For the time being, all that Sam could concentrate on was this one cup of coffee. Anything more and the world outside would crash down on top of her, bury her, smother her. If her frame of perception widened even the tinniest little bit and she become aware of other people, their voices, their cautious glances and caustic words, she didn't know what she would do, or how she would react. She just knew it wouldn't be good.
In a distant way she knew she must look odd, sitting alone in the bustling commissary, hunched over a coffee mug and staring into its depths so intently she could have been a soothsayer reading prophecies out of tea leaves. But she also knew that she didn't care, because for now all she could handle was her own thoughts and her own company.
Her shoulders tensed, and her eyes closed. The feeling of solitude even in the midst of a crowd, an old though somewhat juvenile coping mechanism of hers, was shattered and replaced by movement, sound, and the presence of others.
"How're you feeling?" continued Daniel, gingerly.
Feeling resigned, Sam sighed and sat back in her chair, knowing that if she'd truly wanted to avoid her team's company she would have gone somewhere with less traffic. Like her own quarters, or maybe there was a comfortable supply closet around here somewhere. Daniel circled the table and took a seat next to her, while the other two stationed themselves on the other side. She kept her eyes trained on the countertop. "I'm-"
"And don't say 'I'm fine'," warned Colonel O'Neill, his voice so sharp and sudden that Sam was looking up at him without realizing it. He stared directly at her for a second or two before his gaze skittered away.
And he called HER tense? "Good," Sam finished. "I'm good."
O'Neill snorted, and Sam felt her hackles rise. What was this... one unfounded claim, one lapse of judgement, and suddenly they didn't believe a word she said? "No," she said defensively. "Really. I am, and once Doctor Frasier gets her test results back I'll be able to prove it."
Daniel flinched at her tone. "I didn't mean how are you doing physically. I meant emotionally. Mentally."
She couldn't stop herself from frowning. It wasn't as though this was the first time Daniel had asked her something like that. In fact, he and Janet were usually the ones jumping all over her about her state of mind, especially after a big mission or important project. But it did seem strange that he would bring it up here, in the middle of the base, in front of the Colonel and Teal'c. Why not just wait until they'd been let off the base, or at least until they were alone? This whole casual 'meeting' was quickly taking on the tone of an intervention. "I'm... okay," she managed to choke out.
Teal'c's eyes were focused on a point behind Sam's head, probably the dessert line. "I spoke with General Hammond. He has allotted the entire team one week of downtime to 'get our heads together'. I do--"
"It's an expression," Daniel said quickly, intercepting the inevitable query. "Time to calm down, collect our wits, get back to being ourselves again..."
"I never ceased to be myself, Daniel Jackson."
The rapport was familiar and comforting in that familiarity, but Sam hardly heard a word of it. "Great," she exploded, hearing and ignoring the insubordinate tone in her voice. "More time to sit around my house and go stir crazy." She hesitated, feeling the insane urge to laugh bubble up in her throat. "Maybe that's a bad choice of words."
Daniel had been waiting for exactly that type of outburst, of course, and he was all over it. "That's not the kind of answer I would expect from someone who's 'okay'."
Sam realized that he was just trying to be a good, concerned friend, but to her ears his tone was so insolent she had to stop herself from throwing her lukewarm coffee into his face. Didn't he know anything? After all this time that they'd been friends, hadn't he caught on to the fact that she always HAD to be okay? She was always okay, because if she wasn't, then what would she be? She had a hard time putting that sentiment in words, though. It always came out sounding a little... psychotic.
Teal'c was the one to break that silence with the well-timed observation: "You were fond of this alien, Orlan. It is to be expected," he continued, as though giving her his permission, "that you would be saddened by his death."
Sam latched on to that. "Orlan was... very sweet... in a kind of strange way. Very smart, very eager to... to be human again. To find out what it meant to be human. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong person to ask."
Daniel's eyebrows jumped in surprise. "Sam--"
"And I'm not so sure he's dead, either," she continued, speaking over Daniel as though she hadn't heard him. At the same time, of course, Teal'c wasn't making eye contact and she couldn't bring herself to look towards the Colonel, so it almost felt like she was talking to herself. "There's not exactly a body to be found. We don't know if an explosion like that would be fatal to his kind, where he was when it exploded, or... Maybe he's dead. Maybe he's still on that planet, alone, like before. But maybe he just Ascended again. Maybe the others finally forgave him."
"That's a nice thought," agreed Daniel, solemnly. "Do you forgive us? For not believing you?"
The question caught her off-guard, and she rushed to gloss over it. "I... it doesn't really matter now, does it? I'm the one who's been apologizing for the last three hours, actually, to General Hammond and the Pentagon."
Teal'c finally looked down at her. "They were upset that Orlan destroyed the weapon. Did you not explain his reasons to Colonel Simmons?"
"Yes," Sam answered testily. She hated to be so suspicious, but she couldn't shake the feeling that this odd public meeting was directly at the bequest of General Hammond, and that O'Neill would later be called in to make his report. Oh, she could just hear it now. 'Well, sir, for starters she was pissed that you gave us some time off...' It was terrible, to distrust her friends and colleagues like that, to feel that she had been dropped into the midst of some great conspiracy against her.
But trust HAD been damaged, on both sides. No matter what excuses O'Neill had made for her in front of Simmons, fact was she knew she should have brought Orlan in after he became human. She hadn't lied about his presence in her house to O'Neill, but she HAD lied about her reasons for wanting to postpone the test, which was even worse. On the other side of the coin, she had the feeling that both General Hammond and the Colonel had suspected that the Pentagon had kept up surveillance on her house but had done nothing. Ironic, that the Pentagon had believed her 'stories' about the alien in her house when her friends hadn't.
"Yes," said Sam again, more carefully this time. "I told them that Orlan was from Oma Desala's race, that he had ended up helping build that weapon and then was punished for it... I even told them that if we had test-fired the weapon, the others of his race might have decided to eliminate us as well. The General believed me, I think. He promised to back me up," she added humbly. "Colonel Simmons didn't have much to say to me, but I don't think I've made many fans at the Pentagon. Now," she went on, trying desperately to change the topic to something less volatile, "we've got a week off to 'get our heads together'. Who's going to come over and help me organize my sock drawer?"
"O'Neill, you have not yet watched your borrowed version of Star Wars," spoke up Teal'c almost gleefully.
Looking amused, Daniel spoke up before Colonel O'Neill could. Sam merely gave a small sigh of relief, glad that the spotlight was finally off her. "Jack? Finally broke down and rented Star Wars? Well, do yourself a favor and don't watch it with Teal'c. He's seen it so many times that he's got the dialogue memorized. Speaks it along with the movie. It's extremely annoying. I learned that the hard way."
"You volunteering, Daniel?" asked O'Neill, crustily.
Daniel hesitated before responding. "Does this seem weird to anybody else?"
The Colonel smiled dryly. "We fight huge honking snakes on alien planets for a living, Daniel. Define 'weird'."
"I don't know," admitted the other man. "It just seems strange that here we are, four normal human beings..." He trailed off, looked at Teal'c, and started over. "Three normal human beings... attractive enough, smart, relatively few bad social habits... We spend so much time together, risking our lives, saving the world, doing God-knows-what else, and then we finally get some time off and the first thing we do is make plans. With each other. Not with neighbors. Non-SGC friends. People we don't see every day. I don't know," he said again. "It just seemed strange to me."
It is strange, thought Sam sourly. Because it's certainly not normal. If I had some sane, regular job without the running and fighting and screaming and possessions and explosions and invasions, maybe I would actually have some life to speak of. Maybe my house would actually looked lived-in instead of looking like a model. Maybe I would have messages on my answering machine now and then. It is strange.
"It's not strange," said O'Neill airily. "It's just LIFE. Our lives. Didn't you ever watch Saturday morning cartoons, Daniel? How many non-superhero friends did the X-Men have? How many people did the Scooby-Doo kids know that didn't turn out to be vampires and mummies?"
Sam was spared the answer to that question by the approach of a young, brown-eyed airman. The conversation ceased as he stopped at their table. "Major Carter? Doctor Frasier would like you to report to the infirmary."
She nodded, he left, and she rose to follow him out. "Guess that's my cue. Wish me luck, guys."
Daniel chuckled. "Don't worry, Sam. If they still think you're crazy, I'll go with you to the nuthouse, make sure they give you one of the really nice padded rooms."
"I will accompany you to the infirmary, Major Carter," Teal'c said, lifting himself out of his chair, and Sam was almost certain that he rolled his eyes at Daniel's remark.
Carter and Teal'c were barely out the door before Daniel started in on him. Of course, Jack had been waiting for it, but that didn't make it any less irritating.
"You know, Jack, Sam obviously doesn't have any plans for this week, other than color-coding her underwear. If you still want to watch that movie, it wouldn't kill you to invite her over to your place... or invite yourself over to hers."
Jack shifted in his chair, frowning. Why the hell couldn't they have bought more comfortable seats? Did they just want to make sure that no one was sticking around here too long when they could be out saving the galaxy from certain annihilation? "No, Daniel, I think killing me is EXACTLY what it would do."
The other man made a sound of disgust, but apparently he wasn't disgusted enough to get up and leave. "She needs us right now, Jack. You know that. If this was me or Teal'c, you'd handcuff yourself to us until you were sure we were okay. Why should she be any different?"
Was he really that dense? "Because she is. Different. Don't compare yourself to her. YOU'RE not in the military."
The standard Daniel Jackson reaction to that should have been either tempered annoyance or disdainful agreement, but today all bets were off and he just looked thoughtful. "And... I'm also not a woman."
"Well according to Teal'c..."
Daniel shook his head derisively. "You can't keep distancing yourself from Sam because of this thing between you."
Jack stared at him, all exasperated confusion. "Thing?"
"Don't make me define 'thing'."
"Then how about you define 'us'? As in 'she needs us'," he snapped. "Last I checked, I, myself, was only one small part of 'us'."
Shrugging, Daniel's answer was as vague as it was unhelpful. "Maybe I misspoke. Maybe I should have said 'She needs you'. Without a chaperone. As a friend."
"Do you wish to return to the planet and search for any sign of Orlan?" asked Teal'c, pressing the call button for the elevator.
"I don't know," said Sam honestly, crossing her arms. "It's all really... complicated. But I'm starting to think that whatever there was going on between the two of us, we're both better off without each other."
Teal'c inclined his head. "How are you better without companionship?"
Sam forced a laugh. "I HAVE companionship. I have you guys."
The elevator doors slid open, the car blissfully empty. They stepped inside and Teal'c pressed the button for the infirmary.
"Besides," Sam continued. "I admitted I was 'fond' of him. But there's different ways of being 'fond' of someone. Orlan was... nice. Just nice. I liked him, yes. And... he said some wonderful things to me. He said he loved me," she admitted, not looking at Teal'c for fear of whatever expression she might find there. "And maybe it was that easy for him, but not for me. That kind of 'fond' just wasn't enough."
Teal'c seemed to consider this. "Were you fond of him in the same way that you are fond of Colonel O'Neill?"
The question would have been a surprising one coming from anyone, but doubly so coming from Teal'c. As the elevator doors opened onto the infirmary's level, Sam found herself stumbling so desperately for a quick and easy answer that she finally had to laugh. "No. No, I think that's what Orlan would have wanted, but no. Like I said," she added hastily. "There's many different KINDS of 'fond', Teal'c. My 'fondness' for Orlan... well, a lot of it came from the fact that he was MINE. Just mine, my secret. Something that was no one else's. No one else believed he existed, no one else had even seen him. It was like having an imaginary friend, as pathetic as that sounds." An imaginary friend who said he was in love with her, which was so far past being pathetic that Sam refused to think about it. "Do you understand what I mean?"
Another pause as Teal'c considered this, very deeply. Of course, Teal'c seemed to consider whether to have french fries or onion rings very deeply, so maybe it wasn't as perplexing an issue for him as it seemed to her. "When I was very young," he finally said, "I found a kesh'nel, a small rodent, in my mother's kitchen. I knew that it was a common nuisance, that the correct thing would have been to remove it from our house and kill it out of doors, but I did not wish to do so. Instead I fashioned it a small cage and kept it beneath my bed. I brought it scraps of food from the evening meal to feed it." He sounded a little bemused by this memory, maybe even a little wistful at his own young naiveté. "This was improper, but I did not care. I was fond of the kesh'nel." He looked down at Sam, who smiled. "However," he continued, "I was not fond of it in the same way that you are fond of Colonel O'Neill."
Sam's smile split into a grin, and the grin developed into an actual, real, genuine, non-forced laugh. "Thanks Teal'c... I guess I needed that."
Standing on the porch, Jack tried not to squirm. But there were just so many reasons TO be squirming. First of all, he looked desperate... like he had nothing else to be doing right now. Which was true, but that was beside the point. Second, this felt wrong somehow. Even though it technically wasn't, even though a little innocent bonding between team members was peachy according to all but the stingiest of the Air Force top brass, it felt wrong. Lastly, he was here alone, and unannounced. He hadn't even been sure that Carter was home when he'd started out from his place... pretty sure, but not totally.
If she came to the door and told him that she had company - actual human company, male company - even drowning his sorrows in Jello wouldn't work.
The door opened, and Jack was finally able to relax when he saw that Carter was squirming, too. So she'd been expecting him; Daniel had gotten to her, too. Her smile was stiff, but at least she was able to joke. "Déjà vu," she remarked.
"I was just about to say that," Jack quipped. "I come bearing good pizza and cheesy sci-fi."
The Major gave him a mock scowl. "Star Wars is NOT cheesy."
"Sorry, I meant good sci-fi and cheesy pizza." He paused. "You alone?"
Smiling more easily now, she opened the door wider and stepped inside, inviting him in with body language. "Just me and the VCR."
Stepping inside, relief flooded through him in a stronger current than he wanted to admit. He handed off the pizza box to Carter and took off his jacket. "VCR... come on, Carter, VCRs are SO twentieth-century."
"Yes sir... I know, I'm so old-fashioned. Thanks for putting up with me."
He followed her into her house, making a big show of looking around her house and NOT at her. At how much thinner and taller and softer and more feminine she looked in a blouse and jeans instead of frumpy, monochromatic fatigues. He filed these traitorous thoughts away and started composing a witty response to Daniel: 'See, THAT is exactly where Teal'c dressed like Garth Brooks would really have come in handy.'
Carter grabbed paper plates, napkins, and sodas from the kitchen, and after a few moments of fiddling Jack figured out Carter's VCR and slipped the videocassette in. Wordlessly, they settled down on the floor, plates balanced on their knees, and Carter reached for the remote to fast-forward through the usual bout of movie previews and product placement. From the corner of his eye Jack spied an inordinately large green stone sitting on the end table. He didn't need to ask where it had come from, but he did feel the need to get something off his chest before the guilt ruined the pizza and worsened the movie.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled.
Carter fumbled with the remote, her eyes darting over to see if he'd dropped pepperoni on her carpet. "For what?"
"For... telling you that we all thought you were nuts."
"Oh," she muttered. "That. Like I said, it doesn't really matter anymore. Sir."
Like he was going to believe that when her tone was SCREAMING that it did matter, that it REALLY mattered. "Come on, Sam, Ms. Scientific Method. If you had been on the receiving end of 'There's an alien in my house', would you have gone for it? With no proof at all, no evidence, no... nothing?"
"That would probably depend on who was making the claim," she said sweetly. Too sweetly. "But whoever said it, I certainly wouldn't have thought that they were lying."
"I never thought you were lying!" he insisted. "I believed you. Well, I believed that you believed what you were telling me. But... well, with what Frasier and Hammond were telling me and how much you've been pushing yourself these past few... years, it was pretty easy after awhile to just assume that maybe it had... been all in your head. A dream or something. 'Lying' never even crossed my mind."
She stared at him. "Am I REALLY that bad?"
"Well, I think 'focused' is a little too conservative a description."
Looking suddenly put-out, Carter sadly shook her head. "You know what Daniel said today..." She trailed off.
"What part of what Daniel said today?" Jack prompted her. "Daniel says a lot of stuff."
"About us not having normal lives... normal relationships." Her downtrodden expression slipped towards wariness. "I'm not sure I should be telling you this, sir."
Forcing a casualness he didn't really feel, he shrugged. "This has been off the record since I rang your doorbell," he swore, taking a big bite of molten-hot cheese to emphasize his point.
Sam didn't look convinced, but she started talking again, staring at her pizza. "In most respects, I'm normal. I have a normal house, normal wardrobe... I enjoy my job, but lots of people enjoy their jobs, right? But... I just can't think of any other reason why the only guys who ever show interest in me end up being... aliens."
The gob of cheese suddenly lodged in Jack's throat and threatened to choke him. Between coughs, he sputtered, "Ask... Daniel..."
She continued as though she hadn't heard, hadn't noticed him asphyxiating less than a foot away. "This is all about normal, right? Then why is it that no normal, born on Earth, human guys have any kind of interest in me?"
With one violent swallow, the cheese started sliding down his throat. "Yes they do," he mumbled.
"At least the men without latent God-complexes, or is that being too picky?" Oh, she was on a roll now.
"Yes, they do," repeated Jack, a little louder this time.
"I mean heaven forbid--"
"Yes, I do!" snapped Jack, almost dropping his plate.
Another movie promo played on idiotically in the background. Carter stared at him with new apprehension.
"They do," Jack muttered, correcting himself. "THEY do. But, um, you know, statistically speaking, considering how much time you spend around aliens compared to how much time you spend in the outside world, it makes sense that you, you know, that they..." He was stammering now. "Come on, Carter, say something and put me out of my misery here..."
"Actually," she said softly, fighting back a smile and failing, "I didn't really hear anything you said after 'statistically speaking'."
She looked so pleased that he had to laugh, and the tension was broken. "Guess you're rubbing off on me, Carter."
"I guess I'm spending too much time around you."
The lull in conversation was meaningful but not uncomfortable.
"You're probably right, sir," said Carter gently.
"But you know what?"
"I think we're both the better for it."
Her smile grew in time with the swelling of music through the television speakers. "Oh, definitely."
And Jack could almost hear Daniel in his head, shaking his head and laughing at him mockingly. 'Now how hard was that? How hard was it to finally let down your defenses and let her drop hers and just talk to her without the masks. Without the pretense. To just be her friend, and stop worrying about the other stuff for the time being?'
"Go away, Daniel," Jack murmured to himself, feeling his own tension draining into nothingness.
Sam had returned her attention to the movie. "What, sir?"
"Nothing," he said briskly, sitting up a little straighter and focusing on the TV. "What were we watching again?"
She gave him a playful, FRIENDLY, jab in the ribs with her elbows. "Shut up, sir," she said fondly. "The Storm Troopers are coming."
It was early the next morning when plates and napkins and an empty pizza box were gathered together and tossed into the garbage, the soda cans thrown in the recycling bin, and the television put to rest. Three other video sleeves were scattered across the living room floor: the "Episode One" box set Teal'c had bought her for her birthday.
"Better I watch the others with you instead of Teal'c," was all the Colonel had said, but it had been his insistence that they stay up all night watching the movies, absorbed in the world of George Lucas, and she'd been pleased.
Finally he had admitted "I liked Han Solo."
He was in the entryway now, getting his coat and yawning uncontrollably every few seconds. It was contagious, and Sam found herself wondering if she shouldn't just ask him to spend the night here rather than making the drive home at his low level of awareness. Then she mentally slapped herself, sure that she would never had had such a thought if she hadn't been up at this hour.
It had been a wonderful night. She wasn't willing to ruin it, or even complicate it, with something like that.
"When's the next one coming out?" he asked as he saw her come out of the kitchen. "Have you seen my keys?"
"In your right pocket. And I think Episode Two is slated for sometime next spring."
O'Neill put his hand into the coat pocket, grabbed the key ring, and nodded. "What do you say... it's a date?"
She blinked at him, not quite sure she had just heard what she'd thought she'd heard. "A... date, sir?"
He faked a nonchalant smile. "Yeah. Uh... two of us, movie theatre... popcorn with extra butter, a year from now. Sound good?"
Despite her own best intentions, Sam felt herself smiling back. This was normal, then. Normal for them anyway. Things unspoken. Dates to see science-fiction movies made a year in advance with the knowledge that both of them could be long dead and the war against the Gou'ald come and gone - and lost - before the spring came again. Normal was weird, then. But weird wasn't so bad. Weird could actually be a good thing: an impetus for people who wanted to literally change the world for the better but knew that normalcy would never allow it. Weird was new territory. Weird was the undiscovered country. It was hard, and it was taxing, and sometimes it was deadly. But for all her disconsolate thoughts about what it would be like to have a nine-to-five job, two-point-five kids and a white picket fence, she knew that she had chosen this life for herself for a reason, and that she wouldn't have it any other way.
He nodded, and she walked him to and out the door, seeing him off on the patio step. "Oh, I meant to ask... got any plans for tomorrow night?"
"Dinner. The whole team, I don't care how sick Daniel is of us. Somewhere nice. Somewhere where you actually sit down and they BRING your food to you."
"No salad bar?"
"No salad bar."
O'Neill shifted from one foot to the other, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "You don't... actually have plans, do you?"
"Oh, well, Orlan's brother is coming over for lunch, but I think I can work you both into my very busy schedule," she said impudently.
A pair of tired chuckles, a smile, a pat on the shoulder in substitute for a hug, and he was gone. Sam hung by the open door for longer than she should have, even after the Colonel's truck vanished down the road, until the early morning mist began to seep over the threshold. Staring out into the road where she had first seen Orlan, and then up into the sky, where he had vanished. Weird. Normal. What did it matter which was which when she had people who cared about her in her life? she thought.
Then she closed the door and went to bed.
If she hadn't been so tired, she might have thought something of the dark blue van parked across the street, still sending a steady stream of audio and video to a man in Washington.