Author's notes: Because it's almost Christmas...and because I can. More notes at the end. As always, feedback is encouraged, saved and always answered.
Additional note, added later, at the bottom.
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Per Aspera ad Astra
A wave of murmured conversation and tastefully low-key music washed over them as they entered the foyer, pushed in by a swirl of wind and snow. Glimpsed through the tall open doors, decorated beautifully in sparking lights and pine boughs, the ballroom had an almost magical feel to it, Sam thought. At the far end of the room stood a tall spruce tree covered in lights, a picture-perfect Christmas tree, complete with brightly wrapped boxes nestled beneath. Seeing the tree gave Sam a brief pang; she missed Cassie. The hurried phone call she'd had with the young woman earlier today played through her mind as they slowly made their way forward in the flow of people arriving for the occasion.
Sam could hear the stress in Cass's voice and, despite her own disappointment, she hurried to reassure her. Janet's death—God was it really more than four years ago?—had left such a gaping hole in both women's lives; Sam coping by burying herself in work and Cassie...not coping at all. In the year following Janet's death her daughter had barely held it together, only truly falling apart after the death of Sam's dad, her surrogate grandfather.
Sam remembered how she'd come home, Jack insisting that he'd take care of the arrangements for Jacob, and found the young woman curled up and sobbing on Sam's own bed. She'd immediately called Jack and declared enough was enough, and he'd agreed wholeheartedly. She'd put in for a transfer to Nevada and been given a four week window to reassign her projects and help her team adjust. Cassie was her priority, as she should have been earlier. The Hankan survivor had hidden her pain and grief so well that she'd fooled them all. No more.
From that afternoon on, until Cass moved in with her, Sam had made sure to speak to Cass each day. On the days she couldn't, when she was offworld and unable to do so, she knew Jack took care of her. The week at the cabin had cemented their new little family. Cass, driving up with Teal'c and Daniel two days after Jack and Sam, had loved it. She'd taken great delight in joining in Teal'c and Daniel's gentle teasing and loving acceptance of the change in Jack and Sam's relationship. It had been a golden week of love and laughter, a week that had seen them all through the more difficult times ahead.
Cassie's voice broke through Sam's thoughts, her signal popping in and out. "I'm sorry, Sam. It's snowing so hard here I just don't know how we'll make it."
"Oh, Cass, honey. I'm so sorry. Jack will be disappointed." Sam swallowed her own disappointment and continued. "I can't believe you have a forced layover in Minneapolis. If it wasn't snowing so hard you could just go to the cabin."
"I know. Hopefully the snow will let up and they'd clear the runways yet tonight. If all goes well, I'll be calling you in the morning for a ride, okay?"
"Okay, Cass. Wait, Jack wants a word before you go, and I have to start getting ready. I love you." Sam handed Jack the phone as she headed for the shower, knowing they only had two hours before the driver was scheduled to pick them up.
A blast of cold air heralded a new group of arrivals and drew Sam from her reverie. She sighed and unconsciously moved closer to Jack for comfort.
"I'm fine." She smiled as he quirked an eyebrow at her. "Really. I'm just missing everyone, Cass especially."
Jack gave her arm a quick squeeze as they inched forward again. "I know. She'll be okay, Sam. We'll pick her up on the morning. Daniel said he and Vala should be down around four tomorrow afternoon, so we'll have our family Christmas. Don't worry, okay?"
She gave him another quick smile, warmed as she always was by his ability to reassure her. To make it okay. "I'm not worried so much as disappointed. You went on all week about how you were going to show off 'your girls' here and..."
"I'm surprised you put up with that, you know...'my girls.'"
Sam unbuttoned her heavy overcoat, the room was really starting to warm up with all of the new bodies pressing in. She grinned up at Jack. "Well, to be honest, I couldn't wait to see your face when Cass wore her gown."
"Hmm. Maybe it's a good thing she's stuck in Minneapolis. Wrapped in layers of wool. Lots of wool."
Sam chuckled as once again they inched forward and this time enough room opened up around them that she was able to, with Jack's help, shrug off her overcoat. Before they could reach the beginning of the receiving line, Jack's aide de camp, Major Kevin Sullivan, appeared at his side, his hand already reaching for their coats. With a brief greeting to each and a sharp nod he turned and disappeared into the crowd, Sam quickly losing sight of his bright red head.
"I was going to say 'efficient." Sam smoothed a hand down the front of her Mess dress skirt, her fingers sliding over the silver cummerbund sitting snugly around her waist, then tugging absently at the hem of the jacket before continuing on to sweep across her ankle-length skirt. The skirt, with its left side split along the seam to the top of her knee was the exact shade of blue as the tailored jacket that ended at her waist. The worst part of this uniform, Sam had always thought, was the shirt. Really, what idiot thought putting pleated ruffles on a woman's chest was appealing in any way? The men's Mess dress was much sexier, with their smooth shirts and studded buttons and cuffs. As uniforms went, this was the most constricting. Jack, however, had insisted that she wear it this evening, in lieu of a formal gown. As he led her across to the official receiving line, she thought back to their preparations earlier in the evening.
"...but...Jack. I bought this gown just for this evening. Cass even helped." Sam sat on the bed, her towel wrapped around her body, finger-combing her hair while watching Jack putter in the closet.
"Sorry, Sam. I didn't realize. It's just...well..."
Sam rose and moved to stand behind her husband. Still wrapped in his robe, his skin slightly damp from their shower, he was just pulling his Mess dress from the closet. She wrapped her arms around him from behind, stilling his movements. "Jack? What's going on?"
Jack returned the uniform to the closet, the protective wrapping from the cleaners rustling with his movement. He turned in Sam's arms, wrapping his own around her slightly smaller body. He hugged her tight, slowly wiggling back and forth until he'd achieved his objective. The towel she'd fastened around her chest eventually slipped free. Delighted with himself, he let his hands wander down her now bare back.
"Jaaack. Don't think you'll get around me this way."
"No." Sam leaned back in his arms and smiled up at him, bringing her arms forward and working her way into his robe. She pulled it around so that it was covering her as much as possible, warding off the slight chill in the room. "C'mon General, spill."
Jack sighed and rested his cheek on her head, continuing to sway back and forth. "It's really no big deal, Sam. I just...we've never gone anywhere...together...in our Mess dress. I love how you look in it, and to be honest...well I think it's a shame that you've earned all that...flair...and don't often get a chance to show it off."
"Flair. Bling. Flash."
"You've been instant-messaging Cassie again, haven't you?"
"Maybe." Jack crab-walked them both back into the room, maneuvering Sam down onto the bed. "So...can I convince you to forego the gown tonight?"
Sam lay back, her arms still loosely around Jack's waist, her still-damp hair spread around her head in a subdued golden halo. She studied him, her eyes locked on his, enjoying the chance to simply stare into his eyes without censure. "If it's important to you..."
"Then, yes. You may convince me."
Her arm tucked in his, Sam ducked her head briefly, resolutely forcing the slight flush in her cheeks to recede as she remembered just how Jack had gone about convincing her. His argument had been...powerful...and he had, as he usually did, gotten his way. So here she was, dressed in her finest, her uniform proudly sporting the highest awards and commendations she'd ever earned. Her polished silver space badge topped the rows of hanging medals, and her shoulders proudly sported the silver embroidered eagles that announced her grade to the world.
They made their way through the receiving line, Sam absently listening to the chatter in the room. She automatically absorbed the eddies of conversation and the current of emotion that indicated how the evening would go. She could sense an certain anticipation in the air this evening, a tension that echoed in the dutiful greetings she exchanged with the officers and their spouses. Sam glanced at Jack to see if he'd noticed but he seemed to be uncharacteristically enjoying himself as they ran the gauntlet of flag officers and command staff. She nodded hello to yet another general, wincing slightly as he passed her off to his overly perfumed wife. The wife, for her part, gave Sam a thoroughly disdainful look, clearly disapproving of her choice of Mess dress over the more commonly accepted evening gown.
Jack must have sensed Sam's sudden tension, because he paused and turned back to the woman to whom Sam was speaking. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Taylor. I am so out of practice at these things. I don't believe you've met my wife? Sam? Mrs. Taylor, General Taylor's wife? Mrs. Taylor, my wife, Colonel, and Doctor, Samantha Ca...sorry, O'Neill." Jack's eyes twinkled at Sam.
"Oh, yes, thank you General. Mrs....sorry, Colonel O'Neill. It's a pleasure." Mrs. Taylor glanced again at Sam's outfit, her eyes widening as she took in the medals adoring her uniform. She swallowed and glanced at her husband before turning back to Sam and Jack. "I'm sorry, General. I, ah...is that an Air Force Cross, Colonel O'Neill?"
Beside her, General Taylor exchanged an amused glance with Sam and Jack before nodding to his wife. "Bea, surely you must remember me speaking of Sam Carter...now O'Neill, getting the award last year?" He gave Sam a ghost of a wink.
"Sam Car–oh. Oh."
Sam watched as the woman's pointed features turned slightly more sour as she worked her way through her husband's words. She knew not many officers here, and no women, walked around wearing the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Air Force. Hanging proudly on her uniform next to her Air Medal and her Organizational Excellence medal (complete with oak leaf cluster for valor) the Air Force Cross was something Sam was quite proud of, it was second only to the Medal of Honor and just as rarely awarded. Sam watched as Mrs. Taylor glanced from Sam's chest to Jack's, noting the matching medal on his chest as well. She raised an eyebrow at Mrs. Taylor and smiled again as Jack tugged her arm gently, trying to move them along. Mrs. Taylor was the last in the queue, not counting the protocol officer, who gently steered them toward the refreshment table.
Sam was still a bit irked by the woman's attitude. It was apparent that Mrs. Taylor was not in any way pleased with Sam's wearing of her Mess dress, nor with her apparent accomplishments being so prominently displayed. She watched as the woman quickly left the now dispersing receiving line and made a beeline to a cluster of equally flowery and pinch-faced women bunched in the far corner of the room.
"What a mean little..."
Sam stopped, pulling Jack to a halt, not caring that they were basically standing in the center of the room. "Carter? Really?"
Jack stepped closer to Sam, sliding his hand down her arm and tangling his fingers with hers, gently tugging her wedding ring in the process. "Sam. To the rest of the world you may be Mrs. O'Neill, or Mrs. General Jack O'Neill, Colonel-Doctor Samantha Carter-O'Neill, or whatever ridiculous form of address they're using these days, but to me, you'll always be Carter. My Carter."
Sliding her free hand down to his, Sam gave his matching ring an answering pull, smiling up into his eyes. She lost herself in his gaze for a moment, enjoying the warmth and love she saw there. "Thanks. Sorry. I'm a little hypersensitive tonight, I think."
"Not a problem. It's what I'm here for. C'mon, I'm thirsty." He led them over to the refreshments, then off in search of a friendly face or two to make the evening more bearable.
As formal functions went, Sam couldn't complain much about this one. After dinner she'd run into a couple of women she'd known from the Academy and subsequently lost touch with. They'd sat and laughed, a pocket of relaxation in the slightly stuffy atmosphere of the formal event. Sam still wasn't one-hundred percent clear on what the occasion was, she assumed it was just another Washington holiday party, albeit with more than the usual brass, but it was fun in its way. Catching sight of Jack across the room, she excused herself and made her way over to his side, using the press of people at the bar as an excuse to nestle closer to him than propriety would normally allow.
"Yeah, just thirsty."
Jack waved the bartender over.
"What'll you have, Colonel? Something light, perhaps a white wine spritzer?"
Sam glanced around, noting that most of the women in the room were drinking golden, tastefully chilled glasses of white wine. She smiled at the bartender and shook her head. "No, thanks. You don't happen to have Guinness handy, do you?" She felt Jack's chuckle at her back.
The bartender was taken aback, but reached for a small, half-pint glass. "Sure you don't want something lighter? We have a great selection of Chardonnay's for the evening."
Shaking her head, Sam gestured with her chin at the small glass he'd pulled. "No, thanks. And, if you don't mind, I'd like a full pint."
"Yes, Ma'am. Coming right up."
Jack's voice was low, his breath warm on her ear as he leaned close. "Having fun, Carter?"
Sam leaned into him and grinned, thoroughly enjoying the looks she was getting from the cluster of wives still moving together through the room as she watched the bartender begin to build her pint. She turned her head, her lips brushing Jack ear, speaking so that only he could hear. "Once you've blown up a sun, you tend to lose your taste for chardonnay."
Jack chuckled again, turning to brush a light kiss across her lips as the small orchestra began to play a waltz. "Dance, Colonel?"
"General, I thought you'd never ask."
One of the best things Sam had discovered about Jack was that his grace and deft movement on the battlefield translated equally to the dance floor. Her husband was an outstandingly good dancer, a skill she never got to enjoy enough. He guided them across the floor for the first waltz and the second before they were interrupted by General Kehler stepping to the microphone.
"Ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for interrupting your enjoyment of our terrific orchestra, but we do have some business to attend to this evening. We wanted to take care of this immediately after our excellent dinner, but circumstances forced a minor delay. Fortunately we are able to go ahead now. Gentlemen?"
At his nod the orchestra played a single ruffle and flourish and all movement in the room suddenly stilled. General Kehler stepped forward again announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States."
Along with every other service member present, Sam stood at attention, glancing quickly at Jack to gauge his reaction. He didn't appear at all surprised, so she guessed that he'd known Hayes would make an appearance sometime this evening. She watched as the President made his way through the room and up to the raised dais. He nodded his thanks to General Kehler and surveyed the room, his eyes flicking from Jack to Sam and back again before moving on.
"Thank you, Bob, I appreciate it. I'll keep this brief folks, I know I'm unforgivably late to the party, but duty calls, as you all know." Hayes paused as the expected chuckle spread around the room before continuing. "I have a few things I'd like to do tonight, but to do so I'm going to need a bit of help. If I could ask Colonel Samantha Carter...damn, I'm sorry. That still messes me up...Colonel O'Neill, could you join me up here?"
Sam started as all eyes turned to where she was standing at the edge of the dance floor, her arm resting in Jack's. She felt him give her a quick squeeze as he released her hand and gave her a gentle push forward, reminding her in a flash of her first time through the Stargate. Sam made her way through the quickly parting crowd and stopped immediately in front of the President, snapping off a crisp salute as she arrived.
Hayes returned her salute then grimaced slightly. "I'm afraid I may have done this in the wrong order. General O'Neill, could you join us up here too, please?"
Sam felt Jack approach and hid a smile as he, too, gave the President a perfect salute. It was rare for him to be so perfectly correct and she enjoyed the moment. The President waved Jack to his other side before turning to address the crowd again. Sam couldn't help but be impressed at the image before her, the President flanked by two Major Generals, one of whom was her very own.
"Colonel O'Neill. It has been my honor to know you for the better part of ten years. Therefore it is my great privilege to be here this evening to do this in person. General Kehler, if you would?"
With a nod to the President and a fleeting wink at Jack, Kehler held out his hand to his aide, taking the gold embossed folder and stepping up the microphone as the President and Jack looked on. Sam sucked in her breath in surprise as the Kehler began reading, her reaction echoed by the crowd behind her.
"Attention to orders. The President of the United States, acting upon the recommendation of the Secretary of the Air Force, has placed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, integrity, and abilities of Colonel Samantha O'Neill. In view of these special qualities and her demonstrated potential to serve in the higher grade, Colonel Samantha O'Neill is promoted to the permanent grade of Brigadier General, United States Air Force, effective 20 December 2008. By order of the Secretary of the Air Force."
Sam stood in stunned surprise as she caught Jack's proud gaze. His brown eyes sparkled at her, a slight tilt of his lips betraying his pleasure at having caught her completely flat-footed. Now she understood why he'd been so adamant about her wearing her formal uniform. You couldn't really promote someone to General if they were wearing a ball gown, now could you? Where on Earth would they pin the rank? Sam bit her lip, the only thing marring the surprise ceremony was the absence of...
General Kehler looked over the crowd again. "Would Miss Cassandra Fraiser please come forward to help pin on your guardian's new rank?"
Sam's eyes widened and filled with tears as she looked from Jack to General Kehler and back again. The President had a broad grin on his face as they waited for the young woman to make her way forward. Cassie's small hand brushed Sam's elbow as she joined them and Sam could see the young woman's proud smile as she glanced her way. At a nod from Kehler, and to Sam's surprise, they did not simply remove her boards, they slipped off her jacket. Jack's aide, Major Sullivan, appeared with a new one, with identical medals, but this one sporting silver sleeve braid above the cuff along with the new boards containing the single star stitched in raised embroidery at the ends. Sullivan handed the jacket to the President who in turn presented it to Jack. Jack and Cassie helped Sam don the coat, Cassie brushing gently at the back to straighten it as she shrugged it on, Jack's hand resting briefly on the back of her neck. When they were finished Jack offered Cass his arm and led her to the side where the could watch the rest of the ceremony, Cassie carrying Sam's old jacket.
General Kehler, as the head of the Air Force's Space Command, the division of the Air Force that technically oversaw the Stargate program, stepped forward to administer the officer's oath to Sam. The actual oath passed in a blur for Sam, she was so surprised by the events of the evening. After shaking the General's and President's hands, Sam stepped back and saluted again. Her gesture was returned by both men. Jack's aide appeared again at Kehler's side and Jack returned to lend a hand.
"General O'Neill, I present to you those symbols of the office and rank which you now hold." Kehler gestured to Major Sullivan who briskly opened a case containing a new Berretta, complete with holster, the traditional gift of a sidearm to a new general officer. Jack then stepped forward holding a small case containing a dark blue flag edged in gold and adorned with a single silver star. "General O'Neill?" His eyes twinkled at her and he allowed a small smile to slip through. While Jack was handing her the case containing the flag, Kehler again addressed the assembled guests.
"The Air Force authorizes individual flags to those who warrant them by virtue of their office. The United States Air Force has incorporated the use of flags to signify the presence of a general officer. This flag, signifying the presence of a Brigadier General, will be present at all official military functions attended by General O'Neill and will be visibly displayed in General O'Neill's office."
President Hayes glanced from Jack to Sam and snorted with laughter. "Well, that's not going to be confusing, is it?"
Sam flashed the President a quick smile as she accepted the heavier case containing her new service weapon from Major Sullivan. She handed both off to Cassie and turned her attention to General Kehler once again. Kehler gave her a quick smile and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to introduce Brigadier General Samantha O'Neill."
President Hayes shook Sam's hand and kept it in hers, turning her to face the now applauding guests. A loud whoop and cheer carried over the crowd and Sam was delighted to see the beaming faces of her former team in the back of the room. Vala was practically bouncing next to a beaming Daniel while Teal'c, a hat pulled low on his forehead, caught her eye and gave her a deep, formal bow, his right fist held to his chest in salute. Beside him stood Cam, applauding with the rest, stopping occasionally to slip his fingers in his mouth and give a piercing whistle. Sam blinked back tears as she spotted General Landry, along with Chief's Harriman and Siler, applauding and adding to the cheers. She ducked her head, embarrassed to be focus of so much attention and Hayes caught her eye. He leaned in and muttered, "Suck it up, Sam. If I could have gotten away with it, you, Jack and the rest of your team would have been getting Medal's of Honor tonight." He gave her a little grin at her gasp of surprise, then gently nudged her toward Jack.
Jack smoothly removed her hand from the President's and pulled her close to his side. "Th-thank you, Mr. President." Sam could barely manage to stammer her thanks, she was so overwhelmed by the events of the past few minutes.
"General O'Neill. Generals O'Neill, it is I who thank you. Again." Hayes gave a crisp nod and left, pulling General Kehler with him and giving Sam and Jack a moment alone as the applause and cheering died down.
Sam was grateful that the orchestra had begun playing again, allowing her a moment to collect herself. Jack took her arm and led her to the dance floor.
"Surprised?" He whispered, bent low to hear her as they walked.
She nodded, dazedly shaking hands and accepting congratulations as they moved through the crowd. Automatically she turned to him and followed him as he began to dance. "Stunned, actually. How long have you known?"
Pulling her closer as the floor became more crowded, Jack turned her in time to the music, effectively shielding her from the press of the crowd. "Bob Kehler called me at the office today, that's why I was late getting home."
"Ah. Guess you had a good reason, then." Sam smiled up into Jack's eyes, grateful for the moment of semi-privacy he was giving her. Even here, in the middle of a ballroom and surrounded by hundreds of people, he could make her feel safe and secure by just wrapping his arms around her. In claiming her for a dance, he was giving her a much needed few minutes to settle and collect herself. God, she loved this man. He knew her so very well. Still, maybe he didn't know everything... "So...General O'Neill."
"Yes, General O'Neill?" Jack merely raised and eyebrow at her, waiting for her to continue.
Sam kept one hand on his shoulder while pulling his other hand from where it was clasping hers tightly against his chest. She shifted her grip and gently slid the back of his hand down, rubbing it slowly over her slightly rounded belly. "If they think that's confusing, what'll they do when young Mr. Carter O'Neill gets here?"
The murmur and music of the night faded away as Jack froze, his eyes locked on hers, his mouth dropping open in stunned delight. Slowly he released her hand, sliding his other hand from her shoulder and bringing both up to frame her face. With infinite care he bent forward, pressing his lips to hers briefly before gathering her close and resting his cheek on her hair. Sam slid her arms under his jacket and around his waist, oblivious to the looks and comments from those around them. She could already feel the difference in her body as he held her close; the small life they'd made together nestled safely between them. She sighed and gave herself up to the moment, savoring the joy and security she felt while in his arms and delighting in the freedom to hold him and love him publicly.
Somewhere in the back of her mind Sam knew that the Mrs. Taylor's of this world were scandalized by their behavior – hugging, right there in the middle of the ballroom. And, for the first time in her life, Sam found that she didn't really care. Jack had been right, she thought, when he'd said being a General meant he could do really cool things. After all, what could be cooler than this?
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A/N #1 – The title of this piece, Per Aspera ad Astra, comes from Seneca the Younger, tutor and advisor to Nero and translates to through difficulties to the stars. Somehow that seemed apropos.
A/N #2 – I was listening to a program on NPR women pilots in WWII. One woman, in a rather worn and raspy voice, told a story about one night when she and several other pilots were in a bar. They kept trying to get a beer and the bartender insisted upon serving them chardonnay. She finally snapped at him, "You know, once you shoot a man out of the sky, you tend to lose your taste for chardonnay."
I immediately pulled the car over and wrote down the quote, knowing that one day I'd use it in a fanfic piece. Hope you enjoyed it.
Additional final note: it's been brought to my attention by a reviewer that Sam, knowing she is pregnant, should not be drinking beer. I'll disagree for two reasons: 1) she only took a sip, and basically ordered the pint to make a point, and; 2) Irish doctors have for years advocated the drinking of a pint a day for pregnant women, as Guinness is very high in iron.