By Nomad
August 2007

Spoilers: Cold Lazarus, A Matter of Time, Avalon.
Disclaimer: The Stargate franchise belongs to many people, none of whom are me. Characters, settings and concepts borrowed for entertainment value, not profit.
Summary: Season 9 fic. Sara O'Neill encounters a familiar face in Washington D.C.

Ironically enough, she'd moved to Washington to get away from the past.

Sara had known when her dad died back in '03 that it was time to leave. It had been morbid staying in the old house with him to keep her company; to carry on living there alone was positively ghoulish. Charlie's bedroom was a presence in the house that threatened to overwhelm hers; she couldn't bear to go in, couldn't bear to keep the door closed, couldn't bear to watch his things gathering dust.

She had to leave, and not just the house, but all of Colorado and its ghosts.

Returning to her roots was no better option. Every place she'd lived before held echoes of her parents, Charlie, Jack. She needed to walk streets that she'd never walked before, work in a busy office, fill her days with involved hobbies and pushy friends. She would swap the sleepy suburbs for the city.

She'd thought about New York City, but New York had scars as deep as her own, and she couldn't face living in another place that held the stamp of tragedy. The Pentagon had been rebuilt, and that felt like better symbolism. She bought the first apartment D.C. had to offer, one that was too small to yield floor space to a shrine to her dead son.

Disassembling his room was as hard as burying him again. She did it all in two determined hours, and by the end her eyes were raw from rubbing tears out and dust in.

His things seemed smaller and more fragile in boxes. She couldn't take it all, and yet it felt like a betrayal to get rid of anything. She hired a storage locker for his furniture, even though she knew she should have been strong enough to let it pass on to a family who would make use of it.

She'd thought about sending some of it to Jack, but in the end she made the cowards' choice to wait for him to ask. He didn't, as she'd known he wouldn't. She sent him the same printed change of address card that she sent to all her neighbours, through the mail so she wouldn't run the risk of running into him at his front door. It felt less like she was leaving him again that way.

The last time Sara had seen him was at Frank Cromwell's funeral, and they hadn't spoken then. Jack hadn't strictly attended it; she'd caught a glimpse of his silhouette after the service, the shape of him impossible to mistake even after several years.

He'd had a lot more grey in his hair than when she'd seen him during the Incident, and she'd left before she'd had a chance to see what other changes time had wrought in him.

In leaving Colorado, she'd left behind the slim chance she might pass him on the street one day. Without that small connection of proximity, Sara had stopped believing she would ever see him again. Once or twice she entertained the romantic notion that he would come to hold her hand when she was ninety-four and dying, but in truth, she'd always known deep in her bones that she'd outlive him. The next time that she heard his name would be from uniformed officers at the door.

Which was why it was such a surprise to step into her favourite coffee shop and find him sitting there.

She hadn't even known that it was him at first. She'd thought that he looked like Jack from the back, but then every man in a uniform looked like Jack, even the short, fat, bald ones, and near-white hair and a General's stars had been enough to shake the stray thought.

Until she'd crossed the floor to visit the restroom, and on her way out looked up and just seen him there. A ghost made flesh, so much unchanged and yet so different, long eyelashes slanted down as he stared into his coffee cup.

He looked old.

He looked good.

He looked... melancholy.

It was that last that swayed her, killed the first impulse to hurry away before he glanced up and saw that she was there. He looked sad, and it struck her with a strange and terrible truth that she'd never seen Jack O'Neill sad. She'd seen him angry, and hurting, and devastated beyond the point where there was room for human emotion, but never honestly, nakedly sad. It was nothing he would show where there was any possibility that somebody he loved might chance to see it.

It carried the connotation of such loneliness that Sara had sat down in the seat across from him before she had time to consider.

It took him a moment to look up, and when he did he stared at her with a kind of confused awe, holding very still as if to move too fast might startle her away. She must have been just as much an unexpected ghost to him as he was to her.

Wit failed her, so she just offered a soft smile. "Hello, Jack."

"Sara." He still looked vaguely stunned. She'd never figured out how one man could be at once so expressive and so closed.

She felt suddenly shy, and wished she had a coffee of her own to hand so she could stir it and look down at it. "I saw you sitting here, and I, er- hi." The words tumbled out as if she was a crush-entangled schoolgirl.

The corners of his mouth lifted, a trace of the boyish grin she remembered so fondly. "Hi."

It chased the melancholy from his face, and Sara saw more of the man that she'd married than she had since the day their worlds both ended ten long years ago. She gestured at his uniform. "So when did this happen?"

"The hair?" He lifted a hand to it and scrunched his eyebrows in the deliberately obtuse pout that was so familiar. It felt like resuming a conversation that they'd left hanging only yesterday, and she had a startling, dizzying urge to let a giggle bubble out of her.

"The rank," she corrected, a small fragment of the laugh escaping.

"Oh." He primped his hair for a moment anyway, then gave an uncomfortable little shrug. He pointed at the stars on his left shoulder in turn. "This one, they blackmailed me into taking a year and half ago. This one, I think somebody stuck on me when I wasn't looking." He looked over both his shoulders as if to catch a lurking culprit in the act.

Jack was obviously ambivalent about the promotion, but her heart still ached with pride for him. "You deserve them," she said sincerely.

"That's what they all say. And here I was thinking they liked me," he grumbled.

"You look good, Jack." He did, once she'd got past the first shock of change. The hair suited him, so much so that she was already losing her grip on what it had looked like fully brown. It was as if the grey had always been there, waiting to emerge. His face had aged, but there was something in it that hadn't been there ten years ago.

He was alive. Even in the shadow of sadness that she'd seen across his face when she first saw him, there was nothing of the dead-eyed stranger who'd sat in her child's room with a loaded gun. That man was gone.

She looked for the anger, the jealousy that time and who-knew-what had worked the magic that she couldn't, and found in its place only fragile, unfolding joy.

It had been ten years, and the flames of hurt had burned down into ashes, impossible to stir back into sparking. It all just seemed so very long ago.

"It's the diet of cake," he said, and poked the plate holding crumbs of evidence. He ate like a child, always had, and burned the calories off in some mysterious male way that turned them into hardened muscle. If he'd let himself go to seed in the transition to desk job, it was little enough that his dress blues could still hide it.

He must hate having to wear them every day.

"They've got you in the Pentagon?" she guessed. Why else would he be here, of all strange places?

He nodded morosely. "Transferred six months ago. I have my own office. With my name on the door." He said it in the tone most people would confess to a shark-infested moat.

Of course, Jack would probably like one of those.

"I come here for coffee all the time. My office is a couple of blocks away," Sara told him. His face brightened in surprise, as if it had not until now occurred to him to wonder what she was doing here. She had to smile. "You never even read my change of address card, did you?" He never changed. She could stick Post-It notes to the bathroom mirror, and he'd shave his face in the gaps around them without ever once picking up what they said.

He played with his teaspoon. "I was... away. When you left." He looked up, all dark solemn eyes. "I didn't know about Mike's funeral until after I came back. I should have been there."

"I wouldn't have asked you to go." She shook her head. In truth, she was glad that he hadn't come. Jack and funerals... that was an association she could have done without in the fragile days after her father's death.

"I would have gone."

Of course he would. If there'd been nothing else left in the burned out shell of a man he'd become, it was that unyielding sense of duty. She couldn't even bring herself to be angry anymore. He'd hurt himself as much and more than he'd ever hurt her. He hadn't known how to grieve with her, and she hadn't known how to grieve without him. It was all so stupidly, pointlessly tragic, and she was tired of doling out blame.

The silence had lingered on too long, and she knew his mind had curved back to the same place hers had. The same place it always would, because it was more than an elephant in the room, it was their son in the room, and you couldn't ignore your own child. She knew he would retreat, like he always did, drawing back into himself for protection the only way that he knew how, and she braced herself to let it go, just live with him the way he was and let it go...

And then he surprised her.

"I have his picture. In my office," he said quietly. "The school picture."

Sara felt herself instantly flood with tears, and raised her hand to press against her cheekbones as if she could somehow keep them in by willpower. "It's a good picture," she said, and thought, oh, Jack.

"Yeah." He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, aware of the emotion in the air and forcibly resisting it.

But not running away from it.

She wondered then how self-centred she was to believe she was the only one who could have changed with time.

Ten years ago, she knew, she would have leapt on such a revelation, grabbed it with both hands and tried to drag him the rest of the way out of his shell. But now, with the deepest wounds partially closed over with time, it was easier to see not how small a confession it was to her, but how big it was for Jack.

So she smiled, and sniffed back her tears, and said, "I think I'll get another coffee."

They didn't speak of Charlie again, but it no longer felt like they were tiptoeing round the big hole in the middle of the floor. Instead they talked about Jack's new apartment. Not small talk - Jack wouldn't know how, it was part of his charm - but just conversation, like two old friends catching up after a long separation.

"I have a doorman. He's about ninety-five. Ever since he first saw me in uniform he's made it his mission in life not to let me get through a door without holding it for me. I've stopped taking the elevator. But if he sees me coming down the back stairs, he runs..." Jack moved both his arms in a sweeping gesture, and she was helpless to avoid giggling.

Jack pulled his eyebrows together in a frown. "No, seriously, he's like some kind of secret ninja. I think George hired him to take me down if I try to make a break for it."

"Are you planning to?" Sara reached for her coffee, and discovered it had somehow turned from fresh to lukewarm in the time that they'd been talking.

"I already tried. Turns out they implanted me with a locator beacon." From the thwarted pout he was wearing, she could almost believe he was serious.

"Is it hard?" she said sympathetically. "Riding a desk?" The Jack she'd known had always broken out in hives at the sight of paperwork. She'd had her work cut out to get him to fill out even a loan application or an insurance form. He could rattle off every detail needed without looking it up, he just couldn't sit still long enough to put them down on paper.

"Yeah. You wouldn't believe the bruises I got from falling off." But he reined in the smartass smile and reconsidered the question seriously. She wondered who had trained that habit into him, and whether they'd accept flowers or a smothering of kisses. "It's tough," he admitted finally. He looked up, a silent apology in his eyes. "I'm the one who stays behind and waits for people to come home now."

She wondered if he'd had any inkling, before, of the agonies he'd put her through. Probably not. Jack had always been quite bemused by the idea of other people worrying over him. He was under the impression that he was there to take care of people, not the other way around. Even when he had multiple broken bones and a hundred and three fever it was an uphill struggle to stop him getting out of bed and doing jobs around the house.

"So do you have a staff?" she asked. It might be hard to picture him sitting behind a desk, but it was easy to believe him being in charge. Jack had always had a way about him, some inner force that made people sit up and take notice. He'd never needed the uniform to make people leap to obey him.

"Sort of," he hedged - Lord, was even that classified? He spun his coffee cup between his fingers. "I'm in charge of the base where I was stationed before, and a couple of... vessels."

"You miss your people," Sara said. She recognised the melancholy that she'd seen for what it was now. Not the loneliness of a man who had nothing and no one, but the wistfulness of someone far removed from his chosen home. The realisation relieved her. She'd feared, after the way he'd cut all ties ten years ago, that he would never let himself put down fresh roots again.

"Yeah." She'd meant his entire workforce, but he was obviously thinking of particular individuals. It was strange. Jack had gathered military buddies every time he stopped to breathe, but she'd never really known him make true friends - not since Frank, at least, and look at how that had turned out. "They split the team up when I left, but they've got back together again now."

Without me, he said without saying, and she wanted to reach across and catch his hand, but she stopped herself.

A memory stirred of a hospital and a night of frantic confusion. "I met them, didn't I?" But no, that had been years ago, and surely military teams rotated more often than that. "Or was that a different team?"

"No, that was them." A fond smile touched his lips, and she was suddenly desperate to snatch at the faint wisps of faded memory. Who had they been, that long ago team? A pretty blonde woman - they hadn't been divorced long enough that she'd failed to notice that - but the face was gone, and now only the impression remained. Two men, one huge and imposing, one who for some forgotten reason had struck her as non-military. They were colourless ghosts in her memory. She'd had other things on her mind.

"I'm sorry," he said, out of nowhere. "I should have talked to you after that night."

She gave a brittle smile. "What would you have said?"

The cover story she'd been given after the fact was painfully, patently false. She'd been glad at the time to hear it from a slick, polished young airman instead of seeing how well Jack could spin the lies right to her face. The days had slipped by without him contacting her, and she'd known by the second that he wouldn't, not unless she made the first move. It was one of the few select ways in which he was a coward.

Sara knew she would never know the truth of what she'd seen that day. She almost didn't want to. Some part of her that lingered from childhood still clung to the idea that it had been her miracle. The real kind, the great and terrible Biblical kind that tore you up inside as much as they exulted. It couldn't have been Charlie - Jack had said that it wasn't - but she'd looked into the face of her lost boy, and that was something that she wouldn't, couldn't trade for all the truths in the universe.

"It's all right, Jack." She smiled and forgave him. "I'm not angry at you."

She wondered what a different life they could have lived if she'd been able to say those words ten years ago.

His beeper bleeped, breaking into a moment that hadn't yet had time to fully form. Jack scowled down at it, and she gathered her things as he tilted the face up to read it. Her evening plans had been shot to hell and her shopping must have melted hours ago, but she couldn't make herself care about it.

"Trouble at the office?" she said wryly.

"They're out of paperclips." He stood, regretfully, and they both hovered, adrift in time and space. They'd sat at tables like this as young lovers, newlyweds, parents; near-strangers drowning in their separate grief. How did they part, with so much history between them?

In the end, he offered her his arm, and they walked out together. Sara could still remember walking out on their very first date, and how she'd wanted and not wanted everyone she knew to be passing by on the street outside; so they could all see her on the arm of her handsome Lieutenant, so she could have the privacy to dare to steal a kiss.

She thought about it again this time, but her girlhood self had been bolder than she knew how to be now. She kissed him on the cheek instead, and felt his smile move under the skin.

"It was good to see you, Jack," she said. "Look after yourself." She'd said that at their last parting too, but the tone of it had been so very different.

He just shrugged, in that way he had. He'd always been more eloquent with his body than with words. But that was okay. He was just Jack. She could speak the words for him.

"Maybe we'll run into each other again some time," she said.

"I'd like that," he said, with a quiet warmth.

"So would I."

They grinned at each other like schoolchildren, and Sara had to force herself to lift her hand off his arm. "Goodbye, Jack," she said finally, and turned away.

It seemed all right to say it now, when it didn't feel like it would be forever.

She didn't let herself look back. Whether he was looking or not looking, knowing would only spoil it. And she wanted this the way it was. A perfect, preserved moment.

Ten years ago, she'd signed divorce papers, knowing that what she and Jack had lost they didn't have it in them to rebuild.

But now at last she realised there was nothing to be rebuilt.

Only debris to be cleared out of the way.