It's taken a while to get here, but with the unending support of my staunchest supporter and beta, Nell, it's here at last. Thanks for everything, Nell.
Hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
When thinking about it later - which he did relentlessly - he decided that it must have been the unease in his 2IC's tone which had halted his momentum, preventing him from entering her lab. Until that instant, he'd been playing out in his mind what he should say to explain the course of action he had decided on. And knowing the major's position on the gender issue all too well – and here he found himself grimacing – he knew without a doubt that he was going to meet with resistance. Strong resistance. Hell, that was putting it mildly.
And depending on how he managed to phrase the whole thing could well depend on whether he was made to eat humble pie - inedible humble pie - for a number of missions to come. However, as he braced himself, he knew his decision was the right one, no matter how much he might side with Carter on the actual issue itself. But as her hushed words became audible, Jack felt a paralyzing chill enter his body, freezing him to the bone.
"I just don't know what to do for the best…I know he has these strong feelings for me but…well…I…I…it's no good – I just don't feel the same!"
And as the meaning echoed in his befuddled head, he closed his eyes and, along with them, his heart, railing silently against his own predictability.
He knew his face must reflect the shock he was feeling – he was stunned, barely able to comprehend that what he believed he had concealed so fervently had been glaringly transparent to her. And to add to his ignominy, he'd had to hear of his 2IC's acute embarrassment as she told someone else about her screwed-up situation.
No way in hell could he go in there now! He didn't know with whom she was speaking, whether she was on the phone or actually with someone, but he couldn't face her just at this moment, not the way he…. His eyes hardened. What he'd come to tell her would just have to wait.
She literally fell through the door she had just struggled to open, cursing silently as her tight-covered knees impacted the conference room's hard floor, then inwardly cringed as she looked up to find four pairs of eyes had swung round to rest on her as she scrambled rather inelegantly to her feet. Brushing down her skirt and straightening her jacket, she was aware that right now her collar felt uncomfortably tight. She could only hope that her hose hadn't got any holes in them; that would be all she needed to feel and look the complete idiot.
Smiling weakly and attempting to regain a level of composure sadly lacking in her all too clumsy entrance, Sam turned, took a deep breath and gently closed the door.
She turned back, slightly surprised that Daniel wasn't attempting to hide his hilarity - there wasn't a hint of amusement - and even more puzzled to see her CO's attention now fixed intently on a pen he was twisting and turning every which way it would go. For one ghastly moment she wondered if her cursing had been heard and felt a blushing color creeping up her neck.
"General, Colonel, I'm sorry I'm late."
Being late in the military, she had learned in the very early days of her career, was breaking the eleventh commandment – not to be recommended, particularly if your CO was Colonel Jack O'Neill. She was still trying to conceal her breathlessness as she moved to her usual place at the table. She cast Jack an apologetic glance, appealing to his dry humor with her next words.
"I don't seem to have got the memo."
General Hammond's reassuring smile and warm eyes helped dissipate some of the coils of tension that had sprung up in her stomach when she received no conspiratorial response, but the feeling of awkwardness was suddenly overwhelming so that she stared fixedly at General Hammond.
"No need for apologies, Major; you weren't meant to attend this meeting."
As if a cold shower of ice particles had hit her like a blast from the wormhole, Sam blinked and wondered if she'd somehow misheard the words. The same as when Lt. Laura Collins had mentioned that there was a meeting going on between the General and SG-1 – and why wasn't she there? Told to her just as she stepped out of the shower, dripping wet!
She now turned the full force of her blue, bewildered eyes on him, but there was nothing in his features for her to read. It was as if he were ignoring her, as if she were a nonentity not even worth…She shook her head. She had to be reading this situation all wrong. A small line appeared on her forehead and she could feel the beginnings of a tornado of a headache.
Her eyes narrowed. 'What the hell is going on here?' her silent question blasted him, demanding a response.
His lips curled into a smile but she wasn't fooled by it. Her focus stayed on his eyes which were too dark and revealed…nothing.
"That's right, Carter. You're on down time – some well deserved days to do whatever it is you do with all those doohickeys that keep mounting up in your lab awaiting your in-depth attention and exhaustive studies."
'This has to be a joke!' She could sense something in his voice too, it was almost forced yet there was dullness, as if he could hardly be bothered to...No, it made no sense whatsoever.
Her confused eyes span round to Daniel and Teal'c, desperately hoping her linguist friend would burst out laughing and the tall, calming Jaffa warrior would warm her with his comforting smile, but the concern in Daniel's eyes only made her want to shrivel up and she felt her cheeks flush hotly again.
"I…I don't understand..."
Jack cleared his throat and smiled woodenly. "Nothing to understand, Carter. You'll join us next time. Oh, and close the door on your way out."
It was said in a perfectly friendly, perfectly ordinary tone, but Sam recoiled as if slapped. Slapped hard.
General Hammond had not made two-star general for nothing and he threw Jack a warning look, which conveyed in no uncertain terms his displeasure, before giving Sam a sympathetic smile.
"Major Carter, Colonel O'Neill felt that this operation would be a waste of your expertise which on this occasion would be better served by staying on world. Being a male dominant society, women aren't made welcome and so it was decided that your presence would be more suited to…"
Sam was aware the general was still talking and heard, as from a distance, phrases such as 'sympathetic to your needs', 'accede to the colonel's decision', 'admire your commitment', but as she stared at her own CO with a mixture of confusion and defiance, she knew full well the outcome was exactly what she had feared.
Not taking her eyes off O'Neill, a simple message was transferred in that look and then, with a Herculean effort, she forced every dark emotion from her features. It was easier than she'd imagined, but there again, she'd had lessons from the very best. Even so, she dipped her head, reluctant to meet anyone's eyes as she pushed her chair back, her legs suddenly feeling as if they had trouble supporting her.
"I'll get back to my lab, then…Sirs."
The walk from the room to her lab was done in a daze, the question 'Why' reverberating in her skull until she collapsed at her desk, dropping her aching head into her arms. As humiliation washed over her it was enough to spur her normally well-controlled temper and she was goaded to unreasonable action, so as the turmoil in her head reached a painful crescendo, she lashed out at the objects near her right arm, sending them smashing to the floor.
"Colonel – a word, please."
Jack had not been mistaken when he'd seen the look of censure in the general's pale blue eyes when telling Sam to leave. The head of Stargate Command had not been amused by his 2IC's brash manner and he intended letting said colonel know exactly how he felt when they were alone.
The older man sat awhile, elbows on table with fingers steepled.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on, Colonel?" he asked softly.
Jack raised innocent, brown eyes. They were too innocent.
The alarm bells went off the moment General Hammond heard his 2IC's tone and saw the look. An astute man, he had survived four years commanding Jack O'Neill with few ill side-effects if you ignored the lack of hair on his head that is, but his own personal early warning system was blaring out an alarm to proceed with caution.
"Was that an oversight on your part, failing to inform Major Carter that she was off the team for the next mission?" There was a distinct chill to the older man's question.
Jack blinked. "I screwed up, General, I'm sorry."
Hammond's eyes stayed locked on the silver-haired man.
"I think, Colonel, you need to be conveying those sentiments to someone else."
Their eyes met in complete understanding. The order was clear as well as the metaphorical stern slap on his wrist.
Jack kept his eyes fixed on the general's a moment longer in the hope of a change to the message. There was none.
(Chapter 2 to follow)