O’Neill couldn’t sleep. Not that he’d tried and failed. He just didn’t dare.
He didn’t have the nightmares as often anymore, but they still came for him from time to time, usually when he was stressed. They hadn’t come last night, probably because he’d still been sure then that as soon as he got up, they’d be right back to the search for Frank. But now that they’d lost an entire day, especially knowing the ferocity of the storms that battered the countryside around P2A-870’s stargate, he knew damn well he’d dream if he slept tonight. The last thing he needed right now was to spend half the night reliving some of the worst scenes from his life. The hell of it was that he didn’t even know what he’d get. Could be Afghanistan again, hiding out in a cave while they waited for extraction, listening to Frank’s choked breathing as he bled internally from a chest wound. He’d damn near lost him then, and he knew his mind was sure to serve that scene up to him.
Or maybe Nicaragua, that stinking filthy cell the Sandinistas had stuck him in; while off in the jungle, Frank racked his brain for a way to convince the leader of the contras they were supposed to have been training together to mount a rescue. Sara had been pregnant at the time, and all O’Neill had been able to think about was how it sucked that she’d have to raise his kid alone if he never got back. It had been a near thing, Frank told him later. But they’d managed to free him. He’d never forget the haunted look in Frank’s eyes as he’d talked about the fourteen-year-old kid who hadn’t made it, shot in the stomach in the firefight that had gotten O’Neill away from his captors. Kid called himself ‘Charlie’, Frank said, and he shouldn’t ever have had to be there at all. He was just a boy.
Or maybe he’d find himself back in Iraq again. No, best not to think about that, even awake.
As of 2100, they’d queried the MALP on P2A-870 eight times since SG-1 returned, and still the storms continued. At some point there had even been hail; the MALP’s camera had shown piles of melting hailstones gathered in the folds of their flattened tents. Some looked to be nearly the size of golf balls, and O’Neill was almost surprised that the device still functioned after that kind of bombardment. Their camp was a wreck, and God only knew how much of the equipment they and SG-5 had left behind would be salvageable once the bad weather finally passed.
But he didn’t give a damn about any of that. The weather could pulverize every scrap of hardware and equipment they’d brought to the planet, for all he cared. As long as Frank came through it all right, and they found him.
It was the waiting that was going to drive him insane. The waiting, and the not knowing. On the one hand it felt strange, after so many years of not wanting to even think about Frank, to be right back to worrying about him again. For eight and a half years, his friend had fended for himself, and obviously he’d done all right. But the two of them had made a pact, a promise to watch each other’s six, to never let harm come to one that the other could help him avoid.
And to always get each other home, no matter what. All right, so it hadn’t worked so well in Iraq, but that wasn’t Frank’s fault, and O’Neill knew that now. He knew he should have recognized it sooner. They’d spent more than twelve years closer than most brothers, then lost eight over his own mindless reaction to something that had been beyond Frank’s control. Hell, it was my idea to go after those guys the way we did in the first place, he reflected. Frank was the one who asked if I was crazy, why we didn’t just light out for the bird when we could hear it coming in, and I was the one who kept trying to call it off, worried it would get shot up. I figured we could take out that Iraqi squad and then get everyone to the secondary extraction point… well, everyone who was still alive, anyway. Colonel Tewes probably would have done what Frank was suggesting, if those assholes hadn’t already killed him. Christ, Tewes wouldn’t have had to think about it; it’s what he would have ordered us to do anyway, and I should’ve known that. Frank should’ve been 2IC, not me; time-in-grade be damned. He had a more level head on that mission, that’s for sure. It isn’t his fault I picked that day to be an idiot.
Come on, Frank, be okay. Hang in there; I’m going to get you home.
I just have to find you first.
Hammond had ordered the control room team to leave off querying the MALP until dawn, reasoning that since local time at the Stargate on P2A-870 seemed more-or-less in synch with that at the SGC, there was no point in continuing to dial up the gate during the night. He wouldn’t authorize a team to go through to the planet in the middle of the night anyway; not into the kind of conditions they already knew to expect after the storms. There wasn’t anything they could really do in the dark and the wet, so the earliest SG-1 and SG-5 could return to the site would be at local dawn at the planet’s gate, estimated to be around 0710 Mountain Daylight. With nothing to do until then, the general had ordered SG-1 to go home and get some sleep before reporting back at 0700.
Sleep. Right. What a laugh.
Daniel had offered to take him out and buy him a drink, just to get his mind off things for a while. As if he’d thought that would help. Of course, O’Neill knew that Daniel knew better — and Daniel knew he knew it. The helpless look on the archaeologist’s face when he offered must have mirrored his own on the night he’d brought Daniel home to stay with him, after returning from Abydos, the colonel thought. Daniel had just had his peaceful existence with the Abydonians ripped out from under him, his wife kidnapped by the Goa’uld, and he’d had no idea what to do with himself. O’Neill hadn’t quite known what to do with Daniel then, either, but he’d given him a place to stay and promised to help him. Out of that, and what had passed between them a year earlier on the first Abydos mission, had sprouted a friendship bond that was in some ways just as strong as the one he shared with Frank. It might not have quite the same depth just yet, and it certainly lacked the element of time — he’d known Frank for twenty-two years; had met Daniel only three years ago — but it was there, all the same. The fact that Daniel shared traits with Frank probably helped, just as he’d told his team around the campfire. Hell, Daniel and Frank would probably like each other, once they met.
So let’s get a move on and make that happen.
He’d thanked Daniel for the offer, but begged off, claiming he just wanted some sleep. Daniel knew it was bullshit; he’d seen the look in the younger man’s eyes. The words remained unspoken, however, and in the end O’Neill had simply climbed into his truck and spent half an hour driving aimlessly, listening to Puccini on the CD player until he no longer felt quite so much like screaming, and then gone home. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he’d tried to interest himself in SportsCenter, but his mind kept returning to Frank — to the planet, and the coin in the stream. To the storm, and its pounding fury that he didn’t even want to imagine a man trying to survive in without shelter.
To a violent vortex contained in a naquadah ring, a crushing gravity that made his arms feel like they were made of lead, a broken rope… and reaching out just a fraction too late to grab the hand of his best friend as he fell.
Savagely, he’d grabbed the remote and shut off the television, flinging the device onto the couch cushions so hard that it bounced and sailed across the room. Leaving the remote it where it fell, he’d snatched up his beer and a small book from the coffee table, and made his way outside to climb up to the tiny rooftop deck where his telescope waited.
Unlike conditions on P2A-870, the skies over Colorado Springs were cloudless, stars twinkling overhead in all their glory. A warm, gentle breeze blew; just enough to rustle the leaves on the trees. Just a typical August night. August. Yeesh. He’d lost more than two weeks in the space of less than a day, sucked straight out of existence by a gravity well even Carter couldn’t explain. It had been July twenty-third when he’d shown up for work the day they’d lost SG-10; after that bomb went off, he’d awakened in the infirmary to learn it was August seventh. This was the tenth; for a little over an hour still, anyway.
He shook his head to clear it, pulling the cover off the ‘scope and dropping into the chair. Stargazing, that was the ticket. It always soothed him, like few other things managed to do. Could he even see the star that P2A-870 orbited? Carter had told him where it was. Think, O’Neill… He thumbed through the book. Ah, there it was. Gliese 651, in Hercules. Close, too: fifty-eight light-years distant, give or take a bit. That must mean P3A-451 isn’t much farther, if P2A-870 was the next closest gate. Finding a black hole anywhere near this part of the galaxy would set the astronomical community on its ear. Too bad we can’t release the information. He often had trouble keeping the designations straight for the planets they visited — that was Carter’s job — but he knew that these two would remain etched in his mind. He’d lost one friend and a team on the first, and would comb the second if need be to find the best friend he refused to lose again.
He trained the telescope on the heavens, sighting in on the star. Looking at it wasn’t the same as being there, but it was the best he could do for tonight.
Cromwell tipped the stone bottle, pouring the last drop of cider into Tesni’s cup. The fire crackled in the hearth, its flames the only light in the room, save a single oil lamp. Outside a gentle breeze stirred, setting the chimes hung from the porch roof to ringing. Tesni had noticed them on a peddler’s cart in Dinas Coedwyg a week earlier, when both of them had accompanied Cadogan to a series of meetings. After seeing the way her face had lit up when she’d heard them, Cromwell had doubled back to the peddler while Tesni spoke with Cadogan, and bought them. The delight on her face when he’d given them to her later was heartwarming, and she’d wasted no time in affixing them to the corner of her porch, where they would catch even the slightest breeze.
She smiled at him now, listening. “I still can’t believe you just slipped off like that and bought those for me, Neirin.”
“Why not? You liked them, I had money with me… Nothing else better to spend it on.” He grinned. “Besides, the look on your face was worth it.”
She leaned in and kissed him, then nestled against his chest, smiling. He put his arms around her, and they watched the flames in the hearth leap and dance.
They’d spent the past hour sitting on cushions on the floor before the fire, talking, drinking cider and simply enjoying each other’s company. Tesni had been right, he realized. Just because you didn’t know what might happen next in your life, that wasn’t an excuse to not enjoy the present if you could. If anything, it was even more reason to do so. Of course, sometimes that could lead to its own set of complications, but at this point he was willing to take them as they presented themselves. He really didn’t have any clue when or if he would get the chance to go home to Earth, so for all intents and purposes, this was home now.
Cromwell had been married on Earth, a long time ago. Technically, he still was, at least as of the day he’d fallen through the Stargate, but he hadn’t seen Lisa in nine years; not since boarding a plane to return to Saudi, immediately after learning that Jack was a POW.
He’d met Lisa when he was twenty-four, just as he and Jack were finishing their first phase of Special Ops training. They’d taken to each other right away. She’d been only eighteen at the time, but possessed of a sweetness and maturity that, combined, told him in no uncertain terms that she was the woman for him. They’d married a year after they’d met, over her family’s objections.
The trouble had come later, when the strain of too much time apart and too many secrets between them – the latter a depressing necessity of his career – began to eat away at their marriage. He knew he loved her, and that she loved him, but every time he had to leave, or had to withhold the truth from her when she could see he had something on his mind and only wanted to help… well, he’d felt like he was hurting her, and it broke his heart to do that. The problem was, he hadn’t any choice. These were the circumstances of his career, and they’d both known that going in.
But neither of them had counted on just how much it would come between them. By the time he and Jack had been called to the Gulf, he and Lisa had been on the thin edge of a marital breakdown, and he’d known it. For a while, after the botched mission that had — he’d thought — left Jack dead and himself wounded, he’d tried to make things work. Shipped home to have the damage done by two Iraqi bullets to his shoulder repaired, he’d focused on trying to repair their marriage as well. God knew he’d had nothing else of value to focus on just then; not with his best friend dead, killed before his very eyes. He’d walked through life like a man half-dead himself for two months, and even Lisa hadn’t been able to work her way completely through the wall he’d erected between himself and the world, although heaven knew she’d tried. He’d known how badly it hurt her to have him so distant even when he’d been right in the same room with her, but he’d worried even more about how much it would hurt them both if he turned loose the pain and the rage he was feeling at the universe just then. Lisa didn’t need that, and she certainly didn’t deserve it.
When he’d been told that Jack was still alive, imprisoned by the Iraqis, it was on the same day he’d gotten orders sending him back to the Gulf. The war was nearly over, although he hadn’t known it then, and he’d gotten on the first plane back to join his unit, and to try to arrange a rescue mission if he could. He’d seen Lisa only once after that, on a brief trip home just after Jack’s release — no thanks to General West, who’d been in charge of operations in the area and had flatly turned down his request to mount the rescue mission he’d planned out.
Cromwell had visited Jack in the hospital, but when Jack refused to speak to him or forgive him, only screaming invective at him over his repeated apologies, he’d decided he had nothing left to offer anyone, least of all Lisa. The military could have his skills, and his brain and body until something happened to him — and he knew it was only a matter of time before it did. As for his wife, she didn’t deserve to have to put up with what he knew he had become, and so he simply stayed away. But he never divorced her, and in fact had diverted a portion of his salary each month to make sure her needs were met. When he died, the Air Force could take care of her, he’d reckoned. She’d married him expecting some sort of security, and if the financial kind was all he could offer her anymore, so be it. With any luck, she’d find someone who could give her all those other things he couldn’t, and she’d make a life for herself that way and be happy. Until then, however, he was content to know that she had a roof over her head and the benefits accorded a military spouse.
She’d never requested a divorce herself, although he’d spent eight years expecting any day to learn that she wanted one, that she was ready to move on and had found someone to move on with. As of the day he fell through the Stargate, though, that still hadn’t happened. He’d been gone nearly a year since then, however, and surely by now he’d been listed as dead. Lisa would have moved on with her life, and he sincerely hoped she would find someone who could make her happier than he had managed to, or could ever have managed to.
He wouldn’t have that opportunity now, he was certain. Still no closer to finding his way home than when he’d first arrived, there was every chance he’d be living on Tir Awyr for the rest of his life.
At least he wasn’t alone, and for that, he was grateful. Somewhere between entering Cheyenne Mountain, and these past few weeks, he’d found himself fully engaged once more with living, beyond the dictates of duty and the necessities of his job. Some of that had to do with setting things right again with Jack, even if that was perhaps the last time he would ever see him. The thought hurt, but with luck, Jack was all right. Surely they simply had no idea where to find him, and that was why no rescue had come. Cromwell knew he would go to his grave doing his best to believe that, unless something proved otherwise.
But beyond Jack, something else had brought him a measure of healing as well. Cromwell’s family had never been particularly large, nor particularly lucky. One of only two children, he’d lost his older brother before he himself had finished high school, and by the time he’d met Jack, his parents and grandparents were all gone as well. Along with Lisa, Jack — and later, Sara — had become his family. Charlie’s birth had completed the picture. When all of that was ripped away by events in Iraq, he’d felt himself adrift and alone.
Here, among the Pridani, he was neither. Tesni and Cadogan, together with the rest of their kin, had seen to that. For the first time in more than nine years, Cromwell belonged to something besides just a military unit. And he’d found that it made all the difference in the world… any world.
Abandoning his woolgathering, he looked down to see Tesni’s upturned face. “Hmmm?”
“What are you thinking about?” she asked. At first a means of drawing him back from that realm he always seemed to find himself in when lost in thought, the question had evolved into something of a playful game as well, although it still sometimes saw use for that earlier purpose. Tonight, it was a little of both, perhaps.
“Just now? This.” He kissed her. She responded by shifting in his arms to wrap her own around his neck, before drawing her head back slightly to study his face. Sliding the fingers of her right hand into his hair and around the back of his head, she drew him closer as she pressed her mouth to his. He responded, tasting the sweetness of her breath, feeling the warmth of her touch. His own hands traveled up her back, sliding up her neck to bury themselves in the tumble of her thick, wavy hair.
Her left hand caressed his chest, found his right nipple through the fabric of his tunic. She gave it a playful squeeze between thumb and forefinger, the touch sending a thrill through his entire body. Tesni’s kiss was one thing, but it had been years, far too many of them, since he’d touched or been touched in this way. He felt himself grow hard, wanting her, knowing he had to be patient. Wait, take your time, this doesn’t have to happen all at once. No one in this room is an adolescent anymore.
He shifted position slightly, intending to improve what had to be an uncomfortable angle for her back. It certainly wasn’t doing his any favors. Tesni moved with him, only she took it farther, pressing him gently backwards until they were lying on the cushions before the fire; he on his back with one knee bent, and she poised on her side, leaning over him, fingers still roaming his chest, returning again to play with his nipples. All the while, she continued to kiss him, her tongue exploring his while her other hand stroked his hair. Dear God, she has got to know what she’s doing to me. He’d found nothing passive about Pridanic women, any of them, in his time on Tir Awyr — and there was certainly nothing passive about Tesni in any respect. He got the distinct impression she was deliberately taking the lead here. And so what if she is? That’s better than having to wonder what she wants.
He reached up, caressing her face, then carried the touch on down the smooth, soft skin of her neck. At some point, his fingers lost contact with her skin, but his hand continued its journey south, coming to gently cup her left breast, finding the nipple through the lightweight fabric of her own clothing and delivering the same treatment she’d given his. “Mmmmm,” she murmured, low in her throat. The kisses ceased for a moment, and he opened his eyes to find her smiling at him. There was something both playful and primal in her expression as she wet her lips before bending to his again. After kissing him even more deeply than before, if that were possible, she turned her attention to his left ear, trailing her tongue lightly around its very edge before nibbling on the lobe, applying her teeth just enough to tickle and tease, while her left hand continued its explorations of his torso, returning again and again to pluck gently at first one nipple, then the other.
He groaned, unable to stand it, and suddenly Tesni was the one on her back, while he lay on his side, leaning over her and grinning wickedly. He was even harder now, pressed up against her flank, his right leg flung over hers for balance, but by this time she had to have known the effect she was having on him. From the look on her face and the way she moved against him, she was fully aware of the situation, and fully approving as well.
He kissed her mouth, then began to explore her neck with his tongue. The scent and taste of her flesh were like nothing he’d experienced as he carried on down the deep “V” collar of her tunic, his right hand still massaging her breast, gently pinching the nipple that stood as erect as he was. Her breath came fast and soft beneath him, and she reached out, wrapping her arms around him. “Why don’t we take this into the other room?” she whispered.
This is definitely a woman who knows how to get what she wants. And she doesn’t have to ask me twice.
He stood, held out a hand. She took it, rising from the floor and putting her arms around him, kissing him yet again, her full length pressed against him. Breaking off the kiss a moment later, she gave him a smile full of promise and turned toward the bedroom, drawing him with her. Taking the lit oil lamp from the shelf next to the bedroom doorway in passing, she set it on a similar shelf not far from her bed, where it bathed the room in soft golden light. “I want to be able to look at each other,” she explained.
They were on the same page there, too.
Tesni turned down the bedcovers, kicking her sandals off as he removed his own. She turned, sliding her hands up over his shoulders and around the back of his neck again, drawing him close for another kiss. He obliged, pulling her tightly against him in the process. The feel of her lithe body against his, even with both of them still fully clothed, was amazing. Drawing back slightly after kissing her, he studied her face intently. Good grief, Cromwell, what did you do to deserve this? With an effort, he pushed raw physical desire aside for a moment to focus on something he held far more important.
Tenderly brushing a stray lock of hair from her forehead, he tucked it behind her ear. “You’re sure about this?” he asked. He had to ask; honor permitted him no less.
Her gaze was steady, locked on his. “Completely.” A smile played about her lips. “As if you couldn’t tell.”
Cromwell kissed her again, an emotion too long denied coursing through him, reawakened by this extraordinary woman in this unlikeliest of places and circumstances. “I love you,” he said, his voice little more than a husky whisper.
Her answering smile was like the rising of a sun. “I love you, too.”
They undressed each other with a mixture of awe and urgency. He ran his hands along her bare skin, marveling at the smooth perfection he found there. Her slender body was firm and taut. She had a runner’s physique: built for speed, grace and wiry strength, though for all of that, she was not an especially small woman. At five-foot ten, Cromwell stood slightly taller than many men in Llanavon, and the top of Tesni’s head was even with the bridge of his nose. He knew that some men preferred women who resembled tiny, delicate flowers, but he had always been drawn to the athletic type as being far more his match.
Tesni explored his body as well, her touch on his flesh awakening every nerve. He noted that she didn’t shy away from the various scars he carried; neither did she seem to focus on them, appearing instead simply to accept them as part of him. Not surprising, perhaps. She’d known he was a soldier since they’d met, and that while he’d seen plenty of combat situations, he’d never seen the likes of a Tok’ra healing device before last year.
Naked now, he was grateful that the warmth of summer meant they could enjoy this experience fully, even away from the fire. Every touch, every kiss brought him to new heights of arousal, and it was clear that he wasn’t alone in this. Still, he put off the act itself, wanting to prolong the exquisite enjoyment of mutual exploration… until finally, Tesni took control of matters. A subtle shift of position, and suddenly his body responded of its own accord, bringing them together with a shock of pleasure that made him gasp aloud. Tesni’s own exclamation of delight was only slightly more subtle.
They made love with the tender passion of two people who had denied themselves this aspect of their lives for an enormity of time, only to find in each other a healing balm for the emotional wounds that both had allowed to restrict them in this manner. Afterward, as they lay side by side, arms and legs still entangled, Cromwell found himself fully at peace for the first time in years. He reached out, stroking the side of Tesni’s face, tucking errant strands of hair once more behind her ear. “Thank you,” he murmured.
She eyed him quizzically. “For what?”
“Everything. Just being, I guess.” He shrugged, smiling. “I don’t know. But thank you anyway.”
“Neirin, I should thank you. I never thought to feel this way again, or to let myself, but that was a mistake. This is so much better.” She kissed him then, running her fingers through his hair, ruffling it on top before turning in his arms until they were cuddled like spoons. She pulled up the covers over them both, with a drowsy sigh.