He'd gone outside, his long strides eating up the hallway. Glinda watched out of the corner of her eye as the door had opened, and then shut behind him, heard his tread fall on the stone steps outside. Pressing her lips together, she shoved all the flowers into the vase and rinsed her hands at the sink, drying them on a towel hanging from the handle of the oven door.
She could see him outside through the glazed windows in the door. Standing at the gate, the plastic mug sitting on the narrow wall between the postage-stamp yard and the parking area. Arms folded across his chest, he was staring into the rhododendrons as if expecting them to start spouting advice at any moment. Girding her loins, Glinda pushed the handle of the door and opened it, then stepped outside.
The yard wasn't large, but it was sweet—a small tree sat on the far edge, shading a patch of grass that was surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges. The General himself had laid out the stone pavers from the steps to the gate, Glinda distinctly remembered his knee protesting the labor, and a period of time when he'd limped around the office grousing about it. She also recalled, however, his reasoning. That his wife had a thing about pavers—that she loved the look of them. And that, apparently, had been reason enough for his personal sacrifice. It had made him happy, she recalled, when Sam had mentioned that she liked the change on her first night back. So in the end, sacrificing his knee had been worth it.
Glinda had to admit, as she moved across the stones, that she agreed. They were a lovely addition to the home. The General's frown, however failed to incite the same response. Ignoring it, she motioned towards the plastic cup on the wall. "Did you want me to fill that for her?"
O'Neill turned his head to pillory the mug with a glare. "If you want to."
"Okay." Glinda stepped closer. "Does she take lemon?"
"No—just some of the filtered water in the pitcher."
"A little." The General stretched out his arm and grasped the cup in his large hand. "You know what? Don't worry about it. I'll get it for her."
"I can do it, sir." Glinda held out a hand. "I'm here to help in whatever way I can."
"Nah—I've got it."
"Are you sure?"
His silence spoke most clearly. Ducking his head, he squinted down at his shoes.
"Sir, if I may ask—"
"I'm just trying to help, you know?" He spoke more to himself than to her. "She's so damned stubborn."
Glinda found herself squelching her inner ironic bent. "Isn't that part of why you're with her?"
"Well—yeah. And she's usually right." He hooked his index finger through the mug's handle and swung it gently. "But in this one thing, I know more than she does."
"Babies." O'Neill blew out a breath. "I was married before."
"I know." Glinda nodded. "You told me."
"Sara and I had a son. Charlie." A hint of a smile skimmed across his features. "He was—he was everything."
Was. Glinda furrowed her brow, glancing up at her boss. He was back to looking into the rhododendrons, his mouth a quizzical curve that denoted both remarkable joy and unbearable sadness.
"Sara's one of those people that reads self-help books, you know?" He peeked up at her from underneath his short brown lashes. "When she got pregnant, she read all the manuals, took all kinds of classes, and talked to anyone and everyone about the best ways to do things."
"It sounds like she is an admirable mother."
"She was—she was great." Leaning back against the gate, the General swiped a hand under his nose. "It never failed to amaze me, how she managed. I was gone most of the time, and she somehow made up the difference. She was—"
Glinda waited, watching as O'Neill searched for the right word—the right emotion.
"Well, she was damn near perfect."
Patiently, the secretary stood on the pavers, still, and quiet.
"Charlie was born a little early—he was pretty tiny, and had a hell of a time eating. By the time he was a week old, Sara was pretty torn up." He tilted his head in a wry motion. "She stuck it out, though. Stubborn—you know?"
"It appears that you attract women with hearty amounts of that particular commodity." She'd said it practically before she'd thought it, and the General's raised brows illustrated his surprise as well as her own. "I'm sorry, sir—I can't imagine where—"
"No—you're right, Pinky." The corner of his mouth edged upwards. "Any woman who can put up with me—" He ended with a subtle flaring of his eyes.
"You hang on to her."
"As best I can." That poignant smile was back. "But the point is that I've done this baby thing before."
The year they'd been working closely had led to a mutual ability in non-verbal communication. She'd understood him completely. "So, you have some experience in these matters."
"I do." Nodding, he raised both hands to his eyes and rubbed at them. "But Sam doesn't want to hear it."
"I don't know, really." O'Neill shook his head. "Maybe because it's experience I had with my first wife? Maybe she's got some problem with that."
"Or maybe she's not comfortable hearing about her." Glinda straightened up. "Have the two of you talked about Sara?"
He paused long enough to plunk the cup back down on the wall. "They've met."
He raised his head, his face contemplative. "Years ago. At least ten. Twelve. I don't know—it was a long time ago."
Glinda pressed her lips together, thinking. "Does she know why you're not together anymore?"
"Yes." Succinct. He didn't elaborate.
"Perhaps she just needs some time."
"What, to listen to me?" Jack frowned. "And in the meantime, she's going to keep trying it her way, and be in pain."
"What exactly is the problem?"
"With her or me? Because I can give you a list, at the moment—"
"No, General." Glinda's gray curls gave a little shake. "With the feeding issues."
"Oh." The General straightened, fixing Glinda with an assessing look. "It's all about angles. Sara had a hard time only on one side with Charlie, too. She switched her hold to what they call the football hold. Where the baby's feet point towards the back and his body is under the arm. When they eat that way, the angle is different, and it relieves the pressure, and lets stuff heal up—around—there. Sara did it for about a week, and then she was fine to return to the traditional hold."
Glinda's eyes flew wide. "My goodness. Who would have guessed that? You do know what you're talking about."
"Like I said. This isn't my first rodeo."
"Only, Sam won't listen."
"She's tired. And sore." The General scratched at his jaw, his throat. "And she's used to knowing the answers. So, this has got to be frustrating for her."
From out of nowhere, a doorbell rang in her pocket. Glinda's hand flew to cover the device, vibrating as it was against her hip, even as the General's right eyebrow—the scarred one—lifted itself practically to his hairline.
"I'm sorry, sir." She lowered her hand and inserted it into her pocket, grasping the tricky little gadget and pulling it free. "I seem to have just received a text message."
"Texting, Pinky?" He could not have looked more surprised had he tried.
"Why, yes, sir." Swallowing, she peeked at the outer screen of the phone, and then had to force back a blush. "I find it a most convenient method of communicating those little bits of information that might not merit an entire phone conversation."
"Really." The General tilted his head to look at her screen. Foiled, however, he canted his gaze back up at her. "And who, might I ask, is sending you their most important bits?"
"Well, a friend, actually."
"And would this friend have a name?"
Glinda found herself quite unable to decide if the General was being naturally curious or if he was just seizing the opportunity to be nosy. Either way, she turned the phone inward, towards herself, shielding the screen against her body. Feeling heat creep up into her throat, she pasted a calm look on her face before answering. "It's William, if you must know."
"William." His lip twitched. "Sir William McBean?"
Over the past few days, she'd become used to his tweaks about William. But just on principle, Glinda refused to grace them with an answer. Instead, she slid the phone back into her pocket.
"No, please, Pinky." He threw his palm towards her. "Go ahead. Answer your text."
"Well, first I would have to read it, wouldn't I?"
"I'm not stopping you."
"It can wait, sir." She held out her hand for the cup. "Why don't you take a little walk? Get some air."
For a long time, he stood silent, hand at his sides, his body still. He was a man who normally radiated either power or humor, but now? Not quite defeat—but somewhere rather near it. Resignation? Acceptance? Overwhelmed exhaustion?
She couldn't quite pinpoint it, so she said the one thing she'd been thinking for the past few weeks. "I think that she is a lucky woman, to have you in her life."
He snorted, his shoe scuffing on the stone at his feet. "She's something. I'm not so sure about 'lucky'."
"Blessed, then." Glinda moved closer, reaching around him and grasping the cup. "It will work out. After all, it's just a single issue. There are many more things that could be going wrong—things so much more worse than this." Somehow, she knew that he'd experienced some of those things.
His teeth flashed. "Why Pinky. Are you telling me I'm being a boob?"
"Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying." On an impulse, she leaned up and kissed him soundly on his stubble-roughened cheek. And then, surprised at her own daring, she took several steps backwards. "But you're a good boob."
She'd left him there and reentered the house. Standing in the hallway, Glinda removed the phone from her pocket and opened the cover, pushing the appropriate button that allowed her to retrieve her new message. As she'd expected, it was from William. He was the only one who had sent her any text messages so far. Of course, he'd also been the one to teach her to utilize the text messaging capability in her new phone in the first place. Quite patiently, as a matter of fact, over coffee and muffins in a cafe a few steps from the cellular store. His large, confident hands had looked out of place on the tiny Qwerty keyboard, but he'd handily set up her contacts database and then, in a fit of absolute cheek, had assigned himself the first speed dial designation.
She hadn't yet had time to change that. Nor the inclination—but that wasn't the point, now, was it?
Hello, friend. He had started all of his messages in exactly that manner. How's the magnet?
Glinda grinned, pressing the "OK" button with her thumb and clicking into a response screen.
Hello, Bean. She typed. Benjamin is wonderful. How was church? There had been a meeting of the Aid Auxiliary at his congregation. Glinda stared at the message for a beat before adding a bit more. What remedy would you suggest for nursing pain?
And then her thumb hovered over the button just for a beat before she pressed 'Send'.
Sliding the phone back into her pocket, she crossed to the sink and popped the lid off the mug, running a little water inside it to rinse it out. A few steps took her to the refrigerator, where she filled the cup, then added a little ice. Snapping the lid back on and situating the straw, she turned and made her way out of the kitchen, through the dining room, and then in to stand next to Sam's chair.
Benjamin had completed his meal. Sam sat back in the depths of the chair with him propped on her shoulder, her long, elegant fingers thrumming on his back. Eyes closed, she was rocking herself with one foot on the floor, the other tucked up under the opposite knee. As Glinda drew near, Sam opened her eyes and watched her, smiling tiredly at the water.
"Thank you, Glinda."
"I'm sorry it took so long."
"Please don't apologize." She reached her unladen hand over and grasped the mug, taking a long draw from the straw. "We're a little out of sorts at the moment."
"It's understandable, given the situation."
"Jack told you?"
"I inferred most of it." Glinda found one of the Queen Anne chairs against a wall and pulled it over to sit near the Colonel. "It wasn't too difficult."
Sam's eyes glistened for a moment, before a rapid spate of blinking cleared things up. Her teeth worried at her bottom lip as she studied the ceiling.
"If you don't want to discuss it, I'd quite understand." Glinda looked down at her sensible shoes. "It's just that it's often helpful to share your burdens with someone else."
"It's just messier than I thought it would be."
Glinda considered this before answering. "How, exactly? Besides this particular difficulty."
Sam pressed her cheek to her baby's crown, brushing gently against the softness of his hair. "I can't really explain it. It's almost like I'm not cut out for this. That no matter how well I can function in other areas of my life—"
Glinda leaned forward on her chair. "It's not as easy as it seemed." Those glorious blue eyes clouded over, and Glinda felt a tug somewhere inside. "Well, Samantha. For what it's worth, I can't imagine anything that you can't do. And I've read some pretty incredible reports, you know."
Sam choked out a snort. "But that stuff was logical. And I could shoot whatever didn't work right."
"And this part of life is illogical and needs some special maintenance." Glinda lowered her chin. "And there's no shooting allowed."
"Exactly." Her rocking paused for a moment. "And I don't know if it's all hormonal, or just the lack of sleep, or the discomfort, or what—but I just feel like I'm failing at this whole 'Mommy' thing."
Sitting back in the chair, Glinda offered nothing more than a gentle smile. "And your husband? How does he fit in there?"
Sam pressed a kiss to her child's head, his fine hair blustering about with the warmth of her breath. Glinda watched as the Colonel thought about the question, watched her brows first furrow and then rise. Realized the moment that Sam had found her answer.
"He's done it before, you know."
"He told you."
Glinda shrugged. "Not much, really. Just the fact that there was, once, another family. Another baby boy."
"And another wife." The flat tone of her voice offered the true response.
"Sara." Glinda folded her hands on her lap. "Her name was Sara. It's helpful to confront things using their real names."
For the first time, Sam's lovely face relaxed a little. "Like Voldemort?"
"Exactly." For a moment, things felt a little lighter. "Although I doubt Harry Potter ever dealt with these sorts of issues."
"No. And he had that wand thing, anyway." Sam shook her head, her wild blond hair sticking on the upholstery of the chair. "I didn't know Jack had told you about Sara."
With a single nod towards the back door, Glinda offered affirmation. "It was just now. I'd known about the marriage, but I didn't know her name."
"She was really a great person—and so good for him. We met just once." Sam started the rocking again, using the ball of her foot and her toes to propel her softly backwards. "There was an—issue. And Sara came to be with Jack. It was obvious that he still loved her. Sometimes I wonder if—"
The words hovered there—heavy—as if an anvil had suddenly taken flight. Refolding her hands, Glinda observed the struggle that played across the young mother's face before finally leaning forward and bringing the leaden words back to earth. "If he's still in love with her."
"I would think that he would be still, a little." Glinda decided that truth would serve more than whitewash in this particular circumstance. "After all, she did give him a child. And only a heartless man could stop feeling something for a woman who has done that."
"I don't think she was as needy as I am about all this."
"I'm sure she struggled, too." Glinda leaned forward. "But the fact that the General still holds on to that affection only says that he's loyal, and caring, and that he's capable of great, great love."
Those blue eyes closed for just a moment. "Yes. He is."
"And that he might know a little something about other things than yo-yos and explosives."
Her lips curved. "The stupid thing is—I know that. But for some reason, hearing him give me advice just really ticks me off."
"Because it's knowledge gleaned from a previous marriage?"
"No." Her expression was both apologetic and self-effacing. "Because he's a man."
"Ah—hence the plumbing comment."
Sam looked somewhat sheepish. "And he's just so easy with it all. Ben poops, and Jack just changes him. I'm too busy wondering how many times a normal baby poops in a day, and how much, and how exactly to quantify the levels of poop to make sure that he's pooping exactly the optimum number of times for a healthy digestive tract."
"Well, you are a scientist."
But the Colonel barreled on. "And the feeding thing—I never know how much he's getting. He eats until he's done—but what if it's not enough?" She gestured vaguely towards her chest. "It's not like there are gauges that tell me if they're empty or full. Jack is—better—with this stuff than I am."
"And that bothers you?"
Sam started blinking again. "No—and that's the stupid thing. He's such a great dad. He's been so—exactly what I've needed—"
Glinda merely sat and waited. The pause stretched for a while, until Ben squawked and mewled and Sam made a subtle shift in her position until he quieted again.
"I sometimes think that I'm the one that is useless around here. And if I give up with breastfeeding—" She closed her eyes, apparently unable to finish her thought.
So Grandma did it for her. "You're afraid that you'd become somewhat superfluous?"
Sam's nod coincided exactly with another doorbell ringing in Glinda's pants. For a bare moment, they both frowned, Sam glancing at the door, while Glinda retrieved the phone from her pocket.
"It's my phone, Colonel." She held it up. "I've recently been introduced to the joy of text messaging."
For all her enumeration of the differences between herself and her spouse, Sam's face exactly mirrored Jack's as she took that in. "Really?"
"Yes. I find that it is ever so much simpler to pass on small bits of information than it is to become embroiled in an entire conversation by telephone."
"It is." Sam grinned. "And it's Bean, isn't it?"
Glinda inclined her head slightly. "Yes, it is indeed William."
"So, is he asking you out?"
He'd already done so, but Glinda merely flipped the top on the phone and pressed the appropriate button rather than divulge that particular tidbit. "Hello, friend." She read out loud. "Church was boring. Too much chatting, not enough doing. Have Sam try the football hold. About a week oughta do it."
"So, I take it he knows."
"I felt he might be an appropriate source of information." Glinda flipped the lid closed. "Even though he's not plumbed correctly, either."
Sam ducked her head. "So, you're saying I need to stop being so pig-headed and just accept the fact that I don't know everything?"
"I'm saying that we all need to stop and listen sometimes."
For a period of time, the only sound was the sound of the chair rocking, the slight puff of the baby breathing. Glinda considered the conversation, the situation. Thought about these two complicated people and their suddenly more complicated issues. And it occurred to her that Sam had already found her answer to one particular problem—she just didn't know it.
"About the gauges."
Sam's embarrassed frown was answer enough.
"I've been thinking that we don't have them in many places that we need them." Glinda caught her companion's eye. "And just like you're worried that Ben might not be getting enough food because you can't see how much he's had, none of us can see exactly what our reserves are, can we? In regards to love, I mean. There's no gauge on the heart. No full meter. We just know how we feel, and whether it's enough for us. But unlike milk, love increases as you spread it around. You didn't lose any for the General when you started giving it to Benjamin. And just because he might still hold a place in his heart for others, it doesn't lessen what he feels for you and Ben."
The baby squirmed again, and Sam stopped rocking long enough to attend to him.
"In fact, it makes it stronger—because he knows what's possible. How much happiness is within his grasp."
"Even as stubborn and childish as I'm being?"
"Oh." Glinda stood. "I'd say especially as stubborn and childish as you're being." Bending, she handily picked the baby up from his spot on his mother's shoulder, turning him towards her own. "Now. I'd say this little man needs a change, and then he needs some Grandma time."
Sam straightened her clothing and stood. "Are you sure?"
"Of course." Glinda looked down at the little face nestled against her blouse. "I've been waiting for my turn for a while."
"All right. Thanks."
With a pointed nod at the back door, she raised a brow. "Why don't you go outside and get a little air? You look like you might need some."
Sam extended her hands at her sides. "What I need is a bath."
"Well" Glinda turned towards the stair case, then turned an audacious look at the Colonel. "If you're lucky, it just may be that the General knows how to help you with that, too."
And as she went up the stairs, she smiled as she heard the back door swing wide.