“Hey, kiddo,” said Jack, as Charlie clambered into the front seat of his pickup truck. “How was school?”
“Awesome!” the third-grader replied, eagerly. “Our science class is starting to learn about outer space.”
“Yeah?” They pulled out of the school lot and onto the main road. “Is there anything you don’t already know about outer space?”
Charlie rolled his eyes dramatically. “The telescope on our roof is amateur, Dad,” he said. “Captain Sam is gonna teach us all kinds of stuff!”
Jack grinned at his son’s impressive vocabulary, then frowned. “Captain Sam?”
“There’s going to be an astronomy club,” Charlie explained. “Every Thursday, and we’re getting a real life astronaut to teach us! Can I go, Dad?”
“On Thursdays?” said Jack. “Yeah, I think we can manage that.”
Jack hadn’t planned on becoming a single parent.
When he and Sara had found out she was pregnant, he’d started getting things in order to provide for his wife and child if he was wounded or killed in the line of duty. He’d never even considered the possibility that Sara would go first, that the one time he haphazardly packed his duffel to hurry home, she’d want to get an early start on his laundry and accidentally discharge the loaded service weapon he’d thrown in with his dirty socks.
He and Charlie had been playing ball when they’d heard the shot, and he could only be grateful later that he’d thought to insist the seven-year-old wait outside while he went to investigate. It had been quick, the doctors assured him, Sara hadn’t felt a thing – and for a few long hours, Jack didn’t either.
Then he remembered that he was the only person Charlie had left now, and went to change all of his carefully-made plans.
It wasn’t easy, at first. He had been gone for so much of Charlie’s young life, and he hardly knew how to do anything “the way Mom did”. But they learned, together, and Jack was still marveling at tiny, simple facets of childhood even months later.
He thought he would miss being out in the field, but Jack really enjoyed his new assignment at the Air Force Academy’s flight school, shaping the next generation of pilots and getting home in time to make dinner.
There were still times when losing Sara hit them hard, and they spent the night looking through the photo albums, but Charlie was a resilient kid and Jack was proud to be his dad.
At least, more proud on the days he wasn’t waiting in the school parking lot almost an hour after Charlie’s astronomy club was supposed to have ended. Fortunately, he always kept a comic book or two stashed in the glove compartment, so he had something to do until he spotted two figures in the school entranceway.
One was obviously Charlie, even in silhouette, but the other –
Jack didn’t realize his attention had wandered until they were halfway across the parking lot, Charlie still talking animatedly to a woman in Air Force dress blues, both of them carrying cardboard boxes.
Smiling, Jack slid out of the truck and walked toward them. “Have fun?” he asked.
Charlie grinned. “Yeah!”
“I’m sorry we’re so late,” the woman added. Up close, he could see that her nametag said ‘Carter’, and that her smile was even nicer than her legs. “We just got so caught up in talking, I didn’t realize what time it was.”
“No problem, captain,” said Jack. “Can I take that?”
“What?” Carter blinked, “Oh, thank you.”
He took the box, smiling. “The least I can do, you’re the one spending all your free time teaching these kids about astronomy.”
“It’s only an hour a week,” she said. “And, honestly, the grade school kids are much easier to deal with than my other students.”
“Captain Sam teaches at the Academy,” put in Charlie. “Just like you, Dad.”
Carter looked surprised. “The Air Force Academy?”
“Flight school,” said Jack. “You?”
“Mathematics.” She frowned. “Should I be saluting?”
“Nah, we’re off-duty.” At her raised eyebrow, he added, “I’m a colonel, if you must know.”
Carter nodded, “Sir.”
“Off-duty,” he repeated, sing-song.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, with a falsely innocent smile, and unlocked her car. “Thanks for the help.”
“You’re welcome,” said Charlie.
Jack set both boxes into the trunk. “Chivalry’s not dead, after all.”
This time, her smile was dazzling. “No, clearly not.”
It became a regular thing, after that, the two of them helping Carter pack everything up after astronomy club meetings and carry it out to her car. The club was a school-sponsored activity, so there were no meetings over the summer, but Charlie came back from his first day of fourth grade excited by the news that the astronomy club would start again in just two weeks.
Which was why Jack was surprised to hear Carter call his name the next day, as he was coming in from the air field after a training flight. She was in her dress blues again and it was another surprise, after he’d gotten used to seeing her in the civilian clothes she usually wore to the meetings.
“Captain Carter,” he said, mildly.
“Colonel O’Neill,” she repeated, then smiled. “This is unofficial, actually, sir. Well, unofficial to the Air Force. It’s about the astronomy club.”
Jack frowned. “There isn’t a problem, is there? Charlie’s talked about nothing else all week.”
“Not exactly,” she hedged. “So many kids signed up this year that the principal let me know I’d need another adult. Not to teach, or anything, just because of the numbers. He suggested a parent, and since you’re already coming to pick up Charlie…”
“You’re wondering if I’ll give up one of my few child-free afternoons to join you in wrangling a whole passel of kids?”
Carter smiled. “Exactly, sir.”
“On one condition – no calling me ‘sir’ when we’re off-duty.”
“No promises, sir,” she said.
Fortunately, Charlie was young enough that having his dad as chaperone for a school club was actually a boost to his popularity, especially after his classmates found out that Jack was an Air Force pilot, “just like Captain Sam.”
He’d never come into the astronomy club while they were working, and it was probably a good thing that the kids were so well-behaved, because Jack was immediately distracted watching Sam talk. Getting the talks second-hand from Charlie on the drive home was nothing on getting them straight from the source – Sam was passionate and engaging, and Jack felt just as disappointed as the kids when each meeting was over.
Before he knew it, the school year was over again, and they were carrying the boxes of stuff back out to Sam’s car after the last club meeting.
“I wish we could meet over the summer,” she said, closing the trunk. “And at night. There’s so many astronomical events I’d love to show the kids.”
“Well, the school has some rules about after dark events for the under-thirteen crowd,” said Jack. When she arched an eyebrow at him, he added, “I asked.”
“But you could show us, Captain Sam,” said Charlie.
“We do have a telescope,” Jack added.
Sam smiled. “Throw in some ice cream, and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“Yay!” Charlie cheered, as Jack reached into his truck, parked beside Sam’s car, for some paper to write down their address.
They kept their summer meetings on Thursdays, for continuity. Sam was impressed with the O’Neills’ telescope, which made Charlie beam with pride, and got into even more technical astronomical details at Charlie’s questions, which made Jack do the same. As the summer days got longer, Sam came earlier and joined them for barbecue dinners, staying later and later as they studied the stars.
On the last Thursday of summer vacation, Charlie asked to stay up even later than his (admittedly late on those days) bedtime, and Jack couldn’t say no. But then, none of them were keeping track of time, and it was well past midnight when he started to fall asleep in his lawn chair.
“We should get you to bed, buddy,” said Jack, with a smile.
“I should be going, too,” said Sam.
“It’s late,” said Jack, “and we’ve got a spare room.”
Her smile was bright, even in the darkness. “Thanks.”
Charlie was still young enough to wake up early, even after a late night, and he was thrilled to find Sam still there the next morning, drinking coffee and sharing the paper at their kitchen table.
“I wish you could stay all the time,” he said, with childish innocence, already heading to pour himself a bowl of cereal and missing the startled looks Jack and Sam shared behind him.
“Well,” said Jack, a little awkward. “I mean, you’re always welcome.”
Sam smiled. “I appreciate that.”
With the start of the new school year, astronomy club started up again. There were even more kids this year, which meant they needed another adult. A parent of one of the incoming third-graders volunteered, too sweet and friendly to realize she was an inadvertent buffer between Sam and Jack.
Charlie was having as much fun as ever. As a fifth grader, he and his fellow original members of the astronomy club were now the experts, paired with the younger kids to help them learn. After a few weeks, any awkwardness disappeared, and before they knew it, the year was almost over.
“I have some news,” said Sam, as Jack and Charlie helped carry the astronomy club equipment out to her car.
“Is everything okay?” Charlie asked, and she smiled.
“It’s good news. I mean, I hope it’s good news, it’s just—”
“Don’t keep us in suspense, Carter,” interrupted Jack.
She smiled again. “I just heard this morning. They announced the names of the next people to go up on the space shuttle… and my name was on it.”
“You’re going into space?” breathed Charlie. When Sam nodded, he let out an excited whoop and hugged her. “That’s great!”
“It is great,” said Sam. “But astronaut training is in Texas.”
Charlie’s expression fell. “So you’d have to leave.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I’m going to tell the club at the next meeting. I leave two weeks after that for Houston.”
“Will you still have time for one more Thursday after that?” he asked. “Before you go?”
Sam looked up at Jack, who managed a smile. “Gotta send you off right, Carter.”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she promised.
Charlie managed to stay awake the whole night, on their last unofficial astronomy club. They had given up on the telescope and just looked up at the sky, bundled in blankets right on the roof. When the first hazy light of morning began peeking through the trees, Sam reluctantly got to her feet.
“I’m not going to tell you not to go,” said Charlie, with a sad smile. “This is what you’ve always wanted, Captain Sam, and I’d be a bad friend if I didn’t support you. But I’m going to miss you, a lot.”
Sam’s expression softened. “I’m going to miss you, too.”
“But you don’t have to. When you come back from space, you can live here, with us.”
Her face fell. “Oh, Charlie… it’s not that easy.”
He sighed, serious and innocent the way only kids could be. “Grown-ups always make stuff so hard. You guys love each other and people who love each other should be together.”
Sam shot a panicked look at Jack, who felt no less panicked. “Carter, I—”
“You do, Dad,” Charlie insisted. “I know you think you can’t because of Mom, but she… she wouldn’t want you to not be happy. She wouldn’t want us to not be happy.”
“Charlie…” Jack began, but he had no way to end that sentence.
The kid was right. Jack would challenge anyone not to love Samantha Carter. She was beautiful and brilliant, with a wry sense of humor and a wicked right hook. He’d been trying not to think about it, even to himself, because Sam was young and ambitious, and she didn’t need to be saddled with an old man and a kid. He hadn’t wanted to see the pitying kindness in her eyes as she turned him down.
Except, Sam was still looking at him with the same shock and denial he was sure his own face showed, and she hadn’t tried to deny what Charlie was saying.
“Charlie,” Sam tried again, “It’s not that I don’t want… it just isn’t…”
“Just think about it, Carter,” said Jack, surprising them all. Charlie grinned as Sam frowned, and he continued, “Go explore space. Have fun, do science, be safe. And when you get back…”
“When I get back,” she agreed.
Sam hugged Charlie, holding on for a long moment, then darted in to hug Jack, too, pressing a fleeting kiss to his cheek as she pulled away.
“When I get back,” she repeated, and left.
Jack and Charlie not-so-patiently waited for news. Sam would be in training for a few months yet, even though she’d been keeping up most of her qualifications while she was teaching
Another officer from the astronaut had come to take over the school’s astronomy club. Mitchell was knew his stuff and was great with the kids. He was a friend of Sam’s from their Academy days and made a point to ask Charlie, along with a couple of the older kids, to help out with the younger kids. But there were enough other parent volunteers that Jack didn’t keep at it, and Mitchell didn’t ask.
A week after Sam left, they got a postcard in the mail, a ridiculous Texas tourist trap, with a brief message in Sam’s sloped handwriting. She included an address where they could write back, and Charlie sent a letter immediately.
The postcards kept coming, each more lurid than the last, with little anecdotes about training, always carefully addressed to Charlie and Jack. Then, one day, the message read just Next stop, space!
There wasn’t anything on TV until the day of the launch – space missions just weren’t big stories like they were when Jack was a kid – but they caught a video of the shuttle crew waving to the crowd on their way to get ready, easily spotting Sam’s blonde hair and broad grin.
“I’m sure she’s okay, Dad,” said Charlie, “And, anyway, we can’t see the shuttle from here.”
Jack straightened from where he’d been adjusting the telescope. “I knew that.”
Charlie smiled for a moment, then added softly, “You never said anything after… after Captain Sam left. I think we’re both scared that something will happen and she won’t come back. But I think you’re scared that she will.”
His father huffed a laugh and slung an arm around his shoulders. “When did you get so smart?”
“Well, I didn’t learn it from you,” teased Charlie, smiling again.
“Funny guy,” said Jack, then sighed. “But, you’re right. Your mom… losing her was hard, for both of us. But we’ve done okay, haven’t we?”
“Yeah. But the universe is always changing,” said Charlie, sweeping a hand at the stars above them. “Things can’t stay the same, so why not try to make them better.”
“I…” Jack laughed again and pulled his son into a hug. “I have the best kid ever.”
“I know,” said Charlie.
There was nothing on the news about the shuttle coming back down, which Jack tried very hard to remember was a good thing, since it meant nothing newsworthily bad had happened.
Even though Jack wasn’t volunteering with the astronomy club, he still came to pick Charlie up every week. When they got back home, there was an unfamiliar car in their driveway, with government plates and an Air Force parking pass.
Jack was immediately on alert. Unexpected Air Force cars were usually a bad, bad thing.
But Charlie was grinning, pulling open the truck door before Jack had even turned off the engine and running around the side of the house. Jack hurried to follow – and stopped short.
Sam had one arm around Charlie’s shoulders, the other holding a standard-issue duffel. “Hi,” she said, smile turning shy. “Got room for a poor lost astronaut?”
“Are you lost?” Jack countered.
“No,” said Sam. “I’m right where I belong.”
“Damn right,” agreed Jack, and leaned in to kiss her.
He’d meant it to be brief, but she let go of Charlie to pull him closer, deepening the kiss until Charlie’s cheering startled them apart.
“I’m going to have the coolest stepmom ever,” he said.
“Whoa, buddy, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I mean…”
Jack looked over at Sam, who smiled. “Exactly,” she said. “I mean, your dad hasn’t even taken me on a date yet. Marriage talk should wait until at least the second or third date.”
“Yeah?” Jack asked. “How do you feel about intimate home-cooked meals for two?”
Sam reached for Charlie again. “I prefer meals for three, actually.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place,” said Jack, and led the way inside.