THAT WHICH WE ARE  BY DARCY & SAMI-J


Gen: Story portraying the strong friendship between Jack O'Neill and Daniel Jackson
Rating: G
Category: AU, Little Danny kid fic, angst, drama, humor etc.
Season/Spoilers: Nothing specific, possibly Crystal Skull
Synopsis:

“That Which We Are” is the third story set in the Much Abides universe, where Jack and Sara are still married, Charlie is alive, and ten (now eleven) year old Daniel Jackson has joined the O’Neill household. This story continues the events of the previous fics and focuses on the difficulties of Daniel settling in with the O’Neill family while also exploring the early development of Stargate Command, with all its accompanying trials and tribulations.

Warnings: None
Length: 1.43 MB
Notes:

Cathe (aka sami-j) Notes:  Here we go again! This wonderful universe that Darcy created a few years ago still refuses to let me go, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve had a wonderful time working on this latest installment with my ultra-talented and creative co-writer. Darcy came up with the main premise for this one and, as usual, her instincts were right on.  Thanks for allowing me to once again come along for the ride, girlfriend.  It’s been – as Jack O’Neill might say – “Sweet!”

Darcy Notes:  Another year has gone by and writing Little Danny with Cathe is still one of my favorite guilty pleasures. This fic highlights the family dynamics and touches on the beginnings of the Stargate Program. Cathe was amazing as always, writing, fleshing out fresh new ideas, and keeping the boys and the SGC on track. Thanks, girlfriend... lets to it again!


Chapter 1

“Watch this, Daniel!”

Eleven-year-old Daniel Jackson cringed and closed his eyes, then opened them again. If he was going to have to call an ambulance, he needed to watch. Besides, this had been his idea. Great idea. Not.

It had seemed like a simple request – asking Charlie, his twelve-year-old foster brother, to show him a couple of bike tricks. He'd specifically asked for easy tricks since he didn’t possess Charlie’s 'maximum thrill' mentality. He should’ve known Charlie’s idea of easy wasn’t going to be the same as his.

“Yahoo!” Charlie yelled as his bicycle raced past Daniel. Charlie stood on one foot on top of the seat, his arms extended for balance and his face raised to the sky in a smile of triumph.

“Look out for the car!” Daniel shouted.

Charlie bounced down to the seat and swung his bike out of the center of the road as the approaching vehicle slowed down. Daniel recognized the car and gulped, just as a familiar voice sounded out of the driver’s side window.

“Charlie O’Neill! You get back to the house this minute!”

“’kay, Mom!” Charlie shouted back with a distinct lack of concern.

Daniel moved out of the street so he was standing on the sidewalk when Sara O’Neill pulled into the driveway. He knew she'd seen him and smiled weakly as she pushed the door open and slid out.

“Hi, Sara,” he greeted.

“Is there some reason you were standing in the middle of the street?” She gave him a disapproving look.

“I, uh,” Daniel swallowed. “I guess I wasn’t thinking.”

“Good answer.”

Daniel was relieved when Charlie arrived to distract her. Relieved and guilty. He could tell by her stormy expression that his foster brother was in trouble.

“Hi, Mom.” Charlie cheerfully jumped off his bike.

“Don’t ‘hi mom’ me,” Sara snapped. “What do you think you were doing, riding your bike while standing on it?”

“I was just showing Daniel – ” Charlie started.

“What if you’d fallen? Where’s your helmet? Your pads?”

Charlie made a face. “Right there.” He pointed at the small heap of safety equipment piled on the lawn.

Sara’s eyes shot blue sparks and her son gulped. “You know the rules,” she said with ominous calm.

“Yeah but – ”

“No bike for one week. Got it?”

“But Mom – ” Charlie’s jaw dropped.

“Another word and it's two weeks.”

Wisely, Charlie closed his mouth and Daniel felt compelled to speak up. “It’s my fault, too.”

Sara’s eyes moved from her son to her foster son and Daniel was relieved to see some of the fire had faded. “It’s your fault Charlie wasn’t wearing his helmet?”

“Well no, but – ”

“It’s your fault he didn’t put on his pads?”

“Daniel had nothing to do with it,” Charlie jumped in.

“But it was my idea for him to show me some bike tricks,” Daniel confessed.

Sara’s eyes traveled between the two boys and Daniel thought her lips quirked briefly before they firmed again.

“Charlie, put your bike in the garage,” she said sternly, “then the two of you can bring in the groceries.”

“Right, Mom.”

“Okay, Sara.”

Daniel picked up Charlie’s helmet and pads and followed the older boy into the garage.

“I’m sorry I got you in trouble.” Daniel threw the equipment next to the bike.

“You didn’t do anything. Don’t worry about it.” Charlie shoved the kickstand down and flashed his irrepressible smile.

“But if I hadn’t asked you – ”

“I said don’t worry about it.” Charlie gave him a friendly smack on the arm. “I wouldn’t have had much time for riding my bike next week anyway.”

Daniel frowned in confusion as Charlie laughed and rubbed his hands together.

“Remember what Dad said the other day? As soon as he gets home tonight we’re going to start working on our Haunted House. It usually takes a couple weeks to put everything together so the timing is just right.” He chortled at his foster brother’s dubious look.

“It’s an O’Neill Halloween tradition. It’ll be great, you’ll see.”

“If you say so.”

“Yep, I do. Come on, let’s get the groceries inside before Mom gets mad again. Hey, I hope she remembered the brains!”

Brains? Daniel opened his mouth and then closed it again. He really didn’t want to know, although he had an uncomfortable feeling he was going to find out anyway.

Between the two of them, they were able to get all of the bags of groceries in one trip. As soon as they put the bags on the kitchen counter, Sara started putting everything away.

“Did you remember the brains?” Charlie asked, rummaging through the bags.

Sara smiled, reached into one bag he hadn’t gotten to yet, and pulled out two large packages of spaghetti. “Will this be enough?”

“Oh, yeah, cool!” Charlie winked at a bewildered Daniel. “Can I help with anything else, Mom?”

“No, thank you. Why?” She stopped what she was doing and eyed him suspiciously.

Charlie flashed a charming smile and Daniel swallowed a grin. He didn’t know what his brother was up to but he understood why Sara was skeptical.

“I was wondering if I could go up to the attic and start going through the Halloween stuff.”

“Your father should be home in an hour or so. Why don’t you wait for him?”

“I won’t take anything out of the boxes. I just want to double-check what’s there and start figuring out what else we need. Halloween’s two weeks away. That’s not a lot of time to get the Haunted House ready.”

Sara studied him for a long minute while Daniel worked hard to suppress his amusement. Charlie was difficult to resist when he turned on the charm. Unfortunately, his mom knew all his tricks so she was much harder to get around than most people.

“Don’t make a mess,” she warned and Charlie’s grin filled his face.

“I won’t!” He headed for the stairs, calling over his shoulder, “Come on, Daniel!”

“You go on,” Daniel called after him. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

The rapid thudding of Charlie’s feet on the stairs was his only answer and Daniel turned back to Sara, his amusement fading at the thought of what he wanted to say. He watched her putting the produce in the fridge and tried to figure out where to begin. Sara closed the refrigerator door and turned around, her eyebrows rising when she saw he was still there.

“Did you want to help me put away the groceries?” Her smile made it clear she didn’t think that was the reason he was hanging around and it gave him the courage to smile back.

“I can help,” he said.

Sara’s smile broadened. “Thank you, honey, but that isn't necessary. Is there something you wanted to talk about?”

She always seemed to know. Encouraged, he swallowed and blurted out the problem he'd been tip toeing around.

“I think I’d like to start going back to the Mountain with Jack.”

Her smile faded and Daniel braced himself. Sara knew nothing about his trip through the Stargate last month, a trip that took them to another planet on the far side of the galaxy. She didn’t know about their desperate battle against an alien parasite, who claimed to be the Pharaoh King Ra, in order to save the inhabitants of the planet. Nor did she know about his kidnapping by another alien who called himself Apophis, or Jack and Major Kawalsky’s subsequent rescue of himself and other prisoners from another planet.

Daniel had been sworn to secrecy along with Jack and everyone else involved. So Sara had no idea how drastically their world had changed since they figured out how to operate the Stargate, the alien device buried deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain. The device that had inspired a brand-new military program called Stargate Command. Jack was not only going to be leading a team through the Stargate on a regular basis but he was also second in command of the entire program. They could now visit other planets in a matter of seconds. As impossible as it all sounded it wasn't science fiction, it was true, and Daniel's gift for languages put him at the center of it all.

He’d thought that was exactly where he wanted to be until shortly after returning home last month when the nightmares began, nightmares that sometimes reappeared when he least expected, like in the middle of the day when he wasn't sleeping.

Daniel wasn’t sure if it had been his idea or Sara’s but he hadn’t been back to the Mountain since returning home. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go back; he did. Mostly. He missed the camaraderie with Dr. Rothman and Dr. Lee and the other scientists and linguists, especially when they worked together on puzzles the new universe had given them to solve. He missed the excitement when he figured out a particularly difficult translation of an unknown language. There was so much he missed at Cheyenne Mountain.

There was one thing he didn’t miss and it was the number one reason that kept him home. The large, dark, brooding presence that haunted his nightmares had a name and unlike some nightmares, this presence was real and Cheyenne Mountain was where it resided.

Daniel had gone over the pros and cons in his mind for weeks, the joys of working at the Mountain and how much he missed it versus the fear of coming face to face with his worst nightmare. Lately, the missing part had been growing stronger and last night he'd made a decision.

“Daniel?” Sara touched his shoulder and pulled him out of his thoughts.

“Sorry, I was thinking about something.”

“Something about going back to the Mountain?” She studied him carefully.

Oops, he needed to sound more positive. “I really want to go back.”

“Why?”

“It’s important.” There, that was true. “I can help...” he paused. He needed to be careful. Sara couldn’t know the details, as much as he wished he could tell her. Everything about Cheyenne Mountain and the new Stargate Command was classified, top-secret, all that stuff.

“I imagine you can,” she answered thoughtfully. “What I want to know is if you, I mean you, really want to go back there." She poked him in the chest. "Jack hasn’t pressured you, has he?”

“No,” Daniel quickly assured her. "Jack hasn't mentioned it at all."

That much was true. Jack hadn’t said a word about it since Daniel had made the decision to stay home. He had smiled and patted Daniel’s shoulder and assured him it was fine, no problem at all. In some ways, Jack's reaction had been a disappointment. The slightest push and Daniel would have set his fears aside and agreed to return.

He wasn’t sure how ‘fine’ things were at the Mountain. They needed every linguist they could get their hands on and even the best didn't know Goa'uld like he did. He had been in the process of teaching Dr. Rothman and a few others but their skill level was nowhere near his own. Despite Jack's reassurance, Daniel suspected they missed him and needed him.

“I miss it,” he said.

That was true, too. He missed the work. He wanted to go back, that hadn’t changed. It was difficult to sit home on the sidelines when he knew he could be of use, helping Jack, helping rescue Skaara and Tracey, helping Planet Earth. Last night he finally decided there was no reason for the Nightmare's presence to bother him in the science labs. The Nightmare wasn't a scientist. Besides, Jack’s office was near his own new office. Practically next door. Jack would look out for him like he always did.

He smiled at the thought and Sara looked surprised. “I want to go back,” he repeated with a bit more force.

She studied him for another minute and sighed. “All right, if you want to go back, it’s up to you. Just remember you can change your mind at any time.”

“I know.”

Daniel was aware Sara would prefer he'd stay home and do kid stuff. She didn't understand. How could she? The Stargate was important now and it would be even more important in the future. Knowing what he knew, how could he sit through school and worry about homework and chess tournaments?

“Daniel!”

Sara chuckled at Charlie’s bellow, made faint by the distance.

“You’d better get up to the attic before Charlie blows something up.”

“Okay.” Daniel took two steps then stopped. “Thank you, Sara.”

“Don’t forget to enjoy being eleven years old.” Her smile softened.

“I won’t,” he promised before heading for the stairs.

Chapter 2

Jack O’Neill hated paperwork with a passion but as 2IC of the new Stargate Command, paperwork was part of his job.

Juggling the files in his arms, he considered how much time he spent doing things he didn’t like. Knock it off, O’Neill. How many people on the planet could do his job? A job that, most of the time, he loved.

It gave him a rush every time he thought about going through the Stargate. The first time had surpassed all his dreams, not to mention all his nightmares. Thank god, they’d made it back and now Daniel would never go through the Stargate again, which resolved the worst of those nightmares.

Jack was looking forward to visiting other worlds and that meant Stargate Command needed to be up and running. Sadly, that required an inordinate amount of paperwork. Not to mention lots of conferences, training sessions, planning meetings, and yes, all that led to even more paperwork. Jack smiled. Despite the bureaucracy, he was certain the end result would be worth the aggravation.

He turned down the next corridor and almost ran into two Airmen. They practically fell over themselves straightening up and trying to look professional. Jack suppressed a smile and gave them a curt nod as he passed, wondering if he’d ever been that young. It didn’t seem possible.

Another stairwell and corridor later he reached his destination. General Hammond's office. Hammond's latest assistant, Jack couldn't remember the Sergeant’s name, jumped up from his desk.

“Can I help with that, Colonel?”

“Just let him know I’m here.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Sergeant leaned down to press the intercom button. “General, Colonel O’Neill’s here.”

“Send him in,” the familiar voice responded.

Jack walked into the office and nodded to his C.O. as he shut the door. “Sir.”

“Have a seat, Colonel.”

He obeyed and dropped the load of files on the edge of Hammond’s desk. Jack noticed but didn’t comment on the fact that an even larger pile of file folders was sitting in front of the General.

“Have you come to any conclusions, Colonel?” Hammond came right to the point of their meeting.

Jack laid the files one on top of another as he spoke. “I’ve spoken with Major Kawalsky and he’s in agreement about Lieutenant Greenberg and Sergeant Thompson joining SG-2. Captain Ferretti will serve as 2IC until his promotion.” He gave his superior a quizzical look. “In about six months, correct, sir?”

Hammond nodded. “I’m glad Dr. Fraiser was able to give both of them medical clearance.”

“They’re good men,” Jack agreed. “We’re going to need them.”

“What about SG-3?”

Jack pulled out another folder. “After reviewing your suggestions, I’d give the nod to Lieutenant Colonel Makepeace as C.O.”

Hammond pursed his lips, looking thoughtful. “He’s definitely the most qualified after yourself, both in seniority and experience.”

“If he wasn’t a Marine, he’d be perfect,” Jack deadpanned.

The General gave him a long look but Jack didn’t think he was imagining the smile of amusement that crossed his superior’s face if only for a second.

Hammond looked down at his desk. When he met Jack’s gaze again the amusement was gone. “A unit of Marines is always a good thing to have around. I don’t want any inter-service rivalry at the SGC. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir, perfectly clear, no inter-service rivalry, sir.”

Hammond studied his 2IC between narrowed lids while Jack maintained a bland expression.

“And the other members of SG-3?”

Jack laid out more folders. “These are the leading candidates for consideration. I'll know more after I interview them.”

“Have you spoken to Colonel Makepeace about possible members of his team?”

“No, sir. Not until you confirm him as C.O. of SG-3. None of the Marines who have transferred in have worked together so I doubt he'll have a preference.”

Hammond nodded. “Very well. Colonel Makepeace will take over SG-3.” He glanced at the list on his desk. “And SG-4? You’re still recommending Major Reynolds to lead that team?”

“Yes, sir.” Jack laid out several more file folders. “And these are my recommendations to fill the rest of the slots on SG-4.”

The General studied the files one by one before sitting back and giving his 2IC a smile. “A good mix of abilities and talent. They appear to be excellent candidates, Colonel.”

“Thank you, sir.” Jack took a deep breath before continuing. “There’s something else I’d like to discuss with you, General.”

“What is it?”

Jack gestured at the folders. “The incoming personnel, we appear to be top-heavy with officers.”

“That’s correct.”

The brief response didn’t give Jack anything to grasp. He couldn’t tell if the General was annoyed by his implied criticism. It was too late to stop now so he chose his words carefully.

“In my experience, sir, it’s been the non-coms who really run things. A good experienced Corporal or Sergeant is worth their weight in gold.”

Hammond smiled. “That’s been my experience too, Colonel. And we'll be getting more of those experienced personnel in the future. Right now we’re at the earliest stages of a mission unlike anything this world has ever seen.” He paused to let that sink in.

“The Stargate is at the heart of this program. Apart from Captain Carter and the personnel she brought with her from the Pentagon, no one on earth knows anything about its operation, how it works, why it works, what it actually does. And the Stargate is only one of several elements that will be critical to the success of this program. I want the smartest, best educated, most trustworthy people the Air Force has to offer in as many different technological areas as possible.”

Jack nodded. He’d figured Hammond had a reason for the personnel being transferred to the SGC but it was reassuring to hear him say it.

“Thank you for clarifying, sir.”

“I’m glad you raised the issue, Colonel, because it leads into a related matter I want to discuss with you.”

“Yes, sir?”

Hammond took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Dr. Lee came to see me earlier today. The three individuals who make up the Linguistics Department asked him to speak to me.”

“Linguistics?” Jack thought for a minute. “Kerry, no, Kerrigan is supposed to be in charge, isn’t he?”

“Yes. According to what Dr. Lee was told, Dr. Kerrigan may not be the best person to head the department.”

“Why not?”

“There's some concern that it may be too big of a job for him.” Hammond grimaced.

Jack frowned. Kerrigan came highly recommended. If the job was too big for him...

“The truth of the matter is that everyone in the Linguistics Department is struggling.” Hammond took another deep breath. “This new language, or languages, are proving extremely difficult to translate.”

“But Teal’c knows Goa’uld.”

The General nodded. “Yes, and he’s been able to translate some of the writings. But there’s so much more. There's no way he can translate it all, not to mention there are other dialects and languages Teal’c doesn’t recognize. And he’s had trouble teaching the linguists, or they’ve had trouble learning. I don’t know precisely what the problem is. What I do know is that we are seriously behind in translations that may prove critical to the future safety of Earth. That problem will only worsen when we begin regular missions through the Stargate.”

Damn. Jack knew exactly where this conversation was heading. When they had first returned to Earth after Teal’c helped them escape from Apophis’ prison, Daniel had been excited at the thought of remaining part of the new Stargate Command as a translator. Inexplicably, a couple days later he'd decided he didn’t want to come back to the Mountain.

Jack hadn't pushed. After everything Daniel had been through on Abydos and Chulak, the last thing the boy needed was pressure. Maybe the best thing for the eleven-year-old was to get some distance from the Mountain and everything related to the Stargate. Maybe the kid needed to focus on being a kid.

On top of everything else, Sara had made it clear she didn’t like Daniel working at Cheyenne Mountain. She didn’t know anything about their mission or the Stargate. She had no clue Daniel had been killed – the memory still made Jack break out in a cold sweat – and brought back to life by an alien device. But she, like Jack, had been awakened several times by Daniel’s nightmares since they'd returned home.

“Colonel?”

Jack started. He knew what was coming and there was nothing to do but face it. “Sir?”

“Has Daniel shown any interest in returning to the Mountain?”

Jack shook his head. “I’m afraid not, sir.” He hesitated, trying to come up with the right words to help the General better understand. “He’s still having nightmares about what happened on Abydos and Chulak.”

“I’m sorry to hear that although it’s understandable.” Hammond’s lips tightened.

Jack recognized the guilt in the General’s eyes. When Hammond had insisted to the Joint Chiefs that he wouldn't send his people on a suicide mission, he had inadvertently determined Daniel's fate. Jack suspected the General suffered from a few nightmares of his own after learning what had happened to Daniel on that mission.

“He’s getting better,” Jack answered honestly. “I’ll talk to him, sir, and see how he’s feeling about things. Maybe after a little more time passes he’ll be ready to come back.”

Hammond nodded but looked conflicted. Jack understood. His C.O. wasn’t used to having a child working in a top-secret, not to mention dangerous, program. Neither was Jack, but Daniel was special.

“How's the orientation coming?” The General turned his attention back to his file-covered desk.

Change of subject. Good.

“It’s coming along, sir. The biggest issue is the scope of the program. It’s hard for people to accept it.” Jack waved his hand in the air. “Traveling to other planets in the blink of an eye through an alien contraption, friendly and hostile aliens all over the place, the whole ball of wax.”

The lines in Hammond’s face eased. “So how have you been getting through this understandable disbelief?”

“A secret weapon.” The General raised his eyebrows and Jack grinned. “Name of Teal’c. He doesn’t say much at first, then again he doesn’t have to. When he raises his shirt and that snaky, slimy, oversized worm pokes out, let’s just say it gets everyone’s attention and they’re more than ready to listen.”

“No doubt,” Hammond said. “That’s very resourceful of you, Colonel.”

“Thank you, sir.” Jack’s amusement faded. “Teal’c has also been instrumental in revising our methods of battle. The Jaffa...” he hesitated while he tried to find the right words. “What Teal’c has explained about their training techniques, how they fight, we’re going to have to change a lot of our thinking, General. During P.T. he’s fought up to five of our guys at a time and they’re still no match for him.”

“Suggestions?”

“I’m already in the process of revising our training methods, with Teal’c’s help.”

“We have a steep learning curve on a number of levels ahead of us.” Hammond sat back in his chair.

“Yes, sir,” Jack agreed. “Thank god the Pentagon has backed off its plans for accelerating operations.”

“In a way, we have Daniel to thank for that, too.”

Jack looked up to meet his C.O.’s amused gaze. “All Daniel wanted to do was protect the Abydonians from Apophis coming through their Stargate again.”

“He’s an amazing youngster,” Hammond acknowledged.

That was a good description of Daniel. The Pentagon's original plan had been to get the SGC up and running ASAP to send another team to Abydos in an effort to get their hands on the mineral the Abydonians had been mining for Ra. With the Abydos gate buried, those plans had been put on hold.

Daniel hadn’t been concerned about the Pentagon’s plans. When he suggested to the chief elder, Kasuf, that the Abydonians bury their Stargate, his only thought had been to protect his new friends from Apophis. The end result was the same. With the Abydonian gate buried, the Pentagon’s plans had been derailed and cooler heads prevailed. Stargate Command was getting up and running within proper military parameters, much to the relief of General Hammond, his 2IC, and the SGC’s greatest supporter, the President of the United States.

As anxious as Jack was to begin regular trips through the Stargate, they weren’t ready. Much more training was needed in this, first of its kind, military endeavor. Teal’c was providing valuable intel that needed to be studied and assimilated so informed decisions could be made on how to proceed. Like a good chess game, all the pieces needed to be in position before Hammond and the SGC could make their first moves.

The General opened another folder in front of him. “Here’s a list of weapons we've received to date...”

An hour and a half later Jack returned to his office and dropped into the chair behind his desk. He glared at the never-ending file folders stacked on his desk. Instead of picking one up he turned on his computer to check his email. Weren't computers supposed to replace paper? That would be a happy day.

A minute later he pulled up his e-mail and checked the Inbox. He groaned as the screen filled with messages. His eye fell on the tenth e-mail from the top and his eyebrows rose at the name of the sender – Nightflyer. There was only person that could be.

Jack opened it up and read through it:

“Hey, Ace –

“I finished up your little project and long story short, the guy’s been canvassing everyone who’s anyone in the archeological community, trying to get funding for some project in Belize. Yeah, you read that right. Belize. He hasn’t gotten any takers. My sources tell me he used to be respected but lately he’s developed a flaky reputation.

“My complete report is attached. Let me know if you need anything else.”

Jack pulled up the attachment and hit the print command. This fit in with the other info he’d gathered. He was beginning to play around with some ideas of his own but he'd have to see how things shook out in other areas.

~~~

Captain Carter readjusted the holster and stepped back to study the result.

“That’s good,” she noted. “At that length it will be right under your hand so you can just grab it without having to reach or stretch.”

Robert Rothman, Ph.D., senior Egyptologist in the newly-minted Archeology Department of the SGC and resident team archaeologist for SG-1, nodded. He looked anything but happy.

“Thank you, Captain. But is all this necessary?”

Sam studied the slumped figure with mingled sympathy and annoyance. “If you’re going to be part of a first-contact team, Dr. Rothman, you need to be able to defend yourself, and maybe your teammates as well.”

He flinched under her stern gaze. “To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the best person for the job.”

She took a deep breath and collected her thoughts. Rothman was a scientist. So was she. She was also a Captain in the United States Air Force. Rothman was not. Sam had heard he'd been an excellent athlete in college but that certainly didn’t qualify him to be on SG-1.

In her heart of hearts, Sam didn’t think a civilian belonged on SG-1. That decision wasn’t up to her. She knew from Colonel O’Neill’s mission report that Daniel’s knowledge had been critical to their survival on Abydos and Chulak. It made sense that kind of knowledge would be needed on a first contact team. Since neither the Colonel nor General Hammond would permit an eleven-year-old to be part of a military team, they had to look elsewhere for someone with similar knowledge. At the top of that short list was Robert Rothman, Ph.D.

Sympathy overcame her annoyance and Sam smiled. “Both General Hammond and Colonel O’Neill think you're the best person for the job, and their opinions are the only ones that matter.”

“Colonel O’Neill thinks that?”

Under different circumstances, Sam would have laughed at the astonishment in Rothman’s voice.

“Yes, he does. If he didn’t, the General wouldn’t have agreed to it.”

“I didn’t, um, I didn’t know that." Rothman blinked. "He, that is, Colonel O’Neill, doesn’t seem to like me.”

Sam swallowed another smile. “Don’t take it personally, Doctor. The Colonel isn’t a fan of scientists in general.”

Oops, she may have been too blunt. Now the Egyptologist looked nervous again. She tried a different approach.

“Dr. Rothman, you’re part of SG-1 now and Colonel O’Neill would die if necessary to protect you.”

“He – what?”

“The Colonel is a good man and a superb commanding officer,” Sam explained. “Don’t worry about whether he likes you. That's not the point. Just know you couldn’t be in better hands. Do the best you can, it'll be enough.”

That last statement was more hopeful than realistic but Sam figured she was in the right ballpark when Rothman perked up. That was a good sign.

“Thank you, Captain,” he finally smiled.

“Call me Sam.” She smiled back.

“Robert.”

Sam felt a glow of satisfaction. This might work after all.

Chapter 3

One good thing about the Stargate not being opened for business just yet was Jack's free time at home. Most nights he was home in time for dinner.

He opened his front door and listened for signs of his family. The rare silence made him wonder if anyone was home. Then he heard Charlie’s whoop of laughter, oddly muffled as if by distance. The kid had to be farther away than his bedroom, out in the backyard maybe. He couldn’t hear if Daniel was with him.

Ah, there was Sara's voice coming from the kitchen. She was talking too softly for him to make out the words. Maybe she was talking to Daniel. When he reached the entry way he could clearly hear the words.

“Yes, I understand. It’s not your fault this is dragging on.”

Uh-oh. He recognized that tone of voice. She was on the phone and her voice had a stressful quality to it. The same one she used when she was furious and trying not to show it.

“All right,” Sara continued with the same forced calm. “Thank you for keeping me up to date.”

She hung up the phone, took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Jack had to admire her discipline. She didn't have newbies to yell at or a gym to go work out in.

“Hi, honey.” He moved forward.

His first instinct when she was this upset was to hug her but he'd learned over the years that wasn't always what she needed. At least not yet.

When Sara turned to face him Jack’s concern deepened. She was pale except for two spots of red on her cheeks and her blue eyes were almost black with anger. Damn, this wasn’t good. It took a lot for his wife to lose her temper. It had been quite a while since he’d seen her this close to blowing her top.

“Is everything okay?” He tried for the innocent approach, not knowing what would work best.

“No, it's not okay.” She didn't mince any words.

Jack moved closer and tested the waters by lightly touching her shoulder. “Why don't we sit down?” She was beginning to scare him. “What’s going on?”

She took a few more deep breaths and backed up a step so he wasn’t touching her. She obviously needed a little space.

“That was Mrs. Beardsley,” she said. “Daniel’s social worker.”

“Yeah?” Jack nodded for her to continue.

“She called to tell me what's going on, why the delay in allowing us to start adoption proceedings for Daniel.” Anger flared in her eyes. “Do you know what she told me?”

He knew better than to respond to her rhetorical question. She needed to tell this her way. His only job was to keep his mouth shut and let her finish.

“They haven’t been able to get a hold of Nicholas Ballard, Daniel’s grandfather.” Her lips tightened. “While Daniel’s been stuck in various foster homes for the last two years, Ballard’s been traveling around the world, going from one archeological dig to another. It’s always been difficult for Social Services to track him down because he never tells them where he’ll be.”

She was breathing harder and Jack wished he could hug her. The timing wasn’t right and he forced himself to stay still and let her finish.

“Mrs. Beardsley told me that another family wanted to adopt Daniel over a year ago. When Social Services finally found Ballard, the bastard refused to relinquish his parental rights. You know what that means? It means if he doesn't sign the paperwork no one can adopt Daniel. Ever.”

Sara wasn’t in the habit of using profanity. It was more proof of her current state of mind. She was clenching and unclenching her hands as she spoke. Repeating the social worker’s words obviously wasn't helping but there was nothing Jack could do except tamp down his own anger and keep listening.

“The last Social Services heard, Ballard was in southern Mexico but they haven’t been able find him there and they have no idea where to look for him. Mrs. Beardsley said – ” Sara’s voice shook with fury. “She said even when they eventually locate him, it’s unlikely he’ll change his mind about relinquishing his rights to Daniel.”

Without warning she slammed her fist against the wall and Jack winced in sympathy.

“That bastard!” she blazed. “How dare he call himself a human being! Daniel’s spent the last two years being shuffled from one foster home to the next, being mistreated in more than one of them, grieving, alone, frightened, while that sorry, selfish sonofabitch has been gallivanting around the goddamned globe!”

Tears trickled down her cheeks, tears of rage at a self-centered, egotistical man and tears of anguish for a discarded, lost child. Jack couldn’t hold himself back any longer. He wrapped his arms around her and his instincts proved to be right. She turned her face into his chest and hugged him. Her words were muffled but he could still hear them.

“How could he, Jack? Daniel’s his grandson! How could he ignore and neglect him like that? How could he treat him that way? How could he not want that sweet, wonderful little boy? Damn his soul to hell!”

Jack held her while she railed against the injustice of it all. Her passion was one of the many reasons he loved her and there was no talking to her until she got it out of her system.

Hearing the miserable story as Sara told it was more than enough to trigger Jack’s own temper. He struggled to keep it in check for his wife's sake. She needed to calm down, not have him rile her up again.

That she'd managed to keep her voice down through it all was proof the boys were somewhere in the house and they needed to get it together before Charlie or Daniel or both appeared.

Sara must have been thinking along the same lines because he could feel her taking deep breaths as she fought to regain control. When she pulled away he let her go. She grabbed a kitchen towel and wiped the moisture from her cheeks. When she raised her eyes she looked flushed but otherwise normal.

“Jack, I’ve never asked you this before, but I know you know a lot of people. Do you think one of them might be able to help? Maybe help find that miserable...” Sara stopped and wiped her face again.

Jack thought back to the e-mail he’d found in his Inbox earlier today. He wasn't sure what had made him decide to put out feelers about Ballard a few weeks ago but he was glad he’d listened to his instincts. They rarely steered him wrong.

“I’m already working on it, honey.”

“Really?” She stared in disbelief.

“Yeah, really.”

She grabbed him and kissed him soundly before hugging him. Jack coughed and pretended he couldn’t breathe.

“Hey, you don’t know your own strength.”

She laughed and loosened her grip a little but she didn’t let go. He was perfectly fine with that and kept his arms tight around her.

“Where are the boys?” he asked.

“Upstairs in the attic.” Sara drew back and gave him an impish grin. “Charlie’s introducing Daniel to the infamous O’Neill Halloween traditions.”

“The Haunted House?” Jack chuckled. “Yeah, I told Charlie it was time to start getting that ready.”

“Poor Daniel.” Sara shook her head. “He has no idea what’s in store.”

“Hey,” Jack said indignantly, “the O’Neill Haunted House is a neighborhood tradition that'll never be equaled. Not while I'm alive,” he added smugly.

"It is popular," Sara conceded.

This would be the third year in a row they'd do the Halloween thing here in Colorado Springs and Jack was looking forward to it, especially because it meant spending more time with his son. Sons, he corrected himself with a smile.

“A tradition, that's one word for it," Sara continued. "You’d better get up there and make sure Charlie hasn’t destroyed anything. And don’t start any projects right now, dinner will be ready in about a half hour.”

“Okay.” He noticed she was still rubbing the hand she'd used to hit the wall and he gently took it into his own hands.

“It’s all right, Jack,” she said and tried to pull it away. “Just a little sore.”

He held on until he was sure nothing was broken, then kissed her hand before releasing it. “That’s for caring so much,” he said softly.

Her eyes warmed and she gave him a quick kiss. “A half hour,” she reminded him.

“Half hour, got it.”

He was a few steps away when Sara added, “By the way, Charlie’s not allowed to ride his bike for the next week.”

“What’s he done now?’ Jack stopped and suppressed a sigh.

“Riding his bike without his helmet and pads. Correction, balancing on top of his bike on one foot while racing down the middle of the street, without his helmet and pads.”

“On our street? Did he really expect to get away with it?” Jack shook his head.

Sara shrugged. “I don’t think that was on his mind. He knows the rules. Sometimes he thinks breaking them will be worth the consequences.” She slanted a look at her husband. “He’s not the only one in this family who sometimes thinks that way.”

Jack cleared his throat and tried to come up with a reply. The timer on the stove dinged and Sara smirked.

“Saved by the bell.”

He winked at her before heading up the stairs.

“What are you guys doing?” he called from the second floor landing.

“It’s Dad!”

Jack grinned, pleased his kids were still happy to see him. The fold-down stairs that were normally tucked up into the ceiling of the second floor landing had been pulled down to allow easy access to the attic. As he reached them a tousled head appeared in the hole in the ceiling.

“Hey, Dad!” Charlie beamed down at him. “You gotta see these boxes! I don’t remember all this stuff from last year.”

“Well then, back up so I can get up there,” Jack ordered. When his son’s head disappeared, he climbed up the stairs.

The attic stretched the length of the house. It had been unfinished when they moved in and for several months Jack had spent his free hours insulating it, putting up drywall and flooring, painting, and adding another window at the far end.

His father-in-law was a licensed contractor and helped out whenever possible. It had taken both of them to keep Charlie out of trouble while he 'helped' his father and grandfather in the work. They had also wired the attic for electricity so there was plenty of lighting.

Jack had never told anyone how much finishing the attic had aided in his recovery after his nightmarish months in captivity as a POW. There was something real and solid about doing physical work, something that helped him focus on what mattered most, Sara and Charlie, and their life together. Even though he hadn’t spoken about his feelings to Sara, he suspected she knew. It probably had a lot to do with why they all enjoyed the attic so much.

One-third of the big room was filled with several pieces of old furniture Sara had collected and intended to eventually re-finish. There was also a portable closet and three cedar chests that contained the family’s seasonal clothing.

The center third of the attic was used for relaxation. A large area rug defined the space along with a few comfortable chairs, including a rocker Jack had made for Sara when she was pregnant, and a couple of low tables. This was Sara’s favorite spot when she had a few precious free hours. She'd come up here with a book to read or she'd borrow the boom box from Jack’s office and bring it up here to listen to her jazz and blues music.

At the far end, the final third of the attic contained miscellaneous boxes, including several filled with various holiday items. Thanks to Sara’s instinct for neatness and Jack’s military training, each box was clearly labeled on the outside. Several of them had been opened and the boys were poring over the contents.

“Look at this!” Charlie threw him a grin over his shoulder and kept digging.

“Hi, Jack.” Daniel offered his usual shy smile but Charlie’s excited voice overrode him.

“You see this, Dad? I was just showing Daniel, these are the black drapes we used last year for the maze.”

“Maze?” Daniel looked from Charlie to Jack.

Jack grinned. “Not really a maze. We just attach them to the ceiling of the garage as walls to make a winding path that people have to follow in order to get out.”

“Out of the garage?” Daniel asked in growing confusion.

“Out of the Haunted House!” Charlie corrected.

The look on Daniel’s face made Jack want to burst out laughing. He resisted the impulse, afraid of hurting the boy's feelings.

“You started out in the middle of things, didn’t you, buddy?”

“Middle of what?” Charlie frowned.

Jack’s grin widened. “Has Charlie told you anything about our Halloween craziness?”

“I – ” Charlie started and his father shook his head. “Let your brother answer.”

“Yep, Charlie said we have a haunted house.” Jack was surprised by Daniel’s sudden bright smile. The boy straightened, looking eager.

“That’s right, we turn the garage into a haunted house with lots of special effects.” Jack eyed his son affectionately while Charlie, oblivious to them, rooted around in another box. “You think you’d like to give us a hand this year?”

“Sure!” Daniel said. “Uh, what would I do?”

“Whatever you want to – ”

“Charlie! Daniel!” Sara’s voice floated up to them from the first floor. “Time to wash your hands and set the table.”

“Crap,” Charlie muttered as he withdrew his head from the box, then smiled sheepishly at his father who gave him a mock glare.

“Better get moving,” Jack warned. “We can look this stuff over later.”

The boys scrambled to their feet. “Race you!” Charlie challenged and ran for the stairs.

Daniel ran after him and Jack smiled in satisfaction. Of all the great ideas Sara had had over the years, bringing Daniel into their home was the greatest. He couldn’t imagine their family now without the brilliant little boy with his shy smile and sparkling blue eyes. Daniel completed the O’Neill household in ways Jack had never imagined.

Not to mention the kid had solved the puzzle of the Stargate.

Jack exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. He wasn’t looking forward to his upcoming discussion with Sara about Daniel coming back to work at the Mountain. Later, he thought. Maybe when they were getting ready for bed.

A hyper Charlie dominated the dinner conversation as he regaled Daniel with stories of Haunted Houses from years gone by. Daniel’s face reflected his growing interest and Jack watched with pleasure. The boy who used to hide his feelings behind a mask of 'I’m fine' was gradually opening up to them.

Jack was pleased at how close the boys had become despite their rocky start and obvious differences. Charlie was a natural extrovert who had grown up in a loving, secure home, while Daniel was an introvert whose tragic loss of his parents and two years in the foster care system were beyond Charlie’s comprehension.

Daniel's wounds ran deep but since returning from their mission through the Stargate, the boy had begun to let down his guard and give Jack and Sara glimpses of the carefree young boy who had once roamed the deserts of Egypt. His sense of wonder and enchantment at the world, along with a sly sense of humor, delighted and surprised them.

Jack suspected that, after what had happened on Abydos and Chulak, trust was no longer an issue and that made all the difference. Whatever it was, the four of them had bonded into a real family that made him proud.

He watched Daniel, whose eyes were shining with delight as Charlie described a few of his gorier costumes from Halloweens past. Jack listened and silently vowed that, come hell or high water, Daniel Jackson would become a permanent, official member of the O’Neill family. Whatever it took.

“Hey, Dad, when we finish dinner can we start bringing down the boxes from the attic?” Charlie was all jazzed up and ready to go.

“Not tonight, kiddo.” Jack had no desire to jump into that mess now. “I have to work tomorrow morning but then I should have the rest of the weekend off. We’ll go through everything tomorrow when I get home.”

Charlie's disappointment lasted all of a minute. “Then can we go back up there tonight? Daniel and I didn’t finish going through all the boxes and – ”

“I have a great idea,” Sara interrupted. “You and Daniel can do your homework tonight and then you’ll have the entire weekend to concentrate on the haunted house.”

“Homework?” Charlie frowned.

“That's a great idea.” Jack agreed with his wife and cut off his son.

Charlie sat back in his seat with a resigned sigh. He knew better than to argue when his parents presented him with a united front.

“Okay,” he conceded. “Daniel, can you help me with my Spanish homework? We started irregular verbs today and they don’t make sense.”

Daniel smiled. “It seems like that sometimes,” he agreed, “but the more time you spend on them the more you’ll be able to see how they work.”

“It’s been a long time since I studied languages,” Sara said. “What are irregular verbs?”

“A headache,” Charlie grumbled and his brother chuckled in sympathy.

“In irregular verbs,” Daniel explained, “the root of the verb and sometimes the ending keeps changing. It can be confusing.”

“Not to mention complicated,” Charlie put in his two cents. “In class this morning Ms. Delgado was using the verb – ” he suddenly looked blank. “Uh, the one that means ‘to have.’ Do you know that one, Daniel?”

“It’s tener,” Daniel said. “That’s a verb where the root changes but not the endings. They stay the same, like regular verbs.”

“Hey!” Charlie brightened. “That’s right.” He made a face. “I got so messed up with the root changing I forgot the endings don’t change in this word.”

“The root only changes in two ways,” Daniel said. “The original root ten- can change into teng- or tien-.”

“Really?” Charlie’s eyes widened. “It seemed like more. Two’s not so bad.”

“Nope.” Daniel smiled at his brother. “It’ll just take a little practice and then you'll get the hang of it. I’ll be glad to help if you want.”

“Cool.”

Jack listened and marveled. Daniel never talked about how smart he was and tended to look embarrassed when anyone alluded to it. None of that negated his brilliance which was impossible for the boy to hide. It always shone through, coming out in obvious and not so obvious ways whenever the kid opened his mouth. In the last few minutes Daniel had revealed not only a complete grasp of one aspect of Spanish grammar but lowered Charlie’s frustration level and helped him better comprehend the subject with only a few words of explanation.

Jack tried to ignore the fact that Daniel was a certified genius because it made him a little uncomfortable, and he feared the kid might pick up on those feelings. He didn’t want Daniel to feel like a freak, especially after Jack’s misconstrued, overheard 'geek' comments from several months ago. Sara said Daniel's brilliance was a gift that needed to be nurtured and encouraged. She was right.

As much as Jack regretted Daniel's ordeal at the hands of Ra and Apophis, the eleven-year-old's genius was the only reason they'd made it back home and lived to fight another day. Stargate Command was a reality because of Daniel Jackson. Talk about a genius.

“Honey?” Sara was watching him with raised eyebrows.

“Later,” he mouthed, relieved the boys were too involved in their Spanish discussion to pay attention.

She studied him briefly before turning to Daniel to ask a question about English versus Spanish verbs. Jack let the discussion wash over him as he considered how to best broach the subject of Daniel coming back to work at the base. However he framed it, he didn’t imagine it was going to be an enjoyable conversation.

A few hours later Jack came out of the bathroom and found Sara sitting on their bed waiting for him.

“What’s going on?” She tilted her head and looked concerned.

Swell. There was no point in putting it off. The boys were in bed and it was as good a time as any.

“I know you’ve been concerned about Daniel’s nightmares since we got back. We've both been concerned," he corrected. “That’s the main reason you, I mean we, haven’t wanted him to go back to Cheyenne Mountain.” He eyed her in an effort to gauge her reaction. She nodded but remained silent, unreadable.

“The last week or two he’s been much better,” Jack forged ahead. “Fewer nightmares and all. So...” he briefly considered mentioning Hammond’s request but nixed the idea. This wasn’t about Hammond; it was about them, the O’Neill family.

“So, what would you think of me asking Daniel if he was interested in coming back to the Mountain?”

Silence was his only answer and Jack hurried to clarify. “On a limited basis," he added. Damn, it was times like these when he wished he had Daniel's gift of gab.

Sara was still and silent, her eyes unfocused as she concentrated on whatever she was thinking. Jack forced himself to stay quiet, too. He'd made his case, the ball was in her court.

After a minute that felt more like twenty minutes, he tried again. “It’ll be strictly up to Daniel. I won’t try to pressure him, I'll just ask if he’d like to come back. If he says no, I’ll drop it.”

More silence.

Crap. Jack was so intent on coming up with a better argument he almost missed Sara’s quiet, “All right.”

“Wait – what’d you say?” he demanded.

She smiled faintly. “I said all right. I have no objection to you asking Daniel if he’d like to go back to the Mountain.”

“Yeah?” Jack knew he was beaming. “That’s great, thanks, honey.”

He couldn’t help feeling a sense of pride. After all his concerns and second-guessing, after fearing he wouldn’t be able to come up with something persuasive enough to sway his determined wife, it had only taken a few words. Damn, he was good.

“Daniel already told me he wants to go back.”

It took a second for her words to penetrate his self-satisfaction. He blinked and Sara’s smile widened.

“Otherwise I’d never have agreed to it.”

Of course she wouldn’t have. “When did Daniel tell you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He just told me today.” Sara laughed.

“You could’ve said something,” Jack grumbled.

“And miss your eloquent arguments? I think not.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief, reminding Jack of their son.

He burst out laughing and threw himself down on the bed beside her. “You are a scheming, calculating woman, Sara O’Neill.”

“I have to be to stay a step ahead of my scheming, calculating husband and son. Thank goodness I have Daniel on my side. At least I don’t have to worry about him scheming and calculating.”

"Yet," Jack threw in for good measure. He thought back to some of Daniel’s antics on Abydos. The kid could scheme and calculate with the best of them. He decided not to tell Sara. It would only depress her. She’d find out eventually.

“Jack.” She pulled away from him far enough to meet his gaze. “You still need to let the decision be Daniel’s.”

“I will,” he promised before kissing her again. “As a matter of fact, I’ll go talk to him right now before he falls asleep.”

"I still don't understand why the Air Force so desperately needs an eleven-year-old on its payroll." She muttered the words loud enough for him to hear.

He paused in the doorway. It would seem outrageous to anyone who didn't know what was happening. Sara didn't really expect an answer and since it hadn't been posed as a question he decided to let it slide. Maybe someday the program would go public and then he could explain everything. The thought of explaining Daniel's role was scarier than keeping the secret.

Jack walked down the hall, relieved to see the beam of light shining beneath Daniel’s door. He knocked and waited for Daniel's 'come in', before stepping inside.

“Knock, knock,” he greeted as he shut the door behind him.

Daniel was in bed. He lowered the book he’d been reading and smiled. “Hi, Jack. What’s up?”

Jack sat down on the edge of the bed and twisted his head to read the title of the book. “Following in the Footsteps of the Pharaohs. A good read?”

“I think so." Daniel’s smile widened. "Is that why you’re here? To talk about the book?”

Jack snorted. The kid was too quick and smart for his own good. “Actually, Sara told me what you told her today.”

Daniel marked the page he’d been reading, closed the book and laid it down in his lap. His smile faded but his blue eyes remained calm and steady.

“I want to go back to the Mountain and help with the translations...” he hesitated, suddenly looking uncertain, “if you still need me.”

Jack wrapped an arm around the boy's shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “We sure do need you, buddy. As a matter of fact, General Hammond was just asking about you today.”

“He was?” Daniel seemed astonished. The kid had no clue how critical he was to the program.

“Yeah, he was,” Jack assured him. “And I know he’ll be delighted to see you again. Not to mention Kawalsky and Ferretti and the scientists. They’ll all be happy to see you again.”

“Really?” A smile bloomed slowly across Daniel’s face.

“Absolutely. So, do you want to go to the base with me tomorrow morning? We’ll only be there a few hours but it’ll give you a chance to say hi to everyone.”

“That’d be great!” Daniel bounced in the bed and his eyes shone with excitement.

“Yeah, it will be,” Jack agreed, wondering why his throat felt tight.

“Uh, Jack...” As thrilled as the kid had been a second ago, now he looked uncertain.

“What is it?” Jack gave the boy's shoulders another squeeze.

“Do I, um, do I still have my office?” The last words were so soft Jack barely heard them. Emotion filled his heart and this time he gave Daniel a full-on, patented, Jack O’Neill hug.

“Of course you do.”

“I can’t wait to see it again!”

Jack was nearly blinded by the brilliance of the enthusiastic smile. If Daniel had missed it so much, why hadn't he asked to come back sooner? Maybe it was just Daniel being Daniel.

“I can’t wait to see you in it again.” Jack tousled the blonde hair and wondered if he was missing something. "I think it's time for lights out."

He took the heavy book from Daniel's lap and placed it on the nightstand. Then he pulled up the blanket and kissed his boy's forehead before turning out the bedside lamp and whispering, "Goodnight."

Returning to their bedroom, Jack found Sara had fallen asleep. He changed his clothes, slid under the sheets beside her and put his arms around his wife. She unconsciously nestled closer and he relaxed with a deep feeling of satisfaction. Despite the Stargate, the SGC, and the craziness that was their lives, all was right with his world. Content, he drifted into sleep.

Chapter 4

A sharp cry pierced the quiet and Jack was instantly awake and alert. He sat upright and pulled on his sweatpants before Sara had so much as stirred. A glance at the bedside clock showed it was three a.m.

“Jack?” Sara mumbled as she pushed at the blankets covering her.

"I'll go, honey. Go back to sleep."

He leaned over and kissed her hair. He didn't need to say it, she knew he'd go. When Daniel was the one having bad dreams she didn't have a choice, he always went. Even though it would probably sound like gibberish to a civilian, he worried about Daniel accidently revealing classified information as he came out of a nightmare.

Sara didn't argue but she didn't roll over and go back to sleep either. She switched on the lamp and sat up with a frown. Jack didn't have time to soothe her. He was already out the door and heading down the hall to Daniel's bedroom.

Daniel wasn't crying out or thrashing around like he usually did. This time he was mumbling what sounded like pleading interspersed with an occasional shout. Jack sat down on the edge of the bed and pushed the blonde hair off of the sweaty face.

"It's okay. Wake up."

"Jack!" Daniel shouted his name with urgency and sat up, eyes wide with terror, clearly still in the throes of the dream.

Jack wrapped his arms around the sobbing boy and pulled him close. When that didn't work he pushed him back to arm's length and lifted the boy's chin to meet his eyes.

"Daniel, I'm here. You’re fine, I'm fine. We're both fine. I'm right here."

"Jack!" Daniel shouted again before his eyes cleared. "Oh, Jack." He threw his arms around Jack's waist and clung tightly, shivering.

"That's it. Take deep breaths. You're home, you're safe, and you're fine.” Jack held Daniel close and whispered assurances until the boy finally calmed down enough to pull away and reach for the tissue box on the nightstand.

Jack leaned over and obliged him with two Puffs. Daniel blew his nose with one and mopped his face with the other. Jack held up the wastebasket and when he was finished Daniel tossed them both in.

"Sorry, I woke you up." He sniffed and Jack handed him another tissue. "I'm fine now. You can go back to bed." The boy stared up with glistening eyes and a brave smile.

Jack tried not to chuckle at the false bravado. Despite telling him to go back to bed, Daniel rested his head against Jack's chest.

"I’m not going anywhere yet, buddy. What were you dreaming about?"

He put his arms around the boy again, keeping his grip loose this time but wanting Daniel to feel the security of his presence. Jack had been advised to give Daniel opportunities to talk about the mission, about what had happened on Abydos and Chulak. Fraiser, Warner and McKenzie had all given him the same spiel on how to help Daniel come to terms with what had happened. The more the boy talked, the better off he'd be. Talking did seem to help. As an unexpected bonus, it seemed to be helping Jack as well. He had his own nightmares from the mission and nearly all of them centered on what had happened to Daniel.

"Just some Ra stuff." Daniel pulled away and looked up at him. "I'm fine, Jack. I didn't wake up Sara, did I?"

Jack sighed. Sometimes getting Daniel to talk was like pulling teeth. Not to mention the kid was a master at changing the subject.

"Sara's fine. What kind of Ra stuff?" Jack patted the boy's shoulder. "Come on, it's good to talk about it."

Daniel let out a mighty sigh as resignation filled his blue eyes. Jack smiled faintly. The kid was finally figuring out Jack could match an eleven-year-old's stubbornness when he set his mind to it.

"I dreamed that Ra's guard fired the staff weapon at you but this time it hit you and, and... you died." The last few words were barely a whisper.

Jack closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Since they'd been home Daniel had woken up in the middle of the night many times. True, the nightmares were not as frequent now but they hadn't disappeared altogether. This was the third time in the last two weeks, and yes, Jack was counting. He had no doubt Sara was, too. Was this one brought on by the decision to come back to work tomorrow or would it have happened anyway? They had no way of knowing.

The more recent nightmares tended to cover the same events, the day Daniel and Skaara were kidnapped in the Abydos pyramid, when Lieutenant Freeman was killed and Captain Ferretti was seriously injured. That was a day Jack couldn’t think about without being wracked with guilt. He would always regret giving permission to the four of them to go off exploring alone. Jack O’Neill wasn't one to dwell on the past but he'd always wonder how things might have turned out had he and Kawalsky been there when Apophis and his thugs ringed in.

The 'what ifs' didn't help but Jack still wasn’t sure he had the full story from Daniel. Freeman was dead, Ferretti hadn't actually seen the kidnapping and Skaara was gone. That left Daniel to tell the tale. Jack had asked probing questions during the previous nightmares but Daniel never had the detailed answers and emotions Jack expected. It felt like the boy was holding something back but that didn't make sense. Daniel trusted him. Why would he withhold information? It was more likely the poor kid honestly didn't remember.

Daniel's Ra nightmare was Jack's nightmare, too, except in his nightmare it was Daniel who had the starring role. It was the same dream that woke him up shaking and groaning in the dead of the night. Sometimes Jack would shout Daniel's name and that would wake up Sara. She'd hold him and whisper that everything was okay, that both of the boys were fine and sleeping peacefully in their beds.

The Ra nightmare rattled him so badly he never bothered telling Sara he was fine and she should go back to sleep. Instead, he welcomed the warmth of her comfort and settled his head on her breasts and tried to pretend there was no Stargate buried in Cheyenne Mountain and no evil parasites capable of possessing human beings and enslaving planets. He preferred to breathe in her scent and focus on how much he needed her. On many of those morning-afters they'd make love before dawn and then she'd get up and make him breakfast while Jack marveled all over again at how strong she was and how much he loved her.

Jack had wondered if Daniel had nightmares about Ra, too. He figured the kid had to, though Daniel had never admitted it until now. Tonight, Jack had his answer and an opening to talk about what had happened and why Daniel’s actions had been wrong and could never happen again. Not that Daniel would be going off-world again but there was no telling what could happen at the SGC. It wasn't exactly a safe working environment and now that Daniel was coming back to the Mountain, Jack needed to lay down the law to his son. What happened on Ra's ship could never happen again. He had wanted to talk to Daniel about that terrifying day and here was his chance. Daniel needed to hear him and understand.

"You were really dead, Jack." Daniel was fully awake now and sitting cross-legged on the bed, his blue eyes wide and unnaturally bright.

Jack decided on the direct approach. It would feel better to get this off his chest and maybe it would help ease both their nightmares. "It was only a bad dream. I’m right here – ” he patted his chest. “In the flesh.”

That won a faint smile from the boy. Good. Time to move into heavy water. “What you did that day was wrong, Daniel. You know that, don't you?"

"What?"

To his dismay the kid was genuinely confused. It was difficult to say the words but Jack needed to say them as much as Daniel needed to hear them.

"Jumping in front of that staff weapon. That was wrong. I'm the Colonel, I'm your father. You're a little boy. I save you, you don't save me." Jack realized he was gripping Daniel's shoulder a little tighter than necessary and eased up.

"I'm not a little boy. I'm eleven.” Daniel looked down at his hands.

"Look at me." When the not-so-little boy in question looked up Jack continued. "Don’t try to change the subject. You're still a kid and you know exactly what I'm talking about."

His voice broke as the image of Daniel, lying at his feet with a smoking hole in his chest, clouded his vision. "Why did you do that?"

"I didn't want you to die." Daniel looked him straight in the eye. "Ra wouldn't have saved you."

That was true. If the blast had hit its intended target Jack would have been killed. Ra wouldn’t have bothered reviving him in the sarcophagus. The alien revived Daniel because the boy had been wearing the Ra medallion and because he was a child like the other children attending the bastard. Jack shivered at the thought of Ra's intentions. He hoped Daniel had no idea what had been in store for him if Jack and the team had been killed and Ra had decided to keep the boy alive.

Although Daniel was right in his guess, the kid hadn't known about the power of the sarcophagus when the staff weapon was fired. Instinct had thrown him in front of the weapon to take the full brunt of the blast, instinct that hadn't been taught or ingrained through years of military experience and training.

The boy's instincts were inherent to his personality and character and for the first time Jack wondered if Daniel would have thrown himself in harm's way had Ferretti or Kawalsky or Kawab been the target. Maybe he would have sacrificed himself for a complete stranger. In his own quiet way, Daniel Jackson was scarier than Charlie on his worst day. Jack would be lucky to survive the two of them.

It was time to get tough. He understood how difficult it was to go against instinct but he needed to try to get his son to understand.

"Daniel, when we're on a mission who's in charge?"

"You are, Jack." Daniel wrinkled his nose, clearly not happy where this was conversation was heading. Too bad.

"That's right. I'm the Colonel, I'm in charge and I've been on lots of missions, right?"

"Right.” The boy drew out the word until it was almost a question.

"I always come up with a plan, a solution, a way out that's good for everyone." Jack emphasized the word 'always.' It didn't have to be true, Daniel just had to believe it.

"You can't just jump in with your own plans, kiddo. It might get people hurt or killed and it might screw up my plan. You have to trust me to do the best thing for everyone, otherwise there’d be chaos. It's not up to you to jump in front of guns or ring up to alien ships to save people. You did a great job, I'm not saying you didn't, but you need to do things my way because it's a safer way." To Jack's chagrin, Daniel didn't look convinced.

"I didn't want to watch you die."

"Well, I didn't want to watch you die either." Damn it, he sounded like a five-year-old trading jabs. This wasn't the way he intended the conversation to go.

Daniel lowered his gaze and Jack saw he was twisting his hands together in his lap.

"I watched my mom and dad die," he whispered.

Shit, shit, shit.

Daniel had become such an integral part of the O’Neill family that sometimes Jack forgot that not that long ago, Daniel Jackson had been part of another loving family, living a completely different life.

He pulled the boy in for a hug. "Let's agree not to watch anyone die. How's that sound?"

"Good." Daniel nodded. He blinked back the moisture in his eyes, sniffed and sat up straighter. "It must have scared you when you thought I died, huh, Jack? I’m sorry, I never thought of that."

"Yeah, I'd say so," Jack needed to blink back a little moisture in his own eyes. The oblivious little superhero had no idea.

When Daniel had enough comfort he laid back down. Jack covered him up and kissed his forehead.

"Close your eyes and I'll sit with you for a few minutes."

Daniel obeyed and after the boy dropped off to sleep Jack rose to his feet. He stood over the bed for a few minutes, watching the small chest rise and fall with each steady breath. Then he leaned over and planted a kiss on the boy's temple.

"Don't ever, ever do that again," he whispered.

He slipped quietly out the doorway and returned to his own room.

"Everything okay?” Sara was sitting up in bed.

"Yeah, he's fine. He fell back to sleep." Jack closed the door and shed his sweats to join her.

"How about you, Jack? Are you fine?" She surprised him by taking his hand in hers.

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Are you really sure?”

Damn it. She knew he wasn’t fine. He was having trouble getting the memory of Daniel's lifeless body out of his head, especially at night.

Eventually the memories would subside to a less painful level. They always did. This one would just take longer than most. Sara didn't know what happened on that mission and she knew better than to ask direct questions. That didn't stop her from gentle prodding in an effort to help.

“Could you turn off the light?” Avoidance was his best ally.

Sara complied and switched off her lamp and lay down beside him. “You're sure you're okay?” This time she whispered the question and ran her fingers through his short hair.

He couldn’t lie to her. She knew him better than he knew himself and loved him in spite of his shortcomings.

The truth.

“I’m getting there.” He pulled her close and settled in for the night.

~~~

Jack was feeling better the next morning. After breakfast, he took care of a few small items in his home office before heading for the front door. It was Saturday morning and he was taking Daniel to the Mountain for a half day of work to get the boy back into the swing of things. He was surprised to see his son ready and waiting at the door.

"Whoa, need help?" The kid was laden down with crap. Two shopping bags, two big books and what looked like a very heavy backpack.

Before Daniel had a chance to answer Jack relieved him of the backpack and one of the shopping bags. It looked like he'd brought enough work for a month rather than a half a day.

“Thanks, Jack.” The happy grin on the kid’s face touched him.

The new plan was that starting on Monday an Air Force car would pick Daniel up after school two or three days a week, as needed, and drive him to the SGC. Jack would bring him home later in the day. Daniel was excited about the prospect and to Sara's dismay had commented that the hardest part would be getting through the school day, waiting for it to end.

Jack sighed. As important as Daniel’s presence was at the SGC, there was no getting around the fact that this wasn't how he or Sara had imagined the remainder of Daniel's childhood when he'd moved in last spring. No one could have imagined the life the boy led now.

"That's a lot of lunch you got there, buddy," he joked after peering into one of the bags.

"It's not my lunch, it’s treats for my friends,” Daniel explained even though Jack had a feeling the kid knew he'd been teasing.

"You must have a lot of friends."

Jack raised a playful eyebrow as he spoke and loaded the bags behind the passenger seat of the truck. Daniel hopped in, buckled his seatbelt and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. The kid was excited about getting back to work and when excited, Daniel Jackson talked, and talked, and talked. That was fine with Jack. He liked chatty, excited Daniel far better than shy, quiet Daniel or worse, scared out of his wits Daniel.

"I do have lots of friends." The kid picked up right where they'd left off.

Jack’s throat tightened at the shy pride in Daniel’s voice. A touch of pink rose in the boy’s cheeks before he continued.

"At first I asked Sara if she could help me make cookies to take into work but she said she had tons of stuff in the freezer in the garage so she cleaned it out and gave me everybody’s favorites."

"Favorites?"

How the hell would Daniel know everybody's favorites? Jack was second in command of the SGC and had combed through the personnel files of everyone on the base. He'd known Kawalsky and Ferretti for years but he'd be hard-pressed to come up with their favorite anything aside from the fact they both drank their coffee black and liked their steaks medium-rare.

Daniel was off and running. "Sam likes lemon poppy seed bread, Major Kawalsky likes blueberry muffins, Captain Ferretti likes apple pie and I know Dr. Rothman and Dr. Lee love apple pie, too. Dr. Fraiser and Sergeant Siler like coffee cake. I know that because when I was in the infirmary someone brought in coffee cake and she and Sergeant Siler were saying it was their favorite. I'm going to take the coffee cake to the infirmary and then tell Sergeant Siler to go down there and get a piece. That should be okay, right, Jack?”

Jack didn't get a chance to answer, which was just as well because he wasn’t' sure what he could possibly say to all that. It wasn’t like he'd never taken treats into work before, occasionally he'd brought in doughnuts or something extra Sara had baked, but he had no idea who ate what much less who liked what. He always threw the goodies on the conference room table and when Sara asked if people enjoyed them he'd truthfully answer yes. They were gone the next time he went by so he assumed someone must have enjoyed them.

"I took a whole apple pie for the science department but I cut a big piece out for Captain Ferretti," Daniel went on as he peeked into one of the bags. “Sara packed other stuff, too, in case I forgot anyone. And she packed lots of chocolate chip cookies. She said everyone loves chocolate chip cookies. Do you think they do, Jack?"

"Kawalsky likes blueberry muffins?" The conversation had Jack's head spinning.

Daniel gave him one of those ‘duh’ looks that was becoming all too familiar. "You know he does. He eats them all the time in the commissary. He says they're one of the few things that taste good that's good for you."

No, Jack didn't know that. "He says that, huh?" He considered himself very observant; it was an essential skill to survival. It was just that he didn't give a crap what people ate in the commissary. Besides, he assumed they picked out what looked edible like he did.

He heard the kid catch his breath and glanced sideways at him. “Don’t tell me you forgot something.”

"No.” Daniel's face fell. “I just thought of something."

What? You forgot to make a cake for someone's birthday? It was on the tip of Jack's tongue to say the sarcastic line out loud but the boy's dip in enthusiasm stopped him.

"What's the matter?"

"I forgot it’s Saturday. Lots of people might be off. I hope Dr. Rothman's there. And Dr. Kerrigan. I really want to meet him. I want to talk to him about his most recent book. You should read it, Jack. He traces the development of several ancient alphabets to their modern equivalents. I think some of his theories could be very useful at the SGC.”

Oh, yeah, that sounded like a book Jack would want to cozy up with. Not. He resisted the impulse to roll his eyes because he didn’t want to rain on the kid’s parade. This was the most energized his son had been in weeks.

He let the excited chatter wash over him and concentrated on driving. Whenever Daniel paused for a minute, Jack figured it was his cue to grunt an acknowledgment, which seemed to be sufficient because the boy would then continue with whatever he was nattering on about.

"He's very smart, Jack,” Daniel finally concluded. “Have you met him yet?"

Okay, this required more than a grunt. Who was the kid talking about? Right, the new guy, Kerrigan.

"Yes, I did. And, yes, he seems very smart." Jack based that opinion on how nervous and socially awkward the linguist appeared in the presence of the military personnel, himself included. Complete nerd, which in Jack's mind translated to most likely extremely smart.

"Do you think anyone will be working today?"

Ah, to be young again. Most of the SGC personnel were working six, sometimes seven days a week, including the civilians. They were intense and enthusiastic and dedicated; to their credit, you couldn't drag them out of there if you tried.

"Yeah,” Jack reassured, “I think a lot of them are working today. That's why I figured it’d be a good day for you to stop in and meet Dr. Kerrigan and some of the other new personnel and get your feet wet."

"Get my feet wet?"

Daniel was looking at him with the same confused look new Airmen sported when he used old expressions they didn't understand. Jack resisted another eye roll.

"Never mind, it's an old saying, it’s not important. The point is, I think most of them will be there so you can say 'hi'."

"And we're here, Jack!" Daniel smiled wide.

So they were. After making it through the first line of security, Jack parked in his reserved spot and grabbed the bags and the books. Daniel hurried ahead of him lugging his heavy backpack. The last thing Jack wanted was to walk into the SGC carrying two large bags of baked goods but at least no one, with the possible exception of Kawalsky or Ferretti, would be dumb enough to say anything to him.

Once inside they passed through the next levels of security, Daniel still chattering a mile a minute. Jack received a couple of sympathetic smiles from the SF’s that he pretended not to notice.

Finally, he was able to hand off the bags and the books to a young Sergeant – damn, they were getting younger all the time – and ordered the man to be sure the stuff was delivered safely to Daniel Jackson's office.

The kid snapped off a crisp “Yessir” in a tone that promised he'd carry out the mission and guard the items with his life if need be. Jack tried not to laugh and hoped the Sergeant didn't look inside. The best and brightest had been assigned to the SGC but since the program was still in the process of getting up and running, even the training drills for Stargate Command could become a dull routine. The Marines and Airmen alike were itching for some action. Being ordered by a Colonel to run baked goods down to the 18th level was probably a welcome relief.

"Jack, where's my stuff?” Daniel was already at the elevators looking concerned.

"One of the soldiers offered to take it to your office."

"That was nice of him.” Daniel gave a little bounce and Jack grinned. It was good to see the kid so happy to be back at the SGC.

The elevator took them down. Jack had no idea how but the Sergeant was already inside Daniel's office when they arrived with the books and bags in tow.

"Thank you, Sergeant." Jack nodded a dismissal but Daniel yelled, "Wait!"

The soldier froze and looked at Jack in confusion.

"I have something for you," Daniel explained, as he dug through bag number one and came up empty.

"Sir?"

"Daniel, I'm sure..." Jack checked the name on the uniform, "Airman Raynor has other duties he needs to attend to."

"It'll just take a second," Daniel insisted as he rummaged through bag number two. "Got it," he smiled triumphantly as he pulled out a zip lock baggie containing three chocolate chip cookies.

"Thank you for carrying my stuff to my office for me." He handed over the cookies. "You can eat them all or share them with your friends."

The Airman was obviously confused at the bag's contents but politeness won the day. "Thank you, s-sir."

"I'm not a sir," Daniel’s smile widened. "I’m Daniel."

When the Sergeant looked his way for help Jack shrugged. Yep, it was gonna be one of those days. Welcome back, kiddo.

"T-thank you, Daniel," Raynor managed.

Jack took pity on the young man. "Take ’em. Go. Enjoy. Dismissed."

After a flustered, “Yes, sir,” the Airman made a beeline for the open door and the freedom beyond.

"Everyone loves chocolate chip," Jack yelled after him.

Daniel was happily oblivious. "That was really nice of him to carry all our stuff, Jack."

"Yes, nice," Jack agreed. "Listen, I have that important meeting I came in for, can you handle this on your own?" He gestured at the full bags in front of them.

"Yep, I'll organize it all and then go make my deliveries."

"Sounds good."

Jack couldn't help ruffling the boy's hair before he left. Daniel had a kind heart and an old soul. The boy brought a much needed ray of light deep into the depths of the underground military facility. Despite his misgivings, he was glad his kid was back.

Chapter 5

Bag in hand, Daniel was on his way to the commissary. The infirmary had been his first stop because he guessed Dr. Fraiser would be the easiest to find. She'd either be with a patient or in her office. He had found her at her desk doing paperwork and she had not only been surprised and pleased to see him but she seemed extra happy he'd brought in Sara's coffee cake.

After a few minutes of polite conversation Daniel excused himself because he had more deliveries to make. He was almost to the elevators when he realized he'd forgotten to tell her to save a piece for Sergeant Siler. Turning abruptly, he ran back to the infirmary. When he burst in the physician almost dropped the piece of coffee cake she was still eating.

“Daniel, what on earth?”

“I forgot to tell you that I'm going to send Sergeant Siler down to get his piece.”

She looked at the second, unwrapped piece and sighed. “Just as well. I don’t need the calories.”

Daniel frowned. “I’m sorry, if you want another piece I can probably get some from Sara.”

Dr. Fraiser laughed. “Thank you, Daniel, but no thank you. This one piece is plenty.”

“Good.” He smiled in relief and shifted his bag. It was awkward and heavy. “I’ll see you later, I need to find Major Kawalsky.”

“You just missed him. Both he and Captain Ferretti were in here less than thirty minutes ago.”

“Really?” Maybe he wouldn’t have to run all over the SGC looking for them. “Do you know where they went?”

The physician smiled. “Probably the same place all soldiers like to go whenever they have free time. Where there’s food. I suspect you’ll find him at the commissary.”

“Thanks, Dr, Fraiser. I'll try there first.” How lucky could he get?

Daniel entered the commissary with his shopping bag of goodies and looked around. It was silly but he felt a touch of uneasiness at the breakfast-time crush of soldiers filling every table, especially because none of the faces looked familiar and some of them stared at him like he didn't belong there.

To be fair, he hadn't been to the Mountain in quite a while and according to Jack, a lot of new personnel had been arriving since the SGC became official. Maybe they thought he was someone's lost kid. Heat crept up Daniel's neck at the thought.

Taking a deep breath he willed himself to stop worrying. He was being silly, the soldiers weren't doing anything to make him nervous, maybe it was because the room was so crowded. He was just about to leave when he spotted the Major and the Captain at a table in the back corner.

Daniel's excitement grew as he headed over. There were two other guys in the usual fatigues sitting across from his friends but Daniel didn't care. He hadn't seen the Major or the Captain since he'd left the Mountain over a month ago and he couldn’t believe how healthy they both looked. Jack had said they were improving every day but seeing was believing.

The four men were leaning forward talking in quiet voices and didn't notice his arrival. Daniel stopped a few feet away and bit his lip. It was awkward, not knowing if he should interrupt or wait until one of the men spotted him.

"Do you want something, kid?" One of the younger guys finally looked up with a scowl.

"Daniel!" Before Daniel could answer Major Kawalsky saved the day.

Daniel breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. "Major Kawalsky, you're okay. You're really okay!" He was so happy he wanted to hug the officer but he wasn't sure if that would be appropriate.

"Right as rain," Kawalsky grinned.

Right as rain, Jack said that a lot, too. It must be a military saying, he'd have to ask Charlie about it. To his surprise the big man opened his arms and after a brief hesitation Daniel set his bag down and hurried to the man's side to accept his embrace and give one of his own.

"I'm so glad you're okay," Daniel repeated, glad to feel the strength in the arms holding him. More than anything else, that told him the Major was fine.

Still sitting in his chair Kawalsky hung on to him for a long minute. "How about you, Daniel? How’re you doing?"

"I'm great." When the Major released him Daniel went to stand beside Ferretti and blushed in pleasure when he received another hug. "You look great, too, Captain," he enthused.

"All better." Ferretti grinned and let him go.

"What's in the bag?" Kawalsky prodded.

"Oh, I almost forgot." Daniel conked himself on the head. "I brought you guys something.”

Dropping to one knee, he rifled through the bag until he found what he was looking for and pulled it out. "A blueberry muffin for you, Major. Your favorite."

"Hey, that is my favorite. How'd you know that?" The Major took the muffin and set it down beside his plate of food.

"I remembered," Daniel answered as he dove back into the bag. "And a big piece of pie for you, Captain." He handed the smaller bag over and smiled expectantly, hoping he’d got it right. The Captain didn't disappoint him.

"Apple?" His smile broadened when Daniel nodded.

"Sara, uh,” Ferretti glanced at the younger soldiers at the table, “I mean, Mrs. O’Neill made this?"

"Yep, she made both of them."

To Daniel's surprise Captain Ferretti opened up the bag, took out the big slice of pie and started eating it right there at the table. "Oh, man, this is delicious," he announced as he chomped loudly. "And don't you guys even look at it, it's all for me."

Daniel felt a flash of panic as he realized the other soldiers didn't have anything and the Major and the Captain didn't seem to have any intention of sharing. It was rude of them but Daniel had come to realize that's how a lot of the soldiers were, though they did share when it came to important stuff. Captain Ferretti had shared his water on Abydos. It was the small stuff they didn't bother with.

Daniel smiled in relief when he remembered the cookies. He pulled out one baggie and decided the two men would have to share, the cookies were very popular and he didn't want to run out.

"Here's something for you guys, too." He handed the baggie over to the soldier closest to him, the one who had initially scowled. "They're chocolate chip, for you and your friend," he explained.

The soldier stared from the cookies to his superiors, looking confused.

"Take 'em, Thompson,” Major Kawalsky suggested. “Mrs. O’Neill makes good cookies, and say thank you," he added. Like Jack, sometimes the Major's gruff suggestions came out sounding like orders. The Sergeant immediately offered his thanks.

"You're welcome. I have to go," Daniel said. "I have to give Sam her stuff and Sergeant Davis and Dr. Rothman and, well, just lots of stops."

"No problem." Major Kawalsky patted him on the back.

Captain Ferretti took another bite of pie. "Thank you, Daniel. Tell Sara the pie is delicious."

"I will." Daniel gave them all a wave then picked up the bags and headed for the door, he still had a lot more people to visit.

Walking out of the commissary, he reflected how great it was to see his friends whole and happy. He just wished Lieutenant Freeman had been sitting at the table with the rest of the guys. An ache of sadness gripped his heart. Lieutenant Freeman would have loved the cookies. Chocolate chips were his favorite. He'd told Daniel that on Abydos. If Lieutenant Freeman had been there, Daniel would have given the medic all the cookies.

He shook his head to dispel the sad thought. He didn’t want to be sad. This was his first day back and he was happy and surprised by how right it felt.

When he reached the elevators he checked his watch. He needed to pick up the pace because he had a lot of other stops to make before ending his deliveries at Dr. Rothman's. He was going to the lab last because he planned on staying there the longest and maybe catch a glimpse of what they were working on. And Dr. Rothman could introduce him to Dr. Kerrigan. Daniel couldn’t wait to talk to the distinguished linguist.

Back in the commissary, Kawalsky and Ferretti happily munched on Daniel’s offerings. Across the table, the other members of SG-2 looked at their treats in confusion.

"Cookies, sir?" Puzzled, Sergeant Thompson held up the plastic bag of goodies.

"Mrs. O’Neill made 'em.” Since Kawalsky’s mouth was full, Ferretti tried to enlighten and educate his junior team members. "You know, Sara O'Neill."

It took a second for the implications to set in. "Colonel O'Neill's wife?"

Kawalsky swallowed and grinned. "Yep, that Sara O’Neill."

Thompson and Greenberg exchanged looks. "So that was... Daniel Jackson?" Greenberg asked.

"In the flesh."

“Oh my god, I can't believe it. I thought he'd be..." Thompson's words trailed off.

"Older?" Ferretti suggested.

"Older and more mature,” Greenberg agreed. “I mean the kid is running around passing out cookies."

"Don't let that fool you. He's a sweet kid but he's also a genius. He opened the Stargate," Ferretti reminded.

The soldiers both nodded, still looking a little dazed.

"He may be a sweet kid but he's got guts, too." Kawalsky added. "He jumped in front of a staff weapon blast meant for the Colonel on Abydos. And he got us home. I'd have him on my team anytime.”

"Wow," Sergeant Thompson said. "I heard the stories, I knew Daniel Jackson was a kid but it’s different seeing him up close and realizing he really is just a kid."

"A very important kid," Kawalsky interrupted. “A kid who's essential to the Stargate program and a kid who means a lot to all of us personally. If he's ever in danger, your standing orders are to do whatever it takes to protect him. Understand?"

"Understood, sir." Both soldiers looked solemn for a minute until Greenberg held out his hand to Thompson.

“Gimme my share of the cookies.”

"Yeah, eat up, gentlemen. You're going to need your strength. We'll be training with the Jaffa today." Major Kawalsky chuckled at his men's nervous expressions and took another pleasure-filled bite of his muffin.

~~~

"Sam!" Daniel burst into his friend's lab and was glad to see she was alone. He immediately gave her a huge hug. "I'm here. I'm back!"

Sam returned the hug and to his embarrassment whispered, "I missed you," and kissed his cheek. Even though he blushed it was nice to be missed.

“It’s great to see you,” she went on. “I saw the Colonel earlier and he said you were here. I was hoping you’d come by.”

“Of course.” He settled down on a nearby chair. She listened as he told her the details of how he'd be coming into the Mountain after school.

“An official Air Force car will pick me up after school and bring me here,” he explained. He didn’t add the kicker, that he'd be coming to the Mountain for as many days each week as he could talk Jack and Sara into. Then he could work in his office or he could work in one of the science labs. The thought made him shiver in anticipation before he continued.

“And if you need me, all you have to do is call and I can be right here in minutes.”

She gave him another hug. Two hugs and he hadn't even given her the treat yet.

"I have something for you," he said when she let him go. He hid his blush by taking a few minutes longer than necessary to rummage through the bag of treats. Everything was almost gone. He'd have to go to his office to refill if he forgot anyone.

Sam waited patiently and Daniel finally produced his gift. "It's lemon poppy seed bread, Sam. Your favorite!"

"Did Sara make this?" She took it from him with a smile of delight.

"Yep. She had a ton of baked goods in the freezer and she said I could bring them for everyone."

"Well, thank you for remembering my favorite.” Sam reached out to give him a one-armed hug like Jack often did. “Can you stay a few more minutes and have a piece with me?"

Daniel was tempted but he really wanted to see what the linguists were working on. It was fun seeing all his friends but the time was racing by. Jack said they'd probably only be on base for a few hours today and at this rate he'd run out of time before he met Dr. Kerrigan or had a chance to check out any cool artifacts that needed translating.

"I better not. I still have other friends I need to visit and we're not going to be here that long today." Daniel eyed her anxiously, hoping she wouldn't be disappointed.

"Okay. I guess I'll have to eat this all by myself." She gave him a wink.

Daniel grinned in relief, picked up his nearly-empty bag and headed out. Sam walked him to the door.

"Thank you, Daniel. That was very nice of you."

For a brief moment Daniel was afraid Sam was going to hug and kiss him again. Instead, she smiled and waved and he waved back before hurrying down the corridor.

He had to go back to his office to pick up the apple pie for the science lab and the last of the cookies for Sergeant Davis and the guys in the control room. While he walked Daniel decided he'd head to the control room first and then the lab after he re-stocked.

Back in the security of his office, he settled down on the sofa to sort out what was left. He dug out the last of the cookies and the pie from the other shopping bag and combined the contents into one bag.

He stood up to leave when a second thought made him hesitate. He might need a pen and some paper in case he got into a real discussion with the linguists. Better to have his notebook handy, just in case.

Daniel sat down behind his desk. It’d been awhile since he'd been here and only now did he realize how much he'd missed it.

He opened his desk drawers one after the other to remember what was inside. It was mostly office stuff Jack had supplied. There were pens and markers and highlighters and paperclips and post-it notes. He had his very own stapler and lots of paper. Jack knew he liked to doodle. And he even had a list of important phone extensions Jack thought he might need.

It was fun getting reacquainted with his office but another look at his watch told him it was time to get moving. He was just about to close the center drawer when a shiny bit of gold caught his eye. What the heck? He pulled it out and stared. It took a minute to sink in. This was one of the bars of chocolate Tracy had given him. Her sister had sent it from France.

His vision blurred and for a minute he couldn’t catch his breath. “No,” he whispered. He'd made up his mind he wasn’t going to be sad today. He wasn’t going to lose hope. Jack would find Tracy, and Skaara, too. He took a tissue and wiped his eyes even though he hadn't been crying. Not really.

Daniel blew his nose and decided to focus on the positive. It had been a great morning, better than he'd dared hoped. All his friends had been around even though it was a Saturday and they all seemed to have missed him as much as he missed them. And they all were very appreciative of the treats he'd brought in. He couldn't wait to tell Sara and thank her.

It had also been good to see with his own eyes that Major Kawalsky and Captain Ferretti were well on the road to recovery. If Daniel didn't know better he wouldn't have believed how badly injured they'd both been.

It was amazing how many friends he had here at Cheyenne Mountain, unlike school. He'd had a lot of friends in Egypt, too. It was funny but thinking about it now, Daniel realized he'd always had more adult friends than kid friends. It had been the same in Cairo. He always had a few kid friends, Ahmed and Farouk and Daoud in Egypt and Karen and Adam here in Colorado Springs. And, Charlie, but Charlie was his brother so maybe that didn't count. It didn't matter, friends were friends.

It struck Daniel how different his feelings were today compared to the very first time he’d come to the Mountain with Jack. Then he’d been scared and confused and afraid that Jack was going to leave him here. Mostly, he’d been nervous and uncomfortable around his foster father no matter where they were. It was amazing how much things could change in such a short amount of time.

Best of all, he'd been at the Mountain all morning and he hadn't seen as much as a glimpse of the Nightmare, not once. Maybe they didn't allow him to roam all over the base in case he turned back into a mortal enemy. Maybe he had to stay in his quarters or near the gym and training facilities. Wherever he stayed, Daniel was thrilled not to have run into him in his travels around the base. Maybe he'd never see him and that would be best of all.

Daniel smiled happily at his thoughts, closed the bottom drawer, slid out of his comfy office chair and organized the remaining treats. He put the pen, notebook and books he wanted in the bottom of the bag and set the pie and the last of the cookies on top, then hurried out the door to the science lab.

~~~

It had been a hell of a day. After his big meeting, Jack had spent the rest of the time considering future SG teams and interviewing possible candidates from the more recent arrivals at the base. It was one thing to read a resume, it was something else to shake a man's hand and take stock of his heart and mind.

Fifteen minutes ago Jack had stacked the folders of the top candidates on General Hammond's desk, confident he'd made the best possible choices. Now he was more than ready to head for home.

Daniel's office door was half-open so he stepped inside without bothering to knock. The kid was sitting at his grown-up desk, thumbing through a giant book. Jack didn’t know what it was about but the size alone was scary.

"Hey."

"Oh, hi, Jack."

There was no need to ask how the kid's day went. The smile on Daniel's face told him everything he needed to know. Plus he'd heard talk of Daniel's baked goods delivery all over the base. It was nice to see his boy so happy. He shoved aside the niggling thought that the base was where Daniel Jackson was the most passionate and in his element.

He did have one question. Today Daniel had met Dr. Kerrigan, the head of the SGC’s new Department of Linguistics, and Jack hoped the kid wasn't disappointed. He'd met the man on a couple of occasions and had not been overly impressed. The linguist might be brilliant but he didn't have much in the way of personality.

"How was your day?" He'd start out slow and work his way up so Daniel didn't catch on.

"It was great! I passed out all the cookies and pie and cakes and everybody really, really liked them. Then I worked with the other linguists on translating, well, trying to translate, but it was really interesting."

"Good. Did you meet Dr. Kerrigan?"

Daniel didn't hesitate. "Yep. He's so smart, Jack. We've read lots of the same books and we discussed what the Stargate means to our views on ancient Egyptian culture. I've wanted to talk to someone about that for a long time and Dr. Kerrigan has some interesting opinions."

Jack smiled at the kid’s enthusiasm. Considering what he knew about the linguist, Kerrigan was likely the perfect guy for that conversation.

"So, you two got along?" he prodded.

"Of course." Daniel gazed up at him, obviously confused. "I told you I'd read his books and admired his work. He's even smarter and funnier in person. You know, you already met him."

“Yeah, I did.” Jack was sure Kerrigan was a barrel of laughs. In some alternate universe.

"I love working here," Daniel enthused. "All the scientists are so nice and fun to work with."

Fun? There was that word again. There were a lot of words Jack could use to describe Dr. Kerrigan and the other scientists but ‘fun’ hadn't made his short list. Scientists, there was no figuring them out.

Chapter 6

Working at the hospital was a mixed bag. Some days were more difficult than others. Today, thank heaven, they hadn’t lost anyone. Still it had been extremely busy, as if every nervous parent in Colorado Springs had gotten together and decided this was the day to invade the hospital to complain about every little bump and bruise their child had picked up after a normal day of rough-housing.

Finally, Sara’s shift was over. All she wanted to do was get home and collapse on the sofa. Unfortunately, that wasn't realistic. She had two boys at home and dinner to make. They could order out but she decided against it. Her guys were already more fond of fast food than she liked. She'd save that option for days when everyone was so busy there was no other choice. There were plenty of those days already. Today didn't need to be one of them.

As Sara turned the corner onto her street, she saw another car coming from the opposite direction pull up at the curb in front of the house. She automatically slowed and smiled at the sight of Daniel climbing out of the back seat. Two more small figures exited the car and she glanced at her watch. Good timing.

Sara pulled into her driveway and parked. She was barely out of the car when Daniel appeared in front of her.

“Hi, Sara!” he greeted.

“Hi, honey,” she returned.

She gave him a quick, one-armed hug. He looked slightly embarrassed but pleased, too, which added to her own pleasure. Whenever she was around the boy, Sara had persisted in slipping in affectionate pats or hugs, though careful to keep them quick and casual. In the beginning, Daniel had been stiff and confused by her actions. Worse, he'd been wary, as if afraid to trust in the fondness behind the gesture.

Much to her delight, Sara's persistence paid off as Daniel gradually warmed up to the affection. That had been especially true since he and Jack had returned from their secret mission to God only knew where.

Daniel gave her a bright smile before turning to include the others. “You remember Karen, and this is Adam, her brother. This is Mrs. O’Neill, Adam.”

“Welcome back, Karen,” Sara said warmly, “and welcome to you, too, Adam.”

Karen beamed. “Th- thank you, M- Mrs. O’Neill.” She patted the arm of the boy beside her. “Say hi,” she ordered in a big-sister tone.

“Hi.” Adam obeyed with an uncertain smile. Sara’s heart went out to the little guy.

“I’m glad you two could come over today. Daniel, do you want to take your friends inside?”

“Sure. Come on, guys.”

Daniel ushered them toward the front door while Sara went over to the car still parked at the curb. As she approached, the driver’s door opened and a woman climbed out to face her.

“Hi, Mrs. O’Neill.” Her smile was as hesitant as her son’s. “I’m Jenny Lindsey, Karen and Adam’s mother.”

“Please,” Sara said as they shook hands, “call me Sara. After talking to you so often on the phone it’s nice to finally meet face to face.”

Jenny Lindsey was an older representation of her daughter, slim and red-haired with very fair, almost translucent skin that now flushed dark. Make-up did not entirely conceal the shadows under her eyes or the tension in her expression.

“Are you sure you don’t mind Karen and Adam spending the afternoon?”

“Of course not,” Sara returned. “Daniel’s been looking forward to them coming over.”

“He’s such a sweetheart and so nice to the kids.” The other woman smiled and suddenly looked years younger.

“Would you like to come in? I can make coffee – ”

She shook her head. “Thank you, but I can’t today. What time should I pick them up?”

“Don’t worry about it. My husband or I will bring them home after dinner.”

“Are you sure that’s not inconvenient for you?”

Sara felt a pang of sorrow at the doubtful tone in the other woman’s voice. “Absolutely sure,” she said firmly.

“Thank you,” Jenny Lindsey answered. Before Sara could think of anything else to say the woman slid back into the car, gave a little wave, and drove off.

Sara looked after her and sighed. Because she worked in the pediatric ward of the local hospital, she knew a lot of things not generally known in Colorado Springs. But the media had picked up this story and everyone knew.

She thought of Karen with her severe stutter that was finally improving, thanks to intensive speech therapy and the absence of her stepfather. And she thought of Adam, with his nervous, uncertain smile, thick, coke-bottle glasses and heavy limp. Her hands tightened into fists at the memory of the first time she'd seen the child almost a year ago. An ambulance had brought Adam to the hospital in critical condition, beaten almost to death. Not until the trial did the facts come out of how Jenny Lindsey’s husband had been physically abusing his wife and stepchildren throughout the five-year marriage. Jenny had feared leaving him because the man threatened to kill her and her children, but after Adam was hurt she went straight to the police.

The bastard was in prison now and would remain there for a long time. For Sara, it would never be long enough to compensate for the pain and suffering he had inflicted on three innocent people.

The doctors had doubted that Adam would walk again. The shy little boy had proved them wrong. Whether he'd regain the full use of his leg was yet to be determined. Only time would tell. No matter how well his body healed, time would never be able to erase the inner scars.

Sara stopped her angry thoughts and took some deep, cleansing breaths. After she calmed down she went into the house. She could hear the young voices chattering out in the patio and when she reached the dining room she could see them through the sliding glass doors, now open so she could hear them through the screen. They were clustered around something on the picnic table.

Sara knocked lightly against the door jam. “Is anyone thirsty?”

Three faces brightened and she laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes. We’ve got water, apple juice, or fruit punch.”

Daniel asked for his favorite, apple juice, while Adam and Karen opted for the fruit punch. After they were settled around the picnic table, Sara returned to the kitchen to consider what to make for dinner. Charlie should be home from practice any minute and hopefully Jack wouldn't be more than a couple hours after that. That gave her plenty of time.

The front door burst open and Sara laughed to herself. Two guesses who that was. She didn’t even need one.

“Hi, Mom! I’m home!”

She turned around as he sailed into the kitchen, bat on his shoulder with the glove hanging from it. He'd signed up to play Fall Ball this year, as if he needed to fit in more baseball than the spring and summer allowed.

“I would never have known,” she said dryly. “Hello Spencer,” she added to the boy trailing her son.

“Hi, Mrs. O’Neill,” Spencer greeted.

“Spencer’s gonna help work on the Haunted House,” Charlie explained. “I thought I’d show him what we’ve done so far and what we still have left to do.”

Sara waved her hands in the air. “I have nothing to do with that, young man. You and your Dad and Daniel do as you please.”

"We will.” Charlie’s smile widened. “Is Daniel home yet? He can help, too.”

“Daniel’s in the back yard with friends,” Sara informed him.

“Yeah? Who?” Charlie took a few steps back into the dining room so he could see out the glass doors.

“Karen and Adam Lindsey.” Sara eyed the boys thoughtfully. “Maybe they’d like to help with the Haunted House.”

“Do they know anything about making a haunted house?” Spencer looked dismayed and Charlie doubtful.

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them? Even if they don’t, they still might have some ideas.”

“Sure, Mom,” her son shrugged.

Sara watched as they pushed the screen aside to go out. Daniel looked up and smiled.

“Hi, Charlie, Spencer.” He looked at his friends. “This is Karen and Adam. And this is my brother –” his smile widened, “Charlie, and his friend, Spencer.”

“Hi.” Charlie smiled his friendly smile.

“H- hi,” Karen smiled back, stumbling only slightly. Adam murmured something too softly for Sara to hear as she eavesdropped from the kitchen.

“We’re going to work on the Haunted House.” Charlie didn't waste any time. “You guys want to help?”

The question was casual, amiable and genuine and Sara felt a flush of pride in her son. Charlie was far from perfect. His act-first-and-think-about-it-later-if-he-was-still-alive attitude had been driving Sara and Jack crazy since their son took his first steps. But along with that all too adventurous attitude, Charlie possessed a generous heart, as evidenced once again by his willingness to include a couple of “different” kids in his activities.

There was a brief silence before Daniel spoke. “Thanks, Charlie, but I promised I’d show Karen and Adam some archeological techniques in excavation. Maybe later?”

“Sure,” Charlie returned easily. “We’ll be working in the garage.”

Sara moved further into the kitchen as Charlie and Spencer breezed by.

“I need to drop my stuff in my room,” she heard Charlie tell Spencer. Footsteps thundered up the stairs and seconds later thundered back down. The front door banged open and Charlie yelled, “We’ll be in the garage, Mom!” a split second before the door slammed shut again.

She laughed and wondered what it would be like if she had a daughter. Probably much too quiet, she decided.

Speaking of quiet, in contrast to Hurricanes Charlie and Spencer, the kids in the back were being very quiet. Sara took a few steps out into the dining room so she could hear them better.

“Where do we dig?” Adam asked.

“Archeologists don’t start digging immediately.” That was Daniel again. “First we have to...”

Sara smiled as she moved back into the kitchen, but it was amusement touched with sadness. She suspected Karen and Adam weren’t ready to tackle brand-new acquaintances and Daniel had reacted quickly to shield them. His action reminded her of something she tried not to think about. Daniel knew what it was like to be mistreated by adults, and he knew what it was like to be jeered at by kids because he was different. She didn’t doubt that he identified with Karen and Adam, probably far better than he could identify with Charlie or Spencer.

Likewise, Charlie and Spencer had no concept of what life had been like for Daniel before he joined the O’Neill home or what it had been like for Karen or Adam until a few months ago. Spencer was basically a nice boy who was like most kids in that he didn’t understand kids who were different. He had no experience to draw on.

Charlie, thank god, was more accepting and more compassionate in nature. Thanks to his parents, he'd grown up with a healthy self-esteem and never felt the need to follow others. He was willing to stand on his own two feet and go where he wanted, even if it meant taking a different path than other kids. His casual acceptance of Karen and Adam, two youngsters who were definitely different from the average kid, was more proof of his inherent compassion.

Sara felt an urge to go out to the garage and give her big-hearted son a mighty hug but she knew Charlie would be horrified. Better to stop thinking about things and concentrate on what to make for dinner.

Out on the patio, Daniel finally found what he was looking for. “Here,” he said, pointing at the page. “This is what I mean.”

Standing on either side of him, Karen and Adam peered at the picture.

“I s- see what you mean. It’s not just d- digging in the ground,” Karen said after a studying the pictures for a few minutes.

“No, it’s not,” Daniel affirmed. “Excavation is a scientific method – ” he smiled. “Well, except for when we’re not around a real dig site. Then it’s just digging.”

“I like to dig,” Adam said solemnly.

“So do I,” Daniel agreed.

“So how do we d- do this?”

Karen’s stutter was much better than it used to be. Daniel hid a smile of satisfaction as he explained the process of preparing a dig site, including the artificial one he was going to create in the back yard. He noticed Adam glancing over his shoulder toward the house and paused in the middle of his lecture.

“Do you want something else to drink, Adam?”

“No,” the boy answered and looked down at the ground.

“I know,” Karen smirked.

“Shut up.” Adam scowled at his big sister.

“Are you g- going to ask him for his autograph?” She laughed and wrinkled her nose at him.

Adam’s face reddened and Daniel looked between the two of them in confusion.

“Ask who?”

“Karen...” Adam warned.

“He wants to ask Charlie!” Karen exclaimed and ducked the blow her brother aimed at her.

“Hey!” Daniel protested. “Watch it. If Sara hears...”

The warning was enough to settle Adam down though he still looked rather red. “I could tell some of your secrets,” he threatened.

“Sorry, Adam.” Karen stopped the teasing and apologized to her brother.

Daniel wasn't sure if he should ask for an explanation or change the subject. Before he could decide, Karen turned to her brother.

“He seems pretty nice. For a boy," she smirked. "I’m sure he’d give it to you if you asked.”

She must be talking about Charlie but Daniel had no idea why Adam would want Charlie’s autograph. Unless... that gave him an idea.

“Do you like sports, Adam?”

Adam nodded. “I play,” he stopped and swallowed before continuing. “I used to play Little League.”

A pang of sorrow shot through Daniel. Over the last several months as his friendship with Karen had grown, she'd shared some of what her home life had been like, up until the time her stepfather had been arrested and eventually convicted of almost beating Adam to death while in a drunken rage.

With the man no longer part of their lives, home had become a safe place again for Karen and Adam, as well as for their mother. Even so, Daniel understood better than most that some things couldn’t be fixed. He hadn’t known Adam used to play sports. His stepfather had stolen more from Adam than time and distance could fix.

He debated how to respond. Was it better to move on and avoid the risk of making Adam feel worse? That was Daniel’s first impulse. He opened his mouth to speak but Karen beat him to it.

“You should ask him,” she urged.

“He’d think it was stupid.” Adam stared at the ground.

“No he wouldn’t,” Daniel said quickly. He didn’t know if kids regularly asked for Charlie’s autograph because he was so good in sports, but even if Charlie thought it was stupid, Daniel was pretty sure his brother wouldn't say so out loud.

“Charlie and Spencer are in the garage working on the Haunted House. We can go out there if you want, maybe see if we can help. If you don’t want to ask him, that’s okay. And if you do, he’ll be right there.”

Adam looked apprehensive but Daniel could tell he was a little excited, too. Geez, he must really be a fan of Charlie-the-sports-hero. Daniel had known since the day he joined the O’Neill household that Charlie was good in sports; he had trophies all over his room to prove it. But this was the first time Daniel had run into someone who seemed to have put Charlie up on some kind of pedestal. Charlie on a pedestal? Thinking of some of Charlie’s less than stellar moments almost made him giggle but he stifled it for fear Adam might think he was laughing at the autograph thing.

“Charlie did invite us to help,” Karen reminded her little brother. “He wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t mean it.”

Daniel suspected Sara probably had something to do with the invitation but he wasn’t about to say so.

“Why don’t we give them a hand?” he suggested as he closed the book. “It'll be fun. We can always do this later.”

Adam still looked uncertain but there was no missing the expectant gleam in his eyes. That was good enough for Daniel and when he glanced at Karen he knew she was thinking the same thing.

“I don’t even know what a haunted house is,” Adam admitted while they walked. “I mean, I’ve heard of them but I’ve never been in one.” With the admission he looked even more nervous.

Daniel could relate. “Neither have I but it doesn’t matter. Charlie and Ja- and his dad have been doing this for years. He can tell us what to do.”

He called out to Sara when they walked through the house. “We’ll be in the garage if you need us.”

“Okay,” her voice floated to them out of the kitchen.

As they headed down the driveway Adam’s limping pace slowed. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

Daniel marveled at how big a deal Adam considered Charlie. The very thought of approaching the older boy had Adam second-guessing himself. Thinking of his easy-going, good-natured foster brother casting such an intimidating shadow made Daniel want to laugh but at the same time he felt sympathetic. He knew what it was like to feel intimidated, even the good kind of intimidated. Adam's thing was sports and Charlie was the best athlete in the school.

“It’ll be all right,” he promised. “Charlie’s a good guy.”

He saw Adam swallow and, though he couldn’t be sure, he thought the boy might have lost a little color. Just at the thought of meeting Charlie? Wow.

The garage door was up and as they approached they could hear a lot of banging around from inside, as well as voices.

“ – should be in the bottom drawer.” That was Charlie’s voice and the sound of it made Adam stiffen.

“It’s not,” Spencer called back and Charlie uttered a mild curse.

“If I put it back in the wrong place my dad won’t be happy.”

“Hey, Charlie,” Daniel called out.

Movement at the rear of the garage turned into Charlie peering over some boxes. “Hey,” he waved at them with the hammer he was holding.

Daniel glanced over his shoulder. Karen and Adam had stopped a few feet behind him. She was looking curious and Adam was staring, his round, coke-bottle glasses making his eyes look even bigger.

“Karen and Adam and I decided to take you up on your offer,” Daniel said casually.

He was confident he knew how his brother would react to Adam's shyness. Daniel remembered how nice Charlie had been to him the first time they'd met. Of course there was always the chance he was wrong and he decided to be ready to jump in if things didn’t go well, if Charlie was too distracted to remember to be nice.

“Yeah? Cool,” Charlie grinned. “We can use a few more hands.”

Daniel smiled in relief. Spencer was standing by Jack’s workbench and didn't look near as enthusiastic. He could be a problem. Daniel would have to keep an eye on Spencer. No one was going to mess with Karen or Adam as long as Daniel was around to prevent it.

“What are you guys doing?” Karen came up to stand beside Daniel.

Charlie stood up and gestured at some planks of wood on the floor. “We're going to make a desk for the mad scientist.”

Daniel’s eyebrows rose. He thought he knew about all the stuff Jack and Charlie were planning for the Haunted House but this was new.

“What mad scientist?”

“You, if you want to.” Charlie grinned the grin that made him look so much like his dad.

“Me?” Daniel was pleased but apprehensive. “What would I have to do?”

“We’re gonna put all the body parts on the desk, you know, brains, eyeballs, all that stuff.”

Spencer laughed and clapped his hands together. “It’ll be totally gross. Last year one of the girls almost fainted.”

Charlie laughed, too. “Yeah, that was cool. Dad had to catch her when she started to fall over.” He shook his head. “And it wasn’t easy ’cause he was all the way over on the other side of the garage. Lucky for her, he can move really fast when he needs to.”

Daniel found himself sympathizing with the unknown girl. “So what would I
do with all this gross stuff?” he asked again.

His brother grinned. “That depends on what you want to do. There’s lots of possibilities.”

Hmm, Daniel wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

“Are we going to do the same maze as last year?” Spencer asked.

Charlie’s lips pursed in thought.

“Maze? Like what you and Jack were talking about the other night?” Daniel jumped in.

“It’s not really a maze,” Charlie admitted. “We hang up those black drapes we brought down from the attic to make a path for people to follow as they move around the Haunted House – ” he stopped and slapped his hand to his forehead.

“We left the drapes in my room!”

“I’ll get ’em,” Daniel offered.

“Yeah? Thanks. Wait a minute.” He studied Daniel. “They’re pretty heavy.”

“I’ll help,” Karen offered.

“That’d be great, thanks, guys.” Charlie grinned.

A high-pitched beep sounded, making them all jump. Spencer looked at his watch and groaned. “Damn it, I gotta get home.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow.” Charlie answered.

“Yeah.” Spencer took a last look around. “Don’t do too much fun stuff without me.”

“Relax,” Charlie smirked, “we’re not going to get that much accomplished before dinner.”

“Right. See ya tomorrow.” Spencer sent a general wave around the garage, grabbed his bike that had been propped up against the open doorway and took off.

“Where we were?” Charlie demanded and then answered himself. “Right, Daniel, you and Karen go get those drapes out of my room. Adam, how are you at putting things together?”

“I... I’m...” Adam gave his sister an agonized look and she answered for him. “Adam hasn’t had much experience b- but he learns fast.”

“Great.” Charlie turned back to whatever he’d been working on while gesturing over his shoulder, and Adam limped slowly toward him. His eyes were still wide but Daniel didn’t think he was imagining an excited smile beginning to form.

He looked back at Karen. “Let’s go.”

Chapter 7

The drapes had been dumped in the middle of Charlie’s bedroom and they practically covered the entire floor. In and around the drapes they could see various pieces of clothing. A backpack was also on the floor; it had been turned upside down, leaving books, binders, papers and pens spread all over. Charlie had obviously been in a hurry when he arrived home this afternoon. Daniel shook his head in amusement.

“Wow.” Karen seemed impressed. “I thought Adam c- could m- make a mess but this is really something.”

Daniel was used to Charlie’s casual idea of neatness but the room somehow seemed worse than usual when he looked at it through the eyes of someone who wasn’t used to it. His amusement rose at the thought of what his foster brother would be doing two minutes after Sara saw this.

“Come on,” he said as he picked his way through the mess, “let’s get the drapes.”

It was easier said than done. The black-dyed drapes were long, voluminous and made of thick fabric. First they had to untangle them from the miscellaneous clothes, books, binders and various smaller bits of debris scattered underneath, in and on top of the material. That took awhile. When they finished that part, they considered their next move.

“We can’t carry it like this,” Daniel mused.

“Roll it up?” Karen suggested.

Trying to fold up the cumbersome masses of fabric was a chore and a half. Half-way through Karen was struck with the giggles. Daniel looked up from his position on his knees, his arms filled with drapes and more falling over his shoulder.

“You should sssee,” she stumbled over the word, “see yourself,” she said and giggled harder.

Daniel tried not to laugh. “I think it’s better I don’t. Come on, Charlie and Adam are waiting for us.”

They wrestled with the drapes that seemed to have developed a mind of their own, and finally succeeded in rolling the masses of fabric into a long, thick, unwieldy package, which set Karen off again.

“It looks like a giant, burned hot dog!”

Daniel snorted with laughter at the visual. If Charlie had been here he'd have come up with something just as visual and probably a lot grosser.

“Come on,” Daniel gasped. The muscles in his arms were already starting to burn.

Half-dragging, half-carrying, they maneuvered the cumbersome bundle out of Charlie’s bedroom to the top of the stairs. By mutual consent they stopped and peered down the staircase.

“I’m not sure,” Karen said between giggles, “we c- can c- carry it down there.”

“We’re not going to try." Daniel shook his head decisively. "Help me push.”

They crouched down and shoved as hard as they could. The drapes rolled sluggishly down the first stair and then picked up speed as gravity took over until they finally hit the bottom of the stairs with a loud “phoompf”. For some reason that struck Karen’s funny bone and she dropped to her knees, laughing until tears rolled down her cheeks.

Daniel could feel laughter bubbling up in his throat and tried to shove back down. “Karen, stop it.” He tried for sternness but failed miserably. “Give me your hand.”

He had to pull her to her feet and they made their way down the stairs until they reached the next to the last stair where they stopped to stare at the masses of fabric.

“Careful,” he warned, as he stepped down into the middle of the material.

Karen stepped with him, slipped when the fabric slid under her foot and clutched at him. The two of them fell face first into the drapes which fortunately cushioned them.

Daniel couldn’t hold it back any longer. He burst out laughing which set Karen off and they rolled around in the enveloping folds of fabric until they were half-buried.

“What on earth?”

Sara's voice broke through Daniel’s mirth. He looked up through streaming eyes to see Sara standing over them with her hands on hips wearing a smile of amusement and concern.

“S- sorry!” he gasped.

She knelt down and pulled Karen into a sitting position, then did the same to Daniel. “No hysteria allowed in this house,” she said firmly. “You need to calm down or I’ll have to use a wet noodle on you.”

Karen caught her breath and her eyes widened, her laughter gone in an instant. “I’m sorry!” she said. “I didn’t mean to make a mess, I’ll pick it up, right now. I promise.”

Sara frowned. “You don’t – ” she stopped, then continued in a gentle voice. “I was joking, honey. It’s all right.”

The fear in Karen’s voice was like an electric shock to Daniel’s system. His amusement died and he put his hand on her arm.

“Everything’s fine.” He used his most reassuring tone. “We’ll wrap this up again and carry it out to the garage.”

“Let me help,” Sara offered as she stood up.

Karen stood up, too. As she moved, so did Daniel, rising with her and moving so that he was standing between her and Sara. He knew Sara wasn’t angry. Even if she had been, he knew she’d never hurt him or Karen. But Karen didn’t know that. In her experience, angry adults hurt kids.

Daniel remembered how horrible it was to feel like that. His months with the O’Neills had reminded him not all adults hit and he no longer flinched when Jack or Sara raised their voices. He hoped that in time Karen and Adam would feel safe again, too.

With Sara’s help, Daniel and a subdued Karen rolled up the drapes. Sara found some cloth ties and bound up the two ends to make them easier to carry. Daniel lifted one end up on his shoulders and Karen took the other side.

“Are you sure it’s not too heavy?” Sara asked.

“It's fine,” Daniel said. “We’re just taking it to the garage.”

“Fair enough.” She held the door open and they marched outside and headed down the walkway.

Half-way to the garage they heard a scream, followed by banging and crashing and smashing. Daniel dropped his end of the drapes and ran to the garage. The boxes that had been neatly stacked were now in pieces and their contents were scattered all over the floor.

Charlie emerged slowly from the pile, rubbing his head. He stood up and dusted himself off. Daniel was relieved until he recognized the taut, flushed expression on his brother’s face. Jack looked the same way when he was furious.

“Damn it!” Charlie yelled.

“Charlie! Are you all right? What happened?” Daniel rushed to his brother's side.

“I’m sorry!” Adam's shaky voice sounded from floor-level. “I'm really, really sorry!”

Sobs followed the voice and Daniel saw Adam on the floor, half-on and half-under some smashed boxes. He was curled in a ball and holding his bad leg with both hands.

“I didn’t mean to, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

It was so similar to what had just happened with Karen that Daniel had trouble breathing. Then he dropped to his knees beside the sobbing boy. He knew better than to try to touch him, at least right now.

“It’s all right, Adam,” Daniel whispered in the same reassuring tone he'd just used on Karen. “You don’t have to be – ”

“Adam!”

Karen flew into the garage and fell beside her brother and threw her arms around him. “I’m here,” she crooned over his head. “I’m here.” She raised angry eyes to Charlie. “What did you do to him?”

“Me? Do to him?” Charlie snapped. He flushed even darker. “I didn’t do anything to him! He knocked everything over! I’ve been working on this for two days and he destroyed it all in a second!”

“I’m sorry,” Adam wept, his voice muffled against his sister’s shoulder.

The fear in the small voice turned Daniel's stomach. He stepped between Charlie and Adam. “It was an accident!” he said hotly.

“How do you know? You weren’t even here. I was here.” Charlie glared at him.

“I know because Adam wouldn’t have done it on purpose. Did you even see what happened?’

For the first time Charlie looked uncertain. “No, not exactly. I was working – ” he turned toward the shelves he’d been hammering together. The half-built structure had broken apart and several of the boards were broken into smaller pieces. The sight made Charlie’s anger flare again and his hard gaze turned on the still-sobbing boy.

Daniel spoke quickly before Charlie had a chance to unleash any more harsh words.

“If you didn’t see it, then you don’t know what happened.” He tried to rein in his anger at his brother’s unjust attack. Charlie had no idea how fragile Adam was. He had no clue how much Adam looked up to him. Charlie’s words had to be devastating to the frightened young boy.

Daniel was glad to see some of the hot color fade from Charlie’s face and he knelt down beside the pair again. Karen was rocking her little brother in her arms and this close to them, Daniel could hear her soft, reassuring murmurs. She opened her eyes and looked at him.

“It’s going to be okay.” Daniel added his own reassurances. “Adam, you don’t need to worry. We know it was an accident.”

“I broke it all!” came the muffled cry. “I’m so stupid – ”

“No!” Daniel and Karen said simultaneously. Karen gave him a relieved look so Daniel continued.

“It’s not all broken,” he soothed. “But even if it was, it was still an accident. No one blames you.”

“Ch- Charlie does.”

The anguish in the words broke Daniel’s heart and he looked up. Charlie had drawn close enough to hear and Daniel was glad to see regret flash in the brown eyes. Good.

“No, he doesn’t,” Daniel said, speaking to Adam but maintaining eye contact with Charlie. “Charlie was surprised, that’s why he said what he did. He doesn’t really blame you.”

Daniel’s look was demanding and Charlie sighed. “Daniel’s right, Adam. I’m sorry I yelled. I was just surprised.”

Adam’s sobs dwindled to occasional gulps. Karen leaned in until their faces were almost touching and whispered something. Daniel dared to put a hand on Adam’s shoulder and thought how thin and frail it felt.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Adam sniffled and nodded. Daniel was relieved. Good. Everyone was calming down.

“Can you tell us what happened?” he asked.

Several seconds passed before Adam drew back from Karen and sat up, unconsciously leaning against Daniel who kept his hand on the younger boy’s shoulder.

“Charlie asked me to get a wrench from the cupboard.” He pointed at the small cabinet hanging on the wall.

“Way up there?” Karen asked, instantly angry again. “How were you supposed to get up there?”

Charlie’s eyes narrowed and Daniel jumped in. “Let’s let Adam talk.”

Adam gestured at a six-foot ladder, now lying on its side. “I was trying to climb up. I think I missed a step and lost my balance...” a shudder ran through him.

“Are you nuts?” Karen demanded hotly, her green eyes shooting sparks at Charlie. “Making him climb that with his bad leg – ”

“What bad leg?” Charlie snapped. “No one said anything about a bad leg.”

“Who had to say anything? Or are you blind as well as nuts!”

Charlie scowled darkly. “If you think – ”

“Stop it!” Daniel cut in, furiously trying to think this through. “Everyone wait a minute.”

The first time Charlie had seen Adam, Adam had been standing on the patio with Karen and Daniel. The second time was when Adam, Karen and Daniel reached the garage. Charlie had been behind some boxes, Daniel remembered, so he couldn’t have seen them approach. And as Karen and he had started for the house to get the drapes... Charlie had been turning back to his project so he wouldn’t have seen Adam walking into the garage.

When he put all the pieces together, Daniel realized Charlie hadn’t seen Adam walking, so he hadn’t known about Adam's bad leg. This scenario made a lot more sense than Charlie noticing Adam’s limp and ignoring it. The Charlie Daniel had come to know over the past several months was a good guy. He’d never have asked Adam to do something he knew was dangerous.

It was quiet and Daniel realized everyone was staring at him. They were waiting for him to finish, depending on him to fix this and make it better.

“What are you grinning about?” Charlie asked.

“It was an accident!” Daniel smiled broadly at all of them.

“Of course it was an accident!” Karen snapped.

“I mean for Charlie, too.”

“Huh?” Adam swiped a sleeve across his face.

“Think about it,” Daniel urged. “Charlie doesn’t know you have a bad leg because he never saw you walking around.”

As he spoke he looked around to make sure everyone was on the same page. The annoyance had faded from Charlie’s expression. Karen didn’t look like she was quite ready to forgive Charlie for hurting her little brother, even if accidentally and Adam looked – Daniel sighed to himself. Adam looked embarrassed.

“Why didn’t someone say something?” Charlie's brown eyes focused on Adam. “Why didn’t you say something when I told you to use the ladder?”

Adam seemed to shrink in on himself. Daniel understood why the younger boy hadn’t said anything. He didn't want to admit any perceived weakness to his idol, Charlie O’Neill.

That wasn’t something to discuss in front of Adam. Daniel spoke quickly before tempers flared again.

“There was a lot going on,” he offered. “It was easy to get distracted. You sure you’re okay, Adam?”

The boy blushed and nodded. Daniel stood up and put out his hand. “Okay. Let’s see what’s what then.”

Adam allowed Daniel to help him up as he moved away from his sister’s grasp. Only then did he raise timid eyes to meet Charlie’s.

“I’m really sorry,” he repeated in almost a whisper.

“It’s okay.” Charlie shrugged, looking uncomfortable.

“But I made a big mess. And I broke what you were working on.”

Come on, Daniel silently urged his big brother. Be the guy I know you are.

Charlie looked around the mess in the garage and back at the little boy and grinned.

“I’m impressed. I’m good at making messes but I don’t think I could’ve made this big of a mess. At least not as fast as you did.”

Adam blinked in astonishment and Daniel smiled in relief. “Sure you could have. I've seen you make some pretty big messes."

"Hey!" Charlie snorted. He looked back to Adam. “Clean-up’s no big deal. We’ve got plenty of wood. You still want to help me build the desk?”

“Really?” Adam’s eyes shone.

“Sure – ”

“Hey, kids!”

They all jumped and spun around. Jack stood just outside the garage, smiling at them. Then his eyes shifted as he took in the chaos. His smile faded and annoyance sparked in his eyes.

“What the – what happened here?”

“I’m – ” Adam shrank back.

“It was an accident,” Daniel cut in.

“My fault, Dad,” Charlie added. “I’ll clean it up.”

“We all will,” Karen added.

Jack frowned and Daniel took a step forward, his eyes pleading. Their eyes met and after a moment the man nodded.

“Okay, fair enough. You all okay?”

“We’re f- fine,” Karen answered.

They all promptly agreed, their voices mingling. Jack studied them a minute longer before nodding.

“Good. You can clean it up later. It’s time for dinner.”

“Great!” Charlie made shooing motions at the others. “Let’s go wash up.”

As they hurried past Jack and ran into the house, Daniel marveled at his brother. When it counted, Charlie always came through.

~~~~

Four days later, Daniel stood in the kitchen, listening to the excited voice on the other end of the phone.

“That’s great,” he said for the third or fourth time. “I’m really glad, Karen. Thanks for letting me know.”

He hung up and stared thoughtfully at the phone.

“Good news?” Sara asked behind him.

“Yeah, it is.” Daniel turned to see her taking a casserole out of the oven.

“You can tell us at dinner, if you want.” She set the hot dish on top of the stove and pulled off the oven mitts. “Go wash up, and tell Charlie, too, please. You need to set the table. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”

“Okay.”

He made up his mind what he was going to do on the way up the stairs. Pausing in front of the half-open door, Daniel knocked before stepping inside. Charlie was on his knees looking at several sheets of paper spread out on the floor, each one covered in scribbles. He flashed a distracted smile.

“Time to set the table?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Okay, I’ll just be a sec.” He rearranged a couple of the sheets. “I’ve almost got the new floor plan of our Haunted House ready to show Dad.”

Daniel took a couple of steps into the room. Charlie sat back on his heels and gave him a quizzical look.

“Something up?”

“Kind of.” Daniel studied him thoughtfully and Charlie jumped to his feet.

“What is it?”

“Karen just called. She told me Coach Hall asked Adam to help out with the baseball team next season.”

“Yeah?” Charlie’s eyes widened.

“Yeah. Adam’s going to keep score and help keep the stats and all that stuff for the team. He’ll get to sit on the bench with the players and get a uniform and everything.”

“Cool,” Charlie grinned.

“Adam thought so, too. Karen said he practically went into orbit.” Daniel smiled at the memory. “That was a really nice thing you did,” he added softly.

Charlie looked startled. “How did you – I mean, what are you talking about?”

Daniel shook his head. “Don’t even try. You talked to your coach about Adam. That’s why he invited Adam to help out with the team.”

Charlie studied his brother’s determined expression and sighed. “How did you figure it out? Except for me and the coach, no one knew and I didn't tell anyone.”

“Because it’s the only way it could have happened,” Daniel returned.

“It’s no big deal.” Charlie ran a hand through his hair and looked uncomfortable.

“It is for Adam.”

“Well...” the older boy sighed again. “When you told me Adam used to play baseball, I know how I’d feel if I couldn’t play anymore. This way he’ll still be part of the team.”

“Yes, he will,” Daniel agreed. He was tempted to say more but he could see how embarrassed his brother was at being found out. Charlie hadn’t done it for praise. He’d done it because he was a good guy and maybe because he felt a little guilty about yelling at Adam.

“Anyway,” Daniel decided it was time to change the subject, “we’d better wash up and get downstairs.”

Charlie looked relieved. “Yeah.” He looked down at his floor plan. “I’ll finish this after we eat.”

They walked down the hall toward the bathroom. "You know," Charlie said, "we only have a couple days until Halloween and I still don’t know what you’re going to wear.”

“Wear?”

“Yeah, for Halloween. What’s your costume going to be?”

“Costume?” Daniel repeated. He was supposed to wear a costume?

“You haven’t even thought about it, have you?” Charlie’s eyebrows rose.

“No.” Daniel shook his head. “I thought the Haunted House was it... you know.”

“Sure, it’s a big part of Halloween but the other part of Halloween is about dressing up.” Charlie's eyes were bright with anticipation. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you think of something.”

Uh-oh. Daniel was afraid to imagine what his brother might think was a suitable costume. Then again - he thought back to his conversation with Karen. Charlie had done something for Adam no one else had thought of doing, something that gave Adam a part of his life back that he'd loved and lost at the hands of his stepfather.

“Okay, thanks,” Daniel agreed, knowing he'd probably regret it.

What the heck. If worst came to worst, he figured he could always hide out in the Haunted House.

Chapter 8

Halloween was one night when Charlie and Daniel didn't have to clean up after dinner. Sara sent them off with a smile that widened into a grin when she heard them giggling all the way up the stairs. They hadn’t mentioned what costumes they were wearing because, as Charlie explained – “You have to be surprised, Mom!”

As she loaded the last of the dishes into the dishwasher, she hoped she'd be surprised and not horrified. Charlie’s costumes tended to lean toward the macabre.

Sara filled two large mixing bowls with candy and set them on the small table beside the front door before heading upstairs to change. Walking into the bedroom, her first sight was of a surreal figure topped by a familiar head exiting the bathroom.

“Honey,” the unnerving apparition said in a plaintive tone, “can you give me a hand with this?”

She laughed at the sight of Jack struggling to pull his costume up over his shoulders. It was a full-length black body suit. Sara had painted the human skeletal system on it last year, with luminescent white paint. It had proved a great success last Halloween and Jack had decided to wear it again.

After his pretend glare, Sara controlled her amusement and pulled the fabric around so it slid smoothly over his shoulders and then pulled the hood up over his hair, leaving only his face exposed.

“Where are your gloves?”

“Right there.” He pointed at the dresser. “I’ll put them on after I finish with the makeup.”

“When are you going to put on the makeup?”

He looked at his reflection in the full-length mirror and nodded in approval. “Right now.”

She studied the way the tight suit clung to his lean figure. “At the risk of making your head swell, I have to admit that you're still a fine figure of a man.”

“You like what you see, huh?” Jack beamed and struck a pose.

Sara leaned against him. “I always have.” She kissed his lips and ran her hand down the length of his back. “Especially the tush,” she added, giving that part of his anatomy an approving pat.

He chuckled and pulled her tightly against him. “I think this is something we should continue later tonight.”

“Absolutely,” she agreed before they kissed again.

Down the hall in his room, Charlie studied the results of his arduous labor. After a minute he smiled.

“What d’ya think?”

Looking at his reflection in the mirror, Daniel wasn’t certain what he thought but Charlie was eagerly awaiting his response.

“It’s, uh, different,” he said.

“Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool, too.” Charlie’s smile widened.

Cool? Daniel examined his reflection. When Charlie originally offered to help him come up with a costume for Halloween, he'd been hesitant but not too worried. Mostly, he appreciated the offer because he had no idea what constituted a proper costume. What did he know about Halloween?

This was the first year he'd actually be participating and he still wasn’t certain how he felt about it. If it had been up to him, he would have chosen to hide out in his bedroom with a good book.

He couldn’t do that to Charlie. His foster brother – brother, he needed to keep reminding himself, Charlie was his brother – was eager to share the holiday. Daniel had enjoyed helping set up the Haunted House, he just wasn't sure about the dressing-up part. He had to give Charlie credit for one thing; he had quite an imagination.

“You think there are enough bandages? Maybe we should – ” Charlie was looking over his shoulder into the mirror.

“I think it’s fine just like this,” Daniel interrupted. He wasn’t sure if he should laugh or cry at the strange-looking figure in the mirror staring back at him.

“Yeah?” Charlie grinned. “Well, you’re the mummy expert.”

While he wouldn’t call himself an expert, Daniel would concede he probably knew more about the ancient Egyptian process of mummifying dead bodies than any other kid of his age, and that ancient process had absolutely nothing to do with his current costume.

Daniel had some input. Under his guidance, he and Charlie had torn two of Sara’s old bed sheets into scores of narrow strips. After dinner, they had wrapped the strips of material around his legs, arms and torso. Daniel had emphatically rejected Charlie’s suggestion of wrapping more strips around his head.

“It won’t work very well with the other part,” he explained when Charlie seemed disappointed.

“Right!” Charlie agreed. “I’ll be right back!”

Charlie had returned with the rest of Daniel’s costume and helped him put it on. Now, as they studied the final results, Daniel was grateful none of the people who had worked on digs with his parents were around to see him.

“The mad scientist mummy!” Charlie declared and smacked him on the back.

Mad scientist was right. The pseudo-mummy wrappings were bad enough. Add to that the wild white wig that reminded Daniel of pictures of Albert Einstein, and he looked a little crazy. Under Charlie’s supervision, he had also spread enough white make-up over his face to look like a corpse. If that was the look Charlie had been going for, he nailed it. To complete the costume, a pair of fake, oversized spectacles fit over Daniel’s own glasses and made him look like... for one of the few times in his life, words failed him.

“Can you move around okay?”

“I think so.” Daniel walked around the bedroom, testing his mobility. They had tried to tie the strips tight enough so they wouldn’t fall off but loose enough to allow movement. “Yeah, it’s okay.”

“Do you think you’ll be warm enough?”

“Yeah, you know what Sara made me put on before we wrapped me up. I should be plenty warm.”

Charlie snickered. Sara hadn’t seen their costumes but she had insisted they put on their “long johns,” as Jack called them, beneath their costumes. The weather had turned chilly yesterday and Daniel heartily agreed with her on the importance of staying warm. Which he was. Between his long johns and all the wrappings, he was very warm.

“You’re ready,” Charlie decided. “Just don’t forget to talk with a German accent tonight, okay?”

“Okay.” Daniel hadn’t been able to talk his brother out of that addition. He looked at himself in the mirror for another minute before Charlie interrupted his concentration.

“Can you attach this to my back?”

He held out “this” and Daniel gingerly took it.

“It’s only rubber,” Charlie assured him.

“I know, but it looks real.”

By itself the prop wasn’t ominous. Made of hard rubber and painted black with silver highlights, it was in the shape of the hilt of a sword. A flat, irregular circle of blood-colored plastic was glued to the lower part of the hilt where the sword would normally begin. He looked at the plastic before taking the small tube of adhesive Charlie was holding out.

“You sure this won’t take off your skin when you remove it?” Daniel worried.

“Relax, Mom’s already checked it out. When I’m done wearing this, a little soap and water will take it right off.” Charlie pulled off his ragged coat and shirt and turned his back. “Go on.”

Still dubious but obedient, Daniel squeezed a small amount on the plastic and stuck it between Charlie’s shoulder blades.

“How’s it look?” Charlie asked over his shoulder.

“Like it’s real,” Daniel answered with a shudder.

“Excellent!” Charlie slung one arm through his shirt. “Can you make sure this goes over the hilt?”

Daniel maneuvered the shirt and then the coat over the mock hilt, making sure it poked through the carefully constructed rents in the fabric. When he finished, the hilt looked like it was sticking out of Charlie’s back.

“Cool.” Charlie stood sideways in front of the mirror and studied the effect. “Now for the rest.”

The “rest” was a six-inch-long piece of rubber in the shape of a long blade, also painted a steel color. It was attached to a small, irregular circle of plastic which was also blood-colored, like the piece glued on Charlie’s back. It took a little shifting around but when it was finally stuck to his chest, it presented a picture of someone who had been run through with a sword. Charlie beamed proudly at his image in the mirror.

“How’s it look?” he demanded again.

“Realistic.” Daniel assured him, smiling at his brother’s pleased expression over this pretend mayhem.

“Now for the blood,” Charlie proclaimed.

“Blood?” Daniel studied their reflections again. “I’m a mummy and you’re dead. We can’t bleed.”

Charlie dismissed the bit of logic with a wave of his hand. “There’s gotta be blood. Wait a sec.”

Daniel watched Charlie rummage through the mess on the desk until he yelped in satisfaction.

“Got it!”

He held up a small tube, similar to the one that held the adhesive, except this tube had a red tint to it.

“What’s that?” Daniel asked suspiciously.

“Fake blood,” Charlie said with grin. “I’ll do you first.”

As his brother advanced on him, Daniel briefly debated arguing. As mummies went, he was already historically inaccurate, thanks to his “wrappings.” Blood anywhere on his bandages would only increase the inaccuracy. Charlie’s expectant smile made him swallow his words.

“Go ahead.” He'd gone this far, he might as well go all the way.

“Okay, hold still.”

Daniel obeyed, closing his eyes as he saw the tube move closer to his face.

“Don’t worry,” Charlie said, “it’s safe, remember?”

Daniel remembered but he kept his eyes closed. He could feel the cool liquid touch his skin, his temples, his chin. It felt like Charlie was making him up to look like a victim in a slasher movie. Oh, well.

“There!” Charlie was finally finished. “What d’ya think?”

Preparing himself for the worst, Daniel opened his eyes. He stared at the “bloody” visage in the mirror and surprised himself with a laugh. Charlie chuckled.

“Cool, huh?” he beamed.

Charlie had dribbled the fake blood all over his brother’s face, making it appear that he was bleeding from eyes, nose, mouth – Daniel turned his head slightly. Uh-huh, from the ears, too.

“That’s...” he groped for the right word and settled on, “impressive.”

“Impressive.” Charlie rolled the word around in his mouth, as if tasting it. “Yeah, that’s good. Now for me.”

“You want me to help?” Daniel offered. He didn’t think he could be as artistic as Charlie in spreading around the “blood” but he'd try.

“No, thanks, I’m used to doing this.”

He was used to doing this? Daniel suppressed another laugh and watched as Charlie followed a similar pattern except he used more on himself, especially in covering his entire chin.

“Does it look like I’m coughing up blood?” He studied himself in the mirror.

Having never seen anyone coughing up blood, Daniel didn’t have a frame of reference, but since Charlie had used up most of the tube he decided to give him points for quantity.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

When Charlie grinned his white teeth provided startling contrast to all the “blood.” “Excellent,” he decided after another close scrutiny of his reflection. He shook the tube. “There’s still a little left. You want some more?”

“No, thanks.” Daniel didn't hesitate, he had all the 'blood' he needed.

“Hmm. I hate to waste it.” Charlie looked from the tube to his reflection. “I know.” He splattered the remaining “blood” over the front of his costume. “How’s that?”

Daniel recalled his earlier thought and chuckled. “We look like we escaped from a slasher movie.”

"Yes! That's what I was going for." He gave Daniel a high-five. “Let’s show Mom. If she makes a face and looks disgusted, it's perfect.”

“It is?”

“Oh, yeah! If I can gross her out I know I’ll gross out all the kids.”

“Sara’s a nurse. Isn’t she used to blood?” Daniel pointed out the flaw in the plan.

“Yeah, but she doesn’t like it.” Charlie struck a pose and smiled at his reflection. “I asked Dad about it once and he said Mom probably gets enough blood at the hospital.”

That made sense and Daniel felt a twinge of guilt. He didn’t want to gross Sara out. One look at his brother told him he didn’t have a chance of restraining him. Charlie was bouncing on his toes now and his satisfied grin stretched wide across his “bloody” face.

“You ready?”

“I guess.” Daniel took a final dubious look in the mirror as they headed for the door.

“Maybe next year I’ll dress up like a pilot in the Air Force," Charlie said. "If I can find the right uniform.”

“A pilot? Why?” Daniel asked in surprise.

“Mom won’t have to worry about all the fake blood. Besides...” Charlie stopped half-way down the hall and gave him a sideways look. Charlie and shyness didn’t go together but ‘shy’ was the only word Daniel could think of to describe his brother's expression.

“Besides what?” he encouraged.

Charlie licked his lips. “You know Dad’s taken me flying a couple more times since my birthday.” He waited for Daniel’s nod and then continued in that same, out-of-character bashful voice. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Nothing else comes close. It’s like, I don't know, it's just that I’ve known since my birthday that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Daniel stood in shocked silence. He had noticed Charlie's exhilaration after flying with Jack but he thought it was because Charlie had spent alone fun time with his dad. Clearly, there was more going on.

The look in Charlie’s eyes chased away all distracting thoughts. Charlie looked nervous. Wow, he actually looked nervous. Charlie 'I-don’t-care-what-anyone-else-thinks' O’Neill was nervous? Daniel hurried to reassure him.

“If that’s what you want to do with your life I think it’s great.”

“You really think so?” The nervousness turned to excitement.

“Sure,” Daniel agreed. “You know you don’t have to join the Air Force to fly. You could fly for the airlines or something like that.”

Charlie’s smile faded. “I want to fly jets. Like my dad.”

Despite the garish face paint, Daniel recognized a gravity he rarely saw from the older boy. His throat tightened at the sincerity and determination in his brother’s voice. Normally, Charlie looked more like Sara but not today. After today Daniel would have no problem imagining what Jack had looked like as a boy. He was standing right in front of him.

This was a different Charlie than he was used to seeing. Charlie suddenly seemed older. Grown up. Daniel knew what to say.

“You’ll be a great pilot.”

“You think so?” Charlie’s eyes shone.

“I know so.”

For a minute they stood in awkward silence before Charlie gave him an unexpected punch in the arm.

“What are we waiting for? We’ve got to finish setting up the Haunted House!”

The awkwardness melted away before their laughter and they clattered down the stairs. Daniel turned toward the front door but Charlie stopped him.

“The final test,” he muttered before calling out, “Hey, Mom! Could you come here a sec?”

“Be right there.” Her voice came from the kitchen and Charlie turned his brother slightly so that they were both facing in that direction.

Sara came out wiping her hands on a towel. “Are you ready for – ” She stopped and stared at them. Her eyes widened and then she wrinkled her nose.

“Yuck,” she exclaimed.

“That good, huh?” Charlie chortled and gave Daniel a triumphant look.

She put her hands on her hips and shook her head but she couldn’t hide her smile. “That’s one description,” she said dryly.

Daniel looked from Charlie to Sara, relieved when her smile widened.

“I can tell Charlie’s some kind of zombie and I recognize the mummy wrappings you’re wearing. But I’m not sure what the wig and spectacles are about.”

“Uh...” Daniel stumbled and Charlie leaped in to explain.

“He’s a mad scientist mummy!” He wrapped an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Cool, huh?”

Sara nodded. “Very original. I’ve never heard of a mad scientist mummy costume before.”

“Charlie came up with the idea,” Daniel explained.

“Of course he did," Sara laughed. "Any excuse to throw around more fake blood, right?”

“Right!” Charlie’s grin was broad and unrepentant.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll scare everyone half to death.” Sara shook her head again. “I’m only sorry Karen and Adam won’t be able to be here, considering how much they helped.”

“Karen said her mom wanted to take them to something happening at their church,” Daniel explained. “She and Adam didn’t want to go but I promised I’d take pictures.” He looked hopefully at Sara who nodded.

“I’ve got a little pocket camera you can borrow. Just a minute. I'll get it.”

Charlie looked at his watch. “We need to get out there,” he urged. “The show’s gonna be starting in fifteen minutes.”

The show?

“I’ll be right back.” Sara hurried up the stairs.

Chapter 9

A few minutes later the boys headed outside, Daniel hanging onto Sara’s camera.

Despite an overcast sky hiding the stars and making it darker than usual there was enough light to see what lined both sides of the driveway – gravestones. Even though they were only a quarter of the size of real gravestones, and Daniel had helped Charlie put them up a few hours earlier, now in the chilly darkness they added an unnervingly realistic touch. This might be scarier than he'd first thought.

He read the names on the fake graves as he walked, Ben Dismembered, I.M. Gone, Yul B. Next, and Charlie's personal favorite, Rest in Pieces with a fake gloved hand sticking out of the ground. Daniel smiled, remembering how much fun he and Charlie had painting the props last week.

Looking toward the garage, he almost stumbled. The opening was pitch black; Daniel couldn’t see anything except for an eerie blue light that kept fading in and out. Adding to the effect was – his eyes widened. It was fog! It drifted along the ground, rising slowly in the nippy air. He also heard music, part musical instruments, part electronic enhancement, totally weird and uncanny. Daniel couldn’t restrain a shiver and Charlie chuckled.

“The fog machine’s new this year. Cool, huh? These may be the best special effects we’ve ever come up with.” There was no mistaking the excitement in his voice.

When they were within a few feet of the Haunted House, they stopped at a weird noise coming from inside. Daniel swallowed hard, surprised by his suddenly dry throat. He knew none of this was real but his heart was still pounding.

A spine-chilling moan made him gasp. So did Charlie, before he burst out laughing. “All right, Dad. We know that's you. Come on out.”

Jack, it was Jack. Daniel breathed easier as the skeleton appeared. In the darkened garage – Haunted House, he corrected himself – Jack’s black body suit and black-painted face blended in perfectly. Only the skeleton that had been drawn on the suit with luminescent white paint could be clearly seen. It was incredibly realistic.

“Gotcha!” Jack exclaimed happily.

“Nuh-uh!” Charlie returned, still laughing. "We knew it was you."

“Uh-huh!”

“Well, maybe for just a little bit, at first,” Charlie admitted. “You look great!”

Jack put a skeletal-looking hand on his son’s shoulder. “You guys look great yourselves. The sword is a nice touch and the wig is perfect.”

Daniel staggered under another excited punch in the arm from his brother. He looked from Jack to Charlie and back again. They were really jazzed and enjoying all of this. He hoped he'd enjoy it, too.

“So,” Daniel peered beyond Jack into the Haunted House, “where are we supposed to go?”

Jack-the-skeleton pulled back the edge of his skeletal glove and Daniel saw he was wearing his watch.

“We’ve got time for a quick run-through before the neighborhood starts showing up. First of all..." He tripped a few switches and a few more lights came on, two red light bulbs and a few nightlights closer to the floor. "That oughta do it. Keep it safe but still scary," he said as he winked at Daniel.

"Oh great, Dad," Charlie chimed in. "You didn't care that Daniel and I couldn't see a thing when you startled us."

"Nope, I wanted to scare you two," Jack gleefully agreed. "We're almost ready. Charlie, you need to set up the candy table and put up the signs. Daniel, why don't you run back in the house and get the treats. I'll make sure the path in here is clear to walk though and check that Dracula's coffin opens on cue. It kept sticking last year."

"I thought Sara was passing out the candy." Daniel was confused and wondering if this Halloween thing was going to be fun or a big bust.

"She does. To the little kids and the wimps," Charlie answered. "Ask her for the haunted house candy. She'll know."

Sure enough when Daniel went back inside and asked, Sara handed him a huge bowl of candy bars. Big, delicious-looking candy bars along with good-sized packages of Starbursts and bags of M&M's.

"Are you having fun, Daniel?" Sara was studying him and he wanted to say yes but he didn't want to lie.

"No kids have come yet," he answered, avoiding the question. Getting the garage ready with Jack and Charlie had been fun. The jury was still out on what tonight would bring.

"Good luck," she smiled. "Just yell when you need a refill or if you need anything else."

Daniel nodded then walked as fast as he could while balancing the big bowl of chocolate in his arms. Charlie had set up two signs Daniel had never seen before. They must have been made last year. One was just outside the garage entrance and read, 'Welcome to the Cemetery of Lost Souls, killer candy for all survivors.' The other wooden sign sat on an old card table just past the exit; the painted-on ghost implored, 'Take only one or you'll be haunted forever'. Daniel set the bowl of candy under that sign.

"Come on, move it, guys. Kids are coming already."

To Daniel's shock Jack was right. Kids were standing at the end of the driveway waiting for them to finish getting ready.

"It's show time, boys!" Jack handed them each a flashlight.

Daniel went to his assigned 'mad scientist' station, the one with all the fake food gore. He sat down on his stool behind the decorated folding table, not knowing what to expect when Charlie raced over.

"I almost forgot. Here's your script."

Script? Daniel's mind went blank. He had a script? "Charlie, it's dark, I don't..."

"Use your flashlight." Charlie spoke as if this startling new job info was no big deal. "Just remember, if they're not scared they didn't have fun." With those parting words of wisdom, his brother disappeared into the fog.

Daniel heard kids laughing as they started up the driveway. He'd better hurry. He turned on his flashlight and reviewed his lines. It was the story of Hal O.Ween, Jack and Charlie style.

“Once in this town there lived a man named Hal O' Ween. T'was years ago, on this very night that he was murdered out of spite. They say these are his remains...”

Daniel didn't have time to review the rest. The first group of kids was hovering around his table. They couldn't see the contents of the bowls. Each bowl was in its own cardboard box with a hole cut out of the front just big enough to stick a hand through. Daniel nervously began to read the words of the story Charlie had thrown at him at the last minute.

"What? We can't hear you," one of the kids complained, sounding more annoyed than afraid.

To be fair, it was hard to hear with the distracting scary music playing in the background. Daniel read it again, this time louder. He worried this story was going to be too boring. Kids were used to amazing special effects at the movies and high-tech computer games; they were going to find this story pathetically fake and silly. Too late now, there was nothing he could do but keep reading.

"Here is his brain, which now feels no pain," he read.

"Where? Where's his brain?" the same kid demanded, still not sounding the least bit scared.

Daniel blanked for a second then remembered. First bowl. No wonder Charlie had insisted the boxes with the bowls be in order. He had even labeled them on the back so only Daniel could read the contents. Brains/spaghetti, eyes/grapes, heart/chicken liver, hair/corn husk, etc. Charlie had known there was a script the whole time, he just hadn't mentioned it. Daniel decided he was going let Charlie have it when Halloween was over but right now he needed to do his part and get through this.

No one has fun if they’re not scared. With Charlie's words uppermost in his mind, Daniel projected his voice and tried to live up to the O'Neill Halloween tradition.

"Right here, here are the brains. Reach inside and you'll feel them." The other friends in the group grew quiet as the first kid reached in.

"Eww, gross," he yelled, jumping back. The other kids laughed and battled for position to be the next to try.

Encouraged, Daniel continued reading, "Here are his eyes, still swollen with surprise," then, "here is his heart. Be careful lest it start!"

The kids took turns and went from one box to the other, squealing and yelling at the slimy, squishy food substituting for dismembered body parts.

"Oh yuck! What's really in this one?" One of the girls asked.

Charlie had read him the riot act about never revealing the true contents of the bowls so Daniel wasn't about to give up the dried apricot. Instead he repeated his earlier claim from the story, "His ear. Nevermore will he hear!"

"Creepy!" the girl exclaimed. As her friends went further into the garage she leaned forward and whispered, "Great costume, Daniel."

He was too startled to speak.

"Anita, from history class," she supplied. "We come every year but I think this is the best set-up ever. This stuff is really, really gross. Great job! I can't wait to see what Charlie's wearing.”

Before Daniel could answer she was gone. A few seconds later he heard her screaming in terrified delight. For the first time he understood some of the appeal of Halloween. Maybe it was going to be a blast, as Charlie had put it, after all.

Another group of kids came up to his laboratory and this time Daniel read his script with gusto and laughed as the kids shrieked in fright at the contents of the bowls. After that, kids just kept coming and Daniel kept reading and laughing and having fun right along with them. He even read a few times with a German accent to emulate Einstein as Charlie had suggested. Everyone laughed and groaned and screamed no matter what he did. To Daniel's amazement, everything he tried worked. Everyone must be in the mood to have fun and be scared on Halloween night regardless of the props.

Jack came over to check on him a couple of times and Charlie snuck up behind him once and scared the heck out him, but other than that Daniel read his script over and over and everyone seemed happily scared all night long. A few girls refused to stick their hands inside the boxes but everyone else seemed to love it.

Sara came outside to refill the candy bowl a few times and the last time she stopped and watched him for a few minutes, then waved. When he smiled a big smile she winked at him. Hopefully, she thought he was doing a good job. If the shrieks and screams echoing around the Haunted House were any indication, Jack and Charlie were doing an awesome job.

A sudden thunderous clap startled Daniel. He peered around to see Jack aka the skeleton clapping his hands. Not thunder, after all, but still loud.

“It’s 9:30,”Jack pronounced in funereal tones. “Time for all the ghoulies and ghosties to fade away until next year.”

There was laughter and several aww’s as the visitors still within the Haunted House began to make their way out.

Daniel yawned. He hadn’t thought how tiring it would be to play a mad scientist mummy for half the night. Okay, not half the night but for a long time.

“This was totally cool,” said a kid in the maze.

“Awesome,” agreed another kid, also still inside.

There was more laughter and agreement from several other parties.

“Maybe we could stick around awhile longer.” This came from one of the older male voices, a teenager, Daniel judged. “We could – ”

“Time’s up!” Jack said briskly, this time with an edge of authority that made Daniel jump. He wasn’t surprised to hear people exiting the Haunted House more rapidly, still chattering and laughing and calling back “thank-you’s” and “it was great” and similar sentiments.

He slipped out from behind his mad-scientist’s desk and checked to make sure he still had Sara’s camera slipped under his mummy wrappings. He’d snuck several pictures throughout the evening so Karen and Adam would be able to see the results of all their work. Yawning, he made his way over to Jack. A large hand patted him on the back.

“Just a few more minutes, kiddo.”

Daniel looked around at the Haunted House. Now that all the people were gone it felt kind of creepy again, what with all the Halloween stuff still up. He was glad he was standing next to Jack. Which was silly; there was nothing to be afraid of. Still, the tall figure beside him gave him a feeling of comfort.

“That’s everyone, Dad.” Charlie appeared out of the shadows.

“Probably,” Jack agreed, “but I’ll do a quick sweep to make sure we don’t have any stragglers.”

“Yeah,” Charlie snickered. “Cuz no one gets left behind, right?”

His father turned quickly, too quickly for Charlie to avoid the gentle swat on the head.

“That’s right, buddy, and don’t you ever forget it.”

Still chuckling, Charlie gestured to his brother. “Come on, he’ll be out in a minute.”

Daniel followed Charlie out onto the driveway and, sure enough, Jack appeared a couple of minutes later. He was yawning, too, which was a very odd sight from a skeleton. While they watched, he hit the switch on the inside frame of the garage and the door rumbled down, closing out another successful O'Neill Halloween.

“We’ll clean it all up tomorrow.” Jack put an arm around each of the boys. “Let’s get inside where it’s warm.”

They walked through the back door into the kitchen just as Sara came in from the living room. She was carrying two large bowls, both of which were empty. She smiled at them and set the bowls in the sink.

“So how’d it go? I heard lots of screaming but since you didn’t yell for me to call an ambulance I assume there were no heart attacks, strokes or panic attacks in general.”

“It was excellent, Mom!” Charlie scooted out from under his father’s arm and bounced over to stand in front of her. His eyes were still shining with the enjoyment of the evening.

“One of the screams you heard must’ve been from Trina Matthews. I swear she practically shattered the lights when I threw myself on the floor in front of her. I looked really dead, didn’t I?” He looked over his shoulder, the better to appeal to his father and brother. Jack grinned.

“I didn’t see that, buddy, but you sure looked dead the times I did see you.”

“I saw it,” Daniel admitted. “You looked dead, Charlie, really dead.”

Sara laughed and Charlie beamed. “I’ll bet it was the extra blood I splattered all over me, huh?”

“Well,” Daniel hedged, “it helped but the whole thing, the whole costume was very effective.”

Charlie looked thrilled and Daniel tried to hide his amusement. The O’Neills were certainly a unique family. His family, he recalled with a shiver of gratitude.

“How’d things go here on the home front?” Jack moved past them to give Sara a kiss.

“Very well.” She pointed at the empty bowls. “We had lots of little trick-o-treaters. It’s all gone, the candy, the fruit bars, everything.”

“Fruit bars? I can’t believe you gave out healthy stuff, too.” Jack made a face though his eyes glinted with laughter. “It’s Halloween, for crying out loud.”

Sara patted his cheek and Daniel bit his lip to hide a smile when Jack winced. Sara must’ve patted a little harder than Jack expected.

“The kids seemed very pleased with their haul so I wouldn’t worry about them. And as for you two – “ she turned a judicious eye on Charlie and Daniel, “I want you both to scrub off all the make-up and be in bed in half an hour.”

“Half an hour!” Charlie said indignantly. “We haven’t finished debriefing.”

Sara snorted and Jack chuckled, giving his son a little push and a slap on the backside. “You heard your mother, move it. We’ll finish debriefing over breakfast tomorrow.”

Miraculously, an hour later when Sara walked into her bedroom and closed the door behind her, all was quiet in the house. She gave into the yawns she'd been resisting and sat down on the edge of the bed. In a minute she'd change her clothes but right now, for this minute, she was going to enjoy not moving. Thinking back over the day, she realized this was the first moment she'd had to herself.

The bathroom door opened and Jack stood silhouetted for a second before he moved toward her. She felt the bed give way as he settled down beside her and murmured in approval as his arms encircled her, drawing her against his warm strength.

“Fun night,” he whispered against her hair.

“Yeah, but I’m glad it’s over.” She shifted slightly so she could embrace him.

“Me, too."

She felt the almost-silent laughter rumble in his chest.

"You suppose it means we’re getting old?” he asked.

“Of course not.”

“Of course not,” he echoed. “What was I thinking?”

“I know what I’m thinking.” She freed one hand to stroke his back. His arms tightened around her.

“Does this mean you want to continue our discussion from earlier this evening?”

“A discussion wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” she chuckled.

“Ah,” he breathed softly. “Well, your fine figure of a man is ready for whatever you have in mind.”

Sara turned her head to muffle her laughter against his chest. “As soon as I said that I knew I’d regret it. You’re never going to let me forget it, are you?”

“Never.” She heard the smugness in his voice. “But maybe you can take advantage of it for now.”

“Sounds good,” she murmured as she raised her head to receive his kiss.

Chapter 10

As Jack flew through the air, his years of training and experience paid off. He relaxed a split second before he landed, rolled over and was instantly on his feet and centered, hands raised against his opponent.

He was drenched in sweat; his heart pounded so hard he could barely hear over it. None of that mattered. He had to focus or die.

At least that was the scenario.

Circling Teal’c, Jack was mildly annoyed to note the alien had barely broken a sweat. This despite the fact he'd been throwing around SGC military personnel all morning.

The Jaffa stood poised, his eyes never leaving Jack's. This was the longest Jack had lasted against him, the longest anyone had lasted against Teal’c since he became part of the program. Almost twenty minutes. Whoop-di-doo.

Focus, remember? He was supposed to be focusing here. Not that it would change the fast-approaching, inevitable outcome.

Watching Teal'c in action these past weeks had been amazing. Despite his size, he moved faster than anyone Jack had ever seen. Fast and unpredictable, a lethal combination in battle. His strength was astonishing and so, thankfully, was his control. Teal'c never lost control and never lost sight of his opponent. Although he'd initially been unfamiliar with standard Tau’ri tactics, he learned fast. Very fast. And once learned, Teal’c never forgot. Add to that the Jaffa style of fighting that was new to the SGC and it was no wonder he was unstoppable.

Jack continued to circle, his eyes locked on Teal’c. The Jaffa was so big and such an incredible fighter that it was easy to underestimate his intelligence. Until face to face, then it was impossible to forget.

Every time Jack faced Teal’c, he intended to win. Unfortunately, every time he ended up flat on his back. Eventually, that was going to change. Maybe right now.

He faked a lunge forward and ducked back, but not in time to avoid Teal’c’s lightning-fast reaction. Jack hit the mat with a thud and jumped to his feet. Again.

Who was he kidding? He had thrown everything he had into the match, including a few new moves Teal’c had taught him, and Teal’c was still bouncing him around like an oversized rubber ball.

Damn it, he wasn’t going down easy. He had a reputation to uphold.

Jack faked again. Again Teal’c countered his move.

He cut back beneath the Jaffa’s hand and hit him full in the chest. Teal’c leaned back and then Jack lunged forward.

The Jaffa twisted out of the way but not quickly enough. Jack’s full-speed attack knocked him back a step. He stumbled, started to catch himself, and Jack hit him again, two hard blows close up, into the body. He'd learned through painful experience not to pull his punches, not that it usually did much good.

This time his attack was enough to knock Teal’c to one knee. Before Jack had a chance to draw a breath the Jaffa was back on his feet.

Jack tried to power up against him.

Instead, he went flying. Again.

Jack missed the mat and landed on his back, the hard floor knocking the breath out of him. He waited for the pain to recede and concentrated on drawing in air while his stressed lungs protested the extra effort.

Gradually the room stopped revolving and Jack realized Teal’c was standing over him.

“Are you injured, O’Neill?”

“Who, me?” Jack wheezed. “Nah, I’m ready to go another round.”

Stupid is as stupid does. Did he have bricks for brains? He tried to smile up at his formidable opponent and offered a silent prayer that Teal’c would decline the challenge.

The Jaffa stared down at him, one eyebrow quirked. Damn, he was going to accept.

“You went toe to toe for just over twenty minutes, Colonel. A new record.”

Captain Ferretti to the rescue.

Jack rolled his eyes – crap, even his eyeballs hurt – in the direction of the speaker. Ferretti stood a few yards away with his arms crossed over his chest. Far from looking concerned about his C.O., he was wearing a wide, shit-eating grin. As soon as Jack could move without moaning, he was going to kill the bastard.

He sat up slowly, biting his lip to hold back any groans, whines or whimpers. Teal’c extended a hand and, despite knowing what was going to happen, Jack grabbed it. Sure enough, the Jaffa yanked him up in a single, easy gesture that made every bruise on his body yelp in protest.

“Thanks, Teal’c.” Jack managed not to wince as he adjusted his shirt and looked at Ferretti.

“Now you can try for the record, Captain.”

There was no missing the note of command in his voice. This wasn’t a request. Ferretti’s smile faded and he looked nervously at the Jaffa.

“Uh, yes, sir.” He swallowed and moved onto the mat as Jack stepped away. Kawalsky and the other members of SG-2 were standing back, watching, and Jack moved toward them.

“Way to go, sir,” Kawalsky complimented him.

“Right,” Jack growled. Even though he knew Teal'c was unlike any other opponent he’d faced, he wasn’t used to losing. Besides various parts of his anatomy, his pride was smarting. He vowed that one of these days, the outcome of a match with Teal’c would end differently.

Kawalsky was smiling. “No, kidding, Colonel. You were impressive. Of course, he was more impressive.”

“You can take on Teal’c after he finishes wiping the floor with Ferretti.” So much for the Major’s smile. "I take it your team is down here to train, Major, so have at it." Jack saw him swallow, take a deep breath, and nod.

“Of course, sir.” He looked over his shoulder at his two remaining teammates. “Greenberg, Thompson, you two take the mat over there. When Ferretti and I are done with the Jaffa, we’ll split into pairs.”

The soldiers nodded vigorously and Jack resisted rolling his eyes. It wasn’t hard to see they were relieved they weren’t going up against Teal’c today. It was their bad luck that tomorrow was another day.

“So where’s the rest of your team, Colonel?” Kawalsky asked.

“Carter and Rothman finished earlier.” Jack waved a hand in the air. “Carter went off to do some science thingy and Rothman said he was going to see Daniel about some translation.”

The Major’s eyes brightened. “Daniel didn’t happen to bring in any more baked goods today, did he?”

Jack grinned. “No. When are you going to stop asking about muffins, Kawalsky? He’s been coming in for over a week now.”

“I know, but those were damn good muffins.”

“Of course they were. Sara made them. That reminds me. Sara asked me to double check with you about Thanksgiving. You still coming?”

“Absolutely!” Kawalsky winced as Ferretti hit the mat with a thud. “You know, even though I’ve been watching him for almost a month, I still can’t believe how fast that Jaffa can move.”

“His name is Teal’c.”

“Yes, sir.”

He had spoken matter-of-factly but Kawalsky still gave him a look.

Jack sighed in frustration. He’d known from the beginning it would take the base personnel a little time to get used to Teal’c. Even so, it was annoying watching everyone shy away from the alien. He was tempted to snap at the Major but resisted. If it became necessary, he'd step in. Otherwise, it was better to let things happen naturally, at their own pace, but it needed to happen soon. If it didn't, he'd have to force the issue.

“Oof!”

This time Ferretti didn’t get up. Teal’c stood towering over the prone Captain. “Do you require assistance in rising, Captain Ferretti?”

“No,” Ferretti gasped, still breathing hard. “I’m uh, good.”

Jack snorted. “Kawalsky, you’re up.”

“Yes, sir,” sighed the Major.

“Don’t forget, Teal’c, you need to be down on the firing range in a half-hour for another demonstration on the use of a staff weapon,” Jack reminded before heading for the exit.

“I will not forget, O’Neill.”

“Not to worry, sir." Kawalsky grimaced. "This won’t take a half-hour.”

“I know.” Jack grinned. He was barely out of the gym when he heard a loud thud and a muffled curse from the Major. He swallowed a laugh and didn’t look back.

A hot shower eased the fast-developing aches in his body. Jack dressed in clean fatigues and decided to check in on Daniel before heading down to the firing range. He wasn't required to be at the firing range today but he was fascinated by the alien technology that had created Teal’c’s staff weapon. Plus, he'd found that Teal'c's discussions on Jaffa weapons and tactics often revealed a lot about the Goa'uld attitude about fighting and war, information that was bound to come in handy out in the field. There was no such thing as too much intel, especially against this newest and most dangerous enemy of planet Earth.

But first he needed to make sure all was well with Daniel.

~~~

Daniel sighed, closed the reference book and laid it down next to the dozen other books he'd looked through. None of them helped.

He glanced at the other table and saw Dr. Rothman flipping through a massive volume.

“Any luck?” he asked hopefully.

The Egyptologist looked up with a rueful smile. “Not really. It’s definitely cuneiform. But beyond that...” He pointed at one of the symbols. “This might refer to Utu or Shamash.”

“The god of the sun and of justice in ancient Babylon?” Daniel leaned across the desk to get a better look.

Rothman nodded and pulled over one of the books lying open. “See the resemblance?”

Daniel studied the two symbols. “Yes, except the final stroke looks like it might be a staff, which wouldn’t make sense.”

It was the Egyptologist’s turn to sigh. “No. It’s not clear, unfortunately.” He flipped through several pages of pictures before he smiled at Daniel.

“It’s extraordinary the number of connections we’re finding to ancient Earth languages on the alien artifacts.”

Daniel thought back to an ancient wall located underground that he'd seen on a faraway planet.

“It supports the story of Ra that we found on Abydos,” he confirmed.

Rothman looked up from the book. “That he kidnapped countless thousands of our ancestors and sent them through the Stargate to work as his slaves on other planets,” he repeated the story they all now knew to be true.

“Yes,” Daniel agreed. A pang of sorrow shot through him when he thought of Abydos. Sorrow for the lost soldiers and especially for Skaara and Tracy, He knew Jack would find them one day but he hated to think about what they were going through now, worse than prisoners in their own bodies.

“Daniel?” Dr. Rothman’s eyes were dark with concern.

Daniel tried to smile. “I’m fine,” he assured the scientist.

“Are you sure?”

Uh-oh. If Daniel couldn’t convince him, the Egyptologist might say something to Jack.

“I’m sure, Dr. Rothman.” He sat up straighter and gave the man his most reassuring smile. After a minute the scientist smiled back.

“You know, Daniel, you’re more than welcome to call me Robert.”

“Thanks, but I'm not sure if Jack would like that. He doesn’t like kids calling grown-ups by their first name. He doesn’t think it’s respectful.”

Jack hadn't said that directly to him; he'd learned it through Charlie. Daniel called Sam by her first name because she had suggested it during their first meeting, but since then he’d tried to abide by Jack's wishes with other SGC personnel.

Rothman’s eyes narrowed and he looked away. “Figures,” he said, not quite softly enough. Daniel heard but didn’t understand. Before he could ask, Dr. Rothman turned back to him.

“We're colleagues and you're welcome to call me Robert even if it's only when we’re alone. The Colonel shouldn’t mind that.”

Daniel considered the proposition and nodded his agreement. “I guess it would be okay since it’s your idea. Thanks!”

“Good,” the Egyptologist smiled and that made Daniel smile. Out of nowhere he remembered something that had occurred to him the other night.

“Are you having fun being part of SG-1?” He hoped he didn't sound jealous. What he wouldn’t give to be part of Jack’s team again, going through the Stargate.

He was surprised when Dr. Rothman grimaced. “I’m not sure I'd call sparring with Teal’c fun, but it’s a fascinating experience.”

Daniel swallowed hard. Maybe it was good he wasn't a permanent member of SG-1. Would he have had to spar with the Nightmare?

“He hasn’t – um, hurt you, has he?”

Dr. Rothman shrugged. “I have bruises in places that aren’t used to being bruised but I’m told it’s all part of P.T. According to Captain Carter, Teal’c has been easier on me than he's been on the soldiers. As hard as that is to believe.”

“Easier? What d’ya mean?” That didn’t fit with Daniel’s memories.

“Teal’c considers me to be a scholar.” Rothman raised his eyebrows. “On Chulak, scholars are apparently held in high esteem. Lucky me.”

That didn’t make sense. Daniel’s encounters with the Jaffa hadn’t been gentle at all. Just thinking about the alien was enough to make his hands sweat and his heart pound. It was time to change the subject.

“So are you excited to go through the Stargate?”

The Egyptologist laughed. “To be honest, I’m very nervous about the whole idea. And yet...” he looked thoughtful, “yes, I’m also excited.” His odd smile faded. “I just wish...” he stopped abruptly.

“You wish what?” Daniel asked.

“Nothing." Rothman shook his head. "Forget about it.” He pulled over a handful of photographs and flipped through them.

Daniel realized his friend didn’t want to talk about what was bothering him so he let it go and tried to stifle his curiosity.

"I’m not sure in what direction we should go in trying to translate this,” Dr. Rothman said. “I’m out of ideas. Do you have any more suggestions?"

Daniel turned his attention back to their current linguistic problem. After a few more minutes of study, he frowned. Normally, he loved working on the snake language, not to mention its many derivations they were constantly discovering. It was challenging and fun, like solving a difficult puzzle, the solution being its own reward.

This time he didn’t have any other suggestions. This wasn't just tricky, it was unworkable, at least with their current level of knowledge. The language was either a dialect they couldn't decipher or some type of encrypted code. Either way it was proving to be impossible to solve.

Before Daniel could answer Jack poked his head in the door. "How goes the translating, kids?"

Daniel stifled a smile. He wanted to laugh every time Jack called a grown-up ‘kid’. Jack called everyone kid, sometimes even Captain Carter. He giggled at the thought of Robert and Sam being kids. Jack was funny that way.

"Not so good, Colonel.” Dr. Rothman answered first.

Daniel noticed Dr. Rothman still seemed a little nervous around Jack. It made sense when Daniel thought of the first time he'd met Jack. He’d been plenty nervous back then. It was amazing how much had changed since that first meeting. Dr. Rothman would get used to Jack, too, it would just take a little time.

Maybe Robert needed a pep talk. Daniel decided he’d do that the next time they were alone. For now he gave his foster father an apologetic look.

"We're not giving up, Jack. We'll keep trying. "

"Good luck." Jack checked his watch. "Daniel, you have two hours and twenty minutes."

Daniel made a face as Jack pulled his head back and disappeared. That didn't seem like much time but there was no point in arguing. Time flew by whenever he was in the Mountain.

The only thing Daniel didn’t like about being at the SGC was that Jack wouldn't let him eat lunch in his office like the other scientists did. Usually he came by and they had lunch together. If Jack was too busy, he sent Sam. If Sam was busy, he called down to the lab and suggested one of the scientists take a lunch break with Daniel. Surprisingly, one or more of the scientists was always available. Then again, maybe it wasn’t so surprising. He’d noticed that people on the base tended to heed Jack's suggestions.

"I know," Daniel answered with a resigned sigh even though Jack was long gone. There was no way they'd figure this out in two hours. Maybe not even in two days or two weeks. He probably wasn't going to miss anything important after he left the Mountain today.

"Maybe we should take a break from this and look at it with fresh eyes tomorrow." Dr. Rothman rubbed his eyes in frustration.

Leaving Daniel's side, he moved from the table to the desk and picked up a couple of the cheat sheets Daniel had created to help the linguists learn Goa'uld. In addition to the linguists, Daniel had been pleased to see the notes seemed to make things easier for the Dr. Rothman, too. The notes were similar to the ones his parents had first made to teach him the snake language.

Daniel stayed at the table. "I have two more hours and I'm going to keep trying." There had to be an answer somewhere. His mom had taught him there was an always an answer, sometimes you just needed to ask the right questions.

When the door to his office opened again Daniel checked his watch. He opened his mouth to complain to Jack that he still had thirty-five minutes left to solve the linguistic puzzle. When he looked up, all rationale thought vanished. His throat went dry, sweat broke out on his forehead and his heart began to pound. He couldn’t speak, much less scream. His nightmare was alive, roaming around the base in broad daylight and now it stood in his office doorway. There was no escape. Waking up wasn't an option. He was already awake.

The Nightmare was huge and amazingly strong. He could lift Daniel up with no effort, like he weighed nothing at all. His eyes were cold and black like his skin. His features were as hard as the metal armor he'd worn on Abydos. There was no mercy or human kindness in his expression. Looking back, Daniel knew he was lucky the alien hadn't snapped him in two that day in the pyramid.

"Teal'c." Dr Rothman sounded pleased by the Nightmare's presence. "You may be just the person we need.”

"Colonel O'Neill thought I might be of some assistance." The Nightmare bowed his head.

"Good. Daniel can show you what we're working on while I finish this up.” Dr. Rothman went back to the notes.

Daniel was trapped as the Nightmare took a few steps toward him, the table the only thing between them. Terror filled him and he opened and closed his mouth before words finally came to him.

"I-I don’t feel good," he stuttered. What was he going to do now? He wasn't safe in his own office.

Dr. Rothman turned around to look at him and frowned. "You do look a little pale," he agreed.

"I have to go."

Daniel rushed past without looking up. He didn't need to look. He knew every nuance of the Nightmare's face, right down the details etched into the golden tattoo.

He ducked out of his office and looked left and right down the long corridors. Which way? Which way to run? He had to get away, he had to hide. He couldn’t think. Why couldn’t he think?

In a blind panic, Daniel fled.

Twenty minutes later Jack walked back into Daniel’s office. "Any luck?"

"I am not familiar with this writing, O'Neill." Teal'c stepped back from the table.

Jack shrugged. It had only been an idea, though Teal’c himself had warned that he wasn’t conversant with all the ancient languages he'd run across in his decades of serving Apophis.

"It was worth a try. Where's Daniel?"

Rothman looked a little worried. "He left right after Teal’c arrived, Colonel. He said he didn’t feel good. He did look a little pale. I thought he went to find you. Maybe he..."

Jack didn't wait to hear the rest. If Daniel was sick he needed to find him ASAP.

Calm down, O’Neill. There was no reason to overreact. It was probably no big deal or someone would have tracked him down by now.

Despite common sense weighing in, Jack couldn’t quell the thread of fear running through him. Daniel had been working on an alien artifact. Maybe something had slipped through security. Maybe something alien was affecting his kid.

Don’t be ridiculous. Rothman and Teal'c looked fine. He was definitely overreacting. Still, he'd feel better once he laid eyes on Daniel.

Jack grabbed a phone in the corridor and called the infirmary. No Daniel. That was probably good news. Next he checked the commissary, the science labs and Captain Carter's lab. No luck. Enough with the phone calls, there was just one other place Jack could think of where his kid might be. If Daniel wasn’t in Jack’s office then he’d page him.

He opened the door to find Daniel sitting on one of the chairs across from his desk looking small and vulnerable.

"Hey, buddy, you okay?"

"Jack!"

To Jack's surprise, Daniel jumped off the chair and ran over to hug his waist. Jack returned the hug and then held his son at arm's length, to better check him out.

"Dr. Rothman said you didn’t feel good."

"I'm fine." Daniel beamed up at him while Jack touched the boy's forehead. No fever, that was good.

"Maybe we should have Dr. Fraiser check you out to be on the safe side."

"No, really. I think I just got a little headache from looking at the artifact for so long."

Daniel smiled his best smile and hoped the white lie wouldn't come back to haunt him the next time he wanted to spend hours working on a translation. He wasn't sick and it was only a teensy, tiny lie. He did have a bad headache since seeing the Nightmare up close and personal.

He could tell Jack was wavering and pressed harder. "Please, Jack, I'm really fine and I want to go home. If I go to the infirmary who knows how long I'll be in there?"

That won him a smile. Anyone who had dealt with the C.M.O. knew she liked to be thorough.

"All right,” Jack agreed, “but I'm counting on you to tell me if it doesn't go away or if it gets worse."

"I will. I promise."

It was an easy promise to make. The headache was already subsiding. Daniel was sure it would be completely gone by the time they walked through the front door at home. Home. He couldn't wait to get home and see Sara and Charlie and be free from the possibility of running into the Nightmare again.

Maybe working at the Mountain wasn't such a good idea after all, except he loved working on the translations and seeing Sam and Dr. Rothman and Dr. Lee and his other friends. It was inevitable he'd run into the Nightmare occasionally. In the future, he'd just have to be better prepared.

On to Part 2

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Biblio, PhoenixE, babs, Brionhet, Darcy, Devra, Fabrisse, JoaG, Kalimyre, Marcia, Rowan and Sideburns, 2001-2008.
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