The afternoon was drab. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, driven by a biting mountain wind that whipped Sam’s coat around her legs as she climbed out of the cab. She barely saw the driver as she paid her fare because her eyes were fixed on the warm light spilling from Jack’s house. It looked as welcoming as home. More welcoming than home, she thought as she slammed shut the cab door. And that was part of the problem.
As the cab sped off and left her alone in the suburban quiet, she dug her hands into the pockets of her jacket and tried not to feel dirty. But the first thing her cold fingers touched was her cell phone, at the other end of which sat Matt with his steady concern. She couldn’t go in there, into Jack’s house and all it represented, with Matt only a speed-dial away. Her conscience, already tortured, demanded that she sever the link as though drawing a veil over her treachery.
Staring at the small keypad of her phone she felt it staring back at her. Judging her. Daring her to switch it off and confirm her villainy. It felt hugely significant, as if she was crossing a line and making choices that couldn’t be undone. And she supposed she was. Just being there, outside his house in the cold, dull fall afternoon was a choice. With rising guilt she switched off the phone and watched its pale light die as the weight of her decision descended like silence around her, heavy and stained with shame.
She was having an affair. She, Samantha Carter, was having an affair.
There was no point in denying it, just because they hadn’t gotten hot and sweaty between the sheets. The treachery was in her heart, and even though she knew she was betraying the love of a good man she couldn’t stop herself from walking towards Jack’s door. She didn’t *want* to stop herself. She wanted to be inside, where the warm yellow light promised to ease the frazzled remains of a heart stretched thin by years of denial. Like a drunk falling off the wagon, she wanted to drown herself in him.
Anticipation temporarily smothered her guilt and she felt her smile waiting to pounce as she stood on his porch and rang the doorbell. I should have done this years ago, she realized with an eager flutter in her throat. I should have done this before he left.
Perhaps he’d seen her arrive and was lurking by the door, because he opened it on the tail of her thought. Out of uniform and casual, he was as inviting as his house. And a rare smile lit his face as he quietly said, “Hey.”
The wind whipped about her, but she didn’t notice anything beyond the blood thumping in her ears. “Hey.”
Jack shivered. “It’s cold. Come on in.”
And so she did, stepping over the threshold and into the forbidden territory of his home and his life. The aroma of fresh coffee filled the air and everything exuded warmth and welcome. She felt as though she never wanted to leave, which provoked her to say, "I have to be home by five.”
Jack closed the door and nodded, his dark eyes assessing her. “Okay,” he said, his smile fading at her injection of cold truth. But with a light touch on her shoulder he told her she was forgiven, “Go on through,” he said, “I just made coffee.”
The living room had been transformed from the lifeless shell of her previous visit. A fire leaped and crackled in the fireplace and a few pictures dotted the freshly painted walls. A stereo was playing quietly in the corner and her nervous feet took her towards it, her fingers restlessly picking up the empty CD case. Puccini. She wondered where all these domestic touches had come from; he’d only arrived with one bag. “Done some shopping?”
“Yeah,” he called from the kitchen. “Seems like I’m gonna be here a while.” Her hand froze on the CD. What did that mean? Before she could ask, he answered the question. “Laura and I split up.”
Yes! The sentiment was unworthy but, as with so much else today, she couldn’t help herself. Or, perhaps, she didn’t want to help herself. Turning as he walked into the room with two large coffee mugs, she tried to keep her face impassive. “I’m sorry,” she said, although she wasn’t and he had to know she wasn’t.
He shrugged self-consciously and offered her a coffee. “Yeah, well, it was… It wasn’t-- It was my fault.”
Smiling her thanks, she took a sip. “What happened?”
“What do you think?” The answer was in his eyes, dark, intense and ravenous.
It sent a glorious shiver down her spine and made her face burn. “I’m sorry,” she stammered, ashamed by the rose-tint of desire in her cheeks. She felt so out of control!
“Not your fault.” Taking his coffee he sat down in one of the large, comfortable chairs and looked up at her with frank appraisal. *Now what?* his eyes asked.
She followed him, perching on the edge of the sofa, her hands wrapped around the hot mug. “I, ah--” she began awkwardly. “This whole situation is messed up. I never realized--” She shook her head, trying to order her thoughts. But the memories Fifth had raised - her memories, and Jack’s - crowded her mind like the dead and it was difficult to think around their cacophony of emotions. “I never realized how big this whole thing was.”
“Yeah,” he agreed carefully. “I mean, I knew I had…feelings. I just didn’t know how…how--”
“Deep they went?”
He nodded. “Or how permanent they were.” He laughed at himself, staring down into his coffee. “I actually thought I’d gotten over you. I even thought I hated you for a while.”
“I don’t blame you,” she sighed, drawing his gaze to her face. Memories floated in his eyes like dark bruises, making her flinch with regret. “I hurt you,” she pressed on. “A lot. I betrayed you, Jack. I know that now. Fifth showed me.”
His eyes lost their pounded look and sharpened. “Fifth? What the hell does he--”
“That’s what he wanted,” Sam explained, tightening her hold on the mug. The heat hurt, but she liked it. It distracted her from the guilt fluttering queasily in her guts. “He wanted to understand why I betrayed him, and so he looked at…at other people I’d betrayed. Mainly, you.”
Jack set his coffee onto the low table with a deliberate slowness that Sam recognized as a prelude to action. She’d seen him handle his weapon the same way. For a long, still moment he stared at nothing, his gaze turned inward. And then he leant forward, pulled her mug out of her hands and set it aside. But he didn’t let go of her fingers as he looked her flatly in the eye and said, “You have *never* betrayed me. Ever.”
She smiled at his gallantry. Even now, he felt the need to bolster her moral like a good CO. “I should have waited for you.”
“I never expected you to. Not once.”
He held her gaze for a moment longer, before looking away with a frown. But he didn’t let go of her hand. “It was never an expectation, just a hope.”
“If I’d waited,” she said sadly, “we wouldn’t be here, would we? Doing this.”
His fingers tightened around hers. They were warm and strong and she felt her pulse quicken as he quietly asked, “What, exactly, are we doing?”
It was a good question. She hung her head, staring down at their tangled fingers. As tangled as their lives. “I don’t know.”
They were silent for a long time, quiet music drifting over them as their coffee cooled and his fingers moved softly over hers in a caress as eloquent as any love-making. “You should know,” he said at last, “that I don’t intend to walk away from this. Unless you tell me to. I walked away last time and I regretted it every day. I should have fought for you.”
She frowned anxiously at the concept. “Fought?”
“I shouldn’t have let you go,” he said fiercely. “I should have told you how I felt.”
Her cheeks flushed again at the heat in his voice. It echoed the memories Fifth had shown her - Jack’s memories. She heard the same passion in his voice now that had reverberated through the force-shield on Apophis’s ship. Dizzied by the emotional rush, she shook her head and tried to focus. “You couldn’t. As my CO you couldn’t have--”
“Oh screw that! That was just an excuse. Something to hide behind so I didn’t have to deal with the truth.” He stared at her, into her. Through her. “I was a coward.”
“No. Never. You’re the--”
“I loved you.”
The words exploded between them, splintering the final taboo. He’d said it. After all these years, he’d spoken the forbidden words. Sam could say nothing, caught in the under-tow of an emotional breaker and unable to do anything but ride the wave. She simply stared at him. And he stared right back, astonished at himself. His mouth moved slightly, as if the aftertaste of his statement was peculiar. But for once he didn’t clam up and after a moment he kept on talking, forcing the words through his instinctive defenses with obvious difficulty. His only concession to self-preservation was the way his eyes dropped to stare at their entwined fingers as he spoke. “I loved you,” he repeated carefully, “and I never told you. And I don’t think--” His voice cracked and he swallowed hard, shaking his head in ruthless determination. “I don’t think I’ve ever stopped.”
Sam closed her eyes, not because she was afraid to hear him but because she wanted to feel the texture of this longed for moment without distraction. But it was like sunshine through fog; its beauty and warmth were clouded by duty, honor and guilt. Reality was never as perfect as the imagination. And when she opened her eyes her vision was blurred with tears. Cautiously he raised his gaze to hers and what she saw there was overwhelming; his naked hope and fear shook her. She’d never seen him risk himself like that, not for her, not for anyone. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. She squeezed his hands and could think of nothing to say but the unadorned truth. “I loved you too. I still do.”
The impact of her statement showed in his eyes, like a rock cast into a deep, still pool. The aftershocks rippled outward in waves of delight as he moved to sit next to her, his hand still clutching hers. He was trying to say something, she could see the words sliding behind his eyes, yet somehow they never made it to his lips. But he was close, his thigh resting against her leg, and the heat of the contact was fierce. He shook his head slightly, his confusion evident as he disentangled his hand from hers and trailed it lightly up her arm. She shivered with guilty anticipation, her face heating as his fingers touched her cheek and lightly curled a lock of hair behind her ear. His tongue flickered over his lips and his breathing quickened as he gazed at her with eyes full of questions. Do you want this? Can I touch you? Can I kiss you? Do I have the right?
He was leaving the decision to her, like he’d always done. But he hadn’t stopped touching her, his fingers tracing the line of her collarbone and raising tiny, thrilled bumps across her skin. She shivered and ached with a desire so long repressed that it had ceased being anything but part of her, an integral, fundamental part of her. And she knew the answer to his silent questions. Just being there, in his house, was answer enough.
She didn’t speak the word, but he must have seen it in her eyes because slowly and reverentially he dipped his mouth to hers. He hovered there, tantalizingly close, his breath tickling her lips and his fingers laying still against the unsteady fluttering of the pulse in her throat.
He was waiting for her.
Never, since the day she’d first met him, had he made her life easy. Not once, and not now. He wouldn’t kiss her. He wouldn’t make the decision for her. He was waiting for her, forcing her to make the tough choice. She didn’t know if she loved him or hated him for it. But either way, she couldn’t match his restraint. Her mouth, her lips, her heart and body begged for the kiss. For more than a kiss. With the breath unsteady in her chest she lifted her head and gently pressed her mouth to his, tasting the coffee and hunger on his lips.
When he moved, it was slowly. One hand slid from her throat to her face and into her hair, and his kiss caressed her lips in a slow, steady rhythm that got deeper but not faster. Their fingers, still tangled together, lay between them and his thumb stroked the back of her hand in time with his gentle kisses. Backwards and forwards as their kiss grew deeper and deeper, her mind spinning like a planet in a decaying orbit around the sun, drawn inexorably towards perfect destruction.
Deep inside, the fire that had been banked for so long was reaching the climax of its slow burn. She could feel the pressure building, tightening in the pit of her stomach as his pace changed. The slow, deep kisses grew shorter and more urgent. Her mind span faster, in time with her racing pulse. Now. It was happening now and she couldn’t stop. She didn’t want to stop. He broke away to draw breath and then fell on her, kissing, tasting, biting. Wanting. His hand locked with hers, squeezing tight until…he stopped dead.
At first, she didn’t know why his kisses were fading, why his forehead came to rest against hers and his breath washed hot over her mouth. She was confused, disorientated and frustrated. What was he doing? What the hell was he-- And then his thumb moved, deliberately and slowly running over a finger on her left hand. Over her ring finger.
Over her wedding band.
His thumb shifted the ring against her skin and she felt it bite like cold fire.
He didn’t move and neither did she, paralyzed by the enormity of what they’d done - of what *she’d* done. Matt was at home, waiting for her and worrying about her. How could she be here, like this? How could she be in another man’s arms when she was still wearing the ring Matt had given her four years ago? The ring that had pledged his life to hers, and her life to his. Her betrayal sickened her.
“Your mind is full of it,” Fifth had spat at her.
“Full of what?”
“Betrayal. It runs through your life like poison.”
Jack was still now, his fingers motionless on her hand as he slowly pulled away. Not far, just enough that she could see his face. He looked as wretched as she felt; this wasn’t who they were, this wasn’t what they did.
Silently she pulled away and he let her go. He didn’t move, just watched as she turned away from him and pressed her face into her hands. He didn’t move when she rose shakily to her feet. He didn’t move when she edged around the coffee table and towards the hallway. And he still didn’t move when she turned at the door to the living room and looked back at him, meeting the questions in his dark eyes but having no answers.
And he must have accepted that, because he didn’t even move when she turned and fled from his house, and from the guilt of this, her most ugly betrayal.
Matt smiled when he heard the key in the lock, glancing up at the kitchen clock. Four-thirty. For once she was home earlier than he’d expected. Sliding the chicken casserole into the oven, he closed the door and headed into the hallway. Sam was taking off her coat, and for once hanging it up on the peg and not flinging it across the back of the nearest chair. He smiled again. “Hey, hon. What did the doctor say?”
“Not much,” she replied, casting him a half-look and a weak smile. “I’m fine.” But she looked pale, worn out.
“You’re tired,” he said, moving over to take her by the arm and lead her further into the living room. “I told you I should have driven you. Is your foot bothering you?”
“I’m fine,” she repeated, pulling her arm out of his hand. “I’m just…” Her words and feet trailed to a halt, leaving her silent and still in the doorway.
He watched her for a moment, but she was lost. Miles away. He took her hand. “Come on,” he said quietly. “Sit down. I’ve just put dinner in the oven, so you’ve got time to rest before we eat.”
But again she resisted, pulling her hand from his and raking it through her mussed hair. He figured it was windy outside, because she looked pretty disheveled. “I, uh, I think I’m gonna take a shower.” At his quizzical look she said, “It’s cold out. I’m cold.”
But she didn’t look cold, she looked distracted and uneasy in her skin. Her hand lingered in her hair, trailing down to the side of her neck and towards her throat almost as if she was itching. God only knew what she’d been through during her abduction, and of course she couldn’t tell him. Which made it all a hundred times worse. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re very pale, Sam.”
Her teeth clenched and she shook her head, her eyes skittering around the room nervously. “I’m fine. Really. Don’t worry. Please don’t worry about me.”
He laughed at that. “Yeah, right. Sam, I’m your husband, it’s my job to worry about you!”
She said nothing in response but an odd look crossed her face, as though his words had pained her. He was really beginning to worry now. “Sam? Honey, what is it? Did the doctor say something? Is there something wrong? Did they say--”
“No,” she interrupted hurriedly, stopping his words with a hand on his arm. And he realized it was the first time she’d looked him in the eye since she got home. “It’s nothing like that. It’s-- I’m just in a stupid mood, that’s all. I need some space. Okay? I just want to take a shower and be alone for a while.”
“Sure,” he replied, mindful of the advice he’d been given by the military psychiatrist. ‘Don’t expect her to want to talk about what happened. Don’t press her. Sometimes she’ll just need space and time alone to process how she feels. Don’t crowd her.’ “I’ve got some work to catch up on,” he said, keeping it light. “Dinner will be ready in a couple of hours.”
Sam smiled with obvious gratitude, although her beautiful smile was shadowed by something he couldn’t identify. Unease, perhaps? Something was preying on her mind, that much was obvious. But he didn’t need the shrink’s advice to tell him that trying to get Sam to open up when she didn’t want to was an exercise in futility. “Thank you,” she said, touching his arm again. “You’re a good man, Matt.”
He half-smiled his thanks, but there was an odd intensity to her words that unsettled him. He couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow he was out of the loop. But then, with Sam and her line of work, when wasn’t he? He watched for a moment as she turned and headed towards the bedroom, still limping slightly from her ordeal. But he doubted that the wounds to her feet were the worst of her injuries. He wasn’t a stupid man, and he knew Sam well. There was definitely something going on, but what it was he could only imagine.
He just hoped he could help her through it; he hoped she’d let him try.
In the shower, Sam let the scorching water wash away her tears. It was as hot as she could bear, but still it didn’t warm her or make her feel any less dirty. It scalded her skin, turning it red. But still she itched. She itched all over, everywhere he’d touched her. It was as if there were two people sharing the same skin; the sensible, responsible, honorable Colonel Carter and the wild, romantic, passionate Sam. And the two were irreconcilable.
She could feel her sanity slipping at the conflict tearing her apart. There was no right answer, no way out. She was careening headlong towards disaster and there was nothing she could do to stop it. The only choice she had left was the direction of her destruction, and the fork in the road was fast approaching.
God or the Devil had blessed her with the love of two good men, and now she had to choose between them. There was some kind of sick irony in that; it was the work of a twisted mind. Whose heart should she break? Whose life should she derail? Matt, the man who had loved her unconditionally for the past four years, whose steady, reliable presence had been a welcome port in her insane life? Or Jack, who had loved her relentlessly and passionately, against the odds and against the rules, for a decade? A man whose mercurial temperament had been the cause of most of the insanity in her life, but whose defiant loyalty had never wavered, not even when she’d left him for another man.
She had to choose, because she refused to stoop to a sordid, secret affair. That, at least, was beneath her. She couldn’t have both and so she would choose one. Unworthy as she felt, she had to decide whose love to betray.
Pressing her head against the cool tiles of the shower, she closed her eyes and let her tears mingle with the water. How could she choose? How the hell could she make that choice?
It was impossible. Utterly impossible.
After she left, Jack sat for a long time on the sofa, staring at her cold coffee and willing his world to stop spinning. There was a tornado in his head, whipping up stray thoughts and feelings and slamming them painfully into each other. He loved her. He’d told her he loved her. She’d said she loved him and he’d been ready to fall at her feet in gratitude. But now she was gone, and he didn’t know if she was coming back.
He sank his head into his hands and closed his eyes, swallowing the absurd tears that crouched like traitors in his throat. He hadn’t cried since he’d lost Charlie and he wasn’t about to start now. He had to get control of himself, tamp down on his feelings a little longer. He had to give himself room to maneuver, because he wasn’t going down without a fight. Not this time.
Eventually, after several deep breaths, he raised his head and pushed himself to his feet, picking up her mug and carrying it into the kitchen. It was dark outside and the bright lights reflected back at him on the black windows. He stared at his shadowy reflection, surprised to see the world looking so normal when he knew it was upside-down and spinning on a crooked axis.
What had happened? What did her silent flight mean? Was that it? Was it all over? Or was she just stepping back, unwilling to take things further while Matt was still in the picture? Her parting look had been miserable and confused, and it haunted him longer than the taste of her lips or the soft feel of her hair running through his fingers. He wished he’d gone after her and pulled her back into his arms. But the hard band of gold around her finger had shocked him too much, bringing home the truth of the situation like nothing else. In the past they’d flirted with the regulations, but now they were dallying with something much more profound. Where once their careers had been at stake, now they were toying with other people’s lives and happiness. Laura had already paid the price of his self-deception, and if Sam chose it, Matt would pay a higher price still.
The idea shamed him. Sam Carter was not the kind of woman to cheat on her husband and he was not the kind of man to steal another man's wife. And yet when they were together… He’d never felt anything so powerful. Like a crucible, their four year estrangement had scorched the chaff from their relationship until all that remained was the granite-hard, immovable, relentless attraction. Their working relationship was defunct, their military ranks were stripped away, and their pretence at platonic friendship was exposed as a sham. All that remained was a deep love, and a powerful physical and emotional attraction that grew more compelling each moment they spent together.
He turned away from his reflection and stared across the empty kitchen towards the phone. He wanted to call her, to understand what had happened between them and to ease his cold fear that instead of a beginning it had been an ending. But he stopped before he reached the phone. How could he call her with Matt there? He couldn’t talk to Matt when he could still taste Sam on his lips. He groaned softly, a mixture of frustration and hunger. Just the memory of her was enough to stir him. Thwarted desire flowed restlessly through his body, mingling with anxiety and making him jittery. He wanted her. God, he wanted her! Her heated kisses invaded his mind unbidden, and his body responded sharply to the memory until he slammed his fist hard against the kitchen counter.
Not now. Not like this. He wouldn’t reduce it - or her - to a mere object of lust. What he felt for her was so much more than that. So very much more.
He stalked out of the kitchen, past the phone and towards the bedroom. Methodically he began stripping off his clothes. He had to lose this energy somehow. And so he slung on his running gear and headed for the front door. He didn’t care that it was dark and cold outside, he only wanted to feel the hard beat of the pavement beneath his feet as he sweated out his frustrations and fears.
He loved her.
She loved him.
But when had that ever been enough?
Matt woke early to the soft sound of sobbing. Sitting up in bed with a thumping heart he knew instantly that he was alone and felt a cold flush of fear as he flung on his bathrobe and dashed out of the room.
He’d hardly ever seen Sam crying, she hated any outward show of weakness. But he found her curled up in the corner of the sofa with a box of Kleenex next to her, and - of all things - their wedding album open on her lap. She had a screwed up tissue pressed against her nose as she turned the pages, and was oblivious to his presence as she wept. Scattered around her were a hundred other photos, of holidays they’d shared, parties, Christmases… He stared at them in astonishment and concern. What the hell had the bastards done to her?
“Sam, honey?” Her head jolted up guiltily. But she said nothing, just blinked tears down her cheeks. “What’s going on?”
She shook her head and pulled another tissue from the box, wiping at her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay,” he assured her, picking his way through the photos towards the sofa. “What’s the matter, sweetheart? What’s going on?”
Manifestly, it was a lie. He hated when she lied to him. “Nothing? Come on… Why all the pictures?”
She closed the wedding album slowly, the heavy pages thumping dully together. “Do you love me?” she asked softly, staring at the leather-bound cover of the book.
“Honey, of course I do!” He was by her side on the sofa in an instant, pushing scattered photos out of his way. “Why do you even ask?”
She shook her head again, dabbing at her eyes with a wad of Kleenex. “I don’t deserve you. You’re too good for me.”
Pulling her into his arms, he stroked her hair. “Don’t be silly. Of course I’m not.” But she leaned against him stiffly, resisting the comfort he was trying to offer, and after a moment she pulled away. He watched her in frustration. “Sam, tell me what’s going on. Please. What happened? Did that…that bastard do something to you? Please, just tell me. Let me help you.”
“I can’t,” she sobbed, breaking down again and reaching for another tissue. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
It wasn’t good enough. Grabbing her shoulders, he turned her to face him. “You can,” he insisted. “You can tell me anything. I swear, it won’t go any further than me. Whatever national security bullshit is involved. Please Sam, I love you - tell me what’s going on!”
He could tell she was struggling to control her tears, forcing herself back in line. She looked frightened and his fingers tightened on her shoulders. Nodding, she found her voice, still wiping at her face as she cleared her throat and tried again to speak. “I…,” she began haltingly, “he just made me look at my life again. Reassess.”
“This guy who abducted you?” That sounded odd. He gave a humorless laugh. “What was he, a shrink?”
There was a silver flash of anger in her blue eyes. “Something like that.”
Glancing around at the photos he saw their entire marriage scattered around him and a sick kind of realization dawned. Was it him? Was it their marriage she was reassessing? He looked back at her and saw her watching him with painful honesty. She had always been a bad liar. “Is it me?” he asked in a sinking voice.
She blinked her wide eyes and they filled with tears. “No, it’s me.”
He stared, feeling the world beneath him begin to cant. “I don’t understand.” What was she saying? “Sam, I love you. Whatever this is, we can face it together. We’re a team, right? You and me? You know that, don’t you?”
Nodding, her hands fell to her lap and her tears flowed unchecked. “I know. I know that.”
He was at sea with all this emotion. It was a side of her he’d only occasionally seen. Rarely did she succumb to tears, and never in this kind of inconsolable flood. It made him nervous and uneasy. Not knowing what else to do, he pulled her back into his arms and this time she didn’t resist. She didn’t hold him either, just sank her head against his shoulder and wept as though her heart had broken. All he could do was hold her, steadying her with his presence as he murmured soothing words into her ear. “It’s gonna be okay. Everything’s gonna be okay. I love you and I’m right here. I’m right here, Sam. We’ll get through this together.”
But all she did was cry harder. It wasn’t like her. It wasn’t like her at all. And it scared him to death.
The park hung cold and still in the early grip of winter, a few remaining leaves clinging valiantly to black branches stenciled against an opal sky. A few children played, their shouts loud and brittle in the cold air.
Jack shivered as he waited, half in cold and half in nervous anticipation. She’d sounded tense when she’d called, her voice weary and flat. “Meet me in the park,” she’d said. The one outside her old house, on the other side of town from the home she shared with Matt. He’d asked if she was okay, but her clipped “I can’t talk,” had been answer enough. She sounded as strung out as he felt, stretched thin by impossible choices.
And so he waited in trepidation, eager to see her but afraid of what she would say. In his fond imaginings she’d fall into his arms and tell him that she’d left Matt, that she’d never loved Matt, and that her heart had always been his. But he already knew that wasn’t true. She *had* loved Matt. He knew her, and he knew that Sam Carter would never marry a man she didn’t love - it was simply beyond her to take vows she didn’t intend to keep. And he’d heard her say those vows, heard her promise to love Matt Hutchinson until the end of her days.
The memory made him shiver from a deeper cold. She’d looked so beautiful and happy and unreachable. He deserved a medal for making it through the ceremony alive; death by staff-weapon would have been less painful. But even then he’d known, somehow, that he was still in her heart. She’d given him a look as she’d passed by on the arm of her father, a look that had cut like regret. And although it had haunted him for years, now, as he stood in the still cold of the winter park, he realized that he was clinging to that look as the foundation of all his hopes. She’d felt regret. And when she’d kissed him last night he’d tasted her desire. And she’d said she still loved him. Regret, desire and love - they were a potent combination. They had to count for something. She couldn’t just ignore them.
The air stirred. He dug his hands deeper into his pockets and wished he’d worn a heavier sweater. He could feel the cold seep into his bones, chilling him from the inside out. Cupping his hands over his mouth he blew on them to warm them, and it was then, over his knuckles, that he saw her walking along the path towards him. She was still limping slightly, but nonetheless walked with a determined stride. A long dark coat wrapped her elegantly against the cold, making her look sleek and exotic - like a Soviet spy secretly meeting her handler in an old Cold War thriller. Her face was certainly grim enough to fit the part. She slowed her pace and Jack lowered his cold hands. “Hey,” he said cautiously, trying to gauge her intentions.
“Hey,” came the unsmiling reply. “Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t get away.”
He nodded, suddenly anxious. “I’m glad you called. After last night, I wasn’t sure what--”
“I know,” she interrupted, and awkwardly slid her gaze away from his eyes. “I needed to talk to you about that.”
The chill in his bones became more profound, rising from within, and his unease forced a nervous smile onto his lips. “That doesn’t sound too good.” Sam flinched slightly and started walking. He fell in at her side, glanced once at her sober face and turned his eyes on the pathway ahead. Not good at all.
“I was awake all last night,” she said after a moment. “Thinking. About you, and me. And Matt.”
She flashed him a queasy glance and he braced himself for the worst. “Matt’s a good man,” she said softly. “And I’m not the sort of person who can walk away from…from her duty. You know that. You’re the same. That’s why we never--” She cleared her throat and ran a shaky hand through her hair. “And that’s why I can’t--”
“Wait!” He had to stop her, had to keep the words from being spoken. “I…you,” he fumbled, “we…don’t--”
“Just let me finish,” she begged, scowling straight ahead and speaking as though she were reading a speech. Knowing her, that was probably exactly what she was doing. “As hard as this is, Jack - and, God, it’s hard - I don’t think I can walk away from my marriage just because I have regrets, and, uh, you know,” she stumbled over the words, “an itch to scratch.”
If she carried on speaking, Jack didn’t hear. All he could hear was the blood pulsing in his ears and the echo of her words…’regrets and an itch to scratch’. An itch? That was all he was? His throat tightened and something burned behind his eyes as he stared at the pale path; it seemed to be swimming away from him. But he refused to let it, refused to let anything get away from him. He slammed down as many barriers as he could, isolating the pain in his chest and detaching it from his mind. It was a well-honed procedure; emotional detachment had kept him alive a hundred times or more.
“…can be friends but I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to see each other again. At least, not for a while.”
Her words crept back into his awareness, feebly quarantined behind his hasty barricade. It was over, he realized numbly. She was ending it. Again. Why the hell was he even surprised? He should have known better. He should have run the moment he’d seen her standing there on Matt’s arm in the middle of that tacky Florida hotel. He should have spared himself the grief.
A sprinkling of hatred scattered over his heart, turning paralyzing loss into something obscenely animate. Anger let him breathe; it clutched together the shreds of his self-esteem. But lost in the back of his mind he knew that it was fictitious; he’d tried hating her for four long years and it had never worked. But for now he didn’t care. Hatred, even fictitious hatred, gave him something to hold onto in the storm, it provided the illusion of control over his tumultuous emotions.
“Jack?” She’d stopped walking, and like an anchor she dragged him to a reluctant halt. “Say something.”
The words tumbled over themselves to get out, everyone of them treacherous. Don’t do this. You don’t know how much I love you. This can work, this can be good. It can be great! And it’s all I have left. Don’t leave me behind, Sam. Please don’t desert me. But he refused to let a single, pathetic plea past his lips - he’d preserve what dignity he had left. So he just looked at her, hating her for the power she held over him. Hating her for destroying all his hopes. Hating her for looking so miserable, so utterly distraut, that he had to stop himself from reaching out and comforting her. Love and hate; never had they been so closely entwined in his heart.
Her eyes filled with tears as their gazes clashed. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, pulling a tissue from her pocket and wiping at her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Jack. I do love you. I just can’t--”
It was the proverbial straw. ‘I do love you.’ How could she say that? How could she torture him with that? The impossible tension between love and hate shattered his control and he felt hot tears swamp his eyes, misery rising like a tide in his throat. He was gonna lose it, right there in front of her. And that was not an option. Turning savagely away he swiped a hand over his eyes and stalked away from her. He wouldn’t run, although it was an effort of will to retain at least that shred of dignity.
“Jack!” she called, her voice breaking over his name. “Oh god, please don’t go like this…”
He lengthened his stride, his fingers balled into fists as he swerved off the path and across the grass towards his car parked on the street beyond. It looked like salvation. If he could just get away from her before he collapsed, before the final defeat after ten years of loving her against all the odds crushed him beneath its weight.
“Jack, wait!” Damn it! She was coming after him. But he was almost at his car. If he could just get there, just get away from her before-- She grabbed his arm. “Jack, please…”
“Don’t!” He wrenched his arm out of her grip with such force that she stumbled. Anger raged beneath his paper-thin control, his muscles bunched angrily and his eyes spat fire. She shrank away from him, eyes wide. God only knew what she saw in his face, but he couldn’t control it anymore. The love and hate were one, a roiling mix of emotion about to erupt and destroy anything it touched. He didn’t want that to be her. Without another word he turned and walked away.
This time she didn’t follow him.
He left with a screech of tires that shattered the still afternoon and set disapproving mothers tutting as they shepherded their young children into the park. But Sam paid no attention, her blank gaze was fixed on his vanishing tail lights and her inner eye saw only his face. His devastated face would haunt her forever with its silent accusation. You lied to me, his eyes had said. You abandoned me, betrayed me, hurt me. How could you? How could you do it again?
Tears came, her constant companion over the last twenty-four hours. She felt as though she’d cried a lifetime since that incandescent moment when her lips had found his and a decade of frustration had melted, just for an instant, into joy. If only she could have lived in that moment forever, where everything had been clear and pure and right.
But reality was none of those things, it was muddy and dirty and ambiguous. And she’d had to choose - desire versus duty, passion versus honor, betrayal versus fidelity. When it came down to basics, the choice had been easy. She couldn’t walk away from Matt. She had never, not once in her life, abandoned her duty - not to her father, not to the Air Force and not to her husband. And she wouldn’t start now. The guilt would have eaten her alive, destroying Jack along with her. They’d have rotted together in a bed of lust, remorse and shame. That was why she’d never come close to breaching the regulations when they’d served together, and that was why she couldn’t betray her husband now.
But the air was thin on the moral high-ground, and her tears were shredding her shallow breaths as she walked on shaking legs towards to the closest bench. She sat and pressed her head into her hands, tears making her cheeks cold and slick in the winter air. All she could see was his face, so hurt. So deeply hurt. His eyes had been molten with resentment when he’d turned away from her - silent, wounded and betrayed.
If only he’d spoken! Shouted and raged at her. If only he’d damned her as a deceitful, heartless, treacherous bitch. She could have handled that, she would have welcomed it and accepted it as well deserved. But he’d said nothing, torturing her with his dark, forsaken eyes. She knew him too well to draw comfort from his silence - Jack O’Neill was like an ocean becalmed, mirror-smooth on the surface but churning with powerful tides beneath. And the more he felt, the less he revealed. No, his silence spoke louder than any angry rant - he would never forgive her this final betrayal. But even now, when his forgiveness could mean nothing, she still felt ill knowing that she had poisoned his love into hatred.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into her hands, vainly wishing the words into his heart. “I love you. I love you so much. And I’m so, so sorry.”