Jack O'Neill shifted restlessly on the examination table and tried not to ask the question that had been hovering on his lips for the last twenty minutes. He hated being examined at the best of times, avoided the infirmary unless it was absolutely necessary - for which read death was imminent or a part of his anatomy was seriously damaged - and often had to fight the urge to run when he saw Janet Fraiser look even casually in his direction. Three weeks cooling his heels in and around the place was not his idea of a vacation.
The doctor scribbled something on his chart, her brow creased with concentration that Jack found unnerving. If he was okay, how come she looked so... concerned? So maybe he wasn't okay. Maybe the - what had Sam called them? - nano-somethings had started up again and were even now destroying his body from the inside out. They were machines, right? Itty-bitty machines, and they were inside his body... and machines could be booby trapped, couldn't they... So what if they'd only been fooling everyone? What if they just went dormant for a while, then started up all over again? He could be dying, and they might not even know it...
"Okay, Colonel, I just want to take another look at that knee..." she informed him, folding back the sheet that was his only defence between his dignity and the rest of the world.
He cleared his throat and tried to sound casual. "Why, is there a problem?"
She looked at him, her face impassive and giving nothing away, but there was a sparkle of laughter lingering deep in her eyes. "What makes you think that?. Is there something you're not telling me, Colonel?"
"Ah - no..." The question caught him so off guard that he failed to notice the twitch of amusement on her lips. "No! No - ah - everything's fine from where I'm standing." he felt his heart sink into the pit of his stomach as he realised how dumb that sounded.
She nodded, satisfied, but as she began to move away she allowed her gaze to travel slowly the length of his body, her expression softening into one of blatant appreciation. "Everything looks fine from where I'm standing, too," she said, her voice too low for anyone but Jack to hear. Jack groaned and covered his eyes with his arm, willing his body not to respond to that note of interest in her voice, wishing this could be over and he could get back to his office and the nice innocuous pile of paperwork waiting for him.
Her fingers were gentle as they probed first his right knee, then his left. He felt a stab of - more discomfort than actual pain, and he clamped his teeth together and lay perfectly still, knowing that if she once got wind of the lingering ache in that joint it would mean another week behind a desk while the rest of SG1 got to go play explorer.
"Okay, you can sit up now," she told him and he did so with as much grace and fluidity of movement as he could muster. At that point in time he would do or say whatever was necessary to get himself out of there.
Clutching the sheet in his lap, he finally found the courage to ask "What's the verdict, doc?"
She produced a light pen and leaned closer, directing the beam into each eye. Jack could smell her perfume, delicate and flowery, not unlike the stuff Sara wore. It had a strangely calming effect on him and he inhaled deeply, allowing it to trigger a stream of gentle memories of happier times. He remembered also the half-finished letter in his notebook, the thoughts and feelings he had felt the need to share with his ex-wife one last time. Sitting alone on Argos, feeling his life literally drip away, there had been time to ponder all the regrets, all the things he had left undone, and those that he would gladly undo. Just as they had during his long and painful escape from Iraq, it was the thoughts of her that had sustained him during those last days on Argos.
That bothered him. Why Sara? His marriage to her was over and had been for more than a year. Not only that, but there was someone else in his life now, someone he cared for very much. Someone who gave him hope and a reason to live. So why was it Sara who had been such a comfort to him and not Daniel?
"That's it." Janet's voice broke into his thoughts. He looked up to see her tucking the pen back into her pocket and setting the chart aside.
"What?" he asked, aware that he sounded like half his brain was in limbo.
"I said we're all through, Colonel. You can put your clothes back on."
Still clutching the sheet, he slipped from the bed and reached for his pants. "So... How am I doing?"
She glanced at him, then looked away quickly as he dropped the sheet and reached for his zipper. "Ah - There's still a trace of arthritis in your left knee, but that shouldn't give you any trouble, and while your vision is pretty much back to normal, you might find you want to keep up with the glasses for another couple of days, just for reading and so on. Other than that...."
Emerging from the black t-shirt, his heart did a double thump. "You mean - I'm okay? I'm - back to - normal?"
"Whatever passes for 'normal' around this place, yes," she grinned. "I'll confirm it to General Hammond, but as far as I'm concerned you can go back on active duty as from Monday."
"Yes!!" he yelled, catching her by the arms and first swinging her around, then pulling her into a rib-crushing hug. Her astonished laughter rang in his ears as it matched his own. "Janet Fraiser, you are... you are..." Words failing him, he reeled her back into his arms and buried his face in her neck. "Thank you," he whispered fervently. He drew back then and his gaze met hers, relief and gratitude flashing back and forth between them. Then another wave of delight crashed over him and he was off, hurrying towards the door, calling "I gotta tell Daniel! Oh god... Freedom!" over his shoulder.
Behind him, left alone in the austere infirmary, Janet Fraiser sighed regretfully and returned to her work, wondering why the best ones always belonged to somebody else.
He tracked Daniel Jackson to the shoe box which masqueraded as the anthropologists lab-cum-office, a few rooms down from his own. With three SG teams already off-world, the place was deserted and in a state of self-imposed twilight, the only light coming from the computer screen and the small lamp set up on the workbench, over which his friend was bending.
Jack closed the door quietly and leaned against the wall, smiling to himself as he took in the scene before him. Daniel was 'switched off', so engrossed in what he was doing that the whole mountain could blow to hell and back and he wouldn't even notice. But that was just his way, and one part of all the many things that drew Jack to him. His thirst for knowledge went hand in hand with his compassion, his integrity, his overwhelming love of life and his amazing strength. Not physical strength, though one look at the body carefully concealed within the shapeless BDU's was enough to confirm that he would be a formidable opponent should he ever be required to defend himself. No, Daniel's true strength came from within, born of knowledge and determination, shaped by adversity and grief, held close, guarded, but a well upon which he could draw, seemingly at the flick of a switch. Sure, he liked to play it down, was content sometimes to appear the bumbling, uncertain, self-doubting scientist that people expected him to be, because in his mind force did not always achieve the desired results. But it was an act which Jack had seen beyond as far back as their first trip to Abydos. There were times when he even convinced himself that, of the four members of SG1, Daniel was the strongest, the most 'together'. He knew what he was, he knew what he wanted to be and, most important of all, he knew what he had to do to get there.
Glasses perched on the end of his nose, he was right now peering at a small object that, to Jack, looked like a Grecian terracotta vase about the size of a coffee mug, although with the amount of treasure brought back from the various expeditions he could never quite be certain. Egyptian, Phoenician, Mayan... half the time they all looked the same to him, but Daniel would know what it was - and probably right down to the name of the wife of the guy who lit the furnace in which it had been fired. A great one for detail was Dr. Jackson.
He leaned closer, augmenting his spectacles with a small magnifying glass. Now and then he would glance away and scribble something in a notebook, then pick up the glass again and translate another word, decipher another symbol.
Another ten minutes passed, yet Jack found himself becoming so absorbed in simply watching his lover at work that the importance of his own news seemed secondary. But at last Daniel sat back, pushing his glasses to the top of his head and rubbing at overstrained eyes. He was breathing heavily, broad chest rising and falling like a marathon runner. It was yet another symptom of the depth of his involvement in a task that sometimes he almost forgot to breathe.
Finally, he looked up and saw Jack, and a broad smile, like a spring sunrise, spread across his face. "Jack," he said softly, making the word a caress. "Thank you."
Jack pushed himself away from the wall and walked slowly across the room. "For what?"
"Letting me finish the translation."
Feeling the heat rise to his face, Jack ducked his head and shrugged. "I like watching you work. Don't often get the chance these days."
The smile became a grin. "It does get a little - busy around here, doesn't it. No time to -" he licked his lips, sending the heat from Jack's face tumbling into his groin " - do the things we want to do."
As he spoke, he eased himself down off the stool and crossed the room, not stopping when he reached Jack but brushing past him, until he reached the corner of the room, turning there... waiting.... Jack bit down hard on his bottom lip, knowing what the younger man had in mind. The day after he and Daniel had become lovers, Jack had checked out every room on the base in which they might possibly find themselves alone, establishing precisely if and where the security cameras were placed and how great an area they covered with each sweep. The corner in which Daniel was now standing, positioned beneath the camera, was the one blind spot in the lab.
Trying to appear casual for whoever might be observing them, Jack ambled over to him, until he was sure he was out of sight. Even before their bodies touched, Daniel was lifting his arms to Jack's neck, drawing him in, his mouth already opening to greet its mate. Jack met him in a sweet collision of mouths, his tongue sliding over the full lower lip, breaching the hard edge of teeth, seeking its companion, its partner in the erotic ballet. His hands found Daniel's waist, slipped round and over and down, gathering him closer, needing to feel him again after so long an abstinence, needing the reassurance of touch and taste and scent.
Breathless, Daniel pulled back, his eyes full of questions that an hour ago Jack could not have answered. Now he simply smiled and nuzzled his lovers neck, took the earlobe between his lips and tugged it gently. "I'm okay," he murmured. "I'm in the clear."
"Really?" Delight squeaked in Daniel's voice.
"Yeah." Another kiss, lingering, sensual. "I just came from the infirmary. Janet gave me the okay to go back to work."
Before he could brace himself for the impact, Daniel's arms clutched around him once more, hugging him until his spine threatened to crack. "Didn't I tell you you'd be okay?" he laughed, exultant, "I knew it! Oh god... Jack.... I...." The words faltered as the mingled emotions of the last three weeks fought to make themselves known and there was a suspicious, yet well-contained brightness in his eyes as he lay his hand gently against his lover's cheek.
"It's okay," Jack promised him in a voice that shyly told that he understood what his friend had been suffering since their return from Argos. "It's over."
"Thank God," Daniel whispered, the sentiment coming from the heart. Suddenly he pulled back, grinning into the darkened eyes. "We have to celebrate!"
"My thoughts exactly. So, whaddaya say I book a table at Emilio's and we grab Teal'c and Sam and...." He stopped abruptly when he saw the look that crossed Daniel's face. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Stepping away from him, back towards the bench, Daniel pulled off his glasses and began cleaning the lenses with a corner of his shirt, studiously not looking at Jack. "Nothing," he replied, but the answer was too casual. Still he went on. "I need to finish up here, so why don't you make the arrangements and I'll -"
"Daniel!" The warning note in Jack's voice stemmed the flow of words. "Nothing?"
A shrug, a glance slanted at Jack from beneath the thick lashes. "I was just hoping we could... spend some time together. Just the two of us." The muscles of his face seemed to tug it into a parody of a smile, but it lacked any true warmth. Words for the sake of words. "But dinner with Teal'c and Sam sounds - good...."
Seeing the disappointment in his eyes, which no amount of bravado could conceal, Jack felt a wave of sweetness pass through him. It was so like Daniel to put his own desires on hold where Jack was concerned, to give where he could so easily take. If Jack wanted to go out to dinner with their friends, to celebrate yet another return from death's door, then that was what they would do...
Ignoring the fact that they had moved out of the corner and might even now be under observation, Jack reached out and drew the tip of his index finger lightly down Daniel's flushed cheek. "Dinner with you, alone.... sounds even better."
"It does?" Daniel rubbed his face against the touch, his eyes widening behind their lenses.
"Uh-huh. You even get to pick the place."
"I do?" He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, his gaze assessing, then said softly "Then how about dinner... alone... at my place?"
The same finger skimmed over the soft lips, the lightest pressure gaining him illicit entry to the moist warmth. "Perfect," he said, responding both to Daniel's invitation and to the intimate response of the tongue that wrapped around his digit. "What d'you say we blow this joint, huh? Go someplace we can... make up for lost time?"
Daniel had relinquished his hold on the finger and was now nuzzling into the damp palm. "Give me five minutes to finish up here?"
The feel of those lips working against his skin, the silken sweep of a tongue across his palm were combining to make Jack's body surge back to life. "Five minutes," he agreed absently "No longer. I... I have to see... see Hammond anyhow -- Oh God, Danny, don't tease!" he rasped as his thumb was sucked between the full pink lips.
Daniel grinned smugly as he backed away. "Just checking Dr Fraiser's results. Want to make sure everything is in working order."
Trying hard to still the frantic beating of his heart, Jack scraped a hand through his hair. "Oh - it is," he confirmed, "I can assure you it is. Take me home and I'll prove it."
"You mean that?" The sweetest of smiles crossed Daniel's face.
"Every word, lover," Jack responded in kind. "Every word."
They stopped at the market on the way to Daniel's apartment. Staying on base for such a long time, slipping home only for an hour or two to check his mail and feed his fish, Daniel hadn't bothered to restock with such staples as milk or bread and the larder was therefore somewhat bare.
The store was deserted at that time of day and Jack took advantage of that fact to saunter slowly from aisle to empty aisle, ostensibly pushing the cart while Daniel made his selections, though in reality using it to take the weight off his aching leg. He could only hope that Janet had been right and that the lingering arthritis in the joint would abate as his recovery continued. The last thing he wanted was to see out the rest of his career behind a desk.
Excuse it may be, but Jack had to admit there was something warming about shopping for groceries with Daniel. It was - comfortable, reminding him of the early days of his marriage, before Charlie came along and shopping became a nightmare. Sara would always pick the sensible things, the right vegetables, the healthiest cereals, while he would head for the luxuries, the wines and the high-fat cheese and - he sighed - maple walnut ice-cream. Sara always played it safe with good ol' strawberry, but for him it was maple walnut drizzled with bitter chocolate sauce, just enough to cut through the sweetness.... Glancing up at Daniel, who was busy debating between two packs of dried pasta, he wondered idly what flavour his lover would prefer. Chocolate chip, he decided. Daniel would definitely be a chocolate chip man.
"What's so funny?" Daniel asked, hearing his soft laughter. Jack shook his head.
"Nothing," he said, not wanting to share such a personal moment in such a public place. "So, did you make up your mind yet?"
"I don't -- ?"
"About the pasta. Only the way you're gazing at those packets I'm starting to feel jealous here."
Daniel rolled his eyes. "Jealous. of. a packet of pasta?"
Jack spread his hands in a 'why not?' gesture. "Hey, I've been on a 'diet' for three weeks, remember? Wouldn't wanna make a starving man suffer, would you?"
The blush that spread across Daniel's face was delightful, at least in Jack's eyes. How could anyone who had seen as much of the world as he had retain such an air of innocence? Of all Daniel's many traits, this was the one that appealed the most to Jack's secret self, to the warm-hearted man hidden behind the crusty exterior of an Air Force officer.
Lips pressed together, Daniel tipped back his head, directing wide blue eyes towards the ceiling. Jack's own gaze was drawn to the long expanse of throat - just begging to be kissed! - watching the Adam's apple bob up and down as Daniel swallowed rapidly.
"You - ahem - You're not the only one to have been on that - ah - 'diet' Jack," he murmured, slanting a sideways look now at his lover. "I'm hungry too, you know."
Now it was Jack's turn to blush, to feel the heat climb rapidly up his neck and into his face. Daniel wanted him. Simple as that. He cursed himself for having been so unbelievably selfish, so careless of his lover's needs these past weeks. At first, while he was confined to the infirmary, Daniel would visit as often as he could, staying sometimes just for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour or more, depending on how tired Jack was feeling. Once Janet cut him some slack, however, and let him spend some time catching up on his paperwork, the visits had grown more infrequent, until he hardly saw Daniel from one end of the day to the other. He had grown so used to Daniel dropping by to check up on him that he had found himself resenting the lack of attention. It had never occurred to him to go in search of Daniel himself. Too wrapped up in your own self-pity, eh Jack?
"I know," he said softly. Then "So, you about done here?"
Daniel swiftly took stock of the items in the cart. Glancing at them himself, and noting the curious selections, Jack could only wonder what he intended making with them.
"Ah... Actually, there is... one more thing. Back in a minute...."
Jack watched him head for the rear of the store, unable to stop the grin that spread across his face as his lover slipped into 'explorer' mode, mind focused on one objective to the detriment of all others. It was that same single-mindedness that was forever getting him into trouble.
His knee chose that moment to remind him of its presence and he decided that maybe a slow walk towards the cash desk might be more beneficial than standing still in one place, waiting for Daniel to come back.
Passing the end of the toiletries aisle, he recalled that he was almost out of toothpaste and went looking for his favourite brand. A tube was added to the cart, along with a can of shaving foam and a pack of disposable razors. He was scanning the shelves for other offers when his gaze halted, almost spontaneously, at the display of condoms. It seemed ironic, given the method by which the nanites had infected his body, and a cruel reminder that it was more than a month since he and Daniel had last made love. And between then and now there was Kinthia... Would Daniel forgive him for that? More important, did he have the right to expect it? Everything Daniel had said and done in the last few hours cried out that he held Jack in no way accountable for what had taken place on Argos, yet there was still a part of him that doubted, a part that could not quite believe his good fortune in finding someone like Daniel, who gave so much in return for so little. He was never that lucky and he couldn't help wondering if maybe those few weeks he'd had with Daniel were all there was ever meant to be.
On the other hand, the kiss Daniel had laid on him back at the base - a kiss which had made the one Sha're had given Daniel on Abydos look like an innocent peck - and his desire to spend the evening alone with Jack, suggested Argos was not only forgiven but forgotten.
He felt a presence behind him, the radiated warmth of a body reaching him a moment before the scent of Daniel filled his senses and an arm reached around him to remove the pack from his hand. Chin resting on Jack's shoulder, Daniel whispered "Don't bother... I've got more than enough."
With a swift glance up and down the aisle to ensure they were still alone, Jack captured Daniel's hand and squeezed it tightly before he pulled away and turned to face the younger man. "Oh? What happened to the feast after the famine?" His brow twitched. "And just how many do you consider is 'enough'?"
The tip of a pink tongue made a seductive sweep of Daniel's lips, sending an immediate jolt of desire to Jack's groin. Well, at least that's still in working order, he acknowledged, relieved. That was one thing Janet hadn't checked for - a fact for which he was also grateful.
"Well, you know what they told us on that survival course..."
"Which was...?" He waved an encouraging hand.
"It's always best to take it easy if you haven't eaten in a while. You need to... build up to it... slowly... Just a mouthful or two to begin with... Allow your body to... adjust..."
The promise was there, in his eyes. Promise and forgiveness, and the sweetest look of longing Jack had ever seen. He wanted to gather him up, right there in the middle of the store, and kiss him the way he had kissed him back in the lab. But already the place was filling up with post-work shoppers heading for home and more than once a pair of enquiring eyes turned their way.
"Can we go now? Please?" he asked, like a child who had endured more than enough of Aunt Edna's company and now wanted to go home to his toys.
Daniel smirked and moved away, turning towards the row of checkouts. "I see growing old didn't improve your patience any," he quipped.
Juggling the bag of groceries from one arm to the other, Daniel stood at the foot of the stairs and watched, his eyes troubled, as Jack made his slow ascent. With each step the older man took, his anxiety mounted. He noted the way his lover favoured his left leg, the way he leaned on the handrail just that little bit too heavily for Daniel's peace of mind, the way he paused halfway to drag a long, steadying breath into his heaving lungs. And this was the man Janet Fraiser had said could return to duty? As Jack himself would say - "'Oh sure.'
As much as he trusted Jack in most things, where health matters were concerned he was prepared to play the sceptic, knowing of old how evasive, how stubborn the colonel could be. How many times had he insisted he was 'fine', only to prove five minutes later that he was anything but? His encounter with the nanites on Argos was not the first time he had put himself at risk, and Daniel would lay money on it not being the last either. Sometimes he wondered if the death wish that had carried Jack to Abydos on that very first mission still lingered deep within him, waiting for another chance to steal his life away.
When Jack was only three treads from the top, Daniel started effortlessly up behind him, digging out his keys as he went, arriving on the landing at the same moment. One look at his lover's face was enough to tell him that Jack was far from fully recovered. Beads of perspiration shimmered on his forehead and his chest heaved with the exertion of the climb, but it was his eyes that worried Daniel the most, or rather the look of fear hidden deep within them. Fear of failure. Fear of giving himself away. Daniel stifled a sigh and made a mental note to talk to Janet about it on Monday morning, before Jack had a chance to get them off-world and out of her clutches.
"Make yourself at home while I get rid of these," he suggested, stepping back to allow Jack to precede him into the apartment, then moving quickly past him and through the door to the kitchen. Only there, out of sight, did he give way to his own anger at Jack's condition, although he wasn't quite certain who he was most angry at: Janet for letting Jack sweet-talk her into letting him lose, or Jack himself for trying to hide his weakness. There was even a part of him that was angry at himself, because he should have noticed sooner, should have spent more time with Jack and less in the lab these past few days. Maybe then he would have seen where all this was headed, caught Jack in the lie before it became potentially dangerous to his well-being.
Leaning his back against the refrigerator, he scraped a hand through his overlong hair and sighed. Well, there was nothing he could do now, except make sure Jack got as much rest as he could, plus a good meal - commissary food was not the most nutritious way to a full recovery. An image flashed through his mind, his body tangled with Jack's on his wide, comfortable bed, flesh glistening with the heat of their passion as they reaffirmed their relationship and laid the ghosts of Kinthia and the Argosians to rest. What plans he'd had for their reunion! But that was out of the question now. Jack could hardly climb a flight of stairs - God alone knew what a night of hard fucking would do to him!
Pushing the feelings of regret to one side, he collected two beers and went in search of Jack, finding him standing by the fireplace, gazing at the array of photographs there.
"Thought you could use one of these," he said, holding out the dewy bottle. "It is okay?" he added at a sudden afterthought. "I mean, you can drink? You're not on any medication?"
Jack smiled softly, almost shyly at his concern. "Relax, Daniel. I told you, Janet gave me the all clear." As if to underscore the words, he took the bottle and gulped thirstily at the chilled brew, sighing appreciatively as he mopped the spills from his chin with the back of his hand.
Daniel shook his head, sensing this evening was going to be more difficult than he had first thought, and took a more sedate sip from his bottle.
"You've been busy," Jack acknowledged. Daniel frowned, then followed the arc made by the bottle Jack was waving towards the room. To him, the room looked as it did every day. As it had since...
"Oh that's right!" he agreed suddenly. "I forgot, you haven't been here since you helped me move in."
He recalled the day vividly, the bareness of the rooms, the empty, unlived-in feel of the place, the odour of disuse and dust. Like a tomb newly opened. It had seemed so - appropriate.... In all that open space, his few possessions had looked - lost, like a small child in an empty warehouse. # They don't know what to do with me # he had confessed to Jack after Abydos, # and - I don't know what to do with me either # He had never spoken a truer word, and so Jack had taken him home, installed him in the spare room, accepted him into his life. Was that the start of it? he wondered. Later, after Chulak and when it was clear he would be staying, at least for a while, Jack had taken it upon himself to find him a place of his own, somewhere he might begin to put down a few roots and perhaps recover something of himself along the way. Make it harder for me to leave?
"So, what did you do?" Jack asked "Rob a museum?"
A smug grin spread slowly across Daniel's face. He enjoyed playing these games with Jack, fielding the questions about his past, maintaining a thread of mystery through his life to keep the colonel just a little off-balance. "As a matter of fact," he confessed, "most of this stuff is mine."
Jack gaped at him, and not without cause. There wasn't a museum in the land that would not pay handsomely for a collection of this calibre. "Yours?" he repeated. "But, Catherine said when you first came to the Mountain, you had your whole life packed in those damn suitcases."
Daniel gave a little self-conscious wriggle of his shoulders. "My whole life? That was... something of an exaggeration, Jack."
"So - you weren't broke...?"
"What? Oh - yes. Spent the last of my money on cab fare to the Institute. The stuff in my suitcases was everything I was able to get out of my apartment before the landlord changed the locks. All of this - " he swept an arm towards the room " most of it anyhow - was in storage, here and - ah - abroad. Some of it belonged to my parents."
"And the rest?"
"I collected a lot of it on... various expeditions, the rest I... inherited." He shuddered at the lameness of the words. Teasing Jack with a mystery or two was one thing, but he hated keeping real secrets from him, yet sometimes it was necessary for, in the few weeks of their affair, he had begun to realise that Jack was still having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that his friend was gay. Not bisexual, not seeking to expand his horizons, not grabbing whatever comfort he could in a war zone - the way Jack himself had done with Kawalsky - but gay. Homosexual. A lover of men. And if he could not accept that, then he would never understand about James.
He shivered, the muscles across his shoulders drawing tight, as if some unseen hand had brushed lightly across them, and he half turned, a part of him still expecting to see those familiar green eyes smiling at him. Jamie? The old pain spiked through him, even after all these years, after all that had happened. In the instant before Jack pulled his gaze away from the crowded bookshelf and back to Daniel's face, Daniel took a step backwards, turning towards the kitchen.
"I'd better get started on dinner," he announced. "Make yourself comfortable. Oh - here -" Spinning round, he snagged a video from the shelf and held it out to him. "I - um - taped that game you wanted to see." Jack flicked an eyebrow, urging him to explain. "The one you missed while you were - on Argos..."
The look that spread across Jack's face at his confession was somewhere between surprise and the delightful awkwardness he sometimes displayed when caught out in an embarrassing moment. Daniel would have liked to stay, but already Jack was opening his mouth to speak and he wasn't sure he could deal with outside emotions at that moment, even something as simple as gratitude, and so he fled to the kitchen, leaving Jack staring from the video tape to the closing door.
Back in the sanctuary of the kitchen, he dropped into a chair and leaned his elbows on the table, grinding his knuckles into his eye sockets. Not for the first time in recent weeks he found himself caught up in a draining cycle of having and wanting and needing and missing... God, how he missed Jamie! Missed his smile and his laugh, the soft English West Country accent that he had never quite been able to hide beneath the more clipped 'BBC news reader' voice he had adopted. Missed the warmth of him on a winter night, the distinctive spice of his skin on a hot summer day, the brush of the long red-gold hair against his skin as they made love... It was a sense of loss he had lived with for almost five years, far greater than anything he had felt for Sha're. He loved her, in his way, and he still felt the weight of her loss, but always at the back of his mind was the knowledge that someone else had decreed they should be together, that Kasuf had given her away as gesture of greeting in the way that someone on Earth might offer coffee and cake. They had not been free to choose in the way he and James had chosen each other. In the way he hoped that he and Jack would one day come to choose.
Jack. How had it happened? He had thought that, after Jamie, he would never find anyone he could love so deeply, so uncompromisingly, and he had certainly never expected to find such love with the likes of Colonel Jack O'Neill! But he had, and it was good - and getting better by the day. Loving Jack had the potential to be the most wonderful thing that had happened to him in years... except with it came the feeling that he had betrayed Jamie in some way, let him down, neglected his memory. And the more he fell in love with Jack, the worse that feeling became, eating away at him, dragging him down into a vicious spiral.
What had seemed simple just a few months ago had suddenly become very complicated indeed...
For a long time after Daniel left the room, Jack continued to stare at the video cassette in his hand, heart racing as he considered the simple gesture. He had mentioned in passing, while he and Daniel had waited on Argos for Sam to return, that he hoped she would find a cure for whatever ailed him quickly, because he didn't want to miss the game. Daniel had been immersed in his work at the time and had acknowledged him with little more than a grunt, and as his situation worsened, Jack had forgotten all about it. Now, it seemed, Daniel had absorbed every word, remembered and acted upon them. The game was no longer important - Jack had already looked up the final score - what mattered was the significance of the tape, the knowledge that he had been so much a part of his lover's thoughts and the proof of Daniel's belief that they would somehow find a cure.
Impulsively, he hugged the box to his chest, feeling himself start to tremble as he was forced to accept that Daniel's feelings towards him had progressed beyond friendship and physical desire. He cared - and it was a long time since anyone had cared about Jack O'Neill. He would probably never say it in so many words, and even if he did Jack knew he would not have the courage to echo such a commitment, but it was there, in something as simple as Daniel recording a hockey game he knew Jack wanted to see.
He glanced up at the kitchen door, a part of him wanting to go in there and tell Daniel that he understood, but his own doubts held him back, the insecurity that warned him not to read more into the gesture than was actually there. He could be right... On the other hand, it could just as easily be Daniel's innate sense of compassion prompting his actions. So instead he turned his attention to the rest of the room, seizing the opportunity to gather as much information as he could while his lover was out of the way.
Hesitant at first, wary to the point of sheer terror of touching anything in case it fell apart in his hands, he wandered the room. Slowly, he began to relax and soon found himself picking up a trinket here, a carving there, wondering how old and where, and what other more ancient hands might have held it before him, and for what purpose - all the questions he knew Daniel asked himself every time they stepped onto a new world. Perhaps for the first time he began to experience something of the sense of wonder the archaeologist expressed with each discovery.
Staring at a photograph of a much younger Daniel seated on a camel, he realised just how little he knew about the man. People often remarked that his own life was a closed book, and much of that was in response to the years of working undercover operations, yet how much did any of them know about Daniel's life before that first mission to Abydos? Even the occasional peek at his personnel file was noticeably unrevealing. Orphaned at an early age, fostered for most of his adolescence, intellectually in advance of his peers. Add to that three doctorates, expert in more languages than Jack had ever heard, laughed out of academia because of his wild theories about the seeding of the galaxy.
But what of Daniel the child? Had he been like Charlie, full of life, always surrounded by friends and seldom to be seen without a ball or stick in his hands, and always first to be picked for the team. Or had he hidden himself away behind a barricade of books and watched childhood pass him by as he concentrated on more serious pursuits? Some instinct told Jack that there had been few father-son camping trips, or Sunday afternoon romps in the park, or late nights in front of the t.v., watching the play-offs over bowls of popcorn and steaming mugs of cocoa. Most likely, he had spent his time ankle deep in mud, or beneath a blistering desert sun while his parents laboured to unearth some new treasure.
He picked up a small silver cigarette case, it's face etched with a delicate tracery of vines and flowers. In a room so overwhelmed with wonders from ancient worlds, this tiny piece of Victorianna seemed out of place and he found himself pondering its significance.
"It belonged to my great grandfather," Daniel said softly. He was poised in the doorway, drawn there by the silence, no doubt curious why he wasn't watching the game. How long he had been standing there, watching Jack explore his life, the colonel could only guess, but as he carefully replaced the trinket, he felt the heat rise in his face.
Slowly, Daniel crossed the room to his side. He wore a towel looped across the front of his biscuit coloured pants and his fingers and the tip of his nose were daubed with flour.
"His story was it was given to him by Howard Carter in 1924, when they were working on a dig. Of course, we all knew he was just trying to impress - he had something of a reputation - but he carried it with him everywhere. It even saved his life."
"How?" Jack asked, genuinely curious. Crumbs like this were manna from Daniel's particular heaven.
"He was working on a site - somewhere he should never have been - when some of the locals attacked. He was stabbed, but the knife glanced off the silver - you can see the mark there - and went through his shoulder instead of his heart. After that he never let the case out of his sight."
"Kind of like a good luck charm," Jack mused, running the tip of his finger along the furrowed metal. "I take it you don't feel the same about it."
"What makes you say that?"
"Dust." he indicated the shelf, covered by a fine film of particles. Daniel smiled.
"Oh, I - er - used to keep it with me. Even took it to Abydos, but..." He shrugged, hoping to dismiss Jack's curiosity. The colonel, however, did not give up so easily.
"But - now you don't?"
Daniel chewed on his lip and avoided his gaze. "I don't need to," he admitted. "I've got - something else now..."
Jack wanted to press him to expand on that but, before he could do so, Daniel retreated once more to the kitchen, claiming there were pots that needed tending and did Jack want another beer if he had finished the first?
Jack followed and was at once surrounded by an artists pallet of aromas, senses assaulted by herbs and spices blending together in the most appetising manner. A pot bubbled on the stove, a dish of fresh vegetables stood ready next to the steamer, while further along the work top Daniel was busy pounding on something that looked like - bread dough?
"I didn't know you could cook," he said softly, lifting the lid of the pot and reaching for a spoon. Daniel batted his hands away.
"There's a lot you still don't know about me, Jack," he responded, replacing the spoon in Jack's hand with a carrot stick and a warning not to spoil his appetite.
"So... Why don't you tell me? You know all about me - "
"Do I?" The look on Daniel's face said he doubted that very much.
"Okay... But you know more about me than I know about you."
Daniel laughed. "I don't believe this!"
"You're actually keeping score!"
"No I'm not..."
"Well, it sounds like it to me."
"Well, I'm not! I'm just - interested. You don't wanna tell me, that's fine by me." He picked up his beer, announcing: "I'm gonna go watch that game." But as he started to leave, Daniel caught hold of his arm.
"Wait... I'm sorry. It's just.. I've never really been good at talking about myself. They made me do it all the time when I was in counselling, after my parents were killed. They thought I was quiet because I couldn't handle the loss, so they - pressured me into it. It - wasn't very - pleasant."
Jack chewed his lip and nodded knowingly. Been there, done that, he mused, remembering how hard people had tried to get him to talk after Charlie's death. Friends, his CO - even the chaplain - kept urging him to 'Let it all out, son, it'll do you good...' Maybe that was why he had retreated into a bottle, to escape from the pressure of their concern. How could he explain his feelings to them if he couldn't explain them to himself?
"Know what you mean," he said gruffly and Daniel gave him a look that said he understood.
Leaning back against the counter, Daniel regarded him seriously. "Of course, you do realise if we're going to make this work we're going to have to find a way round that."
"You mean - talking?" he cringed, knowing his friend was right. To make their relationship more than just a casual affair they would have to dig deep into themselves and share what they found. It wasn't going to be easy, but if the alternative was some half-assed, superficial, walk-away-tomorrow kind of thing then he would damn well make himself do it. He wanted Daniel in his life - end of story.
A sweet smile puckered the younger man's lips. "Don't worry, Jack, I've heard a lot of people do it."
"Funny..." Jack snorted, but he was smiling. "But - you're right. As long as you realise there's a lot of stuff in my past that I can't tell you. Military stuff - you know..."
"I know... and I promise when we get to it we'll just... push it to one side. I don't want to know everything you ever did, I just want to know what... makes you - "
"I was going to say makes you the person you are but... yeah, I guess 'what makes you tick' fits the bill. Like - " he scratched the tip of his nose with his thumbnail as he searched for an example, then " - this thing you have with hockey. How did that start?"
Jack's eyes widened. "Hockey? Are you kiddin' me, Daniel? You do know that once I start I might never stop?"
"I know," Daniel grinned. "It's okay, you can talk to me while I finish dinner."
"Dinner? On which day?" he asked sweetly.
"Funny, Jack. Just tell me, okay?" Picking up the spoon, Daniel began to stir the contents of the pot.
Jack swallowed a deep slug of beer and slipped lower in his seat as he began the story of Jack O'Neill's indoctrination into the world of the ice hockey fanatic.
".....So Richard said I had one more chance and if he ever caught me digging up the back yard again he'd bury me under a pyramid and lose the map."
"Sounds like my kinda guy," Jack sniggered..
"He was great," Daniel said softly, the respect clearly evident in his voice. "I mean, there they were, stuck with this orphan kid who could already speak half a dozen obscure languages and was quite happy to sit in his room reading books about lost civilisations while the other kids in the neighbourhood were off at Little League. I was really lucky when he and Carol took me in. They didn't understand everything, but they accepted me for what I was. They didn't try to change me, the way the Anderson's did."
Jack took a sip of his coffee, blowing gently at the steam rising from the surface before he put his lips to it. If there was one thing Daniel could do, it was make damn good coffee!
The object of his affection was currently sitting on the floor at his feet, his back pressed against Jack's 'good' knee, the colonel's fingers doing strange and wonderful things through his hair. Dinner was over, the dishes had been loaded into the washer and now they were taking the time to really relax after the tension of the past weeks. The drapes had been drawn across the windows and the lamps turned low, their softness enhanced by the flickering of tall candles set along the mantle shelf.
"Do you see much of them?" Jack asked softly.
"Weeellll...." Daniel cringed, the tips of his ears turning pink. "Before I joined the Stargate programme I saw them three or four times a year, but then there was Abydos, and then the SGC... I've called them a few times but I guess I should really make time to go see them. Carol must be... almost sixty now."
"My mother is nearly seventy," Jack murmured absently.
"Yeah?" Curious, Daniel rolled his head across his lover's knee and tipped back to sneak a look at his shadowed face. "What's she like?"
"Beautiful. Elegant - like one of those old movie stars and... she always smells of roses."
Daniel shifted more, turning to drape an arm over Jack's leg. "That's nice. What about your dad?"
A shudder passed through Jack: to hide it, he ground himself back into the chair and looked away from the mesmerising blue eyes. "Let's just say we didn't get on."
The quiet "Oh" that fell from Daniel's lips said it all. "Time to change the subject?" he asked and Jack nodded.
"Might be a good idea... Sorry, Danny, but - bad place, okay?"
"Yeah..." He dipped his head and pressed a kiss to Jack's linen covered knee. "Sorry."
"Forget it, you weren't to know..." Pushing the discomfort aside, Jack reached to run his fingers through the long hair, sweeping it from Daniel's eyes. "I've got you now - that's all that matters."
"Does it?" Daniel whispered, sudden breathlessness proclaiming his hope: a hope which Jack could not deny him.
"Yes. Very much. I --." Still the hesitation, still the fear of saying too much, giving too much of himself away, yet - wasn't that what Daniel deserved? "I - care - very much - about you."
"Care?" Daniel queried and Jack repeated "Very much."
Disappointment filled the azure eyes but there really was no more that Jack could say. He wanted to do it, wanted to say 'I love you, Daniel,' but it was too much, too soon. One day, maybe, but for now... Friendship, caring, desire... they would have to be enough for now because he knew that if he once said those words - 'I love you' - to this man, there would be no escape, no turning back. Any commitment he made to Daniel beyond that of friendship would be eternal and, after the failures of the past, he wasn't sure if he was ready for that yet. This was still all so new for him and there were still things he needed to come to terms with. Like Sara.
He had believed his marriage to be over, was really only waiting for her to present him with the divorce papers and start all the unpleasantness of the settlement. After the first few confrontations, following his return from Abydos, they had stayed away from each other. He had moved out, found a cheap apartment, so that she could return to the family home - after all, it was only fair. Later, he had found the house he now occupied and started over, rebuilding - or trying to - the wreck of his life.
That had been before the incident with the blue crystals and the entity that had taken on Charlie's form. Suddenly she had been there and all the memories, all the emotions, had come flooding back, leaving him confused and torn between his feelings for her and his growing love for Daniel. Until he had worked it all out in his own mind he could not possibly take his relationship with Daniel any further, as much as he wanted to.
"Hey..." he murmured softly "You okay?"
"I'm okay, Jack. Really." Like a switch being thrown, the smile returned to his lips, although Jack could see how it wavered and noted that this time it didn't really reach his eyes. He wished he could make it easier on his lover but there was always that little thread of conscience reminding him that it would be far worse, were he to declare his feelings now, only to change his mind later. Daniel deserved more than that.
He watched as Daniel rolled to his knees and pushed himself to his feet. "Need the bathroom" he said with a shrug "Back in a minute."
Silence wrapped around Jack as he leaned back in the armchair and sighed. Maybe it was time to put an end to this after all. They were good together, there was no denying that, but these days it was increasingly obvious that Daniel was being hurt, as much as he tried to hide it. In a way, things were more out of balance these days than they had been at the start.
Lost in thought, he picked up a book from the table. It was in the style of what his mother had often referred to as a 'coffee table' book, and expensive volume comprised of beautiful photographic plates with the minimum of text, the whole thing designed to entertain the idle mind without the need for strenuous thought. This one, predictably, was of Egypt and Jack caught himself in a smug smile as he realised he could actually identify the cover illustration as the location where the Stargate had been discovered some seventy years before.
Foot propped on the table to ease the pressure on his aching knee, reading glasses perched precariously on his nose, he opened the book to the title page - and his jaw dropped. Beneath the title - "Egypt in Camera: A Photographic Journey" - he read the name 'James R. Hallam and the words 'Text by Dr Daniel B. Jackson'.
His Daniel? He shook his head, bemused. He knew that his friend had penned a couple of academic papers expounding his theories but he had always assumed them to be the kinds of dry, laborious texts aimed at the serious student. This was as far removed from that image as it was possible to get, the kind of thing that went along with cocktail parties and canapés, tennis clubs and the other symbols of Polite Society.
He read the forward: two pages that were neither dry nor dusty. The words were instead crisp and concise, flowing into the imagination, threaded with a lightness that Jack found both unexpected and enchanting and as he read he could almost hear Daniel speaking them aloud, the enthusiasm of the young academic laced with the author's own sense of wonder, and he found himself remembering all the times Daniel had been required to lead a mission briefing and how his own attitude towards them had changed as the younger man's confidence grew, moving from the abject frustration of wanting to get out there and do the job they paid him to do, to a grudging interest as be began to realise Daniel was not the geek he had first thought him to be. A times he even experienced a carefully controlled enthusiasm as Daniel's love of a particular subject was communicated to him, firing his own imagination. There was pride, too, when another team was briefed alongside his own. Watching the expressions on their faces as they listened to him, seeing admiration and awe in their eyes, and knowing it was all directed at his lover - that was better than any drug to Jack.
Each page of the book turned slowly in his hands, each picture was examined, each line of text digested and, as he worked his way from cover to cover, an idea began to form in his mind. This was no manufactured collaboration, no random bringing together of two talents, photographer and historian: there was a friendship here and warmth, and - maybe something more.
The last page of the book had a more sombre tone. Embellished by only one small, monochrome photograph, the words beneath took the form of an obituary for James R. Hallam, photographer, born in Henley on Thames, England. It spoke of a talent far in excess of his age, of the achievement of a professional, and cited his skill and dedication to his craft, charting his plans for a future he had never seen. It told also of companionship, friendship, a shared sense of adventure and the generosity of spirit of a man described as kind and gentle, full of 'joi de vivre'. Finally, and most moving of all, it voiced the author's - Daniel's - overwhelming feeling of loss of the young man he had known so briefly and whose life had been brought to such an abrupt end. Beneath the solitary photograph - one Daniel himself had perhaps taken - were the dates 1967 - 1991.
Jack swallowed the sudden constriction in his throat. There was nothing in the brief paragraph to suggest that their relationship had been anything more than a deep friendship yet, knowing Daniel as he did, it was easy to read between those simple lines, to see the love and respect couched in more publicly acceptable terms and, in so doing, to understand something of the hurt Daniel must surely have felt.
Pretty much how you did yourself, he mused, recalling how much it had hurt him to think that he would never see Daniel again, never hold him, feel those sweet lips beneath his own... make love to him. And it was all his fault. If only he hadn't noticed Kinthia. If only he had passed up that damn cake!
Allowing the book to slide to the floor, he tipped his head back against the cushions and closed his eyes, fighting both his guilt and the images of Daniel and his former love. What had he said about wanting to know more about Daniel's life before the SGC? Be careful what you wish for, Jack... There was such a thing as too much information and something told him he had just crossed the line before either of them was ready for him to do so.
"Jack?" Concern in the voice made him wince. How did they handle this one?
"Just resting," he lied. Opening his eyes, what he hoped was a lazy smile of contentment on his lips, he found Daniel standing over him, frowning, his gaze shifting between Jack's face and the book at his feet. As he continued to watch, Daniel bent down and retrieved the precious volume, smoothing the pages carefully before he closed it and drew it against his chest.
"Danny - " he began, but a flick of the long fingered hand silenced him.
"It doesn't matter," the younger man whispered. "I planned on telling you anyway."
"When were you going to tell me about him?"
A shrug, a glance towards the far wall, a half smile. "When I thought you were ready to hear it."
Jack narrowed his eyes and some of the warmth had dropped from his voice as he asked "And when was that likely to be?"
"When I was sure what we have is going somewhere. My relationship with Jamie was - complicated." Moving away, he carried the book to the cupboard and slotted it carefully into a narrow space between two other volumes.
Jack's sixth sense warned him to let the matter drop, that maybe Daniel knew him well enough to be certain he wasn't ready to hear the intimate details of the archaeologists life just yet, but when it came to secrets, Jack could be as tenacious as any terrier. Pushing away from the cushions, he sat forward, his hands dangling between his knees, looking up at Daniel through his lashes.
"Complicated - how?" he asked, and saw Daniel's spine stiffen as the mood between them shifted to another level.
"You won't let this go, will you..."
"I figured our relationship buys me a few rights."
"Relationship?" A snort of laughter chilled the words. "I wasn't aware we had one, Jack. Friendship, yes - a very special friendship - but I always thought a 'relationship' meant much more than that."
O-kay... That set the alarm bells ringing. Fired a few memories too, like his ex-wife, Sara, coldly informing him that a relationship worked both ways and the bottom seemed to have dropped out of theirs. That had been just before she told him that if he walked out of that door, she wouldn't be there when he got back. He had walked anyway, out of her life and into Daniel's. Out of one relationship and into - what? What exactly was it they had? At what point did fuck-buddies turn into lovers, lovers into --
He scrubbed a hand over his face and wondered how he had managed to get in this deep so fast. It was only a mater of months since that first encounter in the showers at the base, the acknowledgement of mutual attraction and the courage to act upon it. Now, here he was, head over heels in love with his best friend and seriously thinking about the next step forward.
"Okay," he said quietly "Why don't we start there."
"What do you mean?" Daniel's voice was unsteady, his gaze anywhere - everywhere - but on Jack's face.
"I'm guessing you regard what you had with this - James guy - was a 'relationship'... Maybe if you explain to me how that was, we could work out from there what you and I have."
Arms folded defensively across his chest, Daniel leaned a shoulder against the bookcase and regarded Jack with an expression of bemusement. "Let me get this straight... You want to analyse our 'relationship' - if there is one, which I doubt - in terms of how it does - or does not - differ from my relationship with James." He arched a questioning eyebrow at Jack who shrugged, wishing he hadn't even started this conversation.
"Ugh... Yeah... I guess..."
"You want me to slice open my heart so you can see what's inside and decide if you like it or not? Decide if it fits with how you want us to be?"
"Daniel I -"
"Go to hell, Jack." He said it quietly, almost casually; he didn't shout, he didn't rage - and maybe Jack could have understood his reaction more if he had - but he simply stated it and then walked from the room.
The next sound Jack heard was the slamming of the bedroom door.
And then silence.
Like a black hole, the fading sun had sucked all of the remaining light from the room and replaced it with shadows, cloying, thick as mud, waiting menacingly for him in the corners. Waiting to claim him and start the whole dark cycle of misery again.
Daniel sat on the end of the bed, staring out over the city, watching it come alive with myriad tiny pinpoints of light that mapped the life of Colorado Springs. On a good night he liked to think that behind each light there was a couple, maybe even a family, sharing the evening, the experiences of the day with all its hopes and doubts. On a good day he remembered the past with fondness and told himself that in time he would find that closeness again, that the life he and Jamie had shared had not been lost to him forever.
But on a bad day, like today, he hated those lights and what they represented. Sitting in the lonely darkness, he sometimes wished that he could reach out and throw a switch, take away their happiness and make them all hurt the way he hurt. Why should they be happy when there was a great big rip in his life that nothing would mend.
Nothing - except maybe Jack's love.
But Jack didn't love him. Cared, yes, and wanted, needed, desired... But not love. If Jack loved him there would be no need to analyse the past to find their future, he would already know what he wanted it to be and Jack, being Jack, would go for it, grab it with both hands and hang onto it. No, Jack did not love him and most likely never would, and the sooner Daniel accepted that, the easier it would be to compartmentalise his own feelings and move on, take what was on offer and find there what little happiness he could. Life was what you made of it and if love happened to come along for the ride, then so much the better.
Dragging his gaze from the city at last, he scrubbed a hand over his face and reached out to switch on the lamp, flooding the room with a soft amber glow. As he began to draw back his hand fell to the drawer in the night stand and, without thinking, he pulled it open and extracted a small leather wallet that held two photographs. On one side, his parents, taken on their wedding day. It looked strange to see his father in a formal suit, his mother's tiny frame swamped by a cloud of white lace and tulle, when all his memories were filled with the colourful, hippy-like images from their more nomadic lifestyle of the early seventies. Thrift shop bargains and the cheapest that local markets and bazaars could offer where the things he remembered most about them and even to this day, such places could resurrect the feelings of emptiness that had followed their deaths.
The other half of the double frame held a photograph of himself and Jamie standing before the pyramids at Giza, arms wrapped around each other, grinning like maniacs, with not a trace of shame or awkwardness about the love for each other so clearly displayed for the world to see. The picture had been taken on a whim, one of those vacation things that people do, even those who don't happen to be head-over-heels in love. It had only been later, as they sat together in the small apartment that had become their home and poured over the reams of photographs, that both had realised the statement they had made in that one simple pose. No longer just friends, more than just lovers: loud and clear, the picture proclaimed that they were a couple, as committed to each other as his parents had ever been.
Three years, living together, sharing their lives, building a future and then, one bitterly cold November day, it had all been ripped away. Death had stalked his life once again and robbed him of his happiness, and he had been no more prepared for it then than he had fifteen years earlier.
A soft rapping at the door cut into his thoughts. He didn't answer it, but Jack came in anyway. Daniel watched his reflection in the darkened window as he stepped hesitantly into the room.
"Daniel?" The remorse was there, in the cant of his head and the uncertain way in which the name was spoken, and Daniel prepared himself to hear the apology, wondering what the excuse would be. Meanwhile, he said nothing: stay or go, the choice must be Jack's.
He watched as the reflection moved closer and in another moment he heard a little 'oomph' and felt the bed dip as his lover sat down behind him, not touching yet close enough for Daniel to feel the change in temperature and smell the lingering odour of the infirmary on his skin and clothes.
Seconds spun out into a web of minutes, each more threatening than the one before because each silent moment had the power to drive them further apart while the anger crouched between them, fangs bared, waiting for the chance to devour their friendship.
One man's insecurity is another's overreaction and Daniel knew that they had both been at fault here, both insecure in their needs, both searching for answers where they were not quite ready to listen to the truth. He also knew that if anything was to be salvaged from this, one of them had to break the silence, but before he could formulate the proper thing to say, Jack cut in with a sigh that came right from the heart.
"I don't know what I said out there to make you angry, but you have to know - it wasn't intentional and - well - I'm sorry. Whatever I did that hurt you - I'd take it all back if I could. You're the last person in the world I'd ever want to hurt, Daniel."
Listening to his lover's quiet assumption of blame, Daniel closed his eyes, a ragged breath rattling up from his chest. Maybe none of it was Jack's fault. It was a well known fact that Jack O'Neill was no good with words - he admitted to as much himself, many a time - and the emotional 'stuff' was as difficult for him as adhering to a military lifestyle was to Daniel. The suggestion that they analyse their relationship might have been badly phrased but at least he had been willing to give it a shot. It was Daniel's own reticence to talk about his life with Jamie that had exacerbated the problem. Come to think of it, maybe he was the one should be doing the apologising here.
"I know," he said softly. "But you didn't hurt me, Jack... I hurt me. Jamie was..."
"Complicated?" Jack offered into the hesitation, making Daniel smile.
"No." His fondness for the memory rippled through the little laugh that punctuated the words. "Far from it, he was the most open, uncomplicated man I ever knew."
"Not like me then," Jack quipped.
"Poles apart." His gaze drifted again to the photograph and found there nothing to remind him of Jack, and nothing in his new lover to remind him of the old. Poles apart, yet each one special to him in their own way, each one unique.
He stole a glance at the man beside him and was dismayed by what he saw. Their conversation may have held a ghost of their usual banter, but Jack seemed still to be distracted, not his normal ebullient self. Head bowed, shoulders drooping, elbows on knees and clenched hands dangling aimlessly between them: everything about him spoke tension, dejection. Misery. He looked tired and - old. Not as old as on Argos, but - older than he had been before. Janet had insisted that everything would return to normal once the effects of the nanites wore off but did she really know? This was untried territory, Goa'uld technology of a very sophisticated kind. What if she was wrong? What if this was as good as it would get?
"Sara was like that," Jack said suddenly, turning his head to look at Daniel, who dropped his gaze to hide his concern from his friend.
"Uncomplicated?" he ventured.
"Yeah. She was like that computer thing - What's it called?"
Daniel mentally scratched his head, searching for the word, then "WYSIWYG?" he suggested and the corners of his mouth flicked into a smile as Jack nodded.
"Yeah. What you saw was what you got with Sara. Me, on the other hand..."
"Nobel Prize for Anal Retentiveness?"
Jack threw him a sour look, then shrugged. "Well, I wouldn't have put it quite like that but - yeah, I guess you got my number. But it worked. Most of the time we - balanced each other out. Till Charlie..."
The photograph trembled in Daniel's unsteady fingers as he brushed his thumb over the smiling face of the man he had once thought would share his life into old age. As always, thinking about the future he would never have started the old ache deep inside. Six years - sweet Jesus, would it never let him be?
He heard himself ask "Do you still love her?" and was shocked at his own bluntness.
Jack nodded slowly, his voice little more than a whisper as he said "Yes. I'd forgotten how much - till what happened on Argos. I'm sorry, that's - probably not what you wanted to hear."
"You don't need to apologise," he said, then saw the doubtful quirk of the other man's brow and added "Really, Jack, I'm okay with it. I mean, I accept you and Sara have a history. You were together a long time before you and I even met."
Jack started to nod, then his eyes flew wide on a stray thought and he clamped his hand to his mouth, an odd, strangled noise bubbling in his throat.
"What?" Panic brought Daniel around to face him. "Jack?"
"Ugh... I'm sorry, Danny... I was ... just... doing the math..." The hand scrubbed over his face, but while there was a glimmer of remorse in the brown eyes, there was also an equal quantity of laughter. "Truth of it is, when Sara and I first knew each other, you..."
Cautiously, the distinct feeling that he was being set up here prickling the hairs on the back of his neck. "Yeah?"
A sigh, a shrug, hands spread in helpless resignation. "Give or take a month, you weren't even born yet. I'm sorry - " he finished hurriedly, caught between mirth and embarrassment.
"Quit saying that!" Frustration at the string of unnecessary apologies propelled him to his feet. For a moment or two he stood looking down at his lover, unsure of what to do next. He had been aware from the start that there was more than a decade between them but had dismissed it as irrelevant. Eleven years between adults was nothing, unlike the same amount of years between - "You were childhood sweethearts?" He asked, feeling the solid ground shift beneath his feet. It had never occurred to him that Jack and his wife went so far back.
"Not sweethearts, not exactly. Her family lived a little way down the street from mine so naturally we went through grade school together. Really, back then, she was more like a sister."
"Yeah. Then her family moved away and I went to high school, and we kinda lost touch for a long time."
"How did you meet up again?"
"It was my parent's wedding anniversary. Big party, all the old crowd - you know the kind of thing..." Daniel didn't, but he let it pass. He had Jack talking about himself and he wasn't about to pass up a chance like that.
"Anyway, I was fresh out of the Academy, she was unattached, so we - "
Daniel waved him into silence. "You can spare me the details, Jack." Arms folded over his chest in a gesture of defence, he shook his head. "I never realised... I thought it was one of those 'meet, fall in love, get married' things."
"It was, in a way. I mean, there was this whole big gap in our lives, we knew each other but we didn't really - know each other. Does that make sense?"
Surprisingly, it did and, as he nodded assent, Daniel was forced to concede, if only to himself, that it was somehow reassuring to be told that Jack's feelings for his wife came from a lifetime of familiarity and were not the result of some grand passion that had overtaken them as adults. He wondered if Jack had ever known that kind of relationship with a woman, mentally adding it to the list of questions needing to be answered some other time. For now, there was something more urgent that he needed to know.
"What about Sara? Is she - still in love with you?"
The smile dropped instantly from Jack's face, to be replaced by a narrowing of his eyes and a tightening of the thin line of his mouth, both warning Daniel that if he had not already overstepped the mark, he was treading pretty close to it.
"That's a hell of a question to ask," Jack responded, his tone oddly mild. "How am I meant to know? She acts like she still cares but - " He paused, his troubled gaze scanning Daniel's face and all at once the younger man saw the comprehension dawning there and he turned away, ashamed. Too far. He had really done it this time...
"Oh, I get it," Jack muttered dryly. "You want to know if I'm thinking of going back to her, giving our marriage another shot."
Head drooping, Daniel hugged himself and chewed on a thumbnail, asking himself what in heaven's name he thought he was doing. No, correction - he hadn't been thinking, not at all. As Jack said, it was one hell of a question to ask and the fact that they had something pretty good going between the sheets didn't give him the right to pry into Jack's private life like that. Wasn't that exactly what he had just been accusing Jack of doing?
Sensing movement behind him he glanced into the reflected room once more, seeing Jack rise from the bed and come to stand behind him, and he braced himself for the storm that was surely to come.
"Okay.. I admit, I've thought about it," Jack confessed, his warm breath on Daniel's neck making the younger man shiver. "Matter of fact, I've thought about it a lot. On Argos and in the infirmary it was all I could think about - that, and what it would mean to you and me if I did."
Strong hands trembled as they clasped Daniel's elbows, sliding up until they rested on his shoulders, kneading the tension from the muscles there. Daniel held his breath, wondering what new curve this roller coaster ride of an evening was about to throw up in front of him. He did not have to wait long for an answer. Gentle pressure on his shoulders drew him back against Jack's solid presence and the familiar arms wrapped around him, Jack's chin settling into the angle of Daniel's neck as he brushed his lips over a hidden ear.
"Even if someone waved a magic wand and made everything right again - I could never go back to her. I'm where I want to be, Danny. For as long as you want me here."
Clasping Jack's hands and holding them tightly around himself, Daniel leaned into the embrace, his heart pounding as he dared give in to hope. "You really mean that?"
"Every word." Taking control, Jack turned him around. He went willingly, melting into the tender smile in his lover's eyes as the warm palms lifted to frame his face. "Every word," Jack said again, the roughness of his voice adding a new depth to the promise. And then Jack's mouth was on his and he was drowning in the sweetness of those lips, that tongue, that seemed intent on sucking every last atom of doubt from him. Where he wanted to be; where Daniel wanted him to be. It was a beginning, a foundation on which to build. The rest, the ruins of the past, they could clear away in their own time.
A lone jogger, wired for sound, trotted past in the street below, heading out of the shadows and into the pale dawn light, early morning enthusiasm in his stride and a determined expression on his unshaven face.
Standing at the window of Daniel's apartment, Jack watched the runner until he turned the corner and tried to remember the last time he had gone for an early morning run, found a measure of guilt in the answer. He had been backsliding in his daily routine, even before the ill-fated trip to Argos, blaming pressure of work for the omission even though he knew it was really more a mood of complacency. Contentment. Like the new husband who, settled into the routine of married life, starts to put on a few extra pounds because he's eating regular home-cooked meals and spending less time at the gym and more in front of the t.v. In Jack's case it was too many mornings given over to lazing in bed, daydreaming of Daniel and wishing that once, just once, his lover would spend the night. He seldom did, of course, not after that first night, when he had snuck into Jack's house by way of the bathroom window and waited for the rest of Jack's dinner guests to leave. Jack could not understand why there was such a gap in their relationship, but it hurt.
Last night they had slept together for the first time in weeks, sated and content, curled up together in the middle of Daniel's gothic bed, snuggled under faux gold embroidered blue velvet covers and it had been wonderful. Wrapping himself around the long, smooth body, legs and arms intertwining, smelling the scent of soap and cologne on Daniel's skin and hair, had been wonderful. Waking to see Daniel's face, a hand's breadth from his own on the pillows, had been - wonderful. If every day could start like that, Jack knew he would be a happy man.
It had been a strange night, all in all. Jack had wanted to make love but Daniel had protested, afraid of hurting him so soon after his battle with the nanites. It had taken all Jack's powers of persuasion, along with some rather devious trickery on the older man's part, to convince him that everything would be all right, that he was fine, his body could cope with the rigours of lovemaking - yadda, yadda, yadda... Finally, Daniel had given in but only after Jack had agreed to let him take the lead. Not that Jack had any real objections to taking the passive role and any that lingered were quickly dismissed as he lay back and watched through slitted eyes as Daniel impaled himself on Jack's unexpectedly resilient manhood. After that, all bets were off and they had spent the night getting blissfully reacquainted. Three times, as Jack recalled with a sly grin, the last with Daniel on his knees, pounding the bed head against the wall as, arthritic joints be damned, Jack took him forcefully from behind. Oh yeah, that one really hit the mark, he gloated, glancing back at the sleeping man. Daniel had been - quite vocal in his praise at the time, or so Jack recalled.
If only every night could be like that.
Hitching the blanket a little closer, he leaned a hand against the window frame and went back to his observation of the early morning world outside. He wanted so much to return to the bed and curl up with Daniel once more, make the most of the last few days of medical leave. Idly, he wondered if Daniel would welcome him - then quickly came to the conclusion that the chances were most likely against him and in the end it was probably better not to know. He couldn't be hurt that way - well, no more than he hurt already. Maybe it would be better just to get dressed and go home, save them both the embarrassment of an awkward parting.
He shivered suddenly and pulled the velvet folds closer around him, trying not to notice how Daniel's scent clung to them. There was a chair close by the bed: quitting his vigil at the window, he sat down, leaning close to watch the sleeping man. He didn't see how it could be possible, but Daniel looked even more beautiful when he was asleep, his face relaxed and open until even the ever-present crease of concentration between his brows seemed smoothed away. The pink lips were slightly parted - a side effect of the persistent allergies he suffered - and Jack could see the tip of his tongue where it rested against his bottom teeth and his own body warmed as he recalled the many and varied talents that tongue had displayed just a few hours ago.
With a sigh he sat back and, as he did so, caught sight of the little leather photo frame on the night stand. He found that if he angled the frame towards the window there was just enough ambient light in the room for him to make out the pictures inside. So, that must be Ma and Pa Jackson - Melburn and Claire. He smiled: it was easy to see which one of them Daniel favoured. His mother's eyes, his mother's smile and, most likely, his mother's temperament as well, if Jackson Senior's more sombre expression was anything to go by.
The face in the second photograph was immediately recognisable as James Hallam, Daniel's photographer friend, and if Jack had needed confirmation of his earlier assumptions about their relationship, it was here, in his hand. Two smiling young men, so obviously in love, so clearly devoted to each other. Hallam, taller than Daniel by an inch or two only, had his arm protectively around the archaeologist's shoulders while Daniel's head, the long sun-bleached hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, nestled into the angle of shoulder and neck, his eyes slanted adoringly towards his lover. It struck him then just what the 'complication' Daniel had mentioned might be.
In a word: commitment.
Whether or not they had said the words aloud, these two were as married as he and Sara had ever been.
And James Hallam was dead - which meant that Daniel was, in effect, a widower. Twice over, if Sha're was factored into the equation because, deep down and despite what he said to the contrary, Jack held little hope of them ever freeing her from Goa'uld possession, even if they were fortunate enough to track her down.
No small wonder, then, that Daniel was shy of getting involved a third time.
Jack's hand was shaking as he set the picture back on the night stand. So, Daniel was fighting shy of getting involved because he was afraid of having his heart broken all over again. Okay, he could understand that. Just. At least it was better than thinking Daniel didn't care for him. So - give him space, time... Let him know you're not going anywhere, Jack told himself and maybe one day... One day...
Blue eyes were watching him from beneath drowsy lids and the pink lips were curved in a gentle smile. Jack leaned closer and touched the bare arm.
"Hey, there you are... Good sleep?"
"Hhhmmmmnnnn..." Stretching, body arching from the bed, early morning erection tenting the covers defiantly. Jack swallowed. Hard.
"I was about to - go make some coffee," he lied. "Want some?" As if that wasn't a given.
This morning it wasn't.
"Later maybe..." Another stretch, this a sinewy, catlike flexing of long limbs that went along with a jaw cracking yawn that ended on a loud "Ooof!" of expelled air as Daniel collapsed back to the bed. "How come you're awake so early?"
"No reason. Too much energy, I guess. I was thinking about going for a run..."
"Ugh!" Daniel burrowed deeper into the mattress.
"I take it that means you're not interested."
"In early morning runs? No. I can think of a much better way to work off that unwanted energy. Care for a demonstration?" he asked, scooting back and lifting open the covers.
Jack - froze. The thing he most wanted was being offered to him, yet he held back, mouth dropping open like a beached fish. Whether it was by luck or providence, Daniel's reading of the signals was spot on.
"I know we don't usually but... Please, Jack. I - missed being with you these past few weeks." Reaching out, he caught hold of Jack's wrist, his hand warm and compelling. "Just - stay a while longer... Just this once."
No begging, no wheedling, just a simple request, an expression of hope. Jack hardly needed to think beyond the fact that to give in today would make next time easier, and he was all in favour of that. Raising his arm to bring Daniel's hand to his lips, he smiled. "Sure, Danny. Whatever you want."
He stood, letting the velvet blanket fall to the floor, and slipped smoothly into the warm hollow that Daniel had vacated, wasting no time in gathering his lover into his arms. Somewhere he heard the sound of another barrier crumbling into dust. Okay, so it was only a small one, easily breached, but it was a start. From such small beginnings great achievements could come and now that he knew a little more about Daniel, understood a little more, some of the pitfalls in their shared path had been smoothed away. Next time would be much easier.
Oh yeah..., he thought as he duelled his tongue against Daniel's and felt the heat between them start to rise once more. Next time will be a breeze...