Wow. This one went long. Hope you don’t mind.
Carter lifted a hand and tucked her hair back behind her ear. Despite the sunshine, a stiff breeze had invaded the park. Not unusual for the Springs, but an annoyance, nonetheless.
She had arrived at the park a few minutes before, searching the crowd as she'd walked from the parking lot towards the ramada. Not that she had been looking for anyone in particular, really. Because she saw him every day, right? Or at least, most days. Just like she saw most of these people every day. So - really she wasn't looking for anyone in particular, right?
SG-1 had taken a few days off, though - direct orders from Hammond. Sam had found herself weirdly at odds with herself, not knowing what she was supposed to do. She'd helped Janet paint a few walls, and then the two of them had scoured what felt like every single boutique in Colorado Springs for the perfect accouterments for an eleven-year-old girl's bedroom. After that, she'd done some laundry, and cleaning, and spent an inordinate amount of time clearing out her refrigerator. Most of that time had been spent trying to figure out exactly what was in the plastic containers stacked in their cold little towers. Ultimately, she'd found it easier to throw them all away and buy new ones.
She'd spent entirely too long not thinking about work. Or the people she'd come to consider family. Or, rather, more than family. She'd tried not to think about him. There wasn't anything to think about, right? He was just her CO, her boss, her superior. They'd become - friendly. Familiar. Close.
Not unlike other people who served together.
He wasn't there yet, anyway. She'd found Siler and Walter easily enough, spotted the trio of women who worked as nurses in the infirmary on a constant rotation, and located General Hammond, sitting on a park bench with a tow-headed granddaughter on his knee. Other people she easily recognized - another doctor from the infirmary and a few older boys who appeared to be his sons, some of the office staff, and several other airmen and their families. Daniel and Teal'c weren't there yet, either.
Just like he wasn’t there. Not that she'd been looking for him. Deep down, she'd kind of been hoping that he'd forgotten, or found something – anything - else to do. Partly because she still hadn't figured out how to explain her blatant disregard for his orders as she'd descended through the abandoned nuclear complex holding Cassie in her arms. The subsequent debriefing had been all facts and circumstance - but that particular part of the story had been heavily whitewashed for the General's benefit.
Because, how did you explain what had happened there? Sam still couldn’t quite explain it to herself.
They hadn't spoken since the last time they'd met at a park - and even then it had been more of a non-conversation after O'Neill had arrived with the borrowed Shiba Inu. And while Sam had thought it sweet that he'd gone through the trouble of giving Cassie the experience of playing with her first dog, the situation hadn't lent itself to deep conversation. Once the Colonel had taken the pooch back to his owner, Sam had met Janet at the home improvement store to pick out paint. There really hadn't been an opportune moment for Sam to address her insubordinate behavior with him.
This current situation wouldn't have been, either. Even if he had shown up.
"Looks like a party."
A hand touched Sam's elbow and she simultaneously jumped backwards while whirling around, arms flailing, her feet dancing an abnormally wobbly pirouette in the heavy sand.
The corner of his lip twitched as he watched her try to regain control of her body. "A bit jumpy, are we?"
"Yes - no." Slapping a palm to her sternum, Sam forced a nervous giggle back down her throat. "You startled me."
"I wasn't being stealthy in the least, Captain."
"No - I know." Shaking her head, she shifted her weight on her feet. One hand made a blithe, meaningless circle in the air. "I was just looking for you over there - not behind me, or near me, or where I'd be. Not here. You know?"
One dark eye narrowed. "You were looking for me?"
"No. Geez - of course not. That would be weird." The filter in her brain had completely lost control of what it allowed her tongue to say. "Not looking. Because why would I? Seriously. That's absurd, right?"
"So, you weren't looking for Daniel or Teal'c, either, right?"
"Yes. Not them. Just you - or not. Of course I was." Sam swallowed, trying to decide whether the Colonel appeared disturbed or amused. With him, that wasn't an easy call to make. "They're not here yet."
"Yes. Well. I'm sure they'll turn up eventually." He turned towards the party, perusing the happenings with a practiced, observant eye. "Cassie looks happy."
"So does Doc Fraiser."
"I think she is." Sam glanced towards the center of the crowd and found her friend. "I know she is."
"She'll make a good mom."
"She will." Calmer, now, Carter could focus better. "It's really the best situation for Cassie. She's with someone who has the necessary clearances, and since Janet's a doctor, she'll be able to watch for signs that the object implanted within Cassandra is reintegrating itself."
The Colonel turned his head to look at her, concern etching his expression. "Is that a possibility?"
Her blue eyes met his dark ones. The mood had turned clinical, which was somehow comforting. This conversation was easy - science was easy. Facts, rather than supposition or vague small talk. "To be honest, nobody really knows. We're optimistic, but, in the end, this is radically alien technology about which we know very little."
He pressed a shoulder against the frame of the swing set, leaning against the bright blue metal tubing. "That'll be a helluva thing to explain on her medical forms at the elementary school."
Sam's lips tweaked upward in a smile. "As long as she stays away from the 'Gate, I think we'll be okay. If recent tests are accurate, eventually all the parts should be reabsorbed into her own tissues, and Cassie won't be any different than the rest of us."
"Well, except that we are exceptionally cool." O'Neill pretended to flick a piece of lint off his shoulder. "She'll have to hang out with us a lot so that it rubs off on her."
"I'm sure that she'd like that."
"One thing's for certain," The Colonel took a moment to locate the girl within the crowd. "She's definitely enjoying herself at the moment."
Sam made a tiny hum in the back of her throat, nodding slowly as she dragged her attention from O'Neill to the rest of the party-goers. They'd reserved a covered picnic ramada at the park nearest Dr. Fraiser's home, and dozens of people milled around the area. Most of the guests were military families - those with a security clearance high enough to know the story behind the day's celebration - but many were people that Cassie had already charmed from school or from the neighborhood. Janet's parents and two of her sisters had even flown in from Wyoming for the occasion. The Powers That Be had fast-tracked the adoption, and it had taken a few weeks rather than years.
They'd taped streamers to the cinder-block pillars of the ramada, and anchored colorful bunches of balloons to trees and tables. Two tables sat under the ramada itself, laden with food, and a mismatched conglomeration of card tables, folding chairs, and picnic blankets spread out in a wavy perimeter from there, wrapping itself around the sandy play area and meeting back upon itself on the other side of the swings.
The guest of honor positively glowed amidst all the attention. Janet had fashioned intricate braids in her hair, and the dress she'd worn at the courthouse had been exchanged for a snappy set of jeans and a violet t-shirt with sequins sewn on it in the shape of a heart. Sam hadn't been able to figure out who'd had more fun shopping - the Doctor, or her newly adopted daughter. The new experiences and situations of Earth life hadn't frightened Cassandra; if anything, they had given her more confidence. The raw, haunted look had gone from her eyes, lately, and Janet had told Sam the evening before that the girl hadn't had a nightmare in days.
"She deserves to have some fun." Carter's eyes shadowed a little as she remembered. "I can't imagine a child having to go through what she did. It was bad enough experiencing it all as an adult."
"Cassandra didn't go through it alone." The Colonel tilted a look at her. "You were there, too."
Sam shook her head. "Not through the worst of it. Being the only survivor of your entire race? Having to live among the dead as long as she did? It's truly too horrifying to contemplate."
"She's strong. She's getting through it."
"I know." Her frown deepened. "We just don't know what she's really feeling inside. She's acclimating, but still so young. It's tough to know how this all ultimately affect her."
O’Neill made a sound that could have been a growl, but was probably a cough. "Like you said, Dr. Fraiser will be able to watch for signs that she's struggling."
"True." Carter hooked her fingertips into the pockets of her jeans. "But still."
"Hey, Jack. Hey, Sam."
They turned in unison towards the new voice, where Daniel had appeared seemingly from out of nowhere, dodging the swings as he walked towards them. Jack tapped the watch on his wrist, tilting it pointedly at the new arrival. "You're late."
Daniels' finger rose to shove his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. "Teal'c and I stopped off to get ice and sodas."
"Did he do the thing again?"
Dr. Jackson's smile faded as squinted towards the ramada, where the team's fourth member had just deposited O'Neill's gigantic cooler near the food tables. "Yes. Yes he did."
"Down to the ounce?"
"The half-ounce." Daniel grimaced. "That Jaffa does not like to waste money."
"So, what won this time?" Sam peered around Jack's shoulder for a better look. "Where'd you take him?"
"Safeway." Daniel fiddled with the hair above his ear. "They were having a sale on Coke products, luckily. Which means that we got the good stuff and not generic."
They all watched as Teal'c crouched next to the cooler and opened the lid. With his customary, efficient movements, he reorganized the neat stacks of cans within, buffering the different flavors of drinks between mini-walls of crushed ice.
"And not two-liters this time." Sam's voice carried a slightly triumphant tone. "Must have been a great sale."
With a little shrug, Daniel sighed. "He'd clipped coupons."
Jack scratched at his chin. "How'd he learn about coupons?"
"Beverly in HR. She's got five kids. She knows all about sales and clipping and- stuff." Daniel trailed off. He'd never clipped a coupon in his life. He didn't even know how to converse on the subject.
The Colonel grunted. "That boy needs a hobby."
"Teach him to knit?"
"I'm thinking scrapbooking."
Sam toed the sand with her sneaker. "How about if we just assign him something other than drinks next time?"
Daniel's lenses flashed in the sunlight as he turned to look at her. "Like what, snacks? He'd price it down to the Cheetoh."
"Pro-rate the pretzels."
"Get store-brand chips."
Sam considered. "Paper products?"
"Napkins by the square inch."
"Forks by the tine."
Jack shook his head in mock sadness. "And you could forget about the bendy straws."
"That Jaffa is one cheap son of a -"
All three of them looked up to see Cassie running across the play area towards them, her sneakers kicking up little sprays of sand. "Sam! Daniel!"
"Hey, kiddo." Jack intercepted the little purple-clad missile, grabbing her in an enormous bear hug. "What are you doing here?"
She looked up at him, confused. "What do you mean? It's my party."
"The Colonel knows that, Cassie." Carter reached out and tugged gently on one of the girl's braids. "He's just teasing you."
"Okay." She cast O'Neill a speculative look before stepping out of his hug. Reaching out, she grasped Daniel's hand. "Dr. Frai - I mean, Mom wants you to help her get the grill started."
"Me?" Daniel's brows furrowed together. "That's not normally my thing."
Cassie leaned in towards the archaeologist, hiding her whisper behind her uplifted hand. "Mom says Jack tends to burn stuff."
"Oh, she says that?" Daniel's gaze snapped towards the older man before returning with a conspiratorial glint to Cassie. "Well, I can certainly attest to it. He definitely does."
"Does what?" Sam pretended not to have heard.
"Burn food." Daniel shook his head. "Poor man lacks ability."
"Burn food? Lacks ability? Hey--who's the bald-faced liar making up stories about me?" Jack struck an indignant pose before winking at an obviously uncomfortable Cassandra. He crouched to her level and patted her shoulder. "I'm just kidding, Cassie. Tell your mom that I'll be there to help in a minute, okay?"
Sam watched as Daniel and Cassie walked, hand in hand, towards the ramada. Despite herself, her smile faded a bit, and she had to look down at where her feet made decent-sized divots in the sand.
Carter watched him as he rose, feigning what she hoped was confusion. "Sir?"
"About not adopting her." O'Neill wasn't looking at her, but instead towards the picnic tables, where Daniel had started fiddling at the BBQ. "Do you have any regrets about not taking her?"
Sam's brows crept together. "No. Yeah--but no."
His smile was kind, if distant. "So, which is it?"
She studied his face for a moment before looking away towards where Cassie had started playing a game of tag with the other kids on an unoccupied expanse of grass. Regardless of where she looked, her body still seemed aware of O’Neill’s every move. She'd been trying not to do that as much, lately, trying not to pay attention to the man behind the rank. Done whatever she could to not be put in a situation where she could even be this aware of him as anything besides her boss. And how had this conversation even occurred? Sam had been careful ever since the moment she'd been stupid enough to climb into the cab of his truck so many weeks before. Taking a deep breath, she forced her voice into a semblance of levity. "I'm not really ready for the whole 'Mommy' thing."
"Don't want kids?" The question seemed casual, but wasn’t.
"Yes. But not yet. Eventually. But not now." Folding her arms across her body, she turned towards him, focusing on an unknown scene over his left shoulder. "It's just not time. There are things that need to be done first."
"Like saving the world from alien invaders?" His tone was only slightly teasing.
She answered him in all seriousness. "Something like that."
He exhaled heavily. Meaningfully. "Yeah. That kind of thing tends to mess with your personal life, doesn't it?"
Carter's snort wasn't anything close to ladylike. "What personal life?"
She glanced at him only to find that he was watching her, his dark eyes appraising her with a frankness that she couldn't begin to fathom, his expression unreadable. Hell if that wasn't the part that made the least sense to her - how she could know what he was thinking - know exactly how he would act when it came to tactics in the field - and still be some completely unable to understand him in moments like this. Within normal times, when they weren't being shot at or chased down. How had he built up that wall? How had he so smothered whom he was when he still managed to dig up her own skeletons?
And why was he looking at her as if she were the answer to something? Because, it simply wasn't possible that he was as fascinated with her as she was with him. Because she wasn't. Or at least, she shouldn't be. Couldn't be.
But if not, why was he still studying her? And what the hell was he thinking?
Damn, damn, damn.
"Sam!" From across the playground, Janet's shout broke through the haze in Sam's brain. Even so, dragging her attention from the shuttered face before her to find her friend in the crowd took enormous effort and concentration. More so to decipher the flurry of hand gestures that the doctor was making.
She didn't trust herself to look at him again, only throwing a glance downwards at where hands had closed into fists at his sides. "I've got to go. Janet needs me to help with the game."
"Yeah." His voice cracked as if he hadn't used it in ages. "And I'll need to go give Daniel a hand."
"Hand me the garbage bag, please."
Sam idly played with the pile of tattered streamers in her hand, looking up from it only when Janet nudged her foot with her own. "What? I'm sorry."
"Garbage bag." The diminutive doctor held out a hand towards the table, where a box-full of trash sacks sat between the leftover plates and cups. In the other fist, she grasped a deflated bouquet of balloons. "I need one."
Snapping out of her reverie, Sam reached for the sack, yanking one out of the box and pulling it open before handing it to Janet. "Sorry. My brain is - "
"Yes." Removing another sack from the box, Sam opened it wide with one hand while shoving the streamers into it. "That's a good word for it."
"I could think of some other good words."
Carter grimaced. "That's really all right. Thanks, but no."
Janet's mouth tweaked upwards in a wry grin. "Who's the guy?"
"What?" Sam rose with a rush, rounding the picnic table as if on a mission. "No - no guy. What are you talking about? Why would there be a guy?"
Shoving the balloons deep into the bag, the doctor reached for a stack of used plastic cups. "Because you're acting a little - "
Spoken in the same moment, the two words kind of melded together, meaning more while enmeshed.
"Not - that." Sam's sigh seemed over-loud in the evening dim. "I'm just tired."
"Mmmm." Janet didn't seem convinced.
"Besides." Sam looked up from where she'd started attacking the tape on the underside of the table that secured the disposable coverings to the municipal cement slabs. "When would I have time to get hung up on someone? All I do is work."
"Yeah." The smaller woman's instant response held a note of condescension. "With a whole bunch of really hot guys."
"Oh, please." Sam's fingernail finally pulled a corner of tape free and she tore the piece off in a single motion. Some of the paper table-covering came off, too. "All of whom are completely off-limits."
"And if they weren't?"
Two more of the tape anchors came away in quicker succession, and then Sam could pull the entire covering off with one good yank. Smooshing up the thin paper into a wad, she crammed it into the bag. "Still no."
"Why not?" Dark hair flittered around her ears as Janet shook her head. "Just for kicks. It'd be Daniel Jackson, right?"
"What?" Finished with the one table, Sam took a few steps towards the next. "No. Not Daniel."
"Not Teal'c?" Janet settled the bag she'd been filling on a concrete bench before reaching for a few half filled water bottles. "I wouldn't have pegged you for that."
"For being into the alien thing."
"Seriously?" Sam grabbed another stack of dirty paper plates and tossed them into the garbage bag. "Really? You really just said that."
Janet's cheeks dimpled into a grin. "Just making conversation."
Straightening, Sam narrowed a glare at her friend. "You can stop at any time."
"There's that cute guy from the lab. The dark-haired one that always follows you around like a little puppy."
"Yes. Graham's adorable." Sam dumped an open can of soda out into the grass. "He's also just barely post-pubescent. I like a little experience, thanks."
Whirling, Janet fixed Sam with an iron gaze. "Experience. Ah. So that's the way the wind blows."
Sam chucked the can into the open maw of the trash bag. "No wind, Janet. There's no wind."
"C'mon, Captain. Give me something to live on." Janet plopped herself on the concrete bench of the now-clean table. "I'm going to be single-momming it for a while. I won't have time to date until Cassie settles in."
Slowly, Sam turned, finally facing her friend completely. Pressing her lips together, she studied the little doctor's face. "Really - truly. There's nothing to report."
Janet's full mouth pursed as she exhaled slowly. "Sam. There's nobody here but you and me until Daniel and Teal'c get back with the truck. And I'm not Captain Fraiser right now - I'm just Janet."
"There's a difference?" Sam took a step forward and sat down sideways on the bench opposite her friend. "Because they both seem pretty damned bossy."
Full darkness had somehow fallen, and Janet's brown eyes appeared shadowed almost completely. Even though the park lights had come on, the area under the ramada was still obscured and intimate. "You two looked pretty deep in conversation over by the swing set. It didn't look - seemly."
"Seemly?" Sam looked down at her hands, which were loosely clasped on the tabletop. "What are we - characters out of a Jane Austen novel?"
"You know what I mean."
"I do." Nodding, she flattened her hands on the cool cement. "But it was nothing. I was just trying to figure out how to apologize for something."
Janet's brows crept towards each other, a cute little wrinkle forming above her nose. "For what?"
"Disobeying orders, actually." Sam bit her lip. "On that day. When we were dealing with the possibility of Cassie - not making it - and we were taking her down into the abandoned silo. Cassie woke up in the elevator on the way down. The Colonel ordered me to continue on with the plan but I just - couldn't."
"Was he angry?"
Lifting a hand, Sam leaned her cheek on her fist. "I don't know. He hasn't said anything about it."
"He's probably fine. I wouldn't be too concerned about it."
Sam looked away, off into the distance where a group of people were playing around on the tennis courts. "Yeah. I guess."
"But you still worry."
"He's my boss, Janet." Sam sighed. "In this freakishly weird job - he's my boss - and we need to maintain some equilibrium. Disobeying orders is just - not good. You know?"
"You could just talk to him."
"Yeah." Carter nodded, a sideways effort with her cheek still balanced on her furled hand. "I could. But there's that whole 'seemly' thing."
"Write a note?"
"Oooooh." At that, Sam grinned. "Very seventh grade."
Janet's answering smile was just as wry. "Bake him some cookies?"
Sam paused at that, straightened up. "No. But maybe I could do something else."
She'd already figured out the secure interface between her laptop computer and the facility's own systems. Luckily, she'd maintained her friendships at the Academy, and had been able to sweet talk a few hours of uninterrupted time alone with the equipment. The fact that school was out for a few weeks' break had made it easier. She'd also promised Professor Charles to guest teach in his Astrophysics class during the upcoming semester. That had given her the whole night - as well as the key to the place.
Sam opened the bag of popcorn she'd gotten from the local theater, emptying it into the plastic tub she'd brought along before setting it on the console in front of her. Drinks, snacks, the two perfect seats picked out, the show ready to go on screen - she had everything she'd planned for the evening.
Except for the guest.
As if on cue, the door at the top of the theater swung wide, and a familiar silhouette appeared in the opening. His large frame practically filled the doorway as he paused, stepping a little inside to call out a cautious, "Hello?"
Sam swallowed a deep breath before lifting an arm in a slight wave. "Down here, Sir."
Dark fell again as the door slowly closed, and the Colonel made his way down the aisle towards the control center. He stopped next to the heavy wooden console, giving the contraption a once-over before finally looking at her directly. "Okay, you got me. What's up?"
"Well, Sir." Sam breathed deeply, her fingers skimming the keyboard of her laptop. "For the past few weeks, I've been trying to figure out how to tell you something."
He fitted his fingertips into the front pockets of his jeans, rocking forward slightly on the balls of his feet. The look he gave her might have been patience or exasperation. "Tell me what?"
"Sir." She raised a hand and brushed her hair behind her ear. "That day at the abandoned nuclear facility. When you ordered me to leave Cassie behind. I didn't."
"Carter." His face turned downwards, towards where her computer sat on the control board. "Just - hold it right there."
"No, sir. Please." Sam lifted a palm towards him, ducking her chin in an attempt to catch his gaze. "Please let me apologize. It was unprofessional to disobey a direct order, and I'm - "
"You were right." He lifted his eyes to hers. "You were right to stay with her. I couldn't have left her, either."
"But you sounded so angry - "
His expression softened, and something indefinable flickered across his face. "Carter. It was the right thing for you to do. You followed your instincts, which happened to be right on target, and it all worked out. We're calling it a win."
For a few long moments, Sam just stared at him. "So, I'm not in trouble?"
"What are you, a recalcitrant teenager?"
"No. I'm a junior officer." Her eyes flew even wider. "With kind of an alarming habit of disregarding the chain of command."
"You're a genius, a fantastic second, and a kick-ass Captain." He shrugged a little, the smooth leather of his jacket catching at what light was available in the darkened auditorium. "I figure we're good."
Okay. Sam looked down at her computer, absently playing with the screen, tilting it back and forth with her fingertips. She felt him studying her again, felt the intensity of his full attention on her. Sam didn't know if she would ever get used to that feeling of being read and understood completely, even when she was doing her best to conceal everything she was. It was unnerving and thrilling at the same time. Suppressing a slight shiver, she gathered herself and clicked a few buttons on the keyboard of her computer. "All right then."
"So, that's why you dragged me all the way down here?"
"No. That's not all." Sam stilled, biting her lip a little before running her fingers along the keys of her laptop. "I - uh - I put something else together for you."
"For me?" He leaned over the edge of the console, watching as she fiddled with the control panel. "Why?"
"Well." She flicked a few more toggles and then waited to see the proper file loading. "Because I owe you."
"You owe me?" O'Neill scowled. "What the hell for?"
As soon as the file uploaded completely, she pressed the appropriate key and then straightened, looking the Colonel directly in the eye. "I owe you a black hole."
He actually looked confused. "A black - "
Sam gestured towards the front of the theater, where a small cooler sat in a seat just off-center in the front row. She lifted the tub of popcorn and handed it to the Colonel, smiling slightly as he fitted it into the crook of his arm. "A black hole."
She clicked a few more keys, then reached over and dimmed the rest of the lights in the facility. "C'mon. It's all set up."
He stepped aside and allowed her to lead the way down the aisle, the dull blue lights in the floor guiding them towards the appointed seats. He waited for her to sit before handing her the popcorn tub. Shrugging out of his jacket, he laid it over the seat next to his before lowering himself down into the seat beside Sam’s. He adjusted himself in the seat, reclining the seat into position and then turning his head to look at her. "So, how did you arrange this?"
She'd already propped her feet up on the cooler, leaning as far back as the seat would allow. "I know some people."
"At a planetarium?"
"I went to the Academy, remember? The Astrophysics and Astronomy faculty are my - " she paused, searching for the right word even as she reached for a handful of popcorn.
He beat her to it. "Your peeps?"
Sam's hand stalled on its way into the tub. The corner of her mouth turned upwards as she caught his eye. "My peeps. Funny. So, anyway, a week or so ago, General Hammond sent SG-14 back to get the equipment from Hanka. Among the pieces they brought back was the hard drive from the telescope. It had survived the attack, and somehow captured the images that we'd gone there to get in the first place. I spliced things together a little, called in a few favors, and 'Voila!' We have the black hole we went there to capture in the first place."
"Voila." O'Neill's brows rose. "Just like that."
"You were supposed to have been the one to see it in the first place, before everything went south. And then I had to come back with Cassie, and you got left behind because I suggested it, and then you got attacked by the Goa'uld, which kind of sucked." She captured some kernels in her fingertips, bringing them to her lips. "So, I figured I owed you."
"How, in the name of all that’s holy, is that your debt to repay?"
She looked upwards, where the giant domed screen had started to flicker to life. Thoughtfully, she chewed and swallowed. "I'm not sure, actually. But I was the one that could give this back to you, and I knew that you'd been disappointed at missing it."
It took him a long time to say anything. "So you put this all together for me?"
"Well, yeah." Carter nodded. "Although, to be honest, I really wanted to see it, too."
Up above, the alien sky of Hanka blazed to life, even as the eclipse already loomed. Jack leaned back again, his tee shirt stretching across his chest as he crossed his hands behind his head. Angling his legs slightly, he lifted his feet to rest beside hers on the cooler. His heels banged against the plastic lid, the noise amplified in the silence of the auditorium.
"It's too quiet." Sam frowned. "I should have thought to add music or something."
"Last time I looked, Carter, you weren't a movie producer."
Sam cast him a look from out of the corner of her eye. His entire attention was on the scene above them on the domed screen. His face, his entire being, had relaxed to a point of easy openness that she rarely saw from the man. Usually, he closed himself off from everything around him to focus on the task at hand, but just now he radiated child-like anticipation. Excitement. She looked back up towards the eclipse to hide her smile. "True."
"You used a filter on this footage."
"I had to. I like my retinas just how there are."
"It's cool how you can see the double shadow of that other moon."
"Right?" Carter pointed at the faint outline of the second body on the screen above. "You can even see a gigantic crater in the image. That wasn't visible on my computer screen."
"And grainy. The optics of this planetarium are much better than my monitor."
He shuffled down a little further in his seat, and Sam could feel the warmth of his skin where their arms pressed together on the common rest. It was quiet, and dark, and even in the huge auditorium, more intimate than she'd anticipated. Without wanting to, she became aware of his thigh brushing hers, of how their shoulders nestled against each other, and even how their shoes had come to a rest on the cooler leaning in towards each other.
"So, when did you put all this together?"
"While we were on leave." Sam's hands gripped the plastic tub on her lap. "After the adoption party."
"I'd have thought you would have spent that time with Cassie and Janet."
Sam's shoulder rubbed against his as she made a tiny shrug. She'd been aiming for nonchalance, but had the sinking suspicion that she'd failed. "I didn't want to intrude. She and Janet had become something - a family - and I wasn't part of that."
"I'm not sure they'd agree with you on that point."
"I did my part and brought her safely to a place where her life could be lived. It's up to Janet to do the rest. Like I said at the park, I'm not exactly mommy material."
"C'mon. You'd have been great." O'Neill's left knee wavered over into her space, nudging hers. "You mother-hen the rest of us amazingly well."
She didn't know what to say to that, so she just moved the popcorn tub to rest on her right thigh, available to either of them. Several long moments passed in silence, both of them watching as the eclipse completed itself, before Sam spoke again. "Janet is the perfect person to adopt her. Steady, intelligent, caring, and mostly Earth-bound. It makes sense. I couldn't have been what Cassandra needed. Even in those days before we knew she'd make it, I wasn't - right."
"You were exactly what she needed, Carter."
"Not long term." She threw a glance at him, only to find he was already looking at her. Watching her as the miracle hovered over them unheeded. "Cassie needs stability. I can't offer her that."
O'Neill made a nod that might have been agreement before reaching over and grabbing a handful out of the popcorn tub. "Except it still kind of stings."
Her breath caught, and then escaped in what might have been a sob or a giggle. "Damn, yes."
His shoulder stilled against hers, becoming something firm between them. On their shared armrest, his forearm shifted, bringing his skin into contact with hers. The large knuckle of his index finger swept a path across the back of her hand. It was deliberate. "She is the luckiest little girl in the universe."
Sam looked up at him, her entire expression a question. "Sir?"
"Despite what happened to bring her here, Cassie's got it made."
"If you don't mind me asking, Sir, how do you figure that?"
The Colonel studied her, his dark eyes glinting. "Well, the way I see it, she's got two people who are qualified to be her mom. Two remarkable women who want to fill that position in her life. Cassie's lucky because there's one who knows that she's the perfect one to take her in and raise her." He stilled, making certain that she was understanding him before continuing. "And another who knows she's not."
Sam didn't know what to say to that, so she merely waited, her lips pressed tightly together.
"Too many kids don't even have one." He hand smoothed along hers again, the movement nearly imperceptible, but not accidental. "You both care about her. It's a good problem to have."
"It still feels like a cop out. Like I'm choosing the job."
"Not the job, Carter." He glanced upwards, where the non-Earth sky had revealed the first glimpses of the black hole's accretion disc. "Reality. You were there with her when she really needed somebody. Not leaving her alone in that silo was - "
"Well, there's that. But I was going to say amazing." O'Neill admitted this with an ever-so-slight hint of begrudging admiration in his voice. "Despite the fact that I wanted to completely wail on you for disobeying several direct orders."
Sam winced, narrowing her eyes at him while catching her bottom lip between her teeth. "Yeah. Like I said before, I'm sorry about that."
"There's this little thing called 'chain of command'."
"I've heard about it."
"We might need to have a refresher course." But his tone carried humor, rather than ire. "The three of you frequently show an alarming disability to just do what I say."
"Well, Daniel isn't military."
"And Teal'c's better at it than the rest of us."
His grin flashed in the dimness of the theater. "Teal'c's better at most things than the rest of us."
She sighed a little laugh. "Well. So much for 'kick-ass Captain'."
The toe of his boot thudded against her shoe. "I wouldn't have you any other way, Carter."
"Second time was better."
"Well, once you finally stopped chatting so that we could really watch it."
Sam grinned, opening the back door of her Volvo so that the Colonel could stow the cooler on the seat. "Next time I'll add a soundtrack."
"There's going to be a next time?" He'd stepped away from the car enough for her to stick the empty popcorn tub and her laptop on the seat beside the cooler and then swing the door closed.
"Well - yeah. Sure." Carter pulled her sweater closer around her. Night had fallen, and the air had turned cold. The deserted parking lot seemed to funnel the wind directly from the mountains to buffet around them. "If you want."
O'Neill had shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his leather jacket. "It'd be fun. Daniel and Teal'c might want to see it."
"Yeah. Maybe." Sam shrugged. "Although they're not really into the whole Astronomy thing."
His head shook as he grunted a laugh. "Not really."
"Anyway. Tomorrow's a work day, so I'll see you at the Mountain?"
"Bright and early." But he didn't move towards his truck. Instead, the Colonel took a step closer to her. His stance was broad, ready, with an undercurrent of expectant hesitation. He took in a deep breath before speaking again. "You know, back at the silo. On the day that you took Cassie down to the facility."
Sam crossed her arms over her abdomen. "Sir?"
"You thought I was angry with you for disobeying orders."
"Weren't you?" Frowning, she inched towards him. Memories from that day tumbled through her mind, until a single moment emerged. She'd just stepped onto the elevator, Cassandra unconscious in her arms. The Colonel had offered to take her down himself, but she'd refused, and she'd turned in the compartment to see him focused on her. His expression had been intense, profoundly so, and she hadn't had any idea at the time how to interpret it. "You seemed to be."
"I kind of had a feeling that you wouldn't be completely compliant."
She had no ready answer for that, so she merely waited, willing her body not to shiver.
"When you stepped into the elevator, I knew that you wouldn't be coming back up without the girl. And since we all thought she was about to explode - "
Sam's breath caught in her throat, and she exhaled with a little nod. "You thought that I wouldn't be coming back up at all."
"I didn't find that - acceptable." O'Neill suddenly seemed to find the toe of his boot fascinating. "In fact, it scared the hell out of me."
"Sir, I - "
"So, let's not do that again." He looked up at her from beneath his heavy brows. "Deal?"
She raised a hand to rake at her bangs, pushing them away from her face. "I can't change who I am, Sir."
"I wouldn't want you to, Captain." The Colonel's voice crept between them like dense fog - soft, yet insistent. "I would, however, like to keep you around."
"No." Shaking his head, he shuffled a step closer, his boots scraping on the asphalt of the parking lot. "That might be true for me, or Daniel or even Teal'c. But not you."
"Sir, I - "
"A team's like a body, Carter. I'm like the head - I make the decisions and plan out what's going to happen. Daniel's like this big ol' bundle of nerves that pokes and prods and irritates the hell out of everyone. Teal'c's the muscle. The strong stuff. He'll pick everyone up and keep going." O'Neill lifted a hand and swiped it across the stubble on his cheeks and chin, ending with a random scratch at his temple. "But you, Captain. You're the soul. You're what makes the brain work and the nerves feel and the muscles strong. Without the soul, the rest of the body wouldn't function."
He scuffed his foot against some loose gravel in the parking lot. “You can replace everything there – the head, the muscle, the nerves – but the soul is special. It’s like the life of everything. What gives everything else meaning.”
A warmth crept through Sam's body, starting at the blush brightening her cheeks and working its way down towards her heart. "I don't know what to say."
"Just say you won't go and get yourself blown up on purpose."
Her dimples flashed as she bit back a grin. "I wish I could give you that promise."
"How about if I made it an order?"
"Yes, well." Tilting her head to one side, she peered up at him. "We've already discussed that whole 'following orders' thing."
"Damn." O'Neill's expression softened a bit. "So I'm still SOL on that front."
"But thank you, Sir." She ran her tongue across her lips, oddly aware that he was watching her do so. The heat spread further within. "To be honest, it's hard to know where I stood in this crowd. Whether I really belonged or was merely tolerated."
"Now you know." He'd somehow gotten close enough to be in her space, and she could feel the heat of him as he reached towards her, clasping her shoulder in what, in other circumstances, in other conversations, in other worlds, might have been a brotherly expression of regard.
But not when his thumb made a lazy sweep over the outer edges of her collarbone, delving into the divot between it and her shoulder, and not when his fingertips traced over the muscle of her arm, learning her shape. Not when she leaned into the touch, her eyelids drifting low as she concentrated on his fingertips as they slid downward, his thumb drifting towards the sensitive portions of her inner arm, and his palm possessively cradling her bicep.
She could hear him exhale, feel his pulse in his fingertips - quick and sure, even through her sweater. Lifting her eyes to his, she fought to control her own breath, just as he was fighting to close off the expression he'd allowed to become too unguarded, too exposed. His hand tightened, then released, and he was stepping away from her, his hand retreating back into the safety of the pocket of his coat.
"So, don't blow up."
"I'll endeavor not to."
Nearly whispers, words more felt than heard.
"I'll see you in the morning."
"Yeah." Sam nodded.
"And thanks again - for tonight." He indicated the Planetarium with a motion of his head. "For the black hole."
"Sure. I just figured you'd want to see it. After all that we went through."
He stood motionless, his eyes narrowed at her. That look was back - the one he'd given her while she'd stood in the elevator, an unconscious girl in her arms. Deep, dark, and filled with something that she couldn't have put a name to if she'd tried. His lips pressed tightly together before he responded. "Could have been worse, Sam."
The heat had returned, unfurling from her core upwards. Sam stepped backwards, until her fingertips came into contact with the door handle of her car. With a practiced move, she swung the door open and moved around behind it - whether to hide her flushed face from the Colonel or to prevent her from stepping back into his warmth, she couldn't have told. She sat, inserted her key, and rolled down the window to cast a last look at O'Neill. "Well, good night."
"See you tomorrow."
"It's always going to be tomorrow, isn't it?"
And later, lying alone in bed with the oppressive silence of her house close around her, the memory of his fingers still hot against her skin, she wondered exactly what he'd meant.