Sam inhaled the crisp night air and rubbed her arms, as she scanned the dark marketplace.
“So, a few more weapons deals and you can take over the task altogether.”
With those words O’Neill had started their conversation that afternoon when they were sitting at O’Malley’s. She had expected him to regard their lunch as a date, but he had ordered two of the day’s dishes and then started discussing missions, reports and artifacts.
And then, somehow, somewhere, the conversation had spun out of control and made her forget all about her surroundings. He had let her talk about science, the artifacts, and her experiments without cutting her off. He’d even asked questions occasionally. They’d talked and talked, and then suddenly it was dark outside.
She’d never known he knew so much about the matter. Of course, he had to have deeper knowledge of science and technology. As camp commander, he’d gone through a multitude of training sessions and classes. He had to be able to repair simple things, and he had to have a deep understanding of what was going on in nearly every area at camp in order to make effective command decisions.
Apparently, his preference for curt explanations sprung from a certain laziness as well as a fondness for timesaving. Not, as she’d always assumed, because he wasn’t interested.
She turned when the door behind her opened. O’Neill stepped outside. “Ready?”
She nodded. “Ready.”
Behind them the door opened again. During the evenings, O’Malley’s seemed the place to be in town, and the restaurant turned into a bar. A drunken man staggered outside, and pushed into Sam. She stumbled against O’Neill, her hands splayed on his chest as he steadied her. Their sudden closeness made her head swim with his scent. His warmth surrounded her, his palms burning through the shirt at her waist. Heart pounding, she glanced up at him. He smelled like smoke from the bar mixed with fresh mint, a combination that reminded her painfully of their last night together at the bar.
How good his body had felt against hers, how much she’d needed to feel his bare skin… How much she’d wanted him. God, she still wanted him.
His gaze locked with hers, his mouth so close their breaths mingled. His heart raced under her palm. So intimate. Cheeks flushing, Sam lowered her gaze and took a step back. “Sorry, sir.”
“Let’s go back to camp.”
Was it just her imagination or did he sound hoarse? She didn’t dare look at him, but instead turned toward the road leading out of town.
They walked in silence along the street that turned into a dirty path winding its way along the coastline. Houses and buildings became large pine trees and cliffs framing the path.
Sam looked at the ground at her feet. A light danced on the ground. She raised her eyebrows and looked around. It was dark, but not as dark as it should be.
Finally, she lifted her eyes to the sky and came to a dead stop, her fingers brushing O’Neill’s arm.
“Oh my God…”
“Carter?” He frowned at her, sounding alarmed. Then he looked up as well. “Ah. The Aurora.”
She stared at him.
“Southern Lights.” He smirked. “They happen frequently. I’m surprised you’ve never seen them before.”
Right. They were close to the South Pole. Why had she never seen them before? She lifted her gaze back up to the shimmering curtains lighting up the sky in a myriad of hues, turquoise green, purple and pink.
“Apparently it has something to do with the sun and magnets.” He cleared his throat and then shrugged when she widened her eyes. “So they say…”
“I know that, I’m just amazed you do.” She gave him a warm smile. “And I’ve never seen them before.”
“That’s because you always work and never relax.” He grinned.
She cocked her head in mock-annoyance and then looked back up. “It’s too bad the trees are ruining the view. Can you imagine how amazing they’d look from a place where you have a clear view of the entire sky?”
He raised his eyebrows. Then his fingers wrapped around her hand. Electricity jolted through her, the lights forgotten for a moment. His eyes sparkled. “Come with me.”
He pulled her off the path down a little hill in between shrubs and bushes.
“Sir, where are we going?”
After a few minutes, the backside of the cliffs framing most of the coast rose before them. Purposefully, O’Neill followed along the wall until they reached a stony little path that led in between the cliffs.
Sam glanced up at him. Since he seemed to know what he was doing, she followed him through the narrow passageway. When they reached a larger pile of rocks and boulders blocking their way, they stopped.
“Careful where you step.” He climbed up. She followed closely behind him. They crawled along the stones, and down again on the other side. O’Neill jumped the last meter down onto the rocky path. “This is a bit tricky.” He turned. “Come here.”
Before she had a chance to protest, he grabbed her around the waist and lifted her down to stand next to him. Heart quickening, she looked at him as his fingers lingered a moment longer than they should have.
She placed her hands on his arms, grazing his heated skin. “Thank you, sir.”
His gaze intensified. Her breath caught when his face inched closer.
“Come on, we’re almost there.” He let go of her and pointed at the rocky path ahead of them. It ended in a dark tunnel leading into the cliffs.
“Um, sir?” Sam hesitated. Where was he taking her?
“Watch your head.” He vanished in the darkness.
As she stepped inside after him, it took her eyes a moment to get used to the sudden absence of light. Light shimmered through in the distance. She reached for O’Neill’s arm, worried she’d run into a boulder or rocky wall. His fingers closed around her hand. Such a strong, warm grip. She fixed her eyes on the growing light ahead of them.
The tunnel ended, and she came to an abrupt halt. The ocean and endless horizon stretched before her, the flares and lights of the Aurora dancing all across the skies. She forgot to breathe.
“Oh my God.” Releasing his arm, she walked a few steps through the soft sand towards the water. A secluded beach, framed by rocks and cliffs on both sides. “Wow.”
Lights danced on the surface of the water in the distance, transformed their surroundings into an almost mythical landscape. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful.”
O’Neill chuckled behind her. “A bit ironic, don’t ya think?”
“Sir?” She gave him a confused smile.
“I mean you, a physicist, dare I say, astrophysicist. You’ve been so absorbed in your textbooks and theoretical experiments you haven’t even seen the real deal.”
She bit her lip on a smile. “You’re right, sir. I should go out more, huh?”
Arms wrapped around herself, she sank down to the soft sand of the beach. The vast surface of the ocean and the endless sky above were almost transcendental. Waves crashed onto the shore, broke against the cliffs and smaller rocks, and lost themselves in the fine sand on the beach. She inhaled the salty breeze that played with her hair.
The rhythm of the waves and the calm dance of the lights above soothed her into almost hypnotic fascination.
Solar Flares. The lights were only solar flares, diverted by Earth’s magnetic field. Tiny particles bouncing off the atmosphere. There was a reasonable scientific explanation. And yet… She’d never seen anything so divine.
“I love it here. It’s like we’re at the top of the world.”
“Well.” O’Neill smirked. “Technically we’re at the South Pole so wouldn’t it be the bottom?”
She turned her head to him. “Actually, sir, in a three-dimensional space, up and down are relative. They depend on perspective.”
“Right.” He chuckled.
She tilted her head and studied him. He had known that, hadn’t he? Was he trying to give her an opportunity to talk about science? Usually he cut her off as soon as she even gave the impression she’d start into an explanation, so what was going on?
She shifted. “Am I holding you up, sir? If you want to go back to camp, I think I’ll find my way back out of here.”
“You’re not.” He sat down in the sand next to her. Sam lay back and gazed into the flared up sky. In between the dancing lights where the brighter colors slowly turned into darker blue and black, massive amounts of stars spread over the sky like millions of little crystals lying on black velvet. The infinity of the universe. She swallowed. How small they were compared to that vastness, how ridiculously insignificant their problems.
“You know, back home I always looked at the stars at night. I tracked their movements and searched for the stellar constellations. But I’ve never seen them like this. So close. It’s like there are millions more.”
His arm brushed hers as he shifted. Goosebumps spread across her skin.
She swallowed hard. “Did you know that a lot of the stars we see don’t exist anymore? Their light takes so long to reach us, by the time it does, they’ve burnt out and died. Every time we look at the stars, we only see them as they were at some point in the past. Like looking back in time.” She turned her head to glance at him. “If we could see the Aschen homeworld from here, we’d only see it as it was around fifty-thousand years ago.”
O’Neill’s gaze met hers. A hint of a smile played around his mouth. He turned on his side, propping his head up on his hand. She held his gaze. Her skin buzzed with awareness of him, and she inched closer to his warmth.
He reached over and brushed strands of her short blonde hair aside, the pad of his finger grazing her cheek in the process. She swallowed, her breath hitching. Oh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. They were too close. And the expression in his eyes… Her heart sped up. This was dangerous territory.
“You know the stellar constellations?” He shifted to lie on his back.
Sam turned her head back to the sky. “Only the ones for the northern hemisphere. I studied the southern ones, but I haven’t had the time to map them out yet.” She smiled. “You know, it’s funny…”
“What?” His head turned.
“We spend so much time trying to free the Earth of the Aschen that we don’t even realize how beautiful this planet we’re fighting for is.” She winced at her own statement. “Okay, now I sound like one of those cheesy poetry books, don’t I?”
She bit her lower lip. “How often do you come here?”
“Ah, every once in a blue moon. You know the job. It doesn’t allow for much time off.” He stared up into the sky. “But it’s kinda cool thinking about all those other planets up there we’ve actually been to already. Ya know, wonder which ones of those tiny little dots they are.”
“Um, actually sir…” She flinched. “Most of those we can’t actually see. Just two, maybe three.”
He raised his eyebrows at her, then cleared his throat and nodded, face blank. “Yeah, I knew that.”
A soft laugh bubbled up and she turned her head against his shoulder in an attempt to stifle it. He was cute trying to cover up a mistake. When she looked up at the sky again, she didn’t move her head away from his shoulder.
“There, that’s the Southern Cross.” He pointed at four distinct stars visible between two curtains of light. Sam moved closer to look in the direction his finger was pointing. “And those ones, slightly to the right, they form Carina.”
She studied him in astonishment. How did he know so much about the star constellations, unless… Had he mapped out the sky? Was he interested in astronomy? Maybe they had more in common than she’d thought.
“Well, that’s about all I know offhand.” He gave a soft shrug.
“If I had brought my star charts, we could map out the sky.”
He turned his head, gaze studying her profile. “I’d like that.”
When he dropped his hand back down to the sand, it grazed Sam’s and sent jolts of heat through her. She fought to concentrate. “Are you interested in astronomy?”
“Well, I like to watch the stars, and mostly know what’s up there, so I’d say yes. But nowhere near your level.”
“My level?” She pondered his statement for a moment. “You attended a university, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, well, a degree in advanced farming technology doesn’t really make you an expert on stars, Stargates and, um, quarks.”
Again she had to stifle a laugh. “Quarks?”
He cleared his throat. “Isn’t that a physics thing?”
“No, sir, you’re right, absolutely.” A bit out of context, but he was so cute when he tried. “So you studied farming technology?”
“Like almost every human boy from a rural area. There’s really nothing exciting or extraordinary about that.”
“Yet you made it into the resistance, up to camp leader.”
Their gazes met, his breath washing warm against her cheek. “Out of necessity. Like most who found their way into the resistance. For me, it was either that or another forced marriage.” He winced and cleared his throat.
Yeah, maybe not a good turn of conversation.
“After Sarah left, I didn’t want to be re-married. Your dad offered me the option to join the resistance, and disappear from the Aschen’s radar. Pretty much like you did.”
“I was never in one of the breeding facilities. Dad made my positive test disappear.” With all she knew about her father now… That he was part of the resistance and one of the highest ranking members… He must have taken a great risk to protect her.
“He’s a good man, ya know? Your dad, I mean. And I’m not just saying that because he’s my friend.”
“I know.” She observed the blinking light of two brighter stars vanishing and reappearing beneath a curtain of turquoise light. “I just wish he’d told me he is working for the resistance and let me make my own decisions instead of excluding me from them. Things might’ve been different.”
If she’d known her father was a high-ranking resistance member, if he’d just let her in on his secrets and allowed her to get to know O’Neill before signing the contract… She turned to her side and leaned up on her elbow to study the man next to her. “Do you still have family?”
“No.” His face remained blank. “Both of my parents died in a riot against the Aschen government. They belonged to a small group who refused to take the Aschen vaccines. I was the first generation of kids to whom they were administered, which is probably why I turned out gifted nonetheless.”
Sam’s eyes widened, her hand grazing his arm.
O’Neill shifted to lie on his side. “About forty years ago, the Aschen changed an entire line of laws and put more resources into security forces. Every district was assigned a government official who kept record of births and deaths. It became nearly impossible to have a child and prevent it from receiving the obligatory drugs. The new laws started a number of uprisings in regions with groups refusing to take the vaccines.”
“I’ve never heard about that.” Uprisings against the Aschen government? How come she’d never read anything about them in the Aschen computer files?
“Doesn’t surprise me.” He shrugged. “The Aschen were always quick in quelling rebellions, and destroying all evidence of their existence afterwards.”
“Okay, wait a second. If your parents never took the drug… How come they were never in breeding facility?”
“Most people in their group were gifted, but the Aschen didn’t know about it because they weren’t on file. Since they refused to take the anti-aging vaccine, their lifespan was also reduced to about seventy years. Most of them only had two, maybe three kids at the most. Not enough to make a difference in the general number of human population on Earth.”
“Yet it was enough of a threat to the Aschen if they put all those efforts into enforcing the laws. Do you have any siblings?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I was a lonely child.”
Sam lay back down, and for a long moment, neither of them said a word while they observed the lights dancing above. Then O’Neill turned his head.
“So, you lived with your dad your entire life?”
“Yes. We have a house just outside of Powhatan City. Privileges of a high-ranking Ministry employee.”
He chuckled and nudged her gently. “So, no little farmhouse in a tiny rural town on the Pacific Coast of North America, huh?”
Her cheeks tingled with warmth. “No, sir. Sorry for that.”
“Ah, forget about it. I kinda understand why you lied. To be honest, if you’d turned out to be the daughter of a random Ministry worker, I would’ve been a bit concerned that you were a spy.”
Sam giggled. “I knew you’d be. I didn’t know my dad was resistance, otherwise I might have told you earlier.”
He gave her a warm smile. “For a sheltered city girl to make it all the way to Ireland is quite an accomplishment.”
“It’s not that hard. You can find work on the streets if you’re not picky. You just gotta know who to talk to.”
“Work on the streets?” His eyebrows climbed up to his hairline.
Sam stared at him. Yeah, that just sounded wrong. Her cheeks burned. “Oh, no. Nothing sexual. I mean, there were offers, but I never actually…you know…let anybody touch me for money. Not voluntarily at least. Not that anything ever happened…”
Oh God, she was still talking. Sam flinched when she saw the sparkle in his eyes. She released a sigh and breathed out a giggle. “I repaired things. After I realized as a woman I’d only get work related to sexual favors, I disguised myself as a boy. Eventually Aschen hired me for extensive repairs on one of their harvesters scheduled to go overseas. Once it crossed the Atlantic, the crew dropped me off there and I figured I’d take it from there.”
Appreciation flashed across his face. “That’s pretty damn creative.”
“As you said before, sir, necessity.” Her fingers grazed his.
“I hear worker’s quarters on the Aschen harvesters are more like slave camps with very little privacy. Didn’t you worry about getting found out?”
“They are. I stayed as far away from the rest of the men as possible. They thought I was a teenage boy, so there was some initial pushing around, but they stopped after a day. Maintaining my cover really wasn’t that hard. I just had to be careful not to undress in front of them.”
“Certain things are hard to miss… I mean…” He vaguely waved towards her chest and cleared his throat.
Her cheeks flared. “Tape and bandages, sir. Wasn’t really pleasant, but it served the purpose.” She studied his features. His dark eyes. The soft wrinkles around them. His graying hair. She resisted the urge to run her hand through it. “What were you doing in Ireland?”
“I have a contact there who I know from when we were both children. I grew up in a town close to the bar where we met.”
Now that was surprising. Who’d have thought?
He shrugged. “Well, my name kinda gives it away. O’Neill’s pretty Irish.”
“Yes, but your dialect doesn’t. You don’t sound like someone from the Ireland region. You sound standard Earth with a hint of North American.”
“I guess it kinda phased out over time. I worked in solo missions for a while. In preparation, they train the accent out of you to make it harder for the Aschen to find out who you are, or where you’re from. To protect your family, provided you have any left.”
“Why did you go into such a dangerous field?” She shifted closer, her cheek resting against his shoulder.
“After my son died and Sarah left, I needed to reassess my position in the world for a while. Solo missions were a good way of doing that. Nothing makes you realize how badly you want to live like facing almost certain death.” He looked up into the sky.
Sam held her breath. He’d been depressed up to the point of suicidal. It didn’t surprise her, given everything she’d heard about his past. He’d lost a child. Even though for humans marriage and children were forced upon them, parents usually loved their children. Having lost both his child and his wife in such a short timespan had to leave an impact on him.
She squeezed his hand. “Are you still involved in solo missions?”
She shouldn’t care so much. They were all employed in a dangerous line of work where anyone of them could be killed on a mission at any time. The thought that he might still be involved in something even more dangerous, though… Her blood ran cold.
O’Neill turned his head and studied her. Finally, he shook his head. “No. Camp leaders are the command branch. Solo missions are rogue fighters. I transferred to another resistance cell, and later on the Stargate program in order to get out of that line of work.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Carter.” He smirked, the glint in his eyes making her stomach flip-flop. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re worried for my health.”
She smiled. “Of course I am, sir. Even though I may have accidentally shot you on occasion, I very much want you to stay alive. We’re…friends.”
He held her gaze. “Friends…”
She swallowed and dropped her gaze to his lips. Only a few inches… “Yes, sir.” Damn, why did she sound so breathless all of a sudden?
She turned her head back up to stare into the endless sky. She felt his gaze on her face, making her nervous and lightheaded. How easy it was to talk to him. How could they have so much in common and be so different?
“You think people at camp are getting worried about us?”
“We did stay out pretty late.” He smirked. “They might send out a search party if we’re not back by midnight.”
Midnight? What time was it anyway? She shivered slightly against the cooling breeze. She’d forgotten her jacket on one of the carriages.
O’Neill shifted and draped his jacket over her chest and arms, then pulled her close against him, his arm draped around her shoulder. “C’mere.”
Her breath lodged in her throat. “Thank you, sir.” He was so warm. And he smelled so good. She looked back up at the sky, her head resting on the spot between his chest and his shoulder.
This wasn’t too intimate. Two friends could lie like this together. Her skin tingled. His fingers grazed her arm and then stilled, his thumb drawing lazy circles on her skin. Heat pooled in her abdomen.
If she leaned up now… If she tasted his lips… She needed to feel more of his touch on her skin. A groan threatened to escape her. Not good. This crossed a line. She shifted and sat up.
The jacket fell off her shoulders, the crisp breeze cooling the exposed skin of her arms. “We should, um, probably go back to camp.”
O’Neill studied her, and for a split second she thought she saw the hint of a smirk. “Sure, if you want.”
They got up and brushed off the sand as best as possible. When they were done, they looked at each other.
“You got a…” He reached out and pulled a little twig out of her hair. His warm fingers lingered against her cheek. She held his gaze. The gentleness she read there took her breath away. So unlike the tough, relentless soldier she’d seen earlier that day during their transaction with the criminals.
She inched closer to him, her hand reaching out, brushing against his. Her breath hitched, gaze dropping to his mouth. Oh, the things he’d done with his mouth that first night at O’Malley’s.
There was nobody around. It was just the two of them on a secluded little beach. The possibilities… Kissing him, undressing him… letting him undress her. His hot palms exploring every inch of her body, his mouth kissing hers, brushing down her neck… She let out a shaky breath.
Thank God the Aurora above masked her flushed cheeks. Friends. They were friends, nothing more. With him it could never be just a kiss, or a touch. Or one night. It’d be her entire life.
Her stomach tightened. She wasn’t ready for that. Not as long as she wasn’t sure about what she wanted. Besides, she was just doing so well in her work that… She froze, her gaze shooting up to meet his. Her work… He wasn’t just supporting her in her command efforts to manipulate her into the marriage, was he?
She withdrew her hand and stepped away from him. The entire evening had turned into something a lot more personal. Something beyond their ranks. How the hell had that happened? Was he just trying to win her over?
“Sir, you know I won’t change my mind about our marriage, no matter what you promise me, right?”
He stared at her, and for a moment looked taken aback. “What?”
“Well…” She shifted and fidgeted. “I mean even if you train me in command, or involve me in other things you know I want to do, I can’t be bribed into—”
“Carter.” His eyes flared. “You really think I’d sink that low?”
Sam cleared her throat and swallowed hard. Okay, maybe she’d been wrong.
“I’m considering you for command because you earned it. I don’t bribe or coerce women into sleeping with me or marrying me. Least of all by promoting them.”
“Okay, it was stupid of me to assume—”
“Damn right, it was. Yes, I like you. Hell, I think, it’s pretty obvious by now I’m physically attracted to you.” He shook his head. “I will seduce, Sam, not coerce, or bribe.”
“Sir.” She took a step towards him. “I didn’t mean to imply…I just…I didn’t want you to misunderstand today.”
Sighing, O’Neill scratched a hand through his hair. “Carter, can we just agree for now that me trying to advance your career doesn’t mean I have an ulterior motive?”
“Yes, sir.” Sam nodded, and looked up at him. “I’m really sorry. It wasn’t fair of me to jump to conclusions.”
He turned to stroll back to the tunnel entrance. “Why don’t we make a deal to not make assumptions about each other anymore from now on?”
“Fair enough.” She nodded, then stopped short when he turned right before entering the tunnel.
“And I promise you, Carter, when I seduce you, you’ll know.”
Sam stared after him, speechless. “When, sir?”
She heard him chuckle from a few meters ahead.