Chapter 7

Towards the end of the next day, The Dragon Lady Doctor finally released Jack from the Infirmary on the condition that he be extra careful of his arm for at least a week, and to take it easy for three. To back up her last point, she threatened that if she heard he was in any way taking chances or doing some of the risky things he was known for, she would immediately put him back in the Infirmary and tie him down until his arm properly healed. Jack promised to at least try to be good, for he had no doubt that she would carry through on her threat in a heartbeat. He'd already learned through his short stint in the Infirmary that his nickname for her was definitely an appropriate one - she outranked even a General in medical situations, and like Doc Fraiser had been, wasn't afraid to use her influence if she thought it was for the good of her patients. He had no wish to tangle with a dragon bearing an MD degree.

Jack reminded himself that he was supposed to be good over and over the next few weeks. Yet, he had so many questions about what had happened before Carter had sent him to the Infirmary, and what was going on now, that he fancied he was slowly driving himself insane. Again he reminded himself that he didn't wish to be literally tied down in the Infirmary for the five or so weeks before his cast came off. But then, he needed to talk to Hammond. The Homeworld Security General was logically the only person on the planet who had all the answers he sought.

So, in effect, Jack was caught between a rock and a hard place, as the saying went. To go to DC and see Hammond, or not? To try seeing how far he could get in ignoring The Dragon Lady Doctor's threats? She had threatened him with almost permanent exile to the Infirmary - at least, permanent to him. He doubted that taking off on the spur of the moment for DC fit her definition of 'taking it easy.'

Not to mention that if he did get exiled to the Infirmary, he wasn't likely to talk to Carter for weeks. The SGC was a place where Sam Carter was no longer allowed except with special permission. That thought alone was powerful enough to ensure his good behavior for several days at least.

Yet, the thought of talking to Hammond was just so damned intriguing.

Jack wavered between being the good officer and staying in Colorado... or hopping the first flight to DC. Good or not so good? Good, or have his questions answered? Of course, he would get his questions answered eventually, anyway, all he had to do was be patient. But Jack had never been very good at the waiting game. He was the most impatient man he knew. And that was saying something, as he knew Daniel.

But Daniel was strangely absent right now... he must have a new translation that had taken him by storm (it wouldn't have been the first time), and was currently absent.

Jack would have pondered that, but he was busy convincing himself to stay at home, watching TV and otherwise recovering in private. He somehow managed this for two whole weeks. In that time, he quickly grew so bored that he wondered if The Dragon Lady Doctor would be willing to accept his excuse that a trip to DC was necessary for the continuation of his fairly decent mental health, even if it proved to be dangerous for his recovering arm. Yet, even at his most desperate, he couldn't quite bring himself to believe that she would buy such an excuse.

Only his daily phone calls with Carter gave him anything to look forward to. Phone calls were one of their only forms of communication now that he was grounded. Visiting her was out of the question, since driving while one arm was in a cast could hardly be considered non-dangerous; Daniel was too busy with his translation, or research, or whatever, so he wasn't available to drive him; and he doubted that giving the order for a car and driver from the motor pool to take him would get passed Dr. Lam's long reaching orders for him to 'take it easy.'

So he and Carter talked on the phone... or emailed... or texted... about everything under the sun, except what they really needed to talk about: what she... or her clone, rather... had said to him in the 'Gate Room that then caused his nine month Air Force hiatus, and her to think that he was dead. That topic of conversation was studiously ignored - by both of them.

They did, however, talk about many other things, sometimes even about suns themselves, specifically about blowing them up (in code, of course, as blowing up suns - as well as most any other work related topic they might discuss - was too classified for an insecure phone line, or email, or occasional text). It was, however, enough to keep him tied to Colorado Springs for weeks. He stayed until he simply couldn't stand it anymore. Then, somehow, without even thinking to mention it to Carter, he found himself jumping on a flight to DC.

And before he knew it, he was standing outside Hammond's DC home, the sunny afternoon giving him a false sense of security - he rationalized that nothing too untoward could happen to him in the middle of the day. He should have known better.

That untoward thing happened immediately. It was a Saturday at the end of summer, but it was still hot enough at midday to want to stay in air conditioning, and the jovial sounds coming from inside the house let him know that a party of some kind was in full swing when he got to Hammond's.

Oh, goody - I've instantly turned into a party crasher. This was not a particularly great beginning to his inquiries.

When he knocked on the door, it was to be greeted by a maid, of all things. Hammond didn't come across to him as a person who was maid-oriented, but then, he figured that a lot could have happened in the recent months to change even a man of Hammond's independent caliber.

He was just getting the runaround by the maid when he suddenly found himself staring into Hammond's smiling face.

“Jack! Good to see you! Come in - come in!” The older man pulled Jack through the door and into the living room.

The next instant, Jack found himself surrounded by a sea of Air Force dress uniforms. He had crashed a party for the high officials of Homeworld Security and the JCS. Ah... just who he most definitely didn't want to see, especially considering how well they had not parted the last time they had come in contact with each other.

But now they looked... well, they looked absolutely astonished to see him. Not angry, but gapingly amazed. Which was weird. Hadn't they received notification that he'd been admitted to the SGC Infirmary? Didn't they know that he was back, either for awhile, or for good?

Confused, and not liking his confusion one bit, Jack looked around at the stunned faces. “Ah... a party. I don't want to crash it, Sir. Perhaps it would be better if I came back tomorrow.” Or next year.

But before Hammond even had time to respond, there were noisy cries of protest, followed by calls of 'Welcome back, General O'Neill!' and 'Good to see you again, General!' and 'How in heaven's name did you survive?'

Jack was overwhelmed. Survive? Survive what? “Uh...” Clearly there was something going on here that he wasn't privy to.

Then Hammond was standing between him and all the well-wishing party-goers, trying to politely usher Jack to a back room while still dealing with his party host responsibilities. “General, come right on in - go on to the back and I'll be with you in a moment.”

“No, stay!” someone yelled, and another seconded.

“Yes, please, tell us all the details!” agreed one of the partyers whom Jack didn't even recognize. “Stay and tell us how you got away!”

Away? From what? This was getting more and more perplexing by the moment.

Hammond covered for Jack. “I forgot all about the appointment that I had made with General O'Neill for a second debrief - please, excuse us for a few moments. This won't take long.” And then they were through a door and in the enveloping silence of a study.

Hammond closed the door behind him, leaning on it as he slowly let his breath hiss between his teeth. “That was a close one.”

“What was a close one?” In his irritation, Jack forgot all about the fact that this man had recently had at least one heart attack that he knew of - he should first ask about the other man's health, then let him know how aggravated he was. But personal matters like fitness seemed too irrelevant compared to what Jack still didn't know.

Hammond held his hand up to indicate silence for a moment, and put his ear to the door. They could make out the faint sounds of continuing merriment coming from the living room, meaning that the party was still in full swing. Hammond's second sigh of relief was louder than the first. “They bought it - we're safe.”

But by now, Jack had had enough. “What's going on?” he demanded. “How did I survive what? Safe from what?”

Hammond glanced at Jack, then led the way to two chairs set before a fireplace. He seated himself, and indicated for Jack to use the other chair. “Jack, I've been expecting to see you, just not this soon.”

Jack glowered at him. “Okay - I just came from the Infirmary where I wasn't met by a squad of pissed off SFs. There was no court-martial review board lying in wait to hang me out to dry.” His scowl deepened. “But I seem to remember threatening a certain high ranking officer prior to what I believed was a discharge, only now I find out that I never did get a discharge from the Air Force, and am actually still in the military.” His scowl showed his intense displeasure at that continuing situation. “But if I'm still in the Air Force, where have I been these last months?” His tone was more biting than he meant it to be. He didn't have anything against Hammond - he highly respected him, in fact. He was just so tired of puzzling over this issue with little success at finding any answers that a harsh voice should almost be expected at this point.

“Patience, Jack,” Hammond said, as if Jack wasn't glaring into his face from inches away, and took a steadying drink from the glass in his hand.

Jack sniffed at the contents in the glass, then grimaced in distaste. “Water? In the middle of a crisis-free day?” he next asked.

Hammond's grin was a bit weary. “It has nothing to do with the heart attack. It's so I won't drink anything stronger.”

“Like alcohol?” Jack guessed, thinking of his own reactions over the years to politicians.

Hammond nodded, his rueful grin taking over. “I started drinking so much water when I began dealing with politicians on a daily basis - they can drive a person to drink faster than children can.” His smile grew wry. “I could now ask 'What brings you to DC?' but I know.”

That was a statement that raised the hair on the back of Jack's neck. “Oh?” he carefully asked. “And just why do you already know?”

Hammond's sigh spilled through the room. “I'll just cut to the chase. I reported that you were on a special, classified mission for me, that shooting at me was part of our plan to have you believed to be certifiably nuts, was discharged but wasn't, and that now you've been MIA for months.”

Jack's brows rose is disbelief. “MIA?”

Hammond's dry laugh was out of place considering the serious topic at hand. “Being declared MIA was better than being court-martialed if you ever came back, don't you think, Jack?”

Jack didn't know how to respond to that, and stuttered his reply. “Uh... sure... but what... what was I MIA from?”

“Officially, that's classified,” the General brusquely informed. “Unofficially...” Hammond again sighed. “I knew that you just needed some time to come to terms with...” 'With what Colonel Carter said to you in the Gate Room,' went unspoken, but was understood. Hammond seemed unsatisfied with his staring, and simply continued, “I just had to find a way to give that time to you.”

Instead of showing his immense gratitude about not immediately being a subject of disciplinary action thanks to Hammond, Jack's scowl grew even more severe. “Just what was it that you expected me to do with that time?”

“I knew that you had to get away,” came Hammond's instant reply, as if he'd fully explained everything.

But it truth, Hammond hadn't explained anything at all. Distrust was now part of Jack's scowl. “Again I ask, what did you think I should be doing about..?” He waved his hand in the air, saying with the silent, circular gesture what he still was having trouble saying with his mouth. “And what was I getting away from, if I may ask, since you seem to know a lot more about this than I do?”

Jack's sarcasm didn't dampen Hammond's reply. “You had to get away from yourself, Jack,” he softly explained.

In Jack's experience, people rarely did something for anyone out of the goodness of their hearts. In response to what he perceived as the General giving in to his warm and fuzzy inclinations in the matter, his paranoia went into a frenzy. “Are we getting into the touchy-feely stuff now?”

Amused rather than cowed by Jack's obvious misgivings, Hammond smiled again. “Perhaps. This is a touchy-feely issue, don't you think?”

There was no way that he was going to answer that one. To finally give lip service to what had only been surmised so far was not solely up to him, and not something he wanted to take responsibility for. So Jack simply stared in stubborn silence, waiting for Hammond to continue.

He didn't have to wait long. “Jack - when I heard what Colonel Carter had asked of you in the Gate Room, and how you had responded, and that you then disappeared, I knew right away that you would want out of the Air Force, that this was that one thing that was the proverbial straw on the camel's back.” Hammond slowly exhaled, hissing air. “I knew you weren't exactly happy in your job - no, don't deny it,” he said, holding up his hand. “You were good at it, and I'm still convinced that I chose the right person for the job of leading the SGC... but even a blind Jaffa could see that you weren't happy, not with the job, or with the way things were turning out between you and Colonel Carter, or...”

Jack abruptly cut him off. “Sir, what I did was...”

“Human, Jack,” Hammond finished for him. “You were being human. It was all any of us could ask from you under the circumstances.”

After another protracted silence, Jack slowly prompted, “So..?”

Letting Jack's voice lead him on, Hammond continued, “I knew you would eventually come to DC, though I didn't expect to be shot at, I admit.” He chuckled now. “That was a bit on the dramatic side, if you ask me.”

Jack colored even if he didn't quite blush. “I had to be dramatic in order to get what I wanted,” he insisted. “I'm sorry that you were the means in that drama, but I didn't know what else to do... except shoot the President, and I didn't think that would go over so well.”

Hammond agreed, but then he also didn't agree at all. He used his tried and true method of skirting the immediate point of discussion in order to get back to the original topic. “Well, be that as it may, the Joint Chiefs wanted to hang you out to dry for that little stunt. I argued, they ignored me, I argued some more, they ignored me some more. They wanted to get rid of you, no doubt about it. And they tried. Perhaps you recall the sniper they sent after you - not that it did any good.” He paused, pensive. “Then when it came time for your discharge, I took a page out of the O'Neill military playbook.”

Which just confused Jack even more. “General?”

“I lied,” Hammond bluntly replied, then cocked his head. “Maybe not lied, exactly... more like 'bent the truth.'” His smile widened. “Seems I remember a certain Colonel bending the truth in his Abydos mission report eight years ago.” He chuckled as Jack really did blush this time. “I knew that, initially, you'd want to leave the Air Force, but I also knew that your reasoning was a bit suspect at the time.” His voice had now become just slightly accusatory. “If you left at that time, it would be for the wrong reason.”

He didn't elaborate, and finally Jack had to give him a little nudge. “And that wrong reasoning was..?”

Hammond sighed, as if weary from the way the world was resting on his shoulders. “You were simply running away.”

Jack didn't deny what the man claimed, nor did he declare that he was right. He didn't say anything at all. It seemed silly to deny anything at this point, anyway. Obviously the General knew about all of it, and had known for quite some time. To give a denial right now would be, in effect, saying that Hammond was stupid. And Hammond was definitely not stupid. The best policy in this case was to say nothing.

Hammond was going on anyway, not giving Jack much time to react. “So I did what I could to help you - I let you run, knowing that you would come back when you were ready.”

Jack snorted. “Then you knew a whole hell of a lot more than I did, General.”

Hammond laughed again. “I hope it can be said that if I can't learn a new trick or two, then it's time for me to get out while the getting's good.”

Jack warily eyed him. “You sure you won't get in trouble for this yourself, Sir?”

Hammond shook his head. “I made this as official as I could, created a paper trail and everything.”

“And you didn't sign my discharge form correctly.” Jack's voice was accusatory this time.

Hammond's sudden grin lent a teasing quality to his tone. “I came up with a name that was pretty good, though, don't you think?”

Jack grimaced again. “I didn't even notice it until a few weeks ago.”

“There, well, it worked.” Hammond's grin turned sly. “It's not every day that I get to pull one over on Jack O'Neill.”

Jack sighed, irked, but trying not to show his feelings to a superior officer. “That may be, General, but there's a problem with this scenario.”

And that confused Hammond. “Oh?”

Jack shrugged. “I'm still in the Air Force.”

Hammond clearly wanted to ask him how that was a problem, but instead looked as though he was busy thinking the situation completely through. At last he guessed, “And you don't want to be, do you?” Jack shook his head. “I see.” Hammond placed his glass of water on a side table. “I hadn't anticipated that.” He rubbed his face for a moment. “You're right - we have a problem now.”

“If I may speak candidly, Sir?” Jack asked. Hammond gave a vague nod.

At that nod, Jack's heart began pounding, and his instincts started screaming at him to keep his mouth shut pertaining to the subject he now wished to discuss. But he realized that if he didn't show at least a little trust in this situation, then everything that Hammond had done for him would seem to mean little to him, and that was simply not the case. He had to be open now instead of the closed officer he was more used to being.

Jack swallowed, trying to wet his dry throat so he could talk. “That um... fake discharge of mine...” He had to swallow again lest he fall into a hacking fit. “It... um... put me and Carter on... the same level... for the first time ever.” How he hated talking about something personal, especially personally concerning Carter. But she deserved that much from him, considering all that she had recently gone through for what was basically a revenge vendetta against him. “I...” He suddenly found the room's ceiling fascinating. “I... liked... that feeling,” he further explained, sweating buckets now, and had to clear his throat of heavy bile so he could go on. “We were... are... equals.” There, he'd said it, and the world hadn't crashed to a halt.

But he could see that Hammond's patience even for the emotionally challenged man that was Jack O'Neill had its limits, and he was reaching his, so Jack hurried on, knowing that if he didn't say this now, he never would. “I guess that I just didn't... know it,” he blurted. “I thought I was going to hate her forever.” He hadn't been so emotionally revealing in years. “Seeing her in that home... Well, it kind of put things... in perspective for me.”

Hammond sounded part sad now, and part aggravated. “Yes, seeing someone in a situation like that does have the tendency to quickly sort out the bull.”

“A bit,” Jack added, but his emphasis suggested that he'd had no choice in the matter.

“So you've..?”

“Yes. I've seen her, spoken to her, got hit over the head by her.” Jack gingerly touched the place where Sam's crutch had collided with his skull. “And now I'd like... to be on the same level... with her.” He'd thought it would get easier to speak as he went on, but he wasn't sure that was what was happening. His throat seemed to be closing the more words he said, and he had to clear it again, as if he had a cold. “Even... even if nothing... ever changes between us... I want...” Jack's heart was now pounding so hard in his chest, he was worried that he would be the next one to have a heart attack. Come on, O'Neill! Just say it! “I want... to... give it... every opportunity... to work,” he squeezed out, smiling ruefully, a gesture that was mostly aimed at himself and the way he was so often an emotional cripple, this being one of those instances. He knew that Carter deserved better, but didn't see how he could change, either. “I know how I'll end up acting - I won't make it easy for her.”

“Or for you either, Jack,” Hammond added, his fingers thoughtfully steepled.

Jack had experience with Hammond's hand position. It usually boded ill, particularly for him. “I figure I should... supply...” He sounded like he was planning some mission for the Free Jaffa. He stopped, then tried to think what to say instead. And then inspiration came to him, like a lightening bolt zipping into his head:

'Simple is the way to go when you're not sure what to say,' his dad had sagely told him many years ago - Jack figured that things hadn't changed that much during his lifetime, so he felt secure enough to blurt to Hammond, “I really need to be discharged, Sir.”

Hammond wrinkled his brow. “But how will that level things out between you and Colonel Carter, Jack? She's married to that detective now. He sent her to that home.”

Don't remind me. “I know that, Sir,” Jack said, groaning out his frustration at not being able to put his feelings into words. “I just... liked the way we were the same,” he lamely said on one breath. “I can't explain it. I just...” He scrubbed at his hair with his right hand. At last he began to relax, and was much more capable of speech now... though saying he was 'much more capable of speech' wasn't saying much. “I just... can't go back to the SGC,” he was able to get out. “I've been gone too long... and it's like sending good people out to get killed while I... I just sit back... in my cushy chair and do... nothing.”

The silence that fell after such a personal disclosure was almost absolute. Hammond quietly told him, “Now you know how I felt, Jack.”

Jack looked at him in amazement. He knew that he should have been stunned at what Hammond was telling him, at how he and the General had this in common, and the way he finally had the chance to unload on someone who had actually been there, but instead callously blurted, “How did you do this for seven years?”

Hammond's chuckle was again at odds to the topic. “By taking things one day at a time.”

Jack woefully admitted, “That plan doesn't seem to be working for me.”

“That's too bad to hear, son,” Hammond said, sounding disappointed.

Jack hated to hear that tone coming from Hammond - he had disappointed many people over the years, but Hammond was never one he'd wanted to feel that way. “I'm sorry to make things difficult...”

“It's not that,” Hammond said, and at Jack's look of inquiry, went on, “It's just that I had hoped to put you back in charge of the SGC while the Defense Department stops scratching their collective behinds long enough for you to fix the mess the place has been in ever since you left.”

There it was again - the idea that the SGC was a mess. “Uh... I didn't get the impression that it's a mess when I was in the Infirmary.”

Grinning, Hammond explained, “That's because after General Charles visited you for the third time to see if you were awake yet so he could question you about...”

Jack asked who General Charles was by doing nothing more than puckering his forehead, but he and Hammond knew each other's gestures so well by now that all Hammond had to say by way of explanation was, “The new base commander,” for Jack to fully comprehend the state of affairs at the SGC.

Hammond continued, “Dr. Lam said she'd poison the next person to bother you with anything of an official nature.”

That lady doctor - the one who essentially had 'do the right thing or die' stamped on her forehead - had gone to bat for him? Jack was surprised that she cared enough to even take notice of who had been visiting him, let alone what they bothered him with. “The Dragon Lady Doctor is just full of surprises, isn't she?”

Hammond's brows rose at Jack's use of her new nickname, but didn't comment except to repeat, “Now you're telling me that you want out for good.”

Jack nodded, saying, “I'd owe you one, Sir.”

Hammond heaved a gust of air, as if the world's weight had just gotten heavier. “You already owe me one, Jack,” he pleasantly corrected. “So let's make it an even two.” He crossed to a file cabinet set under some windows in the corner, and pulled a form from their depths. “This is a discharge form. I want you to witness the fact that my signature is the correct one this time.”

Hammond filled out the blanks stating 'personal reasons' for the matter of discharge, then signed it 'Lieutenant General George Hammond,' just like he said he would. “There.” He sealed it in an envelope, and tossed it onto a stack that was labeled 'Office Supplies.' “I'll send that through the proper channels Monday at work.”

Jack hardly dared believe what he was seeing. “So it's official this time?” he suspiciously asked. “No mis-signings, or anything to trip me up at the last minute?”

Hammond laughed, then politely suggested, “Get out of here, Jack, before I shoot you myself.”

Jack wanted his discharge papers right that minute, just so that he would have proof, but was forced to be patient. “You're sure it'll be sent through the right places this time?”

Humoring him, Hammond simply nodded his head. “I'll see to it personally, Jack.”

Jack hated being humored. But he was busy recalling the last time that Hammond had seen to anything personally. “I have your word?”

Hammond's humoring had morphed into a weary sort of resignation. “What's wrong, Jack - don't you trust me?”

Jack gave a grimace that said that he trusted Hammond - mostly. But that promise was the best he could get out of the older General. He rose and headed for the door, but paused when his hand wrapped around the knob in order to look back one more time. “Don't you want to hold the door for me?” he teasingly asked. “Give me a proper send off?”

Hammond shook his head. “No need. I programmed it to hit my biggest pain in the ass on it's way out.”

Jack grinned. “Biggest pain in the ass... that'd be me.”

“No, that'd be Apophis,” Hammond glibly corrected. “But he's already dead, so you'll have to do.”

Chapter 8

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