14

Starting Over Part 2

He lay on the bed, one arm across his eyes as if to block out any visions he might have of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed scientist, who for the past three years had managed, against his wishes, to inveigle herself, through no fault of her own, into his heart. That is, until she had come for him on Edora and found him with Laira. And even then things might still have worked out if it hadn't been for his undercover work following almost immediately after, in which he had been forced to assume the identity of a traitor.

Unable to prevent a soft groan escaping his lips, he remembered the look she had given him when he had told her that he hadn't been himself since he'd met her. The hurt and confusion so naked in her eyes had torn at his senses but he had been forced to steel himself and appear impervious to her anguish. That day he had seen something die inside her but he had promised himself that, once the real traitors had been revealed, he would make it up to her, even if it meant acknowledging feelings which weren't altogether allowed in this man's U.S.A.F. He would reach deep inside her and find that piece which had withered before his very eyes and he would coax and nourish it back to life until it flourished once more.

God, what a fool he'd been. Living in hope. Didn't he know by now, that the word didn't apply to the world of Jack O'Neill? He snorted in disgust at his past naiveté.

He had been so vulnerably eager when he'd sauntered back through the gate, handing over the traitors to waiting S.F.s, ready to make the few token apologies in the face of what must surely be open admiration at his brilliant success. Teal'c had accepted the subterfuge amicably, finding no fault in Jack's undercover exploits, and although Daniel had shown his ire, his relief at having Jack back in the fold overshadowed his annoyance.

Jack recalled looking round the gate room searching for a pair of mesmerizing blue eyes and short blonde hair but he was to be disappointed.

"Where's Carter?" His question had been so open, so full of expectation and happiness, but Daniel's next words squeezed the energy from him, filling him with such menacing anger that it had taken both Teal'c and Daniel to physically hold him back, to prevent him going A.W.O.L. in his fervour to find Sam.

In the first days and weeks of his return to normal duty, he had spent every free moment of time attempting to trace her whereabouts, but as the weeks moved into months, he came to realize that her total withdrawal from him had been complete. She had chosen to cut him out of her life, just as it appeared he had her when he had requested that he was returning to Laira and his life on Edora.

Much later, he had heard she had taken up a lecturing post at one of the prestigious universities but by then the hurt, which had festered into anger, had turned again to an eradication of that which had originally caused him so much torment, and he was able to overhear the gossip of others in Cheyenne Mountain, when mention was made of Sam getting engaged, without having to rush to the bathroom to heave his very soul out. That he had got blindingly drunk that night had nothing to do with what he had overheard, he assured himself, though the look he caught Daniel throwing Teal'c as they had put him to bed made him cringe.

And now, NOW when he was impervious to her presence – or rather when he was able to ignore the fact that he could, if he so wished, actually go out and find her and chose not to do so – now she was here, here in his cabin – just a room away and, if he was correct, she was crying. Crying because of him.

Good – he rejoiced at her pain, gained strength from her tears, fed off her anguish.

Damn Daniel to hell, and Doc, too! What right had they to do this? Now? After all he had gone through to get her out of his system. And how dare she? She'd just walked out without a by your leave or a goodbye, Jack – no note, no telephone call – not that he could have got those, having been thought to be on Edora, but she could have left something. Didn't she know him well enough to know he'd be back? Apparently not.

A gentle tapping at his door brought him back to the present.

"O'Neill, there is a light meal prepared by Dr. Carter – it will be on the table in five minutes."

A childish need to hit out had him replying instantly, "Tell her I'm not -."

"Dr. Carter requested your presence, otherwise she informed me she would spoon feed you herself."

Jack blinked in surprise, taken aback.

"Tell her I'll -."

"I suggest you tell Dr. Carter yourself."

The meal was actually very good though Jack wasn't prepared to admit the fact – lasagne and a fresh salad – much better than what would have been on offer in the infirmary. He chose not to enter into the conversation; however, Teal'c seemed oblivious to his silence or simply chose to ignore it, addressing all his comments and questions to Sam.

"And how does your new profession suit you, Dr. Carter?"

Sam paused for a moment, giving careful consideration to the question, a small frown marring her features.

"It's challenging, Teal'c, but in a different way to what I did with you guys."

Jack, she couldn't fail to notice, kept his head down as if totally engrossed in the food he was poking around his plate.

"In what way, Dr. Carter?"

"The students are, from one point of view, incredibly naïve and yet so refreshing. They constantly come up with challenging ideas which make me stop and reassess my way of reasoning." Sam suddenly smiled apologetically, a little embarrassed that she had been carried away by the topic, ready to enter full flow into it.

Jack frowned, his thoughts much darker. 'Bullsh-! You can't compare getting to study off-world gizmos with teaching geeks. No way. You're lying through your teeth!'

He looked up at that moment, giving her a full blown glare, hoping she could read his thoughts and the cynicism burning in the depths of his eyes. It was the first real eye contact she had had with him and she read him loud and clear. Her own eyes narrowed at this silent attack.

"Nothing was real for me anymore, Teal'c." she continued, her voice hardening as she returned Jack's glare. "I needed to return to solid foundations and seek out what was important."

"And leave us to fight your battles," mumbled Jack under his breath, returning to scrutinize his food.

"What was that?" she snapped hotly.

Jack could feel Teal'c's disapproving stare and coloured slightly but he had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of.

Looking up, he faced Sam's dark look.

"I said I-"

"I think, O'Neill, you are tired," interrupted Teal'c fortuitously, eager to avert a conflict which he knew would only end in distress for both of his friends. He stood, blocking their views of each other at the table. Teal'c faced Jack, aware of the anger simmering, all too ready to erupt.

"O'Neill," his voice was a little sharp as he sought to break through the red film of Jack's anger. "The journey has sapped your strength. Dr. Fraiser insisted that you retire early. That time has now come."

Jack's eyes flared up to Teal'c's calm ones.

"If I'd wanted a nursemaid, I'd have asked for one!" His voice was so roughened it was more a growl than words, but for a second time Teal'c ignored him, placing a firm yet gentle hand on Jack's arm.

Teal'c felt muscles stiffen beneath his fingers for an instant but his face remained impassive and suddenly he felt Jack relax, the tension evaporating as quickly as it had come. He watched as the younger man rose carefully from his chair.

"It was a most delicious meal Dr. Carter. Is that not so, O'Neill?"

"Yeah, peachy." Jack's tone contradicted his words and Teal'c frowned at this display of ill manners.

'If you're going to play Carter's knight in shining armour, you'd better learn to get used to it,' Jack thought grimly as he limped away, only remembering at the last minute to turn to the door of his newly allocated room.

"Teal'c?" Jack could not hide his surprise when the Jaffa warrior followed him in to his room.

"Your medication, O'Neill. Dr. Fraiser insisted I observe you take it."

"Oh, for crying out loud!" The silver-haired man ran an irritated hand though his dishevelled hair, clearly perturbed.

"Do not distress yourself, O'Neill," Teal'c calmly admonished.

"I'm not distressed," he snapped in reply.

Teal'c raised one eyebrow, clearly aware of just what this Tauri was experiencing.

"I'm surprised she didn't ask you to check my mouth afterwards," he complained peevishly just before swallowing three different lots of tablets, and seeing Teal'c's expression, "Aw no, c'mon, you've got to be kidding?"

Teal'c's features were inscrutable but he made no move to leave the injured man's side until Jack snorted in disgust and opened wide his mouth, sticking out his tongue to show he wasn't hiding any pills which would later be spat out.

Satisfied now, Teal'c nodded and moved to the door.

"It is indeed a pleasing sight to have Dr. Carter in our midst, O'Neill."

Jack remained silent, finding the toe of his shoes of vital interest. Teal'c paused, his hand on the door handle.

"Do you not agree, O'Neill?"

Jack looked up, a slight frown playing on his brow. "Whatever you say, Teal'c," he muttered sulkily.

"It is not what I say that concerns me."

Again Jack's eyes shot up to try and read what was in his colleague's depths but Teal'c, like his CO, was a master at concealing any emotions he may have.

"Well that's too cryptic for me, T. Let's just say that you and I don't quite agree on this one." Then looking up he continued dryly, "I tell you what – if you're so happy to have her around, do me a favour and keep her off my back!"

Teal'c continued to stare at Jack, his black eyes unfathomable.

"I seem to recall a time when -."

"Don't go there, Teal'c!" Jack's face had darkened ominously, a myriad of emotions racing across his face.

Teal'c stood a moment longer, watching but saying nothing until, with a gentle incline of his head, he departed.

"Carter!" Heart racing frantically, Jack reared up out of the throes of a nightmare so real he had, for a moment, fought back demons with his bare hands, thrashing among the twisted bed covers as if his very life and that of his team depended on it. His own cries awoke him and he lay back gasping for air, exhausted by his black dreams, rubbing a hand over his eyes as if to block out the descending knife which was aimed at his 2IC's heart.

His eyes shot open and he pushed himself up, suddenly desperate for a drink. He ignored the glass of water at his bedside, knowing exactly what sort of drink his body craved.

He lay now on a sofa, cradling a good measure of Glendfiddich's finest Scotch, hoping this form of panacea would do the trick and ease the aching discomfort in his leg. It was beginning to go into spasm and he used his right hand to knead his thigh muscles in an attempt to ward off the increasing pain.

A thin coat of sweat covered his forehead and he ran the glass across his brow seeking comfort from the coolness before swallowing another mouthful, savouring the burning heat which travelled down to his vitals.

The spasms, however, began to grow more intense and he lay the glass down on the table using both hands to knead his injured leg.

He cursed himself for failing to return to his bedroom where painkillers were in a bedside drawer – now he couldn't; his leg was incapable of supporting him. He drew in sharp gasps of air through gritted teeth, a low moan escaping him as he began to rock backwards and forwards.

He considered calling out for Teal'c but stubborn pride and the possibility of Carter appearing compelled him to bite his lip and remain silent.

With trembling hand he reached for the glass, swigging back a great mouthful, wondering if he'd be able to crawl across the wooden floor.

God, the pain! It was almost unbearable as red hot pokers stabbed into his muscles. He tried putting the glass back on the table and cringed as he felt it slip from his fingers, the noise of shattering glass breaking the stillness of the night.

This time he groaned aloud. Shit! Shit! Shit!

Lights switched on and then came the sound of hurrying footsteps. He would have liked to have told them to go away and leave him in peace, but he was using every ounce of his willpower not to cry out.

He'd expected Teal'c to reach him first so was unprepared for Sam to be bending over him, trying to ascertain what was happening. She tried prising his hands away from his leg but Jack was unable to relax enough to allow it. In the back of his mind he was vaguely aware of her talking to him soothingly, explaining something he was incapable of taking in. She disappeared.

'Where the hell was Teal'c?' He was writhing in agony, his leg a throbbing mass of torment.

He felt an iron grip on his wrists and looked up with tormented anguish to see Teal'c's calm gaze on him as he pulled Jack's hands away from his leg whilst another hand came down pushing a syringe into his thigh. He stiffened and then almost immediately felt the relief of the medication as it worked directly on his contracting muscles to make them relax.

He let out a sob of relief and felt Teal'c's grip on him loosen.

Covering his face with his hands, he willed himself to some semblance of control whilst blocking out the concerned faces of the large Jaffa and the pyjama clad woman.

"'m okay," he whispered breathlessly. "Go back to your beds, I'll be fine now."

From the corner of his eye he could see Sam reaching down to the shattered pieces of glass, her nose wrinkling as the liquid's fumes reached her nostrils.

"I don't think alcohol and your meds make good companions, Colonel," she admonished softly.

"I don't think you and I make good companions either, Carter," he snapped back, his face appearing to be carved from stone. "So what are you going to do about it?"

Her pale face tightened as she snapped back, "I'm sorry, Colonel, but I made Janet and Daniel a promise that I'd see the next ten days through, no matter what. But let me tell you one thing – I'd like nothing better than to walk out of this cabin and never set eyes on you again. But I can wait – it's that thought, and that thought alone that's going to see me through all this. So, if you've finished, I'll return to my bed. I just hope you're ready for the morning's physio – late nights and heavy drinking won't get you a reprieve!"

And on that stern note she finished picking up the shards of glass and left him and Teal'c, nodding to the Jaffa as she retired once more.

Taking more effort than he'd expected, Jack finally got to his feet, testing to see if his injured leg would hold him. Teal'c made no move to assist, a fact which did not go unnoticed.

"You got a problem here, Teal'c?" he demanded roughly.

"I do not, O'Neill, but it appears you do." And without further ado, Teal'c left Jack standing, his words conveying his deep disapproval.

One of the stipulations Janet had made for agreeing to Jack's sojourn in the countryside was that he had to commence physiotherapy – nothing drastic, just some very gentle workouts, to get his muscles ready for the real thing which would start later, when his strength had improved. She had given Teal'c a few lessons on how to begin the regime and knowing exactly how much he was loath to undergo such exertions, she had insisted that Sam be present to ensure Teal'c did not allow Jack too much leeway in the face of whatever Jack would throw at him.

As it was, Jack presented himself on the lawn in front of the cabin at ten a.m. dressed in t-shirt and sweat pants, his expression conveying a clear message as to what he thought of the proceedings.

For the next half hour the stoic Jaffa coaxed, encouraged, ordered and gently bullied his charge, testing the muscles in O'Neill's leg and then working on the injured knee. At the end of the ordeal Jack was grey with exhaustion, covered in a thin film of sweat as if he had been for a swim. His injured leg trembled from the exertions it had been put through and he lay back on the grass waiting for the searing pain to ease and the mad racing of his heart to slow. And at last, his mind had also been allowed some respite, for when Teal'c had made more extreme demands on his weak body Jack's only release from the torture had been to curse the large man verbally. Unfortunately, Teal'c's sense of morals, whilst not in the least offended on his own behalf, found Jack's choice of colourful language unacceptable whilst Sam was in their midst. And bending low over the reclining patient, he had whispered a few choice words in Jack's ear.

"You will desist in this use of obscenities, O'Neill." His head turning to Sam who was observing them closely, and noting how well this advice had not been received, he continued. "Otherwise you will be required to take an immersion in your lake where I will proceed to cleanse your mouth with soap. I have read on good authority that this practice is uncommonly effective with young children and ill-tempered colonels."

Jack's startled gaze met the Jaffa's clear eyes and with a sinking heart the invalid knew all too well the dark-skinned warrior was not exaggerating the case.

With aggrieved eyes, Jack barely managed a curt nod, tight-lipped as he resumed following the softly spoken commands of the warrior who was taking his job of temporary physio very seriously. Groaning inwardly at the thought of the coming round of morning sessions, Jack's already dismal outlook grew bleaker still and he allowed his mind to curse with venom and fury.

The fact that he felt like death warmed up at the conclusion of the session merely served to raise his irritation level to new heights as he noticed Sam still watching him from a safe distance.

"This how you get your kicks now, Carter?" he demanded, his tone dripping with acid.

"Just obeying orders," she replied in a neutral voice. Dressed in blue jeans and grey t-shirt she looked fresh and … Jack refused to put words to what she looked like, it only served to make his mind go in a direction he had no intention of allowing it to go.

Feeling her eyes on him he glared up at her, but by the time he tried to catch her she had looked away.

"So how come your fiancé is letting you out of his sight for all this time, Carter?"

He laid still, his arm now covering his eyes, shielding them from the sun and from her looks. He waited. She didn't respond though she watched him carefully. He lowered his arm to check if she was still there.

"Cat got your tongue?"

She stared down into his brown eyes.

"Have I ever asked you about your relationships?"

"Nope."

Approaching and bending low, so her face was only inches from his, she ground out, "Then I suggest you offer me the same courtesy!"

He could smell the soap on her skin and felt his senses begin to rise. Hell, he'd be able to guess her brand of toothpaste if she came any closer.

She skewered him with an icy glare then retreated just as Teal'c reappeared to tell Jack that his bath was ready.

"Will you quit mothering me," he griped, "I know when to bathe and I was going to take a shower."

"The hot water and salts in the bath will help relax your aching muscles, O'Neill, and you are still not steady enough for the shower."

"Oh, for crying out loud!"

He pushed himself up, limping away, aware of Carter, with her rigid back to him, looking out over the lake.

In the late afternoon he had sat himself in the rocking chair that his grandmother had loved so much and which Charlie had spent hours playing on, lowering himself carefully as his knee protested the movement, and stared out over the lake, watching some geese coming in to land, their loud honking causing him no disturbance to the enveloping peace he felt surround him.

He watched the lights change and the sky's colour turn from a pale blue to one tinged with reds before the darker hues of blue encroached on the fading light.

By now only the outline of the trees was visible. He smiled to himself. Yes, trees – his cherished trees. Daniel would never believe he was fond of them. He grinned. But maybe that was the problem. These were his trees, any others reminded him of these, and this place. And all those other trees and other places weren't the same, no way were they the same. God, he was glad he'd persuaded Janet to let him come here. If it wasn't for… His mind veered off refusing to even put into silent words what needed to be said. And maybe that was the problem with her being here too, he realized. Her presence now just reminded him of what the last six months had been and what the coming months and years would be without her – HELL!

His eyes closed as he allowed his memory to relive past events when they had been a team, when each had counted on the other, relied on the other, believed in the other to see them through. Antarctica – the two of them together had survived an impossible situation – he felt himself shiver as memories of that frozen cavern raced back to him. Yet even with all the pain and misery, a touch of a smile passed over his features.

Feeling a blanket gently placed over him he frowned. Teal'c doing his mother hen routine.

"When are you gonna stop -." His eyes looked up into startled blue ones.

"I…I thought you were asleep."

"You thought wrong." But he didn't push the cover away.

"It's beautiful."

Jack didn't follow her gaze over the lake and trees, but kept his eyes on her until she turned back to him at which point he ducked his head to hide his expression.

"So, Carter…."

She suddenly had that wary look in her eyes.

'Am I that bad?' He gave an imperceptible shrug. 'Yep, guess so. Maybe I should lighten up on her. Or not!'

"Colonel?"

She was waiting. 'Guess she must have got over being pissed with me.'

"I was wondering -."

Her cell phone rang and with an apologetic look for the interruption she turned away to take the call.

There wasn't much to the conversation from Sam's side, just a lot of affirmatives but it was the tone that caught Jack's attention. It was full of excitement just as he remembered when she got to describing one of her experiments. She had a love of life he rarely saw in anybody else, or maybe he just wasn't interested in anybody else.

He frowned, annoyed with the route his mind was taking.

She terminated the call and, if Jack wasn't mistaken, she actually appeared breathless!

'What the hell was going on here?'

Her eyes radiated joy, the intensity so startling he was taken aback by its force.

'What, or rather who,' he thought grimly, 'could produce that reaction?'

"It looks like it's going to be just you and Teal'c for supper, Colonel."

"Oh?" he sounded abrupt.

"I've got to meet up with someone."

"Someone?" He couldn't help it. He knew he was sounding like a father vetting his daughter's options for going out on a date. 'Date? Why had that word come up?'

"Er, it's just that, well ..."

'Was she sounding evasive? Damn!'

Jack pushed himself out of the rocker with such force Sam had to jump back. His face had closed down on all emotion.

"What you do with your time's got nothing to do with me, Carter," he growled and limped past her. "At least it keeps you outta my hair!"

She watched as he entered the cabin, his back stiff, and his jaw tight.

'Uh oh – he's not a happy camper. Well, he's just going to have to put up without me.' And she grinned widely; rather pleased with the way she imagined Jack's thoughts were going. Let him think she was meeting someone for fun and enjoyment – it served him right!

And going to her room she made sure she dressed a little more carefully than she'd originally planned.

They were eating when she descended the stairs and though she noticed Jack kept his head down, his eyes fixed on his plate, she was certain he knew exactly what she was wearing down to her gold earrings and the colour of her lipstick.

Teal'c was as charming as Jack wasn't. "You are looking exceedingly elegant, Dr. Carter."

"Thank you, Teal'c."

Still no reaction from Jack.

"I presume we should not wait up for you?"

Sam beamed at the warrior. She couldn't have primed him to ask a better question.

"That's right Teal'c – I don't know what time or even if I'll be back tonight."

She enjoyed seeing the tightening of Jack's mouth as if he'd found something particularly unpleasant on his plate.

She knew full well she should be back well before midnight, but the medication Jack was required to take would have him in the world of the sandman long before that, so she could act out to her heart's content and have to suffer no recriminations.

'Let him stew in his own juices,' she thought none too kindly. 'Pay back's a bitch!'

"Bye guys."

She just hoped her expensive perfume lingered long enough to raise the torment level a factor or two.

He pushed his plate away the moment he heard her car draw away.

Teal'c looked at him without making any comment.

"Not hungry."

The Jaffa had been witness to enough of Jack's moods to understand he was now into a full blown tantrum and from experience he knew when to stay silent. This time, however, he chose not to.

"Your spirit is not at rest, O'Neill."

'Oh, great. Now Teal'c is taking on Daniel's role of spiritual inquisitor.' "I'm fine, Teal'c."

"Does this have any bearing on Dr. Carter going out?"

"No! I'm fine, I tell you," he snapped sharply.

"I think not. You are what they say 'a feline on a boiling metal top.'"

Jack frowned for a moment until it clicked.

"You mean 'cat on a hot tin roof'!"

Teal'c's expression remained neutral.

"That is what I said, O'Neill."

Jack shrugged – he wasn't in the mood for word games or the Jaffa's unusual sense of humour.

"I'm going for a walk."

"Is that wise?"

"Yes."

"Your knee -."

"I'll only go a short distance."

"I will accompany you."

"No offence, Teal'c but I'd prefer to be on my own."

Jack felt Teal'c's eyes assessing him as if considering whether it was wise to allow him to go and Jack could feel his blood begin to rise.

Pushing himself out of the chair, he strode purposely for the door, trying his hardest to eliminate his limp.

Ignoring the painful twinges in his leg, Jack walked towards the lake, shivering a little in the cool evening breeze. There was almost a hint of autumn in the air and as he walked towards the lake, following the water's edge, he peered at the trees to see if they could provide any clues as to the shift in season. He bent cautiously and then began skimming stones – an excellent excuse for stopping to rest.

He'd needed to get away from the cabin if only to escape the scent of her perfume. It did nothing but conjure up images which Jack was desperately trying to suppress.

He slashed violently at some reeds with a stick he had found earlier and which he'd been using to assist his walking. He wasn't one for introspection – action was his style and hobbling around with a stick, dependent on others, one to whom he most certainly didn't want to appear weak and incapable, grated on his sensibilities. He slashed again at the reeds and instantly froze when he heard what sounded like a faint whimpering. He listened intently, peering hard into the thick reeds which lay around this part of the lake, edging as close as he dared to the water's edge. The reeds extended far out in this area and rose taller than Jack's six feet two inch height in places.

No further sound. Just as he began to think he'd imagined it, the sound came again. It was something Jack, in his childhood, had become so familiar with – a beast in distress. As a boy he had rescued a cornucopia of animals and now he ran his hand through his short hair wondering just how he was going to solve this problem before him.

Go to Part 3