In honor of Shipsgiving 2010 on Gateworld.
The Tao of Pie
Working through the holiday had seemed like a good idea at the time, although, in retrospect, he probably should have just gone to the cabin.
He should have piled his gear into his truck and headed out three days ago, before that snowstorm in Nebraska had closed down the US-83 through North Platte. He should have told Hammond that he'd be taking the leave he'd been offered, instead of volunteering to remain on base for Thanksgiving so that the General could fly to Florida with his daughter and her family. He should have followed Teal'c and Daniel as they'd traipsed their way through the 'Gate. He hadn't really been listening when Daniel had explained his myriad and sundry reasons for wanting to go to M34-whatever—there had been something about a ruined city on the moon where Bra'tac had hidden his band of rebel Jaffa, and writing on a rock, or a wall, or an outhouse. Daniel had been certain that he'd be able to learn something important there. Jack was fairly certain it would be quieter here with Daniel there.
Win-win. Or so he'd thought. Sometimes, 'quiet' wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
He should have gumptioned up his nerve and asked Carter what she was doing for the holidays instead of hiding whenever she'd crossed his path during the course of the past week. But then, he'd been doing a lot of avoiding over the past few months—ever since a certain decision had been made to leave a certain confession in a certain room. Somehow, the wheres and whys of turkey and cranberry sauce had paled in comparison to the what that had occurred there. And the why—well—he just wasn't going to go there. Denial was his friend.
Now, of course, going up to Minnesota wasn't going to be possible. He'd lost his time window, for one thing. And with the snow—well—not even his Super Duty could have plowed through that mess. Not to mention the little fact that he'd promised the General that he'd stick close to base just in case the world started on one of its regular spirals towards an ignominious end.
To be honest, he might prefer that it did. He was just in that kind of mood today—and figured it would get worse as the day wore on. Because working through holidays, to be precise, really sucked.
He'd said as much to Walter. Standing beside the little man in the commissary, ladling the mystery powder that passed for creamer into his coffee while the shorter man had filled a gargantuan mug with Dr. Pepper. Jack frowned as the technician had ducked his head to hide his grin.
"What are you smiling about?" O'Neill knew he sounded immature, but at this point, he was really beyond caring. Walter brought out his inner pubescence.
Teeth flashing in the unnatural glow of the commissary's fluorescent lighting, the little man blurted out a reply while simultaneously ignoring fact. "Nothing, sir. I'm not smiling."
"I can send you to the brig for lying, Walter."
"Yes, sir." Harriman's chin ducked tight against his chest. "I'm aware of that, sir."
"Then what was the smile for?"
"Nothing in particular."
Patience sucked, too. Almost as much as working on Thanksgiving. O'Neill sighed so that he wouldn't groan. "Walter. Are you going to make me drag it out of you?"
"Nope." Harriman took a deliberate swallow of his soda before peering up at the Colonel. "It's just that I was just about to sign out and go home."
For some reason, that sounded weird. "Oh?"
"Yeah. My mom and dad are in the Springs for Thanksgiving, and they've brought my little sister and her friend from college. And my cousin and his wife live in town—he's on staff over at the Academy. And then, of course, there's Colette."
Cats of the Cheshire sort chowing down on songbirds of the canary variety. That's what that particular smile said. Walter's glasses practically fogged over as he looked up at the Colonel. "Colette. Colette Townsend."
Jack wouldn't have asked, but his mouth was already open. "And she would be?"
O'Neill's frown deepened. He had to clear his throat. "Girlfriend?"
"Yeah—going on four months. We met on-line." Walter leaned back against the counter, lifting his drink again with a self-satisfied air that made Jack a little nauseous. With a conspiratorial smirk cast around the straw sticking out of his cup's lid, Harriman allowed a dimple to crease his boyish cheek. And then the little twit had the audacity to wink. "She's hot."
"You have a girlfriend?"
"A hot one."
"Well, crap." Jack stared down into his cup of coffee. "There's just something really wrong about that."
"Not if you're me." Harriman pushed himself away from the counter and looked up at the Colonel, his eyes wide behind the lenses of his glasses. "So, I guess I'd better get going, sir."
"Right. Home." Jack frowned. "To your family."
"And my girlfriend." And with a final salute of his cup, Walter turned smartly on the ball of his foot and hurried out the door and into the hall.
O'Neill glared at the technician until he'd turned the corner and left the Colonel's field of vision. Walter Harriman had a girlfriend? An actual female? An actual hot female? Jack let out a long breath, then raised his cup to his lips and took another sip. Damn holidays. And damn working through them, too. And, just for good measure, he damned hot girlfriends, too.
Sighing again, Jack made his way towards the door, his long strides taking him easily into the hall. It wasn't as if he usually spent his holidays in any special way. If anything, over the past few years he'd been sublimating the fact that holidays even existed. It wasn't like he had a plethora of family vying for his presence around their tables. His parents had died before he'd reached the ripe old age of thirty, and he'd been an only child. He had an aunt in North Carolina. She sent him a card every year on his birthday. He had two cousins—both around his age. One of them was a priest, and the other sold vegan health food supplements on-line. Who knew what to do with relatives like that?
But last year—his team had made a day of it. They'd celebrated at his house, pot-lucked the feast. He'd supplied the bird and the beer. A pleasant, easy gathering of friends. Congenial. Convivial. He'd sat across from Carter, who'd sat next to Teal'c, with Daniel on Jack's other side. It had been—a beginning, of sorts. When he'd realized with clarity that somehow, this group of people had become important to him—far more than just a team. When he'd suddenly looked over at a specific one and realized he'd wanted even more. And then he'd carefully tucked that knowledge away, packing it into storage along with his big roasting pan and the china he'd unearthed for the occasion. That sort of thing was only to be brought out when it was to be used.
At the end of the hall, Jack stopped in front of the elevator and pressed the 'down' key. It was tough to turn off knowledge like that—hard to make yourself stop wanting. The difference between the warm satisfaction of last year cankered in comparison with his current situation, wherein he had no family worth going to see, his best friends were either off-world or incommunicado, and Walter had a hot girlfriend.
And it was Thanksgiving again. He snorted as he looked down, swirling the coffee in his cup. What exactly was there to be thankful for?
The elevator dinged in readiness, and Jack leaned towards the opening only to stop short, the coffee sloshing in his cup. His eyes narrowed in recognition of the woman already inhabiting the car. Dark hair tucked behind her perky little ears, lab coat brilliantly white, she looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to acknowledge her. Ever obedient to that particular look, he cleared his throat. "I thought you went home."
"I was going. Am going. As soon as I'm done with this." Dr. Fraiser tapped the clipboard she held in the crook of her arm. "I have to do some paperwork preparatory for a patient's release."
Janet's answering smile was broad. "No. Although, I can understand why you'd say that. He practically lives in the infirmary."
"So, not Siler." Jack stepped across the threshold of the car and turned, carefully balancing his cup. "That's a surprise."
"Amazing, even. Perhaps it's a holiday miracle?" The little doctor's eyes grew wide. "Cassie's been begging for snow. Do you think we could wrangle two miracles in one week?"
"With the way things are going, that'd be pushing it, wouldn't it?"
"Probably." Dr. Fraiser glanced up at the numbers on the display. "And anyway, we're driving up north soon, so I don't want to deal with snow just yet."
O'Neill took a long swallow from his cup. As the car came to a halt, he turned a speculative look on the Doctor. "Where you heading?"
She hadn't been expecting him to ask. Her look clearly told him that much. "Oh—uh—Wyoming."
He paused longer than was polite. "Why?"
"My grandparents live there. My whole family will be at their home. They live south of Cheyenne."
"Together for the holidays."
"Heck of a drive."
"A few hours, is all." Janet tipped her wrist and glanced at her watch. "As long as I can get out of here in the next hour, we'll be there before noon. Cassie can play with her cousins and watch the parades on TV while I make pies with my sisters and mom."
Jack's eyes widened, brows creeping upwards towards his hairline. Fraiser had sisters? Well, it stood to reason. In his vast experience of women in general, bossiness seemed to be compounded by multiplied quantities of estrogen. As the doors slid aside, he watched the little doctor click her way out of the car, then reached out and stopped the door from closing. "Pie. I didn't know you made pie."
"Well, I don't, usually." She lifted a shoulder, shaking her dark hair as she gave him half a grin. "Just on Thanksgiving. It's a sister thing."
"Oh." Jack nodded—as if that made perfect sense. "Well, you have fun, then, Doc."
"Thanks, Colonel." Turning, the doctor peered at the Colonel over her shoulder. "And you have a Happy Thanksgiving, sir."
He allowed the doors to slide shut on that thought. As the elevator lurched back into motion, Jack frowned. Happy Thanksgiving. Whatever. Switching his cup into his other hand, O'Neill sputtered out a sigh, his mood lowering even as the elevator car descended deeper into the mountain.
Damned Wyoming. Even if, for the most part, Janet Fraiser was all about her needles and tests, she was still cooler to have around than nobody at all. But she was off to the hinterlands, intent on watching some stinking parade and making pie. Then her family would probably gather around a table, hold hands during grace, and tell each other all the things they were thankful for. Thorough as she was, Doctor Fraiser would probably have made a list. With bulletpoints.
The only thing unspooling in O'Neill's head was a long line of things that had sucked already. Being alone. Working. Not being at his cabin. The image he wouldn't be able to shake of Harriman with a hot girlfriend. His lamentable lack of pie.
Because, quite frankly, he couldn't eat the pie on base anymore. Ever since Urgo had been sent back to his maker, the commissary pie had seemed so—well—mediocre. The coffee, on the other hand, had always sucked, so he'd had no illusions, there. He took another sip of the brew in his hand just to make sure. Oh yeah. Pure swill.
The doors opened again on the floor he'd originally selected. More dimmed halls, endless quiet corridors. He made his way towards a specific room, accompanied only by the sound of his own boots on the floor. He hadn't really planned to come down here—it was just where he'd ended up. At least, that's what he told himself. He certainly hadn't been hoping to find her there, hunched over some nifty gadget like the workaholic that she was. Hadn't wanted to see her grow sincere as she tried to explain some random bit of science that had gotten her almost unnaturally excited.
So, he really wasn't too upset that the lab was quiet, empty, and mostly dark. Wasn't too disappointed to find she'd already left. Or never come in at all.
And all of a sudden, he felt like a fool, standing there amidst the winky blinky arrays, holding a cooled cup of sludge, looking for someone who had long since become unavailable. To him, at least. He swiveled on his heel and fled. Went in search of something else—nothing in particular.
Up a level. Down some stairs. He checked the locks on the armories. Signed a form given to him by sergeant in Motor Pool. Refilled the cup in his hand as he passed a security station. Meandered. Wandered. Walked aimlessly before stopping at a door, where he took a moment to look around. He'd made it to the Control Room without thinking about it. With a glance at the silent, darkened 'Gate, O'Neill crossed the threshold, walking across the vacant room to the control terminals. A pair of junior 'Gate techs sat quietly talking, leaning back, comfortable and easy in their swivel chairs.
They snapped upright in their seats, speaking in unison. "Sir."
"As you were, people." O'Neill stood behind them, staring through the bullet-proof glass at the 'Gate. Was it juvenile to wish that it would gear up and start spinning? "Anything interesting happening?"
One of the techs, a tall, lanky kid with a face like a trout, shook his head. "No, sir."
"Not even a hiccup, sir." The other airman was shorter, broader, with dark hair cropped so close to his head that Jack could see his scalp. "Not since yesterday, when SG-11 came through."
So much for luck. Jack rocked backwards onto the heels of his boots. "Well, all the teams are home, so anyone dialing in would most likely be hostile."
"Or Jaffa." Tall-and-Lanky shrugged. "There are lots of good guys out there that know our number, sir."
Jack glared at the back of that fish-like head. "Yes, well. Just keep an eye out."
The other tech turned to peer at the Colonel, his lips curved in a cocky grin. "Just one, sir?"
"Watch it, airman."
Instantly contrite, the young officer swiveled in his chair to focus back on the 'Gate. "Sorry, sir."
Nodding, Jack swiveled and steered himself towards for the door. As he passed into the hall, he heard the stouter of the two techs whisper, "Wow. I thought he'd think that was funny."
"Yeah, well, you thought wrong, you moron."
Chunky Man sighed, the sound heavy in the quiet of the Control Room. "When's Hammond getting back?"
Fishhead's voice was low, but carried surprisingly well. "Not soon enough."
The Colonel pretended he hadn't heard them. It was better for everybody that way.
He'd eventually wandered up to the briefing room, entering without turning on the lights. He'd paused at the entrance for the barest of moments before aiming himself towards the side of the table he liked best—facing the 'Gate, in the exact middle. He'd chosen his favorite chair—then scooched down, reaching out to deposit his cup on the table before settling his arms across his chest. He felt like he was hibernating—holing up until this whole stinking day was over, and he could leave the mountain behind.
Go somewhere else. Somewhere that didn't suck.
The voice startled him, but he didn't need to look around to know who it was. "Yeah?"
"Am I interrupting anything?"
"I'm sorry, Colonel—I can leave—"
Jack sat up and turned to see the Major standing halfway through the doorway, a package in her hand. She looked—expectant. Expectant and a little hesitant. Unsure. Wary. He looked away, back towards the darkened room beyond the heavy glass. "It's all right, Carter. Come on in."
"I don't want to disturb you."
O'Neill lifted himself from his chair and motioned her forward with a tilt of his head. "You already have, though, haven't you?"
In the shadow of the doorway, her smile flashed bright white. "I guess you're right."
"So—in for a penny." He trailed off meaningfully, watching as she shifted slightly on her feet, her hair glinting golden in the light from the hallway outside the room. He couldn't tell what she was thinking—could only guess at what was going on inside that overactive head of hers. Could only imagine the second-guessing and analysis jumping around in that brain. He decided to make it easier for her. "What's in the box?"
It was pink. She looked down at it, her eyes wide. "Um—just something I picked up earlier."
"Are you going to show me?"
Something changed in her eyes—something clicked. Decision made, she met O'Neill's eyes and nodded. Propelling herself through the doorway, the pink box in one hand and a plastic shopping bag in the other, she strode directly towards where he stood.
"I thought you might have gone to spend the holiday with your brother."
"Mark?" Carter came to a stop next to the Colonel. "No. He and his family went on a cruise. To the Caribbean."
"You weren't invited?"
"I wouldn't have gone even if I were, sir."
Her shrug was more non-committal than nonchalance. "I don't know. Even though we've made up some ground, we're still not close yet."
She pushed the empty chair at his side out of the way and set the box and bag down on the table. It seemed to take her a long time to respond to his pronouncement. "I guess."
Jack watched as she busied herself with the items in the bag. She pulled out a tall can, and a few forks he recognized from the commissary. He held out his hand as she extended one to him. "So—is that what I think it is?"
"In the box?"
The corner of her mouth crept upward. "Well, I couldn't see doing this particular holiday without one."
O'Neill leaned forward and peered into the box as she held it out. He could smell it already. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. Unmistakable goodness. He bit back a grin. "Pie."
"Pumpkin pie." She set the box back down and busied herself with folding the lid back. "I didn't want to eat the whole thing on my own."
"Somehow, I can't see you gorging yourself."
"Oh—you'd be wrong there, sir." Fork in hand, Carter looked around, then frowned. "I forgot plates."
He glanced at the paraphernalia she'd taken out of the grocery sack. "And a knife."
"And a knife." She sounded resigned. "Well, at least I remembered the whipped cream."
"There's that, at least."
Misunderstanding him, she seemed to falter at his words. Her fingers tightened on her utensil, and she took a tiny step backwards. "I'm sorry, sir. This was a stupid idea."
She could never hide anything in those expressive blue eyes. She was nervous. And uncomfortable. And maybe as lost as he was—alone on base instead of anywhere else on a holiday notorious for family gatherings. Jack watched as she fumbled with the lid of the box again, simultaneously reaching for the bag with a hand still full of fork. The tines pierced the bag, tearing it open. Glaring down at the ruined plastic sack, the Major sighed. "Damn."
"It's not a big deal, Carter."
"I know—I just wanted to do something—" She breathed in, and then out, steadying herself. "Something special."
Jack merely waited. She fidgeted, licking her lips, staring down at the items scattered around the box. With a deliberate motion, she laid the fork down on the table, resting her fingertips on the smooth wood surface.
"I mean, it's Thanksgiving."
"You're supposed to be with family."
"At least, that's what the rules say."
Her lashes fluttered closed for a heartbeat, her dimples making creases in the smooth plane of her cheek. "Sir."
O'Neill could feel her discomfort—her body's radiated tension. She stood close—her elbow skimming his own. He could smell her unique perfume above the aroma of the pie in the pink box. Smell the shampoo she'd used that morning. He tried not to lean even more near. "You're right. It's kind of one of those holidays, isn't it?"
"But if you think about it, none of us except Teal'c really has a family—at least, not in the traditional sense."
"You have Mark."
"I do." Carter's smile was rueful. "But like I said before—we're not close. Things are still—awkward—with him."
"And your dad hasn't been around much, lately."
"No, he hasn't." Her gaze lifted towards the 'Gate before turning on him. "I thought he might—"
He waited, but she'd stalled. Raising his brows just a tidge, he prompted her to continue. "Thought he might what?"
"You know. Show up, maybe." Carter traced a mar in the surface of the table with her elegant index finger. "Come for the day, or something."
"So, that's why you didn't go with Fraiser?" Jack pressed his thumb along the back of the fork's handle. "You thought your dad might decide to make an appearance."
"So you gave up a sure thing, hoping for the improbable."
Carter winced. "Keep the faith, right? I can't just give up on what I really want."
Were they still talking about her father? O'Neill dared to look directly at her, to meet those wondrous eyes, with their stark, bare emotions. And another moment flashed between them—another instance from their shared past when those eyes were just as raw—just as pained—with a force field glinting between them, and death a breath away. He couldn't have left her then, either. Couldn't have given up. He understood that in her. "No. No, you can't."
She looked down at the can that sat on the table. "I mean. Not that it matters. It's just another day, right?"
"Yeah—but it's a day upon which normal people have placed a large amount of importance."
She bit out a little laugh. "But we're not normal people, are we?"
He turned towards her, so that his shoulder brushed hers. "No. We're not."
"So, why does it matter?" Soft, sincere, her voice seemed to pierce him. "Why do I want it to matter?"
"I don't know, Carter." The Colonel shook his head. "But I know that it does."
"I feel like we're providing a safe world for everyone else to live in—giving them the opportunity to have what they want, and need. All the while, we're denying ourselves those same things."
O'Neill resisted the urge to reach out and touch her. He thrust his hands into his pockets, instead. "That's just how it is. The strong protect those who can't do it for themselves."
She snorted lightly. "It sucks to be the strong one, sometimes."
"I've been telling myself that for a while, now."
So quiet. The air stilled around them, dense and heavy with things they'd spoken, and things they hadn't. O'Neill watched as Carter ran her thumb along the smooth pink cardboard of the box, as she ran her teeth along her bottom lip. She angled herself towards him, and when she spoke again, it was more a whisper than anything else. "I'm sorry. I wanted to cheer you up, and here I go, making things worse. I'm such a whiner."
He couldn't resist it, then—couldn't stop himself from offering her something in the way of comfort. Reaching to his side, he wordlessly rounded her shoulders with his arm, pulling her into himself. She came to him willingly, a little sigh escaping the back of her throat, her hand moving up to rest on his chest, just below his collarbone. A friendly hug, he told himself. Colleagues. Co-workers. So when his other arm made its way around her waist, and her body twisted to fully meet his, it didn't mean anything else, right? And when he dropped his face alongside hers, felt the silk of her hair catch in the stubble on his cheek, it wasn't evocative. He certainly didn't recognize the surge of heat that coursed through him as anything more than mutual kindness. It wasn't need. It wasn't a pulse of desire.
He could pretend that certain softnesses pressed against his body didn't truly register. That dropping his face further and skimming the curve of her neck with his lips didn't affect him. That he didn't feel her shudder in response, didn't feel her fingers tighten as they gripped his shirt. And he didn't need to damn himself for being ten kinds of a fool when he pressed her closer, only to realize how much he didn't want to let her go. Stupid—stupid. With an effort as gargantuan as Harriman's mug, he straightened and pulled himself away, trying not to look at her as he backed away from the cliff they'd nearly jumped off. Leaving, yet again, that room.
Pie, he told himself. Think of pie.
Her fingers untangled from his shirt. "I'm sorry, sir—"
"For what?" He tried for nonchalance. "That was—"
"If I weren't such a wuss today—"
"It's okay." He tossed her a little haphazard grin. "It happens to the best of us."
Carter turned and slid herself backwards onto the table, putting the pink box between them. Crossing her ankles, she looked up at him. "Somehow, I can't imagine you wallowing, sir."
"You might be surprised. I had a list going this morning."
"You did?" Her emergent grin was quizzical.
"I did." He glanced sideways at her. "And you know what was on it?"
"The fact that you're not in Minnesota right now?"
The Colonel snorted. "Besides that."
"The fact that you didn't have a decent piece of pumpkin pie to eat today?"
"Bingo." He sat himself on the table, balancing his feet on his chair. Stretching past her, he snagged the can of whipped cream, thumbing the lid off and poising it over the pie. "You're not on a diet, are you?"
"It's Thanksgiving, sir,"
"I'll take that as a 'no'." With a flourish, he triggered the nozzle, and covered the top of the pie with a thick layer of frothy white. "There you are. Dig in."
"That's just so wrong, sir." But she still lowered her fork for a massive helping.
"And yet, oh, so tasty." The Colonel raised a forkful of the dessert. "You know what's really wrong?"
"No, sir. What?"
He deliberately shoved the pie into his mouth, then chewed intently. "Walter has a girlfriend."
Carter blanched. "Really?"
"Yep." He licked some whipped cream off the back of his fork. "And apparently, she's hot."
"That's what he says."
She stared at the hunk of pastry on her fork before glaring a question at the Colonel. "Did you just say that to make me lose my appetite so that you can have the whole thing?"
"Sort of." O'Neill's eyes narrowed. "Did it work?"
Oh—that smile. Luminous, and huge, and perfect. Into which was disappearing the heaping mound of pumpkin filling and whipped cream.
He sighed. "It didn't work."
She swallowed, and then wiped a smudge of cream from her lip with a finger. "Don't worry, sir. I have another one in my lab."
"Really?" He grinned as he looked across the pastry at the woman sitting beside him. He ought to start a new list. A non-sucky holiday list. At the top? Well, that went without saying. Only, how was he only now recognizing her for the blessing that she was?
"Yep." Carter nodded, gesturing with her fork. "Only that one's pecan."
"Bonus." For now, anyway, this would suffice. Sitting on the briefing room table, eating pie. He dug in for another bite, then paused. "Carter?"
"For what, sir?"
"For this." He waved his fork towards the pink box. "For everything."
Warmth and understanding—and something else—something indefinable—shone in her gaze as she looked back at him. "You too, sir."
O'Neill cleared his throat. "So, pecan, huh?"
"Was pecan pie on your list too?"
"It's pie, Carter." He said around a mouthful of whipped cream. "Pie's always on the list."