Disclaimer: I'm just a poor writer geek who owns nada.

One Year Lost, Twenty Gained

by Linda Bindner

Part I

It all started with one innocent phone call. Jack looked briefly out through his Pentagon window at the snow falling over Washington DC as he picked up the receiver to his ringing black desk phone.

O'Neill, he briskly answered into the handset placed against his ear. The Weather Channel had forecast the start of a true blizzard by the end of the day, and he wanted to be gone from the mad house that the Pentagon could become when the weather went from 'dicey' to 'really dicey' before it struck. If he wanted to do that, he needed to leave the building by 1300, 1400 at the latest. Hence, he needed to hurry - he didn't have time to waste on phone calls that weren't of a Presidential nature - the black phone had rung, thus showing that this call was definitely NOT Presidential.

General O'Neill, this is General Masters at Area...

That was as far as the other voice on the line got before Jack cut off the man midword to delightfully exclaim, Spooks! How's it going there? How's the wife doing? What can I do for you?

A chuckle reached Jack's ear through the handset. Jack and 'Master Spooks' had been friends for years, their relationship going back to their time spent as roommates at the Academy. Rachel's doing fine, and things are fine here, too. Well, the Area 51 General conceded, Things are mostly good here. His tone had ominously dropped.

'Uh-oh.' 'Mostly good?' Jack echoed, feeling more and more nervous as the conversation wore on. Why does that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up to attention?

The shrug sounded loud in the voice that replied, I'm impressed that your neck even has enough hair to stand at attention, Jack. General Masters let loose a grunt. Maybe the rest of you should join it, right now, before I start talking in detail about what's going on.

'Uh-oh, squared' (Carter would have been proud of Jack for even knowing what 'squared' meant). Jack commented to General Masters, This already doesn't sound good. He sighed, acknowledging the fact that a new 'problem' was unexpectedly rising, realizing that he would be lucky now if he got out of the Pentagon by 1700, snow be damned. Hissing a second, tired sigh, he warily inquired of Masters, What have you got?

Now that the Area 51 General had been invited to speak, he didn't waste any time before starting to talk. About three months ago, I was trying to think of a good birthday present to give to Colonel Chambers, my 2IC.

Uh, Jack hesitantly grunted. He really didn't need a blow-by-blow account of Masters' personal life. Is there a point to this?

Masters huffed. I'm getting to that, Jack.

Oh. Chagrined, Jack invited him to go on, and sat back for what he predicted would be a long and windy explanation for why his hair was already standing on end.

Masters explained, I mentioned the birthday thing for the Colonel to Rachel one morning at breakfast, and she suggested that I look on-line, that maybe Andy had a Facebook account or website that mentioned the hobbies he was interested in, and I would come up with a birthday idea from there.

Wow, Jack commented, surprised. That's a pretty good idea - I'll have to keep that one in mind for when my secretary has his...

I thought it was a good idea, too, Masters interrupted to say. But what I found once I went on-line wasn't so great.

Jack cringed - Uh-oh he thought. 'Uh-oh to the tenth power.' What do you mean, Brian? he warily asked. Why did he already feel a headache coming on?

Masters gave a patient sigh. Well, Andy really did have a Facebook account. So I got on and started reading, looking for a mention of hobbies, wants, likes, dislikes... and I was surprised with what he thought to mention.

A chill crept up Jack's spine, almost as if he'd left the window open, and the cold air of DC during a blizzard had washed over him. Meaning? he inquired, the dread building in his stomach.

Meaning, Brian Masters intoned, Colonel Chambers saw fit to mention that his work was classified - honestly, he was repeating the 'my work is classified, if I tell you then I'll have to shoot you' joke of yours, General, but he maybe went into a bit too much detail on the 'classified' part.

That comment got Jack seriously interested. How much detail? he asked in a suddenly harsh tone.

Masters replied, Nothing specific, and he didn't name the base or anything, but he did allude to 'little green men' once or twice.

Crap! Jack abruptly expostulated, and rubbed his fingers over his forehead in order to stall the growing ache in his head. What else?

Masters sighed. He said a few things about liking guns, and being a soldier, and...

That was enough. The fact that this guy even has a Facebook account kind of scares me, to be honest, Brian.

You're scared? Masters nonchalantly teased. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

Jack cringed a second time - the 'problem' had turned into a real 'crisis' in record time. This had already become an exponential 'uh-oh' moment. Yeah? Jack sighed. Do tell.

So Masters 'told.' After seeing all that Andy had thought was okay for him to say about his classified work, I thought it might be prudent to check the accounts and webpages of a few other of my higher officers. You would be amazed at what they think is and isn't 'private' information.'

They didn't automatically know? Jack had a very bad feeling about this. How many problem spots did you find? he reluctantly asked. And how many people behind these 'spots' are we talking about?

I checked 143 profiles, Masters complained. And found 137 problem 'spots.' And that's just the people on my main staff.

Holy... Buckets, Jack softly intoned, astonished at such a a high number. That's a lot of people.

You're not fooling me, Masters responded. That was when I decided that I had better start checking everyone's webpages.

Jack knew where this was going - 'infinite uh-oh.' And? he prodded.

It wouldn't take a genius to figure out which base many of us are talking about. Even the fact that Area 51 doesn't 'officially' exist doesn't make it particularly hard. And I also saw many opinions on the 'little green men' scenario, alien doohickeys in general, several mentions of a 'strange mineral' with amazing explosive properties, and ten mentions of a 'ring found in the dessert during the last era before the great war.'

That statement made Jack sit up more in his leather desk chair. It's worse than I thought!

But Masters went on. At this point, I suspended all my ongoing duties and spent the better part of the last month going through thousands of personnel Internet pages and Facebook accounts until I couldn't see straight. I ended up reprimanding 2000 of the soldiers stationed on base, and suspending another 856 more, pending further investigations, which in turn are pending any decision you make now as to what the word 'classified' really means.

Jack gusted a sigh. This had to be a Monday - he always had to deal with problems of 'the shit hitting the fan' variety on Mondays. First I'll need to talk to the President about the 'classified' situation, then get back to you on what we decide the word really means.

Masters warned, I'm afraid that you may need to do more than that, Jack.

Jack felt himself getting tired even before Masters said anything more. Meaning?

Masters didn't disappoint him. Meaning that you would be shocked at how far this 'I don't know what classified really means' ideology goes. Even the SGC soldiers are suspect at this point. His second sigh ripped across the distance between his office at Area 51 and DC. Do you want me to come out there and show you my complete report?

Jack's tiredness was vindicated - just the thought of looking at all that on-line activity for even the members of the SGC was exhausting to him. And then there were the members belonging to the Atlantis Expedition, and those at the Alpha Site, those at the Beta Site, at the... Yeah, Brian, you better jump a flight at your earliest opportunity, and come on out here. By the way, dress warm - it's snowing.

Masters' chuckle again covered the distance between them. Got it. See you ASAP, Jack.

Jack sighed and slowly agreed, Yeah. He was certainly looking forward to seeing a good friend of his who wasn't buried up to his eyeballs in politics, but he soooo didn't like the concept of what his friend had to show him! See you soon, he said despite his private misgivings.

'Ten 4, good buddy, Masters said, recalling for O'Neill the '80s TV shows that he was quoting. Then the connection ended as Masters hung up.

Jack replaced his handset in its cradle, then reached for the red phone to call the President. He had a feeling that he would be lucky if he got home at all that day.

When his insistent ringing was answered by a voice intoning, White House, Jack bluntly said, This is O'Neill - get me the President.

Part II

And that was how Jack found himself on the following morning going through the websites of those soldiers stationed at the SGC as fast as he could, looking for unintentional gaffs that alluded to 'classified' projects.

Some people thought that doing his own checking of things like webpages and Facebook and My Space accounts was beneath him, especially for one of his high rank, but Jack wanted to do his own checking of the men and women of his own commands himself rather than let a just-graduated junior Airman inform the likes of Lieutenant Colonels that they needed to be suspended pending hearings, re: the word 'classified.'

Besides that, security clearance for the classified projects being referred to that Jack was checking the many webpages for was hard to come by. Few other people were available with high enough security clearance to run through the webpages and accounts. He had both the proper clearance for this job, as well as knowledge of the many classified programs being referred to on those employee webpages he wanted to check. Or so the President had argued the day before.

Thus Jack began the huge undertaking of checking profiles on all the webpages of the military soldiers in his commands by examining the SGC leader and team leaders first. General Landry didn't have any accounts on Facebook, or any of the other networking programs available to the masses. His, to all effects, 'Internet invisibility' denoted him to be an 'On-line Neanderthal,' but it made checking his profiles simple. Landry's one webpage only listed his basic information. Nothing at all was said about the SGC, NORAD, or anything remotely considered 'classified.' Jack breathed a sigh of relief - he had not been looking foreword to having to reprimand one of his best leaders on this issue! He would have done it if he had to, but he was just as glad that he didn't.

Next, he brought up Colonel Dixon's information, and found that his friend not only used Facebook to network for his old high school classmates, but he was 'interested in all weapons, particularly guns, grenades, energy weapons, bio weapons, pain thresholds, and using karate methods as weapons in general.' He was also intrigued by timed explosives, metals used to enhance blast points, and bombs made from 'spit and baling twine.' You can make bombs from baling twine? Jack disbelievingly asked himself, noting that many of the listed 'interests' defied Dixon's 'classified' SGC clearance, and marked what he wanted to discuss with the Colonel.

Next he visited Daniel's webpage. Daniel, as a civilian, wasn't really under his command in the strictest sense of the word, but Daniel's computer acumen combined with his propensity to get into trouble worried Jack enough to convince him that reading through Daniel's webpages was time well spent.

And was he ever glad that he'd decided to spend that time! Jack instantly discovered that Daniel was definitely a Facebook user, and had several side pages dedicated to either 'Archaeological Finds,' 'Linguistical Pursuits,' or 'Anthropological Expeditions.' The minute that Jack started reading Daniel's archaeology page, and found an actual picture of his 'Eye of Ra' amulet (though it wasn't an identified antiquity), he knew that he had a bigger problem than he'd first anticipated. If even Daniel didn't quite have a handle on the whole 'classified' spiel (as The Eye of Ra was definitely a classified artifact), then what hope could he have for any other SGC member?

Yet, Colonel Reynolds' webpages came off without a hitch, and Jack immediately felt better. His mood improved, even as his stomach grumbled. It was going to be a long day of checking into accounts - paying a visit to the Pentagon cafeteria, as desperate as that move would be, was in order.

But he ended up working so long that the cafeteria didn't appeal to him by the time he took a lunch break, and he ordered a pizza, eaten as he continued working on the computer accounts.

Jack held a piece of the 'Meat Lovers Deluxe' in his hand, ready to bite into the cooling but still delicious cheese, sauce and meat combination when his mouth went still, then snapped closed as the pizza slice drooped over his fingers. Cheese dripped down his hand to make a pool of grease at the edge of his desk as he continued to avidly read the current page he'd pulled up.

He was on one of the pages of his own favorite scientist, Colonel Carter (though he would die before saying that). Carter had a Facebook account, an account on My Space, one on... Jack didn't remember what all computerized programs he had visited for Carter. Her list of accomplishments went on and on, and his search engine results for her were amazingly detailed, too, but she had been careful to only list those aspects of her Air Force career that she could share with any John-Q-Public. She clearly understood what 'classified' truly meant, and Jack was just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief (he hadn't wanted to reprimand his former 2IC, either) when he pulled up one final website associated with the Colonel, a page confusingly named 'Cloe.'

She spelled that name wrong Jack was mundanely thinking as the page appeared on his screen.

However, mundane thoughts turned out to be not even remotely strong enough to protect Jack from the information that the page contained. Black and white pictures popped up all over the screen, showing that this page had been one of the Colonel's first attempts at webpage programming due to it's overall 'early computer' look and feel. He briefly wondered why she hadn't bothered to either update this ancient page, or delete it altogether as he began reading. He even thought to again make certain that this ancient webpage belonged to his Carter, and not some other Samantha Carter somewhere. After one quick look, he knew that he was indeed staring at a 'Carter Original,' due to the fact that Carter's picture was plastered all over the page.

At least, Jack thought he was looking at Carter. In the pictures, she looked... He had to blink in order to make is eyes focus. Carter seemed... off... to him. Upon a closer look, and another blink, he could still see the resemblance to the amazing woman he knew, but this person was... besides being obviously a lot younger than even the Carter whom he had met in that first briefing... this woman was often pictured holding what looked like... Jack squinted. Was that... a baby?

Jack began reading the page, wanting this 'almost Carter' (a Carter with a baby, for crying out loud) to be explained as quickly as possible. A second after he began reading, the terms 'blood freezing over' and 'his heart came to a throbbing and painful stop' barely described the feelings of positive horror that crept over him in slow motion.

'Looking for 'Jack!'' the page began.

Jack blinked after reading his name. Why was his name on her webpage? Then again, he was only assuming that she was talking about him - she could have been looking for another 'Jack' altogether. But... This was for sure a webpage connected to his Carter, right? Jack made certain for a third time that he was staring at webpage belonging to his Carter... a Carter obviously holding some kid for some unspecified reason. Shocked, Jack quickly looked at the caption below one of the pictures. It clearly said, 'Me and daughter Cloe.'

Jack was stunned. This Cloe was Carter's kid?

Part III

With bated breath, Jack read:

Looking for a man named 'Jack!'

I'm sure that I'll get a thousand and one cooks all calling themselves 'Jack' phoning me just because I posted this, but at this point, I'm getting a bit desperate to find this man that I only know is called 'Jack.' I don't know his last name, and I don't even know if 'Jack' is his real first name, or a nickname for some form of 'Jonathan.' I know that 'Jack' is a version of many names: he could be named 'John,' 'Johnathan,' 'Jonathan,' 'Jon,' or 'Jack.'

And why am I so badly wanting to find this man-with-no-last-name, and only a first name of 'Jack?'

Because, quite simply, he and I had a (what I've often heard called a 'one night stand' though I surely wouldn't call it that except for my stupidity in leaving early the next morning) in May of 1986. (I know, I know, shame on me!)(Though not really, but this webpage isn't meant to be a socio-political commentary)...

Jack paused in his reading - yep, that was his Carter - user of multi-syllabic words.

He read on:

The truth is, I was drunk (sort of)(friends and I were celebrating graduating from high school), one thing led to another (though this man named 'Jack' sooooo did not 'take advantage' of me!), and nine and a half months later, I gave birth to his daughter, who I named 'Cloe.' (Yes, I know that you're thinking I misspelled that name, and you would be right - in some ways. I spelled her name 'Chloe' for a month before I happened to look again at her original birth certificate, and I had misspelled her name when writing it down for the nursing staff at the hospital where I gave birth. Thus, little 'Cloe' was the one who was actually born that day in late January. I must have been high from the drugs they gave me for the birth - that's the only reason I can think of why I would misspell a word that is so basic.)

Here a collage of pictures interrupted the text, detailing a very young Carter, one with long blonde hair, blonde bangs, swept up in the faintly appalling hair styles of the '80s, held back with a clip or a braid, taking a small bundle somewhere from what appeared to be a hospital - Carter was sitting in a wheelchair, and surrounded by balloons. The text resumed at the bottom of the pictures.

The reason that I don't know the name of the man who is the father of my own little girl is a very simple one: When we began talking in the bar where we met (I know, how cliché that we met in a bar), we decided not to share names, and not just first names, ANY name. The only reason that I know his name is 'Jack' is that I happened to glance at the bar tab he signed right before giving it to the bartender for the food that we had ordered that night, and I managed to read upside down that his first name is 'Jack.' However, I wasn't able to read the rest that was written on the slip of paper fast enough to catch his last name, or his address, or any other information, so I've been clueless for many months as to this man's identity.

More pictures, this time a rough drawing of something that looked like a human... maybe even a human resembling him... if one squinted a lot... followed the text. One thing Carter wasn't was an artist. In fact, she admitted to this very detail.

I know that I'm no artist - if not for the help of a friend studying to be a graphic designer, there is the distinct possibility that we would all be looking at a stick figure right now. But she took it upon herself to assist me in my quest, and use the computer to make the best representation of this 'Jack' that we could, given what we had to work with (meaning my bad memory. Being sort of drunk the night in question didn't help).

Thirteen months has passed since that night, and I've tried everything I can think of to find this mysterious man named 'Jack.' Nothing has worked. That's why I'm posting this page, along with this information, and these pictures, in the hopes that someone will see it, or know someone who knows someone named 'Jack,' and force him to take a look at this page to see if he recognizes me, or can see a resemblance in Cloe.

A little about me, to jog the memory a bit - I'm now currently working towards a degree in physics, but then I was just a teenage kid who probably looked a lot older than she was. If I get contacted by anyone who can identify the correct date of my encounter with 'Jack,' and the correct town where 'Jack' and I met, then we'll talk.

And why do I want to find this guy who is, basically, nameless, faceless, and ignorant? Because Cloe is certain to someday ask questions about her father, and I want to be able to tell her the truth when that day arrives. Besides, 'Jack' was very... nice. But maybe 'Jack' was also drunk at the time that he and I met, and won't remember the night I'm referring to. Maybe he doesn't want to be saddled with a three-month-old daughter. Maybe he wasn't drunk at all that night, and remembers all the details that I no longer remember. Whatever the case, this is my last ditch attempt at finding this person named 'Jack.'

And there, the main body of the text ended after some contact information that now had to be long outdated. There were only a few snippets of text further down the page, and no more pictures. Jack read,

Two months later: All Cloe does is eat and poop while I attend college. We live in family student housing, because we're 'destitute.'

Then came one more blurb:

Cloe... Date of Birth: January 1987: Date of accidental death: June 1987.

Nevermind

Jack couldn't breathe. There was a picture that had been taken of Cloe in May of '87 included at the very bottom of the webpage. Looking at the girl's five-month-old self sent more chills straight up his spine. Staring at that picture was like looking into the brown eyes of a female version of Charlie.

Part IV

A quiet second went by after Jack finished reading Cloe's webpage. The pool of pizza grease collecting on the desk in front of him widened just a bit more as another drop bloated the pool still further. The sound of the beating of snow against closed windowpanes echoed through the room. The sound of a ticking clock underwrote it all. Only Jack was still.

Jack stared, wide eyed, at the webpage on his computer before him. His heart beat, but very painfully, against his ribs. He was aware of his bum knee itching under a wet spot caused by the snow that had collected on his trousers that morning while on his way to the Pentagon.

Alone, Jack could only breathe and blink in shock. The way Carter's writing sounded on this webpage, Cloe had definitely been - his! Because it was beyond doubt that he clearly remembered meeting Carter... or someone nameless... in a bar in May of 1986. Jack was still in shock just about the fact that it was proven that he had met her. That had been Carter all those years ago?!

And... Jack could barely blink as he thought it... she had had his baby... all by herself... a girl... a girl named 'Cloe,' a girl who had looked a lot like Charlie.

A girl who had died many, many years ago.

And Carter had never told him.

OhhmyGodOhmyGodOhmyGod...

Anger, whether such an emotion made sense or not, washed through Jack. He was furious in half a second. Which, even he had to admit, was a predictable reaction, so he tried to swallow his unfair animosity. But the lump that had formed in his esophagus had become uncooperative, and stopped him. The lump grew bigger and tighter the more he scrolled through the black and white pictures on the webpage. Monochromatic images must have been the easiest kind of images that one could put on a computer at the time that this webpage had gone up. What had it been? 1987? '88?

Jack took a short, much-needed breath. With a start, he realized that he needed proof of this page, that he couldn't let any of this page out of sight, even for a minute.

Jack called up the 'file' menu, and told his notebook computer to 'print.' He started to bookmark the page, but then stopped himself: if anyone, for any reason, found this page bookmarked on his personal work computer, with images of someone who looked alarmingly like Carter plastered all over it, then it would look too suspicious for him not to be somehow linked back to Colonel Carter. And as this page was all about finding a 'Jack,' and she had admitted that she and this 'Jack' had had a one night stand... It was too coincidental for him not to at least be considered to be 'Jack.' Which could probably make things very uncomfortable for Carter, to say the least. The last thing he wanted to do was somehow personally link himself to Carter when it was common knowledge that she had been under his command for years. (Well, actually, he would love to be linked to Carter, but not so that it looked like they were 'linked.' Such a 'link' could have potentially devastating consequences for both of them, not the least for Carter.) If they had shared a child, even a deceased one, while in the same command, then...

Carter is the mother of my child.

Jack halted that line of thought the second the idea coalesced inside his mind. Though Carter had obviously been quite melodramatic in her younger days, according to several parts of the text of the page that he had just read, he himself could not afford to get emotional just now. He may not have known her at the time this page was posted... or, known her well... beyond the way he had let his hands glide over her... so not going there! Jack could see why she and the dramatic Daniel had instantly hit it off.

The printer on a stand in the corner whirred for a moment, spitting out several pieces of paper as his previous 'print' command was carried out. Feeling numb, Jack gathered the pages together, making certain that nothing showed to the security camera in the far corner of the room (cameras were to be his lifelong bane, even at the Pentagon). After reaching between the pizza box and a phone to find the only stapler on his desk, he stapled the printed pages together, and then stuffed them into his pocket of the dress uniform that he happened to be wearing that day. Without thinking about it twice, he knew that he had to go to Colorado Springs immediately to see Carter.

With that thought in mind, he left his office, and entered the outer office domain of his personal secretary/assistant, Major Greeley. Right now, the man was just returning to his desk. General, he began, I heard from... But Major Greeley stopped all speech the moment he saw the General's set face. General? was all the Major asked in that overly anxious tone he had perfected in the year that he'd spent as Jack's assistant.

Jack barely paused by the man's desk. I'm going to Colorado on urgent business, he tersely said. I don't know when I'll be back. Or if. But he didn't say that thought out loud. Too much explaining would have to accompany such words.

Yes Sir, Greeley grunted, obviously stunned by this sudden turn of events, but too professional to show it. Instead, he simply asked, Should I charter an aircraft or a car for you?

Call an Airman to take me to Andrews. I can't drive right now - I'm too worked up. Get me on a flight - anything - that's going to Colorado Springs. I'll hang on to the wing if I have to. But I have to get to Colorado Springs yesterday.

His abrupt, short orders were met with the efficiency that Greeley used to meet all of General O'Neill's orders. But even as Jack re-entered his office and slammed the door, and Greeley picked up his phone to do the General's bidding, he wondered just what the General had seen on his computer to cause this kind of an intense reaction.

Part V

The SGC

Had it been the previous day when he had first discovered the existence of Cloe, he would have had to wait at Andrews for the DC blizzard to abate before his flight could even have left, but now that it was a day later, he made a beeline for Carter's lab the moment he arrived at the SGC.

Jack paused for a brief moment in the corridor outside of Carter's lab. He hadn't even stopped long enough brief Landry about his visit. He had merely gotten the leader's permission to enter the base, and then had dourly walked through the checkpoints between here and the surface - his one and only destination - Carter's lab. (It was interesting to him that he assumed that Carter would still be in her lab, though it was late at night. The fact that had hadn't bothered checking for her at her home first, but had instead headed directly for her SGC lab, was telling.)

But now that he was here, staring into the lab itself, and hence, at her performing some experiment at her lab's workbench, he paused. A moment went by while he secretly watched Carter as she first peered into her microscope, then typed something into her computer, then peered again into the microscope. Jack blatantly studied her as she worked, oblivious to his presence.

She doesn't look like she's had a baby, Jack inanely thought to himself. She certainly has never behaved like she's had a baby.

Again ridiculous fury accosted him - why hadn't she told him about this? Jack's fingers crumpled around the printouts of the 'Cloe' webpage that once again resided in his jacket pocket. During his 'emergency' flight to Peterson AFB, he had removed those papers and studied them, sweated buckets over them, trying to find something, anything, that he had missed on his first read-through of the pages' information that might give him a clue as to Carter's decision to keep him in the dark about her... his... their... their baby.

But he hadn't found anything. He'd only discovered that he had a better memory than he'd thought he had.

He had stopped at the bar on his way out of town after attending the wedding of his best friend for a quick bite to eat and a drink. But he was still far from drunk when he noticed the arrival of the three young people at the bar ten minutes after his own entrance. Immediately, his eyes had been drawn to the long haired blonde girl who sat languidly on the bar stool where her companions had parked her, and drank beer out of a bottle. With drinks in hand, they turned around to survey the crowd. The cool looks on the blonde's companions' faces, a girl and a boy, was more along the lines of sizing up the crowd than 'drunk off our butts.' There was a look of determination in their eyes, as the blonde girl drinking the beer suddenly plunked her head down on the bar, looking for all the world like she had fallen asleep out of sheer boredom with the clientele that she could see from the bar. He was hidden by the walls of his booth that he was sitting in, safe from their gazes.

While they drank, or 'slept,' four young men who had been playing a video game in the corner of the bar sauntered over to stare at the sorry looking bundle that was the blonde girl who looked to them like she was too drunk to defend herself. In other words, she was 'fresh meat' to the guys, and the guys clearly knew it.

One of the men tried to strike up a conversation with the girl who was obviously the blonde girl's guardian, but Jack saw this 'guardian girl' shake her head, though she was smiling. The man pressed forward anyway, until he was right up in the girl's face, said something more, which Jack couldn't make out over the pounding music in the bar, then put his hand on the blonde girl's arm.

The girl raised her head, and even with blue eyes that didn't seem to focus on any one thing, supposedly from alcohol, Jack could see her definite 'no' when she pulled her arm away from the surprised man. The man next did something that Jack had seen a thousand times, but never used himself: the man at the bar smacked his hand down on the wooden bar itself to create an instant sense of authority in the blonde girl (the obvious threat being: 'if you don't agree with my request, I'll make more unpleasant noise that will call unwanted attention to both of us'). Then the man stuck his face right up next to the girl, and said something sneeringly to the blonde.

And the blonde promptly threw him over the bar.

Wow! Jack appreciatively said to himself. He hadn't seen strength like that, in conjunction with such lightening fast coordination, especially in one so young, in years! Maybe ever! Enjoying himself now, Jack more fully turned to watch the drama beside the bar continue to unfold.

Even as he cautioned himself not to interfere, as was his policy with hot looking blonde babes with evident karate knowledge, and no matter how much he wanted to interfere, he just sat and watched the three guy friends move in on the girl.

Well, that's a cliché, thought Jack.

Well, this is a cliché, said the girl, in the high tones of someone extremely young. She didn't sound as drunk as she appeared, given the strength and timbre of her voice.

'She's a college student,' Jack guessed. 'Out for a '21 fling,'' as in, 'It's my 21st birthday, and I'm gonna drink until I puke.' He continued to watch, only slightly nonplussed at the way she had read his thoughts earlier.

The blonde girl tried to stand, but all she did was wobble on her stool. As she wobbled, he had to again wonder if she was faking her apparent drunkenness. She 'lost' her balance as the three 'friends' approached closer. Even drunk - not drunk, but pretending to be drunk - she apparently knew that she couldn't handle three guys who were all bigger than her at once, and all by herself. Appealing to her 'guardians' for help, the blonde girl tried to throw the guys a menacing expression, but all she did was step in a pool of spilled beer and go down beside the bar.

Jack peered at her, a heap on the floor. Had she meant to do that? He wasn't sure as he went on watching.

The three guy 'friends' instantly acted, throwing all their weight on the girl. She struggled for a moment while two of the men dealt with her 'guardians,' who were less than useful in this predicament (even the male guardian), and the one guy left over sat on the girl, holding her down. The blonde's struggles ceased as quite suddenly, the man she had previously thrown over the bar popped up, scrambled over and across the polished wooden surface, only to reach down and thread his fingers roughly through the girl's hair.

He jerked on blonde strands, and the girl's head came up as a result. He glared down at her. No one makes a fool out of me! he yelled. Get up! And he yanked the girl to a standing position.

While the two men were still holding off the blonde's 'guardians,' the two remaining men started to herd the blonde girl out the door. She was resisting with all her seemingly 'drunken' might, but her timing was off, and again she seemed to be no match weight-wise for two opponents at once.

And that was when Jack broke his own rule about interfering with 'drunk' blondes found in bars and awaiting obvious assault at the hands of Brute #1 and Brute #2. Still casually chewing on the peanuts that he'd just popped into his mouth, Jack meandered over in the current drama's direction. He tapped the jerk who the blonde had previously thrown over the bar on his shoulder, and after swallowing his food, demanded, Hey you, Fool, been thrown over any bars lately? His eyes met the eyes of the blonde, and the humor that he saw sparkling there again gave him reason to think that she was far less drunk than she was trying to appear.

Jack was pretty sure by then that she was scamming the men. What he didn't know yet was why. Perhaps she was spoiling for a fight?

Maybe. All he knew was that when Brute #2 tried to deck him, he simply caught the man's fist in his hand, then bent it backward until he heard the bone snap. The focus on him and the wrist he was obviously breaking, the blonde girl was 'finally' successful in stomping on her attacker's foot, and delivering a punch to his guts that had obviously brought down many a much stronger man. The guy quickly winced in pain, moving his hands protectively to his middle, where she first ignored his warding action only to yank instead on the front of his jeans where his 'privates' were located, smashed her hand on the back of his neck when he bent over a second time in protest to her previous action, then calmly threw him over the bar again. This time, the man did not get up.

Meanwhile, Brute #2 was bent over, facing Jack and away from the blonde, still nursing his broken wrist. The blonde took the opportunity when his attention was elsewhere to knock the man on the back of his knees with her own knees, then when he instinctively fell forward, reached down to pull his feet out from under him by grabbing onto the backs of his jeans, down near his boots, and pulling. The man crashed to the floor amidst spilled alcohol, discarded peanut shells, and lost dignity. He quickly lost consciousness as well. The other two 'friends' melted back into the crowd amazingly fast.

Slowly, the blonde girl's head shook mockingly back and forth as she stared at unconscious Brute #2 and his companion, who was out of sight and knocked unconscious behind the bar. Beat up by a girl: How will they ever live this down? Her mocking tone lent much needed teasing to the bizarre situation. She reached out to shake Jack's hand. Thanks.

He smoothly encased her smaller, younger fingers in his, saying, No problem. I always love a good fight against overwhelming odds. He glanced at the man lying on the floor. What did they do to you?

She grimaced, almost making Jack wish that he hadn't asked. But after a long pause, she replied, They've been bothering me. I worked out what to do to them weeks ago, and was just waiting for the 'right opportunity' to come up. When it didn't, I created it.

Ah, he said, nodding his head, thinking that everything he'd just seen really had been on purpose. Wow - this blonde girl could be scary! Then he gestured over to the booth that he had vacated. You want to join me? he inquired (he'd always liked a hint of danger in his life). We can discuss current action moves that work well in a fight, and how to avoid them.

The blonde smiled, and gave a shrug of one shoulder. Sure, she agreed, and after redirecting her gaze to her 'guardians,' indicated that she would be joining the man who had helped her at his table over 'yonder.'

And with that, the famous meeting between Jack and Carter had begun.

As Carter had written, and Jack had read so many years later on her website, 'one thing had quickly led to another' - they had talked, laughed, joked, quoted, window-shopped downtown, made sure not to swap names, then made love like there was no tomorrow in the front seat of the Toyota pickup that he had borrowed for the weekend from a friend.

Concentrating, Jack could still smell the blonde girl's musky perfume, still feel her silky skin under his probing fingers, still hear her sighs of contentment, followed by gasps of...

Jack clenched his fist around the papers in his fingers. He was NOT going there! Determined to forget that night, the feel of her skin, the silky glide of her touch, he pushed the memory to the farthest recesses of his mind. That night had haunted him for years after it had happened. He had ordered himself to forget about it, especially as he didn't even know the blonde girl's name, or where she lived, or anything about her. He knew that she'd had some sort of formal defensive training, since she knew what to do to methodically pulverize the men who he had merely distracted. But knowing that she'd had some defensive training from somebody hadn't helped him at all in discovering her identity: there were literally thousands, if not millions, of training facilities in the United States. And though she might be a member of one of those training schools, she might just as easily have been unofficially trained by a relative or loved one in some far off state of the union, greatly distant from where he had met her.

Jack had quickly decided that finding the whereabouts or identity of the blonde girl was thoroughly impossible, and forced himself to move on from that night. Yet he could not deny how his skin prickled, and his blood sang in his veins every time he thought of her. She may be unattainable to him, but she lived on in his memories of that night, whether he wanted her to live on in them or not.

Now Jack stared at the slip of the woman who had made his blood sing all those years ago, and who he had sought against his better judgment everywhere he went... for years. The memories of the blonde girl and her long hair was what had first drawn him to Sara.

He had thought of the mystery girl off and on throughout his life, even as he tried his best to build a successful relationship with Charlie's mother. Sara had insisted, when she discovered that she was pregnant, that she and Jack get married right after the birth of the baby. She had calmly told the man she'd been seeing for the past year that his days of freedom were numbered, but numbered by the growing size of her belly, not marked by anything more definite than that.

And Jack had tried to be thrilled. He truly did love his son once he was born, and spent the rest of the time pretending for his son's mother that she was the right woman for him.

But Jack had always wondered - he wasn't sure that what he felt at the time for Sara really was love. In the strictest definition of the word, he supposed that it was. He'd certainly gotten used to having her in his life, to depending on her, like... like a loyal and beloved pet, if truth be told.

However, what he thought or didn't think about the way he felt for Sara didn't matter in the long run. At the time of his marriage to Sara, he had more than just himself to think about - Charlie kindled a spark of responsibility set deep inside Jack, and he refused to let that fire become extinguished. He truly liked having a child to depend on him to solve every problem in the world.

And Charlie really believed that his father could do anything. But the truth was, Jack was never quite sure about what he felt for Sara, and it turned out that he had good reason for wondering. If he'd never been certain of his feelings for Sara, the appearance of Carter into his life gave him more than enough of a comparison. His feelings for Sara dimmed to nonexistence when juxtaposed to his feelings for Carter. The only real litmus test for his 'Carter obsession' had been the tiny budding of what he might have felt for the blonde girl, if his feelings for her had been given the time to mature beyond the stage of intense sexual attraction.

But those feelings of Jack's for the blonde girl had never been given the chance they needed to grow. By the time that Charlie was born, Sara had his entire life planned out for him, and marriage seemed to be the next step - not exactly in the correct order of things, but his days as a philanderer were over. He had a son and a wife - there was no place in the all-American dream that his life had become for memories of the blonde from the bar whom he had found heaven with in the simple location of a cab of a truck.

Yet, he remembered in spite of himself. They had gone to his hotel after the truck incident, then proceeded to impatiently yank each other's clothes off, and make love again in the bed of his hotel room. Then they had joined together a third time, as soon as he had recovered enough so that he could 'perform.' His younger body had finally collapsed from exhaustion after their third riotous bout of lovemaking, and he had slept, even though he wanted to stay awake and suck every last drop that he could of that magical blonde girl into himself.

When he had wakened around 1000 hours, the blonde girl was gone, much to his distress, leaving behind only the faint smell of her personal scent to linger in the air - an exotic mix of sweat, sex, soap, and dreams.

But that was then. This was now. Jack hadn't thought about the blonde girl since he had begun his time at the SGC. He didn't even know how old the girl was, if she had really been on a '21 fling' that night, or if she was older, or younger, underage, or a young looking thirty-year-old. Instead, he had mourned the loss of the family that he had tried to make with Sara. He truly did miss his son, who had been the light of his life for nine wonderful years. But he had been too committed to his career in the military to think too much about what he had almost gained that night in a cheap hotel room and a borrowed truck. There, he had almost found Nirvana. But he had lost it as surely as he had lost his son.

And now... now, his fingers reflexively curled around the papers in his pocket one more time. A few short hours ago, he had found that he'd had and lost a daughter named 'Cloe' as well, and Cloe's mother had chosen not to fill him in on the secret of her existence. He had lost two children in his life, and one he had never been fated to even know.

Tears burned behind his tired, aching eyes, but he refused to give in to the emotion behind them. It was his experience that emotion of any kind distracted a soldier from his or her goal. Feeling highly distracted anyway, Jack pushed aside his nostalgic mood, and quietly stepped into Carter's lab.

At first, she didn't notice him. She continued to peer into her microscope, unaware that doom was only a few steps away at this point. She hummed something, hemmed a reply, and damnit if Jack's irrational self-righteous anger at her seeming complacency didn't disappear the second that he heard her voice.

Jack dropped the papers beside the microscope on her table top, and waited for her to notice him.

She did, as soon as her head popped up from the microscope viewing lens. He was immediately disarmed when she smiled at him the second that she saw him. When she spoke, her tone was one of utter delight at this unexpected visit. Sir, I was just thinking about you! Carter exclaimed into the silence of her lab at 2200 at night.

She had just hummed - did that mean that she had been humming while thinking about... him... for a change?

Jack's heart thumped in his chest. Crap! He was supposed to be over these juvenile reactions to her by now!

Carter, he said, ignoring his body's reaction to her, yet surprised at how even-sounding his voice was. He gestured at the papers he'd laid on her lab bench. Your identity criteria: If you really are the blonde girl I've been looking for for years, then we met at Rodgers Pub and Grill on New Hampshire Ave. in Washington DC on May 13, 1986. Now, and his brows rose in curiosity, inquiry, and challenge. Care to explain?

Part VI

Carter gazed at the papers that he had unceremoniously plopped down on her workbench, but didn't touch them. She clearly recognized them immediately, and the look in her eyes instantly grew wistful. Her smile of delight at seeing him so unexpectedly became one that was more memory laden, heavy with sorrow, and with history. Yet the half smile that had now settled on her features didn't disappear altogether. I wondered if you would ever find that, she softly, but bluntly, stated.

Jack bravely squared his shoulders, as if preparing for his own execution, but all he said was, You left it there on purpose, hoping that I would find it one day, didn't you? His question was slightly accusatory, and the tone remained as he inquired, Why didn't you just tell me?

But Carter was giving her head a minute shake, making her blonde hair dance. No, I didn't leave it up there on purpose. At first, I thought I had taken it down right after... But she stopped her commentary in mid sentence. Her regretful sigh split through the quiet lab, soaking the atmosphere in a sorrow that reeked of missed opportunities. That mood remained until she tried to speak again, When I found it, years later, and it was still up and running... I just couldn't..... She sighed her sorrow throughout the room. Actually, she said, going on in a stronger voice, I thought a whole slew of things at the time of the accident, most of them with the word 'murder' attached, as in 'I am going to murder the jerks who I was avoiding in my car when I ran into that tree.'

Jack's forehead wrinkled as he gently asked, Is that what happened to her? Your car ran into a tree, and that's why she died? When Carter didn't say anything more, he further prompted, You only said 'accidental death' on the website. Carter flinched when he said the word 'death,' but the tears that suddenly shimmered in the corners of her eyes didn't fall.

In fact, Carter now laughed, a sound that Jack hadn't expected to hear. Her bark of humor shot out in a loud crack that engulfed the room. 'Accidental'... Yeah, it was real accidental.

Jack looked at her, aghast. You mean..? But he couldn't finish his question. The look of horror in his eyes grew even larger. It wasn't an accident? he ascertained. Is that what you're saying? That someone did this on purpose?

Carter's hand rose wearily to her forehead, where she rubbed it in a halfhazard, grudging way. No... Sir, she added, as an after thought.

Jack sighed, his patience level severely shortened by his tumultuous emotions. Carter, given the circumstances, you can call me 'Jack.'

But again came Carter's head shake, a much more adamant shake this time. No Sir, she firmly stated. I can't do that.

Sure you can, Jack said, trying to add some levity to a situation that was quickly growing more and more maudlin - levity was always conducive to admissions, he'd found. You just open your mouth and...

Carter smiled, and, as always, Jack figured that he'd at least made her grin. No, that's not what I mean, she said, amusement in her voice.

Then what do you mean? Jack asked with a wrinkled brow.

Carter propped her hands on her hips and looked at the ceiling, blinking heavily against her tears. It was a moment more before she was able to talk. I mean that I need the distance... between us... now, more than I normally do, Sir. Then she added, That is, if you want to hear the entire story.

Jack did want to hear it. I do - very much. This was going to prove to be a highly intriguing (and highly personal) story.

Carter was finally able to meet his eyes as she dropped her hands from her hips. He watched as the expression in her own eyes became suddenly much older, more knowing, and knowing more ugly things, than he had ever seen in them before. I promise to tell you everything, she quietly conceded. But not here. Anywhere but here, with my face plastered on every security screen just as I break down in tears. That would be awful, she said as her whispered addition.

Ok, Jack said, ready to agree to anything as long as he heard this part about Carter's past that he hadn't even known about until nine hours ago. Where do you want to go?

Carter's grin was brief, but it was there. That's a loaded question coming from you, Sir, she teased.

Jack merely gave her a look that said 'Talk, or you're dead meat.' But he didn't say anything to her except to suggest, Home?

Carter gave a halfhearted shrug. That's as good a place as any, she said with an accompanying sigh. My scrapbook is there, at least.

Jack's brow furrowed again. Your scrapbook? he asked. I didn't know you were into...

Carter grinned again, a fleeting gesture that was there one moment, then gone the next. I was the scrapbook queen in my younger days, she flatly announced. Especially for... She swallowed, then forced herself to say, For Cloe.

Okay, home it is, Jack said in an slightly jovial tone, trying to lighten her mood again. The task was an impossible one, as Carter ignored him to go about the more mundane jobs of shutting down her lab for the night.

Maybe we can order a pizza, Jack next suggested. I didn't get to eat the one that I ordered this afternoon in DC. He stared at her in guarded assessment. Besides, when was the last time you ate?

Carter's listless shrug told him much more about how affected she was by the reason for him even being at the SGC than she had indicated so far. I don't remember, she said, pausing to think.

Jack hummed. No one should have to think this hard about when they last ate. Come on, he next suggested as he first replaced the printed pages in his pocket, then took hold of her arm with an artless gesture that he didn't even think about before he made it. The 'consequences' of a touch to her arm seemed suddenly unimportant compared to what she was about to tell him. You have some explaining to do, and a pizza to eat. With that, he led her out of her lab.

The fact that Carter followed him without asking any questions, or making a protest, worried him more than he let on. Carter was known to be anything but subservient. Except that now she was content to meekly follow wherever he led. Fortunately, he had no intention of leading her into a street to stand in front of a rushing car. He didn't want both Cloe and her mother to be victims of 'accidental deaths' - Carter had far too much explaining to do.

Part VII

His hand still uncharacteristically wrapped around her arm, Jack led her through the checkpoints and out of the mountain. This clandestine departure of theirs, an exit from the SGC that was made without speaking to either Daniel or Teal'c first, reminded him of how he, Carter, and Daniel had snuck out of their 'confinement due to Tok'ra armband torture' years before. Except that this particular exit had nothing to do with strength akin to that of Superman.

Huh, Jack idly thought as they walked through the half empty corridors. Superman was just as alien as the Goa'uld, and he never strove for galactic domination. Of course, Superman was a mythical creation that had come from the minds of very creative humans, but humans nonetheless. Jack briefly wondered what would have happened of Superman and Lois Lane had ever had a child the way that he and Carter...

Carter interrupted Jack's strange train of thought. I rode my bike to work this morning since the weather was so nice after so many rotten days of snow and ice, she was saying as she followed him out of the base.

Meaning? Jack inquired.

Carter sighed. It still worried Jack that she seemed content to allow him to lead her everywhere, as if she had been waiting her entire life for this very moment to happen, and now that it was here, was letting a long buried dream run its course. This 'I will follow him' act was sooooo not Carter.

Stop letting me make all the decisions, Carter - you're beginning to freak me out, Jack darkly muttered as they stood at the entrance to the SGC, watching the pounding rain that had developed on that 'nice day' that Carter had decided to ride her bike in to work. He most definitely didn't want to ride a bike through weather like this only to end up getting soaked. At least it wasn't snowing.

Just answer my question, he said, feeling guilty for his earlier observation. What does you riding your bike in to work mean, other than that we'll get soaked and frozen if we ride home together in this storm?

Carter gave another shrug. I guess that's what I meant. She turned to stare at him. Can we take your..? She was going to say 'truck,' but then she cut herself off. Oh, your truck is in DC... unless you sold it by now?

Jack placed a hand over his heart in mock irritation. Sell my truck? Surely you jest.

Then Carter said something that surprise him. Sometimes I used to swear that Cloe did that exact same thing that you just did, even if she was far too young to have developed such a warped sense of humor yet, let alone known what to do with it. For a second, that wistful grin came back on her face once again. I figured that she inherited her smarmy sense of humor from you, Sir, since everyone knows that Carters don't have a sense of humor.

Jack gave her a confused glare. Where did you get that idea? he asked. I suppose that I always imagined the way that you laughed at all my dumb jokes over the years? When she didn't answer, he offhandedly commented, I sometimes told those jokes just to see you smile at them.

Carter smiled even now. I know, she simply said. Then without warning, she changed the subject and suggested, Since you don't have your truck conveniently sitting in your old parking space, do you want me to call the Motor Pool and ask them for a ride?

Jack snorted. Ever ridden with a General before, Carter? he asked in lieu of answering her question.

She shot him a puzzled glance, and said, No, Sir, not lately.

Another snort exploded out of Jack. And you don't want to, he told her with an air of finality. His tone indicated that a ride with a General was not something she wanted to experience.

Come on, Sir, she lightly admonished. It can't be that bad.

Jack snorted a third time. All the fealty, the kowtowing... He paused to wrinkle his nose in distaste. You'll laugh yourself sick in seconds, he predicted. It certainly can be that bad... and you're stalling, he accused.

Carter heaved a sigh. Yeah, she slowly admitted. Is it working?

Jack grinned without snorting this time. Yeah, it would work, if only I didn't have my own car parked just over there, in a place of honor for the visiting Major General. He gave a grimace this time. Wow - who'd have thought that I would ever make it to the rank of Major General? He turned to regard Carter as the sheets of rain continued to stream down just on the far side of the SGC tunnel where they were standing. If Cloe were alive today, she'd be laughing her ass off right now.

But the comment didn't have the desired effect of improving Carter's mood. Instead of being soothed, or amused, she was wistful again, and sad. In a low voice, she said, If Cloe were alive today... She paused, then stared at him in an assessment of her own. Jack wondered what she was thinking, but couldn't read the odd expression on her face. She looked to be caught between utter sorrow and the thrill of finally being able to talk about this situation. Finally she said, So much would be different if she'd lived. Then she turned back to placidly regard the rain.

In the following silence, Jack tried to predict what would be different if Cloe had lived through that accident over twenty years before, but he came up empty. I don't know - what would have changed, Carter? he eventually asked.

Carter stared, lost in the sight of the sheets of rain. I never would have found you, she simply stated after another silence. With one more look thrown his way, she abruptly darted into the rain, heading for the black SUV that Jack had borrowed for this trip to The Springs.

She wouldn't have found me? Jack thought to himself in befuddlement. Huh? Why would she have not found me? We're both in the Air Force, we were both assigned to the SGC, were both on the same team... what am I missing here?

With a start, Jack realized that Carter was getting soaked as she patiently waited for him to use his keyring to unlock the car door. A patient Carter? Since when was Carter content to wait in the rain like a pet dog? Jack hurriedly pushed the appropriate button on the black key doohickey that he kept in his uniform pocket, unlocking the doors. Both he and Carter slid into the vehicle before slamming the doors on the rain.

Jack pushed the key into the ignition, but his mind was still on what she'd said. The SUV grumbled to life as he asked, What did you mean when you said that you would never have found me? He stared at her - water dripped off her hair and onto the shoulder of the coat covering her BDUs. Like a single-minded Felger, he hadn't allowed her the opportunity to change clothes in the locker room. He tried to make himself feel better for his callous behavior by telling himself that at least her feet had stayed relatively dry in her thick soled boots.

Carter was speaking, and Jack returned his attention to her. If Cloe hadn't died... Carter paused for a moment, and in that quiet, a new insight struck Jack.

Have you ever talked about this to anyone before now? he gently inquired of her.

Carter regarded him like he was the oasis to her dessert. No, she reported in an almost nonchalant fashion. Who would I have told?

Geez - Hadn't she gone to grief counseling, or something? Spoken to her pastor? Isn't that what people did when someone close to them died? He didn't bother to think that he hadn't done those things, either, when Charlie had died. I don't know, he now expostulated as they drove out of the SGC parking lot. You could have talked to your shrink, your father, your current Daniel substitute.

That statement made her smile. But what she said next didn't make him smile. Dad didn't even know about Cloe. How could I talk to him about someone he didn't know about?

Jack gave an incredulous grimace. He didn't know about her?

Carter shot him another of her brief half smiles. Dad... She abruptly sighed. Can we save this until we get home, Sir? she requested. I need time to think.

What was there to think about? Jack snorted again. Forgive me, Carter, but I'm the one who just found out nine hours ago that he had a daughter, for cryin' out loud! Neither he nor she acknowledged their drive through the main gate and away from the mountain complex beyond showing their ID to the guards. They were on their way before either of them knew it. In the meantime, Jack was going on, What do you have to think about that I don't?

Her brow wrinkled as if she really were deep in thought. Finally she told him, I need to decide just how much I want to tell you, Sir.

That surprised Jack. I thought you were going to tell me everything, he retorted.

Carter heaved yet another sigh. Maybe, she conceded.

Maybe? He shot her a disbelieving look even as he kept one eye on the slippery road they were traveling on.

She explained, Knowing 'everything' might do you more harm than good. She turned to regard his tight profile in the dashboard lights. Is it better for me to tell you everything now, or should I just..?

Irritated, Jack said, Yes, you should tell me everything that you know, right now! He had not even known of Cloe's existence for twenty years - surely Carter wouldn't keep his own daughter from him now? Honestly, Carter, if you know what's good for you... and me...

You'll what? Her tone of voice said that she had clearly lost her patience with him. You can't demote me, not for a personal reason like this.

Jack didn't like the way she was suddenly disputing his military authority. Careful, Carter, you're not immune, he warned.

You're right, I'm not, she barked. And neither are you. She angrily stared at him once more. With all due respect, Sir, haven't you been through enough?

That's for me to decide, not you! he growled. This isn't a democracy!

Don't I know it! she grunted. Deciding things for me is exactly what you've been doing for years!

Jack suddenly pulled the truck over to the side of the road and shoved the vehicle into 'park.' He whirled so that he could face her, eye to eye. What did you expect - I was your Commanding Officer!

This isn't about the Air Force, Sir! I hadn't even joined the Air Force yet when Cloe was born!

That information stunned the anger out of Jack. What? He stared at her in incomprehension. But I thought you joined up right after high school! he protested. That's what your file says!

Carter looked down at her lap in a telling silence. Guilt practically oozed out of her every pore. Eventually she confessed, I lied on my entrance forms.

Lied? This was stunning! You lied? Could Carter lie? It troubled Jack not a little that he didn't already know this about her.

Carter went on, I figured at the time that it would cause less strife if I lied about my high school graduation date than if I told the entire truth right up front.

Jack still couldn't take this all in. You lied?

His repetition of this event made her grin in a tolerant fashion. It was oddly comforting that Jack couldn't fathom her lying. It was none of the US government's business what had happened to me the previous year, she argued. Only what happened to me from that point on.

Jack eyed her. What did happen that year, Carter?

She gusted yet another rush of air. I'll tell you when we get home, Sir, she stubbornly promised.

No, he surprisingly disagreed. I want to know now.

But...

As the father, I have a right to know what I missed, he pointed out, his tone acrimonious.

Carter gave a disgruntled rush of air through her clenched teeth. Sir... Jack... She shot him a look of partially controlled terror. Yes, as the father, you have the right to know everything, but I know you - all this time I've been worried that you'll end up using this as an excuse to... She abruptly halted speaking, biting her tongue on the words that she wanted to say.

But Jack read those words in her eyes, even if she didn't speak them. You think I'll become like I was back before the first trip to Abydos, don't you? he half accused, half asked. That I'll be depressed, and... He didn't finish what he had been about to say.

But then, he didn't have to - Carter only pursed her lips at her agreement with him. But she didn't contradict his assessment, either. And this time, there's no Daniel to yank you back out of any funk you decide to fall into. She glared at him, not pretending that his possible relapse into a suicidal depression didn't scare the crap out of her. I don't know if I have the right to do that to you. She paused, then added, Even for Cloe.

Jack turned guiltily forward, choosing to stare out the front window at the driving rain rather than gaze at her. Softly, he said, That's not really something that you need to worry about, Carter. Then he gave another grimace. Besides, I wouldn't say that it was only Daniel who brought me out of my funk all those years ago.

Carter sighed. I guess that the SGC was awfully important to you, after...

Jack did stare straight at her this time. I'm not talking about the SGC, and you know it.

Carter turned to regard him as if she did know what he was referring to. Before his eyes, a ghostly smile of pleasure curved her lips for just a second. She tried to quell the rush of satisfaction that shot through her at hearing his words, but wasn't quite able to fully carry it off. Finally, amidst the warring state of her emotions, she commanded, Just drive, Sir. The smile of pleasure was winning her internal struggle, and creeping across her face even as her stubborn streak kept attempting to strangle it. Besides, I thought you were hungry? she said, trying to distract herself.

Jack decided to play along with her for now, but refused to let her distraction take hold for too long. You were the hungry one, he reminded. I'm just along for the ride.

Carter tried to stare at him in disapproval at the way he was deferring to her, but she couldn't quite manage the appropriate expression. In the end, she just looked as if she had bitten into a particularly sour lemon.

Give it up, Carter, Jack playfully suggested as he resumed the drive to her home. You love me, and you know it. He quirked his eyebrow, determined not to think too hard about what he'd just said.

But Carter was just as determined to think as hard as possible. I guess that's most of the problem, she stated in a casual tone that belied her serious mood behind her words.

Her statement stunned Jack again. Was she agreeing with his casually meant words? Was she, in essence, admitting..? And what is that supposed to mean? was the question that shot out of his mouth before he was able to stop himself - one thing that he and Carter had always tacitly agreed on was to not discuss their feelings for each other - ever - with anyone - and here he had asked her to do just that at the first available opportunity.

Carter's sigh held infinite sadness in it. She paused in replying, as if she was carefully considering her answer, but then gusted another sigh. Finally she said, This should come as no surprise to you, Sir, not even now.

She was speaking of how they had systematically gone about either denying that their emotional attachment to each other existed at all, or unwittingly hurting each other because of that attachment, totally by accident, but hurting each other nonetheless, all for years. Now Jack carefully didn't meet her gaze even as she spoke about this (sort of), as if by not staring at her would keep this scene from happening between them.

Which was dumb on his part, he silently reflected as he drove. They had shared a child at one time, whether both parties knew it or not, and they had known about the way they were 'linked' since only a few years after the inception of the SGC, thanks to Tok'ra devices and forced confessions. Pretending now that nothing was between them but military camaraderie was... silly.

Besides, he was the one who had initiated this scene to begin with, Jack reminded himself. He must have wanted to say something about his feelings for her for a long time to have mentioned it so thoughtlessly like he had. Given that, he might as well now continue his original course, he decided.

In a cautious but hopeful tone of voice, Jack responded, No, I can't say that it is a surprise. But what's surprising is not only the way I just brought it up like that, like it isn't an important thing between us, which it definitely is important, but the way that you were okay with me bringing it up at all. Jack turned to pensively regard her as she sat, unmoving, looking down at her lap again. I expected you to say something more along the lines of, 'Let's not talk about this right now, Sir,' and shoving it firmly into that 'room' on base.

Carter smiled, but the gesture came off as more like a wince. That is like me, she balefully noted. But it just seems so... I don't know. Carter gave another defeated sigh. The sound slapped through the quiet cab of the vehicle as she turned to meet his gaze. Doesn't it all seem so pointless to you now?

Jack's brow furrowed. Pointless?

Yeah. Carter turned away again to look at where they were going, but she continued on without a break. All the hiding, and denying, and avoiding, and pretending... All this was accompanied by one of her half smiles. Considering what we're planning to talk about, it all just seems so...

Silly? Jack cut in to say. Dumb? Worthless?

Carter did smile at his jibing. See? she reiterated. Pointless.

Jack looked forward again. But he agreed with her. Yeah, he admitted as he drove.

Carter's smile slowly faded until she at last shyly admitted, It's not like we don't both know that the other exists, and that we both have feelings about caring that the other keeps existing - caring strongly, she corrected. And I know that's not what any of our superiors want to hear...

Carter, I don't really have a superior, Jack pointed out.

Yes you do, she contradicted. You have the President.

We all have the President, Jack argued in a friendly tone of aggravation.

My point, Carter said when he didn't go on, is that though we've always known that this 'thing' we have for each other goes against what's convenient to deal with for our superiors... whether we have superiors or not, she added, a look thrown Jack's way. It has never made our feelings go away, or changed them, or killed them...

What are you saying, Carter? Jack was nervous enough about this topic of conversation that he was unable to vocalize what he was thinking.

One of Carter's many sighs again filled the SUV. What I'm saying is we shared a kid before the Air Force even became an issue. And we both know about this situation. She regarded him again. Pretending that we don't feel anything for each other right now sort of cheapens Cloe's existence, don't you think?

Well... Jack was stalling again when he asked her, Cheapens it how?

Carter's true smile showered on him now. Boy, you're being really stubborn about this, aren't you? Her grin remained as she looked at him. She hadn't really expected him to be anything but stubborn - as stubborn as she usually was. But she found that she just could no longer be stupidly stubborn where Cloe was concerned. And she couldn't argue with the fact that her and Cloe were definitively linked with Jack O'Neill in a way that somehow transcended the Air Force and its regulations.

And suddenly, Jack didn't feel as bad about his own feelings for a person who had been under his command, either, as he always had when considering the illicit feelings that he'd had for Carter for the past decade... well, longer, given the birth of Cloe. Sorry - stubbornness has become quite a habit with me, Jack said in a light, teasing voice. I forgot to warn you about that.

With all due respect, she said now, her smile still in place. Knock it off, Sir.

Jack's sigh of irritation was out of place among all that teasing. Sam, how many times do I have to tell you to call me 'Jack?'

Jack, we're here - my house, was 'Sam's' enigmatic reply. She gestured out the front windshield at the house they had pulled up beside.

Oh, so we are. Jack brought the SUV to a quick halt, then shut off its engine.

Part VIII

The rain had slowed to a sprinkle as they talked, and now together they darted to the front door of Carter's new house, a modest bungalow-type structure that, among other amenities, had a wall safe hidden behind the picture hanging beside one of her bookcases.

A wall safe? Jack asked in amazement as they both entered the house, and Sam made a beeline for the safe. Don't you think that's a bit of overkill, Carter?

Concentrating on the combination to the lock, Sam answered in a vague voice. I didn't ever want anyone to find proof of any of this, so I hid it in a safe deposit box at my bank when I lived at my last house. Still concentrating, she added, But now that I have this safe here at home... Her comment was followed by the safe's tumblers falling into place, and the safe clicked open. Sam reached in to retrieve a photo album from the rear of the surprisingly deep safe. Here it is, she languidly commented, her tone at odds to the importance of the subject that the book was referring to. I'll let you look through it while I change my clothes in my bedroom. She turned away after handing the album to him, but then turned back as if she'd just remembered something. Oh, I still have the clothes that you brought here in my closet just over there if you want to change out of your wet things, too.

Suddenly Jack grinned at her words. Carter, are you inviting me to take my clothes off?

Carter's own answering grin completely disarmed him in seconds. Absolutely, Sir, she cheekily replied before disappearing into her own bedroom and closing the door on him as she went about changing out of her wet clothes.

Jack continued to grin as he first carefully set down the album of yellowing pages, then walked to her linen closet near her one bathroom in the house and pulled out a paper bag that he carefully opened. Over the years, he had carried different articles of clothing over to Carter's house in case of an emergency just like this one, where all his clothes were wet. Daniel had done the same, and even Teal'c had a neat pile of clothes. Jack was strangely gratified to see that Carter had kept everything, and that the new members of SG-1 didn't have clothes added beside the bags of clothing belonging to the old members of SG-1.

Jack now dragged out the bag marked 'O'Neill' and proceeded to change into the sweats, t-shirt, sweatshirt, and socks that he had included. With a grimace aimed at himself, he noted that not once in all the years that he had known Carter had he bothered to ever remember to bring underwear to her house.

Going 'commando' now, he finished placing the socks on his cold feet. The shoes that he found at the bottom of the bag he set aside in case he needed them later. Finally feeling warm, and cozy, and even a little sleepy, at last he reached for the album he had earlier set aside. Carter hadn't returned to the living room yet, so he sat on her couch and thumbed through the pages by himself for now.

She had covered what he suspected to be a plain photo album that she had bought at Wal Mart with colorful material, some kind of bordering stuff, and a cutout of the word 'Cloe' glued to the front. Jack opened it to find squiggle lines and designs drawn in marker surrounding pictures of a pregnant Carter, and Carter with a baby who he assumed was Cloe.

Once he was through glancing at every photo in the album, Jack flipped back to the first page, then began scrutinizing every picture that had been included. These first few pages were just of Carter, taken, he assumed, directly after his bar encounter with 'the blonde girl.'

Now he did a double take as he looked at the girl in the pictures. Ah, this was the 'blonde girl' that he remembered from back then. Jack squinted at the pictures of the blonde girl who he remembered so well showing a bigger and bigger belly in each successive picture.

But like on her 'Cloe' webpage, this girl didn't look quite like the Carter whom he knew from his SGC days. What had happened to make this girl turn into the woman he knew? No matter how he looked at it, puzzled through this conundrum, it still didn't make any sense.

Jack was studying what looked like a photo of Carter goofing around with other people at a party in what looked like a college dorm room when the Carter that he knew emerged from her room in what was an almost matching outfit to Jack's. She sat on the couch next to him, not touching, but nearer than she had ever sat to him before. She glanced at the album to see what had so fixed his attention, then grinned. Her voice, when she spoke, was quiet and sonorous. That was 'Christmas Shindig 1986,' or 'major study break,' whichever you'd like to call it. She pointed to a girl standing beside Carter in the picture, both with big smiles on their faces, though Carter's smile didn't really reach her weary eyes. That was Nancy, Carter explained. She was my roommate my freshman year at George Washington University.

Wait - George Washington? But that was in... George Washington University's in DC! Jack exclaimed. Had Carter been in DC at that time when she was pregnant?

Sam nodded. Yeah, Dad had been stationed at Andrews before he went to the Middle East. Since I was already in DC, and I got a scholarship to go GW, I decided to just attend that next year.

Wait - Jack hadn't heard anything about Jacob being stationed in the Middle East. Jacob went to the Middle East? Again she nodded. To do what?

Carter shrugged. I don't know exactly. Then she rolled her eyes and sighed. You know the Air Force - about as up-front as a muddy river in Spring.

Jack did know about the sometimes secretive ways of the Air Force. You got that right! he remarked back to her. Anyway, you were telling me about your roommate? At GW?

Carter gave a start, then nodded her head. Yeah, Nancy Stiller was her name. I think it's Bean, now that she got married. But I'm getting ahead of myself - I met Nancy the day I moved into the dorms. She smiled again, quietly remembering. Her parents - her whole family - were great that whole first year we were at GW. Her family lived in DC, and they let me stay with them on breaks from school, since they lived so close to the university. I stayed with them even after Cloe was born, and they never asked any questions about her father, and even went along with me in not telling my own Dad about Cloe.

Jack heaved a sad sigh. Sam - why didn't you want to tell Jacob about Cloe? he asked. Shouldn't a grandfather know about his own..?

Carter grimaced, cutting him off with a curt gesture. You knew Dad after he merged with Selmak, she reminded him. At Jack's nod, she continued, Dad was a very different person before that. He was... not as tolerant of what he deemed was other people's mistakes, not as forgiving of... She was remembering again, and didn't finish her character commentary of Jacob. That was the reason that he and Mark fought so much before Mark left home, she divulged. She stared at Jack now with a diminished smile as she went on thinking about the way her dad had been pre-SGC. I don't even know for sure which Air Force base he moved to in the Middle East during my Senior year of high school. Since the mission that he was on was so secret, he always called me instead of me calling him so that I couldn't identify his location through the phone number. Her head drooped to study a tassel dangling from the edge of one of her throw pillows, letting Jack know without saying anything that not knowing where her Dad had been stationed during this time had bothered her more than she admitted.

When she spoke again, it was to her lap. I decided that I didn't want to go with him - not that I could - so I stayed in the area to finish school rather than uproot myself to finish school in some country that didn't speak English as the native language. Jack gave a subdued laugh at this comment, but didn't interrupt her narrative. I was really surprised when Dad agreed - I didn't know at the time that he was going someplace other than where I thought he was going. But he couldn't tell me about where he was really going. Carter gave Jack a pseudo empty grin before she continued. So I stayed with my friend Shawna and her family for my last year of high school. Carter paused for a moment, caught up in her memories. Then she gave her head a quick shake, and continued. While I was pregnant the year that I went to GW, Shawna went to some university up North, and I had to move out of her parents' house. Since I had no home to go to after that, I went with Nancy to her home. Sam again gave her wistful smile. I spent Thanksgiving with them, Christmas with them, Easter with them and the baby, and the beginning of summer vacation with them.

When Carter trailed off into the quiet of the house, Jack gently prompted, What happened then? When she still didn't reply, Jack sat up a little straighter so that he could look at her expression, which was a mass of indecision. She's trying to decide what to tell me again, rather than just telling me all of it, Jack realized. Before she could come to a decision on her own to keep things from him 'for his own good,' he hurried to again prompt, Carter?

She balefully regarded him, as if she understood that he instinctively knew what she was contemplating. The expression that was now on her face was much more inscrutable to him. And so was what she next said. What happened to calling me 'Sam?' Carter inanely asked.

Jack's eyes narrowed in confusion. Why was she bringing up such unimportant subjects now? His eyes narrowed even further to tell her what he really thought about her stall tactic. Sam Carter! he softly admonished.

Sam gave a smile at his words. Both names - good. Then she explained, I bet Daniel an extra coffee break that the next time I saw you, I wouldn't be able to get you to call me anything but 'Carter.' But he said that if I did things right, I should have no problem with it. Now she blushed. I guess he won.

Abashed, Jack grinned at the idea of Sam betting with Daniel over what he might call her. As long as using both names count, he did win.

Sam still hadn't lost her grin, but she spoke hesitantly now. It... the bet... was... that you had to call me... anything but 'Carter,' she shyly reminded.

Jack's grin matched hers. He didn't even know why he was grinning, which was ridiculous - the subject of Cloe that they were discussing was very serious. Yet still he grinned. But this isn't the first time that I've called you 'Sam' tonight, he mildly protested.

Carter's blush deepened. I know, she admitted at last.

She had noticed? Jack had thought she was so wrapped up in remembering Cloe that she was only aware of half of what he said. That clearly wasn't the case.

Sweet!

Part IX

But Jack had been reminded of Cloe again, and why he and Sam were looking through a photo album dedicated to his daughter. Carter... He gently corrected himself. Sam - what happened? He blinked, and had to correct himself again. I mean, in these pictures, why do you look so..?

Different? Sam nonchalantly inquired. Again her tone and expression were attempting to downplay the seriousness of this issue.

She must really be upset to behave so... purposefully casual, Jack admitted to himself. So, are you gonna tell me? he prodded aloud. Or are we gonna sit here and just stare at each other forever?

Strangely enough, Sam grinned at his question. I wouldn't mind the 'staring forever' scenario, she surprisingly confessed. Then, embarrassed, she blushed a fiery red. But still that tint of color showing on her face didn't stop her from quietly telling him, I've missed you this past year with you in DC.

That admission stunned Jack anew. She had missed him? For some reason, he had convinced himself that she didn't care for him anymore, not in 'that way,' and the fashion she had directed her life these last two years had given him any extra convincing that he'd needed. But I thought that you...

Sam cut him off. That's what I wanted you to think, she told him without letting him finish his comment. When he didn't voice a following statement about what she'd said, went on as if he had said something anyway. She blushed again as she began to explain, I figured that... She cleared her throat. That... She cleared it again. It was obvious that she was having more trouble talking about her recent behavior than she had about discussing Cloe.

Jack didn't understand why this was so difficult for her. A secret baby seemed so much important than anything either of them had done in the last few years.

Then again, he amended his thoughts: Carter'd had twenty years to get accustomed to talking to him about Cloe. They had only had a few years to get used to (Jack winced, but forced himself to finish the thought) to all that had happened to them, that they had done to the other. Be honest, Jack now admonished himself. She hurt your feelings, you hurt hers, we never talked about how we felt about any of it, or why we felt that way, you then disappeared because leaving was easier than talking to her about what we had done (and 'easier' translates to 'less scary' in this scenario). Face it, O'Neill, you royally screwed up, and you're gonna screw up again if you don't stop hiding from her all the time.

Jack heaved a sigh that dripped of the supreme irritation he felt for himself just then. Carter...

The ringing of a cell phone interrupted him.

Part X

Both were galvanized into action by long years worth of habits concerning ringing cell phones. That particular sound usually meant that the SGC was calling about some crisis that had just arisen that needed SG-1's particular brand of expertise. More recently, Jack had fallen into the behavior pattern that a ringing phone... any ringing phone... typically heralded trouble that only General O'Neill could handle.

Jack found his cell phone in the pocket of the pants of his dress uniform that he had hung on the back of one of Carter's kitchen chairs to dry. He pulled it out, half expecting to see that he was immediately needed at his office, only to realize that it wasn't his cell phone that was ringing, as he had turned it off while preparing to board the plane in DC, and then forgotten to turn it back on again. Not mine, he sang out as he noticed that he had several messages that he had missed in the past few hours.

Carter had run for her bedroom, and the cell phone that she had tucked into her wet coat pocket. She retrieved it now, seeing that her call was from Daniel, and flipped the phone open. Carter, she briskly answered, trying to cover the fact that she had been speaking about a very emotional topic by using an efficient tone.

Sam! Daniel immediately exclaimed. I saw where you had gone home quite awhile ago when I checked out of the mountain, and I know that leaving early... earlier than usual... that's not... usual... for you. I'm just calling to make sure you're alright - no sudden kidnappings or anything?

Sam grinned. Daniel, that's so sweet of you to call me just to make sure I'm okay! Then she got more down to business. But there's no need to worry - I'm fine.

Daniel's voice was tentative. You're sure? he question again. You're not just saying that?

Sam snorted a laugh. You know me pretty well to think that I would just say that, she remarked. But I'm fine, really. Trust me Daniel, nothing's going on.

Daniel's confusion came over the line. Then why did you leave so early? he inquired. I asked the guard at the gate if you'd left in a hurry, or looked worried, and he told me that you had left with General O'Neill. His voice grew more accusatory now as he noted, But I thought 'that's impossible,' as I never heard about Jack coming to visit, or saw him if he is unexpectedly visiting, or...

Sam cut him off. Daniel, stop. The guard was right - I left with Jack. We're talking right now, and you're interrupting, she said, letting her own slightly accusatory remark slide into the conversation.

But Daniel didn't even pause at Sam's accusation. Jack's here? he incredulously echoed.

Sam sighed. Daniel, this is going to sound highly suspicious, and weird, and... Sam reflected at the oddity of saying 'I had Jack's baby twenty years ago, she died, and we're talking about her now.' Such a comment was sure to send Daniel reeling! Instead, she took pity on him and said, I'll tell you what's going on, I promise, just not over the phone. This is important enough to tell you and Teal'c together, in person, but I still need to talk to Jack some more before I tell you anything. She continued just as she heard a sound from Daniel that meant he wanted to question her further in spite of what she had promised. She knew that a curious Daniel had as much energy as a naquedah bomb set to explode. For right now, I'll send you an email link to one of my webpages that you can look at. Now I really need to go, Daniel. Bye. And she hung up on her friend without another word.

Sam returned to the living room to retrieve her computer and to email the promised webpage link to Daniel, just as she'd said that she would. As she closed her email program and returned her laptop to her work bag, it was to hear Jack talking into his own cell phone, trying to order the pizza he had mentioned. Good, you're still open this late, he said into his cell phone. The other person on the line responded to his comment, and Jack's brows rose. You're open until 1:00? I thought you closed at midnight. More words. Great, he enthusiastically replied. Thank the next college student you see for asking that you be open an hour later. And because you're still open - can I get a large pizza, half ham, half - He lowered the phone to speak to Sam. Hey Sam, do you still eat that stuff you like?

Sam cocked her head. I haven't changed that much, she quipped.

Jack replaced the phone to his ear. Large pizza, half ham, half ham and pineapple. Then he wildly looked around, as if he was partially searching the surrounding area, and partially thinking at a furious pace. Uh... Sam, what's your address here?

Sam's forehead wrinkled. Don't you already have it?

Jack rolled his eyes. Yeah, but I don't have it memorized yet.

Not memorizing her new information was something that she could understand. She hadn't memorized his address in DC yet, either, even though she had it. 1265 North Madison Ave, she told him.

Jack repeated the information, then after giving Sam's new phone number to the pizza delivery service, said another word or two, and hung up. He turned his phone off as he walked back to join her at the sofa. I had a few messages to send return texts on. He sheepishly told her, I found your 'Cloe' site because General Masters at Area 51 had got me onto checking out the concept of the word 'classified' on the webpages of those people assigned to my commands. I had asked him to come out to DC to see me about his own searches for classified things. But then I forgot all about him coming, and flew here instead. Poor Brian - slogging through the snow for a meeting with me, and me here instead.

What did you tell him? Sam asked as she slipped into the far corner of the sofa, turning towards him so that she could see him better.

Jack winced a bit, but gamely told her, I apologized, said something about buying him a dozen beers for making him wait, then said that he should do his waiting at my house if he wants to. I really should be getting back to DC tomorrow, you know.

Sam looked just slightly disappointed, but immediately schooled her features to a neutral expression. I see. If you think that...

Sam, stop, Jack interrupted her in a suddenly weary voice. He sat onto the sofa cushions, not right next to her, but not very far away, either. He plopped his phone down on the coffee table before them.

Sam gave him her best, most practiced 'confused' expression. Sir?

There ya go again, Jack once more told her. He indicated her puzzlement. Carter, I just found out that I had and lost a daughter twenty years ago. Given the enormity of that news, things like... His tone grew to one of discomfort, but he forged on. Doing what we're doing... pretending that none of our feelings matter... or even exist... either for each other, or for Cloe... He sighed once more, sounding like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, and he wanted it off. I don't have the energy for it anymore.

Sam sent him a look that was part grin and part grimace. Well, that was blunt, at any rate.

Jack was not amused by her statement. Sam! There was enough exhaustion in his voice to stop further comments from her with only that one word. He went on when she had visibly swallowed her commentary. Forget about this little interruption. You were going to tell me about why you look just enough different that I never realized that it was you all those years ago , even though we've been on the same team for ages. He pulled at a string fraying on the knee of his sweats, showing that this issue made him nervous, but not so nervous that he would shut up. Plus, he more quietly said as he continued to stare at the string he was fiddling with. I want to talk about... He stopped himself, but not because she had cut him off. He had to gather himself together as she watched, fascinated, and finally blurted, I missed you too. There. He had said it, and he hadn't spontaneously combusted.

In reply, Sam slowly hissed a relieved sigh that bled out into the room, as if she were glad that he had finally said something about this issue. That didn't mean that she knew what to say to him...

But she did know what to say about half of his last question, though instead of saying anything of an explanatory nature to him, she leaned forward to take the Cloe album reverently into her lap. She flipped a few pages, seemingly in slow motion, then stopped when she had found the picture she was looking for. Here, she gently said. This is a picture of me when I was in the hospital after the accident. And here. She pulled a yellowed, ragged newspaper clipping from a pocket at the end of the book. Here's Cloe's... She cleared her throat. The obituary.

She handed both to Jack, and he took them from her with a look that indicated that she might bite him if he didn't watch her closely. He opened and read the newspaper clipping first. Sam could tell by the look in his eyes that the terse words of the report affected him more than he let on. His actual expression remained his typical military mask of nonchalance, but his eyes gave away the myriad of emotions he was experiencing from just reading about the accident that had killed his daughter.

Jack blinked his eyes closed, then sighed such a sad sound that it ripped right through her. A moment later, he opened his eyes to glance at the picture that he had somehow glossed over on his previous perusal of the album. The minute he saw it, and took in what he was seeing, he reared back as if she'd slapped him. Carter! Jack exclaimed, not caring how surprised his voice sounded. This picture... you're a mess!

Sam gave a tiny, haunted smile. Yeah, she agreed, sadness in her voice, clearly remembering. It had been raining that day just like it was tonight, she told him. I had taken Cloe out to get groceries, even though it was raining. She did give a self-teasing grin now. You know - I was all into the idea of 'never let having a baby stop you from doing anything,' she quoted.

Jack gave her a puzzled look. Did you read that in some baby book? he asked.

Sam nodded, but didn't elaborate. Instead, she simply continued, Oh the way home, some drunk... kids or something... they were driving on my side of the road. I tried to avoid them... Sam shuddered, living through memories that she had thought were long buried. Jack's warm hand on her arm gave her a start, and she glanced at him.

There wasn't pity in his eyes, not exactly. His eyes said that he simply knew what she had to tell him, and his knowledge was enough for him. There was an accident, he noted. That's all I need to know. He drew in a deep breath, and went on, Cloe died... and you?

Carter tried to lighten her mood with a tiny smile for his sake. Like you said, I was a mess. She fingered the picture of a half awake and bleary-eyed Sam Carter lying on a hospital bed. This picture was taken two weeks after the accident, she informed him in a monotone, as if she were simply reporting on what had happened for a mission briefing with her CO. I was asleep till then - some doctors called what I was in a coma, some said that I was just unconscious... though they seem to be the same to me...

And Jacob didn't know any of this? Jack disbelievingly asked for more clarification when her voice trailed away into silence.

Sam could tell by his tone that he was anxious for her, even though this had all happened many years before, and the fact that she was sitting on the sofa, telling this story, ended any doubt that she had lived through the accident and subsequent hospitalization.

She went on, Dad... was there at this point. But since he didn't know about Cloe, he didn't ask about her, and Nancy was the one who filled him in on the accident. Plus, by the time Dad got there, weeks had gone by - the hospital staff had changed, or had forgotten about Cloe by that point. Carter took a deep breath and let it hiss out through her clenched teeth before she could go on. She had been cremated, and her ashes were just sitting in a little box in the hospital morgue...

Jack's facial expression now had a green cast to it as she talked about a person who had technically been his daughter, if in name only at this time in history. And you? he asked, purposely taking the focus off Cloe and putting it onto her because he, at least, could handle that focus better. What happened to you?

Sam gusted a breath of air, seemingly reluctant to talk about this next part of her story, but determined to go on. This is going to sound so cliché, and I know how you feel about clichés, she noted, a hitch in her voice. Then she said, In the accident, I had hit my head on the steering wheel, then on the passenger window. She looked as if she were steeling herself against something. There wasn't much damage to the rest of me, fortunately. What killed Cloe almost didn't reach me, except for my head. The car was a crumpled wreck... She cast her eyes into her lap again, clearly not liking to relive this, but went on when Jack simply reached over to pull her closer to his side on the sofa. Carter wouldn't let herself snuggle into his comforting side like she wanted to. She knew that if she did that, she would start to cry, and she didn't want to become a sobbing mess when she had a story to finish.

I'll just tell it fast, she at last conceded. It took two reconstructive surgeries until the doctors were satisfied that I wouldn't have a face covered in scars from the accident. A month went by, and Dad was recalled to wherever he was based, I was mostly better by then anyway, and he left. I stayed with Nancy and her family that next month, until school at GW was going to start again. She heaved a breath, a tear that she just couldn't hold back straying down her cheek. She brushed it away, as if angry that the evidence of her emotions was on display for him to see. I couldn't stand the idea of going back to school to be with friends without Cloe, and having to explain all that, so one day two weeks before school started, I just walked into an Air Force Recruitment Center, signed up, lied about what year I had graduated from high school, got an Academy degree in physics, got a PhD in... you know... and here I am. Sam grinned a sort of sick grin that was entirely forced. New face and all. The tassel was shredding off the pillow by now, but that didn't stop her from adding, There's scars all over my head, under my hair, to prove it. She looked back down, seeing the now completely shredded tassel and pillow in her lap, surprised that it had gotten that way, and she hadn't even noticed. I told you it was like a bad cliché, she said after some time had gone by, still using that same monotone that she had earlier adopted. I wanted to totally erase that year from my memory, and I did.

Jack was silent as she leaned back into the sofa cushions, unreasonably exhausted by her recitation. She looked drained, wiped out, vulnerable, and sad. Jack couldn't stand this any more than Carter had been able to stand the thought of going back to school.

School... she had been in... Jack blinked. He gave a start. Wait a minute, he pensively said. He thought for several more silent minutes. Sam didn't interject into his quiet contemplation, knowing what it was like to have hurried thinking interrupted. She was too tired to puzzle overly much about the reason for his own thinking spree, anyway. She would hear about it soon enough, she supposed.

Finally Jack quietly asked, That night that we met in the bar... You said on your website that you were celebrating graduating from high school... and then you told me that you were a freshman at George Washington University when you had Cloe. He turned to pierce her with a suddenly sharp gaze. How old were you when we met in that bar? he demanded.

Sam let her head continue to loll on the back of her sofa. But she was thinking, Uh-oh, here's the age thing. Does it matter how old I was? she asked him.

Jack looked at her, his expression steadfast, but not harsh. It matters to me, he at last told her, his voice growing hard. Tell me how old you were.

Sam groaned. It doesn't matter to me - never has...

Carter!

Sam groaned again, but gave in to his insistence. I skipped fourth grade, and graduated early. So... I was seventeen.

For a moment, Jack didn't say anything, but only stared at her in disbelief.

Carter stared back. Jack, say something, she at last suggested, unnerved by his ongoing speechlessness.

But Jack didn't say anything - because he was too busy laughing.

Jack's laughter continued.

Sam was beginning to get worried at the slight note of hysteria in his chuckles. Jack? she questioned, not quite able to keep her worry off her face. Why are you laughing?

His humorous fit continued. At last, his laughter slowed enough for him to choke out, You're joking, right?

Um... no, Carter said, as if she had to think this over, when actually, she didn't have to think anything through before her answer.

Clearly, Jack didn't believe her. No, he said amidst more laughter. All of this is a joke, isn't it? He didn't give her time to reply, but went on to tell her, You had me going there, until the seventeen thing.

Carter looked admirably confused. 'The seventeen thing?' she repeated, a wrinkle to her forehead.

Jack kept chuckling, though he was calmer now. Any minute, Daniel is going to jump out at me, and yell 'April Fool's' or something like that.

Carter continued to contemplate his apparent hilarity in silence. Finally, she noted, Jack, it's not April, it's early December. Then she added, Plus, I just spoke to Daniel on the phone - he was just leaving the SGC. He's not hidden somewhere in my house.

But Jack wasn't listening to her. Instead he was trying to glance into the kitchen from his place on the living room sofa. Daniel! he called in a singsong voice. Come on out! Game's up - show yourself!

Jack! Carter suddenly yelled right into his face. I'm not fooling, not kidding, and there's no Daniel hiding in the shadows! I was seventeen when we met, eighteen when I had Cloe! I remember every bottle she screamed for, every stinky diaper change, every time she got spit up in my hair..! Did you know that's why I cut my hair short? It was harder for her to throw up in it if it wasn't always hanging in her face!

Slowly, Jack's chuckles melted into a few giggles, then left altogether as he gazed at her earnest expression. You're not joking with me? he at last ascertained.

She heaved a sigh. I thought I might have trouble getting you to believe me about how old I was, she noted, then crossed to her wall safe once again, reached in to the cavity beside her bookcase, and pulled out The George Washington University Yearbook, 1986-87. She searched through a few pages near the center of the book, found what she was looking for, then handed it to him with a flourish. Here, look.

It was a picture, one of three, on page 272, a series entitled 'Student Housing Takes many Forms.' In the center picture was a short-haired Carter, holding a baby he immediately recognized as Cloe, standing in a front of a dorm labeled 'Wilson Hall - Family Student Housing.' The caption beneath the photo said 'Samantha Carter and daughter Cloe.'

Jack wasn't smiling now. Holy... Buckets, he whispered, slightly in awe of what the picture meant. He could only think one thing as he stared at that picture: She was only seventeen - she isn't kidding.

The truth hit him in one powerful moment. She'd only been seventeen! Ah crap! Jack sat back to lean into the sofa, and ran an agitated hand through his hair.

Carter caught her yearbook before it thudded to the floor, and returned it to the safe.

Jack was still riffling through his hair in agitation, but now he spoke as well. I thought you were some college kid when we met, just turned the legal age to drink, or something! he exclaimed. As in, you were 21! I had no idea you were so much younger than that! There was definite anxiety in his voice now. What we did... that night... that's... that's... statutory..! He didn't finish what he was saying, but groaned instead. Crap!

Jack! Carter yelled again in a warning tone that would hopefully cut through his anxiety. I never told anyone! And it happened over twenty years ago! And it's not like it wasn't a consensual thing!

But her protests, as loud as they were, didn't cut through his cloud of worry until several minutes later she hollered, Sir!

Snapping out of the fog of alarming thought he had fallen into, Jack glared at her. What?

Sam smiled now that she had his attention, irritated though it was, and lowered her voice to announce, The pizza's here. I'm hungry. Let's eat.

Sam set the pizza that she had accepted and paid for on the coffee table, then moved into the kitchen and collected plates that they wouldn't use, silverware that they also wouldn't use, and napkins and drinks. All the while, she was giving him time to regroup after what she had told him about her age. Not that he couldn't have figured this out on his own - he knew her birthday, had helped her celebrate it many times while at the SGC - and he could add and subtract just fine, in spite of the way he always played 'the dumb soldier.' She suspected that her age wouldn't have been a secret for long, anyway. In fact, she was glad to finally get it out in the open where they could talk about this rather than let it fester in more of their silences.

Finally Sam returned to his side. He was obviously bowled over by her news according to the look of shock still on his face. She set the cutlery and plates and drinks aside, then placed her hand on his arm. Jack, this isn't such a big deal.

Of course it's a big deal! he croaked. Nothing can happen to you, but to me, it's..!

Sam sat beside him on the sofa, forgetting about the food for a moment. Jack, she said in a soothing, calm voice. I have never said anything to anybody about the difference in ages when we met, and you know that I never will. I knew that you were older than I was at the time I met you, so I made sure not to say anything about my age until it didn't matter anymore to anyone, including me. I just wanted to find you, but I couldn't. She was obviously growing more and more upset as she spoke. I didn't even know who you were at the time! I had no idea how old you really were, other than that you were older than I was. I wasn't thinking how much trouble I could cause for you if it ever came out. I was only thinking about how much fun I was having, she quietly admitted. She went on when he still didn't say anything. And I was prepared to lie about my age if anybody ever found out about what happened to us when we met, and say something like I was nineteen at the time. It doesn't really matter how old I was, or how old you were. Or how old we are now. I still felt the same things for you then that I do now. She gave a wince at the melodramatic quality of what she had just said. But she forced herself to go on, Even though I was so young at the time - don't you see? It doesn't matter to me... it never has. And it shouldn't matter to you. I really hope that it doesn't.

Jack gazed at her, not quite believing what he was hearing her say, but glad beyond words that he was hearing her say it anyway. Jacob never said anything to me... he started to say in a quiet, halting voice.

Dad never knew, Sam reminded. I knew at the time how he would be. She hesitated, finally telling him, He would have been so intolerant of a guy... any guy... that his own daughter... loved. Her heart thumped at that admission, and she refused to look at him, afraid of what he might do with a confession like that.

But Jack simply gave a hollow sounding grunt at her confession. He seemed unable to fully internalize anything she was saying except how old she had been at the time he'd really met her. His hands were running through his hair again, his agitation growing. You say that now. Then... you were too young to know...

Sam's expression instantly grew hard. You're starting to sound like I always imagined that my father would have sounded if I had ever told him about all this - you're using the 'you were too young to know what you were doing at the time' defense instead of actually thinking that I had as good a brain on my shoulders then that I do now. She eyed him in silent speculation. Are you saying that the way I've felt for you these last years has been a product of my own warped imagination because I'm too young to know what I'm feeling?

The sense of challenge in her tone was unmistakable, especially as it was accompanied by an expression of deep irritation.

Jack wanted to protest instantly. He sounded faintly ill as he proclaimed, No! That's not what I'm saying! He turned on the sofa to more fully face her, the pizza that had just arrived forgotten once again. I'm saying... He paused for a moment of self-reflection. Actually, he slowly divulged. I don't know what I'm saying. He again ran his hands through his hair in anxiety. I guess that I'm worried that if someone ever finds out about this, it can do horrible things to you, to your career - and if saying that 'you were too young' at the time we met to know what you were doing... or feeling... then I guess that's something that I need to think about doing, even if I don't really think it's true, and even if I know that it will hurt you - it will be better for you in the end. He paused to send her a grimly determined look. If it will keep you and your career safe in the end, you know that's more important to me than...

Stop! Sam interrupted him, looking green, sick, and slightly horrified that he would even contemplate doing that. There's no way on this planet that I'll let you do that! she firmly declared. She sighed a huge, exasperated huff of air, then glared at him. You and your overdeveloped sense of martyrdom, she declared. What if I remind you now that I didn't even have a career to care about when I got pregnant, that I don't care about my career now, and that I haven't cared about it for a long time.

Jack gazed at her with a fixed sense of saving her from herself. Then I would have to remind you that you don't have any ties to me, that Cloe is dead, according to what you've said so far, and that you need to get on with your life rather than...

Spare me! Sam interjected to loudly proclaim. Daniel often tells me that you're constantly spouting off that stupid line of 'I'm too old for her, too used up, too wasted for her! I might as well just let her go.' She glared at him again, her lack of patience with this excuse showing in her eyes. If I truly believed that stupid claptrap, I would have said 'Sayonara, buddy' years ago and left you all alone to wallow in your self-righteousness while I went out and found a guy who really appreciated me.

Jack looked at her in surprise. Are you saying that I don't appreciate you? he rhetorically blurted. How can you say that? I think that you're a National Treasure! he indignantly protested. I've even said that on several occasions, in case you forget! Then his gaze grew gentler. I've just... always wished that... He swallowed, showing that this admission that his protest had become was harder for him to make than he'd anticipated. At last he looked down at his lap and simply blurted out the line, I just wish that you were my Treasure.

Sam heaved another sigh, this one of weary satisfaction, and leaned into the sofa cushions behind her. Finally! she exclaimed in relief. I didn't think that you would ever admit to that!

Jack's look had now become calculating. I wouldn't say that I've admitted anything that...

She cut him off again. You idiot! she said in a voice of tender amusement. I've been your 'treasure' since that night we met when I was just seventeen. She stared straight in front of her as she spoke, talking to the wall instead of to him, trying to shore up her courage to admit her feelings by using a bland paint job for soothing purposes, but continued speaking nonetheless. I've certainly tried everything I could to tear apart that place in my soul where you've taken root, and both of us have done whatever we thought was necessary to convince the other that this 'thing' between us isn't real and lasting. Her eyes then pierced straight through his bullshit and into his soul without even trying as she went on, But I have to admit that it's never done any good - that as much as I might want it to work, any relationship that I've ever had with anybody else - except Cloe - has been superficial at best.

Her stare changed into one that he recognized as similar to the one he'd seen years before coming at him from the opposite side of a Goa'uld force shield. Sam again turned to contemplate that bland wall of her house, but managed to choke out the remaining words of her own confession, I've tried... like I thought I should... for years... to move on... with someone else... but... She turned her suddenly teary eyes onto him, and with a look of bone weary acceptance, said, I just can't do it - no matter how hard I try. She sniffed, and was mortified to feel tears in her eyes. Those tears receded for a moment, but not the broken quality of her voice. I recognized your picture... or who you... really are... the picture in your military file... the minute I saw it, and even though... She sniffed again. I knew it had been years... and your file said that you were married... then divorced... She turned her eyes back to him, the tears still swimming just out of sight. I hoped that you had forgotten... me... and it seemed like you had... but I never forgot you... though I tried... She lost her battle with her tears, and one spilled out of her eye to glide down her cheek. With an irritated swipe, she brushed it away, and reiterated the idea, I've spent years trying to forget about Cloe and her dad. She sounded tired, completely weary, used up when she added a woeful, But I just can't.

Jack's heartstrings twanged at the sight of her, trying so hard not to cry, and the sound of her obvious distress. But that still didn't quite answer his most basic question of this trip. Sam, he said as he finally succeeded in pulling her into him and tried his best to comfort that sense of guilt out of her. He buried his nose in her blonde hair, just as he had done that magical night twenty years before. But he went on to murmur, If you knew who I was, why didn't you tell me about Cloe right away?

Sam had seemed to melt into his arms. She wasn't sobbing into his chest like some sniveling schoolgirl who couldn't control her emotional response, but instead shuddered in his hold as she woefully explained, I thought about it, but when you didn't recognize me in that first SGC briefing - which really wasn't a surprise when I considered it - I decided to wait and see what you were like now, if you could handle being a dad and losing a kid in the five minutes it would take for me to tell you. She sniffled again, and tightened her hold on the front of his sweatshirt before going on, Then Daniel told me about Charlie - I tried to pretend that it only affected me like it would a stranger... but I knew then that I could never tell you about Cloe, that I didn't want to put that burden on you of losing two kids... that...

It was Jack's turn to tell her, Stop. His command was far more gentle than the word itself. Stop doing this to yourself. He felt her arms tighten around him once more, and responded in kind. I don't know what I would have done if I'd found out about Cloe then. He continued with his soothing embracing. You don't have to carry this alone anymore. He pulled back enough to move the wet strands of her hair out of her eyes, and tenderly kissed her forehead in a gesture that was as much meant to comfort as meant to romance her.

What was he doing? he asked himself. It was as if all the intervening years and events that stood between the present and 1986 had melted away, and the Jack of twenty years ago was again with the girl of his dreams. I know that it's been difficult for you - and I haven't made it any easier... His voice trailed off, as if he didn't even have to voice anything more of his own sense of sorrow and guilt over what each had done to the other over the years. I'm here now, he forcefully said. And I'm not going anywhere, he insisted. As much as this... hurts... to find out about Cloe years too late to do anything for you or for her... He pulled her tighter into his chest and just let her cry as his heart swelled so much that its beat was once again painful. Carter... you're the mother of my daughter, he announced. And I will love you forever.

He'd said the words now as if admitting them was no big deal. And now that he'd given voice to what was in his heart, realized that he was right - it really wasn't a big deal. Then he pulled back once more to give her a tenderhearted smile. Now what say that we chuck all this emotional crap, and get down to the business of recreating that night twenty years ago?

More tears oozed out of Sam's eyes at his words, but her sudden smile blazed beside those tears. Her nod of enthusiastic agreement was in addition to her spoken declaration. First thing's first, she adamantly said. We give our names this time.

Jack nearly laughed when she said that. Alright, he wholeheartedly agreed. My name is Jack O'Neill, US Air Force. What's yours?

Samantha Carter, getting a degree in 'oh god are you gorgeous.' She sniffed as Jack grinned once again. Nice to meet you.

Likewise, Jack replied just as swiftly. Now let's make babies together, he suggested without any preamble.

Sam's answering grin sparkled through any remaining tears still in her eyes. She agreed with one word, Yeahsureyoubetcha.

Part XI - Epilogue

Two days later

As Sam tightened her gloved hand around the fingers of Air Force General Jonathan J. O'Neill, she continued to lead him straight through the maze of headstones and grave markers and on up the the side of a hill. Even the snow left behind by the recent DC blizzard barely deterred her. She simply plowed through the powder, blazing a trail for Jack to follow.

For himself, Jack felt glad for the first time to be back in the DC area. But then, he had to admit to himself that he would be glad to be any place where Carter was, even if she had only taken a few days of personal leave from the SGC to go with him to DC in the first place. He knew that she would eventually need to return to her job, and the thought didn't bother him as much as he thought it would. Just as long as he knew she was okay, and was his, he could handle anything. Even distance.

The bonds brought about by a five-month old girl would not be as easily broken this time as they had been twenty years ago, they had both decided. Sam had finally found her 'Jack,' and she wasn't going to let him go this time. Jack had finally found his 'blonde girl' and the galaxy could try to tear her away from him - in fact, he expected it to. Distance was sure to come between them, duty would definitely need to be dealt with - but that was the way of life in the military. Yet even distance and duty couldn't really put so much as a dent in such a strong connection as the two now had with each other - had, and admitted to having. Nothing could.

It's right over this hill, Sam was saying as she led Jack with an easy sense of direction that he'd always secretly found rather eerie through the Alexandria, Virginia cemetery. She rounded three more unfamiliar graves, went to the left of a huge marble mausoleum, then stopped. She blinked, and her brow furrowed in confusion. She peered around a second time, intently looking for something. That's funny - I've never not been able to find it before, she declared, and shook her head, still staring at the words and names surrounding her. But I don't see her 'Carter' headstone anywhere.

Jack tugged once on her fingers before pulling her close into his side. His coated arm wrapped around her in solid comfort as he quietly told her, Maybe you're not looking at this the right way. He pointed at what was obviously a new headstone two graves over to their right.

Sam followed where his finger was pointing, looked, then did a double-take, blinking against the sunlight and what she thought she was reading.

Cloe O'Neill

January 28, 1987 June 19, 1987

Daughter of Jack and Sam

The stars don't shine

as brightly without you

Holy Hannah, Sam stated in dumb astonishment. She stood unmoving against Jack's solid presence at her side. Her own coated arm had wrapped around his back, and now she clung to him, needing his support in her amazed condition just to keep her feet.

At last she meekly protested, But won't that..? What it says... won't that get you in trouble? She blinked once more, still too bowled over to speak properly. With the 'O'Neill...' It's too dangerous, she declared.

Jack's following words, as well as their firmness, immediately settled her fears. I just found out about her - someone can try to take her, or you, away from me, but trying is all they'll ever do. Given that, giving her the correct last name is the very least that I can do.

The silence that followed Jack's steady words was broken only by the sound of chattering squirrels gathering winter food with the single-mindedness of instinct. The cold of the snow Jack and Sam stood in slowly crept through the soles of their shoes and up their legs in freezing waves before Sam was able to speak again.

Thank you, Jack, was all she whispered.

Jack gave a ghost of a smile, and tightened his hold on her, as if determined to keep her at his side now that he'd gotten her there. The one word that he used to reply to her sincere gratitude that came straight from her heart had long meant the world to both of them.

He whispered in her hair, Always.

Then, with a slight tug on his arm that was still wrapped around her waist, he slowly led her out of the cemetery, and back to what he hoped would be a very bright future.

The End


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