SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

Future Imperfect

And this is the rest of it...

Merry Christmas all!


Chapter 19

The small house stood at the end of the street, alone and tinkling with wind chimes that swayed in the mild Seattle breeze. He frowned at it, and at the chaos in the front yard - his stuff, cast out into the rain like so much worthless junk. Laura was a woman of her word.

At least his truck was still there and apparently undamaged, parked where he’d left it on the street. With an angry sigh, Jack strode up the path to the front door and rapped loudly. It took her an age to answer, but when she did he had the satisfaction of seeing her start so violently that she spilled the herbal tea she was holding. “Jack!”

“Laura,” he replied, curbing his anger as best he could. This wasn’t all her fault, he reminded himself. He was as much to blame. Probably more.

Her chin lifted in defiance, one hip tilted in a deliberately provocative pose. “Your stuff is out front.”

“I saw that. Very mature.”

“I warned you.”

He glanced around at the soggy mess of clothes, books and CDs that matted the grass. “Neighbors still talking to you?”

She ignored the comment. “I’m writing, Jack. So if there’s nothing else…?”

The door started to close, but he held it open with one hand. “Actually,” he said quietly, “there is.” Her eyes widened and he saw a beat of hope in their depths. “We should talk inside.”

Curious, Laura led him into her house. She thought he was coming back to her, he could see it in the sensuous sway of her hips. And he let her believe it, his anger at what she’d done to Carter overriding any residual gallantry. When they reached her small, bohemian living room she turned and faced him. “So?” she asked, hand on hip and a seductive smile on her lips.

He studied her for a long moment, taking in the slender body and remembering the feel of her beneath him. So young, so alluring, so beautiful. But not Carter. “What the hell were you thinking, calling Matt Hutchinson?”

Her poised sensuality crumbled and disappointment creased her smooth features. “Spoil things for you, did it?”

“For me? No. For Matt and Carter? Almost.”

“He had a right to hear it.”

“Not from you.”

She fell silent, turning away from him and wrapping her arms around her chest. He was suddenly uncomfortable with how childlike she seemed - what had *he* been thinking? “Look,” he said, suddenly feeling absurdly paternal, “I hurt you. I’m sorry. I was a bastard and you have every right to be angry with me. But you just can’t go around messing with people’s lives like that. You almost destroyed their marriage.”

She laughed. “*I* almost destroyed their marriage? You were the one screwing her--”

“Okay, stop!” She jumped at his parade ground bark and he softened his tone. Slightly. “We’re not going to do this. I just want to make one thing clear - you stay out of Sam Carter’s life. Understood?”

“And what about you?” she spat. “Are you staying out of her life?”

Pride tempted him not to answer, but he figured he’d told Laura enough lies that he owed her this much truth. With a terse nod he said, “Yes, I am.”

“All alone again, Jack?” There was a tinge of disdain in her voice. Or maybe it was pity. “Hiding in your cabin in the woods?”

“Once I sell the house,” he agreed, offering a rueful smile. “I figure I can’t do much damage up there.”

She returned his smile, more affectionately than he’d anticipated. Stepping forward, she reached out a slender hand and touched his wrist. “I loved you, you know?”

“I know.”

“It’s not too late…”

But he shook his head, clear at last in his own mind. “I’m gonna grow old with a lake, no fish and a dog.”

Her wide, young eyes stared at him in disbelief. “That’s so sad.” She didn’t understand. She couldn’t, not with her whole life ahead of her. But he was looking backward, not forward, to a life with Sam that could never be. Somewhere along the way he’d taken a wrong turn and there was no going back. His life was a might-have-been, and the future held nothing and no one he wanted.

He didn’t try to explain, just smiled and forgave her more easily than he’d expected. She was more a victim of the mess he’d made of his life than anything else. “I’m gonna get my stuff,” he said, nodding towards the door.

Laura winced guiltily, flushing a delicate pink. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, Laura. For everything.”

He turned to go but she called him back. Looking around, he saw her scanning one of the crowded bookshelves before pulling something down. When she offered it to him he recognized it at once as his Dad’s leather folder, the one that held his few precious memories. The worn leather was soft under his fingers as he took it from her hand.

“I didn’t want it to get ruined,” she said. “Your photos of Charlie are in there, and…and of Sam Carter.”

He felt his heart skitter, but resisted the temptation to open the folder and look. He had to get past it, past *her*. “You’re a good person Laura. Really.”

“Not really,” she sighed and glanced out of the window. “I’ll help you with your stuff.”

He smiled at her again and nodded. “Thank you.”

***

The snow was still heavy in Colorado Springs, but the sun shone cold and crisp, sparkling with an aggressive brilliance that demanded sunglasses. The oppressive weight of the storm had passed, but Daniel felt a tension in the air as he drove into the mountain, as if the frozen world was too brittle to endure and would snap at the quietest of sounds.

Once inside he headed straight for the cafeteria. Coffee was, of course, always the first priority, even on days when the harsh sunlight had blasted him awake all the way to work. And he was just on his way to his office with a large cappuccino in one hand when he saw Sam at the far end of the corridor, dressed in civvies with an armful of coat. She didn’t see him as she strode around the corner, eyes fixed on the floor and lost in thought. From the direction she was walking he guessed she was heading for his office and so ran to catch her up.

“Sam!” he called once he’d rounded the corner, and she turned at the sound of his voice.

“Hey,” she said with a weary smile. “I was just coming to see you.”

He slowed his pace as he reached her, glancing down at the jeans and boots she wore. “Everything okay?”

He knew instantly that it wasn’t from the way her lips pressed into a tight line and she looked abruptly away. “Let’s go to your office.”

As they walked silently together he studied her face; it was pale and drawn. Miserable. And she clutched the coat in her arms as though it was trying to escape, her fingers tight and white on the black fabric. Ushering her quietly into his office he flicked on the lights and waved her to a seat. “Is it Matt?” he asked as soon as the door was closed behind him. “Is he okay?”

Sam sat slowly, holding her coat on her lap. But she had to bite her lip before she spoke, and when she did her voice hovered on the edge of tears. “We split up a couple of days ago.”

Dropping into his chair, Daniel’s heart sank with the news. But he was hardly surprised. To his mind, it had been inevitable from the moment she and Jack had stumbled across each other in Florida. But Sam was obviously devastated. “I’m so sorry,” he told her quietly. “What happened? Did he leave?”

She shook her head. “No. I did. He-- He knew about me and Jack, about-- Not about what happened, but--” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and began again. “He said he was my second choice, and he couldn’t live with that. I don’t blame him.”

Second choice? Matt was more astute than Daniel had suspected, but that was a discovery that had to hurt. He felt for the man, he felt for Sam. He felt for them all. “Where are you staying? You can stay with me if you-- Oh, no. Of course, you’re staying at Jack’s--”

“No!” She seemed shocked by the idea. “No, I’m not. Jack doesn’t even know. We’re not…you know. It’s not like that.” She sighed heavily, her words dull and flat. “I left him too, Daniel. I left Jack for Matt. Twice. I don’t expect him to forgive me either.”

Daniel smiled softly. “Since when has Jack ever done anything you expected?”

But his gentle attempt at humor went unnoticed and Sam’s eyes dropped to her hands, still clutching the coat. After a moment she spoke again. “I’m going away for a while. I’ve cleared it with General Taylor - he’s given me a couple of weeks compassionate leave.”

“Where are you going?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Back to where it all began, maybe? I need to figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life.”

He watched her silently, unhappy with the idea of leaving her alone when she was so obviously upset. “If you want some company…? I can bring a stack of books and--”

“No. Thank you.” She smiled a watery but genuine smile. “I really just want to be alone for a while.” Getting to her feet she bit nervously at her lip and added, “There is something you can do for me though.”

“Anything.”

She held out the heavy black coat. “Could you give this to Jack and tell him thanks?”

Daniel raised an eyebrow as he took the coat, now recognizing it as Jack’s. “Okay,” he said, refusing to indulge his curiosity and ask how she had come by it.

“Thanks,” she nodded. “I’ll call you when I get back.”

Not ready to let her leave so soon, he rose to his feet and stepped around his desk towards her. “You take care of yourself,” he entreated, pulling her into a warm hug. “And call me any time if you need to talk. Okay?”

Her arms went around him gratefully, holding on for dear life. When she spoke her voice was shaky. “Thank you, Daniel.”

He held her for a long moment, wishing he could do more to shelter her from the troubled waters. But he knew there was a different port she needed to find in this storm, and that she had to find her way there alone.

***

Jack dragged the last box from the back of his truck with profound relief, balancing it on one hip as he locked the door and crunched through the snow towards his house. After three days on the road he was looking forward to spending some quality time with his bed.

He dumped the box with the rest in the spare room and closed the door on the mess. No point in unpacking since, with any luck, he’d be moving out of the Springs for good some time soon. The house was silent and cold as he headed down into the kitchen, and it reminded him of the day he’d arrived back home and ended up eating pizza on the roof with Carter. She’d borrowed his sweater, and looked damn sexy in it too. Entirely too touchable.

He sighed at the unbidden memory, hating the empty hole it tore in his chest. He missed her, just as he’d done every day of the four years he’d spent ‘getting over’ her. Only now it was worse, because her face was fresh in his mind, he could still taste her kiss on his lips and his mind echoed with the memory of her parting words - I do love you. The sooner he left Colorado the better.

Picking up the stack of waiting mail he thumbed through it on the way to the kitchen. All junk. Throwing it onto the counter he stared out of the window into his snow-covered yard. It had been two weeks since the storm, but the world was still frozen and only the tracks of a few birds disturbed the pristine whiteness outside. It looked wrong, too perfect. And he had a sudden flash of children’s footprints in the snow, a half-finished snowman and an armory of snowballs scattering the yard. He thought sharply of Charlie and how different his life could have been. Despite his irascible temper, he wasn’t made to be alone. But somehow he’d taken all the wrong paths along the way and here he was. Alone and lonely.

Pathetic.

With an irritated grunt at his maudlin thoughts, he dumped coffee in the pot and flicked on the switch. Life went on. It always did and always would. But sometimes it was better not to look too far ahead. Limiting his thoughts only to the end of the day, he decided that a soak in the tub would go a long way to ease the aches and pains of three days behind the wheel. And so leaving the coffee to brew, he headed towards the stairs. He was half way up when the doorbell rang.

Reluctantly he stomped back down, hoping to hell that Babbling Bella wasn’t back. The last thing he needed right now was to see her plastic smile and be told that the ‘coffee aroma’ was a cliché! Bottling his irritation as best he could he opened the door. To his surprise it wasn’t Bella.

“Hey Jack,” Daniel smiled. “You’re back.”

“What? Are you stalking me?”

“I saw your truck,” Daniel explained dryly. “I swung by on my way home from work, just in case.” When Jack didn’t say anything, he added, “Can I come in?”

“Uh, sure,” Jack agreed, somewhat thrown by his friend’s unexpected appearance. Not that it wasn’t welcome. Anything that distracted him from too much introspection had to be a good thing. “I’m a little out of it,” he explained as they headed into the living room. “Too much driving.”

Daniel just nodded, glancing around as he sat down. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been trying to get hold of you for a couple of days.”

With a yawn, Jack sank onto the sofa and stretched out. “Flew up to Laura’s to get my stuff. And my truck.”

“Oh, right.” But Daniel seemed distracted and awkward, frowning down at the coat he held in his hands as if lost in thought. Then he looked up again, his face anxious but resolved. “I have some news.”

His careful tone ignited little fireflies of unease in Jack’s gut. “About?” he asked, not moving from the sofa even though his entire body was curling with tension.

The look on Daniel’s face told at least half the story. “Sam came to see me a few days ago,” he said, watching Jack with unnerving intensity. “She and Matt have split up.”

The fireflies exploded into fireworks as he jolted upright. “What?! What happened? That bastard. If he hurt--”

“She left him,” Daniel interrupted. “Sam left him, Jack.”

He couldn’t breathe. His mind spun upside down, reeling with the implications. Sam had left Matt. She’d left him! There was a chance, there was still hope. Finding it difficult to think coherently he swallowed hard and tried to force his mind to work. “She… Why?” he began, before other thoughts overtook him and he jumped to his feet. “I have to see her. Where is she? At your place? I have to--”

“Wait!” Daniel broke in again. “Jack, relax. Just listen.”

Cramming the lid on his chaotic feelings, Jack forced himself to stillness. Listen. He could do that. But - holy shit! - she’d left him. She’d left him!

Tensely, Daniel held out the coat to Jack. “She gave me this and said to tell you thanks.”

Blinking in confusion he took Daniel’s coat, and then realized that it was his own. Understanding dawned and he sat back down slowly. “I sent Matt home,” he explained. “That night. I found him in a bar and sent him home. It was freezing and he didn’t have a coat or anything.”

Daniel nodded. “That was good of you.”

“Did she seem pissed off?” Jack asked, putting the coat to one side. “I wasn’t interfering. I just didn’t want her to be worrying--”

“She’s gone away,” Daniel told him carefully. “She said she needed some time alone to think things through. Taylor’s given her a couple of weeks leave.”

Gone away? No, way. He had to see her! “Where’s she gone?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t say.”

He couldn’t sit still and was on his feet again, pacing. Gone away? Why would she do that? Why wouldn’t she come to him? Unless he was one of the things she wanted to think through… That letter! What had he said? Had he pissed her off? Driven her away? He’d been angry when he wrote it… “I need to see her,” he muttered to himself, suddenly terrified that he’d somehow managed to screw everything up. “Daniel - she must have said *something* about where she was going? To see her brother? Friends?”

Daniel shook his head. “No. She just said, um…” He frowned and thought for a moment. “Uh, she said she didn’t know where she was going but maybe…damn, what did she say?”

Biting back frustration Jack forced himself not to try and drag the memory physically from Daniel. All he said was, “It’s really important.”

Daniel nodded slowly, eyes focused somewhere mid-air while his brow furrowed in thought. And then his gaze snapped back to Jack. “Where it all began,” he said slowly. “She said she might go back to where it all began.”

Frowning, Jack leaned forward as he considered her words. “Where it all began?” Where what all began? His feelings for her? He suspected they’d begun in the briefing room when she’d first marched into his life with a chip balanced precariously on her shoulder and an attitude to match. But she couldn’t mean that. Where else then…? Antarctica? Unlikely. Apophis’s ship? Impossible. Daniel’s apartment, where she’d first met Matt? Obviously not. So where else had anything begun that would--

And then he knew. He absolutely knew. And the knowledge brought with it a momentary flash of joy that was quickly chased away by churning uncertainty. He knew where she was, but should he go after her? He looked up into Daniel’s tense face and silently asked the question. His friend shook his head. “I offered to go with her,” he explained. “She wants to be by herself.”

“She’s left him,” Jack insisted, that single fact ringing through his mind like a peel of bells.

But Daniel gave a half-hearted shrug. “I didn’t get the impression she was happy about it. She seemed devastated.”

“So what are you saying?”

“Maybe now’s not a good time to, you know, rush things?”

He laughed humorlessly. “Rush things? Is that a joke?”

But Daniel wasn’t laughing. “You know what I mean.”

He did, but refused to admit it. Instead he got to his feet and walked towards the window. The sun was dipping in the sky, painting long blue shadows over the silent, untouched snow. “I know her,” he said softly. “I know how she’ll be beating herself up over this, and I can-- I want to--” He shook his head, astonished by the rush of tenderness that was overwhelming his usually unbreachable defenses. He knew her, he knew how she’d be blaming himself and he knew that he could help her through it. He wanted to, even if that was all he did. Nothing else mattered. “I have to go.”

“Jack,” Daniel warned, “I really wouldn’t--”

“Ah!” he cut him of with a raised hand. “Don’t. I know what I’m doing.”

Daniel pulled off his glasses and started polishing them anxiously. “I hope so.”

“Trust me,” he said, smiling at the pulse of anticipation tingling through his veins. Everything had changed. Again. Doors he’d thought welded shut were flying wide open and everything was up for grabs - including his future.

Daniel said nothing, just looked away with a small shake of his head. But Jack refused to be daunted. For the first time since this whole thing had begun he knew what he had to do.

***

Chapter 20

The soft roar of the ocean was the only sound on the dark beach. White surf glistened in the moonlight as it hissed over wet sand, relentlessly moving backwards and forwards as timeless as the passage of the stars overhead.

Sam sat on the cool sand, her arms around her knees, letting her mind drift out across the dark water. She hadn’t intended to come here at first, but once she’d started driving she’d just kept heading south-east until her destination had become inevitable. The place where it had all begun, where her happy, safe and predictable life had been shaken until it broke. Funny how one chance encounter could change so much. If she hadn’t gone to Matt’s conference she’d never have bumped into Jack, and right now she’d be tucked up comfortably at home watching the snow fall.

But here she was, in the warm Florida evening, with her lungs full of salty air and her marriage in pieces all around her. She’d toyed with calling Jack and telling him what had happened, but each time her finger had hovered over his number her mind had emptied of words. What could she say? ‘I know I left you for Matt - twice. But things aren’t working out with him anymore, so how about you let me back into your life again? Promise I won’t walk away this time.’ She wasn’t sure she could even convince herself, let alone Jack.

And she had no right to even try, not when her feelings for him hadn’t been strong enough to find a way around the regulations all those years ago. Or strong enough to make her leave Matt until he’d forced the issue and she could no longer believe her own lies. How could she expect Jack to want anything more to do with her? The words in his letter were true - she’d always put duty and honor first, and it had ended up destroying everything else. Too late she’d realized that duty for duty’s sake was an empty gesture. No rules, regulations or vows could bend your heart in the wrong direction. You couldn’t regulate love; you couldn’t make it fit into your vision of a neat and ordered life. You could no more love on command than you could stop loving on command, and if you tried the result was misery, for everyone involved. If she’d understood that ten years ago she would have spared herself - and the men who had been wrecked on her flawed moral code - a decade of grief.

And so she sat alone on the dark beach, struggling to see a way through the mess she’d made of her personal life. She wasn’t the sort to give up, not ever. And so deep down hope burned dimly, providing just enough heat to keep her heart beating and her eyes focused on the distant horizon. Even if, as now, it was shrouded in darkness and the future seemed unknowable.

***

Jack slowed the rental car when he saw the exit sign. He couldn’t help himself, even though he knew it would be foolish and sentimental to stop now. What he really should do was find a place to stay and set about locating Sam in the morning. He was tired from long hours lurking at the airport, waiting for a standby ticket. He was antsy from the cramped flight and the nervous tension that curled through his entire body. But despite it all he felt a tug towards the ocean. He just wanted to make contact, to feel that he was close to her even though coming here at all was only a hunch.

But if Daniel had been right, and she really had gone back to where it had all begun, then this is where she would be. And he would find her. He had to. Almost without his conscious consent he pulled off the highway and found himself driving through the dark streets towards Playa Linda. The night air was warm and he switched off the car’s air conditioning and wound down the window, enjoying the feel of the salty breeze against his skin. After the ice of Colorado the warm Florida night sank into him easily, and despite everything he began to relax.

His car crawled silently into the little parking lot at the side of the beach, and his chest tightened with the memory of his last visit and all it had heralded. There were no hotels here to cast their light onto the beach, and a single street lamp illuminated the parking lot. It was quiet, the roar of the ocean the only sound in the humid evening air. At first he was surprised to see three other cars parked close to the boardwalk, until he saw the bumper sticker on one: ‘Live, Love, Fish’.

Night fishermen.

Climbing out of the car, Jack stretched and drew in a deep breath. He’d just walk down to the shore, he decided, watch the stars for a while and then go find a motel and--- Holy crap!

He stared, eyes widening, at the furthest car from his in the lot. - silver, sleek, funky. Sam’s vintage Volvo. His heart lurched into his throat, strangling him. She was there! She was on the beach. His head whipped around to the boardwalk, vanishing into the dark night, and then back to her car. What should he do? Go down after her? Wait by her car? Get the hell out of there and try and order his chaotic thoughts and feelings? If he saw her now, what would he say to her? But if he left would he find her again?

He couldn’t take that risk. He’d lost her twice already, and there was no way he was going to risk this last chance at getting it right. And so he started walking, his boots clumping softly on the wooden planks as he headed out blindly onto the pitch-black beach.

He had no idea what he’d say or what she’d answer, just that it was time to lay down their cards and finish the game. And he hoped to hell he held a winning hand.

***

Sam heard footsteps and the rustle of clothing as someone approached her from behind. Instinctively she was on her guard, acutely aware that sitting on an all-but-deserted beach in the middle of the night was a profoundly stupid thing for a woman to do alone. Casually she rose to her feet, not turning around but prepared if necessary to either fight or run. But she was irritated with herself for letting sentiment get the better of her. What had she been thinking coming out here alone instead of finding herself a motel and--

“Sam?” The voice that came out of the darkness knocked her sideways with such force that she actually stumbled as she span around. Her heart hammered, her mind struggling to identify the voice. “Hey, easy! It’s me. O’Neill.”

Astonishment froze her. It was impossible. He couldn’t be there - how could he be there? - and yet he was. He’d come after her, like he always did. Gratitude and relief washed through her, scouring her bare and leaving her wrung out and exposed. She longed to go to him, to fall into his arms and blot out the world. But guilt restrained her, the image of Matt’s hurt and angry face holding her back. Paralyzed by conflicting emotions, she could only stare through the darkness as his figure resolved itself before her, the moonlight glinting off the silver in his hair and making his dark eyes glitter as he stopped walking a few yards up the beach. “You okay?” he asked in a voice as soft as the night.

She ached to spill her heart and be comforted, but she wouldn’t let herself. How could she, when she’d left Matt alone and comfortless? So instead she forced her mind to work, as always making herself think rather than feel. “How did you find me?”

He shrugged, his eyes never leaving her face. “A hunch, I guess. Daniel told me what happened.”

Daniel. She turned away, staring back out towards the distant lights of ships on the horizon. “What must you think of me?”

“I think that you probably feel like crap.”

“Yeah,” she replied bitterly. “Well, if anyone deserves to it’s me. I’ve been a total bitch.”

He made an angry sound in the back of his throat. “You have not. You just made a mistake and--”

“A mistake? A mistake is forgetting to use bullet points in a report! This was--” She cringed at the memory of Matt’s anguish as she’d walked out of their house, turning her back on him and four years of marriage. “You don’t understand. You didn’t see his face.”

There was a long silence in which neither of them moved. Maybe she’d angered him? But she couldn’t turn around to see, it was taking all her self-control to just hold herself together. At last he spoke, without anger, in that soft, quiet voice that had always found its way straight into her heart. “I understand guilt, Sam. I know how it eats at you, makes you believe you don’t ever deserve a moment’s happiness. It poisons everything.”

His words rang true as a bell. It did poison everything, even this. He was so close, and all she wanted to do was turn into his arms and let him hold her. But it felt like another betrayal and she couldn’t do it. “How can I be happy,” she whispered, “when I hurt him so much? And you, I hurt you too.”

He moved closer and reached out to take her hand. She didn’t look at him, still staring out to sea, but his touch stirred her so powerfully that the hairs on the back of her neck crept up on end. “You didn’t do it on purpose.”

But it was a pale excuse. “That doesn’t matter.”

He tightened his grip on her hand, his fingers strong and suddenly insistent. “No, you’re wrong,” he said heatedly. “It does matter. It’s all that matters. It might not make you *feel* any better, but it’s the only thing that can let you live with yourself.”

The heated emotion in his voice startled her and she looked over to see his face. He was staring out towards the dark horizon, his mouth compressed into a thin line of control and his brow drawn down into a frown. But it was the expression in his eyes that shook her - open, damaged and aching with grief. For a moment she didn’t understand, but then he turned and met her confused gaze with one brutally honest. And in that single look he let her inside, throwing down all the barriers that had ever stood between them and standing naked before her. Charlie. He was talking about Charlie. She reached out and seized his arm. “Oh God, Jack, I didn’t mean to imply that you were--”

He flinched, the expression silencing her, but he held his ground. And to her surprise the shutters didn’t slam down. “It’s all about living with yourself,” he told her determinedly. “Forgiving yourself for making mistakes. If you can’t do that, you might as well put a bullet in your head because your life is over.”

She nodded slowly, unwilling to drop the connection. He was so open, so alive and so full of her. She wanted to be gazed at like that forever. “This isn’t the same,” she began slowly, “but I still don’t know how to start. I’ve made so many mistakes. And not just with Matt.”

His eyes softened as he carefully took both her hands in his, turning her to face him. It was an intimate gesture, nothing profound but it broke new ground for them. A simple, loving touch. “You could start by admitting that you’re not perfect,” he said quietly. “You make mistakes, just like everyone else.”

Too emotional to reply, she just squeezed his hands and nodded. She loved him so much, so completely, but she was too full of it to speak. She hoped he could see it in her eyes.

Almost imperceptibly he tugged on her hands until they were closer still, their clasped hands held softly between them. “Why didn’t you call me?” he asked gently. “After you left him?”

She shook her head and cleared her throat. She had to look away when she answered, his eyes were too deep to let her focus on words. “I didn’t know what to say. I thought you must-- After what happened, I thought you must hate me or--“

“Hate you?” He sounded bemused and she turned back to see him staring at her in confusion. “But you know how I feel about you. I told you.”

“But after what happened in the park, and your letter. What you said about me always putting duty first--”

“Yeah, well,” he grimaced, “talking about mistakes…”

She shook her head vehemently. “No. You were right,” she insisted, holding his hands tighter and trying to make him understand that she’d changed. “I do - did - always put duty first. And look what a mess I made!”

“But that’s who you are, Sam.”

“No,” she countered. “Don’t you see? That duty and honor stuff is bullshit! It’s screwed up my life, and Matt’s and yours and I’m sick of it! I don’t want to be that person anymore!”

“But I love that person!” he protested. And the words shocked the world into silence. All Sam could hear was the racing of her heart, blood thumping through her ears as she stared at him. He stared right back, stunned by his own admission. And then he blinked and a slow, hesitant smile twitched his lips as he said it again, “I love you.”

His words fizzed joyfully inside her, like a champagne bottle about to pop. He loved her. He still loved her! But she shook her head, refusing to let it be this easy. Didn’t she deserve to suffer? To feel the pain she’d caused to others? “How can you?” she asked. “I left you, twice. I let you down, walked away and --”

She was silenced by his finger touching her lips. “Doesn’t matter,” he told her softly. “None of it. All that matters is now.”

She sucked in a shaky breath, her tongue flickering over her dry lips and brushing the tip of his finger. He shivered, and his flash of desire electrified them both. She felt as though she was going to fly apart, her conflicting emotions pulling her in all directions. “I still feel so guilty.”

His fingers left her lips, tracing along her cheekbone and into her hair. His eyes followed voraciously, as if memorising every line. “I know. So do I.”

“I made so many mistakes.”

“We both did.”

His fingers were in her hair now, curling and teasing as his eyes returned to hers and held her fast. She wanted him. She wanted to lose herself in him forever. But guilt sat like a dam holding back the flood, and it wouldn’t let her emotions free. “How can I deserve this?”

“How can *I*?” he countered, warm breath caressing her mouth. “It’s not about what we deserve. It’s about what we’ve got.”

“But what have we got?”

He smiled at that, the hand in her hair cupping the back of her head and tugging her closer. “This,” he breathed against her lips. “We’ve got this.” And on the last breath of the last word he kissed her, a powerful, eternal kiss peppered with hunger, longing and devotion. She responded like dry tinder to a flame. Heedless of anything but the feel of his hard body against hers, she was overwhelmed by the emotions that broke free at last and swept her away. Time stopped, elongated, shrank. Dawn could have been breaking when at last they pulled apart and she wouldn’t have been surprised. Dizzy with desire, she let him pull her tightly against him and she stayed there, holding him and wondering at the insanity of a universe that could deliver such pain with one hand and such joy with the other.

“It’s always been you,” she whispered shakily into his shoulder. “I just wouldn’t let myself believe it.”

He kissed her hair, a gesture both comforting and arousing. “Believe it, because I’m not letting you go again. No more mistakes.”

“No more mistakes,” she echoed. But she knew it wouldn’t be that easy. They had a decade of mistakes to deal with and enough baggage between them to sink an ocean liner. But she said nothing more - there would be time enough later to untangle the knots in their lives. For now all she wanted was to hold him and be held, to stand on the dark beach and watch the distant lights on the midnight horizon. She loved him. That much was as certain as the slow passage of the moon across the sky. And for now, at least, it was enough.


***

It was past midnight and Edward Zola looked up from his book - ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ - as the door swung open and two very late arrivals straggled into the foyer. He stood up, pushing the book to one side and his glasses up his nose as he smoothed a professional smile onto his face and studied the newcomers - a man and a woman. He was older than she, graying but tall and possessing an air of command that drifted ahead of him as he strode towards the desk. Edward had the feeling that this was a man used to getting his own way. The woman was beautiful but weary-looking, and she followed him with a slightly apprehensive frown.

“Good evening,” Edward smiled. “Welcome to the Inn at Cocoa Beach.”

“Evening,” the man nodded, glancing over at the woman as if making sure she was still there. “Do you have any vacancies?”

“Let me check our availability,” Edward said, calling up the reservations screen on the computer. “Was that one room or two?”

There was an exaggerated pause before the man and woman spoke together. “One,” she said.

“Two,” he said.

Edward glanced over at them, eyebrows raised.

“Two,” she said, blushing.

“One,” he corrected.

Keeping his face straight, Edward turned back to the computer. He’d seen these late night trysts all too often when he’d worked for Motel 6, but it was less common at the Inn. Usually they had a higher class of customer. “We have two adjoining rooms, if that helps?”

“We’ll take them,” muttered the man, pulling out his wallet. “What’s the rate?”

“One-thirty-five a night, per room,” Edward replied. And when he saw the somewhat shocked expression on the man’s face he added, “All rooms have ocean views, a balcony and are individually decorated. Breakfast is home-baked and, of course, you have use of our swimming pool and direct access to the beach. Each evening we have a cheese and wine--”

“That’s fine, that’s fine,” the man mumbled, sliding his credit card over the counter and stealing another look at the woman by his side. He rolled his eyes at her and she stifled a tired smile.

Edward cleared his throat and placed a registration form in front of the man. “If you could fill this in, sir?”

Adept at reading upside down, Edward saw the man write his name as Jack O’Neill and the woman’s as Sam-- He stopped then and glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, asking a silent question. She grimaced and quietly said, “Carter.”

He didn’t even know her last name? Edward shook his head and looked away. The lives some people lead, he mused, thinking fondly of his own wife of twenty-five years currently babysitting their new granddaughter. “Just the one night, is it sir?” he asked pointedly, glancing up over the tops of his glasses.

The man’s dark eyes narrowed. “Maybe,” he replied dryly. “Depends if we like the breakfast.” At his side the woman turned away, gazing at the dark window. Only her reflection stared back at her, and Edward had the feeling she was uncomfortable with what she saw.

Once he’d taken the credit card deposit he pulled the keys from beneath the counter and handed them over. “Two-ten and two-eleven,” he told them. “Breakfast is served on the patio from eight o’clock.” If you’re out of bed that early, he added silently.

The man - Jack O’Neill - snatched up the keys and fixed him with a challenging look. And then, to Edward’s surprise, he said, “This isn’t what it looks like.” Feeling himself blush to have been so exposed, Edward started stammering a response but O’Neill didn’t stay to listen.

The woman lingered for a moment though, and he saw a glow of pride in her eyes, softened by a sympathetic smile that lit her face like moonlight. “It’s been a long few months,” she explained cryptically. “But he’s right, this really isn’t what it looks like.”

“I--I--” he stuttered, but she too was gone, catching up with O’Neill who stood holding the door open for her. Edward watched as she took his hand, offering up a grateful smile that would melt concrete. It seemed to melt O’Neill, because the smile he returned looked like his son’s on Christmas Eve. And then the door shut on them and Edward was left to wonder if maybe he’d been witness to something far more significant than the sordid one night stands he’d come to expect.

***

The room was beautifully decorated, Jack had to admit. And for a hundred and thirty bucks a night, it damn well should be. But really the décor was the last thing on his mind as he lay in the large bed staring up at the white ceiling. Next door he heard the soft sounds of someone moving around, and his gaze wandered to the wooden door linking the two rooms. Sam was next door. Holy crap.

He closed his eyes, willing himself to relax and sort through the jumble of emotions in his mind. Checking into a hotel with another man’s wife wasn’t exactly his usual MO, and despite what he’d said to Sam about forgiving your own mistakes he wasn’t exactly proud of the fact that he’d all but stolen her from Matt. On the other hand, if he’d had to do it all again, the only thing he’d do different was oust Matt from the picture a few years earlier. And so he figured he’d just have to learn to live with the guilt, because he certainly couldn’t regret what he’d done.

Glancing at his watch he saw that it was past one o’clock. And although he felt too wired to sleep, he’d spent enough years in the field to be able to force his eyes shut if he had to. Leaning over, he switched off the bedside lamp and lay there, staring at the light seeping beneath the adjoining door. He guessed neither of them were in for a good night’s sleep, and he abruptly wished she was with him. Not to ‘sleep’ with, but just to be with. To hold. It was all so new, and now she wasn’t with him he felt doubts creep in. Did she really want to be with him? Would she go back to Matt? Was he too old for her? Was it all some kind of profound delusion from which he would emerge only to find Babbling Bella beaming down at him with a platoon of eager house-buyers on her tail?

He groaned quietly at his paranoia and rolled over onto his stomach, burying his face in the crisp, white pillow. Sleep. He needed to sleep; he was strung-out, over-tired and not making sense. And so he slowed his breathing, disconnected his conscious thoughts and with well-practiced ease let himself drift into soothing darkness.

Sometime later in the dark, silent hours of the night a noise penetrated his sleep. A soft knocking. Instantly awake, Jack lay still until he could orient himself and the sound.

Knock, knock.

He pushed himself upright and turned towards the noise. It was coming from the door between the two rooms. From Sam’s room. He got up and switched on the lamp, the soft light making him squint. Padding across the carpeted floor he approached the door carefully. And there it was again, a quiet yet persistent knock. Not daring to imagine what it might mean, he unlocked the door and opened it. She was standing there in soft-looking pajamas with a strappy top, a worried yet apologetic look in her wide eyes. “Did I wake you up?”

He blinked, trying not to notice the enticing expanse of shoulder dipping down beneath her skimpy top. “I, uh,” he mumbled. “No.”

“I can’t sleep,” she said nervously, gesturing at the room behind her. “It’s worse when I’m alone.”

“It always is,” he nodded, remembering a thousand sleepless nights after his own marriage had fallen apart. “Do you want to talk?”

She shook her head. “I just don’t want to be alone.”

He was very glad she didn’t want to talk; it was never his strong point, especially in the middle of the night. And so he simply held out his hand to her. “Come on, I promise I’ll be a gentleman.”

She laughed softly, but it sounded joyous to his ears. He hadn’t heard her laugh for a long, long time. Taking his hand she let him lead her back into his room and towards the bed. Afraid he’d say something stupid or crass to cover the thumping emotions in his chest, Jack stayed silent as he slid under the covers and scooted over to the far side of the bed. But his heart was in his eyes as he watched her, barely daring to believe that she was there and seeking him out. Without smiling she sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, and then lifted her feet and tucked them under the covers. She was as far away as she could get and he wasn’t about to crowd her. “Can you get the light?” he asked.

She looked at him, wide eyed, and then leaned over and plunged the room into darkness. Rolling onto his back, he was so keenly aware that she was mere inches from him that his skin tingled with a static fizz that reminded him of the stargate. She moved slightly, lying down perhaps, and every jostle sent sparks of excitement flooding his tense body. Sleep was *so* not going to happen, for either of them he suspected. And then he felt the bed shift again and after a moment her hand hesitantly found his beneath the covers. His heart stopped! But she said nothing, and neither did he. He couldn’t. Words clogged in his throat, mingling with a rising emotion that was hard to identify - happiness, relief, delight. Tenderness, affection. Love. He squeezed her hand and she moved closer, pressing her arm against his. Shifting slowly, not wanting to alarm her, he rolled onto his side. He could see her profile now that his eyes were used to the dark, and as he watched she turned towards him. There was a question in her eyes, a glimmer barely visible in the darkness. But he understood the need she would never voice and in answer he reached out and pulled her gently into his arms. She snuggled close, her head coming to rest against his shoulder and her arm sliding across his chest. Breathing in the scent of her hair he closed his eyes and just lived the moment - her head heavy on his shoulder, her hand warm through the thin fabric of his t-shirt, her even breaths caressing his throat. Her skin like warm silk beneath his fingers. Everything was sensation; the whole world was reduced to what he could inhale, or hear or touch. He sighed contentedly. Who cared about sleeping? He could stay like this forever.

Sam sighed too, but less happily. “Jack?” she asked softly.

“Hmmm?”

“Tell me I’m not a horrible person.”

He kissed the top of her head. “You’re not a horrible person, you’re a beautiful person.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, and he could hear the smile in her voice. A little later she spoke again, drowsily. “Jack?”

“Hmmm?”

“I love you.”

He smiled and drew her closer, pressing another kiss into her hair. “I love you too.” And as he drifted off into warm, contented sleep he couldn’t help thinking that life just didn’t get better than this.

***

The next morning brought a mellow, hazy dawn peering through the curtains. Sam stared at the gentle light as it gilded the room with life and color, revealing the face of the man who slept next to her.

It was strange, waking-up to a different face. She was so used to Matt’s soft, rounded features that the tanned lines and angles of Jack’s face seemed strange and unfamiliar. Although not unwelcome. She reached out a hand to touch his cheek, but hesitated at the last moment. She wasn’t ready for him to wake yet, she needed some time and space to sort through the clash of emotions swirling in her heart. She loved him, so much. And she wanted him with a force that sent a powerful thrum of desire through every nerve. It was so intense, it was uncomfortable; it had been a long time since she’d looked at Matt with desire. But at the same time she was acutely aware that her wedding ring was sitting on the nightstand of the adjoining room, and that she was sharing a bed with a man who was not her husband.

Repressing a sigh, Sam climbed carefully out of bed and padded back to her own room. She’d escape to the shower for a while, she decided, and let the hot water ease her guilty qualms and loosen the tension that knotted tightly in the pit of her stomach. But even as she soaked herself in warm bubbles, she couldn't shake the memory of his touch. And she knew she wanted more, much more. If only her conscience would allow it.

When she emerged from the warm bathroom into the relative chill of her room, she heard Jack’s shower splashing. Feeling antsy, not knowing what else to do, she ran the hairdryer vaguely over her hair and wrapped herself in one of the long, white robes provided by the hotel. It felt soft and luxurious as she headed back into his room, drawn to the window where he’d parted the curtains and the sun was racing up from the horizon. The sky was pink and pretty, fading to pale blue. Another beautiful day. Wrapping her arms around herself, she stood and stared at the sun rising over the flat ocean. So different from home and the crystal beauty of the mountain light.

Behind her, the shower cut off and she turned around as the bathroom door opened. He stepped out, still damp from the shower, a towel tied around his waist. Her stomach tightened at the sight and he stopped in his tracks, staring at her. Forcing her gaze to move up from the towel and over his bare chest to his face, she met his eyes and held them. But his intent gaze was full of questions that she couldn’t answer and she turned away, staring out at the dawn sky, not sure why she was standing there in his bedroom. Not sure what she wanted. Or maybe she did know, maybe she knew exactly what she wanted but for once she didn’t want to have to make the decision. Throughout their entire relationship he’d let her lead the way; the ball had always been in her court. Maybe that’s why she was here, naked beneath her bathrobe, knowing what she wanted but too emotionally drained to act. Maybe she wanted him to make the decision, just this once.

And maybe he understood that, because suddenly his hands were running up and down her arms, a light touch on the soft cotton of her robe. “Sam,” he said quietly, the love in his voice turning her stomach inside out.

She said nothing, just leaned her head back until her cheek brushed his and his arms drifted around her waist, pulling her close. He smelled of soap and toothpaste, and she smiled as guilty tears welled in her eyes. This was the final betrayal, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. It had been inevitable from the first day they met.

Jack lowered his mouth, pressing a light kiss into the side of her neck, and she tipped her head to one side, silently encouraging more. He kissed her again, his hands gliding back up to her shoulders and edging away the collar of her bathrobe. The slight chill of the air and the heat of his kisses against her skin made her shiver, and his fingers tightened possessively on her arms. This slow exploration was so different from Matt’s pedestrian lovemaking, so delicious and illicit. She didn’t want it to ever stop.

His lips found their way down from her neck to her collarbone and her robe slipped from her shoulder. She felt open and vulnerable, reckless and dangerous. Excited. And, God, she wanted him! The memory of her wedding band burned on her finger, but she ignored it and let her head drop back onto his bare shoulder as his lips lingered on her neck. She’d never wanted anyone like this. Lifting her hand she found his cheek, holding him there with a caress as his arm slid around her waist again, stealing beneath her robe and onto the bare skin of her stomach. She gasped, her mind beginning to mist and fade as she turned her head and brushed his face with her lips until he lifted his mouth to hers and devoured her with a ravenous kiss. Unwilling to break the contact, she turned in his arms and both his hands slipped beneath her open robe, exploring with gentle caresses. She felt utterly, deliciously exposed. Body and soul. It had been years - decades! - since anyone but Matt had touched her like this. And never him. Never Jack. Yet she’d never wanted anyone as much as this, not ever. If he stopped now, she thought she’d die.

He made a sound in the back of his throat as his hands ranged up and down her bared body, but his touch was too careful, too gentle. Too restrained. She knew he was holding back. Pulling away from his insatiable kisses she seized his head roughly in her hands. “Don’t stop.”

His eyes were dark and doubtful, desire and hesitation mingling uncertainly. “Are you sure?”

She kissed him hard, her head spinning with a yearning that was at once new and ancient. She’d never felt like this with Matt, never felt so out of control, so ferocious, so wanton. And yet she knew this passion had always been there, beneath the surface, untapped and untouched. Waiting. Waiting for Jack to bring her to life. “Don’t stop,” she demanded again, although it sounded more like a growl.

His restraint gave way like an avalanche, and with a growl of his own he pulled her away from the window and down onto the soft sheets of the bed they’d already shared. “I’ll never,” he said between drowning kisses, “stop.”

Her fingers clenched in his hair as his mouth blazed over her body and she arched up to meet him, images of Matt vanishing beneath this awesome, unleashed passion. “Oh God!” were her last coherent words before the world evaporated into a mist of ecstasy wrapped in so much love it made her want to weep.

***

It was just before ten when Edward Zola arrived for his morning shift, strolling towards reception past the patio overlooking the lush, tropical garden that separated the Inn from the white sands of the beach. A few guests still lazed over breakfast, newspapers scattered next to the elegant wrought iron tables and chairs. He walked past them taking little notice, intent on the day ahead, when his eyes were caught by the couple at the furthest table. He recognized them immediately from the previous evening: Mr. O’Neill and his beautiful companion.

Slowing to retrieve a napkin that had blown from a vacated table, he eyed them as they sat eating breakfast. They’d obviously only just arrived. The baskets of pastries and fruit on their table were untouched as they talked quietly together, heads so close they were almost touching. She was smiling at something he’d said, shaking her head as if in denial. And he was chuckling as he reach for one of the muffins, breaking off a piece and offering it to her. She took it from his fingers, their hands brushing and lingering together before she popped it into her mouth.

The tension he’d sensed the previous evening had dissolved, and in its place he saw something that reminded him very much of his wife. Even as the thought crossed his mind he saw O’Neill reach out and touch her arm, saying something that provoked a beautiful, self-conscious smile.

Edward felt a smile of his own break through, as warm as the winter sunshine. He realized now how wrong he’d been the night before, and grabbing a coffee pot from the nearest busboy he went to make amends.

O’Neill looked up as he approached, a beat of displeasure crossing his dark eyes. “More coffee, sir?” Edward asked politely, and O’Neill nodded slightly towards his cup.

As he poured, Edward saw the woman - Sam Carter, he remembered - reach out and take O’Neill’s hand in a gesture that was both restraining and affectionate. He couldn’t help smiling again; his own wife had done the same thing a thousand times. “I wanted to apologize,” he said, keeping his eyes on the coffee, “if I caused any offence last night.”

There was a pause before the woman said, “Don’t worry, it’s fine.”

He looked up at her, smiling. “You were right,” he said, “this obviously isn’t what I thought it was.” Her eyes widened and a flush colored her cheeks. But he held up a hand to forestall a response. “I’ve been married for twenty-five years,” he told her earnestly. “I know commitment when I see it.” She blinked and turned her surprised look on O’Neill who seemed to be finding the crumbs on his plate especially fascinating. But he was grinning nonetheless. Edward backed away politely, “I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay.”

And with that he turned and headed into reception to start his day. But he paused on the threshold to look back. The couple were laughing quietly together as O’Neill reached out and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. His hand lingered there, touching the side of her face, and his expression sobered as he spoke. Edward couldn’t hear the words, but guessed the meaning from the way she smiled. Love sparkled in their eyes like stars in the night sky, abiding, unwavering and eternal.

The rare sight did his romantic heart good.

***

Chapter 21: Epilogue

The building was big, modern and ugly. The sun was too bright, dazzling the Christmas decorations that peered through the huge glass windows and half-blinding Matt as he waited at the top of the steps next to the revolving door. He adjusted his tie nervously, wanting to get the whole messy business over with. It was cold too, with an icy winter wind blowing down from the mountains and whipping his coat around his legs. Trust Sam to keep him waiting; so much for military punctuality. He set down his briefcase and clapped his hands together, blowing on them to keep them warm and wishing he'd worn thicker gloves. And as he did so he saw a large, dark green truck pull into one of the parking spaces outside the court building. Its smoked windows gave nothing away, but as the passenger door opened his heart thudded painfully when he saw Sam step out. Like him, she was smartly dressed, her golden hair flustered by the whipping wind. He hated that he still thought she looked beautiful.

She moved around to the front of the truck as the driver’s door opened and *he* stepped out, as smooth as ever in a black leather jacket and dark glasses. Sam glanced up, her eye catching Matt’s. She nodded a slight greeting and then turned back to O’Neill who pulled her briefcase out of the truck and handed it to her. She said something to him and he half-glanced up towards Matt, before nodding. For a moment Matt thought he was going to kiss her and his stomach bunched in dread. But at the last moment Sam’s lips moved, her head shaking slightly, and O’Neill stepped back. He didn’t go far though, leaning against the hood of his truck, arms folded, watching her as she climbed the stairs away from him and towards Matt. It was, Matt thought sourly, an ironic reversal of the true situation.

She smiled at him as she drew closer, a reserved careful smile that only pointed out how far they had come. Almost strangers now. As she approached him she slowed, and Matt had the dubious pleasure of noting that up close she didn’t look quite as good as she had from afar. Her face was wan and drawn, her lips pale.

“Sam,” he said, bending to pick up his briefcase. “Your lawyer not with you?”

“He said he’d meet me here,” she replied. And after a beat, “You look well.”

He did, and he knew it - tanned and fit. “Just spent a couple of weeks in Cancun,” he told her airily. “Conference.”

She smiled, but it didn’t disguise how tense she looked. “Sounds like fun.”

“It was. A lot of fun.” He turned away, hoping that she wouldn’t see the truth in his face; not one of the women he’d flirted with in Cancun came close to the one he was losing today. “Let’s go, or we’ll be late.”

Sam nodded, but said nothing. A year ago, when his life had been pointing towards the future, she’d have muttered at his insistence on punctuality. But not today, today she just agreed politely and followed him through the doors. But he didn’t miss the backward glance she cast towards the man waiting below, and when Matt also looked over his shoulder he saw O’Neill still leaned up against the hood of his predatory truck. Waiting.

The bastard.

They rode up to the lawyer’s office to a soundtrack of easy-listing Christmas classics, filling a silence that would otherwise have been awkward. But in the elevator’s harsh light and unforgiving mirrors, Matt couldn’t help but notice that Sam looked even worse than outside in the sunshine. And as they decelerated to a sharp halt he saw her jaw tighten grimly. “Do you feel okay?” he asked as they stepped out into the quiet corridor.

She gave him a quick, startled look and muttered, “Fine. Which way is it?”

Sick or not, it was obviously no longer any concern of his. With an irritated sigh he turned to lead the way, and all too soon they stood outside the offices of Joseph P. Graham, Attorney at Law. Matt didn’t stop to knock before he entered the set of offices with which he was reluctantly familiar. Claudette, the receptionist, looked up with a smile. “Mr. Hutchinson,” she said, “go right on through, Joe’s expecting you.” She turned to Sam, and Matt liked to think he saw her smile chill. “Ms. Carter, Mr. Elsworth is already here.”

Sam nodded her thanks, and together they walked towards the lawyer’s office to sign the papers that would end four years of marriage and abort a long-imagined future together. He glanced over at her as they paused on the threshold. “Does this mean *anything* to you?”

“Of course it does,” she sighed, and he was pleased to see her composed, set features cast in a queasy hue. “I hate what I’ve done to you.”

“Didn’t stop you though, did it?”

She just shook her head and looked away, as if he were echoing an oft-repeated accusation to which she had no answer. And he wondered if she felt guilty. He hoped she did. He hoped they both did.

“Matt,” Joseph Graham said, rising to his feet and offering his hand. “Ms. Carter. Welcome.”

Matt took Joe’s hand with a sigh as Sam moved to talk quietly with the thin, wiry man who must be her lawyer. "Let’s just get it over with, shall we?” Matt said grimly.

Sam glanced over when he spoke, her face brimming with sympathy and sadness. And in that look, more than anything the last, horrible year had brought, he saw the end. It was over, and from this moment on their lives would forever diverge. She offered him a tentative smile, but he just looked away.

He’d always hated goodbyes.

***

Once, on a surveillance mission in Afghanistan twenty-ish years ago, Captain Jack O’Neill had spent ten hours crouched behind a lame-ass excuse for cover, reconnoitering a Soviet encampment. He hadn’t even been able to pee.

It seemed incredible to him now, pacing irritably in front of his truck, that he’d ever had that much patience. And when he glanced at his watch for the hundredth time, and saw that less than a minute had passed since he’d last checked, he’d have sworn blind that some cosmic prankster had actually slowed down time to the point where it had all but stopped moving at all. Where the hell was she? How long did it take to sign a couple of papers?

He glanced up at the faceless building, corporate Christmas trees twinkling blandly in the window. She’d been in there half an hour already! If she wasn’t out in the next ten minutes he was going to--

The door opened and Matt Hutchinson strode out. He walked quickly down the stairs, pulling out his cell phone and holding it to his ear. Jack didn’t think he’d noticed him and was about to make himself inconspicuous when Matt looked over and cast him a brief, bitter look. He felt a beat of sympathy for the man - he literally knew how he must be feeling - and would have said something if Matt had paused. But he didn’t, speeding past and yammering into his cell like a yuppy vying for pole position in the rat race.

Jack watched him go with compassion, and a familiar twinge of guilt. But Matt couldn’t hold his attention for long. There was still no sign of Sam. His patience exhausted, Jack was halfway up the stairs when the door spun open again and she walked out, looking pale. But she smiled when she saw him and he took the rest of the steps two at a time.

“Hey,” he said as they met, automatically reaching for her hand. “How did it go?”

“Fine,” she sighed. “All signed. The final decree should be through in a couple of weeks. They’ll mail it.”

He gave her a hug - a gentle one - and said, “I saw Matt coming out. He looked okay.”

She nodded as they started walking down the steps. “He was fine, no big scenes or anything. I didn’t think there would be.”

“No,” Jack nodded, glancing over at her tired face. He paused before he said, “Did you tell him?”

She shook her head. “No. I-- I almost did, but it didn’t seem like the right time. I’ll call him some time. Or maybe write.”

“Yeah,” he agreed as they reached the sidewalk. “There’s plenty of time.” Dropping her hand, Jack dug into his pocket for his keys. But Sam reached for him again, taking his arm and resting her head sadly against his shoulder. Always more comfortable with actions than words, he just drew her
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