Sympathetic Lies

After sloppily pouring three fingers of whiskey, Jack shakily set his secret stash of Jim Beam down and brought the coffee mug to his mouth at the same time. It hadn't been his fault had it? The fact that he was sitting, uninjured, in his office while Carter and Daniel were in the infirmary gave him the only answer to that question. He continued to search his mind, desperate to soothe his conscience of the wrongs he could never completely absolve. They wouldn't blame him. If they lived. That didn't matter. He knew.
He choked on the liquor burning his throat, slamming the cup back down on his desk. Forcing himself to screw the cap back on the bottle, Jack struggled against the urge to drink the entire thing. Hammond would have his head just for having the stuff on base, let alone getting completely hammered while technically still on duty. Circumstances aside, he knew he had to shape up fast. He was no good to anyone this way. Pressing the heel of his palms into his eyes, he rubbed them ruthlessly and tried to dispel the images that instantly played upon his closed eyelids. No good to anyone.
//Carter fell in a shower of her own blood, so stunned she didn't even cry out. Her body thudded like a heavy sandbag onto the marble floor. Daniel lunged in front of her, twisting to face the door. The archaeologist had his eyes pinned directly on Jack's face, fear unmistakable, as he also crumpled. Too late. He and Teal'c were only seconds too late.//
Violently shoving his chair away from the desk, Jack rolled the length of his office. The chair smacked against the bookcase behind him, toppling his stack of National Geographics onto the floor. It hadn't been his fault. He couldn't have known. Hell, none of them had suspected a thing. Daniel hadn't been worried at all, why should Jack have been? The archaeologist served as cultural liaison in first contact situations, not him. Not him. Not his fault.
What was he doing? Blaming Daniel? Daniel, who was lying in the infirmary, quite possibly on his deathbed? What the hell was wrong with him?
Jack suddenly knew he shouldn't be in his office. He should be in the infirmary, serving his penance and atoning for the sins no inner lie would pardon. Watching as two of his team slowly gave in to death. He stared at his hands, folded innocently in his lap and noticed the blood still trapped beneath his fingernails. He wasn't so sure it would ever go away. Not this time. Not if they died. His hands were not innocent; it was time he stopped trying to tell himself they were. Time to stop cowering, blaming, lying and turning into someone he couldn't live with. Carter and Daniel deserved better than that.
"It was not your fault, O'Neill." Startled, Jack shot his head up to find Teal'c standing in his doorway, watching him with sorrowful eyes. Oh, God. Sorrowful. That meant... It couldn't. He held his breath and searched the Jaffa's face for any sign. "Major Carter and Daniel Jackson will live."
Jack abruptly stood, letting out a long, relieved huff of air. Stiff with dried blood, the fabric of his uniform scraped along his skin. Inexplicably angry, he glared at Teal'c and shoved his hands out in front of him to display the truth of his guilt. The truth he now understood he'd purposely left unwashed following the chaotic minutes - hours - since their return. He had endured the shocked stares of the non-comms, the horrified looks in their eyes. The same look that had set upon General Hammond's face the instant he'd seen them tumble back through the Stargate. It had held the entire duration of the debriefing. The pity and understanding had turned his stomach more than the coppery scent of Carter's blood. Had condemned him just as unquestionably.
"How can you be so sure?"
"That they will live, or that it was not your fault?"
"Both."
"They are strong, and we were expedient in returning to the SGC. Doctor Fraiser believes their injuries are repairable," Teal'c calmly stated. "It was no more your fault than mine."
"It was so obvious, Teal'c. I should have seen it sooner."
"If that were true, would we not have determined immediate return to the SGC was necessary? I also saw no cause for alarm until we separated from Major Carter and Daniel Jackson."
"And by then it was already too late," Jack murmured, closing his eyes.
"Yes."
Something in Teal'c's tone made his heart beat faster. The single word answer was simultaneously calm and charged with anger. He opened his eyes to find himself staring once again into a sorrowful...regretful gaze. In that moment, he realized with a start that the other man was going through the same cycle of recrimination and remorse as he. He scanned his friend's appearance, shocked to find Teal'c was still in his ruined uniform as well. That his hands were rusty with dried blood. They were both wearing their guilt for all to see, though the intent was only to remind themselves. Some gruesome scarlet letter.
He felt a pang and moved closer to his friend, wanting to show his understanding and maybe give some comfort. The Jaffa instantly moved two steps back into the corridor, remaining out of reach. Disappointed but not surprised at the unspoken rejection, he slumped his shoulders. He couldn't offer Teal'c comfort any easier than Teal'c could comfort him. Nothing or no one could. Jack glared at the bottle of deep amber liquor on his desk as if it were an accomplice in his plan to escape into it.
"Have you seen them?" he hoarsely asked, the sour aftertaste of whiskey now threatening to choke him.
"I have. Your absence in the infirmary has been noticed, O'Neill."
Jack cringed at the reminder he was failing in his unwritten duties as team leader and friend. The pseudo escape into his office was only delaying the inevitable. He had to be there, had to see for himself that Daniel and Carter were still alive and that they'd remain that way. It felt as though he was lying to himself regarding their fate, as well as his hand in it. Had to see their eyes...their blue eyes...open again. Shit. Even if they lived, it would be weeks until they'd be classified as anything near fit. He wanted to believe that was going to happen.
"They're awake?" He couldn't keep the hope out of his voice. If they were already awake, then their injuries weren't as bad as they'd looked. Right? The conflict between belief and disbelief warred within him, almost physically real. His body couldn't keep up with the shifts his mind easily made, and he leaned heavily on the doorframe for a moment.
"No," Teal'c clarified. "Doctor Fraiser said it would be some time. It is she who misses you, though I doubt she would admit this."
"Well, I wouldn't want to let her down. Lead the way," Jack said, putting as much positivity in his voice as he could. Another subtle mistruth. Lies were so easy to tell - so hard to truly believe.
Teal'c immediately began walking away from him, and Jack found himself following behind as if he were being pulled in the Jaffa's wake. Just like back on the planet, always one step behind. On the outside edges of awareness, he could sense the stares of passersby. He tried to ignore them, but failed. Without the bottle or office to hide in, he let his mind wander, needing numbness. Receiving a flashback to the previous hours.
//There was something niggling at the back of his mind. Jack set down his fork, suddenly too preoccupied to eat. The natives had been nothing but congenial, welcoming him and Teal'c with open arms. Losing track of the conversation, he studied his companions. They were a pleasant group, laughing and joking throughout the course of the meal. But there was something.
And then a terrible feeling crept into his veins. It was the exact same feeling he'd had on Euronda when he realized the people SG1 were helping were the equivalent of the Nazis on Earth. Startled, he swiftly pinpointed the qualifying factor he and Teal'c had that Carter and Daniel did not. It was completely transparent to him when he knew to look for it.
The eyes.
Every single pair of eyes staring back at him was dark hazel or brown, not a blue or green in the bunch. Prejudice seemed to litter the universe without discretion, a characteristic apparently not limited to humankind. Time and time again they ran into civilizations fractured by some unwritten division of their people. Jack should be completely cognizant of the warning signs by now. He sure as hell was when it came to skin color and certain gold tattoos. Shouldn't be taken by surprise at the triviality of the root of this particular bias. Yet he'd missed it.
Back at the 'gate, when the natives had greeted them he hadn't noticed any difference in treatment between him and Teal'c as compared to Daniel and Carter. The people had looked upon them all with open curiosity, no hint of malevolence coloring their features. Thinking on it in retrospect, Jack thought perhaps he had misread the expressions, seeing fear or dislike as something more benign. And now he could see how his dismissal of his two scientists might have been interpreted in a couple of different ways. Uncaring. Disregardful. As if he thought Carter and Daniel were not worth his time. The terrible feeling notched up to become outright panic. How could he have been so stupid? Jack knew without a doubt he needed to find his teammates, and he needed to find them immediately.
A subtly anxious look to Teal'c told him the other man had reached the same conclusion. Rising to his feet, he barely remembered to bow before addressing the chieftain, "Womazak, I hope you won't find this rude, but we're expected back through the Circle in a few minutes. Our leader will only allow a few hours away from our world. If you don't mind, we'll find our companions and be on our way."
"Was it not your intention to rid yourselves of the vile ones?" Womazak serenely inquired, lazing back in his chair. He did not seem to care about Jack's request for an early departure, speaking of Carter and Daniel as though they were the daily garbage. Jack clenched his jaw as the man continued, "I was indeed surprised to see brothers journeying with creatures such as they."
"On our world, they are servants." Jack desperately concocted a story, the words tripping out of his mouth quickly. He didn't know why, but he knew they didn't have much time. No, he knew why. The disdain in Womazak's voice was enough of a signal for a rapid departure. Vile ones. Vile. Carter. Daniel. "They are excellent servants; my household couldn't run without them. I thought only to give them a minor leave from their duties, as kind of a reward, which is why I sent them away."
"Servants? I suppose they might be deemed such." Womazak nodded, stroking his chin. His eyes narrowed slightly. "However, as this was not explained I cannot guarantee their continued safety."
Continued safety? Oh, crap. Carter and Daniel were out there with a multitude of probably hostile natives, armed only with an MP5 and a couple of nine mm handguns. Jack knew he was jumping to the conclusion that they'd be attacked outright, but he couldn't prevent his mind from taking that leap. They wouldn't have enough ammunition to defend themselves for long before they were overpowered. The expansive meeting hall seemed to close in on him, squeezing the air from his lungs. He had to get to them. Perhaps his fear was off base. If that were the case, he'd gladly live with the embarrassment as long as his teammates were fine. He had to know for sure.
"We will take our leave now," Teal'c abruptly cut in, bowing hastily and moving toward the exit.
Normally Jack would have lightheartedly checked his team member for usurping his role. Now he could only seem to trail along afterwards, his own possibly condemning words ringing in his ears. 'Oh, get out of my sight, you no good scientists!' He hadn't even said it with a customary flippant smile. God, had he actually said that? It didn't really even make sense. But it didn't matter that the words held no meaning to him or to Carter and Daniel. They might have been enough to make the natives believe he wanted them out of his sight forever. Dead. He picked up his pace, nearly jogging to the temple the scientists had wanted so badly to investigate.
Then explosive shots rang out and he was running.//
Lost in memory, Jack didn't notice Teal'c had stopped until he was plowing into the Jaffa's broad back. They had reached the infirmary without him even being aware. He mumbled an apology and backtracked a step, the aversion to entering the room resurging. He couldn't go in there and look at what he'd done. No - it wasn't his fault. Wearily wondering how many times he'd have to repeat that to himself, he sucked in a great lungful of air and brushed through the door. He really had to get a grip. He'd led many teams through many blown missions and he'd always been able to assuage the guilt inherent with being a team leader. The difficulty he was having in this case was alarming.
He straightened his back, instantly honing in on Carter and Daniel's motionless bodies, Jack was stunned when someone else's features superimposed on both of his fallen friends' faces. More than one image - many flicked quickly and changed, and he could only make out some of them. He knew them all. Brown. Stevens. Kawalsky. Cromwell. And the worst, the most damning of all - Charlie. All his fault. But not.
He couldn't add two more faces to that line up.
Jack stopped while he was still ten feet away from their adjacent beds, watching the flurry of people and monitors that seemed to beep too slowly. Afraid that if he went any closer he would do more harm. So he stood apart, unable or unwilling to stop looking at the waxy forms. He caught movement to his right, felt Teal'c's solid presence beside him. It didn't offer its usual comfort and reassurance. Mentally laughing at himself, he realized he shouldn't have expected it to.
"Doctor Fraiser has set up a chair between Major Carter and Daniel Jackson's beds, O'Neill."
Jack saw it; an object that shouldn't be needed any more than the two people lying so still shouldn't need medical attention. He refused to blink, waiting for someone to draw the curtain around them. To come out seconds later and tell him what he already knew. Dead. They were dead. Because of him. Not.
He heard himself say, "I'm good here."
A thundering, repetitious echo resounded in his ears, the noise seeming to get closer and louder. Still he didn't blink or move. Couldn't. They hadn't closed off his friends from his view yet. That had to be a good sign. Strange warmth and pressure spread on his forearm, and Jack automatically jerked his arm in attempt to fling whatever it was off. He was oddly discomfited when it actually did disappear.
"Easy, Colonel," Doctor Fraiser soothed, suddenly insinuating herself directly in his line of sight. "Why don't you go use our shower? You need a little cleaning up. You too, Teal'c."
"That would be most appreciated, Doctor Fraiser."
"No."
"No, sir?"
"No. Now that I'm here, I'm not leaving," Jack declared, finally shaking the trance he'd been in. Ashamed that it had taken him so long to face the physical representations of his guilt, he stubbornly refused to go backwards. Daniel and Carter deserved better than his cowardice. "Tell me the truth, Doc. How are they?"
"Well, Major Carter was struck by three bullets, one in her - "
"Damnit, I know what happened to them! I was there!" he interrupted, throat searing at the force of his voice.
//Legs pumping faster and harder than they had in years, Jack caught up to and ran in stride with Teal'c. So far there had only been one round of fire, and he hoped it had come from Carter; a warning to fend off the definitely unfriendly natives. He couldn't allow it to be anything else, even in his own mind. The temple grew larger as they rapidly approached it, a throng of excited people visible. Too many people. He was shoving and elbowing them without compunction, focusing only on reaching his team. Stopping their deaths. Though he had no firm proof such a thing was happening, he knew. He should have seen.
The shouts of the people became more boisterous as he and Teal'c neared the wide, double-doored entrance to the building. He could hear them issuing insults and curses upon the evil occupants, threatening to do horrible things to the unwanted, vile ones. Biting back his own responding curses, he struggled through the increasingly thick crowd. Jack shoved a particularly vocal man with extra force, satisfied when the man fell and took several others with him. His satisfaction lessened as he raced up the stairs, hearing a familiar voice joining the litany of accusation and condemnation of the natives.
He stilled his breathing as he caught Daniel's words, urgency and fear unrestrained. "Oh, God. Sam, they think we're...we have to get out of here now. Please, you don't understand. If we could just...our friends can explain!"
The pent-up air released in a rush as gunfire replaced the archaeologist's words, short bursts of semi-automatic efficiency. He stumbled and righted himself quickly, tripping through the crowd and the door at last. And saw Carter falling in a shower of her own blood, so stunned she didn't even cry out.
"Carter!" he screamed, shooting fleeting looks at the angry natives surrounding his teammates in a half circle. Several lay on the floor, wounded but not dead. They'd managed to disarm his friends and held them in the center of the temple. Defenseless against the irrational fury. His voice sounded warped in his ears. "Daniel!"
His 2IC's body thudded like a heavy sandbag onto the marble floor. Daniel lunged in front of Carter, spinning to catch Jack's eyes. The archaeologist looked shell-shocked, eyes huge and mouth open in an unintelligible shout. He watched as the younger man jolted repeatedly, gaze never leaving Jack's face. Saw the fear. Saw the regret. Saw the blood. Too late. He and Teal'c were only seconds too late.
Morbidly frozen, he could only stare as Daniel fell, sprawling on top of Carter's legs. Beside him, Teal'c swore under his breath and activated his staff weapon, firing it at the ceiling. Jack wanted him to open fire on the people milling around his dying...or dead friends. To seek retribution for their deaths, though he strangely didn't blame the people as much as he blamed himself. Instead, the people squealed and scattered like mice, losing whatever mockery of courage they had possessed only seconds before. Jack heard Teal'c shouting something at the crowd and the discharge of the staff weapon but he paid no attention, stumbling to his wounded teammates. He fell to his knees at their sides, hand automatically searching for Carter's pulse. Faint. Growing weaker.
Daniel shifted with a moan, and Jack turned to find blue eyes still pinned on him, glassy and dilated with shock. Blood trickled from the corner of the archaeologist's mouth as he whispered, "Sam?"
"Don't try to talk, Danny. We're getting out of here. Teal'c!" Jack yelled, voice cracking with emotion he was trying to lock away. There wasn't time for it. He reached a hand out, brushing the blood off of Daniel's face. It smeared grotesquely across the younger man's chin, and Jack winced. He could still hear Teal'c roaring with anger and beyond that the faint wheezes from Carter. He cupped Daniel's cheek, the harsh gusts of air on his fingers made the urgency even greater. Dying. They were dying right in front of him. "Hang on, Daniel. Please. Please."
"I will carry Daniel Jackson. We must hurry."
Jack held back a gag as Teal'c gently lifted Daniel away from him, causing the younger man to groan. Choosing to carry Carter in his arms rather than in the fireman's hold, he scooped her easily off of the floor. There was too much blood; it soaked through his uniform and burned into his skin, branding him. Marking him forever.
He ran.//
"Yes, sir. Of course you were," the doctor replied, visibly flustered by his outburst.
"I was there," Jack repeated more softly.
"The good news is that neither of them sustained major injuries to any of their vital organs. I'd say that qualifies as a miracle given the proximity and power of the weapon used. Even if the natives were unaccustomed to the firearm, I would have expected worse. Doctor Jackson's spleen was either nicked or residual jostling caused some damage but it is not as such that he won't make a full recovery. Removal does not appear necessary. Major Carter had injuries to her right kidney and lung but we've managed to stabilize her."
Jack blinked. He wasn't sure if Fraiser was being completely honest, though he had never known her to be anything other than forthcoming. If he heard her correctly, she was saying Carter and Daniel were going to be all right. Eventually. It didn't make him feel any better. He waited for the other shoe to drop, for the but that always came after statements like that.
"However, they've both lost dangerous amounts of blood. They're still in critical condition, and I'm keeping them under close observation for signs of infection. I won't upgrade them for at least twelve hours," Doctor Fraiser said with a tired smile. He tore his eyes away from her and looked at Carter and Daniel. So still. "I'd think about my offer, Colonel. You don't want them seeing you like that, do you?"
"I will ensure O'Neill takes proper care of himself, Doctor Fraiser. Thank you," Teal'c rumbled.
Ignoring the comment that would typically have rubbed him the wrong way, Jack stepped around the small woman. He was again stopped by the placement of her hand on his forearm. Glancing down into worried brown eyes, he paused as she said, "For what it's worth, Colonel, this wasn't your fault. If anything, your and Teal'c's quick return saved their lives."
There it was. The sympathetic lie he was waiting for. He'd heard far too many of those in his life to give any credence to it. He'd told too many, both to himself and others. Looking at Carter, his son's face reasserted itself over hers. He'd told himself time and time again that Charlie's death had been the result of a freak occurrence, an accident. Sara had said she didn't blame him, that it could have happened to anyone. A lie. He knew. Even if no one was going to die here, the lie did not become less of one. Nor did it become any truer.
Jack barked out a laugh at the incongruity and shook his head. He brushed by the doctor, carefully avoiding direct eye contact with her. Even so, he could tell she was distraught at his reaction and wanted to keep on the subject. A deep rumble from Teal'c made her stop, leaving him alone to walk to his friends' bedsides.
"I will cleanse myself and find suitable clothing then I will be back, O'Neill," Teal'c announced from directly behind his chair. He didn't move at the words, managing to wave his left hand in the air. It looked as though his Jaffa friend was going to be able to move on. He wasn't ready to do that quite yet.
Haunted by the immobile faces of his friends, Jack simply sat and stared. The infirmary was abuzz with activity but he heard none of it as he allowed his mind to go numb at last. To escape for just a little while now that he knew they were going to live. He couldn't even allow himself to feel happy at the news, wouldn't be able to until he knew for certain. Until they opened their eyes and looked at him. As if that magic event would erase everything. The need was irrational, but he couldn't seem to focus on anything else. Just the eyes, that's all he needed.
Part of him realized he had grown dangerously close to his team, one of the primary reasons this was hitting him so hard. It was a mistake Jack had often made with his fellow soldiers; almost had had to make in order to still consider himself even remotely human. In the past, though, death had been much easier to justify and delineate as 'in the line of duty'. He had no idea when his own line had become so blurred, and didn't know if he could go back now. He didn't think so, but he could tell himself he could. It was just a different kind of lie.
"You should take the opportunity to refresh yourself, O'Neill."
Teal'c's return was so quick, Jack jumped at the nearness of the deep voice. He followed the sound, locating the other man on the opposite side of Carter's bed, in a clean uniform. Looking down at his own clothing, he knew he should do just that. Finally dispose of the soiled garments he'd forced himself to keep on. He shook his head. He couldn't.
"Not yet."
"It was not your fault, O'Neill."
"You keep saying that! Everyone keeps saying that. Do you think it helps? Does telling yourself the same thing make you stop believing your own guilt?" Jack shouted, half rising out of his chair. He winced when neither Daniel nor Carter reacted.
There was a long pause, filled only by the rhythmic beeping of the machines helping his friends stay alive. Jack snapped his head up in time to see multiple expressions wrestling for dominance on Teal'c's face, and knew he looked exactly like his Jaffa friend. He furrowed his eyebrows in apology. It wasn't Teal'c's fault. God, there was the lie again. It *wasn't* Teal'c's fault, but he doubted very much that his friend would agree with that. Guilt was a vicious cycle.
"It does not," Teal'c admitted, tilting his head to the right.
"Me either. Yet I keep doing it." Jack nodded and softened his tone. At last he found a modicum of comfort in knowing Teal'c really did understand what he was going through. He hoped he could provide the same, or that Teal'c would at least let him try. "When my kid died, people kept repeating that to me. Over and over and over. But I couldn't help but think the whole world blamed me for what happened to him. I blame myself; always will. People seem to think that by telling someone it's okay when it's really not, they're doing a person a favor when all they're really accomplishing is making things worse, you know?"
"But things will be okay in this instance, O'Neill. Should we not attempt to release our burdens of guilt in favor of celebrating the lives of our friends?" Teal'c logically stated, though Jack wasn't sure he heard belief in the tone.
"I will if you will."
Teal'c paused again, as if pondering that proposition. After a minute, he raised one of his eyebrows and looked grimly at Jack. He saw the good intentions in the Jaffa's eyes, beneath the guilt still pervasively stopping any other emotion from coming all the way to the surface.
"It is not so easy."
"No, it's not," Jack whispered. He rubbed a red-tinged hand down his face. "No amount of rejoicing will ever erase the fact that I missed a blatant sign that something was not right. It could have killed them, Teal'c. I could have killed them."
"I believe when they awaken, Major Carter and Daniel Jackson will think differently. They will likely find blame only in themselves."
"Yeah, we're quite a bunch, aren't we?" Jack laughed, knowing what Teal'c said was true. All they could do was help each other stay afloat in the sea of guilt. "Never a group of people so ready to confess to their own sins. Whether valid or not."
They fell into silence again, though now Jack did not find it as oppressive. While he could never forgive himself for almost getting Carter and Daniel killed - regardless of his actual culpability in the fact - he could be glad they were still alive. The lies would continue, Jack knew. He'd never shake the guilt, and he'd never shake the closeness of his team. Jack knew the lie of non-guilt he was using today might someday lead to a deeper lie, and that his three 'kids' might join the list of people he'd gotten killed. Until that time, he would snatch moments of false security to help himself stay human. Lie to himself and others when it was necessary. Pray the day would be long in coming that he'd have to say goodbye to his friends.
It was all he could do.
The End

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Disclaimer: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. This is a parody for entertainment purposes only. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. This story may not be posted anywhere without the consent of the author.