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A Storm of Shadows
The week following Jessie’s release had been challenging on many levels. She still held most of them at arm’s length, although she had reestablished minimal contact with Casey and Sam. She wasn’t ready to go back to work yet, wasn’t willing to deal with the stares and the whispers. It was hard seeing all the things that used to be so comforting. Now, they offered little solace, especially when so many things reminded her of Cam. She hadn’t worked up enough resolve to tell him it was over, to let him go…yet. She was too busy trying to maintain that precarious balance she had, just trying to cope with the usual activities of daily living. Bertie had kept the yard going, watering the flowerbeds and such. Jessie tried to lose herself in her gardening, as it had always helped her deal with stress before. Now, it did little to soothe her. She swung between anger and sadness, frustration and guilt, until all she wanted to do was forget. And that was exactly what she set out to do.
Jack had spent a long day at work rat-killing and heading off minor disasters as they arose. Sam was still in her lab, deeply immersed in the schematics of the Destroyer weapon, trying to see if there was any possible way to operate it by proxy without a human host for the nanites. Daniel and Casey were researching the ‘quantum’ mirror artifact that had been brought back from P3R-233. Teal’c was working with Bra’tac. The Tok’ra had been uncharacteristically quiet. And then there was Cam. Poor guy…Jack really felt for him. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting to give Jessie the space she needed, yet it was killing him to stay away. The evening of Jessie’s release, Cam had ended up at Jack’s place where they had talked late into the night. If anything, Jack knew exactly what Jessie was going through, and tried to explain it to Cam the best he could. Patience wasn’t an easy thing to cultivate when you had none to spare.
When it was time to shut it down, Jack headed home, looking forward to a quiet evening and a chance to relax. And it had been that way for about two hours…until his cell phone rang. A short conversation ensued, before he grabbed his keys and headed out the door.
Jack pulled into the parking lot, taking time to note who and what was in the area. Chose a spot nearest the door, out of necessity’s sake, parking the Ford F250 in such a way as to ensure an easy exit. Even though many of the customers were personnel from work, he couldn’t rely on his status as General to keep the jackals at bay. Booze had a funny way of displacing one’s sense of judgment, especially if a woman was involved. There were a couple of guys off to the right of the entrance, and a group of three near a black pickup truck. Got a good look at both before going inside.
Business was usually slow at midweek, but there were at least a dozen patrons inside Quinn’s. The after work crowd had pretty much thinned out except for a few holdouts. Mike was tending bar, and motioned him over when he saw him.
"Glad you were able to make it over so quick," he said as a greeting.
"Well, figured from your phone call it was better sooner than later." He scanned the area. "Where are they?"
"The one that got his nose busted was outside with a couple of his buddies last I checked. Going by my gut instincts, he’s planning a little payback."
"Yep, that’s them." The barkeep looked towards the back of the room. "She’s kept to herself in the corner over there. I recognized her as one of yours, which is why I called. Three on one is damned lopsided to begin with, but she’s looking to tie one on, and that puts her at even less of an advantage." He shook his head. "Those idiots were too stupid to just leave her alone. Got what was coming to them, if you ask me."
Jack nodded, his eyes adjusting to the dimness of the room. Walked quietly towards the subject of their discussion. Noted she had her back to the room, legs stretched out, feet propped up on the chair in front of her. Quickly realized why she had garnered so much attention to begin with. She had drawn her long hair back into a ponytail, the copper highlights visible even in the low light of the bar. Dressed entirely in black, it made her visible skin stand out even more so, especially since the top she wore was a sleeveless mock turtleneck, the thin ribbed cotton hugging her curves in all the right places. The black leather pants looked as if they had been custom made for her, and the over-the-knee, spike-heeled black leather boots blended perfectly with the pants. The weight she had lost only accentuated her muscle tone in her arms, painting an irresistible picture to an alcohol and testosterone-clouded brain…strength, sexuality, femininity and the lure of being unapproachable. He had gotten no closer than eight feet from her when she spoke.
"I’m not interested…go away."
He hesitated in surprise for a fraction of a second. Gave her a wide berth, just in case, as he came around on her right. "Just curious about who’s beating up local bar patrons…not to say they didn’t deserve it," he said as he moved into her field of view, hand resting on the back of the empty chair. "I’m guessing this seat isn’t taken," he added as he pulled the chair out, settling his long frame opposite her. Noted her blank look, the half empty glass and three napkins, which told him she was on her third drink. Watched as she took another swallow, draining it down to a quarter.
"Not even gonna ask how the hell you found me," she replied as she focused her gaze back on the wall.
Jack shrugged. "Bartender recognized you, thought the Neanderthals were planning a little reception for you outside and gave me a call."
"I’m not worried about it," she replied testily.
"No, obviously not. Sounds like you’re looking for trouble."
"You don’t understand, Jack."
He glanced around the room, making sure others weren’t privy to their conversation. "Actually, I understand perfectly." Watched as she took another drink from her glass. "You’re angry. Pissed, really. You feel lost, like your life has no direction. What was right, certain, perfect before doesn’t fit anymore. You want to lash out, fight, rip something apart just to try to get rid of the feeling like you’re going to explode."
Jessie glanced at him. "Being military taught you that?" she asked, the question tinted with sarcasm.
He pinned her with a hard stare. "Spending four months in an Iraqi prison taught me that." Jack saw the slight shift in her expression, his words penetrating the hard shell she was erecting around herself. "If anyone can understand what you’re feeling, what you went through, it’s me." Crossed his arms over his chest. "Getting into a fight isn’t going to make it better. Believe me…I had plenty of them. Only time…friends…family…will help the ‘normal’ come out again."
Jessie sighed, her gaze fixed on her glass. "That isn’t possible anymore. ‘Normal’ doesn’t exist."
"I know it seems like that now, but it’ll change. This, however," he said as he gestured with his hand, "isn’t the answer. Picking fights, breaking noses…"
"The dickhead had it coming to him," she said, practically growling. "Asshole followed me to the bathroom. I could hear him outside the door, boasting to his buddies how he was going to fuck me. So, I was a little…enthusiastic…when I opened the door. Not my fault his face was in the way when I did."
Jack looked down as he tried not to chuckle, recalling the incident with P4X-639, him and Teal’c dealing with the time loop resetting again and again, Teal’c hitting the airman in the face with the door after being hit multiple times himself. That incident had given him opportunities with Sam he’d only dreamt of, and because of Jessie and the incident on Nanda, those opportunities had become reality. He wasn’t about to stand by and let her go through hell for months, possibly longer, as she tried to find her way back. Not when he knew how to facilitate some shortcuts.
"Besides," she continued, "I’m not looking for a fight. I just want to…forget…for a little while." With that she swallowed what was left in her glass.
"Fair enough." The chair made a scraping sound against the wooden floor as Jack stood before sliding it beneath the table. Held out his hand to her. "Come on."
"If you don’t want to get in a fight, we need to leave before your new friends decide to call in reinforcements. Did you drive here?"
"No…took a cab."
"Even better. What are you drinking?"
The unexpected question had Jessie looking at the now-empty glass. "Uh…Jameson and Coke," she replied before placing her hand in his.
Jack relaxed slightly, seeing the battle as half-won. He had been hoping he wasn’t going to have to carry her out kicking and screaming. Eyebrows raised a fraction as she stood up, looking him directly in the eye. "Damn; how tall are the heels on those boots?" Watched as she gave an indifferent shrug.
"Long enough to be a weapon, if need be."
"You can fight in those?" he asked dubiously.
A wicked grin animated her features for a moment. "Not a problem. If you’ll give me a chance, I’ll show you."
"I’d prefer to get out of here without getting into a scuffle, so I’ll take your word for it, Watson." Jack nodded to Mike as they walked past, before making eye contact with one group at a table. Silent communication born from experience had chairs being pushed back, four airmen shadowing the unlikely couple as they made their way to the door. Two moved in front of them while two brought up the rear. Jessie noted the movement before looking questioningly at Jack. A slight shrug as well as a single word was her answer. "Insurance."
Sure enough, the three men Jack had seen by the black pickup truck were loitering near the entrance as they walked out. The front line of their ‘insurance’, as Jack had put it, cut left in front of the men while Jack and Jessie turned right. The ones bringing up the rear effectively blocked any attempt the three made to follow them. Jack headed straight for the truck, yanking open the passenger door and unceremoniously propelling Jessie inside with a hand to her rear. Before she had time to protest, he had already gotten around to the drivers side and was climbing in, shoving the key home and the engine roaring to life. The three antagonists were still by the entrance, unable to get around the airmen to their truck as Jack sped out of the lot and turned hard onto the main road.
Jessie held onto the door armrest with one hand while frantically trying to buckle her seat belt with the other. The fishtailing of the rear of the truck wasn’t helping with the task at hand. Only when they were several blocks away and had made a couple of turns did Jack slow the truck’s speed.
Jack’s thoughts returned to the ensuing twelve months after he had escaped from the Iraqi prison, how he had felt, acted and reacted. Plotted how long the evolution back to humanity had taken. Of course, he had been on his own, so to speak. Sure, the shrinks were there to help, but they had no clue, no inkling what it was like…they hadn’t traveled into the darkness, experienced the depravity, been helpless to stop it. It was a calculated risk he was taking, but felt the end result would be worth it.
He made one stop at the corner liquor store, picking up a bottle of Jameson whiskey and a six-pack of Coke to accommodate Jessie’s choice of drink. He thought about giving Cam a call, but decided to wait. Sometimes lancing a wound could take a while, and it would only further aggravate it if the process was interrupted too soon. He recognized that look in Jessie’s eyes…it was one he had seen for quite a while each and every time he looked in the mirror. Hoping that he could help her break through that barrier a lot sooner than it had taken him, he put the truck in reverse and backed out of the parking space, heading down the darkened street.
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