Title: This Is What It's Like
Genre: Angst, character study, interpersonal drama, vignettes.
Beta: Left to go to Gleneagle.
Continuity: Plays well with canon.
Prerequisites: Mostly Heroes and Resurrection, but it follows on in the Bead Sutra series, which contains tags for The Tomb, Unnatural Selection, Full Circle, and Fallen as well.
Summary: The infamous wooden beads leave SG-1. Life goes on.
Disclaimer: Come on, it's not like if I claimed to own SG-1 anyone would believe me anyway. The opinions expressed herein are the properties of the characters and not of Colleen Rennison. If tunnel is dark, remove sunglasses. Caution: beads are not a lifesaving device. Questions, comments and cheesecake can be left in replies or directed to magistrata(at)gmail(dot)com. Thank you for reading.
Wordcount: About 4500.
Cassie has never been up in an airplane when she books a one-way ticket for Chattanooga, packs her bags, and collapses onto the edge of her bed, cradling a lab coat to her chest and crying. They're drawn-out tears that don't even bring catharsis, any more, just remind her of what she has to cry about.
She's stopped counting the times she breaks down crying, and the days she's felt like hell. There has to be a time limit on this, after which life will be bearable again, but she's reached a point where can't bull through and she's just hanging on.
She lets the tears run out. Then she folds the labcoat, sticks it at the bottom of her carryon, and shoves the entire thing under her bed where it can't be seen.
"I'll definitely be stuck here through the weekend," Sam says, and the phone abstracts the apology in her voice. "Cass, I'm so sorry. But a lot of this material can't be transported..."
"It's okay," Cassie says. She's sitting on the kitchen island in her track suit, feet against the island's built-in cabinets. "I'm just driving up to Denver. I was thinking maybe Jack could take me."
She can hear Sam's concern in the silence on the other end. "I'm not sure if he's cleared to drive, yet. Maybe–"
"I'll call around. Worst-case, I'll ask one of my friends' parents to take me." She shrugs a shoulder like Sam can see her. "No big deal."
"I just wish I could be there to see you off."
"It's no big deal," Cassie says again. "I'll be back in September anyway. That's not that long." She's not saying I never get to see you off, do I? She never gets to see anyone off. How often had she been sleeping in when Janet left? At least last time, the last time, she came down to share breakfast, tired and grumping all the way.
These are things she hangs onto.
"I really thought I'd be able to be there."
"Hey, shit happens," Cassie says. She draws an absent little pattern on the granite countertop. Janet was a big fan of that sentiment. She had to be, working her job, and oh, but that brings back memories.
"Life is like a box of chocolates," Janet said once. It'd been one of the first bits of Earth idiom Janet had used on her. "You never know what you're going to get out of it."
Of course Cassie had never had a box of chocolates, so Janet had gone out to get her one. And of course boxes of chocolates these days came with little guides, so she'd gone to an actual chocolatier and had them fill a box of truffles at random before sticking a bow on it and leaving it on Cassie's desk. The metaphor had been diluted by the fact that Cassie loved all of them, even the espresso and marzipan and anise ones Janet thought were acquired tastes. Now, having the education she's had, Cassie thinks that not liking chocolates is one of those cultural things – you have to take something for granted before you can be picky about it. If Janet had waited a few years after Hanka, the saying might have made sense.
Up to a point. Only up to a point, because in the end the simile is wrong. It can't be right. No one would say Life is like a box of chocolates: everything looks wonderful and you love it until you're nineteen bites in and two people in dress uniforms arrive at your door and you're crying so hard that you puke, you can't breathe.
Life is like that.
There's a noise on Sam's end, a quick patter of speech, and Sam says "Okay. Um, look, Cass – I have to go. Hey, call me when you land. I love you, okay?"
Cassie takes a deep breath. "Yeah, I will. You too. See you."
"Bye," Sam says, and hangs up.
Cassie listens to the silence. "Goodbye," she says to the empty receiver, and puts the phone away.
After a while the phone rings again, but she doesn't answer it.
Teal'c shows up at five-forty-five on the dot, wearing a fedora and carrying a deep-dish takeout lasagna that looks large enough to feed her school's entire football team. "Courtesy of O'Neill," he explains when she lets him in. She eyes the monstrosity dubiously.
"Jack knows I can't possibly eat all of that, right?"
"I was informed that that was 'the point'," Teal'c says, and frowns. "Though I am unsure of wheat, precisely, Colonel O'Neill meant by that."
"He thinks I need to have more friends over," Cassie says, and takes the lasagna. She walks to the kitchen and sticks it in the fridge, which is running toward bare. There's not much point in restocking it. "Um, yeah. You're welcome to anything in here, by the way. I mean, anything. I don't even know if I'm gonna keep the place, so the less I have to move out when I get back..."
"I understand," Teal'c says.
Cassie nods, and looks out the kitchen window toward the backyard. "Mom never had time to garden, so there's not much to take care of there. I kinda tried it, but. You know." She waves a hand at the halfhearted patch of pumpkins and the one puff of hydrangea that's survived the garden's general neglect. "I talked to all the neighbors, so they know you'll be taking care of the place. Just don't do anything... y'know, weird, okay?"
Teal'c inclines his head in a way that reminds her: he'd been crazy-important, back where he was from. Royalty among Jaffa. He has to blend in, on Earth – as if he could ever really blend – but it hadn't been a secret back where he was from. "I shall endeavor not to cause them any concern."
She nods. "I don't think there's really much you need to know," she admits, with a shrug. "It's just a house."
And then she thinks that that was the wrong thing to say, when Teal'c nods and says "Learning the functioning of a proper Tau'ri home shall be a great adventure." She boosts herself up onto the counters, and looks down.
Of course. If, outside the SGC, all he's used to are Jack's house and his cabin, she should probably explain why there's not a shelf just for beer in the fridge.
"Is it weird that no one knows I'm from another planet?" she asks, suddenly, like it's not a question she's been avoiding asking for the last half a decade. "I mean, I feel like I should have superpowers, like Superman or something. Ones I get to keep, I mean." She shrugs her hair back off her shoulder.
It's such an absurd statement that anyone else would take it as a joke, but Teal'c's expression softens. "I too have found inspiration in the folk heroes of American comic culture," he says. "The ability to turn back time would be particularly advantageous." He tilts his head, and his voice lowers. "There are those who know you are not originally from Earth, Cassandra Frasier."
Cassie has to bite down on the last name. She knows what he means – he knows, Jack knows, Sam knows, everyone at the SGC knows. The people she spends every day with, though? If she told them, they'd either think she was joking or crazy.
And in some ways, it doesn't even matter. She came here young; a lot of her memory was wiped by the trauma of Nirrti's attack, and she's such a cultural mutt that she can't separate out what of her is Hanka and what of her is Earth. But the Earth is overriding the Hanka, as time goes by.
"Yeah," is what she says.
After a moment, when the silence goes on too long, Teal'c says "I have been informed that Daniel Jackson has not been able to speak with you."
A prickly tension moves up Cassie's back. "I hadn't noticed."
Teal'c doesn't acknowledge the lie. "You should forgive him."
She doesn't want to talk to Daniel. She's burning up with anger and blame and she needsto be, and she knows there's no way she'll be able to hold onto it if she's faced with those bespectacled, apologetic eyes, the apology she's sure is coming.
He's been calling, and she hasn't answered.
When she thinks of Sam she thinks of her crouched over Jack's body, screaming for a medic – and Cassie can't think about how close she came to losing Uncle Jack too or she'll start shaking or crying again. Cassie needs someone who also feels this way, just as much as she needs someone to blame.
But when she thinks of Daniel–
When she thinks of Daniel–
When she thinks of Daniel she imagines him taping that soldier, not looking out, not seeing the Jaffa coming toward them with his weapon raised.
And she knows, when she thinks about it, that it wasn't his fault, but she needs someone to blame with the same intensity that she needed to believe it wasn't true, at first. Someone with a face, someone who was't killed in the back-and-forth fire of the battlefield, someone who can make her anger a concrete and not an abstract thing. She can forgive him later.
She can make herself believe there's always a "later".
She slides off the counter and says "Come on, I'll give you the tour. First time housesitting, yeah?"
Teal'c, quiet and understanding as ever, nods his head and lets the topic be.
Jack promises to get someone to drive her – "Yeah, no, they're not letting me out yet. I'll ask Siler. He owes me from that thing with the horse." – and Cassie pulls her bags outside when the time rolls up, sits on the largest one, and waits for Siler's beat-up old Land Rover to appear on the street in front of her house.
It doesn't, though. Instead it's a red classic Jeep that pulls up, and Cassie thinks oh, she's going to kill Jack when she sees him again. Poor choice of idioms, but she's going to kick his sneaky Special Forces ass all the way to Hanka for this. She's cornered. It isn't fair.
Daniel steps out.
Cass wants to go back inside and slam the door and lock it, but she's pretty sure Daniel would either just load up her luggage and wait for her or stand on her porch talking through the door or turn out to have a key Janet left with him because he was such an upstanding citizen and she'd trust him to take care of things if anything went wrong. So Cass jumps down off her suitcase and charges up to him with a belligerent "What are you doing here?"
"Siler couldn't make it," Daniel says. Cass wonders if he'd even been asked. "Is this all your stuff?"
"You're not driving me in," she said. "I don't want to go with you. I'll – I'll hitchhike."
She looks away from Daniel as soon as she can, because he's got this hurt-puppy, too-knowing look that makes her feel three. "Really?" he asks, and glances at her luggage. "It might be hard getting all that to the interstate."
Daniel clears his throat, awkwardly, and sticks his hands in his pockets. "Cassie, I'm sorry," he begins.
"No." She overrides him, crosses her arms to shut him out, and shakes her head. "I don't want to hear it. Shut up."
He does, for a second, then reaches past her and grabs the handle of a bag. "Come on, Cassie." He heads back to open the trunk.
Cassie stands there and fumes as he loads up her stuff, then sulks to the passenger seat and climbs in. It's not like he's left her a choice.
Daniel's Jeep seems like it's from the thirties, or something. ("Seventies," was his reply when she actually asked him about it, a while ago, when they were still talking. "My first car was a lot like this. Except a lot louder and more dented.") It's boxy ("Classic!") and red, and doesn't seem like it fits him. Then again, the man even manages to confuse the rest of his teammates, and he's always been one of the more infrequent members of SG-1 to show up on her doorstep, and he's died and come back to life so Cassie supposes it's one of those things she just doesn't get to understand. Like why he gets to come back. Like why enlightened beings from across the stars would come for him and not her mom. She buckles herself in, and decides to stare out the window until they're stopped at the airport.
Daniel gets in, starts the engine, and pulls into the street.
They navigate through the city streets, where life goes on just outside their windows, and after a while Daniel clears his throat and says "Tennessee, huh?"
She makes the bare minimum sound to qualify as a response.
"Visiting a friend?"
If he knows when to pick her up and what airport to she's leaving from and what state she's going to, Cassie is pretty sure someone already told him that yes, she's visiting a friend. Daniel waits for a response, but only long enough to figure out the next thing to ask.
"So, tell me about her."
He's forcing himself to sound cheerful, but he sounds brittle.
She stares out the window a bit longer. "Her name's Val. Her parents are divorced and her dad lives in Chattanooga. She said I could stay with her for the rest of the summer. What?"
"School friend?" Daniel asked. Cassie shrugs.
She can feel him turn to look at her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and she bites down and ignores him as hard as she can.
"So," he says, and she snaps out an interruption.
"Look, maybe I don't want to talk, okay?"
Daniel sighs. "I know."
"And maybe you shouldn't be trying to force me to, okay? Maybe I think you had your chance, and maybe if things had been different–"
"Maybe you should have done something and you wouldn't need to talk to me at all!"
And there it is, out between them, and Daniel just doesn't say anything. He pulls onto the interstate and Cassie wants to reach over and fiddle with the radio, less because she likes any of the stations in the area and more because she has to do something or she'll start wanting to apologize.
"Why'd you even come get me today?" she asks, after a mile marker or two. "Why do you even care? It's not like I ever see you anyway, even when Sam comes out," and he didn't react at all to the last attack so she grabs the next biggest thing and hurls it at him. "How come you came back from the dead and you can't come see me?"
Daniel must have been expecting this. He's a smart guy, and sometimes too eager to put himself forward to be judged – or at least he always was. No one's said as much to Cassie, but she suspects he's changed, after that year spent living as a higher being. She would.
"You don't even care," she says.
Finally, Daniel answers.
"That's not true," he says. Cassie risks a glance over at him, but his eyes are on the highway, his expression sad and drawn. "It's just... I was never good at keeping friends," he admits. "Even in college, all the social niceties and maintenance activities eluded me. I'd get wrapped up in a research paper or a thesis, and I'd forget to see people, or talk to them, for weeks. Months, even. I get into something and I guess it always seems like the most important thing in the world."
"Yeah, except now it actually is," Cassie says to the dashboard.
"I'm sorry," he offers again, but the dark noise she makes keeps him from saying anything else. The world outside streams by the windows.
"Why didn't you come when she died?" Cassie asks. "Why was it a couple of Lieutenants from SG-9 who showed up to tell me?"
Daniel's gaze is fixed on the road, over the steering wheel, but it doesn't stop the cloud from passing over his expression. Cassie can still see it, even in profile. "Jack was in surgery and the rest of us were confined to base," he says, and there's a darkness to that statement that frightens her. It's enough to remind her that she doesn't know the half of what goes on inside that mountain – as though it's some shadowy underworld, and she might have passed through, but she doesn't belong to it at all.
"Classified," he says, and there's anger there, too. She's just thankful it's not directed at her. He risks one glance over, and it feels like he wants her to be able to know, at the same time as wanting her not to know. She's the one who looks away.
"I'm sorry," he says a third time, and switches the turn signal on for an exit. Cass sits up.
"What are you doing?"
"We're stopping in Gleneagle," Daniel says. "There's a coffee shop I've been promising Dr. Alvaros I'll try."
She grips the bar of her door. "I'm going to be late for my plane!"
"No, you won't," Daniel says. "I promise. Besides." He glances over at her, then back out the window as he merges onto the offramp. "They're supposed to have really good cheesecake."
Cass stares at him. "Am I being kidnapped?"
"Yes," Daniel says. "For cheesecake. Terrible. It'll be all over the evening news."
Not for the first time, Cassie wonders if, like every other member of SG-1, Daniel is a little insane.
Still, short of taking out Daniel and hotwiring the car, it's not like she has a lot of control over the situation. He drives her to a little hole-in-the-wall coffee place with classical music and mahogany tables, well-polished and also well-worn. There's no line at the counter, where Daniel orders a drip coffee and orders a slice of cheesecake when it seems like she's not going to, and they take a seat near the window.
"Bad 'classified,' huh?" she says, and pokes at the cheesecake with her fork.
Daniel's expression tells her yes. "Thought Hammond was about to strangle someone," he says. And Hammond has patience as wide and deep as the Great Lakes. "Pass muster?"
"What?" Cassie looks up at him, and he gestures to her cake. "Oh," she says, and sticks her fork into the top. When she lifts the fork, the entire slice comes off the plate with it. "Yeah, it passes the Cheesecake Test. Why didn't you just say that?"
There's silence for a bit. "I wanted to talk about something," Daniel says.
"Yeah, that was obvious," Cassie shoots back.
Daniel exhales softly. "Not about Janet," he says. "Not... not directly, anyway."
Cassie glances up, then looks back to the cheesecake and spears off the tip of the wedge. "Look, you're legally an adult," Daniel says. "I know Janet left you... a lot, and you've got payments coming in from her life insurance. You have enough to make it on your own, if you wanted to. Away from Colorado Springs."
Cassie feels herself go still, even though the rest of the world is still going by – the pedestrians outside, the birds pecking crumbs from the patio, the cars on the street, the baristas fixing drinks and bantering behind the counter.
"You don't think I should come back?" she asks.
"I didn't say that." He sighs, turning his mug around and around, so the handle points to him, then to her, then to him again, and his fingers have to step over it on every revolution. "I just know that after my parents died, as soon as I was old enough to understand some basics of the law, I spent all my time trying to get myself emancipated. When I finally managed it, I moved to another state and never looked back. I worked washing dishes and bagging groceries until I was admitted to college." He smiles down into his coffee. "I know everyone's been telling you that you need to talk to people, and that's important. But sometimes, you just need to get away. And it'll be a lot easier to disappear from your friend's house in Tennessee than from right next to the SGC."
This is the problem with talking to Daniel. Cassie spent the past few days good and angry with him, but fifteen minutes in a car and she's angry and sorry and confused. Those aren't supposed to go together.
Daniel lets go of his coffee, and pats his pocket. "I brought you something."
His hand ducks into his jeans pocket, and he pulls out a string of wooden beads and drops them onto the table.
Confused is winning out.
"What–?" Cassie asks, and looks them over. They're an unremarkable circle, just a bit too small to fit over her head, and not the kind of thing she'd expect Daniel to pick out as a parting gift. She'd expect a book, or something.
"Shemuat remembrance beads," Daniel says. "Sam returned them to me when I... came back. Because apparently Jack took them from my office – no idea why – and then he gave them to Sam at some point, and Sam gave them back to me." He pushes them across the table. "I had Teal'c hold onto them when we were in California. Now I'm giving them to you."
Cassie reaches out and pokes them, experimentally. "I don't get it," she says.
"The funny thing is, I don't think any of them did, either," Daniel muses. "They were given to me by a Shemuat man named Amahte. The Shemuat prepare their dead very carefully and bury them in orchards to fertilize the trees. They believe that the dead become part of the trees as their second life. The wood of these beads was taken from a tree that had been fertilized with seventeen generations of Amahte's family."
Cassie swallows. "Um," she says, and isn't sure what else to say. "Wow."
"They say the wood from these trees remembers life as its people," Daniel goes on. "It's both a teacher and a companion. When it's given to someone it listens to their stories, and it remembers them. And from then on, it's a string binding all those people together. Amahte invited me into his family when he gave it to me, and now all of SG-1's carried it, too. No matter where we are, that's part of us. We're part of that." He nudges it toward her with the tips of his fingers.
Gingerly, she takes it into her hand. "So... giving it to someone, that's a way of saying 'I'm always with you, even when I'm gone?'"
"Yeah," Daniel says. "'Even we're separated by miles or light years or generations and you have no idea who I am.'" He pauses, then looks down at the beads with an expression that's both rueful and fond. "'Even if we're angry at each other, even if we can't stand to be in the same place at the same time. You're part of a family. You belong.'"
A lump is growing in Cassie's throat. And now she wants to apologize, but all that comes out is "I wish," and then she has to bite her lip. "I wish mom had a chance to have them."
Daniel looks down at the table wood between his fingers. "So do I," he admits.
Cassie turns the beads over in her hands. There's history there, and more than Daniel is telling her – more than he can tell her, she thinks.
He leans over the table, voice dropping. He sounds sheepish. "Hammond was going to find a driver for you. I begged off a couple of meetings and rescheduled a forum on first-contact practices so I could drive you in."
"'cause we needed to talk," Cassie says, still rubbing her thumb over the beads.
"There's that," Daniel agrees. "And I had a feeling I was going to be the only person who would tell you this: it's okay if you need to disappear. I'll keep Jack from pulling strings and having anyone track you down or keep you under surveillance or anything. Just keep that–" he waggles his fingers at the beads, "–to remember us by. And if you ever need anything, we'll still be here for you."
She tries to swallow, but her tongue is too thick in her mouth. "What if you die while I'm gone?"
Daniel's expression saddens. He puts aside his coffee and says, "Cass."
The lump gets bigger. Now she's thinking about how Daniel did die, and how Jack had been lost offworld and Sam had disappeared into her lab and had barely showed up for their chess games, how Jack had come back ill from Antarctica and battered and shaken from whatever had happened after Antarctica and how Sam had come back half-dead from running across the Beta Site and bruised and lost from her time in deep space and how if they're going to die, like her mother died, they'll die whether she's in Colorado Springs or Chattanooga or Calcutta. It doesn't matter. She can't stop it any more for being right here in the city.
And that's why she has to go.
She gets out of her chair, goes around to Daniel and hugs him. She wraps her arms around his neck and buries her cheek against his.
"Jack's going to kill you, you know," she whispers, when she can speak again.
He laughs – a deep, quiet sound. "You let me worry about him." It feels good to let him hug her, let the anger and the blame melt into the grief, and she sniffs a little when she pulls away. He looks down at his watch, and jumps a little.
"Oh. Wow. Um, I'm going to get a box for your cake. We should get going."
"You jerk," she says, as he jumps up and heads for the counter. "You promised I wouldn't be late."
It's pointless talk, from there to the interstate – chit-chat, advice on Tennessee weather, and it peters out into silence. The silence is less tense, this time. They're moving forward.
Cass can still feel the ache in the bottom of her chest, but the beads in her hand slip over and around her fingers and she feels anchored by something, too. And while Daniel drives on towards Denver she rolls down the window, sticks her face into the wind, and thinks This is what it feels like to be truly, finally flying.