Disclaimer: Sadly, I don't own 'Stargate, SG-1.' If I did, the show would still be on.

Progeny

by Linda Bindner

A/N: an AU of seasons 9 and 10

Thanks go to Noda2 and KEF for being such GREAT betas

Chapter 1

The Letter That Changed a Life

SG-1 had long since disbanded. In a lot of ways, Jack was alone again for the first time in 8 years.

Jack had been the first to leave when he'd been promoted from Colonel to Brigadier General. He pretended for at least a year that his promotion hadn't completely removed him from the team, or from his teammates. But well into his second year as commander of the SGC he'd had to admit it at least to himself: his teammates were still out there, fighting the good fight, but the fight had changed for him. He truly had gone where no one had gone before (except General Hammond... and Elizabeth Weir... and he supposed someone would come after his stint as SGC leader... so saying he'd gone where ho one had gone before wasn't exactly accurate. He'd gone where only a few had gone before... there, that was better.)

Teal'c had been the next to leave; predictably enough, the new Jaffa Nation had entreated him to lead them in their nation building, and being the camouflaged sap that he was, Teal'c couldn't resist a call from his own people.

Carter had been next on the quitter's list: she had gotten married to... Jack still couldn't bring himself to name the guy. He had gone to the wedding, been a presence there... but that's all he had been: a warm body dressed in an Air Force uniform. He'd done his best to make his presence look official - he'd borrowed one of those ear pieces with a built in microphone that the security people had recently adopted, saying that he wanted to stay abreast of any and all security developments himself. He had actually tuned it in to a completely different channel than the other security personnel were using during the ceremony. He'd recorded himself reciting the periodic table and had played it on his machine's loop setting so that his tape wouldn't catastrophically run out during the vows.

Instead of paying attention to those vows, he'd made sure to stand in the back on the groom's side of the church - since those guests were certain not to know standard military security jargon - and would be impressed by the uniform. With his eyes trained studiously on the floor rather than the bride and groom, he was seemingly tuned in to a continuous flow of security reports. In actuality, he was learning stuff he never thought he'd learn about Carter-things like 'Boron.' As unfamiliar elements, numbers, and weights played in his ear, he kept nodding and saying the occasional 'Keep me informed, Sergeant,' and 'Move team three to intercept' and 'Copy that' over and over again in a low voice. Before he knew it, he'd lived through the ceremony without really witnessing any of it.

He had stood with Daniel and Teal'c in the receiving line until they were ten feet from the bride and groom when he'd abruptly created a fictional security detail that drew him out of the line, away from the church, into his truck, and down the road till he was far away, looking very important while doing absolutely nothing. The fact that he'd purposely missed the reception - and more importantly, its cake - had said more to Carter than he had.

Ironically enough, he'd actually memorized the Periodic Table of the Elements that day, and was muttering it under his breath as Daniel soon after left the SGC on the Daedalus as the premier Earth scholar on the Ancients, heading for a three month tour on Atlantis. When his three month tour turned into a six month extended tour, Jack was ready for it and didn't begrudge his friend his play date with all things Ancient.

In the meantime, Carter came back from what Jack considered her completely cliché two week honeymoon trip to Hawaii to find transfer orders. Jack had figured that he would help her new husband find out what military life was really like by immediately agreeing to the transfer request he got at least once a month from General Hadley at Area 51 in Nevada for Colonel Carter to head R&D. She was gone before he'd managed to unbury himself from the many reviews he'd been told - last week - that he had to complete now. He hadn't even been forced to see her with someone else's ring on her finger. It still bothered him to no end that there was a ring on her finger, especially one belonging to somebody that wasn't him, but as long as he didn't have to see it, he could simply pretend that Carter was on a very extended mission to the Alpha Site.

And so, with no fuss or fanfare, the original SG-1 had quietly vanished from the halls of the SGC. In it's place was the new SG-1, the front-line team led by some brash young military person, peopled by a linguist, a geologist/sociologist, and a military 2IC who made Teal'c look cuddly. They were soon just another team designation to Jack, kind of like SG-3 or SG-17. Now, six months after 'the wedding from Hell that I didn't actually witness,' he didn't care about SG-1. Jack O'Neill was truly the leader of the Tau'ri, a universal force to be reckoned with, the man who was undoubtedly 'The Man.'

Jack prided himself on knowing exactly what was going on everywhere on his base. He missed Spacemonkey like it was going out of style, but didn't blink when Daniel requested three more months to play in another galaxy's sandbox. He helped Teal'c with his nation building only when the Jaffa asked for his help, which he did, on three separate occasions. He studiously avoided all reports from Area 51's R&D, instead delegating them to Colonel Reynolds, his 2IC, to read and review. Jack figured that the Colonel could use the practice at reading reports, then summarizing them for him. He was helping the man - really!

All in all, things were going along swimmingly. Daniel was scheduled to arrive home in two days, Teal'c had again checked in as planned to say that all was well within the new Jaffa Nation, and Carter was playing happy wife in another state altogether. Jack had finally fully adjusted to his roll as SGC General now that his former teammates were all gone. He was even on top of his paperwork: Walter barely knew what to think.

Jack barely knew what to think, either, except that he didn't want to jinx the way things had been running ultra smoothly for the last month. Things were so good that they were scary. He didn't have anybody waiting for him at home, and he preferred it that way. If he had in effect run away from Carter on her wedding day, then purposefully removed her from his command, he refused to let himself dwell. There was nothing and nobody (human, alien, robotic, cloned, or copied) to crimp his style. This was the life!

That was the atmosphere at the SGC when Walter casually tossed The Letter onto his desk. The ticking of the ultimate time bomb had unknowingly begun.

What was this? Jack slid his attention from the form he'd been diligently filling out to the white envelope that had appeared in front of him. It was unusual for him not to automatically know ahead of time what every envelope at the SGC contained. Stranger yet, it only said the words General O 'Neill - Confidential on the outer envelope. Turning it over to examine the back side revealed nothing more to clue him in on the envelope's contents. Curious, he efficiently slit the envelope and drew out the single sheet of paper held within. He unfolded it, read the first few lines with nonchalant interest, then choked.

From Captain Andrea Blaley, Infirmary Nurse, SGC

To General Jack O'Neill, Stargate Command, NORAD, Colorado

Dear Sir,

If you're reading this, then I must be dead. If so, then I have something very important to tell you. It will most likely come as a complete shock to you, so it's probably best if you're sitting down.

On February 3, 2005, I gave birth to a baby girl I named Alison. I had always said that her father was my boyfriend who was gone before anybody could meet him, but I lied. You are the father.

No, this isn't some twisted alternate reality. No, we didn't have some kind of romantic relationship that you conveniently don't remember. You are, in fact, purely innocent of all decisions pertaining to Alison. I take full responsibility for her creation. You weren't ever to know, except on my death.

To explain: In March 2004 you were frozen in an Ancient sleeping chamber in Antarctica, and thought to be temporarily lost. By May, your temporary status had changed to MIA/KIA, since it was unknown if you would ever be successfully revived. It was then that I began considering what the loss of your ATA gene would mean to Earth and its allies, particularly to the Asgard and their cloning degradation problem, as your offspring was believed to hold the key to their racial survival. Worried that it would prove impossible to rescue you from Antarctica and your Ancient gene would be lost, and that it would be unlikely that we stumble on another Air Force member who just happened to have the Ancient gene, I stole the sperm sample you had left in the Infirmary for safekeeping for the Asgard, and I - to make the story short, Alison was born almost nine months later, only a few weeks premature. I replaced the sample with another sample from an anonymous donor who is innocent of this plan so that undue suspicion wouldn't come if your sample was ever discovered missing - please fix this oversight if at all possible. I haven't as yet been able to make sure Alison inherited your ATA gene, but that's only because I haven't found a reason to bring a baby and Ancient technology to the Infirmary at the same time. Perhaps you will have better luck.

In case you don't believe my story, I encourage you to do a DNA check on Alison.

In case of my death, I've made arrangements for Alison to be kept for one month at my cousin's house in Colorado Springs. You should find her there. I beg you to take responsibility of her future care, even if that is assured only by you keeping her: she really is a sweet kid with your eyes and messy hair, though she tends to like staying up much later than she should. I wish her to be raised just like any normal kid, and kept safe from becoming nothing more than a lab experiment to groups like the NID. I'm truly sorry if this causes any kind of trouble for you, and I hereby absolve you from any wrongdoing pertaining in any way to Alison. Thank you.

Captain Andrea Blaley, SGC

PS I've been telling Alison since she was born that if I have to go away for a long time, not to worry because Daddy's coming to take care of her, and oddly enough, I think she understands. She'll be expecting you.

Chapter 2

PANIC!

Having just read the letter, Jack sat, aghast, too numb to move, his heart pounding a cadence against his ribs. Unable to think on his own yet, he read the letter again.

The first thing he noticed was that when he picked it up, a flash of writing startled him into turning it over. A name and address met his gaze:

My cousin:

Marjorie Blaley Atterby

521 West Elm

Colorado Springs, CO 80926

(719)555-0301

Other than that, it disclosed nothing different: he was daddy dearest to a girl named Alison. He felt a special sarcastic appreciation for the not so tiny guilt trip in the very last part of Captain Andrea's letter; she had certainly done her best to make sure that Jack felt that he had no choice in claiming Alison since she'd told her 'Daddy's coming' since day one.

But Jack didn't need any help with guilt: his first thought upon rereading the letter was that there was no way that Alison could ever replace Charlie! The guilt he'd always felt concerning Charlie then plowed into him in force.

But on second thought, his idea of Alison replacing Charlie was nuts. This Captain Andrea person couldn't have even known about Charlie, so Alison was never meant to replace him. She was just a kid who happened to be his kid. Besides, nothing and no one would could ever replace Charlie, no way, no how. There was a special cordoned off part of Jack's heart that would always belong to his son.

Did this mean that his heart would now have to be cordoned off for Alison as well? That organ was already getting crowded with people like Carter, Sara, Daniel, Teal'c, Cassie, and Charlie sharing it. Jack wasn't sure that there was enough room for yet another person, no matter how innocent she was. Plus, he had enough guilt from Charlie's accident alone to eat away at his insides - he didn't need to add more guilt to the pile!

Besides, Alison couldn't be more than a year or so old - how could she possibly understand when her mother had told her that 'Daddy's coming?' The Captain seemed to have believed that Alison could already comprehend English, which was ridiculous.

No matter how ridiculous it was, Jack suddenly gagged as anger flooded him: not only was he being guilted, but he'd been hijacked - or his sperm had! He vividly remembered leaving a sperm sample with Doc Fraiser at Thor's request... for DNA purposes only... but that had been years ago! And now - this Captain Blaley (whoever she was)(well, Jack knew who she was, especially after just last week she and two other nurses along with their patient had been killed by an Alkesh bomb dropping onto their heads in the last SAR.) But... but...

Jack took a furious breath, yet still couldn't bring his raging temper under control. She'd had no right! Things were more or less good now - he no longer missed Charlie every minute for the first time since his accident. He'd finally made himself stop grieving for Carter with every breath. He no longer missed Daniel and Teal'c more than he could stand. Things were good - or at least okay - as smooth as they could be. He sure didn't want another kid messing up the mix!

What was he going to do? A kid - a daughter. He didn't know anything about girls! How should he treat her? What was her name? Alison? For some reason, it made him instantly think of the name 'Eddison.' But that was a boy's name. This was a girl.

A girl. Carter was a girl. He knew! He could contact Carter and...

Then Jack recalled that he hadn't been in contact with Carter since she'd left. Samantha Carter he could relate to. But this married Carter-who-wasn't-even-named-Carter-anymore caused him a few problems. No, he couldn't contact whatever her name was now. What would he say to her, anyway?

Come to think of it, what would he say to anybody? What could he say? If this Captain Andrea person was right in thinking that the NID or whoever would be after their kid if his Ancient gene really had been inherited, then he shouldn't tell anybody.

How could he have a daughter that he had to keep secret?

Suddenly the rage that had consumed him on every level tunneled into intense fear. Anxiety thundered in his temples. Panic burned in his veins. In half a second he was an emotional wreck.

Yet, the fear made him do a mental double take - it was bizarre to fear for a girl he'd never met.

As abruptly as the overwhelming fear had come, the feeling that he was completely alone in this swamped him. Was there anybody he could trust not to turn her over to the NID, or worse? Who could he tell? The President? His team? Who would help him?

In seconds Jack was hyperventilating over the safety of a kid he didn't know and didn't want. This was how it felt to be a parent, he knew, and fought the sensation with everything he had in him. He didn't want to be a parent! He just wanted to get his paperwork done in time for the hockey game!

This was too much for him to handle alone. With jerky movements, he snatched the receiver from the phone on his desk and dialed.

After at least an hour (10 seconds) of ringing, an unfamiliar secretary came on the line. “This is Lieutenant...”

“I don't care who you are! This is General O'Neill - get me Hammond. It's urgent!”

The fact that his directive was instantly followed illustrated how much pull he had with the HWS office. There was a benign click, a sound that was at odds to Jack's racing heart. What felt like several more hours passed (but was probably only another few seconds), then the soft drawl of General George Hammond floated across the line. “Hammond here. Now Jack, tell me...”

“You've gotta help me, General!” Panic consumed Jack as he hollered into the phone.

Hammond's confusion carried across the line. “Jack, wha..? Calm down and start..!”

“I can't calm down! I don't have time to calm down!” Jack ran his hand through his hair, pulling out at least a third of the silver strands. “I don't know what to do. If I do the wrong thing, and they take her, I'll never forgive myself.”

“Jack!” Hammond's perplexity mounted. “What's going on? Take who?”

“Alison!”

“And who's Alison?”

What could he say that didn't say anything? Crap! He shouldn't have even mentioned her to Hammond!

But before Jack could make up his mind about how much to tell him, Hammond was saying, “I don't recall hearing about any problems at the SGC yet today. Did something happen? Jack, what's going on!”

Jack shuddered. He'd have to tell him. How else could he get the advice he so badly needed?

So Jack told him everything. He gulped down his fear and tried to calm his steadily thundering heart as he read the letter from Captain Andrea (Captain Blaley, not Captain Andrea! but Jack feared that the nickname had already stuck) detailing the way she'd had his baby without his input or even his knowledge. True to form, the first thing Hammond asked him immediately poked holes through the rest of his fear.

“Do you know for a fact that what this Captain Blaley claims is true, Jack? Are you sure she wasn't put up to writing this letter by someone with an agenda of their own?”

Jack's mental scramble abruptly paused: oh. He hadn't even thought of that.

Suddenly images of Ba'al surged in his mind.

“Oh, thanks!” Jack sarcastically groaned into the phone, disregarding that the man he was speaking to was his superior officer. “Now I'll wonder if Ba'al has something to do with this!”

The light chuckle that came from Hammond halted Jack's fearful images. “Calm down, Jack! This isn't about Ba'al!”

“How do you know?” was his dire response.

“Jack, that's ridiculous. This isn't a Goa'uld trick. The Goa'uld aren't known for a subterfuge as complicated as this... or even a subterfuge at all.”

A sigh rushed out, calming Jack like nothing else. “You're probably right, Sir,” he realized. “This is too domestic a trick for a Goa'uld. Besides, they don't have kids - they would never think of using this angle.” Even as he said it, Jack recalled the way that Nirrti had used Cassie when she was young to infiltrate the Tau'ri. But Nirrti was dead, so this couldn't be one of her grand schemes to do away with her Earthling enemies. That idea was so far fetched that Jack didn't even mention it.

Unaware of Jack's mental digression, Hammond said, “There you go, this isn't a trick of the Goa'uld. In fact, the first thing you need to do is make sure this Alison really exists. Worry about the rest once you've seen her with your own eyes. Then we can have her tested in the Infirmary and...”

“Should I let the President know about her at that time? Or should I say something now?” Jack asked, cutting him off. “And what about the rest of the SGC? I don't see how I can keep a lid on this, Sir, not if...”

“Do you really want to keep a lid on this, Jack?” Hammond succinctly inquired. “Can you?”

Taking the question at face value, Jack replied, “I don't know - is it possible to keep a kid a secret?”

Hammond's second chuckle cut through the rest of Jack's insecurities. “Did you want to keep Cassie a secret? Jolinar?”

“Aha! Look what acknowledging Jolinar did to Carter!”

“Telling people about Jolinar may have had some nasty consequences, but what did you want to do - wrap Colonel Carter up in cotton afterwards so no one found out?”

“Yes!”

Hammond's amusement was palpable. “I bet Colonel Carter would have had a thing or two... or ten to say about that. Jack, whether you like it or not, these people have the right to live normal lives, or as normal a life as they can find.”

Jack instinctively knew that Hammond wasn't talking about keeping a kid safe from the NID now - he was cagily telling Jack that he couldn't have stopped Carter from doing what she just recently did and still lived with himself... the wily old son of a gun. “I know that, Sir. But won't telling people about this Alison get me in trouble, or..?” He trailed off as he heard the whininess in his voice. No doubt about it, he sounded completely selfish.

But Hammond assured, “I don't think you have anything to worry about on that score. Not unless you try to keep this Alison a secret, as if you have something to hide. 'The truth will out,'” he quoted. “Just make sure you do that outing first.”

Jack took a deep breath to steady himself. Hammond was right - as usual. “Thank you, Sir. I knew I could count on you for some good advice. I just didn't know how to proceed in this situation.”

The summation of Hammond's calm advice followed. “Meet this girl to make sure this Captain isn't making this whole thing up, then get her tested. Worry about the rest when it happens.”

Jack drew another deep breath. That was all good advice. He should call the cousin to set up an appointment to meet this Alison. Then he should inform the President. Only then would he know how to proceed.

Jack felt calmer already. “Thank you, Sir. You don't know how much better I feel about this.”

Hammond's satisfaction came through in his voice. “Good. We can decide what to do when we know more. I might even get to be a grandpa again!” Hammond's voice brightened.

It was true that Jack felt several degrees calmer now, but he wasn't entirely sure he was ready to start assigning grandparents to what might turn out to be nothing but a mythical daughter. “I'll meet this imaginary kid first,” he firmly stated. “Then I'll let you and Teal'c duke it out over the Grandpa thing.”

Chapter 3

First Contact

Doing his best to stay calm and collected, Jack followed General Hammond's sound advice by immediately calling the cousin mentioned on the back of the Captain's letter the minute he disconnected from DC. Forms and reports still littered his desk, but he ignored them, even going so far as to push some of them aside in order to give this phone call his full attention. However, it didn't matter how much of his attention he was according to this call - the reality of that phone call still caught him completely off guard.

The phone was picked up on it's third ring by a slightly breathless youngster of about twelve, according to his voice. “Hello?”

The harassed sound, one that was bitten off, as if this phone call was already an imposition, threw Jack. “Um... hello,” he managed to blurt. “This is General Jack O'Neill.” What should he say next? Somehow he didn't think 'I'm the dad who didn't know he was a dad,' would go over too well. Finally he settled on, “I was told to call to set up an appointment to meet Alison Blaley?” Crap - that sounded like a question, as if he was unsure of his rights in this scenario. Which was really the case, he ruefully thought - he didn't know his rights. Or even if what the letter claimed was right.

The answer surprised him again. “Oh, then you want to speak to my mom. I'll get her.” Then Jack clearly heard the loud shriek of 'MOM! PHONE CALL!' His ear started ringing the minute the yell sounded.

The ringing was just abating in Jack's ear when a more mature voice replaced that of the child. “Yes?”

This voice may be more mature, but the sense of harassment was as clear in this as it had been in the first. The distraction of that harassment acted like a distraction to Jack, who once again didn't know what to say. “Uh... I understand that you were expecting my call?”

The distraction turned to wariness in a heartbeat. “May I ask who this is?”

Oh, that's right, he'd introduced himself to the first speaker, not the second. “Right. I'm General Jack O'Neill, and I got a l...”

“Oh, you're the guy that Andrea was telling me about - yeah, I know you!”

She did? “Then you have the advantage, ma'am.”

Amusement now sounded over her original distraction. “I mean, we haven't met exactly, but I've heard all about you.” There was a pause, then she rushed to explain, “Or I mean, I haven't heard all about you, but I know who you are. You were Andrea's boss. You're the dad.”

Nothing like getting right down to business. Normally Jack would appreciate that, but he wasn't quite ready to hear those words spoken aloud. “Uh... that's what I've been told, but... Look, I'm sure you understand why I'm a bit skeptical of all this. It was dumped on me rather suddenly.” Like, completely suddenly - very completely suddenly. Jack would never have seen this one coming even with Asgard sensors cranked so high that they could get a reading on what was happening during any one particular minute on the dark side of the moon.

A low laugh let him know that this person, at least, shared in some of his skepticism. “I told Andrea that you would be like this, but she was so sure that you would just jump at the chance to acquire a kid free of charge.”

Jack gave a start, recognizing sarcasm when he heard it. Perhaps... maybe... could he be so lucky as to have found a very unlikely partner-in-sarcasm? He tried to quickly collect himself and proceed with the conversation. “Then you have Alison?” he ascertained, as if the fact that Alison was physically there made her all that much more real.

“Yep, she's here. Are you wanting to take her?”

Jack balked. “Meet her for now, not take her. I'd like to run a few tests before I do any taking. The Air Force base I work at has a complete Infirmary that...”

“You want to run tests - got it,” she interrupted, completely glossing over the Air Force base part, for which Jack was more than glad; he was amazed at himself for even mentioning that base part - it was a top secret base, after all. “I'm sorry,” she continued. “I don't have much time right now for lengthy explanations - I run a day-care, and we're all outside enjoying the warm weather.”

She thought the small amount that she had said so far had been lengthy? And if it was so warm, why was Jack still cooped up inside when...

Again his mind twisted and bucked at the abrupt idea that came out of nowhere to slug him in the gut: HE HAD FATHERED A KID, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! He felt his pulse speed up at even this much confirmation of what the letter had contained. He took a shaky breath and forced himself to focus on what she was saying.

“I've got to get back to the kids. But when would be a good time for you to meet Alison and take her for those tests? She's only a little over one, but I can tell that she knows something is going on - she keeps staring at every man who walks through the house as if she knows you're coming.”

... her Daddy's coming to take care of her. The last words of the letter ghosted through Jack's mind like Wraiths from the Pegasus Galaxy. Successfully guilted, just as Captain Andrea had wanted, Jack tried to ignore another wave of hot panic to say, “I should be able to get away tomorrow afternoon around 1500... 3:00. How does that work for you?”

“Sounds good. Sorry to be so rushed just now...”

“Warm weather - sun - enjoy it for me - see you tomorrow. Oh, are you still at...” Jack hurried to check the address that the Captain had given him. “... 521 West Elm?”

“Yep, until after the divorce. Then I'll have to sell - I hope that you can take Alison - not that she's a handful, but it's one less bedroom that I'll have to worry about. I'll already need at least four, and that's if we double up.”

Jack's brows rose. “You have...” He did a quick calculation in his head. “... at last five kids of your own?”

“Six. That's one of the reasons I'm getting a divorce. Can you imagine that the jerk I was married to was actually serious when he said he wanted his own hockey team?”

Jack cringed - he'd once thought the same thing. “Yeah, imagine that!” He didn't know what else to say to show his sympathy that wouldn't also sound false and syrupy.

But then, he didn't have to say anything. She did instead. “See you tomorrow for the trial run. Bye.”

And that was that. Jack hung up the phone as if encased in a fog. He was so consumed by thoughts of Alison that he completely forgot to tell the President about Alison's existence. So much for outing himself. In fact, he was positively overwhelmed with wondering how on Earth he was going to sleep that night knowing what was in store for him. There was just no room for thoughts of the President.

Chapter 4

Meet and Greet

Jack didn't need to worry that he wouldn't sleep; the second he laid down on his bed at home, he knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt he wouldn't sleep a wink all night. He still hadn't said anything to anybody about Alison (besides General Hammond, who knew how to keep a secret). He hadn't said one word about the letter, or about DNA scenarios besides to mention to the CMO that there was a possibility of him wanting some testing of the ATA gene performed on an individual sometime during the afternoon hours. He figured that was a vague enough statement that if he chickened out over bringing Alison to the base for these simple tests, he was still covered.

He was a bit soothed by the fact that he'd thought to make several copies of Captain Andrea's letter before leaving the SGC earlier that night. It was comforting to know that in case he needed to prove his parental rights, yet couldn't produce the Captain's letter because he'd lost it, he was covered in that quarter. Not that he particularly knew what his rights were in this situation, but saying that he had parental rights sounded more official than saying that he had no idea what was going on at all. Plus, it made him look a whole lot smarter.

His copying had been interrupted once when an eager young Airman wanted his signature on something he thought was of dire importance, but Jack met him at the door to the room, keeping him from seeing any part of the letter sooner than he wanted its contents divulged. And the other Airman in the copy room at the time had been all the way across the room, and Jack had felt safe enough from his possibly discerning eyes to leave the letter unattended for the time it took to sign his name at the 'x.'

But still he was plagued by uncomfortable contemplations, even now that he was free of the SGC and its rumormongering atmosphere. His mind was consumed by thoughts of Charlie, of Alison, of the two of them together, and of the natural guilt he felt over both. The guilt was more than enough to keep him awake for hours, in spite of the balm of making copies and getting good advice.

Thus Jack was surprised when he woke up after sleeping soundly all night to find the morning sunshine slanting through his window. He hadn't even dreamt - that he remembered. But as he woke, a litany of the letter's words kept running over and over in his head, just like the recording of the Periodic Table that had helped him get through Carter's wedding. He could do without this litany crowding his mind just like he could really do without those distracting thoughts of Carter.

Why was he thinking about Carter now, anyway? She was married to... to... He Who Must Not Be Named. She might be out of his command structure for the first time since they'd met, but that was hardly helpful when she was some other man's wife.

But even that knowledge didn't stop him from wiling away the hour he needed to get ready for the day on the weird idea that this was Carter's kid he was about to meet for the first time, not the kid of some barely known nurse from the Infirmary who had taken it upon herself to be a human incubator for his Ancient gene. Had this kid even been wanted before now? Wanted for more than her DNA, that is? What if Alison proved to be his, but hadn't inherited his precious ATA gene

And did an ATA gene really matter any longer, anyway? There had been great strides recently in making the Ancient gene much more commonplace. Oh, it wasn't common common, but it was certainly more common than it had been when this Captain Andrea had gone rogue and had his baby just on the off chance that their offspring might inherit that one all important gene of his.

Now that Jack had thought of the idea to wonder if Alison had even been wanted for her sake rather than what she could do for him, for Earth's allies, for her country, and the planet as a whole, he couldn't get the thought out of his mind. Except for his thoughts of Carter (inappropriate as they may be)(and impossible besides) he was consumed with the 'want Alison' angle, and was now looking forward to meeting her, if nothing else to make sure that she had been treated alright. Just how he would determine that if she was only a year old he didn't know, but that didn't stop his obsessing.

What did stop his obsessing was just the sight of his green pickup truck parked in his driveway. He had a truck. A Truck. As in, a vehicle that was especially inappropriate for transporting small children in car seats.

All this was true except for the fact that his truck had a full back seat, perfect for transporting the odd hockey team, the odd team member(s), the odd kid strapped into a car seat... It was essentially a car with a truck bed tacked on behind it. Nothing could be safer for Alison to ride in.

Except... how was he possibly going to walk through the base to the Infirmary carrying a kid who might look just like him if he didn't want anybody to know about his possible parentage prior to confirming that possible parentage? Hmmm... he hadn't thought of this, either.

Perhaps... it was time to take the CMO with him on a field trip to this Marjorie Atterby's house. He was going to have to trust the CMO not to talk if he took her, and to do a house call, and to not pass judgment, and to...

Who was the CMO now, anyway? Meaning, what was the name of Fraiser's replacement... the one he had spoken to the day before... not that anybody could replace Doc Fraiser. Brightman had been her first real replacement... then that guy... then that other guy.... then... weren't they on another woman? A woman he couldn't seem to remember meeting on her first day. Was this the first sign of his advancing age?

Jack shook his head to rid himself of age worries and forcefully refocused on the topic at hand: the new CMO. Jack felt sure that he would at least recognize this doctor if he saw her again. Wouldn't she be wearing a white coat over an Air Force uniform? That's what she'd been wearing last time, and that's what Fraiser had always worn. Then again, this wasn't Fraiser.

Crap! Now he was going to start missing Doc Fraiser all over again! Wasn't he over that yet? Or as over that as he was going to get?

Thoughts of Fraiser inevitably led to thoughts of Carter. They had been best friends, after all.

Jack vigorously shook his head again to rid his mind of this train of thoughts. He didn't have time for thoughts of Carter right now. Those kinds of thoughts tended to muck up his brain, and he needed to be focused on Alison right now. So Jack did his best to get those inappropriate thoughts of Carter banished to the back of his mind, and had almost succeeded by the time he reached Cheyenne Mountain. The fact that he literally ran into the CMO lady helped him a lot.

He pulled the woman up from the floor just outside the elevator where he had collided with her hard enough to send her medical clipboard skittering across the tiles. After hauling her up, he chased after her clipboard, snagging it just before she did. “Hey Doc,” he said as he handed back her board, calling her 'Doc' because he didn't know what her name was. “I need to see you in my office in one hour. Think you can find the way?”

Her answer was to unnervingly stare straight at him, her demeanor saying 'You're joking, right?' But all she said aloud was, “I've been here long enough to know my way to the General's office. In the Briefing Room.”

Jack gave her a quick grin and joked, “Or you could say that the Briefing Room is just outside my office rather than...” His voice trailed off.

She wasn't smiling - to the point of not even understanding that he was joking, as if she didn't have enough sense of humor to know a joke when she heard one. How had he gotten a CMO without a sense of humor? How had he accepted her? “Anyway, come in one hour.”

“Yes Sir.”

Her two word response was as bland as she was.

It was times like these that Jack missed good old Doc Fraiser even more than he usually did.

That hour was slow and fast at the same time. Walter came by to pick up the reports he'd read yesterday. The Sergeant tried to take the forms that Jack had stopped signing while being interrupted with a confidential letter, but Jack stopped him. “Those really need signing this morning, Sir,” the beleaguered Sergeant suggested.

“Something came up that needed my immediate attention,” Jack excused. “Oh, and I'll need to be off base today at 1500.”

“Do you plan to come back, or go straight home, Sir?”

“Um...” Which was it? Oh yeah, he planned to take the CMO with him, so he would have to drive her back to base. “Back here, Walter... where I will then be sure to sign these forms over the next several hours.”

“Even if something happens?”

“You have my word.” Gah! Giving Walter his word was like signing an oath in blood.

Walter turned away without saying anything more, but he looked like he didn't believe him.

Jack was busy signing those forms that he had ignored the day before (signing them now, while there was no crisis to interfere with his pen) when the CMO doctor lady suddenly appeared at his door.

“Through the Briefing Room we go,” she quietly sang as she leaned on his doorframe.

Maybe she had a sense of humor after all - a warped humor, that is.

That was ok. Jack could deal with warped humor better than no humor. “Take a seat,” he affably invited. “Sorry, but I don't remember your name - when did you become the base CMO?”

The doctor did a double take. “I'm not the CMO. That would be Doctor Carolyn Lam.”

Jack stared at her in shock. “Not the CMO? Then who are you?”

“I'm Doctor Meredith Myers. My friends call me Merry. I don't know you yet, so please call me Dr. Myers. This is my second day.”

“Your second day?” Jack parroted back to her, still somewhat shocked. “And I haven't met you yet?”

Dr. Myers blushed red. “The General of the base is hardly needed to welcome just any old doctor to the Infirmary. We'll probably never even see each other.”

Never see each other... and hadn't met before now. Which meant that this Dr. Myers had no preconceived notions about him, or what had been done to him before, or what he had - or hadn't - done... which meant that even if Alison looked just like him, she wouldn't necessarily notice, or care if she did.

Quick to decide just about everything, Jack made a snap decision and handed her the letter. “Read.” He explained nothing so as not to influence her opinions on this matter. When she was finished reading, he added, “I'm going to visit this Alison at 1500 today to see if she has the Ancient gene which she might have inherited from me.”

“Which is why you need me to confirm the...” Then Dr. Myers looked him over with a perplexed curl to her lips. “The... gene thing... it's important?”

Jack sighed. “Very, unfortunately.”

“And if she doesn't have this old gene thingy?” the doctor went on.

“Ancient gene, not old gene,” Jack corrected, then told her, “I guess it doesn't matter if she does or not if this letter turns out to be true, and she is my kid. Can you do an on-site DNA test?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On a great many things,” Myers retorted. “I'd need a lab, and I don't carry one of those around in my pocket.”

“But you don't need a lab, do you?” Jack argued. “Doesn't DNA just have to do with hair color, and eye color, and things like that?”

The curl was back. Why did Jack suddenly feel slow and stupid just because he'd asked a question? “For an imprecise DNA test, yes.”

Jack's brows rose. “How imprecise?”

Myers brows also rose as she considered. “I don't know - I guess I could put it at 50% or so.”

50-50? “I like those odds,” Jack stated, recalling that SG-1 had had much higher odds stacked against them many times, and they had prevailed. A 50% chance was an okay chance in his book.

“It would at least indicate that we need to do more thorough testing at that point,” Myers added.

Which was enough for Jack. “OK. Meet me at the surface near the elevators. I'm driving. Bring what you need to determine possible parentage as well as ATA detection. Dismissed.”

His last comment had seemed curt, but he was in a hurry. And, well, what was he supposed to say to some doctor woman he hadn't met before about something that had him completely wigged out, anyway? Given the circumstances, it was rather amazing that he'd managed to sound so professional.

Now her forehead was wrinkled as well as her lips curled. “Is that what you say when you military types want people to go away?”

It was a question that made Jack pause: she wasn't military? Jack took a closer look at the clothes she wore under her white lab coat: a plain blue skirt with a white shirt... blouse... but definitely not Air Force regulation. Splendid - a civilian. Suddenly, memories of how green Daniel had been at the beginning of the program accosted Jack's mind, and those thoughts led to thoughts on Elizabeth Weir's hate for all things military. It seemed that no matter what the military did, all most civilians saw of it was the bottom line at the Pentagon.

Jack had to stop himself from sarcastically rolling his eyes. “Yes, that's how we say 'Go away.'” He added a shooing motion in case she still didn't get the idea.

“Till 1500,” she said. “Sir.” She didn't scurry from his office, however, like many newcomers to the SGC, but stood, smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt, then calmly turned and left through the door to the corridor.

He may have just met her, but he already knew that he needed her. More importantly, he needed her clear-cut medical discretion. That kind of ignorance of all things military meant she wasn't likely to brag about how the General of the base had invited her on an afternoon field trip that for some mysterious reason remained a secret from the rest of the base personnel. Right now, he needed that kind of naivete more than he needed a bootlicker.

Jack started for the surface at 1400, barely making it out of the second elevator by 1445. Myers was already waiting for him. “Thought I'd better come early than be late,” she observed as she looked at his civvies. “Good thing I came early.”

“Yes,” Jack said, not knowing what else to say to a woman who was obviously checking him out. The next second let him know that she was checking his clothes out, not him.

“Dockers,” she stated. “Sturdy material, dark color... will hide the stains if she spits up at us - good choice.”

And what did you say to that? “My truck's just over here.”

“Ah - a truck,” she repeated as if she finally understood something. “Now I know why you wanted to bring me along rather than bring her here - bad idea to transport a child in a truck.”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed, while not inviting a Daniel-style dissertation on the evils of trucks.

She didn't give a Daniel-style dissertation anyway. In fact, she didn't say anything, just tossed the medical bag she carried into the back while eyeing the full rear seat. She then skeptically eyed Jack, as if asking herself why he needed her along if he could just bring Alison back to the SGC in his child friendly back seat? But she didn't say anything, only climbed in to the front seat beside Jack, buckled her seat-belt, and they were off.

Jack drove silently, appreciating the fact that she hadn't asked awkward questions about what he was doing, or more importantly, why he was doing it. She reminded him a little of Teal'c, the Man of Few Words. She could be Dr. Myers, the Woman of Few Words. He didn't really care, as long as those few words didn't judge him for his role in all this.

Several silent moments later they were in front of a two story yellow house with a fenced in yard. The sounds of children playing floated to them from the back, and Jack surmised this must be the day-care that he'd heard about on the phone. He ignored the sounds to ring the doorbell.

The door opened immediately. “Wow, you're one prompt General,” Marjorie Atterby stated. Her gaze slid to take in what was obviously a doctor according to her white lab coat and professional demeanor. “Brought your own DNA person, I see.”

Jack remembered his manners at the last moment, making him appear either young or stupid or both. “This is Doctor Myers - Marjorie Atterby. And I'm General O'Neill, but call me Jack.”

Marjorie ushered the two through the door. “I sent the others to play in the back yard for awhile so that we wouldn't have an audience. They're with my aid, Jenny.”

“Good idea,” Jack stated, noticing the lack of noise in the house. “And where are your own kids?”

“The two youngest are out back,” Marjorie told them, “and the four oldest aren't home from school yet, but we don't have a lot of time till they are, so why don't we get started? This is Alison.” She drew out a very young girl from hiding in the folds of her green sprigged skirt. There were stains all over the girl's white shirt, and she wasn't wearing any pants to cover up her diaper. But she was standing on fat, sturdy looking legs, and her bare toes curled into the carpet. “Say hi to your...”

“Friend,” Jack interrupted, not wanting to give even this young girl the wrong idea if it turned out he wasn't her father. Though his efforts were more or less a waste of speech: it was quite obvious, at least to Jack, that he was her biological father.

Alison had brown hair, just like he'd had. She had brown eyes, just like he still had. She had his chin, his nose, his mouth. Her face was like a conglomerate of his features, only female. Jack abruptly recalled the funny mirror episode of 'Star Trek' he had seen as a kid - hadn't those mirror people been evil copies of their originals? He hoped this Alison girl wasn't an evil copy of him - that would make things far more difficult. Perhaps she hadn't inherited his snarky personality?

Or, apparently, his eyebrows, either. Those were long and thin and at least three shades lighter than her hair - they must have been handed down by her mother. Other than that one feature, Jack immediately recognized her as his child. She looked just like a picture of him when he was this age: the fingers of her right hand were stuffed in her mouth, just like his hand had been, there was drool coating those fingers, just like his, and the look in her eyes as she gazed up at him was the epitome of curious solemnity, a copy of the gaze of her father.

Jack blinked. Caught staring, he felt like he had woken from a long nap. “I'm sorry - I don't mean to be so quiet. I was thinking that she looks just like a picture of me when I was her age.” And I'm not sure yet how I feel about that.

After staring another minute, Myers dryly commented, “I take it that you don't need that DNA sequencing done now.”

“We better do it anyway,” Jack pointed out. “You know how groups like the NID and IOA like things to be done right the first time.” Then he remembered who he was talking to. “Or maybe you don't yet.”

Myers narrowed her eyes. “Who's the IOA?”

Why had he even mentioned them? “Nevermind. What's important is that so far, I'd say the Captain's letter hit the nail right on the head.” Ack! He must be nervous - he was spewing clichés!

But Myers didn't know how he'd always hated clichés. She reached into her bag in preparation for drawing out some strange medical instrument that was sure to baffle Jack. “I guess now would be a good time to see if she has the...”

“... reflexes I do,” Jack quickly cut in, hoping to save the scene from devolving into confidential land. “Look, Mrs. Atterby...”

“Call me Marjorie,” she invited. “Or Marge.”

Jack gave a ghost of a smile. “Marge.” Good name. Now all he needed was a Homer. “Do you mind giving us a little privacy? This will take awhile, and I don't want to keep you from your day-care stuff.”

Marge appeared surprised, but Jack knew from the look in her eyes that she wasn't. Clearly she'd heard the phrase 'it's classified' before and recognized the need for it. “Oh, ok. Um... I'll just be out back - call if you need anything. Oh, we just had some ice-cream while we were waiting for you to get here - if her fingers are sticky, it's because we didn't have time to clean up.” Then she smiled a genuine smile. “I don't want your tests to get messed up by a Miss Stickyfingers.” And she patted Alison on the top of her brown head. Alison turned her gaze upward for a moment, then eyed Jack with more solemnity.

Doesn't this kid ever cry? Or smile? Or frown? Or..?

As if Marge could read his mind... or guess what he was thinking, she noted, “She doesn't cry much, so don't get too nervous if she doesn't scream like some kids do. She's a quiet little thing, but as far as we know, she hears just fine, and sometimes I swear she understands what I'm saying to her.”

“Thanks,” O'Neill said shortly. Marge peeled the sticky fingers from being wrapped around her right leg, passed her hold to Jack, then left through the sliding glass door in the kitchen.

Alone, Jack blatantly stared at Alison. It really was eerie to have a female self staring back at him out of his own eyes.

“Well,” he mumbled, “let's see if you also have my ATA gene.” The comprehending look in her eyes made him feel as if she really did understand what he was saying. Jack did his best to ignore such a stare coming from one so young, and turned to Myers, who was staring at something she had brought in her black doctors bag.

Just as Jack was wondering if doctors bags came in any color but black, Dr. Myers herself cut bluntly into his thoughts. “General. I don't think we have to wonder if she has the ATA gene or not.”

Jack was still gazing at Alison, who was still gazing back at him with an expression that was strangely mature for her age. “Why's that?” Jack wasn't really paying attention: he was still too wigged out.

“Um...” Dr. Myers tilted her bag so that he could see into it, too. “This is why.”

Inside the bag, Myers had placed an Ancient artifact that Jack instantly recognized as coming from Daniel's office. The archaeologist had had some kind of tablet that went with it. The best Daniel had ever guessed was that the rock (artifact) had been for ceremonial purposes only, even if the tablet wasn't. But now that ceremonial artifact was glowing.

“That's probably me,” Jack quickly explained the effect. “Just let me go into the other room so I won't mess with your readings.” Jack placed Alison's sticky fingers into Myers' own hands so that she could support the little girl in standing still for so long, and walked into the kitchen, plenty removed from Daniel's rock so as to not make it glow.

“Um... General...” Myers hesitantly called into the kitchen. “Is it supposed to keep glowing like that?”

Jack blinked in surprise. “It's still glowing?”

“Yeah. Do they all do that?”

“You haven't even taken it out of the bag yet. Maybe...”

Almost as if she'd taken lessons from the absent Daniel, Myers interrupted him like only a civilian could. “I don't have to take it out of the bag... now my instruments are glowing, too.”

Jack scrunched up his brows, making his scar burn for a second. “You mean that your instruments are shining from the glow of the rock, right?”

“No.” Myers kept staring down into her bag while delicately holding onto Alison's fingers. “I mean that my instruments are glowing. So is the rock.”

What? Jack moved to stand beside her. “Let me look.”

And there they were, in all their glowing glory. The bag was starting to glow, too. Jack stared at the young Alison. This had to be because of her - he'd never made anything glow before - at least, not something that wasn't supposed to glow. “How are you doing that?” he asked, as if fully expecting an answer.

Alison just stared at him out of big brown eyes.

“I don't think she can understand you, Sir,” Myers pointed out. “Is she even old enough to talk yet?”

And then an image of a young girl with brown hair tightly held by a man in the same civvies that Jack was wearing flashed through his mind. Family. The thought was so strong that Jack fell over from where he was kneeling by Alison. Had she done that? “Holy... buckets.”

Then there was another picture in Jack's mind of a silver haired man, obviously him, then one of Nurse Blaley from the Infirmary, who faded out to nothingness, then a third picture of the man again, very solid, standing alone. Then an image of Alison joined him. The idea was obvious - at least it was to Jack. He intoned a slow, “Yyyyeeaaaay. I guess I am your daddy.” God forbid.

Chapter 5

The Shit Hits the Fan

“It was incredible, Sir,” Jack was saying over the phone much later at his SGC office. Excitement practically disguised his voice beyond recognition. “I can't explain it. I've never seen that kind of positive reaction to anything of an Ancient design. Or anything of any design. Daniel can vouch for that - even I don't affect Ancient artifacts in quite that way.”

General Hammond responded, “You're sure this isn't a gimmick of some kind - a trick?”

Jack couldn't help his grimace. “If it is a trick, she's one intelligent 12 month old to be doing it.”

Hammond's laughter was dry. “At least this hasn't caused you to to lose your sense of humor - that's something.”

“I haven't lost it yet,” Jack sourly corrected. He had the feeling that the moment he became aware of one of those doogooder government groups that always popped up at the most inconvenient time in cases like this, he would lose his sense of humor for good.

“You realize I have to inform the IOA of these proceedings.”

“The IOA?” Jack scowled. So much for my sense of humor. “Sir,” he whined, “they'll do nothing but cause problems for everyone involved. Do we have to tell them?”

“They'll find out anyway from the report you have to file,” Hammond warned. “It'll be better for you to tell them now, before they read about it tomorrow.”

“You mean it'll be better for Alison,” Jack stubbornly announced. He had been adamantly arguing Alison's innocence for the last hour, but even Hammond insisted on viewing the girl as an 'it' rather than his daughter with rights of her own. Aggravation crept into his voice. “You have to admit that even if she wasn't exactly by my own design, she's an American citizen, and as such has rights to be left alone if she wants to be.”

“Have her tell that to a Goa'uld when she runs into one. I'm sure he or she will understand.”

Jack couldn't resist giving an argument when Hammond sounded so sardonic. “That's not exactly fair, Sir, and you know it.”

“I do know it,” Hammond said, modulating his tone along with his argument. “But you should be prepared for the reception you're going to be getting from the IOA over this.” He next sounded tired. “They won't be as understanding as I am.”

Jack immediately attested, “But she's only a year old.”

Hammond's answer to Jack's assertion was anything but encouraging. “A very trainable age.”

Jack growled. “That smacks of a Hitler-esque attitude.”

“These are trying times, Jack. They call for harsh measures.”

Jack did a double take. “I'm surprised to hear you say that, Sir”

“Just don't be surprised when you hear it from the IOA.”

“The President would never let it get that far,” Jack predicted. “I don't think...”

“Jack, how are you doing with all this?” Hammond cut in to gently inquire.

The abrupt change of topic caught Jack completely off guard. He stopped speaking, too overwhelmed with a sudden surge of raw emotion to quickly respond with his usual pat response of 'I'm fine,' a trick he'd learned from Carter. It had always worked well with fending off Daniel's annoying questions when he wanted to talk about feelings. Jack later found that it also worked with others, too.

But now there was no possible way that he could employ the same tactic with General Hammond. Besides the way the man had surprised him so with his feelings question, Jack fully respected him: he so rarely asked about something personal that Jack had a much harder time fending him off than Daniel, who asked these types of questions so often that it was almost second nature to ignore him.

The older man patiently waited while Jack gathered his suddenly scattered wits. He swallowed, a hard action that barely conquered his mounting fear enough for him to answer around the lump in his throat. “I'm... I'm...”

“And don't just say that you're fine,” Hammond warned him. “I know you well enough to know that you are not fine.”

The big lump presently obstructing Jack's throat could attest to that. He tried to take a steadying breath, and ended up drawing a breath so shallow that it was hardly any help at all.

“Jack?” Hammond now sounded concerned. “You there?”

Jack managed to choke out, “I'm still here, General.”

The relief in Hammond's voice was palpable. “I thought maybe I'd made you faint.”

“I thought about it, Sir,” Jack breathlessly admitted. “But fainting is only good in romance novels - it won't help me right now.”

Hammond remained silent, waiting again while Jack continued to gush air into the phone. Finally he was able to say, “I try not to think about it too much, Sir. I've been so busy concentrating on the ATA gene that...” His voice trailed away as panic again threatened to consume him. CRAP, HE WAS A FATHER AGAIN!

Hammond's voice warded off Jack's panic before it could get a good hold on him. “You'll do fine with this, Jack.” His supremely confident tones immediately soothed his subordinate. “You care about children more than anyone else I've seen - you always do the right thing for any child, even if all we can see is what's good for the galaxy as a whole. You'll do the right thing this time, too.”

The panic was back. “But how do I know what the right thing is, Sir? I'm not cut out for this - my life is too... I'm too...”

“You'll figure it out, Jack.”

Hammond's repetition barely registered in Jack's mind. “What if it turns out like... last time?” Jack's following laugh was more hysterical than showing amusement at that idea. “And what do I do with her when I have to be here? I can't just give up the SGC because some kid is thrust on me!”

“Of course not, and nobody expects you to.”

Sure. They expect me to give up Alison instead of the SGC.

Hammond's next inquiry caught Jack off guard for a second time. “Have you talked to your team about any of this? Perhaps they have an idea or two as what you should do.”

Jack's answering snort was full of irony. “Daniel's due back tomorrow, but Teal'c is off who knows where recruiting for the Free Jaffa, and Carter...” Jack closed his eyes to squeeze out the sudden wave of emotion he got at just thinking about Carter. It would be wonderful to ask her for her opinion. In fact, Jack really wanted to know what she thought. True, this wasn't anything to do with quarks, or science of any kind. But her knowledge of the Ancient technology would be helpful, just as Daniel's would. Besides that, he just wanted to know what her take on all this was. Did she really think he could do this? Somehow it mattered more if Carter thought he could handle taking on Alison than if anyone else thought so.

But asking Carter about this situation was out. Heck, asking Carter about anything was out. Jack may want her opinion, but he didn't have any right to it. “Her husband might object to having his wife's ex-CO suddenly show up with a kid in tow.”

Hammond sighed, sounding aggravated now. “Jack, don't you think that being friends for eight years kind of trumps any objections he might have?”

As in, wouldn't the husband be understanding in this unexpected situation? “Probably not,” Jack predicted. “How would you feel if some guy had showed up to ask your wife the same thing?”

A soft sigh was his answer. “You're right - I wouldn't have liked it. That doesn't mean I would have kept her from helping him in any way she could.”

“That makes you special, then,” Jack replied in a voice that matched Hammond's for gentleness. His own sigh was filled with regret, though. “But I don't think Carter's husband is quite the man you are, Sir. He wouldn't like it at all, and I don't want to put Carter in that position by asking her. So no, I can't talk to her about this. But maybe I'll track down Teal'c - I bet he won't have a lot to say about Alison, but I can guarantee that what he does say will say a lot.”

Hammond gave a chuckle of agreement, though his next pause was thoughtful. “I'm sorry to hear you say that about Colonel Carter, though. It pains me that you feel that you can no longer be friends.”

Jack stubbornly argued, “Don't be. It's something I don't like, but she has her own life now, and I'm not gonna be the one to ruin that.”

“I understand,” Hammond stated, as if resigning himself to Jack's belligerent attitude. Therefore, his next question sent Jack for another loop. “Are you so sure that she doesn't want it to be ruined?”

No, Jack wasn't sure. But he wasn't sure that his wasn't just wishful thinking, either. “It doesn't matter,” he firmly said. “We were talking about the IOA and Alison - what do you think I should do?”

Hammond insisted, “You're already doing it, Jack.”

And that's when Jack got a surprise of his own when Daniel abruptly burst into his office.

“Daniel!” Jack cried before Hammond's comment had fully cemented itself in his mind. “You're not supposed to be here till tomorrow!”

Daniel balefully glared at him. “Don't tell me - you didn't get the memo.”

“What memo?!”

Daniel crossed his arms as if he'd expected just this reception. “The one saying that the Daedalus was arriving a day early.”

Jack pretended like he remembered now, when in fact he didn't remember seeing any such report. “Oh, yeah, that memo!”

Daniel gave a fake laugh. “Yeah, that memo.” His feigned good mood vanished. “Sam said this would happen.”

Jack's phone call with Hammond was now completely forgotten. “You talked to Sam... uh, Carter?” He wouldn't have dared to contact Carter even about something as innocuous as arriving back to the SGC a day early after being gone for six months.

Hammond replied loudly enough to be heard through the receiver. “Do you plan to tell him about Alison?”

Daniel's belligerent demeanor fell away as curiosity took its place. “Alison? Jack, have you got a girl?”

Jack belatedly pressed the receiver closer to his ear, cutting off any further comments by his former commander. “Thanks a lot for that, Sir,” he tartly replied.

Hammond's laugh was muffled by Jack's ear. “Always trying to help.”

“You call this help?”

“Just getting you in practice for the IOA,” Hammond laughingly insisted. “You can thank me later, Son.” And with that, Hammond hung up.

“Jack, stop being an ass and tell me what's going on,” Daniel demanded as Jack hung up. “Tell me who this Alison person is. And none of your stories!”

It was clear in the way Daniel was excitedly standing before Jack's desk that he expected Jack to tell him about his latest Asgard friend, maybe even about a girlfriend he had for Thor, but what he heard wasn't expected at all.

In fact, Daniel 'heard' very little, as Jack tossed Captain Andrea's letter to him. “Here, read.”

Daniel's many hours spent translating had turned him into an unparalleled speed reader. “Holy... buckets,” he said as he reached the bottom.

Jack fell back into his office chair. “Yeah, that's what I said, too.”

But Daniel was adding hyperventilating to his initial reaction. “Holy... buckets.”

Jack dryly replied, “You already said that.”

“A kid?” Daniel's incredulity couldn't have been more complete if the letter had been written in Goa'uld. “Jack! How could you let this happen?”

Jack's dryness now turned into a scowling frown. “Oh, like I let this happen! I was as surprised as you are.”

Daniel's shocked wheezing continued. “Jack! How could you let his happen?”

Jack lost his tenuous hold on his patience. “Daniel! I already told you - yesterday when I found out..!”

“You found out about this just yesterday?!”

He glowered, but Daniel didn't even flinch. “I've met her once. That good enough for you?”

Daniel's shock only deepened. “And... and... your gene..?”

Jack answered the question that Daniel was unable to vocalise. “Yeah, she inherited my ATA gene... and then some.”

Daniel's brows drew together. “'And then some?' What's that supposed to mean.”

“It means,” Jack sardonically insisted, “that she can operate Ancient equipment. It means that she can make the surrounding items glow in the dark. It means that...”

And that's when the red phone on the corner of his desk rang.

Already on edge, Jack snatched it up. “O'Neill.”

Henry Hayes replied, “Jack, I hear congratulations are in order, you old daddy, you!”

Chapter 6

Forgotten Information

Jack's face reddened. “It's still a little early for congratulations.”

“Not what I heard,” Hayes cheerily protested. “I heard this boy of yours can make things fly without touching them. And cause them to fall apart at the cellular level. And is already fluent in Goa'uld as well as Ancient. Dr. Jackson must be in raptures.”

Speaking of Dr. Jackson... Jack noted with a wave that this was an important call - or that the caller was at least very important. The linguist slipped out of the office after whispering to Jack, “Coffee break later.”

Jack was so astonished at the level of misinformation the President had already received that he was barely able to acknowledge Daniel's invitation with another wave and a nod.

Then the President's voice dropped his teasing manner. “Misinformation aside... were you ever going to tell me about this little one of yours?”

While the President's voice held nothing but acceptance, Jack's face flamed red in mortification. “I forgot to tell you, didn't I? I apologize, Mr. President. I was all ready to call you with this information earlier today when - I must have gotten distracted.”

“Distracted? You?” According to the growing amusement in his voice, the President was enjoying this way too much! “What can you possibly have to distract you? Finding out you're the father of a one year old girl can't be enough to distract my best Goa'uld killer.”

So he already knew about Alison and her age? “Pardon me for asking, Sir, but who did you find out all this from?”

Hayes still sounded too chipper with humor when he promptly answered, “George called me yesterday with the news, since he figured that you would forget, and he called again just a few minutes ago with this latest information.” He paused dramatically, finally asking in a voice that was almost a whisper, “Can she really make things glow?”

“Just like in 'Firestarter,'” Jack assured, “except Drew Barrymore was a bit older in that movie.”

“And she also set things on fire,” Hayes pointed out. “You're not saying that this kid can set fires, too?”

Jack had to laugh at that image. “No... though now that you mention it, I'm not sure. I don't think she knows what she's doing, Sir. She is only one.”

“And yet, she is your daughter.”

“Yeah... about that...”

The President's tone went from amused to apprehensive in a second. “You're not telling me that you don't want her?”

Jack couldn't answer right away because he didn't know what he wanted. “Ah... no, that's not what I'm sayin.”

The President paused. “So what's the problem?”

That was just it: Jack didn't know what the problem was. “I just need more time to get used to the idea of having her around all the time before she's around all the time, if you catch my drift.”

“Believe it or not, I understand. But don't wait too long to decide,” Hayes cautioned. “I can keep the IOA busy here in Washington for a day or two, but eventually they're going to want to see this glowing girl for themselves. And when that happens... Well, who knows what will happen.”

Jack felt the cold prickles of fear spread over his arms. “You don't think they'll turn her into a lab rat, do you, Sir?”

A shrug was in his voice. “Anything's possible at this point. I just don't want to see your daughter become a prized weapon, Jack.”

Jack's brows furrowed. “Doesn't she have the right as an American citizen to renounce that if she wants to?”

“She's only one, Jack,” Hayes argued. “She can't speak yet, and you told George that she doesn't cry much, either. I don't see how she'll communicate her unhappiness with the lab rat scenario if she won't even cry.”

Jack immediately recalled the way that Alison had communicated her ideas to him earlier that day, though he wasn't sure if that was just to him or not. Neither Dr. Meyers nor Marge had mentioned anything about the sort of telepathy she had used on him, and he hadn't told anybody about that particular gem yet, either, not even General Hammond. He wondered why he was keeping that information a secret, but his gut instinct warned him that the minute that little tidbit got out, it was all over for anything resembling a normal life for Alison.

Jack didn't inform the President of his thoughts concerning his daughter, either. He then wondered if he was committing treason by withholding this information, but still his guts grumbled every time he even thought to mention it. He hated to withhold information like this, but he hated to ignore his instincts, too. It was a lose/lose situation no matter what he did.

At least the President had referred to Alison as a 'she' instead of an 'it' right from the start. That was encouraging.

Jack sighed, discouraged anyway. “I'll let you know more when I learn it,” he promised.

“That's acceptable,” Hayes told him. “Just remember what I said: don't take too long. The IOA aren't that patient... or that nice.”

Jack grumbled. “You would think that letting them one-up the military every now and then would make them too ecstatic to care much about one little girl.”

“You would think.”

“And besides, it'll be years before Alison's old enough to do any manipulations of anything Ancient. She isn't able to control what she can do. They'll have to be patient.”

“If you say so,” said Hayes as the conversation wrapped up, “but I wouldn't count on them waiting... for anything.” He hung up.

Jack stood frozen, the President's final words ringing in his ear. That had been a warning, or he didn't know a warning when he heard it. Jack wondered why the President didn't have more control over a civilian group.

But Hayes was right, Jack realized as he slowly replaced the receiver in its cradle. He was going to have to make some kind of decision about Alison very soon, or it was going to be too late.

For the first time, Jack found himself considering keeping Alison. Up till now, he'd had the vague idea that he would eventually put her up for adoption - he hadn't asked for this situation, after all. It wasn't fair to thrust a daughter on him in this fashion. His job - his very way of life - precluded having a kid. She would inevitably mess everything up, just as he would inevitably mess her up. If he wanted her to have a normal life, it wasn't going to be with him.

At the same time, she had been so firm about her idea of family when he met her that day. Was it right for him to turn her away? Could she even communicate with anybody else? His ATA gene must somehow make him tuned in to her frequency better than normal humans. Could he live with himself if he took that away from her?

Jack's head spun. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what he wanted, or what he should want, what was best for Alison, or best for himself. He didn't know anything!

At times like these, Jack always took refuge in the one thing that was sure to make him feel better - it was time for cake!

Jack didn't waste any more of his mental powers right just then on a decision of any kind. Instead he went in a determined search for Daniel, more than ready to accept his earlier coffee break invitation. Any decisions could wait at least another hour.

It wasn't until he reached the hallway on level nineteen that he got his third surprise in the past 24 hours. On his way to Daniel's office, he was sedately walking past Carter's old lab, as he was want to do (for sentimental purposes, of course) when he distinctly heard a voice he immediately recognized, paired with the sight of a blond head bent over some kind of a strange looking device situated near Dr. Lee.

“This might be the power source,” the blond was saying when a startled Jack ground to a sudden halt in the corridor. “If it is naquedah, we can run a simulation to see...”

That was when Jack burst forth with his very inelegant cry of, “Carter?!”

Chapter 7

Astonishing Assertions

Sam Carter's head shot up at the sudden sound of his voice. “Sir!”

Jack slowly crossed the threshold of the lab, knowing that rushing into any science lab was a foolish thing to do when an alien device was being studied. He gaped at Carter while he walked. “I thought this became Dr. Lee's lab after you left,” he stupidly said.

“It is... uh, it did,” she quickly insisted. “He asked for my help with this...” And she sent a vague wave towards the device. “Since I don't have anything going on that my Area 51 assistants can't handle right now, I thought...”

“You thought you'd come out to play,” Jack finished for her, slightly surprised that he was able to finish any of her sentences anymore. He hadn't done that in ages... at least for several months before her wedding. “But what are you doing here?”

Carter shook her head, befuddled. “I'm sorry - I just told you: I'm helping Dr. Lee.”

Jack gave a blink and a shake of his own head. “No... um, I mean, how is it that you're on my base and I don't even know about it?”

“I put in the proper paperwork in the proper timeframe,” Dr. Lee adamantly protested in his defense. “It came back signed just like it was supposed to be - I assumed that you knew, since you signed the form.”

Jack's cringe was barely there: a signing that he didn't have any recollection of doing. It must have happened during the latest crisis. That theory explained his lack of memory at even seeing such a form. That, or he was growing old. It could be either one.

The natural confusion of this scene had Carter next assert, “I tried to report to you for duty twice today, Sir, but you were gone both times. Not even Walter knew where you had gone or when you would be back.” She gave a small smile of apology. “I guess we just kept missing each other, Sir.” Then she added, “But I did report to Colonel Reynolds, the 2IC you left in charge. He didn't tell you?”

“No, Reynolds didn't think to mention it.” Jack had no doubt that Reynolds' lack of communication had more to do with surprising the base commander than any negligence on his part. He had no idea that this was not a good time to be surprising Jack with anything, even visits by old friends.

Jack's feelings of annoyance at his base personnel's intrusion into his personal life dissipated before it really got going, though, when he realized what must have happened: this all must have gone down when he was out meeting Alison. He hadn't told Walter or anybody where he was going. Even Dr. Myers hadn't known, and she was his companion on the trip!

“Uh, no, you're right.” Jack suddenly felt the need to placate as much as possible. “I was out... for awhile today. Not your fault.”

Now that her presence on his base had been explained (and he refused to admit to himself what seeing her here did to his insides!), he grinned, delighted. It had been so long since he'd seen her, he didn't know how to make himself stop staring at her. It was as if he couldn't get his fill of looking at her, and now that he'd started, he couldn't stop.

At last he was able to make his glance slide to Dr. Lee. “Are you at a critical spot in your study of..?” And he sent another vague gesture towards the device on what used to be Carter's workbench. “Mind if I steel your assistant for a minute or two?”

Dr. Lee balked at the General's seeming sudden and inexplicable turnaround in mood, then grinned. “Of course not, General. And I think I'm the assistant here, not Colonel Carter.” To Carter he said, “You go on and catch up with the General - I'll start that simulation you mentioned. I should have the results in a few hours.”

But Carter protested, “Honest, Bill, I don't need...”

“Take a break, Colonel,” Dr. Lee insisted, waving her away. “You've been working on this all afternoon - get a coffee; eat cake.” He gave a soft laugh that indicated he was thinking more than he was saying. But all he added was a persuasive, “I've got this covered.”

Carter hesitated, then bowed her head. “Ok.” She turned back to Jack with a genuine smile. “I'm all yours, Sir.”

Jack blinked in frozen numbness. Now, there's a loaded comment if there ever was one.

But instead of speaking out loud, he rolled his shoulder towards the door in invitation. “Come on - last one to the Commissary has to buy.”

It was a statement that made Carter break into peels of laughter. “Wow - it's been a long time since I heard that.”

“At least seven years,” Jack responded with a grin as they wandered side by side down the corridor. It felt just like old times. Jack was amazed how fast he was swept away by the nostalgia that flashed through him. He could almost pretend that she hadn't married, hadn't left, hadn't broken his... He needed to say something, quick, before he couldn't be distracted from grieving for the woman at his side.

Before he could speak, Carter spoke first, “Remember when we convinced Daniel that he owed the Commissary four hundred dollars for all his coffee?”

Jack laughed along with her. “Only I thought it was five hundred.”

“Maybe,” she agreed. “Teal'c would know. He was the one who kept track of things like that. He knew who owed who, and what they owed, without even writing it down in a notebook - I never could figure out how he stored so much data in his head.”

Jack's gaze slid over her. “Storing mental data - look who's talking.”

Disregarding the sideways compliment he had thrown her way, Carter started to ramble about Teal'c. “Do you know where Teal'c is, Sir? I just saw Daniel for a few minutes today, but I haven't heard from Teal'c in...”

“Teal'c's off playing happy Jaffa somewhere in the galaxy, recruiting with Master Bra'tac,” Jack interrupted. “He called to check in a few days ago - he sounded pretty content with the way things had turned out.” Jack burned to know if she was as content as Teal'c, but refused to ask such a personal question.

“Daniel seemed excited too, talking all about his trip to Pegasus.” She gave an affectionate sigh. “He couldn't talk fast enough.”

“Yeah, I haven't had time to talk to Daniel yet, either,” Jack noted as he held open the Commissary door for them to enter. “I was on the phone with the President when he stopped by my office an hour ago, and I was just on my way to find him when I ran into you.”

Carter looked aghast. “We should call him to join us and...”

“I haven't seen you in months, Carter - longer than I haven't seen Daniel in months,” he corrected. “First thing, you want to invite Motor Mouth to take over the conversation? We'll never get a word in edgewise!”

Carter considered, “You're right - though I haven't heard you call him that before now. I thought you always called him 'Spacemonkey.'” She threw a puzzled glance at him. “Has so much changed since I left?”

Jack couldn't hold back his smirk. “I do call him 'Spacemonkey' most of the time. I think it was SG-6 who first called him 'Motor Mouth.' It was just me thinking out loud - I debriefed SG-6 earlier today, and they called him that.”

Suddenly Carter gave a laugh of full enjoyment. “I guess that is what talking to Daniel's like - talking to a motor.” And she smiled.

Who could withstand that smile from her? Not Jack. He grinned back at her, happier than he'd ever expected to feel at just being in her company again.

By this time they had reached the front of the food line - she automatically reached for a bowl of blue J-ello while he grabbed a slice of cake for himself. “At least now I know that I'm not the only one who thinks so - that Daniel is a motor,” he explained in a suddenly nervous, stumbling manner - simply looking at her still threw him for a loop.

Carter noted as they moved towards the seating area together, “Daniel can sure get excited about things, can't he?”

“And we're sure to hear every detail of whatever's making him excited,” Jack stated before going on in a rueful tone, “That is, as long as we can decipher his super fast mumbo jumbo.”

“At least my mumbo jumbo is intelligible,” Carter remarked. She set her tray down across from his on what had formerly been known as 'the SG-1 table' and pulled out her chair.

Jack did the same. “And how about you?” he asked as they got situated. “Things working out for you at R&D?” It had been meant to be an innocent question, asked in a nonchalant manner that harkened back to the mumbo jumbo she shared with Daniel.

So the crestfallen look that quickly settled over Carter's face couldn't have surprised him more. In moments she looked as if she might cry, which was plenty alarming all by itself: Carter never cried. “What's wrong?” he instantly asked in solicitude, ignoring his cake so that he could give her his complete attention.

Carter immediately gulped to control her rampant emotions. “Um...” She paused so long that Jack didn't think she was going to say anything at all. But she finally told him, “I'll just say that R&D isn't turning out like I always thought it would.”

Jack's brows furrowed, remembering that he was the one who had ultimately sent her there. “What do you mean? I thought studying the Gate's gifts would be a dream come true for you.”

She blinked back more of her rampaging emotions, then determinedly spooned up a bunch of J-ello, but didn't eat it. It dripped off her spoon in a cascade of blue that she didn't even notice. “It was my dream, I guess, especially at first.”

Jack gazed at her instead of his cake. The fact that he was eschewing cake to watch her said a lot. “At first?” he parroted, concerned. “What happened?”

“I...” Red blotched across Carter's perfect white skin as the last dab of blue J-ello slid off her spoon. “I... got...” She still couldn't finish, so Jack did it for her.

“You got... a plague?” he guessed, joking. “You got a splinter that became infected so that you lost a hand? What?”

Carter couldn't help but smile at his teasing. The smile disappeared as she found her rock-iron emotional control again at last. “I got divorced,” she finally admitted.

That was not a scenario that Jack would ever have predicted for her. “Divorced?” he squeaked while his heart thundered just to hear the news. A surge of hope shot annoyingly through his veins.

Carter seemed embarrassed by the admission she'd made, as if getting divorced somehow denoted a personal disappointment of some kind. Jack knew from experience that Carter didn't do disappointment well at all.

It caused him to gently but firmly say, “Divorce isn't synonymous with failure, Carter.”

Her eyes shot swiftly to meet his. “How did you know that's what I was thinking?”

“You're not the only one here who has gotten a divorce, you know,” he quietly reminded. “The year before I started working at the SGC, I read - a lot. Articles on divorce just sort of... sneaked their way in to my reading reservoir.” His own gaze pierced hers. “Those articles were more right than wrong. Believe what I'm saying... what they said first.”

His joking side comment made Carter smile anew. “I missed that,” she confessed. “The way you turn everything into a joke.” Her features clouded over. “I could have used a few jokes this past year.”

Such a general comment did nothing to clue him in to what had happened to make Carter look so unhappy. Jack instantly wanted to clear that unhappiness away. “Did something happen?” he asked, wondering what could possibly cause that look to settle on the face of a woman he had always considered to be fairly happy before. “Was the transfer too much for you so soon after..?” He couldn't quite finish his question, but it didn't matter - she still knew what he meant.

Carter gave a pensive tilt of her head. “That was part of it,” she replied. “I think the military life got to him,” she explained, referring to her husband, Jack knew. “He had the idea that my R&D assignment was temporary, as if we were going to move back to the Springs as soon as three months were up. I still don't know how he got that idea. I remember telling him that most postings last at least two years, and the fact that I had spent so long in Colorado Springs was quite the anomaly.”

“I remember you having that conversation on the phone in your lab at least once.” How his voice could sound so normal when his insides were having a luau was beyond him. He covered his continued sense of jubilation with another comment. “I thought everybody knew that much about military life.”

Carter sighed, a heavy sound filled with resignation, as if she had spent hours trying to explain this very concept to a man who refused to hear. “I always knew about it, but then, I'm a military brat. I hardly count.”

“Well, I'm not a military brat,” Jack announced, “and I knew before I even went into the service.”

“I guess he had other ideas,” she said with a shrug. “Anyway, he kept pushing to go back to the Springs because that's where our friends were. But I couldn't leave... I finally told him that if it was so important to him to go back, then he should go. That's when things really went South.”

The way she had unconsciously quoted Jack made him give an internal smile. But he buried the gesture, and instead of smiling, sent her a look of sympathy. “I take it that it started to get ..?”

“Ugly.” Again came the heavy sigh of resignation. “But things were bad already. I just didn't want to admit it.”

“It wasn't a failure on your part,” Jack reminded once more, his voice dark with the firmness of his words.

The firmness didn't seem to affect Carter, though, who just went on with her story. “We had been talking about having kids for awhile by that point, and it was pretty clear that he wanted kids, and I didn't.” She gave a wave of protest. “How did we even get that far without talking about having kids?!”

“Military married couples have kids all the time, even here,” Jack quickly refuted. “It works out for them.”

He was talking for his benefit as much as hers - he had to believe what he'd just claimed! At least, he had to believe that having kids worked out for somebody. He couldn't even consider keeping Alison if he couldn't convince himself of that. Yet again he was uncomfortably reminded that he had to make some kind of a decision regarding Alison, and soon.

But Carter was going on, and Jack returned his attention to what she was saying. “He had this grand idea that somehow I was going to have a job, be a mom, be a homemaker, we were going to have a dog, a picket fence around this perfect three bedroom house...” Suddenly she looked at Jack and would have wailed if Carter were the wailing kind, “I don't know what he was thinking - we were still living in base housing at the time, and I hadn't been given the downtime to look at housing off base!” Her sigh was now one more filled with repressed anger than resignation. “I don't know what he was expecting this marriage to be at all. I sometimes had the idea that he married his ideal woman, and not Samantha Carter.” She glowered at her J-ello for a minute, then physically shook her head, ridding herself of these arguments that she had obviously had many times already. “Since it was clear that we wanted very different things, we thought it best to file for divorce.”

At first Jack thought it very wise of her to opt to end what clearly wasn't working anyway, but then his eyes shrewdly narrowed. “You're not telling me everything,” he stated as he stared at her. Then he touched his own lowered brows, running his finger over his skin. “You get this pucker between your eyes when you're not being completely honest, and that pucker is yelling at me now. What is it?”

The heavy sigh was back. “I forget how well you know me, Sir,” she said in a tone that resembled defeat. “I'm too used to working with people who don't know me well at all: my tells are telling too much.”

“Nice to hear. Now, what was it?”

Carter tried the distraction technique as she played with her J-ello, pushing it first one way, then the other, carving lines into the top until Jack was obliged to still her hand with his own. He raised his brows in question, but said nothing aloud. It didn't matter; Carter understood his question anyway. With a gust of air, she answered.

“I was working long hours - you know how I get.” She looked down, fascinated by the tabletop. “But maybe this time my hours were too long. One day I found out from a coworker that he was cheating on me.”

Jack reared back. “How could anyone possibly cheat on you?”

The exuberance of that rhetorical inquiry made Carter give a small smile. “I know - what with my technobabble and all, I'm irresistible.”

Jack heard her sarcasm, but disregarded it. “You're so cute when you do that techno mumbo jumbo of yours. How could anybody not..?” Hearing how what he'd said sounded, he did a sudden turnaround. “After all, Daniel's technotalk is always irresistible to every girl off world. And Teal'c - just give the guy a staff weapon, and he gives 'cute' a whole new level of meaning.”

The abrupt addendum made her laugh, breaking the spell that his earlier 'cute' comment had created. Jack knew that it was very odd for a CO to think a subordinate was cute, but if he could convince her that he thought all his teammates were cute, then he could get away with it.

Whew! She was leaning back in her chair, staring at her dessert again - he must have gotten away with it.

She smiled a small smile. “So... now you've heard all the Carter woes from Nevada.” Her cheeriness was at odds to what she had just told him. He therefore concluded that it was completely faked, but he went along with her projected mood rather than call her on it and bring up possibly more unhappy subjects. “Tell me about yourself - what's been going on in the life of Jack O'Neill?”

If only she knew!

But taking matters into her own hands, Carter looked decidedly sly as she innocently announced, “So, what's this I hear about some girl named Alison?”

Jack did a double take at the name. “How in hell did you hear about her?!” he accusingly blurted.

He had time to note the hurt that was just beginning to invade her eyes, and wanted beyond anything to explain. He even thought about showing her the letter (he'd been quick enough to show it to Daniel, after all), even in this crowded public Commissary, but before he could pull it out of his wallet where he kept it at all times, he was interrupted by a voice at his elbow.

It was one of the Commissary workers. “Excuse me, General - you have a phone call.”

Phone calls to General O'Neill were often so important that he instantly nodded once in Carter's direction before excusing himself and crossing to a phone on the wall. “O'Neill.”

Walter's voice came over the line. “You have a secure call from General Hammond, Sir.”

“Put it through,” he ordered, though it was a superfluous command as the clicks denoted that the call was already being transferred. When the last click had sounded, he again said, “O'Neill.”

Hammond's voice washed over him, but the teasing and joking from before was gone, replaced by anxiety. “Jack, I just learned about it - I don't know how they did it, or who told them, but the IOA know all about Alison and what she can do - they're on their way if not already there!”

Chapter 8

The Proverbial Emotional Rollercoaster

Raw panic exploded in Jack the minute he heard the words. “Crap!” he injudiciously said, forgetting who he was talking to. He instantly thought of getting to the Atterby house in his truck, but realized he had left his keys in the pocket of his coat in the locker room, and it would take time he didn't have to collect them. After that, he was left with just enough presence of mind to remember that Carter was with him - whipping his head around, he faced her. “Carter!” he barked, unmindful of the scene he was creating in the crowded Commissary. “Do you have a car here?”

The unusual request took Carter aback. “Uh... yes, Sir, one I borrowed from...”

“Do you have the keys with you?”

“Uh... yes... right here.” And she dangled a set of keys from her finger, though she was still obviously confused.

“Then you're with me,” Jack barked before she could even finish her comment. Turning back to the phone, he crisply said, “Thank you for the warning, General.” Then he slammed the receiver back into its cradle.

“Sir, is everything alright?” Carter was beside him before he could yank her out her chair and vault for the door.

He grabbed her arm anyway and ran. “Field trip,” he announced in the same brittle tone as before. “You're driving.”

She started to resist, claiming, “Dr. Lee will be looking for me by now. I need to...”

“You asked about Alison,” Jack told her instead of releasing her arm. He propelled her out the door and down the corridor with a fixed look of determination on his face. “Here's your chance to meet her.”

He caught some unknown young airman on their way through the corridor. “You!” he gruffly said, pointing at the man's chest with an index finger. “Tell Sergeant Harriman I left the base for a personal emergency! And Colonel Carter is with me!”

The Airman hurried off towards the nearest phone to relay the message, but Jack didn't slow, as Carter pulled alongside him at a jog. “Sir, who's Alison? What happened?”

“My worst nightmare.”

Jack didn't bother to explain his enigmatic words, since he'd caught sight of Dr. Myers walking sedately down the corridor just in front of them. He pulled along side of her, grabbed her arm just as he'd grabbed Carter's arm, and hauled her along with them, ordering a crisp, “Walk with us.”

When she had jogged a few steps to catch up to him and was finally able to re-establish her professional demeanor, said a breathless, “Sir!” Her gaze washed over Colonel Carter walking briskly on his other side - the look on her face was unmistakable: 'Who are you?'

“Dr. Myers - Colonel Carter. Carter - Merry Myers; 'Merry' as in 'Merry Christmas' but don't call her that if you want to live. Doctor, was it you who turned Alison in to the IOA?”

Dr. Meyers looked stupidly at Jack for a precious moment, clearly astonished that he was willing to speak about a secret in front this woman who was basically a stranger to her. But she shook aside her astonishment to tell him, “It wasn't me, Sir. If you recall, I still don't even know who the IOA are.”

“You could be lying - are you?”

Merry Myers didn't even blink at the General's brusque tone. “No Sir,” she defended. “But now that I think of it, I was writing my report on Alison just now, and I got called away to look at a patient, and when I got back to my computer, my page of notes had been moved.” Her eyes shot up to Jack's. “Could that be enough to tell that someone else did it?”

“No,” Jack instantly said, “The IOA representatives wouldn't have had time to get here if informed about her for the first time... unless... they were already here.” Jack ended, still thinking. As in, they were informed by that second Airman in the copy room when I first copied Captain Andrea's letter? Maybe...

He was so thoughtful that Carter had to finish his comment for him, “Which means that whoever it is was told hours ago.” It was almost as if she knew what Jack was thinking. “The IOA have a spy of some kind in the SGC.”

“They knew almost before I did,” Jack grimly stated. To Dr. Myers he noted, “Alright - I believe you. Just watch your back. Don't completely trust anybody.”

“Not even you, Sir?”

Jack's grim look turned into a frown. “Not even me, if you know what's good for you, though you've been a big help so far. I'll try to head them off so you won't have to be part of an IOA investigation so soon after starting work here - that's one set of 'fun' that you can do without.”

The sarcasm in Myers' voice rang through the corridor. “Well, this is turning into one hell of a second day. Is it always like this?”

Carter answered, “Usually it's even more fun.”

“Good - I'd hate to waste my time on any boring old job.” Then she glanced at Jack. “Dismissed?”

Jack nodded, and Myers peeled off at the first cross corridor they came to.

As Myers disappeared, Jack was busy yanking out his wallet and handed his copy of the letter from Captain Andrea to Carter. “Read.”

Carter took the time to read it while they waited for the elevator, Jack drumming impatiently on the card reader as the car slowly made it's way to their floor. Panic started to claw its way up his throat again as she read, but he mercilessly pushed it back down. He had to stay focused if he was going to be any use to Alison. He had to beat the IOA to the Atterby house if he was going to be that help, and he needed Carter's vehicle if he was going to do that. But he knew better than to let himself drive when he was so worked up. So not only did he need her car, but he needed Carter as well.

Of course, 'need' was a word with multilayered meanings. But he didn't have time to go into that now, either.

The elevator arrived at long last, and he pulled a still reading Carter with him into the car. He punched the highest button on the console, and settled beside Carter against the back wall.

According to the look of shock on her face, Carter had finished reading the letter. “Sir, I...” she began, then fell silent, at last admitting, “I don't know what to say.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Jack muttered, and tapped his fingernails on the railing encircling the inside of the elevator. He didn't even know what to decide about Alison - if he should keep her or not.

Should he keep her or... Jack grimaced. She was a kid, not a pet! He kept thinking about her in terms of 'temporary' and 'not my problem' when she was very much his problem. But instead of making a useful decision about Alison and her future, he only knew that Alison did not deserve to be hounded by the IOA into a bunch of tests and a lifetime spent as a lab rat. She deserved something more normal than that, and he was going to make sure she got it, even if it wasn't with him.

Ironically, he had wanted the same thing for the woman beside him when she had married, and he hadn't done anything that time, either, and look where it got her - divorced and living alone on base in the Nevada desert, miles from her friends. He didn't want that same friendless life for Alison.

As they impatiently waited for the elevator to reach its destination, Jack briskly summarized the current situation for his companion. “Yes, she's mine, yes, she has my ATA gene, yes, the IOA already know about her and yes, they're on their way to where she's staying to, I suspect, take her for a lifetime of tests.” But not if I reach her first.

“Then we have to get to her first,” Carter announced, unknowingly echoing his thoughts for a second time in five minutes.

The elevator arrived at the middle atrium, and he and Carter ran out. They were in the second elevator on the way to the surface before he knew it. The minute the doors opened onto the cooling day, he began scanning the parking lot. “Which car is yours?”

But she was ahead of him. Glad to note that his sense of urgency had transferred to her, Jack followed in the direction that Carter led. “It's just over here, Sir.” She already had her keys out of her pocket and ready.

One push of a button on the key fob, and the doors to her nondescript four door sedan unlocked. “Dark color - makes sense - government car,” Jack brokenly commented as she handed back his letter and they both climbed in.

“Buckle your seat belt, Sir,” she instructed. “I plan to break some speed limits.”

“So noted,” Jack replied. “In fact, let me make that an order. That way the Air Force has to deal with any tickets you get in this mess.” He faced her as she spun out of the parking spot. “Do you plan to get any tickets?”

Carter's focus was on the road before her as she pulled up to the main gate and signed them both out. “Plan to - no. Will probably get anyway - yes. Hang on.”

Carter next made that nondescript government four door sedan do things that Jack was sure it had never done before. “What did you do - soup up the engine?” Jack asked incredulously. They sped down the road from Cheyenne Mountain, cornering so fast that he had the uncomfortable impression that the multiple weeds in the ditch had somehow become one giant weed that he saw grow closer and closer. The car abruptly leveled out as a straight stretch of road beckoned. Their speed increased as the grass in the ditch receded to an indistinct blur once more.

A souped up engine was the least of Jack's worries, though. It would seem to a disinterested observer that Carter barely maintained control over the racing car. Of course, Jack knew better. This was the woman who had raced the Loop of Kon Garat just for the fun of it (officially, she'd done it for the procurement of alien technology - unofficially, it had been for the fun of it.) No matter the reason, the end result was that she knew how to make a basic Earth bound car go so fast that it was all but flying.

Yet Jack couldn't help but be glad that he was wearing his seat-belt. He wanted to help Alison, but he couldn't do that if he was nothing but a smear on the front windshield. “We're going to Elm Street - do you know where that is?”

“Yep,” she replied, concentrating on the road as if their lives depended on it.

Jack appreciated the way that Carter had accepted this as her mission as well as his, was willing to put everything on the line for a kid she hadn't even met yet. And she hadn't asked any irrelevant questions about her, either. She just downshifted again and chewed her lip as the road flew under the tires.

How had Carter even managed to find a manual car as a loaner from the government? Jack would someday like to hear that story, but right now simply tightened his hold on the door's armrest and was glad that he was still breathing.

They had managed to turn left, then right, then make another left turn onto Elm Street before seeing their first cop. Carter ignored the flashing lights and wailing siren to floor it, making the car jump forward and Jack to hold on to the door so tight that now his knuckles were white. But he didn't request that she slow down - he didn't say anything. He was scared that any distracting words might shatter her control over the racing car. He didn't want to think what might happen to them if he did.

Elm street changed from being populated by one industrial building after another to become a residential neighborhood, filled with a plethora of houses as well as the odd car parked in front of a sidewalk and the occasional kid on a bicycle. There was even a kid on a skateboard, but she luckily chose to stay on the sidewalk as the car sped past, followed by the wailing police car.

“What's the address?” Carter tersely inquired.

Jack had to flip over the letter he still had on his lap in order to tell her, “521 West Elm.”

She gave a brief nod, and that was all, her concentration solely focused on the road and its residential distractions. She deftly wove around parked cars, trash cans, and a single box lying in the middle of the street to close in on the Atterby home moments later.

Jack's heart fell to his stomach like a block of ice when he got his first good look in the Atterby driveway - there was already another dark government vehicle parked beside a blue minivan. Despite Carter's driving efforts, the IOA had beaten them there.

“Pull across the driveway - block them in,” Jack grimly ordered.

Carter did as she was told, the tires screeching when the car ground to a halt just as a very harassed Richard Woolsey exited the house holding a writhing, sobbing Alison.

After hastily replacing the folded letter back in his pocket, Jack jumped out of the car while it was still swaying, barely noticing that Carter let him go while she pulled out the car's registration and her driver's license without having to be asked by the white faced cop who greeted her at her door.

“Please step out of the car, ma'am,” he asked even as Jack pulled Alison away from Woolsey. The cries of the sobbing child caused even more chaos in the otherwise quiet neighborhood.

A woman dressed in a business suit was carrying a diaper bag slung over her shoulder as she tried to follow Woolsey down the walk, but Marjorie Atterby kept getting in her way. They had made little progress when Jack had appeared on the scene.

No cry - calm, Jack thought to Alison, not even realizing that he was thinking the words at her instead of speaking to her, but the soothing “Shhhh,” that he did say out loud was enough of a cover even for Woolsey.

As if instinctively knowing that she was now in the arms of safety, Alison immediately began to hiccup instead of cry. The lack of noise was a welcome change.

“General,” Woolsey stated the moment it grew quiet enough for him to be heard. “It's good you're here - perhaps you can control her.”

Alison only clung to Jack harder and buried her snotty nose in his BDUs.

Jack repeatedly ran his hand down her back and asked in a voice filled with tight anger, “What the hell did you think you were doing, Woolsey? Please tell me how frightening a little girl so bad that she screams will change my poor opinion of the IOA?”

Woolsey at least had the decency to look chagrined. “I was under the impression that your daughter was much younger than she is, and therefore wouldn't mind being moved by strangers.”

“Clearly, you were wrong.” Jack inched just a little closer to the government man, giving Alison the opportunity to slug him one if she wanted to. That scenario would at least be more easily explained than if he slugged him one. “And just where did you get the idea she was young? Do you... say... happen to have a spy in the... on base?”

A guilty look flashed briefly across Woolsey's eyes.

That look was enough for Jack. “Get rid of that person,” he ordered, “or I'll do it for you.” He held tightly onto Alison in case the man tried to catch him unawares and grab her. “You'll regret it if I have to do this myself,” he whispered so that the cop would know nothing of the threat.

Woolsey's look changed from guilty chagrin to one of acceptance. “That won't be necessary, General. I assure you that we had only the most benevolent of intentions today.”

Jack couldn't keep his sneer from creeping across his face. The gall of the man! Images of the many times the SGC had fallen under this man's 'benevolent' scrutiny rose in his mind. “Forgive me if I don't believe you.”

Woolsey's frustration mounted. “If I have been a little too... zealous before now, it was simply due to my concern for the truth. The IOA has only ever had the best of intentions regarding the... your base.”

“Then their 'best intentions' have a lot to be desired!”

An acrimonious sigh issued out of Woolsey to echo in the evening air. “Be that as it may, even you must admit that Alison Blaley needs to be tested as soon as possible.”

Jack's anger didn't abate. “I admit that, Woolsey, but kidnapping a helpless little girl isn't the way to make sure that happens!”

Bristling at the word 'kidnapping,' Woolsey's righteousness increased. “We were hardly kidnapping her, General.”

Jack's brows rose in disbelief. “Oh? Then perhaps you might care to explain what you're doing here?”

The man's professional mask slipped a fraction as his own anger suddenly increased. “It's not what you think.”

Jack's sneer was back. “Enlighten me.”

Woolsey's tired sigh was a surprise. “If you must know, I was... getting peed on.”

That was the last thing Jack expected him to say. “She peed on you?”

Woolsey sighed again in controlled irritation, and gestured to a dark stain on his otherwise pristine business coat.

Jack barely restrained the humor that washed over him at the sight of the stain. Good girl! he thought at Alison.

Woolsey's sense of embarrassed annoyance was complete. “She did... this, then started to scream in my ear. Perhaps you'll have more control over her than I did.”

Jack almost laughed at the man's apparent self anger, but squashed the gesture just in time. “What makes you think I'll have any more control over her than you do?” Jack asked while gently patting the girls' back in calming motions he hadn't utilized for decades.

The man gestured at the way Jack was running a soothing hand up and down the girl's back. “She's stopped crying, and she hasn't bitten you yet - that's success in my book.”

“She bit you?” Jack had a really hard time not laughing out loud now.

But before he had the chance to think anything to the little girl in his arms - such as how he had always wanted to bite Woolsey, too, so didn't blame her - he suddenly noticed how the young police officer was enthusiastically leading an already cuffed Carter to his cruiser. “Wait!” he yelled in such a loud tone that he made Woolsey flinch. “She's with me!”

The young police officer glared at him. “I don't care if she's with the Pope - nobody drives like a maniac through my town and gets away with it!”

'My town...' Oh no - one of those.

Clearly out to prove a point, the cop helped a cooperative but fully restrained Carter into the back of his car and slammed the door shut behind her. He again leveled his glare at Jack, daring him to interfere, then moved around to the car's other side to drive away, taking Carter with him.

Carter calmly looked towards Jack, her blue eyes expressing, 'it'll be alright, Sir.'

Pretty/good/nice/pleasant was the thought that Alison suddenly filled Jack's mind with as she gazed with wide eyes at Carter trapped in the police car.

Jack quickly shifted Alison into his left arm, all the while thinking Calm - Daddy help nice lady. He wasn't sure if Alison got anything more than the gist of what he was thinking, but she grew completely quiet as he drew out his cell phone and pushed a button, all the while grinning disarmingly at the cop. “If you wait just a moment, I'll let Hayes explain everything.”

The cop's eyes narrowed. “Hayes?”

The disarming grin on Jack's face grew even more disarming. Some would even call it charming. “I still can't believe I have the President on speed dial.”

The officer's face paled again. “That Hayes??”

Jack held the phone up to his ear and affably replied, “You know: Hayes - the President of the United States.” He shrugged, but kept the phone glued to his ear so that no sound issuing from the phone could possibly be heard. “He probably won't like getting a call about some silly mix up with the police over a simple matter of National Security, but... I'm sure we can explain it to him - I hear his bark is worse than his bite.”

The cop grew paler yet as a female voice quietly stated over Jack's cell phone, “The time is 5:10, the temperature is...”

Jack never heard what temperature it was as the cop held out his hands in a placating gesture. “It's not necessary to bother the President with this. Uh... I'm sure you gentlemen know what you're doing. You don't have to...”

Jack hung up and returned the cell phone to his pocket as the cop hastily yanked open the car door and helped Carter back out. “Sorry, ma'am - misunderstanding,” he said as he quickly unlocked her handcuffs so that she was free again.

Carter's sardonic gaze met Jack's. She had her casually ironic, 'Did you give your National Security speech again?' look in her eyes, but Jack rapidly glanced at the cop lest he burst out laughing. “Sorry for the mixup.” He made a gesture that encompassed Alison, Woolsey, Suit Lady, Marjorie, and Carter as well as himself. “Everything's under control now.”

A look flashed across the cop's face that said he didn't wholly believe Jack, but wasn't sure that he wanted to get involved in anything so big that it had to do with a man who had the President on speed dial.

Making a fast decision, he reached in for his radio. “All units, stand down. Backup not required.” Then after replacing his radio, he couldn't leave fast enough.

“Okay,” Jack said to Woolsey and his fellow IOA goon the minute the cop left, hefting Alison more firmly into his arms. “The cops are gone - now we can deal.”

Chapter 9

The Bad Guy of the IOA

With a flourish, Jack waved them all back into the house, belatedly recalling that he didn't own that particular house, so shouldn't just arbitrarily invite people inside. Marjorie Blaley didn't seem to mind, though, when she remained outside the door to lean down to whisper to Jack.

“I tried to stop them, but they were throwing official documents at me so fast that I...”

“It's alright.” Jack pasted on his understanding expression. “I've worked with Woolsey before: don't worry - I know what he's like.” He gently ushered her in before him, then waited for Carter to join him after she moved the car from blocking the drive.

She walked up to him, her eyes trained now on the girl in Jack's arms. “So this is Alison?”

Jack quickly leaned in to mentally hiss to Alison, This one's nice. Don't bite her. Then he said the same thing aloud for Carter's benefit.

This offhanded comment caused a smile to leap onto Carter's face. “She's still awfully young to understand spoken language.” A pause followed where she shrewdly looked into Jack's eyes. “Unless you know something we don't know.” Suddenly inspired, she went on, “Can she communicate in some way, too?”

Jack quickly pulled Alison out of Carter's direct line of sight, a frown on his face. “That's a silly idea, Carter. You said it yourself - she's too young to speak.”

The minute he said it, he knew he'd said too much. At the word 'speak,' Carter's expression fell into knowing lines. “I've seen enough Tok'ra discussing things with their symbiote to recognize some form of mental communication when I see it.” Carter peered at Alison, who sat quietly in Jack's arms and innocently sucked her fingers.

Jack didn't deny it, hissing, “Don't say anything!” He gestured rather rudely in Woolsey's direction. “Can you imagine what'll happen to her if he finds out?”

The shrewd look on Carter's face dissolved into one of shared comprehension. “He won't hear it from me,” she promised, her voice just as soft as Jack's. “What else can she do?”

In a louder tone, thus noting that this was common knowledge, Jack told her, “She can activate... you know, the technology, not to mention cause everything around that tech to *glow like the sun you blew up.*” He whispered the last words.

Carter's face brightened. “So you're saying that we finally have a way to replace that *sun!* And she's so young, too!”

The pride in Jack's voice was unmistakable as he informed, “She's barely one at this point. Who knows what'll happen as she gets older.”

“Plan to be around to see that?”

At Carter's curious question, Jack's own suspicions grew. Without any overtures, she was intimating that he actively planned to keep Alison. “What makes you say that?”

Her eyes widened innocently... too innocently. “Nothing, Sir, you know that.” She gestured to the house. “Perhaps we should join the others?” And with no further explanation, she preceded him inside.

Jack would have dismissed such an innocent expression from anybody else, but with Carter he knew better. “Innocent my ass,” he remarked under his breath as he followed her into the darkened front room that he remembered from his earlier visit to this house.

Reminded of the reason why he and Carter had braved the wrath of the CSPD just to get here, Jack paused the minute he had shut the front door to give Woolsey the once over. “Okay - you tried to take my kid without my authorization - why?”

Woolsey appeared eminently relieved to finally be unloading this particular burden from his mind. “It's important that we test this... child...” and he gestured towards Alison, but didn't get his hand close enough for her to bite him again, “... and see what she can do. You must understand that point, General.”

“I understand it,” Jack assured, “But taking her without telling me about it first isn't the way to make friends and influence people!”

Before Woolsey or Suit Lady could say anything in their defense, Marjorie handed Jack several documents. “Here's what they used to make me turn her over to them. Maybe you can understand what they say.”

Jack took the papers after giving Woolsey a meaningful glare. He gave the papers an official snap, then turned his glare onto the pages. It took only a moment for Jack's glare to return. “You served her with a desist order?”

Woolsey adopted an affronted air and stated in an officious tone, “She was to desist her hold on the child and give her up to us.”

Conversely, Jack just looked pissed. “She has current 'hold on the child' because the child's mother wished it to be so. Since the child's mother is dead, as you well know, since you're here, then parental rights automatically revert to the father - and as I am the father, who had no idea this was going down, you knew that you didn't have a legal leg to stand on!”

Suit Lady chose that unfortunate moment to interrupt. “General O'Neill, we had no choice but to...”

Jack rounded on Suit Lady. “Don't!” he commanded, pointing a finger at her. “Not unless you want me to slip up on some night and accidentally toss you... out the door!” He swallowed the sudden mention of the confidential Stargate that he had wanted to make, but his meaning was still crystal clear. “Your choice was made before I even knew about any of this, and don't pretend that it wasn't!” His glare intensified while his gaze swung from Woolsey, on to Suit lady, then back again.

When his glare had left the two DC people under no delusions that he was less than happy with either of them, he dialed his anger down a notch. “However, I've been ordered to conduct similar tests on Alison, see what she can do, that kind of thing. With that in mind, Colonel Carter is going to take Alison...”

“Colonel Carter works under your command,” Woolsey immediately objected.

Jack's brows shot up. “And by saying that, are you implying that she can't be trusted?” The sneer was back in force. “That's rich, coming from a man who tried to take a child by force just minutes ago!”

Woolsey sighed at Jack's apparent misunderstanding. “That's not what I meant at all. I'm merely saying that since Colonel Carter is part of your command, she would have nothing but your interests at heart, and Alison's by default. Perhaps a more neutral party should take charge of the child to assure that she makes it to Cheyenne Mountain for her tests.”

Jack zeroed in on one point in that argument. It gave him a thrill to say, “Colonel Carter is no longer under my command.”

Surprise overtook both Woolsey and Suit Lady. “She isn't?” he asked, flummoxed. “When did that happen, and where did she go?”

It was Carter who answered. “Not that it's any of your business, but I requested a transfer to Nevada six months ago. I've been in charge of Research and Development ever since.”

Jack approved how she said out the more typical 'R&D' with an eye toward the civilian in the room still able to understand the conversation. That was so Carter.

But Woolsey appeared more perplexed than approving of her statement. “If you're stationed in Nevada, what are you doing here?”

Carter's look of annoyance deepened. “I'm currently... on loan to the... General's staff to assist with possibly back engineering a device.”

“Well then.” And Woolsey attempted to give off the aura that either this news didn't affect him, or he wasn't the least bothered by the fact that she had been gone so long from the SGC and he hadn't known about it.

“Gotta work on that spy network of yours to keep you more in the loop,” Jack suggested, his voice ultra dry. Yet he noticed that Carter had said she'd requested her transfer, but the way he remembered it, he had made that transfer happen. The fact that she didn't want Woolsey to know about that detail was intriguing.

Woolsey then shook his head as if to clear it of all this extraneous information. “I still insist that a more neutral party transport Alison to Cheyenne Mountain where she will undergo a multitude of tests.”

“For all of which I will be present,” Jack loudly insisted. “If I don't agree with some test that you propose, I take Alison and just walk away.” His voice firmed so that nobody could misinterpret what he was saying. “That's the deal - take it or leave it.”

Suit Lady's gaze momentarily met Woolsey's, and she gave a barely perceptible nod of agreement. Woolsey then turned to Jack. “That's acceptable, as long as you agree to let Mrs. Atterby...”

Ms Atterby,” Marjorie forcefully noted.

Woolsey sighed again, as if these interruptions truly made his life more difficult. “Whatever... she drives Alison.” He had eyes only for Jack. “Agreed?”

Jack nodded once. “Agreed. But Woolsey, I'm thinking that you need to work on your people skills - maybe you should ask her if this causes any kind of trouble for her first before you go volunteering her for just any old mission.”

A purely irritated look fell across Woolsey's features, reminding Jack how he really did love to piss this guy off. “General O'Neill, your opinion of me is irrelevant. What Alison is capable of is the only thing that matters at this point. If Ms. Atterby will consent to bring Alison to Cheyenne Mountain, we'll 'get this show on the road,' as I've often heard you say.”

Chapter 10

Another Shock

Once the show got on the road, things went quickly.

First, Jack made certain to throw the handle of Alison's diaper bag over his head, thus making sure he had it wherever he went in case of a sudden need for a diaper change; it hadn't been so long since having a one-year-old that he had forgotten the need for precipitous action that would keep the little girl (and hence himself) in comfort.

Then there were the tests - Jack noticed Merry Meyers surreptitiously watching the Infirmary proceedings as he and Alison calmly subjected themselves to several blood tests, as well as a DNA test. She hadn't had time to approach them before they left the Infirmary to undergo an ATA gene test in Daniel's lab with yet another thing known to be Ancient Technology. Jack was glad to be able to keep Dr. Meyers' connnection to this case a secret a little longer; there was no reason to bring her into this mess.

By ignoring Meyers, Jack may have assured her anonymity, but wasn't able to affect much more than that. The deal he'd made with Woolsey forced him to stand quietly by while Alison underwent test after test with different items to see if she made them all glow, or only made certain items glow, such as something of Ancient design, or if she had to simply be in the vicinity of those items in order to make them glow. It was soon apparent that Alison made everything glow simply by being around them, whether it be of Ancient design, Goa'uld architecture, good old American construction, or Tau'ri modifications on alien devices. Of course, what the glowing meant was anybody's guess.

While Jack had Walter busy finding Teal'c if he could and recalling him, he was poked and prodded along with his daughter. He didn't know about her, but after the tenth needle used to take yet one more blood test was thrust into his arm, he was ready to run screaming through the Gate.

Finally, when Jack felt like nothing but a pincushion meant for the sole purpose of the CMO's amusement, he and Alison were allowed to take a much desired seat at the table in the Briefing Room where the entire group was to discuss the test's findings. But Jack didn't listen as Woolsey prattled on, Daniel rebutted, and Suit Lady threw in the odd comment or two. He was enamored with the way that Alison kept presenting him with the most alluring images in his mind. There was the image of Carter wearing civies and standing next to Jack, all suffused with a feeling of intense contentment and well-being. There was the image of Marjorie Atterby standing surrounded by kids, presumably those in her day-care, accompanied by a feeling of familiarity. Images of Daniel were followed by feelings of pleasure. Images of Woolsey weren't so definitely happy. Carter tended to warm to a red color with Jack, Woolsey to a dark gray or black, and Daniel to a hurried light gray streaked with white. (Jack idly thought this made the archaeologist look like a zebra, but he wouldn't hear it from him.) Again and again she sent the image of her idea of family, with Jack playing center stage.

He still hadn't mentioned this communication tidbit of hers to anybody except Carter, and still wondered if this made him a traitor. Then he thought about how Alison would be hounded and tested for the rest of her life by groups similar to the IOA, just like they were tonight, and he didn't much care if he was branded a traitor for withholding this information. The only thing that mattered was Alison's future.

And as to that: he remembered the conversation he'd had with Carter while on their way back to the SGC. She had gently pointed out that he had called Alison 'my kid' at least once while speaking to Woolsey and Suit Lady at the Atterby's house. That fact went a long way in supporting the assertion that he planned to keep Alison with him forever. But that foregone conclusion opened a big can of worms that he wasn't sure he was able to deal with right now.

He'd remained thoughtfully silent after Carter had made her point, but now he silently argued with himself that he just couldn't keep Alison! What kind of life would she have if she stayed with him? Nothing resembling 'normal,' that's for sure! She would more than likely never be able to have a friend over for a visit, for instance. He would probably be constantly on-call at the SGC, even if he was home for a time, and he couldn't leave her and a friend unsupervised, at least not until she was a teenager, which was years away! If she remained with him, she would see more of nannies and baby-sitters than she would of him - what kind of life was that? And as he had no spouse to help lighten the child-rearing load, as Colonel Dixon did, she wouldn't have the familial support necessary for a normal upbringing.

But what would become of her if he didn't keep her? Was there nothing but groups like the IOA in her future?

It was hopeless no matter how he looked at it. He was just going to have to tell Carter that...

“General, do you agree?” Woolsey was asking with a slightly irritated expression on his face.

The expression gave Jack the idea that he had been asked for his agreement several times already. “I'm sorry, what did you say? I was thinking,” he excused.

Daniel's brows rose as he lightly inquired, “Did it hurt?”

“Yes,” Jack bit off to the archaeologist, “it did.”

“Well, forgive me Jack,” Daniel defensively replied, “but you aren't exactly known for deep thinking. That's more Sam's area than yours.”

Jack swiveled his chair until he stared at where Carter should have been sitting, but was again ensconced with Dr. Lee in what used to be her lab. “Carter isn't here, which leaves the thinking to me.”

Woolsey's patience with this tete-a-tete was limited. “As I asked before, do you agree?”

“What am I agreeing to?”

Woolsey gave an annoyed gush of air at having to repeat himself yet again. “I was saying that Alison's abilities need further testing, testing that can only happen at Area 51 - and I was asking if you'll agree to the proposal of sending her there.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Alison's mother's letter was very specific, Woolsey - she wants Alison brought up as normal as possible and to not let her become a lab rat for your personal enjoyment... er, for groups like the IOA and NID. As she's dead, that authority now falls to me, as it's obvious I'm her father since these tests you've insisted on have been proving that point to anybody who cares. As her father, no, I don't agree with sending Alison off to Area 51 for more tests, or for anything else or for her to go anywhere of the sort. You should know that there's no point in even asking such a thing.” His Woolsey-glare was back in force.

Woolsey deflated. “I do know - but my conscience urged me to at least ask.”

“Well, resist the urge,” Jack suggested just as Alison sent him the unmistakable image of Woolsey as the monster under her bed, dressed in nothing but hair, horns, and glasses. The image made Jack bark a laugh into the quiet that had fallen over the Briefing Room. The side of his mouth curled up as he glanced at Alison - he was getting used to the mature look in her eyes, and didn't even do a double take when he saw definite amusement there.

Unfortunately, his laugh and subsequent glance didn't go unnoticed.

“What are you thinking now?” Daniel asked Jack, sounding as if he wanted his share of the joke that was clearly running through Jack's mind.

Jack was caught unaware, and jerked his head around from Alison to Daniel. “Huh?”

Daniel gave an awkward grin. “Come on - Alison must have done something cute for you to look like that - be the proud pappa and share.” He turned to Suit Lady sitting next to him and absently remarked, “We should get the camera - we're missing all the action.”

“I'm doing nothing,” Jack quickly said, making sure to sound nonchalant, as if it didn't matter. “Neither is Alison.”

The feint didn't even begin to fool Woolsey, however. He told Jack, “You get a wrinkle of skin between your eyes when you're not telling me everything. I'm seeing a large wrinkle right now.”

“You must have me confused with Carter,” Jack immediately answered. “She's the one who does that thing with the skin between her eyes, not me, and certainly not Alison.”

But Jack couldn't help it; the feeling of sudden anger washed from him straight to Alison in spite of his efforts to squash it. She couldn't help but react.

“Hah!” yelled Woolsey, pointing. “There's definitely a wrinkle between her eyes now.”

“Are you saying that now she's related to Carter, too?” Jack asked, desperate to derail this topic of conversation, and fast.

Woolsey gave him a look that said now he was being stupid. “Of course not. But this does call into question what you were doing to make her adopt such a pose.”

Jack sat up. “I wasn't pinching her, if that's what you're saying!”

“Don't be ridiculous!” Woolsey responded in a tone that bordered on scathing.

Daniel quickly intervened. “Ok, I don't know about you guys, but I'm beat. Why don't we..?”

“General,” Woolsey interrupted, his voice full of suspicion. “Are you hiding something from us about her abilities?”

Daniel gave a snort of incredulity before Jack could do something nuts, like start yelling. “Of course he's not, Woolsey. It's not like she can read his mind!” His tone let everybody in the room know how insane he thought that idea was.

But that idea wasn't so insane to Woolsey. “That's what you were doing earlier, wasn't it?” he accusingly asked Jack. “When you didn't know what we were talking about? It was because you and she were busy thinking at each other.”

Jack squinched his eyes shut. “We were what?” He tried to sound disbelieving without being scornful. “Do you realize how dumb that sounds?”

Woolsey took on his affronted pose. “It may sound dumb, but I know what I saw. And I saw...”

“The same look I have, because... oh gosh!... she's my daughter!” Jack extolled. “Woolsey, it's late. I'm going to get Alison to bed before she...”

“Not until we get this cleared up,” he insisted, obstinate.

Jack plopped tiredly back into the leather briefing chair. “Woolsey, that won't be until I admit what you want me to admit, and I'll admit that only when pigs fly... by themselves.”

“General,” Woolsey loudly said, purely incensed. “Once again, is she able to communicate with you, and if so, how?” When Jack remained stubbornly silent, he sighed in exhausted frustration. “We can stay here all night - this will come out eventually, anyway. It will be so much better if you just admit it right now.”

“He's got a point, Jack,” Daniel reluctantly said.

It was a comment that had Jack glaring at him instead of Woolsey. When he'd glared at his friend for a full minute, he swung his glare to center again on the former. “Better for who, Woolsey - you? Me? Alison? The IOA? The government as a whole?”

“You,” Woolsey definitively stated. “ Once again...”

The feeling of danger bombarded Jack once more, making Alison's wrinkle appear as if etched in wood.

“There!” Suit Lady said, gesturing at them. “She did it again - I saw her!”

Even Daniel had to remark,” Yeah, I saw it that time, too.”

“You too, Daniel?” Jack all but yelled, losing what little patience he had left. “Look you three, she's related to me, so of course she'll do what I do. You said it yourself - I wrinkle, so she wrinkles. End of story. Can we go home now?” Jack stifled a yawn that almost looked real.

“I'm not buying it,” Woolsey told Jack, yanking his glasses off to give them on official looking cleaning.

Alison stared at Woolsey and Suit Lady, contentedly sucking her thumb. This time the image she sent her father was one of a hairy Woolsey trying to find something with which to clean his glasses, but kept finding only hair.

Jack turned the laugh he made into an unconvincing cough.

“Stop it!” Woolsey shoved his glasses back on his face. “We're not imbeciles!”

“Speak for yourself,” Jack said under his breath.

“We know what we saw. Once again, can Alison..?”

“And what will happen to her if I say yes?” Jack loudly challenged back, his feigned tiredness disappearing with his words. “Does she then become the scrutiny of groups like the NID, those oh-so-friendly guys who once tried to carve up Teal'c to see how he ticks? Is she going to be kidnapped by another Adrian Conrad? I have a base to run, and can't keep an eye on her 24/7. Who's going to keep her safe then?” He swiftly turned his glare on the other IOA representative. “You?” He turned back to face Woolsey. “Or maybe I should depend on you instead?” Jack's ironic snort told them what he thought of that idea. “I don't think so. So why don't you take your...”

“I'll take that as a yes,” Woolsey flatly noted, finishing Jack's comment. “We need to schedule some mental tests for Alison to see just how far...”

Jack jumped up, Alison still in his arms, his face inflamed. “No!” he curtly barked. “You're not playing your stupid little games with my daughter. Find some other kid to do tests on - you're done here!”

And to that demand, Woolsey only smiled a benign smile. “You wouldn't be so angry if she didn't have hidden communication skills. The fact that you are so angry tells me that she does - and that you know all about it.” He smiled a smug smile, pleased. In fact, he was way more pleased than Jack had ever seen him. It was a scary sight.

Jack was a scary sight, too. Even Daniel hadn't seen Jack quite so angry, and he had seen every mood Jack could project many times by now.

Alison simply watched as Jack got right up in Woolsey's face, his body taut as a wire. “If you think I'm just going to hand her over to the likes of you, then think again! She has the right to...” All of a sudden, his voice stopped as if he had hit an invisible wall. Perhaps he had - trying to argue with Woolsey was often like reasoning with a wall... or a rock. Even threatening him had a limited effect.

The image of a hairy rock wearing glasses intruded into Jack's thoughts, forcefully reminding him just why he was standing in the middle of his Briefing Room at 2400, arguing. However, the look of determination is Woolsey's eyes told him that arguing was fruitless; reasoning - pointless; threatening - counterproductive (though satisfying). He'd seen that look before, just as Woolsey had publicly castigated General Hammond for ordering the SAR that had subsequently caused Doc Fraiser's death - as if the fact that he'd ordered the mission that led to the death of a good friend wasn't bad enough, Woolsey had done the public blame thing to a good man who'd made an unfortunate decision.

The fact that Woolsey could do that - kick a man when he was already down - gave Jack reason to think that this man would win this time, too, by personally carting Alison off to further tests at Area 51 if he had to. If that happened, Jack was sure never to see his daughter again. Whether he kept her or not was immaterial at this point; just the threat of no longer seeing her at all scared him crapless.

And he didn't want to be that scared about a child of his, not again - this felt the same way that losing Charlie all those years ago had felt. The prospect of losing Alison was suddenly just as bad as the way he'd recently lost Carter. He could easily visualize losing Alison before he could even say that he had her. And he couldn't go through that again, no matter what. So... his path was clear; he had to get her out, fast. If he wanted 'normal' for her, he didn't have a choice.

So Jack abruptly wheeled and left the room.

Chapter 12

Help Is Found at the Weirdest of Times

Carrying Alison so tightly that if she had been a baloon, she would have burst, Jack immediately headed for Carter's old lab.

It was instinct, really. That lab had been the one place on base that during the tough times he could be sure of finding solace, solicitude, an ear to bend if he needed it, help if he needed more. Carter had always been there for him, just as he was there for her when she needed him to be. Now wasn't any different.

Rounding the corner into the lab, he therefore got a shock. He found Dr. Lee instead of Carter standing at her worktable, as he'd foolishly expected. How could he have forgotten even for a moment? Carter no longer worked at the SGC, she was no longer under his command - he'd made sure of that.

Jack stared at Dr. Lee, his mouth hanging slightly open in an 'oh' of surprise.

“General,” Dr. Lee began, his voice pleasant - apparently the man had not yet heard that Jack had gone AWOL in order to protect his daughter from a lifetime of tests-a-la-Woolsey. He didn't even know the identity of the girl currently residing in Jack's protective arms.

Dr. Lee looked curiously at Alison, then at Jack's physical appearance. But it was the look of pressing anxiety on Jack's face that seemed to arrest him. For perhaps the first time in his life, Dr. Lee put his scientific curiosity on hold, instead responding to Jack's expression. “If you want to see Colonel Carter again, I'm afraid she...”

Jack's wits came back with a psychic crash. “Do you know where she is? It's important!”

His tone must have conveyed his urgency, too, for Dr. Lee didn't instantly fall into his thoughtful 'weeeeelllll...' pose as if he had to somehow continually prove his usefulness to the SGC. Instead, he took a second look at Jack, swallowed his need to be as useful as Carter, and blanched. “She just stepped out - I'll see if she's in the corridor.” Dr. Lee leapt passed Jack to the lab's door and scurried down the hallway.

Jack had just enough time to appreciate this unusual helpfulness in the more usually distracted Dr. Lee when the man was back, pushing Carter before him.

“Bill, what..?” was all Carter had managed to get out before the reason behind his urgency became apparent. “General!” Carter exclaimed, then saw his eyes. Instantly alarmed, she asked, “What is it?”

“I need to borrow your car,” Jack said without properly greeting her. He had realized on his way to her lab that he'd again forgotten his keys. “For an hour, a day, a week - I don't know how long. Can I?”

Carter read the fear in his eyes, then the increased solemnity of Alison's expression, and snapped out a steady rejoinder. “No need - I'll take you.” She turned to her fellow science geek. “Bill, I need to...”

“Go,” Dr. Lee interrupted to tell her. “I'll fend them off for as long as I can. Just...”

“How did you know how important this is?” Jack cut him off to ask in a low voice as he and Carter hurried to the door.

Dr. Lee glanced over at Alison. “She has your... everything... that must mean that she's yours... somehow... and I saw Woolsey earlier - and he seems to want her... and you don't want him to get her... and that you must have good reasons: the IOA have never been a friend to the SGC. So... go, now, I'll misdirect them as much as I can.”

Jack touched the scientist on his shoulder. “You're a good man.”

Dr. Lee couldn't resist the grin that lit up his face. “Then can I have a raise?”

Jack's expression darkened. “Don't push it.”

Dr. Lee looked as if he'd expected this response. “Had to try.” Then he shoved them out of the room.

Carter took one look at Jack and must have decided that his arms looked tired. “Give her to me, Sir. She won't look so much like yours if you're not holding her.” With that, she pulled Alison into her arms. Stranger yet, Alison didn't seem to mind going there. She wrapped her tiny hands around Carter's neck and held on as the two adults hurried towards the elevator.

“Remind me to thank Dr. Lee properly when I can,” Jack said to her, his voice still pitched low.

“There's no need,” Carter told him succinctly. “He's had a crush on me since he got here - the fact that you okayed his request for my assistance on anything already fulfilled his wildest dreams.”

Jack gaped at Carter. “You mean there's another one for your fan club?”

“He's the president,” Carter nonchalantly said. “You made his day.”

Geez! How many more men was he going to have to share Carter with? “Hope Felger doesn't mind.”

“He's the treasurer.”

GAH! Jack automatically swiped his card through the card reader for the elevator. They waited for the car to arrive as he softly inquired, “Any more men out there that I should know about?”

Before Carter could answer, an SF tapped Jack on the shoulder. “Excuse me, General O'Neill, but you're wanted in the Control Room.”

“Fine.” Jack didn't move from where he stood.

The tap came again, more insistent this time. “It's urgent, Sir,” came the voice of another man standing with the first. “Perhaps if we took the child for a moment, you and the Colonel would be free to...”

He was just reaching to pull Alison from Carter's grasp when a blue arc of energy from a zat gun flashed out from the nearest supply closet to hit the security camera near the elevator. It instantly took it out right before a second zat blast engulfed the SF reaching for Alison. The man slumped just as his SF friend quickly brought his gun up to bear on Jack, the known threat in this scenario. However, he'd barely had time to right his gun when a third burst of blue energy erupted from around the next corner. He joined his fellow SF in instant slumber.

Teal'c appeared from the closet, Daniel coming to join the group near the elevator a breath later. “Let's get these guys into the closet,” he tersely told Teal'c while Jack and Sam tried hard to catch their breath.

“What..?” Jack grunted.

Daniel also grunted, but it was from the weight of the second SF rather than confusion. “We're helping you, Jack - now, tell us what to do, or don't bother saying anything at all.” His suggestion came out as a strained whisper. “Teal'c?”

“I am finished, DanielJackson.” The Jaffa reached for the man that Daniel was dragging. This man too was shoved to the rear of the closet to join his fellow SF. “By my calculations, we have thirty minutes before they wake. I suggest we not waste that time.”

Wasting time anyway, Jack could only stare in shock at his large friend. “Where did you come from?”

“SergeantHarriman recalled me at your command, O'Neill,” Teal'c calmly replied. “DanielJackson explained the situation to me when I arrived just now in the Gate Room. I am here to help,” he justified his presence as he pulled aside the door to the stairs next to the elevator. “We must hurry.” And he curtly gestured his friends into the stairwell.

Jack darted for the stairs, followed quickly by Carter, Daniel, and finally Teal'c, who didn't let the door slam, but let it slide noiselessly shut. They were two floors up already when the elevator that Jack had called opened onto an empty corridor.

They burst into the atrium, Teal'c and Daniel in the front with their zat guns held at the ready. Without hesitation, they zatted the security camera and the three SFs waiting for their anticipated appearance from the elevator. Teal'c, Jack, and Daniel pulled the sleeping men into the stairwell, leaving Carter and Alison as lookout.

In the meantime, Carter used Daniel's pass card to swipe for the first available car that would take the five of them to the surface. “At least Alison isn't crying,” she noted, her voice also low.

“I told her not to,” Jack said.

“Well, that explains it.” Carter gave a wry shrug. “And all this time, I thought it was me.”

“Don't fool yourself,” Jack said as the doors opened and he entered. “I'm never sure she understands what I'm tellin her - so yeah, it's as much you as me.”

Carter grinned. “You always know what to say to make me feel better.”

“I try, Carter, I try.”

“This is your child, O'Neill?” Teal'c next asked, sounding as if he was inquiring what was for dinner.

Jack gave a brusk nod, refusing to let himself feel embarrassed by the Jaffa's personal query. “I'll let you read all about her once we get ourselves sorted.”

Teal'c's single nod of acquiescence said that he understood and looked forward to it, but he didn't waste precious energy on speaking.

Minutes later, the elevator stopped. The doors opened to reveal the surface that bespoke the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base. The four adults darted out of the elevator, only to stop when Jack moved in the direction of his truck.

Carter's eyes gave a pensive crinkle. “Sir, I thought...”

“Car seat,” Jack tersely explained. “In my truck bed.” He reached in and grabbed the car seat that he had placed there when Marjorie Atterby had handed him Alison what seemed like hours earlier, and ran back to the group hurrying towards Carter's dark government car. The second they got there, Jack reached to finagle the car seat into place in the middle of the back seat. In the meantime, Daniel had pulled off his BDU overshirt, folded it into thirds, then laid it in the middle of the car seat.

“I saw one of my aunts do this once for her kid.”

Jack peered at him quizzically, instinctively wanting to hurry, but confused enough to pause. “I didn't think you had any family.”

Daniel gave a sheepish smile. “Okay - it was one of the aunts from my foster family,” he detailed. “We had gone to a park for a family reunion, and she realized she had forgotten to pack more diapers. She ran out half way through the reunion, so when she was ready to go home, she put down a towel over the car seat so that if the diaper leaked, it would leak on the towel and not the car seat.” He glanced up from his rearranging to note the amazed looks on all his friend's faces. “What? It's a lot easier to wash a towel than the padding from a car seat. Or in this case, easier to wash a shirt.” But the looks didn't abate once he had finished. “What? You're starting to freak me out.”

Jack answered for all of them. “That's... really smart of you, Daniel.”

Daniel reared back a bit. “You sound surprised, Jack.”

Jack simply shook his head. “I'm just surprised that you listened to anybody else, that's all.”

Daniel sent him a sour look. “That's not funny, Jack.” He reached for Alison to fit her into the car seat.

Carter let him take her. “I'm amazed, Daniel. I didn't know you knew much about kids.”

Daniel's genuine grin seemed out of place in such a rushed scene. He carefully fitted Alison into her car seat, bending her almost double to get her in under the retractable handle that he ignorantly left in its upright position. “Don't get too amazed,” he told Carter. “That's the extent of my baby knowledge.”

As if to prove his assertions, Alison promptly threw up all over both of them.

“Ew! Yuck!” Daniel hollered, holding out his now covered hand as he jerked away from Alison. Jack met him with a clean rag to wipe him off at the same time he shook his head in irony. “How do you know so much, but so little at the same time?” he rhetorically asked as he cleaned. “Little kids always throw up if you put pressure on their stomachs like that, especially if you feed them first - which is why I haven't fed her yet. And don't you know that you should always be prepared with a cloth, just in case?”

Daniel glared. “Here we are, trying to get away, and you're talking about baby etiquette?”

Instead of giving more bits of wisdom, Jack just finished wiping down Daniel and Alison as he quickly said, “Correction, I'm getting away - you're all gonna stay here.”

There wasn't even a token protest. Daniel just whipped his hand away from Jack and the cloth. “Jack, stop it.”

Jack's face darkened. “I don't want any of you to get into trouble, and...”

“Jack...

“Sir...”

“O'Neill...”

“... shut up!”

Jack looked at the three implacable expressions before him, all led by Daniel, surprisingly enough. “But I don't know where I'm going yet.”

Daniel snorted. “Like that's ever stopped us before.”

Jack sent him a thunderous look, but gave in graciously, knowing a lost cause when he saw one. “Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you.”

It was as if he'd said he was going to Abydos. “I've got shotgun!” Daniel cheerfully alleged.

Teal'c instantly set him to rights. “I have shotgun, DanielJackson. My legs are longer.”

“And I'm driving,” Carter quickly asserted. “I'm the only one insured on this car.” She climbed into the driver's seat without listening to another argument.

Jack slapped Daniel on the shoulder. “That leaves the back seat for you and me.”

Daniel wrinkled his nose. “Shoved into a too small area, crowded by a car seat, being leaked and puked on by a baby, and sharing with Jack... I'm not sure this is worth it,” he grumbled as he cooperatively crawled in behind the driver.

Still terrified, but attempting to hide it from his friends, Jack crawled in on the other side. “Have your zat guns ready,” was all he said to Daniel and Teal'c.

The guards at the main gate didn't know what hit them. Carter had reached for the sign-out clipboard, chatting pleasantly about how late it already was when Teal'c leveled his zat gun with the roof of the car and zatted the guard on the main gate's roof and one other ground guard. A nanosecond later, Daniel zatted the third and fourth guards, jumped out, pushed the button that opened the main gate, and they were through. He, Teal'c, and Jack hid the guards in the building near the main gate, then Sam took off the second they returned to their seats. Daniel barely had time to shut the door and buckle his seat belt before she had the car yards away from the skid marks she'd left on the road.

“Oh yeah,” Jack casually said. “Hang on.” He repositioned his feet around the diaper bag stored on the floor below. The past years had taught him that behaving calmly helped to actually keep him calm enough so that he could think. And he needed to think, fast. Where could he hide out with Alison so that no one, especially the IOA, could find them?

“Where to?” Carter asked with a fast glance at him through her rearview mirror. “The cabin?”

Jack shook his head. “Minnesota is right where they would look first.” Think, O'Neill!

“Then the opposite direction, like to California?” Daniel next suggested.

Again Jack shook his head, but it was Carter who responded. “California is where Mark lives. My brother's is the second place they'd look.”

“Yeah, what she said,” Jack agreed.

“Perhaps we should lose ourselves somewhere with a large crowd - such as Disneyland?” Teal'c suggested.

“Not Disneyland,” Jack thoughtfully said. “It's too far away.”

Daniel gave a huff and roughly asked, “Do you have a better idea?”

Jack paused, still thinking. At last, he instructed, “Carter, head North.”

Daniel guffawed. “North?”

“Yep, as in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming. We can drive for awhile tonight, then check into a hotel for some shut eye, then get lost in some big city like Bismark.”

Daniel looked at Jack like he thought he was crazy. “Bismark isn't that big... and how are we planning to pay for all this?”

“Bismark is big enough... and I've got money,” Jack calmly stated. In fact, that was the first thing he'd felt really secure about all evening. “I carry money in my shoe - you know, for the odd emergency.”

The confused expression on Daniel's face said that no, he didn't know. “Money?”

Jack shrugged. “The odd twenty. The odd hundred.”

“The odd hundred?” Daniel echoed in amazement.

Jack turned and grinned. “Don't leave home without it.”

Daniel huffed again. “Glad I don't think like you do.”

“Glad that you don't have to,” Jack quickly added.

Carter surprised them all when she piped up, “I have a knife between my... I have one. You know, just in case.”

Daniel looked in open-mouthed awe. “You too, Sam?”

That was when Teal'c told them, “I too carry a hidden weapon, O'Neill.”

That was when Daniel threw up his hands in defeat. “Well, I'm supplyless!”

Jack fingered the BDU shirt just peeking out from under Alison's butt. “You already contributed, Daniel.”

Daniel looked as if he didn't know how to take a compliment from Jack. “Well... thanks.”

“After Bismark, then where?” Carter called from up front.

“Hammond's,” Jack firmly said. “He'll know what's going on, and can tell us what to do next. And by then, enough time will have gone by for them to search his place and come up empty. We'll go in then. It'll be safe.”

Daniel didn't look convinced. “And if it isn't?”

But Jack was firm. “Would I take my girl someplace that isn't completely safe?” He couldn't help letting his gaze slide over what he could see of Carter in the front seat and mentally amended, My girls.

When Jack's gaze slid back, however, it was to find Daniel thoughtfully eyeing him. Fortunately, he didn't see any judgment in Daniel's gaze, only speculation.

But the man didn't argue with Jack's rhetorical directive, only pulled his seat belt tighter and sarcastically announced, “Well then - wagons, HO!”

Chapter 13

On the Road Again

By the time they'd reached Denver, however, Daniel was more than ready to get out of the car and get a coffee. “I remember now why I hate traveling.”

“Stop griping,” Jack griped. “You weren't forced to come.”

“Woolsey forced me,” Daniel asserted, then pensively asked, “Is it just me, or does that man have it in for the SGC?”

He has it in for Alison right now, Jack mentally noted.

No one responded to Daniel as they were too busy pulling into a twenty four hour McDonald's. They piled out, and Jack reluctantly woke a sleeping Alison. But as he had to change her diaper, it was better to wake her than let her sleep in a puddle.

He quickly changed her using the fold out table provided in the handicapped stall in the rest-room, all the while hoping that no one needed an accessible bathroom. He didn't count changing a diaper as more important than using the bathroom, but was just as glad that he finished before anyone needed him to get out. He'd happily leave, but wasn't sure that Alison would happily move, especially if her bottom was naked at the time.

She was fussy and unhappy as it was, moodily wanting her breakfast and another nap, not necessarily in that order. “Maybe we should get you a coffee to go. Daniel swears by it,” Jack joked as he taped up a clean diaper, then changed her out of her wet clothes. He replaced her in the car seat while he washed out Daniel's BDU shirt, staring at himself in the mirror. He looked frazzled... old... worn out.

He gave a tired sigh, but ignored his own exhaustion to stare critically at his image. “We need to change out of these BDUs. We're too noticeable in these.” To say nothing of Teal'c, who was still in his Dakara robes. At least he wasn't currently wearing his Jaffa armor. Jack smiled as he thought of an armored Teal'c scaring everyone in sight. “Jaffa armor freaks me right out.”

In response, Alison began to cry.

“Yeah, that's how I feel when I see an armored Jaffa.”

Alison only cried harder.

The noise grated on Jack's already frazzled nerves. He tried to ignore the noise and rejoined his friends, who had already used the facilities.

Daniel and Carter were at the counter, quietly discussing what would be good to eat so late at night. “We could look at this as it's early morning,” Daniel argued. “Then we could get whatever we wanted... like coffee!” His grin was enough to make Carter laugh.

The sound carried over to the booth Jack was sharing with Teal'c. “It's good to hear Carter so...”

“O'Neill,” came the stoic interruption. “You promised to let me read about Alison - what did you mean by that?”

“Oh.” Jack dug out the Captain Andrea letter again and handed to his friend. Teal'c solemnly took it as he noted that the piece of paper was getting to be as worn as he felt.

Teal'c read. His impassive expression didn't change even when he reached the bottom of the letter. Instead, he simply commented, “Before today, I was not aware that you have offspring.”

Jack rolled his eyes in ironic agreement. “Neither was I. But you suspected, didn't you?”

Teal'c didn't quite nod, but he didn't quite not nod, either. It was as if he was using Alison's favored mode of communication; he was silent, but was easily able to get his point across. Jack would wonder how he did that, but Teal'c had always been like that. Wondering now would just be a waste of energy.

Noting the man's taciturn response to the Captain's letter, Jack decided that none of what was going on right now would make sense to Teal'c if he didn't explain all of it. Before he knew it, he had told his friend all about the wild ride with Carter, his close encounter of the IOA kind, the testing both he and Alison had endured, as well as Woolsey's latest crazy notion.

“It's nuts!” Jack insisted, angry again just from talking about this. “I'm not sure I'll be able to keep Alison, but that doesn't mean I want her to end up as a test subject for life!”

Teal'c had remained silent through Jack's tirade, but couldn't contain himself any longer. “Of what are you speaking when you say that you will not keep this child?”

The way he said it, to even consider not keeping Alison was akin to some heinous crime. “I haven't decided about letting her stay with me,” Jack stated in simpler terms. “It's not like I asked for her - I didn't even know about her! I run a military base, not a nursery. There's a good chance that I won't even be around to take care of her. It might be better for her to go to someone else.”

Teal'c's brows furrowed. “How will she go to someone else?”

Jack shrugged. “You know - someone else will raise her - like adoption. Like Cassie with Doc Fraiser,” he finally said as the look of confusion persisted in Teal'c's eyes.

“But you will still visit her?”

“Well, no,” Jack told him. “We generally think it's better if the parents don't stay in touch with adopted kids. They don't get attached that way.”

Before Teal'c could say anything, a very strong feeling of panicked thought hit him, followed by Alison's image of her Jack-like figure along with her Alison figure, as well as a sense of family, all smashing into his psyche at once.

Jack's head flew back with the strength of the thought. It caused him to wryly stare down at her. “Well, you don't like that idea, do you?”

Completely confused now, Teal'c asked, “What idea do I not like?”

“Not you - her.” Jack tilted his head down to indicate Alison. “She weighed in on that idea just now, and she sooooo is not for the idea of adoption.”

“But she said nothing.” Teal'c gazed at Alison while Alison gazed back. At long last, the big man understood. “You share a bond with her. She talks, and you hear.”

“Well, it's more like she gives me ideas,” Jack corrected before he realized that explanations were useless at this point. He might as well admit to this sooner rather than later. “Yes: she talks, I hear.”

“You share this bond, yet speak of not keeping her?” Teal'c was still befuddled.

Jack gushed air. “Don't tell me - on Chulak, you'd never consider giving up a kid because kids are seen as a great gift - am I right?”

“Yes,” Teal'c quickly replied, stoic as always, yet emotional at the same time. “We do not have a word for this... adopt.”

“I didn't say I don't want her,” Jack tried to excuse. “I said that I'm not sure I can keep her. And now the IOA are trying to convince me to let her become some rat in a lab.” He ran his hand through his hair and across his face. In her car seat, Alison did the same. “I don't know, T. This is way beyond me.” He ran a hand over his worn face - in the car seat Alison did the same.

Ever observant, Teal'c noticed this tiny detail, and responded accordingly. “I do not understand why you think you are not keeping her,” he rumbled on, pointing towards Jack. “She is already inside. I can see it in her actions, and in your eyes when you speak of her.” Without another word, he turned to the girl, smiling gently. “Alison O'Neill, I welcome you.”

Jack gave a grunt of appreciation. What Teal'c was saying was that Alison had already wormed her way too deeply into Jack's heart for him to even think of giving her up. Well, damn... when had that happened?

Suddenly Daniel and Carter were standing beside his and Teal'c's booth. “Money, Jack,” Daniel insisted. “If I don't get a coffee soon, I'll...”

Jack quietly laughed, abruptly thrilled with both Alison as well as what Daniel was claiming. “You'll explode without your coffee. We'll have a Daniel Jackson sized mess to contend with, and Alison already gives me enough to deal with.”

Jack slid off his left boot, lifted the insole, and found the four twenty dollar bills and two fifties he'd stashed there, and handed then to Teal'c for safe keeping. “This should be enough for all of us to eat something and to buy some clothes later on, so don't let Daniel spend it all on coffee!”

“I will endeavor to control him, O'Neill,” Teal'c promised.

“Try not to overload on apple pies, either,” Jack warned.

Daniel whipped the money out of Teal'c's hands, promising, “I won't let him - one pie for one coffee!” And they approached the counter to order for them all as Jack replaced his boot.

Carter took Teal'c's place in the booth seat opposite Jack, who was so distracted by the fact that the simple activities of caring for Alison didn't bring about painful recollections of Charlie that he actually didn't make note of her presence for probably the first time since they'd met. Though thoughts of Charlie circled his mind, the pain he expected to circle with them just wasn't there.

And he didn't want it to come, either. He needed to distract himself yet again. “Let's see what Marge thought to put in here for you,” he said to Alison as he searched her diaper bag. He found more shirts that looked big enough to fit a one year old, more pants, as well as several clean diapers and some jars of baby food. She'd even thought to include a baby spoon.

Jack now took the spoon, a jar of strained peas, a jar of creamed chicken, and a bib out of the diaper bag, then lifted Alison into a high chair fronted by a tray. That was when he found Carter watching them both. He gave her a small grin, but focused on fitting the bib around Alison, and feeding her so that she wouldn't start crying again. Alison ate as somberly as she did everything else, putting her crying spree on pause to stare at Jack while dutifully swallowing whatever he put in her mouth.

Carter wasn't so quiet. “Sir,” she timidly began.

“Here, do this while I...” And Jack indicated his right boot, then held out the spoon covered in strained peas.

“Sure.” Carter took the spoon and the baby food jar from Jack. After an experimental sniff, she remarked to Alison, “If you don't spit this stuff back up, I'll do it for you.”

Alison looked as if she was seriously thinking that option over as she took the next bite of food. Jack untied his boot.

Carter didn't let him get much further than that before softly admitting, “Sir, I didn't exactly tell you everything before.”

Jack paused long enough to send her a quizzical glance. “Before?” He wondered what she was talking about, but went back to his boot instead of asking her.

Carter nodded and fed Alison another spoonful of peas. Alison gazed at it very skeptically before eating it, as if she expected it to bite her. Carter was so focused on Alison eating that she didn't even glance at her companion while he shucked his boot. “That time I told you about the divorce,” she dutifully went on, still looking away. “I...” She swallowed at the same time Alison did, then blurted, “I was glad... about the cheating thing.”

That made Jack pause. “Glad?”

Carter blushed a fiery red. “It um... gave me an.... excuse... for the divorce.”

Jack froze at what he was hearing her say, that she'd wanted that divorce, that... Several silent moments ticked by. The only sounds were the murmuring of Daniel and Teal'c while they argued about coffee.

Finally, his heart in his throat, Jack quietly spoke, “Oh?” Then his face raged red. She'd confessed something very personal, and all he could say was 'Oh?' Geez, O'Neill!

Carter did give a smile this time - a sick smile, gone in a blink. “Yeah,” she said, and fed Alison more peas.

Alison let this mouthful of green goo slowly drool out of her mouth, but neither of the adults even noticed - they were too wrapped up in their spoken conversation.

Jack had completely forgotten about his boot now - he stared at her, one boot on and one boot off. “Why..?” Jack had to clear his throat - why did this subject make him suddenly so nervous? Perhaps because it reawakened the Carter-hope that he thought had died in him, letting him again feel on the edge of starting something new.

In a nanosecond he knew that he didn't like this feeling - always being on edge, always being one foot shy of getting something worth having, something he had wanted so badly for so long, but inevitably missing it at the last moment. He was tired of that inevitable miss.

At the same time, he couldn't help desperately wanting that on-edge feeling, either.

Wanting such two diametrically opposed emotions like this was causing him an extreme case of confusion. He knew his sense of bewilderment was traveling the invisible line connecting him to Alison, and he didn't want to send her disturbing thoughts, but couldn't help it. It was a quandary, and now that he considered it, it was amazing that he'd been together enough to make his 'Oh?' comment sound so genuine.

“Why were you looking for an excuse?” Jack asked of Carter, finally getting the entire thought out. He never once took his eye off his boot lying innocently on the floor.

Alison smeared peas down her bib and onto the tray of the high chair she was sitting in. She then made a point to happily smash the green globs into sludge. Still, the adults didn't notice.

Carter finally sighed a great gush of resigned air. “Because I was being an ass.”

Jack's brows rose in utter astonishment at her latest confession.

Carter paused in her feeding duties long enough to grin at him. “At least that got your attention.”

Jack responded without thinking. “I'm the ass, Carter, not you! If anything, you're often the reason I'm an ass, but that's my problem, not yours.” He didn't give her time to protest his remark before making another observation. “If you wanted to get a divorce, you didn't need a reason.”

“Of course I needed a reason,” she shot back, then visibly collected her wits so that she wasn't speaking so harshly to him. “I felt guilty,” she slowly told him. “I should have stopped things... sooner. A reason for a divorce at least made me feel better.”

Alison took the moment when no eyes were on her to burp another mouthful of strained peas into her hand, which she smoothed across her brown hair.

“Carter,” Jack hesitantly said in a soft voice. “Maybe this isn't the right time to...”

Carter rounded on him, suddenly angry. “It's never the right time, is it, Sir? It's never going to be the right time, either!” With that, she slammed the jar of strained peas onto the food covered tray. “What are you so afraid of? Me? You? This working, not working? Trying? Failing?” She jumped up to add her silent challenge, her filthy hands swinging by her sides.

Jack stared up at her, his mouth again open in his 'oh' of surprise. He was so stunned, in fact, that all he could say was, “Uh...”

“I don't know about you, but I'd rather do something and fail at it than not try at all!” She turned to stomp away.

That's when both adults finally noticed the 'A' that Alison had carved with her finger into the green goo covering her tray.

They stared at it, agog. “'A' for Alison?” Carter guessed in a distracted whisper.

“'A' for Ancient?” Jack whispered as well.

But Carter had made up her mind. “'A' for asshole,” she definitively mumbled and began to move away.

Jack's hand shot out to stop her. “Hey, that's not what I meant!”

Carter rounded on him, seemingly glad that he hadn't just let her leave, even if it meant continuing their angry conversation. “Then what did you mean?”

Jack glared. If he remained quiet, she would walk away, and this time he suspected that there would be no future chances. He'd thought he lost her when she got married, and had even grieved for her... sort of. But now wasn't the time to let those same fears lead his behavior.

At the same time, giving voice to those thoughts might bring about the ending of that precious something they had always shared. He'd thought that loss had already occurred when she got married; Jack knew that without a doubt, he didn't want to go through that loss a second time.

What should he do? Talk, or not talk? This was exactly where he always found himself with Carter, especially the last few years, too scared to back off, yet scared to speak his mind.

Undecided, and unable to make that crucial decision, Jack opted for a safer topic. “Just why are you here?”

She stared at him, her features screwed up. “I could say I wish I wasn't.”

“But you are,” was his quick rejoinder. “Carter, are you nuts? You're risking your job, your career, all to save some kid from some nasty stuff that might not happen to...”

“Oh, now you admit that it might not happen?” Her voice was harsh, angry, biting.

“You were quick to sign yourself on to this - I didn't ask. In fact I specifically remember not asking you.”

“Why?” came the hot demand. “Because you don't need me?”

Jack's face screwed up in an involuntary spurt of honesty. “Of course I need you, Carter! I've always needed you.” Abruptly realizing what he'd just confessed, he quickly attempted to fix his sudden outburst. “I don't know what I would do without any of you. I said that because I don't want to ruin things for you - you know I could never live with myself if...”

“Ruin things?!” she incredulously repeated, her voice low, but penetrating the silence of the empty McDonald's. “I manage to ruin things just fine all by myself. Maybe I need you to stop me from ruining things!”

Now Jack was aghast. “I don't want to interfere! You would resent me if I did!”

Carter impatiently regarded him. “Do I resent Daniel when he interferes? That's what friends do. Are you saying that since you won't interfere, we're not even friends anymore?”

Even more aghast, Jack hollered, “I would never say that!”

Her features hardened in spite of what he'd declared. “Wouldn't you? Was that what you were thinking when you sent me to the ends of the Earth in Nevada?” Her glare turned from red hot to icy. “When you got rid of me?”

“Got rid of you? I didn't get rid of you!”

Exasperated, Carter stood her ground for the first time he could remember and stared him down. “Ok, you transferred me!”

“Transferred you?” The scornful question let them both know that he was considering playing his 'pretend' card. But he couldn't quite convince himself that pretending was the best course of action here. So Jack made a mental scramble to gather himself together and sound intelligent. Instead of sounding intelligent, he blurted, “How did you find out about that?”

Carter glared her dagger glare and hissed, “Because I'm not stupid!”

That comment made Jack jerk to his feet. “I know you're not stupid!”

“Then why won't you trust me to make my own decisions?”

Jack threw the pea covered rag in his hand to the table in disgust. “I didn't transfer you because of you. I did it because of me!” The way he said that made it sound that anyone who didn't automatically realize this was an idiot.

“Then I'm an idiot,” Carter asserted. “You're an idiot for doing it.”

The grin that suddenly burst onto Jack's face took them both by surprise. “But it worked, didn't it?”

Carter gaped. “You mean you did that on purpose?"

Jack let his sudden guilt show on his face. Wincing, he reluctantly told her, “Not exactly."

Carter stared at him in dubious silence, losing her initial anger to her sense of doubt. “'Not exactly?'” she echoed.

Jack ducked his head down to stare at his boot still on the floor. “I... sort of... decided to give him... a taste of military life.”

“'Military life?'” It was as if all she could do at this point was repeat his confessions back to him, her voice as skeptical as she was. “And you did this because..?” Her voice was leading him now, an unusual stance for Carter to take with her old CO.

Jack was immediately glad that she was able to take the lead with him, if only in a conversation. It showed that she didn't believe that he was her superior in any way but militarily. If she wasn't able to move beyond her perception of herself as his subordinate, then any personal relationship they might embark on would automatically become that much less likely to be successful (if a relationship of a personal nature ever happened between them - which was highly unlikely, especially at this point).

But she was clearly able to already think beyond their respective ranks, and that relaxed him more than he thought it would. It at least illustrated that they weren't a lost cause right at the outset.

But that did nothing to eradicate her present skepticism of him or his past actions, as much as he wanted it to. It appeared that only a complete confession of his former decisions concerning her after her wedding would do that. “I...” But a lump had lodged itself in Jack's throat, making it impossible to go on without a monumental effort.

Instinctively making that huge effort, Jack swallowed and tried to go on. “I... thought...” A second lump joined the first. Aggravated at himself now for being so frightened that he couldn't even talk, Jack swallowed again, still hoping to make some kind of divulgence... or even to say anything. He figured that if he didn't say something to her specifically about his innermost feelings for her, this was it - there wouldn't be another chance.

But the fear again stuck in his throat, no matter what he thought was good for him in the long run. Confession might be good for the soul, but it was mighty difficult, too.

At first, Carter was patient with his lack of speaking abilities, knowing how he was (or wasn't) with words. But now she was beginning to fidget, like she was on the verge of not caring what he had to say. If he couldn't speak, and speak now, listening to his silence was pointless. He would never put voice to his thoughts, air his feelings for her, spill his guts. He may have softer emotions where she was concerned, but if he couldn't or wouldn't tell her, she might as well be stuck in the desert, still married to You Know Who.

Jack knew this. Carter knew this. Even Alison knew this. She sent him an image of Jack and Carter holding hands as encouragement.

Jack didn't feel encouraged. What he felt was terrified. But it was now or never, and never was getting closer by the minute.

So Jack screwed up his courage and gave it another try. “I... thought... things were just that way. Either... he could take it... or not.”

Jack immediately gave an inner groan: that was hardly a confession of regard, to say nothing of airing any personal emotions he had for her.

Alison clearly thought it would be helpful to send her Jack-and-Carter-holding-hands image a second time.

The help of a one-year-old was not much help.

But it gave Jack a third spurt of courage to try once more. “I didn't want you around...”

Oops! Wrong thing to say. Carter instantly went rigid.

Jack didn't stop, though, plowing on. “... so that I had to see you... as a Mrs... to somebody else. I couldn't... stand that. So I agreed to... Nevada.” He glanced up into her eyes, beseeching. “It was easy...” Nope! Wrong thing again. “It was a lot easier than watching... knowing I could never... we'd never...” Jack's voice lost any umph it had had up till then, trailing away to nothing, in spite of him having more to say. He immediately latched onto her gaze, letting his own eyes say what he couldn't.

But he had tried. For her. He had put it all on the line, and even though he'd technically failed, he had tried.

Trying went a long way with her.

“You transferred me so you wouldn't have to watch me... and him?” Carter's gaze pierced his own. “So basically, I have you to thank for my divorce?”

Ah... that wasn't quite what he'd meant.

But he couldn't tell her that. He couldn't say or do anything but look at her with his heart in his eyes, hoping she'd understand.

That was when Alison did something she hadn't done before - while making all that goop on her tray glow a green haze, she sent her image of Jack and Carter holding hands to both of them simultaneously.

The third repetition of this image was so strong that Jack gave a start. “Wow.”

Carter actually gave a jump, nothing less than amazed, staring at Alison in astonishment. “How did I..? But I don't have the Ancient gene,” she protested in a whisper.

If she expected Alison to answer her like a mature adult, she was disappointed. The girl solemnly sucked the strained peas off her fingers.

“Well, that's still a first,” Carter decreed, staring at Alison, then staring at her dad, blinking furiously. She had obviously just realized what that image of her and Jack truly meant - Jack's feelings for her were very much alive, according to Alison, and Jack wasn't refuting what she'd sent, either. There was no misinterpreting that mental picture: she had gotten concrete confirmation of his feelings for the first time... ever.

Jack realized it at the same time she did - he could tell that she understood the hidden meaning behind Alison's version of an IM just by the look of wonder in her eyes. Sensing that this was the do or die moment, he quickly filled his own eyes with its companion emotion, letting her know without any doubt about his feelings for her.

The silence stretched as they stared at each other, their hearts pounding in tandem. For the first time, they had eyes only for the other, their stares openly admitting it.

The cashier clearly didn't understand what was going on, but Daniel understood enough to casually break the silence, “Well, this is entertaining.”

“Better than 'Star Wars,'” Teal'c dryly stated.

Beside him, the suddenly apparent Woolsey added, “It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'Silence is golden.'”

Daniel burst into a grin. “'Silence is green' is more descriptive.”

Alison swiped a hand through the glowing green goo on her tray, grinning too, though she obviously didn't know what she was grinning at. Squealing her enjoyment anyway, her gaze darted from her father to his chosen one and back.

The next idea she sent was clear to all those in the restaurant: this is good.

Chapter 14

New Deal

But no matter what Alison thought or didn't think, the unexplained presence of Woolsey in a Denver restaurant in the middle of the night turned up the degree of danger quite a bit. Doing his best to ignore the mortification he felt at actually forgetting where he was during his talk with Carter (and more importantly, who was witnessing it), Jack quickly moved in front of Alison, indicating that if Woolsey wanted her, he'd have to go through him first. He was pleased to note that Carter did the same, immediately closing ranks with him even if he didn't tell her to. He had always liked her high sense of initiative, whether personal or professional.

Now, it meant that he and she were in a public face off with Woolsey. “You can't have her!” Jack barked, ready to fight if he had to.

“I don't want her,” was what Woolsey surprisingly stated back.

Which instantly puzzled Jack. “Huh?”

Carter piped up before Woolsey could say anything. “How did you find us so quickly, anyway?”

Woolsey motioned towards Suit Lady standing near the door. “When we realized you were missing, Leanne thought to check the location of your cell phones.” He sarcastically advised, “In future when you decide to make a run for it, turn off the GPS in your phones before you leave.”

Ah. “Good point.” Her name is Leanne? She looks more like a 'Suit Lady' than a 'Leanne.'

But Jack was so busily eyeing Suit Lady that he almost missed her name. He was debating with himself whether or not she was standing near the door as a guard to keep them from running again, and pondering if he could he take her out without permanently harming her.

But before he could decide, Woolsey was speaking again, “General...”

“Jack,” Daniel interrupted. “He'll be a lot friendlier if you'll just call him 'Jack.'”

“Jack,” Woolsey said, looking ill at ease, as if not using the official Air Force title made him supremely uncomfortable, but grateful of Daniel's helpful advice nonetheless. “I have a deal for you.”

Jack couldn't help being intrigued, but he didn't want to be too ready to trust this guy or his deals, either. In a cold voice, he asked, “What do you want, Woolsey? And no, you can't have her, in case that's part of your deal, so don't even ask!”

Aggravation arrowed across Woolsey's eyes, but he visibly tamped down on the anger that peppered his tone. “I already told you I don't want her.”

Yet Jack mentally added even as Daniel leaned towards Woolsey and whispered, “Jack doesn't do the listening thing very well - I'd hurry it up if I were you.”

The next emotion to flash through Woolsey's eyes showed more irritation than gratitude at Daniel's second interruption, but he masked the feeling. “Thank you, Dr. Jackson - I'll keep that in mind.”

“Daniel's right,” Carter surprisingly said, coming to Jack's defense before he even asked for it. “Say what you have to say, then get out while you can.”

Woolsey's face darkened. “I don't take well to threats.”

Carter gave him her most innocent expression. “It wasn't a threat - it was a promise.”

They saw in Woolsey's expression that he knew that this team was playing him. He knew that it made no difference if they were no longer a team, but four individuals doing separate things. They were still a team as far as they were concerned, a collection of friends that went beyond the military organization they were connected to. If he needed to contend with one of them, he had to understand that he was really dealing with them all.

With that clearly in mind, Woolsey quickly continued, “I spoke with the President and the JCS earlier.”

Jack played the befuddled card. “'Earlier' as in before we left you sitting on your ass, or 'earlier' as in...”

Earlier!” grated Woolsey. “After you left, not that it's important.”

“Of course it is important,” Teal'c retaliated. “For what O'Neill calls 'the paper trail.'”

The deal is this,” Woolsey said in irritation, ignoring Teal'c to speak directly to Jack. “Since you don't want to let us run further tests on Alison now, instead insisting on her having as normal a life as possible - meaning test free - I propose that we abstain from testing her abilities until her eighteenth year. She will then be a legal adult, and as such will have the right to enter into the military if she chooses, where she will be ordered to comply with tests whether she wants to or not; to choose further testing as a civilian; or to choose to forgo these tests, where the IOA will no longer maintain a degree of safety for her. She'll be on her own.” Woolsey warily eyed Jack. “Are we agreed?”

Jack eyed Woolsey back just as warily and retorted, “Oh, like I'm going to just trust what you say!”

“Trust me or don't,” Woolsey angrily remarked, “but the truth is that you won't get such a deal again, and the JCS isn't likely to deal with you so softly next time. I suggest you take it.”

But Jack still wasn't convinced. “You say that I have your word that the JCS will behave, but the President's term is up in just a few years. A new JCS often starts at the same time, either individually or completely. How do I know a new JCS won't just order me to hand Alison over and be done with it?”

“You don't.” Woolsey screwed his mouth up like he was sucking on a sour lemon drop. “You'll just have to trust them as you've trusted them your entire career. There was never any guarantee that they wouldn't someday do something you didn't agree with, yet here you are, career military for several decades, and they have yet to completely screw everything up.”

“I'm just biding my time,” Jack told him, though his heart wasn't in his sarcastic reply.

Carter seemed to hear what he wasn't saying. “It is better than other things they could do,” she quietly reminded him.

Daniel agreed. “Yeah Jack, instead of the eighteen thing, they could just order you to turn Alison over to Woolsey right now. That's kind of what I expected them to do,” he admitted, then persuasively added, “Take this deal while it's on the table - before it isn't.”

Woolsey glared at Daniel for interrupting yet again, but Daniel was nonplussed.

Silence reigned as Jack thought over his options. Still puzzled, he waved his hand and asked, “Who thought of this - Hayes?”

Woolsey bristled, his pride pricked. “I did, actually. It's a good compromise between what you want, and what I want.”

Jack gave an appreciative head bob. “You're right, it is good as compromises go.”

“I didn't even help him,” Daniel said, sounding surprised.

Woolsey then faced Daniel beside him. “You don't need to sound so surprised, Dr. Jackson. I know the need to compromise when I see it - I am a politician, after all.”

That wasn't a particularly high recommendation, but Daniel only gave an apologetic shrug. “Never said you weren't.”

Jack eyed each of his friends, gauging how what they thought about this proposed deal; Daniel naturally seemed eager for him to take it, though his demeanor might just mean that he simply wanted either his bed, or coffee; Teal'c seemed wary, the warrior reluctant to trust the things that seemed too good to be true; Carter showed the blank military expression that Jack was so familiar with. It bothered him that he couldn't automatically read her, but that didn't necessarily say anything about her eyes.

Her blue eyes swam with indecision. It strangely pleased him that she cared enough about Alison's future not to implicitly trust Woolsey. It was her nature to be more trusting than that, especially of someone official in nature. It spoke volumes about how much she didn't like Woolsey that she didn't immediately trust him or his deals.

Jack let her wariness lead him now. “How do I know you or the IOA won't suddenly change their minds? Changing people's minds, no matter how you do it, is what you do all day long.” Without actually saying anything specific, he had successfully alluded to the many times that the IOA and Woolsey in particular had swooped into the SGC to investigate the many crimes of the command, both real and perceived. It wasn't a secret that there was no love lost between the SGC and the IOA.

Woolsey looked like it truly pained him to say, “Both you and the child's mother have always been clear on your wishes, therefore, you have our word that we won't change our minds on on this - to do anything else would be irresponsible.” Woolsey then puffed himself up. “You have our word that we won't touch Alison until her eighteenth year.”

Woolsey looked like a peacock - far too sure of himself. “I want it in writing,” Jack instantly demanded.

The demand twisted Woolsey's mouth again, but the request didn't appear to surprise him, either. “Leanne.”

Suit Lady pulled a document from a folder she carried and handed it to Jack, who took its edges as if touching her, even accidentally, would give him cooties. He quickly read through the official document, its legalese tripping him up more than once, but he got the gist of what it was saying, which was what Woolsey had already said. It was signed by both Woolsey and a Leanne DuPres - he could only assume that she was Suit Lady. “How do I know that you speak for the entire IOA?”

“It's a part of our charter that any two members past or present may sign a decree that's binding to the IOA - it takes ten more signatures to overturn that decree.” He then gave Jack The Eye. “It's just luck that there happened to be two of us present tonight to sign it in the first place.”

“Yes,” Jack sarcastically said, “I'm feeling so very lucky.”

Woolsey sighed his aggravation, unable to completely suppress the emotion this time, and grumbled, “Do we have a deal?”

Jack let his gaze slide to each member of his team before saying anything.

Daniel of course was all for this deal, and it showed in the expression on his face. Daniel always had been the simplest of the four to read - whatever he was thinking was displayed right there for anybody to see.

Teal'c was harder to read, but anybody could see what he thought about anything if they just knew how to read him. Fortunately, Jack was one of those few. Teal'c didn't trust Woolsey, and never would, but at the same time knew this was a better deal than he'd anticipated from a group as anti-military as the IOA. His expression was neutral, but his eyes told of his wariness as well as his agreement. So, Teal'c's vote was a cautious 'yes.'

Carter on the other hand... Jack was momentarily taken aback. He wasn't able to gauge her intentions one way or the other, even by peering straight into her eyes. Not immediately knowing what she thought... it was an unsettling feeling - when had Carter become so good at hiding her true feelings?

Just as quickly, Jack had his answer: she'd been hiding her true feelings from everyone, not just him, for at least a year and a half, if not longer. How long had she been dating and engaged to that guy before she married him? If wanting a divorce so badly that she was glad that her husband had cheated on her was any indication, Carter had wanted out of that relationship long before her wedding. Why she had chosen to marry him in the first place was something that Jack wanted to ask her, but now was not the time. Of course, what she had said about it never being the right time with them had merit. So maybe he shouldn't wait to ask, but do so ASAP.

At any rate, ASAP still wasn't here. Even if it was, and he asked whatever he wanted of her, it still wouldn't help him make any decisions regarding Alison. Which was too bad - he wanted Carter's opinion - very much.

Suddenly a revolutionary thought occurred to him: don't try to read her mind only to get it wrong. Ask her instead.

So he did.

“Carter, what do you think?”

The simple question made Carter give another jump. He'd always been able to predict her thoughts while in the field, so he hadn't had to ask much of anything before now.

However, they weren't in the field. He was no longer her CO - she had no obligation to him one way or another. It was another step, no matter how small, in moving their relationship beyond what they had always known, what was expected, anticipated, familiar. Jack felt like he was breaking new and revolutionary ground with his request. At the same time, it felt really good to ask her what she thought. This was right, and he was right to do it.

Carter seemed completely taken aback by Jack's simple question, and didn't immediately respond because of her surprise. “Um...” She noisily cleared her throat, then nervously inquired, “Shouldn't you be asking the same of Daniel and Teal'c before you make any decisions?”

Jack waved away her suggestion. “Daniel - you can tell just by the look on his face - he's all for this deal. And Teal'c...” Jack paused as he considered Teal'c's skeptical brow and taciturn expression. “He's an open book - I can read him like... that!" And he snapped his fingers in a show of how easy it was for him to guess Teal'c's thoughts. Then he faced Carter. “But you...” He sent her a pensive look. “I'm not so sure about what you're thinking I should do.”

“Why does it matter what I think?” she instantly asked. “Alison's your daughter, not mine.”

Jack heaved a heartfelt sigh, and gazed at her, assessing. “It's important because... it's important,” he answered simply, firmly, as if daring anybody to question him.

That was another surprise. Her word had always held sway with him, but this time was not a matter of him wanting to know how to blow something up, how to get away after being captured, how to defeat the enemy. It regarded the future of his daughter. And he had asked her what she thought.

It was a turning point, a revolution, a crossroads.

Jack was so scared of what she might say, of what she might do, of what she might not say or not do that he would have held his breath if he didn't think his face would just go embarrassingly red. As it was, he was pretty sure that Alison too felt his fright as it traveled on the invisible mental superhighway linking them, but couldn't do anything to stop it. She sent him an image of a field of warm red flowers as comfort.

Just as Jack was beginning to feel not comfort, but severe anxiety, Carter again broke the silence, “Um...” She looked at Alison, glanced at him, then gave a hesitant nod in his direction, clearly not used to giving her opinion so vocally. “It's... a good deal.” She gave another nod, more nervous than before, but finally gave a definite opinion. “Daniel's right: you should take it.”

Jack studied her, dubious in spite of his and her fright. “I should trust them?”

She nodded anew, showing her agreement. “But getting it in writing's not such a bad idea, either. And it should be in triplicate. And notarized.”

Exasperated, Woolsey glared. “Would you like me to sign it in blood?”

Carter looked like she thought that wasn't a bad idea.

But Jack just thought it would be messy. “Not necessary... this time.”

Abruptly, Daniel gave a wicked grin. “Sign it in strained pea.”

Teal'c's eyebrow bobbed in agreement. “A most exceptional compromise, DanielJackson.”

While taking the set of official papers devoted to his deal from Jack to sign, Woolsey made a face, giving his opinion on the matter. “Strained peas make me itch, so... over my dead body.”

Jack snorted his own objections to the idea as he took the papers back. “I can arrange that.”

Chapter 15

Daniel's Idea

Half an hour later, Woolsey and Suit Lady were gone, back to the SGC prior to catching a flight from Peterson back to Washington DC. That left the former SG-1 to clean up Alison, change her diaper again, find clean clothes for her to wear, record the address from the frightened cashier so they'd know where to send the Nondisclosure Agreement he was now going to have to sign, and returning the McDonald's to the way they had found it more than an hour ago.

While wrestling Alison into a clean shirt when she wanted to eat more instead, Daniel calmly noted, “You may have Alison's future all set, Jack, but you still haven't said whether you're going to be part of that future - will you be the one raising her or not?” He speared Jack with his gaze. “I for want want to know if I get to be an honorary Uncle.” He grinned. “Should I get my Uncle pin polished up?”

He had an uncle pin? Jack wouldn't put it past him - Daniel never ceased to amaze him.

But Jack's gaze turned immediately to Teal'c as he recalled the words the man had spoken to him regarding Alison what seemed hours ago. “I think you can go ahead and get that Uncle pin of yours polished and ready to go, Daniel.”

The readiness of his reply startled Daniel. “Really?” he asked, suspicious but simultaneously overjoyed. His gaze washed over his alien friend. “Teal'c got to you, didn't he?” he said in an amazing amount of insight. “I wondered how long it was going to take,” and continued to unconcernedly clean Alison's high chair tray.

Jack supposed that he should have been surprised at Daniel's reliance on Teal'c quickly seeing through to the heart of the matter, but he wasn't. For all his talkativeness and semi vague qualities, not much slipped past Daniel's notice. “That still doesn't help me to figure out how to do this, though,” Jack beseechingly added. “How do I raise a kid and still command the SGC?”

“Easy,” Daniel said while wringing water out of his rag in the bucket he'd borrowed from the cashier. The shrug he added let his friends know that he was once again assuming they saw what he saw.

Jack didn't see much of anything but a dirty, cranky girl who wanted the rest of her dinner. “Care to share, Oh Wise One?”

Daniel shrugged again, as if the answer to this dilemma was obvious. “Start up a day-care and put that lady you've been talking about...”

“Marjorie Atterby?” Jack asked, befuddled.

“Yeah, her,” Daniel agreed. “Put her in charge. Then you have someone Alison is familiar with ready to take care of her whenever you have to work.”

What an easy solution! Jack stopped what he was doing, stunned at what he was hearing.

Daniel gave another shrug. “Well, like I just said, Alison's already familiar with her, isn't she? This Marjorie person already knows how much you care about Alison. And you'd be doing a big service to every parent on base if you opened the first SGC day-care. Not a day goes by that I don't hear somebody grumbling about how rotten day-care service is in town.” He buffed the clean tray one last time, his grin shining as much as the tray. “You'd be a hero to every parent on base. Just think how much Dave Dixon will love you.”

Considering all that Daniel had said, Jack again sat, stunned. “Daniel, that's brilliant.”

Daniel smiled. “I have a good idea every now and then, Jack.”

But Jack had now had time to see the flaws in Daniel's plan. “Marge isn't military. There's no way that I can let her have access to the SGC, and how can she watch over our kids when she won't even know what we do in the Mountain?”

“She doesn't need to know,” Daniel argued as he replaced the now clean high chair. “She won't even need access. Instead, convert that old warehouse building outside the main gate that we used to train new recruits in - it's certainly big enough to hold a day-care... and then some.”

That was another good idea on the archaeologist's part. But to say so might give Daniel leave to let this go to his head. Jack couldn't do that. He instead asked, “Should this be a civilian day-care, then? How can we do that for something as unconventional as the SGC?”

Teal'c wanted to add his own criteria. “And is this day-care only for.... Tau'ri children?”

Jack gave a huff of air. “I don't know, Teal'c - it's not your typical Air Force base, is it? People are coming and going at all hours of the day and night. Missions never work out as we expect them to, always take longer than anticipated. Then people get injured all the time and have to stay in the Infirmary. The day-care would have to be full time, wouldn't it? Someone would have to stay in charge at night, and..”

“One thing at a time, Jack,” Daniel chastised. “You're scaring Alison.”

Alison did indeed look rather ill, letting Jack know that his day-care confusion had transferred to the one-year-old. He reigned in his questions, intent on leaving them for another time when Alison wasn't present.

“Just think about it, Jack,” Daniel advised as they began to head back out to the car. “For now, relax and talk to this Marjorie person, do whatever needs doing next.”

Daniel sounded like Hammond. Jack clutched Alison's car seat in one hand, and the Woolsey deal in the other, wondering the entire time when had Daniel gotten so wise?

But Jack wasn't going to divulge his thoughts about a wise Daniel, either. No point in inflating the other man's ego. He was insufferable enough as it was.

Chapter 16

Home

Marge was skeptical about Daniel's suggestion when Jack mentioned it to her the next day, but positive at the same time.

“I'll be in charge?” she asked again, getting the details right. “Didn't you say something about this day-care being open 24 hours a day? Would I stay here, as in live here?”

Jack pensively scrunched his nose. “I hadn't thought of that. We don't have a lot of the details ironed out yet. Consider it an option, though, for the time being.”

Marge suddenly adopted a sly expression. “Will I get to see more of that Colonel lady?” The way she said it, she knew that there was something going on between Jack and Carter.

The question took Jack off guard. “Uh... I don't...”

Abruptly Marge took on a confused air. “You know, I don't understand about her.”

Jack thought Carter was pretty straight forward. “What don't you understand?”

Marge shifted. “I don't understand where she's stationed in Nevada. Or how.”

She'd automatically used the right word, an unusual thing for a civilian to do, at least in Jack's experience. Again he wondered if she was more familiar with the military than he first thought. “She's at the Air Force base there. What's it called?” He could remember the name of practically every Air Force base in the world except this one. “Nellie something?”

“Nellis,” Marge filled in for him.

“That's right!” Jack gave a sheepish grin. “You should be in the military and not me.”

Marge smiled, but her puzzlement increased. “Actually, it's my brother who's in the military. He's at Nellis right now. When I told him about how I met someone who's stationed in Nevada, he got all excited, so I told him Colonel Carter's name and that she's at R&D.”

R&D. Jack began to get a cold feeling inside his stomach. It froze when she continued.

“Later he told me that he'd asked around, and couldn't come up with anyone by that name stationed at Nellis.” The look she next sent him was nothing less than conniving. “So... I know a cover-up when I see one. You want to tell me what's really going on?”

Before Alison came into his life, Jack would have done a little more prevaricating, finally telling Marge that the subject was classified. Now, however, he'd found a new appreciation for honesty. The fact that he couldn't hide anything from a girl who basically read his emotions had a lot to do with that - it was an easy matter for him to cover his thoughts, and always had been, but emotions... he wasn't prepared for that. Hiding emotions was on a whole new level of black operations. Now, he simply said, “No.”

The blunt answer clearly surprised Marge. “No? As in, she's into something that you don't want to or can't talk about? Or no, you don't want to tell me specifically what's going on?”

Jack was starting to feel guilty for his short answer, but repeated it nonetheless. “No.”

“You can't tell me?”

This time, he varied his response for a bit of variety. “Yes.”

Marge's exasperation hit him full force. “I don't believe you're not going to tell me. Scared?”

“Of being shot as a traitor if I tell you? Yes.”

Marge's eyes went round. “You're into something that secret?”

Jack fidgeted, first standing on one foot, then the other. “Yes. So please don't ask me.”

“And what about Colonel Carter?”

Jack's fidgets had doubled. “She's good at what she does. And she's honest. And a genius. I trust her with my life. In fact, I'd trust her with Alison's.” Marge's eyes went wide in comprehension of how deep his opinion of the Colonel went.

Then the wide eyes narrowed a fraction. “What's going on with you and Carter, anyway?”

It was Jack's turn to get wide eyes. She certainly wasn't afraid to rock the boat. “Thaaaaat's... complicated.”

'Exasperated' didn't begin to describe the way Marge now regarded him. “I suspect that's because you make it complicated.”

Wow - she sounded like Teal'c! And looking back at his past actions, he had to agree. “I do. So does she. So does the Air Force.”

“Ah, you must have been on the same team,” Marge guessed.

She had surmised that from his simple comment? She had impressive incite, especially for a civilian! “We were.”

“Ah,” Marge repeated, this time with arched brows and a wicked smile to match. “But now you're stationed here... and she's not.”

Jack paused. That was... “True.”

Marge's eyebrows reached for her hair again. “So, what are you waiting for?”

What indeed?

* * *

Two hours later, Jack was still thinking about what Marge had said to him, but hadn't come close to deciding how to answer her query. He'd thought that he and Carter had made a breakthrough in their complicated relations with each other the night before, but things had of course quickly reverted to status quo again. He admitted that he was still scared, but at the same time, he was tired of being so scared. Besides, it was bad form for Generals to be scared of something like this. He could be scared of replicators, of Goa'ulds, of System Lords, of the Commissary's food options on Tuesdays, but to be afraid of a fellow officer from his former team, and a good friend to boot... laughable on the best of days.

This wasn't the best of days.

It got decidedly better when a knock on his door was followed by Carter herself poking her head through. “Am I interrupting anything?”

Jack couldn't help but grin up at her when he waved her in. “Paperwork, but I'm glad for the interruption. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Carter didn't even flinch at his use of her rank, but if he knew her, she was wishing that he would just drop the rank and call her Carter. Or better yet, Sam. “It's time for me to return to Nevada.”

Jack couldn't stop his disappointment from showing. “Already?”

Carter flinched at Jack's obviously strong feelings on this subject, but stuck to her decision. “I've done everything I can here. If I want to backward engineer this device with Dr. Lee, I need my doohickeys still in Nevada.”

Despite the conversation, Jack's face split into another grin. “Do you know what you just said?”

Carter mentally reviewed her last statement. “What?” she asked, clearly at a loss.

Jack's smile didn't abate. “You used the word 'doohickeys.'”

“I did?”

Didn't she know it? 'Doohickeys' was vague, and slightly... dumb. Therefore, it was definitely one of his favorite words. “Yep. Nice to know that I had some influence on you.”

Carter regarded him as if she thought he was crazy. “You've influenced me with more than just 'doohickeys.'”

That piqued Jack's interest. Deciding to risk hearing what she might possibly tell him, he flirtatiously said, “Do tell, Colonel.”

Instead of telling him anything of interest, however, she opted to ignore the opening he'd provided and discuss a safer topic. “Is Alison all taken care of for the day?” Clearly his flirtation had thrown her into uncomfortable territory, and she had retreated, just as she always did.

Jack tried not to let his disappointment show this time. He forced himself to concentrate on her chosen topic instead. “Um... Marjorie's still watching her. Why?”

“Marjorie?” Carter screwed up her forehead, puzzled. “I thought you were going to keep her.”

Jack hesitated, seeing the sudden gleam of extreme interest in her eyes. “I probably am, but until I really decide, I thought a more... stable environment... would be better for her.”

“How...” She was struggling for just the right word. “... mature of you.”

'Mature.' That wasn't quite what he was aiming for.

But... he would take what he could get. At least she hadn't immediately figured that he wanted to just pass the buck with Alison. There was that. “Does it matter to you?”

Carter shrugged, clearly aiming for nonchalant and missing by several hundred miles. “Alison obviously cares - she did send that mental image to me.”

Jack was confused by her answer. “She sent it to both of us, didn't she?” His gaze suddenly turned shrewd as a deeper understanding blossomed. “Are you... perhaps... saying that you want to stay if she does?”

Carter's shrug was so purposefully blasé, Jack would have sworn it was scripted if he didn't know better. “Well...” She sounded unsure now, as if she was abruptly second guessing her interpretation of Alison's message and Jack's feelings in that message. “I thought...” Her voice trailed out.

Before she could stiffen with the resolve that she'd somehow translated everything wrong, Jack took the biggest chance he'd ever taken with her. “Are you saying that you want to stay too if I do decide to keep her?”

Carter took on the deer in the headlights expression, but also looked oddly determined to risk as much as he was. She blinked furiously and rode out her fear to squeak a reply, “Um... I kinda thought... if you don't mind, Sir.”

Jack was instantly elated in spite of the 'Sir.' Yet on second thought, he didn't know if she meant to stay the weekend with him, or the rest of her life.

Did it really matter?

The idea of 'she's staying!' was too powerful for him to care too much about how long that stay turned out to be. “Of course I don't mind, Carter!” Thoughts of Carter holding Alison filled his mind - and that's when he grew confused. “But... When we were in the Commissary the other day, you told me that you didn't want kids.”

Her trepidation increased as she clearly recalled what she had told her husband, and later, Jack. But she doggedly answered, “I... changed my mind.”

Suddenly Jack understood: she actually didn't mind the thought of having kids (or acquiring them, in this case) - she just hadn't wanted them with him.

Jack eyed her with a sudden spurt of hope. “You... changed your mind?”

Carter suddenly leaned on the desk in a very familiar way, obviously tired of being scared, too. “Maybe it's time that I showed you how much it's changed.”

Jack reared back. Was Carter coming onto him? Suddenly he recalled sharing a particular event in particular locker room a particular number of years ago with a captain of his acquaintance. He wouldn't mind reliving that event.

And of all the most excellent surprises - it looked like Carter wouldn't mind, either.

Another spurt of hope surged in Jack. But as brazen as her previous question had been, and as brash as the memory was that he wanted to re-create, he didn't know what to say to her. “Uh...” Oh, that was smooth, O'Neill!

And just like that, Carter retreated. “If Ms. Atterby decides not to watch Alison, what do you plan to do with her?”

What? Were they back to that topic? Rollercoasters had nothing on Sam Carter!

Jack sent her another gauging expression, but informed, “Cassie promised to come home this weekend to get to know her new sister. Hopefully she'll...”

“Cassie's coming here?”

“Yeah... is that a problem?”

Carter took a deep breath, then gave a decidedly mischievous look. Once again she turned the tables and bluntly inquired, “Can I come, too?”

So that was why she'd retreated - to gather her courage so that she could ask this.

An eye for an eye. It terrified him, but Jack forcefully recalled his recent bid for more honesty. The best place in the world to start being honest was with Carter.

His smile was slow, gentle, but completely genuine. “You bet!”

The End


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