Jack scowled at the ringing phone. He was on leave. SG1 had finally gotten some downtime and the phone was not supposed to be ringing. The only people who called him were his teammates and he had just seen them out of his house. That only left the base, which was unfair on so many levels.
The phone rang again, and he contemplated not answering. Unfortunately, a niggling little voice in his head wouldn’t let him turn his back on what could be the end of the world. Stupid conscience.
“O’Neill,” he said just sharply enough to let whoever was calling that he was not happy.
“Jonathon O’Neill?” a cautious female voice queried.
“Is this a solicitation?” Jack asked suspiciously at the use of his first name.
“No!” said the woman quickly. “Sorry. I’m Elena Acosta with the Sunnydale County Clerk’s Office.”
“Sunnydale?” Where had he heard that name before?
“Yes,” the woman sighed heavily, tiredly. And then it clicked – the earthquake. Sinkholes underground had leveled a town in California last spring, about six months ago.
“What can I do for you?” asked Jack, softly now. The poor woman didn’t need anymore crap after her hometown had sunk into the Earth.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this,” said Elena. “Jessica Harris died not long after the earthquake. You’re in her Will.”
“Wait,” Jack interrupted, his mind running over the unfamiliar name in his head. Who was Jessica Harris? He didn’t know any Jessicas, did he?
“I’m sorry. I’m so bad at this,” Elena apologized, which made Jack wonder how many people before him she had called to tell that their loved ones were dead and that there was a will with their name in it. He felt both guilty and puzzled that he didn’t know this Jessica Harris, and he was about to tell Elena that when it clicked.
The beach house, LA. A two week leave before he headed out on maneuvers in South America. He’d met Sarah after he got back home, but lanky, dark Jessica was before all that. He’d known her barely two weeks. Why was he in her last Will?
“What?” asked Elena, and Jack realized he had mumbled that last aloud.
“Nothing, sorry, go on,” he said.
“In order to claim your inheritance, you need to come to our offices in Los Angeles with two government proofs of identity,” Elena explained. “Mrs. Harris managed to leave Sunnydale before the earthquake with her husband. I’m afraid I can’t disclose more than that until I have proof you are Jonathan O’Neill.”
“How did she die?” asked Jack.
“There was a riot in the neighborhood they were staying in. Neither she nor her husband made it.” Again, Elena sounded apologetic and tired.
Jack was silent for a moment, taking it all in. He wasn’t quite sure what it all meant, or how to cope with suddenly hearing about Jessica again, especially at her death. Guess he was going on vacation after all. “I’ll be there Friday.”
Elena gave him the address and a complete list of all the documentation he would need to satisfy the government that yes, he had been born. Just when he thought he had everything, Elena added a startled, “oh!” as if she had forgotten something. “Do you know where your son is, Mr. O’Neill?”
Jack suddenly sat up straight. “You mean Jessica’s son?” Sure she had made a mistake. She had had a son? Well, it only stood to reason since she had had a husband, he mentally berated himself.
“Yes,” he heard Elena smile. “Mrs. Harris’s and yours.”
“What?” That couldn’t be possible. How could he have a son and not know about him? She must have read it wrong. “We don’t have a son.”
“Oh,” Elena was clearly surprised. “You didn’t know?” she ventured, her tone telling him not to be mad at her about it.
Jack sighed. “No,” he said. He paused, thinking about this new possibility. “Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Elena. “I’m looking at the birth certificate now. Well, once you get here, I’ll give you his information so you can look him up if you want. I doubt we would find him any faster.”
“Yeah.” Jack felt stunned, shocked, whammied. How could he have a son and not know about him? Because Special Ops didn’t leave a forwarding address. And it had never crossed his youthful brain that a couple of nights on leave would leave him with a son he didn’t know. “Thanks,” he said absently. He barely registered Elena say good-bye and hang up.
He had a son. Maybe alive, somewhere. Out in the world. He looked at his hands counting the years. He would be twenty-two or twenty-three by now, a couple years older than Charlie. Grown up. He probably had a job somewhere, maybe a girlfriend. Jack wondered what he was like.
The next day Jack called Daniel and trusted that word would get to Teal’c and Sam when they returned from their respective worlds of Chulak and the lab. The day after that, he was in the temporary clerk’s office in LA waiting in line with hundreds of other people. The place was small for the masses and it smelled of smoke and too many bodies. Four hours later he had a shoebox of memorabilia from that long ago leave, a small check for a couple thousand dollars, and a name: Alexander Lavell Harris.
When he got back to Colorado he gave Carter what he knew and let her work her magic while life settled back into its normal routine of missions and near death experiences. In her spare time, what little of it there was, Carter searched every file she could get her hands on, but with hard records destroyed and internet ones secure and often out of date, it was very slow going.
Jack spent the time he wasn’t yelling at Daniel wondering what Alexander, or Alex as he’d nicknamed him in his head, was like.
Six months later, Carter found an address.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Daniel asked for the thousandth time as he watched Jack pack for his trip to Cleveland.
And for the thousandth time, Jack shook his head. “I’m sure,” he said with finality, hoping Danny would get the point this time. But he didn’t.
“Jack, it’s no problem. And you might want to have a friend around for this.” Daniel’s eyes caught his and held them. “It’s not going to be easy.”
“I know, Daniel,” Jack sighed and scrubbed his face. “But the General needs you here for the . . .” he floundered his hand around searching for the name of their latest diplomatic crises.
“Yibbites. Jack, just be careful, okay?” said Daniel. “Don’t be all . . .” This time Daniel searched for words.
Daniel sighed. “Just remember your going to be telling Alex that his mother and the man he thought was his father are dead. And that you are his biological father from a one night stand with his mom.”
Jack focused on packing. “It wasn’t one night,” he grumbled, not liking what his friend was telling him, but knowing Daniel was right. He couldn’t just waltz in and expect Alex to welcome him with open arms. And that’s what he was afraid of, being rejected and cast away. That’s why Daniel wanted to come and why Jack didn’t want him there. If that happened, he wanted time to mourn. He looked back at Daniel. “I’ll be careful,” he promised.
Daniel nodded and followed him out the door to the car.
Jack was nervous. He stared at the house in front of him wondering just what the hell he was doing there. It was an old house that was tucked away in a nice quiet older neighborhood of Cleveland. But it looked how a nice house should. Was Alex married? Did he have kids? Oh God, did he have kids? Jack didn’t think he could cope with grandkids on top of everything.
No. He didn’t know anything. That’s why he was here, to find out about his son. Six months and he still wasn’t completely used to the idea. Shaking off whatever paralysis had come over him, Jack got out of his rental and made his way up the drive. Noise came from the backyard but it sounded harmless enough that he ignored it for the moment and just went up the steps to the ring the bell, listening as it echoed inside. A dozen sets of footsteps followed with overlapping cries of “I’ll get it,” and suddenly the door was pulled open and Jack found himself faced with three teenage girls.
Surprised, he took a light step back. This was not what he had been expecting. All three had brown hair and were waiting for him to speak, clearly as surprised as he was to see him standing there. “Hi,” Jack kind of waved, off balance. He had double-checked the address twice.
“No pizza?” the girl in the middle asked with a slight lift of her eyebrows that quickly settled into a disappointed frown when Jack shook his head.
“Ah, no. Actually I’m here to see Mr. Harris,” he told them.
“What for?” demanded the one on the right. Jack looked from her to the others and saw that they all had narrowed their eyes at him. Over their shoulders Jack saw two more girls poke their heads around a doorjamb. What was going on here?
“Uh, I’m actually here with news about his parents,” he focused back on the rightside girl. She gave him a quick once over then stepped back, the other girls also moving aside for him to enter.
“XANDER!!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, making Jack startle back at the noise.
“What?” a voice floated down from the second floor. His son’s voice he realized. Alex – wait, the girl had called him Xander. His name was Xander. The girl yelled again before he could process that thought further.
“SOMEONE’S HERE TO SEE YOU!!!”
“Coming!” Xander called down. Jack watched the upper rail of the second floor that showed the upper hallway above him, barely noticing as the girls drifted back to whatever it was girls did here. He didn’t have to wait long. He recognized him from the picture Carter had found as the tall young man slowly descended the stairs. Except he had an eyepatch over his left eye. And his hair was longer. Why did he have an eyepatch over his left eye?
“Hey,” said Xander as he reached the last step. He was wearing blue jeans and a green t-shirt under a workman’s vest. His son was a construction worker, a foreman, he remembered. Jack clasped the offered hand with a smile, suddenly feeling like he’d been given too much air to breathe. “I’m Xander Harris. What can I do for you?”
It was only then that Jack noticed the wary look in his single eye, the way he stepped back slightly after their handshake ended. It was disappointing that he was a stranger to his own son, but Jack knew better than to have hoped otherwise.
“Jack O’Neill,” he introduced himself. “I’ve got news about your parents.”
“My parents, huh?” Xander blinked. “They’re dead, aren’t they?” He was not surprised. It was as if Jack had only confirmed what he’d known all along. Jack noticed a blond head this time listening at the doorjamb.
“Can we talk somewhere?” he asked, motioning toward their eavesdropper. Xander turned his whole head so he could see where Jack meant, then nodded and turned to an open sitting room on the right. He closed the doors and motioned for Jack to sit, settling on the beat up couch opposite him. Jack just watched him for a moment, taking him in, trying to readjust his image to fit this calm young man with one eye in working clothes. He didn’t know what he had expected, but this wasn’t it. “You knew about your parents?” he heard himself ask cautiously.
Xander looked away, to the right, to the floor. “I was in LA during the riots. They were in my uncle’s neighborhood. I didn’t know for sure . . .”
“You were there?” Jack asked surprised.
But Xander shook his head. “I was staying with some friends downtown. So do you work for the city or something? You could have just called.”
“No,” said Jack looking down at his hands. Oh, God, how was he going to do this? “The, uh, Clerk’s Office called me. I knew your mother a long time ago, and I was mentioned in the Will.”
“Huh?” His son’s calm face broke in surprise, but he waited for Jack to go on.
“I knew her before you were born,” Jack repeated. “The Clerk’s Office couldn’t find you so they gave me your name when I said I could track you down.”
“They did?” Xander still looked confused, but then his mouth clicked shut and his eyes single eye bore into Jack’s. “Why? They don’t usually release that kind if information to strangers. Who are you?” This last was said with suspicion. He had tensed up, ready to spring into action at the slightest provocation, and though Jack knew the kid wouldn’t be able to touch him, it still hurt.
He reached into his pocket and offered his son his birth certificate. Xander glanced at it, back at Jack, then really read it. His hands started to shake and Jack wondered what would happen next. Wondered if he was going to get thrown out.
When Xander looked up at him again there was only anger. “What is this?” he demanded, low and dangerous.
“I just found out about it, too,” said Jack, looking away from that one terrible eye.
“These can be forged, you know.”
“It was in her Will for you to know.” He reached into his pocket again for the pictures. There were only two, both of him and Jessica standing together in front of the beach house. Xander looked at them closely, his index finger brushing over the young faces as if her could reach out and bring them back. He sniffed and stood, and when he glanced at Jack on his way to the door, his eye was brighter than it should have been.
“DAWN!” he shouted and not two seconds later the brunette who had challenged Jack at the door stuck her head in the door.
“Yeah?” she chirped, eyes slipping past him to land on Jack.
“Go check if these are real,” Xander handed her the birth certificate and the pictures.
“What?” Dawn looked at them then his son in confusion before reading the birth certificate. “Xander!”
“Dawn, just do it. Please,” his son asked tiredly. The girl looked at Jack again before nodding and leaving them to an uncomfortable silence.
Jack wondered how she would know if they were real or not and was suddenly angered by the whole situation. Angry at Jessica for not telling him about Xander, angry at Xander for not trusting him or even his evidence. How the hell was a fifteen-year-old going to verify that they were real anyway?
“She’s seventeen,” said Xander sharply, turning to glare at him. Had he said that out loud?
“Sorry, seventeen,” said Jack sarcastically. As if it made a difference. “You’re just going to take the word of a seventeen-year-old that that birth certificate is real?”
“Or forged,” said Xander coldly.
“It’s not forged.”
“How? Is she going to wave her little magic wand?”
“Something like that.”
They stared at each other, neither one willing to back down for several minutes. His son’s arms were crossed across his chest almost like Daniel’s protective stance but somehow more dangerous. Maybe it was the eyepatch, or the shaggy head of hair.
“You look a little like my uncle when he was young,” Jack surprised them both by saying. Xander blinked and the hard expression melted to something like curiosity. Maybe if he could accept it, they could be friends. “I’m sorry for . . .” Jack paused looking for what he was sorry for. Not being there, not loving him, not playing ball, or meeting his girl, and for all of a sudden dropping this on his shoulders after he found out his parents were dead. Daniel was right; this was far from easy. “For, you know, everything,” he finished lamely.
“Xander?” Dawn’s quiet voice interrupted the tense silence. They both turned and she looked from one to the other, eyes slightly wide. “They’re real.” She held out the pictures and birth certificate. After a stunned moment, Xander took them.
“Thanks, Dawnie,” he said staring at them, processing. Dawn looked at Jack again before ducking out and closing the door.
Jack waited for Xander to acknowledge him, and when he finally looked up there were tears in his eye. He smiled weakly. “Sorry. I guess it’s just hitting me that I’m never going to see Mom again.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said again.
Xander smiled tightly. “Thanks.” They stared at each other again but this time his son was studying him. “So I guess we should do the bonding thing,” Xander finally broke the silence.
Jack smiled in relief. He wasn’t going to be kicked out of the house after all. He had a chance here to make it work with this child he didn’t know. Once they resettled into chairs and the sofa, Xander began.
“So you married?”
He didn’t waste any time with the easy stuff. “Divorced,” said Jack. “I got married about a year after I left your mom,” he went on. It felt weird to explain something that he normally kept close to his heart. But if anyone deserved to know it was the young man before him.
Jack closed his eyes and nodded. “Charlie.” He opened them and gazed at Xander’s work boots. “He accidentally shot himself with my gun when he was ten. Sarah and I couldn’t make it through his death.” He could still remember that day as if it were yesterday. He’d never forgive himself.
“I’m sorry,” Xander almost whispered. There was no anger, no judgement, only pain when Jack met his eye, though he had a feeling that Xander wasn’t seeing him.
“What about you?” asked Jack. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, no girlfriend,” Xander came back from wherever he had gone. “She . . .she’s gone.”
“And all these girls around here?” Jack felt the need to lighten the mood. How had they managed to pick the one subject that left them both depressed?
“Are unfortunately not my personal harem,” Xander grinned suddenly. “They’d all kick my ass from here to England.”
Jack smiled at the thought. “So what do you do here?”
“Me and a couple of friends are running a self-defense program for girls for the summer,” Xander waved his hand at the house in general. “After Sunnydale, we needed to get out of California. So we ended up here, with no money, and one hair-brained idea.” He shrugged. “My friends do the teaching. I’m more of the fix-whatever-gets-broken-guy.”
The doorbell rang and a stampede of footsteps rushed to the door followed soon after by the smell of pizza, which made Xander grin hesitantly, his hands rubbing against his legs with nervous energy. “Food’s here. You want?”
Jack followed his son to the kitchen where thirty girls were attacking as many pizza boxes on the counter. Most of them were dressed in workout clothes and all of them were talking. As Jack watched his son melt into the rush of youth he couldn’t help but notice that he was more than Mr. Fix-it.
“Xander! Allison took two pieces of cheese and I didn’t get any!”
“Allison, give one to Vi!”
“’S not fair!” the girl in question grumbled as Xander fixed his eye on her.
“Hey, who took my drink?”
“Xander, where are the napkins?”
“Ask Ellie and Veronica, they’re on kitchen duty for lunch.”
“No we’re not!” two girls protested with matching looks of innocence. Jack watched as Xander simply raised his eyebrow.
“Do I have to check the list?”
“Fine, we’ll find them,” one of the girls grumbled stomping off to the cabinets.
“Hey, Xander, is this your dad?” Jack suddenly found thirty pairs of eyes fixed on him. He felt like he was facing a squad of piranhas that would tear him to pieces at any second.
“I thought your dad died.”
“That was his mom’s husband who he grew up with. This is his biological dad.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Dawn said so.”
“Hey, all I said was the papers were for real.”
“Hey!” Xander's voice cut through all the speculation. He didn’t seem too surprised or bothered that word had gotten out in the span of ten minutes, though Jack had a feeling he himself looked shell-shocked. Who wouldn’t? He was used to handling only one teenage girl at a time, not thirty, for cryin’ out loud.
“Everyone, this is Jack O’Neill. Jack, this is almost everyone.” He leaned in close and whispered, “Don’t let them scare you,” in his ear and handed him a paper plate with two slices of pepperoni. Xander shouldered room for them at the counter and then the interrogation began.
“So where you from?” Dawn was the first to ask, squeezing in next to him at the counter.
“Colorado,” said Jack, feeling a little bit better once he took a bite of pizza.
“Colorado? Isn’t Terry from Colorado?” someone asked, but since Terry wasn’t there to confirm this, Dawn moved on.
“What do you do?”
“I’m in the Air Force.”
“Really?” several girls asked. “Do you fly planes?”
Jack turned to the waiting crowd. “Sometimes. Not as much anymore.”
“Air Force, huh?” Dawn poked his arm to get his attention. “Name, rank, and serial number.”
Jack grinned at the narrow look she was giving him and rattled off the information. There was an impressed collected gasp when he said ‘Colonel,’ but when he glanced at Xander, his son had that wary look back in his eye. Jack sighed internally, frustrated that whatever ground he had gained seemed to have been lost.
“You don’t happen to work on any top secret projects, do you?” asked Xander. And from the way he said it, Jack knew he was only half-joking. And that scared him.
“Deep space radar telemetry,” the practiced lie rolled off his lips. What did Xander know about top secret projects? He was just a kid! His kid. Oh God, his kid! Jack wanted to grab his shoulder and demand answers, but he couldn’t, not here in front of all these little girls. Not with a son he wanted a chance with.
Feeling dazed he turned back to the questions the girls kept asking. Do you have a gun? Have you been in a war? Have any of your friends died? Vaguely he recognized something strange in the questions, but preoccupied by what had prompted Xander’s question, he couldn’t tell what. It took him five minutes to notice that Dawn had disappeared.
Finally, Xander shooed the girls away and they went back to the sitting room and the dilapidated couch. His son regarded him strangely before speaking. “I didn’t mean to wig you out,” he said. “It’s just . . .this guy one of my friends dated was in the Army. It was a bad break up.”
He didn’t say anymore, but Jack got the feeling that bad was an understatement. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Xander shrugged again. “So deep space radar telemetry? That sounds . . .fun.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Yeah, if you’re asleep. And you’re a construction worker?” he asked to change the subject away from issues of national security.
“Used to be. Now I’m an out of work, one-eyed carpenter.” Jack could tell he wasn’t happy about it.
“What about this?” he asked, gesturing to the house.
“It’s more my friends’ stuff than mine,” Xander smiled sadly. “Being a carpenter was all mine, you know?”
“Yeah,” Jack found himself smiling too, understanding the need to have something that you alone were good at. “So . . . can I ask what happened? To your eye?” Jack almost held his breath, waiting to see if Xander would let him in.
“You know how they say ‘never run with scissors’?” Xander finally said. “It’s good advice.”
“Oh,” Jack looked away. Something was missing. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew a recent wound when he saw one. Xander just wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. At least he hoped that was the case, and that one day his son would feel comfortable talking about it with him.
“How long are you staying?”
“Till Saturday.” It was Thursday today, so two more days. He wondered if he would be seeing more of Xander. “Id like to get to know you though. See you again,” he added, hoping he didn’t sound too desperate. “If I had known, I would have come.”
“Really?” Xander sounded like he didn’t believe him. “You barely knew my mother.”
“Wouldn’t matter.” Jack held his gaze, willing the words to sink in. Xander sat there, still skeptical. “Will you give me a chance?”
“I’ve got to go check on the girls.” Xander didn’t answer the question. “Do you have a place to stay?”
Jack nodded. “Hampton Inn.” They both stood up no longer sure what to say to each other. “So I’ll see you tomorrow?” asked Jack hopefully.
“Yeah,” Xander nodded. “I’ve got to pick up Buffy and Giles from the airport. They’ll want to meet you. If you can come around four? That way they’ll have time to interrogate you before dinner.”
“Four then,” said Jack. He didn’t like the sound of interrogation. There would probably be questions about his intentions toward Xander, death threats, that sort of thing. And Jack realized as Xander awkwardly shook his hand at the door that in an odd way he was looking forward to it.