Day 123: "Think only this of me..."
"Oh, I’m sorry, ma'am." Reese quickly got down on all fours and began picking up the apples that had escaped from the dropped paper bag.
Colonel Carter got down next to her, waving dismissively. "It's alright, Matthews. I didn't see where I was going." She smiled, holding up the bag as Reese put the apples back in it. "Thank you."
They both stood up, Reese struggling to contain her blush.
"Still, ma'am. I’m sorry." Off to the side, Ramirez fought to stop grinning – it looked like he was losing. Annoyance flashed through Reese, but she'd deal with the sergeant later and turned to Carter. "D'you want me to get new ones for you, ma’am?"
The colonel shook her head, adjusting her grip on the paper bag so it wouldn't drop again. "No, no, they're fine. Just go in and enjoy your breakfast, Captain."
"Thank you, ma'am. Have a nice day," Reese called after her as the colonel waved and disappeared around a corner. Then she face-palmed herself and groaned. "Oh my god…"
"You had a nice tackle there, Cap'n. You play football?" Ramirez smirked, then jumped away to avoid Reese's lashed-out punch. He chuckled.
"Shut your face, Sergeant," Reese warned him lowly.
She breezed past him and into what people now called the Little Chow. It was one of the smaller mess halls, established after the SGC evacuation due to the increased population and retained even after the Pegasus natives were relocated. It was perfect for those who wanted to avoid the crowds.
Ramirez continued to wear a smug look until they'd found their food and sat down. Consciously aware that people shot them curious looks, Reese buried her face in her food for the next five minutes. Once she felt the embarrassment pass, she looked up. Ramirez still looked amused when he met her eyes, but the expression changed as he ate his sandwich.
"Y'know," Ramirez began, chewing openly as he spoke, "I haven't seen Carter in a while."
"She’s probably been busy." Reese grimaced at the man's eating habits. Why did men have to be so…gross?
"With what? You said that everything's going straight to Caldwell or Sheppard these days. I even heard that one of those IOA types has moved into her office.” Ramirez met her eyes. “You know what that sounds like, right?”
"When did you start listening to rumours, Sergeant?" Reese glanced around the half-filled mess hall. There was a mix of military and civilian patrons present. She'd long ago realised people sided either with or against Carter, and she distrusted the civilians most of all. It made her uneasy to speak of this particular subject in public, so she lowered her voice. “Maybe she’s just taking a break.”
Ramirez shrugged, taking another large bite of his sandwich. "It's odd, though."
"What do you mean?"
Ramirez swallowed the bite almost whole before he explained, "A few months ago that IOA guy was screaming some shit about Carter's performance and threatening to take her command away. Now someone else is in her office, Colonel Caldwell's roaming about like he's the boss, and Carter's fallen off the radar. It's odd."
"Well, I heard Carter's lost it."
Reese startled and looked up as Eileen Kerrick sat down beside Ramirez with her own plate of food. The Irish-born engineer leaned closer, her face filled with conspiratorial delight. "Apparently, she got crazy when all those Kadarians died and they had to replace her."
"She didn't look too bad when we ran into her earlier," defended Reese, unable to stay clear of the topic. "She seemed normal."
Kerrick scoffed, waving her fork about. "Normal! The woman's like a fuckin' ghost. The last time anyone I know saw our supposed commanding officer is when she tucked her tail between her legs and ran off after the clean-up on Kadara."
"Oh, come on! Everyone's saying they heard that from someone who'd been there," retorted Reese hotly. "It doesn't mean it's true. It certainly doesn't prove she's crazy!"
"Oh yeah?" Kerrick gave Reese a narrowed look. "Then how 'bout I tell you she trashed up one of the storage rooms after the attack? I saw that. That somethin' a normal person would do? Let alone our commandin' officer?"
"I heard it was the IOA man's quarters," said Jerry Stevenson quietly as he sat down next to Reese with his food. Reese almost rolled her eyes – had they all somehow telepathically agreed to be here at the same time? "Coolidge, I think. He had to go to the infirmary and get three stitches."
"No, no, no— That was Sheppard.” Kerrick waved her skewered sausage at Stevenson. “He wacked the guy up in the gateroom and almost threw him off a balcony."
Stevenson frowned, pausing in his eating. "Are you sure? Michelle said Carter…"
Across the table, Ramirez looked even more thoughtful than usual. He met Reese's eyes as Stevenson and Kerrick began to argue back and forth – or at least Kerrick arguing and Stevenson stuttering out in defence.
"Whatever happened," Ramirez said finally, his baritone voice breaking through the argument, "no one's confirmed or denied anything. It's all just speculation."
Reese nodded in agreement. "We know what we need to do our jobs. Caldwell's at the top while Daedalus is docked because he's got seniority. That should be enough."
A look at Kerrick and Stevenson showed that they were sceptical, but they didn't say anything else on the subject and resumed their eating. Reese sighed. The topic seemed destined to return. She didn't know when, only that when it did return, it'd probably be even more explosive. These things had a habit to evolve that way. She’d have to work on putting out the fires before they got too out of hand.
However, when recalling Carter's behaviour earlier, Reese couldn't make it fit with all the things she'd heard. Was she crazy? Had she really trashed a place? Had she been kicked out of her office because of it? Carter had made some decisions in the past Reese didn't agree with, but…going as far as punching an IOA guy? It sounded far-fetched. Not the Colonel Carter of SGC legends. Then again, people had changed after Earth…
Reese sighed and picked at her food. Why couldn't these things just be simple? Better yet, why couldn't she just ignore them? Rumours were rumours. You couldn't trust them. She'd learned that long ago. …So why couldn't she stay away from them this time?
"Hey Cap'n." Reese looked up and realised the others had finished and were leaving the table. Across the table, Ramirez raised an eyebrow at her. "Didn't you say you had a Jumper to catch?"
Reese's stomach dropped. She closed her eyes and sighed. "Yeah…"
Caldwell appeared suddenly at her side, startling her. Sam glanced at him sideways, holding the bag of apples under her arm. He'd forgone the jumpsuit in favour of the blue base uniform. The Daedalus badge had been replaced by the Atlantis badge on his upper arms.
"You busy?" Caldwell asked without looking at her.
Sam thought of her destination and hesitated. But eventually, she sighed resignedly. "What's up?"
"Daedalus's had a few minor setbacks," Caldwell said matter-of-factly, resuming a stride step-in-step with hers. "Looks like we'll be planetside for another week or so."
Although his tone was conversational, his subtext was anything but. Sam’s eyes skirted ahead uneasily. They were alone in the corridor and it didn't sound like anyone else was around the corner. Still… Even the walls had ears these days.
"What do you need?" Sam asked lowly, her readiness at high alert as they walked.
"As you probably heard, we finished the Tikwee negotiations yesterday. They estimate that we'll be able to start construction of the mining site on Tirana in another two weeks or so." Caldwell paused as they rounded a corner and faced yet another empty corridor, before seemingly relaxing a little.
"I heard." Sam's lips thinned as she stared stoically ahead and held back a frustrated breath. "After all, I've been assigned to administrate the site."
"I'm sure you'll do a great job," Caldwell said evenly, keeping his eyes up front, his shoulders slightly hunched. Suddenly, he halted and held Sam's elbow back, forcing her to do the same. "That said… We need to stop ignoring each other."
"What the—?” Sam's anger flared up and she quickly shrugged off his hand. “What’re you talking about?”
Letting her go, Caldwell's hard eyes met hers and he lowered his voice. "I know you don't like this situation, Carter, but you can't keep hiding yourself away. People need you."
“No, they don’t.” That had already become startling clear to her. "They've got you. Now if you don't mind, I've got somewhere to be and I'm already late."
She began to turn and continue down the corridor, but Caldwell twisted her back, his face now dark with annoyance. "You're disobeying a direct order?"
"You may have seniority, Caldwell—"
"I'm not talking about me, Carter,” Caldwell hissed, looking over his shoulder. Seeing no one, he turned back and added lowly, “This is about something far beyond our paygrades.”
Sam's eyes widened in realisation. Instantly, a memory jarred loose and flashed before her eyes:
“I hate to drag you into this mess, Carter. Way beyond both our paygrades.” In the dark of her office, General O’Neill’s face was stoic on the laptop screen. “But here’s the deal…”
Shocked, Sam stared at Caldwell and opened her mouth wordlessly.
His face grim, Caldwell released her and took a step back. His voice was low. "Tonight, 2200 hours. Don’t leave your quarters."
The day was hot. Reese blinked against the bright sunlight and raised a hand to shield her eyes. It was already in the midst of summer on this planet. Back home, spring wouldn't have been over yet. She would've been out in the woods behind her house, relishing the blooming trees and bushes, and the wondrous smell of new life.
She'd offer to take the neighbour's dog for the weekend and then go for a run. She always enjoyed the company. There was a nice little forest path that led past a lake. In spring she'd see the ducklings learning to swim. Trisha loved it. The black retriever would set off for the lake and threaten to jump in unless Reese held her back.
Thinking about them made Reese smile. It struck her that she hadn't thought of Trisha in a long time, or the forest path behind her house in Colorado. Her whole world revolved around Atlantis now. Red metal walls, recycled air, workouts in the gym, and occasionally completely fresh food. She hadn't even worn her civvies since she got here.
Reese sighed and looked around her surroundings. The mainland was lush with far-reaching forests, a sandy beach and grass that grazed her thighs. Although the air felt thinner than what she'd been used to, it still smelled cleaner.
Funny how a place like this was only associated with death these days. No one went here unless they were visiting the graves of their comrades. Maybe the botanists, but Reese wouldn't know about that. She just knew Atlantis got fresh meat, fruits, berries, vegetables and wheat from the Pegasus settlers they'd relocated. The mainland wasn't used for growing or gathering food, at least not yet.
Around her, the graveyard was quiet and demure. A few people had come out on the Jumper with her and now sat by their fallen friends. Ramirez was off to the side, his back towards her as he looked down on Sanders' grave. She'd been surprised he even wanted to come. Then again, things had changed in the past two weeks.
Reese withdrew her eyes to give him some privacy. Instead, they went slowly to the stone in front of her, into which someone had carved the name Martin Thompson. His dog tag hung across it.
Reese swallowed the lump in her throat. She'd been so surprised to meet Thompson on Atlantis after the evacuation of SGC. She hadn't even known he was part of the stargate programme. Apparently he'd joined up four years ago. Almost as long as she'd been part of SGC, only he’d been on Atlantis. Small universe, huh?
Reese kneeled down and laid down the flowers she'd picked up on the way from the landing site. They weren't alone – someone had laid down fresh flowers for a while. Probably every day or so since the funeral two weeks ago. Somehow, it comforted her. Thompson had been kind of a loner back at the Academy. They both had.
Her head filled with memories. Reese bit her lip to hold back the lump in her throat. Tears sprung to her eyes and she cleared her throat. It still hurt. Earth, Milky Way, Pegasus… It all hurt.
Gritting her teeth, Reese clamped down on her emotions and quickly got to her feet. Then she did the only thing that came to mind – she crisply saluted the grave, paying her respects to one of her old friends. Once that was done, she turned about and walked away, letting out a deep, troubled breath as she went.
Some of the others had already left for the Jumper, but Ramirez still stood by Sanders' grave. She didn't want to disturb him, so she moved to go past him, but he looked up and saw her.
"Headin' back?" Ramirez met her eyes head-on, his features carved in stone.
"Yeah…" Reese nodded, her burning eyes easing up as she regained control. She looked at the grave in front of him. Only a sole red flower lay in front of the cross carrying Sanders' dog tag. It looked fresh. Her curious eyes moved up to Ramirez, who avoided her look. "Um… You ready?"
Ramirez hesitated a bit. He glanced at the dog tag and then quickly crossed himself, mumbling something in Spanish. Reese didn't recognise the words, but the way he said them… She averted her eyes, feeling like an intruder.
"My Grandma taught me to respect the dead," Ramirez explained lowly, noticing her action. "You religious, Cap'n?"
"My parents were," said Reese uncomfortably. She shifted on her feet and glanced around the graveyard. They were the only ones left. Not that anyone would force them to leave if they weren’t ready, but it set her slightly on edge to suddenly be alone with the sergeant.
Ramirez seemed to pick up on her mood and didn't comment. Instead, he gave Sanders's grave a mixed look. "Y'know… He didn't have anyone back home."
Looking back, Reese followed his eyes to the grass-covered mound, her stomach clenching uneasily. "That's sad."
"Is it? He said it made it easier." Ramirez’s brows were furrowed. His voice sounded almost…wistful. Insides twisting, Reese figured she knew why.
"Who did you…?"
Ramirez's eyes hardened and he raised his chin grimly. "My baby brother. He was about Sanders' age."
Reese hesitated, unsure how to handle this new kind of openness from the Sergeant. In the end, though, she did the only thing instinct told her to. She stepped up to him and touched his shoulder lightly.
Ramirez nodded in thanks, but kept his silent gaze trained on the grave. Reese removed her hand and sighed. She looked up at the blue sky, the sun burning her exposed neck. A warm breeze streaked by. Again, she mused on the contradictory association to this place.
"I'm gonna head back to the Jumper," she sighed eventually. "You want a minute?"
Ramirez shook his head and picked up his beret from his BDU pants pocket, putting it on his clean-shaven head. "Nah, I'm cool." He turned around and smirked at her. "Could use a drink, though."
Reese couldn't help but chuckle as they began to move back to the landing site. It felt good. It made it easier. "Fine. It's on me this time."
"This brings back memories."
Sam raised her head tiredly from her silent vigil by the infirmary bed. Daniel stood in the open doorway leading into one of the rooms of the newly established long-term ward. A sad, resigned smile crossed his face.
Sam bit her lip and looked back at the Kadarian girl in the bed. Reika's features were ashen, her hair white and her skin making her look sixty years older than she was. She was hooked up to all sorts of life-support machines, as well as fluid IV containing both nutrients and medicines. Even if she bore the marks of her native galaxy's evil, Sam knew Daniel was alluding to someone else. Someone she'd been willing to die for.
"Yeah…" Swallowing the lump in her throat, Sam tightened her grip on Reika's small, cold hand.
Thinking about Cassie still hurt. Sam didn't know if the General had been able to take her somewhere safe. He hadn't mentioned anything in that last communication, nor in the files he'd sent her. But somehow she doubted it. It'd been so sudden and professional. No real time to react beyond the most immediate emergency procedures.
Behind her, Daniel moved slowly into the room and around the bed. He stared down at the unconscious girl, sighing deeply. Sam knew the sight of children affected him as much as it did her, if not more.
"Kinda makes you wish you could turn back time." He glanced up at her, smiling again. It was his shield against the pain. Sam snorted lightly.
"It's possible," she said, feeling control slipping back into her fingers once she began thinking of the scientific challenges. Tears came so easily to her these days – like the dam had finally broken in that supply room – and Sam needed to be strong again. "I could work out the next time there's gonna be a solar flare?"
Daniel scoffed and ran a hand through his hair. "Don't know if I want to get caught in a time loop or Ancient Egypt again."
"Technically, you can't even remember those times," Sam pointed out good-naturedly. "Though, we did remember everything when we came back from 1969."
"1969? That's a story I ain't heard before."
Sam's head snapped up just as John stepped through the open doorway. He walked casually, dressed in his ordinary black BDUs. However, his shoulders looked tense, and his eyes seemed slightly cautious to meet hers as he halted at the bottom of Reika's bed.
She forced her neck to relax and gave John a small smile. "I doubt it was anything like your trip 28,000 years into the future, which you haven't told anyone about as far as I know."
John smiled briefly, but it seemed strained. "It's the Temporal Prime Directive. Can't really spoil the future for ya."
Sam snorted. He had already spoiled the future and most likely changed it by telling them where to find Teyla over a year ago. What struck her, however, was that she'd almost forgotten how well timed John's humour could be. It was refreshing to be part of it again.
Daniel cleared his throat, drawing the others' attention to him. He looked at his wristwatch and grimaced. "As fun as this is, I'm late for my check-up. I'll have to catch up with you guys later."
"Keller's not easing up on you yet?" asked John.
"Name a doctor who does." Daniel rolled his eyes as he stepped around the bed and past John. Sam followed him with her eyes. "At least I don't have to walk with a cane anymore."
With Daniel gone, Sam became keenly aware that she and John were now alone. Together. And that giant elephant was lurking quietly in the background, as it always did these days.
She turned her attention back to Reika. John didn't speak for a long time. Sam's neck tensed for every beat of the heartbeat monitor, until – finally – his voice broke through the monotony.
"How is she?"
Sam glanced at him a little uneasily and saw that his hands gripped the bed’s footboard. A hard look was on his face, but it wasn't directed at her anymore. John's dark eyes were fixed upon Reika's unmoving body.
Sam sighed, resuming her gaze at the little girl. "They've started her on a new stem cell treatment. Hopefully it'll be more successful than the last one."
"How long do they reckon 'till they see results?"
"They don't know.” Sam looked up at John's grim features. “Weeks, maybe months. It's a very experimental treatment. They'll have to keep her in a medical-induced coma, but Jennifer talked of stasis in a worst case scenario."
"Stasis, huh?" John shook his head, his jaw locked. "That'll kill her."
As she looked at Reika's ashen face, Sam agreed. She was already too weak. If she went into stasis, she'd never come back. Her body just couldn't handle it.
They both gazed at the young girl for a while before John's sigh broke the silence. "So… Been here long?"
Sam shrugged, staring at the small, pale hand in hers. She stroked it with her thumbs. "Couple of hours."
"So you haven't eaten." It wasn't a question. John eyed her below raised eyebrows.
"A few apples at breakfast," Sam admitted, something telling her where this was headed.
John released his grip on the footboard and pulled up an empty chair to the opposite side of the bed. He sat down and met her eyes. "I'll sit with her. You go on and get something to eat."
Sam opened her mouth to reply, but John put his feet up on the edge of the bed and his eyes returned to Reika. It struck her that she'd seen that particular stubborn look on his face many times before.
"You gonna stay cooped up in here all day?" Sam squinted at John in the dim light, and her hands stilled above the laptop keyboard. Her 2IC raised an eyebrow at her exasperatedly.
She pointed at the laptop screen in explanation almost automatically. "I've got to finish this equation for Rodney…"
"Which you can probably do later," John crossed his arms sternly. "I'm betting you haven't had a bite to eat since this morning."
Sam smiled sheepishly. It was all the incentive John needed. He stepped forward and closed the laptop screen, oblivious to Sam's protest, "Hey!"
"Now," he said, leaning down on his palms on the desktop. "You go on and get something to eat. I'll make sure the place doesn't fall apart in the meantime."
It was a battle of wills, and John was winning. Sam sighed, conceding defeat. "You always gonna be this stubborn, Colonel?"
John shrugged offhandedly. "Probably."
Sam chuckled. Then she pushed her chair back and got to her feet.
Drawn back to the beep of the heartbeat monitor, Sam smiled. John was ignoring her in familiar fashion, and his arms were crossed stubbornly.
"Alright. I could use some lunch," she said finally, then grimaced as she got to her feet. Her bones complained about being locked in the same position for the past hour or so. A walk would do her good as well.
Giving Reika a warm look, Sam squeezed her hand as a way of goodbye and turned to leave. She hesitated, however, and turned back to John, who raised an eyebrow at her questioningly. She smiled, "Thanks, John."
"Get out of here – I can practically hear your stomach complain." John waved her off dismissively.
Sam left with a chuckle. It felt good.
"You're a lousy drinker, you know that, Cap'n?" Ramirez grinned from his perch on the balcony railing. Behind him, the afternoon sun was slowly sinking into the horizon. The ocean was calm, glittering red and yellow.
Reese blushed heavily and ducked her head into her arms. "I know… I'm never gonna live this one down, am I?"
"You don't try to do the chicken dance no matter how much you drink, Cap'n," Ramirez said wisely, taking a deep swallow of his beer.
Reese chuckled and slowly tipped her chin up, meeting her sergeant's amused eyes. She hesitated for a moment. "You don't have to call me that in private, Sergeant."
"Then you shouldn't call me Sergeant, Cap'n," retorted Ramirez and raised an eyebrow.
Reese rolled her eyes. "Ramirez," she enunciated pointedly.
"Matthews." Ramirez nodded evenly.
They both became silent, each staring at or taking swigs from their drinks. Reese looked up at the sunset, her floating mind taking her on a spin. "Y'know, Sanders would've freaked out if he knew we did this without him."
Ramirez snorted into his beer. "Now there's a guy who'd do the chicken dance. We wouldn't even be able to stop him! He'd insist on doing the whole thing, then he'd pull you into it as well."
Reese grinned and stared up at him as Ramirez shook his head at happy memories. For once, he didn't look so angry. He almost looked…calm, relaxed. Like a weight had been lifted.
"Thompson would've tried to trick you into this hideous chicken costume as well," she shared, chuckling at the memory of a particular night back at the academy. The MP had been given quite a sight when they were called out to the pub. It gave a new meaning to the word 'chick fight'.
"Yeah?" Ramirez met her eyes.
She smiled. "Yeah."
Sam put the last box on top of the others, then stepped back and looked at her watch. She sighed.
Fifteen minutes. It wasn't time just yet.
She looked around her quarters for anything else to occupy herself with, but didn't get any ideas. The things from her office were put into one corner, gathering dust in cardboard boxes since she didn't have anywhere to put them. Not that there was much of a point unpacking them. She'd get a place eventually, at least when the mining site was finished.
Sam let out a frustrated breath. In retrospect, she saw that the IOA carried more weight than she thought, and she'd underestimated the lengths they'd go to. Daniel told her someone put out rumours that she'd knocked Coolidge around two weeks ago. She didn't know what frustrated her more – that she wished it was true, or that other people believed it.
Sam went over to her bed and sat down on the edge. Her eyes went to the bookshelf where her photos stood side-by-side on the middle shelf. She halted by the carved bird of bark standing at the centre of them all. She'd learned through the grapevine that John was in fact the one who’d knocked Coolidge around in the gateroom. The man himself neither confirmed nor denied it, and Sam didn't ask. It sounded like something he'd do. As for why… Sam looked at the picture of SG-1 standing next to the carved bird.
Something had changed. Despite the lingering tension, John's eyes weren't as hard and defiant anymore. Occasionally he even seemed…friendly. Sam didn't know what it meant, or at least she didn't dare think about it. She'd screwed up. She couldn't dare hope.
Her eyes went back to the carved bird. It'd been completely out of character. Not something she'd expected to come from John. His gifts tended to be funny stuff. The bird almost seemed…something far different. More poignant.
"I know it's a little late, but…"
Sitting on the edge of her bed, still dressed in his BDU, John played with something in his hands before holding it out to her. He barely met her eyes.
"What is it?" Sam sat up with a frown, the sheets pooling around her waist.
John ran a hand through his hair and Sam noticed the awkwardness immediately. It put her a little on edge. Eventually, though, John met her eyes. "Happy birthday, Sam.”
Despite all that’d happened in the past week, Sam couldn't help a silly grin spread across her face. She turned the paper-wrapped package over in her hands. "I thought we said no presents."
John smirked, shrugging. "Everybody's gotta have a present for their birthday."
"Thank you." Sam smiled, turning to the package. She unwrapped it quickly and her eyes widened in surprise. She held the glass container in her hands and peered at the carved bird within. "Wow." She almost didn't find words. Had he made it himself? She looked at John, who yet again didn't quite meet her eyes. "It's beautiful, John."
"I hope you'll like it," John said awkwardly.
Sam put the container down and crept over to him, only dressed in shorts and a tank top – her preferred PJs. She hugged him and kissed his cheek. "I love it. Thank you."
John seemed to finally relax a little, smiling at her. He brushed some stray hair out of her face and stroked her cheek softly. "You're welcome, Sam."
A lone tear ran down Sam's cheek. They came so easily to her these days. She brushed it away and stared at the carved bird again. It was one of the few items that had escaped her emotional breakdown when she wrecked her quarters. Kadara, Earth, the IOA, her alienation to John… It’d all been too much to handle in the end. She'd broken down. She'd even destroyed the Rubik's Cube. It was impossible to repair.
Sam sighed, blinking away fresh tears. She'd made so many stupid decisions, both in the heat of the moment and in the name of rationality and duty. How could she ever make them right?
Her watch suddenly chimed, startling her. Sam looked at it and turned off the alarm. 22:00. She heaved another sigh.
This was it. Time to face the past.
Her eyes went back to the bookshelf and the row of pictures. They travelled from the carved bird to the portrait of a grey-haired man dressed for fishing. Memories flooded her senses. Some old, some recent. Seeing them again, Sam's jaw tightened and her eyes hardened.
There’s only one way from the bottom, Carter: up.
The next moment, Daedalus beamed her to a deserted, darkened corridor on the outskirts of the city. Regaining her senses, Sam saw Caldwell step out from the shadows. She straightened and squared her shoulders.
“Alright, Caldwell. Let’s talk.”