TIME AND FATE  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: The first five seasons are all fair game, especially Seaon Five's "Between Two Fires".
Synopsis: “Time and Fate” is the fifth story set in the Much Abides universe, where Jack and Sara are still married, Charlie is alive and Daniel Jackson has become part of the O’Neill family. Over four years have passed since the end of the previous fic, “Heaven and Earth." Daniel and Charlie are teenagers now... batten down the hatches!
Warnings: A little language.
Length: 724 kb
Notes: Darcy Notes: This fic portrays the boys in their mid-teens. It was fun to write and it was also a challenge. I hope those of you who have been following the story will enjoy our interpretation of Daniel and Charlie as teenagers. As always, special thanks to Cathe, my incredible co-writer and my muse. May your ideas never run dry! And thank you to my friend, Anne, who beta'd this monster in record time. It is much appreciated!
 
 Cathe (aka sami-j) Notes: What can I say? This amazing universe Darcy created continues to inspire me. Thankfully, it does the same for Darcy so here we are once more. It was great fun writing, as always, mainly due to my wonderfully creative co-writer. Thanks, girlfriend, for allowing me to continue on this wonderful journey with you.


 

 

Chapter 1

“Open the iris!”

Colonel Jack O’Neill was on his way to General Hammond’s office when the klaxons blared and the strobe lights flashed out their incessant alarm. As he raced up the steel stairwell he heard the General’s order and his heart beat double-time.

Hammond was standing in front of the massive windows that looked down into the gate room. Jack stopped beside him.

“Sir?”

“SG-5 and 6 are returning ahead of schedule.”

Oh, shit.

“Daniel?”

“We don’t know anything yet, Colonel.”

Jack stared down at the inner ring of the Stargate as it revolved smoothly back and forth, and decided he couldn’t wait up here.

“Excuse me, sir.” He raced down the stairwell, nearly running into a passing Airman as he reached the corridor. Ducking around the startled young man Jack darted into the gate room. Fists clenched at his side in an effort to maintain control, he counted the seconds. If that damn gate didn’t open soon he was going to lose it.

The event horizon exploded open and seconds later several team members came through, stumbling down the ramp one after the other. Jack’s eyes skipped over them, his heart pounding harder when he didn’t see –

Thank God.

Daniel trudged out of the event horizon with Major Ferretti at his side. Jack gave his fifteen-year-old the once over, two arms, two legs, no limping, no blood... the kid looked fine except for being disheveled and dirty, which was his normal look coming back from being off-world. Hold on. Daniel didn’t usually look that pissed.

Jack moved to the bottom of the ramp. “How’d it go?” he asked. His relieved smile froze when Daniel glared at him. The kid was pissed at him? What the hell?

Instead of answering, Daniel stomped out of the gate room and, from the sound of it, stomped down the corridor toward the elevators. Jack stared after him in confusion.

“Majors, why have SG-5 and SG-6 returned early?” Hammond ’s voice echoed over the intercom.

Ferretti exchanged looks with Major Steve Chisholm, team leader of SG-5. It was difficult for Jack to read their expressions. Amusement? Resignation? He was curious to know what had ticked Daniel off, and more importantly, what it had to do with him.

“That’s kind of a long story, sir,” Ferretti answered.

“I see. Report to the infirmary. Debriefing in one hour.”

“Yes, sir,” they answered simultaneously before disappearing through the huge door.

“Uh, sir,” Jack called, looking up at the General.

“Go on, Colonel. We’ll talk later.”

“Thank you, sir.”  Whatever was going on, Hammond clearly thought Daniel was in the middle of it. Yeah, well, Jack thought the same thing.

When Jack reached the infirmary he found it in its usual post-mission, organized chaos. He spotted his kid sitting at the end of the row, separated from the soldiers by several beds. That made it official. Daniel was mad at everyone. It was a rare thing for his level-headed kid to be this upset so he figured it had to be one hell of a story.

He’d get to the bottom of it eventually. For now, he was relieved his son, along with everyone else, appeared to be okay. Ferretti and Chisholm were sitting on beds across from each other with nurses hovering over them. Ferretti caught Jack’s eye and started to slide off the bed when Fraiser walked up.

“As you were, Major,” she ordered and Lou wisely resumed his seat.

Jack smirked until the good doctor turned her attention to him.

“Were you part of this mission, Colonel?”

“Me? No.”

“Then you don’t need to be taking up space in my infirmary.”

“I wanted to – ”

“As you can see,” she continued, ignoring his attempt to interrupt, “we are very busy here and it would be better if you waited outside.”

Jack knew an order when he heard one. He wanted to protest but when it came to medical matters Janet Fraiser outranked everyone on the base, up to and including Hammond. There would be no winning an argument with her on her turf.

Ignoring Ferretti’s smug look, Jack surrendered. “Okay, Doc, just one thing.” He gestured for her to follow as he backed toward the door. She looked annoyed and curious; curiosity won out and she followed him.

“What’s so important, Colonel?” she asked when they stepped outside the infirmary.

“You saw Daniel?”

“Yes," Her frown faded. "Though I haven’t had a chance to examine him yet.”

“Could you take him first? I want to talk to him before the debriefing.”

“All right. As for you, sir – ”

“I need a minute with Ferretti and Chisholm.”

She frowned again but nodded before stepping back inside.  She moved down to Daniel's bed. The kid didn’t look up and Fraiser gestured at a male nurse who pulled the privacy curtain around the bed, hiding them from view.

A couple of strides took Jack to his officers. “What happened? The short version,” he added.

Ferretti and Chisholm exchanged a glance before Ferretti answered. “Everything was going good, sir. Daniel was making nice with the locals who seemed like they were ready to adopt him. Then a new crowd of folks appeared.” He scowled. “Daniel said they came from over the mountain and they didn’t like people coming through the gate; it was obvious they wanted us gone. Things began to heat up and when they started waving around weapons, I decided it was time to leave.”

“I agreed, Colonel,” Chisholm put in. “We were outnumbered at least thirty to one and even though their weapons were primitive, it would have turned into a bloodbath if things had escalated.”

Jack nodded. He would get the details during the debriefing but listening to this summary was enough for now. “It sounds like you made the right decision. I’m guessing Daniel didn’t agree.”

“No, sir.” Ferretti shook his head. “He was sure he could calm things down. I didn’t think it was worth the gamble.”

“Nobody said anything about unfriendlies the first time SG-6 came through the gate,” Chisholm added. “We weren’t prepared to be caught in the middle of a possible war.”

Jack nodded in agreement. With the nurses waiting, hovering just out of earshot, Jack moved away to let them do their job. When he left the infirmary he headed directly to Daniel’s office. The kid would most likely retreat there to hide out and Jack wanted a chance to discuss the mission before the debriefing.

He wasn’t looking forward to the conversation. Ferretti’s brief explanation had been enough to give him a good idea of his kid’s frame of mind. Since Daniel had returned from UCLA several months ago with his PhD in linguistics completed, he periodically went through the Stargate, usually with SG-1, and only after the planet had been checked out. Although Jack wasn’t completely comfortable with his son going through the gate, he couldn’t deny how big an asset the teenager was to the SGC. As if his expertise in languages and ancient cultures wasn't enough, Daniel was proving to be a gifted diplomat, able to reach out to alien civilizations in ways unmatched by his peers.

Jack settled down on one of the stools in Daniel’s office and picked up a small statue. He ran his fingers over the scratches on the back. Daniel claimed it was writing that he was still trying to decipher. Jack stared at the scratches. Only Daniel would think this was writing, and he was probably the only one who'd eventually be able to translate it. That was one of the many reasons why the fifteen-year-old was so valuable to the SGC.

Jack sighed and absently tossed the statue from one hand to the other. Although he would never challenge Daniel’s expertise in his field, the kid still had a lot to learn about visiting other worlds. Daniel wasn’t a soldier, he didn’t think or act like a soldier. His approach was often in conflict with the military mentality of the SGC. It sounded as if that was the root of the problem on this past mission.

The door opened and Daniel stopped at the sight of him. When he closed the door Jack grimaced at his son’s expression. Clearly the kid was still upset, which meant it was going to be one of those discussions.

“Daniel,” he greeted.

"Jack,” Daniel responded before sitting down behind his desk. He kept his head down as he pulled a pad of paper out of one of the drawers and began scribbling.

Uh-huh, definitely one of those discussions.

“The debriefing is in a half-hour,” Jack reminded.

“I know.”

Time to dive in. “Ferretti and Chisholm told me what happened.”

Daniel slammed his pen down. “Did they happen to mention I was making progress in getting both sides to communicate until they ordered us out of there?”

“The Majors didn’t think things were calming down.”

“That’s because they didn’t understand what was going on. They didn’t speak the language.” Daniel’s jaw worked. “They should have asked me. But no, I was just excess baggage they had to grab on the way out.”

“Daniel – ”

"Jack, I was making progress. If we had stayed – ”

“If you had stayed, SG-5 and 6 could have found themselves in the middle of a firefight.”

“No!” Tears of frustration sparkled in the blue eyes. “Our presence is what triggered the problem and our leaving made it worse. Because we left prematurely, we may have started a civil war!”

Crap. Neither Ferretti nor Chisholm had mentioned that. Maybe Jack hadn’t given them the time or maybe they hadn’t known. At least he had a better understanding of why Daniel was so upset. Daniel felt responsible and Jack felt like shit, both for his son and for the inhabitants of the planet. This was one of the biggest downsides of going through the Stargate.

“I’m sorry, Daniel,” he said. “But there’s no way we can be aware of the political dynamics on every planet we gate to.”

“I tried to tell them, the Majors. They wouldn’t listen to me. This is all our fault and running away just made things worse. If we had stayed I could’ve – ”

“That’s enough.” Jack rarely used that tone of voice with Daniel and the kid stopped in mid-rant. “I wish things had gone differently, I do, but they didn’t. The SGC has off-world protocols that teams are required to follow and Major Ferretti and Major Chisholm acted according to those protocols.”

“It was because of me...” Daniel paused and Jack saw his hands clenching and unclenching.

Something else Daniel had taken on his shoulders, something else to feel guilty about. At least Jack understood now why his son was angry with him.

“The protocols have nothing to do with you personally,” Jack corrected. If looks could kill, Jack would be bleeding all over the floor.

“Your protocols have everything to do with me!” Daniel blazed.

Yeah, well... “I’m talking about military protocols,” he said firmly. “But since you bring it up, you’re not only a civilian but a minor, as well as my son. I’m not going to apologize for worrying or for reminding SG teams of that fact, but,” Jack raised his hand before Daniel could interrupt. “But, in this case it wouldn’t have mattered who was on the mission, the same decision would have been made.” 

“You make it impossible for them to think of me as part of their team!”

“You aren’t a member of an SG team,” Jack reminded, trying to stifle his rising temper.

“How am I supposed to do my job if – ”

“All right, Daniel.” Arguing with his gifted son wouldn’t get him anywhere. It was time to remind him of the facts of life according to the SGC.

“Do you remember agreeing to certain conditions before I would talk to Hammond about letting you go through the Stargate?”

“Yes.” Daniel suddenly looked wary.

“Good. Do you also remember Hammond okayed you going through the gate based on those conditions?”

“Yes, but – ”

“I’m not finished.” Jack raised his voice. “You are not part of the military personnel assigned to the SGC. You are an underage civilian consultant. Going through the Stargate is not a right, it’s a privilege. Understand that?”

“Yes, but – ”

“I said I’m not finished. If you decide you no longer want to abide by the conditions you previously agreed to, then you will no longer be allowed to go through the gate. Period. End of story. Is that clear?”

He watched the kid wilt and though he regretted it, Jack was not about to change his mind. The stakes were too high, not only for Daniel and the SGC, but for the O’Neill family as well.

“Yes,” Daniel said, his head down.

The sight of the slumped shoulders tugged at Jack’s heart. He walked around the desk and put a tentative hand Daniel’s shoulder. Relieved when it wasn’t shrugged off, he spoke more quietly.

“I’m sorry the mission didn’t work out and I’m especially sorry if we somehow aggravated an already existing problem on that planet. We’re not omniscient. We do the best we can and, yeah, sometimes it’s not enough. It’s part of life, the shitty part, I admit, but still part of it.”

“I just wish...” Daniel’s voice trailed off and Jack tightened his grip.

“I know,” he said gently. “Me too.”

He wanted to say more, offer some kind of pep talk, but that wouldn’t work with Daniel. The kid was too smart, he felt things too deeply. All Jack could do was be there for his son, support him as best as he could, and occasionally rein him in when necessary. Not for the first time he wondered about his decision to give in to Daniel’s pleas to go through the Stargate. Then again, this was the first major bump Daniel had run into with a team other than SG-1.

Silence fell between them and Jack was in no hurry to break it. Eventually, though, he had to.

“The debriefing’s going to start in less than ten minutes. We need to get down there.”

They were quiet during the walk down to the briefing room. The elevators seemed unusually busy so it took a little longer than normal. They were just walking into the room when Hammond came out of his office and took his usual seat at the head of the table.

Jack sat down at the General’s right, as was his habit. For a second he was afraid Daniel would wander down to the far end of the table, separating himself again, and was relieved when the kid finally pulled out the chair beside him.

Hammond gazed around the table. "Major?" He looked directly at Lou Ferretti. Though he and Chisholm held the same rank, Ferretti had seniority.

“Yes, sir.” Ferretti straightened. “As you know, SG-6 was originally assigned to explore P17-J28.”

Jack had already read the initial report so he was well versed with the facts as he listened to the Major review the original mission to the planet. The natives had proven to be humanoid and friendly. At first glance, there didn’t appear to be anything of interest to the SGC. It was only when the subject turned to agriculture that the team discovered the natives grew several herbs that apparently had unique medicinal qualities.

No sooner had the subject come up when the aliens became uncomfortable with the questions. Trying to settle them down, Ferretti deliberately changed the subject and the team eventually learned there were some nearby caves that the natives claimed were important in their social practices. These they would be willing to share with the strangers who had come through the Stargate.

That gave Ferretti an idea. Daniel would be the perfect person to talk to the aliens. He was young, unthreatening, and had a gift for connecting with all kinds of people, human and otherwise. Not only would the kid love to explore the caves and learn about the social practices, but the planet’s inhabitants might be more open with him about their herbs.

When SG-6 returned to the SGC, Ferretti explained the situation during the debriefing. Because his team had already checked out the area and found no surprises or concerns, he was comfortable with requesting Daniel return to the planet with the team. It was left to Hammond to make the final decision. SG-1 had been off-world at the time and the General had ordered Jack be contacted through the MALP. For his part, Jack had reluctantly approved his son’s inclusion, his only request being that another team accompany SG-6. Thus, SG-5, SG-6 and Daniel went through the Stargate to P17-J28 three hours before SG‑1 returned from its mission.

The check-in’s had been uneventful. Jack had been relieved, though he wouldn’t be entirely at ease until his kid was back on planet Earth. Then, unexpectedly, the teams had returned through the gate twelve hours early.

After Ferretti finished his overview Hammond jumped in. “So when SG-6 returned to the planet with SG-5 and Dr. Jackson, everything appeared normal?”

Despite the seriousness of the moment, it was hard for Jack to suppress a smile. Although Daniel wouldn’t go through the formal, cap-and-gown graduation ceremony at UCLA for several months, when he returned to the Mountain with his doctoral dissertation successfully defended, Hammond began addressing him as “Dr. Jackson.”

“That’s right, sir,” Ferretti agreed. “We met with the leaders of the village again and introduced Daniel who seemed to get along great with them.” He tossed a look at Daniel but the kid kept his head down. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw he was doodling on his pad of paper. Or maybe he was writing something, if he was, it definitely wasn’t in English.

“They were still reluctant to explain about their special herbs,” the Major continued, “but after they talked to Daniel they said we could go out to the caves.” He threw a smile at the teenager that the kid didn’t see because he was still doodling.

“We spent the rest of the day checking the caves and made camp out there that night. The next morning Daniel went back into the caves with Sergeant Rodriguez. A couple hours later a runner from the village arrived and said we needed to come back with him.” He looked at Chisholm who took over the narrative.

“Daniel was still working on something so Major Ferretti told me to take SG-5 to the village to see what was going on and SG-6 would follow as soon as they could.”

This was all new to Jack so he listened closely.

“When we got there we found some new arrivals arguing with the people Daniel had spoken with earlier.”

“Gerant.”

All eyes turned to Daniel who looked only at Hammond. “The chief speaker of the Eleans is Gerant. He and his council were the ones I talked to when we came through the Stargate.”

The General nodded. “Thank you for the clarification, Dr. Jackson.” He looked back to Chisholm. “Go on, Major.”

“Yes, sir. There were between fifty and a hundred newcomers, most of them spread around the village but four in the – ” he glanced at Daniel.

“The Hall of Meeting,” the teenager supplied.

“Right. I didn’t know what they were talking about, sir. Lieutenant Sampson is the closest thing we have to a linguist and he wasn’t able to follow the conversation. They were arguing about something though and when we showed up, the discussion grew louder and they became more agitated.”

Jack noticed Daniel’s doodling growing more frantic and he could only guess at the emotions the kid was hiding. Under the cover of the table he reached out to pat the boy’s knee and after a few seconds Daniel took a deep breath and laid his pen down.

“We arrived a half-hour after SG-5,” Ferretti took up the story. “It was obvious the situation was escalating. Major Chisholm and I talked about leaving but Daniel was...” he looked at the boy who refused to meet his eyes. “He was sure he could calm down the situation. So I agreed to let him try.”

Jack tried not to over-think that statement, wondering if he would have allowed his son to even try to intervene. Being Daniel’s father was difficult and emotional but if he was going to allow Daniel to go off world without him, he needed to trust in the team leaders and remember they were the best Earth had to offer. Besides, if he couldn’t trust Daniel with Lou Ferretti then who could he trust? 

Almost as if reading his mind, Ferretti’s gazed at him. “I knew we were taking a chance, sir, but I thought it was an acceptable risk.”

Daniel looked up and Jack realized the kid hadn’t been aware that Ferretti and Chisholm had actually pushed the protocol boundaries to give him a chance to play peacemaker.

“What happened, Dr. Jackson?” Hammond turned his attention to the teenager.

“It was complicated, sir.” The kid was obviously holding tightly to his emotions and trying to behave professionally and Jack felt a touch of pride.

“When we first spoke to Gerant and the council, they were excited to meet with outworlders, as they called anyone who came through the Stargate. As far as I could determine, the Goa'uld hadn’t bothered them because they were under the protection of the Ancients.”

“The Ancients?” Jack repeated in surprise.

“The Ancients, Jack." Daniel's guilt was temporarily superseded by excitement. "The same race whose language you had downloaded into your brain, you remember?”

“How could I forget?”

Ignoring the sarcasm, the kid hurried on. “The caves are important to them for several reasons but mostly because they’re used as part of their social customs. According to Elean oral history, they were brought to this world eons ago by the Ancients when their home planet suffered some kind of catastrophe, maybe it was hit by a meteor but that wasn’t clear. At any rate they lived in the caves for several generations before spreading out across the planet.”

“The Eleans gave you this information?” Hammond asked.

“Yes. I was hoping to learn more details from the caves but then Major Ferretti said we had to get back to the village.” Remembering his grievance, Daniel darted a resentful look at Ferretti who smiled blandly.

Hammond ignored the brief exchange. “Who were the newcomers, Dr. Jackson?”

Daniel’s emotions were plainly visible, the normally clear blue eyes, now clouded with frustration. Jack decided Daniel should never try playing poker.

“Some Eleans split off from the rest of the population a little over a hundred years ago due to a disagreement on their origins. The splinter group believed their ancestors had gone through the Stargate on their old world to escape from... from evil outworlders.” Daniel’s unhappy gaze traveled around the table before settling on Hammond.

“Because of this belief they felt anyone who came through the Stargate was also evil. Somehow the group learned that SG-6 had come to the planet and they were very upset. When they were remonstrating with the council, SG-5 showed up and then SG-6, which upset them even more.”

Crap. The problem was clear to everyone now.

“I thought – ” Daniel threw an accusing look at Ferretti, then Chisholm. “I was getting through to them. I explained that we were peaceful explorers – ”

Jack rolled his eyes.

“And that we meant no harm to the Eleans. Weler, the leader of the splinter group, was beginning to ask questions about us. The situation was improving, I know it was.”

“You may be right, Daniel,” Ferretti broke in. “All I saw were a lot of people waving bows and arrows and spears and clubs and getting louder and angrier.”

“Not in the Hall of Meeting!” Daniel insisted.

“There was no way to know if those few could control that mob outside.” Chisholm put in his two cents. “It wasn't just the newcomers, the villagers were also getting worked up. I think we got out just in time.”

“Instead of sitting down and talking things through with the Eleans, we ran away." Daniel’s eyes shot blue sparks. "All we did was give the splinter group ammunition for their arguments! The last thing I heard Weler say before you dragged me out of there was that Gerant and the council had proved to be faithless in protecting the Eleans. Do you know what that could mean?”

“Better them than us,” Chisholm snapped back.

Daniel started to rise and Jack caught his arm and pulled him back down. “That’s enough,” he ordered sharply. He forgot what else he was going to say when Daniel turned anguished eyes on him.

“This is all our fault, Jack.”

“Dr. Jackson.” Hammond ’s calm voice was like a blanket, snuffing out the anger and leaving calm behind. “While I regret the role the SGC may have unwittingly played in possibly destabilizing their government, we do not have the gift of foresight.”

“Sir?” Sergeant Rodriguez from SG-6 spoke up.

“Yes, Sergeant?”

The non-com turned to Daniel. “I feel largely responsible for the problems that occurred.”

“Why would you feel responsible?” Daniel’s eyes widened.

“I’m supposed to be SG-6’s linguist. I’m afraid I allowed my excitement about the possibilities of those herbs to interfere with communicating with Gerant. I didn’t ask him about any political elements that might turn into a problem - ” She stopped when Daniel shook his head. “Gerant wouldn’t have understood those questions because they aren’t familiar with our concept of politics. The questions that should have been asked would have concerned differing philosophies among the Eleans, especially toward anyone who might come through the Stargate. We wouldn’t have known to ask those kinds of questions without an extended dialogue with Gerant and his council.” He stopped to take a deep, steadying breath. “There was no chance for that kind of dialogue, not within the time constraints of the mission.”

Though the kid didn’t look at Hammond, Jack had no trouble picking up the subtext. This was not the time or place to remind his son of the military parameters of the SGC, though he intended to do that as soon as they were alone again.

“Yes,” Hammond said as if he hadn’t also picked up on Daniel’s not so hidden meaning. “It is regrettable and I truly hope that the departure of SG-5 and SG-6 defused the situation. Dr. Jackson, perhaps you could sit down with the members of the Linguistics and Archeology Departments and consider ways that might enable us to avoid a similar situation in the future.”

Daniel looked surprised and then, for the first time since returning from the mission, he smiled. “Yes, sir, I’d like that very much.”

“Very well.” Hammond glanced around the table. “I expect your written reports to be on my desk by tomorrow morning. Dismissed.”

Jack rose with everyone else when the General stood up to leave. Once again, he was filled with admiration for his C.O. Hammond meant what he'd said about wanting to avoid a repeat of what had happened on P17-J28. At the same time, giving Daniel an avenue to vent his concerns and frustrations was little short of genius. Jack still had a lot to learn from the General. He turned to his son.

“You ready to get some lunch?”

“Later.” Daniel was scribbling on his pad. “I want to get a couple ideas down on paper before I talk to Dr. Kerrigan and Dr. Drake about setting up a meeting.”

Uh-huh. Jack knew exactly where this was going. “You can get your ideas down while we eat. Come on.”

Jack,” the kid protested without looking up.

“Daniel,” Jack said with a little more force.

“Fine,” Daniel snapped and stood up.

“Fine,” Jack agreed, taking a step back and gesturing toward the door.

“Fine,” Daniel muttered as he gathered up his pen and pad, gave Jack an annoyed look, and walked out.

“Just fine,” Jack said cheerfully as he followed his son out the door.

 

Chapter 2

Sara O’Neill closed her book, leaned back in the chair, and exhaled a deep sigh of relief. She envied Daniel with his successfully defended dissertation. All he had left to face was graduation. Then again, if he followed through on his plan to obtain a second PhD in archeology, he was only half-way through his educational program.

She shuddered at the thought. Although her coursework was complete, she still had months of work ahead of her in completing and then defending her dissertation before her own DrPH, Doctor of Public Health, became a reality. The thought of one day receiving the degree and then moving on to yet another doctoral program was too terrifying for words. She would leave that to the family’s fifteen-year-old genius, thank you very much.

Sara dropped the textbook she'd been reviewing on the top of her pile of books and stood up to stretch her muscles, They were stiff from sitting for most of the day. Enough studying for today. She climbed down the fold-down stairs and out of the attic.

When she reached the first floor she checked her watch. Normally, she loved cooking; it was one of her favorite forms of relaxation. But after spending the morning at the main library of the University of Colorado , and the afternoon hunched over her laptop working on her dissertation, she really wanted to collapse on the sofa. If someone had told her a few years ago that working toward her doctorate would be more exhausting than working as a full-time nurse she would have laughed. True, being a nurse was more tiring physically but mentally was another story.

Get moving, woman. A yawn made the hinges of her jaw creak. Otherwise they’re going to want take-out, again.

Sara wasn’t up to any complicated recipes. A quick survey of the freezer led her to the spaghetti sauce she'd made a few weeks ago. Perfect. Dropping the frozen sauce into a pan, she adjusted the flame then went to the pantry to get a box of spaghetti. She set it on the counter before filling another large pot with water and placing it on the stove to boil.

She yawned again and went to the refrigerator to pull out the produce she'd need to throw a salad together. The garlic bread would take the least amount of time so she'd do that last.

She worked mostly on auto-pilot. Cooking was second nature so it didn’t require much brainpower, not when she was making a meal as simple as this one. She was tired of thinking and as far as she was concerned, she didn’t intend to do anymore of it today.

She glanced at her watch again. Jack had said he shouldn’t be late getting home and, best of all, Daniel would be back. He had gone out of town on another one of the Air Force’s classified missions and wasn’t due back until tomorrow. Jack had called a few hours ago to let her know Daniel was back early and would be coming home with him tonight. It was the best news she’d heard all week.

What on earth her fifteen-year-old son was doing for the United States Air Force was still a mystery. One that had haunted her for the past five years, since Daniel began going to the base with Jack, at ten years old. She had no more clue now than she did then. Whatever he did, it had to be important. That was evident by the secure phone/computer line the Air Force had set up for Daniel to keep in touch with Cheyenne Mountain during the year the two of them had spent at UCLA.

It was a mystery, and she assumed it would always be a mystery. It was enough for her to know that whatever Daniel did for the Air Force, it was something he was passionate about. It made her feel better knowing it was something he loved to do.

“Hey, Mom!”

“Honey, we’re home!”

“Hi, Sara!”

The boisterous male greetings came almost simultaneously and were immediately followed by the front door slamming shut. Sara laughed. Her guys had made it home at the same time; miracles still happened.

She heard them bantering back and forth and counted under her breath. “Five, four, three, two, one – ”

Jack reached the kitchen door first and the sight of his grin warmed her heart. Charlie and Daniel appeared behind him. Charlie’s grin was so much like his father’s it never failed to startle her, while Daniel’s smile still held a shy quality even after all these years as a member of the family.

For an instant, she saw the boys as they had looked when Daniel first came to live with them, a withdrawn and traumatized ten-year-old orphan. That first year hadn’t been easy, especially between Daniel and an eleven-year-old Charlie. Somehow they had managed to survive, and had grown into a family that made Sara proud.

“Hi, guys.” She flashed a warm smile of her own. “Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes so go wash up.”

“Geez, Mom, we’re not little kids. We know we need to wash up.”

“Then get moving.” Jack swatted his oldest son on the arm.

“What are you waiting for? Let’s go.” Charlie punched his brother’s arm like he’d been doing since they were kids.

Daniel looked at Sara who laughed at his long-suffering expression. His smile widened before he turned away, Charlie on his heels.

“Hey, I saw Karen today,” Charlie said to Daniel as they headed for the stairs. “She said to say hi and to tell you Adam won some kind of award.”

“What award?”

“I dunno. Some award.”

“Charlie...”

Their voices trailed off and Sara looked at Jack who raised his eyebrows. “Don’t look at me,” he said. “You’re the one who wanted kids.”

“Do you really want to go there?” she challenged.

"No, not really," Jack admitted. He stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek.

She pulled him in closer and kissed his lips. “It’s not fair, you know,” she complained.

“What’s not fair?” He leaned back and gave her a perplexed look.

“You.”

“Me?”

She tousled his silvering hair. “I swear you look even better now than you did on our wedding day while I just look, older.”

“You don't need to fish for compliments.” Jack snorted and tightened his grip on her. “You look great.”

“I think you need glasses but I’m not going to complain." She gave him another kiss then pushed him away. "Why don't you go wash up while I finish this.” She pointed at the garlic bread.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Twenty minutes later they were gathered around the dining room table. After everyone’s plates were full, silence descended while the guys devoured their meal. Sara ate quietly and watched them. This was what she had missed the most the year she and Daniel had been at away at UCLA taking courses toward their respective degrees. It had been an adventure for both of them, and she had delighted in the chance to get to know Daniel better. At the same time, if not for the fact UCLA required certain graduate-level courses to be taken on campus, she never would have agreed to it. She had missed Jack and Charlie terribly and, though he had never said so, she knew Daniel had missed them, too.

“Sara?”

“Yes? Do you need something?” She realized Jack was watching her.

“The garlic bread, or are you holding it hostage?”

Sara wrinkled her nose at him and handed over the loaf of bread. UCLA had been a great experience in many ways but she was glad it was over and her family was back together.  

“This is really good, honey.” Jack swallowed a mouthful and smiled approvingly.

“Yeah,” Charlie agreed. “You should never go away again, Mom.”

Across the table Daniel hid a grin behind a fork-full of spaghetti. Sara only laughed. Apparently she wasn’t the only one who looked back on the whole UCLA experience with mixed feelings.

“We’ll see,” she said.

“Are you going away again?” Charlie stopped chewing and looked at her in alarm.

“Say what?” Jack’s fork halted in mid-air.

Sara shook her head. “I have no plans to go anywhere in the near future.”

“Don’t scare a guy like that.” Charlie blew out a gusty breath.

“It’s nice to know you appreciate your mother,” she said sweetly. “Oh, that reminds me.”

“Of anything in particular?” Jack looked at her with raised eyebrows.

She ignored him with the skill of long practice. “Charlie, I think I may have found you a job.”

“A job?” Charlie questioned.

“You’re still looking for a part-time job, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

Sara ignored the sudden wariness in his voice. “I saw Ronnie Shepard this morning when I was running errands,” she explained. “Her husband is the manager of North Side Supermarket and they’re looking to hire some stock boys and baggers.”

“What are baggers?” Daniel asked.

“You know,” Charlie said. “When you go through the check-out line they’re the ones who put your groceries in bags.”

Sara frowned. He sounded less than enthusiastic. “It would be perfect for you. They’re used to employing teenagers so they’re willing to work around your schedule.”

“Uh, yeah.” Charlie shot a look at his father. Something passed between the pair though Sara wasn’t sure what. Jack focused on twirling more spaghetti on his fork and Charlie turned back to her.

“Well, thanks, Mom, but I’m still waiting to hear back on some applications I have out there.”

“What’s wrong with filling out another application? That’s one more opportunity for a job, isn’t it?”

Sara regretted the tone of her words as soon as they escaped her lips. She had thought she was helping but his less than enthusiastic response was... well, she was a little hurt, not that she'd admit it. She glanced at her husband but he was looking at Charlie who seemed to find his salad fascinating.

“Is there a time deadline?” Jack’s eyes met hers.

“Ronnie didn’t say.”

“Okay, then, Charlie has time to think about it, right, son?”

“Yeah, sure I'll think about it."

Sara suppressed a frown at the relief in her son’s voice. She couldn't help feeling irritated. It probably had more to do with being tired than Charlie’s obvious rejection of her desire to help.  She made a conscious effort to relax.

“All right then.” She looked around the table.

Charlie smiled, Jack smiled, and then Daniel smiled. The three of them made Sara want to giggle. Why not? She giggled and their smiles widened.

“Eat,” she ordered, glad for the change in atmosphere. She stuffed some salad in her mouth and ignored the laughter around the table.

“Hey, Dad, are you going to be home this weekend?” Charlie broke the brief silence that had followed the laughter.

Jack held a piece of garlic bread while he thought. “Not Saturday or Sunday morning but maybe Sunday afternoon. Why?”

“I need to get in more hours behind the wheel.”

Sara tried not to groan. The day Charlie would be able to apply for his license was approaching with frightening speed and she had no doubt that on that day he’d be camped outside the DMV waiting for the doors to open. Charlie with a driver’s license... it was a terrifying thought.

Whenever she thought about Charlie and driving, her mind flashed back to the first, and as it turned out, last time she had attempted to teach her son how to drive. She could smile at the memory now, even if elements of it still made her shiver. Charlie driving too close, braking at the last minute, blinking too late, going through a yellow light, at least in her mind. 

She shook her head at the memory. If she lived to be a hundred, she’d never forget how nervous she'd been sitting beside him in the passenger seat. She hadn’t thought Charlie would follow through on his plan of getting his father to teach him but he had and, much to her surprise, she had never heard another word from him about wanting to drive her car.

What shocked her even more after her own experience was the ease with which Jack had taken over the task. She vividly recalled her disbelief the day he casually mentioned he might take Charlie up into the mountains so he could get some driving in, and then they could do some hiking afterward.

At first, Sara had thought he was joking. “It doesn’t rattle you to take our inexperienced, over-confident son driving in the mountains?” she had asked. Even now the thought made her a little weak in the knees.

“No, not really,” he had answered with a straight face.

It was more confirmation of what Sara already knew. Her husband was a brave man. Better him than her, she had decided.

"Earth to Sara."

Someone was patting her head. She blinked, then frowned to see her husband grinning at her.

"Where'd you go, honey? I've asked you twice to pass the salad."

"I'm sorry, I was thinking about something else." She looked around the dinner table, a little embarrassed.

"Anything we should know about?" Charlie's lopsided grin made him look like his father.

"You already know it." Sara couldn't help herself. She grinned back. "I was remembering that first driving lesson I gave you."

"Yeah, I'll never forget it," Charlie laughed. If he was going to say something else - and she suspected he was - he refrained when Jack cleared his throat.

"You haven’t done much driving in the mountains since that first time, buddy. Maybe we can go back up there Sunday afternoon.”

“Great!”

For once, Sara was grateful for Jack’s line of work. Secret missions, commanding a base, and making life and death decisions apparently made teaching a teenager how to drive a piece of cake.

________________________________________

A few hours later Sara sat on the edge of their bed. Jack came out of the bathroom and sat down beside her.

“A nickel for your thoughts?” he offered, nudging her shoulder.

Sara studied him until he began to look a little nervous. “Whatever it was, I didn’t mean it.” He raised his hands in surrender.

“No blanket denials are needed this time, honey.” She laughed and patted his cheek.

“Ah, good.” He put his arm around her. “So what’s up?”

“I was thinking about Charlie. And Daniel.”

“Yeah?”

“Charlie’s looking for a part-time job. No matter how good of a job he finds I doubt it’s going to pay very much.”

"True. So?" He shrugged.

"Daniel's getting his PhD and the Air Force is paying him like an adult with an advanced degree."

“Oh.” Jack drew out the word in a long breath of understanding.

“Yes, oh. I’m a little worried about Charlie finding out,” she admitted. “I mean, a part-time job versus – ”

“Hey.” He put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “I know it’s a mom rule that you need to worry about your children but I think we can leave this to Charlie and Daniel. They’re good kids; if there’s anything to work out, they'll work it out. If it looks like there’s a problem we can always step in later.”

“I suppose.” She smiled reluctantly.  “I keep forgetting they’re not little boys anymore.”

“Nope.” Jack put his arms around her again. “Which is not to say they’re not gonna screw up occasionally and need some parental correction.”

“Parental correction?” Sara laughed.

“Oh, yeah.” He blew lightly against her ear. “But while we’re waiting for them to screw up, maybe you’d like to think about something else right now?”

“You have something in mind, Flyboy?”

“I do – ” A cell phone rang, interrupting him and Jack released his wife with a grunt of protest.

“Mine or yours?” Sara asked.

The continued ringing made it easy to determine.

“Mine,” Jack muttered before swiping it open. “O’Neill.”

“Colonel O’Neill.”

The sound of the General’s voice made Jack’s annoyance fade. Hammond wouldn’t be calling him unless it was important.

“Yes, sir?”

“Approximately a half hour ago we received a message through the Stargate from the Tollan advising us that Omac died earlier today.” The General didn't mince words.

Jack stepped into the bathroom for some privacy. He vividly recalled the bull-headed leader of the Tollan whom SG-1 had rescued from a dying planet a few years earlier, and then rescued again from Mayborne and the NID. The second rescue had been Daniel’s idea though Robert Rothman pretended it was his to protect the boy. Jack hadn’t found out the full extent of his son’s involvement until the next day.

Despite their refusal to share their advanced technology with Earth, subsequent encounters with the Tollan had given Jack a grudging respect for them. They had good reason to be wary. He only hoped that eventually they'd become more open to the idea of sharing. The fact that Omac had not cut off all contact between the Tollan and the Tau’ri had been another reason for hope. What would happen now was anyone’s guess.

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. He was a pain in the butt but he had his good points.”

There was a beat of silence before the General continued. “Narim has requested that SG-1 and Daniel come to Tollana for the memorial service.”

Jack pulled the cell phone away from his ear and stared at it before answering. “My team and Daniel?”

"That's right, Colonel. I've spoken with my superiors and they believe your attendance would be a positive step in the relationship between Earth and Tollana."

Jack hadn’t thought SG-1 was so high on Omac’s Christmas list. Then again, without SG-1’s help, via Daniel, Omac’s group would have ended up as forced intellectual labor courtesy of the NID. Singling out Daniel made it clear the Tollan were well aware of who was responsible for their salvation.

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” he hedged.

“I understand your concern.” Hammond read his mind. “I was particularly disturbed when Narim advised me that SG-1 need not bring any weapons.”

“What?” Jack bristled. “With all due respect, General – ”

“You can take your weapons, Colonel, but apparently the Tollan have some sort of device that will render them useless.”

Jack weighed his words. He was tempted to finish the call in his study but knew his avoidance would only stoke Sara's concern, especially when he told her he was taking Daniel “out of town” right after he hung up.

Before he could respond Hammond continued. “As far as the planet’s safety is concerned, Narim explained that the Goa'uld sent a mother ship to attack Tollana over a year ago and the Tollan destroyed it.”

Jack realized his mouth was hanging open and quickly snapped it shut. Thank god he had retreated to the bathroom.

“Did they say how?”

“No, but Tollana has not been bothered by any Goa'uld since. Perhaps you can ask a few questions after the memorial service.”

Now Jack understood what was going on. Making nice with the Tollan would be good P.R. for Earth, but finding out how the Tollan destroyed a Goa'uld mother ship was a much bigger deal.

“Yes, sir, understood. When do we go?”

“According to Narim, there will be a forty-eight hour period of mourning followed by the memorial service.”

Jack felt a touch of relief. At least they had time to think things through and come up with a plan. “So, day after tomorrow?”

“Correct. I’m scheduling a briefing with SG-1 for tomorrow at 1300 hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

After he hung up, Jack walked out of the bathroom to find his wife waiting for him.

“Where were we?” he tried.

“Did I hear something about your team and Daniel?”

So much for distraction. He sat down on the bed beside her. “Someone we met awhile back died and my team has been requested to attend the memorial service as representatives of... the Air Force.” He’d almost said ‘of Earth.’

“And Daniel?”

“Daniel knew him, too.”

“Very well?” Concern clouded her expression.

“No, honey.” Jack understood her worry and tried to reassure her. “Daniel only met him a couple of times. The reason we’re going has more to do with diplomacy than anything else.” That was mostly true.

“You’re not going to tell him now, are you?” She looked at the clock.

“No, it’s too late. I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”

Jack wasn’t looking forward to that conversation. Even though Daniel hadn’t known the leader of the Tollan well, there had been some kind of connection between the two. He knew his son would grieve.

“Do you remember where we were?” He tried to set those thought aside.

“I think so.” She smiled gently and kissed his neck.

 

Chapter 3

Jack had no intention of bringing up the subject of Omac's death until he was alone with Daniel, which happened the next morning on the drive into the mountain.

“... and if Robert's right, we should be able to translate that stele before the end of the day, which could be very helpful when SG-7 goes back to the planet."

Daniel was talking at his usual million-words-a-minute speed. Jack was thinking of other things when the kid interrupted his thoughts.  

Jack, are you listening to me?”

Busted. “Yeah, I am,” he lied. “You linguist-types are all jazzed about being able to translate, uh, a rock.”

“Stele,” Daniel corrected with a touch of exasperation.

Close enough. “See I was listening.”

“They’re not the same thing.”

Jack ignored the imploring look that meant a lecture was coming on. He wished he could indulge Daniel in his favorite subject, but not today. He needed to do this before they arrived at the Mountain.

“Daniel, I have to talk to you about something.” This wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d implied to Sara. To almost everyone at the SGC, Omac was a snide, arrogant, unpleasant man, er, alien. The exception was Daniel. Daniel seemed oblivious to Omac’s irritable temperament and ‘holier than thou’ attitude that grated on the nerves of everyone else at the SGC. Jack wasn’t one who needed a pat on the back for doing his job, but Omac had never expressed an ounce of gratitude to SG-1 for pulling him and Narim and their companions from the ashes and saving their technologically superior asses. A simple thank you would have sufficed but what had the SGC gotten? Zero, zip, nada.

For reasons that escaped Jack, Daniel and Omac got along swell. True, Daniel had accompanied the Tollan leader topside when they had contacted the Nox but it had to be more than that. Jack had seen them together and they had actually liked one another. He couldn’t say that about anyone else on the base, including himself. He had come to respect the Tollan leader but 'like'? Like would be stretching it. Then again, Daniel saw things others didn’t.

“What is it?” Daniel's expression changed. His mild annoyances at Jack’s lack of listening skills were forgotten, replaced by interest. They worked at the SGC where things were rarely minor.

“General Hammond called last night. He received a message from the Tollan. Omac is dead.” There was no easy way to say it, so Jack just said it.

“Dead?” Daniel’s blue eyes widened with shock. "How can he be dead?"

How?  "Everyone dies, kiddo." Jack winced at his words. Daniel didn't need reminding of that bitter truth. He’d learned that when he was eight years old. It was a relief the kid seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts and probably hadn’t even heard the comment.

"But Omac wasn't that old, not for a Tollan."

Jack knew what he was referring to. Carter had learned during one of her conversations with Narim that the Tollan tended to live longer than the people on Earth by an average of twenty to thirty years.  

However...

"He wasn't a youngster," Jack said as gently as he could. “ Hammond didn’t give any details but Omac died of natural causes as far as I know.” He patted Daniel’s knee to try to comfort him.

“That can’t be right.” Daniel sat up straighter. “The Tollan have far better medical technology than we do. They monitor themselves all the time and if they have any problems they’re taken care of by Tollan doctors immediately.”

Jack wasn’t sure where the kid was going with this but suspected his words had more to do with not wanting to think about a friend dying. Jack seriously doubted there was anything odd about Omac's death. At the same time, he didn't want to belittle Daniel's concerns.

“We don’t know what happened," he admitted. "We don’t have all the details. Let’s just wait and see.”

“He couldn’t have died of natural causes,” Daniel said with finality.

Accepting death was never easy so Jack kept his mouth shut to let Daniel work through it at his own pace. Jack had all night to accept the fact that a major figure of one of Earth’s allies – semi-allies, anyway - was gone.

“Jack."

"Right here." He saw the pain in the blue eyes as the shock began to wear off and reached out to rest one hand on his son’s shoulder.

Daniel didn't seem interested in comfort. "I know Omac was...”

When the teenager paused Jack’s mind involuntarily filled in the blank. Egotistical, supercilious, pompous, patronizing, condescending...

“Difficult,” Daniel settled on. “But he had Earth’s best interests at heart.” He leaned back in the seat and wrapped his arms around himself. “Are you going to Tollana?"

“Yes, there's some kind of day of mourning period today, followed by a memorial service. SG-1 has been invited - ”

“Could I - ”  

“You’ve been invited to the memorial service, too.”

“And I can go?” He looked anxious and hopeful and suddenly ten years old again.

Jack felt a pang in his throat. “Yes.” Tollana was a safe world and it would be nearly impossible to keep Daniel away. As much as he wished he could shield his son from the bad things in life, it had been too late for that since the day Daniel had come to live with them five years ago.

“Good. I need to pay my respects.” The fifteen-year-old breathed a heavy sigh, leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, but not before Jack saw the tears.

He gave the teenager's shoulder another squeeze and hoped the memorial service would give Daniel the closure he needed.

________________________________________

Thirty-six hours later, SG-1 stood in the gate room waiting for the Stargate to finish dialing. Daniel tugged at his tie and Jack put his hand on his son's arm.

“Leave it alone,” he said, “otherwise it’ll look like crap. Trust me, I know.”

He smiled and Daniel tried to smile back. He must not have done a very good job because Jack’s hand moved to his shoulder and gave a brief, supportive squeeze before he was called away by General Hammond.

Daniel checked out the members of SG-1. Everyone looked very nice. Jack and Sam were wearing their dress blues, although you couldn’t see a lot of their uniforms because they were also wearing coats. Teal’c was in his ceremonial robes and looked even more impressive than usual. Even Nyan, who had taken over Robert Rothman's place on SG-1 after the archeologist had decided to join the SGC's Archeology Department full-time, was dressed in dark, somber clothes similar to a military uniform.

Daniel was pleased Robert was coming along even though he was no longer a member of SG-1. He, too, was in a suit and tie and looked as uncomfortable as Daniel felt.

It wasn’t the suit that depressed him, it was the thought of Omac. They hadn’t had much chance to talk when SG-1 had rescued the Tollan a few years ago. It was only when Daniel and Omac had snuck up to the top of the Mountain to send the message to the Nox they'd been able to spend some time together.

The thing that had pleased Daniel most was that Omac had taken him seriously. The Tollan leader didn’t care that he was a kid; he was suspicious because Daniel was a member of the Tau’ri, a “primitive” species. Even now the memory made Daniel smile. Jack and the General hadn’t liked the label but it made sense. Translating alien artifacts brought back through the Stargate had proved to all of them how young Earth was in comparison to many other civilizations around the galaxy. When he added to that the things Robert and Nyan, and Teal’c too, sometimes shared with him, well, Daniel had no problem recognizing that the Tollan were right, humans were a “primitive” species.

He thought about Omac’s words, just before the Tollan had left with Lia, to the Nox home world. Omac had looked him in the eye and said, “Narim was right about you. Perhaps in time we will meet again.”

Daniel blinked rapidly to keep back the tears. Only in the privacy of his own heart had he thought about that possible future meeting. Maybe someday when he was grown up and going through the Stargate with an SG team, he would have been able to visit the Tollan world and see Omac again and they could talk, really talk...

Now that would never happen. His throat tightened and tears pressed harder against his eyelids. He couldn’t let that happen or Jack might change his mind about letting him go through the Stargate. He needed to attend Omac’s memorial service. Narim had said it was Omac’s last wish and Daniel was going to honor that wish no matter how difficult.

Jack and General Hammond finished whatever they were talking about and Jack walked back to Daniel who tried to look calm and grown-up. He noticed Jack didn’t look happy and bet it was because General Hammond’s superiors had decided SG-1 wouldn’t be allowed to take their weapons to Tollana. Jack had been upset all morning because of the order even though, according to the few things Daniel had overheard, earth weapons wouldn’t work on the alien world.

Secretly, Daniel thought it was a wonderful idea. How different would it be here on Earth if there were no weapons? It was an idea he knew better than to share with Jack or Major Kawalsky or his other military friends. 

“We ready, kids?” Jack asked, still looking a little irritated.

“Ready, sir,” Sam acknowledged, and Teal’c did his usual nod. So did Nyan and Robert. Jack put his hand on Daniel’s shoulder for what seemed like the tenth time that morning.

“Ready?”

“Ready.” Daniel offered a week smile and tried to sound confident.

Jack nodded as the Stargate began to revolve and they all turned to face it.

________________________________________  

Two hours later Daniel felt tired and sad but still glad he’d been allowed to say his goodbyes. The part of him that wasn’t thinking about Omac had been amazed by this ultra-modern world that was so different and so far from home. Everything was clean and sharp and efficient and Sam especially regretted they didn’t have the time to roam the city and see what Tollana had to offer.

Daniel would have liked to roam around too, though not in the hope of learning about Tollan technology, like Sam. He would have enjoyed talking to the Tollan people in an effort to learn more about their culture and beliefs. He especially would have liked to talk to Roann, the Tollan keeper of history, whom he’d originally met when the Tollan were first rescued and brought to the SGC. He’d been delighted to discover that the keeper of history was the Tollan version of a librarian, but Roann’s responsibilities embraced all of the alien race’s history.

Daniel had also briefly met Roann’s lecutaan, Terni, who was only a few years older than Daniel himself. The title was intriguing because it contained two distinct meanings – follower and heir. Which made sense after Terni – who wasn’t as close-mouthed as the rest of Omac’s little band – explained that he would eventually take Roann’s place as keeper of history, after the elder Tollan died. Roann himself had chosen Terni for the position and, as Daniel understood it, would teach his lecutaan all that the future keeper would need to know to keep Tollan tradition and history alive.

Daniel loved this glimpse into Tollana’s culture and always hoped for a chance to get to know both the current and future keepers better. Today, they’d only had a chance for a brief greeting before the service began. The reminder of why he was here brought an abrupt end to Daniel’s wandering thoughts.

The memorial service had been simple but emotional. He was grateful Jack stood beside him throughout the ceremony, though now that it had ended Daniel moved closer to Robert and Nyan so they could share what they had learned during their visit.

The scientists were talking quietly but Daniel was distracted by the sight of Jack and Sam and Teal’c with Chancellor Travell, who was a high-ranking member of the Curia, the governing body of Tollana. Daniel hadn’t met her; she hadn’t been part of the original group that SG-1 rescued. For that matter, there were a lot more Tollan here than had been part of that original group. Though the Tollan wouldn’t say so, that fact told Daniel Omac’s group had somehow been able to communicate with the Tollan who had left the dying world before SG-1 showed up. He would love to ask Narim or Roann how that had come about but this didn’t seem to be the right time for that conversation.

Daniel stopped his musings and focused in on Jack. He couldn’t hear what was being said but he had lived with Jack long enough to know when the man was surprised, especially since it didn’t happen all that often. Whatever Chancellor Travell had said, Jack hadn’t expected it. Daniel watched intently but saw nothing alarming. A moment later Jack turned around and gestured him over. Daniel reached them in time to hear the Chancellor say,

“Thank you all for coming today. I look forward to talking later. As soon possible, Colonel. Narim, please show our guests to the Stargate.”

Jack would be returning to Tollana? Daniel peered inquisitively at his father but Jack had no expression, which told Daniel something was going on. He kept his mouth shut and his ears open while Narim walked with them to the Stargate.

“Do you know what she wants to talk about?” Jack asked Narim.

The Tollan shook his head. “No. I was surprised by her invitation.”

Teal’c spoke up. “Chancellor Travell seemed to suggest Tollana may be willing to share its technology with the Tau’ri.”

Daniel didn’t miss the irritated look Jack gave the Jaffa before glancing his way. He pretended he was too interested in the scenery to be paying attention to the conversation.

“That cannot be possible.” Narim frowned. “It would go against everything my people believe.” His expression cleared. “As I recall, all she actually said was that the Curia was willing to discuss the possibility.”

Jack and Sam exchanged looks. “Why invite us back if they want to keep things status quo?” Sam asked.

“I...” Narim hesitated and Daniel could tell he was struggling with something. “I am not a member of the Curia. I do not know what she wishes to speak to you about.”

They reached the Stargate and he smiled. “I wish you a safe trip home.”

Daniel joined in the garbled thanks and started toward the rippling event horizon. Something made him look back and he saw Sam still standing with Narim who took her hand in his.

Sam and Narim? Sam and... an alien? He hastily looked away.

As Charlie might say, cool!

   ________________________________________

 

Jack was happy to be back at the SGC. His head was spinning, given his unexpected conversation with Chancellor Travell. He needed to talk to Hammond ASAP.

He glanced at Daniel and was relieved the teen looked better now than he had when they’d originally left for Tollana. Being able to attend the memorial service had helped his son come to terms with Omac’s death.

“Sir?” When they reached the bottom of the ramp, Carter stopped him.

Jack turned and saw her lift her clenched hand. Something in her expression warned him and he stopped her with a gesture.

“Daniel, why don’t you and Rothman head for the infirmary? We’ll be along in a minute.”

The teenager studied him with suspicious blue eyes. The kid was too damn smart for his own good. Jack kept his expression neutral until Daniel reluctantly nodded.

“Okay.”

“What is it?” Jack asked after the others had left the room.

“Narim just gave me this.” Carter opened her hand. A tiny round object rested in her palm and then a small hologram of Narim suddenly appeared out of it.

“Samantha,” he said, “I am sorry I was unable to tell you this in person. I do not know who I can trust. Before his death, Omac gave me a warning, and I believe it to be true. He said that Earth is in grave danger.”

The hologram vanished and she stared at him with wide eyes. Jack looked up at the control room and saw Hammond gazing down at them, clearly aware something was going on.

“Damn,” he muttered.

After their mandatory post-mission check-up, SG-1 reported for the debriefing. Jack summarized the memorial service in a few succinct sentences, followed by the Chancellor's surprising comments. Then Carter pulled out the Tollan device and Hammond heard Narim’s warning for himself. When it shut down the General frowned at the wall for a minute before speaking.

“Other than Narim’s message, did you see or hear anything to indicate there was a problem?”

Jack shook his head.

“No, sir." Carter agreed. "Everything seemed fine.”

“For a funeral,” Jack put in.

"It was strange there were so few people present,” Nyan said with his usual diffidence.

“Hey, you met him." Jack shrugged. "What’s strange?”

Carter looked from her C.O. to the General. “I don’t understand Narim’s message, sir, but I’d be willing to bet that Omac’s warning is connected to whatever Travell wants to meet with us about.”

“That sounds about right,” Jack agreed.

“All right, we’ll see what they have to say.” Hammond opened the file in front of him and flipped through a few pages. “The next available opening to insert SG-1 without interrupting the regular rotation would be in 36 hours, however,” he looked around the table, “since we are talking about the security of Earth, I'd rather not wait. I’d like you to return to Tollana as soon as possible.”

“Give us a half-hour and we’ll be good to go,” Jack said immediately.

Hammond shook his head. “First I want your reports on my desk. Plan to leave in two hours, Colonel.”

Jack grimaced but knew better than to argue. The General needed those reports. He not only wanted to review them, but if it turned out Earth really was in danger, he'd have to share them with his superiors sooner rather than later. Once the Joint Chiefs were involved, then the politicians would also get involved and only god knew how long they would spend arguing and wrangling.

SG-1 could return to Tollana ASAP. They'd wait to see what Travell and the Curia had to say before involving any other branches of government.

“Yes, sir.”

________________________________________  

Daniel studied the video with interest. It wasn’t all that clear and he squinted in an effort to see it better. “Is there any way to enhance the picture?”

“That’s already been done. I’m afraid this is as good as it gets.”

Dr. Kerrigan sounded the way Daniel felt. On his other side, Dr. William Drake, head of the Archeology Department, was frowning. Robert was still stuck in the infirmary or he'd be here, too.

Drake rubbed his chin. “Considering the poor quality of the picture, can you say with any assurance that this writing belongs to the Ancients?”

Daniel bit his tongue while Dr. Kerrigan looked annoyed. “This is what we do, Will, every day, all day long. We work to translate and interpret the different languages that come to us through the Stargate. We know the difference between Ancient and Goa'uld.”

“I understand that,” the archeologist answered, sounding a little rattled. “But you work with many more languages than just Ancient and Goa'uld. Are you sure of what you’re seeing here?”

“I am,” Daniel said promptly. He didn’t want their discussion to degenerate into an argument. Languages were his field and he was sure he was right.

“I’d match Daniel’s expertise in alien languages against anyone else’s on the planet.” Kerrigan gave him an approving smile.

“Apart from the SGC,” Drake snapped, “there are no experts in alien languages on the planet.”

“Exactly,” Kerrigan snapped back and winked at Daniel.

Daniel appreciated Dr. Kerrigan’s support, although he would have been fine without it. As his knowledge and proficiency in languages had grown over the years, his self-doubts had diminished. Jack and Sara’s support and encouragement had also helped tremendously. There were a lot of things in this world and other worlds that he didn’t know but when it came to his own area of expertise, he was confident.

He pointed at one of the characters on the screen. “That’s the Ancient symbol for ‘protection’. At some point in this planet’s history, it was inhabited by aliens who were under the protection of the Ancients.” He thought back to the aborted mission to P17-J28. “Maybe the Ancients brought the people to that planet, it wouldn’t be the first time that happened.”

“Yes, but the structures are in ruins now,” Drake said.

“Why?” Daniel demanded. “What happened? We can’t tell from this picture. The writings are too worn for the video camera to pick up with any degree of accuracy. Someone needs to go to P19-136 to study the writings first-hand.”

“Someone?” the archeologist repeated and Kerrigan chuckled. After a minute Drake smiled a little sheepishly. “I admit,” he said, “I’d love the chance to explore the ruins and see what we can find out. Who knows what kind of clues we may uncover about the civilization that originally lived there and built that incredible city?”

Daniel grinned happily. They were all talking the same language now.

“The General will never go for it.” Dr. Kerrigan's gloomy words deflated the excitement in the room.

“But this is important!” Daniel protested.

“To us, yes. But to the military?” Dr. Drake’s smile faded.

Daniel frowned. Since returning from UCLA he had become increasingly aware of the tension between the military and scientific mindsets of the SGC. Sam and her people did a good job of keeping the “hard” science needs at the forefront of the SGC’s focus. He understood the military argument. The SGC’s primary focus had to be finding technology to aid Earth in the battle against the Goa'uld. At the same time, he thought, as did the other linguists and archeologists, that the SGC too often ignored the cultural and historical elements of the alien civilizations they encountered through the Stargate. The so-called “soft science” concerns came much lower on SGC’s totem pole of interest and, too often, were sacrificed in the name of military need.

An idea popped into Daniel’s head. “Maybe we just need to present it differently.”

Both scientists brightened. “What do you have in mind?” Dr. Kerrigan prodded.

“I’m not sure,” Daniel admitted. “We need to figure out how to present visiting this planet in such a way that General Hammond will see it as a possible military concern.”

“That might work.” Drake nodded thoughtfully. “Except for the fact we’re looking at a planet that contains nothing but ancient ruins.”

“Why ruins?” Daniel demanded.

The scientists looked at him with identical expressions of confusion. “We don’t know why,” Kerrigan finally answered.

“What caused the ruins?” Daniel clarified. “Maybe there was a battle between the indigenous people and an invading army?”

“Such as the Goa'uld,” Drake put in.

Daniel nodded enthusiastically. “Maybe, or maybe another species. The point is, maybe there’s some kind of evidence in the ruins about the battle and who won, maybe even how they won. That would be of military interest, wouldn’t it?”

“Probably, although the fact that the civilization is in ruins seem to indicate the winner was not the indigenous population,” Kerrigan said dryly.

“Maybe,” Daniel repeated, “or maybe they did win and something else caused the civilization to decline. There’s no way to know unless we go there.”

“So, we’ll present it in those military terms,” Kerrigan mused. The senior linguist and the archeologist exchanged looks and smiles.

“The ruins may contain information that could be helpful to Earth in its battle against the Goa'uld.” Drake pretended he was writing. “I suppose it’s possible. You don’t think it’s too big a stretch?”

“If we present it correctly,” Daniel said, “the SGC will jump at the chance to send a team through the Stargate to check it out.” He thought of Jack, of his single-minded intensity when it came to looking for ways to protect the planet against the Goa'uld.

“Daniel, I’m glad you’re on our side,” Kerrigan chuckled.

“So am I,” Drake grinned.

“All right then!” Kerrigan turned over a page in his notebook and waved his pen. “Let’s start planning.”

“Let’s,” Daniel happily agreed, thinking there was no place in the world he’d rather be than right here, plotting a way around the military mentality. General Hammond and Jack and the other soldiers were brave and dedicated and meant well, but sometimes they needed a little nudging in the right direction.

He stifled a snicker. That was one thought he wouldn’t be sharing with Jack.

Chapter 4

It had turned out to be a long day. After a morning meeting, a memorial service, and two trips through the Stargate to the same planet, Jack and the rest of SG-1 were once again gathered around the conference table. They were all silent, busy with their own thoughts. How in the hell they were supposed to –

He lost track of his thoughts when Hammond came out of his office and sat down. “I trust your meeting with Chancellor Travell was fruitful.”

“Well, sir, that’s a good question.” Jack looked around the table before meeting the general’s eyes.

“Colonel,” Carter said with a faintly reproving note.

“Yeah, I know.” He waved a hand at her.

“Colonel.” This time it came from Hammond.

“Yes, sir. First off, Travell didn’t say much about the Goa'uld attack last year. What she did talk about, well, long story short, General, the Tollan may be willing to give us an ion cannon in exchange for a supply of trinium.”

“That’s quite a turnaround from their previous position.” Hammond’s eyebrows rose.

“Yes, sir,” Jack nodded. “A complete one hundred percent turnaround.”

“And this is one of those ion cannons that can destroy a Goa'uld mother ship?” The General steepled his fingers.

“Yes, sir. She showed us footage of the attack.” Jack looked at Carter who took up the story.

“I don’t know anything about their equivalent of video technique, but it was very clear. A Goa'uld mother ship appeared over the city and the Tollan tried to warn it away. Instead of leaving, it fired a warning blast and began to broadcast... well, basically it was a warning to surrender or be destroyed.” Carter shook her head. “The Tollan Curia ordered one of its ion cannons to fire and it blew the ship into pieces.”

“One ion cannon destroyed a mother ship?”

Jack couldn’t fault Hammond for his disbelief. He’d felt the same way when Travell made the claim, but like the old saying goes, seeing was believing.

“Yes, sir,” he put in. “We watched the entire footage of the attack three times. Blew it to smithereens.”

“Could the footage be faked?” The General looked from Jack to Carter.

“It appeared to be genuine, sir. However," she frowned, "as you know, Tollan technology is far more sophisticated than ours. If they wanted to fake it, I doubt we’d be able to identify how.”

“Or why, General,” Jack added. “Carter said it, their technology’s a lot more advanced than ours. Why show us something that isn’t true?”

“The Tollan wish to obtain trinium from Earth,” Teal’c put in.

“Yeah, so?" Jack shrugged. "Granted, we have it and if we’re willing to trade it to them, then the Tollan don’t have to go looking for it on their own. But I have a hard time believing we're the only people in the galaxy with access to trinium." He saw Hammond open his mouth and hurried to make what he thought was the most important point. "And how does any of this fit in with Narim’s message about Earth being in danger? Travell didn’t say anything about any danger.”

Jack looked around the table. Everyone looked as blank as he felt, not to mention confused. Even more than the confusion was his feeling that there was something else going on, that Travell and the Curia were hiding something. There was nothing he could point at to support that belief; it was a combination of experience and gut instinct.

Still, the idea of having an ion cannon for Earth was very appealing. It was enough to make a soldier drool.

“Did you have a chance to follow up with Narim about the warning?”

“No, sir.” That was another sore point for Jack. “Travell said he was busy elsewhere. We didn’t see him.”

“She could have been telling the truth,” Nyan put in.

“Yeah,” Jack agreed grudgingly. "Maybe."

"I have heard a Tau'ri saying that may be appropriate to this situation," Teal’c offered.

Everyone looked at the Jaffa who responded with his habitual raised eyebrow.

"What's that, Teal'c?" the General asked.

"If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is." The Jaffa spoke the old cliché with his usual unflappable expression.

"That's it exactly, sir." Jack pointed his finger at his alien teammate. "That's what's wrong with the Tollan offer."

Hammond took a minute before answering. "I understand your concern, Colonel, and I share it. However, we have to consider the importance of having a weapon that can destroy a Goa'uld mother ship. Is an ion cannon actually on the table?”

“Not yet." Jack exchanged another look with Carter. "The fact that Travell is willing to discuss the possibility makes it something we have to consider.”

The General thought about that before nodding. “This could be a significant advance in protecting the planet. I have no choice but to take this matter to my superiors."

Carter leaned forward in her seat. "Chancellor Travell said the Tollan Curia is anxious to move forward with this plan as quickly as possible."

"I'm afraid they’ll have to wait until I receive authority to pursue it," the General said matter-of-factly.

Realistically, they all knew that more than the Joint Chiefs would be involved in the decision. No doubt the President, his advisors and who knew how many politicians would want to add their two cents. No way was this going to happen in a hurry, regardless of how eager the Tollan were to reach an agreement.

When all was said and done, Jack was pretty sure Hammond would be ordered to move forward with this plan. He knew the General would be careful. He wished that knowledge would put his mind at ease and make his gut feel better.

 

________________________________________  

“See you after sixth period,” Charlie yelled as he walked off the basketball court. He felt good about the practice session he and Spencer and Terry had spent most of lunch working through.

Teammates. He’d miss this. Team sports had been a big part of his life since he’d been a little kid. In a couple years, he’d graduate and head off to the Air Force Academy and that would no longer be true. As much as he’d love to be a Falcon, the Academy had an impressive sports program so playing on their varsity probably wasn’t realistic, especially not if he wanted to reach his ultimate goal of working at Cheyenne Mountain . He wouldn’t have time to put in the hours and hours of practice necessary to make the team. Charlie’s best sport was baseball and although he was recognized as a star athlete around Colorado Springs , he knew here he was a big fish in a little pond. At the Academy, he’d be a little fish in a big pond. Since participating in athletics was a requirement there, he’d probably play intramural sports. That would allow him to satisfy his love of team sports and keep his competitive edge. That would probably be his best bet.   

Of course, first he needed to graduate from high school and be accepted into the Air Force Academy. It wouldn’t be easy but he’d been making plans since he was twelve years old. That should give him a jump on other prospective candidates. He’d been surfing the Academy’s website for their requirements and had been following their recommendations since middle school. No wonder his friends thought he was a bit obsessive, and they didn’t know the half of it.

“Hey, Charlie, wait up!” Brian came up beside him.

“What’s up?”

“You’re not going to believe it. My brother just scored tickets for the Maroon 5 concert. Spencer’s going. Its ninety bucks a ticket. You in?”

“When do you need to know by?” Maroon 5? That sounded like it’d be a blast.

“Right now.” Brian held up his cell phone. “If we don’t take them he has other friends who will.”

“Yeah, sure, I’m in.” Why not? He loved Maroon 5 and he’d never been to a concert.

“Great! And I’ll need the money for the tickets by tomorrow night.”

“No problem. I’ll bring the money to school tomorrow,” Charlie promised. He’d stop at an ATM and take it out of his savings. He’d need to talk to his parents, too. Hmm, maybe he’d mention it to Dad. Mom still seemed to think he was a little kid most of the time.

“Later,” Brian said with a wave of his hand.

“Later,” Charlie agreed, and picked up his pace.

The Academy. His thoughts returned to what he’d been thinking about earlier and his heart beat a little faster as he considered his rapidly approaching future.

The importance of referrals in being accepted into the Air Force Academy had surprised him but his dad insisted they were critical. Dad had even helped him come up with some good possibilities including, much to Charlie’s surprise, General Hammond, who had assured him he would be happy to write him a referral. As for the requirement of an appointment letter from a Senator or Congressman, Charlie couldn’t help smiling at his good fortune. He hadn’t known he was going to meet Colorado ’s senior Senator, Richard Vane, at General Hammond’s Christmas party last year. It turned out the Senator was a buddy of the General. Senator Vane had been very interested to hear Charlie wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and they had a long conversation on the topic. At the end of the evening, the Senator had agreed to give Charlie an appointment letter when the time came. Dad had never mentioned it but Charlie was aware he could circumvent a lot of the requirements because he also qualified for a nomination slot as the son of a career military officer. And as the child of a Medal of Honor winner.

Charlie would never forget watching his father receive the military’s highest honor last year, from the President of the United States. The only thing he regretted was that the details of the mission were classified. That fact hadn’t lessened the impressiveness of the occasion or Charlie’s pride in his father.

Dad’s Medal would give him a guaranteed nomination slot into the Academy, as long as he satisfied the academic and entry requirements. It was tempting but he didn’t intend to take that route. He was going to get into the Air Force Academy on his own strengths and abilities, just like everyone else. Just like his dad.

He sighed happily at the thought of how things were falling into place. Granted, he still had to get through the last two years of high school without any major screw-ups but that was doable. All he had to do was keep his eye on the prize, as Uncle Charlie liked to say.

“Ow!”

Charlie looked up and saw Karen Lindsey standing in front of him, glaring. Several of her books were on the floor and he realized he had bumped into her.

“Sorry.” He bent down and picked up the books, then brushed them off and handed them over with his most charming grin.

“You’re lucky you didn’t damage any of them.” Karen snatched them back and looked the books over one by one before giving him a grudging smile.

“Lucky is my middle name.” Charlie’s grin widened.

“Uh-huh.” Karen favored him with an extremely skeptical look.

She started walking and he fell into place beside her. “Those look like Daniel’s kind of books,” he noted.

“He loaned me the one on top, the others are from the library.” Karen held the books a little more tightly.

Charlie craned his neck to read the title. “The Rise and Fall of the Incan Civilization.” He made a face. “Oh, yeah, that sounds like a real page-turner.”

“For people who like history, it is,” she snapped and he laughed. Her eyes narrowed and Charlie decided to tamp it down a bit. He didn’t need her to go ranting to Daniel, who then might decide to give him a long-winded lecture on the importance of ancient civilizations in the development of the modern world or something equally boring.

“Daniel does like history,” he admitted. “I didn’t know you were interested in that stuff.”

She studied him suspiciously, as if suspecting he might be planning on making more jokes. Charlie smiled innocently and after a minute she relaxed.

“Yeah, I am, because of Daniel.”

“Really?” It was a battle but Charlie managed to refrain from rolling his eyes.

“Uh-huh,” Karen answered with growing enthusiasm. “I’ve always loved history but I pretty much stuck to American history until I met Daniel. He introduced me to the ancient civilizations that our world grew out of, Egyptian, Mayan, Incan, Greek –  

“All those moldy old dead guys, huh?”

Her eyes narrowed again and Charlie continued quickly before she could hit him or, worse, continue with her list. “Daniel said you wanted to be a teacher.”

“I did.”

“Did? Meaning you don’t anymore?”

“I do, I mean...” Karen licked her lips. “Daniel has his PhD in linguistics, and he said he wants to get another PhD in archeology.”

“Yeah, he does,” Charlie agreed. He didn’t usually spend much time thinking about his little brother's brain power. It was kind of... scary, not that he’d ever say that to Daniel. Or to anyone else.

“He’s talked about that stuff ever since I’ve known him,” Karen said. “It got me interested so I started looking at it in a new light and now when I read, it becomes more exciting and real.”

“Ancient civilizations?” Charlie asked, just to clarify. It was hard to believe he was having this conversation with someone who wasn’t Daniel. Then again, it sounded like Daniel had infected Karen with his weird interests. Luckily, he himself, remained immune.

“Right,” she said. “Especially in how archeology deals with ancient civilizations.”

Daniel really had infected her.

“Sooo, now you’re thinking of being an archeologist?”

“Maybe, or maybe an historian in ancient civilizations. Something like that.” Karen shrugged. “It’s not like I have to make up my mind any time soon.”

“True.”

“So how’s he doing?”

“How’s who?” Charlie was still marveling at how anyone could actually be interested in people who’d been dead for thousands of years.

“Daniel, of course.” She gave him a look of exasperation that Charlie felt was totally undeserved. Karen jumped around like... like other girls when he’d tried to have a reasonable conversation. How the heck was he supposed to keep up?

“Daniel?” he repeated. “He’s fine. I thought you two kept in touch.”

“We haven’t seen much of each other since he came back from UCLA." She shrugged and hugged her books. "We e-mail back and forth once in a while but I guess he’s pretty busy.”

“Yeah, he’s working full-time now.”

“For the Air Force,” Karen nodded. “You know, I still don’t get that.”

“Me neither,” Charlie agreed. “I think the only one who does is Daniel, oh, and my dad, I guess.”

“And the Air Force.”

“Let’s hope so.” Charlie chuckled. “It’s funny, when I was a kid I thought he might be translating intercepted transmissions between terrorists. You know, because he’s so good in languages.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” He grinned at the memory. “That was just a guess, probably way off base. Whatever he’s working on is classified.” He stopped, wondering if he should have said that.

“I know,” she said easily, relieving his worry. “Daniel told me the same thing years ago when I asked what he was doing working for the Air Force. He’s never said anything more about it.”

“Yeah,” Charlie agreed. “He’s really good at keeping secrets.”

“Do you know if he’s going to be around next Friday?”

“Next Friday? Umm...”  Charlie blinked, trying to keep up with her. Again. When he thought about it, he realized he actually did know. “Daniel’s going to be out of town next weekend.”

“Next weekend... so Friday too?”

“He’s leaving on Friday.”

“Damn.” Karen sighed.

“Why?” Charlie asked, curious.

“Oh, there’s a dance on Friday night and I thought I’d ask him to go with me.”

“Go with you?” Charlie repeated in surprise. “Like on a date?” Even as he said the words, he struggled not to laugh. Daniel on a date? His serious, obsessed-with-languages, little brother probably didn’t even notice Karen was a girl. What Charlie wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall when she asked him to a dance. No, rats, she wouldn’t because Daniel would be out of town.

“Not a date!” Karen snapped, glaring at him again. He had to hand it to her, she had a good glare. Not up to his dad’s standard, of course, but not bad for someone still in high school.

“But you said – ”

“Daniel’s my friend,” she said hotly. “If we went together I wouldn’t have to worry about him acting like a jerk.”

“Not all guys are jerks.” Charlie felt mildly insulted.

“I know that,” she retorted. “Daniel’s not.”

Had he just been insulted again? Charlie was pretty sure he had been. “He’s not the only non-jerk guy around.”

“Charlie O’Neill, are you putting yourself in the non-jerk category?” Karen smiled knowingly.

He hesitated. Was this some kind of trap? “Well... yeah.” Seeing her smirk he added hastily, “At least some of the time.”

“Okay, I’ll grant you partial non-jerk status.” She snickered.

“Gee, thanks,” he said dryly.

“You’re welcome. Hey.” Her eyes brightened. “Are you doing anything Friday night?”

“No.” She kept confusing him with her twists and turns.

“How about you go with me?”

“To the dance?” Charlie asked in astonishment. Was she actually asking him out on a –

“Not as a date,” she said firmly. “I missed the last dance because I had the flu. Some of my friends are going and I don’t want to miss out again. I don't know if they’ll have dates and I don’t want to go by myself.”

Not as a date. Charlie felt a little insulted again. Didn’t she think he was date material? Or maybe she equated date-guys with the jerk-guys?

“Come on,” Karen wheedled. “You’re not so bad. I wouldn’t mind going to the dance with you.”

“You really know how to make a guy feel special, don’t you?” Charlie kidded.

“Is that a yes?” She laughed.

He couldn’t believe this conversation, but when he looked into her sparkling green eyes he found himself considering it. He had never thought of Karen as anything but a friend of Daniel’s, but now, in light of her invitation, he realized she was kind of pretty. Plus she had plenty of attitude and didn’t take crap from anyone. He liked that. She wouldn’t be boring to hang with for a couple hours, as long as she stayed off her ancient civilizations hobby-horse.

A dance. Hell, why not?

“Okay,” Charlie heard himself say.

“Great! We can – ”

When the bell rang and cut her off Karen turned to walk away. “I’ll call you later about the details,” she said over her shoulder. “And tell Daniel I said hi!”

“Okay.”

Charlie headed for his next class. He wasn’t sure exactly what had just happened, except he’d agreed to go to a dance with his kid brother’s friend. Not as her date but as a... as a what? As a replacement for Daniel? As a partial non-jerk?

Why had he said yes? He didn’t know, but he was stuck now. He was taking Karen to a dance.

A dance.

Crap, he didn’t know how to dance.

 

________________________________________  

Several hours later Charlie was eating dinner, still trying to figure out what to do about his non-date with Karen.

“Is something wrong with the food?”

He looked up to meet his mom’s enquiring gaze and realized he was stirring food around his plate rather than eating it.

“No, it’s fine.”

“Okay,” she said, sounding an awful lot like Dad. “So what has you thinking so hard that you’re not hungry?”

“I’m hungry.” He stuffed a fork-full of chicken into his mouth to prove it.

Mom sighed and he knew he was going to have a hard time getting out of this without confessing, and he didn’t want to do that. It just sounded too stupid, agreeing to take a girl, who was really just his brother’s friend, to a dance. Especially when he didn’t know how to dance. To his relief he heard the front door open and looked over his shoulder.

“Dad? Is that you?”

“Nope,” Dad said cheerfully. “It’s Daniel.”

“Jack.” Charlie heard Daniel’s voice.

“Daniel,” Dad said and it was Charlie’s turn to sigh at the familiar routine. He looked at his mom who was trying not to smile.

“You two are in time to sit down with us for dinner,” she called.

Dad appeared with Daniel at his side. “Great,” he said, sniffing the air happily. He reached for his chair.

“After you wash up,” Mom said.

There was no arguing with that tone. Mom was a stickler about germs and hand-washing and Charlie guessed it stemmed from being a nurse all these years.  A few minutes later Daniel and Dad joined them at the table.

“It’s a good thing we left the Mountain when we did.” Dad picked up the bowl of dumplings. “Isn’t it, Daniel?”

Charlie studied them. There was an unusual note in Dad’s voice and Daniel looked a little red.

“Uh-huh,” Daniel agreed then busied himself with his meal.

“So,” Dad heaped his plate with food, “what happened with you two, today?”

“Nothing new on my part.” Mom smiled at Charlie. “How about you, Charlie?”

“School, practice, same old, same old."  He shrugged. "Oh, Karen said to say hi.”

“You saw her?” Daniel looked up.

“Well, duh.”

“Charlie – ”

“Sorry, Mom,” Charlie said quickly. He’d forgotten how much she disliked that word, despite Dad’s love of all things Homer Simpson. “Yeah, I saw her today, just before – "  he stopped a couple of words too late. He'd almost said, “before she invited me to the dance.” What was wrong with him? A few seconds later he realized everyone was looking at him.

“Just before what?” Daniel asked.

“Nothing.” Even he wouldn’t believe that weak denial.

Daniel’s eyes narrowed. “Just before what?” he repeated.

Crap. Daniel could give a mule lessons in stubbornness; there was no way he was going to let this go now. Think fast, O’Neill. Wait, he had it.

“Just before she said she was thinking about going into archeology.”

“What?” Daniel asked, astonished.

“Yeah.” Charlie hoped he looked properly confused. “She didn’t tell you?”

“No.” Daniel’s surprise only lasted a few seconds before guilt set in. “I guess she hasn’t had a chance to tell me. We haven’t talked in a long time. I don’t think I’ve even answered her last e-mail and that was - ” he grimaced. “A couple weeks ago.”

“Don't beat yourself up over it. I'm sure she understands.” Dad put in. “You’ve been busy at the Mountain. No need to feel bad about it.”

“I could’ve taken a few minutes to call her.” Daniel set his fork down. "Talking is a lot more personal than e-mails."

“It’s no big deal.” Charlie hadn’t meant for this to happen. “Karen wasn’t mad or anything. Dad's right, she knows you’re busy.”

Daniel nodded but didn’t look convinced. Charlie went back to eating when he realized his mother was staring at him. Uh-oh, he didn’t like that expression, like she was trying to get inside his head.

“I have a hard time believing it's Karen’s news that took away your appetite.”

Double crap. Charlie scrambled for an explanation while everyone focused on him.

“You’re not hungry?” Dad leaned over to touch his forehead.

“Dad!” Charlie jerked his head back and glared. He would’ve expected Mom to pull something like that but Dad surprised him.

“You don’t have a fever,” Dad smirked. “So what’s going on?”

“I told you – ” Charlie suddenly felt like a bug under a microscope.

“Is Karen okay?” Daniel asked.

“Karen? Sure, she’s fine.”

“I’m going to call her, just to say hi and apologize.” Daniel looked at his watch.

“After you eat.” Mom stopped him when he started to rise. “And I suspect she’ll tell you there’s no reason to apologize.”

“Maybe.” Daniel reached for his glass of milk and took a gulp. “I’ll still feel better after I talk to her.”

Well, damn. Charlie mentally threw in the towel. There was no way he could keep them from finding out now. Karen was sure to mention the dance when she talked to Daniel.

“What’s wrong?”

His family knew him too well.

“Nothing,” he said with forced nonchalance. “Really.” Would it be better to keep quiet and let Karen be the one to break the news? Nah, that seemed too chicken. “When you’re done talking to her, I need to talk to her, too.”

Daniel’s eyebrows rose. So did Mom’s. So did... Charlie stifled a sigh. Yep, it was unanimous.

“Why?” Daniel demanded.

“We need to get the logistics figured out for next Friday.”

Oh, yeah, he had everyone’s attention now.

“Next Friday?” Daniel voiced the question on everyone’s mind.

“Yeah, for the dance.”

Daniel’s mouth fell open. So did Mom’s. So did... Charlie sighed. What, did they practice this stuff when he wasn’t around?

“A dance?” No surprise, Dad recovered first, and Charlie didn’t like the sudden glint in his father’s eyes. “Charlie, my boy, have you been keeping secrets?”

“A dance?” Daniel's eyes narrowed again. “Why would you need to talk to Karen about a dance?”

For the first time Charlie felt a spark of amusement. This could be fun. He could mess with his little brother’s head.

“Because she and I are going to the dance,” he said casually. “Together.”

Dad grinned, Mom’s eyebrows rose even higher, and Daniel’s eyes shot blue sparks.

“That’s not funny.”

“Who said anything about funny?” Charlie demanded innocently. “We’re just going to a dance.”

“You and –” Something suspiciously like horror filled Daniel’s expression. “You and Karen? No way!”

“Me and Karen,” Charlie said. “Why not?”

“But, but...” Daniel sputtered and Charlie couldn’t hold back a laugh.

Dad tossed his napkin at Daniel who turned toward him. “Come on, Daniel, it’s no biggie. Just a couple kids going to a high school dance, right?”

The last was said in Charlie’s direction who felt a twinge of annoyance. For crying out loud, it wasn’t like they were a couple of ten-year-olds.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “That’s what I need to talk to Karen about. After she asked me the bell rang and – ”

“She what?” Daniel interrupted, eyes wide.

Charlie fought back more laughter. Daniel was acting like... like some kind of Victorian father.

“Karen asked me to go to a dance.” He spoke with exaggerated slowness. “I said yes, the bell rang and she said we’d talk about the details later.”

“But, but...”

“You already said that,” Charlie reminded.

Daniel’s shock gave way to annoyance. Hmm, maybe Charlie had pushed it a bit too far.

“Karen’s my friend,” Daniel growled.

Charlie was tempted to push his chair back a little but he knew better than to show fear in the face of the enemy, even when the enemy was his little brother. Maybe it was time to throw out a bone.

“I know. She wanted to go with you but when I told her you’d be out of town, she asked me.”

“You and Karen are only friends, right, Daniel?” Jack looked to Charlie to Daniel and then back again.

“Yes!” Maybe Daniel realized he’d been a little loud because he took a deep breath and went on more quietly. “She is my friend and I don’t want her to... well...”

“Go out with a jerk?” Charlie offered helpfully. “It’s okay, she thinks I’m only a partial non-jerk.”

“Say what?” Dad snorted.

“A partial non-jerk?” Daniel began to smile.

“Her very words.”

“Well, since she knows you so well...”

“Hey!” Charlie glared at his little brother who was now relaxed enough to grin back.

“Charlie?” It was the first time Mom had spoken since Charlie dropped his bombshell.

“Yeah?”

“When did you learn to dance?” she asked.

“Uh...” Charlie wanted to say something to distract her but his mind was blank. His heart sank when he saw identical expressions of amusement on his father’s and brother’s faces.

“You don’t know how to dance?” Daniel looked on the verge of laughter and Charlie was sorely tempted to toss his dumplings in his little brother’s face, but he wasn’t prepared to suffer the consequences.

“It’s almost a week away,” he defended himself. “I have time.”

“To learn to dance?” Daniel asked for clarification.

“Yes,” Charlie snapped, hoping Daniel recognized the 'you’re-so-gonna-get-it' look in his eyes.

“How?”

If Daniel recognized the look, he was ignoring it. Throwing the dumplings was sounding better, consequences be damned.

“Hey,” Dad beamed, “I’ve got an idea.”

Charlie knew that tone of voice. Dad had something in mind that he was sure he wasn't going to like.

“You could teach him, honey.” Dad smiled at Mom.

Mom? Teach him to dance?  “Uh...” Charlie’s mouth fell open in horror.

“I’d be happy to teach you, honey,” Mom said warmly.

“Uh...” Charlie had seen people dance. They held each other close and... his mind boggled.

“Great!” Dad clapped his hands together. “It’s settled. Daniel, you and I can watch. Maybe we’ll pick up a few pointers.”

Daniel snickered and Charlie swallowed a groan. This was shaping up to be one of the worst ideas in the history of the planet. How in the hell was he going to get out of this?

He looked from Mom to Dad to Daniel, all of whom were smiling like they’d just won the lottery. There wasn't an ounce of sympathy to be found. Maybe if he stuffed an entire dumpling down his throat he’d have the good fortune of choking to death and escape that way.

Mom was a nurse, Dad was Special Ops. They’d save him.

Charlie wanted to put his head down on the table and surrender, wave the white flag and beg for mercy. No way. He was an O’Neill. He’d get through the dance; whether he’d survive the embarrassment was still up for debate.

Chapter 5

The morning started with two back-to-back meetings between the archeologists and linguists at the SGC. When the last one ended, the scientists lingered over coffee and donuts while Daniel reluctantly slipped away and returned to his office. He’d discovered an interesting new problem in some pictures of a ruined temple that SG-5 had brought back from their exploration of P39-J28, and he hoped to spend what was left of the morning working on it.

Two hours later, Daniel closed yet another book and stared at the wall. He’d made some progress in translating, but he was going to need more than linguistic skills to figure out some of the symbols. There was no doubt about it, he definitely needed to get another doctorate in archeology. Meanwhile, he'd seek out the best archeologist on the base.

He walked into the archeology lab and waved at a couple of scientists examining what appeared to be an ancient vase. They weren’t who he was looking for – ah, there he was. At a desk near the back of the room, Robert Rothman was studying a piece of papyrus.

“Hi, Robert.”

Rothman looked up, blinked, then his eyes came into focus and he smiled. “Hello, Daniel. What brings you here?”

“I have something to run by you.” He raised the digital photographs he was holding.

“Pull up a chair, let’s take a look.” Robert set aside what he was working on.

Daniel sat down beside the scientist and laid the pictures on the desk. Rothman pushed up his glasses and looked with interest.

“Let’s see, what do we have here?”

“That’s what I want to know.” Daniel pointed at the pictographs in one picture. “I’ve translated the first half but I’m not sure about the second half. I think they’re tied in with these.” He shuffled the pictures until he came to the one that showed a small altar containing three vessels of various sizes.

“Have you seen anything like this before?”

Rothman pulled the photographs closer and studied them. Daniel watched, his attention divided between the scientist and the pictures. He was pleased at how good Robert looked. No one would know by looking at him the horror that had nearly taken his life.

Robert Rothman, his friend and colleague, had been taken over by a Goa'uld while off-world. If not for the zat Sam had brought along, Robert would have died. As it was, the scientist was zatted and then taken to Cimmeria where, again, Thor’s Hammer did its job and removed the Goa'uld without killing the human.

Afterwards, Daniel had convinced Jack that Robert needed more help than the SGC could provide. Going to Abydos proved to be the ticket. Daniel wasn't privy to what Robert and Skaara had discussed during the hours they'd spent alone, but he had been relieved to see that a modicum of peace had returned to his friend’s eyes by the time he returned to Earth.

It was by unanimous, if unspoken, agreement that Robert no longer go through the Stargate as a member of SG-1. The SGC needed experienced people working in the Archeology Department and Robert was a perfect fit for that job.

Daniel had lobbied hard to fill the vacancy on SG-1 caused by Rothman’s departure. He might only be fifteen years old and fresh out of UCLA with his brand-new, shiny PhD, but he did have gate experience. No one could deny he had a knack for communicating with alien races, not to mention his rapidly developing negotiating skills. Neither Jack nor General Hammond had been particularly impressed by his arguments. He hadn’t really expected them to be, especially Jack.

Daniel sighed at the memory. Where he saw opportunity and potential allies, Jack saw danger and possible enemies.   

In the end, Daniel had endorsed the leading candidate for the job, Nyan, the refugee from Bedrosia who worked so well with the SGC scientists. The Bedrosian government required all of its citizens to periodically serve in its military so despite Nyan’s soft-spoken, mild nature, he had no problem with the military aspects of the SGC or with carrying a weapon.

According to Jack, Nyan was doing ‘okay’ since joining the team. Fluent in Jack-speak, Daniel interpreted that to mean that Nyan was doing extremely well. He felt a small measure of pride in how it had all worked out, despite his disappointment in not being chosen. Daniel comforted himself with the knowledge that his time would eventually come.

In the meantime, he’d try to be patient and work hard for the SGC and for Earth. One day he would get his doctorate in archeology, and sometime after that he’d walk through the Stargate as an official member of an SG team.   

“I think I have seen something like this.”

Daniel started. He had been so lost in his memories that he’d momentarily forgotten what they were working on. Robert was looking at him with a quizzical expression and he smiled sheepishly.

“I’m sorry. I missed the beginning of what you said.”

The scientist tapped the picture. “Les Abrams showed me some very similar pictographs on a stele a couple of weeks ago. I think he may have the answer you’re looking for.”

“Great!” Daniel rose to his feet. “I’ll go find him right now. Thanks, Robert.”

“Any time.”

 

________________________________________

 

Yes! Charlie had gotten an A on his history project. Not only had he gotten an A but he’d chosen military history and worked on something that actually interested him. That was a first. He’d have to show the paper to Dad and see what he thought of it.

He walked along the hall still thinking about his project, until he heard a commotion coming from the alcove to the right of the lockers. Shit, it was Justin Scott and his sidekick, Mark Donnelly, picking on an obvious freshman. They had him backed up against the wall and the skinny little kid looked scared to death.

Charlie slowed down. Maybe they’d let the kid go before he had to pass. Life would easier if he didn’t get involved.

“I have to get to class,” the kid said desperately, and Charlie heard the tremble in his voice.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Charlie knew Scott and Donnelly, though he’d never been impressed with them. They both played football and if he stepped into this mess, he could have the entire team pissed at him. Those football players stuck together.

The kid looked past Donnelly’s shoulder and spotted him. Charlie stopped when he saw the fearful look. Even though the eyes were brown, not blue, they were pleading for help from behind a pair of glasses that reminded him of his little brother. Daniel had once been a scrawny, geeky little nerd, easy prey for the Scotts and Donnellys of the world.

“Why don’t you leave the kid alone? You had your fun.”

The words spilled out of Charlie before he had time to think about it. Maybe he should’ve worded it differently. He sounded more like a teacher or, gasp, his dad. Must be the Daniel connection.

“O’Neill.” Scott turned toward him but his hand maintained its firm grasp on the collar of the kid’s shirt.

“Mind your own business.” Donnelly took a few steps forward to run interference. "This has nothing to do with you. Do yourself a favor and keep walking.”

Charlie bristled. He had never liked bullies. He’d always been a huge fan of the underdog, the Chicago Cubs, the old Boston Red Sox, the 1980 U. S. Olympic gold medal hockey team. He hadn’t been born when that hockey game was played but his dad had showed him endless footage. No way could he keep on walking.

“Come on, leave the kid alone.” He felt his anger rising and forced it back down. This wasn’t the time to lose his temper. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Let him go. Now.” This time his voice was clear and strong. He’d learned a long time ago that showing weakness to bullies never helped. In fact, it usually just exacerbated the situation by empowering them.

Scott’s mouth fell open, then his eyes narrowed. He released the terrified freshman before turning around to give Charlie his full attention.

Great. Just great.

“Get out of here.” Charlie nodded to the boy. The kid didn’t need to be told twice. He exited the alcove and even though he disappeared from sight, Charlie heard his footsteps pounding on the floor down the corridor as if he was jogging. Smart kid.

“You want to go, O’Neill? We’ll go.” Scott gestured for him to step forward.

Did he want to go? They had to be kidding. “Go? Right here in school? No, I don’t want to go. Why the hell don’t you pick on kids your own size? And two against one. Really?”

He should stop right there while he was in one piece but they had made him mad. Two bulky football players picking on a skinny little freshman just because they could.

“What’s next? Maybe a little blind girl with a limp?” Charlie knew he’d pushed too hard even before he saw fury flare in Scott’s eyes. He wasn’t about to apologize so he shifted his weight and prepared for the inevitable.

“You bastard!” Scott snarled and charged him, knocking him back on his ass. Charlie should have seen that coming but he hadn’t. He jumped back to his feet and saw Donnelly hesitating. Good, maybe he could end this before it turned into a brawl.

Scott’s fist caught him in the cheek and Charlie’s head snapped back. Damn, that hurt! He got in one good punch to the bully’s stomach that doubled him over, but he grabbed Charlie’s shirt as he fell, taking them both down.

They rolled around the floor, each one trying to get the upper hand. Scott was bigger and heavier but Charlie was strong and agile. He sensed Donnelly behind him but so far the other teen was staying out of it. Thank god.

Scott's fist struck out again and Charlie jerked his head out of range. The blow caught him in the shoulder and his arm was suddenly numb. Furious, he got in two hard punches to the body, knocking the wind out of his opponent.

“Break it up!”

Mr. Richmond was not only the strictest math teacher in the school but he was also the Vice Principal. Charlie immediately released his opponent but before he could move Scott delivered another quick, well-placed blow to his ribs that made him gasp. The unfairness of it infuriated Charlie but when he tried to retaliate Richmond grabbed him and yanked him back.

“I said enough,” he bellowed. “In my office, all three of you.”

“But I wasn’t doing anything,” Donnelly whined.

“Move!”

Charlie’s anger faded as the reality of his situation swept over him. Wasn’t this just swell? Now he was in trouble. His school had a zero-tolerance policy about students fighting. Would he be suspended?

The thought sent a chill through him. Would this affect his chances of getting into the Air Force Academy? He realized he was breathing too fast and deliberately slowed it down. No way, he assured himself. He had an excellent record, at least as of fifteen minutes ago, and no one was perfect, right?

Right. One thing was certain. They’d definitely call his parents, that was a given.

Crap. And everything had been going so well, his new job at the rec center, that was not bagging groceries, the A on his history project, yep, things had been humming along. So why couldn’t he have just kept walking? Dumb question. There’s no way he could’ve walked away from that ugly scene. Minding his own business was great in theory but reality was never so neat or tidy.

Charlie made a conscious effort not to rub his sore ribs or his arm where feeling was slowly, painfully, returning. The football players were glaring at him and he didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing they’d stung him.    

 

________________________________________  

No surprise, Mom came to pick him up.

He’d been sitting on one of the hard chairs outside the principal’s office while he waited. Scott and Donnelly were sitting on a bench a few feet away and the principal had warned all of them to keep quiet and stay put. They all obeyed, though the order didn’t stop Scott and Donnelly from giving him threatening looks. Charlie ignored them, and gradually realized he couldn’t have found a better way to annoy them. It was hard not to smile after that, though a reminder of his situation was enough to chase away his amusement.

Mrs. Scott came on behalf of her son and Mr. Donnelly for his. The three parents all paused just long enough outside the principal’s office to look over their respective sons. Charlie tried a weak smile but Mom didn’t smile back. Then the adults went into the office and closed the door behind them.

Ten minutes later the teenagers were brought in. After a run-of-the-mill lecture by the principal, it came down to a few points. Since none of them had ever been in trouble in high school before and, more importantly, because no one had actually been hurt, and because there was an all-important football game on Saturday, they’d all be given a two-day in-school suspension starting tomorrow.

The principal said he didn’t care what had caused the fight, which was fortunate because none of the boys offered an explanation. Charlie figured the other two would never admit the truth; as for himself, he decided to keep his mouth shut. If he blamed the two morons he’d have the entire football team on his ass for sure, and if he dragged the poor little freshman into it they’d be all over him, too. Charlie was sure he could handle whatever happened but he wasn’t sure the kid could. After the suspension it would all blow over and high school life would get back to normal.

One problem remained. Mom. As soon as they were in the car she turned on him. She kept her voice low but they’d lived in the same house for his entire life and he could tell she was angry.

“What was that all about?”

“Nothing, Mom, really.” That probably wouldn’t satisfy her but life would be so much easier if she would drop it. He’d serve the suspension and that would be that. 

Not surprising, Mom had other ideas. She peppered him with question after question. She wanted answers. He couldn’t give her any and take the chance she’d feel compelled to do something about it. Mom was like that. She didn’t always understand how things worked at school, especially guy stuff. He wished Dad had been home to pick him up. Dad would have been annoyed but he’d understand that sometimes fights broke out despite your best efforts.

It was a relief when they were finally home. Maybe now she’d let up and he could escape to his room. Five steps inside the front door, he realized the folly of that hope.

“I don’t understand why you’d want to get in a fight with those two boys.” She stopped squarely in front of him, her eyes fixed unwaveringly on his.

Charlie tried to maintain his composure. “I didn’t want to get in a fight with them. It just happened.”

Before she had a chance to respond he moved quickly around her and went into the kitchen to make a sandwich. And escape. Big surprise, that only lasted long enough for her to follow him.

“What does that mean, it just happened?” She stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips, her eyes still flashing. Damn, he hated when she stood like that. She wasn’t about to let this go. “Things like that don’t just happen. Have they bothered you before?”

“No.” They hadn’t. They’d known each other to say hi and that was about it. Neither of them played baseball or basketball, so Charlie didn’t know them all that well. He’d certainly never had any kind of problem with them.

“Did they say something to you? Did you say something to them?”

“No.” Charlie finished putting the mayonnaise on his sandwich and put the knife down. “Mom, look, it’s really no big deal.”

Oops. From the look on her face he gathered that was the wrong thing to say.

“You were suspended for fighting, Charlie. Don’t you dare tell me it’s no big deal.”

“Sorry,” he offered in effort to make peace while he reconsidered his sandwich. He’d somehow lost his appetite. “It’s an in-school suspension, Mom. It’s not that bad.”

She took a deep breath and he was relieved to see her hands drop to her sides. “I don’t understand what this is all about but we’re going to talk about it more when your father gets home.”

Yep, Charlie had no doubt about that. He only hoped Dad would be in a good mood.

She glanced up, as if she was looking into the attic, and took another deep breath. “I need to get back to work.” She said it in a way that made him feel guilty for dragging her away from her dissertation.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I really am. I’ll clean up the kitchen. Do you want me to start dinner later?” He tried a tentative smile. “That way you can make up the time you lost and keep working on your project.”

Her blue eyes stared into his until he wanted to squirm. “Thank you,” she said finally. She patted his arm as she passed by. “But don’t think we’re done with this.”

Charlie hadn’t thought that for a second. He didn’t say anything. There wasn’t really anything to say and he definitely wasn’t looking forward to dinner.

 

________________________________________  

Jack walked into the house, relieved he was only an hour later than usual. Considering the problem they were having with the Stargate, he could have been stuck there all night. Then again, the ins-and-outs of the Stargate were Carter’s territory so she and her team would be spending whatever time was needed in order to dig out the gremlin that had apparently gotten into the system.

Daniel, who had, as usual, been dragged out of the Mountain against his will, made a beeline for the kitchen and Jack followed him.

“What's this?” he asked in surprise.

Jack had expected to find Sara. Instead Charlie was standing over the stove with a jar of Ragu and a package of spaghetti. It reminded him of last year when Sara had been away at UCLA, but she was home now and she didn’t normally care for store-bought sauces.

“I’m helping Mom.” Charlie grinned. “I decided on spaghetti because you can’t wreck it. There were even meatballs in the freezer so I nuked them in the microwave and threw them in, too. It should be good.”

Daniel leaned over his shoulder. “Smells good,” he acknowledged. “I’m starving.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Jack agreed. “Does your mother know you’re using that sauce?”

“Uh – ”

“Never mind.” He chuckled. “Is it ready?”

“Ten minutes.” Charlie threw the pasta into the boiling water.

“I’ll go get your mother.” Jack headed upstairs. Behind him he heard Charlie explaining the fine art of spaghetti-making to Daniel.

Sara was just where he expected, in the attic, on her laptop, typing away. Jack paused for a minute, appreciating the sight. She was totally focused on her work, which, based on how tousled her hair was, wasn’t going well. Secretly, he loved to see her hair all over her face. It reminded him of what she must have looked like as a little girl.

“Hey, how goes it?” He leaned over to kiss her cheek.

“Not so good, but at least it’s going,” she murmured as she typed. “Give me a minute.”

Jack waited as she finished her thought and typed out a few notes. When she closed the laptop he moved in and hugged her from behind, pleased when she leaned into his embrace. Then he put his hands on her shoulders and began massaging away some of the day’s tension.

“Dinner’s almost ready. It was nice of Charlie to take care of that.” He rubbed out a knot at the base of her neck. “He’s good at spaghetti.”

She turned around, bringing the impromptu massage to an abrupt end. One look at her stormy expression made his sense of well-being fade.

“He’s not doing it to be nice. He’s doing it to make up to me for the time I lost when I was called in to his school today.”

Jack blinked. This was new. “Called in because of Charlie?” The kid was no saint but he’d never been in trouble bad enough to require the presence of his parents at school.

“Because of Charlie,” she said in clipped tones. She glared at him, which he thought was unfair.

Uh-oh. Jack waited for her to finish, hoping it wasn’t anything too horrible. He was tired and hungry and was hoping for a relaxing, stress-free evening at home.

“He got into a fight.”

“A fight?” he repeated in surprise. Charlie? His son? That didn’t sound like his Charlie at all. Wait a minute. A fight? “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. A fight with two really big boys.” She stood up without warning and he took a step back. “Why?” she demanded, the fire fading from her eyes, leaving her looking somehow forlorn. “Why would he do that?”

Jack couldn’t help himself. He put his arms around her and was relieved when she accepted the hug.

“I don’t know,” he said honestly, still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Charlie had gotten into a fight at school. “What did he say?"

“He wouldn’t say what started it. I thought maybe he’d talk to you.

Jack hesitated, not wanting to stir her up again, but he was hungry. “Is after dinner okay? Daniel and I are starving and it looks like Charlie’s making a nice meal.” He was hoping she’d agree. The fight didn’t sound too bad and he wanted to eat.

“I suppose.” She pushed away and took a good look at him. “You’re not upset about Charlie fighting in school?”

He had no idea if she wanted him to be upset or not. He’d tread cautiously. “Let’s wait and see what he has to say.” He prided himself on what he thought was an excellent answer.

“He doesn’t have anything to say. That’s the problem,” Sara snapped as he followed her down the stairs.

The boys had the table set. When Charlie saw them he brought in the spaghetti and extra sauce and motioned Daniel to bring out the garlic bread that had been warming in the oven. There was no salad or vegetable but that wasn’t surprising considering a teenaged boy had made the meal. Hopefully, Sara wouldn’t mind this one time.

Jack looked at the two boys as they arranged things on the table. No, he wasn’t happy to hear Charlie had been fighting and, yes, he wanted to get to the bottom of it, but he still marveled at how grown up and independent his boys had become in the past year. They were almost men.

“So, Dad, how was work?” Charlie asked as he sat down and passed around the spaghetti.

Well, let’s see, son, the trade agreement with the Sephardans fell through. SG-5 ran into a Jaffa patrol on a protected planet which makes you wonder where the Asgard have been for the past few months, and two members of the team were injured in the ensuing firefight on the race back to the gate. Dr. Lee discovered that alien plants aren’t always what they appear to be and no one, not even Daniel, has had much success translating the Ancient writings found on P2X-753. Oh, and the Stargate has suddenly stopped working. All and all, not a great week for the good guys.

“Dad?”

“Fine. Just peachy.” Jack said. “This is very good, Charlie.” He hoisted up a forkful of spaghetti in an effort to change the subject.

“It is good,” Daniel agreed. “How was school?”

Silence fell over the table.

“Or, how’s the weather?” Daniel amended, realizing he’d accidentally hit on a sore subject.

Jack nearly burst out laughing at the boy’s quickness but the annoyed look on his wife’s face kept him in check.

“Your brother was in a fight today at school.” Sara enunciated each word carefully so no one could miss the fact that she was angry again. “I had to go pick him up."

“Really? A fight?” That caught Daniel’s attention. He stopped eating to look at his brother.

“It wasn’t really a fight, Mom. More of scuffle,” Charlie clarified. “No one was hurt."

“Well, that’s good.” Jack went back to eating after a scathing look from Sara. He really wanted to wait to get into this until they were finished with dinner.

“What were you fighting about?” Daniel asked.

“Now there’s a good question.” Sara dropped her fork to stare at her son. “Yes, Charlie, what were you fighting about?”

“Nothing, I just...” he trailed off. “It was nothing.”

Jack was beginning to feel Sara’s frustration. It annoyed him when Charlie, or Daniel for that matter, withheld information with evasive answers like ‘nothing, and ‘I don’t know’ when they knew damn well. He would prefer them to be honest and say they didn’t want to talk about it rather than toss around vague statements and lies. As his hunger lessened, irritation with his son grew. Not the least of which was that Sara had to leave her own work and traipse off to school to deal with it all. He suppressed a sigh of annoyance. It looked like they were going to have to deal with the problem right now.

“Charlie...” The name was barely out of his mouth when the doorbell rang. Now what? Jack put his napkin aside and stood up.

“I’ll get it.” He gave Charlie a look to let him know the conversation wasn’t over.

When he opened the door he was expecting to find a neighbor or a kid selling something. Instead, there stood a stranger, a short, slim woman in her late thirties or early forties, with brown hair almost as short as Sara’s and wearing an anxious expression.

“Can I help you?” He checked his irritation and made nice.

“Are you... is this where Charlie O’Neill lives?”

She seemed nervous. Maybe she was one of his son’s teachers. Or worse, the mom of one of the kids involved in the fight this afternoon. Either way, Jack sadly relinquished his last hope that he could finish his dinner in peace.

“Yes, Charlie lives here," he admitted, bracing himself for who knows what.

“I’m Ann Warner.” She was hesitant. If she was one of the other boy’s moms she wasn’t looking for a fight. That would make things easier. “Are you Charlie’s father?”

He had half a mind to deny it. “Guilty as charged.” He smiled, hoping to ease her tension.

“I came over to thank Charlie for what he did this afternoon.

Because he’d been expecting the worst, it took a few seconds for her words to penetrate. Say what? Jack opened the door wider, hoping he was hiding his confusion.

"Come on inside.” He might as well invite her in. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be getting back to his spaghetti and meatballs any time soon. "Would you like to sit down?" Sara would insist on the amenities.

"Oh, no, thank you." She seemed even more flustered though he couldn't understand why. Better to let it slide. It didn’t seem right to stand in the hall and talk but Jack didn’t know what else to do.

“So, you came over to thank Charlie for...?” For what? Fighting with her son?

“For helping Josh.” Her smile was apologetic. “I’m so sorry your son ended up in trouble for helping.”

Jack assumed the blank look on his face prompted her further explanation.

“He didn’t tell you?” She flushed. “I’m sorry. Josh begged me not to come over but I thought a thank you was the least we could do.” She brushed her hair to the side in a nervous gesture before going on.

“Apparently two football players were picking on Josh. He’s smart but small. He doesn’t usually have problems but something must have set them off.” She looked momentarily angry on behalf of her son. “Josh was really scared, he’s not much of a fighter. But your son came along and told them to leave him alone, then he told Josh to leave. Josh didn’t hear until later that Charlie had been suspended for fighting. I hope he’s not in too much trouble.”

Jack stared in disbelief. If Mrs. Warner’s story was true, why had Charlie been so reluctant to share it?

“Charlie!” he yelled. “Could you come out here a minute, please? Sara!” His wife needed to hear this, too.

“Oh I’ve interrupted your dinner.” She actually took a step back toward the door.

“No, it’s fine,” Jack assured her. In the long run, her news might make the entire evening more pleasant.

“Yeah, Dad?” Charlie appeared. Sara was right behind Charlie and Daniel brought up the rear.

Jack turned around to face his son. “This is Mrs. Warner. She wants to thank you for helping Josh today.” He refrained from laughing at the different expressions sliding across Charlie’s face, first confusion, then embarrassment, then discomfort.

“Charlie, it’s so nice to meet you.” A red tint stained Charlie’s tanned cheeks when the woman grabbed his hand and shook it. “I’m Josh’s mother. Thank you for helping him.”

“Oh, no problem.” Charlie’s blush deepened as Mrs. Warner didn’t seem to want to let go of his hand.

“I’m so sorry you got in trouble for helping, for doing the right thing. I was about to tell your father that I’m going to be meeting with the principal tomorrow about Josh being bullied. I’ll be happy to explain that you were only trying to help him.”

“Oh no, it's fine, Mrs. Warner,” Charlie said immediately. “Really. It would probably be best to just forget about it."

“That’s just what Josh said.” She shook her head in the same way Sara did when she didn’t understand guy things. “He doesn’t even want me to talk to the principal but I can’t let this go. If you change your mind, here’s our number.” She handed him a piece of paper.

“Uh, thanks.”

Sara had been awfully quiet. Jack noticed Charlie cringe when she finally spoke up.

“Would you like to sit down and have some coffee?" It had taken a few minutes for her to gather her thoughts and process the story but now that she had, she’d want to talk about it.

“Oh no, I have to get going. I just wanted to thank Charlie in person. You two must be very proud.”

“Yes,” Jack smiled at Sara, “very proud."

“He certainly saved the day for Josh. Most kids would have kept walking. Thank you again, Charlie. Josh was too embarrassed to come himself but he thanks you, too.”

“It’s okay,” Charlie murmured, looking even more embarrassed.

“Always the hero,” Daniel whispered in low voice as Sara walked Mrs. Warner outside.

“Shut up.” Charlie punched his brother’s arm.

"Come on," Jack ordered, "back to the table before the spaghetti gets too cold to eat." It took an effort to keep his mouth shut. He knew this wasn't over. If Charlie thought he was embarrassed now, just wait till Sara came back.

A minute later she returned. She pulled out her chair and stared at her oldest son. “Okay, Charlie, why would you not tell us what really happened?”

He shrugged and made it impossible to respond by taking a huge bite of his garlic bread.

Sara sighed, gazing absently at her plate. “I’m glad Mrs. Warner’s going to talk to the principal but I think I should call him, too. If that boy is being bullied, someone needs to do something about it. And why should you be suspended for helping out?”

That got Charlie’s attention. “Okay, Mom, that right there is why I didn’t tell you.”

“That’s ridiculous. That’s why people think they can get away with things they shouldn’t get away with. Because people don’t speak up.”

“Mom!” Charlie pleaded in horror. Even though he’d said ‘Mom’ he looked directly at his father.

“All right,” Jack jumped in. “If Charlie doesn’t want to go to the principal maybe we should respect his wishes.”

Sara shot him an ‘are you insane?’ look before she turned her attention back to her son. “You’re both forgetting something here,” she said. “Don’t you remember what happened to that young girl at Kennedy Middle School a few years ago?”

Oh, shit. He had forgotten, which was surprising because the media had been all over the tragedy. A thirteen-year-old girl had taken an entire bottle of her mother’s sleeping pills and not been discovered until the following morning. In a note she left behind, she said she had been harassed by her fellow students all year and she could no longer endure the bullying and the ridicule.

A glance at his son’s guilty expression told Jack that Charlie had forgotten as well. Sara had been the nurse on duty that day. She’d never forget.

“You’re right, honey,” Jack admitted before looking at his oldest son. “The more pressure the principal gets about what happened, the more likely he’s going to work on fixing the problem.”

“I guess,” Charlie reluctantly agreed. He leaned back in his chair, and played with his fork.

Sara eyed him thoughtfully. “Bullying isn’t usually an isolated incident. Those boys who were harassing Josh most likely have done the same to other students.” She leaned toward her son. “If we see a wrong and don’t speak against it, we become part of the problem.” Her eyes took on a sad, misty look. “I wish someone had spoken up on behalf of that thirteen-year-old child before it was too late.”

Charlie nodded but when he looked up Jack was glad to see the resolve in his expression. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll talk to the principal tomorrow.’

“I know it won’t be easy. Would you like me to come with you?” His mother’s smile was gentle.

“No, thanks.” Charlie tried to smile. “If he doesn’t believe me – ”

“He will,” Jack cut in. “Remember, Josh’s mom is going to talk to him, too.”

“Yeah,” Charlie repeated. “I’ll see him during my study period. That’ll give me almost an hour and he’ll probably have some questions.”

He didn’t look happy about the idea but he did look determined and Jack felt his heart swell with pride. His son was a long way from perfect but when push came to shove, he usually came down on the right side.

Sara’s eyes softened as she gazed at Charlie. “I’m proud of you, honey. For standing up to those boys and helping Josh, and for being willing to talk to the principal. I just wish you’d tell me these things so I didn’t have to be mad before I could be proud.”

Jack held back a smirk. Charlie’s cheeks were darker than usual again.

“Don’t be too proud," he said and cleared his throat. "I almost didn’t help him. I really wanted to just walk by. I knew I’d end up getting in trouble.” He gulped down some milk.

“But you didn’t walk by,” Daniel said. It was the first time he’d spoken since Mrs. Warner left. His expression as he gazed at his brother was distinctly admiring. “You helped.”

“Yeah, and it’s all your fault,” Charlie accused.

“My fault?” Daniel repeated in astonishment. “How could any of this possibly be my fault? I wasn’t even there.”

Jack and Sara exchanged confused looks. They both put down their forks to listen to their oldest son expound on his theory. Charlie always told a great story.

“Think about it,” Charlie explained. “A skinny, little, geeky kid in glasses. Gee, I wonder who he reminded me of?”

The table rocked with laughter and it was Daniel's turn to be embarrassed. Unlike his brother, his fair skin easily showed his blush which made them laugh harder.

“Very funny,” Daniel said after the laughter died down.

When they finished eating Charlie and Daniel cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher so Sara could get back to her computer. Jack watched from the recliner in the living room, absently turning pages of his new Sports Illustrated while he waited until Daniel grabbed his laptop and headed upstairs. He really was proud and wanted Charlie to understand that, despite the joking. He wished he could hug his son without embarrassing him but those days were long gone.

“Homework?” Jack asked when Charlie came into the room.

“Yeah, loads. I better get started.”

“Charlie?”

“Yeah?” Charlie stopped at the staircase and turned around.

“That was a good thing you did today.”

The teenager shrugged.

“I really am proud of you,” Jack added.

“Thanks, Dad.” Charlie shuffled his feet, looking uncomfortable again.  “School isn’t going to be fun for a while.”

“I know, but you’re doing the right thing.”

“I wish the right thing wasn’t such a pain in the butt sometimes,” the teenager admitted.

“Ain’t that the truth?” Jack grinned.

“Definitely,” Charlie agreed before heading upstairs.

Daniel was in his bedroom when he heard Charlie come upstairs and go into his room. He wanted to talk to his brother and tell him what an amazing thing he'd done today. He was sure Charlie had no idea how his bravery could change a life, had changed a life.  Without giving himself any more time to think about it, Daniel went down the hall and knocked lightly on his brother’s door.

“Yeah,” he heard and pushed it open.

Charlie was sitting at his desk, a large book open in front of him and a pad of paper filled with numbers beside it. His computer wasn’t turned on and Daniel thought it’d be good to begin the conversation with that.

“I thought you were doing homework?”

“I am doing homework.” Charlie grinned over his shoulder.

“Without your computer?”

Charlie gestured at the book. “I need to work this stuff out by hand. Once I’ve got it figured out, then I’ll turn on the computer and make it pretty for the teacher.”

Daniel walked over to stand beside the desk so he could face his brother. From this position he saw the book laying open.

“What’s that?”

“Advanced algebra.” Daniel faked a shiver and Charlie’s grin widened. “What d’ya expect, little bro? I’ve got to get this under my belt because next year I’m looking at pre-calculus and then calculus.”

Daniel had barely survived the minimum requirements to pass high school math, and that only because of a lot of help from Sam. Neither Jack nor Sara had any idea how much she had helped him and Daniel would never tell.

“You really like it?”

“It’s interesting,” Charlie admitted. “Besides, I want to be a pilot, and planes and flying are all about math and physics. If I can’t handle them in high school there’s no way I’ll make it through the Academy. Hey.” He straightened suddenly and his eyes took on an all-too familiar gleam.

“Hey, what?” Daniel asked, immediately wary.

“I’ve been meaning to ask if you’ll give a talk to my civics class.”

“Talk?” Daniel tried not to let his confusion show but it was difficult. Once again he found himself in Charlie-land and that was always a mystifying place to be.

“Talk,” Charlie repeated before taking pity on his bewildered brother. “Mr. Hayes invites different people in the community to talk to the class about careers and I thought you’d be good for that.”

“Why? What do they talk about?” Daniel's first impulse was to refuse but that seemed unfair. The least he could do was listen to Charlie’s spiel.

“About their jobs, mostly. Like last time we had a firefighter come in. He told us what life was like for firefighters, the things they did besides put out actual fires, that kind of stuff. It was interesting.”

It sounded like it would be interesting. But... “I’m not a firefighter, Charlie. I don’t have any exciting stories to tell.” At least not to anyone who didn’t hold a top secret clearance.

“You’re fifteen years old, you have a PhD in languages – ” Charlie gave him his patented “duh” look.

“Linguistics,” Daniel couldn’t help correcting.

“And you work for the United States Air Force,” Charlie barreled on, “doing who knows what. I think that’s very interesting.”

“But I can’t talk about what I do.”

“You can talk about what it was like getting your PhD, how grown-ups treat you, especially at the base, and I’m sure you’ve have some funny, not classified, stories you could share with us about life as a fifteen-year-old genius.”

Daniel almost smiled but he didn’t want to encourage him. Charlie had obviously been thinking about this but the thought of talking to a room-full of 16- and 17-year-olds about his life and work was more than scary.

“I don’t know,” he said evasively, trying to think of a good excuse to say no.

“Oh, come on,” Charlie coaxed. “I talked to Mr. Hayes about it and he thinks it’s a great idea. I didn’t tell him how old you are or that you’re my brother.”

“Why not?”

“Just a little extra surprise. And,” he added with a grin, “if anyone gives you any grief I’ll take care of them. I promise.” Charlie flexed his muscle.

He was turning on the charm and looking at Daniel with pleading eyes which was totally unfair. Daniel found himself wavering.

“Well, I’m not sure. I mean, I’m really busy.”

“That’s okay, it wouldn’t happen right away.” Obviously Charlie suspected he was weakening and now he moved in for the kill. “I could tell Mr. Hayes to schedule you toward the end of next semester. That’ll give you months to prepare.”

“All right,” he sighed. It wasn't easy to say no to Charlie.

“Great!” Charlie offered a high five but lowered his hand when Daniel only looked at him. “You seem tired,” he noted sympathetically. “Maybe you should take a nap or something?”

“When I’m going to bed in a few hours?” Daniel shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve got work to do.”

“Right.” Charlie nodded, then frowned. “Wait a minute. You came in here to see me, didn’t you? About what?”

Leave it to Charlie to totally distract him. “Actually,” he cleared his throat, “I just wanted to tell you that I was really impressed by what you did today.”

“Daniel – ” Charlie looked ill at ease again.

“Wait, just let me say it, okay?” Daniel barely waited for his brother to nod before hurrying on. “At Cheyenne Mountain , I hear a lot of things, and one of the things that really bothers me is how often people try to duck the tough issues in favor of simplistic answers. Today you stood up for something big. You stood up for someone who needed help, and tomorrow you’re going to stand up for kids you don’t even know when you talk to the principal.”

“I – ”

“Not a lot of people would do what you did,” Daniel went on quickly, ignoring his brother’s attempt to interrupt. He needed to finish this before they both died of embarrassment. “It takes... it takes a lot of courage. Not that long ago I was that kid," Daniel paused to remember the name, "I was that kid, Josh. I was the kid getting picked on." He lowered his voice. "I went to a lot of different schools when I was growing up and no one ever stood up for me, not until I met you. I’m glad we ended up brothers.” Not giving Charlie a chance to respond, Daniel retreated to the door and paused.

“And I know you're going to do great at the Academy, Charlie. I think the Air Force should be grateful to have you.” He slipped out of the room and closed the door behind him.

Back in the safety of his room, he breathed a sigh of relief, then smiled. Charlie was probably still staring at the door. In shock. Hopefully he’d recover by morning.

Not for the first time Daniel thanked the fates for a drunken foster parent who’d put him in the hospital over five years ago, just in time to meet a nurse named Sara O’Neill.

Chapter 6

The monthly Mission Planning meeting was perhaps the most important of all the regularly scheduled meetings at the SGC. All SG team leaders were required to attend, as were the heads of all of the departments, scientific, linguistic and archeological. It was at these meetings that any and all issues, both positive and negative, that could impact the SG teams were brought up for discussion, argument, and, usually, some type of resolution.

Daniel had attended a number of the Mission Planning meetings, but always in a supporting role. Usually, it was Dr. Kerrigan who spoke on behalf of the Linguistics Department, whether in response to questions raised by SG team members or to provide new information discovered through analysis of the writings from various alien objects. Daniel normally provided back-up. He was content with his mostly behind-the-scenes role.

Today was different and Daniel was hard-pressed not to give in to his fight-or-flight instinct that was screaming loudly in his head - “Run!”

It seemed like years, not weeks, ago when SG-2 briefly visited P19-136 and found the remains of a civilization destroyed millennia ago. Nothing of interest to the SGC had been discovered so the planet was relegated to the bottom of the list of those worlds deemed worthy of a follow-up visit.

The military thinking notwithstanding, Daniel and his fellow linguists and archeologists had found something of interest in SG-2’s mission, because someone on the team had thought to videotape one of the few walls still standing outside an ancient city of ruins. The wall contained writing almost impossible to read, but it was enough to excite the linguists and archeologists. Daniel was certain that some of the language belonged to the mysterious race known as the Ancients. He was anxious to visit the planet for an up close and in person look at the writings. He and Dr. Kerrigan and Dr. Drake, had fleshed out a plan on how to get the military to come around to their point of view.

It had taken some time to come up with what they thought was the right approach. Once it had been put on the master log for future discussion at a Mission Planning meeting, it had taken a few more weeks to work through other matters with higher priority.

Today was the day. Ordinarily, Daniel would be filled with excitement. Instead, he was filled with fear and dread and a growing sense of inadequacy for the task at hand.

Dr. Kerrigan should have been here to make the presentation, but he was under orders from Dr. Fraiser to stay home because he was sick with an intestinal flu.

As sympathetic as Daniel felt for his mentor’s distress, he was even more sympathetic for his own distress. This had *not* been part of his plan but there was no alternative. If he didn’t raise the possibility of a mission to P19-136, today, it would be tabled for some future time, and who knew when that would be? Besides, it had been his idea.

It helped that Dr. Drake was sitting across from him, sending him silent looks of support. It helped but only a little. Daniel hoped he wasn’t going to throw up.

“Very well.” General Hammond brought an end to the current discussion and Daniel was chagrined to realize he had no idea what they’d been talking about. He was only grateful no one had asked for input from the Linguistics Department.

"Next up..." the General shuffled through his papers and then looked directly at him. "P19-136."

Daniel swallowed hard, took a breath, then coughed and tried to clear his throat.

“A minute, sir.” Jack rose and turned toward the table that held the large coffee urn and several pitchers of ice water. He poured two glasses of water and set one down in front of his son before retaking his seat beside the General and sipping from his own glass.

“Thank you.” Daniel barely managed to keep his voice from squeaking.

“Dr. Jackson is going to brief us on the benefits of a mission to P19-136. Let’s give him our full attention.” General Hammond gave him a slightly paternal smile.

Daniel looked down at the neat sheaf of papers in front of him, fighting back his stage fright. He reminded himself how great his plan had sounded and how easy it had been to explain to the other scientists. Now that he was here, he realized those scientists were friends who thought the same way he thought. It was going to be a lot tougher to sell this idea to the military. Especially to Jack. He picked up the water and took a drink, grateful Jack had thought to get it for him.

He took a deep breath to settle his nerves. He knew everyone in the room. If he saw them in the commissary he wouldn’t hesitate to share a meal and have a conversation. He wasn’t sure why it was so different sitting around the conference table, being in the spotlight. No, he knew why. This was the first pitch he’d be giving on his own; maybe that was why his hands shook slightly and his mouth was dry despite the water. The other, more important reason was because he wanted this mission to happen. It would happen. He just needed to stick to the plan.

After clearing his throat a few more times he proceeded to give a little background on the planet and then passed around copies of the blurry photo they’d captured off the video camera of the Ancient writings.

“Notice the symbol at the upper right corner of the picture?" He spoke with as much confidence as he could manage. "That’s the Ancient symbol for protection.”

“How can you tell?” Major Reynolds asked, frowning at the symbol.

By his tone, it was obvious the Major wasn’t questioning Daniel’s skill as a translator as much as he was the fuzzy picture. Daniel noted that Major Kawalsky and Jack both wore puzzled looks as well, and Major Ferretti was actually holding the photo upside down. This might be more difficult than he’d envisioned.

He rushed in to explain how he, along with Dr. Kerrigan and Dr. Drake, had cleaned up the image and used the computer to enhance the writings to make out the text, which was how Daniel had been able to determine it was most likely Ancient.

"Could we see the enhanced photo?” Major Kawalsky asked.

“That is the enhanced photo.” Stay calm, Daniel ordered himself. “That’s why we need to go back. There’s obviously a lot more writing like this on the planet. There's other writing, and pictographs, as well. A mission to the planet would enable us to find out about the people who once lived on this world, their culture and history... ” Oops. Time to change gears and go with the angle he and the other scientists agreed had the best chance of succeeding.

“Aside from all that,” he continued before any of the Majors, or the General, or a certain Colonel, had time to interrupt and mention the obvious, “we need to try to find out who or what destroyed that world and caused the ruins. Perhaps there was a battle between the native people and the Goa'uld.”

“The Goa'uld?” Major Ferretti looked up from the photo he was still studying upside-down.

Daniel was tempted to point out the error but refrained. He only nodded and checked his notes. This was the part he needed to get right.

“The ruins clearly point to a great battle, more likely a war that lasted many years. It’s important to figure out, if possible, what happened, who won and how.” That was something that would pique the military’s interest and that’s the point he wanted to impress upon them.

“I see a problem with that, Daniel.” It was Major Reynolds again. “The winners weren’t the inhabitants of the planet, since it doesn’t look like they stuck around afterwards. The planet’s inhabitants were wiped out. Hence the ruins.”

He spoke matter-of-factly, as if to a peer. Daniel appreciated that but he wasn’t about to let the soldier’s observation stand unchallenged.

“Not necessarily,” he pointed out. “We don’t know how this civilization was destroyed. They could have won the battle and something else could have led to their demise. An interplanetary battle, disease, we won’t know until we go there and decipher the writings. If I could see the writings up close, I might be able to figure out what connection the Ancients had to this world, and maybe then we could know for sure what happened.”

He couldn’t tell by Major Reynolds’ shrug whether he agreed, but at least he didn’t seem to have a follow-up question. Daniel finished delivering the rest of his points, keeping as close as possible to the original outline he and Dr. Kerrigan and Dr. Drake had drawn up. Whenever he felt uncertain he looked across the table and Dr. Drake would give him a small nod or a smile, or some other sign of encouragement to keep him going.

Finally finished with his presentation, Daniel looked at the smart, tough, experienced soldiers and brilliant scientists and academics sitting around the table. He had tried hard to keep the expertise of his audience out of his thoughts but he felt more than a little daunted by the men and women in this room.

“Are there any more questions?” In an effort to hide his doubts, Daniel picked up the glass Jack had given him and took another sip.

He had to ask, but he really hoped there weren’t any. The presentation had sounded so good, so logical in his office. In front of this group of skeptics, his arguments had sounded a little thin.

“Why the Goa'uld?” Leave it to Jack to ask the question Daniel had been hoping to avoid.

“What?” He sought to buy a little time while he gathered his thoughts.

“What evidence do you have that it may have been the Goa'uld that wiped out the inhabitants?” Jack looked at him with raised eyebrows. There was nothing challenging in his tone. On the other hand, there was no give in it, either. This wasn’t Jack O’Neill, his dad, talking. It was Colonel O’Neill, 2IC of the SGC and savior of the world, more than once, talking.

Daniel wished he had a little more water in his glass because his throat had gone dry again. For years he had asked Jack to treat him as he would any other scientist, but now – this one time - he wished his father would cut him some slack and give him a break.

The truth was, there wasn’t any actual evidence that the Goa'uld were involved in the destruction. That was the part Daniel had been hoping to slip in unnoticed. This was it. He had to word this just right.

“There’s no evidence one way or the other,” he offered calmly. “However, the Goa'uld have been the dominant force in our galaxy for centuries and it’s more likely than not they did this damage. Even if it wasn’t the Goa'uld, it was someone of great power and ruthlessness similar to the Goa'uld. The civilization was destroyed, remember?” He picked up the blurry reproduction.

“Someone or something caused these ruins. It seems to me that the SGC would want to know as much as possible about whoever did this.” Forgetting his nerves, he spoke with a passion that belied his fifteen years. “And this photo,” he shook it for emphasis, “shows the Ancient symbol for protection that I mentioned earlier. If the planet was under the Ancients’ protection, then, from what we know of the Ancients, it would have taken an incredibly powerful race to defeat them.”

Providing, of course, the Ancients had lived on the planet at the time. It was just as likely they’d brought the people there to live and develop on their own – like the Asgard had done with the Cimmerians. After which they’d have left behind a sign that the world was under their protection. But in that case, wouldn’t the Ancients have stepped in if the planet was attacked? There was no way to know. There were too many ‘ifs,’ and that was one of the main reasons Daniel wanted to visit the planet. To find answers to his questions.

There was nothing more to say. He’d done the best he could. The rest was up to the people sitting around the table. Daniel couldn’t tell from their expressions whether they bought into his reasons of why the planet would be worth revisiting. He’d have to wait and see.

“Thank you, Dr. Jackson,” General Hammond said. “You’ve given us a lot to think about. We’ll take it under careful consideration.”

“Thank you, sir,” Daniel answered. He leaned back in his seat, trying not to show his relief while the General wrapped things up. When the C.O. of the SGC stood, so did everyone else. Daniel stopped himself from making a last desperate plea; he knew that wouldn’t be very mature of him. Instead, he picked up his notes and put them back into his folder, gave Jack his most professional nod, and left the conference room.

Most of the SG team leaders trailed out but Kawalsky came up behind Jack, in need of one last cup of coffee.

“Impressive briefing,” he said as he nudged Jack at the coffee machine.

Jack filled his cup and took a sip; he couldn’t help smiling. “Clever little bugger, isn’t he? And I wonder who he thinks should go on that all important mission. Hmm, who do we know that can translate Ancient?”

Kawalsky laughed. “Technically, he is the best choice to check out those ruins, isn’t he?”

“I knew you were going to say that.”

“Don’t worry, old buddy. I was there,” Kawalsky patted his shoulder. “There’s nothing but a bunch of rocks with squiggly writing on them.”

“That may have been written by the Ancients.” Jack had to give his boy credit. He’d made a good case for the SGC to go back to the planet, although Jack had no doubt about Daniel’s motives, which had nothing to do with military concerns. “I guess we'll have to wait and see what the General decides.” He decided not to jump the gun.

“You know it’ll be a go. The kid made a hell of a case.” Kawalsky drained his coffee cup.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Jack smiled in spite of himself. “Yep, that’s my boy.”

 

________________________________________

 

Fortunately, the rest of the day went smoothly and Jack and Daniel left the Mountain in time to eat dinner with Sara and Charlie. It was an all too rare, week-day family meal around the dining room table, and Jack relished it. It felt so warm and normal. Some days, he needed warm and normal to counteract what went on 24/7 at the SGC, where things were never warm and fuzzy, and rarely normal. He suspected, whether the kid admitted it or not, that Daniel needed the normalcy, too.

Jack glanced across the table at Daniel and the excitement that shone on the boy’s face snapped him back to reality. Daniel was joining SG-1 on an off-world mission tomorrow. It was nothing special, just the semi-annual checking in with the residents of P3X-797. SG-1 would also be taking some medicine with a name far too long for Jack to remember. Tuplo had sent a message through the MALP that a few of their youngsters were showing signs of “the curse of the Touched.”

As they knew from experience, the medication would make quick work of the problem. Then there would be good food and good conversation with good people. Off-world. That thought never got old; there was nothing simple or normal about it.

Sara passed the bowl of gravy across the table. “Are you going to get Karen flowers for the dance tomorrow night?”

All eyes turned to her, then to Charlie, and Jack nearly laughed at the look of shock on his son’s face.

“Flowers?” Charlie swallowed hard to avoid choking on his baked potato.

“Daniel might know what she’d like.” Sara smiled.

From Daniel’s blank expression it was clear he had no idea what she’d like. The teenager was probably too busy puzzling out what books to include for tomorrow’s mission to be of much help, even if he did know. Jack decided to sit back and enjoy the show.

“I’m not getting her flowers.” Charlie kept it short and sweet, and followed up his words with a large bite of meatloaf, temporarily rendering himself speechless.

Jack grinned while Daniel looked relieved his brother had answered before he’d been forced into the conversation.

“Why not?” Sara asked. “You have to get her something. It’s expected.” She snared a small piece of meatloaf with her fork. “Girls appreciate that,” she added before putting it into her mouth.

“No offense, Mom, but it’s been a long time since you were a girl.” Charlie guzzled down some milk, clearly not convinced.

“Watch yourself, son.” Jack chimed in, keeping his amusement at bay.

“Girls still like gifts.” Sara was undaunted. “I’m sure that hasn’t changed.” His wife’s stubborn streak was in full sway, another reason Jack intended to stay out of it.

“No gifts,” Charlie said with finality. He could be just as stubborn.

“Well, what are you going to wear?” Sara kept the pressure on.

“Wear?” Charlie looked at his father who quickly looked down at his potato. Uh-uh. The kid was on his own. 

“Yes, wear. Do I need to wash anything? This is your first date. Or at least your first official date.”

“Okay, first of all this is not a date." Charlie’s cheeks darkened. "I’m going with Karen. You know Karen. Daniel’s friend, Karen.” Charlie looked at Daniel who had returned to eating quietly, apparently lost in his own thoughts. Hearing his name caught his attention.

“Yes, Karen’s my friend.” he confirmed when Charlie kept staring.

His eldest was barking up the wrong tree, Jack knew. Daniel would be no help at all this evening.

“And I’m wearing jeans,” Charlie continued. “Jeans and a t-shirt, just like I always wear. It’s a dance, not the senior prom. The school has them all the time. I went to one last spring, Mom. You remember? It’s no big deal.”

“Yes, I remember but you didn’t take a date to that dance.” When Charlie glared she hastily added, “Or a friend.”

“I’ve got it covered,” he said flatly.

“Okay, I give up.” Sara threw her hands up as Charlie breathed an audible sigh of relief. “But,” she added, “I still think it would be nice if you gave her something.”

“This meatloaf is really good.” Charlie kept his eyes on his plate and attacked the food like a starving man.

 

________________________________________  

The next day Charlie was surprised at how many of the conversations around school focused on tonight’s dance. It seemed like everyone he talked to wanted to discuss who was going with who, and, especially among the girls, what everyone would be wearing. He’d never noticed this before he’d actually had a date. Or an almost date.

All the talk made Charlie re-think his mother’s words at dinner last night. Was Mom right? Did girls expect something from the guy they were going to a dance with? Even girls like Karen who were just friends?

He had no idea. There was no one at school to ask. Most of his friends dated far more than he did. Then again, none of his friends were hoping to be accepted into the Air Force Academy, which required a lot of work to keep his grades up. He’d had casual dates, movies with girls and friends, and he’d made out with a few girls at parties. But when he thought about it, he’d never been out on what he thought of as an official date. Like a dance. He was sixteen years old. How pathetic was that? He was the only guy he knew without real dating experience. Even Spencer was seeing Angela Parker. She was nice but demanding of his friend’s time.

For most of his life, Charlie’s interests and activities had focused on sports and, since middle school, the Academy. Only in the last year had he begun to really notice girls. Girls liked him. They didn’t hide the fact but even though he was growing increasingly interested, he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. All he knew for certain is that he didn’t want to be tied down. Spencer and Brian were more taken with the idea of having a girlfriend than they were with the actual girls, though they enjoyed ragging their buddy, Charlie, whenever the topic came up.

Charlie didn’t care what any of them thought. He had goals and wasn’t going to let anything or anyone stand in his way. That comforting thought was always uppermost in his mind.

Today, as he sat through his classes, he wondered for the first time if he was missing out on some of the experiences of being a teenager. He didn’t drink, or smoke weed, or cigarettes for that matter. None of that interested him. Girls were becoming increasingly interesting but he’d never had full-blown sex with a girl. He had no intention of giving up on his dreams. He was too close. He just hoped in the end it would all be worth it.

The bell rang, dismissing Charlie from algebra class. He realized he'd thought more about girls than he had about math today. What he really wanted to know was if Mom was right. Did Karen expect something from him, and if so, what? What did girls like? Spencer or Brian or his other friends would laugh themselves silly at his dilemma.

He checked his watch. It was 1500 hours. Dad and Daniel were leaving for their secret mission in the afternoon. Maybe they hadn’t left yet. Daniel knew Karen better than anyone. He might be able to help with his dilemma.

Charlie pulled out his phone and started to hit the speed dial for Daniel's cell phone before catching himself. After all these years, he knew personal cell phones couldn’t be used in top-secret military bases. He punched in the number he was supposed to call for Cheyenne Mountain and took a second to remember the code he needed to provide to get through with a minimum amount of frustration. It was difficult to remember because the security codes changed every few weeks. It was maddening when a guy was in a hurry. After all that, he finally heard what he hoped was the right number ringing.

“Daniel Jackson,” said a familiar voice, sounding rushed.

“Hey, it’s me. I have a question for you.”

“Who is this, please?”

Charlie chuckled at his brother’s confusion. He must be in one of his super-focused moods, not recognizing his own brother's voice. Then again, when Daniel was in one of those moods, he didn’t recognize anyone’s voice.

“It’s me, Charlie, your brother. I’m glad you’re still around.”

“Oh, Charlie.” Daniel’s voice trailed off for a second. “Sorry, it’s really not a good time.”

“Are you at the airport?"

“The airport?” His brother sounded bewildered.

“Yeah, aren’t you and Dad going away for a couple of days?” Now Charlie was confused. Maybe the trip was canceled and Daniel could join them at the dance. That would be a relief. “Did your mission get canceled?”

“Oh, no, I have to leave in a few minutes. I really can’t talk right now. I’m in the middle of packing up what I need.”

“Don’t worry, this won’t take long.” They must be flying out of Peterson, Charlie decided. “I have that thing with Karen tonight and I was wondering if you think I should bring her something. Will she expect something?”

“Hold on.”

Daniel must have covered the phone but Charlie still heard his muffled voice yell, “I’m coming, Sam.”

“I know you have to go but any suggestions at all would help. What about candy? Does she like candy?”

There was a brief pause. “She loves peanut butter M&Ms. I hate to cut you off, Charlie, but I really have to go.”

“Yeah, yeah, keep your shorts on.” Geesh, what was the rush? Daniel wasn’t even at the airport. “Peanut M&M’s, that could work.”

“Charlie...”

“Can you call me when you’re on the plane?” Charlie chuckled at Daniel’s pleading. His brother was too polite to just hang up.

“The plane?”

For a genius his brother could be incredibly slow on the uptake. "Yeah, the plane. Maybe you could call me. You’re taking your cell phone with you, aren’t you? Or is the Air Force afraid someone will track your GPS signal?”

“Um...”

“Is that true?” Charlie was incredulous. Could what Daniel was doing be that important? He’d just made that up.

"Goodbye, Charlie.” There was a slightly desperate note in Daniel's voice now.

“Okay, I’ll let you go but can I call you tonight if I need you?”

“No, I won’t get a signal.”

“Really? Not even with Verizon?”

“Probably not.” Daniel chuckled.

“What about the internet?”

Now Daniel laughed out loud. “No, no internet either.”

“Oh come on. You’re kidding, right? They have the internet in Afghanistan for crying out loud.”

“I’m not going to Afghanistan.” Daniel laughed again.

“Daniel!” Charlie heard someone calling his brother’s name.

“That’s Sam. They’re looking for me. I have to go. Bye, Charlie. Good luck.”

“Yeah, you, too,” Charlie said right before the phone clicked. No internet? Wherever Daniel was going, he was happy not to be going with him.

 

________________________________________

 

Three hours later, Charlie checked himself in the mirror and felt for the bag of Peanut M&M’s in his jacket pocket. Not bad, he decided, before trotting down the stairs. He heard pots clanking from the kitchen.

“I’m going, Mom.” he yelled. Now if only he could escape before she showed up to give him the third degree and some last minute advice.

Charlie couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment but at some point since returning from UCLA his mom had begun to... hover. He supposed she was just being a mom but it wore on his nerves. He had his hand on the front doorknob when she came out of the kitchen.

“So soon?” She checked her watch. “Oh, sorry. I lost track of time. I’ll get my coat.”

“Your coat?” What was she talking about?

“Don’t you need a ride? I was going to pick up Karen and drop the two of you off.”

Charlie stepped in front of her to stop her from opening the closet door for her jacket.

“Spencer’s mom is driving us. Karen’s going with a bunch of her friends. We’re going to meet up there.” He was glad he’d called his best bud for a ride. It would be a relief when he finally had his license and could drive himself.

“Oh, so it’s not a real date.” She sounded disappointed.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“All right.” She took a step backward and smiled at him and Charlie was surprised to realize they were nearly the same height. When had that happen?

“Have fun,” she said, patting his arm. “Do you have a ride home?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry.”

“I won’t, but call me if you need a ride, or anything else.”

“I will.”

“And don’t forget the dance moves I taught you.”

Charlie opened his mouth, then closed it when he saw the twinkle in her eyes. She was teasing. “Ha, ha."

Through the open door he saw Spencer's car pull up in front of the house. Just in time.

“Gotta go,” he said quickly.

She waved at him as he made his escape. Moms, they were unpredictable and they worried about the silliest things.

The drive to school only took a few minutes, barely long enough for Charlie and Spencer to catch up. After Spencer’s mom dropped them off in the school parking lot, they took a short cut through the middle of the campus to the gym.

“Ready?” Spencer said, grinning as he patted his shirt.

Charlie felt a slight quiver in his stomach. He couldn’t be nervous, it was only Karen.

“Let’s go.” He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt.

Walking into the gym, Charlie’s first thought was that they were in the wrong place. Someone, probably several someones, had really done up the place. There were tables around the perimeter with white paper tablecloths and big, fake tropical flowers hanging everyone. He assumed they were going for an island paradise look. Actually, it didn't look half bad.

“Wow, looks different,” he muttered and Spencer laughed.

"Hey, there’s Brian and Terry.”

Spencer pointed toward the bleachers where the guys were sitting and talking. Charlie was relieved to see they were all pretty much dressed like him. So much for his mom’s advice. Good thing he’d had the sense to follow his gut.

He followed Spencer over, scanning the gym but not seeing Karen. They sat down with their friends while he did a last check of the dance floor.

“Maybe she’s not coming,” he mused. He probably should have called before he'd left.

“You might be smart, O’Neill, but you know nothing about women.” Brian shook his head in mock disgust.

That was the truth. “Sure I do.” Charlie might be pretty clueless about the opposite sex but he wasn’t about to admit it. “Hey, where’s Angela?” He didn’t see the pretty brunette Spencer had been dating recently.

“See, that’s what we’re talking about.” Spencer patted Charlie’s shoulder. “The girls aren’t going to risk getting here first. They’ll all come in a little late because they want us to be sitting here, waiting for them. Like we are.”

“Karen wouldn’t care.” Charlie was confident of that. Why would she? She was Daniel’s friend, not his girlfriend.

“They all care,” Spencer insisted.

“Why are you meeting up with her, anyway?” Brian asked. “You got a secret thing for her?”

“No,” Charlie said a little louder than he intended. Brian had come a long way from the jerk he used to be, but he still had his jerky moments. Hmm, maybe Karen had Brian in mind when she talked about teenage guys being jerks.

Holding back a smile at the thought, he added, “I told you, she wanted to go with Daniel but he’s busy, so we just decided to go together. That’s all there is to it. There’s no secret thing.” Charlie led with bravado to cover any potential embarrassment. A trick he’d learned from his dad.

“Rachel Hoffman likes you,” Brian returned unexpectedly. “Whoa, look what she’s wearing.” They all looked while he kept talking. “She broke up with Tyler Marshall last week and she’s really hot. You should ask her to dance.” Brian’s eyes were bugging out of his head at Rachel’s tight pants and low cut blouse.

“How do you know she likes me?" As much as Charlie appreciated the view, he wasn’t about to risk embarrassment.

“She told me. She asked me if you were seeing anyone. You should ask her out. She is smoking hot,” Brian repeated, waggling his eyebrows.

“I don’t know. She’s too...”

“What?” Spencer and Terry asked simultaneously.

“Too hot?” Brian mocked.

Charlie couldn’t explain it to his friends. He had no interest in Rachel Hoffman. She came from a rich family and was very demanding, needing constant gifts and attention. He knew because Tyler had confided in him one day after practice. Tyler had broken up with her but he’d let everyone think it was the other way around. He’d told Charlie he felt like a man who’d just been released from prison.

“I heard she’s pretty high maintenance. She’s not my type.” Charlie would leave it at that.

“Not your type? Are you nuts? She’s gorgeous!” Brian let out a low whistle. “If she wanted to go out with me I wouldn’t care how high maintenance she was. If she said jump, I’d ask how high, and I’d like it.”

They all laughed at Brian’s assessment.

“So who would you like to go out with?” Spencer nudged his shoulder. “Who would meet Charlie O’Neill’s incredibly high standards?”

Charlie kept his mouth shut to hold back the name that immediately leaped to mind. Kim Hanlon. She was cute and she seemed like fun. They had sat together on the bus when the girls’ volleyball team had hitched a ride with his basketball team for an away game with a rival school. She shared his love of sports and she didn’t talk all girly and act silly around him.

If he was going to ask a girl out on an official date, it’d be Kim. He’d almost summoned the courage last month but then found out she was dating Dave Astor. That hadn’t lasted long, just a couple of weeks. As far as Charlie knew, she was free again. Maybe he would ask her out. He’d just have to keep it a secret from his nosy friends until she said yes. And more importantly, keep it a secret from his mom.

He settled for a shrug in answer to Spencer’s question. He wasn’t about to give up his interest in Kim. It’d be all over Facebook within the hour. If he was going to ask her, he’d ask her himself, not through all of his and her friends.

“O’Neill, you’re weird,” Spencer said good-naturedly and they all laughed.

“Hey, there’s your date.” Brian pointed out Karen walking in between two girls. One was her friend, Sheila. Charlie didn’t recognize the other girl.

“Karen looks okay.” Spencer gave him a nod of approval. “But Brian’s right. Since the two of you are just friends, ask Rachel to dance if you get the chance.”

“Karen does look okay,” Brian agreed, “but her two friends are dogs. I know the dark-haired one is Sheila Sheridan but I don’t know the blonde. Woof.”

“Hey, knock it off. Whoever they are, they’re Karen’s friends. Be nice.” Charlie didn’t care if his friends thought he was overreacting. He didn’t like kids being picked on just because they were a little different. It made him think of his recent fight, defending Josh, the freshman who reminded him of Daniel. Brian’s harsh words made him wonder what they’d being saying about Karen if she wasn’t his date for the evening.

“Don’t be so touchy,” Brian said defensively. “I’m just pointing out the obvious.”

Charlie gave him a stern look. “I’ll see you guys later.” He jumped down off the bleachers and met Karen and her friends by the refreshment table.

“Hello, ladies.” He stepped in front of the trio and flashed his most charming grin.

Sheila’s cheeks blushed pink. The thin blonde girl looked down at her shoes and mumbled a faint “hi” while Karen rolled her eyes.

“Hi, Charlie. I see you brought your entourage.” She nodded up to the bleachers.

Charlie looked up and saw that Wallace, McDermott and Ron Oliver had joined Spencer, Terry and Brian. They did look kind of... something, sitting there, especially when they were doing what all guys did – watching the girls and passing judgment.

They weren’t his entourage and Charlie didn’t want to start the evening off on the wrong foot, so he decided it was best to ignore the statement. “So, here we are.” He rubbed his hands together to cover a sudden attack of nerves.

“Yes, here we are,” Karen agreed. “You know Sheila.”

“Yep, hey, Sheila.”

“And this is my cousin, Lily.” Karen gave an affectionate pat to the blonde girl’s shoulder. “She’s staying for the weekend. I wanted her to meet Daniel, and of course he has to be out of town this weekend.”

“Charlie, did Brian bring a date?” Sheila interrupted.

Uh-oh, that wasn’t going to work. He’d have to head that off before something bad happened. Brian and Spencer weren’t very diplomatic when it came to women. Brian even less so than Spencer.

“Yeah, I think he’s seeing Rene Majors.” That was partially true. Brian liked Rene Majors and they had been out a few times. The problem was that Rene liked lots of guys.

“Oh.” Sheila’s face fell for a second. “Hey, there’s Scott from math class. He said he’d be here. I should go over and say hi.” She smiled at Karen. “Maybe he’ll want to dance.”

Charlie was impressed and realized he shouldn’t have worried. Sheila had guts. He should have remembered that from the few times she’d been over to the house with Karen, visiting Daniel. Sheila could take care of herself.

“I’m going to go sit down.” Lily’s soft voice was barely a whisper. Charlie couldn’t help giving her a quick, assessing look. She was thin and pale with plain features and too much make-up, probably in an effort to cover the acne scars on her cheeks and chin. He suddenly felt sorry for her.

“Okay, don’t be afraid to talk to people,” Karen encouraged. “Be friendly.”

Lily headed straight for a seat at one of the empty tables. She didn’t look like she’d be talking to anyone any time soon.

“She looks scared,” he observed.

“She’s shy,” Karen explained. “She doesn’t normally come to these things but I talked her into it since you and I were already meeting up. I think one of the reasons she’s shy is because of her skin problems. You know how the morons will treat her.” She threw a look of disgust at the bleachers. “I told her they were the same way with me because of my stutter and I don’t let them dictate what I feel or do and she shouldn’t either.” She stopped and exhaled. “Sorry, I guess I get carried away on the subject."

She sounded a lot like Daniel. Charlie nodded in understanding. “We can go sit with her and hang out if you want to. I’d be okay with that.”

Karen looked him up and down and snorted. “If you think you’re getting out of dancing with me that easy, you’re crazy. You do know how to dance, don’t you?”

Daniel was right, she was smart. She saw right through him. His heart beat a little faster at what was about to happen.

“I’ve been to dances before.” Evasion tactics might work.

“That’s not what I asked you. Do you know how to dance?” Her eyes sparkled like she was laughing at him.

“Not really.” There was no point lying.

Karen laughed out loud. “There, was that so hard to admit? Men,” she huffed. “Come on, I’ll show you. It’s easy, just feel the music and start moving.”

Charlie followed her out into the middle of the gym where others were already dancing, hoping he’d be able to hear the music over the pounding of his heart. What the heck, he had to learn some time. This was actually perfect. It wasn’t quite as nerve-wracking dancing with a friend as it would be with a girl he was trying to impress.

“Try this.” Karen showed him a few moves. “Good. Now just move your arms to the music.” She snapped her fingers to the beat.

The song sped up and Charlie sped up with it, pleased that it seemed to be working. It turned out, dancing was actually fun. He had no idea how he looked to the scrutinizing eyes in the bleachers but he didn’t care. Besides, they’d be looking at the girls, not at him.

He relaxed into the beat of the music and Karen kept up with him, her eyes bright with enjoyment. He had to admit, he could get used to this.

They stopped when the music stopped and Karen shook her head as if in disgust. Charlie felt of touch of discomfort.

“What?” Maybe he didn’t do as well as he thought he had.

“O’Neill, is there anything you’re not good at?”

She grinned and Charlie chuckled at the left-handed compliment. Another fast song started up and they stopped talking and went back to dancing. As he became more comfortable he occasionally mimicked her moves and the other kids dancing.

After a few more songs, Karen stopped, a little breathless. “I need a break, and something to drink.”

“Okay,” Charlie agreed and walked off the floor with her. “ Reading hieroglyphics,” he said. He tried not to laugh when Karen stared at him in confusion. Finally he’d confused her.

“Something I’m not good at,” he clarified and they both laughed.

“Me neither,” she admitted and looked around the gym. “It’d be fun if Daniel was here.”

It was obvious Karen missed his little brother. It made Charlie wonder if she and Daniel would ever be more than friends. No, probably not. He was pretty sure Daniel carried a torch for someone else. It wasn’t anything Charlie could put his finger on, just a feeling in his gut because of Daniel’s evasive attitude the few times they’d talked about girls. Charlie was biding his time. He’d figure it out sooner or later. It was probably a crush on someone at the Mountain, since that was where Daniel spent most of his time. Maybe Major Carter. Hmm...

“Do you know where Daniel is?”

Charlie shook his head. “You know as much as I do. They don’t tell me anything.” It had been like that for years but it still annoyed him.

“It’s so weird, that the Air Force has a kid working for them.” She thought for a minute and smiled. “Have you ever seen ‘No Ordinary Family’?”

“My brother does not have super powers,” Charlie said firmly. He better not. If anyone on Earth was going to have super powers it should be him, Charlie O’Neill. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise. No one had played Superman and Spiderman and Batman more than he had when he’d been a little kid.

“You’re probably right.” Karen conceded. “It must be his brain they covet.”

“It’s certainly not his technological savvy.” Charlie thought about Daniel answering his phone this afternoon.

Karen laughed again. “You’ve got that right. Hey, you guys doing anything special for the holidays?”

“I don’t know about special. We’re not going anywhere. My mom and dad are throwing an open house for the soldiers working at the base, but they do that almost every year. And of course there’ll be lots of great food.” Charlie rubbed his stomach at the thought and grinned. “I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas.”

“I know. My new stepdad wants to take us all on a ski trip. That’ll be something new. I can’t wait.”

Charlie’s grin widened and Karen eyed him suspiciously. “Something funny about that?”

“No,” he said quickly. “You just reminded me of what I’m giving Daniel for Christmas.”

“Oh?” Her eyes gleamed with interest and he laughed.

“Nope, not telling.”

“You’re no fun.” She frowned in mock disgust.

“Maybe, maybe not.” Charlie felt around in his pocket for the M&M’s. “Hey, I’ve got something for you.”

“W-Why?” she stuttered.

She looked a little nervous, then relieved when he pulled out the peanut butter treats.

“My mom thought I should get you something,” he confessed. “She doesn’t get that we were going as friends.”

“Oh, my god, my mom, too! She was driving me crazy.” Karen was animated, talking with her hands. “She couldn’t understand why you weren’t picking me up at the house. I told her you didn’t have your license yet but that didn’t slow her down.”

“They just don’t get it." Charlie nodded in sympathy. "They think we’re going to some 1950’s sock hop or whatever they had in those days.”

“Our moms should get together so they can talk about how it used to be and how much better it was in the old days,” Karen said with a snicker.

“As long as we wouldn’t have to listen to them.” Charlie shivered at the thought.

“Let’s get something to drink and I’ll crack these open.” She shook the bag of candy. “Do you mind if we go sit with Lily for a while?"

“No, of course not.” Charlie glanced over to see Lily still sitting alone at a table.

He bought three bottles of water from the refreshment table. When he turned back to Karen she was tearing open the bag.

“Oh yum, these are heavenly. “Here.” She held out the bag and he gestured with the bottles.

“Let me put these down first.”

“Okay.” They headed toward her cousin, Karen still popping M&M’s in her mouth. “I love these. What made you buy them?”

“My mom kept saying I needed to bring something, that girls expect that.” He shrugged. “I have no idea what girls expect so I thought, better safe than sorry.”

“Thank god you didn’t bring flowers or something. That would have been embarrassing.”

“Yeah,” Charlie agreed, relieved he’d followed his own idea and not his mother’s.

“Peanut butter M&M’s are my favorite,” she continued happily. “Good guess.”

“Well, who wouldn’t like those, right?” He put on a cocky grin.

Karen paused in mid-chew to give him an assessing eye. “Daniel told you.”

Charlie paused before confessing. “Yeah, he did.”

She laughed. “It’s okay, I’m impressed you asked him. You’re slowly moving from the ‘partial non-jerk’ category and into the ‘boyfriend material’ territory."

There was a few seconds of dead silence before she started laughing. “Geesh, Charlie, don’t look so terrified. Not as my boyfriend, just as someone’s boyfriend."

And here he thought he’d covered up his momentary panic. He joined her laughter, marveling at the moment. He was having fun. Go figure.

When they drew closer to the table, Charlie pulled on Karen’s arm to slow her down. “Do you want me to ask Lily to dance?”

She stared at him with wide eyes and he tried not to squirm. “What? I know I’m not that good of a dancer yet but I did okay.” He hesitated. “Didn’t I?”

“It’s not that. It’s...” Karen groped for the right words. “All your friends will see you. They’ll rag you about it.”

“You know me." Charlie made a face. "Have I ever cared about that?”

She paused, thinking about it. “No, I guess not.”

When they reached the table, he handed Lily one of the bottles of water. The three of them talked for a while about school and lame classes and lame teachers. Gradually Lily seemed to relax until Charlie decided the time was right.

“Lily, do you want to dance?”

Her eyes, heavy with mascara, stared at him, then Karen, then back to him.

“You... you want to dance? With – ” she gulped audibly. “With me?”

“Yeah, sure. Let's do it.”

Lily looked at Karen again who smiled in support. “One thing I’ve learned about guys. They don’t do things they don’t want to do, at least not without a lot of complaining.”

“Thanks a lot,” Charlie joked. “You ready, Lily?”

To be honest, she looked ready to bolt. Karen must have noticed too because she put her arm around her cousin and gave her a quick hug.

“Why not give it a try? I think you’ll have a good time.”

“Come on,” Charlie encouraged. “I can use the practice. Karen just taught me how to dance tonight. Uh, don’t tell anyone that,” he added with a smile.

She finally smiled, too, and agreed. It turned out she was actually a very good dancer, better than Karen, he decided.  They stayed out on the floor for the next song, too. When that song ended they headed back to Karen.

“Thanks, Charlie,” Lily said softly. “I had fun.” She looked at him with a genuine smile.

“Hey, I should be thanking you," he answered. "You’re good. I learned a few new moves out there.”

Sheila came back to join them and the four of them hung out, ate some pizza, and laughed together. Charlie hadn’t expected to have such a good time and he was pleasantly surprised. At one point, he checked the bleachers and saw that Brian and Spencer and Wallace were still sitting up there. He’d noticed Spencer on the floor dancing with Angela a little while ago, but she’d apparently returned to her friends and Spencer went back with the guys. He was pretty sure he was having more fun. He waved up at them and they waved back.

“Charlie, let’s dance again.” Karen jumped up and took his arm, pulling him to his feet and steering him away from Sheila and Lily. Surprised and a little confused by her abruptness, he followed without protest. She stopped before they made it to the dance floor.

“Is something wrong?” He hoped he hadn’t done anything to upset her. He didn’t have the dance protocol rules down, especially not the ones on how to act with your brother’s female friends.

“Thank you for dancing with Lily." Karen faced him squarely, looking serious. "She looked like she had fun. That was the first time she really smiled all night.”

“Oh, it was no problem.” Charlie was relieved everything was okay. “It was fun for me, too. She really is a good dancer.”

“Okay, it’s official.” Karen was suddenly beaming. “You’re out of the partial non-jerk category for good.”

Charlie smiled back. For the first time he felt like maybe she wasn’t just Daniel’s friend but his friend, too. He didn’t say that out loud because he wanted to keep things light.

“That’s a relief,” he said easily. “My high school goal has now been fulfilled."

“Very funny.” She punched him lightly. “We all know what your high school goals are.”

“Daniel told you I’m going to the Air Force Academy?”

“Daniel?" Karen laughed at him. "Charlie, everyone at school knows you want to go to the Air Force Academy. I don’t need Daniel to tell me that."

“They do?”

“It’s practically all you ever talk about.”

Charlie felt his face heating up and was horrified by the idea he might be blushing. He was thankful her next words made no mention of it.

“It’s not a bad thing,” she went on. “It’s good to know what you want and to be so focused." Her eyes widened and she tugged on his arm. "Hey, if you join the Air Force and you find out what Daniel’s been doing, especially when he was a little kid, be sure to tell me, okay?”

“Only if you have clearance.” It was hard not to smile.

"Really? You, too, with the clearance." She let out a sigh of resignation. 

“Hey, O’Neill.”

Charlie turned at the sound of his name to see Spencer waving him over. For once, he didn’t want to hang with his buddies; he was having a good time with Karen and her friends. Besides, he suspected what was going on. Spencer had probably talked to Angela and Angela had been hanging out with Rachel.

“Go ahead,” Karen said. “Lily, Sheila and I need some girl talk anyway. But come back when you ready to dance some more.”

“Will do," he promised and headed off.

“Hey, Charlie.” She waited until he turned back to face her. “Dancing with Lily, hanging out with me and my friends, being a good guy... that’s what girls really want.”

“Okay.” He grinned. “Good to know. I’ll be back in a few.”

Chapter 7

When Jack was a little boy, his mother told him that, as he grew older, time would seem to go by faster. He hadn’t believed her then, but he did now. His three-day Christmas pass was a blur of memories and it was back to business as usual. Well, as usual as business could be at the SGC.

The locker room was quiet and Jack fully expected to be alone. He was looking forward to gathering his thoughts with a little quiet time before their first mission since the three-day recess. It hadn’t been a long vacation but long enough to feel refreshed.  

The Tollan were hiding something, he was sure of it. The fact that there’d been no sign of Narim during their last two visits only added to Jack’s suspicions. Travell’s explanation of Narim being “occupied with other matters” didn’t wash, especially not with Carter.

Then there was the whole “trinium-for-an-ion-cannon” deal suddenly on the table. Jack suspected Omac was turning over – hell, spinning - in his grave at the idea. Maybe with a clear head and rested body he’d figure out what had caused the Tollan sudden change of heart about sharing one of their precious cannons.

SG-1 was scheduled to go on a follow-up mission to Tollana at 0900 hours to discuss certain issues raised by Pentagon officials. As eager as they were to get their hands on a piece of high-tech alien hardware, someone with at least an ounce of sense had realized they needed to get clarification on the parameters. Like, for example, did the weapon contain security protocols to prevent a worse-case scenario such as an ion cannon falling into the wrong hands and destroying Earth? An equally important question – could an ion cannon destroy Earth? Minor questions, right.

Secretly, Jack was pleased by the delay, mostly because it was sure to annoy Travell and her crew who were pushing for fast action. Thinking about their annoyance pleased him more. Maybe it wasn’t very professional of him, but something about this deal bothered him and he was glad for any delays. The more time they had, the better the chance they could figure out if there was more going on than met the eye.

“Hey, Carter!”

Jack hadn’t seen his 2IC since the Christmas break and hadn’t expected to find her in the locker room yet.  Because he was early, he figured he’d be first in, but she was already geared up, except for her boots placed neatly beside her stocking feet. She was sitting on the bench reading from a thick binder, which he found encouraging. She must be concerned about this Tollana thing, too. Maybe she was studying up on the intel they had accumulated on Tollana. That would be helpful.

“Colonel.” She looked up, not sounding all that thrilled to see him. It occurred to him she had probably come in early to read in peace. Too late now.

“Whatchya reading?” Jack peered down at the notebook. Now that he was closer he realized it didn’t look like something put together by the SGC.

Carter perked up. “This is a paper written by an astrophysicist in Switzerland. Some of his wormhole theories are amazing and remarkably close to what’s happening here. I’m trying to decide if it would be worth approaching General Hammond to try to get him onboard.” She ran a hand over the pages in a gesture that reminded him of Daniel. 

“Interesting,” he said, trying to hold back his sarcasm. Carter had such a broad range of interests that sometimes it was difficult to get her focused in on his concerns. He was team leader of SG-1 and he was looking for some input from his 2IC.

“Oh, it’s very interesting, sir,” she returned eagerly. “His theory is that just as there are two separate interior regions of the maximally extended space-time, there are also two separate exterior regions, called two different ‘universes.’”

"Really?" Jack thought the sarcasm might slow her down but she didn't seem to notice.

“The second universe,” she continued blithely, “allows us to extrapolate some possible particle trajectories in the two interior regions. This means that the interior black hole region can contain a mix of particles that fell in from either universe and likewise particles from the interior region can escape into either universe. Isn’t that fascinating?” She was so enthused she had obviously forgotten who she was talking to.

“Imagine that,” Jack said weakly. To his amusement she nodded vigorously.

“And that’s not all, sir...”

Jack let her words wash over him while he retreated to the changing area to get into his BDUs. He returned to the bench in time to hear her concluding, at least he hoped they were concluding, words.

“So you can see why I’m interested in exploring the possibility of bringing him into the program.”

“Oh, yeah. His theories sound... interesting,” he said again. Jack was sure it was interesting to a vast group of people, like scientists who actually had a clue what the hell she was talking about. Tollana is what interested him.

“So, how was your Christmas?” Time to change the subject, but he’d ease into his main concern.

“Fine, sir.” She reluctantly pushed the notebook aside, smiled cooperatively, and began to pull on a boot.

“Did you visit your brother?” Jack picked up his own boots and sat down beside her.

“Not exactly.” She focused on her boot, lacing it up quickly and efficiently.

“What exactly did you do?” He frowned when she didn’t immediately answer. “Carter?”

She glanced at the notebook beside her and made a face.

“Tell me you didn’t spend your time off reading those papers.” Hadn’t he ordered her to get a life?

She shrugged and Jack knew that was exactly what she’d done. “Carter, you’re a smart cookie, you do understand the concept and importance of down time, right?”

“It’s relaxing for me,” she insisted, pulling on her other boot.

Jack didn't bother to argue. He’d never understand it but he knew it was true. Daniel was the same way. “So, no tree? No presents? No overeating a big turkey dinner?” He patted his stomach at the memory or his own Christmas dinner.

“Not this year,” she admitted, sounding surprisingly happy about it.

“You could have come over to our house.” Even though Jack hadn’t known about her plans, or lack of them, Sara would kill him if she found out Carter had spent the holidays alone. “Didn’t you tell me you had plans?”

“I did, sir.” She tapped the notebook with her index finger. “He’s written much more than this. I have all his work printed out and filed by date and content.”

Of course she did. Jack shook his head, amused in spite of himself. Whether it was Carter or Daniel, he’d never understand it.

“What about you, sir? Any cool toys to play with?”

She was deliberately changing the subject but he played along. “Video games, iPods, iPads, updated the cell phones, lots of new i-stuff and other new gadgets. I was hoping Sara would get me this remote-controlled helicopter but no luck there. I think she thought I meant it would be a nice gift for Charlie.”

“What did Sara get you?” She finished lacing her other boot and turned to face him.

“An electric razor.” Jack was being truthful, but only partly. Sara had given him another present, a very private one just between the two of them that made him grin every time he thought about it.

She bit her lip to keep from smiling. It didn’t work.

“Are you laughing at me, Carter?”

“No, sir. The helicopter would have been very cool,” she smartly agreed. “What did you get Charlie?”

“The iPad. Sara insisted that’s what he wanted and by his reaction, she was right.” He couldn’t deny Charlie had been excited when he had opened the box. “At least if Charlie had gotten the helicopter I could have played with it.”

“Yes, sir. And Daniel?”

“We got him the new Kindle Fire.” Jack chuckled at the memory of the boy’s reaction. He’d been politely appreciative but... “He’s been resisting the idea but it should lighten his load, at least for some of the more modern books he needs.”

“He does seem to prefer turning pages,” Carter laughed.  

“You got that right. It took some convincing but Sara pointed out he could have hundreds of books at his disposal rather than just the few he can carry. He’d said he’d try it.”

“Sounds like a techy Christmas.” Carter looked approving of the idea. No surprise there.

“It was mostly. There were a few exceptions. My razor isn’t very techy,” he complained.

“Yes, sir,” Sam giggled.

“And Charlie’s gift to Daniel wasn’t techy at all.”

Carter’s eyebrows rose. “Uh-oh, this ought to be interesting.” She knew Charlie pretty well.

“Charlie gave Daniel a ski trip to Keystone Mountain. For next weekend.” Jack smirked, thinking about having an entire, uninterrupted day with his wife with no sons around.

“Daniel skis?” Sam’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Nope.”

They both snickered.

“Is Daniel going to go?” she asked.

“Charlie didn’t leave him much of a choice. Actually, it’ll be more about snowboarding than skiing. He included snowboarding lessons and everything. Pretty sneaky actually.” Sweet, too. That had been Sara’s word and Jack knew what she meant. Charlie’s gift was a transparent effort to spend time with his brother. How cool was that? It was something he knew better than to bring up with either of the boys.

“Well, maybe Daniel will have fun,” Sam said hopefully.

“Yeah, if the snow was sand and the temperature was at least fifty degrees warmer.” Their eyes met and he knew they were both thinking of Abydos . They broke into laughter.

“At least it’ll get him out of the Mountain for a while and that can’t be all bad.” Jack always thought Daniel could use more natural sunlight.

“You’ll have to let me know how that goes, sir.” She stood up.

“Will do. For now, why don’t you put that fun notebook away and concentrate on the mission.” Jack turned serious. He needed her focused. “You think you’re going to be able to track down Narim this time?”

“That’s my intention.” Her expression was suddenly grim and he immediately felt better.

“Good. No messing around, we need facts. You know Narim better than anyone so I’m counting on you to get those facts. I’m going to need you to be alert. I’m depending on your instincts and impressions to help us figure out what’s going on with the Tollan's sudden change of heart.”

“You really think something’s off, Colonel?”

Jack shrugged. Something was off, he was certain of it. He just had no idea what it was or what it meant.

“Maybe the Tollan really do just need the trinium and are willing to part with an ion cannon to get it.” Spoken like the true optimist she was.

“Maybe, but I’m old school, Carter. Like Teal’c said, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.” Some clichés were clichés for a reason.

“Yes, sir,” she sighed, picking up the notebook. “I think I’ll go back to my lab and look over some of our recent contacts with the Tollan.”

“Yeah, that’d be good.” She was focused and alert, just where Jack needed her to be. Sam Carter was brilliant, and she always took the hint. “See you in the gate room.”

“Yes, sir.” She stuck the notebook under her arm and headed out the door.

 

________________________________________

Some of the issues raised by the Pentagon were dealt with when they met with Travell, others were not. Jack was more interested in and frustrated by the Tollan stonewalling. Carter had finally tracked down Narim but only received a few guarded answers to her questions before other Tollan showed up, asking for Narim’s help in another matter, and off he went.

It was more than strange how he was so urgently needed as soon as SG-1 showed up on the planet. If it had only happened once, Jack might have been able to buy it, twice would have been a big coincidence. Three times was just out and out suspicious. Besides, Jack didn’t believe in coincidences. He hadn’t risen to the rank of Colonel, and second in command of the SGC, by accepting what was set before him. He questioned, he suspected, he took the long view, and most importantly, he trusted his gut. Right now his gut was screaming at him to beware.

By the time they returned to the SGC, Jack was able to assure Hammond the negotiations were proceeding. The fact that the General recognized his frustration and shared his concerns helped, but only a little.

Meanwhile, the new info they’d learned was sent off through the usual channels, and SG-1 was forced to wait to hear back, yet again, before returning to Tollana to continue the negotiations. The rest of the week was accompanied by the usual, reports, P.T., and meetings. Jack worked harder than usual to clear his desk of the most important matters because he wanted to ensure that his teen-free Saturday with Sara was uninterrupted.

When Friday evening finally arrived, he breathed a sigh of relief. There had been no drama all week at the SGC and, God willing, there would be no emergencies or crises for the next 24 hours. He had enjoyed the three-day holiday break but that had been a hectic time. Maybe some down time with Sara would help clear his mind and give him a fresh perspective on the Tollan situation. A weekend alone with his wife should be just the ticket.

It wasn’t until he was home and headed upstairs after dinner that Jack was reminded not everyone was looking forward to the weekend.

“Jack.”

He had just reached the top of the stairs when he heard his name and turned around to find Daniel staring up at him.

“Yeah?”

“Are you going into work tomorrow?” Daniel sounded hopeful.

“Nope, I’m spending a quiet Saturday alone with my wife for the first time in... too long.” It had been a while since he and Sara had been alone for longer than an hour or two. The boys would be off on their day of playing in the snow at Keystone and he and Sara would have some play time of their own. She had promised to take a break from her dissertation and Jack was holding her to it.

“So there's nothing important going on? No teams coming in with artifacts that need translating?” Daniel sounded a little desperate. “You could call for a car to pick me up so you and Sara would still have your time alone. We’re behind in the translations and I’m sure Dr. Kerrigan could use me.”

It was hard not to laugh. Daniel was practically begging to spend the weekend working at the SGC. In all fairness, the teenager loved to work but this had nothing to do with his passion for linguistics or archeology. Jack knew exactly what this was about.

“Charlie would be disappointed. The trip is your Christmas present and he paid for it himself."

“He paid for it and gave it to me for Christmas so I couldn’t say no,” Daniel complained.

No doubt that was true. Jack tried again. “Still, the bus tickets, the all-day passes, the snowboarding lessons, it wasn’t cheap. He wanted to spend some time with you.”

Jack couldn't hold back a smirk as he envisioned Charlie whizzing down the slopes while Daniel floundered on the beginner’s hill. He was sure Daniel was imagining the same scenario.

“It’ll be fun,” Jack encouraged, keeping his visions to himself. “You guys will have a great time. And it’s only one day.”

“Why couldn’t there be an attack this weekend?" Daniel mumbled. "The Goa'uld have no sense of timing.”

“Daniel!”

“I’m kidding,” the teen said hastily, but the big sigh that followed made Jack wonder.

 

________________________________________

 

Jack pulled into the parking lot of the plaza where the bus was picking up the people who had signed up for a day trip to Keystone Ski Resort. A crowd was already massed around the open bus door and Jack grinned at all the gray heads. Charlie and Daniel were far and away the youngest passengers. Good, it would be harder for them to get into trouble with a group of adults and seniors.

He popped the trunk so the boys could unload their gear. Well, so Charlie could unload his gear. His son had his snowboard and boots and bindings and gloves. Daniel had a backpack survival kit that consisted of extra socks, four candy bars, his Kindle, and a book on the ancient Aztecs. Jack had nearly laughed out loud at the look on Daniel’s face when Charlie told him not to worry, the snowboard lessons included the equipment. Charlie hadn’t noticed or just ignored the lack of enthusiasm in Daniel’s muttered, “Great.”

After they unloaded, Jack got back in his truck. “Have fun, boys. And... don’t talk to strangers.”

"Dad, really?" Charlie shook his head.

Jack leaned out the window to offer his parting words of wisdom. “Don’t run with scissors.” The way Charlie flushed and rolled his eyes spurred him on. “And don’t spend all your money in one place."

“Dad,” Charlie pleaded.

“All right already, I’m going.” Jack turned serious. “You both have your cell phones so one of you call this afternoon to let us know you’re okay."

“We will.” Charlie waved him off.

“Don’t miss the bus home.”

“We won’t,” Charlie moaned.

“Jack, call me if anything important comes up at work and you need me,” Daniel implored.

Not a chance, Dannyboy. “Have fun.” Jack waved and put the truck in drive. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he yelled as he pulled away. He couldn’t help himself.

Charlie watched the truck head down the road. When it disappeared around a curve he shook his head in relief. “He is so weird sometimes.”

Although Daniel agreed, he didn't bother responding. He waited for the last of the passengers to board the bus before he followed them inside and made his way down the aisle to an empty seat. Only then did he realize Charlie hadn’t followed him. When he looked out the window he saw his brother helping the driver load up the passenger’s heavy ski gear and couldn't help smiling. Charlie always surprised him.

A few minutes later everything was loaded and Charlie settled in beside him. “Nice bus, huh? There’s even a bathroom.”

Daniel had never thought much about buses but he had to admit this one was nicer than the downtown buses he occasionally used. The seats were large and well-cushioned and the center aisle was broader than usual. There were a few empty seats but most were filled with gray- or white-headed senior citizens who all chattered happily about the trip. He couldn’t help smiling. At least the older folks were going to have a good time.

“Nice,” he agreed. He didn't want to be here but he also didn't want to rain on his brother's excitement, so he tried to sound upbeat.

It was hard to get into the spirit of the trip. Although he’d lived in Colorado Springs for five years, Daniel still disliked the snow and the cold. Despite his family’s periodic efforts to teach him, he didn’t ski or snowboard, so he was pretty sure this was going to be a grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it kind of day. Charlie had spent a lot of his hard-earned money to drag him out here, but Charlie was well aware of Daniel’s preferences. It wasn't the first time his big brother had manipulated him into doing something he really didn’t want to do and, knowing Charlie, it probably wouldn’t be the last.

“We’re on our way,” Charlie announced as the bus pulled out of the parking lot.

Daniel checked the time on his cell, it was seven a.m., right on schedule. He forced a smile and decided to make the best of it. “That was nice of you to help with the luggage and equipment.”

Charlie shrugged. “There’s a lot of old, uh, older people here. I don’t see any other teens.”

Daniel lowered his voice. “Maybe this is a senior trip.”

“You think? That could be why I got such a good deal. Do seniors ski?”

“They’re not that old,” Daniel protested. He was used to working with adults and viewed age differently than his brother.

“Hmm, maybe that’s why we’re eating dinner at four o'clock. It doesn’t matter.” Charlie brushed it off. “Don’t worry, the snowboard lessons I signed you up for were for teens. Besides,” he whispered, “even if they ski I doubt they snowboard. I didn’t load anything but skies into the cargo bay.”

“I’m not worried and FYI, I don’t snowboard either.”

Charlie ignored the sarcasm. “You can take your lesson from ten to noon and then we’ll meet back up and do some runs together.”

“You think after two hours of lessons I’ll be able to fly down a hill with you?” Daniel was incredulous.

“Sure, why not? Isn’t this great? A whole day away. No parents, no teachers, no homework... hey, what are you doing?”

“Nothing. Just checking to make sure my cell phone is on.” Daniel returned the device to his pocket, hoping he looked more casual than he felt.

“You should turn that thing off so no one bothers us."

Was he crazy? “I better not.” There were three teams off-world this weekend. With any luck, one of them would be in dire need of his expertise.

The drive was uneventful. Almost three hours after they started, the bus pulled into a large parking lot. Just above the parking lot he saw... wow.

"Holy cow!" Charlie beamed. "It looks even better than the pictures."

Daniel stared, frankly impressed. The Keystone Ski Resort was huge and the building immediately in front of them reminded him of a giant European chalet, made up of wood and stone and glass. Just behind and above the main group of buildings he could see a ski run, broad and steep; it went up and up, disappearing over the summit. Covered in snow. In fact, everywhere he looked was covered in snow. To the north he noticed some ski lifts, just as Charlie pointed at them.

"Don't worry, there're more lifts than those two."

"Who's worried?" Daniel tried for a casual tone which won him a quick, knowing grin.

"Those will let us get to the top of the really big runs," Charlie said enthusiastically.

Not wanting to think about that possibility, Daniel looked in the opposite direction. In the distance he could make out another building, it looked like a giant log cabin. Correction, it looked like many large log cabins built together.

"Those are some of the other places available to rent here," Charlie said, after following his brother's gaze.

Since they were only here for the day, Daniel's interest in the buildings disappeared as he looked back at the snow-covered mountains. His stomach did a back flip. The idea of sliding down those towering forms at breakneck speeds was making him nervous.

The bus jerked to a halt and Charlie clapped his hands together. "All right! You ready?"

"Sure," Daniel agreed. He hoped his lying skills were improving with age, even though Jack always seemed to catch him. At least his brother was too distracted to notice.

Charlie started to stand when Daniel grabbed his arm. "Let’s wait.” He nodded at the seniors slowly getting up and stretching their stiff legs. Just then an elderly lady in an oversized parka walked by their seats.

"Did you see that?" Charlie whispered.

"See what?"

"How thick her glasses were. You don't think she's actually going to go skiing, do you?"

"Just because she wears glasses doesn’t mean she can’t ski." His brother’s apprehensive look made Daniel take it a step further. "Maybe she's a snowboarder."

“No! You think?”

Daniel almost laughed at the horror in Charlie’s voice. While he wasn't thrilled to be here, it was always fun to mess with his brother's head.

Several agonizingly slow minutes later, the last of the senior citizens exited the bus and Charlie bounded to his feet.

"Come on, time’s a’ wasting."

As they stepped down onto the parking lot, they could hear the middle-aged woman who was acting as the trip organizer going over the itinerary again, reiterating where to go for the free dinner included in the cost of the trip, and where to meet the bus at seven p.m. sharp for departure back to Colorado Springs . After half-listening to the instructions Charlie and Daniel were finally on their own.

“Come on," Charlie demanded with fresh enthusiasm, "let’s find your snowboard lessons. They start at ten.”

Daniel followed Charlie around for five minutes before insisting on asking one of the resort's employees for directions, who pointed them the right way. Fortunately, it was only a five-minute hike to the beginner's hill - or as Charlie called it, the kiddie hill. Adults as well as little kids dotted the slope but Daniel was pleased it wasn't as crowded as he had feared.

“Even though it's the weekend there’s not many kids our age here today,” Charlie observed. It was true, the crowd appeared to be more adults and seniors.

“Maybe the teens came over winter break,” Daniel offered.

“Yeah, you could be right. That’s probably why I got such a good deal on everything. Doesn’t matter, maybe the lift lines will be shorter.”

Daniel smiled to himself. Charlie always found the silver lining.

Another resort employee guided them to the beginner's class that would start in a few minutes. As soon as Daniel was checked in Charlie began moving away.

“I’m going to get out on the mountain and do a few runs. I’ll meet you back here at noon. Then we can go out together.”

“You seriously think I’m going to be able to zoom down the mountain with you after two hours of lessons?”

“Sure. Why not?”

Daniel shrugged. It wasn’t worth explaining.

“Have fun!” Charlie yelled, before disappearing into the crowd of people heading for the lifts.

Daniel sighed. There was nothing to do but make the best of it. He saw another teen approaching and was glad to see he wouldn't be the only one in the class.

“Hi, I’m Zach.”

"Daniel." They shook hands.

The guy looked about Charlie's age, maybe a year or two older. His black, windblown hair reminded Daniel of a leftover fright wig from Halloween.

"I'll be teaching this class," Zach continued. “Have you ever snowboarded before?”

“No. Never.” Zach was the instructor? Maybe he was older than he looked. Or maybe Daniel was even more out of step with what teenagers liked to do than he’d realized.

“Have you ever skied before?” Zach asked hopefully.

“No.”

“Okay. No problem." The way-too-young instructor sounded like he'd been taking enthusiasm lessons from Charlie. "We’ll work on some basics. We just need to wait for the other kids who signed up. In the meantime, why don’t you get into your boots and bindings.”

Daniel’s fingers were already getting numb and he fumbled for his gloves. They were easy to slide on but the rented boots and bindings were another story. Eventually, Zach had to help him and when Daniel was finally ready, he hoped the teen instructor would think his face was red because of the cold.

The other kids showed up a few minutes later. Daniel couldn't help staring at the new arrivals before turning to Zach and lowering his voice. “I thought this class was for teenagers."

“It was originally, but we didn’t get enough teens signed up for today so we combined with the ‘nine-years-and-up’ class.”

“Great,” Daniel managed. This was going to be a disaster, he just knew it.

“How about you guys?” Zach turned to the kid crowd. “Have any of you snowboarded or skied before?”

To Daniel’s dismay all four of them raised their hands. It turned out they were taking lessons to improve their skills.

A disaster, for sure.

Two hours later Daniel was ready to pack it in and call it a day. No way could it only be noon. He felt like he’d been on the beginner’s hill for the entire day. Zach had been patient and helpful; even his temporary nine- and ten-year-old classmates were encouraging. It didn't matter. If Daniel had needed confirmation of what he already knew, he had it now. Snowboarding was never going to be part of his future.

A small part of him regretted it. He could see the potential. It was easy to understand Charlie’s love for it, the outdoors, the wind in your face, the high speeds; it was right up his alley. It would be fun once you became proficient at it. Of course, that would take time and practice and Daniel had better things to do. Almost anything would be better. For him, it was more about the falling, the snow and the freezing temperatures.

“How’d it go?” Charlie snuck up behind him with red cheeks and happy grin, a snow-encrusted board under one arm.

“Not good.” Maybe the blunt truth would convince his big brother that winter sports would never be part of their brotherly bond.

“You just need practice," Charlie said easily. "I thought we'd take the lift up to North Peak and snowboard down Cat Dancer. What d'ya say?”

"North Peak?” Daniel mentally pictured the map of the resort he had studied at home and his eyes widened. “Isn't that one of the highest peaks around the lodge?"

"Yeah!" Charlie bobbed his head enthusiastically.

Cat Dancer... Cat Dancer... Why did that name sound so familiar?  "Is that the run that goes all the way down the mountain? It's practically a suicide run."

"No, no. Not if you know what you're doing."

 

"I have no clue what I'm doing!" Charlie could be exasperating. "I haven't made it down this hill once without falling half a dozen times."

"I'll help you. We’ll go down together. Slow,” Charlie promised.

 

Slow? The Cat Dancer run was an almost vertical, several-mile-long death trap. An accident waiting to happen.

He studied his brother with growing dismay. Charlie’s ‘need for speed’ attitude had definitely taken over his brother, replacing any kind of reasonable, rationale thinking.

Daniel was about to call him on it when he had an idea. He had to get off this hill before he could go anywhere else. Let Charlie see for himself how ridiculous an idea it was to try an advanced run after two hours of lessons. The kid members of his snowboarding class had gone off and, at the moment, he and Charlie were pretty much alone on this part of the beginner’s hill.

"Come on." Charlie slid into his board and glided down a few feet. "Time’s a’ wasting, remember?"

 

As if Daniel could forget. "Okay, watch." Charlie had asked for it.

He turned his board down the hill and immediately lost control, almost sliding into his brother before Charlie was able to get out of the way.

"Hey!"

Realizing he was picking up speed, Daniel leaned back until gravity dropped him on his rear. He plowed through the snow a few more feet before stopping. From his semi-reclining position, he looked up at his brother.

“Now what were you saying about Cat Dancer?” he asked sarcastically.

“That wasn't so bad.” Charlie looked skyward. “You looked good for a minute there.”

“For a second,” Daniel corrected. "Maybe for a second." He was tempted to stay where he was until Charlie finally admitted the truth of his ineptitude on a snowboard, but it was cold and he wanted off this hill so he resignedly climbed back up.

He was impressed that Charlie was able to stand still and wait for him, and to adjust his speed to match. After two more falls - Daniel's, of course - they reached the bottom of the hill, which Daniel celebrated by falling over his feet. Again.

“There you go. It’s just a matter of getting the right balance.” Charlie helped him up one last time. “Are you ready to try out a real run?”

He couldn’t be serious. Daniel checked his brother’s face; he was serious. “Are you trying to kill me?” What other explanation could there be? Maybe the SGC had a foothold situation and nobody noticed and now Charlie had been taken over by a hostile alien. It was the only explanation he could think of, unlikely as it was. Though not impossible.

“It’s actually easier when you’re going faster. Less time to think. You’ll see.”

Confident, easy-going, and optimistic, that was Charlie, but enough was enough. “No, I won’t see. Why don’t you go and I’ll keep practicing here for a while." Daniel smiled and tried to keep the edge out of his voice.

“Okay." A puzzled looked crossed Charlie’s face before he conceded. "It’s only 12:30. We have all afternoon to get you down a real run.”

Not going to happen. “Sure, all afternoon.” Daniel waved as Charlie headed toward the lifts. “Hey, Charlie! If I’m not here practicing I’ll be in the lodge taking a break.”

“Okay.” Charlie waved back.

   

Chapter 8

 

As soon as his brother was out of sight Daniel turned in his snowboard and bindings and retrieved his backpack from the locker he and Charlie had rented. He felt better as he considered his immediate future. A roaring fire, hot chocolate and the ancient Aztec civilization. As long as Charlie stayed out on the slopes, the day could turn out fine after all.

The shuttle dropped Daniel off right in front of the main lodge. He didn't know much about architecture but someone had done an amazing job, combining the old with the new, stone with massive log walls and huge glass windows.

When he walked inside, he sighed in relief at the immediate increase in temperature. A welcome sign pointed out that the large common area also served as the lobby for the rental units upstairs. Like everything else about the resort, the common area was large. The raftered ceiling looked to be twenty feet high and gave the room a spacious feeling. There were two huge stone fireplaces at each end with a multitude of leather couches and chairs strewn about for maximum comfort. Even though the place served as a four-star hotel, the common area was available to anyone with a Keystone ski pass.

He was thankful he had checked it all out online ahead of time. Charlie could meet him here, preferably around 6:30, just in time to get back to the parking lot to catch their ride home.

Daniel ordered a double hot chocolate with extra whip cream and a cinnamon pastry at the coffee bar, then settled into the chair closest to the roaring fireplace. He took a moment to appreciate the stone and wood-clad structure; it looked like something out of the wild west and was big enough for someone to stand in, providing there was no fire.

He cupped the large mug to warm his hands and inhaled, relishing the rich chocolate aroma. Finally he took a sip, held it in his mouth to enjoy the taste, then swallowed and smacked his lips.

"Mmm, perfect."

Daniel glanced at his watch and decided to call home. If he called now, he wouldn't have to worry about forgetting. Since he had both cell phones in his backpack it was up to him to keep Jack and Sara from worrying.

The phone rang five times before he heard Sara’s voice. “Hello.”

She sounded a little rushed, not quite her usual self, and Daniel wondered if he’d disturbed her studying. He’d keep it short.

“We’re here, we’re fine. You said to call, so I’m calling.” He waited for her response. Nothing. “Sara?” He tried again.

“Yes, I'm here, Daniel. Are you guys having fun?” She sounded more like herself now.

“Uh-huh. I’m in the lodge and Charlie’s out on the slopes. The lessons didn’t really help me much.”

“Oh, okay, honey. You’ll have to tell us all about it when you get home.”

“I will. See you tonight.” Daniel was a little confused. Sara sounded like the one who wanted to make this short and sweet.

“Okay, bye.”

“Bye, Sara."

That was odd. Then again, who knew what adults did when kids weren’t around?

Shrugging it off, Daniel took a large bite of his pastry and washed it down with some hot chocolate, then picked up his book. He finished another chapter before he realized he was down to his last gulp of cocoa. Closing his eyes, he savored the last delicious mouthful.

“It’s good, isn’t it?”

He jolted upright and opened his eyes to see two smiling girls about his age standing in front of him. They both had sparkling brown eyes and brown hair; one wore it long down her back while the other’s was shorter, falling to her shoulders.

“Excuse me?” Heat rose up his neck and flooded his face under the double scrutiny.

“The hot chocolate here, it’s really good," the girl with long hair said. "You look like you really enjoyed it."

“Oh, um, I did,” he agreed. Did they want something? They just stood there staring at him while he blushed and stammered. He might have a PhD in linguistics but he had no clue when it came to teenage girls. What was he supposed to say?

“I’m Lauren Avocet," the girl continued. "This is my cousin, Leah.”

They were still smiling and waiting for something. Duh. “Hi, I’m Daniel, Daniel Jackson.” The pressure eased a bit with the introductions.

“That's a nice name," Lauren beamed and Leah nodded enthusiastically. "Do you mind if we join you?”

“Okay.” It didn’t feel like he had much of a choice. He stared longingly at the book in his lap but gave that up when the girls snagged unoccupied chairs and pulled them closer to the fire. And to him.

“We’ve been here since Thursday. There’s hardly any kids here,” Leah complained. “There’s usually a lot more young people.”

Lauren picked up the conversation. “But we usually stay over Christmas break when there’s tons of action and fun and people our age. We had to go to Grandma’s this year.” She sighed as if it had been a death sentence. “So we came this weekend instead. It’s kind of boring. The skiing is okay but that’s about it.”

Daniel nodded, though he was not positive he understood their complaint. The skiing was good and the place was, after all, a ski resort.

“Are you staying here?” Leah asked.

He hesitated. Was she flirting with him? No, he must be imagining it. Imagination or not, he felt even more flustered.

“Uh, no, I just came in for the hot chocolate and to warm up by the fire.” It felt more like an interrogation than a conversation.

“Oh.” She looked disappointed. “Do you want to hang out together tonight?" She exchanged looks with her cousin. "We could do the skating under the stars. Or maybe tubing. Tubing at night is a blast.”

Daniel willed himself to stay calm. If he could be polite and friendly to aliens on other planets, surely he could manage a reasonable conversation with two teens his own age. Maybe it would help if he thought of these girls as aliens.

“Thanks, but I can’t. We’re leaving at seven.” He didn’t ice skate very well but there was no need to admit that since he’d be long gone long by nightfall.

Both their faces fell. Could they really be disappointed? They’d just met. He’d probably never understand girls but thinking of them as aliens did help.

“Maybe you could ask your parents if you could stay a little longer." Lauren and Leah exchanged looks again. "It's way more fun here at night,” Lauren explained.   

“I’m not here with my parents. I’m here with my brother.” The change in the air was electric. Daniel was a little alarmed, especially when he saw the glint in their eyes.

“Your parents aren’t here?” Lauren seemed delighted.

“You have a brother?” Leah asked eagerly. “How old is he?"

“No, they’re not here, and my brother's sixteen.” Daniel was tempted to lean away from the double dose of enthusiasm but he didn't want his body language to betray his nervousness.

“Oh.” They spoke in unison and Lauren twirled her hair. Did that mean something? He had no idea.

“He’s out snowboarding right now.” Daniel felt the need to fill in the suddenly awkward silence.

“Does he have a car? Did he drive you here?” Leah questioned.

Her dark eyes gleamed with excitement and Daniel felt a sudden desire to laugh. Girls loved Charlie, even when he wasn’t around. Heck, these two hadn’t met him yet but that didn't seem to slow them down.

“We took a bus up here,” he explained. “That’s why we can’t stay overnight. The bus leaves at 7:00.”

Lauren held up a finger in a ‘wait a minute’ gesture and the girls walked away so they could whisper outside of his hearing. Maybe they were done talking to him? It was possible. He wasn’t that exciting. Just when he decided it was safe to pick up his book, he saw them nod to each other before walking back over. He set the book down and smiled politely.

“Where do you live?” Lauren asked. Neither of them had any problem asking personal questions.

Colorado Springs.” Daniel wished they would find something else to do but meanwhile he would be polite.

“That’s not very far,” Leah said with an air of excitement.

“Almost three hours by bus.” He felt the need to point that out. It may not be on the other side of the state but it was too far to walk so he didn’t see their point.

“Maybe you could ask your brother if you guys can stay later when he gets back.” Lauren looked hopeful.

Daniel hated to disappoint them but he didn’t need to ask Charlie. They had their bus tickets and the bus left precisely at seven p.m. There wasn’t anything they could do to change that. There didn’t seem to be any point in arguing so he shrugged his agreement.

They asked about the book he was reading and Daniel had to stop himself from launching into a long, and probably boring, explanation on how the ancient world helped shape the world they lived in today. It had taken a few painful rejections before he realized how few people shared his interest in ancient cultures. It was a very small group. He was grateful for the SGC scientists who shared his insights and discoveries. For Leah and Lauren he kept it short and finished with his usual qualifier.

“It’s interesting to me.” He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. They sounded defensive, especially since they hadn’t commented on his choice of reading material.

The girls nodded before taking over the conversation as only girls could do. There was no need for Daniel to ask any questions. He sat dumbly, trying to keep an interested expression on his face while they covered everything. They were cousins, born three months apart and had been best friends for as long as they could remember. They’d turned fifteen this past spring and summer and were now sophomores in high school. Lauren was interested in sports while Leah loved music.

They were still chatting happily when Daniel saw Charlie enter the room and he waved to get his attention. The girls' chatter stopped abruptly and the cousins turned around to get their first glimpse of Charlie. Daniel could tell they liked what they saw. It was hard to keep from laughing.

“Hey, Daniel.” Charlie came over, eyes wide with surprise. He turned and offered a warm smile. “Ladies.” They both giggled and Charlie looked at his little brother. “What’ve you been up to?”

“Not much.” Daniel held up his book and noted Charlie’s sigh. He wasn’t sure if it was amusement or disapproval. "Charlie, this is Lauren Avocet and her cousin Leah Avocet. They're up here with Lauren's parents for the weekend. This is my brother, Charlie."

Leah beamed and Lauren spoke right up. “Hi, Charlie. We were talking to your brother about the two of you sticking around tonight. They have ice skating under the lights and night tubing. Why don't you stay? It’s awesome.”

Daniel decided he’d leave it to Charlie to deflate their excitement.

“Sure,” Charlie grinned. “Sounds like fun.”

Daniel opened his mouth but wasn't sure what to say. Before he could overcome his momentary silence Charlie winked at him.

“Great!” Leah answered.

“Excellent!” Lauren agreed.

Charlie had a huge grin on his face and the girls, who had seemed nice and fairly normal a minute ago, were suddenly animated and glowy.

Lauren leaned over and whispered something in her cousin’s ear before saying, “We have to go and meet my parents in a few minutes. We’re all going out to dinner and we have to get ready.”

Leah rolled her eyes and Charlie nodded in sympathy. “Parents,” he said, as if that explained everything. “How about if we meet back here at seven and then we can go tubing or ice skating or whatever else looks like fun?”

Daniel watched dumbfounded as Charlie made the plans and exchanged phone numbers with Lauren. That was a good idea. It would be mean to leave the girls sitting here waiting when the bus pulled out of the parking lot. What was his brother thinking?

“Bye.” Leah gave a little wave at Charlie. Charlie waved back.

“Bye, Daniel,” Lauren called out as they both disappeared out the door.

“Daniel, you dog!” Charlie punched him in the shoulder. “I thought you were in here reading about some old, dead guys and here you were picking us up some cute girls to hang out with. You’re the man.” He grinned approvingly. “I’m starving. Crap, we better haul ass if we’re going to make that free lunch or dinner or whatever it is.”

Daniel stared in amazement. Charlie O’Neill was one of the few people in the known universe who could leave him groping for words.

“Come on. I’m hungry,” Charlie repeated when Daniel didn’t move.

“Don't worry about the free lunch. There are plenty of places to eat." He shook his head. "We need to talk.”

Daniel wasn’t about to deliberately miss the bus and have to face the wrath of Jack and Sara. They were probably having a nice, relaxing day alone and it wasn’t fair for him and Charlie to ruin it. Sara needed a break from the demands of her PhD work but he was mostly worried about Jack. The man needed time away from all the stress at work. No one else in the family understood the constant pressure Jack was under.

Besides everything else, Daniel had no desire to stay. He’d never tell Charlie but showing them all how inept he was on ice skates wasn’t his idea of a good time. He’d no doubt spend most of the night picking himself up and brushing himself off while Charlie glided effortlessly around the rink. He had no idea what tubing was; the only thing he knew for sure was that he probably wouldn’t be very good at it.

“The restaurants around here cost a fortune. I have exactly eighteen dollars with me. We have to make that free meal.” Charlie sounded like he was starving. No surprise there.

“I’ll buy.” Daniel wasn’t going anywhere until Charlie explained his plan for the evening.

“Did you bring money?" That got his big brother's attention.

“Yes, I did.” Sort of. At Jack’s suggestion he’d brought his credit card, the one he hardly ever used. They could eat after they talked.

“And,” Daniel pressed, “I’ll buy you all the burgers and fries you can eat after you tell me why you told those girls we’d meet them at seven. That wasn’t very nice. You know the bus leaves at seven.”

“Yeah, but – ”

Daniel cut him off; he wasn’t finished. “I don’t plan to stay here and let Jack and Sara spend the night worrying about us while we’re out here having fun. It’s not right.” He folded his arms in a determined poise.

“Are you done?” Charlie had lost his normal grin and was glaring. “Who said I wasn't going to call home? Geez, you don’t have much faith in me, do you?”

In his eagerness to get home Daniel hadn't given Charlie a chance to explain. He could see the hurt behind his brother's anger.

“What's your plan?” he asked weakly.

“Never mind.” The light in Charlie’s eyes faded. “I know you’re not having fun. I should have bought you the book Dad suggested for Christmas." He looked away and cleared his throat. "We don’t get to hang out much anymore and I thought you might like to try something different, but I can see it’s not your thing. I’ll call Lauren and tell her we have to go.”

Daniel felt horrible. He’d been so concerned about getting out of here while still hanging on to a few last shreds of pride, he'd forgotten Charlie had bought and paid for this trip in an effort to share his passions. Maybe he could still fix this.

“We should try to stay,” he announced.

“Never mind. It’s okay.” Charlie wasn’t buying it.

“Come on," Daniel wheedled, with hopeful eyes. "I never do anything spontaneous unless I’m with you. Tell me your plan and let’s see what happens.”

“You’re sure?” The older teen studied him doubtfully.

“Positive. Let’s go for it.”

Charlie suddenly grinned and Daniel was reminded of another thing he loved about his brother. Charlie never brooded over a wrong. He was quick to forgive and forget, which was particularly important when Daniel had one of his patented open-mouth-insert-foot moments.

“Okay, my plan is to call home and ask.”

“That’s it? That’s your big plan?”

“What? It could work.” Charlie punched his shoulder like he always did. “You got a better idea?”

“Not really.” It was a relief to see his brother back to normal. “What are you going to say?”

“I don’t know. Give me my phone. I’ll think of something.”

Daniel rifled through his backpack and produced Charlie’s cell phone. “If we're going to stay that late, we'll need to get a room to spend the night. Let me check with the desk clerk to make sure they have one available before you call.”

“Are you nuts? We can’t stay here." Charlie huffed. "Dad’s not going to spring for a room here. They cost a fortune. I’ll tell him we’ll find a motel somewhere close by.”

Daniel waved him off and headed for the desk. The woman clerk was helping an elderly couple but the man was free so Daniel stopped in front of him.

"Yes, sir?" the clerk greeted him and Daniel stifled a snicker. Sir?

"Hi, I'm wondering if you happen to have a room available for tonight. I know it's short notice but..." he stopped when the clerk nodded.

"Fortunately, we're not fully booked this weekend. Let me see what's available. Are you looking for a single?"

"No, I'm here with my brother." Daniel glanced over his shoulder to see Charlie talking animatedly on the phone. He hoped this wouldn't be a wasted effort.

"We have a two-bedroom vacancy in our condominium complex across the street. Would that work for you?"

"That'd be great." He debated briefly whether he should wait to hear for sure that they were spending the night before making an actual reservation. Then again, they were dealing with his charming, persistent brother. What the heck; he could always cancel the reservation if necessary.

He took out his wallet and handed over his credit card. The clerk's eyebrows rose but he didn't say anything before he ran it through the scanner. It went through without a problem and the clerk handed it back with another smile.

"You're, uh, not eighteen are you?"

Daniel recognized the problem. "No, but if you need an adult's approval I can get my father on the phone."

The clerk hesitated before nodding. "Yes, that should be okay."

"Great. I think my brother's talking to him now. I'll be right back."

He hustled over to Charlie and from this end of the conversation it was immediately obvious he was talking to Jack, not Sara. That was probably for the best. Daniel whispered that he’d secured a room but needed to talk to Jack.

Charlie frowned. “What, Dad? I didn’t hear you... Oh, well, we’re hoping you could come and pick us up tomorrow morning. It’s only an hour drive.”

They all knew he was great at exaggeration but Daniel had no doubt Jack was aware of exactly how far it was from Keystone to Colorado Springs . Of course Jack would have to drive it round-trip.

“Sure, hold on.” Charlie covered the phone and whispered, “He wants to talk to you. It’s up to you. No pressure.” He winked then held up his hands and crossed his fingers. “Try to be enthusiastic,” he pleaded.

“I can be enthusiastic,” Daniel insisted as he grabbed the phone out of his brother’s hand.

“Hi, Jack!” How was that for enthusiasm?

“Hey, kiddo.” Jack’s amused voice came through loud and clear. “Charlie says you’re having such a good time you want to stay overnight?”

“Oh, yeah, it’s great here!” Daniel enthused.

Charlie slashed his hand across his throat. “Don’t overdo it,” he whispered.

“Really?” Jack sounded surprised.

“Yeah, who knew how great it would be?” Daniel saw Charlie rolling his eyes and decided to dial it down. “We met these two girls – ”

“Girls?” Jack cut in, sounding much more interested.

“Yeah, two nice girls who want us to go ice skating with them tonight.”

“You hate ice skating.”

“I don’t hate it. I just need more practice. And there are rooms available here. The clerk said we could rent one as long as you gave him the okay for me to use my credit card.”

There was a few seconds of silence as Jack thought it over. Daniel checked Charlie’s hopeful expression and made a last-ditch effort to put things right.

“I think we’re having such a great time because Charlie and I don’t see much of each other anymore. It’s fun hanging out together like we did when we were kids.”

 

Charlie beamed, giving him two thumbs up.

“They’ll accept your credit card even though you’re a minor?”

“Yes, providing you tell them it’s okay.” Hadn’t he just said that? “Look, we’re fine, Jack. Really. We’ll hang out with the girls tonight, I doubt their parents will let them stay out too late. And then we’ll go back to our room and that’ll be it.”

“All right. Just promise to call when you’re in your room for the night. No matter what time it is.”

Daniel gave his brother a thumbs-up and tried not to laugh when Charlie punched the air in jubilation.

“I will, I promise. Hang on a second. You have to talk to the clerk.” As he spoke he walked back to the front desk. “My father’s on the line.” He handed over the cell phone. After a few minutes of conversation the clerk handed the phone back and began typing on his computer again.

Daniel put the cell phone back to his ear. “Jack? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, you’re all set. Have fun and don’t forget to call when you get back to your room tonight. I’ll let you know then what time I’ll pick you up tomorrow. And stay out of trouble.”

“Of course. Thanks, Jack.”

He hung up, accepted the key card and walked back toward Charlie who was sporting a huge grin. “All set,” Daniel promised and handed him back the cell phone. Then, because he couldn’t resist, he waved the room card in front of his brother’s wide eyes.

“We’re actually staying here?” Charlie demanded.

Hadn't his brother been listening to his conversation with Jack? “That’s right, well, actually across the street. Let’s go get something to eat."

“Food!" Charlie was immediately distracted. "Let's go, I'm starving.”

 ________________________________________  

“What do you mean you told them they could stay overnight?”

Jack sighed. Sara had been upstairs changing her clothes. When she returned she snuggled next to him and asked who had been on the phone. After he finished explaining she was no longer snuggling. Instead she was sitting upright and looking at him with a lot less affection than a couple of minutes ago.

“They’re teenagers,” she continued, her voice rising slightly. “Are you insane?”

“They’ll be fine. They met some girls, they wanted to stay. I’ll pick them up in the morning."

He reached out to her but she pulled away. They’d been having a great day, enjoying each other’s company with no distractions. The great day looked like it was starting to go downhill. Maybe a little reassurance would help.

“They’ll be okay, honey. They have a room. I okayed it with the desk clerk. And they promised they’d call later when they’re in for the night.”

“They’re kids! You should have asked me first.”

He should have asked her? Jack suppressed a little anger of his own. He was their father, he didn’t need to ask. And they weren’t kids, not in the ‘typical teen’ sense of the word. Daniel went off-world practically every month and made adult decisions daily. The hardest part of raising Daniel was encouraging him to loosen up and occasionally act his age.

And Charlie... in all fairness Sara had been away at UCLA for most of last year. She hadn’t been around to see how the teenager had matured and how responsibly he had handled his independence.

Charlie had been twelve years old when he’d first announced his intention to attend the Air Force Academy. Jack had been amused and skeptical. The boy had no clue of the work and commitment it took just to get accepted into the Academy.

Charlie might not have understood initially, but as he grew up he came to understand, and he remained committed. Jack was proud of Charlie’s determination. As much as the thought of his son facing down enemies of the United States, or of Earth, scared him, he admired his son’s single minded focus.

Charlie and Daniel were both growing up. Surely Sara had noticed. Gazing at her, Jack noted the worry beneath her anger and his annoyance faded. She was a mom, it must be a lot harder for her to let go.

“They’re fine.” He lowered his voice. “Really, I promise.”

This time, when he ran his fingers down her arm she didn’t pull away but she wasn’t looking at him. He lifted her chin for a kiss and was shocked to see tears glistening in her eyes.

“What’s the matter? If you’re that upset I’ll go get them right now.” It wasn’t worth tears.

Sara didn’t answer and she didn’t meet his eyes. Jack slid closer. He had no idea what she was thinking. Maybe this wasn’t about him giving the boys permission to stay overnight at the lodge.

“What’s going on?” he asked softly. “Talk to me.”

“They’re not little boys any more, are they?” She sniffed back a sob.

“No, they’re not.” Jack had been right. It was a mom thing that had her so emotional. He wished he was better with words. “Daniel is, well, you know, Daniel. He’s always been more responsible and mature than his years. And Charlie...” He paused to gather his thoughts. Maybe he could ease her worry by telling her how much their son had matured over the past year.

“Charlie was amazing while you were gone. He never complained about going to Spencer’s after school or after games, and staying there until I got home from the base. He stayed there overnight, too, when I couldn't get home, and he never gave me any grief about it. He didn’t take advantage of the situation by skipping school, and his grades didn’t dip even though we weren’t around to stay on him about studying or turning in his homework.” He smiled and gave her a little squeeze. “Charlie’s grown up. He has goals. He’s a responsible kid. We did good, honey.”

Jack thought his assessment would help but instead she seemed to droop. He waited her out, trusting she’d talk when she was ready.

“I shouldn’t have gone away to UCLA.” The words tumbled out in a rush. “I missed most of last year with him and in another year or two he’ll be gone for good.” The last words were almost too soft to hear, and she fell against his chest in tears.

Jack held her tightly, wishing he could take away the pain and guilt she was carrying. After a few minutes her tears lessened and he decided it was time to ease her worries as best he could.

“You did what you needed to do. Besides, you were with Daniel.”

Still pressed against him, she shook her head. “I could have put off school for a few more years. Charlie should have been coming home to a warm house and hot meals. I’m his mother, I should have been here for him.”

Jack swallowed. He needed to put an end to this guilt trip before Sara was consumed by it. Waiting until he heard her take a deep, shaky breath, he held her away from him so their eyes met.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard and I’m sure Charlie would agree.” He spoke quietly but firmly and it was a relief to see a flash of annoyance in her eyes. “Let me finish.”

Sara hesitated before nodding.

“I was away from home for a lot of years and I missed a lot.” Jack wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know, but putting his feelings into words was surprisingly hard. “The games, the birthdays, the first day of the school year, the Christmases,” he shushed her when she looked like she was going to try to interrupt. “I was gone, Sara, but you were always here. For Charlie, for everyone. You held our family together. You’re our rock.”

Jack struggled to control the emotions his words had released. This was something he’d been meaning to say for a long time. Why had it taken him so long?

She smiled at him through shimmering eyes. He smiled back and continued. “Last year was my turn, finally, and even though I was working a lot I was able to spend time with Charlie, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. We ate a lot of meals together and we did a lot of talking. Charlie confided in me about teachers and kids and school and girls, all kinds of stuff. It didn’t make up for all the things I missed out on with him but – ” the words caught in his throat and he coughed, waiting until the pressure eased before going on.

“But it helped. I think it helped both of us." He raised his hand to her face, caressing her cheek. "So don’t ever be sorry that you had to be gone for most of the year. It turned out to be a good thing for me and for Charlie, for all of us.”

"Really?” She wiped her face with her sleeve, as if she was a little girl. Her eyes were still moist but now warm with understanding

“Yeah, really.”

“It’s hard – ” her voice caught. “It’s hard letting go. I still picture the boys as mischievous ten-year-olds.”

“They were a handful,” Jack laughed.

“I miss it. I think I miss being so needed.” Her expression seemed far away and Jack suspected she was remembering some of the boys’ past antics.

“Honey, you’re their mom. They’ll always need you." He pulled her into his arms again.  "And you’ve got me, too. What am I? Chopped liver?”

It was good to hear her laugh. “No, not chopped liver, exactly. So you really think they’ll be okay overnight?”

“They’ll be fine,” he assured her for what felt like the hundredth time.

“I guess I’ll defer to your judgment.”

“Really? Cool.” Jack grinned.

He started to kiss her but she hadn’t finished her thoughts. “It’s funny. They used to come to me for everything, it was non-stop. For a while I thought it might drive me crazy. I thought it’d be a relief when they were older and more independent. So why don’t I feel relieved?”

Definitely a mom thing. “Yeah, funny how that works.” He hugged her. 

“It seems like they go to you more now.”

“Sara...”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.” She put her finger on his lips. “They’re teenagers, soon they'll be young men. They need their father. I’m glad you're their father,” she whispered. “You’re a good man, Jack O’Neill.”

Sara replaced her finger with her lips and Jack knew they were done talking for now.

Chapter 9

 

“You handled that great,” Charlie said around a mouthful of burger. “I knew you could sell it to Dad. He’s always worried that you’re not having enough fun.”

“He is?” That was a surprise. Maybe that had been true when he was a kid but not now. At least Daniel didn’t think so.

“Yeah, that’s why I wanted you to talk to him. You never picked up on that?”

“Not really.”

“And you call yourself a genius."

“No, I don’t.” Daniel didn't care if he sounded annoyed. He'd never called himself a genius. The label was irritating. Other people might call him that but it wasn’t how he thought of himself.

“Forget it." Charlie laughed good-naturedly and took a gulp from his second Coke. "We have more important things to discuss.” He whipped out a map of the resort and opened it on the table. “Here’s our options for tonight. Skiing is out. There’s snowboarding...” He gave his brother a hopeful glance.

“In the dark? I can’t even do the beginner’s hill in daylight.”

“… is out.” Charlie hurried on. “Relax, I was going to say snowboarding is out.”

Sure he was. Daniel decided not to call him on it. He could only hope there was an option he could live with.

“That leaves ice skating, snow biking and tubing. The problem is the cheapest option is ice skating. We’d have to rent skates but it wouldn’t be too bad.”

 

“I’m not ice skating or snow biking.” Now that he had time to think about it, Daniel knew what he didn’t want to do.

He wasn’t going to budge from his decision. If those were the choices he would just watch. He’d seen the snow bikes flying down the mountain earlier in the day and there was no way he was going to try that for the first time at night in front of two girls. As for ice skating, he’d gone more than once with Jack and Sara and Charlie and had only limited success. Very limited. Walking around the rink on his ankles while trying not to fall over was not his idea of a good time. Despite his family’s best efforts, winter sports were never going to be his thing.

“Okay,” Charlie said with a hint of sarcasm. “That leaves tubing. It looks like fun but there’s a problem.”

"What?"

Charlie rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.

Daniel wrinkled his brow. Was that supposed to mean something?

“Money,” Charlie exclaimed. “That’s the universal symbol for money.”

“It is?”

“You really need to get out more, or at least watch more TV or something.” Charlie shook his head.

“I’m out now,” Daniel reminded his oh-so-superior big brother.

“Because I dragged you out.” Charlie smirked at him. “I don’t mind paying but I spent a big chunk of cash for a ticket to the Maroon 5 concert so I’m a little short.”

“You’re going to a concert?” Daniel asked, happy for the change in subject.

“Yeah!” Charlie beamed, before his expression faded slightly. “Well, after I convince Dad. I brought it up a couple weeks ago but he kind of said no. Then I remembered the last time we talked about how I spent my money, Dad said I needed to – ” he made quotation marks in the air – “first think through what I wanted to do, logically and maturely, so I could make an informed decision.” He rolled his eyes. “So now I’m working on my logical and mature list so he’ll say yes.”

“Good luck with that.” Daniel laughed.

“No sweat, I think I’ve got it figured out. Anyway, that’s why I’m a little short at the moment, cash-wise. See, the problem is that the tubing costs $29 per person for a night pass. That’s $60 just for the two of us and I’ve got less than twenty bucks on me. You said you’re paying for lunch, right?”

So much for changing the subject. He should have known Charlie wouldn’t be distracted for long. Besides, late lunch though it was, Daniel had agreed to pay and he was quick to reassure his brother. “Yes, it’s my treat and don’t worry about the money. I’ll pay for tonight, too.”

“You will?”

“Sure, you already sprung for the trip.”

“How much money did you bring?” Charlie straightened, his eyes bright with curiosity.

“Enough.” Daniel realized it was time for evasion.

"You sure?"

It would probably be best not to get into this with Charlie. They’d never discussed paychecks but he knew what Charlie made at his part-time job at the rec center. Since Daniel had come back from UCLA, he’d begun receiving a salary from the SGC for what he considered to be an astronomical amount of money. It always made him a little uncomfortable so he tried not to think about it.

Apart from his extremely generous salary, Daniel also had the money from his parents’ estate that Jack and Sara had put into a trust account for him. He preferred not to think about that either. Money wasn't an issue. Finding something to do tonight that wouldn't cause him complete and total humiliation was the issue.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said again. “I have us covered.”

“If you say so.” Charlie closed the brochure. “Tubing it is.”

Daniel shrugged his agreement. It was his only option. Whatever it was, he’d have to make the best of it.

The waitress appeared as if on cue. “I’ll take that when you’re ready.” She left the bill on the table after she refilled Charlie’s coke for the third time.

Charlie grabbed the bill and turned it over. “Look at this. Twenty-eight bucks for hamburgers, fries and cokes. I knew this place would be expensive. It was good but come on. Plus a five or six dollar tip. If you had hurried we could have made the free meal with the seniors. It was included.”

Daniel struggled not to laugh as he took the bill and tried to discreetly stick his credit card inside the leather holder.

“Hey, you have Dad’s credit card?” Charlie’s eyes went wide with surprise.

“No, I have my own credit card. What time are we meeting Lauren and Leah again?” Daniel hoped his attempted distraction worked.

Charlie paused a few beats before answering. “Seven.”

“It’s only five thirty. Why don’t we go check out where we’re staying tonight?” He really wanted to avoid a discussion on credit cards and salaries.

Charlie hesitated again. “Yeah, okay,” he finally agreed.

 

________________________________________

 

Charlie was still raving about their lodging when Lauren and Leah showed up at seven o’clock, right on time. Daniel agreed with him. The two-bedroom condo had a sitting room decorated in earth tones of brown, tan and sage, a nice bath for each of the bedrooms, even a small kitchen.

They were just walking into the common area when they spotted the girls coming out of an elevator, accompanied by an older man and woman. All of them were dressed in bright ski garb and Daniel felt self-conscious again. He hoped he didn't make a fool of himself tonight.

“Hi, I’m Tim Avocet, Lauren’s father and Leah’s uncle." The man was tall and slender with brown hair just going gray. He screamed 'banker' to Daniel. "And this is my wife Barbara.” The petite blonde woman looked a lot younger than her husband and her smile was distracting. Lauren blushed a cute shade of pink while Leah wrinkled her nose at her uncle.

Daniel understood the girls' embarrassment but didn't blame the parents. They wouldn’t want Lauren and Leah hanging out with two guys they’d never met. He was sure Jack would have done the same thing. Charlie was laying on the charm by the time Daniel was introduced.

“It’s nice to meet you, sir.” Daniel shook hands with both parents and Charlie followed his example. After a few more parent questions Mrs. Avocet fixed her daughter and niece with a stern look.

"Remember, you're to check in every hour and you need to be back up to the room by eleven." She looked from Charlie to Daniel when she said it and they both nodded. The girls were blushing again as they mumbled their agreement.

When the Avocets were finally satisfied they left to pick up their gear for a little night skiing of their own. Lauren watched them leave before offering Charlie a brilliant smile.

“We don’t have to go skiing.” She was probably afraid of running into her parents on one of the runs. “What about ice skating?”

“I was thinking we could go tubing. You guys said it was fun and we’ve never been.” Charlie to the rescue.

“It is," Leah exclaimed.

"It’s a blast!” Lauren confirmed. “It’s especially fun at night when you go super fast and can’t see where you’re going.”

Super fast? Daniel thought Lauren sounded like a female version of Charlie.

“We can all go down together, too.” Leah didn’t sound as into the high-speed night deal.

When they reached the lobby Daniel went over to the reception counter. He had noticed the sign earlier that tickets for the events could be purchased here and he was pleased to find the sign was correct. After purchasing four tickets, he rejoined the others by the front entry. He pretended not to notice Charlie's raised eyebrows when he passed around the tickets.

“All set?” he asked.

“We sure are!” Lauren exclaimed. “Thanks, guys, for taking care of the tickets.”

“I – ” Charlie started and Daniel cut in. “You’re welcome. Come on,” he added before his nosy brother could ask any questions. “We don’t want to waste any time.”

Behind the girls’ backs, Charlie gave Daniel an inquiring look, who responded with an innocent smile as they followed the girls outside. On the shuttle ride to the hill, Lauren and Leah and Charlie talked about school and classes and teachers. Daniel tried not to feel left out but he honestly couldn’t think of anything to add to the conversation. His life was so different from theirs.

“What’s your favorite class, Daniel?” Leah surprised him with the question. The girls were nice, there was no doubt about that. They were trying not to exclude him.

“I, um...” He blushed. He didn’t want to get into a long, fun-killing, boring talk about home schooling or UCLA.

“History and languages.” Charlie answered for him. “Those are Daniel’s favorites.”

Charlie winked at him and he understood. There was no need to share the details. The basics would work just fine.

"Here we are, folks," the shuttle driver called out as he pulled to a stop. "Adventure Point. And over there," he pointed out the window, "you'll be able to get a lift up the hill."

They scrambled out with a few other passengers. Daniel noted that here, at least, there were no senior citizens. Tubing seemed to be designed for kids, at least most of the people he saw were either teens or twenty-something’s, along with a few younger visitors with their parents.

"This looks great," Charlie enthused.

Daniel nodded as he looked around. The sky was dark and clouds hid most of the stars but overhead lights lit up the hill.

Hoots and hollers from the youngest members of the crowd caught his attention and reminded him how cold it was out here. Every time he exhaled he could see his breath and even though he was warmly dressed, the chilly air slapped his exposed face.

"Uh-huh, great." Daniel agreed when he realized Charlie was waiting for him to respond. He was here, and he was determined to make the best of it.

After they handed over their tickets they were each given a round inner tube before stepping into a futuristic-looking glass tunnel that encased a movable walkway, like an escalator without the steps that would shuttle them up to the top of the mountain.

Charlie and Lauren were in front of Daniel and Leah, and Daniel couldn't help noticing how closely she was standing beside Charlie.

“You’ve never been here before?” Lauren’s face was flushed and Daniel wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or from standing so close to his brother.

“I’ve been skiing and snowboarding here but never tubing. Should be fun.” Charlie rarely appeared rattled. It was a quality Daniel often envied.

“Let’s all go down together,” Leah exclaimed as she slipped her mittened hand under Daniel's arm.

“How do we do that?” Daniel tried to ignore her touch and maintain his composure.

“You’ll see.” The cousins looked at each other and giggled. Giggling was definitely a girl thing.

At the top of the mountain they stepped out of the way of those coming after them. Daniel saw there were at least a half a dozen runs going down the hill and Charlie led them to the one with the shortest line.

While they waited their turn Daniel watched as each person settled in a tube and then the workers pushed the tube down the mountain. The speeds varied from a gentle push to get going, all the way up to a high-speed spinning frenzy. The single riders went the fastest and he knew it wouldn’t be long before Charlie would have to zoom down alone. It looked like fun but Daniel wasn’t a fan of all the spinning.

Suddenly they were next. Daniel barely had time to wonder how that had happened when one of the employees, a young guy who didn't look much older than Charlie, wearing a name tag that said "Joe," grinned at them.

"Hi, guys. You going one at a time or all together."

"All together!" Lauren exclaimed before Charlie or Daniel could answer.

"Together it is." Joe helped them get into position, facing each other. "Okay, everyone lock their feet together," he added. It took a minute to get that right. Joe studied them carefully before nodding.

“You're all set. Now, I’ll give you a good push but if you really want to go fast, go down separately, or at least in twos, then see me. I can push you into killer spins.”

“Okay, we’ll be back,” Charlie promised.

Daniel shook his head again. His brother loved words like “killer” and “suicide,” especially when the descriptions were attached to rides and mountains and river rapids.

Joe gave them a push to get them started and the slope of the mountain did the rest. Leah grabbed Daniel’s hand and screamed as they picked up speed. He laughed when Charlie let out an excited yell and raised his hands in the air, just like he did when he rode on roller coasters to prove he was fearless. That was Charlie.

Daniel didn’t feel the need to scream but he didn’t feel the need to raise his hands in the air either. He hung on to the tube and Leah’s hand, trying not to tense at the slip-sliding, occasionally jolting motion that carried them down the mountain at blazing speed. The wind slapped him in the face, colder than ever, and tugged at his cap. He freed one hand to clap it down on his head, trying not to be overwhelmed by the screaming around him, from his own group and the others tubing down the mountain.

Everything outside of their own tube was a blur and Daniel's frozen nose began to run. He swiped at it then clutched his cap again. How long was this run? He'd forgotten to ask. Then again, maybe he didn't want to know.

Cold, fast, blur - it all ran together. Daniel lost his grip on the tube just as it hit a rough spot that made the whole contraption jump up slightly. His heart leaped into his throat; he was sure he was about to be thrown out. Abandoning his cap, he clutched the tube with both hands.

Miraculously, they began to slow down and he realized the mountain was leveling out. He sighed in relief and a minute later they slid to a stop.

Charlie bounded out of the tube and whipped around, grinning widely. "That was a blast! Let's go again!"

"Oh, lets!" the girls agreed in chorus as they clambered out.

Daniel followed more slowly, making sure no one was watching when he swiped furtively at his nose. He thought it was okay but his face was so frozen he couldn't be sure.

"Daniel?"

He felt guilty when Charlie's smile began to fade. "Right here," he said, trying to sound chipper. "All parts intact."

"Wasn't that fun?" Leah said, rubbing her mittened hands together.

Fun? Daniel hadn't had time on the ride down to think through what was happening. He’d been frozen, yes, fearing for his life, for sure. But fun? He looked back up the slope to see other tubers coming down and in the crisp cold air he heard lots of laughing and happy screaming and he began to smile.

"It was fun," he agreed.

Charlie's smile returned. "Totally! Hey, we should go down two at a time so we can go faster and spin around more.”

What a shock, Daniel thought in amusement. Not  

“Yeah, that’d be awesome,” Lauren agreed, which didn't surprise Daniel either.

They went back up the special lift and stood in Joe's line again. This time Charlie and Lauren paired up and spun down the mountain at maximum speed. Daniel watched them disappear down the hill, Charlie yelling like a maniac while Lauren screamed in his ear.

"That's my brother," Daniel offered, grinning.

"And my cousin," Leah said with a laugh. "I think I'd like to go down a little slower."

Hallelujah. "Sounds like a plan," he agreed cheerfully.

They were happy to glide down the mountain, going fast but not as fast as Charlie and Lauren. Leah even showed Daniel how to do a few basic maneuvers, for which he was grateful. An hour ago he wouldn't have believed it could be possible, but the truth was he was having a great time. In fact, he couldn’t remember having this much fun in the last few months, at least fun that didn’t involve work or the Stargate.

Who would've thought? The tubing reminded him of sliding down the sand dunes of Abydos with Skaara... or it would have reminded him if the weather was 60 degrees warmer.

They made several runs, as a group and in pairs. Charlie and Lauren eventually went down alone, each on their own, spinning and racing and yelling in jubilation. Daniel and Leah were content to let the other two be daredevils and went their own way a little more tamely while still managing to have a fantastic time.

Despite being tired and feeling like a human popsicle, Daniel was actually a little disappointed when the runs closed down at ten p.m. The four of them reluctantly turned in their tubes and took the last shuttle back to the lodge for a round of hot chocolate.

While Charlie chatted and the girls giggled, Daniel caught a glimpse of Lauren’s dad standing near the front desk when the foursome entered. The others were too engrossed in conversation to notice. Charlie was explaining how great it would be to make the tubing runs steeper and maybe ice them down for maximum speed. Lauren agreed wholeheartedly. Leah didn’t seem quite as enthused. Apparently satisfied his girls were safe, Mr. Avocet headed back toward the elevators with his daughter and niece none the wiser.

After they had their drinks in hand, they returned to the same spot where Daniel first met the girls earlier in the day. Happily, the fire was still going strong and he settled down in front of it, shivering in relief as the heat washed over him. Despite Charlie's earlier bravado about not being bothered by the cold, Daniel noted that even he chose to move his chair close to the fire.

Daniel was content to listen to the conversation around him with his nose buried in his mug of hot chocolate. Mmm, the smell was almost as good as the taste, and despite the insulated sides of the mug he could feel the warmth of his drink begin to unfreeze his fingers. Wonderful.

Conversation waned, becoming more sporadic as the last of their adrenalin faded and tiredness set in. Finally, a few minutes before eleven, Lauren stood up and her cousin followed her lead.

"I had a great time," she smiled happily, "but if we don't get up to our room ASAP my dad might come down and embarrass us."

“I totally get that,” Charlie agreed. "We had a great time, too. It'd be fun to do it again some time."

"It would."

This time Daniel had no doubt. Lauren was definitely flirting with Charlie. He kept his mouth shut and pretended he didn't notice. He was good at keeping secrets. They exchanged phone numbers and e-mails and said their goodbyes.   

“That was fun.” Charlie grinned at his brother after the girls were out of sight. “Lucky you hate outdoor sports so much or we never would have met them.”

“I don’t hate outdoor sports.” Daniel felt the need to defend himself.

“Admit it. You kind of do.”

“I liked the tubing.” Daniel wasn’t going to admit anything.

“Tubing’s not exactly a sport. There were eight-year-olds doing it."

Charlie had him there.

“Some of whom were spinning a lot faster than you were.” Charlie added a final jab.

Daniel only smiled. When his brother rose so did he and they walked to the elevator. At this time of the night they were alone and as the elevator began to rise, he leaned against the back wall, looking forward to a hot shower and a comfortable bed.

“I kind of liked Lauren. She was fun.” Charlie paused, deep in thought. “Daniel?”

“Yeah?”

“Are there any girls you’d like to.... you know, do it with?”

“Do it with?"  Daniel blushed and stalled for time.

“You know what I mean. Don’t make me spell it out.”

When he didn’t immediately answer Charlie’s eyes widened. “There is someone! Who is she?”

As much as he wanted to, Daniel couldn’t tell Charlie that his heart burned for a girl who lived on a desert planet light-years away. A girl from another place, another culture, another time. Except Sha’re was more than a girl, she was the perfect woman. Beautiful, intelligent, brave, yet playful and fun. She was everything Daniel could ever want or need. Just the thought of her made him feel things no one on Earth had ever made him feel.

Charlie was waiting, staring at him.

“Miley Cyrus.” It was the only teenage idol Daniel could think of to throw his big brother off the track. “You know, someone like her. What about you?”

“I’ve made out with a few girls at parties but no one I really, you know... loved. It’s complicated, isn’t?”

“It is.” Charlie had no idea.

Twenty minutes later Daniel stood under the piping hot water and let the rainforest shower pound down his back and warm his chilled bones. The fun of tubing hadn’t made it any less cold outside.

When he realized he was about to fall asleep standing up, he got out of the shower, toweled himself dry and walked out of the bathroom. He was surprised to see Charlie in what Daniel had thought was his room, sprawled on the queen-sized bed. Daniel looked at him in confusion.

“Are we switching rooms?” “Nope." Charlie rolled over onto his back and stretched. "I just wanted to ask you a few questions.”

Daniel’s radar went on high alert. His brother was wearing his determined look, the one he wore when he was serious, when he wouldn’t be denied.

“Did you call home yet?” He didn’t know what Charlie wanted to talk about, but he thought a distraction was in order.

“Yeah, Dad’s picking us up at eleven tomorrow morning in front of the Starlite Café.”

“Good. We’ll have time to get breakfast.”

“Yeah, as long as you don’t mind charging it.” Charlie stared at him. “And that brings me to my questions."

“Questions about what?” Striving to look casual, Daniel pulled his dirty t-shirt back on and flopped down in the comfortable chair beside the nightstand.

“Your credit card. Hello!”

“What about it?” Laid back with a confused look was Daniel’s best defense. He had the card, it worked, end of story.

“Come on, get it out. Let me see it.” Charlie rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Why should I?”

“How about because you’re fifteen years old and you have a gold credit card. You think I didn’t notice when you paid for lunch? Or is it platinum? I think that’s pretty interesting, don’t you?” Charlie was nothing if not persistent.

“You already saw it. It’s plastic and...” Maybe one minor admission would shut Charlie up. “It’s platinum.”

“I knew it! I knew it was platinum.” Charlie sat up, eyes gleaming. “How much money do you make a year?”

“Why do you want to know?” He was relieved his easygoing big brother didn’t seem upset about his little brother having a credit card, but why the interrogation? Daniel didn’t want to ruin what had turned out to be a fantastic day.

“Your salary’s not classified, is it?” Charlie was like a starving dog after a fresh steak bone.

Daniel couldn’t resist laughing. “No, of course not.” Uh-oh, he shouldn’t have answered so quickly. Charlie had given him an easy out. He should have taken it and said he’d have to check into it or something and ended the conversation. Too late now.

“At least tell me this. Do you make more money than Dad?”

“I don’t know.” Daniel had no idea how much money Jack made.

“I think he makes about ninety grand a year.” Charlie smoothly filled in the details.

“What?” Daniel blinked at his smirking brother. “How do you know that?” He doubted Jack shared the details of his salary with his nosy son.

“I googled it,” Charlie said smugly. “That’s what a Colonel makes with roughly the same amount of years in the military as Dad. He could make more or less but let’s just say that’s what he makes.”

Persistent and resourceful. And annoying, Daniel decided. Very annoying.

“I’m tired. Can you get off of my bed so I can get some sleep?”

“I make ten dollars an hour at the rec center. You know that, right?” Charlie paused expectantly. When Daniel didn’t react he continued. “We’re brothers. We shouldn’t have any secrets between us. You can tell me. I won’t tell anyone.”

No secrets? It was all Daniel could do to keep a straight face. There were secrets like “How much money do you make?” and then there were the “Did you know I spent last weekend on another planet?” -type secrets. If Charlie only knew.

He choked down his amusement. “I’m not going to tell you. Do you want me to sleep in your room?”

“Is it over fifty grand a year?” Charlie cocked his head.

“Fine.” Daniel stood up and headed toward the door.

“All right, all right.” Charlie jumped off the bed and punched him in the shoulder as he passed. “Thanks for today, bro. Sorry it was your Christmas present and you ended up paying for a lot of it.”

That’s what was bothering him? Daniel wished he could tell Charlie that the money meant nothing. The day and the fun they’d had together was something he’d never forget. He wasn’t about to word it that way. It might set Charlie on the money hunt again.

“If you hadn’t given me the trip for Christmas I wouldn’t have come and I’d have missed out on all the fun. So I should be the one thanking you.”

“Yeah, I knew that.” Charlie winked and hit the door frame on his way out a la Jack.

Daniel snuggled down under the covers of the luxurious bed, feeling warm and relaxed from the shower. The events of the day kept replaying in his thoughts. It had been fun hanging out with Charlie and spending time with people his own age. He wouldn’t have believed it was possible had it not happened.

He’d assumed today would be a day where he’d suck it up and get through it with a smile plastered on his face for Charlie’s sake. That was how the early part of the day had gone. Daniel wasn’t sure exactly when things had changed but they had and he’d had fun. It must be Charlie, he decided. It was hard not to have fun when his brother was around. It made him rethink the idea of hanging out with other teenagers.

Since the death of his parents, Daniel had been in a hurry to grow up. Being a kid made him vulnerable. He’d learned how vulnerable in the foster homes he’d landed in before he met a nurse named Sara O’Neill. Being a kid had been scary and painful, emotionally and, sometimes, physically.

The Stargate program had allowed him to grow up sooner rather than later and Daniel would always be grateful. He had never understood Jack and Sara’s worry about him not being a “regular” kid. He understood it better tonight. Charlie had once again showed him the fun side of being a kid, the good times without the burden of adult responsibilities or worries hanging over your head. Ice skating or tubing? Nice and simple. The fate of the planet didn’t hang in the balance.

He’d have to try this again sometime. Maybe he’d treat Charlie to a trip somewhere with his platinum credit card. The thought made him smile as he drifted off to sleep.

 

________________________________________

 

It was 10:55 when Jack pulled up at the rendezvous point in front of the Starlite Café. Hah, he'd timed this perfectly. If the boys were still eating he’d go inside, order a cup of coffee and join them.

Before he turned off the engine he spotted Daniel waving from the front door of the café. A few seconds later Charlie followed him out; the boys were laughing and lugging their gear. Charlie had his snowboard and a duffel bag stuffed with his boots and bindings and whatever else he had crammed in there. Daniel had his trusty backpack jammed with his Kindle and books and gloves and extra layers of clothing and, knowing Daniel, probably a few candy bars

Jack had taken Sara’s car this time and he popped the trunk so they could load up.

“Hey, Dad, you made it!” Charlie yelled out a greeting.

“Naturally,” Jack retorted, grinning as they approached.

They looked young and fresh and enthusiastic and he was glad they’d been able to spend some time together. He was especially glad it had gone off without a hitch and the boys hadn’t done anything to make him regret giving them permission for the overnighter. He was looking forward to Charlie’s exaggerated stories he was sure to hear on the ride home.

He waited until they'd dumped their gear in the trunk and slammed it shut before starting the car again. Charlie dove into the backseat, leaving the front for Daniel. That worked out well. Sometimes it was difficult to hear Daniel when he was in the backseat. If Charlie was in the trunk he’d still come through loud and clear.

“Thanks, Dad,” Charlie leaned forward, pulling against his seatbelt so he could rest his arms on the front seat, "for letting us stay. And for coming to pick us up."

“Yeah, thanks, Jack,” Daniel chimed in as he snapped his seat belt in place.  

“No problem.” Usually he was the guy who said no and nixed the fun things. It was nice being the hero for a change. “So who were these girls? How’d it go? I want details.”

“Well, I was out snowboarding, having fun, minding my own business." No surprise, Charlie jumped in first. "Imagine my surprise when I met up with Daniel in the lodge and found out he'd picked up two girls for us.

“Imagine,” Jack snorted.

“I didn’t pick them up."

Jack laughed, not missing Daniel’s blush.

“And they were nice girls,” Daniel added.

“I didn’t say they weren’t nice.” Charlie raised his hands as if Daniel was pointing a gun at him. “All I meant was when I got back you were hanging out with two girls. And you were.”

Jack enjoyed listening to the boys banter back and forth about who liked who first and whose idea it was to stay overnight and all the rest of it. It was a welcome break from the heavy stress of life at the SGC. Not to mention he and Sara had had a great time, just the two of them in the house. Hearing Daniel’s laughter made the long round-trip drive here and back worth every minute.

“I learned a lot on this trip.” Charlie finally wrapped it up and leaned back in the seat.

“Okay," Jack smirked.  "I’ll bite. What did you learn?” This ought to be entertaining.

“I learned that Daniel is totally inept at winter sports.” He grinned cheekily at his brother. “And I learned those snowboard lessons I paid for were a total waste of good money.”

“Not a total waste,” Daniel argued. He turned around to face Charlie. “You think someone should be able to take one lesson and be an expert. It takes a lot of practice to get good at something.”

“I didn’t expect you to be an expert. I thought maybe we’d be able to do a few runs together.”

“That’s not true.” Daniel gave Charlie a withering look before turning back to Jack. “You know Charlie. He doesn’t do moderate runs. I made it halfway down the beginner’s hill and he wanted to drag me off to Cat Dancer ‘proceed at your own risk’ Run."

“That’s my boy.” Jack didn’t doubt that much was true. It made him wonder if Daniel had actually had fun or if he had put on an act for Charlie. He snuck a sideways glance at his youngest son and had his answer. The boy’s smile was the rare, genuine one.

Charlie wasn’t finished. “The other thing I learned is that my little brother is rich, which goes directly to the picking-up-girls part."

“I’m not rich. Besides, they didn’t even know I had a credit card.” Daniel shifted in his seat, obviously uncomfortable with the subject.

“Maybe not but it’ll come in handy for picking up women in the future.” Charlie was rarely uncomfortable with any subject.

Jack had known this would come up sooner or later. Now he wondered how in-depth they’d discussed the money issue and how Charlie really felt about it. He was joking now but Jack couldn’t help wondering if it bothered him. He would love to have seen the look on Charlie’s face the first time Daniel pulled out the card. Charlie wasn’t known for being subtle.

“I assume you know Daniel has a platinum credit card.” Charlie tapped Jack’s shoulder.

“He works for the Air Force, Charlie. After he and your mom got back from UCLA the Air Force gave him a full-time job and he got a credit card.” He decided to ask outright. “Does that bother you?”

“Why should it bother me? Now if you and Mom say no when I ask for money, I can ask Daniel.” His grin was mischievous.

“Charlie...” That thought hadn’t occurred to Jack.

“Kidding, Dad. I’m kidding.”

“You better be.” Jack would have to remember to tell Daniel not to lend money to Charlie for any harebrained scheme that had already been nixed by his parents.

“So, as you can see, I learned a lot this weekend.”

Jack checked the rearview mirror to see his oldest son leaning back with his hands behind his head. He was officially done. Time to check in with his youngest.

“How about you, Daniel?”

“I had fun and I learned a few things, too.” Daniel spoke slowly and gave the question far more thought than Charlie had. Still, Jack knew his answer would be equally as entertaining.

“I learned I can’t snowboard, I like tubing, and teenage girls giggle a lot, especially around Charlie.”

“They do not." Charlie jumped back into the conversation, sounding indignant. "You were there, too. They could have been giggling over you.”

They spent the rest of the ride home arguing the point. Jack didn't bother to intervene because they were laughing and joking around as much as they were disagreeing. He enjoyed listening to them being so light-hearted.

It had been weeks since he'd been able to spend time talking with Charlie for any length of time, or with Daniel for that matter. On any given day he saw Daniel more than Charlie, but their paths didn’t always cross at the Mountain. When they did, they were usually discussing work-related issues, which wasn’t the same as talking about girls and snowboarding and other subjects teenage boys tended to discuss.

When he finally turned onto their street, the boys began gathering their things. Jack glanced at them one last time, realizing he had learned some things, too. Charlie and Daniel were close. They’d come a long way since the day Sara had brought Daniel into their home. Now they were brothers in the truest sense of the word. It made Jack content to know they’d always have each other.

He’d also learned that Daniel could still have fun being a kid. That was a relief and something he’d be sure to share with Sara since it was something they both worried about.

Most importantly, Jack had learned that he needed to be wary of Charlie around Daniel’s credit card. A successful trip all around.

 


On to Part 2

 

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