by Amy Hull AmilynH at comcast dot net
Spoilers: In the Line of Duty, The Tok'ra, Into the Fire, Frozen, Nightwalkers, Abyss
The rubber ball struck the wall with a thwack and flew into Jack's palm with a sharp, stinging smack. He hurled it again. And again.
Fidgeting with the ball, he drummed the fingers of his other hand on the "classified" stamp on the file folder. He'd read Carter's report half an hour ago and could still feel his pulse pounding in his temples and vibrating through his belly. He shoved the report to the side as he stood up from the couch. The office was too small to pace effectively; it was only three steps to the opposite wall. He nudged a crooked pile of files on the desk he used for storage, but they slid into a heap instead of straightening. He shrugged and turned to the computer, tapping at it randomly just to hear the clatter of the keys, not caring if it froze up. Turning again, he picked up the yoyo from his toy shelf and put it back down, wound up the walking feet and listened to the grinding of the little motor whining as the toy hit the floor, and knocked over the little green plastic soldiers one at a time with vicious jabs. He squeezed the ball he was still carrying until the tendons stood out in his forearm and his knuckles turned white, flexing his hand in time to the flickering of the fluorescent lights overhead. The resistance of the rubber helped him suppress his desperate urge to punch the concrete wall. He knew that the shattering, distracting pain of the futile gesture would be oh-so-satisfying, but he'd spent enough time in the infirmary already.
He couldn't tell if it was Ba'al or the goons in Steveston he really wanted to hit.
Blowing a breath out slowly, he leaned and righted the trashcan he'd kicked over on his last pass through the office, then picked up the papers that had scattered, loudly crumpling each.
He sat down again, opened another file, stared at it for a moment, then flipped it closed again. Screw it.
A few minutes later he shoved his head into Daniel's office and stared at Daniel's books and notes and things piled around Jonas. There were three open books on the table in front of the man and he was scribbling in a notebook covered in precise print. Glancing at the television Jonas never seemed to turn off, Jack decided he was going to have to introduce Jonas to hockey--or the History Channel, which might appeal to the man's geekiness--because he was going to break the TV if it continued to spout the weather in Nepal and Tanzania.
Jonas turned at Jack's abrupt bark, smiling that ever-present, insipid grin of his.
"Colonel. Did you know--"
"Yeah. I did. Want to get some cake?"
"Sure." Jonas nodded. He put down his books and followed Jack down the hall. "I heard the mess has cake made from carrots. It sounds fascinating--vegetables in a dessert. I think they have sev--"
There was that damned innocent, questioning look.
"We'll be there in, what? Two minutes?" He held up a hand. "Just… shh."
Jonas shrugged--the man was too damned congenial--and, to Jack's great surprise, managed to remain silent for the rest of the walk. He had to give Jonas that--Daniel never could have managed it.
After going through the line Jack found a table relatively isolated from the staff currently in the mess. There had indeed been carrot cake, and he had a piece well-slathered with icing. He didn't realize he had drifted off into thought until the squeal of Jonas pulling out the chair opposite him startled him.
"So, how've you been doing? I don't think I've seen you more than twice since you got back." Jonas contemplated his collection of desserts.
Jack stared at Jonas' tray piled with pieces of carrot, lemon poppyseed, and chocolate cakes as well as some apple concoction. Jack pointed to the collection with his fork. "Good thing I came by, huh?"
Jonas smiled. "I can't ever decide on just one."
That damned sincerity again.
"There are so many flavors I haven't tried. But when they have the ones I know I like...I just can't pass them up."
"Ah." Jack took a deep breath and a bite of his cake, squishing the sweet goo against the roof of his mouth. Tangy. Nice.
Jonas devoured one of his pieces of cake in four bites.
"So," Jack began, deliberately casual, "how was Oregon? Good food?"
"Oh, it was great! Sam kept saying I was eating 'heart attack on a plate' at the diner," he frowned at the reference and Jack tilted his head non-committally. "We didn't really have dessert, though."
Oh, the sadness. Jack took another deep breath.
"Diners are really fantastic--great food, large portions, friendly people. It was interesting to eat food prepared somewhere other than here; there are so many kinds--"
Jack's voice was muffled around a mouthful of ginger and cinnamon and shredded carrots as he changed the subject. "So what else did you see there?"
"Well, the factory set-up was much more advanced than anything we have in Kelowna. I think the most interesting thing, though, was watching Sam be in command." Jonas took a huge bite of the chocolate cake.
Jack blinked as Jonas gulped it down without even seeming to chew.
"This is always good, you know?" Jonas pointed to the dark icing with his fork, licking a smudge of it from the corner of his mouth.
Jack took another bite of his cake, focusing on chewing instead of the wish to shove Jonas's cake into his distracted little face.
"Anyway, Sam did a great job, and on something so personal, too."
Good. He was back on topic.
"First that guy called her home number--which is kind of creepy--then it had to do with Adrian Conrad, then they put that cloned Goa'uld in her." He took another bite, talking around the cake as he continued, "I would have thought it would have been really upsetting, but if it was, you'd never have known from looking at her. She was calm and in charge. Very professional." He looked up at Jack, actually not eating and, thank god, not smiling for once. "There was never a crack--not even for a moment. She was really something."
Jack saw an intensity in Jonas' eyes for a moment before the man returned to polishing off his third piece of cake. Well, what did you know? Jonas wasn't simply a perky, nerdy scientist, after all. He actually noticed people. More even, Jack had to admit, than Daniel who, come to think of it, often didn't notice these kinds of things.
"So what did she say about it?" Jack sipped his coffee, glancing over the cup as he spoke, wrinkling his nose at the harsh scent.
"About the Goa'uld?"
Jonas paused with a bite of apple dessert on his fork and looked steadily at Jack again. "Nothing."
Still looking over the cup, Jack raised his eyebrows. "Nothing."
"Nope. She said it died within a few minutes, but that was all."
"A few minutes," Jack repeated flatly, staring at the oils swirling on the surface of his drink.
"Yep. Jonas looked at his empty tray. "Well, that was good. Thanks for asking me down here. I've got to get back to work. See you later?"
"Sure." Jack said absently. A few minutes. That was the uncharacteristically vague term she'd used in her written report too. He admired Jonas' understanding the team's sensitivities and the way he could already recognize when someone was hiding from or fishing for them. It was clear Jonas also understood he couldn't say anything to Sam. Jack, however, could. Dropping off his dishes, he strode purposefully toward her lab.
He peered around the corner to where she hunched on a lab stool over some alien device that lit her face a sickly green. She adjusted the thing which, except for the steady glow from the center, looked strangely like an alternator. Jack thought, as he often did, that she really should wear safety glasses when she did these things.
"Carter," he said, rapping his knuckles on the doorframe.
She jumped, then closed her eyes and exhaled quickly. Her shoulders remained drawn up tensely when she opened her eyes to say, "Hello, sir. I--"
"--hate it when I do that. I know."
She looked at the laptop to her left, pursing her lips, and Jack couldn't decide whether it was in amusement or just the same reserve she'd had toward him since he'd returned. She looked up, almost, but not quite, making eye contact. "How are you doing, sir?"
"Fine." Her expression was shifting into the look that indicated the forced patience of wondering how much longer he was going to keep her from her work.
"Carter, I read your report from Steveston." He kept his voice soft and even.
She looked away and fidgeted with her doohickey, then tapped at her laptop. The blue glow from the screen made her look as worn out as the green one from the alternator-thing.
He took a step toward her and rested a hand on her lab table. She looked up. "You did good, Major."
A tiny smile, and then she looked down again. "Thank you, sir."
"Okay. I'll let you get back to work."
She nodded and he turned to leave. When he turned back to her from the doorway, one hand on the doorjamb, she was focused on her work again.
She frowned at him, head still partly lowered toward her gadget.
"How many minutes was that 'few' anyway?"
He could have sworn she went a shade paler as her head and eyes bowed. He tried to ignore the tightness in his chest as he waited for the answer. He still wasn't sure if the tension was out of concern for her, based in memories of her possessed by Jolinar and the Entity, or part of his own response to his possession by Hathor's pet snake and by Kanan, to Ba'al's torture. Or if it was about the stomach-wrenching image he'd not been able to get out of his mind for an hour of Carter struggling as someone forced another snake on her.
He waited, standing entirely still. She slowly met his eyes.
"Carter, how long was it?"
"Long enough," she said softly. The fear she didn't vocalize shadowed her eyes, answering his question far more than anything she would say.
"You really okay?" he asked, equally softly.
"Yeah." She glanced down as the green light flickered rapidly, adjusted a simple knob and typed at her computer again. "What about you?" she asked, glancing only briefly at him and looking as small as her voice sounded.
"I'm all right," he said finally.
She studied his face. He returned her gaze and saw the tired sadness he felt reflected in her face. "I'm all right," he said again, quietly. She glanced away again, the guilt etched into her forehead a mirror image of his own. "Carter? It's not your fault."
"Sir--" Her eyes, even bluer when she was struggling to maintain control, flitted anywhere but his face.
"Hey--it just helped confirm that I was right about the Tok'ra," he said wryly. Tilting his head, he asked, "Have you had lunch yet, Carter?"
Finally, a real smile from her. Slight, but real. "I ate here."
He stared at her posture as she tinkered with her toy again. He hated when she looked tentative. He'd first seen a hint of it when they'd encountered Jonas Hanson, and it had unsettled him. By the time he saw her fold in on herself when they first met the Tok'ra, it was infuriating in a way that made him want to punch anyone who could make her shrink like that. He should have been there. He could have prevented it from happening. Then from happening again. He could at least have tried. Her shoulders were still hunched and he still hadn't managed to turn to leave.
"I'm really busy, sir," she finally said, her smile widening a bit as she actually met his eyes.
"Right. See you tomorrow, Carter."
He patted the doorjamb again, nodded, and lifted a hand in farewell as she returned to work.
She would be all right, just like he would. Ba'al, the NID, all they could do was make dents and, with time, those dents buffed out. After just a little--and far too much--time they'd both look as good as new, and then it would only be those few astute friends who would see the careful repairs hidden beneath their shiny veneers.
Summary: After "Abyss", Jack catches up on reading the mission reports from while he was gone, starting with Sam's report on their trip to Steveston.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of it, yadda, yadda.
Author's Notes: Thanks to A.j., Cyndi, Denise, Jackie, Jennie, Julie, Lyta, Missy, Sel, and Valerie for the read-throughs and betas.