A Road Not Taken - Part Eight


 Sam sat in her living room watching television with a large bowl of chocolate ice cream in her lap. She'd gotten home from Quiz Bowl team practice a half hour before and decided to laze about the house for the rest of night since she didn't have any homework. With her father gone on some mission or other for at least the next two weeks, she had the house to herself. She debated with herself about inviting Tommy Jensen over, that cute guy from advanced shop class she'd been talking with a lot lately. He really knew his engines.

She grinned at the thought. He'd given her a ride home the day before, and had insisted on giving her a tour of all the side streets and alleys in town at a speed that had his wheels squawking at every corner. She hadn't had so much fun in a long time. Especially when they'd caught air flying off the hill a couple of blocks behind her house.

Sam nodded, her mind made up. She'd call Tommy as soon as she finished her ice cream. And if she played her cards right, maybe he'd take her for another ride.

She'd just swallowed the last spoonful of melting chocolate goodness when the phone rang. "Hello, Carter residence," she said, draping herself over the arm of the couch.

"Hello, is this Samantha Carter?" an unfamiliar voice asked.

"Yes. May I ask who's calling?"

A sound came over the line that Sam could have sworn was a sigh of relief. "I'm glad I was finally able to reach you. My name is Janice Drake. I'm Daniel Jackson's social worker."

Sam blinked and pushed herself up to sit properly on the sofa. "Oh! I've heard of you. Daniel's mentioned you in his letters. How can I help you?"

"This isn't usual procedure, but I know how close Daniel is to you, and I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try to let you know. Considering his grandfather's current situation I didn't bother getting a hold of him..."

"Miss Drake, you're freaking me out here. What's going on? Why did you call? What's wrong with Daniel?" Sam's mind was filled with horrific images of what could possibly have happened to the young man she still considered her best friend that would result in this kind of phone call. Oh, God, he wasn't dead, was he?

Janice heard the choked gasp and guessed what the young woman must be thinking. "Daniel's been admitted to the local hospital in Seaside," she said quickly. "He was in surgery for six hours, but the doctors are reservedly optimistic about his chances."

Sam's eyes widened and filled with tears. "What happened?" she barely managed to whisper.

There was another sigh from the other end. "From what his foster brother told us, their foster father slapped him with excessive force and sent him tumbling down the stairs. I had no idea that was an abusive home. I didn't know."

"I'm sure you didn't," Sam said hurriedly, pushing aside her own pain momentarily at the sound of tears in the woman's voice. "Daniel has said nothing but good things about you. You tried to find him parents who would adopt him, and moved him as soon as you could when it didn't work out, and let him go to Colorado Springs to see Jack graduate. You've been wonderful. You wouldn't let him get hurt, not if you could prevent it."

"Thank you. I guess I needed to hear that."

"You're welcome." Sam's grief came back with a vengeance. "But is Daniel really going to be okay?" she asked, her voice breaking as she began to lose the fight to keep her tears in check.

"Oh, Samantha, I hope so. The doctors have told me everything's gone well so far, but he's slipped into a coma. They've also said that coma patients sometimes can be helped if people close to them are with them, talking to them, that kind of thing. Is there any way you could come out here and be with him?"

Sam broke into sobs at the request. "I can't! My dad's gone and won't be back for at least two weeks! Oh, God, Daniel!" She brought her free hand up to cover her face.

Janice gasped loudly. "Samantha... Sam, it's okay, it's all right!" There was a slight pause. "How old are you, anyway?"

Sam sniffed a few times as she got the worst of her reaction under control and dropped her hand back into her lap. "I'm fifteen. I swear if I could be there I would. And if my dad were here I'm sure he'd let me go. He likes Daniel, too. But I don't know how to get a hold of him."

"That's okay, Sam. I believe you. Don't beat yourself up over this."

"I'll try, but I don't promise anything. Will you keep me up to date on Daniel's condition? I want to know everything."

"I'll do what I can. Now I should probably get going. I'll try to call tomorrow and tell you what I can. Does the time I called today work best for you?"

"Yeah. That way you can be sure I'm home. Thank you, Miss Drake, for letting me know and trying to keep me in the loop. I really appreciate it. Daniel means so much to me."

There was a slight, strained laugh. "I assure you Daniel feels the same way about you. I'll talk to you tomorrow, Sam."

Sam swallowed hard. "Okay. Goodbye." When the distraught blonde heard the dial tone blare in her ear, she finally hung up the phone and collapsed sideways onto the couch, giving in to soul-rending weeping at last.

* * * * * * * *

Jack trudged into his quarters after mess that evening, tired from the day's activities. The only thing he planned on doing was reading the new book he'd picked up on Daniel's recommendation then going to bed early. Anything beyond that was asking far too much. He'd call Sara tomorrow.

The ringing of the phone elicited a deep groan from the second lieutenant. Now what? Jack scowled as he reached for the phone, hoping the person on the other end had a real emergency. Otherwise he refused to be held responsible for his actions. "O'Neill," he answered curtly.

"Lieutenant O'Neill?" a female voice asked hesitantly.

"This is he. What can I do for you?" Jack kept his tone brusque and clipped in the hopes that it would encourage this woman to keep it short.

"Lieutenant, this is Janice Drake, Daniel Jackson's social worker. I've been trying to get a hold of you all day."

Jack's brows furrowed at the immense relief he heard in her tone. "Daniel's social worker? Why are you calling me?"

There was a sigh from the other end. "While you're not legally his family, I thought you deserved to know." Dread and an almost crushing fear rose up in Jack's chest at the words. "Daniel's in the hospital here in Seaside. The doctors think he has a respectable chance to pull through, but he's in a coma at the moment."

Jack blinked. "What happened?" he asked quietly, his hard-ass attitude completely gone.

"We were told that his foster father hit him quite violently and knocked him down the stairs. He was in surgery for six hours."

"What?" Jack asked incredulously, a sudden anger overtaking him even as a pain like that of a red hot sword being run through him pierced his heart. "What the hell was he doing in an abusive home?"

"I didn't know!" Janice cried guiltily. "We'd never had any negative reports come of the Higgins' home in all the years they've been involved with the program. Mr. Higgins is a pillar of the community, always so giving, so generous. I couldn't believe he'd done something like this. But I've seen Daniel, and the other kids are reacting so badly..."

"Where is Higgins now?" Jack asked darkly, vengeful thoughts coursing through his mind. "Where is the bastard?"

Miss Drake took a deep breath to get control of herself. "In jail. They haven't set bail yet. We're trying to get the other children into emergency homes."

The thought of other kids ending up in the same condition as Daniel drew Jack's rage up short and refocused him on Daniel's condition. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Is there any way you could come out here for a while? I've been told that loved ones can be extremely helpful in the recovery of coma patients. I talked to Sam Carter just a little while ago and she's unable to come. What about you?"

Jack's eyes closed as he finally let his sorrow overtake him. "I'll do what I can. Give me your number so I can call you back as soon as I talk to my commanding officer." She did so. "I'm going to go take care of this. I'll call you as soon as I do."

"I'll talk to you soon then, Lieutenant."

Jack hung up the phone with exaggerated care before curling over like someone had punched him in the stomach. "Oh, God, Daniel," he whispered into his thighs, his forehead resting on his knees. "Why? Why do these horrible things have to keep happening to you of all people? It's just not right." He took a few deep, calming breaths, somehow pulling himself back together. Then he stood and headed for the door. The sooner he got the ball rolling, the sooner he'd be where he belonged - at Daniel's side.

* * * * * * * *

A pale and nervous Jack O'Neill drove like a maniac in his rented car from the airport in San Francisco where his plane had landed not too long before. His CO had been extremely understanding and had pulled a bunch of strings to give the second lieutenant a two-week-long leave so that he could be there for his friend. Miss Drake had promised to meet him at the hospital and to take care of the red tape that might get in his way to seeing Daniel. He could only hope she'd been successful with that last task. He was in no mood to deal with bureaucratic bullshit.

Following the social worker's directions, Jack quickly found himself in the hospital parking lot. He slammed the car into park and jumped out before making a beeline for the front doors. He barely took note of a five-foot-four woman with wavy brown hair pacing in the lobby as he walked purposefully up to the information desk. "Excuse me," he said tersely to the receptionist seated there. "Could you tell me where I could find a Miss Janice Drake? She's supposed to meet me here."

Before the woman could say anything, the pacing woman made her way over. "Lieutenant O'Neill, you made it," she said, relieved. She stuck out her hand. "I'm Janice Drake."

"Thanks for calling, Miss Drake," Jack replied as he shook the offered appendage. "I came as soon as I could. How's Daniel?"

"Same as when I called you yesterday. I'll take you to his room." She began to lead him to the elevator that would take them to the appropriate floor. "I've cleared everything with the hospital staff in regards to your visitation. The only stipulation is that you have to leave and get some rest every day, so I've taken the liberty of getting you a room at a nearby motel." She handed him a room key as they stepped inside the elevator car then pressed the correct button. "I hope that's all right."

Jack shook his head as he pocketed the key. "Don't worry about it. If that's what it takes to get to see Daniel, I'm for it. Although I don't like the idea of him waking up without anyone he knows with him." He frowned.

Janice laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I know, but there's nothing either of us can do about that. I'm sure you'll be here as much as you can. We'll see how things turn out." Jack merely nodded his acceptance.

They were silent for the rest of the elevator ride. When the doors opened, Janice led Jack to the nurses' station. "Miss Bender," she said politely to the woman sitting there, "I'd like to introduce you to Lieutenant Jack O'Neill. He's the gentleman I spoke with you about."

"Oh, the one you asked to come and sit with Daniel Jackson," the nurse replied. She turned her attention to the young Air Force officer. "It's great that you could be here for him. I really think it'll make a difference. Whenever you come in, just stop here and let whoever's here know that you've arrived. I think Miss Drake can show you to his room." She gave him a sympathetic smile.

"Thanks," Jack said quietly, his mind already with Daniel.

"This way, Lieutenant," Miss Drake said gently, guiding him with a hand on his elbow. The social worker only stayed long enough to give Jack directions to the motel once they'd arrived at Daniel's room. The young man bid her a distracted farewell and slipped silently inside.

He'd been told what to expect, how bad it had been, but it still was like a punch in the gut to witness the teenager who'd been so full of life the last time he'd seen him lying motionless in the dim room, wires and bandages practically obscuring him from sight. As he stood just inside the closed door, Jack found his body beginning to shake with rage that someone would dare do this to his friend. Daniel was a gentle kid, someone who would go out of his way to avoid causing offense, to do something nice for you just because it was the right thing to do and he could. How dare that bastard of a foster parent do this to him!

It took a herculean effort to keep himself from tearing off and returning the favor to the guilty party. His worry about leaving Daniel alone flared up before he could even reach for the door handle, and his sense of priorities righted itself. He went over to the bed and pulled up a chair on the left side, the right side of Daniel's face completely covered in bandages. Jack figured that he should be where it would be easier to be seen when his younger friend woke up - and he would wake up, or someone was answering to Jack O'Neill.

Once he was settled, Jack reached between the bars of the rail on the side of the bed and took Daniel's pale, limp hand in his own. "Hey, Danny," he said gently, his eyes flittering around the bandage-augmented face. "It's Jack. I'm here for you, as long as they let me, every day for the next two weeks. They told me it's good for someone in your... condition," Jack nearly choked on the word, "to have someone they're close to nearby to talk to them, give them support, that kind of thing. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to talk so much you'll wake up just to tell me to shut up."

Jack let his head fall to his chest for a moment as his cheerful mask faltered for a moment. "God, Daniel, tell me to shut up, tell me to go home, tell me anything, as long as you wake up to do it," he murmured sadly. He raised his head, folded his left arm on top of the guard rail, and rested his cheek in the crook of it. "I'll just wait here until you do, okay?"

And the vigil began.

* * * * * * * *

Two days later, Jack was slouched in his chair reading a magazine in the mid-afternoon sunlight, sharing commentary on the articles, when the phone rang, making him jump about a foot in the air. He glanced at Daniel as it rang for a second time, and, seeing no reaction from his friend, reached out to pick it up. "Hello?" he answered, confused.

"Is... is this Daniel Jackson's room?" a timid female voice asked.

"Yeah?" Jack stretched the word out, still confused.

"Oh, thank God. I was so worried I'd get the wrong room. Is this Jack O'Neill?"

Jack pulled the receiver away from his ear for a second to stare incredulously at it then put it back. "Yeah, it is. And you are?"

There was a small laugh. "I'm Sam Carter. I think Daniel told you about me?"

"Oh! Yeah, he has." Now that he knew what was going on he could relax. "So how are you doing?"

"I've been better," she murmured, all traces of humor gone from her voice. "How's Daniel?"

Jack's eyes involuntarily flickered over to Daniel's expressionless face. "Still out. But the doctors say he's doing fine."

A tiny sigh came from the other end. "That's easy to say. It's not as easy to hear."

He gave a small snort. "You got that right. Is your dad going to be home soon?"

There was another sigh. "No, but I talked to his commanding officer. I asked him to get my dad a message if he could letting him know what was going on and to either get a hold of me or get me access to the money I'd need to fly out there. I know he'd let me go. He's just not here to do it."

"Don't worry about it, Sam. If you can be here, you'll be here. And if you can't, Daniel will understand. That's the kind of guy he is."

"I know," she said in a small voice. Then she took a deep breath and forced some life back into her tone. "So, how's the Air Force?"

"Um, okay," Jack said slowly, a little thrown by the sudden change of subject. But he knew why she did it, and mentally applauded her efforts. "My dad's a master sergeant, so I grew up having an idea what to expect."

"I can so relate. My dad's a colonel. And I think he might be up for a promotion soon."

Jack's brow creased. "Are you thinking about joining the Air Force?"

He could hear the grin in her voice as she responded, "Oh, yeah. I want to be an astronaut. I've been dreaming about that since I was a little girl. And flying jets would be cool, too. Talk about fast."

"Bit of a speed junkie, are you?"


Jack looked at the bed again and an idea came to him. "Hey, Sam. Do you want to talk to Daniel? I can hold the phone up to his ear and you can talk about whatever's on your mind. Just tap the mouthpiece three times when you're done."

There was a stunned moment of silence. "You'd do that for me?" Sam asked.

Jack smiled. "Well, yeah. You're just as much Daniel's friend as I am, and I think it would do Daniel good to hear your voice as well as mine."

"Thank you, Jack."

"Just let me know when you're ready, and tap three times on the mouthpiece when you're done."

"I'm ready."

Jack brought down the guard rail and put the phone up to Daniel's ear, resting his arm on the mattress. "Go ahead," he said loud enough for Sam to hear but not so loud he overwhelmed Daniel.

The twenty-two-year-old leaned back in his chair and watched his friend's face as Sam's voice poured out from the earpiece of the handset. He was glad the girl had called. He knew how much Daniel thought of her, and he had to admit she seemed pretty nice judging from their short conversation. Now with both of Daniel's best friends working to pull him through this, Jack just knew that they had to succeed. Neither one of them would let it turn out any other way.

* * * * * * * *

Another four days passed along a similar vein. Jack and Sam had talked about quite a few things during their daily chats and had laid the foundation for their own friendship apart from Daniel. He was pleased to note that she shared his interest in astronomy, although all her technical terms and scientific theories on the subject made him miss his simple conversations with Sara about the stars. Sam was also willing to give hockey a shot, but fishing was apparently too boring for her. She'd gone with her father a few times and had preferred to go swimming instead.

Jack also kept in contact with Sara. His girlfriend had expressed deep concern over Daniel's condition and wished him a quick recovery every time Jack called. A couple of days after Jack's first phone call a care package had arrived at the motel, and the second lieutenant enjoyed his first meal not from a cafeteria since he'd arrived.

It had been a week since he'd flown over in such a panicked rush. That day began as the other seven had, with Jack coming in not long after the sun rose and settling in for the long haul. He refused lunch, citing a lack of appetite. Finally, about four-thirty, one of the usual nurses lingered for a moment after her regularly scheduled check on Daniel. "Jack, you look like you could really use something to eat. Go on down and get something."

"Nah, that's all right, Lucy. I'm fine."

"Don't give me that. You refused lunch. You must be starving."

"I said I was fine."

Lucy gazed at the man slouched in the visitor's chair next to the bed and tried to figure out a way to get him to take care of his basic needs. It was the same struggle she'd been faced with every time she'd come in to work since Daniel had been admitted. "Look, I'll make a deal with you. I'm pulling a double shift tonight so I can have the whole weekend off. That means I'm in charge of kicking you out of here later. If you go down to the cafeteria, take an hour to have a leisurely meal and relax, I'll let you stay that much longer tonight. Do we have a deal?"

Jack turned his head and met her gaze. "One hour now for two hours later?" he shot back.

"If that's what it takes."

"Then we've got a deal." Jack checked his watch as he rose to his feet. "Oh, wait a minute. Sam should be calling within the next hour."

Lucy frowned. "You said we had a deal, Jack."

"I'm not trying to go back on it. Is there any way there could be someone in here while I'm gone, to answer the phone and let Sam talk to Daniel?" The fact that Daniel wouldn't be alone was just a bonus.

The nurse sighed as Jack gave her a pathetic attempt at a hurt puppy dog look. "I can call in one of the candy stripers or some other volunteer. As soon as they get here, go down to the cafeteria. Otherwise, the deal is off and you lose an hour."

Jack grinned and saluted her. "Yes, ma'am."

Five minutes later, a twenty-something young woman stuck her head inside the door. "Are you Jack O'Neill? Nurse Seward said I should wait here while you got something to eat."

"I'm Jack O'Neill. Come on over here and take a seat." Jack gestured to the chair he'd been sitting in, and the woman did as requested. "Now, what I was worried about was that Daniel's friend Sam Carter would call while I was gone. If the phone rings, answer it. If it's Sam, just tell her where I went and that you'll let her talk to Daniel. Then hold the phone up to Daniel's ear until you hear three taps. And if you could, would you ask her for her phone number? I'll call her back when I'm done eating." He blinked as a thought occurred to him. "By the way, what's your name?"

She giggled. "I'm Nicole Wells. Is it okay if I just read while I wait?"

"That's fine." Daniel wouldn't recognize her voice anyway. "I'm going to get going before I end up on the receiving end of the wrath of Nurse Seward." Jack leaned over and brushed a stray strand of hair off Daniel's forehead. "I've gotta go for a while, buddy. The people around here don't seem to think that I can survive without sustenance. If you're awake when I get back, I just might have a sandwich for you." He lightly patted the young man's shoulder and left the room. Nicole watched him leave and settled in with a magazine she'd seen on the bedside table.

* * * * * * * *

Sam half-heartedly finished her dinner of chicken noodle soup and bologna sandwiches and glanced at the clock. Seven forty-five. She sighed. Two weeks before she'd been planning on being at the high school cheering from just the right seat at the homecoming football game with the girls from the physics club this very day and time. But she just couldn't bring herself to go. The girls hadn't understood why she didn't want to attend the game that night, and had given her a hard time about it. And when she had told them in very sketchy details about Daniel, they said that had to be the lamest excuse they'd ever heard. Since he was out in California there was nothing she could do, so why should she put her life on hold?

"Maybe because it feels like someone did it for me," she muttered as she put her dishes in the sink. Her shoulders sagged as she washed her hands. "I need to call Jack. There might be good news about Daniel, and Jack's always good for a laugh." She dried her hands and headed for the living room where she could get comfortable on the couch during her conversation.

Sam's mind was wandering a bit as the phone rang, so she was completely thrown when a woman's voice answered. "Hello?" the woman asked nervously.

Blonde brows furrowed in confusion. "Um, hello? Who is this?"

"This is Sam Carter, isn't it?"

"How did you know my name?"

"Jack told me before he left. Nurse Seward made him go down and get something to eat, so Jack had me wait for your phone call since he thought it might come while he was out. Did you want to talk to Daniel now?"

Sam blinked a few times and processed the rapid speech. "Oh, yeah, sure. Will Jack be back soon?"

There was a slight pause, presumably as the woman checked her watch. "I want to say forty-five minutes or so. Oh! And he also asked me to get your number. He said he'd call you when he got back."

Sam gave it to the unknown woman, unsure how long she'd be talking. Shortly after she heard the distant go ahead that told her the phone was close to Daniel's ear.

"Hey, Daniel, it's me, Sam. I want you to know you're my homecoming date this year. Those girls in the physics club are going to be green with envy, because we're having a great time, aren't we?" She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. She couldn't keep up the happy act. "I wish I were there, Daniel. The only thing I want more is to hear your voice, to hear you tell me about your day, what happened at school. Did you finish everything for the semester like you thought you would? Did you find that book on Mayan legends you were looking for?" Sam fought back a sudden wave of tears. "Are you ever going to wake up? Please?"

"Sam?" a raspy voice whispered, confused.

"Daniel?" Sam cried. "Oh my God, Daniel, you're awake! You have no idea how much I've missed your voice!"

"Sam. Missed you."

"I miss you too, Daniel. I promise. You've been out of it so long." The tears she'd been fighting spilled over, magically transformed to tears of joy.

"Tired. Hurt."

"I know, Daniel. I know. You're still healing. It's all going to get better, I swear."

"Okay, Sam. So tired. So, so tired."

Sam bit her lower lip. His exhaustion was more than apparent. Was that normal? He'd been sleeping for over a week, hadn't he? She'd have to find out later. "I know, Daniel. Go to sleep if you want. We'll talk again soon, okay?"

"Okay." The deep breath and exhalation that followed the barely audible word told Sam he'd fallen asleep. She couldn't help but grin widely.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" the woman who'd answered the phone said suddenly into the mouthpiece, causing Sam to jerk the phone away from her ear. "I need to get the doctor! I have to go!"

Sam replaced her receiver when the dial tone told her the woman had hung up to take care of what needed to be done. There was nothing she could do, huh? She laughed. She'd rather feel this way than go to a hundred homecoming games. She'd happily tell those girls that on Monday, too. But for now, it was time to celebrate! She ran over to the stereo and cranked up the radio, hopping around and dancing wildly until she could barely breathe. And when she fell asleep that night, it was with a smile on her face.

* * * * * * * *

Jack had been surprised to see the hustle and bustle in Daniel's room upon his return, and was ecstatic when Nicole told him that Daniel had talked to Sam, however briefly. The doctor quickly sobered his mood with the news that the young man had slipped back into his coma, although it didn't seem as deep and his surfacing bode quite well for his recovery. Jack and the nurses were to be on the look out for signs of restlessness. The only thing Jack didn't like about the whole situation was that he had to tell Sam the next day. But their outlooks were much more positive, and Sam in particular was confident Daniel would come back to them.

It was close to midnight the next night when the night duty nurse who was assigned to check on Daniel quietly slipped into his room. She smiled when she saw the slumped form on the chair next to the bed. Everyone on that floor knew Jack O'Neill by that point, knew him and his determination to be there for his friend. Her supervisor had told him at eleven that he needed to leave and get some rest - already an hour past the usual limit - but apparently he never made it that far. The nurse did see his jacket draped over a shoulder, precariously close to falling off, so she guessed that he'd been intending to go "in just one more minute". She decided to let him sleep. What her supervisor didn't know wouldn't hurt her, and Jack was resting.

The woman was pleased to note that Daniel was showing signs of restlessness again. The fingers of his left hand twitched slightly every now and again in the hand holding it and his head turned in that direction. The chances of Daniel awakening sometime soon were beginning to look good. She did her checks and took her notes, then left with one last smile at the tableau she was leaving behind. It really was cute.

A short time before the two o'clock check, lids finally fluttered and opened, revealing slightly glazed blue eyes, the right one only a slit due to the deep bruising and swelling that still lingered on that side of his face. The gaze was focused on nothing in particular until a sigh and shifting from the chair so close by got his attention. Things were fuzzy, but Daniel would have sworn that was Jack sitting there sleeping. His remaining exhaustion kept him from truly reacting, and his dry throat halted any thought of speaking, but his eyes continued to devour the sight of his oldest friend. Another shift brought with it a squeeze of his IV-less left hand, and the teenager managed to returned it weakly. Jack smiled.

Daniel's eyes slid shut and he began to lightly doze a few moments before the door opened and the nurse returned. She went through her hourly routine, a few surprised murmurs reaching Daniel's barely-aware consciousness. "Sleep while you can," he heard her whisper, a smile apparent in her tone. "I'm sure the doctors will pounce as soon as you wake up." She sighed. "I'm just glad you have such a wonderful friend with you. He's barely left your side since he got here." Footsteps faded followed by the door opening and closing.

Daniel managed to drag his eyes open one more time, blinking slowly until they were focused once again on Jack's slumbering form. He gave another extremely light squeeze to the hand wrapped around his own and smiled. His head then shifted back to look up at the ceiling, lids falling down once again as he faded into dreamland.

* * * * * * * *

Jack hurried back to the hospital the next morning. He'd woken up at about quarter after two in the morning the night before and decided to beat a hasty retreat before someone with greater authority than the nurse who had obviously allowed him to sleep in the chair came along and took away his nearly unlimited visiting privileges. But he'd been so tired he'd forgotten to set an alarm, and so slept until almost nine, two hours after he usually resumed his vigil. He almost felt guilty.

The man's steps slowed for a moment as he began to take the now-familiar trek from the elevator opening on Daniel's floor to the room where he lay unconscious when he saw a nurse carefully close the right door before hurrying off. Jack's brows furrowed in confusion and he continued on. He refused to panic. He hadn't heard any alarms, and he figured he would have if they'd been going off - the nurse had been too careful about closing the door to hide that. Besides, Jack doubted she would have cared about the door if there had been an emergency. And something about her radiated excitement more than concern.

The nurse returned with a doctor in tow, meeting Jack at the door. "Lieutenant O'Neill," the man greeted him.

"Hey, Doctor Weis. What's going on?"

"I need to ask you to wait out here for maybe ten minutes until I finish my examination. Then I'll be better equipped to answer that question." The older man smiled gently. "Daniel's awake, I want to make sure he's going to stay that way."

Jack grinned. "Go ahead then, Doc. I won't get in your way." Two more nurses came up at that point, and the medical trio went inside, Jack deciding to sit down in the waiting area not ten feet down the hall to try to still the sudden, unexplainable shaking in his arms and legs.

Daniel lay in his bed, tense and nervous. He'd awoken to find himself alone in a strange place; for some reason he'd expected Jack to be there. When the nurse came in, it answered one of the questions in his head, namely "where am I?". She'd been friendly enough, and seemingly happy to find him awake and aware - and it was nice that she'd given him some water to moisten his mouth and throat - but he still wasn't comfortable. The woman left promising to be back shortly with the doctor, and that's when he remembered his foster father and how he'd come to be hurt. Was Mr. Higgins here, waiting to see if he'd pull through, if he'd tell anyone what had happened? Would the man sneak in and hurt him again, to try to keep him quiet? As scared as he was, Daniel was determined to let the authorities know what happened. He couldn't let anyone else go through this.

The door opened again, and Daniel found himself holding his breath. He released it when it turned out to be the nurse returning as promised with a doctor and two other nurses. His nerves were still on edge, but he didn't think he had anything to worry about with these four.

"Hello, Daniel," the doctor said in a friendly tone as he checked the chart hanging at the end of the bed. "It's good to see you awake. We were a little afraid you wouldn't be rejoining us." Daniel just licked his lips and said nothing, his eyes darting around the room as he waited for the other shoe to drop and his foster father to come walking in the door.

"It's okay, Daniel," the first nurse said soothingly, noticing his flitting gaze. "Everything's going to be okay."

"Where... where is he?" Daniel finally managed to whisper, his voice shaking.

He was surprised to see two of the nurses share a soft smile and sympathetic look. "He's right out in the hall, honey," the unknown half of the pair said, smiling. "He'll be in as soon as we're finished."

Suddenly there wasn't enough oxygen in the entire hospital. His unblemished eye opened wide as he gasped for air. "No!" he choked out. "No, no, no, no, please no!" He began to struggle, ignoring everything that pulled and sent sharp spikes of pain through him as he attempted to escape. The medical staff, thoroughly confused, did their best to hold him still without injuring him further. "Oh God, Jack!" Daniel finally cried at the top of his lungs. "Please, Jack, help me! Jack!"

A minute of pain-filled fighting with the nurses and doctor trying to hold him and ever-growing despair ended abruptly when the door to the room flew open and Jack dashed inside. "What the hell's going on?" he demanded, shoving his way to Daniel's left side and grabbing his hand. His expression immediately softened when his eyes met the blue ones below. "What's going on, Danny?"

Daniel had stopped thrashing at the first sound of his friend's voice, and the gentle question leeched the last of the tension from his frame. His instincts told him Jack would never let anyone hurt him. "Is he out there, Jack?" he breathed, a desperate fear in his voice all the same. He didn't want Mr. Higgins to hurt Jack. "Is he there?"

Jack narrowed his eyes for a moment and thought about it before responding. And then it hit him. "Oh God no, Danny. No, he's not out there. I promise. He's behind bars where he belongs."

"Who are you talking about, Lieutenant?" the doctor asked.

"His foster father. He thought his foster father was out in the hall waiting for him." Jack returned his attention to his friend. "He's not, Daniel. I was just out there so I know."

Daniel's nurse brought her hands up to her mouth, her expression stricken. "I thought he was asking about you, Jack. Lisa told me when I came on shift this morning that she guessed he'd been awake briefly while you were asleep on the chair and had seen you there. She came in for her check right after he'd fallen back asleep. I thought it was you." She looked at the calming Daniel. "I'm sorry, Daniel."

Daniel looked back at her, his hand tightening inside Jack's hold. "It's okay," he whispered. "You didn't know."

The other nurse briefly touched Daniel's right shoulder. "I'm sorry, too, Daniel. I jumped to the same conclusion." Daniel just shook his head and tried to give both women a smile.

"I still need to examine my patient," Doctor Weis said firmly but with understanding.

"I want Jack to stay," Daniel insisted. "Please."

The doctor sighed. "I think I can manage to work around him. I want to make sure you didn't injure yourself further, along with everything else."

"Go ahead." Daniel relaxed into the mattress, never letting go of Jack's hand. He was relieved when Jack's grip stayed as firm as his own.

* * * * * * * *

"I don't know, Jack."

"I'm telling you, toe-to-toe..."

"But he wouldn't let it come down to that."

"He might not have a choice."

"He'd make sure he had that choice. The man's brilliant."

"Daniel, I'm telling you, Superman would wipe the floor with Batman." Jack leaned back in his chair and stared at his friend incredulously.

Daniel shook his head. "Only in a purely physical confrontation. If you're talking about a complete battle, using all of the resources at their command, Batman would out-think Superman. He'd come up with a way to eliminate his disadvantage, maybe even turn it into an advantage. Come on, Jack, you studied tactics and strategy. You got a degree in it. You know that."

Jack chuckled. "There are times I wonder if I should have gotten those comic books for you. Then we have talks like this and I know I did the right thing."

Daniel grinned. "I like Batman."

"Of that I am well aware, Danny-boy."

A knock at the door made both friends turn their attention in that direction. A familiar teenager with shoulder-length dark brown hair stuck his head inside, a tentative expression on his face. "Can I come in?"

Jack looked to Daniel for an answer. "Sure, Heath," the young man said as he shifted himself a bit on his pillow. Jack adjusted the head of his bed a little bit higher as Heath came into the room, stopping a few steps away from where the older man was seated.

"I just wanted to see how you were doing. Miss Drake said you'd come out of the coma."

"I'm glad you came," Daniel replied quietly. "Everyone told me you were all right, but this way I can see for myself. He didn't come after you after... what happened, did he?"

"No, he just stood there at the top of the stairs staring at you with his jaw on the floor." Heath looked at Daniel with a look of incredulity. "After everything I did to you, how can you lay there and worry about me?"

Jack perked up at that question. So this was the kid that had been picking on Daniel at his last foster home, huh? Daniel never did mention his name...

Heath paused a moment, trying to find the right words. "You... took that blow for me. You didn't have to do that."

"If he'd hit you, you would have gone over the railing. I don't think you would have survived the fall." Daniel's eyes dropped to his bed sheets.

"You're lucky you survived yours." Daniel shrugged. Heath shook his head. "I watched you go down the stairs and then I just stood there. I froze for I don't know how long." It was Heath's turn to drop his gaze. "It felt like forever. You're lucky to be alive."

"I know." Jack watched in amazement as Daniel lifted his eyes once again, his expression transforming into one of confidence, sympathy, and understanding. "And it's all thanks to you. You couldn't have been frozen all that long. You went and called the police, and they came with an ambulance in time to save me. So why do you think you did something wrong?"

Heath's dark grey eyes closed completely. "I'm the one he should have hit."

Daniel scowled. "No, Heath. He shouldn't have hit anybody."


"No buts. It's wrong, so very wrong, and it should have been stopped a long time ago."

Jack cleared his throat to get the two teenagers' attention. "Um, what about his wife? Why didn't she ever do anything?"

Daniel pursed his lips slightly, the right side of his face still kind of swollen as it healed. Heath looked at the seated man and spoke before the young man in the bed. "Considering what I saw I'd say that Ken Higgins had succeeded in beating his wife into complete submission," the quiet voice said seriously with an undertone of sorrow. The sight of Jennifer Higgins curled up on that bed crying still haunted his thoughts from time to time. "I had to break apart the bedside table to get at the phone. He kept it locked in there because she wasn't allowed to make phone calls without his permission."

Daniel shuddered. "Really? I never knew it was that bad."

"Neither did I."

"So what's going to happen to you now?" Jack asked Heath.

"All the foster kids were immediately placed in emergency homes. It should be my last place. My birthday's in early December, and I'll be eighteen. Miss Drake said she'd help me find a place of my own after that."

"So everybody's okay?" Daniel asked.

Heath nodded. "You bet. They've all given statements to Miss Drake and the other social workers about what was going on there. And I heard that some of Higgins' former foster kids have come forward after this thing got splashed all over the news. Oh, don't worry," he said quickly in response to the pair of panicked looks that inspired, "your name wasn't mentioned. None of the kids were. We're minors so they can't."

Jack released an explosive breath. "Well, that's something."

"Anyway, I should get going. I've got some homework to do, and my new foster parents are expecting me home for supper. They've been really cool, so I don't want to worry them." Heath paused and gave Daniel a hesitant once-over before stepping up next to the bed. "You realize the only reason I pushed you around but never hit you was because you weren't really scared of me, don't you? I could tell it was more of what Higgins would do to you if I marked you up."

"Actually it was more because of what he would have done to you if you marked me up," Daniel refuted, the corners of his mouth twitching upward slightly. Heath's eyes widened as Daniel continued. "And I hope you realize that I never gave you all of my extra lunch money. It was always just enough to keep you off my back." He laughed as Heath's jaw dropped.

Finally the seventeen-year-old recovered. "You are such a little shit," he said with a chuckle. Then his expression turned serious. "But a good one. Thanks for being there for me. I just want you to know that I really do appreciate it." He gave Daniel a half-smile. "I'll catch you around." He turned and headed for the door.

"Bye, Heath," Daniel called just before the door shut.

"You know, I didn't expect to like the kid that was pushing you around," Jack mused, watching Daniel out of the corner of his eye.

Daniel shrugged. "He was angry at the way life's treated him and was taught to lash out by example. He'd been with the Higgins for a long time when I got there, and who knows what happened before that."

There was a moment of silence as the two friends lost themselves in thought. "I have a question," Jack said finally. "Why didn't any of you say anything about the abuse? Why didn't you tell me?"

Daniel's eyes squeezed shut. "I couldn't," he whispered.


A tear escaped and slipped down Daniel's cheek. "It felt like I was eight years old all over again," he murmured.

"The last time you were in an abusive home," Jack said knowingly, realization dawning.

"How did you know about that?" Daniel asked, his eyes springing open as his head snapped to the side to face Jack.

"Jane Michaels told me about it when I visited to explain why you talking to me was such a big deal. She didn't go into details or anything, just mentioned that you'd been in an abusive home."

Daniel's eyes searched Jack's face for a long moment. "I didn't realize what was going on there until a few days after I got back from your graduation, and then it was all I could do to hide myself. I knew from what happened the first time that if I could avoid being noticed I could avoid getting hit. And it worked. I was so scared all the old habits came back, all the old rules. You don't tell anyone, anyone at all - that's rule number one. The only good thing that happened was that I'd find your letters, and Sam's, under my pillow when they got to the house. Considering how cowed Heath thought Mrs. Higgins was, it was probably one of her few little acts of defiance. She was always so sweet to us kids, as much as she could be. But she lived with a man who..."

"Who was a complete asshole," Jack finished for him. He sighed and shook his head. "I guess I just don't understand that kind of fear. So what made you break the cycle?"

"I'd been reading and had just left my room to go to the bathroom when Heath's argument with Mr. Higgins spilled out onto the balcony at the top of the stairs. Mr. Higgins had cocked his fist back and I could see that he was going to put everything he had into it. I knew that if he did he'd send Heath flying over the balcony rail. I'd been silently frozen up to that point, but that knowledge pushed me over the edge. It was wrong, and I couldn't let it happen. I had to do everything I could to stop it." An odd determination shaped Daniel's features. "And I'd do it again."

Jack saw that determination and knew it wasn't something that Daniel had learned, but rather something of his soul that had finally broken through to the surface. "I hope you never have to," he said quietly.

Daniel swallowed, his face and body relaxing. "Yeah, me too. But if it's the right thing to do, I will. Especially if it's for a friend."

"Then I really hope I never make you. Now what do you want for dinner? I'll order it special from the nurses." Jack smiled expectantly, determined to change the subject.

Daniel let him and returned the smile. "Depends on what my choices are. But I think I want Jello for dessert."

"Are you sure you don't want pie?"

"I don't think they'll let me have that yet."

"Then we'll have to see what the ol' O'Neill charm can do to fix that." Jack grinned and winked outrageously, and the both of them laughed, the gloom of the previous discussion successfully dispelled.

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