SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

Future Imperfect

Not sure anyone's actually reading this here, but just in case...



Chapter 7

P4X-829 was a gray planet. Gray sky, gray rocks, gray dirt. Gray, empty and boring. Standing atop the crumbling ruins Sam scanned the distance with her field glasses, seeing nothing beyond the rubble that lay all around them.

“I don’t think anyone’s been here for a thousand years,” Daniel called up from the ground below. “The iconography is definitely Goa'uld, but none that I recognize.”

Sam lowered her glasses and half-walked, half-skidded down the side of the rubble towards her team. Lewis and Granger were chewing the fat on the other side of the ruins that had once been a civilization, and Daniel was slowly turning over a small rock in one hand. "Some long-dead Goa’uld?” she guessed.

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Daniel nodded, dropping the stone back to the ground. He shrugged. “There’s nothing here, Sam. Sorry - from the MALP survey, it looked good.”

She gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Not a problem. Nice to have an easy mission for a change.”

“I guess,” he agreed, glancing up at the gray alien sky. “And to tell the truth, it feels good to be out here again. I miss it, sometimes.”

A sudden surge of melancholy took her by surprise, leaking out as a sigh. “Me too.” But the melancholy was tinged with something else; a hesitant sense of expectation. A feeling that had been fizzing in her stomach all day.

Daniel must have sensed something, because his eyes narrowed slightly behind his glasses. “What?”

Instantly, she was defensive. “What?”

“You smiled.” Sam laughed nervously, looking down at her dusty boots as she started walking back towards her team. Daniel fell in at her side. “Come on,” he pressed. “What’s up? You’ve been smiling to yourself all day.”

She shook her head, glancing up at her waiting team. For reasons she didn’t want to examine too closely, this wasn’t something she felt comfortable discussing within earshot of anyone other than her closest friends. “Head back to the gate,” she called to Granger. “There’s nothing here.”

With a nod, he and Lewis moved out and she and Daniel kept pace a good few feet behind them. “So…?” Daniel pressed as they started walking again. “What’s going on?”

“It’s nothing really,” she told him, although her smile was creeping back onto her face. “It’s just, I--” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He, of all people, knew the significance of this. “I ran into Jack last weekend. In Florida.”

Daniel blinked, stopped walking and blinked again. “Jack? O’Neill?”

“He was at the conference with his--” She hated that she stumbled over the word! “--his girlfriend. She’s a photographer.”

“Laura,” Daniel nodded. “Yes, I know.” His eyebrows shot up. “And?”

She laughed awkwardly and shook her head. “And what?”

“Sam, you haven’t spoken to him in four years! What happened?”

Glancing at her team, disappearing at a ground-eating pace, she urged Daniel back into motion with a nod of her head. “We talked,” she said, keeping her gaze fixed on the horizon as they strode out. “We talked, and…it was nice. It felt good.”

“That’s great,” Daniel smiled. “I hated that you two had lost touch.”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed, her memory drifting, as it had too often since her return, back to the deserted Florida beach. “Me too.”

They walked on in a thoughtful silence for a while, and then Daniel spoke again. “So, you’re going to keep in touch then?”

Something tightened across Sam’s back, a tension in her shoulders that she couldn’t explain. “Sure,” she nodded, her gaze fixed on the dusty gray dirt ahead. “Actually…” God, there was absolutely *no* reason why she should feel embarrassed about this! Determinedly, she lifted her head and fixed him with a smile. “Actually, he’s due in town this evening. Eight o’clock.”

Daniel’s nonplussed surprise was priceless. “Today?”

“Yeah,” she nodded, her pace unconsciously increasing. “I…uh…I wanted to talk to him about something. And he said he had some work to do on his house, so…”

“Right,” Daniel nodded sagely. “That makes sense. I mean, it’s not like you could talk on the phone or anything.”

She flung him a look somewhere between irritation and embarrassment. “Not about this,” she said in a low voice. Glancing at Lewis and Granger ahead she moved closer to Daniel. “I want to talk to him about Fifth.”

The speculation in Daniel’s eyes turned to concern. “You’re really worried about that, aren’t you? You know, even if he gets through the gate, he’s not going to leave he SGC.”

“Maybe,” she conceded, although her faith in the ability of the SGC to contain a replicator that sophisticated was not great. “But if the Asgard couldn’t control them, I don’t know why we think we can.”

Daniel frowned, rubbing at the back of his neck. “So how do you think Jack’s going to be able to help?”

“I don’t.” She looked away again, at the massive gray ring coming into view on the horizon. “I just want to talk about it. About what we did.”

“Huh,” Daniel grunted. “Jack must have changed then. As I recall, he didn’t do talking.”

Sam smiled, and it struck her that Daniel was right. The man she’d met in Florida had been different, in many ways, to the soldier with whom she’d served for so long. Four years ago she couldn’t talk to him about the mission; now she had the alarming feeling that she could talk to him about anything. Well, almost anything.

“So when does he get in?”

She glanced down at her watch. “Eight.” Just two more hours. She wondered if she should meet him at the airport and save him the cab fare.

“We should contact Teal’c,” Daniel added. “It’d be good to get everyone back together.”

“Yeah,” Sam smiled. “Wouldn’t it?” The old SG-1, back together again. A week ago she’d have thought it was impossible, but now everything had changed. And the change brought a smile to her heart and her lips. Life was good.

Life was very, very good.

***

The darkroom in the far corner of Laura’s basement had always been her refuge. The silent air filled with a chemical tang cut her off from the world beyond, leaving her alone with the images appearing as if by magic on the paper before her.

She liked the rituals and the control of the old fashioned methods. She liked watching the pictures appear slowly, as if out of her memory. And it was, bizarrely, something that she could share with Jack. Photography was something he’d always been interested in, or so he’d told her that sunny afternoon at his cabin the day they’d first met. And he’d been keen to understand what she did; so much for old dogs and new tricks. He wasn’t bad either, she reflected.

Her eyes drifted to a pile of photographs he’d taken in Florida. She hadn’t seen them yet, and she was surprised he’d had the time to develop them at all. No sooner had they gotten home than he’d been on the phone booking a flight down to Colorado Springs. His meeting with Samantha Carter had, apparently, tweaked his nostalgia nerve and he was determined to arrange a team reunion while at last doing the long over-due maintenance on the house he refused to sell. It was a good job, Laura reflected silently, that she wasn’t the suspicious type or she might have suspected that Samantha Carter had tweaked more than his nostalgia.

Leaving her own photographs to develop, Laura reached for the pile of his photos and started flicking through them. Most were okay, although a couple struck her as really quite good for an amateur. He'd managed to capture the languid beauty of the beach, and the contrast between the dark clouds on the horizon and the setting sunlight was really quite dramatic. He was right, she thought, to go for monochrome film - it really highlighted the natural drama. He’d only developed a handful of pictures though, and she wondered if he’d considered the rest unworthy of his time. Jack O’Neill was his own harshest critic. Reaching for the negatives hanging above the bench, she held them up to the small light and started evaluating.

Beach. Beach. Dunes. Ocean. Beach.

Oh.

She looked closer, something prickling unpleasantly along the back of her neck. It had the chill of jealousy. Samantha Carter, sitting on the end of a boardwalk, gazing out across the ocean. She didn’t look posed, it was entirely natural, and she felt as thought she were seeing the woman through Jack’s eyes. How long had he watched her, she wondered. How long had he studied her, waiting for this photo? Affection dripped from the image.

And there was another, this time she was smiling curiously at the camera. And Laura was forced to admit that she was beautiful, despite the fine lines around her eyes. She looked at the next one, heart racing. This one was worse. The woman and Jack, sitting together staring into each other’s eyes. She was holding his sunglasses, as though she’d just pulled them from his face. And the next, hip-to-hip, and then…arms around each other.

Goose bumps prickled along Laura’s arms, and she dropped the negatives onto the bench. A sick kind of certainty gripped her as she remembered Jack’s expression in the photo. So intent, so serious. Bewitched. And now here he was, racing down to Colorado Springs for a team ‘reunion’. Yeah, right. God! It was so obvious.

Leaving her own photographs to stew in their chemical bath, she slammed out of the darkroom into the cool silence of the basement. Anger bubbled to the surface, provoking her to lash out against the nearby laundry basket, kicking it skittering across the concrete floor scattering dirty clothes in its wake. “You bastard!”

How could he do this to her? Cheat on her like she was some dumb school-kid? But perhaps that’s how he saw her? Young and stupid, too naive to understand what was right in front of her nose. Or maybe he just kept her around for the sex? Let’s face it, sex with her had to be better than with that old-bitch Carter. She had to be forty if she was a day.

She stormed up the stares into the kitchen, slamming the basement door behind her as she stalked relentlessly into the bedroom. Although this was her house, Jack had been around long enough that many of his belongings had migrated up from his cabin. Reaching the dresser, she yanked out the drawer that he’d co-opted, letting the jumble of socks and underwear lurch out all over the floor. There had to be some evidence. Letters, pictures, something from his past to tell her how the hell this woman could just march back into his life and take him away from her over a weekend!

At the back of the drawer, she found a leather folder crammed full of letters, pictures and newspaper clippings. The leather was worn and soft, bearing the faded initials J.S.O. - Jonathan Sean O’Neill, Jack’s father. Laura sat down on the thin carpet, the folder on her knee, and opened it up. On the top were prints of the pictures she’d just seen in the dark room - the fact that he’d developed them and hidden them from her said as much as the photos themselves! Putting them to one side, she started to pry through his private papers with more indignation than guilt. How dare he do this to her?

Next was a picture of his parents smiling proudly in front of their ticky-tacky 1950s suburban dream of a house, followed by a couple of black and white pictures of a well groomed little boy with a sparkle in his eyes that she recognized with a pang of jealous loss. Then a newspaper clipping about ‘local boy Jonathan O’Neill Jnr’ graduating from the Air Force Academy. His birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce decree were stuffed in behind them.

She stopped at the picture of Charlie, maybe about five years old.

Despite her anger, the picture still turned her heart in sadness. Such a waste. It amazed her that Jack could have ever gone back to the Air Force after his own son had met such a violent death; she wondered if he ever thought about that when he took the life of some other father’s son.

Relentlessly she moved onward, but the mementos grew increasingly sparse. A couple of pictures in what looked like Eastern Europe, back in the Cold War. He looked young and dangerous, and she wondered how many women’s hearts he’d broken back then. And, bitterly, how often he’d cheated on his wife.

At last she came across something more interesting; a fabric patch bearing the odd initials SGC. It looked military and well-used. She guessed it had something to do with his work in Colorado. Behind it was a photograph of Jack, with two other men. One in glasses and a large, floppy hat. The other, tall and black with some kind of tattoo on his forehead. She peered closer to take a look at the tattoo, only to see something else of more interest. A slim white hand rested on the black man’s shoulder. A disembodied hand. Laura ran her finger along the edge of the picture to confirm her suspicion; it had been cut. Someone had deliberately been cut out of the picture. Turning it over, she read on the back, ‘Carter, Teal’c, Daniel and me - P3T-329, 2003’.

The strange numbers didn’t register with Laura as she turned the photo over again and looked at the picture of the three men. Carter, Teal’c, Daniel and me. Only there was no Carter. He’d cut her out of the picture.

She let it fall back into the folder, her stomach twisting jealously. The idea of Jack going to the effort of cutting someone out of a photo floored her. He was always so laconic, so unflappable, so unreachable in many ways. But obviously this Carter woman had reached him. Reached him to the extent that, whatever her crime, it had moved him to try and eradicate her from his memories forever.

Laura could only imagine one thing that could engender such hatred. Rejection.

Had he loved her, she wondered? Did he still? Not a pleasant thought, but Laura wasn’t one to avoid harsh truths. The butchered photograph certainly explained the tension she remembered during their first meeting back in Florida. The question was, had a weekend been enough to overturn his anger? And even if it hadn’t, even if he wasn’t heading to Colorado Springs in order to do more than reminisce, did she really want to be involved with a man in love with ghosts from his past?

She was young, not unattractive, with a career blossoming all around her. She could do better than him.

Couldn’t she?

***

On the damp sand of a warm Florida beach, lit only by the orange glow of hotel lights, one scuttled from the ocean. One became two, two became four, four became eight, eight became sixteen… And slowly, piece by piece, the thousands became One.

It moved its head, tasting the air…searching for the scent that had drawn it to this place. Crouching, its newly formed fingers pressed into the cold sand and sent out microscopic sensors seeking the thing for which it had traveled so far. Seeking her unique pattern, the traces she left as she passed.

Long before dawn crept over the horizon, it had found her. And for the first time, it smiled.

***

“Out?” Matt asked, glancing at Sam over his fork of spaghetti. “Where?”

It was a good question. She twirled her fork tensely in the stodgy mass of pasta, unable to eat. “Just for a drink, probably.” It wasn’t a lie. So why was she so on edge? She watched irritably as Matt stuffed an over-full fork into his mouth, but resisted the urge to comment. She last thing she wanted was to argue. “I don’t suppose I’ll be late.”

Matt shrugged, mouth too full to speak at first. He took a swig from his beer, but she could still see spaghetti in his mouth when he spoke. For some reason it irritated her. Everything about him seemed to irritate her these days.

And deep down she was aware that the fault was her own; Matt hadn’t changed over the past four years. She had.

“I’ve got work to do this evening anyway,” he said at last.

Of course. For all his complaining about Sam’s hours, on the days when she was at home Matt was invariably working. The tap-tap of his laptop was only marginally more irritating than the stupid ring-tone on his cell - the cell that was never, *ever* switched off. Neither’s yours, she reminded herself silently.

God, when had she gotten so critical?

It was only when she heard his exaggerated sigh that Sam realized she hadn’t replied. Matt was scowling at the table over the lip of the beer bottle as he swallowed. Gritting her teeth, Sam tried to sound bright. “What?”

His glare slid towards her. “Nothing.”

Sam cast a surreptitious glance at the clock on the wall. She *really* didn’t want to start a fight, she’d miss Jack’s flight if she didn’t leave in the next fifteen minutes. “You seem angry.”

A slight, indifferent arch of his eyebrows. “No.”

God, it was like pulling teeth! “You’re mad because I’m going out?”

“No!” The beer clanked clumsily onto the table. “No, it’s just-- Sometimes it seems like we hardly see each other.”

Her eyes flicked to the clock and back. “I know,” she sighed, picking up her barely-touched meal and carrying it over to the kitchen counter. “We should try and make more time.”

Matt said nothing at first, but she could feel his eyes on her back. And then, in a lighter voice he said, “Maybe we should go out? Catch a movie? It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” she agreed, and crossed the room to kiss him on the forehead. “I’m sorry, hon, I really need to get going. I’ll check out what’s playing tomorrow, okay?”

Nodding, he reached up and caught her lips in a kiss - a kiss that tasted of beer and spaghetti. Sam pulled away, hating herself for hating it. “Don’t be late,” he warned her, with a smile that told her exactly what he had in mind. It only left her feeling more unsettled.

When at last the front-door slammed behind her, she stopped and took a deep breath of cleansing mountain air. She could feel her irritation leak out with her breath, her shoulders relaxing and the appetite-destroying tension in her gut morphing into excitement. Jack O’Neill was coming to town. She smiled her first genuine smile of the evening as she trotted down the steps and slid into her pride-and-joy of a car. The perfectly tuned engine roared into life with a thrill she hadn’t felt in a long, long time and she was out of the drive, heading for the airport, in a little squeal of tires.

She was buoyant, bubbly. Happy! She hadn’t felt this good in years. The reason was obvious, but she refused to acknowledge it; it posed too many difficult, unanswerable, questions. Tonight, all she wanted to do was enjoy the moment, enjoy the pleasure of an old-friend’s company without any of the old complications.

That wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

***

It was the second time in as many weeks that Jack O’Neill had stepped off a plane in Colorado Springs. But that was where the similarity between the two visits ended. Last time he’d been haunted by regrets and an anger he’d never been able to forget or accept. This time… He couldn’t help the smile that twitched at his lips. This time he was here to see Carter.

Sam.

She was Sam now, another twist in the tale of their complex relationship. Sam Carter. Or was that Sam Hutchinson? Whatever. She’d always be Carter to him. But whatever he called her, the knowledge that he was here to see her filled him with a feeling a less cynical man might have called joy. Either way, it felt damn good. *He* felt damn good.

Picking up his pack from the small carousel, Jack hefted it over one shoulder and headed past the waiting friends and family towards the exit and the cabs. If he was lucky he’d be home by nine, just enough time to find a--

“Jack!”

His head shot up, and with unerring instinct he found himself gazing at a rather nervous Sam Carter waving to him from the other side of the hall. The smile that had been hovering since he left Seattle broke into a fully fledged, if brief, grin. She’d come to meet him! Who’d have thought?

“Carter,” he smiled, pushing towards her through the milling people. “Whatcha doing here?”

“Thought you could use a ride.” She paused uncertainly before giving him a quick hug, made awkward by the pack over his shoulder and their mutual unease at such a familiar gesture. Standing back, he could see a faint flush in her cheeks as she said, “Thanks for coming.”

“Anytime.” She smiled, and he tried to ignore the way his chest constricted. Damn, but he’d missed that smile. “So…” On an unspoken signal, they began walking towards the parking lot. “Everything okay here?”

Her smile quickly faded, and she cast him a unsettled glance that darkened his mood. “So far.” He quizzed her with a look, and she shrugged. “Let’s just say something’s coming back to bite me on the ass.”

Jack said nothing, thinking back over their years together and her phone conversation on the Florida beach. He’d heard her mention Thor… He glanced at her sideways. “Nothing to do with…mini-me is it?”

“No,” she smiled. “Nothing to do with him.”

“The Asgard?”

Sam glanced around the airport uneasily. “Let’s talk later.”

Despite her unease, he smiled. Later. He liked the sound of that - perhaps more than he should.

It didn’t take long to find Sam’s car, and he was irrationally pleased to see that she was still driving her vintage Volvo. “What?” he asked as he threw his pack into the small trunk, “No bike?”

She grinned and opened the passenger door. “Why? You wanna ride?”

“You offering?”

Walking around the car, Sam climbed in. “Guess I am.”

Now *that* sounded good. “I didn’t think you let anyone near it?”

“I can make exceptions,” she told him as he slid into the passenger seat and slammed shut the door.

“Oh, come on Carter, admit it - you just want to see me in leathers.”

She laughed loudly, but didn’t actually answer. Instead she said, “You want to hit a grocery store on the way home?”

“Sounds like a plan.” He briefly wondered why the idea of grocery shopping with Carter was so much more appealing than grocery shopping per se, but decided against pursuing the thought too far. After all, he only had a handful of days here and he didn’t want to spoil them with pointless speculation.

They were friends, nothing more, and he was determined to enjoy the fact.

***

The drapes were closed, the house was chilled, musty and devoid of almost every personal touch. It wasn’t exactly welcoming.

“Lucy, I’m home,” Jack muttered at her side as they stepped inside.

“You know, the offer of a spare room still stands,” Sam said. Although it would be a surprise to Matt. Not that that was a problem.

Jack smiled slightly, as if sharing a private joke with himself. “No. It’ll be fine once the furnace is going.” He looked around, taking it all in. “Doesn’t seem like four years ago I was living here.”

“No,” Sam agreed. “Seems longer.”

He met her gaze for a moment with a tight smile that revealed nothing. “Come on, I need coffee.”

The kitchen was sparse too, barren of any food or even a take-out menu. Sam pushed the heavy groceries onto the counter and looked around. She hadn’t often been to the colonel’s house - Jack’s house - and she couldn’t help but be curious. For a single guy, he seemed to own a lot of cooking utensils. Far more than she did. But then, cooking had never been high on her list of priorities. Or Matt’s. If they wanted real food, they ate out.

“I’ll put this stuff away,” she offered, shivering a little in the chill.

He gave a brief nod and headed towards the door. “I’ll get the furnace going. Coffee machine’s probably in the cupboard on the far left.”

As always, they instinctively knew how to work together. It wasn’t long before the house was warming and the musty air was replaced with the cheerful aroma of coffee. She handed him a mug as he came up from the basement, and he took it with a nod of thanks.

“So…” she said into the warming silence.

“So…” he echoed, taking a sip. “It’s good.”

“And about the limit of my culinary skills.”

He smiled at that, and looked around the neat kitchen. “Talking of food… You hungry?”

Her uneaten spaghetti, probably still exactly where she’d left it on the kitchen counter, drifted into mind. “Actually, yeah,” she nodded. “Are you offering to cook?”

Jack glanced at her over the rim of his coffee. “Louie’s Pizza still out on Barns Road?”

“Sure.” She smiled suddenly, a flood of memories sweeping in with the name. “Man, I haven’t been to Louie’s in years.”

“Hah,” Jack said, pulling his cell from his pocket, “but I bet you still remember the number.”

She did, of course. Sam Carter never forgot a number: passport number, social security number, military ID… “It’s 591-5241.”

His smile broadened into smug and he hit speed dial. “Just testing.”

Her mouth opened in mock outrage, only to dissolve into a nostalgic smile. She’d forgotten how much he used to tease her, and how much she used to enjoy it.

“Yeah, hi…” he said into the phone. “You still do the Pepe-pepperoni?”

Sam folded her arms; time for revenge. “With anchovies.”

“Uh-huh,” he told the pizza guy, deliberately ignoring Sam’s request, “with green pepper --”

Louder. “Anchovies.”

“Mushrooms.”

Louder still. “Anchovies!”

“Jalapenos.”

“Ancho--”

“And anchovies,” he said at last, turning away from her amazed smile. “But only on half.” After he’d hung up, he turned back around. “You know I’m gonna make you eat those anchovies out on the porch!”

She grinned. “You’re getting soft, Colonel. Anchovies on your pizza?”

“I’m tired,” he sighed dramatically. “Too tired to argue, Major.”

“That’s Lieutenant Colonel, actually.”

“Yeah,” he said, more serious now. “So it is.” He smiled again, with a warmth that tightened something in her stomach. “Colonel Samantha Carter. It’s got quite a ring to it.”

Sam blushed at the quiet pride in his voice. “Thank you.”

“You earned it.”

“I wish--” Abruptly she changed her mind. The fact that he hadn’t been the one to pin the silver eagles onto her uniform remained one of life’s niggling regrets. But she didn’t know if she dared mention it; it strayed too close to the thing between them that had never been discussed. Not even at the end, before he’d left. Especially not then.

Perhaps he’d guessed the meaning behind her aborted sentence, because he looked sharply away and said, “I’m not kidding about the anchovies.”

She laughed, letting him steer the subject away from dangerous waters. “You want me to eat outside?!”

“Sure,” he nodded, opening a drawer and starting to rummage. He pulled out a flashlight. “The roof?”

Sam smiled. “Sounds good.” Although she pulled her thin jacket closer around her shoulders and silently wished she’d worn a sweater.

“I’ll get you a sweater,” Jack offered, heading out of the kitchen.

And so, twenty minutes later, Sam found herself sitting on the little observation platform on Jack’s roof, a beer in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other. He lounged at her side, legs stretched out in front of him, staring up at the sky.

“Too much light pollution in Seattle,” he told her. “Don’t get views like this.”

Sam looked up at the star encrusted sky. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah.”

They lapsed into another silence as the cool autumn breeze ruffled their hair. Sam pulled her jacket a little tighter, grateful for the soft woolen sweater Jack had leant her. It felt good next to her skin, with a faint masculine scent very different from Matt’s. The little knot at the pit of her stomach twisted tighter, but she ignored it and glanced over at the man next to her.

He really hadn’t changed much. And she’d have been kidding herself if she’d pretended that, in the soft starlight, he didn’t look as attractive as ever. The thought made her wince slightly at the implied betrayal of her husband, but she figured that there was no harm in looking. It’s not like anything had ever, or would ever, happen between them. Jack chose that moment to look over at her, his eyes dark and bright. “So,” he said quietly, “you gonna tell me what’s going on?”

She only hesitated for a moment. “Fifth.”

His eyebrows rose, mouth moving into a silent ‘oh?’

“The Asgard - don’t freak out - the Asgard let him out.”

He freaked out. “They *what*?” He was suddenly bolt-upright and the very much the colonel she used to know. “Of all the dumb-assed, stupid--”

“I know!” she assured him, holding up a hand to quiet him. “I know. I told them that.” She sighed. “It gets worse.”

Jack’s jaw locked grimly. “Go on.”

“He…escaped. Left via a Stargate, and they have no idea where he is.”

He was on his feet, shaking his head and pacing angrily. “After we risked our butts saving their skinny asses, they let it out? They let the goddamn Prince of the Replicators out! Jesus! And after the way we betrayed it? It’s gonna--” He stopped dead, staring at her in sudden understanding. “Shit.”

Sam nodded. “I know.”

“That’s why you had to leave Florida. Because Thor thinks Fifth is coming here.”

“He was the most human of them,” she said softly. “And revenge is very human.”

Pensively, Jack came to sit next to her. “It wasn’t your decision.”

“He doesn’t know that.”

He raked a hand through his hair. “Damn.”

“It’s not like we’d let him through the Stargate,” Sam suggested, trying to sound hopeful.

But he just gave her a dark look. “It’s a replicator. It doesn’t need a Stargate. It just needs a ship.”

She shrugged her acknowledgement of the point. “He could be anywhere.”

Elbows on knees, Jack was thoughtful. “You worried?”

“I--” Suddenly she was at a loss for words. Four years ago, he’d never have asked such a personal question. “A little.”

He just nodded and looked away, down at his boots. “You didn’t like it, did you? Leaving him.”

For a long moment she was silent, considering her response. “You did the right thing.”

“That’s not the point,” he said, glancing up and looking her straight in the eyes. “Is it?”

She didn’t answer.

He straightened and leaned back against the bench, staring up at the sky. “You’ve had your own command for what…? Four and a half years?” he said. “What would you do now? If it was your call.”

It wasn’t a question she’d asked herself before, and she didn’t have an answer. “I think about him sometimes,” she said instead. “He was an innocent. He didn’t understand.”

To her surprise, Jack nodded. “I think about it too,” he admitted, still staring at the stars. “Sometimes…” He paused, swallowed, and Sam realized that what he was about to say was difficult. It made her unreasonably nervous. “Sometimes I wonder if that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

He didn’t move, didn’t look away from the night-sky, but she couldn’t have felt his presence more strongly if he’d been staring right into her eyes. She knew what he was talking about, of course she did. But talking about it terrified her into retreat. She blustered, “Where what went wrong?”

“You and I,” he said relentlessly, still not looking at her. “Where you and I went wrong.”

In the cool night air she felt her cheeks flush. “We were always wrong, weren’t we?”

His head moved, a slight shake of denial. But all he said was, “I guess we were.”

“But this is good,” she added hastily, trying to regain some control over the situation. She hadn’t expected this. She’d *never* expected to talk about *this*. “We’re friends, right?”

At last he moved, turning his face towards her; their eyes met in a collision of regret and unresolved emotion. The moment was heavy with painful nostalgia as he murmured, “I’m sorry.”

Sorry for what? For caring? For leaving? For cutting her dead for four years? She didn’t know how to answer, how to talk about the forbidden feelings that had almost destroyed their friendship.

He saw her confusion and his demeanor hardened. “Fifth blames you for betraying him,” he explained, looking sharply away. “It’s my fault. I’m sorry.”

That wasn’t what he’d meant, but Sam was grateful he’d backed away from the other subject. Coward that she was, she could breathe again. “I don’t blame you,” she said, her words as ambiguous as his apology.

But they both understood. A slight smile touched his lips and she was astonished to see a flash of relief in his dark eyes. “Thank you,” he said, so softly she could barely hear it. But there was such gratitude in his voice that a lump bunched in her throat and she was forced to look away.

Even now, she thought nervously, there was a connection. More than shared regrets, there was something between them that it seemed would never die. Four years of estrangement and a marriage later, she still felt the incessant attraction that had caused them so much grief. They would always be friends, and friends was all they could ever be now. But Sam was shocked to discover that she didn’t know whether to celebrate that fact, or grieve it.

***

It was past one when Jack found himself standing on his porch in a pool of light from the house, watching the red tail-lights of Sam’s car disappear around the corner. As late as it was, the evening was over all too soon. The few hours they’d spent together weren’t enough and he watched her go with a sweet regret, wishing she could have stayed longer and knowing it was impossible.

He took a deep breath and stared up at the bright moon, letting everything he felt wash over him. He wasn’t sure if he was happy or miserable, perhaps he was both. When he was with her something clicked into place - it was right, and good, and wonderful. And he knew it always would be, if only it could be. And then when she was gone reality crashed back in with all its complexities and blurred lines, bringing with it self-doubt and self-loathing in equal measure.

She was another man’s wife.

He knew that, just as he’d known she was his second in command all those years ago. But neither hard truth could stop the feelings she aroused in his heart. She completed him like no one ever had or ever would. And he was helpless in the face of the attraction that wrenched him away from all he knew to be right, dragging him towards her as helplessly as a leaf caught in a tornado.

He shook his head, letting out a deep sigh as he pushed his hands into his pockets and headed inside. So much for just being friends! It was a good thing, he reflected morosely, that he was only planning on staying in Colorado for a few days. Because after another evening like that he wasn’t sure he’d trust himself not to do something very, very stupid.

***

It was dark and cold in the street. Colder than he was used to, although the temperature was nothing more than a detail to note. It had no affect on him as he stood in the shadows and waited. He was good at waiting. He’d had a lot of practice.

At last he sensed her drawing closer, the shades and pulses of her mind tingling into his awareness. Excitement built along with the cold rage of betrayal. But the ice kept him from striking too soon; now was not the time for rash moves. Now was the time for learning, understanding. And planning.

The primitive machine she drove slowed and stopped outside her house. He stilled everything within him, waiting as the moment approached. A door opened and she stepped out into the silent night, just as he remembered her. He still thought she looked beautiful, but now he could see the weakness in her eyes, the deceit in the face he had trusted.

She closed the door quietly, pulling her jacket closer. And then she stopped, looking down and touching the fabric of the sweater she wore. She lifted the hem to her face, pressing it briefly against her mouth and nose as if breathing in its scent. And an odd smile touched her face, wistful and sad. Then she let the fabric drop and he could see the slow rise and fall of her shoulders and knew that she was sighing.

Then suddenly she tensed, turning slowly and peering into the darkness that concealed him. A frown creased her brow and her eyes gazed blindly into the night, searching for the danger she somehow sensed. But she saw nothing before she turned and hurried up the path towards her house. He followed her with his eyes, watching as she paused on the porch to find the keys that opened the door. He looked closer, seeing the key - seeing into the lock - and understanding it at its most basic level. Making it a part of himself.

Then, with a backward glance towards the darkness, she opened the door and hurried inside.

Fifth smiled. Soon it would be time.

***

Matt was asleep when she crept into the bedroom, his low snore at once familiar and irritating. She slid under the covers, her whole body tense as she lay silently next to her sleeping husband and tried to will herself to sleep.

It was impossible.

Her heart and mind were wide awake, more alive then they’d felt in years. And all she could think of was the way Jack had looked at her and smiled at her and wanted her. She wasn’t blind to it. She felt his desire as keenly as she’d ever done, and the years had done nothing to diminish its impact. The thin veneer of friendship she’d been clinging to so desperately was cracking, and beneath it she could see rolling passions as dark and deep as ever.

He wanted her. He still wanted her, despite everything. Despite Matt. And more than anything else, his loyalty touched her. Beyond the attraction that estrangement, time and distance refused to diminish, it was his loyalty that battered at all her good intentions.

He still wanted her. He still cared. He still--

Matt snorted and rolled onto his back, muttering something unintelligible. Sam went rigid and after a moment she slid back out of bed, grabbed her bathrobe and headed down into the living room.

Curled up in the corner of the sofa, she stared out of the window at the bright moon flickering behind the waving branches of the trees. She felt out of control and didn’t like the sensation one bit. Her safe, comfortable world was shaking on its foundations and its gilded facades were crumbling. She felt as though she were seeing her life for the first time, and wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. Where once Matt had seemed steady and reliable, he now felt oppressive and boring. The marriage that had saved her from years of loneliness and emotional turmoil suddenly felt like a trap. Two weeks ago she’d been content, and now she couldn’t bear to sleep next to her husband.

What the hell had happened?

She closed her eyes and sighed, the answer to her question filling her mind and heart - Jack O’Neill had happened. He was back in her life, and everything she’d thought was certain was crumbling in the face of the irresistible attraction they shared. And the most terrifying thing about it was that she didn’t feel scared. All she felt was anticipation, pulsing through her veins with every beat of her treacherous heart.

She wanted him, and her desire was drowning out the claims of loyalty, love and duty that her marriage vows demanded.

***

Chapter 8

“So,” Daniel asked the next morning, as he slid his lunch tray onto the cafeteria table, “how did it go?”

Sam blinked at him and he got the distinct impression that her thoughts had been far away. “Umm,” she mumbled, shaking her head in an apparent attempt to clear it. “Sorry, Daniel. What?”

He slipped into the seat and began unloading his food. “Jack,” he reminded her. “You were picking him up from the airport last night?”

“Oh right,” she nodded, poking at her meal with her fork and determinedly not looking at him. “Yes, good. It was good. He was good.”

The pink tint to her cheeks sounded silent alarm bells in Daniel’s head. “So you talked then?” he asked carefully. “About Fifth?”

“He was a little pissed,” she admitted with a smile.

Daniel grunted. “Oh, I can imagine.”

They lapsed into silence and Daniel started to eat, but he kept his eyes firmly fixed on Sam. She was only toying with her food, miles away. And she didn’t look happy. He cleared his throat, trying a different tack. “Did he bring Laura with him?”

“No,” came the quiet reply, accompanied by a slight tightening around her eyes that looked like a wince. “No he didn’t. I don’t suppose he’s staying long. A couple of days maybe.”

Daniel nodded. “I should give him a call then. Maybe we can all go out?”

“Yeah,” she smiled, looking up at him with determined brightness. “That would be nice.” She glanced at her watch and grimaced. “I should go. I have a tone of work to get through, and I need to book movie tickets for tonight.” Daniel raised a curious eyebrow and she quickly added, “Matt and I are going to the movies. We haven’t been out for ages.”

“Great,” Daniel smiled. “I hear Terminator 4 is good.”

That earned him a more genuine smile as she got to her feet. “I’ll think about it.”

He smiled too, but as she turned to go he said, “Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“You okay?”

Her lips tightened. “Sure. Fine.”

But he didn’t believe her; he could see the lines of regret etched into her face. “Funny how life works out sometimes, huh?” he said gently. “But I’m glad you and Jack are friends again.”

“Yeah,” came the short reply, followed by another tight smile. “I gotta go.”

Daniel sighed as she left; getting Sam to open up was like prizing open a clam. But he recognized the shadow in her eyes and it was one he hadn’t seen for a long time. It spoke of an irreconcilable inner conflict between duty and desire. And his heart sank for her.

His brief meeting with Jack, just a couple of weeks earlier, had convinced him that Jack’s feelings for Sam hadn’t dimmed, simply hardened into resentment. But if Jack had moved beyond that, and if Sam’s feelings were equally alive…? He grimaced - it was like watching a train-wreck in slow motion. And not for the first time he thought it would have been better for everyone if the whole messy situation had been dealt with back when they were all serving on SG-1.

But duty and honor had always taken precedent for his friends, and he was beginning to wonder if all that noble repression might not be about to come back and bite them on the ass. Hard.

***

To take his mind of the evening before - not an easy task - Jack attacked the routine maintenance needed on his house with an enthusiasm way beyond the call of duty. He cleaned, painted and fixed until his body ached and his stomach grumbled for attention.

It was only then that he realized he hadn’t eaten since the previous evening’s pizza. And that thought brought Sam right back into the front of his mind, in all her adorable glory. Irritated with himself, he flung the paintbrush back into the pot and wiped his hands on the back of his paint-splattered jeans.

“Lunch,” he growled, stomping out of the dust-sheet covered living room and into the kitchen. He was half-way through packing a bagel with cheese and ham when the doorbell chimed, ringing tingling bells of its own in his gut.

Sam.

Mortified by the way his stomach was dancing at the thought of seeing her he headed into the hallway, doing his best to straighten his unkempt hair and wishing he’d bothered to shower and shave before getting to work. He paused before he opened the door and willed himself not to act like a complete idiot. Whatever he might feel - and he refused to put a name to it - it was absolutely vital that she *never* knew. Never ever. Taking a deep breath he flung open the door and said…

“Daniel?”

“Hi Jack.”

Like a freight train at full speed he struggled to break and change tracks. “Ah…I…hi.”

Daniel’s eyebrows rose. “You were expecting someone else?”

“No!” Jack assured him, way too fast to be convincing. He cleared his throat and slowed down. “I mean, yes. I, uh, ordered a pizza.”

Daniel glanced over his shoulder towards the empty street. “Oh. I didn’t see anyone--”

“No,” Jack agreed, stepping back and opening the door wide. “Come in. It’s kinda messy. I’m painting.”

Daniel peered at him over the top of his glasses. “I noticed that.”

Once he’d maneuvered Daniel onto the porch, beer in hand, Jack surreptitiously ordered himself a pizza before stepping out into the warm fall sunshine. “So,” he said, feeling calmer, “you got a day off, huh?”

“No,” Daniel admitted. “I’m playing hooky.”

“I’m flattered.”

Daniel smiled slightly, glancing at him sideways before returning his attention to the bright blue autumn sky. “Sam said she saw you last night.”

Jack froze. There was something in Daniel’s tone that spoke of way too much knowledge, and he slammed the blast doors down. “That’s right.”

“I’m glad you guys are talking again,” Daniel carried on, frowning now and glancing down at the beer in his hands. “I know she’s missed you.” Jack was silent. He had absolutely no intention of joining this particular conversation. Daniel didn’t seem to care, although his voice dropped lower. “She’s been pretty happy with Matt, you know. They’re planning to start a family soon. At least, that’s what she told me a while back.”

Jack’s toes curled with an brutal mixture of embarrassment and envy. “Daniel--”

“I just wanted you to know,” Daniel said hurriedly. “To have the full picture. I know that sometimes things can--”

“You know nothing!” Jack snapped. “Nothing about me. Or…or this…” His words ran out and he kicked angrily at the porch railing. “Is that why you’re here? To keep me in line? Is that what you think of me? That I’m some kind of marriage-wrecker?”

Daniel sighed. “You’ve been gone a long time, Jack,” he said quietly. “And sometimes regrets turn into…I don’t know, nostalgia. It’s hard to see straight, and I wouldn’t want Sam to do something she’d regret. Or you. Laura’s an amazi--”

“That’s not why I’m here,” Jack interrupted, “if that’s what you think. Carter wanted to talk about Fifth. That’s all. That’s all she wants from me.”

But Daniel turned, looking at him straight. “I don’t think it is.”

He was silent, processing the information, not sure he believed it but wishing it were true. And scared that it might be. In the end, all he could think of to say was, “Then isn’t that something she should decide?”

“It is,” Daniel nodded, grimacing. “I can just see trouble ahead, and I wanted to--” He sighed and turned back to the view of the yard. “Maybe I’m out of order, but I just think--”

“You are,” Jack assured him, although not with rancor. “You are out of order, but it’s okay. I get it. You’re just trying to look out for her.”

“For both of you.”

He smiled slightly. “Same old Daniel.”

“Same old Jack.” Daniel pulled off his glasses, polishing them slowly on the hem of his shirt, “Matt Hutchinson’s a good man. Sam wouldn’t have married him if he wasn’t.”

And Jack felt another squirm of guilt. “Yeah, I know. And, swear to God, Daniel, I’m not here to do anything more than talk. But if she wants--” He bit back the words with a shake of his head, ashamed to admit them even to Daniel who knew him better than anyone. And for a long time they stood in silence, staring at the fall leaves slowly drifting from the trees in the still mountain air.

“What were the odds,” Daniel said at last, “of me meeting Sha’re?”

Jack blinked, confused by the hairpin turn in the conversation. “Ah…”

“I mean, they must have been astronomical. Literally. She was on another world.” He shook his head and glanced over at Jack. “If something’s meant to be,” he said quietly, “it will be.”

Jack just nodded, not sure if his friend’s words were meant as comfort or warning.

***

“You’re kidding?” Sam asked, failing to hide her exasperation.

“I’m sorry!” Matt protested, his voice faint through the static of his cell phone. “It came up at the last minute and I have to get the proposal off tonight.”

Sam closed her eyes and flopped backwards onto the bed. “But I’ve already got the tickets!” she complained, knowing she sounded like a whiney child and not really caring. After her less than noble thoughts the previous night, she’d been hoping that an evening out with Matt might ease her guilt. “When will you be back? We could see a later showing?”

“Sorry, hon, I’m gonna be here late. We’re waiting on some stuff from the Tokyo office, and with the time difference…”

She sighed and stared up at the ceiling. “Okay then.”

“Why don’t you go with Maggie?” Matt suggested. “Or Cassie?”

Or Jack? Her mind leaped at the opportunity with an alacrity that alarmed her even as it set her pulse racing. She sat up. “Yeah, good idea,” she replied brightly. “Or maybe Daniel.”

She could almost hear Matt’s relived smile down the phone line. “I’ll make it up to you at the weekend,” he promised. “Okay?”

“Yeah,” she nodded, on her feet now and pacing. Her stomach had suddenly been invaded by an army of anxious butterflies and she found it impossible to sit still. “Ah, look, I’d better go if I’m gonna find someone else to come with me. See you later, okay?”

“Sure,” he replied. “Don’t wait up!”

“I won’t.”

“Love you.”

Her heart blanched, but she said it anyway. “Love you too.”

And then he was gone and she was alone. On the bed lay the local paper, the number of the Cinemark Theatres circled and two tickets waiting for her at the box office. She could call Cassie or Daniel. But what she really wanted to do, what she *really*, really wanted to do was call Jack.

Slowly she sat on the bed and pulled her cell phone from her purse. Paging through the menu she found his name - Col. O. It had been there for four years, unused. Her finger hovered over the dial button, her conscience at war with her heart.

But really, she reasoned, was it so bad? It was just a movie, and he’d be gone in a few days. It wasn’t like anything was going to happen, and if she didn’t see him now when would she? Who knew when they’d meet again?

Matt was busy, that wasn’t her fault. And she had to go with someone. Almost without her consent her finger hit the call button. Her stomach plunged towards her toes before ricocheting up into her throat as she heard his phone ring once, twice--

“Jack O’Neill.” Her heart, it seemed, was lodged so firmly in her throat that speech was impossible. “Hello?” He sounded irritated.

She had to speak! “Hi!” she blurted at last, feeling like an idiot. “It’s Sam Carter.”

There was an amused pause before he quietly said, “Hello Sam Carter.”

The butterflies bounced around her stomach at the sound of his quiet, slightly flirtatious drawl. She closed her eyes to hear him better, guilty but so alive it almost hurt. “So, how’s the painting going?”

There was a smile in his voice as he said, “On the wall, mostly.”

She laughed, the sound of his voice as luxurious as a cool drink on a hot afternoon. “You finished for the day?”

“Oh yeah,” he sighed, and she could hear him stretching. “Just chilling out with a beer.” She was silent for a moment, eyes fixed on the newspaper, teetering on the edge of something dangerous. And although she knew she shouldn’t fall, she really, really wanted to plunge into the dark waters below. “Carter?” Her silence had sobered him and his voice was suddenly full of concern. “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” she assured him hurriedly. “Fine. I was just-- Matt and I were going to the movies tonight, but he has to work and I wondered if you were free?” In the end the words tumbled out of their own volition, leaving her dangling in their silent wake and hoping she hadn’t sounded like and idiot. But, oh my God, she’d practically invited him on a date!

He cleared his throat. “The movies…”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re busy, or--”

“I’m not,” he interrupted. “I’m not busy.”

Tension buzzed down the phone line, dangerous and irresistible. She could feel her nerves humming in tune with it as she said, “So, do you wanna go then?”

There was a beat of hesitation before he said, “Yeah. Yeah, it sounds good.”

“Are you sure? Don’t feel you have to or--”

“No. I *want* to.”

And the way he said ‘want’ sent a fiery shiver shooting down her spine, detonating savagely in the pit of her stomach. She had to swallow hard before she could say, “I’ll pick you up at seven.”

“Sounds good,” he smiled. She just *knew* he was smiling, his voice dripped with it. “So, what are we going to see?”

She laughed. “Um, actually… Terminator Four.”

There was a long pause before he said, “We’ll need popcorn.”

Her laugh turned into a giggle. A giggle! “It’ll be fun.”

“Yeah,” he agreed warmly. “Yeah, it will.”

After she hung up the phone, Sam glanced at her watch. It was almost six, so she figured she had forty-five minutes to get ready. Not giving herself time to think about the implications, she threw open her closet and starting rifling through her clothes, wondering if she had time to wash her hair before she had to leave. She hadn’t felt this excited about going to the movies since she was a teenager, and the buzz of adrenaline that liquefied her stomach gave her a high that just refused to abate.

***

Jack was pacing, his thoughts racing like a hamster in a wheel going over and over the same ground. They were going out, but it wasn’t a date. They’d be alone, but nothing was going to happen. Nothing *could* happen, no matter how much he wanted it to. But they were going out! Together. Alone. Just thinking about it made his whole body thrum with a sharp twang of desire that he couldn’t ignore.

But nothing could happen. Nothing would happen. He groaned, surprised to hear the noise out loud in his quiet house. He felt like a starving man being paraded before a feast and ordered not to touch it - the tension was enough to rip him apart!

Picking up his bill-fold from the coffee table, he flipped through it to make sure he had some cash. Plenty. Then he ran his hands over his hair, hoping he’d managed to get all the splatters of white paint out in the shower. Not that it would make much difference - there was more silver there than anything else. He glanced at his watch - she’d said seven and it was almost five after. Maybe she’d changed her mind or--

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!

Or not. Stuffing his bill-fold into his back pocket, he grabbed his jacket and headed into the hallway. They had an entire evening together to enjoy, he decided as he opened the door, and he wasn’t going to ruin it with his adolescent, out-of-control hormonal desires that--

Holy crap!

Black pants hugging her hips, a form-fitting sweater that showed just enough midriff to reveal a sparkle of what looked suspiciously like a bellybutton ring. He was in *so* much trouble…

She smiled brightly. “Ready to go?”

“Uh,” was all he managed to say, given that his jaw was grazing the toes of his recently polished boots and his eyes couldn’t leave that little flash of tanned Carter-stomach.

She frowned, cocking her head to one side. “Jack? Everything okay?”

Guiltily he snapped his eyes up to her face. “Fine. Good. Great! Let’s go, don’t want to be late.”

And he was out the door and heading for her car before she had time to move. But as he walked, the same words circled through his mind in a never-ending loop; look, don’t touch, look, don’t touch, look, don’t touch, look, don’t touch…

Temptation had never been so tempting.

***

The movie passed in a blur, and afterwards Sam had very little idea what had transpired on the screen. Her whole attention had been fixed on the man next to her, even while her eyes had been glued unseeing to the movie.

The box of popcorn wedged between them became a source of guilty delight, as each time she dipped her fingers inside she seemed to find his hand already there and the brush of skin on skin set her insides smoldering. And then half way through the movie he leaned over and whispered into her ear “Are we meant to know who this John Connor guy is?”

She grinned and whispered back, the scent of his soap startlingly erotic as she murmured her explanation into his ear. He had more questions, and each time she felt his warm breath stir her hair the tension ratcheted up another notch or two. And once he got too close and she could feel the feather-light caress of his lips against her ear as he spoke. The sensation tripped a thousand alarms, catapulting her body into a highly inappropriate state of arousal and knocking her good sense out cold. Had he kissed her then, she’d have given as good as she got. If not better. But he didn’t, for which she as grateful as she was disappointed.

And at last the movie ended. They stayed until the final credits had rolled and they were all but alone in the theatre as the lights went up. She glanced over at him, awkward now that she couldn’t hide in the darkness.

But he smiled at her and the awkwardness faded. “That was fun,” he said.

She nodded, not wanting to leave and wanting lots of things she couldn’t have. She sighed, and then he surprised her by suddenly reaching towards her. Her heart stalled with a judder as his hand touched her chest…

“You missed a bit,” he said, picking a piece of popcorn from her sweater.

Sam just stared at his fingers as her heart lumbered back into motion. He was going to pop it into her mouth! Unconsciously she ran her tongue over her lips, her eyes rising to his only to find them fixed on her mouth. And then suddenly he sat up straight and dropped the piece of popcorn like a hot coal. “Don’t know about you,” he said gruffly, snatching up his jacket and getting to his feet, “but I need real food.”

She could only nod.

“O’Mally’s?”

Dinner. And then…? God, she wanted there to be an ‘and then’. She cleared her throat and grabbed her own jacket, every nerve in her body singing with anticipation. “Dinner sounds great.”

God help her, she thought desperately, because she couldn’t help herself…

***

The meal was long over and they were on at least their third cup of coffee. Or maybe fourth. He wasn’t really counting. The distant clatter of the pool table and the hum of inoffensive music glided unnoticed through his mind as he sat close to her in a cozy booth, talking about everything and nothing and wanting her so very, very badly.

“You know,” she said in a pause in the conversation, “I nearly didn’t make it to Florida for Matt’s conference.”

He couldn’t help the twist of envy he felt at the mention of the man’s name - her husband’s name. But he didn’t let it show on his face. “How come?” he asked instead.

Sam sighed, leaning her head back against the seat and closing her eyes. She was so close she could have rested against his shoulder. He wished she would. “Oh, we had another stupid argument. I was late home, he’d started packing for me…”

Jack couldn’t help the snort of laugher. “Packing for you?”

Her eyes opened and she glanced over at him with a rueful smile. “He’s so uptight sometimes, it makes me want to scream.”

He looked away, uncomfortable with discussing her marriage. As stupid as it sounded, he’d prefer to forget all about it.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to bore you with my--”

“No.” He gave her the best smile he could muster. “I was just-- Marriage is difficult,” he said at last, thinking back to Sara.

She nodded. “Yes it is.”

They sank into a pensive silence until the waiter returned to fill up their coffee cups for a fourth, or was it fifth, time. Once they were alone again Sam stirred cream into her coffee and smiled at him. “I was just thinking, if I hadn’t gone to Florida we wouldn’t have bumped into each other.” She glanced down at her cup, “I’m glad we did.”

“Me too,” he assured her, with rather more feeling than he’d intended. And then, to cover the intensity of his words, he added, “Which reminds me…I have something for you.”

Reaching into his jacket pocket he pulled out the photos he’d taken on the Florida beach. “You said you wanted copies.”

Her smile sparkled. “Thank you!” She pulled the pictures out of the envelope he’d handed her and went through them carefully, stopping on one and looking up at him. “I like this one.”

It was the one of them both gazing at each other, her holding his sunglasses in her hand. “Me too,” he told her. He liked it a lot. Too much, really.

“It was a great weekend,” she sighed, slipping the pictures back into the envelope. Her eyes held him, open and full of affection. “I’m so glad--”

“Yeah.” And there it was, a moment of naked honesty. He could see the conflict in her eyes, her affection for him and her guilt twisting around each other in a painful dance that was mirrored in his own heart. Helplessly he reached out and touched her cheek, a gesture of comfort and tenderness.

She closed her eyes, her brow furrowed with distress as she pressed her face softly against his hand. “We can’t,” she breathed brokenly.

He nodded, even though part of him wanted to rage in denial. His voice choked as he murmured, “I know.”

She pulled away from him and he let his hand fall. “It’s late,” she muttered, picking up the photos and staring at them, clutching them between fingers turning bone-white.

“Yeah,” he agreed as he glanced around at the mostly-empty restaurant, “we should go.”

They left in a bubble of silence, as if a single word might undo their resolve and tear down the good intentions that were the only barriers between them. As they walked through the dark parking lot they kept a wary distance until they came to a halt a few feet from Sam’s car. Jack glanced at it warily, wondering how wise it would be to get into her car and let her drive him back to his empty house. He felt temptation surrounding them like a living thing, a fog of desire that blurred everything except the raging fire that threatened to engulf them both. He cleared his throat, “I could get a cab.”

She laughed bleakly as she pulled the keys from her jacket pocket. “Don’t you trust me?”

“It’s not you I don’t trust,” he muttered, staring down at his boots to keep his eyes from fixing on the glitter of her damned bellybutton ring!

“It’s too late to get a cab,” she sighed, heading to her car and opening the driver’s door. And then with a weary smile she cocked her head to one side and said, “Would it help if I called you sir?”

He grunted an unamused laugh. “It might, Carter.”

But her joke had got him moving, and he found himself climbing into the passenger seat and trying to ignore how close together they were in the small space. Without speaking, she fired the engine and reversed quickly out of her space, leaving the parking lot before he’d had time to buckle his seatbelt. He could understand the frustration obvious in her driving; he felt it too. Looking over at her face, pale in the streetlights, he made a half-hearted attempt at a joke of his own. “Guess we’re lucky we didn’t come on your bike. Then we’d really be in trouble.”

Her lips twisted into a vague smile, but her fingers were white-knuckling the steering wheel as they sped through the streets to
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