Brigadier General Jack O'Neill quietly made his escape from the suffocating diplomatic pretenses that were underway in the briefing room. Not that he wasn't extremely grateful for the new alliance which, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be something beneficial for both parties; he just could not sit through another minute of the boring treaty stipulations while maintaining what he had left of his sanity. Thankfully, he received permission from the President of the United States himself with a nod of his head. Besides, it wasn't as if he was bringing anything of value to the table, he was just asked to be there because he was the commander of this particular base.
That thought took Jack momentarily off guard as he entered the doors of the commissary. The commander of this base. Sometimes, when preoccupied with the inner-most musings of what he considered a pretty unique mind, he could almost forget the title and long list of responsibilities which had befallen him. Sure, he was honored to receive the promotion to General in recognition of his service, but the new stars on his uniform would be definitively more attractive if they did not bring along with them an entire base full of military personnel following his lead. And not to mention the leader of the free world, certain prominent political figures, as well as their off-world allies looking to him to make the right decisions. There was only so much a guy could handle.
Even now as he made his way through the line to pick out his choice of pie and some milk, he longed for the days of smaller rank, when he could simply, and invisibly, get his food without having to salute or put at ease every passing airman. I guess that's the price that came with the job. Though he knew that most under his command respected and even liked him, he could sense the discomfort throughout the room. Gone were the relaxed positions, the small talk and laughter. Their commanding officer was present, therefore, the stiff uniformity of military personnel took over almost subconsciously. He did not blame them; he remembered well how it was for him the years before he became an officer.
Having been aware of all this, Jack O'Neill did what any man of his standard would do: he ignored it and ate his pie anyway. Being once again lost in his thoughts, he did not immediately notice when the rest of the room went silent. By the time this abnormality registered in his brain, the chair opposite him was pulled out.
"This seat taken?" President Hays asked with an almost mischievous smile playing on his lips.
"Of course not, sir." Jack answered, setting down his fork. "Am I needed back in the briefing room?"
The president laughed heartily while reaching over to grab a piece of pie from their resting place nearby. He waved off the secret service agent who moved with him. "Go wait for me in the hall, please." He sat down again and took a bite of his buttermilk pie. "Those guys follow me everywhere! As if anyone is going to attack me down here!"
Jack joined in on his laughter, once again grateful for the relaxed presence he always seemed to maintain. "I suppose they are trained to consider everyone a threat, sir."
"I suppose so," Hays agreed. "Though I prefer the men who have enough experience to judge for themselves who could be potentially threatening." He took a bite then pointed his fork at O'Neill. "For instance, you knew from the beginning what a snake Kinsey was."
"Well, sir, in your defense, he didn't hide it as well here." Jack answered.
"You know, Jack, it wasn't very difficult to decide who was best fit to run Stargate Command."
"Thank you, sir."
"However, there was one thing that made me think twice before making that final decision." The president admitted. His tone had become decidedly different than from the beginning of the conversation, making Jack nervous.
The president pushed his plate to the side and crossed both hands on the top of the table. Leaning forward, he fixed Jack with what could only be described as a "Presidential Stare."
"Jack, are you aware that on my first day as president I was not only told the truth about this program for the first time, but presented with evidence as to why you and the rest of the personnel here should be immediately replaced?"
O'Neill flashed a crooked smile. "Let me guess, Kinsey had something to do with that?"
"I would hope, sir, that in light of recent events, those pieces of so-called 'evidence' would be just as discredited as the former vice-president himself." O'Neill said carefully, searching President Hays' face for any sign of anger or reprimand. To his relief, the president broke out into a smile.
"Relax, Jack. I truly believe the best people for the job are here."
"However…" O'Neill reminded him, despite his apprehension toward this conversation.
The president's smile slowly faded, leaving him with a pensive look. "However, there was one thing that Kinsey brought to light that did make me want to investigate further. And investigate I did."
"And what did you learn, sir?" Jack asked uneasily.
"I learned how to read between the lines of mission reports."
Now Jack was really confused. "I'm sorry, sir, but I have no idea what you mean."
"At first, I passed it off as any normal bond that exists between those put into extraordinary situations together. I mean, you do have a right to your feelings after all. Then it started to become a little clearer. But it was the 'alternate realities', as you call them, that confirmed it for me. How could you not be something more when in every other reality the two of you are together? How could –"
"Mr. President, sorry to interrupt, but I need to stop you there." Jack was no idiot, despite what some may think of him. He knew what the president had been referring to almost immediately, almost as if he had been expecting a conversation to this nature for quite sometime now. In truth, he had been expecting some sort of investigation to be conducted after the Za'Tarc incident that occurred five years ago. However, nothing ever became of that shocking little confession, in any way, shape or form. Sometimes Jack caught himself wishing that the consequences would have been greater.
"I think I know where this is going, Sir." Jack whispered, fearing the curious ears around the commissary that were likely to catch on to any stimulating conversation.
"And, with all due respect, the accusations are false. There is nothing to read between the lines. It is what it is, and we are what we are – never anything more than that." Jack knew the president was not going to be happy with his denial of what Hays thought to be true. Nor would he be pleased with the code talk that Jack was now forced to speak with in fear of rumors being spread.
"Then what are your feelings toward Colonel Carter?" Hays demanded, ignoring Jack's attempt at subtlety altogether.
"I respect her as an officer, as my second in command, and as a friend."
"And the potential for something more has never been there?"
Jack had no immediate answer to that question, and used a moment's pause to think it through. He could answer no, thus lying to the one of the most powerful men in the world and probably losing whatever amount of respect he did have for Jack. Or he could answer yes and risk losing his job, or worse, risk Carter's job. In truth, there was no right way to answer that sort of question, which was probably the reason President Hays worded it just the way he did. The president was no idiot either. In the end, he decided to be as honest as he could, without incriminating himself.
"Sir, if the potential was ever there, it's been understood that what we do here is far more important that any personal feelings."
Jack could hardly believe his ears. "Sir?" He asked, looking around to confirm that their conversation was still private.
"I said bull shit! What is it with you people? You think that devoting yourself to your country and protecting this planet means that you aren't allowed to have 'normal people' feelings?" President Hays let out a loud, exasperated sigh. "Just because you've saved the world a dozen or so times, doesn't mean you have to deny yourself any semblance of a life on said world."
O'Neill couldn't believe his ears. It almost sounded as if he was giving him permission to go against regulations and start a romantic relationship with his second in command. The idea was so outrageous and undeniably ridiculous that he almost laughed out loud. However, at the same time, he could picture it: finally coming clean to Carter about his feelings, seeing her big blue eyes stare at him in confusion as he asked her out on a date, going home together every night after work… It sounded a little too good to be true, and based on Jack's past experience, that was usually the case.
"I'll be honest, Mr. President, I'm a little perplexed by this conversation. One minute you're telling me that you had doubts about my capability of running this base because of my personal feelings, the next you're telling me that I shouldn't deny my feelings. Frankly, you're confusing the hell out of me."
President Hays let out a short laugh, confusing O'Neill even more. "Jack, I didn't know your character before, didn't fully grasp the difficult decisions you face everyday. I thought that a relationship with Colonel Carter would present too much of a risk – that as the leader of SG-1, should she be found in a compromising position, could you maintain protocol and choose the safety of the base over your personal feelings for her? At first I thought there was no way.
"Then, after completing my perusal through all of your mission files, I realized something: the decision is already difficult. The feelings are already there. Because of your time with her, and with Dr. Jackson and Teal'C for that matter, choosing earth's safety over them would never come easy to you. But I don't doubt that you could do it."
O'Neill was at a loss for words. Receiving dating advice from the president was not what he pictured in his relative outline of today's events. Just when he thought things couldn't get any weirder…
"I appreciate that, Sir." Was the only response he could muster. President Hays leaned back in his chair and continued to watch Jack silently. What he was thinking, O'Neill could only speculate at. Did he plan on giving him the go-ahead to pursue a relationship with Carter? O'Neill knew that being president gave him a lot of authority, but did that include the dismissal of regulations?
"You know, Jack, it may not look like it, but I've been through a lot. I've been in my fair share of battles, both in combat and in the office. I survived tours of duty, officer training, four children and nine campaigns. And the only reason I can sit here in front of you, telling you the honest-to-God truth, is because of the woman I've spent the last 46 years with. Without her, I would've given up a long time ago.
"You see, in the end, none of it's really worth it unless you've got someone to enjoy it with. I know you don't regret one minute of your time here at Stargate Command, I know that after all of your successes, there can't be much that you wish you'd have done differently. But don't you want to give it meaning? C'mon Jack, make it worth it!"
Jack understood completely what the president was telling him. His feelings for Carter had been buried deep within him for some time now, it wasn't even something he gave a conscious effort to avoiding any more. They had agreed to leave it in the room all those years ago and since then their teamwork had worked like a well-oiled machine, with only a few occasional missteps. All right, maybe quite a bit more than a few. If he was being honest with himself, there had even been a couple of times where he didn't know if he could continue with the job. Most notably, the alien computer virus that had taken over Carter's body – being forced to kill her had been the hardest thing he'd dealt with since Charlie's death.
The realization that the president was wrong struck O'Neill like a staff blast to the chest. His feelings had compromised his objectivity. Thinking about the alien entity made him realize that he could not experience that level of pain again. He'd rather die.
"Sir, I appreciate what you are trying to do. And don't get me wrong, what you're saying makes a whole lot of sense to me. This job has been worth it… in every way. But if certain feelings were brought to the surface, I don't believe I'd be able to make the right decisions. Hell, I don't even think I can make 'em now.
"What I'm trying to say is that as long as I am in command of this base, I can't think about any feelings I may have. Ignoring them is the only way I can semi-effectively do my job."
President Hays narrowed his eyes at O'Neill but did not immediately respond. Instead Jack watched as he silently finished off the rest of his pie. He ignored his own due to his sudden loss of appetite. Eventually the President wiped his mouth and fixed that stare once again on Jack.
"Only you can know what you can and cannot handle. I'm not here to step on your toes or to tell you how to live your life. Just promise me something, Jack."
O'Neill wanted to laugh. It wasn't like he could refuse the President of the United States. He just nodded his consent.
"Promise me that you won't ignore it forever. If anyone on this planet deserves a happy life, it's you and your team. Remember, it's not just about what you think you deserve, she deserves to be happy, too.
"Anyway, I better get back to this meeting. I'll see ya around, General." And with that, Hays rose from the table and left the commissary.
O'Neill was dumbfounded, that was the only word to describe it. The president had given him a whole lot of things to think about and he wasn't looking forward to the exhausting mental work-out it would cause. Sure, he's had many years to go over these things in his head, but this time was different. This time the thinking would produce actions, or at least plans of action. This time is would have meaning.
And because of all the connotations and consequences such thinking would cause, Jack planned to start at it tomorrow.
For now, he would just enjoy his pie.