CHAIN OF COMMAND
By: Charli Booker
"There are a lot of things we do that we wish we could change and we sure as hell can't forget, but the whole concept of chain of command undermines the idea of free will. So as soldiers, we have to do some pretty awful stuff. But we're following orders like we were trained to. It doesn't make it easier; it certainly doesn't make it right, but it does put some of the responsibility on the guy giving those orders." Col. Jack O'Neill
General George Hammond watched Jack O'Neill stand up, brush silently past the members of his team, and stalk out of the briefing room. The man had barely strung two words together during the hour-long briefing. George sighed. In Jack's hands, insolence was an art form. There were times when George was pretty damn sure the colonel's jokes weren't really jokes at all. There were other times he was absolutely sure Jack was probably just kidding. But today, George didn't think insolence in and of itself prompted Jack's behavior. Today, Jack O'Neill was mad. Plain and simple. Or perhaps, his commanding officer had disappointed him.
George rubbed a hand over his generous forehead. After all these years, you'd think he wouldn't care. And he probably shouldn't. But this old Texan would rather face an angry badger than a disappointed colonel any old day of the week. Seated at the head of the long table, he stared at the remainder of SG-1. Dr. Jackson and Major Carter were gathering up their pens and notepads, quietly discussing something way over the heads of everyone else within earshot. With a crisp nod of his regal head, Teal'c slipped out behind O'Neill to prepare for his first real trip off base. While the alien had gone topside on a few brief outings, this would be his first trip out of the Colorado Springs area. But George wasn't thinking about Jackson or Carter or Teal'c. He was thinking he had a problem.
It was as plain as a pig on a sofa that he had to deal with O'Neill. And while it wasn't a problem on the same scale as a Goa'uld invasion, a disgruntled officer was capable of spreading discontent throughout the SGC without uttering a single word or disobeying a single command. Particularly an officer as well liked as Colonel O'Neill.
Still talking amongst themselves, Carter and Jackson descended the stairs. George waited until they had disappeared from view before pushing himself to his feet with a small grunt. Some days, he felt like glue bait, and he'd swear he could hear retirement calling him home just as clearly as his momma used to.
He walked into his office and shrugged off his jacket. He draped the blue coat on the back of his chair and sank down behind his desk, the soft leather curving familiarly around him. He opened his laptop then spent the next four minutes staring blankly at the SGC emblem swirling against a dull grey background. Sighing, George closed the laptop and stood. Grabbing his jacket, he donned it as he descended the stairs to level 28.
When he entered the locker room, O'Neill was standing in front of his open locker wearing loose jeans and a black t-shirt. With the exception of a few wayward strands, the man's brown hair was plastered wetly to his scalp and George could see water gleaming on the back of the tanned neck. Jack tossed a stick of deodorant into the locker and glanced in George's direction at the sound of the door. Without speaking, he turned back to what he was doing.
"So, I understand you and Teal'c are catching a flight to Minnesota."
For a brief second, George thought Jack wouldn't answer, and he wondered what he should do if the man didn't. He was saved from that possibility by a politely muttered, "Yes, sir."
Relieved, George lowered himself onto one of the benches. "Decided not to drive." There was no response. Realizing the statement didn't really call for an answer, he added, "Any particular reason?"
"No, sir." Jack pulled his wallet from a shelf.
George looked around, for the first time noticing the sound of a running shower in the other room. The smells of stringent soap and wet towels brought back a rush of memories of earlier days. "I hear it's raining pitchforks and plowhandles out there." He was grasping at straws and knew it. He was certain Jack knew it, too.
The colonel thumbed through the contents of his wallet before slipping it into a back pocket of his jeans. "I wouldn't know, sir." Jack pulled a worn leather jacket from the confines of his locker and slipped it on.
George stood when Jack made to leave. Blocking the younger man's path, he stared up into a face that revealed absolutely nothing. He studied brown eyes that looked in his direction without seeming to see him.
'Teal'c is not one of our own.' The words echoed, and for some reason, he believed this more than anything else he'd said or done or failed to do had caused this rift.
"Was there something you needed, sir?"
"Jack–" But to his discredit, George didn't know what to say. How to fix this. "I know you're upset, and I understand where you're coming from." O'Neill said nothing. "You have to stop and think. Think about this from my standpoint. From the standpoint of those in authority." Silence greeted him. "Teal'c is an ally, yes. He is a credit to his people and a valuable member of your team. But between you, me and the fencepost, he's still an alien. A Jaffa." For a second, George swore he heard, 'A Jaffa who gave up everything to swear allegiance to our cause.' He cleared his throat. "First and foremost, he will always be a Jaffa."
Jack blinked, but otherwise remained unreadable. Finally, his spine as stiff as a Sunday shirt, he mumbled, "If there's nothing else, General…."
George stepped aside in defeat. "Dismissed." When Jack reached the door, he stopped him with a simple, "Colonel." The man froze, but didn't turn, his rigid frame filling the doorway. "Godspeed, son."
And Jack O'Neill walked away as if he could care less about George Hammond's opinions. The shower in the other room went silent, and George sat back down on the bench. Glue bait.
He'd been watching the house for over five hours – was almost ready to call it a day – when Jack O'Neill pulled his Jeep into the driveway and hopped out into the cold downpour. The watcher steadied his nerves and prepared to exit his own beat-up car when he spied someone crawling out of the passenger side of O'Neill's vehicle. The watcher was surprised. He'd assumed O'Neill would be alone. The watcher slid down in his seat and peeked over the dash. O'Neill was accompanied by a man – a large African-American. The two hurried into the house, and the watcher sat up a little straighter, easing a cramp in his hip.
He was too old for this kind of business. Too out of shape. He laid his hands on the steering wheel and glanced over at the package lying on the passenger seat. He studied the old newspaper it was wrapped in then stared back at the house. It seemed like only days ago that he'd bought this car brand new, but it had been years. Decades. He'd used it to haul Little Leaguer's to their games; he'd never dreamed he'd use it to stalk someone.
He'd been looking for O'Neill for a year and a half without success. All he'd really known was that the officer lived in Colorado Springs – or had at one time. He'd searched everywhere he could think to look – library records, telephone books, the Internet, newspaper archives – but his search had been fruitless. The only thing he'd found was an old obituary regarding the man's deceased child. He'd found nothing suggesting where O'Neill could be found. Then a week ago, out of the blue, he'd seen O'Neill at a convenience store of all places.
The watcher had made an unscheduled stop for a pack of cigarettes – an old habit he'd recently resumed – and there he'd been: Jack O'Neill. In the flesh. He hadn't been in uniform, but nevertheless, the watcher had recognized him immediately. The officer was taller than he'd expected and leaner than the photograph portrayed him. Then again, the photograph was grainy, creased, and several years old. War did a lot of things to a man, and the watcher supposed a little weight loss was the least of this man's problems.
The watcher had stepped in line behind O'Neill, who was buying a six-pack of beer, a roll of paper towels, and a quart of milk. He'd intently watched as the officer completed his transaction. He'd even met the man's eyes when O'Neill pocketed his wallet, collected his goods, and turned to go. For a brief moment they were face to face – the elusive Air Force officer and the man who'd spent every spare hour of the last year and a half hunting him down. He'd looked into the dark brown eyes, searching in vain for something he could not put a name to.
Even without the uniform, it was obvious the man was military, an officer. It was in the way he moved. The way he breathed. It was in the tightness of his jaw and in the hardness in his eyes before the unspeakable could be disguised from prying eyes.
O'Neill had muttered a polite 'excuse me,' and the moment was over. The watcher's eyes had hypnotically tracked the man as he left the store, set his bags in a Jeep, and crawled behind the wheel. Cigarettes forgotten, the watcher had left the store and followed the four-wheel drive to this house.
Perhaps he should have confronted O'Neill that night, but he hadn't been prepared. For all his searching, he'd been caught off-guard at actually finding his quarry. He'd returned the next day to stake out the house and the neighborhood, but O'Neill never showed. So the watcher had returned the day after that. And the day after that. But today was the first time the man had returned home, and now he had company.
The watcher needed a smoke, but he didn't want to look away from the house long enough to light a cigarette or crack a window and give away his presence. So instead, he gnawed the inside of his jaw and wondered if he should just go ahead and confront the man now, or wait for his company to leave.
Before he could decide, O'Neill and his visitor came out of the house. O'Neill was carrying a large duffel bag that he tossed in the back of the Jeep. Was he leaving on a trip? A mission? The watcher stared as the vehicle backed out of the driveway then headed in the opposite direction. At the end of the street, O'Neill took a left and disappeared from sight. The man used his turn signal, even on a dead-end residential street. Obviously, following rules was deeply ingrained in him. He probably didn't rip the tag off his pillow, either – if he even used a pillow. Maybe O'Neill slept on the floor and rested his head on his combat boots.
The watcher sighed wearily and started his car. Despite how he felt about the man or the military, now that he'd found O'Neill, nothing but God could keep the watcher from finishing what he'd started. From fulfilling the vow he'd made to his dying son eighteen months ago. He turned on his wipers, slipped the car into gear, and left the quiet street behind.
The air still smelled odd, even after several months of living on Earth. Teal'c was uncertain whether it was because he had spent so much time of his time here below-ground or because he had never before lived on a world where the primary modes of transportation were gasoline-powered. Perhaps, eventually, he would grow accustomed to the unnatural tang that lingered in the air, camouflaging the more familiar odors of nature. Perhaps, eventually, he would not notice the odd taste coating the back of his tongue and his throat. Or, perhaps, he would never feel at home here. Ever the alien from Chulac.
The symbiote in his pouch squirming restlessly, Teal'c slowly turned and studied the area. If this were one's first view of Earth, it would have been a ghastly disappointment. He was surrounded by asphalt and row after row of parked automobiles. The air was thick with the promise of snow, thicker with the shimmer of jet engine exhaust. The two combined to not only drug the senses, but to obscure the low rise of forested hills in the distance. It was an oddity, Earth's juxtaposition of nature and humanity. It was a conundrum. Teal'c smiled to himself that he could put a word to what he felt. Thanks to his teammates and a handful of strangers named Webster, Faulkner, Dickens, and Shakespeare, his time underground had not been unproductive.
At the bleat of a horn, Teal'c swung around. O'Neill looked puzzled, frowning at him from behind the steering wheel of a large motor vehicle that spewed noxious exhaust fumes into the filthy, freezing air. "Looking for a fight?" his commander shouted through the open window of the vehicle.
Teal'c glanced down at himself. He supposed he looked as alien as he felt. Dressed in a thick down coat, woolen sweater, jeans and boots, his tattoo hidden by a black stocking hat, he stood with his feet spread, his arms raised, and his body poised for combat. He straightened, relaxed. His symbiote rolled. O'Neill had provided him with the outfit, as well as several similar ones rolled neatly inside the green duffel bag sitting in a crust of dirty snow at his feet. The garments had been purchased two weeks previous in preparation for this very trip.
"Get in," O'Neill ordered.
Teal'c picked up his bag and deposited it on the backseat of the vehicle while O'Neill got out and used his gloved hands to knock ice from the windshield wipers. O'Neill shed his own coat then resumed his place behind the wheel as Teal'c settled himself into the passenger seat. With a cold crunch of tires, they left the airport behind them.
They took a circuitous route of turns and twists, stops and starts. Strangely, just when Teal'c felt they should have ended up back in the parking lot they had just left, they were on a narrow two-lane road heading what felt like north. He still had trouble making sense of the network of streets and highways branching like veins and arteries throughout this land. When O'Neill had informed him he would be taking him to his cabin in a far place called Minnesota, Daniel Jackson had shown him a detailed map of the United States – pointing out where he would be going. Teal'c had grown concerned upon seeing the country laid out on paper. It looked far more confusing than navigating the streets of Colorado Springs or the stars of the galaxy. From the window of the airplane on which they had traversed from Colorado Springs to Minnesota, the land and its roadways appeared pleasant and uncomplicated. But here, on the ground, the system of pathways was as complex and confusing as they'd appeared on Daniel Jackson's map.
If he were to become separated from O'Neill, Teal'c did not trust he could find his way back to Cheyenne Mountain. He slipped a hand inside a pocket of his coat and firmly curled his fist around the cellular telephone he had been issued upon leaving the SGC. He had only to dial certain combinations of numbers to contact General Hammond, Major Carter, or Daniel Jackson. He even had a number with which to contact O'Neill, even though the man was sitting next to him.
He glanced over at his comrade. Sighing, Teal'c turned back to face the monotonous white landscape passing in a blur. Perhaps telephoning O'Neill would be a more effective means of communication. The man had been withdrawn and curiously quiet ever since their return from Cartago where Teal'c had undergone the Cor-ai.
"What?" O'Neill said.
Teal'c looked at the man's rigid profile. "I said nothing."
Frowning, Teal'c continued to study his commanding officer. The ways of the Tau'ri were as complex as their means of land travel. "I did."
O'Neill glanced over at him before turning back to face the highway and flipping a switch on the dash. Hot air blasted Teal'c's feet and face. He shifted his weight, trying to escape the artificial breeze, and discreetly unzipped his coat.
"You know," O'Neill said, "you didn't have to come if you didn't want to."
"That is correct."
O'Neill cursed under his breath and fumbled for something near his left knee. "Damn rental."
Dual headlights blinked on, cutting a weak swath through a growing fog of near-snow. Here, outside the borders of the town, the trees were far more numerous and grew close to the sides of the narrow road. The further they traveled, the sweeter the air smelled and the deeper the snow around the base of the trees. The pavement was now completely covered by a packed layer of frozen slush.
Teal'c watched a false dusk lower itself over the tops of the trees. Occasionally, he felt the vehicle waiver, a subtle slip in the rear as the tires lost their tenuous grip on the ice. But O'Neill seemed unbothered and relaxed, and the two men returned to a silence that should have been comfortable, but was not.
It was not uncommon for Teal'c and his friend to spend hours in one another's company without speaking. But this particular silence felt forced and stilted, and Teal'c hoped that during their time together he could determine the cause of it.
He closed his eyes and entered a mild, meditative state that was not as deep as kelno'reem, but which helped to calm the symbiote within him. It would also afford him an opportunity to contemplate his commanding officer's unusual behavior. Perhaps, if he were fortunate, he could determine what was making O'Neill behave like a mikta.
Ruby Beckham would turn 82 in a little over three months. Standing just over five foot tall, she was built like a porcelain doll and looked like she'd shatter if you hugged her. But she was tougher than her own toenails. She always had been. Every night for the last 66 years, she'd smoked a cigarillo and drank a juice-glass full of whiskey after supper. That included all the months she'd been pregnant with her daughter and her three boys, and they'd turned out just fine. Tough like their mama. Ruby had never spent so much as a single night in a hospital, except of course when Delbert had been laid up with hardening of the arteries back in the 80's. The doctors didn't call it that now. Like everything else, they had to go and make sickness sound new and improved. Now, they called it something fancy – Alzenheimer's. It might sound prettier, but it was the same ugly disease. Your blood got so clogged up with all the badness you accumulated through the years that it just couldn't flow anymore. That's where the whiskey came in. It flushed the preservatives and the depressing state of current affairs clean out of your system. She'd always told Delbert he should take a little liquor, but he'd refused. And look where it got him – talking nonsense for two solid years then dead at 70. When anyone asked, it was Ruby's theory that whiskey and hard work were what kept you alive. That and the Good Lord.
The Good Lord was why Delbert's One Stop was closed every Sunday, Christmas, and Good Friday. Otherwise, it was open from six a.m. until midnight. The locals wanted Ruby to open her doors seven days a week. They complained she was ruining otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoons by forcing them to drive twenty miles just for a gallon of milk or a soda pop. But while Ruby might smoke, drink, and cuss now and then, she was first and foremost God-fearing. She'd never been promiscuous, she couldn't tolerate the gossiping old ladies over at the Senior Center, and she watched church TV every Sunday morning. She would have enjoyed attending in person, but the last time she'd gone – a little over six years ago now – the young preacher had told her she was going to hell for smoking. She'd wanted to tell him that since he was eyeing his brother's wife and buying pornographic magazines in the next county over maybe they'd be seated next to one another. Instead, she spent lazy Sunday mornings sipping tea and listening to Charles Stanley, whose voice reminded her of her father.
Ruby's children didn't like her working at the store. They especially didn't like that she worked until midnight. But Ruby had quickly learned that if she scheduled her part-time help to work the evenings, they invariably invited their friends around. On the other hand, there were very few friends so loyal as to get up to visit with you at six in the morning. So, she scheduled the younger crowd for the early shift and kept the midnight hours herself. Besides, Ruby wasn't afraid of anybody, not even after being robbed at gunpoint eight years before. What was the worst somebody could do? Kill her?
She was chuckling to herself at the thought when the bell over the door jingled. She finished wiping down the counter before glancing up. A large black man stood just inside the door. African-American they liked to be called now, and that was perfectly fine by Ruby. She'd never seen this particular man around before. A stocking hat pulled low on his head, he studied the interior of the small store before meeting her gaze. He inclined his head in a rigid nod then strolled towards the snack aisle.
Ruby settled herself on the barstool behind the cash register and stared out the large front window. It was only five-thirty in the evening, but a heavy darkness defined the small circle of yellow lights illuminating the parking lot. The light snow that had been falling all day had picked up and was now sticking in earnest. A tall man was gassing up a large SUV at the new pay-at-the-pump. She'd installed it last spring and had already saved several hundred dollars in drive-offs.
As the dark titan studied a row of candy, the SUV's driver pulled his credit card receipt from the pump and hurried towards the building as he stuffed it in his wallet. He was a white man and despite the bulky ski coat, he was obviously a lanky lightweight next to his friend. He stepped inside the door, knocked snow from his boots onto the small rug, and looked at the store's owner.
"You checked that pump lately, lady? Since when does an Expedition have a 36-gallon tank?"
Ruby frowned as the man brushed snow from his brown hair. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, I paid for more than I got," he said and stepped up to the counter. Clutching packages of banana Moon Pies, Twinkies, and Ring Dings, the silent man approached, concern etched on his dark face.
Ruby studied the white man. There was a peculiar hardness to his face that shouldn't be there, that didn't look normal. "So, what do you want me to do about it?" she asked, curling gnarled fingers around the baseball bat on the shelf under the cash register. It hadn't been used since her youngest had graduated high school, but she supposed it'd swing all the same.
He leaned closer. "I expect you to pay me what you owe me." Clutching the bat in both hands, Ruby laid it on the counter between them.
"O'Neill," the black man muttered.
But O'Neill didn't respond. Instead, he glanced down at the bat then looked her in the eye. Dark brown eyes sparkled and the edges of his jaw softened. "Why Ruby Beckham, are you threatening me?"
"I ought to take you out back to the woodshed. It's a sorry bastard, Jack, that'd give an old woman like me a hard time over a few dollars."
Jack O'Neill laughed out loud and looked over at his friend. "Murray, meet Mrs. Ruby Beckham. Mrs. Beckham's been around so long, she introduced the locals to ice hockey."
"Well, lands, Jack. I'm old, but I ain't ancient."
Murray laid his snacks on the counter and bowed stiffly. "It is a pleasure."
Ruby smiled. "Now, see," she looked at Jack, "that's how a man's supposed to greet a lady."
"I'll keep that in mind," Jack grinned. "Murray works with me. This is his first time in Minnesota."
Ruby nodded, but didn't ask for particulars. All the locals knew Jack was military. There was even talk he was a sniper, that he'd killed a lot of men and maybe even some women and children. But Jack never talked about his work. Just like he never talked about why his wife and son stopped coming with him to the old cabin. And Ruby respected the man's privacy. Besides, if Jack O'Neill really did kill people for a living, he did it for his country. Maybe that was why his family wasn't around anymore. Maybe his wife couldn't handle what her husband did. Then again, maybe she'd just fallen out of love. It happened Ruby knew. In fact, there'd been a short spell when she'd fallen out of love with Delbert. Or maybe Mrs. O'Neill stayed at home because she didn't like the snow or mosquitoes. None of it was Ruby's business. All that mattered was she liked Jack, and she was thankful there were still men like him who were willing to risk their lives to keep Ruby safe. "Welcome to the North Star State, Murray. It's nice meeting you."
"You look good," Jack said. "How are you?"
"I'm doing fine. Just fine. You're looking older."
Jack elbowed his friend. "Brutal honesty."
Murray appeared to closely study his friend's face. "Indeed." He turned away and walked back to the snack aisle.
Ruby chuckled. "It's been a while, Jack. How are you?"
He glanced away as he answered, "I'm doing great. We're here for about a week, and Murray eats like a horse, so we need to stock up." He wandered down the aisles, pulling cans and paper goods off the shelves and stacking them on the counter.
"Kenny was up at your place yesterday," Ruby said as she began ringing up and sacking the groceries. "He said to tell you he turned on the water, fired up the water heater and the furnace, and laid in a cord of wood."
"Great." Jack stacked several cans of Dinty Moore stew, baked beans, and tuna on the counter. He brought back mayo, mustard, ketchup, and a large box of Bisquick as Murray added three bags of chile-lime potato chips and a package of Hydrox cookies.
"He said he'd be back on the eighteenth to close up unless you plan on coming back anytime soon."
"That'll work." Jack tossed several rolls of toilet paper on the counter then grabbed two packages of hot dogs, three pounds of smoked bacon, and five pounds of hamburger out of the meat cooler. "I doubt I'll be able to get up here for at least a few months."
Murray laid half a dozen more Moon Pies and two boxes of chocolate-covered donuts on the counter. "Do you sell ice cream?" he politely inquired.
"Absolutely," Ruby said without looking up from her work. "In the freezer on the back wall."
"Grab some beer, too," Jack said as he added buns, bread, three dozen eggs, and a stack of frozen pizzas to the pile of groceries. He surveyed the goods and reached for his wallet.
Ruby scowled. "You're gonna need milk, Hot Shot, and it probably wouldn't hurt to get some bottled water considering how long your pipes have been sitting."
"Oh, yeah." Ruby rang up three twelve-packs of beer and two gallons of brownie fudge ice cream as Jack retrieved milk and water. She added them to the bill then stared at him. "What?" he barked.
"Would it kill you to eat a vegetable? Maybe a piece of fruit?"
Jack glared at her, snorted, and then stalked down the nearest aisle. He came back carrying a family-sized bag of frozen tater tots and a lunch-sized can of sliced cling peaches in heavy syrup. "Happy?"
"Enormously." She rang in the final two items. "Seventy-two forty-two."
"Geez," he grumped.
Ruby made change out of a fifty and three tens. "The price of eating well, Jack."
"Yeah," he agreed, "at these prices, you're eating well, all right."
Ruby handed him his change. "Don't get smart, young man." As the men gathered up the bags, she gave a dentured grin. "What? No tip?"
Jack looked at her before reaching in one of the bags. "Sure." He slammed the can of peaches on the counter. "Dessert's on me."
Ruby laughed as the men scurried through a heavy snow towards their vehicle. "Damn idiots," she mumbled.
Ten minutes later, the outsider in the filthy sedan returned. The evening before, he'd bought a six-pack of soda pop and a carton of Pall Mall's then asked in a clipped voice about the nearest hotel as he'd paid in cash. Now, he pulled up to the pump and got out, slipping and sliding towards the building. He entered with a blast of cold air, brushed snow from his hat and thin dress coat, and stomped his shiny shoes on the damp rug. He was dressed the same as he had been the previous night, wearing black jeans and a dark blue turtleneck. He approached the counter and pulled out his wallet. Wiping at his red nose with the back of one hand, he flipped open the wallet and pulled out a twenty.
"Put that on the pump, please. Coffee?" Ruby nodded towards the large Bunn coffeemaker on the east wall. The man pulled out two ones to go with the twenty. "Keep the change."
Ruby observed a multi-colored display of credit cards neatly lined up in leather slots before the man closed his wallet. "You know, that pump out there takes credit cards." When he looked her in the eye, Ruby felt chilled.
"I don't use credit cards," he finally said, despite evidence to the contrary.
Ruby didn't argue. Instead, she smiled. "Well, in case you change your mind."
"I won't." He walked to the coffeepot, filled a large cup, and headed for the door. He started to push it open then stopped and looked at her. Without warning, he flashed her a smile as fake as the white of his teeth. "Mind if I ask you something?"
Five minutes later, Ruby frowned as she watched the outsider pull out and head in the opposite direction from the O'Neill place.
Jack brought in his duffle bag last. He set it on the floor by the sofa and still wearing his coat, headed to the small kitchen. Teal'c was already putting his own stuff in one of the two bedrooms. It didn't matter which one. They were identical and divided by a modest bathroom. Those rooms and the combination living room-kitchen comprised the entire one-story cabin.
He pulled open the refrigerator. It was scrubbed and running. Once again, Kenney and Maggie McDonald had done a thorough job. While the house smelled a little musty, it was otherwise ready to enjoy. He began to dig through the sacks of groceries, but stopped when he felt a gust of cold air on his face. Maggie had cracked open the window over the sink to air out the place. He reached over to close it, squinting out into the pitch darkness. The large pond just outside the kitchen wall was obscured by falling snow. He closed the window then stocked the refrigerator and the shelves, setting out a large deluxe pizza for dinner. He stashed the empty grocery bags under the sink to be reused, turned on the oven to preheat then set the packages of toilet paper on the floor in the bathroom.
He was hanging his coat on the hook by the front door when Teal'c emerged from the bedroom nearest the kitchen. "So, what do you think, T?"
"Your second home is very pleasant."
"Thanks. I like it." He rubbed his flannel-covered arms against the chill of the place. The furnace was set on low, but Ken had stacked the makings of a fire in the fireplace. He crossed to the large stone structure that anchored the living room. "Your room okay?"
"It is," Teal'c said and sat down stiffly on the worn sofa.
With a groan, Jack knelt and began rolling one of the old newspapers stacked beside the hearth. That was one of his favorite things about the alien – with Teal'c, there was no need to talk for the sake of talking. Jack was constantly filling voids around family, friends, and coworkers. Concealing dark fox holes with witty banter and mindless chatter. But with Teal'c, he could brood in peace, or he could simply enjoy the quiet without worrying that his companion was going to bring up things Jack didn't want to think about, much less discuss.
Jack and Teal'c had a lot in common. They'd both spent the majority of their lives following orders. They'd both killed – sometimes innocents – in the name of a cause, a greater power. The elder on Cartago had said that only the suffering son could understand the pain Teal'c had inflicted when he'd killed a man. She was wrong. There were victims on both ends of a weapon.
Before Cartago, Jack would have bet his life Hammond understood that. Instead, the general had spouted clichés that might have come straight from one of the manuals cluttering up the shelves in Jack's basement. 'The United States is not in the business of interfering in other people's affairs.' Ha! Jack squeezed the rolled newspaper tighter. Hammond had called Teal'c a war criminal. 'Not one of our own.' Just because he'd done some things Hammond found offensive. 'Distasteful.' Jack grimaced and slapped the newspaper hard against the stone hearth.
His back to his friend, Jack blinked at the concern underlining the sound of his name. "Yeah. I just…I forgot to get coffee." He stood. "I should have bought coffee," he repeated as he reached for a match in the box on the mantel. His hand froze as he spied the picture of his wife and son. His ex-wife. His ex-son. He frowned and stared at the small framed photograph. "Did you see this picture?"
"This one here. On the mantel. Did you look at it? Touch it?"
The simple "I did not" caused Jack's pulse to race. With a steady hand, he moved the photo back to the middle of the mantel where it belonged, facing the living room. Maggie and Ken never touched the picture. Since Charlie's death, since Sara stopped coming here, no one did. It was off limits. A past touched and spoken of by no one. He suspected it was that off-limits policy more than Charlie's death that had killed his marriage. Not even Jack touched this picture, except for an occasional gentle smoothing away of accumulated dust, a reminder that not everything he'd done was bad. Some of it was good stuff.
"Is something wrong, O'Neill?"
Jack flinched. "What?" He glanced back at Teal'c then pulled a match from the box and held it to the newspaper. "Uh, no. Everything's fine." He watched the paper ignite and sitting on the hearth, lowered it to the kindling. The flames grabbed the wood with hungry fingers and soon, a small fire glowed, spreading warmth through the old cabin. Jack looked over at Teal'c, who stared back at him. "Maybe there's some coffee left from my last trip."
He walked into the kitchen, but bypassed the cabinets and instead, opened the back door. He stared down at the stoop. Light from the kitchen illuminated a small snow drift formed by flakes gathering against the base of the door. Vague depressions, evenly spaced, led towards the pond. Jack took two steps out into the freezing darkness, but even as he watched the depressions vanished like a mirage, filling with snow. He returned to the well-lit kitchen, stamped snow from his shoes, and did something he'd never done before – he locked the door and lowered the shade over the window. When the oven beeped, he calmly unwrapped the pizza, placed it on a blackened baking sheet, shoved it in the oven, and set the timer. Then, he went through the cabin, methodically studying familiar things in a new light.
Later, sitting at the battered kitchen table surrounded by the cold remnants of their dinner and empty beer cans, Jack half-heartedly played seven-card stud with his quiet companion. He'd explained the basics of poker to Teal'c in a late night session a month before. The alien was now familiar with antes and wild cards. Unlike with Daniel, and for obvious reasons, it had been unnecessary to instruct Teal'c in the art of maintaining a 'poker face.'
Teal'c dealt the last cards face-down. Jack peeked at his. Three of clubs. Who would have entered his house? And why? Other than the picture, he'd found nothing disturbed. Nothing missing. He'd seen no evidence of surveillance devices.
He glanced up at Teal'c then looked again at his cards and tossed his remaining chips onto the small pile in the middle of the table. "Sorry."
The alien won. Again. "Your thoughts appear to be in a place other than this one."
Jack grunted, still staring blankly at the table. "Yeah." Maybe he was imagining things. Maybe the footprints in the snow had been Ken's. And maybe Maggie had bumped the picture and had simply failed to straighten it. But none of that explained how day-old prints could be visible in fresh snow. "Yeah," he repeated and rubbed a hand over his forehead.
"Do you wish to speak of something?"
"Huh?" He squinted over at his teammate. Should he voice his concerns to Teal'c? He stood, his chair scraping across a floor worn smooth though the years. "No. No, I'm just tired. Think I'll turn in."
He spent the night sitting on his bed, fully-clothed, leaning back against the headboard. He occasionally dozed off, but would wake with a start, certain he'd heard something. Once, he silently crossed the room and cracked open the door, half expecting to find Teal'c seated on the sofa staring at the fireplace. But his friend was nowhere in sight and the other bedroom door was firmly closed. The embers of the fire glowed, bathing the room in flickering shadows and dim light. Jack rebuilt the fire then returned to his room, leaving his door open. He resumed his place on the bed and stared across the back of the sofa at the warm fire.
He snorted and jerked himself awake. Groaning, he rubbed his aching neck then glanced at his wristwatch. Half past six. The fire had died down and the house was cold. Stiffly, he crawled off the bed. Twenty minutes later, he'd used the bathroom and brushed his teeth, and a fire roared in the fireplace. He found a quarter of a can of stale Folgers on the shelf, and it wasn't long before the smells of frying bacon and brewing coffee permeated the small cabin. Combined with the brilliant sun angling through the kitchen window, little room remained for intruders. He heaped crisp strips of thickly-sliced bacon onto a plate and broke six eggs into his grandmother's cast iron skillet. He was gently splashing hot grease over the tops of the eggs with a rusty spatula when the door to Teal'c's room opened.
"Good morning, O'Neill."
"T." Jack glanced at his friend who was clothed in a fresh sweater and tan cargo pants. The man wasn't wearing any shoes. It was strange to see the large warrior barefoot. Bread sprang from the toaster like a singed jack-in-the-box. Jack momentarily left the eggs in order to butter hot toast and add it to a tall stack already dripping with butter. "Hungry?"
"Bacon, eggs and toast." He eased the eggs onto two mismatched plates then divvied up the bacon and toast as Teal'c grabbed eating utensils from the drawer. "Tomorrow, hotcakes." He poured himself a cup of coffee while Teal'c emptied whole milk into a mug. They settled around the table and began eating. "So," Jack asked around a mouthful of egg, "what do you want to do today?"
Teal'c finished chewing and gulped milk before answering, "I am not sure. What does one do in Minnesota?"
"A lot of things." Jack sipped the bitter coffee. "Ice fishing and cross-country skiing come to mind. Maybe a hike."
"Which do you prefer?"
Jack paused in his eating. He should have checked the small shed built against the north side of the house. What if whoever had broken into the house was hiding there?
"I said, which do you prefer."
"Oh. Yeah, that's fine. Whatever you want."
Teal'c laid down his fork. "We need to speak of this."
He'd check the shed. He'd stored the old cross-country skis out there anyway. He glanced up and caught Teal'c staring at him. "What?"
"We need to speak of this."
"You are upset that I submitted to the Cor-ai."
Jack was surprised by the truth in the statement. He'd been distracted, first by his anger at Hammond and now by the riddle of the picture. Until this moment, he'd managed to forget just how pissed he'd been that Teal'c had scrambled willingly into the hangman's noose. Without hesitation, the Jaffa had laid himself across the guillotine. Jack set down his cup, picked up his fork, and frowned down at the eggs congealing on his plate.
"It was the proper thing to do. I murdered Hanno's father."
Jack's grip on the fork tightened. Yolks slowly bled over slaughtered pig.
"We must be willing to stand before our victims, look them in the eye, and accept our fate."
Jack's fork hit his plate before bouncing onto the floor. Teal'c lowered the mug he was preparing to drink from and frowned at his friend. Jack's hands trembled and his face was flushed. Back on Cartago, Teal'c had asked if he'd ever faced the crying eyes of a child whose father he had just murdered. Jack hadn't lied when he'd said 'not exactly.' The trick was, don't look at their eyes. Then you can't see them in your dreams. In theory, it worked.
"So, according to you, I gotta go find all those sobbing kids whose fathers I've killed? Is that what you're saying? I gotta throw myself at their feet and wait for the bullets to fly or the axe to fall? 'Cause I gotta tell ya, Teal'c, that ain't happening." Appetite gone, he stood and grabbing his plate, walked to the counter.
"O'Neill, I did not mean we must seek them out, but if they come to us, we–"
He swung on the alien in a manner he would have thought impossible only minutes before. "Newsflash," he spat. "What we have here is a major philosophical difference of opinion, old friend. See, you think you're personally responsible for every little thing you ever did at the command of a damned snake. Even if that damned snake deceived you into thinking he was a god. Me? I don't have a problem with that. The things we've done, we've done under orders. That was the driving force behind them, and it's the driving force that matters."
Teal'c's poker face was in full play. "I do not believe taking a human life should be considered 'every little thing,'" he quietly announced.
Jack threw his plate at the sink. Cobalt-blue Fiestaware exploded, flinging shrapnel across the counter; eggs, bacon and soggy toast splattered against the kitchen window and oozed down the glass like fresh bird droppings. Grabbing his keys and coat from the living room, he managed to mumble, "We need coffee," before slamming the front door behind him.
Ruby had trouble with mornings. Each winter, it took longer to ease the cold night out of her bones. She had particular aches that were as predictable in their yearly return as the loons on the lake. But they were aches that made absolutely no sense. Her low back, both hips, her left ankle, her right knee, and her thumbs. On the worst mornings – like today – she wondered if, in the invisible realm, God and Satan were fighting it out over her weary body in Job-like fashion.
'I'll take out her right knee. I really will,' Satan warns.
God smiles. 'Go ahead. It won't stop her.'
'Fine. Her thumbs then. Both of them.'
Just in case, Ruby straightened in her chair and smiled as she sipped her tea and watched a Cardinal and a squirrel squabble over bread scraps she'd tossed around the base of the bird feeder. Like a newborn baby, the early morning sun offered nothing but hope, and it brought with it a wave of fond memories. She'd seen a lot of mornings in her time, and every single one of them – even the worst – was memorable for its beauty.
Ruby rolled her shoulders against a nagging ache and tried to recall what it was that had been so pressing as to keep her awake until nearly three o'clock in the morning. It was interesting how as a person neared the end of their journey, they could survive on less and less sleep. It was almost as if God planned it just so a person would have ample time to finish whatever needed finishing before they went home.
If only she could remember what it was that needed finishing.
She was still sipping her tea and watching the bird feeder when there was a loud knock on the front door. She frowned. She hadn't heard a car pull up. It took a minute to get upright and across the living room. Just as she grabbed the door knob, the banging sounded again. "Keep your britches on!" She yanked open the door and found what needed finishing standing in front of her looking like an overgrown, temperamental child. He was wound as tight as the cuckoo clock chirping out the half hour behind her.
"You want to talk to me?" he demanded.
Ruby's mouth tightened into a firm line. "Not if you're gonna act like that." She slammed the door shut and headed back to her tea. She was halfway there when the knock came again, softer this time. She shelved a slight smile and opened the door again.
He was holding his stocking hat in his hand like a shy suitor, or perhaps a somewhat shady vacuum cleaner salesman. "Good morning." His grin was crooked in more ways than one. "I stopped by the store for some coffee this morning and was told you needed to talk to me."
Ruby studied him a moment, wishing she could fix whatever it was about this man that so obviously needed fixing. Given enough time, maybe she could.
"Well?" he said.
Jack O'Neill sighed. "Was that better?"
"Better. Far from perfect." Ruby stepped back. "Come on in before I have to charge you for propane. Want some tea?" she asked as she entered the kitchen.
He followed her, stripping off his parka with a swish of nylon. He hung it over the back of a chair and looked around the tidy room. "I'll get it."
Ruby cut him off at the pass. "No you won't. Sit down." She fired up the still warm tea kettle and took her best china cup and saucer from the shelf.
"Are you always so bossy?"
Her back to him, Ruby grinned. It'd been too long since another body had graced her table. "You don't like the service, there's a restaurant fifteen miles up the road. I hear their apple pie would make a mama proud, but stay away from the Salisbury steak." He mumbled something. "God heard that," she informed him.
She took her time brewing the tea then they sat side by side at the kitchen table, silently staring out the large picture window framing the snow-covered yard and trees, the birds, the squirrels, and the ice-covered lake.
"This is a nice place you've got here, Mrs. Beckham," he finally announced.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him glance at her. "You sound like Murray."
She curled arthritic hands around the warm china. "Is that a bad thing? He seems nice."
"Yeah." He stared down at his cup. "He's a good man." He sipped. "What kind of tea is this?"
"Hmm. I don't like gingerbread, but this is good."
"I'll make a note," he said with the sarcasm that simultaneously revealed so much and so little about him.
She studied his profile. He was a handsome man. Still, if he'd lighten up a little, it'd be an improvement. She set down her cup and decided to plunge in with both calloused feet. "Your wife and boy, they don't come with you any more." Despite the fact he didn't move, Ruby knew she'd hit a raw nerve. "I'm not asking. I'm saying."
"If that's what you wanted to talk about, I'll be going." He set down his cup.
"Don't go getting your knickers in a wad." He glared at her. "I have no intention of prying into O'Neill family matters. Maybe you're divorced. Or maybe your wife and boy would just rather sit at home and let you go gallivanting around by yourself. Whatever. It don't make me no never mind. In fact, I'm a little jealous. There were a few times I could've appreciated gallivanting myself if I'd had the time or the money." When he opened his mouth to speak, she shushed him with a flip of her hand. "It's just…that fellow at the store. He seemed awful interested."
"What fellow? Interested in what?"
"I'm getting to it." Ruby pulled the cozy off the teapot. "More?" At his brusque nod, she refilled his cup then her own. "This man came to the store," she said as she spooned a teaspoon of sugar into her cup. "Two nights in a row. A fancy man."
She nodded towards the snow visible through the window. "Out in this weather wearing a dress coat and shiny shoes. Smokes and likes his soda pop. Drives an old sedan. It looked dark green under the dirt and the lights. All dented up."
"What'd he look like?"
"Not as tall as you. Broad shoulders and going soft in the belly. Probably the only vegetable he eats is tater tots," she smirked. "Younger than me, older than you."
Ruby thought back. "I think he's bald." When Jack frowned, she clarified. "Both times, he was wearing one of them fedoras. You know, like he's stuck in the forties and can't get out. But going by his eyebrows and five o'clock shadow, he's dark-haired. And pays cash for everything, despite carrying a wallet full of credit cards."
"So, what'd he want?"
"The first night, nothing. Just bought his cigarettes and pop and left. The second night, he bought gas and coffee then struck up an interesting conversation. Asked about your place." Jack perked up. "He wanted to know who owned the cabin by the big pond up at the end of the road. Asked how long the current owner had had the place, how often he came to town, if his family ever came with him. Stuff like that."
Ruby was not entirely surprised to see a dangerous smoldering behind the dark eyes staring back at her. She felt no fear. In fact, she figured this was probably the same look Jack got when he was sniping at someone who wanted to take Ruby's freedom from her. "What'd you tell him?"
She snorted and shook her head. "Age can be a terrible thing, Jack." She gave him an innocent smile. "Seems I got your place mixed up with someone else's. See, I thought he was talking about that place owned by that banker guy out of St. Paul. I can't quite recollect his name – Udell something-or-other. I'm sure you know him. Tall, thin. Lives with his partner, a big African-American named Terry. Terry's a nice man, but that Udell can be a real ass."
"Is that right?"
Ruby nodded. "And I told this man that so far as I knew, the only family Udell has, other than Terry that is, is a sister and her boy who live somewhere down south. Florida or Georgia, maybe." She looked over at Jack, who was studying her closely.
"That's a pretty amazing story, especially for an old lady with bad recall."
She chuckled. "Dementia fans the door like a houseful of young'uns. Here one minute, gone the next." When he smiled, she ducked her head like she'd done the first time Delbert winked at her. "Well, aren't you gonna ask me for it?"
Jack's brow creased. "Ask you for what?" She pulled a tiny slip of paper from her pocket and laid it on the table in front of him. He unfolded it, studied what was written there by her shaky hand then glanced up at her. "A license plate number."
"Old habit. All those years of drive-offs."
He reached over and patted her hand. "I appreciate this."
Ruby grabbed his hand and held on. "You listen to me, Jack O'Neill, I don't know what you do for a living. I don't want to know. But I know this, that man is up to no good, and he's a rude, lying son-of-a-bitch that you'd do best to avoid."
Jack frowned. "Don't worry about me. But if you see him again, I don't want you messing with him. You just give him his soda and his cigarettes, take his money, and let him go on his way. You hear?"
She nodded and pushed herself to her feet as Jack rose to leave. He crossed the living room in front of her, shrugging into his coat. When he grabbed the door knob, he stopped. She stared up the back of the tall man in front of her, his head bowed. Slowly, he turned.
"My boy died. A few years back in a shooting accident. My wife and I just recently divorced."
In all her imaginings, that particular scenario had never occurred to her. Ruby's insides clenched, and she had to work to keep her chin up. "That's a terrible shame, Jack, and I'm real sorry to hear it."
"Yeah," he mumbled, but didn't move.
Ruby frowned, searching her tired old brain for words to suit the occasion as the man in front of her stared down at his boots. "As long as we live in a fallen world, bad stuff is gonna happen, even to little ones."
He glared at her meager offering. "Charlie got his hands on my loaded service weapon. It shouldn't have happened."
She could see it clearly now, guilt like a cancer eating him up from the inside out. "Once, when she was fifteen, I told my daughter she had her daddy's big nose and ought to seriously consider the first marriage proposal that came her way. You know why I said that? Partly because she did have her daddy's nose, but mostly it was because I was miserable myself, and I wanted company. My daughter is a beautiful woman, Jack, and fortunately, she ignored a bitter mother's advice." She frowned up at him. "You think I'm proud of what I did? You think I don't have regrets? I got over 80 years' worth of 'em, young man."
"But you didn't kill her."
"No. No, I didn't. But at the time, it liked to have killed her, and me, too." Without thinking, she reached over and tugged his jacket closed against the cold world waiting outside her door. "Son, you just want to do what everyone else in the world wants to do – turn back the clock and make everything right. But it ain't gonna happen, so you might as well get used to living with things the way they are. Besides, unless you pressed that gun into your boy's hand and helped him pull the trigger, you didn't kill him any more than I killed my Annie."
A large hand brushed her wrinkled cheek in a touch so brief she'd later wonder if she'd imagined it. "I wish I believed you."
"Just 'cause you don't believe it, don't mean it ain't so. You remember that."
Jack grunted then stepped out onto her porch and deeply inhaled the cold air. Pulling on his hat and gloves, he aimed a crooked grin at her. "I'd better go. I don't like leaving Terry all alone at the cabin. He's not what you'd call the outdoorsy type." Ruby chuckled as he stepped off the porch and strode towards his vehicle. "You take care now, Mrs. Beckham," he called over his shoulder.
"Yeahsureyabetcha," Ruby called back. "Yeahsureyabetcha," she mumbled again as the SUV belched cold smoke. She shivered at winter's frigid embrace. It wasn't until he'd disappeared down a long tunnel of snow-covered trees that she noticed he'd cleaned the snow off her car and tramped a path to her door.
As the Beckham place disappeared from his rearview mirror, Jack pulled his cell phone from his pants pocket. Fully charged, but no signal. He gunned the Expedition. He had to warn Teal'c. He should have mentioned his suspicions this morning. Better yet, last night. He wasn't sure why he hadn't, unless.… Was Teal'c right? He was mad at Hammond, but was he pissed at his teammate as well?
'Why didn't you tell me you were guilty?' he'd asked.
'You already knew, only you did not want to hear it.'
Teal'c had been right about that, at least. The minute Hanno had pointed his weapon at the former first prime, Jack had known Teal'c had done exactly what Hanno had accused him of.
'There are a lot of things we do that we wish we could change and we sure as hell can't forget, but the whole concept of chain of command undermines the idea of free will. So as soldiers, we have to do some pretty awful stuff. But we're following orders like we were trained to. It doesn't make it easier; it certainly doesn't make it right, but it does put some of the responsibility on the guy giving those orders.'
It was a speech – a rationale – he'd memorized long before he'd ever said it aloud. Unfortunately, it worked against him more and more as he climbed in rank.
Jack slapped the steering wheel. Why did feelings always have to wrap sticky fingers around his life, mucking things up? Thinking about emotional crap was hard enough, and most days, he managed to avoid it altogether. But trying to understand how or why he felt certain things? Talking about his feelings? Digging through his emotions was like picking up knitting needles – unless he was using them to stab someone through the heart, why would he even bother? It wasn't like he had any intention of mastering the art of knitting. And now that Charlie and Sara were out of his life, he had no more reason to tote around his feelings than he had to carry a pair of knitting needles in his rucksack.
When he pulled up in front of the cabin, he knew something was wrong. Nothing was visibly out of place, but a disturbed hush lay over the cabin and the surrounding woods. He stepped out of the big Ford, leaving the door open. Glancing around, he spied three large crows perched in a nearby spruce. The creatures studied him in eerie silence as if they knew something he didn't and pitied him because of it.
Jack wished he had his pistol on him, but he'd been in a hurry when he'd left earlier, and the weapon was still stashed under the pillow on his bed. Only a few years earlier, he wouldn't have bothered to bring it at all. But after Abydos, there were very few places he went unarmed.
Keeping his eyes trained on the windows and door of the cabin, he made his way to the woodpile on the south side of the small structure. He stopped by the large chopping block and eased out of the noisy nylon parka before using both hands to loosen the axe Ken had buried in the block. Rust glazed the butt of the axe head, but its cutting edge was shiny and honed. Letting it dangle from his right hand, Jack pressed himself against the side of the cabin and peered around the corner.
There were no signs of life other than a lone Canvasback waddling across the frozen surface of the pond like he knew exactly where he was going and why. Jack eased around the corner and inched his way to the back door which stood half-open. The footprints he'd seen the night before were obscured by fresh tracks. He recognized the tread of Teal'c's size 13 Timberland thermals. The remaining tracks were less distinct. He spied a partial, smooth print, and laid his own boot alongside it. The track was much smaller and narrower with no tread. A dress shoe maybe?
Hefting the axe, he gently pushed open the door and peeked into the cabin. No one. He stepped inside, silently closing the door behind him to prevent anyone from sneaking up on him from the outside. The ketchup bottle, salt shaker, butter bowl, and plate of toast crumbs still sat in the middle of the table. The broom and a dustpan were propped near the trash can, but blue pottery shards had yet to be swept up. The sink was full of sudsy dishwater. Teal'c's empty plate sat next to the sink; the smeared mess from Jack's plate had been cleaned from the kitchen window. Keeping his eyes on the adjoining rooms, Jack walked to the sink and stuck a finger in the water. Still warm. He walked toward the living room, muttering a curse when he stepped on the fork he'd dropped earlier. The fire he'd built upon waking glowed.
He entered his room and retrieved his pistol from beneath the pillow. The Smith & Wesson 910S was his personal favorite, and his fingers greedily curled around it. Not only was the 9 millimeter accurate and compact, it held a 15-round clip. He released the safety and stepped back into the living room, eyeing Teal'c's closed bedroom door. He inched his way to it, hugged the wall with his back and kicked open the door. It banged against the wall as he entered the room on his knees. Aside from several extinguished candles on the floor surrounding the bed, there was nothing that shouldn't be there.
He gave the bathroom a cursory glance before heading back outside. He quickly retrieved his parka and as he shrugged into it, he returned to study the tracks more closely. The smooth tracks, leading off to the north side of the pond, were overlaid by the Timberlands. Jack zipped up his parka, donned his stocking hat and gloves, and pistol firmly clutched in his right hand, followed the trail.
His fogged breath led the way in brief spurts. After twenty minutes, he was standing in a foot of snow on the opposite side of the pond from the cabin. Stopping to catch his breath, he stared back at the thin wisp of smoke beckoning from the chimney. When he heard a distant gunshot, he swiveled back toward the tracks leading into the woods.
"Damn." Unless Teal'c had taken a knife from the kitchen, he wasn't armed, and he certainly wasn't carrying a firearm. Hammond wouldn't have permitted it. After all, Teal'c wasn't 'one of our own.'
Slipping off his glove to get a better grip on his pistol, Jack hurried after the tracks, following the sound of the shot. He knew this land, had walked it many times in every season. He knew that a mile to the west was a bluff that dropped twenty feet to a dry creek bed. Teal'c and his prey had three options: descend the treacherous bluff and head west until they reached Highway 38; go south where they'd be forced to cross the Big Fork River before entering the Chippewa National Forest; or head north until they reached the Bois Forte Indian Reservation. It was a tough call. To someone unfamiliar with the area, the obvious choices would be to go north or south, but if the prey knew where he was, he'd probably attempt the bluff and head for the road.
Twenty-five long minutes later, he had his answer. Jack stood at the edge of the steep drop, staring down at the trampled snow two stories below. Although he couldn't read the details of the tracks from this distance, it was obvious there had been a lot of activity at the base of the cliff. Most worrisome, however, were the small pool of blood and the bright red droplets leading toward the highway a little over two miles away. It didn't take a mathematician to add things up: gunshot plus unarmed teammate plus blood equaled an injured Teal'c.
To bypass the bluff would mean a quarter-mile detour in either direction. Jack switched on the safety on his pistol, shoved it in his pocket, and pulled his glove back on. Taking a deep, calming breath, he studied the jagged rocks forming the cliff. "Here goes nothing," he muttered and lowered himself over the edge.
It'd been several years since he'd climbed the bluff. Then, it'd been summer, he'd been younger, and he'd possessed functioning anterior cruciate ligaments. Now, it was winter, he was...substantially more mature, and what ACL's remained in his knees were about as bracing as overcooked linguine. But the good news was, he remembered the climb as being relatively easy and his only incentive then had been proving to himself he could do it. Clinging to the top of the steep rock wall, he tossed a glance down at the blood-soaked snow. His incentive now made up for age and bad knees.
Almost. His foot slipped no more than five feet from the top. He cursed and clung to the icy stones with two hands and one foot. He should have tossed his bulky coat over the edge before starting down. It was cumbersome and he was beginning to sweat, but it was too late now. Grimacing, he felt for a toe hold. His body flattened into the side of the bluff, his cheek pressed against a jagged, ice-crusted rock, he fumbled blindly with his right foot until he felt a small lip of stone. His fingers cramping under the strain of maintaining his precarious hold, he carefully put weight on an outcropping no bigger than his fist. It held, and he allowed his right hand to relax slightly, closing his eyes and sighing at the ecstasy of a meager relief.
That's when the rock under his left foot broke loose.
Teal'c sat under the branches of a fragrant evergreen, leaning heavily against the rough bark of the tree's trunk. He had failed, and the stranger had escaped. He'd been wiping off the window over O'Neill's kitchen sink when he'd spied movement towards the back of the small cabin. When the man had fumbled with the back door, Teal'c had opened it for him. Surprised, the stranger had stumbled back, muttering apologies. He had wondered if this were the man named Ken that O'Neill and Ruby Beckham had mentioned, the one who performed tasks around O'Neill's cabin. It was not until the man had backed halfway across the yard in the direction of the pond that Teal'c realized a workman would not be wearing clothing reminiscent of Detective Nero Wolfe in the Rex Stout books O'Neill had loaned him. Still barefoot, Teal'c had hurried to his bedroom in order to put on his boots. By the time he had grabbed his coat and ran out the back door, the man had a significant headstart.
Teal'c had drawn almost even with his quarry by the time they reached the bluff. The man had scrambled down amazingly fast, especially considering the steepness of the descent and the smooth-soled shoes he was wearing. Teal'c was nearly at the bottom of the rock wall himself when the shot was fired.
The bullet entered the left side of his back, mere inches above his hip. Another inch to the left and the shot would have missed him entirely. As it was, however, the impact caused his grip to falter, and he'd fallen the last five feet to the bottom of the cliff. He'd lain there for several minutes, quietly assessing the damage and rallying his energy, before forcing himself to his feet and continuing the chase. But the wound bled copiously and weakened him. Within a half-mile, he gave up the chase and settled himself within the shelter of the tree.
Protected by the overhanging limbs, Teal'c watched for the intruder to return. When a quarter of an hour passed with no sign of the stranger, Teal'c leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes, allowing the symbiote within him to begin the healing process. While the wound was not grievous, it would take time to stop the bleeding and replenish his energy. The bullet remained within him. If the symbiote could not force it to the surface, it would have to remain or be removed at a later time.
When he opened his eyes, the scene remained unchanged, but he was aware nearly an hour had passed since he'd closed his eyes. He was not yet healed, but a hand pressed against his back revealed that the bleeding had slowed significantly. It would be best to return to the cabin and continue his healing there. As he crawled from the shelter of the tree, weakness caused his arms and legs to tremble. He would have to move slowly in order not to undo the repairs already made by his symbiote.
He was grateful that, for the most part, the land was flat and smooth. Unhurried, he followed the trail he'd left earlier, concentrating on staying upright and pondering the identity of the shooter. Perhaps the man was a burglar who had thought the cabin unoccupied. But that did not seem likely. Why would a thief attempt to enter the home during the daylight and dressed as he was? Had the man been searching for O'Neill? Teal'c increased his pace. He must warn his friend.
When the cliff came into view, Teal'c stopped. Would he be able to ascend it or should he attempt to go around? Unfamiliar with the landscape, he had no way of determining how far he would have to travel to bypass it, or in what direction. He was considering his options when he spied movement at the base of the cliff.
He frowned. "O'Neill!" Clutching his wounded side, he stumbled towards his commanding officer.
O'Neill was on his knees in the snow, looking dazed and disheveled. Teal'c eased himself down in front of his comrade who looked up, but appeared to stare through him. Blood curled around the left side of the man's neck, disappearing inside his shirt. The left sleeve of his thick parka was torn, and the coat was pulled to one side as if O'Neill had attempted unsuccessfully to remove it. When Teal'c tugged the coat into place, O'Neill screamed.
Teal'c gently ran his hands along his friend's arms and shoulders, searching for any injuries. It was difficult to discern details through the thick down, but when he touched O'Neill's left shoulder, the man gasped. "I am sorry, but I must," he said, and taking great care, he reached inside the coat to feel the joint. It was misshapen. "Your shoulder is injured."
"Went for coffee," O'Neill muttered. Dark eyes wavered before settling briefly on Teal'c's face. O'Neill frowned. "Coffee."
Favoring his wound, Teal'c shifted to O'Neill's side to examine the man's head. There was a deep gash on the back of his skull. Blood matted the short brown hair, but it appeared that most of the bleeding had stopped.
"What happened?" O'Neill asked and panting, he struggled to his feet.
Teal'c stood, holding his friend upright by grasping his uninjured arm. "It appears you fell from the cliff. Other than your head and shoulder, are you hurt elsewhere?"
Hunched forward as if in pain, O'Neill frowned at him like he was speaking Goa'uld. "What?"
Maybe the direct approach would work. Still holding onto the other man's arm, Teal'c moved to stand directly in front of him. "Where are you hurt?"
O'Neill's mouth moved as if he were sounding out the words in his head. "Where's my shirt?"
Teal'c sighed and shook his head. This was going nowhere. They both needed to get inside where it was warm, and he needed to arrange medical help for O'Neill. Medical help for himself would have to wait. He could not allow himself to be examined by a human doctor who had no knowledge of the existence of Jaffa. He glanced at the bluff behind them. With difficulty, he could ascend it on his own, but not with his injured comrade. And he did not dare leave O'Neill on his own. The man was obviously confused and might wander off. There was also a possibility the stranger would return. Perhaps they were being watched even now. At the thought, he glanced towards the woods from which he had come before turning to face O'Neill. "Is it possible to bypass the cliff?"
O'Neill started to lift his injured arm toward his head, but instead, he gasped and lowered it. "What happened, Terry?"
"I am not Terry. I am Teal'c. Do you not recognize me?" O'Neill grimaced and his eyes began to close. Teal'c grabbed the man's jaw with his free hand. "Look at me," he ordered, and O'Neill complied, albeit with eyes that appeared unfocused. "Can we go around the bluff?"
"North," O'Neill mumbled sleepily.
He removed his hand from his friend's face, leaving bloodied fingerprints on the grizzled jaw, and looked to his left where the stone barrier disappeared in the dense forest. He pressed a hand against his throbbing side. "North," he softly repeated.
He turned back to his companion. "Which way? North or south?"
O'Neill tried to nod, but his head bobbled, and the color drained from his face. "Yes," he finally murmured.
Teal'c frowned. During his time with SG-1, O'Neill never failed to make a decision. Whether faced with multiple choices, limited choices, attractive choices, or poor choices, the commander did not hesitate more than a few moments before moving the team into action. He had once told Teal'c the key to command was making a decision then sticking with it.
He removed his grip on O'Neill's arm long enough to zip up his friend's coat. Without the support, O'Neill swayed and reached out with his good arm to grab the front of Teal'c's jacket. He immediately released his hold and frowned down at the blood glistening on his palm. He held it up in front of his face then tried to look at Teal'c. "Are you blood?" He closed his eyes, frowned as if trying to concentrate then squinted at Teal'c. "Bleeding?"
Teal'c sighed. "You fell. I was shot. Now, we must go."
Teal'c slipped his friend's good arm across his shoulders. Holding onto O'Neill's right hand and using his other hand to grip O'Neill's waist pulled at the wound on Teal'c's side and left no hands free to press against the wound. He took a deep breath before turning northward.
"Did I get coffee?" O'Neill mumbled.
"I am unaware."
"Need some," he said, his voice a slurred whisper. He was silent for approximately five stumbling steps. "Did I get coffee?"
"Oh." Jack groaned and weakly tried to tug his hand free of Teal'c's grip. "What happened?"
"You fell from the cliff. I was shot while pursuing an intruder."
"Oh." Three more stumbling steps to the north. "Caffeine headache."
"I believe you have a concussion, O'Neill."
"Huh? Ivy league can cuss or kneel?" Out of the corner of his eye, Teal'c saw O'Neill glaring his way. "What's that mean?"
"I did not say–" Teal'c flinched when O'Neill suddenly stopped. His side throbbed wickedly as he studied his companion. The other man looked ill and confused, and despite having come only a few feet, he was panting softly. "What is it?"
O'Neill bent slightly at the waist as if attempting to relieve some pain. "Fine," he mumbled then straightened and looked up with surprisingly clear eyes. "Teal'c?"
The trip continued in much the same manner. O'Neill asked questions non-stop, most of them concerning the status of their coffee and what had happened. The farther they traveled, the more slurred O'Neill's speech became. It did not take long to realize that the officer seemed unaware of Teal'c's answers to his questions. Therefore, weary and in pain, Teal'c simply stopped responding. O'Neill appeared not to notice.
It was with great relief that after a little over an hour, the bluff lowered itself into the surrounding landscape, and they were able to turn their feet southeast towards the cabin. Teal'c's side was bleeding again. O'Neill teetered on unconsciousness and his breathing was disturbingly shallow with a strange, occasional hitch as if the effort to inhale caused him pain. Teal'c eased himself and his companion to the ground to rest before completing the journey.
O'Neill quietly reclined against a tree as Teal'c momentarily closed his eyes and willed his energy toward healing his wound. Alien birds flitted from branch to branch over their heads, and he heard the chatter of a nearby squirrel. Teal'c breathed deeply, savoring the clean, crisp air. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. Still panting, O'Neill was staring at him.
"One of us," O'Neill softly slurred, and Teal'c cocked his head. O'Neill closed his eyes, his forehead grooved with pain. Slowly his eyes opened, and he blinked over at the Jaffa. "Not murdrer…muder," he sighed, obviously frustrated. "Not killer. Good man."
Teal'c dipped his head. "As are you, my friend."
"I don't feel so good."
Pressing a hand against his side, Teal'c forced himself to his feet. "I know." He leaned down to help O'Neill to his feet.
"Arm's all tingly."
"I am not surprised." It took all his strength to get his friend on his feet. O'Neill staggered.
"Back's killing me."
Teal'c's own side throbbed as O'Neill leaned into him. "Indeed."
Teal'c closed his eyes and took a deep breath to ease the pain. "Yes, O'Neill?"
He drifted. In a mist alive with swirling dampness. He thought he frowned, but he wasn't sure. He struggled to find his feet, his fingers, his voice. He floated. Into and out of the mist. Into and out of his own head. And finally, into a body that throbbed and ached.
He was lying on his back. Something was jabbing him in the ribs, and claws were digging into his upper back. Uncomfortable, he rolled to his side and came fully awake with a scream. He rolled back, desperately seeking the bearable pain of before, but the agony did not relinquish its grip. Instead, it intensified, ricocheting across his back, lumbering with the grace of an armoured tank over the planes of his left shoulder blade. He panted, disturbed by a familiar shortness of breath indicative of something wrong inside him somewhere. And his head ached. Ferociously.
He forced himself to be still, staring upward into a blurry fog as he waited for the pain to subside. It didn't. Instead, it snuggled under his skin like an unwanted houseguest who refuses to leave.
"O'Neill." Teal'c's voice was soft, close by.
He gasped, and without turning his head, searched blindly for the alien. But it was like he'd grown cataracts overnight. Thick, goopy, viscous cataracts. The room bobbed and swayed. How could a room sway when he couldn't even see it? A large hand grasped his. The simple gesture slowed the rocking motion and calmed his racing pulse. Jack closed his eyes. It was better than staring ineffectually into a sickening mist.
"We are at your cabin," Teal'c advised. "You were injured when you fell from the cliff."
Jack frowned, trying to remember. He had a vague recollection of going for coffee then taking a walk through the woods with an old woman. He searched for details, for clarity, but came up empty. "Ruby," he said, and his voice clamored like a shrieking monkey sealed in a barrel. It bounced then finally settled into a shrill ringing in his ears.
Was that who he meant? He started to nod, but afraid of the pounding in his head, he stopped himself. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Yeah. She okay?" The sound was painful, distorted, and disturbing.
"I do not know. Is there reason to believe she might be in danger?"
"Yes. No. I–" He stopped, letting the echo of his own voice catch up with him. His brain felt like mush. Throbbing, aching, murky mush. "I don't know."
"There was an intruder. I chased him. You followed."
"Intruder?" His thoughts were muddled. "Where are we?"
There was a pause, which was nice because it allowed the sound of his Goa'uld-ish voice to blend into the ringing in his ears before Teal'c replied, "We are at the cabin."
"Oh." His shoulder ached miserably and his left arm tingled. "What happened?"
Teal'c sighed. An odd, unusual sound. "There was an intruder. You fell and were injured."
"I have contacted General Hammond. He is sending someone for us. Medical assistance. I, too, am injured. I cannot seek treatment at a hospital. I am sorry."
"Sorry? For what?"
"If it were not for me, you would be receiving medical treatment."
Medical treatment? For what? The headache? The shoulder ache? The ribs he was pretty sure were busted? "No big deal," he murmured. His head throbbed. "What happened anyway?"
When he woke up, he was standing behind a tacky, orange-colored sofa. His hands resting on the back of the couch, he blinked at a fuzzy monstrosity looming in front of him. He squinted and received a brief, clear glimpse of a stone fireplace. The somewhat familiar image wavered before fading into a Roswell grey blob. The nubby fabric of the couch under his fingertips was the only distinct feature in the room. His knees buckled. In his struggle to stay upright, pain in his left shoulder flared and his ribs on the same side caught and held his breath in a painful grip.
"O'Neill, what are you doing?" Large hands clasped his right elbow and wrapped around his waist, gently tugging him away from the safety of the sofa. "I was engaged in kelno'reem. General Hammond telephoned a short time ago. A helicopter should be arriving within thirty minutes to deliver us to an airport where we will be transported to Colorado Springs."
Jack stumbled alongside the steady alien. "Can't see diddly."
"What or who is 'diddly'?"
Jack groaned against the pain encasing the left side of his body. "Where are we, anyway, and what the hell happened?"
Teal'c sighed deeply.
He awoke briefly, but was too tired to open his eyes. He was somewhere different. Colder. In motion. There were loud noises that could not completely drown out strange voices murmuring tangled bits of conversation. Things pinched him in odd places – the tip of one finger, the bend of his right arm. Something or someone held him around the waist and knees. He was flat on his back which put painful pressure on his left shoulder and the back of his head.
He hurt, and he didn't know why.
He made one failed attempt to turn his head, to escape the uncomfortable position in which he found himself. Agony shot down his left arm and pierced the backs of his eyes, causing him to gasp.
"Colonel O'Neill?" someone shouted from afar.
He grimaced, but otherwise did not respond.
"Sir, are you in pain?"
The answer was 'yes,' but he was going to assume the question was rhetorical.
"Can you tell me where you are?"
He sifted through a mental box of mangled ideas, searching for an answer. If he was on Abydos and said earth, or if he was on earth and said Abydos, or if he was on Abydos and said Chulac.… The possibilities were endless and possibly fatal. Besides, peeking out around the crisp edge of pain, sleep beckoned.
"Stay awake for me, sir."
He might have said 'no' before the comforting throb of rotor blades rocked him into oblivion.
Dr. Janet Fraiser glanced down at the contents of the chart on Airman Fletcher, made a note about the woman's mild allergic reaction to cephalosporins then glanced across the ward at Teal'c. The Jaffa sat at rigid attention in a chair beside Colonel O'Neill's bed.
It was amazing, but Teal'c had already fully recovered from the gunshot wound to the lower left side of his abdomen. When the men had arrived at the SGC two days ago, shuttled first by helicopter then by jet and finally by ambulance, nearly eighteen hours had passed since they'd had been injured. Only eighteen hours and Teal'c's wound had been nearly invisible to the trained eye. Scans, however, had revealed the bullet lodged inside the alien. Janet had performed minor surgery to remove the .38 caliber round. It sounded demented, but she enjoyed performing medical procedures on the Jaffa. Each time, however minor, was a learning experience. When she'd made the incision, Teal'c hadn't even bled like a normal human. Instead, the flow of blood had quickly changed to a paltry trickle then to random droplets. And to apply a bandage over a fresh wound and peel it back an hour later to discover the flesh was already scabbing over…well, it was disconcerting to say the least.
Then there'd been O'Neill. The Colonel had not been quite so fortunate. A fractured left scapula, two cracked ribs, and a Grade 3 concussion. He'd obviously taken quite a tumble. The fracture had presented worse than it actually was – bruised, swollen and misshapen. But, while painful, the treatment and recovery would be relatively simple – immobilization, the application of ice then heat, and anti-inflammatory and pain medications. The ribs would heal on their own.
The concussion was a bit more problematic. The length and severity of the Colonel's symptoms were worrying, particularly his disorientation. It had been nearly seventy-two hours after the initial injury, and he was still suffering from periods of confusion, although the episodes were becoming less frequent. When awake, he was obviously suffering from headache, dizziness, and lack of coordination. He was also weak and had complained of ringing in his ears. Fortunately, he was free from nausea and double vision.
Concussions were strange things, and it was impossible to predict how long the symptoms might persist. They could disappear at any moment or last for days or weeks; they could even disappear then recur later. They might worsen, or he could exhibit new symptoms. It was possible he'd develop a loss of ability to concentrate or problems with insomnia, anxiety, or depression. The Colonel was noted for having an intolerance to light, and that could certainly worsen with a concussion.
Still, he'd been lucky, a fact she'd been reminded of when she'd looked at his x-rays. The signs of a healed skull fracture, while old, were clearly visible. She'd viewed the jagged seams many times, and each time, she was amazed anyone could survive such a massive head injury. If O'Neill had survived his 'parachute mishap' – as he reluctantly referred to it – he'd come through this. She was sure of it.
She walked over and stood at the foot of his bed. When she did, two pairs of brown eyes turned to her. One set was clear; the other was slightly unfocused with a hint of confusion.
"Back so soon?" the colonel barked with more than his usual effrontery.
"I see you haven't lost your ability to flatter a girl."
"You're no girl, Doc. You're a monster of torture. You feed on the infirm."
She grunted and picked up the metal chart hanging from the foot of his bed. She glanced at the contents before smiling at him. "If that's true, and I'm not saying it isn't, then I'd watch what I say if I were you."
Rubbing his right ear as if to get rid of what was probably a continued ringing, O'Neill glanced at Teal'c then frowned up at her. "So, when can I get out of here?"
"When you can tell me what day of the week it is, General Hammond's rank, and the name of the President of the United States."
"Is that all?" he smirked.
"Oh…right." She grinned. "And Teal'c's homeworld."
"You're a jerk."
"Possibly, but I'm a jerk with a medical degree from a highly respected educational institution."
"Fine." His sigh was aborted by a wince. As he draped his uninjured arm across his stomach, Janet pretended not to notice his hand holding sore ribs. "A cold day in hell, George, Jimmy Carter, and Abydos."
"Well, you got the first one right, Colonel." And she'd give him credit – it was slightly better than his last attempt when he'd declared it Thursbay, demoted Hammond to a staff sergeant working under the Gerald Nixon administration and had Teal'c hailing from Jupiter. She made a note in his chart and slid it back into its slot. "Get back to me when you can ace the test."
Which, if things progressed as they had been, might be as soon as the day after tomorrow – better known as Tuesbay.
O'Neill was back.
There'd been absolutely no sign of him for well over a week. Still, it had never entered the watcher's mind to give up his surveillance of the officer's home, not after it had taken a year and a half to locate him. During the man's absence, the watcher had been much more concerned about a neighbor calling the police to report the strange car parked on the street than he had been about O'Neill not returning. But neither scenario had unfolded. Obviously, he was meant to confront the man.
Despite his faith in O'Neill's eventual return, a tangible weight lifted from the watcher's shoulders when the familiar Jeep turned onto the street. Riveted on watching a young man with long hair and glasses park O'Neill's vehicle in the drive, it was several seconds before he realized his lit cigarette was searing away the flesh on his right index finger. Cursing, he shoved the smoldering cigarette in the overflowing ashtray, sucked the scalded digit into his mouth, and stared at the charcoal grey Buick that parked behind the Jeep. The same large African-American who'd left with O'Neill several days before emerged from the back of the sedan. As a blonde woman stepped out from the driver's side, the black man opened the passenger-side door then hovered as O'Neill, wearing a sling, clumsily exited the car. The young man from the Jeep unlocked the door of the house and held it open as O'Neill and his companions slowly made their way inside. Approximately forty-five minutes later, a blue sports car pulled up to the curb in front of the house and a short brunette went inside. A few minutes after that, the blonde woman left in the Buick.
That was how it went for most of the day – people coming, people going, cars arriving, cars leaving. Once, a person who'd arrived alone left with someone else, and twice, a person who'd pulled up in one car drove off in another. It made it difficult to keep track of who was still inside. Currently, the watcher was certain only that O'Neill remained at home and was being visited by a portly bald man driving a newer model Lincoln.
Daring to remove his gaze from the house, the watcher eyed the crumpled Marlboro pack lying between his feet. He retrieved the cardboard container and scrunched it again just to reassure himself it was empty. It was.
He glanced at his wristwatch – 6:35 in the evening – then gauged the nicotine hunger gnawing at his concentration and wondered exactly when he'd become addicted all over again. Approximately halfway into his long search for O'Neill would be his best guess. Sniffing the empty cigarette container, he considered the value of digging through the cold, broken butts in the ashtray in the hopes of finding a salvageable smoke. He rejected the idea with a disgusted snort and tossed the crushed box back to the floor. He wasn't that desperate. Not yet.
The watcher turned his attention back to O'Neill's place, but his eyes slid to the newspaper-wrapped object on the seat next to him. He'd run his hands over it so many times that its shape was unmistakable. For perhaps the final time, he dropped a hand onto it, taking comfort from the thought that very soon he'd fulfill his vow to his dead son. He blinked back tears – no time for them now – and glanced back at the house just as the front porchlight blinked on. Like a welcoming beacon, it drew him.
Seated in his favorite chair, Jack leaned his head back. He was glad for a moment's quiet. Glad Hammond and the others had left. As the day had worn on, the more tired he'd become. The more tired he'd become, the more his vision and his thoughts swirled and bobbed.
According to Hammond, they'd traced the license plate number on the piece of paper Daniel had found in Jack's coat pocket. And the local authorities in Minnesota had done their best to track down the stranger who'd stayed at the hotel down the road from Ruby's store. Unfortunately, all the leads had come up empty. The stranger had paid cash for everything, the name he'd given was, of course, a fake, and the license plate came back as belonging on a blue Chevy Impala owned by a guy who'd been dead for six years.
Jack sighed. He didn't like the idea that whoever had broken into his cabin and injured his friend was still out there. And he was tired. Plus, his back and shoulder ached and his head throbbed. He was overdue for a heat pack on his shoulder blade, and overdue for the pain meds Fraiser had prescribed, but he didn't want to have to go to the kitchen to retrieve either. If he just took a moment to lean back, to clear his mind and close his eyes…
"It is true, O'Neill."
He blinked, unaware until the sound of Teal'c's voice that he'd nearly dozed. The Jaffa had turned on a lamp and was seated on the sofa, staring towards the dusk descending over the back lawn outside the wall of windows. Jack wondered how long the man had been there.
He ran his good hand across his mouth, wiping away a bit of drool. "What's true?"
"I am not one of you."
Jack frowned and sat up straight.
"When I was in the kitchen, General Hammond stated he was sorry you remain upset at his statement that I am not one of your own." When there was no immediate response, Teal'c added, "I believe he was referring to his refusal to send troops to rescue me from the Cor-ai."
"Yeah, well," Jack cleared his throat, "you weren't supposed to hear that."
Teal'c dipped his head. "General Hammond made the correct decision."
"You're kidding." Jack shook head then regretted it. He blinked away the meteor shower in front of his eyes and tugged on his ear which had been ringing incessantly since he'd awakened back at the cabin. "You're telling me if I was imprisoned, being tried for murder by a bunch of aliens, you wouldn't authorize men under your command to rescue me just because I'm not Jaffa? Not one of you?"
"I would not authorize it if you were guilty of the offense. Whether you were Jaffa – which you are not – would have nothing to do with my decision."
"Well, I disagree."
"You are free to do so, O'Neill."
"Yeah. I am." His voice came out angrier than he'd intended. Or maybe it hadn't.
"You still believe I am not responsible for my actions while in service to Apophis."
Jack didn't answer. His pounding head had no tolerance for redundancy at the moment. He relaxed into the chair and in the process noticed that Teal'c had set the bottle of pain pills and a glass of water on the table next to his chair. Hurriedly, he downed two of them without reading the directions.
"Because I was enslaved to an evil entity?"
"Not necessarily," he mumbled, aware even as he said it that Teal'c wouldn't be satisfied with the cryptic answer. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and responded before the question was asked. "Some might say everybody in the military is 'enslaved to an evil entity.' An entity governed by a chain of command. And it's that same chain of command that removes the bulk of any responsibility you might have had for killing that guy's dad."
"You stated that chain of command undermines free will."
"Therefore, you believe that if a man answers to a higher power, he lacks free will."
"Well, no." Sighing, Jack looked over at his friend. "You can choose to disobey. You can break the chain of command. If you do, you'll be responsible for the results of that disobedience. But if you choose to obey, the responsibility falls on the one issuing the order."
"So, if General Hammond ordered you to kill a child and you did so, you would feel no blame?"
"That's how it's supposed to work. Yeah." Supposed to. There was a brief silence for which he was glad.
"Then as one rises in rank, so does the level of blame one feels," Teal'c murmured.
Jack cleared his throat and sat up too suddenly causing pains to shoot through his shoulder. Biting back a groan, he struggled to his feet. He could feel Teal'c's gaze on him. "I've gotta pee," he announced. He stepped up out of the living room then paused and looked back. "You know, you don't have to stay."
"No, you don't."
Teal'c leveled a steady gaze on him. "I have no ride and am unable to drive your motor vehicle."
The corners of Teal'c's mouth lifted in what could have been a smirk. "And Dr. Fraiser ordered that you are to remain under observation for at least thirty-six hours."
"She did, did she?"
"You have free will." He forced a grin he didn't feel. "You could choose to disobey."
"Then according to you, I would be responsible for the results of my actions."
"I have no desire to engage in combat with Dr. Fraiser."
Jack snorted. "Coward," he mumbled just as the doorbell rang.
The man standing in the doorway was at least seventy, but his lean body was not bowed by age. White hair, curling over his collar and shrouding his forehead, suggested a man too distracted or busy to bother with barbers. Blue eyes and the grip he had on the object in his hand spoke of anger and passion.
"Colonel Jack O'Neill?"
Frowning through a headache and blurry vision, Jack stared at the familiar shape of the package the man carried. "Who are you?"
"May I come in?" When he didn't respond, the man added, "My name is Howard Fletcher. My son was Beckett Fletcher."
Jack blinked and when the man's face came back into focus, he recognized the familiar shape of a square jaw and full bottom lip. He took a step back. "Come on in."
When they stepped into the living room, Teal'c was standing. A Mets baseball cap that he'd stashed God knew where was pulled low over his forehead, hiding the tattoo.
"My friend, Murray," Jack said and pointing to the sofa, he settled himself back into his chair. Mr. Fletcher sat stiffly, still clutching the package. "You said 'was.'"
"What?" the old man asked.
"You said your son was Beckett Fletcher."
"Yes, sir. He died almost two years ago."
The man nodded, glanced briefly at Teal'c who took his place on the other end of the sofa, then turned his attention back to Jack. "Beckett spoke of you."
"He was a good man. A great marksman. Smart." He chuckled softly. "Smart-ass." He glanced over at his guest. "Sorry."
Fletcher shook his head and grinned. "He was a smart-ass. Even as a child. I blamed his mother." He looked at Teal'c, including him in the conversation. "She was the one who insisted on naming him Beckett. A family name. I warned her that naming a boy that could only cause problems."
Thinking back, Jack said, "I guess the last time I saw him would have been late 1990. Incirlik."
"1991." Seemingly unaware of what he was doing, Fletcher lowered the package to his lap and smoothed his hands over the faded newspaper. "He talked about you many times after he returned home." His mouth hardened. "I sent a boy over there. He came back a man. But he was changed in other ways, too."
Jack didn't know what to say. War had changed them all.
"You were right, Colonel, Beckett was a smart-ass. But when he came home, he was…well, I loved my boy. Always will. But he came back mean. Temperamental. Moody." He looked Jack in the eyes. "He was never the same."
"Things happened, Mr. Fletcher. Things I can't change, much as I'd like to."
For the first time since entering the house, the old man looked every bit his age. "I ain't here for apologies, Colonel O'Neill. Much as I'd like to lay the blame on someone, I'd be a stupid man to think you were responsible for everything that happened over there." He glanced down at the package then back at Jack. "Beckett talked about you a lot, but I know he left most things unsaid. I'm pretty sure something happened, something big, that changed my boy. And I'm pretty sure you were in the thick of it."
Jack swallowed. "Look, Mr. Fletcher, I can't–"
The old man raised a staying hand. "Even if you could tell me, I don't want to know." He rubbed an age-spotted hand over his eyes. "I've thought about it a lot, and I've decided I don't want to know what all my son did over there. I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to think on him the same way after. And call me selfish, but I'm not willing to give that up."
"Beckett was a good man." Jack looked at Teal'c, met the Jaffa's eyes for a moment before looking back at Fletcher. "Your son did nothing he, or you, should be ashamed of. As his commanding officer, I can assure you of that, sir."
Fletcher sighed. "Thank you, Colonel. Even if you're lying…thank you." He stood up and crossing the room, held out the package to Jack. "When my boy was dying in the hospital, he made me promise I'd find you. He made me swear I'd give you the flag he knew they'd drape over his coffin."
Jack accepted the triangular gift, felt the smooth seams of stars and stripes hidden beneath worn wrapping.
"He said I was to tell you 'thanks' and that you'd know what for."
While Teal'c saw the old man to the door, Jack stared at the folded flag. Over the ringing in his ears, he heard the hushed sobs of a young man who'd pulled the trigger on his first human being. And through his blurred vision, he saw the look of gratitude on the young man's face as his commander told him that the nasty brown stuff doesn't always run downhill. When it matters most, it goes up. The chain of command.
Jack takes Teal'c camping/hiking by Jack's cabin. They have a disagreement about something. Either Jack or Teal'c goes off on his own. The NID, someone from Jack's past, or just some head case, comes after Jack and/or Teal'c. Jack is injured either by the bad guy(s) (or woman), or by a bad fall.
Do include - Jack &
Teal'c resolve their differences by the end, Jack & Teal'c defeat the
bad guy(s) on their own, Jack whumping.
Don't include - Jack/Sam
ship (UST is OK), aliens (Goa'uld, Asgard, Nox, etc.), Super
Sam/Daniel to the rescue.
and Daniel can be in the fic, but Jack & Teal'c must defeat the bad
guys on their own. I would like to see some hospital/infirmary time. Jack
should make up by the end of the fic, preferably during the hospital scene but at any time
is fine. Can take place during any season, but preferably between season 1 & 3.