1. A Light In Dark Places

Intro

During the attempted Goa’uld invasion of The Serpent’s Lair/Within The Serpent’s Grasp, nobody outside the SGC had any idea of the threat facing Earth. Or did they? At Christmas of 1998, stationed in Germany and preparing for war in Kosovo, Frank Cromwell hears some strange rumors, and wonders what kind of trouble Jack has gotten himself into this time. Plus memories of a happier Christmas, a brave teddy bear, and why it’s NOT a good idea to drive across the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm…

Ramstein Airbase, Germany, 1998

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me…

If I ever meet the sorry bastard who wrote that song, I’ll kill him.

Yep. Just call me Colonel Scrooge. What is it about armed forces radio stations, that they have to play these songs all the time to the troops overseas? The ones who won’t be home for Christmas… if they even have a home anymore.

There’s something about the holidays that encourages thoughts like this, of home and family and warm cozy kitchens, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and all that shit. Of course, all the sappy songs and cute decorations everywhere don’t help any. You can’t get away from Christmas here, no matter how hard you try. And believe me, I’m tryin’.

My team just got back to base after a week of war games, a nice long week away from carols and colored lights and all this “peace on Earth, good will to men” crap. Here in the mess hall it’s nice and warm, but right about now I’m wishing we were still out there, camping out in the woods and the snow. Out there, whether the mission’s real or not, there’s no time for thinking about anything else. And anybody so much as mentions that it’s almost Christmas, I can bust his ass faster than you can think.

But we’re on downtime now until New Year’s, assuming the situation in Kosovo doesn’t blow up between then and now. And I don’t think it will. Oh, we’ll go in there eventually, and it can’t be too soon for me. But not before Christmas.

And there’s a part of me that’s glad my team will get some time off. They deserve it, even though I’d never be caught dead sayin’ so. But for me, a nice little war over the holidays would be a relief, at this point.

It’s snowing outside, tiny white flakes falling steadily as I watch through the window. Jack would give me that look, if he was here… the one that says be careful what you wish for.

But Jack’s not here.

Master Sergeant Douglas, my medic, looks over at me as my hand curls into a fist, thumping down on the table. I pretend not to notice, staring at the clipboard in front of me, like I’m totally engrossed in this fascinating report I’m writing.

And suddenly I’m very glad Stuart’s not here. As annoyed as I was when he told me he was gonna put up Christmas decorations around the barracks, at least it’ll keep him busy. Unlike Douglas, my 2IC hasn’t learned how to hide it when he’s worried about me, and the last thing I need is him tryin’ to cheer me up.

I take a long gulp of coffee, scalding my tongue and making a face at the paper. Good old Air Force coffee. That shit’ll put hair on your chest, for sure. I’m flipping through the pages of the pad when the card falls out.

It came the day before we left on that exercise, and I remember shoving it inside the pad, not having time — or not being able to face reading it just yet. I rip the envelope open.

Sara sends me a card every year. I’m not exactly sure why. She always has, since Charlie… Maybe she knows she’s the only one who will, and she feels sorry for me. Or maybe it’s her way of trying to reconnect, if only for a day, with the past. When Jack and me were friends, when she and Jack were married, when their son was alive. Or maybe a little of both.

That past is something I avoid thinking about, whenever possible. No point in thinking about what’s gone forever. And I don’t know if it helps to hear from her this time of year, or just makes it harder. She knows as well as I do that past is dead, as dead as my friendship with Jack, as dead as their son.

But at the same time, I know I’ll call her, same as I have for the past three years. Just to check up on her, see how she’s doing. I promised Jack once, a lifetime ago it seems, that if anything ever happened to him I’d take care of Sara. And even though Jack’s still very much alive, at least according to military records — and even though if I know Sara she’d be unlikely to ever ask either of us for help — still there’s a part of me that sees keeping in touch with her, making sure she’s okay, as my last duty to the man who was once my best friend. It’s the only thing I can do for Jack, now, futile gesture as it is.

And maybe there’s a part of me, too, buried so deep I can pretend it doesn’t exist, that needs to talk to someone who understands. She’s the only one who knows anything about my life the way it used to be — her and Jack and Lisa. Not that I ever tell her how much I miss those days, in the unguarded moments late at night when the guilt and the loneliness are so damn thick it’s almost suffocating. But she knows, and she misses those days, too, as much as I do. And sometimes it helps as much as it hurts, even if it’s only a five minute phone conversation once a year, where we both lie and say we’re coping.

Or maybe I still need to know that Lisa’s okay. I haven’t seen my wife, haven’t heard from her, since I left in 1991. And every year I tell myself I’ll ask Sara if she’s seen her, how she’s doing. But somehow I’ve never had the guts. I always ask her if she’s heard from Jack, and she always says no, but I’ve never asked her about Lisa. Still, I know if she was in trouble Sara would tell me.

Douglas looks up at the sound of the envelope tearing, and I open the card slowly, staring blankly for a second at the picture of a smiling snowman. Charlie loved snowmen, the thought flashes through my mind. Inside, red letters: “Wishing you joy this holiday season.” Yeah, right. There’s a laugh.

Dear Frank,

I hope you’re doing all right, and having a good Christmas. Life’s been okay here this year, I guess. I started a new job last month. I’ve been busy, but that’s a good thing, and I’ve made some good friends there.

Well, that’s good to hear. Although she knows I know Christmas never gets easier, when the faces you love most are gone. It’ll be harder for her, without Charlie…

I don’t know what you’re doing or where you are right now, but if you get a chance can you call me? Something’s happened — nothing serious, I don’t think, so don’t worry — but I saw someone a little while ago, and I need to ask you something.

Frowning, I stare at the words. Okay, that’s not normal. ’I saw someone’ could mean Jack or Lisa, but from the rest of the message I’d say it was Jack. She saw Jack, she thinks he’s involved in something dangerous, and she needs a colonel with a top secret clearance to try to find out how dangerous?

I skim the rest of the letter, worried now.

My dad’s spending the holidays with me, and I’m trying to convince Lisa to come stay with us for a few days, too.

I close my eyes, picturing Lisa’s face again, and all those Christmases years ago when she and I stayed over for the holidays at Jack and Sara’s house. Another lifetime, it seems like. See, this is why I hate this time of year so much…

And I’ll tell you what I told her, even though I know you won’t listen. Whoever your friends are these days, don’t hide from them over the holidays. Nobody should spend Christmas alone.

And if you’re in the States right now, you know you’re always welcome here.

The woman knows me too well.

But she also knows I wouldn’t come, even if I was in the area. Her house — the house she and Jack had once made a home — is the last place I want to be, this time of year. I spent too many Christmases there, when we were all young and stupid and full of hope. In those days, it was the five of us against the world… and the world didn’t stand a chance.

I close the card, shove it back inside the pad and stand up as Reiker and Warfield show up, red-faced and grinning, brushing snow off their field jackets. I finish the rest of my coffee, thinking of that mysterious force that always draws our team to the same place, in the field or on base. But my presence will only put a damper on the conversation, so I get up just in time to see Stuart heading this way.

“Sir!” He looks out of breath, like he ran all the way here. “I was just talkin’ to Janssen from the 23rd, and he says they just got orders to be ready to ship out on twelve hours’ notice.” He’s holding out an envelope. “And Lieutenant Smith told me to give you this.”

I take it, rip it open. Same thing — the 121st Special Tactics is officially on alert, and if and when we get the order to move we’ll have twelve hours to pick up and go. No mention of why, when, or where we’ll be going, but that’s nothing new.

Whatever’s gonna happen, it’ll happen soon.

And it’s about damn time.

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