It was good to be off the Asgard ship.
Not to be misunderstood, Jack sincerely loved the little guys - for aliens who didn't bother to keep their own butts covered, they sure did plenty of covering for Earth's - but there were only so many times he could stand to play canasta with Teal'c. Plus Carter had reached the stage of eyeing every access panel they passed as if she was about to rip it off the wall and start dissecting its innards.
Also, he'd been getting... antsy.
It was weird. He'd been alone in his head for a very long time - aside from a few unpleasant incidents that were never to be mentioned again, thank you very much - but during his time on Atlantis he'd sort of gotten used to that faint echo of another him, inhabiting almost the same mental space and thinking almost the same thoughts. It was a false illusion of company, half a step above sleeping with the TV on because you couldn't face the silence, but... part of him missed it.
Parts of both of him, he suspected.
He wasn't about to waste too much time feeling sorry for his clone, who all in all had landed a pretty sweet deal for himself. It sure as hell beat high school, and probably Generalling, too. Weir was good people, and his clone had a whole new galaxy to explore, not to mention supple teenage joints to do it with. The chance to live among people who were all cleared to know his true status more than outweighed the minor issue of life-sucking aliens.
If perhaps not the issue of Baal.
Jack would have thought he'd be able to breathe easier knowing there was an entire galaxy between him and that particular snake in the grass, but it only made him more apprehensive about what the bastard was up to. A whole galaxy of worlds seeded with abandoned Ancient technology and humans who had never known false gods... Jack suppressed a shudder. No, there was no way Baal having the run of the Pegasus Galaxy could be construed as a good thing.
Jack slowed his pace as Daniel emerged from a side passageway and hustled to catch up with him. "Headed up to the surface?" Daniel asked.
Jack looked down at his casual clothes and then gave Daniel the eyebrow. "No. I just thought I'd travel incognito."
Daniel, aggravating little bastard that he was, immediately divined the grain of truth that Jack hadn't even noticed he was putting into it. "Sucks going back to being the man, huh?"
"I'm always the man," Jack reminded him acerbically, without any expectation of results. For Daniel, commanding officers were something that happened to other people.
In his heart, he had to admit that Daniel had touched on an uncomfortable truth. Atlantis had been, in many ways, a deeply sucky experience - he was so over the 'aliens poke holes in my brain' thing, for starters - but he'd been out there, with his team, kicking ass and getting his own kicked in more or less equal proportions. And he hadn't had to initial a single form, or attend any planning meeting that didn't include the words "and then we shoot them".
It wasn't that he missed the action. The action might have had its high points, but the lows were far too goddamn awful to make them worth it. What he missed was leading from the front. Being out there with his team.
Daniel gave him a soft smile that said he understood Jack's thoughts far better than Jack was comfortable with.
"I've been looking over the data we were able to bring back from Atlantis. Obviously it barely even scratches the surface of the wealth of information about the Ancients and their culture that we could find out from a long-term archaeological study, but it all goes toward providing a wider context for the linguistic data we've been able to accumulate from the various sites here in the Milky Way galaxy, and also the-"
"Ack- it's my night off," Jack reminded him plaintively. Some might foolishly assume that the flow of words would have to stop sometime, but those people had never met Daniel Jackson.
"And then there's you and Jon," Daniel said, smoothly scrolling into his next point as if Jack had clicked them forward to the next chapter of the DVD. Jack was fairly sure Daniel had the paths of all their conversations mapped out in advance in his head, and Jack's own input had about as much impact on where they ended up as Maggie Simpson's steering wheel.
"No, actually, there's just me," he said, doing his best to throw up a roadblock nonetheless. The best strategy with Daniel was to toss out statements that sounded like they followed on from what he'd just said while actually wandering past at a tangent to the conversation. If you were lucky, the little problem-solving gears in his head would start revving so hard trying to make a connection that he'd blow something out and start hopping around in frustrated circles, spluttering.
Which was not only a good escape, but kinda fun to watch.
Alas, after almost a decade together, Daniel was wise to most of the tricks in the O'Neill arsenal.
"Thor said the information from the Ancient database has been lying dormant in your brain for years," Daniel pressed on, ignoring him. "It doesn't do you any harm for that knowledge to be there, it's just that your brain didn't have the right pathways formed to retrieve and make sense of it. The Ancient healing device built those pathways. But it wasn't that which caused the seizures - it was the fact that it was continually altering your brain while you were still conscious." He fixed Jack with a pointed look. "I can't believe that Jon would have programmed the DNA re-writer to deliberately erase every one of those pathways when all he had to do was make sure they were stable."
Jack gave an eloquent shrug. "I can't believe it's not butter - and yet..."
Daniel continued to eye him shrewdly. "How much do you really remember?"
"More than I want to, but beer will solve that." Jack shook his head and sighed. In truth, he wasn't really sure what he remembered. He had a vague sense that some of it might still be in there - in much the same way he had a vague sense that he still owned the glow-in-the-dark yo-yo he'd bought in the early nineties. He might stumble across it by accident, but he was damned if he knew where to start looking.
"It's gone, Daniel," he stated, with the appearance of absolute certainty. It was never wise to leave Daniel any crack he could insert a conversational crowbar into. "Hey, you or Carter might have been able to retain all that meaning of life stuff, but you can't load an encyclopaedia on a Gameboy." He tapped his fingers against the side of his head. "Anything's still banging around in there, I haven't got the computing power to bring it up."
Daniel narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but Jack was saved by a timely arrival. He spread his arms wide in greeting. "Teal'c, you big beautiful man! That's quite a fashion statement." T was clearly headed out of the mountain, today's take on appropriate surface wear involving an eye-blistering Hawaiian shirt and a rakishly angled fedora.
Teal'c compelled him with the power of Eyebrow to mentally review what he'd just said and conclude that yes, he might well have just accidentally hit on a teammate. Several weeks on an Asgard explorer ship had left him decidedly punchy. He plastered on a look of bemused blankness to counter Daniel's over-the-glasses peer.
Teal'c inclined his head gracefully. "Colonel Casey has been introducing me to the tales of the warrior Indiana Jones." Casey had sought Teal'c out during the long voyage home to talk over his rough experience with the Goa'uld, and the two of them had bonded over a mutual love of blockbuster movies.
Jack quirked an eyebrow Daniel's way. "You didn't get round to that one yet?"
Daniel scowled. "You know how I feel about those movies."
"No." Jack feigned surprise. "Why don't you tell us again about the historical inaccuracies of The Mummy?"
He recognised the foolishness of giving Daniel an opening like that when Daniel opened his mouth, no doubt preparing to do just that. Time for a hasty diversion. "So, T. Got the hang of that stick trick yet?"
"I have not," Teal'c said, with all the placid dignity of a man who couldn't have less to prove if he tried. "Teyla Emmagen is a most skilled warrior. I look forward to the time when I will have opportunity to spar with her again."
Jack raised his eyebrows. "Is that what you kids are calling it nowadays?"
No doubt wisely, the others ignored him.
"At least now that we have evidence the expedition have survived, the Pentagon should be willing to devote greater resources to the search for ZPMs," Daniel said. "And Sam says they're hoping to get the Daedalus ready for a test flight inside of six months."
"No you can't," Jack said, as automatic a reflex as the one that came with small children veering in the direction of the candy display. "Aht!" He forestalled the inevitable objection with a warning finger. "No test drives. Do we not remember the time with the Prometheus? Not to mention the... other time with the Prometheus? And the time we let the Tok'ra come over to play in our new Goa'uld mothership?"
"And also the occasion with the modified death glider," Teal'c rumbled in, where others would merely chime.
"Yeah." Jack grimaced. Freezing to death inside a two-man fighter headed out of the solar system was not among his top five missions ever.
Somewhat depressingly, it didn't make the bottom five, either.
"Jack, that's ridiculous." Daniel's forehead developed frowny crinkles. "All of those occasions were due to the intervention of an outside agency, not because of any inherent flaw in the technology being tested."
"Your point being?" Jack demanded.
While Daniel was pouting over that one, Carter came out of the adjoining hallway in civilian gear and swung into step with them.
Jack was beginning to suspect the presence of a conspiracy. No way did both Carter and Daniel leave the mountain at a civilised hour when they had lots of lovely juicy work to get stuck into.
"Going somewhere, Carter?" he said archly.
She exchanged conspiratorial glances with Daniel. Amateurs. At least T did Jack the courtesy of keeping a straight face. Although to be fair, when didn't he?
"Daniel suggested we go out for a 'back on Earth' celebratory meal," Carter said brightly. "Why don't you join us, sir? We should be allowed back in O'Malley's now that the management's changed."
"As long as no one calls Daniel a geek, you mean," he said. Daniel put on his deliberately perplexed 'I don't think I've recovered that memory yet' expression that he'd been trying on ever since his bout of Oma-induced amnesia, but Jack was wise to that game.
And this one. Like he was supposed to believe for a minute that this was a spontaneous invitation and not a carefully orchestrated attempt to take his mind off the Ancients messing with his brain, Baal's escape, Casey's two dead team members, and items D through Z on his lengthy list of things to be depressed about?
He didn't, but then he knew he wasn't particularly meant to. Jack found himself absurdly touched by the very blatant subterfuge of it. They didn't give a damn whether he knew what they were up to, only that he had the deniability he needed to be able to accept the gesture.
He'd be embarrassed that they knew him so well, if he didn't know the three of them even better.
"Yeah, fine," he said, casual tone masking the warm feeling rising in his chest. "But make a late reservation," he added. "There's something I've gotta do first."
Jamie didn't bother to lift his attention from his physics homework at the sound of the front doorbell. He'd - mostly - got over his paranoia about Men in Black coming to silence him after the first few weeks passed without incident.
It seemed that Jon O'Neill had slipped out of the small world Mountain Springs High School as smoothly as he'd arrived. The teachers appeared to have been notified in advance not to expect him, and most of his classmates had lost their curiosity after a week or so. Jamie had gone by Jon's apartment two days after General O'Neill drove him home from the mountain, and found it already up for sale.
Jon was gone, almost certainly for good.
There were voices at the door, his mother's and one that was recognisably male but not familiar enough to catch his attention. Probably a salesman.
Then his mom came through wearing a distinctly bewildered expression. "Jamie? There's a gentleman from the Air Force here to see you..."
Jamie scrambled to his feet, paranoia blasting back at full volume. The tightness in his chest eased back a lot when he saw that it was General O'Neill - but it didn't leave entirely. The General had swapped his drab fatigues for a smart dress uniform, so many medals dripping from his chest that they were visible even though he held his hat against it.
Jamie's heart lurched. The military did this, didn't they? When someone had died? He could barely force his dry lips to produce the words.
"What's happened to Jon? Is he all right?"
"He's fine. Our people found out what was causing the seizures. He's all fixed." O'Neill was all rigid military bearing, like the stiff dress uniform came with a matching personality. His neutral tone betrayed no more information than if he'd sent the words by email.
"So where is he? Is he coming back to school?" Jamie pressed.
"He's been moved to a new location," O'Neill told him. "Somewhere they'll be able to deal with him better if anything like this happens again."
Jamie narrowed his eyes, worst fears replaced by a set of new ones. "Somewhere like a lab?" he said cynically. He'd liked the older O'Neill on first - well, okay, second - impression, but even Jon had been scarily cold and hard to figure out at times. There was no guessing what this O'Neill might have approved done with his duplicate if he believed it to be necessary.
"Somewhere he'll be a whole lot happier than high school." And Jamie thought - hoped - he caught a flash of truth in those eerily familiar dark eyes.
"I'm not gonna get to see him again, am I?" he said, resigned. He'd known it as soon as the General walked in. He'd known in weeks before that.
"Probably not," O'Neill acknowledged. He fixed Jamie with an assessing gaze for a moment, then let his eyes drop to the physics text. "But you never know. I hear the Air Force is always looking for smart kids with an interest in languages or astrophysics."
"Unusual combination," Jamie noted, thinking of the 'nonsense' words that Jon had babbled. And aliens. Couldn't forget the little grey aliens.
"Story of my life." O'Neill gave a crooked smile, the perfect match to Jon's, and then turned smartly on his heel and walked out.
John left Teyla's quarters with a somewhat lighter heart. She'd been determinedly projecting calm ever since the Goa'uld had been removed from her, but for the first time he was beginning to feel like it was genuine. She'd even kicked his ass all over the gym for two days running. Her experience with the alien parasite would leave its scars... but well, who here didn't have their own special set of alien body invasion issues? He still couldn't squish a bug without shuddering.
Talking of alien parasites, McKay seemed to be none the worse for wear since O'Neill had done... whatever the hell he'd done to purge the spores from his lungs. John was still trying not to think too much about that experience, because freaky alien healing powers? So not his style. Piloting ships with his brain was one thing, but he could do without being used as a mental scalpel to scoop things out of other people's insides.
McKay didn't seem to remember what had happened, or - and this was entirely possible - had simply dismissed it as unimportant. He'd even got past his mooning over the departure of the lovely Colonel Carter within a few short days, and he and Zelenka were now cheerfully abusing each other over their conflicting plans for resurrecting the hybrid ship.
Elizabeth seemed to have had a huge weight lifted off her shoulders by the prospect of renewed contact with Earth, and Beckett appeared, well, no more visibly twitchy than normal. As for Ford, hey - what the hell could ever put a dent in Ford's sunny disposition?
That left one last personnel issue on his mental checklist.
It was easy to figure out where to find the kid. Well, easy when you had access to the biometric sensors, anyway. Look for an isolated life sign somewhere on the edge of the water, and Bingo was his name-o.
The kid gave no overt acknowledgement of his presence on the balcony, but John knew that he'd been noted, threat-assessed, and carefully prioritised before he was so casually disregarded. There was a constant cagey tension the boy wore in all surroundings that made John simultaneously identify with him and want to smack the crap out of him.
It was possible those two impulses were more intimately connected than he really wanted to examine.
Of course, 'Jon' wasn't actually a boy. McKay had explained, with many annoying asides and words of unnecessary length, that the kid was, in essence, General O'Neill. Or at least Colonel O'Neill as he had been a year and a half ago, before being Xeroxed on the 'reduce' setting, unceremoniously dumped in high school, zapped in the brain with alien technology, taken apart and rebuilt again.
...So okay, John could relate. Except for the whole 'enforced return to puberty' thing. He shuddered, glad that everyone who remembered that period he'd spent sounding embarrassingly like Miss Piggy was an entire galaxy away.
Reason enough never to go back.
And the kid had his own reasons too. John knew enough about trying to live in someone else's shadow. How much worse would it be when that person was yourself?
He walked out to lean over the railing. For a moment, they both watched the waves.
"He'll come back," the kid said after a long stretch of silence, neither tense nor entirely relaxed. "They always do. Can't resist the lure of the shiny. Baal may have his own Ancient gene, but we got the cool toys. He'll be back."
Now was the traditional time for a suitably macho sentiment like, 'And we'll be ready for him.' But O'Neill wasn't going to be impressed by that... and there was a certain freedom in realising that he was probably the one person in the place that John didn't have to pretend to.
"Yeah, we're screwed," he agreed cheerfully. "But what else is new since Tuesday?"
That won him a freshly assessing look, and a brief flicker of a smile. O'Neill twisted around so his back was to the balustrade, and jerked a thumb out over the waters. "Anybody tried fishing out here yet?"
"I hear biology give out prizes," John told him. "First one to bring back one of the wiggly green things with eighteen legs gets Doctor Facinelli's stash of Ventrusan beer."
"Your scientists are hoarding the beer?" O'Neill seemed perturbed by this deviation from the natural order of things.
John gave a loose shrug. "It turns out that guys who get their kicks out of studying fish play a mean hand of poker." As he'd discovered to his cost the day he'd lost everything bar his shorts. McKay had mocked him mercilessly for days, but still graciously assisted in plotting a devious revenge involving the environmental control systems.
The silence settled comfortably for a few moments.
"You know Doctor Weir's talking about making you a special advisor," John offered.
"I get fries with that?" O'Neill said sceptically.
"You'll be cleared for off-world travel where your expertise is needed." But not for first-contact or potential combat missions. O'Neill was smart enough to twig that, and the knowledge had to bite. General O'Neill would never have stood for that kind of hand-holding - but General O'Neill wasn't trapped in a sixteen-year-old body that his combat skills had yet to grow into.
Or rather he was, because this was Jack O'Neill too, just as much as the grey-haired six foot two version who'd departed for Earth three weeks ago... and this was pretty much the point where John had to quit thinking before he hit the brain-ache.
"Of course, if you should happen to remember any of that downloaded Ancient knowledge..." John dangled that possibility with great casualness. McKay had been lobbying for every method short of an actual tin opener to access the information locked inside O'Neill's head, but Elizabeth and Carson had taken turns to swat them down as too dangerous. As for O'Neill himself, he was playing it dense with a doggedness John could only admire. He'd done the 'Me Dumb Flyboy, Why You Talk So Fast?' routine in his time, but O'Neill could have taught the master class. He could drive Elizabeth to the point of looking like she wanted to throttle him in the space of under five minutes. And it was impossible to catch him out; he handled every question tossed with the same flat non-reaction.
He did so now, tilting his head towards John with a languid shrug. "Believe me, it's gone." He tapped the side of his head. "More holes and unidentified goop up here than a plateful of mac and cheese."
"Well, that would explain why McKay wants to eat your brains," John noted.
"He really likes that stuff?" O'Neill said dubiously. The 'life-sucking aliens' thing hadn't fazed him, but his expression on witnessing McKay delightedly chowing down on a MRE had been a sight to behold.
John could only shrug. "He's Canadian," he offered.
There was a beat of silence. "Of course, if I should just happen to remember some stuff I learned about the Ancients when I was at the SGC..." O'Neill said carefully.
"Then I might be willing to persuade Doctor Weir to let you tag along on a mission or two." After all, considering O'Neill - Brigadier General edition - had roped John into the whole Atlantis project in the first place, it was the least he deserved.
Whichever way you chose to take that sentiment.
The kid sat up, and gave him that unnervingly adult stare that made it impossible to forget he was anything but a kid. "I'm not going to mess with your command," he said seriously. "It's your show, Major. I'm just a civilian here." He held up his hands, palms outward.
"Okay." John accepted that. "But you know," he added lazily, waving a hand between the two of them, "if you're Jon, and I'm John, that whole teamwork thing's going to get confusing fast."
O'Neill held his gaze for a moment, then a slow smile spread across his young-old face. "In that case," he said, as he laced his hands behind his head, "I guess you're going to have to call me Jack."