Title: Winter Solace
Spoilers: Season 8
Summary: Sara runs into Jack at the park. Sequel to 'Fine With It', but it's not necessary to have read the first one to follow this story.
Disclaimer: I own nothing to do with Stargate but my rabid fan behavior. Alas.
Sara pulled her fleece-lined coat tighter around her to ward off the chill Colorado winter wind. There was a bite to the air, despite the blazing sun of midday. The sky was void of clouds, a pale blue day with a nasty surprise for anyone who might look out the window and think it a light coat or sweater day. It was deceptive and tantalizing all at once and Sara stuffed her quickly numbing hands into her jacket pockets.
It was a week until Christmas and the taste of the holiday was everywhere one looked. Since Thanksgivings stores had put Christmas decorations in their front windows. Santa and holly leaves were an unavoidable sight. Festive lights cheerfully lined park walkways and adorned street lamp posts.
The spirit of Christmas was almost crackling on the crisp winds. Sara felt part of her ache, the part of her that had died when she lost Charlie. When she'd been in college, away from home to try and squeeze in a short semester during the break, she used to think Christmas could be a depressingly lonely occasion. She did not truly know the concept of a hollow, lonely Christmas until living through the first Christmas without Charlie.
Sara just felt like she noticed children more at Christmas. In the stores, on the streets, in restaurants and parks. Children with glittering, excited eyes, red noses and cheeks from the winter's cold, mittens and toboggans and snow-lined soles of children's shoes.
Sara walked through the park with only half a mind on where she was going. Because of the cold she headed nowhere quickly, her pace fast to warm herself. Few had dared the casual flirt with Old Man Winter as she had; the park was almost barren of human life. The few people she did see were parents bringing their children out to play. Children could not be contained at Christmas and they romped and chased one another in their layers of thick winter clothing as though the world was theirs.
Somehow that made things both harder and easier for Sara as her eyes occasionally left the walking path to glance upon the others at the park.
Sara was lost in her own thoughts, part of her deeply entrenched with the memories of her son and the way he'd laughed and glowed and been so full of life at Christmas. She was so distracted by the past that she almost didn't see him.
Sara glanced up and on one of the benches next to the walking path she saw an old man sitting alone. He was bent forward, elbows on his knees. His back formed the line of a tired parabola, his gray hair a plaything for the wind to batter and tease. An utter stillness to him seemed to cry of a secret pain. Sara knew the feeling... Christmas was hard.
Sara came to an abrupt halt when she blinked and the solitary man came into sharper focus. Her wind-kissed lips parted in shock. It was Jack. Jack, sitting alone in a park only a week from Christmas and looking so utterly worn that Sara's mind had dared to register him as 'an old man'. Sara's world tried to tilt and shift under her for that obscenity, even if she continued to look and continued to see the gray.
Sara stood a moment, torn as to what to do. She debated approaching him, wondered if she might not be better off leaving him alone. He looked 'internalized', the way he used to get when Sara knew she wouldn't be able to get through to him. His look of being so embedded inside himself that the outside world need not vie for any acknowledgment.
For that very reason, that he looked so lost, Sara moved toward him.
Jack didn't react immediately. His eyes were locked on something beyond her in the park. Sara glanced over her shoulder and saw that Jack was watching two small children play. His forlorn, distant expression made sense all of a sudden. Jack had to live with Christmas childless, too.
Jack finally pulled his eyes from the kids and looked up at her. He looked surprised to see her but didn't stir enough to react much beyond to say, "Sara."
Sara bit her lip and studied him. His coat was too thin for the weather; he'd catch his death out here like that. She looked for signs that she knew all too well. The last time she had seen Jack had been over two months at O'Malley's bar and grill when Jack had been celebrating his retirement from the Air Force... celebrating that retirement with a woman at his side. Sara could hardly forget Sam Carter.
Jack had looked good then, better than Sara had seen her ex-husband in a very long time. He'd been happy, truly happy, for the first in a long while. He'd learned how to laugh again and smile again and those parts of that night Sara would never forget.
Jack sat on the park bench, inarguably alone, and Sara watched her former husband now and looked for the signs of a break-up. With Jack O'Neill she knew those symptoms well. Jack turned his eyes away from her and started watching the children again, seemingly unconcerned with Sara's investigative intent.
Sara looked hard and close for evidence of Jack O'Neill in a spiral but she could find none. His cheeks weren't hollow from rapid weight loss, the skin beneath his eyes wasn't darkly shadowed from sleeplessness, his eyes weren't reddened with heavy alcohol consumption, his spark wasn't entirely gone. Still, there was something wrong.
"Where's Sam?" Sara finally risked to ask since she was fairly sure the younger woman was not the root of Jack's current problem.
Apparently Sara was incorrect. Jack stiffened fractionally at the name then answered thinly, "At home."
"Oh," Sara returned, then took it upon herself to sit down next to him. He was not moving, not even to shiver at the cold, as though too numb to even notice he was freezing. Sara started to reach out to touch his shoulder, reconsidered in light of vivid memories of the bad times, then settled on asking, "Are things between you and her okay?"
Jack looked away from the children to look at Sara again. At last his dark presence lifted a little to allow a glimmer of content to peek through. "We're okay," Jack answered in a voice getting dangerously close to approaching gentle. The threatening smile was instantly defeated by something more sinister, however, and Jack's expression went gloomy again.
Sara frowned but knew better than to press Jack O'Neill for answers he didn't want to give. She'd begged for answers too many times and been burned to the point of tears more often than she could count to try it now. She wasn't expected to stick her hand in the fire anymore, Jack was another woman's man.
Another woman who was conspicuously absent at the moment.
Jack looked over at her, his eyes mild, and Sara returned his gaze. She'd known plenty of men who had not aged well, but Jack made it look like a honed talent. Maybe she knew him too well, saw too much of the good days when she saw his face, to be objective, but she didn't care. Sara guiltily recalled, as she looked at his chilled features, that at first sight she'd seen him only as a tired, sad old man.
"Jack..." Sara finally ventured, her words softly but carefully enunciated, "where is Sam?"
Jack blinked at her. "She's at home," he repeated quietly, and then he regarded her curiously that she'd repeat a question he'd already answered. Curious was better than depressed and Sara allowed him his curiosity.
Jack took his eyes off her and sat back on the bench. "She was sleeping so I left her a note that I was going for a walk."
"It's the middle of the day," Sara pointed out.
"Well, it wasn't when I left the house."
Sara went solemn. Part of her got scared. She'd seen Jack fall apart, she'd seen him lose himself, and she was twice shy on the matter. She was terrified to think his sitting here alone was the first stumble into a perilous fall Sara knew far too well.
"You've been here since morning?" Sara asked warily.
Jack nodded, hands motionless in his lap.
Sara felt her heart start to race and her lungs burn with the need to gulp in air. She had the horrible feeling she was suddenly sitting next to a bomb, a human grenade that was coming close to going off, to scattering little pieces of Jack O'Neill to the winds. Sara couldn't watch that again, she couldn't trip through torn and shattered bits of Jack. Not again. Not on Christmas when Charlie was like a ghost at her shoulder. She wasn't strong enough to live through it twice.
Jack sat quietly beside her. Seconds dragged on and he didn't fly apart, he didn't self-destruct, he didn't even tense in rage.
Slowly, Sara began to think detonation was not as imminent as she'd feared. She forced herself to relax and adopt a policy of wait and see.
Jack took in a deep breath, exhaled it on a white cloud, then he spoke. His voice was so subdued, so halting, that Sara knew at once it was the source of his disquiet. She knew Jack well enough to know that much.
Sara sat like an ice sculpture beside him, capable only of rapid blinking. The words tumbled through her head and she waited for them to stick somewhere, to find a handhold in her mind so she could grapple it and say something in response. Her mouth wouldn't move until her brain had ceased to cartwheel.
Jack looked over at her when she didn't say anything and it jolted Sara enough to speak. "Oh, umm... congratulations."
Jack's expression was like a visage set in stone, unmoving and unflinching either negatively or positively.
Sara was baffled and confused. She couldn't help but remember when she'd told him they were going to have Charlie. It had been joy personified on his face. He'd smiled bright as the sun and he'd hugged her like she was the only person in the world that mattered and it had been pure, absolute happiness. Now he was telling her it was happening to him again but there was no smile, no giddiness, no sunshine.
It went against everything Sara thought she knew about Jack O'Neill.
Sara felt betrayed to think of him fathering children with another woman, having the nerve to be a parent after Charlie, but she knew she was being unfair to him. It was Christmas and she was a mother without her child.
Sara couldn't help but acutely notice that Jack and Sam had been together only a few months before this happened. "It looks like you two didn't waste any time."
"No, that's just it, we wasted a lot of time." There was a strange flatness and coldness to his voice, almost as strange as his words.
"Aren't you happy?" she asked.
Jack frowned in clear distress and looked away.
Sara shook her head as she thought aloud, "I always thought you'd want to have children again. Even after what happened to Charlie..." Sara swallowed. Jack looked at her again and his expression this time was undeniably gentle. "You just loved being a father too much to swear off it forever." Sara repeated that to herself so she wouldn't start to resent Jack or Sam for this. She'd always known, somewhere in her heart, Jack would find a way after her to be a father again. Some men were meant to have and raise children. One of the things she'd loved the most about Jack was that he was one of those men. Jack had paternal etched in his soul.
Jack sighed and it caught Sara's attention.
"I do want to have more kids," he said in a voice barely above a whisper. Some of that trepidation was not wanting to hurt her, the woman with whom he'd had and lost one child, but the rest was unease with his own feelings. It was an enigmatic subject with Jack, but Sara knew the subtle signals.
"And Sam..." Sara prompted.
"She wants to have kids, and she'll make a great mom. She wants to have children with me."
"So... what's the problem?"
Jack didn't answer for a long time, merely stared out at the park, and Sara could only sit and wait. She knew she might well be made to sit forever because Jack could be that way.
At long delay Jack spoke. It was honestly more than Sara had expected out of him.
"I'm not too good at math, but I've been sitting here since this morning doing the math over and over," Jack's self-deprecating mockery fell to the wayside and he grew somber. "When this kid's five years old I'll be sixty. When he's ten I'll be sixty-five. I've been too scared to add any higher than that."
Sara suddenly understood Jack's mood and it gave her pause.
Jack's tone dripped despair and bitterness. "And this is just the first. If we even considered another baby it would be worse."
"Sam's a lot younger," Sara pointed out, not sure if it would help or make matters worse.
Sara suspected it was somewhere closer to the latter at the way Jack's jaw clenched. "She's better off than I am, but she's still... she should be on her second or third by now."
"From what I understand of you two and your relationship until recently, those children couldn't have been yours if she had started her family years ago."
"Maybe she would have been better off."
"I have a feeling she wouldn't agree with you."
Jack turned his head away from her and Sara had the sneaking suspicion she'd given voice to an argument Sam and Jack may have actually had.
"We were so selfish," Jack bit out seethingly.
Jack's muscles were tensing up even as Sara watched him. There was always something dangerous and frightening about an angry Jack O'Neill, like a building tropical storm spinning into destructive gales. "We put off starting a relationship, put off us, and for what? Our jobs? Could we really have been that stupid?"
"Jack... I like to think I still know you."
Jack simmered fractionally and he threw an almost playful look over at her. "I haven't changed much; can't teach an old dog new tricks."
Sara shook her head and thought 'you are so wrong, Jack, you've changed... oh, how you've changed'.
"My point is, the Jack I know would have been resistant and resentful to a relationship until he was ready to take his personal life further. My impression of Sam is that she's the same way."
Jack gave a half-smirk of acknowledgement, testament that Sara had called the other woman correctly.
"The way I see it that makes it the right time for both of you."
"Sara..." Jack began to argue. His voice sounded so exhausted and Sara internally recoiled at the sound.
"Maybe you're right, maybe it's not ideal, but you and I both know ideal rarely pans out."
Jack went silent.
Sara continued, this time more gently, "You have right to be scared. If I were you, looking at parenthood again... I'd be petrified. But you're going to be fine, Jack. You and Sam will make this work; I have no doubt of that."
Jack didn't say anything for what seemed like a very long time. Sara let her eyes travel across the park to rest upon a small girl building a miniature fort in the sandbox. She worked intently at building up barricades then plowing them down with her cherubic fingers.
"We've done a disservice to our child," Jack said without warning.
Sara looked quickly at him and for a moment her chest tightened in a crushing but well-familiar ache. She wasn't sure to which child he was referring.
Jack winced, seemed to understand the ambiguity, then amended, "Sam and I should have done this years ago, for our children's sake."
"You weren't ready. You'd both have done a greater disservice to have a baby when neither of you were ready."
Jack gave a dismissive, feeble half-shrug. "There's no good answer to this."
"There rarely are good answers. That doesn't mean this can't be a wonderful experience."
Jack and Sara sat a while without speaking. Snow flurries began to cavort on the winds, tickling exposed skin with almost electric pinpricks, and Sara looked up toward the sky. Clouds had started to roll in, promising a night of snowfall and a fresh morning with unmarred expanses if virginal snow.
Sara briefly closed her eyes and in her mind saw Charlie breaking the pristine morning snow with his feet.
With sudden resolve Sara turned her head to look at Jack. He was lost in himself again, a thousand miles away from the woman at his side. Sara was used to being feet away and miles apart all at once.
"Jack... do you want this baby?"
Jack blinked out of his stare and looked at her. He seemed to weigh her question and then his words. "Yes, I want it."
"Isn't that the important thing?"
Jack's lips pursed.
"You can't do anything about the circumstances... no one can change the past." Sara took another steadying breath. She was reminiscent of a time so long ago when it hadn't been a test of will power just to talk to Jack.
Jack smiled then, a peculiar little smirk that Sara couldn't decode despite her years in the school of Jack O'Neill translation. She flickered a frown at him, then she said, "Take what you can, Jack. You deserve it."
Jack's expression softened and he cant his head slightly as he studied her. Sara found herself smiling despite everything. Jack had only to look at her a certain way and she felt better. "Thank you," he said after a long pause.
Sara finally did extend a hand and touch his shoulder. She let him know with so small a gesture that she was okay with this. He was going to have a baby with another woman, and she wasn't going to hold it against him.
"You should get home," Sara eventually said. Sam had to be wondering where he was. Sara knew that, in Sam's place, she would be sick with worry, with fear that Jack was panicking. Sara, as Sam, would be freaking out. And yet, Sara had a feeling Sam would understand Jack's fugue and would be sitting at home waiting patiently for him, giving him space, giving him time... more space and time than Sara had been able to give him.
Maybe Sam was the right woman to be with him because, for Sam's understanding and acceptance of his quirks, Jack would go back to her. Sara hoped that Sam never had to know what it felt like to watch Jack walk away with no intention of turning around and coming home.
Sara was right at least on some things. Beside her, Jack smiled again, more easily than before, and he leaned over and kissed her chastely on the cheek. Sara refused to let herself tremble at the warmth of his lips against her cold face or the hint of his scent when he invaded her personal space. She had enough Yuletide heartache with which to contend.
Jack stood from the bench and for the first time seemed to notice the cold. He pulled his wholly inadequate jacket tighter around his body and stood a moment looking down at her. Sara looked up at him. Sam was a lucky woman; Sara was in unique position to know.
"Take care, Sara," Jack finally said, and then he turned and walked back down the park pathway, back to Samantha Carter.
Sara watched him leave then looked out at the park. Parents were corralling children to head back indoors as the snow started to fall more heavily.
This time next year there would be another child at this park. Another child with Jack's eyes maybe, maybe his nose and his mouth, maybe his untenable energy and spirit, too.
There was something oddly peaceful in that thought, and Sara tugged her jacket closer about her and sat, unrushed, as she watched the snow dance toward the earth.