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? Art, Cooper, Lucky, Jo and Karen are mine. Darya and Emily are AJ's.
Spoilers: References aplenty to the majority of the third season here, consider yourselves warned…
Summary: True love just might strike twice.
The sound of a motorcycle roaring to a stop in my driveway lured me to the door, and I assumed it was Sam showing up early. Emily sat perched on my hip, babbling excitedly about the decorations I was putting up for her birthday party. Opening the door, I started to call out a greeting to the blonde, but stopped before more than a light hiss passed my lips. That body was too big and too fleshed out to be Sam Carter. I watched as the person got off the bike and settled it onto the kickstand. The dark leathers encased but didn't hide the strong, but obviously feminine body. My jaw dropped as the helmet was removed and waves of long coppery hair cascaded down her back. By the Goddess… it was Karen Taylor. I stared at her as she turned to face me, holding my gaze for a long moment before she began walking up the driveway. No, it was more like she was stalking up toward me, a great red tiger on the prowl... and I was her prey.
Far more willing prey than I'd dare admit to.
“Morning Doc,” she greeted me warmly, but that predatory guardedness remained steady. As usual, she wasn't going to open up to me unless I worked for it. But did I want to work for it?
“Morning Taylor,” I replied in a neutral tone, not exactly sure what she was doing at my house. I let my eyes stray over the soft leather jacket and chaps she wore, feeling a certain thrill at the sight. They looked handmade and molded lovingly to her strong body. But my analytical side quickly did its best to squelch that train of thought. “It's kind of warm for leather, isn't it? Or is this some kind of stereotypical game?”
Her gaze was penetrating, and I was helplessly caught in the green eyes gone dark with some unidentifiable emotion I just couldn't quite read. Leaning against the wall like a great cat, Karen drawled softly, “why do you assume everything has to be a game with me?” I swallowed thickly and shifted Emily's weight on my hip. “I enjoy these clothes.”
“Besides,” she continued, gently cutting me off, “I wanted to ask you something, and the bike and the leathers play into it.” That statement caught me off guard and I quirked a brow before motioning for her to continue. That piercing gaze focused steadily at me for a breathless moment before she spoke again, settling back even more comfortably into the wall. “I want to know what you see when you look at me. Not that I'm interested in your approval or disapproval, I'm quite content with my self-image. I am, however, curious what you perceive.”
I blinked in astonishment, once again completely caught off guard by her.
“You can't be serious,” I sputtered; not exactly sure I wanted to answer her. I wasn't even sure I could answer her.
In an odd way, I bless my daughter for what she did next. Emily chose that moment to make her presence more noticeable by tossing her sippy cup toward Taylor. The woman moved sinuously to scoop up the cup, but the partial cast on her left hand made the maneuver a little difficult. “Appa juice!” Emily crowed loudly, giggling as the juice managed to splatter all over Taylor's face and jacket until she finally managed to steady the cup between her hands. Only then did I consciously note that she was wearing gloves, the left covering only the fingers where they jutted comically from the fiberglass cast. I was more than a little fascinated by the smooth leather molding to the curves and planes of her busy hands. That secret little thrill had returned, settling itself in the pit of my stomach and exploding into a small flurry of butterflies. “My juice!”
“Your juice, eh?” The redhead drawled and stepped up well within my personal space. She tipped the obviously empty cup toward her face and mimed drinking the juice. My eyes were drawn to the muscles of her throat as she swallowed and I shivered just a little bit. Wiping at her chin, she held the cup out to my daughter. “Tasty. Thank you.”
Emily giggled and grabbed for her cup. “Silly lady! Name!”
Taylor met Emily's gaze openly and smiled with a warm, gentle affection that made my breath catch in my throat. “My name's Karen. What's yours?” I seriously doubted that there was a single person in the SGC that didn't know who Emily was, but I was warmed thoroughly by this mercurial woman who was so obviously coaxing my little girl to play. Karen seemed to be successfully winning her attention and affection in a way so few could after Em's death.
“Em'ly,” she said proudly. “I this many,” she added, holding up her left hand, all five fingers waving. I watched the woman reach over and gently coax the little fingers so that only two remained upright. Emily squealed in delight and latched onto the black-clad fingers, unwilling to let go.
“What? You want to come see Karen? Is that it Miss Emily?” She encouraged, mockingly trying to pull her fingers away. “Do you want to play with Karen?”
Emily turned her wide blue eyes on me, smiling. “Mommy? I play K'ryn?”
'Mommy wants to play with Karen,' ran through my head faster than I could stop it, and left me blinking in surprise. Where the hell had that come from? And could I honestly deny it? All the flirting and subtle innuendos between us over the past month had certainly taken their toll on my self-control. But... Oh hell, this wasn't what I needed, not with people showing up for my daughter's birthday party. Not with Em's loss still so close to my heart.
“Yes Mommy,” came the low voice, the hint of a sensuous chuckle threading through the seductively low tone. By the Goddess, how was I supposed to survive this? “Can I play with Emily?”
“I… uh, sure,” I finally stammered, handing over Emily's eagerly squirming body. She leapt on the tall woman, one chubby little fist latching into the soft leather and the other in the bright hair. Stunned, I watched my normally guarded daughter brighten even more as she was tickled and cooed over by her new friend. Taylor rearranged her on a hip, mindful of her injured arm. An odd prickling against the back of my eyes made me blink as I took in the sight before me. My small daughter, still in need of a nap before the party, quickly curled herself trustingly into Karen's chest and shoulder. Her pale strawberry curls stood out in contrast to Karen's shockingly red hair as well as the inky dark leather of her jacket. And thanks to Cassandra's sun-worshipping attitude, my daughter's skin was a subtle bronze that brought out the sun kissed highlights of her hair. I couldn't help myself from taking a closer look at the Amazon redhead holding Emily. The intensely sorrel hair curled down around her shoulders, cushioning Emily's head where she rested it, yawning. Pale skin was dotted all over with a delightful smattering of freckles that I found myself yearning to trace. How much of her flesh was covered in those paint spatters of color? Would I ever find out? Did I even have the guts to want to go there with her? A flush crept over my cheeks as I caught the amused, almost indulgent, look in her eyes. “Um, would you like to come in Karen?” I asked, trying to regain my composure. “I still have a lot of work to get done before the party. And Emily needs a nap yet.”
“Do not,” came the petulant reply. Karen chuckled and ran the fingers of her injured left hand across Emily's hair. My little girl grabbed at the cast. “You owwie?”
Karen nodded. “I was clumsy and fell down.”
Emily nodded sagely. “Ahh. I fall too,” she yawned.
“Tell you what Miss Emily. We'll go in and help your mommy and if we get tired, we'll both take a nap, okay?”
“You stay?” When Karen yawned exaggeratedly and nodded, my daughter's face lit up in delight. “'Kay.”
“So,” Karen asked, eyes glinting mischievously at Emily. “Have you ever played monkey?”
She shook her head, eyes wide. “Mommy calls me Mo'key.”
Karen shot me an amused grin, which I returned. “She does, hunh? Well, if you're careful, you can climb up and sit on my shoulders. Then we can move my motorcycle to a safer spot.”
“Only if your mom says it's okay,” she replied, glancing at me with an arched brow. “I'll be happy to stay and help you, Darya, on one condition.” I quirked an eyebrow when her cheeks flushed a delicate shade of rose. “I need to borrow your garage for my bike,” she admitted sheepishly. “I'm not supposed to be riding it, and I figured…”
I laughed at that. “Oh, so you're afraid of Janet's wrath?”
“Yes,” was her careless reply. “Aren't you?”
“Not on your life. I know what makes Squirt tick.” I could see how desperately she wanted to ask me about the nickname, but Emily was squirming restlessly in her arms. “Yes, you can store your bike in the garage. But you will owe me for this one. And I do intend to make you pay.”
“Yes, ma'am,” she purred softly, making me realize just how suggestive my promise had been. I felt my own cheeks flush in an odd combination of arousal and embarrassment. Leaving me to my embarrassed silence, Karen helped Emily up onto her shoulders. “Hold on tight Emily. I don't want you to fall.”
“'Kay,” came the reply as the little fists latched onto Karen's hair, feet crossing around her neck.
Karen strode down the driveway and I followed without consciously thinking about it. She awkwardly started to push the motorcycle before looking at me sheepishly again. “Is there any chance…?”
Swallowing back a lump of fear at the memories of Em's death when the street bike had recklessly cut her off and caused both their deaths, I found myself unable to move for a moment. Suddenly, there was a touch on my arm and I glanced up into those gemstone eyes. The beautiful kindness and warmth there made me blink back tears.
“I'm sorry,” Karen whispered and much to my astonishment the fear and pain actually receded. She was so astute, so gentle, so wild and untamed under the thin veneer of domestication. Suddenly the bike between us was more a symbol of that predator lurking in her soft gaze than a destructive hunk of metal and power. It was quite the revelation for my scarred heart.
A smile reassured my daughter, and the expression felt surprisingly sincere. “I'm okay honey. Let's help Karen, okay?”
Following my tall companion's instructions, I grabbed one of the handlebars and started to push. It was a strange sensation when I realized I was holding the throttle, the pulse of this machine's powerful heart. From the corner of my eye, I could see Emily sliding on the smooth leather of Karen's jacket. Before I could do anything, Karen suddenly lurched to a halt, coughing, as Emily's feet tightened around her throat to keep from shifting around unsteadily. The bike tilted alarmingly and for some odd reason I couldn't let it fall as Karen reached up for Emily.
“Emily!” I barked sharply, which only caused her to tighten her grip on Karen. There was real alarm on my baby's face, but before I could do anything about it, a strong, one-handed grip had pulled her down into a warm hug. For a long moment Emily clung to Karen, who shushed and cooed at her softly. It was a long minute before she allowed herself to be set on the seat of the big Harley. Smiling winningly, cheeks flushed, Karen continued to reassure the child who I suspected was reacting to my own alarm.
“You just hang on to mine and your mom's arms while we push, okay Em'ly?”
Eyes round, Emily latched on to the two of us as instructed and I met Karen's gaze with my own. There was something new here, something warm and tentative and precious.
It didn't take much to get the bike moved into the garage, and as soon as I could, I picked up little Emily, if only to ease that bit of tension still lurking in her mother's eyes. I wasn't certain what happened to make her so afraid of bikes, but I wasn't going to push her and ask. If she felt she could trust me enough to tell me one day, I would be content with that. “So Em'ly, what should we do first?”
I smiled as Darya rolled her eyes, sighing dramatically. “You're going to wear out that tape honey,” she said slowly, as if this was a regular conversation between them. “Why don't you and Karen hang the balloons in the living room?”
“Sure!” I enthused, and motioned for Darya to lead the way into the house. I breathed a sigh of relief as the garage door closed, hiding my Harley from other people's eyes. The last thing I needed was the Doc kicking my ass for riding my bike over here this soon. As I followed Darya into the house, the baby babbled happily and petted my hair, but my eyes were drawn to her mother's shapely backside. I knew there was something beneath that cool, professional exterior, something I wanted to coax out and get to know better. But how did I go about that?
“K'ryn? Appa juice?” The question was accompanied by a gentle tug to my curls.
I blinked, catching the curious looks radiating from the eyes of both mother and daughter. “What honey?”
“You appa juice?”
“Sure. Let's go.”
I followed Darya into the kitchen, before setting Emily in her high chair as her mother busied herself with getting us the juice. I sat at the table next to Emily, and took a good look at the little girl. Those chubby cheeks of hers broke into the most adorable dimples when she smiled in excitement. There was no denying the similarities between mother and daughter. What surprised me was how unexpectedly attached this little girl was becoming to me. I'd been an only child and run away from my hated home at fourteen, so I never really spent much time around little kids Emily's age. So what was it that she found so appealing about me? Would I ever find out? I shook my head slightly as Darya set the glass before me, and then noticed she wasn't sitting down with us. I wanted to ask why, but I could see she was nervous. A delighted chuckle echoed in my head as I realized I was partly responsible. And then I remembered...
“You never answered my question.”
Darya's head snapped up, eyes wide as she stared at me. “What?”
“I'm curious what you see when you look at me in these leathers.”
“I didn't? I could have sworn,” she hedged. “Are you sure?”
I nodded, taking a long slow drink of the juice, eyes never leaving hers. “Quite sure.”
“Umm…. Can we talk about this later? Maybe after the party? I really do have a lot to get done yet.”
“Sure,” I replied easily, taking off my jacket to start working with her. I could get the information I wanted out of her later.
I'd finally gotten Art and Sam ready for Emily's party. Who'd have known they'd both take their dear sweet time like that? Even Cassandra had grown impatient with them! Pulling up to Darya's driveway, we all piled out of my brand-new SUV. The GMC Yukon was big enough for people, dogs, Sam's little rats and even my little Jaffa. I couldn't very well leave my baby home all alone, could I? Cassandra brought out her keys and let us into the townhouse. It was far quieter than it should have been, particularly considering Emily's expected excitement level.
Stepping into the living room, I came to a dead stop and snickered softly. Art came up behind me and I held up a hand to stop her from speaking.
There in front of us was a sight forever imprinted into my memory. Karen Taylor was stretched out in one of the lounge chairs that made up either end of Darya's couch, with her head back, feet bare, sound asleep. Nestled into her chest lay my goddaughter, one fist pressed to her mouth, the other clutching Taylor's long hair. The cast rested under the little girl's bottom to cradle her safely and Darya was stretched along the length of the couch with her head resting high on Karen's thigh. One hand was stretched up to lay across Emily's back, close enough to Karen's injured hand that their fingers just barely touched. Her other hand lay curled around Karen's chap-covered thigh, so that mother and daughter looked to be sucking on their own fists for comfort.
It made for quite a picture, one that nearly evoked both tears and laughter. I knew my dear friend well enough to have noticed her interest in the tall redhead, even if it was only subconscious at first. I felt an overwhelming relief that Darya was moving on after Em's death, and yet I felt trepidation at her choice of partner. But hadn't I made the exact same choice with my beloved Art? Falling in love with a soldier was never easy. Especially when the relationship was expressly against regulations.
“Nana!” Emily's delighted cry dragged me from my sober thoughts, and I had to chuckle as she scrabbled roughly over couch and Karen to get to me. “Birfday Nana!”
“Yes it is,” I replied as Karen let out an agonized breath and deliberately jerked her good hand away from Darya's hair.
“Oh shit, my bladder,” she groaned before bolting upright at our amused chuckles. The movement jostled Darya into wakefulness, and she flushed upon seeing me looming over her.
“So,” I asked, leaning over to tap the cast. “How'd you get over here Karen? Am I going to find your bike hiding in the garage, hmm?”
“Uhh… I gotta go,” she hedged and scrambled for the bathroom.
I turned my gaze back to my old friend, who was obviously trying to duck my gaze. Before I could say anything to her, the curious meow from my shoulder bag caught Emily's attention.
Passing the girl over to Sam, I reached into the canvas bag to pull out my bronzed baby. Jaffa arched her back and yawned before settling into my palm to blink at all of us. Scratching behind her ears, I held the kitten toward Emily. “This is Jaffa, sweetie. She's just a baby, so you have to be gentle when you pet her.”
I watched my goddaughter pass curious, gentle fingers over Jaffa's narrow spine, squealing in delight as the kitten began her low rumble. “Hi Jafna,” she giggled as the rough little tongue licked at her fingers. “I hold Jafna, Nana?”
I nestled the kitten between Sam and Emily, smiling as the girl babbled excitedly at her new friend. The smile on Sam's face as she and Emily played with Jaffa warmed my heart. I'd been worried about her overworking herself in this attempt to retrieve O'Neill. I knew very well that she blamed herself for what happened, even though she had no blame at all. I also knew that she'd drive herself straight into her own grave before giving up on a chance to bring him back. Her devotion scared me sometimes, and I needed to know she could walk away from that obsession if need be. If I had to use a two-year-old's birthday party to get her away… Well, I wasn't above a little manipulative underhandedness to keep her sane and healthy. Family meant more to me than anything else. At one time that had seemed like such a foreign concept, but Cassie and Art had taught me otherwise.
“I brought the puppies to visit,” Sam told Emily quietly and the girl squealed in delight, making Jaffa lay her ears back at the noise. “Would you like to see them?”
So Sam carried Emily to the front room where the new, larger cage held Quark and Quasar. The sweet little rats usually kept Sam company on base while she worked, but she'd brought them topside so that Emily could see that they were happy and healthy. If I hadn't received Jaffa as a pet, I would have probably gone and adopted a couple of the smart rodents myself. They were wonderful companions and almost no maintenance. Jaffa touched noses with Quasar and promptly lost interest in them both. So much for the food chain.
As Karen made her way back into the room, Darya flushed again and quickly stood to head for the kitchen. “Um, glad you guys are here. You can all distract Emily while I finish up with the food.” She was through the door before any of us could answer. I watched an odd combination of emotions flit across the Karen's face, ranging from amusement to embarrassment to desire, with several others in between. She shook her head and moved to stand next to Sam and Emily, coaxing the little girl into introducing her new friend. I left them to their conversation, knowing Art and Cassandra had snuck out the back to take care of the dogs.
Slipping into the kitchen, I quietly watched Darya pace in front of the sink. While I may not have had her unusual empathetic sensitivities, I knew Darya well enough to see just how torn she was over this. Em had been the real thing, that one true love that most people spend their lives looking for and never find. She had been more important to her than any other person, with the exception of the daughter they had been so dedicated to. It had been Em's gentle influence that helped repair the tension and strain that I had caused between Darya and myself.
“Don't do that Squirt.” The words startled me. I could never hide myself from her perceptions for very long.
“How are you doing?” I asked quietly, unsure of how she would react to any outside stimuli in her current state.
“I think the better question would be 'What am I doing,' don't you?” She had her back to me, leaning over the sink, staring out the window to the backyard.
I didn't answer, unsure what I should say. The silence stretched between us for a long moment before I finally spoke. “Why are you so freaked out over this?”
“How can you ask me that, Janet?”
“So, in your infinite wisdom, you've decided that opening your heart again is a bad thing?”
It had been a while since I'd earned that flashing glare, but I held firm in the face of it, hoping she would realize what was happening here. Tears welled up in familiar green eyes and she turned her back to me again to huddle into herself. Warily, I moved to stand beside her and we stared into the backyard.
“Karen's great,” I mused quietly. “Tough, kind and elegant.”
“Em would've liked her,” Darya added woodenly and I couldn't help but flash her a slightly freaked out look. “What irony.”
Again, long minutes passed until I shifted to face her. The movement seemed to break the spell and Em's almost tangible presence faded into the background. It was both comforting and creepy.
“I'm sorry,” Darya breathed quietly, still not able to meet my eyes. “This caught me off guard.”
“I know the feeling all too well. You're forgiven, Dare, I can only imagine that this is impossibly hard. When you need to talk, I'll be here.”
With a quick squeeze to her upper arm, I left my pal to gather her composure.
I couldn't believe how many people actually showed up for Emily's party. SG1 was a given; they all doted on her any chance they could. Emily was disappointed that her 'Unca Jack' was gone, but everyone else managed to distract her enough to let her forget. So many people from the base had heard about Emily's birthday and mentioned that they might show up, if only to drop off a present for my little girl. For the most part, they brought cards with a little money tucked inside for things she might need. The others brought her pretty little dresses or stuffed animals, but with all those people around, my little girl had worked herself into one of her shy phases. Even more intriguing to me than this outpouring of my coworkers and friends old and new was how Emily clung to Karen. The redhead hardly had a moment to herself. Emily refused to leave Karen's arms, unless Karen asked her to. She wouldn't even go to Cassie, and she adored the teen.
“Good afternoon doctor,” came a distinct drawl from behind me.
“Sir thank you for coming,” I replied, turning to smile at him and noticed the big bear instantly. Being nearly Emily's size, it was hard to miss with its chocolate fur and gregarious grin. I knew my daughter would love it.
“So where's the birthday girl? I'd love to meet her and give her this present.”
Craning my neck, I spotted Karen across the yard with Emily and a gaggle of admirers. I pointed her out to the General and then went back into the house for more beers for Art and Sam.
I knew my boss' presence well enough to sense him approaching, but I kept up the game with Emily. “Come on, Miss Em'ly, keep looking.”
“Peasants, peasants,” she sing-songed happily, rummaging through each pocket in my clothes in search of her birthday present. Well, the one that was small enough to hide on my person. Reaching for one of the pockets in my jeans, she sidled over to sit next to me on the bench. “Up, K'ryn! Peasant!”
Gamely, I stood and let her fish out the keys to my bike, then felt my face flush at the arched eyebrow from the Doc. Oh, she knew perfectly well how I'd gotten there, and she wasn't about to let me forget it either. Emily reached for the almost hidden pocket in my jacket and crowed with delight as she pulled out the multi-colored koosh ball.
“Peasant! Sank you, K'ryn!” And then she wrapped her arms around my waist as best as she could and hugged tightly. Sam and the Doc laughed at that, while Goldston just shook her head in amusement. But the General's sudden chuckle made her freeze and clutch more tightly to me, peering shyly up at him.
“Hello there Emily. I heard today is your birthday and my friend here wanted to come meet you.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed, then glanced at the teddy bear before burying her face in my belly. So I picked her up and took a step closer to the General, feeling her face pressed into my shoulder. The General adopted a similar stance with the bear, an indulgent grin on his face.
“Afternoon sir,” I said warmly. “That's a pretty teddy bear you've got there. Does it have a name?”
“Name?” Emily asked, peeking at him.
He held the bear to his ear for a long moment, as if listening to a conversation, then nodded gravely. I could see he was subtly watching Emily the whole time, gauging her reaction. “He's very shy and said he'd only tell Emily his name. Do you want to come learn his name?” She shook her head and he nodded again. “Well, how about this? When you're ready, you come find me and we'll find out his name together, okay?”
I slid my hand over Art's where it rested on my stomach. One day our child would be Emily's age. Would General Hammond be as open with our child as he was attempting to be with Emily? Nearly a week had passed since that fateful day when we'd all learned I was pregnant, and I still felt his disappointment down to my bones.
“And how are the newlyweds doing today?” Hammond asked, regaining my attention. “I'd have thought we wouldn't see hide nor hair of you two until you reported back for duty.” The smile in his eyes put my heart a little more at ease.
“I couldn't miss my goddaughter's birthday sir. She'd never forgive me.” I glanced over to see Emily and Karen playing with the koosh ball and couldn't help my grin. “Besides, it's not every day we get the treat of seeing Taylor all dressed up.”
She flashed me a half-hearted glare and I smiled back impishly.
“Ya know,” Siler said, walking over to join us, “I did think Taylor was a little overdressed for a kid's party. What's up with that Major? Got a hot date later or something?”
I couldn't help the chuckles escaping me as she turned that fierce Irish gaze on him. “Shut up Sly,” she chided in a neutral tone, obviously mindful of the child in her arms. “I hadn't really planned on staying all that long originally.”
“No, she wanted to hide her bike from me, right?”
Before she could answer, Emily tugged lightly at her hair. “K'ryn, go potty.”
I saw the panic fill her brilliant green eyes and stepped in, offering a hand to Emily. “Come on, sweetie, I'll take you.”
“No, Nana! K'ryn!”
I shrugged apologetically at Taylor, who nodded, then scooped up the girl in her arms, heading toward the house.
I kept that bear close to me all afternoon. I caught little Emily glancing wistfully at it several times and start to walk over, but she always stopped when she saw me watching her and would run back to find comfort in Taylor's arms. Finally, she sidled up to sit on the bench near me, the bear a safe barrier between us. I could see Taylor close by, petting Cooper and talking seriously with Goldston and Regan. Very casually, I glanced down at the teddy bear. “What was that you say?” I asked, leaning closer to the stuffy. I mimed a conversation with the bear, all the while watching Emily inch her way closer and closer.
“He talk?” she asked curiously.
“Of course he does. Don't you hear him?”
She leaned in close; her face scrunched up in concentration and then let out a squeal of delight. “He talk!”
I glanced up sharply at that squeal. She wasn't my kid, but I felt protective of her. The look of delight on her face calmed my nerves and I had to smile when she wrapped her arms around the bear.
“K'ryn! He talk!”
I stood and moved to crouch next to her. “He did, hunh?”
“Did he tell you his name yet?” The General was smiling like I'd never seen him smile before. This must be how he was with his own grandkids.
She laughed and pointed at the General. “Silly man! Name!”
That made me laugh, and his shocked expression made me laugh even harder, hard enough to produce tears. “Silly lady, silly man. Must be a pattern,” I finally got out.
That shook off his shock and he chuckled. “Come over here and sit by me and we'll both tell you our names.” I took Emily's spot on the bench as she scrambled into his lap, the bear pulled with her. “Okay, Miss Emily, I'll tell you my name now. It's George.”
“Gampa George?” She questioned curiously, and I found myself holding my breath to see what he'd say.
“Yes, I guess I would be Grampa George.”
She giggled and hugged him, then hugged her bear. “He Gampa Bear. Like Gampa George.”
The night was late and Karen and Darya had long since put Emily to bed in her new 'big girl' bed complete with Lion King sheets. We adults sat out in the backyard, having a few last beers and talking. The General had left earlier, having other plans with his actual granddaughters, not the two he'd adopted via the SGC. Cassie had fallen asleep with her head resting in Art's lap, so we were a little freer in our conversations, but still careful because of her presence. Daniel had, much to the amusement of our little party, done the same thing in Jo's lap. It was becoming obvious that he had a bit of a crush. Bob had been off world since right after the wedding, and I was sorely missing him. Especially as Janet and Art were all curled up together, or watching Karen and Darya making sidelong glances at each other. It was going to be a long week without him, but then again I was far too busy trying to build that damned machine to save the Colonel.
“So Carter,” Jo teased, dragging me out of my thoughts. “Are you just gonna stand there until those beers are warm or are you gonna hand them out now?”
Flushing slightly at the teasing tone from the other blonde, I finished the task I'd originally started, then moved back to the edge of the circle again amid laughter from my friends. Her tone reminded me of the Colonel, which only made me feel worse for taking time away from my work. A gentle hand on my arm made me turn to look at Darya. “You deserve the time away, Sam,” she said softly. “And the kids truly love it when you visit.”
“But nothing. Don't make me pull mom rank on you, okay? Because you know I will, and I'll get Janet to back me up.”
Sullenly, I nodded; knowing what she spoke was truth. But it didn't help my psyche much in the long run, and I think she could see that. Wrapping her hand around my arm, she pulled me over to sit in front of the makeshift bonfire in her backyard. Feeling odd, I couldn't stay by her and sat next to Art and Janet instead, quietly nursing my beer.
The evening was getting chilly, and I found myself glad that Karen and Teal'c continued to keep the bonfire going. I found myself growing more and more comfortable with the idea of Karen being so close. I didn't know what I was going to do about answering her question. I didn't even know if I could answer it. I knew she was going to ask me again after everyone left. If I knew nothing else about Karen Taylor, I knew that she was as stubborn as a pit bull when she was after something.
I gazed across the fire to catch each person there with a smile. Moving to Colorado Springs had definitely been a good thing for my daughter and I both. I had a great job, one that truly challenged me on a daily basis, which was something that I craved. I was once again with my very good friend and her new family. And I'd met so many new people who were all very open to accepting Emily and I into their tight-knit circles. And then there was Karen Taylor. I wasn't sure what I wanted to think about her just quite yet. But I couldn't deny that she had a pull I couldn't resist.
“So, Dare, penny for your thoughts?” came the question to my left.
I looked into Janet's warm brown eyes and smiled. “Just thinking about how much I appreciate what you did to get me out here Squirt. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't offered my name up for Cass' therapy.”
She shook her head. “Why would I get anyone but the best for my daughter? And you, Dare, are the best as far as I'm concerned.”
I still had no idea how to respond to that.
Bad dreams. Scary. Need find Mommy. Find Kryn. “Mommy? Kryn?” No find Mommy. No find Kryn. Peoples talk outside. Get out of big girl bed. Bring blankie. Mommy stop monsters. Careful down steps. Outside door open. Hear Mommy. Hear Kryn. “Mommy? Kryn?”
I glanced up at the sound of my daughter's voice, surprised to see she was up. The sight of her blankie in her arms only proved to me that she'd had a bad dream. “Emily,” I said softly. “Come here, baby.”
She stared at me for a moment and started toward me, hesitating at the sound of Karen laughing at some story Art had been telling. The minute she recognized the tall redhead, my little one was running toward her, clambering up into her lap. “Kryn!”
Karen was clearly shocked and fumbled to set her beer aside as she curled her bum arm around Emily's waist. “Hey there, Miss Em'ly,” she replied softly, brushing back the unruly curls from my daughter's face. “What's the matter? Why aren't you in your big girl bed?”
“Bad dream,” came the frightened whimper. “Monster no sleep.”
“A monster?” An emphatic nod was her response. “You're safe now, Em'ly. You wanna go by your mommy?”
“Stay with Kryn,” Emily mumbled sleepily and snuggled in closer, blankie clutched tightly in one fist, the other pressed against her lips. Karen held her tightly, rocking slightly back and forth to help lull my daughter back into sleep.
Watching them, my eyes misted over a bit, recalling Em holding a much younger Emily in a similar way, then I suddenly found myself staring into Karen's bright gemstone eyes. I smiled reassuringly at Karen, moving to sit next to her despite my hesitation to be so close to her with others around. I saw Emily's eyes flutter shut as she relaxed into Karen's chest. “Motherhood, the only job you can never go off-duty from,” I said softly, gazing fondly at the pair of them. “Consider yourself one of the chosen few to be graced by Emily's unwavering trust.”
I'd never ever thought I'd be any good with kids. But this little girl, with her soft strawberry curls and her trusting blue eyes… She just did something to me, made me care about her. I didn't want a family… I just wanted to get to know her mom better, get to know the woman behind the psyche degree and the smartassed personality. Then I had fallen asleep on her couch, the baby lying trustingly in my arms, Darya curled up along my side. It felt…right, like I could belong there if I really wanted to. And when Darya made that comment about Emily's trust, it really shook me. I couldn't think about the responsibility this little girl was thrusting upon me just yet. It was too much, too soon. Did I even really want to try for something with her mom? Was I up to the whole deal with a new relationship and a kid on top of it? And what if Emily told someone? I wasn't as lucky as Goldston and the Doc. I could be out on my ass if they found me out.
“If you just hold her for a few more minutes, she'll be able to stay asleep again,” Darya said softly. “Then you don't have to sit here, forced to hold her.”
I hadn't even realized Emily was nearly asleep again. I glanced down at her peaceful face, she was so precious like this, and then returned my gaze to Darya. “Nah, I kinda like it,” I said and realized I really meant it. I wanted this to happen, as much as I was allowed at least. “You enjoy yourself and don't worry about her for tonight.”
I leaned back and watched my wife's ex-girlfriend flirting with the tall redhead, chuckling softly when Karen flashed this thoroughly charming, disarmingly innocent smile on Darya. I almost laughed out loud at the look of total enraptured delight and joy on her face. I don't know what Karen had said, but it obviously was just what Darya needed to completely relax around her. Were Janet and I like that? And would I be that comfortable around our baby after he or she was born? I pulled Janet closer and softly stroked her stomach, lost in thought.
“Penny for them, Art,” she murmured softly after some length of time.
I blinked and then met her curious gaze as I pointed toward the budding couple. “I think some major hurdles have been jumped.” I felt Janet's hand tighten against mine as she watched their interaction. “So what do you think about this?”
“I think they should be good for one another if they're careful. If she's happy, then so am I,” was her soft response.
I could see Sam was getting into one of her quiet, introspective moods. Considering how much I was enjoying myself where Darya was concerned, it was a pretty strong mood of Sam's that pulled me away from flirting with the mind doc. Yeah, I'll never deny the obvious attraction to Carter, like anyone could, but at least with Darya I think I stood a chance. Yet, as I studied her sitting there, lost in her own thoughts, I knew I had to do something. “Sam,” I purred softly, catching everyone's attention, not just hers and she looked up at me with wide eyes. Oh yeah, the stress was definitely lurking there in her blue. “Come here,” I said in a low, gentle voice. Thankfully, she did as I asked and came over to stand in front of me with curiosity threading through her expression.
Slowly, I raised both hands so that she could see them and spoke quietly and reassuringly. “Someone I respected enormously taught me the connections between different sets of nerves. Do you trust me?” There was a pause while my old pal studied me with that clueless and fathomless gaze that was so characteristic of her. When she nodded, I smiled softly and patted my thighs. “Sit here and let me relax you, huh?” The puzzled and wary look made me chuckle and reach out to lay gentle hands on her hips. “Don't take this wrong, willya? I'm worried about you Sam, so sit.” A tug had her straddling my thighs and I forced my lizard brain to ignore the feel of her lanky body against mine. “Now, close your eyes.” With a last odd look, Carter's beautiful eyes slid shut and she placed her trust in my hands. Ever so gently, I placed the pads of my fingertips to the baby-soft skin surrounding her closed eyes and began caressing the thin layer of flesh and bone over the sensitive sinuses. Both thumbs stroked along the corners of her relaxed mouth and the soft groove where nose and cheek met. I had to modify many of the massage techniques since my left hand was so weak, but the way Sam was beginning to lean into me, the effect was the same. “I've known you so long,” I rumbled softly. “And you've accomplished so much. Let me take away the responsibility for just a little while. Just a little while.” The hypnotic tone had taken me years to perfect. Even now I could remember Anastasia holding my temper in check, speaking to me in that low, slow tone that had inspired me to learn it. She'd been so good to me and taught me so much.
“Mmm…” Sam moaned softly and leaned boneless into my hands.
“Don't talk Sam, I got you.”
“Hey Doc,” I asked softly in that same tone and saw Janet's head move. “You ever do this?”
“Not with Sam,” she sassed back ever so lightly and there were there were the softest of chuckles from the group. Sam twitched, in response to the noise or the relaxation, and I moved my strong hand to the nape of her neck. Utterly willing, she obeyed the tug and buried her nose next to the hollow of my throat before moaning yet again. It took a minute for me to realize how suggestive the pose must look, with Sam sprawled into my larger body and the soft smile playing around my mouth. Meeting Jo's pale gaze, I was warmed by the delighted grin she flashed at me.
“Don't stop on my account. If you hadn't gotten her to relax, I might have had to help Janet tranquilize her. Besides, this kind of thing works with dogs too, no offense meant. She just needs a tail to wag.”
Soft laughter again and Sam grew ever heavier against me. There was a time I'd have given up my gold leaves for a chance like this, to have this brainy and gorgeous and kind woman pliable and willing in my grasp. That need had evolved over the years to unwavering trust and a work relationship that I treasured. Even if I still had the damn crush on her.
As Sam grew completely limp, I was having a hard time keeping her upright against me and my broken arm was useless in close quarters like this. As I scowled over the situation, there were strong, dark arms supporting her weight and steadying me. “Thanks Teal'c,” I praised him warmly and received one of his eloquent nods. “Wanna learn this?” There was a distinct startled pleasure in his inky eyes as he took in my offer. So I grabbed one great hand and wove his fingers into the gold mane on my shoulder. “Feel those points at the base of her skull?”
“There are tendons anchored there. Feel the tension?”
“If you caress them lightly between your fingers, you'll feel the difference almost immediately.”
This was not a man accustomed to gentleness and I realized that. Nor was he capable of harming Sam in any way, as his exquisitely tender touch on her neck proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. If the woman could purr, she would be doing it loudly right about now.
“I have never before appreciated gentleness in quite this fashion before,” Teal'c mused thoughtfully as he began tracing the terrain of muscle and vertebrae. “I did not realize the usefulness of such a touch.”
“It's more than just useful, Teal'c,” I added in, all too aware that the group was hanging on every word. “The person has to trust you for this to really work. Sam knows it's you, even if she's basically asleep now. Never thought she'd get so damn heavy.”
That broke up any serious note among the group, who returned to their talking and laughing. But Teal'c sat beside me, gently stroking the sleeping Sam's head. I had given him a means to show how much he cared about his teammate and he wasn't about to give it up just yet. Eventually, I happily transferred her weight to his strong embrace so that he could continue to soothe her troubled mind. This thing with O'Neill was hitting Sam hard and it was good to see her relaxed and safe.
Around midnight everyone decided to leave. Doc had been adamant about me not riding the bike home in the dark with my cast, and I promised to take a cab home. But I didn't want to go home. I still needed an answer out of Darya…and she knew it.
I watched her come back through the house after Goldston and crew had left. I stayed out in the backyard, nursing my beer as the fire died out in the grill. I wanted her answer… I wanted to tell her how I felt… I wanted a lot of things, but I probably wouldn't get them.
“Are you okay, Karen?” She asked me softly, seeming to suddenly appear at my side. Had I gotten myself that lost in my thoughts that I'd lost my perception of her?
“Just thinking,” I replied in the same tone, not looking at her.
“Mind if I join you?” Her question was tentative, like she thought I'd say no. Had she forgotten this was her backyard? And I said as much to her. Even in the faint light coming from the deck lights, I could see her blush. It made me chuckle and take another pull on my beer, gesturing to the spot next to me on the bench. We sat in silence for several moments, an oddly comfortable unease settling between us. And then she spoke. “I wanted to thank you for what you did with Emily today. And I want to apologize if she bothered you.”
“Not at all Darya,” I replied, neatly cutting off anything else she might say. “In fact, I enjoyed her company. I do wish I could have enjoyed her mother's a little more though.” And that blush deepened, her head dropping slightly. Again, silence spread between us and I watched her from the corner of my eye. Then I just couldn't stand the quiet or the waiting, any longer. “So what do I have to do to get to know you better?”
“I don't know,” she whispered.
“You do want me to get to know you better, don't you?” I asked, suddenly uncertain of her wishes in all of this. Was I letting my own desires drown out everything else? “If you don't, just say the word and I'll back off.”
“No!” came her quick reply, head snapping up to stare at me. I turned to face her then, staring deep into those fathomless green eyes, waiting for…something. “I just… I don't know what to do. This is all new to me.”
I cocked my head to the side, setting my beer on the low table to my left. Now that was an interesting comment to come from her, considering she'd never made any attempts to hide her preferences on the base. “Okay, why don't you answer my question then?” At her wide-eyed expression, I had to laugh. “You didn't honestly think I'd forget, did you?”
“No, I guess not.” And she went silent again for a moment, staring at her hands.
How was I supposed to answer her question? I honestly had hoped she'd forget, even though I knew she never would. I wanted so much to get to know this woman better. If my normally reticent daughter could trust Karen Taylor, why was I having such a hard time doing the same thing? 'Because you're a chickenshit Dare,' I heard Em's voice echoing in my head. And sadly, I had to admit the ghost was right. Karen was still on active duty. How could I endanger her commission as if it didn't matter? It obviously did matter to her, or she wouldn't still be in the service. But that wasn't answering her question, was it?
Taking a deep breath, I met her gaze again, trying not to flinch at the steady intent in those emerald eyes. “You wanted to know what I see when I see you in the whole leather regalia and on the bike, right?” She nodded, picking up her beer. I was drawn once again to the muscles in her throat as she swallowed. “To be honest, I've sensed that you find my attraction to you some sort of game. Like it's a contest between us that you want to win. And yes, frankly, that bothers me. The persona, and its masks, makes it aggravating to be around you sometimes. But that's not what you want to hear, is it?” When she only watched me in that calm, neutral manner, I sighed and hoped I wouldn't sound like a fool. There was so much there. And how did I explain that little empathic 'quirk' of mine? “Um… I see hardness, discipline, and an aloofness that both terrifies and intrigues me. I expect to see a total hardass, but when I saw you with Emily and Sam today, I could see a tenderness that you don't normally show. It was beautiful and endearing, and made me want to send everyone home so I could get to know that side of you more. But I don't know if that's going to last, or if it was just because of Emily. I'd like to think there was more to it than that.” I paused a moment, trying to collect my thoughts again. “I just… Honesty is important to me, Karen. And please don't think that I'm saying you're dishonest. Em taught me a lot about being honest in a relationship. Why do you think I left the Air Force when we got serious? I don't want to play any games with you, Karen, but it's hard for me to see the woman behind the leather or the uniform.”
“Do you want to know that woman?” She murmured in a vulnerable tone I'd never expected to hear.
“Yes,” I replied just as quietly and shivered.
Her words startled and comforted me. She could see both sides of me, which was something of a frightening revelation in and of itself. But the fact that she still wanted to get to know me… was heartening to say the least. Then her shivering distracted me. Was it from the cold… or from our conversation? I slipped out of my jacket and gently placed it around her shoulders. “Don't want you getting chilled,” I murmured.
“Thank you,” she replied and burrowed herself down in the warm leather. I'd seen the urge to flinch from my touch, but it didn't upset me like I thought it might. A fierce need to take her in my arms ran through me, but I wasn't going to spook her any further by doing it. She'd answered my question, and I really couldn't expect anymore than that at the moment. Then she unexpectedly curled into my side, wrapping her arms around my waist. “Just hold me?”
Like I could refuse. “Dare, I can't get involved with you or that little girl in the house if you don't want to do this. I won't hurt either of you like that.” She stared at me again, and I could see the indecision in her eyes. “You don't have to make a lifetime commitment here. I'm just asking if I have a chance or not.”
Long tense moments passed as I let myself wander in those expressive eyes. I watched so many emotions pass through them, none ever staying put long enough to really make sense. So when the tears came, I was a little stunned. So I tugged her closer, wanting to show her just how serious I could be. Eventually, she pulled back to meet my eyes again. I hoped I didn't look too intense. I didn't want to scare her off.
“I don't know how to say this, Karen.”
My heart sank.
The broken look in her eyes, combined with that defeated sensation, made me shake my head. “No, Karen! That's not it,” I stammered, clutching her arm. “Please, let me explain.” I lowered my gaze again, trying to find the strength to talk about something that still ached like an open wound.
I could hear and feel the confusion in her voice, coupled with an endearing protectiveness. It was that same feeling I'd been getting from her every time she'd held Emily. And it was that feeling, that sense of telios peestees that prompted me to do what I knew I had to do for this woman.
“I need to tell you a story, Karen. I know you may not understand why I'm telling you this right now, considering what you've asked me, but this might help you understand where I'm coming from.”
“Whatever you need,” she murmured.
I studied the baby-soft kidskin stretched across her torso for a moment, trying to figure out where to start. Then the words just starting tumbling out of my mouth… “When I was sixteen, my folks decided to send me to prep school for gifted students on the East coast. That's where I met Janet. We were the only girls in the Air Force ROTC program and ended up roommates. We got to be good friends and did everything together. It was the two of us and two other friends, X and Legs. The four of us were practically inseparable, like the Four Musketeers. It was Legs and X that started calling us Dinky Jinx, because it was nonsense based on our initials.” I smiled despite the pain that I knew was coming. “It didn't take us all that long to realize we were all gay and that bonded us even closer. After we graduated high school, we went onto college together and Janet and I ended up seeing each other. It wasn't really anything serious, we would just sleep together when we felt like it. We loved each other, sure, but it was more about a safe zone than anything else. Well, I guess I can't speak for Squirt; you'd have to ask her yourself. It… it went well until about six months before graduation. Janet had a lot of issues with her father, but it's not my place to say what they were. But she got scared that things weren't going to work out after graduation. Plus, we were both realizing that we were going to be Air Force officers, and as you well know, the Air Force isn't very keen on same sex relationships. We started to pull away from each other, trying to distance our feelings. Legs and X didn't understand. They were civilians. The stakes weren't as bad for them. And then Janet gave us the news that she was going to marry X. I knew it was just a ploy to cover her ass with the military, but it still hurt like hell. She'd asked me to be one of their witnesses, but I couldn't do it. That was the beginning of the downfall. On the surface, we were just like we'd always been, the Four Musketeers. We graduated, the four of us at the top of our class, and then went our separate ways. I kept in touch with X and Legs, but I just couldn't do it with Janet. It hurt too much. X told me how she was. They'd stayed married for a few years and then split up. But they still kept in touch.”
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Darya and the Doc? Lovers? And that look on her face when she'd mentioned the Four Musketeers. Obviously they were all very close. But how would that make any difference to how I perceived us as a potential couple? And she still hadn't explained this Em person. I could see how much it hurt her to tell me this, how much Janet had meant to her all those years ago. I wished I could erase the pain for her, but somehow I knew this wasn't over yet. So I took another pull off my beer and lightly stroked her hair.
“And then, I was stationed at Travis Air Force base just northeast of San Francisco, they had the best damn facility I've ever worked in, and caught up with Legs again. She lived in the city and took me out to introduce me to her friends. I met Em through Legs, and I'll always be grateful to her for that. See, Em was my first real love.”
Now the pieces were starting to fit into the puzzle.
“I didn't know if I should date her at first. I found her incredibly interesting and attractive, especially that lovely strawberry blonde hair and those bright blue eyes. She was an artist, with this wild, eclectic style that I found utterly fascinating. We dated for about a year and a half, and it was more than serious. Serious enough that I just didn't want to hide anymore. I wanted people to know what Em meant to me. I wanted to have her as my partner. So I resigned my commission after just three years in the service. I gave it up for her, because I loved her and wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We settled in Tiburon and I opened a private practice there, with Legs as a part-time partner when her duties at UCSF allowed it. It was wonderful. We had this beautiful commitment ceremony.”
At that, she choked up a bit; biting her lower lip to hold back the obvious pain these memories cost her. I squeezed her hard. I was beginning to see behind the smartass shrink, only to see that her pain defined her as much as her love for Emily.
“Em knew all about me from Legs. She knew about all four of us. In fact it was Em's intervention that got me and Squirt talking again. She dragged out of me what Squirt had meant to me, then managed to get in touch with her, thanks to Legs. She and Legs got Janet to fly out so we could talk. They ambushed us both, but in the end, it worked out. Janet was my witness at my commitment ceremony. And then, about a year later, we decided we wanted to have a baby. We tried for almost a year before I finally got pregnant. Janet and X were made Emily's guardians in case anything happened to us. Legs had declined because she felt she wasn't capable enough to take care of a baby, but she had no problems being the spoiling aunt.” The faraway lilt to her voice cracked with the deepening strain of her tale. “Just two and a half months before Emily's first birthday, it happened. We were planning a trip out to the Napa Valley, just the three of us as a family. The night before we left, Em was picking up a few last minute things that we needed, extra diapers or something stupid like that. It was raining that night and she hated driving in the rain. It… it wasn't her fault. The guy was on his street bike, ran a red light and slammed right into the driver's side door. The officer said he was going about seventy-five. She never knew what hit her, and she was dead before the paramedics could get there. The sad thing was, I answered the door in my jammies, figuring Em had her hands full of last minute impulse buys. I wasn't expecting the police. They called Legs for me, waited until she got there to leave. She went with me to identify the body. But I think I'd known when it happened. I just had to put on the worn old flannels she loved the most. It had been one of the first things she ever gave me when we'd started dating. They were all worn and thin, but I couldn't part with them. X and Janet were there for the funeral and they stayed as long as they could, but it didn't help. I threw myself into my work and my daughter, I was almost obsessed.” She trailed off for a moment, just resting against me, then pulled back to meet my gaze. The tears in her eyes sparkled in highlight to her pain. “Now do you see what my baggage is? Do you even want to have that chance anymore?”
I stared at her for a long moment, memorizing every line and tear track on her face. The color of her eyes as the liquid filled and drained from them. The way she chewed on her lower lip as she waited for my response. I considered everything she'd just told me, what it had meant for her to get that all out to a potential new girlfriend. And I found myself far more in awe of this woman than I thought I could be. I cupped her face in my good hand, my thumb brushing away the tears. When I spoke, my own voice was husky with emotion. “Thank you for your trust Darya. It's painfully clear that it took a lot for you to do it. As for your baggage? We all have it. Whenever you want to hear it, I'll tell you mine. But right now, there's nothing I'd like more than to kiss you. May I?”
She looked up into my eyes, and I saw the tears well up again as she whispered, “I'd like that.”
Carefully, as if she might break, I leaned in and pressed my lips to hers. I wanted so much for and from her, but right now there was heaven in this compassionate, tender kiss.