When a military decision is made, the decision stays made.
When whispers reach Jack’s ears that Washington is coming down the pike at the twilight of a career he never dreamed would result in stars on his shoulders, he knows it’s time for him to make a decision.
He wrestles and dissects and compares and contrasts, and comes to realise that he can’t contemplate retirement, the only other option realistically open to him. Not while his people are still going through the Gate and need someone to watch their backs. Not all the threats are Out There. Those closer to home are sometimes infinitely more dangerous.
So, in all honesty, the decision makes itself.
And this move, for all that it has come out of the blue, is the right one. It’s the only one, given that he can’t go through the Gate anymore and he can’t stand sending his team through the Gate without being there with them every step of the way anymore either.
His journey ends at his office door these days. It’s not enough for him.
So, it’s the right decision.
He surveys the boxes. Walter’s adding new empty ones by the hour. He can’t possibly have accrued this much stuff in one small office in one year. He’s never even opened the bottom two drawers of his desk.
There are boxes marked Pentagon, boxes marked D.C personal and boxes marked Springs home. His life is divided into neat little parcels; private papers, office paperweight, drawing by Cassie aged nine.
He sighs. He’s taking the ephemera with him, but he knows he’s leaving his heart right here.
“Preparations for your transfer to Washington appear to be progressing well, O’Neill.”
Jack is so shocked to hear the rich, familiar voice that he hits his head on the open desk drawer as he rises from the floor on complaining knees.
“Gah!” He rubs at the sore spot and throws Teal’c an evil glare. “Thought you were leaving for Dakara today.” Damn. He’s sure to have a lump the size of an egg blossoming before too long.
Teal’c stands, hands clasped behind his back in the open doorway, a vague but unmistakable Teal’c-like smirk on his face, a sure indication that he’s trying not to smile. He’s wearing his robes and looking more imposing and statesmanlike than ever. “I depart in one hour.”
Jack gives his head a last vicious scrub, hoping to rub away the throbbing pain.
“Got a huge job ahead of you there, big guy.”
Teal’c inclines his head a little. “As have you, O’Neill.”
Jack huffs out a breath in agreement. “Yeah. Well. Guess they’re rolling out the big guns for the toughest jobs, huh?”
“There can be no job tougher than that which we have undertaken these past years, O’Neill.”
“Can’t argue with you there. You all set to go? Ishta waiting on the other side with pipe and slippers and some incredible, or should I say inedible, Jaffa delicacy?”
“Ishta will join me as and when her duty allows. Not before. I will devote my energies to developing a system of government that will be acceptable and achievable for our Jaffa brothers and sisters across the galaxy.”
Of course. Duty first, last and always. The Jaffa have come a long way, but the more things change .... Jack shoves his hands in his pockets. He hates goodbyes, so makes a mental note that he won’t be saying any. Especially not to this man: an unlikely brother, but family nonetheless.
Jack eyes his desk with dismay. So much left to do. So little time. He leans over and rifles through the open middle drawer that his head so recently had the argument with, and picks up a Homer Bobblehead that Tessa gave him for his birthday.
“Here,” he says, holding it out to Teal’c, “something to remember me by.” The doll nods and bobs incongruously.
Teal’c steps further into the room and the inscrutable facade slips just a fraction, the telltale muscle twitching in his jaw. “I do not need this in order to remember you, O’Neill,” he says quietly. His voice is low, even lower than usual, hitting basso profundo levels, and Jack fancies that, for a second, he sees tears standing in his eyes. But the moment passes swiftly and Teal’c recovers to add dryly, “But this toy will look most pleasing beside the Bart Simpson mini-flashlight your clone found in your nightstand and presented to me as a keepsake. In case you were never returned to us.”
And then he smiles. Just a small smile, and even after all these years it’s still slightly scary and still unexpected. But it lights the room and delights Jack’s heart.
“Simpsons forever,” Jack says, grinning ever so slightly.
Teal’c closes his big hand around the toy, bows slightly and turns to leave.
“Keep in touch,” Jack says, unwilling to let him go just yet. It should feel like a beginning, this move, for him and for Teal’c. So why does it feel like an ending?
“Undomesticated equines,” Teal’c says, his back to Jack. He pauses for a second, draws himself to his full height and leaves the office without looking back.
It’s the right move, Jack says. It’s becoming a mantra. It’s becoming more unbelievable by the minute.
“Sir, I just came by to say...”
“Aht!” Jack raises a finger. “Not sayin’ that word today.”
Siler looks puzzled. “Yes Sir. I wasn’t going to say ... that word, Sir.”
Jack puts a copy of the AAHS Journal in the recycling bin.
“So ... what were you going to say?”
“That I put my spare set of wrenches in the box marked D.C personal, Sir.” Siler points at the carton in question.
Jack eyes the box. “That’s ... very kind of you, Siler. Thank you.”
“No problem, Sir. Good plumbers are hard to find in new locations and I know you’re not very ... fond of DIY, Sir. Never know when you might a need a wrench.”
“Nope,” Jack smiles, “you never know.”
There are a thousand ways of saying goodbye, Jack thinks, and each one is as hard as the last. Not that he’s saying goodbye ...
“What is that?”
Jack returns from the men’s room to find a large, white box sitting on his desk among the detritus of the move.
Walter turns from the shelves, arms full of miniature telescope and books. “It’s from the commissary staff, Sir.”
Jack flips open the box lid. “It’s a cake, Walter.”
Walter peers into the carton. “Double chocolate fudge with an accent of rich coffee and walnut, filled with whipped cream. Sir.”
Jack resists the temptation to plunge his finger into the soft frosting, hearing his mother’s scolding voice from the family kitchen echoing down the years.
“Time for a coffee break,” he says decisively, closing the top on the box to avoid any further urge to defile the cake. And he knows he’s taking a break in packing when he hasn’t really begun, but what the hell. He’s The Man.
Walter puts the books and scope into a big container on the floor by the desk and edges his way past more boxes.
“Bring plates. This place is like Grand Central Station today and I suppose I’ll have to share.”
Jack hates sharing as much as he hates leaving. He hates leaving his people most of all.
Reynolds and Harper call by to wish him well and end up sharing a slice of cake from the same plate. Reynolds says jokingly that he’s watching his figure. Jack suspects Harper is watching it, too, but he’s not asking and they’re not telling, and it means there’s one more piece of cake left, so Jack’s fine with that.
He’s waving them out of his office when his email notification pings and Jack fights his way through piles of files and more files and clicks to open.
Busy day for you, I guess, so I’ll keep it brief. I’m very glad that you’re coming to Washington and Homeworld because I need people I can trust now that I’m finally being put out to pasture (time to start working on that book, I think). I wasn’t able to tell you this when we spoke about your promotion, but I am taking on a new role as adviser to the President. As such, I need people on the ground, especially at Homeworld, who know what the hell they’re talking about and what the hell they’re doing.
There were times in the past decade when I would have said that you missed the mark on both counts, but we both know that you usually did know what you were talking about and what you were doing. It just wasn’t always immediately obvious to the rest of us. And I always trusted you and you never let me down.
Leaving the SGC won’t be easy, Jack. You have ties that bind. But you are the man for this job. Never doubt it. You come with my highest recommendation and my greatest affection. I have every faith. And you know I’m a man of faith.
Oh, and one last thing. Your chair at the SGC is nowhere near as comfortable as the one you’ll inherit at the Pentagon.
But you will never beat the view from the office you are sitting in now.
Jack closes the email, smiles and not for the first time contemplates the size of the shoes he has to fill.
By 1500 hours, half the boxes in the office are gone. Most of the shelves are bare, save for a few books that he never realized were there in the first place and he’ll leave for Landry to dispose of. The place looks bare and, stripped of the few personal things he bothered to include, it’s almost like he was never here.
He sits at the desk and signs off the last few memos and eyes-only reports. The military machine that is the SGC does not stop rolling just because one cog is taken out of commission. He’ll be replaced and the world will go on as if nothing has changed.
It was ever thus.
He thinks about all the decisions he’s made here, good and bad. The nights he’s sat in this chair, waiting, willing his missing people to come home. The frustrations of dealing with the money men who neither know nor care what it takes to make this place tick.
He stretches a little, and his creaking knees remind him why his Gate travel days are pretty much over. He has an appointment with a specialist in D.C in three weeks. He knows the news won’t be good.
Lost in thought, he’s startled by the ring of the telephone. He reaches for it, feeling tired and wishing the day would just hurry up and end already.
“Sir. I’m glad I caught you. I thought you might have left.”
He smiles. He knew she’d call. Her heart lies at the SGC every bit as much as his does.
“Carter. How are things in the wacky world of Area 51?” He leans back and runs a hand through his hair, momentarily forgetting the sore spot. Damn. Forget egg-sized. He’s thinking melon.
“They’re fine. Actually, they’re pretty good, Sir.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“I’m feeling my way, but there are good people here and the work is fascinating.”
She’s excited, he can hear it. Like a kid with a whole new box of toys. He’s glad. “Sounds like Carter Heaven.”
She laughs and he realizes he never heard that sound enough in ten years. This time of change has come at the right time for her as well. Sweet.
“It is, Sir, although as head of R&D there will be a ton of paperwork, but I aim to be hands-on as much as possible. Also, with no off-world commitments, I’ll have more time for Cass.”
“Ah, Cassie. How is she?” All grown up and making her way in the world, and he’s not sure any of them are ready for that.
“She’s fine. She has a new boyfriend. She’s sharing an apartment with Nyan, who’s on TDY here.”
Jack’s eyebrows raise involuntarily. “She’s seeing Nyan?”
Carter laughs. “No, Sir, not that way. You know they’ve kind of gravitated towards each other over time, what with being strangers in a strange land. They’re good friends, and she didn’t want to live with boring old me, so she’s staying with him while she waits to leave for her refugee work in Africa. The boyfriend is Kyle. He’s okay. Kind of cute, actually.”
Now it’s Jack’s turn to smile. “Seems to me she’s a young woman who knows her own mind.”
“She’s inherited a lot of her mother’s traits all right.”
There’s a slight pause then, memories of Janet flooding in, still raw, bringing the conversation to a painful halt. “You know, the grammarian in me can’t help wondering where the possessive apostrophe is in that use of ‘mother.’ Because if we’re talking single-minded, occasionally stubborn and won’t take no for an answer, then that applies to her other mom as well.” He can almost hear her unspoken delight down the line.
“You okay with taking this job?” he ventures carefully. “ Sure it’s the right decision? For you, I mean. Not ... professionally.” He’s on thin ice. They don’t talk about personal stuff, for all sorts of reasons, most of them difficult and messy.
“It is, Sir,” she says, a little awkwardly. “I made the right decision with Pete and this is right, too. With you gone, Daniel preparing to leave for Pegasus and Teal’c taking on a new role, it seemed a good time to move on. I’m ready for a change. I need to get back some scientific work. Get back to what makes me ... me, I guess.”
Moving on. Breaking away. Loosening the ties. This isn’t just about him. His decision is the pebble that causes the ripples in the pond.
“You’ll be great,” he says softly. She will.
There’s a moment’s silence before she replies, “It’s been great, Sir.”
And there’s another before he says, “Yes, Carter. It has.”
She sighs and says, a little too brightly, “Well, I have to go. You know what it’s like ... being The Man.”
“Oh yeah. I know. Like I told Teal’c ... keep in touch.”
“God, I’m going to miss us,” she says in a rush, and then stutters and falters. “The team, I mean. SG-1. Not ... us.”
The conversation descends into a familiar awkwardness that always leaves Jack vaguely irritated. “It’s okay, Carter. I get it,” he says quickly. There are good reasons they never talk about stuff.
“Good luck, Sir,” she says, eventually, and there’s real affection there.
“You too.” And there’s affection there, too.
He puts the receiver in the cradle and rocks back in his chair. The clock on the wall says 15.40 hours. Time for a slice of cake. He tries to pretend he’s not comfort eating.
By 1800 hours, cabin fever has forced Jack to take a tour of the base. It feels as though his office is growing smaller by the second, which is odd, since it now appears so much bigger, given that it’s devoid of just about everything.
He pays special attention to the commissary staff, and his thanks for the cake are effusive. He’s at his charming, disarming best and it works every time. He wonders if it will work as well in Washington.
Everyone wishes him well. The level of goodwill in the voices and eyes surprises and delights him. He wonders how much is, “Gee, I’m gonna miss him, he’s a good guy,” and how much is, “Better the devil you know.” But he thinks he’s liked and respected and takes a quiet pride in that. He manages not to say the G word to anyone.
He wanders through the levels; past Teal’c’s quarters and Carter’s lab, snippets of past conversations and images overlaying each other until they form a flicker-book, each page telling the story of his life here.
Daniel’s lab is empty. It occurs to him only now -- on a hectic day filled with so many comings and goings -- that Daniel, who customarily spends half his time in Jack’s office, is conspicuous by his absence. If Jack is the master of avoidance, Daniel is the Grand Pooh-Bah.
Jack pulls out a chair and sits awhile. The air seems rich and heavy, dense with memories. He reaches out and plucks them like ripe fruit and examines them, turning them this way and that. He remembers reasoned debates and heated discussions, times when he sat saying nothing, just being here, for Daniel’s sake or his own, it didn’t really matter. He remembers tears, helpless laughter, hugs that comforted more than words ever could, times when this room and the man in it were his only sanctuary. He remembers coffee and half-eaten meals on trays, hastily-convened team talks which may have involved the fate of the galaxy, or more likely, arrangements for Friday pizza nights.
This office is more like home to him than his own ever was.
He closes his eyes, breathes deeply and soaks it all in.
Something is ending here, and he’s not sure he’s ready for it. Something else is ending, he realizes, before it’s even begun.
He wanders back to his office to find Walter handing over the last of the boxes to a couple of airmen.
“All done?” he asks.
“Almost, Sir.” There’s a leaden weight to Walter’s tone and the man bustles about over nothing and lingers, as though waiting to say something, while trying very hard not to.
Jack finally takes pity, walking up and putting a consoling hand on his shoulder. “It’s been real, Walter. Among other things.”
“Yes, Sir,” he replies, mouth twisting into a wry smile.
“Thanks. For looking out for me. Making sure I didn’t make too much of an idiot of myself. Couldn’t have done it without you.” He squeezes the shoulder beneath his hand.
“It’s been an honour, Sir.” He means it, too. And for some reason, that means more to Jack than just about anything.
Jack clears his throat before either of them says anything they won’t exactly regret but might cringe at, somewhere down the line.
As Walter picks up his clipboard from Jack’s desk, Jack spots another box, sitting four-square in the middle. It wasn’t there when he left. It’s a small, sturdy box. The kind used to pack valuable things.
“Dr. Jackson came by and left it.”
Jack shoves his hands in his pockets and walks round the table, eyeing it thoughtfully.
“He said you’d get it, Sir.”
Walter’s eyes slide sideways. “It. Sir.”
“That’s all he said?”
Jack sits in his chair. Walter leaves and closes the door behind him.
Jack looks at the box for a while. He has no idea what’s inside, but whatever it is, it means something. Everything Daniel does is considered, significant.
He opens the lid slowly. Sitting inside is a plain, earthenware cup. Unremarkable at first glance. Jack pulls it out carefully from its bubble wrap protective padding. He cradles it in his hands, tilting it, turning it around. It’s plain, dowdy even. Hardly eye-catching or beautiful.
And then he knows.
The wedding cup. The cup Daniel and Sha’uri drank from at their wedding. Infinitely precious and irreplaceable, and Daniel’s given it to him.
Heart racing, he fumbles his cell phone out of his pocket. He hits the top number in his address book and waits.
The call is picked up on the first ring.
This decision is the easiest one he’s ever made.
His voice unsteady, he whispers, “I get it.” Then he smiles into the phone and adds, “Stay where you are, I’m coming over. I have cake.”