It was almost over.
In spite of the glacial pace she was maintaining as she squirmed up to the edge of the snow-covered embankment and peered over, she could feel herself hurtling toward...something. The feeling had started earlier in the day as she and Jon had driven their respective teams through a crash course in winter warfare, picking off the slow and the slow-to-learn. Will and Daniel had avoided their head-to-head, no-holds-barred battlefield and in the distance she had heard the regular popping sounds of other teams taking each other out on the other side of the ridgeline.
She had drawn first blood, climbing a sheer rock face then swinging her rifle across the shoulder of Corporal Dunst as he froze in shock as she slithered over the edge. Training and astonishment held the soldier immobile as her rifle braced on his shoulder and Jon never looked in their direction. Why would he? He already knew the observer was harmless. Neon pink paint--someone's idea of a joke--exploded across the chest of the boy standing next to the Colonel and she was rappelling down the cliff face before Dunst closed his mouth.
Nine teams of six.
She and her team eliminated one of the nine for practice. That, and they pissed her off, plinking away at shadows, and generally splattering the trees with neon paint. Damned if she was going down due to accidental fratricide. Jon had the same idea, a fact she confirmed when six disgruntled teenagers wandered back to camp covered in lime green paint. Then things got serious.
One by one they lost their stragglers. Twice she yanked Bryan Jennings out of the line of fire only to have the idiot pop his head above cover to check out the view. A lime green pellet exploded across his goggles, hitting the protective plastic in the exact location a bullet would have taken him right between his eyes.
Her team kept their heads down after that one.
She used herself for bait on the second kill. While she was setting herself up to be "killed", his team followed his lead as he tracked her carefully over two kilometers of snow and rock. She left her team in safe locations, protecting her back but leaving her vulnerable to ambush from the front. Predictably, he thought she was taking all the risk and he forgot she knew him as well as he knew her. He knew she was pissed at him--and he assumed she would be as unwilling to risk her people as he was to risk his.
But that was where they differed.
He instinctively shied away from trusting the geeks.
Cindy Langley sat quietly in her tree until Jon and his team crept past her, then she took out the football player bringing up the rear and ran as fast as her snowshoes would take her. Taking a leaf from Alex's earlier attack, she dove over the edge of the cliff just as Jon and team broke cover. The cheerleader covering her retreat almost took out Jon himself before he realized he had been suckered.
He was a bit pissed about that one.
Jon staked one of his rabbits out like dinner and got one of her wolves. She had not seen that one coming. On the other hand, the sound of Thomas's "Jesus Fucking Christ" echoed pleasantly in her ears when lime green exploded across his chest as she dodged behind him before taking out Jon's best shooter None of the soldiers had even known she was pacing them, using them as cover. She could not help the delighted laughter that rippled from her throat as she high-tailed it out of range, dodging paintballs as she went.
Dunst would probably need therapy when this was over.
She was worried initially, when she realized what they were. It was impossible to hide SGC training and experience. Frankly, she did not want to try. Carson and the others knew enough not to get in the way. It was a relief, knowing she was not scaring the living daylights out of civilian chaperons. It was also liberating, in more ways than one. They knew something of what she was, but they did not know who she was. They did not see Major Samantha Carter--so she was free to be Alex.
She would have to remember to thank Harper for that one.
Her rabbits tried, but they just did not have the physical fitness levels to stay sharp. Jon got both of them when they tripped a bloody ambush she still could not believe she had escaped, dragging her surviving wolf with her. It was almost dusk before she got the last of Jon's team, Jon having eliminated her last team member a half hour before. By her watch they had only an hour left and while they had driven each other across ice and snow, neither of them had headed for the flag waving in the distance. Too easy for ambush, too risky to carry, both of them too focused on testing the other, the flag was the thing that would decide the winner if neither killed the other. As she carefully settled into another waiting position, she could see the flag gently waving in invitation. A lure to the unwary. She held her breath and strained for any sound above the gentle sigh of wind-blown snow. Fifteen minutes was all that remained and she waited patiently. He was here somewhere, she could feel it.
She was also certain that this was the moment she had waited for. Something in her had settled and watched patiently, waiting for whatever was to happen, to happen. Almost, she moved. Almost. Then instinct held her body frozen and she heard it. The faintest hint of fabric on snow. She blinked and refocused, eyes suddenly seeing shadows coalescing out of the snow.
He lay in a slight depression not ten feet in front of her. The wind had covered his stealthy movement and dusk had disguised his winter fatigues. The same wind that had covered his advance had unwittingly hidden her approach by carrying any sound she might have made into the trees behind her and their accidentally convergent paths had kept him from seeing her. Looking past the flag she could see Thomas and Carson watching her, astonishment on their faces. She made no sound. She knew that. Not one. Yet, somehow he knew. She watched his head turn and then his expressionless gaze was meeting hers across the snow. She had no idea why she did not shoot him. She had the advantage and she could see the knowledge in his eyes. She could see the same indomitable will to succeed, the refusal to give up gather itself and she knew, she just knew he was going to run for it.
She never knew what made her make the choice she did.
All she knew, was that when he heaved himself to his feet, she was moving with him. In their adult bodies, he was stronger. His legs were longer and in a straight run, he was faster. But in the scramble, her center of gravity was lower and she got moving faster. He had barely taken three long-legged steps when she tackled him. Took him clean across the hips and dropped them both into the snow.
Someone had used a snowmobile to flatten the area around the flag, and the comings and goings of thirty-odd teenagers had trampled it further. It was packed hard and he grunted as he landed, and she let go and scrambled for the flag. She almost made it, then one of his feet hooked hers and she was auguring face first into the ground. She barely missed getting pinned as he twisted around, his sixteen-year-old body faster and more flexible than ever she had known him to be.
She got one snowshoe planted square in his stomach and sent him flying in a high overhead somersault that took him away from the flag. When she got to her feet, she ignored the sting of her broken lip and the flecks of blood she knew were dotting the snow. He watched her warily and the anger that had been so elusive all week was forcing itself through the broken crust she had used to contain it. It spiraled upward with dizzying speed, carrying a giddy recognition of timing with it. Now, it cackled. Now. Now. Now.
When he moved, she moved to block him, her body light and centered. Pain and exhaustion fell away as time seemed to stop, then speed forward, crashing into the now. He charged and it was with a feeling of distant surprise that she saw her own hand reach out and break his momentum with a clean shot to the jaw. He dropped and rolled, coming to his feet, his face almost as astonished as she was. Not that she had hit him--she had meant to do that.
She was surprised she had connected.
Somewhere in the periphery of her mind, she was aware of the adults staring at them in shock, at the kids cheering uncertainly. She saw Will nod suddenly, pulling Daniel backwards. Daniel looked at him, then both of them were pushing people away from the hard-pack.
She bent slowly, keeping her gaze steady, and removed her snowshoes.
He raised a hand to his jaw, then shook his head. "You don't want to do this, Carter."
She circled slowly and he watched her, eyes dark. The anger spiked and without consciously making the decision, she feinted in and he avoided another smack on the jaw by the barest of margins. Her hand passed so close, the skin of his face brushed her knuckles in the barest kiss of contact. He rolled away from her and this time when he came to his feet, his snowshoes were dangling from his fingers. As he tossed them away, she felt something loosen inside her and surge forward eagerly.
Michael fully expected Jon to walk away. The ferocity and skill the two had shown during the day had bewildered him, but this was not in question. The kid had his issues, but Michael had never seen him act violently toward another student and he was unfailingly courteous to the female teachers and protective of the female students. So it was with true shock he saw Jon's foot snap forward and connect solidly with her ribs. Jon watched Alex narrowly as she spun away, absorbing the blow, then waited as she touched cautious fingers to her ribs and regarded him thoughtfully.
Michael was moving forward to stop them when he felt a hand close around his wrist and Thomas stepped into his path. He stared at him with astonishment. He looked down at his wrist and followed the hand up to Carson's steady gaze.
"Don't," Carson said softly.
Michael felt his jaw drop. "Are you insane?" he asked finally. "We have to stop this."
Carson gestured for Dunst to hold back the two other chaperons. Dunst looked almost as shell-shocked as Michael felt, but he moved fast enough to obey.
"What the hell do you think you are doing?" Michael demanded.
Carson jerked a thumb toward the circling teens. "Does that look like a domestic dispute?"
Michael started to protest, then narrowed his eyes. He stopped pulling against Carson's restraining hand and for the first time in months, really looked at Alex. Something he had resisted doing since he guiltily acknowledged his confusing obsession for his fifteen-year-old student.
All this time, he thought she had been testing Jon. Trying to get him to react angrily. He supposed, if he thought about it, he had assumed it was some fucked up form of self-protection. Dime-store psychology wanted to see an abused girl trying to cope with her fear of getting hurt by forcing the males in her life into hurting her. Testing their limits.
Testing Jon's limits.
Problem was, she was not scared of him.
There was satisfaction in her eyes, but it was not tinged with bleak disappointment. If anything, her body language shrieked eager anticipation. There was no surprise when he hit her. The surprise and delight came when she succeeded in connecting in return. Nor, Michael realized, was it as simple as a fifteen-year-old girl recognizing that she was not powerless. She was too good. Too comfortable. As he watched them trade strikes and blocks--deadly moves at the best of times--he uneasily recognized a skill level beyond anything he had anticipated.
She was not forcing Jon to hurt her.
She was forcing him to acknowledge her.
A bone deep trust and respect for his abilities radiated from her. It was impossible to miss. Some of those moves were potentially fatal. No one took a hit from those blows unless they damn well had no choice--or they had enough trust and knowledge of the other person to know they would not be damaged beyond repair. She was too good not to know how much damage she was going to take. How much it was going to hurt. He did too.
And he trusted her in return.
That was the terrifying part.
A pervasive sense of exhilaration and joy shimmered from her body as she strove against him and Michael uneasily recognized something else. She was not just testing herself. She was testing herself against the highest standard she knew. That was what he finally saw in her face. He did not understand it. It was not an expression he should ever have seen directed at a sixteen-year-old boy. Nor did he completely understand the mixed emotions on Jon's face. The anger and fear, those he understood But past those were pride, and surprise, and an odd mixture of delight and respect and loss.
And strangely...a slightly shocked curiosity as he recognized her limits and tentatively started reaching out to test his own. One moment, Jon was in control. The next--he was not. No, that was not true. He was in control of himself, and only himself. Not Alex. Not the situation.
Alex hesitated, temporarily breaking off her attack. She stood staring at him, eyes wide, pinwheeling with the same surprise looking back at her. Then she did something Michael would never forget. She smiled. A bright cresting smile of acceptance and joy tinged with a bittersweet sense of loss.
This time, it was Jon who attacked.
He leapt forward and she danced to meet him. Strike and defend. Attack and counter attack. Hands and feet were in constant motion, bodies twisting through moves Michael would never have dared to try. Frankly, he was not that good. He would never have trusted himself not to hurt his partner. And he would never have had that level of confidence he would not be hurt in return.
Pound for pound, Jon had more power, and she was going to have more difficulty when he finally started putting on height and muscle. For now though, they were well matched. She was more elegant, her moves displaying a polish and precision that could only have come from hours of formal training and practice. Her style was cohesive, elements of various forms welded into a seamless and lethal weapon.
Jon's style was blunt and effective. Whatever worked best in a given situation. He favored quick and decisive over elegance, capability over art. Michael suspected that Alex trained in the martial arts as much for the mental discipline as for the physical training and it showed. Jon simply appropriated the move that got the job done. Special Forces hand-to-hand mixed with back-alley sneak attacks and a scattered handful of lethal moves ripped from a dozen different styles The result was flexible, straight forward, and deadly. For all that Jon lacked art, he was not blind to its beauty or effectiveness. The appreciative gleam in his eyes when she caught him off guard and sent him flying held a strangely possessive edge.
For all their control, they were still hurting each other. Split lips and battered ribs started to slow them down. They went down hard and got up more slowly. The students around them had fallen into an uneasy silence and the air was broken only by the the harsh sound of labored breathing and an increasing number of gasps and grunts as they forced bruised flesh and overtaxed muscles to obey.
Alex was blind on one side, her left eye swollen shut from a mis-timed fall that left the entire side of her face scraped and raw. Jon was limping badly, his right leg still refusing to carry his full weight after she connected squarely with the sensitive nerves running along the length of his outer thigh. Twice. He had dropped so abruptly each time, that if Michael had not known what he was seeing, he would have assumed she had broken his leg Jon would be fine in an hour, but Michael had vivid memories of learning just how painful that little attack could be.
They were beginning to weave on their feet and Michael was relieved to see they knew enough to stop the more dangerous attacks once they were too tired to control them properly. The end was anti-climatic.
Jon caught her off-guard with a sweep to the feet, but was too slow to follow through as she landed heavily. She rolled away and stumbled to her feet. They stared at each other as they panted for breath and Jon must have seen something in her face because he relaxed suddenly.
"Oh good," he said with relief, and collapsed to his knees.
She staggered forward as he fell over backwards and dropped down to sit beside him. They stayed like that for a moment as everyone around them glanced at each other, uncertain what had just happened, and if it was over. Daniel finally broke from the crowd and wandered over to peer down at them with an expression of wary curiosity on his face. Jon flipped a hand at him in a weak greeting.
From the crowd, one of the boys raised small voice. "Who won?"
Alex snorted and Jon smiled painfully. Will produced a book of matches from his pocket and no one thought to stop him as he set the flag alight. Everyone watched solemnly as it flared against the darkness, then died out.
"Ashes to ashes..." Daniel murmured quietly, then looked down at his friends. "You okay?"
"No..." Alex said slowly, looking at Jon contemplatively, "...but we will be."