Day 111-112: "I give up."
Hurrying down the crowded corridor, John pushed the earpiece radio further into his ear. “I swear, Sam, if you don’t say something right now I’m gonna—Argh!“
A high-pitched whine of static tore straight through his eardrums. John pulled the offending piece out of his ear, cursing beneath his breath. What the hell was she up to?
He looked around and spotted a familiar balding head in a Daedalus jumpsuit up ahead. John quickly broke into a jog, following Caldwell as he veered off down a less crowded corridor. "Colonel!”
Caldwell spared him a glance over his shoulder, but didn’t break his stride.
“What the hell's going on?” John asked when he’d caught up. “Sam's not answering her radio, and now Woolsey's calling us to the conference room for a casual meeting?” Shoulder to shoulder now, John was able to notice the grimness in Caldwell’s face. He narrowed his eyes. “What do you know?"
"Less than you, I'm sure," said Caldwell, skirting his eyes ahead of them. A few Airmen passed them with salutes. He nodded and moved on, his pace brisk and with a purpose.
"The hell you do." John's hands clenched at his sides. He was tempted to pull the bald man aside for a 'private' talk. "You've always known what's going on, even when you haven't been around. What'd they do?"
"Look, Sheppard, this isn't the time or place—" Caldwell halted as a female scientist hurried around a corner, her hands filled with fibre-optic wires.
John recognised her as one of the former SGC's science team – Michelle something. McKay had complained about her on occasion. She gave them both a deer-in-headlights look before quickly scurrying off. Caldwell stared after her with narrowed eyes – making sure she was out of earshot – before he silently gestured John to keep up.
They reached the bottom of the staircase leading to the back of the operations centre. Caldwell stopped and glanced over his shoulder. Seeing no one, he continued in a low voice, "Look, we don't have time right now. Just… Whatever you hear in there, don't lose your cool."
"That's not exactly reassuring—"
"Trust me, it's important," said Caldwell brusquely. "Things happened quicker than I anticipated. We'll have to be careful or it's all gonna go to hell."
"What are—" John started, but Caldwell had already turned and bounded up the stairs two steps at a time. John had no choice but to follow, struggling to keep his temper and his questions in check.
They reached the operations centre, John close on Caldwell's heels. The technicians looked up as they passed by silently. John again noticed the abrupt change in atmosphere that had met them when they returned from Kadara an hour ago. It was tense – the kind of tense that put him on edge and made him itch for his sidearm. Something had happened while they'd been off-world, and no one was talking, not even Chuck. John had never felt like an intruder on Atlantis before, but this came close.
A moment later, they strode into the conference room. The other council members were already there with the addition of Woolsey and Coolidge seated on either side of Xiaoyi. Made up of the former senior staff and department heads, the addition of the IOA made for a full council room. McKay looked confused and a bit miffed – probably interrupted in the middle of something – and Keller looked like she wanted to be anywhere else. She still had patients - some in life-threatening conditions, like the Kadarian kids. The rest wore mixed expressions; one even grinned openly at Coolidge.
John noticed that Sam was nowhere to be seen. He sat down between Caldwell and McKay, sparing a glance at Xiaoyi, who pushed the button to close the doors. His frown deepened and his neck tensed. Caldwell's words of warning rang in his head. What was going on?
The doors closed and Xiaoyi leaned forward. "I am happy to see everyone made it here, even on such short notice. Once you hear what we have to say, I am sure you'll understand the urgency of this meeting."
She gestured to Coolidge, who took her cue. John thought he looked smug. "As of today," Coolidge said, barely keeping his grin in check, "Colonel Carter has resigned her command of this city. Until a new leader is chosen, the IOA will be in charge during the interim period."
"What?" John's eyebrows shot to the roof. To his side, Caldwell shot him a sharp glance, but John ignored him. "Sam would never—"
"It's true, Colonel," interjected Woolsey, his voice careful. "As you know, Atlantis has been in negotiations with the Tikwee about a possible mining operation on their second planet, home to one of their colonies. I think Dr McKay will agree when I say we desperately need those resources if Atlantis is to support itself in the future."
At this point, Woolsey glanced at McKay, who sat open-mouthed and dumbfounded. He slowly closed his mouth, his eyes still wide. "Uh—um—yes, well, of course we need—I mean—Sam and I talked about it for months—but I didn't—really? She just... resigned?"
"Not entirely willingly, I will admit," said Woolsey.
"It was part of the Tikwee's conditions before accepting our deal," said Xiaoyi unhurriedly, sparing a glance at Woolsey before turning to McKay. "They have been fooled once before by a military regime and caught the bad end of their deal. The Genii," she added in explanation, and a wave of knowing seemed to ripple through the room. "As I'm sure you'll understand, as long as Atlantis is under military command, we will not be successful in our negotiations. Finding another colony willing to agree to our terms will take too long. Colonel Carter thus agreed to give up her command so that we would be able to acquire the mining operation."
John almost burst out of his seat, but Caldwell interrupted him. "In the absence of Colonel Carter, and as long as Daedalus is docked for repairs, all military issues are to be addressed to me." He shot a particular look at John, who narrowed his eyes. He couldn't believe this was happening.
Caldwell continued unfazed. "The resources we'll get from the mining operation will enable Atlantis to manufacture our own materials – ammunition, armour, energy devices, and equipment. Becoming self-sustained is vital to our survival," he added and looked at everyone around the table. Many of them nodded in agreement, even those John knew sided with the IOA. "We can't rely on our allies. Not with the Wraith superhive around waiting to catch us."
This is a waste of time.
John's hands clenched under the table and his face tightened in repressed anger as he bowed his head. No way Sam went willingly. This was a dirty, under-handed coup d'état. The smug look on Coolidge's face said it all. The IOA had finally wrestled command back into their hands, and they'd brought Caldwell into it as well. Sam had been completely sidelined.
John felt like punching someone. Coolidge’s overgrown nose was a temping target.
"Any other news you wanna share with us?" John raised his chin, locking eyes with the top three IOA representatives.
Woolsey withdrew his eyes almost immediately. Xiaoyi and Coolidge gave each other a glance, and – no surprise there – Xiaoyi chose to respond.
"No other news, but a suggestion." Xiaoyi paused, looked at everyone, and then continued. "Right now, the people in this city are grieving the loss of fifteen colleagues and friends. I'd like to suggest that we keep the news about the change in command quiet for now. These people do not need any more…worries…at the moment."
John opened his mouth to argue, but Caldwell jumped in and closed the proceedings. "I agree," he said, nodding at Xiaoyi. "We shouldn't let this matter stop us from doing our jobs."
Again, Caldwell glanced at John as if it should mean something. John didn't know what anything meant anymore.
"You sure you haven't seen her?"
"I'm sorry, Dr Jackson.” Major Lorne gave him an apologetic look.
Daniel sighed deeply. He stood in the middle of the gateroom, newly arrived from New Athos. Engineers and soldiers were cleaning up crates and equipment that'd been used on Kadara to excavate the dead – no one had been left alive in the ruins.
It was unreal. It was less than a week since he'd talked to the Kadarians, and now they were simply gone, along with fifteen Earth-born. Daniel couldn't believe it. He wanted someone to confirm it and that someone was Sam. Only she'd seemingly dropped off the grid. Her radio was dead.
Daniel saw the conference room doors open on the second level of the gateroom. John was the first to exit. There was a dark expression on his face that Daniel had seen countless times before in soldiers about to face combat. Before he could think of why, the entire Atlantis council filed out of the room – except Sam.
When the top three IOA representatives exited last along with Colonel Caldwell – talking in confident, hushed tones – Daniel felt a sudden, stomach-turning uneasiness spread throughout his body. He looked back at John, who was descending the grand staircase in a storm.
"Colonel!" Daniel hurried towards the grand staircase and met John at the bottom. He blinked at Daniel twice as if broken out of a spell.
"Jackson." John’s voice was wary. He glanced over his shoulder, notably following the quartet on the second level with his eyes as they walked towards Sam’s office, Xiaoyi in the lead. "I thought you weren't due back 'till tomorrow."
"We came as soon as we heard the news about the Kadarians," Daniel said. "Teyla's down in the infirmary."
He paused, suddenly hesitant. John was still grim-faced, his hands white-knuckled and tense at his sides. He barely met Daniel’s eyes, staring instead at Lorne directing the clean-up in the gateroom. The question about the state of things dropped from Daniel's mind. He opted for his other objective instead.
"Look, Sam's not answering her radio, and no one's seen her…" He drifted off on an inquisitive tone. John didn't respond, but his expression darkened. Daniel bit his lip and stepped closer. It might be more personal than their level of acquaintance, but he was worried, especially as there'd obviously been a council meeting Sam wasn't part of. "John, what's going on? Was Sam hurt during the excavation?"
John broke out of his trance, turning fully towards Daniel. He shot a look up at the walkway between the operations centre and Sam's office. Daniel up and saw Woolsey and Caldwell staring down at them, their expressions blank.
"Sam's just... taking a break," John said finally, but Daniel heard the elusive tone in his voice. Before he could challenge him, however, John had stepped away from the staircase and turned towards the exit.
Stunned for a moment, Daniel soon followed close behind, not satisfied with such a ridiculous claim. He caught up to the lieutenant colonel in a deserted hallway not far from the transporter.
"You expect me to believe that?" Daniel called after him. "I've known her for a long time, John. Sam wouldn't just disappear like this when people need her. You know that too."
John didn’t look at him. "What I know doesn't mean squat anymore. There's not a damn thing I can do about it anyhow."
Daniel frowned. The wheels in his head went into overdrive. "This isn't just about Kadara and the Wraith, is it?" John didn't reply. He kept striding towards the transporter. "Is it?"
John halted abruptly in front of the transporter, twisting on his heel to face Daniel. His voice growled with repressed rage. "They kicked her out, Jackson! Five minutes after we got back. They didn't even have the decency to wait until this damn thing was over!"
Daniel's eyes widened in surprise. He didn't need to ask who 'they' were. That much had always been apparent. He closed his open mouth, gathering his wits. Eventually, he looked up at John again. The lieutenant colonel was staring at the wall, his jaw set. "So she's…"
"Private.” John's voice was low, quiet. “Dunno where."
Daniel nodded, agreeing with John's assessment. Sam was usually a strong woman, but a blow like this… More than a month ago she'd been hiding away in a storage room seeking company in Earth paraphernalia. She wouldn't let anyone see how far down she’d come. The Kadarians had helped bring her sanity back and Daniel just didn't know what to think now.
"Guess it's really gone to hell, huh?" He sighed deeply, meeting John's dark eyes.
John didn't reply, resuming his mixed stare on the walls – fists clenched at his sides. Deciding nothing more could be done here, Daniel slowly went past him towards the forgotten transporter. He raised his hand above the door controls.
Daniel turned back as the doors opened behind him. John met his eyes, his anger gone and replaced by…something indecipherable. "You mind if I join you?"
As they walked down the non-descript corridors and staircases, the afternoon light heavy on the reddish floors, John was overcome with a sense of familiarity. Even if the design was no less peculiar than in the other towers, John's eyes swept the corridor for the small, tell-tale marks that told him they were on the right track. Cracks in the windows. Burns from an overloaded circuit. Air from a nearby vent. They all brought back the memories.
It seemed like ages ago, and yet…not. It rattled John. For three months, the eyes he'd seen in his mind at night were hard and cold. It made him able to block out the rest. The short, blissful memories. Today, however, when he'd seen Sam among the Kadarian ruins… Even though she wore the signature leather uniform, Colonel Carter wasn't there. It was just Sam, with tears in her beautiful blue eyes.
John’s jaw set stoically. He'd never seen her cry before. Two years of friendship and a few months as something more…and she'd never let him get that close. Not even when she got back from General Hammond’s funeral, clearly distraught, and he held her close all night. Maybe she'd never trusted him with that vulnerability. It’s the only reason that made sense.
"Here we are,” said Jackson.
John looked up, half-surprised they were already in front of Sam's quarters. He forced his hands to relax at his sides as Jackson stepped in front of the door controls. The archaeologist raised his hand, then hesitated and looked back at John.
John understood the unspoken question. Was he ready? The wounds were still open. He still saw those damn cold eyes in his mind. But…recalling Sam's look before going through the stargate on New Kadara and the following events, John realised he couldn't stay out of this any longer. This wasn't about them, or past memories. It was just professional. A 2IC checking up on his CO, who just happened to have been jousted out of her saddle by the worst kind of gang.
John nodded and took up position slightly to the side, so that all attention would be drawn to Jackson first. Jackson turned back to the door and finally waved his hand over the controls, which responded to his induced ATA gene.
The door slid open immediately.
"Uh… Sam?" Frowning, Jackson called into the darkened quarters from the doorway. "Sam, you there?"
There was no reply. Jackson turned to him with a worried look. John stepped up to the doorway warily as Jackson took a hesitant step into the room. The lights suddenly came to life, and both of them froze in shock.
The place was trashed. Furniture lay broken and upturned. Clothes and books were scattered over it all, sheets of paper torn amidst broken glass, pottery, dirt and wooden splinters. The bookcase was thrown down upon the bed, the sheets slung in a heap against the wall. The tall flowerpot Sam had kept by the door lay smashed by an office chair. The blue flowers were shredded and scattered across the floor.
"Uhh... schiebe," Jackson gasped.
John's insides twisted. He couldn't find the words.
"Sam?" Jackson called again – his tone more desperate – as he moved into the room. "Sam?" He went to the bathroom, popping his head in. John followed slowly behind, eyes sweeping across the destruction. A second later, Jackson returned, shaking his head with a deeply worried look. "She's not here."
John's eyes zeroed in on a nightstand with a missing door. It stood next to the bed, probably put back up again after the carnage. An assortment of pictures in broken frames stood on it. John recognised them all, and their significance. "Well, she was."
"Huh?" Jackson looked up, and John pointed to the nightstand. The man's mouth opened in understanding. "Oh."
John began to pick his way through the mess, grimacing as pieces of glass crushed under his boots. He reached the other end of the room and stopped by the nightstand. Jackson came up next to him.
They surveyed the pictures silently. Unlike the portraits of Cassie, Sam's father and the others in Sam's office, these were more personal in nature. A barbeque action shot with Sam's brother and his family, with Sam holding up a burned chicken leg and pouting. A shot of Sam and her father laughing together at SGC's former Alpha site. A photo of Sam at Cassie's graduation, beaming proudly at the red-haired teen. Then a Christmas celebration with the original SG-1, in which Sam was unwrapping a Simpson figure of Professor Frink and looking dubious. And, standing behind all the other frames, a large photo of General O’Neill.
John stared at the picture of the grey-haired man, at the frame that’d been pushed together after being broken. His hands fisted and he withdrew from the nightstand suddenly, turning his back on it.
"John." He was halfway across the room when Jackson's voice broke through his unsettled mind.
He stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Wh—?"
The words halted in his mouth. In his palm, Jackson held a small glass container. Inside was a simple but beautiful carving of a bird, made from the bark of a tree that was common in the Pegasus galaxy. John had given it to Sam on her birthday last year. Just four days after they lost contact with Earth. When they were still…
"I'm surprised it survived," Jackson said, almost in wonder.
"We should try looking somewhere else." John cleared his throat, withdrawing his eyes from the well-preserved ornament. All sorts of memories threatened to overcome him.
Jackson put the glass container down on the shelf far from the epicentre of the mess – John's eyes followed the movement warily. Then Jackson straightened and scratched his neck. "I think I've got an idea where she might be."
Caldwell strode past the technicians in the operations centre of Atlantis. Some of them barely spared him a glance, busy with their duties. Only the gate operator – Campbell – met his dark look above his console. The man knew why Caldwell was there, that much was apparent. This wasn't just the commander of Daedalus checking in. The military personnel knew he was at the top now, and the significance of that.
Caldwell continued across the walkway leading to Carter's office. The blinds were half-drawn, but he saw the dark hair of the person seated behind the desk. He straightened his back and marched into the room, closing the door loudly behind him.
Xiaoyi almost jumped in her seat. She quickly closed the laptop in front of her. Her smile seemed strained. "Stephen."
"Did I interrupt something?" Caldwell crossed his arms across his chest, eyeing the non-descript laptop.
"No, no. Not at all. I'm just cleaning up some of Colonel Carter's things." Xiaoyi cleared away the folders she'd spread out beside the laptop. Caldwell noticed the SGC logo on the front, along with an unmistakable red stamp only associated with the office of Homeworld Security, before they disappeared.
His neck tensed. He hadn't seen those since he’d last talked with… Caldwell eyed Xiaoyi carefully. Carter was supposed to have taken measures to protect the original content of those folders on General O’Neill’s orders. Only those with clearance were allowed to see the real files. Had she done it? Did Xiaoyi know? Did she suspect?
"There!" Xiaoyi smiled as she dumped the last folders in a brown cardboard box standing next to the desk. "Now, what can I do for you, Colonel?"
Caldwell's eyes went to the laptop Xiaoyi had been perusing when he'd entered. It looked like Sam's. He forced himself to relax, at least visibly. There was nothing he could do about Xiaoyi's curiosity. Not now. Not if he wanted to keep the support of those who still trusted him.
"I'm just here to give you an update," he said.
"Daedalus? Yes, of course. How're the repairs going?" Xiaoyi leaned forward on her arms, her features calm once more.
"Good," Caldwell said. "The crew is getting help from Dr McKay and his team, so it should cut down the work time. So far, it's not looking as bad as we first expected. The shield and weapons upgrades we got last month saved us against the superhive. Depending on what materials are readily available, repairs should only take two or three weeks."
Xiaoyi smiled. "That is good news, Colonel. Then you will be able to join the closing part of our negotiations with the Tikwee." She located a folder in one of the drawers and pulled it out. "I have several points I would like to go over with you…"
"Go ahead. I've got time." Caldwell settled down in the chair opposite the desk. He forced himself to smile.
"Is Colonel Carter here?" Daniel asked simply. The two guards nodded silently, stepping aside to give them space. One of them input the necessary code and the door opened. Daniel sighed, preparing himself for what laid ahead.
"Take a walk," John told the guards, motioning his head towards the corridor. "A long walk."
The guards shared a glance, but didn't object. Holstering their stunner pistols, they walked away until they disappeared around a corner.
Just the two of them now, John stepped up to the doorway, but hesitated. Finally, he said, "I'll wait out here."
The pained expression of resignation and doubt in John’s eyes made Daniel sigh inwardly. Some other day, they'd have to handle that matter too, but he couldn’t afford to think about that now.
First things first: plug the holes.
"Okay," Daniel said, turning towards the supply room. After taking a deep breath, he crossed the threshold.
At first glance, the room looked undisturbed. Looking closer, however, Daniel saw that a small container lay open on the floor. Around it, tiny square pieces littered the ground. Daniel realised they were from the Rubik's Cube, broken from some kind of impact, just like the items in her quarters. He leaned down and picked up the biggest debris, gripping it in his hand. He sighed.
His voice resonated in the quiet room. He couldn't see her anywhere, but there were plenty of containers to hide between. At least he knew she was here. He'd half-expected it, especially after seeing her quarters. She'd admitted previously that something about this room brought her comfort.
Daniel stepped slowly forward, his ears perked for any sound. Something stirred and he turned towards it. "Sam?"
Someone sniffled. Daniel hurried up to two large rows of steel containers. Sam sat hunched between them, leaning against the wall with her legs close to her chest. Her face was buried in her arms. Daniel almost didn't see her at first; one of the containers blocked the overhead light.
His chest constricted. "Sam…"
Sam raised her head tiredly. A stream of light revealed red eyes and cheeks, fresh tear tracks running down her skin. Her hair was dishevelled, sticking out of her usual braid. She wore a dirty leather uniform that was torn to shreds – probably from the destruction she'd given her quarters, or the clean up on Kadara.
"They took my picture, Daniel," she croaked, her eyes big and watery. "I—I couldn't find it. The one from…Jack's cabin last year." She scrunched up her face to stop from crying, but tears still ran down her cheeks. Daniel's heart sank in realisation. It'd been Sam's favourite picture; a memory of the last time they’d all been together.
Sam shook her head listlessly. "I-I can't do it anymore," she continued hoarsely. "I just—I can't do it… I—I give up. They win."
The words stopped as Sam's breath hitched. Daniel put the remains of the Rubik's Cube onto a nearby container and sat down in front of her. He sighed as he nudged her forward, "Hey..."
Sam sank into his arms at once, her body trembling with silent sobs. Daniel kissed the top of her head and tightened his hug. "Shh, it's okay. It's okay. We'll…we'll find it."
The back of John's head banged against the corridor wall. His stomach dropped into his gullet and constricted his throat at the same time. He didn't mean to eavesdrop – he was just closing the door to give them some privacy. He hadn't been quick enough.
Sam's picture… He remembered it vividly. She’d spent hours looking at it when she didn't think anyone saw her. John had. More times than he cared to remember. He’d even been jealous of it…
Stumbling away, suddenly feeling his lungs tremble, John looked at his hands as he fought the hyperventilation. They tensed into white knuckled claws, trembling even as he tried to stay still. His legs quivered and his gut convulsed involuntarily. John tightened his jaw, formed a fist with his right hand and punched the wall behind him. He grimaced, but not for his own pain as his knuckles cut open. The emotion he'd heard in Sam's voice… It haunted him, like her cold, hard eyes had once done.
"I guess this is it…Colonel."
John forced his fists to relax. He pushed off the wall, still shaking uncontrollably. He could feel his muscles on fire and his shoulders pumped up, his head lowering into a wolf-like stance. After all that'd happened, Sam didn't deserve this. It was a low blow – the final one – and the people responsible were going to answer for it.
He glanced at the closed supply room door. Jackson was with her. She had the guy she needed. But Jackson couldn't threaten someone into talking even if his life depended on it. That was John's speciality. He didn't even have to wonder which of the idiots had done it. That much was glaringly obvious.
He set off down the corridor without a backward glance, his veins burning with adrenaline.
"What a load of junk." Coolidge scoffed as he shuffled through the cardboard boxes standing on the floor.
Shen raised an eyebrow in concern. "Those are Colonel Carter's personal items, James. You shouldn't be doing that."
Coolidge snorted. He picked up a Greek-looking vase and held it up in his hand. "She's not here to complain, is she? Besides," he added, turning to glance at her as he threw the vase from hand to hand. "You've been sneaking into her files."
Shen cleared her throat uncomfortably, straightening in the office chair. "That was different," she said cautiously, glancing at the technicians in the operations centre. The door was ajar, and anyone could hear. She lowered her voice as she continued, "We both agreed that we've been kept out of the dark for too long. Not that it matters, as the files didn't reveal anything, and her laptop's encrypted. She's most likely hidden the real papers."
"Along with the location of the last ZPM. Carter's taking a lot of secrets with her," said Coolidge angrily. He gripped the vase with both hands, his eyes glinting. Shen's eyebrows creased in worry.
"As is to be expected." She got to her feet and took the vase from him. "We've all got secrets." She put the vase back in its box and sat back down.
"That's true." Coolidge nodded, moving behind the desk. He played with the top of her chair – something Shen wasn't too sure what to make of. She shifted uneasily in her seat and glanced over her shoulder. The man's behaviour had changed recently, and it worried her, but he was still part of the higher ranks in the IOA. She couldn't just ignore him.
"What is it?"
"Just found a way to remember home. That's all." Coolidge sighed, releasing the top of the chair. He turned away from the desk and sauntered back towards the cardboard boxes.
Shen spared him an uncertain glance before noticing movement in the corner of her eye. She looked up and saw Colonel Sheppard striding across the walkway from the OpCentre, his hard eyes set on the glass door.
"James," Shen called out lowly in warning, just before Sheppard entered the room and closed the door behind him. She quickly turned her attention to him, giving him a raised eyebrow. "Colonel Sheppard, to what do we owe the—"
Shen's eyes widened as Sheppard ignored her and went straight for Coolidge. She saw the hard, furious look in his eyes and jumped to her feet, but it was too late.
In a flash, Coolidge looked up, only to find himself lifted off the ground like a sack of potatoes. Sheppard pulled back in a roll and flung the much smaller man through the closed glass door, shattering it into a million fragments.
Coolidge groaned loudly as he slammed into the ground, and Sheppard was upon him in an instant.
"Where is it, you son of bitch!" Sheppard screamed as he punched the man into the floor. "Where is it?"
Shen rounded the desk and approached the enraged colonel, but the man swung back and pointed at her warningly. "Stay out of this!"
Shen halted half-step, her heart racing. Some of the technicians in the OpCentre had gathered at the other edge of the catwalk. Shen saw Chuck hold them back, clearly not wanting to get too close to the enraged lieutenant colonel.
“Tell me, you goddamned bastard.” Eyes dark and narrow, Sheppard turned back to Coolidge, who was wide-eyed and frightened. A bruise was forming around his left eye. "Tell me where it is!" Sheppard tightened his grip on Coolidge's collar and lifted him up and onto the railing. "Tell me or so help me God I will throw you off this bridge!"
Coolidge opened and closed his mouth several times before any sound escaped. All colour had drained from his face. "It's—it's in my—my room!"
Sheppard heaved him further over the railing with a disgusted sound. He pushed his face up close to Coolidge's, growling, "Show me!"
"Yes, yes!" Coolidge whimpered, and Sheppard finally pulled him back from the brink. He let the man down, but still looked enraged. Coolidge picked himself up timidly, staring at Shen for help, but she remained in her place, quiet and wary. Then he scurried out and past the gathered group of technicians that made a hole for them to pass through, with Sheppard close on his heels.
Shen glanced to the OpCentre again. Chuck stood at the head of the group holding them back with raised arms. Miss Banks was wide-eyed but in position to move in if needed to assist Chuck. The display wasn’t lost on her.
"You should get back to work," Shen told them calmly, then looked at the destroyed glass door and sighed.
A tired but grim-faced John stood in the doorway when Jackson answered the buzzer. He was still shaking, slowly coming down from the surge of adrenaline. The implications of what he'd done still hadn't seeped in, but at least he'd taken Coolidge to the infirmary after he'd retrieved his objective. He showed the archaeologist the framed SG-1 picture in his hand, which was still mildly trembling and bloody from the savage attack.
"You found it," stated Jackson, his eyes wide in surprise. John didn't blame him for his shock.
"Yeah," John said awkwardly, unwilling to reveal all the details. He clenched his spare hand, recalling the satisfaction of putting the fear of God into Coolidge. For once, he’d actually done something. His hand ached terribly, but in a good way. "It won't disappear again."
Jackson seemed to catch on to the serious tone in John's voice, as if the blood and bruises weren't enough. He smiled uneasily. "Good." He scratched his head, dragging the silence on, before clearing his throat. "Uh… You wanna come in? Sam's asleep, but uh…" His voice faltered and he stepped aside instead, gesturing for John to enter.
John hesitated. He stared into Sam's quarters from the doorway – now restored to its somewhat clean appearance again, although the dirt and glass had simply been swept to the side. His eyes went to the woman herself, curled up beneath a blanket on the bed. The red cheeks were obvious on her pale skin. But that peaceful, sleepy look…
The stars illuminated her face through the open window. John brushed a stray hair away from her face. Her nose scrunched up and she began to stir. John quickly stilled, his breath caught in his throat, but Sam didn't wake up. Fortunately.
She needed her sleep. It'd been a tough day; a lot of people hadn't appreciated learning they couldn't go home for Christmas as planned. They wanted to know why, but Sam couldn't tell them. She'd just gotten a message from General O'Neill saying all passes had been revoked. Probably something to do with the Wraith Hive ships headed their way, though. They needed all hands on deck.
John smiled. She was rather cute. The way she softly snored, the way she clutched the pillow underneath her head – she wasn't as graceful as Nancy, but it was just her way. Sam was Sam. She was—
John snapped out of it. His pulse had quickened. He clutched the picture frame tighter between his fingers.
Jackson looked at him with knowing, almost sad, eyes, and John cursed inwardly. He thrust the picture at the other man. "Here. You can give it to her when she wakes up."
"She should know it comes from you." Jackson shook his head and held his palms up.
"C'mon, Jackson. Just—just give it to her." John's annoyance flashed up, and he tried to thrust it at the other man again, but Jackson stepped out of reach.
Slowly, Jackson backpedalled further into the room, leaving John with no other choice but to follow. Then the doors closed behind him with a familiar whoosh, and he was trapped. Silent, Jackson went to lean on the nearby desk, his arms crossed as he stared at the woman in the bed. The message was clear.
Sighing, John caved. He stepped forward, self-conscious. As he approached the nightstand – still missing its door – he saw the pictures had been removed and put into the bookcase. Only an alarm clock with a cracked plastic covering was left.
He glanced at Sam, still fast asleep. She was almost like he remembered. Up close, she looked tired and defeated, her face thin and pale. Her eyes moved under her lids, twitching as if flinching. He knew she'd lost weight lately, but only now did he see how much.
There was something fragile about her. Not the strong Colonel Carter he'd befriended, nor the Sam he'd gotten closer to no matter how much he tried to avoid it. She was…
A stray lock of hair caressed her brow, but John restrained his restless, bruised hand. Instead, he put the frame with the happy SG-1 past and present down on the nightstand. Sam didn't stir. Next, John stepped back and prepared to leave.
Something in the bookcase caught his eye, however. It was the bird in the glass container. It stood proudly side-by-side the other pictures, including the portrait of General O'Neill.
John halted, eyes fixed on the intricate but simple bird of bark. Slowly, he reached out and took the container. It was just a thought, but… Glancing back at Sam again, he straightened his back determinedly. He strode back to the nightstand quickly and put the container down by the picture.
Then he left without another word. In his wake, Jackson smiled.
Sam woke to a room filled with bright
light. It was hot and stuffy even though someone had propped the window open.
She winced as she sat up, clutching her throbbing head. It felt like she'd been
probed by Fifth again. Not happy with that particular thought, Sam groaned.
“Oh, you're awake.” Something rustled nearby. "Sleep well?"
Sam blinked away sleepy tears, finally spotting her old friend. Daniel sat down on the edge of her bed with a comforting smile. He looked like he'd been awake all night. He still wore the clothes from last night and held a cup of something steaming – coffee, by the smell of it.
"Think so." Sam grimaced as her head continued to throb. "Although my head's killing me."
“Water and painkillers.” Daniel gestured to the nightstand while sipping his coffee. "Figured you'd need it."
Sam glanced at the nightstand and saw the water glass and pack of painkillers mentioned. Her eyes widened, though, as she spotted the picture frame behind them.
"You found it?" She forgot about the headache, grasping the picture frame and holding it between her hands. Her voice filled with wonder. She traced the familiar faces with one finger, smiling broadly. "Thank you."
Sam looked up at Daniel, who simply pointed to the nightstand again. Frowning, Sam looked back. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw what Daniel was pointing at. Slowly, she left the SG-1 picture in her lap and picked up the glass container with both hands. The bird was still beautiful.
“Heard he almost threw Coolidge off a bridge.” Daniel wore a knowing smile, his eyes twinkling. "I think he's telling you not to give up, Sam."
Sam could only grin.
Storming into his office, John almost threw the folder into the wall. Twenty-four hours and the IOA had already supplied the department heads with enough paperwork to give them a lasting headache. Requests denied, orders given, budget cuts – or their current equivalent of it anyhow: John felt like his head was going to explode.
He dumped the folder onto his desk with a frustrated groan, and sat down in his squeaky office chair. He rubbed his face with both hands. They still ached, bruised and cut, but John didn't mind. Somehow he'd been able to get off with only a warning from Caldwell. Xiaoyi hadn't even said a word. Coolidge didn't push it either. It was all good. Well, relatively speaking.
Once the frustration ebbed away, John opened his eyes and leaned forward to get cracking on the paperwork, but halted abruptly.
An unaddressed letter laid on the desktop. John unsealed it with a frown. Inside was a standard-looking flash drive, along with a small handwritten note. John glanced at the closed door and then picked up the note. It just said, 'Thank you', but in very familiar writing.
Sam had been here.
Suddenly, John felt very uneasy. He eyed the flash drive, read the note again, and then turned on his computer. As soon as it was up and running, he inserted the flash drive and waited for the computer to recognise it. A folder window popped up with a single file on it. John clicked it and waited.
Images began to appear. Blue schematics with white drawings and fragments of text, with something looking like a stargate at the centre. Equations. Names of familiar and unfamiliar mechanical parts. Ratios. Energy capacitors. It was all dated four days ago. With implicit instructions to erase after reading.
John's eyes widened in surprise when realisation set in. Then he looked at the note again, as if he saw it in a new light.