Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow
'The Hollow Men' ~ T.S. Eliot
Then again, Jack knew that he would be the same, feel the same, were he in their shoes.
Not much chance of that though.
With a sigh, Jack put away his gun. His fingers had been caressing the cold metal for long minutes, as if trying to remember every tiny imperfection, each nick on the blue-black surface.
Last time, he remembered it now. Last time it had been Charlie's bedroom, this time it was Daniel's office. Each time, for the briefest of moments, he had almost reached out to let oblivion take him, before something had brought him back.
Last time it had been the arrival of Air Force officers, summoning him to what would prove to be a life-changing experience in more ways than one. This time.... This time it was a promise, as simple as that - an unspoken oath to a dying man.
I promised, didn't I, Daniel? Jack thought, pushing thoughts of suicide from his mind. I promised that we'd keep looking till we found Sha're....
The clunk and whirr of the sarcophagus opening had woken him, making Daniel realize that the device had worked its magic once more. He was alive, he was whole. And now he had to get the hell out of there, before Apophis' ship was scattered part way across the galaxy.
He couldn't get the expression on Jack's face out of his mind. This time, unlike the last two occasions when he'd been on the receiving end of a staff weapon blast, the darkness hadn't taken him straight away. In Ra's palace, and again in the ill-fated ambush on the Nox planet, he had slipped into oblivion almost before he had known he had been hit. This time, the pain that ripped through him every time he breathed had almost had Daniel wishing for the same thing.
But this time he had seen Jack. He remembered calling Jack's name, screaming it as the serpent guards advanced. What had he been thinking, Daniel wondered, agreeing to Jack's decision that he would watch their back? Jack had appeared suddenly, out of the control room, as if summoned from thin air.
He had leant over Daniel, the fear clearly written on his face in a way that made Daniel even more afraid. If Jack had been calm, he would have thought that his injury wasn't as bad as the pain seemed to say, but that expression had told Daniel everything he feared to know.
The last thing he wanted was for Jack to leave him, to face the darkness that he knew would come, alone. But what choice did Daniel have? He had seen the alternative, lived the nightmare of Apophis coming to take over the planet, and he couldn't let that happen here. It might take a miracle for the others to stop Apophis, but Daniel couldn't bear the idea that he might slow them down somehow. How could he bear the idea that he might be responsible for the death of millions, even if he wouldn't live long enough to see it happen?
There were so many things he wanted to say, things that evaporated at the touch of Jack's hand on his face. Jack's eyes were dark with unspoken emotion as well, and Daniel felt a twinge of regret. Things could have been so different between them, if he had only been bolder, less afraid of rejection, more certain that Jack wanted him the way he wanted Jack.
Still, the magic of the sarcophagus meant that he had that chance now. To change things, to try and figure out exactly how Jack felt about him - how much of what he had seen in Jack's eyes was his hatred of losing a friend and how much was something else?
Slipping from the sarcophagus, Daniel left the control room as quickly as he could, running headlong down the corridors to the 'Gate. As he entered the room, he paused for a moment at the DHD, summoning the series of symbols for the alpha site from his memory. There was nowhere else for him to go - without a GDO, there was no way of returning to the SGC directly, so the alpha site was the next best thing.
Conscious that precious seconds were slipping by, Daniel's hands moved swiftly across the DHD, before his palm came to rest on the central crystal and he watched the wormhole form. No time to think about anything then but running for the 'Gate, throwing himself through into the wormhole's embrace, tumbling towards safety.
Returning to duty was a chore, rather than a pleasure.
Jack could still feel eyes on him wherever he went, people watching him to see what his reaction was now that Daniel was gone. It didn't go unnoticed that he was quieter than he had been, that the snappy come-backs seemed a little more forced, but Jack figured that people would cut him some slack for a while.
After all, it wasn't every day that someone lost the person they were closest to in the world.
Hammond was sympathetic, as Jack expected him to be, but firm too - he wanted Jack to carry on and seemed relieved that he wasn't thinking of retiring.
How could Jack explain that he had a promise to fulfill? And after that? Well, only time would tell how long it would take to get Sha're and Skaara back to their family, and he would have to see how much the scab over Daniel dying had healed by then.
At the moment, that wound was pretty raw.
Jack felt as though he was trapped in some kind of dream. Days had passed since he had left Daniel behind, but he would walk into the messhall and expect to see Daniel there. His feet had taken him down to what used to be Daniel's office, as if of their own accord. Jack found himself there more than he cared to think about, and was absurdly glad that it still stood empty. He wasn't sure what he would do when someone else tried to take over the space that rightly belonged to Daniel.
It wasn't like Jack hadn't had practice in holding his grief inside. He had bottled up so much after Charlie had died that it almost seemed like second nature, a habit that had merely become rusty with disuse. He had changed so much over the past year, Jack realized. Daniel had been a part of that change, had benefitted from it, as Jack had let him get closer than he ever planned to let anyone be again.
And now Daniel was gone, third time anything but lucky for him where staff weapons were concerned.
All Jack wanted was to go to bed and wake up the next morning, to discover that it had been only a dream. That Daniel was still alive, that the words he had never said still had time to be spoken. That every time the 'Gate powered up, the next person to walk through, all unexpected, would be him, smiling sheepishly. None of his wishes came true.
He knew he was turning in on himself, turning back into the man he was when he and Daniel had first met. If he had cared at all, Jack supposed that he could have done something about that, but rebuilding those walls suited him. He never wanted to let anyone else get to him the way Daniel had, he couldn't afford to let it happen. Daniel had been a mistake.
He tumbled headlong from the 'Gate, down the stone steps to land in an untidy sprawl at their foot. Daniel took a moment to try and catch his breath, to stop his head from spinning before he figured out which way was up. Throwing yourself into a wormhole wasn't the best way to ensure a happy landing, but it beat being ripped apart by an explosion that even people on Earth were likely to be remarking on.
The first thing Daniel noticed when he got to his feet was that the place was quiet. Maybe a little *too* quiet. He had expected to be greeted by armed Air Force personnel, as was always the case when they arrived back at the SGC, regardless of the fact they had transmitted a GDO code for the iris to be opened, but the area around the 'Gate seemed deserted.
The air was sweet here, Daniel thought, looking around, admiring the gardens that surrounded the area where the 'Gate stood. They looked well-tended, and it was only as he realized this, that Daniel began to wonder where exactly it was that he had 'Gated to. This was definitely not the alpha site - there was no way that the skeleton crew that the SGC had sent here would have been able to set up the great structure that lurked nearby, all glass and curves.
Daniel's heart sank as he realized he must have misdialled. He had been so sure of the series of symbols, but it seemed now that his certainty had been misplaced.
There was something about this place, about the quietness of it, that drew Daniel. He hesitated for a moment, eyes flicking to the 'Gate, before deciding that he needed to investigate. He could see the DHD from where he stood, and he needed to check it out, make sure that he wasn't stuck here, wherever here was.
Curiosity wasn't such a personality flaw, was it? Jack had always told him that he was curious enough for a whole litter of cats, but Daniel had to find out if he was alone here. For all he knew he was being watched right now, and to not find out if he *was* truly alone might mean being taken prisoner before he could make his escape back to the SGC somehow.
If he could figure out how to get past the iris.
Crossing the gardens to inspect the DHD, Daniel's pace slowed. He hadn't fully considered all the implications of that. Because he had no GDO, he had no way of getting past the iris and back to where he belonged. His only chance was to 'Gate to somewhere like Abydos, hope that he could shelter with Kasuf and wait on one of the SGC's periodic visits there. But for that the DHD needed to be working.
Dusting himself down a little as he stood, and shoving his black woolen hat into one fatigues pocket, Daniel set off to see if escape was even possible.
Carter was lurking at his office door, as if uncertain of her welcome. Jack turned to her, beckoning her in.
"The general's compliments, sir, he thought you might like to look over these personnel files." She paused, looking a little worried. "For Daniel's replacement," she continued, hurrying over the words as if speed would take away their sting.
Daniel's replacement. As if it could be as simple as that, just pick someone from a bunch of files, problem solved.
"Thank you, captain," Jack said, knowing his voice was sharp even before Carter flinched at his tone. "I'm sure we'll find someone suitable."
She nodded, passing the files to him, then made her escape. She seemed glad to be away from him, Jack thought, watching her leave, but how could he blame her?
On the way back from Apophis' ship, coming back to Earth on the shuttle, she had tried to engage him in conversation and he had ignored her.
Jack regretted it, knew that Daniel would have been angry at him for treating Carter this way, but he couldn't help it. She had almost expected him to carry on as if nothing had happened, as if his very heart hadn't been ripped from his chest and trampled on. As if he was Colonel Jack O'Neill, Air Force to the core, and not someone whose best friend had just died a lonely death.
He hated her for that. That she thought that little of him. And for the fact that he had ever given her reason to believe it of him, Jack hated himself even more.
Experimentally, Daniel pressed a couple of the symbols on the DHD, smiling to himself when they lit up as expected. He glanced across to where the 'Gate stood, across the small valley, and his smile grew as he saw the corresponding chevrons were lit as well. That was good - that meant he could go home, if only by an indirect route.
He paused for a moment, glancing up at the nearby structure. It intrigued him, piquing his curiosity, drawing him. Daniel looked back at the 'Gate for a moment, then to the structure. It must have been a civilized race that constructed it, it seemed a shame to miss the opportunity to quickly look around.
After all, it didn't look as if anyone came here often. Though the gardens themselves were immaculately tended, they had a deserted look to them, as if visitors were a novelty. That, at least, was a plus point for Daniel - in their trips around the galaxy over the past few months, they had run into too many people that they didn't really want to meet. The chance to explore a little was an unexpected one.
But he couldn't stay long. After all, everyone on Earth must think him dead now, Daniel realized, frowning. And he had no way of setting them straight other than by a personal appearance through the 'Gate. Or being there when an SG team came to call.
What harm could it do, though, when he had no way of getting home directly, to spend a few minutes checking out this location?
The thought made Daniel feel an instant pang of guilt. The people on Earth had to think he was dead, Jack in particular had to be going through that hell, and that pulled at him. But he was here, now, and knew he wouldn't be going home for a while - even if he went to Abydos or somewhere similar, he'd have to wait to be rescued. There was no way of speeding that up, of cutting short the pain his friends would be going through.
So why not explore for a little while?
Jack flicked through the files Carter had given him, scanning the impressive resumes with disdain. He didn't want to do this, but he knew that this was all part of Hammond's plan to get him back on his feet - he had to deal with the fact that Daniel wasn't coming back this time and move on.
It wasn't his fault that Daniel had got himself something of a reputation for coming back from the dead. In Ra's palace he had taken a staff blast meant for Jack. He had mourned Daniel's loss as if he hadn't merely been a burden to his team, recognizing at that moment there was something about him, something that he hadn't seen in a long time. Daniel had risked his life, given his life, for someone who wasn't even friendly towards him, and that had made Jack think again.
When Daniel had emerged from behind Ra's throne, still walking a little unsteadily still down the ramp towards where Jack was kneeling, he had thought that he was imagining things. There was no way that Daniel could have survived that blast, no chance that life could have remained after such an injury. But he hadn't counted on Goa'uld technology.
Once he had seen Daniel alive again, Jack had believed that almost anything was possible, throwing himself into the rebellion against Ra with an increased fervor. Initially skeptical of Kawalsky's idea to involve the locals, he had realized that this was *their* fight and bowed to the inevitable.
The second time he had lost Daniel, though in the end it had proved an illusion, had been even worse. By then they were friends, even if it was a little shaky between them at times, and Daniel had 'died' calling out for Jack to help him. For Jack to save him. He couldn't get those cries out of his brain, they tormented Jack every time he closed his eyes.
In the end, when they had realized the lie, they had returned to the planet they left Daniel on, determined to track him down. Though Daniel looked terrible, eyes red and swollen and altogether battered and bruised, when he emerged from the sea, still pleading clemency for his captor, Jack thought that he had never seen anything so amazing.
He was alive. As in 'full of life'. Completely and utterly Daniel.
Daniel wandered around the alien structure for a little while.
The only sign of any alien inhabitants, though there was no clue how long ago they had last been used, was a row of strange machines, metal and tubing over a chair-like structure. Daniel examined one and it startled him, pulling him into its grasp for a few brief moments, before letting him go again. Maybe he wasn't compatible with the technology, Daniel decided, or was it that it just didn't like him?
Apart from that, the structure was empty, nothing but lush green plants taking advantage of the filtered sunshine and moist warm air. Surely it had not been that long abandoned, but those who had left it behind had left no clue as to their current whereabouts.
It was only as Daniel was leaving, heading outside and back to the DHD, that he found that he was no longer alone. The unmistakable sound of the 'Gate engaging made him take cover, wishing that he had kept the MP5 he had discarded on Apophis' ship.
From where he was crouched, half-hidden by foliage and trusting to luck for the rest, Daniel saw people emerge from the wormhole. He counted them automatically, noting that there were four of them even before he saw what it was they were wearing. Fatigues. Green and black, with the symbol for Earth on their sleeve.
Daniel moved slowly, creeping closer until he could see their faces. One of them turned, scanning the area, as alert as a hound. Daniel smiled as he saw the man's face, recognizing it in an instant.
"Ferretti," he called, from his hiding place. He saw Ferretti's head snap round, his MP5 raising instinctively. "I'm coming out now," he continued, "so don't shoot me, okay?"
Raising his hands above his head, Daniel emerged from his hiding place, as slowly as he could.
"Daniel?" Ferretti's voice was as incredulous as he expected. "Is that you? What the hell are you doing here?" A note of suspicion entered the major's voice now. "We thought you were on that ship when it blew."
"I was. I 'Gated here."
Ferretti beckoned him forward, lowering his MP5 as the rest of the team covered the two of them. He pulled something from his pocket, reaching out and grabbing Daniel by the sleeve and turning him as soon as he was in reach.
"Nothing personal, Daniel," he said, pulling a plastic tie close around Daniel's wrists. "But we don't want any glowing-eyed surprises, you know?"
Daniel nodded, pulling slightly at his bonds. They were tight enough to hold him, but not pulled so tight as to cause discomfort.
"If this is really you," Ferretti said, "boy are people going to be surprised!"
"It's me," Daniel said. "Can we go home now?"
"Rothman," Carter prompted, from her seat beside Jack.
"Rothman," Jack continued, as smoothly as he could. "You think you can work with us?"
Rothman sneezed, one hand flapping slightly for them to hold on as he fumbled for a handkerchief.
Jack sighed. The guy was qualified, more than qualified in fact, but he had all the things that had annoyed him about Daniel magnified to the nth degree. The sad thing was, he seemed to be the best of the bunch.
"I, er..." Rothman paused. "I would be glad to try, colonel, though there's no way I can even try and replace Dr. Jackson."
You got that right, Jack thought sourly, then considered for a moment. "You know... you knew Daniel?"
Rothman smiled, looking a little less nervous now.
"I was his research assistant for a couple of years."
Jack smiled slightly, closing the file he held.
"Welcome to SG-1."
Ferretti's hand was firm on his arm as they walked towards the wormhole together. The rest of SG-2 had stayed to complete their mission, but Ferretti was coming back with him, a familiar face to help smooth out the uncertainty and mayhem that was bound to follow Daniel's unexpected return.
"How's Jack been?" Daniel asked, as they headed up the steps.
Daniel stopped, Ferretti's grip pulling the major to a halt as well at the very edge of the event horizon.
"How bad?" Daniel asked, turning slightly so he could see Ferretti's face.
"Bad." Ferretti looked Daniel straight in the eye. "Like he was before Abydos. The first time round."
"We need to get back," Daniel said, stepping forward into the wormhole and pulling Ferretti along with him before the other man had a chance to reply.
Travelling through the wormhole ripped the breath from him, seeming to last for an infinity though he knew it was really only a matter of seconds between the planet they had left and the SGC. It was only when his boots made the metal ramp ring with their impact that Daniel was sure that he was home.
Even as his mind registered the sound of the wormhole closing behind them, Daniel was looking for Jack, his eyes raking the 'Gate room, then rising to the control room. Instead of the normal hum of activity, there was silence, before a voice echoed through the intercom system.
"Dr. Jackson?" Daniel looked for the source of that well-known voice, smiling when he spotted the man in question. "Welcome home, Dr. Jackson," Hammond continued, his voice full of pleasure at Daniel's return. "Report to the infirmary."
They had barely reached the bottom of the ramp, Ferretti still gripping his arm, when Daniel saw Jack appear in the doorway.
Daniel opened his mouth to speak, but was too slow - Jack advanced on him, pulling him into a firm embrace. For a moment he was too stunned to say anything, just revelling in the feel of Jack holding him, unable to participate because his hands were still bound.
When Jack stepped back, he was smiling more than Daniel had ever seen before.
"Thanks, Ferretti," Jack said, grinning at the major.
"I'm not a stray puppy he brought home, Jack." Daniel tried to sound angry, but he couldn't help smiling too.
"That's a matter of opinion," Jack said, turning back to Daniel once more. "Let me get your hands untied."
His hands were warm on Daniel's wrists, fingers pulling at the plastic tie, when Hammond's voice came over the intercom system.
"Let's get him checked out first, colonel."
Jack stopped, his hands still for a moment before he pulled reluctantly away, settling for slapping Daniel on the shoulder this time.
"I'll let you have the pleasure, colonel," Ferretti said, grinning at Daniel. "It's good to have you back, Daniel, the place hasn't been the same without you." With that, he winked and headed off, leaving Jack and Daniel as alone as a 'Gate room full of armed Air Force personnel would allow.
Jack's hand on his arm was a completely different experience from Ferretti's, Daniel discovered, as they headed for the infirmary. Though the grip Jack had was no tighter, Daniel felt more connected. It wasn't necessary, really, for Jack to hold onto him, but one glance across at Jack's face told Daniel that it was a connection Jack needed. He had to be sure that Daniel was really here, and if that was what it took to reassure him, Daniel had no intention of complaining.
It was a routine mission, and then it all went to hell in a matter of moments.
They had been engaged in peaceful dialogue with the locals - Rothman had earned his keep and looked almost comfortable as he spoke with one of the elders of the village they were visiting. Jack was fairly happy with what he saw Rothman doing, this confirmation of his ability to try and take Daniel's place.
And then the sky had been filled with Goa'uld gliders.
Amid screaming, yelling and explosions, they had run for the 'Gate, half-leading and half-herding the Nasyans with them. No time to do anything but run, trying to keep everyone there, all of them together, so they could save as many as possible.
How had the Goa'uld known they were there?
Carter had fallen back, going to her knees next to a Nasyan man lying prone in the sand, desperation driving her to attempt CPR. Jack had crossed to her side, grabbing at her arm, pulling her back to the 'Gate, frowning at the blood on her face.
She had brushed off his hand after a moment, saying she was okay, and had followed them back through to the SGC.
The nightmare had begun so soon afterward, Carter's eyes glowing an ominous gold as she defied them all. She had taunted Jack from her cell, telling him that she knew where Sha're was, that she would help Jack find her, if only he would help her.
Walking away had been so hard. It was difficult enough that he was facing losing another friend. But to have the chance to fulfill his promise to Daniel only by condemning another person he cared for to the infinity of slavery that was being a Host was something Jack could never live with.
Janet Fraiser had been her usual competent self, running through the necessary tests to determine that Daniel had no unexpected passengers onboard as quickly as she could.
Daniel's bonds were awkward, making him sit upright on one of the beds when all he wanted to do was lie down, but he was comforted by the fact that Jack didn't seem to want to let him out of his sight. He had even accompanied Daniel to the MRI suite, making sure he was lying as comfortably on the bed as the ties allowed.
From where he was lying, Daniel couldn't see Jack, but he could feel Jack's hand, resting almost casually on his leg. The warmth of the touch was reassuring, comforting. Jack squeezed his leg slightly in reassurance before moving away to join Janet at the computer screen, eyes searching intently for any sign that Daniel was a Host.
"All clear," Jack said, his hands busy with the ties. He gripped Daniel's arm, helping him to sit upright, as Daniel rubbed at the slight soreness on his wrists.
"You sound surprised."
"It doesn't hurt to be too careful, Daniel," Janet interjected, crossing to him with a smile. "Make sure he gets some rest, colonel."
Daniel smiled at Janet, who turned, leaving him and Jack alone. Suddenly all his ideas about being bold didn't seem so good, when Jack was actually in the same room with him.
"You heard the doc," Jack said, helping Daniel down off the bed. "Rest."
"I could sleep for a month," Daniel replied, bringing his hand up to cover a yawn.
"That was real."
"Sure, Daniel, sure it was."
In the end, the Ashrak had taken Jack's decision away from him, his weapon ripping Jolinar from Carter's mind and almost destroying her in the process. Jack had never had the chance to discover whether the self-professed Tok'ra was telling the truth. But the possibility was still there that he had turned down the best chance of keeping his promise to Daniel, even though he knew that Daniel would have been horrified at him even considering the option.
Carter was in shock, curled in on herself in the infirmary bed, Janet loitering nearby. Though he knew that Carter couldn't be in better hands, Jack still blamed himself for what had happened, that he could have prevented things going this far. He had walked away from Carter, ignored the things she was saying about her... no, about Jolinar being in danger.
Could this have been avoided? If he had listened more closely, not let his anger at the way that alien was using his friend's memories to try and get itself out of a dangerous situation overwhelm him. Maybe Carter wouldn't be here now, like this.
Idly, Jack wondered what Daniel would do, if he were here now, then bit back a wave of despair that threatened to overwhelm him at the thought. He would know what to say, how to say it, giving Carter the comfort and support she needed. Instead, all she had to rely on was Jack, lost for words.
Becoming more and more tired as the minutes passed, Daniel had found himself nodding off even as the elevator ascended. He was propped up against the wall, Jack's steady presence next to him, and Daniel could feel his eyes closing even as he tried to treasure the closeness.
Cold air woke him slightly when they reached the surface, and he let himself be led to Jack's car.
"I could drive myself home," he said, as Jack fussed over him, even fastening his seatbelt. Jack just looked at him, the words 'you've got to be kidding me' hanging unspoken between them. "Or you could drive me," Daniel continued.
"That sounds like a better idea," Jack agreed, going around and getting into the driver's seat.
The warmth of the car lulled Daniel to sleep, and it wasn't until Jack was shaking his shoulder that he realized they had stopped. Daniel blinked, looking blearily out of the car window.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"I thought you were taking me home, Jack?" Daniel continued. "Didn't Janet say I needed to rest?"
"I have a spare bedroom, Daniel," Jack said, getting out of the car.
By the time he had walked around to Daniel's side of the car, Daniel was already moving, not wanting to get too used to Jack touching him. It was unsettling, making Daniel feel things he hadn't felt in a while, and he wasn't sure whether he liked it or not.
He followed Jack into the house, concentrating on little things like walking in a straight line - despite the fact that Jack was leading the way, Daniel was certain that Jack was somehow keeping an eye on him, watching over him.
Now that was a feeling he was used to.
It had taken a while, but Carter seemed to be almost back to her old self. She was certainly smiling more now than she had for quite a while after that thing with the Ashrak, and Jack knew that Janet and Cassie had tried their best to make her feel needed. He had let them get on with it, feeling uncomfortable intruding on their closeness, expecting Carter to deal with grief and loss when he was struggling with both himself.
He remembered this feeling from last time round. After he had lost Charlie, he had turned in on himself, Jack recalled, to Sarah's annoyance. She had accused him of forgetting that she was grieving too, though that wasn't true. Jack didn't want to make the same mistake twice, but he found himself wondering at times whether Carter and Teal'c were grieving too.
After all, Daniel and Carter had been close, two relative outsiders, both too smart for their own good at times. Jack had envied their ease together, hating himself for it. Himself, he had always felt more uncomfortable with the idea that they were both way smarter than he was, though time had worn down the edges of that feeling. Jack had come to know them both as human beings, rather than as scientists, and that had made all the difference.
As for Teal'c, it was always difficult to know what was going on with him. He had carried around a good deal of guilt about choosing Sha're for Apophis, and it had taken a while for him to get past that and form a real friendship with Daniel. Jack had seen the seeds of that planted when Daniel had chosen to destroy Thor's Hammer, even though that had been their best hope of removing the Goa'uld from Sha're.
If they ever found her.
Some days, that seemed an impossible promise to keep. How many worlds did the Stargate system connect? And then there was the fact that Apophis had ships. Sha're could be anywhere - for all Jack knew she could even be dead. This whole 'quest' he was on, his promise to Daniel, could be a pointless one.
Not that this meant Jack was giving up. After all, he had to have some reason to get out of bed in the morning, and that was as good as any.
Jack being solicitous was starting to wear on Daniel's already frayed nerves. Not content with almost kidnapping him and bringing him home, more like a stray puppy than Daniel cared to consider, Jack was now fussing over him.
"I should get to bed," Daniel said, "or I'll fall asleep right here."
He let Jack lead him up the stairs, though he had slept in Jack's spare room more times than he cared to remember since he came back to Earth. It was another example of Jack needing to be involved, Daniel realized, despite the tiredness that was washing over him. He stood in the doorway and watched Jack straighten up the spare bed, not too tired to notice the way that the material of Jack's chinos stretched as he leaned over and tucked in the far side.
"All yours," Jack said, stepping back after he'd finished.
Daniel blinked, his mind lurching from his contemplation of Jack's ass to try and make a reasonable response to that statement without revealing things he was too tired to deal with right now.
"Goodnight," he said, after a moment's fruitless searching for some more appropriate reaction.
As Jack tied his boots in preparation for yet another trip through the 'Gate, he wondered whether he shouldn't be feeling a little less numb by now.
He concentrated on the little things, Jack realized, using the familiarity of routine to cover the fact that some days he felt as though he was crumbling. That the slightest wrong move would see him turn to dust and be blown away. He was good at hiding this, so good that he had seen the glances Carter gave him when she thought he didn't notice - the ones that examined whether Jack was still grieving for Daniel, as if she was trying to determine whether he had ever really cared for Daniel at all.
Not that Jack was prepared to let anyone judge what he had thought of Daniel - what made Carter think that she had the right? He and Daniel had shared experiences that no-one else on the planet had, Daniel had saved his life at the cost of his own, and that had to count for something special. Didn't it? And just because Jack was coping, making it through each day, didn't mean that his heart wasn't dead inside him, like a block of ice had replaced it.
Jack had given the eulogy at Daniel's memorial service, feeling a nasty sense of deja vu overtaking him as he did so. It was just like the last time - he had said much the same things, it was just that this time Jack wasn't sure any more whether he really believed them. Whether he believed Daniel was gone or still hoped that, somehow, he could be alive.
He couldn't stop looking every time the 'Gate opened, even if he knew who was coming back. It had become a habit by now, something that Jack would always do if he was in the control room when the alarm sounded. It wasn't that he really thought Daniel would return, but that he had to be certain. He had to be in control of something to do with Daniel being gone.
Hammond had asked him to empty Daniel's apartment, just like the last time. This time, Jack had delayed things, saying that he'd get round to it, and the general didn't seem to be too worried about how long it would take. Carter had already gone over there to check that there was no sensitive material, which Jack knew was unlikely given the amount of time Daniel spent in his office at the SGC, and that all-clear had meant Jack could take his time.
He wanted to leave it as long as possible, knowing that this was something he should do alone this time. Last time it had been too difficult, with Carter and Teal'c there too, just to spend some time in the last place that tied Daniel to this planet. Just to let Jack pretend he had told Daniel how he felt about him. Just to believe that something good could have happened between them if he had.
The next morning, Daniel could tell that Jack was watching him, even though he wasn't quite awake yet. Jack seemed to be on the verge of saying something on a number of occasions, yet the words never seemed to quite emerge. Daniel frowned to himself when he finally beat a retreat into the bathroom, to shower and to ponder what the hell was going on with him.
When he came out, after deciding that he couldn't hide in there any longer, Daniel found Jack in the kitchen, nursing a mug of coffee like someone was about to try and take it away from him. Jack was clearly unaware he was being watched, as he stared out of the kitchen window, his thoughts far from Colorado.
"Jack, I..." Daniel began, speaking more for the sake of saying something, of breaking into this slightly awkward silence that existed between them.
Daniel saw Jack stiffen as he spoke, head coming up as Jack turned to face him.
"I never asked you if you slept okay."
"Like the dead," Daniel said, smiling until he saw the expression that crossed Jack's face at his ill-chosen words. "I'm sorry, I didn't think...."
He could see the pain his thoughtless choice of words had caused Jack, it was there written all over his face for anyone who cared to look. Jack shook his head.
"They're just words," he said, turning to look out of the window again. "We say things we don't really mean all the time."
And sometimes we don't, Daniel thought, looking at the tenseness in Jack's shoulders. "I can't begin to imagine how it felt, Jack, that you thought I was dead...."
"I should be getting used to it by now," Jack said, turning to face Daniel again. "After all, it's not like it's the first time I've been through this with you." Jack was smiling, but his eyes told the true story about what he was feeling.
"Don't, Jack. Don't pretend like this. Not with me." Jack shook his head, looking down into the half-empty mug he held. "You don't need to pretend with me."
"Ya think?" Jack asked suddenly, with a bitter sound to his voice. He looked up once more and his eyes met Daniel's, the pain in their depths more evident than ever. "You want to know what I really feel, Daniel?"
"I wouldn't have asked otherwise," Daniel replied, refusing to back down under Jack's scrutiny.
"You have no idea what you're letting yourself in for, Daniel," Jack continued, still looking at him. "No idea at all."
"Then tell me, Jack," Daniel snapped. "For god's sake, tell me what's wrong!"
"It changes everything, Daniel. Everything. You being okay, you surviving me leaving you behind to die."
"You had no choice, Jack."
Jack laughed, a bitter harsh sound in the relative stillness of the kitchen.
"There's always a choice, Daniel. Sometimes it isn't all that clear what it is, but there is always a choice. And I made mine when I left you there."
Jack turned, the words seeming to sap all the strength from him, so that he was leaning on the counter now, head bowed. The strong line of Jack's back was all eloquent silence - though he was motionless, Daniel could tell that he was close to tears, shoving them back down with all the stubbornness that Jack O'Neill was famed for.
Suddenly bold, Daniel moved, crossing the space between them in a couple of steps before tentatively placing his hand on Jack's shoulder. He could feel the tension under his palm, the warmth that seeped through the shirt Jack was wearing and into Daniel's hand.
"It's okay, Jack," Daniel said, keeping his voice low, his tone as soothing as he could. "I'm here. I'm alive and I plan to stay that way."
Jack turned, suddenly, Daniel's hand sliding across his shoulder. They were face to face now, mere inches separating them.
"I thought I'd missed my chance," Jack began, his eyes bright. "To tell you...." He paused, eyeing Daniel carefully. "You can't make promises about staying alive, Daniel, no-one can."
"I can try," Daniel said. "I always try."
Jack nodded, then was silent for a moment.
"As long as you try," he said. "Stay here with me, Daniel."
The slight brush of Jack's lips across his own was hardly unexpected, the crossing of the small space between them. Even so, it was something special, the sealing of a promise made with words and glances, the final capstone on a relationship that had been weeks and months in the making.
They stood at the base of the ramp, waiting for Rothman. As usual. If Rothman had any virtues, punctuality wasn't one of them, Jack decided, stifling a frustrated exclamation at being kept waiting again. Finally the door to the 'Gate room slid open once more, allowing Rothman to enter.
He looked flustered, pulling his backpack on as he entered the room - his frown grew as he saw the rest of SG-1 waiting for his arrival.
"I'm sorry, colonel," Rothman said, crossing over to where they stood.
Jack looked at him, enjoying making Rothman squirm under his gaze, even if it also made him feel a twinge of guilt. Hadn't he let Daniel be treated this way on their first mission?
"If you're sure you're ready," Jack said. "Can we go now?"
Rothman nodded, looking slightly nervous, and Jack felt his guilt deepen. Just as Rothman passed him, heading for the ramp, Jack reached out and grabbed his arm. Jack couldn't miss the way that the other man hissed as Jack's hand made contact, and Jack had to ignore his instinctive reaction to let go.
"Something wrong, Rothman?" Jack asked, frowning, as he pulled him to a halt.
"Nothing I can't handle, colonel," Rothman replied, pulling free.
"If you're not fit to go on this mission," Jack began.
"I said I'm fine," Rothman snapped, clearly becoming angry now. "I'm not Daniel, you don't have to baby-sit me."
Jack felt his expression harden as he tried to resist his instinct to punch Rothman two or three times as hard as he possibly could.
"You have no idea, Dr. Rothman," Jack said, his words icy in their calmness, "about Daniel or about me." Rothman, to his credit, looked a little abashed at the reaction he had caused, and Jack felt his anger begin to wane. "If there's some kind of problem...."
"I can deal with it, colonel," Rothman said, his voice calmer now. "And for what it's worth, I'm sorry. You must miss Daniel."
You have no idea, Jack thought, as he followed Rothman up the ramp. No idea at all.
"What now?" Daniel asked.
Jack looked over at him from the steak he was grilling.
"This has to change things, Jack," Daniel continued. "You know that."
"What? That I finally got my head out of my ass long enough to admit to what's really going on between us?"
Daniel smiled, seeing an answering grin appear on Jack's face as he did so. He closed his eyes, leaning back against the wooden rail around Jack's deck, letting the sun warm his face. He'd missed this easy companionship, even in the short time that he and Jack had been separated.
When he opened his eyes again, Daniel found that Jack was looking at him, even as smoke began to curl upwards from the steak he had left unwatched.
"I like my steak medium."
"Huh?" Jack frowned, then suddenly realized what Daniel meant, and turned back to the grill just in time to prevent an inferno. "Think I'll have this one."
Jack watched Rothman carefully. Though he never took his jacket off, despite the relative warmth of the planet they were visiting, Jack could tell that Rothman had been hurt somehow, as he was clearly favoring his left side. When they got back to the SGC, there'd be plenty of time for a little chat about 'being ready for missions' and for Jack to find out what the hell was going on.
He had his suspicions.
Some Air Force staff in the base had taken less than kindly towards the idea of civilian personnel being so heavily involved in what was essentially a USAF project. While none of them had ever been stupid enough to say anything to Teal'c, who was technically as much of a civilian as any of the scientists who'd been recruited, Jack had always suspected that Daniel knew more about this kind of thing than he should. Though, it seemed to most, Daniel had earned his place on SG-1.
There were rumors round the base that some of the non-military personnel hadn't been so well received. Nothing anyone could ever prove, annoyance more than anything else, but hostility none the less. And now Jack suspected that Rothman had been on the receiving end of some of that hostility.
He had a responsibility towards Rothman, now that the other man was part of his team. Even if he hadn't wanted a replacement for Daniel, Jack had nothing against Rothman personally - his file had been accurate enough, he was as competent at the job as it had made out. Jack tried to think how he would have felt if it had been Daniel reporting for a mission with possible cracked ribs and bruising. He wondered how many people he would have put in the infirmary alongside him, how many Air Force careers would have been cut short that way.
Not that Daniel would have tolerated it without wanting to fight back, he knew that. Daniel had been many things, but as geeky as he appeared, he was never one to back down from conflict. At times, that had led him into more trouble than he could cope with, but that was just the way he was.
Watching Rothman scour the ground for any sign of civilization, Jack tried to concentrate on the task in hand. But all he could think was how different it could have been if Daniel was still alive.
When Daniel was alive, Jack knew that he had felt alive too, in a way he had never expected to feel again after Charlie's death. Now, having lost Daniel as well, he didn't even have the comfort of knowing that his feelings for Daniel had been returned. Jack had never thought that he wouldn't have time to tell Daniel exactly how he felt about him. But he had been very wrong about that.
He'd give anything for Daniel to be here, now. For it to be him that was making them spend more time on this planet than Jack was comfortable with, looking for the slightest sign that anyone had ever lived here. For the chance to talk with him, for Jack to tell him all the things he never got around to before, now that he knew telling couldn't really wait.
After dinner, Daniel had helped Jack clean up, following him obediently into the kitchen. In some ways, this all seemed a little too easy, this move into a greater intimacy, and Daniel was tempted to push the edges of it, needing to know its limits. That Jack was comfortable with him was nothing new. The experiences they had shared seemed to guarantee that. But these were uncharted waters, a voyage of discovery for both of them, and the thought of that made Daniel more than a little nervous.
Jack had kept his distance since they had kissed earlier, though it was clear that he was watching Daniel whenever he thought Daniel wasn't looking, but this was nothing new. It had taken a little while for Daniel to become comfortable with the level of scrutiny that he was under as part of SG-1, but now it seemed normal.
"I'd ask if you wanted coffee," Jack said, opening a cupboard, "but that's a stupid question, isn't it?"
Daniel didn't answer, mesmerized as he was by the play of muscles across Jack's back through the clinging material of his shirt. Crossing over to where Jack was in a couple of steps, Daniel took a deep breath before molding himself to Jack's body, arms wrapping round Jack's chest. Jack was warm and solid, and he had frozen in place at Daniel's embrace, his hands still reaching into the cupboard.
"Hmmm?" Daniel asked, his nose pressed into the back of Jack's head.
"What're you doing?"
Daniel moved his head slightly, letting his face move until his chin was resting on Jack's shoulder.
"No coffee for me, Jack."
"Right," Jack said, putting the cups he was holding back into the cupboard and moving back slightly, hampered by Daniel's embrace, to close the door. "You going to let go any time soon?"
"Wasn't planning to," Daniel said, breathing the words into Jack's ear.
He felt Jack give a convulsive shudder as he did so, and filed that response away for future examination and detailed study.
"Could we at least take this into the living room?" Jack asked, trying to turn in Daniel's embrace. Daniel allowed himself to be moved, until he was standing with his back to the kitchen counter, Jack pressed close against him. "That's better already."
They were eye to eye now, and Daniel fought the automatic urge to look down, to break eye contact with Jack. What was there left to be embarrassed or ashamed about? He made himself look, studying Jack closely, while he listened to the silence that stretched between them.
"Living room?" he repeated, finally.
Jack smiled, stepping back as far as Daniel's embrace allowed. They moved together, Daniel's arms still loosely wrapped round Jack, towards the waiting couch. Daniel looked at the couch, then back at Jack, starting to feel a little uncertain.
"Wanna make out?" Jack asked, grinning.
The casualness of Jack's words was in clear counter-point to the look in his eyes. Daniel felt himself relax, knowing that Jack understood his worries, that he even shared some of them.
"Sure," Daniel said, pulling Jack with him onto the couch, his embrace still intact.
Jack was on top and alongside him then, a warm and heavy weight, his hands outstretched either side of Daniel's head to brace their joint impact. Holding his weight off Daniel, Jack settled gently onto him, one hand moving across to stroke his face.
"Isn't this better?" Jack asked, smiling down at him.
"Best idea you ever had, Jack."
Why was it they never seemed to have straightforwardly dull missions? Other teams came back from being off-world complaining about the tedium of soil sampling and mineral surveys, but it seemed as though SG-1 always drew the short straw. They were bona fide trouble magnets, that had to be the explanation for it.
This one had seemed like it would be uneventful, just a trip through the forest, until one of the locals appeared, terrified out of his mind. It had taken a moment for them to get enough information from him to realize that danger was rapidly approaching, and that a hasty retreat to the 'Gate was a damn good idea.
Sadly, the idea had been unfulfilled. The next thing they knew, they and their new friend were surrounded by darkness, pinned by spotlights like bugs on a board, a sentence of imprisonment being pronounced by faceless voices. After that, suddenly they were somewhere else, thrown through the Stargate to a primitive planet without a DHD.
Since Rothman was already injured, whether he wanted to admit to how it had happened or not, Jack insisted that he stay close by. The last thing he wanted was to get the reputation of being careless with his civilians, and to get another one killed. Daniel, at least, had some kind of survival instincts, compared to Rothman at least.
He'd get the truth out of him, Jack figured. It looked like they were going to be stuck here together for a little while, and what better way to pass the time than interrogating Rothman? He glanced across at Rothman, catching him looking back, and their eyes met for a moment before Rothman glanced away. What was that?
Jack stopped, turning to Rothman - he couldn't help noticing the way Rothman flinched slightly at the sudden movement.
"I'm the last person you need to be scared of here, Rothman," Jack said, keeping his voice low enough not to travel to where Carter and Teal'c were, a few paces ahead. Rothman looked unconvinced. "Just because some people round the SGC don't like civilians on the front- line teams...."
Rothman laughed, the harshness of it making Carter and Teal'c turn back, a puzzled look on Carter's face at least. Jack waved at them, reassuring.
"And you're completely different, colonel?" Rothman smiled, bitterly. "Somehow, I find that hard to believe."
"If Daniel could put up with me," Jack replied, "I'm sure you can."
"Well, as you keep reminding me," Rothman said, "I'm not Daniel."
Jack sighed. This conversation was quickly spiralling out of his control. For the entire team's safety, he needed Rothman to trust him, to trust all of them. But if he couldn't make that happen, what then?
"You're not." Jack schooled his voice to be calm, despite the anger and sadness that welled inside him at his own words. "I'd give anything if he was here instead of you, Rothman. Anything."
Rothman was silent for a moment, frowning.
"I know, colonel," he said. "I wish Daniel was here instead of me as well - you're not the only one who misses him."
"He trusted me, Rothman. Maybe trusting me isn't such a good idea after all."
Strangely, the reverse psychology seemed to work - Rothman frowned a little more, then suddenly he began to laugh.
"Daniel always was a pretty good judge of character, colonel. If he thought you were okay, then he was probably right."
"Well, he was also a great believer in giving people a second chance."
Jack nodded, knowing the truth of that. After all, he hadn't made such a great impression on Daniel when they had first met, he was sure of that, but Daniel had persevered with him. He had chipped away at Jack, worn him away over the time they were together on Abydos, and their time together recently had merely built on that foundation.
"I take people as they come, colonel," Rothman said. "I've no reason to believe you're any different from the other Air Force people I've met, apart from Daniel's friendship with you. But I'm choosing to believe he was right about you, until I get proved wrong."
"Thank you," Jack said. "I think...."
In the end, they'd done little more than kiss, Jack being concerned about Daniel not over-exerting himself, despite Daniel's protestations that he was fine. They'd taken advantage of the size of Jack's couch, stretching out on it together to watch TV, until Daniel had fallen asleep in the middle of a hockey game.
He'd woken when the TV went off, jerking slightly until Jack's arm pulled him back to where he was resting.
"Going somewhere?" Daniel relaxed at the joking tone in Jack's voice. "Or have you decided you'd be more comfortable in a real bed?"
Daniel paused, wondering if this was a trick question. As much as he wanted to share a bed with Jack, as much as it had been something that he'd dreamt about for a while, he wasn't sure he was ready for that step. It seemed so final, something from which there was no way back.
"Bed sounds good," he said, neutrally, hoping that Jack would pick up on his careful choice of words.
"You don't have to do anything you're not comfortable with, Daniel."
"I know. It's just... yesterday we were just friends."
"Yesterday I thought you were dead, Daniel," Jack said. "Everything else is chicken feed."
"Bed, then?" Daniel said, grabbing hold of the back of the couch and using his grip to pull himself off of where he was lying across Jack. Swinging his feet down onto the floor, he turned, looking back to where Jack was still lying, his expression unreadable. "Or were you planning to sleep here?"
Rothman looked a little more comfortable with him now, Jack decided, still keeping a weather eye out for him. Teal'c was doing a good job of looking scary, as instructed, and Jack was sure that the Jaffa's presence and general air of meanness had kept them from encountering some of the rougher side of this prison planet. Things that none of them would have appreciated, that was for sure.
But the question still remained - how to get away from here?
Carter was making nice with one of the locals, a woman who seemed to know more than she was letting on, but patience had never been one of Jack's strong points. He needed to be doing something, anything, to help his team get home.
It struck him that he was now thinking of Rothman as part of SG-1, albeit reluctantly. Jack wondered whether he had some personality quirk, something that made him feel protective towards wayward civilians, whether he liked it or not. At first he had thought that Rothman was just a geekier version of Daniel, but now he was beginning to see the differences between the two men.
Daniel had an inner strength, a persistence - Rothman was inclined to give up a little earlier than Jack was comfortable with. But was it fair to judge Rothman by Daniel anyway? Surely both had their strengths and weaknesses?
He'd meant what he'd said earlier, Jack realized. He would give anything to have Daniel here with him now. Jack would forgive him all the things that used to bug him like crazy, tolerate all the lengthy explanations about stuff he neither knew about nor cared to know.
Anything, to have Daniel here with him.
The next morning, they had headed off together, back to the SGC - Daniel to see Dr. Fraiser again, Jack to tackle some of the mountain of paperwork that was currently trying to take over his office. It had been a reluctant parting at best, Jack leaving Daniel behind in the infirmary with a small smile on his face, the slowness of his exit showing his reluctance to be parted from him.
"You seem much better this morning, Daniel," Janet remarked, taking his blood pressure.
"I feel much better," Daniel said, smiling.
"Being back must agree with you. The colonel certainly looks happier as well."
Daniel just nodded, uncertain of anything to say that would not imply more than he wanted anyone to know. They hadn't spoken about what they would tell people at work, but there was no sense in buying trouble.
Though he knew there was such a thing as doctor-patient confidentiality, Janet was also an Air Force officer, and Daniel wasn't sure where the two things overlapped. And it wasn't exactly the kind of thing you could just drop into a conversation, was it?
What would it be like being back in SG-1, Daniel wondered, now that things had changed so fundamentally between him and Jack?
He hadn't spent much time with Sam or Teal'c after his unexpected return, just long enough to assure them he was really okay, on his way down to the infirmary. Jack hadn't allowed him to linger, his hand still gripping Daniel's arm even as Daniel paused to speak with them.
He wondered what they thought about that, Jack's impatience written large in every line of his body, even as Daniel had tried to explain what had happened. In the end, he had just said he'd see them some time soon and tell them everything, before Jack half-pulled him away once more.
Despite everything, they were suddenly in danger almost before they even knew it. A misplaced word from Rothman led to an eruption of violence, Jack being forced to try and intervene as Rothman was pinned against the 'Gate, one hefty hand gripped tightly around his throat.
From where he was being held by a couple of people in the crowd, Jack could still see Rothman's face redden, the futile pulling at the other man's hands, the way his legs kicked in the small space between his assailant and the 'Gate.
As he saw Rothman begin to go limp in his attacker's hold, Jack threw himself against the hold the others had on him with renewed fury. After a second or two, he managed to break the grip of one of them, turning and smashing his fist into the other one's face with all the strength he could muster. Whatever happened to him, he couldn't allow another member of his team to die without having done something to try and stop it from happening!
The second man had recovered from his surprise, grabbing Jack by the arm and pulling him off-balance. They tussled for a moment, no thought in Jack's mind concerning whatever he could do - all the unarmed combat he had studied seemed to have been replaced momentarily by the instinct for sheer survival, for protection.
The voice cut through the squabble like a knife, making Jack's opponent freeze. Jack took the opportunity this presented to shake off his grip, crossing over to where Rothman was lying. Though red in the face, his breath coming shakily, Jack was delighted to see that Rothman was alive, focussing blearily on him.
"I'll get you out of here," Jack said, for a moment not sure whether he was talking to Rothman or to Daniel.
He'd almost promised the same thing, back on Apophis' ship, only for Daniel to tell him to go, and the similarity of the situation struck him. Could he keep this promise any more than the one he had wanted to make back then?
By the time Janet had given him a clean bill of health, Daniel was starting to feel hungry. As he headed in the direction of the messhall, he wondered whether he could persuade Jack to come and have lunch with him - just as he was about to make a detour via Jack's office, Daniel turned a corner and almost ran into Sam.
"Daniel?" Sam said, delighted. "Janet let you out already?"
"I'm fine, Sam. Just a little tired."
"The colonel looked after you, though?" Sam continued, pausing as Daniel felt himself redden at her words. "Daniel?"
"Want to go get some lunch?" Daniel asked, unwilling to have this conversation in the corridor. Even the messhall promised a little more privacy than the curious looks they were currently getting from just about everyone who passed them.
"Should we ask the colonel if he wants to join us?" Sam asked, grinning.
"Forget I said anything," Sam said, her grin still there. "I hear today's special is meatloaf."
"Oh, is it Wednesday already?" Daniel asked, smiling back at her now.
They walked together in silence through the corridors, just glad to have the chance to spend time together. Daniel noticed something he hadn't seen before, though he'd travelled these corridors for months now - every so often there, on one of the doors they passed, was a new symbol. It looked a little like a corkscrew, Daniel decided, as he passed the third such door.
Oh well, he thought, maybe I just haven't been paying enough attention....
Linea had helped them, in return for safe passage from the prison planet. Even at the time Jack had been suspicious of her motivations, but no-one would tell them why she was there, and she was not at all forthcoming herself. Besides, Carter seemed to be really taken with her, discussing sub-atomic particles and all that geeky stuff that fascinated her and made Jack wish he was on another planet entirely.
And Rothman was fine. He would be croaking for a few days, but that was hardly surprising - he must have come far closer to being choked to death than Jack cared to think about, and he'd had to tolerate having Teal'c as a personal bodyguard for a little while in case his attacker had tried to finish what he'd started.
When the truth had come out about Linea, Jack hadn't been surprised. He'd been pleased that nothing too bad had happened when she made her escape, that she hadn't used her undoubted genius to kill them all in the same way she had apparently been responsible for the death of millions. What could they have done to stop her had that been her intention?
But now Jack had to try and figure out what the hell was happening.
Rothman's brush with death seemed to have affected Jack more deeply than he cared to think about. More so, in fact, than it had Rothman, who seemed to have shaken the experience off as 'just one of those things'. Jack was secretly quite impressed by how he was handling it, though he'd never give Rothman the satisfaction of telling him. Just what he needed on his team, an over-confident geek.
Though he was starting to wonder. Jack thought about his reaction to Rothman being attacked, the realization starting to creep in that he was making a great deal out of someone he didn't even like being injured. Was he mixing Daniel and Rothman up, trying to protect Rothman in a way that Daniel had never allowed him to do?
Jack could have cited loads of occasions when he wished Daniel hadn't run headfirst into trouble without asking for his opinion on whether he was doing the right thing. But all of those had just been part and parcel of who Daniel was, the things that made him different, special. The things that infuriated and delighted Jack in equal measure if he allowed himself to admit the truth.
He had loved Daniel in his own clumsy way, never exactly knowing what it was about him that had him so hooked. Not being someone who was majorly into introspection, Jack was uncomfortable with trying to analyze his feelings for Daniel, even more so now there seemed to be no point to it. What did it matter whether he had loved Daniel now he wasn't around to allow Jack to do anything about it?
This was awful. Torture worse than the Goa'uld could devise. Sam was watching him, her eyes knowing, determined to pry from him whatever secrets she could. Daniel looked down at his plate, wondering what the hell was on it, all the time hoping that if he ignored her she might go away?
No such luck.
"There's nothing to tell, Sam," Daniel said, for the third time. Nothing I plan to tell you, anyway, he thought, smiling to himself.
As good a friend as Sam was, there were some things that Daniel didn't feel able to tell her, and the details of whatever it was that was now going on between him and Jack firmly fit into that category. Besides, it was difficult for him to tell her anything, when he wasn't even sure what there was to tell.
Jack had surprised him and he had surprised himself.
He had entertained so many hopes and dreams where Jack was concerned that when he found one of them coming true all of a sudden, it was overwhelming. That Jack could want him, that he had managed to conceal that desire under his on-going friendship - it was like waking up and discovering it was suddenly Christmas morning and there were unexpected gifts waiting for you. Daniel smiled at the thought.
"You're killing me here, Daniel," Sam said, shoving her unfinished plate to one side. "You look like the cat that got the cream. What's going on with you and the colonel? What are you two up to?"
Daniel just shook his head, and stayed silent.
"General?" Jack said, knocking on the doorframe of Hammond's office. "A word?"
"Come on in," Hammond said, beckoning Jack to enter. "Close the door." Jack obeyed, then came to a halt in front of Hammond's desk, standing at ease. "Is there something wrong, colonel?" Hammond asked, frowning up at him.
"I'd like to request some leave, sir," Jack said. He needed to get the words out as soon as possible, making them fall over one another in their haste. "Some down time."
"Any particular reason?"
"Does there have to be a reason, sir?" Jack asked. He saw by the expression on Hammond's face that glib was clearly not the way to go, but it was too late to take the words back.
"Are you sure there's no problem, Jack?"
Jack winced slightly - Hammond only called him that when he was concerned, trying to put the general to one side and attempt man to man.
"Just tired, sir," he replied. "That's all. Nothing a little fishing won't cure."
Hammond looked unconvinced, his perceptive eyes seeming to read Jack's soul as he looked up at him.
"Very well, colonel," he said, after a moment's silence. "You have 72 hours. Remember there's a briefing session for SG-1's next mission on Monday, oh-eight-hundred hours."
"Thank you, sir," Jack replied, and beat a hasty retreat.
Outside Hammond's office, Jack relaxed. Fishing, that was the thing. It would give him a chance to try and get back in control of his wayward thoughts, try and marshal them into some kind of order before he went completely off the rails.
He hadn't seen Jack all day, and wondered in the elevator up to the surface whether Jack was avoiding him. Could he possibly know that Sam had tried to interrogate him, Daniel wondered, and was choosing not to be seen in the same place till the fuss died down?
Whatever the explanation, driving home alone was something Daniel found a little depressing. He wondered exactly what he would find living in his fridge when he got back to his apartment, let alone how much mail might have piled up in his absence, brief though it was.
When he finally got in, he glanced over at the answering machine, but the light was steady, seeming to mock him with his lack of messages. If Jack was going to be elusive at work, wasn't going to come see him at home, the least he could do was leave a message explaining why.
Or was that being unreasonable? Daniel considered this as he tentatively opened the fridge door.
Surprisingly, nothing looked too out of date, no new civilizations seemed to have been formed from the fridge's contents since he had been away. Daniel sniffed the milk cautiously and then wished he hadn't. As he was removing the carton from the fridge, the doorbell rang.
Once he had dumped the carton in the sink, Daniel answered the door, his smile growing as he saw it was Jack.
"What is that smell?" Jack asked, his nose wrinkling almost before he was even in the apartment.
"Milk," Daniel said, going back into the kitchen to deal with it. "Or it used to be."
Jack followed him, his movements a shadow of Daniel's the day before. This time it was Daniel who found himself being embraced, as Jack wrapped his arms around him as he washed the sour milk down the drain.
Daniel could feel Jack's erection, pushing against his ass as he was sandwiched between the sink and one determined colonel. Jack moved slightly, his hips moving gently against Daniel, and Daniel felt himself start to harden.
He jumped, as Jack licked his neck, one long stroke from the collar of his shirt up to just behind his ear. Despite Daniel's sudden movement, Jack did not hesitate, nipping gently with his teeth as he reached his destination. Daniel had always been sensitive there, and the slight pressure of teeth and mouth combined made him moan. He felt Jack chuckle at his response, a low growling sound that made him harden even more.
"Aren't we in the wrong room?" Jack asked, rubbing gently against Daniel once more.
"Now you're talking."
If he had hoped that the solitude would make things clearer, Jack soon discovered he was mistaken. His sleep was plagued with dreams of Daniel, dreams where he berated Jack for his failure to save him, where he mocked Jack's exclamations that he cared, laughing as his life drained away. Jack woke shaking, and didn't attempt to sleep any more that night.
When sunrise came, Jack went out to the lake. The surface was placid, seeming to mock him, his troubled sleep still fresh in his mind.
How had he ever believed that he could walk away from his feelings so easily? The strength of his dreams alone must surely prove that theory false? Was he now destined to suffer this way forever, because of a choice he made, two choices in fact - to keep silent and to leave someone behind.
Jack had lived by a different code, something drummed into him since his time in Iraq. No-one gets left behind. No-one. But when it had come to the crunch, when Daniel had needed him, he had thrown that aside, doubly betraying him. Doubly damning himself.
Jack sighed, resting his head on his crossed arms as he sat on the dock overlooking the lake. There would be no peace for him now and he looked for none - if there was any to be found, it would be more than he deserved.
Daniel woke and found he had draped himself over Jack in his sleep, his face pressing into the warm expanse of Jack's back. This was good. He liked this. The casual intimacy of it warmed Daniel as much as the heat of Jack's skin. He made himself relax once more, closing his eyes.
It wasn't as if this was Daniel's first relationship with another man, but the last time it had been much more casual, and much less intimate. Just a little messing around at college, two guys getting off in each other's company, rather than something that had naturally grown from the friendship he and Jack already shared. Something that felt long-term, something that promised the stability Daniel had always craved.
Searching for sleep again, Daniel slowly rubbed his face against Jack, revelling in the closeness.
"Go back to sleep, Jack," Daniel said quietly, then listened as Jack's breathing evened out beneath him once more.
Briefings were the bane of his life, Jack decided, sitting through yet another one.
Sleep had been elusive over the weekend - after the first night, Jack had been reluctant to trust that he would not dream again, and had only tried to sleep when exhaustion was creeping up on him. Consequently, what little sleep he'd managed had been disturbed, giving him little benefit.
Jack tried to focus on the matter at hand, forcing himself to concentrate on the MALP telemetry in his mission folder. Nice big structure, clearly alien, but no signs of life.
He could feel Hammond watching him, but he was tired. Maybe a little too tired to manage to hide his true situation, Jack decided, then tried to appear more enthused than he actually was. Next to him, Carter was holding forth on the likely problems of this mission, and Jack tried to focus on her words, but they eluded him, slipping through his mind. Hers wasn't the voice he wanted to hear, needed to hear.
"A word, colonel," Hammond said, dismissing the rest of them when the briefing finally ended.
Jack had been halfway out of his chair, but obediently sat, ignoring the glances the others gave him as they left. He hated this. It was too much like being kept back after class.
"Sir?" Jack replied, forcing himself to pay attention.
"Should I be sending you to the infirmary, rather than on this mission?"
"No, sir." Jack looked at Hammond, seeing by the set expression that he was in serious trouble. "I'm fine."
"You keep saying that," Hammond said, "and maybe if I saw any evidence of that, I might believe you."
Jack could feel the precipice opening up either side of him. What would he do if Hammond had Fraiser declare him medically unfit for duty? The thought of it was enough to make his stomach churn anxiously. He had nothing else, he needed to keep working, to keep looking for Sha're.
Hammond watched him for a long moment in silence, until Jack toyed with the idea of just getting up and walking away, regardless of the consequences. It felt like the general could see through him, those pale bright eyes examining the nooks and crannies of his soul and not altogether liking what they found there.
"I need to do this," Jack said, suddenly, though he'd never intended to plead for mercy in any way.
"I can see that, colonel," Hammond replied. He looked at Jack in silence for a moment. "Go, join your team."
Life settled back into an easy routine, one that Daniel had found comforting over the past few months.
Missions came and went, some more exciting than others, the undercurrent of desire that flickered between him and Jack making Daniel slightly less interested than he used to be in long hours in his office alone. He still worked long hours, but Jack was there too, more than willing to drag him out of his office. Daniel would be reluctant, but it wouldn't take much to persuade him to go home, not really.
There was an ease to it, Daniel decided, half-asleep on Jack's couch and leaning against Jack as he watched the late news. As if they had been doing this all their lives and had only just now realized it. It was comforting, reassuring, and frighteningly normal.
Somehow, Daniel kept expecting life to throw him a curveball. Since when had it ever been this straightforward for him?
Stepping through the 'Gate into brilliant sunshine, Jack paused a moment at the top of the familiar steps to put on his shades. Beside him, he could hear Rothman sniff quietly, a sound he was almost becoming able to tune out, so used was he to it now. The guy must have some serious problems with his adenoids, but if Dr. Fraiser had okayed him for active duty, then who was he to argue?
"Nice," Jack said, looking out over the manicured lawns and well- maintained beds.
"The MALP showed no sign of anyone, sir," Carter said, following his gaze.
"Someone has to come tend this, Carter."
Carter nodded, looking down at whatever gadget she was holding. Jack ignored her movement, wishing that this mission was over. If Sha're wasn't here, he really was finding it difficult to care what other discoveries they might make.
Rothman suddenly sneezed, only long years of training stopping Jack from jumping at the sudden noise.
"Flowers?" Rothman nodded, wiping his nose. "What did you expect in a garden, Rothman? Let's just keep an eye out for snakes, okay?"
Daniel frowned at his translation. For some reason, his brain just didn't seem to be working the way he was used to this morning. Instead of running through this relatively easy translation in a matter of minutes, allowing him then to move on to examine the artifacts SG-7 had picked up on their last mission, he kept hesitating, suddenly uncertain.
Was it ungrateful to feel so unsettled? Surely, Daniel decided, he should be happier than he was? After all, hadn't he finally got what he always wanted? But now, it seemed, he wasn't satisfied with even that.
Daniel screwed his eyes tightly shut and then opened them again, looking down at the words scrawled across the pad in front of him once more. No. They were still there. He'd translated this before.
Daniel couldn't remember exactly when it had been, but there was a certain turn of phrase in this particular passage he was currently deciphering that had seemed oddly familiar. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes tiredly. Maybe it was just deja vu?
A knock on the door heralded the arrival of Jack.
"Lunch time, Daniel. Don't make me carry you again...."
Daniel smiled, thinking back to that incident. He hadn't been willing to leave behind what he was working on, and Jack had objected, then made him leave. He put his pen down beside the pad, then looked at the translation again as he stood and shrugged on his jacket.
Strange. Very strange.
Like the MALP's transmissions had indicated, it seemed as though the planet they were currently exploring was deserted. If so, Jack decided, looking across the neat gardens, that departure must have been recent. Unless there were machines here to tend the grounds, some kind of robotic gardeners, there had to have been someone here.
They had arrived at the structure they had seen on the probe's video footage, the natural destination. It was warm inside, the sunshine streaming in, the air moist and heavy. In all, it reminded Jack of some of his more unpleasant missions, trudging through rain forest in the service of his country.
But it was silent. No sign of birdlife or animals, the silence inside the domed structure was almost oppressive, intimidating, forcing them to almost speak in whispers. It was also very green, very lush, great lolling plants overhanging every path, their huge leaves wet with dew.
"Stay alert, people," Jack said, having to force himself to speak up. The silence made him feel as though he was shouting in a church, and it irritated him.
They turned a corner in the path they were following, a trail that seemed to be leading them to the center of the structure, if the curve of the ceiling was anything to go by. There, in a small clearing in front of them, were a number of machines of some kind, all metal and tubes.
Carter walked past him, already switching mentally from soldier to scientist. Jack watched her, senses also alert for any sign of movement from around them, as she circled round the machines, her eyes examining them avidly.
"Any idea what they are, Carter?"
Carter had disappeared behind the devices now, though Jack could see the top of her head as she slowly moved along behind them, stopping for a moment to lean closer and examine the machine in more detail.
Jack moved a little closer as Carter came back into view. She shrugged as she looked at him, clearly eager to make a more intimate examination of the machines. Jack nodded, the unspoken message that she needed to be careful passing between them. Carter nodded in response, smiling slightly, before turning back to the devices.
When it moved, pulling Carter in, Jack was startled for a moment, then leapt forward to try and pull at the tubes that wrapped her so tightly. He was so fixed on his task that it took a moment before he realized that he too had been trapped, pulled backward into the embrace of the next device along the line. Jack heard Teal'c yell something, then the darkness took him, even as he felt the tubes wrap themselves around his chest and legs, embracing him snugly.
This was all seeming really familiar now, deja vu multiplied by ten.
The last mission had been so like their trip to Cimmeria, that Daniel had to stop himself from asking for Gairwyn when they arrived. The runes were the same, carved in prominent places, the people dressed so similarly that for a moment he thought that they had made a mistake. Had they travelled somewhere that they had already visited by accident?
But there was no hammer-shaped stone standing guard over the 'Gate, no labyrinths, it seemed, hiding the mysteries of the Asgard. Just a bunch of people who happened to be descended from the Vikings of Earth.
Daniel considered this as he noted down another set of runes. Of course, it wasn't completely impossible that the Asgard had put people on more than one planet, but it seemed a little strange that they were here without the protection that the Hammer had given.
"Daniel?" Jack's voice came over the two-way radio. "You just about done?" Daniel hesitated, marking the last set of runes down before he replied. "Daniel?"
"Time to go home?"
"You got it. Get yourself back to the 'Gate, Daniel."
When he opened his eyes, Jack realized immediately where he was. This place had been the scene of so many nightmares. So many regrets. They had stood, the four of them, looking out into a great dark expanse of space, knowing now that the ship on which they travelled was headed inexorably to Earth.
It was Daniel's nightmare journey to another reality come to life.
But how could this be? Was it some kind of time machine? Had he somehow been transported back to the ship?
Carter and the others were looking at him, expectantly, waiting for him to say something.
"Watch our backs," Jack said to Daniel, heading into the control room to confront Klorel. Carter gave Daniel her MP5 and then she and Teal'c followed him.
As he remembered it from before, the battle was brief and bloody, Klorel being pulled away from where he was torturing Bra'tac, zat blasts arcing across the room. Serpent guards fell, and they were victorious.
As he shot the Guards, Jack heard Daniel call his name, and froze for the briefest of moments. What the hell had he been thinking, Jack wondered, telling Daniel to watch their backs? It hadn't worked last time, so how could he expect that this time would be different? Any other choice would have been more sensible, making Carter or Teal'c stay behind just in case would have been a more logical selection. Instead he had chosen Daniel again, ignoring the surprised expression on his face.
Was it because he didn't want to take Daniel into danger? Even now, after the weeks and months that had passed since it actually happened, Jack couldn't quite work out his own thinking.
Whatever the reason, it had been the wrong decision, Jack thought, as he headed out into the corridor in search of Daniel.
Nothing had changed. Daniel was still slumped there like Jack remembered, his eyes bright, the smell of burnt flesh hanging round him as the wound on his shoulder oozed. Jack felt the ice begin to grow around his heart at the sight of him.
What was this? Dream, nightmare?
Shoving his MP5 behind him, Jack knelt by Daniel's side, taking in the slightly dazed expression on Daniel's face, the ragged breaths.
No, he thought. Not again.
"This will not do."
The voice came from behind him, making Jack jerk round to its source. An angular man, dressed in flowing robes and an oddly-shaped headdress was frowning at him, lips pursed in disapproval.
"Who the hell are you?" Jack asked, bringing his automatic weapon round to bear on the intruder.
"Just get out of here, Jack," Daniel said, his voice breaking.
"You can change this," the newcomer said. "And as for who I am - I am the Keeper, of course."
"The keeper?" Jack echoed.
"You're just going to blow up with the other ship," Daniel continued, seemingly unaware of the conversation Jack was having. And where was everyone else, anyway? Shouldn't they have come looking for him by now?
"The Keeper of all that was, is and could yet be," the newcomer said, with a small bow. "Have you never wished to change the things that have happened?"
Daniel had stowed his pad in his fatigues pocket and headed back to rendezvous with the others at the 'Gate, as ordered. As he entered the clearing where it stood, he could see Jack watching for his arrival, Sam standing by the DHD ready to dial home and Teal'c was standing guard over the three of them.
"Got everything you came for?" Jack asked, walking to meet Daniel. Daniel nodded. "Dial it up, Carter."
Sam nodded, looking down at the DHD then and concentrating on entering the correct order of glyphs - Daniel saw the orange light that bathed her face as she rested her hand on the central crystal.
"Have you noticed anything strange about the last couple of planets we've visited?" Daniel asked, he and Jack headed towards the 'Gate together. It shimmered now with an open wormhole, the event horizon glistening with blue opacity.
"Like we've done this before."
"Nope." Daniel glanced across at Jack, the shortness of his response something of a surprise. "Can we go now?"
"To change the past," the Keeper continued. "To right that which once was wrong, to change the way things occurred."
As he spoke, he looked at Daniel, who still lay slumped against the wall, his lips moving as if he was still urging Jack to go. Jack followed the Keeper's gaze, his heart clenching at the sight.
"Who hasn't?" Jack asked, looking back at the Keeper once more.
The room seemed to swirl around him and then Jack found himself back in the corridor once more, watching Bra'tac head into the control room, confrontation on his mind. Jack paused for a moment, considering his next move. What had to change to make things turn out differently?
Could this change how things were? Somehow change the path that he and Daniel had taken? Give the two of them another chance? He had no idea whether this really was some kind of time machine, whether his actions here could affect the way things were, but Jack knew he had to try.
"Carter," he said. "Watch our backs." Carter nodded, bringing her MP5 up and moving to take Daniel's place, facing up the corridor. "Daniel, you're with me."
Daniel nodded, pulling his pistol from its holster, his face tense.
Jack turned back to the entrance now, hearing Bra'tac's defiant words to Klorel. The next few minutes were a blur of motion, though he was always conscious of Daniel's presence with him, firing at the guards in the room.
Just as the last of them fell, he heard a gasp. Turning sharply, Jack was just in time to see Daniel crumple, one hand outstretched towards him.
The Keeper materialised at that moment, turning from Bra'tac into the man he was quickly coming to despise, as Jack fell to his knees beside Daniel.
"Get out of here, Jack."
"I'm not leaving you."
"You're just going to blow up on the other ship."
Jack could feel Teal'c's presence looming over him, then a sound of footsteps told him that Carter was there as well. Jack looked up, searching for the Keeper's eyes.
"This isn't what happened."
"Should you wish to try again..." the Keeper began.
"Damn you, this wasn't how it was meant to be!" Jack heard his voice echo around the chamber and the anger in his words startled him a little. Was this real or not? Had he changed anything or nothing?
"You have it within you to change this moment," the Keeper continued.
"You mean you haven't noticed anything?" Daniel asked.
Jack rounded on him in the corridor, the speed of his reaction making Daniel take an instinctive step backwards.
"Didn't I say that, Daniel?"
This was a side of Jack that Daniel had only seen rarely, and didn't like seeing any time. There was a harshness to his voice that spoke of tiredness and Daniel tried to smile, his hands making placatory gestures.
"I'm sorry," he said. "We should just get to the infirmary before Janet sends out a search party."
Jack nodded, curtly and turned back in the direction they had been going, pausing for a moment to allow Daniel to fall into step with him once more. Daniel watched Jack out of the corner of his eye, considering what had just happened. He'd only asked an innocuous question, yet Jack had snapped. What the hell was going on?
This time, Jack took a little longer to decide, making both Daniel and Carter stay behind, unwilling to risk Daniel but not trusting him not to get himself killed if he stayed behind unassisted.
Jack saw the way Daniel looked at him as he made his decision, the answering frown on Carter's face annoying him as well.
"Keep him safe, captain," Jack said, ignoring the way Daniel's frown grew. He didn't care what Daniel thought, Daniel's safety was more important than him being happy with Jack's command decisions. Carter nodded, her eyes showing that she understood far more than Jack had ever realized.
Together with Teal'c, Jack burst into the control room, weapons already firing. This time, however, things didn't go according to plan. He saw Bra'tac on his knees before Klorel, beginning to shake under the onslaught of the hand device and headed that way, determined to rescue the old man. No matter his faults, a short temper being one of them, Jack respected him and knew that Teal'c regarded him as a second father.
He felt the zat gun blast before he realized he was hit, slumping against the side of the sarcophagus. When his head stopped spinning, Jack realized that things had gone drastically awry. He was pulled to his knees in front of a smiling Klorel, no trace of the young man Jack had known on Abydos in his eyes.
"Kneel before your god," said the strange echoing voice. "Feel the wrath of Klorel."
Faintly, Jack heard himself scream before blackness took him.
Having made his excuses, Daniel didn't hang around in the infirmary, but headed back to his office, his mind already half on the work that was waiting for him. Why hadn't he noticed that Jack was so tense recently? That it didn't seem to take much for him to take offense?
He settled himself back at his desk, turning over the papers there with a semblance of attention, but his mind was elsewhere.
Something isn't right, Daniel thought. But what?
The sound of the door opening brought him back to the present and he turned to face Jack, as he knew it had to be.
"Is everything okay?" Daniel asked.
"Shouldn't it be?" Jack asked, coming to stand closer than Daniel liked. It made him crick his neck, looking up at Jack, and this unsettled him. It was one thing to be this close away from the base, but there was too much at stake here, too much chance of discovery. And there was something in Jack's expression that unnerved him a little, an edge Daniel hadn't seen there before.
Jack smiled down at him.
"I don't know. You tell me."
"I think you're working too hard," Jack said. Daniel blinked at the sudden change of subject. "Maybe I should take your mind off it?"
"Are you sure that's a good idea, Jack?" Daniel asked, swallowing a little nervously. There was something almost predatory in Jack's expression, a look that both made him feel aroused and frightened, those emotions running seamlessly together. "Anyone could walk in on us."
"Now that's easily fixed," Jack said, going back to the door and locking it. Daniel took this opportunity to shove his chair back and stand. When Jack turned back to him, his eyes intent, Daniel felt himself harden even more, pulsing heat signalling the departure of blood from his brain to points further south.
"I have a lot of work to do, Jack," Daniel continued, some reckless part of himself wanting to play this charade to the end.
"Like I said, Daniel, you work too hard." Jack was close now, close enough that he must be able to feel Daniel's arousal, to smell it. A hand snaked between the two of them, brushing over Daniel's groin. "I see that's not the only thing that's hard around here," Jack continued, smiling.
Jack edged forward, trapping Daniel between himself and his desk. Daniel could feel the edge of it pressing into the back of his legs, the answering hardness in Jack's fatigues pressing against him. His mouth was suddenly dry, Daniel realized, and he felt himself blink nervously at Jack. Jack's fingers were tugging at his fly now, insinuating themselves between the buttons in search of heat. Daniel bit down on a moan as they made contact, feeling himself arch against Jack, heat against heat.
Suddenly it was all too much, the intensity almost searing, and Daniel began to panic slightly, pushing Jack away from him with all the strength he could muster.
"Stop," he gasped, frowning as Jack persisted. "I said stop, Jack."
"You know you don't mean that." Jack hissed the words into Daniel's ear, breath warm and intimate.
"No, really," Daniel persisted, pushing him away now. "Stop."
He felt the loss of contact as Jack's fingers slipped from him, the lack of sensation striking Daniel like a blow. Jack stepped back, frowning at him, as he wiped his hands on the leg of his fatigues.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he snapped. "You were into this. Tell me you didn't want this as much as I did, Daniel?"
Daniel looked down, suddenly deciding that his office floor held great interest for him. It was bound to happen some time, Daniel decided. Things had been too good between them for too long, maybe now it was time for the universe to get some kind of revenge on him, for things to start acting like they usually did.
He heard Jack's angry hiss of breath, then the sound of footsteps crossing to his door. When Daniel looked up, he was alone.
"I won't do this," Jack said to the currently-invisible Keeper, finding himself back in the corridor once more. "It isn't working! None of this is real, is it?"
The others looked at him strangely as he peered intently at each of them, wondering which one would turn into the Keeper this time.
"You must continue." It was Teal'c - incongruously the voice was the Keeper's, even if the facial expressions were still those of the Jaffa. He blinked as Teal'c suddenly changed.
"And if I don't?" Jack asked, watching as the rest of his team, including Teal'c, who had reappeared, tried to take the control room. He turned his back on Daniel, who had been left to guard their escape. He couldn't bear to watch what he feared would happen next - coming across the results of the attack had been bad enough.
"You have been given a challenge to be met and conquered," the Keeper persisted. "You have it in you - why will you not partake?"
Jack heard the guards advancing up the corridor - the rattle of automatic weapons fire and the sound of staff weapons responding told him Daniel had seen them too.
"Because nothing works. This is all some sort of game, isn't it?"
Daniel calling for him almost made him turn, but he knew what he would see and also that this was the last thing he could deal with right now. Jack concentrated on his argument with the Keeper.
"You have not yet explored all your options," the Keeper continued, petulantly.
There was a brief silence and then the sound of staff weapons fire again, followed by a hollow thud as Daniel hit the ground.
"I won't do this," Jack said, closing his eyes.
"Then I shall find something that is more in keeping with your desires," the Keeper responded.
Jack watched him walk away, never daring to look back to where he knew Daniel lay, broken and bleeding. He had seen Daniel like that for real, and again now in whatever this was that the Keeper was doing, and each time it had torn a part of himself away.
He had to go in search of Jack - it seemed to Daniel that Jack was avoiding him this morning, choosing to make himself scarce in the labyrinth of corridors and rooms that was the SGC. When he eventually found him, Jack was just going into the messhall for breakfast, and he didn't look all that happy at having been discovered.
"We need to talk," Daniel said, joining him in line. Jack didn't even look round at him when he spoke, nodding curtly at the words. "Don't we?"
Daniel stifled a sigh of frustration. Jack was determined to make this as difficult as possible, it seemed - strange, when it had always been Daniel who had been the stubborn one, the one who was inflexible, intractable. Maybe he'd just not realized that he had competition?
"I was wrong, okay?" Daniel said, rushing out the words before he could regret their existence, or consider their surroundings. He saw Jack turn slightly to him from the corner of his eye as he looked resolutely ahead, pretending to consider the length of the line in front of them.
"I don't think this is the place...."
"No. You're right. I'll shut up now."
This time, it was another place he knew well, Jack realized immediately, looking up and down the corridor that led to the small office Daniel called home. He bit down on the emotions that rose within him as he headed for the door and it opened.
He was lost for words. Unlike the scenario on the ship, this seemed so ordinary, so normal that Jack could almost forget that Daniel was really dead, left behind to be blown into a million pieces just inside Earth's atmosphere.
"I was just coming to find you," Daniel said, glancing at his watch. "I hadn't forgotten."
Jack looked at Daniel for a moment, considering what to say. This was different to the other times, it wasn't something he remembered happening. Then the Keeper's words struck home - he had said something about being the Keeper of the past, present and whatever he could imagine. Since he didn't remember this happening, and Daniel's death meant that it never could, was it something out of his own imagination?
"That's okay," he said, desperate for words that would take away the worried expression on Daniel's face. "I got done quicker than I thought, so I came to find you."
Daniel smiled and Jack felt his heart lurch. If this was his imagination at work, he wasn't sure whether it gave him more pleasure than pain - to see Daniel like this, looking happy and unscathed, rather than slumped injured against a bulkhead, but to know that it wasn't reality....
"Lunch?" Daniel suggested, after Jack had stared at him in silence for a moment.
Jack indulged himself in watching Daniel over lunch. After the trauma of reliving one of the worst moments of his life over and over, trying fruitlessly to change the course of events that led to Daniel's death, it was tempting just to watch Daniel eat. After a few minutes, Daniel became aware of his scrutiny, looking up with a slightly embarrassed expression on his face.
"Not here, Jack," he said, then looked down again.
Jack frowned, considering the words. He'd just been looking at Daniel, that was all. The question was, even here in his imagination, what did Daniel think he was doing? He thought about that for a moment, turning the idea round to examine all possible angles before deciding he had no idea what Daniel might possibly mean.
Daniel looked up again. With an over-patient sigh, he placed his fork neatly down across what was left of whatever-it-was for lunch and pushed his plate away slightly.
"I said, not here," Daniel repeated, enunciating the words clearly.
Jack just looked at him, one hand toying with his fork as Daniel squirmed under his scrutiny. This was fun, more fun than he remembered it being when he did this for real. As far as the Keeper's games went, this was turning out to be a relatively enjoyable one. Daniel was here, in one piece, and there didn't seem to be anything that he had to do to keep him that way.
Surely that couldn't last, though. Something had to happen to keep the Keeper amused. Why did he do this, anyway? Jack considered the possible reasons why someone would choose to torment people this way, stirring his fork in whatever it was had been dished up for lunch. As artificial realities went, it seemed this one had the same poorly- chosen kitchen staff as the real thing.
What was with Jack anyway? One minute he was acting like all he wanted was sex, the next, he was just staring at Daniel in silence for minutes on end as they sat over lunch. It was like he was two different people.
That's just plain stupid, Daniel thought. Unless something's happened I don't know about. After all, it wouldn't be the first time we've come under some kind of alien influence.
Sitting back in his chair, Daniel gave the possibility some serious thought. Jack was certainly behaving differently than how he had since they first got involved - if anything, he was more like he used to act. What had almost happened between them in this very office yesterday had been out of character as well, though, but that felt more like a natural progression from what had come before.
This was like taking a step back in time, almost, to before he had been MIA. Before Daniel had been thought dead.
Had Jack forgotten what had almost happened here? Repressed it somehow? That didn't seem all that likely, but Daniel had long ago learned to expect the unexpected where life at the SGC was concerned.
But he couldn't tear his thoughts from what Jack had almost done, only a few hours ago. If he hadn't protested as forcibly, Daniel wondered, would Jack have persisted? Made him do something he really wasn't ready for?
He'd seen the anger in Jack's face when he had pushed too hard, too fast - it wasn't as if that was an unexpected response, just one that Daniel wasn't all that used to being on the receiving end of. He knew that he could be annoying at times, he must run Jack to the thin end of his patience more times than he realized, but the last time they had been alone, Daniel knew now that he had actually been afraid.
At the time, it had been mixed together with arousal, the desire in Jack's eyes tempering the fear, but now he looked back, Daniel felt the undercurrent of anxiety that had threaded its way through that encounter. If Jack hadn't wanted to stop, if he hadn't wanted to listen to what Daniel was saying, there would have been little that he could have done about it.
Jack sat back in his chair and surveyed his office, resting his feet on the desk.
As artificial realities went, the Keeper had done a damn good job of picking up all the little details that made this place seem just like the office he had in the real SGC. There was even the dent in the wall behind the door where Jack had taken to bouncing a hardball when he got really bored and frustrated with the piles of paperwork that the Air Force seemed to thrive on. But, then again, if this was all being manufactured from the contents of his brain, didn't it stand to reason that those kind of details would be included?
Jack closed his eyes, wishing away the headache he could feel looming. Maybe the best thing to do was to go talk about this with Daniel or Carter, see what they thought of it all. After all, if the Daniel and Carter of this reality were based on his own imaginings, they should be able to understand and explain what was going on. Shouldn't they? Or would their knowledge be restricted by his own?
Damn. He hadn't thought of that. If this reality was based on what he could imagine and understand, then their expertise would be seriously hampered.
But Daniel had seemed just like Daniel. A little tense, maybe. And decidedly sharp with him.
Jack swung his feet off the desk, sitting upright in his chair as another thought struck him.
Didn't that mean Daniel was acting out of character? Was this based on what he wanted? The way he needed Daniel to be? If Daniel had survived being left to die alone on that ship, shouldn't Daniel be a little more... friendly towards him? Or was Daniel snapping like this because Jack felt guilty over leaving him to die?
This was confusing. Just when he thought that he'd wrapped his brain round it, the whole thing threw another curve ball and sent him diving for cover.
He'd been glad to see Daniel looking so well, so happy, not charred and half-dead, that he'd glossed over the fact that it wasn't in character for Daniel to be so snappy. At least, not without a good reason. But this wasn't real anyway, so did it really matter whether Daniel was acting like Daniel? His head hurt.
Jack pondered the brief conversation he'd had with Daniel from the time that the Keeper had placed him here, but he couldn't see any reason that Daniel would be upset with him. Normally, even though he was a master at opening his mouth and pissing Daniel off, Jack had to say something specific to do so, and most of the time it was deliberate.
So what was going on? Was the Keeper more involved here than Jack realized?
There was only one way to find out, Jack decided, and that was to push this reality as far as it would go. Stretch it to the limits of his imagination and see if it snapped. What could it hurt?
Despite his worries, Daniel found himself drawn to Jack, in the unusual position of lurking outside his office around the time that Jack usually left for the day, if they didn't have a mission off- world. He couldn't quite bring himself to knock on Jack's door, as he wasn't sure that he had the words, and Jack staring at him like he had over lunch might unnerve him even more.
As a result, when Jack opened his door, jacket halfway on and one hand groping for the lightswitch, he was a little startled to see Daniel waiting there.
"Something I can do for you?"
Jack stopped, leaving the door still half-open, and pulled his jacket on properly, all the while looking intently at Daniel.
"I'm going home, Daniel," Jack said.
"I could come over," Daniel said, after a moment's thought. Jack nodded, closing the door.
"Okay," he said. Then, just as Daniel was expecting some sarcastic comment, some kind of heavy innuendo, Jack just walked past him, leaving him speechless again.
This reality seemed to be very detailed, Jack decided, slipping behind the wheel of his car, and very extensive. Unlike the last one, which as far as he could tell had consisted of the corridor and the control room, this one extended outside of the SGC, maybe even to other planets?
The drive home seemed familiar, if maybe a little truncated - Jack was sure that there were a couple of sections of road missing, but by now he had driven it so many times on auto-pilot, he couldn't have sworn to it. Still, pulling up outside his house and finding it essentially unaltered was a pleasant experience, as was the thought of Daniel coming over.
As he retrieved his mail, Jack thought about Daniel's uneasiness. It wasn't as if they didn't spend time off-duty together, so what did he have to be so jumpy about? He'd seemed nervous, almost as if he expected Jack to rebuff him, push him away somehow, and his behavior over lunch had been decidedly odd.
Dumping the entire load of mail, which seemed to be mostly junkmail anyway, on the kitchen table, Jack phoned for pizza.
When the doorbell rang, he wasn't completely sure whether it was pizza or Daniel. On opening the door, Jack found it was the pizza, but as he was paying the delivery guy, he saw Daniel's car draw up, so he waited on the step for him to get there, the smell of pizza tantalising him and reminding him just how hungry he actually was.
That was something. Could he starve in this artificial Colorado?
The smell that was wafting from the pizza box was certainly making his stomach rumble, whether or not it was real.
"Hurry it up, Daniel."
Daniel smiled up at him as he walked up the steps, looking a little more relaxed now. Jack waited for Daniel to pass him in the doorway, then let the door close behind them, as he headed for the kitchen.
I can do whatever I want, Jack thought, suddenly.
He made himself carry on, his movements mechanical as he produced a plate for the pizza, beer to go with it.
Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all? Maybe, instead of being his worst nightmare, like the last scenario he'd lived through, Jack thought, this could actually be some fun?
He could see what telling Daniel how he felt was like, see what reaction he might get, all without the actual pain of doing it in real life. He could....
Daniel was there, suddenly, beside him, and Jack felt his inventive mind grind to a halt.
When would the Keeper intervene? Last time, in the scenario on the ship, Jack realized that the Keeper had made everything go back to the way it was, the others not seeming to have any memory of what had happened before, so he had to think that would be the case again.
Putting the last piece of pizza on the plate, Jack wiped his hands methodically before turning to Daniel, deliberately making himself meet Daniel's eyes.
How did you tell someone, even if they were a figment of your imagination, that you cared for them more than you should? Particularly if you're trapped in an artificial reality where that person probably can't even respond?
He'd seen the way that 'Daniel' had reacted in the corridor, and then again in the control room, each time he was shot - each time Daniel had done what Jack remembered, urged him to make the decision to leave him behind. That meant there was probably a set of instructions that this pretend-Daniel was following, as subtle and cleverly written as those might be.
"I am so chickenshit," Jack said, smiling inside at the expression his words caused.
"What are you talking about?"
"Look at me, Daniel. Look at us. All this time we spent together, you never had a clue."
Daniel was frowning now, his arms coming up to hug himself.
"For a genius, you can be pretty slow on the uptake sometimes, Daniel."
Jack shook his head.
"You don't, do you?" Jack took a step closer to Daniel, not liking the way that Daniel moved back as he did so. "I was in love with you forever, and it took leaving you behind to make me realize it."
"Leaving me behind?" Daniel echoed, sounding confused. "When? On the ship?"
"This is dumb. You have no idea this isn't real. That none of this is real. You're just programmed to respond a certain way."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Daniel had backed away now, making sure that there was as much space as possible between the two of them. "You've been acting a little strange lately, Jack. Maybe you should let Janet check you out?"
"There's nothing wrong with me, Daniel."
"Then what the hell is this?" Daniel asked, clearly starting to get angry with him. "You're acting like you don't remember what's been happening between us. And then you tried to force me into having sex in my office yesterday." Daniel's voice trailed off.
If he could have seen himself, Jack wondered for a brief moment, as his brain tried to process what Daniel had just said, would he have looked anything like as surprised as he felt?
"I did what?" Jack asked after a moment, when he could find his voice again.
"Don't do that, Jack. Don't pretend you have no idea what I mean."
"Because I don't. This isn't real. You are not real."
"Don't do this, Jack."
"I mean, I never even got to tell you how I felt about you, let alone anything happening between us...."
"Jack." Daniel snapped his name out. "You're really worrying me here."
"Worrying you?" Jack laughed, bitterly. "You're just a bunch of ones and zeroes zipping round some alien machine. How can I be worrying you?"
"That's it. I'm out of here. Go see Janet. In fact, when I get home I'm going to call her and tell her myself that she needs to see you."
"Do what you want, Daniel," Jack said, following him out of the kitchen. "It doesn't matter anyway. She won't listen to you - this is all in my imagination."
He stopped in the kitchen doorway and watched Daniel leave. After a few moments, Jack heard the front door slam shut. He shrugged, then went back to his pizza - it might only be virtual pizza, but it was still a shame to let it go to waste.
Well, this certainly wasn't a tactic Daniel had expected. Of all the possible responses Jack could have come up with, to pretend that everything was somehow part of his imagination had to be far and away beyond the strangest Daniel could have ever thought.
What would Janet make of it? Maybe all those years of covert missions, the things he could never talk about, had finally begun to take their toll on Jack? But why now? He'd seemed so balanced, so normal. And then he'd begun to act strangely - this, however, was the strangest yet.
As he was crossing the sidewalk to his car, Daniel wondered whether it was a good idea to leave Jack alone. If he was distressed enough to be talking as oddly as he was, was Jack safe to leave on his own?
He couldn't babysit him, Daniel knew that there was no way Jack would tolerate that, but he felt responsible for him somehow. Was it possible that their relationship had been the final straw, that the pressure between them had finally pushed Jack over the edge of a cliff he had been teetering on for a very long time?
Daniel had reached his car by now, crossed around to the driver's side, even got his key in the lock, but he couldn't do it. He leaned forward and rested his forehead on the cool metal of the roof. He couldn't leave Jack alone, he realized, not now, maybe not ever.
He trudged back up the steps and knocked on the door.
"Daniel?" Jack was far more surprised at his return than he'd expected. "I thought you'd gone."
"I had. Well, almost."
Jack let him in, and Daniel followed him obediently into the house, hanging up his jacket this time. He'd be staying for a while, after all.
"What stopped you?"
Daniel found himself just looking at Jack, really looking at him for the first time in what seemed like weeks. Though they'd shared a bed, he'd never taken the opportunity that presented to study Jack's face, knowing it made him uncomfortable, but also being a little uncomfortable himself with knowing that it was something *he* needed.
"I'm worried about you, Jack," Daniel said. "Isn't that enough?"
"You were the one who just stormed out, Daniel." Jack returned his stare, moment for moment. "Want some pizza?"
"Look, Jack. I want to help."
"Then get me home. Get me out of that damn machine, off this planet, and home. Then we'll talk."
Jack rubbed a hand over his eyes, suddenly looking tired. Daniel felt a sympathetic yawn welling at the sides of his jaw, and had to concentrate to push the sudden tiredness he felt away.
"Like a cross between a dentist chair and a vacuum cleaner. Metal, chrome, tubing, stuff like that."
Daniel thought for a moment - he'd mentioned the artifacts he'd found on his mistaken trip to a misdialled planet, but when had Jack had the opportunity or the interest to look at those reports in such detail?
"Yeah, we visited this planet," Jack said. "Plants, lots of plants, growing in a big greenhouse-type place. Me and the rest of SG-1. Not you, of course, because you're dead."
Lost in his own thoughts, Daniel only caught the tail end of what Jack had said.
"Dead?" He heard the way his voice cracked on the word, as ridiculous an idea as it was. Now Daniel knew Jack was on something. "Anyway, you haven't been there, Jack. The place you're describing. I went there, remember? When I misdialed getting off the ship?"
Jack was frowning now.
"Misdialed, Daniel? You never misdialed in your life." The words seemed to hit Jack as he spoke them, the last choking him slightly.
"We should sit down, Jack," Daniel said, as he took a tentative hold on Jack's sleeve. Jack went with him, not resisting at all, into the living room, and allowed Daniel to steer him to the couch.
"I misdialled off the ship, remember? Ended up on some planet where Ferretti and his team found me, then Ferretti brought me home." Daniel paused, feeling the warmth of those memories, treasuring them for a moment before he spoke once more. "And you were acting like I was a puppy that had followed him home."
"Cute, Daniel, real cute." Jack's voice still held the remnants of the emotion that had almost drowned him only moments ago. "Except it didn't happen like that. You died on that ship, blown into a million pieces. Because I left you behind."
"Then how are we here, Jack? Answer me that."
Jack gestured widely as he spoke, his tone dismissive.
"This is all some kind of elaborate game. There's this guy, calls himself the Keeper, and this is his set-up. I thought at first it was some kind of time machine, but this never happened, so it must be something else." Jack looked at Daniel intently. "He can disguise himself as other people, so I kind of keep expecting you to turn into him."
"And the point of this... this game?"
"Last time, he said it was to change the past. To set stuff right." Jack looked down, studying his shoes. "I watched you die, over and over again, and whatever I tried I couldn't stop it happening, Daniel. I tried. You have to believe me."
Jack had looked up as he spoke those last words, as if he needed Daniel to believe him so desperately that even his time-honored reluctance to show any kind of weakness was no barrier to it.
Was it that which made Daniel pause? That unusual glimpse into Jack's soul, a side of him which few people ever saw?
"You know how crazy this sounds," he said. Jack nodded. "And that there's no way you could prove it."
"I know. But it's the truth."
Daniel was silent for a moment, considering. If nothing else, Jack believed this, that at least was clear. So, the question was, what next?
Daniel didn't believe him. Not that Jack had really expected him to - there was probably some kind of failsafe in the set-up the Keeper had built, something to stop his creations realizing they were just that.
Had he thought this was nice? To be sitting here, talking with Daniel like everything was okay, like Daniel was alive and the whole mess his life had become wasn't entirely his fault? Jack wondered where he could ever have got such an idea.
It wasn't nice. It was a pain almost beyond bearing, reminding him of all the bones he'd broken through the years, a throbbing, stabbing, gnawing pain. A reminder of all the things he could never have, the things his own selfishness had made impossible.
The worst of it was, he had to keep talking. Jack knew he needed to do this, needed to punish himself this way, so he would never forget the burden of responsibility he carried for Daniel's death, that he was responsible for dragging Daniel on countless missions where they'd come so close to losing him. Finally, confronting Apophis and Klorel, he'd risked too much and Daniel had paid for it.
Daniel, the Daniel the Keeper had made, looked worried, Jack could see that. If this was all a result of the Keeper's machines tapping into his brain, they were doing a good job of recreating an authentic Daniel experience, complete with concerned looks.
"I never said all that much about the machines, Jack."
"I told you," Jack said, "we were sucked into them, me and Carter at least - last thing I remember is hearing Teal'c shouting and then I was here. Well, not here - I was back on the ship."
"And it was some kind of... game?" Daniel spat the last word out with the contempt it deserved.
"The Keeper, he said it was a chance to change things, but nothing worked."
"But if it was a game," Daniel persisted, "what would it matter?"
"It mattered because I saw you die, Daniel. Over and over again. And it was like having my heart ripped out." Daniel was looking even more concerned now, his eyes large and intent. "And this isn't much better."
"Because here you're alive, Daniel. Alive and well and still with no idea what's going on. With me, with anyone. You just go on your geeky little way, oblivious to the fact that I want you so badly it's killing me."
"What?" Daniel's head snapped round so fast Jack was worried he'd get whiplash. "Then what the hell have we been doing these past weeks, Jack?"
"You. Me. My bed, your bed, my office almost." Daniel was almost scowling at him now, clearly annoyed. "Sound familiar?"
"What?" The Keeper had to know what was going through his mind, how he felt about Daniel, but how unfair was this? Daniel thought that they'd been having sex and he'd missed it? "We...?"
"I'm glad it was so memorable for you, Jack." Daniel's voice was acerbic, the words cut like diamonds.
Why were those words of denial so painful? After all, they were consistent with what Jack was saying - he was contending that this was all some huge game, that none of it was real, so why did his denial of their relationship hurt so much?
"I know I can't convince you, Daniel."
"You can't. It sounds...."
"I know how it sounds. It sounds crazy."
Daniel felt the anger growing inside him. He hated himself for it - there had to be something wrong with Jack, he'd never behave like this if he was in his right mind. But he couldn't keep the words from bursting forth, the anger he was feeling, the betrayal of what he thought he had shared with Jack was too all encompassing.
"That's because it is, Jack," he snapped, not pausing even when he saw that Jack was taken aback by the venom in his words. "You know this is real. That I'm real. What we did, that's real too. Why won't you admit it?"
"This accomplishes nothing." The voice came from behind them, in the corner where he knew no-one could possibly be. They were alone in the house. Daniel turned. "These arguments have no value. You must remedy this situation and continue."
"See?" Jack said, from behind him. "That's him. The Keeper."
They were no longer alone. There, in the corner of the room, was a tall man, wearing an even taller head-dress. His lanky form was draped in an iridescent robe, one that clearly marked him out as 'not from round here'. He looked disapprovingly at Daniel.
"Before he came, you were doing so well. So entertaining."
"Entertaining?" Daniel heard Jack ask before he managed to. There was an undertone to the statement the Keeper had made that he really didn't like. "You've been watching him before I came? But how...." Daniel heard Jack's voice grind to a halt.
"How long have you been watching me?" Daniel asked, dreading the answer.
"Since you came here, of course," the Keeper replied. "It has been most... stimulating."
"Since he came here?" Jack echoed, looking round at him. His face was a picture of surprise, mingled with not a little hope.
Daniel's heart sank as he considered the implications of the Keeper's statement. Jack had been right all along. It had all been one huge game, an illusion this Keeper had sustained, and he had gone along with everything like some kind of performing monkey. Jack had been right...
He felt his face flame at the thought of being watched. What had the Keeper seen? Somehow, Daniel had almost forgotten the implications of it all, so engrossed was he in the discovery. He was alive, Jack had thought he was dead, and now he stood a chance of going home, this time for real.
Jack was staring at him now, the same way Daniel thought he must have stared at the Keeper. He felt his face heat even more. He knew. Daniel had told him everything, in the time when he'd pressed for Jack to accept what he'd thought was reality.
What the hell was he going to do?
It was a clear choice between getting angry or allowing himself to realize the implications of what the Keeper was saying. Was this all some kind of ploy, Jack wondered, another of the Keeper's games? Daniel couldn't possibly be alive, could he?
Jack found himself staring at the back of Daniel's head, willing him to turn around. The embarrassment he saw on Daniel's face when he finally turned was almost the last straw. Maybe this was real, after all?
"If you're right, Jack," Daniel said, refusing to meet his eyes, "then we have to get out of here. We can figure out everything else later."
"You must continue!" the Keeper said, as he took a step closer to where they stood.
"No chance, pal."
"Why should we?"
Jack realized he and Daniel had spoken together, grinning to himself as the Keeper frowned at both of them. If he had thought Jack was stubborn, just wait till he saw Daniel in action. Jack somehow managed to still the small voice in his mind that reminded him the Keeper had seen Daniel doing lots of things - there would be time enough for that after they'd got home.
"No." Daniel was stood in front of him still, between him and the Keeper, and Jack moved to stand alongside him, joining him in refusal. "Get the message - it isn't going to happen."
The Keeper was scowling at both of them, his hand moving up to hover over a control on his arm.
"We want to go home," Daniel said.
Jack could almost feel the tension in the air between them. Daniel had lost the redness in his face, the first flush of embarrassment waning, but he still didn't look at Jack, though they were stood side by side.
"Why will you not continue?" the Keeper pressed.
"You heard the man," Jack said. "Where are the rest of my team?"
He took a step forward, towards the Keeper, who touched the device on the back of his hand and was suddenly wrapped in a spiral of light. When it disappeared, the Keeper was gone and they were alone again.
"This isn't real, is it?" Daniel asked, without turning to look at Jack.
"And all the time I thought I was back on Earth, I was still in the Keeper's machine."
"It could be worse, Daniel."
"Could it?" Daniel turned now, but still without meeting Jack's eyes.
"I thought you were dead. Trust me, that was worse." Daniel turned away again, walking to the window. "But we'll have time for all this when we get home. We need to get out of this reality, Daniel. Find a way out of the machines, rescue the others and get home."
"That device he used," Daniel said. "Like Goa'uld transport rings in a way." He paused for a moment, considering. "When I was at the SGC... what I thought was the SGC, I saw that design on some doors. I never thought anything of it."
"I'd begun to wonder why everything seemed familiar," Daniel continued. "The missions, the translations, everything. And every time I thought that way, something would happen to distract me - you'd..." Daniel stopped, looking round at Jack, his face heating up once more.
"We'll talk later, Daniel. Now we need to get back to the SGC."
They drove up the mountain in silence.
Everything seemed so much less real now, Daniel decided. All the things that he had allowed himself to ignore, pushing them to one side because they didn't fit with him getting exactly what he wanted, seemed to make that realization an obvious one. The joys of hindsight.
He followed Jack into the SGC itself, still silent. Daniel didn't know what to say, didn't know the words that would allow him to make sense of all of this and still stay friends with Jack. Was Jack horrified with him? Disgusted? He almost wanted a reaction from him, rather than this emptiness between them.
"Where did you see that design? Somewhere we won't get interrupted?"
Daniel forced himself to concentrate.
"Down by my office, just as you come out of the elevator on that floor."
They stood together in the elevator as it headed down. Was it likely to be easy? Would the Keeper let them go without trying to stop them?
The elevator doors opened on his floor, and Daniel followed Jack out, pointing to the door in question when Jack looked to him for directions. Strangely enough, the door opened from the grayness of the concrete corridor to lush greenness. There was even the familiar smell of damp soil, the warmth of the alien structure sweeping over them before they had even taken a couple of steps and the door had closed behind them.
"Look familiar?" Jack asked.
"Very." Daniel looked round, but nothing seemed to tell him where the row of machines might be. "Where now?"
"All we can do is follow the path, see if that helps."
"Right." Daniel paused. "Is it me, or is this too easy?" Jack nodded. "And there I was thinking I was paranoid."
"Maybe all those times I told you to be careful are finally kicking in?"
The path curved, leading into a clearing which looked familiar - there, in a row, were six familiar-looking machines, four of them occupied.
"You brought Robert Rothman with you?" Daniel asked, as he walked up to the machine at the end of the row.
"He was qualified."
Daniel looked at Jack, a small smile on his face.
"And you got along okay?" Daniel shook his head, disbelieving. "You must have mellowed, Jack."
"Mellowed? I'm a tolerant kind of guy." Jack crossed the clearing to the other end of the row, trying not to look at himself too much as he wrapped his hands round the tubes that held himself prisoner. "Where are you, anyway?"
"There must be another set of machines," Daniel said, pulling at the tubes holding Rothman in place.
"We'll find you," Jack said. Daniel smiled, then turned his attention back to the task at hand.
The first sensation was of the tubes slithering away, almost as if they were alive. Jack shuddered, then memory came back to him in a rush and he leapt from the machine.
"Daniel?" he said, before he remembered.
He had freed himself from the machine, but somewhere Daniel was still trapped, held prisoner by the same technology that had held him and the others captive. He heard something and turned to see Rothman standing by the machine at the other end of the row - Rothman blinked fitfully at him, as if woken from a deep sleep.
"You okay, Rothman?"
"Some kind of virtual reality," Jack said. "What happened to you?"
"I was stuck reliving moments of my past," Rothman said, then looked away. "What about you?"
"Same here, with one exception." Rothman looked at him, more intently. "Daniel was there."
"He's here somewhere, Rothman. When we thought he'd died on the ship, he escaped and made it here. Then he got caught in these damn machines like we did." Jack had no intention of mentioning anything else about what Daniel had been up to. That was between him and Daniel, and was no-one else's business. "Help me get Teal'c and Carter out, and then we need to go looking for Daniel."
Rothman started to pull at the tubes wrapped round Teal'c as Jack headed for the machine holding Carter prisoner.
"That artificial reality," Rothman began, "you saw Daniel there..."
"He was real." Jack ignored the scepticism in Rothman's voice as he tried to figure out the best way to attack the tubes wrapped round Carter. "I know what you're thinking. I didn't believe it myself, at first, but it's true."
"Right." Getting a grip on the tube that looked the loosest, Jack gave it a hard tug and felt it move slightly. "Not that I'm doubting you or anything..." Rothman continued.
"Right," Rothman said, tugging at the tube. "Shut up, Rothman."
Jack grinned to himself. It sounded unlikely, but he knew now that it was the truth. And once he had got the rest of his team out of these machines, they'd go look for Daniel and take him home.
The last thing he remembered, he'd been with Jack, in a clearing among lush leafy plants, pulling at the tubes which trapped Rothman into the alien machine. Suddenly, just when he had a hope of escape, Daniel found himself back inside the SGC.
Daniel turned and found himself face to face with General Hammond. Or, at least, if he didn't know now that all of this was an illusion, that was what he was meant to think.
"Where is Colonel O'Neill?" Hammond asked.
"Oh. He left."
"Left?" Hammond looked confused. "Did he say where he was going?"
"He said he was going home," Daniel said. Then he turned and walked away.
"Dr. Jackson." Daniel kept walking. "Dr. Jackson, I haven't finished speaking with you!"
"We're done," Daniel said, without looking round.
"Stop him!" Hammond yelled, and Daniel smiled to himself at the frustration in that voice. He'd almost made it out of the door before two airmen caught hold of him, turning him to face the general. As he'd expected, as Daniel watched, Hammond morphed into the Keeper, and their alien captor did not look pleased.
"What a surprise."
"There is no escape." The Keeper's frown grew. "Where is the other?"
"He.. well, he escaped," Daniel said, smiling.
The Keeper scowled at him, then turned to the airmen who were still holding onto Daniel's arms.
"Lock him up somewhere."
"It won't make any difference," Daniel said, as the airmen pulled him away. "I'm out of here...."
"We shall see," the Keeper replied.
"I know how it sounds, Carter," Jack said, his frustration rising. "But Daniel is alive."
After much tugging at the tubes holding the others captive, he and Rothman had finally freed them. He wanted to go look for Daniel, more than he had wanted just about anything. Did Daniel think he'd abandoned him? Could he possibly believe that Jack might go back to Earth and leave him behind?
"These machines," Jack continued. "They create some kind of artificial reality. And Daniel was in there. But he thought he was back on Earth."
Jack could see from the way that Carter was eyeing him that she didn't believe him.
"I was in there with Rothman, and so was Teal'c - for some reason it didn't work on us in the same way, so we got to be spectators. It was artificial, colonel, but it was fuelled by what was in Rothman's mind, his memories." She looked at Rothman then, her glance full of sympathy. Rothman looked at his boots. "It would make sense that you'd see Daniel, when you miss him so much."
"It was real, Carter. Daniel's alive and he's here, somewhere." Jack looked at all three of them. "I'm going to look for him, alone if necessary."
"I will accompany you, O'Neill."
"Thanks, Teal'c, knew I could count on you." Carter looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. "Thank you, captain. Rothman?"
Rothman shrugged his agreement.
The airmen had shoved Daniel into an empty bunkroom, and now stood guard over the door.
What was taking so long? Why was he still here when Jack had disappeared almost immediately once they'd found the machine and freed him? Was it possible that they could have failed somehow, been recaptured by the machines? Or was it just that Jack wasn't able to find the machine which Daniel was occupying - after all, he hadn't been with the others.
It was strange to think of being replaced. Even by someone he knew well, like Rothman, someone who probably fit in with the rest of SG-1 worse than he had. Daniel considered this, lying back on the bunk. When he'd first insisted on being a part of things, of going off- world with Jack, it had seemed like he would never fit in, but now he couldn't imagine staying behind. Even here, in this game, he had continued to go on missions, even if Daniel knew now why they had felt so familiar.
All the Keeper had to work with was the contents of his mind, in order to construct a reality for Daniel to inhabit. And that included making up missions for him to go on, to make him think he was truly back at the SGC.
The door opened.
"Sam. What can I do for you?"
"What's going on, Daniel?" Sam asked, bringing a chair over to where Daniel was still lying. "Where's the colonel?"
"None of this is real, Sam," Daniel said, "and much as I'd love to talk with you, I want it to be the real you."
"What are you talking about?"
Daniel smiled and said nothing. Sam watched him for a while, before getting up from the chair and walking out, without saying another word. Daniel closed his eyes, deciding that he might as well get some rest while he was waiting to be rescued.
Jack could feel the looks they were giving him, even as he studiously ignored them, and looked for any sign of another row of those machines.
As the minutes passed, doubt was beginning to grow in his own mind - was it possible that the Keeper had somehow tricked him? That the Daniel he'd created had been real enough to fool him into thinking Daniel was alive?
No. Jack was certain of it. That was the real Daniel - he was alive, and somewhere here was a machine holding him captive.
"I see no sign of any other machines, O'Neill." Teal'c's voice was calm, as usual, but Jack had much experience of interpreting the things the Jaffa didn't say.
"He's here, Teal'c," Jack said.
"We shall continue to search then." Jack smiled to himself. Teal'c would never admit it, but he'd missed Daniel too.
The path turned again, then doubled back on itself, before opening out into a clearing. There, as Jack had hoped, were more machines. For a moment, as he looked, Jack wondered if they had gone in a circle, come back to the machines they themselves had occupied, but one of these contained someone.
And that someone was Daniel.
Jack looked round at Carter - she shrugged her shoulders and smiled, not looking at all upset about being wrong. She nodded at Jack, then looked back to where Daniel was. He looked frail, wrapped in the dark tubes that held him into the machine, chest barely moving as he breathed.
Crossing to the machine, Jack began to pull at the tubes, frowning when they moved slightly under his hands. They came loose suddenly, and then snaked back into the sides of the chair.
Daniel opened his eyes and smiled at Jack, then looked more than a little embarrassed as he made out the others standing behind him and realized that he was back in the real world once more.
Sam had been pleased to see him, Rothman had grinned at him, knowing that he was likely to escape from the ever-present scrutiny of Colonel O'Neill now, and even Teal'c had looked pleased. Almost. But Jack had been silent, merely nodded in greeting, then led the way back to the 'Gate.
Well, at least this felt more real than if Jack had been overjoyed to see him again, Daniel reasoned, as he watched the chevrons light up.
He could feel Jack's gaze on him, the weight of it almost tangible, but didn't look round. There would be time enough, he hoped, to sort out what was between them, to somehow straighten out the mess his over-active imagination had caused for the two of them.
When they got home.
Daniel hesitated by the 'Gate itself, waiting for Jack to join him - he needed to know everyone was safe, watching as Rothman and Sam passed him where he stood, nodding to Teal'c.
Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, Jack was there, his face still impassive.
"Home?" Daniel found himself asking, knowing it sounded stupid but barely knowing what else to say.
"Home," Jack agreed, inclining his head to show that he wanted Daniel to go first.
There was an expression in Jack's eyes that looked familiar, Daniel decided, one he had seen on Jack's face more times than he could count. It was only as he did as he was told, passing Jack to step into the wormhole's embrace, that Daniel realized that look - the one he had come to describe to himself as 'exasperated fondness' - was one he had only seen since he had been here.
There's no place like home, Jack thought, as he stepped through the event horizon and heard his boots hit the metal ramp of the SGC with a hollow clang. His eyes sought out Daniel, even as Daniel looked up at him from where he stood waiting at the bottom of the ramp - the others had already headed for the infirmary.
This was real, wasn't it? How could they possibly tell?
"This is the real SGC, isn't it?" Daniel hissed, as Jack reached the bottom of the ramp.
"How can we tell?" Jack asked. "How do you know I'm the real Jack O'Neill?"
He understood Daniel's confusion, shared most of it, but he didn't want to see Daniel work himself into a frenzy of over-reaction, panicking at the slightest thing. Daniel just looked at him, his eyes considering, as they headed out of the embarkation room together.
"That's a good point, Jack," Daniel said. "After we separated, I was suddenly back in the SGC, with Hammond and Sam and everyone else. And then the next thing I know, I'm waking up in that machine with you leaning over me."
"I know. How confused do you think I feel? After all, I thought I was back here when I was really stuck in that machine and..."
When Daniel's voice trailed off, Jack turned to look at him, though he already suspected what he would see on Daniel's face. He was right, Daniel looked an enticing combination of worried and embarrassed, so much so that the colour was starting to spread even to his ears.
Jack decided to have mercy on him, sort of.
"But it wasn't that bad, was it?" he asked, his eyes intent on Daniel. "After all, it seemed like things were going pretty well. Some things."
Daniel looked away, as he clearly tried to get his embarrassment under control. Jack grinned to himself. There was an up-side to this whole thing after all. The thought of those months without Daniel were starting to fade now, replaced by the reality of having him here, whole and breathing and looking like he was interested in being more than just friends.
Not that it wasn't also a licence to tease him half way round the SGC and then some.
There were things about how he had been while Daniel was gone Jack didn't want to think about. The way he'd treated Carter at times, for starters. He had a feeling that was going to come back and bite him on the butt when he least expected it. If Carter ever figured out there was more than a platonic relationship between him and Daniel, not that he could ever tell her, that was something he'd live to regret.
"Lucky bastard," he muttered, then grinned to himself at the speed at which Daniel's head turned, a suspicious expression on his face. You heard right, Daniel, he thought. But you're not sure, are you?
They walked in silence the rest of the way, Jack hyper-aware of Daniel watching him - he knew Daniel had to be trying to figure out whether he'd heard correctly, and what the hell he should do next, if he had.
"Here we are," Jack said, as they reached the infirmary at last. "After you, Dr. Jackson." He held the infirmary door open and gestured for Daniel to precede him.
"Why thank you, colonel," Daniel said, bowing slightly. "I never suspected you were such a gentleman."
Just as he stepped forward, Jack let the door go, so that it slapped back in Daniel's face.
Daniel just stared at him for a moment, then started to laugh.
"I think we're back in Kansas," Daniel said, when he'd managed to get his laughter under control long enough to speak coherently.
Once again, Jack had done just the right thing, responded exactly the way he ought to rather than the way Daniel expected him to. That had reassured Daniel more than any other action, even if it had momentarily annoyed him as well. If the Jack he had been living with, the Jack he had been sharing a bed with, was based on his memory and imagination, this one's actions proved him not to be a creation.
After all, there was something slightly malicious about Jack letting the door swing into him that way, something that spoke of Jack figuring out some slightly out-of-character move that would prove he was who he said he was. Something that would satisfy Daniel's need to be sure he was really home.
From where he was sitting, waiting to be given the all clear by Janet Fraiser, he could hear Jack. As usual, Jack was complaining, telling the nurse to keep her damn needle away from him, that if he wanted a hole put in him, he'd ask a Goa'uld and it would probably hurt less.
He'd always wondered why Jack bothered - most of the time the nurse would just keep insisting that they had to have a blood sample, and protesting never worked in the long run. But in some ways it seemed like it was a part of Jack's routine, his ritual for returning to the SGC, something that let him focus on the trivial to forget the vastness of some of the other things he had to deal with. And Daniel could understand that very well.
There were things about the past weeks he wanted to forget, but he knew they were burned into his memory. That it would be painful to try and ignore the feelings he had for Jack, try and push them back into the box when they had been allowed so much freedom.
But there was still hope, wasn't there? He'd seen the way Jack looked at him.
Now Daniel had to hope that the things he'd conjured up, making a life for himself with a Jack who didn't really exist outside of his imagination, were closer to reality than he had ever dared to consider.
All the signs were there, Daniel decided, listening with half an ear to Jack's continued protestations. Now he had to decide how to cross the divide from imagination to reality, this time without the help of the Keeper.
Jack kept half an eye out for the vampire nurse - every time they stuck him with those damn needles, they hurt way more than they should, yet still they looked at him like he was some kind of wimp for objecting.
The tapping of footsteps across the concrete floor brought him back to the here and now. Janet Fraiser was there, as he had expected, smiling at him as she glanced up from her clipboard.
"You're free to go, colonel," she said. As she turned, Janet hesitated, then turned back to him. "And could you do me a favour? I can make it doctor's orders, if I have to...."
"Threatening me doesn't make me want to do stuff, doc, you should have figured that out by now."
"Could you take Dr. Jackson home with you, colonel? Keep an eye on him?" Janet looked at him, her intelligent eyes innocent. "I hate to think of him in that apartment of his, after it's been empty for so long."
Jack just looked at her. How did she know he hadn't emptied it so the landlord could rent it out again?
"Sure thing, doc." Sometimes, it was easier not to ask - just go with the flow.
He gathered Daniel up on his way out of the infirmary, gesturing at him to come along and not waiting to see if Daniel hopped down off the bed where he was sitting and did so. Jack wondered if he was broadcasting some kind of signal, something like 'will take home small puppies and lost archaeologists'.
"Where are we going?" Daniel asked, when they got into the elevator.
"Home. Doctor's orders."
"But...." Jack looked at Daniel - the stark light in the elevator made him look very tired all of a sudden. "How long have I been... missing?"
"So my apartment is history." Daniel looked down, then up again as another thought struck him. "Where's my stuff?"
"Your apartment is fine - it's only been a few weeks since..." Jack paused, then changed the subject. "It's a bit dusty, but otherwise okay." Daniel relaxed, slumping back against the elevator wall and closing his eyes. "But we're going to my place."
"We are?" Daniel asked, his eyes popping open suddenly. He looked wary. "Why?"
"You said that."
"I was checking to make sure you were listening," Jack said, patiently, as he watched Daniel close his eyes again. Was it his imagination or did Daniel look like he was panicking slightly? "You okay?"
"Tired," Daniel said, without opening his eyes.
Jack watched him, his eyes making an attempt to memorize the way Daniel looked. He tried to remember the last time he had really looked at Daniel - even when Daniel had been such a major part of his life, Jack knew that he had never taken the time to consider he would want to remember what Daniel looked like. In the weeks he'd been dead, Jack had thought about that a lot, wondering why he'd never spent more time with Daniel, got to know him any better.
All that would change this time, he told himself. And this time, it seemed that the reality the Keeper had constructed might help him with this - Daniel had become so close to that Jack, so reliant on him, that Jack figured he had a headstart on making that relationship a reality here as well.
And, as soon as Daniel had got a good night's sleep, Jack intended to get to work.
This wasn't what he wanted, Daniel decided, as he let Jack shepherd him across to his car, even though it felt so familiar. It felt like last time he had thought himself home, and Daniel wondered if he would ever stop getting this overwhelming sensation of deja vu.
He glanced across at Jack, watching the way the lights of passing cars played across his face, and wondered whether he had the nerve to push for what he really wanted. And how would Jack react, anyway? He knew that Jack knew exactly what had been going on back in the artificial reality - what little he had left to Jack's imagination, the Keeper had helpfully filled in by his innuendo-laden comments.
Daniel felt his face warm at that thought. Damn. Jack knew, or suspected, everything. Well, at least he didn't seem shocked or horrified by the idea that Daniel and his alter ego had been more than just friends. That had to be good, didn't it?
Now, though, he had no idea what to say. He wanted to set things straight between them, make sure that Jack had the right idea about how things had been - after all, he'd been placed in that reality at just the wrong time, in so many ways, just when things had started going bad between him and 'Jack'.
It must have been part of the Keeper's ploy to stop him getting suspicious - now he thought back, Daniel realized that every time he had begun to wonder why everything seemed so familiar, 'Jack' had done something to distract him. And the last something had been the most drastic of all.
If it hadn't been quite so nerve-wracking, Daniel would have admired the cleverness of it. Certainly, Jack coming onto him that way had stopped him wondering about his feelings of deja vu, making him more concerned with trying to get back into Jack's good graces after pushing him away. Damn. He'd let Jack push him around, almost force him into something he didn't want to do in the first place, and then he had been the one trying to apologize?
What did that say about him, if he let that happen?
Maybe that reality was a practice run, Daniel decided. A chance for me to see what it was like to be involved with Jack, see the pitfalls so I can avoid them in the real thing? That possibility felt a little more comforting than considering the fact that he had been entertainment for the Keeper. Just how much had the Keeper seen? Had he been there all the time?
"Do you think he was there all the time?" Daniel asked, staring resolutely through the windshield into the darkness.
He didn't want to think about the implications of that, the things he had done in the privacy of his own apartment, with an unseen audience. The Keeper had implied that he had been watching all the time, and Daniel swallowed nervously at the thought.
"He said you were very entertaining," Jack answered, his tone wry. "That kind of suggests he was watching you."
Daniel thought about this, wondering what Jack was thinking. He sounded a little envious, Daniel decided after a moment, a little regretful.
"I'm sorry you had to go through thinking I was dead," Daniel continued, trying to change the subject slightly. "And then to see me die...."
"Can we talk about something else?" Daniel glanced across, but Jack was still concentrating on driving. "Strangely enough, Daniel, I really don't want to think about that."
Way to go, Daniel, Jack thought. Kick a guy while he's down, why don't you?
He knew Daniel hadn't meant it that way, but the words still burned at him. Leaving Daniel behind had been bad enough, the months he had lived with the idea he had left him to die alone had been agonizing, and then to have to experience it all again as part of the Keeper's twisted game....
He wondered how Daniel must be feeling. To discover that the life you'd made for yourself was only a fantasy, a scenario in someone else's creation. But at least that Jack had experienced something this one hoped to be sharing real soon - a life with Daniel.
He'd tried to concentrate on driving, but the Keeper's words kept coming back to him. Daniel had been entertaining, had he? Stimulating? Damn. Jack was starting to be envious of himself, and that was more than a little confusing.
When they finally pulled up outside Jack's house, he was relieved - the journey down the mountain had seemed to last forever, but it had given him time to be certain. He wanted this, he wanted Daniel.
It was deja vu all over again, Daniel decided, as he followed Jack up the steps to his house. This was so like the last time he'd come back to the SGC, it was starting to worry him. Jack was watching him with the same kind of expression, though at least this time he didn't feel quite so tired.
Jack's house looked much as he remembered it, it looked comfortable and homely, more so than his apartment had ever managed. Maybe that was because of the time Daniel had spent here when he came back from Abydos?
And where was Jack, anyway?
Daniel turned, to look for him, only to find that he too was being watched.
"Can I get you anything? Coffee? Beer?" Jack asked, his eyes intent on Daniel.
Jack nodded, stepping forward.
"At least give me your jacket, Daniel," he continued. "Let's make it look like you're planning to stay a while?" Daniel smiled, shrugging out of his jacket - he felt his smile waver slightly when his hand brushed Jack's as he passed his jacket over. "Make yourself at home."
Daniel sat, sinking slightly into the couch. He closed his eyes, resting his head. He felt the couch shift slightly as Jack sat down too, but managed not to look. For a long moment, Daniel just sat there, conscious that Jack was watching him, as he tried to maintain the pretense of not being bothered by it in the slightest.
He took a deep breath, to steady his nerves, then opened his eyes. As he had suspected, Jack was right there, just watching him. Daniel swallowed nervously.
"Does it make any sense," Jack said, without breaking eye contact, "if I say I'm jealous?"
"Oh." Daniel thought about that for a moment, forcing himself to look away as he felt himself beginning to squirm under Jack's scrutiny. "That sounds weird."
"I meant everything I said, Daniel. About being chickenshit and all, about never having the courage to tell you how I felt." Daniel heard Jack sigh. "At least one of us had the cojones to tell the truth."
"In my imagination," Daniel said, looking round once more. "That Jack wasn't real, remember? If the Keeper created him from my imagination, my memories of you, then he obviously got it wrong. The Jack I knew there never had the nerve to say anything until I pushed him to, but here you are...."
"You can't beat the real thing," Jack said, grinning slightly.
"If I'd thought about it," Daniel said, "I'd have realized it wasn't real. That Jack did stuff out of character, things meant to distract me from realizing something was wrong."
"You said something about your office?" Jack asked, his tone trying for casual but not quite making it. Daniel glanced at him, hearing the ice beneath the words.
"The real Jack O'Neill would never have done anything like that. That was the Keeper's last ditch attempt to stop me thinking about what was wrong, before he stuck the two of us together."
"You sound so certain of that."
"Because I am," Daniel said, leaning forward, towards where Jack was sitting. "I know you, remember? You'd no more try and force someone into something than grow wings and fly. As soon as he did that, I should have guessed something was more than wrong, should have realized...."
"You trust me that much, even after I got you killed?"
"I'm here," Daniel said, his hand coming up to rest on Jack's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Here, for real, Jack. I chose to be there, like I choose to be here. With you."
Jack found himself staring at Daniel, the only thing rooting him in the here and now the warmth of Daniel's hand where it rested on his shoulder.
"I was an idiot," Jack said. "I should have told you how I felt. After all, it seems like we face death every day."
"You thought you had more time."
"That's no excuse, and you know it."
Daniel smiled, then leaned forward slightly.
"Then make it up to me, Jack," he whispered. "All that time we were apart, the things you wanted to say."
Jack's words stuck in his throat. Where should he begin?
"I don't know what to say."
"Then show me."
Had his time with the other Jack made him bolder, Daniel wondered, or was it just that he wasn't worried about how this Jack, the real Jack, might react? He'd seen the signals, added it all up, and this time he knew everything was going to be okay. And by his actions so far, Jack had told him all he needed to know, told him enough to know the feelings he'd given the Jack created from his imagination hadn't been so far off the mark.
He'd always trusted Jack, even back when he hadn't particularly liked him. Even then, he'd seen something in him, something that Charlie's death had buried but could never destroy completely - Jack needed to be needed by someone. He'd had that with Charlie, rather than with Sara, and in some ways he had latched onto Daniel to fulfill that role.
Normally independent, Daniel found something reassuring about Jack wanting to protect him, even when it bugged the hell out of him. It wasn't, Daniel realized early on, that he thought Daniel needed a baby-sitter of sorts, but that Jack needed to know he was okay.
And once he'd figured that out, it wasn't quite such a burden - an annoyance at times, but never a burden. After all, how could Daniel complain at being the center of someone's attention, particularly someone he cared about as well?
And when that someone was sitting only a few inches away from him, looking at him like he was the Holy Grail or something, how could that ever be a bad thing?
"I guess you're wondering what I got up to back there?" Daniel asked, sliding closer to where Jack was sitting on the couch. He smiled to himself as he saw Jack's eyes on him, fixed there so that nothing short of a direct Goa'uld attack on the house was likely to distract him.
"The thought..." Jack cleared his throat and tried again. "Thought had crossed my mind."
"Aw crap," Jack said, then pounced, grabbing a handful of Daniel's shirt and pulling him close. Close enough that they were eye to eye now, and there was no mistaking the expression on Jack's face - it told Daniel everything he had always wanted to know, showed him everything he had always wanted to see.
"Is it time for show and tell?" Daniel asked, leaning even closer.
"No. Just show," Jack said, closing the distance once and for all.
The Keeper smiled to himself as he watched them together.
He should have thought of this before. This way, at least, he'd have a little more time to watch them. The others had proved less than helpful - the woman and the alien had been somehow immune to his technology, and the other was tedious to say the least.
It was unlikely these two would be fooled for very long - they were both perceptive, both intelligent - but this way he had the other's memories to tap into as well, so who knew how long it might be before they began to suspect that anything was amiss?
And anything they could give him, could give his Residents, was a good thing. He smiled to himself once more, then settled down to observe.
~*~ fin ~*~