Sursum Corda-Chapter Six
It had begun to rain an hour earlier, cold spring rain; the kind of rain that sifted through the obstinate fingers of late winter. Teal'c had gathered the few candles he had been able to find in the old cabin and placed them on the main room's floor. Interspersed between were a rusted pail and a dinged cooking pot, catching the plunk, plunk, plunk of rainwater leaking through the failing roof. He had moved his spot twice before finding a dry area. And then he began to meditate.
He breathed through the tension, releasing it from every muscle in his body. He filled his mind and limbs with air, and exhaled the stress. He inhaled all that was good and decent about his friend, and exhaled all the fear and anger. His heart rate slowed with each lost grain of frustration; his mind focused with each expelled burst of churlishness.
There was a soft click of the door, and a gust of icy wind brought the scent of green moss and pine into the room. The once lugubrious candle flames flickered nervously, but remained the steadfast beacons of Teal'c's meditative state. The pot-bellied stove growled with the added air rising up its flue.
Teal'c did not open his eyes, nor did he allow a cessation of his duties to his inner and outer self. If there were to be conflict, if there was to be any contact it would have to wait. The discipline he'd learned all those years ago had ushered him through situations of greater tension than this. And so he breathed, deep and long.
The door closed, the flames peaked toward the ceiling, the logs burning inside the stove crackled and popped. Warmth returned to the darkened room, its walls danced with shadows. The muffled, infrequent drops of water accompanied the sheepish, hushed steps toward the small bedroom, around the arc of candles. Dry, warm clothes waited there and would bring comfort to a wet, chilled body. A full bottle of whiskey waited in another room and would bring a different sort of comfort.
Jack had stood on the dock for hours, his eyes blindly looking over a lake that had held out its arms to him all his life. Its shores, the framework of a lifetime spent enjoying family and friends, loving a wife and child, healing the many wounds and injuries. It was where he had gone to grieve a mother, a father, his son, and presently the loss of all that he felt he could rely on. And so, he found himself once again, a small and insignificant part of his own world, contemplating cowardice and desertion, standing at the edge of a body of water that had come to be at the end of an ice age, and that would remain long after his body had returned to the ground.
Through the long, silent hours and the changing hues of the sky above, he had stood motionless, a silhouette against an amber sky. How many times had he come to this spot, stood before the great span of water and asked for guidance? For consolation? For forgiveness?
Unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God…
He had RSVPed his regrets to that particular invitation a long time ago, but there was a time…
Fifty years before, a priest had poured water over the sleeping baby's head, spoken the ancient words, delivered him from his original, inherent sin. The baby cried out, his chest rising and falling with stunned screams. His tiny hands scratched the air, searching for his mother, his father, a reassuring and comforting place to grasp. Warm oil was smeared on his newborn forehead, his quavering lips, his pink, vascular chest. He was handed to his parents, and in the wink of an eye, he was standing alone on a dock, a cane in one hand, having grown bitter by the delusory promise of sacraments.
You only get one chance at such things, and then you're on your own.
Besides, there wasn't enough water in all of Minnesota to cleanse him. Not even the persistent rain could wash away his inequities, or renew his spirit. He was sullied, his soul and mind tainted with the evils he had seen, with the orders he had given based on duty and protection. He had been presented with all the sacraments, had discarded them all, just as quickly, out of neglect, out of disbelief. He had created a life that he thought was sacred, and abused his privileges there, too.
"You're a better man than that," someone had once told him.
"That's where you're wrong!" he had cried out.
And the eyes knew he was right…
He lifted his face to the black sky, let the icy drops of rain pelt his skin. It had slipped through his fingers, this life, this promise of salvation, this gift of health and friendship. Of youth. Redemption was for the appreciative, not for those who had taken for granted all the gifts of the living.
A life spent entrenched in battles and warfare had long ago burned the oil from his skin. Still the rain rolled over his features, and still the feral cry deep within his chest rose, and still his hand reached out for something in the dark.
And all he could see were the eyes.
"Something sinister in the tone told me my secret must be known," his friend had read to him.
"Sursum corda," his soul had pleaded with him.
Through the thick air, he smelled the smoke. He turned from the lake, and saw the faint trail of white lingering next to the corroded chimney pipe. The windows of the cabin lit golden, the pledge of warmth.
Soaked to the skin, shaking—was it the cold, the rain, or the burden?—Jack took pains to enter the cabin as quietly as possible, changed his clothes, and returned to the quiet room. He paused just inside the space, glanced at Teal'c, who was seated on the hard floor, and wondered why Teal'c even cared.
"Ya know, T," Jack said, leading with his well-honed sense of bravado in the face of damnation, "I could have been lost out there."
Without opening his eyes, nor changing his position, Teal'c said, "Having been raised in these woods, it would have been quite unlikely."
"I could have been attacked by bears."
"Are they not herbivores in this area?"
"Well, yeah, but still." Jack lowered himself into the tufted chair, its upholstery faded and threadbare, its once regal gold braiding bleached wheat over the decades. He closed one eye and looked toward the ceiling, but in the diminished light couldn't quite make out where the hole in the roof might be. The old place was hardly standing, he thought. Not much would bring it down.
"I could have been out there hatching a plot against you."
"I would hope so," Teal'c said, opening his eyes, smiling gently at Jack. "It would signal the return to your former self."
"My former self," Jack whispered, regret and fatigue tingeing the shape of his words.
"You are lost, my friend."
"No, but I might have been. You didn't bother to find out."
"Come, sit with me. Meditate. Regain your core."
"Didn't know Kel-no-reem involved Pilates," Jack said, which Teal'c summarily ignored. Jack knew Teal'c was trying to help him, and he knew if he continued with the off-putting quips he'd only make Teal'c lose respect for him. Lose more respect, that is, because surely there was a loss there. And why wouldn't there be? Jack could barely muster any self-respect.
"The knees can't really do the cross-legged thing anymore," he said, a conciliatory effort. "You think I can still achieve inner-whatever from the comfort of this broken down chair?"
"As you wish."
"Good. Well, let the healing begin."
"The healing, as you say, will begin when you open yourself to that which is truthful."
"Okay, well," he began, the fingers on each hand clutching at the end of the armrests "Truthful, huh? I can do truthful."
"You may begin at any time."
Jack took a deep breath, and tried long and hard to find that one grain of truth that wouldn't send him hurtling toward the door. It seemed to him he was one big ball of honesty, raw and vulnerable, and he'd never been a man who had had much time for vulnerability. With so many layers of honest, heavy emotion piled on top of him, Jack hardly knew how to climb out from under the pile.
"Truthful. Open myself up to something true," he said, drawing in air, exhaling in an exaggerated gush. "All right. Well, don't know if you heard, but I hit Daniel."
"So you have."
"If I'm being honest, I'm having a hard time forgiving myself for that, Teal'c."
"I feel there is much you seek forgiveness for, as of late, O'Neill."
"Yeah, probably." A heavy drop of water splashed into the bucket. Jack squinted his eyes and searched for other signs of leaks in the roof. "It wouldn't surprise me if that entire ceiling came down on our heads."
"It will be fine."
"Glad you have such confidence."
"Would it be correct to assume that DanielJackson's behavior had nothing to do with your actions, and for this you seek release from your culpability?"
"Bit of an obfuscated sentence, wouldn't you say?" Jack said.
"Will you not answer the question?"
"I'll try," he said, closing his eyes and thinking about the question. "Yes, he provoked me, and, no, it had nothing to do with him."
"What was the origin, then?"
"I don't know. Nothing. Everything. It has to do with whatever the hell has been going on in my noodle for however long. Guess my thoughts, my—gawd—my feelings have been just as obfuscated. Occluded, even. In fact, they've been damn near—"
"When DanielJackson speaks tangentially as you are, you have often spoken his name, followed by a profanity. Should I now do the same for you?" Teal'c asked.
"If you can think of a profanity that starts with O, be my guest."
"Let us consider that your thoughts became mired long before you struck DanielJackson."
"I've considered that."
"And what conclusions have you reached?"
"Not many," Jack began, pressing his head into the musty back of the chair. He took a deep breath, coughed when spores of mold tickled his sinuses, and quickly dismissed any association with such olfactory memories. "Okay, one."
"It seems that I've lost my Spidey sense," he said, fairly annoyed at the fact, and his tone emphasized that point.
"To what do you refer?"
Jack shrugged. "Don't know. Just this feeling I have, that I'm not seeing what's coming down the pike. I guess I don't know how it all happened."
"You were ambushed."
"Yeah, but…how? That's not how it was supposed to go down."
"I believe you have often supplied me with a sufficient answer to such a quandary."
"Oh, yeah? Me? What's that?"
Teal'c tipped his head, smiled, and said, "Fecal matter occurs."
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose and tried not to laugh. His chest felt much too tight and heavy to allow such levity. No, there was a weight there, a cumbersome boulder of self-doubt and regret that needed to be removed if he ever wanted to enjoy the light again, and Jack didn't think that was possible.
"When did your thought become so troubled, O'Neill?"
"Oh, who knows?"
"I believe you know."
But of course, Jack knew. It had been such a minor thing, still it troubled him. He hadn't heard Sam entering the camp just minutes before his abduction, nor had he heard Teal'c. Why his mind chose to deliberately preserve those two ostensibly insignificant moments seemed to him the genesis of his ruination. He'd slipped up, become lazy in his reaction and his duty. He'd lost his edge, and for that he was taken to an underground chamber of horrors, where he was put on display, an example of squandered infallibility.
"You are troubled, O'Neill. It fills the air around you. I sense it, and have sensed it for many weeks."
Jack shifted in his chair, hoping he would be lost in the shadows, hoping his burden would hide with him.
"I don't know, Teal'c."
"Relax. Close your eyes. Trust me with that which taxes your soul."
"Relax, he says," Jack muttered, cupping his cheek in the warmth of his hand, fingers webbed over his eye, his elbow planted in the tattered arm of the chair. His knee began to bounce, a frenetic rhythm of fear and being too close to the edge. "I can't do this."
"You can, and you must," Teal'c said. "Breathe. Fill your body with air. You are safe."
But the illusion of safety had left him long ago, in a cavern where he was exposed for all to see.
"When you recall your time with your abductors, what is it you see?" Teal'c asked, watching his friend shield his face with his trembling hand.
In the abyss of his mind, behind the shade of his closed lids, Jack began to see them again, the silent scrutinizers of his weakest moments. His skin began to writhe; a sheen of sweat covered his forehead. He couldn't breathe, could hardly move.
"Tell me what you are seeing, O'Neill."
"Theirs. In the dark."
"In the sewer tunnel?"
"No. Before. In the stasis chamber. Hundreds of beady little alien eyes." Jack washed a hand across his damp face, pulled air into his burning lungs. His blurred focus skimmed the walls, if only to make sure he wasn't there anymore.
"And what were they looking at?"
"Were you in danger?"
"From them? No."
"What is it they were trying to see?"
Out of the corner of his eyes, Jack saw a drop of water plummet through the air. "Maybe we should empty that pot."
"There is plenty of room, yet. Do not concern yourself with such trivial things."
"It's my cabin, Teal'c. I'm concerned that it's falling apart."
"So are you, O'Neill. For that you should be more concerned."
Even though he knew it was true, hearing it stung. Jack dropped his chin to his chest, scraped his nails across his scalp, and shook his head, denying that the obvious was that apparent.
"What did the eyes see?" Teal'c asked again.
Jack slumped farther into the chair, completely covered his eyes with his hand, and sighed. "Fear. They saw fear."
"And what brought such fear to you?"
"Were you, in fact, helpless?"
"You have been in helpless situations before. I have shared many of those moments with you. I have often marveled at your self-discipline to stave off fear. What is it that changed in those days?"
"It was so quiet, and I…I…"
"Ah, dammit, Teal'c!" Jack growled, losing the battle with his composure.
"Tell me, O'Neill."
Jack palmed his aching brow, tore at his hair. "Fine. It was…"
"Silent. It was just so damn quiet."
"And there was nothing to fight against. Nothing to hide behind. I couldn't fight; I didn't fight. I…I…"
Jack propelled himself to the edge of the chair. "I can't stand to listen to that constant drip, drip, drip! Is it just me, or is that making you a little nuts, too?"
"It seems to have abated." Teal'c eyed Jack carefully. Jack shook his head, listened to the pounding of his heart in his ears. "Does the sound remind you of the sewer, that place where you came to be?"
"Fu…I don't know," Jack said, squirming, unwilling to venture into yet another dark, uninhabitable recollection. He slouched back into his chair, exhaustion and submission to his failings winning out over any feigned tenacity.
"When you were summarily discarded into that place, surely you experienced more despair."
Jack slapped his hand to the armrest. "Can we just stick to one subject here? Huh?"
"Indeed." Teal'c "Which do you prefer to address? That which changed you, or how your time in the catacombs amongst the refuse affected you."
"Well, put it that way, and it's just too damn hard to choose."
"Very well. Then tell me what changed you in those days while the aliens observed you."
Jack squeezed his neck, aching and tight. "I don't know."
"You do. You were about to tell me. You have the ability to do so, but you choose not to."
It was a challenge, and Jack knew it. He wondered if he could actually meet the challenge. After all, he knew what he had done. That one cowardly act had burned in his gut, had haunted his sleep and destroyed the privacy of his days. And all the eyes had witnessed it.
"I gave up," he said.
"No," Jack whispered, the strength to voice such words far too costly. "I gave up. On myself."
"This would be the cause of your suffering, O'Neill?" Teal'c asked.
"Well, yeah!" he stated, his hand sailing away from him. "I gave up on myself, Teal'c. First thing you learn in special ops—your worst enemy is your own fear. I came face to face with that fear, and went turtle up."
"In what way?"
"In what way? I don't know! Choose one!"
"You believed they had the best of you."
"You believed the situation was helpless."
"You believed your life was near the end." When silence followed, Teal'c qualified his statement. "And you believed it had little to do with the aliens."
"You were stripped before them, correct?"
Jack swallowed hard, feeling himself begin to writhe under the memory. "Yeah. So?"
"The humiliation must have been overwhelming."
"Don't remember that part. I only remember the piñata part."
Teal'c bowed his head, acknowledging the correction. "You were stripped of your power, your effectiveness, your cunning and your rank."
"Not to mention my skivvies."
"Those, as well," Teal'c said, nodding in honor of the lost dignity. "They stripped you of all that you are, all that is Colonel Jack O'Neill, and those few days you were simply a man, a soldier, and the aliens were eyewitnesses to a mere mortal."
"Teal'c…" Jack said, in something like a cry.
"You are mortal, my friend, but you are not merely a soldier." From his seat before Jack, Teal'c saw the inner battle-the churning torso, the clenched jaw, the white knuckles. Teal'c tilted his head and lowered his voice yet again, into that timbre that might soothe and caress an aching soul. "The eyes saw fear, of which I am certain. But did they not also marvel at the grace of your physique, one that is as alien to them as they to you? Is it possible that they were not observers of your imperfections, but of your tremendous strength?"
"For God's sake, Teal'c…"
"Stripped of all your skills and training, are you still not O'Neill?" Teal'c asked, and his eyes began to burn with sympathy for the battle his friend was required to endure in order to regain his soul. "What was it you saw in their eyes, O'Neill? Perhaps that is the greater question."
"I don't want to talk about it, Teal'c."
"Did you not, perhaps, see your future in their eyes, exposed so all that holds you to this world could be seen? Did they not allow you a glimpse into what could be your destiny? What is it you fear, O'Neill? Them, or the future?"
Tucked in the shadows, mute with sorrow, raw from exposure, his recent past having been turned inside out, Jack choked back the ache in his throat. "My future…I thought I'd know when it was time to retire from the field. It should have been my right to decide that, at least."
"You've lived a life of decisions, but it has never been yours to decide events."
"Teal'c, I gotta tell you, I'm close to total stroke-zone, here. Can you just tell me what the hell you meant by that?" Jack asked, weariness becoming the greater part of his voice.
"I meant that it is never your option to chose the events that will occur in your life. It is only the decisions you make based on those events that you are able to control."
"Then I choose not to grow old."
"That is not one of your choices."
"I know. Believe me, I know." Jack rubbed his thumb against the deep groove between his eyes. "The gray hair—hell, I've had that for years. The aches and pains in my knees and back are something I've just lived with. I never considered myself…" A dovetailed thought blocked the first, and Jack pushed his head, spinning with anguish, into the back of the chair. "But they knew. They looked me over good, said, 'Eh, we can do better than him,' and…"
And as Jack spoke, shaking his head, his lips puckering around harsh words, the lines in his face peaking with tension, Teal'c sat by, accepting each thought, each harrowing memory. He knew it was not his time to talk, or to question. His friend was compelled to speak of his own accord, compelled by caged fear and self-doubt that no longer wished to be.
Jack brought his hand to his forehead, kneading it. "One minute I'm this display unit, and the next thing I know the ground is coming up quick. I've done the whole not-quite parachuting thing. Did it in Iraq. At least that time I had on a uniform! Shit!" Jack reached behind him, both hands grasping the back of the chair. He buried his face in his arm, sealed his eyes tight against anger, against uncontrollable, careening emotions. His knees bounced up and down, and his chest bucked. "They dumped me, Teal'c. They got whatever the hell they needed from me, and they tossed me aside, like yesterday's garbage. They were gonna let me rot in that God forsaken place, as if I were…were…"
"But you didn't, O'Neill. DanielJackson found you."
Jack let go of the back of the chair, and grabbed hold, instead, of the back of his neck. "Yeah, well, I sure had a funny way of thanking him, didn't I?"
"I believe this to be the least of your concerns, O'Neill."
"Hitting Daniel is the least of my concerns?" Jack said, hardly able to believe what Teal'c had told him. "I hit Daniel! For no other reason than he was there. How am I supposed to just cross that off my 'guilt-to-do' list?"
"You will remove it from you list, as you say, the moment you apologize. That is all that will be required."
"Did ya see his mouth?" Jack asked, remembering the blood. Remembering, too, the betrayal in his friend's eyes.
"Indeed, I did."
"I did that! His commanding officer! Me!"
"I am aware."
"He could have me court martialled."
"You know he has chosen not to."
"Gotta tell ya, if it were me, I'd consider it."
"But you are not DanielJackson."
"Don't I know it."
"All that is required is your request for forgiveness."
"Why would he accept my apology?"
"Because he is your friend."
"Nice way I treat my friends, huh?"
"He will accept your apology. Of this, I have no doubt."
Jack pressed back into the chair, thumped his head against the cushion and groaned. "I don't know, Teal'c. I don't know."
"DanielJackson understands the significant duress you were under when you struck him."
"I'm a colonel in the damned Air Force, Teal'c. I'm supposed to be able to deal with significant duress. It's what they pay me for."
"They do not, however, pay you to be abducted and mistreated by aliens."
"Well, Kinsey might," Jack said. Teal'c allowed the corners of his mouth to turn up in agreement with his friend's assessment. Jack rubbed his eyes, stinging with fatigue and torment. "I don't know. Maybe it is time for me to get the hell out of the field."
"There is much left of your military career, O'Neill."
"Oh, yeah? Tell that to the brass." It was supposed to remain private, but he had ripped the seal off his soul and lain every other torturous problem before him. One more couldn't hurt. Jack screwed up his lips, shook his head, and let loose with the worst part of it, hardly able to speak the humiliating truth. "They're taking away my command, Teal'c. They're gonna reassign me to Washington."
"And so they may," Teal'c said, "but your journey is not over, O'Neill."
Jack rasped his hand across his jowl, over his mouth, and Teal'c could hear his friend attempting to compose himself—a clearing of the throat, a sniff or two. Admirable, at best. The strength with which Jack fought to maintain his dignity tore at Teal'c's heart.
When he spoke again, Teal'c found it difficult to control the continuity of his voice. "This life we lead, my friend, will end. Our lives in military and in exploration will and must conclude, and what will be left for us when it does?"
"What am I gonna do?" Jack asked.
"You will do as you have always done: persevere—with dignity and bombast." He smiled at his friend, warm and empathetic, and knew Jack would hear the unspoken truth in his words. In the diffused light of the room, Teal'c watched Jack nod a little, pinch clean his nose, nod once again.
"We are getting older, my friend," Teal'c said, offering one last observation that he had come to understand many years before. "However, we are far from old. Do not go easily into the future, but have no fear of it, either."
Jack covered his eyes with one hand, brushing his thumb across his tense brow line. What Teal'c was saying, it all made sense. Rationally, it all held some truth. But there was so much pain, so much self-doubt … He dropped his hand to his chest with a thump, took a deep breath and hoped Teal'c had nothing more to say, because Jack was just too damn tired to hear anything else.
The chill that had taken hold of his body during his hours on the dock had been replaced by warmth from the potbelly stove. He was appreciative of that, at the very least. The silence of the room buried him, at first. But he found it wasn't truly silent, not like it had been in the stasis chamber. The old cabin was alive with organic sounds—popping fire, the scrape of tree limbs against the roof. It was with a start that Jack noticed one sound missing—rain. And then another—the plopping sound of water dripping through the roof.
"It's clearing up, I guess," he whispered.
"Indeed." Teal'c blew out each candle, save the last. He unwound his legs and rose from the floor, gathering the one lit candle in his hand. His hand cupped the flame, protecting it. He offered it to Jack, who took it after a moment, and finally, Teal'c bowed.
Jack stared at the flame for what seemed like an eternity, absorbing its meager heat, its steadfast light. When there was no more sound coming from Teal'c's room, Jack tilted the candle and poured some of its wax into the palm of his hand, and his breath seized for a moment at the overpowering warmth. His chest tightened, his eyes burned, suddenly on the verge of persistent emotions. The puddle of wax in his hand began to cool and congeal. Jack pressed his hands together, closed his eyes, and began the questions again.
"What am I gonna do? What's going to happen? What have I done?"
He opened his hands, a simple act he scarcely knew he was doing, and pressed the wax to his chest. Through his shirt he could feel the raised temperature of the molten wax against his skin, and it seemed to penetrate the last part of his body that had never been able to find warmth since his return.
He and the supple flame-the only two ushering in the quietest hours of night. He stayed there in that place, the darkness of the night enveloping him, as the fire tapered off and the candle's wick burned down. The clouds blanketed the sky, making it impossible to see the moon, nor the stars. When the encompassing darkness won out over all other means of light, Jack stayed put, listened to the sounds in the cabin, outside the cabin, in the woods.
And thought some more.
No sleep would come, not even an unrealized moment of drifting. All through the night he listened to owls relay messages back and forth across the lake, the bucks snorting deep within the trees. Just before dawn he had moved to the back porch, a moth-eaten wool blanket wrapped around his body. When he brought it close to his face, he found it smelled not of mildew, but of use. Of contact with all those who had come to this cabin before him, their needs and aspirations as dissimilar as the years.
The air was cold, thick and penetrating; his breath condensed inches away from his face. The sun strained to filter up over the heavy horizon and push back the remains of the clouds. All that was left of the rain the night before was a fog that made the world indistinct, softened the lines, blurred the edges. The arms of the old cabin chairs were slick with condensation, glistening with what little light there was.
He had watched the gradation of morning come to the earth—from the smoky grays to the muted greens. When at last he could make that distinction between grass and water, Jack pushed the blanket off his shoulders and began a slow trek to the edge of the lake. A bush full of violet blossoms, laden with precipitation, waited for him there.
The land was uneven between cabin and bush, and Jack thought twice about venturing out there without the aid of his cane. But he did it, and was surprised, for the most part, of how steady he felt. Still, he held his hand to his hip, more out of habitual sympathy than out of pain.
Reaching the edge of the lilac bush, Jack cupped his hand under a dewy sprig, and ran his thumb over the tiny, supple blossoms, closed yet against the early morning chill. He bent over, dipped his nose to the flowers and drew in breath. It was the perfume of youth and goodness. Of spring and renewal.
Plucking one of the buds from the stem, Jack nibbled on the end, its delicate nectar fueling his memories of home and childhood. Of possibility.
Time went gently, the minutes flowing by with a softness that became imperceptible. A heron, silent as the fog itself, glided effortlessly, just inches above the water. Along the edge of the shore, a patch of cattails swayed in the gentle breeze, the long, slender palms grazing against each other.
The fog began to lumber away from the shore, and Jack caught sight of a burned out stump, its level top upholstered with a cushion of thick moss. God, he thought, the fire of '91. We thought we were going to lose the entire forest and the cabin.
But the land has a way of restoring and forgiving, of using the ashes to nurture seedlings. Scars, like the black, charred stump, remained, but new trees grew tall alongside, and every year the trillium bloomed at its base. Nothing was ever lost; nothing truly ever ended.
"I need to make it right, Teal'c," Jack said, sensing his friend's presence close behind.
"To what are you referring?"
"With Daniel. I need to make it right."
"And so you shall."
"I'm not sure I know how."
"Your friendship with DanielJackson has survived greater hardships than this."
"I hope so."
Jack looked past the lilac bush and into the forest. The burned out core of a once imposing Hemlock held in its lap a nettle of rust pine needles. The outer edges of the tree, with patches of velvet moss amidst quilted, black coals, pointed to the sky, like spires on an Italianate cathedral.
Teal'c turned to Jack, tipped his head and waited for the rest.
"Sursum corda," Jack said again. "It means 'lift up your heart.'"
Teal'c closed his eyes, and all was made clear.
"I haven't thought about that in thirty, thirty-five years." Of their own accord, Jack's fingers caressed the lilac blooms, his eyes taking in all that surrounded him, his mind returning to days of Latin and faith.
"And is your heart lifted?"
"It's getting there. I think I have you to thank for some of that."
"It is my honor and privilege to assist you through this juncture in your life."
"It's a hell of a juncture, my friend."
"Indeed it is." From behind him, Teal'c brought forth Jack's cane. "I thought perhaps you would be in need of this."
Jack took it and shrugged, and he reached out once again, cupping his hand around the back of Teal'c's neck. "Thank you. Not just for this, but for … coming up here. You're a good friend, Teal'c."
"I am better for having made your acquaintance those many years ago."
"If only for the fact that you don't have to wear that uniform and skull cap anymore," Jack said, his eyes twinkling with a light that had been missing for many weeks.
Teal'c bowed, relieved to see that part of O'Neill returning, replacing the ubiquitous sorrow that seemed to have taken up residence in his friend's eyes.
"It's gonna be a nice day," Jack said, squinting into the haze of the sun. "Turned out to be a pretty nice night."
"'My barn has burned down, and now I see the moon,'" Teal'c said, and Jack just stared at him.
"Is that …"
"It is Chinese philosophy."
"I got it," Jack said, turning back to the lake. "I know what it means. Thank you."
"In retrospect, you could have been more seriously injured in the fall from the stasis field."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"I believe your Celtic heritage played a role in your fortunes where this is concerned," Teal'c said, pleased he had been able to incorporate the Tau'ri colloquialism into the conversation.
"You mean 'Luck of the Irish'?" Jack asked, to which Teal'c nodded. "My mother was Scandinavian. What's that say about my luck?"
Teal'c rolled his eyes, weary of the complexities and esoteric qualities of the culture. He decided rather quickly to stick with a simpler subject. "Perhaps I will begin breakfast. Norbert sold me on venison sausage with maple syrup. I am most interested in experiencing this type of game meat."
"Yeah, you go ahead. That's where the city-boy in me doesn't quite see eye-to-eye with the outdoors guy."
"Very well," Teal'c said. "Shall I start a pot of coffee for you, O'Neill?"
"If I had a ring, I'd propose, Teal'c."
"There is no need for such a gesture," Teal'c said, frowning. He turned toward the cabin, and when he did, his foot was yanked out from under him, a forearm across his back hurled him to the ground. He threw himself onto his back, and Jack's booted foot slammed into his sternum, the tip of his cane a breath away from Teal'c's gold brand.
"How ya doin'?" Jack asked, peering straight down the line of his cane into Teal'c's eyes.
"What is the meaning of this, O'Neill?" Teal'c demanded, his own eyes riveted to Jack's stony features.
Jack lifted his cane and his foot, quirked a smile, and said, "Just checking." He offered Teal'c a hand, brushed the leaves off Teal'c's back, and hooked his cane onto his elbow. "Just wanted to make sure."
With an oddly mingled surge of surprise and delight, Teal'c watched his friend amble toward the cabin, a slight limp to his gait, but with his chest held high.
So it was scheduled, the first meeting of the reconvened SG1. Perhaps the last meeting.
General Hammond had taken the call from Colonel O'Neill three days earlier, informing the general that he and Teal'c were making their way back to Colorado, that yes, the colonel was feeling much better, and that he understood the Pentagon's directive, and was prepared to accept whatever his country asked of him.
General Hammond's heart swelled with pride and sorrow for the man.
"That's fine, Colonel," the general had said, rocking in his chair. "It'll be good to have you back."
"I'm putting SG1 down for a meeting on Friday, the 10th, at 0800."
"We'll be there, sir."
"I'll get word to Doctor Jackson and Major Carter."
"I'd appreciate that, sir. Don't know if I'll get the time."
"Because of certain time constraints, I'll need to inform your team of your impending promotion at the time of the meeting."
There was a pause on the other end of the line, and the general had had time to wonder if the calm in Jack's voice hadn't been manufactured. But when Jack did speak, there was a strength in his words, and the general was relieved.
"I understand that, sir. It's probably best that it all comes out this way. It's best."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Colonel."
"We'll see you then."
"I know, Jack," the general said, bobbing his head. "I know."
General Hammond hung up the phone, sat back, his hands laced behind his head, and wondered how he was going to break it to the entire team that life as they knew it was over.
Maybe they already knew.
"He's here," Sam said, swinging into Daniel's office, and just as quickly disappearing.
Daniel thumbed through his book. Which book, it didn't matter. He wasn't really reading it. He simply needed something to do with his hands, to show the rest of the world that he was working, and not riddled with nerves. The line of sweat that trickled down his back was a pretty good indicator, but he hoped nobody would be able to see that. Just in case, he kept his jacket on.
From the moment he heard the meeting had been set, Daniel worried about his first encounter with Jack. That first awkward moment. They'd had some awkward after-the-clash moments, when neither could look the other in the eye. When one had told the other to shut up, or one had called the other a stupid son of a bitch. Somehow, they'd managed to work through it. It had nothing to do with heart-to-hearts, or sitting down with a beer to hash things out. No, that had never worked for them. God knows they had tried a few times, but inevitably those forced moments lead to more anger.
Time. Time was what had always brought things to a close. Sam said it was avoidance on Daniel's part, memory failure on the colonel's. Daniel kind of agreed, and kind of knew he never avoided anything, and Jack had a memory like a fresh-from-the-assembly-line PC.
No, it was time. Time to rethink, to cool down, to judge one's own culpability, and on this one account, Daniel was fairly sure his was the lion's share.
There was a chance, he supposed, that Jack had spent his leave contemplating his own guilt. Maybe, Daniel thought, Jack had used his time considering how he would change, become more open minded and less quick to react.
Then again, maybe Jack had spent his time away from the SGC counting all the ways that Daniel had become a burden to the team. Daniel felt like he had a pretty good list started if Jack needed one.
No, no. It was just going to be…awkward. Strained, even, and the sooner that part was over, the sooner they could begin to piss each other off again, which was the one constant Daniel could rely on.
And he needed to rely on something.
Daniel closed the book, placed it on his desk and straightened his jacket. Cleared his throat. He took off his glasses and decided they were really, terribly filthy, and that he'd better clean them while he walked. He also tried to convince himself that he hadn't removed them so that if Jack were in the hallway he'd have an excuse why he didn't stop.
Unfortunately, his prescription wasn't that bad, and Jack would know exactly what he was trying to do. Hell, Jack had accused Daniel a time or two of not even really needing glasses. That he wore them around just to up the smart factor. After all, the Air Force had strict regulations where pocket protectors were concerned. He had caught Jack testing his vision plenty of times—"Daniel," he'd say when Daniel's glasses were nowhere to be seen, "what's on the menu today?" Or, "Say, Daniel, I have some dust in my eyes. Read that airman's name on his uniform, won't you?" Daniel would squint, just about get a bead on the man's name, only to become aware of the fact that Jack was testing him, once again. Daniel would smirk and go about his business of ignoring Jack.
Yes, it would be awkward. At least he hoped it would. What if it was filled with bitter tension? It could be that. What if, upon seeing Jack again, a bubble of anger welled up inside Daniel and in a split second he could think of nothing else but retribution? What if they both took one look at the other and started…
Daniel scanned the briefing room, didn't see Jack, but knew he had heard him call his name. He turned around, and his cheeks bloomed with color, knowing instantly that he had been so absorbed in thought that he had walked right past Jack.
Jack stood next to the door, a tight, incomplete smile on his face, his eyes blinking. He shifted his vision to the floor, lifted his hand to his mouth, and pinched his lips.
Daniel hooked his thumbs in his pockets and searched the floor, as well.
"Um," Jack mumbled. He unfurled his hand between them, as if offering his next words. However, no words followed.
Daniel nodded. "Yeah."
Daniel bit his lip, narrowed his eyes and shrugged.
"We should probablyyyyy…" Jack started, but became stuck on the last syllable.
"Probably," Daniel agreed, having no idea what he was agreeing to. Still, he bobbed his head, not quite ready to meet Jack's eye.
"Okay, well," Jack said, a hint of finality and satisfaction in his voice.
"Yeah, I guess so," Daniel said, and wished he really could do something other than nod. So much for being multi-lingual…
"Colonel O'Neill," General Hammond said from inside the room. Daniel and Jack began to go through the door simultaneously. They skidded to a stop, and Daniel stepped back. Jack pointed his finger at Daniel, his strange way of saying thank you, Daniel thought, and entered the room.
"General Hammond, sir," Jack said, working hard not to let too much limp show up in his stride.
"You're looking well, Colonel."
"Thank you, sir."
"All that fresh air seemed to work."
"Oh, yes. Fresh air. Hot air," Jack said, stealing a glimpse of Teal'c. "Really, all kinds of air."
Under his breath, reminiscing about the many frozen burritos they had ingested, Teal'c rumbled, "Indeed."
General Hammond smiled, his chest lifting with amusement. "Why don't we begin?"
Jack took a seat just to the right of the ranking officer, his fingers twisted together on the table. Sam sat next to him, smiling, having briefly spoken to the colonel before the meeting. Teal'c sat across the table, concentrating his goodwill toward Jack in what he knew would be a difficult meeting. Finally, after everyone else had been seated, Daniel rounded the table and lowered himself into the chair across from Sam. They exchanged a pensive, quick glance. Daniel sat back and turned his attention to the general.
"I called this meeting not only to welcome Colonel O'Neill back to the SGC, as well as Teal'c, but to inform you all of some changes that will be made."
Jack remained absolutely still. There was enough commotion in the room between the other three searching each other's eyes for silent answers.
"Approximately four weeks ago, I received word from the Air Force Chief of Staff that the promotion board was considering awarding Colonel O'Neill the rank of brigadier general."
Sam spun around to stare wide-eyed at the colonel. Jack's only response to her was a slight lift of the eyebrows, but no eye contact. Daniel, understanding in that split second the ramifications, tightened his brow and dropped his chin.
"Although it isn't official yet," the general went on, "when this promotion does go through, Colonel O'Neill will be reassigned to the Pentagon, where he'll be leading an adjunct supervisory group."
"Sir?" Sam said, beckoning Jack for some word on his behalf. Her greatest fears were being realized, and from the looks of things she was the only one who had a problem with it.
"I'd like to say something, if I may," Jack said. The general offered him the floor with a slight wave of his hand. "Um, here's the deal. I've always thought that when an officer made it to the rank of general, that person grew long on personal importance and short on intelligence. Present company excluded, sir." General Hammond nodded his acceptance. "Be that as it may, I'll do my best to…do whatever I'm asked to do, and do it with all the gusto and honor I can muster."
"So you're okay with this?" Sam asked
"Carter, as I've recently learned, life goes on. I realize that's a bit of a hackneyed saying, but there it is."
"So, that's it?" Sam asked, for anyone to answer. "All due respect, sir, but the colonel gets promoted, and we're left without a CO? If the colonel goes, what happens to SG1?"
General Hammond held a hand up, admonishing her to slow down. "The promotion isn't quite official yet, Major Carter."
"So there's still a chance he won't be promoted?" she asked.
"The wheels are in motion. Colonel O'Neill passed his promotion's board test years ago. You ought to understand how these things work."
"But, sir," she persisted, "with Colonel O'Neill out of the picture—"
"Hello? I'm still in the room," Jack mentioned, raising his hand.
"I'm sorry, sir," Sam said, stepping down. "I guess this kind of comes as a shock, that's all."
"Yes, well, these things happen." Jack tried to smile, give her a reassuring gesture, but there was a pit in the middle of his stomach, and continuing with the masquerade that he was completely good with the whole situation was becoming harder and harder to do.
"Look, to be perfectly honest, Carter, I kind of hoped I'd be offered my oak clusters about the same time my social security benefits kicked in," Jack said. "This isn't exactly the direction I saw my career taking, either, but…" Jack shrugged, tossed his hand in the air and let it smack against the table.
"But if and when Colonel O'Neill moves on to the Pentagon, SG1 will be given a new team leader," General Hammond said, continuing the thread.
"I don't know, sir," Sam said, her chin quirking to one side. "It just seems rather sudden."
"What is the next step in this process, General Hammond?" Teal'c asked, having sat quietly while he observed the reaction to the news the other two were hearing for the first time.
"The next step is sending in my formal recommendation, which is pretty much just that-a formality," the general said, leaning into his words. "I won't lie to you, people. If I had a choice, SG1 would remain a team. However, barring any unforeseen events, this promotion will go through, and the colonel will leave the SGC."
"He hit me."
General Hammond's blue-eyed stare turned to Daniel, and he asked, "Doctor Jackson? What did you just say?"
"Jack hit me," Daniel said, again, hoping beyond hope that his calculated risk was going to work. He swallowed hard, looked up at the general and could feel the sweat pouring down his back, once again. "Um, a couple weeks ago. We got in a little…what would you call it?"
Jack was shocked. He also knew it was he who Daniel was asking to fill in the missing description. "A tiff?" Jack asked, shrugging, looking to Daniel for concurrence.
"Then a squabble, maybe?"
"I suppose," Daniel answered back, blinking. "More than a squabble, actually, a…"
"A kafuffle, perhaps?" Jack offered.
"Um, no." Daniel turned his attention away from Jack's always interesting vocabulary, and to the general, instead. "The question is, General Hammond, would that be the sort of thing that would…" Daniel dipped one shoulder to the side and grimaced, again praying he hadn't signed Jack's orders to the brig, "…would that be the kind of thing that might look bad on, say, an officer's record?"
"Is this true, Colonel?" the general demanded, his face rapidly working its way through all the reds.
"Uh," Jack mumbled, holding open one hand while he worked through the algorithmic chain of events that might quickly unfold, up to and including massive amounts of unpeeled potatoes when he wasn't spending his twenty-three other hours in solitary.
And with that thought he came to a more salient conclusion. That it was time to make things right, and the best way to do that was to own up to his behavior in the full. "Yes, sir. It is. I have no excuse for my actions. All I can tell you is how much I regret the incident." Jack felt as if leather straps had suddenly been removed from his chest, and for the first time in a week, he could actually breathe again. "Daniel, what I did…It was inexcusable, and I can't tell you how much I regret it."
"Doctor Jackson, am I to assume you did not report this at the time?" the general asked, his bulky hands pressed tight against the table.
"Yes, sir. Or…no, sir," Daniel said, his eyelids fluttering. "Which is to say, I didn't report it, sir."
"Well, people, this is quite a mess we've got on our hands." General Hammond slammed his folder shut and glared at Jack, then at Daniel. A full minute went by when the only sound in the room was the heavy inhalation and exhalations coming from the senior officer. Once in a great while Jack would peek up at Daniel, Daniel at Sam, and Sam at Teal'c, who remained unimpressed by it all.
"Colonel O'Neill, I'm sure you realize I'll be forced to put this in my recommendation, and it will go into your file," the general said.
"Yes, sir," Jack answered back, staring straight ahead.
"And as for you, Doctor Jackson, because of your inaction to come forth with evidence of abuse—"
Daniel held up his finger, and sheepishly interjected, "It was really more like a jab. Really." Daniel looked at Jack, shrugged his shoulders. Jack silently expressed, "What are you gonna do?"
"What the hell kind of show are you running here, Colonel?" the general demanded.
"I've often asked myself that same question, sir," Jack said.
"You realize, don't you, Colonel, that I could throw both of you in the brig at my discretion?"
"Yes, sir. I do."
The general seethed with anger, tapped his pen against his folder, and stared down the two men. "Until I can come to some…conclusion to all this nonsense, both you and Doctor Jackson will be placed under administrative leave. Without pay!" Jack and Daniel hung their heads low, an appropriate show of their obligatory regret. "I'm going to go into my office to think this through, and while I'm in there I'm going to expect each of you to file a written report detailing exactly, and I mean to the letter, what happened. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," Jack answered, making damn sure there was nothing else in his voice other than affirmation.
"Uh, yes. Yes, sir." Daniel capped and uncapped his pen.
"One hour, people!" the general said in his wake. Jack only made it halfway up and out of his chair before his CO was out the door.
"Okay, what exactly does administrative leave entail?" Daniel asked, peering over the top of his glasses at anyone who might clarify it for him.
"It means that you'll be formally disciplined, to whatever degree the general deems necessary," Sam explained to him. "That could include a letter in your file, to revoking your contract."
"Oooh," Daniel said, not having considered that possibility.
"But I wouldn't worry about that," Sam said, having sat in on advisory boards before. "What it also means is, after you've filed your report, that you and the colonel won't be allowed on base."
"You mean…" Daniel began.
Sam gave gesture to the words that wouldn't come from him. "Yes, it means you're officially on unpaid leave."
"Oh," Daniel said.
"Huh," Jack said.
"But what about you and Teal'c?" Daniel asked.
"I have no fault in the matter," Teal'c informed them, imperious and forthright.
"I asked you if you wanted to file charges," Sam said, casting a look of self-righteous innocence on her face.
"What about all that talk about the keeping the team together, Major?" Jack asked.
"Well, sir," she said, gathering her notebook, "I was serious about all that, at the time. Now? Well, there's this 1968 Mustang I've been eyeing, and I could really use my two weeks pay."
"And I have been considering upgrading my home theater system," Teal'c said, rounding the table to join Sam in her haughty virtue.
"How nice for you both," Jack said, sneering at them.
"Permission to be—"
"Oh, just go," Jack said, flipping his hand through the air. Sam and Teal'c began to leave, but not before Teal'c paused at Jack's side, offered Jack a smile filled with the knowledge of their recent past, and showed him a sign of his respect. Jack patted Teal'c's arm, and the Jaffa and Sam left the two men alone.
Daniel tapped his pen against his forehead.
Jack, knowing he needed to set just the right tone, and knowing there was still a tremendous chasm between them, decided he should be the first to speak.
Feigning nonchalance, Jack asked, "So, how've you been?"
"Oh, fine. Fine. You?"
"Not too bad, you know, considering."
"How's the jaw?"
"Oh, that? Fine. Fine."
"I'll pay for any dental bills. Just…you know, send them to me."
Daniel nodded and said, "Yeah, the, uh, government—they kind of took care of that already."
So much for setting a tone, Jack thought.
It's going to take a lot of time, Daniel thought. He stood up to leave, deciding things would be better if they took it slowly, and it would be better if this coalescing didn't happen all at once. It would be better if Daniel could get in the hall and shake out his twitching arms...
"Daniel?" Jack said, and Daniel stopped at the door. Jack pressed himself out of his chair, winced a bit, and paused before coming face to face with his friend. He needed to do more. It wasn't right, not yet. Maybe it never would be, but he had to try. "Now that we're on leave, did you have any plans?"
Daniel pressed his folder to his lips and closed his eyes, thinking. "Nothing off the top of my head, no. Why?"
"What do you know about roofing?"
"I'm talking about that thing you put on top of a house."
"Isn't that a chimney?"
"No, that's what goes through a house."
"Oh, right. So…roofing, you say?"
Daniel thought about it. "No. No. I can't say I know anything about—"
"Well, I know a little."
"It's actually not that hard. You take some shingles, a nail gun…"
"Actually, you know, I've always wanted to shoot one of those," Daniel said, stepping into the hall. Jack walked alongside.
"Tell you what," Jack said, a gesture of excitement coming through his hands, "I'll let you be in charge of it."
"So where's this roof?" Daniel asked, adopting a relaxed pace down the hall.
"Aren't there mosquitoes and black flies in Minnesota?"
"Nah, not this time of year," he said, giving Daniel's shoulder a squeeze. "It's too damn cold yet." A certain black pen, square and shaped like a hockey stick, caught Jack's eye, and it happened to be sticking out of Daniel's breast pocket. "Daniel…" Jack ripped the pen from Daniel's pocket.
"How'd that…" Daniel said, trying to act innocent. It wasn't even close to working, so he frowned, shifted his weight and said, "I was just borrowing it."
Jack looked at the pen, looked at Daniel. He remembered a time when Charlie would wear Jack's old watch around. It slung loose on his tiny wrist, but it was a connection when Jack was deployed, far away from his son. And here was Daniel, carrying around a souvenir pen that Jack had picked up in Chicago years ago.
It wasn't right yet. Not quite. There needed to be more. Jack could feel it. He twirled the pen between his fingers, hoping he could come up with the right thing to say.
"When I hit you…I was…" Nope, that wasn't it. He tried again, this time looking Daniel square in the eye. "I'm sorry, Daniel," he said. "I can't tell you how..." Jack took a deep breath, having forgotten to breathe in the last few moments. "But I want you to know, you're a good friend, and…"
"I know." Daniel simply nodded, let a gentle smile work its way across his lips. "We're good."
Jack searched Daniel's eyes. "Good."
"So, about the pen," Daniel said, continuing on down the hall.
"Tell you what," Jack said, touching Daniel's arm, halting him. Jack opened the flap on Daniel's pocket, slid the pen inside, and allowed his hand to linger for a moment. He patted Daniel on the arm, and said, "You can have it."
Daniel squinted down at the pen, and after a moment up at Jack. He knew the exchange had very little to do with a pen and everything to do with friendship. Daniel felt empty spaces filling up, murky borders becoming defined. Jack had given him so many things through the years—helping to fill a once voided future, helping to regain a lost past—that the acceptance of this simple gift seemed to be a continuation, a renewal of their powerful alliance.
"Thank you," Daniel said, and with a mischievous glint in his eye, he added, "I'd rather have the Mont Blanc in your desk, though."
"I have a Mont Blanc?" Jack asked, having no idea where that had come from.
Daniel thought it over, and realized it hadn't been Jack's desk. He grabbed Jack's elbow and ushered him down the hall. "So, Jack, your cabin, which I'm assuming is what needs a roof—it has indoor plumbing, right?"
"What do you know about hot water heaters?"