The Saving Grace
This can't be happening. Sam Carter stared at the snow that covered everything, the trees, the ground, even the pathway leading away from the sod house she was currently stranded in. She shivered as a gust of wind crept in through the fragile window panes, the filmy material used in place of glass doing very little to keep the cold out. They had finally rigged a blanket up as a curtain to try to keep as much of the cold out as they could, but it only helped a little.
She sighed heavily, searching in vain for Colonel O'Neill. He had gone out looking for food, anything to keep them going until Teal'c and Daniel showed up to rescue them from this hell. But the Colonel had been gone for over four hours now, and Sam tried to rely on the knowledge that the man was highly trained in situations such as this. She resolved not to panic until dark. Then she would worry about her commanding officer.
In the meantime, she needed to keep things warm inside the hovel she temporarily called home. There was enough dry wood stacked up alongside the wall next to the table to keep the fire blazing for a couple more days. Several blankets were piled on the bed, with two more on a makeshift pallet in the corner. These were situated as far from the window as possible, but the cold seemed to permeate everywhere anyway, a fact that worried Sam even more than her concern for the Colonel. Their companion and her baby needed the warmth more than anything.
A piercing wail interrupted her thoughts, and she turned to see Nellia pull the baby closer to her. Sam rushed over to help, knowing that her friend wasn't strong enough to do much on her own. The sickness was draining the life from her, slowly but surely, no matter what Sam did to help.
They got the baby situated so that he could nurse, and Sam smiled down at him, brushing her fingers over the downy soft hair that covered his head. He was glaring at the world as he suckled, a personality trait that endeared him to her. He already showed signs of being a fighter.
His mother lay back on the pillow and smiled weakly at Sam, thanking her without words for the help.
"No problem," Sam said, with a smile of her own. "That little guy sure is demanding."
Nellia simply nodded. She was so weak, Sam thought, as she once again worried for her friend's safety. Dark circles under her eyes emphasized the paleness of her face, while a tear trickled down her cheek. Sam brushed it away, as sadness ripped through her. This can't be happening to the bright young woman who had taken two strangers into her home and kept them safe from the blizzard that raged outside the walls. Nellia was dying. Sam knew this, but still she tried everything to keep her alive. Her friend had come to mean a lot to her during the last several days.
Sam sat on the bed and cooed softly at the baby as he nursed, while her friend closed her eyes to rest. The baby would need to be burped soon, something that Sam was more than willing to do, anything to keep him from screaming the house down. In the meantime, she took up the rag in the bowl next to the bed and wiped Nellia's forehead and cheeks, hoping to ease her suffering for the time being.
She smiled when Nellia opened her eyes, glad to see that she was still awake, yet worried that she would need her rest. Still, the last time Sam tried to extract the baby from his mother's breast, he had screamed loud enough to bring O'Neill running from the woods where he had gone to gather firewood. She smiled as she remembered her embarrassment when he shook his head at her for scaring him so badly. But she did feel justified in telling him that her experience with babies that little was practically nonexistent. He had grinned at her, took the baby in his arms and worked magic on the child, who had stopped crying almost immediately.
He had much more experience with infants, Sam told herself fiercely as she turned away to attend to Nellia. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Still she was glad that Nellia was awake now to help her avoid that situation again.
"I'm here," Sam told her with a soft smile.
"Please. You must promise me that you will take Galan to his father. He is in the village." She stopped for a moment, her eyes welling up with tears. "Please."
Terror tugged at Sam's heart, but she was determined that this wouldn't be the end. Her friend would pull through. She had to.
"You can take him yourself."
Nellia didn't respond. She just stared at Sam for a moment, her eyes bright with tears. But Sam couldn't let it end this way. Nellia was such a warm, caring person. She didn't deserve to die so young. She had her whole life ahead of her and Sam had done everything she could think of to save her, to no avail. This just wasn't fair.
"Please Nellia. Don't give up, okay?" Tears were now sliding down Sam's cheeks as she tried to reason with her friend. "Come on, Nellia. Stay with me. You can fight this, please." Nellia shook her head, while Sam kept on talking to her. "Your baby needs you, Nellia. Stay with us, please!"
But Nellia had given up. Sam could see it in her eyes. Sam shook her head in denial as her mind screamed out her anguish. No, she raged inwardly. No! She stroked the baby's head again, wishing she could find the answer to save them all, while Nellia reached her free hand toward Sam.
"Please Sam. Promise me."
There was nothing she could do, Sam realized, as she tearfully nodded her head. She smiled through her tears, then looked toward the door, wondering where the Colonel was. He was the optimistic one. His determination that they would all be saved soon enough made her feel safe, even if she sometimes didn't believe him. He would know what to say to this woman as she lay dying.
But the Colonel didn't miraculously appear. Sam turned back to Nellia who was smiling at her, knowing that Sam would do as she asked. And Sam couldn't disappoint. She nodded again as she formed the words she knew had to be said. "We will take him to his father. I promise."
It was enough. Nellia closed her eyes again, sighing softly, as she said, "Thank you."
Two simple words. Yet they held a wealth of meaning. Tears poured down her cheeks as she stroked the baby's hair and stared down at his mother's peaceful expression. This can't be happening. Not to Nellia. Not now.
Jack O'Neill tugged his woolen cap down around his ears as he trudged back toward the shelter he and Carter had found while searching for the native woman, Nellia. She had gone off to die in the wilderness, which was the tradition of her people. But her husband had been frantic because she had taken her baby with her, even though he had agreed to it when the others had demanded it out of fear that the baby had contracted whatever ailed his mother. Jack shivered slightly as he walked; hanging onto the rage he was dealing with as he remembered the meeting with that guy. His anger fueled his determination to get back there to help keep that woman alive just for the hell of it.
He shrugged slightly to hitch up the carcass of the dead animal on his shoulder. He had killed the animal a few miles back, and was now taking it to the house to prepare it for meals. He kept moving, while searching the surrounding area for any familiar landmarks. He hadn't gone far, but with the snow coming down in a blur of whiteness, he was a little leery of getting lost.
He stumbled, then caught himself before falling on his knees. "Damn snow," he said with a grumble as he hitched the carcass up again. He pushed onward, struggling with the dead weight that seemed to get heavier as time went by. But he would make it back to the shelter, come hell or high water. They needed him back there, and he wasn't the type to let anybody down.
Relief flooded through him when he saw the outline of the building. Finally, he thought with a vengeance. He struggled on and dropped the carcass off a little way from the sod house itself, then decided to go in to warm his hands by the fire, before going to work on butchering the animal.
He knocked once to give them a warning that he was about to let in a whirlwind of snow, then pushed hard on the door to open it. The first thing he saw when he entered was Carter's face. She was sitting on the bed, staring at him with a look that told him everything. Sadness took over when he saw her tear-stained face for he knew then that all their efforts to save Nellia had been in vain. He shook off the feeling of doom so that he could get the door closed quickly before snow started to pile up on the threshold.
The sound of the roaring wind was instantly buffeted by the closed door, leaving them in a silence that was punctuated only by the crackling of the fire. Jack pulled off his coat and hung it up on a hook by the door, all the while watching Carter, who seemed to have found something on the floor extremely interesting.
She didn't respond. She did wipe tears from her cheeks, but for the most part, she didn't have a whole lot to say. Jack walked over to the fire to warm his hands, wondering what he should say to break the uncomfortable silence.
Nothing came to mind, which wasn't unusual for him. He never really was very good at these things. Instead he went over to the bed to see for himself that his suspicions were correct. Nellia lay there with her eyes closed and a peaceful expression on her face. The baby slept alongside his mother, while Carter sat on the edge of the bed with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
"Hey," he said softly, as he sat down next to her. "You okay?"
She nodded as she looked up to stare at the fireplace. She was trying to put on a brave face, but Jack could see that she was failing miserably at it. She sighed heavily, but continued to stare at the fireplace as she said, "I tried so hard to save her." A sob escaped her throat, which she tried to stifle. "There was nothing I could do."
"You did what you could," Jack said, as she leaned her head into his shoulder. He put his arm around her shoulder to show some support, even though he was having a hard time with this himself. He wanted to show Nellia's husband and their people that they were wrong to send an ailing woman out to die alone. He wanted to keep her alive so that the baby wouldn't grow up without a mother. But most of all, he had grown to like the beautiful young woman with the smiling, sunny personality.
"It wasn't enough," Carter said with a tinge of bitterness. "I tried so hard. I wanted her to live." She was crying now, and Jack was at a total loss as to how to help her. They were friends and teammates, and it was a rare thing for him to have to comfort a teammate. He sat there instead, hugging her close and letting her cry on him, knowing she needed to get this out of her system in order to move on. It just felt awkward to sit here next to a dead woman while Carter cried on his shoulder.
"It wasn't your fault," he said when her tears finally died down. "We did what we could. And I think that no matter what, you brought her some peace before she died. That counts for a lot."
She nodded, then sat up and sniffled while at the same time, looking at him with a sideways glance. "Sorry about that." She gestured toward him, then said, "Some warrior, huh? Crying all over my commanding officer."
"Aw, it's no big deal," he said, glad that the conversation was moving toward easier ground. "It's not like you're the first."
She turned to him in surprise, her interest clearly piqued. "Oh yeah?" She sniffed again, then apparently had to ask. "Who?"
"Nobody you know," he said with a warm smile. He stood up, then pulled her up to stand. "We should probably…" He let the sentence trail off as he waved airily toward the bed. She nodded as she looked down again, before turning to look at the woman on the bed.
"She does look like she's at peace."
Jack nodded at that statement. He could only hope that would be Carter's saving grace.
They wrapped Nellia in a couple of the blankets so that her body would be somewhat protected, then carried it off to join the carcass that Colonel O'Neill had killed on his hunt for food. Sam tried not to think what could happen to her friend's remains with wild animals roaming about, but there wasn't a whole lot she or the Colonel could do until Teal'c and Daniel showed up. Which was soon, or so she hoped.
She wrapped her arms around herself and stuffed her hands under her armpits to help warm them up as she stood out there to pay her last respects. She wasn't sure why she needed to stay with Nellia for a moment, but she did anyway, with the Colonel standing right alongside her. She couldn't stay longer than a few minutes though. She was too worried about the baby being all alone in the house. So after a few moments of a tearful goodbye, Sam turned to go back into the house, with the Colonel following along behind her.
The fire had died down some in the time it took them to haul Nellia's body out of the house. Sam immediately went over to stoke it up, needing the warmth. O'Neill went over to check on the baby, who was now sleeping in a roughly made cradle, crafted out of a box they had found lying around.
"Hey there, you little rugrat. You okay in there?"
Sam found herself smiling, even though his response was met with silence. He was trying so hard to make things seem normal for Sam, and she appreciated his efforts, even though her heart was breaking over the loss of her friend. She fussed around the fire, getting some coffee ready to help in the warming process, while O'Neill walked up behind her.
"He's out like a light," he told her as he sat down at the table. She nodded sadly, an emotion that the Colonel seemed determined to conquer. "Snoring worse than a drunken Daniel after an all-nighter."
Sam grinned at that thought, knowing he was just exaggerating. "He does not snore," she said with a glare that was meant as an exaggeration in of itself.
"Oh, you have not heard the worst of it. Even the neighbors were complaining."
Sam couldn't help it. She had to laugh, which eased her pain a little. "I was talking about Galan," she said in mock disgust.
"Oh." He grinned as he shrugged, but Sam could tell that he was watching her carefully. It didn't matter though. Sam was determined not to break down again.
"Want some coffee?"
"Yeah," he said with a slight nod. "I need something to warm up my insides before I have to go out and tackle that monster out there."
"What is it, do you know?"
"Nope. I guess it doesn't matter when we're starving."
"I guess not."
The coffee was boiling, so Sam set about pouring two cups and bringing them to the table. He nodded his thanks, and took a sip, while Sam sat down and stared into her cup.
They sat in silence, something Sam was grateful for. She needed time to think, to try to find her own peace in what she didn't do, or should have done, to save her friend.
"Don't beat yourself up over this Carter."
She looked up in surprise, wondering how he knew. His expression was serious as he stared at her; his eyes seemed to be pleading with her.
"I couldn't save her," she said in a low voice, pain knifing through her as she thought about her failure.
"She was already dying. There was not a whole lot we could do."
But Sam wasn't listening. She had been wracking her brain to find the reason why Nellia had to die, and now she was faced with reality as she saw it. "I thought she was getting better," she said with a shake of her head. "She was smiling and laughing yesterday. I thought she was getting better." She looked up to see the Colonel staring at her with resignation. "I shouldn't have let my guard down."
Sam jumped a little at the force of the word, but his tactics worked. He definitely had her attention now. She looked at him with a guilty expression, momentarily worried that she might have made him mad.
"Are you even listening to me?" He was starting to sound angry, which was not a good thing coming from a superior officer. "It's not your fault, Sam. You did everything you could and more." She nodded, smiling slightly as she tried to calm him down. He looked into his cup, and she watched as he went through his familiar routine of digging out a ground. "Besides," he said, "You were the reason things were easier for her in the end."
Well damn. More tears sprung up at that observation, and Sam angrily wiped them away. She was not about to cry all over him again. But now that they were sitting quietly, her curiosity got the best of her.
"You mentioned that I'm not the first person to cry on you." She gave him a tentative look. "Somebody else did?"
He grinned at her, bringing on a small smile to her face. She went on the defense though. She knew that boyish smirk all too well, having been on the brunt end of it when he teased her unmercifully about that time on P3X-595.
Okay, that thought was just too hard for Sam to fathom. "Teal'c?" He nodded sagely at her, but Sam didn't believe it for a minute. "He did not!"
"Okay, he didn't," O'Neill said with a laugh. "But I had you going for a minute there." Sam shook her head, which prompted a knowing look from the Colonel. "Sure I did."
He sobered up though, and looked at her thoughtfully. She stared back, wondering what he was thinking. He was so hard to read for the most part, but past experience told her that he may never reveal his current thoughts. He looked back down at his cup, and she half expected him to start digging in there again.
"It was a long time ago."
Sam waited quietly, knowing that he would tell her the story in his own time.
"We were in the middle of a battle, guns blasting from every direction. My buddy, Garrett and I managed to drag another teammate to safety, but Garrett got it in the chest before we could get back into the fray." O'Neill was now looking into the fire, staring into it as if in a trance. "We had been friends for years. He was my best man at my wedding." He turned to look at her, his grief apparent in his features. "I was his son's godfather."
"God," Sam said softly, suddenly realizing where his story was heading.
He shook his head, then shrugged. "I was really young at the time," he said with a nod and a sad smile as if justifying his weakness. She smiled back at him, knowing how hard it had been for him to tell her the story, and harder still to admit to his tears. He looked back down at his cup, then said, "It was the first time that I really understood death."
More tears welled up as Sam nodded in agreement. She had been at that place herself. But just as important, she understood what he had been trying to tell her all along. She didn't have a say in who lived and who died. All she could do was try to make do with what she had and hope for the best.
The thought didn't mend her heart, but at least it helped.
She looked over at the cradle when the baby gurgled, her grief still vibrant. She had lost a friend and little Galan had lost his mother, but the knowledge that she had tried to save her brought relief. She looked over at the Colonel to see him digging in his coffee again, and she smiled. He helped her as well.
"Thank you, sir."
He looked up at her in surprise, but then grinned.
"I suppose that monster out there can wait for awhile longer. You want to play cards?"
Galan was screaming again, something that Jack didn't think he would ever get used to. It had only been two days since his mother died, and the kid wasn't starving. He and Carter had figured out that their oatmeal rations worked great when watered down. At least somebody was eating the stuff, he thought grimly.
But when that kid was hungry, he made sure to let the world know about it and it was a blessing when Carter finally shoved some of the oatmeal into his mouth with her finger. He latched onto it with gusto, sucking for all he was worth.
"At least he's quiet for a minute," Jack said dryly, already prepared for the next onslaught of screams. He wasn't disappointed. "Try putting some on the end of a spoon," he said when the baby told them off for not having enough for him to suck on a constant basis.
"He choked on it when I tried it the last time," Carter said in frustration. She gave him some more on her finger, which calmed him for a moment, but only for a moment. Jack was seriously thinking about coming up with an excuse to go outside. Carter on the other hand, glared at him maliciously.
"Don't even think it." Jack raised his eyebrows at the command. She blushed slightly, then said, "Sir."
"How did you know what I…?"
"You're not going to leave me here alone with him like you did the last time."
Guilt built up in Jack, which he promptly tried to hide from Carter. "I was just thinking that we needed some more wood."
Carter turned away from him with what sounded suspiciously like a growl, but Jack was saved from her getting vocal by a voice coming from outside.
"Daniel!" Jack couldn't remember ever being so glad to hear that guy's voice. He looked guiltily at Carter, then figured to heck with it. He grabbed his coat and practically ran for the door.
"What took you guys so long?" Jack had to ask the minute he saw Daniel and Teal'c. They were dressed in fur parkas and dragging what looked like a toboggan along with them. Nellia's husband was walking into the clearing, and Jack had to squelch the urge to run over there and beat the crap out of him.
"We almost didn't find you," Daniel said, bringing Jack's attention back to him. "If it wasn't for the baby screaming." He smiled broadly, then said, "We could hear him for at least a good two miles."
"Yeah, well you should hear him up close," Jack just had to say. "Come on in. Carter's feeding him, so he should be shutting up in a few minutes, but well… It does get loud in there."
Jack turned to the man who had come with Teal'c and Daniel. He was brawny, yet seemed afraid for some reason. Jack suspected that he must have loved his wife, but it still rankled that he was the one who pushed her out the door, so to speak.
"I'm sorry," he told the man. He pointed toward the place where Nellia's body was placed, then gave him some slack. The guy looked heartbroken enough. Maybe Jack was wrong about him. "Your son is okay. Healthy and at the moment, extremely hungry."
The man nodded, but stayed where he was standing and stared at the mound of snow where his wife was laid to rest. Jack decided to leave him to it.
"Come on in," he told his friends, but then asked the most important question of all. "Did you bring some food?"
"Yes, we did," Teal'c said, his face barely visible through the hood he was wearing. "Enough for several days."
"You had us worried," Daniel said. "You weren't in the village when we got back from our search and Kadin thought you might be holed up in these woods." Jack led the way into the house while Daniel kept on talking. "We figured it was worth a try, and it's a good thing we came this way. Hi Sam!"
"Hi," Carter said from her seat at the table. The baby was contentedly smacking his lips, while Carter gave him another taste of the oatmeal. "Am I ever glad to see you guys."
"Everything okay here?" Daniel asked, as he looked carefully into her eyes. He knew something was up, and Jack was glad that Daniel was here to help her get through this. Daniel was so much better at this stuff than Jack wouldl ever be.
Carter nodded, although her expression still mirrored her sadness. "Nellia didn't make it."
"I'm sorry," Daniel said and Jack had to agree. Carter was still hurting, but Jack could see that she had come to terms with her grief, and this pleased him. Carter was strong and capable. She would survive this and they would move on.
"I'm fine," she said, as she scooped more oatmeal onto her finger. "Thanks to Colonel O'Neill. I'll just miss her, that's all." The door opened at that point and Kadin stopped in the doorway, letting in the wind and the cold. He was staring at Galan, which was okay with Jack. Holding the door open and letting in the cold wasn't.
"Shut the door," he said with a snarl. "In or out, I don't care. Just shut the freaking door!"
"Cabin fever," Carter said to Daniel with a smirk. This was so far from the truth that Jack nearly reamed them both out, then realized that Carter was just kidding, which meant she really was okay. Jack let the remark go. His team was back to normal, and that's all he cared about.
"We'll leave in the morning," he said, as he rubbed his hands together. "In the meantime, who wants to play a game of cards?"