Summary: The only thing sadder than a battle lost.
Fandom: Stargate: SG1
Spoilers and/or Warnings: anything up to New Ground during Season 3. Violence, death, destruction, sexual assault, themes more than anything.
Title, Author and URL of original story: Rules of Engagement by thehallway
Notes: With thanks to beatrice_otter for excellent beta services. The title comes from a phrase from Yeats, used by journalist Fergal Keane to describe events in Rwanda in 1994. Much respect to him and his writing, they were invaluable.
Somehow the air seems warmer, more humid, on the way back to the gate. They take the longer road to avoid the Sylation forces that they deliberately do not call enemy. It winds its way through the mountains – the way is hard, as their reluctant guide Kawil had warned – and by rights it should be cooler than the path they took the day before. Somehow the atmosphere weighs heavier, more oppressively upon them than it did on their trek through forest below. Glancing back at the silent brooding figure of Daniel behind her, Sam’s fairly sure it’s not just the weather to blame.
Teal’c is calm in the face of the onslaught, even after the stress of battle, he is perfectly composed and in control. Head cocked to one side, countering Daniel’s anger and frustration with logic and experience.
“So what?” Daniel spits the words out, frustration barely contained, “we just stand back?”
The Colonel steps forward then, between the pair of them, Teal’c in turn stepping back a little, silently indicating his respect for whatever decision is made by their CO. She knows without looking that all the Colonel’s energy and attention is currently focused on Daniel, Teal’c’s small gesture having reassured him that he has the older man’s support.
“No,” he states firmly, “we stand down.”
She stares hard at the fire, getting used to the cold certainty that they cannot save these people. This is always the worst part of war, when the line between battle lost and battle won becomes blurred and neither conclusion seems ‘right’. The smoke stings her eyes and smell of burning flesh fills her nose and makes her stomach roil, yet still she stares at the flames; bearing witness even though she knows that it will take dozens of showers to rid herself of them smell. The fire is dying, but the flecks of ash continue to flutter on the remaining thermals; sticking to her damp skin and getting into her mouth, tasting bitter like defeat. The flames equally unable to erase these soldiers’ crimes or her memories of this loss. She allows herself a moment to pretend they will.
“They’re going to die,” Daniel’s voice is quiet, raw and pitched to hurt them.
Her attention back on the rest of her team, she cannot miss the tension in the Colonel as he rolls his shoulders and cracks his neck, trying to distract himself from the admission of defeat that weighs down his response. “Yep. Probably.”
Daniel turns away from them muttering curses in Abydosian, whether just at the Colonel or all of them. She sees him reach out to stop Daniel as he walks away, but she intercepts his gaze and with a sharp shake of her head follows Daniel in his stead. The Colonel will carry enough weight of this day on his own shoulders; she can shoulder this much herself.
She catches up with him easily, which she takes as a good sign; he shakes her hand off abruptly which is less hopeful. His words when he speaks are abrupt and accusatory. As though he expects her to be on his side in this and is offended rather than hurt that she isn’t.
“This isn’t right. You know it isn’t.”
She can’t deny his words. It isn’t right; it isn’t fair. Little about war ever is. This is the burden they bear as soldiers, that no matter how hard they train, how good at their jobs they are; they cannot save everyone. She would give anything to have been able to protect him from that experience. Glancing back at the Colonel she sees him crouch down beside young Kawil, breaking into his grief, doing what needs to be done. It isn’t fair that Kawil cannot have time to grieve properly over his wife’s body. It isn’t right that her equally young life was cut short in the first place, a non-combatant in a war she was likely as vague about as Kawil had been, one who’ll probably never get a proper grave.
“No it isn’t,” she agrees, “but it is what it is.”
It’s hardly the first time they’ve walked through the gate and smack into the middle of someone else’s war. Only a few months ago they’d been held in electrified cages, having stepped through the literal flash point of the Bedrosian/Optrican war on P2X-416. Perhaps the lines are more clear-cut when it’s purely military they encounter; after so much time spent fighting the bureaucracy of their own planet, he can harden his heart to their fate. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Daniel’s a civilian, oft times it’s gotten them into trouble and more times it’s gotten them out of the same. She’s quite sure that they do their best to shelter him as much as possible from the grim realities of war, preserving what remains of his innocence. They don’t judge him in his rage; they’ve all been there themselves. All had to face the reality that sometimes their best just isn’t good enough, that their best intentions will in fact do more harm than good. So they give him his space and wait for his next outburst.
Occasionally through the mist crags loom threateningly above them and the rainforest canopy emerges below them, drawing their minds inevitably to the dark acts taking place beneath the cover of those trees. At those moments, her pack seems infinitely heavier, the air more stifling and she becomes hyper-aware of the way her fatigues are stiff with mud, sweat and blood. All in all she’s glad when the mists close in however slow it makes the going. They walk on.
The route through the lowlands that they’d taken to the village the previous day would have cut almost a day of their journey, but by silent agreement they had headed into the mountains with the remaining villagers. They had helped carry the injured until they reached what was clearly the main path through the mountains, where with little fanfare the two groups had parted company. She tries not to think about the half broken group of survivors toiling up the trail into the distance and the mist. Instead she puts one foot in front of the other and concentrates on not loosing her footing on the shifting scree beneath her boots. She curses the continued silence as they trudge on in single file. Without the usual distractions of her team-mates’ banter and petty disputes she can’t keep her mind from sliding back to the valley below them. Can’t stop herself from wondering what it was that Teal’c saw when he scouted out the way they’d come originally. His eyes darkened and his expression set, so that only a terse shake of the head had been enough for the Colonel to take them the longer road home.
They break for a few minutes half way up the first of the foothills. Rationing out their fresh water to the injured and swallowing down their energy bars to keep their own strength up. They do their best to patch up the survivors before they leave. Time taken now to bind an arm or splint a leg will save more than time further up the road. She carefully doesn’t watch as the Colonel talks quietly with Kawil and a bent elderly man a short distance away – doubtless discussing places of refuge that might be found. She works as quickly and methodically as she can, putting every last bit of her field medical training to the test, every moment’s debate another dislocated joint she can pop back in, another wound she can delay from festering.
Daniel calls her over to one of the villagers who has a blanket wrapped tightly around herself where she sits perched on a rock, a little way away from the rest of the villagers. His voice is strained as he speaks, detailing the injuries he saw when they found her in one of the huts earlier; she remembers noting that the girl had been limping earlier, though she would take no help or support. As he rises to his feet he removes Sam’s helmet; when she looks up at him puzzled, he holds her eye for a long moment before looking away muttering that she might need a reminder that Sam was female. Part of her understands that he is thinking of Sha’re imprisoned in her own body and wants to reach out and offer her friend comfort. The other part of her is fighting a wave of nausea and the desire to go back to the village and kill the Sylation soldiers all over again: except slower.
However, because they are not that kind of soldier – they are better than that she promises herself, still reciting rules of engagement in her head – she turns back to the woman who has lived her own worst nightmare, and once Daniel is a safe distance away sets about persuading her, Narina her name is, to let her treat the wounds. Narina watches her with hollow, emotionless eyes as she carefully explains what she’s doing as she cleans each of the shallow wounds where a machete has been held too tight against soft skin. Beneath the blood and grime that mars it, the half-shredded shirt Narina wears is a beautiful shade of blue. Sam forms a human shield against the rest of the world as Narina stiffly removes it, pulling on Sam’s own spare t-shirt in its place. She finishes shredding the ruined shirt and uses the strips to bind Narina’s sprained ankle. Narina speaks then, as Sam pulls the strips tight and firm, telling of the rarity of the dye, especially in times of war. Voice quiet and tense as she recalls how long she had to save for it, the stolen hours with her best friend sewing it by hand, and the disapproving looks of the older woman for daring to dress above her place in the world. She doesn’t say it but Sam hears it anyway, the unspoken comment, for daring to dream. They both pretend that the tears rolling down her cheeks are for the shirt.
When they continue up the path Narina takes the arm of one of the older women whose limp is far more pronounced than her own and holds her head up high. Narina wears her blanket like a tabard over her skirt and Sam’s t-shirt and Sam thinks that perhaps this day hasn’t been a complete disaster. Teal’c falls into step beside her and for a few minutes they walk together watch Narina in silence. She waits for the inevitable comment about the t-shirt wondering how Teal’c will play it. The Colonel would doubtless remind her that they are not the kind of soldiers they just fought, while Daniel would perhaps spout platitudes or comment on the kindness of strangers if he weren’t too busy being angry with them all. Eventually she glances across at Teal’c and he only raises an eyebrow at her, not judging merely questioning and she feels compelled to explain.
“They took everything else from her Teal’c, I can’t fix any of that, the least I could do was give her back a little bit of dignity.”
She thinks for a long moment he isn’t going to answer and goes back to watching Narina, until she feels a light touch on her arm and she looks back at him.
“Major Carter,” he hesitates for a moment before continuing, “I wish you to be aware that should your shirt ever become so torn, I would gladly lend you mine.”
She understands exactly what he isn’t saying so answers in turn without words, reaching over to squeeze his hand where it still lays gently on her arm. They nod at each other and walk on keeping a careful watch on their temporary charges.
They make camp that night under the shelter of rock outcrop, eating MREs in silence before dividing the night’s watches between them and turning in for the night. She takes first watch, and seeing Daniel sleeping peacefully decides against waking him. There will be enough nightmares for all of them; let him sleep while he can she figures. Halfway through what should be Daniel’s watch Teal’c appears to replace her, apparently unsurprised by her continued presence. She crawls gratefully into her sleeping bag and hopes to steal a few peaceful hours of her own. Waking again at the turn of third to last watch, she hears the Colonel and Teal’c’s low voices drifting through the still air.
“The rain is incessant. The river Kawil’s village uses for water must flow into that which we followed on our way there. The condition of the river,” Teal’c pauses there and she can imagine all too well the ‘condition’ of the river, the muddy red of its shallows, “was not one in which I would wish to wade.”
She can’t see either of their faces, but in the heavy silence she can imagine each of their little tics as they remember other battlefields, other places they’d rather forget.
“Back in the nineties, my old team and I were, well lets call it on assignment in Zaire,” she’s mentally correcting the Colonel when he does it himself, “Democratic Republic of Congo these days. For reasons that weren’t clear at the time we were sent back to our rendez vous point in Tanzania via Uganda. Which made, no sense, cutting through Rwanda was our plan and quicker, and we really wanted to get home. But we were warned off so we go the long way round, and on the road we’re hearing these crazy tales about some sort of massacre across the border.”
He continues speaking but she’s not really hearing his words anymore. His economical descriptions of the way the Kagera River forms the border between Tanzania and Rwanda, how beautiful the Rosomo falls once were, are lost on her. She doesn’t need to hear him expand upon it; she’s seen the news footage, of the river swollen with mud and mutilated bodies. In this moment she agrees entirely with him as he spits the words out disgustedly:
“No intervention in internal political disputes, my ass.”
She always thinks of those UN troops, watching a massacre unfold around them and under orders not to interfere: of the world collectively looking away. Even if they failed those villagers, at least they tried; they had to try.
Sometimes she knows that rules are all that keep them safe from what they might become, sometimes the rules make them do far worse things. She falls back to sleep and dreams of a hospital ward somewhere in the Middle East, full of people whose own government have turned their chemical weapons on them. The horrible feeling of having fought and won a war, only to see the leader who had done this to these people left in charge. She treasures this posting, where she has some measure of control and power, can fight those who give the wrong orders, even when they’re on the same side. With people she trusts to know when to stand and fight and when to walk away, however much it hurts.