SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

Future Imperfect

And finally for today


Chapter 3

Despite the cool shower, the bathroom was steam-fogged and Sam had to wipe a hole in the mirror to see her reflection. The sun had left her glowing, wet hair stripped back from her naked face. Her eyes dark and serious.

And her mind… Her mind was back at that moment on the beach, when she’d seen him watching her through his dark glasses. Watching her all-but-naked in her swimsuit, his expression as laconically snarly as the previous evening. She hated that it bothered her. But even worse, she hated that it…what? Excited her? Shaking her head abruptly, she turned and left the room. That thought was one she didn’t want to pursue.

Matt lay sprawled on the bed, tie loosened and shoes on the floor. Snoring. He’d been back from the conference for half an hour and had collapsed immediately in a heap on the bed. Although, from what little he’d said before he dosed off, she’d gathered that the day had been a success. And he’d certainly been raving about Laura Hartstone. Sam frowned as she dried off, irritated at feeling a few tendrils of jealously for the young woman. Everyone, it seemed, thought she was the best thing since sliced bread.

Slipping into her underwear, she sat in front of the mirror and dragged her make-up bag in front of her. She was determined to make the most of herself this evening - ‘smile’ lines and all. If she had to eat dinner in the company of a willfully sarcastic O’Neill and his young and over-talented girlfriend, she’d at least do it in style.

Behind her on the bed, Matt snorted and rolled over. She watched him in the mirror and decided that he needed a haircut. His snoring grew louder, fuelling a rush of irritation that shot up from her belly to her mouth and turned into a snappy, “Stop snoring!”

He snorted, grunted and rolled towards her. “What?”

“Nothing,” she grated, returning her gaze to her own reflection. “You need to get ready. Dinner’s in half an hour.”

By the time Matt had emerged from the shower, Sam was ready. The black strappy dress Matt had suggested was hugging her figure, her arms and face still aglow from her hours in the sun. She was pleased with the final effect as she slipped on her sandals and looked herself up and down in the mirror.

“You know, Eritrea is a fascinating country,” Matt started saying as he dug around in his suitcase for clean underwear. “I had no idea.”

“No,” Sam agreed, slipping on her rings. The green stone of her engagement ring looked dull in the fading sunshine. It needed a clean.

“And according to Laura, the people are beautiful. Especially the woman. Tall, slim--” He broke off and glanced over at her. Sam began to smile at the anticipated compliment as he said, “Do you think I should wear that blue shirt you got me last Christmas? Or the sort of green one?”

Her smile faded and she shrugged. “Whichever one is less creased.”

Matt moved to the wardrobe with a grunt. “Neither are creased. I actually iron clothes, remember?”

Sam just shrugged, irritated but determined not to get into a fight. “So,” she said, turning to him as he slipped on the blue shirt, “what do you think?”

Blinking at her, he frowned. “About what?”

Deep breath. In. Out. In. “Me,” she said, forcing a smile. “How do I look?”

His gaze ran over her. “Great. As always. Why?”

“No reason,” she sighed, turning away and going in search of her purse.

“Want to impress what’s-his-name?”

She frowned. “Who?”

“Jack.” And there was an edge of interest in his voice that made her look around. He was watching her cautiously. “Are you worried about what he thinks of you?”

“No,” she protested, smoothing down her dress. “Why would I be?”

Matt shrugged. “I don’t know. You’ve just been…testy since last night.”

“I have not!”

“I just thought he bothered you, that’s all. He seemed a bit moody.”

“I don’t suppose this is his kind of thing,” Sam explained, perching on the edge of her bed and wondering briefly if she should have bothered with nail polish.

“Just like it’s not yours, huh?”

“I told you--”

“I know,” he replied with a smile. “You enjoy it. I believe you!”

Sam smiled back, shaking her head. “Come on,” she said, rising to her feet. “Don’t want to be late.”

“No,” Matt agreed, slipping their key-card into his top pocket, “I don’t suppose Jack O’Neill is ever late.”

“No. It’s a military thing.”

Matt took her hand and they strolled together along the carpeted corridor. “Maybe you can soften him up this evening?” he suggested. “Get him to relax. Last night he looked at me as if I was about to steal his girlfriend from right under his nose!”

Sam felt herself flush at Matt’s comment, but he didn’t notice. And she wondered if that’s how the colonel had seen it, all those years ago. If that’s how he still saw it. And in a way, she supposed, he’d be right.

***

Guilt was an emotion with which Jack O’Neill was intimately familiar. He knew all its different shades, had felt it mixed with remorse, jealousy and even humor. But today it managed to surprise him.

Sitting on the bed, channel-surfing while Laura got herself ready for their dinner-date, his mind kept returning to the brief and unpleasant confrontation he’d had with Carter that morning. He remembered the flat anger in her eyes and, worse, the frank sadness. We used to be friends, she’d said, although he wasn’t entirely sure that was true. They’d been close, but friendship implied a sort of openness that circumstances had always denied them. But friends or not, he knew he’d stepped over the line with his bitter comment about her being a ‘good little wife’. He’d hurt her, and God help him, but he felt guilty - which was a surprise. He’d spent so long being angry with her - then hating her, then deliberately blotting her from his memory - that he’d expected all softer feelings for her to have been well and truly killed off. But it seemed that one soulful look from her large, expressive eyes had him chewing on his insides as hard as he’d ever done in her presence. He’d once thought that she had made him a better person, and now he remembered why.

He sighed and flicked off the TV. He felt guilty that he’d upset her. And on top of that, he felt guilty about feeling guilty. Because that implied that his feelings for Carter weren’t quite as dead as he’d hoped. And that meant… His gaze fell on the dress Laura had laid out for herself on the bed. He had no idea about fashion, but he remembered her wearing it once before and knew it suited her pale complexion and red hair. He remembered liking it.

The door to the bathroom opened, and she emerged amid a cloud of steam, wrapped in a towel. She shivered, glancing over at the thermostat. “It’s freezing in here.”

Jack got up and clicked off the air-conditioning. “It’ll warm up.”

Laura smiled, fresh faced and rosy from the shower. And Jack was suddenly struck by her youth. He thought about it sometimes, the gap in their ages - and what she might expect from their relationship. But most of the time it didn’t bother him. She was just Laura. But this evening she almost looked childlike in his eyes. Her body was so slim, almost adolescent, and there wasn’t a gray hair among her auburn locks or a line on her pretty face. Compared to Carter--

He stopped himself with a wince of guilt.

“You okay?” Laura asked, padding over to the hairdryer and allowing her towel to drop to the floor. She had absolutely no inhibitions about nakedness. A conceit of youth, perhaps.

“Fine,” he replied, returning to the bed and lying down.

The hairdryer buzzed on and their conversation ceased. Eventually, into the silence that fell when she switched it off, Laura said, “Tell me about Samantha Carter.”

Jack’s eyes flashed open and he had the horrible feeling she could read his mind. “Why?”

She turned, running a brush through her long hair, and smiled. “Because you’ve never mentioned her before, and it’s obvious that you guys knew each other pretty well. How come you never talked about her?”

“What’s to say?” Jack asked, staring up at the ceiling. “We worked together. She was my second-in-command.”

“Did you like her?”

“Sure.”

“And you went to her wedding?”

With a sigh, he sat up. “Everyone went to her wedding. She was very popular on base.”

Laura nodded. “So how come you’ve been acting like a bear with a sore head since you saw her yesterday?”

“I have not.”

Laura rolled her eyes and stood up. “Come on, Jack. How long have I known you? Eighteen months? She freaked you out!”

He stood and glared out the window. What was freaking him out, he thought sourly, was being given the seventh degree! “Just brought back some old memories,” he snapped. “That’s all.”

“Bad ones?” He was silent. “Jack?” Her slim hand rested on his shoulder. “Bad memories?”

“Some of them,” he said at last, hoping that Laura would put the catch in his voice down to some operational horror, rather than the heartrending pain of seeing Carter pledge herself to another man.

Her head came to rest against his arm. “I’m sorry.”

Turning, he slid an arm around her. “It’s okay,” he said, letting her pull him close. “Long time ago. I’m fine.”

“Good,” she murmured into his ear, following the word with a kiss.

“Get dressed,” he murmured back. “Or we’ll be late.”

He could feel her smile against his neck as her naked body moved enticingly closer. “Would that be so bad?”

“Hell no,” he replied, pushing her gently back. “But it would be kinda rude.”

She smiled her girlish smile. “Spoilsport.”

“Ten minutes,” he told her. “No dawdling.”

Offering a mock - and very sloppy - salute, she grinned, “Yes, sir” and turned on her heel.

Jack barely managed to keep a smile on his face until she’d disappeared back into the bathroom, the ‘S’ word lingering in the air. It provoked a thousand memories, a mix of nostalgia, regret, anger and longing. Sir. It represented everything he had lost, and he hated it with a passion.

What did that say about his presumed-dead feelings for Samantha Carter?

***

The first thing Laura noticed as they approached the table was the defiant set of Sam Carter’s jaw. She looked as if she was facing off for a fight. For a moment Laura was taken aback, but then she realized that Sam’s aggression was aimed not at herself but at Jack.

Curious.

“Laura!” Matt enthused with a wide grin. “You look amazing.”

She smiled. He had to say that, he was trying to cut a deal. “Thanks.”

Matt offered his hand to Jack, who took it firmly. At least he wasn’t being rude, she thought, with some relief. “Jack. Good to see you again. Hope you’ve been making the most of the beach!”

For a moment, Jack’s gaze flicked to Sam’s and Laura was astonished to see something dart between them. An understanding of some sort. Her curiosity became slightly green-tinted. “It wasn’t entirely a success,” Jack said carefully, his attention returning to Matt. “I got a little burned.”

“That happens,” Sam interrupted, “when you haven’t been out in the sun for a while.”

He looked at her again, and Laura saw a hint of …what? an apology?…in his eyes. An apology? “I should have been more careful.”

“Yes,” Sam agreed, although her face had noticeably softened.

“Right!” Matt declared, clearly oblivious to the subtext and bored with the apparently banal conversation. “Shall we order some drinks?”

They took their seats, and Laura fixed her attention on the woman opposite. She was suddenly far more interesting than she’d seemed the previous evening. “So, Sam,” she said at once, “Jack tells me you used to be his second-in-command. What was that like?”

Sam blinked. Her eyes, Laura noted, were huge. “Umm… What was it like?” Her gaze flicked to Jack, and a self-conscious smile touched her lips. A small smile, but it somehow managed to light up her face. “Well, Colonel O’Neill was a very talented officer. I learned a lot from him.”

“She’s being diplomatic,” Jack broke in. But although he was speaking to Laura, his attention was fixed on Sam. Her smile seemed to have lit his face too. “What she means is I was a pain in the ass. I demanded the impossible every day, and--”

“No. I--” Sam began, but he spoke over her.

“--and I got the impossible. Every single day.”

Sam shook her head in self-conscious denial. “We were a good team,” she said at last, her gaze riveted on Jack.

Slowly he nodded. “Hell of a team.”

The silence that fell seemed to be between the two of them alone, and Laura felt like an accidental witness to the unspoken communication. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was seeing, but it was enough to make her uneasy. Whatever past Jack shared with this woman, it was intense. And it was important. To both of them. Suddenly she felt very small, very insignificant. And very young.

She didn’t like it.

“Everyone okay with Chardonnay?” Matt asked abruptly, his broad tones shattering the silent moment. Sam glanced up at him with a start as Jack cleared his throat and buried his nose in the menu. Laura simply took a deep breath and said, “Sounds good to me.”

***

This was how it should have been, Jack realized, watching Carter dissolve into laughter as they relived - as vaguely as possible, given the company - yet another of their more bizarre adventures. He smiled himself, the closest thing he got to a laugh, and took another sip of wine. This was how it should have been all those years ago. Friends. No sexual tension, no desire for more. Just this.

He understood now that the other feelings and desires had just gotten in the way. Muddied the water. But now that she had Matt and he had Laura, they were free to simply be friends. Which is exactly what they should have been all along. It was ridiculous to imagine them being anything more. It’s not like they had that much in common and he half-suspected that the tension between them had been more a product of the forbidden than of any more profound emotion. Yeah, this was how it should have been. This was easy. This was right.

She cocked her head to one side, her laughter fading. “Okay?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Just thinking.”

“Really? Wow.”

He smiled again. “I’ve-- I’m glad we bumped into each other. It’s good to see you. Sam.” See? He could even call her Sam without freaking himself out!

Sam nodded. “Me too. I mean, it’s good to see you too, sir.” She grimaced. “Jack.”

He let his gaze drift to the bar, where Laura and Matt were deep in discussion. “They seem to be getting on well.”

“Matt’s very excited about her project,” Sam agreed, although he thought he detected a coolness in her voice. He looked over at her, but there was nothing but a smile on her face. “Laura’s very talented, I hear.”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “She’s got a great career ahead of her.”

To his surprise, Sam sighed. “I remember that.”

“Remember what?”

“Being young, with a great career ahead of me.”

He laughed, for the first time all evening. “You’re hardly over the hill, Carter. You have a great career ahead of you - and behind you. You’re in the middle of it!”

“At the top of the hill, looking down?” she suggested with a rueful smile.

“Prime of your life!” She grimaced at that and he back-peddled. “Okay, forget I said that. You’re what? Thirty-eight? Wait until you’re looking fifty in the eye, then start to worry!”

“Oh,” she said, waving her a slightly tipsy hand at him. He’d never seen her drunk before - unless you included the incident on P3X-595. “It’s okay for you,” she said, pouring herself another glass of wine. “It’s easy for guys. Gray hair makes you distinguished, lines make you look rugged.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Rugged, huh?”

And she blushed. Sam Carter blushed! “I was speaking generally.”

“Oh.”

She sighed again, and then laughed. “Sorry. Just feeling-- Laura’s very young, isn’t she?”

He nodded. “Yes, she is.”

“I miss that.”

“You’re young.”

“No I’m not!” Leaning forward, she lowered her voice conspiratorially. Oh yes, definitely tipsy. “I’ve got ten gray hairs. And lines.”

He couldn’t help but smile. “Matt doesn’t seem to mind.”

Her eyes slid towards her husband. “He’s got more lines than me.”

“I’ve got more than Matt.”

She didn’t seem to have an answer to that, sitting back in her chair. And after a moment she changed the subject. “Is it true? What you said yesterday.”

He frowned, trying to recall which stupid comment she could be thinking about. “What did I say?”

“That you don’t miss it. The SGC. SG-1. Is it true?”

Looking at her expressive face, bright eyes slightly fuzzed with alcohol and her smile as ready as ever, he couldn’t lie. He took a deep breath and fixed her with a square look. “I miss it every day, Carter. Every single day.”

She nodded as if it wasn’t a surprise. “Me too, sir. Every single day.”

***

Chapter 4

It was late by the time Sam sauntered down to the restaurant for breakfast. She wasn’t exactly hung over but she’d let Matt jump out of bed early and eat alone, preferring to give herself a couple of extra hours of horizontal time before she emerged into the bright Florida sunshine.

It was already hot. She could feel the heat outside beating against the air-conditioned windows, and for a brief moment she missed the mountain chill of Colorado. But the thought was soon dismissed as she headed into the mostly-empty restaurant, her step as buoyant as her heart.

Last night had been great. In the few short hours she’d spent with O’Neill - Jack, as she could now call him - she felt as though years of misunderstanding and resentment had been washed away. After the scene on the beach she’d been dreading seeing him again. But something had obviously changed because he’d met her with an apology, if not on his lips then in his eyes, and she’d forgiven him instantly. They’d talked, and laughed and reminisced and there had been none of the tension that had always dogged their relationship. No sparring, no flirting, just pure honest friendship. It had been exhilarating! And she still felt the effects now, as she gave her room number to the waiter and headed to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

She felt as though their relationship had been scoured clean. The debris that had accumulated over their years serving together had been blasted away, revealing nothing but the solid bedrock of their mutual respect and friendship. She felt rejuvenated, excited and not a little surprised. She hadn’t realized that the damaged state of her relationship with the colonel had weighed so heavily on her heart. But she was glad that they’d now reached this perfect state of strings-free friendship. She could think about him now without the sense of unease that had shadowed his memory; guilt and regret were things of the past. Perhaps she could even see more of him? Invite him to stay some time? Maybe even take him up on the offer to fish at his cabin? After all, there was nothing wrong with a couple of friends taking a trip together. And since that’s all they were she’d--

“You call that breakfast?”

The voice at her side made her jump so violently that the slices of fresh mango almost slid from her plate and onto the floor. But she didn’t mind. A grin broke out on her face. “Sir!”

He rolled his eyes. “Carter…”

“Sorry,” she corrected instantly. “I mean…Jack.” His name still came awkwardly, and she was embarrassed to feel a flush rise to her face. Damn!

If he noticed, he didn’t say anything and turned his attention back to the food. “Do you have any donuts?” he asked the kid behind the counter, and was waved to the far end of the bar. Sam found herself following him. She kind of fancied a Danish anyway.

Picking the healthiest looking pastry she could find (it had apples in it, at least) she cast a surreptitious glance at O’Neill. He still had something, she had to admit. As platonic as their relationship now was, she couldn’t deny that the shorts, faded blue t-shirt and sunglasses hanging around his neck leant him a kind of rumpled sexiness that was undoubtedly appealing. She smiled to herself. Back in the old days, before Matt, she’d never have allowed herself to think such thoughts! But now, everything was different.

Sensing her gaze, he looked up. “What?” His dark eyes speared her, and sent something inside spinning down towards her toes.

She swallowed hard. “Nothing.”

“Uh-huh.” He didn’t buy it, of course. He knew her too well, even after their four-year estrangement.

“I was just--” she began, then changed her mind. “I enjoyed talking last night. That’s all.”

Nodding slowly, he looked away. “We should’ve done it before.”

“Yes. We should.”

He was lingering over the pastries, but she knew his mind was elsewhere. A frown touched his brow, and she was about to comment when he spoke. His tone was affectedly nonchalant. “You got plans today?”

In a flash Sam was back in her lab, a naquader reactor in pieces on the bench and the colonel hovering awkwardly at the door. Disturbed by the memory, and the emotional jolt it gave her, it was a moment before she could form an answer.

Perhaps his memories were in the same place, because before she could speak he turned away muttering, “No problem. I’m gonna--“

“I haven’t.”

He stopped, turning around carefully. “Haven’t...?”

“I haven’t got any plans today.” And then, in the new spirit of platonic friendship, she added, “You want to do something?”

He failed to hide his surprise, which made Sam smile. His gaze lingered on her, measuring and appraising. Then, cautiously, he said, “I was gonna head up to Playa Linda beach. Laura says it’s beautiful up there.” He glanced significantly around the hotel. “No tourists.”

Her smile broadened. “Sounds good.”

He studied her for a moment longer, then intrepidly said, “You wanna tag along?”

“Yes,” she said immediately. “I’d love to.”

***

Funny how life works out, Jack mused, as he sped along the road towards Playa Linda with Carter at his side. Two days ago he’d thought she was out of his life for good. And now here she was - here they were - off to spend the day together.

Years ago, back when everything was intense and complicated and stomach churning, this would have been his fantasy. How often had he imagined that one day she’d take him up on his fishing invitation? How often had he imagined this exact moment, travelling together up to his cabin, with all the formality of their ranks forgotten? Too many times.

And how ironic that now he was living the golden moment, it meant so much less. He had no hope of more, no desire for more - this was no prelude to something bigger. It was no more nor less than it appeared; two former-colleagues - former-friends, perhaps - spending time together and mending some of the bridges that four years of neglect had left rickety, if not completely broken.

“Daniel said you still have your house back in Colorado,” Sam said, interrupting his thoughts.

He glanced at her briefly, but her eyes were fixed on the road. “Yeah,” he replied. “Guess I couldn’t bring myself to sell.”

“Never had you pegged as the sentimental type.”

Show’s what she knew. “I figured one day you guys would need me to come save your butts, and I might as well have a place to stay while I was doing it.”

She laughed at that, then grew serious. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her turn to face him. “You know, if you ever wanted to come back….”

His turn to laugh. “I don’t think so. As much as I miss…it… I couldn’t go back. You can never go back.” That was one lesson he’d learned in life; there was never any going back.

“Oh!” Sam suddenly exclaimed. “You need to get over. This is our exit.”

He saw the exit sign whip past and growled a curse as he tried to pull into the exit lane in time. But an eighteen-wheeler chose that moment to overtake, blocking his escape path. “You stupid--”

“Too late,” Sam told him, turning as she watched them sail past the exit.

“You were meant to be navigating, Carter,” he muttered, pulling in behind the truck and then over into the exit lane.

“Hey,” she complained, “I told you it was exit 12. Not my fault that you’re not paying attention.”

“You were distracting me.”

“By talking? Never used to distract you.”

“It’s not the talking,” he told her, keeping his eyes fixed on the road. “It’s the shorts.” Although he wasn’t watching her face, he could imagine her expression. And it made him smile.

“My shorts? What’s wrong with them?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. They’re just…short.” He glanced over in response to her long silence. “What?”

Sam’s face was deadpan. But her eyes sparkled with humor. “You just missed the next exit.” She paused for a beat. “You want me to drive?”

He smiled, shook his head and returned his attention to the road. This was good, he told himself. This was easy. A little harmless flirtation - hell, he could even comment, albeit obliquely, on her great legs without it being awkward. Yeah, this was good. Today was going to be good. Very, very good. “Grocery store,” he announced suddenly, his mind changing direction. “Let’s get some snacks on the way.”

***

It was past midday by the time they pulled into the small parking lot on the edge of the beach. One or two other cars shared the space, cardboard shades wedged over the windshields to keep the blistering sun from superheating the interiors.

“Hope you brought sun-block, Carter,” Jack said as he cut the engine. “It’s hot out there.”

“Not as hot as Abydos,” she commented, earning herself a small smile.

“No,” he agreed. “But…wetter.”

Sam looked out over the beach towards the sparkling blue ocean, the tufts of grass on the sand dunes in front of them dancing in the breeze. “Laura was right,” she said, “it’s beautiful.”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed, opening the door and letting in a blast of hot air. “Come on, let’s go.”

Sam pulled her small pack - now mostly full of lunch and water - out of the trunk, while Jack leaned in next to her and retrieved a large, professional-looking black case. For a strange moment she thought it was a gun. “What have you--”

His sideways glance told her that he’d guessed her thoughts. “It’s a camera, Carter.”

“Oh!” A camera? “Since when did you--”

“Since Laura.”

Laura. Of course. “That’s nice.” Nice? What an insipid word! “I mean, it’s important to share interests.”

“Right,” he agreed, turning his attention back to the camera. “Beats pointing a gun at everything you meet, anyway.”

Sam nodded, digging out her sun-hat from her bag and wedging it onto her head. “It must be nice,” she said, sounding more wistful than she’d hoped.

He glanced up. “What?”

“Retirement.”

He shrugged, hefting the heavy bag over his shoulder. “It has its moments.”

She wondered briefly if this was one of them, but soon dismissed the idea. Jack had Laura. How had he described her the other night? ‘The best thing that ever happened to me’. She doubted that her chance encounter with Jack rated that highly in his life. But a treacherous part of her mind whispered, ‘This could have been your life. With him. Your life together.’

She looked away, only then realizing that she’d been staring at him. She didn’t want this life. Why should she? She’d made her choice. She had Matt. And she was happy.

“Come on, Carter,” he said, suddenly sounding more like O’Neill than Jack. “Let’s head out.”

It was all she could do to prevent herself from snapping off a quick, ‘Yes sir’ as she followed him over the boardwalk towards the beach. But she couldn’t prevent the thrill that swelled inside; together again. She had never realized how much she’d missed this.

Or how much she’d missed him.

***

The dry sand was hot under her feet, and so soft it made walking difficult. But the beach was beautiful, a vast stretch of white sand and grassy dunes that skirted the edge of the glittering ocean. Birds swooped down, diving into the sea, their cries the only thing disturbing the crash of the Atlantic rollers.

By mutual, if silent, consent they headed down to the shoreline and Sam slipped off her sandals as soon as the sand was cool and hard enough to walk on barefoot. She breathed deeply, the hot air tempered by the salty tang of the sea. She felt contented. Happy. Relaxed.

Glancing over, she watched Jack walking next to her. He held a handful of stones and was pausing from time to time to skim them over the waves. He was pretty good at it, and she had the sudden image of him standing outside his cabin, skimming stones over the still water of his lake. He must be happy there, she realized, away from the demands of duty and honor. Just him, his lake with no fish. And Laura.

She sighed. He seemed so different from the man she’d known. It wasn’t just the absence of his uniform, although that was part of it. But it was the trappings of command that he lacked now; the officer’s distance from his team, the subtly guarded behavior, the veneer of professionalism that colored all his actions and relationships. And she realized that in the whole time she’d known him he’d never before let them drop. Not once. Not even when it had just been them. It made her wonder if she’d ever really known him at all.

“Penny for ‘em, Carter,” he asked, stopping to skim another perfectly aimed stone over the water.

She smiled, watching her toes sink into the cool wet sand as the waves lapped around her ankles. “I was thinking that this is nice,” she said, reflexively skirting away from the true path of her thoughts - as she had always done around him. He said nothing, and she wondered if he’d heard the half-truth. And then she wondered why she’d lied at all. There was no reason to keep anything from him now; they were friends, no more and no less. The obfuscation of their feelings had done enough damage to their friendship - all but destroyed it - and it was ridiculous to continue on the same, destructive path. She took a deep breath, and then a big risk, “Actually, that’s not what I was thinking.”

He stopped, frowned and started toying with the stones that remained in his hand. “No?”

Sam edged a little closer. “Not that this isn’t nice,” she added. “But I was just thinking that…you seem different.”

A crooked half-smile twisted his lips. “Grayer. Older--”

“No,” she protested. “More relaxed. Less like Colonel O’Neill.”

He shrugged an agreement and sent another stone skipping. “Good. I always hated that guy.”

Wow. “Really? Why?”

Another shrug. “He was an ass.”

“I never thought so,” she said, crouching down to pick up some stones of her own. “I always liked him.”

“Oh come on,” Jack chided, throwing another stone sharply across the waves. “He was obnoxious, deliberately obtuse, intolerant--”

“Courageous, loyal, smart, funny--”

“Maybe you’re thinking about the other O’Neill?” he suggested. “The one with only one ‘L’.”

She laughed, stood up and hefted a pebble in her hand. Perfect size and shape. “I forgot to add modest.” As she spoke, she threw the stone with a flick of her wrist, sending it skipping one, two, three, four times before it sank. Not bad.

“Not bad, Carter.”

She smiled. “Me and Mark used to have competitions when we lived in Long Beach.”

“Competitions? You? I don’t believe it.” The words were spoken with such a note of affection that Sam looked up at him in surprise. Obviously he’d surprised himself too, because he turned away with a frown and walked on.

After a moment she caught him up. “I meant what I said,” she told him, unwilling to lose this unusual intimacy. “You were a great officer. I learned so much, and I always-- I always admired you. A lot.” There had been other feelings too, of course. But now, in their current state of glasnost, they were best left undisturbed.

He didn’t reply, and Sam found herself reaching out and touching his arm. “Jack?”

He jumped. Then froze, his gaze fixed on her fingers lying on his arm. “What?”

And suddenly they were back there again. Her heart was racing. His skin beneath her fingertips felt hotter than the sand, and she was struggling for words and breath. “I-- I’ve missed you.”

Jack yanked his arm away, took a step backward and turned so that he was facing up the beach. For a moment she thought that he might answer, but then his lips compressed into an uncompromising line and he nodded towards the sand dunes. “Think I’m gonna try and get some pictures up there.” Barely waiting for her acknowledgement, he walked past her towards the dunes.

Unsure what exactly had passed between them, Sam didn’t follow. Instead, she gazed out over the inviting blue water. A swim, she decided, was what she needed. She’d let things get too intense there and felt the need to cool off. But it was only natural, she reasoned, that things between them would get tense from time to time. They had a long, complicated and mostly unspoken history. And just because those feelings were in the past, it didn’t stop the memories from casting an awkward shadow over their renewed friendship.

But that’s all they were, memories. Phantom pains from a long-healed wound. Neither of them felt as they once had done; they weren’t in danger anymore. They had found safety in friendship, and she was determined that this time it would endure. It was too important to lose again.

He was too important to lose again.

***

Damn it, Jack snarled silently as he stalked up the beach towards the dunes. What the hell was she playing at? Talking like that. Touching him! And what the hell was he doing, letting himself feel…what? Affection? Desire? Damn it, he refused to descend into that hell again. He was over her and he intended to remain that way.

It had been a bad idea, inviting her along. He’d known it as soon as he’d suggested it, but stupidly he’d thought he could handle her. That had always been his mistake. He’d fooled himself into thinking they were ‘just friends’, just as he’d once fooled himself into thinking they were ‘just colleagues’. But the truth was… He sighed and slowed. What exactly was the truth? He’d spent four years hating Carter - forgetting Carter - and in the two days they’d spent together she’d undone all his work. And he realized how much he’d missed her, and how much he wanted her in his life again. Not as he had once wanted her, of course. That was out of the question; she was married. But he was forced to look back over the past four years with a new eye. And instead of peace, he saw emptiness. He’d missed her and he hadn’t even known it until now.

He slowed further, turned around and stopped. She still stood on the shore, gazing out over the water as the sun glinted off her blond hair. And in that moment he knew that he couldn’t let her go again. He wanted to be able to call her, to see her, to consider himself part of her life. He’d spent four years denying her - denying himself - and now he realized it had been for nothing.

For better or for worse, Sam Carter was part of him. Deep inside. And there was no getting her out. So he might as well start learning to live with her, and with himself, because he’d meant it when he said there was no going back. He refused to return to the cold, lonely years of their estrangement. Whatever the cost, he’d be her friend. He’d have her in his life. For good.

And as he turned back to the dunes, his feet slipping in the soft sand, he considered that this must mean he’d forgiven her for breaking his heart. It was little short of a miracle.

***

The corridors of the SGC were quiet. It was late and Daniel rubbed at his eyes for the hundredth time as he pored over the documents in front of him. He should have gone home hours ago, but the translation in-hand eluded him and he couldn’t stop worrying at it like a dog with an old shoe. It should be simple. It looked simple. If he could just--

“Unauthorized off-world activation! Unauthorized off-world activation!”

A pulse of adrenaline accompanied the words and his tiredness was forgotten. He was on his feet in an instant, heading towards the door. Not that he had any need to, but the seven years he’d spent on the frontline made it difficult to ignore the call.

By the time he reached the control room the stargate was already activated and the iris was firmly shut. With Sam off-base, General Taylor was still on duty. Which was unusual, this late in the day. But even close to midnight, his uniform and thick crop of white hair were impeccably groomed.

“Any ideas?” Daniel asked, brushing self-consciously at his crumpled BDUs.

“None,” came the curt reply. “We’re not expecting any callers.”

Daniel turned his eyes on the gate, just in time to see a familiar shimmer across the iris. It had been a long time since he’d seen it though. Many years. His stomach tightened; this didn’t bode well. “Thor,” he said softly as the slender gray alien appeared through the closed iris.

“Stand down,” Taylor ordered the troops in the gateroom, and headed for the stairs. Daniel was on his heels. “Doctor Jackson, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve never actually met one of the Asgard.”

“No,” Daniel agreed, his mind racing ahead to the cause of this unexpected visit. “They’ve kept to themselves since we defeated Anubis. General, I don’t think Thor coming here can be a good thing.”

Taylor flashed him a dark look. “I was afraid of that.”

As they entered the gate room Thor stood impassively on the ramp, his wide eyes taking in the whole room. Taylor dropped back as they approached the gate, letting Daniel take the lead. “Hello, Thor.”

“Doctor Jackson,” came the sing-song reply. “It is good to see you again.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“I wish my visit to your planet was under better circumstances. However I am afraid matters are grave.”

Daniel exchanged a worried glance with Taylor. “Grave how?”

Thor’s head turned again, scanning the room. “I am here regarding Major Carter. It is she with whom I must speak.”

Taylor’s jaw stiffened. “Colonel Carter isn’t here,” he said, stepping forward. “I’m General Taylor, Commander of this base. Anything you have to say you can say to me.”

Thor’s large eyes blinked slowly. “General Taylor, you must recall *Colonel* Carter immediately. Her fate may depend upon it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Only she will understand,” came the cryptic reply. “But you must hurry. Our time is limited.”

Taylor exchanged a quick glance with Daniel, nodding briefly. “Get her back here.”

Daniel left the room at a run, his heart racing with a mixture of adrenaline and dread that reminded him far too potently of days gone by.

***

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