Sam is on-world for leave when the news breaks and it seems appropriate somehow. Jack calls her from Washington early that morning to let her know that it looks like today will be the day. She responds with just the right amount of interest and detachment, although she's pretty sure he can see right through it. His words betray as few emotions as her own, but before they hang up he tells her to call him if she ever needs to talk, which tells her everything she needs to know.
She makes herself a cup of coffee and heads out to sit on the front porch. The sun is just starting to rise; soon it will begin to chase away the chill that still remains in the early spring air. Pajama-clad knees slowly pull up to her chest, and she rests her elbows on them as she nurses her drink. Happiness and sorrow are warring within her, tinged with relief and anger, all drawing on long-remembered fears.
The sun is still low on the horizon when she finishes her coffee and it isn't long before she retreats to the warmth of the indoors. She considers giving Cassie or Daniel a call, but she'd be sure to wake Cassie at this hour, and Daniel would likely be all-too perceptive; she's not sure she can handle him yet. After placing her empty cup in the sink, she walks to the bookshelf beside her fireplace and quickly finds the volume she is searching for.
She sets the album on the coffee table for a moment to settle into the couch, pulling off a blanket resting on its back and wrapping it tightly around her. When she picks the book up again, she notices just how much dust has accumulated on it. She blows it off. Well, that's what being the commander of an intergalactic battleship gets you. She tells herself that it's because she's been off-world for so long, but she can't even remember the last time she got it out when she was home. She opens it to the first page and smiles.
The first time it snowed after they rescued Cassandra, Sam had gotten up at six in the morning, bundled up, and pulled her old sled out of the storage building. She'd loaded it in her car with a thermos of hot chocolate and a bag of marshmallows for later and driven to Janet's house, a silly grin on her face the entire way. Looking back, she couldn't entirely imagine the sight she'd made that Saturday morning, standing on Janet's porch wearing a brightly-colored toboggan pulled down low on her head, a scarf her father had given her wrapped around her neck, and that silly smile.
She rang the doorbell twice, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet. She couldn't wait to show this to Cassie. By her best estimation, the climate on Hanka couldn't have supported snow. When Janet opened the door, it took her a moment to recognize who her visitor was. Sam gave her a little awkward wave and she chuckled at her friend's appearance. "Major Carter, what a surprise. Come on in, it's freezing out there."
She scuffed her boots on the welcome mat as she followed Janet inside, talking a mile a minute as she did. "I know it's early, but I remembered that you had this weekend off, and I wasn't sure if Cassandra had ever seen snow before, and I thought maybe we could take her sledding, if you wanted." She pushed her hat off her head and tucked it into her pocket, then unwrapped her scarf and hung it by the door. "Unless you already have plans for today," she said hesitantly, checking her enthusiasm. Sledding had been one of her very favorite activities as a child, and she was eager to share it with Cassie.
"No plans." Janet laughed and gestured to her sweats and too-big t-shirt. "No, I think she would love that. You want to go ask her yourself?"
She didn't think it had even taken ten minutes for Cassie to get ready and all but inhale her breakfast once she'd explained what they were going to do. They had played in the front yard while Janet got dressed for the snow, then all took Janet's car to the park, one Sam knew had a true monster of a hill, long and high but not too steep, perfect for sledding.
When they reached the top of the hill, Cassie's eyes widened. Sam wrapped her arms around the girl as they sat on the sled. "You ready?" Cassie looked over her shoulder at Janet, who smiled and nodded reassuringly. She gave a terse nod of her own in reply and gripped the sides of the sled.
They pushed off and Cassie gave a short yelp as they tilted forward and began to gain speed. Sam laughed and tightened her arms just a hair to let her know she was safe. When they came to a stop at the bottom of the hill Cassie was still wide-eyed, and for a moment Sam was afraid she hadn't enjoyed it. Only for a moment.
"Can we do it again?"
They sledded for the better part of the next hour and a half; Sam and Cassie, Janet and Cassie, just Cassie, and even Sam and Janet a few times, until hill got crowded with other sledders. After a hot chocolate break they went to the other side of the park and built a snowman, made some snow angels, and had a friendly snowball fight with several other families they'd met.
By noon they had all been ready for a break from the cold, so they'd said goodbye to their new friends and packed up their things. Sam had accepted Janet's lunch invitation, unwilling to let the promise of warm soup and good company go.
She has an entire collection of pictures from that day somewhere, mostly ones Janet had taken of her and Cassandra, but the one in this album is her favorite. All three of them smiling next to their snowman, Sam and Janet each with an arm around Cassie. They'd gone sledding together many other times during those next few winters before Cassie had decided that she'd outgrown sledding and snowmen, but that first day had been almost magical.
She lets her fingers trace lightly over the picture for a moment, then wills herself to turn the page. The next pages are covered with pictures of Cassie's first Earth birthday party, busy and colorful. It had been a small party, but she remembers how Jack had seemed intent on making up for its size with both presents and liveliness. Cassie had barely made it to nine o' clock before falling asleep where she sat.
Daniel moved slowly from the couch to turn off the television, blatantly ignoring Jack's protests at the darkness that replaced the video game that had been on the screen. Sam wondered bemusedly to herself if his present had been selected for entirely selfless reasons. Not that she could judge, she knew her gift hadn't been. The travel chess set was certainly as much a gift for herself as it was for Cassandra, and she couldn't wait to teach her how to play the game. She glanced over to the girl's sleeping form on the couch and smiled as she watched Teal'c solemnly tucking a blanket around her. Heaven help that girl when she started dating.
His source of entertainment gone, Jack went outside to pack up his grill, then said his goodbyes. Daniel and Teal'c had stayed a little longer, helping them begin to take down the decorations. They left soon too, however, because Daniel had to drive all the way back to the base to drop Teal'c off before he could head home. Janet's house was quiet again without them there, and Sam was struck with the realization of just how much she had come to love her team in the past year and a half. They were truly good men.
She sat down at the kitchen island and rested her chin on the heel of one closed hand. Her tired eyes followed Janet as she flew back and forth across the kitchen, gathering dishes and putting away food. Finally she seemed to slow down, then took a seat on a stool next to her. Sam just looked at her for a few moments, a lazy smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Nice party."
Janet laughed a little at that, looking down at her hands on the counter. "Yeah," she said finally, not completely sounding like she believed it.
A little concerned now, she sat up straight and dropped her own hands to the counter. "What's wrong?" It had been a long day and they were both tired, but she sensed that there was something more to Janet's behavior.
Janet laced her fingers together and looked up to meet Sam's eyes. She spoke quietly, eyes pleading. "What if I can't do this, Sam? I have no idea how to be someone's..." She glanced up at the ceiling and chuckled again. "Someone's mother."
She turned on her seat so she was facing her friend. "Look at me, Janet." She covered her hands with her own. "You see that little girl over there on the couch?" She nodded with a jerk of her head and Janet's eyes glanced over to her sleeping daughter. "She's able to do the things she's doing today because of one thing. You." She frowned at the skeptical look her words engendered and cut off a protest before it could fully form. "You've given her a home, Janet. You love her, care for her. You give her somewhere she knows she will always belong." Sam paused as she remembered her own mother and her ability to always make her feel like she belonged. "That's what being a mother is. And I happen to think you're doing an amazing job."
Blinking a few times, Janet looked from Sam to Cassie and back. She seemed genuinely surprised by the supportive words. "What if I make a mistake, Sam? She's been through so much already, and there's just so much I don't know how-"
"Janet Fraiser, you know better than that," Sam insisted firmly, rising to her feet. "You already know you're going to make little mistakes, you've always known that. But that's hardly going to ruin her childhood." She stepped out and behind Janet and began to slowly massage her shoulders. "And I'm here. You didn't sign up to do this all by yourself, you know. If you ever need me to watch Cassandra, or come over, or just want to call and talk, you can."
Janet wordlessly relaxed into the welcome touch for several moments then turned around to face Sam. "Thank you," she said softly and sincerely, making eye contact.
Sam smiled and gave Janet her hand as she hopped down from the bar stool. "You're welcome, and I mean it. Call me anytime." They hugged for a moment, then Sam put a hand on her shoulder and her face grew a little more serious. "Go on to bed, Janet. I'll finish cleaning up and get Cassie tucked in."
She blinked for a moment, then nodded. "Okay." She gave her one more hug, then headed toward the hall. "You're a lifesaver, Sam," she said tiredly as she went.
Behind her, Sam just smiled contentedly.
Janet had taken her up on her offer just the next weekend when she'd been called into work and needed someone to take Cassie to a friend's birthday party. After the party she'd taught Cassie the basics of chess, and they'd ordered pizza. Sam smiles at that particular memory; the beginning of a long-standing tradition. She and Cassie still play chess every other Saturday that she's on-world, online now. She wins just a little more than half the time, which only reminds her how proud she is of Cassie.
She turns the page again, and sees pictures she took herself. Cassie's softball team had gone to the State Championship game her freshman year in high school, and the three of them had made a road trip of it. She'd been their photographer for the weekend. Another page, and there are pictures of all three of them before the junior prom, Sam and Janet grinning like idiots after a long afternoon of helping a very nervous Cassie get ready and reassuring her that she wasn't going to forget anything or mess up some social custom.
There are no pictures of Janet clutching her hand until her knuckles turned white as Cassie went up to bat in the last inning of the final game. No pictures of the two of them sipping coffee at the counter on prom night, staring at the clock as curfew ticked closer and closer. (Cassie had made it home with time to spare, but there'd been no way they weren't going to worry. It was practically mandatory.) Those are moments she wishes she had pictures of, but they're relegated only to her memory like so many others.
Janet has been dead longer than Sam knew her alive, now. It feels like yesterday that she was hanging up a hammock in Janet's backyard. It feels like a lifetime ago that she sat in a dark lab trying to write words that wouldn't come - so many words that will never come; oh god, Janet - for a memorial service that now she can't remember. Time is funny like that. Seven years lived together; almost eight years alone. It makes her want to vomit, so she closes her eyes and breathes in deep against the nausea.
The thoughts are flying through her head at a dizzying rate, so fast that she can't get a good grasp on all of them or sort out exactly what they mean. Like so many other times in her life, she went to bed last night with the world one way and is living this day in a world that's completely different. Does it matter? Does this mean anything for her now? Should it?
The phone rings, so she sets the album down and answers after the sixth ring. It's Daniel - of course it's Daniel, Jack would have called him too, and his first thought would have been to call her - asking oh-so-nonchalantly how she is this morning; asking what she's up to. Like he doesn't know damn well exactly what she'd be up to today, after all this time. That's what she says to him, and he laughs quietly. He asks if she's okay. I don't know, she says. I don't want to talk about it.
He respects that. Three years ago he wouldn't have, certainly not ten years ago. But he respects it now and lets her be, seamlessly steering the conversation to small talk and catching up. It's distracting and soothing all at once, a blessed gift of fifteen minutes' peace. Later they'll really talk; she'll end up at his apartment crying on his couch wrapped in the arms of one of the only other people on this planet or any other who she thinks might be able to understand the pain and the conflicted emotions that still continue to bubble up within her so often, fresh and raw.
Today isn't that day, though, and eventually the conversational well runs dry. She thanks him for calling and tells him goodbye, then lies down on the couch and stares up at the ceiling. It seems to spin a little, so she closes her eyes to still her mind. It's an hour and a half later when she wakes up, and the sun is shining in fully through the living room windows. Her back protests as she rolls over to sit upright and reaches for the remote to turn on the television.
All of the major news networks have broken the news by now, she quickly notes. She recognizes officers she's known and served with, both retired and active duty, as they provide stone-faced analysis and commentary for otherwise sensationalistic stories. They all say the same thing in slightly different words, except for a handful of former generals who retired before she'd even graduated from the Academy who predict the destruction of known civilization. It isn't news, they're just trying to fill time and stretch the announcement for all it's worth.
She turns the TV off - it's really probably the last thing she needs right now - and rubs her temples. A migraine is trying to form behind her right eye and she can already feel it spreading and taking root. Biting her tongue and ignoring it for the moment, she picks the photo album up from where she'd placed it on the coffee table. Thumbing through more quickly now, she sees pictures from some of the most important moments in her life before. She can still feel the burn in her legs from paddle boating, if she tries; can still hear the three of them laughing at the antics of Cassie's dog. When she reaches the end, she smiles. A picture Cassie took of the two of them on the porch swing, Sam with her arm draped casually around Janet, who had her head resting lightly on Sam's shoulder. Fall of 2003. All three of them had been happier than ever.
It's mid-morning and the rest of the world will be awake by now, so she folds up her blanket and drapes it over the back of the couch. She's not quite sure what to do now; she's never been good at taking leave. Eventually she turns to old habits; to the one faithful pastime that's kept her occupied through her down-time for years. She pulls on her riding jacket, grabs her keys and helmet from the table by the front door, and heads outside. Riding has been her mainstay throughout decades of emotional turmoil, is one of the things she misses most about earth. At first she has no particular destination in mind, concerned only with the journey. Eventually, though, the landmarks she passes are familiar. For a brief moment she wonders if this is a good idea.
The Air Force Academy Cemetery is green and beautiful, full of statues and memorials that represent the best and brightest of her alma mater. It is immaculately tended; the perfect place to pay one's respects. Sam has always hated this place; she does not visit here. Her commemoration of those she's lost through the years has always done privately; late nights spent crying alone or whispering I miss you to friends she knows will never answer again. Her grief has never been public.
As she stares down at the bronze grave marker, her mind is flooded with memories. Standing here between Cassie and Teal'c on an overcast day, her eyes dry. At one point she had been genuinely convinced that she would never cry again; that she had used up her life's supply of tears in the space of less than a week. The funeral service is still mixed up in her mind; she can recall some parts with perfect clarity while others escape her memory completely.
On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation, we offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service of Major Janet Fraiser.
Cassie had received the flag after the service. Now it stays on a shelf in her room at Sam's house, where it sits beside the small display cases that hold a Purple Heart and an Air Force Cross. For extraordinary heroism while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States. So many words of honor were spoken about Janet after her death, many of them Sam's own. Almost a decade later, none of them feel like enough. She kneels in the grass and traces her fingers lightly over the letters on the grave marker.
JANET E FRAISER
MAJ US AIR FORCE
MAR 24 1962 - OCT 29 2003
LOVING MOTHER, BELOVED FRIEND
The bronze lettering is the same today as it was the day it was put in place seven and a half years ago, still bearing no mention of how much more Janet was to her. To an outside observer, everything about the graveside that could possibly matter is the same today as it was yesterday.
"I love you, Janet," she whispers for the first time.
She feels no fear.