eight

The gate room is rarely this full of people and equipment. Standing out of the way beside a wall Jack watches the activity around them silently. It feels very wrong and very lazy to be standing aside and watching everyone moving crates and equipment and gear around, but Jack is not as big or as strong as he was, and he'll get in the way more than he would help.

"So you're Jack O'Neill?"

He recognizes Colonel Sumner more by reputation than personal knowledge. "One of them," he admits, studying the man.

"I can't get a straight answer out of Dr. Weir why exactly you and your friends are on this mission."

"Guess that makes two of us then."

Sumner studies him suspiciously; Jack doesn't think he cares much for the Colonel and keeps his face bland.

"I am in charge of this mission," Sumner says.

"I thought Dr. Weir held that position."

"I'm just letting you know how things lie, Colonel O'Neill."

"I'm not a Colonel anymore, I'm a General. Though, technically, it's not really me," Jack says calmly. "I'm not interested in taking your command, Colonel. I'm just along for the ride."

Sumner eyes him suspiciously for several minutes longer, and sniffs as though Jack is a bad smell. He spins on his heel and walks off, and Jack wonders who on earth assigned that man command of Atlantis' military force. Jack's not lying though – the last thing he wants to do is be in any position of command.

To be honest, other than telling him they needed his Ancient gene and his 'broad experience' Liz never gave him a satisfactory explanation as to why she wanted him along, and Jack's not sure why he agreed. Maybe because if Daniel, Carter and Janet were going, he'd be left by himself. As difficult as things are between him and Carter at the moment, the last thing Jack wants to be is by himself.

He wonders how Teal'c will cope with being a lone clone amongst the Jaffa. Things are different with the Jaffa though, and Teal'c will be accepted as a warrior if he can prove his skills. It's not like the human culture where your age determined your acceptance and ability.

"I see Colonel Sumner made another friend."

Jack looks at John Sheppard, and raises his eyebrows. "Obviously I have a very charming personality."

Sheppard snorts. "About as charming as mine."

"That way, is it?"

Sheppard shrugs, and stares at the Stargate. "I'm not sure this is a good idea, Jack," he says.

Jack likes Sheppard – he sees a lot of himself in the younger man, and appreciates Sheppard's 'no one gets left behind' attitude. Of course, the man is a lot more sarcastic and casual than Jack is (or so Jack likes to tell himself), and by the way he antagonizes most of the brass, Jack doesn't think Sheppard will make it much above Colonel.

Then again, Jack's made it to Brigadier General.

"You don't have to go," Jack tells Sheppard, also turning to look at the Stargate. "You can just live your life flying choppers to and from the Antarctic. I'm sure it won't get much more exciting than dodging stray drones."

"What was it like, going through the Stargate?"

What was it like. It was unlike anything Jack had ever done before, and he used to think he'd never do anything as exciting. He was wrong though; being a part of an exploration party going to a different galaxy was just as exciting and thrilling as being a part of the SGC. Jack hasn't realized just how much he has been looking forward to going to Atlantis since it was suggested to him.

"It made my life worth living," he says finally. "And it's going to make it worth living again."

Sheppard comes across as stupid to a lot of people, Jack's realized, because he employs the same tactics of humor to deflect anything that could get too close. Jack sees right through Sheppard, and Sheppard sees right through Jack. "What about Sam?" Sheppard asks.

Jack eyes Sheppard thoughtfully. He doesn't like Sheppard calling her Sam. "I think she's just happy to be doing something useful," Jack says. "She didn't like not being involved."

"Why did they all do it?" Shep asks.

"What?"

"Clone themselves?"

Jack shrugs. "I never really asked."

"I wouldn't have cloned myself for anyone," Shep says with a shrug. "No one's that important to me that I'd just waltz off to live another life for them."

Jack wonders who exactly Shep has been talking to, and what he's getting at. "I didn't ask them to," he says defensively.

Shep shrugs again. "No one asked me to break the rules for my guys either," Shep points out. "I still did it."

Because he cared, Jack realizes. Not just because of duty or honor or some misguided sense of heroism, but because he cared about his team mates.

"Liz said this mission would be a new chance for everyone," Shep continues. "She said it's a way to get beyond past mistakes and look to the future. A new life to live."

"And that won you over?" Jack asks doubtfully.

"No," Shep says honestly. "You convinced me, actually."

"Me?"

"The older you."

"Oh."

"And you just made me realize you were right."

"I did?"

"You did."

Shep salutes with a smile and wonders off to annoy someone else. Jack stares at the Stargate and thinks about a new team and a new life and moving beyond past mistakes and regrets.

Liz is smarter than he thought, Jack decides. Now he's just got to figure out why she's insisted on McKay going along when Carter's also there.

---

Elizabeth's speech is moving and perfect. From their positions at the back of the room, Jack can see the way the people respond to her words. Even the marines look impressed and happy and ready to go find another galaxy.

He's standing against a wall with Teal'c on one side and Carter on the other. Teal'c is holding his staff weapon and looking somber – Jack wonders if Teal'c is having second thoughts about staying behind and going back to the Jaffa rebellion. Jack almost wishes he could go with Teal'c, but the Jaffa aren't his place.

Atlantis, he thinks, is his place.

A warm hand slips into his, and he turns to Carter in surprise. She's not looking at him, but her jaw is jutting out stubbornly and he can see the determination in her eyes. She's not certain about Atlantis, he realizes, but she's taking a gamble because Earth isn't going to work for them. He's surprised to notice that he's caught up to her in height during the last few months and feels pleased about that shallow fact.

He squeezes her hand in his, and watches the gate as it starts to dial.

The gate room is silent, and when the gate engages it's filled with a long familiar blue light that flickers and washes over everything present. Jack looks at Carter again, and this time she's looking at him. Her eyes are bluer than ever, and they meet his gaze evenly.

"There are some things I don't want to regret," she says.

"There are a lot of things I don't want to regret," he agrees.

"Good," she says. "We'll do things differently this time."

The matter of fact attitude and quiet confidence in her eyes is surprising, but comforting. He's not sure what happened between their last awkward conversation the day before and now, but he doesn't really think it's important. For the first time in a long, long time, something inside Jack slips and falls neatly into place, and it's as if the universe makes a little bit more sense.

They were in limbo, Jack realizes with suddenly clarity. They couldn't move forward because the future was already behind them, and they couldn't go back to what they were because they weren't the same people they had been. Now there is a new future ahead of them, uncertain and exciting and theirs.

They stand and watch in silence as the people troop through the gate in the specified order. They're fairly low on the priority list, Jack knows, because they're extras that aren't really needed, but would be good to have along as a back up. Tag alongs simply joining in the ride.

Jack hopes it's a damn good ride.

Finally it's their turn. The walk up the ramp is familiar. Butterflies jerk awake in Jack's gut, and he pauses before the event horizon, staring at it. He can remember Carter staring at the gate the first time, getting excited over the ripples and spouting her technical terms. He stands and stares now himself.

On the other side of this gleaming circle lies his new life. Not a second-hand life passed down by the man he used to be, but a new life, ready for the taking.

He's still holding Carter's hand, and it feels warm in his.

"You only have a few more minutes," Harriman says worriedly from the control room.

"Have fun," General O'Neill remarks from the base of the ramp. This is the man he would be, Jack realizes, if fate had been different. Robbed of team mates and the promise of something more.

He tightens his hand around Sam's, and smiles. "We're underage."

Next to him, Carter grins wickedly. "Only on earth."

Yes, he thinks, following her through the gate, there will be definite perks to being young again.

They're the last ones through the gate; Daniel and Janet look enquiringly at their joined hands, but say nothing. Everyone in Atlantis pauses and stares at the gate, watching it. The event horizon flickers and flares but it doesn't snap shut.

They wait.

Two bottles suddenly appear, rolling gently out of the Stargate. The gate snaps shut, and the blue glow fades away.

Elizabeth steps forward and picks up the bottles, examining the tags. "Good luck," she reads from the bottle that looks like champagne. "General Jack O'Neill."

The second bottle's label makes her smile broadly, and she looks up to meet Jack's face. "It's for you," she says, handing him the bottle.

A bottle of grape juice, tagged "For the kids, from Uncle Jack."

"Uncle Jack?" Carter says dryly, reading the tag.

"Should have been Grandpa," Daniel announces.

Several people laugh, and suddenly everything feels okay. They'll be okay. All of them.

-FIN-

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