Rocky Top Wine
I rather like bad wine . . . one gets so bored with good wine.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield.
Authors: Gallagater and Charli Booker
Author’s website: http://www.frondfic.com/filing/gallagater/swamp.htm
Summary: A series of misadventures await Jack when he makes a simple deal, and no amount of whining will change the outcome.
CONTENT LEVEL : 13+
Category: H/C, humor
Warning: Frequent and copious use of strong language due to the extreme nature of the situation; also, it is not recommended that you drink, drive, or operate small machinery while reading this fic.
Disclaimer: They’re not ours, although a rumor, started by us, claims that they’d like to be. Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement in intended. They don’t earn us a dime, just new friends and some time away from RL, and a chance to get even with Karen (Knox). That’s entertainment! The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the authors. This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the authors.
Authors’ notes: Once upon a time in a mythical place called Tennessee, there lived a whiny woman named Karen (Knox). All day long, Karen would whine about honkin’ big fics that Judy and Charli were supposed to be producing. All night long, Karen would incite the other docile, polite list sibs to whine. So one day, Judy and Charli had a wonderfully evil idea . . .
"Jack, you owe me."
The sanctimonious sneer of supreme confidence made Jack wonder briefly if Daniel had been taking lessons from Hathor on the sly.
It had all started so innocently, just a favor or two. How the hell did I end up in this situation, Jack wondered, his glare wilting ineffectually under Daniel’s superior aplomb.
"I’ll pick you up at eight and, Jack, it’s semi-formal. That means no jeans, no t-shirts, no khakis, and no leather jackets. This party is important to me and I don’t want you looking like some aging hood from ‘Happy Days.’"
"Hey, the Fonz was cool."
"No, Jack. Do I need to remind you we have a deal?"
Jack’s teeth ground as he fought down the urge to tell Daniel just where he could stuff his damn deal. But, he’d never hear the end of it if he welched. So instead, he held his comments and snapped, "Fine Daniel. I’ll be ready."
Throwing one more smug look in Jack’s direction, Daniel left his friend staring into the pristine depths of his bowl of jello.
Jack looked up in ill-concealed irritation as Janet Fraiser waved cheerfully at Daniel and walked over to his table.
"Colonel, I’ve been looking for you."
"Seems to be a popular pastime today. What can I do you for, Doc? I didn’t miss a flea dip treatment or some such important veterinary visit, did I?"
Janet laughed and sat across from the Colonel at the small table. "No, sir, you’re not in the dog house this time." She grinned as Jack raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment of her attempt at humor. "I just wanted to remind you that tomorrow is the day you promised to take Cassandra’s ‘Future Artists Reality Training Section’ hiking up Pike’s Peak."
"‘Future Artists Reality Training Section’? Come on, Doc, you’ve gotta be kidding. FARTs? Cassie belongs to a group called FARTs?"
Janet shrugged. "Junior High, Colonel. Bodily functions are high on the list of amusements." She ignored Jack’s snort. "So you haven’t forgotten, have you, sir? Meet at 0600 tomorrow morning in the main parking lot at the base of the mountain. There’ll be a couple of other parents chaperoning, as well, so you won’t have to worry about keeping the kids out of trouble by yourself."
"Trouble? What kind of trouble? I thought these kids were going to sketch nature and crap like that."
"Come on, Colonel, these are young teenagers. There’ll be at least thirteen or fourteen of them, maybe a few more. This is an art related field trip in theory, but don’t you remember what it was like to be that age?"
"Mixed group, boys and girls?"
Janet’s grin widened. "Yep."
"You got it, sir," Janet stated, making no effort to hide her amusement.
"Doc . . ." God, did his voice really sound that whiny?
Janet’s arms crossed and her normally pleasant face bore a striking resemblance to one smirking archaeologist who used to be his best friend.
"Sorry, sir, but we . . . "
". . . had a deal," they finished in unison.
"Oh, by the way, Colonel, don’t worry about picking up Cassie tomorrow morning. She’s staying with Kelly and her mom said she’d make sure the girls were at the park. So all you have to worry about is getting yourself there."
Jack waved his hand in apathetic consent. "I’ll be there, Doc."
Daniel was true to his word and promptly at 8:00, much to Jack’s chagrin, he drove up in Jack’s driveway and blew the horn, tapping out his impatience on the steering wheel and checking his watch. He was on the verge of laying it on again, assuming that Jack was stalling, when the door opened and Jack emerged decked out in an elegantly cut tuxedo.
Daniel’s mouth was still hanging open as Jack casually strolled over to the passenger side and slid in, carefully hiding the smirk that threatened to tarnish the image he had carefully donned. Aging hood, my Aunt Alice’s ass. It was worth the rental cost of the tux just to see Daniel’s face.
"Daniel, hope I didn’t keep you waiting."
"Er, no Jack. Ah . . ."
Quagmires of mirth filled the brown eyes. Chalk one up to the master. A linguist at a loss for words. Yes, the evening wasn’t a total wash.
At last, Daniel realized he was staring and made an effort to pull himself together. "Nice tux, Jack. New?"
"Rented it just for tonight. You said to dress up."
"Well that’s nice, Jack, but a tux? Isn’t that a bit overboard? It’s just a wine tasting party at Professor Knox’s home, not a State Ball."
"Never let it be said that I embarrassed you, Danny Boy."
There was silence and then a pained mutter. "Oh, God, I think I’m in deep trouble."
The remainder of the drive was made in silence, but Jack relished the frequent glances Daniel delivered from the corner of his eyes.
The house was ablaze with welcoming lights as Daniel drove through the iron gates, down the winding tree-lined drive and parked beside a gleaming Jag. His dented Ford looked every bit as shabby as he was beginning to feel in his only suit, next to Jack’s stylish trappings.
Daniel suddenly realized he was standing lost in thought. Well, clothes may make the man, but it remained to be seen how Jack dealt with the crowd at this party. After all, this group was known as connoisseurs of the fruit of the vine, whereas Jack was a draft, bottle, or can kind of guy.
His confidence restored, Daniel nodded. "Yeah, Jack, I’m ready."
A middle-aged man sporting a neat goatee and a turtleneck under a tweed sportcoat pushed the door open. "Daniel, welcome to Knox Villa. You remember my wife, Karen, of course."
"Certainly, Stu. Karen, nice to see you again. Thank you for inviting me. Professor and Mrs. Knox, allow me to introduce my friend, Colonel Jack O’Neill."
During the last two days, Daniel had slowly begun to doubt his own sanity in making Jack come with him to the wine tasting. At the time, he’d thought it would be funny. Jack owed him, and he’d decided the best way to make Jack pay was to force him to attend an event his friend normally would have avoided like a Goa’uld larvae-eating festival.
Now, studying Jack’s relaxed smile and easy-going manner, Daniel realized that he was watching the Colonel at play. He also realized that he’d more than likely made a serious tactical error. Whether it was in combat or in a game, Daniel had never met anyone who could be as ruthless as Jack O’Neill. When it came to losing, the Colonel just didn’t know how. He would do anything to win. Failing that, he would do anything to make you wish he had. Sometimes Daniel’s chest swelled with pride that he served alongside the man, but to be brutally honest, nobody could be as embarrassing. Making Jack get dressed up and dragging him to a wine tasting was meant to be a joke, but Daniel suddenly wondered if perhaps the joke was going to be on himself. It was with a sense of impending doom that Daniel watched Jack shake Professor Knox’s hand.
“Colonel O’Neill. A pleasure. My wife.” The Professor gestured towards the woman beside him.
Jack reached over and gently clasped the woman’s hand in both of his, smiling that boyish smile that had been known to work miracles with women and men alike. When Jack ducked his head in a Teal’c-like nod and softly, almost shyly muttered ‘ma’am,’ it was obvious that Karen Knox was immediately and totally smitten. Daniel almost cringed as her eyes lit up and a slight blush appeared on her cheeks.
“Colonel.” She smiled sweetly, not even trying to pull her hand from Jack’s. “How very nice to meet you.”
Daniel kept a silly grin plastered on his face. My God, she was gushing. Jack had said one word to her and already the woman was gushing like a damn school girl.
Jack’s long fingers squeezed her hand slightly. “Oh, I beg to differ. The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Knox. All mine.” Almost reluctantly he released her, then smiled over at Daniel. “Dr. Jackson, you should have warned me that our hostess was so beautiful.”
“Uh,” Daniel felt a blush warm his own face. God, no wonder the woman couldn’t resist. Hell, even Hammond wasn’t totally immune when Jack cranked up the charm. “Yes. Yes, sorry, Jack.”
As Mrs. Knox led Jack away to introduce him around the room, Daniel listened to the Professor without hearing. Daniel followed his host, meeting and talking to various attendees, some of whom he knew from his faculty days, and others who were absolute strangers. Through it all, he couldn’t stop staring at Jack. Just like watching his friend in battle, it was amazing, humbling and rather scary to see the man in action. Nodding his head and smiling at something Dr. Milburn was saying, Daniel watched as Jack, surrounded by a covey of giggling, middle-aged women, leaned his head back and laughed. Actually, laughed. Out loud. Daniel frowned. Jack never laughed.
As if sensing Daniel’s stare, Jack looked over at him and smiled, his dark eyes twinkling evilly. One of the women touched Jack’s sleeve and immediately he turned his attention back to his circle of admirers. Daniel could almost smell the lust in the air, and he couldn’t help but glance around the room searching for any jealous husbands and lovers. Fortunately, no one else seemed to be aware that a dozen women had simultaneously fallen in love with his smart-assed, irritating, demanding, crass, obnoxious, irritating, juvenile, bossy, clownish, irritating CO.
God, Jack hated this. All these hoity-toity people with their fancy cars and houses and clothes who had absolutely no idea how the real world lived. Nor did they care. As far as he was concerned, with the exception of Daniel and himself, you could have lined up all the men alongside his favorite Senator, and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
And the women? Geez! They were on him like a pack of hyenas on an injured lion – darting in from all directions, trying to knock him off his feet, and laughing through it all. Okay, okay, so he’d started it. Just to irritate Daniel. In fact, that was the only thing good about the evening so far: the look of sheer panic on Daniel’s face as he waited to see what Jack was going to do. The funny thing was, Jack had no plans to do anything – other than to annoy Daniel, that is. So, obviously, his plan was working. Now, all he had to do was come out of this alive, and hopefully unscathed.
“Okay, everyone,” the Professor clapped his hands together for their attention, “why don’t we make our way to the gathering room. We’ve assembled some wonderful wines to share with you tonight.” His wide, phony smile encompassed the entire room.
As the hoity-toity, hot-to-trot pack of females began making their way to the ‘gathering room,’ Jack took the opportunity to slip away from them.
The younger man flinched at Jack’s soft voice in his ear. “Jack!”
“Are you enjoying yourself, Dr. Jackson?”
“Um,” Daniel reached up and tugged at the tie suddenly constricting his neck, “yeah, Jack. I am. You?”
“Oh, yeah.” Jack estimated that the look on his friend’s face was, well, priceless. Daniel forced a tight smile as they followed the group.
Funny, it seemed a gathering room was just a rich man’s version of a family room or den, and apparently, the motif here was ‘stuffed.’ Large leather chairs were scattered throughout the room, and huge ‘trophies’ were mounted on all four walls. The largest, a huge elk with a rack of antlers at least seven feet across, took the lead position above the over-sized fireplace. Beneath the dead gaze of the murdered beast, laid out like a pagan offering, was a long table containing row upon row of chilled wine bottles and sparking crystal goblets. Suddenly, Jack wished he’d taken time for dinner.
Okay, O’Neill, you can do this. Just treat it like you would an MRE: sniff before tasting. Yup, nothing to it.
“Here you go, Colonel.”
He smiled and murmured his thanks as one of the women – he couldn’t remember her name, Talula or Twyla or something – handed him a goblet containing a shimmering, blood-red liquid, then claimed a spot at his side so close that their elbows touched. Daniel looked a bit crest-fallen as he stepped up to the table to claim a glass for himself.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen.” Stu raised his glass, twirling it slightly.
The other guests followed suit. A second later, feeling like a dumb-ass, Jack did the same. He smiled pleasantly at Daniel as he sniffed the heady aroma of the wine. Crap! It was so strong and his stomach was so empty, he’d probably get plastered on the fumes alone.
“A toast to our men in uniform,” the woman next to him whispered as she clinked her glass against his.
“Well, thank you, ma’am.”
Jack sipped along with the rest of the group, then forced down the grimace that threatened. A soft, approving chorus of ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ echoed faintly around the room full of dead animals.
Stu’s chest swelled as if he’d grown the damn grapes himself. “This fine Cabernet Sauvignon, my dear friends, is from the Silver Oak Cellars of Northern California. Vintage 1999. Yes, yes, I know,” he raised a hand as if to silence protests no one had made, “late, but you must admit – classic.”
“Oh, isn’t it wonderful?” The woman – Trudy, that was her name – clutched at his sleeve.
“Mmm.” He smiled at her, wishing he had a bottle of blackberry Turning Leaf, vintage – he looked at his watch – now.
“A mere $200 a bottle.”
At their host’s casual announcement, Jack felt his fingers involuntarily tighten around the stem of his glass. Shit! That was like – what, 100 bottles of beer? Damn! He held the glass up to the light looking for the gold dust that should have permeated the liquid.
Startled, but covering it, Jack looked at the Professor.
“Care to comment?”
Jack glanced at Daniel, who was smiling smugly. His young friend took another sip of the red gold, then swallowed and stared back at him, one eyebrow arched Jaffa-style. “Yes, Jack. What do you think?”
Casually, Jack twirled the glass again, sniffed, and sipped. Frowning, he thought a moment. “Very complex. The nose is slightly fruity, yet,” he smiled at Daniel, “I believe I smell a hint of – is that sandalwood, Stu?” He looked at their host, pretending not to see the look of utter disbelief on Daniel’s face. “Full-bodied taste with the merest suggestion of licorice. An excellent choice.” Jack finished by nodding his approval and lifting his glass to his buddy Stu.
As the group moved on to the next choice, Jack smiled over at Daniel, who was still staring at him.
“Okay, Jack, how did you do that?”
“Do what?” He assumed the famous ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’ look. “What?”
Daniel shoved his glasses up higher on his nose, looking around and lowering his voice. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, Jack.”
Okay, this was worth every damn minute of being stalked and pawed by Trudy the hyena. Jack leaned close and brushed an invisible piece of lint from Daniel’s shoulder. “Why, Dr. Jackson, what do you think I am? Some aging hood from Happy Days?” Smiling, he turned back to his new best girl, Trudy – no, wait, Tamara. Yeah, that was her name.
The pace was casual, the mood laden with pretentious self-proclaimed mandarin. Conversations laced with expensive cars, boats, high-brow vacations, and designer labels soon had Jack wishing he could chew the crystal goblet he held casually in his hand. So this was a rich man’s version of a pissing contest.
He was well aware of Daniel’s frequent disbelieving glances, which grew exponentially like one of Carter’s math theorems as the evening progressed and Jack failed to make a fool of himself. And that made the torturous conversation he was forced to endure worth it. Oh, yeah, he was aware of Danny-Boy’s astonishment, every bit as much as he was aware of Tabatha’s hand slowly creeping up his thigh in direct proportion to the number of glasses she sampled. God help him if the woman got any more tanked.
Jack found himself at the center of a pack of raging females as several of them vied for his attention, their husbands looking on in amused tedium. Geez, he’d swear that some of these gals had taken Special Ops training on how to corner your quarry. Talula had him pressed firmly against the over-stuffed arm of the couch as she leaned against his shoulder tittering at every word he uttered.
The Merlot he had been sampling lapped against the sides of the goblet when he jumped as another woman leaned over the back of the couch, tickling his ear with her warm breath and showing enough cleavage to make a hooker blush. “That wine is excellent with chocolate, Colonel, if you’re ever in the mood for dessert. I have a terrible sweet tooth.”
If there was an art to equating chocolate with sex then this lady was definitely Picasso, because Jack felt his neck flush under the innuendo. These women could have a locker room full of Marines blushing. Just then he caught sight of Daniel’s smirk as he leaned casually against the hearth of the huge fireplace discussing God knows what with Professor Stuffed Shirt. Time to show Daniel and a few horny women just who was in charge of this little operation.
“Mrs. Knox, the ambience you have created tonight is matched only by your obvious good taste in decor.” He raised his glass in silent apology to Rambo Bambi who stared at him from his home above the mantle. “It has been far too long since I have been surrounded by such charming companions.” I’m pretty sure it was on that planet of cannibals who invited us to lunch.
“Do you find time to travel, Colonel O’Neill?”
Charm oozed from Jack’s smile as he accepted an offering of an unidentifiable, but obviously fried appetizer from - damn what was that woman’s name - Tarantella? Hesitantly, he bit into the oddly shaped tidbit, trying not to grimace when something firm but slimy slid out of the crust and into his mouth. Holy crap! It was one of Ferretti’s old boots. Swear to God, it tasted like an old, fried, stinky boot - Army issue.
Lips parted, the tip of her tongue peeking out, Karen watched him closely. “Well, Colonel?”
Jack called upon all of his training, forcing the smile to remain in place as he chewed on the – mushroom? “Mmm.”
His hostess breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. “I made it myself. Do you like it?”
“Delicious, thank you.” Oh, God. Oh, God. Swallow. Swallow and change the subject before she offers you another. “Uh, yes, ma’am, I do travel quite a bit with my job. My superiors have sent me all over the world, so this year they thought they’d send me somewhere else.”
Daniel stopped in mid-word as peals of laughter surrounded Jack.
Jack was leaned back, a relaxed grin on his face, giving the impression that he was completely at ease with the bevy surrounding him. Damn, why hadn’t he ever seen this side of Jack when they were off-world trying to encourage diplomatic relations with some alien race. There, Jack seemed to delight in behaving in the most offensive manner possible.
“Your friend seems to be enjoying himself, Daniel.”
Daniel’s attention was dragged away from Jack just as he launched into another humorous story. “Yes, he does. If you’ll excuse me, Stu, I believe I’ll join the Colonel so he doesn’t think I’ve abandoned him.”
“I don’t think he has noticed, Daniel. He seems to have plenty of company.”
Well, that was certainly true. Damn, Jack looked like he was really enjoying himself.
Daniel walked over and casually asked, “Jack, when did you first acquire a taste for wine?” Well this ought to be good considering that the wine Jack knew best came with an ‘h’ and involved getting his team to go to hockey games with him.
Jack looked up at Daniel, who was a study of infantile innocence. Picking up the gauntlet his friend had thrown down, Jack’s posture became even more relaxed, but Daniel was quick to see the taut smile of recognition and acceptance of the challenge.
“Ah, that would be many years ago, Daniel, when I was just a kid.”
Jack never spoke of his childhood. Not once in all the years they had known each other. Either the wine or Mrs. Tippler’s perfume was finally getting to him. Daniel found himself giving his full attention to Jack, ignoring the sparks of triumphant laughter which lit the dark eyes as he reeled his catch in along with the rest of the school.
“My brother and I overheard Dad telling Mom where he was going to set up a speed trap one day. We stood about a quarter mile up the road holding a sign and a bucket warning unwary motorists of the trap. We collected a bundle of change in that bucket from the grateful would-be speeders. We took our ill gotten gains and bought a bottle of Blue Nun. Figured that was appropriate since Mom was sure to haul our asses to confession when she found out what we had done.”
For a pregnant moment there was complete silence, and Daniel was on the verge of doing a jubilant jig of victory. Jack had done it. He had crossed the line and the leopard had finally been recognized, despite camouflaging his spots beneath a tuxedo and pretty words. Now he could sit back and relax as Stu and his cronies added Colonel Leopard’s head to the trophies lining the walls.
Loud laughter interrupted Daniel’s smug supremacy.
“Priceless, Colonel. Simply delightful,” Karen Knox murmured, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “Daniel, shame on you for having never brought the Colonel to one of our little parties before. He is a treasure.”
Daniel mumbled either a brief apology or the Egyptian curse for halitosis before fleeing the chortling group.
From that moment, the conversation ran a gamut of wondrous tales of wine for its medicinal properties that would have had Doc staggering, to the embarrassing detailed account of how wine had helped Julia’s maid’s sister conceive – a story which left Jack blushing to his roots and encouraged Tom-tom to attempt to cop another feel as she wormed closer.
Relief flooded Jack as Stu walked to the center of the room. “Tonight has been delightful. Karen and I thank you so much for joining us. As is our tradition, we would like to end the evening with a special gift to the newest member of our little group.” Looking towards Jack, he raised his glass. “Tonight, Colonel, that honor belongs to you. Would you join me, please?”
His instincts screamed that full retreat was the order of the day. Looking across the room, he saw Daniel issue a sly smile and joining Stu, he raised his glass in a mock toast. Crap, he should have known Daniel’d pull something like this, the sneaky little bastard. He felt like the condemned being led towards the guillotine. He was so going to enjoy killing Daniel slowly for this stunt.
“Colonel, we have procured a very special bottle of wine from the Rocky Top Winery, the home of truly impressive wines. Would you do us the honor of sampling it?”
Okay, he could handle this. One last sip of hootch. Ignore the fact that his stomach was already gurgling like a geyser. Thank God Stu had opted not to bless them with a fire tonight. Standing where he was, if Old Faithful blew, it would have looked like a flame thrower was shooting out of his ass. Oh yeah, a slow, painful death was in order for one smirking ex-best friend.
Jack accepted the glass of clear honey-colored wine. He held it to his nose and breathed in the pungent aroma of fermented fruit. He took an apprehensive sip and fought not to gag as the ultra-sweet brew overwhelmed his senses. Belaying his first impulse to spit the drink back in his glass, Jack swallowed bravely and blinked back the tears of his outraged sinuses. “Interesting,” he croaked.
“Tennessee Mountain Peach. Enjoy it, Colonel.”
Stu laughed and turning to the others he said, “Friends, join me in a final glass of your favorite of tonight’s selections as the Colonel finishes his glass. To Colonel O’Neill.”
“To Colonel O’Neill,” the room echoed.
The pained look on Daniel’s face was the catalyst Jack needed to force himself to empty the rest of the goblet as the guests made small talk and took their leave bringing the ordeal to closure. So’kar should take lessons in torture from these people.
“This has been delightful, Professor Knox. Mrs. Knox, I don’t know how to thank you for allowing me to join you in your charming home.” Turning to the woman who had stuck to him like velcro throughout the evening, Jack gave a charming smile. “This has been an evening I will never forget. Truly.”
“Oh, Colonel, it sends tingles up my back when you say my name like that. Truly Tippler. I’ve always loved my name.”
“A more apt description I’ve never heard,” Jack replied as she giggled with pleasure and Daniel covered a snort with a discrete cough.
A quick covert pat on his behind from his hostess and the door closed.
The two men made their way through the darkness towards the dented Ford. As he rounded the rear of the vehicle, headed for the passenger door, Jack staggered slightly but covered by putting a hand to the roof of the car. With his other hand, he opened the door and wedged himself into the front seat, letting his head fall back against the headrest.
Without a word, Daniel started the car, gunned the motor, and pealed out down the driveway. When they reached the intersection with the narrow, winding road that led back towards town, Daniel slammed on the brakes. Before Jack could fully recover from the g-forces of the sudden stop, Daniel pulled out onto the road, tires squealing.
They rode, in silence. Jack hazarded a glance over at Daniel. The man was gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his fingers had turned white. He was sitting hunched over the wheel, squinting out the windshield. The dashboard lights reflected off of his glasses, making him look Goa’uld-like. Ironic, because currently, he appeared to have the temperament for the job. Jack recognized all the signs of a Dr. Jackson hissy-fit.
“Daniel, something on your mind?”
The only response was a soft grunt.
“Excuse me? Didn’t catch that.”
‘I said, ‘no.’”
“Oh.” Jack fought back a grin and looked out the side window. “So, you’re not mad or anything?” There was no response. He looked back over at his friend. “Cause, you know, you look kinda – well, pissed off.”
“I’m not mad.”
He sounded mad.
“Good. Cause I thought it went well.” Daniel swerved the car to miss something that Jack didn’t see. Feeling pleased with himself, and a little buzzed, Jack leaned back, crossed his arms, and closed his eyes. “Karen seemed nice. Stu, too, but–”
Jack raised his head and looked over at Daniel. “Huh?”
“I can’t believe you sometimes. What the hell were you doing back there?”
“What are you talking about?”
Finally, Daniel glanced at him. Well, glared at him. “What am I talking about? You’re kidding, right?” Daniel snorted and turned back to the road.
Jack waited for him to continue. “Okay. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears that something has your panties in a wad. Care to share?”
“Oh, I don’t know. How about, I admire these people, Jack. They are experts in their given fields, two of which happen to be archaeology and mythology. You know: what – I – do. How about, yes, I know it’s juvenile but I want to make a good impression on them.”
“You want them to like you?”
“Yes,” he spit it out like it tasted as bad as that damn peach-flavored stuff that Stu had forced down Jack’s throat. “Yes, I want them to like me. So what’s wrong with that?”
“Did I say there was anything wrong with that?” Jack rubbed his temple, suddenly feeling the beginnings of a headache. Crap. When Daniel reverted to silence, he tried again. “So, you don’t think they like you. And that’s my fault because–”
“I never said they didn’t like me. I think they didn’t know I was there, Mr. Lampshade on the Head, Have to Have All the Attention, Party Crasher.”
As he stared out the windshield at an oncoming car, Jack blinked as the approaching headlights swam and wiggled across his vision. “Party Crasher? If you will recall, I didn’t want to go to this thing, Daniel. You’re the one who insisted on it. And lampshade? Hey, is it my fault all the women there were horny?”
“Huh?” He looked over at Jackson, stunned.
“You were flirting.”
“I – I was being sociable.”
“You ate her cooking, Jack. No one eats her cooking.”
“Excuse me?” Good Lord, Jackson had officially gone over the edge. “Geez.”
“Come on, everyone knows you never eat what Karen Knox cooks. Did you see anyone else eating?” Daniel stared over at him like he was an idiot. “No!”
“Daniel, I don’t know about where you come from, but where I come from eating an old boot definitely does not constitute flirting.” Jack shook his head.
“You were practically making out with every woman there.”
“Hey! That stuff at the end was strictly instinct, self-defense.” Jack smiled slightly. “Come on. Lighten up. They like you, Daniel. And even if they don’t, that doesn’t mean–”
“Just shut up.”
Jack studied his friend. Okay, so maybe he’d gone a bit too far. He hadn’t thought so at the time, he’d been too busy trying to protect the family jewels. Honest to God, he’d been so concerned about safeguarding what little remained of his virtue that he hadn’t noticed Daniel was getting mad. Jack leaned his now aching head back against the headrest and shut his eyes.
He was nearly asleep when he heard the mumbled apology. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It was rude.”
Jack was concentrating on fighting back a wave of nausea and didn’t move. “You’re right. It was. But I forgive you because I know you didn’t mean it.”
There was another long stretch of silence punctuated only by the hum of the tires on the pavement.
Daniel chuckled softly. “I can’t believe Karen Knox felt you up.”
He cautiously opened one eye and squinted over at his friend. Daniel saw that? Shit.
“Better watch your back, Jack. She’ll be stalking you next.”
Jack thought about the rows of dead animal heads lining the good Professor’s den. “I just hope she doesn’t try to mount me.” At Daniel’s snort of laughter, Jack grimaced. “And I didn’t mean that like it sounded. Although, now that I think about it, I hope she doesn’t try to do that either.”
The car veered sharply as Daniel laughed. Jack swallowed and held his stomach with one arm. Was it his imagination or was it getting slightly warm in here?
“You got the heat on?” He reached for the controls.
“No. You cold?” Jack shook his head. “You look a little flushed. You okay?”
He leaned back in his seat, swallowing. He could really use a beer to get that damn peach taste out of his mouth. “I’m fine.”
“Jack, you awake?”
“Huh, what? What’s the matter?” Damn, what the hell was the number of that truck? Head pounding, stomach churning. He felt like the bottom of a bird cage. “Where are we?”
“We’re at your house, Jack.” The concern in Daniel’s voice tiptoed through the field of steaming bovine patties where Jack was currently residing. “You okay? You slept most of the way home.”
Jack cautiously cracked open one eye and glared at his errant chauffeur. “Yeah, just peachy, Daniel.” He hadn’t meant to come across quite so belligerent, but that freakin’ peach taste in his mouth was skewing his thinking.
Damn, if this was what a high society hangover felt like - screw it. He’d had his last glass of Chateau de Puke. Give him the honest, simple, know-what-you’re-in-for hangover of beer or whiskey any time. At least then he was playing by his rules; even when he was puking his guts out, he knew he deserved it out of the sheer volume he’d consumed. Hell, Professor Two Hundred Dollars a Bottle had made sure no one had more than a shot glass full of any of his ‘vintage variety.’ Except for that Tennessee Tornado shit he’d pawned off on him in the name of a joke. Some freakin’ joke. That stuff, he’d filled the oversized goblet to the brim, like he was pouring Kool-aid. Reverend Jim Jones Kool-aid from the way he felt.
“Thanks for the ride, Daniel. Gonna go in and hit the sack now.”
“Jack, are you sure you’re okay? You really seem - I don’t know - kind of out of it.”
“I’m fine, Daniel. Just tired. I spent the evening trying to keep my virginity intact from a bunch of middle-aged sorority debs, and drinking peach-flavored nitroglycerin. Ya think that might have something to do with it?” He cast a weak glare as he fumbled to find the door handle.
Taking pity, Daniel leaned across and opened the door. “There you go, Jack. The handle’s in the same place it’s always been.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a stupid place to put it. Who the hell could hope to find it when you hide it like that?” Crap. Can we spell petulant?
“Jack . . .?”
“Can it, Daniel, I’m just tired.” He glanced over at his friend. “Sorry. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Daniel couldn’t keep the worried frown from knotting his forehead as Jack slammed the door and staggered towards the house. He watched until Jack found his keys after multiple attempts. God, Jack was plastered. He’d never seen him quite so out of control before. Usually, Jack was very careful not to overdo when he drank and on those few times Daniel had seen him get drunk, he was nothing like this. The more Jack drank, the quieter and more tightly controlled he became. Weird, but nothing a few hours of sleep wouldn’t fix.
Daniel backed out of the drive and pulled away, failing to see Jack stagger off the porch and vomit violently into the rhododendrons.
Oh, God. Would somebody just shoot him? He’d finally gotten into the house after decorating his bushes two more times. The neighbors would love that. ‘Go to bed, honey. Ignore the man puking his guts out in his front yard. That’s just Colonel O’Neill, role model, officer and gentleman, who saves the world on a regular basis.’
Jack lay in bed, his eyes squeezed tightly shut against the slow motion spin his bed seemed to be engaged in. The Alka-Seltzer he had managed to swig was doing its damnedest to make a second curtain call. He had spent the last couple of hours alternating between kicking off the covers, the sheets feeling like he was laying on the scorching sands in Iraq, and shaking with chills that reminded him way, way too much of a little jaunt to Antarctica.
Forcing himself to his feet, Jack walked into the bathroom. Water. Maybe another drink would help cut through the sickening taste of over-ripe peaches that seemed to fill his mouth and nostrils. It was like drinking that expensive, cheap-smelling perfume Mrs. You-don’t-mind-if I-sit-in-your-lap Tippler had bathed in. Just the thought of it brought Jack to his knees in a vain attempt to pay homage to the porcelain god. Leaning his pounding head against the cold surface of the toilet, he soaked in the minute comfort it brought.
One hellofva hangover. Nothing he owed Daniel was worth this. Nothing.
“No, Jack, I will not host a Tupperware party for you. What the heck did you tell Sam you’d do it for in the first place? I mean . . . Tupperware?”
“Yes, Daniel, Tupperware. And I don’t have any choice. Carter’s calling in a favor I owe her. Dammit, who would have thought she’d be so sneaky when I asked her to help cover for me when I backed into Hammond’s car. Hell, she’s the whizzo mechanic. What was the big deal for her to iron out a few dents? Please tell me that dents don’t equal Tupperware.”
“Apparently they do, Jack.” Daniel looked altogether too pleased with the whole situation. “I can just see it now. ‘Ladies, this handy little container is perfect for storing your spare ammo clips. Don’t forget to burp it.’”
Plastering his best puppy dog face on, Jack wheedled his way past Daniel’s defenses. “Come on, Daniel, please. One little party. Carter promised one of the nurses she’d host it. Tiny. Minuscule. I’ll spring for the refreshments. Come on, Daniel, be a pal.”
“Okay, Jack, I’ll do it, but you owe me.”
And now that four letter word had come back to bite him in the ass when that sneaky little twirp had called in his IOU today.
Pulling himself to his feet, Jack ran some water into his hands and washed his face. Cupping his hand, he swallowed a little water, praying it would stay down. He glanced at the clock. Shit. He had less than three hours before he had to be out of here to meet Cassie’s FARTs group.
His life was such a cosmic joke sometimes.
Collapsing into bed, Jack rolled onto his side and wrapped his arms around his rebelliously quivering innards. Shutting his eyes, he ordered his stomach to stand down and let him get a little shut eye. Miraculously, it did and Jack was able to drift into a light doze.
He came awake with a groan, and rolled over onto his back. “Oh, God.”
He lay there in the darkness of the early morning, staring up towards the ceiling. He felt like – well, shit, to be perfectly honest. Not some little doggie pile of crap either. More like elephant dung. A big, honkin’, steamin’ pile of it.
His whole body ached, throbbing along with the tempo of his pulse. He’d barely even moved and already his head felt like it was going to snap off. He was afraid to even try to sit up in case it really did just break off at the neck – his torso sitting up while his head stayed back on the sweat-dampened sheets. Well, at least that would make throwing up a whole lot easier. Well, maybe not. Could a headless torso throw up? What about a torso-less head?
He moaned again, and wiped sweat from his face with a shaky hand. God, what kind of hangover was this anyway? Besides the worst one he could remember, that is. He rested a hand on his abdomen and glanced at the clock without turning his head. He had approximately 20 minutes to shower and be on his way.
Okay, O’Neill, you can do this. Just up and at ‘em. He lay there, dreading the moment. Now that he thought about it, being headless didn’t seem like such a bad alternative. Wonder how the FARTs would feel about being led around by an aging, headless Colonel.
Okay, flyboy, on the count of three, we’re going to sit up. One. Two. Three.....maybe he could just skip the shower, rest here a few more minutes.
He would be perfectly happy to never see another peach in his obviously-cursed lifetime. In fact, from this moment forward, he hated peaches. He hated Knox Villa. And he definitely hated Tennessee.
“I hope the Gators whip your sorry asses,” he mumbled to football fans everywhere.
Oh, morning, Mr. Bladder. Jack chewed his lower lip as the pressure began to build. Okay. No way I can avoid him.
Without allowing himself time to think about it, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and forced himself to a sitting position. Geez! The room spun alarmingly, even in the dark. He shut his eyes and swallowed peach-flavored bile. It took a 10-count before he could rise up on long, shaking legs. With an old-man grunt, he shuffled towards the bathroom, nearly tripping over the rented tux which lay crumpled on the floor with all the dignity of a used condom – which, if you thought about it in the context of last night’s festivities, it kind of was.
He flipped on the light and cringed, cursing as shard-like rays pierced his retinas. “Holy--,” he hit the light switch again, plunging himself into blessed darkness. Holding onto the wall, he leaned over the toilet and blindly relieved the pressure on his bladder. Even that hurt. Could you get clap from being fondled? He supposed not, since technically there had been a thin, cloth condom between himself and Karen-the-Molester, and Trudy-the-Horny-Toad Tippler. But damn, he really thought they’d bruised him in places not meant to be bruised.
Between the ‘girls’ and Stu’s little ‘gift,’ the odds of getting the FARTs up on Pike’s Peak were slim to none. Maybe he had time to call and cancel. Damn the General and his fat-ass car anyway! That’s another thing – from now on, he hated fat-ass cars. And Carter.
“I’ll do it, but I can’t right now. I’m supposed to meet up with Teal’c in,” she looked at her watch, “10 minutes.”
“Come on, Carter. I already agreed to do that stupid plastic party thing. You gotta fix this before Hammond leaves. What’s so important that you can’t postpone it? I’ll talk to Teal’c.”
“Colonel, no! Teal’c’s – well, I’m supposed to help him with something.”
Now he was curious. “Help him with what?”
Carter smiled. “I shouldn’t tell you this. You have to promise you won’t embarrass him.”
Jack stared back at her, weighing the benefits of embarrassing Teal’c against the damage to the General’s car. “Okay. I promise.”
“He needs someone to go with him to,” she surprised him by blushing slightly, “dance classes, sir.”
“Dance–,” at the look on her face, he stopped mid-laugh. “Teal’c is taking dance classes? With you? Teal’c?”
Shit! He was beginning to think he was getting the short end of the stick. First, he had to play hostess to a bunch of giggling plastic-mongers, and now he had to forego some sweet blackmail material. Life was so unfair.
“Yeah, okay. So, what if I find someone else to go with him?”
“Who? You?” Carter’s face lit up at the thought.
“No, smart-ass. Not me. But I’ve got someone in mind.” Geez, he could make a fortune selling tickets to see Teal’c and Fraiser foxtrotting around the dance floor.
“Well, I’d better talk to Teal’c first. He didn’t want anyone else to know.”
So now, not only was Teal’c holding an unclaimed marker over his head, Jack owed a field trip to Janet and the FARTs. God, that sounded like a musical group, a percussion band. His head pounding too hard to thoroughly enjoy the humor of it all, Jack reached over and turned on the shower. He had to go through with it; he’d promised. He was a lot of things, but Jack O’Neill was no welcher.
Five minutes later, he crawled out of the shower. It hadn’t helped. In fact, the warm water pelting against his skin might have washed off the sweat, but every little drop had stung like those insect thingies on PX – on that moon they’d been on with those crabby scientists, and now he was freezing. Freezing and sweating – how was that even possible? Really, he should ask Carter. Oh, wait. He hated Carter.
Jack quickly brushed his teeth, retching as the toothpaste wrestled with the fuzzy peach hiding somewhere behind his tonsils. Hurrying, trying to convince himself that a Special Ops-trained colonel had more control over his bodily functions than a 4-month old infant, or a 90-year old man, he dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. He slipped on his hiking boots, then grabbed a bottle of Tylenol, dry swallowing four or five, before shoving the bottle into his front pocket.
He wandered down to the kitchen and leaned against the counter, staring at the phone. Please ring. Please, God, let there be a foothold situation. I can shoot an alien lying down, but I don’t think I can haul this sorry ass up the side of a hill with a bunch of FARTs covering my six. Please, God. Yours truly, Jack O’Neill.
The phone didn’t ring. Much as he didn’t want to, maybe he should just call Janet and beg off. He reached out a shaky hand and noticed the blinking light. Yes! Maybe God liked him after all. A little alien invasion. Maybe an invitation from Thor. Hell, right now, he’d happily meet with the Tok’ra if it would get him out of this FARTs situation. He pressed the play button.
“Hi, Uncle Jack. It’s me. I’m over at Kelly’s. I know you’re out with Daniel but I just wanted – hang on.” He could hear a rustling over the phone, and then Cassie’s voice came back on. She was whispering. “I just wanted you to know that I’m glad you’re going with us tomorrow. Mom’s great and all, but she’s, you know, too bossy. Anyway, I’m really looking forward to introducing you to my friends. So, anyway . . . well, I’ll let you go. Bye. I love you, Uncle Jack.”
He stood there, bent over at the waist, clutching his aching stomach. God, why’d she have to go and do that? Now he absolutely, positively had to go.
The ride to the park was uneventful. He took Highway 24 just like he had a thousand times. His truck probably knew the way by itself, which was just as well considering how he felt. Past the Garden of the Gods, which actually would have been the perfect place for the Stargate if you thought about it. Yep, just stick it out there between old Apophis Crag and Hathor Clefts.
What a load of shitstone. He must be delirious. He so didn’t want to do this.
Turning off the highway, Jack followed the familiar road into the park entrance. He could see a bunch of parked cars and several adults standing around talking while their kids pretended their parents weren’t in the same galaxy. Guess Charlie would have been the same way. The sting of unshed tears caught him by surprise. “Damn sun,” he muttered and pulled on his shades as he parked next to the group.
Gingerly, he climbed out of the cab, realizing with some discomfort that he was suddenly the center of attention.
“Morning.” The cold glare he received from the closest group of parents was perplexing. Folks were generally pretty friendly around these parts. Okay, so he looked like the two-week old leftovers from Hung Fu’s sitting in the bottom of his refrigerator, but he had taken a shower. And the look these gals were giving him could freeze ice cream on Abydos. Suddenly, he really wanted to check his fly and make sure he hadn’t dropped a dangling participial.
“Uncle Jack!” Apparently pseudo-uncles were listed under the ‘okay to recognize’ category of adults, because Cassie barreled into him, followed closely by a giggling redhead. “I didn’t think you’d ever get here. We’ve been waiting forever. This is my absolutely best friend, Kelly.
Kelly, this is my uncle, Colonel Jack O’Neill.”
His arm thrown casually over Cassie’s shoulder, trying not to look as sick as he felt, Jack smiled at the blushing girl. “Hiya, Kelly, nice to meet you.”
The girl’s face suddenly took on the hue of her hair, but before Kelly could answer, Cassie caught her hand and pulled away from Jack, racing towards a group of girls. “Come on, let’s go tell Marcee Uncle Jack’s ready to go. Didn’t I tell you he was cute?” Turning back she hollered, “Cool sweatshirt, Uncle Jack.”
Left standing a bit breathless in the wake of the teenage tornado which had just buffeted him, Jack glanced down at his apparently cool sweatshirt. He didn’t even know what he had on, to be honest. He’d just groped around and grabbed the first sweatshirt he’d come to this morning. Geez, the way he felt, it was a lucky thing he hadn’t arrived wearing a jock strap and an insincere smile.
Crap. No wonder Moms I and II were giving him the double dose of death glare. Emblazoned across his chest were the words, ‘Kiss my Asteroid.’ Way to go, Jack. How to Win Friends and Influence People 101.
He quickly reached into his truck and grabbed his jacket, zipping it up to hide the incriminating evidence that he was some kind of degenerate. Moseying casually past the twin glaciers, Jack could feel icicles drilling holes in his back. Guess it beat the ones pounding behind his eyes.
He stopped when two women approached him. “Colonel O’Neill?” At his nod, the taller woman stuck out her hand and gave him a handshake that would have made a Marine proud. “Glad you could make it, Colonel. Dr. Fraiser called to let me know you’d be taking her place. I’m Lee Marren and this is Vicki Cousyn.”
God, did she have to yell? Jack grimaced as his pounding head protested her volume. He took a step back and Lee followed his lead, invading his personal space like she was conquering an unsuspecting nation. Oh crap, a close talker. Just what he needed. Not.
“Ready to get started, Colonel? Looks like it’s going be a perfect day for our hike.”
“What’s the plan? Doc was a little sketchy when she roped . . . er, discussed this trip with me.”
“Dr. Fraiser,” Mrs. Cousyn said, emphasizing Janet’s title, “said you were an experienced team leader and would have no difficulty keeping up today.”
Well, thank you, Doc. Remind me to buy you a cold one for that vote of confidence.
“I think I should be able to make it , ma’am.” Thank God the woman couldn’t hear his stomach doing a credible rendition of ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ Let’s have a rousing round of applause for ol’ John Philips Sousa. He swallowed repeatedly, trying to stave off the nausea threatening to make a sudden reappearance all over the woman’s Nike’s.
“We’re planning on climbing Barr Trail up to Deadman’s Pass. It’s about four miles. Then we’ll break for lunch and let the kids spread out a bit and spend some time sketching the scenery. After that, we’ll hike back here in time for the parents to pick up the children.” She stopped, obviously waiting for a response.
“Piece of cake,” he smiled, pouring on the old O’Neill charm.
The cocky grin wilted under her tight-lipped silence. Okay, nix the boyish charm, Jack. He gave an inadvertent yelp as her friendlier counterpart, Ms. Marine, punched his arm and laughed.
“Hope so, Colonel. Barr Trail’s not an easy course, but most of these kids have done a fair amount of hiking and even though it’s steep, it is a well marked, popular trail.”
“Guess we better get started.”
Lee stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly, causing Jack to cringe in pain. “Kids, get over here. We’re ready to go. This is Cassandra’s uncle, Colonel Jack O’Neill.”
Jack gave a self-conscious half-wave at the pack of teens forming a crescent moon around the adults. Crap, he’d had drill instructors who’d made him feel more welcome. “Hi kids, call me Jack.”
“You all know Mrs. Cousyn and I’m Lee Marren. Most of you I know, so we shouldn’t have any trouble today.” She gave a mock glare at the choir of angelic faces before smiling and returning to her friendly tone. “Everyone got their lunches, water bottles, art supplies?” Heads nodded affirmatively. “Good. Colonel, you take point.”
Man, this woman had to be a reincarnation of General MacArthur the way she issued orders. She could have had Hammond doing calisthenics.
Nodding, he ran his hand through his hair, creating a bed head look that would have the salons drooling and which left the kids smirking. “Okay, all you FARTs, let’s get moving.”
He was rewarded with adolescent giggling. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
“Colonel O’Neill, please watch your mouth. That is vulgar terminology. I do not approve of potty talk. These are impressionable children.”
Shit, on the other hand . . . .
Okay, that went well. Jack looked back down the trail. They’d come, what, all of a quarter of a mile, and already he thought he was going to pass out. The throbbing in his head was incessant and he was starting to see little black spots in front of his face that considering the time of year and considering they weren’t biting, he was pretty sure weren’t those nasty little gnats the locals liked to call ‘no-see’ums.’
He stepped to one side of the trail and leaned back against a large tree, watching as the giggling teenagers moved past him. Take point, my ass. It wasn’t like they were on a damned alien planet and though it actually might say ‘Sarge’ somewhere on her uniform, Ms. Marine wasn’t his boss. Scary, yes, but not his CO.
Uh oh, here she comes. Smirking, Lee stepped off the trail and rested a hand on the bark of the Ponderosa pine that was keeping him upright. She was standing so close, her arm was brushing against the side of his head, tickling his ear, and he could feel her hot, somewhat smelly breath on his face. Obviously, in the Land of Close Talk, vicinity had absolutely nothing to do with the need to yell. Her voice nearly pierced his eardrum. “Problem, Colonel?”
“Uh, no. No problem.”
She punched his arm again. Hard. “Already need a breather, huh? I take it you don’t get out and about much. Desk jockey, hey?”
Jack smiled, wishing he could punch her. Or Zat her. His body aching, he reached over and rubbed the spot on his arm that Madame Marine had now punched twice. He really needed more Tylenol. Without thinking, he rubbed the bottle stuffed into his front pocket, wondering if it was too soon to take more. Probably. Still . . . he longingly fingered the bottle through the layer of denim, glancing at his watch.
Suddenly, he realized someone was standing in front of him. He looked up to find Mrs. Cursed glaring at him. Now what?
She didn’t answer but her face was flushed, and he had a vague flashback involving Sara, PMS, and an all-night poker game with the boys. In other words, he knew he was looking at a totally pissed-off female. He glanced at Sarge, but she was too busy frowning at two boys who were shoving one of the girls to notice the daggers being slung by Prissy. Sarge rushed off like an MP determined to break up a barroom brawl. Jack pitied the nameless boys and momentarily considered tackling her in order to save them, but in his current state, he figured she’d just beat the crap out of all three of them.
“Colonel, I’m shocked.”
Stunned, he looked back at Mrs. Priss. “Excuse me?”
She put her hands on her hips. “I mean, really! And you an officer of our beloved United States Air Force.” She shook her head. “The nasty shirt is one thing, but – but this!” She glanced up at the retreating backs of the teenagers, then glared at him again, lowering her voice. “I suggest you learn to control yourself, Mister.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She snorted and pointedly looked at his crotch, blushed further, then looked back up at him. “I do not want to see this kind of behavior again or I will report you. As it is, I may just have to write President Bush and let him know how disappointed I am. I don’t care if you are a friend of Dr. Frasier’s.” She started to walk away, then paused. “And we do not say h-e-double-hockey-sticks around children, Colonel.” She stalked off up the trail.
Maybe his fly was open after all. Jack looked down and suddenly realized what she’d seen, or what she thought she’d seen: a grown man staring at a group of teenagers as he rubbed his hand along the hard lump on the front of his jeans.
Holy crap! “Wait–,” but she either didn’t hear him or wouldn’t. “Shit.” Pulling the bottle of Tylenol out of his pocket, he dry swallowed two, then shoved the bottle into his jacket and started up the hill after the others.
Could this day possibly get any suckier? And if anyone answered that, it had better be with a resounding ‘no.’ What, was he the butt end of every cosmic joke in the universe? First last night, now this. Come on. Somebody up there had to have it in for him. Maybe his whole life was just one big Cosmic Candid Camera. Or maybe he was starring in ‘Being Jack O’Neill.’ There was some catch, right? Cause this stuff didn’t happen to normal people. It couldn’t.
“Hi, Uncle Jack?” Cassie had dropped back to join him, startling him.
“I’m having tons of fun. Aren’t you?”
“Oh, yeah. Just – tons and tons.”
“Really? You look kinda sick?”
He glared at her as he trudged up the hill, every joint in his body throbbing, along with his head. “Thank you. I feel much better now.”
Cassie smiled and shrugged. “Sorry. Hey, what do you think of Them?”
Honest to God, the way she said it, Them was capitalized. Worse, he knew who Them was. “Oh, you mean, Madame Marine and her sidekick Victoria Prude?”
Cassie giggled hysterically. “Yeah. Mom can’t stand them. When she found out they’d signed up for this trip, she swore she’d find a way to get out of going.”
“Oh, she did, did she?” Jack was suddenly beginning to see a vague light at the end of the tunnel – peeking through the spots in front of his eyes. “Interesting. So, if everyone hates Them, why are They here?”
“Because all the parents take turns.”
“Parents?” Jack put a hand to his stomach to quiet a sudden wave of nausea. “Those – things reproduced? My God, please tell me They did not spawn.” He shivered and hoped it was just at the thought and not because he was getting ready to puke . . . again.
“Uh,” Cassie looked up the trail and pointed, “there. See. Elena and Dirk. Elena is–”
“Wait.” Jack reached over and touched Cassie’s shoulder, stopping her, and then wiped a layer of sweat from his forehead. “Let me guess. Elena is the daughter of Mrs. Prissy Pants, and Dirk is the unfortunate result of a tryst between Sarge and a three-legged wolverine.”
Cassie laughed out loud. “You crack me up. How’d you know that?”
Jack swallowed bile. Crap. It tasted like – peach. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because Elena appears to have been nursed on a lemon, and Dirk looks like he’s about ready to piss himself.”
Cassie swatted his arm, the same arm that had been broken in two places by the Screaming Drill Sargent.
“Ow.” He rubbed it and glanced at her. “Don’t tell your mom I said ‘piss’ in front of you.”
She smiled up at him, then suddenly frowned. “Are you gonna throw up?”
“Huh?” Actually, he thought he might.
“You look like you’re gonna hurl. You better not get any on my new sneakers or mom will be pissed.”
“Don’t say ‘pissed.’ It’s not polite. And,” Jack stopped walking and swallowed loudly, twice, “yeah, I think I may just–“
He heard her shrieking as he darted off the path for the bushes.
How the hell he could have anything in his stomach left to hurl had to be one of the great unsolved mysteries of the world. Granted, barfing peach-flavored bile wasn’t going to get him into the Vomiters Hall of Fame, but still . . .
Jack was wiping a shaky hand across his mouth when that sixth sense that had kept him alive more times than he could count alerted him. He was being watched. Crap.
Dreading the look of revulsion he would see should it be Ms Cussin’ who’d observed his indiscretion, Jack slowly looked up. A tiny chipmunk sat on hind legs taking in the show.
Okay, obviously Chippy was used to humans because he ignored the order, pitiful though it was.
“Scram. Get out of here.”
Annoying little bugger must be related to Daniel. He was completely oblivious to a Colonel giving orders and was totally focused on new sights, new sounds, and ew . . . new smells. Uh-huh, Daniel with fur, minus the glasses – archaeologist of the rodent world.
The cheeky creature scampered a few steps closer, obviously looking for a hand-out, its sleek, little body the very picture of curiosity.
“For cryin’ out loud, would ya get out of here and let a man puke in peace?”
Peals of juvenile laughter erupted. Jack’s neck flushed with embarrassment as he looked up from his indignant commune with nature, his ass in the air while he kissed the pine needles, to find that he was the center of attention of a group of highly amused FARTs. Chippy scurried off into the undergrowth, abandoning the human to his fate.
“Coward.” Jack looked after his furry pal debating if he had a chance at escape by following his lead. No such luck.
“You kids quit dawdling and get back up here with the group.”
The melodious bellow of Ms Marine was like a choir of angelic music to Jack as the kids scattered and scrambled up the trail.
Until the bellow sounded again in the second verse of the song. “You, too, Colonel O’Neill. I see you hiding down there trying to rest. Get up here and do your job. We’re wasting time. We’d have been better off with a raw recruit fresh out of basic. Look at the way you’re sweating. It’s a pitiful thing to see a soldier who can’t pass muster and needs to be put out to pasture. Just pitiful.”
Why the hell hadn’t he brought a Zat. Just one quick shot . . .
“Colonel, I said get up here now.”
. . . two, okay two quick shots. Clean, no muss, no fuss.
“Colonel . . .”
“Coming, Ms. Marren.” And despite all odds and good sense, he did.
As Jack made his way slowly up the trail to where the group stood waiting with Guard Cussin’ glaring back down at him, his own personal cockleburr stuck beside him as if fearful that given half a chance he’d bolt and head back down the trail. That is, until two boys began a shoving match. Shooting Jack a look that would have turned Patton to a quivering mass of military jelly, she barked, “Move it, Colonel, double-time. Don’t make me come back down here and get you.”
“Yes, ma’am. Right behind you.” As she turned and marched forcefully up the hill, Jack muttered, “The woman was probably born in a mess kit and played with a grenade for a rattle.”
Cassie’s giggle stopped his rumblings as she walked back down to where he was doing his shaky best to put one foot in front of the other and forget just how bad he felt. Those pesky gnats-that-weren’t were back and they’d brought company. In fact, the whole no-see’ums family reunion seemed to be dipping and diving wherever he looked.
“Uncle Jack, do you need a drink? I brought extra.” Cassie handed him a bottle of water with a worried frown. “Are you going to be okay? Cause if you’re sick or anything, we can go back to your truck and go home. It doesn’t matter if we don’t make this stupid hike.”
Gratefully accepting the bottle, Jack put his arm around Cassie’s shoulders and gave her a covert hug. “Thanks, Cass, but I’ll make it.” He cracked the seal and took a long drink. “Geez, what the hell. It’s only twenty or thirty miles straight up until I can rest. Piece of cake, kiddo. Could do it in my sleep. Let’s just add this little episode to the ‘Things not to tell your Mom list,’ okay?”
Cassie giggled again. “Okay, Uncle Jack, it’s our secret. You can trust me. I never told her it was you who taught me how to throw knives. That’d piss her off a lot more than this.”
“That’s my girl,” Jack gave her a sick grin. “Cass, better quit talking like that. Mrs. Cussin’s liable to shove us both off the first cliff we pass if we soil little Elena.”
Cassie shot him a highly amused look. “Okay, Uncle Jack.” Then, sobering, she searched his dark eyes in such an adult way, Jack could only wonder where the little girl had gone. “Sure?”
And in an instant the girl was back as she ran ahead to where her friends stood waiting. One of them pointed at one of the boys being roundly scolded by Sarge and the whole group broke into giggles. By the time the sergeant had the malcontents firmly cowed, Jack had made his way to the group.
“Ready, Colonel?” At Jack’s weary nod of confirmation, she waved her arm. “Let’s move out, troops.”
God, the woman’s reality check really had bounced.
Jack plodded slowly along, trying desperately to ignore the ache in his gut and the way his vision swam in a nauseating test pattern.
For the next mile or two, the damn little FARTs amused themselves by creating a thesaurus of terms for vomiting, having discussed in every sordid detail the spectacle he had made back down the trail for anyone unlucky enough to have missed it the first time. In fact, several of the boys seemed to have a future in the acting profession as they dramatized the event, taking turns portraying the principle players in the scene, until Miss Prissy scolded them and reminded the boys that there were ladies present.
Jack breathed a sigh of relief until Dirk issued the word of the mouth challenge.
That gem was offered by little Elena, and it earned her a whoop of approval, until she clamped a guilty hand over her mouth at the shocked glare of her mother.
Be it the power of suggestion or his stomach’s finely tuned ‘it’s time to puke-o-meter,’ Jack could feel the nausea brewing and building. A fine sheen of sweat covered his face and he swallowed convulsively trying to stave the rising tide.
“You’re looking a little green around the gills, Colonel. Not used to the altitude?”
Please God, just one lighting bolt. I don’t care who it hits. Me or her, it doesn’t matter. You choose, I’m not picky. Just one little bolt. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Apparently it was, as the sky remained pristine blue.
“You know, I would have figured even a desk jockey like you would have had a stronger stomach than this. I am disappointed, Colonel. Some boys kidding around and you look like you’re about to toss your cookies. What’s the Air Force coming to these days? There’s no way my Dirk will join a bunch of panty waste Fly Boys. After what I’ve seen of the kind of officers they produce, my son will join another branch where men are real men.”
The woman could castrate him with her tongue, but at least the Air Force was safe from Godzilla’s offspring. General Ryan could thank him later. There might even be a medal in it for him.
Covering their sixes, desperately trying to blend into the surrounding countryside and thus out of Sarge’s and Prissy’s line of fire, Jack prayed and set goals for himself. If I can make it to that boulder, I’m sure I’ll be fine. Okay, made it. Now, just up to that tree with the crooked branch and I’ll count myself lucky. There, that narrow place in the trail, get there and I’ll live. On and on and on, until finally he had made it three-quarters of a mile. That was approximately three-quarters of a mile further than he’d thought he’d make it.
What was the record number of times a man could swallow in 30 minutes? For that matter, just how much spit could a quivering stomach hold?
That question sent him over the edge. Literally. Quietly, trying to slip away, he stumbled past a large boulder and headed downhill, stopping only when he reached the edge of a steep drop-off. His vision seriously blurring, his heart slamming against the backside of his sternum, he latched onto a small sapling, hung his head out into space, and retched and gagged and heaved. For all the good it did. His stomach was empty.
Clutching his aching middle, he sank down to the ground and leaned back against the sapling. His stomach was as shaky as the leaves on the aspens surrounding him, and a steady tremble had settled in his limbs. Gasping for breath, wiping sweat from his face, he shrugged out of his jacket.
“Retch. They forgot retch.” Better yet, could they spell it? Not that it mattered. Either spelling would describe him at the moment.
Jack shut his eyes and leaned his head back, catching his breath. Okay, this was so not a good day. He wondered if Daniel was sick, or was he the only lucky one. Actually, considering that peach was the flavor of the day, and the fact that the damn stuff was his own special ‘gift,’ he supposed everyone else had probably gotten off lucky.
Guess now the question is: Did Stu poison me on purpose? Was this an academic’s idea of pay-back for being fondled by the man’s wife? Screw them! Well, not literally.
Jack jumped at a small sound near his left elbow. “What the–”
Hey, Chippy! Well, Chippy’s brother maybe. Or aunt. Hard to say. Did chipmunks have penises? He supposed they did. The boys anyway.
“What the hell do you want? Seconds?”
Chippy II scampered closer, stopping mere inches from Jack’s hiking boot. It sat up on its tiny haunches and tilted it’s striped little head.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
It skimmed up the sole of his boot and ran across the leg of his jeans, stopping on his knee – the bad one. Well, the worse one.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I look like shit.”
The tiny creature, so small Jack couldn’t even feel its weight, studied him in silence.
“Well, thanks for asking. Actually, no, I don’t feel so hot. I mean, yeah, I feel ‘hot’ hot, but not, you know, good. So, thought I’d just park it for a minute. Besides, to tell you the truth, I’m kinda scared of Sarge.” Jack frowned down at the Chipster. “Unfortunately, I think I’m gonna have to kill her. And Janet.”
Chip stood straight up, then darted back down Jack’s leg and disappeared over the rim of the drop-off. Seconds later, Jack heard movement through the trees. Crap! He started to rise to his feet.
Relieved, still shaking, he dropped back down and turned to look at her. “Hey, Cass.”
She squatted down beside him, studying his face. A slight frown pinched her lips and he was suddenly reminded of a certain short doctor he knew. “You’re sick.”
‘Uh, hmm. Sick? Well,” Jack smiled at her and patted the ground beside him, “maybe. Just a little.”
She plopped down on the ground beside him and reached over to touch his forehead. He flinched and tried to duck away. “You’ve got a fever.”
“I’m hot. I’ve been – rock climbing.”
“Mom’s right. You are a smart-ass.”
“Hey! Should you be talking like that?”
Cass smiled and passed him her water bottle. “You should drink. You’ll get dehydrated.”
He took the proffered drink, glaring over at her. “You’re becoming very bossy in your old age.”
She shrugged and took the bottle back, hooking it onto her belt. “Ms. Marren is looking for you.”
“Oh, there’s a reason to haul my ass up from here.” He snorted softly, and leaned back against the tree again.
Cassie sighed. “I think we should go home, Uncle Jack. You’re sick and Kelly’s mad at me.”
He glanced at her. “Why? What happened?”
“Oh,” she looked down, twirling a dead leaf with one hand, “I said I thought Jimmy was a dumb jock, and she said I was just jealous because he’s in love with her instead of me.”
“What? In love with her?”
“No. A dumb jock.”
Cass smiled over at him, suddenly looking her age. “Yes. He’s stupid and he’s always asking girls to feel his muscles.”
Jack grunted in disgust. “Men.” Cassie giggled softly. “Well, tell Kelly you still want to be her friend, but that you can’t apologize for calling a spade a spade.”
He shrugged, the movement causing a sharp stabbing pain to shoot across his skull, behind his eyes. “Shit.” He flinched and put a hand to his head.
He waved her away, and lowered his hand, blinking over at her. “You should never compromise your thinking just to make someone else happy.” He blinked again, not wanting to admit to her or to himself that his vision was decidedly wonky.
“Mom says honesty isn’t always the best policy. Not when someone’s feelings might get hurt.”
“Oh.” He shut his eyes, swallowing a hint of bile. “Yeah. That, too.”
“You look awful.”
He squinted over at her. “You were saying something about hurting people’s feelings?”
“Sorry. But you do. I think we should go.”
Jack groaned and hunched over, grabbing his stomach.
“Should I get Ms. Marren?”
“No!” He reached over and laid a hand on her arm. “God, no. I’ll–,” he took a couple of shallow breaths and eased himself back up into a halfway normal sitting position, then slipped back into his jacket, camouflaging the offensive asteroid on his chest. “I’ll be fine.”
She smiled at him. “Peachy?”
He snorted, almost laughed despite the agony. “Exactly.”
Daja-view. Color him screwed. That was one majorly pissed female shooting daggers from the trail above to where he fought to get to his feet.
“Colonel, what kind of game are you playing? I don’t have time for hide and seek with a grown man every time I turn around. This trip is for the kids, not a middle-aged, selfish man who wants to constantly slip away from his duty and commune with nature. You will haul your behind up on this trail, and you will put these children before your own selfish desires. Am I making myself clear?”
Geez, the park rangers on the other side of the mountain were clear on her position. Hell, on the other side of the state.
He so wanted to tell her to go to Netu, but he just couldn’t do that to So’kar. Besides what if she got snaked? The thought nearly drove him to his knees after the struggle to get to his feet. But the fear of what the lean, mean killing Marine would do to him if he fell kept him vertical. Sort of.
Why hadn’t he listened to Daniel and that Oma Dezulu chick and all that Zen crap?
I am a tree. The tree is me. I am invisible. I am one with the chipmunks.
I am chipmunk do-do on the soles of my boots.
“Colonel O’Neill!” Apparently So’kar’s sister was also a student, not of Zen, but a disciple of Helen Reddy. ‘I am woman hear me roar.’
Jack cringed in spite of himself as Cassie looked at him with sympathy and mouthed. “Told you.”
Ill-content with his progress back up to the trail, the woman charged towards them like a near-sighted rhino in heat. Where the hell were a couple of poachers when you needed them? But the way she was coming, Jack had serious doubts even his P-90 would have stopped her. She stopped just short of knocking him flat on his ass, bare inches from his face, her breath steaming his shades.
Okay, the first order of business was to get Cassie out of the line of fire in case of potential fallout. “Cass, why don’t you run ahead and take care of that business with your friend we were talking about. I think Ms. Merren wants to talk to me about something.”
Du’h. The woman was practically foaming at the mouth. How he was able to sound so calm, so normal, had to qualify as another of the great mysteries of life – especially considering the way his stomach was gurgling threateningly. The plain and simple fact was if he didn’t find a convenient Porta Potty soon, he was gonna gross everyone out, from Chippy I and II to the raging rhino ready to gore him with her tongue. Shit happens.
Although her eyes argued like a Philadelphia lawyer, Cassie didn’t vocalize her concerns, a fact for which he was eternally grateful. “Okay, Uncle Jack, if you’re sure.”
He nodded and watched as she ran up the hill to the trail.
Venom jerked him forcibly to the matter at hand. “Colonel, what are you playing at on this trip? Don’t you have any sense of responsibility and team work?”
Suddenly his mouth was so dry he couldn’t answer. The saliva train had derailed without warning, leaving the passengers high and dry. He swallowed convulsively, trying to work up enough moisture to wet his lips. Nothing. He was suddenly channeling the Sahara Desert, which explained the stabbing pains in his guts – he’d swallowed a freakin’ cactus. The only things that seemed capable of producing moisture were his tear ducts, because just as he took off his glasses to rub away Sarge’s spittle, his eyes welled up and spilled over.
The woman looked on the verge of striking him. She stopped and stared as Jack quickly dropped his pounding head down and pinched his nose in an attempt to hide the embarrassing moisture leaking down his face.
“Oh for God’s sake, don’t cry.” Disgust was written all over her ruddy features. Jack suddenly realized she’d mismatched the buttons on her sweater and he had the fleeting thought that he should try and tell her before a knife-like pain brought another break in the dike.
“I don’t believe this.” Sarge grabbed one of his hands and held it out at eye level. Even Jack could see it trembling harshly, uncontrollably.
He snatched his hand back and stood there mute, glassy-eyed and shaking with weakness. Glancing up to make sure Cassie was truly gone, Jack realized that only three things were stopping him from reaching over and snapping the Marine’s thick neck: One, he felt entirely too shitty. Two, there were witnesses. And three, he had a flashback to his freshman year of high school when his dad showed up at a baseball game wearing plaid shorts, tube socks and sandals, carrying a camera around his neck.
“Scared to death and crying like a baby. What a sorry state. My grandmother was more of a man than you are.” And the truth was, the old lady probably was if Sarge had been birthed from her lineage. “Colonel, the only reason I don’t demand you leave and go back to the branch of service that would produce a sorry excuse of an officer like you is I am a compassionate, long-suffering woman, and I don’t want to see Cassandra embarrassed in front of her friends. But rest assured, I will be contacting your commanding officer and anyone else I can think of and informing them of just what caliber of officer they have.”
And just what are you really trying to say, Sarge? Ever so many pithy, yet scathingly appropriate comments came to mind, yet all he was capable of was one pitiful nod which left his vision swimming drunkenly.
“Now get up on that trail. Any more problems and I will demand that you leave in spite of the embarrassment it will cause Cassandra. I trust I have made myself clear.” She turned and rose like a vengeful Phoenix from the ashes of his incinerated corpse to rejoin the group.
It took all of Jack’s will-power not to sink into the forest litter and wait to die. But Sarge had hit on the one trigger that had any power over him: Cassie. He didn’t want to embarrass Cassie any more than he already had. He’d made a promise. And some things were worth fighting for no matter what the cost.
Walk the length of Teal’s staff weapon. Ignore the fact that it feels like you’ve been shot with it. Walk the length of the briefing table. Quit comparing it to an autopsy table. Walk to that rock. It isn’t any further than from your bed to your bathroom.
Oh, shit. He was having a really bad day.
Sweat was pouring down his face by the time he caught up with the group. The kids had spread out and some were busy sketching. The guards had their heads together. Three guesses what the topic of conversation was, and the first two didn’t count.
Hang on. Focus. Concentrate. Endure. You can do this. Do it for Cassie. Do it for Doc. Do it to salvage what shreds of dignity you have left.
“Ew, who farted? Smells like a dead skunk.”
Okay, scrap the dignity. Do it for Cassie.
Jack was contemplating if he had the energy to stagger over to that rock and rest for awhile when Ms. Prissy received the baton and strode towards him.
Still waiting for that lighting bolt, God. I hate to nag, but now would be a good time.
“Colonel, I ass . . .”
Whatever Ms. Prissy was going to say morphed into a shriek of horror when, without warning, Dirk slammed into Jack from behind as he and Jimmy tossed an ill-gotten drawing pad back and forth. Jack, his balance already screwed up royally, pitched forward and suddenly found himself laying on top of one thrashing, seriously freaked woman.
Yep, a really, really bad day. And that was the good news.
The bad news was, his body shut down. As in bye-bye brain cells, sayonara synapses. For a brief moment, he lay absolutely limp. As washed out and unresponsive as a 6-foot 2-inch dishrag. Not in pain. Actually, not feeling anything.
As quickly as it had gone off-line, his system re-booted, and he was suddenly aware that he was draped across a squirming, out of breath, groaning female companion. It took an amazing amount of energy to blink and to try to recall why he was making out in the dirt with a total stranger. Drunkenly, he lifted his head, his vision clearing slightly, and he got his first clear view of his date.
Ew! And excuse his French, but holy shit!
Forcing weak, hesitant muscles to respond, he struggled to get himself off her. He managed to raise up on his elbows, and was working to get his knees under him when he noticed that she had grown suddenly quiet. She’d quit moving. Sweating, still fighting to regain control of his traitorous musculature, Jack was aware that her eyes had glazed slightly and she was staring up at him. He’d seen that look before, but it was usually during – ohmigod!
“Oh.” That’s all she said. Just ‘oh,’ very softly, probably not loud enough for anyone else to hear, but it totally terrified him and empowered him as nothing else could. He rose to all fours, his knees straddling her hips.
“I’m,” he gasped for breath, “sorry.”
“Colonel, I–,” she blinked and, thank you God, didn’t finish whatever she was going to say. When she opened her eyes, Prude Woman was back and Jack was reminded of the scene from that old movie, the one where the little blonde kid sing-songs ‘They’re here.’
Unable to make it to his feet, he shoved himself to one side of her and plopped down on his butt in the dirt, silently sing-songing the line over and over in his malfunctioning brain like a warning beacon. Prissy sat up beside him, looked over at him with a slightly bewildered, slightly flushed face.
“Sorry.” And he was. But for a whole other list of reasons than for the sake of her now dented virtue. Honestly, the only thing worse than having his anatomy pressed intimately up against Cousin’s, was the thought of making out with the Marine.
Speaking of whom, she knelt down and leaned into his face. “Colonel! What is going–,” she stopped mid-rant and like a dog listening to a sound humans can’t hear, she twisted her head, studying his eyes. “Mister, are you sick!”
It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation, and Jack, always on the defensive when it came to admitting weakness, shook his head and rubbed at his blurry vision. Conditioning made him add a firm, “No, sir.”
Cassie knelt down beside him, looking defiantly at Sarge. “He is, too!”
His new Drill Sergeant glanced over at Jack’s most recent conquest, then stared back at him. “Sick or hung over?” she yelled.
“Yes.” Uh-huh, one or the other. Honest to God, with the way he was beginning to feel, he wasn’t so sure anymore. Jack smiled shakily at Cassie, and took a deep, wavering breath that seared its way past a suddenly raw throat.
Sarge slapped a man-hand against his forehead. “Fever. You’re sick,” she announced. “You, Colonel, better haul ass off this mountain before you infect us all.”
Despite her state of near-euphoria, Ms. Priss gasped at the word ‘ass.’ “Ms. Marren, please.” She smiled softly at Jack. “You shouldn’t speak to the Colonel like that.” She batted her eyes – seductively? “After all, he is an – officer.”
Jack grimaced as Priscilla the Prude turned into Paula the Prostitute and undressed him with her eyes, but he had no time to dwell on it as the Marine hauled him to his feet muttering to herself about weakness in times of stress or battle or something that he didn’t quite care about at the moment.
“Get yourself to an infirmary, O’Neill! Cassandra, escort him.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Throwing a frown up at the two women, Cassie grasped Jack’s hand in hers and began leading him down the trail. She waited until they had passed a small fork in the path, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the group, before she spoke. “Sons-of-bitches! Damned, cold-hearted bastards! Ugly snakeheads!”
“Cass?” Stumbling along beside her, trying to catch his breath, hoping against hope that she didn’t lead him over the edge of a cliff because he sure as hell couldn’t see five feet in front of his face, Jack was stunned.
“I don’t care! They have no right to treat you like that. You save their ugly butts every day and they don’t even care!”
“Hey.” She ignored him; kept pulling on his hand. “Hey!” He jerked her to a stop, resting a hand on her shoulder. “They don’t know, Cass. It’s okay. Really.” He squinted at her, able to make out the blurred, pale shape of her face. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” she acquiesced. “Come on, Uncle Jack, let’s get out of here.”
They’d gone less than 50 feet when she looked up at him. “But Mom’s gonna kick their sorry asses when she finds out they were mean to you.”
Jack rested his arms on the hood of his truck and leaned his forehead against the warm metal. Due to the fact that he was operating at less than peak performance, it had taken nearly twice as long to get down the mountain as it had to get up it, and it was now almost noon. He’d convinced Cassie to go ahead and eat the lunch she’d packed. He hadn’t told her that he needed the break to catch his breath and regain his sight. Of course, it was probably obvious from the way he’d gasped and panted and stumbled his way down the trail.
She was sitting up in a small grove of aspens a few feet from the parking lot, munching on her sandwich and feeding Chippy’s long-lost relatives. In the slight breeze, Jack caught occasional snatches of a soft tune she was humming. He cleared his throat, which ached miserably, and took a drink from the water bottle Cass had given him. The liquid momentarily soothed his burning throat, then proceeded to try to strangle him. Cassie looked over at him, and he smiled and waved, then leaned back down on the truck.
God, he felt like shit. Thankfully, the vomiting seemed to have passed, but it left in its wake a throbbing head, a sore throat, blurry vision, and a weak, pathetic trembling in his arms and legs. He thought he could probably just about kick Chippy I’s ass. Jack coughed again, softly. His mouth was as dry as Carter’s meatloaf, but he was hesitant to take another drink. Seems deep down, he really didn’t want to choke to death.
Okay, he stood upright and tried unsuccessfully to take a deep breath. Time to suck it up, O’Neill. Walk it off. The worst part was over. Now he just had to drop Cass off and drag his sorry, kicked ass to bed. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. The brief respite seemed to have momentarily cleared his vision. Good. Janet would never forgive him if he drove Cassie off the side of a mountain.
Jack managed to back out of the parking lot. Somehow he managed to circumnavigate the parking lot and avoid the maze of parked cars, although the turns left him feeling like he’d just stepped off a carnival ride. The brakes seemed to be giving him a little trouble as he stomped down too hard and sent Cassie’s head bobbing drunkenly and his stomach lurching. The steering wheel was slick with sweat as he clutched it tightly in order to maintain the appearance of control. He had to concentrate hard not to over-compensate and jerk the wheel. Congratulations, Jack, you are driving like a 15 year old with a learner’s permit.
Cassie was watching him carefully, a worried pout puckered her face. She was way too concerned about his sorry carcass – yet another characteristic she shared in common with her mother. Give her a little time and no doubt she’d develop a pen light fetish.
“Uncle Jack, do you think we should just call Mom to come pick us up?”
Great, you’re scaring the kid with your bumper car driving. Get it together, O’Neill. “Nah, Cass, I’ll be fine. Just had to get my sea legs. You know, long hike up the trail and everything. I’m doing great. We’ll be home in no time.”
Where the hell did she learn to give that look that said unequivocally she was aware that he was spouting 100% unadulterated bullshit? Must be those damn FARTs she was hanging around.
“What?” But she didn’t answer, just kept watching him.
He was hunched forward, nose nearly on the steering wheel, trying to ignore the pain rifling through his arms and legs, up his spine, and pulsing across his temples. He desperately wanted to, needed to, massage his neck to alleviate the tension, but he was afraid to let go of the death grip he had on the wheel. Without looking, Jack could feel Cassie’s eyes on him.
“Hey, Cass, think we can keep this little escapade between the two of us? No reason for your Mom to find out, right?”
“She’s gonna start asking questions when she finds out your sick.” Crap. Logic - proof positive she was well on her way to becoming a woman.
Jack practiced the difficult art of swallowing before answering. “Look, Cassie, when we get home, we won’t even have to tell her. I’ll drop you off and go straight home, pop some aspirin and hit the sack. Your Mom will ask you if you had fun, you tell her yes, and we’ll all be happy. Capisce? No lies; no one gets hurt.”
She still had that look. God help him if Doc got hold of him. Okay, plan ‘B’ - distract the kid. Get her mind off how he was feeling and down another path. He’d used it a hundred times on Daniel and Carter. Pasting a smile on his face he reached for the radio.
“Feel like some music, Cass? Nothing like Moldy Oldies, huh?”
“I can’t help this feeling, deep inside of me . . .”
Crap, life was so unfair. Sold out by B.J. Thomas. Quickly, he reached to switch the station, but for some reason his fingers didn’t want to work. Sweat beaded on his forehead and stung his eyes as he struggled with the small knob.
Suddenly, Cassie’s small hand was grasping his, stroking the crooked thumb, tracing the scars in a soothing gesture of comfort so tender it brought tears to his eyes. “It’s okay, Uncle Jack, I’ve got it.” She turned the knob and silence filled the cab.
God, Cassie, I’m really sorry about today. I didn’t mean to embarrass you in front of your friends. But instead of the words, Jack was suddenly aware of an uncomfortable tickling in his throat. He cleared it, trying to rid himself of the sensation.
The tickling became more pronounced, less like tickling and more along the lines of tightening . . . squeezing. He pried one hand off the wheel and stuck his finger in the neck of his sweatshirt to loosen it. He rolled his head back and forth seeking some relief from the uncomfortable feeling.
“Uncle Jack, are you okay? Maybe you ought to pull over for a couple of minutes.”
Air, he had to get air. He was back in Ops training. Down in Florida, training with Frank, laughing, making smart-ass remarks about girls in bikinis and how they could get away with wearing their red berets on the beach. The instructors told them they had to overcome their fear of the water. Fear could lead to panic and panic was what got you killed. Hell, he didn’t even know he had a fear of water. Didn’t know until the instructors held him under. Held him under until his lungs felt like they were bursting. Until he fought like a mad man to reach the surface, all the while trying to ignore the growing tightness in his chest and the darkness that had nothing to do with his tightly closed eyes. Until he knew this was all a joke and the sick bastards were going to let him drown. Air.
“Uncle Jack, please stop and let me call Mom.”
Without warning an enormous swarm of black insects flew straight at him. Hundreds . . . millions . . . tens of millions . . . He had to get away. He had to avoid them and save Cassie. Cass was depending on him. He jerked the wheel hard to avoid the swarm.
Jack heard Cassie’s terrified scream just before the truck lurched sideways into the ditch and his head hit the window.
Blackness. He was surrounded by blackness. Being throttled, strangled, suffocated by a cloak of onyx-colored nothingness. Teal’c was here somewhere, wasn’t he? And Carter. Maybe Daniel. He tried to call out.
Nothing. He was alone. Floating through a dark fog that tried to fill his throat, shutting off his air.
A child’s voice. Distant, but familiar. Jack tried to speak. Couldn’t.
“No. No, I’m okay.”
Cassie? She sounded like she’d been crying.
“I don’t know.”
What the hell?
“Mom,” she was crying, softly, “I’m scared. What should I do?”
He struggled to move, not sure if he was sitting up or lying down. All he accomplished was rolling his head to the side.
“He’s moving, but he’s breathing kinda funny. . . . Okay.”
With tremendous effort, Jack blinked. Something blocked the vision in his left eye. With his right, he saw blurry movement.
He opened his mouth to speak and coughed instead, but the cough had no force, no air, behind it.
“I called 9-1-1.”
Holy crap! She’d done what? That was not good.
“Then I called Mom.”
Okay. That was worse than not good.
“Cas–,” he wanted to comfort her. Thought he owed her that much for some strange reason. But it was hard to breathe, let alone speak. Why was it so hard to breathe? Where were they? He squinted. A rearview mirror? The truck? They were in his truck. But it was sitting at an odd angle. The nose was pointing down and to the left. “Wha–”
“You were sick and we had a wreck. Remember?”
Cassie slid closer to him, and he realized she had his phone pressed to her ear. Eating up his minutes. Hammond would be pissed. He should tell her to hang up. She was wasting good taxpayer money. Jack tried to push himself up but his arms wouldn’t cooperate.
“Don’t! Mom says you shouldn’t move.”
What? Janet was here? He groaned. God. His head hurt. Worse, his throat was burning and his arms ached. He fumbled weakly and pushed against whatever was pressing into his chest and against the left side of his face. With a gasp, he slipped back and to the side, his head falling back slightly before it bumped against something solid.
But despite her protests, his new position opened his airway somewhat, and he sucked in a greedy breath and looked over at the inflated airbag.
“Mom? He moved.” There was a brief pause and it suddenly dawned on him that Janet was on the other end of the phone. Crap. She was gonna be so pissed. “Yeah, he’s breathing. . . . Uh-huh. . . . But he’s not answering.”
I want to, Cass, I’m just having a little problem here. Send some air my way, okay, kid? Oh, God, was she hurt? He felt a surge of panic and blinked over at her. She leaned close, resting a hand on his shoulder.
“Uncle Jack? Can you hear me?”
He swallowed, coughed, and breathed. After a tremendous amount of concentration, he nodded.
She sobbed loudly in response.
Jack took advantage of his newfound airway, and sucked in a breath. “You – hurt?”
“No. I’m okay.” She was crying again and she leaned against his arm, her weight like a vice pressing against his lungs. He grimaced and gasped.
Wailing. He heard wailing. Sirens?
“Mom, the ambulance is here. . . . Okay. Bye.” Cassie snapped the phone closed. “Mom’s on her way to the hospital. She’ll meet us there. Uncle Jack?”
He blinked and watched as she wiped her eyes and began to crawl across the seat towards the passenger door. A stranger wearing a helmet appeared on the other side of the glass, and the door was wrenched open.
“Hey, there.” It was a young man. Trained eyes studied Cassie briefly, before jumping over to look at Jack. The man smiled at Cass. “Are you hurt?”
“No. But something’s wrong with Uncle Jack.”
“Uncle Jack, huh? Well, don’t worry. What’s your name?”
If he hadn’t felt like he was dying, Jack would have smiled at her response. “Cassandra Marie Fraiser. My mom is Dr. Janet Fraiser, and she’s going to meet us at the hospital. We should hurry.”
“Oh. Okay. You called your mom, huh?” The man had been joined by others, and together they were easing Cass out of the truck.
“Yeah. And he was sick before we wrecked. That’s what caused it.”
“Well, we’ll take good care of him.”
Jack could hear them leading her away. Another helmeted man climbed into the cab, inching over towards him.
“Sir, can you hear me?”
Jack sucked in a breath, grimacing at the effort. “Yes.”
“Can you tell me your name?”
What the – his name? God, he could barely breathe. Let alone talk. He frowned up at the guy, hoping the short version would be good enough. “Jack.”
“Nice to meet you, Jack. Do you know where you are?”
Okay, where’s Fraiser? Cause this guy is obviously an idiot. I want my doctor. You know her – the one with the pen light. Jack blinked, suddenly feeling slightly groggy.
“Jack? Stay with me now. Where are you hurt?”
He slowly shook his head. He wasn’t hurt. He was fine. Peachy.
“Sir? Jack?” This guy was annoying. Like Sarge, he talked too loud.
“Hey, Pete,” the first paramedic poked his head back through the open passenger door, “the guy’s Air Force. Colonel Jack O’Neill. And according to the kid, he’s been sick all day.”
“He looks cyanotic. Let’s get him on a board, hit him with some oxygen, and get him out of here where we can take a look-see.” The man, Loud Talker, reached over and pressed a finger against Jack’s neck, studying his eyes. “Colonel, we’re gonna get you out of here, okay? Sir?”
“Dammit, Daniel, would you quit hovering and go outside and play in the traffic or something. And make Teal’c give me back the remote. I am not gonna lay here and watch ‘Mister Ed’ reruns.”
“But, O’Neill, I have never before encountered such a creature as a talking horse. It is a most clever animal. I believe it could be most useful if used as a spy against the Goa’uld in societies using equine transportation.”
“Yeah, sure, Teal’c, I’ll talk to Hammond about it.”
‘There’s a story about a man name Brady who was bringing up three . . .’
Oh God no, Teal’c, not that. He couldn’t be held responsible if he were forced to watch ‘The Brady Bunch.’ “Just give me the damn remote.”
As Daniel got up to answer the ringing telephone, the Jaffa reluctantly surrendered the remote. “I do not understand, O’Neill, I find this show most enlightening and entertaining. I am curious to learn if Marsha Brady will obtain a date to the homecoming dance and if Peter will, in fact, need braces.”
Jack groaned. God save him from a Jaffa with a Nick-at-Night obsession. He so didn’t want to think about Teal’c and his reaction to ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ or, he shuddered, ‘The Partridge Family.’ The thought of Teal’c singing ‘I Think I Love You’ in the dining hall was enough to put him off his feed for life. Almost as much as the thought of Karen Knox and her appetizers from hell.
Botulism, hot on the heels of a peach-induced hangover. That’s what Doc had told him when he woke up in the hospital, stuck full of enough tubes and wires to sink a Death Glider. He didn’t remember much of the first few days. Nothing about the ride there. Guess he was kind of tired and slept through most of it. He had vague memories of shouting and someone crying and being held under the water so he couldn’t breathe. Not much else, just bits and pieces that he struggled to hang on to, but that drained away through the sieve of marmalade memories he had of the past few days.
Doc said the antitoxin had saved him. According to her, the hangover from the peach-flavored kerosene Stu had pawned off on him had merely been the first course, so to speak. The damn mushroom-boot tasting thingie had really done it. Go figure. Nope, the appetizer from Abaddon, the mushroom from Malebolge, the shit from Sheol, ah crap, the botulistic bargain basement fermented fungus from Hell.
Cassie’d really saved his sorry ass. Doc said if she hadn’t called in the calvary when she did, he’d have definitely bought the farm this time. Something about the muscles in his airway starting to paralyze. He owed the kid one. More than one, after that FARTs fiasco.
“Sir, it’s time for your meds. Do you think you can eat a little something? Janet said some chicken broth would be fine. I brought a Tupperware container full over and put it in the fridge. Or I can make some jello?”
Swell, Carter, sounds yummy. Jack knew she was just trying to help, but clear liquid diets had never been on his top ten list, especially when they tasted like glorified chicken pee. Chicken pee made a man snarky. It was a law. And besides, it was Carter and her damn plastic container party that caused him to get sick in the first place. He wouldn’t be in this position if she’d asked someone else to burp the stupid stuff.
“I brought several flavors you could choose from, strawberry-banana, orange, something blue, oh, and there’s one box of peach if you’re interested.”
Jack held up a hand, silencing Teal’c, then frowned up at Carter. “If you bring me peach, I swear to God you’ll be pulling double watches for a year. Got that?”
She gave him a snarky grin. “Yes, sir. Blue it is.”
He snorted, then glared over at Teal’c. “Now. What? And you better not tell me you wanna watch Emeril, cause right now I’m looking at a week of chicken piss and colored glue.”
“No. That is not it. I have decided to call in my – ‘marker,’ I believe you called it.
“Oh. Great. Well, by all means, kick a man while he’s down, Teal’c.”
The Jaffa tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow.
“Never mind. What? What do you have in mind? Maybe shave your head for a month?” Jack shivered. “Bathe Junior?”
“When Dr. Frasier releases you, I require a partner.”
Jack felt his already pale complexion go a shade paler. “Uh – Teal’c, old buddy, old pal–”
“We will be learning the Tango in my dance class. I am told it takes two. You will be my second.”
He laughed. Out loud. Loud enough that Carter and Daniel came dashing in from the other room.
“Funny one, Teal’c. You’re really getting the hang of this Tau’ri humor bus–,” Jack suddenly noticed that Teal’c wasn’t smiling. Carter and Daniel were, but not Teal’c. “Okay, now wait a minute. If you seriously think–”
“Sir, you do owe him.”
Jack stared at her, then at Teal’c. Geez! All this because of the General’s stupid, honkin’, over-sized car. “You know I almost died, right?”
“But you did not, O’Neill.”
“Yeah, well, I’m starting to wish I had. It’s better than a life of chicken pee and Tango lessons with Junior’s babysitter.”
“Look at it this way, Jack. It could be worse.”
Jack glared over at Daniel. “Oh, really, Dr. Jackson. Care to expound?”
“Uh, well, I – uh – I can’t actually think of anything right now, but I’m–,” suddenly Daniel smiled and snapped his fingers. “Hey! I almost forget to tell you what with all the dying business and everything. Something very odd happened to the General.”
“Yeah?” Jack wasn’t that interested, but maybe it’d take his mind off holding hands with Teal’c.
Daniel’s eyes sparkled behind his glasses. “Yeah. One day last week, Hammond left his office to drive home and discovered his car was suddenly ‘fixed.’”
“Uh,” Jack swallowed and glanced at Carter. “Fixed?”
“Weirdest thing, don’t you think? Seems one of his granddaughters had rolled her bicycle into it the week before and dented the fender. Then, he comes out to go home, and the dent was fixed. Totally gone.”
Jack smiled tightly. Okay, it was official: his life sucked.
“Strange, huh, sir?” Carter smiled until she saw his face.
“Well, you didn’t happen to – uh – say anything about that to him, did you, Daniel?”
“Now, what could I possibly say, Jack?”
There was a long, silent pause, before Carter cleared her throat.
“Um – Daniel, who was that on the phone?”
Daniel walked over and sat down on the sofa, pushing Jack’s legs out of the way to make room. “Jack, you’ll never guess who.”
“But I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”
Daniel pushed his glasses further up his nose. “That was an official invitation to attend the Fall Gala.”
“The Fall Gala? What the hell is that?”
“You know, the one hosted by Karen of Knox Villa. I hear she’s serving her specialty – stuffed boots – I mean, mushrooms.” Daniel’s smile widened. “So, what should I tell her, Jack? Will you be attending?”
Jack stared at Daniel. Chicken pee soup, blue jello, Tango lessons, Tupperware parties. For cryin’ out loud!
“Tell her – tell her that sounds – peachy. Just peachy.”