Jackfic Archive Story

 

Learning to Live With It Part 13

by Su Freund

Disclaimer: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. I have written this story for entertainment purposes only and no money whatsoever has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s).


Title: Learning to Live With It Part 13

Author: Su Freund

Email: su_freund@ficwithfins.com

Website: http://www.ficwithfins.com/

Category: Angst, Drama, Action/Adventure, Romance

Content Level: Age 13+

Content Warnings: Minor use of mild language

Pairings: Jack & Sam

Season: Future

Spoilers: Message in a Bottle, Cure and general S9 spoilers

Summary: Interrogations begin, Jack expresses concerns for his future, and old friends part ways

Sequel/Series Info: Sequel to Learning to Live With It Part 12

Status: Series

Copyright (c) 2006 Su Freund

Art Credit: Many thanks to Fulinn28 who made the lovely book cover that illustrates this fic on my site from a very cute pic of Jack. You can take a look here: http://www.ficwithfins.com/AA3_1/archive/2/learningto12.html

Author's Note: Thanks to Bonnie for Beta reading this fic and making suggestions that, while lengthening it slightly, added an extra element I hadn't thought of. Any remaining errors are entirely my own.

Learning to Live With It Part 13

Jack and Teal'c sat staring mutely across the table at Connelly, whose expression remained unperturbed, but whose unease was obvious when he shifted in his seat. Nevertheless, he stared right back and said nothing. Eventually, Jack spoke while Teal'c continued his silent glare, trying to make the man feel as uncomfortable as possible.

"We have way more than enough evidence to sink you without a trace, Connelly."

"Then you don't need me to tell you anything, do you O'Neill?" Connelly replied acerbically.

"You didn't seem to mind revealing your plans for global domination to Carter."

"I lack judgement, so sue me."

Jack smiled thinly, thinking that he would probably use similarly sarcastic words in the same circumstances. Connelly glanced at Teal'c, observing the Jaffa's bulging muscles and hoping he wasn't planning to use them. He'd heard things about O'Neill and the Jaffa that made him fear them but he was damned if he was going to show it and he tried to hide that fear in a remote corner of his brain.

"I don't get it. We've caught you red-handed. You might as well tell us everything," Jack probed.

"Can't think why I should when you're going to lock me up and throw away the key anyway."

"You're a traitor, Connelly. That's still a capital offence around these parts."

"Are you offering me a deal?"

"No. I'm just reminding you."

"I don't fear death."

Having read Connelly's file, Jack knew that the man had mainly been a career bureaucrat, which meant that he had little knowledge of facing death or the fear of it. O'Neill's responding smile was grim and filled with unspoken danger.

"I think you might change your mind about that when you're facing it head on," he said coldly. "I've read about men facing the chair or lethal injection. It's not pretty."

"You don't scare me, O'Neill."

"Oh? I so love it when guys underestimate me. Gives me a kind of thrill when I go in for the kill." The danger in his grimace increased a few notches as he spoke.

Elsewhere in the SGC, Sam and Daniel were observing the interrogation on CCTV both thinking the same thing. They wouldn't like to be in that room with Jack facing them down. Connelly was a fool not to be scared.

"I've heard about you, O'Neill, but I think you've got too high an opinion of yourself. You're all ego," Connelly replied with what he considered as wit.

Teal'c smiled slightly at that, thinking that this Tauri fool seriously underestimated O'Neill and didn't have a clue what he was talking about as far as his friend was concerned. He looked down his nose at Connelly menacingly while continuing to say nothing, which gave Connelly pause for thought, but when the Colonel spoke again his cockiness belied his feelings.

"No way this is ever going to trial, O'Neill," he said. "You can never make this public."

"Who said anything about a trial?" Jack replied and noticed Connelly's eyes widen slightly. He was starting to get to him already. Good. Connelly was a jackass and if anyone's ego were going to get in the way of this interrogation it would be his own. It seemed the man seriously underestimated quite how much trouble he could be in and Jack felt it was incumbent upon him to point it out.

"You can't just keep me locked up without one. I do have rights," Connelly countered, trying to keep his cool. He so did not want to let Jack O'Neill get to him. There was something about the man... something he couldn't quite put his finger on.

"Rights?" O'Neill said with a twisted grin and slight chuckle, "You're stuck miles underground inside a huge lump of solid rock that's one of the most top-secret locations in the world. How are you going to exercise those rights, Connelly? Besides, I never mentioned anything about keeping you locked up, did I? There are worse places than jail. I've visited some of 'em."

"What the hell do you mean by that?" Connelly said, not liking the implied threat one little bit.

"Huge honkin' stargate just a few floors down. Heard of it?"

"You wouldn't dare."

"Try me. You wouldn't be the first guy to disappear off the face of the Earth, quite literally. In space no one can hear you scream," Jack said, quoting from an old movie poster he'd seen once. His demeanour was steely calm, and very unnerving.

Tucked in their little room elsewhere inside the mountain, Sam chuckled and turned away from the CCTV screen to face Daniel. "He really can be a total bastard," she said.

"Yes he can, but sometimes that's a good thing," Daniel responded with a small smirk.

"I guess that once this is over he'll be going back to Washington," she commented, trying to keep her voice neutral.

"Yeah. I'll miss him too, Sam."

"I never said anything about missing him."

"You didn't have to." He reached over, gently grasping her arm, and she smiled but shrugged him off.

"I'm that obvious?" she asked.

"Yeah, but only to me. If you've changed your mind about talking..."

"I haven't. Let's listen," she said, turning back to face the screen. Daniel rolled his eyes in frustration, but also turned back to concentrate on the interrogation, although he had to admit that his mind was elsewhere.

*****************************

When they'd woken up from their celebrations at Jack's, everyone but Teal'c were suffering from bad hangovers. Both Jack and Sam had been more muted than they might have otherwise been. The adventure was over and it was almost time for the parting of the ways. Jack tried to pretend that it was better that way while Sam thought about what Jon had said in relation to leaving Jack to think for a while.

The friends found it harder to say goodbye to Jon O'Neill than any of them had anticipated, and Jon felt the same way. It was like losing his closest friends all over again. He tried hard not to let it break his heart, but it did. Although they made promises to keep in touch from time to time, Jon was pretty sure that this wouldn't happen, and maybe it was for the best.

He'd exchanged one of those almost non-conversations with Jack, both men feeling awkward. Teal'c had bowed and smiled and Daniel had hugged him briefly. Sam, on the other hand, had pulled him into her arms rather more enthusiastically, the moments of discomfort over that night spent alone in Jack's house seemingly gone.

Jon wasn't so sure that he was over that and thought it would be ironic if she were the one who kept a promise to stay in touch, uncertain as to whether that would be a good thing or not. He was aware that her absence from his life would make it easier to move on. His best bet was to butt out and stop confusing everything, including himself. On the other hand, he would miss her; he would miss all of them. Man, this was so hard!

Out of ear shot of the rest he spoke up, knowing that what he was about to say made him an idiot of the first order, but he couldn't help himself. Glutton for punishment, that was Jack O'Neill, and was true for his clone too.

"Sam, if you need to talk, you know where to contact me. I'll always be here for you, just like he will. You know that don't you?"

"I, um, thank you Jon."

Sam realised how difficult it must have been for him to make that offer, but also to be saying goodbye to them all again. Jon had suffered much: probably worse than Jack in so many ways. He'd got Jack's experiences and thoughts, good and bad, inside his head and yet had been reduced to nothing.

There had to be something they could do about that. Maybe there could be a new life for him in the Air Force, perhaps at the SGC. She resolved to give it some careful consideration but wasn't sure what would hurt him most, being without them or being with them.

"And go for it," Jon added.

"I'll try," she promised, smiling briefly, pleased that he wanted her to be happy even though it could never be with him. It pained her to imagine how much that must hurt him.

"Good luck."

"I'll need it."

"Make your own luck, and let me know how it turns out."

"That seems a little..." she tailed off, thinking that perhaps it wasn't so strange that he would wish to know what happened. He was rooting for his older self to have what he couldn't, so knowing how it turned out might make him happier, or not, depending on the outcome. That outcome might make her happier, or not, too. She smiled again. "I will, I promise."

Once he had gone, all four of them had regrets about Jon that they didn't express. They wondered if there was more they could do to help him, but the crap hit the fan big time, just as Jack had anticipated, and Jon got forgotten, at least for the time being.

As he'd thought, Jack received a rocket up the ass from his superiors and knew that it wasn't over yet. When he got back to Washington he'd surely pay, but he'd handle that and make it through. Then there were the military police, who had grilled them for a while, without much success, until the NID took over because this thing was way too secret so it was important that the involvement of "outsiders" was limited. After that trial, Sam had to talk to the Colorado PD, although the case was taken out of their hands too, much to their chagrin.

Jack had volunteered to go with her for moral support, joking that he missed Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber. Sam was grateful. Jack was a good friend and one she did not deserve. You could have been forgiven for thinking that the pair were really close, and in some ways they were. Daniel, however, who had been observing them as much as possible, was still despairing that they would ever sort out their personal lives. Business was one thing, but that was almost at an end for them and he wondered what would happen after it was all over.

*****************************

"You'll never get away with that," Connelly asserted to Jack's threat of banishing him through the gate, and Daniel gave the interrogation his full attention again.

"You'd be surprised at what I can get away with but, no matter. I don't care much whether you believe me or not, Connelly."

Connelly searched Jack's eyes and did believe him. He decided to hit back where he knew it would hurt.

"You're just pissed because I tried to take out a member of your team, O'Neill, otherwise you probably wouldn't be involved in this at all."

"Sure, but I am involved, and I can't say I care for murdering traitorous bastards that much, especially when they conduct illegal business within my command."

"And particularly when they tried to hurt Sam Carter, huh? Ed James told me all about you. Dated her for a while, didn't you, but she dumped you on your ass? Poor General O'Neill, left broken hearted by a woman he's carried a torch for all those years. Don't think I haven't heard things."

Although the words got to Jack, he didn't let it show. O'Neill was way better at that game than Mike Connelly was or ever would be. Sam winced inwardly at what Connelly said and Daniel didn't even dare to look at her, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the screen.

"Bite me," Jack said evenly, "You think I give a rat's butt about your opinion one way or another?"

"Care about hers, though, don't you?" Connelly continued, still hoping to goad him. "I doubt she'd approve of your notion of justice, O'Neill. She's the straight up type."

"Actually, she's watching right now."

"That must be galling in the circumstances."

Jack's expression didn't even flicker, but inside he was finding this hard and sure wished that Connelly hadn't raised the issue of Sam. He was right to identify her as a weakness and Jack didn't like that one little bit. Ignoring Connelly's gloating expression, he turned towards Teal'c.

"Perhaps James or Peters might be a little more co-operative," he suggested. "We can leave Connelly thinking about that nice little ice planet P3 something or the other, where the temperature never reaches higher than 50 below. That's a pretty lonely place, having no occupants and all. Or, remember that place where we picked up the entity that pinned me to the wall? Rather painfully, I recall. No atmosphere."

He turned to face Connelly briefly and smiled like a shark, and then looked at Teal'c again, "Or there's always that really nice little planet that we evacuated recently because any time now it will start to get torn apart by a black hole."

Having previously agreed that Teal'c would say nothing during this interrogation, but merely look menacing, the large Jaffa merely smiled slightly and nodded, and then turned his attention back to Connelly.

"Or maybe I should just leave you alone with him for a few minutes, T, and turn off the cameras. I know how fond of Carter you are, old buddy, and this guy tried to kill her, after all, and more than once. He's been a very naughty boy."

Teal'c's grin broadened threateningly as if he couldn't wait for a moment alone with Connelly to tear him limb from limb.

"On the other hand, I wouldn't mind a piece of that action myself," Jack continued and then he looked into Connelly's eyes with an expression on his face like the angel of death and Connelly finally began to grasp the situation he was in with the man, knowing genuine fear.

"What exactly do you want to ask, O'Neill?" he queried.

Jack eyeballed him and smiled grimly, opening a folder sitting in front of him and taking out a photograph.

"Know this guy?" he queried, sliding a picture of Ba'al across the table at him. Connelly was taken aback by that, unaware that they had quite so much knowledge of what had been going on.

"Yes," he said so quietly that Jack hardly heard him.

"What?"

"Yes, I know him. If you're asking whether he's the man in charge, then you're right." For once, Jack was not in the least happy to be proved right.

"Do you know who he is?" he asked.

"Sure. Mr Baal. Big businessman, been on TV," Connelly replied in a slightly sarcastic tone.

"Did it occur to you to wonder why he might have wanted these experiments to take place in Area 51 rather than within one of his own companies? Or was it no questions asked when your greed got the better of you?"

"No I..."

"He's a Goa'uld, Connelly. I'm betting you didn't know that."

"I-I..." Connelly seemed genuinely flummoxed by that revelation and looked horrified, which gave Jack a gloomy sense of satisfaction.

"A snakehead, you stupid asshole," he pressed further, "You've been working for an ex-System Lord who wants to return to the glory days."

"I-I... shit!"

"I'm relieved to discover that this fact disturbs you, Connelly. You should be disturbed that you've been acting for an enemy of not only our planet, but of this whole freakin' universe."

"I didn't know," Connelly admitted with a croak in his voice, clearly worried by the disclosure.

"Of course not. Even you probably wouldn't have been that stupid if you had known. It might have paid you to wonder about those snakes he gave you. No doubt he planned to turn your successful experiments against this very planet, if they had been successful that is. Ever heard of the enemy within, Connelly?"

"Okay, ask your questions," Connelly responded with slightly slumping shoulders. "I'll cooperate." Jack simply smiled.

Still intent on watching the interrogation, Daniel remarked, "Soften him up and then go in for the kill. Jack isn't as dumb as he likes to paint, is he?"

"Not even close," Sam agreed.

"I guess this means we get everything and everyone now."

"I hope so Daniel. I don't like the idea of this going on somewhere else after we've shut down operations at Groom Lake."

"Trouble is that we don't know for sure that it isn't."

"That's a scary thought."

"Yes, it is."

"And none of this is going to get us Ba'al."

"Yeah, probably. That's really gonna piss Jack off."

Sam angrily thumped the console hard, letting out a frustrated cry. "I don't think I want to listen to this crap anymore, Daniel. Do you want a coffee?"

"Sure," he replied a little taken aback by her sudden change of mood. "I never say no to coffee, you know me." He tried to smile and lighten the mood but Sam merely grimaced back at him.

"I'll use the machine in your office," she said.

"Good. I might get a decent cup. You okay?" he ventured to ask, uncertain what was going on in her head and not wanting to be the recipient of her unexpected wrath.

"Not really, but I will be."

"I could come with you."

"I'd like to be alone for a while."

"Right. I thought you'd be interested in this," Daniel said nodding his head towards the screen.

"I am."

"You were pissed with Jack for not letting you in on the interrogations and now you don't even want to watch?"

"I've hardly been alone for days. I need a break from people, just for a while. The General was right to keep me out of these interrogations Daniel. I realise that now. I'm too close to it."

"And he isn't?"

"It's not really my thing is it? Playing hardball with the bad guys."

"You do okay."

"Jack and Teal'c are better. Connelly's spilling his guts in there."

"Jack's so not going to be happy about this Ba'al thing."

"No. I wish there was something I could do, Daniel, but there isn't. The last thing he wants is to have me around."

"That's not true. You really think that?" Daniel didn't really believe that, despite Jack's stubborn pride. He knew Sam could win him around if she tried, but she didn't seem to want to try. It made him despair of the pair.

"It doesn't matter what I think, does it? It's what he thinks that counts," Sam responded trying to keep her expression blank, although that didn't fool Daniel.

"He'll come around," Daniel insisted.

"Will he?"

"I hope so, Sam, because I hate seeing you both so miserable."

"Tell him that, not me."

"When he sets his mind to it, he's like talking to a brick wall, you know that."

"I know. Look, Daniel, I've just got to get out of here, okay?"

"Sam!"

"Give me half an hour and I'll come back with coffee," she added and walked out of the room.

Daniel sighed, briefly wondering whether to pursue her and realising she wouldn't appreciate it, so he turned back to watch what Connelly was saying. He didn't know how to deal with the Jack and Sam situation and it was really pissing him off. He figured that Sam was agitated because she knew Jack would return to Washington soon and they probably wouldn't see each other for months after that. Jack was likely to hide himself away from them all again as much as possible, unless they virtually forced him into contact. He could relate to Sam's feelings because they reflected some of his own.

"So where is he, Connelly?" Jack was asking, referring to Ba'al.

"I don't know."

"You must keep in touch in some way."

"Through an intermediary. I haven't met him personally for months."

Jack glanced at Teal'c, dark thoughts going through his mind. This thing was turning out to be complicated. Connelly was nowhere near to being the big fish in this pond, it seemed, and he was betting they were going to meet a dead end.

"So tell me about this intermediary, Connelly. Who, how he or she contacts you, where? I want every single detail."

As Connelly started to spill the beans, Jack realised that they were going to be at this for quite a while and still probably weren't going to get to the bottom of it, but at least they were getting somewhere.

Meanwhile, Sam shut herself away in her base quarters, lying on the bed and trying to think straight about anything at all. She was normally good at concentrating on her work and shutting out distractions, both mental and physical, but right now she didn't have a job to do and she wondered whether she should throw herself into something in her lab; almost anything might help.

After a while, she dutifully made her way to Daniel's office and made coffee as promised. Then she picked up some cake from the commissary and took it to Daniel as a peace offering. He tried to persuade her to stick around, but she refused and went to the lab, picking up on an experiment she'd been working on what now seemed like eons ago.

It was good to be alone with her thoughts, on home turf, and doing something she could get her teeth into. Although she briefly wondered how the interrogations were going, Sam decided to try and block all of that out of her mind: the events of the last few days, the implications of what had been happening at Area 51, and Jack; him most of all.

Back in the interrogation room, Jack asked, "What about the queen, Connelly?"

Daniel's ears prinked up. Queen? Why the hell hadn't he thought of that? Where was the queen? Of course! Cursing himself for an idiot, and realising that Jack was once again proving that he wasn't one, Daniel listened with interest, wondering how much Connelly knew. It turned out not to be that much.

"Queen?" Connelly retorted, apparently genuinely puzzled.

"Where do you think baby snakeheads come from, you moron?"

"Oh, I don't know, O'Neill... momma and papa snakeheads?" Connelly replied sarcastically. He was tired and getting grouchy but Jack snapped back equally caustic.

"Jeez, do you actually know anything useful, or are we gonna have to toss you onto that ice planet and leave you there until your balls freeze off?"

"Look, O'Neill, I'm telling you everything I know here."

"It seems you didn't think too hard about asking questions. I guess salivating over money will do that for ya. Mush for brains. There has to be a queen, Connelly. We can't have queen snakes running around loose, now can we? Tin pot dictators with snakes in their heads who think they are gods are bad enough, don't you think?"

"I don't know what to tell you, O'Neill."

"Everything."

Hours later, Daniel peeked around the door of Sam's lab and knocked.

"Thought I ought to let you know that they're calling it a night on the interrogation," he said.

"Oh. Any idea about Ed and Peters?"

"Landry opened them both up wide and really easily apparently. Hammond's team are picking up some more people who've been fingered."

"What about their poor victims?" she asked.

"Don't know. Jack might. He asked us to join him in the commissary. Want to come? Don't look at me like that. Come on Sam, this is probably the last time all of us will be together for a while. I don't think he's sticking around for long. There's no reason for him to stay, is there?" he said pointedly.

Sam sighed deeply, dreading the moment, but didn't want Jack to leave without saying goodbye. She owed him a profound debt of gratitude for his support.

"Okay, I'll be there in five minutes. I just need to shut everything off."

Daniel left her alone and, when she joined them, the spare chair at their table had a glass of blue jello sitting waiting. She smiled and Jack indicated that she should sit down.

"Blue jello?" she asked, meeting Jack's eyes. He held her gaze briefly and then looked away, unable to face what he saw in those blue depths. He wasn't ready for that yet and, if asked, would deny he'd seen anything there at all, but he had. Denial wasn't very helpful but Jack inexorably continued along that path.

"It was O'Neill's idea, Colonel Carter," Teal'c replied.

"Reminds me of old times, Carter," Jack remarked, looking up but not allowing himself to meet her eyes again.

"The good old days?" said Daniel.

"Yep."

"Thank you sir."

"You're welcome, Carter," he replied with a smile, trying to keep bright and breezy, and Sam felt her heart flutter with hope.

"The interrogations were a success I take it?" she asked, taking a mouthful of jello. Jack tried not to watch, wondering why he'd been fool enough to get her the jello. There was something sensual about the way she ate it, and he had always loved watching her eat it. He found it difficult to tear his eyes away.

Trying for businesslike, he replied, "Landry will finish Connelly's up over the next few days but it went okay, I guess, given Connelly's rather limited knowledge of the bigger picture. That slime ball had no idea who he was working for."

"I saw that part," she said, noting his interest in her consumption of the jello so taking another mouthful and trying to capture his eyes with hers again. To distract himself, Jack picked up the cake in front of him and took a bite.

"I think I can leave someone else to clean up the mess," he said, speaking with his mouthful and trying to look around at his friends generally instead of just in Sam's direction. "I have more important things to think about right now than Connelly."

"So you're going back to DC?" Sam asked, already knowing the answer but it was something to say, something to keep him talking to her.

"I have a choice?" Jack joked. "I've got to face the music sometime. There's a lot of fallout from this. It goes way wider and deeper than we thought."

"They can't blame you for this, sir."

"It happened on my watch, didn't it? The repercussions go pretty high up. Snakes, for crying out loud. The folks in DC aren't too happy. They might have my ass for this one."

Jack was far from confident about his fate. The various telephone conversations with his superiors in DC were just the beginning and it wouldn't surprise him in the least to find he was forced onto the retirement scrap heap after this debacle. He just hoped he could save his undeserving butt because he wasn't yet ready to give up the fight.

"What? No way! I can't blame them for being unhappy, Jack, but they can't get rid of you! You're way too valuable to them," Daniel said, angry at the idea on Jack's behalf while also trying to be reassuring.

"Bah! There are a hundred guys out there who could do my job," Jack responded unassumingly.

"Don't sell yourself short, sir," Sam said, hating that he believed he was dispensable. He wasn't but he never seemed to realise that. There was something endearing about his modesty, although it could be irritating in equal measure.

Jack glanced at Sam who gave him a weak smile. "Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little; maybe not a hundred, but some," he replied. "If they don't think I'm up to the job, they'll dump me in a second, you must know that."

"You can't really think they'll retire you, can you? They can't do that!" Her tone was one of righteous indignation at the notion they could even think of getting rid of the General. "I'm with Daniel on this one. You're way too valuable to the program."

"I concur," Teal'c added, inclining his head slightly. O'Neill was the reason he was on Earth helping these people, and also one motive for sticking around for so long, despite his friend's absence from the SGC. "If not for you, O'Neill, this world would have been conquered by the Goa'uld many years ago, or worse. They owe you a debt, my friend, and you deserve to retire as a warrior, not in disgrace."

Jack glanced around at his friends, pleased and honored by their words of support, but far from encouraged.

"Guys, I'm happy you all want to rush to my defence as, god knows, I need it although I might not deserve it. Dammit all, shit happened while I was in control, and it had been happening for a long time without me even noticing that anything was up. It's that simple. Retirement could be the least of my problems. Connelly might get off more lightly."

"What the hell does that mean Jack?" asked Daniel, as he never had understood the inner workings of the military.

"He means that, theoretically, they could bring him up on charges," Sam hastened to explain on Jack's behalf. "Neglecting his duty or some such."

She felt sympathy for Jack's situation and agreed with Teal'c that he deserved way better. Sam found it hard to believe they could force him out or punish him so unjustly, and bring shame to the O'Neill name that was far from deserved. Not after everything he had suffered for his country. That would be so unfair. But then who said anything about the armed forces being fair?

"What? That's ridiculous!" Daniel exclaimed irately, his thoughts taking a similar turn to Sam's.

"That won't happen, sir," Sam piped up, trying to sound confident.

"It might," Jack responded with a grimace, thinking that if he had pissed the wrong person off he didn't have a hope of saving his career.

"No way in hell!" Sam rushed to say, "One thing you can say for the armed forces is that they don't like washing their dirty laundry in public if they can avoid it, and certainly not as far as their general's are concerned."

"True. They're way more likely to sweep it under the carpet and turn me out to a quiet pasture somewhere," Jack said with a sigh. "Ack! I'll handle it. If we could have gotten Ba'al..." There was barely restrained anger in his voice.

"It seems unlikely that Ba'al is still here on Earth, O'Neill," Teal'c opined, wishing to make his friend feel better.

It was clear to Teal'c that O'Neill was deeply disturbed and he knew that much of this was because they had failed to resolve everything. In Teal'c's judgment, that applied to the situation with Ba'al and Colonel Carter, and now there was this other problem that he had just exposed to them. His friend had much to resolve. Teal'c realised that O'Neill could never hope to fix everything that tore him up inside, but he would have a good try at saving his own neck, and he resolved to help with that in any way he could.

O'Neill had led a warrior's life and had seen and experienced much that would trouble even the greatest of men, and Teal'c ranked O'Neill amongst those men. It was inevitable that, deep within, O'Neill would remain a tormented man, but there was much that his friend could do to help himself if only he would open himself to it.

He should not have the additional, and ludicrous, worry that he would get disciplined for recent events. Not after everything. Teal'c was angry but knew that O'Neill was trying to draw a line under that subject, probably regretting he'd said anything at all. The others also took that hint, their minds ranging over what they might do to help him, if that was possible. He had earned their loyalty and respect and deserved that from others too. They were all incensed on his behalf.

"I know, T," Jack replied to the Jaffa's comment about Ba'al, pleased to get off the subject of his own possible demise. "But we have no idea how many clones of himself that pompous ass created, or if any of them are still here on Earth ready to wreak more havoc." Jack seemed downhearted by the notion and none of his friends were surprised by that, only by the fact that he might show it, albeit briefly.

"Indeed," Teal'c agreed, unable to think of any words that would sufficiently appease his friend, and a lengthy silence followed during which the friends considered the possibilities, most of which weren't very encouraging. They tried to occupy themselves with their various beverages and foodstuffs but did not find these suitably distracting from the dark thoughts that pervaded the table.

"Any idea how it's going at Area 51, sir?" Sam asked, trying to get the conversation moving again.

"Slowly. There's a lot of evidence to sift through. Hammond's team will be occupied for a long time to come."

"That should keep him happy."

"Probably," Jack concurred with a grin.

"What about their victims, Jack?" Daniel asked, pre-empting Sam's next question.

"Not looking too hopeful for most of them, I'm afraid."

"Holy Hannah, what makes human beings treat others of their kind like that?"

"Wish I knew Sam. If I had the answer maybe we could get us world peace." Jack quipped in reply.

"What about the symbiotes, sir?"

"We'll be working on trying to find Connelly's contact. He hasn't seen Ba'al himself for months, but Ba'al has people here. That kind of makes me shudder."

As if to emphasise his point, Jack jabbed his fork in Sam's direction and she couldn't help but recall the number of times she'd seen him gesticulate with cutlery, or anything else that came to hand, for that matter. Jack so loved using his hands to accentuate a point. It was when he was still, or silent, that you had to be more wary: ominously dangerous signs.

Sam made a mental note to remember that when she eventually plucked up the nerve to confront him about their relationship. Facing his anger would be way more preferable than being met with icy calm. She believed that she could probably provoke him sufficiently if she really needed to, and that she could deal with his wrath. But if he reacted with cold hardness she could be lost.

"Connelly has given us some clues," he continued, "and maybe George will find something useful, but we've got our work cut out for us."

"Has anyone thought about a queen Goa'uld?" Sam asked astutely.

"No queen on the premises at Area 51. They tore the place apart. Connelly doesn't know about any queen."

"You believe him?"

"Yeah, I do. I'd love to have an excuse to rip that information out of him, but he doesn't know," Jack was obviously angry about that, frustrated because they had solved one riddle only to be faced with another: too many others, actually. "I knew the aftermath of this thing was gonna haunt me for months. Seems I was right. Only this is way worse than even I imagined, and I imagined bad. You know me - Mr Positive." He smiled grimly.

"Do you really think the queen is here on Earth, Jack?" Daniel asked.

"Wish I knew. Seems kinda possible, is all, and I sure don't like that possibility."

"They could transport the symbiotes by ship," Daniel suggested, horrified by the idea of a Queen. That meant either a Hathor type Goa'uld hiding somewhere, perish the thought, or something akin to Egeria in a breeding tank. He didn't really wish to contemplate that either of these was a possibility.

"Yeah, these days the traffic in our skies is getting to be like something out of 'Men In Black', so it's possible," Jack joked, but his friends knew he was deeply concerned. Ba'al, a queen snake - how bad could it get? This had to be one of Jack's worst nightmares. "If Thor can sit up there without being spotted, he might not be the only one. Somehow, I don't find that thought reassuring."

They all considered the implications of that in silence for a while.

"What did Connelly say about the symbiotes, sir?" Sam asked eventually.

"Not a whole hell of a lot. Seems there's way more to this than meets the eye, but you uncovered it in the first place. You did good, Carter." He smiled at her and she returned it, pleased by his praise. Not much, but a lot from a man like General Jack O'Neill.

"It looks like I have a lot of reading to do to catch-up, sir"

"You should have stayed and watched the interrogation."

"I needed to be alone."

Jack nodded his understanding, knowing how that felt. Everyone needed their own space and she hadn't had a lot of that for a few days. Neither had he, and that thought made him realise that it was time to break up the party. This was it - goodbye time. He had mixed emotions about that because he knew he'd miss all of them.

"Listen, kids," he said, "I'm bushed. I think I need to get home and grab some shuteye. Early start tomorrow."

"Hope you don't leave it as long next time Jack."

"I'll try not to Daniel."

"It's been fun in a perverse kind of way hasn't it?"

"Just like old times."

"Yeah, the good old days."

The two men exchanged grins and Jack got up ready to leave.

"Wanna ride home Carter?" he asked, wondering why he wanted to continue torturing himself, but he did. "I seem to recall that you haven't got wheels right now."

"Yes, sir, that would be great, thanks."

This time it was Daniel and Teal'c who exchanged glances, surreptitiously, and the four friends made their way to the elevator to say their goodbyes. Jack patted both of his friends on the back and Daniel pulled him into a hug, whispering in his ear.

"Don't throw something so fundamental away, Jack; Sam's way too important to you. Don't be a stubborn moron." Jack merely gave him an irritated look, stepping into the elevator with Sam and pressing the button.

Although both Daniel and Jon had given him some food for thought, Jack was stubbornly trying not to think about it; pretty hard to do when the person you weren't supposed to be thinking about was sitting in your truck right next to you. Nevertheless, try as he might, Jack mulled over the situation between he and Sam, highly confused by what to do and, after going around in circles a few times, concluded that doing nothing was the best option.

As a result, their ride home was fairly silent, punctuated by a few meaningless exchanges about the surroundings or other traffic. Sam felt increasingly awkward and distanced from Jack but was determined to remain optimistic. Once they arrived at her house, like the gentleman he was, Jack walked her to the door.

"I'm sure it'll be good to be home, Sam," he smiled. "Nothing to beat sleeping in your own home, in your own bed, right? You okay?"

"Tired, but fine. Want to come in for coffee or a beer?" she asked hopefully.

"No. No thanks Sam. I just want to get home."

"I don't-I can't," she stumbled, unable to find adequate words to thank him with. "Thank you Jack, for everything," she said, deciding simple was best.

"Welcome."

"What now?"

"DC, here I come. What else is there?"

"I hope you don't get into too much trouble. If we can help... you know that right?"

"Of course. Thanks. I hope those DC bureaucrats think I'm as indispensable as you guys seem to."

Sam smiled and reached out to touch his arm but he stepped back holding up a hand to stop her advance. The rebuff hurt her deeply but she understood, which didn't mean that she had to like it, or give up. But perhaps now was not the time, just as Jon had suggested.

"Don't think so," he said.

"You-we..." she stammered, wondering how to tackle him.

"Well, the adventure's over now. You're safe, you're alive and you don't need me anymore. All bets are off, remember?" Jack's tone was colder than she'd heard for a few days and it chilled her.

"Yes, I remember. I do-I thought..." she said falteringly, realising that she would get nowhere with him right then. He'd made up his mind and closed the small gap in the shutters that might have let her sneak in.

"That always was your trouble, Carter, too much thinking. See you around. Try to keep out of trouble, okay? My suit of armour's getting way too rusty." There was a faint smile on his face, but his eyes were blank to her.

"Yes sir," she said with a grin and a small laugh, amused by his armour comment and resolutely remaining optimistic for a different time and place. At least things between them had thawed to below freezing point over the last few days, which was something, even if they had cooled a little during the previous few minutes.

But as she watched him walk away, she wondered how she could bear to have him absent from her life once more, and her optimism faded. She'd lost him. Losing people she loved was far too much of a bad habit. Sam wanted to run after him, stop him, take him in her arms and tell him everything, but she didn't. She simply lacked that courage.

TBC


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