What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies. – Aristotle
SG-1 continued along the trail. Most of the trees appeared tall, characteristic of an old-growth forest, but from time to time, they noticed odd depressions in the forest floor, where the trees seemed somewhat smaller and younger than those surrounding them. It looked as if something had wiped out patches of older trees at some point in the past, and then the areas had regrown.
“Okay, campers, what does that look like to you?” O’Neill asked, indicating the stands of younger vegetation mixed with the older trees.
Teal’c replied. “If not for the depressions, they could be the result of anything from selected timber felling to small, controlled fires in the area at some point, possibly quite some time ago.”
The colonel regarded him thoughtfully. “But since we see the depressions…?”
“It would appear these may be scars from orbital or airborne weapon strikes. I know nothing about this world, O’Neill, but it may have fallen under attack by warships in the past, possibly Goa’uld.”
O’Neill scowled. “That’s what I was thinking, too.”
Carter chimed in. “If so, it must have been decades ago. Those areas look pretty well grown over.”
“Indeed,” acknowledged the Jaffa. “I would estimate at least twenty to thirty years, depending upon how quickly the local vegetation grows.”
Carter paused, looking around. “Well, I’m no expert on trees, but I’m seeing everything from oak and ash to birch and willow, along with some evergreens and a lot of species I don’t recognize. It’s probably not so much that what grows in those depressions is terribly young, than that the surrounding forest is very old. Still, we probably wouldn’t even have noticed if it weren’t for the depressions themselves. Whatever happened here could have been a long time ago. It’s possible the Goa’uld don’t even come here anymore.”
“Sam, I hope you’re right,” said Daniel.
The trail continued on until it came to a shallow river and a wooden bridge. On the other side of the river, structures were visible through a screen of trees. O’Neill brought a pair of binoculars up to his eyes. Sure enough, he could see a few human figures just outside of what looked like a defensive wall surrounding a largish settlement. “Looks like we’ve found the natives.”
Daniel took a look through O’Neill’s binoculars, as Carter brought out her own. “Seems like a good-sized village,” Daniel observed. “Some one- and two-story houses are visible through that open gate, and it looks like it could support a decent population, I think.”
The colonel looked at his team and shrugged. “Okay, let’s go say hello, and hope they’re friendly.”
They crossed the bridge. As they reached the other side, a young man with fair skin and reddish hair approached them, his expression curious. He spoke words that sounded like a greeting. Daniel’s brow furrowed. The young man spoke again. This time he appeared to be asking a question.
“Well, Daniel?” O’Neill’s voice was impatient.
“I don’t know, Jack. It sounds sort of like a Celtic language, possibly Brythonic in origin, but I can’t be sure just yet.” The linguist essayed a couple of phrases. The other man’s face took on a puzzled expression. Daniel tried again.
While Daniel and the villager attempted to breach the language barrier, O’Neill glanced around the area. Several more of the odd depressions they’d noticed dotted the nearby landscape. From what he could see of the settlement, it wasn’t only the forest that had much younger parts. Perhaps the newer buildings filled in places where older ones had been destroyed in the same attack.
“Hey, guys?” Daniel’s voice cut into the colonel’s thoughts. “I think I’m getting somewhere. We’ve been invited into the village for a visit. It’s called Llanavon. Basically, it means ‘river village’.”
“Pretty name, at least until you translate it,” Carter commented.
The language of the villagers turned out indeed to be a Brythonic tongue, in the same language family as Welsh. Seated around a table in a structure reminiscent of a picnic pavilion with a thatched roof, speaking with their host — whose name was Rhodri — SG-1 drew curious looks from some of the villagers passing or working nearby. Overall, however, they were treated courteously, and eventually Daniel managed to make some real inroads on the communication front.
One thing that was conspicuously absent was any sign of Colonel Cromwell. Daniel inquired about the arrival through the stargate of a man dressed in black, conveying O’Neill’s description of Cromwell to the red-haired man, only to be met with assurances that no one meeting his description had been among recent arrivals through the gate. Apparently, a number of travellers did come and go from time to time, but it appeared that no one had seen the Colonel. There was no reference to Goa’uld among the travellers, either, however. It sounded as if the inhabitants of this world and an unknown number of others made some use of the stargate for their own purposes.
O’Neill made a face, drumming his fingers on the table. If he noticed the odd looks he was receiving from the other members of his team, he did his best to ignore them. “I knew I should have taken the time to pull a photo still from the base security system. Cromwell has to have been captured on camera somewhere along the way while he was in there.”
“Jack, we can always get one and make another trip back here with it,” suggested Daniel. “Rhodri appears to think there are some local officials who would be interested in pursuing negotiations with us for trade. This world may well have minerals or other resources that we could use. Besides, I’d like to study their culture. If we bring along that photo, we can show it to more people and possibly find someone who has seen Colonel Cromwell. After all, we have no guarantee that he came anywhere near this village. There could be others nearby, and it’s possible someone there may have seen him.”
“Ask them what other settlements are nearby, and we’ll do that,” O’Neill instructed him.
After promising Rhodri that they would return, SG-1 left Llanavon, heading back along the trail that had brought them there. Not far from the village, O’Neill paused to radio Barber and SG-5, only to learn that they’d turned up no sign of Cromwell. He pulled a face as he put the radio away, then turned to his team, pointedly refusing to acknowledge their concerned expressions. “Well, so far SG-5’s got a big fat goose egg.” He glanced around. “I noticed a number of other, fainter trails crisscrossing this one on our way in. There’s plenty of daylight left, so let’s explore a short way down each one as we head back. It can’t hurt.”
They did so, with little result. As the day wore on, Carter, Daniel and Teal’c noted that the colonel was becoming more restless than usual, and a bit short-tempered. Just past mid-afternoon, he called for a break. They’d traveled perhaps a mile down one of the larger side trails, only to find it meeting a wider trail not unlike that which they had originally followed from the stargate to Llanavon. Where the trails met, another bridge spanned a small gully through which ran a stream, probably a tributary of the river which flowed past Llanavon.
Daniel set about examining some carvings on the railing posts of the bridge, while Teal’c simply took up a station near its center, staring off into the forest, alert for any danger that might come their way. Carter, infected by the restlessness that seemed to be plaguing her CO, made her way down to the streambank below the bridge, where she seated herself on a large rock and stared into the water.
One thing this world seemed to have going for it was an abundance of fish and game, at least here in this woodland, she reflected. As they tramped through the forest, they’d seen deer, rabbits, pheasant, and any number of other creatures that must have been transplanted to the planet along with the humans, however long ago that had occurred. Gazing into the stream, she noted that several fish of various types were swimming about. The largest of them somewhat resembled the koi she’d seen in the artificial pond at a Japanese restaurant she’d recently visited, minus the gaudy coloring. It was sort of a silvery gray, and swam about poking its head into stands of waterweed and under rocks, likely searching for food.
O’Neill joined her on the bank. “What are you looking at?” he asked.
“Nothing, really. Just watching fish feed. I’m surprised the water’s so clear, with them stirring up the bottom like that.”
He looked down, watching the fish. They passed a moment or two in silence before the colonel leaned farther over the water’s edge. “What’s that?”
“What’s what, sir?”
O’Neill pointed. “There’s something shiny in the water. Kind of metallic-looking.”
Carter looked in the direction he was pointing. Sure enough, she could just make out the rounded edge of a small object half-buried in the silt not more than eighteen inches from the bank. “I see it.”
“Daniel will probably be in seventh heaven if that’s a coin or some other artifact,” the colonel observed. “Somebody may as well be happy on this mission.” With that, he planted a boot on a flat rock jutting from the water, balancing his weight between there and the bank. He reached down into the water, and closed his hand on the object. Splashing it in the water cleared away the silt and left the metallic object in his palm, cleaned of debris. As he lifted it from the stream, Carter got a glimpse of silvery metal and what appeared to be colorful lacquer before her CO gasped, nearly dropping the object.
“Sir, is that what it looks like?”
Mutely, O’Neill stepped back onto the muddy bank and opened his hand so his 2IC could see for herself. There, nestled in his palm, was a largish metallic coin, part of its design filled in with color. Carter had seen plenty of similar coins over the course of her military career. She wasn’t familiar with the unit designation on this one, but it was clearly an Air Force challenge coin, somewhat scratched and worn from years of being carried.
O’Neill muttered under his breath. “Christ, Frank, where the hell are you?”
Carter looked at him. “That belongs to Colonel Cromwell?”
Her CO fixed her with an unreadable look. “You can think of someone else who might have come this way with one of these, Carter?”
She blushed. “Sorry, sir. It was a rhetorical question.”
“I knew that.” Jack massaged his forehead. “Seeing this is a surprise, that’s all. I’ve got one exactly like it sitting in the back of a drawer, at home.” As Carter watched, his expression became guarded, as if he were suddenly aware that he’d divulged more than he’d intended.
“At least we know for sure that he made it here,” she said.
“Yeah, but now I want to know what was going on to make him lose this in a stream.” He pocketed the coin securely. “Let’s go tell Daniel and Teal’c.”
The four of them, with the help of a couple members of SG-5 called in for the purpose, spent two hours searching up and down the streambank and along the trail in both directions, to no avail. As the sun lowered and the woodland fell into shadows, the party headed back to the stargate. O’Neill ordered SG-5 to return through the gate and report to General Hammond, while SG-1 remained on the planet overnight, camped near the stargate. The search would resume in the morning, when SG-5 returned with still photos gleaned from the SGC’s security cameras. Hammond could pull them, O’Neill knew. He reasoned that someone on this world had to have seen Cromwell by now, and he was damn well going to find out who, and learn what had become of his friend.
The evening was warm, and they’d built only a small campfire. O’Neill lay on the grass not far from the fire, his field jacket rolled up and propped against the log behind him. He rested his head on the jacket, staring at the worn challenge coin as he turned it over and over between his fingers, as though handling it would somehow summon its owner from thin air, like a genie from a rubbed lamp.
Having Frank Cromwell show up under Cheyenne Mountain had been a shock, to be sure. O’Neill hadn’t seen the man since 1991; hadn’t wanted to. Eight years without contact had done little to heal the psychological wound left by what had happened in Iraq, though it had allowed him to shove most of the effects into a rear compartment of his mind. The nightmares still came, though, if perhaps less often than at first. With them came the anger, the feeling of utter betrayal at the hand of a man he’d considered closer than a brother, each time as fresh and raw as if it had just happened yesterday. They had always promised each other, and everyone they served with, that no one would be left behind on a mission. O’Neill had risked his own life on more than one occasion to honor that promise…
The sound of gunfire echoed from the rocks just outside the small cave. As caves went, it wasn’t much; more like a hollow in the rock face, just off the trail leading along the very edge of the high cliffs. Enough to provide shelter from the elements, and hopefully, from unfriendly eyes as well. Jack knelt near the entrance, scanning the landscape outside for danger. He kept an eye on the sky, too, watching and listening for the approach of the helicopter that would take them on the final leg of their journey out of this hellish place.
The sound of coughing came from behind him, and he turned, scrambling back into the further recesses of their shelter. Frank leaned lopsidedly against the cave wall, his face a study in pain. As Jack approached, Frank grimaced and coughed again, a liquid sound.
“Easy, Frank.” O’Neill reached his friend’s side, resting his hand upon the other man’s shoulder. “We’ll be out of here soon, I promise.”
Frank slitted his eyes open. “Yeah, because you can just wish a rescue team here, and it’s gonna magically show up, right, Jack?” His voice was little more than a whisper, the words indistinct — but Jack understood. Understood too the fear just below the surface sarcasm in Frank’s comment. He checked the bandage on Frank’s chest. It was bloody; if they didn’t get out of there soon and get medical help, he honestly feared for his friend’s life. He wasn’t going to tell Frank that, though.
“Trust me, okay?” he said. Ignoring the pain in his own right leg, Jack dug through the pack holding what supplies they’d been able to salvage before joining the band of locals who had brought them from the mujaheddin camp down to this extraction point, on muleback. It had been a bumpy, uncomfortable passage, but at least they’d made it this far. O’Neill refused to believe they wouldn’t both make it the rest of the way back, even if no one else who’d gone in with them was still alive.
He balled his right hand into a fist at the thought, striking the dusty floor of the cave. Damn it all to hell! Four good men, lost to whatever horrible combination of bad luck or enemy intel had brought down Afghan Army soldiers with Soviet weaponry upon the camp. Those few who had survived the raid, including himself and Frank as the only members of their team to do so, had been forced to retreat to a nearby village, hiding out until sunset, when they’d been spirited out along with a number of locals fleeing across the border into Pakistan. Jack had been shot in the leg during the raid, but was fortunately still mobile, the bone intact and the leg usable, if painful. Frank, on the other hand, had been hit in the chest not once, but twice, and Jack knew he was still bleeding into one lung, at least. Here, just on the Pakistani side of the border, they waited for extraction, hoping at any moment to hear the sound of rotors announcing that their ride had arrived.
“Y’know, Jack, if I don’t make it — ” began Frank, in that same hoarse whisper.
Jack cut him off. “Save your breath. You’re gonna make it,” he said. “I’m tellin’ ya, we’ll be out of here before you know it. As long as I have any say in things, you will always make it back. Isn’t that what we promised each other?” Don’t you even think about dying on me. We’ve come too far together, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna lose you now. Besides, there’s no way in hell I’m explaining to your wife why I didn’t bring you back with me.
Frank closed his eyes and nodded, attempting a smile through the mask of pain. “Yeah.” It turned into another grimace instead.
Just then, Jack caught the distant sound of rotors. He reached out, squeezing Frank’s shoulder. “See? I told you they’d be here any time. Now get busy and tap those ruby slippers together. We’re goin’ home.”
They’d gone on to serve a full dozen years together, side by side. Along the way, they’d gotten each other through more than a few bad situations, even saving each other’s lives more than once. In Nicaragua, Frank had damn near gotten himself killed getting Jack to safety. It was the way their partnership worked, the balance tipping back and forth, the two of them a team. They went in together, they did what they had to do, and they got back out together, no matter the risk.
Until the Gulf, and one last mission, a covert op behind enemy lines. O’Neill had been second-in-command of the team, Cromwell next in the chain of command. The whole team had been seasoned experts just like themselves. Everything had been going smoothly, until the Republican Guard showed up, visiting disaster upon them. The next thing O’Neill knew, their team leader had been killed, he himself had been wounded… and the rest of the team had been extracted without him. Cromwell hadn’t even tried to get to him to see if he was alive or dead.
He’d spent the following four months a prisoner, subjected to interrogation and torture at the hands of the Iraqis. He’d tried to make it through by looking out for his fellow prisoners. He was among the highest-ranking; it was only right that he take responsibility for them. Of course, that only gave his captors more leverage over him, because they could torture him without touching him, simply by their treatment of those for whom he cared. They’d taken full advantage of that, too, the bastards.
He tried holding onto the thought of seeing Sara and Charlie again, but there were times when even that wasn’t enough. Times when even thinking about his wife and his son in those surroundings seemed to somehow risk sullying them. O’Neill had cast about for the one thing he could grasp and hold that had as much strength as the horrific, violent environment he found himself in. He’d found it in dwelling on the fact that he’d been left behind, abandoned by Frank Cromwell, the man he’d thought was his best friend, the man for whose sake he’d risked life and limb on more than one occasion. The man who had turned his back and run like hell, ordering the rest of the team onto the helicopter and away to safety, while O’Neill had lain bleeding on the ground, soon to be carted off to prison. He’d thought about what he would do if he had Cromwell in front of him right there and then, about how he might mind this hellhole less if he knew the man who’d let him end up there shared it. O’Neill thought about what he’d do if he ever saw Cromwell again, and all the ways he’d like to make the man suffer.
The next time he did see his former friend, O’Neill hadn’t really been in a position to do anything at all. He’d just returned stateside after his imprisonment, and was confined to a hospital bed, weak, injured and in no mood for visitors of any sort, not even Sara. Of course, that hadn’t stopped Sara from visiting anyway, despite the fact that he didn’t want her to see him in his current condition. She had sat with him, talking to him, the look on her face mingling relief at his return with worry over the gauntness, the bruises, the injuries that were visible to anyone who looked at him. He’d barely spoken to her, half-stoned on the drugs they’d given him for pain and to keep him calm enough to sleep without dreaming, without descending into the nightmares he’d brought back with him.
But the visitor who’d actually brought him fully alert and interacting with his environment had been Cromwell, on the one and only occasion he’d come by. He’d entered the room unnoticed at first. O’Neill remembered awakening groggily, dimly aware of a figure standing at the foot of the bed, watching him quietly, apprehensively, as if unsure whether he should be there. He’d opened his eyes fully, ready to tell Sara, the doctor or the nurse or whoever it was to go away and let him sleep, when he realized it was Frank Cromwell who stood there gazing at him, hat in hand, an expression of infinite regret and sadness on his broad face. For a second, all O’Neill could do was stare back. Wordless. Hollow.
Cromwell had begun to speak; his voice a low, choked sound. “Jack, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know — ”
A white-hot fury had rushed in to fill the hollow space within him then, spilling over as he forced himself upright in the bed, hurling invective at the man who had left him behind despite their sworn pact to protect each other, to never abandon anyone, no matter what. Cromwell was still talking as he backed away from the bed, flinching as though each word were a physical blow, hammering home and wounding him. Coward. O’Neill had actually begun to throw things at that point: a water glass, a box of tissues, anything within reach that wasn’t nailed down or otherwise attached to the room in some way. Cromwell had retreated out the door, his eyes never leaving O’Neill’s face, while he was still screaming. It had taken two orderlies and a nurse to calm him, and another shot of sedative to send him back to the sleep from which he’d awakened.
He hadn’t seen Cromwell again from that day until the man had shown up in the SGC, holding Janet Fraiser by the collar and frog-marching her through the base when she should have been attending to her medical duties. What the hell? They had wounded people, and here was Frank, keeping their chief medical officer from caring for them? Incredulous, he could only say, “Cromwell?”
Fraiser’s eyes snapped upward to meet O’Neill’s own. “You know this guy, sir?”
“Oh, yeah.” Yeah. I know him all right. What I want to know is, what the hell is he doing here?
“Go on,” he’d told the doctor. “Go.” She’d hurried off to attend to the injured, as O’Neill turned back to face the man he’d thought never to encounter again.
“Been a while,” he said to Cromwell. Of course, it wasn’t as if O’Neill hadn’t seen him on many occasions over the past eight years. But seeing someone in the context of one’s nightmares was a far cry from seeing them in the flesh. Thoughts of his former friend had also crossed his waking mind with increasing regularity over the past two years, though, even as he strove to push them away…
“Yeah. Five hours. Got everybody upstairs pretty worried. Where’s the general?” Cromwell wore an undefinable expression. O’Neill read concern, obviously: after all, the man was part of a Special Ops team sent in as a response to whatever crisis the people ‘upstairs’ thought was occurring. The familiar gaze held more than mere concern for the facility, the project, or even his own duty, though. The regret was still there. He could see it, and the sadness, too. Should’ve considered that before you just took everyone and flew away, Frank.
He pushed all thought away, save for the current situation. Deal with it, get it over with, and Cromwell will go away so you can get on with your life. “What’s the five hours?”
“That’s how long this facility’s been out of contact with the outside world. Pentagon suspected alien hostiles.”
Oh, that was rich. “And they sent you?”
Of course, then Cromwell had to go and volunteer to stay with him, when Hammond said they needed to set the auto-destruct to disconnect the Gate from the black hole. The prospect of being alone with the man was almost more than O’Neill could stand, but orders were orders and the last thing he wanted to do was cause a scene in front of the general, let alone in front of Carter. So it had been just the two of them, and as he’d feared, Cromwell had tried to apologize again for what happened in Iraq. Tried to explain that he’d thought O’Neill dead, before taking off. Tried to explain how he’d wanted to go back and get him, once he’d known of his mistake.
Whatever, Frank, he remembered thinking. Let’s just do this and get out of here.
The man even had the gall to ask forgiveness.
What O’Neill hadn’t counted on was Frank finding and making a valid point that, try as he might — and he did try — O’Neill couldn’t really argue with. Maybe it was because he’d already known it, down in some deep recess of his mind or his soul or whatever it was the military issued you to replace it when your soul had been eaten away by circumstance. He’d already known, of course, that not everyone came back alive each time; that was the nature of the reality in which they operated. Known, too, that you couldn’t always bring the dead home either. A life was too high a price to pay for a corpse. He was already feeling guilty enough over Henry Boyd and his team, knowing that his recommendation of Boyd for command of SG-10 was directly responsible for the man’s presence on P3W-451, where he was already as good as dead because a black hole was going to spend a near-infinite span of time claiming his life, and there wasn’t a damn thing O’Neill could do about it. But, damn him, did Frank have to go and point out how very little difference there was between having to leave Boyd and what had happened with them in Iraq?
In the space between the delivery of that lesson, and the time they began to suit up to place Carter’s bomb, O’Neill had found himself forced to confront the painful truth. This was Frank, damn it. He knew the guy; had known him for years prior to the Gulf. If Frank were really the type to abandon a friend, O’Neill knew he’d have been dead years earlier. Probably in Nicaragua, if not even before that. There’d been any number of instances where Frank’s presence and actions had been all that stood between himself and death, just as the reverse also held true. The fact that he’d lived long enough to even be on that ill-fated mission in Iraq was testament to the other man’s loyalty. With painful clarity, O’Neill realized that his hatred for his old friend was little more than the remnant of the structure he’d built to protect himself during his imprisonment: something to cling to, a tool for getting through his ordeal. The time for its use was long past, but rather than discarding it, he’d held onto it, as though it were more precious than the friendship he’d enjoyed for the dozen or more years previously.
Not that it was easy to let go even then, for all that he recognized the necessity. Old habits died hard; very hard. But O’Neill prided himself on being pragmatic along with whatever else he might be, and in any case, he had Frank right there in front of him, in the flesh, calmly preparing to accompany him into harm’s way just as they’d done together countless times before. O’Neill realized it was time to let go of the crutch he no longer needed, and begin to make peace with the friend that fate had made sure he could not completely put from his mind or his life.
And then, just as he’d begun to do so, fate had ripped Frank away from him again. It was too cruel, too painful, and O’Neill had found himself shaken to the core by what had transpired. Talking with Janet, late at night in the infirmary, had helped some. Not much, but a little. Grief was a private process, especially for someone like himself, O’Neill knew. But while still in the midst of it, he’d been given a glimmer of hope: that perhaps just this once, he might not have to lose someone he cared about to whatever vendetta the universe seemed to have against him. And so he’d gone straight to Hammond, demanding the rescue mission. Now here they were, and he was frustrated yet again. While it was good to know that Frank had actually made it to P2A-870, the fact that they hadn’t found him yet weighed heavily on O’Neill’s mind. More than that, he knew full well that he wasn’t acting like himself. Who would, after the past few days?
“You okay, Jack?” Daniel’s voice floated to him from the other side of the campfire.
“I’m fine, Daniel.”
“O’Neill, you seem preoccupied.” Teal’c placed an armload of firewood next to him and seated himself a few feet away.
“Teal’c, I said I’m fine.”
Silence reigned for a moment, broken only by the crackle of the fire. Then Carter spoke up. “Sir, you know I’d normally never pry, but if there’s something germane to this mission that’s bothering you, we really ought to know about it. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Dammit, Carter, can’t a guy just keep a few private thoughts to himself?” The words were harsh, the tone harsher still, uncharacteristically so even for him. O’Neill could hear the sharpness in his own voice. It made him want to cringe.
No one answered him, save for the night insects droning in the underbrush. He shifted position to sit up, resting his back against the log behind him, staring into the fire as the silence went on far longer than was normal for his team. He sighed inwardly. It was becoming clear that his team had not only noticed his mood, but that they were unlikely to give him any real peace until he came clean to them about what was going on. In their roughly two years together, they’d come to know him as well as anyone ever had, with the possible exception of Sara — or of Frank. Despite the fact that he rarely spoke about his feelings or his personal life with them, they could tell easily enough when something was wrong. It was part of why they worked so well together; the four of them seemed to function on some inexplicable shared wavelength. Even Daniel, whose head was otherwise in the clouds half the time.
Besides, he found himself actually wanting to talk about Frank to someone, all of a sudden, and unexpectedly. Perhaps it was simply the feeling — a normal, human inclination — that talking about him in the present could keep him from becoming part of the past. Ironic, given how badly he’d wanted to leave the man there until just recently. Christ, I must be getting soft in my old age.
O’Neill looked up finally, noting three sets of eyes regarding him with varying expressions of concern. All three belonged to people who deserved to know something of what was going on, and two in particular were perhaps more intimately related to O’Neill’s own mindset on the subject than they’d ever guess. Just this once, he decided, the ‘old man’ may as well give them something to work with. Besides, anything beats getting looked at the way they’re doing right now. Carter, especially.
He sighed, massaging his forehead. “Fine. I know I’m acting weird.”
His team waited, watching him. He took a deep breath, looking for a way to begin. “Okay, you all know I don’t exactly talk much about my personal life. And I’m not going to make a habit of it, either. But after that crystal alien thing, you know about Sara, and you know about Charlie, so I guess it won’t kill me to tell you about Frank Cromwell. At least then you’ll understand why I’m maybe taking this a little more personally than any other search and rescue operation.” He cleared his throat.
Carter spoke, her voice full of understanding. “I could tell the two of you had a past, sir.”
“Yeah, Carter, that’d be one way to put it.” O’Neill stared at the coin for a moment. Christ, I can’t believe I’m doing this. He took a deep breath. “Frank and I met right at the very beginning of Special Ops training, when we were both twenty-four. A lot of people wouldn’t really think we had very much in common. Frank was kind of a quiet guy back then, at least until he got to know the people around him, and folks would probably have told you I didn’t even know how to be quiet. But we got thrown together as partners in a lot of training scenarios, and for some reason, we really clicked. We wound up spending a lot of our off-hours together too, just hanging out. He was easy to be around, and I guess he must’ve figured the same about me. By the time we were two or three months into the program, we’d become best friends.
“We both made it through the program, probably because we kept pushing each other whenever things got tough. Not long afterwards, he met his wife, and it was through her I met Sara, later on. We stood up for each other at our weddings, even. From the time we met onward, we were always together, and we served together for twelve years after we finished training. We were lucky enough to always be in the same unit, on the same team. I probably owe him my life three or four times over, and I pulled him either out of or through a few bad situations too. It was just what we did. Hell, one of our early missions turned into a real disaster, and we were the only two members of our entire team that survived. Frank had gotten shot up pretty bad, and I wasn’t doing so hot either, but at least we got out alive. We stuck together, and we survived together.”
He sighed and held up the coin they’d found. “This coin is from the unit Frank and I were in when that happened. We weren’t with them for too long overall, and after losing the rest of the team and managing to survive anyway, we both kind of treated these as some kind of weird good luck charm that applied solely to us. Surprised the hell out of me to see this, though. I put mine away eight years ago…” He trailed off for a moment, before continuing.
“Up until then, unless we were in some situation where we couldn’t have anything identifying us as U.S. military, we both carried them with us all the time, no matter what other unit we were assigned to. Where one of us went, the other went, sort of a package deal. We even pulled a few real black ops where it was just the two of us, and there was nobody I’d have trusted more as a partner.”
He paused, once again rubbing the coin. “I figured it was gonna be us against the world, forever. You never think something like that’s gonna change. We both bought houses in the Springs around the same time, not long before my son was born. Our wives were best friends themselves, and when Charlie came along, I swear Frank and Lisa doted on him like he was their own kid. I guess you could say we were a family.”
He poked at the fire with a stick, prodding new flame from the charring logs. “The Gulf was where it all fell apart for us. Our team drew a covert mission, going behind the lines into enemy territory. It should have been simple; get in, achieve the objective, get out again. We had a tight timetable and the best bunch of guys anywhere. But somehow, it all went straight to hell. We were less than two minutes away from finishing up what we’d gone in to do and there was a crew on their way to pull us all out of there, when all of a sudden the goddamn Republican Guard showed up and there was a firefight. Our CO bought it first crack out of the box, when some Iraqi asshole got off a lucky shot. That left me in charge. I was on the radio trying to call off the extraction so the flight crew wouldn’t get shot up, figuring maybe we could still get ourselves out of there somehow and make it to the alternate site, when I got hit.”
His lips thinned at the memory of shock and of pain. “It probably looked a lot worse than it was, especially from a distance. I only got grazed alongside the skull, put a nice little groove in the bone and there was a lot of blood, but that’s all. Knocked me out for a minute or two, though, and the next thing I remember is hearing rotors, and gunfire and a lot of shouting… and above it all, I could just make out Frank’s voice yelling at our guys to move out. I could hear them take off, saw the helo disappear in the distance from the corner of my eye, and then it got real quiet for maybe three, four minutes. The Iraqis found me right about the time I was trying my damnedest to get my feet underneath me, with my head feeling like it wanted to roll off my shoulders.” He paused, shaking his head. “I couldn’t believe the team had just gone off and left me there. But mostly, I couldn’t believe Frank — my best buddy, someone who was like a brother or maybe my fucking right arm — had done it.” He uncapped his canteen, took a mouthful of lukewarm water, and capped it again. “I spent the next four goddamn months in an Iraqi prison. And no, you don’t want to know the details.”
Teal’c spoke from the shadows. “O’Neill, I am certain your friend did not intend for you to be captured.”
“I know that, Teal’c,” he said, more sharply than he’d intended. “But at the time, I was in pain, and pissed off, and yes, scared out of my goddamn gourd. I knew the Iraqis had some interesting methods for trying to get information out of prisoners, you know? Once I was in that prison, I got to experience them firsthand. Some of it was physical, but some was the kind of stuff that will really mess with your head. So for months, hating Frank for leaving me there became a survival tool. I mean, you don’t really think rationally when you’re in that situation. You can’t. You reach a point where you tune your brain out and you let your gut take over. I tried to hang onto how much I wanted to come home to my wife, to my kid, but there were a lot of days when even thinking about them in the place I was in felt like… ” He didn’t finish the thought. “Look, I needed something to focus on that felt as horrible and as violent as what was happening to me and around me. On those days, I thought about how badly I wanted to just once look Frank in the eye and punch his lights out, and then never have to look at him again. By the time I got out of there, it was ingrained; I’d stopped being able to think about him any other way.” He unrolled his field jacket, pulling it on. Did it just get colder, or is it me?
Carter said, “So that explains why you reacted the way you did when the Pentagon sent Colonel Cromwell and his team to the SGC as part of their crisis response.”
“Yeah. Except for about five minutes in the hospital, right after I got out of that prison and was sent back stateside, that was the first time I’d laid eyes on Frank since we’d gone on that mission. I hadn’t spoken to him in over eight years. I hadn’t even so much as mentioned his name to anyone; even Kawalsky and Ferretti knew better than to bring him up around me, and they’d both served with us for a while, back in the day. I just wrote him completely out of my life. I couldn’t figure out how the hell it wound up being his team they sent, and I still can’t. I mean, of all the stupid luck. Thing is, even though I thought I’d written him out of my life, I’d never really gotten him out of my head, you know?”
“That’s understandable, sir. You’d been best friends for such a long time before Iraq.”
“It’s more than that, though. He’s been in my head even more the past couple of years.” The colonel leaned his elbows on the log at his back. This was the part where his past intersected his present in a way he’d never articulated before, nor probably would have if not for what he’d just been through. But of the people in his life at present, O’Neill felt he owed something to two of them in particular, especially now. If their current mission proved successful, there was a good chance they might learn anyway at least something of what he was about to tell them, so he might as well explain it. And if not… No. Don’t go there. “Honestly, Carter, Daniel… in some ways, you’ve both always reminded me of Frank. Not in a bad way, either of you, but that didn’t necessarily make it easy. I spent so many years hating the guy for what happened to me that it left a few raw spots, ya know?”
Carter asked, “Daniel and I remind you of Colonel Cromwell, sir? How?”
O’Neill sighed. “Because Frank’s something of a geek, Carter. Not out loud in public, like you and Daniel; but under the surface, where most people never saw it unless he wanted them to, oh yeah. Geek city.”
She raised an eyebrow and grinned. “Says the man with the telescope on his roof.”
“Yeah, I’m an astronomy geek, but that’s about as far as it goes. Hell, Carter; you know that.” O’Neill shook his head. “While I know more about astronomy than Frank, he always knew more about science overall, even if he didn’t go admitting it to too many people. He’s no genius, at least I don’t think so, but he’s damned intelligent. He used to read a lot of science magazines, just for the hell of it, and sometimes he’d buttonhole me with stuff that had caught his interest. Half the time it was over my head, and the other half I suppose I pretended it did just to mess with him.”
Carter smiled at her CO’s admission about his own personal habit. She knew perfectly well that the befuddled act was just that: an act. O’Neill was no slouch in the intellectual department. You couldn’t be; not and get to his level of both ability and responsibility. From O’Neill’s description of Cromwell, the two sounded like men cut from very similar cloth.
Daniel asked, “And what does he have in common with me, Jack?”
O’Neill shot him an unfathomable look. “A hell of a lot, Daniel. For one thing, the guy doesn’t have much family. Oh, he did, growing up, but by the time I met him they were almost all gone, and we were both still pretty young then. I think that’s part of why he stayed in the Air Force long after his obligation was up. Being in the service kind of gives you a family, of sorts.”
“His obligation?” Daniel’s tone was curious.
“Yeah. I went to the Academy; I always knew I wanted to be a career officer. Frank’s path was different. He went the ROTC route in college, because he needed money to pay for his education. He really wanted a college degree, and his folks either couldn’t or wouldn’t pony up the cash. He had enough money saved up for the first year, and spent that time figuring out a way to manage the rest. He figured some time as an Air Force officer was a reasonable trade for an education, and good preparation for a future career. At first he planned to go back to civilian life afterward and become a high school teacher, or if he could find enough time and money to get a PhD, then he was gonna shoot for that, and spend the rest of his life teaching at some university. He’d probably have been good at it, too.” O’Neill shrugged. “But he always said that after a couple years of active duty, he kind of fell in love with military life. So he made up his mind to stick around for the long haul, and that’s when he decided he wanted to be in Special Ops. Hell of a switch, but then nobody ever said either one of us was exactly sane.”
“So, what did he study in college?” Daniel wanted to know.
“History. And as I recall, he minored in anthropology. Those were two other things he’d go on about if I let him. He’d talk about the background of whatever place it was we went to, or just about something he’d read that had caught his interest.”
“No kidding? So when I — ”
“Exactly, Daniel.” O’Neill massaged the space between his eyes. “I mean, I can always close National Geographic when I’m feeling overloaded. You and Frank are a different story. You kind of have different areas of concentration, but it’s the same overall effect.”
“Jeez, Jack. No wonder you get irritated with me, if I’ve been reminding you of someone you didn’t want to think about. I didn’t mean to reopen old wounds. I apologize.”
The colonel shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, okay? For all I know, maybe it’s something I needed. And I’ve told you to can it when it was most annoying. Besides, you and Carter have other things in common with him; things nobody in their right mind’s ever gonna complain about. You might bicker with me all the time, but you’re both loyal as hell. You too, Teal’c. And so’s Frank. I kind of lost sight of that after what happened in Iraq. But he said something to me while it was just the two of us down there in the control room, getting ready to start the auto-destruct. I didn’t want to listen, but he didn’t leave me any choice; just said his piece whether I wanted him to or not. And the truth is, it wasn’t really his fault that I wound up in that prison cell.”
He resumed turning the coin between his fingers, staring at it as he spoke aloud the words that gave Frank absolution, even if it were in absentia, at least for the moment. “Shit happens, especially in the middle of a firefight. And smart as he is, Frank’s not superhuman; no more than I am. He didn’t have any way of knowing I wasn’t dead when I went down. Given the way I was hit, I can see how he’d have assumed the worst. There wouldn’t have been any way for him to know it wasn’t much more than a graze, not without probably getting himself killed trying to get to me, and I wouldn’t have wanted that. Not that he wouldn’t have taken that chance, if it had been just him and me there, because I know damn well he would have. He’d done something like it before. But there were six other guys with us this time, and with our CO dead, me going down left Frank in charge of the team. The helicopter was already there; I could hear rotors as I was lying on the ground wondering how much of my head was gone. They had to load up and fly out, or lose the entire team and possibly the helo and the flight crew. You don’t sacrifice a bunch of lives to retrieve a corpse. Frank really didn’t have a choice; he’d have known his duty at that point was to the living. The problem is, I was too busy just trying to survive to think about it logically.”
He stared into the fire for a moment, his teammates waiting in silence, giving him space to think. When he spoke again, his voice took on a slightly ragged edge. “It took having to leave Henry Boyd and his team on P3W-451 to make me really think about what kind of position Frank had been in. I got it straight-up pointed out to me that it was the same situation.” He lifted his gaze from the fire, bringing it to rest on Daniel, suddenly realizing the other error he’d made. “And there’s no excuse, because I should have realized a lot sooner. I mean, yeah, I know it turned out to be an illusion, but when we all thought you’d burned to death on whatever that planet was, the one where you met your buddy Nem, and we came back without you… Ah, hell, you’d think I would have gotten a clue then what it must have been like for Frank.” O’Neill sighed. “He always did tell me I had a thick skull.”
“We’ll find him, Jack,” Daniel reassured him.
“We’d damn well better.” He cleared his throat. Having gone this far, the need to unburden himself demanded he share one more piece of the story. “Do you know what else he told me, while it was just him and me down there? When he found out I was alive and in prison, he wanted to go back for me, go in and get me out of there. Knowing Frank, he’d have had the whole mission mapped out, but of course getting the brass to okay it was probably where it bogged down. That bastard West was in charge of ops in the area at the time, and he always was the kind of hardass who saw individuals as expendable.” He pushed himself upright to sit on the log, grabbing a small chunk of wood from the pile next to him and hurling it into the flames, sending a shower of sparks skyward. “I’d never had a clue Frank attempted to put together a rescue, though, until two days ago. If he tried to explain it to me when he came to see me in the hospital after I got stateside — and I’m guessing he did — I don’t remember. I wasn’t exactly in a listening frame of mind at the time; I was too busy screaming and looking for things to throw at him.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “By the way, kids, don’t try to rip a phone cord out of the wall if you’re in a hospital bed with tubes in your arm. It doesn’t work, and it hurts like hell. Tends to piss off the nurses, too.”
“Now I see why you were ready to go toe-to-toe with General Hammond.”
“That had something to do with it, Daniel, yes.”
Teal’c spoke up. “O’Neill, we will continue searching. We will find your friend.”
Later, after they had turned in for the night, Carter found herself reflecting on her CO’s revelation, as she waited for sleep to come. No, the colonel wasn’t one to share much about his personal life with his team. Perhaps not with anyone. Yet he had done so this evening. That, combined with his manner prior to their embarking on this mission, and the look of pure shock and worry on his face — neither of them an emotion he often showed — when he’d found the coin in the stream, told her just how shaken he was by recent events.
I hope his friend is safe, she mused. Not only for his own sake, but because I’m afraid it will be very hard on Colonel O’Neill if he isn’t.