Jack's Straws


"I still do not believe you did that," Jack continued to rage as the elevator reached ground level and he stepped out. "You actually drew straws... You go any idea how that makes me feel?"

"Jack, will you relax," Daniel urged. Fuelled by irrational anger, Jack's long legs were carrying him out of the complex at such a pace that Daniel was almost forced to run to catch up with him, juggling books and jacket as he hurried along. Jack, aware of his struggle, ignored it.

"Relax?" he threw over his shoulder. "My friends draw straws to decide who comes to see me, and my best friend tells me he came over because he lost. What's in that to make me relax, Daniel?"

Reaching the last sentry post, he finally slowed a little, allowing Daniel to catch up - not out of sympathy or concern, but because he wanted Daniel to understand just exactly how pissed he was by their reaction. There was a lot of anger bubbling up inside of him, justifiable anger born of Maybourne's scheming and Makepeace's betrayal, fed by his own guilt at having to deceive people he cared about, lie to someone he loved, in order to bring a bunch of criminals to justice and restore the trust of their allies.

Coming up to him, arms clutching his belongings defensively to his chest, Daniel said softly "Maybe - the knowledge that we were all afraid of what we might find out. We care about you, Jack, and none of us wanted to find out we were - wrong about you."

"I thought you believed in me..."

"We do. I do - that's the whole point. But what we were seeing wasn't - you. How were we meant to know something hadn't - taken you over? Wouldn't be the first time," he added, smiling weakly. "You scared me, Jack. You scared all of us."

Scared. Jack knew then what it was he had seen in Daniel's eyes the day he came to the house. Fear of something he didn't understand - compounded by confusion and probably a strong feeling of loss of control - but deep down, Daniel had been afraid. For him, or of him? It was suddenly very important to him that he find out.

"C'mon," he said abruptly, turning on his heel and striding away, towards the sunlight.

"Jack, wait!" Daniel called after him, but he was already crossing the compound, heading for the parking lot. "Wait a minute," he muttered, catching up to him. "This is my car..."

"So it is. I figured you at least owe me a ride home."

"But - where's yours?"

Jack sighed and shook his head. For someone with Daniel's intelligence, he could be amazingly dim at times. "If you recall, when I left here the other day I wasn't meant to be coming back. What, you think I was gonna leave my car here indefinitely?"

"You took a cab," Daniel decided, the question rhetorical.

"Oh yeah... and now I need a ride home, and since you're going home too, and my house is just around the corner -"

"No it is not!" Daniel protested, his spontaneous grin finding its echo on Jack's lips.

"Okay, so it's a bit further than that..."

"Yeah - like a half hour drive in the opposite direction."

"I've got some beer on ice," Jack offered, grin widening as he teased "Oh - but you said you don't like beer..."

"When you're buying, I do!" Unlocking the door, Daniel tossed his belongings onto the back seat. "Well what are you waiting for? Get in!"

They drove in silence for a few minutes, as Daniel steered them out of the compound and through the security gate, away from the Mountain, but it was an easy silence now, the friction between them abating rapidly.

"So," Daniel said at last, "What's gonna happen to Maybourne?"

"Well, if it was left to me, I'd shoot the bastard and be done with it. But I guess they'll get what they can from him, about the rest of the set-up, then court martial... He'll be a long time doing hard labour for this. Unless someone gets to him first."

"They'd have him killed?" Daniel asked, voice betraying his horror at such a suggestion.

Jack shrugged, avoiding the penetrating gaze by watching the landscape slide by, countryside giving way to suburbs as they approached the city. "It's been done before," he murmured, dark memories pushing against the confining walls of his inner self.

He heard Daniel make an odd noise in his throat, something that sounded very much like disgust, then: "Oh God, I hate the military!"

Jack winced. "I know," he said, feeling the old regrets surround him, choking him. It was the last barrier between them now, the one thing that kept him at a distance from what he truly wanted, from the love that he knew was waiting for him, had the courage to act upon it. He was military, and Daniel hated everything that represented. What was it Cromwell had once told him, when he was near breaking point and looking for a way out? - you can take the man out of the military , but you can't take the military out of the man. It was true, as much as Jack hated to admit it. This life was all he had ever known, since the day he turned his back on his family and their money and put on a uniform, and in the years since he had seen and done things that no civilian could ever hope to understand or accept, and even though he knew the cause was right and just, there was a lot he would never be proud of, and a few things it still made him sick to the stomach to remember. How could he ever ask a man like Daniel, a gentle and compassionate man who was so in awe of all the wonders the universe had to offer, to share that kind of history?

"Hey... I-I didn't mean - you," Daniel tried to reassure him, words stumbling on his inept tongue.

"It's okay. I know what I am, Daniel and - " he gave a half-hearted shrug "- at least you don't spit on the ground when I walk by, so I guess I'm doing something right."

The car lurched suddenly as it slewed to the right and pulled up sharply to the kerb. Jack was still catching his breath and bracing for some kind of impact when he became aware of the appalled eyes turned in his direction.

"Please... tell me that was a joke," he whispered, hitching around to get a better view of Jack's face. Jack could only stare at him, memory branding his cheeks with embarrassment.

"I'm sorry...," he sighed, confirming Daniel's worst fears.

"Oh God..."

"Oh c'mon, Daniel. You've been around the military long enough now to know stuff like that comes with the job. I've been in a lot of places where the people weren't exactly pleased to see us, even though we were in there to help." He forced a smile that felt as awkward as it looked and failed to get any higher than his mouth. "Look on the bright side - at least back then no-one was trying to stick a snake in my gut."

Despite his attempted lightness, Daniel continued to sit there, staring at him, imagined horrors - and a few very real ones - parading across his expressive face. Jack wondered how, with a face that animated, he ever managed to win at poker the way he did.

"Hey, it's okay," he said, ruffling the cropped hair. "Don't sweat it, Danny-boy. It's all in the past."

"How can you say that? And why the hell didn't you tell me any of this?"

"Because if I did, I'd have to shoo --" Realising what he had been about to say, he swallowed the end of the sentence. But Daniel was too astute to miss the implication.

"Shoot me?" he probed.

"It's just an expression.." he responded, chewing on his nail as he forced his eyes to look away. "Look, you know there's a whole hunk of my life before the SGC that's classified."

"I've got clearance...."

"Which doesn't even begin to cover it. So let's just drop it, okay?" An impatient gesture. "Beer's getting cold..."

A half minute passed before Daniel turned his head away, thirty seconds in which his lips said nothing but his eyes spoke volumes, and what came across loudest and clearest, and made the most impact on Jack, was the overwhelming sense of a need to protect him. He hadn't expected that. Protest? maybe, revulsion? certainly, but not compassion. Even though he saw it time after time for other people, saw that warm heart open up in trust for strangers on distant worlds, he never expected to see that look turn towards himself, not like this, not when it was laced with such clarity of understanding. It was so intense that he fully expected Daniel to launch into the kind of supportive speech that began with the words "you poor man...", but instead the younger man reached forward and turned the ignition key, easing the car back into the afternoon traffic.

They were nearing the colonel's home when Daniel, in a tone so conversational it caught Jack completely off-guard, said "You've done that, haven't you?"

"Done what?" he asked with genuine innocence.

"Killed under order."

"Daniel -" A warning, threaded with renewed fear.

A hand briefly left the wheel to wave his protest aside. "I know, I know... You can't tell me. I probably already know the answer anyhow. What I can't understand is why anyone would do that. I mean, they had to have some kind of hold over you..."

"Maybe I just - enjoyed my work," Jack replied flippantly. But Daniel shook his head.

"No. You're capable of a lot of things, Jack, but not killing someone for - pleasure."

Jack arched a brow at him, warmed by his loyalty but curious as to it's source. "Oh, you know that for sure, do you?"

"Yes," Daniel confirmed, pulling onto Jack's drive and cutting the engine. "You're capable of killing, I know that - I've seen you do it - but I also know you take no pleasure in it. That's what makes the difference." There was not a moment of hesitation in his response, not a glimmer of doubt, and Jack felt humbled by that.

Daniel clambered out, waiting for Jack to follow. As they started up the path Jack paused, staring transfixed at the keys in his hand. "You're wrong, Danny," he admitted quietly, voice suddenly strained. "Sometimes I do enjoy it. Maybe too much. When we blew up Apophis' ships.. when I turned Hathor into a popsicle... when we killed Ra...."

"They were Goa'uld, Jack... they deserved to die." The words were cold, unfeeling, the anger forming ice chips in his eyes.

"Double standards, Daniel? One law for us and another for them?"

"You know what they think. To them we're like animals, good only as slaves or for breeding stock..."

"So the only good Goa'uld is a dead one?"

"You don't agree?"

Jack spread his hands, a cruel smile twisting his lips. "Oh, I agree - I just never expected to hear you say it."

Daniel blinked at him, frowning. "Why not? They destroyed Sha're, they abused Skaara - they even tried to get you. Twice. And let's not forget what Hathor did to me... How else am I meant to react?"

Good question, and in a twisted way the one thing that allowed Jack a moment of empathy with Maybourne and his kind. He could agree with the sentiment - get them before they get us - but it was Harry's methods that were wrong. Somewhere along the line, in his pursuit of personal kudos, Maybourne had forgotten that when choosing up sides in a war it doesn't do to upset the good guys.

"Come on," he said, waiting until Daniel reached his side and then slipping an arm around his shoulders. It was a gesture of friendship, nothing more, and he was unprepared for the shiver of desire that rippled through him as he felt Daniel's arm move to encircle his waist.

Unlocking the door, he guided Daniel inside. It was a far cry from his last visit, when Jack had been searching for ways to keep him out, send him away, before he was coaxed into saying something that would blow his cover.

"Take a seat, I'll get the beer," he said "Unless you want something else?"

"Coffee?" Daniel hoped.

"Black okay? I'm - out of milk."

Daniel shrugged. "However it comes."

Jack watched him descend into the living room, dropping his jacket over the back of a chair as he crossed the room to the window where he stood, hands tucking into the back pockets of his dark blue pants, staring out over the garden. He looked... uncertain, for the first time since Jack had brought him back from Abydos, looking as though he felt - uncomfortable in Jack's home. It didn't surprise the colonel. After that last meeting, ten days ago, the words of denial he had forced himself to speak, the rejection of everything they had built, the out-and-out lies, had seemed to echo through the house from one sunrise to the next, tormenting him, tearing at his own self-confidence, until he found himself wondering if nailing whoever was stealing the alien artefacts was worth the price he and Daniel would be required to pay. Of all the things he had been forced to do to make this scheme work, taking Daniel's feelings for him and shredding them like tissue paper, before his eyes, had been the worst, and he would never forget the emptiness that had wrapped around him as he heard the front door slam and the car pull away.

Emptiness and fear.

What if, even after the job was done, Daniel refused to accept him back? Hammond had promised him that everything would be fine and he would do whatever was necessary to restore Jack's former standing, make sure none of the mud he had volunteered to roll in was allowed to stick. And the reward for success? He caught himself smiling as he drank in the sight of his dearest friend, silhouetted against the bright afternoon sunlight. The reward was to be his hearts desire. He could only hope now that he would be able to rebuild the bridges he had burned and win Daniel's trust and respect once more, because without that, nothing else mattered.

Daniel was still standing by the window when Jack carried the coffee in a few minutes later.

"Hope it's okay," he pondered, handing over the steaming mug, noting Daniel's smile as he took it.

"Why wouldn't it be? You were taught by an expert..."

It took a moment for the meaning to register. When it did, Jack responded by simply raising an eyebrow and muttering "Uh-huh.." as if storing that one up for later. But the memories of how hard he had tried to perfect his coffee-making technique, just to please this man, were sweet.

"Garden looks good." Daniel nodded towards the view of neat, clipped lawns and carefully tended beds.

Jack cringed. "I had some... time to fill."

"And some anger to work off?"

"Something like that."

Contemplating his coffee, Daniel scratched at his lip with his thumb. "I know now this whole thing was a set-up to get Maybourne, but... it wasn't all an act... Was it? You were too convincing for there not to be a thread of truth in there somewhere."

This was the reaction Jack had been waiting for and the feeling of dread at its arrival was no less than he had expected. "You're talking about the things I said, about taking what they won't give us..." A nod of assent urged him on and he found himself unexpectedly willing to go there. Maybe it was best if they thrashed this out between them here, rather than let Hammond smooth the waters for him later. The general was going to have a hard enough time healing the wounds within the SGC as it was, so one less would probably be welcome.

"You sounded like you meant some of those things, Jack."

Jack covered his mouth with an unsteady hand and blew out a sigh. "Maybe that's because - a part of me used to be just like Maybourne. No details, but - there was a time I would've done whatever it took to get the job done, and I admit - a part of me still resents that there's so much we could do if we all shared what we have. We've both seen what the Goa'uld are capable of, and when the other races hold back the way they do... there is a temptation to just grab whatever we need to do the job ourselves."

"So, why don't you?"

"What's the point if, as soon as we obliterate the Goa'uld threat, we've got the Asgaard, or the Nox coming up behind us, ready to do to us what we just did to the snake heads?"

"A thief and alive, or honest and dead?" Daniel threw his words in his face, but he rode them, aware that this was as much a test for his own benefit as Daniel's.

"I prefer honest and alive," he said softly, "and the way to do that is convince these people they can trust us. I think - I hope - we just took a big step forward there." He tilted his cup towards Daniel in salutation, a shy smile forming on his face. "Y'know, in a way none of this would have been possible without you."

"Er - me?"

"Oh yeah." Turning away from the window, Jack gestured to the chairs. "Let's sit down, huh? I think it's time I did some explaining..."

Only when they had settled themselves into the chairs - he in his favourite spot by the window, Daniel seated across the room from him - did Jack realise they had unconsciously arranged themselves as they had been when Daniel had last come to visit. There was a spark of irony to it that was not lost on Jack, as if they were re-enacting the whole scene in an attempt to put right all the damage done. Shifting to a more comfortable position, he balanced his cup on the pillow he had pulled into his lap, his chocolate gaze centring on the chess pieces set out between them. If only everything in life could be so black and white, not the endless grey it had become of late, where nothing seemed to be quite what it first appeared. Black and white, cut and dried, secrets... or the full and honest truth shared between friends.

"There was a time," he began quietly, "a few years back, when my life... well, let's just say I really hit rock bottom."

"You mean when Charlie died?" Daniel acknowledged, but Jack shook his head.

"Before that... Ten years of Black Ops can really screw up a life..."

Daniel shook his head, leaning forward, his gaze intent. "I still don't understand how you got into that in the first place. It doesn't - fit - with the Jack O'Neill I know."

"It happens." Setting the cup aside, he leaned back, resting his head against the cushions, knowing the time had come to share that full and honest truth, whatever the cost. Better to end here, like this, than go on living in the hope of something that would never happen. "You remember when Shyla got you addicted to the sarcophagus -"

"How could I ever forget," Daniel murmured bitterly.

"We spent a lot of time together when you were - recovering."

"You mean when you were helping me kick my 'habit'..." A bitter smile twisted the full lips, then softened in encouragement. "Having you there made all the difference. You seemed to - understand what I was going through, better than anyone else."

"Yeah, well... when you've been through it yourself..."


A nod, hands white knuckled as they gripped the arms of his chair, fighting the memories. "With you it was the sarcophagus, with me it was... heroin... courtesy of my hosts in Iraq."

"Sweet Jesus....."

"Yeah, well he wasn't exactly around when I needed him," he spat - then relented when he saw the flash of embarrassment in the blue eyes. "I'm sorry, that was... I'm sorry."

Daniel waved the apology aside with a curt "Go on..."

"There's not much to tell. When I got out of rehab they told me everything was gonna be fine and what happened to me wouldn't effect my future, but it was all bull. They all felt sorry for me, called me a hero, but nobody wanted a smack head on their team." The memories filled his throat with bitter emotion and he coughed to clear it. "In the end they found me a desk job and soothed their collective consciences with a promotion, but after six months of shuffling papers I was going nuts! I was one step away from resigning when I was 'invited' to take part in a covert operation. I found out later none of us was expected to come back. But we did. All of us. After that the rest, as they say, was history."

Done, but not forgotten, Jack mused, resentment reopening wounds that had never entirely healed. He would never forget the life he had been forced into living, or forgive those whose narrow-mindedness had forced him to live it.

"Is that what you meant... about hitting rock bottom?" Asked Daniel.

"More like the beginning of the end. After ten years of doing their dirty work I was practically a basket case. There just seemed to be no end to it... And right in the middle of everything, Sara walked out on me, took Charlie with her. I guess I couldn't get much lower than I was the night General West found me trying to drink O'Shaunessy's dry - he was one of the few people I still trusted and in the end it paid off. He took me home, sobered me up and got the whole story out of me. I thought he'd tell me just to get on with my job, do what had to be done and quit complaining, but within a week he'd had me reassigned to his staff. He spent the next year helping me put my life back together. Sara came home, we moved out to Winter Park - even talked about having another kid, then..."

"Charlie died," Daniel supplied as words failed him.

Slowly, painfully, Jack nodded, tears not very far away as he confronted what had seemed, at the time, to be the end of everything. "The day they came to get me - to tell me you were close to opening the gate - you know what I was doing?" Daniel shook his head 'no'. "Sitting in Charlie's room with a gun in my hand, trying to decide which was the most effective firing position - you know.. in the mouth, under the chin - to make sure I got it right first time. Didn't want to screw up and turn myself into - "

He paused and shot a look at Daniel. The younger man's face was chalk white and immobile, his blue eyes wide with horror and bright with denial. Jack almost left the story there, not wanting to cause him any more distress, but there was a point to all of this, and if Daniel could just hold on a while longer....

"Sorry.. I guess that was too much information, right."

"A little - but nothing I can't handle. Go on..."

"'Go on', he says... I sometimes wonder just how I manage to go on. Then I look at you, and I know. It was like that when we met. I only accepted the offer to lead that first mission through the gate because it looked like the ultimate way out. All I had to do was trigger the bomb and just sit there and wait for it to go up. Well, you gotta admit it would have been spectacularly final!" he grinned, finding a certain black humour in the plan, now that it was so far in the past. "Then I started listening to the things you were saying - even though half of it went right over my head - and I began to realise there was this whole other side of the universe opening up right in front of me."

He sat forward suddenly, elbows resting on his knees as he gazed into Daniel's eyes. All his barriers were down now, no place left to hide, though he knew he would never want to hide from this man again. "That's what I meant about none of this working if it hadn't been for you. The Jack O'Neill who came to the Mountain that day believe the old cliché about the end justifying the means, just like the way Maybourne and his people operate. The end that day was ensuring nothing could come through the stargate to threaten Earth, the means was a bomb that would destroy five thousand people in an instant, and all I had to do was flick a switch. So what? They were strangers, aliens who meant nothing to me. You showed me different. Soon as I started to see them through your eyes... You've changed me, Daniel. You may not think you have, but it's true. You say you can't understand how the Jack O'Neill you know could've been involved in black ops - well maybe that's because the me you know isn't the same guy I was all those years ago. I'm... a better person because of your friendship. That's why it hurt so much, having to say those things I did the other day."

A wave of Daniel's hand made to brush the words aside. "Forget it..."

"I can't. I need you to understand why I acted the way I did, why I said those things."

"You already explained about the place being bugged."

"That was only part of it. I needed to protect you, Daniel. Hammond and I hatched the whole thing between us, no-one else was involved. It was the only way to be sure if it all went bad on us, you and the others wouldn't be drawn into it. We knew if that happened there'd be an enquiry and you'd all be questioned; we had to make sure your reactions reflected your non-involvement."

"So if the mission had gone wrong, we would have been left thinking you'd gone dark side on us. Thanks, Jack..."

The accusation stung, but Jack did not falter. "As a matter of fact, I left letters for the three of you, explaining everything. They're in a safety deposit box and Hammond has the only key. When the heat died down he was going to give them to you, set the record straight - at least in your eyes."

"Well thank you. You don't know how much better that makes me feel." Daniel threw back at him. "We thought you trusted us, Jack..."

Reaching the worst part of the deception, the root cause of the anger Daniel was trying so hard to control, Jack shivered. "Ah yeah... That's something else I need to explain..."

"Don't trouble on my account."

"Daniel --"

"Jack?" Pushing up his glasses he rubbed at his eyes, in so doing drawing Jack's attention to the dark smudges beneath the blue orbs. He wondered just how many hours of sleep he had caused his friend to miss. "You really don't have any idea what you put us through, do you?"

"Oh - and you think it was easy for me to say those things?" he snapped back. "I've got news for you, Daniel, it hurt like hell that I couldn't include you, but Hammond didn't give me any choice."

"Hammond?" Daniel's eyes narrowed. "So now you're letting Hammond dictate who you do or don't trust. Well, that's reassuring. Now we know how he feels about us too..."

"For crying out loud! That's not what I'm saying."

"Oh, it's not."


"So you do trust us?"

"Yes!" he snapped, but it sounded too quick, too practised, and so it left behind that tiny spark of doubt, which Daniel seized upon, his own hurt and anger stifling his common-sense.

"But only up to a point," he said bluntly. He sucked in a breath, blew it out silently. "Well, that certainly puts me in my place."

Running out of words, Jack chewed on his nail as he stared into the hard face, with its pinched lips and flint eyes. The wound he had inflicted was deeper and wider than he had ever imagined possible, so wide it allowed him to see to the very core of this man, and although he hated himself for what he had done, it was the reason behind the anger he found there that became his salvation.

"What do you mean?" he asked, all his own anger gone in a heartbeat.

"Think about it... Sam is career military - like you - so neither of you would ever question her loyalty and Teal'c... well, we all know Teal'c would rather die than betray the SGC now."

Jack looked away sharply, before Daniel could read any doubt in his eyes at that assumption. Much as he hated himself for it now, there had been a moment at the drop zone when it had looked as if Teal'c was going for the stolen technology. It was a fleeting thing, gone in an instant, and he had mentally berated himself ever since, but he could not deny it had happened. For that split second in time, he had doubted Teal'c's loyalty.

"But I'm just a civilian, aren't I, Jack?" Daniel continued without pausing. "One that's too full of ideals that butt up against the whole military ethos. I hate the Goa'uld for what they did to my wife, but revenge isn't a guarantee of loyalty, is it?. Who knows - maybe Maybourne made me a better offer..."

"And maybe I'll get to be President one day... Daniel, I trust you - all of you. To be honest, you were the only ones I could trust in all of this. I never doubted any of you," he promised, hoping the lie wouldn't show in his face. He would make it up to Teal'c somehow. Someday soon he would find a way to atone for his lack of faith in the Jaffa. "That's one of the reasons I acted like I did," he added softly.

"You acted like you didn't trust us to... make us think... you did? So if one of us turned up and offered to help you..."

"Don't!" Jack interrupted sharply. "Don't even think it! Daniel, you have to believe me, I wasn't trying to catch any of you out. That wasn't what this was about."

"Then what was it about, Jack? 'Cause I'm getting pretty confused here..."

Scrubbing a hand over his face, Jack tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling as if it held the words he needed to make Daniel understand. "Everyone on the base knows how tight SG1 is. We proved that with Senator Kinsey. Go after one of us and the rest come running. That's what makes us the best. Agreed?" Daniel nodded. "So to convince whoever was behind the thefts that I could be... bought... I had to put a crack in that bond, make them think you had a reason to mistrust me. With Sam it was a question of working on her... feelings for me, making her think I'd been putting on an act since she got here, just because she's a woman. Teal'c... well, I had Hammond help me out there. He's got a lot of respect for the General's opinion, so if Hammond said I was not to be trusted... Which left me with you, my friend." He risked a smile, dropping his guard and letting all the love he felt for Daniel shine through, holding the gaze until the younger man looked away.

"The house was bugged?" Jack nodded. "By Hammond?"

"And Maybourne. My guess is, he was after something he could use to blackmail me into joining up with him, if I turned down the first invitation. We expected it, so we did a sweep. Don't worry," he added, "they ripped the whole lot out this morning."

"What d'you think he was hoping to hear?"

A sudden rush of heat to his face made Jack cringe. "He's made a couple of ... off the record references to me being involved with someone on the team."

"Someone?" Daniel asked, mood lifting for a moment as curiosity got the better of him.

"Well, Carter actually... "

"Maybourne thinks you're.... with Sam?"

Jack let the grin form. "Yeah... Good thing he doesn't know who it is I really want..." he teased, delighting in Daniel's own sudden rush of colour. Then he leaned forward and said softly "That's why I said what I did. I had to protect you. If I'd let my guard down I might have said something that would've blown my cover - and put you in danger. I - couldn't risk that."

"So you put our friendship at risk instead?"

"I had to, there was no other way. I just had to - hope you could forgive me afterwards and... help me put it all right again. So, I guess my question now is... can you?"

Daniel opened his mouth to speak, started to say "I'm sure Sam and T-", but that wasn't what Jack wanted to hear.

"I mean you, Daniel. I need to know if you can trust me again after all of this, because if I've lost that - I've lost everything. "

When does a hesitation become a pause that goes on for too long? Jack waited, watching every flicker that crossed the tanned face, trying - and failing - to fathom the expression in those articulate eyes. He was nearing the point where jumping up and shaking a response from him was a possibility, when Daniel said calmly "For crying out loud, Jack... What makes you think I ever stopped?"

Taken aback by the use of his own pet phrase against him, Jack tried hard to ignore the sudden pounding of his heart and the wave of renewed hope battering against his defences. "O-kay...And that means...?"

"That you underestimate me. I'm an archaeologist, Jack, not an idiot, and one of the things they teach you in 'archaeology school' is to never judge things by what you see on the surface. It's true I had no way of knowing what or why, but I could see something was going on. That's why I came to see you that day, to find out what it was."

"I thought you said you all drew straws..."

"I lied. As a matter of fact, Sam tried to stop me from coming here. Said pretty much the same as you did just now, about not getting involved in case it looked like I was a part of it - whatever 'it' turned out to be."

Jack swallowed hard. "But - you still came."

"You thought I wouldn't? Then - maybe you don't know me as well as you thought you did..."

The tiny, teasing smile that caught at the corner of his mouth held just the merest trace of studied cruelty, just enough to make Jack hang his head in shame.

"Ouch... I guess I deserve that."

"You did what you had to do. At least now I know all the facts I can understand why you did and said those things and... I appreciate you trying to protect me."

"It was the least I could do, in the circumstances."

"You do realise I would have involved myself anyway. I can believe a lot of things, Jack, but not that."

Jack grinned, tilting the empty mug in his direction. "I kinda figured you might... You want another of these?" he asked, brandishing the cup.

"If you're buying." Pushing to his feet, he followed Jack into the kitchen, leaning against the counter as Jack busied himself with pot and jar.

"So... " Said Jack, emerging from a cupboard with a fresh pack of coffee. "What gave me away?"

"Little things really. You were too quiet, for one. We've had conversations like that before and you always end up yelling."

"I do not!"

"Yes you do. You know you do. And you were too... coherent."

"Coherent?" Turning from his task, he hitched a brow at the younger man.

"Like you'd learned a script. Everything you said was reasoned, logical..."

This time the coffee pot hit the counter with a loud thwack of resentment. "I can do reason and logic," he protested, secretly acknowledging that Daniel maybe knew him better than he knew himself.

"But not both at the same time, Jack. And then there was the body language,"

"Body language?"

"And the eyes...."

"Anything else? Don't stop there, there must be other parts of my character you want to assassinate."

Laughter bubbled on Daniel's lips and he scratched at his cheek, peeking up through his lashes as he did so. It was a look that Jack had seen before, teasing and gentle and full of affection, and now, as then, it shot him through with a feeling of such tenderness that he was forced to turn away.

It was going to be all right. Daniel was smiling and joking with him and he knew deep down, even though they still had a ways to go, that it would be okay. Despite the things he had said, their friendship was intact.

He heard movement behind him, sensed Daniel coming to stand just inches away from him, warm breath bathing his neck, warm body radiating forgiveness and compassion, as only he could. "Look at me, Jack," he requested, touching Jack lightly on the shoulder.

"I'm making the coffee..."

"To hell with the coffee... Look at me. Please..."

He turned then, head down, breath heaving his chest. His hands were trembling and he reached behind him, gripping the edge of the counter to still them. Now it was Daniel's turn to wait... and wait... while Jack fought for control. It was this protracted silence that forced his head up, brought his eyes to meet the steady, gentle gaze, and for one furious, panic-filled moment, he fully believed that Daniel was about to kiss him.

"I believe in you," he whispered, the sincerity in his words turning them into something akin to a vow. "I believe in you and I trust you... And I always will, no matter what happens. I just wanted you to know that."

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but before the words could form on his lips, Daniel stepped away and stumbled out of the room, muttering something about 'bathroom'.

Left alone. Jack leaned heavily on the counter. Something had changed between them. Or.. maybe changed was the wrong word. Maybe something had been - reborn. Never the most confident of men where his own feelings were concerned, he had fully expected his friendship with Daniel to be irreparably damaged by the events of the last few days. At the very least he'd expected Daniel to want to stay well away from him until they found a way to rebuild what they had lost. But it hadn't been lost. Instead of falling apart, it felt as if their friendship had been scrubbed clean of all the little imperfections, the tiny irritations that had for so long held them back from what he, at least, truly wanted. There would always be differences, always conflict over ways to do things, how to handle a given situation, but the bedrock of their friendship was more solid now than it had ever been. And if they had proven that the foundations were sound, maybe now it was time they started to build.

Daniel was still in the bathroom when Jack carried the coffee into the living room. The afternoon had wasted away, unnoticed, and dusk now filled the room. Needing to occupy himself, he set about closing the drapes and lighting the lamps, turning the room into a warm, golden cocoon, safe and comfortable. To this mix he added music, a soft piano and saxophone jazz that rounded out the edges of the mood, adding intimacy without demanding attention.

The creak of the top step alerted him to Daniel's return and he looked up from the stereo, smiling a welcome. "Coffee's on the table."

Daniel resumed his seat but made no attempt to pick up the cup, sitting forward instead with his hands folded between his legs. "One thing I still don't understand - how did you know about Makepeace?"

"We didn't, but it was obvious there had to be a mole, someone cleared for gate travel who could come and go without suspicion and who had access to the kind of things that were going missing. That's why I needed to get on the inside, kinda - back-engineer the situation. I didn't know it was Makepeace till I made the drop and saw him come through the gate with SG1."

"You didn't think it could have been any one of us?"

Again, the flicker of shame for his doubts about Teal'c was quickly veiled. "C'mon, Daniel... D'you really think I wouldn't know if one of my team went dark side? The hardest part was not grabbing Makepeace and breaking his neck there and then!"

Daniel nodded, accepting the logic of the explanation. Lifting his cup between his hands, he blew the steam away and took a sip before enquiring "What will they do to him?"

A sigh slipped from Jack's lips. Makepeace could go over the top at times, all gung-ho and shoot first, but Jack had never found a real, deep down reason to out'n'out dislike him - mostly they just avoided each other wherever they could - but the man never struck him as coming from the same unethical mould as Maybourne. "Depends on how deep he was in and what hold Maybourne had over him. I guess there must be something in his past that could wreck his career if it got out. I know how people like Maybourne operate, finding the smallest weakness and grabbing a hold of it. Wouldn't surprise me if he used to pull the wings off of flies when he was a kid."

"You're probably right," Daniel laughed.

"The scary thing is, it could happen to anyone. We've all got skeletons in our closets." Some bigger than others, he added to himself, not brave enough to consider yet what else might have been revealed had the mission gone wrong. What if, someday, some other Maybourne got hold of the truth about him and turned it against the people he cared about, used it to force him to do things that went against everything he believed in... He didn't care for himself, but then he didn't exist in a vacuum.

"Jack? You okay?" Daniel's voice reached through the cloud of gloom settling around him, jerking him back to the present. He scrubbed a hand across his face.

"Yeah, I... I was just thinking too much as usual."

"A little 'there but for the grace of God' feeling?" Daniel suggested.

"Something like that." During the course of the conversation Jack had moved away from the stereo, coming to sit on the floor at Daniel's feet. Now he hitched around to face him, drawing his knees to his chest and resting his crossed arms on them, looking up, deep into the shining blue pools. God, how he loved this man! It still astonished him that he had dared put that love at risk, but at the time it had been important to the survival of Earth that he put his feelings on hold, no matter the cost. Now, however, he was free to reclaim those feelings and start to act on them, if Daniel would allow him to.

"Okay, so we've talked about Maybourne, and Makepeace, and how what happened effects the team... D'you think we can talk about us for a while?" he asked, running his thumbnail nervously over his bottom lip.


"Yeah." He waved a hand between Daniel and himself. "I need to know we're okay now. You said yourself, we've been working on this a long time. I don't want it all to go to waste because of this."

"And - you think it - might?"

A shrug. "I don't know. I hope it won't... But I saw how you looked at me, the day you came here. You sat in this chair, letting me say those things, looking like someone just smashed all your artefacts. And on the base, that last day... I saw you watching me from the control room..."

"I guess I - couldn't believe you were going back to Lara, after all the things you said about not really wanting her. That was the hardest part of all, believing how you feel about me then watching you go to her."

Jack squeezed his eyes shut and lowered his head as the heat rose in his face. Asking to retire off-world had been part of Maybourne's plan to get him to the base from which he ran his operation. In theory, once he had left Earth, and without a GDO to get him home again, he would be forgotten. That the off-world planet should be the one where he had been so recently stranded was his contribution. Those events were so recent that everyone still remembered them, so it would lend a thread of much-needed plausibility to his decision. He had remained very close-lipped about his involvement with Lara and that alone had been enough to arouse suspicion of a romance, so nobody had been overly surprised at his request to return to her. What he had overlooked, in his enthusiasm to stop Maybourne, was how Daniel might be effected by the news.

They had talked about Lara, one quiet night in Jack's quarters on base, and it had cost him little to tell Daniel the truth, not that there was much to tell. They had been friends, companions in loneliness and loss, and although they had spent one night easing each other's pain, he had never been in love with her. Okay, so maybe if he really had been stranded there for the rest of his life he might, one day, have come to care for her, but he had made it clear to Daniel - or at least, he thought he had - that anything he felt for her would never even come close to what he felt for him.

"Daniel, I give you my word, I meant everything I said." He tried to ease the tension building between them with a joke and a grin - "Hey! You really think if I was retiring off-world, I'd go someplace that didn't at least have indoor plumbing?" - but the younger man's eyes slanted away from him.

"Danny... please... You gotta believe me," he urged, hearing the whine in his voice and knowing that this had become so important to him that he would willingly go to his knees and beg if it would make Daniel trust him once more. "You know how I feel about you." He dropped his voice to a whisper, fingers tracing lazy patterns over the corduroy wrapped knees, trying anything and everything to coax a response - even a negative one - needing something more than this feeling of nothingness.

"I -I thought I did..." Daniel stammered.

"Thought? Meaning - you're not sure anymore?"

"I don't know!" Anger flashed in cerulean depths. "I want it to be like it was, but with Lara... and now this... I just... don't... know!"

Rolling to his knees, Jack caught the broad shoulders between his hands. He had put everything on the line to stop Maybourne - his job, his reputation, the hard-won respect of his friends - but none of that mattered when compared to what was at stake here.

"Look at me, Daniel," he demanded, catching the down-turned chin in his hand and forcing it up. "My feelings for you haven't changed. I still love you and I still want to be with you. Only you. Please... believe me..."

For a long time Daniel said nothing, long minutes that kept Jack balanced on a blade of uncertainty while the puzzled eyes darted back and forth across his face, reading every emotion they encountered there. Hope kept Jack silent, his fate placed squarely in this man's gentle hands, and all he could do was wait.

"Do you know how I felt when I thought I'd lost you?" Daniel asked at last. He raised his hand, stroking his fingers lightly down Jack's cheek as the older man nodded. "You're all I've got left, Jack, don't ever take that away from me - God knows, we've got little enough as it is."

Jack saw the opening, the faintest glimmer of light far in the distance, took his courage in his hands and moved towards it. "We - could have more. If you want it."

"I want it." A second hand joined the first, sweeping featherlight strokes over his cheekbones and down his throat. "But we both know it's impossible."

"That was before Maybourne got found out..." He was willing Daniel to understand now, to read between the lines.

Daniel tilted his head, suspicion gnawing at him. "What do you mean?"

"We both know he was always - the biggest obstacle to you and me being - together. It was impossible when he was always turning up unannounced, sniffing around to see what he could find to use against the SGC. But he's gone now."

"But the regulations haven't. Anyone on the base could turn us in, Jack, and you know what that would mean. I won't let that happen to you."

Frustration bled anger into Jack's veins and he pulled away, pushing to his feet. "So what do you suggest we do, go on like we have been? Because I don't think I can do that anymore."

"We have to.."

"No!" The cry was shockingly final, reverberating around them like thunder. "I love you, and I want to be with you. I'm willing to take the risk, but if you're not then... I guess there really is nothing left for me here." Suddenly it was that simple: either they took the next step together, or it ended here and now.

Daniel's face was shuttered, shock reflected in the tight lines around his perfect mouth and tired eyes. Jack knew the same look hung on his own face and he turned away sharply, afraid for what he had done. "I need some air," he said flatly, pushing open the door and stepping out onto the deck.

So, he had the answer he'd asked for - except it wasn't the one he wanted to hear. A part of him admired Daniel for his integrity, but at the same time there was a part of him that wondered if the younger man had ever really wanted more than just the emotional bond that had grown between them. They had admitted they loved each other, wanted each other as more than 'just friends', but whenever they talked about taking things further it had always been the problems they had considered, never the advantages, the minuses, never the pluses. Time after time he would try to suggest a solution, only to have Daniel block it with some new excuse, and the worst part of it was, Jack usually found himself agreeing with it, just to keep the peace between them. Perhaps there was never meant to be anything more. Perhaps it was time to call it a day, retire for real and let Daniel get on with his life.

He shuddered at the thought of never seeing him again, never touching him, hearing his voice, watching him smile. He ached to be near him when they were in the same room, so how much worse would it be if they were apart? Endless days stretched before him, grey days, devoid of the light and warmth and laughter that Daniel had brought to his life and he suddenly found himself wondering if maybe it would have been better if they'd never rescued him from Eudora. At least there he had someone who was willing to accept the little he had to offer.


The breath hitched in his throat at the sound of Daniel's voice, but he made no move to turn around.

"Not now, Daniel."


"Damnit! I said not now." Jack slammed his clenched fist down on the rail, the impact jarring his wrist painfully. He fastened onto the pain to feed the rage growing inside him. "Just.. go home, Danny. Go home and let me..."

A step closer, booted foot scraping on the wooden deck. "I am home, Jack."

He turned then, his stomach churning with hope and anger and trepidation. "Don't do this," he warned, "Not out of pity. Not if... you're not ready."

"I think I am, but... I need to know.... Do you really think we can do this, without putting your career at risk?"

He licked nervously at suddenly dry lips. "Honest answer? I don't know. But I do know I want to try."

"If Hammond finds out -"

Jack gave a soft laugh and risked a smile. "I'll let you into a little secret - Hammond already knows."

"You told him about us?"

"Oh yeah... Back when you had those - bug - things of Marchello's in you... I was scared they were gonna lock you away from me..."

Light from the open door danced fire through Daniel's hair and wreathed his face in shadows as he shook his head. "If he knows, how come he didn't do anything about it?"

Feeling the shifting sands beneath his feet become firmer with every passing moment, Jack relaxed against the rail and wrapped his arms across his chest, looking full-on at Daniel. He was still wary of this unexpected change in Daniel's direction, but they were moving forward at last and he was more than ready to take a chance.

"Because George Hammond is one of the good guys. Okay, so he still has to play by the rules, but he hasn't reached where he is without learning when he can - bend a little, play the advantage. As far as he's concerned, what we do in our own time is up to us." He wondered fleetingly if he should tell Daniel about the deal he had struck with their CO over the whole Maybourne thing, the one that said so long as they kept it off base and out of the General's face, Hammond would forget what Jack had told him in a moment of emotional collapse. On the other hand, if Daniel knew that he was not above resorting to a little blackmail to get his own way it might just colour his view of the situation enough to drive the wedge back between them.

"He'll back us as far as he can," he told him.

"And - exactly how far is that, Jack?"

A shrug. "Short of someone catching us making out in the supply room - which we wouldn't let happen anyhow - I'd say pretty much all the way."

"What about Sam and Teal'c?"

"Well, I wasn't aware there was anything going on between them," Jack responded, deliberately misunderstanding the question in the hope that he might lighten the mood "but I'm sure he'd treat them the same - although if you ask me, Sam is more interested in Martouf."

Daniel, wide eyed, hesitated a moment before a tiny laugh marked his willingness to play along. "Well, if you ask me, she's more interested in someone a little... closer to home."

"You mean - Janet?"

"I mean you, Jack.

"Hey, don't even think of going there, Danny-boy." Jack, well aware of how their other team mate felt about him, held up a hand as if to ward off any even more ridiculous suggestions. "I love her, as a friend, but we'd drive each other nuts within the first twenty-four hours."

Stepping closer, Daniel turned the charm full-on. "How do you know we won't do the same?"

"I don't," he said honestly, voice and face softening. "But with you I'm prepared to take the risk." Pushing away from the rail, he reached a hand to Daniel's face, palm moulding to the curve of cheek and angle of jaw, stubble rough against his skin. "Do you realise, it's almost a year since the day I first told you I love you? A whole year - and not even one kiss..."

"Which just goes to prove what amazing self-control you have," Daniel teased, rubbing his face against the strong fingers, moving so that his body was almost touching Jack's, heat radiating off him, scent filling Jack's senses. "Why don't we go back inside," he suggested and, without waiting for Jack to respond, turned and walked back into the house.

Mesmerised by this so very different Daniel, head and heart pounding with the possibilities, he followed, pausing only to close the door, locking out the world.

Daniel was waiting for him in the middle of the room, the softest and sweetest smile on his face as he held out his hands to guide Jack to him. A moment later and they were in each other's arms, holding on as if the continuation of life itself was only possible through the contact of their bodies.

Jack buried his face in the hot skin of Daniel's neck and asked "Why now?" as he inhaled the rich, male scent of him, his own pulse racing to catch up with the whirlwind of his thoughts.

"I suddenly realised either way I risk losing you, so why not take what we can, while we can."

"You won't lose me, Daniel, I swear. If someone finds out and Hammond can't contain it, I'll resign before they can throw me out."

"And if that happens, I'll be right there with you." he pulled back, laughing into Jack's eyes. "We could always join the Tok'ra..."

Jack screwed up his face and shook his head. "Nu-uh. I've had one snake in my head, I don't plan on trying it again. We'll throw ourselves on the mercy of the Asgaard. They like me."

"It has been noticed. Got a 'thing' for little grey men, have you Jack?"

"No," he pouted. "Only for one certain blue-eyed archaeologist." He framed the warm face with his hands, breath stalling in his throat as he brushed his thumbs lightly across the soft skin. "D'you know, you've got the most beautiful eyes."

"C'mon, Jack...." Daniel ducked his head, colour swelling in his cheeks. Of all the things Jack loved about him, that was the most endearing, that he could still appear so shy and vulnerable, even after all he had seen and done. He loved it because it encouraged his own softer side to rise to the surface, the kinds of feelings that in the past he had only ever allowed his wife and son to see. Daniel could be as tough and uncompromising as the rest of them now, would front up to Apophis or Hera'ur without a trace of fear and had endured things that even some of Jack's military peers would balk at, yet he had never relinquished the unique qualities that made Daniel Jackson the man he was. The man Jack had fallen in love with.

Hooking a finger beneath the pointed chin, he raised Daniel's head until those guileless eyes met his again. "I mean it." he leaned closer, breath mingling with breath, lips almost touching, parting in expectation of the kiss. "Beautiful blue eyes..." he whispered as he guided their mouths together. It was sweet, incredibly, impossibly sweet to feel Daniel's lips open beneath his. No force, no burning hunger, just a very gentle movement of skin against skin, a delicate introduction of this new intimacy. He wanted more, wanted to dip his tongue into that moist warmth, to taste and feel, discover everything about Daniel that he did not already know, but there was a part of him that was almost too afraid to continue, wanting him yet at the same time not wanting to spoil the mystery, and so he held back.

"I love you," he whispered, lips bumping against trembling lips as he spoke them, the tentative pressure winding spirals of pure joy through his senses.

It was the most perfect of first kisses, delicate, tender, a sweet affirmation of shared need, unhurried and undemanding. It was a kiss that was filled with all the love each felt for the other, the deeper, darker desires banked carefully, held confined behind a wall of respect. There would be time and opportunity enough to explore their more physical needs, now that the first step had been taken, though at that moment the possibilities filled him with terror. If such a gentle kiss could - dismantle him, the way this one had done, what would it be like to make love to him? Most likely he would shatter into tiny fragments or burn up with the intensity of such full body contact. But - what a way to go!

He kissed them apart, held his breath as he waited for Daniel to open his eyes, waited to see what his lover's response would be.

"Wow!" Daniel murmured succinctly, tawny lashes fluttering open. Without his glasses his eyes appeared to open even wider, gathering all the light in the room until it seemed to radiate from him in a dazzling smile of contentment.

"Only 'wow'?" Jack teased, trying to sound disappointed, even though his heart was hammering so hard he was certain Daniel must be able to feel it through their clothes.

"I'm pacing myself..." He tucked his head into Jack's neck and proceeded to nibble on the soft skin there, making Jack squirm. "Hate to run out of accolades at a... crucial moment."

"Oh? And just what 'crucial moment' did you have in mind?" Jack asked around a mouthful of earlobe.

A moment of silence while Daniel considered this, and then: "The first time I feel you inside me would be a start..."

The image was so vivid, so well-defined that Jack forgot to breathe: Daniel, beneath him... body open to him... hands and mouth inviting... his own cock plunging deep into the sweetness....

He pulled away, hands once again lifting to hold Daniel's face between them. "Is that what you want?" he asked, voice unsteady, the whole world shrinking to the few small inches between blue eyes and brown.

"You know it is," Daniel answered him, rock steady, unflinching. "You've always known, Jack."

It was true, God help him, it was true. From the moment he had dared to confess his feelings, the moment when Daniel had touched his face and whispered 'I'm in love with you, too, Jack', he had known what this astonishing man had wanted of him.

But there was more. Touching his fingertips to Jack's mouth, smiling through the brilliance of tears, Daniel told him: "Just as I've always known this time would come."

"You did?"

"Uh-huh. Right from the beginning I knew... This was always meant to be, Jack."

"You never said anything...."

"No. You wouldn't have believed me if I had, not then. We had to put it together, build it, piece by piece, until - "

"- now," Jack finished. "I can't believe I almost threw it away."

Daniel shook his head, slipped his arms around Jack's waist and rested his head on the solid shoulder. "There was never any risk of that. What happened maybe rocked the foundations a little, but... nothing more. We would have found our way back to each other eventually."

"You can be so sure?"

"About that? Yes. You don't get rid of me that easily, Jack."

Laughter bubbled and danced around them as they hugged each other close, drew apart to share a second kiss, this more heated, more confident that the first. The part of Jack that had long ago ceased to believe in any form of karma, dismissed Daniel's words as the fanciful ramblings of someone head over heels in love. But the part of him that loved in return, that wanted and needed this man in his life, accepted, trusted, without question. If Daniel said this was meant to be, and that nothing would ever keep them apart, then that was how it would be.

"So," he said at last, "what happens now?"

Daniel opened his mouth to speak - but at that moment somebody's stomach growled a more urgent request.

"Was that yours or mine?"

"Mine," Jack winced. "Food wasn't high on Maybourne's list of priorities."

"Then - I guess we better eat," Daniel grinned. "You need to keep your strength up."

"I do?"

"Oh yeah..."

Allowing himself to be taken by the hand and led into his own kitchen, Jack decided it might be better to leave the analysis of that statement until later, feeling that if he delved too deeply they might never get to eat.

"Okay," he said, peering into the freezer, "we've got pizza... chicken.... steak..."

"Expecting a siege, Jack?"

Jack threw him a sour look but continued to unload the food. "... more pizza... some of Janet's spaghetti sauce... There's some fish I caught last time I went out with Hammond?" A rapid shake of Daniel's head told him what he could do with that idea. Rising from his knees, Jack surveyed the various packets and boxes spread out on the counter. "Okay, so what's it to be?"

Daniel scratched his cheek, pushed a couple of the boxes around, opened the canister of spaghetti sauce. Finally, his face alive with laughter, he shook his head, looked at his lover and said simply "Why don't we just draw straws?"