Some Corner of a Foreign Field

Day 81: "Let's be friends."

Standing in the shadows on a tucked away catwalk outside the conference room, Coolidge couldn't keep his thoughts to himself.

"Look at her," he spoke lowly, his eyes fixed on the blonde woman below in the gate room who moved forward to greet the trading party from one of the refugee planets. "All smiles."

Touching the railing beside him, Shen Xiaoyi observed the events below with a calculated eye. Colonel Carter was indeed more cheerful than usual, greeting the leader of the Kadarian trading party with a bright smile and a firm handshake. A bit unusual given the woman's lack of social presence the past month. Still… Shen could hear the underlying disdain in Coolidge's voice and knew what he was actually thinking.

"Do not underestimate her, James," Shen told her colleague without looking at him. "Despite her decisions in the past months, we mustn't forget that she's managed to gain command of Earth's largest and most valuable off-world base. It's not exactly a feat many share."

"Connections," Coolidge said in a huff, leaning against the railing. "But they can't help her now. She's on her own."

His tone changed to a slightly darker one and Shen shifted uncomfortably, looking around to make sure no one had heard. Seeing only the operations technicians far off in the vicinity, Shen looked back to see Coolidge's hands clenched around the railing until his knuckles whitened. He remained silent, however, leaving his issues unspoken. Pleased with that, she turned back to gaze at the gate room below.

Daniel Jackson and Colonel Sheppard had both extended their greetings, the former now gesturing towards the grand staircase and the conference room. As the Kadarian leader took the lead along with Dr Jackson and Carter, Colonel Sheppard stayed back to help the rest of the Kadarians with the baskets of fruits and assorted food that they'd brought.

Shen was already familiar with the purpose of this visit. Each week, several refugee worlds came with what surplus food they'd collected in return for medical help and supplies if necessary. Dr Keller was by now probably preparing to join the party back to their planet, where apparently an indigenous infection had made almost half the children sick.

Apparently reading her mind, Coolidge spoke up again in a low, ominous voice, "She's spending a lot of our valuable resources on these people…" He followed the trio moving into the conference room with a grim look. "This isn't Earth."

Shen agreed, but she would get nowhere saying so to Atlantis' commander. Not to mention that it'd be political suicide to advocate against humanitarian help. The people on Atlantis still had strong feelings about their obligations, no matter what they thought of their current leadership. Granted, it wasn't like Atlantis was bleeding dry immediately, but still…

"Patience, James," Shen said coolly, releasing her grip on the railing and taking a step back. "Colonel Carter may be a dangerous opponent, but even more so to herself." Giving Coolidge a tight smile, she continued, "I think you'll find that everything will be sorted out in the end."

A frown crossed Coolidge's face. She could almost see how the wheels turned in his head, trying to work out the true meaning behind her words. Shen didn't particular care if he worked it out or not. Things were already set into motion and it was too late to stop it.

"Life has been treating us well on New Kadara, Colonel Carter." Asok, the leader of the Kadarian settlement, smiled at her from across the table. He was an elderly man of small stature and always wore an amicable expression the times Sam had met him. "We have nothing to complain about. We have water, food, shelter and safety from the Wraith. Dr Keller has assured me all of the children will be healthy again."

"That's good to hear," said Sam, inwardly relieved that finally, someone was pleased. Ironically, it proved to be most of the Pegasus natives that'd visited Atlantis the past week with their trading goods. Next to her, Daniel gave her a knowing look. Pushing that aside, she asked, "How are you coming along with the dam? Do you need any help?"

Asok shook his head in negative, saying, "You have already done more than we could ever hope for, Colonel. It is time we do the work ourselves." Apparently reading more into her silence than Sam was aware of herself, the white-haired, good-natured man met her hesitant look with a twinkle in his eye. "Do not worry so much, Colonel. My people are strong and stubborn; they can handle a bit of hard work."

Catching herself feeling stupid for even once considering assigning a few engineers to help, Sam smiled sheepishly. She'd become so used to sending the engineers whenever the settlers experienced trouble in their newly founded villages. "I'm sure they can, Asok. If you need anything, however… Don't hesitate to let us know."

"I will," said Asok, folding his hands peacefully on top of the table. "And if there is anything we can do for you or your people, Colonel, we would be most happy to do so. The Kadarian regard our allies highly, but our friendships even higher."

Seemingly jumping at the chance, Daniel sat forward in his chair. "There was one thing, Asok, if I may…" The elderly man nodded, gesturing Daniel to continue. "Since Dr Keller is already accompanying you back to the planet, I would like to join her. I'd like to know more about your people. In fact…both Colonel Carter and I would."

Startled, Sam swirled around on Daniel with a poorly hidden accusing look, but he was pointedly staring at the Kadarian leader.

Asok glanced briefly between the two of them before saying with a hidden smile, "It would be an honour to have you visit us."

"Great!" said Daniel enthusiastically, giving Sam an innocent look. "Wouldn't you say so, Sam?"

Next to him, Asok sported a twinkle that seemed far too similar to Daniel's, giving Sam the distinct feeling that she'd been set up.

Promising a nasty vengeance for Daniel later, Sam could only smile tightly at both men and nod her assent.

"You're going where?" John didn't know if he had heard Sam correctly. There was quite a bit of background noise with the first group of Marines and Ronon training in the gym behind him. He touched the radio earpiece and pushed it a little further into his ear.

"I'll be joining Daniel and Jennifer to the Kadarian settlement. That leaves you in charge here for a couple of days."

Already caught off guard, John couldn't stop a sliver of annoyance slipping into his voice. "'Days'? I gotta lead the drills for the rest of the week; I can't go running off to a bunch of meetings while these guys are pounding each other."

A particular loud, painful yell sounded from the gym, emphasizing John's point. He went back to the doorway to check everything was all right. Inside, three Marines were battling each other in hand-to-hand with Ronon as supervisor. It'd reached the point where one of the guys had begun to bleed from a cut on the eyebrow. Instinct told him to get in there and break it up, but Ronon was already stepping in and taking control with a silent intensity that only the Satedan possessed.

The separated, panting soldiers held John's attention for a moment longer until he realised he'd missed most of what Sam's muffled voice had said.

"Woah, woah, Sam," John interrupted her, the name slipping past his lips before he could stop himself. "Back up a bit. I didn't catch that. Jarhead moment."

He could hear the sharp silence he'd begun to associate with her annoyance, but he couldn't care about that now.

"…I said I've rescheduled most of the meetings." Sam's voice was terse. "You've only got to meet up with the IOA remnant in your office at 15.00 today. I've sent the details to your inbox."

Reining in a groan, John stopped pacing and stared down the empty hallway. The gym was alive with grunts and scuffles again, distracting him from the conversation with Sam. He tried to clear his mind, to find some tranquil place so he could get the answers he wanted without causing further distance. It was hard.

Eventually, John lowered his voice and said, "You coulda told me earlier."

"… I didn't know," said Sam, her voice a little softer but still obviously tense. The image of her pinching the bridge of her nose, eyes closed, popped into John's head. He quickly pushed it away; it simply brought back too many memories. "Daniel roped me into it in front of Asok. I couldn't really say no."

Still annoyed at the sudden upheaval of his schedules, John glanced at the gym behind him. He'd hoped to be there to supervise all of the drills personally, since every solider currently on Atlantis was going to have their turn and he wanted to feel them out.

Due to the cut-back of ordinary missions the past two months, as well as the chaos dominating that time, he'd lost touch with many of the military under his command. They'd simply fallen off the radar most of the time, and John had been too busy with the Wraith and the issues with internal security and the refugees to follow up on all of them. It'd all hit very close to home for him when two soldiers and three civilian scientists had suddenly gotten into a brawl in the mess hall two days ago. It'd taken two security teams and a major headache before John got the situation under control and dealt with, and now he was resolved to change the status quo.

But he couldn't mess with diplomatic ties on the basis that Sam had left him high and dry. They needed the Pegasus natives just as much as the natives needed Atlantis, especially now that the Wraith superhive had suddenly stopped its blitz attacks and seemingly disappeared underground. John knew Todd's people were just biding their time, however, and he was itching to get out there, but that option was out. For now, they needed information and the natives were the best people to gather it for them without attracting attention, and to do that Atlantis needed them on their side.

"Alright," John grumbled finally. Feeling the need to lighten up a little lest he fall into one of the dark holes associated with Sam these days, John forced a hint of perkiness into his voice. "Say hi to Reika for me, would ya? Tell her I'll drop by next time."

Reika was one of the kids John had gotten to know while the Pegasus natives had been refugees in Atlantis. Staying in touch with them had helped him stay sane throughout the nightmares that had he and Atlantis both had been doled out for last year's Christmas present. Thinking about the kids now even seemed to marginally improve his mood.

"…I will. Carter out."

As abruptly as the radio transmission had come it ended, leaving John standing silently in the hall outside the gym, listening tensely to the muffled sounds of soldiers going through their hand-to-hand combat exercises.

Trudging in the middle of the small convoy, Sam caught herself repeatedly adjusting her gnawing backpack and half-wishing they'd taken a Jumper despite the fact that it would've been impossible to get it out of the forest the stargate was located in. She was almost out of breath as they climbed a steep hill to reach the Kadarian settlement, which was tucked into a lush valley some four hours away from the stargate at a brisk pace. She knew that somewhere behind, Daniel and Jennifer were making up the rear along with a few sympathising Kadarians. Daniel was still not fully recovered from his Milky Way injuries, but he stubbornly insisted upon coming anyway.

Gritting her teeth for each climbing step, Sam was increasingly annoyed at each of her burning muscles, complaining against months of disuse. This was not her; she never used to have problems with a little physical exertion. She used to go on daylong treks with 30kgs backpacks or more, often followed by a hasty retreat to the planet's stargate, guns firing, without her body complaining… much.

Finding herself forced to take another breather, Sam let herself be passed by the young Kadarians carrying Jennifer's supplies before slumping a little forward. She pulled out her canteen and gulped down the cool water hurriedly, listening to the pounding of her blood in her ears. Once she had her breath under control, she pushed a few loose strands of hair aside from her sticky face and turned to scout for Daniel and Jennifer. They were some twenty feet down the slope, Daniel visibly shifting his weight quickly off his injured foot. Jennifer was close by, ready to support him if needed.

"You alright?" Sam asked him when they finally reached her, the Kadarians already far up ahead along the winding path up the rocky hillside.

Panting, Daniel accepted Sam's canteen gratefully. "I've been better," he admitted after a few gulps.

"You shouldn't be forcing yourself," said Jennifer, obviously in marginally better shape than either Sam or Daniel. She adjusted her backpack a little, but otherwise didn't seem bothered by the exertion. "If you'd asked, I'd never have let you go off-world so early."

"Good thing I didn't ask then," said Daniel smartly, handing the canteen back to Sam. "Seriously, I'm fine. Stop worrying."

"Who says I'm worried?" asked Sam obviously, raising an eyebrow. Jennifer simply rolled her eyes in exasperation. "At least let me take some of that weight off your shoulders."

"No way," objected Daniel, taking a step away from them. "You've got enough already. Besides, it's not that much. Just a few books and some clothes. Tebor took the rest." Tebor was one of the young male Kadarians that'd made Daniel's acquaintance on a previous visit to Atlantis. "I should be able to carry that, at least."

Sam rolled her eyes, not exactly surprised by Daniel's stubbornness. She hitched up her backpack with a slight grimace. "Suit yourself. We should get going, though, otherwise the Kadarians are gonna be miles ahead."

"Aren't they already?" muttered Jennifer gently.

In hindsight, John had expected the shit to finally hit the fan, but he hadn't expected it so soon.

Upon entering the gym after lunch, where the third group of soldiers of the day were supposed to meet for their hand-to hand training, John was immediately aware of the sounds of a serious scuffle going on.

"What the hell…?"

He shared a look with Ronon, who'd walked with him from the mess hall and now wore a dark, knowing look. The Satedan reacted instantly, striding quickly forward towards the crowd that had gathered at one side of the gym. Towering a head above the rest, he pushed the crowd aside with sheer presence, with John following closely behind.

They emerged on the other side just as two snarling Air Force sergeants threw themselves at the other without repentance. Blood had already spilled from small cuts on their faces, their bare skin red and swelling from where hard knuckles had hit. John was stunned by the malevolent and crazy grimace upon their faces, and felt his head blood soar with adrenaline.

"Break it up!" he shouted at the two of them, stepping into the ring immediately.

The two men were in their own frenzied world, however, oblivious to anything else happening. John didn't need to look at Ronon before deciding his second approach.

Flexing his muscles, Ronon threw himself into the midst, pulling one of the sergeants by his shoulders and flinging him heavily in John's direction. The man stumbled into John with force, grunting loudly, but before John could get the man under control, he'd regained his balance and spun around sending a hard punch straight into John's left side. The punch threw him off-balance with a pained grimace and he narrowly dodged a second punch.

Now seriously pissed off, John instinctually spun around himself and delivered one of his own right-hand blows into the man's stomach. It was meant as a debilitating hit but the sergeant barely grunted, gritting his teeth and glaring up at John with unprecedented rage. Roaring, he lunged at him, but this time John was prepared. Side-stepping the punch, he hooked his foot around the sergeant's and flipped him unto the ground while using his hands to control his arms and head. Acting quickly, John got down and locked the man's arms behind his back by his wrists.

Once he was sure the man was unable to get out of it, he gritted out, "Stow it, Sergeant!"

"Fuck you, sir!" The man, who John now recognised as Sergeant Nelson of the former SGC, continued to struggle, despite the persistent and most likely painful wristlock John had him in.

"You did not just say that," growled John dangerously, pulling Nelson's wrist a little further and feeling the man's arm muscles tighten in protest at the angle. Nelson groaned in pain, but John held it tight. "Get a hold of yourself, Sergeant. That's an orderand I ain't saying it twice!"

Finally, the man ceased to resist and John loosened his grip. Once assured the man was calm, John got to his feet and left Nelson lying on the ground groaning. He turned towards Ronon and the second sergeant, who he saw was Ramirez, bloodied and bruised but otherwise seemingly in control of his senses. John's eyes narrowed.

"Anyone wanna tell me what the hell happened?" John gave Ramirez a particularly pointed stare, but the man tilted his chin defiantly and didn't say a word. Neither did anyone else in the crowd, not even when faced with Ronon's dangerously threatening stare, and John's anger flared at the conspiracy of silence facing him. He'd often been part of it, but he'd never been on this side of it before.

Behind him, Nelson got slowly to his feet and his eyes locked with Ramirez. The tension could be cut with a knife. Fed up with it all, John planted himself straight between them with dangerous looks at either of them.

"That's enough. Last warning." He pointed specifically at each of them. Ronon stepped forward, arms crossed, sending silent dark looks of his own.

Once it was clear neither of the sergeants were launching into another fight immediately, John turned to one of the Airmen in the crowd. "Christenson, get security up here. I want 'em here yesterday. Everyone else get the hell out of here. Show's over."

He gave the crowd a hard, authoritative look until they slowly began to turn and filter out of the gym.

Turning back to Nelson and Ramirez, John gritted his teeth, speaking in a controlled, uncompromising voice, "You two are gonna spend the night in the brig and you're gonna cool off. I'll deal with you later."

Neither of the sergeants objected, remaining in their positions with now almost uncaring expressions. Although he was slightly ticked off by their defiance, John held back further retort and maintained the same guarding position as Ronon, rubbing his side with a grimace.

Having finally reached the Kadarian settlement, Sam sank down on a proffered and welcomed bench in the middle of the assorted tents and under-construction buildings. Uncapping her canteen, she gulped the rest of the cool water with relish, as well as pouring some of it over her head.

It was a hot day, but the trek over hills and through lush forests had taken an extra toll on her. Her muscles were still burning and she was beyond the point where she was consciously aware that people around her didn't seem as exhausted as her. Once she caught her breath, however, she looked up to find Asok settled comfortably on a log opposite of her, his eyes kind but knowing.

Now acutely conscious of her hair being plastered to her head, as well as the sweat trickling down her neck and making her clothes stick to her skin, Sam found herself straightening despite her muscles complaining. If anything, it only made Asok's hint of a smile that much more annoying. At least he didn't comment on the obvious, for which Sam was grateful.

"Now that we've reached the goal of our journey, I offer you a proper welcome to our village, Colonel Carter," Asok said, brushing a little dust off his clothes. "We may not be many, but you will find that our hearts and homes have plenty of room." He put his hands together in what Sam had come to learn was the traditional greeting. "May you always find rest and ease from the road, and peace from the Wraith."

As always when reminded of the threat they'd all been under, and still were in most respects, Sam's annoyance trickled away and was replaced with a serious, depressing mood. No matter how long the Wraith held on to this apparent break they were on, Sam knew they'd be back. The Wraith would never give up Atlantis. Their cat-and-mouse chase and the consequent blitz attacks on former Pegasus allies of Atlantis had proven that. The temptation of a planet and a new galaxy housing billions of humans… it had to be too hard to resist.

What struck Sam most keenly about Asok's features at the moment was not fear or resignation of being considered the Wraith's livestock, however, but rather a ray of hope. Asok, like many of the Pegasus settlers Sam had met in the past months, was still optimistic that the Wraith couldn't hurt them, despite all that'd happened in the past five years.

Sam couldn't help but respect that stoic heartfelt belief, as well as feel oddly comforted by it. She slumped a little from her tense posture, drawing a deep breath. Feeling too much of a hypocrite to attempt the Kadarian greeting, though, Sam settled for a smiling nod.

"I appreciate that, Asok, and please call me Sam."

Asok's expression brightened as he rested his hands in his lap, "Sam… It is a beautiful name. Does it have a meaning on your world?"

Opening the zipper of her Expedition jacket to let some air in to her hot skin, Sam froze in mid-action. While Earth was never far away from her mind, Asok's question reminded her of the people who'd given her her name. Surprised by the sudden lump in her throat, she withdrew her eyes and focused on completing the unzipping.

"Yes," Sam said a bit thickly. "Most names on Earth do… I'm not sure what my name in particular means, though. Daniel might be the wiser guy to ask."

Continuing to avoid eye contact, Sam was slightly surprised when Asok said gently, "Please, forgive an old man his curiosity." Sam looked up to see him raise his palms ruefully. "At my age, it seems, I tend to believe the youth are as interested in the small things as me. I forget there are other, more important things on your minds, as it should be."

He smiled kindly and embarrassedly, and for reasons Sam couldn't explain he lulled her into a comfortable sense of security; she couldn't help but be drawn into his deep, calm eyes.

"Grandfather!" A girl swiftly catapulting into Asok's right side broke the spell instantly, making Sam blink for a moment. She was about six or seven with wild brown curls that reminded Sam of someone she'd met in her past. Someone surrounded by the haze of a dream…or was it a colourful wisp of clouds? Sam looked at her mesmerised.

"Ah, Reika," greeted Asok happily, resting his hand on the girl's back and pulling her a little closer. "I wondered when you would show up." He winked knowingly at Sam above the girl's head, and then gestured for Reika to turn around. "I would like you to meet a very special woman. This is Sam. She will be staying here for a few days while Jennifer helps your brother get well."

Smiling, Sam gave Reika a small, slightly awkward wave. "Hi."

The girl shyly buried her face in Asok's neck, having to be gently nudged by the old man before tipping her head up with a small smile. The action vanquished some of Sam's embarrassment and she gave Reika her friendliest grin.

"John's told me about you," Sam said gently, watching as the name registered immediately with the young girl. "He was sorry he couldn't see you today, but promised to visit soon."

Reika's expression fell slightly and Sam was at once conscious of the fact that John must've had a particular impact on the girl since he met her on Atlantis. It sent a pang of nostalgia through her, remembering the controlled chaos that'd gone on before the SGC evacuation order came through.

They'd started to evacuate planets in the Wraith superhive's path to Atlantis only weeks before Christmas, and Sam had been busy handling the administrative side of things. It'd been John who interacted with the refugees, getting to know them as they were assigned quarters. He'd told Sam about Reika and the other kids one night they spent on the balcony, taking a breather before turning in. It'd been full moon, the sea tranquil and shimmering in silver, and John had taken her hand and…

The image of John's smiling dark eyes assaulted her and Sam quickly pushed it away to the darkest corners of her mind.

Whether Asok noticed the change of mood Sam couldn't tell, but the elder man drew Reika close and whispered something in her ear. Feeling like a third wheel in the two Kadarians' hushed conversation, Sam turned her attention to the tents and buildings surrounding her.

Kadarians of all ages were milling about, some watching her curiously, others busy with their routines. Several children were playing some sort of game with a bundle of cloth around what seemed to be the cooking area — Daniel had told her the Kadarians were a communal people — and they drew Sam's attention for several moments until Asok coughed lightly.

A little embarrassed, Sam returned her gaze to Reika and the Kadarian leader. Asok looked to Sam with a twinkle in his eyes, gesturing to the young girl as he spoke. "If you do not have other plans, Sam, Reika wishes to show you our village. She is our best guide," he added sincerely.

The praise seemed to awaken some pride in the previously shy girl, and Reika moved forward to grasp Sam's hand silently, prompting a barely concealed chuckle from her.

Well, when in Rome…

"I'd be honoured," Sam said courteously and let herself be pulled to her feet before pausing. She turned to Asok. "When the others arrive…"

"I'll tell them where you are," said Asok with a contained smile before motioning towards their surroundings. "Please enjoy your tour, Colonel. There is no hurry."

Nodding gratefully, Sam looked down at her little guide, who only reached her thigh. She couldn't help but smile warmly at the large, brown eyes staring half-shyly and half-curiously at her. "Lead on, skipper."

Ten minutes after dismissing the third martial arts class, security finally arrived and John watched them escort Ramirez and Nelson around the corner of the hall with an unsettled feeling in his stomach. Was this what they'd come to? Whacking at each other in the mess hall and the gym? Throwing punches uncaringly at senior officers?

Frustrated with the responding silence, John turned and re-entered the gym. As expected, Ronon was giving him the look that said he knew it all.

"What?" John grumbled. He strode towards the equipment that lay around and began to clean it up. "You gonna say 'I told you so', big guy?"

Ronon simply stood in the middle of the room, his arms relaxed at his sides but his voice low. "They're restless."

"Y'know, that's practically 'I told you so'," said John darkly, chucking the workout mat in his hands towards the similar stack in a corner. Noticing his aggressiveness, John paused and sighed, continuing in a calmer but strained tone. "I know they are, but what the hell am I supposed to do? I've already got 'em running and training five days a week when there's not the occasional recon or trade mission."

Ronon's stare told him exactly what he could do, since they'd talked about this several weeks before. It only made John groan further as he picked up another mat.

"I can't send them all off-world to fight the Wraith. The boss says no."

"But you don't agree." Ronon's statement was simple but, as always, said more than John expected. He'd never told Ronon about what happened in Sam's office after the attack on Avros, feeling it was none of other people's business, but he should probably not be surprised Ronon had eventually figured it out. The guy could give Mace Windu a run for his money.

A dark look crossed John's face as he shut down the frustration the memory of Avros and Sam's office brought.

"No, I don't," said John, turning around and meeting Ronon's levelled stare.

He knew that Ronon was itching to get cracking at fighting the Wraith again and John was no better. He wanted to make the Wraith pay for all the people they'd killed in the last three months, both Pegasus natives and…and the people now buried in foreign fields. But that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Even if Sam had said 'yes' to active resistance, Atlantis wasn't ready. John didn't even have to look at the status reports from the various departments to recognise that now.

"I didn't agree with her, but that's neither here nor there," John continued lowly, putting the last of the green workout mats on top of the stack. He took a breath before turning around to face the Satedan. "The simple fact is we've got our own people getting into fist fights now and there's no easy fix. Chucking them at the Wraith won't solve the problem."

It was clear by Ronon's expression that he didn't agree, but he said nothing, simply holding John's levelled stare. Nevertheless, John had the distinct feeling that before all this was over, Ronon was going to unrepentantly tell him 'I told you so' again. And when that time came, John would be much more tempted to make a different choice no matter the consequences.

It couldn't go on like this.

After the tour with Reika, who'd slowly come out of her shell and turned out to be rather enthusiastic and energetic with lots of questions, Sam found herself drifting around the village.

The tents and half-finished buildings were a testimony to the situation of the Kadarians, the situation Sam had forced them into, and she couldn't help the uneasy feeling settling in her stomach. It made her restless and she walked about, trying to figure out what she was supposed to do. Jennifer was off treating the sick kids and Daniel was seated with Asok and several other Kadarians in deep conversation about culture and history. Now that he was off his feet, he seemed to be having a great time.

Emerging between two tents to an open area where several Kadarian women were milling around a well, Sam halted. The women were laughing and smiling as they prepared various foods, washed clothes in a wooden tub, or drew water from the well. Some of them were even singing, the words unfamiliar to Sam. They seemed happy, without complaint, just as Asok had said in the meeting this morning.

Sam could only watch them silently, biting her lip.

In-between the women, several children – including Reika – were running about, playing a form of tag that involved a cloth being thrown by the one who was 'it'. Seeing the children sent a pang through Sam. The only times she'd run into them on Atlantis had been either Teyla's son Torren before the Athosians relocated or the rare occasions she'd been to visit the refugees. Now… Atlantis was void of children. There were just adults, who hardly ever ran around playing tag with the carefree attitude these Kadarian children possessed.

Being too caught up in the game, one of the children didn't see where she was going and ran smack into an unprepared Sam.

"Ouf!" Quickly catching her balance, as well as the girl before she tipped over, Sam straightened them both. "Are you alright?" she asked the girl, about ten, worriedly. "Did you hurt yourself?"

The girl looked at first confused and then a little sceptical, before finally deciding Sam wasn't as scary as she first thought. "No. Who're you?"

Now smiling, Sam kneeled down so she was at the same height as the girl. "I'm Sam. What's your name?"

"Miral." The girl smiled shyly, her hand twisting in her dirt and grass-specked skirt.

"Sam!" Reika came bundling to them, her face flushed from the game. "Play with us!"

Sam was stunned for a moment, not expecting the invitation. She looked up at the Kadarian women, who watched with great interest and smiles, and was a bit reserved. "I dunno…"

"Please?" asked Reika, shortly joined by Miral. Their wonderfully childish expressions finally touched something in Sam and she was convinced.

"Okay," Sam replied with a grin, standing up.

The girls cheered and it hadn't been two seconds before the bundle of cloth had been thrown straight into Sam's chest by some of the other gathering kids, effectively tagging her. She picked it up to the glee of the now fleeing children.

Moving briskly through the hallways on his way from the brig, John resisted the urge to groan at the lingering ache in his side. Sergeant Nelson obviously knew how to pack a punch and John had been unprepared. The entire issue weighed on his mind, frustrating him. When Sam got back, he'd have to take it up with her and see what they could do. This couldn't go any further.

"Xiaoyi to Colonel Sheppard."

For a moment, John was confused as to why she was calling him, then memory filtered back to him and he cursed beneath his breath. This day was only getting worse.

"Yeah?" he replied sharply on his radio.

"I believe we had a meeting scheduled at 3 o'clock," Xiaoyi continued formally, but with a slight edge in her tone.

John could picture the annoyed look upon her face seeing as it was now fifteen past, but frankly, he couldn't care less at the moment. He had bigger troubles on his mind than the petty concerns of the IOA remnant. Even so, this was a necessary evil he couldn't escape.

"I'm on my way," John said brusquely, terminating the connection as he turned on the spot and doubled back to the nearest transporter.

Eight minutes later he was outside his office, where both Xiaoyi and Coolidge were waiting. Again, John noticed that Woolsey was nowhere to be seen, reminding him ominously of what politics could do to those going against the grain. The two IOA members looked equally offended and indifferent, presumably because he was running late, but all John could think of were how pleased he was that he now routinely locked his door. Otherwise he'd wonder what dirty tricks either of them had stooped to when faced with the open door of a senior Expedition member.

It also gave him the upper hand, which he needed.

"Hope you haven't been waiting long," John found himself saying dryly as he input his code, feeling no small sense of satisfaction at the frustrated puff coming from the baldy-head. The door opened and John stepped inside, gesturing half-heartedly and sarcastically for the others to enter, "Come on in."

His office was nowhere as large or comfortable as Sam's, or as well-equipped seeing as he hardly spent time here. Its dark red walls always seemed to close in on him, especially since there was only a minor window tucked in a corner that hardly let in any large amount of sunlight. John preferred to do his meetings with subordinates in more relaxed and comfortable atmospheres like the mess hall. Seeing Xiaoyi and Coolidge look around the slightly dank, stale office with poorly concealed disdain, however, John felt slightly defensive about his space and was resolved not to make it any easier on them.

"So you wanna tell me what this is all about?" John asked as he settled down in his chair, putting his feet up on the desk.

Having only one hard uncomfortable chair available for any visitors, John noticed silently that Xiaoyi chose to sit down while Coolidge remained on his feet, hovering in the background.

Taking her time, Xiaoyi dug forth several folders from her briefcase and handed one over to John. He accepted it, leaving it on the desk as he flipped through it. His eyes narrowed as he read.

"What's this supposed to be?" John asked, his voice low and edged. He gave both IOA members a suspicious look.

Xiaoyi sat back in her chair, an icy expression upon her face. "It's come to our attention, Colonel, that many of the people on Atlantis are concerned about the obvious lack of resources being put into the operation of the city, considering what is available."

John paused from the reading to raise an eyebrow. He said obviously, "Oh really?"

Xiaoyi paid him no particular heed, continuing seamlessly. "Since Atlantis settled on this planet two months ago, every scientist and technician have been working practically non-stop on immediate repairs, so far without complaint. Now, however, many of them wish for a leave of absence unless you can allocate more resources to them."

"You've gotta be kidding me," John said in disbelief, closing the folder and staring at the two IOA members across the desk. "We've still got important repairs and upgrades going on. Just ask McKay." The Canadian hadn't missed a chance to remind John just how important each repair and upgrade was to the function of the city.

"On the contrary, Colonel, we're quite serious," said Coolidge uncharacteristically evenly, stepping forward with his arms crossed. John felt disgust churn in his stomach. "We've noticed for a long time that the command of this city clearly favours the military. You force the civilian technicians and scientists to work despite their wishes to take a leave of absence, and when your soldiers actively provoke the said hard-working civilians to petty fist fights, you don't punish them!"

"What? That's ridiculous! I haven't heard a single thing about people being denied time off, and I sure as hell haven't been letting people off for fighting."

"And your notion of appropriate punishment for sending three civilians to the infirmary is training?" Coolidge's eyes narrowed.

"They weren't serious injuries," said John, struggling to keep his anger in check. "And you don't know the heck of what training I've got in store for them…"

Coolidge leaned down, resting his knuckles on top of John's desk. His eyes were fiery but controlled. "And what do you define as 'serious' injuries, Colonel? A broken hand? A knife wound? Or does it need to be a gun shot wound before you react?"

In the blink of an eye, John had launched to his feet, fisting his hands above the desk. "You son of a—"

"Colonel Sheppard," said Xiaoyi sharply, shifting in her seat. Her eyes were like icy steel and she continued before John had a chance to object. "You cannot ignore the fact that your soldiers are freely roaming the city without any restrictions, while the civilians are often working overtime with limited resources for the benefit of everyone on Atlantis. There is an obvious case of unequal treatment here, not to mention a certain opposition to assigning some of your soldiers to help with repairs. Many of them are capable of such. Even Colonel Carter stated so herself."

"We're only asking for our people's right for equality," added Coolidge, his eyes glinting challengingly. He leaned back with what John could only perceive as a smug look upon his face. It disgusted him.

"Your people?" John asked slowly, narrowing his eyes as he began to calm down. The implication wasn't lost on him. "All I see in this city is our people."

Neither of the IOA members blinked an eye and none of them said another word. John stared at them, his mind churning at high speed. As loath as he was to admit it, Xiaoyi was right about some of the soldiers being capable of handling at least basic repairs. Giving in to them, however, tasted too much of defeat and John was already in a bad mood.

He couldn't ignore them, however, or Sam would have his hide and right now John didn't need another headache. That presented him with a dilemma: he still didn't know the state of mind of all the soldiers, and there were more than 200 of them in the city. After today, he sure as hell didn't want another conflict between soldiers and civilians, and putting them together on repair assignments… John had no idea what that would lead to.

"You can't have 'em," John said finally. "At least not until the training's done and I've talked to Colonel Carter about it. She'll probably agree with me that until we have control over the situation, we can't risk putting the wrong kind of people together. We don't wanna have more…incidents to happen, do we?" He raised an eyebrow challengingly. "That good enough for 'your' people?"

Coolidge and Xiaoyi looked at each other, sharing a brief look before Xiaoyi turned to John, her features uneasily indecipherable.

"We will communicate that to them, Colonel," she said, gathering her folders and putting them back in her suitcase. She stood, her polite smile tight and emotionless. "I'm sure they'll appreciate yourconsideration. Have a good day."

Nodding to Coolidge, who followed with a mixed glance in John's direction, she exited the office. Staring at the closing door, John was restless. He had a feeling this was going to come back into his face. Violently.

Leaving the circle of light coming off the large communal cooking fire, Daniel couldn't help thinking about what Asok had mentioned to him earlier. They'd been watching Jennifer and Sam being drawn into a children's game by Reika and her friends, in which the adults had quickly ended up as being sided against the children and losing horrendously. But the women had smiled and chuckled, enjoying themselves, and Asok had succinctly and correctly observed that Sam in particular looked much younger when she smiled.

"It is difficult to be a leader of a wilful people," Asok had said, to Daniel's surprise.

He wasn't sure what Sam had told the Kadarian leader, but she'd probably kept those particular issues to herself. Not about to break Sam's trust in him, Daniel had refrained from saying anything but Asok had seemingly understood.

"It takes strength and will to have control during the events you have been through. Sam is a strong woman. But…perhaps too strong."

"It's good to see her smile," Daniel had admitted in the end, not being able to keep it all in.

Asok had simply said, "The power of children, Dr Jackson," without any further explanation, but none was needed. Daniel knew first hand how children affected your mood. When he'd been on Abydos, the fullness of the society around him had kept him from falling into melancholy, especially the children. To Sam…he remembered her reaction to Cassie, who'd been about Reika's age when Nirrti destroyed her planet, and that should be enough.

Moving away from the centre of the settlement, Daniel paused momentarily to see if he could see his target. Although the night was upon them and the moon not too bright, he could see a shadow moving slightly near a large tree on a small bank. He pursued it, climbing the slowly steeping bank until he reached her.

Daniel heard her before he saw her. Sam was humming softly, something he certainly hadn't heard in quite a while. Of all things, she was humming 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' while staring up the night sky with big round eyes, slumped slightly in a relaxed pose. Simply listening, Daniel waited for a few moments before making his presence known.

"Hi," he greeted plainly, groaning a little at the ache in his leg as he eased himself down next to her. "Hope I'm not interrupting."

"You're not," said Sam easily, pausing her humming. She continued to look upwards, smiling as if recalling something.

"Remembering good times?" Daniel asked quietly, personally referring to the Milky Way and the numerous times they'd been seated just like this: underneath a tree while staring at the stars.

He knew Sam would catch his drift. Jack and Teal'c had joined them occasionally, each contributing to the various constellations they thought they could see. Daniel had been amazed at how their perspectives of the constellations changed from planet to planet.

"Yes," said Sam gently, shifting so that their shoulders touched. Daniel smiled at the gesture, but didn't try to hug her. That wasn't what it was about. It was simply about presence. "You recall P3X-772?"

"The planet with the little people?" Daniel recalled something along those lines and Sam's chuckle confirmed it. "Yeah, what about it?"

"They were pretty carefree. They had no worries. At least not until we got there…" Sam's voice gradually took on a melancholic tone, which Daniel picked up immediately.

"You're worried about the Kadarians?" He shifted an inch closer. They didn't look at each other, simply staring at the stars. Sam's hands were beginning to flex upon her legs.

"Yeah," Sam said slowly, eyes blinking. Her voice was low now. "We've already lost so many people, Daniel… I don't want the Wraith to take more of them."

"Me neither," mumbled Daniel. He reached out and took one of Sam's hands in his. "But you shouldn't be worrying about the Kadarians. They're safe here. You made sure of that."

Sam only hummed in reply, but her hand gripped Daniel's hard, saying a lot about the unspoken sentiments in her head. After several moments, her hand began to loosen its tight grip and Sam let out a contemplative sigh.

"They're so different than Atlantis."

Daniel knew she was speaking of the Kadarians and smiled. "You seemed to be enjoying yourself earlier. Got yourself some new friends?"

Sam chuckled softly. "Reika's a great kid. She reminds me of…"

She didn't say it but Daniel had a hunch he knew who she talked about. The girl had touched Sam more than any other kids Daniel knew of, including her brother's kids, and not knowing what'd happened to her…

Daniel felt it as keenly as anyone else, he reckoned. Losing Earth had hit them all hard and they were still struggling. Most of them just refused to let it show. Daniel was a firm believer in 'Time's a healer', however, and knew they'd get past even that particular loss one day. It just seemed impossible right now. Like so many other things...

"I wonder how John's meeting with the IOA went," Sam said suddenly. "They're…" She paused, biting her lip. "Something's happening, Daniel. I don't like it."

Sam admitting to know the changes Daniel had noticed on Atlantis for the past month was unsurprising, but he still didn't know what to say that hadn't already been said. It was clear that Sam was worried enough that it was threatening her good mood, as well as Daniel's objective in luring Sam into this mission. She needed a break. As such, he said the most obvious thing he could.

"You'll have to ask him when you get back."

When Sam looked sceptical, Daniel raised his eyebrow in challenge, daring her to protest. Seeing that he wasn't about to give up, Sam eventually gave him a small smile and squeezed his hand.

Moments later, in the comfortable, drowsy silence of the warm night, she began to hum 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' again. Daniel smiled.

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