Author's note: Enourmous thanks to AstraPerAspera for her incredible editing skills and her invaluable advice (this would have sucked badly without her).
Teal'c watched O'Neill strike the punching bag a final time and then look at an un-gloved hand. O'Neill flexed his fingers, and Teal'c was relatively certain that if he were closer he would have been able to see the split skin on his friend's knuckles.
Major Carter had been correct, as she usually was in matters pertaining to O'Neill, Teal'c observed. O'Neill had not left the SGC, nor retired to his quarters, though it was past midnight. Major Carter had not confided the reasons she believed O'Neill would not have sought rest. Neither did she explain why she believed Teal'c would find him in the Gymnasium. Instead, she merely proposed that it might be a good time for Teal'c to engage O'Neill in one of their sparring sessions. Teal'c chose not to ask why, and he chose not to mention that she had not withdrawn to her own bed either. It was something he saw in her eyes, the set of her mouth: concern, but for what reason, Teal'c did not know. A sorrow unfathomable lay behind her eyes and yet he also saw the same fierce determination he recognized from the countless times he'd watched her manipulate alien technologies, as though she could force them into compliance through will alone.
For Teal'c it was very simple: Major Carter had come to him with a request for assistance, veiled in suggestion as it may have been, and so he had postponed his Kel-nor-reem and found O'Neill. Though puzzled by the unusual behaviour of his two friends this night, he would say nothing of it; but he would observe, and he would remember. Teal'c glanced at the standard issue watch upon his wrist, before he lifted his head and spoke.
The orange glare of the UAV's rockets flared and through the reflection on the glass that separated the control room from the gate room, Sam saw Colonel O'Neill flinch slightly at the bright flash and then grin, like a child who had just set off his first fire cracker. In a second the wormhole swallowed the UAV with a gulp and Sam turned her eyes to the monitor before her.
She tapped a few keys on the control panel. "Switching to auto recon," and watched as the landscape expanded and the Stargate shrank to a small, grey speck on the periphery of the UAV's shot.
As the aircraft widened its circular flight path, a gently rippling carpet of dark green became visible and then quickly filled the screen. A dense forest that obscured the planet's surface. Toggling a knob Sam announced the switch to infra-red. Immediately the colours shifted to brilliant splodges of varying shades of reds and yellows against an ocean of blue and green.
"What are we looking at here, Major?" General Hammond asked in his Texas drawl.
Not turning, Sam answered him. "A dense forest, sir," She pointed at the patch of soft magenta in the top right of the monitor. "There is quite a lot of moisture here, may be a rain forest of some type."
"Anything of interest to us here, Carter? Or are we here just to look at the pretty pictures?" Sam suppressed a cringe at the Colonel's acerbic tone.
She knew why he was irritable. It was August seventeenth and this time the General had not allowed SG1 to forego their scheduled down time and go exploring the galaxy. Colonel O'Neill had spent the first few early morning hours stomping around the base in search of something with which to occupy himself. Sam had it on good authority that he had undertaken a snap inspection of the Commissary...something about a lack of cake. Apparently the firing range had not escaped either and the General would soon be signing off on an emergency stock of silhouette shooting targets.
Once, he may have come to her lab instead – she'd been working in there – and peppered her with questions, fiddled with delicate pieces of equipment...but not anymore. Regardless, Sam had not been idle in her lab.
She looked at her watch, and then back to the monitor expectantly. On cue, the image suddenly shuddered.
"What's happening?" Daniel's voice drifted through to Sam from where he and Teal'c were standing behind Hammond and Colonel O'Neill, their necks arched as they gazed up at the monitors hooked to the ceiling.
But Sam didn't spare him a glance as she flicked another switch and the swaying tops of the forest canopy could be seen again. The UAV swerved and dipped and the picture tilted. "Switching to manual," Sam announced and began manipulating the two levers on the control panel.
"Carter, pull it up!" The Colonel barked at her.
"I can't, sir. Manual controls are not responding," she replied, pleased at the amount of anxiety she'd managed to inject into her voice.
The others watched helplessly as the UAV plunged into the tree tops, branches and leaves smashing up against the camera lens before the picture flickered and went out.
"We've lost the transmission, General," came Sgt Harriman's quiet voice.
No one spoke for a few seconds, the only sound in the control room the regular beeping of equipment and the constant background thrum of the SGC. Sam spun in her chair to face her two senior offices, waiting.
"Well sir," Colonel O'Neill clapped his hands together, breaking the silence. "I'd like to volunteer SG1's services for this retrieval mission," and turned to the General with upturned lips that didn't even crinkle the skin around his eyes.
"SG4 is on stand-by today, Colonel. They can handle this one."
"Excuse me sir, if I may?" Sam interrupted, shooting General Hammond an apologetic look. "I'm sorry General, but the Colonel's right. This was one of our new UAV prototypes. It had some sensitive equipment on it that we should salvage, as well as the flight recorder, if at all possible. The new sensory technology alone is extremely delicate and interfaced within the UAV's visual component. It would be very difficult to extract. "
"So what you're saying here Major, is that the salvaging will take a certain expertise?" Hammond asked her.
"I'm afraid so, sir." Feeling his gaze, Sam's eyes flicked from the General's face to the Colonel's. And for a fleeting moment she thought she saw his eyes softened as he looked at her and that gentle smile she hadn't seen for so many months, but he looked away from her in the instant that their eyes met. And Sam was left to wonder if she'd imagined it.
The general sighed then, and looking back at the Colonel he conceded. "Alright SG1, get your team geared up Colonel. You have a go," and he strode away and up the spiral staircase.
SG1 filed out of the control room, the Colonel leading the way with long and urgent strides. Sam noted Daniel sidle alongside her, but didn't look at him as they rushed through the SGC halls. "I know what you're doing Sam," he whispered.
"What am I doing, Daniel?" She responded, eyes fixed ahead.
"Sam, I get it. I know what day it is. But the UAV? You could get in serious trouble if someone finds out!"
With a quick hard look at Daniel, Sam replied, "No one will find out," and then picked up her pace. She didn't want to discuss her methods...or her motives.
Sam studied the UTD she held, before answering the Colonel's question. "North west, sir," indicating the direction with a tilt of her P90.
The Stargate stood within a sparse field of pale grasses...or perhaps weeds. This planet's sun lay low on the horizon, its rays just beginning to dry the dew on the grass. But in the distance, completely surrounding the field, Sam could see the solid wall of trees that marked the beginning of the forest. She flicked her gaze back to the instrument in her hand.
"Hmm?" Sam didn't look up to see the Colonel's raised eyebrows.
Instead she waited, daring his wrath; encouraging it, courting it. Had it been so long ago that things between them had been so different? When he smiled and joked with her as though she were the only person who existed? Now the only time he showed her anything other than indifference was when he was angry at her. She preferred the anger.
"Carter!" He growled impatiently.
"There is evidence of some recent seismic activity, sir."
"Is that going to be a problem, Carter?" He asked in a belittling tone of voice with his head tilted, as though she were dim-witted for making him prompt her.
"I don't think so, sir."
"How reassuring, Carter," came his sarcastic reply. "Then why mention it at all?" He grumbled. He was picking an argument with her now. He'd been doing it since the moment she first saw him today: at exactly Zero hundred hours.
She'd been talking to Teal'c in the commissary, suggesting that a workout in the gym might be a good idea and telling him that she would need him and Daniel in a few hours - she'd already spoken to Daniel.
She'd run into the Colonel in the elevator on her way back to the lab. "Don't you ever sleep, Carter?" Sometimes she thought maybe he wanted her to argue, to spit something back at him; but she never did, and it only seemed to make him angrier.
"I just thought you might like to know, sir," she replied steadily.
"You're not a tour guide, Carter. Unless it's gonna be a problem, I don't really care." Was it possible for his scowl to deepen any further?
"Yes, sir." Apparently it was.
Slapping his cap onto his head and adjusting it with a jiggle, the Colonel set off toward the trees. Teal'c strode beside him and she and Daniel followed a few paces behind. Daniel had been quiet lately. Ever since the disaster with the Reece android, actually. He and the Colonel had barely spoken two words to one another since. The tension in the Colonel and between the two of them was substantial and Sam felt it reverberate right through her sometimes, and though she hadn't asked, she was fairly certain Teal'c felt it too and was just as unhappy with it. But now Daniel flicked a quick glance at her and spoke quietly.
"You're just going to let him talk to you that way?"
"He's my CO Daniel. He can talk to me any way he likes." She replied, blandly.
"I know why Jack's being more of an ass than usual today, Sam. And fair enough if we all let some things go. But he's not just being an ass, he's being a total dick. And you know it."
"What do you want me to do, Daniel? Stomp my foot and pout?" She asked, irritably.
"You just put your career on the line," Sam scowled at him but it didn't stop him, "and he's treating you like crap."
"You're the one who said he would hate it if he knew, Daniel. What am I supposed to say, "hey, sir, by the way, I just rigged a perfectly good, and very expensive UAV to crash on a planet I knew to be relatively safe just so we could go on a very long hike in the hopes that it would help you and so I would appreciate it if you kept the attitude to a minimum"?" It all came out in a low, but harsh whisper and she suddenly wanted to clamp her hand over her mouth. Daniel was looking at her as though she had spoken some ancient tongue he needed to translate.
"I understand what you're trying to do. I think you could have found a better way, and I don't think you should have to tolerate his crap, while you're doing it," he murmured.
"Then help me Daniel," she whispered in reply.
He gazed at her but didn't say anything more. After a time his lips pressed together and he gave her a single nod, turning away in time to enter the forest and watch his footing.
They trekked for several hours through the thick woods, Sam calling soft adjustments to their course every now and then, until Colonel O'Neill finally called a short break. While Sam and the others sat to take their drinks, the Colonel prowled...restless.
Barely having had enough time to gulp down a few small mouth-fulls of water, the Colonel stowed his canteen and barked, "That's it. Let's move."
Daniel grumbled something half-heartedly as he hauled himself off a mossy boulder, asking for a longer break. The Colonel just glared at him and rousted them. She had to admit; only five minutes after hours of hiking was a little harsh, but she understood his need to be active, to push his body. So when Daniel took another breath to protest, she shushed him with a light touch on his arm and a minute shake of her head.
Sam watched the Colonel now. He was hiking a few paces ahead of Daniel; they'd kept the same formation with which they'd started out. With her practiced eye she noted the subtle changes in his posture as they continued their slog through the dense trees. The way the muscles in his neck twitched and how he carried his shoulders just that little bit higher than he would if he were truly relaxed. She had seen this view of him many times; it was the one he adopted when he had a bad feeling about something. And though he looked relaxed to anyone who didn't know him, Sam knew he was ready to react to a threat in an instant.
She felt a sudden twinge of concern; Colonel O'Neill had an uncanny nose for trouble. About to shift her hold on her weapon, she caught a glimpse of the way the Colonel was carrying his when he twisted for a moment, saying something to Teal'c. His grip continued to be relaxed, his left arm still resting comfortably on the butt of his P90. Not a grip he would have chosen, she knew, if he thought he might need to use it.
So the growing tension she saw in him was something else. Perhaps the trees – which he always enjoyed grumbling about – could no longer satisfy his attention. But before she had finished taking the breath she would need to launch into the technical specifications of this upgraded UAV, he spoke.
"Carter?" His voice was gruff.
"So what's on this hunk 'a junk anyway that's so new and important?"
Sam blinked in astonishment. It had been a long time since he'd asked her to explain anything even remotely technical to him, let alone encouraged her too.
Without skipping a stride, she and Teal'c smoothly exchanged places. "Well, sir," she began. "As you know, the UAV has always been equipped with various imaging devices and radar equipment. But..." and she blabbered on about the new and improved UAV, without a single interruption from him...not even a 'gah' and a nose pinch...until she had explained all the workings of the UAV and its specialised equipment in the greatest detail and her voice started to go hoarse. She had risked a covert glance at him only once and wasn't certain, but thought that perhaps there was the smallest of smiles on his lips. She shook her head at herself; he hated her techno-babble.
When she'd finally finished and the quiet lingered between them for several minutes, she heard the Colonel speak again.
"You do remember what happened the last time we went out on one of these missions, right Carter?" His voice seemed somehow lighter now.
"Uh, yes sir," was her only reply, but she didn't bother to hide her wince. She certainly did remember: Aris Boch!
"How much further till we get to this thing?" He asked.
Sam shifted the weight of her P90 so she could check the UTD in her left hand, and as she did so, she felt her right arm brush against the Colonel's. Only then did she become conscious of how close to each other they suddenly were as they hiked...no, not hiking, not really she realised; somewhere along the line the brutal pace at which they'd been travelling had slowed and Sam found herself casually meandering through the woods with the Colonel close by her side.
Pushing away thoughts of the current now prickling against her right arm, she studied the tracking device. "We should reach it in approximately three clicks, sir"
'Oh, Carter?" Colonel O'Neill called, unnecessarily, since she was still at his side. "Did this show up on any of your doohickies?" He flicked his fingers toward the break in the trees where they could clearly see a few scattered pools of water with long reeds poking out of them.
"Not exactly, sir," she replied. "But we did see some areas indicative of high levels of moisture. I guess this explains it."
'I guess so." He said, sourly.
"You mean the UAV crashed in a swamp?!" Daniel said, with his nose wrinkled in distaste at the stench.
"Looks like it's only a few metres in. It shouldn't be too hard to get to."
"Famous last words, Carter." The Colonel shot her a look, but his eyes had that teasing light in them that she used to see all the time.
Detaching the clips at his shoulders, the Colonel shucked his pack and shoved it into Teal'c's arms. "T, Daniel, wait here. Carter?"
"Just one second, sir." Sam was still rummaging in her pack, transferring most of her things into Daniel's and keeping only the tools she would need to remove the essential equipment from the UAV. She needed the room in her pack...plus, it wouldn't hurt to travel light through the swamp. Not that she was worried or anything. Daniel helped her re-attach the pack to her vest. "Ready, sir."
The route zigzagged all over the place as they navigated their way through the swamp, searching for solid ground. But eventually they found the UAV, visible just a few metres away and Sam had nothing worse than a sodden sock to show for it. Though it could have been worse if not for Colonel O'Neill's steadying hand on her elbow when she'd lost her footing. The water around them was moving slowly here, so at least the smell wasn't quite as bad, and they continued to traverse the swamp carefully toward the craft. Jumping from island to island, they found it sitting precariously on the edge of a muddy patch of equally muddy, but thankfully firm, ground.
The Colonel hung back as Sam approached the UAV. The mud squelched under her boots unpleasantly and must have caused a shift in the surface tension, or else the current finally managed to snare the wing of the craft dipped in the water, because as she moved she watched the UAV begin to slide into the water. Without thinking of anything other than saving the UAV from a watery demise Sam dived at it, sliding through the mud and grabbing at the wing nearest her. She pulled hard, but the craft was large and heavy and she was covered in slippery mud with nothing to grip and finally had to let it go or be pulled in with it. That wasn't happening in this lifetime. She sat there and watched forlornly as the UAV disappeared into the murky water.
It had all happened in a matter of seconds and Sam had heard the Colonel's shout of alarm, followed very quickly by uproarious laughter. Sam blinked a moment in shock and wondered where the deep chortles were coming from before it registered they were coming from the Colonel behind her. She had to turn and stare at him to make sure. In all the years she had known him she had not heard more than a chuckle out of him. Here he was now, his eyes fixed on her and laughing so hard he was bent almost double; he had to support himself with his hands on his knees. Sam couldn't help it, she felt the widest grin split her face; it was the most wonderful sound she had ever heard in all her life, even better than those rare chuckles she loved.
The Colonel soon composed himself – too soon for Sam's liking – but the smirk stayed on his face. "I've heard of mud baths Carter, but isn't this takin' it a little too far?"
"Very funny sir," she replied, knowing her attempt at censure was ruined by the delighted smile she still wore. Sam held his bright and clear eyes to hers and watched him until he took a single step toward her and then stopped. She noticed the smile on his lips falter and knew that soon his eyes would turn to stone and he would look at her the way he usually did these days. Sam broke their locked gaze first, before she had to see it and tried to get back on her feet. It didn't prove easy however, the mud wasn't doing her any favours as she struggled to get her feet under her. She heard the Colonel chuckle again and risked another glance at him. The smile was back and he was walking toward her, his arm already outstretched to help her when Sam felt a slight shudder in the earth under her. The muddy bank abruptly gave way, half the island disappearing, and Sam dropped into the water.
She came up spluttering and trying not to think about what she would find in a sample of this water under a microscope. She swam to the edge of what was left of the island where the Colonel crouched, but before she could reach it she heard another rumble, louder, and she was underwater again. All she could see when she came up was the frothing water all around her as it carried her fast downstream. She fought the suddenly swift current as hard as she could, stretching her neck out of the water and looking around her. She could see the smaller islands of the swamp dissolving, clumps of mud drifting passed her. She had to get further toward the edge of the swamp where the ground would be firmer. But the current was fierce and kept dragging her under even as she struggled toward a shore she could barely see. A long reed reared up in front of her and instinctually she grabbed at it. The water swept her along but the reed held fast and she held onto it as hard as she could. A streak of green caught her eye.
Spitting water out of her mouth again, she watched him as he raced along the bank, leaping from island to island, sometimes taking him farther out, sometimes bringing him closer in. He was catching up to her when she felt the reed she clutched give a few inches and she knew it wouldn't hold her weight for long. She searched the bank ahead of the Colonel and saw one of the firmer looking islands jutting out into the gushing stream – or river as it was now. She knew he would have seen it too. He managed to get a few metres in front of her before the reed pulled free in Sam's hands and she was once again being pulled down the river. The Colonel was keeping pace with her as she struggled hard, but she knew the current was faster; she kept her eyes on him and that island.
The point of the muddy land mass was fast approaching and she fought to swim toward it, though as slippery as it was, she didn't hold out much hope that she could hold herself there. She was only half a metre from it when Colonel O'Neill leaped onto the island, his boots sliding in the mud toward the peak she was trying to get to. He dropped to his knees and Sam watched him shove the point of his P90 hard into the surface and, hooking one knee around the weapon now half imbedded in the ground, he hurled himself toward the racing water, an arm stretched out over it. He was using the P90 to anchor himself. Brilliant! Sam thought in that distant part of her mind that seemed to exist outside of herself whenever mortal peril loomed.
She flung her own hand out toward him. Their hands connected with a slap and she felt his fingers close over hers in a steely grip that hurt; but she knew, with a certainty that left no room for doubt, that he would not let her slip out of his grasp. Her fingers curled around his larger palm as best they could and she reached up with her other hand, gripping his forearm. It wasn't easy with the slick surface, but eventually he managed to pull her out of the water.
They sat in the mud together, his hands still gripping her shoulders from when he'd heaved her upright once he'd gotten her on land, panting and both trying to regain their breath. His fingers constricted, digging into her muscles and Sam watched as his eyes tightened, his lips twitched, his brows came together and then he abruptly opened his fingers and dropped his arms, pushing himself to his feet. She slowly followed him, her legs felt weak and wobbling under her and she slipped once upon rising. She was unsure whether it was because of her impromptu swim or because she could still feel the Colonel's fingers upon her; still see the steel that came into his eyes before he let her go.
"Move it, Carter!" He growled. He had already moved ahead of her and wore a scowl as he spoke. "Your little dip..." he paused, seemed to struggle, clipped his weapon violently back onto his vest, "we're burnin' daylight and I don't really wanna be in this stink hole in the dark."
She hurried after him without a word about the ache in her legs.
The route back to Teal'c and Daniel proved uneventful, the ground solidifying under them as they moved farther from the river. Eventually they rounded a dense copse of reeds, skirting the still water, and saw them sitting in the dry grass. Daniel lifted his head out of his book when he heard them, then stuffing the book back into his pack, he got to his feet. Teal'c's eyes popped open and he rose smoothly out of his meditative position.
Teal'c and Daniel started toward them and Sam saw an ever widening grin begin to split Daniel's face as they neared and saw the state in which the Colonel and Sam found themselves: both covered head to toe in drying mud. Teal'c had the good grace to only twitch an eyebrow.
"What happened?" Daniel asked, not bothering to smother his laugh.
"Well," the Colonel began, irritation and sarcasm dripping off every syllable he spoke. "Carter thought it'd be fun to go white water without the raft. And the UAV is MIA."
Sam stomped past the Colonel, making the last leap from the sludgy surface of the swamp to dry land. Daniel dodged out of her way just in time to avoid a muddy smear across his chest.
Her feet planted blissfully on firm, dry land, Sam watched Colonel O'Neill spare Daniel one dirty look for the grin he still wore before his eyes found Teal'c.
"There was a tremor back there. Did you..." but he didn't finish. He'd planted a foot to make the jump, but his boot found no purchase in the muck and he slid, his foot plunging into stagnant water, crowded with algae. But that's as far as he fell. The Colonel looked up to find Daniel there, pulling at his arm. It was enough to enable the Colonel to readjust his footing and make the jump.
Sam watched them. Their eyes held for just a moment, something passing between them: a thank you, Sam thought, and an acknowledgement of friendship despite the recent tension. Colonel O'Neill gave Daniel a solid slap on an arm and Daniel gave him a slight nod. The Colonel turned away, looking down at his sodden boot and stomping on it as he walked, as if to shake the wet out of it.
He sat on a patch of grass and pulled off the boot, tipping it and watching the water pour out. He glared at her while Daniel handed her his pack. Once Sam might have grinned cheekily back at him, but not now. Once, his glower at her would have been good humoured, or just him being grouchy, but not now. Sam poured the water out of her own boots and changed her socks – the only spare bit of clothing any of them had brought.
"It'll be dark in a few hours." The Colonel said then. "Let's make tracks, I don't wanna camp anywhere near here."
They hiked for only another two hours before it got dark enough for the Colonel to call a halt. Sam didn't bother to tell him that this side of the planet was in its summer cycle, and its tilt meant that the nights here would not get all that dark, but stay more of a dusky grey. SG1 were grateful for the rest, or at least Sam and Daniel were. Teal'c was barely breaking a sweat, and the Colonel kept pacing like a caged lion.
"Threat assessment, Carter?" he barked, as though she were a raw rookie straight out of the academy. Ever since he pulled her out of the river, that's how he'd been speaking to her: with short snaps or growls.
"Minimal, sir." She replied, professionally.
He huffed, "Agreed. Get a fire started! If I have to sleep with crusty mud up my ass, I'm gonna do it warm and by a fire," he grumbled, but he helped gather the kindling and wood.
The mundane activity of gathering fallen branches and twigs; of creating a secured area within which to pile the wood; of coaxing a healthy blaze into life gave Sam time to think about things. And for the first time since the UAV shot through the Stargate and she had seen the kiddie glee on the Colonel's face, Sam now began to question whether this little jaunt had been the best idea she'd ever had. For a short time, as they walked together, he'd seemed ok. But only for that short time. And then there was her fall in the river.
She knew there was nothing she could have done to prevent it, but she blamed herself – it was irrational, but she couldn't help it. She resisted the urge to actually pound a fist against the side of her head. She loathed being irrational; feeling something that she knew she shouldn't feel, but couldn't control. Her gaze landed upon the Colonel just as that thought had occurred to her. His eyes skittered past hers, and he dumped another armful of wood next to her and mumbled a 'that should do it' as he left.
"I'll take first watch." He declared and planted himself a little away from them. Close enough to feel the warmth of the camp fire, but facing out toward the grey night. He cradled his P90 in his lap and rummaged in his pack for the materials he'd need to clean it. She couldn't see it from where she was, but she knew the muzzle would be blocked full of the thick mud of the swamp.
She considered what the alternative to this impromptu mission she had concocted might have been. Would he have been happier stalking the halls of the SGC, or at home...alone? His feelings for her may have changed. But hers for him hadn't. She couldn't help him, she could only distract him, even if the distraction took the form of making him furious at her.
He'd said that he would take the first watch, bit she knew him well enough to know that he had no intention of being relieved of it.
Two hours she gave him, while she lay still and feigned sleep. Two hours while he cleaned the mud off his P90 and berretta. Two hours, until the scraping sound as he cleaned and sharpened his knife stopped and she heard the gentle hiss as he sheathed it. Then she opened her eyes and moved ever so carefully. Teal'c leaned against a tree nearby, eyes closed in Kel nor reem. Daniel was curled up in sleep by the fire. The Colonel had his back to her still, protecting his night vision from the light of the fire. Daniel's pack lay between them, and she slipped her hand into it without a sound, before she shook one of Daniel's booted feet to wake him. She appreciated the fact that he didn't mumble or grumble; it had taken a while, but he had eventually learned that awakening without sound was useful offworld.
He looked at her with a scowl though. She didn't smile, only flicked two fingers at him, her eyes and toward the Colonel. It was his watch, and the hand indicators special forces used was something else Daniel had learned. He looked at her puzzled and she tilted her head, giving him her determined 'it's your turn' expression. Eventually his eyes flicked to the Colonel's back and then back to hers and with a resigned sigh, he rose. Her arm shot out in front of him before he could pass her. She looked up at him with some amusement at the glare he shot her, but he swiped the deck of cards out of her hand and marched away.
She lay awake, listening to Daniel badger the Colonel into playing cards with him. Poker, then Gin. Teal'c had joined them after a time, claiming their bickering was not conducive to a proper state of Kel-nor-reem and it was a good thing that he had engaged in the practice whilst O'Neill and Major Carter had left to retrieve the UAV. Sam smiled. And now it was Go Fish, since both the Colonel and Daniel refused to play Snap with Teal'c after what happened the last time.
"Jack. Do you have an Ace?"
"What?! Daniel, how does one person get all four pairs? That's it! Did you even shuffle the deck after the last round?"
It was only a few hours before the sky began to lighten – the nights being short here - and anticipating her CO's needs, Sam allowed herself to stir to life. She sat up stiffly, and at the same moment the Colonel stood and turned toward the failing embers of the fire and to her.
Not meeting her eyes for more than a second, he stretched then bent to retrieve the P90 he'd rested in the grass at his feet. But when he spoke, the harshness in his voice was gone. "Mornin' Carter. Welcome back to the land of the living."
"Good Morning, sir," she replied, pulling her now blissfully dry boots back onto her feet.
The Colonel snuffed out the remains of the camp fire. "Okay kids, lets haul our asses back to the 'gate," he said and he was off, the lion let off his leash. Daniel scooped up his pack and Sam reattached her P90 as they rushed after him.
The pace he set was even more vicious on the way back than it had been the day before, as though his enforced inactivity had built up a great reserve of energy that he just had to burn off. They had taken the same formation though, him and Teal'c at the front with Daniel and herself bringing up the rear a few paces behind.
She and Daniel had tried to converse as they walked as was their habit; discussing the tremor they'd experienced and the possible causes of the sudden flooding in the marshland. But the pace the Colonel set increased until they couldn't spare the breath. Sam watched the Colonel's back again. At one stage they were nearly jogging, when Teal'c made a comment about being in a hurry. The Colonel had murmured something about missing the Simpsons, but had immediately slowed, though the effort cost him. Sam watched him flex his shoulders, as if trying to dislodge something; crane his neck; pull his mud-encrusted cap off and scrub at his hair before flipping it back on.
Unable to stand by and do nothing for him, she elbowed Daniel and whispered, "Say something."
"What?" he whispered back, confused.
She shot a look at the Colonel and tried again, "Talk to him. It might make him slow down a little if nothing else."
Daniel gave her a doubtful look, but tried anyway. "So Jack. Did General Hammond tell you about Latona?"
The Colonel spared a glance over his shoulder before answering, "He may have mentioned something."
"It was SG9's latest mission. An amazing people. Apparently once technologically advanced, but having renounced all scientific study in favour of the arts; music, poetry. I translated the inscription on the rubbing SG9 brought back for me 'Life energy – two as one'. I was wondering if we..." Daniel all but slammed into Jack, who had stopped and turned abruptly during Daniel's rambling.
"That's great, Daniel," he said disinterestedly and patted his shoulder. And for the first time that day he looked at Sam, really looked at her and held her gaze.
"Carter?" He asked.
"Yes, sir?" Sam fell into step with him when he kept moving, still almost at a jog.
"I noticed you've been spending a lot of time at '51 lately. The X-303 project?"
"Err, yes, sir," she replied, surprised at his enquiry.
She glanced at him, but he didn't look at her. He kept up the brisk pace, and she noticed the strain in his eyes, his rigid posture again. She didn't know what else to do, so she did what came naturally to her. She told about the ship; the naquadah and trinium alloy they were using in its construction; about the integration of crystal technology they'd learned from the Goa'uld; the specifications for the inertial dampening system; the sophisticated scanning technology which was a combination of knowledge gained from the Goa'uld and their own ingenuity; the installation of ring transporters; she talked about how she would like to get her hands on some of the Asgard technology she'd seen and her theories about how some of them might work.
And as she spoke, the Colonel slowed his stride, his shoulders relaxed, the skin at his eyes smoothed and when she looked, his lips were ever so slightly upturned. They reached the 'gate, none of them puffing from exhaustion. Daniel dialled Earth on the DHD and they strolled casually through the Stargate, emerging four abreast on the other side. Sam felt the Colonel's arm pressed against hers.
Standing at the foot of the ramp was the General, looking them up and down. "Problems retrieving the UAV, Colonel?" he asked.
Sam rolled her eyes and sighed at the unsuccessfully stifled snickers from the on duty airman, but the Colonel ignored them as he looked himself over and then replied, "What makes you say that, sir?"
"We tried, sir. But the UAV and its components were irretrievable" Sam concluded.
"I can see you tried, Major. I can smell it too." He said, wrinkling his nose in distaste.
Some of those stifled snickers turned into snorts that echoed around the room. Sam wanted to glare at the airmen, daring them to say something, but she figured it was best to follow the Colonel's lead and pretend they didn't exist.
Finally showered and in clean clothes, SG1 were released from their SOP medical exam. Sam was exhausted and opted not to stop in at her lab after being discharged. They stood in the elevator together and Sam noticed Daniel hit the button that would take him toward the surface. She figured he was going home for the rest of the night. Sam punched level 25.
"Not going home for the night, Carter?" The Colonel asked.
"No sir. I think I'll just crash in my quarters," she replied. He nodded slowly, almost thoughtfully. She wanted to ask what it was that he was thinking, but didn't...couldn't.
She and Teal'c stepped out at level 25 and at the last moment, as the elevator doors began to close, the Colonel skipped out.
Teal'c bid them both a good night as they passed his quarters.
"Not going home, sir?"
"Nah," was the only reply he gave.
Author's note: Reviews? *bats eyelids*