A Family Secret

Jack tapped the crisp white envelope, running his finger along the sharp edges while trying to imagine what he would feel if he read, so sorry, but Cam is no longer your responsibility. Picking it up then letting it drop to the table, he agonized over whether to open it or simply discard it. Out of sight, out of mind wasn’t such a bad idea he figured. His stomach cramped, and the urge to empty his stomach felt almost overwhelming, but that was nothing to the pain of losing his child.

He took a deep shuddering breath, his eyes again drawn to Danny and Cam playing so happily, so innocently, so completely unaware of the turmoil Jack was going through. Again, he tapped the envelope, traced the edges with his fingers and agonized over whether to open it or to discard it. Shall I open it? Do I want to know? Maybe I’ll just call in a few favors; God knows I am owed a few.

When Cameron’s younger brother, Tom, started the ball rolling a few months before, seeking custody of his late brother’s child, Jack had felt more annoyed than worried. After all, he had been granted legal custody of both Cameron Mitchell and Daniel Jackson, so what did the man think he was doing? But, the disquiet he felt had grown stronger, and the advice he received more and more alarming. Cam’s brother had a legal claim, and the annoyance he’d initially felt at the priggish letter had turned into ice cold fear. He knew if he opened the official envelope then there would be no going back for any of them.

“Can’t do it.” Again, Jack placed the envelope down on the table and looked outside. Summer had produced another spectacular day, and the boys were play fighting with swords made from bits and pieces dragged out from his shed and painted bright blue. The old lemon tree was harboring a dragon of monumental meanness it seemed, and from the shouted bravado, Jack figured only the brave and daring O’Neill brothers could defeat it. The first real smile of the day tugged at his lips before disappearing into a frown. There was no reason to smile, nothing to be happy about that morning, and the stress he felt caused his headache to raise a notch.

That morning, the children had no idea what had caused their father’s moodiness, but sensing trouble, had run outside as soon as allowed. Jack had been pleased to see them disappear; his temper was worn and hung by a thread. Whooping and hollering, they leapt around, capes fluttering in the warm breeze, their faces bright with childish energy. Just the thought of losing those two boys playing so happily in the yard was causing Jack physical pain and he knew he couldn’t do it, could never let them go. Some things, he decided, were just unable to be borne.

The sounds of a high pitched giggles broke his concentration and his eyes were drawn back to Daniel. Memories rose and refused to be quelled. The images of the somber young man he’d met on Abydos surprised him with their intensity, and took his breath away. A smile slowly crept across his face as he thought of his team mate’s gentle wit; his understated determination to succeed, making him a surprising ally, and eventually a surprisingly wanted friend. “Ah, Space Monkey, what to do, huh?” Staring into space, Jack felt time roll by fast in his mind, like an out of control filofax, flicking from one event to another, until the memory of Sha'uri lying in the SGC mortuary made him cringe. “Damn it!” And as he closed his eyes, he swore he heard soft weeping carry mournfully on the summer breeze. The Abydonian girl’s death, and the way she’d been killed, by whose hand, had been a terrible time, and after the smoke had cleared, Jack had sworn to himself that he’d protect Daniel from ever being hurt so badly again. Of course, that hadn’t been possible, but when SG-1’s survey to P3R-5X2 had hijacked both his and Colonel Mitchell’s lives, Jack hurried to make good his word. Every time he thought about it, he struggled to comprehend the enormity of it all.

The Goa’uld trap so cleverly sprung had meant that Doctor Daniel Jackson and Colonel Cameron Mitchell had returned alive, but as boys of no more than five years of age. It hadn’t taken O’Neill long to see they needed a father more than a friend, and so that was what he became. Jack struggled though. He grieved for Daniel almost as much as if he had died on P3R-5X2, and the feeling of loss made the pain of losing Charlie reignite in all its horrible glory. Unable to sleep, he worried about showing disloyalty to his late son’s memory. Could be take the kids? Would he ever be able to love them as much as he’d loved Charlie? Thoughts and memories tormented him, and as much as he tried, Jack still despaired. But, finally, early one morning, he woke, knowing he’d finally figured it out. He would never substitute one child’s memory for another. Nothing could take away the joy Jack had felt moments after Charlie’s birth - that squirming, helpless scrap of humanity that reduced the tough soldier to tears. The videotapes of Charlie’s first birthday, the shots of the determined child wobbling his first steps towards the ice cream cake were forever etched in his memory. Then there were the other memories, some not quite so welcomed. Rushing Charlie to hospital in a heart-crushing panic when whooping cough made his temperature soar, and made him sound like he’d never be able to catch his breath. Memories of the little boy with his brand new bike complete with the sturdy little training wheels, and then the same bike with them removed. This all played like an old, grainy, black and white movie in his mind. Daniel was wanted and loved, but never at the expense of memories of old.

Jack’s eyes moved to his other child, and a tiny smile crept across his face. Then there was Cameron. With a snort, Jack watched heart in his mouth, as Cammie hung upside down swinging back and forth.  As always, the child placed himself in a precarious situation, but Jack now understood it was in his nature to push the boundaries. It’s what made Cameron …Cameron. Still, it didn’t mean he had to like it and he opened the screen door and yelled his first and hopefully last warning.

“Cameron! For the love of God! Stop swinging upside down! I mean it, come on down! Carefully! Come down carefully!” Jack muttered under his breath and took a step forward, ready to bolt down the back steps to catch his wayward child. “Kid drives me nuts!”

“Whoaaaa!! All my blood has rushed to my head!” Cameron called out cheerfully, oblivious to his father’s stress levels shooting through the roof.

“Cameron! So help me…” The parental request was repeated more forcefully, and Jack watched as Cam scampered over the brightly colored play gym before jumping onto solid ground again. He wore with a wide smile of triumph, his freckled face was alight with mischief.

“Hey, Daddy! My blood’s all back again!”

Cameron confirmed this bold statement by tumbling across the grass several times, energy, joy, and enthusiasm bursting from his every athletic movement. His method of command had been the same, impetuous and daring, and Jack knew Cam would never change. When Carter had explained what had happened on P3R-5X2, she reported Danny had desperately tried to drag Cam out of the light’s arc. Jack had burned with fury, convincing himself that the unpredictable Colonel Mitchell had been somehow responsible, but, deep down, he knew it wasn’t true. He understood the necessity of getting past the need to point fingers and apportion blame, because what good would his anger do? Make Daniel a man again? Turn Cam back into the hot shot pilot he’d been? No, the time for recriminations had long passed.

“That’s good news! Best you see that it stays that way!”

“I’m like Cap’n Invincible aren’t I? Can’t get rid of me, can ya, Dad?!”

Jack closed his eyes, and wincing, felt his breath catch in his chest. He felt suddenly stricken and lost for words. There were so many questions he’d never have the answers for. Cameron was still somewhat of an enigma to him, and he admitted that he just didn’t know enough about the little boy from Kansas. For instance, did Cammie prefer the sweeping corn fields of the farm to the neatness of a suburban backyard? The Colorado Springs local pool to the swimming holes of Kansas? Or, Jack winced, his face crinkling with worry; had he loved Frank more than him? The thought was petty, and intellectually, he got that, but part of him needed to know. The insecure part of Jack O’Neill he couldn’t always control.

But, none of that mattered now. Now, all their happiness was being threatened, and he needed to come out of retirement to slay another dragon. He didn’t want to, he just wanted things to remain exactly as they were. O’Neill figured that he’d done enough to deserve his peace.

Not that having the kids move in with him had been all plain sailing, because it hadn’t been. Not by a long shot. He was a fifty plus bachelor, more a grandfather’s age than a father’s, and he often felt so weary, he could barely drag himself into bed. The chickenpox, the broken arms, the school notes demanding his immediate parental attention took their toll, and he welcomed the help from another interested party. Sara had taken tentative steps back into his life, and the burden of raising the children had been shared with both the laughter and the companionship he craved. Life had been so good, and now he cursed himself for his complacency. Things were never meant to be easy for men like Jack O’Neill.

Staring into empty space, Jack heard the quiet footsteps pad behind him.

“It came,” Sara said. The shopping bags she held fell to the floor and tipped over, Jack watched as oranges and tomatoes rolled across the floor. He blinked as she pulled up a chair, ignoring the groceries, and tugged at his arm. “Sit, before you fall over.”

“I can’t, if I sit I might never get up again.”

Her eyes widened. “You haven’t opened it yet?”

“Nope.” Jack said.

Sara sat on the chair and chewed at her lip. It seemed she could scarcely catch her breath. “Oh.”

Eventually, Jack looked down at her and shrugged. His voice wavered as he walked to the back door and looked out into his garden for the tenth time that morning. “I’ve been thinking--watching the little fartdusters destroying my only living fruit tree and…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. Not without crying, and that wasn’t an option.

Sara stood, and taking the envelope in her hands, walked over to the man she had known for more than half her life. The man whose child she had borne and had then been forced to bury. “Jack, honey, don’t do this to yourself. Whatever happens, we will deal with it.” Her voice sounded so calm, so sure to Jack, he turned around. Hope flickered in his eyes, and then died while his expression turned hard. Black Jack, suspicious and mean, forced his way to the surface once more, and he came out swinging.

Like a predator, he hid his intent behind a dangerous smirk, enjoying the look of alarm in her eyes. “That a fact, Sara? Like we did before? Remember? When Charlie died?” Emotions, memories all clouded his vision the need to hurt someone as much as he’d been hurt shocked him, and he took a step forward, hands out. “God, I’m sorry, Sara.” The dangerous man of old disappeared as quickly as he appeared. He had come a long way, and learnt the hard way, loneliness: was a one way street to nowhere.

As he moved forward she moved back, and the look of betrayal on her face hurt him again. A tear rolled down her cheek to show him how much his words had wounded her, and he cringed at her cry. “Jack…not again! Do NOT push me away again.”

He lowered his head a fraction, shame and humiliation burning in his face. “Even if…Well, I still wouldn’t have changed a moment of it.” He could feel her near him once more, and kept his eyes fixed on the lemon tree, as though it could offer a piece of advice that would solve it all. He bit back the urge to scream, to punch a hole in the door, anything but stand helplessly by while his life unravelled. “I can’t bear the thought of losing you as well.”

“Read it, Jack.” She held out her hand. “Let’s see what cards we have to play with first.”

He looked at the letter in her hand, then taking it, walked over to the table, all but falling into his chair. With trembling fingers, he opened the envelope, slowly making sure the contents weren’t torn. Clearing his throat, he read out the first line. His eyes searching for more, he raced ahead, not caring that he missed more words than he read. It didn’t matter.

Jack, I have thought long and hard about Cam Jr. Dad tells me how happy he is with his new brother, and what a great dad you are, but

He read the letter out loud and sighed as Sara wrapped her arms around his neck, squeezing him gently. Her warm tears tickled him, and blinking slowly, he pushed back and pulled her onto his lap. Holding her tightly, he rocked back and forth, saying nothing, but needing the warmth, the connection to her more than he had ever needed anything. The fear of losing his family, not once but twice, had been paralyzing, and he couldn’t seem to make his heart beat slower.

“He says his nephew is better off with him, but that Daniel and I can be included in Cammie’s life.” He saw the direction of her glance, and then shrugged ruefully as she turned from the playing children and back to the letter.

“Oh, no!” The pain in Sara’s voice echoed the pain in his heart. “So, what if he demands to see the DNA results?” she asked quietly.

Jack shifted, and as he patted her leg, she stood, allowing him to struggle to his feet.  “Well, that can’t be allowed to happen, can it?” He pulled in a deep breath, taking in the scent of her hair. Could a woman’s hair have its own scent? He swore Sara’s did. He shook the random thought from his head, and closed his eyes to block out her image. Now wasn’t the time for wanting her.  

Sara paced back and forth beside the table and checked her watch before making her announcement. “It’s time for the boys’ snack, so why don’t I make them a sandwich while you make a call. Jack, we are not losing Cammie to the Mitchells! Get the clearance needed, and make tracks! We need to make this family understand why Cam needs to be with you…us.”

Clapping her hands together, she walked to the door and called out. Turning and looking over her shoulder, she whispered, “Look at them! They are brothers now!”

His ears vaguely registered her voice, his thoughts now a mile away. A realist, Jack knew the likelihood of Tom’s attorney’s assuring him Tom would win. That couldn’t be allowed to happen though, and burying them in a ton of paperwork was tempting. The Mitchells didn’t deserve anymore grief, and Jack O’Neill was nothing if not an honorable man, but things were spinning out of control. And now, whether it was honorable or not, the past needed to be …rewritten.

OoO

A hawk swooped elegantly into the fields, and tracking its descent, Tom shuddered. Life on a farm was fleeting and he figured the hunted creature was gone. In a blink of an eye, its life extinguished while everything around it went on as normal. Sun still shone, breeze still blew, and Tom still breathed. Albeit shakily.

Get a grip, Mitchell!” he scolded himself silently, “crying over vermin?” He forced himself to take a deep breath, unsure what he felt. Kansas? God, he was back at the family farm, sitting at the same picnic table he had twenty years previously, drinking ice cold cider and toying with his flapjacks. He didn’t want the food and felt ten years old again. Chewing at a tooth pick in subtle avoidance, he obediently answered his mom’s questions about nothing and everything, and pondered how it was that nothing had really changed. All this pretty family picture needed was for Cam to stalk around the corner, ball tucked under his arm, demanding to know if there was there any food left. With a stab of envy, he thought, Yep, it was always about you, Cameron, wasn’t it? Guess nothing has changed, except now it’s your kid we’re obsessing over.

Tom narrowed his eyes, his temper close to exploding. “Mom, stop fussing! We ate on the plane.” He then threw his head back in a jaw-breaking yawn, and smacked his lips together, the honey from the flapjacks sticky and cloying. The long trip from London left him feeling seedy, and glancing at his watch, he groaned at the thought of making the thirty mile drive needed to sign more papers for Cam Jr’s adoption. He knew he was too tired to risk navigating the treacherous dirt roads, and while watching his mom fuss, impatiently interrupted her. “Mom! Please!” The very thought of asking for his parents’ help made him furious, and brooding, his handsome face grew dark with temper. “Just leave the plates for pity’s sake.”

“Tom!” his father growled, “Best you mind your manners.”

Lurching to his feet, cursing softly as the back of his flip flop caught the chair Tom’s apology sounded over-loud to his ear. He knew it wasn’t beneath his father to box his ears, and made a half hearted attempt to restore the peace. Nerves made him boom in times of stress and it annoyed him thinking that Cam would have kept his overwhelming coolness, teasing his father into laughing. His male pride stung, he smiled sweetly at his mother, ignoring his father’s presence, just as he’d done all his life. “Sorry, Mom, guess I’m tired and cranky. Hey, I’m meeting the attorney after lunch and I want to make sure I’m on time. Bum a lift?”

Wendy nodded her head, but staring back at her son, said nothing. Whatever she felt about him being there wasn’t shared, and Tom felt mildly irritated with her. This trip had cost him a fortune and the least she could do was pretend to be slightly grateful. But he knew Wendy Mitchell kept her own counsel, and that was that. His father looked up, and draining his cider, glanced over at his wife in silent concern. Tom’s temper rose at the implied rebuke. “I’m just tired is all!”

On the long flight from London back to Kansas, he had sat next to his new wife and said little, taken up with his own thoughts. Occasionally, he glanced over and taking her hand, squeezed it gently. He couldn’t risk opening up to her and explaining why his head pounded and some things were best forgotten. His eyes dropped to the pink fullness of her lips, and with a tremble of desire, he reached across, his breath hot against her cheek. “Have I told you how much I love you? Perks of flying business class are that we get left alone!”

“That a fact? Good thing I married a rich man then, isn’t it?” Fran smiled, but pressing her hand into his chest, made sure he stayed where he belonged.

He got the message, and half-heartedly sulking, listened to music instead. Not his kind of music but the classical type Fran adored. The irony of being lulled into a sense of peace wasn’t lost on him, but he was afraid if he thought too deeply, he might just lose his nerve and run back to the anonymous streets of London. Back to where Tom Mitchell was a successful merchant banker and nothing more. Certainly not a brother whose casually orchestrated betrayal had driven a wedge between him and Cam forever. But, he’d been young and foolish, and jealousy of Cam’s easy charms had made him a fool. Now, decades later, he could put that right, he could love Cam’s child as his own. Then, maybe, the ice in his belly would stop churning.

OoO

The day was going to be hot, it was just after eleven am and the sun’s rays were already agonizingly bright. Wendy Mitchell scrunched her eyes against the sun shining directly through the windscreen. “Can you change the station, honey? I can’t concentrate with that noise.” Tom Mitchell and his mother were a few miles from town, and the awkwardness they felt seemed to increase the closer they got. Wendy never understood what drove her complicated youngest son to do the things he did, and in the corner of her mind, she knew that taking Cameron back to London was wrong. She’d met Jack O’Neill, she met Daniel, and she had been content to allow her mysterious grandchild to remain just that… a mystery. The Official Secrets Act she’d signed had been so unbelievable, she wondered if she’d dreamed it. But, she hadn’t, and Cameron was no more her grandson than he was Tom’s nephew. Jack O’Neill was a hard man, but he could keep him safe from the people that would harm him, and that was something she and Frank could never do. It had been an obvious choice and one she’d come to terms with, until Tommy started to poke at a hornets’ nest like he always did. Cam was okay where he was, and she just needed to keep reminding herself of that.

Deep in her heart, she’d been proud of herself. The way she’d accepted her child needing to be reared by a stranger from Colorado. So, why had she spent all last week tidying and cleaning Cam’s old room? Polishing his trophies and reading his old year books. She couldn’t talk to Frank about her feelings: the old soldier in him had made that promise to the general, and his word was his bond. She had no such predilection though, and figured she owed Jack O’Neill squat. Did he spend forty hours in labour to bring Cam into the world? Did he sit by his bed for days, refusing to leave, while he lay so badly injured after his accident? No, he and his lot just got her baby boy half killed and turned back into a boy. Her boy…her Cammie.

Glancing over at her youngest son, Wendy sighed softly, these self-absorbed thoughts weren’t like her, but, certainly like Tommy. “Do you want to talk?” she said at last, her knuckles clenched on the steering wheel. Hearing no reply, she threw Tom a concerned glance. “Honey?”

She shrugged when he didn’t answer her straightaway. Some things, she figured, didn’t bear talking about, no matter who was doing the asking

“Nope, not really, Mom. Better watch the road though, don’t want to miss the appointment because you drove into a ditch!” He smiled at her, and blinking slowly, gazed at the cornfields dancing in the warm breeze before adding softly. “It’s going to be fine, trust me, Cam Jr. will love London, and Fran and I will make up for everything.”

“Make up? Make up for what exactly?” Her hands grabbed the steering wheel tighter, her voice taking on a sharp tone. “What exactly do you mean, make up for everything?”

She pulled off into the car park and switched off the engine, glancing at her son shrewdly. “Why are you home, Thomas? The truth now!”

OoO

Frances Mitchell was what used to be called, a real looker. A redhead with the brilliance that could never be captured by a bottle of dye, and perfectly shaped brows. Her eyes were enormous, the color of sapphires, and when she smiled, she dimpled prettily. Frances Mitchell knew she could stop traffic, and Frank didn’t like her one little bit.

The day was already a scorcher, and as beads of sweat trickled down his back, he thought carefully. A shrewd man possessing an excellent judgement of character, he wondered what his youngest son could see in the vacuous Frances. Tall, slim to being close to underweight, the young woman had as much substance as a flat can of pop. Or so he thought. Fran Mitchell was nothing like she appeared, and he learned that the careful façade of vanity enabled her to be the watcher more than the watched.

“So, Frannie how did you met up with my boy?” Frank asked casually.

Fran smiled. “Oh, friend of a friend, you know how it is.” With a graceful movement, Fran stood declaring she needed another coffee. “Be right back, Frank, don’t run away will you?”

Frank arched an eyebrow and watched her sashay away. “Touche! That put me in my place, didn’t it, Miz Frances Mitchell.” Annoyance crept into his voice, and lowering his eyes, he looked at the stumps of his legs and slammed his fist onto the table. Once upon a time, those legs were whole, and he had been whole. Now, he was an aging cripple and old before his time. He’d lost one son and the other had always been lost to him. Tommy had been so young when Frank had his accident, and the years of therapy and adjustment turned the snub-nosed little boy into a stranger. Tom had been frightened of his father’s disability, and when he called him close, he see him hiding behind his mother’s back, refusing to talk.

Frank remembered the frustration he’d felt at the strange little boy blinking at him with fear-filled eyes, and to his regret, he’d been pleased when Wendy had taken him away. Cammie was his backbone, and the bond they shared was rock hard. Tom was a spoilt child whose odd ways annoyed him, and Frank needed to focus on himself. It wasn’t selfish, it was survival, and all fighter pilots were born with a will to succeed.

Tom was born to be a banker.

Cam was born to rule the sky.

When he’d got the telegram that Cam had perished in a *classified* accident, Frank clutched the paper to his chest, and wanted to die. His pain overwhelmed him, but that had been nothing to the pain he felt when he heard his wife weeping that night. A dark cloud of misery hung over their farm, refusing to shift, and he truly wondered if this would be the final straw. Then, one day, a man called Jack O’Neill came calling with his two small sons. Daniel and Cameron…his Cameron. It was a lot to ask a man to believe, but General O’Neill had been calm and solid, and in his heart, Frank knew it was the truth. His crazy, impetuous, brave son had been the elite of the elite, and travelling to other worlds, had fallen foul to a terrible trick. The enemy no one knew existed, the Goa’uld, had laid a trap so cunning, so devastating that it was mind blowing in its complexity. His six foot plus strapping young man morphed into a small boy, and needed to grow up once more.

Question was with whom? Jack and he were the same age, give or take, and both were canny, financially secure men. Jack had one advantage; he had two legs and had connections in the seedy word of black ops and silent men. Frank had a wheelchair, and was on the local council. Jack could protect his son against the shadowy forces of his Uncle Sam, while Frank could barely shoo the crows away from the crops. It hadn’t been a hard choice, but that didn’t mean it had been easy. Frank had never felt so impotent in his life, and when Cam had thrown his arms around O’Neill’s waist and called him daddy, Frank knew he was capable of murder.

He had no choice but to shelve such feelings and learn to cope with what cards he had been dealt. His son was alive, but… he wasn’t his anymore. Tough lesson for a man to have to learn. Then, one day, Tom called out of the blue and said he and his new wife wanted to take Cam Jr. to live with them. Frank had struggled with the crackly connection, but heard enough to be appalled. New wife? He hadn’t even known there was a new girlfriend, and what gave Tom the right to take Cameron anyway? He hadn’t even flown home for the mock funeral organized by the Air Force, citing the global crisis and mysterious budgets needing fine tuning. Hearing a phoney British accent, Frank had gritted his teeth as Tom alluded to how important he was now, and how hard it would be to leave London. He did however send expensive flowers. Wendy gave them to the church.

Then, Tom and Frances were suddenly at his front door, annoying the crap out of him with their pretentious ways. Tom’s new accent, new wife, and new family seemed somehow contrived to Frank, but no amount of persuasion could stop him from filing those papers. Tommy wanted to adopt his nephew, and with a heavy heart, Frank waited for the inevitable. Jack O’Neill didn’t strike him as a man to give up easily, and Tom Mitchell would have the fight of his life on his hands. He wondered if his spoilt son was up to the challenge, and secretly hoped that another ‘money crisis’ would send them home again. Frank simmered silently as his son and daughter-in-law waltzed into his home, air kissed Frank and Wendy, while dumping expensive luggage by the door.

Perhaps it was Frank’s insistence on calling Fran by her full name that made Wendy warm to her, and she shooed her cranky husband away. Bringing out her carefully planned morning tea, they all tried hard to connect; trouble was with Tommy, half the jigsaw pieces were always conveniently missing. Tom never brought much to the table but always took as much as he wanted. It was a habit his father had tried to break as a little boy, but Tom hadn’t wanted to learn it, refusing to understand why he needed to.

A tingle of apprehension swept over Frank as he watched Wendy drive the truck away, losing sight of it in the choking dust. If Tom was back, it was because he wanted something, and for the life of him, he couldn’t believe it was really that small six-year-old boy he mistakenly considered his nephew. His new daughter in law had sat herself opposite him, filing blood red nails, her alabaster face hidden behind a giant sun hat. She looked and sounded like a movie star and Frank had nothing to say to her. Fran didn’t appear to like the farm, America, or them. What was there to say? But, as Wendy had fumbled with her keys, she’d begged him to make Frannie feel welcome and he’d do just about anything for his honey haired wife.

His daughter-in-law settled back under the umbrella. “Now, what were we talking about?”

“Where you’d hooked up with a farm boy from Kansas? Why the trip back here to collect a child you’ve never even met?”

She looked up and pushing her sunglasses down her nose gave her father-in-law a careful look. She took a sip of her frothy coffee just as her cellphone beeped into action. She had a message and her smile lit up her face with pleasure.

“Thank God! Overseas roaming actually works out here! Frank, I have to reply to this, okay?” If she noticed the look of bewilderment on his face she didn’t react to it. “So, I’ll see you when Thomas gets back? Okay?” Pushing her chair out, leaving her plate, her mug, and her napkins behind, Frances Mitchell looked at the cell, and pressing a few buttons, chatted into her cell, laughing and waving her manicured hand in the air.

He wanted to respond that no, it wasn’t okay, and that she was a rude little miss that needed her backside paddled. But, he shrugged, calling Cameron’s old collie dog over for company.

“Jasper, heel! Seems we have a mess ofpolly waddle doodle all day to discuss here.”

Jasper barked in agreement, wagging his tail, and limped slowly over.

OoO

Sara stretched out her long arms and grimaced as her spine complained. “Ouch! I am too old for burning the candle at both ends!” The previous day had been one shocking revelation after the other, and avoiding the mirror in her compact by squinting, she figured she probably looked all her fifty years. Hello, Methuselah, how’s it doing?

She snapped the compact shut in disgust, and glancing over at Jack, sucked in her lower lip. He was miles away, and the hurt he tried to keep from her made her love the complicated man of old. The divorce from him eight years ago had knocked her about. They’d gone through something no parent should have to, but somewhere in her heart she had always hoped they could smooth things over like they used to be able to. So, when he told her he’d signed the papers at long last it had come as a total shock, and devastated her.

She’d survived, but the sadness and loneliness had taken its toll. She’d felt suddenly old and bereft of hope, and more…She had felt abandoned-like one of Jack’s trouts kindly released back into the water. Gradually, and with expensive therapy, she got used to hearing herself called Ms O’Neill, and after attending night school became a successful editor. She’d done okay, learning to appreciate the small things in life once more. Her garden, her friends, her hapless writers, all became important to her, but she wasn’t really fooled. She missed Jack- she missed them.

Then, suddenly, everything changed-and much to her surprise, for the better. A phone call inviting her for brunch to meet his kids floored her, and she felt a stab of pain so intense she forgot to breath. Kids? He had another family? What about the old one? What about her and Charlie? But there was no her, and there sure as eggs wasn’t any Charlie. Nothing had been further from her mind than starting up a relationship with her ex-husband and his new kids, but curiosity won, and she went. After a tentative start, she became hopelessly caught up with the O’Neill boys, and she allowed herself a spark of hope. One day she found herself punching in Jack’s cell number, followed by the school’s number, various SGC personnel, and before she knew it, she was involved. Now, some man from another country threatened their happiness and Sarah was grimly putting up her dukes.

Plans needed to be made, tactics fine-tuned, a military procedure in other words. She’d stayed the night, and after draining the last of the coffee, they made their final decision. If they were going to persuade Tom Mitchell to drop his suit then it needed to be done man to man. No other way seemed right. While the fact that he had a claim to Cammie wasn’t up for debate, the morality of it was. To drag the little boy away from the only family he remembered was fraught with danger, and Jack had a ton of paperwork to back him up. But that ton of psychological mumbo-jumbo could cause unbearable stress to his child, and that couldn’t be allowed to happen. Besides, the dark suited men could catch planes easily, and that meant Cam would never be safe.

Sara glanced at her watch and ran her furry tongue across her teeth. She needed to freshen up and made a move to leave. She leaned forward and kissed Jack’s cheek, feeling the bristly grey stubble scratch her face. Some things never changed she thought.

“I have to go.”

“Yep, I know.”

“Call me the moment you get there, promise? If you need me I’ll be there! Jack, I will always be there for you and the boys.” Sara’s eyes clouded over with tears and she wanted nothing more to sit down and howl.

“I know.” Jack put out his hand and caught her arm, pulling her into a rough embrace. “Be there for me -for us-and we can make it.”

Sara said nothing. She didn’t know what to say, losing Cameron would be a body blow for Jack, and she feared what that might do. She felt a sudden pang of anxiety. Perhaps she was expecting too much- perhaps she should be preparing Jack for the inevitable. Perhaps…perhaps…perhaps.

 

OoO

Pt 4.

Jack gave a resigned sigh, and stuffed the remains of the gooey candy bar into his mouth. Bleary eyed and tired, he wished he hadn’t talked quite so long into the night, but needing Sara’s opinion, he’d drunk a gallon coffee, trying to appear calm and in total control. Sara may have been fooled but he’d never felt either. The alternative to this appearance of coolness had been screaming blue murder while throwing his fist through the wall but what would that have achieved? A broken hand, frightened kids, and an ex-wife’s disapproval. Still, he had been very tempted.

Listening to Sara prattle on, he knew he needed more; he needed first hand intel about his rival. He needed Carter. Ignoring Sara’s small, distressed sound, he called Sam a little after three am, barely acknowledging her yawning answer. The time to play nicely had officially passed and now he wanted facts. That bastard wasn’t getting his kid. End of story.

Jack growled his first question. “Carter, what do we know about Tom Mitchell?” He knew he could rely on her smarts, and more, he found himself craving familiarity. He wanted his 2IC back and he hadn’t been disappointed. Sam’s voice went from a yawning surprise to business-like in the blink of an eye. Carter knew how to think on her feet while Sara thought with her heart.

“Sir? Well, we all knew Cam had a brother, but to be honest, we didn’t know that much about him. General Landry found out he was a London based banker and hadn’t been home for twenty years. I figured they’d had a falling out.”

His face grim, Jack could almost hear her thinking, recalling anything that may help. “It’s hard to tell, Cam was always kinda private about his home life.” She didn’t need to add, a lot like you were.

“Send me what you have, tell Landry this is national security, the brother wants Cammie.”

“Give me a few hours, sir, I’ll have it on your desk ASAP.”

Jack nodded; confident Carter would happily kick down the gates of hell for his kids. One down, two to go. Next, Teal’c and Vala needed to search their memories for any clues of Cam’s former life. Tom had been off the radar for too long, but he still didn’t want to bring in the suits if there was an alternative. Frank and Wendy were Cam’s folks and deserved his protection, but there was only so much he could do.

The new day had dawned. Sara had left, Sam had dropped off a ton of paperwork, and deciding to take the kids, Jack was ready to roll. Tom and Frances Mitchell appeared to be far better connected than he’d first thought, and the use of the old attorney in Kansas a front. Behind the scenes, Tom had brought in expensive sharks, and Jack could sense they  were circling for his blood. On the radio Bobby McFerrin sang ‘Don’t worry, be happy and Jack wanted to cry out with the injustice of it all. 

He looked at the overloaded four door pick up, and resisted the urge to hit his forehead against the hood. Given strict instructions to pack lightly, Dan and Cam had considered everything in their room to be a must bring treasure, and distracted, Jack hadn’t paid the necessary attention. A tactical mistake on his part, and the pickup was seriously overloaded. “Flippers? Goggles? Ski masks? Fer cryin’out loud!”  He dragged across two crates, one for the trip and the other for the discarded treasures. The entire collection of Alvin and the Chipmunk’s DVDs were the first to go, followed by the Celine Dion CDs.

The road trip to Kansas should have only taken eight hours, if not for one small yet oh so significant factor…Daniel and Cameron. Two kids who needed to pee, eat, drink, and then pee again every ten miles or so. The last trip had taken almost twenty four hours, and the memory of the off key singing, whining, and burping contests still made his eye tic. These kids should come with warnings duct taped to their foreheads… Do not feed, water, or take your eyes off them for a second.

Even the thought of spending time with his kids couldn’t mask his feelings of trepidation, and he silently cursed the reason he needed to haul them across state lines. Twelve months had passed since he’d last made the trip to Kansas, and this one promised to be every bit as difficult. Gazing into space he remembered how terrified he’d been to meet the Mitchells, just in case they saw through him and knew he was a fraud. All they had to do was look into his soul and see the guilt he carried. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he closed his eyes and transported himself back in time…just at the edge of the farm’s enormous circular driveway.

OoO

There’s a moment in time- just for a heartbeat- when you second guess yourself.  Jack had such a moment as he stood, watching the dust cloud rise in the air. He hoped this would be a good idea because if it wasn’t, it was a mighty long drive back to Colorado Springs.

Backside resting against the truck, hand shading his eyes, Jack tracked the cloud of dust as it mushroomed into the air. Finally making out the late model pickup his heart beat a tiny bit faster and he muttered, “Nice drive.” The sounds of impatient voices broke his concentration, and throwing a glance over his shoulder, he smiled before turning back to watch the advancing vehicle. He knew he hadn’t been paying attention to the boys, but he figured they wanted to get out, stretch their legs, and see the farm. Couldn’t blame them, they had been stuck in their seats for close on twenty four hours, give or take.

“Won’t be long now, here comes company, so best behaviour, okay?”

“Awww,” they chorused in unison.

He winked, and waggled his fingers before pressing an aching hand to his chest. Jack was terrified, but he used all his will to remain calm, telling himself that he had nothing to prove. The truck skittered to a halt, and while Wendy Mitchell and Jack studied each other from the safety of the windscreen, Frank Mitchell grunted as he pushed open the pickup’s door. Shifting his body back and forth, he finally lifted out what remained of his legs, eyes silently seeking out his wife as she jumped from the truck to unload his crutches.

“Frank? Wendy? Thanks for meeting us.” Jack pushed off the truck and ignoring the squawks from Daniel and Cameron, made his way over.

“You’re welcome!” Wendy beamed friendlissness but the smiles didn’t reach her eyes. Jack saw she was every bit as frightened as he was, but Frank was calm and collected. If he was nervous, he played his cards close to his chest.

Meeting Frank Mitchell face to face had been a lot harder than Jack had imagined it would be. Guilt and sorrow mingled in his chest and, unable to sleep properly for days, deep lines of tiredness lined his face. Jack needed the other man’s acceptance more than he’d expected, and he offered his hand in tentative camaraderie.

“Nice to meet you, Frank.”

“Just wish it could be under different circumstances, Jack. My kid in your truck then?”

Wendy choked, and as her hand flew to her throat, she mumbled her apologies and climbed back into their own vehicle. Jack grimaced as she swiped at her eyes before shifting gears with a teeth grinding crunch, and lurched away.

Jack watched the dust billow behind the truck, and slowly turned to look at Cameron’s father. Irritation made his tone sharp, but seeing Wendy’s distress at the casual comment annoyed him. He narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice. “I lost my own son, Frank. I do get this.”

Frank eyed the outstretched hand and Jack instinctively knew that he’d made the decision to accept what couldn’t be changed.

“That a fact?”

With a nod, Jack, stubbornly waggling his fingers, refused to allow the connection to break. Two could play this game and Jack was a very good player. “Frank, I love Cammie, I will always keep him safe.”

The hands intertwined. “Cameron, his name is Cameron. O’Neill, I’ll say this once… You had better.”

They said no more, and seeing a grimace of pain distort the other man’s face, Jack took an unconscious step backwards. Frank’s eyes strayed over to the cornfields, and shifting his crutches, suddenly urged him to follow. “Let’s go back to the house, Wendy will… fuss.”

Jack nodded his head agreeably but wondered what he’d really had wanted to say before losing the nerve to do so.

“Your truck got room for another? Like to see the boy if that’s okay.”

“Yup, Dan and Cam are waiting to meet you.” Jack walked over to the side door and opened it while taking the crutches in the other hand. “Kids, this is Mr Mitchell.”

The boys smiled and then glancing at each other fell oddly silent. Cam chewed at his bottom lip while Dan’s thumb strayed into his mouth. As they gazed out of the window, Jack knew both were lost in their thoughts.

Making small talk had been excruciating, and Jack had been relieved to see Wendy sitting on the porch podding peas when they arrived. The truck skidded on the loose pebbles, and as she looked up, Jack felt her gaze switch to him. When he returned the look, she lifted her chin, and forced another over-bright smile onto her face, “Come on inside, it’s so hot out here!” she said as they climbed out of the truck.

He wasn’t fooled and he realized who really held the Mitchell family together. She was a woman of substance and his respect for the mid-west family went up another notch. It was no wonder Cam was the delight he was, he had the great gift of being blessed with impeccable breeding.

Determined to make the most of the visit, Wendy Mitchell had spent the day in high spirits, insisting on cooking flapjacks and gingerbread men, but when Cam asked for her macaroons, the careful façade had slipped. A single tear had rolled down her cheek, her shoulders shook, and for the first time, Jack saw what his trip had cost the Mitchells. Hurrying the wide-eyed boys outside, he knew it was time they left. They had been warmly welcomed but the emotional upheaval had been far too great. Wendy and Frank needed only their memories, and he had made an error of judgement in thinking otherwise. The kids enjoyed themselves though, and the adults pretended to be fine while making small talk and avoiding real eye contact.

OoO

“God, here we go again.” Jack took a deep breath, his lips tightening with unease. Rubbing his eyes before checking the tyres once more, he called out his final warning. He knew he’d procrastinated long enough. “Hey, you little knuckleheads! This train is pulling out in five minutes.” Loading the last of the luggage and sweating under the hot sun, he ran through the long list of things he needed to do. Pets at the kennel...check. Mrs Grabowski enlisted to collect mail...check. SGC duly informed to send an unmarked car past everyday…check. Nervous breakdown…check.

“Okay, Daddy!”

“Yup, comin’”

Dan and Cam whooped their replies as they tumbled out of the front door, arms flying and little feet pounding down the driveway. Haphazardly packed backpacks were always going to slip from small shoulders, and Jack smiled at the looks of blatant outrage crossing their faces. Best friends one minute, he sighed to himself, and sworn enemies the next!

“Fly dork! You shoved me! I am so telling!”

“Did not! Rockdweeb!”

Blinking at the cranky parental reply, the boys shoved everything back where they belonged, faces beaming with over-excitement. The unexpected treat left them dizzy with anticipation, unable to believe that instead of spending their vacation at home, they were off on an adventure. Yelling over each over, best friends once more, they were eager to start the long trip across state. 

Cam’s eyes shone brightly, and jumping from one foot to the other, hands flapping madly in the air, he yelled in his father’s general direction. “Daddy? Betcha that ole fishing hole is so full of fish we’ll never be able to carry them all home!”

“Cam, does it look as though I am standing in the next county?” Jack tapped his excited son’s nose and raised a finger in the air. “Settle down, mister, and no more yelling.”

“Okay, Daddy,” the child cheerfully drawled. “But I’m tellin’ ya, those fish will be bitin’”

Jack smiled at the sight of Cam’s unbridled delight, wondering briefly about the mid-western accent appearing from nowhere. He understood that Cam had little if no memories of his former life, but figured the feelings of inexhaustible joy were still buried deep within. He couldn’t begin to understand what the odd flashes of another time caused his child, but was confident his softly spoken explanation that everyone had hidden memories would do. What other explanation could a six-year-old understand? There were other more pressing issues to consider, like what would the spending of more time with his natural family do to those scattered memories of his? They’d made it out the first time, was it pressing their luck to go back once more? One call and Tom Mitchell and his wife would find their asses back on a plane while men in nondescript suits explained what contravening the Secrecy Act meant. Instead, he smiled at his child, and swung him through the air, enjoying the bubblegum scent of the shampoo he used.

“Well, young Cameron, great little fishing hole, you say? Good thing I packed our rods then!”

“Yup, it’s full of fish, and best of all, it has lotsa big fat bull-frogs! ‘M’mber, Danny? We almost caught one last time we stayed there?”

“I remember you pushed me in and Wendy had to fish me out!” Danny scowled at the memory and narrowed his eyes in warning. “Do it again and I’ll punch you in the nose!”

This was more like it, Jack thought. Squabbling boys he could deal with, long as they remained his squabbling boys. “C’mon, let’s go, time’s a’wastin’”

 

OoO

Pulling into a park outside the attorney’s office, Wendy reached for the door handle, but looked up in surprise as Tom laid a restraining hand on her arm.

“Mom?” Tom’s face reflected the struggle he had to remain calm.

“Darling?”

“Where are you going? The appointment is with me, not you, and the old fart’s office is so damn small you’d be in the way. Stay here, or better yet, why not go and find a café or something.”

“Excuse me? I’d be in the way? Thomas, I have lived here all my life, I would know if there was a café!” she bristled.

Tom’s face flushed as he took off his sunglasses, shrugging casually. “Mom! C’mon! You know I didn’t mean it how it sounded! I just meant …find something more interesting to do!” Looking up as a gray-haired woman waved, his smiled slipped, and fumbling, he shoved his sunglasses back onto his face. With a tight smile, he leaned back into the pickup whispering, “I love you, Mom. You’re the only one I could ever count on!”

Watching her youngest son lope down the street, Wendy felt a sadness she couldn’t explain, and put a thumb to her eye, brushing aside a tear. It wouldn’t do for the townfolk to see her youngest son rushing into the attorney’s office while she sat in the car crying. While she never much cared for what others thought, she wasn’t inclined to put on a show for the evening’s entertainment. Jumping out of the pickup, waiting for the soft beep of the alarm to sound, she waved back at the woman Tom had seen, calling out a soft greeting.

“Emmy!”

“Hello, Wendy, I see Tommy is back. Why is that?”

Wendy took a deep breath. Emma-Marie Wilson had done it tough. Suffering a breakdown after her daughter had drowned in her final year of school, she returned from the hospital a shell of the vibrant woman she’d been. Most of the town folk avoided her now, her sadness grating on their collective nerves… but never on Wendy’s. When Cam had been supposedly killed in action, Emmy had been the first one at the Mitchell’s front door, her soulful eyes telling them she understood. But, things had changed, and Wendy struggled to maintain eye contact. Her grief was a sham while Emma-Marie’s was still so raw.

“Oh, haven’t you heard? Tommy brought his new bride home to meet us! Why, I should have a barbeque supper and introduce Frances, shouldn’t I? Where are my manners?”

Forcing a smile onto her face, Wendy linked arms, and chatted about nothing while her mind raced with other matters. In the back of her memory it occurred to her that Cam had left soon after Alice Wilson’s funeral and that Tom had sported an ugly black eye for days after. Strolling into the diner and ordering coffee and cake, she wondered if she’d be able to choke it down. Warning bells were ringing, and listening to Emmy talk about her daughter, she didn’t understand why.

 

OoO

While Tom and his mom were blinded by different agendas and Fran chatted to people a world away from Kansas; Frank had been left watching and waiting. From the moment Thomas had told him he’d planned to adopt his nephew, he’d waited for the inevitable to happen. Jack O’Neill would never just hand over the child and conveniently disappear, and it hadn’t taken long for the initial contact to be made. Things were happening that he should have put a stop to earlier, but seeing the packages stuffed with kids’ sheets, curtains, and clothes, he couldn’t find the right words to say. He knew that Wendy needed a reality check but he held his tongue. People he loved were going to get themselves very hurt, and he was powerless to help them. He could barely help himself.

His cell rang and Jack’s name flashed impatiently in front of his eyes. He sighed. “Here we go, I guess.”

“Frank? Jack O’Neill. Guess we don’t need to bullshit each other, you know why I’m calling. We should be in Auburn by supper.”

“We? You got the little ones with you?”

“Yup, thought it was for the best.”

“Tom has no idea of the crap storm he’s created, has he?”

“Nope, but trust me, it could blot out the sun.”

“Best you bring Cam and Daniel here to the farm.”

“Be there by sunset.”

Closing the cell with exaggerated care, Frank looked into the distance, as though the swirling dust there would spit out his guests. Feeling Cam’s old collie nudge his arm, he looked down, his eyes suddenly bright with tears. “Going to be one helluva day, Jasper, your master is coming home to us.” He was shaken from his thoughts by Fran as she bounced out the back door, chatting and laughing loudly into her cell. He called her over to get the answers he knew they all needed. Tom was up to something, and he fully intended to find out what before Jack O’Neill arrived to turn their lives upside down.

“Fran, get off that cell, honey, you and me have to talk.” Waving her over and patting at the seat next to him, Frank added sternly, “Now, Frances Mitchell.”

Fran looked up, narrowed her eyes, but a grin touched her lips. “Sure thing, Pops.”

“Enough with the sass, now, sit yourself down here and tell me what my son has in mind. What does he want with a six-year-old child he has never met, and more to the point, why do you want to play mommy? Truth now, my bullshit meter is mighty fine.”

“That’s more like the Frank Mitchell I’d heard all about. This sugary sweet version was making my teeth ache. Okay, heads up, Pops, I want Cam Jr. as much as I want the chicken pox, so you tell me! You tell me why Tommy cries sometimes late at night when he thinks I‘m asleep! You tell me why he can’t mention his brother’s name without wincing! What happen on this farm of yours? I need to know what made Tommy run away.”

“I don’t know, Fran. Seriously, if I did, don’t you think I’d have sorted the boys out?”

“Boys? Frank, reality check here, boy…You have one son now.” Fran stared at Frank, and he knew he’d underestimated the ditsy girl from Glasgow. Thinking she had the mentality of the village idiot had been a grave lapse of judgement, and the intelligence he saw burning in her eyes made him suddenly very nervous. When Jack O’Neill came with the kids, this one would be relentless. She wanted the truth and he figured she’d stop at nothing until she got it. Jack was going to have a fight on his hands after all, not from his son, but from a twenty something starlet called Frances.

“Frances, listen to me very carefully. You are right, things aren’t always what they seem to be, and Cam Jr and his adoptive family are complicated. I can’t tell you the details and you are going to have to trust me. Can you? Can you trust me?”

“Maybe.”

“I promise you that I will do everything I can in my power to help Tommy. He’s a lost soul, and while I don’t really know why, I do know he needs bringing home. Deal? Do we have a deal? I’ll help you get that husband of yours straightened out and you help me persuade him Cam is better where he is?”

Fran leaned back in her chair and stared at Frank with her startlingly clear blue eyes. Chewing at her nail, she finally nodded her agreement. “Deal, Pops. Let’s
talk turkey as you Americans are so fond of saying.”

Chapter 6.

Fran looked around and finding her floppy hat shoved it on her head while talking continuously. She breathlessly told of how confused she was with her husband’s silent moods, and how his despair sometimes frightened her. Frank nodded at what he hoped were the right times, and sighed under his breath. He could see how much she loved his son and he mentally chided himself for misjudging her. His grandmother always preached homilies, one being to never judge a book by its cover, and yet he had done just that.

“Tommy always was a hard one to read, honey.” Even as he said the words, he wanted to take them back. Truth was Tommy sulked until he got his own way.

If Frannie noticed the growing sadness in his eyes, she said nothing, but ticked off on one hand all the times Tom had talked about his brother. Frank winced when she admitted she hadn’t known he existed until the adoption plans came up. Dropping her hand into her lap, emotions apparently spent, she added wistfully, "What makes him clam up when I ask about Cameron?”

“I don’t know, honey.” Reaching out and grabbing her hand in his, Frank squeezed it gently. Taking a deep breath and searching memories he’d rather have forgotten, he said, “Just before Cameron left for--” Before Frank could finish his sentence, the pickup jolted to a stop near the house, and waving his hand, Tom stuck up his thumb up in a victory sign.  He bounded out of the truck, a smile plastered across his face. “Hey! What an ace Mom is! We got back in no time!” Tom winked and jogged around to open the door for Wendy. Holding his hand out, he helped her down before picking her up and whirling her around. “Thanks, Mom! I owe you!”

“Nonsense!” Wendy laughed, batting her son’s hand away while waving to the others. “Hope you had a good talk while we’ve been gone!”

Fran and Frank looked at each other before turning away. The trip to town should have taken longer, so it had been either a success or a waste of time. By the looks of Tom’s elated expression, Frank presumed it to be the former. Now, he was one step closer to thinking Jack O’Neill would allow him to take Cameron to the other side of the world.

With a groan, Frank struggled to his feet, before asking Fran to help with his crutches. As she leant in close, he looked at her carefully, and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Now, keep our chat between us, little girl, we haven’t finished, not by a long shot.”

“Got’cha Pops.” Fran sat herself down, fluffing her hair and smiling widely. She called out to her husband and laughed loudly. “Hey! Well, it’s about time! Thought you’d run away with your highschool sweetheart!”

Tom shrugged, a dark expression appearing then disappearing across his face. Throwing his shoulders back, he smiled brilliantly before whistling to the snoozing old Jasper. Watching as the collie painfully got to his feet, he shook his head, then ignored the dog’s greeting completely. “Shoo, you’re shedding all over my clothes!” With a leer, he swooped down and nuzzled into his wife’s neck, “Ah, this is more like it!” Fran obligingly giggled, spilling her iced tea onto the table.

“Thomas Mitchell! Have ye no shame?”

“Nope, should I?”

Tom grinned at the rueful smile crossing his father’s face, before waggling his eyebrows up and down. “That old coot Mr. Levinson can sure talk up a storm! But we are filing the final paperwork so we can take the kid home to London real soon. Having it filed in Kansas expedites it apparently! Huh! That’ll show the ole general we know how to play the game! So, I am starving! Mom? What’s for supper? Can Fran and I help? Maybe we can have one final celebration dinner before Cam Jr. gets here! I'd better ring Colorado Springs first thing tomorrow, give O'Neill the heads up as you military guys say. What I wouldn't do to see his face!””

And there it was. Frank saw clearly what having Cam meant to Tom. Lowering his eyes, he wondered if his expression gave away the despair he felt with his son’s self absorption. Cammie was just something else Tom had to win, and whether or not it was the best for the boy probably didn’t matter. He took a deep breath and felt Fran’s hand slip over his, a warning squeeze telling him to step carefully.

“Steady on there, son, just because you badgered Leroy into filing, there is still a lot we have to discuss. Cam is settled with Jack and Danny, and you just taking him away to the other side of the world might not be the best for him. Have you given any thought to how he would feel? Kid is barely six-years-old, for pity’s sake”.

Tom growled deep in his throat. “Dad, there is nothing to discuss! He’s a Mitchell! You and Mom can’t have him, I mean, look at you!” Tom’s face hardened and the spoilt, unpleasant child of old surfaced, and Frank wondered if he planned on stamping his feet. “Cameron is better of with Frannie and me, end of story!”

“That a fact, young man?” Frank struggled to his feet, wanting nothing more than to box his son’s ears and send him to his bed.

Fran stood and stretched like a luxurious cat. A smile and a wink, she purred to her husband to behave himself. “Easy there, tiger, no point in upsetting everyone. If Pops wants to talk about the adoption, then that’s fine with me.”

“Pops?”

“Exactly why can’t we have Cameron?” Wendy asked. “He is our grandson and we managed to raise two healthy children before.” Holding onto her packages so tightly her knuckles turned white, she added. “There’s no call to speak to us that way, Thomas Mitchell!”

“What? You are kidding me, right, Mom?”

The heated family discussion came to a sudden halt. At the sound of another truck’s tyres reverberating on the drive way. Frank looked up and saw the O’Neills had arrived. “We have guests. Mother, best you get some refreshments ready. Fran, you can help.”

“Guests? Oh my!” Wendy dropped her parcels and squinted. “Is that Jack? Are the boys here as well?”

“Looks like it! Now, best foot forward, the boys are here to visit, not to referee a family spat!” Frank’s voice booked no discussion, and Tom slammed his jaw shut, while Frannie coughed delicately.

“So, Pops? Forget to mention them coming today?”

Frank heard the footsteps on the gravel and waved her quiet. “That’s quite enough out of you, Miss Frances!”

Fran rolled her eyes defiantly, her accent turning thick with annoyance. “Not bleedin’ likely!”

Jack O’Neill lowered his glasses at the family sitting so woodenly at their picnic table, a smile tugging at his lips. “Hellooo,” he said, as he flipped his cap off and ran his hand through his hair, “what do we have here?” Frank grimaced, well aware it was his way to let them all know he’d heard the squabble and was now one up.

Frank’s eyes were drawn to the pickup as he searched the interior for his son. “Jack, nice to see you made it.”

“Mm, it seems we may have interrupted a family discussion” Jack drawled back.

Not waiting for the inevitable denials, O’Neill opened his pick-up’s back door, standing back as Dan and Cam squealed with pleasure at their release. Shoving and stepping on each other’s toes, the boys looked up at their father to see if they had permission to go visit. When Jack nodded, the boys raced to the picnic table, all smiles and little fingers wiggling in anticipation of treats.

“Hello! Wow, are we ever starving!” Cam obviously figured it was best to lay his cards on the table straight away.

The expressions on all the interested parties’ faces were very different. Some wore delighted smiles. Some looked bemused while others were plainly terrified. Frank recovered first and smiled his greetings.

“Who is this visiting at my place? Chicken hawks lookin’ to eat all my plump chicks?”

“Close enough I’d say,” whispered Fran Mitchell, as she fanned herself slowly.

“No! It’s us!” Cammie yelled. Overcome with emotion he proceeded to whirl around like a helicopter, hands flapping wildly in the air. “Boy, bet ya all are real surprised to see us! Do you remember me? I’m Cammie! Cammie O’Neill!”

Wendy swooped down and threw her arms around the sturdy little body. “Well, of course I remember you, honey!”

Daniel shyly stepped forward and tugged at the hem of her dress. “Hello, and my name is Daniel O’Neill; you probably don’t remember me because I have grown so much since we were here last year. I am six years old now, and a hall monitor.” Daniel bowed, his bangs flopping forward giving him a comical look.

Jack groaned. “Daniel, enough with the… whatever that was!”

“I was being polite! Not like Cammie!” Daniel squawked, his face flushing with annoyance. He’d been practicing his bow since he heard they were coming to visit.

Wendy laughed, and she scooped Daniel into her arms along with Cam. “Why, I can see how grown up you are now, young man! A hall monitor, huh? Quite the responsibility.”

Daniel nodded agreeing it was and added. “Miss Bumstead is very fussy about who she picks.” Danny shook his head and mouthed, “Not Cam!”

Jack stopped his unpacking and clearing his throat, growled a parental warning. “Excuse me?” Taking Daniel by the arm and waving a finger under the freckled little nose, he reminded him that brothers didn’t run tales, especially ones on vacation. “Now, can it! This the first and last time I say this. Daniel? Cameron? You hear me?”

The boys rolled their eyes and chorused, “Yes, sir,” before resuming their exuberant introductions, eyeing the candied apples Wendy had piled the table onto the table. The strain of the long trip, the anticipation of vacationing on a farm meant the boys were so excited they didn’t notice Tom standing behind his father, arms crossed and scowl settled on his face. As Cam reached forward to grab an apple, he edged closer and made his play.

“So, Dad, you didn’t tell me Jack was bringing Cameron home today! Might have been nice to warn me, give me time to pick up a few gifts for the flight back...”

“Thomas!” Wendy waved a hand in the air, adding softly “little pitchers have big ears!”

Tom bristled, and looking up, caught Jack’s stare while returning it coolly. “So, General O’Neill, thanks for taking the time to drop my nephew off. Have a safe drive back, won’t you?” Forced to lower his eyes, Tom shoved his hands in his pockets, and jingling the coin noisily, scowled once more. “Kansas roads aren’t like your fancy Washington highways.”

“We need to talk, Tom, but not here, not now.” Jack warned mildly.

The atmosphere was going from warm to hot and Frank sighed. He was too old for this crap, refereeing the waring parties. To him, it was the children that mattered to him, the rest was a necessary evil.

“Boys, who’s got a hug for me then?” Frank smoothly changed the subject, and opened his arms wide. Danny and Cam flew into his embrace, their bony knees knocking the wind from his stomach. Wheezing, Frank said, “What has your daddy been feeding you to make you so big and strong? Bullfrog triple banana cream pie?!”

“Shoot!” Cam’s eyes rounded. “No, we just have dumb ole apple pie from a box!”

“Oh no! Bullfrogs! Last time I was here---”Daniel threw a hand over his mouth as he heard the pointed “ahem” from somewhere behind him. He added hastily, “I had a lovely time falling in the pond because of me and my brother’s terrible misunderstanding.”

“Daniel, I’m sure your brother didn’t mean to push you in.” Jack knuckled Cammie on his head and warned, “He promises that there will be no more misunderstandings.” Jack finished his statement with a gentle swat to Cam’s jean-clad backside.

Cam jumped, grin still plastered across his face. “Daddy? Can we have a bullfrog banana cream pie for desert if I don’t shove Danny into the pond by mistake?” He was already licking his lips.

“Give me strength!”

In the background, Fran Mitchell had watched but contributed nothing. Finally, she stood, and removing her Dolce and Gabana sunglasses, walked over positioning herself behind Frank’s chair. Leaning down to flick at imaginary lint, she kept her hand on his shoulder, allowing her presence to be felt. Frank got the message, they were allies, but it was time to do something. “So, bullfrog-boy,” she laughed, walking over so she could tickle Danny’s belly, “brothers do the craziest things to each other, isn’t that right, Tom?”

Tom dragged his eyes from Jack and replied with a short laugh. “That’s right, Danny! Say, know something? My brother, Cam’s daddy, and me, used to play tricks on each other all the time!” Tom smiled. “Bet Cam Jr. is a prankster just like his daddy.”

“Sure is! Boy! My daddy is always playing tricks on me and my brother, right, Cammie?”

“Yep, our daddy is the trickiest trickster that ever tricked!” Cam whirled around, and reaching out, pulled Dan on top of him, giggling at his audacity. The wrestling quickly got rough, forcing Jack to step in and separate them. With a long suffering sigh, he gave them both a quick shake and growled his annoyance. “Children! Must we always be the entertainment?”

Both chorused that they didn’t mean to wrestle and they didn’t know what came over them, while Tom tried to make himself heard over the chaos. “Jack? No! My brother! Cameron!”

“We know what you meant, honey.” Fran smiled, and whispered close to his ear. “The wee ones just don’t understand any of this, can’t you see that? Jack is their daddy!”

Frank’s legs may have been useless but his hearing wasn’t, and his daughter-in-law’s whispered comment carried like a shout. In a moment of clarity, he knew what he needed to be done. It wasn’t going to be easy, but catching Fran’s glance, he nodded his understanding. Tom needed to exorcise his demons, but not at the expense of his brother’s happiness. That was one habit of a lifetime he intended to break. The reason for Tom’s determination to drag a child he didn’t know half way across the world had to be right in front of his face. This farm of theirs held a secret and it was one he hadn’t been privy to, it seemed.

OoO

The uncomfortable day finally came to a close, and after drinking steadily, Tom announced he had jetlag and needed to catch some shuteye. Leaning heavily on Fran, he made a throw-away comment that started a chain of events that none could have imagined. With a sloppy salute, affecting a phoney English accent, Tommy Mitchell slurred into his father’s face, “S-shay, wanna hear a joke? The three most common expressions in aviation are: Why is’h’it doing that? Where are we? and Oh s-shit!” Falling backwards, he laughed loudly, “Get it? No? Then, besh I s-shay nighty night, fly-boys!” Lurching across the porch, he belched loudly, before he disappeared into the house.

Frank wrinkled his nose in distaste at the alcohol fuelled belch. “Sorry about my son, Jack, I don’t know what gets into him. Well, other than a quart of my Johnny Walker Black, of course.”

With a wave of his hand, Jack lip’s tugged with annoyance. “Not your fault.”

“Wendy said Tommy wants to take Cam back to London so badly he isn’t thinking of anyone else’s feelings.” Frank said softly.

OoO

While both men got to their feet, lost in their thoughts, they apparently failed to remember something very important. Dan and Cam were under the table, playing with the cat’s-eyes Wendy had found, and unbeknownst to the adults, had heard every word. Maybe it had been the semi-familiar surroundings of the farm, or the tension in the air, but old forgotten memories began to itch at the corner of Cam’s mind. When Tom had called out his drunken goodnights, the little boy remembered something he’d buried decades before. Now, like the uninvited relative at a family gathering, it rudely appeared, sat itself down, and refused to be quiet.

Cam narrowed his eyes. “I kinda remember something Uncle Tom did! I don’t like him, Danny!” he whispered behind his hand.

Danny looked up, surprised by the declaration, and watched his brother’s expression curiously. While Cam was naturally impulsive, Daniel would have normally been the sensible one the little boy that thought things through, but the tension at the farm had become unbearable, and so the O’Neill brothers made one poor decision after the other.

“I don’t like him either, Cammie!” Dan hissed back, careful not to call attention to themselves.

“What are we going to do, Dan? I don’t want to stay here anymore!”

“Then we have to run away! Somewhere no one will ever think to look for us!” Daniel continued to stare at the wooden leg of the table, his finger tracing the knots in the wood.

“Okay,” Cam said, his answer almost inaudible.

 

OoO

While the grownups went inside, Dan and Cam waited a moment before scurrying after them. They made a pact to snoop a little more, and splitting up, Danny walked into the kitchen and sat himself down. Accepting a glass of milk and a cookie, he propped up his chin with his hands and asked his subtle question.

“So, Frank, how come Fran and Tom don’t have any kids? Bet they want babies not a first grader who farts all the time!” Danny decided to forgo any pleasantries.

Frank narrowed his eyes and eyed the little boy sternly. “Daniel, have you been listening to what doesn’t concern you? Because, when my boys where little and I found they’d been eavesdropping, they got a smacked bottom. So, have you been eavesdropping?” Frank folded his arms over his chest and arched an eyebrow.

Daniel panicked. “Me? Listen? To you and Daddy talking about Uncle Tom outside? Why, I never!”

“Come here, young man!”

Gulping and reluctantly shuffling over, Daniel jumped as Frank’s frown crinkled his forehead.

“Bed! Now!” Frank pointed to the door, all his good humor gone. “If I catch wind of you listening to what doesn’t concern you again, you won’t sit for quite a spell.”

“Yes, sir!” As Daniel scurried up the stairs, face burning, Cam had tip-toed down the hallway and listened to the others as they argued. Tom’s drunken nastiness seemed to have set everyone on edge, and tempers were fraught. Peering around the door, he listened as quietly as a little field mouse.

“Tom intends on booking three flights back home tomorrow, Wendy! He told you this! He told you all this a hundred times today!” Fran’s voice wavered with emotion. “Why won’t you listen?”

Wendy took a step forward, her arm wound tightly around her waist. “Well, he can’t! Cam is my grandson and I won’t have him dragged him clear across the other side of the world! If he goes anywhere, it will be here with us!”

Jack shook his head, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Keep your voices down; this isn’t doing anyone any good.”

Cam had been crouching down listening so intently he hadn’t noticed Frank come up behind him. Squeaking at his arm was tugged, he whirled around to face his annoyed host.

“You too? What is the rule about eavesdropping?”

It was a rhetorical question, and Frank didn’t bother waiting for the answer. Placing his hand on Cammie’s head, he turned him around and delivered a sharp swat. “Now, you get yourself upstairs!”

“Ouch! Yes, sir.”

Running up the stairs, tears pricking his eyes, Cam burst into his and Daniel’s room announcing he had a plan.

“Frank caught me listening at the door!” he said, stamping his foot, “But I know what to do!”

Daniel groaned. He was very familiar with his brother’s brilliant-can’t fail-plans, he was dragged into them regularly. They were mostly well meant and always an adventure, full of near misses and narrowly avoided catastrophes, but if he didn’t keep on his toes, it could end in tears. But, his vigilance was mostly rewarded, and they usually came out none the worse for their scheming. Usually…but not always.

That night, Cammie tearfully asked why he’d been brought back to the farm. He was angry and didn’t understand. “Doesn’t he want me anymore, Dan? Daddy was there when Fran and Wendy were arguing about me, but he didn’t say nuthin’”

Running his nose across his sleeve, Cam sniffed. Then, after more covert talk, a plan was hatched that had them both more than a little worried.

“Danny! If we don’t run away then we can’t be brothers anymore!”

The thought of losing his brother galvanized Danny into action.

“Where can we go? We don’t know anyplace? Let’s call Teal’c! Maybe he can come and take us to another planet!”

Cam blinked. “That’s sooo dumb!”

Danny huffed, a little offended by Cam’s dismissal of his excellent idea. “Well, smarty pants, where? Where can we hide?”

“Frank was talking about some caves near the water tower…” Cam shrugged. “I think I remember where they are.”

“Where that girl fell off the water tower? Didn’t Frank say she fell into the river?’” Danny wasn’t sure going near the tower was such a good idea. He considered hiding out on another planet with Teal’c far smarter. Wendy’s face had looked so sad when Frank talked about that girl, but with a wave of his hand, Cammie dismissed his concerns once again.

“We won’t climb it though, Dan! We’ll be okay if we don’t climb it!”

“Okay, I guess.” The plan was set by the usual method, spitting on their hands and shaking, and Danny worried some more.
The waiting for everyone to turn off the lights and go to bed seemed to take forever, but, finally, they were ready to leave. According to Danny’s birthday watch, it was late, just after midnight, and the sounds of the night were deafening. The cicadas rubbed their legs as if determined to drown out the croaking bullfrogs, while the night owls hooted before they swooped.
Usually fascinated by the farm goings on, Danny ignored it all. Nothing about the farm interested him now, and his mind raced with other thoughts. Running away to a cave in the middle of the night was worse than stupid, but the thought of losing Cam had swayed him. He sighed, looked up at the starless night and worried some more. “Boy, we are so going to get it when Daddy finds out!”
Stepping out further into the yard, he shuddered as the bright eyes of a nocturnal creature stared at him before it scurried away. “Ewww! A rat!” Glancing over at his brother, expecting his face to be delighted at the mere mention of a rat, he was shocked to see Cam was still crying softly. “Hey, you okay, Cam?” he asked. "You really wanna run away?”
Cam, sniffed, and clipping on Jasper’s lead said, “I hafta, Danny! I don't speak English! He doubled over and groaned, “Danny, my tummy hurts again! But I don’ wanna fart or poop or nothin’.”
Danny nodded, his tummy hurt all the time since they’d come here as well. This vacation was nothing like last time. Wendy and Frank were nice, but looked sad all the time. Daddy was mad about something, and Tom was always tripping over poor Jasper and yelling at everyone. Danny wanted to know what was really going on, and wanted to ask his father, but that would have to wait now, until they returned from their adventure. If they ever returned!
Dan eyed his groaning brother shrewdly. “Its okay, Cam, we’ll always look after each other! We’re brothers, right?”
“Yup,” Cam smiled wanly, “brothers are s’pos’ed to aren’t they.”
Breaking off a piece of cookie and giving it to the old dog, Danny jumped as Jasper’s rheumy eyes also shone like bright orbs in the night. “Hey, Jas is a …never mind.” Dan threw his hand over his mouth. He remembered Jack’s- no exception to this rule- rule concerning their, or more, his, blathering about classified things. Mentioning the Goa’uld was a real biggie. Peeling his hand away, he looked shiftily across at Cam, and whispered behind a cupped hand “Goa’uld!”
Finally Cam farted loudly, rolled his eyes and giggled at the squawked “Yuck!” from his brother, and said “Oops! Daddy is gonna smack your fanny if he hears you saying Jasper is a Goa’uld!” Then eyes darting back and forth, Cammie, full of sudden bravado, whispered, “Jasper, the mapster, is a dumb ole Goa’uld!”
“You stink!” Danny swooned, then grabbing his brother’s hand, the boys and the old dog wandered off far away from the safety of their family. Tiger country, a place Jack had always said to be careful off, was always a very dangerous place to be but just how dangerous was shocking.

OoO

It didn’t take very long for the ill-advised night trek to go from bad to worse, before stopping at completely catastrophic. The fat yellow moon’s guiding light failed them as it slid behind the rolling clouds, and the toy flashlights Cam had found weren’t up to the task. The path they chose was so uneven that they stumbled and fell constantly.

“Ouch! Stoopid rock!” Danny said as he hopped on one leg a pebble having burrowed its way into his sneaker.

“Shhh! Re-con missions means you can’t yell like a girl!” Cam stumbled, and straightening up, leaned across to knuckle Dan’s arm.

The insult to his manliness and the knuckle meant war, and in the following melee, Cammie dropped his flashlight. Bouncing onto the hard ground, the cheap casing cracked and the batteries spilled out, rolling into the undergrowth. They both stopped wrestling and pouncing on the flashlight studied the broken toy. Their faces fell and recriminations started up once more.

“Fly dope! Why did you drop your flashlight?” Danny was incensed, distancing himself from the catastrophe.

“Shut up, Rock dweeb! Look watch’cha made me do! You are so gonna get it when I tell Daddy!” Cam stamped his foot while Daniel poked out his tongue in retaliation. The brotherly crusade wasn’t going well, and now they were one torch down. Things could only go one way and that was downhill.

The adventure turned more dangerous when Danny’s flashlight flickered and died, and faced with darkness, the boys panicked. The moon stayed hidden, and terrified by the a hoot of a barn owl, they scampered down the road. They stumbled and fell, until exhausted, they slumped to the ground and panted with fear. This adventure, like the vacation to the farm, was nothing like they had expected, and picking out bits of pebbles from their hands; Danny and Cam began to sob. Sobs soon gave way to tears, and they cried piteously. They cried for their daddy to come find them. They cried for the memories that confused them, and they cried for their great adventure that had gone so horribly wrong.

“I wanna go home, Danny!” cried Cam. “My tummy hurts again!”

“Me too!” replied Danny, sniffing and edging closer to his brother. “Don’t you dare fart!”

Unbeknown to the two little adventurers, they were the object of great interest. In his day, Jasper would have sensed another person, but he was confused, and very tired. Putting his head on his paws, the old collie closed his eyes and slept.

Then, something stirred in the old dog, and growling, he pricked up an ear. Their knees pulled up under their chins, Danny and Cam looked up in fright and hugging each other tighter, clamped their eyes shut and swallowed loudly.

“There’s no one here, so best you go away!” said Cameron bravely.

“Ssssh!” Daniel nudged his brother in the ribs. “Now they know we’re here!”

“Hello?” said a softly spoken voice. “Don’t be frightened, I won’t hurt you.”

“Oh!” squeaked Danny, wrapping his arms tightly around Jasper’s neck. “Our dog is a trained attack dog!” The trained attack dog with the greying snout and arthritic limp, ducked out of the embrace, and to Danny’s dismay, trotted over to the voice. Danny groaned, slapping his forehead with his palm, “Come back here and growl some more!”

“Hey, whoever you are, I can kung-fu chop you to death!” said Cam, bouncing to his feet and lifting his hands in the air. “Ahh-soooo!”

There was a gentle laugh and an exclamation of “I surrender!” An elderly, silver haired woman wearing a baggy sweater with enormous pockets knelt down next to them. “I see I will have to watch myself around you three.” Jasper sniffed and then licked at her hand before retreating back to sit by Cam.

“Don’t be fooled by our dog licking your hand! He’s tasting you!” Blustered Daniel bravely.

“Yeah!  Jassie’s -.tasting you!” parroted Cam, but crossed his eyes as the old woman grinned down at him, hands on hips.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’d be a tough old bird to chew, I think!” She swayed her lantern back and forth, before sitting down next to the boys. Arching an eyebrow, she patted her pockets before finding a peppermint and popping it in her mouth. “So, isn’t this a how to do?” she mumbled around the candy.

“How to do what?” Cam’s eyes took a little time to adjust to the light, and blinking; he looked her up and down, and sucked in a bottom lip. On the tip of his tongue were a million questions, like why do you have you knitting needles in your hair? Do you know you have glasses on your head and on your nose? Was she aware that her sneakers didn’t have any laces?  But, he clamped his jaws shut. Jack was very strict about manners, especially when talking to older people, but she did look very strange to him.

“Cat got your tongue, little boy?” asked Emmy, tugging up a mismatched sock and neatly folding a cuff.

“We don’t talk to strangers,” Cam said piously. “Especially crazy looking ones, right Danny?”

Danny rolled his eyes.

The old woman chuckled, and reaching across, almost stabbing Cam with one of her hair knitting needles, clicked her fingers at Jasper. “Come here, you silly dog, it’s only me! Emmy Wilson!” Patting the collie, and feeding him liver treats dug out from another pocket on her sweater, she asked politely, “So, let’s suppose I am not a stranger, and you can talk to me, what’s your names? Beelzebub and Bumble bee? Horatio and Hippeastrums? Fred and Joe?” She offered them both a barley sugar before popping one in her own mouth.

The boys blinked at the candy and slid a glance at each other.

“Mary and Maria?” Her laughter, her silly made up names, and the treats for the dog, took down their defences, and forgetting Jack’s stranger danger lectures, Danny held out a hand and took the candy.

“Thank you. My name is Daniel O’Neill and this here is my brother, Cameron. We are taking a moonlight stroll! Nothing to be concerned about, Ma’am, nothing to tell my daddy about”

Emmy bowed her head with an odd formality that made Danny smile. “Oh, hello Daniel and Cameron O’Neill, it’s nice to meet you.” Sitting closer to the boys, she scolded them softly. “Well, that daddy of yours might not be so pleased to know you are taking that moonlight stroll so close to the river.”
.
Cam piped up instantly- keen to have any misconception cleared up. The last thing he wanted was for their father to have to come out and bring them home. Not only would Tom be waiting for him, but there was the real possibility of answering many uncomfortable questions. Nope, fast talking was needed and it was needed fast. He opened his mouth and the first thing he thought of tumbled out. “We are running away because-- ” But before he could finish, Daniel threw a hand across his mouth and talked quickly over him. Cam gagged and licked Danny’s hand in protest.

The licks didn’t faze Daniel as he explained in excruciating detail things not supposed to be revealed. “The people we are staying with; Frank and Wendy Mitchell, told us to be very careful. We want to visit the caves just until our Uncle Tom goes home. My daddy, that’s not Frank and Wendy, his name is Jack O’Neill, well, he won’t mind one bit!” Danny babbled on, giving away far too much information to the stranger, and in his innocence, mistook her probing for politeness.

“You are two Wendy Mitchell’s grandbabies? So, guess that must make Cameron Mitchell your daddy? Why don’t you boys want to stay with Tommy? I’d have thought Frank’s farm was a perfect place to spend the summer vacation.”

“Oh, you know how it is, we city boys like the city.” Danny breezed, before he snapped his mouth shut. “Say! How do you know everyone?” His brow drew down as he watched Jasper eat the small treats from her hand. A silence developed and several moments slipped by without any response. Danny asked again. “How come Jasper stopped growling when you said hello?”

“I’m no stranger to Jasper, didn’t say I was if you recall.” Emmy continued to pet the dog.

Another barn owl’s hoot broke the sudden awkwardness.

“Who cares?” Cammie warned, raising his fist, “that means if she isn’t a stranger then we can talk to her!” To him, meeting Mrs Wilson was all very convenient. They’d go home with their new, if somewhat crazy looking friend, spend the night, eat breakfast, and then let her take them to the caves after a mid morning snack. It all seemed very clear in his mind, and he smiled back at the chuckling old woman.

“Good, glad that’s all sorted,” she said. Emmy shrugged the scarf from around her shoulders and wound it around her hair, effortlessly graceful. Tucking wisps of hair under the silky material, she looked into Daniel’s face, tapping his nose with her finger. “All animals like me” she replied simply, “and naturally I’d know Wendy it is a very small town, Daniel.”

Daniel’s bottom lip twitched and he edged back away from her reach. “Okay, I guess so,” he said, lowering his eyes and pouting.

“Say, do you do know where the caves are?” Cam asked, “We were going there tonight, but then Danny made me drop my cool flashlight! We couldn’t see and kept falling over!” His voice suitably tragic he held up his hands for sympathy and said, “We hurt our hands! Don’cha think Danny was naughty to wrestle?”

“Me?” Danny squawked, “You-you-you-sissy!”

A combination of temper and fatigue had Cammie bouncing to his feet, balling his fists in the air. Blue eyes flashing with outrage, he yelled at his brother, “You take it back!”

Danny leapt to his feet, jaw jutted and fists raised as well. “Won’t! Sissy! Sissy! Sissy!”

“Oh, for goodness sake!” Emmy scolded, and waggled a finger under the warring factions’ freckled noses. Sucking at yet another peppermint, she drooled slightly as she whispered; “You’ll go and frighten the man in the moon away.” She looked upwards waving her hand towards the sky.

“Where’s the man in the moon?” Cam asked, squinting upwards.

“We can’t see him now because your squabbling scared him away!”

“We can’t see him because the moon is behind the clouds!”  Daniel muttered crossly.

“Maybe… Let’s go home, and tomorrow I will show you the caves.”

“Cool!” Cam shoved Danny out of the way with a butt push, and took Emmy’s hand. Accepting another piece of candy, he chatted brightly while Danny followed a step behind them. Looking up at the sky he saw the moon edge from behind the clouds, and chewed at his bottom lip with worry.

 

OoO

While Dan and Cam edged closer to disaster, Jack flipped from his stomach to his back several times, and grunted with annoyance. “That damn fan is driving me nuts!” Slapping his hands close to his ear, he snarled, “The national bird of Kansas is what? Correct! The mosquito! Give the man a prize!”

Unaware of its many irritating faults, the old ceiling fan whirred around and around while the hum of the mosquitoes kept in perfect sync. Jack groaned, and bunching the feather pillow over his ears, admitted defeat and gave up. He couldn’t sleep, and flipping onto his side, grabbed his cell and thought about calling Sara. He figured she’d be wondering how the meeting with Tom had gone, and he really needed someone to be his corner. He wanted to be home, ignoring the Alvin and the Chipmunks DVD, and watching the game instead. He needed to have his old life back, and tapping at the keys, he waited for her to answer.

Minutes passed slowly as the fan clicked and whirred in the still of the might.

“Hello?” Sara yawned through her greeting. “That you, Jack?”

“Yup, how’d you guess? Oh, right, caller ID!”

Her lilting laugh made him relax, and lying back onto the pillows, he chatted about the day he had, keeping his voice soft so as not to wake the others.

“Having a good time? Frank and Wendy on your side? Tried to kill Tom yet?”

“Nope- maybe- possibly. Sara, the kids look lost here. I guess this wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had, but they seemed to have such a ball last time. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think it’s Tom that throws out the balance. Oh, and Sara? He drinks like a damn fish. Makes a great role model for Cam.”

“How about the wife?” Sara asked.

“Frannie? Got balls enough for the pair of ‘em!”

“Balls? That real charming, Jack! Remember who you are you talking to here! I am not one of your marine buddies!”  Sara gently teased.

“My marine *buddies*? I have marine *buddies?*” Jack laughed, and suddenly he knew he felt better. The midnight chat had been what he needed, and he said, “So, I’d better let you go back to bed.”  

“Night, Jack, kiss the boys for me.”

“Yep, course I will.”

But despite saying he would, he decided he’d leave them be. Jack rolled over, and drifted off to sleep, unaware he had little boys lost.

New chapter.

The following day dawned and it promised to be beautiful .Rays of mottled sunlight peeked through the crack in the drapes, but Jack slept soundly, snoring lightly until the  rooster did what he was paid to do.

“Cock-a-doodle dooooo!”

“What in the hell?” Jack’s right arm swung out and covered his face. He forced an eye open at the second cock-a-doodle-dooooo and wondered if anyone would mind if he garrotted the bird. Stretching out the cricks in his back while softly cursing the soft feather mattress, Jack smacked his lips together and looked at his watch. He rolled his eyes. “You have gotta be kidding me!” he complained, “This is worse than being in boot camp!”

But, like boot camp, Jack knew what cannot be changed must be endured, and he figured what the hell. With a malicious grin, he hoped the amount of Frank’s booze Tom had poured down his throat made him feel like crap and felt more kindly disposed towards the feathered alarm clock. Sighing at another round of rambunctious crowing, he threw on the pair of jeans kicked across the floor the previous night and rummaged in his kit for a clean t-shirt. Pulling it over his head, he called out a cheery yet slightly muffled greeting for his kids to get up and have some breakfast.

“Daniel? Cam? Come on, up and at ‘em!”

Silence followed and waiting, he paused for a moment glancing around his room. Calling out to the boys a little louder, he walked over to his window and parting the drapes, watched Frank and Wendy searching the yard. “Probably looking to kill that damn rooster,” he muttered, before tearing his eyes away, feeling as though he may be intruding. He tried once more to rouse his children from their beds. “Cameron? Daniel?”

Deciding it was probably the long trip from Colorado Springs tiring them out, Jack picked up the water pitcher and smiled at its quaintness. “Okay, this is different.” Cupping his hands and splashing water onto his face, he shivered at its coolness, before switching on the radio and whistling to Keith Urban’s twang. Dressed, awake, and hungry, Jack decided to get the kids up anyway, and with a sideway glance out the window, wondered what could cause Frank to look so grim. With a shrug, he turned his attention to his own kids and called out cheerily.

“Okay, knuckleheads, I see that Mr Tickle Monster is on his way!”

The old farm house was still, and wincing at the echo his shout had made, Jack tiptoed down the hallway before creaking open the heavy oak door. Cameron’s old room was cool and dark, and unable to see clearly, he was tricked by the pillows stuffed under the covers. Shutting the door as quietly, he snorted softly. “What the hell! Let ‘em sleep in if they want to.” It was more the thought of having breakfast in peace that swayed him, and scanning the morning paper, he relaxed over a cup of freshly brewed coffee and hot buttered toast. Taking the remains of his breakfast outside, he figured he should offer to look for whatever had been lost. Tempting as it was to hide away.

“Morning, folks!” he called out brightly. Silence followed and Jack strolled down the back steps, smooth, easy and confident. “So, watch'cha lost?”

“Don’t ask me!” Wendy huffed, “ask the king of the worryworts here!”

“Jack! You sure would be a help right about now. I don’t get around too good anymore.” Frank’s face remained grim and he waved away Wendy’s offer of hot coffee followed by a teaspoon of worry.

“No problems, just tell me what I’m looking for.” Jack grinned at Wendy before mouthing, “Off you go!”

“Can’t find Jasper!” Frank said, his voice wavering slightly, “Missed his breakfast, the silly old fool.” Lurching forward in his ungainly gait, he stared at the yard, shading his eyes against the bright sun. “He’ll be hungry.”

“Okay, so, he won’t have gone far then. Maybe the barn?” Jack replied quietly. “Only take me a minute to check.”

“Maybe.” Frank grappled with a crutch as he stuck his fingers in his mouth whistling low and shrill. Anxiety tightened his features once more. “Where is he?” he said as he clumsily turned to face the other way. “Mother, he needs those arthritis drops!”

“I know, honey, I know.” Wendy stepped back and started to pick at the skin on her lips. “Please, stop getting yourself into such a fuss!”  She looked across at Jack and shrugged, “Jasper never leaves his basket before we get up, he’s lazy now.”

“Then we’ll find him.”  Jack crunched the last of his toast while tossing the coffee dregs into the flowerbed. Placing the mug on the outdoor table, he strolled towards the barn, calling out, “Mind if I strangle the bird?” He grinned at the snort of outrage, and added, “I only ask because I care.” Searching the barn, bending down on one knee to search thoroughly, he found a mother cat and her kittens, but no trace of the old collie. Walking back and shrugging apologetically, he called out. “Nope, he’s not in there, but you’ve got more houseguests.” Looking around the yard, he glanced at Frank and added a little sheepishly, “Where’s Wendy? I didn’t offend her with the bird gag?”

A tight smile on Frank’s face disappeared as quickly as it came. “Nope, but she is mighty fond of that bird. I asked her to enlist the boys help, figured Jas will respond to Cameron’s voice. You did know that’s he’s Cam’s old dog?” he asked? raising an eyebrow.

“Ahh.” An awkward silence followed. The man inside the boy was needed once more, and Jack couldn’t help feeling saddened for the yesterday, today, and tomorrow child he was rearing. “Would he remember him? Given the… circumstances?”

A sigh seemed to come from the depths of Frank’s soul as he shook his head, a mixture of annoyance and fondness in his expression. “Who knows? But since Cam left, he’s been my dog, so let’s hope he does.” With his stiff gait, Frank made his way towards the back door. Balancing the crutches with one hand, he cupped the other to his mouth and called out, “Wendy? Got those boys up?”

Moments passed. Finally, Wendy opened the screen door, her trade mark smile replaced by a frown, and Jack thought he saw fear flicker in her eyes. “Are they out here with you?”

Swallowing, Jack shook his head, and plastered a smile on his face. “Just us and the rooster out here.” Trying for nonchalance, he failed miserably. “They must be inside somewhere. Check the pantry!” The joke fell flat and no one bothered to pretend otherwise. Coincidences were beginning to add up. No Jasper and no kids.

Wendy looked under her arm, as if the boys would magically appear there. “I looked everywhere inside!  They had their pillows stuffed under the covers so we’d think they were still asleep. Remember Cam and Tommy used to do that when they tried to sneak out of going to church?”

“Sounds vintage Mitchell allright. Maybe when I find those boys I’ll dish out the same reminder I used to!” Frank laughed thinly, “I’ll tan their behinds and dole out extra chores.”

Jack snorted and tilted his head to the side. “Maybe I’ll let you. So, where exactly did the boys used to hide out? I’ll go take a look.”

The screen door squeaked opened once more. Fran yawned through her question. “What good would that do? Besides, we are jumping to conclusions,” she said, long black cigarette burning red in her hand. “Maybe the little farts have just gone for a wee wander!” Her smile was brilliant, and as she took Frank’s hand, Jack wondered how he hadn’t noticed how beautiful she truly was. “I’ll get dressed and help Jack look for them, okay? Wendy, you get that lazy son of yours out of bed. What with the General’s know how and my excellent Girl Guide skills, we’ll have the bairns back before ye can blink!” Her eyes twinkled as stepped on her spent cigarette and nudged Frank in the ribs. “You make pots of coffee and lots of those delish hot biscuits! No burning them though!”

“Cheeky brat,” mumbled Frank, feigning outrage. But it was all for show. His shoulders relaxed and his expression softened. “Go on with you, I’ll make my famous hot biscuits while mother here rouses Tommy.”

Wendy smiled at her daughter-in-law and nodded. “Right, so, I get to wake up old grumpy pants!”

“It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it.” Fran searched Wendy’s face and smiled gently. “Okay, Mom?”

OoO

It had taken Wendy a full ten minutes to rouse Tom from his sleep, and he hadn’t been particularly pleased. Urged to come outside and help search for the missing trio, he’d wanted nothing better than to roll back onto his side and sleep the morning away. But, he knew his mother and figured there’d be no rest for the wicked. Him being the wicked one of course. Pulling on chinos, his chest still bare, he pushed the back door open and scowled as the sun blinded him.

“Jesus H Christ! What’s so darn urgent that a man can’t sleep?”

Throwing a hand to her mouth, Wendy instantly scolded her seedy looking son. “It’s Sunday! Please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!”

“Christ, Mom, give it a rest!”

Jack looked up at Tom, and shook his head, his fists unconsciously balling at his side. “Slept it off I’d have thought.”

“Go to hell, O’Neill; is it my fault you lost your kids? Another reason Cam Jr needs to be with a responsible adult.”

Frank lurched forward and placed a calming hand on Jack’s arm. “Let it go, he’s probably still half drunk.”

Oblivious to the danger he’d casually placed himselfon; Tom squinted, and seriously thought his head might shatter like a dropped egg. Shoving his sunglasses back onto his face, swallowing down rising bile, his lip curled as he said. “What is the problem here? The kids have probably taken the dog for a walk, big freaking deal. So can I please go?”

Turning around and giving the screen door a bad tempered kick, he cursed as it lurched off its hinges. “Freaking hell!” Nothing was going right, he fumed, and none of it was his fault. “Dad? Your door has dry rot or something. Best you get someone down to look at it! ” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “Mom, since I’m up, I’ll have breakfast now.”

Issuing his orders, Tom Mitchell didn’t bother to turn around and see the look of dismay that had settled on his wife’s face.

Fran lowered her eyes, her lashes resting on her flushed cheeks. In a small voice, cracking with emotion, she whispered her apologies. “I am so sorry about that. Tommy can be so….” Running up the steps and carefully opening the broken door, she disappeared inside.

She spied her husband drinking juice straight from the container and when he belched loudly, her eyes flashed with fury. “Tommy! What is the matter with you! Why do you feel the need to treat people like that? Your parents are worried, Jack is worried, and so what do you do? Why, the great Tommy Mitchell pitches another tantrum and storms inside. How very useful! Listen up, Banker-Boy, this trip has opened my eyes and I dinna like what I’m seeing!”

Snatching the container and rubbing at the mouth of it with a cloth, she said. “Get dressed.” Throwing the towel in his face, she added, “Or maybe I’ll go back out there and look the other way when Jack takes you apart!”

OoO

The rooster crowed, and Emmy’s eyes flew open, a habit of a lifetime too ingrained to ignore. If it was morning, then she had chores to do. There were chickens to feed, vegetable patches to water, and more importantly, her pills to swallow. Swinging her legs out and getting shakily to her feet, she shuffled into her kitchen, seedy and disheveled looking. Glancing at her reflection in the hallway mirror, Emmy wondered who the crazy old woman was blinking back at her. Her brow wrinkling, confusion dulling her bright blue eyes, she scratched at her head and looked outside.

“Is it morning? I had the oddest dream!”

Emmy rubbed her eyes and blinked slowly. Her head pounded and she felt the signs of anxiety returning. “Where are those pills of mine?” Grabbing at the bottle, her hand wouldn’t stop shaking, and she dropped it then cried out as the white pills scattered like marbles across the floor. “Darn!” Her hand flew to her neck and as she rubbed it, the building tension showing with her every movement. Turning around at the sound of a cough, she squinted at the small boy blinking fearfully back at her, and shoving on her glasses, she took a quick breath.

“Dear God in heaven, young Cameron Mitchell! So, it wasn’t a crazy dream after all!”

“My name is Cameron O’Neill, ma’am. Me and Dan are ‘dopt’d”

“Yes, yes, I heard that. But you had the same name as your real daddy, right?” She looked around the room and palmed her eyes. “So where is the other boy?” He gone to fetch help? Guess that means I don’t have much time. Outfoxed by a pair of six year olds! Henry and Joe would turn in their graves!”

Bending down, Cam scooped up a few tablets and holding them out, asked, “Do you need these? My daddy takes them when he has a headache.”

“Thank you, yes, I do believe I should. You’re a sweet kid, and I’m real sorry I scared you.” Emmy smiled sadly and dry-swallowed the medication. “I’ll feel right in my head soon.”

“You kept calling my brother Tommy last night! You really scared Danny and he said you are nuts! You aren’t though, are you? You just got confused, right?”

“Tommy? I called your brother Tommy? Let’s blame the man in the moon! He gave me moon madness! I thought when I heard you laugh last night that your were your daddy come back. The man in the moon must have been playing tricks with my mind, but you sounded just like him.”

“Why did you lock us in though? Danny had to squeeze through the window, but I felt too yucky to run. Danny said it was the milk you gave me cuz I was sick all over the bed! Did you? Make me all sleepy?”

“I don’t remember, honey. I hope not.”

“So are you taking me home?”

Emmy’s eyes became unfocused and she fell back into her chair. “Yep, but first, let me tell you a sad story. Me and your grandmother have a lot in common. We both lost our first born babies, and we grieve for them every day of our lives. Parents should never outlive their kids, Cameron, it isn’t right. Your kids shouldn’t die.”

Cam squirmed and whispered. “But everyone dies, don’t they?”

She nodded. “First, my Alice falls off the old water tower, and then your daddy falls out of the sky! Pastor James preached what terrible accidents they were, but that the Lord moves in mysterious ways. That cliché didn’t make me or Wendy feel any better. We should have retired that fool years ago.”

“Daddy says you shouldn’t speak d’spectful about people like that!” Cam scowled and folded his arms in self-righteousness.

Emmy barked a short laugh. “Oh, the pastor knows what I think of him, honey. Anyway, let me tell you my story! I remember the day my Alice left me as though it was yesterday.”

“Was it? Yesterday?”  Cam blinked with confusion.

Emmy figured she’d bamboozled him but she had a need to carry on with her terrible tale. It’d become so important to her that Cam heard what had happened all those years ago, but she couldn’t think why. She closed her eyes and was transported back to the events that shattered her life. She no longer heard Cam’s little interruptions.

“The sheriff found Alice while he was out fishing, and carried her back to our house. He looked at me real sad like, and while he took her upstairs Henry called the doctor. Poor Henry, he wanted to take her straight to the hospital in the next county, but I was a nurse for twenty odd years and I knew what death was. I saw the faraway look in her eyes, and so did the sheriff I suppose, because he let us be. He turned a blind eye so Alice could spend her last moments with us. Not that she didn’t try to stay. I begged the Lord to take me instead but God smote us the day he let my baby girl jump from that water tower.

“Sam Browning lived real close and after he straightened up from his examination of my daughter I could tell by the look on his face that the news wasn’t going to be good. I’d let myself hope and his words left me feeling like someone had stomped on my heart. ‘I can’t do any more for your baby, Emmy,’ he said ‘she’s in the hands of the Almighty now.’

“I’d thought Alice Mae was invincible, that she’d live forever, though of course I knew that was really just wishful thinking ‘Thank you for doing what you have,’ I managed to say as Sam started putting his instruments back in his bag. ‘I’ll show you out.’

Sam gave me a sad look as he gently closed my baby’s eyes and came over to me. ‘I know the way.’ Of course he did, Sam Browning had been our physician for years, was at each of my children’s births, and was a good friend. Casting a last glance back at the bed, he kissed my cheek, patted Henry on the arm, and left. We stared at the door as if we expected him to come back and shout, “April Fool!” We all went a little crazy that day, Cammie, but you can understand why.

“I stayed where I was for a moment, still numb from hearing Sam’s words. Over by the window my husband was standing, hands thrust deep into his pockets, eyes fixed on the floor. Beside the bed our youngest son, Joe, had slipped onto the chair that the doctor had been using and was bent over his sister, his shoulders slumped. I couldn’t see his face but I could see how distraught he was by the way his restless hands twisted together as he sat there, staring down at Alice.

“I’d kinda like a few minutes alone with Alice,” I said softly and I saw Joe close his eyes as though in pain before he nodded and got up, letting me have the seat beside the bed. I raised good kids, and they always minded their momma. Henry just kept on staring at his shoes, rocking back and forth.

“Gently as I could, I told poor Henry to call the undertaker and start making plans, then asked Joe to call your daddy and his folks. Only Tommy was home though. I never did like him, and I’m rather pleased he’ll going back to London. Anyways, best I get back to the story. I was always the strong one in the family, and I knew if I didn’t organize the boys then nothing would get done.

“Following my Joe into the kitchen I found him banging pots and pans around, before he picked up Alice’s favorite cup and tossed it clear across the room. It was as though he was angry with it, but I knew that wasn’t the case. Joe never knew how to express himself, and anger always seemed so close to the surface with him. I took him in my arms and I swore we’d all be together once more. Well, Joe and Henry passed. Alice and your daddy have passed, so guess that just leaves me.”

“Oh, don’t say that, Mrs. Wilson!” Cam’s arms snaked around her neck, and pressing his face against hers, he kissed her cheek. “Don’t be sad! I’ll come visit you when I’m on vacation! You won’t be alone anymore! Oh, you’d better clean up the bed, it’s real yucky!”

She half laughed, but it turned into a sob. “You are your daddy’s child alright! He was such a kind little boy, not like his brother!” Emmy looked into Cam’s face, thumbed away his tears, and nodded. She couldn’t speak anymore. Emma Wilson had used up all her words, all she had left was tears of relief.

OoO

“Cameronnnn? Danielllll? Jasperrrrrrrrr?” Fran cupped her hand to her mouth and yelled, while Jack searched with his binoculars and listened for any reply. They had been at it for over forty five minutes and he’d begun to get worried. He’d give it another few minutes and then he’d call in the big guns.

Fran had helped Jack search for the boys with almost a military efficiently. Running lithely across the fields, she’d stop, raise the binoculars then stick her fingers in her mouth whistling shrilly. Waiting for a reply that never came, she shook her head at Jack and waited for another order. Jack admitted he was glad she was on his kid’s six.

Fran let the binoculars drop to her chest. “How about the school playing field? Think they’d go there?”

Jack studied the map Wendy had rustled up before shaking his head and folding it neatly once more. “Nope, that’s too far. Fran, think about it, they are only six-years-old! Jasper is about one hundred dog years, so, stands to reason that they can’t have got that far.”

“Right, then, where are they?” she said with faint sarcasm. “Maybe I can polish my crystal ball?”

“Less of the chatter and keep on searching, soldier.”

Drinking deeply from her Evian bottle, Fran belched politely before she threw her hands into the air. “Wanna tell me where? All I can see is corn fields for miles!”

“Okay, let’s work this out. Trust me, kids this age just don’t go very far!”

Fran happily obliged, and ticked the places off they’d searched one by one on her fingers.

“They aren’t at the pond, or that death trap of an old tree-house. They aren’t near the BMX track, or McMullan’s pile of dirt, thank God, so, the river? Would they have gone there even though you forbade it?”

Jack clamped his eyes shut and grimaced. He knew full well that Dan and Cam weren’t always as obedient as he’d have liked. He got that, but he still didn’t think they’d go to the river. He been so sure they’d be at the old tree house or stooging around the BMX track, and now his head pounded with unanswered questions. Something didn’t add up, and he cursed softly under his breath. “Next time Carter tells me to forget something, remind me to damn well listen.”

Fran arched an eyebrow. “Who’s Carter?” She missed nothing and curiosity burned in her eyes.

Jack returned her look but said nothing. He was a master of the half truths and casual misinformation. “Okay, so, let’s go back to the farm to see if the kids have wandered home.” Turning around abruptly, effectively shutting down the conversation, Jack pulled out his cell and strode away to placed a call. He didn’t believe for a second the boys were back, Tom would have called Fran, so he had to consider the possibility that someone had them. He knew the odds. If a missing child wasn’t found in the first twenty four hours, the odds dipped dramatically. The vacation was officially over and the nightmare kicked into action.

New Chapter:

The only noise on the long walk back to the farm was bird song and the occasional dog barking. Jack and Frannie were troubled, seemingly lost in a world of fears and recriminations. Jack just wanted his kids back and to be gone while Frannie just wanted to be gone. The trip to Kansas had been ill advised and now the kids were missing, Tom drank himself senseless, and Wendy and Frank had aged overnight.

“Crap,” said Jack flatly, “how in the hell did we allow things to get so out of hand?” He slid a quick glance at Fran and sighed. “Tell me, kiddo, do you two really want to take Cam?” The question was honest and as Fran stared back, a sad smile crossed her lovely face.

“Tommy is the love of my life, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to his faults. My Gram always said, “There’s a time for concealing and a time for revealing. At the moment, Tommy is doing all the concealing but none of the revealing.”

It was double talk, and Jack turned around and gave her a look that said she was dangerously close to crossing the line. Whatever lines of communication tentatively opened were slammed shut, and his face grew dangerously hard. “If I find out you or that asshole love of your life had anything to do with my kid’s disappearance…” He didn’t finish the sentence; something in the distance caught his eye. He drew his hand to his eyes and shielded them against the sun. A brown and white dog followed by a small fair-haired figure was steadily gaining ground and hope began to flicker. “Is that Jasper?”

There was a moment’s pause. Fran then mimicked Jack’s actions but dropped her hand quickly. “Yeah,” she replied, her brow wrinkling, “maybe it’s Jasper.”

“That Danny?” O’Neill grunted as he expertly tracked the small figure as it reeled from side to side, falling down then bobbing back up like a cork in the sea. Squinting, he sucked in teeth in between his lips, before grabbing her arm with hard fingers. “Look harder! That is Jasper!”

Fran pouted and tugged at the strong fingers trapping her arm. “Hey, why don’t you just whistle and…” She closed her mouth as a shriek of pure panic floated across the air followed by small bird darting away. Fran jumped, her eyes darting back and forth. “What the hell was that?”

Jack wasn’t panicked. He knew instantly who’d made the cry and took off in a flat run. “Daniel!” He made up the distance easily and falling to one knee, opened his arms wide as the little boy barrelled into them. Not bothering to fight back his rolling emotions, he shook as he breathed in the scent of the hot, sweaty little boy, dropping a kiss on top of his head. Taking a deep breath he forced himself to sound casual. “Hey, missed you at breakfast, little buddy.” Looking around, the ice in his belly churned once more, “So, where’s your brother?”

Daniel looked into Jack’s eyes before he began to flap his hands manically, jumping up and down on the spot.

“The lady! She’s kept calling me Tommy and saying Alice was lost in Wonderland!”

“Tommy?” Panting from her sprint, Fran placed her hands on her knees, wheezing slightly.  “Know what he’s talking about?”

“Nope.” Jack searched the little boy’s face, his eyes going over it slowly before choosing his next words. “Daniel, who is the lady?”

“I told you! The one that’s got Cammie!” Anxiety etched deeper into Danny’s features, and the small hands flapped frantically in the air once more. “You have to get him back!”

“I will.” Jack said quietly. Normally a man of outstanding intuition, he was finding the situation difficult to read, and it concerned him that Daniel’s breath remained fast and shallow. He looked directly into the little boy’s eyes while pulling him closer until the hot breath ghosted his face. “Danny, listen to me very carefully. Where exactly is Cam?”

The muscles along Danny’s jaw tightened. He wasn’t teary anymore but Jack knew he was in the moment just before the tears. He was struggling to retain control and his bottom lip quivered. He was pale, his eyes dark and bruised looking, and Jack figured he was lucky to be on his feet. He tried again to glean the necessary information.

“Do you think you can remember where the lady lives?”

“No, but I can.”

A deep voice broke Jack’s concentration and he whirled around, surprised at being taken unawares. Tom Mitchell materialized from nowhere and hung onto Fran’s hand like a life line Eyes bloodshot face bloated and unshaven, he seemed to have aged a decade overnight. Jack ran his eyes up and down the lanky frame, but turning away, he couldn’t have cared less how bad the man looked. His lip curled into a snarl, and if Danny and Fran hadn’t been there, he wondered if he might have killed the man where he stood. He got to his feet and took a menacing step forward.

“I’m warning you, Mitchell, if any of this is your doing, I’ll_”

Tom brushed straight past him, and knelt down, his cream chinos instantly stained with the rich black earth. It was Daniel he wanted. “You’re talking about Emmy Wilson, aren’t you? My ghosts have come back to haunt us all.” Rocking back onto his heels, a single tear rolled down his cheek. “This is my doing, and if I could change it I would.”

Jack studied Tom’s shattered expression then looked away quickly. There was no time to finger point or to apportion blame, but he would dig out the dirt later.

“One question. Is Cameron in danger?”

Tom looked at Daniel and then dragged his eyes back to O’Neill. “I did a terrible thing to her, so yeah, Cameron may well be in trouble.”

“Jesus Christ, you are a real piece of works, aren’t you? Come on, let’s get my kid back.”

Daniel flung his arms around Jack’s neck and held on tightly. Tom took off quickly, his long legs easily outpacing them, and Jack wondered if he ran on adrenalin or guilt. Frannie couldn’t keep up with her husband and was content to run next to Jack and Daniel, and he was grateful for her presence.  Every so often, she’d look across as if to say, ‘I am here, you aren’t alone in this.’ Like Frank, Jack knew he’d woefully underestimated her, and as the drama continued to unfold, she impressed him with her coolness.

The desperate race across the fields, up dirt lanes, and across farmland exhausted them, and sucking in air, they stared at the Wilson farmhouse. The breeze had picked up, and a rusty old swing creaked back and forth. The very sight of it made Jack shiver. Everything about the Wilson farm was neglected, and Danny squirmed closer into Jack. The only signs of life were chickens scratching in the dirt, and the barn cat sunning itself. Jack crouched down on one knee and bringing Danny in close, listened as he explained where they’d been taken. He looked for an advantage while he checked his Beretta.

Frannie edged past Tommy, manoeuvred Danny out of her way and lowered her voice.
“What are ye going to do, Jack? Think now! Tom admitted he did something terrible to her, right? Danny said she kept calling him Tommy, so if she’s not right in the head, we don’t want to go blundering in.” Clicking her fingers, she grabbed Danny’s arm and drew him close to her. “Is there another way in, bairn? Can Tom and I go around the back?”

If there was one thing Jack didn’t need her help with, it was how to be covert, and holding up a finger, he pressed it to his lips. “No more talking. Trust me, I am good at staying and keeping others, alive.” Jasper, restrained for too long, began to whine, anxious to be let loose. O’Neill groaned. It was all turning into a circus and he needed to concentrate. He might only have one chance, one clear shot, and he wasn’t going to waste it.

“Keep the dog still, Mitchell. No-one moves until I give the order.” Scanning the overgrown yard, mentally cursing at how many places someone could hide he glanced over his shoulder to give Fran and Tom a final warning “Got it?”

Fran opened her mouth to argue when the chickens fussed and flapped their scrawny wings. Something from near the porch had clearly disturbed then, and crouching even lower, Jack took careful aim. Tom’s eyes grew round with alarm and stress made his voice boom far too loudly. He lurched forward and slipping in the dirt, cannoned into O’Neill’s arm.

“What’s that for? This isn’t the wild west, O’Neill!”

Jack jumped slightly and seethed. “What the hell? Get back and shut the fuck up!”

“Don’t shoot her, for pity’s sake, man! Emmy’s not dangerous maybe just a little confused.” The pain and hurt in Tom’s voice grated on Jack’s nerves, and watching the front door, he growled a warning before shoving Tom hard in the chest.

“Get in my way again and I will shoot you.”

Tom retreated, and the air crackled with tension. Ignoring them all and concentrating on what needed to be done, Jack raised the weapon, and watched as the screen door slowly began to open. His finger caressed the trigger, and his right eye narrowed slightly. He only needed one clear shot and the nightmare would be over.

“Wait!” Frannie whispered, bouncing to her feet and pointing, “Look!”

The door flew open and Cammie bounced out, blinking and rubbing his eyes. His t-shirt was rumpled, his jeans filthy, and he was in socks, as if he’d forgotten his sneakers. He looked achingly vulnerable, and Jack’s heart skipped a beat. Loping across the yard, eyes darting for danger, Jack hissed for everyone to stay put. Fran and Daniel edged forward desperate to see what was happening, but Tommy sunk to his backside and hung his head.

“Thank God,” he whispered.

“Cammie!” Jack called out. “Get down!” He let the relief wash over him like a warm shower. His jawline had been so tense his teeth had begun to ache.

“Hello, Daddy!” Cammie answered brightly, “Why? Get down where?  Say, why didn’t you knock on the door? Mrs Wilson made me hash browns and bacon! Want me to ask if you can have some?” Cam licked his lips and asked. “Is Danny with you? Emmy said she’d make him blueberry pancakes! Danny? She promised not to give me any more bad milk!”

“Yep, come on, gotta go.” Scooping the little boy into his arms, Jack felt Fran’s hand rest on his back.

“Is the bairn all right?”

“What part of stay put did you not understand?” Jack’s eyes glinted hard and unforgiving. The person who’d taken his children was still in the house, and he glared at Fran. “Listen to me carefully. I need you to take the boys back behind the fence and call for help.”

Fran nodded. She hugged Cam to her, and kissing his face, waggled her hand, demanding Danny take it. “You heard your daddy, marines, come on!”

The boys instantly corrected her, and rolling her eyes, she led her young charges to safety. Sitting against a tree, she glanced over to her husband. Tom stared blankly at the farmhouse, moving his lips as though he was reciting a poem.

Fran narrowed her eyes, and said sternly “Tom? Snap out of it and call the Sheriff, the doctor, and then your folks. In that damn order!” Huffing at the vacant expression on his face, she clicked her fingers impatiently. “Fine, give the cell to me! Useless article of a man!”

OoO

Jack’s hand shook, but he knew it wasn’t from nerves it was the adrenalin racing through his body. The chatter of the children calling out to him was a distraction, and blocking their noise, he made a quick plan in his mind. In and out, and keeping the old woman alive was optional. In his years as a covert operative he’d learnt the necessity of making combat boots sound like moccasins, and walking through the house, he scanned the rooms carefully. Slowly opening one door and then another, weapon straight in front of him, he finally stared into the face of Emmy Wilson and caressed the trigger. The anger he felt at the kidnapping bubbled to the surface, and but regaining his control, he snarled his warning. “Do not move.”

Emmy looked up at him, her face white, and her expression worn and defeated. “O’Neil? You must be Cameron’s adopted father. Why is that? Why would Frank allow his blood to be adopted?” She shrugged casually and shifted on her chair, sipping a cup of tea. She waved him to take a seat, and said, “Sit down, Jack, the moon madness has left me. I am sorry for frightening the children, but guess I wasn’t thinking clearly last night.”

Jack stood still and repeated, “Move again and I will--”

“What? Shoot an old lady? Give it a rest, O’Neill! Frannie has called in the cavalry and they should be riding in pretty soon.” Tommy swept past Jack, and took the chair Emmy had offered. “Hello, Mrs Wilson.”

“Well, well, Tommy Mitchell.”

She stared at him, looking him up and down, and said, “You always gave my Alice the heebie-jeebies, know that?”

Tom winced. “Yeah, well, who’s the crazy one now? Jack? Might want to take a chair, this could take a while.”

Tom crossed his legs and took a deep breath, while Jack lowered his weapon and leaned against the door, motioning for Fran and the boys to stay where they were. Emmy sat up straight and folded her hands primly in her lap.

Tom started talking, and nobody dared to interrupt. “I wasn’t always insanely jealous of my brother, but after Dad came home all banged up, we drifted apart. I was so frightened of Dad! He left home a whole man and next time I see him? He had no legs! Can you imagine how frightening that was for a little boy? Anyway, I remember that Cam begged to be taken to see him in the VA hospital, but Mom wouldn’t let me go. I wonder if I’d have gone, would we have connected better? Maybe…maybe not.

“Cameron was three years my senior, but wasn’t anywhere near as smart as me. But, that never mattered! Everyone thought the sun shone right out of his backside. Dad? God Almighty, there was nothing my brother could do that could wipe that smug smile from his face. Mom? She loved us both, I know that, but with Cam, it was with joy, with me, it was almost like her duty. As we got older, I began to resent Cameron more and more, and so I found the perfect revenge.

“Did you know that Cam and Alice Wilson were high school sweethearts? Jack? They were the perfect couple! Cam was captain of the football team and she was the perky cheer captain. I ask you! Could it have been more clichéd?  Everyone figured they’d be married after college. Yep, it was all mapped out, but, she blew it. Pretty little Alice Wilson went and got herself pregnant. If I hated Cameron, I loved Alice. She’d become my obsession, and when I heard the news, I guess I went a little crazy.

“I followed her home that day because I knew Cam would be at practice.  Mm, guess that made me her stalker. She was sitting on the old tree stump near the river and was crying. She looked so lost that when I asked her what was wrong, she opened her mouth and let it all fall out. How she was late, that she was too frightened to tell her folks, and did I think Cam would marry her! It was all I could do not to throw up.

But I pulled myself together, lowered my voice to sound more manly, and made the supreme sacrifice… or so I thought. I offered to marry her. Well, she stopped crying, mainly because she started to laugh hysterically. I was every bit as good as my brother, but she thought it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard.

“Obsessions are a dangerous thing, according to the many doctors I have seen, and that love turned to hate. Just like that I never wanted to see her again. When she begged me to give Cam the letter she had written, I swore I would. I read it, memorized it, and hid it in my backpack. It had everything I needed in it to ruin my brother’s perfect life and I concocted the perfect plan.

“She wrote that she would slip out of her house and meet him at the cave near the water tower at ten-thirty. Poor little dumb Alice, I can only imagine the agony she suffered waiting for him until midnight. Cam would have given up everything, Mrs Wilson, you know that, right?  His dream of becoming a pilot like the old man would have meant nothing to him, and he would have married her. See, I kidded myself I did what I did for him. To me, I was doing the noble thing, but it was spite plain and simple.

“I waited until it was well past the meeting time, and with the money I stole money from Cam’s dresser, I walked into the cave and found her sobbing. The beautiful cheer captain was a wreck. Her hair was all damp and stuck to her face, her make-up had run, and when she begged me to tell her what Cam said I was disgusted by her neediness. Then I did the unforgivable; I told her the lie that haunts me every night. I told her he wanted her to get rid of the baby and threw the hundred bucks at her feet. Poor Alice, she crumpled in front of me but instead of feeling sorry for her, I felt empowered. Finally, I thought, I had beaten my brother. God, how pathetic does that sound?

“Next morning Joe Wilson called our home and asked to speak to Cam. When I asked why, he said his sister drowned last night, near the water tower. I almost collapsed. Drowned? I swear to God all I thought she’d do was to tell her daddy that Cameron had got her pregnant but refused to marry her. I wanted her dad to yell at my dad and make a scene. Cam would have to give up his scholarship and I’d be the clever one on track to go to college. I couldn’t say anything, I was too scared, but by then, the town was full of the news. The Sheriff came and asked to speak to Cam, and I heard him crying like a little kid in the front room. I really thought I’d got away with it all, but--I didn’t.

“The truth is a persistent bastard and always worms its way to the surface. When Cam discovered his missing money he put two and two together and came up with the answer. The sheriff had already told him about the money he’d found at the cave and when he stared at me, I started to stammer like an idiot. Cam went crazy and grabbing me by the throat, he screamed at me to confess. Naturally, I lied, but he didn’t believe me. He tore my room apart and found her letter.

“My therapist said it was a Freudian slip, that I needed to be found out, but, Christ Almighty, he would have killed me if not for Mom walking in. I owe my life to pot roast.

You know what’s the first thing I remember when I wake up and the last thing I see before I close my eyes? The hatred in my brother’s face.”

Tom buried his face in his hands and sobbed. Fran, listening at the door jamb, threw her hand to her mouth. The boys held each other’s hands for comfort. The confession had shocked everyone with its rawness and its intensity. The room fell silent, save for the breathing and the occasional, muffled sob.

Finally, the silence was broken. “Tommy! No!” Fran whispered, brushing at the tears streaming down her face, “How could you!” Her pale skin blushed as her face crumpled in agony. “Jesus, I am going to be sick!”

“You are a real piece of work, know that, Mitchell? Jack shook his head, his voice heavy with disgust. He turned his back on the distraught young man and clicked his fingers, waggling his hand. “Come on, let’s go home, children.”

“I forgive you, Thomas.” Emmy said simply. “No punishment is greater than what a heart truly feels.”

As the room emptied, Tom and Emma embraced, and through the tears, a world of hurt finally began to heal.

 

OoO

Epilogue.

The sun slowly set on Emmy’s farm, and the colors of the sky were spectacular. Sitting on the porch, watching the kids chase the chickens *someone* had let loose, she sat quietly next to Jack. The silence wasn’t companionable, and she felt the anger radiating from him. Her big blue eyes filled with tears and her bottom lip quivered, and then in a tiny voice, she whispered, “We’ve all suffered enough, Jack, let it be.”

He turned and looked into her lined faced and shook his head. “How can you say that? That little bastard was the direct cause of your daughter dying! The reason you spent a decade in the looney bin! Jesus, woman, how can you not hate him?”

Emmy shrugged, and pulled the silk scarf over her shoulders. Jasper wandered by, and thumping his tail, sat next to her and instantly dozed. “You could have had me arrested, sent back to the institution, but you didn’t. Why? Why didn’t you?”

“Aw, Emmy, it wasn’t your fault, I know that!” All the fight, the anger left his face and he sighed softly.

“Then you know why I forgive Tommy, put it down to moon madness.”

Leaning back into his chair, he nodded. “Well, Tom and Fran gave up their idea to take Cam, and went back to London. Frank and Wendy seemed okay with it, and we are leaving tomorrow morning. So, all in all, think all the demons of the past have been put to rest?”

Emmy smiled, and took his hand and brought it to her lips. “I do.”

 

 

 

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