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Jack rose from his chair when Siler and Stevens entered his tent pulling two completely wasted and giggling women with them. Carter and Maldoran. He raised his eyebrows.
“What’s going on?”
“Sir.” Siler straightened. “We found them in the forest, drinking.”
Jack’s face darkened and he dropped his pen. The forest. Carter knew she wasn’t allowed to leave camp. This was a serious breach of security. On top of that, she was on probation. “Did they go to town?”
“Judging from Maldoran’s expression when she said no, we assume they did. They had alcohol from the liquor store.”
“Lies.” Maldoran took a step forward and stumbled over the edge of one of the wooden boxes holding files. Carter reached out to steady her, but lost her balance as well. The two women tumbled to the floor. They rolled over on their backs and broke into a fit of laughter.
“Oh fer cryin out loud.” Jack rubbed his temples. This was ridiculous. The situation might have amused him had Carter not been a recruit and disobeyed a direct order. Again.
He folded his arms and glared at the women, who managed to get back on their feet with Siler and Stevens’s help. They still giggled whenever they looked at each other.
“Carter, Maldoran.” Jack slammed his palms on the desk. Both women jumped to attention—or at least they tried, before they both swayed. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“We’re having fun.” Carter beamed at him. Her little hiccup would have been endearing under different circumstances.
Jack narrowed his eyes when Vala stifled another giggle. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with two drunken soldiers this early in the morning.
Carter’s eyes widened. “S-sir?”
“You were under explicit orders not to leave camp.” He pinned her with a glare. She held his gaze. So she wasn’t even gonna respond? He growled. “Don’t you have anything to say in your defense?”
“S-screw the rules, s-sir. I’m done with them.”
She… what? He scanned her face in bewilderment. She still swayed, but the determination in her blue eyes was startling. Not many people had ever dared to speak to him that way to his face.
“Yeah.” Vala folded her arms. “Screw them. We’re starting a revolt.”
Jack shifted his gaze to Maldoran. This was beginning to feel like mutiny. Before he could say anything though, Carter turned to face the other woman.
“Wait, what?” She stumbled against Vala again. “Who s-said anything about a revolt?”
“It just has a nice ring to it. R-r-revolt.” Vala shrugged.
Jack walked around his desk and inhaled deeply, forcing himself to remain calm. Yelling would be useless. As wasted as the two were, they would remember very little once they sobered. “You two are completely out of line.”
“Out of line?” Vala glared at him, her speech slurring. She took a step towards him and almost stumbled again. “No, y-you are out of line. Do you even know what you’re doing? Why won’t you let Sammie beat up a guy who sexually harasses her? That, mister, is so out of line.” She tried to hit Jack’s chest but failed and instead nearly fell against him. Jack hurried to steady her before she hit the floor. If they kept stumbling around like this, they were gonna destroy his command tent.
“She’s a nice girl.” Vala ranted on. Jack raised his eyebrows. “Why do you do that to her? What did she do to you?”
“Vala.” Carter took a step towards them and grabbed Vala’s arm. She tripped and Jack half expected her to fall all over his desk, but she caught herself. “S-stop. What the hell are you doing?” She gave Vala a pitiful glare.
Okay so at least somebody still had some sense left in them. Kinda. Carter looked up at him. She stood so close. He swallowed hard. Her breath smelled faintly of alcohol, and her hands came to rest on his chest as he steadied her.
She held his gaze for a long moment, then a faint smile touched her lips. “You smell good.”
Jack coughed. Had he heard right? Her fingers tangled in the material of his shirt. He grabbed her wrists. “Carter.”
“Has anybody ever told you, you’re handsome?”
Siler and Stevens lowered their heads, and he caught sight of two grins. Jack clenched his jaw and glared at the young woman. Without effect. Apparently oblivious to their company, Carter beamed at him. Then her gaze dropped to his mouth, and her fingers relaxed. Her head tipped forward ever so slightly. What the hell was she…?
Whoa. Jack grabbed her shoulders to hold her in place. She was completely wasted. “Focus, Carter.” If Vala’s accusation hadn’t been so severe, and the entire situation a breach of protocol, this might have been funny.
“Yes, sir.” Again, that smile. His pulse raced. Definitely focusing on the wrong thing here.
“Carter. Is it true? Somebody harassed you?”
“It is.” Vala stepped in.
“I was asking her, not you, Maldoran.” Jack fixated Carter with his gaze, and she swallowed visibly, then lowered her eyes. Her demeanor changed, and she took a step back, her arms wrapped around her body.
“It’s nothing, sir.”
Vala snorted. Jack’s face darkened and he turned to walk back to his chair. “I don’t have time to get involved in your practical jokes.”
“It’s not a joke.” Vala stumbled to his desk and slammed her palms down. Some files hit the floor.
Jack scowled at her. “Maldoran.”
“He kissed her, and he harasses her every chance he gets. She thinks about leaving the resistance, did you know that?”
Jack studied her. He’d never seen Maldoran that determined. When she was drunk she usually hit on every guy she came across, and that was all she cared about. Something about the underlying graveness in her voice alarmed him. Carter grabbed her friend’s arm.
“Vala. Don’t.” Why was Carter being so defensive? What the hell was going on?
“What, so he can do it again?” Vala turned to her, her eyes flaring up. “You gonna just take it without doing anything?”
“I said shut up.” Sam shoved Vala’s shoulders. The force of it made her lose balance and before she could catch herself, Sam stumbled against the other woman. They both crashed against a few boxes on the floor, looked at each other wide-eyed for a moment, and then started giggling again.
Jack rubbed his temples. Enough. “For crying out loud. Get those two into confinement to sober up. Separate barracks.” Talking to them would be useless until the alcohol was out of their system.
Siler and Stevens hurried to comply, and escorted the two women out of his command tent.
Sighing, Jack sunk down into his chair. What the hell was the matter with Carter? This was another one in a series of recent slip-ups he couldn’t let pass. Not only had she defied an order, her behavior posed a threat to security. And she hadn’t even cared.
He picked up a pen and tapped it on the paper while he fixated on some random point in the room. Hopefully, Vala’s accusations had been a drunken joke. Carter’s reaction to it had been odd though. Defensive. Evasive.
Come to think of it she’d changed a lot during the past few weeks. She’d become distant, and she’d made mistakes that were unusual. He hadn’t noticed because she’d managed to make up for them every time, but now that he thought about it…
Just four days ago she’d stepped into one of the traps they’d set in the training course. It had been a simple task, and she should have easily avoided it, but her focus was a million miles away. Only when she’d ended up hanging from a tree in a net had she regained her focus. She’d surprised Sheppard, and him, when she’d freed herself by studying the mechanism of the trap and disabling it.
That day, she’d completed the training course last. But she’d made it to the finish line. Her way of thinking was unique, and he’d never seen another recruit that agile before.
Something was definitely going on with her.
He couldn’t shed the niggling feeling that Vala’s accusation might be right. His pulse sped up, his grip tightening on the pen. Once she had sobered, he would have to talk to her.
Sam groaned when the wooden door opened with a soft squeak on metal hinges. Sunlight leaked into the small cell that was barely big enough to hold a bed. She covered her eyes against the brightness and sat up.
“Oh, God.” Her memory slowly returned. Blinking, she recognized the silhouette of a man in the doorway. Colonel O’Neill. Oh boy, was she in trouble.
“Sir.” She stumbled to her feet to stand at attention and flinched at her stinging headache. Yeah, abrupt movements were definitely a bad idea.
“Ah.” O’Neill pulled the door closed, whether it was to shield her from the light or to have privacy, she wasn’t sure. “So you have at least regained some sense of respect.”
Sam closed her eyes. More details started to come back to her. Oh God, she’d told him to screw the rules. Worse, she’d hit on him. Her cheeks burned. “I don’t know what to say. I-I’m really sorry, sir.”
“For the insubordination, or the disobedience?” Her head snapped up at his tone. At least he couldn’t her embarrassment in the dimness of the cell. “What the hell was that, Carter? You know the rules.”
He didn’t even bother yelling at her. Probably not a good sign. Maybe he’d concluded she was a lost cause anyway. Her throat constricted. “Yes, sir.”
“Are you trying to make me throw you out? Are you deliberately testing how far you can go? Or is this all just a joke to you? Tell me if it is, and I won’t even waste my time with you anymore, recruit.” He stepped up into her personal space, his gaze never leaving her face.
“No sir.” Her voice trembled.
“No sir, what?” His gaze intensified. Warmth radiated from his body and his scent made her head swim.
“No, sir, this isn’t a joke to me.” She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. Waves of heat rushed through her, as her skin tingled with awareness of his proximity. What would it feel like to have his hands run across her skin? Painful need shot through her and she straightened in shock. This had to be the alcohol lingering in her blood. What was the matter with her?
He was angry at her. This was hardly the time to indulge in feelings of attraction to him. Not that there was ever an appropriate time for that.
“Why did you sneak out? You’re lucky Maldoran was with you, or I’d have interrogated you already as a potential traitor. You know you’re not allowed to leave camp.”
She bit her lower lip, and held his gaze. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Go ahead.” He stepped back and the tension left her body.
“I’m not sure I should be here, sir.” Her voice shook.
O’Neill folded his arms and raised his eyebrows. “What do you expect, Carter? You broke the rules. Confinement’s standard protocol.”
“That’s not what I meant, sir.” Sam took a deep breath. “I mean here at camp.”
His face remained blank as he scrutinized her. She lowered her eyes and waited. Finally, he walked over to the uncomfortable little pallet standing against one of the walls of the tiny cell, and sat down.
“Care to explain why?”
“It’s just…” She swallowed hard. “I can’t help thinking it was a foolish idea of me to join the resistance. I’m not cut out for this.”
The long moment of silence that followed made her fidget. She scratched the skin of her arm.
O’Neill’s gaze remained fixated on her. “Doesn’t sound like the woman who walked into a bar full of slave traders to find a resistance contact.”
The gentleness in his voice threw her off. She shifted her eyes to his. “Maybe she realized how stupid that was. That the bartender was right and she’s in way over her head.”
“Ah.” He leaned back and surprised her with a smirk. “It was a little reckless, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Sam smiled weakly.
“Only because she did it without having backup, though.”
Her gaze shot to his. “I think I’m better off alone.”
He folded his arms and shook his head. “Carter.” With a sigh he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his thighs. “Nobody’s better off alone, especially not on the streets. You got people to watch your back here, you know?”
Did she? She hugged herself with her arms. During the past few weeks, she’d begun to feel pretty damn alone. Sure, there was Jason, and they got along well. But somehow, she couldn’t shed the feeling he was only sticking with her because he felt sorry for her. Most of the others seemed to share Hanson’s opinion that she didn’t have a place in the field—judging by their quiet acceptance of Hanson’s behavior.
Not that she needed any of them to protect or defend her. She lifted her chin. No, she could do fine on her own.
“Sam.” He drawled her name and she swallowed hard. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
She averted her gaze and looked at the walls and the door. “Nothing, sir.”
He didn’t back down. “Are you being harassed?”
She shifted uncomfortably and rubbed her upper arms. His bluntness came unexpected. She’d hoped he’d take Vala’s statement for a drunken joke. “This isn’t really about that.”
“Oh, but it is.” His tone was nearly a snap, and she flinched. “At the very least, it’s the only reason I’m giving you the benefit of a doubt, and haven’t kicked your ass out already. Damn it, Carter.” He got up and paced two steps to the wall, then back. “This is not just your problem. As camp leader I’m responsible for what happens to my people. If there’s someone here who turns against us, I gotta know. Do you wanna be stuck on a mission with someone like that someday?”
Her resolve weakened. He was right. She hadn’t considered Hanson might act like this again in the future. Maybe not towards Vala or Janet—they were too high-ranking already. What if they got another female recruit, though?
She sighed and dropped her arms.
O’Neill’s face hardened. “Spill it.”
“There might have been a minor incident.”
“Define minor.” He sat back down, his tone gentling.
“It’s nothing, really. I know he just did it to push my buttons. And it just showed me that I don’t belong—“
“Carter. What happened?”
She closed her eyes, her cheeks burning. Thank God the dimness of the room provided her with a little privacy to hide her emotions. “He kissed me. It’s nothing I can’t handle, sir, but I’m on probation. I couldn’t really defend myself without it looking as though I’d started another brawl. And there was no witness, so…” She shook her head and released her breath.
“God.” O’Neill rubbed his hands over his face. “When I put you on probation, it didn’t mean you were supposed to take harassment.”
Her head jerked up and she met his gaze. He believed her? She’d half-expected him to discard her story.
“Who did it?”
She had a feeling he wouldn’t leave until she told him what he wanted to know. “Hanson.”
Another groan from him.
“Sorry, sir.” Her eyes stung and she swallowed hard.
“You’re sorry?” He shook his head. “I’m the one who has to apologize to you. That shouldn’t have happened. It’s my responsibility to evaluate people’s characters.”
She pressed her lips together. Something about his reaction warmed her heart. It wasn’t his fault. “I didn’t see it coming.” She sat down next to him and blew out a soft breath. “I should have, though. I’ve seen that look so many times, but when it happened with him… I didn’t… I wasn’t prepared for it. My guard was down.”
O’Neill turned his head. “In my book that’s not something a woman should need to prepare for. Especially not in my camp.”
They both became silent.
She turned her head at the intimate edge to his voice.
“If there are problems like this, I need to know about it. Next time, write a report if you feel uncomfortable talking about it. Otherwise I can’t do my job.”
“Okay.” She nodded and looked down at her hands.
“And for the record, harassment doesn’t qualify as trying to push a teammate’s buttons. Or as a prank.” She wouldn’t look at him and he sighed. “Next time, talk to me instead of breaking the rules.”
“To be honest, sir, it wasn’t just about that.” She bit her lower lip, and groped for words. “When I decided to seek out the resistance, I didn’t think it would be this hard. I barely pass the exercises and I keep messing up. I’m in way over my head and I misjudged my ability to handle the stress.”
Confusion flashed across O’Neill’s face as he studied her. “I see. I’m sorry to hear that. During training, some people realize they can’t handle the mental stress. Gotta say, hearing it from you disappoints me a little.”
“If that’s how you feel, I can arrange for you to drop out. As I said, though, no second chances.”
Sam looked at him, taken aback by his words. He made it sound so simple. Somehow it felt a lot more complex to her. Where was she supposed to go if she left? Returning home to her father wasn’t an option. Neither was living on the streets as she’d done before.
All that had kept her going was the idea of finding the resistance and fighting the Aschen. If that was gone… “I don’t know how I feel, sir.”
O’Neill’s face hardened. “Well, I don’t need people who lack confidence in their own abilities.”
Her eyes widened. Was he throwing her out?
“I don’t do pep talks during training, Carter. If you feel that you’re not up to the task, leave. This might sound harsh to you, but my job here isn’t to convince people they can do it. I kinda expect that conviction as a start-out requirement. I know the woman I met at the ‘Forest Elf’ did have that. So what the hell changed?”
His gaze rested on her for a moment, and when she didn’t reply, he went on.
“To be honest, it’ll get a lot harder than this. If you feel training’s too much for you to handle, then frankly, I don’t think you’ll be able to make it in the field.” His voice gentled. “There’s no shame in that. Not everybody’s cut out to work in the resistance.”
Her fingers clenched her shirt. Throat tight, she lowered her head with a nod.
“Sam… I don’t mean to be cruel, but this is a resistance camp. We’re training you to fight the Aschen on potentially dangerous missions. Sugarcoating it by pretending things are going to get easier wouldn’t be fair to you.”
“I understand, sir. I appreciate the honesty.” She lifted her head when she was certain the burning in her eyes had stopped. He was right.
“If you want out, all you gotta do is tell me.” He got up and crossed the room. “Sleep on it and clear your head. A hangover isn’t the right moment to make a decision like that.”
“Yes, sir.” Sam nodded.
“I’m putting you under arrest until tomorrow morning, but I’ll send Janet in to give you some pills to help against the hangover. You got enough time, so sleep it off. I promise, Hanson’s not gonna be a problem for you anymore. I’ll handle the situation.”
“Yes, sir.” She gave him a shaky smile, not sure whether to believe him. If he talked to Hanson, or gave him a speech, Hanson certainly would take his anger out on her. She shouldn’t have said anything.
“You can tell me your decision after tomorrow morning’s recruit briefing. By then I have decided how to handle your breach of security. Maybe I’ll throw you out myself for blatant disregard of regulations.”
Was that a twinkle of amusement in his eyes? She wasn’t sure. His voice sounded serious enough.
“Yes, sir. For what it’s worth, I didn’t sneak out to break the rules. Vala was just being a friend when I wanted to get away.”
“Noted, recruit. I’ll see you tomorrow at the briefing.”
“Good morning, people.” John Sheppard marched toward the group of recruits. It was six am in the morning, but the dark-haired soldier didn’t seem to mind the early hour at all.
Sam suppressed a little yawn. The aspirin Janet had provided her with did little more than dull the pain of her hangover. Never, ever would she get that drunk again.
Sam relaxed her stance. O’Neill joined Sheppard in the front, carrying a few papers and a folder in his hand.
“I see most of you are thrilled at another day of field training with me.” Sheppard gave a cheerful smile. “But before I brief you on today’s training mission and divide you into teams, there are a few matters that need to be addressed.”
He took a sheet of paper from O’Neill and paced up and down in front of them. “It seems that, during the past week, discipline got a little lax with some of you. Things happened that we can’t tolerate. We won’t go into details here, but I believe the people in question know who I am talking about.”
Sam shrunk down, her cheeks burning. It didn’t take a genius to realize they were referring to her and her little tour to town with Vala. She knew the news had made its rounds. Damn this camp for being so small where rumors and gossip were concerned.
“Let me take this moment to clear a few things up.” Sheppard straightened and his face became serious. “The rules aren’t in place to make your lives hard, but to protect all of us. Any time one of you breaks them, you are not only putting yourselves in danger, but also the rest of us. From now on, any deviation from the rules will be punished by exclusion from training. You all know what that means. No training, no admittance into the resistance.”
His gaze passed over the group of recruits. Then he lifted the piece of paper.
“Among the most important rules are: You are, under no circumstances, allowed to leave camp, not even with another member of the resistance, unless explicitly ordered to do so by a person carrying the rank of colonel.” He raised his eyebrows. “That’s either Colonel O’Neill, Colonel Mitchell, or myself. Furthermore, from today there’ll be a curfew in place. You’ll all be in your tents by ten at night. You’ll speak respectfully to your fellow recruits without starting brawls, and you will follow given orders to the letter. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” the group of recruits replied in unison.
“Well, that’s a start.” Sheppard folded his arms. “Unfortunately, for one of you, this eagerness to follow rules comes too late.”
Sam froze. Her heart pounded in her ears when O’Neill’s gaze locked with hers. He hadn’t been kidding. They were going to throw her out. Blood drained from her face. Well, he’d said he hadn’t made a decision about what to do with her yet.
And after she’d told him yesterday how overwhelmed she was, she should be relieved that he and Sheppard made the choice for her. The emptiness inside her surprised her. Her throat sore, she rubbed her palms over her pants. No, no, no. Please no. She needed to be part of the resistance, no matter what the cost. She’d grow stronger if needed. She could be better. Just one last chance.
“Hanson, please step forward.” Sheppard’s voice and the resulting murmur that went through the recruits drew her back to reality.
Hanson took a hesitant step forward, looking confused.
Sheppard eyed him coldly. “Pack up your things, you’re out.”
“Sir?” The young man raised his eyebrows. “I have exemplary training results.”
“So you do.” Sheppard nodded. “It’s not just fighting skills we’re looking for, though. All things considered, you don’t meet the requirements.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Hanson fisted his hands. “You can’t do that. You have no grounds to—“
“Shut up, Hanson.” O’Neill’s eyes blazed. “You’re lucky we’re giving you the easy out.”
Sheppard remained unmoving. “He voted for shooting you. I argued it’d be a bit drastic.”
Okay, that had to be a joke. Certainly O’Neill wouldn’t have… Her gaze found the camp commander’s, and she saw a glint in his eyes. Thank God.
Hanson was apparently unimpressed. “I don’t get this. I’m better than all of them. You said you reviewed the records. Is this about my failures in field training? Because let me tell you—”
Sheppard’s face hardened. “This matter is neither open for discussion, nor negotiation. You excelled at the cost of your teammates.” He turned to the rest of the group. “Let me make something clear to all of you. If you think you can backstab your teammates, or stand out and try to be the best at the cost of others, please step forward now. It saves us the trouble of having to filter you out.”
Deadly silence followed.
“Stewart, please escort Hanson to his tent and see that he packs up his stuff.” Sheppard looked at Hanson. “You’ll be sedated and escorted back to where you were recruited. From there you’re free to do whatever you want. Don’t make any attempts to contact the resistance again.”
Sam held her breath as Stewart escorted Hanson away. This was unbelievable. Instead of throwing her out, they’d thrown Hanson out. Despite his high marks and exemplary records.
“Now, may I have your attention for today’s mission briefing?” Sheppard’s loud voice drew the attention of the recruits back to the purpose of the gathering.
Sam only partly listened. She’d be on sanitary duty for another day anyway, so no mission for her. Mild guilt rose in her. Hanson had been kicked out because of what she’d told O’Neill. Yes, Hanson had been an idiot, but…
On the other hand, nobody would harass her anymore. Nobody would pick on her every flaw, or wait for her to make a mistake only to publicly humiliate her. An entire mountain range lifted from her chest at the realization.
Sam jumped to attention and lifted her head to look at Sheppard.
Sheppard smirked. “Daydreaming, were you? Well, you better wake up, you’re on team D today. I suggest you pay attention to the mission briefing.”
Sam smiled brightly. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
She was on a team. No more sanitary duty. They’d suspended her sentence?
After the briefing was over, Sheppard got up from the box he’d sat on. “Alright. Let’s head over to the training grounds, and I’ll all hand you your mission sheets. Not you, Carter. You report to the colonel first, and join us later on. I’ll have Morris brief you on your mission.”
“Yes, sir.” She nodded and remained standing in place as the rest of the group moved out. Then she walked up to her camp commander.
O’Neill studied her, long and intense. “In light of what happened, we all agreed to suspend your punishment. You can partly thank Maldoran for that. She spent the entire day yesterday getting on my nerves about talking you into the little drinking adventure.”
She shook her head. “She didn’t talk me into—”
“Carter.” He raised his eyebrows, a glint in his eyes. “I don’t wanna hear it. You’re both lucky she’s a full member of the resistance. She got reprimanded, and was in confinement until she sobered up. I’ll refrain from taking further action, though.”
“Yes, sir.” Sam gave him a warm smile. “Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me yet, Carter. You’ll be under strict supervision from now on. One more act of insubordination, and you’re out, understood?”
Sam gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir.”
O’Neill’s expression gentled. “That’s, if you’ve decided to stay with us?”
“Yes, sir. I have. I really want to go through with this training.”
He folded his arms and sat down on the edge of the wooden box that Sheppard had used before. “Oh?”
“I know I can do it, sir. I don’t want to leave. I promise, from now on there’ll be no more slip-ups.” His scrutinizing stare made her fidget, hands behind her back. She cleared her throat. “I’ll have to work on myself, and I know it’s probably not gonna be easy, sir. But it can’t be harder than walking into a bar of slave traders, right?”
A smirk tugged at his lips. “Right.” He picked up the file lying next to him and held it up. “I reviewed your training files. Both Sheppard and Mitchell think you have potential to become a promising member of the resistance, provided you get a grip and stop going against the rules. I concur. You got guts and brains. And you have perseverance enough to get back on your feet when you’re down. Don’t throw that potential away.”
Sam’s eyes widened. Sheppard—and even Mitchell—had said that? She gave him a cheeky smile. “I thought you didn’t do pep talks, sir.”
“Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “There’s an exception to every rule.” Then a throat clearing. “Don’t use that as an excuse to go against the rules.”
She couldn’t help a soft laugh and bit her lower lip in an attempt to stifle it, when he folded his arms. “Sorry, sir. I won’t.”
“Don’t make me regret giving you this last chance.”
“I won’t, sir.” She straightened.
“No, you won’t.” His lips broke into a warm smile and her heart skipped a beat. “Report to your team, recruit.”
This chapter was inspired by the Delta Goodrem song “Believe Again”. Here’s the clip for you: