Day 308-345: "...of a foreign field..."
"Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten." – David Ogden Stiers
Walking through the city, occasionally crossing the silvery beams of moonlight, Hailey was alone. No one bothered her. She bothered no one. She could just walk and let her feet take her wherever. She didn't care where. The attack was over, the evacuees had returned from Tirana, and everyone except a skeleton staff had gone to sleep. She could just drift through the hallways like a gust of air. Undetected, leaving no mark behind.
She didn't notice her surroundings until she ended up by the Memorial Wall.
Candles were burning, painting the wall with flickering shadows. Eyes from hundreds of pictures stared back at her in the orange glow. Happy faces. Stern smiles. Grimaces. Slanted handwriting on pieces of paper. Expressions of love, expressions of grief. No expressions of hope.
Hailey didn't know why she'd ended up here. Perhaps her feet had had a mind of their own. Perhaps it'd just been fate, a deterministic chain of events that had each been crossed off in order to bring her here. She knew the reasonable answer. She could explain it in at least twenty four-syllable words. But none of it made sense right now.
A shifting light caught her attention, coming from a tablet computer mounted on the wall. Stiffening, Hailey stared at it and saw the white bold lettering splayed across the screen: HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM.
The price of-
"I hate caves," Reese had uttered miserably just outside the Genii underground capitol.
The memory came unbidden and sudden to her mind. Pain blossomed in her hands. Blinking, Hailey looked down to see she'd clenched them to the point where her nails had dug into the skin, breaking it and drawing blood.
Stunned, she stared at the small red marks, so distant from where she was, and her mind went completely, utterly, numbingly blank.
No memories. No thoughts. No images. Not a single thing.
Raising her head towards the computer screen, Hailey stared but didn't see. Her feet began to drift, but she didn't notice. Soon, she was swallowed up in nothingness...and she didn't want to leave ever again.
DAY 309 - early morning after the Wraith attack
Sunlight streamed in through the windows. Sam blinked her eyes sleepily to clear her vision, the room coming into sharper focus as she awoke. For a moment, she looked in confusion at the nightstand where the thick tome of War and Peace lay and at the Johnny Cash poster tacked to the wall opposite of her. Then she remembered and she smiled.
The digital clock behind War and Peace showed 06:25. Even though she'd slept for just four hours, she felt relatively rested. She shifted on the mattress, slipping off the blanket John had tucked her in last night and propping herself up on one elbow.
She was still dressed apart from her shoes and jacket. So was he. Soft snores muffled by his pillow, John sat propped up in an Ancient-style armchair he'd appropriated sometime two years ago, his blanket pooling around his feet. His features were smooth, showing nothing of the mixed feelings he'd shown last night.
After holding her for a while, he'd insisted she take the bed for the rest of the night. She'd protested, but to no avail. Despite his Kirkian reputation, John was a gentleman, claiming one of the few things he'd learned from his upbringing was how to take care of a woman with respect. By then Sam was ready to drop dead, so she didn't object any further.
But now, staring at him with a gentle smile and recalling the firmness with which he'd held her last night, Sam acted without thinking. She got up quietly, crossed the room and picked up his hand with comfortable familiarity.
John jerked, his eyes blinking up at her in drowsy confusion. "Sam?"
Sam smiled. "Come on. You're gonna get a bad kink if you sleep there. We still have an hour before we need to get up."
Frowning groggily, he followed her back to the bed and lay down with just a slightly deeper furrow of his eyebrows. Sam got down next to him and cuddled up snugly against his side, closing her eyes with another smile.
If he had questions, he didn't ask, but his arm curled around her and his head touched hers…and that was enough for now. With the Wraith attack averted and Xiaoyi exposed, she figured they had time.
Five days later
Rubbing her eyes tiredly, Sam stared blearily at the computer screen. After three hours of intensive work, the text of fancy bureaucratic and diplomatic lingo stating something about the purpose and intricate agreements of the Atlantis-Traveler-Genii Alliance seemed nothing more than a jumble.
"The world would've been a better place if an end to things actually meant an end," she muttered lowly at the screen.
Putting down a cup of strong Athosian herbal tea on her desk, Daniel chuckled. "Be careful what you wish for. I personally don't want to face a full-on apocalypse. Just imagine the paperwork." He sipped his own tea and settled on the Ancient style couch placed nearby to provide a more informal setting in the otherwise stern and Spartan office she'd taken as her own while she was in the city.
"Don't need to imagine." Sam smiled weakly, thinking of the hours spent in front of a computer or in meetings since the Evacuation last Christmas.
Conceding defeat, she closed the laptop, picked up her cup of tea and sat down next to Daniel. A sigh escaped her lips as her eyes closed, relieving some of the strain she'd felt moments ago.
"I thought that once our situation with the Wraith superhive and Xiaoyi had been resolved, and the Travelers left after their basic repairs, I'd finally have some real time off," Sam said. Much to her friends' annoyance, she still worked round the clock, although she'd finally learned not to forgo eight hours of sleep.
Opening her eyes, Sam brought the cup to her lips and blew on the hot liquid to cool it. Then she sat back and sighed again. "There's still so much for me to do. So many people to take care of. So many issues to resolve, like formalising our alliance with the Genii and the Travelers. It feels like just another beginning."
"That's because it is," Daniel said gently, giving her a pensive look. "Things never really end, they just…transform into something else."
Sam smirked. "You could compete with Confucius."
"I take that as a compliment." Smiling, Daniel took a gulp of his tea and then put down the cup. "Anyway, from what I hear, this is going to be Woolsey's headache soon."
"One of them, in any case," Sam said. "I doubt calling off the Martial Law tomorrow will ease people's minds completely." Staring into her tea, she lowered her voice. "Not with everything that's happened."
Although there'd been a clear, unspoken divide on Atlantis after the Evacuation, things had never come to true blows until Xiaoyi's Wormhole Drive plan drove the two factions into a physical confrontation, ending with Sam's implementation of Martial Law. In the days since, the city had been a time bomb. The wrong choice of words had resulted in verbal outbursts and physical fights, forcing her to post SOs around the city again in order to keep things calm. That hadn't gone over particularly well, with her worst critics, all of them outspoken civilians, screaming 'tyranny' and 'military takeover' and criticising her for incarcerating Xiaoyi and those who'd been involved in her plan.
On the plus side, dealing with the enlisted men and officers who'd sided with Xiaoyi had been easy. Any threat to the military homogeneity was a serious offense. Every soldier knew that; it was ingrained into their bones during basic training.
So Sam took it as a good sign that none of the enlisted men had appealed the disciplinary actions and demotions she and Caldwell had doled out yesterday, accepting the punishments for what they were. As for the commissioned officers, with Lieutenant Colonel Dawkins in the lead, they'd requested administrative discharges rather than facing courts-martial and the near certainty of the worse Under Other Than Honourable Conditions discharge. In Sam's eyes, it was the most honourable way out for them. After all, there'd be no point trying to deny the fact they'd divided the military with their actions in a court-martial.
"Well, Woolsey's lawyer background will probably come in handy," said Daniel, drawing her out of her reminiscing. "He's got a way with words on his good days, and he knows most of these people. It might be difficult, but I think he'll be able to find a way to balance it all out."
"Yeah," Sam agreed pensively. "Probably."
They drifted off to a comfortable silence for a while before Daniel's expression changed suddenly.
"Anyway, since I came here to put your mind off the serious things…" Eyes twinkling, Daniel stared at her above the rim of his cup. "Any news you want to share with me? Maybe other beginnings you've experienced?"
Three days later
Despite it being the beginning of this planet's autumn season, the ocean wind was warmer than expected against her hot skin. Sam relished it and closed her eyes for a moment to let the breeze swoop over her. Her racing pulse and aching muscles was starting to ease back, leaving her both refreshed and sore.
The sounds of running steps on metal made her open her eyes. She looked back at the wide stretch of the West Pier, shading her eyes from the rising sun in the east. Twenty yards away and closing, John's features became clearer and she could see a wide grin manifest on his face.
"Show-off," Sam said as he came to a halt next to her, barely winded even though this was his second lap and she was halfway through her first. She picked up his water bottle and tossed it to him. John caught it with his hand and smirked.
"You'll get there," he said, taking a chug of water.
Sam rolled her shoulders, stretching slightly as she mentally prepared for the rest of the run. Although her muscles didn't protest as much as they'd done fourteen days ago when they started this morning routine, she could still feel that something was off with her body.
"Maybe," Sam said eventually in response to John's previous statement. "It's taking me longer to bounce back than I'm used to. Back at the SGC, if I'd been slacking off on the workouts during science projects, it usually didn't take me long to get back in shape." She sighed and picked up her water bottle, fixing it in place in a strap on her hip. Then she grimaced. "I think I'm getting old."
"Not old, just…mature." John winked at her teasingly and she couldn't help chuckle. Following her lead, he also strapped his water bottle to his hip. "Come on. It's too early to think about getting old."
With a sudden grin, he slapped her lightly on her arm, cried out "Tag, you're it!" and proceeded to fast-track back where he'd come from.
Sam was only stunned for a fraction of a second. Then she burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and pelted after him, pushing as much force into her sore legs as she possibly could.
Even though John clearly kept it at a pace that matched hers, she didn't care. Once she finally tagged him, she was breathless, aching all over, but feeling fantastic. She needed that. He made her feel alive again, and little by little, that wondrous feeling drove off the deeply embedded doubts she still wrestled with every day.
"So how's it going with Hailey?" John asked once they'd stopped for another break, his breath finally coming out a little more strained than before.
"I don't know. She's not saying much." Lying on her back catching her breath, Sam stared up at the clear blue sky and sighed. "Doesn't help that I'm going to be off visiting the Travelers and the Genii to discuss the alliance treaty for an unknown period of time. I'm trying to be there for her and sometimes it works, but not always."
Chugging down a gulp of water, John's eyes flickered darkly. "Sometimes…people have to sort out things for themselves."
"I know." Sam blew another hard breath. "It's just…frustrating being kept on the outside. We used to share things."
"Give her time," John said. He put the cap back on the bottle. "You can't solve every little problem, Sam. Puts too much pressure on you, and that went so wonderfully last time."
His sarcastic tone made Sam glance up at him with a petulant glare. "I know. I've learned my limits." Even if I cannot always maintain them… "No more wrecking my quarters and breaking Rubik's cubes."
"Good, because fixing that cube was a real pain in the ass," John said with a grimace, then threw his water bottle down and went to find a gym bag he'd left nearby. "Ready for part two? I brought the bantos rods today. Thought we could kick it up a notch."
Getting to her feet with a wince, Sam ignored her already aching, weary muscles and nodded with teasing bravado. "Sure. Bring it on. I could do with a win today."
Dr MacKenzie's office was unchanged. There were still five pens laid neatly out on his desk next to a notepad. The small potted plant in the corner still seemed to lack just a little bit of water. The Ancient textile material of his couch still felt strange to her touch.
Hailey turned her head to the nearby window. Golden gleams of light poured inside at an angle, like holy sunbeams seen in movies or an Asgard transporter beam. Evidently, it was a nice day outside. Warm. Comfortable. Perfect beach weather, perhaps; she'd overheard someone talk of going to one of the piers for a dip in the ocean, even if the ocean was freezing cold this far from the mainland.
Maybe she should take a dip herself. The cold wouldn't bother her. It might even coax some sort of feeling from her, or at least a reaction.
Hailey turned her eyes to MacKenzie, who sat in the armchair opposite of her balancing a notepad on his crossed legs. The man had raised an eyebrow, his eyes clearly examining her expression.
"What?" She raised an arched eyebrow in return.
"I asked you earlier if you had written down your thoughts since last session," MacKenzie asked, unperturbed by her snappy retort.
Hailey looked away again, focusing instead on a nearby bookshelf. There seemed to be a few new books in it, but where he'd dug those up, she had no idea. Maybe in the exchange markets Atlantis had set up a few months back: with no clear currency or economic system put together, people traded what they had for what they needed. Not a perfect situation, perhaps, but the leaders had had other concerns at the time.
"Captain…" MacKenzie prompted once more, regaining her attention. He leaned forward slightly in his chair. "We talked about this. Paying attention to how you think and feel about your trauma is the next step of cognitive processing therapy. Burying your emotions is not the answer."
Logically, Hailey knew that. They'd spent the first session identifying her PTSD symptoms and discussing which approach would be most suitable for her. Then MacKenzie had explained all the steps of CPT and how they would help her. Logically, she knew this was the necessary next step before moving on from the event where she'd been shot.
She just couldn't do it. The words wouldn't come, nor the memories. They were blocked by something, and she didn't know what. All that was left were the symptoms and the mixed feelings of failure and something she couldn't describe more than a black hole in the middle of her chest.
If she'd had the choice, she wouldn't be here.
MacKenzie cleared his throat. "Let's try a different approach."
Hailey let him try, but her eyes began drifting once more around the unchanging office and in the end she barely said a word.
Reika would make a terrible recon scout, John mused with a smile as he heard her shout of joy echo from one of the intersecting hallways up ahead.
Strolling forward at a comfortable pace, he rounded the corner just in time to see the tiny Kadarian girl fling herself at Sam, who was in the midst of talking with a group of scientists. On instinct, Sam caught her before Reika threw them off-balance. There was a momentary stunned expression on Sam's face before she broke into a welcoming smile, the people with her glancing at each other with amusement.
John didn't hear what they talked about since he was still a bit far off, but Reika was gesticulating wildly and energetically towards something and he could venture a guess it had something to do with the football tucked underneath his arm.
By the time he caught up to them, Sam was amused and faced him with a grin. "So this is how you spend your time off these days."
"The classified stuff got boring," teased John, twirling the football between his fingertips. "Once the secret's out, all the fun's gone." He reached down to ruffle Reika's hair and grinned at her. "Besides, I didn't have any kid's size golf clubs."
"Golf's boring," stated Reika with feeling as she brushed her hair back. It drew a chuckle out of Sam and some of the other scientists, who seemed to withdraw to a respectable distance to give them some privacy.
"Well, what'd you know, kiddo?" John nudged Reika lightly, pretending to be hurt. He then handed her the football and said, "You go ahead. I'll be with you in a second."
Reika didn't need much coaching. Grabbing the football with both hands, she skipped down the hallway and started throwing it into the walls and floors. As it bounced back at odd angles, she giggled and ran after it only to repeat the action.
Keeping Reika in his eyesight, John turned back to Sam and smirked. "Great kid. Ignorant, though. Have to rectify that."
"Maybe in a few months we'll produce more than just things of necessity down in the manufacturing plant," Sam said. Her easy smile and quiet confidence was becoming a familiar sight and one that he welcomed. It proved that she was stronger now. More herself.
Exorcising a few demons can do that to someone, John reminded himself, thinking of Xiaoyi and the Wraith attack a few weeks ago.
"Though we'll probably have to implement a better currency than mutual trade," Sam continued. "Heard some people complain about not being properly paid in months."
"There's always something," John said, shaking his head. He then gestured to the gaggle of scientists now deep in discussion over a tablet computer. "So you're heading off again?"
"Yeah. A message from the Travelers came in this morning. They encountered some problems with one of the solar panel satellites in the dyson ring, so we're going to check it out." She glanced at her watch. "But first I've got to check in with Woolsey."
"What a surprise," John deadpanned.
Since he'd assumed official command after the Martial Law ended, Woolsey had had Sam on speed dial. At first it'd been to discuss how to calm the friction in the city between Xiaoyi's faction and the rest, then it'd been about how to handle their newfound allies, and it'd snowballed from there. As it were, Sam had only been back to Tirana once to fetch new clothes and toiletries, and to decide on a temporary administrator. The rest of the time she'd been busy with disciplinary actions and preparations for courts-martial, as well as working out the details in their alliance treaty with the Genii and the Travelers, with each part trying to get as big a piece of the cake as possible.
"Well, if Larrin wants access to my gene again, tell her it's my day off and she can shove off," John said with feeling. He began to turn in the direction Reika had ventured, then stopped, smirked and gave Sam a mock salute. "With all due respect, of course, Ambassador."
Sam rolled her eyes at the moniker and turned to join the group of scientists in their discussion. "I'll let her know."
The days blurred together. Time was fluid, no longer divided into hours and minutes. She slept, she got up, she ate, she walked to the science lab, she ate, she walked to Carter's office, she did some office work, then she went back to her quarters and lay in bed until she drifted off to sleep once more. Occasionally, the pattern was broken up by odd events, like her pointless sessions with Dr MacKenzie or going out for the random drink with some of her previous bunk mates from Tirana.
Speaking, however, came out only as muffled buzzing. People buzzed to her every day, their lips moving without words escaping, and she nodded or shook her head at the appropriate places. She knew where those places were, when to do what. It'd become natural to her by now.
By far, McKay buzzed the most. Hailey kept frowning every time he opened his mouth in her direction, wishing he'd just shut up or talk to someone else. Sometimes, she ignored him. He hated that. She didn't care. He was disturbing the comfortable numbness she dove into every day.
If it hadn't been for Carter riding her back and Dr MacKenzie watching her every move, she'd never even bother coming to work. She'd just stare into the ceiling of her quarters and let the darkness swallow her up. It felt good; it was the only thing she felt at all.
But Captain Jennifer Hailey was still needed, apparently, because she was the only one who knew how to construct and maintain an Ascalon apart from Carter, and Carter was busy playing the diplomat. So she got up in the morning, she ate, she went to the science lab, and she stared at numbers and blueprints all day...and listened to McKay's buzzing.
"Honestly, I don't know why I'm even trying!"
Hailey didn't know what McKay was going on about this time, but she could see him in the corner of her eye walking restlessly around the room and waving his hands in the air. A few times, he turned towards her, probably to glare, but she didn't turn to face him. Instead, she just stared at the numbers on her screen, her mind drawing a blank.
McKay continued to rant, his words turning into a buzz once they crossed the barrier of her numb sphere. Hailey stared...and stared...and stared...and after a while she realized she had no idea what she was staring at exactly.
Blinking, Hailey looked up and found McKay hovering right over her. Arcing an eyebrow, she said, "What?"
McKay gritted his teeth together so hard they looked like they might crack. "Haven't you listened to a word I've just said? No, wait, of course you haven't. You're just perfectly happy sitting there ensnared in your own pretty little world, while everyone else is working their asses off. Just like you've been doing all week!"
"Rodney..." Zelenka cut in with a hesitant tone. Standing a little ways behind McKay, he was staring at her in pity, the kind when people are sorry you're not as great as you used to be, or sorry that you've suffered such a loss or trauma that you cannot even do the simplest things.
Her body moved automatically. She took no part in it. Without knowing why, Hailey pushed her chair back and strode out of the room, shutting every noise out of her comfortable bubble.
It was only when she reached the silence and darkness of her quarters that Hailey realized that her whole body was trembling. Squeezing her burning eyes shut, she burrowed beneath her blankets, tightening them around her until the numbness swallowed her up whole again.
"No, I'm sorry, Dr MacKenzie, I haven't seen her." Pinching the ridge of her nose, Sam fought the intensifying wave of worry that made every sensation in her chest feel just the slightest bit off, as if her body and mind weren't completely connected. It was an unsettling feeling. "I've been off-world all day and just got back. She didn't show up for her session?"
"No. She's not responding to my calls either, and her quarters were empty. Also, I heard from Dr McKay that she left work early today," MacKenzie spoke, his voice calm and steady in her earpiece radio. "You know her best, Colonel. Any idea where she would go?"
"Um, there was this cave on Tirana that she really liked." Sam sighed and ran a hand across her tired face. From what little she knew, Hailey hadn't shown any suicidal tendencies, but right now every nasty little possibility ran through her mind. "I'll check with the operations centre to see if she's gone off-world. I'll have them check the biometric sensors as well. She might be hiding out somewhere in the city."
"Thank you, Colonel." As if an afterthought, MacKenzie added in a gentler tone, "I'm sure she is all right, Colonel. This is just a precaution."
"Of course," Sam said, but her fears weren't entirely assuaged. The nagging feeling of inadequacy and failure made sure of that. "I will let you know what I find out."
Logging off, Sam exhaled and inhaled deeply before looking up at Woolsey, who sat awkwardly behind his desk trying to look busy with anything else but listening to her conversation.
"Sorry," she said, straightening in the comfortable armchair and trying to push thoughts of Hailey away for a moment to finish this meeting. "You were saying something about—uh, the Kadarian children?"
Woolsey hesitated. "We can do this later if you have other—"
"No, please," Sam interrupted, her chest flaring up again with that unsettling feeling of worry along with something else. "It sounded important. You can just give me the quick rundown."
"Okay," Woolsey said, then cleared his throat and shifted forward in his seat. "I received the latest progress report on the Kadarian children's physiological and psychological state today. It says that the children are soon ready to be discharged, which means that we'll be starting the adoption process." He paused and added in a lower voice, "The official word goes out to the potential families tomorrow morning."
It felt as if the air had been knocked out of her.
It's too soon. She can't leave yet. I'm not— Sam couldn't find the words, even in her mind. Her whole torso flared with uncomfortable heat even as her extremities went cold, creating an uneasy mixture of fear and sadness storm within her veins.
As per the original agreement with Xiaoyi, the Kadarian children would be resettled with Pegasus natives who share a similar cultural lifestyle as them, the logic being that the transition would be smoother and they wouldn't run the risk of ending up in less than desirable conditions on Tikwa.
"I see," said Sam in the end, her voice carefully restrained and her fingers clenched slightly around the armrests of her chair. Standing up, she let her hands reach around her back and intertwine tightly. "Well, thank you for telling me. I'll just—"
"We're going allow applications from Atlantis personnel," Woolsey said evenly, making Sam stop in her tracks. The ghost of a smile crossed his lips. "I know it is not what was originally agreed by the senior council under Xiaoyi, but upon careful consideration, I have decided that Atlantis could stand to earn some new members of society. After all, we're it."
Even if she knew the answer, Sam couldn't help ask, "What'd you mean?"
"We're the last remnants of Earth and we've been entrusted with everything that entails, as well as this magnificent city," Woolsey said, leaning back in his chair with a sigh. "As such, if we're going to survive as a society and not one day become solely dependent upon others, we need to bring new generations into this world. And since we have yet to discuss the matter of the military's fraternisation regulations… This could be a first step."
He's expecting you to be happy, Sam realised as she studied Woolsey's slightly guarded expression. …So why aren't you?
Smiling a little awkwardly, Sam nodded and tried to push down all the uncomfortable feelings swirling around her body. "Yes. It, uh, it would."
"Good," said Woolsey, the tension in his eyes easing up. "Then I'll make the announcement tomorrow, and we'll let the Adoption Committee handle the rest."
"Good. Good. I'll… I'll look forward to that."
Leaving the office behind, Sam's mind was storming. It wasn't until Chuck's hesitant "Ma'am?" that she realised she'd been standing in the middle of the operations centre and staring into empty air for who knew how long.
"Can I help you?" Chuck asked again.
She wanted to say 'no', but that would mean admitting that she'd just made a startling realisation about herself that she wasn't ready to face.
"Um, yeah," Sam said instead and shook her head as clear as possible. "I need to find Captain Hailey."
The door was closed. It seemed that nothing short of blasting it off with a pack of C4 or rappelling down from the tower roof would open it; someone who knew perfectly well what she was doing had disabled it from the inside.
Like every day before today, her hand fell impotently from the buzzer and she touched her forehead to the cold metal of the door. Her eyes fluttered shut for a brief second and she tried not to let the uneasy, coiling mix of failure and worry rush through her yet again. As far as the biometric scans were concerned, Hailey's life signs were fine. Dr MacKenzie had also been able to get in touch with her for the past three days and he claimed to be getting through to her, even if the process was slow going.
But Sam was shut out. MacKenzie wasn't allowed to say why due to patient-doctor confidentiality. All he could reiterate was to let Hailey open up the door when she was ready.
Sam knew that, but standing idly by felt wrong. Hailey had always been a woman of action; she'd risked her life, and career, several times for what she believed in and for her friends. The last time she'd done it she'd saved Sam's life and almost lost her own. Among soldiers, that counted for something, and to most it would garner a deep sense of respect and an instinctual need to repay the favour.
But Sam knew it wasn't any life debt that brought her here every day in the hopes that Hailey would one day let her in. It was something else; something she wasn't technically supposed to encourage given their differences in rank, but something that had grown nevertheless from the fact that they'd both lost so much.
So facing this damned closed door as the closest thing Hailey had to family… The rejection stung worse than if she'd only been there as Hailey's superior officer.
"I'm heading off again today, Jenn," Sam told the closed door, even though she knew Hailey wouldn't be able to hear her. "Make sure you eat something." She paused and brushed her hand against the cold metal with a sigh. "I'll be back again tonight."
Leaving the door behind always left her with a strange unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach, as if afraid that when she returned Hailey would be gone.
It's not just her, though, Sam reminded herself sadly, glancing towards the main tower and the infirmary level the next time she passed a window. They could both be gone by the time I return.
"It's okay, Reika. These people just want to say hello." Crouching down in front of the bed under which Reika had sought safety, Daniel met the girl's eyes in the shadows. They were shining brightly with unshed tears.
"I don't want to," Reika said weakly. She was clutching her crayons tightly in her hands. "Make them go away."
Daniel held back a sigh, his eyes fluttering closed for a second. It was uncharacteristic of her to behave like this; she'd been pretty open and friendly towards anyone she'd met on Atlantis. The second she'd caught sight of the couple from New Aleira, however, she'd ducked under her bed and refused to come out.
"Let's try this," Daniel began, giving Reika a smile and an outstretched hand. "You don't have to say anything and you can sit on my lap the whole time. Would that be okay?"
Reika shook her head. "No. I don't want to." To emphasise her point, she edged further back until she was hugging the wall.
Daniel knew moving the bed or simply dragging her out would be easy, but that'd probably just make this even worse. With the attack on New Kadara, Reika had been through more than anyone her age should bear; her recent conversations with one of the base therapists had revealed as much. Nothing could change the fact that the little girl had lost both her family and the majority of her people.
So maybe I shouldn't be surprised by her behaviour at all. Maybe it's someone else's that I should question…
Sighing, Daniel knew that line of thought wouldn't get him anywhere – God knows he'd tried – so he got up to his knees and glanced at the young Aleirian couple standing a little awkwardly just inside the doorway of Reika's room.
They had clearly put on their best clothes and had seemed eager to make a good first impression once the rules of the adoption had been explained to them. Both were in their thirties and childless, which seemed to be a source of great sorrow based on his conversation with them earlier.
"I'm sorry," Daniel said, rising to his feet. "I think she needs some time to adjust. If we just stay here for a bit, she might come out on her own."
"I understand," the woman, Lysea, said. Her eyes were shimmering brightly, nearly as much as Reika's eyes had been, and she was clutching her husband's hand tightly. She seemed to take this personally despite her words saying otherwise. The husband, Tor, was more of the stoic, silent type, but Daniel could see the tension around his eyes and lips.
Feeling for them, and for the scared little girl underneath the bed, Daniel gestured to the chairs and table that'd been brought inside the room. "Let's sit down and talk for a while. And maybe afterwards, we can draw a little. I know someone who can teach us how to draw dragons."
Glancing at the bed, Daniel smiled, but it never reached his eyes.
The grass was turning brown, no longer reaching her thighs. Flowers had started to wither, sensing the oncoming winter. The air was colder, sometimes feeling as if it tore inside her throat when she opened her mouth. Winter was coming.
Sitting on a bench someone had put together from several logs, Sam stared at the field of grave markers in front of her. There were stones and crosses, dogtags and no dogtags, Stars of David and Muslim star and crescents. The symbols came alive for her. She read the names and recognised each from staff photos that'd gone up on the Memorial Wall.
So many dead. Not just those in front of her, but so many unseen faces and unspoken names back on Earth, on the off-world bases in the Milky Way, on the Sun Tzu and the Apollo. By now, she figured even the Odyssey had to have been destroyed. She'd certainly disappeared and not been seen or heard from since three weeks before the attack on Earth, and Sam's work had so far been fruitless in solving the ship's mystery. Then there were all the people of the Milky Way that she knew: Bra'tac, Rya'c, the Free Jaffa, the Nox, the Cimmerians, the Edorans, the Kelownans… There were too many to count. Too many even to remember in her prayers.
Sam sighed, rubbing a hand over her eyes. The tears burned on her eyelashes then vanished into her hand. Still the bottomless emptiness in the pit of her stomach remained. She could try to fill it with as much as she could or try to plainly ignore it, but in moments like this it ripped open once more and she could do nothing but ride out the storm.
Looking up, she stared at the graves again, fisting her hands together. She committed their names and their faces to memory, as she did every time she'd come here since the Wraith attack. She willed herself not to forget those in the empty graves: Captain Reese Matthews' remarkable loyalty, Senior Sergeant Miguel Ramirez's Spanish exclamations, or Airman First Class Jay Emerson's young enthusiasm.
Her nails dug into her skin but she didn't care. It was better than just stare and do nothing.
"Trying to raise the dead?" John's voice appeared out of nothing; she hadn't heard him approach. She saw him standing on the edge of the field, his cheeks and nose already red from the cold wind.
"We've seen crazier things," Sam said with a slight self-deprecating smile. When John's smile didn't reach his eyes, she sighed and scooted a little sideways to indicate an empty seat next to her. He sat down with a creak from the wood. She returned to staring at the graves, ticking off the names in her mind. "How'd you find me anyway?"
"I used my Jedi skills to locate you in the Force."
Sam chuckled, seeing straight through him. "You mean you asked Chuck."
"Yeah." Crossing his legs at the ankles, John smirked. "What can I say? The guy's got a nose like a bloodhound. Also happens to know where you can find the last decent coffee grinds in the city, but he ain't telling. Even offered him a week off. No deal."
"Sounds like I'll need to have a chat with Sergeant Campbell," Sam said, grinning.
She met John's eyes, warmth welling up inside her just at the sight of the easy smirk he gave her. They'd come more frequently lately and each one managed to remind her that there were some things that weren't as bad as the rest. It made it easier for her to accept the terrible things that had happened almost a year ago and those that'd happened since. It made it easier to move on, even if it were only a few millimetres some days and several miles other days.
"I finally managed to get a look at them today," Sam said, leaning back on the bench to stare at the things beyond the field of graves.
John followed her eyes, gazing at the evergreen forests, the distant glittering ocean and the snow-capped mountains in turn. His voice was low and solemn when he finally spoke. "And?"
"They look just like us. Normal." Sam snorted; the sound was hollow even to her own ears. An unsettling feeling rose once more from the pit of her stomach. "It sounds horrible, but I'd hoped they'd look…different. Weird and twisted, somehow."
"It's not horrible," stated John, slowly bringing his crossed arms up to rest against his chest. "The kids need good families." He glanced at Sam, smirking slightly despite the pained edge in his features. "You just wanted your spidey sense to go off in case something was iffy about the potential parents. You're looking out for the kids."
"Yeah… I guess." Sam sighed, running a hand through her bangs before glancing up at him. "Are we doing the right thing, though? I know we reasoned she might be better off with someone who can give her the life she used to have, but Reika doesn't want to leave."
John's jaw clenched momentarily. "You have a choice, you know. It's not too late."
Sam tensed, her neck stiff in all the wrong places.
Of course she knew that. The thought had been with her for a long time, even before Woolsey revealed his intentions to allow Atlantis personnel to apply for adoption and before Daniel had been hounding her for days on why she hadn't handed in her application yet.
"I know," Sam whispered finally. "But I can't help thinking that… I'm not the one she needs." She inhaled deeply, her eyes welling up with tears. "Lately I've been so busy with disciplinary matters, with the Alliance, with trying to reach Hailey, and…and with you." She felt him tense slightly next to her. "I can't see how that'll change."
Sighing, Sam continued, "I'm supposed to be a good role model, friend and CO. I'm supposed to be on Tirana. I'm supposed to resolve the mystery of the missing Odyssey. And until the Genii and the Travelers home worlds are also protected by Ascalons, I'm supposed to be the diplomatic liaison between them and us. Those are already more than a full-time job."
Sam looked down at her hands. She was wringing them over and over, her fingertips turned red in the cold air, but she hardly felt it. Her insides were storming too much. The truth was coming out: the realisations she'd tried so hard to suppress.
"I don't know if there's room to be a mother as well," she muttered, her tone dejected and low.
"It's a shame," John said. He took his eyes off the horizon and gazed deep into hers. "You'd make a great mom."
Heat bloomed in Sam's cheeks and she felt suddenly lightheaded. Embarrassed, she looked away but John stopped her by taking her hand in his and squeezing it.
"I mean it." John looked about as serious as he would when staring down the spear gun of a Wraith. "You always care beyond the call of duty. It's a part of you. If there's no room, you've always found a way to make room." He paused, suddenly awkward. 'Like you did for us' seemed implied in his expression.
"It's not that easy. Especially not this time," Sam said with a trembling voice, her chest aching. "We don't have a fully functioning welfare system. Reika will need someone who can be there for her 24-7. I'd have to give up my work, my duty… The military's been my life, John." Her voice nothing but a whisper, she added, "I don't know who I am without it."
And there's Hailey too. There's no adoption process for her. She lost most of her friends in the Wraith attack. I can't leave her alone either, but I don't know how I could manage both—
"We could find a way to make it work," John insisted, squeezing her hand. "You think you'd be the first working mom? Hell, Teyla managed it and Torren was a baby at the time. Now, Jackson and I, we'd help and I'd bet there're others as well. You could do it all if you want it."
"I—I—" Unable to come up with a good counter-argument, Sam looked at him. "What about you? You care too, John. You practically kill yourself to prove it."
John grimaced and his hand slipped out of hers. "I'm not dad material. Someone told me that long ago."
"Nancy?" Sam asked. The dark look on his face was answer enough. Shifting in her seat, Sam grabbed his hand and trapped it tightly between hers, not letting him get away. "Well, I cannot speak for the past, but I've seen you with Reika, John. You're great with her and she adores you. Besides, even if I were to adopt her, you'd still be her—"
Sam stopped in her tracks. John had tensed even further. Their intertwined hands felt oddly disconnected and they both stared at them intensely.
"I'm sorry," Sam said in a hushed tone, tears welling up again. "That wouldn't exactly be one step at a time, would it?"
"If so, it'd be a huge one," John muttered dryly, which seemed like a good sign.
Still, his expression was strained and Sam knew the damage was already done. After all, they'd both agreed that this time, they weren't going to muck it up. This time, they would get it right, even if it meant going at a snail's pace. However, if either of them adopted Reika now while things were the way they were…
Tears began to run down Sam's face and her whole body went cold. "We can't do it, can we?"
John met her eyes, his expression equally vulnerable and dejected. "I don't know."
The day after
Someone on the nursing staff had given Reika a proper haircut, Sam realized as she twirled tresses of incredibly soft hair between her fingers. That was good, she supposed, because she was terrible with anything less complicated than a tablet computer or a naquadah reactor.
Smiling gently, Sam caressed Reika's mop of hair, letting her thoughts wander. What would it have been like to see the girl every day instead of a stolen moment now and then whenever she was in the city? To have someone so small and vulnerable depend on you for everything? To be there in the good times and the bad times?
Janet had made that choice. She'd taken in Cassie, and Sam had lost count of the number of times her friend had complained about something teenage-related that'd taken Sam straight back to her own youth. Then again, she'd also lost count of the times Janet had gushed in pride and love over something Cassie had done or said, and the number of pictures that Janet had shown her of every conceivable situation.
But I'm not her. I shouldn't even be here. I don't deserve it. Sam couldn't hold back her tears and sniffled loudly as her eyesight blurred. I'm just any other horrible person: I'm choosing someone else. And worst of all, I'm choosing something else. I'm my dad before he got cancer.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Sam wiped her cheeks and nose with her sleeve, not caring if it got snot all over it. Smiling again, her insides breaking at the sight of Reika's peaceful slumber, she smoothed the girl's hair to one side and leaned down to kiss her brow.
Reika didn't notice. Carefree and at peace in her dreams, she slumbered on far from the dangers in the waking world…far from Sam, who in the morning would have to come clean about her impossible choice that left her feeling guilty for even being here and acting as if she cared.
I'm such a horrible person. I—I should go to—
"I'd like to do it."
Jostled out of her reverie, Sam stared up at Daniel, who stood in the doorway with a gentle smile on his face. Reika shifted, stirred by Sam's sudden movement, but soon quietened and continued to sleep.
Conscious of the sleeping child, Sam rose to her feet and approached Daniel. Her voice was hoarse when she spoke. "What?"
"I'd like to adopt her," Daniel said simply, eying the little girl with a soft expression. "She's a terrific kid. Strong, brave, and full of fun. And she's been through so much. She deserves a home here on Atlantis, because she's got people here that love her and want to be with her, and I can give her that. Well, we can give her that. We're her family, after all."
Sam was speechless.
Daniel smirked when he saw the wide-eyed look on her face. "Besides, I've got time and more space than I need, and..." He hesitated suddenly and he reached out to take her hands in his, a flash of old pain lingering in his eyes. "She and I...we've both lost so much. So I'd like to do it, Sam. Please let me."
Sam flung herself at him and squeezed him tightly, a sob tearing through her trachea along with an overwhelming sensation of relief. "Thank God."
A chuckle vibrated in Daniel's chest as he hugged her back. "I guess I've been called worse."
"This is… this is…" The words came out in the jumble. Some stuck somewhere in her chest and Sam just tightened her hug instead. "Thank you, thank you, thank you..."
"I know," Daniel said gently, rubbing small circles on her back. "But whenever I want a night out on town, you and John are babysitting."
Sam chuckled and the sound was liberating.
It was finally comfortable in the darkness. No doctor voices on the radio. No bold white letters stating the price of freedom. No images. No feelings. She could just lie on her back on the hard mattress, lose track of time and place, and simply be.
That's all she wanted now. It wasn't an impossible demand. She'd done what was asked of her. She'd helped stop the Wraith from destroying Atlantis. She'd helped them get allies to count on in a tight spot. She'd done her duty.
But someone, apparently, hadn't gotten that memo. Someone was still coming around, pressing the doorbell as if it were a musical instrument and following up with the good-old-fashioned knock on the door for percussion. They wouldn't stop.
Every time it seemed so sudden, like a shot in the dark. In the beginning, it had rocked her out of her comfortable numbness and made her heart race and adrenaline pump through her veins. She'd gone from relaxed to tense in a heartbeat and it'd felt difficult to breathe, like her lungs had been ripped out with that sudden sound.
Now, she didn't move. She didn't respond. Her body remained numb. Her mind barely registered the sounds. When she finally reacted, it was mostly just to shift position so her back turned towards the door.
At least that someone hadn't tried breaking in. Not that it would work. She'd disconnected the power to the door by dislodging a panel in the wall and fiddling with the crystals. The only time she reconnected it was when she had to go on a food run, which was becoming rare. She just didn't have an appetite anymore. The numbness devoured it all.
Occasionally, she wondered what would happen if she let that someone in, but her mind never seemed to be able to hold that thought for long. After all, she knew the likely identity of the caller, and thinking about her…it made Hailey curl into a foetus position and squeeze her eyes shut against the lurking memories.
They're gone, though. They're gone whenever she's not around. So it's for the best.
Hailey opened her eyes and stared into the darkness, letting the numbness do its work. No memories. No pain. Just her and the underground abyss, staring at each other.
This is for the best. This is safe.
But somehow, the door opened. She heard the hum coming on in the darkness, then the door opened and light streamed inside. It hurt her eyes, so she brought up her hand to shield them.
As her eyes adjusted, she saw a silhouette in the doorway before the door closed again, and she knew.
Blood trickling down her face from the ricochet wound. The weight of her body as Hailey carried Carter fireman style across the compound. The strain in Hailey's legs and quivering muscles as the guards caught sight of them. The will to run driven by the will to protect. The backhanded punch of the enemy's weapon—
"Jenn." The Colonel's voice was soft like her footsteps as she found her way through the room. Somehow, she seemed to avoid hitting the scattered mess Hailey had created. Somehow, her presence radiated through the darkened room.
"No. No, no…" Hailey curled into a foetus position, holding her legs tightly against her chest. The memories washed over her uncontrollably.
Rathorn raising a gun at the Colonel during the supposed trade meeting, explaining how they were going to be used as leverage, giving them no options. The Colonel refusing and Rathorn shifting the gun to Hailey, cocking it and ready to fire. Her pulse had begun to race even though this wasn't the first time she'd been threatened. Due to something she couldn't explain beyond the look in his eyes—
A comforting hand grazed her shoulder tentatively. Hailey coiled more tightly, squeezing her eyes shut against the images flashing in her mind.
"No," she said. "Leave me alone. Go away, please. Don't…don't…"
The Genii woman punched the Colonel in the face with her weapon. Then she pushed her across the bridge, into the water processing building on the other side…and then it wasn't her, but Rathorn moving his eyes towards her and his lips curling into a smirk as his finger touched the—
"I'm not going anywhere, Jenn," the Colonel said lowly, solemnly, softly. Her grip tightened slightly, her fingers digging into Hailey's shoulder.
"No, please." She couldn't stop it now. The images. She couldn't…
Reese complaining about caves as they stared out over the Genii capitol. Reese smirking at her, teasing her about mismatched socks in the middle of a 'retrieve information' mission. Reese holding her back in the Operations Centre. The Colonel staring at her knowingly. The guilt flashing in her veins that she'd contemplated, just for a moment, that dying would be okay… Then the numbness kicked in once more and all guilt was gone. Everything was gone until the computer told her the Wraith superhive was gone, and so were the infiltration teams.
"You're not alone, Jenn," the Colonel said. "I'm sorry it took awhile, but I'm here now. I'm not gonna leave you behind. …You're part of my family."
Riding through her memories, Hailey barely heard her, but she could feel the Colonel's hand on her shoulder. Firm yet gentle. Never letting go, not even when the darkness struggled back to devour her memories, and the numbness filled her again from top to toe.
She lost track of time eventually, but she didn't lose the sensation of the Colonel's hand gripping her like an anchor in a storm.
And, slowly, Hailey let her hand find its way to that anchor and grip it hard.
The pure look of excitement and happiness on Reika's face made him smile. It drove away the other indescribable feeling deep within him for a moment and told him that this is right. This is where she was supposed to be.
Jackson had decorated his quarters with as many colours as he could get his hands on. There was a huge banner with the words "WELCOME HOME, REIKA" splayed across it in slanted, slightly hurried handwriting. Drinks and a simple platter with cookies and sandwiches had been set out as well, and music was playing from a computer on his desk.
Standing by the drinks table, John looked around at all the people who'd come to celebrate the event. McKay and Keller sat on the couch, the latter seemingly admonishing the former for some snide remark he'd given Jackson. A couple of the nurses from the infirmary who'd grown close to Reika were there as well, one of them currently on the floor drawing a picture of a princess with Reika hanging over her in excitement. Jackson was talking with Teyla, who'd arrived with Wex and a few other Athosians earlier that day. There were also many faces John recognized as SGC veterans, scientists and military alike.
It's been a long time since we've really celebrated anything. This is like bees to honey.
"Hiding by the drinks again?" Sam appeared next to him and picked up a glass of fruit juice. Her eyes were twinkling and John didn't miss the reference.
"Not every day Reika gets a name change," John said, smirking. As opposed to the Homeworld Command party, he felt more at ease in this setting. For one, there was a higher ratio of friendlier, not-stuck-up faces. "How was Hailey?"
"Better." Sam smiled and sipped her drink. "Today was a good day. Yesterday was not." She grimaced slightly. "But I think MacKenzie's finally getting through to her. They're working on a new approach, so I'm… I'm hopeful."
"He knows his stuff," John said, sensing Sam's slight hesitance. He reached out and touched her arm gently. "It'll take time, but she's on the road and she's letting you in, too."
"Yeah, I know." Reaching up to caress his hand with a brush of her thumb, Sam smiled again. "Thank you."
Warmth spreading through him, John let his hand fall naturally to his side and then grinned at her. "Guess who's been asking about her, though?" At her raised eyebrow, he added, "Ronon."
"Yeah, I was a bit surprised too. He's never said a word about her before." John took a chug of his own drink and glanced over at Reika, who was jumping up and down with her new princess drawing in her hands. "Times are really changing."
"It's a brave new world," Sam said with a smirk. "Speaking of which… I spoke to Caldwell earlier and he—"
She stopped, a groan escaped her lips, and she turned away with a hand on her earpiece radio.
When she finally turned back, John rolled his eyes. "Woolsey couldn't give you ten minutes to enjoy yourself?"
Sam grimaced. "There's a call from the Genii. I need to take it. Could you meet me at the balcony later?"
"Sure." Frowning, John gestured to Reika and Jackson, who were locked in conversation over her drawing next to Teyla. "Want me to run interference?"
"No, that's okay, I'll go explain to them."
Leaving her half-full glass behind, Sam went over to Jackson and Reika and stood talking with them for a short while. Then she gave Reika a tight hug, kissed the top of her head and left.
In her wake, John's mind ran the image of those two together over and over in his head and he felt, for the tiniest moment, a sharp jab of regret for what might have been.
The sun was setting on the horizon when John arrived, the oceans and towers of Atlantis glittering with brilliant red and yellow light. Sam turned to meet him, a big smile on her face to cover up the jittery bunch of butterflies in her stomach. He was wearing a soft smile of his own that he eventually shook off and replaced with his familiar cocky smirk.
"Long and tedious call?" John asked as he came to stand next to her, staring out at the breath-taking view that always drew them back to this particular spot, day after day, year after year.
"In a manner of speaking," Sam said, rolling her eyes. "Radim was concerned about some technicalities in the final draft of the treaty document. Then Woolsey was concerned, and next moment Caldwell dropped by." She sighed. "I'll be happy once we've finally signed that dratted document… Then I can get back to the usual order of the day with invading aliens and impending scientific or natural-born disasters."
"I've asked Woolsey to put up a permanent 'Hazardous' sign next to McKay. Hopefully it'll save us some time and effort."
Chuckling, Sam reached out to grasp John's hand. The privacy of the balcony made her bold and she ignored the flutters of butterflies that peaked when he squeezed her hand with a gentle smile.
"Anyway, Caldwell had nothing new to report," Sam said. "The Wraith are still quiet. No attacks, no nothing. But…that's not the news I wanted to share with you."
Grinning at John's confused look, she found a black case in her pocket and handed it to him. He let go of her hand to open it and then froze, eyes wide in shock.
"Caldwell and I agreed it's time you joined the selected few," Sam said with a smile and reached out to unfasten the silver oak leaves on John's collar and replace them with the silver birds in the case. Once done, she stepped back and gave him a curt nod in formal address. "Colonel."
John was staring at her the whole time, then reached up to brush his fingers across the markings on the birds' wings when she was done, his brows furrowed. "This is…"
"We've talked about doing it for some time, actually, but the whole business with Dawkins put a wrench in it. With Caldwell on the Daedalus and me either on Tirana or on ambassadorial duties, we figured there'd be a need for a Colonel on Atlantis," Sam explained. "Woolsey signed off on the paperwork this morning. There'll be a formal ceremony, of course, but… It's official."
John arced an eyebrow at her. "You sure this is a good idea?"
"I've never doubted you, John." Sam picked imaginary lint off his shoulders and then straightened in a more professional manner, her voice serious. "You'll find that it can be a heavy burden, though. There are things you'll learn, things no longer above your paygrade, such as what might have happened to the Odyssey, and there are things you'll need to take part in, such as rebuilding the military for the future."
"Rebuilding?" John's confusion deepened.
Sam nodded. "Most of the people on Atlantis are military." She paused, her insides beginning to flutter in a definite non-professional manner. "Keller told me once that we'll have to start making babies. I think it goes without saying that we'll need a new set of military framework if we're gonna build a society here. Or else we're gonna have to pair every soldier with a civilian and I can't imagine that going over well..."
At that, John's confusion vanished and his eyes twinkled in amusement. "So then I can finally wear my leather jacket to work?"
"That's the first thing on your mind?" Laughing, Sam swatted his arm but John caught her hand and pulled her closer with a promising smirk.
"Not the first thing," John said, snaking his arms around the small of her back. "Still… One step at a time, right? Can't imagine Caldwell letting us have a say in things if we're already, um, together."
Sam grinned. Although they'd made important steps to mend their relationship, there were still intimate thresholds they hadn't crossed. And although this was really just another beginning as Daniel had said, and they had no clue what new disaster might happen tomorrow, she felt truly, bone-deep happy for the first time in a long, long while.
So she hugged him close, whispered "Definitely" into his ear, dropped a kiss on his cheek and stepped back to a respectable distance to simply take his hand in hers. Smiling, John squeezed it in return.
And that was enough for now. After all, they did have time.
"There is no decision that we can make that doesn't come with some sort of balance or sacrifice." – Simon Sinek