Originally published in Remote Control Goes to War, Issue 2
Author’s Note: the following takes place between the aired Stargate SG-1 episodes Window of Opportunity and Beneath the Surface.
The members of SG-1, minus Teal’c, were relaxing at Callahan’s Pub in Colorado Springs, enjoying a well-deserved night out. They’d just completed a very important yet very long and very boring diplomatic mission, negotiating an alliance with the rulers of a civilization SG-1 had encountered on a recent mission. Well, boring to Colonel Jack O’Neill, at any rate. Doctor Daniel Jackson had been in his element, while Major Sam Carter and the Jaffa Teal’c had stoically endured the week-long negotiations.
They’d just finished dinner, the specialty of the house—twenty-four-ounce porterhouse steaks, rare, with all the trimmings – and were considering their choices for dessert when a tall man walking past their table on his way out stopped and stared at them – or, rather, at Sam. "Sam? Sam Carter?"
Sam turned, then beamed in pleased surprise and rose to hug the newcomer enthusiastically. "Jack!"
O’Neill looked up and away from the dessert menu as soon as he heard Sam’s name being called. His eyes narrowed as he saw her stand and throw her arms around a man wearing faded jeans and a black leather jacket. They narrowed even further as she called the newcomer by name.
The newcomer was tall – very tall. He was tall enough to make Sam, a tall and robust woman, look petite. He had broad shoulders, dark blue eyes, and a wide smile revealing even white teeth – lots and lots of white teeth, Jack thought fleetingly. And his hair was very short – military short, O’Neill realized. He knew instinctively that the newcomer was military – his bearing fairly screamed it. And he looked as happy to see Sam as Sam did to see him.
Though his first instinct was to straighten in his chair, O’Neill forced himself to relax and remain outwardly casual and unaffected. He slouched slightly and cocked his head, looking up at Sam and the newcomer with a half-quizzical, half-challenging look in his eyes.
Daniel straightened in his chair, looking back and forth between O’Neill and Sam and her friend. His expression mutated from curiosity, through alarm, to puzzlement. "Jack?" he said softly, looking toward his friend.
O’Neill made no response, just kept watching Sam and her friend, who were completely delighted at seeing each other and who seemed to have forgotten anyone else was around.
"What are you doing here?" Sam asked, finally stepping back from their embrace, but still keeping hold of the tall man’s hands.
"Giving lectures at the Academy as part of the Commandant’s Leadership Series. One today, two tomorrow." The stranger didn’t show any inclination to release Sam as he answered. "I’m trying to convince some of the Academy’s best and brightest to consider NASA."
Sam smiled. "Lecture tours aren’t your speed, Jack."
The tall man shrugged. "Roger that—but sometimes you have to suck it up and do what’s best for the service. It’s better than talking to Congressional liaisons." He shook his head. "At least the kids at the Academy appreciate us and speak our language."
"Most of them do, anyway," Sam said dryly. "How long will you be in town?"
"I fly back to the Cape on Friday."
O’Neill cleared his throat. "Carter? Care to do the honors?"
Sam blinked, then looked back at him in confusion. "What? Oh, yes. Sorry, sir." She dropped the newcomer’s hands and straightened slightly. "Sir, this is—" She turned back to the stranger. "Jack, I don’t even know if you’re still in."
He smiled broadly. "Roger that. I just made bird colonel last month."
Sam returned his smile with a dazzling smile of her own. "I hadn’t heard. Congratulations." She turned back to O’Neill. "Sir, this is Colonel Jack Riles. He’s one of our astronauts. A shuttle commander."
O’Neill nodded. "I recognize the name." He half-rose and extended his hand.
Riles nodded briefly in acknowledgment and extended his right hand to take O’Neill’s. They shook hands briefly, then O’Neill reseated himself.
Sam turned back to Riles. "Jack, this is Colonel Jack O’Neill. He’s my CO. We’re attached to Space/Missile Command."
"Bird colonel. Satellite telemetry. Stationed at Cheyenne Mountain," O’Neill put in.
"Good to meet you, Colonel."
"Just Jack," O’Neill said dismissively. "This ‘Colonel’ stuff can get real old real fast."
"And having two Jacks around can get confusing in a big hurry," Daniel muttered.
Sam grinned. "And this is Doctor Daniel Jackson."
Daniel rose. "Colonel."
"Have you eaten yet?" Sam asked.
Riles nodded. "I was just on my way back to my hotel."
"Pull up a chair, join us for a while," O’Neill said. "We’re just about to have dessert."
"Sure." Riles pulled out the empty chair between Sam and Daniel, which put him directly across from O’Neill. Even seated, he gave the appearance being at parade rest, and was as imposing seated as he was standing. "Congratulations on your promotion," he said to Sam.
"You heard about that?" Sam asked in surprise.
"And your Air Medal, too." Riles gave Sam a hearty thumbs-up. "Good work."
O’Neill cocked his head. "Keeping tabs on Carter, here, are ya?"
Riles met O’Neill’s eyes with a steady gaze. "She’s an outstanding officer. She’s worth keeping tabs on."
Sam shot a glance at Daniel, who was taking the whole thing in with a slight frown and a look of unease in his eyes.
"Uh, why don’t we order dessert?" Daniel suggested quickly, then looked around for a waitress. Seeing one nearby, he waved her over.
"Ready for dessert?" she asked.
"Coffee all around," Daniel said, then stopped. "Colonel?" he asked Riles.
"Coffee’s fine," Riles said. "Make mine Irish."
"A drop o’ the Catholic would go nice in mine," O’Neill said. "Jameson’s."
"Good choice," the waitress said. "I’ll get it and be back for your dessert order."
"So, Jack – I can call you Jack, can’t I?" O’Neill said heartily, though the look in his eyes was less affable than the tone of his voice. "How long have you known Carter, Jack?"
Riles looked at Sam before answering. "We go back to the Academy."
"Jack was a two degree when I was a doolie," Sam put in.
"Huh?" Daniel asked, blinking.
"Academy jargon," O’Neill explained. "Junior and freshman in the civilian world, Daniel."
"We were in the same group in the cadet wing," Sam said. "Jack was on the group staff and then on the wing staff."
"Cadet ranking and leadership programs," O’Neill said in an aside to Daniel. "Impressive stats. Kept in touch afterward, didja?"
"As much as we could," Sam said quickly.
"You know how it goes, Jack – I can call you Jack, can’t I?" Riles said, his tone and expression matching O’Neill’s. O’Neill just shrugged.
Daniel looked at Sam in growing alarm, and noted that the expression of unease in Sam’s eyes mirrored his own. "I wish that waitress would get here with that coffee. Sam, what are you going to have for dessert? The chocolate mousse cake you like so much?"
"I think so," Sam said brightly, silently blessing Daniel for his ploy. "You?"
"The giant sundae, I think. Jack?"
"Just coffee’s fine," O’Neill said, not taking his eyes off Riles.
"Uh, yeah. Uh, Jack Number Two?" Daniel asked, then winced slightly.
"Just coffee’s fine for me, too," Riles said, his eyes never leaving O’Neill.
"Figures," Daniel said sotto voce.
"Nothing gooey for you?" O’Neill asked.
"I don’t always find a sugar fix necessary, but I don’t shy away from it," Riles said, not backing down.
Sam closed her eyes in supplication. She could see exactly where this was heading. The two Jacks were like two male dogs, circling each other, sniffing around, looking for weaknesses. She looked across the table at O’Neill, a pleading expression in her eyes.
O’Neill looked at her, narrowed his eyes, then nodded imperceptibly. Then he turned his attention back to Riles. "So, you go back to the Academy. Have you two ever worked together?"
"We were stationed together in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War," Sam said. "Riyadh."
"We made a good team," Riles said, smiling fondly at Sam.
Sam smiled back. "Yes, we did."
"Ah," O’Neill said. "Riyadh. A real garden spot."
"You’ve been there?" Riles asked.
"A time or two on the way to…or from…other places," O’Neill said evasively, then shrugged. "Not long enough to get comfortable. Not that I wanted to get comfortable."
"Colonel O’Neill was Special Ops back then," Sam told Riles softly, a note of pride in her voice.
"You were a fighter pilot, I’d guess," O’Neill said.
"Good guess," Riles said, his voice even and calm.
"Not a guess. I’ve known a lot of pilots. You have the look." O’Neill paused. "What’s your ride?"
O’Neill nodded. "Nice little plane."
"They do the job they’re supposed to do – and then some."
Sam worriedly chewed on her lip. Colonel O’Neill didn’t look like he was going to run out of baiting comments any time soon. She knew Riles would ignore them as long as possible out of respect for O’Neill’s seniority in grade, but sooner or later, he’d respond in kind. Trying to defuse the potential bomb sitting at the table with them, she jumped into the conversation. "Jack, how many shuttle missions have you commanded now?"
"Wow!" Sam said, clearly impressed.
"Is that a lot?" Daniel asked, looking from Sam to Riles and back again.
Riles nodded. "There are a lot of qualified shuttle commanders, Doctor. Pilots, too. NASA tries to make sure that everyone gets a shot. Just being on six missions in a career is a lot – let alone being called on to command that many. With a limited number of missions annually, we all don’t get to fly as much as we want."
"Seems like you do," O’Neill said. His tone was pleasant, but the underlying challenge was clear.
"I do what I’m ordered to do," Riles said evenly, ignoring the implied challenge.
"Have you ever thought about moving on?" Daniel asked.
Riles shook his head. "I’m right where I always wanted to be. I was just named head of the Astronaut Training Office. I'll take over after the first of the year."
"Wow. More reason to congratulate you," Sam said. "But I thought that was Colonel Eckert’s job."
"It was. Bull’s been head of the Astronaut Office since Ninety-seven, but he stayed on as head of the Training Office because that was what Washington wanted. Last month he announced he'd be stepping down from the training slot, and I was picked for the job. The promotion went along with the position. When he retires, I’ll have a shot at the top slot."
"Wow." Sam’s eyes gleamed with pride.
O’Neill narrowed his eyes in thought. "Eckert? I went to the Academy with an Eckert."
"First name Henry?" Riles asked.
"That’s our Bull," Riles confirmed.
"Bull’s a good name for him," O’Neill said.
"Roger that," Riles said, grinning.
"Wouldn’t that curtail your flying, though?" Sam asked.
Riles shook his head. "It hasn’t stopped Bull." He regarded Sam with a speculative gleam in his eye. "Rumor had it a couple of years ago that you were going to be joining us. What happened?"
Sam looked down at the table. "That was my father’s idea."
"Not yours?" Riles narrowed his eyes as he looked at her. "Joining NASA was your dream."
"Carter’s needed here," O’Neill put in bluntly.
"We need astronauts of her caliber, too," Riles shot back, unfazed.
"You’ve got enough. We’re hanging on to her," O’Neill asserted. "Right, Daniel?"
"Uh, right, Jack," Daniel said, clearly uncomfortable at being in the middle.
"My work here is valuable," Sam said, and the tone of her voice put an end to that line of conversation.
The waitress brought their coffee, and took Sam and Daniel’s dessert orders. All the while, O’Neill and Riles kept sizing each other up.
"The Springs hasn’t changed much," Riles said to no one in particular.
"No, it’s pretty much the way it was when we were here," Sam confirmed.
"Kinda…comforting?" Daniel asked.
"Familiar," Riles said.
"Familiar’s good," Daniel said, then looked over Riles’ shoulder to see the waitress approaching with their desserts. "And ice cream is even better."
The waitress set an oversized goblet filled with several flavors of ice cream and assorted toppings and studded with cookies in front of Daniel, then placed a plate with a generous slice of chocolate mousse cake in front of Sam.
"I see the desserts haven’t gotten any smaller," Riles said. "Are you going to finish all that?" he asked Daniel.
"Or die trying," O’Neill said. "Aren’t’cha gonna ask Carter if she’ll finish hers?"
"I don’t have to," Riles said pleasantly. "I’ve seen her do it plenty of times."
O’Neill gave him a tight smile, and Sam winced. "Yes, I was known for my chocolate tooth even back in the Academy," she said.
Riles drained his coffee cup and looked at his watch, a large stainless steel model O’Neill recognized as one popular with pilots. "I have to run – I have a few calls to make before it gets too late on the East Coast. What are you doing tomorrow night, Sam?"
"How about if I take you to dinner?’ Riles suggested. "We’ve got a lot of catching up to do—I have a lot to tell you. We can celebrate our promotions and your Air Medal, too."
"Sure," Sam said uncertainly, looking briefly at O’Neill, then quickly away.
Riles either didn’t notice her hesitation, or chose to ignore it. "Il Villaggio?"
"You still have that weakness for Italian food?" Sam asked with a fond smile.
"Roger that. Nineteen hundred?"
Sam nodded. "I’ll meet you there."
Riles stood, and Sam rose to give him a goodbye hug. She stood watching him as he left the restaurant, then sat and gave O’Neill an accusatory glance. "Was any of that necessary?" she demanded.
O’Neill ignored her. "Isn’t he a little big to be a fighter jock?"
"A little big?" Daniel asked. "Jack, he makes Teal’c look small."
"Not many people can do that," O’Neill said dryly.
"None I’ve ever met—until now," Daniel said with a side glance at Sam to see how she was taking it. She ignored him, staring at O’Neill.
"Doesn’t he kinda stick out of the cockpit?" O’Neill went on. "Do the plane crews have to smash the canopy down around his head?"
Sam put her fork down. "Will you stop it, please?"
"Sorry, Sam," Daniel said.
"Yeah, Carter, sorry."
"Are you?" she challenged.
"Not really," O’Neill said pleasantly. "I have too much fun baiting your boyfriends. Narim, Marty…." His words trailed off as he realized what he’d just said.
Sam rose and grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair. "Goodnight," she said, and stalked toward the door.
Open-mouthed with surprise, Daniel watched her leave. Then he turned to O’Neill, who was watching with a slight frown. "That went well, don’t you think?"
O’Neill didn’t answer.
** *** **
"Can I come in?"
Sam looked away from her computer the next morning to see Daniel standing in the doorway. "Daniel! Sure." She saved her report, then printed it. "I’m just finishing up my mission report."
"Ah." Daniel came toward the lab table, tapping two folders against the palm of his left hand.
"Is that yours?"
Daniel nodded. "And Teal’c’s. He just left for The Land of Light to see Rya’c. I told him I’d turn it in for him."
"Not the Colonel’s?" Sam asked, her eyes sparkling with amusement.
"I don’t think he’s even started his yet."
Sam nodded. "That’s par for the course. Has he ever turned a report in on time?"
"Not that I can remember. Hey, that was fun last night."
Sam speared him with a glance. "Oh, it’s always fun watching two grown men play ‘Can You Top This?’. And I felt like a bone between two hungry dogs."
"I meant before your friend showed up. That pretty much shot the evening."
"It wasn’t his fault, Daniel," Sam said, a testy edge to her voice.
Sam sighed. "Daniel, Jack Riles is a nice man and an outstanding officer."
"I’m sure he is – I just don’t think he and our Jack should be in the same room ever again. Maybe not even in the same state."
"How about the same planet?" Sam asked.
"That would work. Two strong personalities like that.…"
"Jack’s a typical pilot, with a pilot’s ego." Sam shrugged. "I won’t say it’s undeserved. He flew thirty-one missions in the Gulf War and shot down two Iraqi fighters in combat. And now he’s a shuttle commander. That’s a lot to be proud of."
"And you were happy to see him last night," Daniel said softly.
Sam smiled. "Yes, I was. I haven’t seen him in nearly ten years."
"That happens in the military. You get transferred, move around…. Jack’s been relatively stable since he joined NASA, but my time at the SGC is the longest I’ve ever been stationed in one place."
"It must be tough," Daniel ventured.
"It’s hell on friendships and relationships." Sam looked off into the distance. "My father was reassigned every couple of years. I went to three different grammar schools and two different high schools – in four different countries. It’s hard to make friends – harder still to keep them. You try to hang on to the ones you really care about."
"And you care about Colonel Riles."
"Just like I care about other people," Sam said softly.
"Just like?" Daniel prodded. Sam didn’t answer, just held his gaze, and Daniel decided not to venture into possibly dangerous territory. Changing the subject was a far better idea. "Jack’s right, though, Sam. Your friend is big. Imposing."
Sam smiled. "Yes, Daniel. He is. He was imposing as a cadet, too."
"Were you two ever…um…."
Sam looked at him in amusement. "Is ‘involved’ the word you’re looking for?"
"Uh…yeah." Daniel looked at her expectantly.
Sam shook her head. "No, Daniel. We’ve only been friends. Nothing more than that."
"Oh. Good friends?"
"Very good," Sam confirmed. "But not that good."
"That’s good," Daniel mumbled.
Sam gave him a puzzled frown. "What?"
"Nothing," Daniel said quickly. "He, uh, looks like a real jock."
"He is – but he also graduated near the top of his class academically. He has a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy, and in order to be promoted to full colonel, he’s have to have his Masters, too."
"Ah. A true Renaissance man."
Sam smiled gently. "An overachiever, Daniel – just like a lot of other people I know. People who make a habit of exceeding expectations."
Daniel gave her an abashed smile. "Touché."
Sam acknowledged that with a smile. "He’s actually a very nice person. Dedicated, by-the-book."
"He sounds like the anti-Jack O’Neill. Not that Jack’s not dedicated, of course," Daniel hurried to clarify, "but he never went by the book in his life."
"They have very different personalities and operating styles," Sam said simply.
"I saw that last night."
"Black ops personnel like Colonel O’Neill tend to be a little more reserved," Sam told him.
Daniel looked blank. "Jack’s reserved?"
"Compared to every pilot I’ve ever known, he is." Sam smiled. "Pilots are a different breed, Daniel – especially fighter pilots and especially astronauts. Have you ever read ‘The Right Stuff’?"
"I’ll let you borrow my copy," she offered. "It gives a good insight into the pilot personality."
"Will it help me understand Jack?"
Sam grinned. "I doubt it."
"You know, I’ve often wondered…." She let her words trail off.
"What?" Daniel prodded.
"When Endeavour rescued us from the Death Gliders after we blew up Apophis’s ship – I wonder who the crew was."
"You think your friend was aboard?"
Sam shrugged. "He could have been. I checked the mission specs on the Internet. It’s classified. It was originally a Department of Defense mission."
"Which means…?" Daniel asked.
"No public information, not even the names of the crew," Sam told him. "Certainly no info on the payload or mission duration."
"I don’t suppose you could ask…."
"No," Sam said flatly. "I’m only guessing, but they’d have wanted their best pilot on that mission—"
"Meaning your friend," Daniel interrupted.
Sam glared at him. "Male territorial considerations aside, Daniel, he is the best."
Daniel had the good grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry. You were saying…?"
"Well, if I were the one picking the crew, I’d have chosen NASA’s best pilot, whether he was a mission commander by then or not."
"For an experienced shuttle commander, being assigned as a pilot after you’ve sat in the left-hand seat would be a demotion," Sam explained. "But a team player wouldn’t complain."
"And your friend is a team player?"
"The senior astronaut would have been in command, with another Air Force officer with the highest clearance on the mission to handle the robot arm."
"That makes sense – in an Air Force kind of way," Daniel said, then grinned to take the sting from his words. "So…you and the other Jack – you’re friends. Like you and Jack – our Jack – are friends?"
"Colonel O’Neill and I are more than friends," Sam said evenly.
Daniel’s eyebrows climbed up toward his hairline. "Really?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes – just like you and I are more than friends. We’re colleagues, teammates. We’ve put our lives on the line for each other – more than once. That makes us more than friends." Her gaze was steady, daring Daniel to disagree – or to go further.
Deciding that discretion was indeed the better part of valor, Daniel didn’t pursue it. "O-kay." He tapped the two report folders on the lab table. "I’d better get these to General Hammond. Can I take yours?"
Sam lifted the report from the laser printer and slipped it into a pre-printed mission report folder. "Thanks."
"Sure. Meet you for lunch?"
"If you actually remember to come out of your lab and eat instead of getting up close and personal with an artifact."
Daniel grinned and headed for General Hammond’s office, and Sam turned back to her computer.
No sooner had Daniel left than Jack swung into the office, ambling over to the lab table, his hands in his pockets in a very un-military manner. "So, Carter, what'cha doin’?"
She looked up at him with a guarded smile. "I just finished my mission report, sir. Have you finished yours?"
"Not yet. I don’t want to spoil General Hammond by turning them in on time too often."
Sam looked down and hid a smile. "No, sir."
O’Neill drummed his fingers on the smooth surface of the lab table. "So, tonight’s your big date."
"I wouldn’t call it a date, sir," Sam said evenly.
"No?" O’Neill cocked his head and looked at her quizzically.
"No, sir. It’s just dinner with a friend."
"A platonic dinner with the jet-jockey," O’Neill persisted. "He looks like he belongs on a recruiting poster."
"Yes, sir. He’d look very good on one," Sam said, not giving an inch.
"Didn’t your father ever warn you about guys like that?"
"You know." O’Neill cocked a hip against the lab table. "Fighter jocks."
"No, sir. He didn’t. But he did warn me about guys like you."
O’Neill looked startled, then gave a self-deprecating smile. "The warning didn’t take, did it?" he asked softly.
Sam favored him with a gentle smile. "No, sir. It didn’t."
O’Neill relaxed fractionally and Sam went on. "No warning was necessary, sir. Colonel Riles and I have never been more than friends. In fact, Jack was more a brother to me than my own brother."
"He was a big help during my first year at the Academy."
"Don’t tell me you had problems adjusting," Jack said in disbelief.
"No, sir. But some of my classmates were jealous."
"Of your brains?"
Sam nodded. "And my ability to fit in. Jack got me through it—he helped me focus on my goals. And we were both interested in the space program, so we talked about that a lot. We used to plot strategy for getting into NASA."
"What happened after graduation?"
"He went to flight school, graduated first in his class, and became an F-16 pilot. We kept in touch off and on – you know how it is." She shrugged. "My letters sort of tailed off after I was assigned to the Stargate program. I didn’t have much time to write, and I couldn’t say anything about what I was working on. And he was in the astronaut program by then, and just as busy. We managed Christmas and birthday cards, but that was about it."
"When were you two stationed together?" O’Neill asked cautiously.
"During the Gulf War—we worked together on a weapons project."
"The simulated bombing runs and hundred hours of airtime you mentioned before the second mission to Abydos?"
Sam’s eyes widened. "You remember that, sir?"
"Carter, I remember everything you’ve ever said to me," O’Neill said softly.
Sam blinked in surprise. "Oh. Well, most of my airtime was logged in an AWACS, but Jack took me up in a series of flights in a specially-equipped two-seater F-16 to evaluate the package, too."
"How’d he fit into the cockpit? Did the flight crews use a giant shoehorn and stuff him in?"
"He’s an excellent pilot, sir," Sam said stiffly. "He flew thirty-one combat missions in the Gulf War."
"With two confirmed kills, too. Good shootin’. The Iraqi pilots tried to avoid our guys. They didn’t want to dogfight with our boys."
Sam looked at him in amazement. "How do you know that, sir?"
"I looked up his bio this morning," O’Neill mumbled, looking at the floor.
"I had a couple of minutes free – the result of not-writing my mission report," O’Neill hedged. "But that doesn’t answer my question."
"What question, sir?"
O’Neill narrowed his eyes. "You never became more than friends?"
"No, sir," Sam said softly.
"He’s too straight-arrow for you, huh?"
"Sir?" Carter looked at him, a puzzled expression in her blue eyes.
O’Neill toyed with a paperweight sitting on the lab table. "I remember you saying once that you were drawn to the lunatic fringe."
"You heard that?"
"Carter, I’ve heard every word you’ve ever said around me, too."
"Oh." She paused. "I’m not sure if that’s good or bad."
O’Neill gave her a silly grin. "You can’t accuse me of not listening to you."
Sam’s answering smile was full of fond affection. "No, sir, I can’t."
"How do they fit his ego into the shuttle, anyway? Those things aren’t that big."
"Sir—" She stopped short in exasperation. "You’re repeating yourself. You just used a variation on that line a minute ago."
"Come on, Carter. I like it—humor me. Listen—I’ve been around the block a few times. I know pilots. They’ve all got egos. Some are bigger than others. Your buddy’s big all over – ego, shoulders, teeth—"
Sam finally lost her patience. "Sir, he’s about as much a threat to you as Daniel is," she snapped.
That brought Jack up short. It was as close as Sam would ever come to admitting the feelings that lay between them. "Oh." He looked down, then met her eyes, saying, "Carter…I…uh…apologize. What I said last night about your boyfriends…. I was out of line. I stepped out of that little box we’ve created for ourselves. I went too far. Sorry."
"Sir…." Unable to voice her feelings, Sam allowed her words to trail off.
"Yeah, Carter, I know," Jack said, almost sadly. "Have a good time." And he slowly ambled out of the lab.
Sam watched him leave, trying to shut down her chaotic thoughts.
** *** **
Dressed in a calf-length black wool skirt and soft beige turtleneck, Sam strolled back and forth in the lobby of Il Villaggio, waiting for Riles. She was early, but she was always early. And she knew Riles would be there at the dot of seven. Punctuality was as much a part of him as his blue eyes.
The previous evening had been a barely-avoided disaster. The two Jacks were so different, yet so alike at the same time. Team players both, natural leaders, dedicated to duty before anything else – certainly before themselves. The hell of it was, she thought, they’d probably respect each other if not outright like each other once they got past the knee-jerk alpha male instinct to be the top dog.
She looked out the etched glass doors to see Jack striding along the sidewalk toward the restaurant. He strode into the lobby and unzipped his leather jacket. He wore a charcoal grey long-sleeved polo shirt and bone-colored chinos. "I forgot how cold it can get here," Riles said. "I’m too used to Florida."
"It must be nice living there."
"It’s great. We have some cold weather each year, but it beats the winter," Riles said as he checked his coat.
"What about hurricanes?"
"I’ve lived through a few." He grinned. "I live on the water, but I’ve been lucky – I haven’t had to evacuate yet." He looked her up and down. "You look nice."
"Nice?" Sam looked at him in mock affront. "Wait, I forgot – from you, ‘nice’ is about the highest compliment I’ll get."
"I don’t believe in snowing people."
"And everyone who knows you knows that." Sam cocked her head to look him over. "I’d hoped you’d be wearing your Class As."
Riles looked at her in disbelief. "Sam, I’ve been in them all day. I couldn’t wait to get out of them."
Sam gave him a mock pout. "I wanted to get a look at those new silver eagles on your shoulders."
Riles grinned. "I’ll send you a picture."
Sam smiled. "I guess I’ll have to settle for that."
The hostess appeared and showed them to their table. It was covered with a checked red-and-white tablecloth, and located near a waterfall, for which the restaurant was famous. "It hasn’t changed," Jack said as he pulled out Sam’s chair for her. He looked around the room as he took his own seat. Homey, cozy, with brick walls and hanging lamps, it exuded warmth. Their casual attire was perfect for the small and intimate restaurant.
"The food hasn’t changed, either."
Riles took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma wafting toward them from other tables. "Good." He opened the menu, scanning the specials. "I want one of everything."
"And one more of each to go?" Sam teased.
Riles gave her an effortless grin. "Think I could sneak it on the plane?"
"I think you’d have to share with the other passengers."
"No deal." He looked over the top of the menu at Sam. "The usual?"
"Have we ever eaten anything else here?"
"If we did, I can’t remember it." Sam smiled. "Split two appetizers?"
"Stuffed clams and eggplant rollatine?" Riles countered.
"Deal," Sam said with a grin.
Riles closed the menu and laid it alongside his place setting. "That was easy."
"It feels like you were never gone."
"There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the last time we saw each other, Sam." He was about to say more, when the waiter appeared to take their order. They ordered a pitcher of beer, their appetizers and main course, then fell silent until the waiter was out of earshot.
"I’ve got a son, you know," Riles said with no preamble.
"What?" Sam blinked and looked at his left hand. There, as it had been since the end of his third year at the Academy, was his Academy ring, heavy gold with a blue stone. "When did you get married?"
"I…didn’t. I didn’t meet Noah until he was nine. Hell, I didn’t even know he existed until he was nine."
Sam was taken aback momentarily by the bitterness that dripped from his words. "I’m…sorry, Jack."
"So am I. I missed a lot of his life—time I’ll never get back. He’s a great kid, though. Noah. He’s twelve. His mother has custody. I get him for visitation when I can pry him away from her."
Sam could sense the frustration and raw pain behind his words, and her heart went out to him. "You and his mother – you’re not together?"
"Nope," Riles said, his face devoid of expression.
Riles shook his head firmly. "Don’t be. I’m not. We lived together for about a year; it didn’t work out. I’ll admit it–I was too young and too focused on my career for a permanent relationship back then, but if I’d known she was pregnant…. She was pregnant when we broke up, but Joanna never saw fit to tell me about him until she needed someone to leave him with while she went off to Bosnia on a freelance photo assignment."
"That’s low," Sam said, an edge of anger to her voice.
"Among other things," Riles said flatly. "At least she put my name on his birth certificate. I often wonder – if that assignment hadn’t come up, would she ever have told me about him? It doesn’t help our interactions today." He let out a long breath. "We fight more now than we did then."
They fell silent again as their waiter brought a large bowl of tossed salad and a cutting board with a loaf of crusty bread. Sam portioned salad onto their plates while Riles sliced the bread, then asked, "Are you seeing anyone now?"
Riles nodded. "A writer. Caitlynn Murtagh. She’s actually a public affairs officer at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research in Santa Barbara, but she’s on a sabbatical to concentrate on her writing."
Sam gave him a surprised smile. "A writer? I never pictured you dating someone with a sedentary occupation."
Jack laughed. "It’s not that sedentary. She writes mystery novels, but she does freelance magazine articles, too. She does a lot of active research into the articles she writes."
"Research isn’t sedentary?" Sam asked, a skeptical light in her eyes.
"Not when you’re writing about Navy fighter pilots, Seal teams, or submarine commanders for Proceedings, it’s not."
"No, I guess not." Sam took a slice of bread from the cutting board. "Is she really that interested in the military?"
"Roger that. She grew up with it. Her younger brother is an F-16 pilot, an Academy graduate, but her uncles are Navy, and her sister Shannon is a firstclassman at Annapolis – and she wants to go into aviation, too. Naval aviators, scientists of the air," he said dryly.
Sam grinned. "You can’t pick your relatives, you know."
"Roger that. She’s surrounded by ex-Navy at the Institute, and she’s been up with the Blue Angels – she loved every minute of it. She’s pretty sports-minded – she rides, and plays golf, softball and basketball. She shoots a mean game of pool, too."
Sam grinned. "You sound like you like her."
"Yeah, well…. There’s a lot to like about her."
"She sounds like a good match for you."
"Better than my last semi-serious girlfriend," Riles said wryly.
"What happened? Or shouldn’t I ask?"
"She was an assistant professor of astronomy at Florida State. She thinks astronauts are pretty much useless and unnecessary. According to her, robots could perform our jobs better."
"Where did you meet her?"
"In a bar." Riles gave her a lopsided grin.
"Figures." Sam lifted an eyebrow. "And you went out with her?"
"For over a year. It took some fast talking to get her to go on that first date, too."
"Why even bother, Jack?"
Riles shook his head. "The challenge?"
"Say no more," Sam said. "I know exactly where your head was. The bigger than challenge, the better you like it."
"Well…yeah, I guess. I still don’t know what I was thinking."
"Neither do I," Sam agreed. "So what happened?"
Riles shrugged. "We realized we were a bad fit."
"Yeah. It sounds like this writer friend of yours is a better fit. Is it serious?"
Riles shook his head. "I don’t know yet. I met her when she was writing an article on me for America Magazine."
"On you?" Sam asked.
"It was NASA’s idea," Riles said dismissively.
"Good choice," Sam said with a grin. "You’re practically the poster boy for the right stuff."
Riles glared at her. "Don’t start, Sam. You sound like Andrea Wyler, our public affairs head."
Sam grinned in unabashed delight. "Go on–tell me more."
Riles shrugged. "We spent a lot of time together while she was researching the article, and we decided we wanted to get to know each other better. But we’ve only officially gone out once – you can’t count the time we spent together when she was doing the article as dating."
"How long was that?"
"Ten straight days."
"A week was seven days, the last I looked – not ten."
"The theme of the article is ‘A Week in the Life’ – and that meant off duty as well as on." He shrugged. "She hung around a little longer, to do more research."
"Uh-huh," Sam said, smiling. "And did you show her a good time?"
"I must have," Riles said cockily. "She’s still interested."
Sam tapped her fork against the tablecloth. "So what now?"
"We’re taking it slow."
"Was that your idea or hers?" Sam asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Definitely not mine. I’m ready to go to full afterburners right now." Riles grinned. "She doesn’t want to go public until the issue with the article hits the stands. She doesn’t want anyone to accuse her of preferential treatment or question her integrity – or mine – if it got out that we were involved."
Riles shrugged. "Maybe. Probably. The article was pretty positive. So positive, it’s embarrassing."
"You’re embarrassed?" Sam asked. "Come on, Jack – I find that hard to believe."
"Believe it. You can read the article and see for yourself – it’ll be out next week."
"And once it’s out?"
"Let’s just say I plan on getting very well acquainted with Ms. Caitlynn Murtagh." Riles raised his beer and took a long swallow as the waitress arrived with their appetizers. "What about you?"
Sam shrugged and portioned out the clams onto their plates as Riles dished out the eggplant. "I was engaged for a while. It didn’t work out."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Don’t be. We were wrong for each other," Sam said casually. "It just took me a while to figure it out. When I did, I gave him back his ring."
"Anyone I know?"
Sam shrugged. "Maybe. Captain Jonas Hansen."
Riles shook his head. "I don’t recognize the name."
"He was Special Ops."
"Like your CO."
"No, Jack," Sam said with some asperity. "Not like Colonel O’Neill. Colonel O’Neill is very honorable and loyal. Duty comes first with him."
"And your fiancé was the opposite?"
"Diametrically," Sam said flatly. "Colonel O’Neill is worth ten of Jonas."
"Sounds like you respect O’Neill," Riles said speculatively.
"I do. Very much. He’s the best CO I’ve ever had."
"Your CO seems like the quiet type. Self-contained," Riles said, sarcasm dripping from his words.
Sam nearly choked on a mouthful of eggplant. "He does have a way with words." She smiled. "He can raise hell when he wants to."
"I bet he can. He doesn’t seem to miss much, either."
"He doesn’t miss anything. Ever," Sam said firmly. "And he’s a good soldier."
Riles raised an eyebrow. "High praise."
"It’s deserved. You’d probably like him – once you both got over trying to kill each other."
"I don’t think either one of us has enough time in our lifespans for that," Riles said dryly.
Sam laughed. "He can get his point across when he wants to."
"Copy that," Riles said wryly. "You two get along?"
"We had some problems early on, but we got past them."
Riles raised an eyebrow. "Problems because you’re a woman?"
"No – because I’m a scientist."
Riles frowned. "That’s a new one."
"It’s very Colonel O’Neill." Sam smiled. "He has no problems with female officers – he’d have a purple elephant on his team if he thought it was competent. But scientists drive him batty."
"You don’t call him by his first name?"
"Uh – no," Sam said evasively.
"Why not? I’ve heard you call your previous COs by their first names when you were off duty."
"It would be inappropriate," Sam said quickly.
"Is he that much of a hardnose that he won’t let you call him by his first name?"
Sam looked at him in surprise. "No. Colonel O’Neill is very reasonable. It just wouldn’t be appropriate."
Riles leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips in thought. "He didn’t seem too happy with the idea of us going out tonight."
Sam’s gaze flew to his. "He wasn’t."
"Uh-huh." Their main courses arrived, precluding any further comment Riles might have made. The lasagna was redolent with spices and garlic, oozing melted cheese and covered with marinara sauce, and they dug in with gusto.
Riles regarded Sam as she ate, his blue eyes scanning her shrewdly. "What aren’t you telling me, Sam?"
"I’m not so sure about that." Riles leaned forward, his forearms on the table. "You’ve got that deer-in-the-headlights look you always get when you’re trying to hide something." He frowned. "Are you two involved?"
Sam was silent for a long moment. "Jack, mind if I ask you a question?"
"Off the record, I suppose?"
"It has to be," Sam said softly.
Sam licked her lips nervously. "Have you ever been…involved with one of your subordinates?"
He studied her for a moment. "No," he said finally. "I stick to civilians. It’s easier all around."
"What would you do if you found yourself attracted to a subordinate?"
Riles frowned. "To be honest, Sam, I’ve never thought about it. It’s never happened yet. I don’t see the women I work with as potential partners."
"You can just turn it off like that?"
"It never occurred to me to turn it on."
He regarded her in silence for a moment. "Does this mean you are? Or thinking about it?"
"No," Sam said quickly.
Riles pushed away his empty plate. "I didn’t think so."
"It’s not in you, Sam. You’re too disciplined to make that mistake."
"Yeah…. Have you ever been involved with a superior officer?" she asked softly.
Jack laughed. "Considering they’ve all been male, it’s never been an option."
Sam looked startled for a brief moment, then gave an embarrassed laugh. "Uh…yeah, I guess not." She fell silent and toyed with the silverware.
"Sam, do you want to talk about it?"
Startled, Sam looked across at him, then laughed, a sharp, bright sound that drew the attention of other diners.
"What’s so funny?" Riles demanded with a quizzical smile.
"You are," Sam said, still laughing.
Sam nodded. "I’m sorry, Jack, but you’re the last person I thought would ever utter those words."
He grinned. "It doesn’t fit the image, huh?"
"Roger that," Sam said, tossing Jack’s favorite phrase back at him.
"You mean you don’t think of me as a sensitive, new-agey kind of guy?"
Sam snorted. "Not in a million years."
"Good." He took a long swallow of his beer, then said, "Let me see if I can figure this out. You’re not in a relationship with your CO – yet. I figure if you two were in a relationship, you wouldn’t be having dinner with me. But you are attracted to him."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"You can’t have it both ways, Sam."
"Colonel O’Neill and I…well…we’ve gotten…close. We’re not involved, of course," she added hurriedly.
Riles digested that for a moment, then asked, "Are you thinking about it?"
Sam shook her head. "No. We’re deliberately avoiding any discussion of what we mean to each other."
Sam sighed in resignation. "No, Jack. I don’t think you do."
"Explain it to me."
It had the sound of an order, and Sam looked startled. "Are you counseling me, Colonel?" she challenged.
"Are you requesting counseling, Major?" Riles shot back evenly.
Sam sighed. "I need a friend with a willing ear, Jack," she said softly.
"You have it. You’ve always had it," he reminded her.
"I know." Sam paused, thinking. "We are…attracted to each other. And I think if I gave him the slightest bit of encouragement, he’d jump at it."
"I’m afraid," Sam admitted.
"Of a lot of things. Neither one of us has the best track record in relationships, and then there are the professional and fraternization angles to overcome. They’re simply insurmountable."
"Are you in love with him?"
Sam looked up quickly, the deer-in-the-headlights look back in her eyes. "That sounds so…final. I haven’t formalized my feelings toward him." Love Colonel O’Neill? That was something she hadn’t allowed herself to consider.
"What have you done?" Riles pressed.
"Hidden my feelings. From myself as well as from him."
"Does he suspect?"
"He knows. We…talked once."
"And?" Riles prodded, his gaze holding hers.
"He feels the same way," Sam said softly, so softly Riles had to strain to hear her.
"That’s dangerous, Sam," Riles warned.
"I know." Sam closed her eyes briefly. "We’ve agreed not to pursue our feelings. We…decided to leave it in the room."
"Our…relationship." She toyed with her spoon, unable to look back at him.
"For how long?"
"For as long as it takes," Sam said, a haunted expression in her eyes.
"Can you do that?"
"It’s worked so far." Riles remained silent, and Sam leaned back in her chair. "Is this where I get the non-fraternization lecture and warnings about not getting involved with my CO?"
Riles shook his head. "No."
"You don’t need it. You know the regs as well as I do," Riles pointed out.
Sam snorted. "Maybe better than you do."
"You’ve read them recently?"
"I think I have them memorized by now," Sam said, a slight edge of bitterness coloring her words.
"Looking for a loophole?" Riles asked with a smile.
"If I could find one, I’d have found it by now. No, I’ve been using them as a shield against inappropriate behavior." She sighed. "We can’t get involved, but just knowing that…."
"Have you thought about alternatives?" Riles asked. "There’s always a transfer to another chain of command."
Sam shook her head. "It would be…difficult…if either of us was transferred."
"Difficult?" Riles asked, frowning.
"Not in the best interest of the service – or the nation."
"In what way?"
"It’s classified," Sam said flatly.
"Copy that," Riles said quickly with a sharp nod.
Sam knew he was dying to know, but he was too good a soldier to pursue it. "I’m sorry, Jack."
"Not a problem. I’m not much help, am I?" Riles asked.
Sam gave him a sad smile. "Just being able to unload this much is a help, Jack. I can’t talk to anyone on the base, and Colonel O’Neill and I are doing our best to ignore the whole thing."
"I hope you can keep it up."
"So do I." She stared off into the distance, wondering how a casual dinner between two old friends had become a soul-baring session for both of them.
"Dessert?" Riles asked, realizing that Sam had said all she’d say on the subject.
Sam shook her head. "I don’t think so, Jack. My head’s not into it."
"Okay." Riles looked at his watch. "We’d better roll."
"It’s getting late." Sam nodded. "I have some early computer time booked tomorrow."
He signaled for the waiter’s attention, and mimed writing a check. The waiter quickly brought a leatherette folder topped with two individually-wrapped mints to the table. Riles scanned the total, calculated a generous tip, then slipped several bills inside the folder with the check.
** *** **
They retrieved their coats and chatted as they walked to the parking lot. "What time’s your flight tomorrow?" Sam asked.
"Oh-nine-forty Denver to Dallas, then non-stop to Orlando."
"Get a good night’s sleep tonight," Sam advised with a sly smile. "I know how much you hate flying when someone else’s hands are on the controls."
Riles laughed. "Roger that. I won’t sleep anyway, so I think I’ll give Cate a call. It’s an hour earlier in California."
"California?" Sam echoed. "Talk about a long-distance romance."
Riles laughed. "Cate’s pretty mobile. ‘Have laptop, will travel’ is her motto."
"I hope she doesn’t mind traveling to Florida."
"So do I. With a shuttle mission coming up in a few months, I can’t exactly drop everything and go running off to California whenever I want to."
"And you really want to?"
"Roger that," Riles said, grinning.
"You’ve got that gleam in your eye," Sam said knowingly.
Riles grinned. "What gleam?"
"The gleam you always get when you see something – or someone – you want."
"You look like you disapprove, Sam."
"Women aren’t possessions, Jack," Sam said firmly.
"No, they’re not," Riles agreed. "And this one is pretty special."
"How special?" Sam pressed.
"Special enough to take it as slow as she wants," Riles assured her.
"Even when you want to go to full afterburners?" Sam pressed.
"Especially then. Cate's worth it. "
"That’s good to hear." Sam smiled. "I hope it works out for you."
"Me too. And I hope you can work things out, too."
Sam gave a long sigh. "That remains to be seen."
"I’m not going to give you any advice. I know you’ll do the right thing."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Jack, that is such a cliché."
"Then let me rephrase it. I know you’ll do what’s right for you."
"Jack, that’s what’s so hard." She smiled. "This all seems so familiar."
"Me – complaining. You – listening, giving advice. Helping me come to a decision." She fidgeted, swinging her car keys. "You’re still good at it."
"Shhh – don’t tell anybody." He grinned. "I have to maintain my image."
"If you ever need me to reciprocate…." Sam offered.
"And if this…thing…with your writer gets serious, I want an invitation to the wedding."
Riles laughed. "That’s a long way in the future, Sam – if we ever get there."
"And if you do?"
"You’ll be invited." Riles grinned. "In fact, you’ll get one of the first invitations mailed. I’ll address it personally. How’s that?"
Sam smiled. "Sounds good."
They stopped at Sam’s grey Volvo coupe, and she reached up to hug Riles. "Let’s not let ten years pass before we do this again, all right?"
"Deal." He kissed Sam’s cheek, then released her.
Sam unlocked her car door, and got in. She rolled the window down, and Riles reached in and locked the door. "Seat belt," he said.
Sam fastened the Volvo’s lap belt. "Happy, Dad?"
Riles glared at her, then smiled. "Old habits die hard. I remind Noah all the time, too. He says the same thing you did."
"You wear it well, Jack," Sam said softly as she turned the key in the ignition.
He squeezed her shoulder, then stepped back. "Go on home."
"Remember what I said – don’t be a stranger."
"The same goes for you. If you get to Florida, you know where to find me."
Sam smiled and put the car in gear, then drove out of the parking lot. She looked into her rearview mirror and saw Riles wave, and she stuck her hand out the open window and returned the gesture. As she turned into the road, she saw him walk off to his rental car.
Sam knew exactly what she had to do. It would hurt, and it would hurt like hell, but it was the only choice possible. She’d continue to bottle up her feelings, subordinate them to duty – and hope she didn’t hurt Colonel O’Neill – her Jack – too badly in the process.
She hoped she wouldn’t hurt herself too badly, as well.