I wish to thank several people for their help in seeing me through my first fanfiction. Firs,t to Seahen for her valuable insight into Air Force procedures. Second, to all the wonderful people who stuck with this story and those who left such encouraging reviews. Finally, a heartfelt huge thank you to Mara-Anni and AstraPerAspera for their magical red pens, who helped keep this story on track and true to my original intent.
The entrance to the Cheyenne Mountain complex had never seemed so far as it did today. The bitterly cold air whipped through her coat as she made her way across the parking lot. Perhaps she had never noticed how long it took to cross the blacktop because she had been thinking of a project or an upcoming mission. Today she didn't have any of those things to keep her mind occupied.
The icy air was not the reason for the shiver she tried to repress. Growing anxiety ate at her as she moved closer to the perimeter guard shack. It wasn't supposed to be this hard, returning to the mountain. Her military persona had been a shield, working much the same as her motorcycle visor. She could pull it down whenever personal detachment was necessary to get a job done or to protect her emotional psyche. Without it, she felt as exposed as if she were walking through the drifting snow in her skivvies.
She desperately tried to keep her teeth from chattering as she trudged toward the gate entrance. The whole scene was bizarrely reminiscent of Lancelot's charge in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. No matter how far she walked, she never seemed to be any closer to the point of entry. It came as quite a shock, when suddenly, she was there.
Fumbling to find her ID card in her backpack, she could feel the heat rise in her cheeks. Dammit, she should have had it ready! She was relieved to see the guard didn't notice her nervous faux pas; he simply gave a perfunctory nod at her ID card and returned to his paperwork. She hurried to catch the open elevator.
Her stomach clenched as the elevator began its descent. She leaned back against the wall and exhaled. The filtered air tasted stale, leaving an unpleasant feel in her mouth. There really was no reason to be nervous about returning to the SGC. She was heading back to a field of scientific study that had been her life. She should be bubbling with excitement; instead she found herself tense, wondering if she could handle the vague images of her captivity produced by the SGC's dark corridors. Oh crap, what if she had a flashback here and ended up hurting someone? She hadn't considered that until now.
Bringing up images of Daniel, Teal'c, and Jack relieved her tension momentarily. Their unconditional support had been the deciding factor in her return to the program. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself she was still the same old Sam Carter the guys believed in-a kickass soldier who had faced and defeated hordes of enemy aliens.
"Welcome back, Major…I mean, Dr. Carter," the airman stuttered as she checked in with the watch. Afraid that her voice might waver, she gave him a tight smile and nodded her thanks.
God, that had hurt. Swallowing hard, she pushed aside the heavy weight that had settled in her gut. Waiting for the second elevator that would take her into the SGC, she felt her hands begin to sweat. How long would it take before those little slips wouldn't tear her heart out? She wiped her hands on her pants as she moved through the open doors. She had been so sure that this is what she wanted, but as she approached the underground facility her doubts pounded in her chest. A small pressure point began to pulsate in her head. Not now-she couldn't be having a migraine now when she was so close to being herself again!
How could she think she could handle being back? A pair of piercing brown eyes seeped unbidden into her thoughts. Eyes that conveyed confidence in her abilities, eyes that had absolute belief in her knack to find a solution to any problem-they surrounded her in warm affection. She began to feel the cold hole in her gut begin to warm despite the splinters of hopelessness that lingered.
As the fear began to ebb, her thoughts were still focused on Jack O'Neill. He had become her anchor in the stormy world after her discharge. His unwavering gaze in her mind was a constant reminder of his affectionate regard. Envisioning those eyes provided reassurance that she was heading where she needed to be-to be Carter again.
Carter was someone who knew what she wanted, who didn't need anyone holding her hand. But it had been so nice to feel his hand gripping hers in the winter chill. Jack had invited her to a semi-pro hockey game a few nights ago, and the invitation had not included Teal'c or Daniel. She had been delightedly shocked with his invitation. They had rarely gone anywhere alone and then not since…well, not for a long time.
She smiled softly as she remembered the evening. The stadium seating had been very tight with barely enough room for his long legs. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Jack O'Neill had her senses tingling. When his arm slipped around her shoulders and tugged her closer to his side, thinking of the game became virtually impossible. She had tried to tell herself he was just stretching his arms in the closed-in space, but when he began to trace lazy designs on her arm, she froze. It wasn't until she heard him whisper relax in her hair that she smiled and allowed herself to lean against him.
He held her hand on the drive home, and then as he walked her to her door. Disappointed when he didn't accept her invitation for coffee, but somewhat relieved as well, she had understood when he said he had an early mission briefing. Nervously stammering her thanks for the evening, she was shocked when he tilted her chin up and brushed a soft kiss across her lips. With a quiet "Sweet dreams, Sam," he was gone.
The memory of that soft kiss still made her heart do strange little flip flops. Although she hadn't seen Jack since the game, thoughts of that evening continued to plague her. She couldn't stop thinking of the way his eyes would seek her out with an intensity that made her heart beat just a bit faster.
The doors slid open as the elevator came to a stop. She blinked, trying to get her bearings. The vision of those chocolate brown eyes relieved her churning trepidation. With a deep breath, she exited the elevator and headed down the corridor.
"May I help you, Dr. Carter?"
She looked up at a young lieutenant. "No, I'm just…" she waved vaguely at the door.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but that's the SG teams locker room. The civilian locker room is down the passageway."
She could feel the flames in her cheeks. Of course her old locker had been cleaned out months ago and assigned to someone else. Gulping down her sudden nausea, she was acutely aware she was no longer military, nor a member of SG1. Without even thinking, she had headed instinctively to change into BDU's just as if she were gearing up for a mission. The bitterness she had thought long gone again threatened to consume her. She gritted her teeth and muttered an embarrassed apology before moving on her way.
Doubts hammered in her head as she made her way to the science labs. Would she ever fit in this place again? She always knew where she stood as an Air Force officer, bound by rules and regulations that governed her life. Others might find this kind of lifestyle rigid and uncompromising, but to her it was liberating. It gave her life a structure that she had felt missing since her mother had died. It was so damn hard! How could she know how to react without the shield of her military career? This unknown quantity left knots in her stomach.
"Sam! Glad to have you back" Bill Lee enthusiastically shook her hand. "You're looking great!"
She returned his handshake awkwardly, still feeling unbalanced. "Uh, thanks Bill. It's nice to be back."
"We sure could use your expertise. It hasn't been the same around here without you, though your young prodigy Lieutenant Hailey has been doing great work on SG1. That little blonde dynamo is practically a Carter-clone!"
She stood silently in the doorway as Dr. Lee continued to babble, uncomfortably aware of all the eyes turned her way. She knew about Hailey; Colonel O'Neill had consulted her on the capabilities of the tiny lieutenant to see if she was ready for a place on SG1. Really wanting to scream that that was her spot, that she was the military scientist for the team, she had instead professionally discussed Hailey's strengths and weaknesses and how she would fit in the team dynamic. Only her shaking hands had betrayed her inner turmoil, but he had noticed and Colonel O'Neill became simply Jack.
He took her hands and merely held them, holding her gaze steadily. She managed to gulp a few breaths, and feeling more under control, nodded at him. He reached up and gently brushed her bangs from her eyes.
"I'm here, Sam. Always."
She had managed to gulp a few breaths, and stared at the comforting circles he was tracing with his thumbs on her hands. His strong hands sheltered her from her fears, made her feel protected from the chaos around her. Feeling more under control, she had managed to draw a steadying breath and nodded at him to show she was ready to continue.
Drawing strength from the memory, she sat down at the computers and tried to get to work analyzing the energy readings from a recent artifact brought back by SG-11. The morning dragged as she tried to ignore the whispers in the background. Her neck muscles were tightening under the strain of the constant scrutiny. As she stared at her monitor, she could feel all the eyes in the lab watching her every move. Were they waiting for her to screw up? The pressure began to press against the top of her skull, but she didn't dare take out her pills while she was under continuous observation.
"Hey, Sam." Janet's face appeared over her computer monitor. "Time for lunch. Let's go."
Relieved to have a reason to leave the lab, she stuffed her pills in her pocket and quickly followed the petite doctor to the commissary. They grabbed their lunches and Janet led her to a secluded corner.
"Okay," the redhead began, stabbing a fork into her salad. "What's going on?"
She toyed with her silverware. "What do you mean? Everything's fine."
Janet snorted. "Fine, my foot. You're down-right pale. Headache?"
"A little. I'm okay."
"Hmmm. Take your medication?"
"I was about to when you came in." She reached into her pocket, removed the pills and quickly swallowed them with a gulp of water. Janet nodded in satisfaction.
"You need to make sure you're taking it as soon as you feel a headache setting in. Don't wait for your head to explode."
Janet turned back to her salad. "So how is your first day back going?"
"Fine, I guess. It's a little harder than I expected."
Janet looked her straight in the eye. "You knew it wouldn't be easy, Sam."
Sighing, she pushed her plate away. "I know, I know. It's just that…it's what I did. I guess I expected working in the labs to be like what it was before my...mishap."
"It's not?" Janet gently asked.
"No. It's like I'm under a microscope, everyone watching my every move! I think they're waiting for me have a seizure or something, like I'm the featured attraction in some sort of freak show."
She fingered the ice in her glass and then looked across the table at Janet. "I miss my team," she whispered. "But they're not mine, are they? They're Hailey's."
"I wish I were with SG1," she continued in a whisper. "That's where I belong. Out there, I always knew what was expected of me, what the team needed. Here, I don't know who I am!"
Janet stared at her, disbelief clearly etched on her face. "Oh, honey, Lieutenant Hailey may be part of SG1 now, but those men haven't given up on you. And you are still you! This is where you belong. The science, the technology—you always wanted to know how things worked. You just need to give yourself a chance to find that excitement for discovery again. It'll come!" "
A voice over the PA system interrupted their conversation. "Dr. Frasier, report to the gate room!"
"We're not done with this, Sam. I'll talk to you later."
She tried to smile. "Thanks, Janet. I'm glad you're here."
A voice over the PA system interrupted their conversation. "Med team, report to the gate room!"
"We're not done with this, Sam. I'll talk to you later." Janet left the dining room rapidly as the PA continued to call for medical staff.
Itching to head to the control room, she forced herself to head back to her computer station. In the past, she would have run immediately to the gate room to see what she could do to help; it would have been expected by the duty staff for Major Carter to solve their problems. But now she didn't belong there. She was only part of the science support team now, and it wasn't her place to stick her nose into base operations.
Someone had been hurt off-world; that would be the only reason to page Janet to the gate room. Fear clenched at her stomach. SG1 was off-world. Had they been in an accident? Under attack? She needed to get into the control room!
The pressure that had been pushing against her skull suddenly became pulsating pain. She had to make sure they were okay. But with each step closer to the gate, she felt the force increase, feeling as if her head would explode at any moment.
It was so dark. She could feel her heart begin to race and her breathing quickened as the lights along the wall began flashing. As they flickered on and off, and she froze as she felt herself move towards the prison cell of her nightmares. Burning pain in her forehead halted her progress. Leaning against the wall, she tried to orient herself. She was not in that prison cell; she in the SGC.
Pieces of dialogue filtered over her as she fumbled through the passageways. One of the SG teams was in trouble, severe injuries, problem with the iris. A team needed help. She forced herself to keep moving, fighting against the hammering agony in her head to reach the control room.
All around her, Stargate command personnel were arguing about what was needed to fix the iris. Focusing on the keyboard, she forced herself to step forward. She centered her attention on the sounds of their words, trying to keep herself grounded in the moment. With her head pounding and sweat pouring down her back, she made it to the dialing computer and began to search through the codes that kept the iris locked.
Why don't they open it manually? She glanced up through the safety glass to the gate room. Sergeant Siler and his crew were there, desperately trying to crank the iris open, but to no avail. She bent her head back over the monitor, scanning, until she caught the problem. Quickly rerouting an old sub-routine, there was loud cheer when suddenly the iris opened, revealing the established wormhole.
She didn't hear the call made for the team to come through. As the iris opened, she stood and leaned her head against the glass, holding her breath that she was in time. Her stomach dropped when she realized it SG1 that came running through with Teal'c dragging Colonel O'Neill over his back through the event horizon. She gasped through her pain, and raced down the corridor to the gate room.
When she arrived, the nursing staff was lifting Jack onto a gurney, Janet hovering over her patient. Her heart was pounding so hard that she was afraid the security personnel would hear it as she pushed through. What if she had been too late, trapped by her own demons? What if her fears had cost the team the time needed to save him? Desperate to know he was okay, she pressed her way to the ramp.
Her heart skipped a beat when she saw his face—pale and clammy, his eyes clenched tightly shut against the pain. When his eyes blinked open, agony was etched in his features. She desperately wanted to erase his pain, and unconsciously her hand snaked out to clasp his hand.
"Carter? Whatcha doin'?"
Her hand hovered in mid-air for just a moment before she gripped his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze before pulling it back. She tried to smile at him, but it felt more like a grimace. "Trying to watch your six, sir."
"Ah! Feels like old times," he grinned. "Arg! Doc! Are you trying to kill me?"
"Just trying to stop the bleeding, Colonel. Wouldn't want anyone to have to clean up your mess later."
Daniel peered over the doctor's shoulder at Jack. "Good thing the iris opened when it did," he remarked. He turned to Sergeant Siler. "Thanks, Siler. Those Veslisians weren't too fond of Jack."
Teal raised an eyebrow. "Indeed."
Sergeant Siler waved his wrench as he headed towards the blast doors. "It wasn't me, Dr. Jackson. The manual crank was stuck. It was Major Carter who got the iris open."
All heads turned toward her. Her cheeks heated up, and she ducked her head to hide her embarrassment. "Doctor," she corrected quietly.
"That's great, Sam!" Daniel enthused. "You can see how much we need you here at the SGC!"
She couldn't help her small smile at Daniel's passionate remarks. Feeling his eyes on her, she glanced up to catch Jack's watching her intensely. She returned his gaze steadily, feeling her smile grow as his brown eyes communicated his pride in her.
Suddenly he yelped. "Crap, Doc! Quit poking me!"
"Just a flesh wound," Janet proclaimed. "Let's get him to the infirmary."
The gurney moved abruptly toward the infirmary. Staring at the Stargate for a moment before heading after the team, after Jack, she no longer felt afraid. A warm feeling spread through her heart as she acknowledged that she was still the same person she had always been. Her ordeal might have left some physical and mental scars that she would always have to deal with, but it didn't change who she was. She had truly found her way back home.