Even the Darkest Cloud.

Jack was despondent. Ten minutes from the end of the game and his team were losing - and losing bad. It wasn't fair. All week he had been looking forward to the game and this morning he'd gone out and stocked up on beer and chips and just about anything else that would add to the perfection of the afternoon. It was a ritual he'd followed for years.

And now his team were losing.

It was raining, too, heavy drops falling from a leaden sky, wind-lashed against the window with such force they formed a shimmering curtain of water down the glass. He'd planned on mowing the lawn later, but that was out now. All his plans for the day falling into dust. Bleak and depressing, doing nothing to lift his mood and everything to flatten it still more, the whole of nature conspiring against him.

He watched the rain, the onset of Fall, and wished he could have the summer back again. Hadn't been a bad year to begin with, not really; some good missions, some real progress. Okay, so they'd had a few setbacks - like three of the team getting caught by Hathor, Daniel getting infected with Marchello's little Goa'uld-killers and going nuts for a while, interesting little confrontation with Sokar and Apophis along the way, not to mention that spot of undercover work that almost lost him the respect of his friends. And, of course, could anyone forget his own first taste of life on the other side of the quantum mirror...

His eyes slid back to the television, unseeing, as he wondered how that other Sam was doing these days, without her Jack. Finding out that his alternate and Carter's had been married there had been unsettling at the time, had set him thinking back to what Daniel had told him about that first trip through the mirror, and how that O'Neill and Carter had been an item too. For weeks after he had been plagued by thoughts of Sam, about how he treated her and how she might view the relationship between them. He'd even taken to 'reading' the looks she gave him, reading stuff into them that in his heart he knew wasn't really there, just his imagination going wild, playing the 'what if?' game. Then one night he'd woken in the middle of a wet dream to hear himself calling her name. That was when he knew it had to stop. Speculation was dangerous ground and anyway, there was something - someone - more important.

A week later, Sha're was killed and all bets were off. Daniel needed him, and nothing else mattered.

A whiplash of lightening snaked across the sky and thunder crackled ominously. Around him, lights and television flickered. Sighing, he abandoned all pretence of watching the game - no team on earth could make up that difference in so short a time - and, hauling himself to his feet, went in search of candles and a flashlight. He found what he needed just in time. Another explosion of sound and light, this one directly overhead and forceful enough to rattle the glass in the windows, and out went the power.

"Peachy," he muttered, applying flame to wick and watching it flicker into life. Not that being in the dark bothered him. There was warmth from the fire, comfortable light from the candles and fresh batteries in the portable stereo - what more did he need?

A dozen pages into the novel he had been saving for just such a 'rainy day' he tossed the thing aside in disgust. These people called themselves writers, but some of them really had no idea of what life was about. After the first chapter he found himself wondering if the author had ever been near an army base, never mind been under fire.

There was a small collection of magazines on the shelf beneath the coffee table. Too lazy to get up and hunt in the darkness for another book, he rummaged through them for something to read, found buried there a slender volume - in reality little more than a picture book with notes - on the Incas, that he guessed Daniel must have left behind during one of his weekend visits. He had a habit of doing that - inviting himself over to Jack's house for the weekend - and Jack guessed that if he bothered to go back through his irregular diary and check, he would find that most of those visits coincided with a particularly tense mission or some kind of upheaval in his life. It was as if Daniel needed to seek out the reassurance of Jack's company as some kind of sanctuary but, whatever the reason, Jack was happy to have him there. It wasn't the most perfect of solutions to his needs but, given the circumstances in which they found themselves, it was better than he could ever hope for.

This time he could have sworn he heard the lightening, the almost sonic screech that reminded him now of the sound of a staff weapon, the explosion that followed, louder than the thunder that it brought with it, shaking the whole house in its intensity. He knew then that the discharge had found a target close by. Grabbing the powerful flashlight, stuffing his feet into his shoes, he sprinted for the door. The sickening noise of tearing wood met his ears above the roar of the downpour and as he raced down the path he could see the smoke coiling upwards and the dark emptiness where moments earlier a tree had soared towards the night sky. There was a house across the street, but it had survived unscathed: he guessed the tree had fallen across the road. That would bring it's own set of problems but as he hurried out into the road to see just how bad the situation was, he saw something of even greater urgency: the headlights of the car across which the tree had fallen.

Feet pounding, splashing the surface water in all directions, oblivious to the deluge that soaked him to the skin in a handful of steps, Jack headed for the car, sensing already that there would be little he could do - an opinion which was confirmed as he reached the road. The hood of vehicle had been caved in by the impact, torn and twisted metal embedded in the wood; wood had pierced metal, shattered glass. The windshield had gone: one thick branch had punched right through it and out the side window behind the driver's seat, taking the headrest with it.

Stomach already churning at the thought of what he would find, Jack tried the door: it was jammed fast but, to his relief, the driver's seat was empty. Then a form - that of a man? - lit by the beam of the head lamps, passed across the front of the car, drawing his attention. The man - the driver? - was already attempting to haul the tree clear. Jack yelled at him - "Leave it!" - but the roar of the thunder and the drumming of the rain swallowed the words.

"Leave it," he cried again, hurrying around the back of the car to reach the man, catching him by the arm and hauling him back. "You crazy? You'll get yourself kill--"

Terrified but familiar eyes turned to his face and a full, trembling mouth silently formed his name: "Jack?"

"Daniel? --- the fu-- ? What -- hell --- --ing here?"

"Want-- to -- !"


" -- -- you!"

"--------- night like this?"

Jack growled with frustration as time and again their words collided and were swept away in the force of the storm. He tried to force his voice above the cacophony of sound but the rain and the wind and the thunder were conspiring against him and so, in desperation, he grabbed hold of the arm nearest him and dragged the archaeologist physically back from the mangled wreckage of tree and car, propelling him towards the house, one arm firmly around his waist, grateful when Daniel made no attempt to resist.

Stumbling and staggering, feet skidding on the ground as the rain turned to driving hailstones as big as spilled peas, clinging to each other for support as, weighted down by their rain-soaked clothes, they lunged up the path, vaulted the steps and burst noisily into the hallway. Jack slammed the door behind them and leaned against it, his chest heaving from the combination of exertion and fear, anger not very far away.

"What the hell are you doing out on a night like this?" he demanded as he stared, unbelieving, at his sodden friend.

Daniel glared back through the wet lenses. "It wasn't 'a night like this' when I set out," he defended. "I'm not completely stupid, Jack!"

The rawness of his words, the vibrato of his voice that warned just how close to the edge the experience had driven him, smoothed the edges off Jack's anger and replaced them with concern. "You should have turned back..."

"This place was closer - I knew I'd be safe here."

Trust: such a simple declaration yet it encapsulated their whole relationship. Casting aside the rest of his argument as relief at Daniel's safety crashed over him, Jack reached out and gathered him close, feeling him tremble with cold and the reaction to his ordeal. "Always," he vowed, wrapping both arms tightly around him. To hell with the consequences, he thought as his chill lips pressed to an equally cold ear. Easing back, he framed Daniel's face between his hands and tried a smile, willing his friend to return it and reassure him that all was well. "Sorry," he murmured. "Didn't mean to overreact, I just... Ya scared the shit outta me!. When I saw the car..."

A small laugh slipped from the pale lips. "You want to try driving out there, Jack..." He shivered suddenly - violently - his whole body shuddering as the shock began to set in. Jack responded in an instant, releasing him and taking hold of his arm, steering him down the hall.

"Let's get you out of those wet things," he suggested, a familiar note of authority creeping into his voice. He had dealt with things like this before, though most of his experience lay with young men shocked into immobility by the horrors of the battlefield. Through them he had come to understand that people didn't need kind words of consolation so much as a strong hand to direct them to safety first, to deal with their physical needs. The rest - the comfort, the reassurances, the analysis, the recriminations - could all come later.

He hurried Daniel downstairs to the laundry room, snagging the flashlight on the way. "Sorry about the lights, power went out a while back. Got plenty of candles though..." He set the light atop the washer, aiming the beam at the ceiling to diffuse the glow. "Good thing I did the laundry this morning. Can't offer you a shower, but I've got stacks of clean towels and sweats..."

Slowly, as if in a dream, Daniel began to peel the clothes away from his cold limbs. The cable knit sweater slopped to the floor, quickly forming a puddle; the cord pants followed, change jingling over the tiles as it spilled from his pockets. Jack watched him carefully a moment longer, until he was satisfied that he was coping, then began to remove his own saturated attire, stripping to his skin with practised efficiency and a minimum of embarrassment. What was there to be embarrassed about? Daniel had seen him naked in the showers often enough. At least the room was warm - not that it seemed to be having any effect on his unexpected guest. Daniel was down to his underwear now, those snug-fitting Calvin Kleins that Jack always thought looked so hot on him. How many times in the locker room had he stolen a glance at that sweet butt, the cotton stretched tight as he bent to pull on his socks.

But there was nothing sexy about Daniel at that moment. The cold had leeched all colour from his naturally pale skin and crinkled it into goose flesh as he stood, arms loose at his sides, his wet hair hanging in his eyes and droplets of rain dripping from the tip of his nose. It was one of those 'only his mother would love him now' moments: well, Jack wasn't his mother, but he counted himself the next best thing.

Struck by an overwhelming sense of protectiveness - a feeling he often had around this particular young man - he reached out to shake Daniel's shoulder, bringing him back to awareness. "Daniel?" he prompted gently, . "C'mon, buddy..."

"Hmmm? What?"

"Those too," he said, indicating the underwear. Twisting his lips into a teasing smile that he was far from feeling, he added softly "I promise I won't peek..."

It was a promise he knew he would break before the words faded in the air, his gaze lingering over the silky skin as each inch was revealed; shifting to touch briefly on the golden thatch nestled between the long, corded thighs. Even shrunken with the cold, Daniel was still an impressive sight and Jack was grateful for the towel wound around his own hips. Not that his companion was in the mood to notice anything. With a sigh, Jack handed him a towel, which Daniel hooked around his own waist, and draped another around the trembling shoulders. As much as he wanted to allow his mind to wander along those familiar paths of erotic thought, Jack knew that the first priority was to get Daniel dried off and warm.

Back up, through the house, to Jack's bedroom. He pulled the newest set of sweats, pale grey ones that he had worn only once, from the dresser and handed them to Daniel, along with the instruction to get them on as quickly as he could. Pulling on an older dark blue set, he dug into the drawer again and produced two pairs of socks, tossing one to Daniel, who finally showed signs of coming back to reality. It seemed a crime to cover those beautiful feet, but Jack knew from experience that the longer his feet stayed cold, the longer it would take the rest of him to warm up.

"Feel better?" he asked and this time his smile was genuine and came from the heart. Dried and snug in the pale sweats, Daniel looked ten years younger and so damn innocent that the words 'virgin' and 'deflowering' skipped through the darker recesses of Jack's mind. God, temptation was a real bitch at times, especially when your own resistance was as low as Jack's was where Daniel Jackson was concerned. And they were still in Jack's bedroom, a step away from the bed, which wasn't helping him any at all.

Daniel returned the smile and the flashlight became redundant. "Thanks... I'm sorry to put you to all this trouble, Jack..."

Bottom lips caught between his teeth to stop his own smile growing into a shit-eating grin, Jack shook his head. "Will you can it! I thought this was what that whole friendship thing was about?"

"Yes, but..."

Jack wagged a finger between them, cutting off the rest of the sentence. "No buts," he cautioned, "except the one you're gonna haul into the other room and over to the fire while I go make us a hot drink."

"Jaaack...!" The protest was half-hearted, abandoned completely as another shiver ran through him.

"Look at you..." Jack sighed. Taking him by the shoulders, he rubbed his hands lightly but firmly up and down the strong arms. "You're frozen through. Don't want you getting sick on me."

Blue eyes flashed a tiny laugh as he shook his head. "Are you gonna go all 'mother hen' on me now?"

"You got a problem with that?..."

"I didn't say that..."

"Good, because I like taking care of you," Jack blurted, realised, dismissed any insinuation with a casual shrug. At least, he hoped he had. As much as he wanted the man standing before him, he had known all along the impossibility of it. Daniel had a one track mind where personal involvements were concerned and that one track was his late wife, Sha're. Okay, so under certain influences he had occasionally slipped off the fidelity wagon - most notable instance was Shyla, although it had taken her a sarcophagus to achieve it - but he had never shown a positive, calculated, romantic interest in anyone, male or female. There were other, more important things in Daniel's life and Jack's only consolation was that they were a long time dead.

He sighed and stepped out into the hall, knowing that Daniel would follow him, out of curiosity if nothing else. "Look, just go make yourself comfortable by the fire," he urged. "I'll be through in a minute." To his relief, Daniel went. Jack watched him, shining the beam along the unlit hall until he was sure Daniel had made it safely down the stairs, before retracing his steps. At least there was no sign of any injury, though how the hell Daniel had missed being hit by the branch when it came through the windshield was a miracle in itself. Jack had never realised his reflexes were that good.

In the kitchen he traded the flashlight for candles, aware that there were no spare batteries. With dawn still some hours away and the storm continuing to rage outside, it was important to conserve whatever power he could for other emergencies.

He hesitated as he lifted a cup from the cupboard, shrugged, and took out another. Cocoa for two - why not? he mused, dwelling on thoughts of candlelight and cracking flames, hot cocoa with extra chocolate and a handful of marshmallows. The romantic scene he so longed to play out with Daniel might be out of the question, but at least they could cosy down together in front of the fire and wait out the weather. One thing was certain, Daniel was going nowhere until the morning.

"Warmer?" he asked when, minutes later, he carried the two steaming mugs into the living room. But at the foot of the stairs he halted abruptly, stalled by the sight that met his eyes. Daniel, seated cross-legged on the floor, elbows resting on his knees to support his head as he stared intently into the dancing flames. Firelight played across his skin, painting it in tones of bronze and copper, burnished like the statues of old. His hair, too, reflected the light; mussed up and in need of a comb, it resembled spun gold to Jack's besotted eyes and he wondered how he had ever dared hope that he might one day win the heart of this beautiful man. He was too old, too soured by life, to be worthy of one so amazing.

Swallowing the constriction in his throat, squaring his shoulders, he crossed the room and held out one of the cups, calling softly "Here... this should get you warm..."

Drawn from his reverie, Daniel leaned his head back to look at Jack, his face soft and open, flushed with the heat from the blaze, his lips pulled apart by the acute angle of his throat, giving Jack a teasing peek at the tip of a pink tongue. "Thanks," he murmured, taking the cup and wrapping his hands around it, holding it close to his face to inhale the hot, sweet aroma. "Smells good..."

"Tastes even better," Jack promised. "I have it on the best authority that I make the best double hot chocolate in Colorado Springs."

Daniel tilted his head, brow arched in enquiry. "Oh? And who told you that?"

"You, as a matter of fact. " Placing his own drink carefully on the hearth, Jack eased himself down beside his friend, his knees protesting every movement though not a flicker of discomfort was allowed to show on his face. "Last winter - remember? - after you helped me clear the snow off the driveway?"

A tiny chuckle vibrated through the long throat. "Well, that just goes to show what great taste I have," he teased. He took a tentative sip of the thick, creamy liquid and made a rumbling sound of appreciation deep in his chest, a satisfied purr that made Jack's whole body tingle. If only he could make Daniel respond that way to stimulation of a more intimate kind.

He had deliberately sat side-on to the fire, so that he could see Daniel's face without making it look obvious. Now, drawing up one knee to make a resting place for his elbow, he regarded the younger man's profile intently. It seemed strange, but these days he had to struggle to recall a time when Daniel had not been a part of his world. Abydos, that first mission, seemed to belong to another life now and the man who sat at his side a far cry from the anxious, idealistic, allergy-ridden geek that had arrived at the Mountain to turn the whole Stargate programme on its ear. He was still prone to allergies, could still be anxious and idealistic when the situation drove him to it, but he was stronger now, more confident. Jack's little space monkey was all grown up and he had the bruises and the scars to prove it. And yet deep down, he was still the Daniel that Jack had come to love.

"So," he prompted softly, trying not to break the mood. "Gonna tell me what brought you out here on a night like this?"

A shy smile quickly hidden by the dip of his head. "I.. umm.. I was on my way home from the museum. The storm started... I didn't know where else to go."

"The museum?" Jack tilted his head. His house was nowhere near being on a direct route between the museum and Daniel's apartment. That either meant Daniel's sense of direction was worse than any of them thought, or that Daniel was deliberately hiding something from him. Jack's money was on the latter. "O-kay. Well, at least you're safe. How the hell did you miss that branch anyway?"

Daniel shrugged. "I saw the lightening strike the tree, and I knew there was nowhere else to go, so I hit the brakes and ducked. Crawled out the passenger door."

"Dammit! You could have been killed!" Jack barked. Relented. Patted Daniel's knee in a token apology. "Sorry, but... If anything had happened to you..."

"It didn't." He sounded distracted, lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly he looked up, directly at Jack, and asked curiously "Is that important to you?"

"What? That you're safe?" Jack knew he could laugh or he could get mad at such a question: he chose the laughter. "Of course it is. I care about you, Daniel," he said and reached to ruffle the untidy hair. Daniel's next question turned Jack's blood to ice.


He was serious, too, his naked eyes wide and steady, filled with curiosity. Jack felt like one of those artefacts that littered the archaeologists desk back at the base, so intent was the scrutiny, and he knew, beyond doubt, that everything hinged on his answer. There was no room for levity here, no way that he could brush the truth to one side in favour of the socially acceptable lie. This was the moment he had both longed for and feared for the past four years, the make or break time in their relationship and no matter how much he wanted to, he could not avoid it.

A glance away as he struggled for composure and then he was gazing deep into Daniel's eyes, all his defences shot to hell. Even so, he made one last brave effort to cling to the remnants. "Because - you're - my best friend..."

Daniel's only reaction was the quirk of a brow and an intrigued "That's it? Because - we're friends?"

"What else did you expect me to say?" he wondered, fear running its chill fingers up and down his spine. Firelight flashed in the blue eyes as Daniel shook his head, catching his lip in his teeth as he turned away, as if to stifle the little ironic smile that played there.

Silence spun out between them as Jack watched Daniel and Daniel watched the fire. Not an awkward silence - that surprised Jack because logic told him he should feel uncomfortable with this - more an absence of conversation as each examined the notion of their friendship, its depth and scope, its place in their life. Daniel finished his hot cocoa with extra chocolate and marshmallows while Jack's grew cold on the stone hearth, forgotten.

"Do you remember," Daniel began slowly, his voice echoing in the soundless room, making the hairs on Jack's neck prickle, the way they sometimes do at an unexpected sound in the night. "Do you remember back when we first realised the potential of the quantum mirror, that the different realities come about because of the choices made along the way?"

He paused, waiting for Jack to reply. He did so, murmuring "Go on...", what he hoped was a look of encouragement on his face.

"I think I'm at one of those places now. I always thought it was Sha're that kept me doing this, that finding her was the single, most important thing in my life, but... I never really thought about what would happen when the search was over. Not really. Finding her was all that mattered and only when I'd done that, would I think about the future. Well... Sha're is dead and the future's here Jack, and I have a choice to make."

"Between?" Jack prompted, deliberately keeping his voice neutral. He knew the way he wanted Daniel to choose but, as loudly as his heart was crying out - Choose me! - he could not - would not - influence him in any way. Whatever decision Daniel reached, he had to arrive at it himself or it would never truly be his.

"My life as it was or - my life as it could be."

"The distinction being?"

"You," he said calmly, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and perhaps, to him, it was. But it left Jack reeling. He found that he could not move, that he hardly dared breathe as he absorbed the quiet confession, that one word - "You" - pounding through his head, over and over, imprinting itself on his heart. Still, Daniel wasn't done, determined, it seemed, to bare his soul once and for all.

"It's funny the way things happen, don't you think? I always thought this was about me and Sha're but as time went on I started to realise - more and more it was about me and you, Jack. For the first time in my life, I had someone who cared about me, not about who I was, or what I could do, just - about me. Then one morning I woke up, and you were the first thought in my head. Not Sha're, not whether that would be the day we found her and freed her from the Goa'uld. I woke up, and it was just an ordinary day, and all I wanted to do was get to the base to see you..." He glanced quickly at Jack, then away once more, his gaze travelling around the room that had, over the years, become like a second home to him. "It all started here - remember? Here in this room, that night you brought me home from Abydos. I had nothing; no clothes, no money - no hope. You gave me all of that, and more. You gave me a place to stay and a reason to stay there."

Suddenly Jack found his voice, enough to murmur softly "Isn't that what friendships are all about?"

"Is it?" Daniel asked. "I don't know. I never had a true friendship before, not like this. Maybe that's why it took me so long to understand. I didn't know the rules, you see, had to learn them along the way." This time, when he turned his head to look at Jack, his smile was dazzling. "You were a good teacher."

"Me?" Jack's voice rose to an undignified squeak, making Daniel laugh softly.

"You sound surprised."

"I am! I mean - do you really think that's wise? I'm not exactly a great role model where friendships are concerned."

Daniel tilted his head to one side, frowning. "Why do you do that?" he asked. "Why are you always putting yourself down? You act like you're dumb, but we both know you're not."

"Compared to you or Carter..?" Jack protested, this time winning a brief explosion of laughter from his companion.

"Oh come on, Jack! Compared to Sam everyone is dumb."

"You're not..."

"Yes I am - in a lot of ways. We all have our weaknesses, just as we all have different strengths. Yours are your skills in the battlefield, your knowledge of how to turn defeat into victory, your courage, your tenacity -" he broke off suddenly and gave a small, affectionate chuckle "- even your damn arrogance! If you were as dumb as you try to make us believe, you never would have made it to colonel and we both know that if you let them, they would have made you a general by now. And before you deny it -" he insisted "General Hammond let it slip."

"When?" Jack demanded, feeling the heat climb in his face. It was true, the approach had been made, but stepping up a rank would mean leaving SG1 behind, and he was not ready to do that. Not yet. Maybe not ever, if it threatened his relationship with Daniel.

"After that thing with Maybourne. That line you spun about a second base, that wasn't just part of the cover story, was it?"

Caught out, yet again, by Daniel's perception, Jack shifted awkwardly. "No... Not entirely. The plans are there, waiting to be put into action, we just have to - wait and see what happens when election time comes around."

"But - you'd get first shot at command..."

"That's what they're proposing, yes."

"And - you'd accept?"

Jack's head was starting to ache with all the questions and he rubbed hard at the base of his skull, trying to ease the pressure, wondering where Daniel was going with all of this. "That would depend on - certain factors," he hedged. The look in Daniel's eyes said he wasn't buying it.

"On - what - exactly...?"

Reassurance. It hit Jack suddenly that what Daniel was after was reassurance, for the team as a whole but, more importantly, for himself as Jack's 'best friend'. Reassurance that there was a place for him in Jack's future, whatever that might be. And Danny was trying to convince him he wasn't dumb? Time to lay all the cards on the table, Jack, he decided, drawing a deep breath.

"I already told them if I accept, I want my team along with me. It won't be easy out there so I told them I want the best. In my book, that's SG1."

The little, self-conscious wriggle of Daniel's shoulder warned him there was still a problem and Daniel's next words confirmed it. "I can see how you'd want Sam and Teal'c there but let's be realistic here - what use would I be?"

"Are you kidding me?" Reaching out, he gave Daniel's arm a none-too-gentle reprimanding slap. "I need you most of all."

"You're talking about a second front against the Goa'uld - I can't really see much use for an archaeologist in a war zone. I mean, they're hardly going to break off fighting while I dig up another artefact..."

The sting of the words, the element of doubt they contained, made Jack pull back, his expression as hurt as the ache growing inside him. That Daniel could misread him so much.... "Is that all you think you are to me," he asked, "the team's archaeologist? Jesus, Danny - don't you know yet you're the single most important thing in my life?" There, it was said. Not quite the way he had intended to acquaint Daniel with the full extent of his feelings, but it had been a long, tense day and he was tired of pussyfooting around. Tell it like it is, and be damned.

"Your best friend, " Daniel posed, but the glint in his eyes and the curve of his lips smoothed the harder edges of the question.

"More than that." Yeah, Jack - tell the truth and be damned, if that's the price for honesty these days. "You're my conscience," he whispered. Without thinking, he raised his hand and touched it to the hot cheek, his thumb tracing lightly over the full lips. "The best part of me is the part that belongs to you. If I went out there without you - I'd only be half alive."

Was it relief or revulsion that closed Daniel's eyes? Hard to tell in the dim light of the fire. He could see the broad chest rise and fall beneath the grey top, could sense the trembling of Daniel's thigh where it brushed against his own, but those symptoms could be attributed to very different emotions and so he waited. Waited and hoped, as he had done for so long.

Relief for Jack came in a contented sigh and the slow movement of Daniel's cheek against the palm of his colonel's hand, and Jack heard his own breath catch as those expressive eyes fluttered open once more and fixed him with a look that was raw and so full of hunger he marvelled at the younger man's control.

"I owe you an apology," Daniel whispered, "I lied about the museum. The truth is, I came here tonight to tell you - " He broke off and Jack felt the movement of his jaw as he swallowed, trying to steady himself. Then a breath, deep and calming, as he cast aside the last obstacle between them and said quietly and with the sparkle of joyous certainty in his eyes: "I came to tell you that I'm in love with you, Jack. I have been for a very long time."

Jack knew he was suddenly wearing the same rabbit-in-the-headlights look he had often seen on Daniel's face when something totally unexpected threw him a loop, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. "You - you are?" he rasped, throat shocked dry by the startling revelation. "You have?"

"You sound surprised..."

"Surprised? You gotta be kidding me. Jeez, Danny, I never expected... I mean... What I mean is, it's not that I don't... That's to say..." He could hear himself starting to babble and with massive effort got his mouth and his thoughts under some semblance of control, enough to respond in the way he wanted to respond and not like some gibbering idiot. He lifted his other hand to frame Daniel's face, brown eyes searching blue for the slightest change, finding only need and longing there, their gaze steady as a rock. "Daniel," he murmured, awed by the moment and unable to restrain the intensity of his feelings any longer, the name turning into a verbal caress as he moved closer, bringing their lips together for the first time.

It was sweet, that first kiss, so sweet and so right. One hand lingered against Daniel's face, the other dropped, seeking out its long-fingered mate, while Daniel's free hand lifted to Jack's side, pressing just hard enough to steady them both. Nothing complicated, nothing to overwhelm them: there would be passion later, he could feel it trembling just beneath the surface, like a soft breeze through long grass, but not just yet, not while they were at this wonderful, fragile moment of discovery.

Returning Daniel's mouth to him, Jack guided the tawny head to his shoulder, wrapping his arms around the warm body. "You have no idea how long I've been wanting to do that," he confessed, amazed that something so momentous could take place and yet leave him feeling so calm, so completely at peace.

"Really?" Daniel's voice was muffled somewhere around Jack's collarbone.

"Oh yeah. Long, long time." He grinned into Daniel's hair, the silk of it - Never realised it would be that soft... - tickling his face as he pressed a kiss against Daniel's forehead. "Always wanted to do it, right from the moment I saw you." His hand beneath the point of Daniel's chin raised his face again and Jack took his mouth a second time, sighing as he felt the soft lips open to his kiss. This was one of the magic moments of being in love, that first instant when dreams turn into reality and everything seems to fall into place, the discovery that feelings are returned, that you are wanted as much as you want. The kiss spun out from seconds into minutes as their mouths moved languidly together, tongues stroking, lips melding, tasting and learning, accepting each other. Beyond that pool of firelight, the storm and everything else around them was forgotten.

Driven apart by the necessity of breathing, Daniel leaned back, supported against Jack's bent leg, intimately close in a way that a few hours ago would have seemed impossible. They were face to face and exchanging looks that were both smug and shy, like teenagers on a first date, wanting yet nervous about having. Jack knew something more was needed - Daniel had made the first move, and it was only right that he matched the confession with one of his own - but that brought him up against his least favourite occupation: talking. Sometimes he truly thought that exposing himself physically to a hoard of strangers in the local shopping mall would be far less traumatic than exposing his inner self to someone he was close to. Hadn't that been the root cause of his problems with Sara? And wasn't that why it had taken him all this time to let Daniel know his secret?

Wasn't that why he should force himself to be open with Daniel now? It wasn't even as if he was doing this blind, he knew his feelings were returned, knew that Daniel wanted him. It should be easy...

"It's okay, Jack." The smile in the words wrapped around him like a child's security blanket. "You don't have to say anything."

"I don't?"

"I already know. You couldn't kiss me like that and not mean it." A tiny huff of laughter, "You're not that good a liar."

Jack tried to look affronted, but it came out all wrong, twisted into a wry grin. He could lie with the best of them: lying to Daniel, however, was another thing entirely.

Yet somehow, knowing that he didn't need to say it made it all the more necessary to say it and something told him that if he passed on this opportunity, there might never be another. Daniel would always say it, Daniel would always know, but unless Jack said it out loud, just once, it would never seem - real.

A hesitant sigh broke from his throat as he reached out, trailing his finger tips over the kiss-swollen lips. Daniel had such a beautiful mouth, full and malleable and begging to be kissed, soft and welcoming and full of healing for Jack's battered soul. Drawing Daniel to him again, he brushed those lips with his own before trailing his mouth over jaw and cheek, the tip of his nose and his forehead, dropping down to close the blue eyes with a whispered touch. The words, when they came, came not from his mouth but from somewhere deep down inside of him, right down in the core, from a place that he thought beyond such intense emotions. Like the boy in the children's story, Jack's heart had been frozen by the splinter of ice that was Charlie's shattered life and only Daniel's love, Daniel's compassion had the power to thaw it and free the truth. Hands were everywhere, cheeks pressed close "I love you, too," he confessed in a whisper, shivering with desire as he saw the way the blue eyes widened, sparkling with joy.


"Yeah, you heard me..." he beamed, glad of the shadows to mask the rush of heat to his face. "Just... don't expect me to make a habit of saying it."

"I won't... " Bottom lip caught between two rows of perfect teeth, Daniel looked up at him through his lashes, that tiny half smile just lifting the corners of his mouth. Dammit if the man wasn't flirting with him!! "But it sounded... nice..."


"Well no, actually, it sounded..."


Daniel sighed loudly and rolled his eyes. "For heaven's sake, Jack, I've been waiting to hear you say it for years! How the hell do you think it sounds?"

With one arm braced on the floor to keep them both upright, Jack gave an awkward, one-shoulder shrug. "It's only three little words."

"Three little..." Daniel choked. "You know, Jack, I swear you don't have even one romantic bone in that - ahem - pretty amazing body of yours."

"Romance? Hey, I've rescued you from the storm... given you candlelight... an open fire... hot cocoa with extra marshmallows... How much more romantic do you need me to get?"

"I should have known... You Air Force types are all alike..."

"Air Force 'types'?" Jack repeated, one brow lifting in mock severity. Then he blinked. And frowned. And tilted his head to look enquiringly at his lover to be. "Amazing... body...?" Disbelief edged the question.

"I think so," Daniel endorsed with a shrug. "Why do you think I'm always the first one in the shower and the last one out when you're around?"

Jack felt his blush deepen. "I... never really thought about it. I was just - happy to see you - if you get my meaning."

"I never realised you were... watching me..."

"Every beautiful inch. You may not be aware of this, Danny-boy, but you've got the most biteable ass I've ever seen."

"Bite - Biteable - ?" Daniel's voice wavered over the word.

"- ass. Oh yeah. Prove it for you later. If you'll let me..."

"Oh, I think that could be arranged." His hands had been resting on Jack's sides; now he slipped them gently beneath the soft cotton, his touch sending shivers skimming up and down Jack's spine. "Lean back," he whispered.

Jack would have asked for explanation, but the sudden bunching of the top beneath his arms told him all he needed to know. Rocking back, he was grateful for the long hours he regularly put in at the gym as his stomach and back muscles braced to hold him arched far enough from Daniel's hands, allowing the top to be pushed up and over his head, from where it was tossed carelessly aside. Almost immediately, Daniel's fingers returned to their former task, dancing lightly over Jack's bared chest, swirling through the salt'n'pepper hair that dusted his skin and rubbing oh-so-lightly over his nipples.

"Beautiful..." he sighed, leaning forward to brush his face through the silky pelt. Jack watched, mesmerised, his hand lifting to cup Daniel's head as the hot mouth fastened onto one of the tiny nubs. Breath hissed sharply from between his teeth as each stroke of the silken tongue, each graze of teeth, sent a shock wave of pleasure through him to centre in his groin, driving his cock higher and harder, until it nudged against Daniel's hip. A purr of satisfaction vibrated through the younger man and he wriggled closer, pressing himself against Jack's erection.

Too soon for Jack the tender assault came to an end as Daniel leaned back, looking up at him with eyes wide and seemingly all pupil, their familiar sapphire darkened to the indigo of desire, primal need that Jack had never seen in him before. His lips were swollen, flushed with use and moist with saliva and Jack had the sudden urge to taste them again - taste all of him, devouring him inch by delicious inch. He gave in willingly to the need and claimed the succulent mouth, plundering its luscious depths, releasing him only long enough to strip the grey top from him and hurl it into the shadows.

A feast of skin now lay before him, warmed and oiled by the heat of the fire. He dug into his memory for an image of Daniel as he had been when they first met, found one, exaggerated perhaps by the 'geek' label with which he had so unkindly tagged him. It was an image seen through the steam of a shower room, a body that was winter pale when they were only just leaving summer behind, a body that looked undernourished beneath the thrift shop clothes, personal welfare neglected in pursuit of the proof of his theories.

Amazing the changes that four years could bring.

The man who now lay sprawled across his lap had a body that was lean yet firm, skin glowing with health, rich with well-defined muscle. And confidence. Daniel had always had a fierce belief in his theories but had lacked the self-assurance to convince the cynical minds of academia. All that had changed now. He was stronger, more resilient, able to ride life's punches and be damned to those who tried to ridicule him. As much his friend as his team leader, Jack was proud of him. Justifiably proud.



"You're staring."

He could hear the embarrassment in Daniel's voice and immediately looked away, a mumbled apology hanging on his lips. He kept his gaze averted - until Daniel's fingers against his cheek guided his head around once more.

"I didn't say I didn't like it," the younger man smiled. "I just - need to get used to it."

Jack rubbed his face against the callused fingertips, feeling the drag of evening stubble, seeing the flicker of arousal in the inky depths. "This may come as a shock, Danny, but half the base stares when you walk in a room."

"That's different."

The response surprised Jack, who had expected Daniel to be mortified by such a revelation. "It is? How come?"

At once Daniel's eyes lifted to his face and it felt he was once again being pulled into a black hole of desire.

"Because they're not you, Jack," he confessed and no other explanation was necessary. Or possible, since his mouth had already seized on Jack's lips, sucking the breath from his lungs in a weird kind of reverse kiss-of-life.

Jack slipped a hand between them and pressed his palm over Daniel's heart, feeling it's heavy drumming against his skin, feeling the hard peak prodding at him, begging for attention. He circled the flat of his hand over it, the barest contact enough to wake another feline purr in the broad chest. It was too much yet, at the same time, it was nowhere near enough, Daniel's restless movements told him that. Nothing but everything would be enough for them that night.

Abruptly, Daniel broke free, the frantic attempt to pull air into his starved lungs making an odd, sucking sound that ended on a cry of desperation, the wild look in his partner's eyes sending a shock of anticipation through Jack's senses.

"Touch me -" Command, ragged and stained with lust, and Jack had no need to ask 'where?'

Palsied fingers danced a path from chest to navel, traced a line just above the edge of the waistband. Muscles tensed to the flash of uncertainty in the bright eyes, relaxed again on a sigh of contentment that underlined for Jack just how much this was wanted. He hooked a finger inside the elasticised band, a flawed silvered brow lifting to caution 'last chance', a concern that was dismissed with a dip of Daniel's head and the sweetest of accepting smiles.

Cautiously, he drew the cloth down, splayed fingers running over the sharp protrusion of Daniel's hip, feeling the warm softness of the rounded ass fill his palm. The thick, firm shaft climbed towards freedom, dark tip glistening in the firelight. So close already? A sigh shuddered from him and he leaned his brow against Daniel's, riding the edges of desire and fear. The lightest pressure urged Daniel briefly up from the floor and he slipped the pants from under him, pushing them down to the knees. A wriggle, a twist, and their temporary owner kicked them the rest of the way off.

"Oh... God..." Jack swallowed hard as he looked down at the naked body draped across his lap. So beautiful. So incredibly, indescribably beautiful. He was almost too afraid to touch him and when Daniel drew up his leg, exposing himself to Jack's gaze, the colonel thought his heart would stop. Never, not in all his wild imaginings, had he hoped for a Daniel who would be so willing, so eager to participate, so confident in what he was asking. "Look at you..."

Lower lip clamped between his teeth as uncertainty rolled through him, Jack hesitantly brushed the back of his crooked index finger from the base of the shaft to the tip. He could feel the shiver that ran through Daniel and when he looked up, needing the reassurance of sight, he saw the heavy lids drift slowly down, shielding the heated blue orbs as the tawny head tipped back and Daniel lost himself in the pure sensation of Jack's touch.

"Again..." The word was no more than a breath upon the air.

Jack swallowed and repeated the motion, using all four fingers this time. When he reached the tip he circled them around and slowly, feather light, down to the base again. A filament of pre-cum attached itself to his skin, glistening in the firelight like a spider's web at dawn. Fascinated by the sight, he skimmed his fingertips over the head of Daniel's cock, gathering the moisture there and carried it first to his nose, then to his tongue, imprinting the scent and taste of Daniel on his memory.

Impatient fingers stroked an invitation across his cheek, tugged insistently at his hair to guide him where he was most wanted. He went without resistance, curling around the body that sprawled across his own. It had been a long time since the last time, and the last time had been - less than satisfactory, but all thought of that was pushed away now. This, with Daniel, was as far removed from that encounter as it was possible to get. This time it mattered - more than it should, more than was ethical. This time it was Daniel, and there was nothing more to be said.

Lips and tongue replaced fingertips, drinking Daniel's essence from the wellspring. There was no going back now, not until they were done here and - maybe not even then. Holding his mouth an inch above Daniel's erection, he circled the slick, rose-gold crown with his tongue, swirling it round and around, pausing every now and then to tease at the eye, coaxing from it another pearl of fluid, bittersweet musky evidence of his need.

Breath hissed from between his lovers clenched teeth, the abstract sound forming the suggestion of words, the words a mild obscenity seldom heard on those lush lips. A chuckle panted from Jack's throat, affection laced with triumph in the knowledge that he had torn down all of Daniel's defences, had achieved what he had for so long believed impossible.

Resting his head on the downy thigh, he licked his lips and slipped them softly over the head of Daniel's cock, riding the shock wave that rippled through his lover as the connection was at last completed. Down and up, around and over, lips and tongue and teeth each taking their turn to drive Daniel to the edge.

The languid shifting of Daniel's body was something that brushed only on the edges of Jack's awareness to begin with, while the tugging at his remaining clothes made no impression at all on his few functioning brain cells. Only when a hot, wet mouth engulfed him and a silken tongue began to weave a magic all its own around his suddenly straining shaft, did he respond, breaking away with a whimper of pleasure to look along the length of his own body, to where Daniel's head was nestled between his thighs, Jack's cock sliding in and out of those full, pink lips. It was almost too much and he closed his eyes, riding out the sensations for a full minute before the urgent jabbing of Daniel's shaft against his cheek brought him back to the task at hand.

"Oh yeah..." he groaned, as the images swelled in his mind, building reality out of the once shifting sands of his dreams. Turning back, he nuzzled his face into the warm, damp crease between thigh and scrotum, inhaling the scent that was uniquely Daniel, a rich, hot musk that made him think of desert sands and alien suns. Pushing Daniel's thighs wider, he laved his way across to the other side, pausing to carefully draw each of the spheres into his mouth, rolling them gently between tongue and soft palate. Almost at once, he felt Daniel mimic his actions and he discovered a new eloquence in the talented lips and tongue of the linguist as they descended into a surreal game of 'Simon Says', Daniel doing to Jack whatever Jack did to Daniel.

The sweats were tangled around his ankles: he toed free of them and kicked them away as he rolled Daniel onto his back and straddled him, the erotic loop unbroken as they moved, similarly joined mouth to groin. He felt his body begin to drawn in on itself, gathering the sensations together as they built towards explosion, arched spine, washboard stomach, the corded muscles of his thighs working like pistons as he rocked back and forth, down on the sweet flesh that filled his mouth... back into the hot, wet cavern that seemed intent on drawing every drop of the life force from him.

And then he stopped, abruptly, almost cruelly, as physical hunger slammed into the wave of emotional need flowing in the opposite direction. This. wasn't. right. This was sex and, maybe for the first time in his life, sex wasn't the ultimate goal. Sure, he could do it, enjoy it, go the whole nine yards, get his rocks off... but a cock in his mouth and a mouth around his cock wasn't what this was all about. Not this time. If he had learned nothing else from Daniel, he had learned that much.

What he wanted was Daniel.

To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to be the last face he saw as he drifted to sleep and the first he saw on waking. He wanted the friendship, companionship, the sharing of laughter and tears, love and need and passion, the simplicity of reaching out as he passed by, to brush his fingers through the silky strands of his lover's hair, making contact, reassurance. Being together. He wanted the sex, too, but when he really, really thought about it, that came way down on the list. He wasn't looking to replace what had gone before with something else, no matter how good that something else might be; what he wanted was to enhance what they had, compliment it, turn a half into a whole.


His name, falling from Daniel's lips like a rock into the pool of silence surrounding them, made him jump.

"You - okay?"

He opened his mouth to voice the lie but instead heard himself answer "No. Not really." Scooting round, he rolled to his knees, pulling a now-wary Daniel up beside him. Fear had replaced desire in the wide eyes and he knew that the fine trembling he could feel beneath his hand had nothing to do with the temperature in the room.

"Don't," he said quickly, stroking his fingertips lightly down the tense cheek. "It's okay..."

"I thought you wanted -"

"I do - and we will - but for now... I need to know, Danny. I need to see." Capturing one of Daniel's hands, he brought the palm to rest against his own cheek, lips brushing the smooth skin of the wrist. "If all I wanted was sex I could go into any bar in town and pick up a stranger, keep it simple, get myself blown and go on my way. That isn't how I want it to be with you." Fingers sifting through Daniel's hair, he leaned in to touch a reassuring kiss to the anxious lips.

"Then - what do you want, Jack?"

He shook his head. "I don't know - everything, I guess, eventually... Right now, I'll settle for - being able to see your face while we make love."

Daniel ducked his head for a moment and Jack thought he'd said the wrong thing, but when he raised it again all the fear and the doubt had gone, to be replaced by a sweet smile of acceptance. "Sounds good to me."

"It does?" Jack bit down hard on the inner corners of his mouth in an attempt to stop the shit-eating grin that was spreading across his face, but it was a wasted effort. "Uh-huh," Daniel murmured into his mouth and Jack was lost.

"I think it's time we took this to bed," he said, when at last his mouth, feeling deliciously bruised and tasting richly of Daniel, was given back to him. Sharp teeth nipping at his collar bone interrupted the thought.

"Can't we stay here?" Daniel, leaning back to look at him, was all puppy dog eyes and coyness of fluttering lashes.

"You want us to make out on the floor? With my knees?"

"Oh, I'll make sure your knees aren't put under any undue - strain." A sweep of pink tongue damply across dark red lips and Jack was toast.

"I think I'm being taken advantage of here," he complained, to be met by a look from his lover that suggested he was exactly right.

Blankets and pillows from the bedroom, sleeping bags from the hall closet, fresh candles to replace those burnt almost to stubs, cool juice and a box of crackers to sustain them. Jack paused for a moment, gazing down at the body arranged for his appreciation and wondered what he could possible have done that was so good he should be rewarded with his hearts desire.

Without a word, but with an expression that promised the older man would not be disappointed, Daniel reached out to capture Jack's hand and pull him down to the makeshift bed. Jack went willingly, dropping the folded towels beside the pillows, ready for - later.

"You're beautiful," he whispered as he skimmed his fingertips over Daniel's smooth skin, gathering his lover into his arms, "I ever tell you that?"

"Colonel Jack O'Neill, Hopeless Romantic," Daniel grinned. "I wonder what Sam would say if she could see us now."

"Don't go there, Danny-boy." He shuddered. Enough people around the base were of the opinion that the colonel and the major were a hot item. Anxious to stem any further speculation on his lover's part, even in jest, he silenced him with a kiss.

One kiss grew into two as bodies pressed close, arms and legs tangling together, hands caressing, exploring. Laughter bubbled over the crackling of the fire, the shared delight of discovery, of recognition that the bond between them stretched both ways and, in their haste to reinforce what both already knew, they bumped teeth in an open-mouthed kiss and laughed all the more for it.

There was no conscious decision to change the mood, instead they drifted slowly into it, kisses becoming longer, deeper, the touch of hands more certain, confident of welcome. There were no rules here, each gave and took as the moment dictated. Wound together, limbs entwined, pressed so close the flesh moulded into supple flesh that rocked now toward a gathering storm of another kind, its distant thunder the sighs and moans that roiled in their throats and fell from their lips on gasped breath.

Jack rode it out until he sensed the change, the sudden stillness in Daniel that made him wrench his mouth away from the pliant lips, to hear his name called in desperation - "Jack!" - and he turned his face against the curve of Daniel's ear to respond - "Yeah... Oh yeah!" as synchronicity tipped them over the edge and into thrusting, gasping, mind-wiping oblivion.

"Love you..." Jack whispered, when at last the vortex released him. "Always..."

A hand found his face: he kissed the palm. Always. It would be a rough ride, but he'd be damned if he backed away from this now.

"Always," Daniel's voice echoed the pledge. "Oh Jack..."


A cup of coffee carried carefully in each hand, Jack made his way across the living room, heading for the glass door that opened onto the deck at the rear of the house. Daniel was already out there, in borrowed jeans and a cream sweatshirt that Jack had bought on an impulse and never worn, leaning on the rail to enjoy the fresh air of a bright new day.

Passing the debris of their impromptu bed, Jack found himself falling victim to a curious blend of contentment and embarrassment. Had they really...? Had he said...? Was he ashamed of what they had done or did it feel good and right and everything he had wanted since the day Daniel had walked into his life?

He smiled to himself and continued on his way. The night had been - perfect. There would be other nights when, he knew, their desire for each other would become almost incendiary but nothing would ever match their first night together. However good it got in the future, it would never be better than that.

"Rain's stopped," Daniel informed him unnecessarily as he accepted the cup. "The storm made a mess of your garden."

It was true. Leaves that had yesterday clung valiantly to the branches now danced in a confetti of green and amber, gold and russet across the clipped lawn, swirling into heaps and catching amongst the fallen twigs. Watching their dance, Jack remembered the scent of wood smoke and the crispness of the first snows of winter and the crackle of logs in the hearth, and he pictured himself and Daniel snuggled safely away, making new memories of their own.

"Nothing that can't be fixed with a rake and a broom," he soothed.

"Even so..." Daniel countered "it was beautiful out here, now it's all gone."

"But a year from now it happens all over again and next time -" briefly, Jack's gaze left the ruined garden to fix meaningfully on his new lover's face " - we get to enjoy it together."

"We do?"

"If you want to." Jack promised, squeezing the younger man's shoulder affectionately and letting his hand linger there, enjoying the new-found freedom of touch. He shifted his hand to let his fingertips make contact with the soft skin of Daniel's throat, his thumb brush over the coffee warmed lips. Was it really just an hour ago that he had breakfasted on that mouth?

Hope flared anew in Daniel's eyes. "Then, last night wasn't just - last night."

"Oh God, I hope not!" Jack's response was fervent and the intensity of the moment was shattered as both burst into laughter at the spontaneous show of enthusiasm.

But it was to be short-lived for, in the middle of Daniel telling him how good it was to know that Jack felt that way, they were interrupted by the scrape of boots on gravel and the unwelcome sight of a young, uniformed policeman rounding the side of the house. He had a no-nonsense, slightly worried look on his face and carried his radio in one hand, his other hand resting in readiness on the butt of his sidearm.

Jack dropped his hand and stepped back, at the same moment that Daniel turned away to pick up his discarded cup and resume his casual examination of the damaged garden. The sudden guilt washing through Jack chilled his hands and made his face burn and he wondered if Daniel was experiencing the same, although outwardly he appeared to be calm and in control.

"Colonel O'Neill!" The relief on the patrolman's face might have been comical, had Jack not been so concerned about how much he had witnessed.

Warily, he greeted "Officer Hodey. You're out early."

"Matter of fact, I would have been off duty a couple of hours ago if it wasn't for the storm last night. It's got us all pulling overtime till the power's back on. Because of the alarms and stuff," he added by way of explanation.

"Yeah? Any idea when they'll get it fixed?" Jack felt his concern begin to ebb as the officer gave no sign that he had seen anything out of the ordinary.

Pausing halfway up the steps to the deck, Hodey turned and gestured towards the street. "Could take a while, there's a lot of cables down."

"Like the one out front?"

"Yeah. That big old tree in the Merchison's front yard brought it down. Did you know there's a car buried under it? Belongs to a -" he glanced at his note book "- Dr Daniel Jackson. Looks like he just - abandoned it. Don't suppose you know him, colonel?"

Behind Jack, Daniel gave a discreet cough as he turned around and waggled his fingers in greeting, announcing, "Actually, he's right here."

"You're Dr Jackson?" Brown eyes shifted between the doctor and the colonel, sending another spark of fear through Jack. Had he seen their innocent exchange after all and recognised it for what it was? Had he guessed their guilty secret? Or was it just a street cops innate curiosity?

"Daniel - Dr Jackson - works with me at the Mountain," Jack explained.

"That's right," Daniel joined in, his voice steady as a rock, which surprised Jack. At any other time, in such a potentially embarrassing situation, Daniel would have been jabbering all over the place, talking a mile a minute to cover himself. "I was on my way over with some - paperwork - when the tree just. came down in front of me. Scared the hell out of me."

"You're lucky you weren't killed," Hodey told him, adding to Jack "One of the branches went clean through the windshield."

"I know. I ..." Quickly, Jack swallowed the bile that suddenly stung his throat. At the time he had acted on impulse, his only thought to get Daniel to safety. Later - other things had occupied his mind. Now, in the proverbial cold light of day, the full horror of Daniel's narrow escape was becoming clear. "I saw it," he confirmed flatly, wishing he had not.

"The storm was so bad, there was nothing I could do except. leave it there. I'm sorry if it's causing a problem..." Daniel continued, ending with a little cough that might as easily have been caused by the crisp morning air as any sense of embarrassment. Jack was having a hard time trying to figure out just where his lover was coming from in all of this. Trying to regain some of his own teetering equilibrium, Jack took over the explanation.

"Tried to call the auto-club, but the land lines were out and the battery on my cell phone was flat," he lied. Thoughts of calling for assistance had crossed his mind, but only briefly. Daniel had proved to be a very effective distraction from such mundane things.

"I could call someone for you now," Hodey offered.

"We'd appreciate that. Thanks. Can we offer you a cup of coffee?"

Predictably, Hodey shook his head. "Thanks, but we've still got streets to cover. Take a rain check?"

Jack nodded and forced a smile. "Next time you're passing, maybe."

"Maybe." With a last look towards Daniel, Hodey stepped down onto the driveway once more. "Glad to see you guys are okay, colonel."

"Thanks. I'll keep a lookout for that tow truck."

He held his breath until the crunch of gravel receded and he heard the distant sound of a car door opening and closing, an engine revving, a vehicle moving off slowly back down the street. When he was certain they were alone, he let out an explosive sigh.

"That was too damn close!" he snarled. Daniel looked at him with surprise.

"You don't think he thinks...?"

"I don't know and I don't want to."

"But... we weren't doing anything."

"Weren't...? I was. pawing you, Daniel. Like a damn teenager. Out here, where anyone could see."

"Jack, it's seven o'clock in the morning. Most of the city is still asleep."

"Hodey wasn't!" Jack protested. "A couple of seconds later and God knows what he would have seen. Stupid... stupid..."

He scraped a hand through his hair, scoured it down over his face, trying to staunch the rush of irrationality. Nothing had happened, Hodey had seen nothing, he was worrying over nothing.

"Let's go inside."

Daniel's soft voice and the gentle yet firm grip on Jack's arm steered him into the house. He went without argument, hesitating only when he found himself once more confronted by the derelict bedding. Confirmation of the changes between them, or damning evidence of their guilt?

But Daniel didn't stop in the living room. He carried on through, guiding Jack every step of the way, up the steps, through the dining room and into the kitchen. There, his arm was released and he watched in fascination as Daniel crossed to the small window and closed the blind. That done, he returned to Jack's side and, without preamble, took Jack's face between his warm palms and covered his mouth in a passionate kiss that left the older man gasping for air, the panic of Hodey's visit scorched away by the torrent raging instantaneously through him. Of their own volition, Jack's arms wrapped around his lover's waist, clutching him close, hands splaying over the swell of that provenly biteable ass to crush their bodies together.

Reason deserted him, fear was forgotten as his body responded to his lover's call. It was incredible. Three times they had made love during the night and yet here he was, ready to start over again, wanting Daniel with a force he had not known in years.

"Better?" The words were whispered against his lips between kisses and he answered with a guttural "Uh-huh..." deep in his throat. He did feel better. Better than better, he felt - fantastic. Here, with Daniel, was every place he ever wanted to be.

"Good. For a while there you had me worried."

Jack sighed and leaned in to nuzzle against Daniel's neck. "Sorry. Hodey turning up like that just... caught me off guard."

"You mean because of what he might have seen - or because of who he might tell?"

"I don't think he'd do that - tell, I mean - not intentionally. But a word out of place..."

"Don't ask, don't tell... I guess it's something we have to talk about."

"I guess it is." Easing from his lover's embrace, Jack leaned against the cupboard, his fingers white-knuckled gripping the edge of the counter. This was one conversation he had never expected to have, least of all with Daniel.

"I won't lie to you, Danny, if we go this route it's not going to be easy on either of us. Your job, my career - even the team's reputation, all hang on how you and I deal with this."

"In other words, no 'touchy-feely' in the briefing room," Daniel teased, his flippancy making Jack wince and winning him a muttered apology.

"No anything, anywhere we can be seen. If we let this go further - and don't get me wrong," he added more gently "I want that - we have to keep it off the base and away from the people we care about. That means we can't let Carter know, or Teal'c, and we definitely have to keep it away from General Hammond. We'll have to watch our backs every step of the way, make sure there's no trail for Kinsey or the NID to pick up." He looked up and there was a bleakness in his gaze, a pinched, anxious set to his mouth. "We'll have to lie and cheat and deceive to save our skins - and I don't just mean at the start. We'll be living that lie every minute of every day we're together. Now, I know I can do that - it's what the Airforce trained me for - but the question is, can you?"

Daniel said nothing at first. His shoulder propped against the refrigerator, he was playing with the Homer Simpson mug that Sam had bought Jack for his last birthday, turning it round and round in his hands and tracing the drawing with a fingertip. Jack waited, feigning patience, knowing Daniel was weighing dream against reality, desire against common sense.

He was silent for so long that Jack began to worry anew, years of denial conspiring to revive all his old insecurities where relationships of this nature were concerned. Give him a war to fight, a mission to lead, a judgement call to make and he could call upon a lifetime of experience to make the move with confidence and determination. This, being in love with Daniel, was a whole other ball game, one for which there had been no training, and to continue with it was to not only side-step the rule book but to ignore it altogether.

"I suppose," Daniel said at last, in a voice that was surprisingly steady considering the circumstances. "if you look at it from a certain point of view, everything we've achieved this last four years was only made possible because I lied."

There was a tiny yet uncharacteristic suggestion of arrogance about the statement, but it was enough to capture Jack's attention. "You care to expand on that a little?" he asked, waving a hand to urge Daniel on.

"It's simple, Jack."

"Well I'm a simple man, so humour me."

Daniel shrugged and put down the cup. "If I'd told General West the truth when we first opened the gate - that there was no guarantee I could get any of us home - the mission would have been scrubbed and the whole project axed. Am I right?"

"Pretty much," Jack confirmed with a dip of his head. "Washington had been planning on pulling the plug six months earlier, but someone persuaded whoever was running things to give it one more chance."

"Okay, so let's look at what would have happened if they had called a halt to it. I'm guessing you would have gone back into retirement -"

Jack gave an embarrassed wriggle of his shoulders which he quickly turned into an awkward shrug. Maybe he would have gone back into retirement to begin with, but he and Sara had already passed the point of no return in their marriage. What would have been left? Divorce, living alone, coming to terms with the guilt he still carried then over the death of his son? How soon before he once again found himself staring down the barrel of his own gun? With a shudder, he hugged himself tighter and forced his attention back to the man he counted not only as his friend but as his salvation.

" - and I would have ended up cataloguing samples in some third-rate facility."

"Don't sell yourself short," Jack warned, making him smile.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but we both know the SGC was my last hope of finding some credibility for my theories. If I hadn't lied to General West, they would have tossed me back on the streets, where Catherine found me or, better still, shipped me off to Area Fifty-one as a security risk. But we're getting away from the point."

"Which is?"

"That I can lie, when the need arises. I may not have your training, but aren't you the one always complaining about my tenacity? When something is important enough..." He let the words trail away, conveying the rest of the meaning with a tilt of his head and an intense look of longing that sent sparks of renewed need flickering through Jack's veins.

"And... you think this is?"

A gentle, affectionate chuckle bubbled in Daniel's throat. "Jack... " Pushing away from the refrigerator, he halved the space between them. "This is so far up the list of importance that it's off the scale. I love you, Colonel Jack O'Neill - so much that I'll do whatever it takes to protect what we have. I'll sell my soul to Senator Kinsey if it keeps you safe."

"Ah - me? What about you?"

Another chuckle, the breath from his lips fanning Jack's face now. "Do you seriously think I'd stay if they threw you out?"

Jack started to say "Your work is just as important," but Daniel cut him off with that familiar raised finger.

"My work means nothing to me if you're not there to share the successes with me. You still don't get it, do you Jack?"

"Get what?"

"That all you had to do, that day on Abydos, was ask me to come back with you."

A chill slid over Jack's skin, quashing his desire. "What?"

Toe to toe, chest to chest, Daniel stroked his fingers down Jack's cheek, leaving a trail of fire from temple to jaw. "You asked me if I was sure I'd be okay, you told me you were happy for me but - you never gave me an alternative. All you had to do was ask, and I would have left Sha're behind and followed you. I'd follow you to hell and back - don't you know that yet?"

No, clearly Jack did not know that. In fact, the notion that Daniel might have developed feelings for him so quickly had never even entered his head, even though his own heart had been signed, sealed and delivered to this man before they even set foot through the Stargate. Had he known that his feelings were returned, he would have tossed Daniel over his shoulder and carried him away from the clutches of Sha're and her father. When had he ever become so blind?

Leaning forward, Daniel kissed his way along Jack's jaw line, nipped and sucked at the soft skin beneath his ear. Jack, losing himself in sensation, groaned loudly and closed his arms around the muscular body in a vicelike embrace.

"I spent eighteen months making love to Sha're, wishing every time that it was you and not her. I lost count of the number of rows we had because, in the middle of it all, I called out your name and not hers."

"And all that time I was beating myself up over not asking you to stay. Christ, what a waste!" He pulled back, just far enough to look into the blue eyes. "I'm sorry, Danny" he whispered around the constriction in his throat. "If only I'd known..."

"Well, you might have had a few other things on your mind at the time."

"But we could have been together all these years."

"True..." Daniel darted forward, sliding his tongue along Jack's lips before stealing another deeply satisfying kiss. "But just think of the fun we'll have making up for lost time."

"Then - you think we can make this work?" Jack, for once the uncertain one, asked. Daniel's answering grin was almost unbearably smug.

"Let's just say that if it doesn't," he vowed, "it won't be my fault."

"You sound very - confident."

Stepping back, Daniel took him by the hand. "I guess it all comes down to how much you believe in me, Jack," he smiled, pulling him towards the door. "Do you believe in me, Jack?"

All those years to make up for, all the years ahead to spend doing it. Everything he had ever wanted.

"Never doubted you for a minute, Danny-boy. Never doubted you for a minute."