Down To Earth
With a nervous glance up and down the cream and white hallway, Jack O'Neill hustled his companion into the empty room and closed the door, leaning heavily against it to bar intrusion. From across the room, curious eyes regarded him with amusement.
"Okay, Jack, you got me here, now what's all this about?"
A snort of laughter crackled in Jack's throat, an ugly sound perfectly suited to his black mood. "You tell me. What the hell are you doing here?"
"I was invited - same as you."
"I thought we had an agreement."
The smaller man shrugged, composure unruffled by the confrontation. "You expected me to turn this down?" he asked.
"Well it would have been better than spending the day looking over my shoulder, thinking twice before I open my damn mouth." Jack snapped, scraping a hand over his grey hair, newly cropped for the occasion. This was the last thing he needed. Meeting in private was one thing but here, at an official reception, with the President due at any moment, there were opportunities for disaster at every turn. No, to hell with the President - Hammond and Carter were here, and the general was wearing one of his smug, self-satisfied smiles. That was problem enough to deal with.
"Oh God," he sighed. "Why did you have to come?"
"You know why... Anyway, how the hell was I supposed to know you were going to be here? We haven't exactly featured prominently in each others life for - remind me, Jack, when was the last time I heard from you?"
Too long, thought Jack. Two years, ten months and fourteen days, to be precise. Tipping back his head to rest against the door, he stared at a patch of the ceiling where the paint was beginning to show signs of peeling, his thoughts in turmoil. He should have expected this, should have known one day the fates would bring them together again and that, had their roles been reversed, he would have done exactly the same. That didn't make it any easier, in no way lessened the risk. All eyes would be on him today, every word, every move noted and analysed and, as if that wasn't enough, there were cameras everywhere, press and personal.
"You know, you didn't have to stay away," the soft voice told him. "we could have worked something out. It was your choice, Jack."
"Was it?" he rolled his head to the side, a sad smile forming on his lips as he looked at his one-time lover. "I had Sam to consider."
"Did you? Or was she just a convenient excuse."
"That I can't help wondering if you were using her because you were - tired of us. I know keeping our affair under wraps was a strain on both of us but I always thought it was worth it. I thought you felt the same."
"I did," Jack murmured. "I still do." Pushing away from the door, he closed the space between them, shoulders drooping, one hand pushed deep into a pocket, the other rubbing nervously over his mouth. "In here - " he tapped his chest "where it matters, the feeling never really went away."
The mournful eyes closed briefly, an expression so filled with pain and confusion that it twisted like a knife in Jack's gut. "So - what changed?"
Good question, thought Jack, wishing he could come up with as good an answer. "I guess - I did. You know I can't go into details, but - something happened to - turn my life around. I started to realise it wasn't just about me anymore. It stopped being just a job."
"I never believed it was just a job for you..."
"But I did, don't you see? After Iraq... " He paused abruptly and drew a deep breath to steady him against the onslaught of memories he had tried, in vain, to erase from his mind, memories of prison cells, of beatings and humiliations and things too hideous to name. "Being with you kept me alive from day to day. You accepted what I was going through in ways Sara could never have understood, helped me see a part of myself I never even knew existed. I hung on because you were there, putting me back together every time I fell apart. But we both knew it could never be more than - emotional crazy glue. You had too much to lose to take a stand against regulations for a loser like me."
"Let me finish... You made me hang on and somewhere along the way I found something that gave me my life back. I discovered that I can make a difference and maybe - find a way to make up for what I did - that day."
"You're still blaming yourself over Charlie's death." The question was rhetorical, but he answered it anyway with a small, self-conscious movement of his shoulders that might, or might not, have been a nod.
"It was my house, my gun - my mistake. If I hadn't been in such a rush to see you I would've made sure the damn thing was locked away properly."
"And if I hadn't made you late leaving --"
"No." There was no hesitation in Jack's denial. "I could have left anytime, but I chose to stay. I wanted to make love with you one more time."
"The last time."
"Yes." He swallowed the bitter memory, wishing that their ending could at least have been gentle, a gradual drawing away from each other instead of being shattered by the horror of that day. "I put myself first and, because of that, Charlie died. Only I can atone for that."
"By doing what you're doing now?" his former lover asked. "I don't understand. What the heck goes on in that damn mountain that can make you feel this way?"
"Something - incredible." He smiled sadly, wishing he could share with this man all the wonders he had experienced in the last few years. "Maybe one day I'll be able to tell you about it. For now all I can tell you is - it's given me the reason to go on."
Eyes filled with renewed pain, lips pulled tight against the onslaught of emotion, all his lover dare do was bow his head and murmur "Then I'm glad for you."
They looked at each other long and hard, a strange sense of peace settling over them. This was the conversation they should have had three years ago, before Jack had been called for the first Abydos mission, but instead they had allowed themselves to drift apart with nothing said, nothing resolved. It was wrong and he regretted the way it had happened. This man had shared his bed on and off for almost four years, had pulled him back countless times from the well of insanity into which his imprisonment in Iraq had plunged him and, for that alone, he deserved better.
"We should be getting back, before they miss us."
Jack nodded, knowing he was right but reluctant to leave, even now. Had he been right to end this, to give up reality for a dream? Surely there was a way to get around the prejudice and the petty regulations, call in some of the favours they were owed, after all, they were hardly hurting anyone.
The image of blue eyes and a shy smile danced unexpectedly through his thoughts, bringing with it the promise of even greater things to come. Daniel, who had unlocked the mystery of the Stargate and started his feet on the wild ride that was his life now. His life. Try as he might to resist the allure, he knew in his heart that he would go wherever Daniel chose to lead him, heaven or hell, for better or for worse. They would guard each other's backs, tend each other's wounds, share laughter and tears and beer and if they went down they would do so, side by side. He had known as much when he stood in the gate room, watching Daniel push his way through the assembly, smiling and so very much alive. Daniel Jackson held the keys to his future. Daniel Jackson was the new purpose in his life.
He looked into the shadowed eyes that were watching him with calm resignation. Nobody had been hurt during their years together, but he had been flying a desk then, out of the limelight. With his head down and his mouth shut he had been just another face in a uniform, unnoticed in the daily scheme of things. Insignificant. The Stargate had changed all that. These days he was a high-profile thorn in the collective sides of his Washington masters, he was noticed, watched, singled out for attention. What had once been could never be again, they both knew it, both accepted it, however reluctantly.
"I guess so," he said. "Can't keep the President waiting." Out of habit he straightened his tie, tugged the hem of his jacket into place, smoothed his hair. Gentle laughter drifted around him.
"You look fine, Jack."
"I do? God, I hate these things, having to get all dressed up like this."
"I remember..." his companion told him. "Here..." reaching out, he brushed a stray thread from Jack's lapel. It should have been a simple act, but his hand lingered against the warm blue cloth, pressing over Jack's heart. Jack wondered if a farewell kiss was expected - as ill advised as it might be in these hallowed halls. Ill advised and definitely inappropriate now. Trembling, he waited for guidance, while the fingers lifted, hovering close to his cheek in an almost caress, not quite making contact. "Whatever it is you're doing out there, Jack, promise me you'll take care. I don't want a KIA report to cross my desk with your name on it."
He thought of Apophis, Serpent Guards, Heru'ur and Hathor and all the rest, each of them out to get a piece of him if they could. "I'll do my best," he offered. It was all he could do.
Still they hesitated, neither ready to break the last tenuous link. "We were good together, for a while - weren't we, Jack?"
"For a while? Yeah, for a while we were - great."
"Yeah. That's what I thought."
"I have to go..."
"I know. Can't keep the President waiting." He laughed softly, his gaze never leaving Jack's face. "So, how do you want to do this?"
"I - um - I don't..." Jack shook his head.
"Does one of us sneak out first or do we throw caution to the wind and leave together?"
Jack didn't think that the two of them leaving the room together would look any more suspicious than their arrival together had done, but before he could comment, his ex-lover patted him on the shoulder and gestured towards the door.
"You go first. You're the guest of honour after all."
"One of them," Jack countered, feeling again the unfairness of it all, that he and Carter should be honoured while Daniel and Teal'c were kept in the shadows.
"But a pretty important one," was the gentle response.
With a thoughtful nod, Jack turned to the door. "If there's ever anything I can do..." he began, "Anything at all..." He meant it, too. What price can a man put on the saving of his own sanity?
"I know... Good luck, Colonel."
"You, too." Grasping the door knob he paused one last time, one last thing to say. This time he did not look back. "I did care, you know," he murmured, his voice cracking at the last.
Behind him, a voice equally as unsteady said "I know, Jack. I know..."
Jack had hardly taken a step into the hallway when a familiar figure rounded the corner and a bright, cheery voice greeted him. "Colonel! There you are. General Hammond --"
"Carter..." He tried to close the door behind him, but it bounced against his heel and out of his grasp, swinging wide once more to reveal the other occupant of the room.
Blue eyes widened in surprise as their gaze slipped past his shoulder. "Dad?"
Coughing softly to clear the embarrassment from his throat, Jacob Carter stepped into the hall. "Hi Sam."
She looked from one to the other, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. "What's going on?"
If Jack's expression was innocent, then Jacob was doing a fair impression of Mother Teresa.
Sam crossed her arms and raised a questioning brow, aiming her next words at her father. "You've been talking about me, haven't you."
"Carter --" Jack tried to intervene but she froze him out.
"You can't let it go, can you? You're so damn sure you know what's best for me. God --"
Her outburst leeching the colour from his face, Jacob looked imploringly at Jack, who was shuffling his feet self-consciously and trying his best to look invisible. It was a lifeline to them both. With a single sharp clap of his hands, Jack drew Sam's attention back to him.
"Well," he said "as much as I hate to break up the family reunion... Captain, you were about to say something about General Hammond?"
"What?" She blinked at him, the tips of her ears turning pink with embarrassment. "Oh - yes, sir. He was looking for you. Something about security?"
He nodded gravely. If the reporter who had waylaid him earlier was asking more questions, they could be facing a serious breach of security at the Mountain. "Tell the general I'll be right there."
She looked from him to her father, hesitating. "But sir..."
"You can play 'happy families' later, Captain. Go." He made it an order and she went, turning on her heel before the required 'yessir' left her lips and striding away without so much as a backwards glance. When she was out of sight he turned once more to Jacob.
"I'm sorry, Jake, that should never have happened."
"Forget it," the older man shrugged. "No harm done."
"Except your daughter's mightily pissed at you."
"She'll get over it. She's a good kid."
Jack nodded. "She's a good officer, too. Ninety-nine percent of the time I can't understand what the heck she's talking about, but... Well, she's come through for us more than once. You should be proud of her."
Jacob smiled, a full-on, proud father smile. "Oh, I am. I just wish..."
"What?" Jack asked, but Jacob shook his head.
"Nothing. It's not important. You take care of yourself, Colonel."
Jack smiled and held out his hand. "You too, General."
There, in the elegant hallway, the one-time lovers traded a handshake and a last, lingering look. For a while it had worked, but such things are destined never to outlast the moment or the mood that creates them. Jack had been a broken, bleeding wreck of a man when Jacob had found him; Jacob had been pushing papers and going quietly insane as he waited alone for retirement time to come around. They had needed each other then, but that time had passed and while fear and misery and lust had driven them into each other's bed, and affection and desire had kept them there, they had never discovered the love that was needed to overcome all the other obstacles. What they had shared had been right for the time, but those days were gone and could never be recaptured. They had drifted apart a long time ago, now it was time to make the final break.
"Goodbye Jacob," he murmured thickly, stuffing his hands deep into his pants pockets to disguise their shaking. He could do this. He had to.
"Goodbye Jack," the older man whispered as, with a last smile, he turned sharply and walked away.
Jack watched him to the turn in the hallway, stood there a moment longer as he reminded himself that it really was the right thing to do. Then, with a sigh loud enough to echo from the cream washed walls, he went in search of Hammond.