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Happy Birthday Pepper!

Happy birthday to pepper_field! I come bearing Jack/Sara. Mind you it's not frothy, fluffy, happy bunny, sweetness-and-light Jack/Sara, appropriate to birthday cheer. My mind just won't seem to quite go there with those two. I guess it's 'cause I know how it all turned out. But I tried, and unlike some of my other birthday victims honorees, this one is actually arriving on the birthday, as opposed to days months late! And the ending is cheerful. Promise!

Title: In the Valley of Shadow [See! Doesn't that just fill you with birthday cheer already?]
Season: Pre-series, Post-Iraq
Spoilers: Jack went to Iraq. He did not have fun. This is not exactly a news flash.
Warnings: Umm...I don't think so. No wait! There's a dead baby [Moar birthday cheer!]
Synopsis: Jack may be home, but his head's not in the game.

In the Valley of the Shadow

Jack passed a somewhat shaky hand through sweat-spiked hair, leaving it even messier than before and reached for his cover which was sitting in the passenger seat of the Jeep. He was torn between rushing inside the house, and availing himself of the earliest opportunity to rid himself of the hated Class A’s, and the desire to go and hide himself away in some hole somewhere to lick his wounds. Sara would be inside, and she would want to know how his session had gone. She knew him too well. She would know something was wrong.

The session with the shrink, the first one that he had been deemed well enough to drive himself to, had been okay, as these things went. The doc had asked his bland and open-ended questions, and Jack had told him what he wanted to hear. The Iraqis had been unpleasant, and Jack had parceled out instances and instruments, spicing it with just enough shocking detail that the doc had thought he was hearing the bad stuff (he wasn’t), and then Jack had waited for the unavoidable questions about how that had made him feel. He told the doc that it hurt (duh!). The doc asked the same question, specifying that Jack needed to tell him his emotions, not his sensations. Jack was silent. The doc was silent. Jack had already been interrogated by experts. He didn’t break, even under the threat of being kept from active duty. In the end it was the shrink who had broken, listing emotions, one by one, and Jack answered yes or no, depending on what he thought the man wanted to hear. Yes to “angry”, “ashamed”, and “scared”. No to “powerless”, “despairing”, and “defeated”. Adjective after adjective had gone by, including “aroused”, which was just plain disturbing. The fact that the doc came up with that one confirmed Jack’s conviction that the man needed his own services more than Jack did, but saying so would just prolong the tedium, so Jack just settled for answering with a “No” that came a shade more swiftly. He was careful not to add any extra emphasis. Psychiatrists alerted like birddogs to any whiff of the possibility of denial he knew, and that would not do.

The problem had been on the way home. He’d just stopped at the 7-Eleven out on Route 40 to pick up another carton of smokes. He’d been promising Sara for years that he’d quit, but he needed something to do with his hands, to hide the tremor that kept creeping in when he ran across one of his triggers, and it wasn’t as if she had quit yet herself. A simple errand, one he’d been running without incident for years, in a store that was getting to be almost as familiar as the Bait and Tackle shop near the cabin in Minnesota. He’d picked up a bottle of pop, and was heading for the counter to get the smokes, when he’d run across the mother of all triggers, a male voice, just around the corner, speaking in Arabic. What a picture of valor he must have made; six foot something of red-blooded American Hero in Class A’s sporting all his decorations, trying to hide behind a four-foot pyramidal display case of “I skied Winter Park” travel mugs. Hiding out from what turned out to be a teenage boy, calling out to his mother and sister in the aisle behind him. He’d pretended to pick up his lighter from the floor, thrown a couple of bucks at the worn and grizzled attendant, and hustled out the door without the cigs. Moments later, behind the dumpster out back, he was rather violently without the remains of his lunch too. Guess he’d be getting his coffin nails at the Shop & Save from now on.

Jack ran his fingers aimlessly around the leather band inside the hat, and then began feeling the raised decoration on the brim and crown, as if they were a message in Braille. He sighed, ran his left hand once again through his hair, and having made his decision, pushed the door open and unfolded his long frame from within. Pocketing his keys, and reflexively donning his cover for the short distance to the front door, he went to face the music. At least Charlie was still at school.

Once in the door he tossed his hat on the table by the door, and slung his jacket over the bottom of the banister, tucking the hated tie in one of the pockets, where it hung out like a long blue tongue. He toed off his dress shoes without bothering to untie them, and headed towards the kitchen in response to Sara’s call of “Jack? I’m in here!” unbuttoning the top buttons of his dress shirt, and starting to undo the sleeves to roll them up as he went.

Something in the kitchen smelled wonderful, and Jack was betting that whatever it was lay in the metal bowl on the counter by Sara’s side with its contents surrounded by a clean hand towel. He stepped behind Sara and wrapped one hand around her waist, reaching with the other to lift a corner of the hand towel and investigate. She slapped his hand away before he could make his move.

“Leave that alone or there is no way the muffins will still be warm when Charlie gets home.”

“But I’m starving nowww!” Jack whined. As she turned around to face him, he fixed her with his most piteous puppy-dog eyes. One of Sara’s muffins was worth begging for, and Jack had never seen the point of delayed gratification when it came to food.

Her initial glance was impatient, but as she took in his cheekbones, still too sharp in his face, and the still attenuated muscles of his forearms, worry chased swiftly through the large blue eyes, followed by indulgent fondness. If Jack noticed that the accompanying smile was a little forced, he did not pursue it. He hated her instinctive and unstoppable reaction to the way he looked now. She hid it swiftly, and he was grateful for that, but nevertheless he took great pains to change in the bathroom, in private, and had taken to wearing sweats and a t-shirt to bed, instead of just stripping down to his boxers as was his previous custom. Neither of them had made a move to initiate intimacy yet. Jack was afraid of seeing revulsion in her eyes at what he had become, and Sara…well, there was that other thing that they didn’t talk about, the giant elephant in the bedroom, but he’d be damned if he’d ask if she wasn’t going to bring it up.

Turning back to the cabinet, Sara pulled out two small plates, and plunging her hand into the towel, emerged with three muffins, two for Jack, and one for herself. Jack could see now that they were blueberry, and retrieving a knife from the silverware drawer, he then went to the fridge in search of butter. Settling for a tub of margarine, he took them over to the breakfast nook, where Sara had put the two plates and two mugs of coffee on the table, and was waiting for him. He slid into the bench across from her, and began industriously buttering, well margarine-ing really, the first of his muffins, trying to avoid the searching blue eyes that were fixed upon him.

He heard a little sigh.

“How did it go with Dr. Kettering?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“Okay. He asked me how it felt.”

“And you answered?” Her tone was dry and slightly incredulous.

“Not until he made it multiple choice,” said Jack, around a particularly enthusiastic bite of muffin. The transient nature of his lunch had left him hungrier than he had expected.

Sara’s smile was once again fond and indulgent.

“Of course you didn’t,” she said, and she reached out to quickly pat his free hand as it rested on the knife. Sliding the knife free, she began to spread margarine on her own muffin.

“Still,” she offered, “you look tired.”

“I’m okay,” Jack insisted.

Silence fell. Sara got up to fetch the milk and some sugar for her coffee, and after that the stirring seemed to go on, and on, and began to get on Jack’s nerves. Finally he could take it no more. Snake-quick he stretched out a hand to grab hers and stop its endless circuit around the rim of the mug.

“It’s mixed!” he snapped with a dark glare.

Her eyes slid from alarm into sorrow.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Jack continued to glare, but this time his expression reflected his feelings about his own actions. He was trying so hard to find normal again, but everywhere he turned anger and impatience poured out of him. He knew the old Jack would not have done that. The old Jack was often eager, but seldom impatient without cause. The old Jack felt deeply, but not with this new and frightening volatility. There was an anger in Jack now, an immense and simmering magma pit of rage, just waiting to build and blow. It terrified him, and still more frightening was the possibility that it would erupt all over those he loved, the people whose safety and happiness lay in his hands, Sara and Charlie. It was just a small and annoying noise, but Jack could still see the mark of his fingers on her wrist, and he’d seen her alarm and sorrow in her eyes, eyes that were now filling with tears. Jack loathed himself just now, and rose to leave, not knowing where he would go, other than out and away.

This time it was Sara’s hand that shot out, grabbing Jack by the hand.

“No, don’t go!” she said, tugging him down. “I’m sorry. Just don’t look at me like that! It’s my fault. I should have told you when you first got home. But you looked…well, I just couldn’t. I’m so sorry.”

Now Jack was confused. He lost his temper over a triviality, and it was her fault? Surely it was his actions that were inappropriate? He seemed to have lost all sense for what he should be feeling at any given moment, and he was beset with sudden storms of anger and lightning bolts of terror could ambush him in the most ordinary of places, but it didn’t seem right that Sara had done anything to apologize for in this. He looked across at her thick blonde hair, since her face was now bent towards the table top, hiding herself from him, and struggled to figure this out.

“You’re sorry?” he said, “Why?”

A tear splashed down on the wood surface of the table.

“I lost our baby. Our little girl.” Her voice was thick with pain, and so quiet he could hardly hear it.

Oh. That. The elephant. The pregnancy that Sara had written about, that had somehow disappeared in the five months he was away. The one whose absence was never mentioned or explained. Suddenly Jack could not bear to be separated from Sara by the hard bulk of the table. He stood, keeping her hand in his, and moved around the end of the table to slide in the other bench beside her. He slid his near arm over her shoulders, and gathered her in.

“C’m’ere,” he said, and she let go of his hand and turned to throw her arms around him, and bury her head in his chest. They sat like that for several minutes, while Jack cupped the back of her head in one hand, and rubbed soothing circles on her back with the other. This felt right, felt familiar. This was something the old Jack would do. Finally, the table digging into her lower back became noticeable, and Sara pulled away to face forward again, but remaining under the shelter of Jack’s arm.

“Tell me about it,” he said his own voice strained and rough.

“When you were first captured, two men came to the house. I saw them on their way up to the door. They were in their dress blues, and before they even got to the door, I knew why they were there. I couldn’t get my breath. I could hardly walk, my knees were so wobbly, and it took me forever to figure out how to use the knob and open the door. They were gentle. They tried to help soften the blow, but I knew, I already knew. They said you had died, shot behind enemy lines. They said that your team had been unable to retrieve your body, that if they had, others would have died. Maybe after the war…maybe then you could be returned. They had to tell me over and over. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. No matter how many gasping lungfuls I sucked in, I couldn’t get enough. The tall one got me water. The short one asked me if there was anyone they could call, and I couldn’t swallow, and I couldn’t get the words out. And then there was pain – cramping – and blood, and they called an ambulance, but it was too late. Too late. I miscarried. They told me it was a little girl. That we will probably never know why. Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it would have happened anyway. They had to do a procedure, a D&C to make sure there was nothing left behind. They told me that with me being in my forties, that they couldn’t guarantee… that I might not ever…that Charlie might be…Oh, Jack, I’m so sorry!”

He crushed her to him, and buried his nose in her neck, holding on as hard as he had held on to Frank Cromwell’s promise that no man would be left behind for those first few weeks. But just as his faith had gradually slipped away, eventually his hold loosened, and he sat up and gathered Sara’s jaw between his two large, corded hands, and drew her face up so he could see her eyes, and she could see his.

“Not your fault,” he said, willing her to see it, his eyes dark, intense, and riveted to her own. “That bastard Frank left me for dead. I watched the chopper take off, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do. I tried. I couldn’t push myself up. I couldn’t shout. The Iraqis surrounded me. I waited for the chopper to come back, for the guns to take out the Iraqi soldiers, but it just kept getting smaller, and smaller, and…”

He pulled her in to his chest again.

“It’s that bastard’s fault. He said ‘No man left behind’ and he lied.”

Suddenly trying to hug his wife in the small space between the bench and the table struck Jack as ridiculous. He surged to his feet, and pulled her with him, and at last they could be in each other’s arms with no interfering furniture, just the two of them, overrun with sensation, drinking in each others’ familiar scents, she feeling the slight scratchiness of his cheek on her neck, his face surrounded by the bright fall of her thick blonde hair, both hearing and feeling each other’s deep gasping breaths.

Finally Jack straightened up, and putting his right hand to the side of Sara’s face, he rubbed away a tear with his thumb.

“Charlie’s a great kid,” he said.

“Yeah,” she smiled.

“If he’s all we ever get…”

“Then we’re still lucky,” she finished.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

“Maybe we’ll get him to bed a little early tonight,” she offered.

“It’s not a school night. Any chance he’d be able to wangle an invite to sleep over at Jeff Eisen’s?”

“You know, stranger things have happened. Marcy mentioned just the other day that they wouldn’t mind having Charlie over some night to give us some time alone. Maybe I should see if she would be up for that.”

“Maybe we should just get a neon sign for the garage door. ‘Jack O’Neill is home and screwing his wife!’”

Sara appeared to consider this for a moment.

“Nope,” she concluded. “It would make all the other women jealous, and you’d just get even more cocky than ever, flyboy.”

Cocky. He remembered cocky. He could do that.

“Wouldn’t want old Mrs. Evans to be getting jealous! Or Gina Tomkins.”

He was grinning now. Sara thought it was the most beautiful thing she’d seen in months. She had really thought she might never see that again. She had to stop and clear her throat and wipe her eyes before she could reply, but her answering grin flashed wide.

“Mrs. Evans is eighty if she’s a day, and Tad Tomkins is a jealous guard dog of a husband. I’m gonna go call Marcy, and if she says yes, I intend to keep you too busy here to worry about them!”

“Yeah?” he said, with that endearing hint of vulnerability beneath the bravado that had first captured her attention, and later her heart.

“Yeahsureyoubetcha!” she said. After a month stationed in Saudi, four months in an Iraqi prison, four weeks in various hospitals, and thirty-six days here in their house, her Jack was finally home. Somewhere deep in her chest, the final knot around her heart finally dissolved, and at long last, there was joy.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 27th, 2010 12:17 pm (UTC)
Aw! *sniffle* For me? Thank you!

I love the comparison between old and new Jack, and how that differs from the Jack we know - the sorrows that have yet to be heaped on him (oh, Jack, Sara!), and how he changes to deal with the weight of it all. In particular the anger, which we saw a lot more of in early seasons, when something Really Bad happens - and at this point, it's all new, and he doesn't yet know how to handle it. It's so sad to see glimpses of the much more carefree person he once was.

And aw, poor Sara! Handling that on her own, with Jack MIA. But a sort of happy ending! *sticks fingers in ears and ignores everything to come*

Thank you so much! *hugs*
Apr. 27th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
You are very welcome, and Many Happy Returns of the Day!
Apr. 27th, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
Beautifully written as usual. Great characterizations. :)
Apr. 27th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I'm glad they worked for you.
Apr. 27th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
Can I just say "ditto" to pepper's fb? Because, wow. This was very lovely.
Apr. 27th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you so very much! :)
Apr. 28th, 2010 05:31 am (UTC)
This is so well done! Jack's voice is so right on throughout, and I love that even in the midst of very tough subjects, you still made me laugh a few times at his inner monologue. (Your notes above made me laugh, too)

I think the scene with the doctor is especially good, but really, the whole story is excellent.

Also, this gives me hope that you might not mind if your belated birthday fic doesn't come out all that fluffy? ;)
Apr. 28th, 2010 05:38 am (UTC)
When I was a kid, once or twice a year I would flip to the appendix section of The Lord of the Rings and read the story of Aragorn and Arwen, and cry for Arwen, parted forever from Aragorn by his mortal nature. On purpose. Good fic is good fic, and comes in a wide range of themes and moods, and it takes all kinds. Kind of like people.

Nope. Don't mind in the least.

I mean, if everyone dies pointlessly, and evil triumphs, it might be a bit of a bummer...

But pretty generally, I'm easy.
Apr. 29th, 2010 05:24 am (UTC)
Oh, this is beautiful. And painful. And beautiful.

I've always loved Sara's class. You portray it so wonderfully here. And a miscarriage, and tying it into Cromwell... ::shivers:: Another reason for Jack to be so bitter.

Thanks for linking me here - well worth it! :)
Apr. 29th, 2010 05:41 am (UTC)
Yeah, Sara is definitely a class act. She only appears for a short time in that one episode (and a very few moments in the movie, if you count that too) and yet she seems to emerge as a very complete and fully-formed character. I think a great deal of credit goes to Harley Jane Kozak, who brought a large amount of warmth and compassion to the role.

I'm so glad you enjoyed this!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )



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