Scrubbing a hand over eyelids that felt like sandpaper, he popped the cap and let two of the tranquilizers fall into his palm. Swallowing them dry, he contemplated himself in the bathroom mirror. He saw a shadow of a man looking back at him. A wreck of a man. A lonely man.
His eyes were hollow, haunted, and empty. He was living from one day to the next, unable to plan ahead, because in all honesty, he could see no future for himself.
Turning away from the walking ghost that was Jack O'Neill, the Chief of the Colorado Springs Fire Department stumbled back to bed. He offered up a silent prayer to a God he no longer really believed in, to let his sleep be dreamless and for the nightmare to be kept at bay.
"Chief?" The voice that spoke from somewhere in the real world was insistent, strident even.
Jack was miles away, his mind a grey fuzzy haven from the worries of the day. He blinked back the sanctuary of a drug-induced euphoria and tried to focus on the face of Samantha Carter, his trusty second in command.
Concerned blue eyes gazed back at him from across the table. She smiled, but the warmth didn't reach her eyes. "Chief, I just fielded another call from Sarah. She wants to know if you'll be at the memorial service next month." The impatience in her voice wasn't lost on him. Fielding calls from his irate estranged wife was hardly part of Carter's job description.
Jack started at the Formica tabletop. He had no answer to give. It was his duty to be there, his responsibility to stand at his soon-to-be-ex-wife's side and say a final farewell to their son, but he knew he couldn't do it. He couldn't bear it. It was too soon. Charlie had only been gone two months.
Carter shifted uncomfortably in the orange plastic chair. "Sir... Jack? Maybe you should consider seeing someone...?"
He surprised even himself with the speed in which his anger rose. Bubbling to the surface like lava flowing under a thin crust, it burst forth, finding an outlet in angry words, words he didn't mean and wished immediately he could take back.
Carter hung her head, taking the verbal beating stoically, remaining silent through it all. When he ran out of words, she got to her feet, covering his clenched fists with her hand.
"You're right, it's none of my business. But Jack, I'm here if you need to talk, okay?"
With that, she left him alone to wonder why she even bothered. He was a mess. A worthless, useless, piece of shit. A piece of garbage, that couldn't even keep his son alive. What good was he?
He got to his feet, pulled on his jacket, and without a word to anyone, and walked out of the station.
Why had he gone there?
The hospital thrummed with activity. Nurses and doctors were going about their business, visitors were walking the corridors, there were buzzers going off, announcements being made over the P.A, and tinny music in the elevators. The smell was antiseptic, sanitary, and reminiscent of death. Why had he gone there, of all places? He had no memory of the trip over, had made no decision to go there, and yet there he stood. Directly in front of him was the door to the room where he had last seen Charlie.
The floor seemed to lurch alarmingly, and he clung to the doorframe for support. Worthless. Useless. A piece of shit. Let his son down. Supposed to be a good father. Couldn't make the marriage work. Supposed to be responsible. Supposed to be a man.
Tears prickled and burned behind eyes that had remained dry for too long. His heart was bursting, lungs burning with the effort of holding his breath. Breathing would have meant he was alive. He was still in this world, and his son was not, and that was just plain wrong.
He desperately held onto the doorframe, fingers digging into wood, nails scraping away paint, as he stared at the cold metal-framed single bed, trying to hold on to the last shred of sanity he possessed.
"You okay?" a quiet voice spoke from behind him. The voice was male, and it was strong, capable, and deep. He turned, his first glance taking in the pale shirt, unbuttoned at the throat, the unruly flop of brown hair, the gold-rimmed spectacles. A doctor? Maybe. He wore a hospital ID badge on his lapel, but Jack couldn't get his eyes to focus in order to read it.
The man reached out and gingerly took hold of Jack's elbow. "You should sit down," he suggested, and Jack found himself complying, handing over control of it all without hesitation. Yes, he needed to sit down. He needed to let go. The man guided him into the room and sat him down in a chair. Gulping in a lungful of air, Jack slumped forward, head buzzing, stomach roiling.
A faint spark of determination ignited deep in his gut, and with enormous effort he straightened and got his breathing under control, ruthlessly swiping at the wetness in the corners of his eyes. He stared at the neat, empty hospital bed and took a deep breath. "He's gone."
The man crouched down beside him, resting a comforting hand on his knee. He looked up into Jack's face. "You lost someone? I'm sorry to hear that." And he really did sound sorry.
Jack stared at the hand on his knee, registering the neatness of the fingernails, the length of the fingers. A surgeon maybe? Or a pianist? His eyes drifted back to the bed.
"Is there someone I can call? Someone who can come take you home?"
Jack dragged his eyes away from the awful, empty bed and focused on the bluest eyes he had ever seen. They were wide, full of caring and compassion.
"No, there's no one," he said flatly, lowering his gaze to his ringless finger. There was no one in Jack's life that mattered anymore. The man straightened.
"I'm Doctor Daniel Jackson. I work here at the hospital. I'm one of the resident psychologists."
Jack glanced back up, surprised that a man as young as this could hold such a position. He looked closely at the man's face, noticing the tiny wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and realizing that he was older than he first looked. Nodding, he extended his hand out of courtesy. "Jack O'Neill."
The fingers was cool, firm, and capable. Jack blinked dumbly, forgetting to let go.
"Mr O'Neill, you look like you need to get some things off your chest..."
The old, familiar anger surged, and he pulled his hand free. "I don't need to see a..."
"Not professionally, no, I wasn't suggesting that. Listen, I'm free for the rest of the day." Doctor Jackson stood up. "Walk with me?" he invited.
Jack looked up, expecting to see pity but finding none. The man's face held only empathy.
Before Jack really knew what he was doing, he stood up, brushed the creases out of his black pants, and fell into step beside Doctor Jackson. Jack didn't even question where they were going. It just felt good to be in the company of someone who wouldn't judge him.
Ten minutes later, beneath a clear blue summer sky, they were strolling through a park across the street from the hospital. As they paused under a leafy canopy of oak trees, Jack found himself pouring out his heart to his new acquaintance.
"We'd been separated for a few months. She didn't want to let him come to the cabin with me, but I insisted. Told her the boy needed to do 'guy' stuff with his old man. Hunting. Shooting. Fishing. That sort of thing." They sat on a park bench under a sycamore tree. Doctor Jackson had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He nodded encouragingly, but said nothing.
"We were supposed to go out on the lake in the rowboat, but she called just as I was loading it with the fishing gear. We argued. Nothing new there. He got upset, went out in the boat by himself, and it capsized. By the time his mother and I were through screaming abuse at each other on the phone, he had been dead ten minutes or so. I couldn't revive him."
The small story had been delivered in a flat monotone. Doctor Jackson reached out and placed his hand on Jack's shoulder. "So you blame yourself? Because you were distracted?"
Jack hung his head, nodding minutely at his perceived failure. Doctor Jackson squeezed his shoulder but at least he didn't try to refute Jack's statement. That was fine, because nothing any one said would make him believe differently.
Three weeks passed. The department accepted Jack's word that he was seeing a psychologist on his own time. He came to work each day, did his job, made sure his people were all right. He functioned.
Sometimes he wondered why Doctor Jackson, or rather 'Daniel', as he insisted on being called, was bothering with him. He wasn't getting paid, he didn't know Jack from Adam. He must have better things to do with his time, and yet he'd never missed an appointment.
Not that what they did could be called appointments, really. They never met in Daniel's office. Jack found he couldn't talk there. He'd felt trapped, claustrophobic, suffocated by the grey walls and ceiling. So Doctor Jackson's unique brand of therapy was being carried out in cafes, restaurants, parks, the beach, a forest, and this last time, in Daniel's own apartment.
Jack had wandered around, gazing in awe at the vast collection of books and curios the man had amassed, marvelling at the amount of literature that wasn't even in English. He'd picked up a copy of something that looked vaguely Arabic just as Daniel appeared behind him, holding two mugs of coffee.
"The Koran," he supplied helpfully, squeezing past Jack into the cramped living room. He indicated that Jack should sit on the couch and handed him the steaming mug, watching carefully as Jack took a long swallow of the hot liquid without flinching.
He picked up the thick volume that Jack had laid on the coffee table and let it open randomly before beginning to read it out loud.
Jack couldn't understand a word, but Daniel made the sacred verses sound like a song, a magical fairytale, a bedtime story. Jack smiled as he listened, taking more sips of the strong coffee.
Daniel closed the book and laid it back down. "A beautiful, melodic language, isn't it?" He waited for Jack's nod then continued, "I learned to speak it during my final year at college. I took a six-month work placement in the Middle East. Quite an eye opener."
"I can imagine."
"So, are you going to go to the Memorial Service on Sunday?"
Jack's eyes narrowed, his surprise at the change of topic outweighed by his defensiveness. His mouth became a thin hard line, telegraphing to his new friend that he had just stepped over the line. This was not something he had been able to discuss. His saw his inability to attend the service as a reminder of his failure as a human being. His failure as a father. So far, Daniel hadn't pushed it.
"I'll go with you if you want," said Daniel unexpectedly.
The sudden offer earned the psychologist a raised eyebrow followed by a scowl. "I don't need you to hold my hand. Thanks anyway!" Jack growled.
Unabashed, Daniel continued, "If I thought it would help, I would gladly go with you and hold your hand, but seriously, I think this is the final hurdle, Jack. Achieve this, and you'll be well on the road to recovery."
Jack stood and paced the tiny room. "I don't want to recover, damn you!" he hissed though clenched teeth. Jackson was meant to be an expert on the workings of the inside of people's heads, so why couldn't he understand that Jack needed to hold on to the pain, needed the punishment of it? He needed the constant reminder that he was a useless, worthless piece of shit.
Daniel stood up and stepped round the coffee table, putting himself in Jack's path, halting him in mid pace. "It wasn't your fault. You told him not to go in the boat without you. He disobeyed you."
Jack felt his fury rising inside his chest, fueled by the awful pain, the rage that he had kept tightly locked inside. It tore at him. It tried to claw its way out like some rabid animal, but he struggled to keep hold of it, and to maintain some shred of control.
"He was my child. I should have been watching him. Of course it was my fault."
"YES!" he screamed, face contorted with self-loathing and rage. "Don't you DARE stand there and tell me it wasn't my fault. I let him die. I couldn't save him. He was my son, and I couldn't save h...him." His voice broke on the last word, and the tears that had had been held in check for so long finally erupted, taking him to his knees. He sobbed into his hands, shoulders trembling, body wracked with a grief too long denied.
After what seemed like an eternity, he felt a gentle touch on his head, a hand stroking his hair soothingly. He was spent, exhausted, wrung out like a washcloth, but he managed to raise his head. He needed to see the eyes of the man who had brought him this release, needed to thank him somehow.
Daniel smiled down at him, one hand cupping his chin, his thumb gently wiping away the last few tears, his other hand still buried in Jack's silver hair. He knelt in front of Jack, and his eyes became serious. "You know this was the only way for it to go don't you, Jack? Until you let out the anger, there was no way for you to move forward."
Jack nodded, incapable of speech. His body was still shaking in the aftermath of the turbulent emotions. Daniel smiled again and got to his feet, pulling Jack up with him. "You look like shit," he observed, leading the unresisting man into his bedroom and pushing him down onto the mattress. He knelt, untying Jack's laces and removing his shoes, then lifting the other man's legs up onto the bed. Jack put up no resistance. He was so tired, so very very tired.
"You'll sleep now, Jack. No nightmares. I promise."
Jack felt his eyes drifting shut, and he nodded. Please, God, make that be true, he thought, as darkness claimed him.
It was a beautiful service. Sarah wept almost constantly as the minister spoke, but Jack remained stoic, listening to the hollow words of comfort, to the prayers and platitudes. Beside him, Daniel sat, offering nothing more than his steady presence, and it was more than Jack could have asked for.
After the wake, when everyone had gone home, Jack said his goodbyes to his ex-wife and climbed into his truck beside Daniel. He didn't start the engine right away. Instead, he turned in his seat and watched as his friend fastened his belt.
"Thank you," he said quietly when finally Daniel faced him.
The psychologist smiled and nodded his head, but Jack reached out and squeezed his shoulder tightly. "You gave me back my life. Before I met you, I was ready to give up. I felt useless, worthless, like a piece of shit. Daniel, you'll never know how much you've helped me."
"I understand what you're going through."
Jack let go of Daniel and turned to face the windshield. "You lost a child?"
Daniel's head dropped. "My wife died giving birth to our first child. The baby didn't survive either. I lost them both, and then it was me who was lost for a very long time."
"I'm sorry." Jack whispered, hearing the pain in the quiet voice.
"It was a long time ago. I learned how to carry on, and so will you, Jack. You'll meet someone and..."
"No." Jack flicked the key in the ignition and started the engine. "I don't want to replace Charlie or Sarah. I might learn how to carry on, Daniel, but I don't think there will be any second chances at love for me."
Daniel gave him a long look. "We'll see."
They drove in warm, comfortable silence for a while. For the first time in months, Jack's thoughts were filled with plans for the future. He was also trying to think of some way to show his appreciation to Daniel. Something occurred to him, and he glanced sideways. "Daniel, I have this friend at work. She's about your age, intelligent, beautiful...single."
Daniel smiled and looked down at his hands where they lay folded in his lap. "Thanks, Jack. I appreciate the thought, but I'm gay."
"Huh!!?" Jack swerved the truck, but managed to keep it on the road. "But you were..."
"Married? Yes. I should really have said that I'm bisexual, but I've had no interest at all in women since my wife died." The psychologist gave Jack an assessing look. "Is that a problem for you?"
For a moment, Jack was absolutely speechless. He should have known. Now that he thought about it, the signs had all been there. The signals. Maybe his 'gaydar' was a bit rusty, after a twelve-year marriage in which he had remained completely faithful.
He shook his head and smiled. "No, I don't think so," he said, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, "You see, I'm bi, too."
"Yeah 'wow'. And you call yourself a psychologist?" he teased, wondering why Daniel hadn't worked that out yet.
Daniel nodded in apparent agreement, trying to keep the grin from consuming his entire face. "Yeah, well, I thought it would take at least another three months for you to admit it!"
Five years later...
Jack leaned against the elevator wall, trying to figure out what mangled melody was coming out of the speaker. It could have been 'Greensleeves', but he wasn't sure. The doors opened on the office level, and Jack got out.
He was worried about T. The guy had been through a lot recently, and the upcoming transplant operation had to be weighing on his mind. Jack was no expert, but even that didn't seem to explain T's strange behavior. The conversation he had just had with Bray and Shauna had done little to dispel his worries, which was why he had thought of Daniel.
He had smiled reassuringly at Shauna. "Look, I know a resident psychologist here. I'll have a talk with him. He's good, you'll like him." If anyone could help T through this difficult time, it was Daniel.
He knocked on Daniel's office door and slipped inside, smiling as his lover got slowly to his feet, eyes sparking with joy at seeing him. Without preamble, Jack took Daniel in his arms and kissed him soundly, slowly, lingeringly. If he lived to be a hundred, Jack knew he would never get tired of this. He was sure he could never live without it now that he'd experienced it.
Their relationship had started as a slow burn, a gentle friendship set on fire, and then it had grown into an inferno, one that neither of them had been able to tame. But then, neither of them had truly wanted to.
"Jack, what the hell are you doing here?" Daniel murmured against his lips.
Jack sighed, pulling back, slipping his black cap back on, and donning the mantle of Fire Chief again. "Daniel, there's someone I need you to see..."