Eating Elephants

(Scene insert for Redemption Part 1)

Angsty fluff ahead. Be ye therefore warned.

"How long has it been since you slept?"

She looked to her left, to where the Colonel sat opposite her in the back seat of the motor pool SUV. Through the dark-tinted glass over his shoulder, the late morning sun glinted off his dark glasses, and highlighted the deep lines of worry that had gathered around his eyes and mouth.

"About as long as you, sir." She turned her head back to her own window, and the road, trying to follow the trees that lined the highway with eyes that refused to focus. "Enough. I'm fine."

He grimaced, the tilt of his head indicating his level of disbelief. "I'm betting you haven't had any shut-eye since this whole thing started."

Her pause was too long, and when she spoke, the tremble in her voice blatantly belied her words. "I'm fine, sir."

He rolled his eyes, and she knew he deserved more. But it was all she had to offer in a situation that had so far been a complete disaster and would seemingly only become more so.

"Carter." Soft—subtle. That tone often seemed more obtrusive than his yelling.

Her head dropped down to where her hands had folded themselves in her lap. "Thirty-ish hours."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his head shake, saw his frown deepen.

"Why don't you try to rest now?" He shifted in his seat, bracing his right instep against the back of the console between the two front buckets. "We've got a while before we're back at the mountain."

"Yes, sir." She turned back towards the window on her right, and the trees that whizzed past.

But they both knew that she wouldn't. Couldn't. Not with a 'Gate that gathered energy every second, and exactly nothing in the hopper to stop it. Not with a world about to end. She refolded her hands, then stretched her fingers out and laid her palms on her thighs, rubbing them towards her knees and back again in a vain attempt to bring some warmth back to her frigid skin.

In the front seat, the driver sat stoically—his uniform pristine and perfectly creased, his dark glasses giving him an air of cold anonymity. He'd turned the radio on—although he'd tweaked the speakers so that all of the sound emerged in the front cabin. Only a faint residue of music spilled over into the back seat—a bass, and some guitar, and every once in a while, a voice twanged rather than sang. Country. Or Honky-tonk. Sam could never tell the difference, although Janet had assured her that there was one.

Sam peeked at her CO from under her eyelashes, only to see him still watching her. Their eyes met with a clash—and the Major instantly looked away, only to be drawn back to his tight expression, his inscrutable gaze. And the question she'd needed to ask burgeoned up—impossible to quell.

"Why did you volunteer?"

His brown eyes narrowed. "What?"

"You volunteered. To go with me to the Asgard." She hazarded a glance at the driver in the rear view mirror, and saw that he had started mouthing the words to the current song. Lowering her voice, she continued. "You've been injured. You should have taken the opportunity to try to heal up more. You didn't have to come with me."

The Colonel sighed. "I don't know. It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Sam felt her eyes widen, found something between a smile and a scowl making its way to her lips. "Okay."

They fell into a brief silence, eventually broken by a harsh sigh from Colonel O'Neill.

"I figured you wouldn't want to go alone." He shrugged, the motion completely at odds with the brooding look he threw at her. "I thought you might like some company on the trip."

She raked her bottom lip with her teeth—stalling as she considered his answer. "A few minutes in hyperspace? Not much of a trip."

"I know." His answer came quick, and easy. Simple.

"Not much to accompany."

"Nope."

"Then—why would you want to drive all the way there, and then sit in that cramped 302 when you could have just stayed on base?"

"It was something to do."

Carter looked away. Back out the window to her right, where the trees still whizzed past, barely registering in her mind.

She had been so certain that the plan would work—go off without a hitch. She'd run simulations and troubleshot until the scenarios had become so ridiculous that they'd seemed impossible. Approaching the General with her idea to take the spacecraft to the Asgard had been easy—she'd felt constructive and optimistic. Eager to prove her science right.

And then he'd volunteered.

Why had that been so jarring? They'd practically lived in each other's pockets over the past few years, after all. And since Daniel had—what?—ascended? died?—they'd become something else. Something—closer.

Not that they'd comforted each other—because they'd said nearly nothing about Daniel in weeks. Their former team member's absence was as studiously ignored as Jonas Quinn's omnipresence was tolerated. But then something would happen and her eyes would be drawn to the Colonel's, and Sam would know—just know—what Daniel would have said, how he would have reacted. And she knew that the Colonel was thinking exactly the same thing in those moments. It was like they were filling holes in each other's hearts—fixing rifts with memories.

Poignant to the point of pain.

Carter brought a hand up to her face and rubbed with two fingers at the bridge of her nose. Headache. Brought on by fatigue or by excessive concentration? She couldn't tell, and really didn't care. But she'd already taken the meager supply of aspirin she'd had in her flight gear, and the mountain was still a good distance away. Long ago, a college roommate had taught her some pressure points in her hand that would help eliminate the pain, but she couldn't remember where they were. Why had she forgotten that? Too touchy-feely? Too unscientific?

She heard an odd noise and realized that it came from her own throat.

"Don't over-think this, Carter."

"You mean, don't read into this more than there is."

"It's like that shaver thing, remember?"

She felt the corner of her lip jerk. Nodding, she found the correct reference. "Occam's razor?"

"That's the one." He gestured with one hand. "Simplest answer's the right one."

"Not always."

"But sometimes."

Sam looked sideways at him. "You just wanted to get away from the Russians."

"Ooh—too simple." His grin was immediate, but anemic. Sincerity without spirit. "But thanks for playing."

She didn't answer, him, just watched as he glanced up at the driver, as he turned his body slightly to face her.

"I can't just sit by." His voice emerged—like torn velvet—sleek, with roughness around the edges. "Waiting for stuff to happen. It drives me nuts. I would rather go and do something than just sit on my butt and watch."

Carter nodded, eyes still turned downward to where her hand rested on the seat beside her. "I know."

"So that's why I threw it out there. Signed on."

"A lot of good it did us."

"Yes. Well. Can't dwell, and all that, right?"

She pressed her fingertips into the leather of the seat, watching as the light changed around the indentations. It captured her attention briefly, and she mused without meaning to on the fact that stress changed things. Changed people. Push hard enough on something and eventually it would give. Press in around people too much and they often turned into something unrecognizable.

Some people wanted to act, and others were content to be acted upon. Sam, like the Colonel, felt the need to do something towards her own salvation—in that respect, she and her CO were completely in accord. In many respects, if she could stand to be honest with herself. Sometimes it shook her, how much she found of him in her own self.

And for the barest of moments, she was back in the glacier in Antarctica, climbing up the frozen, slippery shaft towards fresh air and possible rescue. Clear as day, she could hear the radio crackle in her ear, hear the words he'd spoken. "It's been an honor." And it had been, for these past years—the feeling mutual.

Random musings in a mind already so disjointed that it startled her. She searched for some link and wondered half-heartedly if she was flexible enough to withstand the forces currently pressing in around her. Or if she should just pack it in and call it a day. Because in Antarctica, that had meant lying down next to this man and waiting for the cold to take them.

"I wouldn't have wanted to be up there with anyone else." She screwed up her courage and glanced at the Colonel. "No one. Even though it didn't work. Because it didn't work."

And his nod was enough for her to be sure that the Colonel knew exactly what she'd meant. That if she were to die, she couldn't think of a better person with whom to perish.

Shifting, she leaned her head against the window—cool, smooth, it felt unnaturally soothing, the motion of the car lulling her into an uneasy reverie.

Fatigue confounded her. Exhaustion—more mental than physical. Her brain had been working so hard for so long that she wasn't certain which experiments and research she'd accomplished and which she'd merely planned out in her head. Reality and fantasy—actuality and theory.

Chaos amidst chaos.

The tension crept down her spine into her neck and across her shoulders, and she couldn't quite keep herself from responding—from rolling her head back and forward, trying to assuage the pain. Heat burgeoned beneath her eyelids—along with the mantra that had been screaming within her since she'd seen those print-outs and realized the ramifications.

Think. Think. Think.

Don't panic. She forced herself to breathe deeply—to gain control over her basic functions.

For the first time since she'd seen the 'Gate so many years before, she considered giving up. Admitting defeat. Throwing it in. It would be so easy—to simply let go. To find someplace comfortable and just sit and wait for the explosion that would signal the end.

"You okay?"

Her heart racing, she looked up at him. She knew her eyes were too wide, her cheeks flushed—knew that she must have looked as panicked as she felt. "Sir?"

But he merely asked again. "Are you okay?"

"I'm not sure."

"What are you thinking?"

She studied his face, his dark eyes regarding her without an ounce of irony. Completely absent of any of the detached indifference he normally carried within them. Hesitating, Carter glanced to where the driver had leaned forward and was fiddling with the radio. Turning back to the Colonel, she took a breath. "Do you ever think it would be easier if we just let the world end?"

"What, like give up?

"Yeah."

He removed his sunglasses with an impatient motion of his hand. "Let the bad guys win?"

"Yes, sir."

"Why would you think that?"

"We fight so hard—we do so much. We go out into the universe through the 'Gate and we get our butts kicked, and we lose so many people—"

"It's what we do. It's our job."

"I know. But we aren't winning."

"But we're still fighting. We're making progress."

Sam's eyelids fluttered in a drained sigh. "Not enough. There's still so much to do."

The SUV rumbled up a hill and then around a wide curve in the road. They'd transitioned from highway to freeway—trees replaced with metal guard rails and cement barriers.

"You know what they say about elephants."

She didn't answer, merely waited as the vehicle wended its way down an exchange and then onto an off-ramp.

He leaned further back into his seat. "You eat them one bite at a time."

She smiled—a thin attempt at best. "Trouble is, I'm not sure there will be any elephants left after this is all over."

"Well, then, we'll just have to make sure that we win this one."

The SUV turned, jolting to one side, and Sam looked past the Colonel and out the window to see Cheyenne Mountain. The driver slowed down at the security checkpoint, and then accelerated as the barrier arm lifted, proceeding into the parking area.

Slowing considerably, the driver twisted his head slightly around. "Do you want me to drop you off at the entrance, sir?"

O'Neill shook his head, pulling his attention deliberately away from the Major. "No, thanks. Just find a place wherever. I could use some exercise."

"Yes sir." The young man swung the big vehicle around the end of a lane of parked cars, then gunned the engine towards the back of the lot. "We missed the lunch rush, sir. Most of the lot's still full. "

"Just park where you can, son." With a glance towards Sam, the Colonel lifted his hand to adjust his glasses where they hanged by a temple at the neck of his shirt. "And like I said, we've been sitting for most of the past day. I'd like to work out a few kinks."

The SUV lurched to a halt, and the driver immediately turned the key and quieted the engine. Turning fully in his seat, he lowered his glasses to peer at his passengers over the frames. "I've got to get this beast back to Motor Pool, sir, but first I've got to hit the head." Abashed, he smiled weakly at the Major. "Beg your pardon, ma'am."

She waved his apology off as he continued.

"And we're parked really close to the car on your side, Major. Sorry about that. Full lot, you know, Ma'am."

"No matter. She can get out on my side. Go." O'Neill waved in dismissal, then placed his fingers on the handle of his door. "We'll get our gear and lock up."

The driver slid out of his seat and slammed the door shut behind him, Carter watched as he rounded the front of the SUV and headed towards the entrance, pocketing the keys as he went. Leaning forward, she grasped the handle of her flight bag and pulled it from where it had lain between her feet to rest on her lap.

Opening the door, the Colonel climbed out—stiff—and then paused on the ground and grimaced. Bracing himself against the door of the SUV, he took a deep breath.

"Sir." She wound the handle of the duffle around her hand and scooted over to his side of the vehicle. "Do you need any help?"

"No." He scowled down at his leg. "Just give me a minute."

"Are you sure? I can—"

"Carter."

She quieted, then waited for a few long beats before scooting past him and hopping down. "I can help you walk."

"I'm just a little stiff, Major, I don't need a medic."

"Well then, how can I help you?"

Slinging the flight bag over her shoulder, she turned towards him. They stood close—no more than a foot separated their bodies. Fenced in by cars on two sides, the door behind the Colonel, their position felt intimate. Too private.

And then she felt a little sweep against her fingers—a slide of skin on skin. Roughened fingertips against the sensitive outer edge of her palm. Merely a bump—it could have been an accident, except that his touch lingered, hovered there—strong. And the warmth. Blessed heat when she herself felt so cold. Her mind stilled, capturing the sensation, savoring it.

"I know you're worried."

"I'm really terrified, sir."

"We'll pull it out. We always do."

She looked down at her boots. "We're so hopelessly outnumbered. And their knowledge—their access to the technologies out there is so far beyond our own. This current situation is beyond my capability to even understand, let alone resolve."

"You'll do it." Quiet conviction. His tone showed his absolute belief in her abilities.

"How do you know that, sir?"

"Because I know you."

Her eyes flitted upward and then held on his—deep, dark, unreadable. Intense. And coupled with the heat of his skin on hers—she felt a surge in her core—a warmth that radiated from a place so long dormant that she'd forgotten it existed. Faith—she would have called it once upon a time. A quickening of spirit inspired by the simple knowledge that someone else trusted so completely in the possibility of her success.

"I appreciate that, sir." She made the first tentative movement of her own fingers—it could have been incidental. Two colleagues, deep in conversation. Digits grazing each other. With her thumb, she could feel the coarse hair on the back of his hand. Felt his hand turn towards hers, his palm open to her.

But it meant nothing—and certainly wasn't the reason her breathing had suddenly grown choppy.

His voice flowed between them—subdued. "And about what you said earlier."

"Which part?"

"About quitting."

She nodded. "Sir?"

"No matter how impossible the situation seems, I'll never just concede defeat."

"Sometimes I think it would be easier."

His touch on her hand grew more deliberate, his callused fingers threading between hers. Their palms came into full contact, and she felt a tiny shock radiate up her arm to ricochet through the rest of her.

"If you give up on one thing, then you give up on everything."

"I don't know how to fix this." She shook her head, and then fell silent as his touch suddenly became anything but accidental. She found her hand totally engulfed by his—hard—profound—hot.

"Maybe not now. But you will. We will."

Sam leaned forward—towards his broad body, tugged perhaps by their linked fingers. She didn't know, and it really didn't matter. But she was grateful for it—thankful that he seemed to know that she needed this right now. Needed to remember her own humanity in order to save it.

And the insane thought rushed through her head that this—this—was what her life would be without victory. A furtive touch that may or may not have been accidental. A frantic moment of something meaningless that would somehow be that which supported her through months of celibacy.

"How can you be sure?"

"Because if we don't figure this out—then there's nothing left. No possibility of anything more than this." He took a tiny shuffle of a step towards her, crowding her with his body, and she felt his breath stir the hair on her temple. "And that's not acceptable."

"So that's why you came with me?"

"And that's why we're going to go into the mountain and get back to work."

But it felt as if she had put down roots—her feet refused to move. She breathed deeply—took him in—that element that was essentially him. Her eyes fell closed as he moved even closer, as her forehead touched his collarbone. As his thumb traced an arc on the responsive skin of her inner wrist.

She shivered. Drew in a thin breath. Found pleasure in the touch—a hint of something less than innocent. A promise of something more.

"Is it worth fighting for?" He'd lowered his head, and she could feel his heat on her cheek.

And she nodded. Oh yes. The promise of that was worth it.

"I think so, too." He changed his posture—redistributing his weight on his bum knee before leaning close to her again. "And that's why I'm going to take you back into that mountain. And while you futz with whatever needs futzing, I'll stick around and make sure you're okay."

And it humbled her, his conviction. His absolute surety that she would succeed. His willingness to be there for her. She swallowed the lump that had arisen in the back of her throat and looked up at him. "Thank you, sir."

Slowly, he disentangled his fingers. Raising his hand to her shoulder, he urged her to turn around, and then they moved forward enough so that he could shut the door. The locks clicked as the door shut tight.

She readjusted her flight duffel over her shoulder, searching for composure as she waited at the bumper for the Colonel to move towards her. Then they set off through the parking lot towards the entrance to the Mountain in mutual silence. Because really, nothing else needed to be said just then.

At the elevator, he punched the button and then turned to study her.

She frowned. "Sir?"

"How's your appetite?"

As the elevator door dinged open, she stepped through it and angled her head to catch his gaze. "Excuse me?"

"I hope you're hungry." Following her into the lift, he carefully turned to look at her. Eyes wide, expression innocent, he leaned in towards her and nudged her shoulder with his own. "After all, you've got an elephant to eat."