Restless walls of flames
Summary: Captain Samantha Carter knew that he meant trouble the moment she laid eyes on him. Set in 'The Changeling' universe, AU.
Spoilers: Indirect references made to Heroes: part II, Grace, Divide and Conquer.
The world is riddled with small tragedies.
They are found in the helpless sadness of a man who realises that his family home has burnt to ashes.
Or in the horror of a seventy-year old lady who wakes up at four a.m. choking in smoke only to breath her last.
Or in a trapped boy who presses himself into a corner as the flames roll up the roof and consume him.
Captain Samantha Carter comes to realise this early on, despite how much she loves her job. It is an accepted consequence that has for some, already ceased to matter. But these little events that spell the end of the world for some unknown faces in the universe matters to her. She knows that the pain she feels keeps her human.
It is how she finds herself in the locker room late each night after every fatality, huddled in a corner with the lights out, simultaneously questioning her choice of profession while thanking the stars out there that she's still more blood than stone in her ability to feel some grief.
In such times, T and the rest know her well enough to leave her alone. But the overly cheerful Probie doesn't. So she chases him off with a scathing glare that sends him scurrying for the kitchen.
The chief always joins her sometime in the second half of that self-imposed vigil. He cuts into her space unapologetically because he's chief and because he thinks he can do whatever he wants.
These days, Sam finds that she doesn't mind too much.
Each time he brings a cup of hot chocolate for her (he's got alcohol strictly banned on the premises), and despite his rickety knee, he plonks himself down next to her with more grace than he should have for a man who has been injured in too many fires.
He says nothing unless she wants to talk.
The thing is, they started on bad terms all those years ago. She'd boldly shot Jack O'Neill an arm-wrestle challenge (it makes her cringe even until now) and he'd told her point blank that he hated scientists after reading her personal file. I'm a fire engineer by training, god damn him, she remembered thinking as he retorted his blatant dislike. Despite herself, a part of her is traitorously glad that he has never used her gender against her.
The boys in the Engine Company warm up to her first after she proves a better shot than them at pool.
In the coming months, she's come to realise that O'Neill's a hard but fair chief and commands respect from all his men. Often she finds herself pursing her lips in an effort not to laugh at the goofy lameness that emerges from his mouth at the most unexpected times, a trait of his that she secretly thinks is funny and endearing. So after the initial friction passes, grudging respect turns to like, and then into something else that she's afraid to name.
But there's also the small, constant problem of her enjoying all the overtime and the sheer lack of social life just to stay in the station a lot more than she's supposed to as long as the chief is around. It earns her exasperated reprimands from him for being an 'annoying' overachiever who needs a life'; each time, she merely smiles in response and tells him her life's pretty great right now.
She's not too slow on the uptake usually, but it's only when the memory of the latest reprimand from him a few days ago surfaces does it occur to her that she's developed this thing for him in a manner so inappropriate that she feels embarrassed just thinking about it.
A stray mathematical equation wiggles its way into her head and it takes her all but a few seconds to realise they've now spent hundreds of hours together ever since she's joined the Station.
That thing's more than frightening; it makes her gut turn in and over itself, makes her break out in cold sweat for being the very thing she's sworn never to be – hopelessly infatuated with a superior officer.
Now, with the chief sitting by her side in that uncomfortably small space, this scary realisation bears down on her again mid-sip of her hot chocolate after a particularly bad evening when they'd lost a whole room of people in a gas explosion.
A sideways glance at him tells her that O'Neill's uniform is crumpled because of the way he's folded himself into a large, imperfect square. Gangly and awkward, it's a look that makes her melt a little inside because she knows he does it for her.
More importantly, it's a gesture that sends her heart aflutter and gives her hope that her feelings aren't as unrequited as she thought.
O'Neill issues no complaint about his sitting position but this time, she insists that they move to a perfectly-placed bench in the middle of the locker room. His affable refusal makes her cross the lines of subordination when she argues in favour of his knee, a nagging physical problem that she's not supposed to know about.
He glares at her wordlessly, but she's just getting warmed up. Finally, he can only stop her by saying that as chief, he can do whatever he wants, and that includes sitting on hard floors.
Sam purses her lips in amusement at his petulant retort. Suddenly, the clouds that had gathered at the edges of her vision are chased away by one lame joke; in its place a frightening clarity about her feelings for the chief settles in.
It's an epiphany that drops like a pile of stones.
No matter how she thinks about it or turns over the facets of her very platonic relationship with the chief in her mind this way and that, nothing adds up to yield a solution that suggests these feelings are not just an infatuation.
And in her world that's rigidly held together by self-evident axiomatic truths, this only adds up to trouble.
Sam's in the middle of sending herself into a panic when he speaks and shatters the silence, oblivious to her racing thoughts.
"Hate to break this, Carter, but you've got a really early morning tomorrow. Get some rest."
He stands up, stretches the stiffness out and unwittingly gives her a subtle moment to admire the lean lines of his body.
O'Neill mock-glares at her through narrowed eyes and asks in an innocent voice, "But you're still going to disobey the order and stay here right?"
That lame sense of humour that hides a veritable intelligence never fails to coax an answering grin from her.
With a slight shake of his head, he leaves the locker room quietly and leaves the 'Do not disturb' sign hanging on the doorknob.
The thoughtfulness of that small gesture reminds her why she lov…admires him much more than any other chief under whom she has served.
It is another bad day. These fatal situations have been coming way too often lately, and she doesn't have time to internalise each one before the next one gets thrown in their laps.
This time, the fire is a total beast.
She is more than shocked when the chief leaps into the fray himself after he hastily dons a firesuit and an air-mask, shredding his own initial plan of rescue that had already been relayed to the teams en route to the site.
A heart-stopping minute later, O'Neill flings himself onto the waiting life net as the upper foundation beams of the suburban house collapse, his arms still tightly wound around a young boy about eight.
Weeping parents run to the boy. They hug him tight, too caught in their own emotions to notice the worn-out man who sits on the jumping sheet.
Sam sees O'Neill finally lowering himself gingerly onto the ground slowly, seeing how his eyes are still carefully trained on the family locked in a tight embrace.
Then the whimpers of relief turn to screams in the next second when the fire eats into the garage. Seconds later, an explosion rocks the ground where he stands.
The thought of the chief unconscious – or god help her, dead – stops her beating heart for a few seconds. Then she yells for the others to put up a scratch line to check the fire's advancement then rushes to the chief.
His eyes are tightly shut as he fights against the pain of a twisted arm and multiple deep cuts. Unable to help herself, she brushes a gentle hand across his soot-covered forehead.
O'Neill blinks and their eyes meet. His captain is the first in his line of vision; he thinks he sees an image of an angel with blonde hair and soot-stained cheeks.
An interminable moment passes between them. This time, he holds her gaze with an unexpected intensity that sends her into a slow burn.
Only later does T tell her that the chief's eight-year old son and wife had died in a fire some time ago.
Then she realises the chief is not as impenetrable as she thinks he is. He simply wears a bullet-proof vest that's carefully constructed out of sarcastic repartee and an amusing dumb act.
But even that fails him sometimes.
Sam sits alone again in the darkened locker room, but doesn't linger. The chief obviously doesn't join her this time. Not when he's still suffering the effects of heat stress in the local hospital.
Visiting hours are over, but the staff are used to the engine companies flitting in and out at the oddest hours of the day. They pay her no heed as she takes slow steps down the corridor to his ward for the third time that day.
The hospital psychologist closes the door of O'Neill's ward behind him with a soft click just as she reaches it.
"Daniel!" Sam says in surprise. She isn't expecting anyone here at this time of the night, but she's clearly wrong. Daniel's unexpected presence makes her edgy enough to want to bolt and forget she's even stepping foot inside the hospital.
"Hey, Sam," the psychologist greets warmly without realising that his glasses are slightly askew. He sees her a couple of times when she accompanies a victim or three to the hospital for counselling sessions. And he thinks, wistfully, not for the first time, that she could become a good friend someday, had they gotten the chance to talk more. "Didn't think you'd be coming in so late. Here to see Jack?"
"If he's not asleep."
Uncertainty plagues her all of a sudden. The need to see the chief had overridden the need for rest in her bunker back in the fire station. She'd rushed here after cleaning up, not even bothering with the after-dinner drinks with the rest of the guys.
"Oh, he's not," Daniel assures her. "I was just having a chat with him."
She is nonplussed for a second. Daniel and the chief's strange friendship is something that she isn't privy to. But she has learnt long ago to file this stray bit of information away.
Sam takes a deep breath to calm her nerves to no avail, then tries not to wince when she gets a lungful of antiseptic fumes.
She knocks and hears an ill-tempered bark from inside telling Daniel to go away. O'Neill's irritation makes her lips tilt; it tells her that he's well enough to moan and complain.
He's still looking crabby when she pokes her head around the door, an expression that rapidly shifts to comic shock to astonishment and finally to delight when he catches sight of her.
"Carter!" His voice, suffused with such surprise and pleasure, makes her grin wider. Then he frowns, looking puzzled. "Shouldn't you be asleep? Or with the boys doing…whatever it is you do?"
She's never felt so stupid in a long time, not since she turned sixteen and went on a date with that damned high-school jock who was more interested in himself than her.
It's the third time she's in the hospital, and he's seen her that much today.
But she finds herself wanting to be near him, wanting to say things to him, things that she can't say in the presence of others.
"Chief, I…" Sam trails off, feeling like she's made a supreme mistake just being there.
"What, Carter?" He asks curiously, his fingers busy with the edges of the ridiculous hospital gown they'd forced him into.
"How are you feeling?" She pushes forward before what little courage she has starts to desert her.
"Better. I can go home tomorrow, though the arm's a bit useless for a while," he shrugs, looking a little brighter at the prospect. "They say I'm one lucky son-of-a-bitch."
Sam nods in response, pursing her lips in hesitation.
But then an indescribable look comes over O'Neill's face, and his gaze sharpens as he turns to look at her. "You didn't just come over to ask me this."
She exhales sharply and steels herself. "No, chief."
"So?" Whether deliberately or not, he's forcing her into a rare place of honesty.
She barely manages any cohesion in her words as she stumbles over emotions that threaten to burst their carefully constructed banks.
"Sorry, chief, I, uh, just wanted to be here. Actually, I, uh, meant to say…when you were lying there, I...I'm just glad you're okay."
O'Neill's brown eyes soften at her truthful stammers.
His reply is poignantly wordless.
The next thing she knows, he's moving forward and she's enveloped in a tight hug.
When she finally – and unwillingly – breaks the hug, O'Neill is looking at her differently. Beneath the weariness, there's a light in his eyes that she wants to examine at length.
"Never apologise for being there, Carter."
Then the almost-exact same thing happens to her five months down the road in a serious case of suspected arson.
This time she takes her turn in the hospital.
Sam gets the flow of usual visitors who send her the usual ridiculous gifts. Each time she opens her eyes, there's an additional new toy in the room.
Still drugged into a blissful state on the third day, she wakes sometime in the night to see him sitting by her bedside casually flipping the pages of the local newspaper. In a fevered, delirious moment of delight, she throws him a sloppy, lopsided grin and mumbles not his rank, but his name.
O'Neill doesn't hesitate. "Yeah?"
"You're still here," she slurs happily, closing her eyes again as she starts to sink into sleep again.
For O'Neill, it is a breathtaking moment of transparency so uncharacteristic of his kickass Captain. He stares at her as she looks at him with so much affection that the wind is knocked out of his breath. Her unguarded reaction stops the casual joke he was about to make about her being a cheap drunk.
"Yeah," O'Neill repeats himself more gently this time, weighing the appropriateness of what he wants to say next.
Then he decides that she wouldn't hear or remember a damn thing in the morning anyway. So he deliberately shifts his chair an inch closer to her, then speaks.
The station belatedly celebrates her return to duty in grand style. And that means a night of steak, beer and pool at the local steakhouse.
Sam finds herself sitting next to the chief and drinking her calories during a night out with the boys, watching the competition between T and the Probie quickly escalate into an all-out beer war.
Soon enough, it's her turn for some macho display. Someone pits her against the Chief and shouts out the challenge.
The chief turns to her and raises an eyebrow, his chiselled good looks schooled into a cheeky expression of good-natured taunting. "So, you up for it, Carter?" He asks lazily.
Sam snorts and grabs the nearest bottle in reply.
Jonas, Kawalsky and T bet in her favour. She nods her approval and grins at the chief's wounded look when he sees their disloyalty.
The noise level reaches new heights, the whoops and cheers from the rest of the boys stirring her uber-competitive streak into action.
She holds her beer as well as the chief holds his Guinness and whisky but loses the arm-wrestle to him as money changes hands quickly.
The drinking ends on a draw and the games end when the owner threatens to kick the lot of them out. Before Sam knows what really is happening, she's accepting a ride from the chief back home after he convinces her to pick up her car from the bar the next day.
The silence in his truck is deafening after the raucous evening.
As though discomfited by the tension as much as she is, O'Neill punches a button on the radio and soft, operatic music wafts over them. For a man who's pure hockey and beer, he's got more refined tastes in music than she'd expected.
It also shows how little she actually knows him.
Sam overcomes her speechlessness by gesturing to the radio, her voice trailing off when she realises she's asking the obvious. "Is this..?"
"O Soave Fanciulla. By Puccini." He casts an amused glance her way, then clarifies for her benefit. "From La Bohème. Sounds familiar in any way?"
Then she realises that he can't be that drunk if he's rattling off the name of the song in Italian while steering his vehicle around a bend and up her porch.
She's flailing around in a subject matter that's pretty much beyond her. "Not really." Sam doesn't know what to say.
The truck rumbles heavily to a stop. O'Neill walks her to the door with his hands stuck in his jacket pocket as she fumbles for her keys and takes in mouthfuls of air that her lungs suddenly crave.
She tries to mitigate the awkwardness by saying something inane. "Well, um, I think I should go. Thanks for the-"
"It's a song about a man who sees a woman in the moonlight and falls in love with her," he interrupts her poor attempt at saying goodnight, watching her carefully.
She looks at him – really looks at him with a bold sweeping gaze that's partly beer-induced.
His eyes are dark and serious, the alcohol merely stripping the veneer of light-hearted idiocy that he wears like a shield, leaving in place the darker, feral edge in his demeanour that is starting to leave her breathless.
Surely he wasn't just referring to the music anymore. So was he saying what she was thinking…?
She plunges ahead and throws caution to the wind, twisting the key in and pushing the door open. "Want to come in for a coffee?"
She knows what she's asking. And she knows that he'll get through the layers of what she's really trying to ask.
The hesitation in his eyes turns into intense scrutiny. It is a while before he answers her with an honest question.
"Are we still playing games, Carter?"
His whisky-roughened voice makes her bite her bottom lip in apprehension. She doesn't know where he's heading, what he's doing and asking, but there's no doubt on her part.
It's him she wants. The intervening months have merely confirmed it with crystal clarity.
And instinct tells her that the want is mutual.
"Who's really playing, Jack?" She dares him into a response that will quell all her doubts.
A dark, unidentifiable emotion flares into life on his face as he crosses the threshold. For once, she sees the barely-concealed desire and the deep longing that swirl in the brown depths of his eyes.
All pretences at conversation cease when she slams the front door shut.
Stepping up slowly, Sam brushes her lips against his and hears his soft gasp in her mouth. Then he takes over, pushing her hard against the wall with an urgency that's in sync with her own burning need. His lips find her neck and the delicate tips of her ears while her hands busy themselves with buttons, belts and zippers so that she can touch hot, muscled flesh.
His jacket is carelessly flung onto the shoe rack; hers finds its perch on top of the kitchen counter. The haphazard trail of clothing leads into the bedroom and by the time her thighs come to straddle his hips and his hands find purchase around her waist, all they know and see is each other.
Sam wakes up with his arm carelessly draped over her hips, the blanket having fallen halfway to the floor at some point in the middle of the night.
He's already awake and watching her carefully, the answering smile on his face a mix of relief and happiness when her own lips tilt upwards in a tentative greeting.
The awkwardness slides away in all of a second. They've known, after all, that those years and months of longing had to converge somewhere.
And she doesn't think she's to blame for being sentimental; she'd rather they end up in a bedroom than in a situation where either one of them dies before anything substantial between them happens.
There will always be fires to fight but there wouldn't always be a Jack O'Neill to help her put them out.
And she wants every single moment with him as they face the restless walls of flames.
After talking herself into a semblance of mental order, Sam decides to kiss him again and leaves him no chance but to respond enthusiastically.
It takes her a while to learn to speak his name during the off-hours, and even longer to learn who Jack O'Neill really is.
But after two months of constant sex, some late-night movies and many home-cooked dinners, Sam finally dares to believe whatever it is they're doing has slipped into something more permanent.
Things at work change, and yet they don't.
To start with, they don't bring each other coffee – an action that would only be a parody of domesticity. The Probie's been rather diligent about it lately anyway.
He still sends her out into the worst fire situations because she's one of the best they have no matter how difficult it is for him; she talks his ear off every opportunity she gets when she does hard-core fire engineering simulations on her computer. She still sits in the locker room on difficult days and Jack still joins her, but now the pain recedes faster when she feels his fingertips lightly brushing her own in the small show of comfort.
But the subtle differences are noticeable to those who really know them.
Like how their chairs are pulled just a tad closer to each other during morning break. Or how he looks at her with a knowing glint more often than he should. Or how she seems a tad bit happier whenever he comes into the room. Or how their periods of downtime coincide. Several times, throughout the course of the remaining months of the year.
"I'm hungry, you know." She tells him without preamble.
He shrugs away her pointed look. "I know. But just a minute more."
They are sitting on the observation deck taking turns to look through his telescope one-year from the day Jack walked into her house and into her bedroom. On a whim, he's dragged her out of the house and up the roof for a short while. The food still lies untouched in the kitchen, something that she really isn't too happy about. It's puzzling and it makes her protest briefly. But with Jack O'Neill, sometimes it's better not to ask.
Sam takes the fresh bottle of beer that he hands to her and is taken by surprise when he suddenly asks her about the lease on her house with practiced, casual indifference.
Thrown off by the less-than-cogent way in which he asks, she answers only when she's sure she has the months and the dates right in her head.
"I'll be renewing it next month. It's a good place. Why?"
"You don't have to." He turns to his beloved telescope and looks into it when he makes the offhand comment. Then he turns back again to face her, smirking slightly at her confusion. "You could stay here, you know."
Then, as though the floodgates had opened, Jack starts to list all the reasons why his place was a better fit for the both of them.
Sam fights a grin when she realises that this is no whimsical exposition.
He is still rambling and gesticulating – pretty unusual for a man of few words – about their relationship and how he's thinking of retiring and how they should consider marriage and that he's got a ring ready and so on when she tells him a quiet 'yes, okay'.
Jack stops in mid-sentence two seconds after he realises that she has just said something. "Did you…did you just say yes?"
He doesn't miss a beat. "Sweet."
A rare, wide smile stretches his face. Sam is convinced that same, giddy look is appearing on hers as her heart hammers a tattoo against her chest.
Despite the sappiness of the moment (they're still grinning stupidly at each other), and because she's happy, she starts to realise that the world is also riddled with small victories among its tragedies.