"--ry, but I'm cutting you off, Colonel."
Dr. Sam Beckett blinked as the light of the Leap faded and his new surroundings came into focus. He was sitting at a bar, facing a grey-haired bartender who had both palms flat on the counter, studying him with a look that was both firm and sympathetic. For a second, he thought he was back at Al's Place, but no...this bar was more--for lack of better word--terrestrial. It was dark, murky, and based on the CD-based juke box, a lot closer to his own present than 1952. Although what was his own present anymore? He'd been Leaping for so long, he wasn't even sure if he could justify laying claim to whatever was the present day for his colleagues back at the Project.
"Wh-what?" the time traveler stammered, still disoriented.
The bartender sighed. "Don't argue with me, Jack. I know this hasn't been an easy time for you, and I understand why, but..." He paused, glancing towards the door as if expecting someone.
Jack. Okay, so apparently that was his name this time around. "I wasn't arguing, I just..." Sam trailed off, not quite sure how to finish that sentence. The first few minutes of a Leap, before Al showed up, were always a bit confusing; at least this time he had the excuse of being--apparently--drunk. "I...how many have I had?"
The other man chuckled. "I rest my case. Look, Sara should be here in a few minutes--"
"Sara?" Sam interrupted.
"I called her," the bartender offered defensively, straightening up and taking a step back as if anticipating a violent response. "Look, Jack, I won't pretend I know what you're going through. I can't even imagine losing one of my kids. But if you're not careful, you're going to lose her too."
So now he had four pieces of information: his name was Jack. He was a Colonel in some branch of the military--probably the American military, judging by the accents of those around him. He'd recently lost a child and had apparently been trying to drown the memory in alcohol, and he had someone in his life named Sara--either a wife or girlfriend, probably the child's mother--whom he was also in danger of losing.
If only most Leaps were this informative in the first few minutes, he thought wryly.
The bartender apparently took his silence as reproach, because he leaned across the counter and placed a hand on Sam's shoulder. "You had no damned way of knowing he'd figured out how to take the safety off. Hell, you weren't even in the room. It wasn't your fault."
More pieces fell into place. Oh God...
"No," a tired female voice came from behind him--a voice that sounded drained of all emotion. "You only failed to lock it up like I've been asking you to do for years."
Sam turned his head sharply to see a woman with short blonde hair and dead eyes standing behind him. "Sara," he guessed.
She let out a resigned sigh, that unnerving flatness still in her voice. "Who else cleans up all your messes, Jack? The Air Force certainly won't do it anymore."
The bartender snatched the empty glass out from in front of Sam, setting it down behind the bar almost hard enough to shatter. "Hell, Sara, he beats himself up enough over this. He doesn't need it from you too."
Sam glanced from one to the other, taking in the anger in the bartender's eyes and the persistent lack of emotion in Sara's as they stared at each other over his head. The time traveler took a deep breath and let it out slowly:
The drive from the bar to what was presumably Colonel Jack's home was a silent one, which was making Sam antsy. Of course, it didn't help--it never did--that Al still hadn't shown up.
He had enough information to start to piece together why he was here, but it was always nice to get confirmation, or at least input, from Ziggy. Besides which, Al taking this long to appear was usually a sign either of technical difficulties back at the Project, or worse, trouble with the Visitor in the Waiting Room. He suspected the latter: at best, the man whose life he'd Leaped into was grieving a son who'd apparently shot himself with his father's gun. At worst (since Sam had no idea if Leaping had any effect on intoxication--he'd never been drunk when he Leaped, at least not that he could remember), he was also dangerously drunk.
If he was right about what he was here to do--try to save Jack and Sara's failing marriage--it wasn't going to be easy. Not with both of them blaming Jack for their son's death. He needed more information if he was going to have any hope of succeeding: at the very least, the son's name.
By the time Sara pulled into the driveway, parked the car and let them both into the house, still without speaking a word to him, Sam was rapidly approaching a state of panic. What was he supposed to do when he walked through that door? Follow her up to bed, or head for the couch? Try to apologize, or persist with this cold silence? He might have a genius IQ and a formerly-eidetic memory, but that was pretty much useless in this situation; he didn't have the information he needed and it couldn't be pulled out of thin air or just deduced. Where the hell was Al?
As if on cue, a familiar, gravelly voice spoke out of thin air behind him. "Nice place."
Long habit prevented Sam from letting out a wordless cry of relief. He just turned to the hologram, poised to greet him with the usual "what took you so long?" but Al didn't give him a chance.
He grimaced, gesturing towards Sara. "They had it all, Sam--the house, the kid, and still wild about each other after ten years of marriage. Jack and Sara O'Neill were living the dream, until their son, Charlie, accidentally put a bullet through his head. They haven't been the same since."
Sam just nodded, trying not to smile lest Sara notice it while he searched for an excuse to get Al alone and find out what else Ziggy knew. "I'll, uh...be just a moment, I just have to--"
"Don't bother," Sara stated in that same dead tone as she'd used in the bar. "I've stopped expecting it."
"He's been sleeping in Charlie's room ever since the kid died," Al supplied without being asked, also without a single lewd remark about Sara. It would have seemed out of character if Sam didn't know how much genuine compassion and empathy his friend hid behind that cocksure exterior. "If you can call it sleeping. Probably more like going over that day again and again in his mind, trying to figure out what he could have done differently."
"Ah...right," Sam conceded the point with a rueful smile. "I guess I'll...see you in the morning."
Sara didn't even answer, just closed the bedroom door behind her with a soft snick.
As soon as she'd gone, Sam sank into the first chair he could find. "Oh, God, Al..."
"I know." The hologram grimaced, gripping the handlink like a lifeline. Sam knew him well enough to know what was probably going through his mind: he was seeing himself in O'Neill's shoes. Al might still remember a time before he'd had a successful marriage and four grown daughters, but that didn't mean he loved them any less fiercely than any other father. More so, in fact, since the double set of memories meant he knew exactly what he'd be without. "Sorry it took me so long getting here, but between Colonel O'Neill's mental state and his black ops background, we had a hell of a time getting any information out of him."
"What else did you find out?"
That made the older man scowl. "Not enough, but we're still working on it. I'm telling you, Sam: half this guy's life is classified, and even with the clearance we've got, the Air Force is still pitching a fit about sharing information."
Sam interrupted before Al could go off on an inter-branch rivalry tangent. "What about his personal life?"
"Aside from what you already know?" Al gestured towards the stairs with his ever-present cigar. "No surviving family and he hasn't spoken to most of his friends since Charlie died. Most of them don't even know he ever had a kid."
Too restless to stay seated, Sam rose and started to pace the room. "I don't understand--why didn't I Leap in earlier? I could have saved Charlie's life, stopped all of this from happening."
"Hell if I know," Al shot back. "I'm not the one Leaping you around."
No, that was a different Al...if Al really was his name. Sam sighed. "All right, so I'm here to try to save their marriage."
"Ah…actually, that's one of the things Ziggy doesn't know."
That stopped him mid-pace. "What else could it be?"
Al hit a few buttons on the handlink. "Jack O'Neill is going to get a visit from the Air Force tomorrow night. He's going to be reactivated and offered a top." He smacked the side. "Secret mission. In the original history, he turned it down, moved to Minnesota and effectively disappeared, only resurfacing long enough to sign the divorce papers."
"What was the mission?"
"That's the part we don't know." The Observer scowled. "Ziggy can't find any information on the mission, it's buried so deep in the Pentagon's files. All we could find out is that none of the men involved returned from it."
"And you think O'Neill's presence might make a difference."
"It's possible," Al agreed with a shrug. "The only problem is, Verbena says our Visitor is borderline suicidal. He's too good of a commander not to try to save his men--"
"--but he might get sloppy and let himself get killed in the process."
Sam ran a worried hand through his hair. "I need to know more. Tell Ziggy to pull every string we've got. I need to know..."
I need to know if I'd be sending Jack to his death, as well as handing down a death sentence to his marriage. He didn't add that, but he didn't need to. Al knew.
"I'll do what I can, but no promises: the Air Force is turning out to be a surprisingly tough nut to crack on this one." The hologram scowled and Sam smiled. "What are you going to do?" Al asked.
"I'm going to go to bed."
"In the kid's room?" Al wrinkled his nose on that one.
"No. In Jack's." Sam glanced over at the silent staircase, frowning. "If she'll let me."
Sam woke up the next morning with a headache. As usual, the first night after a Leap, it took a moment for him to orient himself to his surroundings, but the cramped position he'd fallen asleep in helped speed up that process.
Groaning, he sat up on the couch, stretching and grimacing as joints popped loudly and his memory of last night came back in a rush.
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to watch you self-destruct? Jesus, Jack, you won't even say his name! I'm terrified I'm going to come home someday and find you've put a bullet through your head too."
"And here I thought that was what you wanted."
Sara had slapped him and then kicked him out after that, and Sam didn't blame her. Just thinking about it made him want to beat his head against the wall--what the hell had come over him?
Judging by Sara's reaction? Probably Jack O'Neill.
Sam sighed and buried his face in his hands. Okay, so it wasn't as bad as having Lee Harvey Oswald in his brain, but never knowing when some inappropriate smart remark might come out of his mouth--thanks to whatever fragment of Jack O'Neill was still lingering in his magnafluxed brain--was not making his job easier.
If this is your job.
Well, he was going to operate under that assumption until Ziggy told him otherwise, anyway. Who knew? If he was lucky, maybe he might even be able to save both--the O'Neills' marriage and the men on that mission.
Now he just had to figure out how to achieve the former after last night's debacle.
There was a heaping stack of pancakes on the table, with sausage sizzling in a frying pan on the stove and coffee percolating by the time Sam finally saw Sara. She came down the stairs cautiously, dressed in a pair of khakis and a button-up denim shirt over a white tank, looking only slightly rumpled.
"Hey," Sam greeted her with an apologetic smile. "Pancakes and syrup are on the table. Help yourself."
She stared at him as if he'd grown a second head. "You made breakfast?"
"Ah...yeah. Consider it an apology for last night."
Sara frowned. "Okay, who are you and what have you done with my husband."
Sam almost dropped the frying pan. "W-what?"
She stepped all the way into the room and folded her arms defensively across her chest. "The Jack O'Neill I know doesn't apologize. And he can't cook anything that doesn't involve meat and a grill."
"I'd wait until you taste them before changing that assessment," Sam cautioned, carefully tipping the finished sausage onto a plate already waiting with a paper towel to absorb the worst of the grease. He couldn't very well tell her he'd learned a few things about cooking the last few times he was a mother, after all.
"So that's it," she stated flatly. "You make me a breakfast that may or may not be edible, and I'm just supposed to forgive you for everything?"
"Is it working?" Sam asked with a half smile.
Sara covered her face for a moment before letting out a long sigh. "It's a start. A small one."
He felt the tension in his shoulders uncoil a little as she sat down at the table and helped herself to the top pancake on the stack. It was a start, and a start was all he needed. Hopefully.
"So what happens after breakfast?"
Sam paused in the act of setting the plate of sausage on the table. "Ah...I thought we'd sort of figure that out as we go."
For the first time since he'd met her, Sara O'Neill laughed, really laughed. "Now that's the Jack O'Neill I know."
It was a start.
He poured coffee while Sara helped herself to sausage, then brought both cups over to the table where cream and sugar were already set out for her to help herself. "Orange juice?"
She nodded, looking a little dazed. "Yeah...yeah, that'd be nice."
A silence descended then that couldn't really be described as comfortable or uncomfortable, but rather fell somewhere in between. While Sam loaded up his plate, Sara poured syrup and sweetened her coffee before digging in with only a half-second's hesitation.
"Oh my God."
He looked up, suddenly worried. "What? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Sara shook her head in amazement. "Jack, these are fantastic. When did you learn to cook?"
Sam shrugged modestly. "Beginner's luck, I guess."
She set her fork down on the table and folded her arms again. "I thought you didn't believe in luck."
"Ah..." Sam's mind raced. "I don't. Except for cooking."
Sara made a noise low in her throat that sounded like a chuckle, her lips curving upwards just the slightest bit.
"Aha! That was a smile, don't try to deny it."
She looked at him. "It was. Thank you."
The rest of the meal passed quietly, interspersed with bits of inane small talk, but mostly the only sound involved dishes and silverware.
The one thing that never came up was Charlie. Sam knew in the long run that wasn't healthy, but for now...for now he just wanted to remind Sara how to feel something other than loss. If he was lucky, when he Leaped out, that memory would stay with Jack to provide a similar reminder for him.
All in all, it was...quiet. Almost peaceful.
"Sam, we need to talk."
One of these days he was going to have to have a talk with Al about his impeccable timing.
"How's Jack?" Sam asked, as soon as he'd managed to excuse himself and find a spot in the house where he and Al could talk privately--someplace that wasn't Charlie's room, because that would undo everything he'd hoped to achieve with the breakfast.
"Aside from making Verbena look like she's about ready to start seeing a shrink herself?" Al snorted. "Stubborn, sarcastic, angry at himself and angry at the world...honestly, Sam, even if you were supposed to save their marriage, I'm not sure it would stay saved once he got back."
That was what he'd been afraid of. "The mission?"
The hologram nodded grimly. "We finally got those nozzles at the Air Force to cough up some information, but it took some fancy footwork. You wouldn't believe how many Marines I had to get the Joint Chiefs to agree to commit to their pet project if we make the first mission a success. I had to pull so many strings it's a wonder my fingers aren't falling off." He wiggled them as if in demonstration.
"All right, but what's the mission?" Sam asked again.
Al took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "First contact."
Sam stared. "First contact. As in--?"
"With aliens," he confirmed. "Little green men, or whatever they look like. Turns out in 1928, some archaeologist dug something up on the Giza Plateau that looked like a giant metal hula-hoop. They played with it for a few years, and finally figured out--get this--it's not just decorative. Damn thing sucks up electricity like the entire sponge species. There was an accident and it got tucked back into mothballs...but then about a year ago, the archaeologist's daughter managed to talk the Air Force, of all branches, into giving it another go. They've figured out it's apparently some sort of portal, but they couldn't make it work until they brought in some washed-up archaeologist named Daniel Jackson. Lucky for Jackson, the mission commander--not O'Neill--refused to take him along. Otherwise he'd be dead instead of just disgraced." He paused and frowned. "Then again, being reduced to teaching ESL when you speak 32 languages with varying degrees of fluency and have three doctorates might be close to hell."
"I've done worse," Sam pointed out.
"Yeah, but not full time," Al countered.
"Is he my mission? This Daniel Jackson--am I supposed to get him on the team too?"
"Huh? Oh." The hologram frowned, then shrugged. "No idea. Guess he just reminded me of a certain other genius I know."
"Al..." Sam stated with a warning note in his voice.
The Observer waved him off and went back to pushing buttons on the handlink. "Actually, Ziggy thinks you're here because of the nuke."
Sam froze. "The what?"
Al hesitated a moment before elaborating. "Sam...the reason Jack O'Neill was being considered for this mission was because it's essentially a suicide mission. They were supposed to go through the ring, recon for any hostile life forms, and if they found any...blow whatever was on the other side to hell. Considering none of the men on that mission ever came back, and the ring has supposedly been useless ever since...chances are the guy they got to replace O'Neill used the bomb."
Sam suddenly felt an overwhelming compulsion to sit down. "And you think Jack wouldn't."
His friend sighed. "Ziggy says there's an 87.9 percent chance that at the very least, he would send the rest of the team home before he did. Sam...none of the men except the mission commander were briefed on the nuke."
God. "How many men?"
"Even one who doesn't know he's on a suicide mission is too many," Al answered vehemently.
"Then I don't have any choice," Sam stated, resigned. "I have to get Jack on that mission."
Al nodded. "All you have to do is accept it: from that point, once he's reactivated, he's pretty much locked in, even if he changes his mind after you Leap out."
Sam glanced towards the kitchen with a heavy sigh. "So I'm not here to save their marriage."
Al followed his eyes and grimaced in sympathy. "No, but hell, Sam, it never hurts to try."
"Jack?" Sara asked softly as Sam sat back down at the breakfast table and stared at his plate. He didn't answer her for a moment, so she reached out to lay one hand over his own. "It's okay, Jack. The only one who ever thought it wasn't okay for you to hurt was you."
A bitter laugh bubbled up in his throat, but he swallowed it before it could escape. He met her eyes with a sober smile. "I'll tell you what...let's make this day one to remember. Let's do something we always planned to do...but never got around to."
She drew back a little. "You can't keep pretending Charlie never existed, Jack."
"No...and I'm not trying to," Sam reassured her. "I just...I just want to remember who *we* were, before all this happened. Just for a day."
When she hesitated, he reclaimed the hand that she'd withdrawn from his own, entwining their fingers. "I don't want to lose you too, Sara."
He could see in her eyes the moment that she relented. "Well, we haven't been ice skating in years--"
"Great. We'll go ice skating. What else?"
"But the closest rink is--!"
"So?" Sam interrupted with a smile. "What else?" he repeated.
"Uh..." Sara looked flustered. "There's that new steak house, O'Malley's, that we'd talked about trying someday--"
"Dinner at O'Malley's, check. What else?"
"Jack!" She was laughing now, hard, and Sam felt a momentary surge of hope that he might be able to pull this off after all. Leaning in across the table, Sara kissed him softly. "I thought we'd sort of figure that out as we go."
The next few hours flew by in something of a blur--driving into town to the ice rink, then spending almost an hour just laughing and playing on the ice. Sam taught Sara several new steps that he'd learned in previous Leaps, dodging questions about where he'd learned them until she declared that she felt like they were at the Olympics.
Afterwards they'd gotten coffee to warm them back up and just walked around downtown Colorado Springs, mostly window shopping, but also stopping at one point at a bakery for cookies.
Finally, they headed home to change before going to O'Malley's. Sara had pointed out that it wasn't a fancy establishment, but Sam insisted, and when she came downstairs in a copper-colored dress that brought out the gold in her hair and her hazel eyes, he had to remind himself that Sara was another man's wife, and that it was that marriage he was trying to save.
At the restaurant, they threw money concerns out the window for the duration, with Sara ordering the filet mignon and Sam the prime rib, along with a bottle of wine.
They'd been eating quietly--but comfortably so--for about twenty minutes when Sara asked, "What did he say?"
Sam had been cutting a bite of his steak, but the knife stilled at her question. "What did who say?"
Sara set down her fork and picked up her wine glass, running a finger thoughtfully around the rim. "Bill at the bar last night. What did he say that...that got through to you?"
He sighed, setting down his silverware. "That it wasn't my fault. And that if I wasn't careful, I was going to lose you."
"Did you believe him?" she asked quietly.
Sam looked down, knowing that Jack would probably never stop blaming himself for his son's death. The question was, would he live long enough to learn to live with it? "That I was losing you, yes."
She didn't answer. The logical response to that would've been to reassure him that Bill was right, that it wasn't his fault, but Sam wasn't sure Sara was quite there herself.
Maybe neither of them ever would be, and maybe the reason he hadn't Leaped in here to save their marriage was that it couldn't be saved. But despite all the tragedy in his own life--only some of which he'd been able to change with his Leaping--Sam Beckett was still an optimist at heart.
Finally, Sara sighed. "When you were missing in Iraq...I prayed every day that you were all right, but I knew you were alive. I knew because I could feel it. It was like you were still there with me, like I could feel your spirit telling me to hold on."
Well, that was a part of Jack's background Al had failed to mention. Maybe because it wasn't relevant to what he had to do, or because it hit too close to home for the Observer.
She looked him straight in the eyes. "Since Charlie died...it's been just the opposite. You've been there every day, physically, but in some ways you might as well have been dead because it's as if your soul died with him. Until today."
Silence fell for a long moment, then she continued. "I needed you, Jack. We needed each other. But you weren't there for me, and you wouldn't let me be there for you. I want to believe that's changed...but you'll forgive me if it'll take a little more time."
And ironically, time was the one thing he didn't have. Glancing up at the clock, Sam sighed in rueful acknowledgment. "Let's go home."
Sara was still standing at the kitchen sink when the two Air Force officers left. Sam shut the front door behind them quietly, then moved hesitantly to approach her. She flinched when she heard his footsteps behind her, but didn't move.
"What did they want?" she asked crisply, all the warmth that had crept into her voice over the course of the day gone again.
Sam took another step into the kitchen. "I've been reactivated. There's a...a mission they want me to command."
"You know I can't answer that," he reminded her quietly.
She turned to face him for the first time since they'd walked through the front door. "You knew this was coming, didn't you? That's what today was about. God, Jack, what is so horrible about this mission that you felt the need to butter me up before--"
Sam reacted without thinking, dropping his eyes, and all the color drained from Sara's face. "Oh God. That's why they came to you, isn't it? They wanted someone who wouldn't care if he ever came back from wherever they're sending you. It's a goddamned suicide mission."
Sam closed the distance between them, taking her shoulders in his hands. She tried to pull away, but he held firm. "Sara, listen to me. I *will* come back. I promise. But I need you to be here when I do. That's what today was about--you were right, I needed you. I still need you, and what I need right now is for you to believe in me, remember this day and let it keep you from leaving while I'm gone."
Sara twisted away, finally breaking his grip. Tears filled her eyes. "I'm not the one leaving."
Sam watched her flee the room with a sinking heart.
"If it makes you feel any better," Al's sympathetic voice came from behind him. "You changed history. A couple of men are still lost on the mission, but most of them--including Jack O'Neill--come back in one piece. Daniel Jackson disappears for a while, but a year later he resurfaces working--get this--for the US Air Force out of Cheyenne Mountain."
"What about Jack and Sara?" he asked in a quiet voice.
The hologram sighed. "When he comes back, she's gone. They don't speak for about a year, then something happens that...well, I couldn't really find much, but they're friendly with each other again after that, even if they never do get back together. It works out for the best, though, Sam. Sara remarries a few years after that, and now has two kids with her second husband. The oldest has Jack O'Neill for a godfather, so that's something."
Sam looked at him. "So what about the mission? The first contact? How does that go?"
Al groaned. "No idea. Now that you've changed history, the Air Force seems to have conveniently forgotten our deal, so they're back to being--"
Whatever the Air Force was back to being got lost in the light and sound of a brand new Leap.