolfishly and clutched her MP90 closer to her chest.
“Teal'c, you first,” Art instructed. “Pat, if you'd take point with him. Make sure you all keep your partners on a short leash; the first ride is always rough. Frank, you take Jo and Doctor Farazell. Manny, you're with me at the rear.”
With a chorus of affirmation, we stepped through.
“You have a choice,” Art's voice suddenly startled me. When I turned she was standing in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest and flanked by two of her new K9s. Only two days after being officially commissioned as the Stargate Dogs and they were already part of the family.
“A choice?” I parroted uncertainly.
“Come with me now and let me and some friends spoil you for your birthday, or…” she trailed off ominously and I felt anticipation and dread. There was too much for me to do! I couldn't just leave for the night, even if it was my birthday.
“Or,” she said with dangerous blandness. “I have these two carry you out. Your choice.”
She wouldn't dare! I'd pull rank on her! A glance at O'Connell's smirk and the gold oak leaves on his uniform struck that idea dead. I'd appeal to her sympathy. The concern and Greek stubbornness in her dark blue eyes sent that idea the way of the first one. Then I realized that I was tired and drained and lonely. In a second, Art was wrapped around me a hug that I gratefully returned.
“Come with me Sam. You know O'Neill would kick your ass if you missed your birthday. One night of alcohol and hedonism. He'd be proud.”
Half laughing at her choice of words and half sobbing, I let her sling an arm around my neck and take me from my prison of a lab. I wish I had the words to tell her what she meant to me. What her friendship and support meant to my sanity and heart. But all I could do was cling to her suffocating-tight as we left the SGC under the protective watch of man and dog.
It had been like trying to persuade Saint Peter to let a sinner past the pearly gates, getting Doc Fraiser to let me attend Sam's birthday party. The poor woman had looked so wounded lately and the whole damn lot of us were determined to make her feel better or die trying. O'Malley's was the best steakhouse in the state of Colorado and they had gone out of their way when we had given them a partially fabricated reason for Sam's pain. There were balloons and streamers and a cake, just like being a kid again. It was a shame Doc Farazell wasn't here. Not only did I think she was fascinating, but I wanted to meet this kid of hers that I'd heard snippets of. There was a picture of an adorable infant on her desk, but I'd gotten the impression that Emily was a bit older now.
There was a ruckus as Daniel bounced back in from the foyer, shouting, “she's here!”
Knowing that the Doc was watching me, I slid lower in my seat to appear nonchalant. I was to be the bait so that the others could hide. Once settled into a position that cradled my heavy plaster arm, I picked up my orange juice and scowled at it. No booze for me tonight. I was still a gimp and on meds.
The door swung open and Art shoved Sam through, both of them grinning. The pale blue eyes came to rest on me where I raised my glass in toast, the delight in them deepening. Leave it to Sam to be happy to see just a couple of pals come out to spend her birthday with her. In a moment, she had called out my name and come over to give a warm and extremely careful hug. While my broken arm and lingering bruises appreciated the care, I was disappointed that I didn't get to feel her lanky body against mine. Ah well, at least she smelled good. “Thanks for being here,” she whispered in my ear and I tightened my one-armed hold.
“Wouldn't miss it,” I told her honestly and gave the signal behind her back.
It was quite the deafening racket and my body objected to the jostling as Sam jumped and half spun around in response to the mass shout. Warm laughter rolled over us and I gave Sam another squeeze, this time in reassurance. Half the SGC was there, and the bulk that weren't had signed the card resting under my sling. “Happy Birthday, Sam,” I told her warmly and she squeezed my encircling arm as the horde descended.
I stared at the gift certificate in my hands and then flashed Karen a puzzled look. We'd never been close exactly, but the big woman was so much a fixture in my life and my career that I took her for granted. Since the day I'd stepped into the SGC all those years ago, Karen never seemed to be more than an arm's reach away. “Pampered people?”
The crowd laughed at my tone and Karen just grinned. “It's a spa south of Denver.” Her expression suddenly became implacable, chasing off the pain. “When O'Neill gets home, because we all know how he hates to miss the Simpsons, I'm taking you there myself for a day off. Okay?”
“Deal,” I smiled and gave her a careful hug.
There was a chunky box held out to me by a grinning Mac. “The guys sent me out to pick something out for you because I'm the token girl and they were too chickenshit to do it themselves. Hope you like it.” The Marines taunted her as I took the box and she flopped down among them again.
“It's heavy,” I grinned and set it on the counter near Karen's broken arm. Once the paper was half off, I started laughing and batted my eyelashes at SG3. “Awww guys, you shouldn't have.” Then I yanked off the last of the paper and they burst into laughter and groans. “I've always wanted a 3-D power sander!”
“That's what you get for trying to chuck stereotypes at me,” Mac mocked her teammates.
“Actually, it really is a great gift. It'll come in handy once I can get back to my bike.” Melancholy crept over me again, I missed O'Neill so fiercely, but I shook it off. Art was right; he'd kick my ass if I didn't have fun tonight. As though sensing the thought, Teal'c stepped in close and I looked up at him. Once the second-in-command of our most bitter alien enemy, Teal'c had turned on his false gods and stood with us. None of us had ever regretted accepting him as a family member.
“While I do not wish to remind you of Colonel O'Neill's loss, Major Carter, I was made aware some time ago that he had acquired this item for the express purpose of gifting it to you. It required some hunting at his personal domicile, but I was able to find it as well as this.” A large box wrapped loosely in a plastic bag was set in front of me, as well as a colorful birthday card, not even in its envelope. My hands shook as I took the items from Teal'c and opened the card that had a goofy cartoon coyote howling up at the night sky. Inside was O'Neill's distinctive handwriting.
'So that you can always go look at the stars. –Jack,' it read. I never called him Jack; it would have felt to weird. I pulled away the plastic bag the item had obviously came in, amused that Teal'c had unsurprisingly missed the subtleties of birthdays. It was a telescope. A really nice one. I could probably see Abydos with this thing.
“Wow,” I breathed, absolutely touched by the gift and wishing that O'Neill could see my face. “Remind me to thank him.”
“I will,” Teal'c assured me gravely. “Major Carter, I have always been appreciative of your skills as both a scholar and a warrior. Consider this a token of my esteem.” From his pocket came a knife. Unsheathed it was a big, chunky, cleanly made blade with a good, solid hardwood handle. Beautiful and functional. I loved it.
“Thank you Teal'c,” I grinned at him. “I'll treasure it.”
A regal head nod and that familiar glint of emotion in his eye was reply enough as Teal'c returned to his seat beside Art. Janet had been unable to get the night off, but sent my gift along with Cass. From my old pal was a hand designed gift certificate for a hand-cooked meal of my choice, and a bottle of perfume that smelled spicy and a little naughty. Cass gave me a suffocating hug and handed me what felt like a picture frame. “Happy birthday Sam.” I missed the girl and made a mental note to make some time for her, despite the pressure of rescuing O'Neill.
“Thanks Cassandra, let's see what I have here,” I thanked her as I tore open the package and studied it. It was a sheet of paper with her handwriting in neat math problems covering it. I automatically noted the trigonometry problems. Then the 100% scrawled in red across the top.
“My first one,” Cass explained with a grin. “Because neither of us would give up.” It held double meaning as we both remembered that I returned for her when I was supposed to leave her to face death alone. I hadn't been able to do it, and returned to her at the risk of my own life. This child had been rigged by the Goa'uld to be a human bomb; they had been so intent on destroying earth. It had thankfully failed and now we had Cass to love. 'To my teacher, my role-model, my hero and my friend.' It read and I squeezed Cass tight.
“This is the best,” I told sincerely. “I'll hang this up where I can see it all the time. I'm really proud of you.”
“Thanks Sam. Looks like the dogs have something for you.”
I turned to have Art toss something small and furry at me. It was a plush German Shepherd with soulful eyes and silky fur. The stuffy wore a military green collar with a tag that read 'Carter's'. I grinned with delight as I noticed the other K9's clustered around another plush, this one life-sized and surprisingly realistic looking among their dogs. “So we'll always be with you,” Art explained. “Junior there is for your lab on base and the big guy is for that cool house of yours.”
There were a few other gifts from other people on base, a gift from my brother that Art had pulled out of my mail. All the warmth and appreciation from these people really did make me feel better, a temporary reprieve from the torturous months of researching and building the particle accelerator that I had to look forward to.
A new arrival caught our attention, as Darya walked in and we all hollered hello. With her was a small child that peered at all of us shyly. “Hi Sam,” the woman greeted me, handing over a brightly colored bag. “I managed to pull myself away from an obligation to come see you. Happy birthday. I have to tell you that Emily here really wanted to keep your gift for herself. We'll have to get a pair for her, right sweetie?” The child gave me a shy peek and hid again.
“Thanks Darya,” I smiled, intrigued by the girl. “And thank you Emily.”
“It's fragile, be careful.”
Intrigued, I peeked into the bag and saw what appeared to be a small cage. Now I was truly curious and set the bag down to crouch and smile at Emily. She smiled back hesitantly as I reached into the bag and pulled the cage out carefully. It took a second for the animals inside to stick their noses out from the little plastic igloo inside. “They're adorable,” I breathed as I recognized the whiskered faces. One was white-bodied with a black hood and a broken stripe down its back, the other all gold. The curious baby rats came to the bars to sniff my fingers, the black hooded one actually licking my skin and touching me with light, sharp claws.
“They're both girls, so you won't be up to your eyeballs in kittens,” Darya explained indulgently as I stood with my prize.
“They're great,” I enthused as I went over to Karen to set the cage on the table and pop the top open. Both of the babies ducked away when my hand entered their domain and I waited patiently or them to come out and explore. A small, warm presence at my hip made me glance to see that Emily had sidled over to watch the rats. Just as I was doing with the tiny additions to my lonely life, I was patient and let Emily warm up to me if she wanted to. The child smiled at me just as the little black hooded came out to explore my hand.
“Puppies?” Emily asked softly and I grinned.
“Yep, just babies. I guess I need to give them names, right?”
“Uh huh,” she nodded seriously. “Puppies like nannas. 'Kay?”
“Okay, I can remember that. Thanks Emily.”
Her duties to the 'puppies' discharged, Emily returned to her mother. Karen leaned in to peer at my new pets and smiled lopsided. “They're cute,” she commented and flashed an evil, mischievous look at SG3. “And better company than the Marines I'll bet.”
“Smarter too,” Mac deadpanned and the Marines just rolled their eyes.
I was having second thoughts about my gift. All night Sam had been vacillating between happy and sad. “What do you think Jack?” I asked my missing teammate quietly and pulled the small present from my pocket.
'Quit yer bitchin',' I could almost hear him growl affectionately. 'She'll know what it means.'
Poor Jack, so madly in love with her that he could barely deal with or without her. Someone was suddenly in my personal space, two slender, pale hands covering my fingers and the present held by them. I didn't need to look up to see who it was. I knew her like an extension of my own soul. Felt utterly incomplete without her and Jack and Teal'c close at hand.
“You look so melancholy,” Sam whispered with her pain roughening her voice.
“Just miss him,” I explained, knowing that she knew exactly how I felt. Then I shifted our hands around so that the present was held between hers, my hands cradling them. “I don't even remembering taking this shot, but I've carried it around in my pocket as long as I can remember. Look at it.”
Hands shaking and pale eyes damp, Sam tore the wrapping paper carefully away. The gift was wrong side up and she hesitated, staring deep into my eyes for a long time. Then she flipped it over and stared at it.
I'd carried it for so long that the image was forever burned into my mind. A battered rectangle of laminated photo paper bearing a cherished memory. It was Jack, grinning like a complete idiot, flashing a thumb's up at my camera, his free arm wrapped around Sam's neck, hugging her chokingly tight, her forehead against his jaw with an indulgent smile on her face. Teal'c was just behind and to the side of them with his eyebrow raised and, to the experienced observer, distinctly amused. All of them ready to step through the Stargate, glowing faintly just out of the sight of the camera. It was my favorite memory of us, happy and together. Strong and whole and healthy and raring to go.
“Every time one of us has been hurt or missing or brainwashed or whatever,” I explained softly as Sam's eyes flooded. “I've always remembered the way we are in this picture. Us at our best. Keep it, and it'll help you bring him home.”
And when she hugged me suffocating-tight and sobbed quietly, I knew I had gotten it just right.
“Terrified,” I answered Cassie's question honestly as I slung the electric guitar across my torso. “You ready?”
“As I'll ever be.”
“Okay then, Jo's waiting for us. C'mon.”
Struggling with terror and memories, I stepped out onto O'Malley's little stage and squinted into the bright lights. “Hey guys,” I said into the mike as the crowd quieted and gave me their attention. “This is kind of an unusual gift, and I'll explain why.” My palms were dry and my uniform shirt wet with nerves. How the hell my voice was stable was beyond my comprehension. “We're all born to a family and sometimes things go wrong. The last time I really performed in front of a crowd, and drunken karaoke doesn't count Jo, I was fifteen and my eldest brother was getting married.” Gentle chuckles rippled across the room and Jo flashed me a bittersweet smile from the piano. She knew what was coming. “My parents were so proud they cried. I'll always hold that memory dear because only a few months later they were killed in a car accident. Cassandra lost everything she'd ever known and Sam was the first link to the new family she's made here. She asked me to do this and there's no way I could refuse. Samantha Carter, you are kind, accomplished, brave and brilliant. You're also the best damn friend any woman could ever ask for.”
And with that sentiment, I nodded to Jolynne and we launched into a song I'd loved since the day I'd first heard it. Most of the tracks were carried by a programmed keyboard atop the piano Jo was playing with me picking up the primary electric guitar riffs. The crowd roared in approval at the bouncy tune pouring from the speakers and I forced my voice past the nerves choking me.
“Doctors have come from distant cities, just to see me.
Stand over my bed, disbelieving what they're seeing.
They say I must be one of the wonders of God's own creation.
And as far as they see they can offer no explanation.
Newspapers ask intimate questions, want confessions.
They reach into my head to steal the glory of my story.
They say I must be one of the wonders of God's own creation.
And as far as they see they can offer no explanation.
Ooo, I believe.
Fate smiled at destiny.
Laughed as she came to my cradle, know this child will be able.
Laughed as my body she lifted, know this child will be gifted.
With love, with patience, and with faith.
She'll make her way.
She'll make her way.
People see me I'm a challenge to your balance.
I'm over your heads; I confound you and astound you too.
Oh, I must be one of the wonders of God's own creation.
And as far as they see they can offer no explanation.
Ooo, I believe.
Fate smiled at destiny.
Laughed as she came to my cradle, know this child will be able.
Laughed as she came to my mother, know this child will not suffer.
Laughed as my body she lifted, know this child will be gifted.
With love, with patience, and with faith.
She'll make her way.
She'll make her way…”
And, as Daniel whirled a sobbing Sam into a gentle waltz around the dance floor, I knew that my sacrifice was well appreciated by all.
P.S. My sincere thanks to Natalie Merchant as a talented songsmith for creating the amazing tune of 'Wonder'. It struck me as suiting Sam all to well.