Disclaimer: I own nothing SG related. Okay, that's not entirely true - I don't own the SG characters. All that SG merchandise that's for sale? Oh, yeah, I sooooo own all of it! Maybe that's why I'm always so broke?
A/N: Thanks so much to PaulineFitz and Noda for their wonderful betaing, and for the great story suggestions - I couldn't have done it without you!
General Jack O'Neill, retired, sank gratefully into the chair pulled up to the table in the bustling Colorado Springs Pizza Hut. It was getting to the point that he was thankful every time he even saw a chair, let alone how he felt when he actually got to sit down in one. He strangled the sigh that almost escaped his lips, however. He may know about his 'chair fetish,' but that didn't mean that he wanted anyone else to know what a strain the added weight of a few pounds meant to his knees!
And that weight thing - it had been bothering him for about a year. In his mind, he knew and accepted the fact that most men his age would be ecstatic to have his toned body. But he wasn't used to weighing an ounce over what he'd always conceived as 'the ideal weight.' It was proving hard for him to admit to anyone, most particularly himself, that he was slowing down now that he was retired from the Air Force, and adding a few pounds to his frame was evidence of that 'slowing.'
But as he liked to eat as well as he ever had, Jack wasn't willing to start giving up the foods that he loved just so that his knees could have an easier time of it. So he had to put up with the occasional feeling of gratitude at the possibility of getting to sit down, evidence that he was slowing as each year passed. But he certainly didn't want his friends to know about it!
Like, for instance, now. He had agreed to a sort of 'SG-1 reunion' with Daniel and Teal'c, since Teal'c was on Earth for a few days' respite from helping the new Jaffa Nation to form across the galaxy. But he still stubbornly refused to let them see what a toll the years had begun taking on him. So he swallowed the sound of his gratitude at getting to sit down, and all that Daniel and Teal'c could hear was a slight squeak that could be easily mistaken as caused by his chair scraping across the floor when he pulled it out so that he could sit in it. If Daniel and Teal'c knew otherwise, they were polite enough not to mention the obvious signs of his aging body.
“So, fellas,” Jack said as he glanced cursorily at the menu, then set that menu aside so that he could stare at his friends instead. “The usual?” he asked.
Daniel broke into a smile when Jack said that. “Sounds good to me, Jack. I'm starving,” he quickly replied.
Jack smirked. “What did you do - get all caught up in the excitement of figuring out another translation of yet another dead language, and forget to eat lunch again today?”
Daniel would have protested as recently as a year ago, but now he simply smiled his benign smile again, and asked, “How did you guess, Jack?”
Jack and Teal'c shared a glance, noting Daniel's newly acquired maturity of knowing when not to make useless protests. Jack gave an inelegant snort, and answered Daniel's inquiry. “I was able to guess because - maybe - you're the biggest geek on the whole planet?” he teased. “And because we also know your eating habits?”
“Or lack thereof,” Teal'c added in his super dry tone that told his companions that he was making a joke at Daniel's expense.
Except Daniel didn't quite agree with Jack and Teal'c's assessment of his character. “I'm not the biggest geek on the planet,” he protested. “That was always Sam. I'm the biggest geek on this continent!”
Jack and Teal'c laughed. (Well, Jack laughed. Teal'c raised his eyebrow.) That was true enough - Daniel was a geek if there ever was one. That didn't mean that he wasn't a nice person. It just meant that he spent perhaps more time within the confines of the academic realm than either Jack or Teal'c did. And they were all happy with things turning out that way - Jack hadn't ever had to act more knowledgeable than he was about certain subjects, and Teal'c hadn't had to be less Jaffa because they'd had Daniel to remind them of the things they would rather not think about, or didn't know about. It was the perfect balance for their friendship.
And now, all three of them settled back into their chairs, content to wait their turn to order 'their usual' choice of pizza, and to bask in each other's company.
Daniel was the one to open the conversation while they waited to order. “So, Teal'c how goes it with..?”
Daniel wasn't even allowed to finish his question before Teal'c was answering it. The warrior-turned-galactic-politician didn't quite smile as he spoke. “It goes very well. We have finished with rebuilding several settlements, and are now working on creating a more formalized legal system, much of which is patterned on what I learned when I was a guest of the... Americans.”
'Americans' - not 'Tau'ri.' Teal'c was getting better at using the appropriate words for classified cover-ups, Jack realized. He used to simply stop speaking when he started to mention classified material, as if his listeners would automatically know what he was talking about. Now his expertise in all things American military was becoming more and more obvious the more times he visited Earth.
“That's great to hear, T,” Jack enthused. “Was it Bra'tac who managed to finally convince everyone to concentrate on the rebuilding efforts?” He remembered the Jaffa master well, and especially recalled his persuading skills. “He's one heck of a 'convincer,' if I remember right!”
Teal'c shook his head and replied, “Bra'tac was not the one doing the convincing, O'Neill. It was Rya'c of the silver tongue we must 'be on guard against.'” Teal'c managed with just his raised eyebrow to give the impression that he was exasperated with his son as well as proud of him and his arguments.
“Rya'c!” Daniel blurted, clearly missing the joke. “I would think that he...”
Daniel never got to expound on what it was that he predicted to be Teal'c's thoughts, for suddenly Jack sat up straight in his chair, looking avidly over the shoulders of his two friends seated at the table with him. Shocked at what he was seeing, he loudly blurted, “Carter!”
Abruptly, the blonde woman weaving around their table came to a sudden halt. She'd been saying something to the child at her side, but her voice died away as her head jerked around so that she could stare at Jack in wide-eyed wonder. “Sir!” she exclaimed. Her gaze darted to the others seated at the table. “Daniel! Murray! What..?”
They all stared at each other for one frozen moment in time, as if they hadn't seen each other for years.
Which they hadn't.
It was as if Jack was instantly transported seven years into the past, the last time he had been alone with Samantha Carter. Jack was instantly again in his room at his former house, smelling her skin, kissing her, making love to her the way he'd wanted to for years!
And with typically rotten Sam/Jack timing, right on the heels of that rather splendid memory came ones of the months that followed, of how the very next week, CIA agent Kerry Johnson had told him that she was pregnant from their time spent together, of how Carter had tried to show that the news didn't bother her, but had clearly been deeply hurt in spite of what she insisted. Jack remembered how he had been caught in the middle of finally getting something he'd wanted for years... Carter... and the duty he felt for the child that Kerry claimed was his.
Feeling torn, Jack had despaired over wanting Carter, but also wanting another child, even one by Kerry. The impossible situation had unexpectedly resolved itself when Carter had disappeared without a word of explanation to any of her 'friends.' Even Jack's prodigious amount of contacts hadn't uncovered her whereabouts. He'd wanted to explain how this situation with Kerry hadn't affected his feelings for Carter one iota, but he couldn't find Carter to make any declarations one way or the other. She had simply vanished, and though Jack had searched for her like a man possessed, he was instantly set adrift in life without the rock that Carter had always been to him. She had obviously taken Jack's reason for living with her when she went.
But now Jack was almost used to the idea of living without his heart's desire. At first it had been impossible for him to do anything but search for her. Only the sudden option of becoming the Head of Homeworld Security had given him any focus other than the search for Carter. As the situation with Kerry played out, it had become his refuge. When it was all over, Jack had no Carter, no child from Kerry, and no Kerry either, though he couldn't say that he had ever really wanted a life spent with Kerry to begin with. Sure he enjoyed being with her... to an extent. But that extent didn't reach to the point of him simply wanting something with her because he still couldn't have something with Carter, who continued to remain utterly elusive. When Kerry told him the sad news that she had been mistaken about her pregnancy, confusing the symptoms of fibroid tumors and breast fibroids with pregnancy, she had not blamed him at all when he had first made certain that she was alright, then had quickly severed all ties with her.
But even as he moved to Washington DC and took over Homeworld Security, had lived through the maddening disappointment of Kerry's news, his search for Carter had continued. It was a sporadic search now, true, but he had kept looking, though he never expected to find the one person he wanted to find more than anything, and the one person who seemed determined not to be found.
Now, here he was in an inane place like a bustling Pizza Hut in Colorado Springs, staring at the one thing he'd spent years looking for.
Teal'c recovered first from his shock at seeing her after such a long time. He sonorously said, “I am here on a visit, ColonelCarter, and O'Neill and DanielJackson have invited me 'out to dinner.'”
The young girl at Carter's side wrinkled her nose in astonishment. “Mom,” she announced loud enough for several other patrons to hear. “He talks funny.”
“Jess!” Carter tore her wide-eyed, amazed gaze from her three friends long enough to admonish, “Be nice! These are my friends from...”
“I know who they are,” the girl retorted indignantly. “They're the guys in the picture on the fireplace - those friends you had in the Air Army that you were in.”
This imprecise description made the three men forget their own amazement at so suddenly seeing Carter again to chuckle as one. But... 'Mom?' The idea of Carter as a mom was... not wrong, exactly - more like shocking as hell!
Completely bamboozled by this news of a maternal Carter, Jack still couldn't resist taking a better look at this child who called Carter 'Mom.' He wanted to know what Carter's child looked like, and at the same time, wanted to run screaming from the restaurant at just the idea that someone had had a child with his Carter.
The girl was about five or six. She had long brown hair that had been pulled back into a ponytail stuffed through a faded ball cap made of denim. She hitched the jeans she wore up more firmly onto her skinny hips, as if her pants were one size too big for her. Her light pink shirt was covered in butterfly decals that sparkled when she turned back to Carter. “What did I say, Mom? I wasn't trying to be funny.”
“'Mom?'” Daniel asked, his tone friendly and inviting, though he had to be burning with the same curiosity that was consuming Jack... curiosity as to how had Carter become a mom?
A blush shot to the roots of Carter's still short hair as she regarded her friends. “Yeah,” she said, looking nervous. “Um... Let me introduce you all - this is my daughter, Jessica.” And she cleared her throat with a nervous sound. “Jess, these are the friends I've told you about - General O'Neill, Daniel Jackson, and Murray.”
Teal'c immediately stated, “Please call me Teal'c. I have not gone by my American name of 'Murray' for quite some time.”
Carter smiled, though her gesture looked uncomfortable. “I guess the tribal thing is more well known now, huh, Teal'c?” He only bowed his head once instead of answering, so she went on, almost as if she couldn't stop her tongue now that it had started forming words. “And I'm Sam - I haven't been Colonel Carter in...”
“Why is he wearing a hat?” Jessica demanded to know as she gazed at Teal'c.
“Jess!” Carter admonished again. “Don't ask rude questions! Just say hi!”
But Jessica apparently didn't want to say anything resembling a greeting. She was still staring in amazement at Teal'c. “How come your name is so funny?” she abruptly asked him. “And how come you only got one?”
“Jessica Carter!” was the instant comeback to her question from her suddenly mortified mother.
Jessica Carter? There was no father's unfamiliar name to go on the end of that? Did that mean that no father existed? As in, no husband, either? Jack found himself fervently hoping so, while feeling irritation at himself that he even cared. He thought he had gotten over these feelings concerning Carter long ago when he couldn't find her after her SGC disappearance. To discover now that those feelings were very much alive, but had only been buried during his years at Homeworld Security rankled.
Carter was still quietly admonishing her child as Jack sat lost in these partly unwelcome thoughts. “How many times do I have to remind you that most people don't like so many questions?” she gently asked. The question was as much a disciplinary reminder as in inquiry.
“I'm just curious, Mom,” Jessica responded in a slightly petulant voice. “I can't help it.”
Charlie was never able to help it, either.
Jack blinked. Where had that thought come from? He hadn't thought of Charlie in... a whole week.
Oblivious to Jack's inner thoughts, Jessica was still bent on ignoring Carter and her discipline, and instead spoke directly to Teal'c. “I got two names!” she announced in abrupt inspiration. “How come you don't?”
This line of questioning didn't seem to faze Teal'c, the most placid Jaffa in the Universe. “My name was given to me by my... tribe,” he explained. “We are all given only one name upon our birth. My full name is 'Teal'c, son of Ronac.'”
Again came the young nose wrinkle. “That's weird. Why is your father so important? Why not your mother?” Instead of allowing Teal'c time to answer, she went on to exclaim, “I don't even have a father, and it's never...”
“Jessica!” Carter admonished again. She was again smiling her nervous smile at everyone. “Of course you have a father,” she argued in a quiet, controlled tone that belied her anxious expression. “But my friends surely don't want to hear about all this ancient history. Let's find our table and let these men eat in peace without having to hear silly questions from a six year old. Come on.” She turned again to take in the men who made up her former team. “Sorry about the third degree. And it was really nice to see you all again.” She gave them her 'goodbye' smile as she began to push her daughter away.
Which alarmed Jack enough to force him into motion. To hell with feeling irritated at himself for 'unwanted' feelings for Carter. He only knew that he hadn't seen Carter in almost seven years, and now she was trying to disappear on him again as suddenly as she'd done before. He had to stop her!
“No need to run off, Carter,” Jack quickly stated, too rushed to even sound friendly now. “Join us,” he invited on the spur of the moment. “There's plenty of room. And we can catch up on old times.” He tried to sound casual as he said it.
“Sure,” Daniel immediately seconded, and for once, Jack was glad for the younger man's enthusiasm. “It would be great to talk to you a bit longer - you know, tell each other what we've been up to lately...”
But Carter didn't look like she felt particularly welcome in the midst of her previous teammates. “Oh, no, we don't want to impose...” she began saying, making a fast excuse.
The moment she spoke up this second time, Jack panicked once more. She's leaving again! were the words that the inside of his brain began to scream. Stop her! Without thinking through what he wanted to say, Jack blurted, “No, truly, it's no imposition!” His erratic heartbeat began to calm when he took note of the look of longing in Jessica's eyes as she watched the three strangers and her mom. It was obvious to him - Jessica wanted to stay, if for nothing more than to keep talking to the three men. He felt he had an unexpected ally in the young girl.
And true to Jack's suspicions, Jessica quickly begged “Please, Mom, can we stay?”
As an added incentive, Jack shoved the one chair left at the table out towards her with his foot. “Take a load off, Carter.”
Carter nervously shifted the bag she was carrying to her opposite shoulder, and continued to regard them with wary eyes. “No, truly Sir, I don't want to impose, and...”
“It's no imposition,” Jack again assured. “Carter, sit,” he said, and gestured at the chair. “Or do I need to make that an order?”
Jack's teasing instantly roused Jessica, but roused her to openly glare at him now. “No one orders my mom around!”
Jessica had placed both of her hands on her hips, and continued to glare straight at him with all her six year old might. Jack would have found the scene endearing, funny even, but a far less endearing sense of familiarity suddenly washed over him.
He was instantly transported back in time as his mind called up a picture of another time when a young person, a boy this time, stubbornly resisted going to bed. Jack had just 'ordered' Sara and their son, Charlie, upstairs and to bed, when the mental image of the boy shoved his hands on his hips, just as Jessica was doing now, and exclaimed, 'No one orders my mom around!'
Now Jack tried hard to keep his bearings as the scene played out in his mind. He had to separate the two, couldn't afford to find similarity where there was nothing more similar than the ages of the children in question. Plus, the fact that Jack would never have anything other than these kinds of random memories of Charlie made sorrow slam into him again like it hadn't hit him in years. In seconds, he was breathing hard as if he'd run a marathon with every Jaffa army in the Universe hot on his tail.
Carter was the only one staring right at him at the moment, hence was the only one to get the full effect of his past memories. “Sir?” she quickly asked, worry clear in her tone. “Are you alright?”
Daniel jumped into the conversation before Jack had the chance to reply. “Jack?”
Jack gave his head a hard shake, as if to clear it, and he quickly smiled at everyone in order to set them all at ease again. “Just something that...” His voice trailed off as once more he looked towards Jessica, who was now looking more worried than threatening as she gazed at him.
“Did I hurt you?” she suddenly asked. “I didn't mean to Mom, honest!” she insisted.
“No!” Jack said the minute he heard the girl's words. “You didn't hurt me - I just remembered something... I've forgotten to do. That's all. It wasn't you.”
Jessica again stared at him with much more intensity in her eyes. “Are you sure?”
Jack now bobbed his head to enforce his assurances, and he knew that his expression had returned to normal. “I'm sure - Hope to die,” he said, opting to say something that he was pretty certain a six year old would know so that he could again set her at ease.
Successfully eased, Jessica perked up when Jack made that statement. “I just learned what that is - it's a cliché.”
Jack was stunned anew. She already knew about clichés? “And... How do you know what clichés are?”
Jessica beamed, and brightly said, “Mom's always talking about clichés, so I asked my teacher what they are.”
Carter was always talking about clichés?
Amused now, Jack shot a look at Daniel, then one at Teal'c before asking Jessica, “And what are they?”
Jessica replied, “They're things someone says all the time, right?”
Jack considered her answer before giving one of his own. “Ssssoooooort of.”
Again Jessica knowingly smiled. “Isn't it like the saying 'For crying out loud?'”
Two male bursts of laughter sounded again, and one amused 'Indeed!' echoed around the table while Carter made motions of acute embarrassment.
“Really, General, I don't know where she gets this stuff!” Carter insisted. She had obviously decided to give in gracefully to the 'pressure' from him and her daughter, and stay for dinner, for she pulled an empty chair from the next table over, and both she and Jessica sat.
Jessica was ignoring her mother as she sat, instead staring piercingly at Jack. “What kind of name is 'Jenrol,' anyway? Are you from a tribe, like Teal'c is?”
Carter blushed, looking mortified again. “Jessica! Really! For the thousandth time, what have I said about asking questions all the time?”
As innocently as possible, Jessica dutifully recited, “'The only stupid question is the one that isn't asked.'”
Two male laughs erupted for a second time as Daniel and Jack vocalized their amusement with this scene, and even Teal'c's face lightened.
Carter didn't bother with looking embarrassed again. Instead, she firmly stated, “Absolutely! You're right! That's what I always say.” She gave a sardonic roll of her eyes.
“What?” Jessica muttered, looking around at all the laughing adults surrounding her. “Did I say something funny again?”
Jack still spluttered with laughter, but managed to proclaim, “Yep, she's a Carter!”
It was as the four adults continued to laugh, and the child continued to stare at them quizzically, like they had all gone nuts, when the waitress arrived to take their order and to bring them drinks. “What kind of pizza would you like tonight?” she inquired in a friendly voice.
Jack forced himself to stop laughing long enough to tell the waitress, “That will be three large pizzas, all deep dish, one Meat Lovers... or whatever you call that here... one Supreme with no...”
Jessica piped up to remind him, “And no mushrooms! Mom doesn't like...!”
Jack paused in his ordering long enough to interrupt her, “I know - no mushrooms - Carter thinks they're squishy.” Then as Jessica gaped at the way he clearly knew her mom so well, Jack turned back to the waitress, who was muttering 'No mushrooms...' He added, “And give us a half cheese, and half Canadian Bacon on the third pizza. And to drink...” He looked to Teal'c. “Water?” Teal'c nodded once. “Water?” he also asked Daniel, who nodded. Then Jack looked towards Jessica. “Water? No,” he said, changing his mind before Jessica could reply. “Make that a Coke or a Pepsi, whichever you have here, one beer, and one diet soda.” Jessica again looked like she had been going to add something, but clamped her mouth shut instead. “What?” Jack asked her. “You want a beer too?” he teased. But at Jessica's definitive head shake, he looked back to the waitress. “That's all,” he said.
When the waitress had gone to fill their order, Jessica continued to stare at Jack. “What?” he asked again.
Prompted like she was, Jessica softly announced, “Mom let you order for her. She usually tells guys that she can talk just fine, she's not mete.”
Carter snorted a laugh, then tried to swallow the sound that desperately wanted to erupt from her throat. “That's 'mute.' And the Colonel always orders for us all - it's less confusing for the waitress if only one person talks.”
Jessica's own puzzlement grew. “I thought his name was Jenrol?” She glared, clearly not liking feeling so perplexed. “So, is it Jenrol... as in 'Jenrol'... or is it Kernol, as in..?'
“Actually, it's 'Jack,'” Jack told her. “I used to be a General... as in 'General'... back when we were all in the Air Force, but now I'm retired... that means 'finished,' 'done,' 'I get out of bed every morning, but have no where to go.'”
“Oh,” Jessica said, still looking like she had to quietly think about his 'name'... 'names'... for a moment. Then she brightened. “That's right, you're 'Jack' just like in the picture on the fireplace.”
“On the mantel,” Carter gently corrected.
“Yeah, there,” Jessica flatly stated. “How come she just called you 'Kernol' then?”
“Jess,” Carter said before Jack could answer her question. “That's enough. No more questions. Look - here's our drinks.”
They were all served, and everyone was silent as they all took their first sip of their respective drinks.
Daniel finished first, and asked, “So, Sam, what are you doing now?” He shot her an inquiring glance, then added, “I'm still studying my rocks at the base, you know where Teal'c usually is, Jack's retired now... that leaves you.”
Carter took another drink of her diet soda (for fortification?) then nonchalantly announced, “Oh, I'm doing some teaching.”
Jack shot her a glance of puzzlement. “Teaching at the Academy? I don't remember seeing you there the times I've been...”
“No,” Carter gently intervened. “At PPCC.”
Jack spluttered the drink of beer that he had just taken. “At Pikes Peak Community College?!” he incredulously asked.
Carter gave a quick ducking of her head. “I'm a Physics Professor.
Still just as amazed, Jack blurted, “But what are you doing there?”
Carter apparently ignored his astonished tone, because she answered his question. “Sometimes I even get to teach a few math classes. I've even been known to teach Chemistry...”
“But a community college?” Jack asked again in growing amazement.
Carter instantly grew defensive. “Yes, at a community college! I happen to like my job - what's wrong with it?”
Jack was caught off guard by her anger, which immediately cooled his sense of 'But you're so much better than that, Carter!' Instead, he tried to backtrack, and not immediately offend her. “Uh... nothing's wrong with it. Nothing.”
Daniel smoothly cut in to inquire, “But don't you find it boring after..?” And he gestured at nothing in particular with his hand, but the motion completely finished his question for him.
Carter gave a hiss of annoyance. “That's exactly what anyone who isn't a teacher thinks - that it's boring. But technically, I've been a teacher for a long time, and...”
Thinking that she was on loan to PPCC as a temporary professor from the military, Jack cut her off. “I think Daniel means: Why not at the Academy? You always thought about teaching there. I know that Kerrigan drooled on a weekly basis over having you teach for him full time.”
Carter shot a look around at the three men sitting with her. In an almost apologetic voice, she stated, “Because I'm not... not in the Air Force anymore, so I can't be assigned there - and I didn't want to teach for them as a civilian, either.”
Jack sat back, stunned anew. She wasn't in the Air Force anymore? The shock of that announcement stole through him in unexpected fury. He could physically feel the hot waves of 'OhmyGod' wash over him. It was almost as if he had lost half of himself when she said that. True, Jack wasn't part of the Air Force anymore, either, as he was retired now, but... He had drifted out of the Air Force in a natural progression of years. But... Carter wasn't even remotely old enough to be asked to bow out of the Air Force by her superiors, as he had been. So... just like that, there was no more Air Force for either of them.
Which sucked. Jack felt like he had been punched in the stomach. It was like the one thing he and Carter had always shared, the one thing that no one else could touch, was gone. The hurt at that thought was... unexpected, to say the least.
Jack momentarily gagged on his beer. But he couldn't let Carter know how much this news of hers bothered him. At the same time, it was no wonder that he'd never been able to find her during the many years that he'd searched for her - he had been searching for a Lieutenant Colonel Carter of the Air Force, not a civilian Dr. Carter, of undetermined location, then a professor at PPCC. He suspected that she must have known that, and quit the Air Force as a way to keep him from ever finding her. Hurt washed over him even as a thought started to take form in his mind... just why had she wanted so badly for him not to find her?
He couldn't answer that thought - he didn't have all the information, and probably never would. Only Carter knew everything that happened during that time - and she still wasn't talking. (Of course, he wasn't asking, either, but asking was... scary. Briefly, he wondered just what was the reason he had searched so endlessly for her if not to ask her why she had disappeared, but he conveniently ignored that probing thought for now.)
Trying to distract himself from his dark thoughts, he cleared his throat and hesitantly grunted, “Why not UCCS then?” He cleared his throat a second time, sounding less and less hesitant each time he spoke. “I hear that they're pretty good.”
“Jack, you're so charming,” Daniel deadpanned, clearly unaware that Jack was close to having a personal breakdown. “The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs doesn't have...”
Carter interrupted. “It's alright, Daniel, I've had this question before.” And she glanced at Jack with sudden wariness in her eyes. “Most often I hear it from Mark.”
“You talk to Mark?” Daniel blurted, as if he couldn't help himself. “Still?” Then his face reddened slightly. “I mean, your brother gets to talk to you? But not your friends?”
Carter instantly looked into her lap, and grimaced.
Jack would have berated Daniel for speaking so baldly and making Carter uncomfortable, but he was still too shocked to speak up in spite of his recovery thus far.
Carter gave off an air of concession then, but didn't exactly answer Daniel's question. “Yep, I'm 'still' in touch with Mark,” was all she said.
Daniel, Teal'c, and Jack all stared either at the restaurant at large, or down at their plates, not daring to meet Carter's eyes as Daniel continued in the same vein he had started speaking in, the pain now evident in his voice. “If you contacted Mark, why not us?” No one answered him, or stopped him, so he went on to explain, “It might have been nice to know where you were, that you were alright. Jack looked high and low for you for years, you know.”
Jack finally had the wherewithal to curtly exclaim, “Daniel, that's enough! Water under the bridge - spilt milk - whatever. She didn't tell us - she must have had her reasons - end of story.” The idea finally and firmly coalesced in his mind as he was saying the words. “The important thing is Carter's here now. But I bet she doesn't want this kind of third degree. Leave it.”
Daniel instantly turned on Jack in accusation. “But Jack, you were beside yourself - I remember the whole thing! Don't you think..?”
“DanielJackson,” Teal'c calmly cut him off. “This is neither the time nor the place to...”
Carter's quiet voice interrupted him this time. “No, Teal'c, Daniel's right - I should have explained myself. I can only say that I was so upset at the time, I wasn't exactly in my right mind. I'm sorry you were hurt - very sorry. Can we just leave it at that?” she plaintively beseeched.
Daniel and Teal'c stared at her, then Daniel sputtered something that sounded a lot like sudden platitudes meant to encourage them to get along, but Jack wasn't listening. He was too busy thinking the abrupt question Why was she so upset at the time? I mean, besides Kerry saying that she was pregnant... with my child...
Jack cut off his thoughts before they had the chance to launch into the typical remonstrations that usually began at this point in his mental reviewing of his 'Carter situation.'
His contemplation was interrupted by two things happening in quick succession. In mere seconds, he was completely distracted. The waitress arrived with the pizzas that he had ordered at the same time that Carter's cell phone went off.
Carter instantly dove for the bag she carried with her, and dug through it until she produced a cell phone. It was the kind that came with a keypad for texting messages - coincidentally, Jack had one just like it. “Carter,” she answered.
Carter spoke quietly into her phone, her brow furrowed a bit as the three men bent on clearing the center of the table for the pizza platters. Teal'c still had to load the pizza slices from the Meat Lovers pizza onto his plate to make room for them all.
They finished just as Carter hung up her phone. Obviously recognizing the look of deep thought on her mom's face, Jessica chose to ignore it and instead inquired, “Why does he get a whole pizza for himself?” She pointed at Teal'c. When Carter didn't answer, she prompted, “Mom?”
Still distracted, Carter responded, “Because Teal'c has a bottomless stomach.” Her voice was vague sounding as she again reached for her bag. “And I'm sorry to run off...” she said to the men seated at the table. “That was the security guard at the building my lab is in - It seems that another security guard was doing rounds earlier tonight, and accidentally tripped, sending the water that he was drinking at the time straight into an experiment that I was running. As a result, my experiment exploded.” At their looks of instant concern, Carter hurried to further explain, “It wasn't a big explosion - just my experiment... but some of the glass from the Petri dish I was using got imbedded in his back as he was regaining his balance.”
“It's not serious, I hope,” Daniel said, anxiety still evident, as if he wanted to apologize for his earlier accusations by producing an overly worried tone now.
Carter gave a disarming grin. “It's nothing serious - but the paramedics want to make sure he's treated properly by knowing what the chemicals in my experiment were... and to do that, they need me to...”
Jack broke in to quip, “Paramedics - you mean Doc Fraiser didn't have dibs on all the medical genes in town?”
Carter smiled at his teasing. “She must have had most of them, I think. But, come on, Jess. We gotta go back to campus.”
Jessica instantly protested. “But Mom, I haven't even eaten yet!”
Carter spared only a second to glance at her daughter. “I know. I haven't eaten, either. But I have to go to campus, and there's no one else to take you home after dinner, so you have to come with me - I'm sorry.” Carter gazed sadly at her hungry daughter. “We'll order another pizza when we get home - I promise. But the paramedics are waiting, and even though it's only around the corner, we...”
Then Jack was speaking without thinking - again - as was habit with him. “We can take her home for you,” he offered. “Jessica can stay here with us while we eat supper, then we'll run her home and wait for you there.”
Jessica's eyes grew bright. “Yeah!” she excitedly exclaimed. “Then I can do my homework...”
Carter cut in to say, “I thought you told me just yesterday that they don't give homework until first grade.”
The comment hung heavily over the table for a second before Jess responded. “We have some today - Miss Garrett said that it was practice for next year.”
Carter reluctantly said to Jess, “I can't expect anyone else to help you with some class project.”
“We don't mind,” Jack quickly interjected. He would say anything at this point to get Carter to agree. He wanted the time to talk to Jessica, to find out if she knew anything about that time so many years ago when Carter left the SGC. Things that Carter was never likely to tell him herself. “We may not have ever been considered as smart as you, but I think we can handle elementary homework - between the three of us, that is.” And he cast a glance in Daniel's direction before turning back to Jess. “Is it English... Math... Ancient writing?” he asked. “Daniel does know 25 languages, ya know.”
“27,” Daniel corrected, abashed now. “But don't let that influence you.”
“It's spelling,” Jess proudly proclaimed. “We gotta spell the words right, not just sound them out... but I'm good at that - you guys don't haveta help.”
“We wish to assure your success, JessicaCarter,” Teal'c announced. “We will see you home, so we may assist you with your spelling.” No one argued with the big guy when he took that tone of voice.
No one except Carter, that is. “I don't want to ask...” she instantly began to protest.
“You're not asking, we're volunteering, so there's no problem,” Jack announced in his best General 'this situation is solved' tone of voice. “If I have to say 'dismissed,' I will,” he slyly said to her. “Now will you get out of here so we can finish corrupting your daughter?”
Jessica asked before Carter could respond, “What's 'rupt?'
Jack smoothly told her, “It means that we get to tell you really embarrassing stories about Carter carrying a big gun, and shooting at the bad guys while she solved the mysteries of the universe on the side, just for fun.”
Jessica's eyes widened. “Mom carried a gun? But she hates guns!” Then she thoughtfully paused a moment, and added, “Well... she doesn't exactly hate guns... do you, Mom?” she asked of her mother. “It's more like you want me to be really careful with them.” Then she said, “But you never told me about when you carried a gun for your job!”
“Um... yes, well...” Carter hesitantly said as she held a hand out to stall Jessica's instantaneous curiosity. She looked at the men sitting at the table as if she were trying to distract Jessica. “Are you sure you don't mind, guys?”
A chorus of, 'No, not at all,' and 'Of course not,'s sounded in answer to her query. Carter shot one last glance at the ravenous look in the eyes of her clearly hungry and successfully distracted daughter, and fianlly capitulated. “Okay, but it's still a school night - bed at 2000 for you, Miss.”
“But Mom!” Jessica unstantly whined, almost as if it were an expected response from her for this particular charge.
“No arguments!” Carter firmly admonished. She turned to the guys around her. “I won't be more than an hour or two.”
“Just tell us where you live, Carter, and we'll see you in an hour,” Jack said. “We'll even save some pizza for you.” He pulled out his own cell phone to record her address and phone number. “Where?”
Teal'c and Daniel pulled out the exact same cell phones as well, fingers poised.
Carter still had the same cell phone in her hands.
Jessica stared at the four identical cell phones. “That's weird,” she commented.
Carter ignored Jessica's comment to answer Jack's question. “321 Aspen Drive... cell # (123)555-4251.”
“Got it,” Jack said as he finished typing the numbers into his contact list. He slid his phone shut, then smiled at Jessica. “So, what kind of pizza do you want, Jess? Oh, and here.” He handed Carter one of the pieces from the Canadian Bacon pizza in front of him.
Carter rose from her chair, taking a bite of pizza at the same time. “Thanks,” she shortly said. She chewed, swallowed, then muttered, “I really appreciate this, guys.”
Jack gave her a mock look of irritation. “Carter - go!”
Without another word, Carter gave Jessica a kiss on her cheek, then left.
Jessica stared quietly up at the three men who had promised to sit with her as she did her spelling later on in the evening. Her most innocent expression was plastered on her face.
Always a sucker for the innocence of kids - practically being one himself - Jack was about to break the ice with them by dividing up the pizza when Jessica suddenly demanded, “Okay, who's gonna give me the real dirt on Mom?”
Jack choked. Perhaps a six year old wasn't as innocent as he remembered?
* * *
Forty minutes later found Jack entering Carter's 'new' house in Colorado Springs for the first time. It was a downright strange experience, as he instantly recognized most of the furnishings and knick knacks that met his eyes, and could even name where and when she had acquired most of them. But an equal amount of new things also appeared on the bookshelf in the corner, and scattered at intermittent intervals across the floor of the living room that led from the front door to the rest of the house. Most notably, the presence of a few miscellaneous children's toys caught his eye, as did several DVDs aimed at a much younger audience than he was used to seeing in Carter's DVD collection.
Jack looked at everything with avid interest, curious in spite of his desire not to be curious at all as to Carter's life after her SGC departure. She hadn't wanted to be found then, and had even gone to great lengths to avoid discovery, by him or anyone else. The least he could do now was respect that decision of hers, no matter how little he understood it, and not become the voyeur that he wanted to become.
Jessica wasn't the least bothered about the possible emergence of his voyeuristic tendencies. She walked straight to one particular chair that was just a trifle smaller than the others in the room, and instantly dropped her pink 'Hello Kitty' back pack onto the chair cushions. Jack assumed that this was her chair, as the size seemed to fit her smaller body so well. She immediately plopped down with the ease of familiarity, and dove into her pack.
Jessica quickly divested a coat, a sweatshirt, a small ball, three crumpled pieces of paper, and two still wrapped chocolate Twinkies from her pack. She set to work on opening one of the Twinkie packages, and was about to pop the treat into her mouth when Jack spoke.
“Just how long have those been in your pack?” he asked, intent on stopping her from making herself sick by eating really old food.
Jessica's shrug didn't make him feel any more confident about the food. “I don't know. A few days.”
Jack snorted. “Uh huh. Translate that to 'a few weeks,' and I might believe you. Do you have a dog or a cat or something that you might be safer giving those Twinkies to?”
Jessica rolled her eyes, as if what she was about to say should be obvious to anybody. “We have a dog out back, but you can't give chocolate to dogs!” The sarcasm in her voice was so heavy that she could have inherited it from Jack.
Jack figured that such sarcasm must have been inherited from her father, though, since Carter was never so sarcastic. Or at least, she had never been to him.
Daniel made a beeline for the refrigerator in the kitchen to put the leftover pizza away for Carter the minute he entered the house. He opened the fridge, then froze. After a moment, he called out, “Uh, Jack, you better come and look at this.”
Leaving Jessica to her Twinkies, which she shoved into her mouth the second his back was turned, Jack joined Daniel in the kitchen. “What did you find?” he casually asked and glanced in the fridge.
Nothing less than a huge mess met his eyes. There were shelves and shelves full of containers sitting in the cool air of the fridge, all holding what had been either leftovers from something that Carter had attempted to cook, or take out containers half full of food. No matter what kind of container it was, the food it contained was completely moldy, right down to the last container that Daniel pulled out and checked.
He replaced the container in the fridge, then stared at the jumbled mess in an agony of indecision. “Where the heck am I supposed to put the pizza?” he softly questioned, holding the pizza box in frozen fingers. “There isn't even room for half the box!”
Such a mess was so unlike Carter that for a moment, Jack couldn't think of anything to say. He just stared at the mess in astonishment. At last, he gave a sluggish blink, then calmly cleared his throat. “Uh....” Apparently, having a child had had more far reaching effects on Carter's life than he had given it credit for.
“Teal'c!” Daniel called a second later when Jack didn't answer him.
The urgency in Daniel's voice must have carried out to the Jaffa in the living room, for the big man appeared in the kitchen doorway in a heartbeat. “DanielJackson, is something wrong?” he rumbled, sounding like he expected something to have happened to Daniel when he wasn't looking, as mishaps seemed to happen to Daniel with unnerving regularity. It was no wonder the Jaffa was concerned.
Daniel beckoned him over to the fridge, and together, the men peered into it. “Shouldn't we..?”
Teal'c sighed. “Perhaps we can yet be of some assistance to ColonelCarter by removing her... food... from this appliance,” he prosaically suggested. Teal'c hadn't stopped calling Carter by her military name yet that night, and didn't appear to want to stop any time soon. “O'Neill can help JessicaCarter with her homework while DanielJackson and I...” Teal'c paused as he clearly considered how best to phrase his next comment. At last he only declared, “We will help.”
Daniel glanced across the kitchen, looking for somewhere to put all that food. “Is there a bucket around her somewhere?”
Teal'c sighed again, a large amount of vocalization for the Jaffa to give. “Perhaps we should procure two buckets, DanielJackson.”
Jack snorted a laugh, then patted Daniel on the back. “I'll leave you to it,” he jovially said before heading back to Jessica in the living room. He would much rather help with Spelling homework than clear out moldy food from an overstuffed refrigerator. The job uncomfortably reminded him of his own refrigerator.
Back in the living room, he rejoined Jessica and the now vanished Twinkies. Two plastic wrappers littered the floor beside her chair. “Jessica,” he said, the warning sound clear in his voice. “Why don't you throw your garbage away rather than carpet the floor with them? Carter doesn't deserve another mess on top of the other problems in her life right now.”
Jessica looked up at him, suspicion sharp in her expression. “I always drop wrappers on the floor,” she defended.
Jack's eyebrow rose to his hair. “So... What you're really saying is that you actually want to make life harder for your mom?”
Jessica gravely considered his comment. “Well.... no.”
Jack next suggested, “Then why don't you pick up your stuff, throw it away, and get out your homework so that we can get started, since we had supper so late. Don't you want to surprise your mom by having everything already done by the time she gets home?”
Jessica's face brightened at the thought. “That's a good idea,” she said, and pulled out a bright orange folder in response. “My word list is in this folder,” she said. “There's ten words... here.”
Jack glanced at the simple list that she handed to him. “Seems easy enough to me - what do we have to do?”
“You read me the words, and then I'm supposed to spell them, or try to. Then we look them over, and figure out the difference between how they're really spelled instead of me sounding them out - like I probably will,” she warned. Then she beamed. “Miss Garrett says that I'm good at sounding things out.” Then her face fell. “It's just the 'really spelling' part that I have trouble with.”
Jack looked over the list a second time. “Okay - it seems doable.” He opened his mouth to read the first word at the top of the short list when she stopped him.
“Wait - I need to find something hard to write on.” Jessica searched through a pile of books, magazines, and journals on the coffee table in front of the sofa until she found a clipboard, which she pulled close to her, then found a pencil to write with. “Okay... Wait!”
Jack nearly had a heart attack at her second loud cry.
Jessica went on in great urgency. “I forgot to show you my room! It's right back here...” She half stood, ready to discard her homework onto the floor at her feet and rush Jack to her room down a hall that he could barely see.
Jack stopped her by putting a hand on her arm. “Wait, wait, wait... You already have your homework out, and you're ready to go... You can show me your room after we finish this. You know, as a sort of reward. Now... sit,” he ordered in his no-nonsense General's voice - the one he saved to use when soldiers were being particularly obtuse, and he needed to stay calm through a tough situation when what he really wanted to do was strangle them all in frustration. “Okay... first word... do you already know your alphabet and how to write?”
Jessica rolled his eyes. “I've known the alphabet since I was four,” she assured. “And of course I know how to write.”
“Of course,” Jack echoed. “You're a Carter.” Then he eyed the girl warily. “Do you already know the periodic table?”
Jessica blithely informed him, “Mom told me a long time ago to recite it when I can't sleep - so I do... though I don't know what all the words mean...”
“I don't, either,” Jack commented, impressed that she could even pronounce some of those elements. “Well... just write your best - you can show me when you're done. Okay... first word: lot.”
“Looooooot,” Jessica repeated, almost to herself. She thought for a minute, reminding Jack of the way that Charlie used to look when he'd sat hunched over his homework. Then Jessica hastily wrote something down on the piece of paper that she had hidden from Jack. “Okay, next word.”
“Cat,” Jack quickly proclaimed. Jessica carefully considered the word, now reminding Jack of the pose that he used to see Carter taking when she was stumped by a puzzle that she couldn't figure out. A wave of sorrow immediately accosted Jack - he'd never expected to see that pensive pose again, yet here it was, successfully aped by Carter's daughter. Jack felt his heart squeeze tight in his chest, and for one awful moment, he thought he was going to cry.
He must have made a sound of distress, for Jessica glanced up at him, saw the tears in his eyes, and instantly asked, “Are you alright, Jenrol... I mean, Jack?”
Jack pushed against his eyes until the pain helped bring his wayward feelings under control again. “Oh, sure,” he responded, trying to sound casual as he said it. “I just had some dust in my eyes - Daniel and Teal'c must be giving your mom's kitchen a better cleaning than I thought they were. I think I'm allergic to something they're stirring up in there.”
Jessica was completely fooled by his excuse. “Daniel and Teal'c are cleaning Mom's kitchen?” she asked, amazed. “It's been ages since we did that!”
“Yeah - we kinda figured,” Jack dryly replied.
Jessica jumped up. “Let's go watch!”
Jack again caught her arm. “Let's not, and say we did,” he suggested. “How about we finish your homework first?”
Disappointed, Jessica again slouched down in the chair that formed to her small body. “Okay,” she said in dejection, giving the indication that they were missing all the fun. “Next word.”
“Fought,” Jack pronounced.
Jessica wrinkled her nose. “I don't think I can spell...”
“Good - you better not be able to spell that until you're in third grade, at least. I just wanted to see if you're paying attention.”
“Wow, you're tricky,” Jessica then complimented. “Miss Garrett says that a trick is as good as ten treats.” Then she considered. “I don't understand what she means by that.”
“Nope, me neither, but it sounds very wise to me,” Jack announced. “Okay, next... spell your full name - and no 'Jessica, daughter of Carter.'”
“Jaaaack!” Jessica's brows reached for her hair this time. “My name is an easy one.” She proceeded to spell 'Jessica' with only one 's' and a 'k.' “But I don't know how to do the 'Carter.'”
Jack took the opening she'd offered him. “How come your name is 'Carter,' huh? Shouldn't it be your dad's name?”
Jessica readily responded, “I already told you - I don't have a dad.” Then she reconsidered. “Well, I guess that I do, but he's dead. He died before I was born - I never met him, so it's just easier to say that I don't have one so I don't have ta explain that I never met him, and that he's dead, and...”
Jack shrugged and cut her off. “But I bet you know his name. I mean, you should have his name, not Carter's.” This had been a burning point to Jack ever since he'd heard Carter say her daughter's full name earlier at supper. He wanted to know who Carter thought so well of that she would have his child. After all, she clearly didn't think well enough of him to have his child!
Jessica looked nonplussed. “I think his name's 'Jason' something. 'Jason...'” She thought hard for a minute.
Just as Jack was on the verge of telling her not to hurt herself with so much hard thinking, she successfully blurted out the name, “'Novak!'” She smiled at recalling the correct name. “Mom said that he was a doctor at a hospital in... in...” She had to pause to think a second time, but after only a minute, was able to go on. “In Springfield.”
Jack's brows rose. “Springfield... Illinois? Springfield, Missouri? Springfield, Oregon? Springfield, Massachusetts?”
Jessica was slower in answering this question, as if she were unsure, and didn't want to get the name of the state wrong. “Um... Missouri, I think.”
Jack's brows now furrowed. “What was she doing clear out in Missouri?”
Jessica shrugged. “She told me once that was where she went after she knew you guys.” Then she helpfully added, “Because the names are sort of the same.”
Jack was confused. “The names?”
“Yeah,” Jessica explained, looking like the similarities between Springfield and Colorado Springs should be obvious. “The names...” Her tone changed to one more heavy with the 'duh' sound. “As in, 'Spring?'”
“Ah,” Jack said in a voice of comprehension. “I see. Um... Do you know when she left there?”
When Jessica just stared at him, clearly concerned about the many questions that he suddenly had found to ask, Jack aimed for a casual tone so that he could again set the girl at ease. “I'm just curious.”
His ploy must have worked, for Jessica immediately looked easier than she had been. “I was born there, and we stayed until... four years ago, I think. I don't remember living there, though. I remember...”
Jack cut her off with one last inquiry. “You were born there? When was that?”
Jessica again looked as if she thought this information should be common knowledge. “In August, silly. The fifteenth - I missed the cutoff day for school - that's why I'm in Kindergarten when I'm six instead of starting when I was five.”
Jack nodded with her. “I was wondering about that,” he noted, sounding pensive now.
“Yeah,” Jessica said. “I'm older than most of the kids... and the tallest girl in my class. But Dillon's the fastest runner.”
“Dillon?” Jack asked. “Is that a boy?”
“Yeah,” Jessica grumbled.
“What... you don't like boys?” Jack next asked of her, trying not to tease with his question, but to take what she was saying as seriously as he could.
Jessica wrinkled her brow, but thought about his question before she spoke. “Well... Tristan's okay... And Jimmy... But Dillon gloats all the time about how fast he runs.”
“I hate that gloating,” Jack then remarked, as if he shared her distaste of the gesture. “It's so annoying.”
“Yeah, it is!” she wholeheartedly agreed with him, looking pleased that Jack seemed to understand what she was trying to convey with her words. Then she jumped up. “I wanted to show you the picture on the fireplace - come on!” She wouldn't be waylaid this time - she grabbed his hand and dragged him the few feet over to the living room fireplace. She proudly pointed to a five by seven picture sitting in the middle of the mantel. “See! There you guys are!”
And she was right. There were the four members of the original SG-1, all standing by a wall in what had to be the SGC Commissary, their arms around each other, all of them smiling broadly at the camera.
Jack remembered the day that picture had been taken - they were late for a briefing because they'd paused to let Walter take that picture. He'd been taking snapshots of everything around the base to put in a scrapbook that no one outside the SGC could ever see. He'd wanted to document daily life, SGC style, he'd said. And what was daily life if it didn't include SG-1?
So they had all paused to pose for the Sergeant. Daniel had just made some ridiculous comment about not showing this to any of their future girlfriends, Sam included, and they were all laughing when Walter snapped the photo. It had turned out to be the best picture in the entire scrapbook in Jack's opinion.
Carter must have thought so, too, and gotten a print from Walter before she left the SGC. She could have kept her copy of the photo in her office or her lab, though Jack had never seen it on display in either place.
Carefully Jack now picked up the snapshot to study it more closely.
They all looked so happy, so carefree. This had been before what he thought of as the slow crumbling fall of SG-1, back before the promotions had torn them all apart, before age and painful knowledge shadowed their eyes. Daniel's wife had been 'officially' killed at this point, true, and Teal'c's wife Dre'auc was dead, but even those sad events hadn't come between the members of the team. It wasn't the way they had been during the year and a half that Jack had headed the SGC, back before he and Carter had made love for the first time, then the second time, then the third time... back before Carter had vanished, taking at least half his heart with her when she'd gone.
Jack continued to study the photo, staring avidly at the Carter who'd been so close to him, the one he had dreadfully missed for over six years of his life. His breath hitched painfully in his chest as he did so.
Jessica noticed. “That's what Mom always does when she looks at that picture, too.”
“Does she look at it often?” Jack asked in a choked voice.
“Yeah.” Jessica nodded. “I had a nightmare one night, and came out to make sure that no one was hiding over there, in that closet...” And she pointed to the coat closet near the front door. “And Mom was looking at the picture and crying.”
Carter had been crying? Jack didn't even know that she knew how to cry. She hadn't even cried at her own dad's funeral. He had thought that nothing could make her cry if that didn't do it. In fact, it had been the one reason why he had been extra solicitous to Carter after the funeral, the reason he'd even been around her for their first bout of love making to happen - he'd been worried that she was bottling up all her pain because she didn't cry. What he'd thought had been the signs of an emotional breakdown had really been the signs that she was sad, yes, but figuring out how to contend with her feelings for him had been much more on her mind at the time.
But why had Carter been crying as she looked at her picture? Isn't this life she'd carved out for herself and for her daughter what she wanted? Why moon over the past?
It didn't make sense to Jack. But then, so very little did.
Jack replaced the picture on the mantel. “Okay, sport, back to your spelling.”
Again Jessica did a double take. “How did you know that I'm called 'sport?'” She reluctantly followed Jack back to her chair as she spoke.
Jack glanced back at her. “Well, you're wearing a ball cap, a thin one that shows you wear it a lot. I just figured that you were in to sports 'cause of the cap.”
“Maybe I'm just in to hats, like Teal'c is,” Jessica slyly pointed out.
Jack grinned down at her. “Maybe,” he answered. “But 'sport' is what I called my kid - I guess it just came out without me thinking about it. Hope you don't mind.”
“I don't mind,” Jessica assured. “But you have a kid? Mom never told me that,” she accused.
Jack tried to act casual as his heart painfully pounded again in his chest. “Yeah, I had a son. But he was older than you.”
“Had? What happened to him?” Jessica wanted to know. “Is he all growed up?”
Jack smiled briefly, thought about correcting Jessica's incorrect verb tense, but decided against it when his gaze that he had practically glued to Jessica's homework word list blurred over. “No,” he finally told her in a quiet voice. “There was an accident - he died,” was all Jack said.
“Oh, wow,” Jessica said, clearly not knowing what to say.
“Yeah,” Jack murmured, not giving her the chance to say anything. All of a sudden, he grew tired of even that tiny amount of discussion of the topic. “Look, can we not talk about this right now? We have to do the rest of your homework.
It was like Jessica could sense how uncomfortable the topic of his son made Jack. “Sure,” she said, and without even arguing with him, or asking any more questions, she took up the clipboard from where she had dropped it, and stated, “I'm ready - go.”
Just then Daniel emerged from the kitchen, followed by Teal'c. “Jack,” Daniel said. “I wasn't aware how late it's getting. Teal'c has to go back to... catch his flight back home... and I have the writing on those pottery shards yet to transcribe.”
“I still say those markings are just decoration,” Jack insisted, no evidence left of the unsettling subject that he and Jessica had been discussing.
“Yeah, well,” Daniel hemmed. “It's taking Sam a lot longer than she thought it would at her campus...”
Jack sighed. “Why don't you just spit it out, Daniel?” Jack asked. “You guys need to leave, and wonder if I'll be alright here on my own till Carter comes home, right?”
Daniel stuffed his hands in his pockets, looking for all the world like a little boy who'd gotten caught crawling under the Christmas tree, looking for presents just for him. “Yeah, that about sums it up,” he agreed.
“You guys go on,” Jack told him. “We'll be fine. We're almost done here, and then it will be about time for Jessica to head to bed...”
“Tonight's bath night,” Jessica informed them. “I have to take a bath and wash my hair before bed.”
“I can handle that,” Jack assured. At Daniel's unconvinced look, Jack huffed a breath. “Daniel, this isn't exactly new to me, ya know. You guys go on, for cryin out loud. I can handle this on my own.”
“But can you handle Sam?” Daniel wanted to know, as if the muttered phrase was so typical as to go unnoticed.
But Jack wasn't the typical guy - he noticed. He instantly had to concede that Daniel had a point. “I'll be nice to Carter, and won't even ask her any questions,” he next insisted. “I wouldn't want to be the cause of Teal'c being late.”
“My... tribe... thanks you, O'Neill,” Teal'c assured.
Jack waved a hand in Teal'c's direction. “Okay, there ya go.” When neither man moved, Jack hurried them along with his remark, “Get going, guys, or I let Jess dump all the food you just cleaned out of the fridge onto your hair.”
Jessica giggled. “That might be fun,” she dispassionately noted.
Daniel held out warding hands, and backed away. “Okay, no need to do something drastic.” He beckoned Teal'c over when he had reached the door. “We'll see you later, Jack!” Then they disappeared, and shut the door on the cold outside air.
“Okay,” Jack said, turning back to the list. “Where were we?”
“How many words left?” Jessica asked.
Jack counted. “Your name counts as two... so... there's six left. Let's see how fast we can get this done.”
Five minutes later, Jessica threw down her pencil. “There! Done!”
Jack looked over what she had written. She had spelled 'lot' as 'lawt,' and 'pit' as 'pid,' but on the whole, she had things correct. At least, correct enough for Jack. “Very good!” he praised. “You'll be the spelling champ before we know it.” Jessica beamed at the praise in spite of her obvious spelling mistakes. “So... what's next?”
“Bath.” Jessica wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I know what to do.” Sounding long-suffering, she headed down the hall.
A few minutes later, Jack heard the sounds of bath water running, and he knew that Jessica was dealing with her next assigned job that night, no matter how distasteful she found it. “Do you need any help?” he yelled over the noise of the running water.
“Nah!” Jessica hollered back. “But thanks for asking!”
“Okay!” Jack heard her shut the water off a moment later, then splashing sounds.
Ten minutes after that, Jessica reappeared coming down the hall, dressed in pajamas that proclaimed, 'I'm a math Princess!'
Jack could barely hold back the snort of amusement when he saw her outfit. “Math princess, huh? Has your mom already got you started on something like math?”
Jessica glared at him. “I already know how to add all the way up to the tens table.”
The glare held his eyes for a second. As she looked again at her homework, Jack's eyes suddenly widened in recognition - with her hair wet and slicked back like it was, she looked exactly like Charlie had looked after his baths. Jack's eyes widened even more. Fortunately, Jessica didn't notice, or she would have certainly commented on it. Jack didn't feel like he could process this amazing new discovery of his as well as Jessica's commentary on the situation. So Jack continued to stare at her face with what he hoped was a look of unconcern and ease, even while his mind churned in shock.
“Time for bed,” Jack next croaked, rising from the chair.
“What?” Jessica wailed. “It's not even 1930 yet!”
“It's close enough,” Jack argued with her. “Come on, show me your room before bed,” he cajoled.
The look in Jessica's eyes was again wary, but she complied without making a fuss. “It's here.” She entered the room at the end of the short hallway that led off the living room, and hurled herself onto the bed. “See! I got a canpy bed!”
Jack looked around at the piles of stuffed animals and blocks and makeup and electronic toys that greeted his eyes. He was so stunned at seeing such a mess connected to a Carter - and for a second time in one night, no less! - that he was too amazed to even correct the mispronunciation she'd used in her last sentence.
“Don't you think it might be nice to clean up a bit?” Jack suggested in a weak voice.
“Clean!” Jessica screeched as if he'd just personally insulted her. “I hate cleaning!”
Jack again looked around the room in amazement. There was so much stuff in piles on the floor, and overflowing the toybox in the corner that there was only a path to the bed. Even the dresser set alongside one wall didn't rate a path of it's own. Jack had never seen so much stuff. “Yes, I can tell you hate cleaning,” he dryly commented.
Jessica's eyes followed his, as if she were seeing the room for the first time. “I do have a lot of stuff.”
Jack coughed, and tried not to be judgmental. “Well, it might be nice to have more than just a path to your bed,” he suggested. “You can't even play in here - there's no room!”
“Huh,” Jessica grunted. “I never thought of it that way.”
Jack suddenly turned to her. “I bet you can't get rid of all your stuff that you've outgrown by next week.”
Jessica jumped at the challenge he was offering. “I can too!” she declared.
“Can not!” Jack instantly rebutted.
“Can!” she yelled.
“Can't,” Jack said back.
“What will you bet me?” Jessica quickly asked.
Jack was just as quick to suggest, “Maybe I can go with you and your mom to some kind of theme park or...”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “No mom,” she objected. “And make it a hundred dollars instead!”
Why the little Napoleon - wheeling and dealing the way she was. Doc Fraiser would have been proud. “No way!” Jack firmly negated. “I'm not forking over any money for you to just turn around to buy more stuff.”
“I won't buy more stuff,” she scoffed. “Okay - make it a new wii...”
“Doesn't matter,” Jack firmly stated. “I bet you can't do it anyway, so it don't matter.” Geez! He was talking like she was already! It had to stop!
Not that it mattered, either, Jack thought a second later. Carter would come home, he would go to his own home, and he would probably never see Jessica again.
Jessica shoved the covers of her unmade bed aside. “Bet I can too do it!” she retorted in a snotty voice. “You just wait! And I'll even start tonight to show you I'm serious!”
Jack drew his brows together. “That's a big promise - bet you can't do even a little tonight.”
“Bet I can!” Jessica assured. “And you can't help, neither! You find a wii - I'll start in here.”
Jack smoothly rose from his seat on the bed, the only clean place in the room. “Okay, I give up. If I can't tell you any different...”
“You can't,” Jessica told him. “Now what do I do first?”
“Find some trash bags,” Jack suggested. “And use them. Put stuff in them that you want to donate... I mean, give away.” He glanced at her as she looked at her room. “But I told you already - it doesn't matter. You...”
With a sudden bang, what sounded like the front door opened, impacting the wall behind it. “I'm home!” came Carter's sudden cry from the direction of the living room. “Sir! Daniel! Teal'c! I'm so sorry! I didn't think I would be gone so long!” A second later came the query, “Jess? Where is everybody?”
Jack exited Jessica's bedroom, followed by Jessica herself, and met Carter in the living room. “Carter - hi!”
“Hi!” she chimed back.
“Hi!” Jessica said in a voice that sounded like she didn't want to be left out of this adult conversation.
“Did you eat?” Carter first asked at the sight of her daughter.
“Yep, and Jack helped me with my spelling!” Jessica announced.
“You already finished it?” she asked as she dropped her bag and books on the hall table.
Jessica gave an enthusiastic nod. “And Jack thinks I can't clean my room, but I say that I can - he bet me a wii.”
“We've already talked about getting you a wii!” Carter said to Jessica in exasperation. She then turned to Jack. “You don't have to do that, Sir. She's just...”
“Don't matter,” he cut her off. “She's not gonna be able to do it anyway, so...”
“I'll show you!” Jessica argued, then marched off to the kitchen in search of trash bags, Jack assumed, for she marched back a second later, carrying one bag.
Jack stopped her and pointed her back in the direction of the kitchen. “You'll need more than one - trust me. In fact, get the whole box of trash bags.”
Jessica shrugged, and went back to the kitchen. After she had claimed the entire box of trash bags, she said, “Mom, wait till you see what they did to the kitchen.” She continued walking in the direction to her room.
Carter's eyes widened in alarm. “Did to it?”
At the same time, Jack scowled after Jessica. “You weren't supposed to tell her!” he yelled. He tried to smile at Carter, but it came out looking more like a wince. “It was Daniel and Teal'c - I helped with the homework.”
Looking hesitant, Carter headed for the kitchen. “I'd better inspect the damage... Where are Daniel and Teal'c, anyway?”
Jack followed her. “Teal'c had to go back to... He had to leave. So Daniel took him back to base.”
“Ah,” Carter said in instant understanding.
It was almost a forgotten pleasure to Jack to have someone immediately understand such an obscure reference as taking someone to a military base so he could return to his 'tribe.'
“Is the pizza in here?” Carter next asked, indicating the fridge when she didn't see a pizza box sitting on the counter. “I hope you saved a lot for me - I'm starving!” She opened the fridge door, then yelled a surprised, “Holy Hannah!”
Jack smiled at the small surprise that 'the guys' had given to her. “Yeah, clean, isn't it? Wish that I could take credit for it, but it was all due to Daniel and Teal'c. You know what a clean freak Teal'c is.”
Carter practically choked. “I know how clean the fridge wasn't! The work they must have done...”
In mid sentence, Jack cut her off to suddenly change the subject. “You can start right now in telling me that she's mine, Carter. I don't mind.” His heart pounded so hard that it nearly burst out of his chest as he said the nonchalant line, but he also felt determined to air this topic at long last.
Carter paused, her head still half hidden inside the clean fridge. “Um...”
“And that's the reason why you left seven years ago,” Jack went on declaring.
Carter's second hum was even softer than the one before. “Um...”
“Carter...” Jack began, his voice finally strangling inside his throat. The fear he immediately felt at making that nonchalant statement of his finally caught up to him. It wrapped him in instant panic. He couldn't speak, even though he had much to say. Crap, this is frustrating! Jack said to himself as he fought with his emotion-roughened esophagus to form a coherent sound.
However, before he could do more than grunt to himself about his displeasure at his lack of vocal abilities, Carter was able to move even if she made no sound. She suddenly straightened, then carefully shut the fridge door. She propped her hands on her hips, but regarded the floor, not him, and she still didn't say anything.
So far, Jack hadn't asked her any questions, just like he had promised Daniel. But a question was now burning a hole in his brain. At last, he couldn't hold his tongue a second longer. His heart pounding a cadence against his ribs, he forced sound past his panicked, closed-off throat and softly inquired, “If not because of her... then... why?”
It was the conversation that he had wanted to have with Carter for the last seven years. Now that it was here, Jack thought that he would feel a sense of relief at finally getting the chance to have all his questions answered. But he was surprised to only feel uneasy about Carter's own obviously growing discomfort. Getting his questions answered at long last wasn't worth upsetting Carter so much.
Carter studied the ceiling now rather than the floor. She pursed her lips in her effort to keep the tears flooding her eyes from cascading down her cheeks. When she could speak after making what was clearly a huge effort, her voice was little more than a choked whisper. “I left... because...” But she couldn't go on. Her hands covering her grieving eyes illustrated that much.
Jack tried to comfort her by addressing what he assumed had to be her main fear. “What do you expect me to do to you if you tell me?” he gently inquired, still trying to keep his voice free from the teeming emotions he felt tearing a yawning hole inside him. He was scared what he might do if he gave in to those emotions. “I wouldn't hurt you after spending years trying to find you!” he assured.
“It's not that!” Carter was now able to insist, her voice clogged with the sound of her persistent tears. “I know that you would never hurt me!”
So... not what he'd always assumed was the problem. So... what then? Jack was mystified as to what was going on inside her head. He remembered a time when he could have almost read her mind. Now he was lucky he could read her body language. “If not that, then... what?” he again prompted.
Carter looked down once more, then up again, then to the kitchen door, but she still wasn't able to look straight at Jack. “Um...” she uncomfortably hummed. “Do we have to have this conversation now, Sir?” she hesitantly asked.
Jack didn't even call her on using the dreaded 'Sir.' Instead, he felt the first stirrings of anger at her obvious avoidance attempt. She had always done her best to steer clear of emotional subjects, and it appeared that the intervening years had done nothing to change that habit. “Yes, we have to have it now,” he firmly declared. “If I know you, you'll put off this conversation for a 'more convenient time,' then run like hell, and it will be another six or seven years before I find you again!” His sense of aggravation at that idea was very real, so he didn't have to hide it, or create it, or even pretend it. He just worried that he might push her too hard for the explanations he felt he deserved, and she would run when he wasn't looking.
Still, he dared to add, “So yes, now is the perfect time!” His voice was rising and growing louder, and after a silence that rang with the condemnation of his previous words, Jack did his best to soften and lower it again. “What happened?” He sighed, trying to be more understanding, or at least patient. “I just want to understand.”
The tears were still evident in her eyes, but wouldn't fall. Her voice cracked, but did it dryly. “Would you believe that I was scared?” she softly confessed.
“Yes,” he glibly responded. The idea of a scared Carter wasn't so hard to imagine. When it came to personal emotions, Carter could be guaranteed to always be scared. “But scared of what?” His voice edged with frustration.
Her breath gave the crack this time as she tried to respond. “Of... of... of... of...” But she couldn't get any more information out, and trailed off.
“Carter,” Jack began after a moment, rubbing the back of his neck, showing his growing irritation with this situation even as he tried to reign in his feelings. Keeping his voice low and well modulated, he asked, “What could possibly have frightened you so much that you kept my own daughter from me?”
It was the first time either of them had so baldly put his suspicions into words. It sounded like such a hideous thing to have done when he said it like that. But he wanted to understand her reasoning, needed to understand why she had thought that leaving without even giving him a chance to make things right with her had been her only option.
And equally as acrimonious as his earlier statement, Carter burst out with, “You were already having a baby! With her!” There was no doubt who she was referring to. “I couldn't let it become common knowledge that I was also pregnant with your baby! I didn't want you to be known as the 'shoot first, ask questions later' General!” she crudely added. The agony she must have been feeling then was clearly showing on her face now. “I was only...” She had to stop and try again. “When I left...”
Jack interrupted to accuse, “When you left, you weren't thinking of me, you were thinking of yourself.” His softly spoken allegation still came across as an indictment, no matter its volume. “Why else would you choose to run instead of telling me that..?”
But that accusation was too much for Carter to take. Her face did curl up then as the tears that she'd been successfully holding at bay dripped down her cheeks. “I was afraid I would miscarry again!” she at last announced, finally voicing the fear that had ruled her actions so long ago.
Miscarry? Again? Jack's brows rose in astonishment. “Again?” he incredulously asked.
But Carter ignored his inquiry to tearfully go on with her story. “You had already lost one child - I couldn't do that to you again!” Obviously distressed, she shook her head back and forth. “I couldn't get your hopes up at the idea of having a baby again... then miscarry, like I did the others.”
Jack's heart froze at that word she uttered. He seized her arms in his hands, his fingers gentle, but curled around each of her biceps like bands of the most tender Steele. “Wait a minute - what others?” His heart pounded painfully in his chest. “What are you..?”
Carter hiccuped again, and struggled against her surging emotions to form her explanation. “We... we had... known each other for... years...” Then she looked at him, and her face screwed up again. “But it was so hopeless!” she explained, despair coloring her voice as she spoke of the relationship that she and her superior officer were not allowed to have. “One night, I got drunk... just thinking about it... and the next thing I knew, I was waking up beside some guy...”
Alarmed, Jack instantly demanded to know, “Were you attacked?”
The earlier expression of self loathing was back in full force on her face. Mute, she could only shake her head back and forth. It was several moments clogged with heart stopping emotion before she could whisper, “I'm so sorry... have been for years...”
Jack hadn't known any of this - had he been that distant from Carter back then? Now it was his turn for indictment - self-loathing blanketed his face for a moment. When she caught sight of his expression, she obviously thought that he was thoroughly disgusted with her having what was for all accounts a one night stand. Her face fell, and he realized in a second what she was thinking. He vigorously shook his head back and forth as a show of his own self judgment rather than let her think that he was harshly judging her. “You said 'others,'” he was finally able to choke out. “When..?”
This explanation was simpler for her. “I got pregnant with Pete,” she said between her hiccups. “I never told him... I was afraid that I might miscarry again... and I did, right on schedule, in the second month...”
Another hiccup nearly stopped her voice, but she managed to say, “I was just glad that it didn't work out!” She hiccuped once more. “Isn't that awful of me?” she softly asked of him now, looking completely ashamed. “That I didn't want..?”
“No, not awful,” Jack quickly assured, cutting into her explanation. “You were leader of SG-1. You were going through the 'Gate on a weekly basis. You were...”
“Weren't in love with him,” Carter miserably finished for Jack. She sniffed, swiped her hand across her nose and sorrowfully added, “I was going to have a baby with a man when I was in love with another man.”
In love with... Jack did another double take. His heart didn't pound now - it stopped. A breath later, it stuttered and started once more with a painful lerch. The whole heart thing made Jack huff for air. “You... you...”
Carter grimaced, and her misery compounded. “I knew what I was feeling... and what I was doing... making you jealous... when that's what you did to me... with Kerry.”
With Kerry... Jack made a grunt of regret at all that had happened when he had spent those two awful weeks with Kerry, lying to himself on a daily basis that he was happy with the Carter-substitute that he had found. For that's what she was, he finally admitted to himself. Unfortunately, she discovered what he was doing before he had the chance to break things off with her. Then she had thought she was pregnant... and he'd had a front row seat to experience how well that had turned out!
“I didn't mean to make you jealous,” Jack at last ground out. “Didn't want to.” He made that same grunting sound again. “But it had been so long,” he tried to excuse. Yet, there was no excuse. He tried to explain anyway. “You... were...” His voice trailed off in the wake of his mounting guilt. He gave up and closed his eyes in complete and utter regret. If only they had talked to each other then! But they hadn't. They had simply gone about their business as usual, damn the consequences. It was clear that talking was the thing that needed to head their list of new relations with each other, now that Jack knew about Jessica. Assuming that Carter was interested in furthering relations with him, that is.
Surging with the hope of this possibility, Jack was at least willing to further that possibility along. He noted, “For what it's worth, I'm sorry.”
Jack O'Neill - apologizing?
But Carter was too upset to show her incredulity. “Sorry for what?” she asked on yet another hiccup. “I didn't tell you - couldn't - I kept expecting to miscarry again! Every day, I woke up and thought, 'This will be the day.' And every day I went to bed still pregnant... and loving it.” She said it like she felt it was a bad thing to like her condition. “I was loving this tiny little baby that I wasn't supposed to be having... and couldn't tell you about it.” Now she sounded marginally contrite. But the next thing she said ended that sense of contrition. “You were already having one with Kerry Johnson.” She spat out the name with an amount of venom that was uncommon for Carter. “She had..! She had... everything...” Clearly, convincing her to give voice to her feelings was still like pulling teeth. She had changed in the intervening years, but not that much!
Jack ignored the issue behind her words, knowing that they would have to talk about this eventually, but not feeling up to it that night. He could only tackle one problem at a time, and at last sadly... and not so sadly... announced, “But you didn't miscarry, did you?”
Carter gave a minute head shake 'no.' She was able to add, “I kept waiting for it!” She swallowed her tears for the hundredth time, then went on to explain, “But after two and a half months... then twelve weeks...” Then she was whispering a plea, “And I didn't know what to do... I would start showing soon... if I didn't lose it first... and I knew that you would think... though you were clearly quite taken with Miss Johnson!”
“Who had fibroids, not a baby,” Jack quietly announced.
That statement put a pause to even Carter's hiccups. “What?”
Jack sighed, allowed to finally explain this. “Apparently, the heavy... um... bleeding... that's usually caused by... fibroid tumors... was no... no bleeding... in her.” Now that the time for his explanation was at hand, Jack's sense of unease at even mentioning this delicate female topic was higher than he had expected. He forged on despite his emotions. “She didn't get her pregnancy medically confirmed... until the day you left.” He sighed in regret. “That was when we went in for first, the blood test, then the Ultrasound that showed fibroids, but no baby.”
“What?” Carter asked, now sounding highly confused.
Jack tried to further explain, “I came back from the Infirmary to find Daniel in his office, Walter holding my calls, but no you to tell my news to. You were gone...” Distressed, remembering that awful time, Jack ran a hand through his hair in agitation. “You know what you did... asked for that transfer behind my back.”
“It wasn't meant to be behind your back,” she instantly exclaimed. “It was just... not in front of you,” she added in another whisper. “I'd gone to Hammond...”
Hammond? “You mean he's known where you were all this time and didn't tell me?” he bit off, incensed.
But her next comment soothed his ruffled emotions. “No - of course he didn't know where I was.” She paused, then confessed, “No one knew - I made sure of it.”
Jack couldn't undo what had been done all those years ago, no matter how much he wanted to. So... whatever her excuse was... His voice was undeniably mournful when he flatly explained, “I came out of the Infirmary with no baby, no Kerry, and in the weeks to come, I found out that there was no Carter, either.”
A hand came up to cover her mouth. “Oh, God!” The sound of her voice was truly ripped by emotion now. The tears that Carter now was able to more fully cry rained again in a silent agony down her cheeks. “I couldn't tell you!” she burst out. “And I had started to show! And... I wouldn't miscarry... not that I wanted to...” She bowed her head in defeat. “I loved our baby.” She stood gravely before him and quietly sobbed. “I had never loved one before,” she whispered again, the words almost swallowed by her attempt to keep her crying as quiet as possible. But she couldn't strangle her feelings of sorrow, for she again said, “I'm so sorry.”
Wanting to at least dislike her for what she had done, Jack found that he couldn't, and that he even understood her reasoning at the time, as twisted as it had been. He gruffly said, “Jessica thinks her father's name is 'Jason Novak.' Why did you tell her that if you're sorry?”
Carter paused to let another hiccup clear out of her throat. “I told Jessica that - years ago. Back when...”
“And you've been in Colorado Springs plenty long to have looked me up, to...”
“I thought you were still in Washington DC,” she quickly told him. “That it was safe to come back. I loved living here...” Then she added in remorse, “But it wasn't the same... without the same people.”
“Daniel was still at the base,” Jack protested. “You could have looked him up...”
“And he would have told you,” Carter shot back at him, as if she inherently knew what her friend would have done concerning the topic of her disappearance. “I knew Daniel well enough to predict that.” Then she just looked guilty. “And... and... I couldn't... face you... with what I had done. You had a right to... to hate my guts.” She shook her head again. “And I couldn't stand the idea of you hating my...” She looked truly repentant now, and scared shitless at the same time. “I couldn't bear the thought of you hating me,” she finally got out.
Jack soooo wanted to hate her! He tried, hard. “So you did... what?” he spitefully asked now. The anger that she had predicted that he would have felt back then was now in evidence in his voice. “You got a teaching job, you tooled around town, and every day you woke up and thought, 'I'm going to not tell Jack today!'”
“That isn't the way it happened!” Carter cried her protest.
“Then how did it happen?” Jack cried back. “Did you just..?”
And suddenly Jessica was standing in the door, her own hands on her hips as she vibrated in anger and hollered at Jack, “Don't yell at my mom like that!”
A moment of silence followed. There it was again - that sense that Jack hadn't dared to be reprimanded by anyone for so long that he didn't know quite how to react to Jessica's 'order'... except to be amused that this six year old girl could so thoughtlessly do what many officers hadn't been brave enough to do.
Finally Carter gulped back her tears, and tried to explain to Jessica, “Honey, Jack was just...”
Jessica scowled as she interrupted. “I know what he was doing!” she declared. “And I know who he is!”
Thinking that she thought of him as the General again, Jack quickly negated Jessica's statement. “No, you don't. I...”
But Jessica cut him off, obviously having other ideas. “You're my father!” she yelled.
Once again, Jack's eyes widened. “What?” When she didn't explain further, he let his amazement at her unexpected comment fully wash over him. “How..?”
“I've known that for years!” Jessica scornfully told him.
Years? Jack was completely bamboozled now. “Then why..? The Novak thing..?”
“And you fell for it hook, line, and sinker!” Jessica yelled. “And that's another cliché for you!”
Jessica sounded older than her six years when she talked about something as obscure as clichés. No, Jack quickly corrected himself, not older, wiser. He did a quick turn around the kitchen. “Wha..?” But he didn't understand, and he hated not instantly understanding things! And this was certainly a time that perfectly illustrated his total lack of comprehension. “For crying out loud!”
Jessica continued to watch Jack with wary eyes as he paced in front of her refrigerator. “I had a funeral for you, you know,” she softly told him. “A long time ago, way back when I was five.”
But she's only six, Jack mentally protested. But did a funeral mean that she secretly wanted him as dead as Jason Novak? Aloud, he asked, “You had a funeral for me? Why?”
Jessica firmly said, “Because I knew this was where you lived - I mean, in Colorado Springs. I saw you in my school - my preschool - one day.”
A look of understanding settled on Jack's face. “You must be talking about The Fun Factory - yeah, I used to volunteer there. You saw me?”
Jessica scowled. “You were far away... but I knew it was you.”
Carter gaped. “Jessica, honey, you didn't say a thing to...” she began.
Jessica swung to look at her clearly upset mom. “If he lived here...” she said, pointing at Jack with her index finger. “I thought he knew all about us, and didn't want us. So, he might as well be dead... and I didn't have a dad... So I had a funeral in the back yard instead. I buried a shoebox.”
A shoebox? This situation was just too funny for Jack, and he barked a laugh, but smothered his amusement when Carter shot him a teary-eyed look of aggravation. She turned back to her daughter before asking, “Did you put anything in the box, sweetie?”
“Yeah,” Jessica nonchalantly told them. “A G.I. Joe doll. 'Cause you guys were from the Air Army... thing.” She warily eyed Jack as if it had been entirely his fault that both he and her mom had been military. “But the doll wouldn't fit in the box, so I had to snap its head off first.”
Jack did guffaw that time - he couldn't restrain himself. He fancied that even Carter giggled through her tears. “You mean to tell me that you didn't burn me in effigy before you buried it?” Jack asked in a voice strangled now with amusement.
Jessica's face lit up. “Oh, wow, good idea.” A look of inner contemplation fell over her. Jack had seen the same look on Carter's face many times in the past. “I didn't think of doing that...” Her voice trailed away as the idea caught her imagination.
The sadness of such an image also washed over him - that his own daughter was so convinced that he knew about hers and Carter's location, and never wanted to have anything to do with either of them - that she mourned him as if he had died - so much so that she had held a funeral for him... But on second thought, he supposed to Jessica, it was as if he had died. Or her hope of him acting as her dad had died.
Jack shuddered - it was too upsetting to contemplate for more than a minute.
As a reaction to that horrible idea, Jack suddenly felt the fight drain out of him. It was only too easy to envision Jessica standing alone in her back yard, only a dog in attendance, avidly staring at a burning doll... “Okay... I don't want to fight about this,” he said in order to obliterate that horrible image.
Carter took the opportunity of the following silence as an opening to voice an apology long in coming. “I want you to know that I'm so sorry... Jack,” she emphasized. “I know that's a stupid thing to say... especially now... but I was as surprised as you are that I gave birth... and I wished you were there... so badly...” She looked down again to study the tiles under her feet, contrition now obvious on her tear-streaked face.
Jack grimaced. Spilt milk... that's what he'd told Daniel this was... and she really had had a reason for disappearing. She hadn't wanted him to take one look at her, and know she was having a child... his child... who he hadn't seen crawl, or spit up, hadn't changed her diaper, hadn't seen her take her first steps... just like he hadn't seen Charlie do any of those things. And he could get angry that she had kept him from that... even though she thought of it as protecting him from the pain of finding out... or...
Suddenly, Jack had a whole new thought. “You knew I'd figure this out, didn't you?” he suddenly accused Carter. “That I'd ask Jessica her birthday, then do the math.” He was almost too stunned to go on - almost. “That after her bath, I'd see how much she looked like Charlie. You wanted me to figure this out,” her charged. He openly gaped at her now, realization blanketing his face. “Or else, why would you have had me... us... baby-sit?”
Carter looked guilty. She next quietly confessed, “I knew you were going to be out for dinner... I followed Daniel and Teal'c when they went to Garden of the Gods yesterday... and I overheard them talk about meeting you, and where... and then I followed you three... but...”
“You set me up!” Jack would never have suspected this kind of maneuvering of Carter. “You..!”
“Planned the whole thing... sort of...” Carter quietly confessed. “Like it was another mission...” Her voice trailed away into a protracted silence. Finally she sniffed one last time, and stated, “I wanted to tell you...” But she couldn't go on with her explanation, so just added, “I'm sorry... I can't say that enough.”
It all whirled in his mind so fast that it caused nothing but chaos: Carter had followed them all; Carter had set them up; Carter had played with him... Yet he couldn't blame her for making sure that things happened so that this big, huge secret that had haunted his and her past for so long was finally going to see the light of day. Slowly, Jack began responding, the confusion still fogging his mind. “But, how...? Why..?” His voice trailed away before he was able to voice any of his questions.
Sounding exhausted, she broke in when it was clear that he was too flabbergasted to speak. “I don't want to fight about this, either.” She slowly turned to Jessica. “I kept your father from you, and for that I'm very sorry... though you should have told me who the funeral was for... though I kinda guessed when you asked me to buy you a G.I. Joe doll that I never saw again.” Silence followed this apology, and both Carter and Jessica added guilty expressions to Jack's look of amazed regret.
Finally Jack broke the silence as he said in a quiet voice, “So... we all have something to be sorry for.”
Carter sniffed. “It seems so.” She brushed at the tears still on her face, drying her cheeks with her hands, then wiping her fingers on her pants as if she wanted to wipe away the previous six years at the same time.
They all stood awkwardly around the kitchen after that, staring at each other, but none of them spoke. At last, the silence got to be too much for Jack to handle (he could hear himself breathing, for crying out loud!), and he shot a rather cringing look towards Jessica and tentatively asked, “Did you really snap off the head of your G.I. Joe doll for the funeral?”
Jessica gave a tiny, reluctant nod, then a shrug. “I guess I did... sort of... give him a hard time first... didn't I?”
Her timid voice sparked off more forgiving feelings in Jack. He fought against that tide of forgiveness, but it was a losing battle. Instead, he settled for burying those feelings down deep. He couldn't deal with them yet, or what it meant for him... for them. He wasn't sure that he was ready to completely forgive Carter's subterfuge, or Jessica's severe judgment on him just yet. After all, she had held a funeral in his honor! He didn't know what he thought about being funeralized just yet. It was a wonder that he had survived the wrath of hundreds of angry Jaffa, as well as their System Lord masters, but had easily succumbed to the punishment meted out by this young girl.
Plus, he supposed that he and the Carters were in for a tough time ahead - they hadn't spoken about so many things yet: not about parental rights, or custody, or visitation tactics, or (dare he say it... or even think it?) of forging some kind of lasting coexisting relationship with all involved...
Yet, he didn't say any of these things. Instead, he shoved all those things to the back of his mind, stored in a closet of brain matter, but left the door open on those subjects so that he had the opportunity to revisit them at a later time, somewhere in the not-so-distant future. When he was ready.
To Jessica, he now decided to tell her to simply not let it bother her too much that she had, for all purposes, buried her father alive. Or at least, a representation of her father. He opened his mouth to say that he didn't hold any grudges about the situation, when to his surprise, it was Carter who spoke first, overriding his bumbling attempts to soothe.
Carter eyed Jessica. “You are the one who chose to give him a funeral, after all,” she simply pointed out. “Maybe you can apologize for that, and we'll see what happens from there - maybe he'll even forgive us if we give him the chance.” But she didn't sound too convinced of that outcome as she spoke.
It impressed Jack that she had the courage... or hope... to speak at all. The least he could do was offer some type of olive branch of his own. “Or,” Jack said, breaking into the conversation when inspiration suddenly hit him. “Maybe you can do another funeral, with dolls that stand in for you two, too. That way, it won't have been just a funeral for me, but for all of us - you know, for the life before I... knew,” he lamely ended, his voice trailing away even as the idea took hold of Jessica's slightly morbid imagination.
The six-year-old sighed, an excited, dreamy look on her face. “Yeah! Then maybe we can do something to celebrate... you know, mark that something new's gonna happen next... maybe have a cake.”
At Jessica's words, Carter gave the most inelegant snort Jack had ever heard her produce. “Yep!” she exclaimed in sudden delight. “She's aaaaaaallll O'Neill!”
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