A/N: Author's notes at end.

The Once and Future Thing

September, 2024

The noise around him was deafening, and for just a moment, Jack longed for earplugs. He strained to hear the battle plan being discussed, then gave up and simply watched hand gestures and facial expressions while following the action around him.

A body jostled him from behind and Jack moved aside, automatically noting the name on the uniform of the man who'd brushed by. Figures, he thought, as the name "Ferretti" caught his eye. He gave the younger man a sharp look and was rewarded when Ferretti blushed and turned away.

"Jack," the voice was pitched low to catch his attention over the noise around them. Not that he would have missed that voice anywhere. He turned and smiled into the shining blue eyes of his wife. He tuned out the noise and chaos around them and tipped his head closer to hear what she had to say. "Quit torturing the kids."

"Me?" Even at 72, Jack knew he could still . . . occasionally . . . pull off the innocent 'who me' act. One look at Sam's face, however, told him that this wasn't one of those times.

Sam pulled him back, out of the action going on so close to the line. "Yes, you." She lifted her gaze and he watched as she searched the sea of men and women around them, obviously searching for . . . there it was. The softening around her eyes and mouth. She'd spotted her target.

Jack turned to see their eldest son, Finn, moving through the barely ordered chaos. As he pulled off his helmet and handed it off, his sweat-dampened hair glowed in the afternoon sunlight, a beacon of red flame. Jack couldn't help but smile at the picture the boy made, tall and strong, his once-bright uniform marked with the stains of battle. Finn, too, was searching the crowd and his smile mirrored Sam's as he spotted his parents. Finn stopped close to mutter something to a teammate, then trotted over to them.

Looking over at Sam as the boy reached them, Jack could see that she was itching to reach out and smooth away the lock of red hair that was forever falling across Finn's forehead. For both of them he was pleased at her restraint.

As Finn drew near, he shifted, then lifted the object he had tucked under his arm. He offered it to his mother with a wide smile. "Mom, here. This is for you."

Sam looked down at the scuffed and battered football, then back up at her son. And up it was. The boy, a man now, really, topped them both by several inches, easily beating Jack's six-foot-one mark. At her puzzled look, Finn shrugged.

"I figured, you gave me my first football, you should have the first one I caught at the Academy for a touchdown."

Jack stood back, content to watch them both. He saw Sam struggle to control herself, knowing that a lifetime of habit would force her to hold back while she was here, in uniform. That while she might have wanted to wrap her arms her boy, she would wait. Then Jack laughed as Finn took the decision out of her hands. In true O'Neill fashion, he simply enveloped her in his arms, overriding whatever decorous thoughts she might have held. Over her shoulder, Finn's green eyes twinkled at his father. With one last squeeze Finn stepped back. He glanced over his shoulder at a shout from his coach and kissed his mother on her cheek.

"Gotta run. Thanks, Mom."

Sam tucked the football under her arm, not at all realizing the dichotomous picture she made; a female four-star general in ABU with a football tucked safely under her arm. Whatever anyone else may think, Jack thought she looked just right to him.

Jack looked up behind them toward the cadet section, hoping to spot their other two children. Jan, he knew, would be easy to find and sure enough, he caught her waving down at them from the band's percussion section. Beside her, tucked close into his big sister's side stood Carter. The boy had begged to be allowed to sit with the band and the sister whom he idolized, and it hadn't been too hard to convince the band's director to let it happen, just this once.

Beside him, Sam cleared her throat quietly and Jack looked over to find that her gaze had followed his. He looked down at the contented face of the woman he'd loved for so very long. "We did all right, didn't we?"

"We did," she sighed, bumping him with her shoulder.

The gesture was about all she'd allow herself in terms of public displays of affection. The Commandant of the Air Force Academy didn't go about hugging folks willy-nilly, Jack thought with a tiny quirk of his lips.

"You're okay with this?" She asked him, lifting the football slightly.

"You mean because our son gave it to you and not to me?" Jack turned to her, though still keeping one eye on the action on the field. "Carter," he sighed, deliberately using the name he still considered something of a pet name, "When have we ever been normal?"

Sam looked briefly back up at the stands and then again back out onto the field before catching his eyes. "You're right."

"'Sides," Jack added somewhat smugly. "I fully expect Carter to someday hand over his first Academy winning hockey puck to me."

Chuckling, Sam played along as the stands went crazy following another Air Force goal. "Or Jan might hand over–"

"A Nobel Prize for physics? Nah, that'll go to you, too."

Jack was surprised by the peal of laughter that rang out, the sound drowning out, for just an instant, the continuous roar of the crowd. Yup, he still had it. Nearly twenty-six years of loving her, nineteen years of marriage, and three kids adopted from various corners of the universe, and he could still make her laugh.

Life was good.




Afterword: I was watching Air Force soundly trounce BYU today and this came to me after I spotted a 4-star standing on the Air Force bench. If you recognized Finn, it's because you met him in the third part of the After story, Ever After. Remember, leave me an email address if you review (and are not registered with ff dot net) so I can properly thank you.

Last item: I really, really dislike it when fic authors use the name "Grace" for Sam and Jack's daughter. It's so overdone. (Same goes for Jacob, but that's for another day.) I don't believe the "Grace" in Grace was Sam and Jack's future child, I always thought (as Amanda has said in interviews) that "Grace" was Sam's inner child. My dilemma is that I really wanted to use Grace in honor of Rear Adm. (Ret.) Grace Hopper, one of the most brilliant women in US history (Google her). However . . . you know . . . "Grace." I ran into my own anti-Grace bias. So instead, you got to meet, albeit from afar, Janet Grace O'Neill (and her brother, Carter James O'Neill.)

And, super last . . . new Campfire to come soon. I promise.