Sam’s heart was racing as Matt guided them towards an empty table and pulled out a chair for her - ever the gentleman. She smiled as she sat, but inside she felt as though her guts were rolling about in a tumble-dryer.
Jack O’Neill. Here. Now! Impossible.
But there he was, looking only slightly older than she remembered, sitting opposite her with his arm draped loosely around the shoulders of a woman who - she couldn’t help but notice - was young enough to be his daughter! Not that it was any of her business.
“So, Carter,” he drawled, “how’s the world of deep space radar telemetry?”
She smiled slightly, catching a hint of animosity in his voice. “Full of paperwork.”
“Gotta say, I don’t miss it a bit. Not a bit.”
Oh yeah, definitely animosity. “Retirement seems to suit you,” she replied lightly. “Lots of time to fish, huh?”
An odd look touched his face, his eyes flattening even though he smiled. “Hell, yeah. Laura loves to *fish*. Don’t you?”
Laura smiled up at him, a little puzzled. “Sure. Actually, we met at Jack’s cabin,” she said, turning to Sam. “I was taking some photos up there. Beautiful area. And we kinda, bumped into each other in the undergrowth!”
“Sounds interesting,” Matt laughed. “Did you get some good pictures?”
Laura laughed too. “Of the wildlife? Sure. Although not as good as the ones I’ll be getting in Eritrea.”
“Yeah,” Matt nodded, sitting forward. Down to business. “So, tell me about that? What’s the angle of your project?”
Sam listened to the conversation for a while, but was too distracted by the man sitting opposite her to really pay attention. It was so…weird, seeing him again. The last time had been on her wedding day, and he’d been a blur of regret amongst a crowd of guests. They’d barely had time to exchange two words, and before she’d known it he was gone and her new life had begun.
He wasn’t looking at her now, appearing engrossed in Laura’s conversation, the fingers of one hand stroking her shoulder absently. For some reason Sam found it difficult to look away. He’d always had long, elegant fingers. More artistic than practical; not really a typical soldier’s hands. But then Colonel O’Neill had never been a typical soldier. Aside from in some of his prejudices, perhaps.
She smiled slightly as she remembered how it had been, the banter, the teasing. The team. And a pang of regret sounded deep down inside, escaping as a soft sigh. O’Neill’s eyes were instantly on her, curious and guarded. Sam smiled, catching him and holding him with a look. “Daniel said you were in town last week.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Just for a few hours.”
“You should have called.”
“I did,” he replied smoothly. “I called Daniel.”
If that was meant to hurt, it did. Sam looked away, irritated with herself and him. The silence between them was masked by the noise of the room, but to Sam it was as profound as the past. It spoke of everything that had once been, could have been and now would never be. It spoke of regret, above all, and missed opportunities.
“Daniel said things are going well.”
She hadn’t expected him to speak again, and looked over with surprise. His face was as grave as ever, but his arm had moved from around Laura’s shoulders and he was swishing the remains of his drink around the bottom of his glass. “They are,” she replied slowly. “We’re making good progress.”
He nodded, still avoiding looking at her. “*You* are, apparently,” he said. “Sounds like you’ll be the CO of the whole joint in a couple of years.”
“I doubt it,” she smiled. “General Taylor’s not going anywhere.”
He did look up then, brushing her face with a glance before he gazed away into the crowd. “Seems like a long time ago now.”
Sam nodded. “Yeah.”
He looked at her briefly before dropping his gaze back to the dregs of his drink. “Funny how things work out.”
She didn’t know quite what to say to that. “I--”
“I mean,” he added hurriedly, “if I hadn’t left the SGC when I did, I’d never have met Laura. And she…” He laughed softly and shook his head, “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“That’s great,” Sam replied, smiling and telling herself that she believed her words. “I’m glad.” And she was. She was glad he’d found someone, glad that he was happy. Glad that any feelings he might have once held for her had died. She wouldn’t want him spending the rest of his life pining for her; it wasn’t like she ever thought about him with regret.
“Yeah, we definitely should.” Matt’s words somehow found Sam, lost as she was in thought, and she glanced over to see his earnest face talking to Laura. “Tomorrow would be great.” He turned to her then, smiling broadly. “We’d love to have dinner with Laura and Jack tomorrow, wouldn’t we hon? Give you guys a chance to catch up!”
There was absolutely no reason why her heart should quail at the prospect, so she chose to ignore the feeling and said, “That would be nice.”
Across the table, O’Neill began to fidget. It was a familiar sight; even after all these years she could tell he was uncomfortable. Obviously dinner with her wasn’t something he relished. She flicked a look at his face, deadpan. But he’d obviously been looking at her because his eyes slid coolly away when she met them. Did he really hate her, she wondered. Did he blame her for breaking the unspoken promise between them? She remembered all-too-well his capacity to hold a grudge. All of a sudden, he was on his feet. “Nice meeting you again, Mike.”
“Matt,” Laura corrected, with an indulgent smile.
“Right,” he nodded, holding out his hand to her. “You coming?”
She rose. “We’ll see you in the bar tomorrow night, then?”
“Seven o’clock,” Matt confirmed, standing and shaking her hand. “I think this project has legs, Laura.”
“I’m really excited about it,” she enthused back, tossing her mane of red hair over one shoulder. Or rather, to Sam’s mind, over-enthused. Still, the girl was looking for a deal so she was bound to oversell her wares. So to speak.
And after a few more polite goodbyes and wishes for a good day ahead, Laura turned to leave them. O’Neill said nothing much, just tapped the newspaper he held impatiently against his thigh and kept his eyes fixed on the far side of the room, for all the world as if he were scouting for enemy troops. Sam felt obliged to speak. Or, perhaps, she was simply provoked. “It was good to see you again, sir.”
His face flickered slightly and he glanced down at where she sat. “I retired four years ago, Carter. Drop the sir.”
Despite her instinct to wince, she didn’t. And she didn’t drop his hard gaze either. “Then you can quit calling me Carter, too. It’s Sam.”
He gave a half-smile, somewhere between a challenge and a joke. “Whatever.” Taking Laura’s hand, he turned to leave. “Night, Carter.”
And with that he was gone, taking the last word with him.
She was quiet, Matt thought the next morning, as he and Sam ate breakfast on the patio. Hidden behind her sunglasses, long legs stretched out before her, she seemed relaxed. But he knew her better. And he knew that with Sam, quiet meant trouble.
“Looking forward to a day on the beach?” he asked, breaking the ice. And then sighed; how stupid to have to break the ice with your own wife!
She made a good attempt at a smile. “Yeah. It’s nice to get away for a couple of days. I can’t remember the last time I sat on a beach.”
“Have you ever?” he asked, and wasn’t entirely joking. Even their honeymoon had involved what Sam liked to call ‘adventure’ and what he preferred to call not having regular access to a bathroom.
She smiled again, more genuinely. “I lived in Long Beach for a while, remember? I’ve sat on plenty of beaches.”
Good point. “Well, I hope you’re not going to be flirting with the guys this time. I’ve heard all about your wild youth.”
“Huh,” she snorted, taking a sip of juice. “You know you can’t believe half of what Mark tells you.”
“It’s the half he doesn’t tell me that bothers me!”
Sam smiled at him, then glanced out over the white sand towards the blue dawn-touched water. “It’s really quite beautiful, despite all the development.”
“I know it’s not exactly your scene,” Matt agreed, looking along the wide beach at the hotels lining it like a strip-mall. “But you could do with a break. And we’ll have fun at dinner tonight.”
If he hadn’t been watching her, he might not have noticed the way her eyebrows drew down or her mouth straightened into a tight line. “Sure,” was all she said.
“What? You don’t want to--”
“No, it’s fine.”
He was quiet for a moment, pondering. “This Jack guy,” he said after a while. “You do get on with him, right? I mean, he wasn’t some kind of monstrous drill-sergeant type was he?”
“No,” she said with a smile. “No, we got on fine.” And then abruptly he saw the barriers fall away and she turned to him and pulled off her sunglasses. “I guess, seeing him again just brought back memories. You know, just thinking about good times we had. I miss it sometimes.”
“You don’t talk about it much,” he commented, wishing that she hadn’t chosen this precise moment to open up. He needed to be at the opening session in ten minutes!
“I’m not allowed to.”
“Not whatever it is you do down there,” he said, finishing his coffee. “The other stuff. Friends. Colleagues. I mean, there’s Daniel and Maggie. But apart from them… This Jack was your CO, you said?”
She nodded. “He came to our wedding.”
She’d mentioned that the previous night, although for the life of him Matt couldn’t remember the face. He couldn’t have stayed long. “He’s a friend of Daniel’s?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “They’re still in touch.”
“But not a friend of yours?” he pressed, not understanding her melancholy mood. “I mean - you don’t exactly seem thrilled to see him. If it’s a problem, I’ll tell Laura that we can’t make dinner and catch up with her during the day. Lunch perhaps. You can stay on the beach.”
For a moment Sam seemed to consider the offer, which surprised him. She really must have problems with the guy! But then he saw her resolved expression descend, and knew that for reasons of her own she wanted to face him. “No,” she said. “I’ll come. It’ll be fine.”
Matt glanced at his watch. “I really have to go,” he apologized as he stood. “You going to be okay?”
“Sure,” she assured him with a languid smile. “I’ll work on my tan.”
Leaning over, he gave her a quick kiss. “Don’t work too hard.”
“You know me.”
Which he did; she probably had half a dozen papers in her case to either read or write. But that was Sam. And he loved her for it.
Jack had woken with the disconcerting feeling that he’d barely slept all night, and the grit in his eyes to prove the point. It irritated him. Not that he had anything to actually do all day, other than doze in the sun. But it irritated him that she had deprived him of one more night’s sleep.
He’d thought that was all in the past, back in the days after he’d come to realize that all his hopes and unspoken plans had been dashed against the hard reality of Carter’s new love. But that was years ago, and he’d moved on. He didn’t care about her anymore, and it irritated the hell out of him that she’d occupied his thoughts all night.
Perhaps it was because she’d looked so much like her old self, like the Carter he’d tried so hard to expunge from his memory. He hadn’t seen a trace of gray in her hair, although he decided that at thirty-seven she probably dyed it. Maybe she had all along? She hadn’t gained any weight or apparently aged a day. She looked exactly, disconcertingly, as he remembered her. And that irritated him too.
He knew the years had touched him, in the gray in his hair and the lines on his face. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him. Was she surprised at how he looked? Did she think he looked old next to her smooth-skinned husband? Did she think herself lucky not to have tied herself to him after all? Or maybe she didn’t think about him at all. He’d lay money on her not having been tossing and turning all night, failing to keep her memories from resurfacing.
With a sigh, Jack considered hitting the bar. It was early, but a cool beer would go down well in the Florida sun. He might even make it onto the beach, if he could find a quiet spot far from the whale-like tourists who beached themselves within flopping distance of the hotels, incapable, it seemed, of moving any further down the expansive beach.
Or perhaps he’d ignore the hotel bar and head down the beach in search of a little local color. There had to be some, after all. Maybe even some fishing. Having made the decision, he wasn’t the type to delay. And so grabbing his sunglasses and hat he headed out. A walk would be good, take his mind off his disconcertion and exercise his body. Nothing like a little fresh air to clear the fog.
After all, he needed to be as relaxed as possible to ready himself for an evening of small talk with the woman who had broken his heart so many years ago.
With a bag full of lunch slung over one shoulder, and her sandals dangling from her hand, Sam meandered along the wet sand close to the waves. The sun was hot and the breeze just cool enough to take the edge off as she passed by the frilly-hatted ladies lacquering themselves in sun-cream and baking their skins to a close approximation of a well-cured hide. Occasionally she was overtaken by spry young girls in barely-there bikini tops as they power-walked through the surf, blond pony-tales swaying in time with their perfectly toned bottoms.
She smiled and gazed out over the sea. If Matt were here his eyes would have been riveted! Men - all men, she had come to realize - were as unsophisticated as slot-machines. Stick in a quarter and they all had the same reaction. There wasn’t a man on the planet - any planet - who wouldn’t have the same reaction to a fit young body. Which, she supposed, was why the colonel had looked so damn pleased with himself the previous night, his arm draped protectively around the slender, youthful shoulders of Laura Hartstone.
Not that Sam was jealous. He could date who he chose and she’d be happy for him. But she couldn’t help feeling a little envy at the girl’s fresh looking skin, her thick hair and youthful enthusiasm. She’d had those things once and sometimes regretted their passing. She’d never been vain - life was too short for that. But sometimes when she looked in the mirror she regretted that youth was fading and that she was heading into middle age with a speed that seemed impossible. Perhaps that was why the colonel had fallen for Laura? Maybe her youth was contagious and held back the beat of time that little bit longer.
Or perhaps they were simply in love.
The thought crunched uncomfortably in her heart, making her frown. But she didn’t pause to examine the feeling for too long, turning her gaze to the beach ahead of her. It was emptier here. The hotels had given way to residential properties, and suddenly feeling the urge to immerse herself in the cool blue waves Sam headed up the beach to claim a spot for her towel and bag.
Stripping off her shorts she dawdled back towards the surf and into the water. It was cool, but the waves were big and she grinned at the sudden rush of adrenaline as she dived through the first huge wave to avoid being beached like so much flotsam. She let out an involuntary whoop as she surfaced, before diving once more under the surf.
For a few moments she thought of nothing but the sea and the hot Florida sunshine. And she was happy.
Armed only with a New York Times and a couple of cans of soda, Jack decided that he’d had enough exercise for the day. He could hear the muted chatter from the deck of a small bar just a little further along the beach, but for now he preferred solitude. So he stopped and dropped down onto the hot sand. Hot, but not Abydos hot. That place could flay the skin from your limbs if you weren’t careful.
The memory brought on melancholy thoughts of Ska’ra and the wedding that had never been. He wondered if the Ascended married, but somehow doubted it. They’d have more sense. Shaking the thought away, he opened the paper to read about the world’s latest insanity and cheer himself up.
But the sun was hot and pretty soon he was reaching for his soda. As the can hissed open he glanced up and saw a figure emerging from the waves. He smiled, enjoying the sight of long, limber legs and a body that looked strong, fit and healthy. No whisper-thin girl this, he thought to himself as the woman glanced up and down the beach, obviously wondering where she’d left her belongings.
It was then Jack noticed the towel and bag that lay a few feet along the beach from him and his smile broadened. Not that ogling women on the beach had been his intention for the day, but when the offer presented itself he wasn’t going to refuse.
Settling himself with a soda in one hand, he gazed out at the waves, relying on his sunglasses to hide the fact that his eyes were actually fixed on the woman walking up the beach towards her towel. He had to admit, she looked fantastic. There was something about her silhouetted shape that just did insanely good things to all the right parts. If it hadn’t been so early in the day, he’d have suspected himself of sunstroke. After all, there was no reason that he should have such a strong reaction - not with Laura in his bed most nights, even if she was slightly on the waifish-side of slim. But this woman, ambling up the beach, stooping occasionally to pick up a shell or two, looked like something out of a dream. Or even a memory. It was as if she were walking out of his own imagination, the incarnation of his mind’s most ardent fantasies. Sun glinted on blond hair. A hand reached up to smooth the damp locks from her face and she--
He was on his feet before the thought slammed into his mind.
It was Sam-goddamn-Carter!
He looked around him, desperate for escape. But the emptiness of the beach trapped him. He couldn’t leave now without her seeing. And what the hell would that look like? Like he’d been watching her and then fled the scene of the crime. Shit.
Resolutely he held his ground, doing his best not to notice exactly how fantastic she looked. He was over her, he reminded himself firmly. And so what if every fantasy of the past eleven years had underestimated precisely how perfectly she was formed beneath her uniform? It was just physical. He’d moved on. He had Laura - she was young and beautiful. His body might respond to Sam Carter, but his heart was closed to her.
As she approached her towel, she glanced over at him. Recognition was instantaneous and he saw her mouth gape with a moment of shock before she reached down and snatched up the towel, hurriedly covering herself. Thank God.
He smiled at her and sauntered closer, as sardonic as he could manage. “Well, this is a first. Didn’t think you ever took vacations, Carter.”
She blinked at him, clutching her towel to her chest. Not that he was looking at her chest. “These conferences are pretty boring,” she said, without a smile. No doubt still pissed from the previous night. Good. He was still pissed from the last four years!
“I’m surprised Mike could pry you out of the SGC. Or are you a dutiful little wife who does what she’s told?”
“Wow,” she nodded, eyes flinty, “you really can be a vicious son-of-a-bitch, Jack.” Despite his best intentions, his surprise must have shown on his face because she carried on with a half-smile. “You’re not my CO, remember? I can actually say what I think.”
“It was a joke,” he lied. “I see you haven’t developed a sense of humor in the last four years.”
For a moment her eyes flashed angrily, but then they dimmed with sadness as she looked away. “I guess I don’t think this is funny. We used to be friends.”
He grimaced but didn’t waiver. “Is that what we were?” She said nothing and he shrugged. “Things change.”
Nodding, Sam snatched up her bag and rummaged inside for her sunglasses. She slid them on with obvious relief. Hiding. “Guess I’ll see you for dinner, si-- Jack.”
“I guess,” he replied, not sure if he was dreading or wanting her to leave.
With a brief nod that was entirely Major Carter, she turned and strode back down the beach towards the hotel. He let her go, but watched every step, sickened by his own desire to race after her and apologize.
I’m over her, he reminded himself silently. I *am* over her.