Respectfully based on the episode “Friends” from the first Richard Dean Anderson show I fell in love with, MacGyver
First published in Redemption 5 (2004)
Jack O’Neill stepped through the liquid surface of the event horizon, onto the ramp of the gate room of the SGC, and there paused. Unconsciously listening, he realized a moment later, counting the footsteps behind him. As the third set—Teal’c’s heavy boots—clattered onto the metal ramp, Jack finally let out the long breath he’d been holding. The one he’d been holding those last few hours.
“SG-1, is everything all right?”
Hammond’s voice on the loudspeaker, and Jack squinted at his CO a level above, behind the glass wall of the control room. It wasn’t their usual “welcome back,” but maybe that was because they were all still standing there at the top of the ramp even as the wormhole swooshed shut behind them. Their six really was safe now, and Jack’s stance relaxed a fraction but still he didn’t move. His team waited behind him, restless but silent.
Carter finally spoke up to answer the question Jack knew had been directed at him. “Yes, sir. We ran into some trouble on the planet but we’re fine.”
He could hear Hammond’s frown, and Jack roused himself, twisting to give Carter a wry half-smile. Some trouble—yeah, right. He turned back to Hammond. “Long day, sir,” he said tiredly.
Hammond nodded. “I look forward to hearing about it. Debriefing in thirty minutes, after you’ve had a chance to change.”
Jack didn’t even try for a salute that would have been halfhearted at best, insubordinate at worst. He wasn’t mad at Hammond, or anyone, really. He was just really, really … tired.
Daniel cleared his throat behind Jack, and he took that as the prod he knew it to be, finally moving his feet and leading the way down the ramp, his team trailing after. He didn’t look back at them as he strode out of the gate room and headed for the showers.
The hot water felt good on his bruised body, less so on his weary mind. It seemed to slough off some of the lethargy that had settled over him and speed the flow of his thoughts. Like remembering just how many times the mission that day to P-whatever had nearly gone wrong.
Three. Three times, three separate occasions that day, Jack had nearly lost his whole team. One time, well, that happened. They weren’t in the safest of jobs, after all—it just made you try harder. Twice, you weren’t trying hard enough, but it could also just be a bad day. They’d had their share of those, too. But three times … three times was a message. And Jack was hearing it loud and clear.
He lifted his face up to the shower head, eyes closed, hearing the murmur of Teal’c and Daniel in the background. Losing either one of them, or Carter, would have meant losing the essence of SG-1. Losing all of them … Jack preferred his own death without the slightest hesitation. There were few fates worse than your whole team falling but you staying alive to know it. Except maybe losing your family. With Charlie and Sara gone, and all that SG-1 had undergone, those three kids were his world now, what mattered most to him. And he’d nearly lost it all on that stupid backwater planet, for what? The thin possibility of helpless allies in an overmatched fight? Technology that no one seemed interested in sharing with them? The promise of some rocks, either old ones Daniel could read or mined ore to power Carter’s machines? Didn’t anybody get that they were risking the very thing they were fighting to save: their loved ones?
Jack’s hands curled into fists against the streaming tile. No, he thought with savage honesty, that wasn’t the real problem. It was true, nobody cared about the other members of SG-1 as much as Jack did, with the possible exception of George Hammond, and even he was constrained by his superiors. But that had always been the case, from Jack’s first day at the Air Force Academy. It hadn’t changed.
How far could a guy press his luck? How often could he yank a mission out of the fire just as it was starting to burn? How long could he ignore the slowed reflexes, the fatigue of age, the weariness of being an old soldier? How long before he got one of his team killed for good because he hadn’t known when to quit? And how could he live with it if he did?
That was the cost of the covert war they were fighting, and Jack O’Neill had always accepted the price. But he wasn’t willing to pay it anymore.
Jack opened his eyes to frown at the tile of the shower wall. When had he decided that? Never intentionally, but there it was, settled into his gut with a surety that it was the right choice. Let someone else take the risks now; he’d done his part. He wanted out before he lost the precious little he had left.
Was it really that easy?
Well, why not? He’d retired once already—he’d just make it stick this time. Let someone with more optimism and less arthritis take over the job. His people would understand.
Daniel’s call snapped Jack’s head up. The archaeologist was already dressed, standing outside the shower door and faintly frowning at Jack.
Sure. It was just his life spiraling down the drain faster than the water at his feet. For all his civilian-ness, Daniel had an equanimity about facing death that Jack hadn’t seen in many soldiers. Then again, he wasn’t responsible for the others on the team, hadn’t almost led the others into death …
Jack cleared his throat. “Just peachy, Daniel.”
“O-kay, well, General Hammond’s expecting us in about five minutes.”
Jack nodded at the wall in front of him. “You go on ahead. I’ll be right there.”
“Okay.” And yet Daniel hesitated, watching Jack another few seconds as if sensing something amiss but not being sure what. Then he seemed to give a mental shrug and walked away.
Jack turned the water off with a sharp jerk, the humid air chilly on his wet skin, his soul even colder, and went to get a towel.
He reviewed his report on the way to the briefing room. The military euphemisms and understatements would do for the debriefing, but after that he’d ask to speak to George alone. Then Jack could lay out the details: just how close it had been those three different times, the sheer luck through which they’d all survived, and how tired he was of relying on that worn luck. Surely it couldn’t last much longer. George would try to talk him out of it, of course, but this time Jack meant it. He’d make his resignation official that afternoon, after he’d had a chance to—
Jack nearly stumbled backward on the spiral stairs, grabbing the railing to steady himself. And staring at the crowd that filled the briefing room’s every corner. The crowd holding drinks and wearing hats and all smiling as they watched him in his fumbling shock.
Carter was standing at the front, wearing a ridiculous red fuzzy thing on her head, and she stepped forward. “Happy birthday, sir.”
Daniel and Teal’c were holding something up now, a white-frosted sheet cake with a poorly drawn F-16 on it and the words, “Happy Birthday, Jack” written in blue icing. Daniel was giving him a smug look, Teal’c that faint smile that hinted of great amusement.
His mind switched tracks so fast, it nearly gave him a headache. It was his birthday—another year older, he couldn’t help but think—and they were throwing him a party.
They were also expecting him to say something. Jack shut his agape mouth, then opened it again, cleared his throat. “Ah, I knew it all along.”
Groans and mock jeers filled the room. His eyes were starting to pick out individual faces now: Doc Fraiser, a madly grinning Ferretti, George looking like he knew he should disapprove but couldn’t. Siler and Davis and Doctor Warner. And of course, front-and-center, Carter and Daniel and Teal’c. His friends.
Jack cleared his throat, suddenly deeply touched. “Well, thanks, folks. Took a couple of years off my life there, but I’m grateful. I just have one question … this is my second year with the SGC. What took you so long?”
More groans, and some party favors rained down on him. Jack grinned and shook his head, and jogged the last few steps up into the briefing room to join the crowd as the party began.
His team congratulated him first, Carter giving him a non-regulation hug and Daniel a pat on the arm while Teal’c looked on in approval. Then came the other slaps and calls and even a hair-mussing from Ferretti, who would pay for that later. Some of the faces Jack didn’t even recognize, and others he wouldn’t have expected to see: Jacob Carter, Catherine and Earnest, Cassie. No Sara, although he found himself looking, but that wasn’t a great surprise. She wouldn’t have been allowed into the SGC, anyway.
The crowd of well-wishers nearly made him claustrophobic. Jack soon ran out of ways to say “thank you” and his mouth began to ache from all the smiling, but he couldn’t help appreciate it and hoped it showed. No one had thrown him a birthday party in … well, a very long time.
And yet he still found himself first unconsciously, then determinedly making his way through the crowd to George. Being the guest of honor didn’t make it easy, but Hammond seemed to notice his intent and headed to intercept him, and they finally met in a quiet corner.
“Happy birthday, Jack.” George gave him an unusually unreserved grin.
Jack regretted he’d have to ruin it. “Thank you, sir. I didn’t know we rent out the place for parties.”
“It is a little unorthodox, I know, but even those on the front lines need a little time off. And besides, Major Carter and Doctor Jackson can be very persuasive.”
Jack smiled at that. “Yes, they can, sir. I just thought you were immune.”
Hammond gave him a pleasantly chiding look, then grew serious. “But it seems to me there’s something else on your mind other than growing a year older.”
Here it came. Jack glanced down at the bright blue party hat he’d somehow acquired, twisting its band in his hands. “Actually … that’s very close, sir.”
George frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“General … I want to resign.”
Hammond’s frown deepened, real concern in his eyes now. “Jack—”
“Hear me out, sir. Please. Today … well, Carter’s going to tell you the natives weren’t friendly and Teal’c’s going to explain the ancient Goa’uld trap we almost fell into and Daniel’ll talk about how the gully they almost got washed into was formed I-don’t-know-how-many-years ago. But the bottom line, sir, is I nearly lost them three different times today. It was just dumb luck that saved us.”
“Sometimes that’s all you need,” Hammond said quietly.
“Well, sir, I think I’ve pushed mine about as far as it’ll go. How many times have we died and been brought back already? It’s been at least a couple for each of us. Add almost dying and you’ll run out of fingers to count them on. I’ve had enough.”
“That’s the nature of the job, Jack, you know that.”
“Yeah,” Jack nodded. “I do. And I’ve been living with that for thirty years now, General. I don’t want to anymore. I’m tired, I’m burned out, and I want to quit while I’m ahead. Before it costs one of my team their lives.”
George was looking at him seriously. Of all the people in that room, he was perhaps the only one who could truly understand what Jack meant, all he’d seen over the years, and some measure of what those last few years had held. If anything, he should have been the one ready to throw in the towel, and Jack respected the man a great deal for not giving up. But Hammond also didn’t have to go out in the field every week, working on the front lines, seeing his people hurt in front of his eyes.
Sometimes even killed and then brought back to life.
“I seem to recall a few times your experience was what kept them alive,” George was saying.
He couldn’t argue that one. “Yes, sir. But we both know sooner or later it’s time to leave the fight to the kids with new perspectives.” And energy.
“Don’t forget who you’re talking to, Colonel,” the older man said wryly, and as Jack looked appropriately abashed, Hammond changed course. “What I’d really like to know is, is it your team you’re protecting, Jack, or yourself?”
Jack’s eyes narrowed. That seemed a low blow. “Both. Sir.”
The general didn’t quite seem satisfied with that, but he didn’t push it, just finally nodded. “Then you’re certain of this?”
“All right. I’ll draw up the paperwork. In the meantime, though, I hope you’ll enjoy the party and let the others do so, as well. Your friends went through a lot of effort for you.”
It was somewhat pointed, but Jack let it slide with a nod. He was doing this for them, too. George would understand that in time.
Hammond moved off toward the stairs and his office, gesturing to his aide to join him as he went. Jack watched them disappear downstairs. And feeling unexpectedly hollow, he turned to rejoin the party and, for a little while at least, put the day behind him.
No alcohol was being served, as most people were at least nominally on-duty, but non-alcoholic beer and some sort of green punch abounded, and Jack snagged a bottle of the former off a refreshment table as he glanced around at the crowd. All there for his sake, he marveled, shaking his head. Who woulda thought?
Doc Fraiser was in the middle of an animated conversation with Catherine near the large observation window, Earnest standing comfortably close to Catherine’s side. They’d married the year before; Jack had been honored to give the blushing bride away. As Jack watched the pair fondly, Earnest noticed him and raised his glass in silent toast. Jack returned the gesture. Good people.
Not far to his right, Teal’c also stood, hands clasped behind his back as he listened politely to Siler. It looked to be a fairly one-sided conversation, but no one would have realized the Jaffa was bored except maybe Jack. Funny how he’d once thought Teal’c was a stoic, totally unemotional. You just had to get to know him to find out just how much was going on underneath the surface. Still waters ran to ocean depths in this case.
Teal’c was actually the one most like him on the team, despite the surface differences. He’d been a warrior most of his life, too, as well as a husband and father. He understood, as Daniel and even sometimes Carter didn’t seem to, that tough, unpleasant decisions occasionally had to be made for the greater good. And in sharing that knowledge, he’d carried part of Jack’s burden those last two years. He even had a wicked sense of humor, though few people knew it.
There was a comfort to being around Teal’c, an ease that didn’t require talking or, God forbid, soul-baring, but that still felt like they were in tune. Even after the whole mess with Rya’c getting brainwashed and Drey’auc having married Teal’c’s best friend, what had they done afterwards?
“I do not believe it is just for you to use this method, O’Neill.”
“Hey, it’s part of the game, Teal’c. They wouldn’t’a built it in if you weren’t supposed to use it.”
“Is such a technique not called a ‘cheat’?”
“Or a secret password,” Jack said defensively.
“There is no challenge if one has ‘infinite lives.’ ”
Jack’s fingers were flying over the video game controller, his eyes glued to the screen. “Yeah, well … the challenge is in how you defeat the levels, not how many lives you use up doing it.”
Teal’c seemed to play much more calmly, and yet his guy was a blur on the screen compared to Jack’s. “That is not how it is explained in the manual.”
Jack’s eyebrows rose even though he didn’t turn away from the game. “You read the manual?”
“Teal’c … no one reads the manual.”
“Perhaps that is why you require infinite lives.”
Jack was trying to scowl and not laugh, and not succeeding well at either. Teal’c didn’t tease many people, but he gave as good as he got with Jack. Sometimes even better.
“I believe Rya’c would enjoy this ‘video game,’ ” the Jaffa suddenly said.
It was the first time he’d mentioned his son since returning from escorting his family to the Planet of Light. Jack gave him a sideways glance. He hadn’t been sure if the topic was taboo, but since the big guy had mentioned it first … “Haven’t met a kid that doesn’t. ‘Course, they haven’t got electricity on Tuplo’s planet, but Carter could probably rig some sort of battery …”
“Perhaps it would offer him distraction from the memory of Apophis’ …”
It was the first time Jack had seen Teal’c at a loss for words, and he turned away from the game to gently offer, “conditioning?” They both knew it was a euphemism, but there was no word that did justice to what Apophis had done.
And even this one made Teal’c flinch. “Yes.”
Jack nodded, returning to the game and watching as Teal’c’s character made a clumsy move. “ ‘S a good idea. I’ll get Carter on it. I gotta warn you, though, you introduce a kid to Super Nintendo and soon you’re gonna be looking for a way to distract him from that.”
Teal’c kept playing impassively, jaw clenching a little harder as his guy came up short on a jump and plunged to its death. Another one appeared in its place a moment later.
It was too bad life wasn’t like that for real. Jack played on for a moment, then threw in, “He’s gonna be all right, Teal’c. He’s a bright kid—he’s already bouncing back. Kids are usually tougher than we think.”
Teal’c was silent, but his game character was starting to pass Jack again, recovering quickly from its earlier lapse.
A minute went by. Jack was losing again and he knew it, and was secretly relieved.
“I require your assistance in a matter,” the Jaffa finally said.
Jack’s eyes never left the screen but his attention was completely on his friend. “Oh, yeah?”
“I do not know how one plays this … ‘baseball.’ ”
A smile crept onto Jack’s face. The mitt he’d given Rya’c hadn’t been for the kid alone. “Anytime, Teal’c. Just say the word.”
Dark eyes looked intently at him. “I am grateful to you, O’Neill.”
That wasn’t just for the baseball, either. Jack’s smile warmed, and even Teal’c’s mouth drew up ever-so-slightly in his drawn face. And then he grew grave again. Except for his eyes.
“However, I still do not believe it is honorable for you to have infinite lives.”
That was the Teal’c few people seemed to know, that mix of weighty concerns and a dry humor to make it bearable. Jack would miss that more than he could say. But he could always visit, right? He still had a promise to keep of showing Teal’c the world someday. When the big guy wasn’t off on some mission saving the world yet again, that was.
Swallowing a sigh, Jack glanced around the room, and Cassie immediately drew his eye. She’d apparently tired of her mother’s conversation and was hovering now at the refreshment table, studying the cookies. Carter came up behind her and put her hands on the pre-teen’s shoulders, leaning around the girl to say something to her with a smile. Cassie responded with a grin of her own, cookies forgotten as she started chattering to her “Aunt Sam.”
Jack’s smile vanished. He hadn’t realized he had company or that George had even returned to the party. Another lapse. Jack tried not to wince. He really didn’t belong here anymore.
But Hammond wasn’t looking at him, his gaze also on the scene at the refreshment table, and he was wearing a small smile of his own. Cassie was only a few years older than the general’s eldest granddaughter and probably reminded him of her sometimes. But to Jack, all he said was, “She’s come a long way since she’s joined us.”
Jack raised an eyebrow in mischief. “Carter? I was just thinking the same thing.”
Hammond gave him that look that said he was too dignified to roll his eyes but Jack was tempting him. And then, surprisingly, he went along with the shift of topic. “I expect you won’t have any objections to Major Carter taking your place as head of SG-1?”
Jack blinked. “You know me better than that, sir. But I thought Makepeace—”
There was an unspoken warning in Hammond’s eyes, something Jack was not to know or at least not yet, that Makepeace wasn’t an option anymore as he once had been. The general’s voice changed slightly in timbre to indicate he was giving the official answer. “Major Carter has the rank and, I believe, the experience now to make a good team commander.”
Jack lifted his chin and matched his superior’s tone. “I concur completely, General.” His mouth quirked. “And she also plays a mean game of basketball.”
Another look from Hammond and Jack grinned.
The basketball hoop was one of the few things he’d kept from Charlie’s things. His miniature hockey set in the garage saw a lot more use, but sometimes nothing beat soaring in the air, slamming the ball through the hoop with all the fury he couldn’t direct at the appropriate target. Still, the orange of the ball reminded him of the copper of Hathor’s hair, and he could always pretend he was smashing her pretty little head into the basket, wiping that eternal smirk off her face. Pretending it was payback for the way she’d used and abused him, the humiliation and pain and those red lips that could breathe her will into him …
“I didn’t know you play basketball, Colonel.”
The out-of-place voice shuddered him to a halt, and he peered suspiciously at Carter as she stood in the driveway, hands tucked deeply into her jacket, looking just about as uncomfortable as he felt. Hey, at least she’d kept her head when every male on the base had been drooling over the Goa’uld witch. No shame there.
Except that maybe she’d seen her CO not exactly at his best only a few months into their assignment, and had even had to take over command from said smitten superior for a while there. Sure, she’d done a darn fine job, but he could understand her unease. Welcome to my world, he thought grimly, giving the basketball a bounce.
And as to her question, “I don’t.”
A moment of surprise, then a faint grin. “Ah. Only … hockey, right?”
The corner of his own mouth turned up. “You catch on fast.”
“Well … I was in the neighborhood and … Okay, so I wasn’t exactly, but I just wanted to come by and see if …”
If she dug her hands into her pockets any deeper, she’d tear through the lining. Jack considered his 2IC, standing on his sidewalk, and tilted his head. “You play basketball, Carter?”
The glint of interest he was far more familiar with sprang back to life in her eyes. “A little, sir,” she answered in the tone he knew meant she could probably beat the pants off him.
Without a word, he bounced the ball to her, and after she’d stood for a few seconds dumbly staring at it nestled in her hands, she glanced up at him with a sly grin and shrugged out of her jacket.
The next hour was as challenging as any mission, and Jack stopped thinking, just reacted: feinting, dodging, racing and jumping, intent on nothing but the ball and winning. Hathor was shoved aside, the stink of her on him fading into honest sweat and the desperate pain and loss resolving into the pleasant ache of exertion.
Carter won, 42 baskets to his 36.
She was flushed, too, and too cheerful as she said, “Good game, sir.”
He, meanwhile, had to plant his hands on his knees and lean over just to breathe, and he squinted up at her in disgust. “That was lousy … Carter, and if you tell … Daniel or Teal’c, I’m … bringin’ out the pictures from … that time you drunk that stuff on—”
Her cheeks turned impossibly redder. “Sir, you didn’t.”
Jack pushed himself up on wobbly legs and managed a smile. “Relax, Carter. I didn’t. But even if I had … I’d say yesterday trumps it, wouldn’t you?”
Her stance changed, slipping from relaxed to as defensive as when she’d first arrived. “Sir, about that. I didn’t mean—”
“ ‘Course you did,” he shot back. “Good thing, too, or the Snake Queen woulda had run of Cheyenne Mountain before long.” Jack gave her a hard look. “It’s not easy going against your CO. I’ve only had to do it once in my career and I hope I never have to again. But you did what you had to do, and saved our skins doing it. Commendation’s gonna say the same thing.”
Her eyes widened. “Commendation?”
And Jack grinned. “Didn’t I mention that?”
She never brought it up again, either the game or taking command, but she’d showed up for the next mission looking confident and at ease once more. The next time they’d played basketball was after he’d recovered from their little visit to Antarctica, this time at her request. She’d beat him even worse then, and it wasn’t because of his ribs, either. But Jack hadn’t minded … well, much.
She’d made an ideal second-in-command, and she’d do just as well as team leader. He just regretted he wouldn’t be there to see it. Or to listen to those tongue-twisting explanations she came up with. Or watch her break out into one of those sudden smiles. Or eat those heavenly brownies she sometimes made and brought in. It seemed to be the only thing she could bake, but none of the team ever complained. There’d still be brownies and basketball games if he left, but he wouldn’t be her CO anymore and she’d have her own command, and it would be awkward. The truth was, he’d probably see the least of her of the three of them from now on, and he already missed her.
Setting his jaw, Jack turned back to Hammond. “Done already?” he asked lightly.
“Standard form—you know how the Air Force loves its paperwork.” The sarcasm faded from George’s voice. “You haven’t changed your mind, then?”
“No, sir,” Jack said with an almost-smile of sympathy. And yet he didn’t immediately reach for the envelope, watching it with absurd wariness.
“You know, you can take your time and think about this if you want, Jack. SG-1 is due for a little downtime, anyway—why don’t you take a few days, go up to that cabin of yours, get in some fishing …”
It sounded tempting … and like a delay of the inevitable. “I did my thinking out in the field today, sir. It’s amazing what a persuasive argument a little screaming can be.” He’d been trying for a quip but it came out sounding … haunted. Before he dwelt on it too much, Jack snagged the envelope from George’s hand.
Hammond’s gaze was a little too understanding. “All right,” he said quietly. “I’ll let you get back to your party, Jack. But none of this conversation will be official until that’s signed, sealed, and delivered to the Joint Chiefs, understood?”
It was a back door, and Jack appreciated it even if he didn’t intend to use it. “Thank you, sir.” He’d been lucky in that much, to not only have good people under him, but also alongside and over him. Tipping a finger to his head in informal salute, he sidled past Hammond and slipped down the stairs, unnoticed.
The sounds of the party instantly muted, and Jack breathed a sigh of relief. He was all for parties usually, but just then he felt neither like celebrating nor being reminded he was a year older. Nor just how many friends he was leaving behind.
Hammond’s office door stood atypically ajar; the general had probably been expecting him. Jack stepped inside the silent office and shut the door behind him.
Jack hesitated in front of the large mahogany desk but, well, why not? It wouldn’t be insubordinate much longer. He skirted it and eased himself into the padded leather chair. “Cushy,” he muttered to the empty room, unsurprised. With the weight Hammond had on his shoulders, he deserved a comfortable place to park it, at least. Jack wouldn’t have wanted the man’s job.
Of course, he didn’t want his own job, anymore, either. Straightening at the reminder of why he was there, Jack opened the envelope and pulled out the three sheets inside, smoothing them out on the blotter.
Standard form, all right, in triplicate. Not even the nice language of a letter of resignation, just fill in the blanks and you’re done. It’d still need to be approved at a couple of stops down the line before it was a done deal, but if Hammond okayed it, that was most likely just a formality. A few days, and he’d be Mister O’Neill once more.
Jack took the silver pen from the pen-holder on the desk, hesitated a moment over the form, then signed it.
There was a certain lightness to having the deed done. Jack cast a cursory glance over the paper, flipped through the other copies to make sure they were readable, then re-folded the form and put it back in the envelope. He sealed it, marveling at the simplicity. A few minutes writing and no more concussions and bruises, no more planetary scale worries, no more starched uniforms, no more responsibility. It was … freeing.
Well, every ending was. But a few weeks later when he was barbequing a steak and looking forward to a game on TV, and there wasn’t any early morning wake-up call for a mission, he wouldn’t be missing it.
Jack made a face and rose. That was mildly pathetic. Solitude had never bothered him before, and anyway, the kids would come visit. It’d be fine.
Nodding, Jack tucked the envelope inside his jacket and walked out of the office, making sure the door locked behind him.
The chaos of multiple conversations grew louder as he climbed the steps, and the burden of going back in and acting as if nothing had happened grew heavier, but Jack knew his responsibility now. Maybe he’d be gone soon, but he wouldn’t ruin those last days for anybody.
Cassie was the only one who seemed to catch his reappearance, and she launched herself at him with a belated hug and a rushed relation of how the puppy—now not so puppy-like—Jack had given her was doing. She’d named it Pudding after her new favorite human food, and the joy in her face as she talked about him lifted some of the weight from Jack’s heart. They had done a lot of good in his time with the SGC, too, there was no doubt about it. Cassie alone would have been proof of that.
Janet Fraiser called to her a minute later, and with an equally breathless apology, Cassie disengaged herself and went to her mother. He watched her go with amusement, exchanging a knowing shake of the head—kids!—with the Doc as Fraiser noticed him.
A new kind of melancholy stole through him, and hands in his pockets, Jack skirted the bulk of the crowd and made his way to the observation window that dominated the one wall of the briefing room.
There it was in the room beyond, in all its glory. The doorway to the adventures and trials of the past two years, the one that had brought them Cassie and Earnest and taken away a lot more. Not even remotely one of the larger pieces of equipment the USAF owned, yet it had the power to jeopardize or save the whole world, and many others besides. The round hole at the center of his life, the whole reason for his returning to duty two years before and part of why he was leaving now.
“Deceptive-looking, isn’t it?”
Jack turned without moving his feet to give Daniel next to him an inquiring glance.
“Uh, I noticed you weren’t exactly being the life of the party.” He indicated the group behind them with one shoulder.
“Sorry,” Jack said, muted.
“Oh, it was mostly Sam’s idea—I’m not usually big on parties myself, but you … Is everything okay, Jack?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, then nodded at the window in front of him, and the gateroom beyond. “You were saying something about ‘deception’ …?”
A pause. “I said it was deceptive-looking.”
Neither of them had said what “it” was, nor had to. Jack looked over at Daniel. “Because it doesn’t look like much?”
“Because it’s a lot more than just a gateway to other planets.” Daniel arched an eyebrow back at him.
Well, the archaeologist was the person who knew that best, who’d gained and then lost the most out of all of them through that oversized hula-hoop. If anything, Daniel should have been cashing in his chips, but he still had hope out there, a reason to keep going through that damnable ring. It was one of the many things Jack admired about the civilian who’d sneakily become one of his closest friends.
How that had happened, Jack still didn’t know. They were nearly polar opposites in personality and interests, and rarely agreed on anything. And yet Daniel was the one who’d seek him out when he knew Jack was troubled, who sat through John Wayne movies he hated and listened to Jack not talk for hours on end but didn’t push. His passion and conscience kept SG-1 going sometimes, and had taught Jack more than he cared to admit. The simple fact was, Daniel could exasperate him like no other … but Jack also loved him like family.
And now he was leaving that family to fend for itself.
Daniel had been watching him, face creased with concern and that peculiar intensity he got when he was trying to understand something. He moved a half-step closer now, pitching his voice low to make sure no one overheard. “What’s wrong, Jack?”
“What’s wrong, Jack?”
Jack raised his head at the weary voice to give its speaker an uncomprehending look.
“You’ve been staring at that book for a while,” Daniel said, eyes ticking to the tome Jack held in his hands, then back to his face. “You don’t know where it goes?”
Jack shook his head, looking back down at the book. “Just thinking ‘bout the last time we did this.” He placed it carefully on the shelf next to the first volume in the series. “Seems like only yesterday.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes. “I …thought it was only yesterday.”
Jack slid another book into place. “Yep.”
A beat, then, “Riiight.”
Jack smiled in sheer delight at the box he was unpacking. It was stupid, but he’d missed this the most, the inane conversations, the effortless pleasure of being with the geek unpacking next to him. Those last few days of thinking Daniel was dead, of remembering seeing him die—even if the memories had been implanted by the reincarnation of the Creature from the Black Lagoon—had felt like he was sleepwalking, not moving through the real world. It had been the same way after Charlie. But Daniel’s return had woken him up, and Jack was reveling in living again.
This time it was he who noticed the prolonged stillness of his companion, and Jack glanced up, a teasing quip on his tongue. It died there, unsaid, when he saw Daniel’s face, the lines of pain a deeply etched map. Where had all those years suddenly come from?
“Daniel?” he said gently.
“Did any of you … read from these?”
Jack frowned at the odd tone, and craned to see what Daniel was holding.
One of his Abydos journals.
“Carter read a line from one of ‘em, that’s all,” Jack said firmly.
The bowed head nodded, and Daniel’s hand—slightly trembling, Jack kicked himself for not noticing before—traced over the leather cover. “You know, he might have gone about it the wrong way, but Nem was just looking for his wife, Jack, like I am. I can understand how … desperate that can make you. If I met someone I thought might know where Sha’re was …” His voice was unraveling as Jack listened.
Even in his happiness, he’d known Daniel was hurting, physically from that memory-mixer, emotionally from the reminder of his lost wife, but he’d acted so together … Jack should have remembered what a good actor Daniel was. “You wouldn’t torture them to find out, Daniel. You’d rather let someone mess with your head than mess with theirs.” Jack made a face—old argument. And probably not one Daniel needed right then. “You helped the guy as best you could—at least now he knows.”
“Yeah, he knows she’s dead.”
“Trust me on this—it’s better than not knowing,” Jack said firmly.
It took a long moment, but he finally got a small nod. And then Daniel put the journal he’d been holding down and rubbed his forehead.
“Still hurting?” Jack asked sympathetically.
A faint shrug. “Comes and goes.”
“Why don’t you call it a night? Fraiser said to be careful not to overdo it—I can finish up out here.” Thankfully, they hadn’t gotten too far with packing up before realizing something else was very wrong besides Daniel’s absence.
“Yeah. That … that sounds good. But you don’t have to—”
“It’s okay, Daniel.”
Yet Daniel still hesitated, his body starting to fall asleep before Jack’s eyes, his mind not ready to let go. Jack knew that feeling well, too.
“It’s okay, Daniel,” he repeated softly. “We’ll find her.”
He caught the hiccup of surprise, and then Daniel nodded, this time a little more certain. And gave Jack a small smile. “Thanks, Jack,” he said quietly, and turned and disappeared into the bedroom.
“You’re welcome, Danny,” Jack whispered after him. After a minute, he went back to unpacking.
Daniel never did ask Jack what he’d said at the funeral, but maybe that was because, after that night, he already knew.
Jack almost shuddered as the memory faded into a new realization. The love, the concern, the way the four of them knew each other and fit together—weren’t those strengths, too? Maybe not physical ones, but just as important, if not more so. His knees could handle a few more years, but speed and physical prowess wasn’t usually what got his team home safe, not on these battlefields. It was the four of them working together, complementing each other.
He stared, shaken, stirred, at the gate. It wasn’t the hub of his life, after all, was it? Hammond had been right, he’d been protecting himself, not them, selfishly afraid of losing his team, his family. But maybe his staying actually made that less likely.
And, when it came down to it, he didn’t really want to go.
He blinked, turned again to look at Daniel. “What?” he asked innocently, and watched with private amusement as the worry in his friend’s expression became exasperation. “I was just … thinking,” Jack added in quick defense.
Daniel’s eyes narrowed. “Right. That’s … good. I think. Dare I ask what you were thinking about?”
Jack couldn’t help it; he broke out in a grin. “You sure you want to know?”
The shake of the head was automatic, the answer a little slower. “Never mind—I withdraw the question. But … everything’s okay?”
Jack glanced back at the gate again, and felt the earlier dread melt away into quiet conviction. And … joy. He met Daniel’s gaze head on. “Everything’s fine,” he said, meaning it wholeheartedly.
“Okay.” Daniel knew something had just happened, but he was trusting Jack. Yet again. “You know it’s time to cut the cake?”
Jack turned away from the gate, back to the party. “What are we waiting for, then?” He swept an arm out melodramatically. “Let them eat cake!” And Daniel’s grimace made him grin again.
It felt great.
The archaeologist led the way to the table, squeezing them both through the crowd, then called for silence in a voice of surprising authority. Jack gave him an impressed glance, then winced theatrically as he saw all the candles lighting the cake. With a deep breath, he managed to blow them all out to scattered applause and calls for a speech. Terrific. Grimacing again, Jack turned to the waiting faces.
And abruptly felt humbled.
“I won’t kid you folks—this wasn’t exactly a birthday I was looking forward to.”
Carter was watching him silently from the front, listening, waiting. He met her eyes briefly before going on.
“We’ve gone through a lot in the last few years—I’d tell you some stories, but then General Hammond would make sure this is my last birthday, so …”
A titter of laughter passed through the crowd, but Teal’c stood motionless, unamused, and not because he didn’t get the joke. He watched Jack as knowingly as Carter was.
“Truth is, I’ve been feeling it recently—the knees aren’t as young as they used to be, the missions take a bigger toll. Today’s … well, let’s just say we’ve had better. Makes you feel … old.”
Daniel shifted beside him, close enough that his sleeve brushed Jack’s. He’d know now what Jack had been thinking about, and was afraid of the answer. Jack turned long enough to give him a bare smile, and to see a small one in return.
Jack straightened, gaze sweeping the stilled crowd, and his voice grew more sure. “But seeing you all here reminded me of something I almost forgot.” His eyes picked out his team once more. “We’ve gone through a lot together, gotten to know each other pretty well, and I think we do good work together. You science geeks,” he gently nudged Daniel beside him with one elbow, “make us dumb grunts look good, and sometimes it’s even the other way ‘round. But what we do is important, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, with anyone else.”
He noticed George standing at the back of the room, and the very slight smile on the general’s face. Jack gave him a fraction of a nod in return. This was what Hammond had been trying to tell him, what Apophis had never understood—the strength of teamwork, of individuals working together, complementing each other in their strengths and weaknesses. And caring.
“I hate long speeches, so let me just say this old soldier just wants to thank you all for making me look good. Not that that would take a lot of work …” Laughter again, the relieved kind this time as the mood broke. “But it means a lot to me. And I’ll do my best to return the favor.”
Jack paused a moment, then enough was enough. He broke out in a cheerful grin and picked up the knife that sat on the table. “Anybody want some cake?”
The crowd pressed forward, eager for food like this bunch always was. Jack quickly passed cutting duties over to Daniel, who gave him a significant look as he took the knife. But Jack knew his team would hear something slightly different from what the rest of the group had. And that was really the whole point.
He pushed his way through the crowd, again enduring the round of celebratory back-slapping—he’d be black-and-blue for days after this—and hearing Daniel call out requests for cake behind him. But Jack was intent on his goal: Hammond, waiting quietly for him at the rear.
He stopped in front of the older man, straightened almost to attention. “General, I think you have something of mine.”
Hammond’s mouth twitched, and he reached into his uniform jacket to pull out the plain envelope, putting it without hesitation into Jack’s waiting hand. Jack didn’t waste any time tearing it into halves, then fourths. Hammond didn’t blink, just asked, “What changed your mind?”
Jack half-turned, seeing that Daniel had climbed onto a chair in exasperation at the out-of-control crowd, trying to quiet them down, and Sam, laughing, was getting ready to join him. Teal’c stood before them with arms crossed like a forbidding sentry, not allowing anyone to get at the cake before Daniel was ready. If Jack left, they’d still be out there risking their lives on very foreign soils, only this time he wouldn’t be there to see it … or watch over them. And he would have missed all this.
He turned back to Hammond, but nodded his head back toward the cake-duty team.
George just nodded. He understood.
And the two of them went to get some cake.