Rating: PG-13 (mostly for language)
Classification: S/J UST, angst, romance, Sam/other, Jack/other
Spoilers: Unnatural Selection
Summary: Carter and O’Neill deal with the consequences of doing the right thing.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and places are the property of MGM, World Gekko Corp and Double Secret Productions. This piece of fan fiction was created for entertainment not monetary purposes and no infringement on copyrights or trademarks was intended. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
You smiled, you spoke, and I believed,
By every word and smile deceived.
- Walter Savage Landor
The late summer sunshine shone warmly through air tempered by a tang of autumn chill. From across the park the shouts and barks of playing children drifted over the rustling leaves and settled on the warm bench where Daniel sat waiting.
He’d arrived early and had his nose buried in the foreign section of the newspaper, determined to enjoy the dying days of summer, when something made him look up. He squinted through the sunshine and saw the man he was waiting for walking across the browned grass. From this distance Jack O’Neill didn’t look any different from the man he’d worked with for so long. But it had been four years, and an ocean of water had flooded beneath the bridge that now separated Jack from Colorado Springs and the life they had all shared at the SGC.
Daniel rose to his feet, folding the newspaper. Waiting. Obligatory sunglasses protected Jack’s eyes - more from scrutiny than from the sun, Daniel suspected - and his hands were thrust deep in the pockets of his dark leather jacket. Perhaps his hair had a little more salt than pepper now, and his tanned face held deeper lines. But, that aside, he walked with the same swagger Daniel remembered, and his mouth was the same uncompromising straight line.
“Jack,” Daniel said as his friend slowed and stopped a foot or so away.
A brief nod greeted him. “Daniel. Good to see you.”
There was a moment of silence and hesitation. Once they might have embraced, but time had taken Jack O’Neill away and Daniel wasn’t sure their friendship was what it once had been. He settled for holding out his hand. “You too,” he said, as they shook briefly. “It’s been a while.” Jack simply nodded, gazing around the park as if it were a distant memory. “So,” Daniel persisted, “how come you’re here? I was surprised to get your call.”
Jack’s attention snapped back and he frowned. “Business. Laura has a meeting with some people in Bolder, so I thought I’d head down here and check on the house.”
“Your house?” Daniel was surprised. He’d thought Jack had sold it after the wedding.
“I rent it out,” came the explanation, as Jack’s attention drifted towards the horizon again. “Pays for the upkeep of the cabin.”
Daniel smiled. “So you still fish, huh?”
A trace of a grimace touched Jack’s lips. “Life’s too short not to.” In the silence that followed they started to walk, a lazy meander through the fall-tinted trees. “So,” Jack said at last, “how are things with you?”
“Busy,” Daniel replied. “I don’t go off-world too much anymore. Which is actually kind of a relief. I think I’m getting too old for the outdoors life.” Jack snorted, and Daniel smiled as he carried on. “I’ve got a good team. And some of the artifacts the front-line people are bringing through the gate are amazing. Now we spend less time fighting and more time…exploring… we’re really making some amazing breakthroughs. For example, last week SG-4 brought back a statue from…” He trailed off, knowing that his friend wasn’t listening. Even behind the dark glasses, Daniel could see the way he was studying the ground ahead of their feet. Miles away. But Daniel knew exactly where his thoughts had gone.
Better get it over with.
He took a deep breath. “Teal’c’s doing a great job managing the Tok’ra-Jaffa alliance,” he said, by way of introduction. “And Sam--” A slight twitch of Jack’s jaw was the only indication that something was amiss. “She’s doing a great job as second in command of the base. I think General Taylor’s considering making her a…uh…” He pulled off his glasses and tried to remember the military rank. “Some kind of promotion,” he explained. “Something more than she is now…I’m not sure what--”
“A Full Colonel,” Jack supplied quietly. “That would be the next promotion.”
“Right. You’d think I’d be able to remember that.”
“Full Colonel,” Jack mused. “At what? Thirty-eight? That’s fast. Even for Carter.”
“Well, that’s Sam for you,” Daniel pointed out. “She was always exceptional.” Jack just nodded, and they walked on in silence. “I could give her a call,” Daniel suggested after a moment. “We could all get together and--”
“No. No, I’m just here for a few hours.”
“She’ll be sorry to have missed you.”
Jack’s answering grunt was pure skepticism. “Right.”
“Jack, you know she still--”
“Another time,” Jack broke in. “Okay?” Daniel just shrugged and let the silence fall again. After a moment Jack pulled off his sunglasses; his dark, impenetrable eyes were no more revealing than the smoked glass. “Is she doing okay? I mean…happy?”
Something in Daniel’s chest clenched at the undertone he heard in his friend’s voice; a sadness and regret that didn’t show on his face but seemed to ache in his words. “She is,” Daniel assured him. Although he didn’t know if the assurance would be a comfort or a further pain. “She and Matt--”
“Right,” Jack nodded, turning away. “Good.”
Blowing out a deep breath, Daniel turned the subject. “So, how about you? Laura sounds like an interesting woman. I’ve seen some of her anthropological photos in National Geographic.”
“She’s pretty amazing,” Jack agreed, seeming to relax. “You’d like her. She’s taken some amazing wildlife pictures too. She’s just got this incredible way with dumb animals…”
“That’s how come she gets on so well with you, huh?”
Jack cast him a sideways glance. “Very good. Almost funny.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
Jack stopped suddenly, looking right into Daniel’s face. He gave a sad smile and reached out a hand to clasp his shoulder. “It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah,” Daniel agreed. “You too.”
“Wanna get lunch?”
“Sounds good. O’Malley’s, for old-time’s sake?”
But Jack’s eyes clouded. “Somewhere new.”
Somewhere with no memories, Daniel realized sadly. Four years on, and the guy was still hurting. “Okay. Somewhere new. And I want to hear all about your trip to Guyana with Laura.”
“Oh, you’d have loved it,” Jack chuckled. “Mosquitoes the size of small dogs.”
Daniel shuddered. “Sounds like heaven…”
Sam stared over the pile of papers on her desk in shock. “He was here? In Colorado Springs?”
Daniel at least had the good grace to look awkward. “Just for a few hours,” he explained. “He called me out of the blue and suggested we meet for lunch.”
“When?” she demanded, not sure if surprise, shock or anger were the most forceful of her emotions. Jack O’Neill had been in town, and she hadn’t known. Somehow that seemed wrong - she should have known.
She blinked dry eyes and shook her head. “Why? I mean, why was he here? Why didn’t he come up to the mountain?” Why didn’t he call me? Although she knew the answer to that question.
Daniel blew out a slow breath. “It’s been a long time,” he said quietly. “Lots of changes. I think he just wanted to touch base, since he was in town. No big…reunions.”
“He’s still mad,” Sam sighed, leaning back in her chair and staring down at her fingers laying motionless in her lap. “I thought now he had what’s-her-name--”
“Right.” For some reason she could never remember the woman’s name. “I thought now he had Laura, maybe he might, you know… Be okay with it.”
“I don’t think he was mad,” Daniel assured her, taking a sip of the coffee he cradled in his hands. “More…uncomfortable, maybe?”
Her fingers remained motionless, still callused from off-world missions and over-familiarity with her weapons. “I’d have liked to see him,” she said at last. “We didn’t part well.” Not that they’d argued. There’d been no heated confrontations, no accusations. Nothing. Just a slow drift away from what had once seemed possible, even probable, towards a silent ending of their hopes. Circumstances had forced their feelings underground, where the pressures and tensions of their unique situation had compressed them until they were as hard and unyielding as diamond. And there they had remained, hidden from the world and each other, as slowly their lives had drawn them apart. And then Sam had met Matt Hutchinson and everything had changed. Matt had--
“Damn!” Sam growled, glancing at her watch. She’d forgotten the time!
“Problem?” Daniel asked, not making a move from his slouched position in the chair opposite.
“I was meant to be home five minutes ago!” Sam explained, pushing to her feet and flicking through the paperwork that was piled on the desk. “Damn, Matt’s gonna kill me.”
“Oh,” Daniel smiled in understanding. “That’s right, you’re off for your dirty weekend--”
“It’s a conference!” Sam objected, hiding a smile.
“A boring conference,” she added under her breath. The ins and outs of the publishing industry weren’t something that could ever hold her attention. But on the plus side, it was in Florida and the idea of the beach was certainly appealing…
Daniel rose to his feet. “What time’s your flight?”
“Eight. But I still have to pack, and you know what Matt’s like about being on time.”
“Go,” Daniel offered, waving a hand at the paperwork. “I’ll sort this out and tell General Taylor.”
Sam glanced up. “Really?”
“There’s nothing urgent, right?”
“No. Just a couple of reports I needed to send. Oh, and some problem SG-5 had on P4G-439 that I need to look into--”
“Consider it done,” he smiled. And although she wasn’t entirely comfortable with just abandoning her work with him, she really had no choice.
“Thanks Daniel. I appreciate it.”
“Have fun! Come back with a tan.”
She smiled. “Oh, I plan to.”
Grabbing her coat she dashed from the room, leaving Daniel alone with her paperwork - and her memories of O’Neill. It was easier that way, to leave the memories on base and nowhere near her new home and new life. Besides, with the prospect of an irritated and impatient husband at home, she really didn’t want to remember laughing dark eyes. Or dangerously intense ones either…
By the time she arrived home she had less than an hour to pack and get out of the house. “You’re late,” came the abrupt words the moment the door closed behind her. Sam sighed.
“Something came up,” she lied, relying on the secrecy of her work as a shield.
Matt appeared from the kitchen, a frown on his round face. “You do realize we have to check-in in less than fifty--”
“I know!” Sam snapped, heading straight for the bedroom. “It’ll take me ten minutes to pack. Stop panicking.”
“I’m not panicking!” Matt exclaimed, following her into the bedroom. Her suitcase was already laid out on the bed, and to her irritation it was half full of her clothes. “I thought I’d give you a head-start.”
Sam gritted her teeth. “Thanks.” She took a brief look through the clothes, and decided it wasn’t worth arguing about whether he had any right to pack for her. She’d just stick what she wanted to take on top. It was only a couple of days, after all. She turned to her dresser, almost colliding with Matt who hovered impatiently behind her. “Why don’t you go and load up the car?” she suggested.
Of course. “Well…just stop hovering, will you? This won’t take a moment.”
“You know how important this is to me, Sam.”
“My packing?” she snapped back.
“The conference. Jesus, why can’t you even be a little bit excited about it?”
She stopped, her fingers curling around a selection of t-shirts in her drawer. “I am,” she replied. “I just don’t see why we have to get to the airport so early and--”
“I don’t want to be late.”
“We won’t be,” she assured him, flinging the t-shirts into her suitcase and going in search of her swimsuit.
“If you’d gotten home when you said you would, we could have had a relaxing--”
“Matt!” she exclaimed, turning to him with her swimsuit dangling from one hand. “Don’t. Okay? We don’t have to do this. I’ll be ready to go in a few minutes - less if you just leave me alone.”
His frown deepened, and he nodded. A beat of remorse tugged at Sam’s heart, but she repressed it. He was being unreasonable. “I’ll wait in the car,” he told her, and she rolled her eyes.
Once he was gone, she pulled the rest of her things together - remembering a good book and her sun-block - and changed out of her BDU’s into her customary jeans. But she couldn’t help the irritation building inside her, or the feeling that she was spoiling for a fight. Normally, Matt’s hyper-organization was kind of endearing. It fitted with her militarily disciplined mind. But on occasion she couldn’t help but feel stifled. For crying out loud, the man had tried to pack her clothes for her! She sighed and pulled her suitcase from the bed. “I guess that’s what four years of marriage does,” she muttered to herself as she left the bedroom. Familiarity breeds contempt, and she was in no doubt that the honeymoon was over. But such was life. Such was married life.
After a silent car ride to the airport and a tense wait in the slow-moving line to be security checked, Sam and Matt found themselves sitting quietly in the airport’s small coffee bar. With an hour to spare before their flight.
“Happy now?” Sam sniped as she watched her husband over the top of her cappuccino.
Matt glared. “We were lucky we didn’t hit traffic. And last time I flew out of here I had to wait over an hour to check in!”
Sam just shrugged and stifled a yawn. Time to change the subject if she wanted to avoid a fight. “So the Hyatt has a private beach, huh?”
“You’ll love it,” Matt assured her with a softening smile. “Even if the conference is boring.”
“It won’t be boring.”
His blue eyes narrowed. “I know you think it’s boring. You complain every year.”
Sam frowned. “It’s not. It’s just--”
“I know. It’s not as interesting as deep space radar--”
“I never said that!” she protested. “And anyway, you fell asleep when we went to the USC conference last year.”
“I was sick!”
She smiled. “You were bored. But that’s okay. I mean, this is what it’s all about, right?”
“What what’s all about?”
“Being married. In sickness and in health, ‘till--”
“--death by boredom us do part?”
Sam chuckled. “It’s not that bad. Seriously. Some of the exhibits are fantastic.”
“And the parties are good,” Matt reminded her. “You did bring that black dress with the straps…?”
“Yes,” Sam sighed. “I brought the dress. Don’t worry, I won’t let you down.”
Matt’s eyes widened and he reached across the table to touch her hand. “You never could,” he told her with a warmer smile. “Even in your BDU’s you’d be more beautiful than anyone else in the room.”
“Don’t be silly,” she chuckled, although the compliment wasn’t unwelcome.
“I’m not,” Matt told her, his fingers clasping her hand. “You’re still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.”
“And you’re still the biggest flatterer *I’ve* ever known!”
He laughed at that. “Just another reason why we’re the perfect couple.”
“Yeah,” Sam smiled, pulling her hand from his and taking another sip of coffee. “That we are.” And if the words rang a little hollow, she knew it was only because of their almost-fight that afternoon. Nothing more than that.
The hotel was large, luxurious and anonymous. Decorated in wicker and bright colors, it exuded an artificial tropical charm that didn’t quite work for Sam. But Matt was oblivious to the décor, his eyes already scanning the arriving guests for people that he knew and people that he wanted to know. As he’d explained to Sam, on more than one occasion, the networking he did at the CrossMedia Conference made half the deals of the year. Networking was everything.
As Matt hurried across the foyer to greet someone vital, Sam checked in. Their room was on the ground floor and facing the beach. Perfect. She took the keys, grabbed her suitcase and headed straight for their room. The last thing she wanted to do was indulge in the ubiquitous small-talk that would undoubtedly dominate the weekend. She beckoned Matt over from a safe distance and at last they found themselves in their large, impersonal room.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?” Matt said, at once heading for the large sliding doors and opening them up to the night.
It was dark, but the sound of crashing waves drifted in on humid air as Sam joined him on the patio. They were literally right on the beach. “Yeah,” she sighed, taking in a deep breath. “Fantastic.”
“We’ve still got time to get down to the mixer,” he said then, clapping her on the shoulder. “I’m gonna change.”
Alone on the patio, Sam sighed. She was tired and really not in the mood. But what choice did she have? This was Matt’s business and she had a duty to support him. He’d do as much for her and probably with better grace. With a regretful look at the dark beach, Sam headed back inside to search for something appropriate to wear for the evening.
“God!” Laura complained, as she hefted her heavy backpack onto the wide hotel bed. “I’ve never seen so many suits!”
Jack grunted as the weight of the pack landing by his side jostled him. He opened one eye. “What did you expect?”
She sighed, running a hand through her long red hair. “This, I guess,” she confessed with a smile. “It’s just so…not me.”
“No,” he agreed, letting his eyes range over her slim figure, still clothed in the khaki shorts and tank top she seemed to live in. “Me neither.”
“Still,” she said, sitting down cross-legged on the end of the bed, “if I want to get funding for the next expedition I need to find a publisher who’s interested in…” She trailed off, cocked her head to one side. “Okay, I’m boring you already.” She smiled. “Thanks for coming with me, Jack. I know you’d rather be fishing.”
“Any time,” he assured her, willing her to crawl over the bed towards him.
She read his mind. Or perhaps she just saw the lust in his eyes. “We still have half an hour before we need to be downstairs,” she suggested with a smile he couldn’t misinterpret. “If you’re not too tired from the flight?”
He reached for her, as always amazed that this lithe, young body was so willingly in his arms. “Tired? I might be old,” he muttered as her lips touched his throat, “but I’m not dead yet.”
“You,” Laura murmured between kisses, “Are. Not. Old.”
And at that moment he almost believed her.
Almost an hour and a half later, Jack found himself sitting at the hotel’s phony tropical bar with a whiskey in one hand. Laura was away networking and he was quite content to sit and browse the paper while ignoring the excited chatter around him. All-in-all he felt pretty darn good. Even stuck in Florida tourist hell. Laura Hartstone was the best thing that had happened to him in a long, long time and he knew it. Life was good.
“Jack!” Laura popped up at his elbow with a wide grin on her young face. “There’s someone you have to meet!”
He raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Because he’s huge - and I mean *huge* - in non-fiction publishing and he’s just asked you and me to join him for drinks!”
He gave her an indulgent smile. “Okay, but you did warn him that I’m old and bad-tempered, didn’t you?”
Laura just rolled her eyes and grabbed his hand. “Come on. This could really be something.”
“So who is this guy?” he asked as she pulled him through the crowd of suits.
“He works for Brock, Cuthbert and Smithson,” she called over her shoulder. “They’re like *the* biggest publishers in the natural sciences and he said they were looking for-- Oh, there he is!”
Jack’s eyes drifted over the heads of the crowd towards a tallish, blond man with features as smooth as his suite. Laura’s hand tightened around his and she murmured, “Now be nice!” before launching into the schmooze she hated so much, yet somehow managed to do so well. “Matt. Hi! Let me introduce my partner, Jack…”
Frozen like the proverbial pillar of salt, Jack stopped in his tracks as the blue-eyed gaze turned on him. He saw no recognition in the look, although the face was abruptly and sickeningly familiar to Jack. The relief at not being recognized by the man was profound. But, as it turned out, momentary. It lasted as long as it took Matt Hutchinson to reach for the woman standing with her back to them, chatting with some of the other guests. Jack watched in a horrified stupor as Matt touched a bare, tanned shoulder and said, “Sam, honey, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
Slowly, so slowly he could feel every heartbeat and every shiver of dreadful anticipation, she turned around. And it was her. It was *her*.
“This is Laura Hartstone,” Matt said, his voice the only one penetrating the echoing silence in which Jack found himself. “And her partner, Jack…?”
He couldn’t speak.
“O’Neill” Laura said, her voice a vague sound in the distance. Carter jumped, her eyes widening in shock as she stared at him.
And still he couldn’t speak.
But she could. “Colonel! Oh my God!”
Suddenly the room was all around him again, noisy, irritating and loud. “You guys know each other?” Matt asked, smooth features wrinkling into a frown.
“Of course!” Carter babbled nervously. “This is Colonel O’Neill! My CO. Former CO.” She cast him an anxious smile. “He was at our wedding, Matt. You remember.”
Obviously Matt didn’t. “Sure,” he lied. “Good to see you again, ah…”
“Jack,” he offered, at last finding the power to speak. “You too, Matt.” He could lie as well as the next man. And then, with a resolve he usually reserved for the battlefield, he turned to Carter. “Hey.”
She smiled, awkward and obviously embarrassed. He wondered what she was expecting him to do. “It’s been a while, sir.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, choosing to ignore the ‘S’ word. He’d been retired four years and still she had to call him ‘sir’? Did she really think it still mattered?
“Laura Hartstone,” Laura said suddenly, sticking her hand out towards Carter. “You used to work with Jack? In the Air Force?”
“Yes.” Carter looked surprised. Perhaps she’d expected him to have told Laura all about her. "We served together for seven years.”
Laura smiled. “Right. All that top-secret stuff in Colorado, huh?”
“Yeah,” Carter nodded. “That’s right.”
“Well,” Matt grinned, sliding an arm around Carter’s waist. “How about that drink? You guys can catch up while Laura and I discuss her latest project to-- Where was it?”
“Eritrea,” Laura grinned, falling in at Matt’s side as he led the way towards the tables at the back of the bar. Carter walked on his other side, his arm still around her waist, leaving Jack to trail along behind them.
For a moment, he considered bolting for the door and fleeing to the dark beach beyond the hotel. But he dismissed the idea instantly. He was over Sam Carter, he reminded himself. Had been for years. And if a little embarrassment lingered it was only because she knew how he had once felt, and he hated anyone having that much power over him.
But, as he watched Laura’s red hair sway in time with her hips, he realized that perhaps this would be the perfect opportunity to finally end that power forever. Put a few ghosts to rest, and show her that she was ancient history; as irrelevant to his future as one of Daniel’s dusty artifacts. He had someone new in his life. Someone better. Someone as smart and talented as Sam Carter. Someone with a much better sense of fun than Sam Carter. And, he smiled slightly, someone at least ten years younger than Sam Carter.
Oh yeah. He was *so* over her. And he had to admit he was going to enjoy the hell out of showing her exactly how little she meant to him these days.
How very, very little.