The Price of One
The Sum of It All
As it turned out, Janet's fears proved unfounded. Alone for the first time in days, Sam enjoyed the process of shopping for groceries, and gassing up the Volvo made her feel more normal than being cleared by the SGC shrink had. Feeling unexpectedly alive, she pushed a speed dial number on her cell phone and called ahead to Manuel's for take-out. She felt like celebrating, and to Sam, that always required fresh pico de gallo. And tonight, a chimichanga, as well.
A knock at the door stopped her in the middle of setting out her dinner. Dipping a chip in the pico, she made her way down the hall towards the entry. Sam tried to turn on the porch light only to find that the bulb had died, but in the dark she made out the outline of a short figure, and sighed. Popping the chip into her mouth, she pulled open the door. "I swear, Janet—"
The light from behind her revealed someone who was conspicuously not Janet. Someone standing not on the porch, but on the second step down, the moonlight limning the gray in his hair to a bright silver.
Sam hesitated, swallowing hastily. "Sir."
"I don't think I've morphed into Doc Fraiser, but stranger things have happened."
Sam looked down. Shaking her head, she resisted the urge to babble. "Yes, sir. They have."
He slid his hands into his jeans pockets, otherwise perfectly still in the dark. Waiting, his gaze on nothing in particular. His patience, his resolve, seemed profound. He'd always been able to do that when absolutely necessary—quell his urge to fidget.
"Would you like to come in?"
He caught her eye, his lips narrowed. "You busy?"
"Just having some take-out, sir."
"Mmm. Pico de Gallo." For an instant, a light gleamed in his expression, but he stifled it. And, sighing, he glanced at the park across the street from her house and motioned towards it with a nod. "Want to take a walk?"
She hesitated for only a moment. "Sure. Let me put a few things away."
He trailed her into her kitchen, then stood watching absently while she gathered up the foil pans and take-out containers and tucked them neatly into her refrigerator.
"Do you want something to drink?" Why did her voice sound so weak? She cleared her throat surreptitiously and tried again. "Beer? Water?"
His focus went to the can open on her counter. "Got another diet?"
"Pepsi or Coke?"
That stalled him. "You've got both?"
"I'm a Pepsi girl, but Janet thinks it's too sweet."
"Ah." He nodded, one corner of his mouth lifting. "It's a girl thing."
"Sort of." She opened the refrigerator door, casting him an expectant look.
Sam extended the soda towards him, and he accepted it. Staring at the label briefly, he made no move to open it, just silently stood with it dangling in the tips of his fingers.
"Daniel gave me the file." Sam found herself blurting out the words. Anxious to fill the lull? She didn't know—silence didn't normally unnerve her. But lately long periods of quiet had seemed too—loud, somehow.
He grimaced then, catching her eye with a wry tilt of his head. "Lot of good it does us now."
"At least the science base can continue there. We've already established that the Goa'uld vacated that moon centuries ago. It's a valid place for a research colony."
"At least, when the moon isn't passing through a polar orbit."
"Yes. Little glowy buggers apparently hate magnets as much as I do."
Sam smiled slightly. Trust the Colonel to say something like that. "As long as they keep solid astronomical data, they should be able to avoid any more issues."
O'Neill paused, swishing his can slightly from side to side. "Lot of good that does Thompson."
Sam nodded, thoughtful.
"Are you going to tell Hailey?"
"What, sir?" Sam looked at him, found his inscrutable gaze uncomfortable. "That she was right?"
He nodded slowly, his lips thinned further. "She might like to know."
"I'm not sure if she'll be happier that she was right or that I was wrong." Sam took a deep breath and frowned. "But then, she'll get used to that—it seems to be happening more and more lately."
And for a moment they were in stalemate, staring at each other over the island in the center of her kitchen, each using it as a shield.
"Carter." Her name was softer this time. He put the still-sealed can on the island.
With a jerk of his head towards her front door, he said, "Let's walk"
She nodded, mute. On their way back down the hall, she grabbed her jacket and shoved her keys into her jeans' pocket. Flipping the latch on the doorknob, she closed the door behind her, and then took the porch steps quickly to catch up with the Colonel, who was waiting at her front gate.
They crossed the quiet street and headed into the park opposite her house. It was small, and silent, empty but for a jogger far ahead of them. They proceeded off down the path, in similar poses, both with hands thrust down into the pockets of their jackets, long legs striding in cadence.
"Sir, I—" Sam hesitated, fighting to control her voice. "I'm sorry."
"The whole thing."
He walked in silence for a several moments, until Sam heard him make a garbled noise in the back of his throat. "You've got nothing to apologize for, Carter."
"No, you don't."
"Sir—you were forced to do something—terrible—because of me. You had to destroy all those lives—"
He stopped walking and turned to face her. "To be perfectly honest, Carter, I don't give a damn about whatever it was—they were—that took you over. I wanted to blow them up to begin with, remember?"
"Yes, but I know that you don't enjoy killing." She was grateful that the dark prevented her from looking him in the eye. She settled for a spot over his shoulder-where the moonlight gleamed off a metal garbage can. "And you had to, in order to preserve the base. Because of me."
He looked down at his feet, scuffing one sole against the pavement before glancing up at her. "You don't get it, still."
"Get what, sir?"
"That at times, there's no other option." He shuffled himself around, kicked a rock off the path. "Some things deserve to die. Need to be taken out."
"And other things. Replicators. You can't reason with a replicator. All they want to do is destroy and enslave." He took a step and waited briefly for her to follow before continuing on down the walk way. "And what we do is preserve freedom—that's what the military is for—assuring people the opportunity to live free from oppression. So we take bad guys out—either through diplomacy or through force. We do what it takes so that other, weaker, things can live free."
She smiled a little. "No offense, sir, but you sound like an enlistment commercial."
"Yeah—well, it's true." And she knew, by the tone of his voice, the posture of his body, that he believed it. "But then, I'm a pure military guy—and you're not."
"I think that's been established, sir."
"The fact that you're not a guy?"
Despite the situation, Sam found herself grinning. "Sir."
His face lightened a bit. "Oh—right. The scientist thing."
"I've been taught to question everything as a scientist. There must be proof, tangible evidence, before a theory is proven."
He nodded. "And as a soldier, you're taught to act without question, to trust the lead of your superiors."
She raised a hand and shoved some hair behind her ear. Ridiculously, it occurred to her that she'd come to the point in her haircut when she'd have to either cut it again or try to grow it longer. She'd been at that point several months before, but the choice had been taken from her. She'd arrived back from her time as Thera with her hair shorn close to her head—shorter than she'd ever worn it before. Short hair and long memories, and a decided resentment at having her choices, her life, removed from her without her input.
She hadn't had the opportunity to decide anything that had happened to them before the stamp had started to fade—all her actions, her relationships, had been made out of pure instinct. The non-learned traits of her personality emerging strong in the absence of military discipline and forced habit. And what had she done there, without the knowledge of rules and chain of command? She'd immediately started engineering, figuring things out, finding logical, scientific solutions for the problems in the mines.
And she'd formed relationships. A relationship.
It had been difficult to return to reality. To return to the military aspect of her life. To look at the man now walking beside her and remember to call him 'sir'.
But she'd just now figured out the salient point from that experience. "They don't really mesh well, do they? Human nature yearns towards curiosity, towards free will. In the military, you have to rein that in when you accept another person's leadership over you."
"Self control." And from his sigh, Sam wondered if his thoughts were leading him back to the ice planet, too. "It really bites sometimes."
"And personal sacrifice. Being willing to do things that you would otherwise find despicable."
"Like being zatted on that moon." They had turned a corner, and moonlight illuminated a portion of his face now. She could see his grimace. "And running for the DHD so that the rest of us could get back to the 'Gate."
Snorting deliberately, O'Neill cocked a look in her direction. "Yeah—that worked out well, didn't it?" He turned his face towards the street, where a minivan was passing. "Teal'c had to save my sorry butt."
"He only could because you'd already drawn the swarm." She chewed briefly on her bottom lip before continuing. "It was painful—seeing you being zatted that way. Even knowing that it was the expedient thing to do."
"Militaristically the right thing to do."
"Yes." She stopped in the center of the path. "Just as zatting my body—twice—was the militaristically correct thing to do last week."
He stopped, then slowly pivoted. Sam knew that she was in the strategically weaker position—knew that her face, her every expression, was exposed in the moonlight, but she didn't care. She couldn't hide anything, anyway. "It was the right thing to do."
"It sucked." Vehemence dripped off his simple statement.
"Yes. And it was my fault."
He swallowed, adjusted his stance, then—finally—nodded. "It was. But you've still got no reason to apologize. I know what you are. Who you are. And you're what makes this team work."
"I'm the cause of its problems, usually."
He looked at her fully, and she felt the scrutiny of his dark eyes, rather than saw it. "Maybe. But you're also its soul."
And she found his expression to be one of bleak honesty. She looked down, at her feet.
"Look at me."
Slowly, she raised her gaze to his.
"I was angry at having to do it. I won't deny that." A strange expression flitted around his mouth, his eyes. "It wanted to kill us all—everything on the planet. And it wanted to use your body to do it. I couldn't let that happen. And it stood there, looking at me from out of your eyes, and I had to take the shot. Saw your body shudder, and fall, and I didn't know if you were still in there somewhere—but there was nothing else to do."
"Sir." She tried to respond, but he continued.
"And yes, it bothered me that you were so desperate to talk with it. I was annoyed that you were negating all your training—that you were blithely putting yourself in a position to be compromised."
"Yeah." He breathed out what could have been a chuckle, in different circumstances. "Hell of a euphemism."
A long pause punctuated her assent.
"I was pissed because it was such a hellish waste. Losing you that way."
She remained silent, sensing that he didn't want an answer yet.
"And whatever we would have learned wouldn't have been worth it. Wouldn't have been worth anything at all since it meant losing you." He looked away—another car meandered past, its headlights flashing around their legs. "I would have done anything to get you back. I would have sent the probes. Every damned one of them. I would have sat in a ship in space and blown the planet to Hell. I don't even care what you would have thought of me or my actions. And I'd do it again."
It occurred to Sam that he was making a confession to her. "Sir, you don't have to justify your actions."
"Sometimes I think that I do, Carter." He lowered his head. "You have this image in your head of me—you think that I'm one of the good guys."
"And I'm not." He spoke to a distant spot on the horizon rather than towards her. "Guys like me exist so that people like you and Daniel can afford to be idealistic."
She allowed his words—their meaning—to sink in, watching him in the shadows. He'd lived much of his life there, performing acts that she frankly didn't want to confront. The world of the SGC, she knew, was far removed from that of special ops—from covert missions where nothing stood in the way of success. Or no one.
And his efficient lethality allowed her to take chances scientifically.
That little epiphany had its price, too. She wondered if she would be so eager, next time, to jump into something unknown, knowing that it might require another piece of his soul as payment.
And Euronda flew back into her mind, standing on the ramp as the iris closed behind him. She'd mistaken the Colonel's expression as horror, as sorrow for what had happened.
But she knew now that he'd been painfully exposed in that moment—that the full measure of his capability had been laid bare. And he'd been asking her—silently—to understand him. To know that no matter what kind of technology the Eurondans could have given them, its source had tainted it. Like the diamonds out of the slave mines in Africa. Tempting, but filthy. So he'd accepted the blood on his own hands—to keep Earth from being stained with all that hatred.
"Look at what I am," he'd been saying, "And see if you still trust me. See if you still respect me. Look at what I am capable of doing."
Sam closed her eyes against the image, mentally shaking herself back in to the present. "That's not true, sir." And when Carter caught his eye, she saw the skepticism in his whole being. "Men like you exist because you're survivors. And because you do what it takes."
He made a sharp, guttural noise of dissent.
"You do what the rest of us can't. Or won't. And somehow you keep your sanity, and your humanity. And we owe you too much. More than we can repay."
"For sacrificing so much of yourself for all of us." She hesitated. "For me."
"I would have done it for any of you."
"I know." She tilted her head. "Like you said, you're here to balance out people like Daniel and me. To save us from ourselves."
"Yes, well, we all play our part."
"We do." And on pure impulse she reached out and touched his arm, sliding her hand down until her fingers hooked on the pocket of his jacket. It surprised her, how badly she needed this—to feel the life exuding from another human being. Needed to show him in some way what she was feeling—but words seemed inadequate to say that she understood—appreciated—accepted the vagaries of their lives. "Sir, I—"
He withdrew his hands from his pockets, and she suddenly found herself engulfed by him—her face pressed against his shoulder, his arms firmly around her body. Her own arms wrapped around his waist, her hands flat on his back underneath his jacket. She felt him breathe deeply next to her ear, and closed her eyes at the warmth—the life she felt coursing through him—through herself. She could count his heartbeats in the dark quietude that descended around them, could feel him breathe.
And in the complexity of the moment, she knew that she wouldn't fear the silence again. The voices were gone, the terror had fled. In this moment, she had no reason to doubt. And when he dipped his face into the curve of her neck, his large body finally relaxing, she realized that he'd been needing it too—needed the simple touch of another person. It was simple, this sharing of life, and healing, and comfort. Pure, and profound. Remarkable that such a touch could accomplish so much.
As another car passed, he stirred, raised his head, his voice low in her ear. "So, are we okay?"
Carter pulled away, looking up at the Colonel's still shadowed face. "Shouldn't I be asking that question?"
By some unspoken mutual choreography they turned and started walking back towards her house. Closer now, their arms swung close enough to bump. She counted eight steps before a shove at her shoulder jostled her.
She grinned, found herself able to cock a brow. "So, are we okay?"
The Colonel nudged her again with his shoulder. "That depends."
"Oh?" Her grin slipped somewhat. "On what?"
He caught her gaze, his expression one of exaggerated solemnity.
"Well first of all, it depends on whether or not you're going to share that salsa."