It wasn't more than a fading memory after all these years. Or at least, it shouldn't have been. Except Jack's stupid and unruly and undisciplined mind insisted on bringing it up and playing with it like it was some bright and shiny bauble. Examining and reexamining every sensation and every nuance until, years later, the memory remained as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.

Only it always resurfaced - always - at the worst possible moments. Like now, when Carter was supposed to be briefing him on the status of some treaty SG-1 had been working on with the inhabitants of planet PSX-something-or-other. Watching her speak - the soft curve of her lip, a quick glimpse of tongue behind parted teeth - and he was back in that moment so many years ago.

He remembered too clearly how good it had felt when, freed from consequences, he had finally faced her without restraint. He remembered, too, how right it had felt to hold her in his arms, their mouths meeting, gently and tentatively at first, but with ever increasing passion as she relaxed in his embrace. In that moment she had yielded to him, he had known she was already his. He had only to reach out and take her.

But he had also known, out of the loop and returned to the harsh reality of minutes followed by consequences, that he could never claim her. The costs were too high. So he'd held onto the memory despite knowing he would never again hold her, never taste her mouth or feel her body soft against his. So while it usually brought more pain than pleasure, that memory had become one of his greatest treasures.

Eventually and inevitably, however, as he had both hoped and feared, Sam had moved on. Now, he didn't have even the certainty of her reciprocation. He was truly alone. It was what he had wanted - what he deserved - but it still hurt like hell.

"Sir? … General O'Neill?" Her voice, calling his name, finally broke his reverie. Jack focused again on Sam in the here and now - a Lieutenant Colonel in command of SG-1, capable and complete in her own right, with a life apart from him and the SGC. He had nothing left to offer her. If only he didn't have to see her nearly every day to be constantly reminded of all that he had lost - so close to everything he desired most, and yet knowing she was forever out of reach. But even as he had the thought, their eyes met across the table, and he knew it was a lie. Because there were days when just the hope of passing her in the hall, their arms almost but never quite touching, her smile acknowledging his presence, was the only thing that made the rest worthwhile. It would never be enough - and like the memory of her kiss brought more pain than pleasure - but he couldn't give her up. Not completely.

He tried not to sound sharp, to let his increasing frustration affect his treatment of her as he answered, "Yes, Carter?" As always, he failed.

She flinched. It was brief and nearly indiscernible, but it was a flinch nonetheless. Added to his list of failures. "Do you want me to go ahead with that, then, Sir?"

"If you're sure it's a good idea…," he started slowly, trying to gauge her reaction. He couldn't honestly remember if she had recommended supporting the treaty or trying to work out a better one, but it didn't really matter. He trusted her first-hand opinion more than his own second-hand one anyway. At her nod, he concluded, "Then go for it. Will there be anything else, Colonel?"

Carter shook her head, and Jack stood, heading back to his office. The meeting was effectively over. But as the other two members of SG-1 stood up and, after gathering their folders off the table, left the conference room, Sam remained behind.

"Sir?" she asked, hesitantly. "Are you sure this is the right treaty? I mean, I don't think we're likely to get significantly better terms, but if the naquadah veins should run too much to the southeast, or…."

He cut her off. This conversation was getting - unbelievably - even more frustrating. "Carter, like I said, if you think it's the right thing to do, then go for it." He took a deep breath before continuing. His dark mood wasn't really her fault. He tried again, more gently: "Stop second guessing yourself."

She nodded, but remained standing there in front of him, worrying the corner of her report folder with her thumb as she nervously chewed on her lower lip. Their connection wasn't so completely gone that he couldn't tell there was something bothering her, but for the life of him, he had no idea what more she wanted. And even if he knew, he was surely in no position to do anything about it anyway. She must have come to the same conclusion, because, with a "Yes, Sir," which might have covered a sigh, she turned and quickly left the room.

Finally alone, Jack walked back into his office, stared sightlessly at the pile of paperwork on his desk which seemed to encompass the whole of his life at the moment, and wondered what Walter would say if he found a fist-sized hole in the office wall.