TITLE: "Traditions"

AUTHOR: Little Red

RATING: G

CATEGORY: Sam/Jack, Jack/Sara stuff of yore

SUMMARY: Not surprisingly, given his occupation, Jack O'Neill turned fifty off-world. It was raining. And Sam Carter was throwing up.

SPOILERS: "Beneath the Surface", "Divide and Conquer"

SEASON: 5

DEDICATION: Karen, for the Jack/Sara flashbackiness. They really *are* sweet to play with :)

DISCLAIMER: I don't even own the action figures. Are there Stargate action figures? There must be. But I don't own them.

FEEDBACK: feed me back at mylittleredgirl at gmail dot com

ARCHIVE: Sure :) but send me an email to let me know you want it, because that sort of stuff makes my day.

 

 

Not surprisingly, given his current occupation, Jack O'Neill turned fifty off-world. It was raining. And Sam Carter was throwing up.

None of those things were particularly unusual in his world. Carter wasn't constantly getting food poisoning off-world or anything, but it happened. And they visited a lot of drizzly planets. He'd been slightly unnerved by the vaguely violet tint of the raindrops on this particular world -- P-something-341 -- but Carter had assured him that it was safe and wouldn't do anything nasty to human skin aside from dye it a little, temporarily. Something about mineral content, maybe, but he'd pretty much stopped listening after "not dangerous." He let her worry about those sorts of things. She was good with details.

Apparently, there were plenty of those on whatever-it-was-341. It was, aside from the rain, a pretty nice planet. Nobody shooting at them. No indication of anybody with eyes that flashed. Opportunities to make cracks about purple rain. Nice folks, too. Friendly. Liked to party. Had a thing about letting strangers sleep overnight within their village borders, but Jack preferred camping out in a more defensible position, anyway. Daniel found their huts somehow architecturally fascinating, although they looked mostly just like... huts. Apparently that was significant. Unlike Carter, Daniel didn't even bother trying to explain these things to him anymore.

"Just... trust me. It's important."

Jack was fine with that. He had long since learned to listen to the tones of voice of his more scientifically inclined comrades rather than to what they were actually saying when they started going all academic on him. His life had gotten a lot easier after learning the difference between "It's really interesting in a way that would make a great paper if the Stargate project wasn't eighteen kinds of classified" and "It's really interesting in a way that could explode or otherwise screw us over royally in the near future."

"It is your watch, O'Neill," Teal'c interrupted his contemplation, leaning over his sleeping bag and peering down at him intently in a way that probably would have unnerved him to wake up to if he had actually been asleep. "Are you sufficiently awake?"

"Yeah." He'd only dozed a half-hour or so before Carter's first mad dash out of the tent. She'd returned shortly, glaring down his sympathetic glances and muttering something bitter about hating alien food and being fine. Daniel, capable of sleeping through fire, riots and the formation of entire galaxies had obliviously dreamed his way through three more jack-in-the-box maneuvers on the part of their only female teammate, but Jack's nerves were always too finely tuned off-world to let him sleep through anything amiss. Possibly out of respect for that, she'd stayed outside for the past half-hour or so. "How's Carter?"

"Major Carter is approximately fifteen meters from camp. I approached her to offer assistance," Teal'c reported, in the stoic manner in which he said just about everything. "She did not welcome it."

"Brave man," Jack winced at his friend's doubtless understatement, and crawled out of his sleeping bag. While ordinarily as sweet and diplomatic as they came, when ill, all form of polite decorum disappeared from the Major's character. She'd actually hit Daniel in the nose once accidentally while blindly attempting to shove aside his helping hands, something Jack had found so utterly hilarious that he'd laughed out loud, in spite of her plight and Daniel's newly acquired nosebleed. Both of them had glared at him for a good four days, solid, after that. "I'll check up on her in a bit. Sweet dreams, Teal'c. Or... whatever. You know."

It was still raining, but they'd dragged a log under a lean-to next to their little cook-stove. Dry wood had been impossible to find, so there was no actual fire. Fortunately, the night was fairly temperate, if wet.

He glanced at his watch. A little over an hour left of being forty-nine. Usually, by privilege of rank, because he couldn't sleep until he felt that he'd properly surveyed the area and because, in a weird, sentimental way, he liked watching his team fall asleep, he took the first watch. Tonight was different, and he was on second watch.

He'd been born less than twenty minutes after midnight, something that, with the time difference between planets, would happen in the middle of the second watch. As a kid, he'd been allowed to stay up until then on his birthday eve. When he'd been still too young to stay conscious that long, his mother, a wonderfully sentimental woman, had always woken him up just to say "Happy birthday, Jack" right at 12:18 a.m.

Turning fifty was sort of a big deal. He supposed he ought to be awake for it, at least, even if there was no one there to say it. Tradition, and all.

A slightly waving flashlight beam brought his eye to the treeline a little ways away from camp. Carter. It was too dark to actually see her, but he could well imagine it, and allowed himself a wince of sympathy while she was too far away to get mad at him for it. He poked through their medical kit for anything that might help her, but it looked like she'd already raided it.

For a moment, he toyed with the idea of rooting through her pack for her raincoat, so she wouldn't have to get rained on while she was being sick, but if he approached her in this state she might try to kill him, and, having gotten so close to it and all, he really did want to live to see fifty.

The humans native to '341, the Nimmims or Mimmins or something else with a great deal of Ms and Ns, had taken the arrival of SG-1 as an opportunity to drop everything and throw a party. Daniel had fallen all over himself being honored, but something about the character of the natives and how easily it all came together made Jack suspect that they probably would have thrown the party even if SG-1 hadn't shown up. Because it was raining. Or because it wasn't raining. Or for some other equally all-important reason. There was something wonderfully Dionysian about the Nimmin/Minnims of '341. The party had been wholly impressive -- all the drinking, carousing, singing and feasting that one would expect from a raucous otherworldly bash. There had even been some naked running about in the oddly-colored rain, but even Daniel, normally the most when-in-Rome of the team of traveling Earthlings and Jaffa, had opted out of that one.

Since they were in unfamiliar territory, Jack had stayed clear of the alien moonshine beyond the few sips necessary to appease the overeager ruler who kept pushing delicacies at them all while flailing hands and babbling loudly in a language only Daniel understood (Daniel had told him which ancient Earth tongue the Minimins' dialect appeared to descend from, but he hadn't kept it in memory, satisfied only that at least one member of SG-1 could communicate with them). He'd gotten Carter to snag a sample of the drink for analysis, though, because it had actually been pretty good and, by the behavior of the locals, it seemed to pack quite a punch. The singing had been... awful, perhaps because of the freely flowing booze. He hadn't minded the entertainment, though, for the women doing the singing were all attractive and they weren't wearing much. That, too, was culturally relevant. He'd tuned into Daniel's monologue for that part.

The food was... weird. Weird-looking, anyway, and with a bunch of strange consistencies he'd never encountered before. It hadn't tasted like much of anything, actually, beyond some sort of spice that he couldn't quite identify. Teal'c thought it was incredible. Daniel had been too busy flirting in a foreign language -- "I'm not flirting with her, Jack. For God's sake. Can't I have an intellectual conversation with a woman without you thinking I'm trying to get into bed with her?" "When she's dressed like that? No." -- with some sort of tribe historian in the form of a petite, buxom brunette bearing an uncanny resemblance to Doc Fraiser to really form an opinion on the food or even to try most of it. That it tasted so mild seemed odd compared to the sharp bite of the local liquor, and Carter had hypothesized that perhaps the humans of SG-1 lacked the ability to taste its true flavor, because the M'n'Ms' taste buds had developed differently in the few thousand years that they'd been away from Earth.

She had never done well with alien food.

The first time she'd gotten violently ill off-world it had freaked the hell out of him. Teal'c had been fine -- but then, he was Teal'c. Daniel, as an anthropologist son of traveling archaeologists, was used to eating bizarre things and hadn't even batted an eye at the weird tangy alien fruit cocktails that some native ruler or other insisted they all drink as a point of honor. Jack had been fine, too, but then, he'd always prided himself on having an iron stomach. In grade school, he'd earned quarters from his friends by eating whatever strange, gross concoctions bored eight-year-old boys could make of mud and the stranger ingredients in their mothers' kitchens.

Over her objections, he'd bundled her back through the gate and into Doc Fraiser's arms so fast they hadn't even broken camp, convinced the seemingly friendly denizens of that planet had poisoned her and that she was in the first throes of a painful death.

"Weak stomach," then-Captain Carter had explained to him a few hours later, blushing and mumbling and unable to meet his eyes, physically no worse for the wear but thoroughly humiliated in a way he'd found horribly endearing, even then. Back then, their team was new and Carter had been trooping about with a chip the size of your average midwestern state on her shoulder, preemptively assuming at every turn that he was looking for reasons to drop her from SG-1. He'd checked her story with the Doc -- Carter had a tendency to lie to downplay any injury or ailment -- and felt a little foolish himself for declaring a medical emergency and leaving half their gear on another planet for nothing worse than an upset stomach.

She'd still looked mortified as Hammond had sent the lot of them back to that planet to retrieve their tent, so he'd done his best to make her feel better about it.

By making fun of her for the next three missions.

In retrospect, perhaps that hadn't been the best approach. At the time, newly back in uniform after a year of retirement and relative isolation, he'd still been used to working in the company of hardened military men, as macho as they came. Where he came from, there was no way to do the awful things they did without either maintaining a less-than-tactful sense of humor or going completely insane. He was new to this practice of admiring foreign huts and taking soil samples and making nice with the natives. In the boys' club that he'd come of age in, good-natured mocking was really the only acceptable form of personal communication, and everyone got that.

Women and civilians were odd forms of life he coexisted with but didn't quite understand, and suddenly he was traveling the galaxy with them.

Carter had handled his boorishness gracefully -- better than Daniel did when he behaved similarly toward him -- like she always did. It often seemed like she even appreciated his sense of humor, although more so when it wasn't directed at her.

He really didn't like that she was so far from camp while sick, and he braved the rain -- it wasn't actually falling that heavily, it was just the wrong color -- to wander as close where to her flashlight beam originated as he dared.

"Carter?" He could sort of see her, crouched on the ground. It looked from where he was like she'd brought a blanket with her, at least. "You doing okay?"

"I'm fine, sir." Her voice was actually impressively strong for how awful she must have been feeling, but she still sounded pretty weak, for Carter.

He shifted from foot to foot on the wet grass for a moment, body undecided on which way to walk. "Need anything?" He finally asked.

"No, sir." She sounded slightly more urgent, and he had a bad feeling she wasn't done being ill. "I'm fine, sir," she said again, because it would have been insubordinate to outright tell him to go away. The message was clear, though. He'd gotten used to picking out what she really meant to say when she was speaking good soldier.

Doing no good standing in the rain halfway between her and camp, he went back to the relative dryness of the lean-to.

Yeah, ridiculing her after the first time she'd gotten sick like this that first year really hadn't been the way to go.

He recalled Sara, talking to their son in the kitchen after a phone call from Charlie's first grade teacher. After making him sit at the kitchen table copying over onto nice card paper a two-sentence note of apology she had penned -- she had always believed in letting the punishment fit the crime -- her tone of voice had softened.

"You know, Charlie, girls don't actually like it when you tease them and pull their hair." Her kind eyes had then slid to him, where he'd been standing watch over the apology-card writing to try and give the occasion the appropriate feeling of severity. "Your father has never learned this." Sara had smiled, her tongue actually poking at the inside of her cheek like a living cliche as she inspected Charlie's notes of apology to the two wronged little girls in his class. Jack remembered thinking, not for the first time, that genetically, between their senses of humor, the kid was doomed.

"I don't care. Girls are stupid," Charlie had immediately retorted, with all the authority given him by two years of public schooling. Then, realizing a possible error, he amended, "Except you, Mom."

"Good call, kid. Now go get your glove and we'll get out of your mom's hair while she finishes dinner."

Charlie was off like a shot, eager to put his half-hour of punishment behind him, but Jack couldn't go until he'd snagged the tempting end of his wife's long blonde braid and gently tugged it.

"You see where he gets it from," she'd chided.

He dropped a kiss on her shoulder before speaking in her ear. "Well, I turned out pretty well, wouldn't you say?"

She turned enough to see him, one eyebrow raised in silent deliberation of his question. Sara had a poker face to die for, but after nine years of marriage, he saw her facade crack almost a full second before she conceded, "You have your moments."

Those were the times he did his best, now, to remember without guilt. It had become easier, as time passed and after all that he had suffered on behalf of Earth had perhaps lessened -- though never erased -- the burden of his worst personal failings. Last year at around this time, as he'd been trying to regain memories of a lifetime temporarily suppressed by a memory stamp, he'd even put photographs back up in his house and found that he was okay with seeing them every day. His divorce had been painful on all sides, but not vindictive, and Sara had painstakingly divided the pages of their family albums between them, knowing because she knew him as well as anyone ever had that someday love and sentimentality would win over grief and he would want to have those images close by. Perhaps that was what had happened. Rediscovering his past, horror by horror, had made him remember other things besides the way it all had ended.

His family life hadn't always been steeped in tragedy. It hadn't been perfect all the time, but there were moments when it really was, and he could remember those now, sometimes, without immediately recalling that it was his fault that chapter of his life had ended. One careless mistake on his part had destroyed Charlie's life, and Sara's, and his, and long selfish months of being unable to see past that had destroyed Sara's life again. Those kinds of sins were never erased.

But he remembered. His marriage hadn't always been a prelude to death and divorce. With hindsight, he would have done many things differently, so many more than not leaving his service weapon in an unlocked box he'd foolishly thought his son wouldn't be able to reach, but even if some benevolent time-traveling alien gave him the chance, he would never trade away his entire marriage just to avoid the pain that had ended it.

He still felt that the most important thing he'd ever done in his fifty years of life was to have a son, for the few years he'd had him.

Fifty years.

Wow.

He checked his watch again. It still wasn't his birthday, but it was gaining on it.

He felt like he should have something profound to say. Fortunately, not being profound was one of the few things he would openly admit to liking about himself. His innate character got him off the hook.

Besides, he thought, eyes still trained to Carter's flashlight beam at the edge of the nearby forest because it was the closest he could get to looking after her, it would probably be rude to be thinking deep thoughts anyway while one of his teammates was puking her guts out.

Half a century. It sounded... bigger, somehow, when he thought of it like that. That particular rainy night, he didn't feel fifty years old. Some days he did, but most often, those were days spent on Earth recovering from some injury or surgery or another that he would have bounced back from a great deal quicker earlier in life. For a long time, fifty had been unfathomably old. It was an age that belonged to his parents' generation. And, with good reason, given the job he had and the way he had lived much of his life, he had never really expected to make it this far. Teal'c being over a hundred had sort of thrown a wrench into his concept of how 'old' worked, and he found himself grateful for it. Because, here, off-world, he didn't feel old. In his job, adrenaline and the company kept him young. It was possible to avoid getting caught up in Carter and Daniel's excited, youthful babbling -- less youthful now, he had to admit, after everything they'd seen the past five years -- but usually he was at least a little swept up by it, no matter how he tried to look bored.

He wasn't kidding about not caring about the specifics of what they discovered. They were responsible for the details. It was just... nice to see them get so excited about things, even if those things looked remarkably like rocks and dirt to him. And they had rocks and dirt back home.

But it was nice. Carter had been pretty psyched about the purple rain. She hadn't even minded getting wet on their six kilometer hike to the Ninimin village. He'd bitched about it, because that was what he did, and, after the novelty had worn off, Daniel had joined in complaining, but she genuinely didn't find the universe annoying. He was used to that about her. He liked it, and counted on it the way he counted on her to keep track of details for him and to be always, always thinking.

Yeah. Nice. She'd had a hard year. They'd all had one or two hard years in the past five, but he suspected that she was somehow less accustomed to them than the rest of them. She bore up well, because she was Carter, but it made seeing her smile especially good. She had never completely stopped smiling, but lately, it had actually started to look like she meant it again.

It was his birthday. Or, in another few minutes, by his watch, it would be. He supposed it was all right, on his birthday, to think about how nice it was when Carter smiled.

He hadn't noticed Sara's smile in quite the same way. He liked it when she smiled, of course -- hers was more of a cheeky smirk than a full-out grin -- because it meant she was happy and that he hadn't done anything to upset her. He just hadn't mentally identified her by it. He'd fixated on different things about her. Her long blonde hair, the first thing he'd noticed about her, had seemed like the most feminine thing in the world, and he vividly recalled the way it smelled. There was one woman at the SGC, someone on SG-16, who must have used the same shampoo as Sara had, because every time she walked by he got a blast of nostalgia and it freaked the heck out of him.

He'd obsessed over Sara's neck, of all things. The hair he found so fascinating obscured it most of the time, but whenever she had that pinned up in a bun he couldn't take his eyes off her. He'd liked her hips, too, and he remembered the caveman pride he'd felt whenever he'd see them swaying as she walked -- her walk hadn't been exceptionally elegant, or anything, but even when her gait was awkward with pregnancy he liked to watch her -- and he would think she's mine. He never told her that he had mentally claimed pieces of her body as his just because he liked them so much.

He remembered Sara's voice better than almost any other part of her, because so much of their relationship had happened over the phone.

The first year they were married, he was stationed overseas over his birthday. She'd stayed up until 0018 her time -- unlike Carter, she was bad with details and had forgotten that time-zones meant that it was already early morning for him -- to wish him a happy birthday.

"Your mother told me it's an O'Neill tradition," explained Sara, an O'Neill herself of less than four months. "Happy birthday, Jack. I love you. Come home soon."

He told himself it wasn't odd that he sometimes compared Carter and Sara in his head. Not in any really important way, but little things. In looking back on his life, like he figured he was supposed to be doing right about now, after the childhood years when his mother had been the only woman who had any power over him, Sara and Carter were the two most important women in his life.

Not in the same way, of course.

If he had to divide his life, the last fifty years, into chunks, he could do it by women. He had started out life as the oldest son of a patient, adoring mother. In a way, Sara calling him up on his birthday four months after their wedding, taking up the torch from his mother by being the one to remark on his moment of birth, could be seen as the real start of The Sara Years. Between those two eras had been a long stretch without a specific woman, made up of teammates and parachutes and one night stands.

He could describe the last five years by a lot of things but, in keeping with the theme, he wanted to ascribe them to Carter.

Daniel was the one who had tipped him off to how similar the two women looked. He really hadn't noticed. He'd realized that Carter was attractive, yes, back in the early days of knowing her when checking her out had only felt dangerous in the sense that she might catch him doing it and pop him one. They were both blue-eyed blondes. Similar builds, even, although Sara wasn't quite as tall. He'd met Sara -- at what she later dubbed a "get the soldiers laid dance" -- when she'd been only a few years younger than Sam had been on the day that she'd all but stormed the briefing for the second Abydos mission, commencing what he was calling for this night and this night only The Carter Years. The resemblance was such that he'd felt pretty stupid for not noticing until Daniel had asked him about it. At the time, he'd written it off to the fact that Daniel hadn't met Sara until after she'd cut her hair short, but he still thought of her with impressively long hair.

He'd never thought he had a type.

Not long after that, it had started getting dangerous to look at Carter for more than the obvious reason. Thinking of her neck, or hips, or any other part of her body except in circumstances when she'd been physically injured there, the way he'd thought of Sara, was probably a bad idea. He'd long ago laid down a sanity-saving mental rule that said he wasn't allowed to like anything about her physical appearance except her smile, and even then, he wasn't allowed to pretend it was his.

She was his second-in-command, and he liked her that way. There had been moments, although those moments were getting blessedly rarer and he did his best not to acknowledge them when they arose, when it was almost physically painful that they couldn't be anything else. But, the fate of the world aside, he didn't like the thought of her getting sick off-world on somebody else's watch.

After her first bad encounter with off-world cuisine, Carter did her best to stay away from it and, in the past five years, she'd gotten a lot better at stomaching it when not eating something would cause some serious cultural incident. Nights like this one didn't happen often -- maybe once or twice a year, if that -- but her weakness in this one particular regard still unduly embarrassed her, which was why she categorically refused any and all help or sympathy her teammates offered her. As far as he was concerned, given how tough a package she presented, she was more than allowed one weak organ. All of them had fallen ill with something or other on missions before, of course -- Daniel was essentially useless on any planet that contained more flowers than his anti-allergy medication could effectively handle -- but Carter was less good about tolerating frailty in herself than she was in others. He sympathized, but that still didn't mean he was about to approve of her beating herself up over something she couldn't do anything about.

Not that there was much he could do to stop her. It wasn't his place to comment on her self-image. It wasn't even his place to be thinking about her self-image, not really. Some of this he could get away with under the guise of keeping his team in proper working order. That was good.

Carter's flashlight had been shining steadily in one direction for too long, he decided. If she fell asleep in the rain, she could come down with something a lot nastier than food poisoning. So, taking his life, and a dry blanket, in his hands, he decided to go out after her. If worse came to worse, he'd remind her it was his birthday, almost. She wouldn't kill him on his birthday.

She would know it was his birthday, although no one had said anything. She knew everyone's birthdays. Numbers stuck in her head like... well, like nothing stuck in his head. For all he knew, she'd memorized everybody's service numbers, too, just by flicking through personnel files one day. She couldn't scramble an egg to save her life -- he knew because he'd seen her try once, at an Easter brunch at Doc and Cassie Fraiser's, and had been thoroughly baffled at how she'd managed to annihilate the dish so badly. Hell, even he could scramble an egg -- but her memory was uncanny. Once Daniel had foolishly dared her to recite the periodic table aloud, and she'd done it while calibrating some incredibly fancy-sounding piece of equipment to scan for something equally fancy-sounding. And then, just to show off, she'd recited it backwards. He didn't know if other geniuses could do parlor tricks like that, too. She and Daniel were the first he'd ever known.

She didn't look particularly smart at the moment, huddled up miserably in the wet grass at the treeline, and he felt his heart beat oddly in that unique way it did when she was in pain and there was nothing he could do about it. She shakily raised herself up to hands and knees when she realized he was approaching -- he was far closer to her than he would have ever gotten undetected if she'd been in fighting form -- and he paused. She didn't look all that threatening, and he found he didn't want to piss her off on top of everything else more for her sake than for his.

"Safe to approach?" he finally asked.

Something that was too weak to be an actual chuckle came from the pathetic figure on the ground, and he supposed his intrusion was forgiven. "It's safe."

He turned his own flashlight on her, and couldn't keep back a little flicker of unwanted sympathy in his features. She looked horrible, and didn't smell much better. She was deathly pale and shivering, and her skin was shiny with rain and sweat and tinged vaguely violet. Her hair and clothes had been matted to her skin by the rain, making her look skinny and bedraggled. He was caught by the ridiculous urge to bundle her up and toss her in the nearest hot shower -- ridiculous, because the nearest hot shower was six kilometers and then a whole bunch of million miles away. Million or billion. Did they do billions of miles away? He'd have to ask her. She would know. All he knew was that it involved zeroes. Lots of them.

But he wasn't going to ask her right then. "You done?" he asked instead, holding out the dry blanket to her.

She winced and shuddered, seriously contemplating her answer. "I think so, sir." She didn't reach for the blanket, and he had a bad feeling she didn't have the energy to stand up on her own yet. He hated seeing her like this. At this point, humiliation or no, if they weren't so far from the 'gate she'd probably be in the infirmary right now. Or at least in a dry bed somewhere.

It felt wrong to be looming over her. After a moment of consideration for his chronically screwed-up left knee, he crouched down next to her and took her rain-soaked blanket away from her. With a reasonable degree of tenderness for a commanding officer to show, he draped the dry one he held over her shoulders and held the ends together under her chin for just a second longer than he had to. "Come on." He pulled her up by her elbows and, with an impressive minimum of stumbling on evidently shaky legs, she trailed after him back to camp.

"Go put on something dry," he ordered her, and set about firing up their portable stove. It wasn't a lot of heat, but he supposed anything counted.

She all but collapsed onto the log instead and wiped some of the mud and wet grass from her hands onto it. The bark clung to her damp skin, and she shook one arm a few times to try and get it loose before giving in to having dirty hands and curling up around her knees miserably.

"Pneumonia, Major. Go change." He figured the stubborn military side of her that made sir be every second word out of her mouth might be more obedient than the rest of her.

She tossed him a doleful look, like he wasn't playing fair. "We don't have anything dry. Sir."

She had a point. The weatherproofing on their packs left a lot to be desired, and their gear had spent most of the day in the rain. He'd started packing his change of uniform in those plastic grocery bags that were always multiplying out of control, and he couldn't believe she hadn't come up with something more effective and higher-tech. Although, perhaps she didn't eat at home often enough to have acquired enough grocery bags for her to have to start thinking of creative ways to use them up. It was a concerning thought -- she did work an awful lot, more so when she was having a bad time of it like she had been for the past year or so -- but not entirely unrealistic.

"It's got to be better than what you have on," he pointed out reasonably. Then, after running it over in his head a few times to make sure it wasn't going to come out damning, he added, "My stuff's probably dry. Wear that if your pack's still wet."

She appeared to be running his words over in her brain to see if it was damning, too, but she finally crept over to where their gear was stashed at the edge of the tarp lean-to. After rooting through her own bag, apparently without success, she glanced back over at him for confirmation.

It wasn't wrong for her to wear his clothes, was it? They were clean. It wasn't like he'd worn them first, so she wasn't going to smell like him or anything. And her reasons for wearing them were in no way untoward. He could be sparing her from pneumonia. He would be negligent as her commander if he didn't insist that she put them on.

Trying to pretend he hadn't just had to talk himself into it, he assured her, "It's fine, Major." Her rank ousted the last of the unprofessionalism from it. "Take them."

She took the grocery bags of clothing and stole into the tent containing her sleeping and kel-no-reem-ing teammates to change.

He felt strangely awkward waiting for her, so he poured a ration of water -- Earth water, not the freaky purple stuff -- into the cooking pot and set about brewing her tea. Sara had a thing about weak tea when people were sick. She'd always put honey in, for energy, but they didn't have honey in their kit so Carter would have to do without the true O'Neill family remedy.

Or what had once been called the O'Neill family remedy.

He glanced at his watch. Time seemed to be passing slowly -- though not so slowly that he would start worrying his 2IC about black-hole-y anomalies. It wasn't yet officially his birthday, and he still had half an hour to go until... well, he supposed he shouldn't really be waiting for it without his mother or Sara to say it. It wasn't like he would ask Carter to honor his bizarre family traditions just because she was there.

She re-emerged, looking only slightly less miserable in dry clothes that were a few sizes too big for her and still wrapped in the blanket he'd given her. She sat down on the log where it was closest to the cooking flame and watched him fuss with the boiling water.

He wanted to say something. She didn't exactly look up to conversation at her normal level, but she wasn't pushing him away in her illness like usual and she was wearing his clothes and it felt strangely intimate all of a sudden for him to be fixing her tea. It had been less than a year since the strange, mostly unspoken beginnings to what had been shaping up into some kind of platonic affair between them had felt real and immediate and painful and wonderful, twisting up right and wrong and desire and duty until both of them had been forced to push away from each other or drive themselves mad. In the months since then, they had started making sense again, slowly. Whatever they felt -- had felt -- felt -- for each other wasn't so overpowering that they couldn't live through it. Equilibrium, or something like it, had been regained, but he couldn't help feeling like something else had been lost in the confusion. They were too careful around each other now. She was the same Carter she had always been, bright and clever, but there were times when he felt like he barely knew her, and he missed the hell out of her.

Half a century. Right. He was in the business of being honest with himself tonight.

He had liked being infatuated with someone again. He liked especially that it was her, because she was wonderful. He had in some ways been freed by the intensity of the emotion for those few long, time-loop-including months before and after his and her confessions under threat of alien mind control. He hadn't been able to not think about her. His heart had no choice but to beat faster when she stood too close and smiled shyly at him because she was standing too close on purpose. He'd been enabled by the weakness of his own mind to feel for her, dream about her, want her.

Now that things had cooled down, their emotions unable to maintain that sort of frantic intensity while constantly being strangled back, he could keep a tight lid on it again, most of the time.

It was both a relief and it wasn't to feel like himself again.

And he still hadn't said anything to her since she'd come back out of the tent in his clothes. He sat down as respectful a distance away as he could get while being on the same log.

"You gonna pass the breakfast test?" He plucked out the tea bag, stirred the drink a few times and handed the small thermos to her.

That was the rule they silently, and Doc Fraiser less silently, had agreed on. If, the morning after getting sick, she ate a full breakfast and kept it down, she could stay on and the mission continued, no harm, no foul. Failing that, they went home and Fraiser got to poke her full of IVs.

She tentatively sniffed at her tea, testing the waters before actually risking drinking, but didn't answer him.

He checked his watch again. Twenty-three minutes.

"What are you waiting for?"

He should have known that, even sick as a dog, she was more attentive than most normal people.

"It's nothing." He had a sudden, bizarre mental image of Sara sitting by the phone in some parallel reality where they were still together trying to phone him here on '341 at 18 minutes past the way she'd done when they were first married. In real life, she was probably asleep. He hoped she was.

"Tell me," Carter asked, and for a brief moment, her expression in the stove-light made it look like she was starving.

He wondered if she missed him, too.

He slid an inch closer to her on the log. She was still shaking a little, occasionally. He wondered if it would be all right to touch her, just to transmit body heat. He decided that it wouldn't be.

She bravely took a sip of the steaming liquid in front of her and sighed, relieved, when nothing disastrous happened. She looked at him again, still waiting.

He couldn't touch her, but he wanted to give her something. She had asked, and there was no good reason not to tell her. "Silly family tradition. Staying up to say 'happy birthday, Jack' the minute I was born. My mom used to." After a beat he added, in case he'd overestimated the strength of her memory through the excitement of the evening, "My birthday's today. Well, tomorrow."

"I know," she assured him solemnly around the lip of the thermos. He'd known she'd remember, being the numerical flypaper she was, but he hadn't been sure that she would say anything. In this new era of cold compromises, even something as innocent as that could feel too forward and personal. Last year, when he would have wanted her to say something the most, and when, still caught up in their tumultuous post-Zay'tarc high, she probably would have, neither of them had known it was his birthday. He'd turned forty-nine without realizing it, busy believing that he was a whole other person, living like it was normal to be surrounded by alien ice and a brilliant and strangely familiar woman who had, accurately, felt too good to be true. "I got you a card."

"Thanks." With the exception of the year before, she had unfailingly left a best-wishes card in his in-bin every birthday, progressively less generic as she learned more about his sense of humor and realized that he was fine with her displaying hers. He hadn't known whether or not to expect one this year, if Hallmark would feel too cruelly bland in the face of... whatever... had and hadn't happened between them since her last card two years ago. Perhaps even acknowledging that she had remembered his birthday enough in advance to buy a card would somehow have meant she was thinking about him too much to be proper. But he was glad she had. They were doing normal, and that was normal. "Something to look forward to." He always scrawled quick notes on greeting cards practically as he was giving them to the person, possibly because he pretty much never remembered a birthday until someone else had already mentioned it, but he suspected that she had all of her birthday cards signed and sealed days in advance. He wondered if she'd stuck it in his in-bin already, before going off-world.

She must have read his mind, because she shook her head. "I brought it with me. It's in my pack." She waved toward it, and it was clear he was meant to get it himself while she sipped honey-less tea and regained her strength. She directed him to the appropriate pocket and he retrieved a soggy red envelope.

He made a big show of shaking it out, hoping she would smile, and she did. "Putting things in plastic bags is a good idea," she complimented him.

"I do have those, occasionally."

"You have your moments, sir."

She handed him a flashlight, and he opened the envelope. The card was Snoopy as the Red Baron, atop his dog house and pretending it was a fighter plane. His eyes only skimmed the printed text on the inside, something about his enemies being vanquished on his birthday, aware of Carter's eyes upon him and hungry for what she had written herself. The ink had spread out when the card had gotten wet, giving her handwriting a fuzzy look, but he could still make out the words.

Perhaps a prototype for the X-30X??

All the best for the next 50 years! Always, Carter.

She had long ago adopted his name for her in all correspondence with him.

Carter. Always. It was a completely appropriate card from a second-in-command. It didn't have to mean anything. But one look at her, walls torn down by two hours of being sick in the rain and openly, almost nervously watching him to see if he got it, if he understood whatever abridged feelings she'd cryptically mashed in there, told him that it did. It didn't mean they had to go back to the year before, to desperately being tugged along by their emotions, barely able to be in the same room with each other without feeling ridiculously happy and devastated all at once. But it meant something.

Again, he was struck by the urge to say something profound.

"Snoopy was always my favorite," he offered instead.

"We -- my family -- had a silly birthday tradition, too," she said then, watching the flame on the cook-stove like she was expecting it to do something.

"Traditions are good things," he replied, cautiously, because in the instant before speaking he'd somehow managed to hope that this tradition both was and wasn't going to have something to do with kissing her. Or touching each other. They could live through holding hands for a second, right?

Not that any sensible birthday tradition would involve holding hands.

He was getting pathetically sentimental in his old age. It was something he'd have to look into if he wanted to keep on being the hard-assed Colonel he'd strived so long to become.

"You make a resolution," she explained.

"Isn't that for New Year's?"

She put her mug down suddenly, like the faint scent was all of a sudden too much for her, but she didn't turn green or bolt back to the woods, so he figured she was okay. After a few deep breaths, she explained, "Not a New Year's kind of resolution. More like a wish that's supposed to last the whole year."

She looked so soft and helpless -- well, as soft and helpless as Carter ever got, which wasn't very -- that it was almost impossible not to think it. So, instead, he asked the obvious question. "I only get one?"

She nodded, and she was watching him again while he considered it. He glanced down at his watch again. 0002; the day had switched over unremarked. Happy fiftieth birthday, Jack.

"Tell me," she prompted, shivering again and tightening the blanket around her shoulders herself because he wasn't allowed to do it for her.

"Then it won't come true."

She looked concerned for a moment, taking that in like it was an important scientific consideration. "We always said them out loud," she argued, and then took a deep breath and held it, looking worried that he would or wouldn't say what they were both trying not to think.

He didn't.

"Victory for the good guys. Bad guy ass-kicking. The usual."

She let out the breath she'd been holding, and smiled. A real one.

"What did you wish for? Last year?" Her birthday was in late December, if he remembered correctly. She hadn't had one in awhile, at any rate. Anyone else would have doubtlessly forgotten any silent resolutions they'd made that long ago, but she was Carter, and she never forgot anything. "Same thing?" No matter what she said, he refused to be disappointed.

"Actually..." she frowned. "I wished that my house plants would stop dying," she admitted. "But galactic ass-kicking was a close second."

He kept his laughter low although there was very little chance of anything short of Jaffa attack rousing their teammates in the tent.

She grinned, and her eyes sparkled with the light of the cooking flame. A little life had come back into her pale, slightly-violet-dyed skin, and it looked like she was feeling better. She'd pass the breakfast test in the morning, he decided confidently.

"Did it come true? About the dead plants?"

"Yeah, actually. I started paying the girl next door to come and water them if my car was gone for more than a week."

He figured out what to say. "Let's hope it goes the same for all the other stuff."

She smiled softly and snuggled deeper into the blanket around her, and he knew she got it. Something different was passing between them, a relaxed acceptance they'd never quite approached before. They both knew what the other was studiously not wishing for, and knowing that and not saying it was okay. This wasn't the same as it had been before the whole mess of the previous year, but it was normal. They were okay. And it felt good.

And suddenly, for some reason, it wouldn't feel wrong anymore to ask her to say happy birthday to him at 0018.

He looked down at his watch again, and she followed his gaze, reading his mind again. "How long?"

"Nine minutes." She looked down at her own watch, pressing a button to light up the face. "Waiting on 12:18."

They waited in comfortable silence for a moment until she asked, "Wait... where were you born?"

The last time someone had asked the time of his birth and the location in quick succession it had been Cassie Fraiser, and she'd been punching people into some sort of online astrology whatsit. Then he'd been forced to listen to her read aloud for twenty minutes -- punctuated by repeated is that right? questions -- a whole personality profile about who he really was, deep down, and then the mask he wore for others. It was a good thing he adored the kid so much, or else stuff like that would probably bug him.

"Outside Chicago."

"That's Central Time." She pointed to her watch. "Base time is Mountain Time. You've already missed it."

Oh. Well... that was anti-climactic.

Sometimes it wasn't such a good thing that she was so obsessed with details.

"Huh." He tried to remember what he'd been thinking about an hour earlier but couldn't manage it. He hoped it had been something fitting. "You tell the guys about my birthday?"

She nodded with a yawn. "About a week ago. We'll see if they remember."

"Teal'c's not gonna sing again, is he?" Teal'c and Cassie periodically compared informal notes on the bizarre cultural oddities they'd uncovered about their adopted world. After attending her first-ever birthday party for one of her new school friends, Cassie had been a bundle of excitement about that particular "Earth ritual," going on about names being written in icing and noisemakers and teaching Teal'c to sing 'Happy Birthday.' Jack made an expression of exaggerated concern, but really, he wouldn't mind it if Teal'c sang again. That had been freaking hilarious.

"I don't know. He might."

"Maybe Hammond'll have a cake waiting for us when we get back," he suggested, and then quickly added, "Sorry," when her expression told him that she wasn't quite ready to talk about food yet. "You should sack out. I'll take up your watch."

"You don't have to, sir," she said, and he could see that she meant it, even though she still had to be feeling pretty crappy. Brave little soldier to the last. "It is your birthday."

"You need the sleep more than me."

"We could reset Daniel's watch and tell him it's his shift," she suggested, and he narrowed his eyes at her, trying not to be envious that she'd thought of that particular practical joke first. Sara and Charlie should have taught him that innocent-looking blondes were the most trouble when one's back was turned. But then, he'd never been good at learning the important lessons.

"Bedtime, Major. I'll order you into that tent if I have to."

She stood up obediently, actually bothering to dump out the rest of her tea and stow the thermos with the rest of their gear. She paused at the flap of the tent to look back at him.

"Thank you," she said, although he wasn't quite sure for what. Maybe for the tea.

"It's nothing, Carter."

She smiled, almost wistfully, probably knowing that he had no clue what she was talking about.

"Happy birthday... Jack." She looked funny as she said his name, like she wasn't quite sure she was pronouncing it right, and he had to grin at her as she ducked quickly into the tent, almost like she was fleeing the scene.

It felt unreasonably good that she had said it, even if it was an hour late.

The sounds of her shuffling into her sleeping bag and settling down mingled with the alien rain on the tarp above him, and he stowed her birthday card in his pack and let himself be really happy for a few minutes. Maybe it would be all right, he decided, one day a year, to let himself like Carter's smile enough to pretend that it belonged to him.

And maybe someday, if the galactic ass-kicking went through all right, he wouldn't even have to feel guilty about it.

But for now, this was good.

~end~

AUTHOR'S NOTE: That he turned 50 in season five came from someone, I forget who, asking me to check out people's birth dates when I watched "Entity" on DVD (and isn't it cute how they're written day-month-year? I *heart* Canada and miss it lots). They totally lie, because, like Cassie, I am an astrology dork, but I'm playing along for this fic. And I'll stop inflicting illness on my characters once I get over this mono deal, I think. There are shout-outs in here to at least three people who will almost certainly never read this. Because why not. *grin* And props to fraiser_jackson because, dude, I have a *beta* now! Your cape is in the mail, dear.

 

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