AUTHOR'S NOTES: This story is set in season 8 approximately one year after the events of the 7th season episode "Fragile Balance" and has spoilers for events through the mid-season break of season 8.
Many thanks to my wonderful betas, Cathy, Matt and Sashi for their feedback, patience and continued friendship throughout the writing process, even when they were ready to strangle me for sending another rewrite before they'd had a chance to read the one that came before. Special thanks to Cathy who thought it would be fun to actually read the story out loud as we drove over two hours to visit a friend in New York. Hearing it out loud really showed me where the characters' voices were mine instead of their own and I'd recommend it as a technique to anyone still struggling with the problem of getting dialog to sound 'true.' Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated and gratefully accepted.
Brig. General Jack O'Neill held his assault rifle tightly in both hands and sighted on the goa'uld death glider approaching him. The roar as it approached became a high pitched ring as it flew over his head and he emptied the rifle's clip into its underbelly. The glider crashed into the remote hills and yet the ringing sound remained. Perplexed O'Neill looked around and watched, dumbfounded, as the world around him rippled and began to melt away. His eyes popped open but it took him another moment to realize he was safe at home and the death glider had just been part of a dream.
The phone by his bedside rang shrilly again and O'Neill fumbled for it, finally catching hold of the receiver and taking it off the hook, grateful for the immediate silence from the incessant ringing that had begun to burrow like a jackhammer into his brain. He managed to fumble the receiver to his ear right side up and answered sleepily, "What?!"
"Jack? It's me, I need your help."
"Me, who?" O'Neill mumbled, his eyes already half closed again.
"It's me -- the other you. Jake."
"Yeah, I figured it's too weird if we're both Jack, so I'm going by Jake."
"Okay, sure, whatever. Nice talking to you, Jake," O'Neill mumbled, his eyes now fully closed.
"Wait! Don't hang up! I know we agreed it would be too awkward to keep in touch, but you said I could call if I needed anything. And, well, I have this problem."
O'Neill's eyes reluctantly opened again at the word 'problem.' "It better be a doozy if you're calling me at . . . damn, 3:20 in the morning!"
"It is. Something weird is going on at my school."
"It's high school. It's supposed to be weird."
"I know that. I'm not talking normal high school weird, I can deal with that. I'm talking Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, high school weird."
"Buffy goes to your high school?" O'Neill asked groggily.
"Jack, man, get a grip will you. You're career military. You used to be able to go from dead asleep to wide awake at the sound of a twig breaking."
"Yeah, well, that was a couple of goa'uld mother ships ago. Now when I get in at 2 a.m. after a mission where I was awake almost three straight days, I need more than an hour and a half to sleep before the next crisis hits."
"Sorry for the inconvenience," Jake said in a withering tone. "But I've been up for about that long myself and I feel fine."
"Yeah, well, I've got an idea, kid. You're young; you handle the staying awake all night for both of us and I'll take care of the sleeping."
"Jack!! That's not funny! Are you going to help me or not?"
"All right, all right already," O'Neill said with a groan. "Does it have to be right now or can I get a few hours shuteye and meet you somewhere tomorrow."
"There's a Starbucks a couple of blocks from school on Maple Street. Meet me there at 7 a.m. Don't be late because I've got to be in homeroom by 8."
"Okay. 7 a.m. Starbucks on Maple. Got it. G'night." O'Neill fumbled the phone back onto its hook and immediately rolled over to go back to sleep. Concern about what could be happening that was bad enough for the kid to call him at all, let alone at 3:30 in the morning, and the niggling worry that the teen might be in danger kept his eyes from staying closed for long. Finally, he reached over to set the alarm for 6 a.m. to make sure he didn't oversleep, then, after wavering for a moment, he picked up the phone and punched in a number.
"What?" came a groggy voice over the line.
"Daniel, it's me."
Jackson groaned in his ear. "Jack? Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Yeah, I know what time it is. I wouldn't have called if it weren't important. The kid has a problem and wants me to meet him in the morning. I need you to come along."
"What kid?" Daniel asked groggily, "you don't have any kids."
"What do you mean what kid? What other kid would I be talking about. The other me."
"Oh, him." Daniel said, yawning noisily.
"Yeah, him. Will you go with me?"
"Why me?" Daniel whined sleepily. "What's it about?"
"I don't know what it's about. All he would say over the phone is that something weird is going on at his school, and I figure, since you've spent more time in school than anyone else I've ever known, including Carter, you're the obvious person to help me out here."
"I know there's something fundamentally wrong with that argument, but I'm too tired to figure out what it is right now," Daniel grumped.
"Good. Then I'll pick you up at 6:30 a.m. sharp." He hung up before Daniel could argue and made a mental note to call again as soon as he got up in case Jackson was so tired he went right back to sleep and forgot about the phone call.
Jake sighed heavily as he hung up the payphone outside the all-night convenience store on Maple, wishing again that there had been some way to avoid making that call. But the situation was getting too big for him to handle alone, and he knew he couldn't risk the lives of other people to assuage his own pride.
Pretending to look for something in his backpack, Jake pulled out a small mirror and used it to check the street. He swore quietly under his breath when he saw a familiar-looking car sitting halfway down the block, with only its parking lights on. Dropping the mirror into the backpack, he made a show of glancing nervously around the way any normal person would who was out at 3:30 in the morning, before pulling some money out of his jeans pocket and heading into the convenience store.
He'd become friendly with the night clerk, Manny, over the last year, so the man simply pointed toward the back room without asking questions when Jake asked if he could use the back door. Slipping into the dark alley behind the store, he melted into the darkness.
O'Neill and a very sleepy Jackson seated themselves at a corner table of the Starbucks at 6:58 a.m., O'Neill making sure to take the chair that afforded him the best view of the restaurant proper and the exterior windows while putting them as far from the counter and the other patrons as they could get.
Daniel clutched an extra large cup of coffee in each of his hands and seemed unsure which one to drink from first. "Why am I awake at this ungodly hour again," he asked, yawning loudly before taking a sip from the cup in his right hand.
"Just drink your coffee, Daniel," O'Neill said, impatiently drumming his fingers on the tabletop as he scanned the room and looked out the windows, searching for some sign of Jake.
Daniel did as he'd been told and downed the first cup in less than two minutes. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes as he felt the caffeine making its way through his system, forcing sparks of energy to reignite in muscles and tissue that complained bitterly that they'd much rather go back to sleep.
"You're on time. That's pretty impressive considering how bad you sounded last night," came a familiar voice, as Daniel sensed someone stop beside the table, then plop down in the empty seat beside him. "And you got us coffee, too. Cool."
Daniel's eyes sprang open and he grabbed the untouched cup of coffee before the teenager could snag it away from him. "Mine. Get your own," he mumbled groggily, taking a long drink from the cup.
Jake rolled his eyes, "You guys are a piece of work. I've been up most of the night and you can't even spring for a stinkin' cup of coffee?!"
Daniel looked at him blearily over the rim of his coffee cup. "Since we're the ones helping you," he took a long look at his watch "at 7:00 in the morning you ought to be the one springing for the coffee."
"Be quiet, Daniel," O'Neill barked. "Now tell me what's going on, kid."
"My name is not 'kid'," Jake said between clenched teeth. "It's Jake. J A K E, Jake. It's not that difficult."
O'Neill simply glared at him.
"Fine," Jake responded sulkily. "There are some strange people hanging around school. I've spotted them for about two weeks, at first always wearing different clothes or some kind of uniform, but I knew the faces were the same. Then within a few days of each other they all turned up in jobs around the school.
"At first I thought maybe they were just watching me because at least one of them always seemed to be wherever I was. Then I started keeping tabs on them, and I realized I wasn't the only one they had their eyes on. I did some snooping and found out all the kids they're watching have some connection to personnel at Cheyenne Mountain."
"And just exactly how did you find that out?" O'Neill asked.
Jake shrugged and gave him a cocky grin, "I have my ways."
"There hasn't been any additional protection ordered for base personnel family members, as far as I know," O'Neill said thoughtfully, "and I think I would have been told if there had been. I can look into it to see if they're ours."
"You think I couldn't tell if they were ours?" Jake said, clearly insulted. "Man, I spotted your plants the first day of school -the custodial guy with the short black hair and the bleach blonde in the cafeteria. They might as well have had 'Property of USAF' tattooed on their foreheads. No, they're definitely not ours. I don't think they're NID either, but I can't be certain about that.
"And why would you be advised about protection for personnel family members anyway? It's not like you have any around here."
"Jack got a little promotion since your last visit to the base," Daniel said, downing the last of his coffee. "I need another one. You guys want anything?"
O'Neill shook his head no, but Jake grinned and said, "black, extra large, none of that wussy cream and sugar crap."
Daniel glanced at O'Neill who simply shrugged his shoulders, then said, "On second thought, same for me, thanks."
As Daniel went to get the coffee, Jake crossed his arms and looked at his older self. "So they finally made you a big cheese, huh. Don't tell me you're stuck behind a desk. That's gotta suck. Sorta like when they made Captain Kirk an Admiral."
O'Neill gave a weak grin, "Actually Hammond got promoted too, so they've got me running the SGC now."
"No way!" Jake said. "Are they nuts! No, are you nuts? Why would you want that job? Pushing papers around all day and being stuck behind a desk back at the SGC while everyone else gets to go through the gate and have all the fun."
"It has its moments," O'Neill responded diffidently, fiddling absently with a coffee stirrer that had been left on the table.
"You've been golfing through the stargate again, haven't you?" Jake said with an amused grin. "That is SO cool."
O'Neill gave a strained smile in return. "I wish it were that simple, kid."
Jake's grin faded at the look of weariness and concern etched in O'Neill's face and, deciding to shift back to the original subject, he said thoughtfully, "That puts an interesting spin on things."
"In what way," O'Neill asked, although he already had his own ideas on the subject.
"Somebody in high places could be testing the new leader of the SGC -- to see how he handles a crisis. You know, see what you would do if somebody actually snatched the kids of base personnel."
"It doesn't make any sense. There are strict protocols for that kind of situation. And none of the kids are mine. What good would it do? Why would they think I'd break protocol?"
"I'm listed as an emancipated minor because my parents supposedly died in a car accident, but school records have you down as my closest relative for purposes of an emergency contact --good old second cousin, Jack -- my father was your father's cousin or some such crap. Anyway, they may be under the crazy impression that it would actually matter to you if something happened to me."
"Maybe," O'Neill said noncommitally, as Daniel returned with the coffee.
"Thanks, man," Jake said, grabbing his cup and taking a quick gulp.
"Hey, take it easy! That's . . . really hot," Daniel said, as Jake's face paled and he started to sputter.
"Thanks for the warning," Jake forced out in a strained voice, shooting Daniel one of Jack O'Neill's most withering glares.
"He really is just like you," Daniel said to Jack. "It's creepy."
Jack and Jake both glared at him with the same annoyed expression on their faces.
"Very creepy," Daniel repeated, sitting back down and looking at his coffee instead of at the two O'Neills staring him down.
"So, how many different people have you spotted?" Jack asked as he sat back in his chair and studied Jake, continuing to twirl the coffee stirrer between his fingers while he waited for his own coffee to cool.
He noted that the teenager had grown another two inches and put on at least 30 pounds of mostly muscle since the last time O'Neill had seen him. The boy's face was now clear of acne and there was a self-assurance about him that O'Neill could tell was more self-confidence than the bluster and bravado the teen had used to get through the strange circumstances of their initial meeting a year earlier when the renegade Asgard scientist Loki had created the clone to replace him at the SGC while Loki conducted some genetic testing on him. Had it not been for the genetic marker placed in his blood by Thor that had caused the clone not to grow to full maturity, no one at the SGC would have ever noticed the switch.
"One woman, three, maybe four, guys. I can't get a lock on the fourth guy. He just showed up in the last couple of days. His cover is a technician doing upgrades on the school computers, but I don't buy it. He hasn't been overtly watching anyone like the others are, and I haven't seen him interact with any of them, but he still doesn't feel right to me."
O'Neill sat and stared at the young man, wishing it could be as easy as telling him he had an overactive imagination and to get back to concentrating on his schoolwork. But he had better reason than anyone to know the kid had good instincts – and that he never would have called O'Neill in the first place if he hadn't been sure there was something wrong.
"How do you think we should handle it," O'Neill asked.
Jake and Daniel both stared at him in amazement.
"Jack, you're not really taking this seriously, are you?" Daniel asked, clearly incredulous. "Mysterious people hanging around the high school. Come on!"
Jake's look of amazement shifted to one of irritation and then anger. "Just what is that supposed to mean? And who invited you into this discussion anyway? I don't remember asking for your opinion."
Daniel sat up straighter in his seat and shot his own annoyed look back at the teenager. "Jack asked me to come today because he lacks some perspective where you're concerned, and I'm glad he did. I'm sure it has to have been very difficult for you to adjust to being back in high school while having the memories of having lived a very different, exciting and adventurous life as a full grown adult. It's only natural you'd miss that life and want some of that excitement back."
Jake threw up his hands and rolled his eyes as he slumped back in his chair. "Yeah, having you guys around brings such joy to my life. I can't imagine why I didn't make up some excuse to call you sooner."
"Give me full descriptions of all five of them, including what they were wearing and any vehicles they were driving, and a full report on what they were doing every time you saw them," Jack said, ignoring the interruption.
Daniel shook his head in amazement, while Jake shot him a triumphant sneer and reached into his backpack. "I haven't forgotten how to write a report," he said haughtily and slapped a folder down on the table in front of Jack.
O'Neill picked it up and leafed through the pages. His eyebrow raised. "You even have pictures. Very impressive. Are you sure they didn't spot you taking them?"
"Please," Jake said, slumping back in the chair with a self satisfied smirk on his face. "Do I look like some snotty nosed grunt to you?"
"Well, actually . . .," Daniel started to say before being cut off by both O'Neills in unison saying, "be quiet, Daniel."
"Well then, since it's clear I'm of absolutely no use here, why don't I get us some more coffee," Daniel said with forced pleasantness.
"Great. Same as before," Jake said.
O'Neill frowned slightly and said, "I'm good, thanks," as he continued to stare speculatively at his younger self.
Jake stared back at him defiantly. The silence dragged uncomfortably for another minute before Jake finally said, "I really don't appreciate the good cop/bad cop act."
"It's not an act," O'Neill responded. "Although I never said that to him, Daniel's right about why I brought him here. Since I want to believe you can take care of yourself and will be okay on your own so I don't have to deal with the weirdness of our particular situation, I need an objective third party to make sure I'm not taking it too far and giving you too much leeway."
"What a bunch of horseshit," Jake said crossing his arms across his chest again. "You were just creeped out by the thought of having to meet me alone, so you brought some comic relief to ease the tension."
O'Neill shrugged dismissively and rolled his own eyes, "believe what you want to believe, kid. What's your plan?"
"You use your connections to run the bad guys in the photos and figure out who they are and, more importantly, who they belong to. I'll keep an eye on things at school and report back to you if it looks like they're getting ready to move on whatever it is they're planning to do. With me on the inside, you don't have to worry about sending in people that are going to be made and tip our hand so they know we're on to them."
Jack sat thoughtfully for a minute, the hand fiddling with the coffee stirrer continuing to move restlessly while the rest of him remained still as a statue, lost in concentration. "It's not a bad plan, but there's a big hole in it. I think we both know as soon as I scan the first photo in and go to run the check, a big red flag is going to go up somewhere. I want you to have backup when that happens. I'll talk to our two people who are already there to see if they can handle it or if I need to send more people in."
Jake stared at him. "Christ, Jack, are you telling me you don't even know they're gone? When they first disappeared about two weeks ago, I thought they were being rotated out or maybe something big was going on and they'd been temporarily reassigned. But then the freaky four showed up – they got my spidey sense tingling right away because I knew they weren't ours and they just felt like trouble – so when nobody came to take either of their places by last week, I knew I'd have to do some serious investigating on my own."
Jack had stopped moving, frozen by the word 'gone.' Two of his people had been missing for two weeks and he hadn't even known it? How could that possibly have happened? He forced himself to push through the web of anxiety the news left in his brain to focus on the situation at hand. "Then it's even more important for there to be other people inside before anyone else disappears."
"And how do you expect to be able to pull that off without arousing their suspicion?" Jake asked, the arms still crossed defiantly across his chest almost quivering with his efforts to restrain his impatience.
Jack looked at his watch. "You said you need to be in homeroom by 8:00? It's 7:40 now. I think kindly old cousin Jack is going to give you a ride to school and stop in the principal's office to see about arranging for the Air Force to host a workshop on deep space telemetry. I'm sure Lt. Col. Carter will be thrilled to give a talk on that very exciting topic to a bunch of teenagers who will most likely be bored out of their minds and won't mind showing it."
"Lt. Colonel, huh. Sounds like I missed something really big," Jake said, eying O'Neill curiously. When Jack didn't respond, Jake frowned thoughtfully and added, "Just tell her to make sure she wears a little make-up and hikes the uniform skirt a little above regulation. That'll keep the guys' attention anyway."
O'Neill shot the boy one of his most withering gazes, determined not to let him know the same thought had crossed his own mind right before Jake said it. "Do they still have those special programs for juniors and seniors on career choices, where they get people to come in and talk about their jobs?"
"There's a big career day coming up in a couple of weeks, but I think they have some after school stuff too."
"Okay. Then cousin Jack, who just recently got a pretty cool promotion in the Air Force, so is a really good person to give a rah rah talk. . . ," ignoring Jake's snort of disgust, he continued, "will also arrange a 'careers in the Air Force' session for some time in the next week or so. I think those will be good enough reasons for cousin Jack and Carter to be hanging around for the next couple of days."
He grew thoughtful again. "Daniel could probably do a career thing on archaeology," he added dubiously.
Jake made a buzzer sound and said, "Sorry, wrong answer. You're forgetting Daniel's pretty much been drummed out of the archaeology club because of his weird ideas about space aliens landing on the pyramids. Unless we're planning to go public that he's right, he shouldn't be showing up as himself. It'll also make our guys suspicious if they already know he's connected to SG-1. You're better off getting him fake teaching credentials under another name and putting him under as a sub. Just tell him to act his normal dorky self and keep his glasses on and he should be fine."
Just then Daniel walked up to the table with two cups of coffee. "What was that about dorks and glasses," he asked suspiciously.
"Never mind. You're going undercover as a high school substitute teacher," Jack said picking up his half full coffee cup and taking a sip. "You have any problem with that?"
"You mean other than the fact that, although I did the normal TA routine to make some extra money in college, I was primarily a researcher so I know very little about teaching?" Daniel asked, retaking his seat as he sipped his coffee. "No, no problem here."
Ignoring Daniel, Jake took his coffee and continued as if he hadn't been interrupted, "And if you want Teal'c in on this one, he'll have to do another Murray. It shouldn't be too hard to slide him in the kitchen or the custodial area -- or else get him on the construction crew for the new wing that's being built. Just figure out how to keep the bald head and the brand covered without it looking like he's hiding something and he should be able to blend without too much trouble."
"Actually, Teal'c has hair now," O'Neill said.
"No way!" Jake said. "I have so got to see that before this is over."
They sat quietly drinking their coffee for a few minutes before O'Neill said, "Okay, we'd better get going. Cousin Jack won't make a good impression on the principal if he brings you to school late. Daniel, you need to either stay here for an hour or two or find your own way home. You can't be seen with me at the high school."
"Well, gee thanks, Jack. I'm so glad I dragged myself out of bed to help you out this morning. It's been such a treat."
"Just look at it this way, Daniel. You get to go home and go back to bed while I get to go back to high school. Seems like you get the better end of that deal."
"I've just had four extra large cups of caffeinated coffee because I thought I needed to be awake, Jack. Do you really think there's any possibility I'm going to be able to go back to sleep in the next six to eight hours?"
"You could always go do some research on being a high school teacher," Jake said with a smirk. "You're going to need it."
Daniel frowned, "What's that supposed to mean?"
Jake's smirk just got wider.
"He's just yanking your chain, Daniel. Ignore him. Come on, kid. You're going to be late."
Jake grabbed his backpack and walked past Daniel saying carelessly, "thanks for the coffee, man." The smirk widened on his face, as he added, "and good luck."
Half an hour later, O'Neill found himself sitting in the outer office across from the principal's door wishing for once that he was actually wearing his full dress uniform instead of the comfortable clothes he had thrown on for his early morning meeting with Jake. Even knowing there were thirty some odd years and a succession of Air Force ribbons and medals between now and the many high school days he had spent warming a similar seat did nothing to make the experience more pleasant.
The office door opened and he winced at the sound, almost expecting his own high school principal, Mrs. Pritchard, a 60 something crone with iron gray hair always pulled back into a severe bun, to walk through the door with the disapproving scowl she'd always seemed to wear whenever she learned he was the one waiting on the other side of her door. Instead, an attractive brunette with hazel eyes who looked to be in her early 40s stepped out of the office and immediately offered her hand.
"General O'Neill, what a pleasant surprise. I'm so glad you stopped by. I'm Linda Schiler, the principal. I've been hoping to have an opportunity to meet you or some other member of Jake's family. I've been concerned about him living alone at his age and the fact that he never seems to have any relatives present at school events. It's a relief to know there's someone keeping an eye on him. He's such a fine young man and a tremendous asset to the school. It amazes me how he's been able to overcome the tragedy of his parents' death and become such a responsible young adult. You must be very proud of him."
O'Neill's first thought was that the woman had obviously confused Jake with someone else. She certainly couldn't mean the surly, obnoxious teenager he'd spent the last hour with. "Proud, oh yes, that isn't usually the first word that comes to mind when dealing with Jake, but definitely proud," he said with an amused smile. "So he's doing well in his classes, then?"
"Almost straight As," she said with surprise. "Hasn't he told you?"
"My job keeps me very busy and requires me to be out of town a lot, so I don't get to see him very often."
"That's too bad," the woman said, a hint of disapproval in her voice. "He's an exceptional young man. You're missing a great deal not getting to know him better."
O'Neill's back went up at the implied reprimand, but he said pleasantly, "I'm sure I am. But Jake understands why it's necessary."
"Of course, General," she responded formally, her voice having lost all the warmth of her initial greeting.
"I don't want to take up too much of your time, Ms. Schiler, but Jake suggested your science teachers might be interested in having one of my officers come in to speak about the deep space telemetry research we've been doing at Cheyenne Mountain. He also mentioned the career events you hold for juniors and seniors and thought you might be interested in having me or one of my officers come in to discuss career options in the Air Force. There's a lot more available than just maintaining and flying jets these days."
The woman's smile grew warm again, "That would be wonderful. I'm not surprised Jake suggested the deep space telemetry talk. He's absolutely brilliant in Astronomy. I think he's actually taught his teacher a few things in that class."
O'Neill's smile was more genuine this time. "Really. Somehow that doesn't surprise me at all."