SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

Future Imperfect

Thanks to the people who are reading this here and in other places. Hope you're enjoying it!


Chapter 5

The sun was just tipping the horizon, casting a soft glow across the beach and onto the water. Long shadows dressed the waves of sand in light and shade, and the dying sun leant a golden halo to everything it touched.

Jack lay in the warm sand of the dunes, his tripod low as he rested on his elbows and stared through the camera. He’d taken some good shots this afternoon, and now his lens was pointed through the tufted grass at the end of the boardwalk where Sam sat staring out over the deserted beach. Her hair and skin shone golden in the sunset, lighting half her face and leaving the rest in shadow. Her arms and legs were fluid and relaxed, one foot trailing patterns in the cooling sand. She was beautiful.

He wanted to take her picture, to capture the moment forever. But he wasn’t sure he had the right. She was another man’s wife. But Jack had always been reckless, and when it came right down to it, who would know? He leaned closer to the viewfinder, adjusting the focus. Clouds on the ocean’s horizon loomed darkly behind her, emphasizing further the golden glow of her skin and hair. His finger tightened on the camera, as if squeezing off a single round, and the shutter snapped.

Carter’s eyes were on him in an instant. “What are you doing?”

He should have known her keen senses wouldn’t miss the noise. Peering at her over the top of the camera he shrugged. “Taking your picture.”

“Why?” She was genuinely surprised, which amused him. But her question was a pertinent one, and he had to consider his answer carefully. Why? Because it was the most beautiful picture he’d taken all day. Because he’d deliberately gotten rid of all his other photos of her so that he no longer possessed a single image of Sam Carter. Because he wanted to remember this weekend, to keep something of the warmth he’d rediscovered. But he couldn’t say any of those things. Instead he dropped his head back to the viewfinder and snapped again, capturing her quizzical look. “Need to finish the film.”

“Oh.” She believed him. And then, from the way her eyes suddenly widened, he guessed she had an idea. “Does that thing have a timer?”

“The camera? Yeah.”

“Great!” She was on her feet. “Set it up. Let’s get one of the two of us.”

Oh no. “Carter, I don’t think--”

“Go on,” she pleaded. “I want one to remember this by.”

“You do?”

“You don’t?”

“Umm… Sure.” Didn’t want to sound too enthusiastic, after all. Carefully avoiding looking at her, in case he revealed anything, he fiddled with the timer. He’d never had reason to use it before, but how hard could it be…?

After a few minutes he heard a voice close to his ear. “Jack?” She was crouching in the sand next to him. “You want me to take a look?”

“What? You don’t think I know how to use it?”

Her face was a perfect military deadpan. “Well, it’s been five minutes.”

“Carter,” he groused good-naturedly, “you’re a smart ass.”

She smiled. “Yes, sir.”

Pushing himself to his feet, he waved her towards the camera. “Have at it.” As she worked, he walked over to the boardwalk and sat down to wait. Despite the setting sun, he pulled his sunglasses out of his pocket and slipped them on. If he had to have his photo taken, he’d at least have something to hide behind.

After a moment, Sam stood up and headed towards him. “Thirty seconds,” she warned as she came and sat at his side. “It’s going to take three shots.”

Three? He didn’t know it could do that. “Right. Great.”

She glanced over at him and grinned. Then frowned and deftly reached up to pull the sunglasses from his face. Her fingers brushing his forehead felt distinctly intimate, and he found himself staring at her as her hand froze mid-air between them. “Can’t see you behind these,” she explained softly, her eyes locked to his. “I want--”

SNAP!

The moment ended. “Damn,” she muttered, turning to face the camera. “Okay, smile.”

He did his best. But as Carter edged closer, resting a friendly hand on his shoulder, he was afraid that his smile stretched too thin. Her fingers were hot through his t-shirt, her head close to his shoulder reminding him of distant moments of intimacy.

SNAP!

“One more,” she smiled, moving closer still until her arm was around his shoulders. He took a deep breath and slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her close. She moved willingly, and her hold on his shoulders tightened. It was the closest they’d come to an embrace since their time as Jonah and Thera, and his heart spasmed with an involuntary pain. They waited an eternity for the camera to take its final picture, and when at last the shutter clicked it felt all too soon.

“Great,” Sam said, not looking at him as she pulled her arm from around him.

He dropped his hold on her waist and cleared his throat. “I’ll send you a copy.”

“Thanks.” There was a pause as she stared out over the beach. “I’ve had a good time today.”

“Me too.”

She looked at him then, her head cocked to one side. “We should do this again.”

“Yeah. Well, next time you’re in Florida…”

“Or you’re in Colorado. We’ve got a spare room.” He almost laughed! Spare room? The day he spent a night under the same roof as Carter and her husband would be a cold one on Abydos! She must have seen something of his feeling in his face, because she frowned and added, “I mean it. We can’t leave it so long next time.”

“I have a house in Colorado,” he reminded her. “But you’re right. We should…you know. Keep in touch. Better.”

Reaching behind her, Sam grabbed her pack and reached into one of the inner pockets. She pulled something out. “Here,” she said, offering him a business card, “in case you forget.”

He scanned over her postal and email addresses, and was about to ask if they handed them out off-world these days when a trill ring intruded. Her cell phone.

“Damn,” she muttered, pulling it from her pack and grimacing when she saw the caller ID. “SGC.” With a frown, she answered the call. “Carter.” She listened, her eyes coming to rest on Jack’s as she did so. “Hey Daniel, what’s--” Her eyebrows shot up. “Thor?” Then she nodded, frowned and muttered, “Shit. No. No, it’s fine. Kennedy? Sure. Yeah. No, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

For a moment after she hung up, she just sat staring at the phone in her hands. Then she sighed and looked over at him. “I’ve got to go.”

“So I gathered.”

Her lips tightened. “I can’t tell you why.”

“I know,” he nodded, rising to his feet and heading off towards his camera. “They got a plane for you at Kennedy?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll give you a ride.”

“Thanks.” She stood up, picked up her pack and threw her phone inside. Then she groaned. “Shit. Matt’s going to kill me.”

Jack almost dropped his camera in surprise. “Matt? Why?”

“Oh,” she waved a dismissive hand to undermine her words, “he doesn’t like my hours.”

“Saving the planet isn’t a nine-to-five job,” Jack reminded her as he headed back to the boardwalk. "Doesn’t he get that?”

“He doesn’t-- I mean, I haven’t exactly told him much. You know. I can’t really.”

“Sure you can. Not specifics, but Sara always knew what I did. More or less.”

Sam winced, looking awkward as they walked up the beach towards his car. “I guess. It just seemed too complicated to make up half-truths about the SGC. So I went with the Deep Space Radio Telemetry.”

It was a surprise to Jack that not all in the Carter-garden was rosy. “What do you tell him?” he asked curiously. “I mean, when you go off-world and don’t get back for weeks?”

She shrugged. “He knows I travel a lot, at short notice.”

He chuckled at the thought. For some reason the fact that he knew more than Matt about at least one aspect of Carter’s life pleased him immensely. Which is probably what prompted him to say, “You want me to tell him you had to leave? He can’t kill me.” Sam looked surprised and he gave a half-smile. “I’ll make up something good.”

She hesitated, but her grin gave her away. “You’re sure? I mean, I can call him…”

“You want to?”

Sam winced. “Actually, no.” She sighed heavily. “I can’t face a fight. Will you tell him I couldn’t reach him on his cell?”

“Sure,“ Jack nodded. He felt an illicit kind of pleasure in this minor deception, a pleasure only slightly tinted by guilt. There was no harm done, after all. And if Matt couldn’t accept the demands of Carter’s job, then it was his own damn fault if she lied to him. He looked over at her and smiled. “You know, I kinda wish I was going with you.”

For an instant her step faltered and she shot him an earnest look. “Yeah,” she sighed gravely. “So do I.”

***

The trip to the base didn’t take more than half an hour, and most of it was spent in a pensive silence. Sam watched the twilit streets pass by silently, her mind flitting between the problem ahead and the man sitting at her side. Daniel hadn’t been able to say much over the unsecured line, but the mention of Thor’s name was enough. The Asgard hadn’t been in touch for years. Something was amiss. Something serious. And she wished to God she could talk about it with Jack. But he was no longer security cleared, and rules were rules. Her lips twisted wryly at the thought. Rules were rules. Summed up most of their relationship.

The car slowed. Sam realized they were approaching the gates of the base, and she felt an unusual sense of reluctance. She wanted to go back to the beach...

The guard on the gate stepped forward, interrupting her thoughts. “What’s your business, Ma’am?”

She lowered the window and handed over her ID. “Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter. I’m here to catch a transport. This is Colonel Jack O’Neill.”

“Retired,” Jack added, leaning across her to hand the kid his own ID.

The airman glanced at both IDs and checked the list on his clipboard. “You’re expected, Ma’am.” Then he frowned and glanced at Jack. “Colonel O’Neill, I don’t see your name here--”

“I’m just playing driver.”

After getting directions and the appropriate visitors’ IDs, Jack drove on. Still they were silent, although there was no awkwardness. But the air was heavy with their imminent parting, which was odd given that they hadn’t seen each other for over four years. Why should it be so hard to say goodbye? But she hardly had time to consider the question before they were pulling up in front of the small pre-fab building that served as the base’s departure lounge. It was time to go.

“Thanks,” she said into the silence that fell when he cut the engine.

“No problem.”

She sighed, heavy-hearted. “The timing really sucks.”

“That’s Thor for you,” he said with a self-conscious grimace. “Go on, go save the planet and give me a call when you get back. Okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed, looking over and finding him watching her. “I will.”

He nodded. “Go on then. Don’t want to keep Thor waiting. Tell him ‘hi’ from me.”

“Sure.” She took a deep breath - she had to go, however unwillingly. And since she refused to consider why, exactly, she was so reluctant to get out of his car, she decided she was better off just getting it over with. She opened the door, and had just turned to climb out when she felt a firm hand seize her wrist. Its warmth stopped the breath in her chest and sent her heart thudding as she turned around.

“Carter?” He was watching her closely, dark eyes anxious in the fading light. “You be careful.”

The thud in her heart turned into a painful twist of dangerous pleasure. “I will.”

He nodded slightly, but didn’t let go. And she made no move to leave. His eyes held her, drew her closer, and her heart ached to seal their recovered friendship with a kiss. But she couldn’t. Something held her back - a fear, perhaps, of feeling more than she should.

Whatever he was feeling, he kept it hidden. But their shared look lingered a little too long before he dropped his eyes and released her arm. When he spoke, his voice was gruff. “Good seeing you again.”

“You too.”

Another lingering silence. And then, “Go on, get out of here, Carter.”

Saying nothing more, Sam climbed out of the car and shut the door. She waved once as she paused on the threshold of the building, and he responded with a half-assed salute. Smiling despite the uncomfortable lump in her throat, she turned and stepped inside. Through the thin prefab walls she heard the crunch of tires in the gravel parking lot and knew that he had gone.

She felt desolate.

***

It was past eight by the time Jack pulled into the hotel parking lot, but although he was late he didn’t rush inside. Instead he sat silently in the dark car, trying to sort out the thoughts racing through his mind.

If he hadn’t known better, he’d have suspected foul play - one of those freaky ‘accidents’ that had always seemed to befall him on SG-1. Because he felt as though he’d been picked up by the scruff of the neck and flung back in time about four years, to the days when the Air Force, the SGC and Sam Carter had been routine parts of daily life.

He rubbed at the back of his neck, trying to ease an ache he hadn’t felt in years. Tension. It gnawed there, an incessant presence that couldn’t be ignored and had probably kept him alive on more than one occasion. But he hadn’t felt it in years, in four years to be precise. He sighed and climbed out of the car, reluctant to re-enter the plastic world of the hotel. It felt profoundly wrong that Carter was flying back to the SGC to save the world, again, while he was off to spend the evening drinking beer and making small-talk with people in whom he had absolutely no interest. Of course, that was pretty much exactly what had been going on for the past four years. But tonight he *knew* what she was doing, and that brought the reality home in Technicolor. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he should be out there, watching her six.

He shook his head, but it did nothing to dislodge his unease as he started walking towards the hotel. Laura, at least, wouldn’t be worried by his late arrival. She was used to his unpredictable comings and goings, and she was equally free to do as she pleased. It was the one aspect of their relationship he most valued; he needed his freedom more than anything else. Matt, however, would be a different matter. Not that he knew the man well, but he’d always been an astute judge of character and from the first day they’d met - at a hellish ‘party’ at Daniel’s - he’d seen the pole stuck up Matt’s butt. He didn’t blame Carter for not wanting to call, and the truth was he was kind of looking forward to the coming encounter. It was petty, but so what?

Ambling into the crowded hotel, he headed straight to Carter’s room. Her key was in his hand, to deliver to Matt along with the news that his wife was already on her way back to Colorado. Her room wasn’t far and he knocked sharply on the door. After a moment it was opened by a bleary-looking Matt in a rumpled suit.

“What? Jack…?” Matt mumbled, rubbing at his face.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.” Although, what the hell was he doing asleep at this time of day?

Matt yawned. “It’s okay. I was just taking a nap. Long day.” Then, as if noticing for the first time, he peered over Jack’s shoulder and said, “Sam with you?”

Jack held out the key. “No. She got called back to base. Flew out of Kennedy an hour ago.”

Irritation chased sleep from Matt’s face. “You’re kidding me?”

“Not her fault,” Jack reminded him. “That’s just how it goes sometimes. She does an important job.”

“Yeah, right. And she couldn’t call?”

A slight smile tugged his lips. He hoped he didn’t look smug. “Couldn’t get through.”

“Huh,” Matt muttered, raking a hand through his blond hair. He didn’t look convinced.

Jack grimaced, but held his tongue. “I should get back to--”

“Wait,” Matt said suddenly. “Come in for a second, will you? I’ve got something for Laura.”

He hesitated for a moment, awkward entering Sam’s private space. But at the same time, intrigued. It was forbidden territory, and the subject of much silent speculation once upon a time. And now that they were friends again… He stepped inside.

“It’s some papers,” Matt was saying, flipping open his briefcase and rummaging inside. “About the contract…”

The door closed behind him and Jack’s eyes roved cautiously around the room. One of the large chairs was strewn with clothes, all of them female. Matt, he assumed, was too neat-pressed to leave clothes lying around the room. Something black and strappy on the chair caught his eye and Jack looked hurriedly away. Didn’t need that image in his head! On the dresser were the usual collection of female pots and potions, which surprised him. He’d never imagined Carter as the kind of woman who bothered with makeup and hair stuff. Of course, he’d only known her on duty. This was her other life, the life of which he’d never been part. His eyes moved again, this time to a bedside table stacked with papers. Had to be Carter’s. He edged closer, and his stomach did a regretful back-flip when he saw the familiar SGC logo on the cover of one of the folders. He’d forgotten how much he missed it.

From the bedside table, his eyes drifted unwillingly to the bed. The covers were rumpled and he couldn’t help but imagine Carter sleeping there. She wriggled when she slept, he remembered. It had become a joke in the team, pulling straws to see who’d have to sleep next to Carter wriggling all night. Not that he’d ever minded losing. He wondered whether she still wriggled when she slept…

“Here it is!” Matt’s voice grated along Jack’s nerves like a bad gear-change.

He turned around sharply, clenched by a painful, familiar anger. She should have been mine! The words surged shockingly from the darkest place in his heart, the place he kept so tightly locked. She should be mine. He felt sick.

“Tell her to read it through, have her people look at it,” Matt was saying, oblivious to the betrayal beating in Jack’s heart. He offered him the papers and Jack took them with a hand that almost shook.

“Thanks,” he managed, rolling up the papers with anxious fingers.

Matt sighed. “Thanks for passing on Sam’s message,” he said, pulling open the door for Jack to leave. “Sorry she put you in the middle of things.”

Ha! If he only knew. “No problem.”

“Tell Laura I’ll call her when I get back to work,” Matt said with a bright smile. “You’ve got a fascinating woman there, Jack. You’re a lucky man.”

Suspicion bit through Jack’s guilt in a flash of irrational anger. Matt had already stolen one woman from him… “You just keep your distance, pal.”

Matt’s eyes widened. “What?”

“You heard.”

“Hey!” He backed away, hands raised defensively. “I didn’t mean anything. I’m married, for Christ’s sake!”

Married. To Carter. To *his* Carter. “I--” *His* Carter? What the hell was he thinking? “I’m sorry.” He looked up at Matt, who was staring at him as though he were on the wrong side of sanity. “I, uh--” He tapped the rolled-up papers against the palm of his hand. “I’ll give these to Laura. Thanks.”

“Right,” came the bemused response. “Okay.”

And with that, Jack left. Angry with Matt, angry with himself, and angrier still with his own treacherous heart. He didn’t want to feel what he was feeling; he didn’t want to relive this soulful ache he’d thought long healed. He didn’t want to be in love with another man’s wife.

He refused to be.

***

Chapter 6

“You *let* him out?” Daniel had never seen Sam so incandescent. Her eyes were blazing, face pale, and every muscle in her body was contracted into taut, angry lines as she leaned across the table towards Thor. “How could you be so stupid?!”

“That’s enough, Colonel,” Taylor rebuked her. Although Daniel doubted the General disagreed with her sentiment. It *was* stupid. Really, really stupid.

Thor, however, was unmoved by Sam’s outburst. He blinked slowly; it was almost a shrug. “In hindsight, the decision was not wise.”

Sam slumped back angrily into her seat. “That’s an understatement.”

“However,” Thor continued, his attention fixing on Taylor, “the mission report mentioned several times that Fifth was unlike his contemporaries. That he was more…human.” He paused as Sam ran a frustrated hand through her hair. “We hoped to capitalize on his humanity.”

She was on her feet again, pacing. “What for? To come up with more dumb ideas? Don’t waste your time! This is dummer than anything we could have thought up! Fifth is a replicator! He’s the reason you asked us to risk our lives saving you’re ass--”

“Colonel Carter!” Taylor snapped. “Enough. Sit down.”

“Sir, you don’t understand,” Sam protested. “Fifth is--”

“I’ve read the report, Colonel. Now sit.”

Reluctantly, she sat and her gaze fell on Daniel. Her anger was palpable, but beneath its cold fire he saw something else. Something very close to fear. And it scared him.

“Tell us what happened,” General Taylor said into the stiff silence.

Thor’s head tilted to one side. “Fifth appeared grateful. To him, you must realize, little time had passed since the departure of SG-1.”

Sam winced, but held silent. And Daniel had nothing to say; he had no memory of the mission and the reports he’d read had been sketchy. But it was becoming clear that the memories Sam was living pained her deeply.

“He remained with us for three of your months,” Thor continued. “His capacity for learning is immense, and he proved a willing and able student.”

“What did you expect?” Sam asked incredulously. “He’s a machine. He’s programmed to learn, to exploit his environment, to destroy--”

“Colonel!” Taylor was reaching the end of his short fuse. “I won’t warn you again.”

Sam subsided with a frown and Thor continued. “However, three days ago Fifth disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” Daniel pulled off his glasses with a frown. “So he’s just roaming loose on your planet?”

He wasn’t sure if the Asgard could look sheepish, but Thor certainly looked uncomfortable. “We believe,” he said carefully, “that Fifth left through the Stargate.”

The screech of chair legs on the floor grated in the air as Sam got to her feet and paced to the picture window overlooking the gate room. A hand raked through her hair, but she said nothing. It was the General who spoke. “Where did he go?”

“To a planet known as Tagara. But he is no longer there.”

“So where is he?”

Thor blinked. “That we do not know.”

“But you can guess,” Sam said quietly from the other side of the room. “That’s why you’re here.”

Daniel frowned. “You think he’s here?”

“That’s impossible,” Taylor broke in. “He hasn’t come through the gate. And we’ve detected no ships in orbit.”

Thor held up a hand. “Samantha Carter is correct,” he said. “Whether he is here or not, Earth is his objective.”

“He blames us?” Daniel guessed. “Because SG-1 didn’t take him with them?”

“Not us,” Sam said softly. “Me. He blames me, because I betrayed him.”

Thor’s slight nod tightened a band around Daniel’s chest. If it was personal, that changed everything. His eyes fixed on Sam, who still stood with her back to them all, tense and ramrod straight. “He wants revenge.”

“He is more human than we had anticipated,” Thor agreed. “And he learned his lesson well on Halla.”

Sam nodded and slowly turned around. Her face was pale, eyes wide. But the fear he’d seen earlier had been replaced with a grim resignation. “I taught him deceit and betrayal,” she said hollowly. “Guess, now I pay the price.”

***

Laura Hartstone lay alone in bed, listening to the roar and crash of the ocean outside her window. The room was dark, and shadows played across the ceiling as the blinds moved occasionally in the artificially cooled air that streamed from the wall vent. She hated hotels. They always felt so sterile and cold.

With a sigh she rolled onto her side and gazed across the empty bed. She’d heard Jack leave quietly soon after she’d fallen asleep in his arms. Roused by the movement of the bed, she’d opened her eyes to see him pulling a t-shirt over his head and heading for the door. She hadn’t called him back, familiar with his occasional late-night rambles, but she missed him nonetheless.

He’d been acting strangely all evening, half-excited and half-distracted. She’d seen a light in his eyes that was unfamiliar, and yet he’d barely heard one word in ten at dinner. But a couple of times she’d seen a small smile creep onto his face that had nothing to do with the conversation. She’d asked him a little about his day with Matt’s wife, but he’d just shrugged and said the beach was beautiful. And later, when she’d slid into bed and into his arms, he’d resisted all her charms. “I’m tired,” he’d told her softly, kindly. And then he’d laid there, staring up at the ceiling with his arms unmoving around her, until she drifted into a tense doze only to be woken when he left.

And so here she was, alone. Alone and wondering exactly what was going through Jack O’Neill’s often impenetrable mind. She closed her eyes with a sigh, knowing it was pointless to wonder. So much of his life and himself were closed to her that sometimes she wondered if she knew him at all. Or if that was exactly how he liked it; an anonymous intimacy with no questions asked and no answers given.

It might be okay for him, but she wasn’t sure it was enough for her. Not nearly enough.

***

It was late. Beyond late, it was already early. And Sam still hadn’t left the base. She paced her lab to the beat of the thoughts that raced through her head, reliving over and over the moment of her betrayal. Not that she’d had a choice, she’d simply been following orders. But was that really an excuse?

She couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if she’d ignored Jack’s silent command. Would they all now be trapped in a world caught is aspic? Or would they have pulled Fifth from the teeth of that fate?

It was impossible to know, yet equally impossible to stop wondering. He’d been like a child, trusting and naive. And they’d exploited his weakness, leaving him to the mercy of the monsters who’d created him. Of all the things she’d done over the past eleven years, it ranked up there with the worst of them. And now, quite literally, it was coming back to haunt her. Or to kill her.

She shivered and dropped her weary body into the chair behind her desk. She wished Jonas was still around, or Teal’c. They’d have understood; they’d been there, seen Fifth and the others. But mostly, she wished she could talk to Jack. It was his order she’d been following, after all. And, typically, they’d never discussed it since. Just like so much that lay between them. But after the weekend they’d spent together - was it only this morning they’d been on the beach? - she felt that she could have broached the subject. If she’d been allowed to, which, of course, she wasn’t now that Jack wasn’t security cleared.

“Stupid regulations,” she muttered to herself, prodding her mouse to bring her PC to life. She scanned her inbox, looking for something to distract her from her circular thoughts. There wasn’t much - a few memos, a reply from Major Schiffer about the particle generator that--

Oh.

Her heart stammered. There, at the top of her email list, appeared a message entitled “Since the world hasn’t ended…” from one jackoneill@earthlink.net.

Smiling her first smile since she’d left Florida, Sam opened the message.

From: jackoneill@earthlink.net
Date: September 18 2007 03.48
To: carter_s@sgc.usaf.gov
Subject: Since the world hasn’t ended…

…I assume you’ve saved the planet. Again. Good job!

I can’t sleep. And it’s your fault, Major. Knowing one of my team is out there makes me antsy. Ex-member of my team, I guess. Or is that member of my ex-team…?? Whatever. And the hotel has this 24 hour business center, so here I am, wondering where you are.

I told Matt you’d been abducted by little gray men, but I don’t think he believed me. So I said something vague about ‘recalled to base’. Hope that’s okay. He did seem kinda pissed though, but he didn’t try to kill me. You might want to call him when you can. Not sure he believed that you couldn’t reach his cell.

We’re heading home tomorrow. But I’m thinking of taking a trip down to Colorado soon. Maybe you, me and Daniel could meet up? Hit O’Mally’s for old time’s sake. What do you say?

O’Neill

She read the message a couple of times, and her desire to talk to him about Fifth doubled and doubled again. She looked at the time of the message and grinned when she realized that it had only been sent a matter of minutes ago. Hoping that he was still killing time on the computer, she dashed off a quick reply.

From: carter_s@sgc.usaf.gov
Date: September 18 2007 04.01
To: jackoneill@earthlink.net
Subject: RE: Since the world hasn’t ended…

Hi Jack!

Turns out it’s not the planet that needs saving this time, so you can relax. Hope you and Laura have a good trip home. And I think it’s a great idea for you to come visit us down here. George Hammond would love to see you, I’m sure. And if you give me enough notice, I’ll contact Teal’c and Jonas. Maybe we should have a party???

I had fun today. Wish I was still on the beach…

Take care,

Sam

She hit send, and sat back to wait.

Five minutes. Nothing.

Ten minutes. Still nothing.

She yawned and looked at the clock. Almost four thirty. Not worth going home. Barely worth going to bed.

Fifteen minutes. Absolutely nothing.

He must have gone to bed, or not wanted to waste time replying to her message. Which made sense. It was the middle of the night! They should both be in bed. Slowly she closed down all the windows on her PC, leaving her inbox until last. One final click on send/receive …nothing. With a regretful sigh, she shut it down. Loneliness descended around her, irrational and disturbing. It wasn’t as though she didn’t have people she could talk to - Daniel, General Taylor, and even Matt--

Her phone rang and she almost jumped out of her chair. Her heart was still racing when she snatched up the receiver. “Carter.”

“Colonel Cater,” said the operator, “we have an outside call on an unsecured line from a Colonel O’Neill.”

Her face exploded into a grin. “Put it through.”

The phone clicked and then she heard, “Get some sleep, Carter.”

The hair on the back of her neck prickled at the sound of his quiet voice. “I could say the same to you.”

“Hey, I still outrank you.”

She smiled, closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “Thanks for telling Matt.”

“No problem. He and Laura spent the evening talking contracts anyway. You didn’t miss much.”

“Good,” she replied, although the words ‘I missed *you*’ popped alarmingly into her head. She flushed, but ignored them. “What time are you heading out in the morning?”

“Who knows? Whenever Laura drags herself out of bed.” There was a pause, and she could imagine his smile. “She doesn’t take orders too well.”

“I bet,” Sam laughed. Although the mental image of Laura in bed with Jack made her cringe. She pushed it out of her head and lapsed into silence.

After a moment, Jack spoke again. “So… Everything okay there?”

God, she wished she could tell him. She hedged. “So far…”

Another silence. Then, “Something coming?”

“Perhaps.” Sam sighed. “I wish I could say more, but--”

“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask. I’m glad everyone’s okay.”

She smiled. “Same as always.”

“That bad, huh?”

She smiled again. In fact, she had the feeling she was grinning like an idiot, and was glad she was alone in her office. “So, you’re thinking of coming down to see us?” she said, changing the subject. Perhaps if she could talk to him in person, away from insecure phone lines, she could broach the subject of Fifth?

“Yeah. It’s not like my diary is packed or anything.”

“How soon?” Damn, that sounded more eager than she’d hoped. Eager? Try desperate.

He picked up on her tone immediately. “Why?” he asked, suddenly serious. “Do you need me--”

“No,” she said hurriedly. Then, remembering that she had nothing to hide from him anymore, she added cautiously, “I just hate talking on the phone.”

“Yes,” he said slowly, feeling his way, “it’s kinda hard to talk about some things on the phone.”

“Yeah.”

There was a thoughtful pause before he said, “I could get a flight Wednesday.”

Her heart skipped a beat. “That soon?”

“If you’re busy--”

“No!” Damn. Desperate again. “No, that would be great. Really.”

“Okay.” He said the word slowly, as if contemplating the ramifications for the first time. “Wednesday then?”

“If you need a place to stay…?”

“My place is fine,” he said hurriedly. “It’s between rentals and needs some work. I should spend some time there anyway.”

“Okay,” Sam replied, sitting forward nervously. Or was it excitedly? She was still smiling. “Guess I’ll see you on Wednesday?”

“Yeah.”

She wondered if this felt as strange to Jack as it did to her. Because as innocent as the arrangement was, she was alive with nervous anticipation. Talking to him like this, so personally, felt right. And yet wrong. Somehow she couldn’t imagine herself telling Matt about this late-night conversation, or about Jack’s visit. It was just between the two of them, and she wanted to keep it that way. But deep down, almost below her emotional radar, she knew that her desire to keep this secret was very, very dangerous.

“Night then, Carter.” His voice was a welcome intrusion, and reminded her that she’d fallen silent.

“Night, Jack,” she replied, closing her eyes and imagining his face. “Thanks for calling.”

“Anytime, Carter. Anytime.”

It was a promise she believed in as absolutely as she believed in the man himself. She smiled and her smile melted into her heart. As it did so her life shifted slowly and inevitably towards a new path. Or perhaps it was simply returning to the right path, after too many years in the wilderness?

But whether she would follow that path to its inevitable conclusion was another question altogether. And one to which she had no answer. Yet.

***

The sun was just cresting the waves of the Atlantic, turning the cloudless skies azure and dimming the glory of the stars. Far above the swelling surf, like refugees from the night sky, a cascade of tiny fires sparkled as they sheared through the atmosphere towards the water. To anyone watching, it would have seemed like a shower of fairy dust, falling gracefully into the cold embrace of the ocean.

But no one was watching, and the thousand tiny parts sinking beneath the waves went unnoticed.

Unnoticed by everyone but each other. And in the dark, airless depths they sought each other out. Connecting, building. Creating.

***

The airport in Orlando was busy, seething with tourists - most of them British, Matt noticed irritably. Lobster-red people swathed in Disney merchandise, their unruly children and grating accent tearing through his nerves as he waited in line to be security cleared.

Although, if he was honest, it wasn’t the tourists that were bugging him. It was the fact that he was going home alone, dragging with him Sam’s suitcase, laptop and briefcase. Everything that she’d abandoned, along with him, when she’d disappeared back to work. Most men, he thought sourly, wouldn’t put up with it. Twenty-first century or not, there was such a thing as marital duty and he was pretty damn sure that actually spending time with your spouse was involved in that somewhere. He’d have to have words with her. Make it clear that he--

Oof! Something soft hit him hard on his back, and he span around with a glare. “Sorry mate,” came the apology from the tourist behind him, vainly attempting to reign in his rambunctious kid armed with a Mickey Mouse stuffed toy.

Matt was on the point of telling the moron to keep his obnoxious children in order, when he heard a voice through the airport chatter. “Matt?”

He turned, and saw Laura Hartstone emerging from the crowd. She looked good with her slim, almost boyish figure. And red hair had always been a turn-on for him. His irritation with the tourists vaporized and he smiled at her as she approached. “Hey, Laura. Heading home?”

Dumping her over-large pack at his feet, she nodded and rubbed at her slender shoulder. “Yeah. Jack’s just checking in. I thought I’d get a place in line here.” She peered down towards he security check-point. “It’s a nightmare, isn’t it?”

“Too many tourists,” Matt muttered, casting half a glance at the chaotic family behind him.

She smiled at that. It was a nice smile, he thought, and he briefly wondered what a woman as young and attractive as Laura Hartstone was doing with a man as old and irritable as Jack O’Neill. “We should get together,” he said suddenly, surprising himself. “Before you head out to Eritrea.”

She was just opening her mouth to respond when O’Neill appeared, as if summonded, at her shoulder. “Hey,” he said, and although his voice was quiet it carried well over the noise. He nodded towards Matt, his eyes remaining hidden behind dark glasses. “Heading home too?”

“No where else to go,” Matt smiled brightly. His gaze returned to Laura, and he saw the possessive hand O’Neill laid on her arm. His smile deepened; obviously the man felt threatened, and the thought gave him an unexpected rush of adrenaline.

Despite his sunglasses, O’Neill’s brow creased into a frown. “Did you speak to Carter?”

For a confused beat, Matt wondered who he was talking about… “Oh. Sam.” It was his turn to frown. “No. Her cell’s switched off and there’s no answer at home.”

“Oh.” O’Neill seemed agitated, his lips pressing together tightly. Matt wondered if he knew more than he was telling. But all he said was a casual, “Ask her to call me when you see her, will you?” Then he picked up Laura’s pack and nodded towards the other security check-point. “I think the line’s shorter at that one.”

A flicker of irritation crossed Laura’s face, but she didn’t object when he started to usher her away. “Call me,” she said over her shoulder. “We’ll meet or something?”

Matt grinned at her, admiring her wispy frame. She almost looked fragile, very unlike Sam. “Sounds good.”

And then they were gone, leaving Matt alone once more. But now he felt immune to the noise and irritation that surrounded him. He felt excited. Enthused. If Sam could continuously put her work before her marriage, then why couldn’t he do the same for a change? Let her sit at home alone for once, while he enjoyed himself with Laura Hartstone. It would do her good to feel a little envious for a change.

***

Their encounter with Matt at the airport had left Jack irritable. He felt antsy, uneasy in his own skin, and found it difficult to sit still in the cramped airline seat. He shifted for the hundredth time, trying to find a comfortable position for his legs. Who the hell did they build these things for? Four foot midgets?

Next to him Laura sighed irritably as he jostled her elbow again, and he muttered an apology. She closed her book, looking at him over the top of her pink sunglasses. “What’s up with you anyway?”

“Knees,” he told her, and it was half of the truth.

She didn’t buy it. “You’ve been in a foul mood all morning.”

He couldn’t deny that. His conversation with Sam the previous evening had disturbed him; she was spooked, he could tell. And not knowing *why* was gnawing at him like a colony of hungry termites. “I didn’t sleep well.”

“I noticed,” Laura sighed. “Where’d you go anyway?”

He felt his lips compress with another half-truth. “I needed some air. Went for a walk.”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw her shift in her seat to look at him better, her willowy figure moving easily in the narrow seat. “Is it Matt?”

That threw him like a left-hook. “Matt?” The man who’d single-handedly destroyed seven years of muted hope and repressed expectations? Sure it was Matt. But how could Laura know that?

“I know,” she laughed self-consciously, “he was flirting a little.”

Jack turned his head, staring at her. Flirting? “He was flirting with you?”

“I’m sure it’s just business,” she assured him, with a delicate pat on his arm. “You don’t have to worry.” But he just stared, floored by the realization that he wasn’t - he wasn’t worried. “Although,” Laura continued, turning her attention back to her book, “I kinda feel sorry for his wife. I mean, it can’t be much fun can it?”

Jack’s heart twisted painfully. “The guy’s a jerk,” he growled, pulling the in-flight magazine out of the pouch in front of him and flicking through it angrily. Anything to distract himself from the overpowering urge to pummel Matt Hutchinson to pieces. If he hurt Sam - if *anyone* ever hurt Sam - he’d make them pay. Big time.

After all, isn’t that what friends were for?

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