Two folded pieces of paper, one belonging to each opponent, rested on the table at their elbows. They didn't know which paper was which, having chosen randomly. One had the word 'abide' written on it, the other had the word 'ignore'. They had shuffled the papers and picked them with their eyes closed so neither knew who had what – so no one could lose on purpose.
The rules were simple.
The winner opened his or her piece of paper and whatever word was written there would be the answer they were looking for to a decision neither could make.
Their futures depended on the game. It was more complicated than a coin toss but fairer, left to fate. They both agreed to honour whatever the winner's paper said, even if it said the opposite to what they wanted it to say.
"Okay." Major Samantha Carter moved her rook and took his knight. She leaned back on her haunches and wiped her surprisingly clammy palms on her jeans. "Your move, Colonel."
Brown eyes met blue. The stakes were high, tension was rife. The air between them crackled with tension of not just the nervous kind.
Averting his eyes, Colonel Jack O'Neill studied the chessboard. They'd played the game a dozen times before, often on missions in the dead of night when neither of them could sleep through Daniel's snoring. Every time, her strategies changed and every time, he adapted his to match.
It had become a tradition, almost a ritual. Whenever one of them was injured and confined to the infirmary, the other would sneak in after lights out with a small, travel-sized chessboard. The first time had been when they'd found themselves stuck in the McMurdo base infirmary after their adventure in Antarctica. Both had been bored, and Daniel had left his travel board behind, so when the Colonel had suggested they play to take their minds from their injuries, Sam had jumped at the chance and accepted the challenge in his eyes.
From then on, it was a regular occurrence. When he'd been shot in the shoulder by Tunanie's people and sent home after the base had been returned to normal, the team had gone to keep him company when they were able. Daniel and Teal'c had become engrossed in the movies they'd rented, Sam and the Colonel had left for the kitchen with his wooden chessboard.
When Sam had been recovering from her experience with Jolinar and, over a year later, with the Entity, Jack had shown up at both the infirmary and her home. The first time, after Jolinar, he'd brought her a chessboard as a gift, knowing she didn't have one. The second time, after the Entity, he'd gone to her new home with their teammates, lingering behind to play with her, watching as she ran her fingers over each smoothly carved piece before making her move, reacquainting herself with the game and the sensation of touch.
The game had taken on a new meaning this night. It was no longer just a release of tension, something they could use to forget the stress of their jobs. It was something important, the outcome of which could change their lives.
Exhaling slowly, Jack's brow furrowed as he studied the pieces in front of him. He thought he saw a possible route to victory. In three or four more moves, he could have her King caught in checkmate. Strangely, however, he was reluctant to do it. One reason was that the game usually lasted longer, they were both strong opponents and had taken part in more than one game that had lasted over a course of days. The other reason was the piece of paper resting on the table beside his half-empty bottle of beer. He didn't know what it said. He didn't know what would happen if he won. He didn't know if the paper would say what he wanted it to say and he wasn't sure if he was prepared to take the risk.
"Colonel?" he looked up to find her eyes reflecting the amusement she tried not to show in her smile. "We agreed to settle this tonight.. If you want to forfeit.."
"Me? Forfeit? Never." He grinned back at her. "Just give me time, Major. I might be old and you might be a scientist but that doesn't mean you're going to win. Chess is my game."
"I thought poker was your game, Sir?" The innocence in Sam's tone didn't quite reach her expression, or the arched eyebrow she raised at him. She couldn't deny that he was good at chess; they were equal in their victories and losses, but she could clearly see a way he could win and knew that if she could see it, so could he. So why wasn't he taking it?
Six more minutes passed. She knew it was exactly six minutes because she kept staring at the clock on the mantle, in between scrutinising his expression of absolute concentration. The expression was one she'd become familiar with over the years they'd played together but he'd never appeared so serious about a game before. She supposed she should be touched he was taking their deal and the game so seriously, but the importance of the outcome made her nervous.
"Ha!" A triumphant grin crossed over Jack's lips as he made his move, taking her remaining rook in the process. It wasn't the move she'd anticipated and that was clear in her surprised expression. Jack's grin grew wider, smug. He sat back against the couch, straightening his legs and stretching them out in front of him underneath the table as he lifted his bottle of beer to her in a salute. "Your move, Carter. And make it a good one."
Leaning forward again, Sam sighed deeply and studied the board. She was left with several pieces; her King, her Queen and a few pawns. Everything else had been taken and was lined up neatly in his make-believe prison. Glancing at his side of the board, she saw he was doing more than marginally better. His King, the black king, was surrounded by pawns. His knight, rook and bishop were attacking her pieces, forming a strategically protective wall around his Queen. Frowning, she shifted the angle of her body, hoping a new position would give her some idea of what to do.
Resting her head on her hands, elbows leaning on the table, Sam studied the game. Her pawns weren't doing anything, they were too far away from any of her pieces of be defensive and too far away from his to attack. He was using his military trained mind, tactics and experience against her... and it wasn't fair.
Jack took advantage of her distracted state and studied her appearance, trying to discern if there were any visible signs of the strain she'd been under during the last few weeks. The threat to Cassandra had worn her out, the double dealings with the Aschen and her injuries after that had taken their toll, her own abduction and the violation she'd faced during the tests that had been performed on her against her will.. Individually, the events were more than an average person would have recovered from so swiftly. Together, they formed more difficulties than anyone should have to face.
Outwardly, she appeared to be coping. She kept up the façade of a strong-willed, independent, confident woman, ready and capable of taking on the world. Inwardly, he sensed it was a different story. That was one of the reasons he'd suggested – only half-jokingly – and agreed to the plan of solving their dilemma through a game of chess. He wanted her to open up to someone and let them comfort her. If it was him, that would be all the better, but even if she chose to confide in someone else, he'd be pleased. He didn't want her to have to bottle up her emotions and learn to repress her reactions. He had done both of those things during his years in the Air Force and his missions in Black Ops and he hated the thought of Sam doing the same thing.
He hoped that whoever won had the slip of paper that said 'ignore'. He hoped it would mean they would make progress beyond the uncomfortable and uneasy state of limbo they'd been trapped in for over a year. The self-imposed imprisonment was a harsh sentence, especially since all they were doing was defending their country and their planet. It was a punishment they didn't deserve.
"There." Sam moved her Queen closer to her King. She couldn't think of any strategies to help her win so she decided to concentrate on the defence, knowing it would only be a matter of moves before he declared checkmate and they had their fates decided for them. "Floor's all yours, Colonel."
"Resorting to using rhyme.. Now I know you're in trouble." Her response to his teasing was a glare, and his response to that was a wink. "Relax, Carter. I'll make it quick and painless."
"Then hurry up and get on with it."
Grinning, Jack studied the board and raised an eyebrow at her move. Defensive, yes. Sensible, no. She wasn't succeeding in strengthening her position, she was weakening it. She was surrounding her own King the best she could but in doing that, she was blocking all possible escape routes were he to attack.
Deciding to end their mutual torture, Jack attacked with his rook, blocking one of her few remaining escape routes. "Check. Your turn."
Sighing at his move, Sam moved her Queen one space in front of the King, blocking the rook. It was the only move she could make. She knew she was backing herself into a corner but at the same time, it was the only place she could move a piece to act as a defence to his attack.
Grinning, he went in for the kill. His Queen took the place of her Queen and he put the white piece neatly beside the other members of her family he'd taken captive. With the end of the board both beside and behind her King, and his rook in position to defend his Queen, his move had stopped all and any escape routes as well as eliminating his biggest threat – her Queen.
Raising his eyes to hers, brown met blue once again.
Gazes locked; this was it.
Slowly, almost as if time had become distorted, Jack reached for the carefully folded paper with hands that shook no matter how hard he tried to control them, no matter how hard he tried to call on his training.
Her eyes flittered from his face to his hands, her breath held as the decision was made and revealed. She swallowed hard as he opened the paper and stared down at the answer.
His expression was neutral; his reaction gave nothing away.
Silently, he held out the piece of paper to her. Anxiously, her numb fingers clasped it as his hand withdrew. Closing her eyes briefly, she gathered her courage and confidence and steeled herself for the revelation. She wasn't sure which answer she was hoping for, but she was sure she would know once she read it.
Her eyes opened. They flickered down to the paper in her hand.
The decision had been made and lifted from their hands. It was no longer something they needed to work on, no longer something they needed to avoid. They'd both agreed to do whatever the random choosing of the paper and the game of chess revealed. Now it was a question of whether they honoured that agreement.
Breathing in slowly, Sam put the paper down and moved her hand to her defeated King. Careful not to knock any of his pieces, she turned her King and lay it on its side.
They stared at each other in silence for a few moments, nervous anticipation taking precedence over all else.
"We don't have to... It wasn't..." Jack shifted, trying to read the look in her eyes. Was she glad? Was she regretting it? Did she wish the paper said 'abide' rather than 'ignore'? It was a big change.. It would *be* a big change.
"A deal's a deal, Colonel." Sam gave him a small, shy smile. "Don't think you're getting out of it that easily. We both agreed this would be the only way we decide on anything, backing out is only going to take us back to square one." Her smile grew marginally bigger at the look of genuine surprise that crossed over his face. She glanced quickly at the clock, one eyebrow shooting up at the time. "I've got to go. We have a debriefing in eight hours."
He watched, unable to move, as she stood to fetch her jacket from the coat stand. Her words sunk in and he grinned, getting to his feet and moving to help her. "You could stay here. It's pretty late to be driving.."
"I'll be okay." She smiled up at him as he helped her into her jacket and walked with her to the door. "Besides, I'm not sure staying will be such a good idea.. No matter how innocent the intentions."
He caught sight of the pink flush in her cheeks. "Good point." He recalled what the issue was that had been settled and a slow grin spread across his face. "Call me when you get home."
"I will." His concern was touching, more so because of recent events. She knew he was worried about her being taken again. "I'll be fine, so quit looking so worried, you'll make me nervous."
"Sorry." He leaned against the doorframe as she stepped out into the cool night air. "Since we're keeping this away from base.. If we're not working tomorrow night, I'll pick up at seven? Your place?"
"It's a date." She quipped as she unlocked her car door, a smile curving her lips. Getting into her car, she returned his wave before pulling out of the drive and starting her journey home.
Jack waited until her car was out of sight, re-entering his house and closing the door behind him. He started tidying the living room table to pass the time between their goodbye and her phone call to tell him she'd got home safely. The chessboard was left untouched, serving as a reminder, a memory, one that made him grin so much his jaw started to ache. He took the still folded paper and discarded it with the empty beer bottles. The unfolded paper remained on the table. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with it but he couldn't bring himself to throw it away.
Not when it had finally given him the opportunity he'd been waiting for.
It was an unusual solution but he was pleased. They were risking a lot but he thought it was worth it. After everything they'd been through, after everything they'd sacrificed for their cause.. They deserved this and he was glad they'd finally, if not uniquely, reached that conclusion.
Playing chess to decide whether they ignored or abided by the regulations between them was.. possibly insane. But at least *something* had been done. They were no longer at a standstill, they had an aim. Starting this new phase of their relationship would be weird for them both, adjusting to the changes and keeping them private would be hard but they would manage.
One day at a time, little baby steps.
Slowly, cautiously, talking about any doubts or concerns that developed on the way.
He was sure it would work. *They* would work. Too much was at stake for them not to.
Switching off the lights, Jack settled himself upstairs in his room, the phone beside his bed ready for her call. Less than five minutes after he got comfortable, the phone rang. "O'Neill."
"I'm home, I'm safe and I'm tired." Sam's sleepy voice greeted him on the other end.
"Hello to you, too." He rolled his eyes at the lack of formal greeting. "And thanks, for humouring me."
"You're welcome, Sir." There was a rustling sound in the background as she moved around her house, shedding her jacket along the way.
"We're gonna have to work on the 'Sir', thing," he commented wryly. "Off-duty, it's Jack, okay? J-A-C-K."
"You'll have to give me time on that one," she replied softly after a short pause, only half-teasingly. "It'll take me a while to get used to it."
He nodded to himself and closed his eyes. "You've got all the time you need." There was a small pause in conversation as he heard her yawn. "Time to get some sleep, I think."
"Yeah." No argument was forthcoming. "Goodnight, Colonel."
"Goodnight, Sam." He put an emphasis on her name, grinning at the smile he imagined lighting her face. He put the receiver back on its cradle when he heard the click that came before the dial tone and turned off the light, allowing sleep to take its claim over him so that he would be ready to face the challenges and changes of the days to come.
Like it or loathe it, please let me know if you've got time.
"The greatest lesson you'll ever learn.. is to love.. and be loved in return." - Moulin Rouge.