“Know how to live the time that is given you” – Dario Fo
He’d been right. These freaks were just a pile of paperwork waiting to happen. He’d been hoping the deluge wouldn’t start until he’d offloaded them and they’d become someone else’s problem at Elmendorf, but that had clearly been too much to hope for.
Amazing how much security clearance he’d been granted in such a short time. He had no idea where these people came from -- altered timeline, yeah, right – all he knew was that he wanted them off his hands.
O’Neill ran his fingers through his hair, scratched his head and sighed. 02:00. He should be tucked up in some nice cozy little tent on the ice having spent the day shouting at rookies who had no clue about surviving at the ass end of the planet. Instead, he was juggling calls from higher, a nasty little itch at the back of his brain that said this was not going to end well and the resounding echo of two words that were replaying on a loop and what the fuck was that about.
“Jack ... please.”
This was all too screwed up. A dead astronaut, some flyboy with, he suspected, attitude, and some civilian whacked out on drugs who was about to lose his leg and said, “Jack ... please” like he was about to explode with anger or his fucking heart was about to break.
Jesus. He needed coffee. He made his way to the galley, poured a mug and added a slice of apple pie for good measure. Three minutes later, he found himself at the door to the wardroom that housed Carter, Mitchell and Jackson, having scarfed the pie on the way. Why he hadn’t sat at a table in the galley instead was a mystery to him.
He nodded to the guard who stood aside and opened the door for him. Inside, Carter and Mitchell were nowhere to be seen – presumably safely under guard in sleeping quarters -- and Jackson was lying on the bed, eyes closed, still hooked up to a drip. Guy must be exhausted to be able to sleep on that thing. He didn’t look in pain. In sleep, he didn’t look like a whack job either. O’Neill crossed to the chair beside the bed and sat down, taking a sip of coffee as he did so.
As he studied Jackson’s face – boyishly handsome, heavy eyebrows, mouth a little too full to be entirely masculine -- the man woke up, blinked a couple of times and breathed in deeply, a look of distress scrunching those previously relaxed features.
“You in pain?” he asked.
Jackson blinked again and licked his lips. “Only insofar as I can smell that coffee but can’t drink it.”
“I doubt it. I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Oh.” O’Neill looked at his mug, wondered why he felt guilty, then shrugged and drained it anyway.
Jackson shifted on the bed, trying to get comfortable. For all he said he wasn’t in pain, his movements said otherwise.
“I’ll call the ...”
“No,” Jackson tried to lever himself up on his elbows. “Could you ...?” He nodded towards the head of the bed. O’Neill raised it until Jackson was sitting.
For some reason, O’Neill found himself futzing with the blanket, tucking and straightening. He stopped as soon he realized Jackson was looking at him. Just ... looking. He smoothed the blanket down and tapped his fingers for something to do. “What?” He finally asked, mildly exasperated and very disconcerted by the unnerving gaze of slightly drug-dulled blue eyes.
“You’re more like him than you think,” Jackson said. O’Neill didn’t think he was imagining the slight hint of amusement in Jackson’s voice.
Him. O’Neill. The other one, the one who was him but ... wasn’t. The one whose son was dead. Fucked up didn’t begin to cover this.
“I don’t want to know,” he said, gruffly.
“Oh, I think you do. I mean, another you, an almost-you, living a life that’s almost yours but not quite. Who wouldn’t want to know about that?” Jackson was inspecting the needle in his arm, speaking with an aggravating air of distraction that made O’Neill want to grind his teeth. Jackson looked up suddenly, as though he’d just remembered something. “Actually, Jack’s dead. Except, he’s not. Won’t be. When we sort this whole timeline thing out. I think. Timelines and alternate universes confuse me at the best of times, let alone when I’m high on the good stuff and can’t think straight. Anyway. Sam will figure it out. Find a way home.”
O’Neill raised his eyebrows. He didn’t get this. Any of it. Timelines, other O’Neills, dead ones, dead kids ...
“Look. I don’t know you from Adam. I don’t know this other ... me.” Did I really just say that? “All I know is some weird shit is going down and you and Miss Not-Dead-Astronaut and Captain America are at the heart of it.” God, he was angry. This man was keeping him off-kilter. He was responding to him in a way he didn’t understand.
They both seemed to run out of things to say then. The silence was finally broken when Daniel asked tentatively, “Is Sara at home with Charlie?”
This time O’Neill blinked. Several times. His private life was never up for discussion with anyone. Even those he worked most closely with knew next to nothing about the O’Neill who existed outside of work. But this guy seemed to know.
Jackson frowned, bowed his head, picked at the blanket. “Sorry. It’s the drugs. I don’t usually run off at the mouth like this.” He winced, fixed his eyes on the floor.
O’Neill sat down in the chair again. “I’m thinking you do. A lot. I’m thinking the other ... me ... lets you do that for some reason unknown to either him or ... me.”
Jackson let his head fall back and huffed an ironic-sounding laugh. “That’s the Jack O’Neill I know and ...” He bit his bottom lip and turned his head away. Runs off at the mouth but says next to nothing about what really matters to him, deep down. The emotional stuff. The Jackson-O’Neill stuff. He didn’t know how knew that, he just did.
“Sara’s fine,” he said, before he realized he was saying it. “She works for a charity supporting disabled kids. Charlie’s 14. He’s into baseball, street hockey, and, since Callie Westheimer moved in two doors down, girls. We vacation at our family cabin in Minnesota, go cycling together, enjoy barbecues with the neighbors and I let Sara drag me to church on high days and holidays.”
Jackson just looked at him, absorbed the information, processed it, logged it. O’Neill could practically see the mental cogs turning.
“I joined the Stargate program over a decade ago. I love my work, am frequently obsessed by it to the exclusion of all else. I play the piano badly, chess rather better, I had a wife but she died, oh, and people think I’m a coffee snob but I’m not. I’ll drink it anyway it comes, hot or cold. And hey, look, we’re sharing. Anyone would think we were friends or something.” He gave a small smile that was as irritating as it was cute.
O’Neill shook his head. “I don’t have friends. I have work colleagues I like, acquaintances I tolerate and a family I love.”
Jackson futzed some more with the needle and made a near-silent “Ow” sound. “No room for the closest thing to a best friend, huh?”
“Friends are a luxury I can’t afford. I’m Special Forces. And why the fuck am I telling you this?” He didn’t get it. He really didn’t.
“You’re the closest thing I have to ...
“A best friend.”
God. This day was turning into a total mindfuck. The sooner the Alexandria surfaced and he could get these people out of his hair the better. He let out a deep sigh, wandered over to the wall and leaned against it. At least it was solid, real. Nothing else felt solid or real. He did exist, right? He was O’Neill.
“What’s he like?” He suddenly, desperately wanted to know everything about this other guy with his face. There was obviously some connection between the other him and this guy that was bleeding through to the strangers in this room. What made that O’Neill consider this man a friend? It was so unlikely as to be laughable. This guy was a civilian, pushy, acerbic, aggravating. Vulnerable. Passionate.
Jackson licked his lips, seemed to gather this thoughts. “Irascible, loyal, good-hearted, way more intelligent than he lets on and a huge pain in the ass sometimes. We’ve been friends for a long time. Been through a lot.” He went quiet then, apparently lost in his own thoughts, probably an entire timeline away.
O’Neill tried to assimilate the information and wrap it up in a form he could understand. “You’ve bonded. Like military buddies.”
“Ye-ah,” Jackson said slowly, grimacing, “not really.”
O’Neill was at a loss. “I don’t get it.” He was truly floundering here.
“Neither do we most of the time. It just ... works.”
“You say his son killed himself?”
“With Jack’s personal gun.”
O’Neill shivered, felt his stomach knot into a tight ball. It was unimaginable. He tried to picture losing Charlie and couldn’t breathe. He walked over to the water jug by Jackson’s bed and poured himself a glass. That his son’s death could be caused by his own mistake ... “Careless,” he said, coldly.
Jackson’s head shot up. “Get out.” His face, so open and mobile before was closed and expressionless. His eyes, though, glittered with anger.
“Who the hell leaves a loaded gun where a kid can get hold of it?” The thought of his Charlie lying dead, face wreathed in blood, would haunt him forever.
“I was wrong. You’re not like him at all.” His voice was cold, flat.
“God, Jackson, it’s something the greenest rookie wouldn’t do.”
“He made a mistake. He locked that closet door a hundred times. He’s locked it a thousand times since in his dreams. He’s human and he screwed up and he’s paid for it every day. If it makes you feel any better, he wanted to kill himself.” Jackson was angry. Really angry. The kind of angry you got when you hurt on a cellular level on behalf of someone you ... loved.
“I told you to get out. I need to sleep.” Jackson pulled the blanket up around his shoulders and turned away on his side, body tensing as the movement caused him obvious pain.
O’Neill took another drink of water and placed the glass carefully back on the tray.
“What stopped him?” O’Neill addressed Jackson’s turned back.
“Stopped him from what?”
O’Neill could see Jackson’s shoulder rising and falling as he fought for control. When no reply came, O’Neill deduced the answer for himself. He reached out a hand but stopped short of dropping it on Jackson’s shoulder, curling his fingers into a fist. Although the urge to offer comfort was suddenly overwhelming, he knew instinctively it wouldn’t be welcome.
He wasn’t Jackson’s Jack, and Jackson’s Jack was dead.
“Get some sleep,” he said, the words coming out a little more gruffly than he intended. There was no room for sentiment here. Sentiment, friends, were unaffordable luxuries. “You’ll be transferred to Elmendorf and debrief in the morning.”
He stood for a moment. Jackson was lying still but O’Neill could feel he wasn’t asleep. Could sense the residual tension.
He stood there until Jackson’s breathing eventually evened out.
And then he stood there some more.
O’Neill turned away after he finished briefing the Air Force Base security detail and watched as Carter and Mitchell defiantly flanked Jackson, who was strapped to a gurney.
“You’ll be fed, watered and made comfortable, then you’ll be interviewed separately,” O’Neill addressed Mitchell. Talking to a dead astronaut freaked him out completely. “If you’re smart, you’ll co-operate fully.”
Mitchell fixed him with a steely gaze but said nothing. Carter offered a quiet, “Yes, Sir.” He looked down. Jackson’s face was pale and strained. He had surgery in his immediate future. As they started to move, Jackson held up his arm and everyone stopped. They all looked to O’Neill, who nodded at the airmen and Mitchell and Carter were escorted away.
“I’m sorry,” Jackson said. He was, too. O’Neill could see it in his eyes. “I shouldn’t have said some of those things last night.”
“You were under a lot of stress. Medicated ...”
“That’s no excuse. I’m pissed about what’s happened to us and ... I get defensive about what happened to Jack ...” He made a face.
“I get that,” Jack said, surprised at his gentle tone. I get a lot more than that.
Daniel nodded. He bit his bottom lip before speaking again. “I’m really glad you have Sara and Charlie.”
“Me too,” he managed, offering a tight smile. “Good luck.”
Jackson smiled a wry, quick smile that was just about the saddest thing O’Neill had ever seen, and then he was gone.
O’Neill gathered up the last of his things and shoved them in his pack. He’d just left the Alexandria and was killing time in Anchorage before his afternoon flight left for Peterson and home and a swiftly arranged week of leave. He needed to see his family, to hold Sara and hug Charlie. It was a cold, clear morning and he breathed deeply. He’d forgotten how much he hated breathing artificial air. He flipped his cell phone open and hit the button.
“Harry,” he said, “It’s me. I’m calling in one of the hundred or so favors you owe me. I want you to pull everything you have on Dr. Daniel Jackson. Yes that Daniel Jackson. I want to know where they send him. Don’t give me ... I have clearance. Okay, had clearance. Let’s not argue tenses between friends. No, this does not make us even.”
He spotted a coffee shop across the street and waited at the crossing.
“Why do I want to know?” He started walking.
“Because everyone needs a friend sometimes. Right?”
It was Jackson-O’Neill 101.