TITLE: A Picture Can Say...
AUTHOR: Eleri McCleod
EMAIL: elerimc (at symbol) lycos . com
CONTENT WARNING: Implied torture
CATEGORY: H/C, Angst, Drama
PAIRING: S/J UST (lite)
SPOILERS: Shades of Grey and A Matter of Time primarily, set during season 6 so anything during and leading up to is fair game.
SUMMARY: Jonas finds something not meant for him to find. Fic challenge from Karen (Villa).
ARCHIVE: Jackfic, SJD, Heliopolis, any others please let me know.
DISCLAIMER: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of MGM, World Gekko Corp and Double Secret productions. No copyright infringement is intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: For Karen, from Knoxville, you know who you are. You prompted the squirrels on this one and I can't thank you enough for that.
A special thanks as always to Ivy, who found flaws where I thought there were none. And hugs and so much more goes to Cokie who kept me in the loop during my absence and willingly tackled the betaing challenge of this final draft. Any remaining mistakes are all my own.
As always, any feedback is appreciated and accepted gladly.
DEDICATION: To all my fellow Jackficcers. Your unswerving support and friendship over the last year has meant more than I can ever express. Please consider this a meager 'thank you' for everything you've done.
(c) Eleri McCleod, September 2003 – March 2005
The quiet oath was the only sound in the room as Jonas Quinn stared down at the files and papers now scattered over the floor. All he'd done was pick up the top one and like Humpty-Dumpty they'd all come crashing down.
Heaving a sigh, he knelt before the chaos, idly wondering if he'd returned Cassie's book of children's rhymes. She'd loaned it to him as a joke, never thinking he'd actually read it. But he'd enjoyed them. He'd enjoyed learning the things the humans of Earth taught their children.
Working quickly to stack the files and papers into some semblance of order, even if on the floor, he couldn't help but smile and shake his head. Doctor Jackson had certainly never been accused of being organized. The files he was currently wading through were four years old and had never been moved from their place on the long table in what was now Jonas's office.
He'd decided to go through them a few weeks ago and get them filed into an order he could understand. The enormity of the task hadn't even fazed him. He had nothing else to do with his spare time. Unfortunately, the work had been slow going. Most of the files were copies of reports Doctor Jackson had sent up to General Hammond or notes on various worlds and artifacts. Some had been originals, things Jonas had seen for the first time while sifting painstakingly through the papers.
Like the one currently in his hand. The planet's designation was familiar, but he'd never seen that particular report about it. Setting it off to the side with the others that had caught his attention he paused, a frown creasing his face. What was that?
A light brown envelope sat innocently among the manila folders and white papers. Sifting quickly through the remaining mess covering the floor, he found no others like it. He picked it up curiously, examining the outside. It had been opened, he saw, the flap slightly ragged on one end. Addressed to Doctor Jackson, there were no other markings on the front.
With the slightest hint of trepidation, he slid his hand inside to feel the slickness of photographs. Why would Doctor Jackson leave pictures from a mission in an envelope instead of inside the corresponding file? Or were they personal photos? Ones someone else had sent him that he'd forgotten about?
The frown put deep wrinkles in his forehead as he stared at the first shot, unable to make sense of it. It looked like a person lying on its side on a dirt surface, back pressed tight to a wooden wall, but that couldn't be right. No human looked like that...
Nausea bubbled into his throat as his mind finally began to make sense of the vision before him. Gut clenching, his free hand came up to rub at his chest unconsciously. It was a man. What clothes he wore were scraps really, tattered and torn, leaving far too much skin to show through. The normal beige tone of healthy flesh nowhere to be found, every bit of exposed skin was covered with bruises and cuts, dirt and blood. Filthy, unkempt hair obscured the battered features, a small thing Jonas was relieved by. He didn't think he could stand to see this poor man's face. The long frame seemed to huddle in on itself, shoulders pressed inward, arms held stiffly together down the center of his body. Even the man's legs gave the impression of a person trying to make himself smaller, less noticeable.
Jonas couldn't pull his eyes from the disturbing colors spattered over the discolored cloth that was failing to perform its customary duty. The flesh that should have been supple, tanned, strong, was pale, mottled with purple and green marks, red streaks drawing the eye to its unnaturalness. Bile soured the back of his tongue as his eyes finally blinked, a burning sensation stabbing into them. But the image refused to leave his vision, seared onto his lids. He ordered his hands to put the photos away, to slide them back where they'd come from. He didn't need to see any more.
Except his hands didn't listen, shifting the first vision of hell away, fingers dropping it unceremoniously to the ground. The new sight to assault his eyes was no better. This time the man was standing, if it could be called that, against a wall. Weight held carefully on one leg, the other gingerly on the ground, the man was attempting to stand straight, completely upright, but the injuries were too grievous to allow him the dignity or the pride.
Jonas's chest seized as he stared at the photograph shaking in his hand. Who would do that to a person? Who could believe they had the right? He found himself admiring the way the unknown man refused to be cowed even in the midst of such obvious suffering.
Swallowing convulsively to hold back the bile that was creeping once again into his throat, he let the second picture flutter to the floor, joining its disturbing companion. The third image revealed was no prettier than the first two. This time the man was seated, the tall, thin frame shown in the other two photos curled into a tight ball to fit into the cage that held him. His head was tucked into his knees, arms wrapped tight around his legs to make himself as small as possible. Still, the bars pressed into the dirty, bruised flesh of his arms, back and legs. Livid welts peeked through the tears in his shirt, its original color long lost to the sweat and blood staining it in patches.
His stomach threatening to revolt as the images seared their way into his brain, he stared in horror at the cruel nature of the man's captors. What could he possibly have done to deserve such torture? Jonas could think of nothing heinous enough to warrant the inhumane treatment blatantly on display in the photos.
Against the part of his brain that was screaming at him to put the photos away, to not inflict those visions on his senses, he slipped the picture away to reveal the final image. If the unknown man could live through having his degradation immortalized, Jonas could stomach the sight.
The final photo was a head shot, the man's shoulders framed by the bottom edges. Long, tangled hair was held back by a hand, exposing the gaunt face. The yellow of old, fading bruises and livid blue of fresh ones overlapped each other, painting the features. An unkempt beard partially obscured the face, covering his jaw and mouth. It was dirty with red stains congealing the hairs together. A partially healed gash ran across the forehead, an angry crimson testament of his treatment.
Forcing down the anger and disgust at the poor man's plight, Jonas couldn't take his focus off the brown eyes staring directly, defiantly, into the camera from their bruised, swollen sockets. There was something familiar about that look, that spark of unidentifiable something they hadn't been able to kill through the torture the man had obviously endured. Every part of the man's face held determination mingled with a pain he couldn't keep from showing. Mouth tight, lines of exhaustion radiating from bloodshot eyes, he refused to give in. Jonas felt a sudden sweep of pride for the unknown man. He hadn't let them win.
That thought brought his head up, mind working furiously. Defiance, refusal to give in, a strength to allow him to look straight into the camera recording the humiliation. Pieces began falling into place with a resounding thud within his head as Jonas grabbed up the three pictures from the floor. He scoured each one, ignoring the degradation and the evidence of pain inflicted, focusing instead on the man himself, how he held his body, how the eyes seemed so familiar.
Suspicion shot harshly through his chest, battling with the obvious question the photos themselves raised: why had Doctor Jackson had them in the first place? Why had he kept them? And how had they ended up in a pile of folders scattered over a table with the rest of the 'to go through later' stacks?
He stared into the defiant brown eyes glaring at him from the glossy photo. Those eyes and that look were so familiar, he thought once again, unwilling to let the final piece click into place. Searching for a reason to deny what his mind was whispering, he flipped the picture over, startled to see words in a generic block script, black ink stark against the pure white background.
'We can make this happen again.'
There was no signature, no attribution to either the photographer or the sender. It was a threat, that much was clear. But from whom? And why would someone send Doctor Jack...
The thought trailed off abruptly as his chest tightened painfully and the nausea roiled back up from his stomach. Quickly, Jonas turned the picture upright once again. This time the eyes stared at him accusingly, their brown depths holding a thousand words on their own. He could deny it no longer.
He saw those eyes everyday. He'd even seen that same look in them when he'd been fighting for the truth of Doctor Jackson's actions. The proud man he knew stared out from those eyes, that exhausted face. If it weren't for the eyes, and the look in them, he never would have recognized the beaten man.
The message on the back of the last photo made no sense to the Kelownan. Why would anyone send those pictures to a scientist, an archaeologist at that? What possible purpose could there have been other than to upset the two friends? Staring between the four glossy images, papers long forgotten on the floor, Jonas was struck once again by how much he didn't know about his team's leader. Jack O'Neill seemed to be a man who didn't let people inside his walls easily. The images now blazed into his brain explained a tiny part of the man he'd found so hard to understand.
Leaving the mess on the floor without a single look, he stood, facing the photos in on themselves and tucking them back into their envelope. They weren't something he wanted flashed throughout the SGC. Schooling his face into what he hoped was an unconcerned mask, he left his office, heading for someone who might be able to shed light on the gruesome pictures and what they meant.
Running her hands through her hair distractedly, Janet read over the last paragraph once again. She'd known it was going to be a difficult report to write, but she hadn't known just how difficult. A soft knock on the doorframe pulled her attention away from her monitor.
Jonas hovered in the doorway, face serious, unlike his normal good-natured expression. "Am I interrupting you?"
"No. Come in." She smiled indulgently at the newest member of SG-1, sliding her chair back from the desk. She could use a break anyway. "How's the translation from '996 going?"
"Fine, thanks," he answered distractedly, one hand holding an envelope tightly against his leg. "I actually wanted to ask you about something I found."
Interest piqued, Janet stood, moving closer. "What is it?"
Jonas handed the envelope over, face serious. "Pictures. They were buried among some of Doctor Jackson's old files. I was cleaning them up," he explained at her questioning glance.
"Knowing Daniel, they probably needed it," she said, chuckling fondly in memory. When Jonas didn't return either smile or laugh, she turned her attention to the photos in her now not-quite-steady hand. The smile slipped from her face as she flipped the top one over.
Instantly recognizing both the man and the conditions, her eyes slid closed. The action didn't take the image from her sight. She'd seen the horrible things before when she'd first been assigned to the SGC. The virus brought back to Earth from the Land of Light and the subsequent actions of the man pictured so horribly before her had opened her eyes to both the true dangers of the Stargate and the true characters of the SGC's flagship team. Jack O'Neill's insistence and bravery had forced her to wonder what had shaped the man into someone who would risk his life on such a constant basis. Her initial request for his full medical file had been denied, causing her to call in a few favors from friends in Washington. But once the files had arrived, she'd wished she'd never asked for them. The account of her friend's torture, wounds and eventual recovery spelled out in dry, clinical terminology had pushed the boundaries of her ability to remain detached.
Now that unfamiliar feeling came flooding back as she stared down at the photos in her hand. Each was a copy of some of the ones she'd seen in the files sent to her. Questions bubbled up in her mind as she looked up to meet Jonas's serious expression. "You found these in Doctor Jackson's office?"
Nodding slowly, he turned over the last image, the one with the cryptic words. "They were buried in with a lot of old papers. I don't know what this means." He indicated the sentence with a finger.
Unable to stop a sharply indrawn breath, Janet read the words over and over, mind trying to solve their mystery. She knew the Colonel had many enemies, both on- and off-world, except very few had access to his records. It made no sense. Daniel had had these? Where had he gotten them? And who would have added such a message to already disturbing images?
"What is it?" Jonas's voice broke into her thoughts. "You know what these are?"
"Sort of," she admitted, mouth drawn tight. She met his eyes, schooling her face back into its doctor's mask. "They're proof of life photos, Jonas. Colonel O'Neill was a prisoner of war for a time some years ago. They used these and others like them to prove they held him and that he was still alive."
She watched his throat convulse in a tight swallow before he spoke in a halting tone. "It seems a little barbaric to me."
"War usually is, I'm afraid," she commented quietly. "I'm still trying to figure out how Daniel ended up with them."
"Ended up with what?"
The question from the open doorway whirled them both around to stare at Samantha Carter. She stood before them, quizzical expression covering her face. "Janet?"
Unable to speak, the doctor clutched the photos to her chest. Sam could not see them. Knowing Colonel O'Neill had been tortured by Ba'al was a completely different knowledge than being confronted with the true horror of his treatment at the hands of the Iraqis in Technicolor thanks to Kodak. Unfortunately, Jonas had no idea of the delicate nature of Sam and the Colonel's relationship. Nor could he understand her silently pleading eyes that asked him to make something up.
"Someone sent Doctor Jackson photographs of Colonel O'Neill. I can only assume as a threat of some kind," he stated into the suddenly still atmosphere of the room. "But I don't know when they were sent."
Still trying to figure out what to say to extricate them all from the topic, Janet wasn't fast enough to keep her friend's questions from forming.
"Are those the pictures? What are they, specifically?" Sam met their eyes, an unmistakable tension in the air tightening around them all. "Janet?"
"You don't need to see them, Sam," she finally got her voice to work. Holding up a hand to halt the already opened mouth, she went on. "Trust me. No one should see them. I'll take Jonas up to see the General and that will be that."
"Janet, you're not making any-"
"Sam," she halted her friend harshly, unfortunately aware she'd have to give the other woman some sort of explanation. "Leave it, please. I'll come by your lab later." Releasing a sigh when Sam nodded, Janet loosened her stranglehold on the envelope still held to her chest. She tried to form a smile for her friend as she and Jonas headed out the door, but knew she'd failed when Sam's frown deepened as she followed them into the hallway.
What was she going tell her friend? What could she tell her? Shaking her head, Janet forced her brain to stop as she concentrated on walking next to the Kelownan. Hopefully, the General would have more answers than she did. More importantly, maybe he would know what to do about the pictures themselves.
"Come." George Hammond closed the lid of his laptop and breathed a grateful sigh. Three hours was more than long enough spent trying to decipher Major Feretti's idea of bullet points. It was definitely time for a break. As the door eased open, Doctor Frasier and Jonas Quinn stepped in, the Kelownan pulling the door shut quietly behind him. "Morning. What can I help you with?"
"Sir," the doctor started, an uncomfortable expression slipping over her normally even features. He stared between the two, eyebrows raised. One of them would get to the point eventually. Jonas found his tongue first.
"General Hammond, I found these among Doctor Jackson's old files. There seems to be a threat inherent in them."
Reaching slowly for the proffered item from Doctor Frasier, Hammond let out a sigh. He didn't have to see inside the envelope to know what it contained. He'd seen the photos before, years ago when he'd hoped that nonsense would never again rear its ugly head. Yet here it was, popping up in the most unlikely of places. "Doctor Jackson received these almost three years ago after Colonel O'Neill went undercover to infiltrate the group of NID who were stealing technology."
There was a brief silence after his straightforward explanation. While the doctor stared at him in disbelief, Jonas seemed to be searching through his photographic mind to find the appropriate memory. It took him a frighteningly short amount of time. "You faked his retirement in the hopes it would lead to an offer to join those people."
"Correct. Unfortunately, immediately following the operation Colonel O'Neill began to receive threats that we couldn't trace. Their mistake was in trying to contact Doctor Jackson." George allowed himself a small smile as the memory of that meeting floated through his head. "The Colonel went to visit all the members of the operation and we never heard anything more from them." He couldn't tell which one was the more shocked. Both had questions clearly evident on their faces, minds whirling audibly. Jonas recovered just a moment faster.
"What did Colonel O'Neill do? Why did the threats stop?"
The small smile eased into full grin. "He never said. He left one day, came back the next and that was it. In all honesty, I didn't ask how he'd handled it."
"Why didn't you tell us security had been compromised?" Doctor Frasier finally found her voice. "Colonel O'Neill's medical records are restricted for a reason, sir. As is the mission leading up to those," she pointed at the distasteful images still in their covering.
Holding back a wince at her plainly upset tone, he didn't bother to stifle the outburst. Everyone had been left out of the loop on that one, SG-1, the Chief Medical Officer, even the President. She was due a little steam let-off. "It was at Colonel O'Neill's insistence. Doctor Jackson being dragged into the mess was more than enough for Jack's piece of mind."
The softly spoken words halted any further comment. Protecting his team was a typically O'Neill thing to do. It hadn't been an easy decision for him, the General knew. He'd seen the damage inflicted on the Colonel by merciless hands. He even knew what most of the recovery process had entailed. Having that all dragged up again couldn't have been anything less than torturous. Having his degradation thrust needlessly into his best friend's face could only have compounded the torture. No, Jack could only have been himself when forced into such a position.
"What about now, sir?" Jonas asked into the silence. "We can't unknow this."
The images were effecting the Kelownan, George could see it in the darkened eyes. Yet there was nothing he could do about that now. "You get those things back into his sealed file. I'll talk with Colonel O'Neill. Until I do, keep this to yourselves." Understanding the dismissal inherent in his words, the two concerned friends nodded and turned as one for the door. The General stared after them, the quiet of his office pounding into his chest. Jack didn't need this right now.
Voices halted his introspection, Doctor Frasier and Jonas's conversation floating back through the open door.
"Major Carter's waiting for you in her lab. What are you going to tell her?"
"I don't have a clue, Jonas."
Neither do I, Doctor, George agreed silently, a sigh easing past his lips. Neither do I.
Sam struggled to wait as patiently as possible. Since Janet had interrupted her so uncharacteristically, she'd had a ball of lead in her gut. It was the same ball she got whenever the Colonel was in trouble or hurt.
Tossing her pen onto the desk in frustration, she worked her fingers into her hair, tugging.
"Ah. Now that's an emotion I recognize."
The voice startled her, causing her to slam her left elbow into the edge of the hard wood of her desk. Meeting the Colonel's apologetic smile, she cupped the injured limb, attempting to massage the pain away. "You really shouldn't sneak up on someone like that, sir."
"I was just coming to ask you what you were doing for lunch."
The soft smile and warm eyes eased the pain into memory. "Is it that time already?" She searched out the clock on the wall, almost missing the apology shift into teasing. Ignoring the thudding in her chest at the look on his face, she answered her own question, "Of course it's not. You just have nothing better to do right now." As soon as the insubordinate words left her mouth, her eyes flew to meet his, face paling. Had she really said that aloud?
A chuckle forestalled the stuttering apology already forming on her lips. "Don't worry about it, Carter. I know what you meant. And yes," he tagged on, smile firmly in place. "I don't have anything better to do until this afternoon's briefing."
Flushing slightly with his gently teasing tone, she looked back to the paper covering her desk. How did he do it? Once again he'd managed to ease the tension filling her with only a phrase, a look and a smile. The teasing grin still covered his face as he toyed with an amp meter she'd used earlier that morning. Swallowing back the flutter that rose from her stomach at his expression, she shifted the conversation back to safer ground. "I'm open for lunch, sir. Are Teal'c and Jonas going to join us?"
"Teal'c is," he responded, placing the amp meter back onto her desk before stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I haven't seen Jonas yet today."
"He was with Janet earlier..." As simple as that, her insides clenched once again, the Colonel's cheerful distraction an instantaneous memory. Her face must have shown her trepidation because his eyes immediately lost their teasing glow, their darkness drowning deep.
"Carter? What is it?" Stepping around the desk, he stopped near her, hand halfway to her arm. As if afraid to touch her, his hand fluttered indecisively between them for a moment before slowly dropping back to his side. "You okay?"
Forcing back the uncomfortable feeling, she tried to smile at him reassuringly. "I'm fine." What else could she tell him when she didn't even know what was wrong herself? "Janet's supposed to meet me here in a little bit, that's all. I just forgot for a second."
"You sure?" His face was a picture of concern, eyes meeting hers solidly.
"Yeah," she said slowly, feeling as if she was trying to convince herself as well. "I'll see you at lunch, sir."
The Colonel nodded slightly, the concerned expression not lifting. "I'll see you there. Don't work too hard," he ordered, waiting for her acquiescence. Once he had it, he backed away toward the door, eyes still on her face.
Sam couldn't drag her eyes from his as he made his way to the door. The teasing grin was nowhere in evidence, concern having replaced it. He rarely let so much show, only allowing it to surface when they were alone, which wasn't very often anymore. Careful to keep their relationship, their friendship, professional and above reproach, they had unconsciously scaled back the amount of time spent together with no one else around. As much as she'd realized the necessity, she missed their quiet moments alone. It hadn't even occurred to her what was happening until she'd sent him an email when it would have been just as easy to walk the information in person to his office. She'd clicked 'send' and suddenly it had all fallen into place. They'd become so careful that little moments like the one they were locked in had become practically nonexistent.
With one final smile, he spun to go, breaking the silent communication, and stepped full tilt into Janet. Strong hands quickly gripped the petite doctor as Sam gasped at the sudden collision. The brown envelope Janet held fell to the floor with a smack, its contents peeking from the opened flap. Sam came around the desk as the Colonel steadied the other woman, a smile etched across his face.
"Whoa. Where's the emergency, Doc?" he joked, stepping away from her.
"Are you all right?" Sam asked, concerned about her friend's silence. She'd collided with the Colonel before and knew he was more solid than he looked. The much smaller woman couldn't have fared even half as well as Sam herself had. Meeting Janet's eyes, the fluttering in her chest stepped up a notch at the look she found there. Something was definitely wrong.
Colonel O'Neill had ignored their silent exchange, kneeling to pick up the fallen envelope. Patting the contents back into place, he closed the flap, handing it over with a sweep of his arm. "Here you go. All better."
The concerned frown turned into shock when Janet practically snatched the envelope from the Colonel's outstretched hand. Staring at her friend's face, Sam could only wonder at the panicked expression. "Janet, what's wrong?"
"I was only trying to help," the Colonel's voice overlapped hers as he backed way, hands held up in a placating gesture.
Sam could see realization and embarrassment creep over the doctor's face as she folded the offending item in half and tucked it into the large pocket of her white lab coat. "Are you okay?"
"I'm sorry, Colonel. Those are confidential," she explained, stiff posture easing. An apologetic smile transformed her face, softening the harsh lines of a split second before.
"No problem, Doc," he replied, stepping around her into the hallway. "I didn't even look at them."
Moving into Sam's lab, her smile grew wider with what Sam would have called relief if it hadn't been so out of context. "Thank you, Colonel. General Hammond wants to see you."
"Colonel O'Neill, report to General Hammond's office. Colonel O'Neill, please report to General Hammond."
The call over the intercom came immediately on the heel of Janet's words, drawing a chuckle from all three. "And that would be my cue," the Colonel drawled, nodding to both women. "See you at lunch," he called, striding off down the hall.
"Yes, sir," Sam's voice followed him down the corridor as she turned to Janet in the sudden stillness of her lab. "So what's got you so jumpy today?" Expecting a smile and a shake of the head, her stomach dropped sharply at the serious expression Janet turned her way. She watched in silence as her friend keyed the door to slide closed, turning back to face her as it grinded its way to a halt.
"We need to talk."
George hadn't gone back to Feretti's report after his unexpected visitors. He'd sat, unmoving, waiting for the subject of his thoughts to arrive. Under normal circumstances, there were two ways to approach Jack O'Neill. Well, normal for the SGC, that was. But this situation was far from normal. Hammond had the feeling there was only going to be one way to handle him this time. As much as he didn't want to force his best officer to do something so against his nature, the situation was now forcing George's hand.
He hadn't liked the idea of not informing SG-1 at the time and had actually argued with O'Neill. Only Jack had insisted vehemently that they remain ignorant of the whole mess and that he would resolve it himself. George had stopped thinking like a commanding officer and had given in to his friend.
A confident knock yanked the General from his spiraling thoughts. There was no more time to think. A moment later the silvered head peeked through the door, face expectant. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes. Shut the door, please." George watched in silence as Jack complied, expression shifting slightly. The man's instincts never failed him, the General admired briefly before realizing he was stalling. He must have hesitated longer than he'd thought since the Colonel had already come to a halt before the chairs arrayed in front of a desk.
A wry smile quirking the left side of his lips, Jack shook his head slowly. "I'm not gonna like this, am I?"
Trying not to sigh, he waved absently toward the chairs between them. "Have a seat, Jack."
"Oh, yeah," he drawled, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. As he sank down with slightly less than his normal easy motion, the wry smile became sardonic. "I'm going to love this."
"This isn't good, is it?" Sam's words reverberated against the concrete as the echo of the door closing finally ceased.
Janet could only stare across the short distance to meet her friend's eyes. She didn't have to answer the question aloud, she knew Sam could read it in her eyes.
"What's wrong?" Sam continued, slowly easing back into her seat. "Why did you jump all over the Colonel like that? He didn't try to run into you on purpose."
"I know," she stopped the other woman's tumbling words with an upraised hand. "A situation's come up. I can't give you much. I'm sorry." Moving closer, she kept one hand firmly on the envelope in her pocket, searching for words. The General had tied her hands in not letting her go into specifics.
Sam's expression went from curious and a little anxious to uneasy and tight in the space of a heartbeat. "This has to do with Colonel O'Neill, doesn't it? That's why you freaked when he ran into you."
Sometimes Janet wished her friend wasn't so perceptive. "I didn't freak," she stalled. "He just surprised me."
"Janet, you nearly took his head off," she insisted, leaning forward on the table. "What's wrong?" Concern flooded her face as she waited, tension radiating from her deceptively still body.
The softly spoken question hung in the air between them as the doctor's compassion warred with the officer's training. General Hammond had ordered her not to say anything. As much as the words had been couched as a request, order it had been. But Sam already knew something was off and wouldn't relax until she had some information. Janet sighed heavily, eyes never leaving the blue ones across the expanse of the table between them. Even more than the fact that Sam's important experiments wouldn't get done without it, deep down Janet knew the Colonel needed Sam's unconditional support as much as Sam needed to give it.
Compassion and friendship won. She simply couldn't leave her friend in the dark on this one. Sam wouldn't go blabbing to everyone on the base. "You know that Colonel O'Neill was a POW in Iraq for a time." It wasn't really a question, but Janet gave the other woman time to respond anyway.
"He's never said anything directly to me," she admitted, an almost embarrassed expression flicking over her face. "I know from things other people have said, references to the Colonel's past."
"There were some photos taken while he was there," she trailed off, uneasy about going into specifics about the images.
"You mean proof of life." This time it was Sam who wasn't asking the question.
Nodding slowly, Janet suppressed a shudder at the term. She'd always hated it. "After the debacle with the rogue NID team, Daniel was sent a copy of some of those pictures. As a warning to get the Colonel off their backs."
"Why wasn't I told about this?" The incredulous tone cut through the solemn air Janet's words had created. "SG-1 is a team. What effects one of us, effects all of us."
"Colonel O'Neill insisted the matter be kept quiet. They thought it had gone away." And here was the rough part. Steeling herself, she gripped the envelope a little tighter. "Jonas found the pictures in Daniel's office."
Silence reigned in the lab. Janet watched her friend work through it in her head, knowing instantly the moment she realized what the Colonel had knocked from her hands. A look of horror raced over Sam's face, hands coming up to cover her mouth.
When Sam was finally able to speak, her voice was a whisper and the simple abjuration a plea to be wrong. "Oh, God."
God, he hated his job sometimes. And putting that look back on Jack's face was definitely one of those times. The stoic Colonel hadn't said a word after George's announcement, he'd simply closed down. Now, staring at the blank mask seated before him, he finally realized how much SG-1's leader had opened up, had relaxed over the years since being pulled from retirement. The slightly apprehensive yet quizzical expression had simply ceased to exist, melting away like the wax on a fresh wick. In its place was the closed-down, empty, give-nothing-away façade Jack had used so effectively. Something within George, the man, snapped at the reappearance. Jack had been through enough. He didn't deserve yet more hell thrown at him. But the General within, he let none of those thoughts through, let nothing show. Jack needed a commander right then more than he needed a friend.
"What did you tell him?" the usually animated Colonel asked with no inflection whatsoever.
For a moment, George had no idea what the other man was talking about. Then, with a reverberating click, it returned. Jonas. He'd only gotten to Jonas's discovery. There was more that Jack needed to know. "Actually, them, Jack."
George could almost see the weight fall ever more solidly on the man's shoulders. How much more could he take? "Doctor Frasier. He went to her. She brought him and the pictures to me."
Another long silence filled the room. Jack never looked away, never let his attention falter from the man sitting across the heavy table. Once again the question he'd been dreading was asked. "What did you tell them?"
"Only the bare minimum." The slightest lessening of tension in Jack's shoulders gave George no comfort. The battle was only beginning. "Jack-"
"I do not want to hear it." Hands clenched involuntarily over rigid thighs as the words were spoken precisely.
"You need to hear it," he insisted, ignoring the flatly insubordinate tone. As expected, the man had known what he was going to say. Shielding himself from the tiny crack peeking though Jack's armor, he plowed ahead. "Your team needs to know. Believe it or not, they can help you deal with this."
Fire leaked from that tiny crack. Fire and soul-deep pain. "Three years ago, I dealt with it just fine on my own. I can do it on my own now."
"Yes, you can, Jack," he agreed softly, allowing some of the friend to reach out to the pain he saw deep within the brown eyes. "But you don't have to. Talk to them. Tell them the truth. They won't think any less of you."
"Did he think we wouldn't understand?" Sam burst out, unable to hold back any longer. "That we would think less of him?"
Once more Janet found herself unable to answer. However, it wasn't due to an order. She simply didn't know what to say. Sam stared at her with wide blue eyes, practically begging for words that would ease the horrible sinking feeling Janet knew had to be in the other woman's gut.
"It was almost three years ago," she went on as if anxious to keep the mounting silence at bay. "You think someone would have said something."
"Remember things went crazy after the Colonel went undercover. The General was scrambling to find a new leader for SG-1, then Makepeace turned out to be working for Maybourne," she trailed off, a twinge shooting through her at the marine's remembered betrayal. He had been one of them, one of their family. He'd gone after more than one team in trouble during his time with the SGC. Makepeace's duplicity had affected them all. "In all that commotion I'm not surprised Colonel O'Neill was able to keep the whole mess under wraps."
Springing from her chair, Sam paced the room, hands alternately shoved into pockets then running through her hair. "But I still don't understand why he wouldn't tell us."
"What could he tell you?" Janet asked harshly, suddenly fed up with her friend's lack of understanding. "None of us have any idea what he went through in that prison. There is no possible way for us to comprehend how hard it could have been to know that Daniel was now a witness to that horrible time."
Eyes stark in a suddenly pale face, the taller woman's edgy movements abruptly halted. Thoughts flew over her face too quickly for Janet to put names to before shifting into the next. However, one emotion came across clear: shame. "I didn't... I couldn't think..."
Quickly, Janet made her way the short distance to grasp the chilled hands in hers. "None of us can, that's the problem."
Blue eyes dug into hers as Sam struggled visibly to find words for the questions brewing inside. Determination hardened her features as she came to a decision. "What can we do to help him?"
"Now that's the Sam I know," Janet stated proudly, a smile taking over her pixie face. Sam with a plan was what Jack O'Neill needed, not the lost and hurting one of a moment before. "We need to get him to talk. I know that's a difficult thing to do at the best of times," she halted her friend before she could form a word. "But he needs to get it out this time. This one will stand between all of SG-1 if it stays this way."
"Any ideas how to go about that? I've never been very good at getting the Colonel to talk. That was always Daniel's job," she said quietly, a flash of sorrow shooting over her face.
Giving the hands in hers one final squeeze, Janet released them. "I know. However, between the four of us I'm hoping we'll come up with something." Their eyes met, concern plain on both faces. The man in question was important to both women for different reasons, Janet knew. Maybe those differences would help the Colonel put one piece of his past behind him.
"They can't understand, sir," Jack said slowly, as if the words were dragged from his throat. Though hints of exhaustion slipped into his voice, his face remained blank, giving George nothing.
The General sighed, hating himself for what he was about to do, but knowing it had been inevitable since Doctor Jackson had been sent those damnable pictures years ago. "SG-1 will be informed of this situation," he ordered, pierced to the core at the instantaneous stiffening of Jack's already rigid posture. "Doctor Frasier should be included in that briefing since she's been brought into this unwittingly."
Slowly, so slowly George could see each muscle moving, Colonel O'Neill rose to his feet, body straightening to attention. "May I have a little time, sir?"
Chest hurting at the formality from this of all his officers, George nodded once. "SG-1 isn't scheduled to go off-world until Monday afternoon. You have until then."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Right hand twitching at his side as if suppressing the urge to salute, Jack stood before him, unbendingly staring straight ahead.
"Dismissed, Colonel." George heaved a silent sigh as Jack performed a textbook about-face and strode smoothly toward the door. Yes, there were some days he hated his job.
Jonas wandered aimlessly down the corridor, hands stuffed deep in his pockets. What he'd seen and learned earlier refused to leave his mind. Not having been present at the time of the Colonel's undercover mission, he'd had only the reports on file to inform him of the situation. But mission reports were simply words put down on paper, empty of life, unable to express emotion. Those reports hadn't spoken with a voice filled with pain, hadn't shown a body hunched in on itself for protection, hadn't avoided eye contact with other people. Those things all helped to fill in the blanks left by the dry terminology of bullet comments.
Over the months he'd been on Earth, he'd read over every report regarding SG-1 allowed to him. There were days he had to remind himself that his new, fantastically unbelievable life wasn't a dream, that he was really traveling the stars with three people not of his world. And then there were days like the one he now felt trapped in.
The reports had held none of the pain, anger or resentment Teal'c had relayed to him. It hadn't explained the broken trust or the efforts made to rebuild that trust by all of the members of SG-1. No, he'd learned of those from Doctor Frasier and Teal'c not long ago. While he'd grilled Major Carter and Teal'c endlessly about most of the missions they'd gone on, a few he'd left well alone. The time in question was one of those.
Absently returning the greeting from a passing airman, Jonas found himself staring at the commissary doors. With a shrug, he pushed through them. Maybe a cup of coffee would help clear his head.
The steaming brew was poured and he was heading for an empty table before he caught sight of Doctor Frasier. Nodding his thanks at her offer, he sat across from her, the isolated table well away from the few people seated in the large room. Silence surrounded them, the gentle clinking of cup against table the only sound to penetrate their little bubble of privacy.
Finally, he found words to force out. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do now." And that was the truth. The morning had faded to a surreal mockery of normalcy as he'd moved through the halls after meeting with General Hammond. He must have wandered far longer than he'd intended, lost in thought, since Doctor Frasier had obviously been settled for some time before he'd entered.
"There's nothing you can do, Jonas," she stated softly, hands wrapped securely around her mug. "It's up to Colonel O'Neill and the General. I have no idea what they'll decide." Her eyes were dark, worry evident in every line on her face.
"What did you tell Major Carter?" That, he knew, had been a concern as they'd left the office.
"The least I could," she murmured, eyes peeking up from her downcast face. "I couldn't even find something to make up. It all sounded so trivial." Silence wrapped around them once again, the muted sounds of utensils against plates ringing in the room. "What about Teal'c?"
He shook his head slightly, eyes dropping to his own cup. "Just that there was a situation involving Colonel O'Neill and that the General wanted him to have a heads-up." The same lost feeling that had come over him as he'd spoken to the Jaffa threatened to make a return.
Eyes holding one another immobile, they sat in the stillness, unable to move beyond. "So what do we do?"
She didn't pretend to not understand the question. "We go on about our business."
"That's it?" Jonas asked, helplessness filling his chest. "We just move on as if nothing happened today? There has to be something more."
Face lifting finally, her expression drilled its way into his focus. "Oh, there is, Jonas." A short pause emphasized the weight of her words. "Now we wait."
The inevitable question hung between them, unspoken, as steam from their cooling cups of coffee rose gracefully above their heads. So now we wait, he repeated silently, hands clenching spasmodically around the porcelain cup. The doctor's expression mirrored his, worry and compassion mixing to create an overwhelming mien. As their silent contact held, Jonas had no doubt she was thinking the same thing he was.
They would wait. But for what?
Closing the door behind him with a quiet click, Teal'c stared sightlessly into his quarters, the neatly made bed and numerous candles scattered everywhere not even registering. Unease had placed an uncomfortable fluttering in his gut, a feeling he was quickly learning to dislike.
At least now he knew why O'Neill had been so abrupt when they'd met in the hall. The Tau'ri had shown none of his usual goodwill and had almost walked past the Jaffa as if he hadn't seen the larger man. O'Neill had seemed cut-off, blank-faced, as if separated from his emotions. The lack of expression on the other man's face had begun the feeling now residing in Teal'c's stomach. That was a look he'd only seen in the moments of 'choicelessness' they'd shared.
Barely a minute after his abrupt encounter with his team leader and friend, Jonas Quinn had approached him, face as uneasy as Teal'c's gut had become. Memory flashed quickly across his eyes as he sat slowly on the edge of his bed.
"What kind of situation?" he had asked, face unconsciously shifting into a mask of concern.
Jonas Quinn had been unable to say much else and Teal'c had respected the other man's predicament and let him move on down the hall. But now, staring around his room filled with all he possessed on Earth, he wished he'd been able to get more information about O'Neill's unexpected situation.
His friend's ability to hold personal issues locked deep inside was as much a blessing as it was a curse. Few others of Teal'c's acquaintance could do as he'd seen O'Neill do and focus only on what needed to be accomplished and not on the personal repercussions. But that was the curse as well. After returning home, the matter remained locked away, biding its time until it could catch O'Neill unaware, unprotected.
Now it seemed one of those moments was upon him. All Teal'c could do was wait to assist his friend any way he could, any way he was allowed. Heaving a sigh, he tried to push his concern down, recognizing the tactic even as he consciously used it. O'Neill would approach him if and when he was ready. All the big Jaffa could do was wait. And silently support his friend of many years.
"What do you mean we're not going to do anything?"
The incredulous shout sounded so real, Jack automatically glanced to the right to look at his passenger. But the seat beside him was empty, no infuriated archaeologist to glare back at him with fiery blue eyes. A fine tremor shook his hands as he turned back to the road before him. He was almost home. He could make it a few more miles. Just concentrate on the road, Jack, he ordered himself sternly.
Only Daniel's voice continued to ring in his head, the disbelieving shout from years ago out of place in the quiet of the cab of his truck. Daniel had been so upset, so angry, he had barely been able to express himself. Jack had stood before him solidly, refusing to let anything but anger out of the box.
Gratefully, Jack eased the big truck into his driveway. The house stood silent, a place of calm amidst his chaotic life. Except this time the familiar lines and curves of his home failed to present a feeling of peace. Turning the keys in the ignition slightly rougher than necessary, he let his head drop onto the back of the seat. The rumble of the engine died, leaving him in the silence of the cab.
"What do you mean we're not going to do anything?"
Once again his missing friend's voice filled his head. Eyes sliding closed with a sigh of the inevitable, he let the memory wash over him.
"Just what it sounds like," Jack had stated flatly, staring directly into Daniel's eyes. The archaeologist had waved the damning photos between them like a weapon, daring Jack to respond.
His friend had seemed to flounder for a moment, disbelief crossing his face. "Someone sent these to me, Jack. To me. I can't just pretend I've never seen them."
"I'm not asking you to," Jack had replied evenly, refusing to let his expression give anything away. "I'll handle it."
Daniel's grip on the photos had tightened to the point where they shook, the overhead lights glittering off the glossy finish. Jaw muscles clenching, he'd visibly struggled to hold his frustration in check. "We can help you, Jack. All you have to do is let us."
He hadn't answered, simply repeated his insistence of doing it, whatever 'it' was, alone and had walked out of his own office, leaving his friend concerned and silent behind him.
Dragging his eyes open, Jack struggled to pull himself out of memory and into the present. He yanked the keys free of the ignition, grabbing his duffel as he slid out of the cab. A light breeze blew through his disheveled hair as he made his way up the walk. Just forget about it for now, he ordered himself, focusing all of his attention on unlocking his front door. Daniel's face finally faded from his vision as the door eased open.
Eyes automatically scanning the entryway, he pushed the door shut behind him. The usual soft click of its closing rang throughout the small entry, filling his ears, his head. It reverberated through his entire body, stopping him in his tracks. Another door, another room, filled his vision, a figure once familiar suddenly standing before him.
The face still clean shaven, the hair still marine short, the man stood facing Jack, the familiar lines and colors of his living room now gray, cold and sterile. Meeting the brown eyes of his one-time friend, Jack couldn't keep back a dismayed sigh. "How you doing, Robert?"
The sound of his own voice snapped Jack back into his living room, hand tightening on the duffel. There was no use rehashing something that had happened over three years ago. Tossing the bag onto the floor next to the stairs, he moved quickly into the kitchen, forcing his mind to clear. He needed space, just a little space to put things back into perspective.
Pulling the refrigerator door open, another sigh eased from his lips. Of course he had no food in there: SG-1 was supposed to be leaving on Monday. There had been no reason to stock up when he'd be gone. "So, delivery it is," he tossed out, hand already reaching for the phone.
After ordering, he filled his time with mundane tasks, ignoring the turmoil in his head, while he waited for the Cashew Chicken and fried rice to arrive. He'd unpacked the duffel, folded and put away everything in the laundry basket and was working on leftover dishes from the night before when the bell rang. Summoning up a cheerful, appreciative expression, Jack paid the boy, leaving the blond-haired kid a generous tip. Just because his mind wouldn't let him have any peace wasn't reason enough to take his frustration out on some kid just doing his job. Fragrant steam rose from the bag, filling his nostrils with the scent of spices. A food-filled plate and glass of wine in his hands, he made a comfortable seat on the couch. Soon the warm strains of Dvorak filled the air, mingling with the smells of Chinese food.
Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," second movement, he automatically identified. The sweeping sounds of violas and violins filled his chest, pouring into him. Too soon, the strings died away, leaving the melancholy English horn alone to wash over him, through him. The music tugged, pulled, called to him, pleading with him to let the memories out, to stop holding it all locked away.
Carefully, Jack set the glass on the coffee table before him and leaned back into the cushions. And surrendered to memories.
Gray walls surrounded him, plain, utilitarian tables standing between him and the only other person in the room. The face still clean-shaven, hair still marine short, the other man met Jack's eyes solidly, no hint of anger to be found. Staring across the distance, Jack couldn't hold back a dismayed sigh. "How you doing, Robert?"
The former SGC Colonel, former commander of SG-3, gave a small smile and simply nodded. "I'm here, Jack." Robert Makepeace displayed none of the furious anger he'd directed toward SG-1's leader the last time they'd been face to face.
Accepting the small hand gesture toward a table, Jack took the seat nearest him. Staring into the brown eyes of his friend, the confusion, disappointment and anger began to bubble up once again. They'd been on the same side, fought in the same battles. Hell, the marine had led the rescue operations to save SG-1's collective butt more than once. Suddenly, he had to know. "What happened?"
Makepeace didn't shy away from the surprisingly gentle question. "I lost sight," he admitted, hands clasped together on the table.
Understanding the cryptic words far better than he could ever have wished, Jack didn't speak, sensing the other man had more to say. He simply held the gaze across from him, accusing nothing.
"I just got tired of seeing good people killed," he continued, tone emphasizing the words. "We'd lost so many simply due to the Goa'uld's better firepower. We had these allies with the tech to help, but they wouldn't." He stumbled to a stop, one hand reaching up to scrub over his face. Slightly less calm eyes met Jack's when the hand lowered. "Maybourne approached me not long after we lost SG-11. I was Aaron's best man. He had a three month old at home." The marine's façade of calm evaporated when his voice broke. Devastation, plain and simple poured from the man, even after so many months.
A grinning face bubbled up from memory, filling Jack's vision. First Lieutenant Aaron Larkin had been blond haired, blue eyed and possessed a ready smile. He'd been smart, eager and full of zeal. And he'd been killed in a battle with Chronos' Jaffa that had also taken two other members of SG-11. Only one of the four-man team had stumbled back through the 'Gate, but he had also died two days later from his injuries. Aaron and the others had not been retrievable, their bodies regretfully left behind in the care of Jaffa who would have no respect for them. Tightness filled Jack's chest as the memory of laughing eyes filled with pain faded from his vision. He'd had no idea that the young Lieutenant and Robert had been so close.
"I was so angry I stopped thinking. I couldn't even tell Amy how he'd died protecting his planet. She got the line about a 'training accident.' Then Maybourne came along with his song and dance. He made so much sense; he said all the right things to feed my vengeance," Makepeace continued, fully acknowledging his faults. "And I fell into his trap."
Still unable to find any words that weren't mere platitudes, Jack held his silence. The anger at his friend's betrayal melted as Robert's story unfolded. A treasured friend's death, frustration with a flawed system and a convincing lie had all contributed to Robert's abrupt change of heart. And Jack found that he could no longer hold his anger toward his former fellow commander. Jack had been to those depths of hell and knew that it was all too easy to give in, to allow the anger, the frustration, the utter despair, to win. He couldn't fault the other man for doing something Jack himself had contemplated numerous times.
Setting aside the memories, Jack focused on the true reason he'd made the journey to Robert's new home. "Maybourne's cronies are a little upset with me at the moment," he commented almost off-handedly. That anger hadn't faded, merely been funneled into concentration ever since he'd left the SGC after his discussion with Daniel.
"I'd heard that," Robert returned quietly, accepting the change of topic with a nod of thanks. "But I don't know if they're planning anything. I'm a little out of favor right now." The comment was accompanied by a wry smile.
Jack didn't return it. "They threatened my team." No more explanation was needed, he saw, as Makepeace's face abruptly lost the not-humorous expression and sat up to full attention.
"They threatened SG-1." It wasn't a question, the words flat and disbelieving. "You ruined a very lucrative set up for them. I'm not surprised they're taking some kind of retaliation."
Eyes holding solidly, Jack knew Robert understood why he'd come. He also knew the other man would understand what he was about to ask. "I need you to pass on a message for me," he stated, voice dark with tamped fury. "They want revenge, they come after me. Leave my team out of it." The implied 'or else' hung in the air between them, floating like a haze of smoke.
"I'll make sure they understand, Jack," the quiet voice radiated an old confidence, one that hadn't taken 'no' for an answer.
Mission accomplished, he could find nothing else to say. The other man nodded at his silent question, the one Jack couldn't bring himself to ask aloud. Yes, Robert would be okay one day. Maybe not right then, maybe not for a long time to come, but one day.
The final notes of Dvorak's Largo washed over him as memory faded, violins crying the pain he couldn't allow to surface.
He hadn't seen the marine since that day three years ago. But the cryptic messages had ceased after that first damaging one. No more photos, no letters, no phone calls. Daniel hadn't spoken to him for a week after he'd returned except when absolutely unavoidable. A short list of names from Makepeace had arrived at Jack's home that same week. And then life had returned to normal. Days, weeks, then months had passed and he'd never thought to inquire about the damn pictures and what the archeologist had done with them.
A disgusted grunt escaped as he attacked the Cashew Chicken with far more force than necessary. Why hadn't he ensured they were destroyed? Why had he pushed it away, out of conscious thought before he'd guaranteed the matter was settled? Because I'd been too anxious to move on, he berated himself. The memories the photos had evoked had been too painful, too overwhelming to deal with, so he'd pulled a classic O'Neill and buried it.
Now Hammond was forcing the issue. Either he took care of it himself over the weekend or Hammond himself would come Monday. The chicken tasted of dirt as he chewed angrily. What did Hammond expect him to do? Just gather everyone together and spill his guts? Tossing the fork carelessly onto the plate, splashing sauce onto his coffee table, Jack jerked to his feet, blood pounding through his head.
The phone sat on a small table near the hall where it had always been. He stared across the short distance at it, frozen in place. Trepidation curled through his chest, recalling to mind far too many instances of powerlessness. Instances where he had been choiceless.
It was that frozen moment of realization that sent him across the room in quick strides. He'd never let the Goa'uld break him, despite their far too numerous opportunities. Why was he letting a years-old memory do what those parasites had failed to do with all their technology and torture? A warm flush of anger filled his chest, shoving the trepidation to the side. His life was no longer ruled by the past. It had shaped him, yes, but it didn't control him. Not any more. He'd forgotten that truth for a short time, allowing himself to be tugged this way and that. That time was now over.
He picked up the receiver and began dialing.
Pacing across her lab once more, Sam fought back the urge to head for Colonel O'Neill's office. There was nothing she could do, no sympathy she could express. She was barely supposed to know there was a situation, let alone have any of the details. Janet had taken a chance in telling her, but Sam was grateful for the advance notice. It had given her time to figure out her feelings.
She had lived through the aftermath of Ba'al's treatment of the Colonel, which in retrospect, was one of the most horrible things she'd ever had the misfortune of seeing a friend live through. But the Colonel had come back to them without visible wounds, without bruises, blood or broken bones. Those pictures, proof of life indeed, would have them all. They would be as brutal as his captors' treatment of his body. And Sam didn't know if she had the fortitude to face that.
Oh, she'd seen him tortured and in pain before, but only by Jaffa and Goa'uld, never by humans of her own world. Never had she seen the people he protected every day of life physically abuse the man who had saved them over and over.
Her feet halted, lost to sudden inaction, in the middle of the cramped lab. She had to see him. She had to see him alive and healthy, being his normal, cranky self. Only that would settle the nerves coursing through her. She didn't even need an excuse to head to his office. It was almost time for lunch.
The corridor a blur in her focus, she arrived with no memory of the short journey. Heart bumping steadily against her ribcage, she knocked on the closed door, expecting the Colonel's bored, "Yeah," to fill the hall. No voice, no call answered her. With a frown, she knocked once again, a little harder. When that failed to work as well, she eased the door open, knowing Colonel O'Neill didn't lock his office as a general rule. "Colonel?" she called, eyes going immediately to the empty desk.
Where was he? Had he already headed over to the commissary? With that thought in mind, she navigated quickly through the halls, arriving without thought at the doors she was looking for. A single push and she was inside. Except there was no silver haired Colonel seated at any of the sparsely filled tables. Halting only a few feet into the room, the frown returned with a vengeance.
Where was he? And did he know about the pictures?
The knock was almost an hour early. He'd been wondering when the first one would show up. With a sigh of the inevitable, he rose to his feet. Twenty bucks says it's Jonas, he bet himself, reaching resignedly for the handle. It wasn't Jonas.
"Good evening, O'Neill."
Meeting Teal'c's eyes, Jack couldn't hold back a sigh. He'd thought Jonas would come early to apologize for stirring up trouble. The apology was unneeded; he hadn't done it on purpose. But it was the Kelownan's way. Jonas couldn't stand having conflict or tension within the team. He'd had more than enough of both during his first days with SG-1. "You're early." He waved the taller man in, striving for negligence. Tension suddenly swept over his muscles, tightening his back to the rigid straightness reserved for moments of reprimand.
"I wished to speak with you before the others arrived," Teal'c informed him quietly, halting in the middle of the living room. "Jonas Quinn informed me on Friday there was a situation. I have no particulars, but in light of your disappearance and this meeting, I have surmised you are directly involved."
Unease threatened to freeze him in place, one foot on the step, the other on the hardwood of the living room floor. What did Teal'c want him to say? What was the Jaffa expecting from him? Taking the final step down to the floor, Jack raised hooded eyes to meet the dark depths of his friend's. "Teal'c," he started, brain searching for words that couldn't be found. Silence fell in the room as the name faded into memory. Tension wound ever tighter around Jack's chest as Teal'c waited, ever patient, for him to continue. Thrusting rigid fingers through his hair, he strode further into his living room, passing Teal'c before turning back to face whatever was to come next.
Teal'c appeared more serious than usual, face empty, giving nothing away. But his eyes... The eyes held sorrow, shame and failure. Jack frowned at the realization. Failure? What had Teal'c ever failed at?
"I wished to speak with you, O'Neill," he repeated, one foot stepping slightly closer before halting to stand still. "As your comrade and friend, it shames me that you felt you had no one to confide in. I have not performed my duties properly if you felt you have no one with which to speak." He paused after that surprising statement, but only long enough for Jack's eyes to lose some of their shields to confusion. "Whether or not you chose to avail yourself of it, my support should have been felt, nonetheless."
Tongue frozen in his mouth, Jack could only stare across the short distance to his friend. He had never felt he hadn't had Teal'c's support or friendship, not even when the Jaffa had been brainwashed by Apophis. But he still couldn't find the words, words he needed in less than an hour, to explain what had happened to him, what had happened three years ago. "Teal'c, it was a bad time," he stuttered out, his usual easy drawl nowhere in evidence. And still he couldn't express what was inside him. He'd never been able to open up, to bare his soul. Not even to Sara. How had he ever thought he'd be able to do it tonight was beyond him. Painfully aware his mouth was working to find words, he snapped it closed as the larger man strode forward, halting only a few close feet away.
"Do not search for unnecessary words, O'Neill," he stated quietly, gaze steady on the now-still man. "Brothers require no explanation."
Jack's chest rose to crowd his throat as Teal'c bowed his head solemnly, the Jaffa's gesture of respect suddenly meaning more than it ever had before. He'd known, intellectually at least, that Teal'c supported him unconditionally, but hearing it so bluntly expressed aloud filled him with a warmth he could never admit to. Teal'c didn't even want to know what had prompted the last two days of dredged up memories. He didn't need to know. That unswerving loyalty and support filled Jack's soul with thankfulness. Whoever could have imagined the alien that had questioned him so harshly about a watch would become one of the foundations in his life? Once again meeting Teal'c's eyes as he raised back to his full height, Jack said the only words available to him. They were inadequate, in the extreme, but they were all he had. "Thank you."
"You are welcome, O'Neill," he replied, tone giving the everyday phrase uncommon weight.
"Okay," Jack murmured into the now-relaxed silence. With a nod of closure, he turned to grab the lighter sitting above the mantle. "Grab some juice and I'll get the fire started." Stifling a grin, he lit the rolled papers beneath the kindling, Teal'c's quiet yet meant to be heard parting comment about the weather not being suited to a fire leaving a pleasant burr in his ear. One fixed, he mentally ticked off, three more to go.
Finally they were all assembled. Carter had arrived with Doc Frasier while Jonas had driven over separately. He'd called the CMO and the Kelownan after a lot of question asking and rough answering. As much as he wanted, no, needed to keep the matter as small and personal as possible, those two had been thrown into the situation head first without a raft. In the end, his sense of integrity had not allowed him to leave them out. So five people now stood in his living room, only one looking even remotely comfortable.
A loud pop from the fire broke the silent spell that had fallen over them all. Jack waved his surrounding friends into the chairs and couch, moving slowly to stand in front of the fireplace. Warmth seeped over his back, failing to dissolve the chill filling his bones. He had no more time to stall. One last, deep breath as he met the four pairs of eyes and he was ready.
"Thanks for coming, everyone. I know this has been an unusual week." A wry quirk lifted his lips briefly, but never made it up to his eyes. "Recent events have brought some old issues back up, ones I'd hoped to never see again. However, General Hammond has decided that you should be briefed so no further misunderstandings occur." There. He'd finally achieved the conversational tone he'd been striving for. Now if he could just hold it. It was only going to get worse.
Only the sound of this teammates shifting on the furniture competed with the crackling fire. The band around his chest tightened back into the rib-cracking, breath-stealing pain from the General's office. Involuntarily, his eyes flicked to the envelope sitting unobtrusively on the coffee table.
"Some years ago," he started, staring anywhere but at the people gathered in front of him. "I was injured on a mission during egress, injured bad. I found out later my team thought I was dead." A deep breath steadied his voice as he continued. "I was taken prisoner by the enemy. Held for four months. Pictures were taken every week throughout that time. I'm sure they were sent to the US forces, but I was in the middle of enemy territory. There was no way a rescue attempt could have been successful." It had taken him years to be able to admit that. For so long during those four months the only thing he'd been able to focus on was getting home to Sara. He couldn't give up, it would break Sara's heart. So he'd endured the beatings, the interrogations, the sleep deprivation, the hunger and thirst. Through all of it he'd refused to give in, to give his captors what they wanted. And then he'd done his best to bury the whole degrading experience deep, locking it away in the box reserved for the awful things his job sometimes exposed him to.
Years had come and gone. He'd lost his son and his wife. More missions gone horribly wrong. More injuries he could never explain to anyone. More memories to lock away. And then Frank had appeared again. Shocking the lock off the box and allowing the emotions, the memories out.
After Frank had died saving Jack and Earth, he'd managed to stuff everything back into that big box. He'd managed to continue, to ignore the reawakened nightmares and the cold sweats that had crept up on him every now and then.
And that should have been the end of it. Damn the NID. And damn their willingness to do anything, use anyone to get what they thought they needed. Which led him right back to the intently focused eyes on him. Right. He was supposed to be explaining, not standing lost in horrific memories. Memories he could gloss over.
"After I ruined the NID's little operation they were pissed. Wanted to get back at me. They tried to use you, SG-1. They dug into my sealed file and stole some of the pictures taken during those four months." He couldn't force the word 'imprisonment' past his lips, even though it was by far the most appropriate one. "They sent them to Daniel as a threat."
Only the ticking of the mantle clock invaded the silence as his explanation soaked into them. Jack almost wished one of them would say something, anything to break the moment up. Daniel would have broken in by now to save him the torment to laying his soul bare. He would have taken up the story of how he'd gone to Jack and practically threw the photos in his face. Daniel would have known the right words. But Daniel wasn't there. Jack was on his own this time.
"I requested that General Hammond let me handle it. He approved, but if anything else arrived he would report it for outside action. Daniel didn't receive anymore surprise packages."
A flash of faces appeared before him, overlaying the familiar ones of his team members and friends. Words spoken long ago filled his ears.
"'You want to come after me, that's fine.'" The tone was deadly quiet and utterly serious. "'I don't think you want to go there, but if you want it that way I can accommodate you. But leave my team out of it. I'm the one who fouled up your little operation. They had nothing to do with it. If I hear about one more envelope, if I get a whiff that you're even thinking about trying something else, it's 'game on'.'" The faces in his memory had blanched noticeably, filling him anew again with a grim satisfaction. Once again, his reputation for ruthlessness had served him well. The pretty boy suits hadn't known what to do when confronted face to face with a 6'2" length of furious, Special Ops trained Colonel.
"Sir," Carter's quiet voice shattered the memory. "What did you do? I wouldn't have thought they'd give up very easily."
Jack allowed a tight smile to cover his lips. "I can be persuasive." Looking away from her answering frown, his eyes fell on the envelope sitting innocently on his coffee table. That one little object had created a rather large rift between between him and Daniel, one that had taken months to dissolve completely. Reaching down slowly, he grasped the brown surface. Tension tightened the air around him as four sets of eyes tracked the flat package.
Consciously steadying his hands, he met Teal'c's gaze. His friend had given up everything he'd known, everything he had believed in, to follow a total stranger. Now, Jack could do no less than attempt to match the Jaffa's courage. While the situation was of a different nature, the last thing he wanted to do was hand over those pictures, the physical evidence of his months of hell. But if he didn't, if he didn't trust his closest friends with this now, it would haunt him, a wound never to scar over and the NID would still win, years after their initial attempt. And if there is one thing I can't stand, he told himself, it's the bad guys winning.
With a jerk, he held the envelope out to Teal'c, who took it slowly. A brief glance at the flap was all he did before handing it sideways to Frasier who sat on the couch. Calm, deep brown eyes lifted to meet Jack's uncertain gaze. "I have no need to see further proof of your valor."
Somewhere deep inside, a locked away door cracked open, the blackness of pain and despair escaping through. Only this time the darkness flowed up and over him, not through. Teal'c's words of simple acceptance provided a shielding blanket that kept the painful emotions from taking over. Once again his friend was watching his back. Jack managed a small nod of thanks to Teal'c as Frasier merely handed the envelope to Jonas. She and Jack had never talked about it other than to acknowledge it had happened when an old injury from those days came back to bite him. Now he knew they'd never have to do it again.
Jonas gently took the envelope, looking as if he wished he could tear it to pieces. Hazel eyes conveyed sadness and compassion across the short distance. "I wish I could say I'd never found these, but I can't," he stated quietly, hands barely moving on the brown paper. "I've wondered where you found the determination and strength to fight for the truth of Doctor Jackson's actions that day on Kelowna. But you didn't 'find' it. You had it all along. Those traits don't just magically appear one day. If I'd never found these," he repeated, tapping his fingers lightly, "I'd still be looking in the wrong place."
"You've got 'it', Jonas," Jack answered the unspoken question. "Or you wouldn't be on my team." The Kelownan's face brightened at the approval, the uncertainty lurking in his eyes melting away. The pitch blackness still pouring from Jack's now wide-open door lightened to grey, slipping out faster and faster.
Looking over to the last person in the room, Jonas held out the envelope to Carter. Jack met her eyes solidly as she reached a hand to take them. While the darkness inside kept flowing out, his gut clenched sharply as her fingers splayed over the brown paper. Of all the people who could ever see those pictures, she was the last one he would ever want to see something so cruel and degrading. But she was a member of SG-1 as well as his friend. And he wouldn't lessen their relationship by refusing her the right he'd given to the others.
But the roiling in his stomach attested to how much he didn't want her to see them. Uncountable seconds dragged by as their eyes continued to hold one another's. What was she waiting for? Didn't she know how hard this was for him?
Suddenly, Carter stood, the envelope held before her like a highly unstable explosive. Crossing the short distance between them, she never faltered, never hesitated until she stood directly in front of him. Jack found he couldn't breathe as she stood silent, no expression whatsoever on her face. Was she disgusted at the thought of him being so weak as to be unable to stop such a humiliating thing from happening? Did she feel pity for him, for the man pictured beneath the thin paper covering? Damn, what was she waiting for?
As if she heard his internal questioning, she turned and with one swift motion was standing before the not-really-necessary fire. A brief glance over her shoulder had their eyes meeting. Unasked and unanswered, words flowed between them. And without ever opening the envelope, she tossed it onto the jumping flames, a slow smile taking over her face. Silence held them all spellbound as the flames greedily ate away at the pictures. The normal oranges and reds flared into blues and greens as photo paper ignited. Slowly, the fire returned to normal and the room heaved a sigh of release.
Jack stared into the fire, where all the pain and humiliation from years ago had just melted away. The locked room deep inside that had been filled with darkness and memory was standing wide open, clean and clear, cleansed of the filth that had inhabited it. His teammates' instantaneous acceptance of something he had never been able to put into his past had finally broken its power over him.
A small grin eased its way onto his lips. He'd never admit it aloud, but maybe MacKenzie was right after all about that sharing thing.
Carter turned abruptly from the fire, that smile still plastered to her face. After a quick glance around the room, her eyes came back to his. "Now, sir," she started, serious tone at odds with the smile. "I recall you mentioning something about pizza on the phone?"
A bark of laughter escaped unbidden, bringing giggles and a pleased smile from Jonas, Teal'c and Doc Frasier. "Pizza, huh?" he drawled, his twisted sense of humor kicking back in with the release of tension within him. "I suppose I can swing for a pizza or two." He stepped toward the phone, mouth already opened to deliver the next salvo when three voices chorused together.
With a wide grin and a loudly muttered, "Wimps," Jack hit auto dial #3. The ringing phone filled his ear as voices started up behind him. No, he hadn't wanted to tell them. No, he never would have done it voluntarily. And no, he'd never do it again if he could stop it. But he'd lived through it. His team had lived through it. And he did feel a little lighter inside.
As Mama Trino's Pizzeria picked up, Jack shifted to look back at his team, his friends, his family. Carter had moved into the kitchen and was taking the called out drink orders, Frasier and Jonas had already started in about the merits of The Weather Channel versus CNN, and Teal'c? Teal'c had moved to the fireplace and was stirring the embers with the poker, ensuring every bit of photo paper was consumed.
Okay. Maybe he could live without the anchovies. This time.
After all, it was for his team.