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 The Simple Necessities of Life

 

Chapter 2

Jack dropped into the chair behind his desk. In spite of the monumental screw-ups he'd made during the 'training exercise' the day before, he'd managed to get a decent night's sleep. No doubt the presence of a certain blonde major in his bed had contributed to that fact. He turned on the computer, waited for it to go through the routine and required virus checks.

He studied the email. One of a dozen memos. Usually he just deleted them without bothering to open them. But the title, 'Important: Attn Starsky' had caught his eye. Sometimes he regretted telling the young seer he worked with about that particular little episode. Even though the memory of the event that had started the use of the name still amused him. The fact that the memo was from Casey was another reason he was taking the time to read it. She always sent along damned funny jokes. He was still chuckling about the koala bear and the lizard.

Hmm. It seemed that the general was giving SG-1 seven days leave. Which was to commence on the coming Monday. And, according to the memo, they were to take that leave somewhere that was not the SGC, preferably not even in Colorado Springs. Sweet!

He sat back, his mind heading to one place immediately. Just as it did every time SG-1 had more than three or four days of down time. The one place on Earth where he went to recharge his batteries, to deal with all that he'd seen. All of the damned distasteful things that he had done...under orders...in the name of country...for the safety of millions. He didn't have to do so much of that now. He'd helped to save the planet a time or two. Even helped save the galaxy. Did that make up for the things he'd done in the dark of night...things that still gave him nightmares?

Shaking his head slightly, he reread the memo. Christmas fell right smack dab in the center of those seven days. He couldn't help but smile as memories of past holidays filled his mind. The first Christmas with Sara. They'd been in a tiny two room flat in Germany, where he'd been stationed. He'd been a captain, and had his first command there, heading up a squadron of some of the best pilots the Air Force had to offer. The Christmas when Charlie had been four, and the squeals of delight when the boy had found all of those Tonka trucks under the tree. He and his son had dug up half the back yard with that backhoe and front loader.

The smile faded when his thoughts moved on. To the first Christmas without them...without Sara, without Charlie. He'd drunk himself into oblivion. Stayed that way until after New Year's. When he'd sobered up enough to drive, he'd gone to the house. Sara hadn't been home. He could remember walking into Charlie's room. Sitting on the bed. Feeling so guilty...tormented...hurting so badly that ending it all was the only hope of peace he had. And then the damned phone had rang. He'd never been able to figure out why he'd put the gun down, walked into the hallway to answer that damned phone.

He'd had mixed feelings about the Christmas after that wild ride through the wormhole. He'd been sober that year. Still alone...but sober. Had hoisted a single drink to Doctor Daniel Jackson, who was living quite happily on Abydos. The following holiday season had been only three months after SG-1 had made that first official mission to Chulak to try and find Apophis, and Sha're. Daniel had still been reeling from Sha're's abduction...celebrating had been the last thing on his mind. As he recalled, the two of them had gotten quietly plastered. It hadn't even taken a full six-pack to have Daniel passed out on the couch.

The second Christmas SG-1 had been together had been a quiet one. Spent in the infirmary. Daniel'd had a broken leg, Carter had still been recovering from three broken ribs and a concussion. He'd had a fractured wrist and broken collar bone. He'd spent his time listening to Daniel explaining the Christmas customs of every country in the world to Teal'c; responding to every question with an answer so detailed that it still numbed his mind to think about it. How in the hell did the Space Monkey remember all of that...stuff?

Then there was the third Christmas. Gah, what a year that had been! He'd been marooned on Edora for three months. Had finally accepted that he'd never be leaving there when Sam had managed to pull that rabbit out of the hat...when the SG- magic had kicked in. For months he'd had mixed feelings about his rescue...something that his team had picked up on. Especially Sam. Of course, it hadn't helped the team dynamic when, as soon as he'd been cleared for duty, still adjusting to being 'home', he'd gone undercover to nab the NID agents who were stealing artifacts. He'd damned near destroyed his friendship with Daniel over that mission. More damned distasteful things had been required. Including insulting...and hurting, his best friend. Luckily for him, his best friend had accepted his apology. Apologies. Those fancy-shmancy coffees had probably helped. Who knew those European blends could cost so much? Not that he minded...not at all! He'd even bought some of that fancy German beer...Pilsner something or another. The real stuff. And he'd lay even money out that it was still in Daniel's closet somewhere.

Then there'd been that Ancient time machine. Sam had told him that thanks to that time loop that they'd been caught up in, it was impossible to know just how much time had been 'lost'. That thought prompted another...was his potter's wheel still in the storage room on level seven? When all of the offices had been moved from levels twelve, thirteen and fourteen, he'd managed to hide the thing in a large box marked 'World War II C-rations'. As far as he knew, no one had ever opened it. Maybe he should take it home. See if he could still remember how to throw a pot. Another smile tugged at his lips. How many times had he managed to kiss Sam during those loops? He'd never dared to go farther...the timing had just been all wrong. But still...kissing had been good. Although it had made his life damned miserable for a few months afterwards. Trying to keep from letting her know, letting anyone know, just how damned much he cared. How much he loved her.

Geez, they'd really been through the wringer, time and again...and again...and again...it was a wonder that any of them were alive, fit, or sane! There was the Christmas that the team had spent as slaves in an underground power facility...their fourth holiday together. If nothing else could prove the bond between the four of them, that little experience had. Their memories had been altered. But they'd still managed to find one another. He'd found Sam first. Daniel had been there, and he could still remember the vague feeling of knowing the man. That bond had brought them together, had helped them escape. That SG-1 magic.

Christmas had been a real celebration the following year. Cassie was totally free of all of the nasty little surprises that Nirrti had programmed into her. Now there was a tough kid. She'd gone through a hell of a lot. Lost her family, her entire world. Had been turned into a walking, breathing bomb. Sam had scared him to death...or damned near...when she'd refused to leave Cassie alone that day. Had to have been that SG-1 good luck that had seen them through that mess. And then that whole 'mind fire' business. He still didn't understand all that had been going on. Only that a Goa'uld was responsible for the problems. Sometimes, he wished Janet had shot that bitch.

Right after that, as soon as the New Year's celebrations were over, the team had headed for Ravanna. Hadn't ended up there, though. Nope, they'd gone on one hell of a wild ride, and had ended up in another reality. Twelve years into their future. That had been a pain-in-the-ass. Standing there, watching...himself. Learning that he...well, his alternate self...was with Sam. Openly. Happily. It had been easier, and a hell of a lot better for his own sanity, to concentrate on Daniel. To help his best friend see that his own future, his Destiny, was just waiting for him. To help him move past the crippling fears, and the guilt; to dare to reach out for the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Jack grinned when he thought about the past Christmas. Spent at the home of his best friend, and the beautiful woman who'd put a permanent smile on Daniel's face. Season tickets. Casey had given him season tickets for the Colorado Avalanche. They'd been for the center section. He'd actually been able to attend six of the thirteen home games. Not a bad average, considering.

Seven days off. They could chop down their own tree. Build a snowman or two. He could even teach them how to ice fish. It had been years since he'd been able to do that.

A glance at his watch told him that more than likely, three of 'his kids' were in the commissary, drinking coffee and probably eating something chocolate. Teal'c was probably still in the gym. The Jaffa spent an extraordinary amount of time there. Of course, the big guy had the muscles to show for it, too.

Yep, a nice quiet Christmas, with the four people who meant the most to him...the four people in the world whom he called 'family'. His eyes went momentarily to the phone. No, there had been no doubt about what she'd wanted the last time they'd spoken. She couldn't forgive him for not being there for their father. Wouldn't even try to understand that he hadn't been in the country when the illness had struck. He couldn't tell her that he'd been sitting in an Iraqi prison, barely alive. Because technically, at that moment, he hadn't existed, not as far as the United States was concerned, anyway. Had it not been for a general too stubborn to leave any of his men behind, he and Gary Franklin and Jessie Hatcher and four other men would have died in that hell-hole. And technically, he could never tell her. So, his sister would continue to hate him, believing that he had chosen to ignore her calls, her pleas. That his absence from his father's funeral was a decision he'd made, not one that had been made for him. It was better this way. Rachel was better off not knowing about a lot of things. And he sure as hell couldn't tell her what he was doing now - wouldn't be able to explain his...continued...absences. No...it was much better this way.

With a weary sigh, he pushed himself to his feet. He'd sacrificed a hell of a lot over the years. Sapphire blue eyes and a saucy smile danced in front of his eyes. Three other smiling faces seemed to surround him. He'd given up a lot. He'd lost even more. But somehow, he seemed to have all that he needed. Couldn't think of a single thing he wanted. Well, nothing but a couple of days at the cabin, and some ice fishing.

The normal cocky smile that tugged at his lips slid into place as he headed for the elevator. A stop at the gym, then on to the commissary. He wondered briefly if this time would be different from the dozens of other times. He certainly hoped so. Ice fishing just wasn't fun if there wasn't someone around to complain to!

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

Teal'c looked up from his place on the floor where he was doing another set of sit-ups. Jack grinned. "Abs of steel, eh, Teal'c?"

"My abdominal musculature does not contain metal, O'Neill."

Now, see...right there he knew that the Jaffa was jerking his chain. Teal'c had been on Earth long enough, and he knew that the big guy watched television...he had a new flat screen TV in his quarters, so at some point he'd seen the commercials and infomercials for those exercise tapes. "Right. Tell that to the poor saps who make the mistake of trying to hit you."

Teal'c's cheek twitched slightly. "I concede that I am able to withstand substantial abuse."

No shit, Jack thought silently. Teal'c could take more abuse...more torture...than any living being he'd ever seen. Had taken far too much as a result of missions gone bad. Suffered beatings to try to protect him, or Daniel, or Carter...or Casey...although thankfully that hadn't actually happened...yet. Not a real beating, anyway. Lord knew that when it did happen the slender seer would beat herself up just as badly, mentally and emotionally. "Wanna head to the commissary with me?"

Dark eyes moved from Jack's face, to the clock on the wall. A smile spread over the wide, prominent features. "Indeed. Allow me to refresh myself."

"Ten minutes," Jack said, dropping down on one of the nearby benches.

With that regal nod of his head, Teal'c rose to his feet, disappeared out the door and toward the men's locker room.

Just how was he going to phrase his request this time? He wondered briefly if ordering the team to join him in Minnesota would work. Probably not. Sam would no doubt obey, she was the perfect example of a dedicated Air Force officer. And they were lovers now, she'd go just to be with him. Wouldn't she? Daniel would politely tell him to shove his order up his ass, using really big words in that calm tone of voice. Radar wouldn't be as hesitant to tell him exactly what to do with his order. No doubt it would be...creative. Teal'c...he never knew what to expect from Teal'c. Well, not when it came to personal lives. Out on the field, he didn't even have to look at the Jaffa to know what he was doing in any given situation. Seven years of working together, under the extreme conditions that they faced, made that knowledge a matter of fact.

He could try cajoling. Although it had never worked before. Whining? Nah, he didn't whine. The Space Monkey whined. Not much...but he could do it, wasn't above doing it if he thought it would get him what he wanted. Hmm...maybe there was something to the whining angle...

"Colonel O'Neill, sir?"

The soft voice pulled him from his thoughts. A quick glance at the pips and name on the uniform. "Lieutenant Hailey. What can I do for you?"

"Sir, I was wondering why you didn't call us...my teammates and I...until so late in the game. On 'training' day," she clarified.

"Because I was hoping to keep the cadets out of the SGC and safe at the warehouse. If it had been a real attack, making certain that at least a few of the SGC personnel survived would have been a top priority," Jack replied easily.

The young woman frowned slightly. "We could have been more use in taking on the 'Jaffa', we might have even helped beat them back sooner."

One eyebrow went up slightly. "The cadets have improved that much since the last training mission against SG-1?"

Light blue eyes dropped to the floor. "Our team score hasn't changed," she admitted.

"Then basically ya would've been killed sooner, if I'd called ya in sooner," Jack said.

"But sir, we didn't even have a chance-"

"Lieutenant, I've watched the security footage. You were to treat the exercise as if it were a real attack."

"But we did!"

"You waltzed through the front door, took the elevator to level eleven, and then checked in. Seeing anything wrong with this picture?"

The young woman nodded slowly, realization lighting her eyes. "The blast door would have been sealed. We should have used the access ladders. Checked each level before moving on to the next," she admitted.

"There ya go. You didn't do that. Next time, you'll know."

"Yes, sir." She turned and walked toward the treadmill, stopped and looked over her shoulder. "Next time?"

Jack grinned. "Never know when the general's gonna decide that we need to do a little bit of training."

"Will we...do you think that we'll be called sooner?"

The grin disappeared. "Depends on how well you do in your real training. I won't risk the lives of cadets not ready to face the enemy. Not even in a mock battle."

"But if it's for training, wouldn't we learn from the experience?"

"Did you learn anything this time?"

"Yes, sir."

"Prove that the next time you're up against SG-1."

She smiled. "Yes, sir!"

Jack nodded, stood, stretched slightly, and headed for the corridor. He'd wait for Teal'c there. He knew how the rumor mill in the mountain worked. No sense in giving the rumormongers something to hash over...especially when an innocent young lieutenant was involved. The kid had enough to worry about with learning how to keep her ass alive; she didn't need to hear stories about her providing 'special favors' for the SGC's second-in-command.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

As he'd suspected, Radar and The Brains were devouring chocolate cake. Huge chunks of chocolate cake. How did those three manage to eat so much junk food, and stay in shape? A sideways glance at the man beside him provided that answer. Teal'c worked out with each of his teammates. Sam had informed him that the Jaffa could be brutal. His own boxing sessions with the huge man were testimony to that fact. She'd also complained that Casey had the ability to twist her body into shapes that just weren't 'normal' when they did aerobics. He'd seen that for himself a time or two...and promptly pushed those images, and the accompanying thoughts, from his mind. His eyes went to Daniel. Lucky little shit!

Teal'c had a cup of hot water and a teabag...wait...had he just taken that teabag from his pocket? Jack mentally shook his head. Space Monkey and Radar with their fancy-shmancy coffee. Now they had the T-man doing that crap with his tea. T-man...tea. Hey, that was a joke, son! He chuckled silently at his own wit. Poured a cup of good old regular coffee, and joined his team.

"Did you get my memo?" Case asked immediately. Licked a bit of chocolate icing from her lower lip. No one could miss the flare of interest that little movement had raised in cerulean blue eyes.

"Yep," he replied. Glanced at Daniel. Figured the archaeologist must walk around half turned on all the time, being married to a woman like Casey. No wonder they slipped off to a convenient storage closet so often. Addiction hell! That little blonde just flat kept the Space Monkey in heat! Which was an amusing thought, considering the rumors he'd heard for so many years...about the 'sexless Dr. Jackson'. Another mental shake of his head. Rumors either had the young man gay, or not interested in sex at all. He wondered how the gossips were dealing with the very obvious disproof of both of those rumors.

"So, any ideas?"

He looked over into deep green eyes. "One or two."

"Well, spill, boss!" Casey insisted.

"How about we all go to my fishing cabin. Celebrate Christmas there?" As soon as the words hit the air, he braced himself. Watched his 'kids' exchange glances. Okay, here come the excuses, he thought.

"Sounds great," Sam smiled.

"I agree," Casey nodded.

"Count me in," Daniel said, leaning back in his chair, one hand rubbing Casey's back; something done so automatically, so absently, that no one else actually noticed either.

"Indeed."

Jack frowned at the four faces that smiled innocently at him. "Yes? You're all agreeing to go to my cabin in Minnesota with me?"

"You invited us," Daniel pointed out.

"I invite you on a regular basis, but no one ever accepts," the older man growled.

"Jack, if you’d rather be alone, or just have Sam at the cabin, it’s all right," Casey told him.

"I invited all of you!"

"And we all accepted!" Daniel huffed. "So what's the problem?"

Jack looked from one face to the other. Then carefully examined the room around them. "Okay, I don’t remember being taken hostage. Haven’t touched any alien rocks. Haven’t eaten anything-" He broke off and looked down at his coffee. "Alien," he said softly.

Casey giggled. "What’s wrong, Jack?"

He glared at the slender blonde for a moment. "The problem is that in seven years, not one of these three have ever-"

"That is not correct, O’Neill. I accompanied you on a fishing expedition on one occasion," Teal’c interjected.

"I went up with you once, right after Sha’re was killed," Daniel added quietly.

"Okay, once...for two of you," Jack said, turning his glare on Sam.

"I’ve been busy!" she declared defensively.

"For seven years?"

"Jack," Casey said softly, "what happened...or didn't happen...in the past doesn't matter. You've invited us, and we've accepted. So what will we do while we're there?"

There were times he absolutely hated the way that little blonde could be so damned...right...about things. It was irritating as hell. Made even more so when she was so sincere, those green eyes full of wisdom far beyond what someone her age, and experience, should have. Didn't happen often. And it seemed to only happen when he was around...all of that zen-like stuff she spouted off aimed at him. He sighed mentally. No doubt her...connections...that radar/psychic thing, had a lot to do with what she said. And some of that stuff had certainly helped him deal with...things. "We can cut our own Christmas tree," he replied.

"Yes!" Casey crowed, nearly bouncing with her enthusiasm. "Will we need to bring Christmas ornaments? We have quite a few really nice ones, although I'd prefer to leave the 'special' ones here, so they aren't broken, not that it would be on purpose, but bouncing over potholes for however many miles can't be good for delicate crystal and ceramic, and we could always-"

Jack held up both hands to ward off the flow of words. "Whoa! Take a breath, Radar!"

Casey blushed, ducked her head slightly.

Crap. He'd hurt her feelings. He nudged her boot with his under the table. Gave her a grin when she looked up at him. "My Grandma O'Neill had a bunch of that stuff. Pappy left it all in the cabin when he willed the cabin and the land to me."

"Oh," Casey said softly.

"There are some that are Tiffany glass," Jack continued.

"Really?" Green eyes went wide.

"Yep. Since you're so good at decorating, you're in charge of all of that. Carter, you'll probably have to fix a couple strings of lights."

"Why not just buy new lights?" Sam asked.

"Those lights have worked for years. Just have a couple of shorts or something in one or two of the strings." When she gave him that soft, indulgent smile, his stomach started quivering. 

"I'll bring along extra cord. I might be able to find an old string or two somewhere, to use for parts," Sam said.

Before he could do something embarrassing, such as ogle her like a lovesick school boy, or worse, lean over and kiss her...not that kissing was bad, but kissing here wasn't a good idea...he nodded, shifted his attention to Daniel. Gave about three seconds of thought to what he was about to say. He'd regret it...no doubt about it. But..."Daniel, you know all of the traditions that go with Christmas. You can bore us silly-" He broke off at the slight frown that tugged at Daniel's eyebrows. "You can tell us all about them while we decorate the tree."

"Will Casey Jackson be providing cookies for us?" Teal'c asked. Casey had already delivered the bags of cookies and fudge, and those treats had disappeared just as quickly as they had the year before.

Memories of the bag of cookies he had just finished off flooded his mind. He could still taste them. "You tell me what you need, Radar, and I'll make certain you have it."

"It would probably be easier to bake them here, and just take them along," the seer mused.

He nodded. The kitchen in the cabin was adequate. Nothing like the Jackson's kitchen, and no doubt there wasn't all of the...stuff...she needed. There were just the basic pots and pans. "Okay. But I'll still get whatever you need."

"Are we going to drive up?" Daniel asked.

Jack studied his best friend. If he said yes, then the four would take their own vehicles, allowing for escape before their allotted time was up. He'd be lucky to get them to the cabin before Christmas Eve, and even luckier to get them to stay after Christmas Day. He had a friend who owed him a favor. And that friend just happened to have a very nice, if slightly used, HH/MH60G Pave Hawk helicopter. No one was exactly certain how the man had come to have the helo in his possession. But he had. Painted bright blue, with gold, yellow, and red flames. It looked awesome. They could hitch a ride, get there much faster than driving, and he knew that Pete would be willing to pick them up and bring them home. "Nope. Leave the travel plans to me," he replied. And ignored the glances that were once again exchanged. Geez, you'd think those four didn't trust him, or something!

"Um...you're sure? I can call a travel agent, find out about flights-" Sam started.

"I have it covered, Carter," he said. He was sure he still had Pete's phone number. Again with those worried glances! 

Casey tossed a smile at him. "It's not that we don't trust you, boss. It's just that we-"

"Don't trust you," Daniel finished for his wife.

"Thanks so much," he mumbled. Studied his cup of coffee. Put on his best 'you've-hurt-my-feelings' expression. Glanced up when no one said a word. To find them grinning at him. "What?"

"You are such a faker," Sam said, nearly laughing at him.

Casey choked on the sip of coffee she had just taken, began to cough. Daniel began to rub and pat her back. "Now that's just cold, boss. A woman likes to know she's doing a good job."

For a moment her meaning was lost on him. Until Daniel began to laugh, and Sam began to chuckle, even though she was blushing...even Teal'c was grinning...and...Oh. OH! "That is not what she meant!" They were all laughing now. "Wait a minute...I have never faked anything in my life!"

"Wanna bet?" Daniel challenged immediately.

Without a doubt the archaeologist would sit there and recite dates, times, places, people...how in the hell did he remember all of that stuff? "So," he said, tossing his best colonel glare in Daniel's direction, "I'll let you know where to meet up. If not tomorrow, then the day after, at the latest."

"Just promise me that whatever...transportation...you come up with is safe," Daniel said.

"Of course it is!" There had only been a couple of times that parts had given way on the old bird. But Pete usually kept backups around, and even if the landing was rough, it wasn't technically a crash. And no doubt they'd be back up in the air within an hour or so. If anything actually happened.

"Uh huh."

He glared at Daniel. How did he manage to put an entire conversation in one or two words? He shook his head mentally. It was that connection between them...that link of friendship. He knew Daniel so well that he was aware of what the man was thinking half of the time. Of course, Daniel knew him just as well. A thought that should bother him, but for some reason, didn't. "Would I risk my team?"

"If it would result in the four of us accompanying you to your cabin, I believe you would take calculated risks," Teal'c intoned. Three snickers weren't completely stifled.

Did the Jaffa say stuff like that on purpose, or was it just the way it came out? He rose to his feet. "I do not have to sit here and be insulted."

"Sit down, Jack," Daniel said, a grin on his face. "No one has insulted you."

"Yet."

He was certain he'd heard Casey's soft voice. Smartass. When Sam reached out and took his hand, he gave up pretending to be insulted, dropped back onto the chair. "If you don't have your Christmas shopping finished, I suggest you do it tonight," he said.

"I don't suppose you can make our...um...departure...for the day after tomorrow," Casey said.

"I could."

"Good. It takes a couple of hours to get everything wrapped. And I'll need time to bake the cookies."

Memories of the intricate bows that had adorned the gifts she had given the year before flittered through his mind. "I'll make it early afternoon, day after tomorrow."

The smile she flashed damned near blinded him. "Thanks, Jack," she said softly.

"You're welcome."

"If we have next week off, I need to get a list made up of everything that needs to be done, and prioritize it," Daniel said.

"Me, too," Sam nodded.

"I suppose I should try to get a bit more work done on the database," Casey sighed.

"I must lead a group of cadets through a workout session," Teal'c said.

"Go do your thing...things," he said. "I'll call you with the specifics."

He watched his 'kids' as they left, talking amongst themselves as they headed as a group for the elevator. They were coming to the cabin. The team would celebrate Christmas together. At his cabin in Minnesota. He wasn't sure how it had happened. But it had. Seven days. No SGC. No Goa'uld. He was going to make them turn off their cell phones and hand them over as soon as they arrived. He grinned from ear to ear. It was going to be a great Christmas!

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

As soon as his coffee cup was empty, Jack headed back to his office. It would be just his luck that Pete would be busy for the next three weeks. If so, he'd just do a little looking in the yellow pages, and find a charter...plane, helo...didn't matter. Anything that would get him and his kids to that cabin in just a few hours.

He searched in the folder he had marked 'Military Regulations Regarding the Proper Cleaning of Latrines'. He kept all of his personal papers in the folder, because guaranteed there wasn't a soul who wanted to know about the regulations regarding the cleaning of a restroom! He hadn't talked to Pete in awhile...not since...

He sat back. The last time he'd talked to Pete had been at Charlie's funeral. That had been just over eight years ago, now. Jack shook his head. The pain was still there. The passage of time, and the love of friends, had helped to ease it to a dull ache.

Locating the paper that had a list of old contacts, men he could depend on if the situation called for 'special training' he ran his finger down the neatly typed list. Past the names of the men he had called to locate Casey when she'd run away from Silver Springs, and then again to keep an eye on her and Cassie in DC. There...

He dialed carefully. Glanced at the clock. Half expected to get either an answering machine, or be transferred to voice mail. Was actually surprised when the man himself answered.

"Hello?"

"Pete? Jack O'Neill."

There was a stretch of silence. "Damn, I heard you were dead!"

Jack couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, that rumor has gone around a time or two."

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Classified work. They reactivated me a few years back."

"No shit?"

"No shit."

"Damn! Well, must be interesting, if you're still there."

Another laugh. "You have no idea."

"How's Sara?"

Now it was Jack's turn to pause. "We uh...split up. My fault entirely. She's got a nice man in her life now. I...uh...I'm happy for her."

"Sorry, Jack, I'm...damn, I'm really sorry."

"It's for the best. There's someone new in my life now, too," Jack said quietly.

"Glad to hear that."

"I was wondering if you still had the helo."

"Took 'er out just this morning," was the reply.

"Are you busy the day after tomorrow? Sometime around thirteen hundred?"

"Depends."

Jack grinned. "I'd like to hitch a ride for me and my team. Up to the cabin."

"The one up there a couple of hours from Clearbrook, in Minnesota? Next to that lake with no fish in it?"

"That's the one."

"I have to take a group of skiers up to the top of Eagle Crest that morning. The best I can do is to pick you up around sixteen hundred."

A few quick calculations in his head...Jack nodded mentally. It meant arriving around midnight, but it would give the team almost a second full day to prepare for their vacation. "Pete, you don't know how much I appreciate it!"

Another brief lapse of silence. "Yeah, well, I owe you, Jack."

Memories, dark and painful and unpleasant attempted to rush forward. He firmly pushed them back. "This ride will make us even."

"Not even close," Pete replied. "But I get what you're saying. Meet me at the airstrip east of Yoder at about four. I'll be fueled up and ready to go."

"We'll be there. Thanks, Pete."

"Anytime, Jack."

He hung up, sat back and folded his hands over his stomach. Yep, it was going to be a totally awesome Christmas!


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