Stars are funny like that,
They burn their brightest
Right before they burn out- Daniel, East of Pacific
Jack’s initial impression was that the boy was simply beautiful. Boy might be stretching it a bit, but so was the bio that claimed the singer was twenty-seven years old. It seemed inconceivable that he was twenty-seven, twenty would be seriously pushing it. But the beautiful part? Oh, that was undoubtedly true. His soft brown hair was cleverly styled so that it looked like he’d just tumbled out of bed. The blue eyes? Had to be the result of contact lenses, eyes just did not come in a shade resembling cool ocean water. The slender body was displayed in sprayed on jeans under which he had to be wearing absolutely nothing. A tight white T-shirt and simple black boots completed the ensemble.
The whole thing screamed rock star in six-foot neon letters. The fact that the kid could actually sing was almost secondary. When he strutted around the stage and wiggled the hips, the ass, singing was the last thing on most people’s mind. The ass alone would have garnered attention from just about anyone.
And Jack O’Neill wasn’t just anyone. Sadly, however, the boy was soon to be his responsibility and as bad as he hated it, there was one rule he simply didn’t break. He didn’t fuck clients. Which was a damned shame, Jack lamented silently, as he stood in the wings and watched the kid wow the audience. With the way he could move, Jack was willing to bet he was a damned good fuck.
“So, Jack, what do you think?”
He turned back to Harry Maybourne, the kid’s manager and a former compatriot. “I can see why someone would want to kill him. The competition, jilted lovers, hormone-crazed thirteen year olds. Yeah, I’ll bet they’re lining up to off him.”
“Well, someone’s been sending some pretty disturbing emails. The FBI can’t pin the guy down. The truth is I don’t want to see anything happen to Daniel.”
“Helluva lot of money for you to lose, if he got whacked.” Jack eyed him coolly.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. He means a lot to me, both personally and professionally. You just keep him safe. That’s what we’re paying for.”
“Fair enough. The kid know I’m his body man?”
Maybourne squirmed. “I haven’t exactly told him yet. He doesn’t take the emails seriously. I do and so do the police.”
Jack turned back to watch the kid take his bows before a screaming concert crowd.
Daniel flung himself into a chair, nearly spilling his bottle of water. “I can’t believe you hired this guy and didn’t even consult me!”
“I don’t ask your permission for everyone I hire. He stays, Daniel, no argument.”
“I don’t want a bodyguard. I don’t need a bodyguard!” He sounded like he was a hair away from a tantrum.
“Tough. You’re getting one. Get used to it.”
Jack stood silently and watched the interaction, enjoying this show much more than the professionally presented one. The kid had headed straight for the shower as soon as he left the stage. The hair was now springing up in damp, unruly curls. The skin-tight jeans had been exchanged for a pair that were threadbare and obviously old friends. This T-shirt was several sizes too large, kept sliding off one slim shoulder and had a message that proclaimed that ‘they’ were out there. Somewhere. The sneakers were one of the popular brands but were also decidedly lived-in. He sighed and drew his attention back to the ongoing argument.
Even though the kid, Daniel, put up a good fight, it was pretty apparent Maybourne was going to win this one. He waited for a lull in the argument before addressing his unwilling client. “The name is Jack O’Neill. As of right now, you go nowhere without me or a member of my team.”
The blue eyes flared behind the glasses he had donned as soon as he entered the dressing room. So, not contacts, the eyes were real. And right now they didn’t in the least resemble cool water, they were more like flames. Jack didn’t really care. “How long am I going to have to drag Wyatt Earp along behind me?” Daniel asked, gritting his teeth.
“Until I say otherwise, Daniel. He’s flying back to LA with you tonight.” Maybourne spread his hands in entreaty. “Hell, if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me. Janet’ll kill me if something happens to you.”
His face slowly dimpled and Jack saw what millions of fans did. The guy had charm to spare. “Harry, that was an extremely low blow.”
An unrepentant Harry grinned back at him. “So where are you off to this weekend?” Since a bout with pneumonia last year had resulted in a hospital stay and several cancelled shows, Janet, who was also Daniel’s personal physician as well as Harry’s wife, had put her tiny foot down. Daniel took a weekend off once a month-every single month-come hell or high water.
“It’s supposed to rain, so I thought I’d,” he amended, “we’d go to Malibu.”
Only someone who had known him as long as Harry had could understand the non sequitur. “You want Mimi?”
Daniel shook his head. “She can stock the kitchen for me.” He turned to Jack. “Anything specific we need to know in the care and feeding of bodyguards?”
“Nothing special. I can eat anything.”
“Wait until after you’ve eaten something Daniel considers food, then get back to me on that.” Harry chortled at Daniel’s expression. “I assume you want Max?”
There was a knock on the door. “Harry, the limo’s ready.”
Jack tilted his head. “Come on, kid, your chariot awaits.”
Jack had never made an escape quite like it. The limo pulled into the building itself. After his bags were stored in the trunk, he crawled in after Daniel, they belted up and the car shot out of the back entrance of the arena. He realized the kid was looking at him, assessing him. “So, Jack? You do this for a living?”
“I do now.”
Daniel considered him. He didn’t look like his concept of bodyguard, big and beefy. He was taller, but not by much. Slimly built, with an attractive face, enigmatic yet intelligent dark brown eyes and silver hair that was the only indication that he had several years on Daniel. “And what did you do before?”
“None of your business.”
Daniel shook his head. “On the contrary, if you’re gonna be living in my house and with me every waking moment, everything about you is now my business. So we might as well start getting acquainted. Married? Family?”
“No on both counts.”
“See, we already have something in common.” Jack had read the bio, but he figured it was bogus, designed to grab sympathy. Orphaned at eight, shipped around to foster homes until some music mogul on vacation wanders into a karaoke bar and finds a scrawny teen-ager belting one out. A few years and several million CDs later, Daniel, just Daniel, no last name, was a solid presence in the music world.
It didn’t surprise Jack that the kid was curled up and asleep before wheels were up. After all that jumping around on stage, anyone would be exhausted. When the seatbelt sign went off, he rose, slung a blanket over the crumpled figure, then opened a bottle of water and contemplated his latest gig.
He hadn’t really lied to the kid. He wasn’t married-any more-and his family didn’t have a whole lot to do with him these days. Oh, he still sent flowers for Mother’s Day and something nice for Christmas and birthdays. And maybe his folks wondered why their savings suddenly came up a few grand more than it should, but that’s where the connection ended. They didn’t understand his life any more than he understood how he had gone from the son of middle-American regular people to do what he did for a living.
Did. Did. Used to do. Didn’t do anymore.
Although there were times…Jack shut the thought off ruthlessly. Much, much better this way. Better that Sarah got away from him before he screwed her up, too. Before they had a kid. He couldn’t even imagine what a piss poor father he would have been.
No, much, much better this way.
He turned his attention back to his client. Much safer. Or so he thought until he got a good look at him, lying there innocent in his sleep. Yeah, innocent, he silently snorted. He’d done enough security for bands, both rock and country, to know that although a lot of what people thought happened on the road was exaggerated, there was a grain of truth in it all. Yes, sex, drugs and rock and roll were alive and well. Kid must have gotten rid of the entourage until he knew he could trust the new bodyguard.
There was only one thing wrong with that theory, though. Unless the backstage argument was staged for his benefit, the kid hadn’t known he was coming.
Daniel slept all the way to LAX, before stumbling into another limo and promptly turning if off again. The driver apparently knew where they were headed. Jack opened the bar and got himself a Coke before buzzing the driver and asking if he wanted anything. Jack knew how uncomfortable the life of a working stiff could be. He handed a Coke through the now-opened window and waved away the thanks.
If Jack had been expecting a palatial Malibu estate, he was bound to be disappointed. Yes, it was gated and yes, the limo driver had to lower the window in order to place his palm on the scanner before the gates opened. But the house that appeared before him seemed quite tame compared to some they had passed. The courtyard where the limo was parking was barely big enough for the vehicle to turn.
With great reluctance, Jack shook his client. “Come on, kid, we’re home.”
Daniel woke instantly. “Home?” He craned his head hopefully. “Great!” He crawled across Jack, politely thanked the chauffeur, disconcerting Jack by calling him by name before dashing for the entryway, where he pressed his palm to the scanner. After waving off the driver and picking up his own bags, Jack was on his heels. “Here.” Following him inside, he watched as Daniel pushed a few buttons. “Scan your hand so the system will let you in.” Daniel left him to it, shouting, “Max?”
Jack heard the unmistakable sounds of dog paws pounding hurriedly down the wooden stairs before Daniel dropped to his knees and filled his arms with what looked suspiciously like a beagle. He realized he’d expected some pedigreed pooch instead of an old-fashioned working dog.
He took advantage of Daniel’s distraction to survey the house. Light green walls, hardwood floors, simple furniture. The single attached garage was barely big enough for the cherry-red Tahoe. And the house might have been small, but three stories on a Malibu beachfront? Had to be worth a few million, easily. He was pleased with the security system. All doors were solid, without windows, and were set to the scanner system. No keyed entry anywhere. The windows looked to be bullet-proof but still afforded a breath-taking view of the ocean and the surrounding hills. There were no houses close enough to worry too much about, although a high powered rifle could do a lot of damage even at that distance.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he explored the bedrooms. Okay, this one was obviously the master, so he was taking the one next door. Both had their own bathrooms; even in the guest room, they were generously sized. And quite plain, Jack was surprised to see. The walls were also a soft green; all the fixtures were white and looked antique to his scrutinizing gaze.
There were two smaller bedrooms on this level so it was plain this wasn’t his main home. Not enough entertaining space. The iron spiral staircase took him up to a music room that took up the whole third floor. There was a baby grand, which begged the question of how the hell had they gotten it up here, along with some complicated electronics that might have been recording stuff. Along the wall, in holders obviously designed for just such a purpose, rested guitars, violins, surprisingly a banjo, and several other string instruments he couldn’t readily identify.
“Do you play?” Jack cursed silently as he realized the kid had crept in behind him. He convinced himself it was because of the tennis shoes. The same excuse didn’t work for Max who was excitedly circling his master.
“I can play the radio.” Jack eyed the collection again. “Don’t tell me you play all of these.”
“Okay,” he agreed readily, “I don’t play all of these. Well, not at the same time, anyway. Oh, just so you know, Janet will be calling sometime today and she will ask you if I’ve been in this room. I’d appreciate it if you’d say I haven’t.”
Jack suppressed a lip twitch that might have been a smile. “Sorry, kid. I’m not lying for you. And why do you need to lie to your manager’s wife?”
“Because she’s also my doctor and she has this iron-clad rule that I don’t work on my off weekends. No playing music, no listening to demos, no writing music. None of which you’ve seen me do, I’ll thank you to remember when the Terminator calls.”
Jack did smile at that. “Now, that I can do.”
After lunch, he found he was able to relax a bit. The security got high marks from him. It was extensive without being intrusive. There were multiple cameras outside, so that all of the exterior could be viewed from any of the television screens.
And he’d figured out why the kid wanted to go to the beach on a rainy weekend. There was no one about. No one in the other clearly weekend get-away homes, no one lying on the beach. All they’d seen was an occasional jogger.
So he agreed to let him take Max down to romp on the beach, knowing both kid and dog would end up in the water. Well, it was California. It wasn’t like he was liable to catch a chill. Jack brought a chair down with him and sat on the sand to watch.
The kid was an enigma. He wasn’t at all what Jack thought when he agreed to take the job. Guarding a spoiled rotten rock star? Been there, done that, strangely enough, still had the T-shirt. This Daniel, though, didn’t seem at all spoiled. Yeah, he’d put up a fight over the bodyguard thing, but when he realized he was losing, he gave in graciously. He had spoken kindly to the driver, the attendants on the plane in the brief time he’d actually been conscious. Max clearly adored the kid. And Jack had always considered dogs to be very good judges of human nature.
The worst part, of course, was the fact that he found himself dangerously attracted to him. Barefoot in wet jeans and T-shirt, romping with Max, he was sexy as hell. The tabloids would undoubtedly pay premium bucks for a picture of the sight Jack was currently beholding.
Fortunately, Jack had his libido nearly under control when the kids, both of them, collapsed dripping wet to the sand beside his chair. “Have a nice swim, did we?” He inquired coolly, face inscrutable behind his shades.
“Yeah,” Daniel gasped, “you should try it.” They sat like that until Daniel’s breathing wasn’t the only thing he could hear, pounding in his head even louder than the sound of the surf. It was the sound of far-off thunder that thrust him into action.
“Okay, time to go in.” Daniel didn’t even argue, just turned and jogged up the steps. Max trotted through the dog door, then stood waiting patiently for the scanner to accept Jack’s palm scan. He glanced down at the opening Max had used, then pointedly at Daniel, who sighed.
“It has a bio-scanner.”
“So if someone human tried to use it?”
“The system would immediately realize they were human, not dog and all the nice alarms would go off.” Daniel stepped into the kitchen behind Jack. “The windows are not only bullet-proof, they’re reflective so no one can take pictures through them.”
Jack frowned at the thought of having your privacy invaded in your own home. It had to be the worst kind of violation. “That’s happened?”
“Just one time. Most of these houses are owned by celebrities, so it’s not unusual to have helicopters out there trying to see into the windows. We had the security upgraded and I, well, I ended up giving the house away.”
“You gave this house away?”
“I gave it to Janet’s daughter for a graduation present.”
“High school,” Daniel mumbled under his breath.
“You gave a teen-age girl a million-dollar beach house in Malibu for a high school graduation present? Are you nuts?”
“Janet had much the same reaction as you did. So we struck a deal. The deed to the house is in Cassie’s name. Got the reporters off my back and gives Cassie some equity for when she gets to be an adult. And I come here and stay when I want to. Janet and Harry occasionally use the house and they had a couple of weeks here last summer with Cassie. Works out great for all involved.”
A faint suspicion whispered in his ear, even though he told himself it was none of his business. “How much else of your stuff is in some else’s name?”
Daniel stiffened. “Not that it’s any of your business, but all my other properties are in my name. No one’s name but mine is on the bank accounts or the investments or the record contracts. Oh, wait, I gave Harry the Corvette for Christmas so that’s in his name!” He pushed past Jack. “Excuse me, I’m going to take a shower.” The slamming of an upstairs door came as no surprise, as was the dog that, with a decided sniff, deserted him.
Jack took a sip of coffee. “Man’s best friend, indeed.”
Jack had been given the cold shoulder by the best of them, but he had to admit, Daniel was a master. He came downstairs half-an-hour later, politely apologized for his appalling manners and began grilling some steaks. Polite to the point of coolness, he successfully ignored Jack for the remainder of the evening by pottering around the kitchen, reading through some magazines that were on the kitchen counter, offering him the TV remote. Jack decided to let him pout out his bad mood and was doing pretty well until the power went out, plunging them into darkness.
Suddenly, Daniel found himself flat on the highly polished hardwood floor with Jack’s body holding him down. “Damn!” Jack muttered. “Stay where you are.” Grabbing Max, he thrust the squealing dog into Daniel’s arms. “Both of you.”
“Jack?” Daniel’s voice held an amusing quality as he tried to rise.
His hand shoved Daniel’s head down roughly, held it. “You stay where I goddammed tell you to!”
He started to retort until he heard what, to even his untrained ear, sounded like a gun being readied. “Jack?” Now his voice sounded almost scared. He held Max a little tighter, licked his lip, swallowed a lump in his throat before he could try again. “It’s just a power failure.”
“Until I know otherwise, you stay down here, you hear? Don’t you move a muscle!” When Jack felt Daniel nod, he slid off to the side. “Okay, security?”
“It’s solar powered; the unit is in the garage.”
Jack wriggled around until he got his cell phone out of his pocket. “Dial 911, report the power outage.” Daniel started to sit up only to be shoved down again. “From down there. Up against the couch.” He sighed but rolled until he was again wedged against the couch before dialing.
“The power outage is all over this part of the county. It’s not just us.” Unwilling to have his head shoved to the floor again, Daniel rolled onto his stomach so he could see where Jack was. “Jack?”
“Sorry, I was in the garage. I think we’re good. Did they give you any idea of how long the power should be out?”
“They wouldn’t even guess. I can light the fireplace, it’s gas.”
Jack debated that for a moment. “How do I close the blinds in the kitchen?”
“The remote should be in a basket on the counter.”
Jack re-checked all the doors and closed the blinds before he agreed to let Daniel up. Soon the fire was giving a cheery light to the darkened living room. “Good thing we’d already had dinner.” Daniel sprawled across the couch with Max.
“If the power isn’t back on in two hours, we’re out of here.”
“And where will we go? A hotel? Yeah, that’ll be real secure. By the time we drive to the LA house, it’ll be morning.”
Jack cursed under his breath. Daniel had a valid point. “Okay, so we stay here. I guess we’ll be bunking on the couches.”
“With perfectly good bedrooms upstairs? I don’t think so.”
“Unless you’re prepared to share that perfectly good bed, you stay where I can keep an eye on you.” Must have been a trick of the light, Jack decided, because it looked an awful lot like Daniel was blushing.
Jack had allowed Daniel one trip upstairs to bring down anything he thought he might need accompanied, of course, by Jack. With a sigh, Daniel changed into shorts and T-shirt. Grabbing blankets and pillows for the couches, he glanced around to see if there was anything else he might need. “Come on, Max,” Daniel sighed. “Looks like we’re in for a very long night.”
Under different circumstances, Jack would have quite enjoyed the night. A glass of good whiskey, a fireplace, candlelight, the sounds of a raging storm, good conversation with an attractive companion. If his companion had been not just attractive but warm and willing, it would have been perfect. As it was, Jack was chagrined to realize the current object of his affection didn’t drink, couldn’t play poker worth a damn and had declined to share a bed with him but seemed perfectly content to snuggle up on the couch with a beagle. It was enough to make a man go straight.
“Tomorrow, you’ll be flying to London to tape your segment for ‘History.’” Daniel nodded absently as Harry laid out his schedule for the next week. “You have to be done by Tuesday noon, no later. Your flight leaves Heathrow for Shannon at 3, make sure he doesn’t miss it.” This was addressed to Jack. “The first concert is in Dublin, that’s Wednesday night, then Thursday you’re back in London. After the show, you’ll fly back to LA. Saturday, we’ve got the studio all day for the last, hopefully, bits and pieces of the new album.”
“Disc, Harry, no one makes albums anymore.” Daniel chided him gently.
“Well, in my day,” Daniel rolled his eyes, “that’s what we called them. Okay, that looks like everything. Try to get in the bed at a decent hour, okay? The limo will be here at five AM sharp. Mimi’s already got you packed and ready to go. O’Neill.”
“Oh, I think I can pack my own bag, thank you.”
“What the hell?” Jack didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was staring. Daniel was dressed in striped bell-bottoms, a suede jacket and little round glasses. “Trying out a new look?”
“Oh,” he glanced down. “You like it? This show that I’m singing on is doing a comprehensive look at the history of music. I’m 1965.”
“That was the year I was born.”
“Jeez,” Jack didn’t want to think about what he was doing in 1965. “You know, you look ridiculous.” Actually, he looked pretty damn good. They had done something to his hair, straightened out the curl and turned the ends under. He looked about fifteen at the moment.
“Really?” Daniel peeped in a convenient mirror. “I thought it was cool. They’re gonna let me keep the glasses, they’re my prescription and everything!”
“So what are you singing?” Jack followed him around backstage, stepping over cables and around scurrying people.
“’Yesterday.’ Beatles, you know.”
“I’ve heard of them.” Jack nodded gravely.
“And Sharlie and I are doing ‘I’ve got You , Babe’.”
“Sharlie Henderson? She’s one of the Roo Girls?”
“Jack, you really have to get out more.”
After a week spending every waking hour with Daniel, Jack realized he was in serious trouble of falling for a pair of big blue eyes so he did the only thing he could do. He retreated.
Jack was waiting impatiently by the front door of Daniel’s LA house when his replacement was delivered. “Teal’c, good to see you, come on up and I’ll introduce you to Daniel.” Teal’c followed his boss upstairs, surveying the house as he went. As houses went, it wasn’t huge, Teal’c was almost disappointed. He’d heard about the lavish life style of these American singers and to have one live in such a normal looking house was quite a letdown for him.
Jack knocked before entering Daniel’s office. “Sorry to interrupt but I need to introduce you to Teal’c. T, this is Daniel. Daniel, Teal’c’s gonna be taking over for me here.”
Daniel’s head shot up in surprise. “What?”
“Hey, I do have a business to run. You’re not my only client.”
The cool tone had the desired affect. Jack tried to ignore the quick look of hurt that flitted across Daniel’s face before he recovered his poise. “Yes, I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time. So, Teal’c, ready to go on tour with me?”
“Indeed I am, Daniel. I look forward to being of any assistance I can to you.”
Daniel took to Teal’c immediately. He was mostly silent, had the kind of face that left you wondering if he ever lightened up. But he was at Daniel’s side constantly, smoothing the way for him after the shows, getting Daniel into the limo or the plane or the hotel room. Daniel idly wondered if he could persuade him to leave Jack and come work for him permanently. After this whole mess was over with, he’d bring it up, he decided.
“Well, Teal’c, we’re here in New York until the awards. Is there anything you want to do?”
“There are several tourist sites I would like to explore. Would you be able to accompany me?”
Daniel looked uncomfortable. “Wish I could, Teal’c, but I can’t really do the tourist things anymore. I kind of get recognized and, well, it isn’t much fun after that. But you go ahead, see the sights.”
Teal’c shook his head. “My first duty is to your safety, Daniel. If you cannot go, then I cannot go.”
And that, Daniel realized, was that.
People, Teal’c discovered, who thought singers partied all night and slept till noon had obviously not spent much time around them. When Daniel wasn’t working, he was in his hotel room, writing and playing. The morning of the award show, he accompanied Daniel to a luncheon where all the nominees were honored. Teal’c heard Daniel wish more than a few of his fellow nominees good luck.
“Do you not wish to win, Daniel?”
”Would be nice, Teal’c, but I’m so far out of most of these guy’s leagues that just getting nominated was a miracle. No, I won’t be winning anything tonight.” Daniel led him toward the door. “We’ve got half an hour to get to the theatre for my rehearsal.”
They were in the limo stuck in traffic, Daniel on his cell phone trying to work out just how late they were going to be when Teal’c’s phone rang. With a frown, he answered it.
“Teal’c, this is Harry Maybourne, Daniel’s manager. Is he there with you? I can’t get him on his phone.”
“He is currently engaged in conversation on his mobile unit with the theatre, it appears we will be late for his rehearsal engagement.”
“Can you give him the phone? And stay close, will you? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”
Teal’c frowned but handed the phone over. “Daniel, your manager needs to speak with you on a matter of some urgency.”
Daniel snatched the phone. “Harry, what’s wrong?” Teal’c watched as his face froze. “No, you’re wrong. You’re wrong.” He kept shaking his head, trying to deny what he had heard. Finally, Daniel woodenly handed the phone back to Teal’c.
“Teal’c, I’m sorry, I didn’t want him to hear it from anybody else. Max is dead.”
“That is not possible. The dog appeared well and healthy.”
“Well, the vet’s doing an autopsy. I know he has to sing, he doesn’t have any choice. As soon as he gets off stage, get him out of there. They’ll just have to miss him at the parties.” They finalized the plans before hanging up.
“Daniel, I am sorry for your loss.”
Daniel kept his face turned toward the window, not saying a word.
Jack glanced at the offering his assistant had left on his desk beside his cup of coffee, a blurb circled in red. In a childish fit he was ashamed of, he hadn’t immediately acknowledged Harry’s message the previous night. Only after Teal’c called had he finally heard about Max. He was informed that Teal’c could not put Daniel on the phone as ordered because he had shut himself in the sleeping compartment of the airplane and requested to be left alone.
Picking up the sheet, he read the brief article his assistant had printed from one of those Internet gossip sites.
While some critics panned Daniel’s performance last night as overly emotional and lacking in finesse, it was clear the audience didn’t agree. Before he finished his soon-to-be released “Lost Night”, the crowd was already on their feet.
Even though he didn’t pick up any awards, his time will certainly come. Daniel is already setting himself apart from the rest of his pop co-horts with a strong musical background, solid vocals and a clever and consistent hand at song writing.
Rumors abound that he has recently become the target of a stalker, a story Daniel declined to comment on as he entered the theatre, the ever present security keeping reporters and cameras well at bay.
The singer must have had a private tête-à-tête to attend, as he skipped all the after-show parties, including one thrown by his own label, and hopped a plane to LA immediately after his performance.
Yeah, Jack thought, Daniel had a private party to attend.
He flew back to LA and buried his oldest friend.
Two days later, Jack was awakened from a deep sleep by the ringing of the phone, never good at something after three. He flipped the light on before answering. “O’Neill.”
“O’Neill, I believe you should make haste to come to Los Angeles.”
“Is Daniel alright?” His heart seemed to skitter.
“Daniel is unharmed. However, an email was received earlier today that insinuated that Max’s death was not accidental.”
“What did it say, T?” Jack was already reaching in the closet.
“The email said simply ‘It could have been you’ and was accompanied by a photo of Daniel and Max.”
“Damn.” Jack sat heavily on the bed.
“Indeed.” Teal’c agreed.
Another tidbit Jack had gleaned from the ‘Net had been hastily shoved in his briefcase. Someone, it seemed, was keeping the press informed of the details of Daniel’s life.
A little birdie tells us that pop-star Daniel’s hurried exit after last week’s Billboard show was due to the fact that his beloved dog, Max, had died unexpectedly earlier in the day. Fans will remember the playful beagle from its appearance in Daniel’s “East of Pacific” video. Unconfirmed reports allege that Max was poisoned, although Daniel’s long time manager, Harry Maybourne, refuses to either confirm or deny the report and would only say that Daniel was “devastated at Max’s loss.” The dog had been the singer’s constant companion for nearly ten years.
Jack winced at the pallor of Daniel’s face when he finally made it to LA to replace Teal’c. “Daniel, I’m sorry about Max. I liked him, even if he didn’t like me.”
“Max liked you,” Daniel maintained.
“He was just shy of showing his feelings.”
“So, his pissing on my tires was just his way of pulling my pigtails?” Jack waited for the smile that never came. “What happened to Max wasn’t your fault.”
“Looks kind of different from where I’m standing.”
“You couldn’t have done anything differently.”
Daniel swung away from the window to face him. “So if I’d taken those emails more seriously instead of laughing them off? If I’d insisted on more security, that guy wouldn’t have been able to somehow poison Max?” Jack desperately wanted to reassure Daniel but the words wouldn’t come. Daniel nodded before turning away. “That’s what I thought.”
Making sure Daniel was upstairs, Jack quickly dialed. “Harry. Any more news about Max?”
“We think we know how the guy got to him. Mimi’s daughter was at the house last week and she said the neighbor’s gardener was playing with Max. We don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t their gardener.”
“Dead end then?”
“Not necessarily. The little girl gave us a description, I’ll get you a copy so you can give it to your people.”
“Thanks. Listen, I think he needs to get away. This thing with Max is still wearing on him.”
Harry shifted the phone under his chin. “I agree. Janet’s been on my ass all week about it.”
“So I’ve got an idea. Let me take him this weekend. I’ve got a cabin. Very far off the beaten track. No electricity, no TV, no photographers. Be good for him to just unwind.”
“Sounds great, but how you gonna get him to agree to it.”
“I’m not going to ask, I’m just going to take him.”
Harry laughed sharply. “Good luck, you’re gonna need it.”
“So, city or country?”
“Told you I’m not telling, so you can just quit asking.” Jack hid a smirk behind a yawn.
“Okay, let’s look at the clues, shall we? I didn’t get to pack my own clothes, so that would have been a dead give-away. However, Mimi didn’t take anything out of my closet, I know because I checked. So that means no dress-up clothes, like suits, so probably not the city. She only packed what was in the laundry, so that means jeans. Casual, maybe country? I wasn’t instructed to get my passport so not overseas. I was, however, told to grab a jacket even though it is May so we’re heading north.”
“Keep it up and I’ll hire you as a detective.”
Daniel didn’t learn anything by looking out the window as the plane landed; airports were pretty much the same anywhere you went, long stretches of flat land. “Okay, I give up. Where are we?” He followed Jack off the plane.
“Minnesota? Not sure I’ve ever been here before.” Jack didn’t answer as they entered the terminal. There were distinct advantages of flying privately; one was that you didn’t have to make your way through the regular terminal, there were usually separate ones for private flights. Plus there was the added benefit of not having to wait for your luggage. There was an attendant waiting with the keys to the truck Jack had rented and a golf cart to transport them to the lot.
And so they were on their way to Jack’s private retreat. A retreat, unbeknownst to Daniel, he had never shared with anyone. None of his team, certainly no one in his family, had ever been to the cabin. No on had slept under this roof except Jack.
There was a soft rain falling on the truck roof; Jack found himself hoping it would rain harder in the night. There was something soothing about listening to a night-time rain on the old tin roof; best lullaby he’d ever found.
He’d called his caretaker and asked if his wife would clean the cabin up and lay in a supply of food so they wouldn’t have to stop anywhere.
“This is nice.” Daniel crawled out of the truck and stretched before grabbing his bag and following Jack into the cabin. “Hey, why’s it so dark?”
“Have to get the generator going.”
“Generator? As in no electricity?”
“Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere without electricity before.”
Jack shot a look back over his shoulder. “Never been camping before?”
“Nope.” Jack wondered idly if bringing a city boy to a rustic cabin was a smart thing to do. “Hey, does that mean there’s no bathroom?”
Chuckling, Jack shook his head. “No, I’m not into totally roughing it. After I get the generator going, I’ll turn the water on.”
“Okay. Anything I can do to help?”
“Yeah, open the windows, let some fresh air in.”
Jack followed slowly and watched Daniel commune with nature. They were both wet to their knees from walking through the meadow, Jack identifying flowers and trees for the eager to learn Daniel, steering him clear of the poison ivy and sumac. “Trust me,” he warned. “You don’t want those kinds of rashes.” Daniel agreed with a laugh and Jack had to ask himself what the hell he thought he was doing. Standing here as the sun peeked through the clouds to find Daniel’s hair and turned it to rumpled gold, there was only one thought on Jack’s mind. He realized that he wanted, had to see Daniel here, see if he, well, fit was the only word that came to mind.
And he did. He hadn’t complained about being practically dragged half across the country to camp out in the woods. He had taken it all in stride, helped Jack air out the cabin, get the water running, had even watched seemingly fascinated as Jack made a pot of coffee on the fireplace grill, gotten excited at the promised s’mores.
Jack wanted nothing more than to just lie him down and make love to him in the tall, wet grass of the meadow. Something must have shown in his eyes because Daniel asked him if he was alright. No, he wasn’t alright and didn’t think he ever would be again. He wondered what Daniel’s reaction would be if he voiced that thought out loud.
Wondered what his own reaction would be.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Daniel didn’t even move from his horizontal position in the wet grass. “Sure.”
“Your bio says you don’t have any family. That true?”
“Mostly.” He rolled over to face Jack, who was seated on a fallen log.
“My parents were killed when I was eight. My grandfather didn’t have time to interrupt his busy schedule to raise me so I was put into foster care. So, mostly true.”
Jack swore silently. “Salt of the earth, is he?”
“He’s too busy being a world renowned author. Truthfully, I haven’t seen or heard from him in a while.”
“How world renowned?”
“Nicholas Ballard is your grandfather?” Hell, even Jack had read some of his spy novels. And he didn’t read much.
“How long?” Jack kept waiting for Daniel to tell him to mind his own business. “Since you saw him?”
“Two years ago.” Daniel rolled away, hiding his face on his crossed arms. “He wanted me to know that if anyone found out we were related, he’d make me sorry.”
Jack’s radar perked up. “Why?”
“I suppose if I’d been a concert pianist, he would have been happy to claim me. But I’m just a pop singer, nothing classy about that. Would totally ruin his image.”
“I expect letting the world know he abandoned you wouldn’t do much for his image either.” Jack added a name to his suspect list.
“It’s not worth the hassle. I got over it years ago.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you did.”
Daniel raised his head up. “Really, it’s fine.” How, Jack wondered, could he lie there and defend that bastard? He made a mental note to follow up on this piece of information personally. “And so, what about you?”
“Nothing to tell, really.”
“Yeah, I just bet. Shall I make up a story for you?” Daniel wriggled around until he was sitting, legs crossed, perusing Jack. “Hmmm. Let’s see. You fell in love at a young age with a beautiful princess. But you were just a commoner, so her father had you banished from his kingdom and you went off traveling, slaying dragons in your spare time. The love of your life mourned you until her father tried to force her to marry the prince from the next kingdom over. So she fell on your sword and died dramatically, if a bit messily. You never forgot her and remained faithful to her memory. Until…”
Jack snorted loudly. “You have an amazing imagination.”
“Until,” Daniel peeked up at him. “Until you met the spurned prince from the next kingdom over.”
“Daniel.” He couldn’t look anywhere but down into those eyes.
“And the young prince fell madly in love with the commoner.” Daniel reached over and cupped Jack’s face in his hand. The touch was his undoing. His unsteady hands mimicked Daniel’s, caressing his face.
“Daniel, we can’t do this.”
At that exact moment, Jack couldn’t come up with one logical argument.
The promised s’mores had come and gone, the cabin lit by a pair of antique lamps and the firelight. Daniel was on the floor, his back up against the couch, between Jack’s legs.
“Have I mentioned what a truly bad idea this is?” Jack couldn’t keep his hands out of Daniel’s hair.
“A time or two.” Daniel rested his head on the inside of Jack’s knee, his hand sliding up and down his calf. “I think I told you I didn’t care.”
“You’re my client, Daniel. This is one rule I simply don’t break.”
“Yes, goddammit, until now. You make me crazy.”
Daniel twisted around so that he was facing Jack. “I’d rather make you happy.”
“Well, I’m not happy, not at all.”
“I can sleep in the other room,” Daniel started to rise.
“And I can kill you and they’ll never find the body.” He held Daniel in place, his thumbs stroking his cheekbones. “Come here.” He dragged Daniel up his body and kissed him. God, he knew it would be sweet, had known it from the first moment he saw those lips. They were soft and warm and sliding open, allowing his tongue to slip in. Daniel’s hands gripped his thighs as he knelt there between them. It took everything in him to be sensible. “Daniel. Go to bed.” Daniel frowned. “In your room. By yourself.”
Daniel pulled away, managed to find his feet. “Why? Because you say so?”
“No, because I can’t afford to be distracted by you. My job is to protect you, not seduce you.”
“Bullshit. This isn’t about me, it’s about you.”
Jack bolted to his feet, aching to release the tension. A fight would fill the bill very nicely. “The hell do you mean by that?”
“I mean it’s not because I’m your client or I pay your salary. It’s because you don’t want to get close enough to someone to admit you might just be in love with them.”
“Funny, I don’t remember the word love coming out of my mouth.” He hardened his heart against the look on Daniel’s face. “It’s lust, Daniel, just two guys being horny. If you don’t want to fuck, fine, just say so. I’ll leave you alone and find someone else.”
“That’s all it is to you, then? Just sex?” Daniel sneered back at him. “That’s bullshit, too. It’s about you being a coward, Jack. You’re so afraid of caring that you’ve shoved everyone in your life out of your life. You walked away from your own family.”
Jack reeled. “How did you…oh, good old Harry, I suppose?”
“You were living in my house, you think I wasn’t going to even ask?”
Needing desperately to regain the upper hand, Jack went on the attack. “And you’re a fine one to talk. You might bare your soul for a few thousand people every night but at the end of the day, you go to bed alone. All those people who somehow gained admittance into your little world and you’re not close to even one of them. Actually, you and I make a good pair, don’t we? Even our own families can’t stand us.” He wished the words unsaid immediately. Daniel froze, his face lost all color before he walked away. The bedroom door shut behind him with a soft click.
Jack told himself he ought to be happy, he’d gotten what he wanted, hadn’t he? Then why did he feel sick inside?
Jack woke to an eerie panic the next morning. A quick look at the other bedroom revealed a bed that looked every bit as pristine as it had the night before. “Dammit,” he swore softly as he conducted a swift search and found no Daniel. He started to do an outdoor search when he glanced out the back door to see a lone figure seated on the dock, seemingly unaware of the steady rain. Scrambling into some clothes and grabbing a blanket, he walked slowly down. “Here,” he growled, pitching the blanket at Daniel.
“I think it best if we go back to LA today. And I’ll have Harry settle what I owe you.”
“Firing me, are you?” He planted himself in front of Daniel, who refused to meet his eye. “And how will you explain to Harry?”
“Oh, I don’t think you want me to explain to Harry, do you?” Daniel voice was husky, his face with tears or rain or maybe both.
Jack refused to let his obvious misery soften him. “You can tell him any damn thing you want to, I don’t care. But Harry hired me, not you. So until Harry tells me to leave, I’m not going anywhere. Get in the cabin and get warmed up.”
“I’m going home.” Daniel addressed the lake.
“The plane won’t be there until tomorrow. So you’re stuck with me at least until then.”
“I’ll charter one of my own.”
“Not gonna happen. Now go take a shower. Unless you want me to help you with that.”
Daniel finally looked at him but when Jack saw not anger but weary defeat in those eyes, he cursed himself all over again. “Listen, what I said last night..”
“It was true, every word of it. No one is more aware than I am that the people who are in my life are only there because I pay them to care for me. Care for me, not about me.”
“Daniel, please let me stay, let me protect you. Forget last night ever happened.” He saw Daniel’s face stiffen. “Listen, you’re in danger. There’s no one better equipped to protect you than I am. I promise I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“Present company excepted?” Daniel murmured as he handed the blanket over before walking back toward the cabin.
After the Minnesota fiasco, Jack brought in another agent from the field to help. Samantha Carter was a tall, deceptively fragile-looking blonde who could kick the ass of anyone in the security firm. Jack tried not to notice how Daniel and Sam hit it off almost immediately, giggling in the back of the limo like a pair of twelve-year-olds. “So, what’s on today’s agenda?” Jack peered over his reading glasses and silently sighed. He’d finally convinced Daniel to let him stay but ever since, he’d been treated with a cool reserve. Their previous bantering and soft flirtations were a thing of the past.
“After we drop you at the airport, Daniel is doing a photo shoot for ‘People’. He’s one of the sexiest men alive, you know.”
“Yeah,” Jack drew the word out in disbelief.
“I’ll send you a copy when it hits the newsstand.”
It wasn’t hard to believe, really. Jack had to wrestle his advance copy away from several members of his staff, and not all of them female. Even he had to admit the picture of Daniel was stunning. Standing barefoot in the ankle-high surf, hands jammed in the pockets of ass-grabbing jeans that rode low on the hip and were wet to the knees; skin tight white T-shirt just visible beneath a pale blue button up blowing in the wind, dark blue threatening skies behind him. His smile wasn’t the sweet one Jack was used to seeing; this one was almost wicked, with a decided gleam in those bluer-than-ever eyes.
They’d wanted him, Carter reported, to lie down on the sand and let the water wash over him, but in a fit of embarrassment, he had firmly declined. Jack was glad; that was a picture he preferred to keep as his own private fantasy.
“O’Neill, are you afraid of Daniel?” Teal’c’s voice came through the phone as if he were sitting here and not on the other side of the country.
Jack eased his reading glasses off. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said, are you afraid of Daniel?”
“What gave you that idea?”
“I’ve noticed that, lately, since your trip to Minnesota, you’ve sent others to guard our client. You appear to be keeping your distance, hence my nightly reports to be given by telephone.”
“Teal’c, I’m just doing what I think is for the best.”
“I just thought..” Teal’c’s voice was drowned out by a screeching alarm.
Jack bolted up out of his chair. “Dammit, what is that?” There was a muffled sound, then silence. He found himself shouting, to no avail; there was no one on the other end. Quickly, he re-dialed, waiting impatiently, swearing when the call went immediately to voice mail.
He spent an agonizing twenty minutes trying to find out what the hell was happening and swearing at himself, that he was so weak willed, so easily tempted, that he would set himself apart from Daniel instead of being where he should have been.
Protecting a life he loved.
When the phone rang, he snatched it before it could ring again. “What?”
“O’Neill, I am sorry if you were alarmed. All is well.”
“Teal’c,” his voice shaking, he swallowed and tried again. “What happened?”
“An intruder entered Daniel’s home and set off the alarm.”
His heart raced. “Daniel.”
“Daniel was unharmed. When I realized what had happened, I proceeded to his rooms. I myself stood guard over him until the house was thoroughly searched.”
“Dammit, I tried to call you!”
“I silenced my phone for fear I would lead the intruder to Daniel.”
“Did you get him?”
“We did not, O’Neill. He broke a window in the library and entered through the garden, we are unsure of how he gained entry to the premises. However, we may have his image on the cameras. The police have been summoned and have taken the footage from the security system. Would you like to speak to Daniel?”
“No.” Jack realized he couldn’t be satisfied until he saw Daniel in person. “Tell him I’m getting the first plane out there. I’ll be there by morning.”
None of them slept through that very long night. Jack tried to catch a nap on the plane, but every time he closed his eyes, he pictured Daniel alone with a killer.
Sam tried to persuade Daniel to sleep but he simply couldn’t unwind. Knowing she was risking his wrath, she went behind his back and phoned Harry’s wife, who arrived within minutes. And had an argument with Daniel over his refusal to take a sedative. He had, so he told her, to be in the studio in a few scant hours and could not afford to miss the session. Her answer was that he couldn’t afford to collapse. Harry infuriated Daniel by informing him that the studio time could and would be rescheduled.
“Now, no excuse. Honey, if you don’t knock him out, I will. And you know how terrible I am with needles.” Harry was met with a stubborn chin and livid eyes. “Daniel, the cops have been here all night, this is already all over the news. Trust me when I say your best bet is to lay low as long as you can. If I have to, I’ll have Teal’c carry your skinny ass up those stairs.”
In the end, it was Sam who followed Janet and Daniel up the stairs, Sam who stood while Daniel reluctantly got into bed and who sat by his bed as he fought the sedative.
“Daniel, relax.” Perching on the side of the bed, she twined her hand in his.
“I…oh, God, Sam, I was so scared. When I heard that alarm, I didn’t know what to do, I just froze.”
Realizing that it had all just become so very real for him, she leaned forward and guided his head to her breast, holding him as he shuddered in her arms. “Shh, it’s alright, just go to sleep. Teal’c and I are here and we won’t let anything happen to you, we promise. And Jack’s on his way.”
“Jack?” He mumbled.
“You just go to sleep,” she stroked his hair, “and when you wake up, he’ll be here.”
“Good,” he answered as he fell asleep.
“He’s fine, Jack, I promise he’s fine.” Sam poured him a cup of coffee. She thought about a whiskey but it was still shy of dawn.
“It’s just that, it seems like whenever he needs me, I’m not here.” Jack rose, paced. “I’m just gonna take a peek at him.”
“It’s on your head if you wake him up. That Janet may be little but she’s quite determined.” Sam had found she quite liked the petite doctor, even admired how she steamrollered Harry, Daniel and everyone in between.
“Not scared of her,” he retorted as he took the stairs two at a time before easing the door to Daniel’s bedroom open. Tiptoeing into the room, he stood over the bed and took stock. Daniel was curled up on his side, facing away from the door, presenting a T-shirt-clad back. A few steps took him to the other side where he could see the tousled hair and pale but peacefully sleeping face. In shock, Sam said. It looked like he’d needed the sleep.
Because he could, Jack gently pushed the hair back and kissed his forehead. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you needed me, but you don’t have to worry from now on. I’m not leaving you.” He could have sworn Daniel let out a long sigh. An answering one escaped him as he softly closed the door behind him.
“So, you don’t recognize this man?”
Daniel shook his head wearily at the detective. After waking from his imposed nap, he found that his house seemed to have been invaded. First by police officers, then detectives and even more of Jack’s staff. “No, he doesn’t look at all familiar.” Inwardly, he shuddered at the photograph of the person who broke into his house.
“And he never made it past the first floor?” The dark-haired, brittle-eyed detective quizzed Teal’c.
“No, he seemed to be frightened by the alarms. As soon as I ascertained what had occurred, I made haste to locate and secure Daniel in an upstairs room.”
She shook her head. “We’ll keep working on the picture, see if we can enhance it, maybe get some more detail. I hope I don’t have to tell you to be extra cautious.”
Daniel waved his hand at the room full of people. “I don’t think I have any thing to worry about, do you?”
The studio time had been rescheduled for the next day. Both Jack and Teal’c had accompanied Daniel, although he warned them it would be an extremely long, boring day. Neither was deterred by the prospect. They took turns staying with Daniel while the other strolled around the small studio. Jack was gratified to find it was in a small, nondescript building instead of one of the towering high rises he feared. Way too many exits and entrances for him, he thought, glancing across the street at one of those monstrosities that seemed to litter the LA skyline.
“O’Neill here.” He barked into his ringing phone. “Okay, it looks good out here. Come on out.”
Daniel was slap-happy after nearly twelve hours of recording and had forgotten, at least momentarily, that he was mad at him. “Jack, it was amazing! The musicians were perfect, just perfect. I really love this studio, the sound..” The words suddenly stopped in mid sentence; he flinched before staring at him. “Jack?” He slumped to the ground.
“Goddammit!” Jack flung himself down, horrified at the rapidly spreading bloodstain on Daniel’s shirt. “Get an ambulance, get an ambulance!” He started to roll Daniel, but Teal’c stopped him.
“O’Neill, you must not move him, you do not know how badly he is injured. An ambulance has been summoned.” Teal’c took a jacket that someone handed him and covered Daniel, applying pressure, trying to stop the bleeding.
He wanted nothing more than to take Daniel in his arms, but he realized Teal’c was right. “Daniel, can you hear me? Come on, hang in there. You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay.”
The next hour easily qualified as nightmare status for Jack. The paramedics were there within minutes, had taken one look at Daniel and called for a helicopter to take him to a trauma center. It took everything within Jack to stand calmly at the frightening sight of Daniel strapped to a backboard and a cervical collar, before he was gently eased over and onto a gurney. His mind registered the information they were relaying to the hospital, that he had been shot in the back, that there was no exit wound. Their rapid fire questions were answered by Teal’c since Jack was silent as he walked toward the chopper, touching any part of Daniel he could. The only thought running through his mind was the blood. There was far too much of it. On his hands, on Teal’c, on the ground, on Daniel. Christ, it was everywhere.
Then they took Daniel away and wouldn’t let him go with him. Teal’c held him back as they loaded Daniel into the chopper that had landed in a hastily cleared parking lot.
“O’Neill, we must proceed to the hospital with all haste.” Jack let himself be led to a waiting vehicle that sped off almost before the door was closed.
“Harry, did someone call him?” Jack shook himself out of his lethargy.
“Harry and Janet are on their way. As is Samantha.”
Daniel was already in surgery as they fought the press to get into the hospital.
And as they sat and waited for news, Jack forced himself to do his job, mentally reviewed what happened, spent time with the police, suggesting they search the high rise across the street. “Shot had to come from there. No place else with that clear a shot. Had to be a sharpshooter. Too many people around, everyone was walking around. Daniel,” he stopped to draw a breath. “Daniel turned around to speak to me and they got him in the back. One shot. No one saw anything, heard anything.”
Barlow, the detective that Jack remembered from Daniel’s house stepped forward. “You did everything you could do, O’Neill.” Those eyes that he had thought were hard were soft with sympathy.
“Tell that to Daniel.”
Janet used her medical status to get updates on the surgery. The good news was that the bullet had not severed the spinal cord, although it lay dangerously close. The bad news was that it had punctured a lung, causing it to collapse.
It was coming up on five hours when the doctor finally emerged with the news that Daniel was out of surgery. “Let’s sit.” He seated himself on a convenient ottoman. “Okay, Daniel’s alive. We removed one bullet, I suppose the police will want it? The collapsed lung is responding well. The ventilator is a precaution, it’s doing his breathing for him right now. Let me tell you what he’s got in his favor right now. He’s young. He’s in good shape, great health. I have to think he’s tough to be in this business. The fact that you didn’t move him after the shooting, I can’t begin to impress upon you how big an advantage that is. Moving him would have possibly shifted the bullet and the spine and would, in all probability, have either killed or paralyzed him.”
“That was Teal’c keeping his head.” Jack admitted softly.
The doctor nodded at the big man. “Good job, there.”
“Okay, so now the bad news?” Janet leaned forward.
“There is the blood loss, he’s still vulnerable to shock, infection. There was a spinal cord injury, the bullet ‘pinged’ off the spine.” He shook his head at the gasps. “I know you don’t want to hear that but keep in mind that at this point we don’t know how that’s going to affect him. Let’s concentrate on keeping him alive at this point and we’ll worry about that down the road. Now what do you want to do about the press?”
Harry jumped up. “I’ll take care of them, we’ll probably need you to make a statement. Maybe get them out of here. Thanks, Doc, you don’t know what he means to me, to us.”
Inexplicably, he grinned despite the lines of exhaustion on his face. “I’ve got a thirteen year-old who’ll never speak to me if I don’t get her an autograph.”
“When can we see him?” Jack looked up from his constant perusal of his now clean hands. “And we’ll need to get some security in here.”
“He won’t be up for visitors for awhile but if it’ll make you feel better, a couple of you can go take a peek at him, but just for a minute.”
“Honey, you and Jack go. Let him know we’re out here, okay?” Harry gave his wife a quick hug.
Jack didn’t recognize this Daniel. This wasn’t his Daniel. He didn’t know whose it was, but it sure as hell wasn’t his. The person in the bed was small and still and silent and only alive because of the capricious nature of some machine. The only thing standing between Daniel and death was a fucking electric cord.
Janet grabbed him as his knees gave up and although she tried to lower him to the floor, only succeeded in easing him from a free-fall to an uncontrolled sprawl. “Jack, Jack.” He heard her calling him from somewhere very far away. “Jack, you need to get up off the floor before the nurses come in here and haul you out. Trust me, you don’t want that.” He finally came to himself enough that he let her help him up and dump him into the only chair in the room. “Okay, now, head between your knees.” She shoved his head down when he hesitated.
“Hey, I don’t bend that far.” He finally protested.
“Welcome back,” she eased his head up.
“The hell I did.”
“The hell you did. Took one look at Daniel and fainted.” She knelt in front of him, grasped his chin, forced him to look into her eyes. “Now, if you can’t handle this, I need to know right now. You can go back out into the waiting room and I’ll keep you updated on his condition.”
Jack swallowed a lump the approximate size of a football. “No, no, don’t send me out. I’m, I’m good.” He ordered his knees not to wobble as he stood, grabbed the railing on the bed. Took a good long look. “Shit, Doc, he looks bad.”
She saw no need to sugarcoat it. “Yes, he does. But he’s still alive and at this point that’s all that counts.”
It was two days before the doctors would say with any certainty that Daniel would live. It was four days before he began the long struggle back to consciousness. Four days in which Jack rarely left his side. He slept in a recliner in the ICU room, took his meals there, showered down the hall. Jack had hauled his laptop in and worked continually, running his business via email and cell phones. So he was there when Daniel murmured something unintelligible. Jack leapt to his feet, grabbing the call button and pressing. “Daniel? Can you hear me? No, don’t try to move around. Just stay still, okay?”
“Hmm?” At least that’s what it sounded like to Jack.
He turned at the approach of several pairs of running feet. “Looks like he’s waking up.”
“Hi, Daniel. I’m Cris, your nurse. You’re in a hospital. Can you answer some questions for me? Yeah, I know it’s hard with the tube but just do your best.” She nodded as he answered her questions. “Now, do you remember what happened?” He tried to shake his head, clearly puzzled when he couldn’t move. “We’ve got you pretty trussed up. But the tube can come out shortly; that’ll make you feel loads better.”
His eyes shifted. “Jack?” He grunted.
“Right here. How you feeling? Gave us quite a scare, kid.” Jack smiled down at him.
“Look awful.” Daniel pronounced.
“And you look wonderful.”
“Jack.” Sam glanced over to make sure Daniel was still asleep. “Listen, can you step out in the hallway for a moment?”
Jack rose, following her with a puzzled expression. “Something you don’t want Daniel to hear?”
“I didn’t want to wake him. Listen, this is just a theory but I’ve been throwing it around in my mind.”
“Just spit it out, Carter.”
”Do you remember the night the intruder got into the house? You said something about not being there when he needed you? Well, I think you were on to something.”
“Not getting it.”
“You weren’t here when Max was poisoned but you came. Then you left and someone broke into the house so you came flying back. It’s like every time you left Daniel, the stalker was trying to pull you back in.”
Jack wasn’t sure he liked where this was going. “Are you trying to say this is because of me?”
“Okay, if someone wanted to get to you, maybe wanted to draw you out, how would they do it? Get you on a job, out of the office? Here’s my theory, the person knew about your connection with Harry, knew that if Harry needed security, you’d be the first person he’d think of. So, they make some vague threats to Harry’s client, he gets scared and calls you. It doesn’t turn violent until you’re in the picture. They kill Max, then break into Daniel’s house.” She hesitated to go on but she could see Jack’s brain had already made the leap.
“Fuck! They weren’t shooting at Daniel, they were shooting at me. Carter.”
“I’ll call Detective Barlow.”
Jack and Harry had gone through miles of surveillance tape of the high rise across from the recording studio with no success until suddenly Harry shouted. “Who, go back, go back! Right there.”
Jack peered at the screen. “What?”
“Right there, Jack, don’t you see? It’s Cromwell.”
“Frank Cromwell?” A closer look had Jack shaking his head. “I’ll be a son of a bitch. Frank Cromwell.”
“I take it you know this Frank Cromwell?” Detective Barlow twirled a pen in her slender fingers.
“We served together, I can’t tell you much about that last mission; it was classified. But Jack and I thought he was dead.”
“I was in command; it was my decision to pull out. I honestly thought he was dead.” Jack paced the small room.
“Only Cromwell wasn’t dead?”
“No, captured. Ended up in an Iraqi cell for four months. I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Do you think he hates you enough to have done this?”
“Wouldn’t you? I mean, he kills two birds with one stone. One well placed bullet destroys both my business and Harry’s. So, yeah, I think he’s capable.”
Daniel’s move to a private rehab center two weeks later occurred in the dead of the night to avoid the press. A suite in the hotel across the street unofficially became the gathering spot for all those who had come to visit Daniel.
“Hey, good morning, what are you listening to today?”
Grabbing the remote, Daniel flicked the volume down on the cunningly small stereo. “Jackson Browne.”
“Running on empty?” Jack smiled as he took the remote to open the curtains.
“Oh, it’s raining.” Daniel was disappointed. Rain meant no visit to the garden today.
“Done with morning physical therapy already?” Jack glanced at the wheelchair in the corner before laying his laptop on the table.
“Yeah, Kimmie’s on today.”
“Ouch,” Jack winced. Kimmie was one of the tougher therapists, known for pushing the patients to their limits.
“Can I ask you something?” Daniel raised his bed up a little.
Jack peered over the edge of his glasses. “Sure.”
“Why are you doing this? Why do you come here every day to listen to me bitch and moan and cry?”
Jack rose slowly to walk to Daniel’s bed, lowering the railing and hitching himself up to sit on the edge. “Do you remember that weekend in Minnesota?”
Daniel’s face flushed as Jack took his hand. “How could I forget?”
“You accused me of being a coward. Well, you were right. I am a coward. I’ve stood by for the past three weeks and watched you bitch and moan and cry. And go to physical therapy and have your body twisted in god awful positions. You listen politely while people ask you to write songs while you’re flat on your back. You shame me, Daniel, because I didn’t have the guts to tell you that I love you.”
“You son of a bitch.” Daniel’s voice was throaty.
“You got that right.”
“You have the nerve, the gall to stand there and tell me you love me when I can’t do a damn thing about it!”
“I’m paralyzed or hadn’t you noticed?” Daniel’s hand was fisted in the sheets.
“Don’t start with me or so help me I’ll run over you with my wheelchair or something. You really have some kind of nerve, you know that?”
Jack eased those tense fingers to release their grip. “I know I do.”
“I’m still mad at you.”
Jack let his lips wander over Daniel’s palms. “I know.”
Daniel sighed hugely. “You’re missing something.”
“Such as?” Idly, he lined his hands up with Daniel’s, palm to palm.
“Usually the declaration of love is immediately followed by a multitude of kissing and hugging. Obviously, I may have to take a pass on the hugging, for now anyway, but I absolutely insist…”
Jack leaned over and shut Daniel up most effectively. He purposefully kept the kiss light, well aware of their surroundings. “Will that do?”
“For a starter.”
Jack’s fingers tangled in the ends of Daniel’s hair. “I do love you, you know.”
“I knew that in Minnesota.” Those blue eyes were steady on his.
“I really am a son of a bitch, aren’t I? God, I’m sorry, I’ve wasted so much time.”
“So when I get out of this bed?”
“You can get into mine.” Jack rested his forehead on Daniel’s.
“It’s a date.”
Jack thought of his propensity for living dangerously that sunny morning when he wheeled his burden into the rehab hospital, speaking to the staff as he walked by. Daniel had been here long enough to have him on first name basis with nearly everyone. He stopped to take a deep breath, praying this wasn’t a small cruelty before he swung the door open. “Morning, Daniel.”
Daniel swung away from the computer and came to a halt when his eyes encountered the cage in the wagon Jack was pulling behind him. “Jack? What’s that?”
“Well, Daniel, is some cultures, we call them dogs.” Jack snapped open the cage and eased the animal out. He knelt by the wheelchair before he set the dog down in Daniel’s lap, knowing he wouldn’t drop the animal.
“A dog.” Daniel repeated, automatically grabbing the wriggling figure.
“Listen, I know he’s not Max, no one could ever be that again. But, well, he needs a home and you, I know you like dogs.”
Daniel shifted him so he could look at the terrier’s face. “Hey, boy, what’s your name?”
“He doesn’t have one, yet.” Jack figured he’d have one very soon. “I can bring him in to see you, I’ve already..” He swore as his cell rang. “Carter, what’s up? Excuse me, could you repeat that? Yeah, well, thanks for calling.”
“Something wrong?” Daniel’s hands stroked the dog, whose head was planted in the crook of his arm.
“No. I don’t know. Carter said my mother called, looking for me.”
“So, call her back.”
“Yeah, you know, I think I’ll just walk outside.” Jack walked out without a backward glance. He waited until he was out in the garden, without thought arriving at the gazebo swing. Taking a deep breath, he dialed the number he’d never forgotten. His heart lurched when he heard his mother’s voice. “Ma, it’s me. Jack.”
“Teal’c, I need you to do me a favor.” Jack shifted the phone under his chin.
“Can you keep Daniel company today? The cops have a line on Cromwell and they want me and Harry to come in this morning.”
“It will be no hardship.”
“Stop by the house and get the dog, will ya?”
By tacit agreement, Jack and Harry were both silent as they drove away from the police station that afternoon. A boat crash off the coast of Mexico and a set of dog tags found in the rubble satisfied the Mexican authorities that Frank Cromwell was dead.
Neither Jack nor Harry was convinced.
“Good night, Jack.” Daniel paused at the door, unsure if Jack had even heard him.
“I’m going to bed.”
Jack glanced over, temper heating as it always did when he saw Daniel walking so slowly.
“I’ll be there in a bit.”
It was actually nearly forty-five minutes before Jack tossed his reading glasses down on the pile of papers and headed up the stairs. He was surprised to see that Daniel was still awake, flipping idly through a stack of papers that Jack assumed were song lyrics. Quickly, he dashed in the bathroom and got ready for bed before sliding in beside Daniel.
“Please.” Daniel replaced the papers in the folder and slid it under his side of the bed. They lay in the dark for a few minutes before he spoke again. “Do you want to know what scares me?”
Jack barely squelched a flip reply, rolling over so that he could see Daniel in the darkened bedroom. “What scares you?”
“I am so very afraid that catching this guy will come to mean more to you than I do.”
Jack was left speechless for a long moment. “I want to see him roast in hell for what he did to you, do you know that?”
“Yes, I know that. But I can’t do this, Jack. I can’t spare that kind of energy.”
”Don’t tell me you don’t hate him, Daniel.”
“I’m not saying that, Jack, what I’m saying is that I don’t have the time to spend hating him. And I’m just afraid you’re getting obsessed with catching him. Truthfully, are you any closer to that than you were when you started?”
“No,” Jack shook his head. “I’m not. But I can’t let this go.”
“And I can’t keep watching you spend every waking minute speculating about where he is and what he’s doing. Don’t you see what that does to us? To me?”
Another long silence. “No, I’m sorry to say I didn’t. I’m sorry, Daniel.” Jack’s hand wandered over Daniel’s belly.
“I just want you to pay more attention to me than you do to him. Is that too much to ask?” Daniel smiled up at him.
Jack leaned over to kiss him. “No, I think I can do that.” He nestled in close, letting his lips wander softly over Daniel’s face. Jack was always cautious about taking things slow and gentle, always so aware of Daniel’s physical limitations, his former notion of sex as a heated rush lost in his desire to pleasure his partner without hurting him. He liked to think it made him a better lover. “Will you let me make it up to you?” He kissed his way down his throat.
“I suppose I can do that.” Daniel sighed softly.
It had been, Jack thought, a year he wouldn’t care to have repeated. Dickens had it right when he spoke of the worst of times and the best of times. He had been forced to stand helplessly by and watch Daniel endure a year of pain, more pain than he cared to see anyone endure, physical therapy sessions that sometimes amounted to torture and an emotional roller-coaster of depression and determination.
But he could also remember the day Daniel rose from the wheelchair and took four halting steps across the floor. The day the wheelchair sat abandoned in the corner for an entire day. The day that Daniel was helped into his truck and left the rehab center that had been his home for far too long. And the day that he watched as Daniel walked his dog in the ocean once again.
There had also been the reconciliation with his parents. His mother’s frantic call when one of Jack’s nieces had phoned to ask if it was true that some guy was trying to kill Uncle Jack. There had been tears from both of them and a silent vow to put the past behind them.
A year to the day, Jack was jolted from his sleep by the ringing of Daniel’s personal line. He rolled over to answer before it woke Daniel. “O’Neill.”
“Jack, wake him up.”
“Harry? Do you know what time it is? It’s fucking five in the morning and I’m not waking him up.”
“Wake him up, Jack. Trust me, he’ll thank me for it.”
With a groan, Jack nudged Daniel. Hard. “Wake up, kid, it’s Harry.”
“Here?” Daniel mumbled from under the covers.
“On the phone.” Jack yanked the covers aside until he revealed Daniel’s face, the eyes still determinedly closed. “He says it’s important.”
“It’d have to be really important.” Daniel retorted, rolling away from Jack’s insistent hand, trying to drag the sheet over his face. Jack pulled him back and held the phone to his head. “Harry,” Daniel sighed, reluctantly taking the phone. He listened for a few moments, before shooting up in bed, nearly colliding with Jack in the process, his eyes widening in surprise. “You have got to be kidding me!” A long pause. “Really?” Then, a “Wow” as he hung up the phone.
“So, what was that all about?”
“The Oscar nominations just came out.”
“Yeah?” Jack found himself grinning.
“Yeah.” Daniel fell back onto the bed.
Suddenly, Daniel became the Oscar interview that everyone wanted. He would be performing the nominated song at the award show and it would be his first public appearance since the near fatal shooting. Harry insisted he needed to capitalize on the publicity so Daniel reluctantly agreed to let himself be interviewed for a post-Oscar television special. The gossip shows had dragged out old concert footage, repeats of the doctors statements on Daniel’s condition were shown over and over.
He hadn’t been seen in public since a lucky news helicopter shot a few seconds of an unconscious Daniel, strapped to a gurney, being taken from a Medi-vac chopper and rushed into the hospital.
It hadn’t been for lack of trying. The day Daniel was finally released from the rehab center, several helicopters had vied for a shot of him. But Harry had anticipated them and had a large awning constructed on the front of his house, thereby obscuring the vehicle and making any type of sighting impossible.
So Daniel was understandably nervous about both the interview and the performance. His rehearsals had been closed to the press, fellow nominees, performers and anyone else. As had been his entrances into and out of the theatre. He would not be walking on the red carpet, but limoed to the back of the huge theatre, where he had been given the dressing room closest to the stage.
The news crew came to his house and set up in the living room, although they’d been allowed to pre-shoot footage in some of the rooms that had been converted for his treatment and recovery. Daniel had only agreed if certain guidelines were met. He couldn’t comment on the shooting itself, since the case was still considered open and would remain so until either Frank Cromwell or his body surfaced. And he wouldn’t talk about his personal life, except in general.
“First, Daniel, let me tell you that you look wonderful. How are you feeling?”
It was true, Jack thought as he stood out of camera range, that he looked good, fit and healthy. His still too-thin face had lost some of the babyish youthfulness that had first attracted him. Daniel was handsome now instead of merely being pretty. He still wore jeans, but these were expensive, snug fitting and freshly ironed. A hand-knit cream colored sweater replaced the ever-present T-shirt and these tennis shoes were painfully white and unscuffed. “I feel good. I still get tired easily, but if I pace myself, I do alright.” He had progressed slowly from the wheelchair to the walker to the cane that he still occasionally used.
“So, Daniel,” the popular talk show host leaned forward, thinking that he could still melt hearts with that smile. “Tell me about the song, how you came to write it.”
“Peter-Peter Harrison came to see me in the hospital and basically said ‘get off your ass and write me a song.’” Daniel laughed at the memory. “I wanted to throw him out of the room but I was a bit attached at the time so I just had to lie there and listen to him pitch the idea to me. I was intrigued enough,” his eyes were suddenly mischievous, “wasn’t really doing anything at the time, so I figured I’d give it a try.”
“Were you surprised when he used the song?”
“This is gonna sound pretty cocky, but no, I wasn’t surprised. It was good and I knew it. I put a lot into that song and was thrilled that he recognized that. I tried to write something that would fit the movie. I think I accomplished that.”
“So how do you feel about performing?”
“Scared to death! After all, this is the Oscars.”
“And you haven’t been seen, let alone performed in public since the shooting. That has to be nerve-wracking.”
“The nomination alone was nerve-wracking. I was just so thrilled at first; I didn’t know I’d have to perform.”
“You said no initially.”
“Yeah, I just didn’t think I’d be ready in time.”
“You didn’t want to perform in a wheelchair?”
“It wasn’t the chair; I’ll still use it if I have to. I didn’t know if my voice would be ready. The only serious singing I’d done was to record the song and that was done right here at home. You can always re-do it in the studio if you screw up. You can’t do that when you perform live. That’s one of the things that make a concert so amazing, the audience gets to see it all, all the mistakes and the technical glitches.”
“So are you going back on tour?”
“Too early to say. I’d love to. We’re going to start working on another album and I guess it all depends on how that goes, see if anyone still knows who I am.” Daniel shrugged.
“Oh, I think you’ve still got a few fans out there. I understand that your website crashed that first week because so many fans were leaving messages for you. That must be pretty gratifying?”
“It is. I owe so many people a debt of gratitude. The EMTs that night, the hospital, the rehab center, the folks in physical therapy.”
“How has this past year changed you?”
Daniel glanced over to where Jack was standing. “It made me realize how incredibly lucky I am. I wouldn’t be sitting here if my..security hadn’t kept their heads; they saved my life that day. Because of them, I’m alive and doing what I’ve always wanted to do.” They were suddenly interrupted by a small terrier that charged into the room, placed itself in front of him and began barking fiercely at the camera crew, who just kept filming while Daniel picked him up and tried to calm him. “Sorry, he doesn’t like strangers.” The dog continued to bark despite Daniel’s soothing voice.
The interviewer leaned forward, holding her hand out. “You’re very pretty, yes, you are. What’s his name?”
Daniel looked embarrassed. “Honey,”
Her eyebrows rose. “And he is a he?”
”Yes. My manager’s wife, she’s from the south and calls everyone honey. The dog thought it was his name.”
“Ladies and gentleman, a three-time Oscar winner and nominee tonight for best musical score, Peter Harrison.” The Oscar audience perked up; for some, this would be the highlight of the night.
“Thank you. When I was asked to score the movie ‘Foresight’, I knew it would be a tremendous challenge. The movie spans fifty years in American history. We would have to produce music that fit seamlessly into the past and music that would reflect the present. When I thought about whom I wanted to write the music for the present, I only had one name in mind.” He looked off stage and smiled. “I had an appointment to pitch the idea to Daniel; instead, I ended up visiting him in a hospital. He didn’t tell me he couldn’t do it, that he wouldn’t do it, he simply asked me what I wanted. And I did tell him to get off his ass and write me a song.” He paused for the laughter. “He did just that. He got off his ass and wrote a beautiful, brilliant piece of music that moved audiences to tears. I am proud to present that piece of music to you tonight and even more proud of the young man who is performing it. Ladies and gentlemen, making his first public appearance in over a year, Daniel.”
It was only fifty feet to the piano but it might as well have been a mile. Daniel took a deep breath, smiled back at Jack who whispered, “knock ‘em dead, kid,” before he took that first step. Then the second. And the third, which brought him out of the shadow of the curtain and out where the audience could see him. He kept walking, slowly, steadily focusing only on reaching the piano amidst the thunderous applause and the noise of thousands of people rising to their feet. He waited until he reached the piano before he turned to acknowledge the audience with a smile and a nod before sitting down.
He could have been a concert pianist, Jack realized, if he had so chosen. Those hands certainly had the talent and his heart held reverence for the instrument. But Daniel had a life-long love affair with words and those words were what moved him to create instead of just performing.
Afterward, the theatre was deathly still for a few seconds before wave after wave of applause once again filled the arena. Daniel acknowledged the audience with a nod of his head, but stayed seated as the lights dimmed and the stage he was on was obscured by the curtains. It took Jack a few seconds to realize Daniel’s head was resting on the piano; he raced to his side. “Daniel?”
“Is it over?”
Jack helped him to stand, sliding an arm around his waist as he dropped slightly. “Yeah, it’s over. Come on, back to your dressing room.” It was there that Jack and Teal’c led him through the back-stage throng of well-wishers, helped him change out of his tux and stretch out on the chaise lounge.
Teal’c draped a throw over him. “You may rest now, Daniel. I have it on very good authority that these affairs have a tendency to go on for hours.”
“Wake me before my category comes up?”
“No problem.” But Daniel was already asleep.
“My boyfriend, the Oscar winner.” Jack sighed theatrically. “That just has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
“Keep it up,” Daniel warned darkly as he crawled into bed, closing his eyes to hide the fact that it was daylight. “God, we should have left hours ago!”
“And miss all those folks who wanted to schmooze with you?”
“Are you sure it was me? I saw an awful lot of folks giving you the once over.”
“Some guys just look really good in a tux,” Jack preened.
“Yes, they do,” Daniel agreed softly as Jack snaked up behind him in bed. “God, that feels good,” he admitted as Jack’s hands rubbed his back, stilling as they always did over the scar. He felt the press of lips on his back before the arms slid around his waist and held him close.
“Go to sleep, Daniel, you’re exhausted. You were out way more than Janet wanted you to be.”
“Yeah, and won’t I be hearing that in the morning.” Daniel yawned softly.
“You mean later this morning.”
“Mmmhmm,” the words sighed out of him.
Jack held him long after he went to sleep.
The fans, Jack knew, would always hold a picture of Daniel on stage, dancing and singing his heart out. For him, the images were more private. Daniel and Max playing in the ocean, so very long ago. A long afternoon in a Minnesota meadow, the grass rain dampened, Daniel radiant and passionate. And the one he knew he would never forget, Daniel lying in a pool of blood. Dying, because of Jack.
As he lay there watching the sunrise light Daniel’s face, he could only hope the good memories were the first of many more and that time would fade the bad memories until they were nothing but faint shadows.