The light tap on Sam's door roused her from her morning coffee, and she glanced at her watch. Not even seven she realized with surprise, as she called, "Come in."
Doctor Fraiser's face popped around the door to her lab. "Do you have a minute, Sam?" she asked, taking in the coffee and half-eaten donut on her desk with a slight rise of her eyebrows.
"Of course," Sam replied, refusing to be ashamed of her less than healthy breakfast. "What is it, Janet?"
As she stepped into the room, Janet closed the door rather deliberately behind her before she spoke. "I heard that SG-1 are going off-world tomorrow," she said.
"That's right," Sam nodded. "You cleared me for duty two days ago. Is there a problem?"
"With you?" Janet asked. "No."
Sam frowned. "With someone else then?"
"Maybe," Janet replied, her eyebrows drawing down into a frown. She sighed. "I'm concerned about Colonel O'Neill, Sam. About how he's handling what happened to you the other week."
"Oh?" Sam replied, dropping her eyes back to her coffee and feeling the heat rise to her cheeks. "Why's that?"
"You haven't noticed?"
Sam remained silent for a moment. "Well, I guess he's been a little...prickly the last couple of weeks."
"Prickly?" Janet repeated. "Well, that's probably the understatement of the year."
Glancing up, Sam grimaced. "Okay," she admitted. "So he's pissed off about something. What makes you think it's got anything to do with me?"
Janet's face twisted slightly and she gave an exasperated shake of her head. "He killed you, Sam," she said, fixing her with an intent look. "For all intents and purposes, he killed you. The fact that you survived was...miraculous. In every sense of the word. When Colonel O'Neill pulled the trigger, he knew what would happen."
"He had no choice," Sam pointed out, feeling oddly defensive. "He made the right decision."
Janet spread her hands in a gesture of agreement. "I'm not disputing that," she assured her. "But the fact is he killed you. He chose to sacrifice you for the safety of the base; it can't have been an easy decision."
"No," Sam agreed quietly, "but Colonel O'Neill's made plenty of tough decisions in his life."
Shaking her head, Janet skewered her with a pointed look. "Come on, Sam," she said, "I think we both know why this particular decision would have been harder for him."
Sam's lips tightened; she knew where Janet was going and she really didn't want to follow her there. Some things were best left unsaid and unacknowledged. "Do you think he feels guilty?" she asked, deftly diverting the subject. "That he blames himself for what happened to me?"
"I think that's pretty obvious," Janet replied quietly. "He did shoot you, Sam. You should be dead."
Dropping her head into her hands, Sam thought for a moment. There was no denying the fact the O'Neill was struggling with *something*; he'd been spitting blood for the last couple of weeks, and more than a few junior officers had fallen foul of his short temper. But still, guilt didn't seem right somehow. Why should he feel guilty? He'd done what he had to do and he'd had no choice in the matter. What could he be blaming himself for?
"Has he said anything?" she asked at last, raising her head.
Janet laughed darkly. "Said anything? Colonel O'Neill?"
"I guess not," Sam nodded; talking was pretty much the last thing he'd do.
"But he doesn't need to say anything, Sam," Janet added more gently. "I was there when he pulled the trigger - and afterwards. He was...devastated. Totally shattered."
Sam felt a flash of pain at the words. And a little guilt of her own. If she hadn't insisted on trying to communicate with the entity, if she hadn't taken her appeal over the Colonel's head to General Hammond, then O'Neill would have destroyed it before it had a chance to jump into her body. And she had no doubt that the Colonel probably viewed the incident in a similar light. She grimaced at the realization. "I think you've got it wrong, Janet," she said, "I don't think it's guilt that's bugging him."
"Maybe not," Janet agreed, her dark eyes suddenly very bright. "But I *am* concerned, Sam. I've read his file. I know how he reacted to the death of his son - and he felt responsible for that too."
"There's no comparison," Sam objected immediately. "Nothing can compare to the loss of a child."
"He's your CO; he feels responsible for you, Sam," Janet pointed out. "It's not so different."
"Charlie was his son!"
Janet shook her head and took a step closer. "You remember what he told Anise when he was being tested?" she asked quietly.
Sam's lips clamped shut. Of course she remembered! It was burned into her memory with a branding iron.
"'I'd rather die myself than lose Carter'," Janet reminded her. "That's what he said. Think about it, Sam. He thought he'd killed you. He thought he'd lost you."
Swallowing the painful lump in her throat, Sam said, "But I'm not dead, Janet."
"You were for a while," she replied carefully. "That's my point."
With a sigh, Sam sat back in her chair. "Okay," she said, "what is it you want me to do?"
A small smile lit the doctor's face. "Talk to him."
"Don't we usually draw straws for that?"
"We did," Janet told her with a grin. "You lost."
Sam shook her head. "Okay," she sighed, "I'll try. But I still think you're wrong."
Janet just shrugged. "Well, be sure to let me know if I am," she suggested, turning towards the door. "And Sam?"
"Do it before you go off-world? It needs to be sorted out."
Sam nodded and watched the door swing slowly shut as Janet left her alone. She sighed again and returned to her breakfast, wondering when life had gotten so complicated.
The sun was just setting as Sam turned into his driveway. It hung low in the sky, peeking over the top of the house and almost blinding her. With a curse she snapped down the sun visor and stopped the car. So, here she was. It had been a while since she'd been up here, even longer since she'd made the trip alone.
In the end, she'd decided that it would be easier to have this awkward conversation away from the SGC and everything it represented. Their relationship was complicated enough, without the concrete and steel weight of Cheyenne bearing down on them. She hoped that in his own territory the Colonel would relax enough to talk to her. She still doubted that he was eaten up with guilt, but she'd had all day to think about the cold-shoulder he'd turned on them all and was pretty sure she understood what was going on. Either way, she figured, it was going to be a difficult conversation.
Peering at herself in the rear-view mirror, Sam tried to push her hair into some semblance of order while she organized her thoughts. Then, without further hesitation, she climbed out of the car, squinting against the sun; it was huge on the horizon as it slowly sank behind the trees.
Her boots clicked on the brick driveway as she walked slowly up to the house and climbed the few steps onto the porch. The early spring air was still cool, but the scent of new-mown grass hung in the air, hinting of the summer to come. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, relishing the feel of it in her lungs, relishing all the senses that assailed her. It felt good to be alive after the deaf, blind, mute world into which she'd been cast. She felt claustrophobic just thinking about it, and shook herself. No point in dwelling on it; it was over, and the world around her was brilliant and vibrant.
Stepping up to the door she rang the bell and waited. It didn't take long before she heard footsteps and the door opened. O'Neill took in her presence with his usual composure. "Carter," he said, head cocked slightly to one side. "This is - unusual."
She smiled. "Can I come in, sir?"
"Why not?" he shrugged, turning away from the door and leaving it open for her to follow. "You drew the short straw, huh?" he asked over his shoulder.
Sam said nothing as she accompanied him into the living room and glanced around, taking in the details; polished floors, cluttered mantel. No photographs. Never any photographs. The door to the porch was open, and cool air filled the room, laced with the quiet strains of music that Sam faintly recognized. "You wanna sit outside? I was just.... " He trailed off, and then said, "Beer?"
"Sure," she replied, stepping out onto the porch as he disappeared into the kitchen. She remembered the view, over the lawn and into the trees. The sun was sinking slowly behind them, making black silhouettes of their branches. And the music was Verdi, she realized as she let the soothing melody wash over her.
"Here," O'Neill said, his quiet voice startling her as he held out a beer. Turning, she smiled her thanks but held her tongue, waiting for his question. She didn't wait long. "So," he said into the silence, watching her warily, "to what do I owe the pleasure, Major?"
Sam thought for a moment before she answered, dithering between truth and a white lie. But his eyes were fixed on her, dark and intent, and she knew that he'd see through the lie in a heartbeat. "Janet asked me to come," she admitted.
"Fraiser?" he was obviously surprised. "What for?"
"Because she's worried about you."
Sam sighed and glanced down at the comfortable looking wooden chair. "Mind if we sit down, sir?"
He smiled at that and shook his head. "It's not a parade ground, Carter. You don't have to ask."
Chuckling slightly Sam eased herself into the seat. It was remarkably comfortable and as she stretched her legs out she could feel herself starting to relax. "These are great," she sighed.
"Aren't they?" O'Neill agreed, dropping into the other chair. "Great for the back."
She smiled again and let her eyes roam over the edge of the porch and back to the sunset. The sky was turning every shade of orange, paling into azure above the trees, and the moon was already glowing overhead. Quite beautiful.
"So," O'Neill repeated, "what's Fraiser worried about? And why did she send you?"
Not taking her eyes off the sunset, Sam said, "Well, I guess it's the way you've been storming around like a bear with a sore head for the last couple of weeks, sir...."
There was a long silence. And then, "That bad, huh?"
"That bad," Sam agreed, glancing at him sideways. He wasn't watching her, his eyes were fixed on his hands, fiddling with the beer bottle that rested in his lap.
She took a deep breath. "Janet thinks it has something to do with the whole alien entity thing," she said, still watching, waiting for a reaction.
He nodded slowly, raised his beer to his lips and swallowed a mouthful. "I know what she's thinking," he said.
"And what's that?"
He turned to her then and gave a small, dismissive shrug. "That I'm driving myself crazy with guilt - because I almost killed you."
"Yeah," she said quietly, "that is what she's thinking. Actually, it's what a lot of people are thinking."
O'Neill nodded, his eyes fixed on hers. "Including you?"
"No." She smiled a little at the surprise on his face. "I know you better than that, Colonel."
"*I* think," Sam said slowly, "that you're mad as hell. At me, at Daniel and at General Hammond."
He froze, and Sam knew instantly that she was right. "Oh," was all he said, and looked away. But she could see the tension in his bunched shoulders as he sat forward in the chair, toying with his beer.
"I know we went against your better judgement," she said quietly. "And I guess we did kinda go over your head to Hammond...."
"Kinda?" he repeated, a hint of anger dusting his voice. "I'd say it was a pretty effective end-run, Major."
"I guess so," Sam sighed, dropping her gaze to her beer. "I didn't intend to, sir," she explained. "He just came in right then and...asked."
O'Neill said nothing for a moment, but Sam could see the way his fingers were tightening around the bottle he held. The air fairly crackled with the tension that was building until eventually he stood up sharply and moved to the railing around the porch, leaning on it with both hands as he looked out towards the dying sun. "If you'd listened to me," he said quietly, in a voice that dripped with restrained anger, "none of that crap would have happened. You wouldn't have been possessed, and I wouldn't have had to - shoot you."
"I know, sir," Sam agreed, "but despite what happened, I don't regret what I did. We had no way of knowing that it could jump into me like that."
"We knew it was aggressive," he countered, "we knew it was dangerous. That should have been enough." He raked a hand through his hair, "You and Daniel and your goddamn scientific curiosity.... We almost lost the whole damn base!"
"Yes, sir," she replied, hoping she sounded a little more contrite than she felt; she could understand his exasperation, but he was missing the point. Watching him as he stared angrily into the darkening sky, she hesitated for a moment before she tried to explain, "But if we're too cautious, Colonel, we'll never...."
"Cautious?" He spun around furiously. "Cautious! You think I'm too cautious now?"
Sam swallowed, wishing that she too was standing up. She didn't like the way he was scowling down at her; he had the advantage. But it didn't stop her from speaking her mind. "In some circumstances, sir, yes I do. Your instinct is defensive - if you don't understand something you want to neutralize it incase it's a threat."
O'Neill's eyes were glittering dangerously. "We knew damn well that *thing* was a threat, Carter. It had already shut down half the base. So don't give me any of that 'shoot-first-and-ask-questions- later' morality shit. *You* were wrong this time, not me."
"I don't think so, sir," she said, standing up slowly. He backed off a little as she rose, as if uncomfortable with being too close. "I think I was right," she told him. "I was right to try and communicate with it - "
"Damn it, Carter, it nearly killed you!"
"And if we'd destroyed it, Colonel, we'd have never known that we were harming its planet," she pointed out. "We probably would have carried on sending MALPs through, and maybe the next time *they* would have destroyed *us*. All of us."
He glared at her, his mouth twitching as if on the point of speech, but in the end he said nothing and turned away. She knew he'd accepted her point, however reluctantly. But she also knew that he was still mad. Straightening her shoulders she stood a little straighter and said what she thought he wanted to hear. "Colonel?"
"I'm sorry, sir."
He shook his head and sighed, turning around again and leaning back against the porch railing. "For what? Saving our asses again?"
"For doing an end-run around you."
He raised an eyebrow. "But, as you so eloquently explained, Carter, things might have been worse if you hadn't."
She nodded her mute agreement, "But still, you're my CO and...."
"But nothing," he grumbled. "The day I want an ass-licker as my second-in-command, I'll fire you."
Sam smiled. "Then, I guess I'm sorry that you had to - do what you did, sir. With the zat." She glanced down, feeling awkward as she added quietly, "It can't have been easy."
"It wasn't," he agreed. "But it's not like I had a choice."
"No," Sam replied. "But I don't think - I mean, if I'd had to do it - I don't think that having no choice would have made it any easier."
She looked up at him then and their gazes locked. For a moment the barriers were gone and she saw in his eyes everything that dwelt in his heart; anger, relief, frustration, need. And something else, something fervid, heated and intense. Something that caught the breath in her throat and to which her body instinctively responded; unbidden, her hand twitched towards his.
But the moment was a short one, and his guard was quickly raised, the emotions hidden once more. In their place a dark smile curved his lips. "Well, I guess the whole thing proves one thing, at least," he said.
Suddenly self-conscious, he ran a hand through his hair. "Well, after what happened when the armbands failed on Apophis's ship I was kinda worried that this," he gestured vaguely between them, "might be affecting me more than it should. More than I can let it."
"Oh," she breathed.
His smile was bitter. "But now," he said, "now I know I can sacrifice anyone in my team without breaking a sweat. You can imagine how proud that makes me feel - a real hero."
Sam returned his smile, but with no bitterness of her own. "You did what you had to do, that's all. And for what it's worth, Colonel, I'm proud of you."
"Always," she replied quietly.
Emotion flashed through his eyes again, and he looked abruptly down at his toes. After a moment he spoke, his voice a little husky. "Actually, that's worth a lot, Carter. A hell of a lot."
Sam closed her eyes, doing her best to fight her instinctive impulse to reach out and touch him, to cement their bond of friendship with something more expressive than words. But she knew it was impossible, and that, for now, words were all they had. Feeling that they were balancing rather precariously over something that they really, really shouldn't fall into, she forced herself to lighten the mood. "Is it worth another beer, sir?" she asked in a rather shaky voice.
O'Neill smiled. "At least one," he agreed, glancing up at her with eyes that mirrored the smile on his lips. "In fact, if you're not busy, I might be persuaded to stretch to dinner. If you're hungry?"
In the back of her mind the endless debate about what was and what wasn't appropriate behavior between them wound along its usual dreary path, but she decided to ignore it. They both knew where they stood, this whole experience had redefined the line in a way. Their feelings for each other hadn't diminished - quite the opposite, in fact - but first and foremost they were soldiers, willing to sacrifice themselves, and each other, for what they believed in. Compared to that certainty, what did a little dinner matter? Nothing could shake the sacred bond of trust they shared, not love and, apparently, not even death. She took a swig of her beer, and grinned, "Actually, I'm starving."
"Great," he smiled, one hand coming to rest on her shoulder and guiding her towards the kitchen. "Then prepared to be amazed -"
Sam laughed and shook her head. "Oh, I am, sir," she assured him. "Constantly."
"Yeah," he agreed, his fingers tightening ever so slightly on her shoulder, "so am I, Carter. So am I."
- End -