A Road Not Taken - Part Eleven

 

 Daniel woke up with a start the next morning, a dream having let him relive the events of the night before. What was confusing was the difference in how it made him feel. With Sam actually beside him, he had been filled with a warmth he'd never experienced before. In the growing light of dawn, alone in his bed, the beginnings of shame and self-loathing were starting to make an appearance. Actually looking at the night as a whole instead of living in the moment, it was apparent that Sam had been emotionally distraught when... everything... had started. So why hadn't he stopped it before it went too far?

"It felt good, that's why," Daniel said to himself harshly. "You'd just gone on about how her previous boyfriends all thought with the wrong head, and then you did it yourself. Way to go, Daniel. Way to boost your friend's confidence." He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face.

Knowing he wasn't going to be getting any more sleep, the young man got out of bed and started his usual morning routine. Once he was showered and shaved - the time in the bathroom spent berating himself under his breath for taking advantage of Sam's vulnerability - he heard his foster mother making breakfast. He decided to get dressed and find out if there was anything he could do to help. He might as well do something right this weekend.

"Something seems to be bothering you," Mrs. Neuman noted as she and Daniel ate the pancakes and fresh fruit they'd prepared. Extra batter and fruit waited in the refrigerator for the other members of the household to wake up. "Does it have something to do with General Carter picking you up last night?"

"Sam's boyfriend dumped her and left her stranded out in the middle of nowhere," Daniel said softly. "She was really upset by the whole situation." He never lifted his gaze from his plate.

"And you hurt for her," the older woman concluded. She smiled. "I'm sure you did everything you could for her last night, Daniel." She never noticed the slight flinch her words produced in the young man. "You're supposed to be going over there today for one of your study sessions, aren't you? That'll give you another chance to make sure things are okay for her."

Daniel had almost forgotten about the study session. For a brief moment he considered backing out, but then he realized it gave him the opportunity to apologize for his reprehensible behavior and hopefully salvage his friendship. "Yeah, I guess so," he finally said when he realized she was waiting for a response. "I do need to make sure things are okay."

Mrs. Neuman nodded. "Then why don't you head on over as soon as you finish your chores? The sooner you see her, the better you'll feel." She swallowed the last bite of her breakfast and took her dishes into the kitchen.

Daniel took a deep breath and released it. He dreaded the upcoming meeting. Yet it was also a great opportunity to fix things before they got too broken. He'd just have to make sure that happened. Sam was too precious to let go without a fight. His mind made up, Daniel downed the last of his orange juice and got up to take care of his chores. His friendship with Sam was waiting.

* * * * * * * *


Jacob Carter was shocked when he saw the time on the clock next to his bed when he woke up the next day. He'd been far too concerned about his daughter's well-being to sleep well, although he continually reminded himself that since she'd come in from her discussion with Daniel humming, things couldn't be too bad. He'd been surprised at the sound when she'd reached the top of the stairs. Then again, she'd been with Daniel, and he knew that boy had an amazing ability to make his little girl feel better.

Shaking off the late hour of nine o'clock, the older man began going through his daily rituals, finally wrapping his worn blue robe around himself and heading down the hall to check on Sam before starting breakfast. He paused before knocking, however, when he heard the muffled sound of tears. "Sammy?" he asked worriedly. "Is everything okay?"

"No!" Sam shouted through a sob. "I've ruined everything!"

"I doubt that," Jacob refuted. "I'm coming in."

Sam offered no protest as Jacob slipped inside the room. The blonde was curled up in the fetal position hugging her pillow to her chest, currently resting her cheek on it to stare at her father as she sniffled herself back under control. "You don't know what happened last night," she whispered.

The elder Carter shook his head. "You're right, I don't. But I will if you tell me."

The girl's cheeks turned a deeper shade of red that had nothing to do with the force of her previous crying. "I... really don't feel comfortable telling you, Dad. I'm sorry."

"Ah. Something just between you and Daniel, huh?" He gave her a small smile.

"Well..." Sam hesitated, unsure what else to say.

"It's okay, Sammy. I won't push you too hard, but could you answer me just one thing? Just to make me feel better?" He waited for her cautious nod. "Will didn't force himself on you, did he? Or try?"

Sam blinked a bit in surprise. She'd forgotten that Daniel had jumped to that conclusion as well. "No, Dad, I promise," she said quickly. "He didn't try anything after I told him no."

Jacob released a sigh of relief before sitting down on the bed and giving Sam's exposed arm a squeeze. That had been his greatest worry. "Then I'm okay. Here, let me see if I can make you feel a little better. You probably don't remember this, but for a few years after you were born I was stationed over in Germany. There was a guy in our unit, Jimmy Gibson, who prided himself on being able to take his pick of the ladies. Obviously I wasn't going to be competing for the honor, although your mother thought it was funny when she heard I'd managed to shut him up for a little while by telling him I'd already won that title. I mean, I was married to the most beautiful woman in the world and her daughter wasn't anything to sneeze at either." He grinned and brushed a few strands of hair out of Sam's face. He was happy to see the tiny smile that had formed on her face as she put aside her own worries to listen.

"Of course, I also told him that if he even thought about trying to pick up my wife or daughter he'd regret it - and then he'd have to deal with me." Jacob chuckled briefly and shook his head. "Jimmy was always so easy to put in his place. Anyway, he liked to brag about his numerous conquests whenever the bunch of us would hang out at one of the local bars, to the point where some of the guys were ready to do pretty much anything to shut him up. One of their attempts was a bet. There was a young lady that came down to the bar regularly - long, brown hair, big green eyes, lots of curves, just the kind of woman Jimmy went for. The only thing was that she was obviously out of his league. Her clothes were high quality and expertly tailored, her nails manicured, her hair styled. She was a student at the local university, and liked to use one of the back corner tables to study." He frowned slightly. "I never did understand that." He shook his head and went back to the story.

"Well, the guys got together and told Jimmy they didn't think he was much of a ladies' man. That really ruffled his feathers. After some more goading, Jimmy told them he'd prove himself. They just had to pick his next conquest, and it was as good as made. Even I was grinning when five fingers pointed in unison to the table in the corner where our lovely young student sat studying."

"I take it Jimmy accepted the challenge," Sam said softly, her depression lingering but lighter than it had been before.

Jacob nodded. "Oh, yeah. His pride was on the line. We never figured out how he did it, but he managed to talk her into going out with him. They'd been together for two months - Jimmy gloating was not a pretty sight - when apparently he moved too fast for her. She was so offended she left him stranded in the small town they'd gone to for their date. He ended up calling me for a ride back to base because he figured I'd give him the least amount of crap. Boy, was he wrong!" Both Carters laughed at that.

"But that's not the best part of the story. Jimmy wouldn't let her go. He constantly went over to her house to try to apologize and win her back. What he didn't know was that the base commander's daughter was this girl's best friend. She spent a lot of time over at that house... and she told her dad all about Jimmy's antics. Luckily for Jimmy, he just thought it was funny. Or did until the Romeo Incident."

"Romeo Incident?" Sam asked. "What was that?"

Jacob smirked and gave a little cough. "Jimmy took to standing below the girl's bedroom window at night, reading her poetry he'd written for her in his spare time. Trust me when I say that stuff was awful. He was constantly wandering around the base reading it to us and asking for opinions." He paused, a slightly confused expression on his face. "No matter how honest we were, it never discouraged him. Weird." He shook his head and continued. "Anyway, the big night came, and Jimmy was beneath her window, declaring his never-ending devotion. He saw a figure briefly come to the curtain-covered window, hesitate, then walk away. The light went off soon afterward. Figuring he'd about worn down her resistance, he jumped at his chance and climbed up the ivy-covered trellis attached to the outer wall. The window wasn't locked so he kept going until he landed with a thump inside the bedroom proper.

"The girl in the bed gasped and sat up at the noise. Jimmy rushed to the bed and took her in his arms, going on about how much he loved her and wanted to be with her. She struggled out of his arms and slapped him. Just as he'd grabbed her arms to keep her from doing it again, the lights turned on. There Jimmy was, gripping the commander's daughter as she sat up in bed, the ex-girlfriend and her parents standing in the doorway staring at them with their jaws on the ground. Turns out that the girl had given her friend her bed because she was allergic to the feather mattress in the spare room.

"Next thing Jimmy knew, the girl's brothers stormed into the room and bodily dragged him to the front door before literally tossing him out onto the street. He was told never to come again. When the base commander found out, he had Jimmy transferred back to the States so fast it was obvious he'd pulled in favors to make it happen. Jimmy would have been all right, since the commander had a great sense of humor, but his daughter's reputation in that town was shot after that. She eventually had to transfer to a college in England to get away from it all."

Jacob would have gone on, but he saw the change in Sam's expression at that point. "Sam? What is it?" Suddenly it occurred to him. "This whole thing with Will... You're worried about your reputation, aren't you?"

Sam shrugged, her eyes dropping to the pillow she still held. "You could say that. Considering... everything, I just don't want Daniel to think badly of me. I wouldn't blame him if he did."

"This is Daniel. I don't think he's capable of thinking badly of you."

"I don't know, Dad. This is pretty bad. I didn't exactly prove myself to be otherwise."

"While I'm not exactly sure what you're talking about, I do know this. You need to talk to Daniel, clear this up. He means too much to you for you to just let it go." He reached out again and laid his hand gently on her arm.

Sam sighed. "I know, but I'm just afraid..."

Her father gave her arm a squeeze. "Sam, remember, this is Daniel..." Jacob's encouragement was cut off by the doorbell. "I'll be right back, sweetheart." Sam nodded, and Jacob headed downstairs.

For a brief moment when he opened the door, Jacob figured he'd been blessed. But then he saw the depressed look Daniel was wearing and realized his daughter wasn't the only one dealing with a crisis. He sighed inwardly and wondered if he'd really ever been that young. "Hey, Daniel," he greeted the dark blond-haired young man. "Come on in."

"I didn't wake you up, did I?" Daniel asked, as he stepped in looking even guiltier than he had before.

"No, no, Daniel, of course not. I was just upstairs talking to Sam." His suspicions were proven correct about the source of the boy's distress when he witnessed the flinch those words produced. "I still need to make breakfast, so why don't you go on up and talk with her? I have a feeling you both could use it." Daniel silently nodded and headed for the stairs once he'd slipped off his backpack, jacket, and shoes. "Oh, and Daniel," Jacob called before his guest had disappeared from sight. "Take as much time as you need. There's a recipe for Belgian waffles around here somewhere that I've been meaning to try out, and it'll probably take a while to dig out and put together. I'll call you when they're ready." Daniel nodded again and continued on his way.

The young man's steps slowed as they reached his intended destination. Sam was behind that door. The same girl he'd taken advantage of the night before - and this was her bedroom. Daniel shook his head fiercely. He wouldn't even think about taking advantage of her again, never. He knocked.

"Come in," Sam called, her voice a bit muffled. When Daniel went in, he could see why. Half of Sam's face was buried in the pillow she was holding loosely to her chest as she curled up on her side on the bed. She hadn't been looking toward the door. "So who was it, Dad..." Her voice trailed off when she saw who her visitor was. "Oh, hi, Daniel," she whispered.

"Hi, Sam," he returned just as softly. "Look, if you don't want me here I'll just go..."

"No!" Sam cried, sitting up and forcing her pillow onto the floor. "Please stay, Daniel," she pleaded, her voice back to a normal level even as her cheeks reddened. "I need to say a few things to you."

Daniel swallowed nervously. "Okay, Sam. I have a few things to say to you, too. But go ahead, you first."

Sam nodded. "I'm sorry I just confirmed all those rumors about me last night, Daniel. Here I went on about all my ex-boyfriends telling people how easily I spread my legs and then I just throw myself at you - and we're not even dating!"

The young man blinked. "Do you think last night made me think you were a slut because you..." here he swallowed again, "had sex with me? Why do you think I would believe that?"

"Come on, Daniel. I never said no. I'm the one who practically laid on top of you before everything happened. How much sluttier can you get?" Her expression was filled with self-loathing. She'd been thinking and rethinking the previous night's... activities and couldn't see any other conclusion to come to.

"You have got to be kidding, Sam," Daniel replied incredulously, not even close to ready to give up his own accountability in the whole thing. "You laid your head on my shoulder. That's when I pulled you in close and practically jumped all over you, taking advantage of your vulnerability and giving in to my hormones. I'd just berated your boyfriends for thinking with... the, um, wrong head... and then I went and did the same thing, never taking into consideration that you were still upset over what had happened with Will. Some friend I am." He crossed his arms over his chest as he scowled and stared at the floor.

Sam shook her head, although Daniel never saw it. "Daniel, you were comforting me, like you've done a bunch of times before. I'm the one who let her hormones get away from her."

There was a long moment of silence as both of them thought about what had been said. Finally Daniel brought his head up and managed to meet Sam's eyes. "We aren't gong to let this wreck our friendship, are we?" he asked softly.

The young woman immediately shook her head. "No way," she said quietly. "You're my best friend, Daniel. I can't let that go. But I promise to never lose control of myself like that again."

Daniel nodded seriously. "I'll make you the same promise about me. I never want to lose you as a friend, Sam. You're more than a friend; you're family." He stepped over to the bed and sat down next the blonde, his shoulder rubbing against hers. "So this is your bedroom, huh?" he said a bit impishly, looking around at the simple and slightly feminine decor as a smile began to form on his features. "Makes me think you're not nearly the tomboy you want everyone to think you are."

She bumped him with her shoulder so he slipped off the edge of the bed. "I can be as girly as the next female," she said haughtily. "I just don't advertise the fact."

"Not often at any rate," Daniel agreed, getting back to his feet. "You were an exception at homecoming, though, that's for sure." He offered her a hand. "Come on, get out of bed. Your dad's making Belgian waffles."

"Oh, I love his Belgian waffles!" Sam enthused, taking the offered assistance. "Especially when he adds fresh fruit to the batter. You have to try them." She dashed to her closet and pulled on her cream-colored robe, then led her smiling friend downstairs. Their laughter could be heard ringing through the house off and on for the rest of the day.

* * * * * * * *


Early June came to El Segundo seemingly before anyone had blinked, bringing with it graduation day for the Class of 1981. As expected, Sam and Daniel were co-valedictorians, and as such had both prepared speeches. Sam was proud to say she'd finished hers with only minimal help from Daniel, and he'd given it a rave review when she'd read it to him two hours before the rehearsal. They both had seats on the stage with the teachers and administration gathered there, with open seats for them with their classmates for after they'd received their diplomas.

The two almost-graduates looked over the people in the bleachers hoping to find familiar faces in the crowd. "I found Dad," Sam whispered as the principal droned on about what the future held for the students seated before him. It was pretty much the same speech he'd given the year before.

Daniel nodded. "I saw him, too. Is Mark here?"

"I haven't seen him, but that doesn't mean he's not."

"He'll be here, Sam. He knows how much this means to you." Daniel reached over and squeezed her hand. She gave him an appreciative smile in return as he drew his hand back.

It wasn't too much longer before Sam was called to the podium. She gave her speech, first dedicating it to the memory of her late mother. Then it was Daniel's turn. He, too, dedicated it to the parents he had lost. It would later be said that the two orations were the highlight of the whole ceremony. Diplomas were then handed out, tassels switched, and caps tossed into the air. The presentation of the El Segundo High School Class of 1981 was complete.

Jacob met them quickly. "Congratulations, you two," the general said proudly. "Let me see those diplomas." He took one in each hand, his grin widening as he read them. "Graduating with full honors," he said after a moment. "That's something to be proud of." He handed Daniel's parchment scroll back to him and used the action to pull him into a fierce hug, then did the same with his daughter once he'd let the young man go.

Sam laughed as she managed to finally escape the embrace. "Watch it, Dad. You're going to wrinkle the gown, and we still have to return them."

"Hopefully in one piece," Daniel added. "Without the addition of crushed student."

"Graduate," Jacob corrected him. "Look, you guys see if you can keep the gowns a little while longer and I'll see if I can find a closer place to park now that some of these people are leaving. I forgot my camera in the glove compartment."

"Okay," Sam and Daniel said in unison, then watched him walk out of sight.

The sound of someone clearing his throat behind them had both teenagers spinning around to come face to face with a tall, grinning, blond man. "Hey, Sam," he said softly.

"Mark!" Sam cried, launching herself into his arms.

The pair of siblings laughed as they embraced and Daniel looked on with a smile. "I wasn't sure if you were going to be able to make it," Sam said once she and her brother had separated.

Mark chuckled. "Hey, there wasn't any way I was missing this. I'd say I expect the same from you next year, but who knows when your school year's going to end at whichever college you're going to? Besides, you'll be coming down for the wedding a month later, and that's more important."

Sam began to chew on her lower lip at the mention of the college she'd chosen. "Um, Mark, about college..."

"What about it? You know, I could never figure out why you wanted to talk to me in person about that. What's the big deal?"

"Well..." Sam's voice trailed off, and she started to look distinctly uncomfortable.

Daniel touched her shoulder briefly. "I'll wander around a bit, maybe see about keeping our gowns for a little bit longer for pictures. I'll be back."

Sam nodded, giving him a look that showed how nervous she was feeling. "Okay, Daniel, but don't be too long."

"I won't."

"So what is it?" Mark asked once Daniel had gone.

"I don't know how to say this," Sam said helplessly, unable to meet her brother's gaze.

"How about with words?" The older Carter was rapidly losing his patience.

Sam flinched. It wouldn't help matters any if he lost his temper before hearing the news. "I'm going to the Air Force Academy. I'm leaving in three weeks."

Mark blinked at the softly spoken admission. "I'm not sure I heard you right. Where did you say you were going?"

The blonde young woman sighed. "The Air Force Academy."

"Why in the hell would you want to go there?"

The cold tone was even worse than the shouting she'd expected. "I want to be an astronaut. I've always wanted to be an astronaut. You know that, Mark."

"And you couldn't do it any other way?" Now the volume was rising.

"No, actually, I couldn't. Not if I actually wanted to be an astronaut." Sam paused, finally looking the elder of the two in the eye determinedly. "And you know that."

Mark stared at her helplessly for a long moment. "You couldn't find another way?"

Sam rolled her eyes. "No, Mark. And to be honest with you, I wouldn't want to. I get a lot of benefits this way. A challenging career, a chance to fly jets as well as shuttles and maybe even other experimental spacecraft, great benefits, not too horrible a salary, opportunities for travel..."

"Absolutely no chance for a family life..." Mark drawled sarcastically, scowling.

"That's not true, and you know it. We had a great family life," Sam protested.

"Yeah, right up until the day Dad's career killed Mom," Mark shot back harshly.

Sam ground her teeth. She could understand Daniel's frustration with her all those years ago. "An accident killed Mom. That's all. For all we know, had Dad picked her up they both might have gotten into an accident together and they both would have died."

Mark's expression turned cold. "And this would have been a loss how?"

Sam gasped in utter shock. "How dare you?" she whispered. "Dad loved Mom with all his heart. It tore him apart when she died. And it tore him up even more when we blamed him for it. We put him through hell when we added our grief and anger to his own at himself. And he still went out of his way to try to be there for us, to be home every night to make us dinner, to come to as many school events as he could. He opened himself up at every opportunity and was there for us. Considering the ungrateful little snots we were - and you still are apparently - it was more than we deserved. I'm glad my eyes were opened. I'd hate to see what kind of man Dad would have turned out to be if both of his children had turned their backs on him." The young woman considered the white-faced young man in front of her. "That's the other major reason I chose the Academy. To honor my father. I don't want you to hate me like you hate Dad, but if you don't like my decision, to hell with you!" Her pale brows furrowed and her lips were tightly pursed as she crossed her arms over her chest and stared at her brother defiantly.

He glared back for a long time. Finally, seeing that Sam wasn't going to back down, his shoulders drooped slightly and he sighed. "I don't want to lose you, Sam. You're the last family I consider myself to have. And you're right in one regard: I have known all along that the Air Force was the only way you were going to realize your dreams. I'll support you and your choice, but do not ask me to forgive my father. I can't do that."

"You're the only one who can decide when you're ready to forgive him," Sam said softly as her stance relaxed somewhat. "I only hope you'll at least think about what I've said."

"I'll think about it, but I can't promise any more than that."

"That's all I can ask."

* * * * * * * *


Daniel began to head for the main school building once he'd left Sam and her brother, intending on asking about the graduation gowns, but a voice calling his name stopped him in his tracks about twenty feet short of his goal. He turned around, confused. The voice was familiar, but he knew it wasn't any of his classmates, and there was no way Jacob would be back yet.

Just then, a familiar tall, lean form in a dress blue Air Force uniform forced his way through the boisterous crowd. "Daniel! Do you know how hard it's been to get your attention in this mess?"

"Jack?" Daniel replied incredulously as his friend grinned. "What are you doing here?"

"For crying out loud, Daniel, do you really think I'd miss your graduation? Especially after you went through so much trouble to come to mine? Give me some credit." Jack never stopped grinning.

"But... how?"

The grin turned smug. "Got a twenty-four hour pass. I've got to be back in a few hours."

Daniel finally got over the shock and returned the smile. "Thanks for coming, Jack."

"Don't mention it. Oh, and keep your eyes open for a package in the next few days. Sara and I sent your presents since we weren't sure I could pull this pass off."

"You didn't have to do that."

"True. But we wanted to. Nice speech, by the way."

Daniel blushed slightly. "Thanks," he murmured. "So have you had a chance to actually meet Sam in person yet?"

Jack shook his head. "I haven't even gotten a close look at her. Because of when I got here I got stuck in the crappy seats way up in the far corner. The only reason I knew it was you giving your speech is because they announced your name. Where is she?"

The teenager glanced back toward where he'd come from and cringed when he saw the heated argument the Carter siblings seemed to be in the middle of. "She's back that way with her brother. I'd take you over there, but they look... busy."

The Air Force officer looked off in the same direction as his friend. "Sam's back is to us?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Ah. Then I don't think we should interrupt. That looks serious."

"That's what I was thinking. Can you wait for Sam to finish? Or maybe for her dad to get back?" Daniel looked at Jack hopefully.

Jack cringed a bit. "Sorry, Daniel. I can probably only stay another five, ten minutes. I need to get back to the airport for my return flight. I can't be sure of the traffic, and I'd rather be early than late."

Daniel sighed. "I understand. I'm just glad you could be here at all."

"So what made you decide to bring up your parents?" Jack asked after a brief silence.

"Oh, um, well, to be honest, it was a last minute decision." The younger of the two stared at his shoes peeking out from under his gown.

"How so?"

"Sam dedicated her speech to her mother so I decided to dedicate mine, too. I can only hope they'd be proud."

Jack reached out and lifted Daniel's chin so their eyes met. "Daniel, you have nothing to worry about there. They'd be more than proud. I know I am." He gave his friend a smile to let him know he meant it, then once he'd gotten a smile in response he nodded and checked his watch. "Crap. I need to get going. I wish I could stay longer."

Daniel's smile grew a little wider. "So do I. But that fact that you came at all is what's important."

Jack nodded again and suddenly remembered something. "I almost forgot," he said as he dug around in his pocket and eventually pulled out a slip of paper. "I'm getting transferred to Florida. I decided to go for the Special Ops training, and that's where the school is."

Daniel took the offered scrap and glanced at it briefly before reaching into his robe to put it the back pocket of the dress slacks he was wearing. "When will you be there?"

"Two weeks from now. Gives me a week to settle in before classes start. And don't be too worried if I don't write quite as often. This is pretty intense training, and there are times when I'll be out for weeks at a time. I'll try to let you know when that happens, but I don't think I'll be able to all the time."

"That's okay. I've been warned. But what about Sara and the wedding?"

"This pretty much put an end to our arguments. Looks like we're doing it in Florida. We still don't know when." Jack shrugged.

Daniel nodded. "Just don't do it too suddenly. I need time to make arrangements with school and my social worker."

Jack grinned. "I know, I know. And so does Sara. We'll keep that in mind. And now I really do need to get going. Talk to you again soon." He pulled Daniel into a fierce hug. "Congratulations, Batman," he murmured in his younger friend's ear before pulling back and ruffling the long, dark blond locks.

"Batman?" Daniel asked, scowling as he tried to straighten his hair.

"Sure. You're at least as smart as Bruce Wayne," Jack explained with a shrug. "Now I'm out of here. Congrats, and tell Sam the same." He clapped Daniel on the shoulder and headed out.

"Bye, Jack!" Daniel called after him. Jack acknowledged the farewell with one last wave, then disappeared into the still-lingering crowd.

Daniel sighed as his gaze lingered after his oldest friend for a long moment, then he gathered himself together and headed back to where he'd left Sam. There were other graduates still milling around in their gowns, so he figured it would be all right to wait a while longer before turning them in. "Hey, Sam," he said as he stepped up to his silent blonde friend. He glanced back and forth between her and her brother, who had turned his face away at Daniel's approach. "Is... everything okay?" he asked hesitantly.

Sam gave him a small smile. "Everything's fine. Mark and I just had a few issues to work out, that's all. I think we both understand where the other one stands."

Mark turned back, a weak grin attempting to lighten his features. "Sam's right. Nothing to worry about. Congratulations, Daniel. So where are you going to school, anyway? Sam didn't mention it."

"UCLA," Daniel answered. "I've got a four-year scholarship there. My other choice was the University of Chicago, and they said that my full scholarship there would still be available to me through the fall semester of 1982. We'll see what happens."

"Wow, full scholarships." Mark's appreciation was much more sincere than his expression of interest. "Wish I'd been able to get one of those. There are times I think I'll be paying off my student loans for the rest of my life. And that's not even counting Julie's." He briefly met Sam's eyes and dropped his gaze once more. "Look, I should get going. I still have to check out of my hotel and get to the airport. Congratulations, Sam." He took a couple steps away before Sam hurried forward and hugged him. Mark returned the embrace half-heartedly then silently went on his way.

"I take it you two argued," Daniel said quietly once Mark had gone.

Sam sighed. "You could say that." She looked at her best friend. "How did you keep from smacking me upside my head?" she asked, a thread of frustration underlying her tone.

Daniel blinked. "What are you talking about?"

"Back in Wheatland, when I didn't want to listen to you defend Dad. How did you keep yourself from knocking some sense in to me?"

"I, uh, um, never really had the urge, Sam," Daniel said, confused.

"You have got to be kidding me," Sam muttered.

Daniel raised his eyebrows. "I guess that tells me what your argument was about," he said, finally catching on to what Sam was really referring to.

Sam scoffed. "Yeah, guess so."

"No success?"

"What do you think?"

"Ah." Daniel nodded his understanding as Jacob finally made his way back over to them.

His appearance made Sam put on a happy mask, and Jacob couldn't help but return the smile. "Sorry it took me so long," he apologized. "Traffic's a bear. Let's get some pictures and get out of here."

The two teenagers agreed and stood together, arms around each other and displaying their diplomas. "Oh, by the way," Daniel said as Jacob made a few lens adjustments, "Jack was here."

"You're kidding, really?" Now Sam's smile was quite genuine. "Where did he go?"

"Had to go back. He only had a twenty-four hour pass. He said to tell you congratulations, though."

"That's great, Daniel. Although I hope I'll actually get to meet him in the flesh one of these days!" They laughed.

"You know, I wouldn't mind meeting him either," Jacob chimed in, bringing the camera up to his eye. "He seems to have made quite an impression on both of you. Now, ready and... say Jack!" The wide smiles, mid-laugh picture would be the first of many just like it taken over the course of the evening, documenting the great time the three of them had.

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