Disclaimer:

Because I have another plot,

I'll try to fit it in a slot,

A story writ for us to sing,

A royal decree - it's just the thing.

Yet...

Who am I kidding? Royal my ass.

A decree that's fit for any lass

Or lad is what I'm gonna write,

A fic of golden threads so tight.

Tales of heroes, goblins, knights, and kings,

Zits, and Zats, and all such things.

That's what you'll find here, it's no joke.

A blue-blood tale for the common bloke.

And before you groan, or call me Lame,

I seek no ownage, gold, or fame.

Just my own satisfaction, joy, and pride

For yet one more successful ride.

So...

Comment, write, drop me a line,

Encouragement's nice, concrit is fine.

(But as typing begins to hurt my wrist,

I'll shut up for now, lest you get pissed.)

Cloned Identities

by Linda Bindner

Thanks to Noda2 for being such a great beta!

The teenage Duplicate O'Neill let the bushes snap closed again, blocking everything from view once more. He wasn't at all sure that he wanted to see this, anyway.

It had been over a year since seeing any of his team members, but even in a year, he'd never expected a change so drastic. He'd thought that maybe by now Daniel might have formed some sort of permanent attachment, and he applauded that possibility. If anyone needed a girlfriend, the linquist was it. He also considered the idea that Teal'c might have left Earth now that the Free Jaffa were up and running so well. His desire to free his people had always been the reason behind his remaining on Earth, and the fact he might leave was certainly always there. And Carter...

For some reason he expected Carter to stay the same, despite the passage of time. It seemed inconceivable to him that she would ever get reassigned, or be allowed to retire - she was just too valuable to the program.

But his belief in Carter's status quo was as much personal as professional, and admittedly unrealistic because of it. He just couldn't conceive that Carter would ever want to do anything different in her life, especially if his older self continued as part of the Startgate program, and he didn't see that particular man quitting for any reason other than death.

So he was in Colorado Springs once again just to make sure that all of them were okay, that the fight was going on, that nothing had changed - nothing monumental, that is. It was just happenstance that he was starting with Carter... or so he insisted to himself. The fact that he got the shock of his young/old lifetime at the start of his self-appointed team reconnaisance mission was simply an accident.

But what he was now seeing... He forced himself to breath normally so that he wouldn't throw up. Food had proven too hard to come by during the last year for him to want to upchuck his most recent meal now.

But even the closed bushes he was hiding behind couldn't completely shut out the scene playing out right in front of her house. He'd come expecting to find Carter bent on carrying too much work to the SGC yet again. Instead he saw a Carter standing beside her car, preparing to go to work, but carrying nothing because her arms were currently wrapped around some guy's waist. Some guy who wasn't him. The other him. The older him.

A sick feeling immediately swooped in to overtake the teen, despite what Thor had claimed he'd done to extend the life of Duplicate O'Neill. Now his heart pounded hard against his chest, and his stomach turned over so violently that getting sick in reality, right here and right now, was the least of his concerns. He absently wondered if a person could die just from witnessing a scene so horrible that it made his insides writhe in agony.

Then as he watched, it only got worse.

She kissed him!... the guy... the... the other schmoe. And worse yet - she looked like she enjoyed it! The guy smiled at her in a particularly sappy manner, then drove away. The only remotely positive thing about that scene was that the smile on Carter's face slipped just a bit at the man's disappearance from a gesture that was revoltingly cheery to something more concerned than cheery. Duplicate O'Neill would have pondered what that non-smile meant, but he was too busy fighting the queasy feeling in his stomach to think too closely about much else.

No no no! This was all wrong! This had 'alternate reality' tatooed all over it. Yet he knew that there was no possible way he could have ever passed into another reality. This was clearly real, and he was clearly going to lose last night's dinner in spite of what he'd just told himself.

He heaved right into the middle of the bushes, doing his best to tamp down on the noise he was making. Still, a dog attracted by the retching sounds sauntered over to investigate, probably lured by the sickening smell. The dog poked a casual nose into the mess he'd just made, but before it began nosing in earnest, he had wiped his mouth on a convenient leaf, then darted away from his hiding place, anger suddenly replacing his former agony.

He tried his best to reign in his growing anger, knowing that anger wasn't at all conducive to recon. He knew that the fury he felt was irrational in its intensity, and unfair to Carter besides. But knowing that and controlling his powerful emotions were two different things. The best he could hope for at this moment was to try for a modulated voice when he spoke to her.

And speaking to her was now uppermost in his mind, no matter that his original intention had been to stay far away from her. As he walked swiftly down the sidewalk toward Carter's house, he went over the scene he'd just witnessed, praying for calm, but was helpless in understanding any of it. What was going on here? Was Jack dead, and since she now had no hope of ever connecting with her superior officer, had moved on in the only way she knew how? But what if he wasn't dead? None of his Air Force contacts had ever said that he was. If so, what was she doing? Had Jack been transferred from the SGC, and was gone?

But it really didn't matter, did it? He'd thought that he and Carter shared an agreement. Well... sort of an agreement. Didn't they share a common... something? Feelings? An attraction, if nothing else? Maybe it had never been anything more than a hope for something more to spring up between them if given half the chance? True, nothing had ever been said - nothing aloud, at any rate - but still they both knew about and accepted that connection, and that was the point. He'd given his non-word, and so had she: they would wait for each other, however long it took, whatever happened, wherever they were, always.

But now! This scene! The guy! The kiss! What was going on? Besides the obvious?

A stray thought crossed his mind as he walked: if still alive, how was his counterpart taking this? He couldn't imagine that the man he was going to someday be would just walk away from someone as amazing as Samantha Carter, even if he had been relocated. Then again, he wouldn't have predicted THIS either, so who knows what could be going on now. He once again reminded himself that he and his original were now two different people. They were on different paths, equally as unpredictable.

Yet there was no denying the identical feelings he had for the woman he'd just (okay, call it what it was) spied on. He hadn't even tried to deny those feelings, and never had - at least, not to himself. But the clone he was had purposely disappeared so that he wouldn't have to see her every day, knowing that since there was now nothing tangible standing in the way of a possible thing between them, he might very well be tempted to put her in the awkward position where she'd end up having to choose between him and her career. But as well as knowing this, he wouldn't do the same to her that he wouldn't put himself through. Besides not wanting to make Carter as well as himself confront that possibility, he was undeniably much younger than she was.

Which was ironic: Jack had always worried that he was too old for her. Now his teenaged twin worried the opposite. Strangely enough, it had never occured to either man to just ask her what she thought on the subject. Asking her would mean talking to her... talking about this... and they all knew that Carter and Jack just didn't talk about any of this... ever. They just acknowledged that it was.

Or that it had been. Both O'Neills agreed that Jack was always bound by rules and regulations and a job that had to be done whether he wanted to do it or not. And the younger boy was bound by his very youth. It wasn't fair, yet there wasn't much either of them could do about it. It just didn't appear that Jack and Carter would be together in any way except the accepted professional one, at least not for several more years.

But that didn't mean that they would never be together if given enough time! And he certainly didn't want some schmoe guy to get her in the meantime, either!

But that was what was happening, and it really pissed him off!

He was so mad that he came up behind her much faster than he realized. The effect was that he gripped her arm far harder than he meant to. His greeting, when it came, was bit out through teeth clenched against his fury. “Carter.”

Surprise worked in his favor. That he was the last person she expected to see was evident by the expression of shock that creased her face. “Jack!” she exclaimed. “Colonel! Sir!”

That she didn't even know what to call him only stoked his anger. “I am not your sir, and never was!” He yanked her down the sidewalk once more. “Don't call me that!”

Always quick on the uptake, Carter got over her shock in record time and at last actively resisted him with all her might, which he should have remembered was prodigious. “What is it? What happened?” she asked in concern as she pulled against him. “I thought you were in high school.”

He glared daggers at her. “As if I would like hanging around with some dumb kids. Come on, Carter, I thought you knew me better than that.”

He could tell his accusation had hurt her, but she once again swallowed her emotions while dealing with what some would call a superior officer, though technically she could flatten him in two seconds or less.

“But Sir,” she began to say.

“I said don't call me that!”

Coming to a complete halt, she yanked her arm out of his grasp. “Would you stop?” A quick glance into her wide blue eyes made his stomach flip over again, but he ignored it when she repeated, “What's going on?”

How could she not automatically know? His anger and current liberation from the military granted him the freedom to be as honest with her as he'd always dreamed of being, and now felt free to mention topics that had remained secret before. “I'll tell you what's going on - we had a deal! A deal that you broke!” He turned away from her gape of incomprehension to continue stalking down the sidewalk, again dragging her with him. “Where I come from, that's a criminal offense!”

Carter's gape had turned into a look of indignation. “Are you calling me a criminal?” He didn't answer, and his silence must have perturbed her so much that she once again planted her feet on the cement under her, forcing them to a second stop. “Jack, will you tell me what's going on?”

“Why don't you tell me!”

More hurt marched across Carter's blue eyes. “Jack!” Her arms waved in the air. “You swoop down on me, looking like Earth has been invaded, and it's all my fault! For the last time, what's..?”

“Get in,” he commanded, and yanked open the passenger door of a large blue pickup truck parked beside the curb. “I'm not done talking to you yet.”

But Carter obstinately crossed her arms. “Not until you tell me what's going on.”

Ah, the famous Carter stubborness. It looked better on Jacob. “Like I said before, you know more than I do. So...”

“Are you okay?” she interrupted to ask, concerned anew. “You aren't in trouble, are you?”

It was his opinion that she'd lost her right to worry about him when she kissed Schmoebrain. “Like you care.”

Carter's eyes narrowed. “Of course I care. You...”

“... could have fooled me!” he finished for her. “Now, get in!” he said, exploding with fury. When she hesitated, he said in biting sarcasm, “Unless of course you want to have your life paraded on the sidewalk for everybody's enjoyment?”

Exasperated, Carter rolled her eyes at his dramatic bent, then without another word climbed into the truck. He slammed the door, and climbed in on the other side.

But he didn't start the engine.

Which clearly confused Carter. Her forehead puckered, her brows lowered, and a tiny wrinkle settled between her blue eyes in what used to be his favorite expression of hers.

“Mind telling me what you want?” she asked after a quiet moment passed between them.

He stared icily out the front window as he tried hard to reign in his rampaging temper, but knew instantly that it was a lost cause. Irritated at seeing the expression he loved marred by her mounting confusion, he shot at her, “What's with the shrub?”

The unusual phrase confused Carter again. “The what?”

Her puzzled tone really pissed him off! “The shrub! You're supposed to be the smart one, Carter! How come you're acting so dumb?”

Without responding, Carter reached for the handle to open the passenger door. He summarily locked them in. Carter glared daggers now, her anger equal to his. “If you're going to talk to me like that, let me out.”

She was right - he should never speak to her like that, even about this. So in a gentler voice he reiterated, “I need to talk to you.”

Carter threw up her hands. “You never want to talk! Why now?”

He regarded her, his hold on his temper tightening even more. “Why not now? Again I ask - what's with the shrub?”

Comprehension suddenly lit Carter's eyes. “Oh, you mean Pete?”

“Is that his name?” His voice still sounded too accusatory, too sneering. He endeavored to swallow more of his animosity, but his glare returned almost without his permission. “Actually, I don't care what his name is.”

Carter's voice was mild. “Actually, I don't care if you don't care.”

His voice hardened. “Care to explain, Carter?

She smiled ever so slightly. “There's nothing to explain, Sir.”

Again the temper exploded, enough to let him again mention something that he'd sworn to himself he never would. “We had a deal, Carter!”

She rounded on him so fast, it was almost like she was anticipating the argument. “No, we didn't!”

“Yes, we did!”

“In order to have a deal, we would have had to talk to each other first! Wow, do I know that we couldn't do that!”

The clone struck out at the wheel in an explosive fit of teenage anger. “It was an unspoken deal, and you know it!”

“An understanding, you mean?” Her voice turned derisive. “Some understanding, if we couldn't even talk to each other about it!”

“Why talk when you were obviously prepared to give up at the first opportunity!” he explosively shouted. In spite of his allegation, he knew perfectly well that she had refused to give up on them even in the most hopeless of times, but his anger was so great that he had quickly expressed one of his most visceral fears.

Even if she had been aware of his fears ahead of time, she instantly reacted to his words rather than what he supposedly dreaded. “It was him who obviously gave up first!” Her face now displayed anguish as well as anger as she spoke about Original O'Neill. “How was I supposed to take that?”

His arguement was momentarily derailed, some of the air puffing out of him. How could the older Jack have been the first to abandon the idea of them? Such an idea was so foreign to the young O'Neill now that he couldn't even imagine it happening. “If that's the way it was, then he had a damned good reason for it!”

She snorted. “A reason that I don't even know about, since he never talks to me!”

“And did you ever think to ask him?”

Carter's scornful twist of her lips gave her opinion on that idea. “Things were never that simple, and you know it! Besides, there wasn't time - he got promoted!”

It was his turn to look confused. “Promoted? To what?”

Her scathing was evident. “To General!”

“General?” Jack had actually let them promote him? Scowling, the teenager asked, “Is this a joke?”

Her scathing was no joking matter. “Don't you think he can do the job?”

“For cryin out loud, Carter, of course that's not what I think!”

“Then why the skepticism?”

He shrugged. “Did all of Washington go insane at once? So where is he now?”

“He promoted me to Lieutenant Colonel as soon as he took command of the SGC.”

The SGC? That was... not what he'd expected to hear. “He's still in Colorado Springs?” She nodded. “Watching...” He gestured out the window, indicating the car driven away by her new guy. She gave another silent nod, her mouth a tight, thin, taut line. It gave the impression that she wanted to say something more, and was biting her tongue.

“You got something to say, then say it - my ears aren't that sensitive.”

If looks could kill... “It's just that he's okay with this - why aren't you?”

“He's okay with this?” His astonishment shot straight to derision. “Excuse me, Carter, but I don't even have to see him to know that he's not okay with this!”

“He hasn't said a word to me about it!”

“Of course he hasn't! Did you expect him to suddenly become the gregarious guy, to want to pull a Daniel and talk about feelings?”

Carter's own sneer burst forth. “You say that like it's a bad thing!”

“You've never played the idiot before, Carter.” But according to the look of denial on her face, she was certainly doing it now. “Tell me, did you have to dumb down for your new guy, or what?”

He knew it was the exact wrong thing to say the instant he said it. Her face grew mottled in fury, becoming red and blotched in record time. “What do you know about it?” she hissed. “Pete is good, is kind, and I'm going to marry him!”

“Marry?” His heart gave another painful twist. This was bad! “You're lying, Carter!”

A sharp, icy expression blazed at him. “Watch me!”

She unlocked the door before he could stop the motion, then vaulted from the truck. The passenger door slammed shut behind her with a ring of finality.

* * *

Still feeling heart sore from his recent argument with Carter, he wasn't so out of it that he wasn't aware of Jack's sudden arrival at his house a little after 1900. Jack's truck glided to a stop in the driveway, a vehicle door slammed shut, then the front door of the house that had been left slightly ajar slowly closed a moment later. Ten seconds after that, the teenager was facing the front end of Jack's favorite pistol as the man himself darted into the open at the top of the stairs leading into the den.

Young Jack hefted the activated Zat gun in his hand just a little higher so that it would be on an exact level with the pistol packing General. “Ah, home at last,” he quipped.

Jack lowered his pistol the minute he realized who was in his living room. “Fancy seeing you here,” he retorted back, just as sarcastic.

In spite of the lowered pistol, the Zat didn't waver. “I need to have a few words with you.”

“You and everyone else.” Clearly disheartened, Jack reholstered his pistol, then took off his jacket and tossed it on the back of the couch prior to heading into the kitchen, probably for a beer.

If that was the case... “Bring me one!” he hollered after him, finally relinquishing his weapon when Jack appeared with two open bottles of beer in his hand. He kept one, and without a word handed the second to his younger self in spite of the fact that he was outwardly only about sixteen.

“Thanks.” That sixteen-year-old took an appreciative swig. “Ah!”

“Yeah - there's nothing like a cold one to round off a day,” Jack sourly finished as he instantly drank half his beer in one gulp, then slowly sank into the cushions of one of the easy chairs in the room - the leather covering groaned in protest. “And what do you want?” the older man said in a tone that indicated he'd been hounded all day by people desperately wanting a piece of the General.

“Getting right down to business - I like that.”

Jack's diplomacy, always tenuous at the best of times, vanished. “What?”

“Touchy, touchy.”

“Look, I've had a really crappy day, and I'm sure you're about to make it crappier, so...”

“Carter - getting married to some guy - what gives?”

A scowl instantly etched itself onto Jack's face. “What do you mean 'what gives?' She decided to marry... him. I don't really want...”

“I don't give a crap what you want! How could you let this happen?”

The scowl deepened. “I didn't let this happen!” Jack gave a frustrated ruffle to his hair and mournfully added, “It just did.”

“Bullshit. What did you do to her?”

A frown now brought the scowl down to a grimace. “I didn't do anything to her! She made up her own mind.”

Suddenly the young face lit in comprehension. “You didn't do anything, hence, the problem. That's it, isn't it?”

“She chose him - end of story. There's nothing left to say.” Jack took another long drink of his beer, clearly attempting to stop any more questions.

It was a familiar tactic. His teenage voice sounding mature despite his age, he contended, “Oh, I think there's plenty left to say.”

“Then it's too bad that I'm not gonna say it.” Jack swilled the beer that was left in the bottom of his bottle, then drained it. He drifted back up the steps, heading to the kitchen again. “I'm gettin' another beer - you want anything?”

Another beer - already? This did not bode well. “You got any food?”

“We can order. Whadyawant?”

And together they gave the definitive answer, “Pizza.”

* * *

He ended up staying the night at Jack's, which was good since he didn't have anyplace else to go. He certainly couldn't count on Carter's inclination towards him to let him spend the night at her house. Thus, it wasn't until early the next morning that he had the time to interrogate any more of his team members about this unexpected Carter situation.

“Daniel,” he greeted his... Jack's... best friend, his voice as flat as his numbed emotions. Talking all evening with his counterpart had provided him with no other information than that the Cannucks were Teal'c's favorite hockey team. He hoped that Daniel would be more enlightening.

But so far Daniel could only stare at him sleepily, in spite of the fact that he had to be used to early mornings after working at the SGC for over six years. The fact that all of SG-1 was on downtime between missions right now was obviously not good for his friend's sleepy attitude.

Daniel held his door ajar, yawned, then continued to gawk at his early morning visitor with his mouth wide open. “Uh... do I know you?”

Teenage eyes rolled in exasperation. “Come on - it's me.” The clone didn't understand this lack of comprehension, even coming from Daniel. “You know - the Asgard Loki - cloning - brought me back as a teenager - I would have died if not for Thor doing his magic thing.”

Memory flooded Daniel's eyes. “Oh, yeah, right! Now I remember. That was... what?... two, three years ago?”

The clone rumbled a sigh of aggravation. “It was last year, Daniel.”

“It was?” For a second, Daniel appeared perplexed. But then his face split into a grin. “Gotcha.” In the next second, he enveloped the boy in a hug so tight that it almost popped the button on his jeans. “How ya doing?”

“Right now, not so good,” he squeaked. “Uh... Daniel... can't breathe.”

“Oh.” Daniel released him, drawing him into his house instead. “Haven't seen you in ages. What brings you to this neck of the woods?”

He gave Daniel's living room a quick once-over, his eyes landing on the display of Goa'uld artifacts in the corner. “Um... should you have those things right out in the open like that?”

Daniel casually regarded the display. “Those are from the dig in Giza.” The swift return of his attention almost gave Young O'Neill whiplash. “So, not that I'm not thrilled to see you, but... Isn't it dangerous for you to be around here? Near the SGC, I mean.”

“Um... yeah.” The boy plopped down on Daniel's couch, and immediately sank into too soft cushions. Same old Daniel - furniture from the '50s. “I really just intended to gather a bit of intel on this trip - make sure things were still on the up and up - with the team - you know. That's why I'm here.”

Daniel blinked. “You're spying on us.”

He hedged. “Not exactly...” He hesitated some more, then at last capitulated. “Okay, you can call it that.”

Brows now shot up to a brown hairline. “You do that often?”

“Uh... no. This is the first time.”

Daniel declared, “The fact that you're still here tells me you're finding that things aren't so kosher.”

He grimaced. “Give the man a pickle. No, things aren't so kosher.”

Silence shrouded the room while the two stared at each other. The only sound in the house was the annoying ticking of a clock. He was just wondering how the archaeologist stood all that 'quiet' when Daniel broke it. “You've seen Sam.”

It was a statement, not a question. The grown man must have seen something in his eyes that gave him away. “I've seen her guy, too. I've also seen... the other me.”

“Let me guess.” Daniel's lips tilted in a wan smile. “Both Sam and Jack were less than forthcoming.”

“Got it in one.” When had Daniel become so discerning? The Oma Desala club must have agreed with him, despite getting thrown out of it. “It's why I'm here - I want answers.”

Daniel sat on the arm of a chair; obviously he was overly familiar with the characteristics of his furniture. “You can't just come to visit an old friend?”

He gave another sardonic eye roll. “You know I can, but this isn't...” His sense of affectionate exasperation turned into a loud grunt. “You know what I mean, Daniel.”

Daniel grinned, letting him know without telling him that he'd been playing with him again. It was unsettling how often the archaeologist got away with that. “So... what do you want to know?”

That's good - Daniel had cut to the heart of the matter rather than giving the hourlong lecture on 'all things Jack and Sam' that he probably wanted to give. “Carter - tell me what happened.”

Daniel's brows again shot up. “What happened? Um... I'm not really sure that...

An impatient tone prodded, “Daniel...”

It was the only encouragement Daniel needed. “You... the other you... saved the planet, but was frozen in stasis for months... so he wasn't here... and I think Pete was already in the picture.”

“Pete - that's the schmoe's name.”

“That's right - you've already talked to Sam. How did that go?”

“How do you think something like that went?”

Without hesitation, Daniel predicted, “She ripped you a new one, then left you drooling on the side of the road.”

“Cut out the drooling part, and that pretty much covers it.”

“Thought so. Sam isn't in the best of moods these days.”

His forehead puckered with a frown. “That's what I don't get - she's getting married - she should be outrageously happy. But she's not. Even I can see that, and the time I spent with her, we were fighting.”

“So... you know that she's pretending to be happy, but isn't?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, still puzzled. “But that's not what he... the other me... said.” His pucker deepened. “If you can see that, and I can see that, why can't he?”

Instead of commenting further, Daniel chose to zero in on an innocuous point. “We've gotta give you a name so you can quit saying 'the other me.'”

“Not Jack O'Neill.”

Daniel's smile wormed across his face. “No, that one's already taken. Um... how about Jonathan?”

A grimace met that suggestion. “Never did like that name.”

“Okay... How about Jon?”

“Not any better.”

Undeterred, Daniel thought for a minute. “What about..? Well... On Jack's desk nameplate is 'Brigadier General J. O'Neill.' I get the idea he doesn't like 'Jonathan' any better than you do.” It was obvious that he had forgotten that for all intents and purposes, the clone was Jack O'Neill. “So... what about Jay?”

“As in Felger?”

Daniel shrugged. “Or if you have things against the name, how about the initial 'J?'”

“'J?'” He thought that over for a minute. “'J' - I like it. Thanks, Daniel.”

The smile became a lot warmer. “Glad I could help.”

“But the initial - not the name.” He grimaceed anew. “I once knew a Jay - he was a jerk.”

Daniel's warm smile grew warmer yet. “Okay - J it is.”

J grinned. “Sounds like T. SG-1 - a team of letters... which reminds me - who is he?”

“He?”

“The schmuck... the me... the team leader now that I'm... he's... a General?”

“Oh.” And for the next few minutes, Daniel gave J the abbreviated run down on all things SGC.

“Crap,” J said in admiration when Daniel told him about Sam's new leadership status, then shook his head at the way he had automatically supposed that 'he' was a guy. It's just that though he comprehended Carter's awesomeness, he didn't expect anyone else to. Then he recalled that it actually had been him to give Carter her new assignment, and suddenly he understood. “Though I'm gonna miss seeing Doc Fraiser,” he noted, a sad lilt to his voice before it firmed. “But Carter deserves SG-1 if anybody does. She's certainly smart enough.”

Daniel's grimace now wrinkled his face. “Smart... about work things, yeah. We're not so sure about the private stuff.”

J silently agreed with him, thinking again about the schmaltzy scene he had witnessed between Carter and her guy. But he was able to distance himself from his memory long enough to realize that he really didn't know that much - or anything - about Carter's current fella. “What do you think about the schmoe?”

Daniel's face swooped into another grimace, and hesitantly declared, “I don't want to speak ill about someone who's not here to defend himself.”

J had no such compunction. “Do it anyway.”

But Daniel retained a thoughtful silence. The clock was again the only sound in the house. Just as the noise began to really rub J the wrong way, Daniel finally spoke. “He's... named Pete.”

Was that all he knew? “Yeah, you and Carter told me.”

“He's a cop.”

Which stunned J. “He's one of the good guys?” The idea of any guy (other than him) who was stuck to Carter as being a 'good' anything was ludicrous. “The guy I saw was not good!” It was a harsh opinion, perhaps, but J would have had that opinion about any guy of Carter's.

Daniel pushed his glasses up his nose. “You saw him? Talked to him?”

J's eyes screwed up in trepidation. “I saw him... from a distance,” he at last admitted. “I don't actually know much (or anything) about him.” That admission cost J plenty, but he didn't let Daniel in on his personal price; there was no way this guy was an okay guy, right?

Daniel blinked, as if automatically knowing the price J was paying to admit that, but refrained from commenting. “He's not too bad of a guy.”

Crap! So much for hoping.

However, Daniel's tone indicated that he had more to say. “But?”

Daniel's face wrinkled in reluctance. “I look at the facts... and it's true that he helped clear Teal'c's name...” J didn't interrupt to ask why Teal'c needed his name cleared - he didn't want to stop Daniel when he was on a roll. “... and I suppose he's an okay guy in the long run... Sam sure seems to like him well enough...”

J now risked a second prompt. “But..?”

Daniel's wrinkles had mutated to a frown. “But... she keeps him away from most things about the SGC... except he knows about the Stargate.”

That shocked J. “What?”

“Um... long story. My point is that we really don't know much about him... and it isn't because we haven't tried. I've said a few things, and Teal'c, and even Jack on occasion. But it seems like Sam...” His gaze trained meaningfully on J. “It's like she doesn't want us to get to know him. Or him to know us.” He paused to ponder that issue. “Which is just weird. In fact, the whole thing is... weird.”

J squinted and shook his head, befuddled. “I'm not gettin' it here. Weird how?”

Daniel shrugged. “This guy's been inside the SGC. He knows about the Stargate, the Program, what we do for a living... you'd think that this would be Sam's 'Eureka' moment - the one she's been waiting for. I mean, a guy she plans to marry, knowing all about us, what we do, a future spouse she doesn't have to give the whole 'classified' spiel to... and she doesn't make any mention of the whole situation... as if she doesn't want it to become a part of work... though it already is... he spent days in the Infirmary, after all.”

This information surprised J anew. Knowing about the Stargate Program was one thing, but being allowed inside the SGC... “What? Hammond actually let a civilian be treated in the Infirmary?” Daniel nodded once more, and to make sure, J entreated, “Our Infirmary?”

Daniel fiddled with his glasses. “Uh... yeah.” When J only stared at him in open-mouthed shock, Daniel's confusion grew. “Didn't Jack or Sam give you the lowdown on how Pete found out about all of us?”

J breathed through his open mouth, shock still forcing it into an 'o.' “No, they sort of left that part out.”

The news clearly surprised Daniel. “On purpose? Isn't that kind of the important part?”

J's open mouth snapped shut. “You would think so.”

The next ten minutes were filled with Daniel giving him the lowdown on his suspicions of how Pete Shanahan had unwittingly on purpose wormed his way into the SGC.

* * *

That afternoon found J parked just down the street from the police precinct where Pete Shanahan worked. Spying on the cop certainly bothered him less than spying on his team, and as he had voluntarily spied on them (or at least on Carter), spying on the cop was practically inevitable. The cop had been in the building ever since J had arrived, only minutes after he'd finished talking to Daniel. Unfortunately for J's intel gathering purposes, the cop had remained inside the station until lunch, when (ack!) Carter had arrived to meet him. They had returned an hour later, where they had kissed good-bye and Pete had again disappeared into the police station. J had studiously avoided watching them perform the kiss, noting only that at least Carter was in an affectionate relationship, if nothing else. She deserved some affection in her life, but he preferred that she had found it in another cat rather than a boyfriend. Then he boldly watched as she first looked up and down the street, looked up and down it a second time, then pulled out once deeming it was safe. He sourly figured that her extreme caution was due to her future wedding; it wouldn't help the smoothness of the ceremony if she was suffering from broken bones due to a car accident. She drove to the next intersection and turned towards the SGC before fading from sight.

Shanahan had yet to show himself again ten minutes later when J was stunned out of his watchfullness by the unexpected appearance of that man's fiancé. Carter nonchallantly climbed into the passenger seat of his truck while he could think of nothing to do but gape at her in silence.

“Uh...” he finally managed to splutter when several silent seconds had ticked by.

“You look like a fish,” Carter commented as she continued to settle herself in his truck.

J made a huge effort to clamp down on his astonishment, but only managed to shut his gaping mouth. His wide, surprised eyes went on watching her while he desperately tried to think of something intelligent to say. Nothing came to mind.

Carter's next words unstuck his tongue. “Stop following me.”

J blinked and cleared his throat. “What?” Another rough throat clearing later, he sounded more like his sarcastic self. “As nice as following you would be... what makes you think I'm following you?”

“I'm here - you're here - that usually adds up to someone following someone else,” Carter stated in an unequivocal tone.

J grinned. “Well, sorry to pop that super inflated self-esteem of yours, but I have no intention of stalking you.” Then he could't stop himself from quietly muttering, “That's your fella's MO.”

It was a comment that naturally didn't go over too well. Her subserviance with a superior officer had quickly morphed into anger again. “Then what is this?”

J wanted another fight with Carter like he wanted a hole in the head, so he did his best to modulate his voice when he answered, “'This' is reconnaissance. I want to know what it is about this guy that convinced you to...” He stopped himself before saying that she had dumped him for this cop. He couldn't have been dumped since they hadn't been doing anything in the first place that was worthy of any form of dumping. “... to go for him,” he lamely ended.

Carter gave a dramatic sigh, but consented to explain, “He was nice... he was there...” She hitched a breath, as if realizing just how bad that sounded, then quickly added, “And we've always had fun.” She shrugged in nonchallance, though it was such a studied gesture that it gave the impression that what she was discussing was anything but casual to her. “After awhile, he proposed... and I said yes.”

J rolled his eyes; that was more like a memorized recitation than a plumbing of the depths of her soul. “Come on, Carter - what is it with you? Why such openness all of a sudden?” He was sure to put finger quotes around the word 'openness' so that she wouldn't miss his sarcasm and know that he meant the exact opposite. “It's not like you.”

The flash of aggravation in her eyes illustrated that she hadn't missed his caustic tone, or the meaning of his finger quotes, but instead of giving into her emotions, quietly revealed, “I thought about it all night - and decided that if I can't talk to you about this, who can I talk to?” She turned what could only be called a look of callenge to him and asked, “How's that for open?”

A challenge was one thing he instantly understood. Yet it couldn't be a true challenge since she hadn't really said anything specific. And it sounded like she really did want to talk to someone, but couldn't quite open up... even to him. Maybe especially to him. “As far as I know, there was no need to discuss something that was a given.”

Carter's explosive snort of derision took him off guard. “A given to you, maybe, but not to me.”

Obviously she had thought about talking to him - she was no longer even attempting to treat him like a superior officer. He was tempted to call her on her insubordinate tone, but instinctively decided that he preferred this unfettered Carter. The two of them seemed more on the same level all of a sudden - and he liked it.

But he was still confused by what she had said. Those Zaynex test things a few years ago hadn't been enough to convince her of his affection for her? “Don't trust the Tok'ra now, either, huh? Don't blame you.”

“This has nothing to do with the Tok'ra.”

J's gaze snapped to hers. “This has everything to do with the Tok'ra.”

She harumphed. “I did what you wanted me to do! I left it in that room!”

“What I wanted you to do? Ah, here we go. That's real nice, Carter.” J's voice dripped with sarcasm. “As I recall, it was you who did the leaving at the time. I just followed along like the patsy I am.”

“God!” Carter mumbled to herself. “What is it with me and deluded guys?”

So, he was deluded now, too? “You have a thing for the fringe,” J helpfully reminded her.

Carter's second snort was softer than her first, but no less meaningful. “Don't I know it. First there was Jonas, then Narim, then...”

“Narim?” But J wasn't really sure that he wanted to know what had transpired between her and the alien. “Nevermind - need to know, and I don't have the need. What matters is that you and I have never needed to discuss the obvious, and that's what this is all about.”

Her third snort derailed his assuredness. “Obvious to you, at least.”

J gave her a withering look. “How can I know that you think any differently than I do if you don't tell me?

She gave him her own withering look. “And how can I know that I need to tell you I think differently than you do if you don't tell me what you think in the first place?

J sighed in building frustration, feeling his temper shorten again, but he didn't want to yell at her. Yelling only seemed to raise her hackles, and though she was fun to piss off, he didn't think that pissing her off right now was very conducive to getting any amount of real talking done.

Then again, according to him, they'd never really needed to talk much. Now was only another such example.

Or was that just the easy way out of this mess instead of the productive way?

Feelings... they always gave him a headache. Usually, that headache was named 'Daniel,' but not this time; ironically, the name attached to his current headache was 'Carter.'

He sighed his annoyance, but refused to entirely give in to the sensation. “So this is all my fault, huh?”

She grimly pointed out, “You were saying that it was my fault a minute ago.”

More annoyance; another explosive sigh. “Look, Carter, we can do forty rounds about who to blame this on, but we won't get any closer to...”

“Why can't you just leave me alone?”

The question came out of nowhere. “You want me to leave you alone now?” he incredulously asked. She didn't say if she meant him or him. There was no way that he could just leave her alone - either of them! “In case you've missed it, I work with you.” Then he rolled his eyes at his mistake. “Okay, technically, it's the other me who works with you. But you know what I mean. And the idea of me not running into you in as small a base as the SGC is...”

“No,” Carter corrected him, throughly distressed. “I mean why can't the idea of you... both of you... just leave me alone?” She looked out the front windshield, clearly hiding her growing distress. “I'm tired of being alone, but...”

“You're tired of being alone, yet you want me to leave you alone?” It was J who was in distress now. Could he even do what she was asking? “It's not that easy!”

“Sure it is,” Carter argued, sounding as if she didn't believe it herself, so had done everything else possible to 'leave him alone' that she could. “You just...” She shrugged once more, the gesture still looking forced. “... just leave.”

As in, go? As in, stop having these feelings? As in, stop lo... but J refused to look too hard down that particular alley.

Which was admittedly most of their problem. He wouldn't talk, and she couldn't because he wouldn't... and he couldn't because she wouldn't.

Admitting that, even to himself, did nothing to deter the shock he felt at what she wanted. “Carter, I...” he began to say, but she cut him off.

“Just go away!” she cried in a twist of agony. “Leave me alone! I'm happy! I'm loved! I have someone to come home to! It matters if I don't come back from a mission, it matters if I get hurt, it matters if...!” Her voice trailed away as she closed her eyes to hide her mounting anguish.

J didn't know what to say to that kind of entreaty. He wanted her to be happy, but he didn't believe she was happy as much as she protested that she was. He wanted her to have someone to come home to, but he wanted that person to be him. He wanted the moon for her... but it wasn't for sale, and never had been.

There was, however, one thing he could respond to in her entreaty. “I always cared when you got hurt, Carter,” he quietly insisted. “I sat and waited in the Infirmary every time... and I wished it was me laying there in pain instead of you.” The softness of his confession increased. “I would have done anything to trade places with you, every time... anything.”

Agonised, she choked, “Anything except talk to me.” Before he had the chance to even consider doing something so assinine as invoke the regulations as a reason why he'd been constantly mute when it came to her, she had opened the truck door and slid to the ground, slamming the door behind her.

* * *

J stared sullenly at the telescope, not really seeing it or the rooftop it was attached to as the last vestiges of the sunshine dripped through the trees in Jack's yard. It was all so much background to him as he sat, consumed by thoughts of Carter.

“'Why can't you just leave me alone?'”

Carter's voice whirled ceaselessly through his mind, plaintively crying those same seven words again and again until even J had no choice but to listen to them. Had the idea of waiting for their 'someday' become so onerous to her that she really did want him to just leave her alone? He found it hard to believe that, but still couldn't quite banish her voice from his mind, even several hours after she had first uttered those hateful words. This relationship that she had established outside the SGC had clearly affected more than just her life: she was obviously losing her common sense as well.

But she refused to just vanish from his mind like a good little appirition, hence the thunderous frown that now creased his face. Only the abrupt sight of Jack's greying head popping into view was enough to sidetrack him from his unhappy thoughts.

“You little pimple!” yelled the General the moment he caught sight of him. “I want a word with you!” Jack moved faster up the rest of the ladder than a man his age should be able to move. He was certainly quicker than J expected him to be, despite his intimate knowledge of him. The General apprehended the more agile teen before he'd even had time to rise from his chair.

“Thought you would run away, huh?” Jack shook the younger J like a leaf, then negligently tossed him into the single chair on the rooftop. “It's a long way to the ground.”

“Yeah,” J sarcastically conceeded, staring pointedly at the edge of the roof. “Good thing you caught up with me, or else I might have broken something on my landing.”

Jack shook the teen a second time. “It is a good thing I caught you here, because if I'd had to chase you down, I wouldn't be so accommodating when I caught you as I'm being right now.”

“Oh, please!” J sardonically scoffed. “I know exactly where you would have searched - I can stay hidden from you for an eternity if I have to!” he insisted in a copy of the incensed tone that Jack had just used. “How'd you find me?”

Jack hesitated for a fraction of a second, not long enough for anyone besides himself or his former team members to catch. “I've had Daniel following you ever since you first showed up.”

That hesitation had J leveling a glare at his doppleganger. “'Daniel' my ass! He'd be too busy sneezing to spy on me! Now, the truth!”

Seemingly humbled a bit, Jack looked down for a moment of humility. “Okay... so it was Teal'c who was watching you.”

“Teal'c!” J incoherently mumbled curses under his breath. Yeah, Teal'c was a far sight better than Daniel at being essentially invisible, but not that good. “I can hide from the T man for eternity if I want to!”

The unexpected humility over, Jack glared his own displeasure. “Says you! I've known from the beginning where you were!” He paused at that comment, producing a half malicious, half prideful smile that would have sent chills coursing through any other man. “Plus, Daniel's been doing some research for me - your high school's not on any break, so, what are you even doing here?”

“High School!” J scoffed in disgust. “For crying out loud... you told me to go forth - so I went!”

“I didn't mean that literally!”

J's expression turned thunderous and he lurched foreward in his chair. “You did too, and you know it! Now, why'd you track me here?”

“What'd you say to her?” came the irate demand.

“Who - Carter?” A brief confirmation took J aback. “I would think you'd be more concerned about what she said to me!”

Jack gave a sarcastic snort. “I notice you didn't say that you didn't talk to her - at least there's that!”

“She came to me, not me to her!”

Jack again grabbed a fist full of jacket. “I'll ask again: What. Did. You. Say?”

Completely not threatened, J pushed his face right into Jack's. “I. Said. Nothing.”

Jack's hold tightened. “Not according to how distracted she's been acting ever since you got here; I've had to mark her permanent file twice in two days for being distracted on the job - and being distracted is not like Carter, especially at the SGC! It's got to be because of you; something you said, or did, or...”

“She wants us to leave her alone!”

J's hissed words put a halt to Jack's outbursts. “What?”

The fight suddenly drained from J, and he slumped back into his chair. “She said that she wanted me... us... to leave her alone.”

This second explanation put the fight right back into Jack. “Of course she did! She never thought you'd show up suddenly like that and throw off all her plans! How did you expect her to react?”

J gazed suspiciously at his counterpart. “I didn't expect you to say that.”

Jack released the creased jacket and deflated against the wall of his house rising up beside the chair, scrubbing a hand across his suddenly tired face. “No, I don't suppose you did.”

J warily watched Jack for a moment, refusing to be drawn in by his 'I'm so tired!' feint. “I'm slow - tell me how I threw off her plans.”

Again came an exhausted sigh; maybe he really was tired. “You aren't being slow so much as stupid.”

So much for any pity he'd felt because of the tired thing. “Enlighten me.” When the uncomfortable silence stretched between them, J burst out, “She thinks it's your fault, that you gave up first... so she decided to... go.”

“Oh?” Marginal interest colored that voice, as if Jack had known ahead of time what J was going to say. “Good.”

The explanation was not one J would have guessed in a million years. “Good?!”

“It's what I wanted her to think.”

J's reaction was intense. “You what?!”

Jack scowled. “Not so loud! The neighbors will think I'm torturing you!”

“Who cares!” J hollered, then accused, “You pushed Carter into this relationship?!”

Jack gave a thoughtful grimace. “'Encouraged' more than 'pushed.'”

It was an answer that piqued J's sarcastic streak. “Oh, that's okay then.” He cynically narrowed his eyes again until he was peering through slits. “Start explaining, old man, before I...”

“You'll what?!” The threatening Jack was back. “Give me a noogie?” He straightened in disgust. “You wart! I'd forgotten how irritatingly stupid I was during those teen years!”

J was uunimpressed by Jack's trip down memory lane. “You won't tell me - fine! I don't want to know about any of it, about how you lost the best, the greatest... she's too smart for you, anyway.”

Jack's eyes narrowed in anger this time. “She did exactly what I told her to do. Don't you be giving her grief for that!”

J mournfully repeated, “What you told her... You wouldn't recognize something as amazing as her if it bit you in the ass.”

Jack shook his head in dumbfounded astonishment. “Don't you get it?”

J got it alright. “She's marrying Schmoebrain, and you don't give a rat's ass.”

Jack gave a mirthless chuckle. “You are so clueless.”

J sent him a hard stare, suddenly understanding Carter a bit more when she claimed in frustration that he never truly talked - at least not about anything important. “I'll stay that way, too... unless you fill me in!

“You want me to talk - okay, I'll talk,” Jack surprisingly offered, biting off his words. “She called me 'Jack!'”

'Jack?' Was that all? J gave him his wide-eyed, flabbergasted stare. “So? In case you've missed it, it's your name!”

Jack glared at him like the boy was willingly missing the obvious. “I know it's my name, you warthog! I mean that she called me Jack... and I liked it!”

The silence stretched between them until J's trepidation broke it. “You liked it - so what?”

Jack gusted a heavy breath into the early evening air. “So?” he echoed, his disbelieving laugh almost lost in his sudden agony, sounding as if he thought that J should automatically understand the seriousness of this situation, and was being dumb on purpose. “So?”

J couldn't figure out what his older self was referring to. “Yeah - so?”

Jack turned a fast circle, looking like Daniel. “So? I... couldn't like it!” His holler sounded as if this explained it all.

But actually, it explained nothing.

J's exasperated sigh gushed into the air. “Of course you liked it! We've always liked it the few times she's called us 'Jack!'”

“This was different!” Jack insisted. “I really liked it! So... don't you see?”

J tried to see... but failed. “No.”

Jack was almost pulling his hair out in frustration now.

J put out a hand. “Stop - before you turn us into another Hammond.”

Jack's frenzied frustration increased, as if J hadn't said anything. “She... she was getting too close, too familiar! So I let her think...” His dispirited voice trailed off.

J suddenly understood. “So... you're saying that... you did this for her?”

Jack looked ecstatic that the infant that he was talking to had finally 'gotten it.' “Yes!”

“Bullhockey!” J snorted. “You were the one getting too close, not her! You did this for you!”

Jack was momentarily taken aback that J had 'gotten' a bit too much of it. “Um...” He sounded like he was all set to lie, then backpedaled. “Okay... maybe you're right. But it wasn't just for me! It was for her, too!”

“Oh, I'm sure she's secretly very grateful!” J's sarcasm sounded loud in the evening air.

Jack's face fell into angry lines again. “It was for her career!”

J didn't bother to hide his grimace from his older self. “So you took it upon yourself to act the heavy for her when you didn't think she could do it for herself?” His second irritated snort admirably expressed his disgust with that idea. “You're such a hero!”

For a minute, Jack was also filled with disgust, but he pushed that emotion aside long enough to calmly say, “Look, you don't have to understand...”

“Good! I don't!”

Jack went on as if the teen hadn't said anything. “... but you do have to let her get on with her life.”

J's disbelief at that idea was apparant. “I should leave her alone - just like that?” His face hardened. “I can't leave her alone; I don't want to leave her alone! I don't want to think about her getting married to some schmoe who doesn't deserve her!”

“How do you know he doesn't deserve her?” Jack instantly demanded.

He just didn't - wasn't the 'why' of it obvious? “Because Daniel was a positive font of information about how this cop guy got 'in the know' about all of us, and an idiot who does that deserves to be strung up, not end up with Carter!”

Jack muttered under his breath, “Damn Daniel!”

J's reprisal was immediate and harsh. “Damn you, you mean! How can you be so calm when the girl you... is going off to marry..?”

“I'm not calm about this!” Jack finally burst out.

“You could have fooled me!”

“I care about fooling Carter! She's the one this is all about!”

J'd heard enough. “You're losing her, old man, and maybe that doesn't bother you a bit, but it bothers the hell out of me.”

Jack winced, but determinedly stuck to his guns. “I mean to lose her. She's a lot better off without... me.”

Disgusted at Jack's immediate lack of self worth, J rose from his chair. “It's good that you mean for her to go, then, because from the looks of things, she's already mostly gone.”

“That's the way it should be.”

J couldn't believe such thickheadedness! It sounded like Jack really had given up on her. “Well, I ain't gonna let it!” He took a step forward in a determination equal to Jack's. “You can give up if you want to, but there's no way I'm going to just sit back and let the best thing...”

“You don't get it!” Jack again exploded. “I have to let her go before I do something that I'm going to regret for the rest of my life!”

J got right up into Jack's face. “You're going to regret letting her go!”

“Her career..!”

“Her career is nothing compared to an empty life!” J insisted. “I've lived a whole year without... her. And let me tell you, it ain't pretty!” How this idiot could be inviting that kind of emptiness baffled him.

But Jack was stubborn if he was anything. “And I tell you that it's better this way!”

“Better for her... or you?”

“HER!”

J sadly shook his head. “You may think this way is better... but it's just more lonely.”

Jack took a deep breath, as if stealing himself for something unpleasant. “Better to be lonely than threaten her career.”

J's sadness expanded. How could he argue with this kind of entrenched stubborness? “You tell yourself that if it helps you sleep at night.”

“It doesn't.”

“Then talk to her,” J beseeched. “Before it's too late.”

Jack suddenly looked forlorn enough to cry. “It probably already is.”

J wasn't hardhearted enough to be completely unaffected by that lost tone. “Hey - it's not over till the fat lady sings... or in this case, Carter says 'I do.'”

Jack now looked like he wished J would just go away, and said whatever might accomplish that goal. “Alright, alright, I'll talk to her.”

J knew himself well enough to know that he had to press that promise if he wanted to be sure that Jack finally did something about this messy situation. “Talk to her when?”

Jack looked whipped, as if J had finally pressured him into doing the most heinous deed he could think of. “Tomorrow,” he vowed, defeated. “I have a... thing... with some agent lady... after that...”

J's index finger pointed directly into Jack's face. “You know I'll be watching you. She won't listen to me... won't believe me. She has to hear it from you.”

Jack just nodded, looking tired now... so tired. “I know.”

* * *

If Jack knew, then he sure didn't act like it, and Carter didn't seem to be aware of any silent communication on his part, if that's what he was doing. Or at least J didn't think she'd seen or heard anything from Jack... at least, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing non-work related, nothing about 'them.' Certainly nothing to encourage her to break off this assinine engagement of hers. Things were status quo as far as J could tell.

As if to prove his worst fears correct, three days after his talk with Jack, he saw Carter kiss Shmoebrain, then kiss him again on the cheek as she said good-bye to him in front of her house, and he knew that somehow Jack had done it yet again.

“That chickenshit,” he muttered, and lowered the binoculars he'd been using to spy on her (might as well call it what it was - a spying session).

J glowered in Carter's general direction as she climbed into her own car and drove away. He was frustrated with her. He was frustrated with Jack. He was frustrated with broken promises. He was simply frustrated!

A pessimistic growl issued out of his throat: time to do a bit more spying, on his older self this time.

Initially, spying on Jack was all that J had in mind. But that sentiment exploded in all-consuming pain when, during his spying session, J ascertained exactly what had kept Jack from dealing with Carter.

What... or who. A numbed feeling of horror stole steadily over J as he watched Jack kiss some strange brunette on his front step just before she drove away from his house in what had the look of a rental car.

That is, she drove away in the early morning... as if she had just spent the night.

J would have given a furious growl if he hadn't been too shocked at what he'd just seen to give any kind of reaction at all. Just what was going on here? Had the entire world gone nuts and all the inhabitants had forgotten to tell him about it?

J wanted to scream. Numb, he watched the rental disappear in the twists and turns of the road surrounding Jack's house. The front door of the house calmy closed behind Jack, but J didn't feel nearly so calm himself. He was just on the verge of rising to his feet in order to give his other self a really angry piece of his mind when something completely unexpected happened.

A blond, teenaged girl with her long dirty hair held back in a single braid abruptly plopped down on the grass beside him.

J gawked at her, outraged that anyone would have the nerve to sit near someone who's taut body language so clearly said 'Leave me alone or else!'

Then the girl turned to look at him... out of utterly familiar blue eyes.

Carter?!

But how was that possible? Carter had left to go to (he assumed) the SGC. And besides, the woman he'd seen just this morning was much older than this teenaged version of... her... resting beside him. Yet he was sure that he would never mistake those blue eyes that were currently busy staring at him out of a half strange, half familar face.

It was the face that made J take another assessing look at her. This was his Carter... but wasn't. This would-be Carter had the aura that said she wasn't yet bowed down by so many of the world's cares as the woman he had known for years. At the same time, this was obviously the same face he'd spent years burning into his memory. She had the same angular chin, the same cheekbones, the same blue eyes. Logically, she couldn't be her... yet at the same time, she was.

So what was this? Carter's identical twin, twenty years too young? A really weird time warp? A bizarre hallucination from some sort of secret drug that had somehow been administered to him on the sly?

“I know,” she said, cutting into his rambling thoughts. “No wrinkles - I hardly recognize myself either.”

Wrinkles! That was it in a nutshell - she was as wrinkle free as he was - young, surrounded by an air of freedom, as if the fate of the universe no longer rested on her shoulders. Or not 'no longer,' exactly, but more like 'not yet.'

After a silent moment filled with puzzling questions flying through his mind at warp speed, J could hazard only a bewildered, “Carter?”

“Yeah, it's me,” the girl readily responded, then added, “And no it's not me.”

What was that supposed to mean? “How..?”

“I'm a clone,” she explained, her entire demeanor so casual that it was as if she'd told every stranger she'd ever met that she was a clone. “You remember the Loki thing? And the Thor thing?”

The Thor thing? “Um...” J felt sluggish and slow.

The girl awkwardly said, “Yeah, he made you... you.”

J's brain was slowly starting to wake up. “Me... as in, not dead?”

She nodded an affirmation. “And then Jack dropped you off at high school.”

J carefully admitted, “At high school - riiiight.”

The girl looked wisely knowing, as if his tentative tone had just confirmed her chief suspicion all by itself. “So - he dropped you off, but... no more school for you - I thought as much. That was the last time you were seen before you disappeared.”

How did she know he'd disappeared? He'd been so careful since being dropped off at one of the local high schools, there was no way... “The Air Force...”

“... has no idea about what you're really doing,” she laconically finished for him.

J's gaze was skeptical. “But you know all about it.”

She ignored the disbelief sounding loud in his voice to confide a secret of her own, “I've been looking for you for over a year - you are so hard to find.”

His skepticism skyrocketed, though he couldn't help but be impressed with her tracking abilities. “If you've been trailing me for a year, then why haven't I heard about you before now? Even the best spy leaves something of a trail. But you - zilch, nada, nothing. As Teal'c would say 'Not so much as a poop.'”

She smiled in shared affection. “He would say something like that.” Her following melancholy sigh split the air. “I miss Teal'c.”

Like this girl knew anything about Teal'c... except his name. Come to think of it, how did she know even that much about him?

As if she could read his mind (or more likely, predict his thoughts) she said, “Of course I know all about Teal'c, Chulak, the Oma Desala fan club, Daniel's naked descension, the Ancients, the Asgard, your ATA gene...”

Wait. “You know about the Asgard?” J choked. “And that other... stuff?”

The girl rolled her eyes in aggravated amusement. “Remember - I already told you: I'm. a. clone.”

“A. clone. of. what?” J mocked back to her.

Another sigh of aggravation. “You've already guessed who I am: a clone of Carter... er, Sam. Samantha Lou Carter, USAF Major... er, Lieutenant Colonel.”

The confession of Carter's name made J balk. “Samantha Lou? That isn't Carter's middle name. No way could..!”

“It's Carter's real middle name,” the girl informed him. “She hates it. So right before she started the Academy, she changed it to Jean. She's supposed to be named for her two grandmothers, Granny Sam and Grandmother Lou.”

He accusatorily said, “I thought she was named Sam because Jacob wanted a boy.”

The girl's sudden smile lit her face, a smile that was too similar to Carter's famous mega-watt smile to ignore. “That's what she would like you to think. Or maybe she just forgot the real reason.”

“Jacob's never said...”

“Have you ever asked him?”

J shot her a look of pure venom. “If you are what you say you are, then you know perfectly well that chances to shoot the breeze with Jacob are a little few and far between these days.” First Teal'c, now Jacob? How did she know about Jacob, anyway? “So you've got intel about the wheelings and dealings of something you're not supposed to know exists. You could get that from... some leak, from... I don't know where. But my point is: quit stalling - who the hell are you?”

The tolerant Carter smile of exasperated affection washed over him for a third time. “I told you: I'm her... and not her. I'm a clone... of Samantha Carter. And thanks to Thor, I was only matured until my teen years when I was created.”

He was still quivering with indignation, but was more willing to humor her in the hopes that he could see her smile again. “Created. And when was that?” Despite his attempt to humor her, his disbelief sliced between them.

But she hardly looked cowed. Instead she just looked relieved the minute he asked his question, as if he'd asked the single thing she'd been waiting to hear. “Finally - the salient point.”

“You say that like you never thought I'd ask.”

She didn't reply to his barb, but informed him, “Thor fixed you: he made me.”

“Made you?”

Her head bobbed in a nod. “At Carter's request.”

That tidbit of information sat between them like a great hulking bomb that was just waiting to go off. “Carter, huh?” At her second nod, J could no longer hide the fact that he was just humoring her. “And... when did you say this was?” She hadn't said because he suspected that this was nothing but a cock and bull story. He sooooo had her now!

“I didn't say,” the girl bluntly pointed out, instantly derailing his suspicions with the truth. “But it was at the same time Thor did his thing for you. Carter requested a teeange version of herself - me - to keep company with the teenaged version of Jack O'Neill - you.”

J shook his head. “Never happened,” he definitively stated. “She would have had to leave some kind of DNA sample to...”

“She did - a drop of blood, with Thor.”

J smirked, not surprised enough by this news to doubt his version of what had happened on that ship with Thor. “I never saw her...”

“You were busy talking to him... your original... and to Daniel... while Teal'c was doing his check on Loki's bindings... but I think he saw a bit of Sam talking to Thor. I don't think he heard it - they were whispering - but he might have seen her give the blood sample. I don't know - you'd have to ask him.”

“Ask him?” J echoed dumbly as more disbelieving sarcasm dripped from his mouth. “Sure - I'll just walk up to him and...” Just like that, his demeanor changed to angry incredulity. “You know I can't ask him! This is just a convenient excuse!”

The girl's expression became world weary as she started some kind of recitation that was clearly meant to convince him of her sincerity. “Before our second Zatarc test, I entered the isolation room where you were already strapped into the testing chair. I was still loopy from Janet's sedative, but knew enough to ask for a moment alone.” As her words grew more personal to them, the cocky anger that had been on his face slowly ebbed away, replaced by resigned understanding, as if he somehow knew ahead of time what she was going to say. “Everybody left, and I removed the strap from around your head. Then I told you that the machine thought...” She hitched a breath: obviously this particular memory was as painful to her as it was to him. “It thought we were lying... because we had left something out, something that neither of us was admitting, something that...” She gasped a shivery breath as if she was being tortured into describing this scene. “We had both left out something...” Her grinding voice broke off to trail into the nothingness of severe upset, though this event had happened years before. She wasn't any better at talking about this than her original had ever been. “I said it was something... that neither of us could admit... given our working relationship, our military ranks.” She looked at him out of eyes that showed a deep understanding of the hidden causes behind speaking about that particular memory... an undersanding that mingled so freely with loathing, it was almost grief. “It was the only time either of us has ever really mentioned... this.” Agony blazed at him out of her blue eyes for a moment. Then he blinked, and when he opened his eyes, saw sudden determination to do the right thing no matter how much it hurt resting alongside her pain.

J couldn't speak. He was too busy staring at her in shocked numbness. “How could you know that?” he was finally able to breathe in awe. “Carter and I were alone - no one heard us...” His voice softly trailed off as his amazement increased.

Her eyes now showed a bleak sadness. “I know because I was there.”

J gasped a short breath, the most he could do right now, finally convinced. “Then... you are... who you say you are.” His staring had taken on a subtle appreciation now. “You're what you say you are - you have to be.” His next pause was no less awed. “Or else...”

“Or else I have amazing intel.” The huge smile she now wore was an expression that was so familiar to him that it made him ache - it had been over a year since he'd seen it, yet it issued from a face that was... off.

But instead of dwelling on her expression - one that made him want to bark a cry of longing and at the same time to fall down in grateful relief at seeing it again - he noted, “You may have convinced me... but I notice that you still haven't told me why you're here.”

Her answering sigh of regret wasn't encouraging.

Yeah, here it comes, the reason that will end up poking holes all over...

“I came to stop you.”

Stop him? J gaped at her. “Excuse me?”

In answer, she sent a tiny wave towards O'Neill's house, seeming to encompass the entire messy scenario that J was currently trying to influence.

J hooked a thumb at Jack's house. “You mean with him? The other me?”

“And Carter.” She turned her suddenly stark blue eyes onto him. “And their...” She paused, looking at him uncertainly. A wrinkle again marred her forehead in just the place where the Goa'uld would put one years later.

That wrinkle made J rear back. “You look as if I might spontaneously explode.”

“You might,” she admitted. “I know that you care about...” She again waved her hand in a vague gesture. “... this a lot. Too much, maybe.”

Suspicion once again washed over J. “How do you know what I've been doing? I've only spoken to Carter, Jack, and Daniel about this! You got them all bugged now?”

“Nnnnnno.” She looked pained. He'd only seen Carter look like that once - from the wrong side of a force shield. He was half mesmerized by her tormented eyes when her whisper slowly penetrated his muddled brain, “She told me.”

She? As in..? “Carter?” J blinked in amazement, then corrected, “The other Carter?” She had talked about... this? Acknowledged... this? Even if it was just to herself? His astonishment couldn't be more complete. “No. That I won't believe.” But she continued to stare him down with eyes that were so full of truth that he instantly felt his hope for 'one day' swoop towards his toes. “She wants me and Jack gone so much that she'd call in reinforcements?”

The girl's stare broke. “Not... exactly.”

The hesitancy he heard in her voice let hope again shoot up to his heart. “Then what... exactly?”

The Carter look alike grimaced. “She just... told me that you're here... and you're confusing her... and she doesn't know what to do.”

J snorted; she didn't know what to do? “Look, you tell her...”

“I'm not telling her anything,” the young Sam firmly stated.

J gaped at her, stunned anew by her proclomation. “Then why are you here?”

The teenaged girl gave an uneasy look. “I told you - to stop you.”

Right - to stop him. This made J cautious. “Just how do you plan to go about this stopping?”

The girl still looked determined, but was also more apprehensive. “I haven't quite figured that out yet, but I'm sure that something will come to me eventually.”

J's face scrunched at her answer. “Why do you want to stop me, anyway? I would think that you of all people would...”

“I told you that, too.” Again came that look of unease that she had begun perfecting. “She's confused and...”

“... doesn't know what to do,” J finished for her. “Right.” His disbelief sounded loud in his words - it now came out as a return to his biting sarcasm. “Okay - I'm not getting it here - how is her being confused about this a bad thing?”

The girl issued an impatient sigh, as if she thought he should understand this problem without having to ask her about it. “Come on Sir, why do you think she's doing this?”

J gaped at her again, unfazed by how she'd just addressed him. “I. Have. No. Idea.” Then his gape turned accusatory as her words finally registered in his brain. “And don't call me Sir - I'm not anyone's Sir. Not yours, not hers, not..!”

“Then what should I call you?” she asked in irritation.

J briefly told her about Daniel choosing a name for him. Her response was not to comment on the name, but to add her own addendum. “I suppose that you should call me something else, too, something like 'Lou' to...”

He could never call her... J was already shaking his head. “Uh-uh, not gonna happen.”

The girl's irritation ratcheted up to aggravation. “Fine then, how about Samantha Lou?”

“How about calling you 'Carter,' just like I've always done?” His tone matched hers for annoyance.

“There's already a 'Carter.' I don't want to be...”

“This is just semantics, anyway.” J gave a mighty frown. “It doesn't matter what I call you, and you know it; you're just trying to distract me! Tell me instead how and why you want me... stopped.”

She grimaced.

But J was relentless, refusing to let himself feel any form of softness for her distress. “Why are you doing this?”

She sighed her unhappiness. “Why are you doing this?”

J's gape grew. “I should think that's obvious!”

Her voice now as flinty as her features, she demanded, “Tell me anyway.”

“I hardly think that's necessary since you already know perfectly well what I'm doing because of what she's doing! She's engaged, for cryin' out loud, and to somebody who's..!”

“She'll never marry him, you know.”

That line of argument was unexpected. “What?”

She did the gaping this time. “You mean you're taking this seriously?” She was completely amazed.

J wasn't amazed; he was bewildered, and angry because of it. “How the heck do you expect me to take it?”

She snorted. “I expect you to use the brainpower that I know you have and think this through.”

J glared at her, his bewildered anger increasing. “What's there to think about?! Carter's...”

The girl suddenly grabbed his arm, halting his wayward tongue to saddly ask, “Jack, is this all the faith you have in me?”

Faith? This wasn't a matter of faith. “Huh?”

The young Carter sighed, the sound imbued with her own frustration at his lack of understanding. “For almost as long as I've known you, you've been telling me to get a life.”

“Yeah - so?” J still didn't understand, and her dramatic attitude wasn't helping any.

“So,” she said, drawing out the word as if what she was going to say next was an equally obvious solution to this whole mess. “I finally find a life outside the SGC, and you still don't like it,” she accused instead of solving anything.

Her skirting of the subject only made J angrier. “You expect me to like 'this?' I'm not even a part of 'this!'”

“You're definitely a part of 'this!'” young Carter declared. “In fact, she wouldn't even have done 'this' if not for you!”

J's glare turned to shock. “Me? I'm not..!”

“Why did you never let your eyes tell me, Jack?” the girl interrupted to demand.

“Huh?”

Once more her sigh gusted between them. “You've always been so good with your eyes.”

J was confused. “Well, thanks, I guess, but what do my eyes have to do with..?”

“You never talked about your feelings,” she informed him as if she was discussing the weather. “I always had to watch your eyes to tell me what you were really thinking: when you were relaxed on a mission, when you were sure we were walking into a trap, when you didn't trust the natives, when you were desperate to avert trouble before Daniel found it for us. You never said a thing about any of it, but I learned to look at your eyes.” She paused, wonder coloring her tone. “For such a taciturn man, you had entire conversations with your eyes, with anyone who was paying attention.” She now looked traumatized, her own eyes wide and imploring. “I kept expecting you to do the same to me when you were sure no one was looking, the only way you could... could... tell me...” Her soft whisper cut through the silence like a particulary sharp knife. “... tell me what you think... about me.”

J was astounded, both at what she was admitting, and that she had somehow found the courage to speak about this taboo subject in the first place. “I had no idea,” he finally told her. “Why didn't you..?”

“I didn't think I had to,” she quietly confessed. “I thought it was obvious. But...” She stopped, too choked up to continue until she successfully gathered herself together to inform, “I knew exactly what you thought only once: that time on... the ship.”

In spite of her vague words, J instinctively knew what she was referring to: Apophis's ship, that time... with the force shield... that time... he wouldn't leave her.

The time that death had seemed preferable to a life without Carter... and his eyes had conveyed exactly what he'd been thinking.

The memory of that moment in their shared history made him want to simultanteously cringe at the way he'd given himself away, to shout for joy that she'd understood what he'd been unwittingly saying, and to let the warmth that she reciprocted his feelings flood through him.

Now the look in her eyes imparted not just understanding, but a deep felt sense of the tragic. “I understood... then. And I waited for another glance - anything. Just so that I could be sure... sure I had interpreted you right. But it never came.” Here she pushed her hand into her forehead, as if in pain. “So I wasn't really sure... for years.” The hand abruptly fell away as if it burned. “Until I convinced myself that... I must have been wrong, that... you didn't care anymore, that... you never had.” J gaped at her in astonishment: how could she believe anything so insane? Hadn't he always..?

“She said that you didn't do anything to dissuade her, even when she gave you the chance.”

She was referring to his older self again, his stupid, ultra private, assanine older... “He did it again,” J breathed in stupefaction.

It was a remark that made the Carter-clone's forehead wrinkle. “Huh? Do you mean the other you?”

“The older one,” J vaguely confirmed her suspicions. “He's so determined...” His gaze glittered through the afternoon air as he declared in a voice full of scathing, “He's so sure that silence is the best policy! That moron!”

But young Sam was imediately more forgiving. “He's scared, not a moron.”

J's scathing increased. “Scared of what?”

When the girl answered, it was as if she'd always known this, and so should he. “He's scared of the one thing he's always been scared of - her.”

The confusion turned to disbelief. “No way - Jack O'Neill isn't scared of...”

“He was scared of Sara for years, and now he's scared of Carter.”

Again the doubt blazed forth; how did she know this? “Of Sara? Of Carter?

Exasperated again, she shook her head. “I don't know why you bother to deny it, Sir.” Her exasperation mounted. “They've always been able to hurt him, so of course he's scared of them.”

J instantly negated, “He's been hurt by so many people (meaning Goa'ulds) and he isn't scared of them! Why should he be..?”

“Physical pain he can stand. Torture he can stand... maybe even welcome. But get him into the emotional realm...” Her tone indicated how frightening this prospect was for him.

J didn't believe her in spite of knowing Jack O'Neill better than anyone. “That's insane!”

“Is it?” Her blue eyes sparked. “Then in all this time, why hasn't he told her how he feels?”

J replied like the answer was absolute. “He cares about her career!”

She snorted. “More than her?”

That question brought J up short. “Of course not! But someone has to...”

“I know what you mean, and I understand.” Her tone was gentle. Now she spoke as if J and Jack O'Neill were the same entity - which they really were. “And that's so amazingly sweet of you, to care like that. But... do you think that you have to look out for her career because she can't?”

J's expression now grew thunderous. “Of course not! She's the most capable person...”

“Then you must not have any real faith in this capable person.”

The thunder deepened. “You know I do!” J protested. “I would be toast by now without her, and she knows it! We all do!”

“Then why not let her decide about her own career?”

The probing question was quiet, but still mananged to halt J's protests before he could vocalize more of them. A silent moment fraught with frenzied thought settled over them. When he finally spoke, J's voice was more insistent, but less sure. “I've always known that the subordinant's career was more at jeopardy than mine if I chose to say anything - or convey anything, especially if she was the woman, and...”

“That's an excuse, and you've always known it,” she softly, but firmly announced. “Face it - you're - he's - scared.”

J's expression mutated to resignation. This conversation had taken a turn for the unexpected. His defensiveness rose in response. “He's scared - so? He has every right to be scared... and worried, and...”

The girl reared back a bit. “I'm not trying to lay blame about this.” Then she regarded him with the softest look that any Carter had openly given him. “But all it would have ever taken was one look... one look that promised something definite... and there's no way that this would have happened to begin with. She never got that look... and she got tired of waiting for it... so she got engaged to someone else.” Her own soft look was so understanding and free of blame... J's stomach did a self-flagelating flip anyway. “There's no one to blame for her engagement - not her, not him, not their silence, nothing. It was because of some really sucky circumstances... and fear.” Another look of determination flitted across her eyes, and J abruptly realized that with that simple look, she had moved things from one plane to a different one entirely. “And I'm tired of letting something like fear rule my life.” She was speaking of the young her now, with glinting eyes as implacable as the Iris at the SGC. “You're no longer in the Air Force, and neither am I - there's not really any more excuses, are there? It's time we talked... Jack.”

Her announcement made his hackles instantly rise in preparation to defend himself. But her look of trusting understanding just as quickly vanquished those automatic defenses. Now all he felt was resigned... and oddly light, as if Jack O'Neill's life was truly about to start. “Yeah, I guess it's time.”

* * *

They talked for three days.

Then they had more pressing and enjoyable things to do than talk - and they certainly didn't mind more silence (at least, not for this!)

Epilogue

One week later:

The letter that had been laying at a slant against the door to Jack O'Neill's mailbox would have fallen to the ground the second he pulled the mailbox open if he hadn't caught the envelope. It floated into his hands as if it had finally come home after a long journey.

It was simply addressed to 'J O'Neill' in the handwriting that he instantly recognized as his own. Since he hadn't sent a letter to himself (that he remembered), that meant that this message could only be from his murky future self, a past self that for some mysterious reason he no longer recalled, or from his clone.

And as that clone of his had been known to be hanging around Colorado Springs in recent days, and he knew the clone preferred to be called 'J' for reasons only fully known to him, and this envelope was addressed to a 'J O'Neill,' he concluded that the message was from his (hopefully) one and only clone.

Which didn't exactly bode all that well for him. Jack recalled in vivid detail the last time he'd seen his clone - specifically the part where he'd promised to talk to Samantha Carter after his thing with the agent. He knew only too well what had happened to his promise - like many of his other promises, it had yet to come to fruition. But the clone couldn't know that... could he?

Jack quickly re-entered his house, shutting the door firmly behind him before daring to pull apart the envelope in order to read the longest letter he'd ever written. It must have taken him days just to write it.

The first line told him that without a shadow of a doubt, J certainly knew that he hadn't spoken to Carter yet, and he knew the reason why.

Jack,

Tired of avoiding Carter yet? Bored to death by the brunette agent woman yet? Feeling awkward yet?

Or am I getting too close to what you're really doing for comfort?

Remember, I know you, Jack. You might be able to lie to everyone at the base, but you can't lie to me. I'm you, remember?

I would say that you should talk to Carter like I suggested, but I know that you're running away right now, and nothing I say will stop you. Okay. So run then.

When you stop running (or get too tired - you old desk jockey, you), you probably STILL won't know what to say. You never do. So, in case that happens, I have one more suggestion for you.

DON'T TELL HER ANYTHING.

Instead, use your eyes to tell her everything.

Wait a minute - your eyes, you ask?

And what about the security cameras? It'll be only a few hours before everyone knows everything because of those damned cameras, right?

Those cameras, as you well know, show the tops of heads, from quite a distance. If they ever catch what's going on in people's eyes so that someone can interpret things correctly (even Carter), then I'm Jacob in disguise.

Plus, you've got nothing left to lose.

Hey! I can lose my dignity, you say.

But I say where's the dignity in ending up alone? If you do, then you're just alone... old and alone. And what good will you be to anyone if it ends like that? So prove to me that you're not stupid... like I know you're not. If you were, then I would be, too. And I'm not... stupid, that is. I'm a lot of other things, but I'm not dumb.

It's my guess that she doesn't know anything about us... I mean, about our feelings... not for sure. That's why she's doing this... because we left her no choice. Now I'm telling you to give her one. It won't ruin her career. Trust her to run her own career.

It won't mean you're weak, either. The bravest things are always considered the easiest to do, right? Hogwash. It's gonna be hard, real hard. But since when do you only do the easy things?

Don't waste too much time with Miss Agent Lady. Too much waiting means waiting too long. And trust me when I say you don't want to do that. Being Carterless with no hope anymore is much worse than watching this. So don't be an ass. Show her. Hold nothing back. You have nothing left to lose. Except her if you do nothing. Could you live with yourself if you do nothing? I couldn't.

Your Personal Pimple


J watched the front window of Jack's house through his binoculars, clearly seeing Jack read his letter, read it again, then fold it only to let it dangle from his fingers as he considered what he'd read.

J didn't watch him do more than a half hour's worth of thinking. For no matter what General Jack O'Neill chose to do at this point, he had no influence over it - not with his career, not with his life, and especially not with his Carter.

Besides, he had his own Carter now - he could lavish his attention on her whenever he wanted... and he wanted to lavish a lot, whenever and wherever they were.

And now that he had his Carter, he didn't much care what his original did.

Okay, he cared...

But not really.

The End


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