On the day in February that her past catches up with her, on the day in February that all her questions are answered, it is just an ordinary day. She wakes up at the sound of the alarm, kisses her husband good morning, showers and dresses, just like normal. They potter around the kitchen, engaging in easy banter, just like always, and they linger over kisses goodbye at their cars, just like always. She drives to work, the route so familiar that one day, she thinks her car will be able to arrive there on auto-pilot, gets caught in the same traffic jam she always gets caught in, rolls her eyes, just as she always does. When she gets to the office, her assistant has coffee ready for her, and there are already phone messages to read, calls to return. She gets down to work, attends the morning staff meeting with the other law partners, has several meetings with clients.
It’s all a perfectly normal day.
Until, at lunch time, she is eating a salad and hears the words “Presidential Address” coming from the television. It’s been a long time since she’s worked in the White House, but the habit is still there, so she raises her head, raises the volume.
She can hear the President’s words, but it’s the visual that surprises her.
There are three men on the television screen, and she’s seen them all before.
The one in the middle is the one she ought to know, President Henry Hayes, the man she campaigned for, voted for, even if it nearly caused the break-up of her marriage.
On his right, there is a shorter man, somewhat corpulent, bald, in suit and tie. Still though, he has the aura of the military above him, and she is sure that he has something to do, some kind of important job in the President’s administration; his title just escapes her at the moment.
On his left, there is another man in full military uniform, staring straight ahead at the camera, jaw set, eyes unflinching. His sideburns are hints of silver, and he’s gained a few pounds since she saw him last, but she knows his name before the President announces it.
Her stomach turns at the name, and again when she hears other words that she hasn’t heard in a long time.
And a new word, Stargate.
She raises a shaking hand to her lips and tries not to cry.
Ten Februarys ago, the world was caught up in the Winter Olympics, and it seemed that pretty much all Ainsley heard about on the television was the duel between two skating teenagers, Michelle and Tara in a battle for the gold. She was living in Washington, working in a job she loved, clerking for Supreme Court Justice Dreifort. She had a wide circle of friends, most of whom were politically inclined, had jobs in and around Capitol Hill, and she woke up every morning knowing that this was what she’d worked for her entire life.
Then, one night, everything changed.
It was Brett’s birthday, and most of the clerks from the office had decided to go out to Georgetown Station for a celebration after work. Ostensibly, it was only for a couple of drinks, but they were all young, free and single, and as always happened, a couple of drinks turned into several, and they closed the bar down.
Not that she spent much time talking to her co-workers.
She was at the bar, ordering herself a drink – straight cola, which she, not much of a drinker, had every intention of passing off as vodka and coke, when she became aware of a presence at her elbow. Looking over, she saw a man standing beside her, smiling at her in unmistakable appraisal. She smiled politely, a move he took as encouragement, and when the bartender came over to her, glass in hand, the man moved before she could. He paid for her drink, ordering a beer for himself, and when she told him he didn’t have to do that, he told her that he’d wanted to. Then he held out his hand, introduced himself.
His grip was firm in hers, strong, and for no reason that she could name, Ainsley found herself smiling at him, a smile he returned.
She didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night. He was there, he told her, because it was his buddy Lou’s birthday – and those were his exact words, his New York accent coming through strongly. He was a Lieutenant in the Air Force, stationed at Andrews, though he was vague on what exactly it was he did, trotting out that old line, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” She told him about her job, about her upbringing in North Carolina, and they talked about Washington, favourite places to go, least favourite places, and they didn’t stop talking until the lights came up and the music stopped and the bar staff were giving them dirty looks.
“I guess we’d better leave,” Charlie said then, and Ainsley agreed, standing up, a little light-headed despite not having had too much to drink. Perhaps Charlie saw that, because he helped her on with her coat, laid his hand on her back as they made their way to the door. It was a light touch, almost casual, but it almost felt like a burn to Ainsley, a mark she could still feel even when she got home later that night.
He hailed a cab, and, as it was pulling up, asked if he could get her number. That led to her scrabbling in her purse for a business card, finally locating one, pressing it into his hand. He caught her hands in his, and she was sure he was going to kiss her, but his lips just barely brushed over her cheek before he put her in the cab.
The next morning at work, her friends were very interested in where she’d disappeared to, were eager for details, and were quite disappointed when told that there was nothing to tell. In morning’s cold light, Ainsley was sure that he wouldn’t call her, but to her surprise, the phone rang that afternoon, and a very nervous New York accent could be heard on the other end, asking her out for dinner that night.
She didn’t hesitate before saying yes.
She went out with him that night, and the one after that, and before long, they were dating. She met his friends and he hers, though on one girls’ night in, after too much ice-cream and too much wine, Harriet confided in her that she’d never thought that Ainsley and Charlie would last. “You’ve got nothing in common,” she told Ainsley bluntly. “And he’s hardly your usual type.”
Which, Ainsley had to admit, was true. In the past, she’d dated a lot of lawyers and political types, guys her own age who mostly turned out to be handsome but cocky, intelligent but not smart, accomplished but ultimately uncaring.
Charlie was older than she was, his face a little too careworn to be considered handsome, body a little too short, a little too lean to be considered handsome. He was still taller than she was though – who wasn’t, she laughed to herself – and while not conventionally handsome, there was a warmth in his smile, in his eyes, in his easy manner, that Ainsley found irresistible. Charlie was sure of himself, but never overly so, giving off an assured confidence that told her he could take care of himself, and her as well. And funnily enough, though she might have chaffed at that notion with another man, with Charlie, she liked it. He made her feel safe, made her feel happy. Most of all, he made her laugh.
It all started in a dimly lit bar on a cold February night in Washington, and, looking back, Ainsley could say with a clear conscience that it was as close to love at first sight as she’d ever come across.
She looks at the Presidential Address in a stupor, listens to George Hammond, formerly General, now retired, and General Jack O’Neill, formerly Colonel, talk about Stargate Command and what it is they’ve been doing in Cheyenne Mountain for the last eight years. It sounds like something right out a science-fiction novel, but she knows, with bone deep certainty, that it’s not.
When the screen changes and the three men turn into a rattled looking anchor recapping the news, she stands on shaking legs, turns to the window behind her desk and looks out at the clear blue sky, unable to reconcile what she’s just heard with her memories, her reality. She doesn’t cry though, that urge having receded, the pain of memory overlaid by the shock of knowledge. She raises a hand to her lips, is surprised to see that it is shaking, and she shakes her head, knowing that no further work will be done today.
She gathers her things, enters the bullpen, intending to tell her assistant that she has a headache, is going home, is ready for a round of twenty questions before she can get to her car. That doesn’t happen though, because Claire, like everyone else in the office, is talking about the Stargate and beings from another world and science fiction becoming reality, and Claire barely acknowledges what Ainsley is telling her. So Ainsley nods her head, agrees that yes, it is incredible, no, she doesn’t know how President Bartlet could have kept yet another secret from the American public, all the while hiding a wince, because this is going to be good for another month of tabloid fodder, and another three months of questions from her husband, as well as for him. For her as well, because she worked in the White House for two and a half years, and even now, people still call her for comments on stories.
She all but runs to her car, sits there for a long time before she can control her hand enough to slide the key into the ignition. She’s grateful for the lack of traffic, can only imagine that everyone who should have been driving is somewhere else instead, staring at the television screen in shock, wondering what in the world will happen next.
When she gets home, she goes straight to the bedroom, changes into her oldest, most faded, most comfortable pair of blue jeans, an equally faded Smith College sweatshirt; her version of comfort clothes. She looks at her cell phone for a long moment, debating whether to take it with her, then realises that Sam is probably going to want to get in touch with her.
So, phone in hand, she goes up to the attic.
She doesn’t come here often; it’s Sam who gets the job of moving boxes around, putting things into storage. But she knows where the box is, finds it easily, opening the flap and finding the shoebox. There is a picture of a pair of silver strappy sandals on the side, and her throat constricts, remembering the night she first wore them. They’d gone dancing at their favourite Washington nightspot, and Charlie had taken great delight in spinning her around the floor, hardly letting her sit down all night.
“I’ve got the best looking girl in the place,” he told her. “And I fully intend on showing her off.”
She can hear the words now, as clearly as if he was standing beside her, and tears prick her eyes. She battles them down, marshalling her courage to open the lid, knowing what she will see there.
Photographs of the two of them, photographs where they are laughing, smiling at the camera.
Letters he’d written her when he was away from her, letters he’d never sent because he’d written them during Black Ops, when he wasn’t allowed to send them.
A Playbill from the Broadway show he’d taken her to on her birthday that first year.
And finally, at the bottom, what she was looking for.
A business card, a phone number written on it in faded black ink.
Holding it in her hand, she stands, puts the shoebox back where she found it.
Her cell phone is in her other hand, and she keys the number in.
All save the final digit.
On Election Night 1998, Ainsley got very, very drunk.
Not that she was the only one. Most of the Republicans she knew were very, very drunk, as, of course, were most of the Democrats. Of course, the Democrats were celebrating, while Ainsley and her friends were drowning their sorrows, muttering darkly about the Bartlet gang and plotting revenge in four years’ time.
In the middle of it all, Ainsley was sitting in a bar in downtown Washington, surrounded by friends, feeling worse than she had in a very long time.
Then she looked up and there he was.
“Charlie?” she slurred, sure she was hallucinating, equally sure that she hadn’t had that much to drink.
“Hey,” he said. “I thought I’d find you here.” The last was punctuated by a laugh, because when she got up, she realised just how tipsy she actually was, actually literally falling into his arms. “You ok there?”
He was holding her up, grinning down at her as if hugely amused, and she slung her arms around his neck. “You’re here,” she told him in a sing-song voice, her smile splitting her face wide open.
“And you’re drunk,” he laughed.
“We lost the election,” she told him. “Jed Bartlet is now the President of the United States.” She dropped her head on his shoulder. “I’m moving to Canada.” From her position, she could feel his body shake with laughter, lifted her head in indignation. “It’s not funny.” She aimed to smack his chest, missed by a mile, something that made him laugh harder.
“I know that. Hey, how about you let me take you home?”
Under any other circumstances, she would have agreed, but she had a question. “Why are you here? I thought you were…” She frowned, wrinkling her nose. “Somewhere not here.”
“I got into town today,” he replied. “Came looking for my girl.”
Ainsley laughed. “I’m your girl?”
“Forever and always,” he told her, pulling her into a kiss that made her forget about Jed Bartlet and what would happen in four years’ time.
She just wanted to think about him.
When Sam gets home, it’s just as she knew it would be. He rails against silence in the Bartlet White House, about secrets and people being the last to know, and she listens to him, lets him rant. At first, he doesn’t notice how quiet she is, but eventually, he does, tilts his head as he lays a palm on her arm. “You ok?” he asks, and she nods, giving him a wan smile.
“Headache,” she says quietly. “One of those days, you know?”
Sam snorts. “Tell me about it,” he says, and then he’s off again, leaving Ainsley with nothing to do but nod. In the middle of it all, the phone rings, and it’s Josh, and it’s a relief when Sam disappears into the study to talk to him, to return the calls from CJ and Toby and Will and Leo and all the other people who called this afternoon, messages that Ainsley let the machine pick up because she didn’t want to talk to anyone.
She sits at the kitchen table for an hour, hands clasped, knuckles white, staring into space. When Sam still hasn’t come back, she drags herself up the stairs, leaves her clothes in a pile on the floor and crawls into bed.
Ainsley was woken by the twin sensations of lips kissing a path down the back of her neck and fingers kneading her hip gently. She smiled, pressed back against the man lying beside her, moaning with delight when his hand travelled up, cupping her breast. She could feel his lips turn up in a smile when he heard the noise that she made, and she opened her eyes, found herself staring into the fire, realised that she’d fallen asleep. Turning around, she met his lips with her own, realising as she did so that he’d thought to cover them both with the throw from the back of the couch, and she drew it tighter around them now, trapping the heat of the fire, as well as heat of a different kind, between their naked bodies.
What seemed like hours later, she drew away from him, smiled across at him. “What time is it?” she murmured.
He squinted up at the clock on the mantel, though she suspected that he didn’t need to. Charlie’s internal clock was something to behold. “A little after midnight,” he told her, four words that had a smile coming to her lips.
“Merry Christmas,” she murmured, kissing him again, and he kissed her back hungrily. She pulled away though, raising herself up slightly, looking over his shoulder at the Christmas tree in the corner. They hadn’t known until the previous week that Charlie would be in town for Christmas, so preparations had been quick to say the least. He’d arrived that morning, and the first thing they’d done was to shop for a Christmas tree, arriving home in the early afternoon to decorate it. Even if Ainsley said so, it was the nicest tree that she’d ever seen, shades of silver and red, lights twinkling merrily. A real pine tree, the smell had permeated the room, and she and Charlie had spent Christmas Eve night together, curled up on her couch, watching It’s A Wonderful Life on television, interrupting their viewing for occasional kisses. The kisses had eventually lead to more, to them making love in front of the fire, to Ainsley falling asleep in Charlie’s arms.
All in all, a pretty perfect evening.
“Can we open the presents now?” she asked him, feeling a childlike rush of enthusiasm, and he chuckled, a sound which somehow seemed seven kinds of dirty.
“I thought we already had,” he replied, his hands moving lower, in a path that made her close her eyes, give into the sensations that he was causing.
“You know what I mean…” she managed to get out, and he pulled away from her, kissing her forehead.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “I do.”
He was very serious all of a sudden, too serious, and Ainsley felt a shiver of something course down her spine. “Charlie?” she asked, and he reached up, his hand cupping her cheek.
“Do you know,” he asked, “How long it’s been since I had a real Christmas? With a tree and a fire and movies and dinner and everything? The last few years it’s been all desert sand or deserted army houses and guys who haven’t taken a bath in way too long…” Ainsley could feel tears in her eyes, but Charlie’s were dry, sheer wonder held inside them. “And now I wake up here and there’s you…” He grinned then, shrugging one shoulder. “Put it this way, I don’t need anything else under the tree.”
Unable to speak, Ainsley pulled him closer to her, showing him in actions, if not words, that she felt the same.
Ainsley is woken by the twin sensations of lips kissing a path down the back of her neck and fingers kneading her hip gently. She smiles, presses back against the man lying beside her, moaning with delight when his hand travels up, cupping her breast.
Then she stills, because the touch is different.
Opening her eyes, she realises that she’s not in an apartment in Washington; she’s in a house in Orange County. It is February, not December.
And the voice that whispers her name is Sam’s, not Charlie’s.
Closing her eyes, she turns, pushes memory away and pulls her husband closer to her, biting her lip so the wrong name won’t slip out.
She loves her husband, but sometimes, just sometimes, she dreams.
No matter what people might have thought, what Charlie might have thought, Ainsley was never naïve about what he did for a living. He was an Air Force Lieutenant, a soldier; moreover, a soldier involved in Black Ops. He could strip down a gun and reconstitute it in no time flat, those hands that traced gentle patterns across her skin knew a hundred ways to kill a man, had used probably ninety-nine of them. She knew, intellectually, what he had to do for a living, no matter that he never talked about it, though she told him all the time that he could.
He just never wanted to involve her in that part of his life, or, as he put it, “You’re the part of my life that’s good, and true… I don’t want you to know about what I have to do.”
Put that way, she didn’t push him.
So, for the first year of their time together, his work never impacted on them.
But nine Februarys ago, that changed.
Nine Februarys ago, she was going about her every day life, missing Charlie like crazy because he was off on one of his Black Ops. She’d grown used to it in the last twelve months, a couple of days’ notice before he disappeared from her life, days or weeks of silence before her cell phone rang and he’d be at the other end, telling her he was coming home.
Nine Februarys ago, he didn’t do that.
Nine Februarys ago, she and two of the other clerks were in a meeting, researching precedent for Justice Dreifort. They’d been there for the better part of the day, were nowhere near finished, looking at an all-nighter, and all the other clerks knew it too. Which is why no-one had come near them all morning, why it was such a surprise when it opened without a knock, when Anna came in and made a bee-line for Ainsley.
Her eyes were narrowed, concern and confusion written all over her face when she leaned down to talk to Ainsley. “It’s Charlie,” she said, and for just an instant, Ainsley’s heart leaped into her throat.
“Is he… is he ok?” Her hand rose to her chest, her heart beating fast, dread engulfing her like a wave, but Anna was shaking her head.
“No… no, it’s nothing like that. He’s here.”
Ainsley’s eyes opened wide. “What?” Because Charlie never came to her office, and Charlie wasn’t supposed to be in her office now. He was supposed to be in some place far, far away, a place where she couldn’t get in touch with him. He wasn’t supposed to be here.
But he was, because Anna was nodding. “He just showed up… asking for you. I put him in the other meeting room…” Ainsley stood up, throwing a glance at Peter and Jean, who were following every word, not even pretending otherwise. “He doesn’t look so hot…”
“Guys?” Ainsley could hear the pleading note in her voice, hated herself for it, but the others didn’t miss a beat.
“Go,” they said in unison, and Ainsley didn’t need to be told twice.
She all but ran to the second meeting room, the smaller one that didn’t get used all that often. When she got there, her heart leapt at the sight of Charlie standing there in his dress blues, looking out the window, apparently lost in thought, only moving when she closed the door behind her, the heavy wooden thud echoing in the silent room. He turned to her then, slowly, and when she saw the look on his face, she knew exactly what Anna had meant.
He didn’t look like the Charlie she knew.
The Charlie she knew had a ready smile, eyes that danced, danced even more when he looked at her when they were alone. And although not the tallest of men, he had a presence about him, an aura that made him seem taller than he was.
This Charlie looked shell-shocked, there was no other word for it. He appeared gaunt, as if he’d dropped more than a few pounds, but it was the look in his eyes that broke Ainsley’s heart. They were defeated; not only defeated, but scared.
They stood like that for a long time, just looking at one another, and she found herself leaning against the door, finding comfort in its steady weight at her back. For a moment, she felt like it was the only thing holding her up, and she needed a couple of tries before she got his name out.
The ragged whisper echoed around the room, and it seemed to galvanise him into action. He was across the room in a couple of strides, taking her in his arms, kissing her with a desperate passion. Her back impacted with the door and she gasped in surprise, her arms automatically going around his waist, body automatically responding to the kiss. When he pulled away from her, he was breathing hard, and so was she; her from shock, him from… something else. He lifted his hands to her cheeks, cupping her face in his hands, and she felt the shudders coursing through his frame, felt them ripple through hers as well.
This time, her whisper was far more fearful, and he must have heard that, tried to smile reassuringly. The effect was ghastly though, only succeeding in frightening her more. “I just couldn’t wait to see you,” he told her, and she nodded, trying to pretend that this was normal, that he was normal, that she wasn’t scared out of her mind.
“Let’s go home,” she said, and, hand in hand, that’s exactly what they did.
He was silent on the drive through the city streets, staring straight ahead, not even offering commentary on her driving skills or lack thereof, as was his habit. She chanced glances at him every now and again, hoping to see some crack in his façade, but none was forthcoming until they got to her apartment and she closed the front door behind them.
Then he reached for her, kissed her again, and if the kiss in the office smacked of desperation, this was a level beyond that again. It was as if he was drowning, as if he was holding onto her for dear life, but there was fear in the kiss as well, real, bone-deep fear, the kind she’d never associated with Charlie before. They barely made it out of the hallway that first time, or the second, and when they finally made it to the bedroom, under the covers, he held onto her tightly, as if he was afraid that she was going to vanish.
Through it all, all Ainsley could focus on were his hands.
They were freezing.
She thought that he’d fallen asleep until she turned to look at him, propped herself up on one elbow. “What happened, Charlie?” she asked him, and when he turned his head to look at her, the emptiness, the hopelessness in his eyes, made her want to take back the question.
“I can’t tell you,” he told her, reaching out, entwining his fingers with hers. As he spoke, a shudder passed through his body. “I never thought…”
At that, his voice trailed off, and she frowned, pulled him into her arms. “It’s over,” she whispered. “You’re safe now… you’re home…”
It was a long time before either of them fell asleep, and for once, it was he who fell asleep first, her looking over him. When his breathing was deep and even, she let herself close her eyes, let herself relax, let herself drift off to sleep.
It wasn’t long before the screams woke her.
Ainsley doesn’t wake up screaming; if she did, it might be easier. Because then Sam would know that there was something wrong, would ask her questions, and she would be able to talk to him about it, tell him what she’s been keeping back for so long.
But then, she would have to talk about it, and she’s not so sure she can do that.
So she’s grateful when she wakes up with a little gasp, eyes flying open in shock. She stays stock still for a second after waking, waiting to see has Sam woken, if he’s awake already, if this is the day that he’ll ask the question.
It doesn’t happen the first day after everything changes for her, nor the second or third. Sam sleeps beside her, oblivious to her turmoil, and if he notices that she’s quieter in her waking hours, he’s still trying to come to terms with the fact that there was another secret in the Bartlet White House that he wasn’t privy to. That’s where his attention is focussed, and while once upon a time, that would have upset her, now, she’s grateful.
For a week, she carries on as best she can while the world comes to terms with the revelations, and on the seventh day, she can’t deal with the dreams any more.
On the seventh day, she takes the business card from the bottom of her jewellery box, stares at the numbers, just as she’s done every day since she took it down from the attic.
Just as she’s done every single day, she presses in the numbers.
But today, she presses in every digit.
She’s not surprised when a now-familiar recorded voice greets her; in fact, she’s only surprised that this is still his number. But it is, and she listens to the message, terse enough to make her smile, a ghostly New York voice whispering amusement in her ear. The smile fades when she actually has to speak, because she’s not sure of what to say.
“General O’Neill… this is Ainsley Sea… you might not remember me… but you know me as Ainsley Hayes… I realise that you’re busy… but I would appreciate it if you would please…”
She stops talking when there’s a distinctive click, and that now-familiar voice comes on the other end of the line. “I remember you,” the voice says. “You were Charlie’s girl.”
A pang of bittersweet remembrance shoots through her. “No-one’s called me that in a long time,” she says.
There’s silence, then the sound of a throat being cleared. “I guess I understand why you’re calling me.”
“You said…” Ainsley stopped, then willed herself to continue. “You said that there would be a time… that I would have questions…”
O’Neill lets her off the hook, interrupts her. “And I can answer them. Can we meet?”
Ainsley nods. “Are you in Washington?” Because it wouldn’t be that hard to tell Sam that she was going there; she still has friends in the city, could visit them, meet O’Neill at the same time.
“I’ll come to you.” The words surprise her, but then he continues, “It’s… easier. Less eyes.” A pause. “Where would be good for you?” Ainsley names a location, and he replies promptly. “I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon at four.”
With that, he hangs up, but Ainsley, unable to move, listens to the dial tone for a long time afterwards.
Eight Februarys ago, Charlie once more showed up unannounced in her office. This time, she wasn’t in a meeting, was at her desk working. She heard Jean clearing her throat, looked up in the general direction, expecting to see her friend gesturing to one of the other clerks – usually Brett – doing something insane. Instead though, she saw Charlie grinning at her, Charlie in his dress blues, Charlie who had disappeared out of her life a week ago with no notice at all, just a phone call to say that he’d been called to Colorado Springs urgently, that he’d call when he could.
The last time something like that had happened had been a year previous, the mission that affected him so badly he’d had nightmares for months, the mission that had enabled him to gain the rank of Major, the mission he’d never talk about.
This time however, there wasn’t that haunted look in his eyes. This time, his grin travelled all the way up to his eyes, and she wanted to smile just looking at him. When he spoke, his words, “Hey baby,” had her out of her seat, throwing her arms around his neck, and he lifted her up off the ground, spinning her around. When he sat her down, he kissed her soundly, though fairly chastely, in deference, she guessed, to where they were. Pulling away from him though, seeing the glint in his eyes that close, she knew that once they were alone, things wouldn’t stop so quickly.
“Go.” Jean’s voice broke through Ainsley’s haze, and she looked over at her friend, who was staring at her and Charlie, a knowing smile on her face. “It’s lunchtime. Go.”
Ainsley looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s eleven o’clock in the morning.”
Beside her, Charlie sounded like he was trying to keep back his amusement, was failing utterly. “Babe, I think she’s trying to help us out a little.”
Crimson embarrassment flooded Ainsley’s cheeks, deepening when a deadpan Jean shook her head. “Amazing to me that you ever graduated law school.”
Ainsley shook her head, reluctantly stepping out of Charlie’s embrace. “I’m getting my purse before y’all shame me any more,” she muttered, and their laughter followed her all the way back to her desk.
It was an early lunch, and it turned into a long lunch, a lunch where they didn’t make it out of the bedroom. They made love, and they talked, and when they were hungry, they scavenged for crackers and cheese, which somehow managed to taste like the finest cuisine. It was a hard job to get up and leave, go back to the office, but she did it, walking into a flurry of teasing remarks and jokes, which she took with a smile on her face.
He met her at the office that night, surprised her by taking her out to dinner, their favourite little Italian restaurant, where they ate by candlelight, talking quietly about everything and nothing. Still though, as the night wore on, there was something that Ainsley couldn’t put her finger on, as if there was something different about Charlie. He hadn’t told her anything about how long he was going to be in town for, or even if it was indefinite, which was unusual for him, and she noticed that he kept frowning, kept rubbing the bridge of his nose.
When they got home, were sitting on the couch, glasses of brandy in hand, she asked him about it. “Are you ok?” He tilted his head, lifting one eyebrow in question, and she gestured towards his head. “You keep rubbing your head… did you hurt yourself?”
“Nah.” He shook his head, eyes darkening. “Lou… he got banged up pretty good. We could’ve lost him. But he’s gonna be ok.”
Ainsley laid her glass on the table, looking at him with worry, because she’d met Lou Ferretti, Charlie’s colleague and best friend, had been to his house, played with his kids. He was a nice guy, and it was an uncomfortable reminder of just how dangerous Charlie’s job could be. “You’re sure you’re ok?” she demanded, and he nodded again.
“Just a headache,” he told her. “It’s just… this mission…” He shook his head, staring over her shoulder as if remembering what he’d seen. “Ainse, you got no idea…”
“You can talk to me,” she reminded him when his voice trailed off, and he squeezed her hand.
“There are some things you don’t need to know about,” he smiled, and she let it drop, like she always let it drop. “But that’s what I need to talk to you about. The mission, I mean.” Now it was Ainsley’s turn to look at him curiously. “It’s just… it’s not going to go away.” He paused, rubbed a hand over his forehead. “I don’t know how to say this.”
A frisson of fear made its way up Ainsley’s spine. “Just say it.”
Charlie sighed. “Ainsley, I’ve been assigned to Cheyenne Mountain Base… it’s in Colorado Springs. It’s a big position... command of my own unit…” He paused, as if to allow for her reaction, but she just stared at him, said nothing. “I guess I don’t have to take it…” he said after a moment. “I mean, I’m not sure how that’d go down with the brass, but…”
“This is important to you.”
It was a statement, not a question, but Charlie treated it as the latter. “Ainse, you got no idea,” he said again. “The work we’re doing down there… it matters. It matters more than anything I think we’ve ever done… maybe anything we ever will do. There are things out there… things you can’t imagine. Things I don’t want you to imagine. And this job… it’s making the world safe… making it better.” He shrugged, and she read the embarrassment in his face, because Charlie didn’t make long speeches like that. “Yeah, I guess you could say it’s important.”
“Well then.” To her surprise, Ainsley didn’t have to think at all about what she was saying. “I guess I should start making some calls.”
Charlie blinked. “Calls?”
Ainsley nodded, knowing that he was lost, quite enjoying the perplexed look on his face. “I’m sure there are law firms in Colorado Springs,” she said, enjoying even more the grin that was breaking over his face as her words registered. “Harvard Law, clerk for a Supreme Court Justice… I won’t have trouble finding a position.”
“You’re serious? Because I know you love your job, and I don’t want to-”
“Charlie.” She stopped him with one word. “I love you more. And I want to be with you. If that means moving to Colorado Springs, then I’ll move to Colorado Springs.”
He engulfed her in a hug then, emitting what sounded like a sigh of relief. “Man, I’m glad to hear you say that,” he admitted. Then he pulled back, doubt in his eyes. “You know there’ll still be times when I’m off on missions, right? Probably more often than now.”
Ainsley looked down, fiddling with the buttons of his shirt. “But that’s where you’ll be coming home to. So that’s where I’ll be.” Harriet, militant feminist that she was, would kick her ass, Ainsley knew that. She also knew she didn’t care. “I’ll have to work my notice for Justice Dreifort… I don’t know how long that’s going to take; I can’t leave him in the lurch…”
“That’s ok, that’s ok… it gives me time to look for a place for us. You can come over some weekend… help me out.”
“A place of our own…” Because even though Charlie had been spending most of his time here for the last year, it was very much Ainsley’s place. This would be something different, a place they could furnish together, that would be theirs.
She could hardly wait to get started.
Neither, it seemed, could Charlie, who drew her close for a lingering kiss that started gently, but escalated quickly. It was Ainsley who pulled away first.
“When do you have to go back?” she asked, the dreaded question, and when Charlie sighed, she knew.
Ainsley stood, pulling him with her, leading him into the bedroom. “Then let’s enjoy tonight.”
Enjoy the night they did, and the next morning, when, after the alarm went off, for once, she didn’t get out of bed right away, instead let him love her all over again. They showered and dressed, and ate a leisurely breakfast, Ainsley for once not caring if she was late, though she cared plenty when Charlie raided her kitchen cabinet for aspirin, ordering him to see the base doctor if he still had that headache when he got back to Colorado Springs. He snapped off a jaunty salute, and she rolled her eyes, muttering something about stubborn men, and they laughed about it.
Charlie always made her laugh.
But she wasn’t laughing when he kissed her goodbye on the steps of her apartment, because she hated saying goodbye to him, and even the promise of a new life together couldn’t salve that particular ache. So she kissed him hungrily, as she always did, in no real hurry to say goodbye, and when she did drive away, she did so slowly, looking at his reflection in the rear view mirror.
It was the last time she saw him alive.
At three fifty five precisely, Ainsley is right where she said she’d be, in the small park not far from her house. She sits on a bench with her hands clasped tightly on her lap, and she looks across at the children playing on the swings, their shrieks of joy bouncing off the grass, rising up into the clear blue sky.
Once upon a time, she dreamed of a sight like that, of dark-haired children with crooked smiles and her eyes, of him pushing them on the swings, teaching them how to throw a baseball, her watching them with pride in her eyes.
She still dreams of those things, but the children’s hair is jet-black, their smiles utterly perfect, and it’s close, damn close, but it’s not the same.
She shifts her gaze, from the children to the cloudless sky, knowing now some of the secrets that lie beyond the blue, the secrets that Charlie could never tell her about. She’s read voraciously every report that’s come out in the media, and those secrets fascinate and terrify her, and she’s about to learn more, learn some that the media will never know about.
And she’s terrified.
Somewhere behind her, a clock chimes four times, and she swallows hard, does it again when a shadow falls over her, says her name.
She looks up into a face that she saw for the first time eight Februarys ago, a face that has been all over the television, all over the newspapers for the last week.
Today though, he’s not wearing his uniform, something for which she’s profoundly grateful. It’s the first time that she’s seen him without it however, and her traitorous mind fills in the image. It’s enough to make her head swim, because it makes her remember the first time she looked up to see a man in uniform looking for her.
Ainsley had never seen the Monty Python movies before she met Charlie, something he considered a defect in her education, a defect that he took it upon himself to remedy. He told her that an old friend of his, Jack O’Neill, was a big fan, that you couldn’t work closely with him and not develop an appreciation for them. Ainsley didn’t know about that, but she did know that the films had one thing right.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
She was standing at her desk, surrounded by Justice Dreifort and the other clerks, going through a brief that had landed on their desks earlier on that day, taking it apart line by line. Justice Dreifort was speaking, and Ainsley was listening so intently that she didn’t hear the knock on the door at first, was surprised to hear the sound of a throat being cleared.
Her attention, and everyone else’s, turned to the door, to Ella, Justice Dreifort’s personal assistant. Her face was pale, and she was looking directly at Ainsley. That wasn’t what alarmed Ainsley though.
That was due to the man at Ella’s side, the man in full military uniform, looking as sombre and serious as anyone she’d ever seen.
Her stomach turned, her blood turned to ice, and the brief she was holding slipped from her fingers.
The soldier’s gaze fell on each woman in the room, stopping when it landed on her. “Ainsley Hayes?”
From very, very far away, Ainsley heard her own voice whisper, “No.” The figure in front of her swung from side to side, and some part of her knew that she was shaking her head, that the blurring was from the tears in her eyes, but the majority of her brain was devoted to keeping reality at bay. “No.”
“Miss Hayes, I’m sorry to have to inform you-”
From very, very far away, Ainsley felt a strong arm slip around her waist, turned her head to look into a blurry image that looked vaguely like Justice Dreifort. His lips formed her name, but she couldn’t hear the word over the buzzing that filled her ears.
Then everything went black.
She doesn’t faint this time, although from the look on Jack O’Neill’s face, he’s pretty sure that she’s about to. So he takes his time, sits down beside her, a respectable distance away from her, and he waits to let her speak first.
“Thank you for coming.”
At that, he looks over at her, and his eyes are kind. “Yeah, well,” he says, with a shrug that reminds her of someone else. “I made a promise.”
She frowns, because she doesn’t remember it like that.
It was a full military funeral, just like ones that Ainsley had seen on the television, in movies. There was the coffin, draped with Stars and Stripes, though it contained no body, just an urn of ashes, as per Charlie’s request – something that struck Ainsley as odd, because Charlie had never mentioned cremation to her. All around them were white markers, other men and women who had given their lives in service of their country. The sky was bright blue, not a cloud in sight as she listened to Colonel Jack O’Neill – a man Charlie mentioned often, a man he considered a friend – give the eulogy, and at the end of the service, the air rang to the sound of rifles and Charlie’s mother’s sobs as they folded the flag and handed it to her.
She held tightly to Ainsley’s hand throughout the whole service, and tears ran down her cheeks, but Ainsley’s eyes were dry.
Not that that was anything unusual. She hadn’t cried since she’d heard the news, not when she’d woken up in Justice Dreifort’s office, lying on a couch, seeing her boss, her mentor, staring at her sorrowfully. She hadn’t cried when Jean had driven her home to the apartment that only a few days ago Charlie had been in, or when she lay down that night in the bed that they had shared, his shirt on her back, her hand on his pillow. She hadn’t woken up crying when she’d dreamed about him, and when she’d been making the arrangements, accommodating the slew of people who descended on her apartment, not once had she cried. She’d heard the whispers behind her back, the words “shock” and “denial” making more than one appearance. She knew they were wrong, just hadn’t bothered to correct them. After all, she knew the truth.
Let everyone else think that she was in shock, in denial, because she’d always heard the same thing, that acceptance came slowly at times like this, that it would take time for it to sink in.
That, as far as Ainsley was concerned, was rubbish.
Because from the moment that she saw that man in uniform – and she would remember his face, she knew, for the rest of her life – she understood that something that happened to Charlie. Something that would mean he’d never hold her hand again, would never roll his eyes and make fun of her huge appetite, would never again tease her about having to order takeout for three when it was only the two of them. She would never hear him whisper her name in the dark, would never wake up to the feel of his lips on her neck, his hands on her skin. She’d never look up from her desk and see that grin of his that she loved so much. They’d never again squabble over selecting the TV channel – Capitol Beat versus Sports Night, with no clear way to find a winner – they would never go house-hunting in Colorado Springs, never spend months getting that dream house just the way they wanted it. She would never walk to him on her father’s arm, would never be his wife. She would never have his children, those dark-haired, crooked-smiling bound-to-raise-merry-hell-but-oh-how-she-would-love-them children she’d been envisioning for two years now.
From the very second she saw that uniform, before the world went dark and cold, she knew that Charlie was gone, felt it in every fibre of her being.
She knew, and she couldn’t cry, because some hurts just went too deep.
After the funeral, they went back to Ferretti’s house; poor Lou, whose face and body still bore the marks of the last mission he’d been on, the mission that had led to Charlie’s death. Ainsley still wasn’t quite sure what had happened, how the doctors had missed whatever injury it was that Charlie had, though she thought now and again of his headache that last morning, wondered if that had something to do with it. She didn’t ask though, knew there was no point, matters of National Security and all that. Besides which, the empty look in Lou’s eyes, the way that Karen couldn’t take her eyes off him, stilled any impulse she might have to make enquiries. Karen Ferretti, she knew, was all too aware that Ainsley’s pain could so easily have been hers, and she’d been the one who had helped Ainsley with the arrangements, who had offered their house for the wake without even a second’s hesitation.
Ainsley had never met so many people who knew Charlie, people who had served with him, even as far back as his first days in the Air Force. His family were there, as were hers, and she knew that there were so many people that she could talk to, who would do anything to make this easier for her.
Just not the one person that she really wanted.
She did her best to endure the offers of sympathy, the concerned glances, but after a while, it became too much. So, carefully, subtly, she began to manoeuvre herself in the direction of the back door, not stopping until she slipped outside, into the blessed blue sky, closing the door behind her. She didn’t make it far, just sat down on the steps of the back porch, tilting her head to the sky and taking a deep breath as she closed her eyes, feeling the breeze on her face.
And in the back of her mind, she heard a familiar laugh, a teasing voice. “Ainsley Hayes, passing a buffet table… never thought I’d see the day.”
She smiled to herself as a shadow fell over her, and for just a second, she forgot. For just a second, she believed that if she opened her eyes, she would see Charlie in front of her.
Instead, she saw another man in Air Force uniform, and despite the fact that she’d been introduced to him earlier, had listened to him give the eulogy, it still took her a second to place the name.
“Colonel O’Neill,” she said finally, moving to stand, but he waved a hand quickly.
“Don’t get up,” he said, sliding his hands in his pockets, looking around the yard. “I came out for some fresh air… to see the dog…” Ainsley looked past him, saw a Golden Retriever slumbering beside his kennel. “Saw you here. Thought I’d come over. See if you were all right.” He lifted an eyebrow then, looked at the sky, looked at the porch, looked back at her. “Guess that’s kinda redundant.”
Ainsley smiled wanly; it was true, but he was the first one to say it. She remembered that Charlie always talked of the wit and wisdom of Jack O’Neill, how he was a man who spoke his mind. “Kinda,” she said simply, hoping that he would go away, leave her alone. The last thing she wanted to do now was make small talk with a stranger.
O’Neill nodded, looking up at the sky again. “I worked with him a long time,” he said, still not looking at her, his tone almost casual. “He was one of the good ones.”
“Yeah,” Ainsley replied quietly, after a long pause where she had to swallow hard over the lump in her throat. “I know.”
O’Neill was silent for a moment, then gestured to the step beside her, unmistakable question. Ainsley inclined her head, weary acknowledgement of the inevitable, and he sat down on the step just beneath her, leaving a good distance between them. When he next spoke, he still wasn’t looking at her, was staring straight ahead at the Golden Retriever, sleeping soundly. “I know you must have questions,” he said. “Questions that no-one’s given you answers to. Questions that you… won’t… get answers to.” He paused, but he didn’t seem to be waiting for an answer. “One day… when things are clearer… if you still have those questions… you can reach me here.” With that, he produced a card from his breast pocket, handing it back to her, still not looking at her, holding it there, waiting for her to take it.
Which she did, found herself looking at a standard business card, his name and base office number, and when she turned the card around, there was a handwritten number on the back, obviously his phone number.
“Thank you,” she said, unsure of what else to say, a thousand questions burning in her throat, a thousand questions that she couldn’t give voice to.
O’Neill shrugged. “Yeah, well…” He stood, walked up to the porch, dropping a hand onto her shoulder as he passed. “He loved you very much.”
Ainsley didn’t move until she heard the door close behind him. Only then did she drop her head into her hands, the card still held in between her fingers.
“I know.” O’Neill looks completely composed as Ainsley stares across at him, shakes her head in confusion.
“I didn’t make a promise to you Ainsley,” O’Neill explains patiently, slowly, as if he knows that this will cause her pain. “I made it to Kawalsky.”
Ainsley’s throat constricts at the name, and she wills herself not to cry. She’s done too much crying this week already, has cried more for Charlie in the last eight days than she’s done in the last eight years. “You were there,” she says quietly. “When it happened.”
“Yeah.” He sighs, and just like last time, he looks straight ahead, not at her. “You’ve heard… seen… in the last few weeks. About the Goa’uld. About what they’re capable of. What they do.”
Ainsley nods, wraps her arms around her body, because even though it’s February and the sun is shining, even though it’s warm out here, she’s very cold all of a sudden. Because it’s one thing to know the truth; it’s another thing altogether to have the truth confirmed. She’s suddenly not sure if she wants to go through with this, though she knows that she has to. “Charlie was part of that?”
“He went through the Stargate with me that first time… nine years ago. That was pretty dicey… weren’t sure we were going to be able to get back home.”
Nine years ago. The mission that Charlie would never talk about. The one, the only one, that ever marred his dreams.
“The program was shut down… the Gate put under heavy guard… then, eight years ago, it was started back up again when the Goa’uld began coming through it.”
“I know all this,” Ainsley interrupts fiercely. “I’ve seen the reports…”
“And I’m getting to the point.” He interrupts her right back. “During the second mission… that’s when Ferretti got hurt. There was an archaeologist who went through with us the first time… Doctor Jackson. We left him on Abydos… he married a local woman… when we went back, Sha’re, his wife… she was taken by the Goa’uld. We went through the Gate again, to another planet, to rescue her… that’s when Charlie…” His voice trails off then, and Ainsley shudders. “He was taken over by a Goa’uld.”
Ainsley closes her eyes, wills the world to stop spinning so quickly. “How?” She hardly recognises her own voice, and O’Neill’s voice is infinitely gentle when he continues.
“We’re not sure… he told me… when we found out… that he thought he’d wrenched his neck. He didn’t know at first… I mean, he went back to Washington, talked to you… he told me that you were planning to move to Colorado Springs, he was talking about looking for houses…”
Up until now, Ainsley hasn’t been able to take her eyes off him. Now, she can’t look at him anymore, looks down at the ground and wishes herself anywhere but here. She had talked with Charlie, laid beside him, made love to him… how could she not have known that something was wrong? How had she not known that this headache was a symptom of something worse?
“We didn’t know much about the Goa’uld back then… what would happen to him, if they could be separated… they tried to operate… but it was too late. The Goa’uld tried to escape, go to another planet… and we had to kill it.”
“You had to kill him.”
“No.” O’Neill’s voice is vehement. “I knew Charlie Kawalsky. Charlie died on the operating table. That thing that was walking around afterwards, pretending to be him… that wasn’t Charlie.”
Ainsley has read everything she can get her hands on about the Goa’uld, and she wants to believe that, tries very hard. She does have one more question though. “Did he… I mean… was he in a lot of pain?”
The long pause before O’Neill speaks tells her all she needs to know. “Yeah,” he says finally. “They could sedate him… but there were times when he needed to be awake.” Her eyes sting with tears, because she’s always preferred to think that it was quick, painless, even if she knew that possibility to be remote. “I talked to him you know… before the operation. I asked him for his stereo if anything happened to him.” Despite herself, Ainsley chuckles. “That’s when he told me about you… well, I’d heard about you, of course. But I didn’t know how serious he was about you… he wanted to marry you.” The words blur Ainsley’s vision, and it’s hard to breathe suddenly, but O’Neill is still talking. “He’d been planning to ask you for months… he was going to do it when you moved down.”
Ainsley tilts her head back, lets the tears spill down her cheeks. “I was going to say yes.”
“I said that I’d be your best man; he refused. I think he was afraid of the speech I’d make. But he asked me to promise him something.” At that, O’Neill pauses, and when Ainsley finally finds the courage to look up at him, she sees him swallow hard. “He made me promise that one day, when the Stargate program became public knowledge, that I’d look you up… tell you everything.”
“That’s the promise you made.”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on you,” O’Neill tells her, something that makes her look at him sharply, lift an eyebrow. “I thought he’d want me to do that… I’ve followed your career… saw the wedding pictures… I wasn’t sure you’d want to know. That’s why I didn’t get in touch first.”
Ainsley looks around her, shakes her head. “I thought it would make a difference… knowing what happened. I thought it would make it easier.” She’s talking more to herself than O’Neill, but he answers anyway.
“No.” She doesn’t even have to think about the answer. “He’s still gone.” Hearing how that sounds, she adds hurriedly, “I mean, I’m happy. I am.” Because she has a job she loves, and friends she loves, and a husband she loves, who makes her happier than she ever thought she could be again. Back when she was trying to put her life back together again, he was the first friend she made in the White House, and when, five Februarys ago, she was trying to deal with the anniversary of Charlie’s death at the same time as army wives and girlfriends were all over the news, worrying about their partners serving in Kundhu, he was the one that heard the desperation in her voice when he called her, invited her to spend a weekend with him in California. She hadn’t realised how much she’d needed to get away until she’d left grey wintry Washington skies for blue California ones, and when she got back to Washington, the only place she wanted to be was back in California. Not that there was anything between her and Sam at the time, that had come later, after she’d moved out there, and there had been other men, other dates.
But Ainsley has only ever loved two men. One she lost. The other she married.
“I love my husband…” she says now, just in case O’Neill thinks differently. “I do… it’s just… sometimes…”
“Sometimes you wonder what might have been.” It’s said in a way that makes Ainsley think O’Neill has some particular experience in this regard, and there’s a certain light in his eyes that makes Ainsley duck her head, makes her take another deep breath.
“Sometimes.” She exhales the word, lets it float away on the breeze, and when she sees him move, she looks at him, sees him, just like last time, reaching into his breast pocket, this time pulling out an envelope. “Charlie gave me this,” he says, handing it to her, and, with a start, she sees her name –her old name, Ainsley Hayes – written on it, in slightly sloppy, very familiar writing that in the last eight years she has only seen on old letters in the dim attic light. “He made me promise to make sure it got to you.”
Ainsley runs a finger along the name, sees it blur as fresh tears come to her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispers.
“I’ll leave you alone to read it,” he says, standing and looking down at her. “And Ainsley… if you ever need anything… anything at all…”
Tears are running down her cheeks again as she looks up at him. She can’t speak, so she just nods, watches him walk away.
Only then does she slide a nail underneath the flap of the envelope, moving slowly and carefully, not wanting to damage the last thing Charlie had ever given her. Unfolding it carefully, the first words she reads have her catching her breath, remembering the last time she heard them.
She can hear him so clearly, it’s as if he’s sitting right beside her, as if she could turn her head and see him there. She’s tempted, but she doesn’t want to break the spell, continues on reading the letter.
“Hate to be a cliché, but if you’re reading this letter, then I guess I’m dead. I’m also guessing that Jack came through with his promise, and that you know everything. I wish I could have told you… I wish a whole lot of things. Mostly to do with you, with all the things we’re never gonna do. I want you to be happy… to have the kinda life you deserve. I hope you’re married when you’re reading this… kids running around, screaming at you… someone with you who makes you smile. Some lucky bastard who has the brains to know just how lucky he is. I love you Ainsley… always and forever.”
Then there is his name, that dashed-off scrawl that looked like nothing at all, the same one that had been at the bottom of every letter he’d ever sent her.
Ainsley sits on that bench for a long time, reading and re-reading the letter, committing every word to memory, and all the while, that feeling never eclipses, that Charlie is with her, close enough to touch her. The thought makes her smile through her tears and eventually, when her cheeks are dry, she tilts her head back, looks up at the blue sky, lets out a long, deep breath.
Then she stands and goes home to her husband.