A Road Not Taken - Part Two


America could be such a confusing place, Daniel Jackson thought as he sat at his bedroom window at his most recent foster home. He'd just moved in two days before, his last set of foster parents requesting a change due to the fact that the almost-nine-year-old boy "spooked" them with his lack of speech. The home before that claimed he talked too much, thus accounting for the physical abuse his social worker had stepped in to protect him from. Ever since his parents died just under a year ago his world had been turned upside down, cast adrift in a place of an infinite number of social mores and customs. How could he fit in if he never knew from day to day or place to place what was expected of him? His parents had always given him time to adjust when they got to a new place...

Daniel squeezed his eyes shut to fight back the tears that always sprang up when he thought of his parents. It was getting easier to do, and he wasn't sure if he should be grateful or sad about it. When he'd gathered himself again, he refocused on the world outside once again. His blue orbs widened when he realized his social worker was coming up the front walk. Was he going to have to move again? So soon?

Five minutes later, a request for Daniel to come downstairs echoed up to him, and he quickly complied. He didn't want to give anyone a reason to be mad at him. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he saw his social worker, Miss Walker, and his new foster parents, Bill and Jane Michaels, all smiling at him. He just looked at them and blinked, an expression of curiosity shaping his features.

"I was just telling Mister and Mrs. Michaels that I had received some mail for you, and thought you should have it," the young woman most recently assigned to his case said with a gentle smile. She handed Daniel an envelope. "If I get any more, I'll be sure to send them along more promptly. This one floated around the office for two weeks, I'm sorry to say."

Daniel looked at the plain white envelope. "Daniel Jackson, c/o Miss Donna Walker" it said in sloppy hand-printed English. For the life of him, he couldn't think of anyone who would be writing to him.

"Do you know who would write you?" Jane asked softly, unconsciously echoing Daniel's own thoughts. The boy shook his head.

"You don't think this is going to be a problem, do you?" Bill asked Miss Walker, a slight frown marring his ruggedly handsome features. Daniel's eyes widened and he clutched the letter to his chest. He might not know who would write him, but someone obviously cared enough to do so. He wouldn't give that up for anything.

Donna's head turned sharply to face the young blond at the action. "Oh, Daniel, we won't take it away. You go ahead and read it. If it's from someone you don't know, or it says something mean or wrong, let us know, okay?" Daniel stared at her for a long moment before slowly nodding his agreement. "Good. Now why don't you go ahead and take your letter upstairs while I discuss a few things with the Michaels."

Daniel didn't hesitate to obey. A minute later, he was stretched out on his bed on his stomach, his legs slowly kicking back and forth absently as he tore open the envelope and pulled out the folded pages inside. He began to read:

"Dear Daniel,

"I'm sure you weren't expecting this, especially after so long, but I finally managed to track you down. Well, not you, exactly, but someone who would know where you were. I think you know what I mean. I just hope this social worker gives this to you and doesn't send it back like the last two.

"I don't know if you'll remember me or not, but we met when you came to Minneapolis with your parents during the tour of their 'Peasants and Pageantry of Ancient Egypt' exhibit. You ended up giving me a tour when my class moved on without me while we were talking. I should thank you for that, by the way. I got an A+ on the test Mister Guilder gave us when we got back, and even got the three extra credit questions right. Guilder would have accused me of cheating, but no one who sat near me got better than a C. Guess they should have been cheating off of me, huh?

"I have to apologize for something regarding that day. I told you I would come see you at the museum that weekend and didn't show. My dad ended up pulling an extra shift on base that Saturday, and my brother left Friday night to go camping for the weekend with his friends. I probably should have just called the museum and left you a message, but I didn't think of that until after I'd heard the exhibit was gone, and obviously it was too late then. I want you to know I don't normally break a promise like that, and I still feel bad even though it's been almost three years. I just hope I'm sorry is enough.

"I heard about what happened to your parents in New York, and I want to say how very sorry I am. I was at the museum checking out the exhibit your parents were set to take the place of the next month when the assistant curator told me. Man, Daniel, she freaked me out. She didn't have all the information, and so I thought you had died too. I felt so horrible. I'd been looking forward to finally seeing you again, and then you were just... gone. I hurried home (I still don't remember the drive) and turned on the news, hoping to hear more about what had happened. (My brother was a little upset that I changed the channel on him. He'd been watching something.) The news guy spouted off a blurb about the accident, and a short film clip played behind him - and that's when I got some great news. I saw you, alive, in that clip, and even though I felt horrible for you that your parents were gone, I couldn't help but feel selfishly better for myself that you hadn't died with them. My friend was still alive, and that made all the difference.

"I explained things to Chris - my brother that's only a year older than I am; I have another brother that's three years older and a sister that's five years older - and he agreed to help me track you down so I could get you this letter. Well, one like it at least. I've written three letters now, and I'm hoping that this is the one that gets through to you. I don't want to have to write another one. I will if I have to, but I don't want to. Don't get me wrong; I want to get a hold of you. But if this one comes back and I have to write another one it means that another one of your social workers isn't letting you get mail that's rightfully yours, and that's not right. You're not just a case file or a number, you're a person, and you deserve to be treated that way.

"Sorry, I'll get off my soap box now, as my dad always says when he goes off like that.

"Anyway, to let you know what's going on with me, I'm just about to finish my junior year of high school. I've been doing pretty well with my grades; I finally decided I want to go to the Air Force Academy when I graduate, and you need the grades to get in. I want the chance to fly the better planes, just like you said. Chris is about to graduate; he's been accepted to the Art Institute of Chicago, so he'll be taking off for the Windy City once the summer's over. My mom was thrilled to hear that since that's where she lives (my parents are divorced, by the way). I was actually born in Chicago, spent about seven years there before we moved to Minnesota. My mom moved back once she and Dad split up so she could pursue her painting career. She's really good, actually; I know where Chris gets his talent from, that's for sure.

"My dad's a Master Sergeant in the Air Force; he's where I got my love of airplanes from, although it was my uncle Fred who made me want to fly jets. We kids stayed with Dad because he's got a steady income and Mom wasn't sure when she would. By the time she was stable again, Bethany was just graduating high school, Gabriel was about to start his junior year, Chris his freshman year, and I was going into eighth grade. My parents just decided to leave things as they were unless we wanted to move back in with Mom. Chris thought about it, but decided to stay. I hadn't gotten over the fact that she'd left, so I wasn't about to go anywhere. I spend weekends here and there with her, a week during Christmas vacation, and a month during the summer. That's where I'll be in July as a matter of fact.

"I suppose I should wrap this up so I don't bore you too much. I'm going to give you my address at the end of this letter, so you can write me back and let me know how you're doing. I've been worried about you. America has to be really weird after spending most of your life traveling around Egypt and places like that, especially our school system after being home-schooled. I hope your foster parents and social workers have been treating you well; they better have, or I'll have to see what I can do to change that. Do you think I could get you transferred to Minnesota so you could live with us? I'll have to look into that...

"If you can, give me your home address so we can keep in touch. Otherwise let me know how else I can get a hold of you. I promised I'd be there for you, and I want to do everything I can to keep that promise. Hopefully I'll hear from you soon.

"Your Friend,

"Jack O'Neill"

Daniel's hands were shaking as he finished the long letter and tears welled up in his wide blue eyes. He remembered Jack and the exhibit in Minneapolis. He'd had fun with the older boy, and had been so proud to be treated like an equal by him the whole time they were wandering around the museum. He'd also been very disappointed when his parents had taken him along to visit a friend of theirs over the weekend since it would be their last few days in the area for a while. He didn't know how to get a hold of Jack to let him know the change of plans, and was afraid he would hurt the teenager's feelings.

He never expected that Jack would still be thinking of him three years later. What really surprised him was Jack's reaction to the... accident in New York. Had he really been that upset when he thought Daniel was dead too? Was he really that worried about Daniel's welfare? Did he really want to know how Daniel was doing? After Nick had refused to take him in, Daniel wasn't sure he'd ever find someone that cared that much about him again. But it appeared that there had already been someone like that in his life; Jack had just needed to find him again.

The realization that he was not alone, that someone out there really and truly cared for him, no matter how far away that someone was, broke through the boy's defenses and cracked the shell he had built around his heart. And with that crack, the tears finally began to fall. Daniel's body collapsed and his head rested heavily on his crossed arms in front of him, his muffled sobs escaping from the depths of his soul and the inner reaches of the wound his parents' deaths had left behind.

About ten minutes later, the boy's tears had run dry, and he brought his head up wearily with his eyes at half-mast. He was emotionally exhausted, but he had some things to do before he gave into it. Daniel smoothed out the wrinkles he'd made in Jack's letter, paused in the upstairs bathroom to wash his face and hopefully erase the evidence of his tears - he didn't want anyone to think his letter had been a bad thing - and hurried to rejoin the adults in the living room before his social worker left.

Daniel paused in the archway that led from the foyer to the living room and waited to be acknowledged. It wasn't long before Jane noticed him and waved him in. "Are you done reading your letter?" she asked lightly, uncertainty shining in her pale green eyes. Daniel nodded.

"Is there something you wanted to tell us?" Miss Walker asked gently, leaning forward so her eye level matched the boy she spoke with.

Daniel folded the pages of Jack's letter in half, writing side out, and held it out to her, his hand covering most of the words. Donna blinked in surprise, then read what sentences were showing. "Well, I'll be," she said as she leaned back in her chair. "It's from a friend Daniel met a few years ago. He's been trying to reach him for almost a whole year now."

"So he says," Bill qualified suspiciously. The child glared at him.

"From what this friend says he tried to send two previous letters, but Daniel's social workers at the time sent them back. I'll check on that when I get back to the office."

The two foster parents shared a look. "So what do we do now?" Jane asked.

Daniel shifted the papers and showed Donna the end of the last page, covering up the top part of it. "I don't understand," the young social worker said once she'd read the last paragraph and signature. Daniel thrust it at her again more forcefully, somehow getting a finger to point at Jack's address without revealing anything he'd hidden. "Daniel... are you saying that you want to write back to him? Is that it?" Daniel relaxed with a tiny smile, his arms dropping to hold the papers in front of his thighs.

"He'd have to give out our address," Jane hedged, now visibly nervous. Daniel's eyes widened as he realized he might not get what he wanted.

"What if this is just a trick?" Bill added, his suspicion up a notch. Tears welled up in the light blue eyes of the child standing in the middle of the room.

"The letter does have a Minneapolis postmark," Miss Walker interjected. "Whoever wrote this isn't even in the state."

Bill Michaels finally noticed the distressed look on his foster son's face. "Oh, gees, we've nearly got him crying," he said with some remorse. "Does it really mean that much to you?" he finally aimed at the boy.

Daniel just nodded, struggling to keep his tears from spilling as he hugged the letter fiercely to his chest.

"I think if you keep track of Daniel's behavior before and after receiving any future letters, everything should work out," Donna said soothingly. "This is the most emotionally he's reacted to anything for a long time. I don't think we should let this one go."

Jane nodded. "They're just letters. I'm all right with it if you are, Bill."

Bill sighed, his eyes never leaving the small child and noting the hope that had barely begun to blossom in the orbs that refused to look up from the carpet. "Okay, okay, I'll agree to it. But if he starts showing signs that these letters are upsetting him or being a bad influence, I'm putting a stop to them."

The three adults couldn't help but smile when Daniel's gaze lifted and was bright with happiness. "I'll get you an envelope and a stamp, okay, Daniel?" Jane offered, rising to her feet. The young blond nodded enthusiastically and followed the woman out of the room, dashing upstairs as soon as he had his prizes. He never saw the amused looks that lingered after him.

* * * * * * * *

Jack O'Neill frowned as he brushed at an imagined spot of dirt on his black dress slacks. He stood on the porch of the Michaels' family in a brisk, crisp October wind, trying to get up the courage to ring the doorbell. Daniel wouldn't be home for another half hour, forty-five minutes, and he had a feeling he'd need every second of the time. "For crying out loud," he muttered to himself before finally reaching out and pressing the button. "It won't get done if I just stand here."

A few moments later the door opened to reveal a lean, five-foot-eight woman with jet black hair pulled back into a ponytail and light green eyes awash with curiosity. "Hello," she greeted her unexpected visitor. "How can I help you?"

Jack took a deep breath before answering. "Are you Mrs. Jane Michaels?"

"Yes, I am. Is there something I can do for you?"

"My name is Jack O'Neill. I've been writing to Daniel for the last four months. Can I talk to you about something?"

The woman looked up at the six-foot tall teenager warily, relaxing slightly after a long moment when she didn't see anything too threatening in his stance. "I probably shouldn't do this, but come in. We can talk in the kitchen." She gestured him inside, closed the door, then led him to the aforementioned room. "Is there something you wanted with Daniel? He won't be home for at least a half hour," Jane said almost defensively, standing across the table from her visitor gripping the back of a chair with almost-white knuckles.

Jack sighed. "I wanted to talk to you before Daniel got home, actually. I'm here in New York with my mother for the weekend. She's an artist, and she's opening a new exhibit at one of the museums tonight. I wanted to ask you if Daniel could come with us to dinner and then the opening. We'd have him back whenever you wanted."

The pale green eyes widened in shock. "I... I don't know..."

"It's not the Museum of Art, I made sure of that."

"That's not it..."

"Except for the cab ride over to the hotel, my mom would be with us the whole time. I've got the number in my pocket if you want to call her and double check." Jack frowned as he began to dig in his front pockets, then switched to his fall jacket.

"Hold it," Jane said, practically desperate to get control of the conversation. This young man was answering questions it hadn't even occurred to her to ask yet. Jack froze, his right hand halfway out of his now-open coat's breast pocket, slip of paper in hand. "Why didn't you tell Daniel you were coming?"

Brown eyes blinked. "Well, I wasn't a hundred percent sure I'd be able to come. My mom's schedule can get kind of hectic, especially when she's got a big show like this coming up. She's got another exhibit up at a museum in Chicago that's been running for a while, so she wasn't sure she was going to be able to make the opening. She made up her mind about two weeks ago."

Now that Jack was the one answering questions Jane felt a little better. "Once you knew, why didn't you say anything to Daniel?"

"There was the whole school thing to worry about. I'm a senior in high school, and I had to miss a few days to come out here." Jack smiled ruefully. "I have to admit that's not the main reason, though."

Panic flared up again in the flabbergasted woman. "Oh? And what was that?"

The young man's smile became a wide grin. "I wanted to surprise him. And even more importantly, I wanted to ask you and your husband if Daniel could come along. But if you decided you weren't comfortable with that, I didn't want him to be disappointed. I'd just visit for a while and go, like I was just taking advantage of my trip here to see him." His expression faded back down to a gentle smile. "I really wanted to see him again. Amazing as it sounds, that kid really made a major impression on me. It's not too often you run across a six-year-old who's a certified genius."

"Genius?" Jane asked, bewildered. Daniel hadn't shown any inclinations toward an exceptional intelligence as far as she knew.

"You didn't know?" Jack asked, a bit shocked. How could anyone miss that?

"I don't think you understand his situation," Jane said softly. She looked with new eyes on this tall, lanky teenager who had gone so far out of his way for the sake of a boy he hadn't seen in three years. He obviously did care as much as the continued stream of letters suggested he did. She didn't even want to try to guess what kind of connection had taken place between the two children so long ago; all she needed to know was that it had. And that knowledge let her smile and answer Jack's request. "By the way, yes."

Jack blinked in surprise again. "Yes, what?"

Jane laughed. "Yes, Daniel can go with you tonight. I think it will probably be good for him."

Before Jack could respond, the sound of the front door opening and closing barely managed to reach the kitchen's occupants. Not long after, soft footsteps could be heard heading up the stairs Jack had noticed on his way through the foyer. He gave Jane a questioning look.

"Daniel's home. I forgot he always gets home a little sooner on Fridays; school gets out twenty minutes earlier since the kids don't have study time." She smiled at the confusion she saw on her visitor's face. "Daniel's school sets aside the last twenty minutes for the kids to unwind and do any homework they might have, so that they can ask the teacher any questions. They don't bother on Fridays."

The short conversation covered the sound of Daniel's return to the ground floor of the house and subsequent entry into the kitchen. Both previous occupants turned to face the newcomer when he froze in his tracks. Bright blue eyes darted back and forth between his foster mother and the visitor, his brain trying to figure out just who this was. Something was familiar about the tall young man, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Jack was speechless when he saw his little friend come into the kitchen. Daniel had grown another inch since the last time he'd seen an image of the kid, and his hair had darkened a shade closer to brown instead of the golden blond he remembered from the museum in Minneapolis, but that wasn't what struck him the most. No, that was the sense that Daniel was almost completely closed off from the world around him. Jack remembered the open, happy delight Daniel had taken in showing him the details of the different exhibits as he was led through the impromptu tour, a wide-eyed wonder in the mysteries the world concealed and a burgeoning desire to uncover them for all to see. Now the child had withdrawn from that, and it was almost painful for Jack to witness. He only hoped he could make some kind of difference.

Daniel saw the spark of compassion that flared in the soft brown eyes that were eagerly taking him in, and everything clicked. His eyes grew even wider and he took an involuntary step forward. "Jack?" he whispered incredulously. "Jack?"

"Hey, Daniel," Jack replied softly with a gentle smile. "I was just in the neighborhood and thought I'd drop by. I hope that's all right."

Daniel's response was not with words. The young boy dashed forward and threw his arms around the teenager's waist, burying his face in the leanly muscular chest above it. He started muttering something over and over, the sound muffled in a white dress shirt.

Jack leaned his head down as he rested his hands on the child's shoulders, his eyes widening when he made out what was being said. Daniel was saying thank you over and over again like a mantra, his tone fervent and sincere. "I guess it is," the older boy murmured, returning the embrace.

Jane watched with misty eyes as the young charge she and her husband had taken into their home took the first steps toward opening up and recovering from his grief. This young man who had shown up suddenly on her doorstep had proven to be wonderful for the child wrapped around his waist. And she had nearly gone along with her husband's instincts and prevented the exchange of letters that brought it all about. "What time is your mother expecting you back, Jack?" she asked, hoping she'd given them both enough time.

"Huh? Oh, she said something about getting back between four and four-thirty," Jack replied after he'd brought his head up. "That should give us enough time to get to the restaurant."

Daniel pulled back and looked back and forth between Jack and Jane. "Jack?" he asked quietly, obviously confused. "Are you going so soon?"

Jack grinned. "Yeah, actually. I'm in New York with my mom for the opening of her new exhibit and we're going to dinner first." He waited a beat, shooting a quick glance toward the woman who was still quietly watching the whole scene. "So I suppose you'd better get ready. I got a dose of impatience from both my parents."

"What do you mean?" the boy asked, even more confused than before.

"I came here early to ask Mrs. Michaels if you could come with us tonight. She said you could. So I guess you should get ready to go to my mom's art exhibit." Jack's grin got even wider.

Daniel started to smile. "I can go with you tonight?"

"Actually, Daniel," Jane jumped in, having made an impulse decision, "why don't you throw an overnight bag together? I'm sure Jack would love to spend as much time with you as he can since he'll only be here for the weekend."

Both boys looked at her in complete shock. "Are you sure?" Jack asked.

"Of course I'm sure," the black-haired woman replied dismissively. "Go ahead and run up to your room, Daniel, and put on your best outfit for tonight. I'll send Jack up in just a minute."

There was a slight delay as Daniel finished absorbing the new information, then he smiled shyly at his foster mother and hurried up to the second floor.

Once he was gone Jack gave Jane a contemplative look. "Why did you do that?" he asked simply.

She let him see the tears in her eyes. "He talked to you."


"Those are the first words I have heard Daniel say since he was placed here at the beginning of June. It's been four and a half months, Jack. Not one word. Then you come here out of the blue and he speaks. You've obviously touched his heart, and I don't have the heart to keep him from spending as much time as he can with the person that means the most to him."

"He... he hasn't been talking?" Jack asked, stunned.

Jane shook her head. "From what I understand, he was like this for the first six or so months after he lost his parents. Then, when he started to recover, he was placed in a home where he was physically abused. His social worker removed him from there, but the damage was done. He retreated back into his shell and hasn't poked his head out once." The thin woman smiled and wiped the moisture away from her eyes. "Until today, that is. Don't underestimate what you mean to him, Jack. When Bill and I considered not letting Daniel give out our address to who we saw as a complete stranger, he was nearly heartbroken. I saw it in his eyes. Bill still isn't a hundred percent sure if it was the right thing to do, but I have no regrets. Especially now." She couldn't help but laugh at the flabbergasted look on the teenager's face. "You seem so surprised. So when are you leaving? Sunday afternoon?"

Jack nodded as he picked his jaw up off the floor. "Uh, yeah. Our plane leaves at three."

"Then why don't you and your mother come over about ten with Daniel and have brunch with us before you go? It'll give Bill a chance to meet you."

"Um, sure. I think my mom will go for that. Oh, that reminds me..." Jack pulled out the piece of paper he'd started to retrieve earlier and handed it to the woman across the table from him. "That's our number at the hotel and the number of the museum. I'm not completely sure where we're eating so I didn't give you the number for the restaurant." He paused for a second after Jane had taken the slip. "I have no idea where we'll be tomorrow or what we'll be doing."

"Well, I did surprise you. Daniel knows our phone number. If anything happens, call us. Otherwise we can always leave you a message at the front desk of the hotel. I don't think anything's going to happen. Now you should probably go upstairs and help Daniel finish his packing. Your mother will be expecting you soon." Jane smiled at him kindly.

Jack met her gaze with a serious one of his own just before he left the kitchen. "I'm glad Daniel's staying with you. I was worried about him." He turned and walked away before she could respond.

"I still am," Jane murmured to the empty room. "But not with you." She went to the counter and packed up the plate of cookies she'd had ready for Daniel, then waited for the two boys to come back down and start their weekend. She was sure it would be a time they would both treasure for the rest of their lives.

* * * * * * * *

The next day, Jack and Daniel stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building looking off into the distance, lost in their thoughts. "I never said thank you for your letters," Daniel finally said quietly, his words barely audible over the wind the blew fiercely at that altitude.

"You never had to," Jack replied, a small smile forming on his features as he continued to look out over the city. "You wrote back; that was enough."

"No, I don't think so. I really can't thank you enough, Jack. Your letters make me feel really good. I look forward to every one of them."

The teenager turned his head and met the intense, serious blue gaze that was fixed on his face. This was no time to blow off his emotions, no matter how difficult it was not to. "You are very welcome, Daniel," Jack said solemnly. "As weird as it seems, you've become one of my good friends. I look forward to your letters, too."

At that, Daniel smiled, a true, transfiguring lightening of his features, an expression that reached Jack's soul as he watched it form. The younger boy moved closer to his almost adult friend, and without thinking about it, the young man wrapped an affectionate arm around the shorter boy's shoulders. They stood that way for a long time, communicating without words and deepening their friendship as they once again gazed out onto a world that wasn't quite as daunting with the knowledge that the other one was there.

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