Wayward Son/Sarah Connor Chronicles:
"I'm so embarrassed. I'm not usually this clumsy."
Daniel stopped suddenly at the sight of his father holding a woman in his arms. He ignored the jostling from students as they swarmed around him, heading for buses or to the waiting parents in their parked cars. And not just any woman, but Ms. Cromwell, the school nurse. She was smiling up into his dad's face while he stared down at her with a look that Daniel had never seen before.
"Accidents happen to the best of us," his father replied with an answering smile as he helped Ms. Cromwell limp towards her Volkswagen Beetle.
"Honestly. I usually can run after the kids when they try to escape from my clutches," she said with a velvety laugh that Daniel suddenly detested. "I can't believe I twisted my ankle just stepping off the curb. Clumsy me."
With his father still holding on to her, she got her keys out of her purse and unlocked the Beetle's door. Daniel took a few steps closer, staying close to the parked Avalanche.
"Your clumsiness is my good fortune." His dad helped her into the car as she laughed again, the sound sending shivers down Daniel's spine. "Wait, I meant that, by your twisting your ankle, you know, you literally fell in front of me and if I hadn't been there, in the truck, waiting for Daniel, then you'd..."
"Lie there in the street until I died from exposure?"
His dad braced a hand against the top of the car, leaning partially inside. "Well, no, but..."
"Thank you, Colonel, for not laughing when I took that tumble. I'm sure it must have been pretty funny—"
"Not at all."
"And for your helping hand to the car."
"Are you okay to drive? Would you rather I gave you a lift? Do you need to have your ankle checked out? Do you want me to call your husband?"
"It's my left foot, so I'm fine to drive." She placed a hand on his dad's arm, smiling. "It's just a mild sprain; it'll be fine with a bit of rest and some ice. And I'm not married." Her eyes shifted and met Daniel's. "Daniel's here." Her smile faded slightly as she nodded at Daniel.
Daniel raised a hand and waved it unenthusiastically towards her. His dad raised a finger, indicating he'd be another minute.
"Look, I'm not usually this forward but, would you like to go to dinner some time?"
Daniel swallowed. He felt sudden fear, and it took him a moment to realize that with his dad's interest in this woman, his whole life might be turned upside down. Again. He didn't need this. He didn't need someone else in his dad's life to take his attention away from him. Work did that already.
"I'd love to. Wait." She lowered her head as she rummaged through her purse, wrote down something on a piece of paper and handed it to his dad. "Call me."
"I will." His father pocketed the paper, straightened and gently shut the car door. "Enjoy the weekend." He stood there in the parking lot until Ms. Cromwell had driven off before walking back to the truck, humming to himself.
"What was that all about?" Daniel eyed his dad warily as he continued humming, even after starting the Avalanche and pulling out behind Ms. Cromwell.
"She tripped and twisted her ankle." His father actually waved as Ms. Cromwell pulled into traffic and drove down the street.
"Yeah, I figured that much. I meant about taking her out to dinner. Dad, Grandma's house is the other way," Daniel cried out the moment his dad turned in the opposite direction, towards home.
"Crap." His father slowed, signaled, and turned at the next corner.
"Please don't tell me you forgot Grandma's birthday gifts."
"They're in the back. I didn't forget."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Yeah, I did. Gifts are in the back seat. The Connors are bringing the cake and the wine. Steaks are already at your grandmother's—"
"I meant about asking Ms. Cromwell out for supper."
His father didn't answer. "Well?" Daniel prompted.
"I thought it was a good idea at the time. You got any objections?"
This time it was Daniel who didn't answer. He couldn't even articulate what he was feeling.
"She's younger than you," he finally said, sulkily.
"And you're younger than Dria."
"That's not the same. We're still both kids."
"And we're both adults. Same difference."
"It's not the same." What had started off to be a fun evening suddenly promised to be hell for the rest of his life.
The Governor studied the information before him on his computer, his face blank and expressionless.
His mission protocols prevented him from taking the time to deal with the data his search engine had pulled up. Too much in the limelight, he needed others to do the work for him. He made decisions quickly.
The coltan was a loss; sacrifice of the T-888 and Depot 37 was also acceptable if it helped bring him closer to his directive. He reached for his phone, giving his secretary an order in his accented voice. He raised his eyes to gaze out at the Los Angeles cityscape.
"Get me the President."
"Hey. Earth to Daniel." Alexandria poked Daniel's ribs to get his attention, as if the words weren't enough.
"Quit it," he snapped as she forced him from his silent sulk. "Sorry." He felt awful the moment he saw the hurt on her face.
"You've been quiet all night." The hurt switched to concern as she shifted closer on the deck stairs so their conversation wouldn't be overhead. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. It's nothing." He studied the condensation on his bottle of Snapple, not able to articulate the residual feelings from seeing his dad interacting with the school nurse earlier.
"It's not nothing. Something's bothering you." She rested her chin on his shoulder as she wrapped an arm around his waist. "Did you fight with your dad?"
A glance towards the group of adults showed his dad having a grand ol' time, laughing and joking.
"You did, didn't you?" She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
"No. Yeah. It's... It's stupid—"
"What's stupid?" John squatted down behind Daniel. "If you were going to say Mrs. Cheung's homework assignment on—"
"It's not that." Alexandria's breath tickled the hair along his nape.
John sat down on the deck, leaning his shoulder against the railing. "You okay, man? You've been quiet."
"That's what I just asked him. He had a fight with his dad," she whispered.
"It wasn't a fight. More of a disagreement."
"Yeah? What about?" John asked.
"Where's Cassie?" Reluctant to talk about it, Daniel tried for distraction.
"In the bathroom. What did you two disagree on?"
He took a long swig of his warm drink. "My dad seems to be interested in Ms. Cromwell."
"Interested, as in dating? You know, for an older woman, she's kinda hot."
"Who's hot?" Cassie demanded, breezing out the door and sitting directly behind Daniel, next to John. "You better be talking about me."
Alexandria turned on the step so that she was facing everyone. "John was talking about Ms. Cromwell."
"Oh. Her. She's okay, I guess. You think she's hot?" She all but glared at John.
"My dad does," Daniel said sulkily.
"What?" Cassie squeaked.
"You know, even if your dad hooks up with Ms. Cromwell—"
"Don't even go there—" he snapped at John.
"It's not the end of the world. You never know, she might be the best thing that ever happened to the both of you."
"Yeah, right." He lowered his head against his knees, staring at the tips of his sneakers.
"I'd give anything if my mom and..."
Daniel swallowed, remembering how much John's friend, Charley, had meant to him. "It's not the same thing, man."
"You don't know that. It could be."
"It would change so much," Daniel whispered, keeping his head down to hide a sudden rush of tears.
"Did he ask her out?" Cassie rubbed her knuckles across his shoulder blades.
"Do you think he will?"
"I don't know."
"Don't sweat it, Daniel." John gave him a light punch on the arm. "It may not be half as bad as you're probably imagining it. And if it is, well, you can always come stay with me. The couch sleeps pretty good considering Derek's always on it."
He blinked, tried to silently sniffle the pressure from his sinuses. Raising his head, he looked for Cameron. She'd spent the evening sitting with his grandmother or just wandering around the garden. As he looked across the yard, he ended up meeting his dad's gaze. His father waggled his fingers, pointed at the leftover cake on the picnic table, raised his eyebrows and grinned at him.
Maybe John was right. Maybe he was overreacting. "Do you want a piece of cake?" Daniel asked, turning to Alexandria.
"A small piece. Thanks."
"If I want to fit in my prom dress, I'm going to have to suffer. So I'll pass."
"Thanks, maybe later."
Daniel stood and walked over to the picnic table, where his dad was waiting for him.
"Four pieces?" His dad stood poised with a knife, ready to cut.
"Two. One's for Alexandria."
"Oh. Then you mean a piece and a half." Cutting one generous slice, his dad followed with a piece that was a third of the portion size of the first. He transferred the cake to two plastic plates while Daniel picked up forks and napkins.
"Grandma seems pleased with the gifts."
Daniel managed a fond smile at the sight of his grandmother, surrounded by wrapping paper, boxes and ribbons, with her pile of gifts on the grass next to her, an odd-colored mismatched knitted scarf that Cameron had given her hanging from the back of her chair. She was smiling, relaxed, laughing with Sam, Janet and Sarah. "Yeah, she does." He took the two plates from his dad, starting to turn away, but stopped when his father put a hand on his shoulder.
"Enjoy your cake." His dad patted his shoulder, winked at Daniel when he turned to look at him, then walked off to join Teal'c, who was sitting in a lawn chair, talking with Derek. The small touch of affection seemed to lift Daniel's moodiness and he returned to his friends with a lighter heart.
John waited until he heard the television go on before logging into his email account. With his mom and uncle distracted, he reread Charley's latest email. His mom would kill him if she found out he was in contact with him.
There was something in the tone of the email that worried him. He threw caution to the wind and came right out and asked Charley what was wrong. He didn't expect an answer tonight so he shut down his computer and went to join the others.
As he sat on the couch, he realized how much his family had changed just in the few weeks they'd become involved with the SGC. His mom was more relaxed, not looking over her shoulder as much. He stared at the comedy playing on the television, listening to Derek chuckle. The last time they'd been this comfortable was when they'd moved in with Charley. Maybe that was why he had the feeling that all of this hominess wouldn't last.
"Oh, before I forget." His mom shifted in the overstuffed chair and turned to look at him. "I need Cameron at the SGC tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? It's Saturday. Why?"
"Major Carter wants to test a new prototype weapon." Derek didn't take his eyes off the television screen. "Something that'll disrupt the energy source of the triple-eights long enough that we can disable them."
It took John only a second to make the connection. "You're going to let Sam test it on Cameron?"
"It won't hurt me." Cameron, standing at the window, was the only one who hadn't let down her guard. "Its design is to create a field that will temporarily disrupt my power source. It's like the one twenty second reboot, except longer." She turned to his mom. "Maybe John should come, too, to see how it works."
"Mom." John leaned forward, his forearms pressed against his knees. "This is the military. I know you're glad we've got help and all that but with a weapon like that, they could turn it on Cameron—"
"And they probably will if she ever gives them reason not to trust her anymore," his mom replied, not looking at John, but at Cameron. "But just think, John, the advantage we would have with a weapon like that." She turned to him, her face serious and earnest.
"Why didn't the resistance build something like that in the future?" John demanded of Derek, trying to ignore his mom's logic.
"With what? We don't have fancy labs like they've got here. All of our weapons were hard to come by and they're no match for the machines. The few times we got lucky and captured some facility, the best we could do was blow it up."
"Cameron's right. Why don't you come with us tomorrow and see how it works."
John had no choice but to nod his agreement; his mom's request was really an order.
Daniel was stuffed, feeling lazy and lethargic. He and his dad hadn't mentioned Ms. Cromwell on their way home, but like a pink elephant in the middle of the room, she journeyed home with them. He went straight to his room, kicked off his sneakers, grabbed his iPod and stretched out on the bed.
Staring sleepily across the room, he shifted his attention to the door when it opened. He'd expected his dad; when he saw Corey step into his bedroom, he sat up in shock, pulling out the earbuds.
"Hi, Daniel." His old friend looked uncomfortable, shifting from one foot to another until he leaned against Daniel's bureau. "How are you?" He looked around nervously, as if he'd never been inside Daniel's bedroom.
"I'm fine." Daniel shifted his legs over the edge of the bed and waited.
"Good. My mom says hi, by the way."
Daniel nodded coolly.
"Look." Corey swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. "I'm having a pool party after the prom. I'd like you to come."
"Me?" Daniel asked incredulously.
"Yeah. It's gonna—"
"Tell your mom thanks, but I'm not interested."
"It's not my mom's idea. It's mine."
"No, it's not. I..." Corey sighed and stepped closer to the bed. "It's not the same without you, man. We'd all like you to come."
"To a party," Daniel added sarcastically, making sure Corey remembered what he'd thought of Daniel after the last party they'd attended.
My party," Corey said emphatically. "Like the old days. Pool, music... girls?"
"Oh, I get it. You want me to invite Cameron for you."
"No, Daniel." Corey spoke slowly. "I've already invited her. She's coming to the prom with me. And John and Cassie. Now I'm inviting you and Dria."
"So I'm last on the list?" As much as he and Corey had had a falling out, that revelation hurt.
"Yes, you nitwit. You're last because you didn't answer my calls." Corey's voice rose. "That's why I'm here now. I really want you to come."
Daniel felt like he was being pulled in both directions. He really wanted to go, wanted things to be the way they'd been but was afraid of being hurt again. "I'll think about it." Actually, he had to ask his dad for permission to go.
"Okay." Corey gave him a weak smile. "I'll see you Monday."
"Yeah." Daniel sat there, lost in thought as Corey left his bedroom. He heard him say a few words to his dad and then the front door closed.
He looked up when his dad came into his room. "So, everything okay?"
Daniel shrugged. "Corey invited me to a pool party after the prom."
"Do you want to go?" His dad sat down on the bed.
Fiddling with the earbud wires, untangling them, Daniel shrugged.
"I guess it'd be a sleepover?"
"I think the operative word is party and not sleep."
"Yeah, true." Smiling, his dad tweaked Daniel's ear. "I hope Steve and Gina's neighbors have their air conditioners installed."
Daniel couldn't help smiling. "Yeah."
"I have no objections. If you wanna go to the Middleton's after the dance, you can."
"It sounds like Corey's making the first move. Why not give him a chance?"
"What if they..." The last weeks had been horrible; he didn't want to go through all of the hurt again.
"You've known Corey all your life. He's a good kid; so are all the others. Sounds like if he's asking you to come, he really wants you there."
"But..." His dad was right, Corey had sounded sincere.
"Why don't you sleep on it? Talk it over with Dria?"
"Yeah. Okay," Daniel mumbled, then stuck the earbuds in when his dad stood up.
"Hey, you got plans tomorrow?"
Daniel pulled one earbud out. "No. Why?"
"I gotta go in for a few hours. Carter's testing some new doohicky ray gun on the cyborg. I thought maybe the robot could use a friend—"
"What? Does John know?" Daniel sat up, pulling the second earbud out.
"His mother was going to tell him tonight."
"Then hell, yeah, I wanna be there tomorrow. What are they gonna do to Cameron?"
His dad shook his head. "I'm not sure how it works, but the end result is hopefully to stop these things in their tracks for a while so we can disable them."
"It won't hurt her?"
"Carter's not even sure if the thing's gonna work. Okay, I'll clear it with Hammond; if this weapon works, I want you and John to be one of the first to learn how to use it."
Daniel grabbed his phone as his father left his room. He called John, waiting impatiently as the phone rang.
"Did your mom tell you about what they're going to do to Cameron tomorrow?"
"The prototype weapon that they're going to test?"
"Yeah. You're going to let them do that to her?"
"I talked to Cameron about it and she said the weapon's design is to temporarily disrupt her power source, and that it won't hurt her. I don't like the idea of them testing it on her but it's not like we can go try it out on the other terminators walking around out there."
"Are you coming tomorrow?"
"Good. I'll see there, then."
"Corey called me earlier."
"Yeah?" He bit his lip, hating the feeling of indecision.
"He invited me to a party after the prom."
"I know. He just invited me, too."
"Are you going?"
"I don't know yet."
"Look, man. I don't want to... If you're not going, I won't go either."
John's words should have made him feel better, but they didn't. "Cassie'll kill you if you turn this down."
"Maybe. But, I don't want you... to... You know."
"Thanks, John. But you should go if you want to. I won't be mad."
"It's not that."
"I haven't made up my mind yet. I... want to go. I'm just afraid that..."
"You'll have Dria there, me and Cassie, Cameron..."
Daniel sighed. "I know."
"Let me know what you decide, okay?"
"We'll talk about this later." Not now. He wasn't going to be pushed into make a decision tonight.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
He hung up with John, only to be informed by his phone that he had voice mail. He listened to Alexandria's hurried message about Corey calling her about the party and called her back.
"I told Corey I hadn't made up my mind," he said the moment she answered the phone. "What about you?"
"I told him I'd talk to you."
"I just talked to John—"
"You called John before calling me?"
"It wasn't about the party," Daniel said hurriedly. "Just a message my dad wanted me to pass on to his mom, but the party thing came up."
"What do you want to do?"
"Honestly? I don't know. But like John said, you'd be there, and him and Cassie—"
"So, it won't be anything like Steve's party."
"Corey's parents are going to be home."
Daniel nodded to himself. That in itself would make all the difference. There wouldn't be any drinking, and he knew everyone who would be there.
"So... Are we going?"
"Maybe..." He wasn't ready to agree to it yet, but he was leaning more and more towards going.
"Did you ask your dad?"
"Yeah. He's okay with it. You?"
"Not yet. I'll do that now. I'm sure they'll say yes. But Daniel, if you don't want to go, it's all right with me."
"I love you," he whispered, wondering what he'd done to deserve her.
"Back at'cha. See you later."
Daniel dropped back onto the bed and rolled onto his back. He'd been half half-dreading the coming prom but, now, for the first time, began to feel a little better about it.
Daniel was surprised by the amount of people already congregated in Sam's lab, until he realized several of them were SFs, probably under orders to keep an eye on Cameron. And there was Sam, and Rodney, and Doctor Lee, Teal'c, John and his mom and Derek as well as Cameron. His dad walked over to Teal'c while Daniel made a beeline for John, who was standing next to Cameron.
"Hi. Are they almost ready?" Daniel looked around to see what Sam and the other scientists were doing.
"We're waiting for General Hammond," Cameron said as she examined several catalogued items on a table, picking one up after another and staring at each curiously. "Sam says she's ready."
"This isn't going to hurt you, is it?" He turned from Cameron to John when his friend ran a hand through his hair, a gesture he'd seen him do when he was nervous.
"It won't hurt me. If the test is successful, it'll only disable me for a few minutes." She stopped looking at some oddly shaped piece of pottery with inscriptions etched into one side. The pottery was made of some sort of clay and had melted onto a metallic box, fusing to it. The writing looked familiar until he blinked. It took Daniel a moment to realize his memories had kicked in for a second. Now, they just looked like chicken scratch and he was left with the feeling that he'd nearly understood what it said.
"What if your power supply can't be reinitiated?" John was whispering,
"As soon as the weapon's disengaged, my system will reboot in one hundred and twenty seconds."
"I'm sure." She put the jar and box down and picked up a piece of metal about the size of a rolling pin. "What are all these?"
"Artifacts collected from different planets. They—"
"Cameron, we're ready."
Daniel turned to see that General Hammond had arrived and everyone had moved to the opposite end of the room, standing well behind Sam. The three of them were alone next to the table.
"Boys." Daniel's dad motioned for them to come to him. Daniel was starting to feel nervous as he leaned against the wall, out of the way. He crossed his arms and watched, trying not to flinch, when Sam raised a bulky, rifle-like object that did look like a ray gun.
"This is the Power Source Interrupter," Sam said.
"INT for short," Daniel's dad said quickly. "I named it." He gave Sam a smug look. The quickly held-back smile on her part was obvious that this had been a source of discussion between the two of them.
"I'm going for one quarter power," Sam warned. Cameron nodded, and Daniel saw Sam squeeze the trigger.
"Cameron?" Sam asked, lowering the weapon.
"I didn't feel anything." Cameron shook her head.
"Okay, trying for half power."
Nothing happened again. Sam announced she was going to go full out.
This time Cameron's head jerked, first up and down, then to the right. Sam lowered the weapon and called her name again. Cameron took a step backwards, seemed to lose her balance and took another step back. Her actions were stiff, as if she didn't have much motor control.
"Damn it." John rushed past Sam, hurrying towards Cameron as she bumped into the table, pushing it backwards nearly a foot with her body. Daniel ran after John, ignoring his father's shout, reaching John as Cameron slapped her hands against the table, smashing one of the artifacts under her palms as she locked her elbows and stopped moving.
It happened quickly. Cameron twisted just as John touched her arm. She caught his arm in a vice-like grip. Daniel saw John wince as he went around the two of them, then Daniel ended up yelping in pain and surprise as she caught his arm with her other hand. She used their bodies to lever herself up. For the first time since he'd met her, Daniel truly realized she wasn't human. Her movements were uncoordinated, stiff, lacking all of the grace and precision of motion he'd come to associate with her.
Then the pressure eased, her hands fell to her side and she tumbled to the floor, her eyes blank.
"She's rebooting." John crouched next to Cameron.
Daniel was rubbing his forearm absently when he was pulled backwards violently. "What the hell got into you?" His father took a moment to glare angrily at him, then grabbed his arm and raised it. "You're bleeding." There were tiny pinpricks where Cameron had squeezed his arm.
"So's John," his mother said, pushing John's sleeve up, also examining the small pinpricks similar to Daniel's.
Sam picked up one of Cameron's hands and turned it over. In her palms were small pieces of what looked like dark colored glass embedded into the skin. "These are bits of pottery." When Sam stepped past them and peered at her work table, her eyes widened. "Holy Hannah." She turned back to stare at Daniel's dad. "She just about pulverized everything."
There were potsherds scattered on the table; the clay that had fused with the metal piece now nothing more than a flattened piece of scrap.
"Doesn't look like anything's stuck in your arm." His dad was peering at the small beads of blood.
"It's fine, Dad." Daniel ran his fingers over the half dozen or so pinpricks, smearing the blood. "It doesn't even hurt."
"Here. Let me disinfect it." Doctor Lee came around Cameron, holding a bottle of alcohol and a couple of cotton balls. The swipe of alcohol-laden cotton was cold to the touch, and didn't even burn the small pricks. A second swipe and the bleeding had all but stopped.
Cameron came back online while Doctor Lee was cleaning John's arm. "Did the experiment work?" She sat up gracefully.
"Sort of," Sam said with a grimace. "The result wasn't as instantaneous as I'd hoped." She waved to Cameron's palms. "You cut yourself."
Cameron raised her hands, examining the bits stuck in her palms. "It's nothing." Her gaze turned to John, focusing on the blood on his sleeve as he pushed it back down. She turned to look at Daniel's arm. "The weapon did manage to disrupt my power source to some extent, but it only took twenty seconds before my CPU rebooted."
"But the weapon did manage to slow you down." General Hammond stepped into the crowd and stood in front of Cameron.
"My coordination was affected, but even then, a triple eight can do a lot of damage in twenty seconds."
"Sir, her power source is very well shielded. Still, it actually worked better than I'd hoped on the first try—"
"We'll need to recalibrate the main output," Rodney said, talking quickly. He snapped his fingers. "And if we tighten the beam, we'll get a more concentrated field." Mumbling to himself, he walked away from the group and began typing into a computer.
"Thank you, Major. Let me know how the... recalibration goes." General Hammond turned away from Sam with a smile. The smile faded as he faced Daniel and John. "I'm sure you don't need me to tell you both how foolhardy you both were just now."
"Cameron wouldn't hurt us." John raised his chin, daring the general to say something.
"Normally, no. But you had no idea how the device would affect her. And technically, she did hurt you."
"I didn't feel the injury." She raised her palms to show the sherd-pocked skin. "Otherwise I wouldn't have touched you."
Hammond raised a finger at them in warning. "Don't disappoint me again, boys." He turned and left Sam's lab.
Daniel couldn't help feeling that they'd been given a reprieve. Until he glanced at his father, and then he wasn't quite so sure.
"I'll get you a first aid kit," Doctor Lee told Cameron. She followed him while Daniel and John stood uncomfortably under the glowers of their parents.
When Corey walked into the Dairy Queen, Daniel felt the now-familiar hurt of rejection he associated with his friend. For a moment it looked like Corey was going to come over to their table; instead he waved at both him and Alexandria and continued on to the counter to make his selection.
"Wanna go?" Daniel pushed his empty ice cream dish aside and started to stand.
"Do you want to wait for Corey?" Alexandria asked softly.
Daniel realized that his actions right now could be the end all to his friendship with Corey. If he walked out, he was slighting his friend. If he waited, like he would have done a month ago before things had gone sour, then it meant he was making an effort towards rekindling their friendship.
The years he'd known Corey won over the memory of the stranger he'd become. Daniel slunk back down into the cheap plastic chair, stretched his legs before him under the table, and watched as Corey chose his ice cream and paid for it.
When Corey walked past their table, Daniel simply shoved one of the chairs with his leg in silent invitation. Busy licking his ice cream, Corey grabbed the chair with his free hand and dragged it further from the table so he could sit. The three of them didn't say anything, the easy camaraderie Daniel had always had with Corey seemed to be gone.
"So you're taking Cameron to the prom." Alexandria broke the awkward silence.
"Yeah." Corey's eyes grew dreamy. "I can't believe she said she'd go with me. I can't wait to see her in a bathing suit. I'm going to teach her how to swim—"
"Cameron can't swim?" Daniel grinned; considering what Cameron was made of, she'd probably sink to the bottom of the pool if she jumped in.
"No, the poor thing, she can't. So you guys will have to help me convince her that I can teach her." He looked at Daniel, his face earnest. "You are coming, aren't you?"
Although he hadn't quite made his decision, Daniel nodded slowly. Corey's quick answering grin eased any lasting doubts Daniel might have had. "My dad said I could go." He rubbed his arm, gently massaging the suddenly aching scabbed area.
"It's gonna be so cool." Corey grabbed Daniel's arm, the one he'd been rubbing. "Hey, when did you get the tat?"
"About a week or so ago."
"Cool. I never thought your dad would let you do that. I know my mom sure as hell wouldn't."
"His dad didn't," Alexandria said with a mischievous grin.
"Damn, what have I missed?" Corey leaned his elbows onto the table, greedily licking his ice cream. "So come on, spill," he grinned.
John sat there shocked, staring at Charley's email.
my wife, Michelle, left me two weeks ago. i got home one day and a few of her belongings were gone. instead of going to work, she got in the car and took off. no warnings no indication that she wasn't happy. no hints that she might have been seeing someone else. just BAM gone. no forwarding address. if i didn't know better i'd have said she was on the run from someone. or something. but we all know that lightning doesn't strike twice. i guess it must just be me.
sorry for sounding so maudlin. must have had one beer too many. and before you ask no i didn't report her to the police. i learned my lesson. if Michelle is in trouble all i can hope for is that she knows she can call me. if she's run off with a lover – well there's not much i can do about it now, is there.
John got up, still in shock, and walked across the hall. Cameron, who'd been sitting on her bed staring out the window, turned to him.
"Would a terminator go after someone who might have had a connection to me and Mom, you know, from years ago?" He leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and stuck his hands into his pockets.
"They might. To try and lure you out of hiding if they found someone close to you."
"I don't mean someone I actually know. But someone who married someone who was close to Mom."
"Charley Dixon?" she asked after a moment. "Did something happen to Charley?" There was true curiosity in her voice.
"No, not him. But his wife left him and..."
"Wives often leave their husbands."
"The situation's kind of similar to when mom and me left him eight years ago. She packed a few things and just left, without a note or explanation."
Cameron remained motionless for a few seconds. "I can't find any correlation to you and Michelle Dixon—"
"You know her?"
"Then how'd you know her name?"
"I looked it up."
"Do I want to know why?"
"No, not really."
John paused, trying not to think of why Cameron had an interest in Charley's wife. "So you think Cromartie might have gone after her?"
"That's not what I said."
"Then why did you look her up? You had to suspect something. Or did you just have some perverse curiosity about who my mom's lover would have chosen once Mom left him."
"In the future, Charley Dixon never married."
"What? Charley survived Judgment Day?" John surged forward, away from the doorjamb.
"And he never got marr—then something's changed. Something altered our timeline."
"Then what? What could it be?"
"His..." Suddenly things clicked, and not for the better. "You think Michelle's a cyborg?"
"I don't know for sure."
"If you saw a picture of her, would you recognize her?"
"She's not in my memory bank."
"But you might recognize her picture if you saw it."
"If I saw it, yes. Maybe."
"Okay. I'll ask Charley for a picture of his wife."
"It probably won't help."
"It won't hurt."
A moment later he was back at his laptop, typing away. He tried not to alarm Charley, only said he wanted a picture so that they could make sure, at this end, that lightning truly hadn't struck twice.
"Hey." Jack slapped his palm on the wall for good measure. Daniel, a lump on the bed, turned onto his back with a groan as he threw the blankets back. "Get a move on or you're gonna be late."
"I'm up," Daniel mumbled as he sat up and rubbed a hand over his face, shoving his hair out of his face.
"You feeling okay?"
"Yeah." Reaching for his glasses, Daniel squinted at the clock. "Shit. Didn't my alarm go off?"
"It went off thirty minutes ago. You must have turned it off and gone back to sleep."
Yawning, Daniel stood, all the while hitching up his pajama bottoms with one hand. "I don't remember turning it off." As he shuffled past, Jack caught his arm and stopped him before he could head to the bathroom. "No fever," he announced at the feel of normal temperature. "Now move your ass or you're going to miss your bus."
By the time Daniel hurried into the kitchen, ends of his ponytail damp and curling from the shower, Jack had finished dressing and was gathering the last of the documents he'd been reading over in preparation for an early-morning meeting. Still yawing, Daniel stuck his head into the fridge and came out with a small container of orange juice and a donut.
Jack grabbed his briefcase, waiting for Daniel to stuff several books and papers into his backpack with one hand, all the while chomping on the donut. They hurried outside and even before Jack could lock the door, he heard the telltale sounds of the school bus pulling up down the street.
"Shit." For a moment it looked like Daniel was going to try to make a run for the bus but through experience, knew they both knew he wouldn't make it.
"Get in," Jack snapped. He so didn't need being late this morning. Without a word, Daniel slid into the passenger seat, his backpack at his feet. "Maybe I should start cutting your internet off by ten to make sure you go to bed at a decent hour."
"I wasn't up that late." Daniel swallowed the last of his orange juice and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I guess I was just tired."
"Save it for someone else," Jack grumbled as he backed the Avalanche up out of the driveway.
"I wasn't, I swear."
Daniel sounded slightly panicky; Jack wasn't a fool, he understood how much of a lifeline the internet and his phone was to him. But the saying, all work and no play, certainly didn't mean staying up all night chatting and playing games.
They rode in silence, Jack breaking the awkwardness as he pulled up to the school. "Remember I'll probably be late tonight so Grandma's expecting you after school."
"I didn't forget," Daniel said sulkily. Grabbing his backpack, he opened the door and began to get out.
He stopped, half in and half out.
"You got lunch money?"
"Make sure you buy something half-decent for lunch, okay?" Jack tried for a smile, but his son just grunted something noncommittal before slamming the car door shut and heading for the main entrance.
"Have a good day," Jack said to himself as he pulled back into traffic.
John pulled back, startled, as Cassie waved her hand in front of his face. "Did you not hear anything I said?"
"Um..." John glanced at the others at the lunch table, hoping for a clue. Dria had an amused look on her face, Corey looked halfway sympathetic and Daniel just looked tired. As tired as John felt.
"Cassie asked what time the limo was picking us up," Cameron answered when nobody else did. "And whether you had remembered to order a yellow corsage to go with her dress, and if you had a favorite song because she had so many favorites, and if you'd ever traveled in a limousine before and was the limousine picking up Corey first, or us."
"Oh." John fought off the sleepiness and straightened up on his chair. "Yeah, I'm getting you a yellow corsage—"
"Good, because pink would clash and white is just too plain."
"I like lots of songs," he said evasively, because he couldn't remember the title of a single one at the moment. "And um..." He turned to Cameron again, forgetting the next question.
"Did you ever travel in a limousine?" Cassie repeated, grabbing John's hand and twining her fingers amongst his. "Hey, are you okay?"
"Yeah, why?" He stared at their joined hands in surprise.
"I don't know. You're just sorta off today." She squeezed his fingers and leaned over to kiss his cheek. "No fever," she announced, her large brown eyes just inches away from his. Her lips slowly stretched into a smile, and John's gaze was drawn to them.
"Oh, get a room, you two." Corey was grinning at them impishly.
John felt the blush start from the base of his neck and quickly race over his face as he pulled away. Cassie winked at him and sat back in her chair, but didn't let go of his hand.
"So, have you decided how you're going to wear your hair?" Cassie asked Cameron.
Cameron's face went blank for a split second before her processors figured out what Cassie was asking. "No. Do you have any suggestions?"
"You absolutely have to put your hair up," Dria stated, gathering her own abundant curls into a pile on top of her head, where half of them spilled down from her loose hold to frame her face. "We could do something like this, or you could try a chignon—"
"Why don't we go to my house after school today and try a few styles?" Cassie let go of John's hand, leaning towards Cameron and Alexandria. Cassie's fingers flew as she described the way she was going to do her hair. He tried to tune out their chatter, not the least bit interested.
"I can't wait for the limo ride." Corey's eyes lit up as he leaned forward, over the table, ignoring the girls. "I was thinking the best thing is for the limo to come to my house first, and then I could go pick up Cameron and John, and then we could go to Daniel's—"
"Wouldn't it make more sense if we all met at one person's house and the limo could pick us up there?" John asked, almost wishing for Saturday to be over and done with. All these preparations, he wasn't sure if it was going to be worth it. "Because it sounds like it's going to take forever before we all get picked up."
"Yeah. That way we could all be together and maybe ride around town for a little while before we got to the prom." Daniel pushed Cassie's hands away when she took his ponytail and tried to make a chignon out of it to show Cameron.
"Boys, boys." Dria leaned forward on the table. "Why don't Daniel, Cassie and I meet at Rose's? Cameron and John are already there and I'm sure Rose would love to see Daniel and me before we leave. Christian, Li and Nate can meet you at your place, Corey, along with their dates. The limo can pick you guys up first and then come to Rose's and pick us up."
"That's a great idea." Corey beamed at Cassie. "I'll tell the others."
"Do you want me to pick you up?" John asked Cassie. The smile she gave him blew him away, his fatigue forgotten for a moment.
"Thanks, but I think my mom's gonna want to drive me. Just be prepared, guys. Mom's already bought a new memory card for her camera."
The bell rang, and the girls groaned as they realized they had to postpone the rest of their plans till later this afternoon.
With a satisfied grunt, Daniel slammed his textbook shut and shoved it into his backpack. Homework tonight seemed to take forever. A glance at his watch confirmed that it had taken him longer than normal to complete his assignments. The earlier sleepiness and lethargy was gone, now he felt tense and hyper, almost as if he'd had too much coffee.
He put his school stuff away and changed into his pajamas. He was debating going down to see if his dad was watching anything interesting when his cell rang.
"Hey," Daniel said when he saw John's caller ID.
"Is your computer on?"
"Yeah. Why?" He paced around his bedroom, trying to work off the nervous energy.
"I'm going to send you something."
"Charley emailed me. We've been talking, you know. Well, not really talking, talking, but text messaging, emails—"
"I know. You mentioned that you were keeping in touch." He stopped by the window and pushed the curtain aside, peering into the backyard.
"The past little while, he's been sounding a little different. A little... down? So last night I asked him what was wrong and he told me his wife had left him."
"No shit?" He dropped the curtain, no longer interested in what was outside.
"Ironic, isn't it? Mom left him and now his wife. But get this. I was a little worried that maybe a... you know what... had gone after her. Traced Charley back to me because I'd emailed him and..."
Daniel felt a frisson of fear start from the base of his spine and work its way up. "Did it?"
"I don't know. That's not the creepy part. Check your email."
Daniel hurried to his laptop and brought up John's email. There was an attachment, and he clicked on it.
"Do you recognize her?"
"It's Ms. Cromwell." In the picture, the school nurse was smiling up at a man. Middle aged, the man was looking at her with a matching smile.
"Yeah. And that's her husband. Charley Dixon."
Daniel sat there, staring at the photograph, trying to figure out why John's friend's wife would have left him and come here to Colorado Springs. Then it hit him. "She's looking for you, isn't she?"
"I don't know. But if she's connected with the future, then Charley would have been the most logical person to latch onto in the hopes that Mom would get in touch with him."
"The machines really don't know anything about people, do they?"
"Actually, they may know us better than we think. Because look, she's here, isn't she? Because I broke one of Mom's rules and kept in touch with Charley."
"But you don't know if that's the case."
"It can't be a coincidence."
"Did you ask Cameron if she recognized her?"
"No, not yet. She's not here right now."
"Then that's the first thing you have to do. And we have to tell someone."
"I have to tell Charley—"
"No, you can't—"
"I have to. He's... She's his wife."
"And she could be a machine."
"Or not. Maybe it's something else. Maybe, I don't know, she's a spy, working for the FBI and she traced us here—"
"The President dropped all the charges. The FBI aren't interested in you anymore—"
"Then some other agency. Or she's some sort of psychotic killer and she's jealous of my mom. I don't know—"
"Let me tell my dad—"
"Your dad wants to date Charley's wife. Do you think he's going to believe you? He's going to think it's some elaborate scheme to make him not like her."
"John, this could be important."
"I know. Let me think about it. Wait until I talk to Cameron."
"I can't not tell my dad—"
"Wait till morning."
"Tomorrow, okay? We'll talk about it tomorrow."
"John, I don't like this."
"If she were after us, she'd have made a move already. If she's involved with the machines, she has to know who we are. Maybe she's like Derek. He might know her. He's working late at the SGC. I'll ask him when he comes home, okay?"
"Okay," Daniel said reluctantly. He hung up and stared at the picture for a while. There was no mistaking it; Mrs. Charley Dixon was also Ms. Cromwell.
"Where'd you get that picture?"
Daniel jumped, never having heard his father come into his bedroom. "John sent it to me." As big as life, the nurse's face filled his widescreen monitor. She was pretty hard to miss.
"Don't you think that's infringing on someone's privacy?"
"Actually, Dad, there's something you need to know—"
"Is this your way of trying to get me out of dating Michelle?"
"Yeah. I asked her out on Saturday—"
"Saturday's the prom—"
"I know. I'm taking Michelle out for supper while you go and enjoy yourself at the dance." His dad's tone indicated there would be no discussion about this.
"Dad, she's married."
"No, married. She left her husband just a few weeks ago—"
"And you know this, how?" his dad demanded angrily.
Daniel began talking quickly, getting the words out as fast as he could before his father could interrupt. He conveyed everything John had told him, only realizing after he was finished that he'd broken John's confidence. His dad was staring at the photo, the anger gone, a hard frown replacing the set jaw and glaring eyes.
"She doesn't act like Cameron."
"They're infiltrators. They're programmed to fit in."
"Then why doesn't Cameron act like a normal sixteen year-old?"
"She does. At school. She fits in pretty good; everyone likes her. She just acts the way she does when she's not pretending."
"So you think Michelle is a terminator? What does Cameron say?"
"She doesn't know. John didn't tell anyone except me. He was going to talk to Cameron and Derek but they're not home."
His father rubbed his face with his palm. "I need to call Hammond. I don't think we can take any chances."
"You can't go after her without Cameron. If she's a machine, you're going to need her help."
"We got Carter's doohickey."
"It's not working yet, is it? And how are you going to turn her off without Cameron's help?"
"We're still working on that," his dad said as he left the room.
"I told my dad," Daniel said the moment John answered his cell. "I had no choice. He walked in and saw the picture you emailed me."
There was a long silence at the other end. "What's he going to do?" John finally asked.
"He's calling General Hammond."
"Then I better go warn my mom."
"Hey, not your fault. Thanks for the heads' up."
"See you tomorrow."
The nervous energy hadn't abated; Daniel felt like he was about to jump out of his skin. He wished it wasn't so late; going out for a run might have helped tire him out. He paced around in his room, puttering, picking things up, putting them down. He got bored after a few minutes and left the bedroom, partly to find something to do and partly to see if he could listen in on his father's conversation. He walked into the hallway just as his father was coming up the stairs leading from the den.
"I'm going to the mountain for a few hours. You gonna be okay by yourself, or do you want me to drive you to Grandma's?"
He was about to ask to go to his grandma's; John was there, they could talk, but the energy left him as fast as it had come. Just the thought of having to grab clean clothes for school tomorrow and pack his schoolbag, in case his dad's few hours ended up being most of the night, was daunting. "I'll stay," he decided.
After nuking a bag of popcorn and grabbing a Snapple from the fridge, Daniel made his way downstairs and settled in front of the television. He managed a few small handfuls of popcorn and put the bag aside as he flicked through the channels. Settling on a comedy, he lay back on the couch and watched without interest.
Armed with a printout of Michelle Dixon's picture, John walked into his mom's bedroom.
"Do you know who this is?" He handed his mom the photo.
"No. Should I?"
"She's Charley's wife."
His mom's eyebrows rose and she gave him a warning look. "And you're telling me this because...?"
"She left Charley a few weeks ago, just before she showed up in school as our new school nurse."
"She left Char—school nurse?"
"Kinda coincidental, isn't it?"
"Why would she come here—Oh, my God."
"We don't have proof she's a cyborg—"
"Charley. I have to... She might have—"
"Charley's fine. He's the one who sent me the picture."
His mom blinked at him. "Charley sent you his wife's picture? First of all, how did he know where you were and second, why would he send you her picture?"
John swallowed his nervousness and blurted out the truth. "I've been in touch with him since his birthday."
His mom tapped her finger several times on her jean-clad leg. "I guess reminding you of our rules is a little pointless at the moment."
"She has to be a cyborg, Mom. Why else would she leave Charley and come to Colorado Springs?"
"I don't know." His mom rubbed her fingertips along the edges of her nose. "Maybe because someone who's supposed to be dead got in touch with Charley and his wife found out about it?"
"You think she came here because she's jealous of you so she up and left her husband, got a job at the same school I'm enrolled in and is spying on us? I'm the one who got in touch with Charley, not you."
"Okay, that scenario might be overkill." Sighing, his mom picked up the picture and studied it. "You're sure this is the same woman?"
"Yeah. Colonel O'Neill saw it and he recognized her as the school nurse."
"All right." She patted the mattress next to her. "How about you tell me how he got his hands on that picture before I knew about it and how he knows your school nurse."
John only managed to get the basics out before the phone rang.
"I've gotta go," his mom told him after she hung up.
It was past midnight, actually closer to one by the time Jack made it home again. He locked up, turning off the lights as he headed for his bedroom. Daniel's door was open, the light on, and nobody in the bed. Following the faint murmur of the television, Jack went downstairs to the den.
Daniel turned his head lethargically to watch Jack descend the last steps and walk towards him. "Shouldn't you be in bed?" The only illumination was from the television and the light flared in Daniel's glasses, hiding his eyes from Jack.
"Not tired." Daniel punctuated those two words with a yawn.
"You look tired to me."
"What happened at the meeting?" Daniel sat up slowly and reached for the remote.
Jack turned on the nearest light when Daniel turned the television off. "We're not making a move until Carter's finished tinkering with her ray gun. If Michelle's a cyborg, then going after her in a school is out of the question. Hammond's got a couple of people watching her house. If Carter's toy is ready by tomorrow night, we'll hit the house then with Cameron and deactivate her."
Daniel stood up, rubbing at his eyes. "Do you think she's one of them?"
"Her actions aren't rational. If she is a cyborg, we don't know what her mission is. Cameron pointed out that she didn't kill the husband, which means she hasn't finished with him. Sarah's been trying to get in touch with Charley Dixon but he's not home. Teal'c and Sheppard are flying out to LA to take him to a safe house until this is over, just in case."
Daniel yawned, actually swaying backwards a moment with the force of his yawn.
"Okay, to bed with ya." He gave his son a gentle prod towards the stairs, and Daniel didn't resist. "Don't forget to make sure your alarm clock's set." Daniel nodded, too busy yawning again to answer. Even though Jack would be going in later tomorrow to make up the sleep lost at the impromptu meeting, he knew he would have to get up with his alarm in the morning just to make sure Daniel didn't miss his bus again.
"Mr. Baum. If you could please rejoin the class and leave the daydreaming to when you're on your own time?"
Mr. McNamara's nasal grating, followed by a couple of snorts and giggles all around, pulled John away from the half-doze he'd been close to attaining. He straightened slowly, muscles and joints aching enough to make even sitting in class uncomfortable. "Sorry." The teacher watched him for a moment before returning to the subject he'd been boring the class with.
The day had seemed longer than ever, his attention span nearly non-existent. Thankfully Mr. McNamara was going over stuff already in the textbooks because if asked to repeat anything the teacher had said today in class, John would be at a total loss.
The bell finally rang and John got up and filed out with the other kids. He felt stiff and lethargic, and had fought off sleepiness all day long. At his locker he gathered the books he needed for his homework, shut his locker and then halfway down the hallway, realized he'd forgotten two of them. He went back, fiddled with his lock, got his locker open, found his books and slammed his locker shut in frustration. He shouldered his backpack and turned to leave.
He froze, coming face to face with Michelle Cromwell. Charley's wife. The person whom the SGC were keeping a watch on. He didn't know what to say, what to do. She stared at him with the same blank expression Cameron wore. The same one Cromartie had worn when he'd cornered him in the school yard in New Mexico, pointing a gun at him while he crouched helpless between two parked cars. John was posed to run and nearly took the first step away, when she smiled at him.
"Careful. Better watch where you're going." She sidestepped him and his bulging backpack and moved on. John turned to watch her walk, her hips swaying seductively from side to side, as if she knew he was watching her. Just as she turned the corner, she glanced back at him, the same blank expression back on her face. Then she disappeared.
He ran. Hurrying outside, he spotted Daniel just as he was getting onto his bus. He yelled Daniel's name, all earlier fatigue and lassitude gone. "We need to talk," he said, grabbing Daniel's arm and pulling him away from the bus.
"Hey. The bus is leaving in five minutes." Daniel made a half-hearted attempt to pull away but stopped when John spoke again.
"Ms. Cromwell came right up to me," he hissed. "She knew. I know she knew who I was. But she didn't do or say anything."
"My dad's probably working late. I'll go with you to my grandma's." Together both boys jogged towards John's bus, where Cameron was waiting for them.
"You nearly missed your bus," she scolded as the boys ran up the steps and grabbed the first free seats they could find. Cameron entered the bus more sedately, finding an empty seat near the middle.
Neither John nor Daniel spoke, not daring to say anything amongst the crush of students surrounding them. As the bus pulled out, John scanned the area, searching for the military personnel who were watching Michelle Dixon. He saw a few likely candidates; a parked van which could hold monitoring equipment. A repair truck parked down the street. Parked cars with people sitting in them; parents, waiting for their children or spies sitting out in the open. Then the bus turned and the school was no longer in sight.
Sitting in the bus, the earlier fatigue crept up on him again. By the time his stop came up, he was fighting sleep once more. He grabbed his backpack, exchanged a look with Daniel, and they went to the front of the bus.
"I should tell my grandmother I'm here and leave a message with my dad letting him know where I am. I'll come over and see you in about fifteen minutes?"
"I'll be waiting."
"Michelle... Ms. Cromwell knows," John said as soon as he and Cameron walked into the house. He dropped his backpack by the front door then locked it, following Cameron as she did a walk through. "Did you hear me?"
"She knows you're John Connor." Cameron stopped, turned and John brought himself up short to save from crashing into the terminator.
"She didn't kill you."
John threw his arms opened wide. "Obviously."
Cameron canted her head and studied him. "Her mission takes precedence over killing you."
"Oh. I'm not sure if that makes me feel better or not."
"I would think better. If she'd killed you, you wouldn't be feeling—"
"Anything. I know. I'd be dead. Never mind, it was just a turn of phrase."
"Thank you for explaining."
"Pleasure," John said, rubbing his head. Cameron reached out an inquiring hand, but John pushed it aside. "No."
Cameron didn't object to being brushed off and John had the strangest feeling that when he least expected it, she was going to be attempting her little trick again. He hated when she did that, because the gentleness of her touch belied the invasive reasoning behind it.
He sat on the couch, lethargically flipping through the stations. Cameron stood at the window, probably watching and waiting for Daniel. John hoped Rose would delay his arrival so he would be able to close his eyes for maybe a few seconds to just take the edge off his inexplicable tiredness. Against his better judgment, John stretched out on the couch, rested his head in the crook of his arm and promised himself he was just relaxing.
Relaxing lasted what seemed to be seconds.
John came awake slowly, batting at the hand on his shoulder. "Five more minutes," he mumbled, trying to turn away from the intrusion.
"Don't make me get Cameron. Or better yet, Cassie, to give you a wake up call."
Groaning, he flipped onto his back. "Jackson."
"Yeah." With a smile he opened his eyes. "Daniel."
"Are you awake now?"
God, it felt like he could sleep for eight hours. "Awake. I'm awake." He levered himself onto his elbows.
Daniel dropped into the recliner, flipped it up and stared at John.
"Cromwell. Michelle..." Daniel paused and then rolled his hand. "Connecting the dots yet, Johnny?"
"Coming back to you now?"
John sat up, rubbed his forehead and tried but failed to stifle a yawn. "Don't call me Johnny."
"Don't call me Jackson."
Exasperated, John shook his head. "Are you sure we don't kill each other before Judgment Day?"
"You don't," Cameron interjected.
"Damn, I gotta call my mother before she," John dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell, "calls me." He rolled his eyes. "Already three voice messages from—" The phone rang. John glanced at the caller ID then flipped the phone for Daniel and Cameron. "Four calls."
"Better answer that before she sends the entire mountain to see what you're doing."
"Hi, Mom. Guess who I bumped into today at school."
"You want something to eat?"
"No, my grandmother made sure I wouldn't starve. Thanks anyway." The freshly baked cookies his grandmother had offered had tasted as great as they'd smelled, but now, as Daniel rubbed a hand across his belly, they definitely weren't sitting right.
John took a box of cereal from the cabinet and shook it. "Are you sure? Lucky Charms. Store brand. More than enough to go around."
Daniel shook his head and watched as John poured himself a bowl of cereal. Steady hands. Slow nonchalant attitude, his friend was definitely working damned hard at burying the fear, or whatever it had been, when he'd bumped into Michelle earlier. "What did your mother say?"
John got out a container of milk, opened the top, sniffed it then poured it over the cereal. "What did she say? Before or after she yelled and got done cursing?" John stirred the cereal as if it suddenly wasn't as appealing as it had been.
"Just the highlights would be fine." Daniel's father had had a few choice words for the situation. Daniel glanced up and smiled at Cameron, none of which would be fit for even a terminator's ears.
"She wanted to rush home, pack up and leave." John tossed the cereal into the garbage and dropped the bowl and spoon into the sink. "Got as far as telling me to pack one bag and gather up the weapons before Derek reined in her enthusiasm on that subject. Kinda seems strange that he's the one being sensible."
The three of them sat at the dining room table doing homework. Cameron was destroying Daniel's concentration by frequently getting up, walking around the house, checking the windows and doors before returning. John didn't even glance up, oblivious.
Daniel slammed the book closed as Cameron rose yet again. She stopped. John looked up, puzzled.
Suddenly, Daniel felt incredibly guilty over his short temperedness. "Nothing. Just getting a little frustrated."
"Maybe I can help," Cameron offered.
John glanced up. "English? Let Cameron be your best friend. Verb conjugation is my enemy."
Daniel allowed Cameron to help with English, with Math, with Global History and pretty much every other subject he had homework in just because somewhere between his grandmother's cookies and now, he'd lost all ability to form a coherent thought process. And John. John hadn't turned a page in the book in front of him for almost an hour. As a matter of fact, Daniel didn't even think John was awake.
"Hmmmm." John lifted his head and slowly blinked at Daniel. "Problem?"
"Thought you'd fallen asleep."
"Nope. Still here, trying to understand exactly why we're going to need this type of math in the future." He glanced towards Cameron. "Do we need this? Tell me now before I waste any more time—"
"I'd rather tell you later."
"You know something," John said with a shake of his head, "don't let anyone ever say you don't have a sense of humor, Cameron."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Daniel said, stuffing his books into his backpack. "Are you sure?" His grandmother had called, extending an invitation for John and Cameron to join them for dinner, but John had politely refused and Daniel was jealous, wishing he could also tell his grandmother that he didn't really want dinner. Or anything else to eat.
"Sure? My Mom said she'd be bringing pizza home. Pepperoni."
Daniel's favorite. But not today. The way his stomach was feeling, Daniel didn't think anything was making his favorite list. "Nah, my grandmother would be upset."
"Do you want me to walk you to your grandmother's," Cameron asked.
Daniel and John shared a tolerant smile. "Thanks, but I think I can manage. I promise to look both ways before I cross."
"But that doesn't mean Daniel wouldn't appreciate your company, Cameron."
Daniel had been pissed, he'd baulked and John was pretty damn sure there was going to be some pretty nasty text messages from Daniel in the near future. He didn't care. John was freaked out about Michelle especially since he wasn't the primary mission. Which meant it was someone else. Like maybe Daniel.
John stood by the window, curtain pushed to the side, watching Cameron cautiously walk Daniel across the street. Daniel glanced over his shoulder, John waved and in response Daniel flipped him the bird, thanking John for his escort.
John didn't turn away from the window until Daniel was tucked safely inside Rose's house and then he sighed and shuffled into the kitchen to set the table.
"Are you okay, John?"
Forks in one hand, napkins in the other, John just nodded. "Put some glasses on the table."
"Because I asked you to?"
Cameron didn't move. "You never set the table. When your mother asks, you always manage to find some excuse so you don't—"
"Forget I asked, okay?" John threw down the forks and napkins. He didn't want to set the table. He didn't want to eat pizza. He didn't want to go to school tomorrow. He didn't want to go to the stupid prom. It had been easier when there weren't any friends to worry about. Or other people in their lives. Worrying about others was just too damned hard.
John counted to ten after slamming his bedroom door, waiting for Cameron to burst in with no regard to personal space. But she didn't show. Part of him was disappointed while the other part, the part that won out, was glad she'd gotten his not so subtle hint and backed off, giving him enough breathing room to have his temper tantrum in the confines of these four walls.
John paced while he dug his phone out and dialed Charley, hanging up when his voice mail clicked on. He sent a short text message first to Charley, then a sarcastic apologetic one to Daniel and finally a short one to Cassie. Ten minutes later no one had answered.
Fifteen minutes after that a slamming door, followed by loud voices cut through his sleep. Great. John stretched with a groan and his muscles physically protested, burning as if he'd just finished a hard soccer practice. He felt old and achy. Feverish without the fever.
John was just sitting up when his mother burst into the room, knocking as she opened the door.
"Come in." Which was a ridiculous thing to say, because she was already in the room, inches from his bed.
"You're lying down?" Without waiting for an answer, she rested her hand on the back of his neck then on his forehead. "You're not warm. Not feverish."
"No," John said, skirting out from under her touch, "just tired I guess."
"Maybe you need to turn off that computer before sunrise."
John held his tongue, tempted to say that the majority of time he spent on his computer was her doing, but he valued his life a little too much.
"Charley's gone," she blurted out.
John couldn't breathe. Couldn't swallow. Couldn't speak. "My fault," he squeaked.
"Oh, God. Shit." His mother sat down on the bed. "Charley's disappeared."
John blinked. "Not dead?"
"I hope not." There were tears in her eyes.
"What did I do? I never should've..."
She grabbed his shoulders and shook. "John Connor, you've done nothing."
"How many people have to die for us to succeed? Weren't those your words?"
"He's not dead."
John scrubbed at his eyes. "Then where is he?"
"I wish I knew."
His mother and Derek stood in the kitchen, flanking Cameron as if waiting for John to make the choice who was going to accompany her to the SGC the next day for Sam to perform a second test. "Can Derek drive me and Cameron to the SGC?"
"You and Cameron?"
John bristled. "Yeah, Mom. You don't think that I'm going—"
"Stay home, get a good night's sleep and go to school tomorrow. That's exactly what I think you're going to do."
"Being out again will put you on the radar, John. I need you to go to school and lie to Corey where I am." Wonderful, now Cameron was turning on him.
"Lie to Corey? Tell him what?"
Cameron glanced at his mother who shrugged. "You can tell him I have cramps but that it won't affect—"
John ignored Derek's snort and just threw his hands up. "I'm not telling Corey that you have—"
"Mom, are you sure I can't go and help Major Carter shoot a big gun at Cameron?"
He ate a slice of cold pizza, picked off the unappealing pepperoni and paid no attention to his mother. "The pepperoni is disgusting."
"Want me to heat it up for you?"
"I'll save it for breakfast." He closed the lid, tucking the slots into the sides.
She leaned over and kissed his temple, taking him by surprise. "Go to bed."
"Will be fine."
"I'm not tired."
"Liar," she said with soft affection.
"I'm not tired," he repeated, the words losing their meaning when he yawned. "Maybe I'll just shower," John conceded, kissing her lightly on the cheek as he walked past her. "Mom?"
"Cameron will be fine, John." She opened the drawer, took out the tinfoil and ripped off a sheet with more force than necessary.
"It's not Cameron I'm worried about."
"I know you're not, but I can't give you an answer about Charley. As much as I want to tell you everything will be okay, I can't lie." She turned to face him, the sheet of tinfoil crushed to her chest. "Not like the tin miss can. Not about this."
John wished that she could lie, like when he was younger. A hug, a pat, a kiss and an 'everything will be fine' got John through many long years of constant moving, always looking over their shoulders. He'd known, even as a kid, the thinly veiled truths in his mother's words, but that didn't mean he didn't need them any less now. "I'm going to go shower."
John fell asleep on his bed without even showering and he woke groggy and disorientated, unsure of where he was. What town? What house? The entire nine yards. He knew the drill, this wasn't the first time he'd woken with his head up his ass. Lying on his side, John closed his eyes and began to replay the pieces of today's puzzle until there was a complete picture.
The house was quiet, the clock on the nightstand glowed eleven forty seven. He wasn't tired, not anymore. But he was hungry and as confirmation, his empty stomach growled long and loud.
John stuck his head into his mother's room. For the moment, she was sound asleep so he closed her door and stealthily crept down the stairs to the kitchen, where a note, in his mother's handwriting, sat on the kitchen table, propped up against the napkin holder.
You shouldn't be up, but if you are, don't eat the pizza unless you heat it up. Cereal would be a better choice. Or a turkey sandwich. But what do I know, I'm only your mother.
John rolled his eyes, but acquiesced and took down the box of cereal from the kitchen cabinet, opened the top and began to eat it dry as he continued to read.
Milk would be better on your cereal, but cereal is better than pizza this time of night (day?) so I'm not going to argue.
Yeah, right, John thought as he chewed through another handful of cereal.
The SGC called. Sam needed to make some readjustments, so Cameron definitely will be suffering from cramps today.
John tossed the note and the rest of his handful of cereal into the garbage. He hated when his mother traipsed through his brain and for spite, John opened the fridge and took out a tin foiled covered triangle.
He walked around the house, antsy. Television on. Television off. A magazine. A movie started then switched off. Schoolwork, taking a bite of pizza every time he moved onto a new activity until the slice was gone and sitting not so well in his stomach.
John squinted at the microwave clock. Caught between a rock and a hard place, sleep or toss and turn in bed. Maybe now would be a good idea for the skipped shower and then decide if he wanted to toss and turn or finish the end of the DVD.
John stopped and listened. Maybe it was exhaustion that had him hearing things until the slight knocking became downright banging. Then pounding. Without thinking, John stuck his hand under the couch cushion, found the weapon, released the safety then—
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
John turned, gun raised at the ready. "Shit, Mom. I..."
"Yeah, that's what I thought," she said, walking past him after plucking the weapon from his hand as she headed toward the door.
He stood there, feeling like an incompetent idiot as his mother pushed the curtain aside and peered outside.
"Charley?" And then she hesitated.
John was at the door before her. He fumbled with the locks, his fingers caught up in the excitement and refusing to obey him.
"John, don't. What if it's not—"
He felt the brush of his mother's hand as she reached for him but he was faster, managing the last lock then jerking open the door. Like a kid, he threw himself at Charley just as Charley stepped over the threshold into their home.
But Charley didn't reciprocate. Embarrassed and confused, John moved back. "Charley?"
"Where's my wife?"
"Michelle? We know where she is. We can help you—"
"Shut up, John." His mother walked behind Charley, closing and locking the door, the berretta never wavering. "We can't help him do anything, can we, Charley?"
"Where's Michelle?" Charley repeated.
His mother said nothing and that was unfair, Charley didn't deserve this. This was their fault. Actually, just his fault. "I... We were worried about you." John shot a glance towards his mother for confirmation.
"Are you okay?" she asked softly.
"Okay?" Charley's laughter had an edge of hysteria, something John had never seen. The man who'd been dragged into this whole mess against his consent had never lost his cool. The man who'd never raised his voice to the juvenile delinquent his mother had brought into their relationship was now beyond furious. "No, I'm not okay." Charley spun around so he was facing his mother, ignoring the gun pointed at his chest. "I rue the day I ever met you, Sarah Reese... Connor... or whatever fuckin' name you're going by. You just should've stayed dead. You and," Charley shot John a glance, "your son. I had eight years of peace. I dealt with your deaths. Mourned the both of you. Got on with my life. Got married. Why the hell did you come back—"
"Michelle is a terminator."
John blinked, not at his mother's words, but at the sorrow in her tone. A million 'sorries' and it was just enough to cut through Charley's tirade.
"A scary robot," Charley admitted with a tired sigh. Without waiting for an invite, Charley walked all the way into the house and dropped down onto the sofa. "Why?"
"We don't know yet." The gun never left his mother's hands, but she relaxed, the hand holding her gun falling laxly by her side. "She's changed her name. Became the school nurse at John's school."
Charley's head shot up. "She wants John?"
John averted his face from the accusatory expression Charley wore. All his fault.
"We don't think John's the target. She had plenty of opportunity to—"
"Where is she?"
"We have her under surveillance."
Charley's glance darted around the room. "Your very scary robot is watching my scary robot?"
John nodded. "Yeah, kinda."
Charley scrubbed his face with his hands. "Where's Michelle?"
"She's a terminator—"
"That's what you say she is now. What happened to the..." Charley licked his lips, swallowing hard, and John saw it for what it was, a strong man trying to regain composure. "The woman I married?"
John thought of Barbara Chamberlain and Jessica Peck and wondered for an instant if the real Michelle was lying decomposing and undiscovered in a ditch somewhere. "The—"
"Michelle was always a terminator."
"No." Charley's denial was swift. "That's a lie. I mean I would've known. I slept with—"
"It's what they do," John answered by rote, wondering if believing that the woman you loved and fucked was a machine was better than believing she'd been killed and replaced with a machine and you hadn't noticed. "They infiltrate."
"Ever meet her family, Charley?"
"Pictures. She was an only child. Her parents died before we met." His eyes widened. "Oh. She had no one but—"
"You?" John asked.
"Her job. She was a nurse and was—"
"Excellent, wasn't she?"
Realization hit incrementally, John saw it. Saw the devastation. The betrayal was aimed at him and his mother. "I'm sorry."
"Not as sorry as I am." Hurriedly, Charley stood and got two steps before his mom grabbed his arm.
"Where are you going? She's still out there. We still don't know her mission objective. It's not safe."
"She didn't kill me all those years we were together, why would she—"
"Please don't go," his mom begged.
Charley faltered. "I have nowhere... No one..."
"You have us."
Charley gazed at him and his mother. "You and John are what got me into this in the first place."
"Stay," she repeated, firmer, with more authority, in a tone John was more than familiar with.
There was a moment's hesitation and John wasn't sure if Charley was going to run or if his mom was even going to stop him if he did.
Deflated, Charley buried his face in his hands. Quietly, his mother placed the gun on the coffee table, wrapped her arms around her ex-fiancé and whispered to him, words that were too softly spoken for John to hear.
"You look like shit." So much like her mother, Cassie's hand rested on his cheek, worry in her eyes as she visually assessed and checked for fever. "Are you okay?"
"Just tired. Really tired. I should've stayed home from school today tired." John nodded, closed his eyes and rested his head on Cassie's shoulder as he slumped down in the uncomfortable bus seat. "Wake me when we get to school."
"Drool on my new shirt and you're dead meat." A gentle kiss that ruffled his hair removed the heat of her words.
John had never fit in. The closest he'd every coming to settling into a house or school, or just life in general, were the two years in Nebraska. Colorado was a fluke, and something he'd been searching for for sixteen years, but he knew it wouldn't last, nothing ever did. Michelle. Charley. The tentative foundation of the past few months was already starting to crumble. But he was going to fight for this, dig his heels and hold on by the skin of his teeth if need be. He wasn't giving up this life without a battle.
"No. Not snoring." John gave a muffled groan of annoyance that Cassie was interrupting his naptime.
"Yes, you are. People are turning around. See? Nate's making faces. I should've let Dria drive me to school."
"Just jealous." John put his arm around the front of her waist and nuzzled her neck, surprised at how comfortable he could manage to get on a moving yellow school bus.
"PDA?" Cassie gave an indignant little snort. "From you?" She squeezed the fingers of his hand. "You must be dreaming. Either that, or I am."
Daniel didn't think it was possible for anyone to be or look more tired that he did, but John had him beat. Not by much, but by enough that even Daniel had to ask, "Are you okay, man?"
John cast a lethargic, furtive peek over both shoulders before answering. "Charley showed up at my house yesterday... last night... this morning. Early this morning. Very early this morning."
Daniel leaned across the lunch room table. "And?" he whispered.
John shrugged. "He's angry. Pissed. Blamed me and my—"
"You had nothing to do with all this."
John picked up a French fry, dragged it through a mound of ketchup then just dropped it on the plate. "I think if I were in his shoes, I'd blame us also. Or at least me. All comes down to me."
"Here come Alexandria and Cassie, wanna invite them to your pity party?"
"Fuck you, Jackson."
"Play nicely," Alexandria said, sliding into the seat next to Daniel. "Or at least release all your male testosterone on the soccer field this afternoon."
Daniel's heart sunk. "Crap, I totally forgot."
Cassie bumped John's shoulder. "Sleeping Beauty, think you can stay up for soccer?"
John whispered something in Cassie's ear and she blushed a brilliant shade of red.
"Jeezus, Baum," Corey said, dropping his tray on the table. "What the hell did you say to Cassie?" He leaned down and stuck his face into hers "She's blushing. Didn't think anyone had the capability of making her—"
Her hue turned an even deeper shade.
"I never realized that red was your color, Cass," Daniel said innocently.
"Shut up, Daniel, unless you want me to drag Lumpy into the conversation."
Daniel could feel the heat of his own blush.
"Who's Lumpy?" Alexandria asked suspiciously.
"What," Cassie corrected evilly. "What's Lumpy would be the correct question."
Daniel threatened her with a French fry. "Can it, Fraiser, I know where all your skeletons are buried."
Cassie plucked a French fry from John's plate and crossed it across the one Daniel held in his fingers. "En garde," she said, raising her right hand in a fencing pose.
"That's my fry," John objected, reaching out, trying to grab it.
"Shush, I'm going into battle." Her glance slid over to John's plate. "You have a whole pile of fries all uneaten. You'll never miss this one."
Daniel mimicked her pose and spoke in a horribly thick accent. "My name ees Danielle Jack-son, are you prepar-ed to die?"
Alexandria reached over and patted John's hand. "Don't worry. I found if you ignore them, they do have a tendency to go away."
John glowered at them.
"Don't." Alexandria smacked his hand. "If you give them any attention, they'll just go on forever."
"Screw this." Corey reached over, grabbed the fry from Cassie's hand and shoved it in his mouth. "I'm just going to disarm them."
"Baum. Jackson." The coach slammed the clipboard against his left thigh as he paced the sidelines. "If I'm getting sick and tired of calling your names, just think how your teammates feel."
Daniel was bent at the waist, hands against his knees, breathing heavily. Screw his teammates, he couldn't stand the coaching calling attention to his fuckups one more time.
John was sitting on the grass, rubbing his calf at the exact spot where Daniel's cleat had made contact. There had been a ball there seconds before he'd made contact. He was a better player than that, but his reflexes were off today. Way off. "Okay, man?" Daniel could only pray that John would be up on his feet before the coach made his way across the field.
"Baum, do you need a band aid?" the coach yelled. "Walk it off."
Daniel straightened slowly and offered John his hand. "Sorry."
John accepted Daniel's assistance and stood with a groan, shaking out his leg. "Didn't mean to get in your way." He limped in small circle.
"Didn't mean to—"
"Girls, I don't mean to interrupt, but if you're done comparing hairstyling tips, could you possibly get back to the practice? I mean, if that's alright?"
Daniel averted his face from the team's hoots, hollers and wolf whistles, but not before he saw John's face tighten into an angry mask.
Every part of Daniel hurt, even his eyelashes, and he'd never been so thankful to see a practice end.
After the coach's remarks, John had played silently. Daniel knew his skills well enough to know that he was holding back.
"They're just words," Daniel whispered as they crossed the field towards the lockers.
John glared at him.
Daniel stopped and threw his hands up. "What the fuck's your problem?"
"I'm stupid. This is stupid. I should've gone home instead of staying here." He kicked the ground, dislodging a mound of grass with his cleats. "I have no right to be here. I should be home. Charley. Cameron. What the hell was I doing out there—"
"I don't know, Baum, what were you doing out there?" the coach asked, coming up behind them. "Because what you were doing wouldn't be considered playing soccer by any definition of the word."
Daniel met John's gaze and he saw his own pain and exhaustion reflected back. The coach's words were going to spark John's smoldering emotion. "A family friend unexpectedly dropped by John's house and—"
"Daniel—" John hissed then stepped in front of the coach. "Look, obviously I'm not pulling my weight on the team. Maybe I need to—"
"Just go home. John just needs to go home."
The coach's expression softened. "You should've just said something, son. I would've excused you. Why don't you go hit the showers?" He clapped a hand on John's shoulder and winked. "Meanwhile, I'm going to have a word or two with Jackson."
John hesitated. He was pissed that Daniel had lied and come to his aid. Pissed that he felt like crap. Pissed that his leg hurt like a sonovabitch. "It was a mutual family friend. And his..." John swallowed, trying to get past the lie, "wife just died."
"Awww, damn it, boys. Make me feel like crap. Go," he said, pointing to the lockers with the clipboard. "Hit the showers."
"Thank you, sir."
"You better not be lying about something like that." The warning was couched in a thinly veiled threat.
John bristled. "Not something I'd ever lie about, sir."
John ran his hand through his wet hair, zipped up his hoodie, pulled out his cell phone and for what seemed the hundredth time, sent a text message to his mother. He waited impatiently for the response, but there was none. Damn. Derek's cell phone was ornamental, the man rarely used it. So as a last resort, John tried calling and texting Charley. Nothing.
Fuck. He bounced from one leg to the other, pissed off and cold. The shower after practice had been rushed, he barely made acquaintance with the soap, but it had obviously been enough to chill him to the bone and, of course, the late bus was, well, late.
"Alexandria's giving me a lift home."
As much as a lift home would be a godsend, John was still pissed at Daniel. "You didn't have to make excuses for me," he barked.
"Step off your pedestal, Baum. I did what any friend would do." Daniel slowly lowered his backpack to the ground.
The use of his last name took all the wind out of John's sails and left him with a quiet sense of sadness and desolation. "Connor," he whispered.
"Connor, that's my—" There was an inexplicable tightness in his chest, stupid emotions over his last name was even way too emo, even for him.
"Look, there's Alexandria." Daniel picked up his backpack and pulled on the sleeve of John's hoodie. "Let her give you a lift home, okay?"
John gave Daniel a grateful smile. "I'm an A-hole sometimes, aren't I?"
Daniel stepped in front of him. "Yeah, you are. But you do know that I'm keeping notes of all your asshole moments so when you become savior—"
"That's a harsh word."
John pointed over Daniel's shoulder. "Your ride is here."
"She won't mind taking you—"
But when she pulled in front of the school and opened the door, the abundance of hellos from the group inside made John step back and point to the bus that was pulling up. Even Daniel hesitated as Lena stuck her head forward.
"Good luck." John patted Daniel on the back. "You're a better and braver person than I am."
"Hi." John stood frozen, shocked, backpack still slung over his shoulder, and stared at Charley who was sitting on couch, basically in the same position when John had left in the morning.
Bloodshot eyes appraised John. Charley greeted him with a wave of a half-empty whiskey bottle.
"Where's my mom?"
"She ran off. Again."
John lowered his shoulder and the backpack slipped off his arm and onto the recliner. "I'm going to make some coffee."
In the kitchen he started the coffeemaker, pulled out his cell and dialed his mother one more time. Cursing when it went to voice mail, he then dialed the SGC and asked for Colonel O'Neill, slammed the phone shut and tossed it onto the counter when he was told that the Colonel was in a meeting.
'Fuck, yeah," John wanted to answer. Lots of problems. Beginning with, he was standing in the kitchen facing off against his mother's very drunk ex-fiancé whose wife was a machine and ending with the fact John felt like shit and wasn't in the mood to clean up his mother's emotional trash.
"Where's my mother?" John repeated, glancing over his shoulder to check the progress of the coffee maker, willing the machine to hurry up.
"Where's my wife?"
"I don't know. I was in school the entire day. How the hell would I know—"
"Watch your mouth, Johnny."
"Why? You're drunk."
"Why did you wish me a happy birthday?"
Boy, was the man drunk. "It was your birthday, maybe that's why?"
"You never could leave well enough alone, could you? She never would've found you. Michelle. She never would've come here—"
Oh. Crap. Dots connected. "My texting you just made it sooner than later. They always find me, Charley. Always."
"Self-importance gone to your head?"
"You're drunk." John reached up for a coffee mug from the cabinet over the stove. He poured Charley a cup without even asking.
Charley grabbed his hand and the hot coffee sloshed over the side and washed over John's hand. With a flash of pain and surprise, John lost his grip on the mug and it slipped from his hand, spilling hot coffee as it shattered on the floor.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
John stumbled to the sink, turned on the cold water and stuck his hand under the flow, exhaling as the water sluiced over the injury. Tentatively, he moved his fingers, jerking back in surprise as Charley reached under the water and pulled his hand out for a closer examination.
"I'm sorry, Johnny."
"I'm fine." John tried to pull his hand out of Charley's grasp. "Really - Ow! That hurts." John turned away as Charley prodded the already reddened, blistering skin. "The coffee was hot."
"My fault." Charley still needed a shave, his eyes were still bloodshot and he still stank of alcohol, but the hands that held his were sure and steady.
"It's okay." Gently, John tried to extricate himself, but Charley would have none of it. "Can I have my hand back?"
"I'd like to bandage this. Last thing you need is an infection."
Last thing John needed was his mom coming home and finding his hand bandaged. "It's fine."
"It's not!" Charley yelled, his voice reverberating in the empty house. "It's. Not. Fine."
Oh, God. "I'm sorry," John whispered. "For everything."
"Shit." Charley dropped John's hand and scrubbed at his eyes. "None of this is your fault."
John snorted. "It's all my fault. Everything."
The weight of Charley's hands on John's shoulders was oppressive.
"You're sixteen, the only thing you should be responsible for is taking out the garbage, doing your homework and..." Charley offered the slightest of smiles. "Safe sex."
John blushed and averted his head.
"You shouldn't be responsible for anyone's future but your own."
"Yeah," John agreed, "but that's going to happen when pigs fly."
It was John's turn to sit on the couch, staring at the TV, his lightly bandaged hand sitting on his lap, throbbing. He checked the time on the cable box. He should be doing homework. Starting dinner. Trying his mother one more time. But John literally felt like a deflated balloon, sapped of energy.
"Want to call for pizza delivery or something?" Charley asked, reaching for his wallet. "My treat?"
John cringed. He'd lost count the number of times he'd eaten pizza in the past weeks. "There might be some pizza in the fridge. I can heat it up for—"
John would love to go to bed, curl up under the covers, bury his anger at his mother and his exhaustion under the blankets. "I'm sure I can find something."
Sarah had been shocked when they'd stepped out of the SGC into the dark. There'd been no time to leave a note when she'd left the house, Charley sleeping on the couch. John had been due home from school within the hour.
She checked her watch again and cursed softly under her breath. "You drive." She used the remote to open the doors then tossed the keys at Cameron who caught them deftly in her right hand. Sarah slid into the passenger seat, dug into her pants pocket and pulled out her cell. This time her string of curses was anything but silent.
"Sarah?" Derek leaned forward between the two seats.
She held up a hand to shush Derek, furious with herself. With a sense of guilt she turned on the cell phone she'd turned off when they'd gone to Michelle's, beyond horrified at the amount of voice mails sitting unanswered in her inbox. She'd been caught up in the thrill of it all. The experiment had worked, the weapon was functional.
But Michelle, that had been a shock. Subdued and actually waiting for them, hands folded demurely in her lap as she sat in the hotel room, anticipating their arrival. Another friendly terminator, sent by John. There was mistrust on everyone's part. Hers. Cameron's. Derek's. Even the members of SG-1 were leery of her story, which was why she now was locked up at the SGC, securely, with a contingent of SFs nearby armed with Sam's INT watching via security cameras.
Their trepidation was based on man versus machine. Cameron's was based on lack of experience, nothing to draw on. Michelle's existence and presence here was a decision grounded on something Future John had supposedly done after Cameron had been sent back.
Ah shit, John hadn't been home within an hour after she'd left. There'd been soccer practice. Great. One by one she listened as John became more frantic in each message he left. Finally, with two messages left to be read, Sarah dialed John and it was her turn to panic when the call went to voicemail.
"I had the phone off," she mumbled while redialing. "Out of touch. Not supposed to be—"
"John's fine," Cameron and Derek said simultaneously.
Sarah checked her watch; it wasn't late enough for John to sound like she'd woken him up. "Where were you?"
"Me? Where was I? Here. Where are you? Where were you"?
"Charley? Is he right there with you?"
"Yes." John's voice was so tinny, Sarah had to press the cell phone tightly to her ear.
"Okay," she said. "I'll explain it all when I get home. There's forty dollars in the fridge. Order some pizzas. I'm sure you're starving."
John opened the fridge door, pulled out the vegetable bin and stuck his hand underneath the tray, removing the forty shoved in the back.
He ignored Charley, tossed the money on the table and called and ordered the pizza just like his mother wanted. Too tired to go even argue, to say that Charley had already reheated and eaten the leftover pizza, and that the thought of pizza made him want to puke, he just did what his mother demanded. No questions asked. Clicking the phone closed, he used it to point to the money on the table. "I know. Gives new meaning to the words cold hard cash."
"You told me you didn't want pizza."
"Sometimes it's not worth the effort." Awkwardly, using his left hand, John went into the cabinet, grabbed a handful of paper plates and tossed them on the table. "Mom's on her way home."
"Did she say..."
John shook his head. "She said she'd talk to us when she got home."
John nodded at the inquisitive tilt of Cameron's head as he opened the back door. "Just going to get a breath of fresh air."
"You should be sleeping."
She was right, he should be sleeping and he was physically exhausted, but his mind was refusing to spare him from nightmares that had woken him up twice. Both times, he'd been soaked in a pool of sweat, with his blankets twisted around his body, holding him against his will. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night was safer and required much less of an explanation than having his blood curdling screams waking up the entire house. "Not tired," he lied, stepping outside before Cameron could descend into his personal space.
John stretched out on one of the two lounge chairs, closing his eyes and lifting his face into the warm, windless night. Without looking, he knew that Cameron was standing guard, watching through the kitchen window. Making sure he was safe.
"Shit!" He jumped, twisted to the right to get out of the way of the person holding onto his leg and nearly overcompensated himself right out of the lounge chair.
"Whoa, Johnny. It's only me."
"Charley." He pasted a smile on his face even though his heart was still pounding out of his chest.
"Sleep out here often?"
"Sometimes," John lied.
Charley glanced up at the sky. "Impressive view." He patted John's leg before getting up and sitting on the edge of the other chair.
"I don't know," Charley admitted. "Just a lot to process."
"I know. I've had sixteen years for it to sink in and I still get hit with surprises. Like Michelle. Cameron."
"In the scheme of robots, Cameron's not that scary."
Charley snorted. "Unless you're threatened."
"Unless I'm threatened," John echoed. "Or you. We have no idea what Michelle's mission is."
"Michelle's one of the good ones. That's what your mom said."
"That's what Michelle said," John clarified.
The silence was deadly. "I feel like an idiot. I mean I..."
"They infiltrate. That's what they do." Even now, John was embarrassed at how he'd been stupid enough to fall for Cameron's sweet talking and her smile. And if he'd felt like that after less then twenty-four hours of exposure to the terminator, he couldn't even begin to imagine the humiliation Charley was going through. "You weren't the first."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" There was more than a touch of anger in his voice.
"No, 'cause it didn't make me feel better," John admitted.
John nodded. "Cameron. Yup. I would've bet my life—"
"I did. Marriage vows, remember?"
John grimaced. "Sorry." He wished he had words to make it better. Give Charley a reason why. Explain to him. But there weren't any words of wisdom that he could manufacture that didn't sound lame.
"She never loved me."
"They infiltrate. That's what they do," John repeated.
"I'm taking that means no."
John forced himself to ignore the emotional raspiness of Charley's voice. "I wish things had been different."
"You left me something the day you and your mom—"
"The guns and one bag, that's all she said I could take. And it didn't fit in my one bag."
"Hidden in my closet. In the basement. Garage. They were in plain sight."
"God, even then, I was an idiot."
"My mom made pancakes before we left. We cleaned up. I insisted. Didn't want to leave a mess. Cleaned up like we'd never been there. Made the bed."
"There was the box with the engagement ring and I stupidly thought that maybe your mom took it off to do something, but you never made your bed. That's when I knew..." Charley cleared his throat. "And then I saw the photo album on the bed."
Six months at Charley's house and in his life. And it had been rough at first. He'd been tough, but instead of shooting him with a gun when he pushed every parental button possible, Charley shot him with a camera. Pictures of their life. Of normalcy. Hundreds of pictures. A photo album's worth that hadn't fit in his one required bag, so he gave the photos back to Charley. And it had hurt parting with those visuals of something he'd never had before. Or never would have again. "Do you still have it?"
"It's in my suitcase. I figured it was time the album found its way back to its original owner."
"Wake up." Jack kicked the recliner with his knee. This was the third night in a row that he'd woken up to find Daniel sleeping in the beat up old chair, his laptop opened and running, his glasses balanced precariously on the tip of his nose. The other times, Daniel had gone back to bed and slept there until his alarm had gone off. Today, the alarm going off had woken Jack but obviously not Daniel.
Jack mumbled under his breath, annoyed at the incessantly binging of the opened chat on Daniel's laptop. "Don't these kids ever sleep?" He broke his son's cardinal rule and shut down the machine without even saving anything, taking great satisfaction on hanging up on the other kids' instant messages.
If he thought slamming the laptop shut would wake up Daniel, he was surely surprised when his son just mumbled under his breath, grabbed his glasses off his face, dropped them to the floor and turned onto his side.
"Yeah, that's what you think." He put the laptop on the coffee table, grabbled Daniel's shoulder and shook. Even though Jack wasn't as young as he used to be, his reflexes were damn good and he danced out of the way of Daniel's flying fists. "Awake?" he asked from a safe distance away.
Daniel groaned and dropped his head against the back of the recliner. "Go. Away."
Jack tapped the face of his watch. "It's showtime. Up and at 'em. Wakey. Wakey. Get your ass in gear. Should I go on?" Jack asked when Daniel didn't make a move. "I got a million of 'em."
With eyes closed, Daniel patted his lap. "Where's my—"
"Laptop's on the coffee table. Glasses are on the floor. Waffles will be served in about fifteen minutes."
A shower hadn't helped to either wake Daniel up or with his early morning attitude.
Jack placed the plate of waffles in front of Daniel, who grunted out some noise that was probably meant to be a 'thank you for this delicious breakfast'.
"Don't mention it."
Daniel appraised him over the rim of his glasses then reached for the syrup, drowning the waffles in a deluge of sweetness.
People on this world and others had dissed Jack, but no one truly had the ability to tell him to 'fuck off' with just a look except Daniel. "Watch the attitude, mister."
"Attitude?" Blue eyes widened in surprise. "I didn't even say anything."
"You didn't have to."
"Then how did you know I had an attitude if I didn't say anything to you?" Daniel had cut up the waffles, but had yet to take a bite.
"Actions speak louder than words."
"Huh?" Daniel dropped his fork into the sloppy sticky mess. "What did I even do to piss you off? Was it because I fell asleep on the recliner—"
"Again." Jack stirred his coffee, not remembering if he'd put the sugar in it yet. "You fell asleep again. Laptop opened. Chatting away. Don't make me instill a curfew on you without you even leaving the house," Jack threatened.
Daniel wasn't sure what the hell was up with his father. Talk about attitude. In the scheme of Daniel's screw ups, falling asleep on the recliner should've been at the bottom of the list, but not according to his dad. "Do I get a hint what you're really pissed off at?"
His question was met with stony silence.
Daniel got up, dumped the contents of his plate in the garbage, finished his juice while standing, then quickly opened the dishwasher, deposited his sticky plate and fork in the appropriate slots and slammed the door, hoping to garner his dad's attention.
"You got my attention."
Now that he had it, Daniel wasn't too sure what he wanted to do with it and he just stared at his dad, hoping he'd see how awful Daniel felt. How tired he was without Daniel having to say something. He'd clean out the garage for a year and take out the garbage for two years without being told if his father would just say 'why don't you stay home from school today'.
"You're going to be late," his dad said, adding another two teaspoons of sugar to his coffee.
"I need to go pick up the tux tomorrow."
"Maybe your grandmother can take you."
"Never mind. I'll ask Alexandria or Cassie. I'm sure they won't mind." Daniel got as far as the kitchen door.
Slowly, Daniel turned. "I didn't have an attitude, Dad. Honest."
"That's debatable, Icky." His father lifted up his coffee mug, ready to take a sip.
"I wouldn't drink the coffee if I were you; there are four sugars in there."
Hurriedly, his dad put it down and shuddered. "Really? Damn it. I thought I only put in—"
"It's an age thing."
His father laughed and shook his head. "Make sure you eat lunch, okay, considering my waffles were such a hit."
Staying awake until lunchtime was an uphill battle. Pasting a smile on his face and trying to pretend like the prom was the greatest happening since the release of the iPhone was downright painful. Even John had this greenish cast to his skin when Alexandria and Cassie began to fiddle with Cameron's hair, still trying to figure out the best way for her to wear it.
"Did you make an appointment to get your hair done?" Cassie asked as she pointed to the magazine in front of her. "I think I'm going to get this." She slid it over to John. "What do you think?"
Daniel thought that John looked like he didn't give a shit.
"If we're going to Corey's afterwards, and going in the pool..." John fingered Cassie's hair while he glanced down. "Why would you do that?"
"Because when one goes to the prom, John, the act of dressing up is half the fun."
Slowly, John nodded. "Thank you for explaining, Cameron."
"You don't have to do anything to your hair, Cam, you always look beautiful," Corey nauseatingly fawned.
"My name is Cameron." She lifted her hair up, gave a few twist and turns, then moved her head from side to side.
John whispered something in Cameron's ear and she dropped her hands, and her hair fell once again back to the way it had been. She gave John a quick look before flashing a smile at Corey. "I'm sorry, Corey, Cam is a nice nickname." She ducked her head demurely. "And thank you for saying I'm beautiful."
"I think the rest of you guys need to take a lesson or two from Corey," Cassie said.
Daniel made a gagging sound that earned him a smack from Alexandria.
"I thought you said that Cameron was like, you know, emotionless," Daniel commented when he caught up to John in the crowded hallway.
"They infiltrate. That's what they do. They learn. We teach them. We show them what's acceptable, what's not. A prom. A pretty dress. Hair all on top of her head. Makeup. Nail polish. Whatever it takes to fit in."
Daniel felt pretty damn lousy, but he wasn't ill enough to miss the anger in John's voice. He pulled him out of the line of traffic into a stairwell. "What gives, man?"
"We have about one more minute before the bell rings for the next class. And another minute before the late bell rings. Late bells and late passes put me on the radar. So, if you'll excuse me." John left before Daniel even had a chance to open his mouth and say anything.
John listened to the teacher drone on, his hand supporting his too-heavy head. If he positioned himself just right, a little slumped in the seat, pushing his bangs forward, they covered his eyes and he could close them without fear that the teacher would catch him trying to steal a couple of zzz's in the middle of class.
He shifted, grimacing at the loud creaking his movement provoked. Chalk in hand, the teacher turned around, waited a second then went back to scribbling on the board. John pulled out a pencil, balanced it in his right hand and did absolutely nothing except flip it back and forth in his fingers, watching it bounce up and down when the eraser hit the desk.
Everything was too much of an effort. Going to bed. Getting up. Late hours. Lack of sleep. Charley instead of Derek on their sofa. Charley's wife at the SGC. His mom was on his case about everything. Lately every evening and every morning had become a battlefield. This morning had begun with angry, sharp, accusatory words spoken in whispers, so not to wake up Charley and ended with John leaving for school without saying goodbye.
John felt guilty, but not guilty enough to call or text her. Let her stew. John began to bounce his legs with pent up excess energy. Great. He really needed soccer practice today to work out some of this excess - he paused, trying to think up a word for how he felt, but the emotion kept flitting away from him.
John knew he was losing patience with everything and everyone. And he hated himself for it. He hated that he'd practically ripped Daniel's head right off his shoulders for no reason at all. John exhaled slowly, trying to release his anger, but a part of him just wasn't ready. Cameron. People might know she was a terminator, but they didn't understand. Didn't understand at all. He'd thought Daniel had, but John had been wrong. Daniel saw Cameron as a teenager, even though he'd seen her in action. Misjudging a terminator would get you killed.
Angrily, John tossed the majority of his books into his locker, stuffing them back when they threatened to spill out onto the floor. He knew Daniel was standing there, waiting. Dria. Cassie. Corey. Cameron. He slammed his locker shut then turned to face his audience. "What? Show's over, folks."
Corey draped a protective arm over Cameron's shoulder. "Got your period, Baum?" he asked with a wink.
"Fuck you." John vehemently shouldered his way between Corey and Cameron, forcing apart the embrace.
"You're being a freak, John," Cameron interjected calmly.
Oh, crap. John had no one to blame but himself. He swallowed, offered up a smile, half a shrug and ate crow. "I know, man. Sorry. I don't know—"
Corey was itching for a fight, John saw it, stood his ground and placed a gentle restraining hand on Cameron's elbow just in case.
"John's apologizing for being an asshole," Daniel said, "You'd be smart to accept it." Daniel leaned closer to Corey. "Cameron's going to be pissed if you bloody her brother."
"Cameron?" Cassie stamped her foot. "Cameron's going to be pissed? Not as much as I would be. Bruises do not go with the color of my dress."
"So," Cassie asked the second she settled in the seat next to John, "Was Corey right? Do you have your period?"
John blushed and turned his attention to the kids loading on the bus.
"I'm sorry." She looped her arm around his. "Honest question, though. Something's bugging you."
John sighed and rested his head against the back of the seat. "Just stuff at home."
"Want to come to my house for dinner?"
Tempting. What a damned tempting invitation.
Cameron's head appeared over the seat in front of them. "John can't go to your home for dinner tonight."
"No?" John cursed Cameron's hearing-a-pin drop auditory abilities.
"We have company."
"Oh? Yeah." John pointed at Cameron, twirling his finger in a circle. She stared at him for a moment, then imitated his movement. "Sit down, Cameron," he said.
"Thank you for—"
"Sit!" He yelled loud enough that conversation in the bus came to a screeching halt. Where the fuck was that hole in the ground when you needed it?
Cassie waited until the bus left the school before speaking again. "Don't you want to go to the prom with me?"
John didn't have to even look at her, he could hear the tears in her voice. Quickly he grabbed her hand and squeezed. "I'm not lying when I said there's family stuff going on at my house."
"You didn't answer my question. Do you want to go to—"
John shut her up with a kiss, because he was all out of words.
"I need you to—" his mother began the second he and Cameron opened the door.
"Can I at least get in the house?" Frustrated, John slammed the door.
"Okay, you're in." His mother stepped up to him and waved a piece of crumpled up loose leaf in his face. "I need you to—"
"I have homework."
"This won't take long." She moved the paper even closer.
"Fine." John snatched it from her hand. "No problem. Just like I'm sure it'll be no problem getting a lift to go pick up my tux tomorrow. And the corsage, did you order the corsage for—you didn't, did you?"
His mother glanced everywhere but at John. "Don't worry..."
John stomped up the steps and slammed his bedroom door with so much force, the precariously balanced pile of books on his dresser lost their battle with gravity and slid to the floor.
Dates. License numbers. Hospitals. John was tracing Michelle's employment history. Educational profile. He pretending she was a stranger and not a terminator, all the while ignoring the exhaustion creeping up on him.
"John?" His name was spoken in a soft whisper but he refused to answer. Seconds turned into minutes. Good, his mother had taken the hint and disappeared. No such luck. Shortly, there was a soft knock followed by the creaking of his door hinges.
His mother stood in front of his computer desk, proudly presenting a plate of cookies and a glass of chocolate milk.
"I asked you to order the corsage."
"I did. Just now. I let my fingers do the walking through the yellow pages."
"Huh?" John reached up, took a cookie and the glass. "What's that supposed to mean?"
His mother sighed and helped herself to a cookie. "You're making me feel old, John Connor."
Friday dawned dark and dreary, cooler than it should've been. Up late trying to finish his homework, John overslept. Big time.
"I tried to wake you." Cameron was leaning against the kitchen counter, her messenger bag already slung over her shoulder.
"You didn't try hard enough," John barked. "Shit." They were never going to make the bus. "Mom!" he yelled. "I need a lift." John heard the distinct sound of the bus coming up the block. "Like now, Mom."
"Can't you drive faster?"
"John." His mother was using that patient, slow voice to explain - the one he hated. The one that made him feel like he was a kid. "The last thing we need or want is a speeding ticket."
"I. Know. That," John growled. "But come on, Mom, those kids are walking faster than—"
"At this rate of speed, we'll arrive at the school at nine oh two. Late bell rings at nine oh seven which give us five minutes to get to class, considering you're usually in the hallway with Cassie at nine oh six—"
"Thanks, Cameron," his mother answered, a smug grin spreading over her face.
"Snitch," John mumbled under his breath. "I get the idea, but if Mom drove faster than," John looked over at the speedometer, stopping to 'ow' at the not so gentle smack on the head his mother delivered, "twenty miles an hour," he continued, nonplussed, "maybe we'd get there at eight fifty seven, giving us more than enough time—"
"Enough. I promise you won't be late and if you are, I'll walk you in and make sure—"
John sat back in his seat with a groan. "Yeah, that's a great idea."
"Next time, sweetie, make it your business to get your butt out of bed and catch the bus."
John knew he was being unreasonable, that he sounded more like a spoiled, whiney, petulant adolescent than the savior of mankind, but today everything felt wrong. He felt wrong, like one of those dreams where you're trying to get somewhere and the world is conspiring against you to make the journey impossible.
By second period, John had pretty much alienated everyone with his short temper and sharp tone, by fourth, for safety reasons, he just kept his mouth and by lunch he felt absolutely lousy and wished Cameron would just skim her hand along his neck and make a formal proclamation of what was wrong with him.
He glanced up from playing with his lunch when Dria dropped her tray on the table and announced to the lunchroom before taking a seat, "I hate Daniel Jackson."
The sound of lone applause rang in the far left hand corner of the room.
"Shut up. Did I ask your opinion?" Dria yelled before sitting.
John went back to constructing a pyramid out of his mashed potatoes.
"It must be catching," Cassie said. "John's been impossible the last two days."
"John's right here," he mumbled.
"No duh, you're right here."
John stabbed his mound of potatoes with his spoon and left it there. "Would you rather I go somewhere else?"
"No, John," Cassie enunciated both words with painstaking precision. "Here is good. Here without looking like you're pissed off at the world would be—"
"He overslept," Cameron interjected.
John wondered, just for a second, what Cameron would do if he picked up his spoonful of potatoes and flung it at her.
"You could've waited for me." Daniel dropped his lunch tray from a standing position.
"Why would I wait for you, you were busy talking to—" Dria accentuated her point by stabbing the air with her plastic fork.
"I was talking to Caren."
"I was talking to Caren," Dria mimicked.
"I thought she was your friend."
"She used to be my friend until she—"
"Come on, guys," John said. Bad enough he was in a shitty mood, he didn't need any fuel added to his fire.
"Oh look, little Miss Ray of sunshine has spoken," Cassie interjected.
"Ray of sunshine?" Cameron repeated. "John, is that a new nickname for you? Like Cam for me?"
"Great. Thanks, Cassie."
"Jesus, guys, listen to yourselves. You sound like my parents when they fight. Everyone just shut the fuck up, eat your lunch and play nice."
John could feel a small smile begin to take root and blossom. "You sound like my mother, Corey."
Daniel laughed. "No, he actually sounds like a cross between my father and grandmother."
Corey threw down his plastic utensil and crossed his arms. "You know, there's really no reason to insult me."
"You're quiet now."
John shrugged. Last thing he felt like doing was making a trip to the mall. With his mother. To get a tux. Too much normalcy. Maybe that was the problem. His life was becoming too normal. Strange how something he'd always wanted was something he no longer desired. "This dance is a stupid idea."
His mother feigned opened-mouthed horror. "Is this from the same kid who bit my head off because I didn't order a corsage?"
"In a few years, this is all going to be gone. Nothing's going to be left. This is a waste of—"
She veered the car across three lanes of traffic and John held on for dear life, ignoring the squeal of tires and the honking of horns. She pulled into a parking lot, found a vacant spot and slammed the car into park. "You listen to me, John Connor. Your life is not about existing until Judgment Day—"
"No, my life is staying alive until Judgment Day," John interrupted. "That's the difference."
Her smiled wasn't strong, it wavered and wobbled. "Here you can have friends while we keep you safe. You, John. Friends. School. Make memories. Be a teenager."
"I must have missed the memo, Mom. When did our agenda change?" John asked softly. "When did your agenda change? Since when did you start trusting anyone?"
His mother jerked the SUV into gear and pulled out of the parking lot without saying a word. John crossed his arms and slumped down in the seat, straining the seatbelt.
Let her be angry. She was changing the rules. No fair. Too many people crowding in on them. It was stifling. John could feel it. Why couldn't she? Derek. Charley. The SGC. Daniel. Dria. Cassie. Corey. Too complicated. A nice house was one thing, but they'd gotten caught up and sucked into Middle America. John's head hurt thinking about it, and he closed his eyes, wishing he was five and living in Central America when life was much less confusing.
"I'm not trying this on," John hissed at his mother, all the while keeping a smile on his face.
"I don't sew, John. I don't even pretend to know how to stitch up clothing."
"Wounds. Hems on pants. One is painful, the other isn't. I'm sure it'll fit fine."
"I'm sorry, but we won't allow the tux to be taken out of the store without a final—"
"See," Sarah said, "The tux cannot leave the store without—"
"Fine." John grabbed the tux and headed off to the suite of fitting rooms. "But don't think I'm coming out here."
"Just try the tux on," his mother shouted down the hallway with the bank of dressing rooms. "You can have your temper tantrum after we go pick up Greek, I'm starving."
John may have had the whole teenage attitude angst down pat today, but when Sarah saw Daniel enter the store, she was filled with nothing but sympathy for Jack, who followed at his heels making evil faces at the back of his son's head.
Jack and Daniel had pretty much the same argument as she and John just had, and Sarah tried to hide her amusement behind an outdated gossip magazine.
"Yuck it up," Jack said, dropping down into the chair next to Sarah. "Your time will come."
Sarah tossed the magazine onto the table. "Time's already here. You missed the floor show that John put on."
"It's the age."
"What? Ours or theirs?" Sarah opened her mouth, shut it, then stood slowly, tugging on Jack's shirt as she stepped over his legs.
Kyle. That was the only word that came to mind. Standing there in a brightly lit store in the mall, the years melted away. John was his father. Standing awkwardly, gazing out the large plate glass windows, people watching. His attention on everything but the thirty-year-old salesman checking out how the tux fit her son.
Sarah whistled. John blushed, but she got his attention and she captured and held onto his gaze. Her expression must've said what her emotions couldn't and for the first time in two days, John smiled at her. Really smiled.
"I don't look stupid?"
"No, you don't," she said softly. On the cusp of adulthood, he was gorgeous, but those were fighting words to a sixteen year old who wanted to attract as much attention as the wood floor under their feet. "Cassie's a very lucky girl," was the sentence she settled on.
But John wasn't paying any attention to her; he was looking at Daniel who'd just appeared by his side. "Whoa, Jackson, you clean up nicely."
"Daniel," he repeated with a flash of smile and Sarah was damn positive that she'd missed some private joke between the boys.
She saw here the two-year difference between them but it wasn't in her son's favor. Security of home and sense of self gave Daniel the air of confidence John was lacking. Straighter shoulders. Eye contact. A sense of comfort in the clothes. A sense of familiarity in the world around him.
In the short time the Connors and the O'Neills had been intermingling, Sarah had seen that the Colonel was a firm believer of hands on parenting. Full of smiles. Touchy/feely, something she wasn't and could never be. Her signs of affection were measured out, given on her terms. But today, Jack was quiet. Too quiet. Quiet enough to be picked up by Daniel, and even John ascertained the wrongness of the man's silence.
"Are we done?" John asked, as always her son had one foot out the door even before the party had begun.
"I think we are," the salesperson said, completing a final walk around of the two boys.
"Hang it up..." Sarah began.
"Don't let it drag on the floor," Jack finished with a rueful smile.
"Dad." Daniel lifted his hand to point out the promised McDonald's his father just driven past. With a sigh, he let his hand fall back into his lap. "Aren't you hungry?" he asked meekly.
"Oh. What. Shit. Sorry." His dad cocked his chin at the approaching Burger King. "You can have it your way."
No. Not really. His way had been McDonald's. "Fine." Daniel did a mental run through of Burger King's menu and childishly enough, he came up wanting. Nothing on the flame broiled, have it your way menu appealed to him at all.
"I like their fries better," his father said, pulling into the parking lot.
"No drive thru?" He wanted a drive thru. He didn't want to go into the fast food restaurant with their bright lights and cold interior.
"Nah. Not in the mood for drive thru."
Daniel was in the mood for drive thru, but obviously his mood didn't count.
Daniel popped the top off his chocolate shake and dunked a fry into the thick mixture. He stirred the shake with the fry, contemplating exactly how he was going to approach the subject. "I looked like an idiot in the tux, didn't I?"
His dad dipped a fry into a plastic tub of barbeque sauce. "No, you didn't."
"John's mom was gushing."
His father's shoulders jerked as if he'd stuck his fingers into a socket. "I didn't gush."
"No," Daniel said, forcing the sadness out of his voice. "You didn't." Daniel cringed, this sounded idiotic.
"I was afraid to say the wrong thing." His father quickly stuck the barbeque-drowned fry into his mouth, chewed then washed it down with some soda.
Daniel nodded. "I understand. You were afraid to embarrass me. Gotcha."
"Embarrass you?" his father snorted. "I live to embarrass you. It's a parent's god given right." Another fry lost its life in the barbeque sauce, this time instead of washing the fry down with the soda, he just scrubbed at this mouth with a paper napkin, saying something Daniel couldn't make out.
"What did you say?" Daniel slurped chocolate shake off a line of three fries before chewing the soggy fries.
"I was more afraid to embarrass myself."
"Well, I guess if you did the patented O'Neill gush, yeah, you would've embarrassed yourself." Daniel chuckled, more than a little upset when his funny didn't even raise a hint of a smile from his father.
His dad shook his head; obviously Daniel had missed the point. "Right then, in the store, you looked just like what I remember you looking like as an adult, and I'm sorry, but I missed him. At that very second..."
If Daniel blinked, he'd cry. He was hurt, devastated and angry beyond words.
"Daniel. It was just a—"
Daniel ran. He took off, barely missing a young couple with a tray laden with food. He skidded, caught himself and slammed out the door. Quickly, he looked right, left, paused to run when reality set in. Go where? Where was he going to go? Slowly, he walked to the Avalanche and leaned against the driver's side. Gazing into the dining room, he had a bird's eye view of his father methodically cleaning up their mess.
Daniel knew why his father was in there and not out here. He was giving himself space. Giving Daniel space. Both of them dealing with the ghost of Doctor Daniel Jackson.
The night air was cold, colder than a June evening had any right to be. Daniel wrapped his arms around himself, trying to capture any warmth he had.
His dad didn't walk over to Daniel, he strode. Long, loping steps, one level below a run. Daniel braced himself, waiting for the apology that he knew was coming. But there was no 'sorry', just the shock of being pulled into a bone-crushing hug under the bright lights of the Burger King sign.
But Daniel didn't cry until he went to bed for the night, and then he shed tears, like a kid, buried under the blanket, the pillow muffling the sound. Daniel was able to do accomplish a lot of things that made his father love him and be proud, but he was a failure on what his father needed the most. He couldn't be the friend that he'd lost.
Daniel slept horribly and he awoke with stuffed sinuses, burning eyes and the start of a headache. He needed breakfast, Tylenol and a shower and in that order. He dragged himself out of bed and into the bathroom. He peed, washed up and brushed his teeth, the last two accomplished without even a glance in the mirror. He pretty much knew how he felt; he certainly didn't need any visual confirmation.
"Pancakes or cereal?" his father asked without even looking up from the morning paper.
"Cereal." It was faster. Faster meant easier. Easier meant quicker. Quicker meant he could have something in his stomach before he downed the Tylenol.
Daniel poured a bowl of cereal, topped it off with milk and two spoonfuls of sugar, leaning across the newspaper to get to the sugar bowl.
"What's the matter, Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries isn't sweet enough?" His dad shook his head and finally lifted his head from the paper to look at Daniel.
Daniel waited, holding his breath, expecting his dad to jump into full mother henning mode at how he looked, but the only acknowledgement was the pushing of the sugar bowl out of Daniel's reach. "I think that's enough."
Daniel blinked at him, his spoon hovering over the cereal. His dad didn't see. Daniel was taken back, emotionally unstable regarding his father's blinders. Good thing? Bad thing? Definitely an appetite take awayer.
"You better eat that before it gets soggy."
"What? Oh." He raised the bowl. "Eat. Yeah." Daniel made a show of mixing the cereal and sugar together. "I'm going to go into my room with—"
"Damn, I can't believe how badly they're playing—what?" He dismissed Daniel with a wave of his hand. "Sure just make sure you bring the bowl and spoon back to the kitchen before they reach science experiment level."
John woke to a three-way argument between the adults in the house and all he could think of was hopefully the windows were closed, otherwise the neighbors, Rose included, were going to get an earful. He pulled the pillow over his head to cut off the noise and the bright light bursting through the blinds.
"Shut up," he screamed into his mattress, pulling his blanket up and over the pillow. God, he'd tossed and turned the majority of the night, and would've gotten up if it hadn't been for Charley and Cameron. Cameron's nocturnal habits were bad enough but dealing with Charley's tale of woe, as mean as it was to say it, had been even less appealing than the four walls and ceiling of his bedroom. So here he'd stayed. In his room. Trapped.
It was hot under the blanket and pillow, but it was quiet. Quiet was good - restful and conducive to sleeping. Perfect. John was drifting, so close to achieving sleep that he could even feel a string of drool begin to slither out of his mouth and puddle on the sheet.
There was a knock on his bedroom door. A sharp rap that increased in intensity, its pitch cutting through his layers of protection. "Go away."
The intruder obviously paid no heed to John's desire to continue his journey to REM sleep and the door burst open. Before he had time to answer, sink lower into the mattress or anchor the blanket and pillow to his body, he was stripped of both, leaving him defenseless to face whoever had it out for him.
Groaning, he flipped over and stared right into the face of his mother. Great. She was pissed. Angry. All before breakfast.
"I made pancakes."
"The least you can do is get up and eat something."
Thankfully, John had never finished his sentence. "Give me a minute." Embarrassed he pulled down his tee shirt.
"I'll give you more than a minute." She lobbed his cell phone at his chest.
John grabbed it before the phone slid off. "I left it in the kitchen. Sorry."
"Cassie called. Twice."
He smiled at his mother, she didn't smile back.
"I'll call her after breakfast."
"You'll call her now. Then you'll call Dria. Daniel. Corey."
His mother wasn't pissed at him. He knew when he was the target of her anger and this time he was just getting caught in the backlash and sixteen years' experience, give or take three, had taught him to just grin, bear it and basically do whatever she wanted. It was safer for all concerned that way.
Cassie was talking a mile a minute, her enthusiasm precluding John from making conversation past his initial "Hi, there." Dria was finalizing the plans. Corey was checking for the millionth time the color of Cameron's dress and Daniel was complaining.
"My dad wants me to get a haircut for tonight."
"Why?" John's stomach growled and he wondered what was the quickest way to get off the phone.
"Yeah, that's what I said."
"I'm not getting a haircut."
"Yeah," Daniel repeated, "that's what I told my dad you'd say."
"And did he say 'if John was going to play in traffic, would you play in traffic'?"
Daniel laughed. "Told him I'd buy a rubber band to match Alexandria's dress. And he said something about snotty teenagers followed by parents know best."
"Such as being warned that breakfast is on the table and I better move my ass into the kitchen to eat? That type of knowing best?"
"Mom did what?" John put down his fork and stared at Derek. "Run that by me again?"
"Your mother is wasting money taking Cameron for a manicure and to get her," Derek waved his hand above his head, "hair done up."
"My mother? Sarah Connor? Entered a place where they do hair and nails? A... A..."
"Beauty parlor? Hair dressers?"
John leaned forward. "Did Cameron hold a gun to my mom's head?" He then burst out laughing. "Did my mom hold a gun to Cameron's head?"
Derek shook his head and nodded towards the living room. "I think she couldn't deal with—"
"There was a slight disagreement this morning about him wanting to see his tin mate."
"Don't be an ass."
"I wasn't being an ass, I was being—"
"You were being cruel." John pushed his plate away and stood up. "I'm taking my mother won the argument. Charley's here, not knowing what the hell is going on with Michelle and my mother took off rather than face him. Funny, I thought running was my gig, not hers."
John sat down on the opposite end of the couch and in greeting, Charley changed the channel. "I play soccer now."
John had watched sports games with Charley and never found any interest in the sport de jour. It was the companionship he'd craved, and Charley had played along, feeding John just enough information so he knew what was going on. "Yeah, me, funny, huh?" John sank lower on the couch, suddenly feeling stupid for bringing up such a ridiculous subject in light of what was going on in Charley's life. "Sorry, I'm sure you don't want to—"
"What position do you play?"
Charley raised his eyebrows. "Really? I'm impressed."
"It's not varsity or anything. It's just JV."
"Stop it, John." Charley smacked his thigh with the remote. "Stop berating every single accomplishment you've ever done in your life."
"I'm going to be the savior of mankind, Charley, I think that's my reason for sweating the small stuff."
"You heard me. Bullshit. You will be the leader you were meant to be because of this. Here. This will be your foundation. Soccer. School. Your friends. This life. I see it. From California to here. You've grown up." Charley shook his head then slumped down on the couch and stretched his legs out on the coffee table. "I'm sure you're mother has trained you well. But, trust your instincts. Play soccer. Go to school. Kiss your girlfriend. Don't let your mother suck the life out of you."
John ate cold pancakes sometime around eleven. By twelve they were sitting heavy on his stomach and he wavered somewhere between the uncertainty of hunger and nausea. He stood in the kitchen, unsure, settling on a sleeve of crackers and a can of soda, both of which he took into his room and closed the door.
Solitude was better than dealing with Charley and Derek. He turned on his computer, thought about doing homework, even opened up his Global History book, then was distracted by the unfamiliar bing of the chat program Daniel had insisted he install. Guiltily, John glanced over his shoulder; this wasn't what his computer was to be used for. His mom had warned him countless times of the reason this expensive, state of the art laptop was in his possession, and using it to chat with his friends hadn't ever appeared anywhere on the list.
The sleeve of crackers was finished, only crumbs remained and John had just sucked the can of soda dry. Daniel. Dria. Cassie. Corey. Nate. Li. This was more fun than John would've ever imagined and he was surprised at how disappointed he felt when Cassie and Dria signed off. Followed by Nate. Li. Corey. Daniel signed off and John was left in the chat room alone. "Figures," he mumbled, closing down the icon and opening up his history book.
One thing about Derek was that the man was respectful of personal space. And Charley. It hurt John to acknowledge that the poor guy was so shell shocked, he was running without ever leaving their living room.
Global History was finished; math wasn't something he wanted to even tackle. He dumped his schoolwork back into his backpack and shoved it into a corner of his room. Out of sight, out of mind. John contemplated a number of things but in the end he checked his clock, wondered where the hell his mother and Cameron were then crawled into bed, grabbed his phone and left a message for his mom, reminding her that he loved her and not to forget the corsage.
This time he did fall back to sleep, though it was a restless one filled with disruptive dreams and he awoke with his heart pounding in his chest, remembering nothing but the normal savior being chased by terminator fear.
He opened his eyes, sat up and blinked. Once. Twice. "Cameron?"
"Do you like it?"
John was speechless. "Cameron?" Slowly, he slid out of bed and walked around her, appraising her, remembering to close his mouth. "Wow."
"Down boy," his mother said from the doorway. Two innocuous words, but her tone said it all. 'Do not Touch. Do not Look. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars'.
"Do you like it, John?" Cameron performed a graceful pirouette, avoiding all his piles of crap.
Poor Corey. The guy didn't stand a chance. Her normally straight hair was curled, pinned and pulled, swept upward, moving her from beautiful to breathtaking. He stuck out a hand to touch.
Cameron slapped at his hand, the one he'd burnt and John pulled back. "Sorry."
"The girl said not to touch it too much because it'll fall down."
"Don't touch," Sara repeated, wagging her finger at John.
He threw his hand up in surrender. "No touching, promise. Though I'm not too sure Corey's going to be able to make the same promise."
John cornered his mother in the laundry room.
"Shouldn't you be getting ready?"
"I shower, blow-dry my hair. Twenty minutes, top." John glanced at his watch. "It's three. Prom starts at seven. Limo's coming at five forty five. I think I have time."
"Men," his mother snorted.
"Why did you dress Cameron up? Get her hair done? Makeup? Nails? What are you pretending?"
"Whoa." His mother tossed an armful of towels into the dryer. "What am I pretending? I'm just making sure Cameron fits in."
"Bad timing," John hissed. "Because you're showing that we can play dress up with our pet terminator. You're giving him false hope for Michelle and that's not fair."
"He needs to—"
"Damn straight he does. Charley needs to know everything. We owe him that and if you're not going to tell him," John hit his own chest, "I will."
Charley stormed out of the house after talking to John's mom. She hesitated for a few minutes, turning to glare at her audience of John and Derek before storming out of the house, jumping in the Jeep and taking off in the opposite direction.
"Well, that went well," Derek commented.
"I'm betting Charley still doesn't get it."
"People don't. You should know that. Your mom should know that. Not until you've got a terminator on your ass, breathing down your neck, waiting to kill—"
"Enough," John yelled. "Just enough," he said, lowering his voice. "I don't need a blow by blow, okay?" He shouldered past Derek, ignoring the look of semi-pride he always wore when John yelled at him, as if he were surprised that he would. Frustrated and downright pissed at the world, John went into his bedroom and did the only mature thing one would do in a situation such as this. He slammed the door, loud enough to reverberate through the books and CDs on his dresser and did what he usually did when he wanted to escape reality, he turned on his computer and tried to pretend he was a normal sixteen year old.
By three thirty he'd talked to Cassie two more times. He also fielded a call or two from Dria, who was a tad more anal than John believed humanly possible, and Corey, who begged him to take a picture of Cameron, which he turned down because he valued his life. By four he'd hung up and tried his mother, to no avail. Concern began to mix with worry. John rubbed the heel of his palm against his forehead. Wonderful. Worry, plus concern, with a dash of feeling like shit, was beginning to add up to a horrific combination.
The shower helped, parting the fog that was slowly enveloping his brain. He hated that pre-cold feeling; the headache, the muscle pain. John leeched every ounce of warmth from the shower before deciding that he'd had enough, turned the water off then reluctantly stepped out into the steamy bathroom.
John unzipped the tux bag and stared at the suit, fingering the material. This was new. Well, not his new, but new nonetheless, and he was almost terrified to actually wear it. Most of his clothes came from Goodwill or Salvation Army, which was fine because he just never cared. He was and had been brought up to be a blender. In his line of life, clothes were a necessity and not something to waste money on. Money was for ammunition. Weapons. A roof over their heads. Food. The tux was an extravagance and just touching it made John feel incredibly guilty.
Again, he dialed his mother's cell, his heart in his mouth when the call went to voice mail. He held the phone tightly in his hands, issuing up a nondescript prayer for an even more nondescript god that his very rightly-so overactive imagination was wrong.
He dressed slowly, carefully, precisely. Sadly. He concentrated on his fingers, making them cooperate and work in sync with each other.
"Can I help?"
"Mom?" John broke into a smile.
His mom gave an embarrassed shrug, stepped forward and placed a clear plastic box on his bed. "I, umm, forgot to pick up the corsage. And the place I ordered it had closed, so I had to go driving around..." She tapped the top. "It's not what I—is it okay?"
His mom was here. Safe. Breathing. Not a mark on her. The corsage didn't matter. "It's beautiful," John answered, keeping his gaze locked on his mother, not even bothering to steal a look at the flower. "Thank you."
She stepped into his personal space, a strange smile pulling at the corner of her mouth and she pushed his hands away and began to button his shirt. "Thought you were old enough—"
John surprised her with a kiss, then handed her the bow tie.
His mom tried it once. Hmmm'ed over it. Tried it again, struggled with the overlapping and then began again. "Maybe Derek?"
Holy shit. Cameron. Was—even his mother was amazed. The hair had been a transformation, but the dress. John blinked.
Cameron blinked back and canted her head. "You're very handsome."
"Yes, he is," his mother answered when John couldn't. "And you. You look very..." She looked towards John, who shrugged. "Un-terminatorish."
"Is that a compliment?"
"Yes, Cameron, it is. Or very close to one."
"Then thank you." Cameron plucked the tie from his mom's hands and threaded it under his upraised collar and John saw his mother blanch at the proximity of Cameron's hands to his neck.
"Not too tight," his mom hissed.
"You look beautiful, Cameron."
And she smiled. The smile from New Mexico. John's heart did an uncomfortable, no so little flip flop. "Un-terminatorish?"
His mother caught him in the kitchen and slipped him some money. "Just in case Corey's parents need you to chip in—"
He didn't even look at the denomination; John just shoved the bills into his pocket. "I'll give you—"
"Have a good time, okay?" She brushed an imaginary piece of dust off his jacket.
His mother turned John around, gently pushing him towards the kitchen window. "Charley's there."
And Charley was. Sitting on an old rickety folding chair, nursing a beer, his eyes red rimmed even from this distance. "Let me to talk to—"
"Not now, honey. I think Charley's a little talked out."
"Tell him I—"
"Believe me, John, he knows."
The pre-cold feeling didn't creep up so slowly this time, but broadsided him just as he was about to go and join everyone outside at Rose's for the pictures and to wait for the limo.
"I'll be out in a minute," John stuttered, backing away.
His hands were shaking when he opened the Tylenol and it took him three times as long to pop off the cap. John dry swallowed three, shoved six in his pocket, closed the top and made sure it fit back into the exact dust-free circle it had been sitting in. He grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, drank half of it, then headed back towards the door.
Derek stopped him cold.
"I gotta go." John pointed around his uncle towards the front door as he felt his face grow flushed and his stomach begin to burn with nausea.
"You look like your dad."
Derek clapped him on the shoulder, grabbed John's hand and turned it over. "Here you go," he said with a wink. "Enjoy."
In his hand, his uncle had placed a brand new, sealed condom.
John got Derek to leave, saying he had to make a quick pit stop before joining the crowd. And his uncle left without an argument, barely giving John enough time to get to the bathroom. With one hand braced against the wall and the other wrapped tightly around the towel rack, John vomited up the water and the Tylenol. After he finished, he stood, bent over at a forty five degree angle, spread eagle and spit two mouthfuls of vile tasting saliva into the bowl. Slowly, John brought himself back to a standing position, flushed then brushed his teeth, again awkwardly bent over the sink at an angle so that no part of him or the tux touched anything.
Surprisingly, he felt better, hazarded a quick glance in the mirror, and satisfied his upchucking hadn't mussed up his hair or his clothes, John switched off the light. He tossed back three more Tylenol to make up for the ones now dissolving in the sewer pipes under his house.
"Holy crap, John, you're as bad as Cassie when it comes to getting ready."
"Shit." John dropped the bottle into the sink, losing half its contents down the drain before he was able to save them. "Goddamnit, Jackson!" John righted the bottle and slammed it on the counter. He turned angrily.
Daniel threw up his hands. "Sorry, dude, I was just checking on you. Rather me than the contingent of adults and overdressed teenagers."
"Drew the short straw?" John fumbled around, found the cap, put it on the bottle then shoved the now half-empty bottle back into the cabinet.
"What the fuck is up with you?"
"I'm fine." John threw his arms opened wide. "Don't I look fine?" The anger on Daniel's face, John could deal with. It fed into his own anger. But then the anger was gone, replaced by a look of betrayal that cut through John's bullshit. "I feel like crap," he said softly, pushing his bangs off his face. "Can't sleep when I'm supposed to be sleeping. Can't stay awake when—"
"Your head hurts." Daniel nodded towards the sink. "That's what the Tylenol's for."
John shrugged, then nodded. "Don't tell my mom. Or Cassie." He rolled his eyes. "Please."
Daniel patted his pocket. "As long as you promise not to tell my dad, grandmother, or Alexandria."
"I have my own supply of Tylenol. Some Pepcid. Breath mints."
Daniel nodded. "Me, too. Feel like I could jump out of my skin."
"I've been short tempered," John admitted.
"You?" Daniel said, grinning. "I never would've noticed."
"We can do this, right? I mean..."
"You've faced terminators. I've been offworld and faced monsters. The worst we can face is spiked punch and laced brownies."
"Huh?" John wondered what he'd missed.
Daniel continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "And a bad DJ. We put on a happy face, go to a party and then get sick enough to take the entire next week off. Sound like a plan?"
This was surreal to Sarah. This was what other people did. What other families did. Not the Connors. Or, based on the expression Derek was wearing, the Reese family had never done this either.
Once upon a time, Sarah was sure she'd been that young, but for the life of her she couldn't pull up one single memory. Things in her life were divided into the years before Kyle and the lifetime after.
Jack appeared by her side, his broad smile matched only by his mother's and Doctor Fraiser's. "Your terminator cleans up very nicely."
"Never in your wildest dreams would you imagine that she's all cybernetic organism, living tissue over a metal endoskeleton, complete with a hyper alloy chassis, would you?"
Jack's smile slipped more than a little. "Does your robot have a weapon in her purse?"
Sarah smothered her snort of laughter. "She is the weapon, Colonel O'Neill."
"I keep forgetting."
"You and my son."
"Hey, speaking of son, think you can rip him out of Cassie's arms long enough to embarrass him into taking a picture with his mom?"
Sarah shook her head. "We don't do pictures." There were no pictures of the Connor family except wanted posters hanging in post office and psych records. "I don't do pictures."
"Just the necessities. Driver's license. Passport."
"Well, that's sucks."
"No," Sarah said emphatically, "that's life. Our lives."
"You're safe here."
"No one is ever safe. Ever. Though that robot over there with the smile that's just a bit off, dressed up and fancy looking, her mission is to protect John and now Daniel, and she'll kill anyone that she believes is a threat whether or not she's in heels and wearing a corsage. Me. You. Expendable if she perceives us a threat. The SGC. No one is ever safe. Cameron will give her terminator life for those boys."
"There's a strange sense of comfort in your words, Sarah."
"Welcome to my nightmare, Colonel."
Sarah noticed her son's inability to face the camera somewhere around the time that Rose called his name with a touch of controlled frustration. She strode into the ruckus, head down and tugged John aside.
He didn't hesitate, he stumbled along after her, but he was wary when she turned him to face her, definitely wearing the 'what the hell did I do now' expression. "So handsome," she said, brushing a stray hair off his forehead. "You look like—"
"Don't." John's action of pushing down her hand and the one word was cushioned in the soft way the one syllable was spoken.
"Ah. Not in public."
John smiled, large enough that the ever-elusive, rarely-seen dimple made an appearance. "Okay, I'll let you gush this one time."
"Thank you, and just for that, I won't comment on your Converse Sneakers," Sarah said, with a slight nod towards John's sneaker-covered feet. "But—"
"I'm not changing my shoes."
"No, you don't have to change your shoes, but you do have to let Rose take a picture. Pictures are okay tonight."
Mouth agape, her son stared at her long and hard. Hard enough that the green eyes boring into hers became a stranger's and Sarah could feel her skin begin to crawl.
"Stop changing the rules, Mom. Pulling the rug out from under me is fuckin' with my head." John stepped away from her reach. "More so than growing up with bedtime stories of terminators hiding in the closet or under my bed."
The limo was getting ready to leave. Pictures had been taken, goodbyes were being exchanged and one by one, parents were warning their children to behave. Cassie listened with half an ear to her mother, nodding at all the right places, but her attention was trained on John and his mother.
They were arguing. The words weren't loud enough for Cassie to hear, but John's body language was screaming anger. Damn him. Damn his mother.
"Come on, John," Cassie yelled, picking up her dress and heading towards the limo. Changing her mind, she tiptoed awkwardly on heels to kiss her mother on the cheek, catching a glimpse of John as he headed towards her. Jaw set, John strode past her and into the opened limo door. Crap. This was going to be a long night.
Okay, this was beyond an argument with his mother. Cassie had had plenty of arguments with her mom and she'd been privy to plenty of heated words between Daniel and Uncle Jack. The expression on John's face was beyond anger and suddenly Cassie felt inadequate.
The dress she'd loved, the hair, the makeup and earrings that had thrilled her, now seemed stupid and silly, like she was playing dress up. John was mature. More mature than all of them, even Daniel, and this dance probably was something he felt coerced into going to. Something she'd coerced him into doing. Now, being forced in a limo full of teenagers, John probably wished he were anywhere but here.
John was going to be the savior of mankind. And in the scheme of his life, this dance was miniscule. All of this. Oh god, Cassie turned towards the window; she was not going to cry. Nope. She was going to smile and pretend. She was good at pretending. Hell, she was an alien, she could pretend with the best of them.
"Hey." A soft tug on one of her loose curls captured her attention.
She hesitated and touched the corner of her eyes before turning to face John. "Hey."
"Sorry." He ducked his head, picking at an invisible spot on his pants. "Mom had some words of wisdom to impart before I left."
"Yeah, parents are like that." Cassie cringed, her words definitely came out harsher than she wanted but before she had a chance to apologize, John's attention was pulled elsewhere.
John stopped short and Cassie, unsure on heels as it was, nearly made a spectacle of herself by tripping over John's right foot.
"What the—" Cassie didn't even finish her sentence; John's face was whiter than the background the photographer was using. "You okay?"
"Yeah, come on—" She tugged his arm. "It'll be fun. Look Dria and Daniel are—"
"You want to take a picture?"
"Yes." She'd paid good money for all of this; a year's worth of babysitting. Even though this whole thing was below John, the least he could do was take a picture for posterity. "We're going to take a picture together."
And he did. John took a photo with Cassie, stiff and unsmiling and after ten minutes of listening to the photographer do everything but stand on his head to get some emotion out of John, Cassie stomped off, leaving him standing there under the hot lights.
"Spill," Cassie demanded after she located John sitting in the outdoor gardens. It was bad enough that he'd picked at his food, that he'd been more interested in the water on the table than in her, that he wouldn't dance a fast dance, but when he'd left her standing on the dance floor in the middle of the slow dance, she'd reached the end of her humiliation scale.
"I'm—" John began.
"Yeah, I know," Cassie finished. "You're sorry you're here."
John shrugged. "I am."
"Oh." She hadn't expected him to agree with her and hot tears sprang into her eyes. Cassie turned, her heels catching on the hem of her gown and she felt herself going down, but John's reflexes where faster than her ability to save herself.
"Let me go." Cassie struggled, not sure if she was more pissed at her klutziness than she was at John's ability to come to her aid.
"Shush." His voice wasn't condescending. Or demeaning. Or demanding. It was filled with concern. John opened up his tux jacket and wrapped it around Cassie, pulling her in close. "I'm sorry." He rested his chin on the top of her head. "You deserve to be here with someone who..."
Against her better judgment, Cassie could feel herself comforted by John but she refused to release her anger and humiliation. "Wants to be here?"
"I want to be here. I want to be here with you."
"You could've fooled me."
"I'm sorry," John repeated.
"You should be." Cassie pushed away from him and he held fast for a while, before giving in and releasing. "This dress. This dance. These tickets..." God she was crying now. Really crying. And she was pretty damn sure that expensive, stays on forever even in the shower mascara that cost two hours worth of babysitting was all hype. Now she was beyond being embarrassed or mortified, this was the ultimate in degradation.
"You look beautiful."
Cassie snorted up a noseful of snot. "A little late for that, John Baum."
"I thought you'd know that." His voice was tiny and unsure. As if he were ten and not sixteen.
"I don't know what you don't tell me, John." Her voice was equally as soft, trying to pretend this conversation wasn't bordering on some teenage soap opera or the inside of a Hallmark card.
He turned and probably would've walked away if Cassie hadn't moved quickly, and this time quite deftly, blocking his avenue of retreat. "Talk to me." Cassie waited a heartbeat, willing herself to keep her mouth shut and her feet firmly planted on the path. She didn't budge.
John didn't speak.
And right about there, Cassie realized they were a perfect couple, and she fought, struggled, and lost the battle to bury the smallest of smiles.
"What's so funny?"
"We are. I thought I was the most stubborn, pig-headed person in the world."
A grin tugged at the corner of John's lips. "You're not?"
"No," Cassie said firmly. "You are."
"I've lived my life trying to blend in. Head down. No attention. School. Home. Avoiding terminators. Staying alive. I don't know how to do this." John pointed to the reception hall where throngs of people were visible through the windows, dancing. Music from the DJ drifted out towards them."
John shook his head. "More than dance. It's iPods. And malls. Clothes. Acceptance." John scrubbed at his eyes, shoved his hands in his pockets and rubbed the toe of his sneaker along the cobblestone path. "Going back inside scares me more than facing a terminator. At least with a terminator, I know what their mission is. With them," John cocked his chin back towards the hall, "I have no idea what the hell they want from me."
Okay, she got him to share, but Cassie was damned sure she didn't have the answer. "Let me show you something. Give me your hands."
Reluctantly, John took his hands from his pockets and held them out towards Cassie.
She took his right hand in hers, then guided his left hand until it rested around the curve of her waist. "Would you dance with me?"
"I don't know how."
"You don't have to, you can do what everyone else is doing," Cameron curled her hand around the lapel of his tux jacket. "You can just pretend to have it under control."
Daniel plopped down into his chair and within seconds, finished off his glass of ice water and was reaching for Alexandria's, when it was moved out of his reach.
"What did you do that for?" Daniel glared up into his girlfriend's innocent face, it was only her hand on her water glass betraying her guilt.
"Here," she said, pushing a small plate with a roll in front of him. "Try eating instead of drinking."
Slowly, Daniel pushed the plate away. "I'm really not hungry."
Alexandria pulled out her chair and sat down.
Uh, oh. Daniel braced himself. After his father and grandmother, Alexandria was third on the list of mothering him to death.
"You've eaten nothing."
Daniel couldn't argue, the thought of food was enough to make him barf.
"You've drank everyone's water on the table, this must be the third time they've refilled the—"
"Dancing is hard work." He tried buying her off with a dimple producing smile.
"You danced one dance, Daniel. And it was a slow dance. We're not talking extreme exertion here."
"I danced more than one dance," he argued lamely.
Alexandria said nothing and Daniel felt terrible. Physically. Mentally. He was pissed at his body's betrayal and impeccable timing. "I'm sorry. This wasn't how you planned this night." He leaned forward and pulled on a curl. "You look very beautiful."
His remark took precedence over her disappointment and Alexandria beamed. "Thank you."
"It's the truth." Daniel shivered as a wave of cool air traveled up the sleeve of his jacket.
"I believe you," she said, "now will you believe me if I tell you I'm just glad to be here with you?"
Slowly she stood, then gently sat down in his lap. Alexandria snuggled against him and Daniel had to hold back a sign of satisfaction as her body's warmth covered him like a blanket.
"Is this better than dancing?"
"Oh, much," she said, turning to watch the crowd on the dance floor.
Daniel rested his cheek against Alexandria's back, closed his eyes and listened to her heartbeat. Steady and comforting, Daniel could feel himself start to drift into a light slumber, still aware of his surroundings.
"I've lost John."
Daniel came to full awareness with a jerk and Alexandria squeaked in protest when his arms reflexively tightened around her midsection. "John?"
"He's fine, Cam. Give the poor guy a little privacy." Corey put an arm around Cameron's shoulders.
Alexandria stood, grabbed Cameron's hand and she jerked when the terminator's weight prohibited her continued forward motion.
Shit. "Go," Daniel ordered Cameron, who shot him a deer in the headlight look until Daniel quickly added, "follow Alexandria."
Thankfully, Cameron nodded in understanding and she tagged along, holding onto Alexandria's hand, leaving Daniel and Corey staring after the two of them.
"God, I feel badly for John." Corey shook his head. "Imagine having a sister that was so obsessed with you, she can't even relax."
"I know they're close."
Corey pinched his thumb and pointer finger together. "Close?" He stared one-eyed at his finger manipulation. "Understatement of the year." He shook out his hand, disgusted.
"John's outside in the garden with Dria," Cameron said when they came back.
"Lucky boy," Corey said with a head shake and a wistful gaze out into the gardens.
"Would you like to be a lucky boy?" Cameron asked, holding out her hand. "We can go out into the garden."
"Woohoo." Corey planted a wet, loud kiss on Cameron's cheek. "I'd love to be a lucky boy." He held out his hand. "Lead the way, princess, I promise not to disappoint."
Exhaustion didn't quite cover how Daniel was feeling right now. The limousine's air conditioning was too strong; even with jacket and shirt, he felt chilled. He couldn't wait for them to arrive at Corey's so they could step out into the hot and humid evening air.
Alexandria, Cassie and Melinda were sitting across from him, John and Li. Nate and his date, Susie, had taken a seat together, as had Corey and Cameron. Christian and his date Penny had paired off together also.
The girls' inane chatter about who had danced with whom, who had been spotted kissing whom, whose dresses had been slutty or too plain or gaudy, all went over Daniel's head. It wasn't until Corey's whispered comments to Cameron, heard through a lull in conversation, did Daniel begin to pay attention to what he was saying.
"Your hair is like a horse's mane, silky, shiny, all tied up." Corey was leaning sideways, staring intently at Cameron. Immediately Cassie giggled, then hid her face behind her hand as she turned her head away. Alexandria snorted, coughed, and hid her face against Cassie's shoulder.
Daniel tried to swallow his own smile. Corey had been going on and on like that all evening long, whenever he thought nobody else could hear. His compliments had become more expansive the more he tried.
"And when you dance, you're like that show horse, performing each jump with grace and perfection. Each move, each step, perfect rhythm."
Cameron turned to look at John and in a deadpan voice, stated, "I'm a horse."
"No, that's not what I meant." Corey grabbed her hand. "What I meant was that you're beautiful. You danced better than everyone—"
"I stepped on your foot—"
"That was my fault—"
"And each time, my fault. I'm a klutz, I don't deserve you." Corey slowly moved a twist of hair that had fallen from Cameron's exquisite hairdo and pushed it back from her face. "You're so beautiful."
Cameron blinked at Corey, expressionless.
"Say 'thank you', Cameron," John said in a strangled voice. It took Daniel a moment to realize that John was trying not to laugh. And at Corey's surprised look, Daniel, and everyone else in the limousine who had been listening intently, burst into laughter.
Someone made a neighing sound; Daniel thought it might be Christian.
"Thank you, Corey. I'm glad you like horses."
"I... don't." Corey was looking at Daniel, his eyes wide and pleading whenever the streetlights illuminated the interior of the limo.
"Then you don't like me?"
"No, that's not what—"
"What Corey means," Daniel said, suddenly tired of the ridiculousness of the situation, "is that you look very pretty."
"But he doesn't like horses."
"It was a bad analogy. I'm sorry—"
"Yeah." Nate leaned back and smacked Corey's shoulder. "Corey likes some horses. Clydesdales he likes, 'cause they bring the beer in the commercials."
"But Clydesdales are big and hairy," Susie said.
"Exactly," Christian hooted.
At Cameron's, "Thank you for explaining," everyone burst into hysterical laughter, except for Daniel. The noise was deafening and he winced at the sudden onset of a headache.
"Are we almost there?" John whispered in his ear.
Daniel realized John wasn't laughing either.
"We're just a couple of blocks away," Daniel whispered back, glad that they had decided not to tour the city, everyone more excited about jumping into Corey's pool than the romantic evening the girls had all talked about for weeks. Only Corey seemed to be the one trying to sweet talk his date. And they'd all seen how well that had gone over.
The moment they pulled up in front of Corey's house, the kids grabbed their belongings and exited the limo in an excited group. Daniel stood holding his and Alexandria's overnight bags as everyone sorted their stuff. Alexandria came up to him and leaned against him as they watched Corey hand over their collected tip to the driver.
"I had fun." She smiled up at Daniel and headache or not, he couldn't resist leaning down and kissing her.
"Hey. You guys gonna stand out here all night or are we going to have some fun?" Corey smacked Daniel on the back just as he was pulling away from Alexandria. Another second and he'd probably have cut his lip on her teeth.
"Watch it, asshole," he grumbled as he followed everyone into the house.
The girls appropriated the bedrooms in order to change so the guys took their turns using the bathroom. Within five minutes, Christian, Nate, Li and John were outside while Daniel stood in the kitchen, staring out the window, his towel slung over his shoulders as the earlier chill in the limo hit him again. The idea of lying down on the couch, covered in a blanket, was appealing until he realized the temperature outside was warmer than indoors.
"Now remember," Daniel heard Gina say to Corey in the other room, "fun is one thing. Screaming and yelling at this time of night is another. While I've warned everyone within hearing distance that you guys are going to be out late tonight, I'm counting on you to keep the noise level down because if the cops ring the doorbell, I'm sending them out to talk to you."
"Yes, Mom." Daniel could so see Corey rolling his eyes at his mom. Corey hurried past Daniel and was out the door, running for the pool and cannonballing into it without giving anyone warning.
"Are you okay?" Gina came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. He felt her fingers move to his neck and he wondered if she could feel the fever he knew was rising.
"Just a headache. Allergies."
"Do you have your antihistamines?" She massaged his shoulder when he nodded. "Do you want some Tylenol?"
Too lazy to get the Tylenol he'd packed, Daniel nodded again, and took the pills when she offered them to him along with a glass of water. "Thanks." The water felt good going down.
"You want to sit inside for a while? It's still pretty hot out."
"Thanks, but I'll be fine." He craved the heat and wanted to escape the air-conditioned interior of the house.
Daniel grabbed the first free lawn chair while most of the boys roughhoused in the pool. Gina and Steve had placed candles and lights around the deck and the pool area, giving them just enough illumination and making it a festive place.
Cameron was the first one out. Dressed in a bikini, she strode up to John, who seemed as reluctant as Daniel to get into the water. He was sitting at the water's edge with his arms around his knees, only his toes were touching the water. A towel covered his shoulders as well. Cameron's elaborate hairdo had been partly dismantled, the curls now forming a long ponytail.
Corey's eyes were glued to her body until Nate shoved him underwater. Cameron strode to the shallow end of the pool after John spoke to her, and sat on the steps as Corey hurriedly swam to her. Daniel wondered if she could swim or if her metallic skeleton would cause her to sink right to the bottom.
Daniel suppressed a shiver and pulled the towel tighter as he huddled over his bare legs. The hairs on his legs bristled uncomfortably as goose bumps peppered his skin.
"Hey, aren't you coming in?" Alexandria sat next to him; her two piece bathing suit fitting her just as exquisitely as Cameron's had fit hers. She had also changed her hair, pulling it into a low ponytail that caressed her left breast.
"Later." He forced a smile. "You go ahead."
"Are you okay?"
"Headache. I just need to sit and relax for a few minutes."
"I have some Tylenol in my purse. I can go and get it."
"Gina gave me some."
They sat in silence as Cassie walked up to the pool and executed a perfect dive, swam underwater to the other side and came up directly in front of where John was sitting. She grabbed the edge and hauled herself up in a lithe movement, twisting so she was sitting next to him. Her hair was loose and she palmed the water from her face as she turned to talk to him.
"Go on in." Daniel picked up Alexandria's hand and brought it to his lips. "I'll go join you soon."
"You're sure?" She leaned against him and her body heat felt wonderful.
"Yup. I'm sure. Just give me a few minutes."
She stared at him for several long seconds before getting up and striding to the pool. He sighed; he hated this – he was sure he had a fever because the moment she left his side, he began to shiver.
He watched her sit at the pool's edge and slip into the water, swimming towards Cassie, who was still sitting with John. Cassie slipped into the water, grabbed a floating beach ball and tossed it towards Alexandria.
He was torn; he'd really been looking forward to tonight but things were going from bad to worse. If he really was getting sick, maybe he'd better go inside and ask Gina to take his temperature. He looked at the girls playing in the pool and shuddered; there was no way he was getting wet tonight.
Christian dove into the pool, splashing water everywhere. The drops were frigid on Daniel's skin and that made the decision for him. He was about to rise to go back into the house when Nate and Christian pulled themselves out of the pool next to John, stood and grabbed him by the arms. Before John could protest, they threw him into the water.
Laughing, both boys jumped into the pool after John. Daniel, so intent on what was going on, he didn't notice Li and Corey approaching.
"No." Ignoring the pain of fever-riddled joints, Daniel stood, hands held out to ward off his two laughing friends. He twisted, trying to avoid them but they caught him easily. Their hands were like ice as they held onto his arms, dragging him, yelling, towards the pool. It all happened so fast, he didn't have time to try to break their holds. The next thing he knew, the water was coming towards him. The shock of the cold caught his breath, and he remembered something his subconscious had hidden for the past eight years.
The shock to his body so great, he screamed out in agony. But his lungs wouldn't work.
He sank to the bottom slowly, his body limp, no longer feeling the chill of the water against his overheated skin, lost in the agony.
Cassie knew something was wrong the moment John began thrashing around in the water. He wasn't trying to stay afloat; it looked more like he was fighting something.
As his head slipped under the water, Cassie screamed, "Help him!" She swam frantically towards John. She traveled a third of the distance of the pool before anyone else realized what was happening. Christian and Nate tried to grab hold of John as he went under a second time, but he fought them.
Cassie reached them, yelling John's name, staying just out of reach, treading water, hoping to break through whatever John was experiencing. Then to everyone's surprise, Cameron, who was leaning on the edge of the pool, reached over, grabbed John's arm and pulled him the short distance to the edge. Cameron plucked John out of the water and dumped him on the ground in a move so smooth and effortless that she proved to Cassie once and for all that she truly wasn't human.
Thrusting a hand onto the edge of the pool, Cassie was just about to pull herself out of the water when Dria screamed. "Daniel!"
Turning back, Cassie saw a dark shape at the bottom of the pool.
Without thinking she dove back into the water, her pulse beating frantically inside her skull as she reached for Daniel's limp arm. Then Dria was there on her other side and together, they pushed off the bottom of the pool.
It was only when she and Dria were fighting to hold Daniel's head above water that Cassie realized how hot Daniel was. Together they managed to tow him to the side of the pool and again, Cameron got him up and over with very little effort.
As Cassie clambered out of the water, she heard Daniel gasp for air.
"Get towels," she ordered as she grabbed a bath towel and tossed it to Dria. "Keep them warm." Everyone was kneeling or crouching next to either John or Daniel. At her instructions, Li scrabbled to the nearest chair and tagged a towel, hurrying back to cover John with it, who was curled up on his side, legs to his chest. "Corey, get a phone. Call 911."
As Corey ran towards the house, the Middletons ran out the door.
"What happened? We heard yelling."
"They're sick," Corey yelled as he ran past them.
Cassie ran for the bag she'd left on one of the chairs, scrabbling for her cell phone. "John and Daniel. I think they've got high fevers." She hit speed dial, hurrying back to where the two boys were lying, unresponsive. She crouched next to John and put a hand on his arm. Just like Daniel, his temperature was abnormally high.
"Mom!" she cried out the moment she heard her mom's voice. "It's John and Daniel. They're sick."
"Okay, slow down, honey. Tell me what happened."
She paced away from them and as she started talking, she realized she was shivering. "They were in the pool, and suddenly... Mom, I don't know what happened. We pulled them out. They're not responsive. They've got very high temperatures."
"Both of them? Both of them are unresponsive?"
"Yes. They're just lying there."
"Did you call 911?"
She turned, looked towards the house and saw Corey standing at the window, talking into a phone. "Yes, Corey's calling them right now."
"I'm coming over. I'll be there in five minutes."
The short time she'd been on the phone, Gina Middleton rushed back into the house. "My mom's on her way," Cassie told Steve Middleton.
"Cassie, can I have your phone?" Dria was sitting with Daniel's head and shoulders in her lap. She was crying even as she held her hand out for the phone. "I need to call Colonel Jack."
"Do you want me to call him?" Cassie hesitated before she handed the phone to Dria.
"No. I... I have to." With one hand on Daniel's cheek, she used the other to punch in the numbers.
Cassie hurried over to Cameron, who was crouched next to John. "Did you call—"
Cameron held out a cell phone. "Our mother is on her way."
"Good." She turned to help Gina as she ran back to them, a bundle of blankets in her arms. Together, Cassie and Cameron and Gina got the boys wrapped in blankets.
"How long does it take for an ambulance to get here?" Li asked. Cassie glanced up at the four boys, all of them, including their dates, having moved back, well away from the two who were lying on the ground.
"It's only been a couple of minutes since Corey called," Cassie said as she eased a towel under John's cheek. He was hot. So hot. Cameron was kneeling next to John, but she wasn't looking at him, she kept looking around, checking the yard, the house, the gate to the street. Watching Cameron, who was on some sort of alert mode, made Cassie's skin crawl.
"No. It's been at least ten minutes, maybe fifteen." Corey looked around at the others for confirmation, and all of them nodded.
"Should I take their temperatures?" Gina stroked Daniel's forehead as she turned to look at Steve.
"Why? The ambulance will be here any minute."
"I can tell them how high their fevers are when they get here."
"They can probably do it faster and—" Steve looked towards the house at the sound of a car door slamming.
"Corey, go see who that is."
Corey set off running, Nate and Li on his heels.
Cassie watched anxiously, hoping it was her mom. "Colonel, it's Daniel," Corey yelled, opening the back gate and pointing in their direction.
Jack ran to them, skidding to a stop next to Daniel.
"What happened?" He put a hand on Daniel's face. "Daniel? Daniel, can you hear me? Icky?" He turned towards Steve Middleton. "Steve, what happened?"
"I don't know. I heard the kids yelling."
"He wasn't feeling well. He said he had a headache." Gina tucked the blanket around Daniel's feet. "I gave him Tylenol."
"And John?" Jack turned to Cameron but Cassie answered. "He'd been quiet all night. I thought maybe it was me. He didn't tell me he was sick." She crouched next to Jack. Suddenly she wanted to cry. "John didn't want to go into the water. He said he was cold."
"Daniel didn't want to go in either," Dria said in a shaky voice.
"Then why is he wet? Why are both of them soaked?"
"It was my fault." Nate stepped forward. "I talked Corey and the others into throwing them into the pool. I'm... I'm sorry."
Another car door slammed shut and Steve just motioned to Corey to go and let the person in. A second and third set of doors followed the first.
"It's not your fault. Whatever's happened, I'm sure it didn't have to do with them getting a soaking."
"What's wrong with them?" Cassie whispered.
"I don't know. Relapse?" Jack twisted to glance at John.
"You mean whatever the boys caught a while back?" Steve asked.
"I don't know what else it could be," Jack answered, giving Cassie a warning look.
"Is it contagious?" Susie asked.
"If it were," Cassie's mom announced as she hurried over to where the boys were, followed by John's mom, Derek and a stranger, "you'd all be sick by now considering the amount of time you've spent together all week." She knelt next to John, pulled the blanket back and gave him a quick examination. "Corey, sweetheart. Could you wait by the gate so when the ambulance arrives, you can send them right in?"
"What happened?" Sarah Connor asked impatiently as she knelt next to John. As Gina explained, Cassie moved closer to Dria to make room for her mom. Dria was still crying so Cassie put her arms around her and found that Dria was shivering almost as much as she was. She glanced over at John, feeling guilty she wasn't sitting with him, the way Dria was with Daniel but she felt more comfortable here.
"Doc?" Jack asked when her mom crouched next to Daniel and the guy who'd come with John's mom and Derek went to John.
"Fever's pretty high, 104 at least," Cassie's mom said after putting her hands on Daniel's face and neck.
"Pulse is thready and faint," the stranger said. "John's temperature is close to 104." He reached over and grabbed a lit candle and held it close to John's face as he peeled back his eyelids. "Pupils appear sluggish, but it's hard to tell."
Cassie's mom stared at the man a long moment, then dug in her medical bag and handed him a penlight.
"Thanks. I'm Charley Dixon. I'm an EMT, visiting from Los Angeles." After testing John's pupils, he made a face. "Definitely sluggish." He gave John's face a light tap. "Johnny, can you hear me?" Cassie held her breath but John didn't react.
Neither did Daniel when her mom did the same to him. "The dunking in the pool wouldn't cause this type of reaction; it'd be a shock to their bodies, yeah, but not enough to put them in this state."
Cassie watched, still hugging Dria, as her mom and Charley Dixon took Daniel's and John's pulse, blood pressure, and tested for neurological responses.
"Ambulance is coming," Cameron commented. A second later, Cassie heard the faint sound of the approaching siren.
The next few minutes were nightmarish as John and Daniel were loaded up and placed on stretchers.
"Can I go to the hospital with you?" Alexandria stood, holding on tightly to Cassie's hand as the EMTs tucked a blanket around Daniel's body and strapped him in. Cassie held on to Dria's hand just as tightly.
Cassie's mom turned and caressed Dria's cheek. "There's nothing you can do at the hospital, honey."
"I can sit with him."
"We're taking them to the Academy Hospital, sweetie. They're pretty strict about letting only family in outside visiting hours."
"Do you want to come stay with me at my house?" Cassie whispered. "I don't think I want to stay here tonight." She tugged gently on Dria's arm. "And I don't want to be alone."
Cassie's mom gave her a quick hug. "I love you. I'll call the moment I have news."
"Love you, too, Mom." Together they watched as John and Daniel were wheeled out of the back yard. All of them followed slowly, watching as the stretchers were loaded into the ambulance. Quickly Jack and John's mom, Derek and the EMT friend as well as Cameron climbed into their cars and drove off, following the ambulance.
When the vehicles turned a corner and the wail of the ambulance faded, everyone slowly returned to the backyard. Dria, still holding onto Cassie's hand, tugged her down onto the chair Daniel had been sitting on earlier. The yard seemed empty now, the mood somber. Cassie felt drained. And cold.
"Can we go now? To your house?"
"Do you want to call your parents first and tell them what happened?"
"Oh, shit. Yeah." She dropped Cassie's hand as she looked around, found her bag, and took her phone out.
Cassie stood up, rubbing her hands along her arms. "I'll go tell Corey and his folks that we're leaving." She turned to go but stopped when Dria called her name.
She could only nod. Suddenly on the verge of tears again, she headed for Corey, who was sitting quietly by himself.
"Dria and I are going to go."
Corey just nodded, staring at the pool.
She put a hand on Corey's arm and was surprised to feel his skin was as cold as hers. "I'm sorry."
"Do you think they're going to be all right?" When Corey turned to look at her, his eyes were shiny with unshed tears.
"Of course they are. You heard what Uncle Jack said. It's just a relapse. Scary as hell to see, but they'll be fine."
"They weren't moving, Cass. They just lay there, like they were dead."
"They were probably in some sort of shock," she answered, reaching for some kind of explanation. "They'll be fine."
"Did you see how Cameron grabbed them and pulled them out of the water?"
"Yeah." She forced a laugh. "Guess those stories about super strength when you're scared out of your mind is true, huh?"
"She was so cool throughout everything. Calm. Focused."
"So were you. You were amazing. I didn't know what to do. I just stood there—"
"You were fine. You didn't panic, which is the most important thing. That's what my mom tells me all the time. Keep your head at a time of crisis. We all did."
"I was so scared," he said softly.
"So was I," she said just as softly.
They stood there a moment without saying anything. "You'll let me know if your mom has news?"
"You'll be the first I call."
Corey pulled her close and held her for a moment. "Thank you."
She gave him a wobbly smile and headed for the house as the others approached Corey. As she entered the house, from what she could hear, it sounded like the party was over and everybody was going home.
They were a freakin' caravan; between Jack, Fraiser and the Connors following the blaring sirens of the ambulance, it might almost have been comical if it weren't Daniel in that ambulance. Jack drove past the speed limit, letting the ambulance set the pace.
He'd dreaded making the call to his mother. He'd woken her up with the bad news and knew she wouldn't be sleeping tonight.
As they approached the turnoff for Norad Road, Jack prepared to turn. So when the ambulance kept going, he swore and grabbed his cell.
A speed dial later, Fraiser answered.
"We passed the turnoff."
"We're going to the Academy Hospital—"
"I thought you said that just to appease the girls."
"No. I didn't get a chance to tell you - I called ahead on my way to the Middletons, to see how busy the infirmary was and found out there's a lockdown—"
"I didn't get the details but seems like our new friend caused a few problems. From what Doctor Warner was able to tell me, they've got things under control but I felt it wasn't the time to bring the boys in now so Doctor Brightman is going to meet us at the hospital."
Jack had no problem with the Academy Hospital, and they were only ten minutes away. Maybe faster at the speed they were rolling. "Okay. In that case, I'll have my mom meet us there as well."
By the time he hung up with his mom, they were pulling into the hospital's ER entrance. He parked as close as he could to the Emergency area, then ran for the door, not waiting for the Connors, trusting that they'd keep up.
He met the EMTs just as they were pulling Daniel's stretcher out of the ambulance. Brightman was already there with two nurses. She gave first Daniel then John a quick once over as Fraiser brought her up to speed. He kept half an ear to the med-speak as he put a hand on his son's bicep as one EMT began pushing the stretcher into the treatment room. He caught a glimpse of John Connor being wheeled into the next cubicle as Fraiser left their little party and went to join the Connors while Brightman stayed with them.
It was always hard, having to stand aside and let the doctors take care of his son. He took heart, however, when Daniel stirred as they shifted him from stretcher to the bed. However, that encouragement was short-lived when a moment later, he began screaming and thrashing. Blood-curdling screams filled the small cubicle as Daniel fought off the nurse, doctor and EMT.
Brightman yelled something about a sedative, trying to be heard over Daniel's screams.
"Daniel." Jack strode right into the fray, trying to calm his son. He caught one of Daniel's hands, held it down to the edge of the bed and leaned over him. "Easy, there, Icky. It's me. It's Daddy." The shrieks were ear-splitting and with the EMT now holding Daniel's legs, the nurse his other arm, Brightman was free to rush over to a cabinet and rummage through the medications there.
Jack cupped Daniel's cheek with his free hand. "Come on, Icky, look at me." He wasn't sure if it was his touch or his voice, but Daniel's eyes suddenly latched onto Jack's. The screaming stopped the moment Jack saw recognition in his son's face, but the struggling grew more frantic.
Acting on impulse, Jack released Daniel's arm and it came up, reaching for Jack like a young child would beg for comfort. "Let him go," he ordered. The nurse released Daniel, and when his other arm came up, Jack bent down into Daniel's embrace, pulling Daniel up half off the bed and into his arms.
"It's all right. It's all right," he crooned as Daniel tried to make himself one with Jack. Panting with exertion, Daniel was shaking like a leaf. The blanket had fallen off, his bare skin felt hot. Much too hot. Jack saw Brightman approach with a syringe in hand, but she hesitated, watched them a moment and put the syringe down.
"Can you put him down, Colonel? So I can examine him?"
Jack nodded and began to ease Daniel back onto the bed. But Daniel had him in a crushing grip and Jack knew that short of prying his hands off him, there would be no letting go. "Danny, I need to put you back on the bed so Doctor Brightman can examine you." When he tried to forcibly push away, Daniel gave one long howl, cutting the scream short when Jack put his arms around him once more.
"Sorry, doc, looks like we're sort of stuck together for a while." He gave her a quick smile to show he had no problems with this at the moment.
"Let's try the sedative." She reached for the syringe and injected the contents into Daniel's bicep. "I'll give it a few minutes to take effect and we'll try again." After disposing of the syringe, she placed her fingers against the part of Daniel's face not buried against Jack's shoulder. "He's running a pretty high fever." His son's wet hair began to soak through Jack's shirt.
"He took some Tylenol a while back."
"Okay. Let's piggyback the Tylenol with some Motrin and see if that'll make a difference." She nodded at the nurse, who left the cubicle.
When Brightman went to talk to the EMT, Daniel's death grip began to ease. "How're you doing? Wanna tell me what happened?"
The only sound Daniel made was a soft snuffling as he tried to adjust his hold against Jack's back. "I'm not going anywhere," he whispered against Daniel's ear. "I'm staying right here with you." The scrabbling stopped and now Daniel's arm was loosely wrapped around Jack's waist. "Grandma's on her way. Do you know where you are?" When Daniel didn't answer, Jack just kept on talking. "You're in the Academy Hospital. You passed out in the pool over at Corey's. Do you remember?"
Daniel's silence was starting to worry Jack.
The nurse returned just as the EMT left, holding a small paper pill cup and a larger plastic cup with water in it.
"Can you try to see if he'll lie down now?" Brightman took hold of the blanket to clear the mattress as Jack slowly lowered Daniel onto the bed. Daniel made a clumsy grab at Jack, his movements obviously affected by the sedation. Jack caught Daniel's hands, holding them in his as he sat next to him on the bed while Brightman covered him with the blanket. "See? I'm right here." He smiled down at Daniel, hating the look of fear in his son's eyes. "Doc's got some pills. Think you can swallow them?"
He put his hand under Daniel's head and raised it just enough so that the nurse could tip the pills into Daniel's mouth. She held the cup to his mouth and Daniel drank greedily, swallowing and slurping until the cup was empty.
"Daniel?" Brightman leaned over Daniel when Jack lowered his head back onto the pillow. "I'm going to examine you now. We'll just start with the usual; pulse, blood pressure, temperature. I'm also going to look at your head and see if you bumped it when you fell into the pool. Then we'll take some blood for testing, okay?"
"He didn't fall. From what the kids said, they tossed him in." He took one of Daniel's hands in his again and Daniel immediately gripped it.
"He might have hit his head. That could account for the fact that he was unconscious when he was brought in."
Jack wanted to argue that the kids would have mentioned it but kept his mouth shut. What Brightman said was also possible.
Despite the sedative, Daniel was tense as Brightman began her examination. His eyes flicked back between her and Jack, until Jack shook the hand he was holding, catching Daniel's attention. "It's okay. Doctor Brightman's just checking you out."
Daniel's demeanor was worrisomely familiar. The body was nine years older, but the look of terror was identical, the earlier screams deeper and hoarser as opposed to high-pitched and shrieking from a much smaller body. Jack kept watching Daniel, wishing it were Fraiser who had paired off with them instead of Brightman. Fraiser, who had not only been there when Daniel had been downsized and had seen the reaction then with her own two eyes, but had also been willing to take the child into her home until Daniel had made it clear his choice had been Jack.
"No sign of head trauma," Brightman said with a quick smile as she began writing in the clipboard the nurse had provided. "BP is a little high; pulse is rapid despite the sedative but that could be due to the fever. Temperature's 104.3. He's cooking pretty good right now. Let's hope the Motrin does the trick."
"Any idea what's causing this?"
"Doctor Fraiser mentioned Daniel and the other boy had been ill a while back. It's possible this is some sort of relapse, or," she shook her head quickly, "something totally different. We won't know for sure—"
"Until you take a blood sample," Jack finished.
"Which Becky is going to do right now." She motioned for the nurse to take her place next to the bed. "And if his temperature doesn't start to come down in another thirty minutes or so, we'll start an IV so he doesn't get dehydrated."
Throughout the conversation, Daniel had been watching him with heavy-lidded eyes. He seemed more relaxed now, either thanks to the sedative or he'd gotten over whatever had scared the hell out of him when he'd woken up. He merely glanced at the nurse when she placed a tourniquet around his bicep but jerked at the feel of the needle and began to pull away. Jack grabbed his arm, holding it still, nearly lying on top of Daniel while she filled the first vial.
"I know you're beginning to feel like a pincushion. Just hold on, it's nearly over." Tentatively Jack released his arm until he was sure Daniel wouldn't pull away again.
"How's he doing?"
Jack glanced up at Reese, who was peering around the side of the partition. "He's a little out of it. How's John?"
"Awake, but a little out of it also. Was that DJ doing all that yelling?"
"Yeah." Jack turned back to Daniel, who seemed calm again, his eyes glued to Jack's face as the nurse finished up with him.
"He okay now?"
"Doc gave him a sedative. Did Fraiser say anything? About what could have caused this? Something they might have been exposed to—"
"Your mother's here," Reese warned softly.
A moment later his mother's footsteps warned of her approach. She came into the cubicle clutching her purse to her chest, her hair in slight disarray, testament to Jack having woken her up with his call. "How is he?" she asked as she hurried to the bed.
Daniel let go of Jack's hand, reaching out silently with one arm to his grandmother.
"Oh, mhuirnin." She leaned down to hug Daniel as Jack filled her in on the events of the past hour.
"And he hasn't said a single word?" She let Daniel take her hand, cupping it with both of hers. "It's okay, sweetie. I'm not going anywhere."
"Nope. Other than waking up screaming bloody murder, he's been quiet." Jack grimaced. Daniel didn't do quiet. Especially when he was sick.
"Rose, I got you a chair." Cameron entered the cubicle, pushing a chair before her.
"Thank you, Cameron." She gave the cyborg a quick smile as she sat down, jerking forward an inch at a time until she was as comfortable as she could get, considering Daniel didn't seem about to let her go anytime soon.
Cameron stood there, head slightly cocked, watching Daniel, who had glanced up at her sleepily for a moment but returned to staring at either Jack or his mom. She moved forward just enough to slide her fingers against Daniel's bare arm, then stepped back, a movement Jack had come to recognize as her analyzing the boys' vital signs.
"He's displaying the same symptoms as John."
"You mean fever? Disorientation?" Jack prompted when she didn't elaborate.
"No. They're both experiencing an odd mixture of alpha and theta brainwaves."
"You can tell that from just a touch?" his mom asked curiously.
Jack wondered how John had the patience to deal with this machine at times. "And why do you say their brain waves are odd?"
"I've seen this before, in soldiers who were suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Although it never lasted this long."
"Are you saying the boys are experiencing flashbacks?"
"Did you tell Janet?" his mom asked, leaning backwards to glance up at Cameron.
"No. Should I have?"
"Jesus H. Christ." Jack raised his hand, fisted it in frustration, and turned to stride out into the ward before he buried his fist in the robot's face, looking for a nurse or doctor. He didn't get far because the moment he was out of his son's sight, his howls brought them all running.
Fraiser switched off the EEC display and motioned to Becky to start removing the leads attached to John's scalp. "I'm sorry. I can't see anything out of the ordinary."
"It's obvious to me," Cameron said flatly.
Jack could see the look on Fraiser's face as she turned her back on the cyborg, the one that said, you and what medical degree? "Regardless of what you say, there could be several factors causing the boys' disorientation. One of which could be whatever infection their bodies are fighting."
"Infection?" That was news to Jack.
"Initial results of their blood work show an elevated white blood count which, coupled with the fever, is a pretty definite sign of infection. What's causing the infection, and where the infection's located, is another mystery. And other than administering a broad spectrum antibiotic, there's nothing much we can do until we identify the cause." She turned back to John, who'd sat through having bits of wire stuck to his head without complaint. "And of course, if it's viral..."
Sarah was teasing the bits of glue from John's hair. "What about the delirium. Could the fever and infection be the cause of all this?"
"It's most likely, but I've learned over the past ten years not to assume. Cameron could be right." Jack saw how much it took for Fraiser to admit that. "So we wait and see how their illness progresses while we run more tests.
"In the meantime, I've gotten a room for them so we'll be moving them in a couple of minutes. If you two don't mind," Fraiser said, giving both Jack and Sarah a look, "I'd like both boys together. It'll make it easier for the nurses to tend them and she can keep track of their symptoms." She rolled her eyes at Cameron.
Jack shook his head, indicating he didn't mind. Sarah did so a little more slowly, which Jack simply attributed to fatigue.
He'd been leaning against the edge of the cubicles, peering into the Connor's, staying within Daniel's sight. He turned around, entered his son's cubicle and gave him a warm smile. The touch of anxiety on Daniel's face eased as Jack sat on the edge of the bed. "You heard?" he asked his mother as he smoothed back strands of hair that had escaped from Daniel's still-damp ponytail. Cheek and forehead were hot and dry; eyes glassy with fever, Daniel was shivering as he shifted restlessly on the bed.
She was still grasping Daniel's hand in hers but released it as he tried to get comfortable, pulling the blankets up. "Yes." She took Daniel's hand back when he thrust it out towards her again. "His fever's rising again."
A nurse stepped into the cubicle at that moment, and a moment later confirmed that his fever was close to 105. "We'll get him settled in his room and bring in a cooling blanket. Doctors Fraiser and Brightman were hopeful that the antipyretics would kick in but it looks like we need a bit of extra help this time."
Jack rubbed a spot on his forehead that had begun to pound. "When are you moving him?"
"Right now, Colonel." Fraiser stepped into the cubicle, which now felt very crowded when a second nurse joined them. "If you wouldn't mind stepping outside so we can maneuver the bed?"
Jack pulled the chair his mom had been sitting on out of the way and both of them stood, waiting and watching as the wheels of the bed were unlocked by a transport team and rolled away from the wall. They both walked next to the bed while Daniel watched anxiously. When they went down the corridor into an elevator, Daniel tried to sit up.
"Whoa, easy." Jack pressed back on Daniel's chest, trying to hold him in place. "We're just moving rooms."
"Home," Daniel said hoarsely. "Jack home. Home."
"Oh my God," Fraiser exclaimed while Jack remained speechless. It all suddenly clicked together and Jack realized he'd known it subconsciously from the start.
"What?" Jack's mom clutched his arm. "What is it?"
"Cameron was right," he said as he and Becky tried to keep Daniel on the bed. "This is a flashback."
"Why? How do you know?" His mom looked from Jack, to Fraiser, and back to Daniel.
"What he just said." Fraiser was staring at Jack, eyes wide. "Nine years ago, when I took Daniel in that first night. He'd been screaming, refusing to sleep. He quieted the moment the colonel came over and he uttered those exact words. They were the first words he'd spoken."
Unable to sit up, Daniel reached for Jack in the confines of the elevator. "Home. Jack. Home."
"Not yet, Icky. But you will. Soon. We'll go home soon." He let Daniel clutch at him, resting his face against his shirt. The heat of Daniel's skin leaked through the material.
"Jack. He's calling you Jack, not Dad. I remember when he did that."
Jack nodded to his mother as the elevator doors opened. Fraiser held them open as Jack forcibly lay Daniel back onto the bed. The nurses pushed the bed into the hallway before he could try and sit up again.
"Home," Daniel said plaintively, his voice threatening to turn into a wail.
"Icky, shhhh." Thankfully the nurses maneuvered the bed into a two-bed room, into the empty space near the window. The moment they stopped traveling, Daniel ceased his struggles to get to Jack.
"Home," he said sadly, seeming consigned to the fact that he wasn't going anywhere soon.
The hospital room was large, even with John and Daniel being roommates, there were several chairs and a small couch and table in a corner. Jack was pretty damn sure that this wasn't their run of the mill rooms and he stuck up a mental post it to thank Fraiser and Hammond for whatever strings had been pulled behind the scenes to get them these accommodations.
"I'm starting to wonder if I should begin paying rent," Jack murmured as he pulled up two chairs next to the bed, waiting for the medical staff to finish settling Daniel. When Fraiser raised a questioning eyebrow, Jack waved a hand towards Daniel. "Look at the amount of time he's been sick in the past year. This isn't normal."
"Jonathan." His mom touched his hand. "It's going to be fine."
"No, it's not fine. Just a couple of hours ago he was dressed up in a tux, going to a dance. Now out of nowhere, he's back in the hospital, raging fever, experiencing flashbacks." Jack dropped his head into his hands. He was so tired of this. "Maybe I need to start thinking of retirement again. If only to keep Daniel safe from..."
"Each situation has been beyond your control, sir." Fraiser placed Daniel's chart on a hook at the foot of the bed. "Daniel's destiny has been extraordinary, and from what I'm seeing, it's going to follow him to adulthood. You can try moving him to Timbuktu but I don't think it's going to change much."
"All of this can't be good for him. Not physically or emotionally."
"He may be fourteen years old, sir, but he's still one of the strongest people I know." She gave Jack a gentle smile, then turned to the nurse who came in carrying a cooling blanket, just ahead of John and his entourage.
While John was settled, Fraiser and the nurse rolled the blanket underneath Daniel and turned it on.
Maybe it had been his struggles in the elevator that had exhausted him; maybe it was just another facet of the illness. But now, eyes closed, face pale with twin spots of color on his cheekbones, Daniel lay still and limp.
John blinked, trying to bring the people before him into focus. His eyeballs hurt as he tried to make sense of where he was. His head was pounding out of sync with his heartbeat, making him nauseous.
Cameron suddenly came into focus, peering at him from the foot of his bed, dressed in an oversized tee shirt, bare legs exposed, then she blurred, and she was disheveled, blood on her checkered shirt as she leaned sideways in the truck after slamming into the terminator who'd been threatening him and calmly told him to come with her if he wanted to live. His fear was so palpable he couldn't catch his breath. He hesitated, made his decision, went to get up to run, and then the pain in his head hit him so hard that it knocked the breath out of him.
Something cold and wet slid across his face, and it felt wonderful. He opened his eyes again and tried to focus. He was partly successful in identifying his mom, except it was more her voice than his being able to see her face. He closed his eyes against the dizzying effects of his blurred vision. "Mom?"
"I'm here." The cool wetness disappeared, only to be replaced by the touch of fingers along his cheek. "How are you feeling?"
"Head hurts." His mom was here; he felt safe again. Not alone, being hunted in the school parking lot.
"I'm sorry." The fingers stroked lightly against his skin.
"It's here." He had to warn her. It was after him; after them both. "It's coming."
"Just a dream."
"No." He forced his eyes open again, and saw his mother turn, fury in her eyes, a rifle in her hands pointed right at him. He gasped at the sudden fear she would shoot him combined with relief that she wasn't hurt, then the vision disappeared as she yelled at him for not following his training, and his mom's face blurred. "You're all right," he sighed with relief.
"I'm fine. We're all fine."
"You yelled at me." His eyes burned as they filled with tears.
"I'm sorry I yelled."
"You always yell when I try to save you." Tears trickled down his cheek, irritatingly itchy and uncomfortable as they made their way to his chin.
"You always scare me when you don't do what I expect you to. I yell because I love you." The cool wetness was back, erasing the tear tracks, and when stroked across his closed eyes, it eased the burning.
"I don't want to lose you. I don't want you to die." He started crying again, the fatigue and pain simply overwhelming him.
"Nobody's going to die. Do you hear me, John? Nobody. You fight this. Do you hear me? You fight this."
"Sarah. Take it easy on him. He doesn't know what he's saying."
The voice was familiar and oh-so missed. "Charley?" John tried to open his eyes again, but he was just too tired. And he was cold.
"Can we go home? Please?"
"We will. Just as soon as you're better." The hand on his face was larger, harder. "His fever's dropping."
There was a whisper of air against the juncture of his neck and shoulder.
"His temperature is 104.2. Charley Dixon's right. John's temperature is lower. But his pulse, blood pressure and salinity remain abnormal—"
"Don't knock it, little girl. Getting his fever down is a start."
"I'm cold." John shifted restlessly, suddenly aware of the chill beneath him and trying to get away from it.
"I know you are. You're doing great." The hand moved back slowly, massaging some of his headache away. "Why don't you try to sleep now?"
He wanted to sleep. He was so tired. But he was worried. He needed to warn... "Mom."
"I'm here, John."
"It's here." The words were difficult to pronounce, his tongue almost too heavy to move. "It's coming."
"I know. Go to sleep. I'll keep watch."
He felt her lips on his forehead, and knew she would.
Daniel woke up with a jerk, the all-invasive panic nearly consuming him until, peering through the fog of his limited vision, he spotted one of the few people he knew he was safe with. Terrified that they'd abandon him, he reached out through the bars separating them from him.
His questing hand was taken, fingers interlaced, and he held on, ensuring that Jack didn't leave him.
"How're you feeling?" Jack's other hand pushed back hair from his face as he leaned closer. His face was sharp now, no longer hidden in the blur of the mist clouding the room. "Your fever's down some. Grandma's gonna be happy about that. I had trouble convincing her to go lie down on the couch over there."
Jack glanced to the right and Daniel turned his head to see, but the mist was thick there and he couldn't make anything out.
"I wish you'd say something..."
Jack sounded sad. Daniel reached up with his free hand, surprised at how heavy it felt and how it was shaking. He pressed his palm against Jack's cheek.
Jack took hold of his hand and held it there, then helped Daniel bring it back down to the bed. "I love you, Daniel."
The words were familiar. They struck a chord, as if he'd heard those four words many, many times before. His throat closed up, and he had to force the only word he could manage right now.
The next thing he knew, he was swept up off the bed, pressed hard against Jack's chest. Exactly where he wanted to be. He felt loved, protected, and especially, safe.
"Something's changed." Cameron, who'd spent the night either pacing the confines of the room or the hospital's hallway, went straight to John's bed as she entered the room.
"His fever?" Sarah put a hand to John's cheek and her son stirred restlessly at her touch. Charley, who'd been sitting next to Sarah, stood and checked the readouts on the monitors.
"He's stable. There's no change."
"Not his vital signs. Something else. Something not quite as tangible." Cameron got up and walked around the bed, examining John.
"Stop talking in riddles," Charley snapped.
His outburst was enough to cause Cameron to pause a moment and stare at him. Knowing what she was, what she could do, sometimes - no, make that a lot of times - scared Sarah shitless, but she also knew the advantage they had with Cameron on their side.
"Are you going to share?"
Cameron ignored him and turned her attention back to John, canting her head just slightly as if she were listening to something. Without a word, she walked to the other side of the room, where she circled Daniel's bed.
"Is something wrong?" Rose asked when Cameron's presence caught her attention.
"I don't know."
"Do you want me to get a nurse?"
There was a pause. "Not yet. It's not clear."
"Can I do something to help, sweetie?"
"Thank you, Rose, but there's nothing you can do right now." Sarah wasn't sure, but she could swear that Cameron's voice softened whenever she spoke to Rose.
Both Charley and Derek rolled their eyes, Charley making an exaggerated motion to Sarah about doing something about Cameron. But she chose to ignore both men; she needed Cameron - John needed Cameron, and if Cameron thought something was going on, at this point she trusted Cameron's skills more than she did the medical machines.
"Do any of you mind if the boys have visitors?" Janet was standing in the doorway, her hands stuffed into the pockets of her lab coat.
"Who is it?" Jack, who'd been looking out the window, looked exhausted. Sarah wondered if she looked any better than he did.
"Cassie and Dria. They're down the hall, in the waiting room."
"Do you think that's a good idea?" Jack turned so that he was leaning against the window. "How are you going to explain what's wrong with them?"
"I'm not. They know the boys are fighting some sort of infection and that they're feverish and might be a little out of it due to the medications we've been treating them with." Janet turned to Sarah. "They're worried. Give them ten minutes so they can see the boys and stop their imaginations from running rampant."
"I don't know, I can pretty much imagine a helluva lot of stuff I'd rather not," Sarah mumbled, half to herself. "I don't mind," she added quickly. After all, Cassie was Janet's daughter.
"Ten minutes," Jack agreed also.
When Janet ushered the girls into the room, Jack surprised Sarah and went to them, enveloping them both in a hug before they could see the boys. Both girls grabbed onto him, hugging him hard. "Doc told you what to expect?" he asked as he let them go.
Dria nodded, glancing nervously across the room. As her gaze landed on John, her eyes widened in shock, and then came to rest on Sarah. "I... We... Wanted to be here."
"Mom said we could stay a few minutes. That's okay with you, Mrs. Baum?"
"Of course, Cassie." Sarah extended her hand in invitation and Cassie approached John's bed while Dria went with Jack to see Daniel. To Sarah's surprise, Cassie took her hand and held onto it as she stood by the bed and looked down at John.
"Is he sleeping?"
"Yes." Cameron came back around and stood next to Cassie.
"He looks terrible." She let go of Sarah and gripped the bed rail with both hands for balance as she leaned over the bed. She kissed John's cheek, then took a moment to whisper something to him as she brushed his hair from his forehead.
John opened his eyes, mumbled something that was inaudible to Sarah, but whatever it was, Cassie must have heard it clearly because she nodded and gave John another kiss as she took his hand. John gazed up at her for several seconds until his eyes slid shut again.
"Thank you." Cassie gave Sarah a wobbly smile, her eyes bright with unshed tears. Despite herself, Sarah took Cassie by the hand again and pulled her closer into a hug. Cassie held onto her, her breaths shaky, until Sarah let her go.
"Now go see Daniel before your mom shoos you out," Sarah whispered, her voice thick with unreleased emotions. Nodding, Cassie went around the cubicle where she talked a moment with Jack and Rose while Dria spent the time with Daniel. A moment later both girls left, Cassie with one arm around Dria, who was obviously trying to hold back her tears.
"I still can't get over the fact that John's got a girlfriend." Charley stared at the door the two girls had just gone through. "I mean, during the time you guys were with me, he just seemed so..."
"Too geeky to have a girl interested in him?"
"No." Charley blinked, staring at Sarah. "No. He just seemed too shy. Too unsure of himself." Charley gazed down at John with a proud smile. "He's changed. He's not the same boy I remember."
"He's matured," Sarah conceded. "He—"
"Colonel O'Neill." Carter entered the room, her steps hurried. "General Hammond is ordering Cameron back to the mountain. He'd like you and Sarah and Derek to accompany her as well."
"Did he say why?" Jack came around the bed so he was standing next to Sarah.
"The President ordered a team to the warehouse in California where the Connors recently trapped a terminator—"
"Depot 37." As Cameron spoke, Sarah held back a shiver at the remembered fear she'd for her son's life when he'd snuck into the truck and had ended up locked in that bunker with a terminator. "It would have eventually found a way out when another shipment of coltan was scheduled to arrive. It's mission—"
"Well, that terminator and the warehouse, is history. The hunt is on; apparently someone has the President's ear and wants all of them identified and destroyed."
"And he thinks Cameron could be a target?" She really didn't care about the cyborg. Its destruction would probably rid her of some of her worries and ease off on the grey hairs already allocated in her future. It was John, however, that was her concern and if anyone came after Cameron, she wanted to be sure John wouldn't be caught in the crossfire.
"The General wants Cameron at the SGC until he can talk to the President and make sure she's not targeted."
"What about John and Daniel?" Jack asked.
"I can get an ambulance to transport them to the mountain—"
"No." Sarah stood, ignoring the ache of her bones from sitting too long as well as lack of sleep. While Cameron would do everything to protect John, the other cyborg there was still an unknown factor. "I'm not bringing John over there while there's another terminator on the base. I'm not trusting John's life, especially now, to an unknown machine—"
"She's been contained—"
"You don't know that," Sarah snapped at Jack.
"Are you two talking about my wife?" Charley stood, waving a finger between her and Jack. "Because if you are, don't you think I deserve a say in the matter?"
"She's not your wife." Derek appeared relaxed compared to Charley. "She never was your wife. You need to stop thinking of her as human. It doesn't have feelings. It doesn't love you. It can't—"
"You can't know that."
"No? Then ask her." Derek pointed at Cameron, who'd been watching them without a glimmer of emotion on her face.
"We're built to infiltrate. Michelle was programmed to be your wife. You wouldn't know the difference; you had no reason to suspect."
"I loved her."
Sarah noticed Charley had used the word love in the past tense. She lowered her head, averting her gaze, filled with guilt and sorrow for Charley's pain. If she had told him the truth eight years ago. If she hadn't chosen to run and had stayed and married Charley. Things would have been different. Things might have been—
No. Charley wouldn't have believed her. She'd gone that route too many times and she'd lost three years because of it. And most likely, if she hadn't run when she had, he'd be dead now.
"I want to see my wife."
"I can protect John and Daniel from Michelle."
"Don't you touch her." Charley stood up so fast, his chair rolled back across the room and slammed into Daniel's bed, the bed rails reverberating loudly in the room. He leaned right into Cameron's personal space. "If you touch a hair on her head, I swear, I'll dismantle you bolt by bolt and burn you up myself."
"Michelle Dixon never existed. You don't have a wife. You lived with a T-Triple-Eight model who used you to try and get close to Sarah and John Connor. She's a scary robot, and her mission is probably to kill John."
"You little bitch—"
"All right, that's enough! If you two are going snipe at each other, then go do it somewhere else." Jack's outburst was enough to shock everyone into silence and force Cameron and Charley to their respective corners of the verbal sparring ring. "Sarah, I'd feel better having the kids under the mountain if someone's going after the machines. And while I understand your reluctance to be anywhere close to another cyborg, I think we've seen that Cameron can pretty much hold her own against them. They'll be all right if she's with them."
"But if the President's given the order to destroy all of us," Cameron said as she turned to Jack, "then your people will come after me. If I stay with John, I'll endanger him. And Daniel," she added a second later.
"She's got a point," Derek said reluctantly.
"I know." Jack lowered his voice. "I never thought I'd say this, but I'd still feel better knowing you were with the boys." He turned and pierced Charley with a hard stare. "You just remember one thing in all of this. Cameron's mission is to protect John and Daniel as well as stop Judgment Day. You do anything to get in the way of her mission and endanger these boys, so help me God, you'll wish I sicced Cameron on you." The anger was gone when Jack turned to Janet. "Get the ambulances. We're all going to the SGC."
Jack really felt bad for the man. He truly did, but he neither had the time nor the patience at this moment in time to be supportive. "The answer is either yes or no, Dixon."
"This is a non-disclosure agreement." Dixon blinked at Jack then down the paper on the table in front of him.
"Just sign it, Charley," Sarah sighed. She sounded as tired as Jack felt. "Honest, just sign. Hell, how much worse can it be than scary robots?"
"If I don't sign this..."
"You can't drink the magic potion and come with Alice through the Looking Glass."
Dixon scribbled his name, shoved the papers and the pen at Jack. "After what I've seen and learned, I don't think there's anything you can show me that'll surprise me."
The walls were moving. Daniel stared a moment, not quite able to make out much of anything beyond the claustrophobic mist and made a grab for something to hold on to, terrified that he would tumble off the clouds he was floating on and fall to Earth. He scrabbled for a handhold, barely able to move his arms. He banged his index finger painfully on something hard and groped until he was able to clutch a cold, metallic bar.
"It's okay, mhuirnin. We're just going for a little ride." Fingers curled around his, cool and comforting. They didn't try to pry his fingers from his hold, but simply pressed gently against his. After a moment, he let go of the bar and grabbed the hand. He visually followed the arm, craning backwards until he saw a familiar face.
"Jack's mommy." His brain registered the words, processed what he'd said, and came up wanting. "Gramma," he amended after a few seconds.
He was rewarded with a gentle press of fingers.
"Home?" He cleared his throat; his voice didn't come out quite the way he'd expected. Deeper. Hoarser. Maybe he was coming down with a cold? "Are we going home?"
"Not yet, sweetie. You're still sick."
"Right here, Daniel." His dad's voice came from his other side and he turned, trying to make him out of the constantly shifting mist. Then a hand appeared, held onto the metal ramp on the opposite side of his floating bed, and Daniel followed that hand and arm visually until he found his father.
"Tired." Trying to focus through the fog was making him dizzy and he closed his eyes.
"That's okay, Icky. Just close your eyes and try to sleep. Maybe when you wake up, we'll be at the SGC."
There was a sudden lurch and he opened his eyes in alarm. For a moment everything was clear; the interior of a van of some kind with medical equipment and supplies everywhere, and then the fog returned, making all the details blurry. The momentary fear of being separated from his dad eased when he climbed into the van with Daniel. He gazed at his dad's face, his eyelids getting heavier and heavier.
It was like deja vu once again, except the shattered walls and furniture happened to be in another area of the SGC. Jack slowly walked around the destroyed holding cell while Carter briefed him about what had happened.
"Their strength is incredible," she said as Jack examined the bent metal of the cell's door. "She walked out of here as if there had been no security to speak of. If it hadn't been for the fact that Teal'c and Mitchell didn't trust her and set up a twenty-four hour watch, I don't think there would have been any stopping her."
"Do you know what she was trying to do?" Jack tried to push the metal door closed and it was so warped that it was totally off kilter.
"The Stargate," Cameron replied without hesitation. "There are rumors of its possible existence in the future, and if Michelle were able to take control and hold it until Judgment Day, then not only would Earth be lost, but the entire universe."
"Didn't we just go through that with the replicators?" Mitchell whined. "And the Goa'uld. What is it with universe-wide domination?"
"Why be content with just one planet when you can have all of them to conquer?" Carter quipped.
Her levity was getting on Jack's nerves and he knew it was fatigue on his part and nothing to do with her. He left the cell area and continued on to the security desk, of which only remained a mound of splintered wood. There was blood mixed amongst the wood and Jack wondered if the person who'd been on duty was one of the three who had died during her attack.
"Where is she now?"
"In my lab, sir. After Mitchell shot her with the INT, Teal'c managed to remove her chip, although I haven't had a chance to examine it yet."
"Good work." He smiled at Carter, then Mitchell, and finally gave Teal'c a nod, including them all in his praise. Teal'c inclined his head, and when he looked up, he caught Jack's gaze. "How is DanielJackson?"
"Not so good. I'm heading back down to the infirmary as soon as I get caught up on a few things."
"Colonel, I think the President's going to order Michelle destroyed."
"That's a distinct possibility." Jack couldn't deny Carter's news didn't give him relief. He hated those things, and was barely tolerant to the one following John Connor around like a lovesick puppy dog.
"Sir, I mean, like in the next couple of hours."
"Isn't that overkill?" Mitchell kicked a small slab of wood near his foot. "She's disarmed; shouldn't we be studying her instead of destroying her?"
"Everything needs to be destroyed." Cameron gave Jack a cold stare. "Everything. Every last bolt."
There was something in her voice that sounded more like Sarah Conner than an expressionless robot.
"She's right." Carter wore an expression that Jack was very familiar with as she talked about Michelle. Longing. Pain over an opportunity that was going to slip through her fingers. Oh, he definitely understood the reasoning behind the destruction of the cyborg. Hell, he'd made the same argument about Reese long before she'd brought the replicators into play, but maybe in this instance knowledge was power. Maybe understanding what made them tick would, in the long run, give humanity an upper hand.
"You have a go, Carter. The body. The chip. Unless you're ordered otherwise. Study the crap out of it, but I'd advise that you keep this particular project under your hat for the time being."
Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. "I understand perfectly, sir."
"You've just made a very stupid decision, O'Neill." If looks could kill, Sarah would be wanted for murder. He ignored her and turned his attention back to Carter.
"I'll get on it right away. I'd like to stop by the infirmary first and see Daniel first. And John," she added quickly.
"As would I," Teal'c said.
"If he's awake, he'll be pleased to see both of you. I'm sure John would be, too."
"Perhaps RoseO'Neill would enjoy something from the commissary?"
"Yeah. I'm sure she'd love a cup of tea and something sweet. Pecan pie? They got any pecan pies this morning?"
Carter smiled, seeing through Jack. "I'll see if they have any pie, sir. Maybe you'd like a coffee with the pie?"
"Keep the coffee warm for me, there's something I need to do first."
"You really travel to other worlds through that that thing?"
Jack nodded, trying not to smile at the look of disbelief on Dixon's face. "Yup."
"You're kidding me."
"Scary robots from the future you have no problems believing in, but walking through a big metal ring in the underground facility in the middle of Colorado is a stretch of your imagination?"
"I needed some convincing about those scary robots. A visual or two..."
Jack checked his watch. "Give it a second or two."
"Scheduled off world activation," came Walter's voice from the control room.
"You might wanna step back," Jack said, tugging on the guy's arm.
They walked backwards. Well, actually Jack walked, Dixon, he sorta just pulled along until they were out of the line of the Stargate's backsplash.
"Oh," Dixon said, elongating the word like a kid watching a Fourth of July fireworks display. "Is that water?"
"Wormhole. Carter could explain it much better, though I'm not sure if you'd be able to understand half of what she says."
Dixon pointed to the team walking down the ramp. "They came from..."
"A tiny little planet a few hundred light years from here."
"You've done that?"
"Made my living doing that."
"Yup, but it's also the biggest rush in the entire universe."
Dixon's nod was tight. "If you say so." There was no mistaking the awe in his expression as SG-6 filed past him and out the blast doors.
"I have something to show you. Something that might not impress you that much."
Jack felt like a heel, but there wasn't any other way.
"This is... was Michelle?" He glanced at the chip Carter had connected to a laptop.
"That's what makes them tick."
"And you're showing me this because... She's dead, isn't she?" Dixon was caressing the chip with his fingertips in an intimate gesture that made Jack look away for a second.
"The cyborg you knew as Michelle killed three SGC personnel as she tried to get to the Stargate. We weren't left with any options. Imagine what would've happened if her technology ended up offworld?"
"Why did you bring me here, Colonel O'Neill? To lord over the poor idiot who got taken in by a terminator?"
"Do you know I made a date with her?"
"The terminator. I took her number and I called her. I was going to have a romantic dinner with her."
"You wanted to date her?" Charley turned his hand over and let the chip fall onto the desk top. "I slept with her. I win the idiot prize."
"No, you don't, Charley. It's what they do. What they're built to do. Programmed to do."
"All those years," Charley said. "And I never suspected."
Jack was sitting by Daniel's bed, trying to take his mind off the visual of Charley sitting lifeless in the chair in the VIP room by mindlessly attempting to wind a paper clip around a Q-tip.
"Jonathan. Get a nurse."
He dropped the items and straightened up in his chair. "What's wrong?" He glanced at Daniel, who was still sleeping, his face shiny with sweat. "What the..." He took the time to put a hand to Daniel's face and see for himself that his fever had broken. His son's face was wet and warm, but no longer radiating enough heat of worrisome proportions. Daniel opened his eyes at his touch and Jack smiled down at his son's somewhat sleepy countenance.
"Time is it?" Daniel yawned, turning his face into the pillow and wiping the sweat on the pillowcase.
"Around eight." Jack reached for the call button and pressed it.
Daniel turned onto his side, grimacing. "Is it raining? Did I leave the window open? Sorry." His words were mumbled, as if he were still half asleep. He wriggled for a moment longer and settled.
"Don't worry about it." Jack tugged a long strand of hair that was caught beneath Daniel's cheek and tucked it behind his ear. Daniel made a grunting sound as a nurse came in response to his call. Jack couldn't help smiling at Annie, and when she took one look at Daniel, she grinned back at Jack and Rose.
"Looks like we're finally moving in the right direction." She did as Jack had done, manually checking his fever before using the thermometer. "Down three degrees."
"Does that mean he's over the worst of it?" Jack's mom leaned over the bed protectively, as if Annie's answer wasn't to her liking, she'd try and protect Daniel from the repercussions.
"I can't say for sure since Doctor Fraiser still isn't certain what's causing the fever. But believe me, this is a good sign."
Annie laughed. "Don't thank me, Daniel's the one who did all the hard work," she said as she made a notation in his chart.
"Nurse?" Sarah waved to catch her attention. "Before you go, could you take a look at John? I think his fever's broken."
Annie nodded at Sarah. "Let me just go check on John and I'll be back to change his sheets after I inform Doctor Fraiser."
"Something's different." Cameron's softly spoken words carried easily to Jack. "You should do another electroencephalography."
"Of course it is, sweetie." Annie smiled at Cameron and Jack wondered if the woman knew the truth about her. "He's sleeping and he's no longer agitated. It's all normal."
His mom took her glasses off and slowly massaged the bridge of her nose as Annie left the room. "Why don't we go and get something to eat?"
"I'm not hungry." For a moment, his mom sounded like a cranky and over-tired Daniel.
"I'm not either but neither of us ate much for supper. Plus, if we leave now, we won't have to help with changing the bed," he added in a stage whisper.
His mother laughed, the first true laugh since they'd seen Daniel off to his dance, a lifetime ago. "You know, I may be able to manage a bit of soup. And maybe a roll. With butter." She put her glasses back on and stood slowly.
"Soup and roll, coming right up." He held out his arm and she took it. "Anyone else wanna join us for some chow?"
Derek looked interested and glanced at Sarah questioningly as he stood. She began to shake her head, until Charley Dixon spoke.
"He'll sleep now. He won't know you're gone."
"What if he wakes up—"
"He probably won't. He needs this sleep; it's restorative, his body's way of healing what the fever took out of him."
"I'll be here if he wakes up." Cameron looked from Sarah to Jack. "If either one of them wakes up, they won't be alone."
Sarah appeared to waver. She stared at John for a long moment before placing her palms on her thighs and pushing upright. "I won't be long."
"Take your time. I can help with changing the bed." This last she said to Jack, and his mother started giggling. With a smile, he escorted his laughing mother out the door.
"Didn't we just do this?" His mom sat back tiredly into the stuffed chair in the corner of the VIP room.
"And here you were always complaining about being kept out of the loop." Jack spoke in exaggerated frustration, and got a smack on the arm for his attempting to tease.
"Not that I don't appreciate being permitted to stay here with Daniel but I... Never mind."
"Go ahead, say it."
"No, I was out of line."
"You wish, what? That Daniel were a normal teenager and the only thing wrong with him was the zit that sprouted on the morning of his prom night?"
"Something like that."
Jack took an orange from the fruit basket on the table and began tossing it from hand to hand. "Are you ever sorry that I brought Daniel into your life—"
Jack never knew his mother could move so fast. She was off the chair before he could finish his question, grabbed the orange from his hand and for a second he thought she was going to pitch it across the room. "Don't you ever, ever, think I regret you making him part of my family. Don't you know how much I love him? Don't you know how much it hurts me to see him sick and in pain—"
"How could you ask that?"
"I'm sorry." He held his hands out in apology. "I just... You're tired. Like you said, we've just been through this and it's happening again. I just wondered if you ever resented the SGC's involvement and—"
"Do you regret having Daniel as your son?"
Jack blinked back the sudden burning tears. "No. Never. I can't imagine my life without him. I'm sorry I brought it up. I didn't mean to—"
"We're both tired." She carefully replaced the orange into the fruit bowl. "I think maybe an early night and a few hours' sleep in a real bed might help us think a little more clearly."
Jack nodded and stood. He took his mom into his arms and hugged her. "You're right. I'm sorry."
She patted his cheek, and followed the touch with a light kiss. "Go sleep. I'll see you in the morning."
Jack had only just put the keycard through the reader and stepped into his assigned room when he heard footsteps running down the hall. Concerned, he stuck his head back into the hallway to look, only to see Carter jogging towards him.
"Sorry, Colonel. I tried looking for you in the infirmary and they told me you'd come here."
"What is it, Major?"
"I'm having problems accessing the chip. I tried to get Cameron to come and look at it but she won't leave John and Daniel. She said she'd promised to stay with them. I was hoping you'd talk to her and convince her to come with me for an hour or two."
Jack sighed. "Carter, do you know what time it is?"
"Yes, sir. It's nearly twenty-three hundred hours."
"And that means it's past my bedtime. And yours."
"Oh. Right." She managed to look apologetic for a second. "But while I've learned a lot studying the files that John managed to open up on the other chip, I can't quite get the hang of getting it started. Cameron must know; and even if she doesn't, she watched John do it so she can probably get me pointed in the right direction. If I can just figure out the opening sequences, I can write a macro that'll work on the files overnight and they'll be there waiting for me in the morning."
Jack hated her energy and enthusiasm this late at night. "Fine." He shut the door and stepped into the hallway. "But don't expect me to watch. I'll get the robot to go with you and then I'm going to bed."
Daniel woke up and his body was moving. His feet slapped against the cold, rough cement floor and the air was chilly against his body. For a moment he thought he was dreaming, because he wasn't the one walking. His body was doing all the movement without any help from his brain.
His hand picked up a bottle of medicine and he thrust a syringe into it, sucking the medicine into it. When the syringe was full, his hand put it down on the counter. He filled three more. The whole time he tried to stop, tried to put down the syringes and the bottle, but his body wouldn't obey him. The bottle was discarded, the syringes picked up and two of them handed over to John.
"What's going on? Daniel asked John desperately.
Although he spoke the words, nothing came out of his mouth.
"John, what's happening? Where's everybody?"
John made a loud, guttural sound, startling him. Then Daniel's tongue forced itself back into his mouth and his throat squeezed itself into such a way that hurt, and he found himself making the same type of noises.
He realized what the noises were; he'd studied philology in his previous life to know that he and John were communicating, somehow.
The glimpses he got of John scared him; his expression was as blank as Cameron's as he crouched next to the crumpled body of a nurse. As John removed her security badge, Daniel tried to see who it was, but her face was turned to the side. But from the grey hair, he had a feeling it might be Annie.
Then they were striding out of the infirmary, heading for the elevators.
He tried to stop himself, tried to scream, tried to draw attention. But his body walked on, as if it were possessed.
Or... Oh, God. No.
He was possessed. He and John had been taken over by the Goa'uld.
The panic took over as he ranted and wailed inside his head, trying to take control, not wanting to be the host to the creatures that had taken his other self's wife. He totally lost it then, first screaming his defiance, daring it to back down, insulting it, trying to get a rise from it. But his body walked resolutely forward, accompanying John. They called an elevator, pressed the twenty-eighth floor, and headed towards the Control Room.
He tried warning John, explaining to him what was happening but his voice still wouldn't work. After that one time where they'd made that dreadful sound, both of them had remained quiet. Now they were inside the Control Room and while John walked up to a woman who was studying the readouts on a computer monitor, Daniel walked up to the technician who was on duty monitoring the Stargate.
There was a thump behind him and the technician turned to look just as Daniel reached him. Daniel raised his hand, plunged the needle into the man's hip and stepped back, watching him fall unconscious in the few seconds it took the medication to work. A glance behind showed the noise had been the woman falling to the ground, unconscious. Shocked at the actions his body was performing, Daniel stopped fighting the Goa'uld. It was hopeless. The creature was too strong.
Suddenly he realized this was what his wife had gone through. How much she'd suffered watching herself do despicable things, unable to help herself.
He gave up. Simply gave up. In shock, he watched despondently as his fingers typed in a series of glyphs. The 'gate address appearing on the screen before him wasn't familiar. Then the Stargate began to spin and he and John hurried down the stairs and into the hall, where John surprised the SF guarding the door with his second syringe. Daniel tried to close his eyes so he wouldn't see, but even that small measure of relief wasn't available to him. Then they were running, the shock of chilled bare feet slapping against first cement, then metal rungs, were painful enough to momentarily pull Daniel from the despondency.
The trip through the Stargate disoriented him, more so than he ever recalled being sick and dizzy upon arrival on the other side of the wormhole. He dry heaved once, twice, as his body stepped off the raised dais and strode across damp grass. They walked for a few minutes, climbing a gently sloping hill, until they reached the peak.
Spread out before them was the remains of a large city. Even to Daniel's untrained eyes, it had been abandoned for years. Then slowly, as he and John walked amongst the debris, details sprang out at him, until his buried memories reached a conclusion that the city had been like this for centuries.
The Goa'uld seemed to have a goal; it walked him through the abandoned city streets as if it knew where it was going. Thankfully the streets were mostly covered with grass and sand because even now, his bare feet were killing him. He wondered, discouraged, as he walked deeper into the ruins, why the Goa'uld wasn't healing him, stopping the pain of his throbbing feet.
Twenty minutes later, they reached their goal – a large building, with only part of two walls remaining. They stepped into the center of the building and Daniel and John began clearing the debris. To Daniel's surprise, they began to expose a large marble-like slab. It was covered with markings, and he knew he'd seen them recently. Both of them swept the dirt from the marble and began making those painful sounds.
Daniel couldn't read the writing and couldn't understand the language, but somehow, snippets of their conversation got through to him. Not words, exactly, but images, feelings – the thing inside him was searching for something, fueled by a desperate need to find it. And deep down was the knowledge that this thing wasn't a Goa'uld.
When that realization hit him, he began to cry in relief. He felt the tears slide down his cheeks, felt his nose stuff up and begin to run. His throat constricted, and the inhuman sounds coming from his vocal chords deepened and slowed. John walked over to him and touched a finger to his cheek. He held his damp fingertip close to his eye, examining his tear before making more noises.
"Yeah, I'm crying, you dimwit," he snarled. For a second he felt surprise, and he wondered if whatever it was that had control of him could also sense what he was feeling.
John turned back to the slab, clearing more of the writing from it. Then came something that Daniel recognized; a 'gate address. More noises, more painful speech, and then the two of them were running for the Stargate.
Daniel didn't feel fear; instead he felt its excitement. Whatever it was they'd been looking for, they thought this was it.
They ran, heedless of the rocks they stepped on hidden in the sand, bruising their feet. Breathless, Daniel was gasping by the time they reached the DHD. John slapped the glyphs in quick succession, opening up a wormhole. They barely waited for the backwash to settle before they were through the puddle in a flash. The wormhole spit them out on the other side and they both stumbled as they lost their footing on slick, mud-covered stone.
The other planet had been temperate, warmer than the air-conditioned halls of the SGC. This place they'd come to, was hell.
Wind-driven rain accosted them as they sank ankle-deep into the muddy ground. Dark clouds hid the sun and the gloom spread discouragingly over the landscape. He gasped, suddenly breathless from the shock of the cold. Within seconds they were soaked, shivering in their thin hospital scrubs. For several panicked seconds, he couldn't catch his breath as his feet fought for purchase in the slippery mud. He gasped involuntarily as he began to see spots. Another breath, and a third, and the next came more easily.
The Stargate was situated on what at first glance looked like a farmed piece of land. Until Daniel saw the bigger picture. Before and behind him were terraces, which looked like gigantic steps hewn into a cliff. All around him were similarly gouged mountains, each of them obviously manmade. The Stargate was situated about midway down a mountain on one of these terraces.
To the right, in the valley below, was a low-lying city that spread out across the whole expanse. Lights lit the gloomy day, and Daniel could make out neat squares of city blocks that went on for miles.
The land they were on had been plowed, remnants of plant materials were mixed with the muddy soil as Daniel's body began walking across the current level and onto a stone path leading down the mountain. John followed right behind him as they plodded downwards as the feelings of excitement within him began to grow to a level that made him queasy.
Some of the lower levels had been seeded, and long, straight lines of furrows decorated the terraces on either side of the path. It felt like they'd been walking forever when someone in the city spotted them. John yelled something in that odd language and Daniel's throat constricted, adding his own noise. Answering calls came from below were repeated, and suddenly people were running towards them.
John and Daniel stopped under the shelter of a grove of trees as they both gawked at the people who surrounded them. Not exactly human, they walked upright on long, furry limbs. Their faces looked like a combination of ape and pig as the dozen or so stared at them, all of them jabbering loudly, making Daniel's head ache. His body answered them as he swayed in place, suddenly dizzy.
Sight and sound wavered as the pain in his head escalated quickly. As he sank helplessly to his knees, he couldn't help wonder if he was about to die even as the excitement grew to a frenzied level inside him. He saw John also fall to his knees, then topple onto his side. A moment later he followed John down, falling face first into the cold, wet grass.
Something hot burst into the back of his throat and for a moment he couldn't breathe. He heaved, coughed, and a spray of blood burst from his nose and mouth as hands turned him over and raised his upper body.
Blood flowed from his nose and mouth as he fought to breathe without choking. There were numerous beings here now, all of them taking a turn to wipe the blood streaming from his face.
Occasionally he would see a break in the throng of bodies. There were dozens lined up, waiting to touch him; to smear his blood over their fingers and then share their steal with others.
He lay limp, totally paralyzed, at the mercy of these beings. The sensation of exhilaration and excitement was fading fast, until all that was left was exhaustion, pain and cold. And fear. Tears mixed with the blood as sobs shook his body.
One of the aliens touched him, and instead of moving away like all the rest had done, growled something and rubbed his fingers against Daniel's face more roughly. Daniel turned his face, trying to escape his touch. Then it hit him; he could move. With arms desperately heavy and clumsy, he tried to bat away the creature's hands.
Immediately the crowd began to murmur, and to Daniel's surprise, dissipated, all of them turning around and heading for the city. The aliens holding him let go, letting him fall all the way to the ground, and from his vantage point, he watched the last of the furry legs walk away from him.
The SGC was still alien enough that Sarah tossed and turned for more than thirty minutes before exhaustion overtook uneasiness and she slept.
Alarms cut into her slumber and she reached out, searching for a clock that didn't exist. "John," she mumbled, "time for—" Sarah shot up in bed, heart pounding, surroundings coming into focus. "Shit." Throwing herself out of the bed, she ran to the door, pulling it open. The room was now flooded with the harshness of the alarm which overflowed from the hallway and red lights spun, but the overabundance of sight and sound didn't answer her 'what the fuck is going on' question.
Weapons drawn, two military clothed airman sprinted past her, and she followed them with a turn of her head, but their business appeared to be elsewhere.
Sarah's few hours of sleep had satisfied her need for rest and the bed no longer held any appeal. Checking on John and a cup of hot coffee were the only things calling out to her and she headed in the direction of the infirmary, her stride lengthening with each step, until she was almost running, bypassing more than a handful of SF's who were headed in the opposite direction.
Head down, concentrating on the painted line on the floor under her feet, she came up swinging when a restraining hand on her arm brought her up short.
Cameron easily deflected her right hook. "John and Daniel are missing."
"Missing? How could they be—"
Still holding onto her arm, Cameron turned and headed off in the direction Sarah had just come from and for a second, the tin girl dragged Sarah along until she regained her footing and shook off her hand.
Sarah was seething, pacing the length of the briefing room table before turning and doing it all over again. Derek was uncommonly quiet, staring through the glass into the Gateroom. Cameron appeared to be at a loss, seated next to Sam, staring at her demurely folded hands on the table.
This may be commonplace in their lives, losing Daniel, but Sarah had fought for years to keep John safe. Fuck them and damn her for letting them into their lives.
Sarah slammed her opened palms on the table, leaned across its width until she was almost in Sam's face. "Tell me something." She drew a breath, willing to sell her soul for some C4 to blow this place to kingdom come. "Like where the fuck is my son?"
"John and Daniel went through the Stargate," Cameron answered tonelessly.
Sam looked up from her opened laptop, quickly glancing over her shoulder to the General's office, where O'Neill and Doctor Fraiser were involved in a heated discussion.
"Maybe I need to be in there," Sarah said, pointing in the direction Sam was looking.
"You need to see this." Sam hit a button on her laptop then turned it around to face Sarah. "These are the security tapes." The rest of her words were lost on Sarah as she watched, mesmerized, as John and Daniel, dressed in scrubs, overpowered the SGC personnel, dialed a series of markings on the computer, then without even a backward glance at the strewn personnel, made their way to the Gateroom and as one, ran up the ramp and into the event horizon.
Sarah slammed the lid of the laptop closed and resisted the urge to pick it up and fling it through the overwhelming plate glass window.
To say he was exhausted would have been a laugh. Daniel pulled in shaky breaths as he brushed the tears from his face. "John?" It hurt to talk; his throat had been abused.
"Daniel?" John's voice sounded strained.
"You okay?" He rubbed the area under his nose that had held such interest to the aliens. His rain-dampened fingers came away smeared with a bit of blood. He touched his nose again, and to his relief, there seemed to be only a trace of it.
"I don't know."
Daniel knew exactly how John felt. He closed his eyes, trying to gather strength, then raised his head to look around.
John was lying next to him, looking the worse for wear. Daniel wondered if he looked as bad.
The aliens were gone; they'd left them outside their city in the wet and cold. The sky was darker and Daniel suspected the sun was setting.
"We have to go back to the Stargate before they come back." Daniel tried to roll onto his side, then fell back with a groan as his head began to pound.
"They won't come back." John sounded as tired as Daniel felt.
"You don't know that."
"Yeah, I do. They told me."
"They what?" When did John learn to speak their language? If anything, Daniel should have been the one to understand what they'd been saying.
"In my head. Whatever was in us, it wanted to come home."
"It talked to you?"
"No. Just feelings. You didn't feel it?"
Daniel began to say no, but he remembered some of the feelings he'd experienced after he'd gotten over his fear of having been taken over by a Goa'uld. "What..." Daniel cleared his throat as his voice became hoarser. "What was it?"
"I don't know. But it was living inside our brain. Don't tell me you couldn't feel that?"
Daniel tried again, and this time managed to roll onto his side and push himself up so that he was sitting. "I'm cold," he said as he pulled his knees to his chest. He wasn't sure if he could even stand up.
"Do you know how to get back?" John sat up and emulated Daniel's pose.
"Yeah. We just have to go back up the path."
"Do you think your dad and my mom are looking for us?"
Daniel shook his head slowly. "They don't know we went through the Stargate twice. They'll be looking for us on that other planet."
John sighed as he shifted, moving to his knees. "We better go before it gets dark."
Using a tree trunk, both boys managed to get to their feet and staggered towards the path. Daniel took the lead, thankful that his feet were now too frozen to feel much of anything as they slogged through the mud. Head down against the driving rain, shivering constantly, he wanted nothing more than to go home.
"SarahConnor, you must relinquish your weapon to the—"
Jack raised his hand, effectively cutting off the remainder of Teal'c's speech and the advancing SF's. "I got this," he mouthed, hoping to god the woman didn't shoot him in the chest as he blocked her path down the ramp.
Sarah Connor was a fairly attractive woman but there wasn't anything even remotely attractive about her now. Hardness had sharpened her features to points and if looks could kill, everyone in the Gateroom would be dead.
Jack took his life in his hands and placed his right hand on the barrel of the P-90 Sarah had become one with. "I know," he said, soft enough for only her to hear. "But this isn't going to help us find them."
He understood her anger, her hopelessness and her helplessness. Jack had been there, walked in her shoes, but he refused to believe that any god anywhere would play this cruel a joke on him not once, but twice. Daniel was alive, because Jack wouldn't entertain anything else.
Jack tugged gently on the weapon and she resisted for only a millisecond before relinquishing her hold on it.
Hammond didn't have to ask the question, but Jack answered it anyway. "Nothing, sir."
Jack received a swift nod of understanding. His glance towards Sarah was grandfatherly and filled with concern.
"We need to find our children, General."
"I know, Jack," he dropped his voice to a whisper, "I'm just unsure—"
"She's a soldier."
"But she's also a mother, and that's the part that worries me." The general cleared his throat. "Briefing in twenty minutes."
"Why?" Sarah moved swifter than Jack believed humanly possible and she was up and in their personal space with Derek and Cameron by her side. Her voice echoed in the large cavernous room. "Debriefing is a waste of time. Briefing is a waste of time. We need to—"
"Excuse me." Jack grabbed Sarah and shot a warning glance to her companions. "Stay," he ordered them. Interestingly enough, neither Cameron nor Derek came to her aid. Jack dragged her out of the Gateroom, through the corridors and into the elevator where she used the enclosed confines to vent her annoyance, in quite colorful language, of the body parts Jack was going to lose for doing this.
"Go ahead." Jack shoved the punching bag at Sarah's midsection. "Punch the shit outta this."
"I'd rather punch the shit out of you."
Jack nodded. "That can be arranged but remember, Connor, I'm not the enemy. That's my son out there with yours."
"But your son isn't—"
"Isn't what? My flesh and blood?" Now it was Jack's turn to get into her personal space. "Daniel is my son. He's no less my son than John is yours."
"Daniel isn't the savior of mankind."
"That's why you want to find him? Because of who he's going to be? Why? Because if you don't. you'll feel like you failed to complete your mission?" Jack shook his head. "That poor kid. He got lost somewhere in your illusion."
"How dare you."
"How dare I what? Point out the truth that if you lose John you won't be the unsung hero of the John Connor Judgment Day story? Newsflash, Sarah Connor..."
Tears. If Jack had to bet his last dollar, he never thought the woman had the capability of shedding tears.
"Damn, you." Sarah wiped clumsily at her eyes.
"No, you're not." The slightest of smirks tugged at the corners of her mouth. "I was your punching bag. Rather than an uppercut, you threw out words. Just so you know, sticks and stones, yadda yadda."
Jack snorted. "You're crazy."
A short burst of harsh laughter escaped Sarah. "Yeah, I am. I even have the papers to prove it." She shoved the punching bag at Jack, who caught it and gripped it tightly to his chest. "I think you need this more than I do.
"Stay," he ordered the exercise equipment, holding it until it stopped swaying. "You," he said," using his elbow to point to Sarah. "For once in your life, listen to someone else and don't move."
He let the bag go with a pat and nodded approval to Sarah. Okay, she was waiting impatiently, foot tapping, grumbling under her breath, but she wasn't moving. Score one for the military man.
Jack tossed a pair of boxing gloves over to Sarah, who caught them and slipped them on in one fluid movement. He was beyond speech at this time, maybe because Sarah was right. Jack was angry. Actually beyond angry. Without a word he slid his hands into the other pair he'd brought from the equipment locker and walked to the opposite corner of the room where the second punching bag hung.
With his gloved hands, he held the punching bag in place then gave a quick bow of apology for any injury he might cause the piece of equipment.
It took forever to get to the terraces, slogging through mud on legs that threatened to buckle with every step. Both of them were gasping for breath by the time they reached the first of the terraces and John took the lead, following the stone path up the mountainside.
Dusk had fallen and it would be dark soon. Daniel raised his head, trying to spot the Stargate. He hadn't truly noticed how blurry his eyesight was without his glasses but now, with the incipient darkness, he was having trouble making things out. For a moment he couldn't understand what he was seeing, and then it made sense.
"Damn it," he exclaimed, bracing his legs in the mud. The Stargate was there, three levels up, but separated from them by a steep rise in rock. They'd taken the wrong path.
"What?" John turned to look
"We have to go back down."
"What? Why?" John turned to look down at him and promptly slipped and fell on his butt, flattening a few pieces of newly sprouted seedlings as he landed. "Shit."
"We went the wrong way." Daniel pointed towards the Stargate and John struggled to turn onto his hands and knees in order to look.
Shoving his hair out of his eyes, John swore. "Great. Just great." Like a crab out of water, John awkwardly managed to get to his feet, sliding in the muddy soil until he got back onto the path.
Daniel's legs gave out just before they reached the terrace. He was so cold that the parts of his body lying in the mud felt warmer than those exposed to the wind and rain.
"Get up, Jackson."
Daniel tried, but his hands, mired up to his wrists in mud, kept slipping, preventing him from getting a purchase. "I can't."
John swayed as he bent down and grabbed Daniel's wrist and pulled. The mud coating their hands, however, caused him to lose his grip and John fell back into the seedlings a second time.
"God damn it." John floundered in the mud.
Ignoring John's attempt to stand and too tired to be embarrassed, Daniel began crawling off the path, heading for a strip of grassy soil surrounded by vines that draped over the last of the terraces, onto the valley floor.
He rolled over the edge of the terrace, holding onto the rock slabs beneath the vines, until his feet touched the ground. Arms shaking, he pushed off until he was standing and waited for John to follow.
They'd nearly made it to the next path when John stumbled, falling against Daniel and sending both of them to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. With difficulty, they managed to untangle themselves and lay there a moment, the sounds of their panting breaths barely audible above the rain.
Neither of them moved; Daniel buried his face against his muddy forearms. He was freezing and beyond exhausted, his head was pounding, his body ached and he couldn't feel his feet, they were so cold. He would rest, for just a moment, and then get up again. Just for a minute. Shut his eyes, and gather his strength. As cold as he was, he almost felt like he could sleep. If he could just stop shivering... just for a few seconds, he could drift—
Something slithered along his leg. "In a minute," Daniel mumbled, kicking John's hand from his leg, irritated that John wouldn't let him rest. But John was tenacious and gripped harder, his fingers circling his calf. "Stop it." He kicked again, and a burning pain shot through his leg.
"Ow!" Daniel yelled, kicked his leg free of John's hold as he turned onto his side. It was almost dark now; there was just enough light to see John was lying behind him, his arms curled against his chest and nowhere near Daniel's leg. Instead, a snake had twirled itself around his calf.
"What? What is it?" John raised his himself onto his elbows and squinted in his direction.
Daniel had no trouble finding the energy to sit up and hurriedly pull the snake away as it continued to creep up his leg. It was hard, leafy, and in a split second Daniel realized that it wasn't a snake but a piece of vine, coming from the bush next to him. The realization hit him just as the thorns covering the vine pierced his skin a second time. He yelled as his palm began to burn, just like his leg.
John echoed his yell as a vine caught his wrist and moved up his arm. Just as Daniel struggled to free his leg, another vine caught his bicep.
"They're alive!" Desperate to escape, Daniel scrambled away as the growth closest to them alongside the terrace broke free of the wall and reached for them. He felt the plant scrape along his ribs as he rolled away, and then kept on rolling as he lost control, sliding down the hillside they'd climbed earlier. Thankfully he only slid down a dozen feet before coming to a stop when the ground leveled off. Heart pounding, he glanced up, half-expecting the whole bush to get up off the wall and come after him. Instead, he saw John, just a shadow now in the near-dark, sliding on his butt, coming right for him. Daniel threw himself to the side, out of the way, until John came to a stop next to him.
"You okay?" he asked John.
"I think so." John rolled onto his stomach and looked upwards. "Those weren't snakes, were they?" John was lying so close to him that Daniel felt him shudder.
"No." Daniel shivered, both from memory of the crawling vines and from the cold. "It's too dark. We can't go back up there. Not in the dark."
"We're almost there. We just have to get to the next path. We saw the Stargate."
Daniel shivered again at the thought of trying to walk past those vines in the dark. "No." Plus he didn't think they'd be able to find the Stargate or DHD in the dark. "I want to go home," he whispered as he shook his hand. The burning from the vines' thorns was starting to subside.
"We'll get there. Don't worry. Come on. The longer we hang around here, the longer before we get home."
"I'm not going past those things again." John was barely visible in the darkness, and Daniel ignored him as he sat up.
"Well, we sure as hell can't stay here."
John was right, but there was no way that Daniel was going to walk through those vines. Not in the dark. Maybe not ever. Daniel rolled onto his side and sat up, wishing there was someone around to take charge. He could see flickers of light through the trees from the city in the valley and he concentrated on those, wishing he were home, sitting around the kitchen table, drinking something hot with his dad and grandma.
"Daniel, we need to try and get back. Now, before it gets too dark."
"It's already too dark." He sounded whiney and he hated himself for it.
"We can make it if we go now. Come on."
"We won't. It'll be pitch dark by the time we get to the vines. And even if by some miracle we get through them and onto the right path, we can't dial the DHD because we can't see the symbols."
"Are you sure? If we can't see, can we feel the symbols with our hands?" Before Daniel could answer, John asked softly, "do you know how to get us out of here?"
"We can't go straight to the SGC because we don't have a GDO but I know a couple of places we could go for help. And no, we wouldn't be able to dial in the dark. We could be spending the whole night trying to get it to work."
"Beats hanging around here. The first planet we went to was at least warm and dry."
Daniel didn't think he'd be able to spend hours on his feet, in the rain, feeling the DHD and trying to find the right glyphs.
"Well," John said after a long moment of silence, "at least we'd be able to dial the moment the sun came up."
"Or we can wait here and head for the Stargate the moment the sun comes up."
"I'd feel better if we tried to dial out of here, Daniel."
Daniel felt his heart begin to pound at the thought of facing those vines again. "John, I can't. I can't... Those plants were alive." He lowered his chin to his chest, hating himself for his weakness.
"Okay." Daniel heard John moving around. "Okay, then we stay here and head for the Stargate the moment the sun comes up enough so we can see. Now, we need to find shelter. I remember there were trees down here because I was afraid of crashing into them when I came down the hill."
"Thanks," Daniel whispered, shame filling him once again.
"It's okay. I admit the idea of facing those things again didn't thrill me."
"So." Daniel looked around, but everything was pitch black. "Where were those trees?"
"To our left. And if it's any consolation, we'll be moving in the direction of the Stargate, right?"
"Yeah. To the right, and up the hill. Piece of cake." Daniel steeled himself, and stood. "Ow."
"My foot's asleep." He tapped his sole against the grassy slope and felt nothing. No pain, no throbbing, no chill. He leaned down and touched his right leg. To his horror, his right hand was just as numb. "I can't feel my hand and arm."
"My arm and my leg's numb, too."
"It's the vines."
"Shit." Daniel did a mental once-over as he straightened, massaging his numb hand. And while he still felt awful, he didn't feel worse. "No, not poisonous. We'd be sick if they were, wouldn't we?"
John's hand touched his shoulder, then gripped it. "Okay, let's do this slowly. One step at a time, and hold onto me."
Daniel caught John's arm with his good hand and together they began feeling their way. The going was awkward because of the sloping ground and the fact their feet were bare and neither wanted to step on anything sharp. With one foot throbbing from abuse, Daniel felt his way carefully until John stopped.
"Tree," John stated. He began moving uphill, and Daniel followed, waving his numb hand slowly in front of him until it came in contact with the tree. The rain had eased considerably under the trees, and the wind wasn't quite as cold. He let John lead him between the trees, not for the first time wishing they had a flashlight.
"Wait." John stopped again. "Don't move, stay right here." He let go of Daniel and moved forward.
"What? What is it?" Regardless of John's order, Daniel kept his hold on John and moved with him.
"Something..." John leaned down, reaching for something and Daniel lost his grip.
"It's okay, I'm right here. There are a couple of fallen trees and... Yeah, there's space underneath. Damn, I wish I had a flashlight."
Daniel immediately took a step backwards. "What about the vines?"
"I don't feel any."
Daniel shuddered at the thought of John blindly feeling around the trees and coming into contact with the vines.
"It's big enough for the two of us. Come on."
"John, I don't know..."
"There aren't any vines."
Daniel continued to stand there, undecided.
"Look, if there were any, they'd be on me by now, right?"
He couldn't remember how long it had taken before he'd felt the vine on his leg. Not that he wanted John to be a guinea pig, but he was fine just standing here, for now.
"Daniel. There are no vines." This last was spoken slowly and deliberately enunciated.
With a heart-pounding headache, Daniel crouched, waved his hand in front of him and slowly advanced until his hand smacked against John's knee. He nearly yelled when he felt John's hand on his wrist, then with his help, he managed to get under the tree into a relatively dry area, out of the rain and wind. Immediately it felt about ten degrees warmer. He huddled there, stiff and nervously expecting the burning touch of the vine against his neck.
"See? There's nothing in here."
He tried to relax, but couldn't. The fear was getting worse instead of better.
"What if they move? What if they're on their way down here?"
"Those... people... in the town. They're farmers, right? They obviously work in the fields. If those things were mobile, then they'd have been all over the place, in the fields, attacking the farmers. Instead we only saw them at the bottom of the hill."
"Yeah," he slowly conceded.
They sat there, listening to the rain falling. Daniel bent his leg and began to rub the numb areas of his foot.
"What do you think happened to us before?"
John shifted so that his side was touching Daniel's.
"With the nose bleeds. You said that something spoke to you."
John tucked his numb arm against his chest, pinning it in place with his knees. "You didn't feel it?" They'd had this conversation before, John knew that, and he was pretty sure that Daniel knew that as well, but talking meant they were alive. Breathing.
"I felt pain. Just pain."
"Me, too. But there was something more. A feeling. The slightest of thanks."
"There was nothing besides the pain."
Daniel's voice was flat, devoid of emotion, which scared John more than creeping vines and having to spend the night here. They were offworld. On another planet. This was Daniel's forte and he should've just been along for the ride, holding onto his friend's coattails—not leading. He wasn't ready for that. His mom had promised him there was still time.
John was so close to Daniel that when he shivered, the tremor jumped to John's body like an electric shock and his body mirrored the same movement.
Shit. John tried to remember the field medicine his mother had drummed into his mind and he was coming up damn short. Failing.
"I want to go home."
John placed his good arm around Daniel's shoulders and drew him in even closer. Body warmth. Not that either of them had too much to go around, but what little they did have, if you multiplied it by two, had to be better than nothing.
There was the slightest of hesitation before Daniel leaned into John. "Don't tell Alexandria."
This time the shiver began with John. "As long as you don't tell Cassie." He ended the sentence with a full body shudder.
"What if it rains tomorrow and the sun doesn't come out, do you think—"
"It'll be light enough to see the symbols. That's all we need, right?"
"Just the symbols and you'll be able to get us home?"
"It'll get us somewhere."
"You'll get us somewhere."
"I. Don't. Know." Daniel's voice caught at the end of each word. "I can't remember. Anything."
"You're full of shit," John said in Spanish.
"No, I can't remember—" Daniel answered back in English.
"Gotcha," John said with a soft chuckle. "You remember how to speak Spanish." He drew a breath, trying not to focus on how dry and tight his throat felt or how much his head ached. "And I bet, if you think hard enough, you can remember how beautiful Dria looked with her hair all done up. In that dress—"
"In her bikini?" Daniel's chuckle wasn't as sure as John's, but it was there.
John didn't remember too much of what happened during the dance. He remembered being cold and wanting to go home. Feeling lousy. Sort of like now. But, he could remember the warmth of Cassie's body pressed against his, making him dance under the trees in the garden. "We'll have to ask Corey if we can have a do over pool party."
"I think if you bring Cameron, Corey will agree to anything."
There was a hint of life in Daniel's voice and John could feel himself relax. "Poor Corey."
"I've known Corey for years, my sympathies lie with Cameron on this." Daniel shifted, coughed and groaned as he moved. "Wish I could just lie down."
Damn him. Just those words tweaked each and every one of John's aches, pains and numbness, and biting words hovered on the tip of his tongue. As painful and frustrating as it was, John swallowed his unspoken sentiments. "Hell, I'd even take Janet's uncomfortable plastic-covered beds in the infirmary."
"I can't feel—"
"My arm. From my shoulder down to my fingertips." Maybe if Daniel knew he wasn't alone—
"My leg. My hand. My head. Throat."
"I have a fever," John added.
"My mother's going to kill me." What he wouldn't give for his mother to be standing right there in front of him, reprimanding him.
"Your mother? Do you think my father is really going to believe an alien made me dial the 'gate?"
"I'll vouch for you."
Daniel sighed, dropping his head on John's shoulder. "No offense, but you aren't the best defense."
The head resting on his shoulder was heavy not in weight, but in the trust it conveyed. Daniel believed John could do this. Protect them both. Save them. Too bad John didn't believe he could be either Daniel's protector or savior. Not here. Not on this world.
"That other planet we went to first, those ruins. Why was there a Stargate address there?" John began.
"I don't know," Daniel said dully.
"How did the thing in our head know to go there?"
"I don't know."
"Do you think they lived there? In the ruined city?"
"They couldn't. It was destroyed hundreds of years ago."
"I wish I knew what the writing said. The ones with the Stargate address."
"I saw that writing somewhere before." There was a bit more energy in Daniel's voice. "I can't remember where."
"From your memories?"
"I don't know. I'm tired." Daniel's words had gone from clear to slow and lethargic.
"I got this," John lied. "Close your eyes and sleep. I'll keep watch."
The insistent tap on his shoulder cut through his haze of anger. Panting and nearly blind from the stinging sweat running into his eyes, Jack swung around. "What?"
Sarah's hair was plastered to her head, tears had been replaced by sweat, but she wasn't breathing as heavily as Jack. Actually there was the tiniest hint of a smile. "I think we're late."
"Late?" Jack huffed, making a concerted effort to not appear winded.
"Shit!" Jack stole a glance at the wall-mounted clock. They weren't just late, they were very late.
The entire briefing room turned in unison as Jack and Sarah entered. No time for a shower, Jack could only imagine how they appeared to the people sitting around the table. Sweaty. Smelly. Breathless... Well, he was breathless; Sarah was smug, which annoyed the crap outta Jack. "Sorry we're late, General, we were..."
General Hammond raised his hand and shook his head. "I truly do not care to know where you and Ms. Connor were. Please just take your seats so Doctor Fraiser can begin."
Jack sat, trying to muster as much dignity as possible, flashing a smile at Fraiser to soften the blow that he was late. She didn't smile back, what she did do was put one hand on the humungous file in front of her and sighed.
Uh oh. Jack knew her long enough to be eternally grateful that he was already sitting down. "Doc?"
"I wish I had better news. Or I wish I had news." Fraiser drew a deep breath and opened the folder. "From what John and Daniel's blood work showed, this is some type of virus. Not contagious though it's unlike anything I've ever encountered. I've traced their whereabouts and come up—"
"Empty?" Jack filled in.
"Frustrated." Fraiser closed the file. "I'm sorry."
The General turned towards Carter who began to babble something about scans and diagnostics and—
"In English, please, for the idiots in the audience." Derek's voice was sharp and clipped and Jack could so understand where the guy was coming from.
"What's she's saying," Jack said, "Is that she's doing the best she can and it's only a matter of time before Carter connects the dots."
Now both of John's arms were numb. The one that still sat dead in his lap and the one resting around Daniel's shoulders, but Daniel was fast asleep, his snoring adding to the night noises of the planet.
He caught himself drifting, jerking awake when his chin hit his chest. The night had gotten colder and the cacophony of sounds stranger. Slithering and croaking of unfamiliar creatures. Vines. Aliens. His whole life, John had lived with death just around the corner and had managed to cope but here, light years from home, his only backup was a fourteen year old who was just as sick as he was.
John woke himself with a scream and awkwardly scooted backwards, tripping himself up in a tangle of uncooperative arms and legs, the dead weight of Daniel's sleeping body dragging him down. He hit the damp ground with a thud and lay there, staring up into the darkness, his heart trying to make a quick exit through his chest in a perverse remake of the Alien movie.
"Are you okay?" Daniel's elbows dug painfully into John's midsection as he used them to lever himself up.
"Fine," John groaned, squirming, trying to dislodge Daniel's pointy elbows.
There was nothing but darkness. Except for his increased thirst and the lessening of numbness where the vine had decided to get up close and personal, there was no way to judge the passage of time. "Go back to sleep."
Daniel slid off John, turned on his side then tucked himself against him, forcing a line of mud to slip between the two of them. It was cold, colder than he was, but the yuckiness didn't bother Daniel. "Wake me before the bus comes."
"Can't be late."
John raised his arm, it was responsive, but sluggish and he awkwardly tapped Daniel's head. "Won't be late, promise."
John wanted to pee. He wanted to go home. He wanted a shower, a pair of clean, warm sweats, socks and to crawl into bed and sleep for days. He wanted a grilled cheese sandwich, a glass of chocolate milk and his mother. With his good hand, John scrubbed the grittiness out of his burning eyes.
Only catnaps. Little snatches of sleep. Every time John closed his eyes for longer than five minutes, the visuals imprinted on the inside of his eyelids became the things nightmares were made of.
Daniel shifted, and inexplicable anger flooded John at Daniel's ability to sleep. He was so damned tired but his brain wouldn't shut off long enough for his body to win the battle and relax.
"I want to go home," he hissed into the night, angry. "I'm thirsty. Tired. Cold. And I feel. Like. Shit." John stopped, suddenly feeling ridiculous and his words seemed to linger in the night air. Great, the savior of mankind was afraid of the dark. Nice to know. "Promise you won't tell anyone, Jackson?"
"Daniel," the body pressed up against his answered. "Go to sleep, John, you're keeping me awake with your mumbling."
John smiled. "Not mumbling." He gave a gentle, brotherly nuggie to Daniel's head.
"After we get home and I shower and sleep for ten hours, I'm going to get a zat and put you out of your misery."
A piece of home, soothed by Daniel's familiar, comforting grousing, John closed his eyes and slept.
"I don't need this right now, Cassie." Janet poured herself another cup of coffee and stared at her daughter.
"You're expecting me to lie." Cassie glared at her.
"Yeah, I am."
Teen anger turned into teen angst faster than a flick of a light switch. "Can I stay home today?"
Janet would've loved to say yes. Hell, she'd love to stay home with Cassie and let someone else come up with all the answers. "No, sweetie, you can't."
"Well, can you tell me what to say then?" Cassie begged.
Janet buried her thoughts in the mug of now lukewarm coffee. "John and Daniel have a virus and are being treated at the Academy Hospital." Same story. Different day.
Cassie shook her head. "No one believes me. I don't believe me." She dropped her head and mumbled something unintelligible into her bowl of cereal.
Janet placed the mug on the table, walked over to Cassie, and gently smoothed down the hair on her bent head. "I didn't hear you."
"I wish you hadn't told me. I wish I didn't know. Because if I didn't know..."
Cassie was one hundred percent correct. Janet never should've told her. Twenty-twenty hindsight and all that crap. "I know," Janet said softly. "If I didn't tell you then you wouldn't know, you'd still believe they were at the SGC, and you wouldn't be lying."
Cassie nodded, but Janet heard the soft intake of a choked sob. "I'm so scared, Mommy."
"Oh, god, honey." Janet snaked her arms around Cassie and dropped her head on her daughter's vanilla-smelling hair. "But this is Daniel."
"And John," Janet amended. "Nothing's going to happen to the Comeback Kid and the Savior of Mankind."
Janet crossed her fingers behind her back in a truly childish moment. "I promise."
John found himself jerking awake several times, with no idea how much time had passed while he'd slept. Without a watch, he couldn't even begin to guess if they'd been in this shelter for two hours or eight. Fever-aching joints, headache, throbbing feet, thirst and constant chills had made it feel like an eternity.
The rain had stopped; the cessation of the downpour was what had woken him this last time. Massaging his arm which was slowly beginning to get feeling again, he listened to the slow, rhythmic and almost guttural breathing next to him. Daniel was sleeping, and John didn't have the heart to wake him up.
The woods were full of dripping water, the sound familiar from his childhood days living in Central America. He listened for a while, almost wishing for those carefree days, when his destiny hadn't loomed so closely. Then he heard something that had him crawling out from beneath the shelter and looking around expectantly.
He shivered as the wind ruffled his still-damp mud-encrusted clothes. Wincing as he straightened stiff joints and cautiously putting his weight on feet that were beyond bruised, John looked around. The sky was starting to lighten down in the valley, past the city. Not much, just enough that John, out of the constriction of the shelter, could now make out the individual trunks of the trees around them. In a very short while, they'd be able to make their way out of here.
Daniel mumbled something.
"Jackson, wake up."
"It's Daniel. Don't you think you'd be able to remember that by now? And I wasn't sleeping."
"Right. You just snore when you rest your eyes, right?"
"I wasn't snoring." Daniel's shoulder bumped John's leg as he made his way out from beneath the shelter.
"Then someone else snuck under the tree with us because I don't think the local wildlife is up to imitating a buzz saw."
Daniel stood slowly and John was elated that he could make him out. "How's the arm and leg?" he asked as Daniel rubbed his arm.
"I think it's wearing off. It's starting to ache."
"Yeah, me too." Just one more ache to add to the multitude of misery he was feeling.
"Do you think we should start climbing up?"
"Let's give it a few more minutes. It's still kind of hard to see."
Daniel was moving away from him, walking around the fallen trees. A moment later, John heard water hitting the ground, and he realized he needed to pee. As he walked to the opposite edge of the shelter, he spoke over his shoulder. "I think if we walk right through the vines without stopping, we should be okay. That way they won't have a chance to come after us." He hoped Daniel didn't baulk; he wanted off this planet in the worst way.
Once he'd peed, they started climbing the hill despite John's suggestion that they wait. The going was rough; both of them were stiff and their feet sore enough that they were hobbling more than walking, trying to keep on the outer edges of their aching feet. When they reached the top, they skirted the edge of the terrace, keeping an eye on the growth, until they found a path leading up, hopefully the one to the Stargate. John searched the levels of the terrace looking for it, but it was still too dark. They waited a few more minutes until it was light enough to see the path clearly.
"Ready?" He took a deep breath and glanced at Daniel.
"No, but it's not like we've got a choice."
To John's surprise, Daniel limped forward, moving faster and faster past the twin walls of vine-covered rocks, stopping only when he was well away from them. John hurried past, expecting to feel the burning touch of a vine, but he made it past unscathed as well. "Piece of cake," John began, then stopped when he saw Daniel, arms wrapped around his torso, staring back at the vines. He was breathing hard. Without a word, Daniel pointed. John followed his finger, and saw what had spooked Daniel.
A small animal, about the size of a rabbit, lay entwined, barely visible, in the tendrils of the growth. It was clearly dead. John scanned the edges of the wall and spotted another creature entrapped in their midst.
"Oh god," Daniel moaned as he stood frozen, eyes wide, face pale even in the wan light.
"Let's go." John was about to give him a shove, eager to get the hell away from here, when Daniel turned on his own and continued slogging up the muddy path. John fought the urge to perversely walk through the new growth and deliberately tear up as many of the young shoots as he could. The only thing that stopped him was the memory of the excitement he'd felt in the otherness in his head when it knew it had come home.
"Cassie, wait up."
Cassie closed her eyes, took a breath and stuck an expression on her face that she hoped would pass for a mixture of worry, sleepless nights and would be devoid of the tears she'd shed over the breakfast table. "Dria." She turned slowly and waited for her friend to skirt around the students separating them.
Dria grabbed her arm but Cassie stood her ground. Last thing she wanted was to let Dria get her alone, because she didn't trust herself not to lie. All she wanted was someone to worry with. Someone who would understand. While her mother might understand to a point, she hadn't been there when it had happened. Her mother couldn't share her guilt like Dria could.
"I want to talk to you," Dria hissed, tugging on Cassie's arm while she glanced all around. "Alone."
"We're going to be late."
"I don't give shit!" Her voice was loud enough to turn heads and elicit a language warning from a passing teacher.
Cassie let her backpack slip off her shoulder then threw her arms around Dria and began to cry, frustration overriding fear, but her girlfriend didn't know that and hugged her back, harder. And Cassie felt a moment of guilty betrayal, before Dria gasped and with two arms anchored to Cassie's shoulders, pushed her back.
Dria's eyes were filled with tears and her nose was red. "Why are you crying?" she sniffed.
Cassie swiped at her own eyes. "Why are you crying?"
"Because you are? Did you... Are they?" Dria sucked in her lips, as if to lock in thoughts too terrible to even speak out loud.
"Oh, god, no." Here went nothing. "My mom said they're both really sick."
"It's my fault. I should've done something." Big huge tears slipped from Dria's eyes. "I knew he didn't feel well."
Cassie shook her head. "We should've done something. I was just so..." She sighed. "I was just so excited to be there. The limo. I was with the cutest guy—"
"No, I was," Dria said.
"Okay," Cassie conceded, "you were with the cutest guy. I was with the hottest guy."
Dria flashed a smile that slid from her face when the bell rang. "I want to see Daniel. Talk to him." She bent down, retrieved Cassie's backpack and handed it to her. "I want to say I'm sorry."
They walked silently, John contemplating what might have happened if they'd not been able to escape the vines.
"I think they must be pest control," Daniel finally said once they'd climbed two levels.
"Like you said, this is a farming community, right? Those vines were probably planted there to stop anything that might get into the crops and eat them."
It made sense. And people, or whatever the creatures were that lived here, probably knew better than to lie down next to the vines and let themselves be attacked.
Something glinted up ahead and it was with a feeling of intense relief that John saw the Stargate shining in the weak sunlight. Wordlessly, both of them increased their pace, hobbling as best they could. They headed straight for the round pedestal which John couldn't remember the name of and watched as Daniel pressed several of the engravings on it without hesitation.
The Stargate came alive and he watched in awe once again as it exploded into a large waterfall-like wave. He waited for Daniel's cue, following only when Daniel felt it was safe, which was once the wave had fallen back into a tranquil pool.
They'd have run through the Stargate if they'd had the energy; instead, they slipped and slid their way, climbing onto the stone dais almost on hands and knees. They grabbed each other's arm, helping one another the rest of the way to the blue light. Daniel's hold on his arm tightened and he half-pulled John through. Just as he stepped into it, John remembered what had happened to the terminator that had chased them offworld just weeks before, and would have pulled back if Daniel's hold hadn't been so secure.
They came through the Stargate inside a building, dark except for a small fire and several burning torches. They took a couple of stumbling steps, the hard, cold and wet rock suddenly having changed to soft, warm sand. Then Daniel stumbled to his knees and pulled John down with him.
The heat that engulfed him was such a welcome contrast to the chill of the planet, that John simply crouched there, digging his cold, wet fingers through the warm sand. He looked around as several men emerged from the darkness, not visible at first beyond the meager light of torches. They called out to them, speaking in a language that John didn't recognize. As the men surrounded them, John was alarmed to see they were holding rifles and staff weapons, all of them aimed at the two of them.
"Daniel, can you understand them?"
Staring at the men in what looked like shock, Daniel remained unmoving.
"Daniel?" John asked softly. "You okay?"
Daniel seemed to shake himself mentally. He blinked, swallowed, and spoke a few, stammering words in what sounded like the same language.
One of the men spoke quickly, gesturing at another. The second man left the cave at a run.
"I asked for help getting back home. They'll go and get someone to dial Earth and send through the GDO confirmation." Daniel let himself fall back onto his butt and wrapped his arms around his knees. John did the same; it looked like they might be here for a while. At least the men had lowered their weapons. The one who Daniel had spoken to crouched next to them and began talking. John couldn't follow the conversation, and it almost seemed like Daniel was reluctant to do so.
Another man came forth and handed both John and Daniel a skin of some sort, holding liquid inside. John glanced at Daniel, who merely said, "Water."
John was so thirsty he didn't look twice at the skin. The water was warm on his tongue and it took everything in his power not to pour the whole skinful down his throat. As he drank, he ignored the odd, gamey taste and the possibility of the water containing bacteria and its resulting consequences later on. He'd deal with that if and when the time came. Right now, he was going to worry about slaking his thirst.
Daniel was drinking also, so John felt a little better about taking chances when he handed the considerably empty skin back. The man offered something that looked like dried meat. The sight turned his stomach, and John quickly shook his head.
With his feet stuck within the warmth of the sand, they slowly began throbbing as they warmed up. John was afraid to look at the soles of his feet; he had no idea if they were sliced open, bruised or just abused. Again, he'd worry about that when he got home.
"How much longer?" he asked Daniel, who was staring at a flickering torch and not the men who were watching them curiously as they returned to a small cook fire in a corner of the cave.
"The runner had to go to the city of Nagada and then find... whoever's in charge, and come back. About an hour, probably."
Two of the men came back, one of them holding a battered and blackened pot that was full of steaming water. The other was holding a large metallic bowl which was half-filled with water which he placed on the ground, shoving its bottom into the sand which John assumed was to hold it steady. The man dribbled a few drops of a pungent liquid from a small ceramic bottle that, when hot, steaming water was poured into the bowl, the stench from it made John's eyes water. He suspiciously eyed the piece of cloth the man tried to hand to him; he really didn't think he was going to chance washing with this, did he?
"Take it. The derka is part astringent and part antiseptic." Daniel carefully dipped a corner of the cloth into the water and began to wipe his hand with it. "And the best part is that it doesn't sting."
"Shouldn't we wait until we get home?" John watched as Daniel dabbed at what looked like a rash along his wrist. He glanced at his own arm and saw the raised redness underneath the mud where the vine had pricked him.
"I'd kill for a shower right now," Daniel sighed as he dipped the cloth into the water, pushed up the leg of his scrub pants, and then began swiping the mud and sand from his shin.
"God, me too."
"But this at least will tide us over." He waved his cloth at John. "Go on. You'll feel better after."
Tentatively John dipped his cloth into the water, which was pleasantly warm. He twisted the water from the cloth and gently brushed it across the growing rash. Immediately the burning eased wherever the derka-laced water touched.
"How do you know all this? You been here before?" He moved past the rash and found several scrapes and bruises. A quick rinse and another wipe with the cloth and already the redness seemed to be fading. Then he realized Daniel hadn't answered his questions. He was about to prod him when he realized that Daniel had spoken to the men in their language. "You knew them from before, didn't you? When you were a grown up?"
"Yeah." Daniel's reply was so softly spoken that John barely heard him. Daniel's head was bent, his loose, damp hair hiding his face as he carefully brushed sand from one foot.
Daniel dipped the foot slowly into the water. Sand and mud slowly sank to the bottom of the bowl as Daniel eased the cloth along the sole. "No. Not bad, not really. Just... Another life." Daniel raised his head and stared at John. His eyes looked haunted, and if Daniel hadn't looked hurt and sick before, he sure did now. "Do me a favor? Don't call me by name while we're here?"
"I think I did already."
"Yeah, you might have. But I don't see anyone here that I recognize so I don't think they noticed, but that may change when the others come." He took his foot out of the water and rested his ankle against his thigh, bending over to examine his sole. "Doesn't look too bad." As he poked and prodded his foot, John decided to do the same.
Brushing the sand and drying mud from his foot showed him where most of the cuts and scrapes were. He dug the last of the sand from between his toes and he tensed, holding his foot above the water, expecting it to hurt as it touched his abused skin. But it didn't. The burning and aching eased immediately. He wiggled his toes, watching as what he hadn't been able to brush away fell to the bottom of the bowl. He took his foot out and it came out pink and clean. As he bent his leg to look at his foot, Daniel stuck his other foot into the water.
The cuts and scrapes didn't look that bad, now that the skin was clean. Poking at his sole, he determined after a minute that the worst of the discomfort was due to bruising. His foot was still damp when he put it down into the sand. He stuck his other foot in as soon as Daniel finished.
Daniel was right; he did feel a bit better now. A quick examination of his other foot also showed no serious punctures or cuts.
When the men came to take the bowl away, Daniel spoke a few words. The men nodded and smiled, and so John, when he caught their eyes, thanked them in English. He got nods and gap-toothed grins in response also.
Now that the bowl was gone, the antiseptic smell was replaced by the scent of roasting meat. His stomach gurgled, and not in a good way. Fatigue and fever were making him nauseous, and as his body began to adapt to the change in planetary climate, the encroaching heat was making it hard to breathe.
"Can we go outside?"
"Why?" Daniel had been staring at the men crouched around the small cook fire, and he now turned to look at John.
"It's hot. It might be cooler outside."
"Trust me, it's not cooler." Daniel leaned back against the rock wall and closed his eyes. "This is a desert planet and we're deep inside a pyramid. It's a good ten degrees cooler in here than out there."
"Desert?" Okay, that would explain the heat. He shifted so he could lean back, like Daniel. His scrubs were still wet and now heavy with clinging sand. He had to tug on the waist of his pants to keep them in place.
Sweat trickled down his face and he wiped it off with the back of his hand. "Who are these people?"
"They were slaves to the Goa'uld for millennia, until they fought back and destroyed their god. These people, here, in this room, are part of the militia, guarding the Stargate."
"And how are they going to help us get back home?" Either the heat, or his growing headache, was making it hard to think. He thought Daniel had explained this to him, but he couldn't remember.
"Kasuf, the headman of Nagada, has a GDO and a radio. We can't go home without the GDO—"
"Yeah, I remember."
The roasted meat must have been done because one of the men stood and approached them, holding wooden skewers threaded with charred meat. John quickly declined the offer of food, but Daniel took one of the skewers and sniffed it with what looked like appreciation. John had to turn his head aside as Daniel took a bite.
"Try it. It's good. The spices make all the difference."
"I'm not either." Daniel rested the skewer on his leg after chewing the one bite. "But I haven't had this in years and..."
Daniel's wistful sigh betrayed how much he'd love to have the appetite to eat the meat.
"Ask for a doggie bag. It should keep, right? When we go home?"
"Yeah." Motioning to the extra meat that had been placed on a wooden platter, Daniel spoke quickly. The men, apparently eager to please, took Daniel's uneaten portion and wrapped everything in a piece of cloth. One of them placed the doggie bag between the two boys, looking pleased with himself while the other returned with a small clay bowl half full of what looked like nuts. He offered the bowl to the boys.
John really didn't want anything. Daniel, however, picked up one of the nuts, examined it and put it into his mouth, almost reverently. The man crouched before them, still holding the bowl out, encouraging Daniel to take more.
"I wish I felt better. I forgot how good these are. They're only in season for a few weeks every year." Daniel said a few words to the man, who suddenly placed the bowl in Daniel's hands. He tried to give it back but the man took Daniel's hands and held them there, around the edges of the bowl.
For a moment, John thought Daniel was going to cry. He blinked repeatedly several times before he managed a strangled answer. The man patted Daniel's hand before he got up and walked away.
"I don't... these are so rare. Sha're only managed to pick a small handful for the whole family when they ripened. I can't believe... Why did he give them to me?"
"Maybe because it's obvious how much you miss this place," John said without hesitation.
"I don't... I... That's not me. That's who I used to be. I couldn't live here now, not anymore."
"You never came back to visit?"
"I never really thought about it, until now. I only learned the truth of who I really was, about a year ago. I knew I had family, but they were, like, across the galaxy, you know? I don't think I'd be able to face their disappointment." He'd been speaking softly so his words would only reach John. But he laughed now; a self-deprecating laugh that told John how much Daniel was truly hurting.
"The people who are coming here?"
"And?" John prompted.
"Remember I told you I'd been married once?"
John contemplated making a joke about telling Dria, but held back. "Yeah."
"I think either my father-in-law or my brother-in-law are on their way."
"Holy shit, Jacks—" John swore inwardly at the near-slip of Daniel's name. "Talk about your tangled webs. Do they know about you?"
"I don't know."
"You never asked?"
"Would you? How do you tell your wife and her family that you went from being a 40 something guy to a 5 year-old boy?"
"Don't you think your wife might have noticed you were missing?"
"She wasn't exactly herself at the time."
"Yeah...?" John prompted again.
"She'd been taken over by a Goa'uld. She was busy doing the world-domination thing."
"You and I are going to have to sit, one of these days, and you're going to tell me all the nitty gritty details."
Cassie splashed water on her face, trying to avoid the reflection in the mirror. She'd left class early with the excuse that she had to use the bathroom. Which she did, except she didn't have to pee, she used a stall to place a hurried call to her mother, in which she learned absolutely nothing.
She tried to ignore the whispers surrounding her appearance. Corey's party and the eventual outcome had given the school enough fodder for gossip to last a lifetime.
"Is it true Jackson—"
"No," she yelled, pivoting quickly, bringing her face to face with whatever bitch had been elected the spokesperson. "Daniel. John. They got sick. Are sick. They didn't do drugs. Or get drunk. They're in the hospital."
The girl threw up her hands. "Whoa, excuse me for being concerned." She tossed her head and signaled to her bitch crowd that she was done here; therefore, so were they.
Cassie screamed in frustration when the bathroom door swung shut after the last of the herd left. "Fucking bitch whore," she yelled, taking no comfort at their nastiness or the way the words echoed.
The sounds of people approaching had both John and Daniel turning towards the corridor leading to this room. An older man strode in regally and glanced at the two of them, his eyes sweeping over them, then across the room, as if to assure himself that everyone was accounted for. A second man, younger, resembling the older one slightly and sporting dreadlocks, stopped at the older man's side.
"You wish to go to the Tau'ri planet?"
John was shocked at hearing the older man speaking English.
Daniel nodded. "We were taken against our wills. We want to go home and need your help."
The man nodded at the younger man, who approached them slowly. He glanced at the bowl of nuts still clasped in Daniel's hands, at the package of meat which was slowly seeping juice through the cloth, to the condition of their clothes.
"Not Goa'uld," the younger man stated as he nodded at them both.
"You may return home."
"Thank you." Daniel started getting to his feet and John, who dreaded putting his weight on his feet, shifted to his knees slowly, taking his time to avoid that moment. He handed Daniel the meat-wrapped parcel, then with a grimace, stood up.
His feet ached as badly as he'd expected them to and he felt sand grind into the few shallow cuts as he took a shaky step closer to the Stargate. At least the numbness was gone; only the rash remained with their encounter with the guard dog vines.
He watched dispassionately as the older man dialed up the address for Earth, then aimed a small box toward the active wormhole and pressed a bunch of numbers. Daniel, who'd been waiting, head down, shoulders slumped, jerked to attention when Walter's voice came through a walkie talkie held in the younger man's hand.
"This is Stargate Command."
"This is Skaara, son of Kasuf. We have two young men who say they were taken against their will and wish to return home."
There was an expectant pause, and then the General Hammond's voice came through tinged with excitement. "Please tell them to come on home. We've been very worried."
Skaara nodded at them and motioned them forward. John took a step towards the Stargate, then stopped when he realized Daniel wasn't moving. Daniel was staring at the two men, looking like he'd seen a ghost. Then he swallowed, lowered his head again and slowly shuffled forward.
"They're on their way, General Hammond."
Walking was just as painful as John had expected it to be. He was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other when, just before they reached the wormhole, the older man, Kasuf, John surmised, hurried over to Daniel. He leaned forward and said softly, "Be well, Good Son." His smile was sad at Daniel's stricken expression. "Tell your father we must talk, one day. You have been missed."
Daniel didn't seem able to talk. He nodded, swallowed hard, and when he turned away, John saw tears in his eyes. Feeling awful for Daniel, John couldn't help feeling guilt and relief when Daniel finally stepped through the wormhole. John took an awkward step through, then stumbled when his bare feet painfully hit the metal ramp. Both of them hobbled a few steps down the ramp, thrust forward both from their momentum and their inability to stop easily and painlessly. But stop they did at the sight of several armed marines aiming their weapons in their direction.
"Stand down." General Hammond, followed by Daniel's dad and, thank god, John's mom, hurried into the Gateroom. Cameron strode directly behind them, with Derek bringing up the rear. Exhausted, John simply sat down where he was and a second later, Daniel did the same.
The ramp rang loudly and shook as everyone climbed up to them. Daniel was enveloped in his father's arms and John's mom had to step over Daniel's legs to get to him. Then she had her arms around him and he hugged her close, holding back tears of relief as he buried his face in her neck.
He could hear Daniel crying, and it made his resolve even stronger to not go all emo. But it was hard, and he was so tired. And he felt so awful.
"Are you hurt?" his mom whispered into his ear.
"My feet." The words were hoarse and strangled, but she understood him enough to let him go and scooted backwards so she could pick up one of his feet. He shivered from the combination of the air conditioning and the sudden loss of his mom's body heat.
"How is he?" Derek hadn't climbed the ramp; he'd walked to the edge and was standing inches away, peering at him from between the railing.
John had expected his mom to answer; instead, it was Cameron who did.
"Surface skin temperature is high, salinity high, pulse rapid and—"
"Is everyone okay?" John interrupted Cameron's medical delivery, remembering how he and Daniel had knocked out several employees and one nurse. "Did we hurt anyone?"
"Everyone's fine." Janet climbed up the ramp and knelt between him and Daniel. She glanced at Daniel, who was still sobbing in his father's arms. She turned to John. "How about you? How do you feel?"
"He said his feet hurt." His mom still held his foot in her hands. "He's got cuts and bruises, but nothing that looks too serious. No signs of swelling but there's a rash on his leg. He's still feverish and there's blood on his top."
"John?" Janet took his wrist and placed her fingers at his pulse point. "How do you feel?" she repeated.
"I feel awful," he whispered. "My feet hurt, my head hurts and I feel nauseous."
"Hold on for a few more minutes. We'll get you to the infirmary soon." She patted his hand as she placed it on his thigh. She motioned to someone and a nurse came to stand next to Derek. "Get me a couple of wheelchairs."
"Yes, Doctor Fraiser."
"Son." General Hammond had joined Derek and Cameron. "Can you tell us what happened?"
John glanced over at Daniel who, although he had finally managed to stop crying, was in no shape to answer questions as he continued to clutch at his father as Janet tried to examine him. Somehow John was disappointed; he'd thought Daniel was made of harder stuff than this.
"I... it's hard to explain. Something had control of our minds - our bodies. I couldn't stop myself—"
"Doctor. Make sure they get an MRI—"
"It wasn't a Goa'uld." Daniel had raised his head and was fighting to control his hiccupping breaths. "It's gone."
"That's what the guy on the planet said." John turned back to General Hammond. "There wasn't any Goa'uld."
"Daniel's right. Their brain waves are back to normal now."
"What guy?" Colonel O'Neill asked.
"Skaara." Daniel stuttered the word and immediately there was understanding in General Hammond's eyes.
"Something was controlling you?" Janet moved down to Daniel's feet and was looking them over, and John was glad for the change in subject. He didn't want to deal any more with Daniel's breakdown, although he began to suspect it wasn't solely due to his reaction to their ordeal. "Something other than a Goa'uld symbiote?"
"Yeah," John said. "I think it came out of us through our noses." He shuddered, remembering the gush of blood. The motion seemed to set off a rash of shivering and he was more than grateful when his mom pressed close to him and put her arms around him. And even more grateful for his mom's support when Janet ruthlessly tilted his face backwards so she could flash a penlight up his nose.
"Open your mouth."
John obeyed, feeling immensely stupid as Janet waved her penlight into his throat in front of everybody. He felt a pang of sympathy when she did the same to Daniel.
"There's definitely signs of trauma in the sinus cavity and back of the throat; but nothing as severe as a symbiote would have left."
"Whatever had control of your bodies," Jack said from behind John, "what did it want?"
"To go h-home." Daniel snuffled loudly. His breathing was under control although he was still holding on tightly to his father. "It took us to a planet with ruins and found a 'gate address in the center. I think it used to live there."
"We found the ruined city," Daniel's dad said. "Teal'c and Carter are still out there looking for a sign of where you two went."
"I'm sorry," Daniel whispered.
"We couldn't help ourselves," John said quickly. "When we found the address, we went through the Stargate again and that's where the things came out of us."
"How do you know they wanted to go home?" Janet stood up and John heard the sound of wheels on cement. A quick glance showed the nurse and a military guard pushing two wheelchairs their way. "Did they talk?"
"Not in words. In feelings. Images. I think the aliens... they were aliens, right?"
Janet nodded, and the assuredness of her action made John feel better. By her acknowledging that something alien had taken control of him, he could now let go of any guilt he'd felt for his earlier actions.
"I think they were in our blood. The aliens in the city came up to us and were wiping their fingers in our blood—"
"Whoa. What aliens? What city?" Colonel O'Neill's gaze bounced from Daniel, to John and back to Daniel.
"On the second planet." Daniel cleared his throat. "There were crops. We got lost and we couldn't get back to the Stargate and had to spend the night in the woods."
"These aliens let you go?" his mom asked as she moved back to let Cameron up the ramp.
"Yeah. After our noses stopped bleeding they just left us th—" He yelped as Cameron bent down and picked him up as if he were a child and carried him down to the wheelchair. She straightened and turned once he was settled, and John had the impression she was going after Daniel next. But Derek and Jack were carrying him in a two-hand seat carry.
The nurse spread a blanket over him which he gratefully tucked under his chin, trying to hold back the shivers.
"We'll talk later, after you've rested." The general gave John a gentle squeeze on the shoulder before squatting next to Daniel. Clutching the package of meat and the small bowl of nuts, Daniel stared at the food he'd brought back from the planet. "You went to Abydos for the GDO?"
Daniel simply nodded, not meeting General Hammond's eyes.
"I'm sorry, Daniel. That must have been difficult."
"He recognized me," Daniel said softly.
General Hammond, despite the filth covering Daniel, cupped the back of his head. "We'll talk about it when you're feeling better. Right now, don't worry about it."
Corey jumped on Cassie the second she stepped into the lunchroom. "How's Daniel? I wish someone would answer my calls. My parents' calls. My mother is driving me crazy—"
"Like you're driving me crazy?"
Corey grabbed her arm and pulled her aside.
It wasn't worth the effort to fight and she followed with a resigned shuffle. "I don't know anything." Cassie leaned against the wall and watched him pace back and forth in front of her.
"He'll be okay, right? I'm sure your mother would've said if there was... I mean, if he was—"
Cassie glared at Corey. "He's going to be fine. John's going to be fine." Angrily, Cassie shouldered away from him. This time when Corey hooked onto her elbow, he wasn't gentle.
She clawed at his hand, trying to peel off his fingers and fought to keep up with him while he weaved around students. "I want to go—" Cassie raised her hand to point back to their usual table and nearly upended the tray of a passing jock. "Damn it, Corey." She waved back at the grumbling sport guy. "I'm sorry."
Cassie shot an apologetic smile to the pissed off guy, then turned her attention back to Corey and attempted to find purchase on something, but short of grabbing onto a passing student, there was pretty much nothing to anchor her in the lunchroom.
Corey pushed out the side door still holding onto Cassie. They were a good distance from the school, closer to the gym field before he released his hold and when he turned to face her, Cassie knew exactly why Corey had dragged her ass out of the building and halfway home.
Corey was crying.
Corey didn't cry. Corey never cried and for a brief second Cassie feared that Corey knew something she didn't. "He's not going to die," she insisted.
"I don't believe you." Corey wiped his nose along the sleeve of his hoodie. "At my house..." Corey swallowed. "He was under the water for such a long time."
"Don't." Cassie lifted a hand up and wiped the tears away with the tips of her fingers.
"He's going to die and I didn't have a chance to say how sorry I really was."
Guilt. Cassie sighed. Guilt over past digressions. She couldn't give him absolution. Only Daniel could do that. And Daniel would. Because nothing was going to happen to him. Nothing. She opened her arms and pulled Corey into her embrace, patting his back, making shushing noises, all the mothering noises her mother would make and had made just this morning.
Cassie left the building after lunch. Just up and walked out and kept walking. It was about two miles to home, but she was productive with every step she took. She cried. Shed tears out of fear. And shock and the terrible realization that somewhere, somehow when Daniel returned, the lying wasn't going to get easier.
"What happened? Daniel, are you all right?"
Jack's mom, who'd been waiting in the infirmary, hurried over to them as Daniel was wheeled to an empty bed.
Jack took his mother's arm, reluctantly pulling her out of the way as Daniel was helped onto a bed while medical personnel converged on him and on John.
"He's been crying," she observed.
"He met up with someone..." Jack broke off as Daniel turned to look past the nurse who was trying to clean his arm so she could insert an IV. There was panic on his face for a moment until he spotted Jack.
"Grandma," Daniel mouthed.
"I'm right here, mhuirnin." She kissed her fingertip and blew him a kiss, then Daniel was hidden again behind the nurse. She quickly turned back to Jack. "Who? Who upset him?"
"It wasn't deliberate. He bumped into his ex-wife's father and brother."
"Oh." His mom went still. "Do they know what happened to him?"
"Yeah. They were told a few months after Daniel became a kid. But they never saw him and they never asked to see him. Seems like Sha're's father recognized him today."
"That's why he was upset - what are they doing?" his mom demanded when the privacy curtain was pulled around the bed.
Jack pointed to the large bowl of water being wheeled towards Daniel's corner of the infirmary. "Bath."
"You couldn't let him take a shower?"
Jack shook his head. "Both boys went off without shoes. Their feet are a little battered."
"Their feet? How bad—"
"Fraiser thinks it's just bruising."
"He looked pale. Did he look pale to you?"
"It's the lighting in here, Ma. Doesn't give a good—"
"He was full of sand. Did you see his pants? They were wet, and covered with sand and mud. And his hair was damp."
"It's not raining outside, Jonathan. Where on Earth would he have gone to end up like that? It's not like there's a beach close by."
"I don't know, Ma. We haven't had a chance to question them much."
His mother took her glasses off and cleaned them on the hem of her shirt. Jack glanced back at the closed off curtain, wondering if Fraiser would say anything if he popped his head inside, just to make sure everything was fine. He was just about to tell his mom he'd be right back, when he realized she was still cleaning her glasses.
She saw him looking at her and put her glasses back on, keeping her head down. But Jack didn't miss the sheen of unshed tears before she hid behind her glasses. "Tell me he's going to be all right."
"He's going to be fine." He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her towards him so he could kiss her forehead. "I'm just going to see how they're doing. I'll be right back."
He pulled back the curtain and peered inside. Daniel, obviously naked on the bed except for a sheet which had been placed over his groin, turned his eyes towards Jack. Daniel looked pretty clean now, except for one muddy leg which the nurse was carefully cleaning around an angry-looking rash.
"Hey. How're you doing?"
"Is Grandma still here?" Daniel's hand slid to the sheet, holding it in place.
"She's right outside."
"Oh." His hand relaxed and he yawned.
"How is he?" This Jack directed at the nurse, waiting until she raised her eyes and met his.
"His vitals are stable. Doctor Fraiser's going to take some blood and run tests but to be honest, he's in better shape now than before he went on that little side trip."
"What about his feet?" Jack walked around the bed to peer at the soles of Daniel's feet.
"He won't be running a marathon anytime soon but it doesn't look serious." She pointed at a bruise near his arch and a cut along his heel. "There's nothing broken and the cuts aren't deep. I think he'll be fine in a day or two."
Daniel yawned again. His eyes were closed and it looked to Jack that he was on the verge of falling asleep. "I'll go tell Grandma you're okay before she decides to come and help with your bath," he whispered as he leaned over to kiss Daniel's forehead.
Daniel opened his eyes a crack and quirked one side of his mouth, showing a dimple. "You're not funny," he muttered, and yawned right in Jack's face.
The next hour was exhausting; MRI, full physical, feet disinfected and bandaged, blood and urine samples, another IV and a sponge bath which left John feeling so embarrassed, it took a while to be able to appreciate the fact that he was now clean from head to toe. Janet had stuck a swab up his nose and down his throat and he'd retched repeatedly afterwards, coming close to losing the bit of water they'd allowed him to drink along with the Tylenol, leaving him with an aching throat and roiling stomach.
"How does it feel?" Janet was watching as a nurse spread some ointment over the area on his arm where the vines had stung.
"Burns a little. But at least it's not numb anymore."
The nurse's hands froze. "Numb?"
"My whole arm was numb. And Daniel's leg and arm, too, where the vines got him."
Janet stuck her hands into her pockets and frowned. "Anything else you might have forgotten to tell me?"
John risked a glance at his mom, who was sitting on the other side of the bed. He cleared his throat when he saw her expression matched Janet's.
"The vines were sort of sentient. We saw some dead animals caught in the vines so we figure they might be some sort of pest control, maybe paralyzing small rodents to stop them from going to eat their produce."
"How long did the numbness last?"
"I don't know. A couple hours? We couldn't tell how much time passed because we didn't have our watches."
"And now? Any numbness?"
"No. Just the burning on the skin."
"So the vines caught you here and here." Janet pointed to the long rash along his arm, and the smaller one high up on his bicep.
John stared at the new rash in confusion, until he realized what it was. "No, this one's where Cameron cut me when she had those pieces of glass in her hands last week."
Janet leaned over him and began to palpate his arm. "That wasn't there before."
"Does it hurt?"
She pressed on his arm and a red-tinged liquid oozed out of the once-scabbed pinpricks. "Hmmm." Janet picked up another swab and began to take samples. "Make sure you disinfect that," she said to the nurse as she put the sample into a plastic bag.
"What is it?" his mom asked.
"I may have a theory. I need to test this, after I check to see if Daniel's got a matching wound. Now you," she added with a smile, "try to get some rest. Hopefully we'll find some answers soon."
When the nurse finally finished with his arm, John turned onto his side, wishing he could sleep. Not that the pounding headache, aching feet, sore throat, fever-stiff joints and muscles as well as an upset stomach were enough, but he was keenly aware of his mom, Derek and Cameron's eyes on him.
"How's Daniel?" he finally asked. The privacy curtain was pulled just enough that he couldn't see into the next bed.
"Daniel's sleeping." Cameron didn't even turn around to look into the next bed so John assumed Daniel had been sleeping for a while already.
"Where's Charley?" For those unendurable hours offworld, he'd wanted nothing but to be here, in the safety of the infirmary, and now he found himself awkwardly trying to pass the time, almost wishing everyone would leave so that he could sleep.
"Charley Dixon is here."
Almost as if Cameron had made him materialize, Charley walked into the small corner of John's world. "Hey, Johnny."
"Charley." As John smiled, he felt his skin tighten across his cheeks and temple and his headache seemed to worsen.
Standing next to his mom, Charley showed no hesitation when he touched his fingers to John's forehead. "Fever's pretty high. They give you anything for it?"
"They gave him Tylenol about thirty minutes ago." His mom was staring at Charley's hand.
"Okay. You should start feeling better soon, then." Charley sat on the edge of John's bed. "I heard you had yourself quite the adventure."
"About the thing that brings you to other planets? Yeah, found out about that."
"Kinda neat, isn't it?"
"Not if you got space bugs that take over people's bodies and make them sick, kiddo."
"The space bugs made me do it," John mumbled, embarrassed.
"You sound a little hoarse. How's your throat?"
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
Charley pointed to his own eyes. "You're doing sort of a squinty thing."
"Oh." John tried to relax his face to get rid of said squinty thing.
"He should be resting." Charley turned to his mom.
"By resting, I mean sleeping, not entertaining the family."
"He's not. We're just... sitting with him while he rests."
"How about letting him rest without the company?"
Derek suddenly lurched forward. "He's right, Sarah. I'm sorry, John. I know how hard it is to try and sleep when you've got people with you." He gave John a quick nod. "I'll check in on you later, okay?"
Charley made a twirling motion at his mom. "You, too."
"I'm not leaving him."
"He needs to sleep."
"He can sleep with me sitting right here."
"And you can sleep in a bed tonight. Don't kid me, Sarah. You're exhausted, John's exhausted, and he doesn't need you coming down with something just because you're being hard-headed."
It hadn't dawned on John that his mom had been worried the whole time he'd been stuck on that planet. "Mom, Charley's right. I'll be fine. You look tired." And she did. He only noticed it now, and felt guilty over the fact that he hadn't caught that before. Especially since it was all his fault.
"I'm not leaving."
Charley stood up and offered his mom his hand. "Come on. I'll tuck you in."
"Charley, I'm not—"
"Or you can tuck me in."
His mom's lips quirked into an almost smile. Some of the haunted look in Charley's eyes was gone, and John wondered if Charley needed his mom right now. "Go on, Mom." Maybe they both needed each other. As for him, he knew his mom would be close by and if he needed her, someone would get her.
"You're sure?" His mom had taken Charley's hand but hadn't stood up yet.
John answered with a yawn.
"I'll sit with John. You should go rest with Charley. That way you won't have to tuck anyone in."
Charley glared at Cameron but his mom simply shook her head as she got up and leaned over the bed to kiss John's temple. "I'm not touching that one with a ten foot pool," she whispered. "Tell Cameron to come and get me if you need me."
Alone at last, John turned on his side, ready and willing to sleep. He closed his eyes, and opened them almost in a panic when he thought he'd heard something. When he saw Cameron sitting at in a chair at the foot of his bed, staring across the infirmary, he realized he'd drifted off for a moment. Heart still pounding, he tried to tell himself he wasn't back on that planet, that he was safe, that there were no creepy vines coming after him and no more aliens inside him.
Until he began to wonder, what if all of them hadn't come out.
Jack had just been about to head out to get some rest when Carter and Teal'c entered the infirmary and headed for him and Daniel. "How is he?" Carter whispered as she approached the bed.
"Pretty exhausted. He fell asleep as soon as Fraiser finished her examination."
"He looks awful."
With swollen eyelids and nasal breathing, no thanks to his crying jag, pale skin with a flush of fever on his cheekbones, Daniel sure didn't look like he was resting peacefully. But there was a moisture mustache above his lip which Jack suspected might just be the start of his fever giving up the battle with the Tylenol.
"GeneralHammond informed us that DanielJackson and JohnConnor returned to Earth through the Abydos Stargate."
"How'd he take it, sir?" Carter whispered.
"Not good. He said Kasuf and Skaara were there."
"DanielJackson could have chosen several allied worlds. It is unfortunate that he took the one which would cause him the most heartache."
"I think it was the only address he could think of, that he knew for sure had a GDO."
"Did he tell you more about what happened? General Hammond said he was taken by some aliens that weren't Goa'uld?"
"Neither of them said anything more. Fraiser said they were suffering from dehydration and exposure; plus the fever from the earlier infection. Doc's got a theory; she's running some tests now."
"Is there anything I can do, sir?"
"Thanks, Carter." She looked tired; considering she'd been hiking through the ruins of an abandoned city looking for the boys for nearly ten hours. "I appreciate what you've done already." He gave her a smile and hoped it looked sincere. He was so tired, his face was numb. "I was just heading off to get some rest."
"I will sit with DanielJackson while you are resting."
"He'd like that, T. Thanks."
Teal'c inclined his head then gave Cameron a derisive look as he lowered his voice. "While I have no doubt the cyborg's programming would allow her to attend to the boys' needs should they require something, she lacks compassion and understanding."
This time Jack's smile was sincere. Some people, especially those who didn't know the big guy, had said the exact same thing about him. "I'll sleep better knowing you're here," he said, patting his shoulder as he stood and tried to pretend that his joints weren't as old as they truly felt.
Jack approached the VIP room he'd appropriated next to his mother's and nodded his thanks at the SF who hurriedly opened the door with his pass key. Jack entered his room, then froze at the sight of his mother, sitting at the table in the corner of the room, with a stack of folders piled next to her.
"Ma? I thought you'd gone to bed."
"I had. But that nice man, Walter, met me on my way here and said that General Hammond wanted to see me."
"You saw Hammond?"
"Yes, son. He said I'd been hanging around here long enough and that he had something he wanted me to sign."
"Sign?" Jack walked over to the table and peered over his mother's shoulder. "Hey. Those are classified!" He must be more tired than he thought because he didn't remember leaving any work here. He went to take the files away from her, but she smacked his hand.
"General Hammond asked me to sign something called a non-disclosure agreement. He gave me these to read so I could understand about what you and your team have been doing over the past ten years."
"Hammond told you...?"
"About the Stargate? Yes." She stood up, using the table as leverage, and peered up at him. For a moment, she cupped his cheek with her hand, then slid it back behind his neck to pull him down to her level. She kissed his cheek. "I can't believe what you've done to keep us all safe. You. Sam. Teal'c. Daniel."
"You're not shocked by any of this?"
His mom released her hold on him and gave him a look of utter disbelief. "My grandson was once a forty year-old man, his best friend is being trained to be the savior of mankind and he's got a robot dogging his footsteps, and you think me finding out that you travel to other planets through some thing that's got a large, unpronounceable scientific name—"
"It's a wormhole."
"It is? That's not what all these reports say."
Jack opened the first report and noted that it was written by Carter. The next one was written by McKay. "Trust me, Ma. It's a wormhole."
He sat down heavily in a chair, not quite appreciating the fact that his mother now knew. "So..."
"I understand now, why you could never say anything to me about your work."
"And I guess if I asked if Daniel went through that wormhole last night to another planet, I might get an answer this time?"
"He went through the Stargate to another planet."
"And he got wet there and full of sand and..." Her eyes widened. "Sha're's family. They're not from Earth?"
Jack slowly shook his head.
"My head hurts." She took her head in her hand and massaged her temples. "I think I need to sleep on this and absorb it all."
Jack escorted his mom to the VIP room next to his and kissed her cheek. "Night, Ma."
"Goodnight." She gave him a tired smile and started the shut the door. She jerked it open again before he could turn around and head back to his. "You're still not going through that thing, are you?" she whispered, glancing over at the SFs standing guard in the hallway.
"No. I'm not actively going on missions anymore. I made that decision when Daniel came into my life."
His mom relaxed visibly. "Okay. I was just a little..."
"I remembered all the times you worked late and..."
"Lots of those times were because other teams out there were in trouble. I promise, Mom, you don't have to worry about me."
"I worry." She touched his cheek. "I'm a mom."
"And I'm not a kid anymore—"
"Tell me you won't worry about Daniel thirty years from now."
"I worried about him when he was forty. That's a given. He's Daniel." Jack couldn't help smiling as his mom shook her head and headed back inside.
When he went back to his room, he glanced at the files his mom had left, bemused that Hammond hadn't said anything to him about this. Or had he? Maybe he'd hinted over the past days, something about bringing in the Connors. Maybe he figured it was time to bring in all the O'Neills?
The hour was late, but being underground, if it weren't for the menu change in the commissary, he'd have no idea if it were morning, noon or like now, the dead of night. Charley gave a curt nod to the SF standing guard at the entrance to the infirmary. Yeah, they were ever-present, day or night, usually dogging his heels. Shadows. But that was okay, because that's how Charley felt. Wait, change that, shadows got noticed. A peripheral image out of the corner of an eye... no one had noticed him. He felt sorry for himself and very forgotten.
The infirmary was quiet. The lights and sounds muted in deference to the two patients who were sleeping.
The big guy... Teal'c, was sitting, his vantage point gave him the ability to see both beds. He acknowledged Charley with the slightest of bows, but remained silent. Charley nodded back.
Cameron approached him as he neared John's bed. "John's sleeping."
Fuck this. "Get out of my way, scary robot."
"He's sleeping," she repeated as if Charley were an idiot.
"I'm not going to wake him."
"Then why are you here?"
"Because before there was you looking out for him, there was me."
The robot nodded as if Charley passed some weird sort of test. "Don't wake him," she uttered with deadly earnest as she moved past him. "I'll be back."
"I'm looking forward to it." Charley stood, watching her leave, waiting until she walked out the door before drawing the privacy curtain around the bed.
John was sleeping and Charley was unsure if it was from exhaustion or with a little help from the meds. "IV. Nasal canula, fever." Charley shook his head. "What a mess this is, Johnny."
In his sleep, John fought with the blanket, trying to pull it up and Charley couldn't help but smile. John's restlessness whenever he slept was always a point of interest for Charley. He'd never been able to understand why John could never just sleep in his bed. He'd toss. Turn. Run marathons. Talk. Argue. But the boy who could sit for hours without moving or breathing in front of a computer would take on ADHD tendencies the second he closed his eyes. All those years ago, Sarah had laughed away his concerns. Now, Charley understood.
Charley untucked the blanket, pushed John's hand down and guided the cover up to his shoulder. Smoothing it down, he gently readjusted the leads and IV tubing as John settled. "You need a haircut," he griped affectionately, pushing the too long bangs off his dry, hot forehead.
He wasn't going to cry. The last time he'd cried had been when he's come home and found Sarah and John missing. Tears that had lasted up until the day Charley had thought they'd died in the bank explosion and there hadn't been a single one once since then. Too shocked when Michelle had picked up and left, he'd been propelled forward by anger and confusion, more than hurt.
Sarah should've stayed. She should've trusted him. Believed in him. Believed in their life. But she hadn't and by running, she'd set into motion a series of events that landed Charley in a military establishment buried under a mountain and had almost gotten her son killed.
Charley still found it hard to believe the hope and responsibility Sarah pinned on this child. This was Johnny, the boy who'd entered his house a rebellious, sullen, skittish teenager and in the end had helped Charley pick out his mother's engagement ring. Charley had been confronted with the evidence that backed up and lent credence and support to Sarah's claims about the future. About Judgment Day. But there was still a part of Charley that wore blinders, refusing to see John as anything but the young boy who had been dragged begrudgingly into Charley's life.
"John never spoke of you."
Charley contemplated not answering the robot, but he knew the unspoken words would eat at his gut. "Well, I guess he had more important things on his mind."
"I want pancakes," John mumbled, shifting restlessly, pushing aside Charley's hand still resting on the edge of the mattress.
"I'm sure we—"
"John's sleeping, he doesn't hear you."
With exaggerated gentleness, Charley moved John's hand back onto the bed.
"Don't wake him," Cameron ordered, pulling him backwards away from the bed.
Caught unaware, he stumbled, caught himself before he fell on his ass, but didn't catch himself from getting up into the scary girl's face. He shrugged and tried to bat her hands from their hold on his shirt like a pesky bug, but her grip was mechanically strong and Charley gave up, feeling like an idiot.
"Come with me," she ordered.
"What if I say no?"
The robot glanced to Charley's arm, at the exact spot where her fingers were intertwined with the material of his shirt.
"Stupid question," Charley admitted. "But can I ask you a question first?"
She canted her head at him. "Didn't you already ask me a question? Just now, asking me if you could ask me—"
"Forget it!" Charley hissed. "Never mind, let's just get this over with."
Teal'c didn't even acknowledge their departure.
"You bitch," Charley spat in her face. Hell, he'd expected to be killed with a minimal amount of bloodshed. Sanctioned or unsanctioned had been the question he'd pondered while he followed in her footsteps through the mazelike halls of the SGC. Sorry that he hadn't said goodbye to Sarah, or John, but willing to meet his fate head on. But this? This was torture. Michelle was lying in what would be akin to a morgue for robots. Supine on a metal table, covered with a sheet to the swell of her breasts, eyes closed, hair loose, she appeared to be sleeping, but then again, maybe she had never slept.
He turned to leave but she blocked his way. "Bitch whore," she said tonelessly.
"Yeah, that too."
"Because you need to—"
"I don't need to do—"
"You must, because you have to understand."
"Understand what? That I'm an asshole? That I had my own very scary robot living in my house? Sharing my bed?"
The flat affect slid from the robot's face, her shoulders slumped and her eyes filled with tears. "I'm so sorry." A single tear slid down her cheek, followed by another then another, surprising the crap out of Charley. She scrubbed at her face, sniffed then pointed at Michelle. "This is what we're trying to prevent. What John's trying to prevent."
"Future John. The John I know, the person who saved me from my destiny." She rolled her eyes and averted her head, embarrassment coloring her cheeks. "I..." she stuttered, trying to catch her breath, "miss him."
And she stopped being a very scary robot in Charley's mind and without even thinking, Charley pulled her in close, patting her back and making appropriate noises of comfort until he realized that she was no longer crying and the body he had his arms wrapped around was ramrod straight.
Charley stepped back, holding her at arm's length. "What the hell?"
"We infiltrate," the very scary robot said, her flat affect firmly back in place. "That's what we do. That's what I did to John. And to you. It's what Michelle did to complete her mission. You were meant to fall in love with her. Michelle wooed you. Seduced you—"
"I was an asshole."
The robot shook her head. "No, you were human. It's what we count on."
"Well, it's wonderful to know the human race is nothing but predictable."
She walked away from him to a workstation, powering up a laptop and in seconds, Michelle's laughter filled the room.
"Shut it down."
"Come here, Charley." She pulled out a stool, inviting him to sit.
Curiosity was a wonderful motivator and with great trepidation Charley stepped up.
"Oh." It was him seen through that thing's eyes.
"This is how Michelle saw you."
Charley watched, mesmerized. It was a train wreck waiting to happen but that didn't stop him and he eventually sat as Cameron took him through their lives via Michelle's brain. White noise intermingled with visuals and he sat in stunned silence when their lives together came to an end. He glanced up in confusion when Cameron placed a pad and pencil in front of him.
"Sometimes," she said, "things happen and they're so bad, that people just don't know how to deal with their sadness. So they write it in a note."
The early morning shift was just arriving. Muted corridors now rang with laughter and noise. Charley moved opposite the flow like a salmon swimming upstream, peripherally aware of the SF on his tail keeping watch.
He ended up back where he'd started in the infirmary and he wasn't sure what he'd expected, but seeing John sitting up, staring at a plate of something on his tray, wasn't it.
"Hey, Johnny," Charley said softly. The other kid was still sleeping in the other bed so he schooled his footsteps and his voice.
John tore his gaze away from the plate and glanced up at Charley, a slow smile lighting up his face. "Hi." He pointed at the plate. "Do you know what this is?"
Charley leaned over and studied what John was pointing to. "No idea. But I bet it's healthy for you."
John pushed the plate away. "I don't want healthy."
Charley pushed the bedside table away and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, I don't remember healthy being high on your list of things you like to eat."
"Remember the time we went to the game and—"
John placed his hand over his stomach and groaned softly. "I was so sick. Spent the night puking."
"You puked in my new car also, or don't you—"
"Oh yeah. Mom laughed, said you deserved that."
"Then you threw up on her."
John chuckled. "She was pissed."
"Who told you to eat all that junk—"
John drew his brows together in confusion. "Excuse me, but weren't you the adult? I was the poor innocent kid."
"Never innocent, Johnny. Never."
"I'm sorry, Charley." John reached out with hand still attached to the IV and patted his forearm.
"I should go, you probably need..."
"To sleep? I've slept enough."
"You've been sick. The best way to recovery is—"
"The reason I never mentioned you to anyone," John blurted out, "is because I wanted to protect you."
"What?" John went to do a little wave of his hand, but Charley pushed it back down into place. "Easy."
John huffed, frustrated. "When you and Cameron were here, talking, she said I never, well, me in the future, never spoke of you."
"You were awake?"
John shrugged. "Enough, I guess. Enough to hear that."
"I understand. You're going to be busy planning a revolution—"
"I may not know why in the future I do a lot of things but this one thing, this I know. I wanted to protect you. Thank you for giving me the closest thing to normalcy I ever had. My life was spent running. Always. White trash. Wrong side of town, that's how people saw me and Mom. I was going to be humanity's savior because my mom said so, not because I saw humanity in people. Until you, and then I understood what she meant, but they found you..."
There were tears in John's eyes, emotions in his voice that no sixteen year old should ever be privy to. Charley gave him a moment.
"I screwed up somehow. Something I did—"
"Shush." Charley pulled him into a hug, mindful of the wires and leads. "You did nothing. Not you. Not this John."
Charley sat with John, cajoling him to at least eat the applesauce and drink some juice, but it took a fair amount of bribery that involved a Charley omelet special, with the works. When Daniel and the infirmary woke to its full contingency of personnel and family members, Charley bowed out with the perfunctory nod to the appropriate people and headed back to his VIP quarters.
He was tired, bone tired, physically and emotionally drained and spent, but he sat down at the desk in the room, and like all good hotels, there was a pad and a pencil. While he couldn't come up with the words when the tin girl had first presented him with the writing instruments, this note was filled with anger and hate, disappointment and frustration, and he'd gotten satisfaction not from the act of writing but from tearing up the pages and pages after finishing.
The note he was now writing had nothing to do with death, or dying, and everything to do with life and hope.
Dear Johnny, he began, the words and tears flowing as he wrote a thank you to the young boy who had already sacrificed so much to save the world. Charley finished the note, folded it into tiny quarters then shoved it in his wallet. There would be a time and place to give it to Johnny and Charley was pretty sure he'd know exactly when the time was right.
"I found traces of the virus in both John and Daniel's arms where Cameron accidentally pricked their skin just over a week ago when Sam tested the INT on her."
"I did a full diagnostic scan. I have no traces of a virus within me. How could I have infected John and Daniel?" Cameron canted her head just slightly as she stared at Fraiser.
"It wasn't you. The virus contaminated the interior of the pottery and you infected them with it when you pierced their skin with the pottery sherds. That virus is dormant, however, but preliminary tests indicate it becomes active once it's introduced to human blood. It replicates at an incredible speed. It also acted differently than your normal Earth-viruses; the test samples migrated towards each other, as if they were somehow communicating."
"And you think this virus is what took control over the boys' bodies?" The magnified pictures were gross; what was growing in the petri dish looked like a mixture of blood and guts. The thought that that had been inside Daniel made Jack's stomach churn. He shoved his nearly full coffee cup aside.
"Yes, sir. I also found traces of the virus in their sinus cavities and throat. The virus there was inert, dead, but it's a definite match for what was contained in the vase. As to taking control, at this point it's just a theory but I'd say the virus is definitely sentient."
Jack held back a shudder at the thought of the virus's actions seeming so similar to that of a Goa'uld. Sentient snakes, sentient viruses - different bodies, same shit.
"John keeps saying he felt that it wanted to go home and there was a feeling of elation when they got to the planet." Sarah ran a finger around the rim of her coffee cup, obviously also put off from the gory sights. "Do you think John would be able to feel what the thing was experiencing?"
"We've seen stranger things." Carter picked up her cup and sipped her coffee. "Take the Tok'ra, which is essentially a Goa'uld symbiote. It lives within the host, controls the host if it wishes to, communicates with the host, and is able to leave it to take another host without killing it."
"It wasn't a Goa'uld that took the boys, Carter."
"No, sir. But from Janet's description, I'm assuming the virus needs a symbiotic relationship to survive and it uses a host the way the Goa'uld do. If what John says he felt is true, and the virus was trying to return home, then the aliens living in that city he described absorbed it into their bodies once it left Daniel and John." She stared into her coffee cup as she scratched an eyebrow with her index finger. "What worries me is how much of the boys' knowledge did the virus assimilate. If it communicates, then it might know everything the boys know about the SGC... even Daniel's memories."
"Is this possible?" Hammond sounded worried.
"I don't know, sir." Carter looked at the General, her expression grim. "It's simply a supposition but worst case scenario; if these aliens are bent on world domination like the Goa'uld, then we should take precautions the same way as if Daniel had been taken over by one."
Sarah broke the ominous silence. "If it wanted to take over the world, then why did it leave? It could just have laid low and waited until there was enough of it to spread around and take over other people." She gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Seems kind of redundant to come back now."
"I concur with SarahConnor." Teal'c had been silent up until now and he gave her a slight nod when she glanced at him.
Jack cleared his throat. "What about the flashbacks the boys were experiencing?" He passed a finger through the moisture ring his cup had left on the table. "Was that caused by the virus also?"
"I may be jumping the gun here, sir," Fraiser said with a frown, "but I think Sam's supposition might not be that impossible. If this virus is intelligent enough to take over a human body and share feelings and emotions, and if its main goal was to get to that planet, then it could have used the boys' knowledge of the SGC to try and manipulate us to bring them to the infirmary. For example, when we brought them to the Academy Hospital, they were seriously ill. They only started showing improvement once they were inside Cheyenne Mountain. And they made their move to escape when it was night and there were less personnel both inside the infirmary and the Control Room."
"Okay, those are damn scary germs," Reese muttered.
"What about the boys? Are they free of the virus? And what about the danger of contagion?"
Fraiser was quick to answer Hammond's question. "The only live virus at the moment is what we've got growing in the petri dishes, and those we cultivated from what was left of the broken vase. Doctor McKay and Doctor Lee are going through the inventory lists to see if any other artifacts were brought back with it, and to make sure the vase didn't contaminate anything else.
"The boys are doing better. Their latest blood works show their white blood count is down so that's a pretty hopeful sign that the virus is no longer a factor. They've both still got a touch of fever and are experiencing some weakness, but I think the worst is over.
"As to contagion - I don't think it's highly contagious. It's been just over a week since the boys were infected and none of the children at school have reported signs of illness, at least now that we know what to look for. I've also tested Cassie's blood as a precaution and there's absolutely no sign of the virus in her."
There was a touch of relief in Fraiser's voice, and Jack couldn't blame her. The meeting closed down after a few more minutes, with Hammond ordering security warnings on all planets that may have been associated with the one from which the vase came from.
Daniel took a moment to get his bearings as he woke up slowly. Not his bed at home or at his grandmother's house; although the feel of the mattress, the pillow and the smell was starting to become disturbingly familiar.
It took him close to a minute to put all the happenings into place: prom, pool party, sick, forced offworld, aliens, guard dog vines, and now back on Earth. He felt oddly removed from everything, until he recalled those few minutes with Kasuf and Skaara. Then the guilt nearly floored him as he remembered how Kasuf had taken him in when he'd married Sha're and he'd thanked him by bringing Apophis' horror down on the people and had lost Sha're and Skaara in the process. That Kasuf had not only recognized him but actually seemed to still want to associate with him was mind-boggling.
"Mhuirnin, are you all right?"
Daniel was lying on his side, and as his grandmother's voice came from behind him, he took a moment to rub his face against the pillow to wipe away the tears. "I'm fine."
He felt her hand on his shoulder so he turned onto his back and forced a smile. He must have made a sound when he'd remembered.
"Just yawning." He inhaled slowly and deeply, provoking a true yawn this time.
"How are you feeling?" His father, sitting next to his grandmother, leaned forward so his arms were resting on his thighs.
"Better?" he asked tentatively. And he was. Not great, but better. Just a touch of headache, backache was barely there and his joints weren't quite as stiff.
"I don't know, you tell me," his dad said laughingly.
"Better," he said with more assurance. He bent his knees and carefully laid his feet flat on the mattress. It hurt, but not as much as he thought it would. "And so are my feet." He wiggled his toes, trying to gauge how tender they were.
"Janet says you should be up and about in a few days. Just promise me, next time you go traipsing through a Stargate, make sure you wear something on your feet."
"Next time... Wh-what?" Daniel threw his father a panicked look when he realized his grandmother had mentioned a Stargate. "I didn't... I couldn't find... My slippers were..."
Both his father and grandmother burst out laughing and Daniel suddenly began to wonder if he were dreaming or hallucinating. He didn't want to say anything more, waiting for his dad to make an excuse. But he remained silent, sporting an amused smile that made Daniel feel like he wasn't getting the punch line.
His grandmother leaned close to the bed and whispered, "I know about the Stargate."
"What's a Stargate?" Daniel tried to look curious. After years of keeping the secret, he wasn't about to break his father's trust now.
"That thing people go through to other planets."
He swallowed, hard. "Dad, are you guys pulling my leg?"
"Come on, Ma, let the poor kid off the hook, willya?"
"Spoilsport." His grandmother sat back and with hands primly clasped on her lap, she tried to compose herself. "General Hammond decided I'd been kept in the dark long enough so he told me all about the Stargate. I know everything that's happened to you. How eleven years ago, you went to Abydos with Jack and his team, met Sha're, chose to stay and live on another planet with her."
"Is it true?" Daniel turned to his dad, hope filling him. All those secrets, all the times he'd seen the hurt in his grandmother's face as she'd known they were holding something back from her.
"I read the report on how you were changed into a child. You dad had told me the gist of it, but never the details."
"You read the report?" Even Daniel had never gotten permission to read that.
"I'm still trying to come to terms with everything. Sometimes I feel like I've just woken up from a dream and then I realize, it's all true. My brain's still trying to catch up with what I learned." She smiled as she tapped her skull with an index finger. "This old brain isn't quite as adept at taking it all in as yours is."
"I dunno, Ma. Many people would have run away screaming after learning what you just learned."
"Well, that was my first instinct. But I couldn't go and do that, could I? You'd have to eat your own cooking day in and day out and that would be a fate worse than the world being taken over by aliens. Or by robots, whatever the case may be."
"Grandma. Dad doesn't cook," he whispered loudly. "You should know that by now."
"Why do you think I come over so often?"
"Why do you think I invite you over so often?" his dad countered with an evil grin.
After Janet's physical and after Daniel had eaten some soup with crackers, General Hammond had come and questioned him. He'd tried to phrase his answers as thoroughly as possible, hearing his voice grow to a whisper as he fought back the frustration and fear he'd felt when he'd thought he'd been taken over by a Goa'uld. When the interview was over, Daniel was exhausted.
"I think Daniel deserves some rest. How about you all come back in a couple of hours. I think everyone could use a break." Janet's smile was aimed at his dad and grandmother, both of whom, to Daniel's surprise, got up without a complaint, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and left.
He suddenly felt abandoned as he watched his dad holding the door open for his grandmother. He wanted to call out, ask them to come back. A touch to his hand brought him back to focus on Janet.
"I thought you might like some time alone. Was I wrong?"
What Daniel wanted was to not be alone with his memories of helplessness. He debated a moment before answering. "Are those viruses going to make me sick again?"
"No. Your system's clean. No more virus."
"You're sure? You said you didn't see them in my blood at first."
"I think they were in your brain, that's why there was no sign of them in your blood. That would also account for why they were able to take control of your body and how they were able to leave your body through your sinus cavities—"
Daniel shuddered and couldn't help bringing up a hand to pass his fingers underneath his nose.
"No more virus," Janet repeated.
He lowered his hand reluctantly.
"Try and get some sleep."
Daniel slid down the mattress so that he was lying flat. He really didn't want to be alone. Then he had an idea... "Janet, are my things here?"
"Things? Like what?"
"My stuff. From Corey's party. My clothes, my cell—"
"I don't want you calling anyone. You're supposed to rest."
"Can't I call Alexandria?"
Janet's face softened just before she reached into a small table next to the bed and took out the bag Daniel had packed before going to Corey's. She rummaged through, found his cell phone, and handed it to him. As he reached for it, she held it out just out of his reach.
"Keep it short." She only handed the phone to him when Daniel nodded once.
He checked the time before calling Alexandria. Evening; just around four. Hopefully she was home. He hit speed dial, put the phone to his ear and waited anxiously until she answered.
"Daniel! Daniel, how are you? Are you home? Are you okay? Did they let you out?"
"Hi, Alexandria. I'm fine."
"Are you home? Did you just get home? Mom, where are car keys!" The volume which she yelled had Daniel grimacing as his ear rang.
"Alexandria. I'm not home—"
"You're not?" The disappointment in her voice was more than apparent.
"I'm still at the hospital—"
"Okay. I think visiting hours are still on. I'll be there in twenty minutes."
"I don't think you can visit—"
"What? Why not?"
"Um..." Daniel thought quickly. "I'm in quarantine."
"Oh." The sense of her running around the house faded. "How long are you going to be in quarantine?"
"I don't know. Hopefully not long."
"Are you okay?" Her voice shook and it sounded like she was crying now.
"I'm better. A little tired, but better."
"Gimmeasecond." He could hear her crying openly now, then the sounds were muffled as if she'd put the phone down against something. He waited, feeling guilty, the elation he'd felt at his grandmother finally knowing all his secrets faded at the continuation of the lies he'd need to tell Alexandria. "Sorry," she said suddenly, sniffling in the phone. "You sound better. When I went to see you, you didn't even know I was there."
"You came to the..." He'd almost said infirmary. He had no recollection of Alexandria coming to visit and he certainly didn't think General Hammond would allow her to come see him here.
"At the military hospital. Cassie's mom let us in for a minute to see you. You looked... Daniel, I was so scared."
Cassie. She had to be worried also. "I'm fine," he said quickly. "Honest. They're just keeping me here now until they're sure I'm not contagious anymore."
He put a hand over the phone's receiver and called out, "John, have you called Cassie yet?"
He heard a sleepy, "What?" and realized he'd woken John up. Grimacing, he listened to what Alexandria was saying.
"What was it? Was it the..."
"Rose told me that you get sick sometimes."
"She said what?" Daniel frowned, wondering where that had come from.
"I know I'm not supposed to know. It's okay. I'm glad she told me. I understand. We've all been so worried. Cassie. Corey—"
Daniel frowned, remembering a conversation between John and his grandmother concocting a make believe illness. Obviously, to some extent, their little not-so-white lie had worked. "No. No, it's not that," Daniel quickly added, "John and I caught a virus, remember? Janet thought we were over it but we got sick again."
"When are you coming home? When can I go see you?"
Daniel realized that he had no idea. He hadn't even thought about asking Janet. "I, um, don't know yet."
"But you're okay? You're really okay?"
"I'm fine." He caught Janet's gaze across the infirmary and she raised an eyebrow in warning. "Look, I, um, gotta go. Janet wants me to rest and she's giving me the evil eye."
Alexandria giggled. "Come on. Cassie's mom's the sweetest thing. I can't picture her doing that."
"Well, you haven't seen her come at you with a needle."
Alexandria giggled again, and Daniel couldn't help smiling.
"You'll let me know when I can come visit you?"
"I promise." He wanted to cross his fingers at the lie he'd just told her.
"Okay. Call me. Okay? I need to hear your voice. Every hour, if you can."
Daniel smiled again. "I'll call again soon. I promise." This time he made the vow without guilt.
Once he'd disconnected, he raised the phone in the air to show Janet he was off. She smiled and shook her head at him. Rest she mouthed at him while tilting her head and laying her cheek against hands pressed together in the age-old signal for sleep. He nodded, intending to do just that when he thought back to what Alexandria had said. Cassie probably would get the news that they'd gotten better from Janet. But Corey... Damn, the prom, the pool party.
He cast a quick glance around, saw that Janet had left the ward and picked up his phone and quickly called Corey.
"Hey," he said when Corey answered, sounding apprehensive.
"Daniel!" The joy and relief in that one word told Daniel how much Corey cared. "How're doing, man? Nobody had any news; we were all so worried."
"I'm fine. I just talked to Alexandria."
"Are you home?"
"No, still in the hospital."
"What about John?"
"He's doing okay, too."
"Cameron wasn't answering her cell. Nobody seemed to know anything."
"Sorry. I guess there wasn't anything to tell, until, you know, we got better." He winced at how stupid that sounded.
"Thank god you're better. You have no idea... When you didn't come up out of the pool, I mean, man, you were barely breathing when Cassie and Dria pulled you out. A few more seconds and you might have been a goner."
"Cassie and Alexandria pulled me out?" He rubbed a finger against his forehead, finding it weird that he couldn't remember much of anything about the pool party at Corey's.
"John sorta went crazy when Nate and Chris tossed him into the pool, and then when I tossed you in, you sank like a rock. I thought you were fooling, and then everyone was trying to get John out of the water and if it weren't for Dria—"
"That's um... That's really... Alexandria saved me?"
"You owe her, man. Her and Cassie. Big time."
God, he couldn't imagine what Alexandria had gone through. And how scared the others must all have been.
"Sorry? For what?"
"I ruined your party. God, you must hate me—"
"Damn you, Daniel. I just want you to be okay. The hell with the party."
"I'm okay. Really."
"Absolutely, totally okay?"
"I will be."
"You'll be okay two weeks from now?"
Daniel smiled. "Yeah. I'll be okay two weeks from now."
"Great. I'm having another pool party on the twelfth. You make sure you're still okay by then, you hear me?"
"I hear you." He didn't think he'd ever be able to admit to anyone how much Corey's invitation meant to him. "Thanks, man."
"Do me a favor and tell Cameron, if you see her, to answer her cell so I can invite her and her brother."
"Ah, I get it now. You're only inviting me so you can get Cameron to come."
"I don't need you to get me any dates, Jackson," Corey mock-growled. "I have my own charm—"
"Said charmer needs my help to get said girl to answer said phone for said invitation," Daniel laughed.
"Keep that up, and I'll uninvite you."
"And I'll tell Cameron you play with dolls."
"Hey, they're collectible action figures. And what about you? You still play with toy cars."
"You're just jealous I have more matchbox cars than you do." Daniel laughed softly; every time Corey saw Daniel's collection, he couldn't help himself and ended up taking half the cars out of the box. "Hey, I gotta go," he said quickly when a nurse walked by. "Janet said I could call but to keep it short."
"You'll let us know when we can visit, right?"
He put the phone down, feeling both elated and embarrassed as he mulled over Alexandria and Corey's conversations.
John sat on the edge of the bed and once he pulled on a pair of skidless socks, he gently rubbed his toes and the soles of his feet. They were a little tender, but not as much as he'd expected. With a nod at the nurse, he slid first one foot then the other down to the floor, slowly putting more and more weight on his feet. Okay, this hurt more than the simple prodding but it was manageable. He took several short steps and decided that he could make it to the bathroom and back under his own power.
"I got it," he told the nurse, who was keeping pace with him. He made it to the edge of his bed and pulled the curtains back. Daniel looked over at him sleepily in surprise.
"Hey. You're walking."
"Need to go to the bathroom." John didn't stop his forward motion. Part of the problem had been stiff joints and muscles but by the time he walked past Daniel's bed, the going was easier. As long as he kept his weight even on his feet and didn't put more pressure on one part of the foot than the other, he could do this.
"Can I get up, too?" he heard Daniel ask the nurse.
"Do you need to urinate?"
"Yeah. And I'd rather not use the urinal if I can help it."
John's sentiments exactly.
"I'll get you some socks to help cushion your feet."
Then John was at the bathroom and he stepped inside with relief. He hurriedly relieved himself, washed his hands, and proudly made his way back to his bed. He was nearly there when he saw Cassie walk into the infirmary. She saw him and she nearly stopped. She gave him a look that bordered on uncertainty, smiling only when he waved. While he'd been adamant about walking to the bathroom, he was only a few feet away from his bed and while the discomfort was no worse than when he'd started out, he was still anxious to be off his feet.
He sighed in appreciation as he got back into bed.
"Hey, Cass." Daniel grinned at her as he pulled on the socks the nurse had provided. "Gimme a sec, I'll be right back."
John and Cassie watched Daniel stand up and John saw his face register surprise and pain. Still, Daniel began walking nonetheless, and John wondered if he'd looked as silly walking as Daniel's mincing steps did.
"My mom said I could come and visit. I feel guilty, though, because the others can't come here."
"Dria and Corey. Daniel told them you guys were in quarantine, and couldn't go to the hospital to visit."
"How are you feeling?" Cassie shifted her weight nervously.
John patted the edge of the bed and she gave him a tentative smile. "I'm feeling much better. I just wish my feet weren't so sore."
"What happened to your feet?"
"We weren't wearing shoes when we went offworld." From the look on Cassie's face, it was obvious that Janet hadn't told her everything. "Cuts and bruises. Left us with that lovely walk Daniel just displayed."
"It looks painful." She leaned closer and John got a subtle whiff of perfume.
"It's not so bad."
"I'm glad." She smiled again and pressed her lips to his then pulled away just a little bit. "I'm glad you're feeling better," she said just before she kissed him again. "I'm glad my mom let me come tonight," she added.
"I'm glad you came, too." John shifted, keenly aware of the thin scrubs he was wearing and his body's reaction to Cassie's proximity. He tried nonchalantly to pull the blanket up to cover his legs when she leaned once more to kiss him.
"Hey, knock it off, you two," Daniel complained as he limped by. "No fair kissing the girlfriend when mine can't come over."
"Tough." Cassie grinned over her shoulder at Daniel before giving John a last kiss. To John's disappointment, she straightened up and sat so she could see both of them.
"How's Alexandria holding up?" Daniel asked as he fidgeted with the bed controls, raising it then lowering it several times.
"It was hard," Cassie said slowly, not able to look at either John or Daniel, letting the words fade as Daniel fiddled with his pillow, shoving it against his back then removing it, folding it in half before leaning against it.
Daniel seemed to realize she hadn't truly answered and he looked up in surprise when her silence apparently registered. "Cassie?"
"At least Dria had the benefit of not knowing what was really going on." She bit her lip, staring at her nails as she picked the nail polish off her thumbnail. "I had to lie to her and Corey, Daniel. Tell them you were going to be fine and they were still worried to death over you."
"I'm sorry, Cass."
"I'm just glad you're okay." She lunged across the bed, caught Daniel in a hug so sudden, he grunted in surprise. John watched as Daniel drew a fisted arm across her back, pulling her even closer, lowering his head so that his face rested against her shoulder.
When they separated, both of them had suspiciously shiny eyes.
Daniel drew the bed sheet over his legs, taking his time to adjust it carefully while Cassie went back to picking at her nail polish. John reached over, took her hand and brought it to his lips.
She rewarded the kiss with a wobbly smile.
"I hear you're a hero, Cass. You and Alexandria." Daniel's words startled Cassie and she gave Daniel a deer in the headlights look.
"Jackson?" John kept hold of Cassie's hand when she tried to pull away. "Cassie?"
"I didn't do anything anyone else wouldn't have done."
"Tell me," John urged. "Tell us."
She began haltingly, sharing the images that had obviously haunted her since prom night, crying softly as she spoke, head bent, her palm, still tucked between John's hands, slowly growing clammy and wet. John shifted on the bed until he was sitting next to her, dropped her hand and put his arm around her shoulders instead, offering her silent support.
He listened, hearing her anguish as she described those agonizing minutes. She finished the tale finally, a long, shaky sigh punctuating the effort it had taken her to talk about it.
"Thank you." John pushed back her thick hair and kissed her temple. He heard Daniel swallow, the sound loud in the silence of their room.
"I'm sorry, Cassie." Daniel's voice cracked and he cleared his throat.
"Well," she said with false gaiety, "you guys are going to be fine so let's change the subject, okay?" She squirmed on the bed, shifting away from John. "Corey called you guys, right? You're coming on the twelfth?"
"Yeah, he did."
"No," John answered, frowning. "What's on the twelfth?"
"Corey's gonna invite you and Cameron to another pool party," Daniel said with as much false gaiety as Cassie.
John licked his lips nervously, hating the idea. "I don't know about this. I'm going to feel sort of awkward going back... His parents..."
"Will be more than happy to have us there," Daniel said convincingly. "Trust me. I know Steve and Gina."
"They're wonderful people," Cassie added. "John, it wasn't your fault."
"I ruined your prom—"
"You were looking forward to it so much." Funny, he hadn't felt any guilt before Cassie had told them what had happened when the virus had taken over.
"I was looking forward to being with you," she whispered, leaning her forehead against his.
"I know," John whispered back.
They broke up to the sound of someone clearing their throat.
"Hey, Mom." Cassie gave Janet an almost genuine grin while John felt his face begin to heat up.
"Sorry to break up the party." Janet was leaning against the doorjamb, hands in pockets, a small smile quirking her lips. "But it's time to go home."
"So soon?" Cassie rolled her eyes even as she leaned sideways to kiss John goodbye. Acutely aware of Janet watching them, John didn't enjoy the kiss as much as he'd have liked. He watched, relieved, when Cassie slid off the bed and gave Daniel a peck on the cheek before joining her mom at the door.
"Your parents are in the commissary having supper," Janet said, taking a hand out of her pocket and wrapping it around Cassie's waist. "I've warned them not to visit for long, that you both need your rest. In reality, it's them I want out of here and sleeping in their own beds for a change."
"Are they okay?" Daniel asked, worry tingeing his voice.
Janet smiled down at him, then shifted her gaze to encompass John. "They're okay, just refusing to admit they're exhausted. I just wanted you to not be surprised if Doctor Warner comes around and orders you both to bed soon. Not that you're off the hook, you both need your rest. But I don't want you to feel you're being abandoned."
"It's fine, Janet."
John nodded his agreement.
"Good. I'll see both of you in the morning. Oh, here's your supper. Enjoy."
Cassie waved at them both, then she and Janet disappeared, only to be replaced by a nurse pushing a small cart with their meals.
A loud gurgle sounded in the room as the aroma of meatloaf filled his senses.
"Was that you?" John asked, eagerly removing the cover of his tray.
"I don't know." Daniel rubbed his stomach, which was gurgling silently in appreciation of the coming food. "I thought it was you." He picked up his fork and took a bite.
"Doethn't matter," John said with his mouth full. "Thith ithn't bad."
"Mmm," Sarah said, entering the room and sniffing appreciatively. "This smells a whole lot better than what we just ate."
"Ground beef; wheat; eggs; onions; tomato sauce; dehydrated garlic cloves; pepper; salt; Worcestershire sauce." Cameron stood staring at John's plate. "John's eating the same food as you just ate."
"Well, it certainly doesn't smell the same," Sarah said pointedly as she took a seat on the chair next to John's bed.
While Cameron had been outlining the ingredients in Daniel's supper, his father and grandmother walked in.
Daniel waved his fork in their direction as his grandmother sat next to him in a chair and his father perched on the foot of his bed. He hurriedly chewed and swallowed. "Hi."
"You're looking good."
"Feel pretty good, too." He dragged a forkful of mashed potatoes through the tomato sauce and grinned at his dad. Remembering what Janet had said, he looked at his father and grandmother carefully while carrying on small talk as he finished his supper.
There were faint pillow crease marks on his dad's right cheek, and his hair had obviously been finger-dampened and tousled, then shoved back into place in an attempt to hide the bedhead he'd gotten up with.
His grandmother's hair was loose, and not in the low bun she'd been wearing earlier this afternoon.
Both of them looked pale and were sporting shadows under their eyes.
Reaching for the small bowl of rice pudding, Daniel pretended to yawn, deciding Janet was right. He surprised himself when the fake yawn turned into a long, jaw-cracking one that brought tears to his eyes.
"Wow. I saw what you ate for lunch this afternoon."
"Sorry." He stirred the pudding, feeling suddenly tired and sleepy. He yawned again, having to drop the spoon in order to cover his mouth.
"How are your feet? Janet said you were up and walking earlier."
"A little stiff and sore." He started to wriggle his toes but stopped when healing bits protested. "I don't think I'll be able to wear shoes for a couple of days."
"How about I bring your slippers tomorrow and see how they fit."
"That might work. Thanks." He took a bite of the rice pudding, decided it wasn't sweet enough to warrant the trouble of eating it, and put the bowl back into the tray.
"Why don't you stretch out for a little while?" His dad motioned to the bed's remote, and while lying down and closing his eyes was tempting, he didn't want his dad to leave yet. His dad must have taken his hesitation as an affirmative, because he picked the remote up and began lowering the bed while his grandmother rolled the tray away from him.
Daniel reached down and took the socks off his feet, which were beginning to ache. With the slight pressure of the material now gone, he felt better.
He stretched, making himself comfortable as the bed finished readjusting itself. Aches and pains in joints and muscles he hadn't quite registered eased as he rolled onto his side, facing his dad. His grandma adjusted the blanket, spreading it evenly over him, carefully covering his bandaged feet.
His father exchanged an 'are you ready to go soon' look with his grandmother, and despite Janet's warning, he really didn't want to be left alone yet.
"I talked to Alexandria and Corey today," he said quickly trying to delay the inevitable.
"They must've been happy to hear from you." His grandmother pushed back a long strand of hair from his face.
"Yeah, they were. But did you know that Alexandria and Cassie pulled me from Corey's pool?"
"Yeah, we know," his dad said softly.
The silence around his bed was suddenly awkward. He could hear John and his mom talking, but too softly to make out the words.
"They were pretty scared." His father gave Daniel a lopsided smile. "We all were. When we got to the Middleton's, you two were just lying there unconscious."
"I don't remember."
"That's what unconscious means," his dad said with forced levity.
"I ruined Corey's party."
"I'm sure he understands." His grandmother patted down the edge of the blanket close to her.
"He's having another party in a few weeks."
"He invite you?" his dad asked.
"Yeah. Me 'n' John," he said around another yawn.
His eyes were burning and he took his glasses off to rub at them. Someone plucked them from his hand, and he didn't bother asking for them again when he was done.
He stared at the edge of his pillow, finding it hard to focus. Sounds in the room seemed to be very far away. He drifted, until his dad shifted on the bed.
"What do I tell Alexandria about my feet?" he asked sleepily.
"How about we worry about that when the time comes." His dad patted his ankle.
"How'll I go to school if I can't walk?"
"We'll worry about school later, okay?"
His dad shifted again on the bed and Daniel thrust his arm out. "Don't go."
He watched as his dad leaned over him. "You're half asleep, Icky. Doc said you needed rest."
"But I slept already today," he whined.
"And you'll sleep some more tonight." His dad answered him with a smile as he leaned down to kiss his forehead. "Hmm, no fever. That's a good sign. Keep that up and maybe Fraiser will let you out of here soon."
"Did Janet say when I could go home?"
His dad gave a quick shake of his head.
Daniel blinked slowly; his eyes dry, his eyelids heavy.
"Go to sleep, mhuirnin."
"Night, Gramma. Night, Dad."
He heard them leave, and a moment later, Sarah, Derek and Cameron left also. He began to drift off, heard John ask, "Hey, you sleeping?" and between contemplating answering or not, he fell asleep.
Surprised to hear Charley's voice, John turned eagerly. Charley was standing in the doorway, looking uncertain.
He grinned at Charley, who tiptoed into the room, glancing down at Daniel as he made his way to John's bed.
"I wasn't sure if you were asleep. Your friend's dead to the world."
John couldn't help smiling. Daniel had been serenading him with his snores for the past half hour. "I wasn't sleepy."
"How are you feeling?" He settled in the chair his mother had sat in earlier tonight. Charley looked exhausted; more so than his mom and uncle had.
"Pretty good, considering," he answered vaguely.
"Considering you were stranded on another planet?"
"Wh-What?" He gazed up at Charley in shock.
"Yeah, I know about the Stargate."
"I know." Charley smiled, and some of the shadows under his eyes disappeared. "You're looking a lot better than the last time I dropped in."
"Thanks for checking up on me..." John felt pleased that Charley would have checked up on him, considering what he'd been though.
"I'm sorry about your wife," John said awkwardly.
"So am I."
"I'm sorry," John said again. "Death and destruction follow me, no matter where I go. If we'd known back then, that they'd use you, we'd never have... Mom would never have gotten involved—"
"Hey." Charley reached out and grabbed John's chin, forcing him to look at him. "I never regret those months with you and your mother. I was happy, she was happy." He let go of John. "She was happy, wasn't she?"
"We both were. Charley, for the first time, in a long time, I felt safe with you. I just wish..."
"Yeah. Me, too." Charley's sad smile caused John's throat to tighten. "I should let you rest."
"I'm not tired—"
"Tell me another one, John Ree—Connor. Sorry, that's going to take some time getting used to. That is your real name, isn't it?"
"Yeah," John said on an exhalation, suddenly embarrassed at the lies he and his mom had told Charley all those years ago.
"I'll see you around." When Charley went to stand, John shot his arm out to stay him.
"Are you leaving? Colorado Springs, I mean?"
Charley stood there staring at him for several long seconds. "I need to go back home."
John's stomach dropped. "Home. To California."
"I need to absorb everything that's happened. Put my head back on straight."
"You could stay here. Get a job here."
"I could." For a moment John thought Charley was changing his mind, but he shook his head. "But not right now."
John swallowed past the growing lump in his throat. "You'll keep in touch?" His eyes filled, causing halos around everything. He refused to blink; blinking would cause the moisture to turn into tears. He wouldn't cry, not in front of Charley.
"When I can—"
"Charley, I'm sorry—" He couldn't go on. Charley's pain was his fault and now, this time, it was Charley who was leaving John. He turned his head, embarrassed that Charley was seeing his weakness. So when he felt Charley grab him and pull him against his chest, John hugged him close, too emotional to speak but letting the strength of his grip let Charley know how strongly he felt.
"It'll be okay," Charley whispered in John's ear.
John nodded, letting the tears run down his face as Charley let him go and straightened. He watched the man who had been friend, mentor and almost-father to him walk out of the room. Only when Charley was out of sight did John wipe his face with the edge of the sheet.
"Are you sick?" Cameron was standing in the doorway, looking at him with concern.
Too spent to do more than nod at her question, John sniffled, hoping to get away without having to blow his nose. Cameron, however, had other ideas, entering the room, pulling several tissues from a box on a table and handing them over to him. He blew, wiped his eyes, blew again and tossed the soiled tissues onto the table next to the bed.
"Did Charley upset you?"
"He's going back home." John took a breath, hating how shaky it sounded.
"You're sad because he's leaving."
"His wife's dead; he sure as hell isn't going to stick around the people who did this to him."
"You shouldn't be sad. Charley's alive. The Triple-Eight could have killed him when he was no longer of use to it. You should be happy he's alive."
He nodded grudgingly. She was right; Charley was live, it could have been worse. Much worse.
"I'm tired," he said suddenly, not wanting to talk any more. And as he pulled the blankets up to his shoulders, he realized that he truly was tired now. He closed his eyes, listening to the squeak of the chair as Cameron sat next to him, watching over him. He hated how he felt safe when she was around; and wondered if he was relying too much on her.
He let the sound of Daniel's nasal breathing lull him to sleep.
Daniel wasn't truly paying attention as his dad turned the Avalanche onto their street; it was when they pulled into the driveway and saw Alexandria, Corey, Li and Nate sitting on their front steps, all sporting wide grins, that he realized why nobody was answering their cell phones.
"Dad? Did you..."
"Welcome home." His father's grin matched those of his friends.
They all stood around the back passenger door, Corey reaching for it when the truck came to a stop and opening it. Nate did the same for his grandmother, which earned him a pat on the cheek as she got out.
Daniel suddenly felt self-conscious as he eased his feet out of the car, hyper-aware of the slippers he was wearing. He stood slowly, easing his weight onto his feet as he got out of the truck.
"Hey, you." Alexandria was in his arms him the moment he was vertical. "I'm so glad you're home."
Daniel braced himself, burying his face in Alexandria's hair, trying not to wince as he rocked on his feet. "I'm glad I'm home, too."
"Your dad called to say you were coming home and invited us to have supper with you." Alexandria was talking fast, squeezing the shit out of him.
"Really?" Daniel raised his head and met his dad's gaze over Alexandria's head.
"Chinese okay with you kids?"
"Sounds good to me," Corey answered with a wide grin.
"Then you kids get settled and I'll go pick up the food."
Daniel gave Corey and Nate a friendly punch once Alexandria let him go. He went up the stairs slowly with his arm around her waist.
"Remember what the doctor said," his dad called out just before Daniel stepped through the door which his grandmother was holding open. "You stay off your feet and rest."
"Yes, Dad." Daniel made a show of rolling his eyes but internally he was grateful for his dad giving him an excuse to not have to walk around.
They headed for his bedroom, each of them taking a spot on his bed while he leaned back against the pillows. Alexandria chose the space next to him, nestling against him, resting her head against his shoulder.
"How bad was it? In the hospital?" She leaned back to look at him.
"They had John and me in the same room, because of the quarantine. It wasn't so bad; we kept each other company."
"When are you coming back to school?" Alexandria took his hand and held it against her stomach.
"Um..." Distracted by Alexandria, it took him a second to remember what Janet had told him. "I'm off until next Tuesday. I go see the doctor then and I'll find out if I go back to school on Wednesday.
"You know, Daniel," Nate said as he lay back against the foot of the bed, "you should start thinking about becoming a doctor. You're spending all that time in the hospital these days; maybe it's a sign—"
"Knock it off." Corey shoved Nate's leg, hard enough to make the bed shake.
Daniel felt Alexandria tense. "That's not funny!" she exclaimed.
"Hey, man. I'm sorry. I was just joking."
"It's okay." Daniel put his lips to Alexandria's temple. "He's right – at the rate I'm going, I'm spending more time at the hospital than the people who work there." He gave his friends a forced smile. "Wonder if I could get extra credits for that if I were to go into the medical field."
The laughter was stilted and for a while, Nate was quiet while everyone gossiped until Daniel pulled him back into the conversation. He enjoyed their company immensely and was almost sorry when his father popped his head in and called them to eat.
His grandmother had set the dining room table and it was laden with food from Daniel's favorite Chinese restaurant. The happy chatter continued around the table and Daniel realized that it had been a long time since he'd felt this good. The constant fatigue and headaches and all over aches and pains had probably been due to the virus, even before it had felled him.
He caught his father watching him just as he took a large mouthful of sesame chicken and Daniel grinned at him, full mouth and all. His dad merely shook his head as he smiled down into his plate.
After supper they congregated back to his bedroom, taking up their previous positions. Sated and comfortable, Daniel's participation in the conversation slowly ebbed as he grew sleepy. Content to just sit back, he listened to his friends, a smile stuck on his face.
Alexandria giggled at something Corey said, and Daniel lazily teased his fingers along her ribcage, eliciting another giggle from her.
"Stop it." She smacked his hand, hard enough to sting.
He kissed her neck in apology, getting a mouth full of hair. Blowing the hair away from his lips, he lay his cheek against her shoulder. She pressed her fingers against his face, smoothing back hair that had escaped from his ponytail. He could smell her perfume and he closed his eyes, listening to her voice.
A clatter from the kitchen woke Daniel up. He blinked sleepily, wondering where everyone was. It took him a few seconds to realize he was lying in his bed, fully clothed, under the blankets, and the sun was shining around the edges of the blinds.
"Oh, shit." He groaned loudly as he turned onto his back, slapping his hands over his eyes.
"Goooood morning," Jack said brightly as he watched his son shuffle groggily into the kitchen, his hair, once neatly contained in a ponytail, was sticking up every which way as it had come undone during sleep. Daniel seemed to be walking more easily, his pain not quite as obvious as the previous day.
"I fell asleep," Daniel complained as he pulled a chair away from the table and sat down heavily.
"That's usually what happens at night." Jack poured his son a cup of coffee without being asked.
"But not when I'm hanging out with my friends!" Daniel whined loudly.
Jack added a liberal amount of cream and two sugars. "You're still recovering. They understood."
Actually it had been almost comical to see Nate and Corey tiptoe out of Daniel's bedroom to come get Jack. And the sight of Daniel sleeping, held protectively in Dria's arms, had been enough to tempt Jack to run and get his camera. Until she looked up at him, full of mother henning and worry, and Jack had given her a hopefully reassuring smile. Together they had slid Daniel's sleeping body onto the mattress and covered him, Jack returning to carefully remove his slippers once he'd seen the kids out. Daniel had been totally out of it, sleeping so deeply that Jack was pretty sure he'd sleep till morning. His son hadn't disappointed him.
"Understood?" Daniel wrapped his hands around the mug of coffee Jack put in front of him. "I. Fell. Asleep. How embarrassing is that?"
"No more embarrassing than how your friends were feeling for having kept you awake when you were obviously so tired."
"I wasn't tired." Daniel lowered his head to the mug and slurped noisily.
"Honestly. I wasn't tired. One minute I was talking, and the next... I woke up," Daniel sighed into his coffee.
"Icky." Jack put a hand to his son's head. "Your body went through an ordeal. It needs to recover—"
"I know that. I'm just tired of these ordeals."
"I know. Me, too." Jack kissed the top of Daniel's head. "Hungry?"
"How about an omelet?"
"You got it. Go wash up. Breakfast'll be ready by the time you're done."
Daniel slurped some more coffee, shoved the mug aside and got up. He paused next to the door.
Jack, already at the fridge digging out the container of eggs, looked at Daniel over the door.
"You didn't take a picture of me sleeping, did you?"
Jack ran a hand over his face, teasing Daniel as he tried to make it look like he was hesitating in telling the truth. "Actually," he started, holding back a smile when Daniel's face showed nervousness, "you have Dria to thank for that. I think she'd have torn my head off if I'd gone for the camera."
"Thank goodness Cassie wasn't there."
"Yeah," Jack said morosely. His partner in crime would have had her cell phone out and snapping away long before Jack could have made a run for his Canon.
"Geeze, you were young." Daniel flipped another page of John's photo album and grinned at the goofy smile on John's face as he hammed it up for the camera.
"Same age as you now, Jackson."
"I thought you didn't do pictures." At John's raised eyebrow, Daniel slapped the cover of the album shut and sat back. "You didn't look too keen on photos at the prom."
John pulled the album to him and rested his fingers on the cover. "Force of habit. Those years with Charley were... special."
Daniel nudged the empty Snapple bottle with his sandal-clad foot, trying to center it over a knot in the wood of the deck. "It's getting hot."
"We could go inside and watch television."
Daniel made a face as he moved the bottle a quarter inch too far. "We watched all the movies."
"Maybe your grandmother would go rent us some new ones."
John sighed and tapped his fingers against the picnic table. The table, already wobbly, shifted slightly with each tap and the shade they were sitting underneath shifted back and forth.
"You know, if you took all the days I've had off and stretch them out, they'd probably go around the world, like three times."
"I hate school." John stopped tapping. "But I hate being sick more."
"Do you think Janet's going to let us go back tomorrow?" Daniel asked for what felt like the millionth time.
"She'd better. I can't take much more of this. I'm so desperate to do something that even Corey's pool party is looking good."
"You still don't want to go?" Daniel asked, surprised.
"Considering I almost drowned in the pool, that would be a no."
"It's not like it's going to happen again." Daniel hated to admit that the thought of the party was making him anxious.
"This is you we're talking about, Jackson."
"You were right up there with me." Daniel gave John a lazy nudge with his foot.
"Which is why jumping in that pool is really the last thing I feel like doing."
"Maybe that's what we should do."
"What? Jump in?"
"Go for the jugular. Head right for the water. No hesitation. Jump in, instead of sitting around worrying about what might happen. Heck, the girls will be there. They'll just pull us out if we get struck by lightning or something."
John snorted. "Remind me to check the weather reports before we head out to Corey's."
Daniel stood in the Middleton's kitchen, clutching his towel like a lifesaver, waiting for John. He could see Corey and Nate in the back yard, Lena, Cassie and Alexandria huddled on two lawn chairs. Christian and Li were standing next to the water, staring at it woefully. Cameron stood slightly apart from the girls, her eyes on the door. It looked like everyone was having problems with the pool.
John came out of the bedroom wearing his bathing suit. He took the towel Gina handed him, gave Daniel a look of determination, and went through the patio doors. To Daniel's embarrassment, both Steve and Gina followed them out. Looked like the Middletons were having issues also.
Daniel tossed his towel onto a free chair; John's landed on top of his. Together they headed for the pool, but suddenly Daniel got an idea. He slowed, caught John's attention, and canted his head towards Corey, who was now standing apart from the others.
John grinned evilly as understanding dawned.
Together, they advanced on Corey. Before he knew what was happening, Daniel grabbed Corey by the armpits just as John caught his legs, and they tossed him into the pool. Just as Corey came up spluttering, John and Daniel shook hands to the sounds of hooting and clapping. Then together, they ran for the pool, dove in, and came up laughing.
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