"Jack doesn't buy the cover story," Hammond said, walking to the borrowed office's wide picture window and looking out over the grounds of the Air Force Academy. "But he's not going to make trouble."
"It's hard to lie to yourself," Jack agreed, and dropped down on the nearest sofa. There were three sofas, arranged in a U facing a terrible oil painting of eagles in flight. Jack twisted around so he didn't have to stare at the damn thing, put one foot on the coffee table, and then thought better of it. His feet were nearly his normal size, but they looked ridiculous at the end of his teenaged chicken legs. "But he can't be involved."
"We've got everything set up." Hammond glanced over at the airman who was guarding the door and nodded. He waited until she had left and the door was shut before continuing. "There are school attendance records and transcripts, a foster family. An America Online account for talking about teenager things like chess and opera. We believe that should satisfy the Colonel's curiosity for a few months." He held his hands out, like he was making an appeal – or holding an invisible balloon, Jack thought. "After that, we'll transfer your records to an out-of-state school. It's not hard to lose a person in this country of ours, particularly if the government's involved."
"He won't look that hard," Jack said, drumming his fingers against his thighs. "Trust me."
"I'm glad to hear that," Hammond said after a short pause.
"You know what really tees me off," Jack went on, and when Hammond turned around he had to take a deep breath to stave off the reflexive, defensive nah, nevermind. Hammond's expression was sympathetic, but Jack was well acquainted with how Hammond wielded that look like a weapon. "My kid... would have been eighteen. Going off to college, listening to heavy metal, telling me I'm full of it one minute and asking for the car keys the next." Jack refused to keep a count in his head of every stolen year, day, minute, but the knowledge that there was an ever-increasing measure of time without was always with him. "It's ironic, right? The last thing the world needs is another Jack O'Neill, and the one thing I'd give my life for would be – "
He cut himself off.
Hammond shook his head, saying nothing. He walked over and settled down across from Jack. Jack thought he looked tired and old, though despite his best efforts he was starting to see everyone around him as old.
"Carter said I should see it as a gift," he added, hearing the sulkiness in his own voice. Fraiser had warned him that there wasn't any cure for teenaged hormones; just another thing he had to ride out. Again. "It's not."
"Be that as it may." Hammond leaned forward, eyes intent. "We both know you're looking at another sixty, seventy years of life in that new body of yours. You're going to outlive me, yourself – pretty much everyone you know, except perhaps Teal'c. Now, I'm prepared to put my neck out for you. You've earned it. But you have to decide, Jack, while we still have the opportunity to act first and ask for forgiveness later. What are you going to do: stay or go?"
"If I stay..." Jack sighed and slouched down further, crossing his ankles and glaring at his boots. "You, Daniel, Carter, Teal'c – I might see you guys around. Christmas. My birthday, whenever the hell we decide that's supposed to be. But I wouldn't be a part of your lives anymore. Would be booted out of the SGC – " he waved the back of his hand desultorily at the picture window "– the Air Force. Book of the Month Club. Everything."
Hammond looked regretful, but he still nodded. "You know we wouldn't be able to keep you in the loop. Nothing personal, of course. And there would always be eyes on you. You are a walking, talking security risk." He sighed. "The other option is to go off world."
"Not to the Tok'ra," Jack said swiftly, and rubbed a hand over his face. He was already getting used to the lack of calluses, the unstoried smoothness of his palms. These hands had never fired a gun (zats were weird, they didn't count). He wasn't sure how he felt about that; his gut feeling was that thinking too hard about it would pull him down into a very bad, dark place. He preferred not to revisit places like that. "Or the Asgard. Sorry, but..."
"The Jaffa," Hammond suggested. "You know they'd be glad to have you. Or go to Langara and help them out. We could use a liaison in place."
Jack thought about that, cold running down his back. He'd heard rumors. "Someone upstairs making plans?"
"Naquadria," Hammond said simply. Yup. That's what Jack had heard. "They'd be glad to have you – and not because of your Ancient gene."
"What about my highly evolved brain?" Jack asked. "I hear everyone wants one of those."
Hammond lowered his chin and gave him a steady, narrow-eyed look. Jack's chills upgraded to all the hair at the back of his neck standing on end. He didn't like that he'd managed to suss out the border of what Hammond was allowed to say, or that he wasn't sure from how high up the order of silence had come from.
He'd thought about pulling a disappearing act himself, but knew it wasn't practical. Or especially safe. He didn't like the idea of ending up in some mad bureaucrat's secret laboratory at all.
"Give me til nine tomorrow." He shrugged, trying to look like he hadn't already made up his mind. "I'll have an answer then."
Hammond pushed to his feet and Jack stood as well, crossing his arms, feeling short and hating it.
"Until then," Hammond said, and nodded, like everything was fine and it would all work out. "To tell the truth, I enjoy being in a room with a view once in a while. Sometimes it's good to get out."
"Just let me back in every now and then." Jack tried to smile and failed, so he headed for the door a couple of steps ahead. Youthful energy in action. "Christmas. Birthdays."
"The galaxy desperately needs all Jack O'Neills," Hammond said, gentle, wry, sympathetic. "You know the gate will always open for you."
Jack opened the door and held it. Hammond didn't appear to notice as he walked through, but Jack chalked that up to him trying to get Jack's goat.
"Well." Jack followed Hammond out into the corridor, and ignored the way his guard fell into step behind them. "That's all I ask, Sir. All I ask."