Hi everyone! I'm back after a short break. I hope you enjoy the following apoc-fic story - more details to come!

In the end he owed his life to protocol. It was ironic, really; he was a man who'd always hated it, hated the formality, the posturing. He believed in just getting to the point and getting the job done. He'd always thought that most of the world's problems would go away if you got rid of politicians and bureaucrats. The fact that he was alive, because of those very people, was something which would have made him laugh at one time. Now, very little if anything, made him laugh.

He'd only been in Washington for a few months when he got the call from Landry. SG's 7 and 9 had made contact with a new planet which was interested in establishing trade with earth. It appeared, after the initial visit, that their civilization was more advanced than earth in some ways and less in others.

According to Major Hendricks, the Valarans, as they called themselves, seemed to be a peaceful people with little interest in military matters. They appeared more interested in the arts and learning than in conflict or even in physical labor and production.

The problem was that so much of their culture had focused on art and learning that when they were hit with a series of natural disasters they didn't know how to cope. Their food production had been severely affected, as had their aging infrastructure. Now, they lacked the farmers, the engineers, even the doctors to deal with the emergency in which they found themselves. As a result, they'd reacted with relief and excitement when the SG teams had made contact. They looked to earth to help them rebuild their devastated home world.

There was only one catch! Over the years they had turned away from violence and conflict between the various people on their planet, but that had been replaced with protocol. There was a rule, and a formal process for every action on the part of government. It bound everything they did, which was another reason they hadn't been able to react quickly to the disasters occurring throughout their lands.

So, when Hendricks from Sg7 and Marshall from Sg9 had suggested trade talks, the Valarans had jumped at the opportunity – as long as protocol was followed. In the days of discussion which followed, it turned out that that meant they'd have to meet with earth's 'top leader. The two team leaders had looked at each other, not quite sure who that would be. There was no 'earth leader' so they naturally thought of the American President – but they were pretty sure he wouldn't be willing to come off world to speak to the Valarans. There just wasn't that much in it for earth.

"We could tell them it's Landry", Marshall suggested when they were alone. "The Valarans won't know the difference."

"Unless a representative comes to earth."

"Yeah, but they'd see him there at the SGC – they wouldn't be allowed off base anyway."

"I guess, although somehow he just doesn't have that 'earth-leader' look to him", Hendricks replied. "He's too – pleasant."

"Pleasant? What the hell does that mean?" Marshall asked in disgust. "I think most politicians are 'pleasant'. They could be smarmy power mongers, for all we know, but they're usually nice to your face. You know, kissing babies and old people."

"Okay, maybe that's true but it just doesn't feel right. I can't explain it."

"So, who else? We could always ask some real politician – he or she would be thrilled to be called the leader of earth."

"Yeah, and then what?" Hendricks frowned, "I don't think the President would be happy with that. Anyway, what politician do we know who knows about the Stargate and would be comfortable going off world and dealing with aliens? We promised to talk to High Councilor Damla tonight and tell her about this leader."

"I don't know! Why don't you think of someone? You're the one who's so worried about it. I think we should just say it's Landry."

There was a short silence as Hendricks tried to think who would be the best person. He risked ticking some people off by mentioning the wrong name, but he was certain it was important to get the right man or woman. He really liked the Valarans – even as bound by protocol as they were – and hoped that earth would help them. For that he needed someone not only comfortable with going off world, but also someone with a good measure of compassion and understanding.

Like that it came to him and he grinned. "I think I know just the right person."

"Well", prodded Marshall, "who is it?"

"O'Neill!"

"You mean General O'Neill? The head of Homeworld Security?" Marshall had only been at the SGC for a short time, after O'Neill had moved to Washington. The man was legend but he'd never actually met him. He was, in fact, quite in awe of the person who had been the first through the Stargate and who had been responsible, many times over, for saving not only their planet, but the whole galaxy.

"Yeah, Jack O'Neill. He'd be perfect." Hendricks, unlike Marshall, knew the General well. He'd been at the SGC for a number of years and had gone on a variety of missions with the then Colonel O'Neill – when more than one team was deployed. He'd also served under him when he'd been made General and ran the SGC. There wasn't a man he respected more and he also figured that O'Neill would relish the thought of going off world again. He'd heard he wasn't too happy being in the hallowed halls of the Pentagon.

Heck, if he could do Jack a favor – it would make him feel good for giving the guy a little pleasure – and couldn't hurt his own career! Nothing like making your boss's boss happy!

"But I thought he wasn't keen on protocol. I've heard that he was pretty blunt with various politicians and aliens and that General Hammond – and even the President – had to bale him out a few times."

Hendricks laughed, remembering the time he'd locked the visiting dignitaries in a room and had sent them a fruit basket! The whole base had loved that one. The amazing thing was that it had worked. As unorthodox as O'Neill could be, he usually got it right. He also knew that Jack did know how to behave properly when it really mattered, especially if -"

"That was only when he was dealing with idiots. I think he'll like the Valarans and be happy to do this."

"Are you sure?" Marshall asked. "You don't think he'll be mad if we mention his name?"

"Nah, I expect he'll be thrilled. And hey, if he objects too strongly they'll just send someone else and make up a good story – or simply tell the Valarans whoever they send is O'Neill."

"Okay, if you think so. I don't know, it feels kind of weird to me."

In the end, however, the two team-leaders told Damla all about earth's leader – General Jack O'Neill.

"He's a very wise and experienced leader and has had many dealings with new friends of earth. He is the best person to meet with you."

The Valarans were pleased and begged for a meeting as soon as possible. The situation was growing worse on their planet and they wanted to begin trading for supplies and expertise.

So it was that Jack, who was just sitting down to another interminable meeting with politicians, brown-nosing subordinates and downright fools, got a special call from the SGC.

"I'm sorry Gentlemen, Ladies", he said, rising from his chair. "You'll have to excuse me – I have an urgent call." He gave a general waving motion with his hand. "Just go on without me." As he began to walk out his Aid hissed at him "But it's your meeting Sir!"

He walked down the hall next to a grinning Paul Davis. "It wasn't an emergency Sir. General Landry just said to have you call him back when you get a chance."

"Oh, I don't know Paul – sounded like an emergency to me. Could be the potatoes again or something equally as serious. I'd be remiss to not return his call."

"Potatoes Sir?"

"Yeah, last year mice got into the boxes of powdered mashed potatoes. We almost had a mutiny on meatloaf day. Can't have meatloaf without mashed potatoes, now can we? Goes against Air Force regulations", he paused, "or something!" With a grin he opened his door, surprising his secretary who was sitting chatting away to a friend. She'd thought he was in an all-afternoon meeting.

"No, don't finish your personal call for my sake Lieutenant. Wouldn't want to mess up your plans for this Friday." She looked like a deer caught in the headlights and stayed silent, her mouth hanging open as he walked towards his inner office. Just at the door he turned to her. "I'd suggest the French manicure over the purple nail polish – it'll last longer and goes with more outfits." With that he closed his door.

"I gotta go Susan!" Without waiting for her friend to reply she hung up the phone. "Shit!" she muttered. She'd just gotten a Jack O'Neill 'special' – and it stung more than if he'd yelled at her.

Jack grinned at the door, knowing Lieutenant Nichols was kicking herself. He wouldn't say anything to her at all but he knew she'd be on her best behavior for a long time. In actual fact, he wasn't that fussed. She was a good and efficient secretary and he knew, as well as anyone, that when the cat was away ….! He smiled as he remembered some of the things he'd gotten up to when some of his Commanders hadn't been around. Most soldiers – heck, most people, did that.

The smile slowly faded from his face – most except for his former teammates. If there were any three people who didn't ever goof off it was those three! In fact, he was the one most likely to have been goofing off. Most of his time – at least when not on a mission – had been spent trying to induce his comrades to lighten up and enjoy themselves a little. He couldn't imagine ever catching Carter looking at a fashion magazine. No, he'd be more likely to catch her pulling an all-nighter to try and solve some unsolvable, world-saving problem.

Thinking about his frie- teammates - always brought a mixture of pleasure and pain. He couldn't help but think of the great times they'd had together – the places they'd been, the people they'd met, the worlds they'd saved! But thinking of them also brought up memories of the last time they'd been together, and the anger and bitterness with which they'd parted.

He still couldn't believe what had happened. He'd thought they were too tight, too close, to ever have something like that occur. It had started out small, as these things so often do, and then had escalated to the point where he hadn't spoken to any of them in months. He'd thought a few times about calling – Daniel at least – but something always made him put the phone down at the last minute. He really didn't think he was in the wrong and so didn't know what to say. He was pretty sure they were waiting for his apology, but he couldn't, in all honesty, give it. He believed he'd made the right decision.

Sighing, he reached for the phone and called Landry.

A few minutes later he buzzed his secretary. "Lieutenant, can you get Colonel Davis in here? I need him right away."

It was a short five minutes before he heard a knock and Paul entered. "You wanted to see me Sir?"

"How do you feel about going on a little trip Paul?" When the Colonel looked at him quizzically he grinned. "Off-world."

"Really?" Davis looked pleased. It had been awhile for him too. "Is it something important?"

"Oh, absolutely! I have to go and represent earth at a treaty signing. I also need as Assistant to accompany me and guess what – you're it!"

"I'd be pleased to go General. What about Sg1? Will they be going too?" Davis was surprised to see O'Neill's face lose the grin and suddenly look tired.

"No, I'm afraid it's just you and me and a couple of other SG teams."

Knowing not to ask, Davis simply enquired about timelines and what they'd need. It turned out that they were to leave the next day.

"We'll be briefed when we get to the SGC. I guess Hank has all the details. We'll only be gone for a couple of days but it'll be nice to go through the gate – and out from behind these crummy walls!" Since the walls behind which O'Neill sat were some of the nicest in the Pentagon, Davis simply raised his eyebrows and grinned. He couldn't help but agree with the General – sometimes the Pentagon was a bit much.

So, it was late the next day when O'Neill, dressed in his dress blues (he hated them but had to admit they looked impressive) stepped through the gate accompanied by Davis, Hendricks, Marshall and both their teams. He did not see any of his former teammates, nor did he ask about them. If Landry thought it a bit strange he didn't say anything, just wished the earth representatives, 'good-luck'.

"Be good Jack, and don't get yourself into any trouble!" Hank had said as Jack walked up the ramp.

"Me?" he turned to Hank, an innocent look on his face. "Since when do I get into trouble?"

Hank let out a bark of laughter and a number of the SF's in the Gate room – and the teams accompanying O'Neill, all smiled. Marshall looked at bit bemused by this – unaware of General O'Neill's reputation and magnet like ability to attract trouble.

It was the next morning before Teal'c, Daniel and Sam returned to the SGC. Their previous mission had been a tough one and Landry had ordered them all off base for a few days. Teal'c had accompanied Daniel on a three-day trip to see the museums in Denver. Sam had stayed home and just looked after a few domestic chores that had been piling up. None of them were aware of Jack going off world.

That was the way he'd planned it. He knew that Sg1 were off – he knew everything that went on in the SGC, although many would be surprised just how on top of things he was. The fact that they were off had been the reason for moving so quickly to go on his little 'jaunt'. Call him a coward; he just didn't want to run into any of them until he'd had a chance to deal with the issue between them. He kind of felt like he was sneaking around – but then told himself that he was the boss and could do what he damned well pleased.

So it was that Sam was in her office, checking on an experiment she'd been working on before her leave, when one of her science colleagues stopped by. After chatting to Amy for a few minutes about the experiment she was surprised when the young scientist mentioned the General (not Landry – in this case it was the General – her General).

"So, General O'Neill looked happy to be going off world." Amy had mentioned casually. Sam looked up quickly, almost knocking her coffee off the table.

"What?" she asked.

"General O'Neill. I said he looked pretty happy to have the opportunity to go off world again. I heard he doesn't much like it in DC – although I've also heard the President and Chiefs love him."

"What are you talking about?" she asked in confusion. "General O'Neill isn't going off world."

"Yes he is", she replied. "In fact, he's already gone. He left yesterday with Colonel Davis and Sg's 7 and 9. I think Colonel Davis is kind of cute, don't you? Do you know if he's married?"

Sam was staring at Amy in shock, not hearing what she was saying now. Jack? Off world? When the hell had that happened – and why? Surely they would have been notified? Why wouldn't he have asked Sg1 to accompany him? But suddenly she stopped – of course he wouldn't. He was still angry and hurt over what had happened.

She looked up, realizing that Amy was now staring at her. She tried to cover it up by laughing, although it came out a hollow sound. "I hadn't heard. Why's he gone off world?"

"Oh, there was some planet or other who wants to sign a treaty with earth and they asked for 'our leader'. I guess Major Hendricks told them that was General O'Neill. I don't know why he didn't say General Landry, although Bob says it's because General O'Neill has more experience dealing with aliens." Bob, a young Captain with Sg11, was Amy's current boyfriend, although she seemed to change them regularly.

"I see", Sam answered. "It must have just happened. I don't remember hearing anything before I left."

"Yeah, it was just a couple of days ago. We were all kind of surprised the General was able to get here and leave so quickly. From what Major Marshall said it wasn't urgent or anything. Bob says he figured O'Neill just wanted to get away from the politicians and Joint Chiefs."

Bob was certainly a font of wisdom, thought Sam distractedly. She really needed to speak with Daniel and Teal'c about this. She wondered if they'd had any idea.

It turned out that they hadn't. There were equally as shocked, and dismayed, as she'd been.

"Why didn't he tell us?" Daniel asked for the umpteenth time. Even Teal'c was getting a little irritated at him.

"It's because he is angry at us Daniel", the older man answered.

"But I thought he would have gotten over it by now", he said. "Anyway, it was as much his fault as it was ours!"

"Was it?" Sam asked quietly. She'd been feeling quite guilty for a long time and had wanted to call him, but hadn't quite known how to initiate the conversation. Their last time together he'd reverted to definite 'General' mode and had spoken to her, not as a friend, but as her Commander. She didn't know if he would want to hear from her now.

"Sure it was!" Daniel interrupted her thoughts. "He was being a military hard-ass. He didn't need to turn down our request. We would have been the best one's for the job."

"I do not agree Daniel Jackson", Teal'c interjected. "I too have thought about it and I believe that we were unfair to O'Neill. He was in a difficult position and had to make a decision that was the best for all concerned. He is no longer charged with leading only our team, but is now tasked with the defense of the entire planet. Many people look to him for leadership."

Daniel wasn't willing to give in quite that easily. Four months ago earth had been contacted by an alien race called the Heptae. They were from the outer edge of their galaxy and had never been ruled by the Goa'uld and had not had previous contact with the people of earth. The Asgard had known of them but had never really had much to do with them. They pretty much kept to themselves but hadn't seemed to ever be a threat to any other people in the galaxy.

It appeared as if the Heptae had decided, for the first time in their history, to reach out to other planets. They had approached earth – in this case the President and Joint Chiefs – and had asked for a group of representatives to accompany them back to their planet and learn about their history, customs and technology.

Jack had immediately been consulted and was given the task of choosing the team. He'd flown to the SGC and had consulted with Sg1, asking and needing their opinion on who would be best to send. Both Daniel and Sam had been thrilled and excited with the opportunity; Daniel because of their rich history and artifacts and Sam because of their technology. Both had begged to be chosen. Teal'c had agreed, feeling that Sg1 was the best earth had to offer – he also felt it his duty to protect Daniel and Carter.

Jack had thought about it seriously. When they first volunteered his heart had just about stopped. He really didn't want them so far away – it would be at least a year's mission – but besides that they would be too far away for him to protect them. Although realistically, he knew that was silly. He couldn't really protect them sitting behind a desk in Washington either, but at least he knew they were close. He also knew he'd miss them if they were gone – they were his family.

Of course, he had to make the decision as General O'Neill, Head of Homeworld Security, not as Jack, friend and former commander of Sg1. So, he'd spent days thinking about it and going over every possible reason to let them go. Finally it had come down to a couple of things; one, whether or not they were the only team with the needed knowledge and abilities and two, whether earth could spare them.

In the end his decision was based on the fact that they did have other scientists who would be perfectly capable. Even more than that, and this was after discussion with the President and the Joint Chiefs, was the fact that no one felt comfortable about earth's best being gone for so long.

He had actually been on the point of letting them go when the Chief of Staff and the President had both expressed real concern. "I don't know Jack. I don't like the idea of giving an alien race our very best. It makes me nervous on a few counts", the President had indicated. "We don't know if this race is legitimate or not. What if they're trying to find out about earth's defenses? They'd have the three people who know more about that than anyone on earth, except you."

He'd had to agree and had decided not to let Sg1 go. Instead he'd put together a team of perfectly competent people who would be able to learn about the Heptae but who didn't have as much knowledge about earth's defenses.

He'd been shocked and hurt when his team had responded to his decision with anger. They'd practically accused him of protecting and 'babying' them. Carter had been angry as she had seen it as a lack of trust in her leadership skills. Teal'c hadn't said much except that he was 'surprised O'Neill did not believe in them'. That, coming from the man he thought knew him better than any other, really wounded him.

Of course, rather than trying to simply explain, in his hurt he'd put on his 'General' face and simply told him it was his decision – end of discussion. He'd been wrong to do that – he could acknowledge that much – but the fact that they'd believed he would use personal, and petty, reasoning to make such an important decision still astounded him.

He'd turned with those words hanging in the air and had begun to walk out. Carter had tried to stop him but he'd shut her down by simply saying "that's an order Carter, I don't want to hear any more about it!" He cringed when he thought about that. Still, they hadn't tried to apologize for their behavior and he knew he'd do the same thing again.

Daniel thought back again to what had occurred. It was obvious, to him, that both Teal'c and Sam were feeling bad and were now questioning their reaction. He, however, was not. It had been a once in a lifetime opportunity to study, up close, a new race of people. They were going to share everything with him and he'd actually get to spend time learning and studying. He was tired of visiting a planet, spending a few hours on translating, and then giving everything over to others to study. He wanted to be the one to do that and he'd had the opportunity. Jack – his friend and mentor – had simply and carelessly ripped that out from under him.

"You guys can forgive him if you want – but it's obvious he doesn't care about us. Now that he's the man we don't mean anything any more."

"How can you say that Daniel? We were the one's who treated him badly. He asked for our advice and tried to explain to us why we weren't chosen but we wouldn't let him. We just accused him of being unfair."

"Well, if he really cared about us don't you think he would have waited until we were back before running off to Valara? Don't you think it's strange – and pretty obvious – that he waited until we weren't here? According to General Landry there wasn't that big a rush. I'd say Jack isn't interested in us anymore. We're not important enough for him!"

Sam no longer knew what to think. She could hear the hurt in Daniel's voice and knew he really didn't believe all he was saying. She knew he'd been terribly disappointed and had taken that out on Jack. At the same time, she had been angry at the way O'Neill had responded as well. She was also hurt over the fact that he seemed to be avoiding him.

She sighed heavily. Right now she just wished the damn Heptae had never appeared. Little was she to know that many others would soon repeat those same words.