"What?" I suddenly realise Daniel's been talking to me for the past ten minutes, and I haven't heard a word he said. "Sorry, I'm just not with it today."
"Or yesterday. Or the day before. Ever since that little incident with Machello's toy. I'm the one that went gaga Sam, I should be the one who's having a bad time." He's smiling as he says this, and I know he's using jokes to cover up his worry for me. That's the Colonel's trick though, and it doesn't work on Daniel.
"I'm tired. Saving the world yet again is exhausting." Answer all enquiries into how I am with a joke, and no-one will ever guess how I feel. How tired I really am. How utterly, bone-deep exhausted I am. And not just physically, but mentally. The last few weeks has been a mish-mash of friends lost, then saved, new skills, new family. Coming to terms with parts of myself that aren't really parts of myself. I've been in the SGC for so long that I've forgotten what the sky...an earth sky...looks like.
I've helped Daniel get over his brief bout of madness, and the Colonel through his negotiations (diplomacy is so NOT his strong point), but I haven't had time to help myself.
But it's my job to do all this. And I'll be damned if I'm going to show any weakness, especially to the Colonel. If I said to him, I'm tired, I need a rest, I'd be letting him down. So I carry on.
"Major?" I looked up, after a second. I still haven't quite got used to that title. The Colonel seems to love it though, he uses it whatever chance he gets, and it's him using it now.
"I need you for something." he says. "Get changed into civvies and meet me topside in twenty minutes."
And that's it. He's gone. No explanations, no asking if it's alright, just an order. But he is my commanding officer, and I'm supposed to obey without question. So I do.
Twenty minutes later, I emerge onto the surface, dressed in jeans for the first time in months. I just stop for a second, breathing in fresh, unfiltered air. It's a beautiful fall day, the air still warm with the last breath of summer, and I close my eyes, and turn my face to the sun, and feel its heat.
Then I hear someone walking across the gravel towards me. I open my eyes to find the Colonel walking across to me, smiling. He's also wearing jeans, and that gorgeous leather jacket that I've coveted seen I first saw it. One day, I'm going to buy one exactly like it.
"Sir, where are we going?" I start to ask, but he surprises me by putting his hand up to my lips to stop me talking.
"No Sir today." he said. "No Major, no Colonel, just Sam and Jack. Two friends on a day out. Okay?"
"Okay. Jack." I said. The name sounds unfamiliar in my voice, Daniel's the only one who calls him Jack. It feels good though. I like the feel of it on my lips.
We drive around for a while, the windows open, the radio playing Billie Holiday and early Peggy Lee, long, slow, soothing, sweetly sad tones. The Colonel..Jack..is silent, letting me enjoy the freedom of not having to think, only to feel. I started to drift off, my head filled with Peggy telling me that no matter how many faults her man had, she would love him till she died.
And then the car stopped. I looked out and saw we were at Cassie's old school.
"What are we doing here?" I asked Jack, but before he could answer, a hundred voices screamed
"Colonel Jack!" and came running down the hill to greet us. Within five minutes, Jack was drowned in a sea of screaming, wriggling kids.
I watched in amazement. I knew he was good with that Reet'u kid Charlie, and Cassie worshipped him, but I had no idea that he was so popular with all the kids in Cassie's school. This laughing, relaxed, happy man with several kids hanging off each limb was a mile away from the sarcastic, sometimes cold soldier I fought beside. I couldn't believe that the same man who argued with almost anyone he met and was sarcastically dismissive of Daniel's precious mythology was the same man who was patiently listening to a small child excitedly describe her costume for Halloween.
"Are you Colonel Jack's girlfriend?" came a small voice from my elbow. I looked down. A small brown haired pretty girl was standing there, looking shyly up at me.
"No! No, I'm his..."
"Friend." he finished for me, standing up and smiling at me. "This is my friend, Sam, and she's had a bad time lately, so I want you all to be very nice to her."
A chorus of 'Hello Sam!', 'Hi Sam!' and 'Isn't Sam a boy's name?' greeted me, and I was almost overwhelmed. Not just by the unconditional easy friendship of the kids, but that the Colonel had even noticed I'd had a bad time. I'd thought I'd been alone, that no-one had even known how depressed and down I had been feeling, but he had known all along.
I smiled at him, but before I could say anything, the little girl at my elbow tugged my sleeve and said,
"I'm glad you're not his girlfriend."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Because," Jack said, coming to my side, and swinging the little girl up into his arms, "when she's old enough, Laura and I are getting married, aren't we Laura?"
The girl giggled, and buried her head in his shoulder.
"Really?" I said. "Laura, you do know when you're old enough to marry him, he'll be..."
"Three hundred and forty two." he finished.
"I don't care. I'll marry him anyway." Laura said, as he put her back down. She ran off to join the others on the field, leaving Jack grinning at me in that way he sometimes has when he's trying not to show how happy he is.
"How... I mean... what..."
"He came for careers day." said a voice from behind me, and I turned to see the school principal standing there. "Janet couldn't come, so Cassie dragged Jack along, in full dress uniform. The children were very impressed."
"So, now you've got a class full of potential pilots?" I asked.
"Oh no. Colonel Jack told everyone that all the best and smartest people wanted to become astronauts, like Cassie's Auntie Sam."
I was speechless. I turned to Jack, but he just smiled sheepishly, and asked the principal if the kids were ready for them yet.
"Just one moment, they're just finding the baseball bats." she said, as she walked away.
"Baseball! Jack I've never..."
"Relax." he said. "They're only little kids."
"But Jack, I've never played baseball." I admitted. He stared at me in wonderment for a moment.
"Not even at school? What about gym class?"
"I took extra science instead." I said, half cringing at my own lack of knowledge, and half laughing at Jack's shocked expression.
"Well, now you can learn. There's not a lot to know, you hit the ball with a stick, then run round a lot, that's about it."
"Jack, I'm not sure.."
"Sam," he said gently, taking my arm to stop me from leaving. "I know you've been through a lot of crap the past few weeks, some of it from me."
I shook my head in protest, but he continued.
"I know I have a habit of relying on you to always provide the solution, and you always do. You've never let me down. Ever. But I also know how uncomfortable you are with the Jolinar thing. Hell, I'm uncomfortable with it, and all I had to do was watch it happen, and watch the aftermath. And I know that I've forced you to use Jolinar a lot lately. Killing Seth, curing Cronos."
"Curing the madness." I murmured.
"Yeah, that too. I know it feels like Jolinar is more useful than you, that all you're needed for is Jolinar's skills, and not for you."
I said nothing. I couldn't. My throat was tightening up. He was right. I had been feeling lately that my only usefulness was as a vessel for Jolinar's skills.
"Well, that's not true. That Jolinar stuff is just one small added bonus. We... I... appreciate... need you for you. And I know you've been feeling down and tense. So, I thought what better way to cheer you up than an afternoon spent running round a field with screaming kids, getting absolutely filthy? Works for me."
I hesitated only a moment. Then I smiled, and nodded, and he relaxed.
"Come on, then." he said. "By the way, talking of the madness, did I do or say anything that was offensive?"
"No. You just said I looked terrible."
"Wow. Let's hope my eyesight's improved or we're going to lose." And he ran off onto the field before I realised that he had just paid me a compliment. A clumsy awkward compliment, but a compliment nonetheless. And for the first time in weeks, I actually felt like a normal person, instead of a walking, talking brain.
He was right. I did get filthy. And it WAS fun. I loved watching him with the kids. He was so relaxed, so happy, so unlike the closed up, reserved Colonel I knew. And the best thing was, he was like it with me too. He laughed and joked with me, and even flirted a little, and bit by bit, I felt all my worries and tensions slide away. We were on opposite teams, as it wouldn't be fair to have the adults both on one team, even if one had never picked up a baseball bat in her life before, and this led to some childish insults flying around between us. I must admit, on that first day, when I walked into SGC and saluted him, I never thought the day would come when I would be yelling, "You're out! Na na na na!" at my Colonel. Nor did I think that I would one day see him fumble a catch so that I could complete my first home run. Or see him deliberately hit a ball high in the air so the geeky kid in far far left field could catch him out and be the hero of his team. And I never imagined that one day, he'd dive for third base as I dived for the ball, and we'd end up lying in a tangled heap across third base.
"Are you okay?" he panted.
"Absolutely perfect. Thank you."
"You're more than welcome. I am getting too old for this." he panted, still lying across me.
"Never!" I said in return, looking up at him, his face only inches from mine. He stared down at me, smiling, happy, his guard down... and the expression on his face as he looked at me made time stand still. We didn't make any move to kiss, I don't think either of us even thought about it, we just lay there, staring into each other's eyes, reading each other's thoughts. And what I saw in his eyes gave me a warm glow inside that will be there till I die.
Then someone shouted out, "Eeeww! They're going to kiss!" and Laura stamped her little foot, and Jack got up, and pulled me up too.
My side won, mainly because Jack cheated enough to let me, and it was an amazing feeling, both to win at sports for the first time ever, and that Jack had let me win. He walked me back to my car, after we'd got a kiss from every kid in the place.
"Back to the base?" he asked.
"No, can you give me a lift back to my place? I'm going to have a bath, then I think I'll get Janet to come over with Cassie, and we'll have a girl's night in."
"As my lady wishes." he said, as he held the door open for me. We drove back to my place in silence. As I got out, I asked him if he'd like to come in.
"I'm tempted." he said. "But no. I was supposed to be helping Daniel write mission reports this afternoon, and of course, I was here instead, so now he'll be hoppong mad and I'd better get back and calm him down."
"Definitely. Sam." he said seriously. "I know that sometimes it seems like I don't see or know all the things you do for us, especially me. I just want to know...I do see, and appreciate everything you do, and if you ever feel tired, or like you need time off again, just ask me. You won't have let me down. You're not alone. I'll always be there for you." It was a long speech for him..and oddly touching. He rarely talked like this, and I was... moved..that he thought enough of me to say all this. I remembered how happy he'd been with the kids, how relaxed he'd been with me, and I suddenly remembered he'd be going home to an empty, dark house tonight, if he went home at all.
"The same goes for me too Sir. I'll always be there for you too. For anything."
He smiled, but his eyes were sad, and I knew it would be a long time before he allowed himself to lean on me.
"Typical Sam." he said. "Can never accept help without giving something in return."
I tried to lighten the mood. "Well, okay, take me to another baseball match."
"You're on! But this time I won't let you win!"
"I'll win! I just have to figure out the scientific principles behind the game, and then it'll be easy."
He laughed. "Now there's the Sam I know and...." His voice trailed off, but before I could say anything, he simply said, "Goodnight Major."
He walked off to his car without saying any more, and I watched him drive off. He was right. I felt better. I felt happier. And I felt closer to him then I ever had before. And there was the faintest promise of something...something in our future. In our very distant future, the promise of love was there.