Edited to fix one or two errors. Sorry about that, folks.
A/N: Another on-Earth campfire story. In the Line of Duty was such a powerful Sam episode that I can't help but think there'd be more to say.
Also, I just want to add here that I have been treating myself to a rather heavy dose of fanfic reading lately and am completely and utterly blown away by the talent that is out there. Some of you folks should be published; you weave gripping tales of love, romance, drama and suspense that keep me up until the wee hours of the morning. I am at once humbled and inspired.
Set after In the Line of Duty
"Sam? Remember, you are very brave."
Cassandra's soft reassurance, spoken so gently to Carter just days ago, echoed through O'Neill's memory as he watched that same young girl pull his second-in-command toward his backyard firepit. He could see from her slightly hesitant steps and her too-stiff posture that Carter wasn't happy to be there, despite the presence of Cassandra. He wondered if it was too soon to have done this, to have pulled her from the cocoon into which she'd disappeared. Jack knew more than anyone how much easier it was to simply hide away from pain, rather than face it and move on. He'd been outvoted this time. First Daniel, then Cassandra. He'd been powerless to resist the little girl's plea for help, her wide eyes brimming with tears as she'd leaned against his knee, asking if it was okay to have another s'more party at his house. God knew he'd do anything for the child who'd lost so much. Add to it that the person needing the most help was Carter...
"Jack?" Daniel's not too gentle nudge at his back forced O'Neill to move out of the doorway of his house and onto the back porch.
"Sorry, Daniel, just thinking."
Daniel joined O'Neill on the porch, both of them watching as Cassandra settled Sam near the firepit. Unlike most 12-year-olds, Cassandra didn't fill the silence with empty chatter, she was content to just be there for Sam. For her part, Sam simply stared into the fire, her gaze unfocused, her eyes far away. The lost look on her face made O'Neill's heart ache and he unconsciously began to move toward her.
Janet sat across from Cassandra and Sam, having claimed the only functional lawn chair in the yard. Teal'c sat to her right, balanced on a low, flat rock. He was carefully laying out the necessary elements for his own s'more. Daniel had followed Jack down, glancing between the empty place on the ground to Sam's left and log propped on the other side of the fire. Worn smooth by many a backside, the log was his favorite perch when the firepit was lit. Jack solved Daniel's dilemma by stepping around Sam and lowering himself to the ground next to her.
Cassandra leaned into Sam's lap, using her as leverage to hand O'Neill his s'more fixings. She glanced again at the still expressionless Sam then began to prepare another plate for her as well.
"Cassie? It's okay, sweetie. I'll get Sam's stuff ready. You go ahead and make your own dessert." Jack smiled at the girl, appreciating the care she was taking of Carter. She was so serious at times, so mature past her years. Jack was determined that she not shoulder too much, too soon. Yes, her love and reassurance had helped Carter, and would continue to do so, but Jack didn't want Cass to feel responsible for Carter. That was his...someone else's...job. Cass' job was to be a little kid for a while longer.
"I don't mind, Uncle Jack, honest."
"I know you don't Cassie, but it's okay. Go on."
Janet spoke up, sensing that O'Neill was trying to give Carter a break from the hovering child. "Cassandra, honey, why don't you come over here and make a s'more for me? I can never get the marshmallow toasted right."
Cass stood, bending to drop a brief kiss on Carter's cheek before heading around the firepit. Jack caught his breath at the sudden and unexpected flash of jealousy he felt at her simple action. He needed to get a handle on those thoughts, and quickly. Cassandra seemed to be a catalyst for his feelings about Carter. Jack remembered standing at the elevators in that missile silo once he'd realized that the bomb implanted within Cassandra had not detonated. With his forehead resing against the mic's speaker, he'd spent a long minute trying to control the shaking in his knees. Something significant had changed for him in that moment and he'd resolved to deal with it later. Much later. He sighed softly and shook his head–it was later and he'd yet to sort through his feelings. And now, with Cassandra's sweet, natural gesture, Jack acknowledged that his feelings for the officer beside him had moved beyond the purely professional into something more. Something deeper. Something that could damage them both, professionally and personally if he wasn't careful. And damaging Carter in any way was not acceptable to Jack O'Neill. As Cass began showing Janet her roasting technique, O'Neill thought of the first time they'd done this with her. How different a night that had been, but how very much the same.
Carter must have been thinking the same thing as she softly asked him, "Remember the story Daniel told that night?"
Jack responded just as quietly. "The one about the s'morians?"
"Yeah." Sam turned away from the fire, her face flushed from its heat, her eyes catching his for just a moment. "Do you remember how it ended?"
Jack scratched his head and frowned. He absently plucked a marshmallow from the bag and speared it onto a stick. He automatically handed it to Sam while he prepared another for himself. As the sweet scent of toasting sugar mixed with the sharp smell of burning wood, he leaned back against the picnic bench behind him. Finally he shook his head. "Sorry, Carter, I don't."
"Funny, neither do I." Sam set her roasting stick down, marshmallow forgotten, and pulled her knees up to her chest. Wrapping her arms around her legs and resting her cheek on her knees, Sam closed her eyes. "I just remember the sound of Daniel's voice from across the fire, kind of like now. It was comforting."
O'Neill slid closer to her to hear her quiet words. Across the firepit the others carried on quiet conversations, Daniel and Cassie supervising Teal'c's and Janet's s'more building projects.
"Carter...how can we help. How can I help?" He watched as she opened her eyes, her gaze tracking to his. Normally a brilliant and clear blue, tonight they were almost translucent in the light of the fire, reflecting her fragile state and pulling O'Neill in closer. He forced himself to focus on her words. His normally well-spoken Second wasn't making a lot of sense and Jack was beginning to get concerned. Those clear, bright eyes focused on his, and O'Neill felt his heart skip a beat in response. "Sam?"
"That's what it was like."
Now O'Neill was really lost. Were they still talking about making s'mores a few months back? "What what was like, Sam?"
"Jolinar. In my head. Only it wasn't comforting." She closed her eyes again, leaving Jack feeling adrift at the loss of connection.
"You...she...I mean..." Jack sighed, then mimicked her pose. He abandoned his own marshmallow and brought his knees up. With his face turned away from the others and toward Sam's, he felt as if they were apart from the small group, yet close enough to still be a part of it. He reached over and laid his hand on Carter's arm, giving it a slight squeeze. "Sam? Was she talking to you the whole time?"
With a quiet sniffle, Sam simply nodded.
O'Neill sat quietly, his hand still on her arm, his comforting gesture hidden from view of the others by the shadows of the night. He couldn't imagine having someone inside of his head, a constant unwanted presence. Hell, he couldn't stand to be in large crowds for very long before needing to find a place to hide and recharge. Jack knew what a private person his Captain was, how she cherished her independence. To have that taken away, her thoughts constantly monitored...invaded... A second soft sniffle followed the first and Jack scooted closer until their knees were touching. He didn't really care if the rest of his team was aware of his and Carter's proximity–she needed comfort and he was going to give it.
Before he could say a word, she mumbled quietly, "She's wrong, you know. Cassandra. I'm not very brave at all."
"Oh, Carter. Of course you are." O'Neill bent his head low, his words only for her.
Carter's eyes fluttered open and widened as she realized how close her CO's face was to hers. "No, Sir. I don't mean to argue with you, but I'm not. I'm...oh, God, I'm...terrified to go out there again." Sam lifted her head, tilting back to look at the stars above. There, she'd said it. Told her Colonel the unthinkable. That she was afraid.
O'Neill had some idea of what that admission had cost her. From day one Sam Carter had made it her mission to 'keep up with the boys,' and she'd done it without hesitation. Time after time in their first year together it was Carter more often than not who stepped forward to get the job done. Jack knew that he could go into any situation, face anyone, and his Second would be there, tight on his six, doing her job. Fearlessly. Sometimes, though, fear could be useful, and it's time she learned that. "It's okay to be afraid, you know. Maybe if you're a little afraid you'll take less chances." O'Neill held up a finger, making sure she understood what he was trying to say. He'd seen the pain flash across her face at his words. "I'm not saying that you took a chance before, or that any of this was your fault, Sam. But a little fear can be a good thing." God knew he was afraid every time any one of his team was in danger. He refused to consider how much more he was afraid when the person in danger was this brilliant beautiful woman who'd quickly become so indispensible to him.
"I know 'Carter's don't quit,' but I really don't know if I can step through that gate again." Sam suppressed a quiet shudder that ran through her.
"You will." O'Neill felt her shake slightly and his quiet words pulled her focus back to him. The firelight flickered and danced across her features, softening the lines of pain that had held sway for so many days. She'd go out there again, reluctantly at first, but it would happen. Maybe not next week, or the week after that, but she'd go. There was too much of the explorer in her to have it any other way.
"How do you know, Sir?"
The hesitance in her voice, the doubt and pain, the need for reassurance and strength crumbled O'Neill's walls. Here's where he was supposed to be the unbiased commanding officer, offering her wise words of wisdom, maybe a stirring speech about duty and honor. But the part of him that was Jack, the part of him that couldn't be an impartial commander to her, wouldn't let him take that route, the easy route. That part of him demanded honesty, even when it was hard.
"Because I know you, Captain Carter. More importantly, I know you...Sam. Because I remember the look of utter...awe...on your face the very first time you touched the event horizon, and the..." O'Neill swallowed. This was hard for him, this deep, emotional stuff, but it was important. To him. For her. His voice rough, he continued, "...the...oh hell. It's in you, Sam. You can't not go through again. And when you do, when you're ready, I'll–" Jack stopped, then gestured with his chin toward the rest of their group. "We'll be right there with you." O'Neill gave her arm another squeeze then slowly moved his hand around to rest it against her back. He began to rub gently, up and down, reassuring himself as much as her that she was okay; that she was better than okay.
Carter sat quietly, enjoying the warmth of O'Neill's hand on her back. She needed this–an anchor–as she sorted through the seemingly endless sea of emotions left in the wake of Jolinar's presence and then sudden absence. Very slowly the coldness that had held her captive for the last few days began to seep away, chased by the warmth of the words O'Neill spoke and the strength of his belief in her. Giving in to the exhaustion she'd been fighting, Sam leaned ever so gently against O'Neill's legs, glad for the cloak of darkness. It was so much easier to lean on someone in the dark and the Colonel made it easy for her. She didn't feel that if she admitted her weakness– her fear–that he'd hold it against her in the light of day. She trusted him. Soothed by the rhythm of his gentle strokes, Sam felt herself relaxing and coming back into herself.
Jack felt Carter lean more fully against him and he smiled. He knew that for Carter to use someone else's strength, even for a little while, said a lot. He was glad she trusted him enough to admit her fears, to open a tiny crack in the mighty fortress that was Sam Carter. To let him see past those walls. That, above all, was the bravest thing he'd seen her do in a very long time. He thought again of Cassie's words as Sam lay so listless and despondent in the infirmary. Maybe he needed to tell her too, maybe she really didn't know. O'Neill shifted her closer so that she was leaning more of her weight against him, then whispered quietly to her. "And Sam? You are very brave."