It had been a long time coming, but somehow Daniel knew this moment had always been inevitable, almost from the moment he’d accepted Jack’s unspoken invitation and crossed a line between them that he hadn’t known existed before.
That was just part of the problem, though. It wasn’t as if their escalating relationship had been the only facet of how things worked between them but at times it seemed to be the only part of their lives that really worked at all, or at least the only thing that held the two of them together when what they wanted out of life was light years apart. They rarely spoke, after all, coming to know one another’s bodies intimately in a much shorter space of time than Daniel could credit possible - Jack knew how to make him whimper with need in short order and he wasn’t sure that was reassuring.
The concept of getting naked on a regular basis with a man who knew how to kill him without leaving a mark was something Daniel hadn’t expected to be considering any time soon. He also hadn’t realized he was apparently the kind of person who found that a turn-on, or that there were distinct benefits to having sex with someone who had both the ability and the determination to make him knuckle under when Daniel needed not to be thinking any more. Which had happened more often than he cared to admit in recent months, things being what they were.
The sex had clearly given them both something they needed, a safety valve for the pressures of kicking Goa’uld ass that had worked pretty well. More often in recent weeks, the tables were turned and Jack needed to lose control too; he needed to let someone else take charge of the situation, someone he trusted, and Daniel knew he was at the head of a very short list for that position. At least where sex was concerned, and maybe beyond that if the mixed signals he was observing at work were anything to go by.
And if Jack had turned out to have more than a few hang-ups about sex that Daniel realized afterwards he could have pretty much predicted, what they did share was hot and heavy and made both of them sleep through the night. Just what the doctor ordered, he supposed. Neither of them had been thinking about altering the way things were any time soon, as far as Daniel could tell.
But in the end it still hadn’t been enough to make him change his mind about leaving.
His trust in Jack and his respect for Hammond, though they’d softened the blow, had only delayed what was always going to happen sooner or later. Even though Daniel had protested as often and as vociferously as he could, the military’s true priority was and would always be the search for new and better weaponry. Whether the enemy was the Goa’uld or another nation was proving to be a secondary consideration.
Whatever the case, he couldn’t do this any more. It was like running downhill in a car with no brakes, faster and faster, taking each curve as it presented itself but knowing that destruction was inevitable. That there’d be one curve he couldn’t navigate, something he couldn’t steer his way around. The side benefits were nice but in the end they just weren’t enough on their own - regardless of the pleasures of regular sex with someone Daniel trusted more than he trusted anyone else on the planet, or an unexpected sense of family with the rest of his team, it didn’t measure up to the gradual whittling away of what he knew to be right. An over-active conscience was a pain in the ass and no mistake.
So it had come as no surprise to Daniel that he found himself currently going through the contents of his office, separating USAF possessions from his own under the watchful eyes of an airman he didn’t recognize. He wasn’t tempted at all by the things he put aside; as uncertain as his future might be, Daniel knew there was no point in looking back over his shoulder at the period of time he’d spent with the SGC. The things he could truly call his own in this office, though it had so long been his sanctuary, made a pile that was pitifully small.
In truth, Daniel wasn’t sure he minded that. He’d felt rootless for so long, even as he’d tried to establish himself in a place he’d never thought he’d be, that moving on once more was no great surprise.
Jack was avoiding him, or at least that was how it felt. They’d exchanged heated words only days before, when Daniel had told him what he had planned. Jack never was much for backing down. Neither of them was. At least he hadn’t thrown what they did together in Daniel’s face - he’d been prepared for that to be the case and found himself a little surprised when Jack didn’t even mention it. In hindsight, he wasn’t sure whether that rankled, whether the things they’d done were so unimportant they didn’t bear thinking on or whether it was just a case of both of them pigeonholing "sex" and "work" more neatly than he’d thought.
He tried not to think about their last encounter, the feelings that had crashed over him as he made Jack shudder, about how it felt to have Jack pinned beneath him, face twisted as if in denial of the pleasure Daniel’s hands were able to wring from him. He wasn’t sure he’d admitted his own part in everything that went on between them any more readily than Jack had. Daniel knew that he kept making excuses to himself about how none of this mattered, how it was only a stop-gap between losing Sha’re and finding someone else, all along knowing it for the lie it was. He couldn’t begin to figure out what Jack thought of it all and Jack wasn’t about to tell him any time soon.
Daniel knew Jack didn’t understand his reasons for leaving; he didn’t even begin to grasp how utterly soul-destroying the last weeks and months had been. Sometimes only the sheer physicality of what they shared together, the sweaty encounters with Jack that Daniel didn’t allow himself to think about later, seemed real. He’d joined SG-1 in the first place because he’d believed in what they were doing, because he’d trusted Jack’s word that they’d keep looking for Sha’re while they were out there exploring the galaxy.
Now, it seemed, both those ideas had come to nothing. Sha’re was dead, her child’s whereabouts unknown, and Daniel’s own ideals lost with him.
There wasn’t anything in particular he could blame for his departure and that was probably the most frustrating part of this all. There wasn’t any incident he could point to, just a slow and steady destruction of who he’d always thought he was, a change that had been gradual enough to sneak up on him without him noticing it coming. At first he’d wondered if he was ill, when the ongoing insomnia and overall tiredness began to take its toll, but Janet’s thorough medicals ruled out that possibility almost before he’d given it due consideration.
Her diagnosis had been depression and she’d offered him medication, but Daniel wasn’t sure it would help. If anything he was heartsick and the FDA had yet to approve a cure for that particular condition. He could only hope that distance and time would help him heal, as well as giving him the chance to grieve for everything he’d lost and all the things he’d never have. And distance and time were things he could never have while still on the payroll at the SGC.
Sha’re, at least, was at peace now - that was more than Daniel could say for himself. And if her child was out there somewhere, as Daniel knew Shifu was, then Oma was a better guardian for him than he could ever be. That had been what the monk had tried to tell him, what he’d had to realize for himself, and he’d been a long time learning that lesson. Maybe it was something he had never really wanted to hear?
As he carefully packed the few books he could really call his own, Daniel wondered if things could have been different. Was there something that could have happened that would have made this day an impossibility?
It would have been tempting to put pressure on Jack, to push for something he was clearly unwilling to give and attempt to use what they shared in private to make things change in public. He couldn’t imagine doing that, though, using their involvement as a crude lever to get his own way - Jack would only end up hating him sooner rather than later and Daniel wasn’t sure he wouldn’t end up hating himself as well.
The others had to know what he planned to do by now. He couldn’t find the words to tell them himself that he was leaving, but Daniel was certain Jack would have spread the word, probably with a few choice pejoratives of his own. Jack prized loyalty highly and Daniel knew he could only interpret this parting of the ways as betrayal. He couldn’t really argue with that definition - it felt like betrayal from his perspective too, if he ever allowed that thought to take root.
With every noise outside in the corridor Daniel found himself half-turning to the door, in expectation of the appearance of Sam or Teal’c. He hadn’t seen either of them in the past couple of days, which was unusual. Maybe Jack’s anger had rubbed off on them, or maybe they too were trying to understand how this had happened.
Daniel wasn’t completely sure himself how he had come to this point in time, when he looked back at the previous few years. He’d tried so hard to fit in at the SGC, worked at it to the point that wearing BDUs felt more normal than anything else, and he still couldn’t say what had changed. It was almost as if, one morning, he’d suddenly woken up and asked himself what the hell he was thought he was doing. It wasn’t as if Daniel could point to a particular set of circumstances and say "that’s when it all changed." That probably would have made it easier for all of them.
All he knew for certain was that it had changed, that he had changed, and he wasn’t sure that he liked who he’d become. In fact, Daniel wasn’t sure he knew who he was any more, and he wondered what part his relationship with Jack had played in delaying that realization.
All the things he’d once held to be so important, his very individuality, had been stripped from him and he’d let it happen - he’d almost welcomed the fact. Daniel had become a cog in the machine, merely a small part of a huge bureaucracy, scrutinized and debated, discussed by people who truly had no idea what it was like to be him. People who didn’t understand anything about why he’d pestered Jack to allow him onto SG-1 in the first place, paper-pushers with no imagination, no scruples of their own.
They didn’t comprehend the personal considerations, the things he’d sacrificed or just down-graded, let alone the impact of his cumulative experiences with the SGC.
Sure, those things were stored on the SGC computer, and probably also in triplicate in a variety of filing cabinets somewhere secure. All the emotions, all the pain and loss, coldly and clinically described for anyone with a high-enough security clearance to see. The death of Sha’re, his own death on more than one occasion, his commitment to a mental institution, every mission-related injury and ailment carefully catalogued and cross-referenced. And all utterly meaningless, like an untranslated language, only this time there was no Rosetta Stone at hand. Anyone who hadn’t lived through it all could never comprehend what it had been like - sometimes Daniel wasn’t sure he comprehended it himself.
He’d done things he regretted, things he wasn’t proud of, and those things would always be his burden. He couldn’t stop himself from believing he could have done more for Sha’re, somehow, even though he knew that belief was utterly futile and Jack in particular had worked hard to try and make him believe otherwise. On the other side of the balance there had been occasions when Daniel knew he’d been able to make a difference, and those memories stayed with him too. At times, recently, they had been all that kept him from utter despair, from just wanting to go to ground in his apartment and never come out. That and the knowledge that Jack wouldn’t let him get away with that sort of behavior, of course.
But those memories weren’t enough - some days it still felt as though who he was, the things that made him unique, were still being remorselessly chipped away, piece by piece.
There was a knock at the door and Daniel turned to face his visitor almost reluctantly, a photograph of Sha’re still cradled in his hands as carefully as he’d once cradled her dying body.
"I’ll take over here, Airman," Sam said. There was silence for a moment as, with a nod to Daniel, the airman left, the office door closed carefully behind him. "What will you do, Daniel?" she asked without any preamble. There were no recriminations it seemed, and he was glad of that, though Sam’s eyes were suspiciously bright. Daniel looked away, back down to the picture he held.
"I don’t plan to do anything much for a while." That was one good thing at least about spending almost five years of his life as a military consultant - Daniel had amassed enough savings that his finances weren’t going to play their usual starring role in deciding what he did next. "In the longer term… I have no idea." He hadn’t thought that far ahead, whether because he didn’t want to or because he just couldn’t see what might happen.
Daniel placed the photograph of Sha’re, the only image of her that was left outside his memories, gently into the box. She looked so happy in that photo, so unaware of everything that was about to happen to her. The very thought of it all made his stomach lurch. There wasn’t much else in the box with it, even after he had been through everything, just a few other photos and some reference books he’d dragged out of storage a while back. The rest was mostly things friends had given him, one way or another.
"You could still change your mind," Sam said, even as Daniel looked down at the meager stock of personal items. "You know General Hammond didn’t want to accept your resignation."
Daniel considered and rejected that possibility in a heartbeat. He needed to hang onto what little integrity he had left and backing down now wouldn’t allow him to do that, regardless of the uncertainty that faced him. And how could he face Jack O’Neill if he did?
"I know," he said. "No. I couldn’t."
Sam nodded, crossing to hold the door open as Daniel picked up the box and headed out of his office for the last time. It was easier than he expected not to look back, though he was still grateful for Sam’s silent support as they headed towards the elevator.
"I suppose someone will be coming over to check my apartment isn’t full of Air Force stationery?" he asked, as the elevator doors closed behind them and they began their long journey to the surface.
"Colonel O’Neill will meet you there," Sam said, looking a little abashed.
Daniel supposed he should have expected Jack to do that - if Jack had been avoiding him before, it was only going to be a matter of time till some kind of further confrontation happened. And it made sense for that to be away from the SGC. Not that Daniel was under any misapprehensions about what would happen next. He was certain Jack would try to get him to change his mind - that almost went without saying. He was even more certain Jack would fail, despite the wide range of weapons in his arsenal, many supplied by long years of spending time with Daniel himself.
"He wanted to do it," Sam said. "I volunteered but the colonel insisted."
"I thought maybe you’d find it too difficult …"
Daniel smiled to himself. Over the past five years they’d come to know one another so well - strengths and weaknesses alike. Sam had no idea, as far as he knew, about him and Jack but that wouldn’t have stopped her worrying about them, both of them, even though it wasn’t explicit in her words.
"You’re a good friend, Sam," Daniel said. He wasn’t completely sure he would have been able to do the same if their roles had been reversed. He hadn’t always been quite so magnanimous towards her when she’d been going through one of her phases - he hoped for both their sakes that Sam’s little crush on Jack was over now, but even if it wasn’t that was no longer his problem. "How’s Teal’c taking all this?"
They’d left the elevator now and were headed towards the security checkpoint. No one seemed to be paying them a great deal of attention - Daniel or Sam would get the occasional nod or greeting but word clearly hadn’t spread yet. He was glad; the idea of repeating his stumbling half-explanations of why he had to leave, particularly to an audience who were unlikely to understand, didn’t really appeal. Let them think of him what they would - Daniel knew he had done the right thing.
"He doesn’t understand why you’re doing this," Sam replied. The unspoken addendum was obvious, but at least it remained unspoken for now.
Daniel signed himself out of Cheyenne Mountain for the last time, reality starting to sink in as he did so. It had been his own choice not to prolong this, to take leave towards his notice. That way there’d be little time for explanations or recrimination, or for anyone to try and make him change his mind.
"Walk me to my car, Major?" he asked, trying to summon up a smile. Sam’s expression showed he hadn’t been totally successful but she walked with him anyway.
Daniel opened the trunk, placed the box he carried into a space he’d made there earlier and then closed the lid. As usual he had to lean on it a little until the lock clicked shut, evidence of his long experience with its temperamental nature. He remembered Jack’s comments lately on the subject of his car, then pushed that once-comfortable memory away with an effort. Anything there had once been between him and Jack was likely to be over now for good; he didn’t expect there was much chance of Jack forgiving him for this, or that their friendship would outlast his decision to quit.
"Here," he said, fishing the security pass from his jacket pocket and holding it out to Sam.
Daniel saw her face twist a little with the feelings she was trying to hold back and turned his attention for a moment to the small rectangle of plastic in his hand, giving her time to gain control once more. He knew how embarrassed Sam got at times if she showed any kind of strong emotions, even if they weren’t anything to be ashamed of, and they were still on USAF property.
Daniel looked down at that picture - as he’d suspected, he barely recognized the man in the picture any more. There it was, the very reason for leaving, to try and discover that person. If he still existed.
"See you around, Dr. Jackson," Sam said, as she took his security pass and slipped it into her pocket. She looked like she wanted to say more but knew this wasn’t either the time or the place.
The embrace was brief but still welcome. They separated, Sam glancing round quickly as if checking she hadn’t been seen. Daniel walked past her to get into the car, then glanced in the rearview mirror as he buckled his seatbelt. Sam was already walking away.
"Bye, Sam," he said to himself, as he started the engine. "And thanks."
By the time Daniel got to his apartment block he’d almost figured out what he wanted to say to Jack, or so he kept trying to tell himself. Jack’s truck was parked out front, its sole occupant sitting ramrod-straight in the driver’s seat. Suddenly those carefully-considered words didn’t seem so convincing any more.
He parked, then retrieved his box from the trunk, and Jack was there on the sidewalk with him even though Daniel hadn’t heard him approach. He had that look on his face - the "don’t even think about messing with me" expression that Daniel was so familiar with by now. The one that no longer had much effect on him, if it ever had. He’d seen that expression up close and personal, after all, more times than he cared to think about. Usually accompanied by a glint in Jack’s eye that promised there’d be hell to pay if he didn’t cooperate with whatever it was Jack had planned for him, and not always off-world.
They didn’t speak to one another all the way into Daniel’s apartment building and right to his door. Jack silently took the box from Daniel’s hands as he tried to juggle it and search for his keys at the same time, then followed him in without a word as the two of them went into the apartment itself.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all, though Daniel knew he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. If the Air Force said his place was getting inspected, then an inspection was going to happen. It was just that the person doing the inspecting had associations with this apartment in ways Daniel didn’t want to begin considering.
Daniel took the box back from Jack’s hands, putting it on the sofa for lack of a better place. The same sofa where, only months before, he’d been fucking Jack’s brains out while the other man complained about his aching knee, taking their minds off the worry they’d both felt for Teal’c. Jack had made other noises too, his white-knuckled hands clutching the cushions as he tried to take Daniel in deeper, urging Daniel to fuck him harder, to fuck him like he meant it.
Jack was still silent as Daniel turned back to him - he didn’t want Jack’s anger, though he knew he might well have deserved it, in Jack’s mind at least. But the silent treatment wasn’t something he’d bargained for either. Once he’d thought they had the makings of something special, the kind of friendship he’d read about but never experienced before, and then they’d moved on to something else Daniel hadn’t expected either, but whatever they’d once had was a distant memory now.
"I’ll make some coffee," Daniel said, more for something to say to break the silence than because he really wanted any. "And then we can get this over with."
He came back from the kitchen to find Jack still standing where he’d last seen him, at the window looking out. His posture was pretty much the same as when he’d been waiting outside, the stiff lines of his body still radiating what was doubtless a pretty even mix of annoyance and frustration. Only days ago, Daniel’s first instinct when in private would have been to find a way to ease that frustration, to sublimate that annoyance, his active imagination giving him lots of options for how to start that task. But he no longer had that right.
"You couldn’t have told me you were planning this?" Jack’s voice was as cold as if they were strangers to one another. Not an unexpected response, not really, but it was still a body blow. Daniel could hardly believe that same voice had been gasping his name only days before, not feet away from where he currently stood. He could almost wish for continued silence, if he didn’t agree with Jack.
"I tried to tell you, Jack." He had, in a very stumbling way that he could understand Jack not picking up on, with words that didn’t make sense even to himself now in hindsight. "I never meant this to come as such a surprise."
"Well, you sure as hell surprised me."
Jack didn’t turn around, he didn’t need to - Daniel could still imagine what expression he’d see on Jack’s face if he had. He’d always known what he’d see there when it came to this at last; whether in public or in private, Jack was hardly someone who played his cards close to his chest.
"It’s no one’s fault." Daniel wished for the words now, the confident words he’d rehearsed, ones that would allow them both to emerge unscathed from this conversation. "Shifu told me I had a different path to follow. Maybe now I can." He could only hope he sounded more confident than he felt, because he felt like something that had been scraped up off the sidewalk.
"Leave the kid out of this," Jack said. He was facing Daniel now, looking just as Daniel had envisaged he would. "This is your decision, Daniel. At least have the guts to stand behind it."
"I do," Daniel replied. "I’m not going to change my mind."
Jack nodded sharply and then turned his back once more as if to indicate the conversation was over. Daniel felt almost cheated - he’d expected a confrontation with Jack and what had just happened barely fit the bill. Had he wanted Jack to try to get him to change his mind? Had he hoped for some kind of heartfelt plea? It hadn’t happened.
With one last look at Jack’s back, at the way his whole stance indicated any form of discussion on the subject of him leaving had now ended, Daniel headed back to the kitchen.
It took relatively little time for Daniel and Jack to go through Daniel’s apartment after that - Jack was all business now. For a moment Daniel had wondered if Jack would try to take his personal journals, but cursory inspection of a couple of the more recent ones obviously satisfied Jack that the information they held was hardly likely to jeopardize national security.
Daniel had given up the habit of keeping a detailed journal after a discreet conversation with the very man now inspecting the contents of his bookshelves. Daniel didn’t really expect Jack to come across anything incriminating now; he’d given up writing anything startlingly personal a while back anyway. The thought of someone, possibly even someone he didn’t know, rummaging through Daniel’s personal journals after his death had been an unsettling one.
There had, after all, been no guarantee the rest of his team would be around to undertake that duty. There were things he’d wanted to write about he didn’t want even them to know. So Daniel now trusted his thoughts and feelings to no one and no longer recorded them in any way and he certainly didn’t put more intimate truths in writing, even if he’d had the words to express what had happened between him and Jack.
He’d turned the few pieces of SGC-related paperwork he still had in his apartment over to Jack and then stood by as his computer was checked, before the excuse of needing another cup of coffee gave him a reason to walk away. Jack had turned down his offer of hospitality, all but monosyllabic now. Daniel wanted to be angry with him but he understood Jack too well for that anger to last. He’d created this situation himself; it would be unfair of him to take it out on Jack and how Jack chose to cope with things, when Daniel agreed with him that he was the one most to blame.
That didn’t stop the heated words from making an attempt to jostle their way past his lips. Daniel made himself concentrate on drinking his coffee instead. Silent or vocal, Jack was just doing his job, and he couldn’t blame him for that.
"Is that it?" Daniel asked, when Jack headed for the door.
"Looks that way."
He wanted to say so much more, to thank Jack for his friendship, for the times he’d been the one who ensured Daniel kept going, but the words just wouldn’t come. Not any more. Maybe he’d lost the right to speak them after the decision he’d made. He could see that Jack didn’t want to hear them anyway.
"Be seeing you," Jack said. For a moment, as he opened the door, it seemed to Daniel that Jack hesitated, that he almost turned to say something more himself, but then it just didn’t happen.
Daniel’s apartment door clicked shut behind his visitor and it was over.
The next morning Daniel didn’t bother to set his alarm clock and he woke with a sense of disorientation as the late morning sun streamed into his bedroom. He’d never been a morning person by inclination but years of early-morning starts on digs, followed by his months on Abydos and early briefings with the USAF, had pushed Daniel into a pattern he expected he’d find hard to break. Even when he didn’t have a reason to be up at sunrise any more.
Still, for once it was nice not to rush, to be able to just sit on the balcony with a mug of coffee and think. There was a certain perverse pleasure to it, considering he’d once nearly fallen into oblivion from that very place. Jack had urged him to sell the apartment soon after they’d got back from their Goa’uld-imposed exile but he liked it too much - he didn’t remember much about that day himself and Jack hadn’t talked about it, so entropy had set in.
Daniel still found his thoughts returning inexorably to his friends, his almost-family, and the decision he’d so recently made that separated himself from them. He still couldn’t regret it, at the moment, even if the future stretched featureless before him now. The concept of having nothing to do was a novel experience, one Daniel had never really faced before.
He’d been a student for a significant part of his life, looking forward to more research and further degrees, measuring out his future in terms of semesters and digs. When his reputation had finally hit rock-bottom, and all of his peers had walked out on his lecture as he outlined his "oddball" theories, Catherine Langford had been there to pick up the pieces. Nobody else had cared enough to stand by him. Even Sarah, though with the clarity of hindsight Daniel could now realize his own role in wrecking that relationship, hadn’t bothered to be there for him, her absence speaking volumes about her attitude to what he’d created for himself.
And then, after Abydos, when he’d returned to Earth and uncertainty, Jack had been the one to throw Daniel the lifeline he’d needed. There was Sha’re, of course, but had he hoped to one day find himself in Jack’s bed too? That possibility seemed monstrous, a betrayal of the love he’d had for Sha’re, but they were both realists. He’d known at the time she was taken, somehow, that he’d never get her back despite the urgency with which he’d pressed his claim to be allowed to follow. He wondered at times what she’d hoped for, if she’d dared to think of a future not delineated by the parasite ruling her life?
This time there was apparently no one to rescue him, no one to offer Daniel suggestions on what he should do next. He’d been telling the truth when he’d told Sam that money wasn’t an issue, at least for a while - other than his living costs and a life-long penchant for buying way too many books, Daniel had few overheads to meet. He’d saved enough money from his generous government stipend that he wouldn’t have to rush and take the first job he was offered.
Not that Daniel was under any illusion potential employers would be beating a path to his door. He hadn’t published anything in quite a while, his reputation had been shaky before that, and he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what it was he’d been doing for the past few years. All in all, not a helpful set of circumstances - in some ways a lengthy prison sentence would have been easier to explain away.
In a few days, once the novelty of freedom began to wear off, it would be time to try and call in a few favors.
Days had stretched into weeks - Daniel’s hesitancy was fuelled by a mixture of uncertainty about the reception he’d receive and indecision about what it was he really wanted to do. By now, though, he was starting to get a little restless, something he knew he should probably have seen coming. Being chased by the Goa’uld on a regular basis obviously had more going for it than initially met the eye.
He hadn’t heard anything from Jack. Not that he was really surprised by this, once he got to thinking about how his friend was probably feeling right now. Still, understanding that didn’t stop Daniel from perversely missing Jack’s sarcasm and down-to-earth attitude. Or from hoping Jack was thinking about him, even if it wasn’t all that likely, considering the frame of mind in which he’d left Daniel’s apartment. He missed other things about Jack, too - Daniel hadn’t known before how much he’d come to rely on their liaisons for release until they stopped happening. His nights were plagued with dreams; he’d wake sweating and hard, surprised to find himself alone.
Sam had been by once, briefly, leaving a reasonable amount of time before she did so. Daniel was more than a little conscious of the tightrope she was walking with others at the SGC by even visiting him. She couldn’t really talk about work and as a result had obviously struggled with what to say. Daniel found himself feeling more than a little guilty because he was almost glad to see her go. He didn’t expect she’d be visiting again any time soon.
Teal’c hadn’t been in touch at all, but that had been something Daniel was more prepared for. After all, regardless of what experiences they might share, technically Teal’c wasn’t even supposed to be on the planet. And if Sam had been correct, he was probably still working out how he felt about Daniel’s betrayal - there was little chance the Jaffa would interpret his decision any other way, particularly if he was hanging around with one Colonel Jack O’Neill.
It had been a while since Daniel had made any kind of contact with some of the people he now found himself in the position of asking for favors. That fact meant some of them, the more honest among them anyway, expressed surprise that Daniel was even alive, with varying degrees of pleasure at the discovery. None of that had been a surprise, not after the reception Daniel had received on his recent return to the University of Chicago. This time, however, there’d be no cavalry to come to his rescue if it all went horribly wrong.
In the end, Daniel was surprised to discover that it was Stephen Rayner who made the most effort on his behalf. Though, of course, he couldn’t quite resist a few sly digs at Daniel’s fall from grace as he did so. Despite this, Daniel took the post he was finally offered with an appropriate amount of gratitude, ignoring for the time being the fact that he was hideously over-qualified for the position in question.
The important thing was to get a chance to clamber back onto the academic merry-go-round once more, after all. And if there was one thing Daniel had learned from his dealings with the USAF it was how to hold his tongue when necessary. Jack had probably been laboring under the misapprehension that what Daniel thought and said were one and the same thing, but it had been quite a while since that was the case. If he hadn’t learned anything else from Jack O’Neill, Daniel had learned how to pick his battles.
So, bearing that in mind, Daniel threw himself back into research, attempting all the while to compartmentalize the things he’d experienced in his years with the SGC. It was almost as though he was trying to unlearn what he knew, forget the things he’d discovered and conform once more to the commonly-held beliefs of the academics he encountered.
It wasn’t easy - at times the temptation to share the fruits of his hard-earned knowledge almost overwhelmed him. Only the thought of the ridicule he’d face once more, combined with the very real possibility of prosecution for breaching the confidentiality agreement he’d signed years before, made Daniel maintain his silence.
He couldn’t stop thinking about the rest of his team, regardless of the fact he hadn’t spoken with any of them in months now. When he’d moved to take up his new teaching position, Daniel had left a contact number on both Jack’s and Sam’s answering machines, but neither of them had called him. He hadn’t really been surprised by that, but that didn’t stop the silence from hurting a little.
Still, what with a heavy teaching schedule and the driving need to get some research published to ensure his tenure, Daniel found he had little time to worry about that lack of contact. It was only late at night, when his brain finally stopped whirling and he was in that hinterland between waking and sleeping, that Daniel would think about SG-1. As the moon rose over his new home, the new place he’d made for himself, Daniel would wonder whether they could see it too or whether they slept under the light of another, stranger moon.
Was Jack at home, watching those same stars with a slowly-warming beer forgotten at his side? He could be lying awake too, possibly missing the comfort their encounters had given both of them, the unvarnished physicality of it all - somehow Daniel couldn’t imagine Jack with anyone else. Maybe that was egotistical, or just a conjecture based on the knowledge he’d acquired of Jack’s inherently cautious nature. He wasn’t a man who trusted easily.
As the months passed, Daniel was able finally to have something accepted for publication - that small first step towards the redemption of his reputation successfully taken at last. The students whose studies he oversaw were pleasant enough, though hardly among the best, as was to be expected in a mid-rate institution like the one in which he found himself. Unfortunately, the chances of him working somewhere more prestigious were limited, at least now, so he was forced to put up with what he could get.
Daniel tried his best to maintain some kind of equilibrium, trying to put to one side all thoughts of where he could have been now if he’d chosen not to pursue the tangent that had taken him to Abydos and beyond. If only he hadn’t loved the truth more than the plaudits of his peers, but that had never been his way. There was a degree of adulation from some of the younger female students, and a couple of the male students as well, but nothing Daniel couldn’t willfully ignore.
The summer break brought an unexpected change to his routine along with a request for him to help organize a dig - the desert called to him with all the power its siren song could muster. It wasn’t Egypt, though, and for that Daniel was almost perversely glad. Egypt and its ever-present pantheon of gods and goddesses would have required too great an effort in self-restraint, reminding him too much of everything he’d lost or left behind.
Instead Daniel found himself headed for northern Syria, the thought of it still enough to make the blood sing in his veins as the project leader outlined her plans for the excavation. Daniel managed to ignore the fact he’d hardly been her first choice, something she only referred to once or twice a day. He could cope with the fact that he was only included in the plans because the person he was replacing had broken her collar bone two weeks earlier, since being involved at all was its own reward.
Regardless of the reasons, it was another step towards the acceptance he craved, acceptance that could go someway towards filling the hole inside him now, and which gave him a return to the sense of community that he found himself sorely missing.
And if it made him miss his former life, and Jack O’Neill in particular, a little less then that could only be a good thing.
They saw the jeep from quite a distance away, the dust trail marking its progress as it scudded across the track leading to their base. They weren’t expecting anyone - it was lunchtime and the members of the dig team had gathered in the shade to eat and relax while the sun blazed high overhead. A couple had even managed to doze off with an alacrity Daniel envied, despite the closeness of the air that hung still and heavy around them.
"Do you think it’s someone from the Interior Ministry?" Dr. Taylor asked, squinting in the direction of the approaching vehicle.
Daniel hoped that wasn’t the case. A visit from a government official here could mean only one thing - trouble. He heard the worry in Dr. Taylor’s voice, the tone alien to her usual measured calm. He’d grown to like her in the time they’d been working together and he hoped the feeling was mutual, even if he hadn’t been the person she’d wanted here on the excavation. At least she’d stopped talking about that now, so Daniel could only hope that was a sign he’d been accepted.
The jeep drew closer, close enough that, despite the shimmering heat haze, Daniel could make out the shapes of two occupants. Someone important enough to warrant a driver or just someone who didn’t know their way to the dig site? Either was equally possible, since they were most definitely off the beaten track.
Daniel found himself patting Dr. Taylor’s shoulder even as she remained standing by his side, her stance rigid with unspoken concern. The students and volunteers didn’t seem to be picking up on her attitude, or at least not yet - the overwhelming emotion among them seemed to be curiosity, nothing more.
By now the jeep was close enough that Daniel could see something familiar emerging in the clothes the vehicle’s occupants wore. His stomach lurched uncertainly as he realized they were wearing desert camouflage, something he himself had worn on occasion till relatively recently.
Without a word to Dr. Taylor, Daniel found himself walking down the slight incline that separated their site from the track on which the jeep was approaching. The coincidence was too great - he refused to believe it.
When he was about a hundred yards from the site, Daniel stopped - he could almost feel the weight of Dr. Taylor’s bemused eyes on him as he waited. The jeep drew up alongside him where he stood, as he’d expected it would, and the passenger got out.
"Dr. Jackson," he said. "Good to see you, son."
"General," Daniel replied. "Is this a social call?" Or at least that was what Daniel would have said, if Hammond’s expression hadn’t been grave enough to make the words dry up in his mouth, unspoken.
Hammond wore no marks of rank on his BDUs, and for that at least Daniel was grateful. That was one less thing for him to try to explain away. As it was, he was able to introduce the general to Dr. Taylor as "an old friend," which wasn’t completely untrue, and, when the others returned to work, he and Hammond were left alone to talk.
"What’s happened?" Daniel asked. He had his suspicions, their severity increased by the wait and Hammond’s personal appearance as the bearer of news.
"I’m here to ask you to come back to the SGC, Dr. Jackson."
"There must be more you can tell me than that, General."
Generals didn’t usually carry their own messages, after all - they didn’t have to. Certainty struck Daniel like a blow, as the implications of Hammond being there sank in. With a guilty start he realized he hadn’t given his former team all that much thought in the past couple of weeks. Not that any of them had made any effort to contact him before he left the States, or at all in recent months, but that was hardly the point. Daniel had succeeded at last in what he’d tried to do, burying himself in his work in an attempt to forget what he’d left behind, and maybe he’d been a little too successful at that.
"You know I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t important," Hammond continued. "You made your decision, I understand the reasons behind it and I respect them."
"But..?" Hammond might as well have said the word himself, since Daniel heard it anyway. The general paused, looking uncharacteristically troubled.
"But I also think you’re the only person who can fix this."
A part of him wanted to tell Hammond he was done, that he’d made his decision and intended to stick by it, but now he’d begun to think of his former team once more Daniel couldn’t do it. How could he live with himself if he allowed something to happen to his friends, something that was in his power to prevent? If something happened to Jack because of him, though he’d told himself all along that he understood that was a possibility - well, he refused to shoulder that responsibility. Sha’re’s death was enough of a burden that he had no intention of adding to it.
The fact that Hammond himself had come halfway round the world to find him told Daniel volumes about the seriousness of the situation. It also told him that a hasty decision would probably be one he’d live to regret and at the moment it also didn’t seem like he had all that much choice.
"I can be on a plane to New York tomorrow from Damascus, General," he said, hoping this wasn’t the biggest mistake of his life. At least if he did this he wouldn’t have to live with the consequences of turning his back on his friends, and neither would they. He didn’t want to think about the possibility that he was already too late.
"The President pulled a few strings, son." Hammond looked almost embarrassed at the idea - it was an endearing expression, all the more so for its novelty. "They’re allowing a USAF plane to land at Deir-ez-Zor."
Hammond just nodded.
Daniel didn’t want to even begin to imagine the kind of situation SG-1 might be in which might require the sort of leverage required to allow the USAF access to a regional airport deep within what they essentially considered a hostile country. Let alone allowing a USAF general free travel around the area with just a jeep and a driver. It was looking worse and worse by the minute.
"I’d better tell Dr. Taylor I’m leaving."
Daniel knew that he didn’t have much to pack. Years of experience with digs had taught him to travel light, a lesson built on by his time with the SGC.
"I’ll wait, Dr. Jackson," Hammond said.
"There’s water and I’m sure that no one would mind if you helped yourself to some food. You and your driver." Daniel gestured over to the shaded part of the campsite. Hammond nodded, then walked back to where the jeep still stood, speaking briefly with his driver.
Dr. Taylor was more accepting of his explanations than he’d expected she would be, seemingly taken in by his story of close relatives needing him unexpectedly. There was a glint in her eye as he spoke that told Daniel she wasn’t completely convinced by what he was saying but she was too diplomatic to mention it there and then. Still, that was something he could deal with in the future - for now his thoughts were solely with his friends.
For the first time since he’d walked away from the SGC, Daniel was starting to have second thoughts about what he’d done. Perhaps his decision had been too hasty, even if it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time. He could have stayed on as an advisor, vacated his place on SG-1 for someone else, someone military. Then, maybe, his friends wouldn’t be in whatever situation it was that was bad enough to warrant his being practically shanghaied by Hammond.
Not that this, or anything else for that matter, was something that could be discussed on the long and dusty jeep ride south to meet up with the main road that led to Deir-ez-Zor. Like any kind of travel on the tracks that were the shortest route across the desert and back to some kind of civilization, the most important matter was keeping your eyes and mouth free of dust and sand. Besides, Hammond’s stony expression told him everything he needed to know - this wasn’t the kind of thing you talked about outside of a secure setting. Daniel concentrated instead on wishing his kidneys might endure the ride and wondering just what kind of mess SG-1 had got themselves into this time.
By the time they reached Deir-ez-Zor Daniel felt as though he’d been traveling forever, though he knew it was only a matter of a couple of hours. He was grubby and windswept, grateful for the bandanna he’d had the foresight to wear, and looking forward to the chance to crash out on the plane.
He wasn’t at all surprised that the jeep was waved through the security cordon surrounding the airport, wheeling past a number of buildings before turning a corner towards where a familiar-looking plane was standing on the runway. Just the kind Daniel had once jumped from over Siberia, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Ready to go home, Dr. Jackson?" Hammond asked, as they walked across the tarmac together. Daniel wasn’t sure Colorado was home any more, but it wasn’t like he really had a choice, was it?
Somehow he managed to get some sleep, so the next thing Daniel knew he was being woken up with a cup of coffee somewhere over the Atlantic. The airman responsible just smiled and pushed the cup into his hand, heading back towards the cockpit before Daniel could even manage to thank him for the kind gesture.
He found himself half-crouched over the cup, breathing in its fragrance as if he could inhale the caffeine that way, before taking a gulp of what he discovered was over-sweetened brown mud disguised as something better. Air Force coffee hadn’t improved, it seemed. Daniel had heard tales when he was a student of Aeroflot using Pepsi as a replacement for brake fluid - he’d always wondered if that was where the Air Force got the idea for its coffee from.
Still, it was caffeine and sugar, and in the end that was all that mattered.
He was much too comfortable on the makeshift cot he currently occupied to go and look for Hammond, who he hadn’t seen since they’d taken off. Daniel hadn’t realized how tired he’d been, how the early mornings and physical activity had struck him as if he’d never been in that kind of routine before.
At least he hadn’t dreamed, Daniel reminded himself, as he took a second, more cautious, mouthful of coffee. That had seemed a distinct possibility, his fertile imagination being likely to conjure up a variety of situations involving his friends, each more fantastic and disturbing than the last. And none of them good, if the few hints Hammond had dropped, as well as the things he hadn’t said, were anything to go by. But instead his sleep had been dreamless, apart from a vague feeling of guilt and being out of the loop, which was still something he wasn’t really used to.
He’d missed his teammates, his family, and that was a feeling which had continued to grow as time had passed. He hated to admit it, but he missed Jack, missed the moments of intimacy they’d shared alongside the more physical aspect of their relationship. If things had been different between them … No, he couldn’t think that way, though he had to wonder whether there had been space for a compromise he hadn’t been willing to make at the time. Some middle path between toeing the military line and throwing it all away. He couldn’t be sure any more if such a thing was possible, and if he’d want it if it was.
All Daniel knew was that the prospect of going back to the SGC suddenly and unexpectedly did feel a lot like going home.
The next time one of the airmen woke him was to tell him they were back in US airspace. Hammond had already told him, on the way to Deir-ez-Zor, that he’d need to change planes when they returned to the States, and Daniel found himself fumbling for the bag that contained the few necessities he’d brought with him. He found he didn’t care too much about the other things he’d left behind - they were just objects and one thing he’d learned too well in his life was that objects were easily replaceable.
By the time the plane had taxied to a standstill, Daniel was ready to go. He followed the airman down onto the tarmac, shivering a little as the wind whipped across the expanse of the airbase. It was something of a temperature change from the almost stifling heat he’d become so quickly used to in Syria. Daniel pulled his jacket round himself and picked up the pace, until he was hustling along on the heels of his guide.
This time, at least, he found he’d been given a proper seat. And food, at last, even if that food turned out to be sandwiches which looked like their best day had passed long ago - food and coffee of any sort was enough to make Daniel settle back into his seat as the plane headed for Colorado.
There wouldn’t be a welcoming committee, of course, but the people he most wanted to see at the SGC wouldn’t be there. That was the whole point of him coming back.
Daniel managed to doze for a little while, his stomach alternately satisfied at last and complaining at the lengthy provenance of what he’d eaten, till the thunk of the landing gear dropping woke him.
For the first time, as he got ready to step out onto US soil once more, Daniel wondered just what the majority of people at the SGC thought of the decision he’d made. He was certain that no one would have taken the time to explain his reasoning to them, so that most of them probably thought he’d thrown some kind of academic temper tantrum and headed back to a cushy number in some university. Which was hardly the truth, or at least he hoped it wasn’t.
Hundreds of people worked in the Cheyenne Mountain complex, most of them just faces to Daniel, and he’d rarely given the majority of them a second thought before, unless they directly helped or hindered whatever it was he was trying to do.
In hindsight, that might have been a mistake. Even the seemingly least significant person in the base could disrupt whatever rescue mission he was going to be involved in, and the lives of his friends were too valuable to risk on someone’s misconceptions. If the situation arose, Daniel told himself that he would somehow have to set the record straight, so there could be no chance of misunderstanding.
He probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see another familiar face waiting for him at the bottom of the gangway. Lieutenant Simmons was there to meet him, a shy smile on his face, standing by a jeep complete with a silent driver.
"Welcome back, Dr. Jackson," he said, coming up to Daniel and taking his bag from him. Simmons hefted it easily into the back of the jeep.
"Thank you, Graham," Daniel said, as he followed Simmons round to the passenger side, the combination of jetlag and a slight feeling of uncertainty combining to rob him of the words for a moment. "It’s good to be back," he continued, surprising himself how much those words were suddenly the truth.
The rest of the journey to the SGC took place in silence, and Daniel was glad when it was finally over. The security checkpoint seemed more than familiar; he even recognized some of the faces as he traveled the corridors he thought he knew better than his own apartment. The occasional smile or nod confirmed Daniel’s belief, as well as calming his concerns about how he’d be received.
He hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask Hammond exactly what had happened, not that the general had given him much of an opportunity, and now he waited for that information uneasily. Imagining the worst, of course, his years with the SGC conjuring up a wide variety of possible scenarios, each more awful than the last.
Entering the conference room to find Jacob Carter there hardly reassured Daniel at all.
"Daniel, it’s good to see you," Jacob said. He got up from his seat as Daniel entered the room and came to greet him, hand outstretched. Daniel took it gladly, even as he catalogued the new lines of tension in Jacob’s face, the ones that hadn’t been there the last time he’d seen the Tok’ra. "I guess George didn’t tell you much?"
By the time he’d taken a seat, Simmons had fetched him coffee from somewhere and then disappeared once more, leaving the two of them together. There was silence for a moment, as Daniel wrapped his hands round the coffee mug - the heat seeped into his palms, reminding him once again that all of this was real.
"No," Daniel said. "There wasn’t really time." There had been time, on the plane ride back from Syria, but in hindsight it looked as though Hammond had actively avoided him, leaving the task of giving bad news to Jacob Carter, here and now. Not that Daniel had any intention of admitting he realized that, not when he owed Hammond so much for all his support in the past. "How bad is it?"
Jacob’s gaze was penetrating even as he avoided the question. "I don’t pretend to know why you left, Daniel," he said, "but I wouldn’t have asked George to drag you back here if there was an alternative."
"Just tell me," Daniel said.
"On their last mission off-world, SG-1 was captured. As far as our intelligence goes, they’re still alive - Dr. Talbot was badly injured during their capture and the Jaffa left him for dead. The Tok’ra agent we have in place where they’re being held can’t get close enough to establish how they are."
Daniel couldn’t help thinking how different it might have been. It could have been him the Jaffa left behind, wondering whether he would live to be rescued or die alone. Not that he hadn’t lived through that very experience before, both those experiences in fact.
"And James… Dr. Talbot?"
"Dr. Fraiser thinks he’ll make it. He’s in the I.C.U."
Daniel took another mouthful of coffee, marveling at the fact his hands weren’t shaking - he could almost watch himself, wonder at the self-control he showed despite the emotions that roiled so close to the surface.
"What aren’t you telling me?" Daniel asked. "If you know where they are, why hasn’t Hammond sent in SG-3? Why come for me?"
"Because it’s not that simple, Daniel." Jacob’s eyes glowed for a moment, sparking gold as Selmak’s echoing voice took over. "Dr. Jackson," he said. "I appreciate your caution and also understand the reasons for it, but you must trust us. Your friends are being held captive by a minor System Lord, who plans to use them to cement his power base among the other Goa’uld."
"By publicly executing Colonel O’Neill and Teal’c and making Samantha Carter a host for one of his own larvae. That way this Goa’uld hopes to gain access to the genetic memory of the Tok’ra, knowing that she was once a host herself. His plan must not succeed!"
It had been a long time since he’d trusted the Tok’ra - Daniel had never truly believed they had anyone’s interests at heart but their own and evidence had supported that view over the time the SGC had been dealing with them. He couldn’t forget Jack’s assertion, frequently voiced, that the Tok’ra were no different from the Goa’uld for all their talk of willing hosts, and there was little evidence to prove that Jack was wrong.
"And just where do I fit in?" he asked, placing the now-empty mug down carefully on the briefing room table.
His head was spinning by the time Daniel followed an airman to the guest quarters. Jacob’s plan ran through his head but all he could think about was his friends - he only had the Tok’ra’s word that they were still alive and likely to remain that way, being held safe in preparation for their role as "entertainment" for the Goa’uld. Jack was probably climbing the walls by now, looking for a way to escape, and all Daniel could hope was that the rest of his team would still be alive for him to rescue. If Jack hadn’t run his mouth off and goaded the Jaffa into something he’d live to regret - something Daniel would live to regret as well.
Being back in the SGC seemed more than strange. It was familiar in many ways, everything still in the same place as when Daniel had left, yet there was something to his surroundings that made him feel out of place. Like he was out of phase once more, everything subtly different to how it should be. Or perhaps he was the one who was different.
He couldn’t change the past, but Daniel had no intention of letting what had happened keep him from what he needed to do. He’d listen to Jacob’s plans, he’d do what he needed to in order to rescue his friends, and then he’d decide where he belonged, once and for all. There was no telling what the Tok’ra might want from him in the end or what harebrained scheme they had cooked up.
Daniel smiled to himself as he lay back on the bed in the guest quarters, not even bothering to kick off his shoes. He could almost hear Jack asking him what the hell he thought he was playing at trusting the Tok’ra in the first place - Jack had rarely bothered to hide his attitude towards them and at times Daniel had wondered if they respected him as they did because of this, or despite it. There was no doubt the Tok’ra thought highly of Jack’s tactical skills, even if they knew the feeling wasn’t mutual.
Still, none of them really had any reason to trust or like the Tok’ra, even if their intervention had saved Jacob Carter’s life. Sam had found herself an unwilling host once already, Teal’c probably couldn’t see much difference between one symbiote and another and both he and Jack had come to agree with Teal’c.
He must have fallen asleep at some point, jetlag playing havoc with his system, since the next thing Daniel knew he was being woken by someone knocking on his door.
"Who is it?"
"Dr. Jackson," a voice he didn’t recognize said from the other side of the door. "General Hammond requests your presence, after you’ve eaten."
It was only as his stomach growled in agreement that Daniel realized he hadn’t given a thought to food, his body clock completely disordered by travel and the uncertainty surrounding the fate of his friends.
"Come in," he said. Daniel swung his feet off the bed, reaching for his glasses where they lay on the bedside table as the door swung open and an airman with a tray entered.
It wasn’t anyone he knew, though he’d only got to know a few of the enlisted men by name, mostly those associated with his own section. They were just faces most of the time, people in uniforms he passed in some featureless corridor, usually when his mind was on other things. That was the way his time at the SGC had been; sometimes it felt as though they’d lurched from crisis to crisis, with hardly time to catch their breath.
The airman was already out of the room before Daniel had a chance to thank him, the door closing quietly behind him as he left.
He could tell by the expression on Jacob’s face that the Tok’ra hadn’t expected this response. Hammond looked similarly surprised, but Daniel had a feeling he hadn’t been let in on Jacob’s plan either, so the surprise was more focused in that direction.
"I understand your concern, Dr. Jackson." Jacob’s voice had been replaced by the echoing one of Selmak again, something that Daniel was certain he’d never totally become used to, no matter how long he associated with the Tok’ra.
"No," Daniel said. "I don’t think you do." He looked at Hammond, who still said nothing, his eyes watchful. "You’re very calm about the fact you want me to commit mass murder."
"I would have thought you, of all people," Jacob said, "would have more than sufficient reason to wish the Goa’uld harm."
"Not like this."
In some ways, Daniel admitted to himself, Jacob was right. It was possible that a few months back he wouldn’t have thought twice about the idea, could possibly have even thought it was an excellent plan. But that had been before he’d seen the human side of the situation, sitting beside Apophis’ host as he breathed his last. Sha’re’s death had only served to drive home the point, that hosts were as much the victims of the Goa’uld as the inhabitants of the worlds they conquered. Time and distance had helped that new perspective gain the upper hand and he had no intention of changing that.
"What about the hosts?" he continued. "Your poison kills the symbiote, what does it do to the host?" Jacob said nothing, an answer in itself. "I see."
"Dr. Jackson." That was Hammond. "It’s your decision."
That was how it had always been, even if at times Daniel had felt like he’d been swallowed whole by the USAF, subsumed by olive green anonymity. The look he gave Hammond let the general know how grateful he was for that, he hoped.
"I’d like some time to think, general," Daniel said.
Jacob had made it clear they wanted someone they could trust, someone who spoke Goa’uld and who wasn’t already a host, so there weren’t all that many candidates for the job. There was little doubt in Daniel’s mind that he’d accept the mission in the end, but that decision was based on the danger his friends currently faced, rather than any kind of trust in the Tok’ra.
"Take all the time you need," Hammond said.
He expected Jacob would turn up at the guest quarters he currently occupied, looking for another chance to persuade him that the Tok’ra plan wasn’t quite so crazy after all, so Daniel made sure he didn’t spend very much time there. After all the time he’d spent in the SGC Daniel knew it intimately, every corridor and room familiar to him; he was confident he could elude the Tok’ra if he chose to do so. He was already in the elevator and on his way down to the infirmary before he realized where he was headed.
Janet was pleased to see him, her expression only wavering a little when he mentioned Dr. Talbot’s name. When Daniel reached the ICU he realized why. Talbot looked as though he’d been severely beaten, his face a blotchy palette of greens, blues and purples, a ventilator tube helping him breathe.
"How bad is he?" Daniel asked, when Janet joined him at the window.
"We think he’ll make a full recovery," Janet said, "but it won’t be easy. He was barely alive when SG-3 brought him back."
"He’s been unconscious all the time?" Janet nodded. "What happened to him?"
"As far as we can tell he was beaten by a number of assailants and then shot with a staff weapon from close range." Daniel winced. He remembered what that felt like, the searing pain that accompanied such a wound; there had been a sarcophagus available for him, at least, even if he’d had to crawl for what seemed like days to get to it. "He’s a tough customer," Janet said, her hand resting on Daniel’s arm. "Like someone else I know."
"If I’d been here," Daniel began. He’d thought of little else since being told what had happened, but this was the first time he’d spoken those thoughts out loud.
"That could be you in there instead of Dr. Talbot," Janet interrupted, her tone vibrant with the anger she was clearly holding back with difficulty. "Or you could be dead. Or captured like the rest of SG-1." Her hand squeezed his arm, unspoken sympathy in the tightening of her grip. "Or you could have twisted your ankle before the mission and been left behind anyway. And then who’d get to be the cavalry?"
He couldn’t help thinking about it, though he knew Janet was right. Daniel brought his other hand up to rest over Janet’s, his gesture admitting she was right even though he couldn’t bring himself to say the words.
"Just bring them back," Janet said. "And yourself as well. We’ve already had too many memorial services."
Daniel knocked on Hammond’s door, opening it when the general spoke.
"Take a seat, son," Hammond said, closing the folder whose contents he’d been working on when he saw the identity of his visitor.
"I’m going to do it, General," Daniel said, as he sat.
"Despite your reservations about Tok’ra methods?"
This wouldn’t be the first time Daniel reminded himself that Hammond hadn’t got where he was by who his friends were; the man was a tactician, a good judge of people, an excellent all-round soldier.
"I don’t have a better plan," he admitted. "And somehow I get the feeling if I don’t agree, nobody is going to gatecrash that summit." He didn’t need to spell out what that meant for SG-1. The way Hammond’s face darkened a little told Daniel the general understood, that his thoughts had run along similar lines. "Though I plan to improvise on Selmak’s plan once I get there," he continued.
"I’m sorry you had to come back under these circumstances, Dr. Jackson," Hammond said. "I’d hoped in time you’d wish to return to the SGC of your own accord. You’ve been very much missed."
"I don’t think that was going to happen," Daniel said, though he wasn’t sure that was totally true, not any more. Something had changed for him when he’d realized his friends were in trouble, or else would he still be here? Would he even have got on the plane at Deir-ez-Zor if he’d still felt the same way about the decision he’d made all those months ago? Probably - these were his closest friends, almost all he had of a family on this planet, even if he’d chosen to walk away from it all. "But I couldn’t sit by and do nothing."
Hammond nodded. Somehow Daniel felt he’d passed some unspoken test, that the general had been waiting on his response.
"You will, of course, be free to leave the SGC again on your return from this mission."
Daniel smiled to himself. If he returned, that is - he had no doubts about how dangerous the mission itself would be, and how likely it was that all of them would be killed.
"Thank you, sir."
"We’ll meet with the Tok’ra in one hour."
Daniel used the time to visit the infirmary once more, but this time for the purpose of talking to Janet rather than watching over the man who could have been him. Not that Daniel didn’t care about that, but what good could he do for James Talbot? He wasn’t the one in the ICU, not this time, but he was the one who everyone was expecting to pull off a miracle and save his friends. The one person in the SGC who might stand a chance of doing what he’d been asked to, even if he had serious concerns about the method the Tok’ra apparently planned on using to do it.
"Did I make a mistake in leaving?" Daniel asked, when he’d settled himself into a chair facing Janet. She’d become a friend and, to some certain extent a confidante, in the years they’d worked together at the SGC, and there wasn’t anyone else there now apart from Hammond who he trusted more. How many times had Janet bandaged and medicated him anyway? "Maybe if I’d stayed …"
"Why did you leave, Daniel?" Janet asked, pouring him a cup of coffee. Daniel took the offered cup, using the excuse of inhaling the smell to give himself time to think, time to phrase his reasons in a way that didn’t make him feel like a selfish moron. "You never really told me what was going on."
"I stopped being myself," he said, finally.
"So it was all about you?"
Janet sat down opposite him, her intelligent eyes watching him intently. She always had a way of cutting through to the heart of the matter and for a moment Daniel wondered just what it was like for Cassie to have an adoptive mother that perceptive.
"No." It hadn’t been that simple. If it had been, maybe he could have tolerated it a little longer, but there had been more to the situation he’d found himself in. If it had been that simple, there might have been an easier way to fix things than walking away for good. "Things changed around here. And I changed with them."
"I live a pretty sheltered life down here, Daniel," she said. "I only get to see what’s going on with the SGC when the gurneys roll in. But something has happened. The injury rates started to climb a while back and we’ve had more fatalities than before. I can’t believe it’s coincidence."
"At times I wondered if I was going crazy," Daniel said, as he placed his empty cup carefully on the desk in front of him.
"No," Janet said. "I’ve seen it too. Something’s different." There was silence for a moment between them, as she sipped her coffee. "So, what happens now?"
"I’m meeting with the Tok’ra shortly," Daniel replied. "They have a plan for me to rescue the others."
He didn’t bother to say what he thought of it, what would be the point? Expressing his concerns would only worry Janet more and she was already worried about Sam, about all of them.
"Be careful, Daniel." Her voice was tight, like she wanted to say more but didn’t dare. "You know how I feel about the Tok’ra."
It was an opinion that was apparently more widely shared within the SGC than Daniel had previously suspected. The Tok’ra were very keen on getting others to do their dirty work, or that was how it seemed, and neither of them trusted them an inch. He nodded.
"I should go," he said. "Thanks for the coffee, Janet. I’ll see you when I get back."
"What happens then, Daniel?" she asked, getting up and walking with him to the door. Daniel knew what she meant - would he stay at the SGC on his return from this mission? Assuming he even survived to have to make that decision.
"I don’t know," he said, unable to lie, even if it might make their parting easier.
Within a matter of hours he was headed off-world, his only farewell Hammond’s reassuring pat on the shoulder before he’d walked up the ramp with Jacob Carter. It all seemed horribly familiar, as if he’d never left, and for a moment Daniel wished himself back in Syria. Except that his friends were out there somewhere, relying on him, and that was a summons he couldn’t find it in himself to ignore, no matter what might happen afterwards. If there was an afterwards to worry about. Daniel had decided he’d deal with that particular problem when they were all back on Earth, safe and sound - until then he was going to keep his mind on the mission, or at least as much as his over-active imagination would allow.
"You okay?" Jacob asked, as they emerged from the event horizon on the other side. Daniel nodded. "George told me you left the SGC a couple of months back," he continued, as he led the way through the rocky desert terrain to where the Tok’ra ship stood waiting. "I’d wondered why you weren’t with SG-1 when they were captured."
There was no censure in Jacob’s tone, though Daniel had expected it when this subject finally arose. Why hadn’t he been there and had his absence placed Jacob’s daughter in jeopardy? There really was no way of telling what the implications of his absence were, but Dr. Talbot was capable enough and maybe it wouldn’t have changed a thing …
"I had a difference of opinion," Daniel said. "With the Air Force."
"To be honest, Daniel," Jacob said. "I’m surprised you stayed as long as you did." Jacob smiled and Daniel wondered what expression had appeared on his face at those candid words. "You never seemed the type."
"I surprised myself," Daniel admitted. "But it was more about what we were doing than the organization I was working for. And then that wasn’t the same any more."
It was ironic, telling a retired general this, when the words just hadn’t come as easily for the people Daniel had always thought he had a closer relationship with. He’d tried to explain it to Jack but Jack didn’t seem to want to understand, or had wanted an explanation Daniel wasn’t able to give. He’d harked back to Sha’re, to Daniel’s former determination to find Shifu, anything but the real reason he didn’t fit in any more. That some things had become more important than the human dimension in all of this.
At the end of the day Daniel had just been too tired to talk about it any more, and by that point everyone had stopped asking him anyway. Then when he was ready to talk again, it was too late.
"Ideals are wonderful while they last," Jacob said wryly.
"It wasn’t idealism." Daniel heard the edge in his voice, the emotions raised by that suggestion. It made him sound naïve, as if he’d had no experience of the world before his world and the USAF collided; nothing could be further from the truth. Jacob nodded.
"What’s done is done," he said, as the ramp appeared. "Regardless of the thought behind it."
"I’m not wearing that," Daniel said, staring down at the pile of clothing waiting on the bed for him. He looked at Jacob, not missing the slight smile that crossed the older man’s face at his adamant comment.
"You do what you have to, Daniel."
He picked up the tunic, wincing at the armbands and belt underneath that material - this was getting worse. The pants were okay, if a little revealing, but the rest of the outfit fit in perfectly with Goa’uld dress sense, or lack thereof. That was another way in which the Goa’uld and Tok’ra were scarily alike - neither had much taste in clothing. He had no intention of going into the Goa’uld summit dressed like that. Bad enough he was going undercover as Yu’s lotar, trusting a Tok’ra device to make the system lord believe that subterfuge, with all the risks that entailed.
All in all it was hardly a plan he trusted, though he knew Jacob wouldn’t do anything to put him in harm’s way. At least Daniel thought that was the case, unless blending with Selmak had made the old man even more devious than before.
He’d improvise, and it wouldn’t be the first time. Daniel picked up the pants, imagining what Jack’s response would be to seeing him dressed that way. Once he would have known just what reaction wearing something like that would get - Jack’s eyes would darken and the life expectancy of that flimsy material would have been measured in minutes, if not seconds. Now he’d just probably think Daniel looked ridiculous and make no bones about saying so.
"There must be something else here I can use," Daniel said, turning round. Jacob had gone, probably hoping he’d give in and put the clothes on anyway if he wasn’t around. There was no chance of Daniel giving in anything like that easily, no matter what the Tok’ra thought.
By the time he’d returned from ransacking the rest of the ship he’d managed to assemble a slightly less revealing outfit. The pants weren’t replaceable, since there was nothing more suitable that he could use in his size, but he’d found a tunic that made him look a little less like he’d escaped from a carnival and also gave him somewhere to hide the serum the Tok’ra expected him to use. Not that he had much intention of doing so, if he could find another way - the thought of the number of hosts he’d kill, the human lives he’d be taking by killing off the System Lords, was repellent. That might be the Tok’ra way, but it wasn’t his.
"I think you’d have blended in better with the other outfit," Jacob said, as he returned to the flight deck.
Daniel didn’t dignify that with a response. He felt much more comfortable dressed as he was and the last thing he needed to be worrying about was fending off amorous hosts when he was supposed to be blending into the background. The other outfit gave mixed messages, to say the least, and there was only one person on that space station he had any interest in that way.
"Let’s get on with it," he said. They could already be too late, after all, and that was a possibility Daniel was trying hard not to consider.
Walking onto the space station, no weapons of any kind on his person, Daniel felt oddly naked despite the care he’d taken with his newly-acquired clothing. He’d grown so used to the comforting weight of his Beretta, to the way his hand naturally fell to lay on the zat he’d carried on so many missions off-world, that arriving somewhere hostile now unarmed felt stranger than he’d ever expected. He was sure, however, that he drew much less attention as he was dressed now than he would have done in Jacob’s outfit. The wry look the Tok’ra had given him as they’d parted company at the hatch had confirmed the opinion somewhat and Daniel found himself wondering just what he was really up to.
The guards at the airlock gave him a cursory glance, didn’t bother to check him closely, and Daniel breathed a sigh of relief as he headed down the corridor away from them. All the time he kept expecting shouts to stop, the skin between his shoulder blades prickling as he imagined the guards watching him even when it was much more likely they weren’t. Unless they were admiring his pants, and the things that they contained which were nothing like as covered as they might be. Then again, Jack had always said that when you were off-world paranoia was your friend.
He couldn’t exactly ask where Yu’s quarters were, but it didn’t take much figuring out where the System Lords were staying - Daniel just had to follow the others dressed like servants as they scurried like worker ants heading for the queen. It wasn’t difficult to blend in with them, to make sure they were between him and any further guards he spotted, not that the guards seemed to be at all interested in any of them.
The higher levels of the space station were much more ornate, as befitted their current role as quarters for the Goa’uld. Considering their usual egomaniac tendencies, it wasn’t hard to figure out that their host was going all out to impress his guests, probably hoping it would help him make headway with them. That, combined with the three-ring circus involving the remainder of SG-1, was designed after all to be his ticket to the big leagues. A plan Daniel had every intention of thwarting, one way or another.
It was ironic, Daniel decided, as he located Yu’s quarters, that he found himself onboard as the mainstay in the kind of plan he’d always despised. A plan that depended on him getting Yu to think he was his lotar, finding the rest of his team, getting them all to the rendezvous with Jacob, all without running into trouble. The odds weren’t good, even if the rest of his team were lucky enough to be in good health.
He knew, though Jack didn’t often talk about it unless he was really liquored up, that Jack had done this kind of work too. The fact he didn’t talk about it, and the kind of opinions he expressed on the rare occasions he did, helped Daniel be certain this wasn’t the kind of thing he wanted to be doing at any time. But at the moment there didn’t seem to be much of an alternative if he didn’t want his friends to be the main attractions in some insane parasite’s power play. All he could hope for was the chance to put some alternate plan into action, save his friends and get the hell out of Dodge with the least human casualties possible.
Yu’s quarters were pretty much as he’d imagined they would be - a nightmare combination of red and black lacquer, gold highlights painted everywhere with a heavy hand. The designs looked authentic enough, from what he knew of Chinese artwork, but the overall effect was overwhelming. That was probably meant to be the point, but it was never much of a step from impressive to crass and the décor here was working too hard at being impressive to be anything but the latter.
The door slid open behind him with no warning. He didn’t move, busying himself with a suitably ornate tea set and waiting until he heard the door slide closed once more. When Daniel turned, as he’d expected, it was to a familiar face, the inscrutable Yu looking straight at him, a half-puzzled expression there momentarily before it was replaced by the usual arrogance.
"I know you!" Yu snapped.
Another half-step and Daniel was within reach, his hand striking out at the Goa’uld before he could raise the alarm, then he stepped back and watched to see whether the Tok’ra were true to their word. Yu scowled at him momentarily, then his face visibly relaxed.
"My lord," Daniel said, in as deferential a tone as he could manage. "Your return has been long overdue."
Yu nodded, apparently now satisfied that all was well. The Tok’ra chemical was working, Yu had walked away from Daniel now as if he was nothing - the usual Goa’uld arrogance towards their human slaves firmly back in place.
"Assist me," he said, raising his arms to indicate that Daniel should remove his outer robe. Yu paused for a moment, a slight frown marking his otherwise emotionless face. "And remind me of your name."
"Jarren, my lord," Daniel replied, as he assisted Yu with his robe, the ornate fabric heavy in his hands. He tried not to wonder where the real Jarren was; that was a question he hadn’t asked Jacob either. "Your tea will be ready shortly, my lord," he continued, watching Yu as he paced the chamber. At least this part of the plan was working, but now came the tricky part.
Walking the requisite number of paces behind his master, Daniel found that he was truly invisible. None of the other System Lords bothered to look at him, similar bored and disdainful expressions fixed on the faces of their hosts as they entered the chamber to which they’d been summoned.
"The Jade Emperor, the exalted Lord Yu Wang Shang Ti."
Yu had lectured him before they left the chamber, warning him that nobody there was to be trusted. Looking around surreptitiously, Daniel couldn’t agree more - the other lotars, standing obediently to the side and behind their respective masters, looked bored already. He recognized most of the Goa’uld present, either from description or from the symbols their human slaves bore. He hoped that none of them recognized him or his chances of staging a rescue weren’t likely to last long.
"Remember my words," Yu said, as he took his seat. "Do not make me look foolish by allowing yourself to be murdered."
It was an unexpected comment - for a moment it was all Daniel could do to incline his head in an appropriately servile fashion, stepping back to take his place. He didn’t kid himself that it was any indication of Yu’s host surviving, since by all accounts the current host must be thousands of years old, but the sentiment behind the comment was close enough to being thoughtful to give him pause. Except that in reality it was more about the inconvenience it would cause the System Lord than any real concern for another’s well-being. Daniel studied the faces of the other System Lords for a moment, wondering just how many years of torment they had caused between them to the humans who currently served as their vessels.
"Why are we here?"
"My lord Baal." It was a female Goa’uld, the symbols borne by her lotar marking her as Kali the Destroyer, who spoke. "Have a little patience. I understand tomorrow’s entertainment will prove to be most enjoyable but there is no need for this unseemly haste."
"They should already be dead," Yu said. His voice was quiet but the words still ripped across the chamber as if he’d shouted them. "Such insolence should not be allowed; it must be torn out by the roots, not allowed to fester in hopes of … entertainment." He spat the last word, his gaze fixed on Kali - to her credit, she did not even blink despite Yu’s venom.
"And yet we are all here," a new voice said, from the doorway. All of the System Lords turned, as if one, to greet the newcomer.
Daniel recognized the voice, so much so that he didn’t need to look. He couldn’t take the chance anyway, couldn’t run the risk of drawing her attention to him, to a familiar face in an unexpected location, with all that entailed. In some ways, he should probably have expected to find Osiris here, currying favor with Baal while the other System Lords jockeyed for position, as always. It would probably have been more of a surprise if he, and his all-too-familiar host, had not been present.
Osiris swept into the chamber, only a slight nod acknowledging the presence of Baal, head held high and scornful expression fully engaged for all others present. Daniel stared straight ahead, willing himself to be invisible, unnoticeable, a good lotar among many and therefore of no interest to any of the Goa’uld. Osiris’ gaze seemed to hesitate momentarily but when no alarm was raised, Daniel let out the breath he’d been holding. Maybe the disguise was enough, or the incongruity of seeing him there was enough to distract Osiris from identifying one who was sorely out of place.
The subsequent meeting was interminable, all of the System Lords taking it in turns to posture a little, their host still not present to explain himself. Daniel found himself watching the other lotars, looking for evidence that any of them were not as loyal as they seemed to be, and found none. There would be no assistance there, at least none that would be offered. It might be that when they were faced with the death of their respective masters that the human slaves sang a different song altogether.
"My time is wasted here," Yu said suddenly, standing. All eyes were drawn to him, and Daniel once again found himself wishing that he truly blended into the background. Despite himself, he found he was looking at Osiris, even as he followed Yu from the chamber, every inch just another lotar, and he could have sworn her eyes blazed gold for a moment.
Yu had paced his ornate chambers for hours, ranting at the foolishness of the other System Lords, until even he began to tire. After that it was easy for Daniel to persuade him to rest, then slip silently from his chambers and down the corridors of the space station in search of his friends. He had an idea where they were being held, but no guarantees of that - all he knew was that time was running out.
He paused at an intersection, studied the markings on the walls and compared them mentally to the diagram Jacob Carter had shown him of the space station’s layout.
"Daniel Jackson." The voice was familiar, even without the odd echoing timbre of the Goa’uld, and Daniel didn’t bother to turn around. "My host insisted you would come, that you would risk your life for your friends, but I doubted her assessment of your character."
"Sarah never knew me as well as she thought," Daniel replied. He turned slowly, to find Osiris watching him, an amused and scornful expression on Sarah’s face.
"That must be true," Osiris continued, "or else you would have been with those who call you friend when they were captured."
It always came back to that, didn’t it?
"We’re not joined at the hip," he replied.
She was alone, which was good, but on her hand he could see the shining metal of the ribbon device. He had the chemical the Tok’ra had given him, so there was a chance he could get out of this alive, but that would be at the cost of leaving Sarah here. In an ideal world, Daniel knew, he’d want to rescue his friends and Sarah Gardner but this world was far from being ideal and it was likely he would be forced, once more, to choose.
Now, if he could only get within striking distance …
Sarah moved faster than he had expected, and Daniel found himself slammed back against the wall, her body pressed against him. Close up, he wondered how he had ever mistaken Osiris for Sarah - the expression on her face, while familiar, was so full of scorn now that it chilled him to the bone. He groped for the device Jacob had given him, turning it in his fingers until the tiny needle was pointing outwards then reached for Sarah’s arm, even as she raised the ribbon device.
The light blossomed in the crystal that adorned Sarah’s palm, then faltered. She shook her head, as if coming up from deep water, momentary confusion before the calm self-assurance of the Goa’uld took over once more.
"What are you doing here?" Osiris asked. She stepped back a little hastily, hand still raised. Daniel bowed his head, wondering just how strong the dose was that he’d just administered - it had worked perfectly on Yu as well, and it felt like he was pushing his luck. "I should have you punished for daring to breathe the same air as one of your betters."
Daniel mumbled apologies, glancing momentarily at Osiris from the corner of his eye, body still hunched. He moved quickly towards the corridor he’d identified before Sarah had confronted him, conscious all the time of the Goa’uld’s eyes gleaming gold. Osiris was watchful, surveying him like he was one of his own servants, clearly unable to imagine that one of them would have the temerity to raise a hand against their masters.
Daniel turned the corner and was out of sight. He took a deep, shuddering breath and felt his heart hammering in his chest. That had been close - too close.
It took what seemed like an eternity before he was able to find the right corridor. This part of the space station was less ornate, clearly more functional than the suites where the Goa’uld were living, but also clearly well used by their guards. Twice Daniel had been forced to press himself against a bulkhead and hold his breath as Jaffa had passed by, once those of Kali and then others bearing the insignia of Baal. It seemed as though there was some kind of uneasy truce on board, keeping the System Lords from tearing one another apart, and all Daniel could do was hope it was strong enough to last.
Now, if the Tok’ra intelligence, and what he’d gathered on his travels through the space station were right, the rest of his team should be here …
Daniel’s breath caught in his throat as he passed a hand over the device controlling the door. A momentary hesitation and then the door slid upwards, almost silently. The well-remembered faces of his team-mates, his friends, stared at him. He’d dreamed of them, of all of them, for so long, even when his conscious mind had worked hard to push all thought of them away. As a result, he was no longer completely sure they were real. The expressions on their faces, surprise taking the place of caution, showed Daniel he wasn’t alone in that uncertainty.
"Daniel?" Jack’s voice, rasping, broke the tableau. He moved; as he did so the light fell across his battered face, angry marks on his throat and arms livid evidence of the treatment he’d received during their time as prisoners of the Goa’uld. "About time you got here."
Had he been expected after all? The things Osiris had said haunted him but he’d always thought Sara had an optimistic view of his character. As for his friends, they’d been prisoners for weeks; they couldn’t possibly have thought … Daniel pushed that possibility from his mind.
Jack looked the worst of the three of them. Teal’c had his symbiote after all, though Junior’s talents had doubtless received a thorough work-out if Jack was anything to go by. Sam was intended to be a host, after all, and the Goa’uld wouldn’t want to damage her. Even with the sarcophagus available, in their arrogance they wouldn’t want to lose control over their captives.
That made Jack and, to a lesser extent Teal’c, expendable in comparison. Daniel felt a familiar cold anger coil low in his gut, that same anger the Goa’uld’s callous disregard for human life always sparked.
"Can you walk?" He couldn’t take his eyes off Jack, couldn’t tear his gaze from the bruises inflicted in his absence. If he’d been there, if he hadn’t left, things could have been different … No, he couldn’t go there, not now. Hindsight might be 20-20 but it was a curse, not a blessing. There’d be plenty of time for recriminations later. If there was a later.
Jack nodded. He’d clearly realized that continued talking wasn’t a good idea, considering how bad his voice sounded, and Daniel found he was more than a little relieved at that. He could cope with Jack’s recriminations, if there were any, but not now. Not when his main concern was getting the three of them off the station, with or without inflicting some casualties on the Goa’uld, as Jacob had planned.
"Your dad sent me," Daniel said to Sam, whose smile momentarily replaced the worry on her face. "It’s like a Goa’uld convention out there so we need to be careful."
"I had not expected to see you again, Daniel Jackson," Teal’c said. Daniel found himself swallowing, the quiet words stirring up emotions he hadn’t expected to feel. "Let us depart this place."
"I wasn’t expecting to see you, either," Sam said, as the three of them followed him into the hallway. Daniel palmed the device that closed the cell door, and it slid silently back into place. He pretended not to notice the way that Teal’c was watching Jack, as if he expected to have to grab him before he passed out - at least if Teal’c was playing nursemaid, he could concentrate on getting them all out of there.
In the end, it proved relatively easy to check in with the waiting ship and make arrangements to meet up at the airlock. Jacob didn’t ask what had happened and for that Daniel was glad, since he had no intention of wasting his time lying to the Tok’ra and he was sure that they wouldn’t be pleased to discover he hadn’t had the opportunity or much of a desire to kill the assembled Goa’uld and their hosts.
While there were Jaffa to be avoided en route, Daniel could hear them coming a long way off, their boots clanging on the metal decks of the space station, and the four of them became quite adept once more at hiding as a team. By the time they reached the airlock, Teal’c was half-carrying Jack, whose face had turned a shade of gray that Daniel was trying not to become alarmed about, and so it was a relief to find the airlock unguarded.
Daniel returned the Goa’uld poison that the Tok’ra had given him, unused, to Jacob when they rendezvoused. He didn’t mention its existence to the others - while he wasn’t sure what Jack’s response would be, he could imagine how Sam would react to her own father being that cold-blooded. Even if the military upbringing she’d had would mean she’d understand the motivations behind the idea, that didn’t mean she’d be any less horrified at the casual consideration of mass murder that Jacob Carter and his associates had proposed.
He told Jacob there hadn’t been the right opportunity. The expression on the general’s face told Daniel that he hadn’t been believed but Jacob could hardly turn around and call him a liar to his face, not when he’d achieved what had been the prime objective of the mission, rescuing SG-1.
Daniel found himself making an effort to avoid his former teammates on the trip back to the nearest convenient Stargate - it seemed odd, in some ways, when he’d come so far to find them but now he couldn’t think of what he wanted to say to any of them. At least Jack wouldn’t be interrogating him any time soon, not if the continued rasping noise he made when trying to speak was anything to go by - Janet would take one look at him and he’d be lucky if he wasn’t learning sign language in short order.
In the end, as they disembarked onto the hot sands of the planet where Daniel and Jacob had first found the Tok’ra ship waiting, it was Teal’c who walked by Daniel’s side, a silent and unquestioning presence. Daniel found that familiar and oddly reassuring, as if all the events of the past months had been nothing but a bad dream, a hallucination he’d now woken from and found himself part of SG-1, as he’d always been. He was even back in BDUs, the lotar outfit gladly discarded at the first opportunity.
"Once again, I find myself in your debt," Teal’c said, as the two of them watched the Stargate spin. "I look forward to hearing tales of your adventures since last we traveled through the Chappa’ai together."
"There’s not much to tell, Teal’c," Daniel said. "I left, did some stuff, and now I’m back."
"And will you remain with us?"
That was the question, wasn’t it? Daniel could imagine both possibilities - somehow swallowing his pride and coming to terms with what being part of the SGC meant, or walking away from everything that it represented, this time permanently. He wasn’t sure which thought scared him the most, because both were significant choices.
Jack was watching him, as if eavesdropping on their conversation, though he pretended that this wasn’t the case when Daniel caught him looking. He found himself doing the same; watching Jack when he wasn’t aware. He couldn’t help noticing the few more gray hairs that hadn’t been there last time he’d seen his former teammate, and Daniel was perversely glad he hadn’t had to see the treatment which had given him the bruises that littered his face and upper body.
"I don’t know," he said, finally. "I guess we’ll have to see what happens."
The others had been left with Dr. Fraiser, so Daniel had the responsibility of going through the debriefing process with Hammond alone, since Jacob had made his apologies and gone his separate way. At least Hammond seemed pleased with the outcome of the mission, which wasn’t much of a surprise - his own mission, to get Daniel back onboard, had led to the safe return of the rest of SG-1. Battered and bruised, but very much alive, which was more than at least two of them would have been without this intervention.
After that, though, Daniel was left to his own devices. Led by an airman to one of the VIP quarters, he’d barely had time to kick his boots off before falling onto the big, comfortable bed that almost dominated the room. He couldn’t remember anything much after that, so he could only assume he’d fallen asleep.
When Daniel woke, hunger telling him that he’d slept longer than he’d anticipated, he could only remember vague snippets of the dream he’d had - the mission, much as it had gone in reality, but instead of Jack being bruised and battered, his eyes had glowed ominous gold when the door had slid open. He’d been too late, the sense of that lingering with him even as he headed down to the commissary in search of food.
He probably ought to pay the others a visit, Daniel told himself, as he worked his way through more food than he expected he could manage. It was the middle of the night, so there was an odd combination of what was left over from the previous night’s dinner and the coming breakfast on offer and he’d taken a little of everything, along with a large mug of murky looking coffee. Except that he still wasn’t sure what his reception would be, now that the immediate euphoria of a successful rescue was starting to fade a little. If he was honest with himself, Daniel knew that it was Jack’s response that he didn’t want to face.
Mostly because he wasn’t sure what that response would be, or indeed how he’d deal with it, whatever it was. He’d made his decision, a decision Jack had deliberately chosen not to accept, and then he’d turned his back on all of this - if Jack really did see that choice as a betrayal, the results of it now were starting to make Daniel wonder whether he wasn’t at least a little right. No matter how much he’d told himself he was doing the right thing, hadn’t he come running back the first time he was asked? And if Jack had asked him to stay, actually asked something of him for once in his life, what would his reaction have been?
By the time he’d finished his meal, Daniel was feeling slightly nauseous, but he wasn’t sure whether that was the food, the dubious coffee or something else less tangible. All he could do, he decided, was play this by ear. He finished the coffee anyway, even as he winced at its bitterness, then left the remnants of his meal behind and headed for the elevator. Time to face the music, before he had the chance to change his mind about the wisdom of his decision.
At least Janet seemed pleased to see him, if nobody else was.
"Well, I said I’d be back," Daniel said, making himself smile to cover his nervousness.
He could see into the infirmary from where he was standing and could make out a blanket-covered shape curled on its side away from him whose blonde hair had to be Sam. Teal’c was doubtless off communing with his larval Goa’uld in the privacy of his own quarters, which was another place Daniel needed to stop at some point. On the edge of a bed nearer to the doorway, however, sat a fully-dressed Jack O’Neill, in the process of pulling on his shirt. He looked up, as if feeling Daniel watching him, and then looked away almost immediately.
"You did," Janet agreed, resting a hand on Daniel’s arm for a moment. That small gesture seemed to ground him, pulling his attention back from Jack and onto someone who was clearly much happier to see him. "And it’s not that I’m not glad to see you, Daniel, but I can’t fault your timing…" She smiled, a smile that set off warning bells. "Colonel O’Neill insists on getting out of here, but the last thing he needs to do is pass out on his way up to the surface."
"Just to the surface," Janet repeated. "There’s a car waiting to take him home, which he’ll probably grouse about all the way, so you won’t even have to talk." Unless you want to, was the unspoken continuation of that thought.
Off the top of his head, Daniel couldn’t think of many things he’d like less than being stuck in a small metal space with Jack O’Neill, but he’d walked into this one. And hadn’t his subconscious had a role in this anyway? Why exactly had he come here, if not to try and make some kind of peace with Jack?
He nodded, as if that would make his agreement less painful, then looked at Jack again. He couldn’t see how the other man hadn’t figured out what was going on, and the expression on Jack’s face - a mutinous blend of annoyance and an equally familiar need to escape the infirmary - told Daniel he was right. Jack slipped from the bed and came over to where the two of them stood.
"I don’t need a babysitter," he said. It was clear to all three of them that he could have said more - Daniel knew it was probably only Janet’s presence that prevented Jack from really letting rip.
"If you want to get out of here," Janet replied, not looking at all daunted by Jack’s tone, "then that’s exactly what you do need. Only up to the surface, colonel - it wouldn’t do for one of the SGC’s finest to be seen collapsing in some corridor, would it?"
Jack’s scowl, impressive already, grew even more so. If Daniel hadn’t had years of intimate knowledge of that expression, and more, he probably would have been awed by it. As it was, all he could think was that Jack was clearly sore, tired and wanted his own bed, none of which were desires for which he could possibly be blamed.
"Let’s get this over with," he said, turning towards the corridor that led to the elevator. He didn’t bother to see if Jack was following him - if he wanted to spite himself, and get Janet to order him back to bed, that was his own choice.
Daniel had pressed the call button for the elevator by the time Jack arrived at his side. It was clear he was walking more stiffly than usual, but if Janet was letting him out so soon then the injuries he’d sustained must have been more superficial than they had first appeared. Not that they wouldn’t hurt like hell, and Daniel had to feel some sympathy for the man, but they were hardly on a par with some of their previous experiences.
"So," Jack began, as the elevator doors finally slid open, "how long are you planning on hanging around this time?"
Straight to the point, eh? Daniel thumbed the button for the right floor, then watched the doors slide closed before he turned to Jack.
"I haven’t decided yet," he said. "But whatever I decide to do, you’re going to complain about it, aren’t you?"
For the briefest of moments, Jack looked taken aback, surprised by the attitude Daniel had taken with him. While he’d never hesitated in the past to stand up to Jack when he felt it was the right thing to do, he’d generally been somewhat more placatory where their personal relationship was concerned and possibly that was part of the problem.
"You made your choice last time," he said, finally. "I always thought you’d stick with it, no matter what anyone else thought."
"But you were expecting me back," Daniel said. "Back on the space station, you said…"
"It doesn’t matter what I said," Jack interrupted. "Head injuries make you say all sorts of crazy shit. You of all people should know that."
"Well, if you’re waiting for me to apologize, Jack, I wouldn’t hold your breath."
"You always were a stubborn son of a bitch," Jack said, as if in agreement, and then pointedly turned to stare at the door for the rest of the trip to the surface.
In the end, he’d gone back to Syria, returning to the dig he’d so suddenly abandoned. There had been a moment, when the elevator doors had slid open, where Daniel had wondered if Jack would say something else. But he’d just gruffly wished Daniel goodnight instead and headed for the exit alone.
Stories of a family emergency were enough to satisfy the curiosity of the others on the dig and, after a while, Daniel almost came to believe them himself. But somehow, despite the fact he kept telling himself that he’d made his decision all those months ago, it was as if he was waiting for the next summons, the next message that he was needed.
Was that what he wanted, Daniel wondered, to be needed that desperately? Even if it went so strongly against what he knew of himself and his own plans for the future? It wasn’t as if he could really ignore what was going on, burying himself in academia and pretending that the things his fellow academics fought about were really that important. Not when he knew what was going on, even if the vast majority of the population didn’t, and he could step back into that world with relative ease.
If he wanted to go back. His security clearance was still valid - the summons from the dig had demonstrated that, if he’d ever had any doubts - as if Hammond too expected him to return and was keeping the door ajar to make that choice an easier possibility to take up.
If he’d been forced to make a list, Daniel wondered just how much that would change from how he’d felt back when he’d walked away from it all. And surely this time, if he chose to return, it would have to be for keeps.
By the time he was gearing himself up to face the start of another academic year, chewing over textbook choices and revising his lecture plans for the first semester, Daniel was struck with how shallow and meaningless it all felt. Because he’d been part of something bigger, something more momentous, and had walked away from it all because it had started to suffocate him.
He couldn’t help believing that his relationship with Jack, however that strange companionship might be described, had been part of it all. He’d been too used to being relatively nomadic - even his academic past had seen him work his way round various universities, never settling in one place for more than a couple of years at a time. And then there’d been Abydos, just when he’d needed something else, when his previous teaching gig had crashed in flames.
The SGC, the search for Sha’re, his crazy friendship-relationship-whatever the hell it was with Jack O’Neill, had tied him down more surely than anything else ever had. And, like Gulliver in Lilliput, Daniel had woken to find himself struggling against the bonds.
In the end, once he’d made up his mind, the rest was relatively easy. Not that his decision was an accepted one - that was understandable, though, since while he was prepared to work until the end of the semester, Daniel knew he would be leaving his department in difficulties, by departing halfway through the year when any academic worth his salt would already be working.
The dreams were easing up now, at least, so Daniel took that as a sign that his subconscious approved of the decision. He’d had more than enough of the Jack-as-host nightmare to last him for the rest of his life and couldn’t fail to notice that his dreams now took a more traditional turn, as if he was preparing himself for dealing with Jack O’Neill on a daily basis once more …
His first mission back with SG-1, a simple meet and greet, had been something of an anticlimax. Daniel had expected fireworks of some kind from Jack, or some sarcastic putdown as he’d crossed the briefing room and taken his accustomed seat at Hammond’s right hand. While Sam had looked like her face might split from the width of her smile, Jack had treated him as if he’d never left or as if he was just part of the furniture. A tried and tested defense mechanism if ever he’d seen one.
The rest of the mission had been little better, with Jack directing either of the others to be with Daniel while he did whatever it was the team leader did on these kind of missions. Daniel realized he’d never wondered just what it was that happened while he was so immersed in trying to discern and remember the social niceties, but he was too busy to spare Jack much thought until they were on their way back to Earth.
Then, if he’d expected some kind of confrontation, he’d still been sorely disappointed. The debriefing was relatively quick and easy, with General Hammond looking pleased at the results, and by the time he’d talked about some minor bureaucratic details with the general Daniel discovered Jack had already left the base.
"He’s glad you’re back," Sam said, reassuringly, when he dropped by her office to see if Jack was there, even though he knew there was little chance of that. "We all are. It wasn’t the same without you."
He had to take her words on face value, even if Jack’s behavior wasn’t giving him much confidence she had any idea what she was talking about. It wasn’t as if Jack was being at all subtle about how he felt - Daniel wasn’t sure that he knew the meaning of the word - but despite his former reservations he was glad to be back.
"It’s a little odd," he admitted, when it was clear Sam wanted him to say something, say anything in response. "I kept telling myself I’d made my mind up not to return but in the end it just wasn’t meant to be, I suppose …" Way to take responsibility for your own decisions, Daniel. "I wish it hadn’t worked out like it did." Now there was an understatement if ever there was one - Daniel could all but see the cogs turning in Sam’s brain as she mentally worked that statement over.
"I mean," Daniel began, though he knew even as he spoke the words that what he was about to say was a sanitized version, to say the least, "that I haven’t even got anywhere to live. And that half my stuff is in storage after I sold my apartment. I guess I’ll live, though…"
Sam smiled, and Daniel allowed himself to think that she believed this was the worst of his worries, which it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination.
It had all spiraled out of control, that was the only way to describe it. Janet was hovering around in the background, her attitude heading rapidly towards homicidal, as Jack paced the small space alongside the bed on which Daniel sat. Daniel cradled his wrist, even though it had now received a colorful fiberglass cast, and wondered just what it would take to shut Jack up. At least the morphine he’d been given when they fixed the break had kicked in now, which blurred the world around him a little at the edges, including Jack himself.
He could see Jack was winding himself up to say what he thought, and not before time as far as Daniel was concerned. He’d been worried that Jack was working towards an aneurysm, with all the stress of holding everything in, though he wished he was in a better frame of mind to be on the receiving end of it all.
"You can go, if you like, Daniel," Janet said, suddenly appearing beside Jack and halting him in mid-step in order to avoid collision. "I have a feeling you’ll sleep better if you’re away from here." And all my other patients won’t have to put up with Jack O’Neill on the warpath, she probably would have added if she wasn’t such a professional - Daniel could see, even with his morphine-muddled mind, the words dancing on her lips.
He nodded, sliding forward a little on the bed until his boots hit the ground, then stood carefully. The world didn’t spin, which was always a good sign
"Will you do the honors, Colonel?" Janet continued. Daniel didn’t bother to look at her - there was no point. She was thinking of what was the best for the majority of her patients and that was clearly whatever would get Jack out of the infirmary as soon as possible.
He managed to reach the door before Jack did, though, and headed down the corridor. Jack paced alongside him, the air around the two of them almost snapping with the restrained fury that Daniel knew wouldn’t take much to actually appear. He wasn’t sure if the respite between the infirmary and the VIP quarters he currently occupied was a good thing or not, since it seemed to give Jack even more chance to refine what he intended to say.
"She would have killed you, damn it. She’d already broken your wrist!"
At least, Daniel thought, he waited till we got the door closed before he started shouting this time.
The pacing was back, though the quarters Daniel was currently occupying at least had a larger area for Jack to travel than the infirmary had. He could have wished for a little more clarity on his own part, because he could see what direction this conversation was likely to go and he didn’t want to blow what he hoped might be a rare opportunity to get behind Jack’s defenses.
The tone of Jack’s voice was a little too much like stepping back in time. Early on in their friendship, long before everything had got too complicated, going through the Stargate had felt like walking down the block with two big dogs. Both Jack and Teal’c could emanate menace like the professionals they were and Daniel knew his quick words were often barely fast enough to intercept either one’s well-honed tendencies. It was too easy to forget with Jack, though, to allow the sarcasm and throwaway comments to mask the trained killer. He’d forgotten a lot of that, at least until now.
"But she didn’t," Daniel insisted. "With a little more time I could have got through to her."
"We didn’t have time," Jack said. "Nothing’s ever enough for you, is it?"
Jack was in his face now, closer than he’d been in months, angry but still in control. He didn’t really lose it, despite the yelling; in fact, the yelling was a good sign, compared to the glacial coolness of a Jack O’Neill who was really pissed off. If Daniel had wished for an opportunity, he couldn’t have found one better. They’d skated around the subject of their former relationship for weeks, with Jack making sure they didn’t have much time alone when they weren’t off-world and even then he always seemed on edge. As if he expected Daniel to start talking about stuff he didn’t want to discuss and was perpetually planning his escape if it happened.
The only thing that could have been worse would have been if they’d spent the past weeks treating one another like long-lost friends reunited. Either way, they’d never even talked about what they’d once been to one another. What Daniel thought they’d been, anyway, because he still had no idea what Jack thought of it all. And Jack wasn’t likely to tell him any time soon; the thought of taking the lid off this particular can of worms didn’t appeal in the slightest, but it was probably now or never.
"You’re right," he said. "It wasn’t enough. None of it was enough."
The expression on Jack’s face, part puzzlement and part dismay, was enough to tell Daniel what he needed to know. He’d been right - without taking whatever opportunity presented itself, they might both have been dead and buried before Jack would be ready to talk about what had happened between them and the chances that this, like so many things in their experience, could be resurrected in some way.
"I don’t understand," Jack said, even as his face for once betrayed him. He understood far too well the trap into which he’d blundered, even if he didn’t want to admit it.
Daniel felt the pressure building, the impending tension headache threatening to make his head pound till it felt like it would explode - obviously the morphine wasn’t as effective as he remembered. But despite how little he might want to do this, he knew he had to. Jack deserved an explanation, if there was one to be had, and maybe this way he’d come to understand what had happened himself. Maybe.
"We weren’t anything to one another. Just two guys who fucked, that was all. If it had been more than that, then maybe you’d have said something to change my mind. Maybe you would have wanted to change my mind." He paused, wondering if he really wanted to risk the next few words, but surely there was no turning back now? "And it wasn’t enough. It still wouldn’t be enough."
"So what would be?" Jack asked. His face was impassive again now, giving no clue to his feelings on the subject. "Just what is it you want from me, Daniel?"
"I’ve had enough of pretending that fucking was all it was, that we don’t have some twisted need for each other going on, whether we like it or not." Jack was silent for a long moment when Daniel finished speaking - was this a monumental mistake? In the end, it was Daniel’s own nervousness that made him blunder on, no matter what the end result might be. "I’m not Sara; you’re not Sha’re. But we can do one another some good. You know that. I hope you know that."
Daniel closed his eyes this time, not wanting to see the look he dreaded on Jack’s face; even an impassive expression would be too much. Any reaction, because of how battered he’d been already today, would probably put the final end on what had been between them. Because it’s too much to hope, wasn’t it, for anything else to happen?
"Yeah," Jack said, as Daniel felt himself pulled close after what seemed like a lifetime of silence, a warm body pressed against his own, warmer breath in his ear as Jack spoke. "I do. And God help us both."
If he’d thought it had been good before, that whatever the hell it was he’d had with Jack had given him what he needed even when he hadn’t know what that was himself, Daniel realized now he’d had no idea. Not that Jack was any different, off-world or otherwise, but there was something in the atmosphere between them that didn’t ring quite so false. Like they’d both learned a lesson somehow, even if it had been taught to them by months of being apart.
If the others noticed things had changed between the two of them, they didn’t say anything, and that was the way Daniel liked it. The last thing Jack would want was for anyone to make a fuss, like that had been the last thing Daniel himself had wanted when he came back. He still felt like a fraud, at times, when he thought about how close he’d come to letting go of everything and never realizing it at the time, though he couldn’t regret the perspective that time away had given him on everything they did. Everything he would continue to be a part of until he died, he could see that now, and possibly even beyond …
The sex was great too, even better than before, at least once Jack had allowed himself to be convinced that Daniel’s wrist had healed up fine. Until that point, he’d been almost tentative, which was the last thing either of them needed in reality - it had taken some substantial effort on Daniel’s part, and not a few bruises for both of them, before he’d been able to convince Jack it was okay to let himself go. That had been a night to remember; one that neither of them would be forgetting any time soon, even once the bruises started to fade.
Daniel found himself thinking of that night in the middle of their next mission, particularly when he caught Jack grinning at him out of the corner of his eye and had to force himself to concentrate on the long and involved briefing the team were receiving. They’d found themselves on a planet that was technologically behind Earth, but which had an abundance of a mineral that Sam was currently eulogizing over - something called naquadria. Frankly, he hadn’t been interested enough to listen to what she had to say about it and momentarily felt some sympathy for her interest, putting himself in Jack’s usual role when either of them turned scientific.
There was just something about the whole set-up here that didn’t quite ring true, Daniel decided, looking around him once more. The locals were friendly enough, eternally fascinated in everything their visitors said or did, but there was something a little insincere about their interest.
Jack had crossed over to stand beside him, a casual double entendre coming easily to him, the smallest of smiles quirking his lips as he spoke. The best policy was to ignore the innuendo, Daniel had learned that years before, and so he put that plan into action with alacrity.
"Something’s not right here," he said. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jack’s smile dwindle and was both pleased and disappointed at how little it took to bring him down to earth. After this was over… Daniel forced his recalcitrant brain back to consider the matter at hand. "It all seems just a little too perfect and we know that usually means trouble."
"Well," Jack began, "not that I’m knocking your instincts, Daniel …"
"Colonel, Dr. Jackson," a voice said. "And Dr. Carter, Teal’c." They all turned towards the doorway, where the Kelownan liaison stood. "I was not informed that you had planned to return today."
"Oh, we were just in the neighborhood," Jack said, with a vague gesture. "That okay with you?"
Jonas Quinn’s manner hadn’t improved since their last meeting. There was something staggeringly insincere about the man, something that made Daniel wonder just how he’d come to hold as high a position within the government as he had, but then Quinn had commented the previous day on his family’s record as government officials and that seemed to be as likely an explanation as any.
"Of course, Colonel," Quinn said, though he didn’t look anything like as pleased at the idea as his casual words made him out to be. "You and your colleagues are always welcome here."
Jack nodded, but it was clear to everyone who knew him that he wasn’t convinced of this. Over to one side, where she stood out of Quinn’s eye line, Daniel could see Sam cover her mouth with her hand, as if to stifle a laugh.
"I’d be interested to see what progress has been made with the research, Jonas," she said, after an uncomfortable moment’s silence. He’d tried to encourage them all to address him by his first name, but Sam was the only one who’d really tried to do so - as a result, he seemed to be prepared to do whatever she asked and Daniel knew Jack had no compunction when it came to exploiting that. "If that’s okay with you, sir?" she continued, turning to Jack for permission.
"Go. Play. But don’t forget to be back by dinner time."
It was clear from the glances he cast over his shoulder as Sam hustled him out of the gate room that Quinn didn’t like the idea of them being separated, or indeed of the other three not being under his watchful eye, but there wasn’t really much he could do about it. Once she got the bit between her teeth, in terms of scientific or other matters, Sam Carter was quite a forceful woman.
"Now, you were saying?" Jack continued. He’d watched Quinn leave with a satisfied smile on his face and now he turned back to Daniel, the remnants of that expression still there. "Something about everything being too perfect?"
"We know there are three major countries here, all of whom are living in a kind of Cold War state, and that Kelowna controls the Stargate."
"And the other Goa’uld doohickeys they found," Jack said.
He remembered Sam’s reaction to that particular treasure trove of alien artifacts - one of them was a promising energy source, if only they could harness it safely. And if only the Kelownans remembered that blowing up the planet wasn’t a good idea for anyone.
"I can understand why they’re so jumpy," Daniel continued. "If they can use the device safely, it will give the Kelownans an incredible technological advantage."
"And if not, it’ll blow the whole place sky-high and probably take the rest of the planet with them."
"Sir," Sam said, hurrying back into the room where the rest of her team was waiting, "there’s something I need to tell you." Jack looked up from the table along whose grain he’d been idly running a finger. "The device," she continued. "I thought something was wrong with the device and one of the scientists finally admitted what I’d suspected." She paused, catching her breath. "The Kelownans have no intention of using it as an energy source …"
"It’s a bomb, isn’t it?" Daniel said, getting up from where he sat. "Sam, what did they say?"
"Just what you’d expect," she replied. "That they were in danger from the other countries, that they needed it for defense." She shook her head. "They don’t seem to realize just how much danger they’re in. This material - naquadria - it’s incredibly unstable, and they’re close to the point of undertaking some kind of field test …"
The door to the room opened again, and this time it was a man they’d never seen before in the doorway, backed by a number of soldiers.
"You are the visitors from Earth?" he asked. "Where is Jonas Quinn?"
Jack glanced at Carter, who shrugged.
"I left him in the laboratory," she said. "He said he needed to speak with the scientists about arrangements for field-testing and asked if I could find the rest of my team unaided." The man took a couple of steps closer to where Sam stood, his gaze raking over her clothes.
"What is this all about?" Daniel asked.
"The naquadria device has been stolen and the majority of the scientists killed."
"If you allow us to return home," Sam said, "we have the technology which will allow you to track the missing device from the energy it emits."
"Two of you may return," the Kelownan said. "The others will remain, to ensure your cooperation."
"You have your orders, Major," Jack said. "Teal’c, go with her." Sam nodded, then the two of them left the room, a couple of the soldiers peeling off from the group to follow her.
"If we’re going to be spending some time together," Daniel said, "then perhaps we ought to introduce ourselves. I’m Dr. Daniel Jackson …"
"I know who you are. My name is Brank, Captain Brank." With that, he turned to the soldiers still standing at the doorway. "Ensure that neither of them leaves this room until I say otherwise." With that, Brank turned on his heel and left, the door closing behind him.
"Jack, we have to stop this," Daniel said, once the door had closed. Jack’s face was unreadable and, for the long moment until he spoke, Daniel had no idea what he thought.
"You’re right," he said, finally. "These people are just going to blow themselves up at this rate and take us with them."
"Whatever happened to the Jack I knew who thought alien weaponry was the be-all and end all of our mission?"
"He had time to think, Daniel. Funny how being a prisoner of the Goa’uld leaves you nothing but time, except when they’re beating the crap out of you."
There was no accusation in Jack’s voice and Daniel felt himself relax at the familiar tone. This was the Jack O’Neill he’d come to respect early on in their association, the one he’d missed so much in the period of time before they’d parted company. The one he’d thought didn’t exist any more, which apparently hadn’t been the case after all.
"It sounds like Jonas Quinn has changed sides," Daniel continued.
"I always thought there was something suspect about the guy." Jack looked at the closed door, his expression speculative. "I don’t much like the idea of just sitting here until the cavalry arrives." Daniel looked at Jack, wondering just what idea he was cooking up. "Though I guess we could find something to do that would pass the time…"
Daniel ignored that comment, as Jack probably knew he would, since he knew Jack was only joking - neither of them were so desperate for action that they’d put each other’s safety, and in this case the safety of a planet’s worth of people, second to their need for some action. There’d be plenty of time for that when they both got home safely.
"I know you have something in mind for getting us out of here…" Jack turned to him, grinning.
"You know that whole ‘sick prisoner’ routine wouldn’t work on any planet that had access to cable, don’t you?" Jack asked, as they finished tying up the guards.
Daniel didn’t reply, not that he was certain Jack wanted him to. Their best bet was to head out, towards the Stargate, in the hope they could get off world in time to intercept Sam’s return with whatever sensor equipment she was planning to bring. He was certain that the SGC wouldn’t have any problems with helping the Kelownans stop their planet being ripped apart by civil war, or worse, but they’d do it on their terms and not in response to a hostage situation.
Jack led the way, opening the door carefully and peering down the corridor until he was certain it was empty, then he slipped through the doorway and headed out towards the gate room. It wasn’t far, and not much time had elapsed since Brank had left them, so there was a good chance Sam hadn’t been able to both persuade Hammond to agree to her plan and get back with the equipment she’d need to track the missing naquadria. And if she was already back, well … they’d stand more chance of getting out of this situation as active participants than hostages, Daniel was sure of that.
He followed Jack into the gate room, almost walking into his back when Jack stopped suddenly, his P90 raised towards a shape in the shadows of the room.
"Come on out," Jack said. "Slowly, and keep your hands where I can see them."
Daniel moved to one side of Jack, where he could see who Jack was addressing, and wasn’t totally surprised to see Jonas Quinn emerge from a small alcove at the side of the room.
"I was wondering when you’d get here," Quinn said. "You need to take me with you."
"Not a chance."
"Where’s the device?" Daniel asked. It was clear Quinn wasn’t carrying it, and there was no sign of it nearby - somehow he couldn’t believe that this was something Quinn would want to leave behind.
"Don’t worry about that, Dr. Jackson," Quinn replied. "It’s safe."
"What makes you think we should take a scum-sucking lowlife like you anywhere with us?" Jack asked. "There’s a guy called Brank running around who’d really like to meet you and I’m thinking we should introduce you."
"Because I have the device," Quinn said, with a smirk, though Daniel could tell he wasn’t completely sure if Jack was serious about handing him over to Brank or not. "And because you want it. I could tell that from Dr. Carter’s response when she first saw it."
"Let me get this straight," Daniel said, "not content with committing treason and murder, you now expect us to help you escape justice?"
"That would be about the measure of it. You know that your government would give me anything I wanted for that device."
"Where is it?"
Jack took a step closer to where Quinn stood. His voice was cold, syllables clipped, and Daniel could see Quinn’s reaction to it even as he tried to figure out just what it was Jack was doing. Quinn was right, unfortunately, for something like the naquadria device, the US government probably would give him anything he wanted. But the question was: would Jack?
Quinn’s smirk broadened, to the point where Daniel found himself itching to slap that expression away.
"Take me with you, then when we’re safely off world I’ll tell you where the device is - you know that our technology won’t prevent you returning in force to take it from the Kelownans."
"How do I know you even have it?" Jack asked. He was in full-on colonel mode now, looming over Quinn, his P90 still pointed at the Kelownan’s body. "For all we know, Brank got the wrong idea and you’re just trying to skip town for some other reason."
"Jack…" Daniel felt he had to say something, object in some way to the path down which Jack seemed to be heading. They couldn’t do a deal with this man, whether he had the device or not. "I don’t think…"
"I know what I’m doing," Jack said, interrupting. His voice was still icy and he didn’t even bother to turn around as he spoke, just casually tossed the words back over his shoulder as if Daniel wasn’t even worth the courtesy. "You know I do."
Damn him. Jack was trying to play the weasel at his own game and the expression on Quinn’s face now told Daniel that Jack was probably winning.
"Fetch the device, then we’ll talk," Jack continued. "No gizmo, no go."
"We don’t have time for this," Daniel said. He glanced at his watch as he spoke - it was almost forty-five minutes since Sam and Teal’c had left and even if Hammond had taken time to convince, they were likely to be returning any minute now. The last thing they needed was to either give the Kelownans more hostages or to bring two more team members into the middle of whatever it was that Jack was trying to pull. "Jack…"
"Jonas here is going to go fetch the gizmo," Jack said, "and then we’ll leave."
Daniel stifled a smile. Quinn was being played like a fish and he didn’t even realize it - Jack might be a lousy angler in real life, but when it came to playing the angles, he was a master of the game. Quinn was nodding, hooked, and quickly scurried out of the gate room towards wherever it was he’d stashed the device.
"It can’t be far," Jack said. He turned from watching the door to look at Daniel as he spoke. "He wouldn’t take that big a risk. But he has to think it’s somewhere that wouldn’t be found without him telling someone, so we might as well make the maggot do all the work for us."
"You know, for a moment there you had me fooled."
"Just a moment?" Jack asked. "I must be losing my touch."
"Maybe," Daniel agreed, grinning as Jack pretended annoyance. "But once we sort out this mess and get home, I’m sure that’s a possibility we can check out."
By the time Quinn returned, a few short minutes later, Jack was watching the door again and Daniel was beginning to wonder just how this was all going to play out. They had to expect Sam and Teal’c to return any minute, while it was a pretty good bet that Brank would discover his would-be hostages had escaped and go looking for them. The room that housed the Stargate had to be the first place he’d look, if only to ensure they didn’t have a way off the planet.
"Where is it?" Jack asked. It was clear Quinn hadn’t brought the device - what he did have with him was a small case, which he clutched like a lifeline, but there was no way it was large enough to house the naquadria device.
"Somewhere safe," Quinn said. "I couldn’t bring it, but I have this." He held the case out, tentatively, and Jack just looked at it and said nothing. "It’s the naquadria. Some of it, anyway. As a sign of good faith."
That was rich, coming from a would-be traitor, and Daniel didn’t miss the snort Jack gave at the suggestion this would be Quinn’s passage off world. As he was about to reply, Daniel heard the too-familiar sound of the Stargate engaging behind them.
"Looks like we’re going to have company," Jack said.
He glanced at the Stargate and Daniel could tell what he was thinking, as he was doing the same - mentally measuring the size of the room and where they’d need to be in order to avoid being vaporized by the forming wormhole when all seven chevrons had locked.
"We should move." Daniel headed closer to the door, hoping he’d figured out the distance correctly, or there’d be no reason for any of them to worry about anything else ever again. "That means you too, Jonas."
The three of them moved closer to the door as the chevrons continued to light up. When the wormhole formed, slamming into the room, Daniel found himself still much closer to the edge of it than he felt comfortable being, considering he’d seen what happened to people who got in its way. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone, not even a low-life like Jonas Quinn.
"Sir," Carter said, as she caught sight of them on emerging from the event horizon. "Are you both okay?" Teal’c followed her through, heavily laden with cases full of scientific equipment.
"We’re fine, Carter," Jack said. "But I think you had a journey for nothing. Quinn here didn’t even get the doohickey outside the building, so it ought to be a snap to track it down and return it to its rightful owners."
Sam looked momentarily disappointed and Daniel found himself sympathizing. He knew too well what it was like to have a promising line of scientific enquiry snuffed out before it began, even if this one wasn’t quite as promising as some.
"But I thought…" Quinn began. Jack turned on him, one hand slashing the air, and Quinn recoiled at the gesture.
"You thought you’d buy your way off this planet with what you stole? That we’d give asylum to a traitor and a murderer just because he had some gizmo we wanted? Been there, done that, and it didn’t turn out too well for the guy in question last time around."
Quinn’s face fell, even as Teal’c crossed the room to loom over him even more effectively than Jack had done.
"Be careful with that case, Teal’c," Sam said, suddenly. She’d pulled a meter from the boxes which had accompanied them and was scanning the case Quinn was clutching. "It’s highly radioactive."
"How highly?" Jack asked, taking a step backwards.
"High enough to mean that our friend here," Sam continued, her use of the last two words clearly as sarcastic as if Jack had used them, "has probably signed his own death warrant."
"What?" Quinn yelped. He dropped the case and it was only Teal’c’s quick reflexes that prevented it from hitting the ground. Meanwhile Jack had grabbed Quinn by the arm, to prevent him from running.
"Where’s the device?" Daniel asked. He doubted he’d ever be quite as good at looming as either Jack or Teal’c, but the way Quinn’s eyes widened as he approached told him that the menace he was trying to put into his voice was effective anyway. "If you tell us now, we’ll speak up on your behalf."
Jack snorted at that and Daniel sent him a quelling look. There was no time for dissension between them - if the small amount of naquadria the case held was sufficient to give Quinn fatal radiation poisoning, what damage could the device itself be doing now it had been removed from its heavily-shielded laboratory?
"We don’t have time for this," Jack said, when Quinn didn’t answer. "I say we just turn him over to Brank, Carter can track the device with whatever it is she’s brought back and we can still be home in time for dinner."
"That sounds like an excellent plan, Colonel," a voice said from the doorway. They turned, as one - it was Brank, of course.
"You really do like sneaking up on folks, don’t you?" Jack said. He pulled Quinn around by the arm. "I think we have something you’re looking for."
Brank eyed Quinn with disdain, but Daniel found it hard to rustle up any sympathy for the man - his own greed had brought him to this point, after all.
"I’d suggest you evacuate the facility," Sam said, as she finished scanning the case which Teal’c had carefully placed on the floor. "All non-essential personnel should leave but it shouldn’t take long to locate the device and move it back to the laboratory."
"We would appreciate your help, Major Carter," Brank said, before turning to address Jack, one commanding officer to another. "I regret that I misjudged your motives, Colonel."
"Don’t worry about it, Captain," Jack said. "We get that a lot."
It had indeed taken Sam only a matter of minutes to track down the missing device, which was emitting enough radiation to make her frown and head for the laboratory, Teal’c in tow. Once they were sure she had it under control, Jack and Daniel headed back to the SGC, with a view to updating Hammond before he sent out a search party to rescue SG-1.
It was only later, once they were finishing off pizza at Jack’s place, that Daniel began to think about what had happened on Kelowna and how far things had apparently come since he’d left the SGC. He’d been so certain that the search for technology was the center of everything and yet this time around they’d turned down what had been offered to them - it wasn’t hard to imagine a different outcome, one where Jonas Quinn was welcomed with open arms despite his treachery, and Daniel knew he would have wanted no part of any organization that would behave in such a way.
"So," Jack said, wiping his fingers on a paper napkin. "What was that I said earlier about losing my touch?"
Daniel watched Jack move towards him, feeling more relaxed than anyone had a right to be. He’d put away a couple of beers in quick succession and not much pizza, but the main sensation right now was relief. That could as easily have been one of them receiving the dose of radiation Quinn had got and even the brief summary of events that Janet had given him had been enough to send chills up his spine.
"Earth to Daniel Jackson," Jack said, leaning over him. "Whatever it is, it didn’t happen."
"You saying you can read me like a book?" Daniel asked, dropping the empty beer bottle he’d been holding, as Jack leaned over even closer. "I didn’t think I was that transparent."
Even as he closed the distance between them, swooping in to snatch a quick pepperoni-flavored kiss and back away, Jack prodded Daniel with a finger.
"You don’t feel transparent," he said. "I think we already did that, though, didn’t we?" He’d pretty much plastered himself to Daniel’s body now, one warm and reassuring weight along his side, while Jack’s inquisitive hand made a careful exploration of the gap between Daniel’s shirt and the waistband of his jeans. "Definitely there."
"I was thinking about what almost happened," Daniel said, even as he arched into Jack’s touch. "How it could all have turned out badly for us, instead of Quinn."
"Do you have to mention him?" Jack said. His hand had moved across to the button at the top of Daniel’s jeans now, which slipped open under Jack’s fingers. "I just ate, remember?"
"I feel sorry for him," Daniel continued. He felt Jack’s fingers make short work of the zipper, his hand slipping into Daniel’s jeans - Daniel arched his back, allowing Jack better access. "That could have been…"
"Don’t say it," Jack said, his voice suddenly serious. "Don’t…" His hand had stopped, his face a reflection of the solemnity of his words. "God, Daniel, I don’t even want to think that you’re thinking about that."
"You’re right," Daniel said, wondering if the words came out too fast. He didn’t want to think about it either, it was too much to consider if it came to that. Just walking away had been bad enough, for both of them - for all of the people he’d come to be so close to - that leaving them behind that way was almost inconceivable. "Maybe I need another beer," he continued, and was relieved to see Jack’s face relax once more.
"You’re already anyone’s for a couple of bottles," Jack said. "I was joking about losing my touch." Jack’s hand moved a little, making Daniel laugh and gasp at the same time.
"I can see that."
Daniel felt himself relaxing again, as Jack’s tone turned resolutely back towards joking. His hand was still exploring the contents of Daniel’s jeans, his own erection pressed hard against Daniel’s hip and suddenly Daniel knew exactly what he was doing here. In this time, this place, this was where he was meant to be - if he hadn’t understood that before, if he hadn’t seen the part they had to play in one another’s survival, he got it now. It had been a crazy ride, one way or another, but it was clear he was at the top of the roller coaster. Now all he had to do, all Jack had to do, was to hang on and continue to enjoy the ride.