Inculcation By Kalimyre
It’s been a long time since I waited in the principal’s office. No need to go into just how long it’s been--let’s just say that I could have been perfectly happy never visiting another principal’s office. Ever.
I never had to do this stuff for Charlie. Sara took care of all the school arrangements. I was always away on missions, working even when I was home, crazy hours, training...
I think I’m only now starting to realize how much I missed.
Daniel doesn’t look nearly as uncomfortable as I feel. He’s sitting at the other end of the hard wooden bench, quietly going over the forms sitting in his lap, the tip of his pencil sneaking between his lips every so often to be nibbled on. But then, Daniel is good at projecting calm confidence even when he’s totally out of his depth.
Danny sits between us, his arms snug around his middle, wary eyes on the closed door to the inner sanctum. We’re just in the waiting room, with a secretary, a perpetually ringing phone, a haphazard collection of filing cabinets, and two long benches. On the other bench, a boy who looks to be about twelve stares openly at us. I meet his gaze and he slides his eyes away after a moment, focusing instead on Danny. Danny carefully avoids eye contact. Apparently he, like me, took in this kid’s slouched posture and dark scowl and labeled him as trouble.
Danny’s feet are swinging, his sneakered toes not quite reaching the floor. He shifts forward a little and stretches his legs out, and manages to make brief contact with the carpet for a moment. He draws his feet back and swings them again, frowning.
I think it’s deliberate, having the bench that high off the floor. Makes kids feel small and unmoored. I put a hand on Danny’s back briefly, offer him a smile and a nod. He gives me a small, tight smile in return, and I feel him take a long breath, his back rising and falling under my palm.
“Mr. Jackson?” the secretary calls, raising her head to catch Daniel’s eye. “Mr. Sherwood will see you now.”
We rise together, Danny slipping off the bench and landing on his feet with a small thud. I keep my hand on his shoulder, and he makes no move to shake me off. “That would be Doctor Jackson,” I correct the lady behind the desk. Daniel shakes his head a little at me, rolling his eyes. Hey, if he isn’t going to take some pride in his accomplishments, I’ll do it for him.
“Oh,” the secretary says, blinking. I never did get her name. “Sorry, Doctor Jackson.”
“That’s okay,” he replies quickly. She gets a distracted, faintly apologetic smile; I get an impatient look. Now I ask you, is that fair?
Then we’re going into the inner office, with its polished walnut door and its interior windows with the closed blinds. Inside, there are large, comfortable chairs on one side of the room, and another wooden bench on the other. I steer Danny firmly toward the chairs and he climbs into one, pulling his feet up and folding his legs beneath him. Maybe that makes him feel taller.
The man behind the desk looks up at us, and doesn’t even blink at Danny’s dirty sneakers on his nice, plush chair. He’s in his mid forties, chunky, with a soft middle that shows as he stands up, dark brown hair and eyes, and ridiculous sideburns. Longer than Daniel’s, even.
“You must be Doctor Jackson,” he says, smiling and holding a hand out. He has chipmunk cheeks, thick and pudgy.
“Hello.” Daniel takes the hand and shakes it once, nodding. “This is Jack O’Neill,” he says, indicating me.
“Mr. O’Neill.” He makes it a question, offering me a hand and raising his eyebrows.
“Colonel, actually.” I shake the hand, and refrain from squeezing extra hard. No need to intimidate anyone just yet.
He nods and sits back down, waving at us to do the same. Then he smiles at Danny, not the big toothy smile he showed us, but a small, quiet one. “Hi. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. You are...?”
“Danny Jackson,” he replies. His voice is steady, but he makes no move to unwrap his arms from around his middle.
“I’m Mr. Sherwood. I’ll be your principal here at Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy. It’s nice to meet you, Danny.” He keeps eye contact with Danny the whole time he’s speaking, his voice low, but not deliberately slowed or sugary.
Danny nods and offers a small smile.
Sherwood apparently realizes that’s all he’s going to get, because he focuses on us again. He looks back and forth between Daniel and I, and his expression is carefully neutral. “Are you both Danny’s parents?”
Well. Isn’t that politically correct.
“No,” Daniel and I answer together. He gives me a look and I shut up, letting him run with it. “I’m Danny’s father,” he says, managing to get the words out without looking startled to be saying them. This time. “Jack is... a friend of the family.”
“I’m also his commanding officer, and the person who is authorized to pick Danny up if Doctor Jackson is... unavailable for any reason,” I add.
Sherwood nods and doesn’t pry further. I’m starting to like him. He leans forward, steeples his hands together, and gets down to it. “As you’re aware, we gave Danny several placement tests since you informed us that he had never been in public or private school before. He scored quite highly, particularly in reading comprehension and language skills.”
He looks up like he’s waiting for us to be surprised. When we clearly aren’t, he blinks and moves on. “His math skills are more consistent with his age, but still high enough to take him beyond the second grade. We have several programs for gifted children here, and I believe Danny belongs in one of them.”
Daniel smiles and nods at Danny, who visibly straightens, basking in the approval. I can’t help grinning myself. It’s not like I had a hand in making the kid so smart, but it’s fun to show him off a little.
“I’d also like to consider skipping him to third, or more likely, fourth grade.”
Daniel’s smile disappears. “No,” he says, curling his mouth around the word. “He’s already starting in April, and having to catch up to a class that’s been in school for most of the year.”
Sherwood gives Danny an uncomfortable glance. Before this meeting, it was made clear to us that children are not usually part of the placement process, but Daniel insisted. He made a deal with Danny--if the kid could behave, then he could be a part of the meeting. If he became disruptive, I would take him outside and Daniel would make the arrangements without him. Danny argued and pouted and generally resented the hell out of his Kayel not automatically giving him whatever he wanted, but he eventually gave in.
So far, Danny is being good. We’ll see how long it lasts.
“I don’t think Danny will have any problems keeping up academically,” the principal says. “And to place him in a class that doesn’t challenge him would only lead to boredom and potential acting out.”
He’s wasting his breath. I’ve already argued this one with Daniel, and he’s not budging.
“Danny has never been in a school environment before. He’s not accustomed to dealing with a large group of children his own age. He’s only recently lost his mother and come into my custody,” Daniel says, ticking the points off on his fingertips. The ‘lost his mother’ thing is our cover story. Officially, Danny has been living alone with his mother for the past seven years, and only came to live with his “father” after her death. “I hardly think we need to add the difficulty of dealing with being the youngest kid in class on top of all his other obstacles.”
Danny is watching the floor, and I can’t see his face. I’m not sure how he feels about Daniel speaking for him--and about him--like this, but it’s pretty obvious how Daniel feels about it. This skipping grades thing is another one of those issues that he’s taking very personally.
Sherwood doesn’t know Daniel the way I do, and he doesn’t know the situation, but apparently he reads people well enough to know that this isn’t negotiable. Still, he offers one last compromise. “How about third grade? Most third graders are eight. Danny will be eight in less than three months. Based on his test scores, he’d have no trouble keeping up in class, and the age gap wouldn’t be significant.”
Daniel thinks for a moment, and then turns to the kid. “What do you think? What grade do you want to start with?”
Danny looks up, startled. He stares at Daniel for a long moment, his eyebrows raised, and Daniel gives him a smile. ‘Yes,’ his face says. ‘You do get to choose.’
“Third grade sounds okay,” Danny agrees. “I could try it, and if it doesn’t work out, maybe we could change things?”
“Deal,” Daniel says, and grins when Danny sticks his little hand out to be shaken. Daniel takes it and pumps it twice, with great solemnity betrayed by the laughter lurking in his eyes.
Sherwood watches all this with a crooked little half smile, and he takes his cue from Daniel, addressing his next words to the kid. “Very well,” he says seriously. “I’ll inform Mrs. Erbes that she’ll have a new student starting... does next week work for you?”
Danny tilts his head to one side, considering this. A tiny frown line appears between his eyebrows, and he purses his lips in a way that is very familiar to me. “I think I could do next week.”
Sherwood catches Daniel’s eye and receives a subtle nod. “All right. I’d also like to enroll you in the honors course for reading and language development. In that group, you would be with some older children, but also some younger ones. The class is arranged by skill level, not age, and it’s only one hour out of the day. For the rest of the day, you’d be with your regular class.”
“I guess that’s okay,” Danny replies, with the air of one conferring a great favor. I duck my head to hide a smile. In the two weeks that Danny has been with us, we’ve learned that he’s very touchy about not being taken seriously. It’s just hard to reconcile that regal demeanor with the short little legs.
Taking a few more forms out of a desk drawer, Sherwood hands them across to Daniel. “Just have these filled out to be given to the teacher on his first day. They’re intended to give her a better understanding of Danny’s personality and needs. And this,” he pulls out a packet of stapled paper, “is an explanation of the school rules. Please note that Danny will be expected to have the proper school uniform when he starts attending class. The main PX here on base carries the uniform in several sizes. You can also order from the school website.”
Daniel nods and hands the rules over to Danny. The kid takes them, but doesn’t read them. He’s fixing the principal with a suspicious stare. “Uniform?” he echoes thinly.
“I wear a uniform every day,” I put in before Danny can get himself worked up. “And so does your father.” Damn, that’s weird to say. “All the other kids will be wearing the same thing, so nobody will hassle you about what you’re wearing.”
The wary look is directed at me. “Is it yucky green like your uniform?”
Daniel snorts and then quickly schools his expression. “Danny!” he says, trying to sound stern. “That’s not very nice.”
Danny doesn’t seem overly concerned by this. “Well, it is yucky. Why can’t I wear my regular clothes?”
“This is part of going to school,” I hedge, lacking a better answer for him. I’m sure there are some very good arguments for school uniforms. I just don’t have them on the tip of my tongue right at the moment.
“Why do I have to go to school anyway?” Danny counters. He’s sitting forward in his chair now, feet dangling a good six inches off the floor, hands clenched on the armrests. He turns to Daniel, leaning a little more toward him. “Why can’t you just teach me at home, like Mom and...” He snaps his mouth shut, catching himself at the last moment. We’ve gone over the cover story with him several times, and so far, he hasn’t messed up, but that was pretty close.
Sherwood clears his throat and shift uncomfortably. Danny glares at him, and he offers a weak smile. “Ah, perhaps you’d like to discuss this with your son privately?” he hints at Daniel, lifting his eyebrows meaningfully.
Daniel blinks at hearing the kid referred to as ‘your son,’ but he takes the hint. “Yes. Danny, remember our deal?”
Danny scowls and shakes his head, folding his arms and thumping his heels against the chair legs.
“Danny.” He waits for a response, and when it becomes obvious that he won’t get one, Daniel sighs and stands. “We can talk about it. I’ll listen to you, but only if you can speak to me. Silence doesn’t get you anywhere. Now come outside with me, and we’ll talk.”
Heaving a huge, put-upon sigh, Danny nods and slides off the chair, making a production of it to indicate just how unfair the world is to perfectly innocent kids like him. He pushes the door open and stomps out, not waiting for Daniel to follow. Daniel bites back what clearly wants to be a shouted reprimand and hurries to catch up, casting me a look over his shoulder. “Jack,” he says, indicating Sherwood with his eyes.
I nod and wave at him to catch Danny. I’ve got this part covered.
“Perhaps it was wiser after all to keep him within his own peer group,” Sherwood says musingly. “His emotional age is not quite at the level of his mental age, is it?”
I shrug, spreading my hands wide. “He’s had a rough time lately. He and Daniel are still getting used to each other.”
“Daniel,” he echoes. “So he’s named for his father?”
You don’t know the half of it. “Yeah.”
He nods. “I can see the resemblance. Quite striking.”
And I say again, you don’t know the half of it. “Listen, Mr. Sherwood, there’s something else I need to discuss with you.”
Sherwood focuses on me and straightens in his seat, touching his fingertips together in front of him. “Yes?”
“Danny is... unusual,” I start, trying to figure out how to phrase this. “His father is a highly valued civilian consultant in the mountain. Very highly valued.”
“I surmised as much when I noticed that General Hammond had personally made the request to the admissions board that Danny be enrolled.”
“Right. Well, there is some concern about Danny’s... security.”
Sherwood nods sagely. “We have less than five hundred students in this school, Colonel, and we take every one of them seriously. Many of them are children of Generals, or of highly placed officials at NORAD. We have extremely tight security measures here.”
“I’m sure. But I want to make this very clear--no one is to take Danny from this school but Doctor Jackson or myself.”
I watch him for a moment, waiting for that eye-roll, that ‘oh, another paranoid parent’ expression, but it’s not there. He’s taking me at my word.
I stand up and extend a hand, and he follows suit, matching my grip with more strength than I would have credited in those pudgy arms. “Nice meeting you,” he says.
“Backatcha,” I toss over my shoulder as I head out. I can hear him chuckle softly, and I grin a little. All things considered, he could have been a lot worse. I think Danny will do all right here. Provided, of course, that Daniel can talk him around. But hey, Daniel can talk anyone around. It’s what he does.
I find them on a bench near the playground. It’s empty right now, all the kids in class, I guess, and I can’t help staring. There’s something about still swings and the little huddle of basketballs in one corner of the paved court that’s... hollow. It reminds me of a house where children used to run through the halls, but don’t anymore. Something I know more about than I ever wanted to.
Daniel has the kid in his lap and he’s speaking to him quietly, one hand rubbing up and down his back in long, sure strokes. His hand is big enough to touch both of Danny’s shoulders at the same time.
“You hafta tell me stuff,” Danny mutters, still scowling a little. “I didn’t know about the uniforms and I didn’t know about what grade I would be in or anything. You hafta tell me. I don’t like not knowing.”
“I know,” Daniel replies. “I’m sorry. I understand why you were upset. But if something bothers you, you need to tell me. Not speaking and running away mad doesn’t solve anything. That behavior is not okay, do you understand?”
Danny shrugs and picks at a few bark chips that are scattered on the bench. The whole playground is covered with them. The place smells pleasantly of wet cedar.
“Listen to your dad,” I say sternly, stepping into the conversation. It’s still so weird referring to Daniel that way. I can’t remember how many times Sara would tell Charlie to listen to me in exactly that way, and now I’m doing it. And Daniel was worried about being the woman in this relationship? Looks like it’s the other way around.
Daniel stares at me, wide eyed, and the kid twists in his lap, still scowling. “He’s not my dad,” he counters petulantly. “He’s my Kayel.”
All right, that’s enough. I’ve put up with this Kayel thing without protest up until now, but it’s time to draw a line. If Daniel is going to have any authority with this kid, he can’t continue to support this fantasy. “Daniel?” I ask pointedly. “You want to field this one?”
Daniel shifts uncomfortably, looking between me and the kid. We’re both staring at him expectantly. “Jack... he does have a point. I’m not his father.”
Oh no you don’t, Daniel. “You’ve adopted him legally. He is in your custody. Maybe you haven’t been his father all his life, but you are now.”
Daniel swallows and stares at the kid. “He’s right, you know,” he murmurs, as if he’s telling Danny a secret.
“You said you were my Kayel,” Danny insists. His lower lip is starting to creep out, his brows drawn together, low and heavy over his eyes. “You said so. I asked, and you said yes.”
I knew this was going to come back to bite him on the ass. Daniel gives me a helpless look, and I shake my head. He dug this hole, and much as I’d like to help him out, he’s the one who has to set the kid straight.
“Danny...” He sighs and hugs the kid closer, but Danny squirms away, not willing to be placated.
“You said,” he repeats, fixing Daniel with a steely glare. “You said you were!”
“Well... I am,” Daniel replies, and I sink down on the bench beside them.
He holds a hand up toward me, not looking away from the kid. “I am. After all, I speak the language, don’t I? I knew about the cameras, and I knew what you needed. I took you somewhere safe, and I’m still taking care of you. I’m doing all the Kayel things.”
Danny nods slowly, his chin thrust out, his eyes narrowed. He’s waiting for the catch. So am I.
“So you’re the Kayel.”
“Yes, but,” Daniel holds a finger up, “there’s more to being the Kayel than just that. Did you ever consider what happens next?”
Oh, this is interesting. Something tells me Daniel is about to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Danny is frowning again, but it’s a puzzled look this time. “Next?” he asks. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, after the Kayel takes you away from the foster system and brings you home. What happens next?”
Danny blinks slowly, his eyes huge and round behind his glasses. “I... I never thought about it.”
“Well, now you know,” Daniel replies, smiling broadly. “After the Kayel takes you home, he adopts you, and becomes your new dad. Just like I did. So, see, I can be the Kayel and your dad.”
“Oh,” Danny says. “But you’re still gonna always be on my side, right? Cause that’s what the Kayel does.”
Aha, the kid is no slouch in the negotiating department himself. Daniel’s going to have to do some serious wiggling to get around this.
“I’ll be on your side, if,” Daniel holds up a finger again, “if it means doing whatever is best for you. And breaking the rules is not what’s best for you. So as long as you’re honest with me and tell me what you need, I’ll try to help. If you don’t talk to me, or you do something you know is wrong, I can’t help.”
“Who says what’s best for me?”
Point to Danny. Damn, this kid is good. I’m watching this like a spectator at a tennis match, going back and forth between the two of them.
Daniel thinks for a moment, and then includes me with his eyes when he answers. “All three of us. If there’s a decision, we discuss it together, and we come to an agreement. But you need to understand that what you want and what’s best for you are not always the same thing.”
“Is too,” Danny argues.
“What about when you wanted Jack’s ice cream and you snuck downstairs in the middle of the night and ate it all? You got what you wanted--and you also got sick. Was that the best thing?”
Ah, yes. Coming down the stairs that morning, I found melted ice cream soaking the carpet, followed by ice cream that had spent an indeterminate amount of time in Danny’s stomach, and then, curled on the living room rug, a whimpering little kid who looked far too pathetic to get angry with. Which is the only thing that saved him. That was a real fun morning.
Danny grumbles and shrugs and avoids Daniel’s gaze, until Daniel lifts his chin with two fingers and clears his throat pointedly. “No, I guess not,” Danny concedes, sotto voce.
“You’re smarter than a little baby, right?” I interject. I figure Daniel could use a little backup.
“Yeah...” Danny says, drawing the word out suspiciously.
“Because you’re older, right? You’ve seen more stuff, you’ve learned more, because you’ve had more time.”
“Well, maybe--just maybe--your dad and I have learned more than you, because we’ve been around longer. Maybe we might know a little more about what’s best for you.”
Danny looks like that concept tastes bad in his mouth, but he nods grudgingly. “Because you’re old,” he says.
Daniel snorts and looks away for a moment, his lips twitching. I shove his shoulder and he blinks at me innocently. Right. Danny can do innocent. Barely. Daniel and innocent parted ways quite some time ago.
“So, are we clear?” Daniel asks, steering us back on track.
“Yeah. You’re my Kayel... but now you’re my new dad. And Jack’s my secret dad.”
Daniel and I exchange a look. Getting Danny to understand the need to keep our relationship secret was one hell of a battle. He just couldn’t wrap his head around why people finding out would be bad. We wound up telling him it was a special family secret, and nobody outside our family could know about us, and he seemed to accept that. If he does let the cat out of the bag... well, I’ve retired before. I could handle doing it again.
“Okay, kiddo,” I say, standing and dusting my hands together. “It looks like we’ve got a school uniform to buy.”
Danny wrinkles his nose and moans theatrically. “Oh maaaaaaan...”
Daniel and I exchange a grin over his head. “Tell you what,” Daniel says. “Since you’re going to be good about buying a uniform,” he pauses long enough for Danny to nod dutifully, “how about you play with us on the playground for a while?”
Danny lights up, bouncing off the bench and dropping the martyred act instantly. “Really? Will you push me on the swings?”
“Youbetcha,” I reply, grinning at him. “I’ll push you so high you’ll fly off into space.”
“Nuh-uh,” he says, shaking his head. “You will not.”
I jump forward like I’m going to grab him and he shrieks happily and tears off, churning up bark chips in a long trail across the playground. Daniel and I follow at a more sedate pace. Daniel lets his hand brush mine, the edges of our palms grazing together ever so lightly, and then he pulls back, mindful of the public location. “Thanks,” he murmurs.
“Don’t thank me,” I reply. “You handled this one on your own. Nice save with the Kayel thing, by the way.”
He cuts me a sideways smile. “It sounded good? I was pretty much making it up as I went along.”
“No, really? I couldn’t tell at all.”
Daniel rolls his eyes and shoves me with his shoulder, knocking me a step to the right. Damn, but he’s gotten strong.
“Come onnnnn!” Danny hollers, already sitting in the swing and kicking his legs. “I thought you were gonna push me!”
“Try that again,” I say, coming up beside him. He looks to Daniel for help and gets nothing but a stern look, so he sighs and rolls his eyes.
“Push me, please?”
“That’s better.” I get behind him, wrap my hands around his skinny little hips, and pull him back until he’s over my head. Then I run forward, ducking underneath him and letting him swing back behind me. He whoops and kicks his feet, grinning hugely at both of us.
Daniel and I take a couple steps back, out of the range of those lightning feet, and he lets his shoulder bump mine again. “You’re pretty good at this,” he says softly, and I get the feeling he’s not just talking about pushing a kid on a swing.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” I tell him.
He looks at me, the small smile gone from his face, his eyes steady on mine. “Really?”
I reach out and squeeze his shoulder, hard, meeting his gaze with a direct stare. “Yes, Daniel, really. You’re going to be great.”
He holds my eyes for a long moment, and then nods. “Thanks, Jack,” he says quietly.
Ah, the first day of school. Well, not really, since it’s April, but it is Danny’s first day. This is another thing I missed with Charlie... really missed. He started kindergarten while I was having my unscheduled vacation in Iraq. I was home again when he started first grade, but somehow that just doesn’t count.
“Danny! We’re going to be late!” Daniel is waiting at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at the empty hallway, where the kid has yet to emerge. He’s already called him twice, and he’s starting to get that impatient little twitch.
“He probably doesn’t want us to see him in that uniform,” I say.
Daniel glances at me and nods, and then pauses and looks again, his eyes narrowing. “Jack?”
He leans closer, drops a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Sure,” I shrug. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
Daniel gives me one of his long, scrutinizing stares, and I meet his gaze, not dropping my eyes. That would be a dead giveaway. He squints and his eyebrows knit together suspiciously. “Uh-huh,” he says slowly. “You have issues, don’t you?”
“Not issues. Just... ancient history. Doesn’t matter.”
He opens his mouth to argue with me, but is interrupted by the sound of a door opening at the top of the stairs. Danny stomps out of his room and down the steps, scowling fiercely at the floor the whole time. When he arrives in front of us, he glares up, his little jaw outthrust, daring us to laugh. “I look stooooo-pid,” he moans, tugging at his shirt.
“No you don’t,” Daniel counters automatically, but I can see his lips twitching, his jaw quivering slightly as he struggles for control. Because Danny has a point. The dark blue slacks and blazer looked fine on the rack, but we never put it together with the simple white button down shirt and the slim, brick colored tie. With the whole ensemble, including shiny brown loafers and black dress socks that are already sliding down to rumple around his ankles, he looks like a... a doll, or something. His dark blonde hair spiking over his forehead and the wire rim glasses only add another layer of absurdity to the image.
“You get to take the jacket off when you get there,” I say. I’ve already told him several times before today that everyone else would be wearing the same uniform, so now the idea of removing that jacket is the only consolation I have left.
Danny snorts and shrugs the blazer off his shoulders, catching it over one arm. The resulting image of a pint-size businessman in a shirt and tie isn’t exactly an improvement.
“Oh,” Daniel says weakly. “Well... everyone else will be wearing the same thing.”
I give him a dirty look. That was my line. My only line. No fair stepping on it.
“Why can’t I wear my regular clothes?” Danny asks, dropping the scowl and going for a wounded, pleading look. “This stuff is too hot, and it itches me, and how will I play outside? Don’t we get to play at this school?”
“Sure you get to play,” Daniel replies, rallying to a new angle. “There’s art time and music and a gym class where you get to change into shorts and a tee shirt and run around with the other kids.”
“That’s not playing.”
Daniel looks at me for help, but I can only shrug. The kid does have a point. Personally, I think the idea of a seven year old in a suit is just plain silly. I’ve seen the way he plays. He likes to dig, for one thing. Our backyard is never going to recover. I used to have flowers, you know? Not that I’m all that big on the whole flower thing, but they were pretty nice. Not anymore--not since Danny did some ‘excavating.’ Those slacks aren’t going to last a week. And the nice, shiny shoes? Might as well wave goodbye to them right now.
Sighing, Daniel crouches down and puts his hands on Danny’s shoulders. “I know this is hard,” he says. “I was pretty nervous when I first started working with Jack at the SGC. It’s scary to start something new with people you don’t know, in a place that’s unfamiliar. But school is like your job, okay? Sometimes we have to do hard things for our jobs.”
Danny leans forward until his forehead rests against Daniel’s shoulder. He heaves a long sigh that seems to come from his toes. “I don’t like this,” he mutters. “I don’t like this at all.”
I come up behind him and put a hand in his hair, running it through my fingers. His head is frighteningly small and fragile against my palm. “Give it a week. Just get through that first week, and if you really, really hate it, we’ll see about making some changes.”
He looks over his shoulder at me, finally smiling a little. “We will? Really?”
“Okay,” he says. “Deal.” And he sticks his hand out, waiting for the ritual shake. I asked Daniel about the kid’s handshaking thing once, and he explained to me about all the haggling he’d seen in the street markets of Egypt, and how every deal was done with overblown dramatics and then sealed with a handshake. I said that the overblown dramatics thing explained a lot. And not just about the kid. Daniel shoved me onto the couch and said that if I was going to have a smart mouth, he had a better use for it.
But I digress.
I shake the kid’s hand with all the gravity he expects, and then we hustle our butts out to the truck. I’m going to have to do some creative driving to get us there on time.
Seventeen dashboard gripping minutes later, we arrive with time to spare. Daniel makes a production of wobbling his way out of the truck, muttering something under his breath about how he used to think wormholes were a wild ride.
Danny has already unhooked his seatbelt and slipped out of his booster seat, and he pauses by the open door of the truck, staring at the fenced playground. It’s full of running, screaming kids, and he seems a little more relaxed when he sees that they’re all wearing the uniform. Most of the boys have their jackets off and their sleeves rolled up, and they’re not letting the expensive shoes keep them from playing hard. The girls wear a similar outfit, with a dark blue knee length skirt instead of slacks, and a high collared white blouse with no tie.
“Let’s go meet your teacher,” Daniel says, drawing the kid away from the playground.
Danny drags his feet, casting lingering looks at the game of tag going on closest to our side of the fence. “I’m going to meet her in a little while anyway,” he argues, moving a little slower. “Can’t I play instead?”
Daniel looks surprised, and then pleased. I guess he didn’t think the kid would be willing to go out on his own so soon. “Do you know where your classroom is?”
Danny, sensing a victory, is already heading for the sidewalk that leads through the gap in the fence. “You showed me when we signed up.”
“And you’re going to go there when the bell rings?”
Danny rolls his eyes. “Yes. You told me. A lot.”
I start to laugh, and then turn it into a cough when Daniel looks at me. I try for an innocent blink, which completely fails to fool him.
“Your teacher will put you on the shuttle to the mountain’s daycare center after school,” Daniel calls after Danny’s swiftly retreating back.
“I know,” Danny shouts, starting to pick up his pace.
“She’ll have our numbers at work, so she can call us if you need anything.”
Danny stops, plants his hands on his hips, and wheels to face us. “You can go now,” he says firmly. “I’m okay. I’ll be fine.”
Daniel blinks as the kid joins the throng of other kids, and he lifts his hand in a wave that is completely ignored. “Wasn’t he supposed to be nervous?” he asks me.
I want to put an arm around his shoulders, but I settle for clapping a hand briefly on his back. “He was nervous. But you spent so much time explaining everything and letting him know exactly what would happen this past week that he got over it fast. Which was the whole point, right?”
“I guess.” Daniel has a faint smile on his face, but his eyes are troubled. “I just wasn’t expecting it to be this easy.”
“Does it feel easy to you?”
He gives me a long look. “No,” he says, finally. “Not really.”
I nod, brushing my hand against his shoulder, a quick, fleeting touch. “When people say that the first day of school is hard, they’re not talking about the kid. They’re talking about the parents.”
“Yeah.” He watches Danny race another boy up the monkey bars, and then he shakes himself and takes a deep breath. “We should go meet his teacher before class starts.”
So we head into the building, a long, low, friendly looking structure, all warm red bricks and big windows with white wooden frames. The hallway echoes with kid’s voices and running footsteps, interspersed with the occasional adult calling for someone to slow down or stop pushing. Two giggling girls with pigtails run in front of us, swerving around us and zipping back the other way. Daniel watches them go, still looking faintly bemused and more than a little lost.
I’m looking at the artwork on the walls--fingerpaints, mostly. It’s not on paper, but on the walls themselves, which have a white background almost completely hidden by the layers of brightly colored handprints. It brings back a memory of fingerpainting with Charlie on the back deck with startling clarity, and I clear my throat and start walking faster.
“This way,” I say, urging Daniel ahead. He jogs a couple steps to catch up, and then casts me a sideways look, frowning.
I glance at him, and shake my head slightly. “It’s nothing.”
He just looks at me, and then nods once. I get the message--he’ll drop it, but only for now.
The third grade classroom is brightly lit, one wall covered with windows that go nearly floor to ceiling, looking out on the park behind the school. Little desks are arranged in rows, with carefully written names taped to each one. Two big blackboards--except they’re actually green--face the class, and the teacher’s desk sits diagonally across one corner, where she can see the whole class and the door.
The teacher herself is writing math problems on the board, simple multiplication in a smooth, curving script straight out of a penmanship book. She smiles over at us when we walk in, dusts chalk from her hands (now there’s a smell that takes me back) and offers one still chalky hand to be shaken.
“Hello,” she says. “Are you Danny’s parents?”
Ah, the politically correct joy. It’s nice to know that if I ever retire and Daniel and I come out, there are at least some places that won’t blink an eye.
“I am,” Daniel says, taking her hand. “This is my friend and co-worker, Jack. I wanted him to meet you because he might be picking Danny up from school sometimes.”
She nods and takes my hand as well. She’s got a warm, brown skin tone, hair done into what seems like a hundred tiny braids, and a round frame that strikes me as pleasantly soft-edged. She looks like somebody’s grandmother. “I understand that Danny is one of our high security children,” she says.
“That’s right.” Daniel points at me, and then himself. “We are the only ones who can remove Danny from class. No matter what ID someone else might show you.”
“Don’t worry,” she tells him. “We take security very seriously here. Now, what can you tell me about Danny himself? I understand he’s been home schooled until now?”
Daniel nods and launches into the cover story. Basically, we’re saying that Danny lived in Egypt with his mother up until her accidental death while on a trip to New York. He was then placed in emergency foster care until Daniel could be located, and now, Daniel has adopted him officially. We figured that by staying as close to the truth as possible, we’d make it less likely for Danny to let something slip.
The teacher--Sherwood called her Mrs. Erbes, if I remember correctly--nods sympathetically to Daniel’s story. “It must have been very hard for him,” she says.
Daniel has a small, rueful smile on his face. “Yes,” he says simply. “It was. And it still is. He’s adjusting, but...”
“But he still has some emotional issues,” she finishes for him. “I’m sure being unusually bright for his age only compounds that. We will do our best to show him patience and understanding.”
Just then, the overhead bell rings, which is actually a series of chimes broadcast over a speaker system. The noise in the hall rises dramatically, and starts coming our way. We move back as kids begin to pour into the room, chattering and laughing and pushing each other, going to hang up coats and put backpacks into a series of small cubbies arranged against one wall. I see that each one is labeled with a name, including one for Danny Jackson.
Danny comes in, his face flushed and his knees dirty, listening avidly to a clump of boys who are all trying to tell him where the best places to play are and which teachers can be fooled and what subjects are hardest. He sees us and veers over, barely pausing for breath.
“Hey guess what, I was on the swings, and Kyle said that he bet I couldn’t go higher than him, and I said I could too, so he swung really high, and then I was swinging, and then he jumped off and he said I wouldn’t jump off and I said I would and he dared me so I jumped and I fell a little and got muddy but I jumped just like I said I would and then Carson said he could jump even more so he got on the swings but then he didn’t go as high as Kyle and me and we said--”
“Danny,” I interrupt, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Breathe.”
He blinks up at me, his glasses slipping down his nose and a smudge of dirt on one cheek. “I am breathing. It’s how I’m staying alive.”
Behind me, Mrs. Erbes chuckles and then leans down, smiling at the kid. “Hello,” she says. “You must be Danny. I’m going to be your teacher, and my name is Mrs. Erbes. It’s nice to meet you.”
He stares at her and has a moment of tucking himself against Daniel’s side and lowering his eyes shyly, but then he offers a small wave. “Hi.”
“Go hang your coat up and find your desk,” she says, and he nods and scurries off, grinning when he sees that the desk with his name on it is close to a couple of the boys he came in with.
The teacher gives Daniel an understanding look. “He’s going to be fine,” she says quietly.
“I hope so,” Daniel replies. Then he smiles and hands her a stack of papers--the getting to know you forms. Basically a list of Danny’s likes and dislikes, as well as his allergies, medications, and possible behavioral issues. I don’t remember Charlie’s school ever being this interested in learning so much about each individual kid, but I guess a public school with forty or so kids in each class is a lot different than a private charter academy with classes half that size.
Mrs. Erbes shakes each of our hands once more, and then turns to her class, clearing her throat imperatively. They quiet down, and we take the hint and slip out the door. Danny waves to both of us and we wave back, and then we’re going down the suddenly quiet hallway with all its little handprints.
We don’t speak on our way to the parking lot--Daniel is still processing, and I’m still not thinking about fingerpainting. Once we’re tucked into the relative privacy of my truck, secure behind the reflective windows, we sit for a moment, enjoying the stillness.
“Wow,” Daniel says finally. “That was... not what I expected.”
“What was your first day like?”
He shrugs, and then closes his eyes, leaning forward and rubbing the back of his neck. I extend one hand to take over, and he groans and leans into the touch, giving me a quick, grateful look.
“It was a long time ago,” he mumbles. “But I do remember not knowing where my classroom was, and then when I did find it, I was late and everyone stared at me when I came in. Then the teacher told me I must be lost, because this was a class for big kids. Everyone there was at least two years older than me. I tried to tell him about being skipped, but I wasn’t all that sure I was in the right place anyway, and he kept shaking his head, and all the kids were laughing, so I just left.”
“My estimation of your foster parents grows by leaps and bounds,” I say grimly.
He gives me a sideways look. “It wasn’t like that. They had a lot of other kids to take care of, and I’m sure they told me where I should be, but they had to work and couldn’t be there with me. I just got confused.”
Right. I want to be mad at those long ago foster families who let him down, but who am I to judge, really? When it comes to being there for your kid, I’m hardly a shining example. “So where did you go?”
“I wandered for a while,” he shrugs. “Finally some teacher noticed me, and asked why I wasn’t in class. I told her I couldn’t find it, and she brought me to the principal’s office to find out where I should be. I was pretty scared by that point, thinking I’d done something wrong and I was in trouble, and I remember seriously considering running out the door and just... not stopping.”
I squeeze the back of his neck a little harder, and run my hand down to his shoulder, stroking there for a long moment. “But you didn’t.”
“I almost did. If they hadn’t come up with an answer right away, I think I would have. But they figured out what class I was in, and the teacher took me there, and explained to the guy that I’d been skipped ahead.”
“And it was the same class you went to in the first place, wasn’t it?”
He nods and smiles a little. “Yeah. And apparently the lady who had found me wandering the halls was fairly high placed in the school administration, and she was really glaring at that teacher. He probably got yelled at later. Which didn’t exactly endear me to him.”
“I’ll bet.” I’m still rubbing Daniel’s shoulders, and one hand wanders up to his hair, making him sigh and lean closer. “It’ll be different for Danny,” I tell him. “He has us.”
Daniel indulges himself--and me--for a moment longer, and then pulls away, opening his eyes and sitting straight. “Maybe,” he says. “I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. He can’t just turn around overnight.”
I shrug and start the engine. We are now extremely late for work, but being 2IC and the chief civilian consultant on the base, respectively, does have its perks. As long as we don’t miss a briefing or a mission, we’re good.
“Is this bringing back some hard things for you?” Daniel asks, putting a hand on my knee. “I saw your face in the hallway. Something about the fingerpaints, wasn’t it?”
“It’s fine.” I glance at him, and sigh at his disappointed face. “Old stuff, Daniel.” Then, in a softer voice, “Charlie stuff.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You want to tell me about it?”
I’m surprised to find that yes, I actually do feel like telling him. I don’t get to talk about Charlie much--people tend to avoid the subject, to tiptoe around it on eggshells. There are good memories too, and sometimes, I like to take them out and look at them. Enjoy them all over again.
So I nod, and I talk about a sunny day spent on the back deck getting covered in paint. I talk about putting paint in Charlie’s hair, and how he retaliated by flinging it from his fingertips at me, and how we ended up running through the sprinkler, fully dressed, to get it off before Sara would let us in the house. Daniel listens to it all, smiling, laughing when I tell him how Charlie managed to get the paint in my mouth, and how terrible it tasted.
By the time we get to work, we’re both grinning, relaxed, and I remember why I’m with Daniel in the first place. Because he can do this for me. Because he’s so worth it.
I look up from the tiny print of the requisition form, resisting the urge to rub my eyes. The writing on those things gets smaller every year. That must be it.
“Daniel,” I say, grinning at him. He’s got his head stuck in my office door, leaning in from the hallway, his hands braced on the doorframe. “Come on in. Grab a seat. Want some coffee?”
His lips twitch, and he saunters into the room, raising his eyebrows at the papers littered across my desk. “Bored?”
“Just a little.”
“Then I have just the thing for you,” he replies, perching on the edge of my desk and leaning forward earnestly. Too earnestly.
“Oh...?” I can hear the suspicion in my own voice. Daniel’s eyes go a little bit wider and he blinks several times, his mouth ever so slightly open. He’s pulling out all the ‘little innocent me’ tricks. This can’t be good.
“You remember how you wanted me to go offworld with SG-1 a couple weeks ago?”
“Because I can’t stay with Danny every second for the rest of his life, right?”
Oh, I’ve got a bad feeling about this. “No,” I say, drawing the word way, way out. “Because I wanted you with the team. But for the record, yes, letting the kid depend on someone besides you would be a good thing.”
Daniel nods rapidly, and his tongue darts out to wet his lips, a quick slip of pink. He’s moving in for the kill. “And, of course, other than me, you’re the person he needs to know he can count on the most, right?”
“Where are you going with this?” I backpedal, as warning bells go off in the back of my head.
“SG-7 found something,” he says, and I can hear that bright, excited tone to his voice. He’s leaning even more toward me, nodding as he speaks, seeming to emphasize every other word. “I’ve only seen a preliminary survey, and they didn’t really know what was important to record but from the video evidence and the material itself, which is clearly not ordinary stone but some kind of milled product that could even be a kind of polymer, I don’t know, Sam’s working on that... but the carvings, Jack, the inscription is definitely written in Ancient and I think I saw some Norse runes which could indicate another meeting place like Heliopolis except this one is completely solid and--”
“Daniel,” I say, lightly placing a hand in front of his mouth. “Breathe.”
He gives a short, startled laugh, and then leans back. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“Like father, like son.” I outline the words with air quotes so he knows I’m kidding, but a furrow appears between his eyebrows anyway.
“Right,” he says slowly. “Anyway. I really need to see this place, Jack. SG-7 is going back there today. Um... in about,” he glances at his watch, “twenty minutes actually.”
“And you want to go with them.”
He nods and offers a hopeful smile, obviously waiting for my permission.
“Daniel...” I sigh and tilt my chair back, staring up at the ceiling for a moment. “Much as I appreciate you coming to me first with this, you’re no longer on SG-1. You’re under Hammond’s direct command, which means if you want to go off with a team, you need to get clearance straight from him.”
Daniel is nodding and flapping a hand at me before I even finish speaking. “Yes, yes, I know that. I already cleared it with him. Jack... I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. At least overnight. Maybe a few days, depending on how long it takes to take accurate records of everything. I won’t be doing any translation there--I’ll wait until I can bring everything back to base--but that place is huge. It’s going to take some time.”
Ah. The other shoe. “So you need me to take care of Danny while you’re gone.”
“Yes.” He takes a deep breath and gives me a long, steady look. “Just you, Jack. I don’t think he’s ready to be with anyone else yet.”
He holds a hand up, shaking his head. “I already checked and SG-1 doesn’t have any missions scheduled for a week. I should definitely be back by then.”
“Things don’t always go according to schedule.”
“So if an emergency comes up, recall me.”
I close my eyes and rub the bridge of my nose. “You’re making this harder than it has to be. He’s a resilient kid, Daniel. I’m sure he could handle staying with Fraiser or at the mountain’s twenty four hour emergency care for a day or two if I’m suddenly needed offworld.”
Right on cue, Daniel’s chin goes down and his shoulders tense into a hard line. “Just because he could ‘handle’ it doesn’t mean we should do that do him. He’s already trying to deal with a lot of crap right now, with starting school and sticking to the whole cover story thing and... and all his other issues.”
“You’re being overprotective.”
Daniel snorts. “You’re one to talk. And besides, what are the odds of an emergency coming up in the few days that I’m gone?”
“Famous last words,” I mutter. I’m giving him a dirty look, but he’s smiling, because he knows I’ve given in.
“I have to go get geared up.”
I groan and put a hand over my eyes, shooing him with the other. “Fine, go. Have fun. Get dirty.”
“Thanks, Jack,” he says brightly. There is a long pause, and I lift my hand slightly so I can see him. He’s hovering near the door, biting his lip and tapping his fingers against one leg.
“Just...” He shuffles his feet a little, and I roll my eyes.
“You’re going to be late. Just tell me.”
“Make sure he knows I didn’t want to leave him. And that I’m coming back.”
“I’ll tell him,” I say softly. “Don’t worry, Daniel. I’m not exactly immune to the kid’s charms, you know? The little pain in the ass has managed to grow on me. I’ll take care of him.”
Daniel nods, flashing me a quick, grateful smile. “And you have to... you know... lots of attention. Especially if he’s got his arms around himself. That means he wants some affection.”
I straighten in my chair and raise my eyebrows slowly. “You do that thing with your arms all the time.”
He immediately starts backing out the door. “I’m really going to be late, Jack. I’ve got to run. Thanks and I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He yells that last bit over his shoulder as he jogs down the hall.
Slippery little genius. I glance at the clock and see that it’s only two thirty. Danny’s not even out of his first day of school yet, and then the after school program at the childcare center will keep him as late as six. Which means I’ve got lots of time left to finish going over those requisition forms.
The surface of my desk emerges like someone who has been living in a cave for a year, fish-belly pale and blinking against the strange new sunlight. I don’t think I’ve actually seen wood beneath the permanent carpet of paper on this thing since that quarantine about a year and a half ago that had us all stuck on base for three weeks.
Technically, I could have left at five. Hell, I could’ve left at three and gotten away with it. Being a Colonel does have its perks. Now it’s a quarter to six and I need to hustle or I’ll be late picking Danny up.
I’m not stalling. Not really. The general has been on me about my paperwork backlog for a long time, and it did all need to be done. It’s just that the kid has never really warmed to me. I know he’s only known me for a couple weeks, but then, he’s only known Daniel for that long, and you can’t pry him away from Daniel with a crowbar.
Well... no, that’s not true. He’s not nearly as clingy as he was in the beginning. He’s more like a normal kid now, except for being scary-smart and sometimes a little destructive. When I got him a Lego set, he spent a long afternoon building little structures and then stomping the hell out of them. He also draws pictures with the huge box of crayons Daniel insisted on getting--except that these pictures would worry any shrink. Sometimes he draws pictures of the accident in the museum. He’s already worn one red crayon down to a tiny nub.
The child psychiatrist that Fraiser hooked us up with says that sort of thing is to be expected. I don’t really know what they talk about in there--I’m not invited and Danny insists that it stay a secret. They come out of those sessions in quiet, subdued moods, and the kid sometimes has big, puffy eyes afterwards, but Daniel says he thinks it’s helping. I hope it’s helping both of them.
I’ve done my share of playing with Danny, and I’ve also taken care of a few discipline issues, especially since Daniel has trouble standing up to the kid’s puppy eyes and quivering bottom lip. But when there’s a real problem, a nightmare or a full scale tantrum or just some random bad memory, the kid always goes to Daniel. I get the feeling he’s not going to be thrilled about being stuck with me.
By keeping busy all afternoon, I haven’t thought about it much, but now I am out of paperwork, out of distractions, and out of time.
I make it to the childcare center with precisely three minutes to spare. The place is full of parents picking their kids up--apparently waiting till the last minute isn’t uncommon--and the front desk is swamped. There’s a clever little swipe card system for registering the kids in an out of the computer, and I slide my card through the slot, listening for the beep. The harried looking clerk taps something on her keyboard and nods at me, and I head for the room that has the big “After School Programs” sign over the door.
I don’t see Danny at first, and then I spot him sitting at a table against the wall, a notebook spread open in front of him, chewing thoughtfully on a pencil. His backpack sits on the floor beside him, and what looks like a math book is closed on the table by the notebook. So far, this seems good. He’s quiet and calm--that’s a good sign, right?
I can’t help a slight wince. I was so close to just slipping him out of here. “Yes?” I ask, turning and offering a bland smile to the man scurrying up to me.
“Could I have a word with you?”
Oh, crap. I toss another glance at Danny, who is now watching us, his small, set face giving nothing away. I hold up a finger--wait a couple minutes--and he nods and turns back to his notebook.
I sigh and turn my attention back to the guy. He’s skinny, with a carrot top of bright red hair and a splash of freckles across his nose. He’s cracking his knuckles as he leads me over to a secluded corner. “I’m Brad Dempsey, sir,” he says in a low voice once we’re out of the main traffic flow. “I run the after school program here.”
He blinks and frowns a little. “Right. I wanted to ask you what grade Danny is in?”
“Third,” I say, leaning back a little. This guy doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of personal space. He’s slightly shorter than me, and he keeps shuffling forward anxiously, still pulling at his knuckles.
He nods and darts a quick look at the kid, who is pointedly ignoring us. “Right. That’s what he said. Colonel, I’m concerned that he might not be in the right grade. You may want to reconsider his placement.”
Oh, is that what this is about? And here I thought it was some kind of trouble. “Look, we’ve been over this,” I say, shaking my head. “First of all, you’re talking to the wrong guy. I’m only authorized to pick the kid up. Doctor Jackson is his legal guardian and he’s the one who makes these decisions. But he’s very sure he doesn’t want Danny skipped ahead any further.”
Dempsey finally leans back, his mouth open, gawking at me. “Skipped ahead? But I thought...” He shakes his head, waving a hand at me. “No, no, you misunderstand. Part of our program here involves helping the children with their homework if they ask for assistance. Danny seems completely out of his depth with the work he was assigned. I’m concerned that he might have a learning disability.”
I stare at him for a long moment. “I think you’ve got the wrong kid.”
He starts to crack his knuckles again. “No, I’m quite sure, Colonel. Not only was he unable to grasp the method of solving his assigned math problems, he couldn’t even read the directions on the worksheet. I don’t know why he was skipped ahead, but I assure you, it was not an appropriate action. If anything, he belongs in a course for special needs children.”
Special needs. Isn’t that a clever term.
“Look,” I say heavily, “I don’t know why he’s playing dumb, but that’s what it is. This kid has never even been in school, and he aced his placement tests so much they wanted him two grades ahead of his age. Doctor Jackson had to talk them down to third grade.”
“Placement tests can be... tampered with,” he suggests delicately.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Dempsey takes a step back and it occurs to me that I may have turned up the intimidation a tad too high. “It’s not... not that I’m suggesting... it could be a mistake,” he stammers.
“Never mind.” I turn away, heading for Danny. “I’ll work this out,” I tell Dempsey over my shoulder. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“Right,” he replies, still sounding a little dazed. He doesn’t make any move to argue with me, and I’m guessing he’s happy just to have me out of his face.
“Hey, kiddo,” I say, putting a hand on Danny’s shoulder. “Ready to go?”
He shrugs the hand off and gives me a cool look. “Where’s my Kayel?”
I can feel a headache starting behind my right eye. “That’s... a long story. He couldn’t be here today, but he’ll be back later. I’m going to take you home.”
I expect an argument, but Danny just puts his notebook and math text in his backpack, shoulders it, and heads for the door, not checking to see if I’m following him. I sign him out, and we don’t speak as we walk to the truck. It’s started to rain a little, a light, cold drizzle as the sky darkens into evening, and I shrug my collar up, trying to keep the rain off my neck. Danny walks through it like he doesn’t even notice. He’s staring straight ahead, his mouth in a firm line, his steps measured and even.
Once we’re buckled in and heading down the road, I tilt the rearview mirror so I can see him. He’s staring out the window, his backpack in his lap, and he’s got his arms wrapped tightly around it and around himself.
“How was school?”
He shrugs. “Fine.”
Right. “Did you have fun playing with your new friends?”
His eyes flick to mine in the mirror, and then he goes back to staring out the window. “I guess,” he says.
Oh, this is going so well.
“You hungry?” When I get another shrug, I grit my teeth and keep going. “I could go for some fried chicken. Mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits... there’s a KFC on the way home. What do you say?”
I know he likes fried chicken. The spicy kind. Hot dogs were a no-go with him, and pizza he could take or leave, but the spicy chicken strips were a hit. I’m straying into possible bribery here to improve his mood, but it’s a sound tactical decision. The situation warrants desperate measures.
“Okay,” he replies quietly.
“Okay.” Well, at least it’s something. Daniel better be having the time of his life on P2R-whatever, because he is so going to owe me for this.
The kid eats two chicken strips and makes some swirling patterns with his mashed potatoes and gravy. I want to tell him to quit playing around with his food and eat, but that seems like a pointless parent-ism that doesn’t really deal with whatever his problem is. Besides, I really doubt he’d obey.
“So,” I say, pushing away my plate of gnawed bones. “What did you do today?”
He raises his eyes and stares at me, his brows drawn together, a long, assessing gaze. “Where’s my Kayel?”
Damn, he’s good. “Daniel had to go on a dig,” I tell him. We haven’t told him about the Stargate, because no matter how discreet he is, a seven year old is a security risk. I figure a dig is something he understands.
He blinks and slowly flattens a mound of mashed potato with his fork. “Why couldn’t I go with him?”
“Because... because this dig is not a place for children.” Oh, the death glare. I need a better answer than that. “And you’re in school. He didn’t want you to miss school.”
“School is stupid. I don’t need to go there.”
“Why is school stupid?”
He shrugs. “It just is. Where did Kayel go?”
And I thought getting Daniel to talk was like pulling teeth. “I told you. On a dig.”
“Yeah, but where?”
“Danny...” I sigh and put a hand on his shoulder, but he shakes it off. “You know that our jobs are secret. I can’t tell you everything about what Daniel is doing. But I can tell you that he didn’t want to leave you. He had to go, but he wants you to know that he’s coming back soon.”
“Only bad things are secret,” Danny argues. “Why can’t you tell me? And when is he coming back? How soon?”
“Not only bad things,” I say. I can’t address the how soon question, so it’s better to just avoid it altogether. “Remember, how we told you that Daniel and I love each other, just like your mom and dad loved each other, but it was secret? That’s a good thing, and it’s still a secret. A special, family secret.”
“I guess...” He dips a finger in cold, congealed gravy and examines it. “I’m done eating. Can I go play on the computer?”
“Hold on. Did you finish your homework?” I ask, knowing full well that he didn’t. Not according to the childcare guy, anyway.
“Yeah,” he says, heading for the computer desk.
He pauses at the warning tone in my voice, and then looks back over his shoulder. “What?”
“Don’t lie to me. If there’s something wrong, or you need help, I’ll try to help you if you tell me the truth. Lying is not okay, got it?”
“I’m not lying.” He’s scowling at the floor, his hands in his pockets. I see that he’s still wearing his uniform, with its dirty knees and some kind of food stain on the shirt and the tie hopelessly dragged out of place.
“Tell you what. Why don’t you go change into regular clothes, and put those in the hamper. Then, we’ll sit on the couch and I’ll read from any book you pick out, okay?”
He narrows his eyes at me, sensing a trap. I give him my best open smile. “Okay,” he says slowly. “Can we read more Narnia?”
“Youbetcha. Now go on, get changed.”
He goes thumping up the stairs, and I start cleaning up from dinner, scraping most of his food into the garbage disposal. I know we haven’t dealt with anything yet, but I need to get him feeling comfortable with me before he’ll let his guard down.
I find the kid waiting on the couch, wearing jeans that are already ragged at the knees and what looks like one of my--or Daniel’s--brown uniform shirts. It swallows him, hanging halfway down his legs, the collar slipping off one shoulder, but I don’t tell him to change. If that’s what he needs right now, it’s fine with me.
When I sit beside him, he starts edging over an inch at a time, until I wrap an arm around his shoulders and draw him in. He stiffens, but I just open the book and start to read like I don’t even notice, and after a few minutes, he gets caught up in the story and relaxes against my side.
I remember reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to Charlie, and he loved it. The Oz books were always his favorite, but the Narnia series was a close second. These stories are familiar and comfortable, and I find myself leaning over every so often to kiss the top of the kid’s head as I read. It’s an old, old habit.
I pause at the start of a new chapter, looking down at Danny. He’s curled against me now, one knee hitched up on my leg, his head tucked into the hollow my shoulder. He’s breathing slow and even, the tip of his tongue sticking out a tiny bit in concentration as he starts to read without me. This is as relaxed as he’s going to get.
Time for Plan A.
“Hey, kiddo, maybe you could read to me for a while?”
He blinks up at me, frowning a little, but it’s confusion, not suspicion. “Why?”
“I’ve been reading forms and reports all day, and my eyes are tired. Give an old man a break?”
He snickers and rolls his eyes. “Ja-aaack, Kayel says you only pretend to be old when you want something.”
“Does he now? Well, this will be just between you and me, then. Sometimes...” I lower my voice and lean in, peeking around the room like I’m afraid of being overheard. “Sometimes, I really do feel old. I just don’t want him to know about it, so I make him think it’s pretend.”
Danny’s eyes widen, and he nods solemnly. “Okay, Jack. I won’t tell him. Do you still want me to read?”
“That would be great. You’re doing me a big favor here, buddy.”
He grins and nods, taking the book from my hands and sitting a little straighter. His reading is good enough that it doesn’t distract from the story when he stumbles over a word. I have to help him with the occasional tricky phrase, but for the most part, he flies along the page. I let him go for about ten minutes, and then I put a hand over his to stop him from turning another page.
“Danny. You’re really good at reading, you know that?”
He shrugs, but his sly smile says that yes, he does know that. “I like to read.”
“I’ve noticed. And I know the principal at your new school was really impressed with how good you are at it.”
“Yeah, he was,” Danny agrees. “And the teacher said I was really good when I read from the English book.”
“That’s great.” I squeeze him a little and knuckle his hair, until he laughs and squirms away. “So, how come you were pretending that you didn’t know how to read in childcare today?”
He stiffens and draws away slightly. I let him go, but I keep a hand on his back, rubbing slowly up and down. “I didn’t want anyone to know I’m smart,” he mutters. “People don’t like it when I’m smart.”
Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere. “What people? I like it, and Daniel likes it, and I know your teachers like it. Who didn’t want you to be smart?”
Danny shrugs. “He’s this boy in my class. He’s bigger than the other boys and Kyle said that’s because Chris is stupid and had to do third grade again cause he didn’t do it right the first time. And Chris was writing on the board and he spelled the word wrong, it was supposed to be ‘reach’ but he spelled it with two ‘e’s. And the teacher asked did anyone see what was wrong and I raised my hand cause I could see it and I thought that’s what she wanted but nobody else raised their hand. I thought maybe they just couldn’t see it. She told me I should fix it so I went up and erased it and fixed it, except I erased all of it, the whole sentence because his writing was bad and the letters were all crooked so I fixed all of it and I spelled it right and I put the capital letter at the beginning because he didn’t do that and I thought that was good because the teacher said it was good but then everyone was mad at me because Chris said I was a teacher’s pet and he told everyone not to be friends with me.”
He spits all that out in what seems like one long breath, and then he takes a break to actually inhale. I’m still rubbing his back, and he leans into it, letting his head rest on my shoulder.
I don’t know what to tell him. Being the smartest kid in class was not a problem I had to deal with. This is really Daniel’s area of expertise, but it looks like I’m going to have to wing it.
“What happened after that?” I ask, not wanting to break his momentum.
“Then they wouldn’t play with me anymore,” he says. “They called me names and stuff and nobody would sit with me at lunch. I didn’t want the kids at the after school place to know I was smart or they would do it too.”
He’s got his arms around himself now, and I pull him over and set him in my lap. I’ve never been too happy about his tendency to sit in Daniel’s lap all the time, but I figure this is a special situation. He could use a little lap time. He leans against my chest and gives a huge sigh, scooping up some of his huge tee shirt in one fist and scrubbing it against his cheek. I get a whiff of herbal shampoo and old paper, which confirms it’s Daniel’s shirt he’s wearing.
“It’s not bad to be smart,” I tell him. “We’re very proud of you for learning so much. Playing dumb isn’t a solution.”
Danny twists and looks up at me. “You do it.”
I open my mouth and then shut it again. “What?”
“You pretend to not be smart, even though you are. Kayel said.”
I’m going to have to have a talk with Daniel about everything he tells this kid. “It’s different for me.”
“I have different reasons for doing that.”
Crap. “Grown up reasons. Listen, Danny,” I say hastily before he can ask another question, “I’m not in school anymore. When I was in school, I did my best, tried as hard as I could, because school is very important. I know Daniel tried really hard in school, and worked at it until he learned a whole lot. That’s what we want you to do.”
He frowns and rubs the tee shirt against his cheek again. “But then everybody will hate me.”
“They don’t hate you. I bet, in a few days, they’ll forget all about it.” Which isn’t actually all that likely. Kids can be really mean. But I’m trying to stay optimistic here. “Just try not to make them look bad.”
“Make them look bad?”
“Yeah. When you went up there and fixed what Chris messed up--you, the littlest kid in class, fixing what that big boy couldn’t do--it made him look bad. That’s why he was mad. Not because you were smart, but because you’re smarter than he is, and now everybody knows it.” I hope that made sense. It sounded pretty good in my head.
He’s nodding slowly, a very familiar thoughtful little line between his eyebrows. “That’s why nobody else raised their hand to go fix what Chris wrote, isn’t it?”
“Now you’re catching on. It’s good to be smart, just don’t rub it in everyone’s face.”
“Okay,” he says, grinning up at me.
“Now. The truth, Danny. Do you have any homework?”
He ducks his head and then nods, a tiny motion against my ribs. “Just a math worksheet. I can do it fast. It’s easy.”
“So you were lying to me before, when you said your homework was all done?” I ask pointedly.
“I guess so. Sorry,” he mumbles. “I’ll go do it.”
I squeeze him again and drop another kiss on the top of his head. Just because it’s there. “Good. When you’re done, I’ll check your work and you go take a bath and get ready for bed. If there’s still time before lights out, we can read some more.”
“Really?” He practically wriggles with happiness for a moment, the same excited little squirm that Daniel does when he discovers a really, really interesting rock. “All right!” he crows and hops off my lap, going for his backpack and, I assume, his math homework.
“Don’t go so fast that you get all the answers wrong,” I call after him.
Danny looks at me over his shoulder and rolls his eyes. “Ja-aaack, they’re easy problems.”
I nod and he goes into the kitchen, pulling out his notebook and a pencil, his feet tucked beneath him to give him enough height to write comfortably. I lean back on the couch and lace my fingers behind my head, watching the pencil fly across the paper. His glasses slip down his nose a little, and as I watch, the tip of his tongue slips out, caught between his teeth as he concentrates. Feeling my eyes on him, he looks up, grins, quick but genuine, and goes back to his paper.
I can’t help giving myself a mental pat on the back. Not a bad night’s work.
Teal’c blinks at me and then tilts his head in mild confusion. I’ve grown quite adept at reading his head tilts. “No?” he asks. “You are not O’Neill?”
He’s already giving me the scrutinizing stare. Step two will be declaring me an impostor and pinning me to the desk until the SF’s get here. I speak from unfortunate personal experience.
“I’m me, Teal’c, don’t worry. I was saying no to the combat training.”
Another head tilt, disapproving this time. “That is not what I came to speak to you about, O’Neill. I do not require your assistance to properly demonstrate Jaffa fighting techniques.”
Now as much as I don’t want to be trampled on in a demonstration of how great Jaffa fighting techniques are, I’m a little miffed that he doesn’t even want my help. “You don’t? Why not?”
Teal’c enters my office and unceremoniously removes a box of copy paper from the only spare chair in the room, setting in the middle of the floor with a thump. He sits and regards me steadily, but there’s a slight twitch around his mouth that suggests he’s about to get one over on the clueless Tau’ri. Again.
“As second in command of this facility, you must project authority and command respect,” he begins. “If you were to participate in a sparring match with me for training purposes, and this match was witnessed by the SGC trainees, I fear your authority would be compromised.”
I narrow my eyes at him. I get the strong feeling that I’ve just been subtly insulted, but Teal’c has a poker face like you wouldn’t believe. “Thanks for your concern.”
He nods once, his chin high, a tiny smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “I also fear for your knees, O’Neill.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” I mutter. “That’s enough, Teal’c. You’re the big bad Jaffa, and I’m not. I think we’ve established that. Didn’t stop me from saving your ass more times than I can count, did it?”
This time his nod is more of a seated half-bow. “Indeed. Acting alone, you have saved me fourteen times. When operating with the support of SG-1, there have been many more occasions. Your skills are not in question, O’Neill.”
Well. That’s better. “Fourteen, huh?” I lean back in my chair and nod thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Yeah, that seems about right.” Like I’d know. “So, if you don’t need my help with the training, what’s up?”
“I wish to inquire about the child. He is well? Growing strong?”
Teal’c has yet to call Danny by name. I try to imagine him saying ‘Danny Jackson’ the same way he says Daniel’s name, and I understand why he just says ‘the child.’ Teal’c is not the kind of guy who uses a name like ‘Danny.’
“He’s fine. Started school on Monday. He’s already kicking ass.”
A raised eyebrow. “He engages in battle with his classmates?”
I open my mouth to correct him, but I see that sneaky little smile hovering again. Teal’c has lived on Earth for seven years, and he’s been around me and the way I talk for just as long. I know he understands more than he lets on. Sometimes I think his exaggeration of literal-speak is the same kind of trick as my playing dumb.
So I don’t explain. I just smirk at him and say, “You know what I mean.”
For a moment, his tiny smile grows into something more, and then the serene, distant expression is back. “I do, O’Neill. The child is intelligent, much like Daniel Jackson.”
He nods, and then his face darkens. “I was informed that Colonel Simmons,” he spits the name in the same tone that other Jaffa use to call him shol’va, “invaded your home and attempted to question the child.”
I lean forward, resting my elbows on the armrests and letting my hands hang between my knees. “Yeah, he did. We got rid of him fast, though.”
“And he has not made another attempt?”
“Nope,” I say, and we both hear the unspoken ‘not yet.’
“Perhaps I should remain in your home to ensure the child’s security.”
“Ah... no,” I reply quickly. “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, T, and I’m sure you’d do a great job, but I think Daniel and I have a handle on it. Besides, you can’t stay with the kid twenty four seven.”
He nods, frowning at me. “That is unfortunate,” he says. Then he takes a deep breath, as if steeling himself for something. “My son, Rya’c, has grown into a man. When I left to join the cause of the Tau’ri, he was but a boy.”
“Right...” Where is this going? Teal’c has that intense look that says this is important to him, and he’s got my undivided attention. When something is important to Teal’c, it damn well better be important to anyone he tells about it.
“I regret that I was not there to guide him.”
“Yeah...” Crap. This is going to be one of those conversations with Teal’c where I nod a lot and say vague things. I mean, how am I supposed to respond to that? The guy gave up his family, his religion, and his home to help us out. What do I say? ‘Oh, that’s too bad’ doesn’t exactly cut it.
“You lost your son.”
Geez, don’t beat around the bush or anything. “Yes,” I say, and I can hear the shortness, the warning in my voice.
“For you, this child is a second chance,” Teal’c informs me. “You should be grateful for the opportunity.”
“I am,” I say softly. “More than you know.”
He looks down, and when he meets my eyes again, he looks older, and somehow worn. No longer invincible. “I would be grateful for the same chance.”
What? “What are you trying to say, Teal’c?”
He borrows a gesture from Daniel and spreads his hands, palms up. “I wish to be a part of raising this child. I can offer many things. I have learned much, and I wish to pass that learning on to another.”
My mind just went to a very scary threesome place. “Uh... Teal’c... that’s a really great offer, but you do know that Daniel and I... we’re not, ah...”
“I do not ask to join your relationship.”
I sag in my chair. “Right. I knew that. So, what, you just want to help out with the kid? Teach him stuff?”
Well, that’s not so much to ask, is it? After all the times he’s saved my ass, not to mention Daniel’s, I figure we can do this for him. “Hey, buddy, all you had to do was ask. You know you’re always welcome at our place.”
He smiles and inclines his head again. “Thank you, O’Neill. I look forward to seeing the child again.”
“Yeah. Just, you know... don’t lay everything on him at once, okay?”
I spin one hand around, and then touch a fingertip to my forehead, the same place where the tattoo is on Teal’c. “You know, the whole false gods, slavery and oppression and galactic battle thing. Might be a little much for the kid.”
The eyebrow raise is slightly affronted this time. “I would not teach him more than he is prepared to learn.”
“Course you wouldn’t.”
“Daniel Jackson should return soon, should he not?”
The sooner, the better. “Yeah, his last progress report said either tonight or tomorrow.”
“This Saturday, there are no scheduled missions. Perhaps we could engage in the Tau’ri custom of a weekend barbeque.” He says the words like they are something strange and exotic.
“T, that is an excellent idea.” And it is--I’m already picturing how it’ll be. The four of us together again as a team, just like old times. Although I’m not sure when two weeks ago became ‘old times.’ Maybe we’ll get the doc over, and Hammond, and his granddaughters, so Danny can have someone to play with. Cassie, too, although she’s a little too old to hang with grade-schoolers. Kids running around, me with my feet propped up and a beer in my hand, Hammond running the grill because he insists that he’s the best at it--and he’s right. Late April in Colorado is a damn gorgeous time, and weekends off aren’t exactly common. Let’s enjoy what we have.
Teal’c gives a small, gratified nod. “I will inform Major Carter.”
“You do that, buddy.”
He rises and sweeps out of the office, looking well pleased. I lean back until my desk chair threatens to tip over, prop my feet on a drawer that sticks out slightly, and lace my fingers behind my head. The desk has repopulated itself with paperwork overnight--and I don’t care what Carter says about the internal mail service. Those forms are breeding, I tell you.
It’s nearly four. I could stay late again, and take care of all this, but I’ve been very good about my paperwork lately. If I don’t start putting this crap off again, Hammond will think I’m an alien or something. Besides, I’ve kept the kid alive for nearly three whole days on my own, I just made Teal’c a happy camper, and I’ve got a weekend cookout to look forward to. I think I deserve to knock off early. Maybe I’ll take the kid to the park or something.
Danny beams at me and comes running, wrapping his arms around my waist and burying his face against my belly. I run my hand over his hair a few times, and then pat his shoulders. “Hiya, buddy.” The greeting is nice, but a little strange for a seven year old boy who wants to look cool in front of his friends.
“Hi, Jack,” he says. He dashes off and grabs his backpack from one of the little shelves the childcare center provides for just such things, and then zips over and hands me the clipboard with the sign out sheet. “Here, my name is right here, go on and sign it.”
Well. He’s a bit manic today. “How’s things, Danny? Didja have a good day?”
He nods rapidly. “Sure, Jack, it was fine. Let’s go, okay? Come on, let’s go.” He starts tugging at my arm, pulling me toward the door. He glances around, sees the teacher looking at us, flashes a quick, nervous smile and pulls harder.
Suddenly my good day is taking an unpleasant turn. “Whoa, wait a second.” I crouch down and put my hands on his shoulders, turning him to face me. “What’s going on? Why the hurry?”
His eyes go wide, and then he blinks, slowly, and offers a sweet, dimpled smile. “Nothing’s going on. I just thought we could play catch outside since you’re early. I want to go before it gets dark.”
Uh-huh. That was just a little too innocent. “Right. Are you sure that’s all?”
“Of course I’m sure, Jack.”
“Remember that talk we had about you lying to me?”
His smile falters for a moment, and he ducks his head, but he rallies quickly. “I’m not lying.”
I watch him for a long moment, but his wide-eyed innocence never wavers. Apparently, that’s a skill that Daniel developed at a young age.
“All right. Let’s get going, then.”
“Yeah!” he shouts and tears out the door, leaving me to call after him to slow down. Catching Dempsey’s eye, I wave at him and he nods, then I quickly initial the sign out sheet and follow the kid, glad that he at least has the sense to wait on the curb and not go dashing into the parking lot.
“Danny,” I say firmly when I reach him. He starts to head for the truck and I catch him by the shoulder. “Danny! Listen. Don’t run off without me, okay? You need to stay where I can see you.”
“Yeah, sure, okay Jack let’s go!”
Well, that was effective. The only thing keeping him from running off again is my hand on his shoulder. “I mean it, Danny. You hear me? No running off.”
He turns and smiles up at me. “Sure, Jack. Come on, hurry.”
The original Teflon kid. Hell, I can’t get an adult Daniel to quit running off. I don’t know why I thought it’d stick with Danny.
I find a pristine white softball and a stiff leather mitt in Danny’s room, on one of his shelves. We spent a long couple days redoing the guest room for him--something that was a struggle in itself. Daniel didn’t want to remodel the room so much, because that would be a big neon sign saying the kid was living with me, and so was Daniel, but I talked him around. Daniel paid for everything, so the receipts all lead to him, and if anyone sees the room, we can say it’s for when the kid visits. As cover stories go, it’s paper thin, but I’m banking on being too valuable to the SGC for anyone to dig too deeply. Daniel says that’s wishful thinking. He’s probably right, but I refuse to let that kid feel like a guest in his own home.
Anyway, once we got the room done up, with a deep blue carpet and pale yellow walls that make the room feel full of sunlight, we got bunk beds and a dresser and a huge old desk with all these tiny little drawers and an actual secret compartment. Daniel and the kid spent a couple long afternoons painting little hieroglyphs and picto-thingies all over the polished pine frame of the bed, and I put up shelves. Lots and lots of shelves. The kid has more toys than he knows what to do with. I keep buying them, and Daniel keeps buying him books.
The little pain in the ass is so spoiled. But I guess we both figure he could use a little spoiling.
So we go out in the backyard, and I show Danny how to put the mitt on and where the ball should land against his palm. He’s obviously new at using a mitt, but he has a good arm for throwing, and he catches on quickly.
I lob him an easy underhand, and he dives for it theatrically, wheeling his arms like a slow motion sports replay. “Yeah?”
He lands full length in the grass, the ball squarely in his mitt. He jumps up and holds it in the air, grinning. “Didja see that? Didja see what I did? I jumped and caught it like that guy on TV.”
“Yeah, you did--you’re the man, Danny. Let’s see if you can do it again. And what were you going to ask me?”
He beams, and then screws his face up, thinking. “Um... oh! Right. Can we have pizza for dinner?”
Bleh. Even I can only eat so much junk food. “Not tonight, kiddo. I’m thinking... spaghetti.”
“Oh, maaaaaan. We never get to have pizza.”
That lower lip can really stick out when he wants it to. “Danny, we had pizza last night.”
He blinks. “Well... yeah, but I mean, besides that.”
“Oh, besides that.”
“Not tonight. We’re having real food. And a salad. You don’t eat enough vegetables.”
He sticks his tongue out and makes exaggerated gagging noises. Oddly enough, Daniel has the exact same response to American beer.
“That’s enough, young man.”
He rolls his eyes, but subsides. “Okay.” Then he brightens, and a sly look creeps across his face before he gives me the wide-eyed innocence again. “Hey, um... Jack?”
Okay, that was way too timid. He’s playing the ‘poor pitiful me’ act, which means he wants something. “What?”
“If I’m good and I eat all the salad and the spaghetti could I... maybe... have some ice cream? Please?” And the little manipulator actually flutters his eyelashes at me.
“Bravo, Danny. That was quite a performance.”
A slow, placid blink. “What?”
Damn, he’s good. I’m not sure if that went over his head or not. “Danny...” I sigh and start moving toward him, and toward the house behind him. “If you want something, just ask politely. There’s no need to dress it up.”
“Okay, Jack.” Which could mean he understands, or it could mean he’s agreeing with me to end the discussion. “Are we done playing catch?”
“Yep. Go wash up. You can do your homework while I make the sauce.”
He groans and slumps his shoulders, dragging his feet toward the back steps. “It’s phonics. Those are so dumb.”
“Hey!” I wait until he’s looking at me, and then I raise a finger. “What did I say about being smart?”
“It’s good but don’t make other people feel stupid,” he recites, scuffing his feet in the dirt.
“What if someone else in your class wasn’t so good at phonics? What if they had to work really hard at them, and you said phonics were so easy? Wouldn’t that person feel bad?”
He shrugs. “I guess.”
Apparently that’s the best answer I’m going to get. “All right. Go wash your hands. And did you put your uniform in the hamper when you changed, or did you leave it on the floor?”
He shrugs and digs his hands into his pockets.
“On the floor,” he mumbles.
“Is that where it goes?”
Another dramatic groan. “No. Geez, Jack, I’m not stupid. I was gonna do it later, that’s all.”
Sure he was. Of course, for Daniel--and apparently for Danny as well--‘later’ can mean in ten minutes, or it can mean next month.
“Well, do it now. Then bring your homework to the kitchen and I’ll help you with it.”
He jogs up the stairs, and his voice drifts down. “I don’t need any help! I can do it!”
This kid always has to have the last word. Now who does that remind me of?
Thanks to Carter’s blessed practicality, while Daniel and I took the kid toy shopping, she went out and secured groceries for us. Which means that I now have canned tomato paste, fresh mushrooms, and all the herbs I need for my secret family recipe for homemade spaghetti sauce. I guess, technically, I should use fresh tomatoes too, but apparently Granny O’Neill wasn’t above a few shortcuts. A woman after my own heart.
Danny comes thumping down the stairs after a few minutes, his backpack slung over one shoulder and a line of rearranged dirt around the edges of his face, his hair damp and sticking to his forehead. He sits at the kitchen table and starts paging through his workbook, and I offer him tastes of the sauce every so often to get his opinion. He gets over his objection to real food quickly when he discovers that it tastes good.
“All done,” he announces after about ten minutes. I’ve just got the sauce simmering and I can leave it for about twenty minutes before I have to start the pasta, so I sink down in a kitchen chair beside the kid.
“That was fast. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
He sighs and hands the worksheet over. It’s pretty basic stuff, and I can tell just from listening to the kid read out loud at night that phonics are definitely too easy for him. But then, we knew going in that he’d be ahead of the class.
“Looks good,” I tell him.
“Yeah.” He lifts his backpack up to the table and sticks the workbook inside. When the bag gapes open, I spot a flash of worn brown leather, and I put a hand out, stopping him from moving the zipper.
“Danny? What’s that?”
He’s tense suddenly, his hands tight on the backpack straps, and he swallows. “Nothing.”
“Let go of the bag.”
He shakes his head rapidly, his little chin thrust out. “No. It’s mine. You can’t have it.”
His fists are so tight on the straps that his knuckles are white. I could overpower him, sure, but I don’t want to make this a physical fight. “Danny, you have until the count of three to let go of the bag.” This was my mother’s gold standard. When in doubt, count. I’m not sure what would have happened if I ever let her get to three. There’s just something about that warning voice, the escalating numbers, that makes you not want to find out. “One. Two.”
Danny suddenly shoves the bag at me, glaring. “Fine! Take it! You always do whatever you want anyway.” Then he folds his arms and stares down at the tabletop, sulking. I bite back a laugh at the pouting bottom lip. Laughing at him now is probably a bad move.
“You better fix that attitude, young man,” I say. He shrugs and kicks a table leg. I reach into the backpack and fish out the brown leather thing, which turns out to be exactly what I was hoping it wouldn’t be. Somebody’s wallet. I open it up, and find a freckle-faced redhead staring at me from a Colorado Driver’s License. Brad Dempsey, knuckle-cracker extraordinaire.
“I was gonna give it back,” Danny mumbles.
“This is why you wanted to get out of the center so fast, isn’t it? So he wouldn’t notice it missing before we left?” I make the effort to keep my voice level. I’m pissed that the kid lied to me, played me into thinking he was really so eager to play catch with me. I fell for it because I wanted to believe it, and he used that about me.
“He’s a stupid fuck anyway.”
I stiffen, and then grab the kid’s shoulder, forcing myself to grip lightly. “Hey! Watch that mouth. Where’d you hear that word?”
“Hanson Home.” He’s staring defiantly at me, daring me to make something of that. Falling back on the ‘feel sorry for me’ card again.
“Well, don’t say it anymore. I hear that word out of your mouth again, and I’m washing it out with soap.”
He snorts. “You can’t do that to me.”
Danny stares at me for a long moment, and then bites his lip and looks away. “Fine. But he had it coming to him. He left his wallet in his coat, and hung the coat up in the closet where anyone could go. And... and he’s mean. He was mean to me, Jack. You should yell at him, not me.”
“Really. Well, first of all, no matter what he did, stealing from him was wrong.” I give that a minute to sink in, letting the kid squirm a little. “There is no excuse for stealing. You knew it was wrong, and you did it anyway. Now, if there is some problem with Mr. Dempsey, what should you have done?”
He shrugs and shifts and mumbles something.
“What was that?”
“I shoulda told you,” he says finally.
“That’s right. Now, before we decide your punishment for stealing--” his head lifts quickly and his mouth hangs open, his eyes wide. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You broke the rules and you know it. But first, what’s this problem with the teacher?”
“He was mean,” Danny says, his voice going up at least an octave on the last word.
“How, exactly, was he mean?”
“He asked if I needed help with my homework, and I said no, and he wanted to see what I was doing. I showed him the stuff I did yesterday and his face got all pinched up and he said it wasn’t very nice that I tricked him the first day and made him think I couldn’t do it. He said he was very disappointed in me. And he made me say sorry for tricking him! He wouldn’t let me play with the other kids until I said sorry.”
Danny pauses and looks at me, gauging my reaction to his tale of woe. When I fail to fall at his feet and offer my condolences, he scowls. “He was mean, Jack. You should go scare him again.”
Oh, this I’ve got to hear. “Again?”
“Yeah, like the first day when he told you I was dumb. You were talking to him and you scared him. I saw.”
“Well.” This kid sees an awful lot. “That was my mistake. I shouldn’t have done that. And I’m certainly not going to do it again.”
“Kayel would do it,” he says quietly, in a low, dark voice. Those huge blue eyes are shooting daggers at me. “If you really loved me like he does, you’d do it.”
Pulling out the big guns now, aren’t we? “That’s enough, Danny. I said no. And for the record, I do love you. That doesn’t mean I’ll let you get away with stealing.” I open the wallet and find it empty of cash. The credit cards are still there, but Danny’s kind of new to the whole credit card thing. “Was there cash in here?”
He shifts and grumbles again, thumping his heels against the legs of his chair. Finally, he heaves a huge, irritated sigh and mutters, “It’s in my desk.”
“Alright. Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to put the cash back in the wallet, and then you’re going to give it back to Mr. Dempsey tomorrow. You’re going to apologize for taking it. And you’re going to mean that apology, young man. No sarcasm.”
“Ah!” I hold up a finger, raising my eyebrows and staring him down. “No arguments. Furthermore, you’re grounded for a week. No computer, and no TV. You go to school, to the center, you come home, and that’s it. Plus, you’ll be doing some extra chores around the house in all the spare time you’re about to have.”
This time I get the pouting, quivering lip and the start of tears pooling in wide eyes. “A week?” he squeaks. He blinks and two fat tears roll down his cheeks. I almost relent, but then I remind myself how he took my wanting to play catch with a little boy and used it to manipulate me. That hit some nerves I don’t even want to think about.
“Don’t give me those crocodile tears. Now go upstairs and get that cash.”
He jumps off the chair and shoves it, smacking the back into the edge of the table. “I’m telling Kayel you were mean to me! He’s won’t like you anymore!”
He ignores the warning tone. “You’re mean. I hate you.”
That’s it. “Time out. Right now.”
“No!” He gets about two running steps away before I snag the back of his shirt. He kicks and thrashes as I carry him to the designated time-out spot, a kitchen chair in the hallway, facing a blank wall. I set him in it and hold him in place until he stops kicking and just sits there, wailing.
“I know you’re mad,” I say quietly. He sounds so genuinely miserable that a lot of my anger with him melts away. “But disobedience and talking back are not allowed. You have seven minutes to think about that.” Then I set the little kitchen timer we use for these things and walk away.
I stir the sauce for a while, staring at the mindless circles I’m drawing and trying to get a grip on things. Rationally, I know the kid doesn’t even know what buttons he pushed with that game of catch. We haven’t told him about Charlie. Daniel thinks that would only put some unreasonable demands on him, making him feel like he has to live up to what Charlie was to me.
Danny didn’t mean to bring up a whole bunch of crap for me. I know stealing was probably commonplace in that state home, and he hasn’t had any consistent discipline for nearly a year. Plus, according to Daniel, his parents weren’t exactly strict. It wasn’t that they let him get away with things, it was more that they were too busy with their work to even realize what he was doing.
I think it’s the casual manipulation that bothers me the most--I guess that’s one thing that Daniel has outgrown, or at least toned down. I know a defense mechanism when I see it, and the kid is so good at it, I think he’s needed it for a long time. Between starting school, Daniel being gone, dealing with being the smartest kid and all his other crap, it’s no wonder Danny’s throwing fits like a two year old.
So I understand. But it’s still aggravating as hell.
I put some water on to boil, and turn the heat down on the sauce a little more, until it’s just barely simmering. Then the timer beeps, and I go to retrieve the kid, who has gotten suspiciously quiet.
“Hey,” I say softly.
Danny is hunched over in his chair, legs drawn up to his chest, his cheek resting sideways on his bent knees. He’s still crying, his chest heaving in the occasional sob, making these little snuffling noises. “Hey,” he says.
“Come here.” I pull him off the chair and he comes willingly, plastering himself against my chest and burrowing into my neck. I can feel him smear snot all over my collar. Ah, the joys of parenthood.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles into my shirt. “I don’t hate you.”
“I know. It’s okay, Danny. I don’t hate you either.”
He takes a long, shuddering breath. “Good. Um... Jack?”
“I know you said no TV and computer, but... can we still read?”
Oh, that pleading voice would melt a system lord. “Well...”
“Please?” He pulls out those deadly eyelashes, which are even more effective when damp and spiky.
“Okay,” I say, as if I wasn’t planning on saying that all along.
He squirms around and hugs me hard, surprising strength in those skinny little arms. “Thanks, Jack!” He pauses for a moment, and then blinks up at me, biting his bottom lip for effect. “What about videos? They’re not TV.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“Oh, maaaaaan.” He sighs and pulls away, but his show of martyrdom is blown when he turns and smiles at me again. “Can I still have ice cream if I eat my dinner?”
“All right. If you eat salad too.”
“Salad too,” he agrees, a little too quickly. I think I just got suckered.
“Now go get that cash and put it back in the wallet.”
He nods and runs off, and I go stick some pasta in the boiling water and start putting together a simple salad. Carter, who I am going to owe until the end of time, bought bags of that pre-made salad, with the lettuce already chopped up and bits of other veggies included. I just slice up a cucumber and wash everything, and we’re set.
Danny comes back down as I’m stirring the noodles. In his hand is an impressive wad of cash. He hands it over, a little shamefaced, and I smile and squeeze his shoulder.
“Thanks, Danny. You’re doing the right thing giving this back.”
He nods and brings me the wallet. Dempsey had close to three hundred bucks in there--apparently it was payday. I have to admit that the kid had a point about one thing; it was pretty dumb to leave a wallet loaded with cash in a closet that a whole bunch of kids could get into.
“Hmm?” Maybe we should have some tomatoes with the salad. Nah, there’s tomato in the sauce. Wouldn’t want to overdo it.
There’s something in his tone that’s not his false hesitancy he uses as a bargaining chip. He actually sounds scared.
I crouch down and put my hands on his arms, squeezing slightly. “What is it, buddy?”
“If I... what if I do something bad again?”
“Are you planning to?”
He shakes his head, wide eyed and earnest, but I’ve fallen for that look before. “No, I wouldn’t, I just... sometimes I do stuff and I don’t really think about it.”
“Well... try to think before you do something. If you know it’s breaking a rule, don’t do it.”
“But what if I do?” he insists. “What if I don’t think? Stuff just... it seems good when I do it. But then later it doesn’t.”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time, huh?” I grin and run a hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead. “I know what you mean. It’s okay to make mistakes, Danny. Just try your best to follow the rules, and if you mess up, Daniel or I will let you know.”
“But will you... if I mess up too many times, are you gonna...”
He looks down, taking a deep breath, and when he meets my eyes again I’m startled to see the tears starting again. I bring one hand up and quickly swipe them away with a thumb, shaking my head. “Hey, now,” I say. “What’s this?”
“Will you send me away?” he asks in a rush, the words all coming out jumbled together. “If I’m really, really bad?”
Oh damn, kid, you’ve got enough issues to make my head seem normal.
“No,” I say, lifting his chin with one knuckle, keeping his eyes on mine. “Never. No matter what. You got that? You are ours, and we’re keeping you.”
Another slow blink, and if that bottom lip pokes out much further, he’s going to trip on it. “Promise?”
“Danny, I promise.”
He takes a deep breath and nods, and I pull him in again. He only clings for a moment, though, and much as I don’t want to admit it, I end up being the one who needs to hold him longer than he needs to be held. He puts up with it briefly, and then wriggles away.
“Jack, you’re squishing me,” he complains.
“Sorry, kiddo. You’re just so squishable.” And I poke his soft belly to emphasize my point. He giggles and squirms away, but I pin him and lift his shirt, giving him a wicked smile.
“No! No, ah, that tickles me, Jack, don’t!” The breathless laughter between every word kind of ruins his argument.
I lean in a blow a raspberry on his stomach, just above his belly button, and he shrieks, squirming even harder. I do it twice more before I let him escape, and he scoots away on the floor, still laughing hard. He hiccups twice, and gives me a dirty look.
“You made me get hiccups.”
I shrug and lift the cooked pasta off the stove, dumping the noodles into the strainer. “You did that to yourself. You shouldn’t have laughed.”
“You made me!”
“Come on, hiccup-boy. Time to eat.”
He mutters something about ‘hiccup-boy’ under his breath, but comes along willingly enough, helping me set the table. He’s smiling, still hiccupping and giggling every so often, his eyes already dry. He bounces back so fast.
It may take me a little longer.
The kid crashes hard after dinner, falling asleep between one word and the next while we’re reading. Which leaves me to carry his limp, boneless little body up the stairs. I consider trying to get pajamas on him, but a warning twinge from my back suggests that I leave well enough alone. I pull off his jeans, and I figure a tee shirt and underwear are good enough.
Once Danny is taken care of, I go through Dempsey’s wallet until I find a business card with his phone number on it. Apparently he’s a qualified consultant in early childhood development, whatever that means.
It’s almost nine, which is a bit late to be calling someone I don’t really know, but I figure he’ll be happy to hear his wallet is coming back to him.
“Hey, Dempsey, this is Colonel O’Neill. We spoke the other day.”
There is a pause, and then a guarded, “Yes. Can I help you?” He doesn’t even ask how I got his number. Apparently my reputation precedes me.
“Actually, I can help you. It appears that Danny walked off with your wallet today.” It costs me to say that. Apologizing for something your kid did is never easy.
“He did? You have it?” Now he sounds relieved as hell.
“Yeah, I found it in his backpack. He’ll be bringing it back to you tomorrow.”
“Well, I hope you’re going to discipline him.”
“You just let me take care of that,” I snap, and then force a level tone. “I’ve got it covered. I just wanted to let you know what was going on.”
“Yes, well, much as I appreciate that, it wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place if he hadn’t stolen from me. There was a large amount of cash in there when it was taken, Colonel. Did you make sure he didn’t keep that?”
Okay, pause. I realize this guy is ticked off because Danny lifted the wallet, but he’s getting on my last nerve. “I said I’ve got it covered. You’ll have your wallet, your cash, and an apology tomorrow.”
He sniffs. “Well I should think so. And I must say that you, or whoever is raising that child, need to have a firmer hand. He’s obviously undisciplined.”
“Is that so?” I inquire calmly. People who know me know what that calm tone means. Dempsey is not so fortunate.
“Yes, it is,” he says. “First the lying, which he refused to apologize for when I caught him having no trouble at all with his homework today. Then he steals from me? What’s next, breaking and entering? Vandalism? Someone needs to rein that child in.”
“That’s enough. Doctor Jackson and I have the situation well in hand--a situation that you know nothing about, by the way. Danny has been through things you couldn’t begin to understand. I don’t condone stealing or lying, and he will be disciplined, but you will back off and let me handle it.”
There is a long silence, followed by an audible swallow. I may have been growling a bit at the end there, but jeez, this guy scares easily. “Right,” he finally says. “My apologies if I overstepped my bounds. I’ve been quite worried about my wallet, you see. I’ve already cancelled all the credit cards.”
Oops. No, no, can’t laugh. Not now. “Bummer,” I say. “Think of it as an opportunity to get out of debt.”
“I’m glad this is so amusing for you.”
Well, crap, that was one hell of an icy tone. And I suppose I shouldn’t be laughing at him. Really I shouldn’t.
“He’ll bring you the wallet tomorrow. If he gives you any trouble about it, call me.” And I give my contact information, which the childcare center has anyway in case Danny gets hurt or sick. Then I get the hell off the phone.
Man, I’m wiped. It’s barely after nine and I’m ready to call it a night. That’s the real reason kids have to go to bed early, you know. It’s so their parents can get some sleep.
So much for sleep. I’ve been out for about three hours, according to the bedside clock, when Danny starts making a racket in his room. I go stumbling down the hall, bouncing off the walls a couple times, and turn on his light, wincing at the brightness. He’s kicking his feet on the bed, pedaling them like he’s trying to run, and speaking in that language he shares with Daniel. At least I think it’s that language. I don’t know what he’s saying, but the tone sounds like begging, and he keeps shaking his head.
“Danny! Hey, hey, come on, wake up buddy. You’re okay, you’re dreaming.” I sit on the edge of his bed, bending over awkwardly to avoid banging my head on the upper bunk. I put a hand on his chest and hold him still, shaking his shoulder lightly with my other hand.
He sucks in a fast breath, chokes slightly, and then his eyes flip open all at once, wide and unfocused. He’s panting, his heart racing wildly under my palm, his bony little shoulder trembling against my fingers. “Non, manere, non, non...”
“Hey. Hey! Come on, over here, look at me.” I turn his head with a hand against his cheek, making him meet my eyes. He looks through me for a moment, and then focuses.
“Right here. You with me now?” I ask.
He blinks rapidly, still panting, his fingers clutching at the bedspread. “Where’s Kayel? Where is he? I want Kayel.”
Well, crap. Just when things were going well. “He’s away on a dig, remember? He should be back soon.”
Danny’s hand comes up and fists in my tee shirt, drawing me closer. I’m always shocked at the strength in those wiry little muscles. “He’s coming back? Are you sure? He’s okay and he’s coming back, right Jack? Right?”
“You bet,” I tell him. He just blinks at me again, and I can see moisture starting to pool in his eyes. Here we go again. I pull him in, and he comes willingly, which is something of an accomplishment. Soon he’s dampening my shoulder, his chest hitching, little choked breaths puffing against my neck. He doesn’t make noise. When he’s being dramatic and wants us to know how terribly unfair we are to discipline him, he cries loudly, but when he’s really upset, he does it in perfect silence.
After a few minutes, he tapers off, but doesn’t pull away. I shift on the bed, slouching against the frame and scooting so all my weight isn’t resting on one butt cheek. He comes with me, curling in my lap, my shirt still wrapped in a tight fist.
“Hey, kiddo,” I murmur, kissing his forehead. “You okay?”
Well, that was convincing. “You want to tell me about it?”
He shrugs. “Just a dream. I have bad dreams sometimes.”
Yeah, I noticed that, actually. Daniel is usually the one dealing with the post-nightmare fallout, mostly because that’s who the kid asks for. It’s kind of nice to know that I can calm him down too.
“Yeah, me too,” I tell him.
He twists and looks up at me, gaping. I guess it never occurred to him that adults can have bad dreams. “Do you think Kayel has dreams?” he asks.
“I know he does.”
Danny nods slowly. He presses his cheek against my shoulder and heaves a long, shuddering sigh. “I miss Kayel,” he whispers.
I squeeze him a little tighter and rub his back, up and down, long, slow strokes. “Yeah. Me too.”
There is quiet for a long time, and I start to think he’s fallen back asleep, until I hear, “Jack?”
“Do you have a Kayel?”
Now there’s a question from left field. “Thought there was only one Kayel,” I say.
Danny shakes his head. “Only one for me, yeah. Only one for anyone.”
“Well...” Huh. The middle of the night and the kid wants to get all philosophical on me. I sigh and wave a mental bye-bye to getting a good night’s sleep. “Okay, explain to me exactly what a Kayel is, and I’ll tell you if I have one.”
He screws up his face, eyebrows drawing together and his mouth pursing thoughtfully. “That’s tricky, Jack. Kayel is different for everyone. But it’s someone who takes care of you, and loves you, no matter what. And keeps you safe.” He pauses, and then lifts one hand, ticking points off on his fingertips and muttering to himself. “Oh, and they know stuff about you that nobody knows. And, um... and they never leave. Even if you’re bad. And they make you happy a lot. And... I think that’s all.”
“That sounds like a pretty good deal. And you say everyone has a Kayel?”
The kid nods, and then reconsiders, holding a hand up and frowning slightly. “Well, no, because a lot of people don’t know. They haven’t found a Kayel. Maybe you can look for a long time, like years and years, and not find anyone.”
“Years and years, huh?” I’m trying to take him seriously, because I know this is important and real to him, but hearing him talk about this imaginary perfect person in that solemn, piping little voice is just plain surreal.
“Yeah. Maybe even your whole life,” he breathes. “And lots of people are just looking. Isn’t that sad, Jack?”
“Yep. I guess I’m still looking, kiddo. Maybe I’ll get lucky someday.”
He pats my shoulder consolingly. “It’s okay, Jack. Me and Kayel will take care of you.”
I bite my lip and nod. Not going to laugh. Really I’m not. He just looks so damn serious, this skinny little kid with sleep rumpled hair, wearing a tee shirt and tighty whities telling me he’ll take care of me.
“That’s very nice of you. But what about Daniel? Doesn’t he need to find a Kayel of his own?”
He leans back and stares at me, frowning. “Jack,” he admonishes. “Don’t be silly. He already has one.”
I must have missed something. “Who, you? Is that how it works?”
He rolls his eyes. “No, doof.” Doof? “I can’t take care of him. I’m little.”
“Of course. What was I thinking?”
Danny shakes his head. “No, no, he told me already. When I got here and we were on the base, in that little room. He told me when he wanted me to talk to you guys. He said you’re his Kayel, Jack.”
“Jack? You knew that, right?”
I blink at him, and then shut my mouth, offering a gut-punched grin. “Sure I did. Just forgot for a second. Memory gets a little iffy at my age, you know.”
“You’re silly, Jack,” he says, and then yawns hugely, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles.
“And you’re going back to sleep.”
“Oh, maaaaaan, do I hafta?”
“Yes, you do. It’s a school night, mister. Now lay down and close your eyes. And no more bad dreams, okay?”
He nods and slides down in the bed, tugging ineffectually at the covers. I pull them up and lean over him, pressing another kiss to his forehead. He wrinkles his nose and wipes it away, but smiles at me. “Night, Jack,” he mumbles.
I slip out of the room, turning the light off on my way. He’s already breathing deeply, curled on one side, the shape of his legs visible under the blanket. He only takes up about half the length of the bed.
I turn on a small bedside lamp in my room and sink onto the mattress, my feet hanging off the edge of the bed. I scrub my hands over my face, and take a long, slow breath.
Someone who takes care of you, who never leaves, who loves you no matter what. Someone who makes you happy. Someone you spend your whole life looking for. That’s what Daniel says I am to him.
Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?
Having late night discussions with a too-serious seven year old makes for a sluggish morning. I know, technically, I got at least six hours of sleep, which should be plenty for me. But something about having that broken into two chunks saps a lot of the value.
I wind up in the gym, trying to snap out of morning lethargy with a good workout. I’m lying on the bench press, doing slow, steady reps and staring at the ceiling when a face suddenly appears over me, upside down and grinning. I nearly drop the bar in surprise, but it is caught by my surprise visitor and guided over to the rack.
“Daniel!” I sit up, wiping my face and grinning. “When did you get back?”
“Hi, Jack,” he says, giving me a little sideways smile. He’s dressed in clean BDU’s and his hair is still damp from his shower, which means he must have been back long enough to clear medical and clean up. “Just got in this morning. I have the briefing in a few minutes, but I thought I’d come by, catch up a little.”
Uh-huh. Which means he wants the report on the kid. “How was the planet?” I ask, twisting to one side until my back pops. “Lots of fun, I presume?”
He rolls his eyes. “Yes, Jack, there’s nothing quite as fun as sitting in the sun for hours on end transcribing script too fine to be captured on camera.” Now that he mentions it, he does have a sunburn across his cheekbones and his nose is already peeling slightly. His forehead is noticeably paler than the rest of his face--must’ve worn the boonie.
“Oh, come off it, Daniel. You love that stuff.”
“Yeah, I do,” he grins. “But I do have to get to that briefing, Jack, so...”
I stare at him. Nobody can do a blank stare like me.
He sighs and twirls a hand, making an impatient come-on gesture.
“So... what? Buttons?”
He looks at the ceiling, a frequent gesture around me. I think he’s asking some unspecified greater power for the patience to not kick my ass. When he meets my eyes again, he looks resigned, and absurdly fond. Damn, but I missed him.
“How is Danny?” he asks, speaking slowly and clearly.
“Hell, Daniel, all you had to do was ask. And there’s no need to speak to me like I’m a three year old. I’m not dumb, you know.”
Another glance heavenward. I’m hot today.
“And? So?” He’s moving his hands as if he’s plucking the words from the air around him.
I can’t keep the baffled stare up and break into a grin, shoving him roughly, letting my hand linger an extra second or two on his arm. “The kid is fine, Daniel. And Fraiser says the cast should be off in about a month.”
Oh, I think he squeaked.
“Daniel, relax. I’m kidding. He’s absolutely okay. Not a scratch on him. His teachers think he walks on water.”
That gets a smug little smile. Daniel doesn’t do smug that often. It actually makes him look a little constipated. “Well, yes,” he says. “He is quite bright, you know.”
“I noticed that,” I reply. “He’s also a tough little kid. You were gone for most of a week and he survived just fine. So quit worrying.”
Daniel looks like he can’t decide whether to be pleased the kid is so resilient or disappointed that he wasn’t missed more. “Really? No problems at all?”
“Don’t you have a briefing to go to?”
He sits beside me on the bench press and lets his shoulder bump mine. Daniel tends to underline his words with some kind of contact when he wants me to really pay attention. “Jack, don’t mess with me. I don’t want to miss anything with Danny. That’s why I had to leave SG-1. This is important to me. If there was a problem, tell me.”
“Yeah, there were a few problems. Nothing life-threatening, but I swear I’ll give you the full report.” I match his low, soft tone. “I was going to do that anyway, Daniel. You know that.”
He looks at me for a long moment and then sighs, his cheeks puffing out. “Yeah, okay, maybe I need to lighten up a little. It’s just...”
“First time leaving your kid with someone else is hard,” I say. “I know, Daniel.”
“Yeah,” he murmurs. “I guess you do.”
I elbow him gently, and then make a shooing gesture with one hand, flicking my fingers. “Go on, you’re going to be late. I’ll catch you up later.”
Daniel grins and nods, rising from the bench. He pats my shoulder lightly as he moves away, mindful as always of being watched. A proper greeting will have to wait. But I allow my eyes to drop to his ass as he walks out, watching the shift and play of muscles under those BDU pants. Pity he wears them so big. I can use my imagination, though, when I have the proper... inspiration.
“You think he’ll be happy to see me?”
“I think that’s the understatement of the year.”
Daniel shrugs, but he looks pleased. We’re sitting in the parking lot outside the center, about to retrieve the kid. On the short trip down the mountain in the truck, I filled Daniel in on the ‘pretending to be dumb so kids will like him’ incident, and the stealing. And of course, the manipulation to hide it.
Daniel didn’t seem at all surprised, which wasn’t exactly encouraging. Apparently we’re still going through the same crap he did as a kid. Shouldn’t living with us be making a difference for Danny by now?
Riding in the truck was the first chance we’d had to really talk all day. Daniel was holed up in his lab, trying to translate all the writing he brought back, and I was subjected to the horrors of budget meetings. Listening to a bunch of pencil pushers squabble over allocations made Danny seem mature and rational in comparison.
Daniel actually tore himself away from his precious translations early just so we could pick the kid up, which tells me a lot about how much he missed Danny.
I swipe my card at the front desk and point Daniel toward the after-school room. We get to the door just as Dempsey is coming out of it. He freezes and stares at us for a moment, and then coughs and looks away.
“Hey,” I say. “Dempsey, Daniel. Daniel, Dempsey.” I point between them, making brief introductions.
“Hello,” Daniel says, sticking his hand out. “It’s good to meet you. I just want to apologize for Danny stealing your wallet. He did return it to you, right?”
Dempsey nods. “Yes, as soon as he arrived today. I allowed him to apologize in private. I saw no need to humiliate the boy.”
“Very kind of you, I’m sure.” I’m showing an awful lot of teeth when I say that, and he starts cracking his knuckles again. It’s the kind of sound that sets your teeth on edge, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Or that little sizzling noise that a staff weapon makes before it fires.
“Yes, well, I was just glad to have my property back,” he mumbles, flashing another quick look at me and then smiling anxiously at Daniel, who looks less likely to bite.
“Of course,” Daniel replies. “Danny will be disciplined, I assure you.”
Dempsey nods and moves aside, letting us enter. I flash some more teeth at him and he blinks, stepping back a little more. Which is petty of me, I guess. Oh, well. I never claimed to be the most mature guy in the world. I do notice that for all of Daniel’s making nice, he never promised that it wouldn’t happen again. Maybe that’s a promise he can’t be sure of.
The kid is huddled over a table with three other boys, and he’s holding some kind of cards. At first I think they’re baseball cards, until get a little closer and see monsters or something drawn on them, with boxes and numbers across the bottom. He lays down one of the cards, face up, and the boy across from him groans and turns one of his cards over, then removes it from the table. The other two laugh, and the boy who apparently just lost the game flips them off.
I’m about to call out, but Daniel looks at me and puts a finger to his lips. Then he begins to creep up behind Danny, grinning widely. I stand back and watch. He deserves a little fun with the kid.
Danny doesn’t notice him coming, but one of his friends does, and Danny follows his curious stare until he turns around. His mouth drops open, and then he shoots out of his chair, a huge smile splitting his face. Daniel is just about to rush forward and pick him up when the kid hangs back, shaking his head once, quickly. “Hi,” he says. “You’re back.”
Daniel stares at him. His half-raised arms drift back down to his sides. “Yeah...”
“I’ll get my stuff.” He turns and hands over his remaining cards to one of the boys. “See you later.”
“Yeah, bye Danny,” they say, already intent on a new game. I lean over until I can read the box the cards came in. Yu-Gi-Oh! Isn’t that a cartoon?
Daniel trails the kid out to the truck, and I initial the sheet before following them. Once we’re in the parking lot, between two rows of cars, Danny casts a careful look around and then turns, beaming up at us.
“Kayel!” he says, low and fierce. “I knew you’d come back!” And he runs forward, slamming into Daniel hard enough to knock him into a little red Honda. He’s got his face buried against Daniel’s shirt, and his arms tight around his ribs. Daniel gapes at him for a second, and then brings his own arms around the kid, stroking his hair.
“Hey,” he says softly. “Of course I came back. Did you miss me?”
His head nods without ever losing contact with Daniel’s chest. “Lots,” he says, his voice muffled. “I’m so glad you’re here. Missed you so much, Kayel.”
“I couldn’t tell when we picked you up,” Daniel replies.
Danny pulls back and looks up at him, frowning slightly. “Well, you know, I couldn’t then.”
I lean over and nudge Daniel with an elbow. “Not in front of the guys, Daniel. He had to be cool.”
The kid nods seriously. Daniel’s lips twitch, but he keeps his voice steady. “Ah. The guys. Of course. How silly of me.”
“Yeah.” Danny is already heading for the truck, giving us little ‘hurry up’ looks over his shoulder. “Hey, since you’re back, can we get one of those big chocolate sundaes from Dairy Queen?”
“Not before dinner,” I call automatically.
Danny groans and shakes his head. “Ja-aaaack. You never let me have ice cream.” Then he trots back to Daniel and tugs on him, speaking in his ear when he leans over. I can hear his stage whisper from ten feet away. “He made me eat salad, Kayel.”
Daniel gasps and nods sympathetically. “Oh, the humanity,” he says.
The kid fixes him with a steely glare. “I know you’re teasing me.”
“Ya think?” Daniel shoots back. I grin behind him, and Danny sighs in mortal aggravation.
“Can we at least play outside until it gets dark?”
“Sure,” I say. “In fact, let’s go to the park.”
It’s like flipping a light switch. The ‘life is so unfair’ attitude is instantly gone, and he beams, bouncing a little and climbing eagerly into his booster seat. “Will you push me on the swings? I want to go high, Jack.”
“Please? I’ll help set the table and I’ll eat my vegetables and... and...”
“Okay,” I say before he can come up with another unlikely promise.
“Yeah! Hurry up and drive, Jack! It’ll get dark if we don’t hurry.”
So we head for the park, Danny thumping his heels against his seat and chattering nonstop about why he needs us to go buy him several decks of Yu-Gi-Oh cards immediately. Apparently everyone has them and they’ll never speak to him again if he doesn’t get a respectable deck put together, right now if not sooner.
“Were you always this dramatic?” I ask Daniel later, when the kid is finally tired of being pushed on the swings and is fighting some imaginary battle with a stick that is supposed to be a sword, I think, except he keeps making laser gun sound effects. He’s dashing around the park, hiding behind trees and peeking out like he’s being pursued, then running with his head down and his deadly stick/sword/laser held up.
“You have to ask?
I snort and lean back, closing my eyes. We’re lounging on a park bench, which some clever planner placed where parents could sit in the shade and still have a good view of exactly what their kids were getting up to. Just watching the kid zip around like that makes me tired.
“So, the stealing thing...”
Daniel sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose between two fingers, his glasses riding up on his forehead. “I warned you,” he mutters.
I hold a hand out, nodding. “Yeah, I know, you told me so. I got it. I just figured that by now, he’d be doing better.”
“He is doing better,” Daniel says. He leans forward, laced fingers hanging between his knees, looking at me. “Just the fact that he had friends to ‘look cool’ in front of today is such an improvement over how I was. He only has nightmares one or two times a week, and even those aren’t too bad.”
“They aren’t?” Waking up screaming and kicking isn’t too bad? Compared to what?
“Not really.” Daniel watches the kid abandon his stick and crouch down, digging in a sandy patch with a small, flat rock. “He’s happy, Jack. I mean, sure, there are some problems, but at his age, I wasn’t even speaking.”
I nod, and then wince as the kid jumps up, sending sand everywhere, including down the back of his shirt. It’s a good thing we bought a lot of those uniforms. “So he’s getting better.”
“Yeah.” Daniel looks around, and then puts a hand on my knee, rubbing slowly. “I’m sorry about the way he tricked you. About playing catch.”
“Not your fault.”
“Still. He shouldn’t have done that.”
I cover Daniel’s hand with my own, and give it a little squeeze. “No, he shouldn’t have. But I understand it, Daniel. And like you said, he’s getting better.”
“We’ve only had him two weeks,” Daniel says. “When you consider that, he’s really made some huge improvements.”
Which is true, I suppose. Growing up doesn’t happen overnight. “He should be a big hit at the barbeque.”
“Barbeque?” Daniel echoes.
“Oh, yeah, I didn’t tell you yet.” I straighten and cast a sidelong look at him. “It was actually Teal’c’s idea. Team barbeque this Saturday. I already got Hammond and Fraiser to come, and they’re bringing along whatever kids they can get a hold of.”
“Huh,” Daniel says. “That sounds like fun.”
Famous last words.
End book three
September 13 – 18, 2004
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