Traffic was slow.
And not just regular-slow—but REALLY slow—accident-on-the-turnpike-with-multiple-injuries-and-no-offramp-slow.
He should have walked. At this point, it would have taken him less time to walk to Union Station and hop the metro. He could have Red-Lined it to the medical center on the Metro, bypassing this entire traffic snafu. Maybe then his driver wouldn't be staring at him in the rear-view mirror, watching him as he fiddled and fidgeted, and found odd things to scratch at.
He'd been sitting in his car ever since he'd turned his phone back on and listened to his voice mail. The single new message had made his skin crawl.
"You're listed as Samantha Carter's emergency contact." The nurse had chirped. "You'd probably better get here as fast as you can."
So, without glancing at his watch, without considering the fact that it was late on a Thursday afternoon, a Thursday afternoon before a long holiday weekend, he'd left the Capitol Building and made a beeline for the car with which the Pentagon supplied him, and growled his orders to the driver. Settling in the back seat, he'd waited, and tried not to appear too worried.
The meeting with the Senate Committee overseeing Homeworld Security had grown testy. He'd been closeted in with those shrubs since just after breakfast. Jack had learned early on in this assignment that lowly Major Generals were expected to turn phones off during these marathon hearings, and so he'd dutifully punched the button before sitting at his spot along the long table. An aide had handed him his briefing reports—half a redwood's worth—and he'd settled in for a day spent in abject boredom.
The meeting hadn't disappointed. Twice, he'd had to shake himself awake, and he'd drunk so much coffee in an effort to keep alert that by the time they'd broken for lunch, his eyeballs had been floating.
He'd actually pondered an escape plan while he'd stood in front of the urinal. Wondered if a Major General in charge of protecting the world from alien incursion would get in trouble if he pulled the fire alarm.
The other military contingent had asked if he'd wanted to join them at the cafeteria, but the thought of sitting around talking about still more work made the General want to poke his eyes out with one of the stars on his shoulder. Instead, Jack had bought a sandwich and a stale bag of chips from a vendor outside the Capitol Building and sat on the steps near the Mall. Between watching people and choking down lunch, he'd wished that he were back at Cheyenne Mountain, where at least things had the possibility of being more interesting than watching dry rot.
The only thing that made Washington bearable is that Carter was here now, too.
Carter made everything bearable.
The meeting resumed just after one, and he'd settled back into his seat. He'd said a few words about the budget of the combined activities of the SGC and the other departments involved, dissuaded one senator of her notion that with the new modifications, the Hammond could transport government officials instead of their having to fly on jets, and drunk enough more coffee that he had felt eerily beholden to a certain Columbian grower.
And he'd wondered where his wife was.
They'd planned on feeding Daniel and Vala after their joint lecture at the Smithsonian tonight. That the two of them had hooked up after the Ori's demise had not surprised Jack in the least. That they had partnered on teaching tours about ancient cultures and civilizations while raising two of the cutest and most precocious little girls in the universe still had O'Neill scratching his head. Daniel, that wide-eyed moralistic confliction of a man, had finally figured it out.
It had taken Daniel just that much longer to do so than it had taken O'Neill. That fact allowed Jack to be perfectly comfortable in feeling superior. After all, the General had taken this post—this hell on earth posting in the arm pit of the country—just so that he would be able to pursue his other main interest.
An interest who now lay in a hospital on the other side of town.
Across the great divide of going-home rush hour traffic on the Thursday before a holiday weekend.
He was never going to get there.
Abruptly, he scooted forward on the seat and tapped his driver on the shoulder. He'd never gotten comfortable with the thought of being driven places—hadn't fallen into the habit of requesting a specific person to take the wheel whenever he had to venture outside the Pentagon. His secretary, a formidable woman by the unlucky name of Glinda Baldrich, always arranged the transportation, and she'd obviously just tagged whoever at Motor Pool wasn't currently busy.
So he didn't know this guy from Adam.
"Hey." Jack tapped him again when the first gesture failed to elicit a response. "How far from Union Station?"
"Now?" The driver peered around, calculating.
"No—next week. Yes. Now."
"Uh—" He looked around, squinting into the late afternoon sun peeking in between two buildings. "Quarter mile. Tops. Probably less."
"How long will it take to get to the Medical Center?"
"In this traffic—probably an hour and a half. If not more."
Jack grimaced. "I'm making a run for it." He popped the lock on the door and opened it, carefully avoiding the car next to him. Stepping out, he swung the door shut, and rapped sharply on the roof of the car before turning and making his way through the sea of metal to the sidewalk.
After only a few minutes, he had left his car and driver far behind. Weaving through the teeming humanity on the sidewalks, he reached into a breast pocket and donned his sunglasses, wished he could take off the coat and hat he wore. He was in his monkey suit—apropos for the meeting he'd just attended—but he wished that he were wearing his BDUs and boots instead. Clothes more suitable for traversing the wilds of DC.
Rounding a corner, he came within view of the station. He ratcheted up the pace, reaching into his pocket for his metro card.
O'Neill knew he looked hopelessly out of place. Around him were all kinds of folks—business people in suits, secretaries and shop workers in casual dresses and slacks, young kids with their pants hanging down past their butts. He saw tourists—notable mostly because they were the ones that looked lost. There were even a few military types around—green, or blue, or even a few camouflaged—but he was the only two–star General taking the subway today.
He swiped his card at the entrance and passed into the station. He followed the cues to the Red Line, arriving on the platform just as the train coasted to a stop.
He stood by and let a group of high schoolers pass, then entered the car, and found a seat near the back.
Twenty three minutes.
That's how long it should take. There was a schedule on the wall next to him.
Twenty three minutes.
His hand swiped a weary path down his face, and he crossed his arms over his chest, one knee beginning to jog up and down in a nervous motion he barely even noticed.
Twenty three minutes.
Jack pushed back the dark blue blazer he wore and glared at his watch.
Twenty two minutes.
"Late for something?"
O'Neill jumped slightly at the voice. It was coming from directly in front of him—a red-headed kid around eight years old was kneeling on the seat in front of him, resting his forearms on the metallic rimmed back of the bench.
"You could say that."
"Late for a war?"
"Then why are you dressed up like that?"
"I just came from a meeting."
"Are you really a soldier?"
O'Neill yanked his glasses off and stowed them back in his breast pocket. "Yes. I am."
"My dad's a soldier." The kid was staring at what was commonly known as the "fruit salad" on O'Neill's jacket. "He doesn't have as many ribbons as you do."
"Oh." Jack watched as the kid leaned further over the seat, peering closely at his uniform. "Okay."
The kid's mom turned, and Jack could see that she had a baby in a sling thing across her chest. "Devon, come on. Sit normally." She fiddled with her older child until he was seated, and O'Neill could only see the top of his ginger hair. She turned her attention back to the baby, though, at a squawk-like cry, and Devon found his way backwards again, hanging over the chair.
"Where you going?"
"Bethesda Medical Center."
"Your mom sick?"
Despite himself, Jack smiled. "No."
"Someone's gotta be sick, or you wouldn't be going there."
"Obviously, if I have a wife."
"Why am I married?"
The General grinned full force, then. "You'll figure it out when you're older, kid."
Devon considered this, then scrunched up his face and said, "She's hot, huh? Gotta marry a girl when she's hot. That's what my dad says."
Devon's mother, obviously embarrassed, flattened her hand over his mouth and yanked him back around. She twisted her head so that Jack could see both of her eyes. "I'm so sorry. I can't seem to make him stop taking sometimes. The little mouth just keeps on going."
"I understand." He smiled, and a vision of Daniel with a bandana tied around his head flickered in his memory. "I sometimes have the same problem, myself."
She smiled companionably, a little embarrassed, and turned back around.
He shoved back his sleeve and checked his watch again. Eight minutes.
The baby started to cry, now, in full force, and Devon used the opportunity to turn around again. "So, is she?"
"Is she what?"
O'Neill nodded slowly. "Oh yeah."
"Good." The kid narrowed his eyes wisely and raised a splayed hand in a gesture of relief. "Because there's nothing worse than being saddled with a dog."
"Devon!" Mom jerked him with a handful of shirt, putting him back into his place. "I'm sorry, again." She cast the apology over her shoulder, raising her voice over the cries of the baby in the sling. "Really—he's a good kid. Just mouthy."
"It's all right, ma'am." Jack tried not to look at his watch again. Listened as Devon started kicking the seat in front of him. Rode along with the little jerks and motions of the train. Tried not to look at his watch again. Tried again, but failed.
The train slowed, then coasted into the station at the Medical Center, and Jack watched Mom corral Devon with one hand while steadying the finally quiet baby in the sling. They exited in front of him, then turned off in the opposite direction from that in which Jack needed to go.
He hoofed it quickly, made his way into the sprawling hospital, and then into the Emergency Area, only to be told by a wizened volunteer at the desk that Sam had just been moved to a private room.
She'd pointed at the elevator, given him a slip with a number on it. He'd waited—two minutes—for the lift, pressed the appropriate buttons, and waited as he rose. And then he stepped out into a floor much quieter than the emergency ward. He removed his hat, fiddled with it, clung to it like it was a lifeline.
The walls were pink.
Soothing color, he assumed, although he himself had always been partial to green.
A doctor in scrubs walked down the hall towards him, and Jack swallowed a sudden bout of nerves and approached him.
"My wife was brought in today—Samantha—" His throat felt like sandpaper.
"Carter. O'Neill." The doctor smiled warmly. "She's doing much better now, sir. Perhaps you'd like to follow me."
"How is she? What happened?"
"I'll let her tell you that, General O'Neill. But she'll be fine."
They rounded a corner into a more private hallway, and Jack suddenly found himself standing in a doorway just like all the others—except that this one was hers. His wife's. A paper had been stuck to a little cork board next to the door with her name on it.
His mouth instantly dried up.
"Really, sir, she's fine. She just gave us all a bit of a scare."
Jack nodded, looked down, and realized that his hat was now completely scrunched into a ball. Only the stiff black bill had survived.
The physician took pity on him and levered open the door, swinging it partially open. "Go on in, sir. She's been asking about you."
O'Neill hesitated in the doorway, taking in the scene.
She was propped on some pillows on the bed, dressed in one of those gown things that he hated—that tied in the back and on the front, with snaps along the sides. She looked smaller, somehow, laying there, her face pale, her eyes dimmer than normal. Her long hair had been caught up at her nape this morning with a clip, and it had slipped from the mooring now, and lay in a riotous tumble around her head. She was speaking in low tones to a nurse, her voice weaker than normal, almost breathy.
He summoned up his courage and stepped forward. He'd been scared—he found that he was man enough to admit it. Frightened that he'd lost her—those words on his voice mail alluding to something far worse than this scene—this quiet healing in the relative comfort of this room. He stopped at the foot of the bed and nudged it gently with his thigh.
"So, what's up?"
And then his wife looked at him—recognized him—and the smile returned. She tried to sit up further, but was stopped by the nurse.
"You need to take it easy, Colonel, you've lost a lot of blood."
Sam deftly ignored her and focused completely on her husband.
"I had that thing. With the Senate Commission. I got the message when I turned the phone back on."
She nodded and quirked an eyebrow upwards. "You missed it."
"I'm sorry, Sam." He moved forward, past the nurse who was wise enough to step out of his way, and up to his wife's side. Bending, he captured her pale lips in a long, slow kiss. When he pulled back, he searched her face. "So sorry."
"Yes, well. You've got a lot of making up to do."
"That goes without saying." He kissed her again. "So—shopping?"
"Yep. Grocery story. And then I just kind of blacked out—and when I came to, I was in the ambulance, and, well, I hurt a lot, and there was blood and stuff everywhere."
"So they brought you here."
"An obvious choice."
"And—" She paused, looking behind him as someone else entered the room. He turned to see the nurse wheeling in a little cart. Only it wasn't like a normal cart—it was plastic and looked like a drawer that people put vegetables in inside their refrigerators.
"And this." She reached her arms out, and the nurse lifted a bundle out of the cart. A bundle wrapped in a blue striped blanket. A bundle that was making little tiny noises, and waving a little tiny fist.
For the first time in Jack's adult life, his heart stopped. Actually stopped. He'd known it was going to happen—been there through the ultrasounds and doctor's appointments, and even sat on the edge of the tub with her, staring at the little stick as it made up its mind whether or not to turn blue.
But seeing that little blue striped blanket, seeing that tiny, little fist.
Good heavens above, it was real.
And his wife was clutching it to her, holding that little life in the crook of her arm, adjusting the folds of that striped blanket so that he could see the tiny face inside. And he leaned over her and peered at the wonder. Reached out and touched the fist with a trembling finger.
"You want to hold him, Daddy?"
He wasn't sure he could.
But he reached out anyway, and took hold of his son, and it all came back to him—just how to seat the bundle safely, how to support the neck and head. How to sway back and forth, that gentle, innate bounce up and down.
How to completely fall in love all at once, all over again.
"Well?" His wife reached out and touched his side, and he didn't look at her, because if he did, he wouldn't have been able to bear the joy.
"He's little." Again with the sandpaper.
Jack bent his head toward the little blue striped blanket and pressed his lips to the wrinkled forehead there.
Perfect? Well, that went without saying.