What would happen when dawn stretched her rose-tipped fingers above Cheyenne Mountain?
Could he sleep?
She gave up and dressed herself in the neat blouse and skirt that she habitually wore in the SGC, moving quietly in the dim glow of the emergency lights so as not awaken the patient in the bunk above her.
Making her way slowly down the corridor, she stopped at each room to check in on her patients. It was surprising how often a bedpan, or an arm to help someone to the toilet, was appreciated. It might be the dirty, rough-and-ready end of nursing, but it was important even so. Most of what Florence Nightingale had done was to introduce hygiene and clean sheets. It saved lives.
She'd become used to entering without knocking, but hesitated outside the iso-bay where Maybourne slept. He'd chosen to sleep on base and no one had queried the decision. Now, she wondered whether it was dedication to duty, or simply because there was nowhere in Colorado Springs that was home to him. As far as she was aware, the rest of SG1 had returned to their own reality tonight, though she wasn't entirely sure about Teal'c.
Settling on compromise, she knocked lightly; hopefully not enough to wake him if he was asleep.
"Well," Maybourne's voice said after a few moments, "come on in."
Wearing a pair of blue-striped pyjamas, he sat on the edge of the bottom bunk, clasped hands resting lightly between his knees.
"Cassie." He seemed surprised to see her. "Is this a social call, or did you have something else in mind?" There was an odd stress in the way he spoke and an ironic twist to his lips.
"I couldn't sleep. I wondered..." It seemed stupid now. He didn't need her concern.
"And you wondered....? Cassie, it never does to keep a man guessing."
She stared at him blankly, a sudden thread of fear running through her.
"Cassie, this is Colorado, you're over sixteen and you're standing in the condemned man's room in the middle of the night. What else am I supposed to think you have in mind? If you're offering, then I'll take it; if you're not, will you kindly make up your mind and let me know before I inadvertently add rape to my already-tarnished record."
"General!" How could he see her like that? The very idea was disgusting.
"Ah, I forgot. You hate clichés. Pity." He stretched himself out on his bunk, propped his hands behind his head and gazed up at the bottom of the bunk above.
It was a dismissal, but she was too angry to accept it as such.
"How could you imagine that I'd even consider doing something like that?"
"Very easily." He sounded completely unrepentant. "I can imagine it of virtually anyone. I have a very good imagination and it's working overtime tonight."
Mum had always said men only wanted one thing.
"Why not go into town?" She almost spat the words at him. "I'm sure you could find someone who'd do it for money."
"If that's meant to be an insult, then you're wasting your breath. I've paid for sex, fairly often as it happens."
She stood aside from the door. "Don't let me stop you."
Maybourne rolled onto his side and looked her in the eye. "Cassie, if I leave this base, I won't come back again."
It was on the tip of her tongue to say 'Why?' when her brain caught up with her mouth just in time. Out there was life and freedom; here in the mountain, nothing awaited him except death.
"Well, my prophetess," he said, as if divining her thoughts, "how do you suppose it will be?" His voice was laced with bitter self-mockery. "Will it be quick or will I spend another six months of my life in a grey cell waiting for justice to make up its collective mind how and when I should meet my end?"
Caught up in his mood, she came and knelt by the bunk and touched his hand.
"For Pete's sake, don't call me that. I hated the damned General. I killed the wretched man and Jack still hasn't forgiven me for it.
"Call me Harry."
"Harry." She tried the taste of it on her tongue, but it was too intimate, too negligent of authority.
"Cassandra," he said quickly, "lie to me. Tell me something, anything, just help me to forget for a while."
"Shall I tell you about Hanka?"
"I was born there. It was a good place and I had three sisters and a brother. I still remember little 'Nestra climbing on my knee. She was my littlest sister and she loved to play with dolls. I remember when the Tau'ri first came to our world. They wanted to build telescopes, because we had a very clear atmosphere and no light pollution. I didn't even know what light pollution was back then, but Colonel O'Neill told me later on - he likes stargazing."
"One of his more interesting traits," Maybourne commented. "The one careless slip in his image of being illiterate."
"He's not illiterate," she protested.
"I said 'image'."
"I'd never have got through school without him. I learnt English from the men building the telescopes; I used to spend hours every day hanging around them. I had loads of gaps in my vocabulary though. Can you really understand the size of the culture gap? I didn't know what a dog was. I'd never seen any television, didn't even know the name of the President or know what a president was.
"The other kids here made my life hell. Until Colonel O'Neill stepped in. Every time he had a day free, he'd be down the school. He played games with everyone, coached them in hockey and basketball, and helped out in class. They loved him. And he made it quite clear that I was his friend.
"Later, when he retired from the SGC, I'd go to him during the day for school holidays. I played with Sunlight and the Colonel coached me in the subjects that were still giving me problems. He got me through math classes."
"I'd have thought Major Carter would have been the one for that."
"Sam? No, she was too good."
Maybourne raised an eyebrow.
"I was years behind. I hadn't had the grounding in things that everyone else took for granted. When you know something really really well like Sam does, you can't understand why someone else can't grasp the basics. There are some things that are so obvious that you can't explain them.
"Colonel O'Neill was on my level. He could do it, but it wasn't easy for him. He had to think about it, and that made him a good teacher."
"I see I shall have to revise my estimate of him yet again."
It was still disconcerting to see the half-smile playing on his face when he spoke of O'Neill. The hatred between them had run so deep.
"You said he was the one who put you in prison. How can you possibly like him?"
"Well, let's see, he's good-looking..."
She caught the light note in his voice. "You're teasing me."
"A little. It's entertaining to watch your reaction. But I wouldn't turn Jack down if he offered. He is attractive. Sadly, he's also one hundred percent heterosexual."
"You're not serious."
"About Jack being heterosexual?"
Maybourne pointed her to a chair. "Go sit down."
"I'm okay here." Her legs were getting a bit stiff, but it wasn't a problem.
"Cassie, if we're going to discuss sex, I'd rather you were safely out of temptation's reach."
"I trust you."
"Get out of here."
He seized her wrist in a grip of iron. "Trust is a drug and it's dangerous. Care to guess how many people I trusted in the NID? Care to guess how many of them came to visit me in prison? You want to know why I like Jack? He has that damned sense of honour. People actually matter to him."
"Teal'c said the Colonel trusts you."
His free hand grabbed her behind the head and pulled her down hard to his mouth. She'd been kissed before, but never with such intensity, never in a way that shot through her and demanded a response. There was a need in him and it awoke a hunger within her, a hunger that clawed and craved and scared her with its depth.
Breathing heavily, he released her.
His finger curved in a soft stroke down her cheek.
Her face must have asked the question, because she was sure she hadn't voiced it.
"Because I don't think you've done this before. Because I'm positive you haven't even thought about contraception. And because..."
She understood. Sort of.
Stiffly, she got to her feet, trying to find the right words. How did you say 'goodbye' in a way that wasn't trite and meaningless? How could she talk of feelings when she was a mass of confused emotions? How did you say 'thank you' for being protected from your own stupidity? Because she'd have done it, let the hunger take over, and forgotten everything Mum had ever told her about safe sex.
In the doorway, she stopped, looked behind her. Lying on his back, Maybourne was staring at the bunk above him again.
"Harry." She fiddled with the cuff of her blouse. "You were right." The words came out in a sudden rush: "I'm sorry if I made things worse."
He still didn't look at her. "I'll manage."
Graffiti from the school loos came unbidden to her mind. 'Stick to masturbation, you meet a better class of person.'
It helped. It allowed her to dislike him long enough to get of the room.
The EEG flatlined.
She was gone. He stared helplessly at the monitor, but the line didn't even waver.
Her hand was still warm in his. He couldn't let go - not yet. She had meant so much to him.
Someone was trying to pull him away and he resisted.
"Please, just a few more minutes."
I should have been able to do something.
She requested no extraordinary means.
I loved her.
He wrenched himself out of the dream and sat upright, sweat pouring down his back. For a moment, he was unsure who he was, then identity reasserted itself into two separate beings. He was Jack O'Neill.
Did Sunlight go through that every night? he asked.
Not quite that bad. I've never known this happen before. You had a memory that was so close to mine that we fused. We lived though a combination of our two experiences. I didn't know you'd seen her die.
It's a long story. Some other day.
Fair hair strewn across the pillow, Sunlight lay beside him, fast asleep. If he'd spared her only one experience like that, then he'd done the right thing. Her life was going to be hard enough, without the addition of graphic nightmares.
He tried to imagine her running around with a group of small grey aliens. Were young Asgard as serious as the adults?
The Aesir do not have children, Kantele said.
Sounds like a quick trip to extinction.
They reproduce by cloning. When one nears the end of its natural lifespan, a clone is grown to adulthood and the memories transferred from one to the other. In terms of continuity of memory, Thor is the same being who visited your world millennia ago.
If they have no children- and Kantele was there, picking up the thought, racing along with him -how will they understand Sunlight's needs? Thor will do the best he is capable of, but it cannot possibly be sufficient.
Maybe I was wrong to leave her?
No. You couldn't pick her up, give her a hug, chase her, play snap with her, tickle her, play hide and seek. If Thor can't understand play, she isn't going.
Kantele paused, as though looking for something. In O'Neill's mind, the picture formed: three little girls on a water ride, screaming with laughter as the spray flung up around them.
I feel the same as you, but you know the price.
Sunlight needed another human being...
You can't be serious, Kantele said, picking up the the thought almost before he'd verbalised it. You can't trust Maybourne with her. She's terrified of him.
He's all we've got. Besides, he can almost pass for human in this reality. He knows he's facing a death sentence and he still volunteered to put his neck in the noose.
And he can't do anything for Sunlight if he's dead.
You're the one who knows the Asgard. Get creative.
There was an idea buzzing round the back of his brain if he could only pin it down. The Asgard were big on contracts. What contracts had Maybourne ever been involved in that could conceivably have any relevance?
Kantele said: If General Maybourne employed your counterpart to work on his off-world operation, then that would constitute a contract between you.
Then threatening Sunlight would be a breach of that contract.
Sounds pretty flimsy to me.
Sounds as strong as wet tissue paper to me, but the appropriate penalty for that breach...
Jack, you have a devious mind. I like it.
But will Thor like it?
Someone was shaking her by the shoulders. She struggled through layers of cotton wool to try and realise who it was.
Then it hit her - goa'uld - and she came sharply, starkly awake, struggling out of the grip that held her and scrambling panic-stricken for the other end of the bunk.
"Cassie, what's wrong?"
Jack's voice. Not Jack, please, let it be anyone but Jack.
"You're dead, and it's got you!"
"Cassie?" Harry, standing in the doorway.
She pointed an unsteady finger at the Colonel. "He's goa'uld."
As if by magic, Maybourne had a gun in his hand, pointing directly at O'Neill.
"Move away from her. Put your hands on top of your head."
O'Neill moved. Fast.
"Hey, this is still me," he protested.
The gun didn't waver. "Cassie has naqadahh in her blood, or had you forgotten? If she says you're goa'uld, I believe her."
O'Neill looked at her, as if for support. "It's only Kantele."
Kantele? "General Carter's symbiote?"
"-is Selmak," said Maybourne.
"Not in this reality," O'Neill said. "Jacob passed him to Sunlight to save her life. Sunlight volunteered me as the next host and I'm still getting used to the idea, so kindly don't rub it in."
"It could be true," Cassandra said hesitantly. General Carter had died so quickly. Would losing a symbiote do that?
"Or it could be just as likely that Nirrti escaped somehow." Maybourne's voice was relaxed, but the gun never wavered an inch from O'Neill's breastbone. "Now, I think that Colonel O'Neill would rather be dead than occupied by Nirrti, so I'm going to shoot him unless he does exactly what I say."
"You're enjoying this," O'Neill said accusingly.
Maybourne grinned. "Quite possibly. But you'd never forgive me if I didn't check it out. The lie detector is still in the briefing room. Get up there." He side-stepped quickly as O'Neill moved towards the door. "Don't come close to Cassandra or myself. You'll be stronger and faster than me. I'm not taking any chances."
He glanced down at her, eyes flicking only for an instant away from the Colonel. "Get dressed and join us upstairs. We'll wait for you. Whatever Jack woke us up for seems to involve you as well as me. If he is still Jack..."
She clung to the frame of the bunk, gripping it for support. Jack was dead. She'd watched him in his last few days, broken by grief for Sam, desperate for Sunlight to survive, but still never losing the essential kindness and humour that had made her love him. This Colonel was so akin the real one that to like him seemed almost a betrayal of the man who'd been as a father to her. But to lose this one as well... Fear paralysed her.
O'Neill caught her eye. "It'll be all right," he said gently.
But she knew that it would never be all right. When this was over, he would go back to his own world and she would be left alone again.
He'd taught her to be strong, to find courage within herself.
Slowly, she relaxed her grip on the metal.
"I'll be with you in a minute."
It was almost exactly 6 o'clock in the morning when she joined them in the briefing room. The SGC was largely deserted, but the gate control room was still manned at this hour; someone gave her a wave in greeting as she went past.
Colonel O'Neill was already seated in the chair, looking decidedly uncomfortable about the whole idea.
"Cassie," Maybourne asked, "can you fasten the wrist straps?"
"Why?" They hadn't been used before.
"Because," the Colonel said impatiently, "he can't cover me and adjust the helmet at the same time. Harry, could you set the video running? I don't want to have to go through this again with Carter." He kept fidgeting as everything was set up, twisting in the seat, drumming his fingers on the arm rest. "Did I tell you that I hate these things?"
"You did." Maybourne was unrepentantly cheerful. "You landed me in the hot seat instead. Now, it's your turn."
He switched on the two display screens and stood where he could see them clearly as they both came to life. Like pictures made by folding painted splodges in half, they were the sort of patterns you could imagine to be strange faces or exotic alien creatures.
"Who are you?" Maybourne asked.
"Colonel Jack O'Neill."
The Colonel bowed his head slightly.
"Colonel, did you consent to this joining?"
He bowed his head again.
The patterns changed and flowed, elements from one screen sometimes mimicking those on the other, but the balance of their symmetry stayed constant.
"Are you an equal partner and able to act of your own free will?"
"I am. And, Harry - thanks."
Maybourne nodded, and thumbed the eject on the video.
"Hey!" Kantele said. "You forgot the one about being a member of the Communist Party."
"Don't tell me you got a tok'ra with a sense of humour?"
"I am the only man cursed with a symbiote that invents new elephant jokes."
"How do you know an elephant's been in the SGC?"
"Don't ask him, for heaven's sake," O'Neill pleaded.
Cassandra unfastened the restraints and immediately asked: "How do you know an elephant's been in the SGC?"
"Because the canteen's clean out of peanuts."
"But they never have any anyway," she protested, then kicked herself.
"But that's because..." O'Neill said gleefully.
"All those elephants have been there," she completed for him.
Maybourne took a chair at the head of the table and gestured at them to pick any chair they fancied.
"So, what did you drag us out of bed for?"
O'Neill stopped, dipped his head.
"-Jack wants to save Maybourne's neck and we both want to protect Sunlight on Water. The Aesir-"
"-haven't a clue as to how to care for kids. Harry's her best shot at any kind of a normal life and-"
"-we found a possible legal argument for keeping him alive, which Thor says-"
They seemed to have given up on the head-dipping business.
"-is shot through with holes but ought to keep the lawyers arguing for a couple of years."
"Well, what he actually said was that it presented an interesting study in case law regarding the validity of a non-Asgard contract to be accepted under Asgard law and, in the interim period, it made logical sense for any available resources to be used towards meeting existing obligations."
O'Neill spread his hands. "You know Thor, always short and to the point."
Elbows on the table and head cupped in her hands, she stared at him in fascination.
"How do you do that?"
"Decide who's talking?" she said.
"I think the idea is that you're supposed to take it in turns, but-"
"-we just interrupt one another-"
"-which is fine for now, but he's going to have to learn to take orders if we're to stay with SG-1."
Mayborne settled himself on the sofa with a sigh. General Carter's apartment didn't seem to have changed much in the last few days, apart from Barbie sitting on the coffee table atop of a pile of drawing paper, with a selection of outfits carefully laid out around her. Cassandra picked up a couple of Barbie's minimalist disco outfits and held them up in front of the doll.
"You know, her legs are way too long to be realistic," Cassandra said.
Leave a man his fantasies. Don't you know why they make them that way?
"I'll try and be back before Sunlight wakes up," O'Neill said. "I've got several things to pick up, but Kantele says there's a silk scarf of Sam's that Sunlight uses as a comfort blanket."
"She loves anything that's soft and smooth."
"Is this really going to work?" Maybourne asked. "She's scared of me."
"That's inevitable," O'Neill said. "I'd have warned her away from you and-"
"-Jacob didn't exactly think you were the bee's knees."
Cassandra assisted Barbie into a pair of tight-fitting pants and a short, strappy top. "I told her you scared the hell out of me."
"Then I'll just have to rely on my native charm."
"You haven't got any," O'Neill said.
He filtered Jack's jibe automatically, tried the more interesting occupation of imagining Cassie in that tight outfit - she looked very good in it too, far better than Barbie. Cassie was much better equipped when it came to padding in the right places. Another, slightly more respectable, corner of his mind gave the first corner a slap on the wrist. He already owed Cassie an apology and fantasising about her was not going to make that any easier. At least Sunlight was too young to present any temptation in that direction. Not that that meant getting to know her would be any easier.
"You need to change the uniform," Cassandra said in a no-nonsense tone.
He tilted his head in question.
"It'll scare her. Civilian clothes make you look less like the General."
That might be true, though the only time he'd actually met Sunlight, he'd been in civvies.
"I'll grab you a shirt," O'Neill said. "Something of mine might help a little."
And you want something, anything, of you to remain with her...
"Have you got any family photos?" he asked.
"Kawalski gave me a few. Ask Jacob if you can raid his collection when he wakes up. And remember, her mother's dead and Carter's her aunt." You could see the strain in the way Jack held himself, the tension around the eyes, the way his hands were never quite still.
"You already told me that," Maybourne said quietly. He left the comfort of the sofa, got to his feet and held O'Neill by the shoulders. "Jack, I won't let her forget you."
O'Neill clapped him awkwardly on the shoulders. "Sure." He turned rapidly and dived down the hallway. There was an awkward catch to his voice. "I'll find you that shirt."
Cassie sat Barbie on the table, legs indecently akimbo.
There was an awkward silence between them, eventually broken by Cassandra.
"I'll tell you whatever I can about her," she said. "Sunlight's like all little girls; she likes to play with dolls."
He looked at Barbie with misgiving. "What are you supposed to do with dolls?"
"Dress them. Undress them." She eyed him with sudden suspicion and he hastily schooled his face into an expression of perfect innocence. Apparently satisfied, she continued: "You play at going shopping, having tea parties with other dolls, that kind of thing."
It sounded indescribably boring. "Don't little girls ever play with fire trucks and guns?"
"Sam said she had a toy spaceman when she was a girl. I had a miniature loom my dad made for me; he was a weaver. I don't think Sunlight's ever had any weapons. I got her a water-pistol once, but Jack wasn't very happy about it. He didn't actually say anything, but it wasn't there next time I went round."
"There's a reason for that."
"If Jack wants you to know, he'll tell you."
"But you know?"
Maybourne shrugged, unable to avoid a certain smugness. "I've read his files."
"Haven't you ever heard of privacy?"
He stuck his lower lip out at her. "It's an interesting theoretical concept. I can't say that I've ever given it much attention. Anyway, I thought we were discussing Sunlight?"
Cassie stared down at her hands.
"She likes to play hide and seek and chase. She loves going to feed the ducks, but there won't be any. She likes going swimming, but I don't know if the Asgard..." Her voice trailed off.
"She's your little sister, isn't she?"
She nodded, mute in her distress.
"I don't normally believe in holding grudges," he told her, "but in Nirrti's case, I'm willing to make an exception. She's cost you both your families." He kept his voice light - dramatics never added anything to what you said. Either you meant it, or you didn't. "If I ever have the opportunity, I'll kill her for you."
"You'll have to get in line," O'Neill said gruffly. "Here, catch." He tossed a shirt at Maybourne, who caught it by reflex. It looked the sort of thing you'd wear in the wilderness: a bright check, brushed cotton affair.
"Cassie," Mayborne said, "any chance of some coffee while I change?"
"Colonel?" she asked.
"No, I'm off now."
As Cassandra headed for the kitchen, Maybourne grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen from his breast pocket. He scribbled rapidly.
"Jack, that's my pin number for an account in the name of Paul Seymour, and this letter here should hopefully allow you access to another account. The cards are in here." He passed over his wallet. "Get out as much as you can. Give Cassie a college fund." He stopped at the expression on O'Neill's face. "It's no use to me where I'm going."
The smell of the coffee helped to make Cassandra fractionally more alert. There were only two smells in the world worth waking up for: one was freshly-ground coffee and the other was frying bacon. She didn't dare check General Carter's fridge for bacon though; it was trespass quite enough to take his coffee for Maybourne.
Milk? Probably not. Jack had always taken his black, said you got used to it that way if you spent any time in the field. But Maybourne was NID. What did she really know about the NID, apart from the fact that they were as powerful as the CIA, but a lot better at staying out of the news? What strings had they pulled to get one of their own people in charge of a USAF facility?
Deciding to chance it with black, she found a sugar bowl and took the coffee through. Maybourne was sitting on the edge of the sofa, elbows on knees, seemingly deep in thought. She placed his drink on the coffee table and sat in the armchair opposite. Being too close to him was unsettling now Colonel O'Neill was gone.
"Thanks." He didn't touch the mug.
"I didn't know if you wanted it with milk."
"Black's fine." He stared at the table. "Didn't you make one for yourself?"
"I - I didn't want one."
He pounced instantly on the hesitation. "Why not?"
"Not your coffee? Not your kitchen? Or is it that it's General Carter's in particular?" He caught her reaction to that too. "Ah, lèse-majesté. Such respect for authority, even-" his lips curled in irony "-when it's totally spurious like mine. In that regard-" his eyes wandered over the table, then came up to meet hers "-I owe you an apology for last night. You didn't exactly catch me at my best."
She didn't reply; sometimes it was safer to say nothing.
"I was judging you by my own standards. Don't you find that amusing?"
She was finding the anger again now. It was a friend which helped drive away the fear, the uncertainty and the still-lingering need to be close to him and be held by him.
"No," she said, "I don't."
"You really don't get it, do you?"
"What? You sleep with anyone, so you assume I do too?"
"Almost." He wrapped his hands around the mug, so tightly that the heat had to hurt him. "Six months on death row can make freedom look awfully attractive."
Light dawned. "You were going to run out on us!" she said accusingly.
"I thought about it. I was thinking about it when you came in." His voice took on a tone of light mockery which grated on her nerves. "There's only one reason why someone your age would show any interest in someone of mine. I thought you'd second-guessed me, come to offer yourself nobly for the good of humanity."
"And if I had?"
"Oh, I'd have had a pleasant hour or so, then I'd have run out on you."
"You're a complete slime-ball."
Insults just flowed off him like water off a duck's back. Nothing she said really seemed to make any impact.
"I can't believe I nearly..."
He shrugged. "Ingrained response to authority, nothing more. Why do you think the services have a ban on relationships between ranks? It's all too easy to abuse a position of power."
"Which you did."
"Which I did. I should never have kissed you. I apologise for that."
He got up and went to open the curtains, pulling the heavy drapes back with a smooth swish.
Light streamed in with the early-morning sun, catching highlights on polished wood and enriching the colour of everything it touched. Movement caught her eye: a squirrel bounding up the trunk of a tall pine. Cassandra went over to watch it. Apart from anything else, it side-stepped the need for further conversation. The squirrel paused, investigated a piece of bark, seemed to find it unsatisfactory, dropped it and sped along a branch in a flowing motion that was almost a standing wave. Under the trees, a deer started at some unseen danger, turned in a single bound and vanished beneath the trees. Listening now, she became aware of the birdsong that had been going on all the time without her really noticing it. Where the birds were, she wasn't certain, but their voices were loud and clear. The longer you stood here, the more peaceful it was. She drank in the song and the stillness, as they eased the tension that had ratchetted to almost unbearable levels.
Would she ever have real peace in her life again? Mum was gone. Jack was gone and Sam too. Yes, she had friends and some of them might even still be alive, but they would forever be excluded from some of the most important parts of who and what she was. No matter how long she lived now, there would always be secrets and no longer anyone to share them. From now on, the lie was everything. I'm from Toronto. My parents were Greek immigrants. I went to a school where they had rather radical ideas about education; I didn't learn much until I came to America. No, I'm afraid I never followed the hockey until I came here. SGC? Never heard of it.
She was peripherally aware of Maybourne standing at the other end of the window, gazing out on the same view. What did he see out there? What was he thinking? Did he have friends out there? Was there anyone he trusted enough to tell them the truth, or was it a risk that a wanted man could never take? What did that do to a man's soul? Maybe truth was the only coin that ultimately counted.
It struck her how curious and precarious a balance they had between them. He trusted her not to dial 911 and she trusted him not to walk out of the front door. In spite of the fact that he was a slime ball, she trusted him in that. Maybe it was because he didn't try to hide the fact that he was a slime ball.
"You could have lied to me..." she said.
"I'm very good at that. You'd never have known if I had."
He turned to face her, one hand resting lightly on the window sill. "I'd been dreaming," he said. His face fell into a soft, rueful smile. "About you, if you must know. What you did in the SGC was nothing short of incredible. I talked to Nurse Rogers just after Nirrti cured her - she told me you'd not only pulled an incredible workload since your mother died, but you'd done it professionally. You'd asked her for advice; you kept records wherever possible; you checked diets for food allergies; you bullied airmen who were still fit into helping you move patients when sheets needed changing." He gave the tiniest shake of his head. "Not one girl in a thousand could have done what you did without cracking up. You handled it with the maturity of an adult, when you must have been completely ripped up inside."
Oh god, she hadn't expected this. To be reminded of the emptiness, the numbing fatigue, the need to keep on working as long as she could still stand, in order to become so tired that she was incapable of feeling the pain any more.
She swallowed hard and stared down at the floor. "If that's the lie, I don't want to hear any more."
He tilted her head up with a gentle finger. "That part was true. The best lies are always ninety percent true."
She didn't want to cry. She wasn't going to cry.
"Need a shoulder?" he asked.
"Who's asking? The slime-ball or the charmer?"
"Which one do you want?"
"The scum-bag. I know where I am with him."
"I think I may have underestimated you as well as Jack. Here-" he held out an arm. "I promise I won't do anything improper. On my honour as a bastard."
The plants were all dying. The monster Swiss Cheese plant in its familiar tub was limp and O'Neill was hard put to restrain the urge to water it. He'd had that plant for ten years or more. It could survive a bit of neglect, but the death of its owner had signed its own death warrant. In the past, there had always been a neighbour willing to water it when he was away. Now, there was no one.
This place was a strange mixture of the known and the unfamiliar. The sofa was his; the table was not. The microwave in the kitchen was familiar, but the fridge was new. The books in the study were a complete mixture of old friends and new, including some that he'd always meant to get and never quite got around to. He pulled out an astronomy text and flicked through it - pretty heavy, only just on the right side of readability versus too many numbers. The inscription inside the front cover said: Jack, Happy Birthday, Love Sam
Enough, Kantele said, we've got a job to do.
He reached to put the book back on the shelf and then stopped. It was his book, darn it; he could take it with him.
Which is Sunlight's room?
Second on the left. You can pick it out of my memory if you try.
I'm trying to maintain a degree of privacy here.
It reminded him of Charlie's room, even though it looked totally different. Clowns and carousels decorated the walls and the duvet cover. Bright picture books filled the shelves, along with enough Barbie dolls to form their own chorus line. A stuffed toy elephant stood on the windowsill in the somewhat incongruous company of a fighter jet, a floppy clown and a musical box with a pink-skirted ballerina balanced on tip-toe on the lid.
It'll be quicker if you let me grab everything, Kantele said.
It was unnerving to be a spectator in his own body. It was as though he was a ghost, passing through a place where he had once lived, but no longer remembered fully. 'He' whisked around the room, grabbing a selection of story books, a silk scarf from the bed, the cuddly elephant, several simple jigsaw puzzles, and a helter-skelter for marbles. Fleeting images in Kantele's mind filled in scenes: Sunlight rolling on a rug with the elephant; searching for a lost marble under the sofa; curled up fast asleep with the scarf pressed to her cheek.
Even the fridge was silent in the kitchen. The quiet was disconcerting. Every home had its background sounds, the noises that were so familiar that you never consciously heard them. Even more than the almost-invisible film of dust on the work surfaces, the silence proclaimed that no one lived here. Someone - Jacob - had emptied the cupboards of perishables and switched off the electricity. In spite of that, the whole house still had the faintly musty smell that houses acquire when their owners are absent. It was barely two weeks since Sunlight's parents had fallen ill and she'd gone to stay with her Grandpa, but that was long enough for their spirits to have left the place. Wherever, if anywhere, their presence remained, it wasn't here. O'Neill refused to let it bother him. Life after death was for philosophers to speculate about and archaeologists to dig up. He'd find out about it at the time, and worrying about it in advance wasn't going to affect the outcome.
Kantele raided a cupboard by the sink for a couple of treasured mugs, mostly animal designs. Sunlight's favourite seemed to be an elephant mug with the trunk forming the handle.
How do you know when an elephant's thirsty?
When Sunlight says so.
An image that had to be from Jacob's memories: Sunlight playing with the garden hose and claiming she could squirt everyone with it because she was being an elephant. O'Neill had a strong suspicion that he'd probably put her up to that one. Were there any pictures of days like those? Sunlight would want to remember home.
Photo album? he asked.
Sunlight didn't know where that was kept, neither did Jacob.
Well, if it was mine... He took them back into the study and checked the bottom shelf of the books. Yes, photo albums. He added them to the pile in the hall, then went back and grabbed a random selection of Sam's physics books, a couple of novels, the complete works of Shakespeare and a dictionary.
Can't have Harry dying of boredom.
You think he'll understand those?
No, but it'll keep him occupied while he tries.
How about the chess set? Sunlight likes playing with the pieces.
She can- it was hard, so hard. They were talking of a lifetime -play it properly when she's older.
I know. We could still change our minds.
Someone's fingers - His? Kantele's? - were stroking the silk scarf, twisting it between fingers, wrapping it around their wrists like a pair of handcuffs.
We're trapped. We've no choice.
So, we play the hero for the crowd.
The nasty man was holding Cassie, and she was crying.
Sunlight paused, uncertain, in the doorway, teddy in one hand and a fluffy towel in the other, dragged along the floor behind her.
Is he hurting her? she asked Teddy Blue.
Blue thought about it for a while before answering. He didn't talk as well as Kantele had, but he was learning.
She's holding him as well, Blue said finally.
Does that mean she likes him?
Blue didn't answer. He never knew the answer to anything difficult, but then he was only a bear and Daddy said bears weren't terribly clever.
The nasty man had noticed her. She took a step backwards, ready to run to Grandpa's room if necessary.
"Cassie?" she said anxiously.
"It's all right," he said, as Cassie broke free and turned to look at her. "Cassie's unhappy because she misses her mother."
"I want Mommie." Sunlight held the towel against her cheek. It wasn't the same as her proper cuddle, but it was better than nothing.
Cassie came down and hugged her. "I know you want her, but your Mommie's dead, just like my Mommie is." She looked at the nasty man. "Harry, sit down."
He raised an eyebrow, but did as Cassie said and sat down on the sofa.
"Sunlight," she said, "I want you to come and meet Harry."
"Sometimes," Cassie said, "but he won't be nasty to you. Didn't Daddy tell you about him?"
Sunlight nodded, cautiously. Daddy had told her his story twice, but she wasn't too sure about what it was all supposed to mean.
"Come with me. Come and say 'hello' to him."
She didn't move. "Don't want to."
"Please," Cassie said quietly. "He's my friend. I want you to like him."
"I'm scared. Teddy Blue's scared too."
Cassie took her gently by the hand. "I used to be scared as well. I promise he won't hurt you."
Sunlight took a hesitant step forward, then stopped.
Cassandra sighed inwardly. This was going to be even harder than she'd thought. How did you convince a four-year-old that someone was safe? How did she even know for certain that Maybourne was safe? For all she knew, his tastes included children as well as men and women. She really knew nothing about him. Nothing - except that she wanted to trust him, and when he held her it made the pain go away a little.
And wasn't that what Sunlight would need most? Someone to dull the pain?
Sometimes, touch could tell you things that were impossible to convey in words.
"Sunlight," she announced, "we're going to tickle him."
Interest piqued, Sunlight looked up at her.
"No way," Harry said in horror. "Absolutely no way."
She grinned at Sunlight and whispered. "You jump on him and I'll grab his feet to stop him escaping."
As one, they moved and pounced. Harry's 'ooph' announced Sunlight's arrival on target. Cassandra grabbed his legs as he struggled in a well-simulated attempt at escape. It had to be simulated; he wasn't kicking really hard, just generating enough bounce for Sunlight to have fun. An interesting selection of choked-off noises suggested that Sunlight was making an impact though. By way of assistance, Cassandra slid a hand up a trouser-leg and lightly tickled the back of a calf.
That doubled both the struggles and the sound effects. She'd got as far as the back of the knee before Harry finally cracked and begged for mercy.
"Shall we be nice to him?" she asked Sunlight.
"No!" crowed the victor.
Harry cupped a hand to Sunlight's ear and whispered something. Turning her coat with the ease of a practised double agent, Sunlight promptly jumped down off the sofa and started on Cassandra. Before she could strike back, Cassandra was caught from behind as Harry slid down and joined her on the floor, wrapping his arms around her waist and sliding a leg to either side of her. Sunlight had a decidedly unfair advantage; she already knew where Cassandra was ticklish. She started laughing, squirming to get away from little fingers that tickled her legs and tummy.
"Oh no, you don't get away that easily." Harry shifted his grip and held her close.
"You're enjoying this," she accused.
"Absolutely." She guessed the grin that belonged with that voice: wide, happy and provocative.
Sunlight was pulling Cassandra's shoe off. That was grossly unfair. She was more ticklish on her feet than anywhere else. She wriggled helplessly, tormented by every tickle from Sunlight, hypersensitive to Harry pressed against her, of the warmth of her body, even the soft touch of his breath against her neck.
"What are you thinking?" she asked, as she tried to catch her own breath.
"What you'd do if I moved my hand up three inches." By way of partial demonstration, he moved his right hand an inch in the direction of her breast.
She wanted to laugh all over again. This was her bastard, direct and to the point - hearts and flowers were for those who didn't want to hear the unvarnished truth. Then, she did laugh, as Sunlight started on her other foot.
"Let me go," she gasped, caught between laughter and an unwarranted heat rising inside her.
"Aw, just when it was getting interesting." But he released her and sat back on the sofa, breathing deeply.
"Tickle me," Sunlight demanded.
Harry held up a hand in denial. "In a minute. I need to get my breath back."
Her own breath was still a little on the short side, but she rolled over and tickled with cheerful expertise, generating high-pitched giggles and an incredible amount of wriggling. When done, she picked Sunlight up and tossed her into Harry's lap to recuperate while she went to retrieve her missing shoes. Sunlight burrowed in and pressed her cheek to the soft brushed cotton of the plaid shirt. As she pulled on a shoe, Cassandra caught the expression that flashed across Harry's face: complete bewilderment.
"Where do I go from here?" he asked.
"She needs love. If you can give her that, the rest will sort itself out."
"Cassie, I'm old and I'm cynical. Some things don't come easily to me."
"If you can love me, you can love Sunlight."
He wrapped an arm carefully round Sunlight and looked Cassandra in the eye. "What I want to do with you has very little to do with love."
"I don't believe you." She said the words without even thinking.
The ever-mobile face twisted into a leer. "You're confusing love and lust."
No, she knew the difference. And she'd learnt it from him.
"If you didn't mean it, then you'd have said it."
"Syntactically convoluted, but an entertaining hypothesis." He cocked his head slightly. "Does it actually matter to you?" He tossed the comment in as an apparent afterthought, from which she concluded that it was important to him.
Did it matter to her? And why should that matter to him?
'There's only one reason why someone your age would show any interest in someone of mine.'
It's true, isn't it? I don't feel about you quite the way I suspect you feel about me.
Am I using you? I don't mean to. I'm just not used to someone needing me.
I think I love you, but I'm not sure in which way I love you. You confuse me.
I needed someone to hold onto, someone to be a substitute parent, someone who wasn't a ghost walking in a dead man's shoes. I needed a friend, someone I could tell the things that I couldn't tell anyone else. What I didn't need was a lover, and certainly not one old enough to be my father.
What I got was you.
Sometimes, when you touch me, I burn inside. I'm not sure I want to tell you that. I'm not sure that you haven't worked it out for yourself.
He was still watching her, with eyes that penetrated too deeply. Twisting round, she broke the gaze and sat down on the floor beside his feet. Contact, but not too much contact. His hand touched her lightly on the shoulder and she accepted it gratefully, curling her fingers round his.
"I don't want to lose you," she whispered. "I don't want to lose you."