A Road Not Taken - Part Seven


 "Dear Daniel,

"Has your social worker found you a new place yet? I hate the thought of you having to put up with that couple any longer than necessary. You'd think after four years of us writing back and forth - a year for you and Sam - that people would get the idea that we're not going to suddenly show up and rape and pillage the town. And what's wrong with you having friends before you get someplace? You think they'd want that. Proves you're normal. Well, as normal as a super genius like you can get. I know I've said it before, but it still ticks me off.

"Oh, and if the Wallers are reading this right now, let me say this. You can take your attitude about the military and shove it where the sun doesn't shine. If you're going to hold my career choice, and that of Sam's father, against Daniel, you don't deserve him anyway. He's way too good for you.

"There. I feel better. For now, at any rate.

"Sara's been working up the courage to tell her father about me. I didn't tell you this before, but he's another one with a thing against the military. He's been filling in the gaps money-wise for her while she's been going to college, and she couldn't afford to be cut off. Now that she's in her senior year, she figures it's about time to let him know. I'm pretty happy about getting things out in the open. We've been getting serious, and I'd like him to know if not completely approve. I guess there's a traditional streak in me I didn't realize I had.

"Thinking of traditions, I invited Sara to come to Minnesota with me for Thanksgiving next week. Her family's never done anything for the holiday, and now that Sara and her sisters are out of the house they've taken to going on vacations while the girls treat it like another Spring Break. So this year she'll be coming with me to meet my family. Well, most of it. My mom will be spending the time with her boyfriend's family in Chicago of course. We'll have to take a trip to Chicago one of these days for them to meet. Then again, Mom should be coming to graduation in June, so they can meet then. We'll see.

"Thinking of graduation, I can't believe this is my last year. I'm really looking forward to flight school and everything. I only wish you could be here. If it wasn't for you I might not be here today. You gave me the kick in the butt I needed right when I needed it. If I haven't said it before, let me say it now: thank you.

"Okay, enough of the mushy stuff. I need to get back to my classwork before lights out. I'm not sure if we'll get another exchange in before next week, so happy Thanksgiving just in case. I'll hear from you again soon.

"Your friend,


* * * * * * * *

The day after Christmas break started, Daniel snuck to the phone. The Wallers were both at work, and the other foster children were at various other people's houses around the neighborhood. He'd waited for them to leave; he didn't want an audience for his conversation. "Could I speak to Miss Janice Drake please?" he asked politely once the other end had been picked up.

There was a bit of a pause. "Janice Drake speaking. How may I help you?"

"Miss Drake? This is Daniel Jackson."

"Daniel? Is there something wrong?"

Daniel felt guilty for worrying the lady who kept trying to do the right thing for him. "Well, not exactly. I did have a couple of things I wanted to speak with you about though."

"Oh! Well, that's just fine, Daniel. What did you need?"

The boy with the dark blond hair that almost continually fell into his eyes took a deep breath before proceeding. "My friend Jack is graduating from the Air Force Academy in June. Would it be possible for me to go to Colorado Springs for it?"

There was a stunned moment of silence. "Well, I'm... I'm not sure, Daniel..."

"I've already written to Jack's father, Master Sergeant Patrick O'Neill, and he said he'd be willing to let me stay with them while I'm there. He'd meet me at the airport when I got there and drop me off when it was time to go home. He got an extra ticket for me. He even said I could give you his number if you needed to discuss it with him before giving me your permission." Daniel was nearly breathless when he finished his plea.

There was another stunned moment of silence. "Well, it sounds like you've thought of pretty much everything, at least that I can think of right off the top of my head. This is highly irregular, I hope you know that."

Daniel swallowed nervously, his grip tightening on the plastic casing of the receiver. "I... I know, Miss Drake. But I really want to go. It's supposed to be a surprise for Jack, part of my graduation present to him. I'm so proud of him, Miss Drake. I want to be able to tell him that in person."

Janice sighed. "I can't promise anything, Daniel, but give me Sergeant O'Neill's telephone number and I'll see what I can do." Daniel did so, his tongue nearly tripping over the numbers in his excited haste. "Now, you said you had a couple of things you wanted to talk to me about?"

"Right." He took another deep breath and released it. "I overheard something last night. Are you close to finding me another placement?"

"I have it narrowed down to two possibilities. Why? What did you hear?"

"The Wallers have decided which one of us they want to adopt. They want Jeffrey Larson. They're going to tell him on Christmas, then break the news to the rest of us the next day. As soon as they start the paperwork they're going to let you know that they don't want to be foster parents anymore. They want to be able to focus their attention on their new son." It took everything he had to keep his voice from breaking. As much as he really didn't want to stay there, it was still hard to be rejected like that. "I don't want to be here for that. I want to be gone as soon as possible. If you could set it up for today, I wouldn't mind."

"Now, Daniel..."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Daniel said quickly. "I know you can't do it today. I didn't mean it like that. I was just giving an example to prove how much I wanted to go. You've been really nice to me so far, and I really appreciate it. Please, just get a new placement as soon as you can. I can wait. It's almost Christmas, and I'm sure you have a lot of work to do before your holiday. I've taken enough of your time."

"Daniel," Janice said forcefully, trying to catch his attention before he hung up. "I will do what I can. I promise. You're not asking for too much. We'll see how fast we can make the system go, all right?"

Daniel gave a small sniff. "All right. Thank you, Miss Drake."

The woman on the other end gave another sigh. "You're more than welcome, Daniel. And thank you for letting me know what's going on there. I needed to know that."

"Sure, Miss Drake."

"I'll be talking to you soon. Just hold on until then, all right?"

"All right. Goodbye, Miss Drake."

"Goodbye, Daniel."

Daniel hung up the phone and went up to his room. He flopped onto his bed and curled up on his side, staring at the far wall. He'd done what he could. Now he just needed to wait and see what Miss Drake could do.

* * * * * * * *

"Dear Sam,

"I'm glad your move to Ohio went well. I was hoping it would. And that hill where you can see the stars so clearly sounds wonderful. It's good to know your father is doing well, and that you're still talking to Mark even though he's in his last semester of high school. Are things any better between him and your dad? It seems like such a shame that they can't see eye to eye.

"It took me a while, but I think I've finally managed to settle into my latest foster home. The Justmans were happy to take me in the day before Christmas, but I just couldn't get comfortable until now. It worries me a little that it took a month and a half. Do you think there's something wrong with me? I'm half afraid that means there's something wrong here. I've overheard a few arguments, but they didn't seem too serious. Maybe what happened with the Wallers just has me on edge.

"I'm glad I got to stay in Seaside. I'd just gotten used to the school, and a few of my teachers are really nice. It's still hard being as young as I am, but that would happen anywhere, and adding the stigma of the new kid would make things that much worse. How do they run classes where you are, Sam? Here we get syllabi that list all the homework we're going to get over the semester. I like that because I can work ahead when I get bored and need something to do. I still read and work on my language skills, but every now and again it feels good to be doing something I know isn't purely for leisure.

"I just got the best news of all when I got home from school today, Sam. Miss Drake was here, and she told me that I'm going to be able to go to Colorado Springs in June for Jack's graduation! Isn't that great? I'll get to surprise him just like I wanted, and like he did for me back when I was living with the Michaels in New York. I finished a letter to Sergeant O'Neill just before I started this one, letting him know that we can finalize our plans, although I have a feeling Miss Drake told him already. I'm so excited, Sam! This is going to be great!

"I need to go now, Sam. Mrs. Justman called up and let me know that supper was ready. Write me soon and fill me in on how life is going in Ohio. I can't wait to hear everything.

"Friends always,


* * * * * * * *

The beginning of June was beautiful that year, and Jack couldn't have wished for better weather for his graduation. The ceremony itself went by in a blur, the only thing he truly remembered doing was looking for his family in the crowd of onlookers. He never did find them.

Finally the command rang out, "Graduates, dismissed!" Jack joined the rest of his classmates in throwing his hat into the air, barely managing to catch it without getting clocked by anyone else's. He laughed as he watched some of the others search for where their hats had landed, and laughed even harder when he saw some people looking to trade the hats they held for the ones that belonged to them.

After a few minutes everything seemed to sort itself out, and the crowd began to thin even as it grew with the addition of the family and friends that had bore witness. Jack kept his eyes open and finally saw a couple of the people he was looking for. "Dad!" he called out, waving.

Patrick O'Neill waved back, grinning, and led his clan over to the current bright star. When he and his children stepped up to Jack, the older man, clad in his dress uniform, snapped to attention and saluted the newly-minted second lieutenant. Jack, shock shaping his features, sharply returned it before being pulled into a fierce embrace. "I'm proud of you, son. I'm so damned proud of you."

"Thanks, Dad. That means a lot."

There were hugs all around once the father and son pair broke apart, Jack's mother joining the crowd toward the end of the rounds with Sara right behind her. "We're all very proud of you, Jack," his mom whispered in his ear before letting him go.

"I'm really glad you could all be here," Jack said, draping his left arm around Sara's shoulders. "This is the greatest. The only thing that could have made it better would be if Daniel could have been here." His happy smile turned wistful.

Patrick shook his head. "You know, I wish I would have thought of that, son."

Jack shrugged. "It's okay, Dad."

"But then again, I didn't have to."

As Jack stared at him in confusion, there was a small commotion out of the corner of his eye to the right. He turned his head in time to see a lanky young teenager about five-foot-eight inches tall, with shaggy dark blond hair that had lightened somewhat in the sun, step out from the crowd that milled around his family and push up the dull gold-framed glasses that rested on the almost familiar nose. There was a bright, shy smile that was aimed at him that only somewhat off-set the aura of nervousness behind it. But the truly identifying feature of the young man standing before the new Air Force officer were the brilliant blue eyes that held his own. "Daniel?" Jack queried in a whisper, his arm falling away from his girlfriend and back to his side. "Daniel, is that you?"

The kid's smile grew stronger and wider. "Surprise, Jack. Happy graduation." Daniel was going to say more, but was cut off when Jack pulled him into as fierce an embrace as Patrick had given him only moments before.

"Oh my God, Daniel," Jack murmured into his friend's hair. "You don't know how good it is to see you, to see for myself that you're really okay."

"Of course I'm okay, Jack. I wouldn't lie to you," Daniel reassured him as he returned the hug full measure.

"Never thought you would, Danny-boy, but I have a feeling your definition of okay and mine are two completely different things."

They pulled apart and shared the grins that didn't seem to want to fade in the slightest. "I'm really proud of you, Jack. I wanted to tell you that in person."

Jack reached out and ruffled the locks that fell into the bright blue eyes. "That means a lot, Daniel, a whole lot." He laughed at the mock scowl his action had produced.

"This is partially my present, too," the older airman said proudly, happy with the way things had turned out.

"You all knew about this, didn't you?" Jack accused.

His siblings shared an innocent look that fooled no one. "Who, us?" Chris asked, splaying a hand over his chest. "What would make you think that?"

Beth crossed her arms over her chest. "It figures that he'd blame us without proof. He's been doing it all his life!"

Gabriel looked at the youngest of the six O'Neills critically. "You know, I don't think he's really all that upset, so I for one refuse to even act guilty."

Their mother rolled her eyes. "I never thought my children would end up being so melodramatic."

"You are kidding, aren't you, Mom?" Gabriel aimed at her, his eyebrows raised. "We've always been like this." At that, all of them laughed.

"You know, if it makes you feel any better, I didn't know about Daniel until we sat down this morning," Sara said, reaching out to slip her hand into Jack's.

"You always make me feel better," Jack said with a soft smile before giving her a quick peck on the lips.

Patrick watched the interplay between the couple and couldn't help but notice the look Sara shot toward Daniel once Jack had straightened. "You have your camera with you, don't you, Carolyn?" At her nod, he gestured to Jack. "Why don't you organize some family shots while I have a few words with the proud grad? We'll mix and match everybody as we go along." He gave Daniel a wink to tell him he was to be included as well, then walked off with Jack on his heels.

Jack waited until they were out of earshot before satisfying his curiosity. "What's going on, Dad? What did you want to talk about that you couldn't say in front of everyone else?"

His father grinned. "I always knew that dumb kid routine was just that." His smile softened. "First, I want you to know that Daniel worked very hard to be able to come here for this. He paid for his part of the trip himself. All I had to do was pick him up at the airport, let him stay with us at the hotel, help him out with his meals, and agree to take him back to the airport when it's time for him to head back. He took care of all the arrangements himself, and he did it all for you. I don't want you to take it for granted."

"No way, Dad. Even if he hadn't paid for a cent I'd be grateful he was here. But the fact that it meant enough to him to go through that kind of effort..." Jack shook his head in disbelief. "It's astounded me from day one how seriously he takes his friendships. I know how privileged I am to be considered that way, you don't have to worry about that."

Now the older man's smile faded away. "The other thing I wanted to tell you is that you should be aware that I think Sara's a little jealous of your relationship with Daniel. She hasn't had a chance to talk with him yet - they were barely even introduced before the graduation ceremony started - but she's been watching him very carefully. After you kissed her just now, she looked at him to gauge his reaction." He held up a hand to stop the protest he could see forming on his son's lips. "I'm not trying to say anything bad about Sara, Jack. I like her. But you've been close to Daniel for about five years now. You and Sara have only been together for not even two. I just wanted to warn you, to make you aware of how she's feeling. I wanted to make sure you knew so that you could do something about it before it became a problem." He reached out a hand and clapped a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Catching problems before they become serious can save a relationship, Jack. Trust me. I speak from experience." He threw a look filled with subdued longing toward the woman who was still trying to find the best angle to take advantage of the light.

Jack sighed. "Okay, Dad. I'll see what I can do."

"That's all I ask. Now let's get back to the others."

While the father and son pair were talking, Daniel took a shy step over to stand next to Sara. "Hi," he said quietly, a small smile on his face. "We didn't really get to talk before, but I wanted to thank you."

Sara blinked in surprise. "Thank me? For what?"

The teenager's smile grew wider. "For making Jack so happy. He's the happiest I've ever known him to be. It's been all over his letters since he started his third year at the Academy. I couldn't ask for anything more for him."

The woman's jaw dropped. "You mean you're not jealous of our relationship?"

"Why should I be?" Daniel asked with a shrug. "He still writes me as often as he ever did, and we still talk the way we used to. He's there for me when I need him. Now he's just happier."

"I would have thought you'd think I might take him away from you."

"Well, to be perfectly honest, the thought did cross my mind a moment or two when I realized how much of his letters was about you. But then I realized that he was still sharing it with me, his pride in you, his happiness at being with you. There was nothing to be jealous of. I was still a part of his life. There's more than enough room for both of us. Jack has a pretty big heart, as much as he likes to hide it."

Sara stared for a long moment at this amazing kid. She knew she wouldn't have been able to make that kind of distinction when she had been his age. Suddenly she knew there was nothing to fear from Jack's friendship with Daniel. It would probably only strengthen what she had with him. "He does, doesn't he?" she said finally, smiling sincerely. "I'm glad I'm sharing the space with someone like you. You've been good for him, too."

Before the embarrassed young man could respond, Jack and his father returned. "So, Carolyn, ready yet?" Patrick asked, rubbing his hands together.

"I just need the kids to stand right over there," Carolyn said decisively, pointing to a spot slightly to her left and making it more than apparent that her wishy-washiness had been a ploy to stall for time. "I can get the flag in the background."

Three hours later, after every combination Carolyn could come up with had been immortalized on film and the group of them had shared a late lunch, Jack and Daniel took a casual stroll around the streets of Colorado Springs. "This is a nice city," Daniel commented, glancing up at the mountains that always loomed in the background.

Jack nodded. "I've really grown to like it here. And it's not just because of Sara."

"It wouldn't matter if it was, Jack. I like her. She's been good for you."

"You really think so?" Jack was surprised by the seeking of approval he heard in his tone.

Daniel was, too. "Are you asking for my okay?"

Jack frowned as he thought about it. "Not really, I guess, but it would be nice to know I have it. Your opinion matters."

Daniel gave his friend a surprised smile. "Thank you, Jack. That means a lot." The smile changed into a grin. "And I guess it's okay. You can stay with Sara. I don't mind."

"You little..." Jack growled before putting Daniel into a head lock and giving him a severe noogie. "Just remember, you deserve this!" he cried over the teenager's laughing protests.

"You know, I think that's the first time anyone's done that to me and I thought it was funny," Daniel said once he'd been released, continuing their walk and trying to get his hair back into some kind of order.

"That doesn't surprise me." Jack watched the futile attempt for half a block, then decided to change the subject. "My dad told me you went through a lot of trouble to come here. What kind of job did you get to earn all the money you needed?"

Daniel blinked at his friend, surprised he'd been told. "I, um, looked out for an elderly neighbor while I was in Carmel. Made sure she could reach her paper, did some yard work when her family couldn't, that sort of thing. It wasn't that big of a deal."

Jack shook his head. "I bet it was a bigger deal than you realize, Daniel. Did that lady live alone?"

"Yeah. Her family came by pretty regularly to visit, though."

"But she still lived alone. I bet your visits, however rare they were, and all the little things I'm sure you did for her, really brightened up her days. My mom's mom was like that, fiercely independent and living alone. But you should have seen her face light up whenever we'd visit. It meant something, Daniel. Don't ever doubt it." Jack smiled a touch wistfully.

"I take it she's gone now?" Daniel asked gently.

Jack nodded. "She died just after we moved to Minnesota, when I was eight. She was a great lady."

Daniel gave him a tiny smile. "That doesn't surprise me. She was your grandmother."

The older young man cleared his throat. "I'm surprised your foster parents let you come."

Daniel sighed. "My new foster parents didn't really have much say in it. I've only been there for about two weeks. But I'd made all the arrangements with Miss Drake, my social worker, so she let them know when I was placed there."

"So what happened to the Justmans?"

"They filed for divorce. All the kids there got placed in new homes. I decided to bring along my new address instead of sending it in a letter." Daniel dug in one of the pockets of his dress slacks and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He handed it to his friend. "I suppose you'll have a new address soon, too."

Jack nodded as he put the slip into a pocket in his dress jacket. "I've got pilot training to go through before I know anything permanently, but I'll make sure you know as soon as I do."

"Thanks, Jack."

"So, now that we've taken care of all the serious stuff, just how many new languages has the Great Brain managed to shove in his giant head?"

"Wonderful imagery, Jack," Daniel groused, his expression a mix between irritation and amusement.

The two of them continued to banter back and forth for the rest of their walk, the battle of wits relatively even. They thoroughly enjoyed themselves. And for the rest of the time Daniel was in Colorado Springs, the two friends grew closer, growing and maturing just as both halves of the friendship had done.

* * * * * * * *

"Dear Daniel,

"I was happy to get your latest letter - it's been a while since I got one. I was almost starting to get worried. Although, thinking of being worried, you haven't mentioned much of anything about your foster family. Is your foster brother still picking on you? Have you told your foster parents about the big bully? Or maybe your social worker? I'm sure someone can help you get him off your case. You really shouldn't have to put up with that kind of stuff.

"I'm afraid this won't be a long letter this time. Dad's taking me on a camping trip for the weekend, and I just wanted to make sure I replied right away. I'm beginning to think there might be a move on the horizon, and he's trying to butter me up before he springs the news. I'm just hoping that if it's got to happen it'll happen during Christmas break. I hate it when we move in the middle of the semester. But you knew that.

"I guess Mark has taken things to the next step with his girlfriend Julie, as fast as that sounds. He proposed about a week ago and she said yes. They set a date - June 26, 1982, a month or so after they graduate. I just hope he invites Dad. No matter what's happened between them, they're still father and son.

"School's been pretty boring. I'm on the Science Quiz Bowl team, and practices have been interesting. I guess. Sometimes it feels like I'm light years ahead of these people. Then I feel guilty for thinking that way. I'm not better than them, just smarter. It's not their fault. Although a few of them have kept me running to keep ahead. I like that. Keeps me on my toes.

"Well, write again soon and let me know what's going on with you. I eagerly await your next letter!

"Friends forever,


* * * * * * * *

Daniel paused outside the huge house he was currently calling home, tugging the zipper of his jacket up a little higher and readjusting the heavy backpack on his back. He'd come straight home from school as expected of him, but it always took him a little more each day to force himself to step inside. It was a beautiful home, nearly a mansion, but a gilded cage was still a cage.

"Yo, Jackson!" a deep taunting voice called out from the suddenly open front door. "You gonna spend all night out there?"

Blue eyes closed behind glasses whose prescription had recently been updated. And this would be one of the reasons he considered this place a cage. "No, Heath, I'm coming in." Five strides and seven steps later and he was eye to eye with the older boy a year ahead of him in school. Well, the better descriptor might be eye to chin...

"You really think I'm just going to let you waltz on in, don't you?" Heath said in a low, menacing growl.

"Well, I'd prefer if you did," Daniel said quietly.

"You got any lunch money left?"

"What if I told you no?"

The bigger teenager cocked his head as if he were considering it. "I think I'd have to shake you down and check if you were lying. And I doubt you'd find the experience pleasant."

Daniel silently dug into a pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. "Happy now?" he said as he handed it over with a sharp glare.

Heath gave the younger child a long once-over and grinned. "Deliriously. You may now enter." He gave a mock bow and gestured grandly toward the large foyer behind him.

Daniel sighed and walked inside, pausing long enough once he'd done so to let Heath pass him and head for whatever destination he had in mind. Once the older foster child was out of sight, the blond teenager let his eyes travel around the entrance hall. It didn't matter that he'd been living there for the past four months; the extravagance of the house designed and built for the owner of one of the most successful factories in the area was still overwhelming. There was an oak staircase leading to the second floor from a matching hard wood floor covered by elaborate Persian rugs that Daniel could tell were authentic. A balcony with a beautifully carved railing lined three of the four walls, with four doors that opened onto it. A hall led straight back from the top of the stairs, going past a large bathroom on the right and an expansive linen closet on the left, and finally ending at the master bedroom that took up the back part of the second floor. Daniel had only seen that room once, when he'd been given a tour of the house upon his arrival. He had no desire to see it again.

His eyes dropping back to the first floor, Daniel noted the oak door with the etched oval window in the center off to his left that led to the sun room that ran along the length of that side of the house. No one would be in there; the children weren't allowed to play anywhere near there. The open archway to the left of the stairs led to the dining room, and he could hear Mrs. Higgins setting the table. The open archway to the right of the stairs led to the huge living room that took up most of the space on that side of the house. Again, none of the children would be in either of those rooms, not yet. It was always homework until supper, then quiet entertainment activities until it was time for bed at nine o'clock - ten for the high school kids. The weekends were a bit freer in that regard with a uniform bedtime of midnight.

Daniel finally shrugged off his backpack and put away his jacket in the entryway closet on the living room side of the foyer after he heard his foster mother move back into the massive kitchen in the back of the building. As quietly as he could he picked up his bag and went up the stairs to his bedroom. He was as quick as he'd ever been, and so didn't have homework, but he used a lot of his time to follow along with the syllabi he'd previously described to Sam and do the rest of what would be expected of him that semester. Life was easier that way.

The foster brother he shared a room with was missing that afternoon - most likely in one of the other bedrooms chatting with one of the others - leaving Daniel alone as usual. Things stayed that way until the sound of the front door closing quite loudly echoed through the house. Daniel swiftly put his books away and sat on his bed waiting for the call to supper. It came not long after.

Mr. Higgins was a large man. His size made it easy to see how he had managed to take a small one-or-two-man operation - it was something having to do with metalworking of some kind, but Daniel wasn't sure quite what - and turn it into the successful company with new factories in some of the surrounding communities that it now was. This was a man used to hard physical labor. And he was as imposing as his bulk would suggest. Daniel always left the table as soon as he was able and retreated to the safety of his room. There he spent the nights either doing more homework or reading books brought home from the school library.

That night was no exception. Daniel had chosen to bring home a book on the exploits of Marco Polo, the idea of the merchant-turned-explorer and his impressions of the new civilizations he traveled through - so alien to what he knew - struck a chord deep within him. After a couple hours and half of the thick book, the teenager reluctantly marked his page and slipped out into the hall to make his way to the bathroom. He was halfway to the hall when stomping footsteps steadily approached the balcony from the direction of Daniel's destination.

Daniel froze in place when Heath appeared suddenly. "You know, I'm only a couple of months away from turning eighteen!" he shouted back over his shoulder. "When I do, I'll be out of here so fast it'll make your head spin! And there's nothing you can do about it!"

No, no, not this, anything but this, Daniel thought with growing panic, unable to move. I don't want to see this!

Even heavier stomping had Daniel's heart in his throat and Heath jumping back a couple of feet along the balcony away from the younger witness. And then Ken Higgins, in his raging glory, completely blocked the hallway that led to the master bedroom. "Keep up with that attitude, boy, and you'll be lucky to see the next couple of minutes, much less the next couple of months," the huge man said darkly, not even registering Daniel's presence.

"I'm not a little kid, so stop calling me boy," Heath insisted defiantly, only the whitening of his knuckles as he gripped the balcony's railing revealing his fear.

"I'll call you anything I like. I'm in charge here!" Higgins roared.

"You're only in charge here because you beat everyone who disagrees with you into submission!"

Higgins chuckled, an evil sound. "It's good to know you realize how things work around here. I take it this means you disagree with me?"

Heath narrowed his eyes. "You're enjoying this, aren't you? This is just a major power trip for you. You sick bastard!"

Daniel's eyes widened when he heard the animalistic growl come from his foster father's throat. "How dare you! You push around the other foster kids, bully kids at school to get what you want and beat them up when you don't... And you have the balls to call me a bastard? In my own house! I will not be spoken to like that!" Daniel flinched at the volume, and Heath's knuckles paled even more. "You live in my house, and you will know your place! I'll make sure you never forget it again!"

As Higgins slowly cocked back his left fist, Heath's defiant mask completely fell apart to reveal the utterly scared teenager he really was. And that transformation, that look of terror that Daniel could remember shaping his own features so many years ago only too well, broke the chain of fear that had been holding him in place, had been strangling him since he'd returned from Colorado Springs and figured out what kind of man his foster father was. All he knew in that split second of realization was that it wasn't right to beat a child, not for any reason, and that the force of the blow Higgins had every intention of throwing would severely injure Heath, if not send him over the railing onto the hard wood floor a story below. He couldn't let that happen, he wouldn't. He'd no longer let fear keep him from doing what was right.

"No! Stop!" Daniel shouted, dashing forward and finally jumping in front of Ken Higgins. "Don't hit him!"

There was only a half-second's hitch in the big arm's momentum before Higgins slightly readjusted his trajectory and opened his fist. "Get out of my way!" he bellowed, his enormous, beefy hand connecting solidly with the right side of Daniel's face.

Heath gasped, his eyes bugging out of his head, as the normally-quiet younger teenager flew back from the force of the blow. But Daniel had taken his stand in front of the gap in the balcony railing that marked the staircase. The back of his head slammed into the angled handrail that framed the stairway, then the limp body bounced and rolled violently along the steps to land in a heap at their base. There was no further movement.

"Get up!" Higgins shouted, having stepped forward to the edge of the balcony. "Get the hell up, you melodramatic bastard!"

Heath stared at Daniel's form for a half-minute that felt like a century then dashed down the center hall to the master bedroom at its end. Not bothering to knock, he threw open the door and halted in his tracks at the sight of Jennifer Higgins curled up into a ball on the bed crying her eyes out. "Mrs. Higgins, where's the phone?" he asked after only a beat. There was no response.

"Mrs. Higgins, you have to tell me where the phone is. Daniel's dying down there, and he did it to protect me. We have to call an ambulance!"

"D-d-dying?" Jennifer stuttered, slowly bringing her head up. "Daniel?"

"Yes! Your husband knocked him down the stairs with a blow that could have laid out Muhammad Ali, and now he's just lying there at the base of the stairs bleeding to death! Do something!"

She shook her head. "I-I-I can't. I can't. No, no, no, I can't," Jennifer moaned.

Heath's jaw clenched. "Then tell me where the phone is so I can do it! He's already pissed at me. Now where's that phone!"

A shaking arm unfolded itself from the balled up form, and a quivering finger pointed to the drawer of the nightstand next to the bed. "But it's locked," she whispered. "He won't let me call without his permission."

"Then I'll break the God damn thing open," Heath growled. A quick tug verified the drawer was indeed locked, and a minute later, the seventeen-year-old had focused his anger and smashed the table apart. He quickly made the call, ignoring the fresh wave of tears from the woman on the bed. "They're coming," he murmured once he'd hung up the receiver. "God, they better hurry."

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