PLAY THE GAME
Open up your mind and let me
Rest your weary head and let your heart decide
It's so easy when you know the rules
It's so easy all you have to do
Is fall in love
Play the game,
Everybody play the game of love
"Hey in the camp!"
Jack O'Neill's greeting bounced across the quiet clearing, moments before the man himself emerged through the trees, Teal'c close to his side, the pair of them ambling along like country gentlemen out for a stroll in the park. Daniel looked up at the sound of his voice, shielding his eyes against the brilliance of the alien sun, riding the customary flip-flop feeling in his stomach as he watched the lean figure approach. Jack was certainly looking good today, better than he had in weeks. Obviously the planet was having a beneficial effect on him. He looked relaxed, comfortable in his surroundings, not fighting them the way he had so often done of late. There was a bounce in his step and, as he drew near, Daniel could see the ghost of a smile playing tag with his lips.
"Hey, Jack," he acknowledged evenly. Setting aside the stone tablet he had been working on all afternoon, he dusted his hands together and reached for his canteen. "How's things back home?"
Allowing the strap of his MP5 to slip from his shoulder, Jack lay the weapon carefully on the corner of the bench. "Oh you know, same old -"
" - same old." Daniel grinned. "Nothing different there then."
"'S right. It's snowing there, by the way." A smugness tweaked the older man's mouth as he looked pointedly around, surveying the sun-drenched landscape with wry humour. Back home it was far enough into February to make Christmas no more than a pleasant memory and against that, Trectaar was more like a Mediterranean resort, affording them some much needed respite from the months of cold rain and winter snows. Coats had been abandoned, dark glasses shaded their eyes from the glare and all four members of SG1 were grateful that the most appropriate spot for their camp was just a short stroll from the cooling waters of a vast, mountain-fed lake.
The planet was having a therapeutic effect on all of them, but most noticeably on Jack, who seemed to move with renewed fluidity and had not uttered a single complaint about his knees in the seventy-two hours since their arrival.
"Hope you left the heating on," teased Daniel, recalling how the colonel had returned from being stranded on Edora to find that winter had set in during the three months of his absence and all the pipes in his unheated house were frozen. He had been forced to spend the next several days at Daniel's apartment while they slowly thawed to avoid any floods.
Not that Daniel had complained.
"Funny," Jack muttered, unimpressed by the archaeologist's powers of recall. "How 'bout you remind me again - while I'm helping you dig your car out of a snow drift. Oh yeah," he added to Daniel's look of horror. "Did I mention the blizzard conditions?"
Daniel groaned. Rothman had promised to make sure Daniel's car was stored safely while he was off-world but neither of them had considered such a dramatic change in the weather.
Satisfied that the score was once more even, Jack settled himself against a stack of packing cases and waved a hand towards the collection of artefacts spread across the workbench. Most were stone tablets of varying sizes, ranging in colour from pale cream to a rich, dusky rose shot through with a tracery of harder black mineral that caught and reflected the light. All were etched with markings that were vaguely familiar to Jack's mind but otherwise indecipherable.
"So," he said, drawing Daniel's attention back to him. "How's the translation coming?"
"Slowly," Daniel confessed, his face betraying his frustration. "The scrolls Brotar showed me were a big help, but really it's like Ernest's planet all over again. There's a lifetime of work here, Jack."
More than a lifetime, he mused silently, and this time without the added danger of the building collapsing around him, as had been the case on P3X-972. Everything he would need was here, available, accessible. He could spend the rest of his days researching, analysing, making sense of what had become affectionately known as the 'meaning of life stuff'. One thing only held him back.
Jack smiled indulgently. Dragging Daniel away from the treasures they had discovered on P3X-972 had been one of the hardest things he had ever had to do. Even a layman such as he could understand the importance of the library, how necessary to their fight against the Goa'uld, but in the end it had come down to a simple decision of which mattered more, the slim chance of finding information they could use, or the life of the man who could unlock those mysteries. Not that Daniel had understood at the time. He had been way past angry by the time they hit the ramp on the 'home' side of the stargate, had seethed for the next twenty-four hours, with Jack as the sole focus of his anger. It had taken the rediscovered love between Catherine and Ernest, and the realisation on Daniel's part that there was more to life than the pursuit of knowledge, to prove to him that Jack had been doing more than just playing at being 'colonel-in-command'.
"How much of this stuff do you think the Treccies will let you take away?" Jack asked.
Daniel sniggered. Jack knew, as well as the rest of them, that the people here referred to themselves collectively as 'Trectaarans' but it suited the colonel to play the game of 'dumbing Jack down'. It gave him an edge, kept the enemy in the dark about their true strength - after all, if a man can't get a simple fact right, what hope does he have of holding a tactical advantage? It was a game Daniel had seen him play time upon time over the years and in ninety-nine percent of cases it had worked.
It was that odd one percent that always gave Daniel cause for concern. Like the time Jack's arrogance had resulted in them being taken prisoner and offered as sacrifice to an Unas, and in Teal'c being used for fish bait. Jack had gotten them all into trouble that day and it had taken sheer brute force to get them out of it.
The High Council have been very generous," he replied, sweeping his hands above the display. "All this, plus I can make copies of the scrolls in the library. Between the two..." He shrugged. "It's a start."
Jack picked up a small cube of polished grey-blue stone and ran the tip of his index finger over the symbols incised into each face. In the kind of casual tone he might use to discuss the choice of dinner in the commissary, he said, "When we get back, why don't I ask Hammond to authorise a full scale excavation?
Astonished that Jack would even consider making such a suggestion, Daniel threw him a hopeful look. "Do you think he might agree?"
"No harm in asking. If this stuff proves the Ancients were here..." he shrugged. "Has to count for something."
Daniel nodded: of course it did - he just hadn't expected Jack to go to bat for him over something like this. At any other time the colonel would have been champing at the bit to get home, back to the civilisation of cold beer, popcorn and the NHL. The fact that he appeared to be content where he was suggested that, for once, he was actually enjoying himself.
"If I can finish this translation, maybe I'll find something to help persuade him." He picked up another of the stone tablets and reached for his pen. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Jack nodding.
"Yeah well, just don't forget the feast tonight."
"Feast?" He couldn't recall anything being said about a feast.
"Brotar invited us? It's in our honour, so you better show up. No - wandering off."
"I do not 'wander off'." Daniel protested, but in the next moment his feigned indignance was spoilt by the ghost of a smile that simply refused to be ignored. Wandering off, setting himself up to be the team's 'trouble magnet', was not really a cause for concern from his point of view. He had always done things like that, even as a kid, and the fact that the more military minded around him had a hard time with his 'free spirit' attitude was their problem, not his.
"Do too," Jack grinned.
"Whatever - "
Daniel blinked as the familiar banter was abruptly curtailed. Could it be that Jack was not in the mood to play?
"Whatever?" he repeated. Jack pushed away from the packing cases, stretching the kinks from his back.
"It's too hot to play verbal Ping-Pong, Daniel. I'll concede the point - just this once."
"Generous to a fault."
"Got it in one. Want to join me for a swim?"
Swim? Again Daniel was caught off his guard by the sudden change in direction, but he recovered quickly. Throwing curve balls in a conversation was an O'Neill speciality and he had long ago learned to field them. Anyway, Jack was right, it was hot; a swim would be good right about now.
"Sure, why not."
The corner of Jack's mouth twitched into a satisfied smile and he hooked a finger in the bridge of his sun shades, pulling them far enough down his nose to enable him to peer over them. The look in the chocolate brown eyes, an expression of delight mixed with something more intimate, sent a shiver down Daniel's spine. Did Jack realise what effect that look had on his friend? Probably not or he would take care to avoid it, which was exactly why Daniel made sure he always kept his reaction to it hidden.
"Teal'c?" Jack asked, the words directed to the Jaffa although the gaze lingered on Daniel. "You gonna join us?"
"I think not, O'Neill. I do not find swimming a - pleasant activity, therefore I shall remain here to await the return of Major Carter." Teal'c's face remained as impassive as ever except, perhaps, for a slight compression of his lips and a flash of remembered horror in the dark eyes. It was understandable. Being thrown into a lake, bound with chains and weighted with rocks, would put anyone off, mused Daniel.
"Okay. She'll be along anytime soon so you can tell her where we've gone. We'll meet you back here in time for dinner."
"Where is Sam?" Daniel asked, only now realising that she had not returned from the stargate with the others.
"Playing with some new toy Hammond had them send through. Y'know, there's times I wonder which one of the two of you is the most - obsessed."
From anyone else, Daniel might have regarded that as an insult, but he knew Jack well enough to tell when he was being teased. "You said something about a swim?" He prompted, stepping out from behind the workbench.
They collected towels from their tents as they passed by and Jack, after a moment of hesitation, left the MP5 behind. Three days in this paradise had been enough to convince him that any risk of attack was virtually non-existent - the people here had redefined words like 'peaceful' and 'friendly'. They were so hospitable, in fact, that Jack had claimed they made the Abydonians look aggressive. In addition, the address for Trectaar had been one of those that Jack had fed into the computer, during the time he had been in possession of the knowledge of the Ancients, and did not appear on the Abydos cartouche. Legends of the Ancients, together with the Asgaard and an unnamed race that could have been the Nox, were abundant in Trectaaran history, yet of the Goa'uld and the System Lords there was no mention, nor of anything relating to creatures with glowing eyes, symbiots, strange flying machines or just about anything else that might be interpreted as having a Goa'uld connection. There were snakes, but only of the kind that slithered along the ground and most of those were harmless here, although Jack was not particularly keen on the brightly patterned green and orange variety that had become frequent visitors to the SG1 camp. Brotar insisted they were not poisonous and Carter had done some tests, nevertheless, Jack - not a snake lover on the best of days - continued to be wary.
The stargate on P2X-373 - Trectaar - was situated in a picturesque clearing and it was there that the team had set up their base, next to a stream, at the junction of three paths which led respectively to the mountains, the main settlement and a lake so vast it might almost qualify as an inland sea. It was this path, alongside the stream, that Jack and Daniel now followed, towels slung over their shoulders, paces perfectly matched.
Conversation remained light as they ambled along, in no particular hurry to get to their destination. They talked primarily of the success of the mission thus far, traded stories of what each had done that day and Jack filled his team mate in on more of what was happening back home on Earth.
"Washington seem pleased with Carter's initial report on the mining possibilities." It sounded like good news, yet Jack had stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and that, plus the sudden thinning of his lips, warned Daniel that the information did not sit well with the colonel.
"You think there could be a problem?" he asked.
"Not a problem, not yet... I just... I don't want this turning into the same kind of screw-up we had on PX - ah - Wherever the heck it was Tonane came from."
"You think it might?"
"I think it's possible. Washington want naquadah, the Trectaarans have naquadah - if Brotar and the other elders are willing to agree a trade, that's fine, everything should be okay."
"And if they won't?" Daniel let the rest of the thought die away at the look of dismay on the colonel's face. It was a constant thorn in Jack's side that certain corridors of power seemed overpopulated with those who saw the stargate only as a means to build bigger, more effective weapons, to gain a technological advantage over not only the Goa'uld, but also the rest of the world. These were the people like Kinsey and Maybourne, who would use any means, however extreme, to achieve their aims, who used subterfuge and intimidation on a daily basis and spared not a moment's thought for those trampled underfoot. If the treaty with the Trectaarans fell short of Washington's expectations they would employ any means at their disposal to - rectify the situation, and good men, like Jack O'Neill, would not be allowed to stand in the way.
Jack stared grimly ahead, his good mood evaporating. "I guess it's up to us to make sure they agree."
"Forgive me, Jack, but we all know negotiation on this scale isn't your forte."
The comment won him a scathing look from Jack and a muttered "Thanks for the vote of confidence." Just because it was common knowledge didn't mean he wanted to be reminded of it every time such a situation occurred. "As it happens, I'm not handling the negotiations. Hammond is sending in SG9 in a couple of days."
"Ah." Daniel nodded sagely. If the general was willing to commit two units to this venture at the same time then the outcome must really be a cause for concern, not to mention the headaches it would be causing in Washington.
" 'Ah'?" Jack's arched brow punctuated the exclamation.
"Nothing." he shrugged the question aside, but Jack was not about to give in so easily.
"Now you see, that wasn't a 'nothing' kind of 'ah'. That was the kind of 'ah' that says you've got more to say on the subject. So - share, Danny-boy."
"I really don't -"
"Daniel!" The colonel had reached irritated and was heading off towards downright angry, taking the light mood of a few moments earlier right along with him.
"Okay!" he barked, hands slapping against his thighs in frustration. He hated it when Jack got him cornered like this. "I just think that if the general is sending his flagship field unit and his top negotiator to wrap this up, someone must be riding him harder than usual."
The brown eyes scanned Daniel's face for a long moment before Jack scrubbed a hand over his mouth, his concern obvious. "I thought it was just my paranoia showing again," he mumbled. "After what happened with Maybourne, I'm seeing conspiracy everywhere."
"Hardly surprising. But he can't be behind this - can he?"
"Maybe not him, but you heard what Makepeace said: someone a lot higher than Harry Maybourne was running that show."
"Or higher," Jack growled, finding it all too easy to believe that the chain of corruption might not stop until it reached the door to the oval office. That it did stop there was dependent solely on his personal knowledge of the man who held the nation's highest office and the lifetime of friendship that existed between them.
Daniel felt a chill slip down his spine, starkly aware that the mission was rapidly losing its 'feel good' factor. He had come here to unlock the mysteries of a world that had been ignored by the Goa'uld, that clearly had links to the Ancients and to several of the races that were their own informal allies. Now, it seemed, they were once again being used by Washington.
"What do we do?" he asked.
"Until we know for sure what their intentions are, there's nothing much we can do. They'll be on their guard after the way we flushed Maybourne into the open."
"Watch and wait then." He wrinkled his face in distaste. Not usually the one to cry for action, the thought of constantly looking over his shoulder, waiting for the sky to fall in, already had him on edge. "In the meantime?"
Despite the seriousness of their situation, Jack managed a smile. "In the meantime - we swim."
His timing was perfect as they stepped from the cover of the trees and onto the shore of the lake. The sun had begin its slow descent: there would be hours still until it set but already the light had changed, softened to amber sparkles dancing on the breeze-snagged surface of the water. They had emerged into a small inlet, the path well-worn where it curved around to merge with the soft, black sand. Brotar had directed Jack to the place, one often used by the Trectaarans for recreation, though it was deserted now, the villagers busy preparing for the feast.
Daniel hooked his towel over a low hanging branch and kicked off his boots, untucking his t-shirt at the same time. A swim was just what he needed to slake off the dust and sweat of the day, and get rid of that little knot at the base of his spine that he always got from bending over a workbench that was just a couple of inches too low for his height when standing, but too high to make sitting down a good alternative. Maybe it would help get rid of some of the tension, too. They were here for another five days and he knew from experience how radical the changes could be in even that short a time. So far all the signs pointed towards them finding the resources that Washington craved, it was just a matter of reaching an agreement with the High Council and with Stan Kovacek, team leader of SG9, in charge of the negotiations that should be - as Jack would say - a piece of cake. Jack was worrying about nothing.
Pants and t-shirt adorned another branch, black and khaki flags fluttering in the light breeze off the lake. Socks followed, stuffed into boots. He wriggled his feet in the warm sand, enjoying the feel of it sifting between his toes. It was something that had begun on digs in Egypt, when he was a child, and had continued through into adult life, even on Abydos. There was something wonderfully therapeutic about walking barefoot on warm sand.
Jack was taking his time, he noticed, pacing his own disrobing to allow him to steal furtive glances at Daniel. The archaeologist bit back a grin as he turned away to slip his glasses into his pants pocket for safety. He knew Jack was watching him, just as he did in the locker room back at the base, but it had long ago ceased to be a cause of embarrassment for him. Jack obviously enjoyed what he was doing and really, what was the harm in it? What was the point of causing friction between them by making an issue of it? If Jack got off on looking at him whenever he got the chance it had to mean he liked what he saw, and that thought alone made Daniel feel good. In a way it was a just reward for the effort he had put into shaking off his geeky image. It was reciprocal, too: Daniel had certainly taken every opportunity to indulge his own voyeuristic tendencies where Jack was concerned. He was, after all, only human and, even at the grand old age of forty-seven, the colonel still had a great body.
Letting the 'if only's fade away on a sigh, Daniel skimmed out of his briefs without the least trace of self-consciousness, adding them to the collection of clothes adorning the tree. He could have kept them on to swim - he had spare pairs in his bag - but he like the uninhibited feeling of swimming naked, the silky glide of the water against his skin and the cool caress in secret places. This was sheer, hedonistic indulgence, something he seldom got to do back home these days, except on those very rare vacations that provided the necessary privacy. Jack would just have to learn to deal with it.
"C'mon, Jack!" he urged. "Last one in buys the beer."
Walking to the water's edge, he could feel the brown eyes on him again. He had heard the sharp intake of breath that had greeted his flamboyant gesture and, in the brief moment when their eyes had met, had seen the damning flash of desire, the unconscious stain on the tanned cheeks, as Jack fought the emotional surge. How much more obvious could the man be? Aside from the look on his face, the growing erection tenting the front of his shorts was a dead give-away. Jack was hot, and hard, for him and it was exhilarating and depressing by turns. He wanted Jack, Jack wanted him, but both of them knew that desire would never be openly acknowledged. Jack was straight - not an insurmountable obstacle in the real world, as Daniel had proven elsewhere on more than one occasion, but this was different. Not only was Jack straight, he was also military and while he might, on occasion, circumnavigate the regulations for the good of the many, he would never abuse them to his own personal advantage. He might want, but he would never take and Daniel respected his integrity, even though he failed at times to understand it.
Pausing one last time at the water's edge, he glanced back over his shoulder. Jack had assumed his 'how the hell do I get out of this?' pose, head tilted, one hand kneading the back of his neck while the other was planted defiantly on his hip. Daniel wished there was something he could do to help - that bulge in the green shorts just had to be aching like the devil - but it was not his place to offer. Jack would either have to ask or deal with it himself.
Head tipped back, eyes squeezed tightly shut, Jack was willing himself back to a state of control. Daniel could sense the frustration rolling through him, could feel its echo building in his own body, and at last took pity on them both in the only way that he could, by removing the cause of embarrassment. Turning his back to the colonel, he waded out into the still waters, leaving Jack to deal with his predicament in private.
Inch by delicious inch, the water crept up his long legs, prickling his skin with goose bumps. The temptation to just dive right in nudged at him, but he resisted. As soft and even as the lake bed was beneath his feet, who could tell what danger might lurk just a few steps in front of him. Diving head first into a rock was not a good idea and although the water was clear, the reflection of the sun off the surface was blocking his view.
Deeper, his heavy, partly erect cock bobbing briefly on the water before shrinking back from the chill. His senses tingled in counterpoint to the hot need building within him, swaying him between the extremes of feeling, waiting for Jack. Always waiting for Jack.
It would have been easy, just a word, a sign: let me help you, Jack.... Oh yes, he could have helped - had it been anyone else, he would have helped - but that was a route closed to him this time. Hands off, keep out, don't tell and I won't ask. Can't ask, not this time.
When the water reached his chest he drew a deep breath and ducked beneath the surface. The sudden shock of the water, ice-cold where it fed from the mountain stream into the lake, banished the last lethargy of the day, scouring away the dust and sweat, combing frozen fingers through his hair to scrub at his scalp.
He remained submerged for as long as he could, awed by the beauty surrounding him in the crystal clear water. Fronds of alien vegetation, greens and blues, russets and ambers, danced and swayed with the movement of the currents while schools of tiny rainbow-coloured fish played tag in and out of the aquatic forest, seemingly unperturbed by a stranger's presence. Some, more daring than the others, came right up to his face, flitting to and fro as if inviting him to come play with them. But already his lungs were aching from the strain of holding his breath and tiny pinpoints of coloured light were invading his field of vision. Moments later he broke the surface with a loud gasp, water cascading down his body, dragging his hair down into a sleek, dark cap that clung tightly to the shape of his skull.
When at last he had cleared the water from his eyes, he opened them - to find Jack treading water just a foot or so away, watching him with a look that was one part amusement, one part curiosity and several parts lingering embarrassment.
"Guess I owe you a beer," he greeted, and Daniel frowned.
"Last one in - remember?" he gave a little self-conscious wriggle of his shoulders, the best he could manage under the circumstances. "What were you doing down there anyhow? I was starting to think you were never coming back up."
"Just - enjoying the scenery. It's amazing down there, Jack. Water, without the slightest trace of pollution - where would you find that back on Earth?"
"You're starting to sound like Carter. I thought we came here to swim in it, not analyse it."
Tangible tension emanated from the older man, his eyes darting around now, eager to end this moment. Daniel let his own gaze slide over the tanned torso in a last, lingering caress, before turning out towards the lake once more.
"The rock over there..." He pointed to a dark mass breaking the surface of the water, drawing jack's attention to it. "I'll give you double or quits on that beer."
Sensing reprieve, Jack grinned. "Double or quits, huh?"
"First one to the rock." he would have shaken hands on the deal, if only for the pleasure of contact, but at that moment it would have been too much for either of them to bear.
Jack was looking smug now, and rightly so. Alongside street hockey, swimming was his favourite participation sport. "Want me to apologise now?" he asked sweetly.
"For - what?"
"Splashing you in the face..."
A groan slipped from Daniel's lips. "Cute, Jack. That's real - cute. You'll be offering me a head start next."
"Well if you think you need one..."
Daniel opened his mouth to respond, but Jack had already kicked off and cut three powerful strokes towards their goal. With a pithy objection shattering the silence, Daniel took off in pursuit. Letting his friend win was one thing - a good thing if it restored his flagging dignity - letting himself be whitewashed in the process, however, was not his intention.
The five stroke lead Jack had quickly opened was cut to two by the time they reached the rock, but it was not enough and Jack's fingertips scraped the surface a split second before Daniel's. "Imported. beer," he huffed.
"Imported?" Daniel echoed, injecting a little phoney indigence into the protest. "We never. agreed any. anything about. imported."
Jack answered him with a slow, satisfied grin and Daniel knew he would buy his friend as many bottles of imported beer as he could drink.
"Hey... Willya look at this..." There was a note of unexpected reverence creeping into the colonel's voice, a hushed tone that captured Daniel's attention as Jack waved a hand towards the view before them. From the shore they had been able to see only the sweeping curve of the inlet to right and left and the distant haze of land in the distance but from the base of the rock two, or perhaps three, hundred yards out the whole perspective changed. What had seemed to be the far shore was in fact only the crescent of another bay, one of many along a shoreline that was folded and refolded many times into green velvet pleats that faded into the distance. Four, maybe five miles across and six or seven from end to end: it was, Daniel considered, awesome.
"None of the surveys showed this," he reminded Jack.
"Probably outside the range of the UAV. It picked up enough to tell us the lake was here, but only hinted at the size. This... It's amazing..."
"When Brotar described it, I never imagined anything like this." Daniel glanced up at the face of the rock. It was high and sheer, but the surface was pockmarked with good hand holds. "Think we could climb up there and get a better look?"
Jack scanned up the side of the rock then shifted his gaze to Daniel's. "It's worth a try." He found the firmest hold and began to climb, moving slowly and with great care. Daniel turned away, his attention momentarily drawn by the movement of several small boats in the distance. He guessed the occupants were fishing and wondered idly what manner of catch a lake this size would yield. When he turned back, intending to ask Jack for his opinion, he found himself nose-to-knee with a pair of wiry legs that were braced to raise their owner to the rocky platform. Never had he known Jack be so eager, he mused as he tipped back his head to watch his companion's ascent. The legs, to his surprise, did not disappear into the military issue shorts Jack had been wearing earlier but flared out into a pair of creamy pale and very naked buttocks. Smooth, round, firm buttocks that flexed and strained with each step.
The shiver that ran through him had nothing to do with the temperature of the water and everything to do with the sight of Jack hauling his bare ass carefully over the edge of the stone platform. How in the hell had he missed that? Jack had seemed so uncomfortable back on the beach that Daniel had just assumed he would keep the shorts on and he had not, therefore, bothered to look.
But he was looking now - oh boy was he looking! - and enjoying what he saw, even more as the colonel skewed around to peer down at him.
"You staying down there?" he enquired. "You'll turn into a prune."
Bemused by the sudden spin that Jack was putting on the situation, Daniel began to climb. The footholds made it easy and he wondered if the villagers had hollowed them out for just such a purpose, since they were certainly not natural. There was also something familiar about the form of them that was striking a chord somewhere in his memory, too obscure to grasp at that moment.
Jack reached a hand down to help him the last step. Daniel could climb it easily without assistance, but he grasped the cool fingers anyway and let Jack pull him up, smiling softly to himself as Jack made no attempt to break the hold once Daniel was safely at the top.
"Wish we had that beer now," Jack mused, his brown eyes shifting back and forth, taking in the vista.
"You can drink your fill at the feast tonight," Daniel reminded him "Sam says the local wine is - very good."
"Oh she does, huh?" There was a hint of mischief around his lips that suggested he was considering having a conversation with Carter about drinking on duty, although in this case it was more likely from the point of view that he hadn't been invited.
"It was just - research," Daniel defended.
"Of course it was." Grinning now, Jack returned his gaze to the lake. "You think there's anything in there worth catching?"
Daniel gave a soft laugh. Participation sport number three: fishing, preferably with company. For as long as Daniel could remember, Jack had been forever trying to beg or cajole his friends into fishing trips, studiously ignoring their reluctance or their protests. Here, surrounded by the perfection of location, weather and mood, the lure was irresistible.
"They seem to think so." Daniel pointed to the fishing boats. "You could always ask them to take you along next time they go out."
"You think they would?"
"What have you got to lose by asking? There doesn't seem to be any ritual or taboo involved, just - fishing."
Jack nodded. "Okay. I'll ask Brotar tonight."
They eased themselves down onto the edge of the rock, legs dangling over the side, like kids on a harbour wall, and for a while they lapsed into silence, watching the boats and the flocks of long-legged water fowl, and the slowly setting sun. There were places on earth that were as beautiful, places so peaceful they could soothe even the most anguished heart yet here, on Trectaar, there was an added dimension, a timelessness that seemed to carry them along with it to a realm far removed from all that they knew. Back home, even in the remotest of places, there was always that subconscious awareness that somewhere, not very far away, there was a world of technological advancement, of t.v. and radio, computers and cell phones, high powered cars and state-of-the-art health care. Here there were none of those things, save for the equipment they carried with them. Food was fresh, not pre-packaged, entertainment was self-made, communication was by word of mouth or hand carried note, transport was a hurdle pulled by a small beast that looked like a cross between a mule and a cow. A simple, uncluttered, way of life where responsibility was to family and community, where resources were shared according to needs, not wealth, and war was a word from the ancient texts held in the library. It was the closest they had ever come to a true Utopian society.
"I could stay here forever," Daniel confessed, his voice hushed, not wanting to disturb the blissful bubble of tranquillity surrounding them. Beside him, Jack nodded slowly.
"Know what you mean. These folks have everything they need and none of the things the folks back home tear their lives apart for."
"No poverty, no crime," Daniel agreed. "No petty bureaucracy."
"Just everybody getting along with everybody else. Edora was like that..."
The words halted abruptly and Daniel was certain that the rush of colour to Jack's face was not entirely the reflection of the fading light.
Edora. It hung like a great black cloud over their lives, demanding attention that neither was willing to give it. Daniel knew the details - three months stranded off-world, along with the possibility that it might be permanent, had required an extensive debriefing - but outside of that, Jack had remained closed lipped on the subject. He had been debriefed, subjected to reassessment, therapy, had written report after report to satisfy the requirements of the various interested parties, had been forced to go over and over every minute of those three months, until even a casual reference to it was enough to send him storming from the room. That Jack himself had mentioned it now, voluntarily, was something of a surprise.
Even more unexpected was the sound of Daniel's own voice asking softly "You were happy there, weren't you?" He didn't expect an answer and so the silence that followed was predictable. He was searching around for a diversion when he noticed the smile lighting Jack's face, wiping away the painful memories.
"Yes," he confessed. "Eventually. Once I realised I was probably never going home. Life there was so - uncomplicated. I was just 'Jack' there, no rank, no - expectations." He paused and raised his head, looking directly into Daniel's eyes with an expression that made the younger man's skin tingle. "No stupid regulations about getting involved with people and situations I shouldn't get involved with. Nobody looking over my shoulder, waiting for me to screw up."
"Nobody does that."
"Ya think?" Jack responded without malice. "Everyone's looking for that step up, Daniel, even if they have to climb over other people to get to it."
"You're not," Daniel informed him succinctly.
"Don't be so sure - "
"Oh, I am... Or was there some other reason you turned down that promotion last year?"
The way Jack's jaw dropped told Daniel he was right on the button. Nobody really knew for certain what had been said in those long conversations between the colonel and the general, following their return from Washington, but it was well known that Jack was long overdue for a promotion. General O'Neill - he liked the sound of that. Of course, it was equally well known that any such advancement would require him to leave SG1, and quite probably the SGC as well. Not something Jack had ever shown an eagerness to do, and certainly not something the team wanted either. They were too close now, too - connected.
"You know about that?" Jack asked.
"I took a guess. Sam said it should have happened a long time ago." Hooking one leg onto the rock, he skewed round to face Jack, propping his elbow against his bent knee and resting his head against his hand, as much as ease with their situation as if they had been seated, fully clothed, on Jack's sofa back home. "So - why did you?"
Jack shrugged. "A lot of reasons..."
"One will do."
Jack thought about it for a moment or two, frowning, as he tried to find the simplest, most acceptable reason. At last he answered "Paperwork drives me nuts?"
"Paperwork?" Daniel bit down on the corners of his mouth to stop them turning up.
"And having to deal with bozos like Kinsey."
Daniel shuddered. "Now that I can understand."
It was common ground for them, this hatred of Senator Kinsey and all that he stood for. Things had been going well until the senator had decided to visit that first time and in the beginning he had seemed to be on their side, though it had quickly been made obvious that all he was interested in was how much alien technology they could bring back and how much of it could be used as weapons. That first time they had almost lost Teal'c; the second time around they had almost lost the SGC and the whole Stargate project. Ironic that it had been an attack from Apophis that had been their salvation. The confrontation had proved the necessity of the SGC to Earth's safety and, for a while at least, the President had been able to deny them nothing, but Kinsey had promised he would be back and although nobody could prove that he was behind Maybourne's little band of thieves, he was certainly near the top of everyone's list of candidates.
"You know," Daniel said after a while "you could make a difference in Washington."
Jack faked a shocked expression. "You trying to get rid of me, Doctor Jackson?"
"No! No way, Jack. Don't even think it. We've been that route once and -"
"Danny, it's okay..." There was a gentleness in Jack's tone, a note of contrition for a joke gone wrong. "I was kidding you."
"Guess I touched a nerve, huh?"
More than one, thought Daniel, horrified at his response to the suggestion almost as much as he was to the suggestion itself. Caught off his guard, he had almost given himself away.
"Uh... I guess." He scratched his cheek nervously, unable to meet Jack's gaze. If he had, he would have noticed the troubled look in the colonel's eyes.
"What did you mean..." Jack spoke at last "about going that route once before?"
Daniel dropped his free hand to the rock and began teasing moss from a crack with his thumbnail. "Mean?"
"Yeah." A pause, waiting in vain for Daniel's reply. "You were talking about Edora again."
Still no word from Daniel, but then, what could he say? That when they realised the gate was gone, it was as if his life had ended? That for three long months he had fought for a way of getting Jack back? That he had refused to give up hope, even when the cause seemed futile?
Scrape, scrape, scrape....
Or should he tell Jack how empty his life had been during those months, how he'd wake in the darkness of pre-dawn, thinking he could hear Jack calling to him, only to be faced with the agony of knowing he might never see him again, never see his smile, hear him laugh, feel the strength of those arms as he found himself on the receiving end of one of Jack's famous bear hugs? How could he explain any of that without confessing just how much he loved his colonel?
Scratch, scratch, scratch....
"Edora?" he echoed. "Maybe..."
"You're worried it could happen again. Every time you step through the gate, you're wondering if this will be the time one of us comes home alone." Jack's voice had assumed a dreamy, faraway tone and, when Daniel dared to look up, he found the brown eyes fixed not on him now, but lost in the distance of memory. "That you'll be the one left wondering... hoping... never able to escape."
"Never able to let yourself give up," Daniel murmured. "They wanted me to - the general, Sam... even Janet got in on the act. But I couldn't..."
Scrape, scrape, scrape....
"I know." Jack turned to look at him then, and the wealth or emotion in his gaze stopped the breath in Daniel's throat. "Neither could I."
"But - what about - "
"Laira?" Jack blinked quickly, clearing the sudden brightness from his eyes. "I needed - someone to hold, someone to - help me deal with the loneliness. Knowing how things work isn't always a good thing, Danny. I bet I could pinpoint the exact day my status changed from 'missing' to 'presumed lost'. The other SG teams would have been told to keep a lookout for me - the same way we did with Maybourne's people after they went through the second gate - but that would have been the last rescue attempt."
Daniel wanted to deny it, to tell him he was wrong, that they would have gone on trying until they reached him but, as Jack had said, he knew how things worked, and so he said nothing.
Scratch, scrape --
"Daniel!" There was a pleading note of exasperation in the voice and suddenly, Jack's hand shot out and caught hold of his, wrapping it in strong, stone-cooled fingers to still the compulsive movements. "I never fell in love with her. I cared about her - a lot - but it could never be more than that."
"She would have been good for you."
"I know, but if I'd let myself fall for her, it really would have been giving up and - I couldn't do that. I always knew..."
"What?" Daniel prompted softly, gripping the fingers where they curved into his palm. Jack had never talked like this before, not about Edora or Laira, or any of the other times their lives had been overtaken by events off-world.
"That you'd find me. Not the SGC," he added hastily. "Just - you. Even if it took the rest of your life, I knew you'd find a way to reach me. He tipped his head, enquiring, "Was I right?"
Very slowly, but without any hesitation, Daniel nodded. Yes, he would have tried and tried, and kept on trying, until he found someone who could get him to Edora. To Jack. Whether they were able to get them home again was of no importance, as long as he was with Jack.
Jack smiled softly. "I bet you were a real pain in the ass to the Tok'ra."
"And the Tollan... and the Nox... and..."
A delighted laugh slipped from the colonel's lips. "That's my Daniel. Tenacious to the bitter end."
Daniel looked into the dark eyes and felt a squadron of butterflies take off in his stomach. If there had ever been any doubt in his mind about how Jack felt, it would have vanished with that one look. That Jack was in love with him had never been more obvious and once again he found himself silently cursing all those who had conspired to make that love impossible, all the generals and the chiefs of staff and the politicians and churchmen who condemned them for their feelings. Maybe he and Jack should just pack up and head for the Land of Light, where nobody would give a damn.
As if reading his thoughts, Jack coughed softly and withdrew his hand with a mumbled apology. Daniel bit back the wave of hurt. It hadn't bothered him that Jack had been holding his hand - in fact, he enjoyed it - but Jack was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable, and that set Daniel's blood boiling. Nobody should be made to feel that way over something so instinctual.
"It's okay, Jack," he responded gently.
"It is?" Gratitude sparked in the brown eyes, warming away some of Daniel's anger.
"Sure." He decided in that moment it was time to do something about this last obstacle in their friendship. They had seen each other emotionally stripped to the bones, torn open by events, yet something as simple and spontaneous as this was like a wall between them, and it was time it stopped. "For crying out loud, Jack," he laughed, turning one of Jack's own catch phrases against him "we're sitting up here, without a stitch of clothing between us. I'm really not about to freak out because you held my hand."
"Why should I? Jack - you're my best friend. Nothing you say or do around me is going to change that."
Jack's mouth was working around words that refused to come out and his eyes were darting from Daniel's face, to the lake, to the shore, and back again, unable to settle. Unable to accept, or to allow himself to accept, what Daniel was telling him. Afraid of the consequences.
"Not even..." he cleared his throat, ducking his head to avoid Daniel's scrutiny. "Not even what happened... back there?"
Without hesitation, Daniel answered "Not even that."
"But - you do know why it happened?" Jack's eyes were on his now, round and wide and full of astonishment.
"I think so and - I'm flattered."
"Most men would think I was - sick." Jack shivered, wrapping his arms around himself.
Knowing they needed the contact to restore the balance between them, Daniel stretched out a hand to lightly touch him on the arm. "But I'm not most men, Jack," he said, holding Jack's gaze until he saw the ambiguity of that statement register with him.
"No. No, you're not." He scrubbed a hand over his face, then let it drift down, across his shoulder, until it covered Daniel's hand where it rested against his skin. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Daniel grinned.
They drew apart then, as the intensity of the mood ebbed a little and the much needed balance was restored. A line had been drawn, not between them but around them, to enclose their friendship, strengthen it and unite them. Within it, Daniel could sense the healing of the wounds that had been left open and festering since the incident with Maybourne and the lies Jack had needed to tell, the cruel things he had been forced to say in order to protect those he cared about. The doubts he had cast on their friendship had haunted Daniel ever since, worming their way between them. It was good that they could finally set that behind them and go on with their lives.
Silence folded in around them once more, comfortable, companionable. It was something that had always come easy to them, right from the start, the ability to find pleasure in each other's company without the need to fill every moment with words. The others always laughed when some new idea bit him in the butt and he would chatter on endlessly, until Jack either lost his patience with him or walked away, but what they didn't see were all those times when they were alone together, simply enjoying the other's presence. Sunday mornings were his favourite of those times, on those weekends when he would escape from the urban jungle surrounding his apartment and take up temporary residence in Jack's spare room. Friday night would be steak and beer and pool in one of their regular haunts, usually with Sam and/or Teal'c along for company, and a chance to unwind. Saturday meant a trip to the mall or the library, maybe even to the museum, if he could bargain Jack into going. Then home, to watch whichever sport was in season, ending the evening with a stack of videos and more beer or wine. All the things that 'normal' folks did, Jack assured him, a few echoes of reality threading through the unreal lives they lived inside Cheyenne Mountain.
Daniel loved those lazy weekends with Jack, more so because of their spontaneity. Nothing was ever planned. Some Friday nights Jack would do no more than call out a 'goodnight' as he passed the ever-open door to the archaeologist's lab but, once in a while, Daniel would feel his presence, would look up to find him leaning in the doorway, arms folded over the front of his leather jacket or hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, and that spark of needful hope in his brown eyes. When that happened, Daniel would close his book, turn out the lamp and snag his coat from the hook as he fell into step at his friend's side. From then on, through Friday night fun and Saturday domesticity, to his favourite Sunday morning of late breakfast and shared newspapers and a continuous stream of coffee, he and Jack lived in their own private little world, where the stargate and the SGC, Kinsey and Maybourne and the Goa'uld were unable to intrude. They were amongst the happiest times in Daniel's life, marred only by one thing - or rather, the absence of it.
"I guess it's time we started heading back," Jack mused.
Daniel would have been content to stay there all night, but the sun was low now, the heat fading, and they still had the swim back to shore and the long walk back to the camp. "You're probably right," he agreed reluctantly. "And we don't want to offend the Elders by being late for the feast."
Brown eyes met blue above smiles that were evenly matched, yet still they held back, too caught up in the place and the mood to hurry their departure. Jack was the first to look away, catching his top lip between his teeth as he shook his head, chuckling softly to himself. It was as if he was keeping some huge secret that brought him great pleasure, even though he was unable to share it - something Daniel knew all about.
At last Jack stood up, stretching his arms above his head to ease his cramped muscles. Daniel swallowed hard: either Jack had forgotten he was naked, or it was the most blatant display of sensuality Daniel had ever witnessed. Well, okay, there had been that time on Abydos, when Skaara and the other boys had... But they were just kids and kids found it easy to shake off their natural inhibitions like that. This was different. This was Colonel Jack O'Neill, team leader of SG1 and General Hammond's 2IC. Flaunting his naked body for the world to see was not something Jack did... except he was doing it and Daniel was mesmerised by the sight, his own body responding, slipping out of his control.
Jack was beautiful - not in the sense of classic perfection but as a man of strength, who had lived a hard but worthwhile life. His body was long and lean, arms and legs corded with working muscle and dusted with golden hair that faded into silver across his chest. The tan he had brought back from Edora was paler now, but not so pale as to mask the many scars he bore. Daniel knew some of them, like the one in his arm caused by the arrow one of Tonani's people had fired through the gate as a warning, or the one in his left thigh, legacy of a staff weapon blast on P4T-219. Battle scars. Badges of honour. There were others, Daniel knew, that were more sinister, symbols of mans inhumanity, gained years ago in an Iraqi prison. They made light of the scars they had both acquired during their time with the SGC, but of these other trophies, and the getting of them, Jack never spoke and Daniel never asked.
Jack seemed not to notice Daniel's scrutiny as he edged towards the lip of the rock and peered down to the water. "D'you think it's safe to dive from up here?"
Daniel, more cautious, crawled on hands and knees, gripping the edge of the rock as he leaned over. The water was as clear as if it had been drawn from a faucet, but the dying light of the sun had caused the rock to throw a long, broad shadow across the surface beneath them.
"It's hard to tell," he replied. "It looks deep enough, but it could be a trick of the light."
"Would you dive?"
"Probably not - but then, we both know I don't go in for taking risks..."
The expression on Jack's face said he was a long way short of believing that and was mentally listing all the occasions when Daniel had dived headfirst into situations beyond his control.
"Okay," Daniel corrected "maybe I do - occasionally - take chances... But diving off here isn't going to be one of them."
Jack gave it a few more seconds of consideration before nodding and moving back from the edge. "Okay, I guess we go down the way we came up..."
Daniel shuddered. Climbing up, using the handholds, had been relatively easy when compared to the prospect of descending the same way, especially given their lack of protection. One slip and...
"How about the other side?" he suggested, crawling across. The blind side of the rock certainly looked more promising. Several large blocks had fallen away, as if some natural cataclysm had shattered that face of it and sent it crumbling into the water. The resulting fall had provided them with a series of random steps that reached down close to the surface of the lake, from where they could slip easily, if somewhat cautiously, into the water. The steps had been worn smooth by the elements and were dappled with moss and lichens, making them slippery and difficult to navigate, but at least the angle was less steep and they could see where they were going.
"Next time," Jack huffed as he negotiated a particularly awkward drop, "I decide to go rock climbing... butt naked... have Carter shoot me."
Daniel began to snigger, imagining what Sam's reaction would be to such a request, but suddenly something else caught his attention, causing him to stop. There, carved into the stone right in front of him, were symbols identical to those on the tablets he had been working on and the scrolls from the Trectaaran library.
"Um... no. I think you need to see this."
Behind him, about to ease himself into the water, Jack grunted a response. "For crying out loud, Daniel! I just got down here and now you want me to climb all the way back up?"
"It's not all the way," he protested. "This could be important." Without waiting to see if Jack would return, he picked up a small, sharp stone and began scraping away the moss, revealing more of the etchings. A minute or so later Jack gasped his way to Daniel's side.
"Okay, okay. What's got you all fired up this time?"
"That..." He pointed, following the line of the symbol with his index finger though not quite touching it. "Tell me what you see."
Jack peered at it then shrugged. "A rock... moss... Why? What do you see?"
"Here..." He defined the symbol in more detail. "And there... That and... there..." He marked the signs, glancing periodically at Jack and noting that the irritation had given way to curiosity as he, too, realised there was a connection.
"So this is - what?" Jack asked. "I'm guessing you think it's more than the local kids trying their hand at a little graffiti."&127
Daniel's nod was enthusiastic, his grin broad. "A lot more. These symbols, seen from this angle, are just random but if you turn your head this way..." He demonstrated by leaning hard over to the right and inclining his head, so that what at first appeared to be a column of symbols in fact became an inscription to be read from left to right. "They match exactly an inscription recorded in the nineteenth scroll - or is it the twenty-third? - one of them anyhow. According to Teldron, the librarian, the inscription was originally above the door of a great temple. It was an incantation to one of the gods."
"This doesn't look like a door," Jack observed.
"No, but an incantation might have been repeated elsewhere in the temple. On a wall, maybe."
Tipping back his head, Jack examined the rock again, height, width, the angular fractures that had caused the steps on which they now stood. "If this is a wall, where's the rest of the building?"
"Could be anywhere. Maybe they hauled the rock here from someplace else, or maybe it was here all along and the rest of the place has been robbed out over the years. It's the same stone as most of the settlement is made from. The point is, it brings us closer to proving there was once a much bigger community here, maybe even the city that Brotar was telling us about. Something far more advanced than the Trectaarans would have ever be able to create."
"The Ancients?" There was real interest in Jack's voice now.
"Maybe. Jack, we have to follow through on this." If he expected Jack to brush the request aside, he was to be disappointed because the colonel answered him with a smile and an understanding nod.
"We'll talk to Brotar and the Elders at the feast tonight, maybe they can shed some more light on this."
"I'm not even sure they know," Daniel murmured, recalling a conversation with the Trectaaran leader shortly after their arrival. The man had been more than a little reluctant to stray from the subject they were discussing, namely the origin of the scrolls and their usefulness to Daniel's research. The archaeologist had assumed his reluctance stemmed from a minimum of knowledge and a desire not to appear ignorant before his peers. Jack, however, was not so cautious.
"Believe me, Daniel, I know guys like these. They always hold something back for later, gives them something to bargain with." He shivered suddenly as a sharp breeze swirled around them on its way to land. "But we can deal with that later. Right now we need to get off this lake and back to the camp."
With Jack's promise that they would return in the morning and make a proper survey, Daniel followed him into the water and struck out to the shore. They would come back tomorrow and he would uncover the secrets of the lake and its connection to Trectaaran history, and he would prove the one-time presence of the Ancients here. He would do all of that and then let them tell him his theories were crazy! Maybe they would finally have the means to get the NID off their backs once and for all...
"An earthquake?" Poised with his half-finished cup of coffee part way to his lips, Jack frowned at his 2IC. "You're saying a race as advanced as the Ancients was wiped out by - an earthquake?"
Sam smiled indulgently. "Not wiped out, sir, more like - forced to leave. From what Daniel and Teal'c have been able to translate, and the information Teldron has given us from Trectaaran history, it seems the Ancients left this world shortly before the earthquake hit."
Jack's concern deepened. They had always been led to believe that the race known as The Ancients were the good guys, working alongside the Asgaard and the Nox to defeat the System Lords, now here was Carter, apparently turning that all on its ear.
"You mean they bugged out and left the Treccies to fend for themselves. Sweet." The curl of his lips and the cold look in his eyes said he found the notion anything but 'sweet'. If it was one thing he couldn't tolerate, it was when the little guys, the ones who couldn't take care of themselves, were left behind while those who had the means to help them cut and run. He had seen that kind of thing far too often back home, during his black ops days: he hadn't liked it then and he didn't like it now.
"Actually, Jack, I think they did all they could to help the Trectaarans," Daniel said mildly.
"Yeah? So, taking them off this rock wasn't an option?"
"Possibly not. According to the evidence, this was a colony established over several hundred years. The population could have grown to the extent that they might not have had the means to take all their own people, never mind taking the Trectaarans along also. Or maybe they took the best of each race in order to preserve both cultures. We won't know until the translation is finished, and that could -"
"Take a lifetime," Jack interrupted, remembering their conversation from the previous day. "Okay, so what do we know for sure?"
Sam unrolled another of the charts and spread it on the work bench. "This is a map Daniel found in the library. It's over five thousand years old."
"It looks like plastic," Jack observed, rubbing a corner of it between his thumb and fingers. It was smooth to the touch, much smoother than paper or papyrus, and cold.
"It's metal," said Carter. "Incredibly thin. It looks and acts like paper, but it's virtually indestructible."
"How did they print the map on it?" Daniel asked, peering over her shoulder. The major shrugged.
"I haven't even begun to work on that, but I can tell you that whatever was involved, the technology was far in advance of anything the Trectaarans were capable of, then or now."
The colonel set his empty cup aside and raised his hand to massage his right temple. Earthquakes, metal maps, the mysteries of the Ancients - they were not the kinds of things he wanted to be wrapping his hangover around, especially a hangover as spectacularly excruciating as the one he had woken up to this morning. Even the hooch Paynar had introduced him to on Edora didn't pack a punch like Trectaaran wine.
Turning red-rimmed eyes to the major, he sighed heavily. "Do us all a favour, Carter, and cut to the chase. What has any of this got to do with the symbols Daniel found at the lake?"
"Quite a lot, sir," she said, drawing his attention back to the map. "This is an aerial map of the area."
"It's one of about thirty, Jack," offered Daniel. "Put them all together and you have a very detailed map of the entire planet. There's no way the Trectaarans could have produced a map like that.
Sam took back the story. "These are the mountains... the stream... the plateau where the Stargate is located. If you follow the course of the stream - " she traced a thin line with the tip of her finger as she spoke "- you can see that it circles around the hills here... then converges with the larger river flowing from over here. Then the whole lot empties into an estuary that's detailed on the next map in the sequence."
Jack rubbed at the bridge of his nose. The more she explained the more he frowned, and the more he frowned the more his head ached. But she was right, the simple people who had become their friends did not have anything like the technology it would take to make a map that detailed.
"So... Mountains... stream... stargate... That puts the Trectaaran settlement here..."
"Pretty much," Daniel agreed.
"Which means this camp is..." Jack did a quick calculation then tapped his finger on the map "...there."
"Well - yes." The tone of Carter's response brought Jack's gaze sharply to her face. So, they were going to have that conversation again.
"You sound surprised, Major," he countered. "Didn't expect me to work it out all by myself?"
"No sir. I mean, yes."
"I can read a map, you know."
"Of course sir."
"And what I'm reading here is - no lake."
"Sir?" Caught off her guard by the colonel's acid tone, Sam stared at him. It wasn't that she thought him stupid - far from it in fact - but increasingly these days he preferred to play the dunce and allow the experts around him to spoon-feed him the information, rather than think things through for himself. Why he did it, she had no idea, although it seemed to her that the situation had worsened since his mind had briefly become the receptacle for the knowledge of the Ancients. Maybe one day she would find the courage to ask him about it. One thing was certain - he wasn't playing the dumb ass colonel now.
"The lake, Carter?" he repeated. "I don't see it on your map."
It was Daniel who came to her aid, dispelling the frustration in Jack's eyes with a single smile. "That's because five thousand years ago, when the map was made, the lake wasn't there."
"You mean - the earthquake caused it?"
Sam nodded. "If you look here on the map, Colonel, you can see the fault lines, here... here and... there. They converge at a spot right under where the middle of the lake is now."
"And," added Daniel "right where the centre of the Ancient's city was five millennia ago. Trectaaran history talks about a 'night of fire' when the world split open and the land was swallowed up by the sea."
"A tidal wave," Jack nodded. "Of course."
"The city was submerged when the sea engulfed the land. The rock we swam out to? Jack, it really could be the entrance to the temple."
Jack could see the excitement in the blue eyes, the hope, the hunger and he caved, unable to deny Daniel this moment. "Just like Atlantis," he murmured, and Daniel's smile said it all.
Sam was looking from one to the other, missing the subtext as she focused on the science. "Atlantis was just a myth," she said.
"Maybe..." Jack scratched his head, his headache forgotten. "Maybe not."
"We have to go down there." The tone of Daniel's voice left no room for argument.
The grey head nodded slowly. "We'll talk to Hammond, arrange for a team of divers to join the next mission."
"That could take weeks!"
"It's the best I can do, Daniel. These things take time."
Arms folded across his chest, Daniel glowered at him. "Not if I do it myself."
Jack snorted a disparaging laugh. "Like that's gonna happen. A dive like this needs experts."
A tip of Daniel's head, a flash of indignance in his eyes. "Oh, and of course, I couldn't possibly qualify, could I?"
"Jack, I've done all the training - and I'm not talking about one of those 'learn to scuba in a week' vacations, I mean the real thing. Dammit! I've got my own equipment back at the apartment. I spent over a year working alongside a marine archaeologist in South America." He looked deep into Jack's eyes, a fierce determination in his own that warned he was not about to back down this time. "I can handle this, Jack."
Despite any reservations he might have, Jack could not help but believe him. Daniel might occasionally exaggerate a point to get his way, but this time he was clearly playing it straight, knowing how much depended on his honesty, how much depended on Jack's trust in him.
"Fully qualified?" Brown eyes travelled from the map to Carter's face, seeing there the same belief he, himself, was feeling, moved on to Daniel, saw him nod once, deeply, in confirmation. Pushing away from bench, he planted his hands firmly on his hips and pulled out his best CO look. "You let me down here, Danny-boy, and I swear --"
"I know what I'm doing." The response was immediate and unwavering. "Trust me, Jack. Please?"
He spun it out for a full minute longer, not wanting to be seen to give in too easily and give either Daniel or Sam cause to question the merits of his decision. At last he rubbed a hand over his mouth and let out a sigh. "You'll need someone with you."
"I'm sure there'll be someone else on the base who has the experience."
That drew a snort of irony from Jack. "Sure there is... Bound to be some sucker who doesn't know when he's too old for heroics..."
"You mean -" Daniel stared at him, wide eyed. "- you?"
"What? You think I'd trust someone else to hold the other end of your snorkel?" he quipped, ignoring the earthy snigger from Carter's direction.
"I - um - I didn't know you could dive?"
"All part of the fun package, courtesy of the United States Air Force." Not that there had been much fun to be had on the two occasions he had been required to use his skills to their fullest extent in the line of duty, although he wasn't about to fill Daniel in on those details. "Okay, look... I'll go talk to the general, you two see what else you can find in these maps. If he can get the equipment out to us - and I'm not guaranteeing anything, Daniel, so you can keep a lid on the enthusiasm for a while longer - we'll go down and take a look."
He began to turn away, then paused as he caught the gleam of hope in another set of blue eyes. This was where it got difficult and where all the non-fraternisation rules suddenly started to make sense. They were a team, first and foremost, and despite his longing to be alone with Daniel, he had a duty to all four, to treat them equally and without favouritism. It sucked, but it was all part of the responsibility he had assumed when he allowed them to pin those silver birds on his shoulders.
"Carter," he said, stifling the sigh of reluctance. "I get the feeling this is one fishing trip you do want in on."
"Well if you're offering, sir..."
"Been down before?"
She bit back a grin. "Only on one of those 'learn to scuba in a week' vacations," she answered wryly, glancing at Daniel.
"How long ago?"
"Last summer. Managed to get through the week without drowning," she added pointedly.
Not that you'd admit you had problems, Jack acknowledged silently. "Daniel?" he prompted, wondering if the hazy smile on the younger man's face was caused by thoughts of the treasures lying in wait for them, or the prospect of seeing Sam Carter in a bathing suit. A sudden wave of heat in his own face, brought on by a similar image, made him clear his throat loudly, in turn startling Daniel from his thoughts.
"I was asking if you thought we should take Carter along with us."
"Oh?" Crossing his arms over his chest, Daniel gave the major a long look and Jack wondered if he was just imagining that was disappointment he could see in the other man's gaze. "Ah... sure. I'm okay with that..." He sounded less than convincing, but Jack knew it would be wrong to protest the point. They would just have to accept Sam playing gooseberry.
"Okay, I'll take it to Hammond. We'll RV back here in an hour."
He left them to their work and headed for the path that would lead him to the stargate. Scuba diving with Daniel: well, even if they didn't find anything down there, the mission had just become one hundred percent more interesting. As he strode along the path, a rare spring in his step, he couldn't help wondering what other surprises their encounter with the Trectaarans held in store for them.
Jack swayed slightly as he lifted the stone flask and poured himself another draught of the sweet, spicy wine. Three feasts in as many days and every one of them in honour of the guests from beyond the Circle of Light. He was beginning to understand how visiting dignitaries back home must feel when caught up on the social merry-go-round.
Raising the cup to his lips, he took a moment to survey the rest of his team over its rim. There was Teal'c, deep in conversation - yet again - with Oktair. A strange one that Oktair, kind of like a Commander in Chief, Commissioner of Police and father confessor all rolled into one; a tall, broad shouldered man with a hard looking face that was made to appear even sharper and more forbidding by the way his long grey hair was pulled back into a tight braid. All the men of Trectaar wore their hair long and decorated, just as the women did, and Jack's first impression on seeing them crowded into the main square, in their colourful summer clothes, was of the kind of hippie commune that had sprung up here and there across America in the Sixties. He had spent a glorious summer - the summer of his seventeenth year - in just such a community a few miles outside San Francisco and the memories of those months were sweet to recall.
Teal'c was, of course, sober having declined the local wine after the first feast, but he was making up for it by indulging himself in the food, wolfing down slabs of roast meat and hunks of fresh bread soaked in a thick, succulent stew. Jack winced at the Jaffa's seemingly insatiable capacity, but if that was what made the man happy, who was he to interfere?
Unlike many of the worlds they visited, Trectaar had no social pecking order, no hierarchy when it came to the basics of life, such as food and labour, so it was that Carter had settled into a small group that comprised one of the elders, two of Brotar's household, a farmer and a herbalist. They had spent most of the evening discussing the various methods of healing employed on Trectaar - or, more precisely, they had been discussing them, until they had touched on the therapeutic effects of the local vintage and an impromptu tasting session had ensued. That Carter was now feeling a little the worse for the wine he could see in her eyes and the lopsided grin she threw is way when she realised he was watching her, and he made a mental note to avoid her in the morning. Sam Carter with a hangover was not a force to be reckoned with, as he had learnt to his cost following Janet Fraiser's birthday party the previous year, and while he admired a woman who could hold her liquor, he preferred to duck out of a confrontational situation that might well result in the good major finding herself up on a charge of insubordination, especially considering he was likely to be dealing with yet another hangover of his own.
He sipped some more of the wine and let it roll around his mouth, numbing his gums. The drink had the same effect as cheap scotch, but with a taste that was far smoother and infinitely more pleasant, like rich, exotic fruit juices fermented with honey. Savouring the taste, he pondered idly how easy it would be to set up a concession back home and how well the stuff would travel through the wormhole.
"You look like you're having a good time." Daniel's voice was soft and affectionate - or was that just wishful thinking on Jack's part, brought on by the effects of the alcohol? Whatever, he tipped his head back and grinned as he waved a hand in the space beside him and invited Daniel to 'pull up a pillow', offering that same hand to steady the archaeologist as he sat down.
"Where were you?" he asked, Daniel's sudden disappearance having been nagging at him for the last half-hour.
"Hmm? Oh - Lalia wanted to show me something."
Jack really did try to stop the smirk that formed on his lips by taking another sip of his drink, but it was a fight he had little chance of winning. Lalia was Brotar's younger sister, unmarried, very beautiful and, since the moment of their arrival, totally besotted with a certain Tau'ri by the name of Dr Daniel Jackson.
"I just bet she did," he murmured, delighting in the rush of colour to the younger man's face. It was good to see Daniel enjoying himself again after all he had been through in the last few years. Sha're's death had been the final blow and one from which it had, for a time, seemed he would not bounce back. Then there had been that business with Kera, who turned out to be none other than Linea, the 'Destroyer of Worlds'. How Daniel could have allowed himself to be taken in by her was still a mystery to Jack.
But Lalia was different, she was sweet and kind and, above all, uncomplicated, no snake in her head, no murderous intent, no ghost of a husband waiting in the wings. One look at her and it was easy to see that she would be good for Daniel, and Jack was as content with that as he could possibly be, given his own feelings for his friend.
"So," he said, draining his cup, "you all set for our little swim tomorrow?"
Getting Hammond to agree to the dive had been much easier than Jack had anticipated, but then the general always did have a soft spot for the archaeologist. If Daniel said he was qualified to go down there, then that was good enough for the Old Man. The equipment had arrived through the stargate just a few hours ago and Jack had spent the rest of that afternoon trying to persuade Daniel to wait until the morning, when there would be more time, better light, etcetera. He wanted them fresh and alert, he said: looking around the gathering now, fresh and alert no longer seemed to be on the agenda.
"Are you serious?" Daniel snorted, giving Jack one of those looks that said he wasn't sure if the colonel was joking or not.
"Hey, I'm coming with, aren't I? I just wanted to be sure you're not letting yourself get - distracted."
A sigh slipped past the full lips, warning Jack that he could well be treading on dangerous ground. "Jack," he murmured, fixing his gaze on the crackling fire. "There isn't anything going on. Lalia is a beautiful woman and I enjoy her company - but that's all. I don't want... I'm not interested in anything more."
"Because of Sha're?"
"Yes... No..." He shrugged, glanced away to where Lalia was sitting talking with her brother and nephew, Naacep. "Maybe," he amended hesitantly, and Jack understood. Daniel had a habit of hooking himself up with women that were entirely wrong for him and getting himself burned into the bargain when it all turned sour. Understandable that he should be wary now.
Suddenly sober, he lowered his voice so that only Daniel could hear him. "You have to let go sometime, you know. Sha're - she wouldn't want you doing this to yourself."
Daniel looked up at him, his eyes sad. "To be honest, Jack, I have no idea what Sha're would want me to do."
"I thought you said she tried to communicate with you, through the ribbon device, just before..."
"That's what I thought at the time, but what if that was just what I wanted to think? What if it was my subconscious channelling itself through the images of her, telling me to forgive Teal'c, to stay with the SGC so I could find the Harsessis, because that was what I really wanted to do, deep down. I was with her for a year, but we were really only just getting to know each other - I mean, to really know each other - when Apophis took her. I always believed I'd never leave Abydos, that we'd be together for the rest of our lives, raise a family and grow old together, but instead of that..."
The misery was radiating from him, Jack could feel it and reached out to touch his shoulder, squeezing it gently. "In stead of that you feel lonely, out of balance, like someone carved out a vital part of your life and tossed it on the scrap heap."
Daniel stared at him for a long moment, his own understanding growing. "You and Sara..." he murmured, and Jack bowed his head as the memory stabbed at him.
"Oh yeah. We weren't perfect, used to fight all the time when I was home, but we made it work - for the most part. Until Charlie..."
"You can never forgive yourself," Daniel quoted from a distant memory. His first night home from Abydos, camped out at Jack's place because he had nowhere else to go, sharing cold beer and painful memories. It was the first time Jack had told anyone about his break up with Sara and the agony of being the cause, however indirect, of his son's death.
"But you have to try to forget," Jack responded. "Even for a little while. Even if all you do is lose yourself in your work."
"And shut out the rest of the world?"
The grey head dipped in assent. "If that's what it takes to get you through. Or you can - let someone help, a friend who understands what it's like to lose someone close to them. Like a wife..."
"Or a parent..."
"Or a son..."
"Jesus, Jack! How did either of us stay sane as long as we have?" Daniel mused, the self-mocking tone of his voice making Jack snigger.
"Guess we're just a couple of stubborn sons of bitches," he laughed, and Daniel nodded and said "I guess we are at that," and raised his hand to cover Jack's where it lay at his shoulder. On the surface, it was nothing more than a gesture of friendship and yet both could feel that a connection had been reawakened at a deeper, more intimate level after being ignored for too long a time. Jack realised how much he had missed this closeness, something he had not really felt since their mission to Ne'tu, to rescue Jacob Carter. It felt - good, like coming home after a long journey. It felt - right.
"Daniel, I --" Jack opened his mouth to speak, to say something that would expand the mood, but neither of them had noticed Brotar approach, his son close at his heels.
"Colonel Jack! Are you not enjoying the feast?"
Daniel turned away and Jack let his hand drop back into his lap, his fingers still carrying the echo of Daniel's touch tingling through his veins.
"Brotar. Yes. Great feast," he rambled. "Better than last night. Your people, they sure know how to - party."
"Party?" The old man frowned at Jack, who looked to Daniel for help, only to find that the good Dr Jackson was already up and moving away, heading towards that path that would take him back to the camp.
Sweet, thought Jack crossly. He let his gaze drift after Daniel, but already Brotar was leaning down to hook a hand beneath Jack's arm and lift him firmly to his feet. For an old guy, Brotar was strong as the proverbial ox. Jack was impressed.
"You will come join my family, yes? The night is still in its infancy and my children long to hear more of your tales of battle."
Jack thought about refusing and was searching his memory for the right phrase, the politically correct rejection, when he looked past Brotar's shoulder and spotted the eager group looking his way.
Family: Brotar and his wife, four strapping sons who all adored their father, three daughters-in-law, all beautiful, and seven grandchildren. Nothing remarkable in any of that, nor in the grandfather who sat in the place of honour - a man who, in Earth terms, was approaching his one hundredth year - or the parents, Braetesh and Leriss, who watched over the gathering with obvious pride. Nothing at all remarkable yet, watching them together, seeing the warmth between them, the love they made no effort to hide, touched Jack deeply, reached down inside him to find all those dark, lonely places he tried so hard to forget existed. Now Brotar was inviting him into that cocoon of familial well-being, just as Laira and Garan had done on Edora, and while he had no misconceptions that this was anything more than etiquette on the part of the Trectaaran leader, there was still a part of him that feared the possible consequences of allowing himself to be drawn into such a close-knit group.
"Come," repeated Brotar. "It is not good to be so alone."
Not good, no, but better than the only alternatives open to him. How many times can a man allow himself to be hurt before his heart and mind call 'time out'? But Brotar was right, being alone was not good, especially when it wasn't necessary. Tonight he was an honoured guest and it was only polite to respond in kind.
Daniel was out of sight now, no doubt off checking their equipment for the dive next day. Wasn't as if he hadn't checked it a dozen times already. Short on patience was Daniel when he set his mind to something.
Daniel was gone, Sam and Teal'c were still engrossed in their respective conversations. Jack had to chose between going with Brotar and playing the hero, or staying put and contemplating just how empty his life had become.
"Okay," he said at last, swaying to his feet, surprised at how easy it was to move without his knees or back giving him hell. Maybe it was something to do with the climate on Trectaar, or the food. Or that wine they were so fond of passing around. Oh yeah, could definitely have something to do with the wine.
Throwing his host a friendly grin, he fell into step beside the man as they turned towards the terrace where the family were waiting.
"War stories, huh?" he mused. Brotar nodded.
"Our people have never known conflict, my children are naturally curious."
Jack glanced at him, frowning as he wondered why anyone would be curious to know what war was like. Shouldn't they be grateful to have avoided the experience?
"Okay, but you might not like what they hear. I've been in some - pretty ugly situations."
"All the more reason for them to know. The fact that we have always lived in peace does not mean that we always shall."
Forced to concede the logic of that, Jack found himself nodding. He knew, from his own experiences, that lives had been lost many times over for the want of even the most basic knowledge of what to expect.
"I just hope I don't give them all nightmares," he muttered, almost to himself. Brotar laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
"I am sure you will not, my friend," he reassured, collecting another flask of wine from the table as they passed.
The wine flowed freely that night, as Jack recounted some of their less harrowing adventures through the stargate. When at last they let him be, barely an hour before the sun began to rise, he retired to his bed to dream - as he had every night since their arrival - sweet and uncomplicated dreams of Daniel.
"Anyone seen Daniel?" It was a familiar question and one that Jack seemed to ask at least once during every mission, especially when it was time to go home, a 'must' on the list of things to do. It had been asked so often it had become part of the routine: load up F.R.E.D... send the M.A.L.P. through the gate... round up one wandering archaeologist who had once again lost track of time... Jack bit back a grin, knowing that no mission would feel complete without at least one game of 'hunt the archaeologist'.
Carter glanced up from her work. "Last I heard he was heading for the lake. Want me to go find him, sir?"
"No..." Jack tossed his coat down on a packing case. "That would be my job. You and Teal'c finish up - whatever it is you're doing."
"Just labelling the last of the samples, sir." She held up a small vial of thick, brownish liquid. "Chellos, one of the extracts they use in the wine. It's got some pretty amazing properties."
Jack didn't need her to remind him of how potent the wine was, the little man with the sledgehammer was doing fine all by himself. Last night had proved that the Trectaaran's were just as adept at throwing 'farewell' parties as they were 'welcome' parties, the only difference being that the former seemed to last a lot longer. It had been dawn by the time he crawled back to his tent.
"It certainly does, Major." He scrubbed an unsteady hand across his face. The sweet dreams of Daniel, brought on by the wine, were all very well but the punch it packed brought a whole new meaning to the 'morning after the night before'. The truly amazing thing was the way he had gone back for more. Every night. That alone had to tell him something about the state of his mind.
Carter was rummaging amongst the flasks and petrii dishes in the box: locating a small lidded pot, about the size of a thirty-five millimetre film canister, she emptied several small black, bead-like seeds into her palm and held them out to him.
"Chellos seeds. According to Lalia, they're great for pain relief, like headache, toothache..." She paused, throwing him a sparkling grin that was totally devoid of sympathy. "Hangover."
"Dammit! I am not hung over!" he protested.
"No sir, of course not..." To hear her was to believe that the thought had never entered her head. "But try them anyway. They're better than anything you can get from the pharmacy back home. Think of it as the - hair of the dog..."
"If you say so," he muttered. He looked at the seeds clinging to the dampness of his palm. They looked like dried 'petit pois', the outer skin shrivelled and hard. Given the state of health general amongst the Trectaarans, it seemed improbable that the seeds would do him any harm. He sighed. "Okay, what do I do with them?"
"Just - chew them. They're quite harmless, Colonel."
"Can I get that in writing?" He continued to stare at the seeds, almost as if he was waiting for them to come to life and do something completely gross, like burrowing into his skin - like the bugs in that movie Daniel had dragged him along to a couple of months back. He shuddered: big, blue, shiny... bugs.
"Chew them," he muttered to nobody in particular.
"Yes sir." She was laughing, but it was the kind, companionable laughter of a friend, not intended to mock him for his reticence.
As soon as he crushed them between his teeth, the seeds released the most wonderful flavour that carried him right back to his childhood days. Cinnamon, liquorice... molasses... treacle toffee... He found himself instantly back in his grandmother's kitchen, amongst all the wonderful treats that had been created there every Christmas.
"I guess it's working," Carter smirked.
"You're smiling, sir."
He mumbled something in response that really wasn't very polite, refusing to admit that the pounding through his temples was already starting to fade. No way would he give her that much satisfaction.
The path to the lake was familiar now and, reiterating his order for them to pack up ready to leave, he headed out at a brisk pace, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face, the soft breeze that danced across his skin and ruffled his hair. He could get used to living like this and he had to remind himself, sadly, that they were going home to a Colorado winter and lord alone knew when they were likely to see weather like this again.
The seeds had been ground to a soft pulp now and his headache had diminished to a dull niggle somewhere in the back of his skull. The little man with the hammer had apparently fallen asleep on the job and the serpentine crawling feeling in his stomach was now no more than a mild discomfort, like a bad case of gas. Best of all, now that his disclaimed hangover had gone, he was able to recall with wonderful clarity the fine details of the previous night's dream. Blushing furiously, he wondered what Daniel's reaction would be, were he to discover that he had taken a starring role in one of Jack's erotic fantasies. He doubted his friend would be enamoured of the idea.
Arriving at the lake, he expected to find Daniel making a last dive before they left the planet. It had taken Hammond the better part of a day to come up with all the equipment necessary for an underwater exploration and Daniel had practically had to sign a declaration - in blood - that he knew what he was doing. But they got there in the end and in the days since had been down two, sometimes three, times a day. Hard work, but it had been worth it. Although the connection to the Ancients had yet to be proved, the archaeology that Daniel had been able to retrieve had established the remains of a small but advanced settlement of non-Trectaarans in the area now engulfed by the lake. Ornate buildings, colonnaded streets, some almost intact despite the violence of the earthquake that had driven the inhabitants away. Even Jack had been drawn into the excitement of it all, willingly hauling baskets of rocks to the surface and generally assuming the role of Daniel's 'gofer' as the younger man examined, sorted, catalogued, deciphered throughout the long Trectaaran day.
Yet there was something else about the lake that drew Daniel to it, more than the wealth of archaeology concealed by the dark waters. Jack had often found him there after the day's work had ended, slipping away for a quiet swim before the evening's feasting began. Daniel always swam nude at those times, and Jack would hide behind a tree to watch him, enjoying the gleam of sunset on the golden skin, the powerful way his arms scythed the water, speeding him across the surface one moment, carrying him deep beneath it in the next, emerging looking like a baby seal, tawny hair plastered to his skull. This was Daniel at play, relaxed, enjoying the simple pleasure, free of any demands or expectations.
On this occasion, however, Daniel had forsaken the water and was instead sitting on a mossy bank, at a place where it rose steeply up from the water's edge. The heavy field coat, donned in readiness for their journey home, had been cast aside in deference to the heat, leaving him in the black tee that, to Jack's satisfaction, showed off his modest musculature to perfection. Back resting against the trunk of an aged tree, he had drawn his knees to his chest and encircled them with his arms, a pose that was as compact and controlled as the man himself could be, and yet Jack could sense that he was totally relaxed and at peace within himself, lost in his own world of thought. His glasses were nowhere to be seen - Jack had noticed that he wore them less and less these days - and, as he raised his head to look out across the sparkling water, Jack caught his breath at the look of rapture - there was no other word to describe it - that transformed the face he knew so well, softening the features and smoothing out the lines of tension that had encroached there during the four years Jack had known him. Even though only eight or so years separated them in age, Jack had always thought of Daniel as being a lot younger; now he seemed younger still, a childlike presence clinging to him as he absorbed the pleasure of his last moments here.
Taking his own pleasure in Daniel's unguarded vigil, Jack took the opportunity for a little more covert observation, leaning his shoulder against the tree where he would be hidden by the overhanging branches. He wished he had a camera handy to capture the moment and give him something more than a transient memory to turn to in times of need and loneliness - times that seemed to hound him with increasing frequency these days. They were a team, SG1, they worked closely together, his military 'family', but in the back of his mind there was always the knowledge that at the end of the day he would go home alone, to an empty house and dinner for one. They were all the same - him, Teal'c, Daniel, Sam. Alone. It wasn't right and it certainly wasn't fair, but it was the way things had to be. Still, he envied those who had someone waiting for them at home, a smile across the dinner table, a warm body to curl around at night.
Daniel shifted, leaning an elbow on his knee and resting his head against his hand, and Jack wondered in which direction that restless mind had chosen to wander this time. The world still had so much to offer Daniel Jackson, things that could still surprise and astound him, even at thirty-five - an age at which many men were becoming jaded and indifferent. He doubted that would ever happen to Daniel. Even at the very end of his life there would probably be something in the experience that he would describe as 'amazing'.
He could have stood there for hours, watching this fascinating man, and surely would have done - had his radio not shattered the stillness with a burst of static and Carter's voice informing him that Brotar and Naacep had arrived at the campsite to bid them farewell.
Daniel's head whipped around at the intrusion and his face flooded with colour.
"Ah... Jack... I didn't - um - see you... there..."
Cringing, Jack thumbed the transmit button. "Affirmative, Major. Introduce our hosts to some Tau'ri hospitality and tell them we'll be there in five." The order given and acknowledged, he impulsively flipped the 'off' switch, certain that Carter could deal with any unforeseen eventualities on her own for a few minutes more.
"Sorry 'bout that," he said, side-stepping cautiously down the bank to Daniel's side. "Didn't mean to startle you."
"My fault," Daniel apologised. "I lost track of time. As usual..." he added, a look of remorse fluttering across his features.
Sensing his discomfort, Jack returned the shy smile with one of understanding as he nodded towards the spectacular view. "I'm not surprised. Gonna miss this place myself."
"It is quite - something."
"You can say that again. Maybe we should get Kovacek to negotiate some vacation time here for weary SG teams."
Conveniently forgetting the fact that Brotar was waiting for them, he eased himself down onto the bank, allowing his shoulder to brush against Daniel's as he did so. "There's a spot like this up in Minnesota, near my grandfather's cabin. Used to spend hours up there in the summer when I was a kid."
"I thought you grew up in Chicago,"
"I did, but my grandpa lives in Minnesota so I spent almost all of my school vacations with him. There's this old tree, with this really big branch that overhangs the lake - I mean real big..." He pantomimed with his hands, holding them a couple of feet apart. "I'd take my lunch and climb up in there, and just - sit and think things through, try to work stuff out in my head, like what I wanted to do with my life. You know?"
Daniel's lips curved into a knowing smile and he made a soft sound of amusement. "With me it was a rock out in the middle of nowhere, or the top of a sand dune at the edge of the desert. I'd sit up there and watch the sun go down, think about my parents and if they'd approve of the choices I'd made. Of course, I'd always let the time slip away from me, and one of the workers would have to come out with a torch to find me and guide me back, which annoyed the hell out of whoever was running the dig, and he'd start yelling at everyone..." He chuckled softly at the memories, his bottom lip nipped between his teeth in that shy little mannerism that made Jack tingle right down to his toes.
"Sounds like you had a good childhood," Jack remarked, surprised at the revelation. Somehow he had always imagined that, having been orphaned at such a young age, Daniel's life would have been tormented by misery and feelings of abandonment.
"Good?" The chuckle became a full-blown laugh. "I had a great childhood, Jack!"
"Really?" Jack was surprised: had the death of his parents meant so little to Daniel, he wondered.
"Yes. Well, okay, the first few years after my parents died were - difficult, for a lot of reasons. Three sets of foster parents in two years..."
"Tough kid, huh?"
"Tough people," Daniel responded tartly, shaking his head at the uncomfortable memory. "Then the Harper's took me in and all that changed. Those years were the best time of my life - until I joined the SGC, of course."
"Of course," Jack agreed, his tone suggesting a measure of scepticism. Only Daniel could count getting blown up, shot at, beaten senseless, repeatedly zapped by unfriendlies and generally stomped on by every Goa'uld from one side of the galaxy to the other, as being the best time of his life. Grinning, he reached up on impulse and gave Daniel's shoulder a squeeze. "Do something for me, Daniel - don't ever change."
"What do you mean?" the younger man asked, wide eyes sparkling with innocence.
"Just that: don't change. Don't ever fall out of love with life. You see the world in such a unique way and you're never afraid to bring the rest of us along with you."
"Even when I'm dragging you, kicking and screaming all the way?"
"What about the 'science versus the military' thing? The two have been in conflict for a long time."
"Maybe," Jack nodded. "But it's the people like you, the ones willing to keep chipping away at the stereotypes, who'll one day show the people like me how wrong we are. You can make a difference - look how far we've come at the SGC in three years. When it started out, it was just a military operation -"
"- That Washington hijacked," Daniel reminded him.
"That Washington hijacked, yes. The brief was to protect Earth from the Goa'uld and to hell with anything that got in the way. Exploration was way down the Pentagon's list of priorities. You helped change all that."
"You and all the others like you, who refused to back down. You, and Rothman and the rest, are what make the difference between our world and all those other 'realities' we've seen through the mirror. Their worlds were destroyed because they couldn't see both sides of the picture. Because they didn't have a Daniel Jackson to show them there were alternatives."
As the words trailed away on the breeze, Daniel continued to stare at Jack, eyes just that little bit too bright, chest rising and falling as if it was suddenly difficult to breathe. He looked stunned by what he had just heard, and no doubt he was. Never had Jack encountered anyone so self-effacing, so oblivious to the effect he had on the people around him, as Doctor Daniel Jackson. In reality, it was just one more facet of his complex character but on Jack's private list of reasons why the man had been able to capture his jaded old heart so completely, it rated pretty high, right up there along with his compassion, courage and generosity of spirit.
He had a cute ass, too, but that was a whole other chapter.
"I - ah - I don't know... what to say..." he confessed, and Jack dismissed it with a wave of his hand.
"Don't have to say anything, just trust me when I tell you - it's true." His hand was still resting on Daniel's shoulder: shifting it just an inch brought it to within touching distance of the warm skin of Daniel's neck, in a gesture that was as intimate as it was ambiguous. Anything more would be a caress - and he was not yet ready to declare his feelings for his friend in such physical terms. On the other hand, anything less would not be enough to convey the very real affection he held for Daniel and his pride at having the man at his side, and being able to call him 'friend'.
Suddenly, Daniel gave a small, embarrassed cough and his gaze slid away, once more seeking refuge in the shimmering water. Jack understood and let his hand drop as the intensity of the moment peaked and then faded, not wanting to upset the balance of the fragile mood between them. It was enough - for now. He had given voice to some of the things that had been weighing on his mind for a long time, things which should have been said a long time ago but which his own self-consciousness had forced him to keep silent. Talking - that was something he had always found difficult coming, as he did, from a family that firmly believed that certain things, like emotions, were not open to discussion. Not that there had been much chance to talk at all, and there had certainly never been any encouragement. Meals were consumed in a strict regime of children being seen and not heard; conversation in the evening was limited to homework, progress in school or the occasional report of a sports event in which he had taken part. A quick study, Jack had learned at an early age when to speak up and when to play dumb, the difference depending on his father's mood at the time. His own thoughts and feelings were never taken into consideration, his opinions never sought, and so he had closed himself off, sharing information only when it was necessary and keeping the rest to himself.
There had been one advantage of it all, however, in his Special Forces days, when his ability to trip his mental circuit breaker had made it almost impossible for his captors in Iraq to break him. Only one man, his maternal grandfather, had ever been able to penetrate his armour - until Daniel had come on the scene. In that young man's hands, Jack's resistance was putty.
He recalled the first time he had brought Daniel to his home, that miserable night after Apophis had stolen Sha're and Skaara. At the time it had been nothing more than an act of compassion - or so he had told himself - and he had never expected to find himself opening up to Daniel so readily, telling him about Charlie and Sara, and how easy it was to forget but not to forgive. Had it only been the fact that they shared similar experiences in the loss family and loved ones, or had there been something more, even back then? Was there really some truth after all in the notion of kindred spirits, soul mates? Sitting there on the grass, every cell of his body on fire with Daniel's proximity, he made a promise to himself that in the future he would try to make certain that Daniel knew how much he was valued, both as a member of the SGC and as Jack's best friend. It was the least he could do, even if it left so much still unsaid.
"I guess - we should be getting back to the camp," Daniel murmured half-heartedly, not even bothering to hide his reluctance this time.
Jack himself stifled a sigh that was full of regret. He could happily spend the rest of his days here, surrounded by the beauty of the place and the innocence of the Trectaarans - as long as he had Daniel to share it with him. But the archaeologist was right, if they delayed any longer Sam and Teal'c were sure to come looking for them.
"Yeah, I guess," he grouched, rolling to his feet and reaching a hand down to assist Daniel to his, pleased when warm, dry fingers wrapped willingly around his own, grateful for the contact as Daniel hauled himself up, stretching his cramped limbs.
Dusting themselves down, the two men climbed back up the slope to the path that would take them back to the stargate. Their impromptu 'vacation', cunningly disguised as a mission, was at an end and it was time to head back through the gate, to the reality of a life that denied them the expression of their true feelings. Jack felt a desperate need to do something that might preserve the closeness that had grown between them in the last few days and found himself searching for a solution. Back through the gate, med-check, shower, debrief, then home...
"You want to go out for dinner tonight?" he heard himself ask. Daniel shrugged.
"That depends on what you mean by dinner."
"I was thinking maybe - Italian?"
"You mean pizza?"
Jack huffed. "No, as a matter of fact, I was thinking more about that new restaurant - the one near the museum."
"Really? I hear that's a pretty classy place." Daniel's eyes widened, and not without cause. In the six months since it had opened, Galliano's had risen to become one of the top five best places to eat in Colorado Springs. To Jack's amusement, it took Daniel all of five seconds to come to a decision. "Sure. Italian sounds - good."
"Great." Jack enthused. "Soon as we get back I'll call and make a reservation."
"For - two?" The hesitant question and the shy smile that came with it, that tipped Daniel's ears with a faint blush, made Jack catch his breath. How fine was the line between two friends having dinner together and two people out on a date? And was it a line that Daniel was inviting him to cross?
But he had to be sure, and so he said "I was planning on just the two of us, unless you want to ask the others along? Make a night of it..."
"No!" Daniel barked the denial, his urgency making Jack's heart skip into his throat. More controlled, he repeated. "No, Jack, not this time. Dinner for two would be - fine."
"O-kay." he found himself struggling to match the calm tone, even though the romantic in him wanted to punch the air for joy and shout it from the tops of the trees above their heads. "Just - you and me then."
A smile teased Daniel's lips - "Good" - as he scratched his cheek with his thumbnail. "You could... leave your car at my place and we could... take a cab? I hear the wine there is... not to be missed. Not as good as here, of course, but..."
But a few glasses would be more than a good enough reason for me to stay over at your place, Jack concluded silently, wondering when his friend had become so devious. Just what are you planning here, Danny-boy?
"Sounds like a plan," he agreed casually. "Table for - what? - eight o'clock?"
"Don't you mean twenty-hundred hours?" Daniel teased, this time making Jack laugh out loud.
"You've been practising."
"Sam - took me in hand. She said three years was long enough for anybody to learn. Come at seven?"
That last request, thrown so casually into the conversation that Jack almost missed it, sent a prickle of anticipation over the colonel's skin. What the heck was Daniel up to? A cab ride to the restaurant would take fifteen minutes, tops, so Jack had to ask himself how Daniel was planning to fill the other forty-five minutes. And then there was Daniel's attitude, softly spoken, teasing, those little sidelong looks. Damn! If he didn't know better, he might almost think Daniel was... Flirting with me? He swallowed hard and scrubbed a distracted hand over his mouth. This was starting to get serious. Either Daniel had picked up on Jack's hidden desires - though how, Jack had no idea - and was making fun of him over them or... Daniel was interested. But surely, that wasn't possible... Was it?
"Ummm... Seven it is then," he replied, as innocuously as he could, making a mental note to throw an overnight bag in his car, telling himself it never hurt to be prepared.
Switching on his radio again, the thumbed the button. "Carter?"
"Colonel? We were starting to get - concerned. Is everything okay, sir?"
Jack rolled his eyes, making Daniel snigger. "Relax, Major, we're on our way. Apologise to Brotar for me." He waited until she had acknowledged the instruction, then turned to Daniel. "Guess that's it."
"Guess so." he looked like a kid on the last day of camp, reluctant to leave all the good stuff behind.
"We'll come back. Soon. I meant what I said about talking Hammond into a full scale exploration."
"I know... But he'll probably give it to Robert and SG11..." The note of defeat in his voice made Jack prickle. It was about time Daniel started getting some of the rewards of his own efforts.
"Not if I have anything to say about it, they won't. This is your show, Danny, and I plan on making sure folks realise that. Okay?"
A nod - "Okay" - a smile of gratitude that had Jack's skin tingling once more.
They set off again and were almost through the trees when Daniel came to an abrupt halt, calling the colonel's name in a way that was more request than warning of an imminent threat and so Jack responded in kind, turning slowly to look at him, finding in the blue eyes a look of such melting sweetness it made him ache inside.
"Problem?" he asked, dry-mouthed. Daniel shook his head.
"I just wanted to say 'thank you' for - the things you said back there. It means a lot to me, Jack."
"Yeah?" Jack had not expected that. It had never occurred to him that Daniel might value his opinion so highly. "Guess I should say it more often, huh?"
Hands planted on his hips, Daniel dropped his gaze to the dirt track and shook his head. "We both know how difficult it is for you to express - feelings." The flick of a questioning brow won a grudging nod of agreement from the colonel. Jack, no doubt, would have said that vocalising his emotions was next to impossible, although Daniel did have a certain advantage. "The fact you said it at all makes it so much more - meaningful to me."
Awash with sentiment, that in another time and place would have made him nauseous, Jack took a step closer to him. The joking was done now, this was all serious. "Then I'm glad I told you. You do know I meant every word?"
"Especially the bit about never changing. SG1 wouldn't be half the team we are without you."
"Jack - "
"It's not open for debate, Danny," Jack silenced him before the protest on his lips could take form. "Just accept it as a fact, okay?"
A nod of assent. "Okay."
"Good. Now, we better get our tails back to the gate, before Carter comes looking. I don't know about you, but I don't want one pissed-off major riding my case for the rest of the day."
They broke through the trees together and entered the clearing in time to see the MALP crawl through the event horizon. Carter and Teal'c were waiting for them on the steps, with Brotar and Naacep. The Jaffa was wearing his familiar stoic expression but the look on the major's face betrayed that, while she was pleased to be on her way home, there was a part of her that would regret leaving Trectaar. This was one of those rare occasions where a mission had brought only good feelings, sweet memories and some very positive discoveries. Nobody had been hurt, or captured, or killed, or made to take part in any strange native rituals and, as if that wasn't enough, they were going home with a whole heap of stuff to keep the boffins at Nellis happy for the next year or three. All in all, the mission could be regarded as an unqualified success.
"Colonel..." Carter acknowledged as she caught sight of them. Her eyes asked the question - was there some problem she needed to know about - and he answered her with a flick of his brow, telling her that her concern was misplaced, all was fine.
"Carter. All ready to go, I see," he observed, eyeing the BDUs, the back pack, the machine pistol cradled in her hands. Not for the first time he wondered why she made such a big deal of hiding the woman beneath the uniform.
"We were getting - concerned, Colonel."
"Oh we were, were we?" he sighed, glanced across at Teal'c, who signalled his response with a twitch of his brows. Teal'c clearly had not been in the least concerned about their delay. Turning next to their hosts, he found two pairs of green eyes laughing at them and he decided he really did like Brotar and his family. They were his kind of people.
"Brotar... Naacep... My apologies. Daniel and I got to talking about what's under the lake and I lost track of the time."
The Trectaaran gave a small bow, no more than a deep nod. "An apology is unnecessary, Jack. You are welcome to stay for as long as you wish."
"And I, for one, wish that could be a long time, my friend," Jack confessed. "You have a beautiful world, Brotar. I hope we can work together to keep it that way."
"If SG1 is truly representative of the Tau'ri, then I am sure that we can." He held out his hand to Jack, who shook it firmly. "Safe journey - all of you. We look forward to your return."
"Soon, I promise. Between you and me, Daniel'd kill me if I don't get him back here pretty damn quick..." And not just for the archaeology, he added to himself.
Hands were shaken, 'goodbyes' said. The men of SG1 hauled off, watching with amusement as Naacep wrapped Carter in a fierce hug and Jack made a mental note to quiz the major about just what kind of experiments she and the young Trectaaran had been working on. He thought only Martouf and Nareem could make her blush that way.
As they stepped up to the gate together, Sam and Teal'c falling in at either side, Jack glanced across at Daniel, saw the smile in his eyes and the curve of contentment on his lips, and gave a little self-satisfied grin of his own. Not only had the mission been successful but something else had been born here, something private between himself and Daniel that hinted at rewards far greater than he had ever hoped for.
"Colonel?" Carter sounded puzzled. Well, let her be. "Is everything okay, sir?"
"Everything's fine, Major - isn't it, Daniel?"
"Huh?" Daniel blinked his way back from his own reverie. "Oh - yes - Everything's fine..." and he turned to Jack with another of those bone-melting smiles that left Jack weak at the knees. "Can we please do this?" he asked pointedly, sweeping a hand towards the event horizon. "I'm starving..."
Clamping his teeth together to stop his jaw from dropping, Jack took a slow look around the group, gathering them all in: Teal'c Daniel, Cater - his team, his family. His friends. What more could any man ask?
"Okay kids," he said briskly, falling back into the protective comfort of normality. "Let's go home."
This is your life
Don't play hard to get
It's a free world
All you have to do is fall in love
Play the game, everybody play the game of love.