SACRIFICIAL GAIN
By Carlyn

 

“It’s not your fault, Carter.”

Lt. Col. Samantha Carter, my former 2IC, current co-leader of SG-1, tightens her lips in that way that always makes me think she’s holding in a scream.

I know just how she feels. I’ve been there myself. Too damn many times.

How do you not blame yourself, when Daniel Jackson, consummate peaceful explorer, linguist extraordinaire, trouble magnet nonpareil, ends up dead on your watch?

Doesn’t matter that he doesn’t stay dead, you feel like crap all the same. And, though I’ve got Carter beat four-to-one in the ‘I let Daniel down’ sweepstakes, at least every time I let him get killed, he came back in one piece – temporary loss of memory excepted.

He also always came back at precisely the age he was when he left. Never short twenty-five years.

“You’re doing fine, Daniel. Take it a little slower, though. This isn’t a race.”

Pammy, Daniel’s physical therapy aid, pats one tense, sweaty arm. Even from here I can see its shaking with the strain of holding his body, slight though it is, suspended above the parallel bars. Daniel’s all but useless legs dangle, scarecrow-like, the braces securely wrapped around them the only thing keeping them from collapsing under him. There’s a strangely rhythmic cadence to the rattle of the braces followed by the squeak of his sneakers against the floor each time he propels a foot forward.

He reaches the end of the metal uprights and lifts his head, the concentration on his face fading momentarily into anxiety until he spots me. Immediately, the boyish grin replaces the panicked expression.

His blue eyes, still shining with the brilliance of the mind behind them, blink back the moisture dripping from his overly long bangs. His honey brown hair adheres to the sides of his face and he shakes his head to loose the strands. The impressive mane tosses off tiny drops of perspiration in an arc that catches the harsh light of the therapy room, creating a halo effect entirely fitting for the best man that ever walked this, or any other planet.

Man. See, there’s the catch. Because currently Daniel is a sixteen year old kid. Carter swears she has no idea what went wrong in that damn Ancient time machine they found that would have regressed Daniel this way. And she’s even more flummoxed – there’s a word I never thought I’d have the opportunity to associate with Carter – that the fatal injury Daniel received has adversely affected this incarnation’s ability to use his legs properly.

So here I stand – between Daniel’s trusting dependence and Carter’s guilt.

“Stop blaming yourself,” I growl under my breath when she sniffles at the bumbling turn Daniel makes on the bars. “You got him back. That’s the important thing.”

“He shouldn’t have been injured in the first place,” she counters.

She’s got a damn good point, but the last thing she needs is my second on her self-recrimination.

“Jaffa ambushes can’t always be predicted, Carter, you know that. And the fact that all of the Goa’uld, with the exception of Ba’al, have had the good grace to bite the dust, made the possibility that much more remote. It was just your bad luck that Daniel happened to be in the way of the first shot.”

Bastard hit him low in the back. Which is why, according to the docs, Daniel has very little strength and limited sensation below his waist. Except when his leg muscles cramp. He feels that right to the core of his being.

“General O’Neill?”

Uh-oh. Pammy’s caught me napping. This is the first time in the three months we’ve been coming here that I wasn’t right there to help her settle Daniel back into the wheelchair. Watching her push Daniel across the concrete floor, I feel my mouth pull sideways in a chagrined line.

Rolling towards us, Daniel locks his eyes briefly with mine then swings them curiously to Carter. Still puffing from his exertions, he swipes a hand through his tangled mass of tresses then discreetly wipes the sweat on his damp tee shirt. His body jerks slightly forward when Pammy screeches the wheelchair to a halt in front of us.

“Thanks, Pammy,” he mutters when she leans over and sets the brake.

“I’ll see you Friday, Daniel,” Pammy says, squeezing one bony shoulder affectionately. “Don’t forget your appointment with Dr. Poole on Thursday. I think Carl’s gonna recommend you start using the forearm crutches.”

Carl is Daniel’s physical therapist. He’s the one who designed Daniel’s workout; Pammy just makes sure he’s doing it right. And encourages the daylights out of him, bless her soul.  

“Hey, that’s something, huh?” I enthuse, though with not nearly the fervor Pammy manages just breathing. “Those’ll be much less cumbersome than your walker.”

“That’s great news, Daniel,” Carter all but whispers beside me.

No doubt sensing an untoward awkwardness to the moment, Pammy smiles respectfully to Carter and me, pats Daniel’s shoulder again, and skitters out the door. Daniel glances briefly at her retreating form then turns his twin blue lasers on Carter.

“Daniel.” I grip Carter’s elbow and pull her forward a bit. “You remember my friend, Samantha Carter.”

Daniel nods confidently. He offers one of his winningest smiles and self consciously rubs his right hand across his chest. “We met when I was in the infirmary. Sorry, I’d shake hands but…” He sweeps the ends of his long fingers over the palm of his hand, wrinkling his nose at the clamminess his tee shirt couldn’t cure.

No matter how many times he does that, I’m still amazed at the stuff he pulls out of that incredible brain of his. His infirmary stay was nearly four months ago.

We were all there, even Mitchell, when Daniel finally showed signs of waking. Teal’c kept a discreet distance so as not to alarm him. We had no idea how his regression might have affected his memory.

Turns out he had no memory to affect – at least none that involved the SGC.

Carter called me almost the minute they hit the ramp, a much younger Daniel cradled in Teal’c’s loving embrace. I made a beeline for Colorado Springs, to Daniel’s side, and have been here pretty much since. So I’ve had plenty of opportunity to talk with him about his reminiscences.

Daniel knows he’s sixteen, that fact didn’t surprise him at all. He was confused, and not a little distressed to learn he was in Colorado. The last thing he remembered was packing for college. And even I know UCLA is in California.

The day after he regained consciousness, he proudly told me he’d gotten himself declared emancipated after he’d won an academic scholarship. While we talked, his quick, intense eyes took in his surroundings, and I swear I could hear gears turning. The eyes widened a bit when he spotted the monitor over his shoulder then swung back to me, questions burning forth from their blue depths.

The kid is too damn smart. I knew immediately I’d have an easier time telling him the truth – or some sanitized version of it – than convincing him this was really 1981. So I made a unilateral decision, fully confident that Landry, and ultimately the President, would back me.

“You’ve had an accident, Daniel,” I began, resisting the urge to squirm under his penetrating gaze. “You’re in a secure military facility, Cheyenne Mountain Complex.”

“This accident,” he murmured, glancing down at his blanket-covered feet. “It’s why I can’t move my legs.”

“Yeah,” I equivocated. Though there was no sign of trauma to his spinal column in any of the tests the medical staff had performed, they had no explanation other than that staff blast for Daniel’s partial paralysis.

“Now, I know you’ve noticed some things that just aren’t registering quite right,” I said. “But you gotta trust me when I tell you that you are safe here.”

His eyes came up and pinned me with a look so earnest, I thought I’d choke on my heart. “I trust you, Jack,” he stated simply.

“How? Why?” I stammered when I could speak again.

He smiled softly and his shoulders rose in a small shrug. “I don’t know, exactly. Just a feeling, I guess.” His eyes grew troublingly dark. “I haven’t… trusted a lot. But I’ve gotten pretty good at reading people, and there’s something about you…” He finished the thought with another vague shrug. “Plus you’re the only one who’s even offered to help me understand what’s going on.”

“I’m glad,” I grinned sincerely. “I want you to feel secure about that. We only have your best interest in mind here.”

Daniel cringed a bit, his decidedly pained eyes dropping to his lap.

“Ah, heard that line a time or two before, have ya?” I surmised.

“It’s the nature of the foster care system,” he said with a measure of forgiveness so inherent to the version of Daniel I know so well, it was scary. “For the most part, I think they really do believe that. But there are so many kids…”

And finding a suitable placement for an orphaned genius had posed a real challenge.

I watched him in silence for a moment, wondering what was going on behind those too sad, pensive eyes.

“So… what?” he asked unexpectedly, snapping himself out of his funk. “This is the future?”

My eyebrows rose at the same time my mouth dropped open. How to answer that?

“Not exactly,” was the response I settled on.

And it earned me the classic ‘little pout of discontent.’

“Uh, okay, look. I can’t tell you everything,” I explained. “Not yet, anyway. So much of what you want to know is classified. Just as soon as I can, though, I’ll try and get you clearance. I’d like you to know the full story.”

Nodding, he straightened, pushing his fists into the mattress on either side of his hips to settle higher against the pillows. The move brought his eyes almost to the same height as mine, and they latched on like lampreys to a shark. The posture was unmistakable. Daniel was ready to listen.

Figuring this could take a while, I snagged one of the tall, backed infirmary stools. As soon as my ass settled, I told him what I could.

“The year is 2006, but technically this is not the future.”

The steely blue eyes disappeared behind his eyelids for a few seconds as he digested that bit of illogic.

“I know you think you’re sixteen years old… well, in truth, I guess you are… now. But four days ago, not so much.”

His eyes started to roll, and his arms came up around his chest in a self-hug, a clear sign he thought I might have changed my mind about telling him everything.

“Daniel, I can’t tell you yet how it happened, or where,” I blurted, hoping it would all make sense eventually. “But just a few days ago you were a forty-year-old civilian employee at this facility.”

Apparently that got his attention because his eyebrows shot up until they disappeared under his shaggy bangs.

“So, you see,” I concluded, “you haven’t so much come into the future as … well, okay, I’m not sure exactly what your relationship to this timeline is…”

“What do I do here?”

Stopping me absolutely in my nonsensical mutterings, Daniel’s riveting gaze helped me refocus. If only I’d had a good answer.

“Um, you, ah, you’re an archaeologist,” I responded, figuring that explained everything.

His brows came together, and I marveled at the fact that even at sixteen Daniel had those deep lines on either side of the bridge of his nose when he scowled.

“You’re also a linguist,” I added quickly. “You help translate the text on things we find on other pla… places.” If the stammer didn’t give me away, the wince sure did.

“This has got something to with aliens, doesn’t it?”

I swear, he asked the question with the same tone of voice someone else would use when asking if the sun had come up that morning. He already knew the answer.

“Why would you think…?”

“Well, assuming you’ve told me the truth about the date – ” He glanced around again at the medical equipment surrounding him. “And since things are vastly different from what I remember, I’m inclined to believe you – then either someone in your military has figured out time travel or some other, more advanced, civilization is involved.” Fighting to keep the grin off his face, he looked me square in the eye. “No offense, but I’ve never been impressed by what typically passes for brains in the military.”

“Ah,” I contended, “that’s because you haven’t talked at length with Colonel Carter. She’ll change your mind about military brains.”

And she probably would have, too, if only she’d agreed to talk to him. But short of actually ordering her to spend time with the kid, I hadn’t been able to convince her to see him. Once she knew he was going to live, she’d determined her time would be better spent researching and experimenting with the Ancient device that had downsized him in the first place, rather than getting to know the young man he’d become.

It pissed me off, but eventually I learned Daniel was better off not being exposed to her self-condemnation, anyway. Chances were good he’d begun early on to adopt other people’s failings as his own.

Which is why, when she asked the other day to speak with Daniel, I suggested she show up at his physical therapy session. At least here his mind is always occupied. I’m not going to allow Carter’s negative vibes to permeate our house, where Daniel has too much free time to dwell on them.

Watching her out of the periphery of my vision, I notice the corner of Carter’s lips lift. But the expression’s resemblance to a smile ends there.

“I’m glad to see you’re getting on so well, after…” Carter falters. “We were afraid you’d never walk again.”

Daniel offers a chagrined smirk. “I’m not sure you can actually call what I do walking-”

“Hey,” I jump in, “you put one foot in front of the other just like the rest of us. So you need the hardware to keep you upright.” I gesture at the braces encircling his legs. “That doesn’t make your accomplishment any less valid.”

Ah, shit. The kid’s head dips, and I realize instantly it was a mistake to call attention to his legs. Both of his hands drop from the arms of the wheelchair and cup his knees, his forearms strategically placed to cover as much of the Velcro straps around his thighs as possible.

Twisting in his chair, Daniel peers around anxiously. “Is my walker here somewhere? I need to get out of these sweaty clothes.” He puts his hands back on the armrests and starts to push himself up.

“Hang on.” I stop his attempt to lift himself out of the chair with a little too much pressure on his shoulder. Snatching my hand back reflexively when he shoots blue daggers at me, I flash an appeasing grin. “Why don’t you just chill a minute, huh? Carter has something she wants to tell you.”

The fire in his eyes is banked to a soft glow, and he swings his gaze in Carter’s direction.

Well, here’s a surprise. My former 2IC, she who has fearlessly faced the wrath of a dozen Goa’uld, thousands of Jaffa and one decidedly irascible team leader, jolts then begins visibly fidgeting under the inquisitive scrutiny of the skinny teen.

“How about we go over to those chairs,” I suggest, flicking a finger at the far wall. I know Daniel would rather be eye to eye with her while they talk. And Carter could probably use some time to compose herself.

Sliding in behind Daniel’s chair, I motion Carter on ahead of us.

“What’s goin’ on, Jack?” Daniel whispers as I lean over to unlock the chair’s brake.

He knows Carter’s been working on the Ancient device that downsized him. Thankfully, he doesn’t remember how close he and Carter were before that happened so he’s not been hurt by the fact that she’s been avoiding him for the last four months.

“Wish I knew, kid.” Seriously. I should have asked Carter for a preview, but I was just so thrilled she wanted to see Daniel after all this time, that it didn’t occur to me right away to question her too much. “I’m gonna guess it’s got something to do with the Ancient’s time machine, but I don’t know whether she’s got it working yet or not. Could be good news or bad news.”

I hear him mutter what sounds like “Which would be the good news?” and something in the tone triggers an alarm.

Spinning the chair so Daniel faces away from Carter, who watches us intently from the far side of the room, I go down on one knee beside him. “Daniel?”

He turns his face away from me, but I catch the trembling of his bottom lip a microsecond before he captures it with his teeth. His eyelids drop down over suddenly sad eyes at the same time his shoulders rise in a huge sigh.

On its own, my right hand comes up and squeezes his left which sits on the armrest in front of me. Two of his fingers slide between mine and hook themselves around my digits in a troublingly desperate grip. Glancing from our conjoined hands to the contorted mien of a young man holding back tears by sheer force of will, I shift closer. “Hey. Talk to me.”

His eyes open slightly, releasing pent up tears that spill rapidly down his cheeks and plop silently against his tee shirt. Pulling another big breath, he works a finger under the rim of his glasses and flicks the moisture from beneath them. The fingertips glide down the side of his face, and stop to allow his thumb to agitatedly skim across a spot of post-pubescent fuzz on his jaw. He still hasn’t made eye contact.

“You’ll go away again, won’t you.”

Ordinarily, that kind of phrasing requires the speaker to adjust the inflection in his voice to indicate he’s asked a question. Except Daniel hadn’t intended it to be a question. In fact, the way he said it, it was damn near an accusation.

Feeling my eyes widen in surprise at his attitude, I say what I believe are comforting words. “I’m staying right here, Daniel, until you’re healthy and whole again.”

Okay, not as comforting as I thought, if his frown is anything to go by. I’m truly perplexed by his reaction until a thought suddenly occurs. “Daniel, you said you don’t have any of your adult memories.”

His face tips in my direction, his eyes pinching together slightly in confusion at my apparently out-of-the-blue statement.

“I’ve never left *you,*” I say pointedly. “When I moved to Washington, it was your adult self I said good-bye to. But that sounded suspiciously like a complaint from someone who was there.”

Taking the top job at Homeworld Security had been a no-brainer. My country, hell, my world, needed me there to make sure things ran smoothly. Or at least as smoothly as anything at the Pentagon ever runs.

So, when the President called, I dutifully packed up, made arrangements to sell my house, saw Hank Landry installed as the new leader of the SGC, and prepared to get on with business.

Sure it was hard saying good-bye to all the good folks I’d worked with here over the previous eight years – most notably Walter and Siler and, of course, Carter and Teal’c.

And Daniel.

The others took my departure in stride. They all had the military mindset. They accepted that acquaintances like ours generally didn’t last a lifetime.

A notion Daniel clearly and concisely labeled ‘bullshit.’

“I’m supposed to, what, pretend the last eight years of friendship never happened?” he’d snapped when I mentioned the mindset thing. “Do you guys have some drug or something that makes that possible? Because, short of another bought of amnesia, I’m not going to forget how much you mean to me.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised by his reaction. Daniel’s the kinda guy who takes everything to heart. Even an ill-tempered, impossible to like let alone love, hard ass idiot like me.

He’d ranted a bit more then fell wearily into his chair. “I don’t know if I can do this without you, Jack,” he’d groaned miserably, lifting anguished eyes to mine.

Those same eyes regard me now, from a much younger face. His gaze turns inward for a second before he responds to my comment about his adult memories.

“No. No, I don’t remember you leaving before.” He briefly tightens his fingers around mine then pulls his hand free. Dropping it into his lap, he begins nervously picking at the cuticles on his right hand. He watches his hands distractedly for a few seconds then his gaze wanders back up. “Mitchell told me that after you went to Washington, I made arrangements to go to another galaxy.”

“Pegasus Galaxy,” I confirm, having no idea where he’s going with this. “You wanted to go to Atlantis to study the history of the Ancients.”

Eyes retreating to his lap again, he scrunches his forehead. Suddenly, I’ve got the feeling this has been on his mind for some time.

“Did I?” His question startles me out of my musings, and I’ve got to quickly adjust my position to keep from falling on my ass. “Why then?” he pushes, “Why right after you left? Why didn’t I go before, when the first team went?”

“You tried. I wouldn’t let you go.”

“I didn’t try very hard, apparently. I mean, from what you keep telling me, I’m one of the most stubborn, single-minded individuals you’ve ever met.”

“Like a dog with a bone.” That’s what I called him when he insisted he had to get out of the wheelchair before the docs even agreed to let him out of bed. He’d made up his mind he was going to walk again and bugged the crap out of everyone until they finally agreed he could start physical therapy.

“Right. So, if I had really wanted to go to Atlantis in the beginning, do you honestly think you could have stopped me?”

I’m clueless as to why this topic has come up, but his eyes have zeroed in on mine now and they’re so intense it’s all I can do to keep from wriggling under the scrutiny. Knowing the quickest way to find out what he’s thinking is just to take this particular bull by the horns, I challenge, “Daniel, what exactly are you trying to say here?”

I’ve seen party balloons deflate slower than Daniel slumps against the back of his chair. Tears wash the hardness out of his eyes, and his Adam’s apple bobs a few times, before he lowers his head over the hands folded tightly together in his lap.

Quickly running the last few minutes of conversation through my mind, trying desperately to follow the trail of Daniel’s brooding, I place a tentative hand on his knee. Damn, the kid’s trembling – but whether from the chill of his damp clothing or distress, I can’t tell.

“Daniel, you’re shivering. Are you all right? Maybe I should have let you change earlier, huh?”

His hands pull away from each other and one of them drapes itself over the hand I’ve got resting on his knee. Squeezing gently, Daniel lets loose a shaky sigh. I glance up and find him wearing a wan smile.

“You know, except for my parents, no one’s ever cared about me the way you do. I’ve only known you a few months, but I feel as close to you as if we really have been friends for the last eight years.”

There is so much sincerity in that soft avowal that, for a few seconds, I find it difficult to draw a breath. Turning my hand over, I clasp the one Daniel’s got resting on top of it. Instantly, his grip on my hand tightens.

“We’re best friends, Daniel,” I say, trying to infuse the statement with just a small measure of the dedication he’s just expressed. “We’ll always be best friends.”

Pain shoots through a few of my fingers as Daniel crushes my hand in his, but there is such desperation in his eyes, I don’t dare try and pull free.

“I don’t want to lose you, Jack,” he whispers gratingly.

“Daniel, you won’t…” I begin to protest.

“No, listen. Please.”

The intensity is back in his eyes, and I nod dumbly under his searching gaze.

Realizing that he’s holding my hand a little too tightly, he lets it go, stroking his fingers over my palm as he lifts his. He winces in apology when I flex my fingers experimentally. He had quite a grip on me a second ago.

Placing his hands against the armrests of his wheelchair, Daniel shifts his lower body until he’s sitting perfectly straight in the chair. Pulling his shoulders high, he again folds his hands together, loosely this time, and rests them in his lap.

“I don’t want Sam to fix the Ancient’s device,” he says, without any hint of doubt in his voice. “If my becoming adult again means being alone, I’d rather continue in this life… difficult as it is sometimes.” He awkwardly lifts one braced leg. “I know that as long as I need you here, the President will extend your leave of absence from Homeworld Security. And I also know that if it was your choice, you wouldn’t go back to Washington.”

I’m uncharacteristically taken aback. He’s right, of course, but I had no idea the kid was this intuitive. I’ve done a lot of disgraceful things in the course of my military career but my biggest regret is accepting the post as head of Homeworld Security when George Hammond decided to retire. Nothing’s felt ‘right’ since.

But to ask Daniel to stay a teenager, a handicapped teen at that…

“You’re not asking, Jack,” Daniel says, seemingly able now to respond directly to my thoughts. “I don’t want to go back. Not if it means losing the one person in my life that I care about more than anyone.”

I stare hard into the depths of his crystal blue eyes, so strange yet so amazingly familiar, and there is such frankness… he means every word of it. He’d stay as he is to keep me in his life.

“I don’t remember my adult life at all. It’s not like I’ll miss it,” Daniel argues perfectly calmly. “I’m pretty good with languages. I’m sure I could help your linguistics department with some translations, too. Although, I don’t suppose General Landry’ll let me go off-world, even after I’ve graduated to forearm crutches.”

“Hey, forget Landry, I’m the one with the final say here, and I’m telling you right now, it ain’t gonna happen.”

Daniel drops his chin against his chest but not before I see his face break into a genuinely satisfied smile. Damn, who’d a thought the kid would appreciate a little caring restraint. His adult self sure never grinned at me like that when I held him back.

I pretend not to notice his contented reaction to my ‘your guardian has spoken’ stance, and give him a minute to bask.

Pushing myself stiffly to my feet, I see Carter sit up expectantly. Smirking apologetically, I reach out and squeeze his shoulder. “Carter’s waiting.”

He looks up at me with those clear, trusting eyes, and I see him tense, ever so slightly in anticipation of the news he’s dreading to hear. And at that moment I’m ready to lift him from that wheelchair, if I have to, and carry him out of here, away from every threat to his happiness.

Daniel hasn’t asked for much out of life – I think mostly because he still believes he doesn’t deserve all that much. Which just goes to show that, while he can think circles around most people on a lot of topics, he’s not all that brilliant when it comes to recognizing his own worth. No one deserves happiness more than this young man. And while I might not be able to keep all the bad stuff away, I can, at least, delay it this one time.

“What’s say we blow her off?” I say decisively and shift quickly behind him. Gripping the handles of his chair, I tip him back, glancing down into dancing blue eyes edged with grateful moisture. A trembling smile graces his features, and he lets out a small relieved laugh.

Spinning him on the back wheels, I let the chair down slowly when we’re facing Carter again. “Sorry, Carter,” I say, pushing right past her on our way to the locker room. “Something important’s just come up. We’ll have to reschedule. Call me to set up a time, hmm?”

And we’re outa there, leaving a noticeably dumbfounded Lieutenant Colonel in our wake. I help Daniel take a quick shower then we head for his favorite Thai restaurant. I feel kinda like celebrating.

*****

“Jack!”

Shaken from a sound sleep, I leap out of bed and run, unerringly, to his side. Not even taking time to turn on the light, I extend my hands, gripping legs tight with severely contracting muscles, even as I drop on the side of his bed.

I hear Daniel crying softly, feel his hands skittering uselessly across one thigh, desperate to stop the torment. He’s doubled over, having pulled himself into a tight ball of misery against the hellish spasms. I can just make out his face, red with exertion, a fine sheen of perspiration covering features twisted in a heart-rending grimace.

Digging my fingers into his flesh, I whisper soothing nonsense, knowing he’ll concentrate on my voice as a way to shut out the agony. I knead with firm, smooth strokes and, while it probably feels like a lifetime to Daniel, it isn’t long before I detect the knotted muscles easing.

Soon Daniel’s thin body unfolds and he stretches out on the mattress. His hands lift from his legs, one balling against his chest, the other slipping between his cheek and the pillow. He sighs then sniffs, pulling the sheet up to rub away his pain-generated tears and sweat. I continue the massage long after the cramping has stopped, adjusting the tension to a slow, relaxing caress.

Daniel pulls one huge, tremulous breath and turns onto his back, red-rimmed, half-opened eyes, blinking tranquility. “Thanks, Jack,” he whispers.

“Anytime, kid,” I say quietly. Leaning over him, I pull up the blankets he’d kicked off with his threshing, tucking them securely around his shoulders. Without thinking, I place a soft kiss on his damp forehead, self-consciously wiping it away with a sweep of my fingers under the guise of pushing his tangled hair away from his face.

But rather than being affronted by the kiss, the teen smiles happily, his eyelids drifting downward to rest on still pink cheeks. Almost instantly, Daniel draws the deep, even breaths of sleep, a barely-there rumble the precursor to the gentle snores I remember so well from our time in a shared tent off-world.

I cherish those moments every bit as much as I’ll cherish these. I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t suppose we can put Carter off forever. But if she has managed to fix the Ancient’s time device… nope, not gonna think about it tonight. There’ll be plenty of time later for making hard decisions.

For now, I content myself with watching Daniel sleep. This incredible person who just admitted to me he’d rather remain a sixteen-year-old, handicapped kid than return to the brilliant, accomplished man he knows he is – if going back means I won’t be here with him.

“I want that too, Danny,” I whisper, fingering the hair that sticks wetly to his temple. “I have missed you in my life. And whatever Carter tells us – whether she can resize you or not, we’ll find a way to stay together. I promise.”

Curling my hand around the one still clutching the sheet to his chest, I revel in the warmth of his skin against mine, feeling it literally travel up my arm and over my shoulder, infusing my heart, too long cold from his absence, with balmy solace.

I’ve known for a long time that I need Daniel every bit as much as he’s confessed to needing me. I know I’ll meet resistance on several fronts, but for both our sakes, I intend to find within myself the courage he’s so effortlessly displayed, and do whatever it takes to make good on my promise.

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