Bonus chapter: Three years later
Christmas Day, 2013 – Remembrance
Hailey could sense him staring at her, could see his towering, dark frame in the far corner of her eye. Most likely, his arms were crossed in that blatant display of disapproval, his eyes narrowed darkly, and his lips nothing more than a thin line behind his beard. The whole thing made her roll her eyes and hold the gun a little straighter.
Down at the other end of the shooting range, three targets were already headless and gutless. The forth was right in her line of sight, a black inhuman blob that no longer scared her. In a quick succession of shots, nothing was left of its round head but a gaping hole through which she could see the sandbags stacked up against the far wall.
Only then did she take her finger off the trigger, turn the safety off, put down the gun and start unplugging her earplugs. With a glare, she turned to Ronon. "What? I can't practice anymore?"
"The commemoration ceremony starts in fifteen minutes," Ronon said unflinchingly with just an underlying tone of admonition. Like a prowling wolf, he unfroze and sauntered towards her, holding out a clothes bag. "You need to change."
Rolling her eyes again, Hailey grabbed the clothes bag and turned in one swift revolution, marching to the closest locker rooms. As she changed from her faded and well-worn PT gear into a black Traveler-style dress suitable for the occasion, she wished – not for the last time – that Ronon wasn't such a stickler for formality, or such a nag. If she could, she would've dropped going, but he'd probably just throw her over his shoulder again.
You'd think he was Conan the Barbarian.
"Here," Hailey said with barely restrained disdain after exiting the locker rooms. Off to the side, Ronon was putting away the gear she'd used earlier. She raised her voice a little for emphasis. "Satisfied?"
Facing her, Ronon gave her the once-over, thought about it, then nodded and started walking towards the nearest transporter.
He always does that, Hailey groaned inwardly as she trotted after him in a pair of Traveler high heels that matched her dress. Use your words, damnit!
She grumbled all the way to the commemoration ceremony, barely apologising to the people they had to manoeuvre past in order to get to the two empty seats in the middle of the crowd. As soon as her butt hit the chair, she crossed her arms and pointedly looked away from Ronon, prepared to pout like a sullen teenager throughout the ceremony.
Then Sam took the stage and the general buzz of the crowd died down, replaced instead by that familiar, heavy atmosphere that never seemed to lighten…and Hailey's throat constricted.
"Today, we commemorate those who lost their lives five years ago," Sam was saying, her voice echoing slightly in speakers all around the room. "Today, we remember."
Here we honour the price of freedom.
All else faded to the background as Hailey's flight instinct kicked in, reminding her why she'd been procrastinating earlier, but there was nowhere to run. No targets to take down, nothing to give her back a sense of control; to let her avoid what was to come.
Only Ronon, who calmly took her hand and held it.
Hailey remembered air was supposed to come in through her nose and out through her mouth. For the rest of the commemoration ceremony, she focussed on that, telling herself that this wasn't something she could just push in front of her, no matter how much she wanted to. She had to let herself feel, to face those lingering feelings of survivor's guilt that still emerged in moments like this. Otherwise, she'd never be able to let things go; she'd be a victim forever.
And I'm more than that, she told herself, breathing deeply. I'm a survivor.
By the time it was over and the heavy atmosphere gradually began to give room for smiles, laughter and friendly conversations, Hailey felt like she'd run a mile. She opened her eyes, realised her and Ronon's hands were still intertwined, and looked at him.
"Thank you," she said quietly.
Ronon offered a rare smile and nodded. "You're welcome."
Four years ago, he'd been somewhat uneasy with the idea of drinking coffee and eating sandwiches immediately after the commemoration ceremony, feeling the need for some time in-between. Today, however, he couldn't imagine it any other way. People needed the casual setting to react to the feelings and thoughts arising during the ceremony, and in the four that'd been held so far, Woolsey had seen it all.
Unfathomable grief. Incredible anger. Haunting silence. Desperate pleas. Solemn acceptance.
But his favourite was the scene unfolding in front of him: Children running around in innocent glee, parents chasing them or calling out warnings, babies crying inconsolably, upset parents trying every trick in the book…and laughter.
There's the future, Woolsey thought, smiling behind his coffee cup. Just as it should be.
A slender hand touched his arm, drawing his attention. "Did you want meat or vegetarian?"
Woolsey turned to face his wife, smiling. "Vegetarian, please."
Shaking her head of red curls in that familiar and endearing gesture he'd fallen in love with when they met on the Genii homeworld two years ago, Ileen sighed. "You are getting thinner, Richard. It is not good for you." Nevertheless, she complied and picked up a vegetarian sandwich for him and a chicken one for her. "Will you bring my tea?"
"Of course," Woolsey said and went back to the drinks table as Ileen went to join their friends. Eyes searching for the pots labelled 'Tea', he didn't immediately register another familiar presence to the side before she spoke up.
"Dr Carter's eulogy was well-spoken." Raising an eyebrow in surprise, Woolsey turned to face Xiaoyi, who was pouring herself a cup of tea. With a graceful movement, she set the teapot down next to him and picked up her cup, then looked up to meet his eyes. "Don't you agree?"
"Yes," Woolsey said, letting his initial surprise at her praise bloom into a smile instead. "I am happy she finally agreed to hold it. I've been asking her for years."
"Sharing your pain with others can be difficult," Xiaoyi said, sipping her tea calmly. Turning slightly away to face the room, she let her gaze trail seemingly casually over its occupants. "Sometimes, time is necessary."
"Experience is the bitterest path to wisdom," Xiaoyi said dismissively, letting her eyes drift slightly across the room.
"Very true." Hiding his knowing smile as he recognised Confucius' idea behind her statement, Woolsey poured Ileen's tea and then gestured in the direction he'd seen her go. "Care to join us?"
Although she tried to cover it, a hesitant look crossed Xiaoyi's otherwise composed face.
"Ileen would be pleased," Woolsey said gently. "She's been afraid that she greatly upset you with her questions at dinner last time."
Xiaoyi seemed to hold back an annoyed sigh. "Very well."
To anyone else, the gesture would've been considered rude, but Woolsey just smiled, unoffended. The public figure Shen Xiaoyi might be many things still – a political headache, an annoying critic, and an ice queen – but underneath those layers was a person who'd softened over the past three years. Sure, that side was rarely seen beyond the private company of those she – reluctantly, perhaps – called friends, but it was there nevertheless.
That he considered his greatest achievement in life.
Lazy Christmas jazz sounded from the speakers in Little Chow. The light was dimmed and candles were burning on tables and walls, creating a subtle, comfortable atmosphere that contrasted the raucous Christmas party he'd left behind in the larger mess hall.
Although preferring the intimacy of Little Chow to the thick crowds, Caldwell couldn't deny that the other party had been...enjoyable. There'd been a profound sense of joy and freedom as people lost themselves to the electronic dance music, reminding Caldwell of some of the post-mission parties he'd attended in his youth.
Woolsey had called it catharsis, a necessary loss of control and need for celebration of new chances to offset the solemn, anniversary of Earth's loss. All Caldwell knew was that there'd probably be some walks of shame in the morning given what he'd witnessed before he left, some of which bordered a little too close to breaking Atlantis' fraternisation regulations.
Still, he wouldn't worry about that today. Today, he wasn't the General, just Steven Caldwell, enjoying a quiet Christmas meal in Little Chow before returning for a quiet evening in at his quarters.
"Merry Christmas, sir."
Passing by his table, Colonel Kevin Marks gave him a nod of acknowledgement before joining a group of Daedalus crew seated at a different table. Emma Cooper was there, as well as Telman and Garvin, and even Dr Novak. Watching them chat and laugh together, Caldwell smiled.
After everything that'd happened, he was happy to see others happy. They deserved it.
"This is really unfair! I'm living in a closet and you get this place."
In the process of setting the dining table, Daniel rolled his eyes when he heard McKay's outburst coming from the balcony and turned to glance at Sam. "That's one sleepover you owe me."
Collapsed on the couch, Sam rubbed her eyes and sighed. "After seven plus years, you'd think I'd see that coming."
"I'm surprised you're able to keep a coherent thought at all, let alone a whole speech," Hailey remarked from where she was putting the finishing touches to the Pegasus-style Christmas tree. "I found your tablet computer in the cooler."
"Which is perfectly normal," Keller said with a reassuring smile in Sam's direction. "Your hormones are out of whack, but it'll pass. Happens to everyone. I heard Kiang found her hairbrush buried in a field of tava beans on the mainland."
Teyla laughed as she set down a bowl of Athosian fruit salad next to Daniel. "When I was breastfeeding Torren, I found myself many times in the opposite end of the city without knowing how I got there."
"John's already locking the door so I don't wander off," Sam said. Despite her obvious exhaustion from sleep deprivation and the toll of Remembrance Day, she was smiling. "He's worried my old pilot instincts will kick in and he'll find me on the other side of the solar system in the middle of the night."
A string of laughs went through the room, but it turned to winces as the tunes of Frosty the Snowman suddenly blasted through the apartment at ear-deafening volume.
"I told them not to fiddle with the controls!" Hailey grimaced and stormed off to Sam's study before Daniel could react. Within seconds of her entrance, the volume had died down and the rest of them waited with bated breath for the other shoe to drop…
And sighed when it did.
"What's going on?" John popped his head in from the balcony, apparently reacting to the loud music from before. He then noticed the loud wail coming from his and Sam's bedroom and frowned. "Want me to get him?"
"No, I'll do it." Groaning as she rose to her feet, Sam shambled towards the bedroom.
"I'll come with you," Keller said and jumped to her feet, leaving Teyla and Daniel alone in the living room.
Daniel turned back to the table he'd just set and scrutinised it. It held enough diverse food to feed a really picky army, which was a necessity with McKay present.
"Right, that should be it," he said aloud. "Just the meat and drinks left."
Teyla touched his arm with a smile. "It looks delicious, as always."
"Thank you." Warming comfortably from the touch, Daniel put his hand on hers. "Feels a little more like Christmas now. We're getting closer every year."
"It is as it should be. I am glad to hear that," Teyla said, her eyes soft and gentle.
They heard the balcony door slide open all the way, admitting both a cool winter chill and the heavenly smells of John and Ronon's barbeque. Ronon entered first, carrying two large plates laden with grilled meat, followed soon by John and McKay with two matching plates each.
John was speaking to the latter over his shoulder. "Y'know, Rodney, all you gotta do is ask Jennifer to move in with you and you can get out of that 'closet'. What's it been? Three years? Get a move on, buddy."
"I second that," Daniel said, sharing a smirk with Teyla before she moved off to fetch the drinks.
"Me three," Ronon chimed in as he set down his plates on the table.
Halting awkwardly, McKay began to stutter, trying to come up with some sort of argument, but he never had the time. The next moment, Keller and Sam came out of the now silent bedroom and the doctor was clearly over the moon.
"He's so adorable," Keller was telling Sam. "Kinda makes you think, doesn't it?"
Overhearing that, John, Ronon and Daniel chuckled while McKay's eyes widened like a deer's. He was startled out of his reverie a moment later when John jolted him teasingly with a 'there-you-have-it' glance, before he set down his last plate of meat.
"Oh, is it done?" Becoming aware of McKay and the food in his hands, Keller broke into a grin. "I'm famished."
From the study, Hailey led Reika and Torren in front of her, all of them whispering and giggling from something the young captain apparently had said. From another room, Teyla emerged balancing a tray of drinks and thanked Sam when the latter offered to help.
As he looked around at all of them, Daniel smiled. While there was a certain sense of catharsis and belonging to something greater by taking part in the commemoration ceremony, he much preferred this part of their tradition: ending Remembrance Day in the company of their closest family and friends.
"I'd say it's time," Daniel said in response to Keller's question. "Let's eat!"
Sam's hand met nothing but warm covers. She opened her eyes in confusion and looked around. It was still dark outside. They couldn't have been asleep for long. Where was he?
There was no sound of Jacob crying. Everything was quiet, almost eerily so. Sam frowned. Had John been called out? Had she been so tired that she didn't even notice a radio call? Whatever it was, now that she noticed the eerie silence, she couldn't lie still anymore. She had to check on Jacob.
Despite the sluggish weariness in her body that told her she hadn't gotten enough sleep yet, Sam left the warm bed behind and picked up a bathrobe on the way out of the bedroom. It was oversized and smelled like John, which calmed her somewhat as her sleep-deprived mind began to worry.
However, out in the living room, she halted. A low hum drifted from the nursery, sounding familiar. As she approached, frowning, the hum became distinct words and that irrational part of her brain shut off its warning klaxons, replaced instead by a smile.
"—'walked alone'," John hummed slowly, barely audible. Standing outside the open doorway, Sam heard Jacob's loud, sleepy breaths "—'hiked a hundred highways, never found a home'." She peeked inside.
Dressed only in his boxer shorts, John was pacing back and forth on the floor, Jacob cradled against his chest in the Athosian-style blanket they'd gotten from Teyla in the baby shower. A stream of moonlight escaped the blinds and fell across the floor. Whenever John stepped into it, she saw his eyes were closed. Peaceful.
"'Still in all I'm happy'," John continued the song, patting Jacob's back as he paced. "'The reason is, you see…"
Coming to the end of his path, he turned and his now open eyes met hers. A sleepy grin broke out on her face. John halted, the peaceful expression replaced by awkward embarrassment. Jacob began to protest, squirming and making small grunts. Sam only raised an eyebrow and John finally smirked.
"'Once in a while along the way…" he continued, rocking the baby slowly as he paced. "'Love's been good to me.'" His voice hushed to a hum and he repeated the chorus. In the end, Jacob snored.
By then, Sam had left them and gone back to bed. She listened to John's deep baritone hum until she'd dozed off and didn't wake until she felt the bed dip with his weight.
The covers shuffled until an arm tipped her around and John spooned up behind her. His warmth spread through her and Sam adjusted until she fit perfectly. She squeezed his arm.
"You should sing more," she mumbled, half-smiling and sleepy.
John dropped a kiss on her shoulder. "I don't know what you're talking about. Go back to sleep."
Sam chuckled and snuggled closer, basking in that wonderful feeling of happiness.
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