A Road Not Taken - Part Thirteen


 Three weeks later, Daniel found himself once again looking for a friend in an airport terminal. He'd arranged to take a flight from Los Angeles to Miami with a layover in Denver so he and Sam could travel at least part of the way together. He was starting to get a little worried when he finally spotted a short mop of blonde hair bobbing toward him in the thick crowd.

"Daniel!" Sam cried, pausing to wave and catch his attention. He waved back with a smile.

"I was starting to wonder if you were going to make it," Daniel said once Sam had fought her way to his side and collapsed into the vacant seat he had saved for her.

"I was wondering that myself," Sam replied a bit breathlessly. "The person that gave me a ride from the Academy took her sweet time getting here, even though I told her I had a plane to catch. I was about ready to strangle her. How close did I cut it?"

Daniel glanced at his watch. "There's still a half hour."

Sam flinched. "That's cutting it too close. What if there'd been a line at the baggage check?"

"Don't worry about it, Sam. You're here; that's what counts."

They caught up with each other until their flight was called, then found their seats. Thankfully, the gentleman that had originally been sitting next to Daniel was nice enough to exchange seats with Sam ten rows back, although the two friends were sure that the drop-dead gorgeous woman sitting back there didn't hurt. "I think I'm nervous," Sam said once they'd settled in.

Daniel turned away from the view out the window and stared at her, confused. "Why? You're not the one getting married."

Sam sighed. "I know, but Mark never said whether he'd invited Dad or not, and I've been afraid to ask either of them. I guess it could be a disaster either way you look at it."

"Sam, there's nothing you can do about it. Either your dad will be there or he won't. Don't let it spoil your weekend. Your dad wouldn't want that." It was Daniel's turn to sigh. "I hate to say that, I really do. I think Mark should have invited your dad. But considering the bad blood between them, it may be best that he didn't. If he didn't."

"Yeah, you're probably right," Sam agreed sorrowfully. "Mark's wedding isn't exactly the best place to work things out. There's bound to be a lot of yelling and bad feelings."

"You have a point. Stubbornness is a Carter family trait." He unsuccessfully fought back an impish smile.

Sam smacked his arm. "Hey! I resemble that remark!" They both laughed. "So when's your flight back to Los Angeles?" she asked once they'd calmed down.

Daniel grew serious. "I'm not going back to Los Angeles," he answered softly.

The young woman blinked. "What?"

"I'm transferring to the University of Chicago. I've already shipped most of my things there. I made arrangements for them to arrive the day before I do, and someone at my dorm building will make sure they're put in my room."

"When did you arrange this?" Hurt began to bleed into her tone.

Daniel sighed. "The shipping of my things? When I got back from Jack's wedding. My transfer? In early March."

"But why? And why didn't you tell me?"

"Oh, Sam, I didn't do this to hurt you," he said, reaching over and taking her hand. "I didn't tell anyone I was doing this. I got a letter from the University of Chicago in February asking me what my intentions were regarding the scholarship I'd been offered. So I sat down and tried to go through my pros and cons again for there and UCLA. I couldn't make up my mind. So I signed up for classes at both schools, knowing I would withdraw from one or the other before the school year ended and not incur any penalties. It took me to the beginning of May to see something I should have seen a long time ago, and I knew I had to go to Chicago."

"What happened to UCLA? Not that it matters, I guess, about you going to Chicago, but what was it?" She gave his hand a squeeze.

"The main reason I picked UCLA over Chicago in the first place was you, Sam. Your dad was stationed in Los Angeles, and that meant that you'd be coming back for vacations and holidays. I wanted to be there when you did. And then your dad got transferred, and I eventually realized that maybe that wasn't the best reason to have picked that school. UCLA is a good school, don't get me wrong, but the University of Chicago is the better one for what I'm aiming for. I wasn't thinking about what was best for my future, I was thinking about what was best for my present." His bright blue eyes dropped to his lap as he finished his confession.

Sam chewed on her lower lip for a moment as she considered what she'd been told. "Well, we're not dealing with a cardinal sin here, Daniel," she finally said. "I'm flattered that I was that important to your choice. I'm just sorry I kept you from making the best decision for yourself."

That made Daniel look up. "Sam, no, don't. You shouldn't apologize. You had no idea what I was thinking. It's not your fault I was thinking like a child that didn't want to give up his best friend and move away, even though it was best for him." He was stopped by the pre-flight instructions and safety lecture.

"You've lost a lot over the years, Daniel," Sam said once they'd taken off. "It's only natural you wouldn't want to let something special to you go if you didn't have to."

"I know. I'm starting to understand that. But you can't blame yourself either."

Sam stared at him for a long moment then began to laugh. "Look at us! We're both beating ourselves up over something so stupid! You decided to change schools, big deal. It took you a little while to tell me, but you did. I know you wouldn't hurt me on purpose. So it took you a little longer than you would have hoped to realize why you'd picked UCLA over the University of Chicago. You're going to be going there now, right? Problem solved!" She giggled some more.

Daniel blinked a few times at her outburst then sheepishly began to grin. "I guess you're right. We did make too big a deal out of this."

Sam finished laughing, but her smile didn't fade. "So tell me about your new school, Daniel. I want to hear all about it."

They spent the rest of the flight talking about the University of Chicago and what Daniel hoped to accomplish there. By the time they landed in Miami, they'd forgotten all about their foolish guilt trips and were focused on the fun they were going to have.

* * * * * * * *

Sam and Daniel sat in a pew in the church waiting for a couple members of the bridal party to show up for the rehearsal two nights later, bored out of their minds. Everyone there was at least four years older than the both of them and not inclined to socializing with the groom's little sister and her little friend. "Now I know why Mark was so keen on having you come," Sam whispered to the young man at her side. "To keep me entertained."

"But we're both bored. I think his plan backfired."

"Sam," Julie Hodgson, Mark's fiancé, said as she approached the pair. "Could I talk to you for a minute?" She shot a furtive look over her shoulder at the groom-to-be, relaxing a fraction when she saw he was totally caught up in a conversation with his best man. "I haven't had a chance to talk to you alone since you got here."

Daniel looked from one woman to the other and sighed. "I'll just go... look at the altar... or something." He got up and went to the front of the church.

"What is it you needed, Julie?" Sam asked.

Julie swallowed nervously. "Mark would be so upset with me if he knew I was talking about this with you, but I think it needs to be done. I'm sure you've figured out by now that your dad won't be coming. Mark refused to invite him. He wouldn't even send him an announcement."

Sam closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the back of the pew. "I was afraid to tell him, and I figured it was Mark's job in the first place. But I mailed Dad my invitation along with my hotel and room number. He has to know by now. I'm just surprise he hasn't called."

The older woman sat down dejectedly next to the blonde. "I tried to tell him this was his father he was talking about, that no matter what had happened before the two of them would always be family. Things went downhill from there."

"I can imagine," Sam said sympathetically.

"I'm sure you can. Mark told me about what you said at your graduation. I tried to back you up, but I didn't get very far."

"I was hoping I could get him to really think about things. Apparently it didn't work."

Julie took the other woman's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I wouldn't say that. I think it's mulling around in the back of his mind. He just hasn't made his way all the way through it yet." She sighed. "It's the only major thing I don't like about him to be honest. But I have hope that he'll see the light before too long. I really want to meet your father."

Sam opened her eyes and smiled. "I'm sure he'll love you. You've been great so far."

Julie returned the expression. "I'm glad you think so." She turned her head as two more people walked into the church. "Will and Jamie are here, so we can get started. It shouldn't be too much longer." She tucked a stray strand of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear, gave Sam's hand one last squeeze, and left to rejoin the wedding party. Sam merely watched her go, her brother's lingering bitterness a dark cloud hanging above her head and dampening her enjoyment of what should have been an entirely joyous occasion. Not even Daniel's repeated attempts to cheer her up over the next two days could completely dispel it, and she headed to Virginia very much subdued. She knew dealing with her father would be no better.

* * * * * * * *

"Dear Daniel,

"I probably shouldn't be writing you right now since we just got back from a mission and I haven't gone through a complete debriefing yet, but I had to talk to somebody. The damn mission was a complete bust, an utter failure. I was a little surprised at how quickly I got desensitized to killing and dead bodies, but this was different. This was my team.

"I can't go into details, but my CO was gunned down right in front of me, by someone who shouldn't have been there. What good is any kind of reconnaissance if it can't get you the facts you need? What's the point?

"We were together since June, that's it. We've been on more missions than I would have expected in that time, and I never would have expected how close we've all become. I guess I should say were, how close we were. When John went down, I dragged him behind some cover and tried to figure out what I could do to stop the bleeding. But it was already too late. Blood was coming out of his mouth, and he looked up at me and asked me to take care of his wife for him. And then he died, right there in my arms. All I could do was call a retreat, grab his dogtags and run like hell. What the hell kind of friend am I, anyway?

"Don't. You don't have to answer that. I know I did the only thing I could, what needed to be done to save as many of the others as I could. But damn if it doesn't hurt like a knife through the heart. And it'll probably take longer to heal.

"I'm sorry to dump all this on you, Daniel. I just knew that while you couldn't exactly relate, you'd understand, if that makes any sense. I doubt it does. Considering the jumbled mess my head's in at the moment, it wouldn't surprise me if you needed to use one of your multitudes of foreign languages to figure out what I've just spewed out. How many is it now, anyway? Fifty? A hundred?

"I'll try to write again soon, once I've sorted through everything. Stay safe until then.

"Your friend,


* * * * * * * *

"Mrs. O'Neill..."


"Carolyn. You didn't have to go through so much trouble to be here on opening night. I know you have a show about ready to open."

"Daniel, there's only one opening night to a show. Did you really think I was going to miss it? Jack would kill me! He's expecting a full report, and he told me I had to be the one to give it since he knew you never would. Besides, you'd think after a year and half here you'd be used to me by now."

Daniel struggled to keep from rolling his eyes. Jack's mother meant well. He was just glad Chris O'Neill wasn't there, too. He wouldn't be coming until next week. "I really do have to get this stage makeup off. If I leave it on too long I break out. Mild allergy."

Carolyn's eyes widened. "Oh, I'm sorry, dear! You get back in there then and clean yourself up. I'll wait out here. Once you're ready I'll treat you to a late supper worthy of your star status." The dark-haired brunette grinned.

Daniel sighed. "You know, there is a cast party going on tonight."

"That you really shouldn't be at," Carolyn said promptly. "I know what goes on at those things, and you're only eighteen. The last thing you want to do is get busted for underage drinking. Let me take you to dinner. I'll do my best not to embarrass you too much."

"All right, all right. Let me get cleaned up and changed. I didn't really want to go to the party anyway. Your offer's the perfect excuse." He gave the older woman a small smile and disappeared back into the makeup room.

Carolyn delivered on her promise, and soon enough the two of them were sitting at a nicer restaurant having a light, late-night meal. "As wonderful a job as you did tonight, I have to ask," the lady began. "Whatever got you involved with the theater? I didn't think you'd be interested."

Daniel paused to finish off the last forkful of green beans on his plate. "I found out I needed three more Fine Arts credits on top of my piano classes to complete the entirety of my general education requirements, and Acting 101 was the only thing that fit into my schedule this semester. To get an A, everyone needed to try out for any of the productions going on this spring and take any part offered. You only had to take one if there were more. I only tried out for The Importance of Being Earnest, none of the student-run productions appealing to me in the least." Daniel shrugged. "And that, as they say, is that."

Carolyn smiled proudly. "And now you have another feather for your cap. Just think, years from now you'll be able to tell your children that you played Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde's classic play."

"I'm still surprised I got the role," Daniel scoffed. "I know how young I look. But Jim, our director, was sure that make-up would take care of that problem."

"And it did. Not to mention you handled the British accent wonderfully."

"That was a little easier. My exposure to different languages helped me pick up on the nuances of the varying inflections during the first couple of accent lessons. Those were quite fascinating, actually. Then again, we're basically talking about a different dialect of a language, which definitely falls under the purview of my studies." The young man smiled shyly.

Carolyn's expression turned gentle. "You are extremely knowledgeable about the subjects you've chosen to focus on, not to mention others I'm sure have caught your interest over the years. It's only natural that you'd enjoy those kinds of things the most. But you did a wonderful job on stage. I want you to know that."

"Thank you," Daniel replied, blushing slightly. "I really appreciate it."

The two of them then proceeded to enjoy the rest of the evening.

* * * * * * * *

Two months later, three O'Neills sat in the audience as Daniel accepted recognition for earning two bachelors degrees from the University of Chicago in linguistics and archaeology. Once the ceremony was over, the eighteen-year-old met them by the bleachers of the gym. "Thanks for coming," Daniel said once the hugs were out of the way.

"Like we'd be anywhere else," Carolyn said, a proud expression on her face and tears in her eyes.

"Beat cleaning my apartment," Chris said with a shrug and half grin.

"I told you I'd be here, so I'm here," Jack said softly, looking like he hadn't slept in three or four days. It was quite possible he hadn't, but Daniel wouldn't ask, not out in the open.

Daniel couldn't help but smile at that. "What? No surprises this time?"

Jack gave a chuckle. "Nah, don't have the energy. It's been a rough couple of months."

Carolyn checked her watch and gave a wordless sound of dismay. "Oh, I'm sorry, dear," she interrupted sorrowfully. "The museum with my latest exhibit has been having some security issues and I set up an appointment to speak with them about some new possibilities."

"And I'm her ride," Chris said regretfully. "You and Jack probably want to hang out alone anyway, so we'll leave you to it. Congrats, Daniel." He patted the new college graduate on the shoulder and started to head off.

"Yes, congratulations." Carolyn kissed Daniel on the cheek and headed off after her son.

"Is there anywhere in particular you wanted to go?" Daniel asked once he and Jack were alone.

"Someplace quiet is all I ask."

Daniel smiled. "Then I know just the place. Come on."

A half hour later the two friends were ensconced on the couch in the living room of Daniel's apartment drinking large glasses of orange juice. "So, you really think not taking a break is the right way to go?" Jack asked, watching his friend out of the corner of his eye.

Daniel shrugged. "I don't think I'm going to burn out if that's what you're worried about. My advisor, Dr. David Jordan, asked me the same thing when I came to him asking about the anthropology classes I'm taking this summer. But I want the degree without putting anything else on hold, so it needed to be done."

"Maybe, but I don't want you to be hovering on the edge of a break down before you see the need to put a few things on pause. Even if it's just for the summer."

"You worry too much. I'll be fine. I thrive on this stuff, remember?"

Jack sighed. Yeah, he knew that. He didn't have to like it, though. "What else are you doing this summer? Please tell me it's something fun," he practically pleaded.

Daniel couldn't help but laugh. "Sam was thinking about coming up here for a week during her vacation, have me show her around, things like that. She hasn't told me for sure yet."

The older man considered it. "Okay, that'll do. I won't get on your case too much then."

Blue eyes rolled. "Gee, thanks, Jack. I'm glad I have your blessing."

"You should be. It's hard to get."

"Sure it is. I seem to recall you telling me about the time you okayed the plan to fill your high school swimming pool with over three thousand smelt as a senior prank - when you were a junior. Remind me again, how bad was the smell?" Daniel gazed at him with raised eyebrows and his arms crossed over his chest.

"I forgot about the chlorine!" Jack protested. "I honestly thought the next day's gym class was going to come waltzing on in to find the fish swimming around and freak out."

Daniel choked back a snicker. "Oh, they freaked out, all right."

Jack didn't bother to fight his evil snigger. "That they did. The prank still worked; it took forever to clean out all the filters."

"Thus accounting for the smell..."

"And they never suspected me in the least," Jack continued, ignoring the comment. "Probably the only time they didn't." He narrowed his eyes at Daniel. "You never mentioned any senior prank at your school. Didn't you pull one off?"

"Me personally? No. Never really crossed my mind - I was too worried about picking which college I wanted to go to in the fall. I know of at least one someone else pulled off, and believe me, if I'd had anything to do with it, it..." Daniel considered it for a moment, obviously trying to find the right words. "Oh, I just never would have done it," he said finally.

"What was it?" Jack asked, his eyes alight with curiosity.

Daniel cleared his throat, a touch of embarrassment in his expression. "Sam and Rebecca dragged me to the homecoming football game the Friday before... you know," he began, blushing slightly in remembrance of the debacle of the dance the night after the game. "Anyway, about halftime, while the cheerleaders were doing their routine, I finally got a clear look at the new patch of grass in the middle of the field. It seems that someone thought it would be funny to dig a ten yard trench in the shape of a... well, um..." His blush grew deeper.

Jack was totally bemused. "Just spit it out, already!"

Daniel sighed. "It was in the shape of a penis." The deep pink just wouldn't go away. "And when the groundkeeping staff filled it in and planted new turf to get ready for the game, you'd think they would have dug out the trench a little ways around... it. But when I looked down from the bleachers, all I could see, highlighted in the bright green of new grass, was a ten yard..." If Daniel turned any redder he'd likely pass out. "You know what I'm trying to say."

The Air Force officer burst out laughing. "Oh my God, you're serious, aren't you?"

A small smile began to form on the younger man's features. "Oh, yeah. A group of football players got up after the cheerleaders were done and mimicked them, shouting in falsetto voices, 'Give me a P! Give me an E!' and finally, 'What's that spell?'" The smile grew a bit wider. "The teachers stepped in before they could get anyone to respond."

"I can just see it!" Jack fell over on the couch, arms wrapped around his stomach and his eyes squeezed shut.

"It would have been the talk of the school for weeks," Daniel said with a resigned sigh.

That stopped Jack's laughter, although it didn't completely wipe away the grin. "Saturday's dance, right?"

Daniel nodded. "Did I ever tell you how eerily accurate you were when you responded to the letter I wrote telling you about it?"

Jack's grin widened. "No, actually. I was right?" He paused for a moment, his expression faltering. "What did I say?"

"I'm not going into details. Needless to say, Sam's then-boyfriend thought I was trying to make moves on her and got in my face when she and I danced toward the end of the night. It wasn't pretty."

"Oh, yeah, now I remember. That was funny, too."

"From almost two years in the future, I agree with you. I didn't then." Daniel took in the relaxed form of his friend. "Feeling better?" he asked softly.

Jack started with surprise. "What?" he shot back, confused.

Daniel shrugged. "You looked like you'd come close to reaching the end of your rope and were considering tying a knot so you could hold on a little while longer. I'm not asking for details, but how have you been doing?"

Jack stared at him for a long, silent moment, then let loose an equally long, silent breath from the depths of his person. "Tired, Daniel. I'm very tired. I never expected what I've seen and done. But stuff like this," he gestured around in a wide yet vague manner, "recharges me. And before you can ask, no, there's really nothing you can do. I'm heading home to Sara day after tomorrow to finish up my week's leave. I'll be fine."

"Are you sure there's nothing?"

Brown eyes softened under the assault of warmth and compassion. "Just keep doing what you're doing, Daniel. Write me. Tell me about what's going on with you, and Sam, and anyone else you run into. Let me know the real world's out here. Remind me what it's all for. That's all I've asked of Sara, and now it's all I'm asking of you."

Daniel smiled. "I can do that."

"Knew you could." Jack stretched and glanced at the clock on the wall. "I should get going. I need to check into a hotel before Mom drags me off to her place."

"Or..." Daniel said slowly, "you could just stay here. It's not the most comfortable thing in the world, but my sofa does fold out into a bed. My roommate a couple of years back left it behind when he moved out of the dorms. I've had it ever since."

"Thank you. I think I'd like that."

"I'll get some extra blankets."

Before Daniel went even three steps, his phone rang. With a brief apologetic look toward Jack, he quickly answered it. "Hello?"

Jack couldn't help but notice Daniel brighten considerably when he heard the response on the other end. "Hey, Sam! I wasn't expecting to hear from you!" Well, that answers that, Jack thought with a smile.

"Thanks, Sam. Just think, next year it's your turn." Daniel chuckled at the response. "I know, I know. Jack, his mom, and his brother Chris were all there, so that was cool. Actually, Jack's here now. We were talking when you called." He paused and listened for a moment. "No, no, you weren't interrupting. Look, why don't I put you on speaker phone so we can all talk?" He pushed the right button.

"Speaker phone?" Sam's tinny voice blared out from the tiny speaker above the number pad. "When did you get a speaker phone?"

"The archaeology department just updated their phone system so Doctor Jordan let me have one of the old phones. My last one didn't make it."

There was a pause as Jack listened in, amused. "You've got that thing turned on, don't you? You sound weird," Sam said finally.

"Don't worry, Sam. You sound just as strange," Jack chimed in.

"Is that you, Jack?"

"Ya sure ya betcha," the older man drawled as Daniel caught his eye and gestured before going to his bedroom to get the blankets he'd promised.

The sound of Sam clearing her throat came through. "I... suppose I should call you captain or sir," she said, a forming blush obvious in her tone.

Jack rolled his eyes. "Look, right now I can't see your cadet uniform, and you can't see my bars. Let's skip it."

There was a tiny giggle. "Okay, Jack, thanks."

"So, how is the Academy going?" Daniel asked as he returned and handed the blanket and extra pillow to Jack. "Is anyone else giving you a hard time?"

"Hard time?" Jack repeated, pausing in the act of setting the sofa's cushions aside. "What kind of hard time?"

Sam sighed. "Let's just say it's not always easy being a girl. Add to that your dad being a high-ranking officer..."

"Ah. Gotcha."

"Well?" Daniel asked.

"It's nothing I can't take care of, Daniel. If it gets too much worse I'll talk to one of my instructors."

Jack looked at the phone sternly. "Make sure you do that. You guys are supposed to be there to learn, not play stupid, immature games. Besides, you don't deserve that kind of crap."

There was another pause acknowledging the sentiment. "So how have you been, Jack?"


There was a loud clunk as the hideaway bed's metal frame was unfolded and hit the floor. "What the heck was that?" Sam asked.

The two men shared a sheepish look. "I was just pulling out the sofa bed to get it ready for Jack. He's staying with me while he's here," Daniel explained.

"Isn't it kind of early?"

"I just need to crash for a while before Danny and I paint the town tonight," Jack said quickly.

"I should let you go then."

"Did I say that?" Jack asked with a roll of his eyes. "Keep talking. If I zonk out on you in the middle you can still talk to Daniel. He finally managed to outgrow a need for naps."

Daniel's jaw dropped. "Hey!" he protested indignantly.

Sam laughed. "I think he did that a long time ago."

Jack shrugged. "We'll see."

The three of them talked for another hour and a half, another set of bonds between them solidly forming.

* * * * * * * *

By late September of that year, Daniel questioned the accuracy of what he'd told Jack after earning his undergraduate degrees. Between the classes he was taking toward a third bachelor's degree in anthropology and the work he was putting in for a pair of masters theses, he found himself constantly studying. It wasn't really a problem, but Daniel wasn't sure he'd still use the word "thrive" to describe the experience.

One late, windy night, Daniel sat at his desk taking notes as he read a thick tome regarding ancient Egyptian civilizations. The leaves had just recently begun to turn, and the air had developed a touch of an autumnal tang that would only grow more definitive as time went on. Daniel noticed none of this, even as a slight breeze managed to make its way into his apartment through a window open just a crack to keep the air from getting stale. In fact, he hadn't noticed those things for over a week as he'd just begun to examine the beginnings of a new theory, and his excitement had his nose in one book or another most of the time he was awake.

The phone ringing barely registered on his consciousness. But whoever was calling was persistent. Around about ring sixteen, Daniel blinked and glanced over his shoulder at the table where the phone rested, then made a grab for the receiver as his eyes were drawn back to the text before him. "Hello," he answered distantly.

"Hey, Daniel."

"Oh, hi, Jack," Daniel replied automatically, pushing his glasses back up his nose. That sentence couldn't be right, could it?

A moment of silence went by unnoticed by at least half of the connection. "Um, Daniel? Aren't you glad to hear from me?"

Daniel turned the page, deciding to go back to that question later. "Of course, Jack. Are you in Europe?"

"Actually I'm in Florida. My last assignment didn't take as long as expected, so we got to come home for a while. Whatcha up to?"

"Unfortunately only page two hundred and thirty-seven. I have to get this back by the end of the week."

Had he been paying closer attention, Daniel would have heard the sound of skin contacting skin most likely due to an open palm striking a forehead. "Uh, look, Daniel, I really need to talk to you. Something important has come up."

"You can tell me anything," Daniel said automatically, flipping another page. "They really didn't use the best inks in the late eighteen hundreds, did they?" he grumbled.

There was a loud sigh. "I mean it, Daniel. It has to do with Sara."

Daniel brought his head up at the sound of poorly-concealed panic in his friend's voice. "Jack? What's wrong? Is Sara all right? Her family? Friends?"

"Hold it! Boy, when you come back to Earth, you really make a sensation, don't you!"

"Jack, why did you call? Not that I don't appreciate it, but..."

"I thought I was the one that was supposed to be panicking here."

Daniel blinked. "You are?"

Jack sighed again. "I think so. I'm not sure what to make of this one. I mean, it's huge."

The younger man swallowed nervously. "It's not cancer, is it?" he asked softly.

"No! Oh, no! And thank God for that!"

"So what is it?"

There was a long pause. "What are you working on?" Jack finally asked.

Daniel pulled the phone away from his ear for a second and stared at it incredulously. "I have a new theory I'm hoping I can use for my masters thesis in archaeology," he said once he brought it back to the side of his head. "I'm doing research to try to validate it. But that's not what you really want to talk about."

The sound of a body flopping onto a piece of furniture came across the line. "No, it's not," Jack admitted. "Sara cornered me as soon as I got home this afternoon. I'd been gone for a little over a month, but like I said earlier... You did hear me earlier, didn't you? You sounded awfully distracted."

Daniel blushed. "I was. But you said something about your last assignment not taking that long, so you were home. What did Sara tell you?"

"Well..." The reluctance to continue was almost palpable. "She said she didn't know what possessed her to go. It was just a gut feeling."

"What was?" Daniel asked after another long pause.

"She went to the doctor, got tested for a few things. Daniel, she's pregnant. She's going to have a baby."

The young man fell back in his chair at the news, a huge smile forming on his face. "Jack, that's great news! You're going to be a father!"

Jack swallowed. "I'm not sure I can do this."

The admission halted Daniel in his verbal tracks. "Oh, Jack," he said, leaning forward again. "Jack, you'll be fine. You like kids."

"When they're not mine."

"I don't buy that. And it's not like you've had a chance before now to prove it one way or the other. Didn't you want children?"

"We never talked about it. I never really thought about it." A soft sigh barely made itself heard through the connection. "You're right. I like kids. I guess I just assumed I'd have some one day after I got married. But that was for the future; this is now."

Daniel frowned slightly as he considered what to say next. "What does Sara think?"

There was a tiny pause. "She seemed a bit scared, a bit nervous... and a bit excited."

"Sounds pretty normal to me."

"Well, yeah, but, Daniel..."

"Jack," Daniel interrupted firmly. "Let me put this a different way. You love Sara, right?"

It took a beat, but Jack finally responded, "Of course."

"With all your heart?"


"And Sara loves you?"

There was a short chuckle. "Amazingly enough, yes."

"Then I'd say this child is nothing more than the ultimate expression of the love you two share. And he or she is going to be one lucky kid to be surrounded with such love."

This time the silent pause was much longer. "Thank you, Daniel," Jack whispered, his voice filled with emotion. "I needed to hear that."

Daniel smiled. "I know. That's why I said it."

That got a brief laugh. "You little... I don't know what I'm going to do with you." It was shaky, but a smile could be heard in the older man's tone.

Daniel shrugged. "You'll think of something."

"You bet I will. Look, Sara just got home so I should get going. Thanks again, Daniel."

"Anytime. Just keep me updated on how things are going, okay?"

"I promise. Bye, Daniel."

"Goodbye, Jack. And congratulations to both of you."

Soon after, Daniel hung up, a small, satisfied smile lighting his features. He shook his head, gave one last glance at the phone, and went back to his research.

* * * * * * * *

The next seven months went by relatively uneventfully. Jack spent a lot of that time off on classified missions, growing more and more nervous the closer Sara's due date got. Frank Cromwell caught up with him as often as he could, proud as punch he was going to be an honorary uncle. Daniel's letters kept on as they always had, as did Jack's in return.

Sara, even through her hormonal roller coaster, found a deep well of patience in regards to her husband. She didn't like that he couldn't be there for the doctor's appointments, the weird cravings, or the baby showers, but she knew why and could accept it. Had accepted it, actually, the day she had told him she thought he should follow his heart and take the Special Ops training. When he was home, he doted on her like she was extremely fragile and any move could break her. It was nice not to have to do the housework, but escorts to the bathroom were a bit much.

She had finally gotten it through Jack's head that it was actually better for her and the baby if she moved around and did some things for herself when he came home the second week of April. He was in a bit of a huff anyway, as they still couldn't come anywhere near a compromise on a name for the baby. Her mother and sisters had all assured her the way she carried the child and other various little things that they had noticed during the pregnancy were sure signs she was having a girl, no matter that the doctor wouldn't commit one way or the other and none of the ultrasounds were conclusive. Sara couldn't help but lean in that direction herself, and tended to look more closely through that section of the name book her cousin Eileen had gotten her when she heard the news. Jack's choices could always be traced back to his family tree somewhere, and Sara wasn't sure the branch of the O'Neill clan she'd signed up with had any inclination toward taste whatsoever.

Add to that Jack's obvious insecurities regarding the addition of a new member of their family and the blonde woman was about ready to strangle him. Well, that or find a dark, secluded corner somewhere to cry until the baby came. Sara sighed and readjusted her weight as she worked on the baby blanket she was crocheting and watched Jack walk by the living room toward the kitchen with barely a glance in her direction. Okay, the pendulum was swinging back toward strangulation...

She was about to call after him when the oddest sensation swept through her, followed closely by a muffled splash and a definite feeling of wetness on the chair beneath her. Of course, that had nothing on the twisting her insides had decided to indulge in at that point. "Jack!" she shouted, tossing the unfinished blanket aside as panic began to surface. "Jack, it's happening now!"

Jack hurried back into the living room. "What? What's happening now?"

"My water just broke, Jack! The baby's coming!" The soon-to-be mother's eyes were as wide as saucers and her body trembled.

"No, it's not," Jack refuted immediately. "Your due date isn't for another nine days."

"Then how do you explain the chair?" Sara snarled, immediately irked at his denial.

Jack blinked as he took in the wet cushion. "Um... you spilled your drink?" he answered weakly.

Sara's jaw clenched even tighter. "I didn't have a drink!"

Jack blinked again. "Well, why not? Your doctor told you to drink plenty of fluids. He said you should probably try to have something nearby all the time."



Her intense, pain-filled gaze bore into his wide, clueless one. "I need to go to the hospital," she said slowly and succinctly, amazing herself with her control. "You need to go upstairs and grab my bag then get the car ready while I call Doctor DeLuca. In fact, you should do that right now."

Jack automatically nodded. "Yeah... I'll go... do that." He spun around and sprinted up the stairs.

"Men!" Sara declared to the ceiling, exasperated, before pushing herself up and over to the phone.

Seventeen hours and too many death threats to count later, Sara and Jack were in the delivery room, the big show coming quickly to its climax. "Push, Sara, push! Just a little bit longer!" Jack encouraged his exhausted wife, flinching when he got another tight squeeze from the hand he held and a loud groan as a response.

Doctor DeLuca looked up from where he waited for the baby. "That's right, Mrs. O'Neill. Push and remember to breathe. The baby will be crowning any time... There!" he exclaimed.

It wasn't much longer before the cry of a newborn baby could be heard echoing around the delivery room. "Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. O'Neill," one of the nurses said with a gentle smile on her face. "You have a beautiful baby boy. Just let us clean him up and take care of a few things."

"Oh, Jack," Sara said breathlessly, limply lying on the bed now that the majority of her ordeal was over. "A son. We have a son."

"How?" Jack muttered, shocked. "Your mom said you were having a girl."

Sara's eyes narrowed. "Don't start, Jack."

"But your mom - and your sisters, too, now that I think about it - said you were having a girl."

The exhausted woman couldn't help but sigh. Jack sounded so lost, so out of his depth. "Jack, they were basing that guess on a bunch of factors that aren't always that reliable. And none of the other tests I've gone through said anything conclusive. You're going to have to just accept the fact that you are now the father of the next male to carry on the O'Neill name." She smiled. "Just think of all the fun you're going to have."

Jack stared at her, trying to let everything sink in. "A boy? We have a boy?"

"And a beautiful one at that," the same nurse as before said happily from behind him. She leaned over and placed a blue-blanketed bundle in his mama's arms. "Here you go, Mommy."

"Oh, my," Sara said through a choked sob, staring down at the little life she now held. "Look at him, Jack. Isn't he just perfect?"

Jack was silent as he took in the picture of his wife and son before him. It was all so surreal. His eyes widened as Sara offered up the tiny parcel. "Me?" he practically squeaked.

Sara nodded. "Take him, Jack. You'll know why when you do."

The brown-haired man swallowed and did as requested. Once the baby was settled in the crook of his arm, misty brown eyes took in every inch of the tiny form. And that's when he understood, that's when he realized what Sara had meant. This small slice of life that he'd helped create, was a part of him, suddenly and irrevocably stole his heart. Jack knew from that moment on, with a calm acceptance that shook him to the core, that this child would be the center of his world.

He met his wife's eyes and smiled.

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