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It’s funny, actually — he remembers having a thought, don’t they prohibit people with marks from working in programs like this?, when Catherine first tracked him down, but it had been one thought of several thousand assailing his brain at once, and by the time things had slowed down enough to give it any more thought, well. The situation had resolved itself, in a manner of speaking.

Later — a year and change later; a lifetime and change later — he asks Sam about it. It’s one of their nights off, out at a bar while it’s still early enough in the evening it’s safe to decompress in public, and Teal’c and Jack are standing over by the dartboard, and he thinks, the hell with it, just ask, and then he just asks. “Hey, Sam,” he says, and when she looks over at him he leans in a little closer, more for the conspiratorial effect than anything else, and says, “does the military prohibition on people with marks not actually exist? Am I imagining it?” More for his own peace of mind than anything, at this point; effectively speaking, clearly the question’s moot.

Something crosses her face, there and gone in half a second, and then she grins at him and shakes her head. “Nah, that’s just a weird rumor. There’s probably just about the same ratio of people with marks to people without them working with us as there would be out in the rest of the world.” She shrugs, has a drink of her beer. “Actually I’m not even sure where that rumor came from. But, you know. Things like that don’t take much to stick, true or false.”

“Fair enough,” he says, nodding, not sure what to say now. He kind of regrets bringing it up, actually. It’s not like it’s unusual for a person not to have a soulmark — all the figures he’s found have put the odds of having one at pretty much 50/50 — but sometimes talking about them can make people feel awkward, one way or the other. He’s been through a lot with his team at this point, but there’s always what he thinks of as hidden awkwardness triggers no matter who he talks to, just a function of existence, and he’d hate to have tripped one of them from nothing more than carelessness.

She must see something of his internal struggle on his face — he’s sure he’s easier to read than she is — because now she leans in, clinks her bottle against his gently, takes another drink. “Hey, no hard feelings, okay? You asked me because it occurred to you and because you trust me. I appreciate the everyday trust a lot more than you’d ever ruffle my feathers asking about them. And, you know, in some ways it’s nice.” She sets her beer down, takes her watch off, shows him the undersides of both her wrists. “I can wear my watch on whichever wrist I want to, Daniel. I can have a watchband of whatever size I want, whatever style I want, and wear it on whichever wrist I want without having to worry about covering something up. Really,” and she grins again, “it’s surprisingly freeing.”

He grins back at her, knowing her well enough by this point to take her at her word. Then he grabs a fry from the basket on the table, realizes too late to take it back that the fries have gone cold, and ends up with a mouthful of cold, formerly crispy potato. He can feel his face twist into disgust about three seconds before she starts laughing at him.

Still, what he’s thinking about, underneath all that, is the cuff on Jack’s left wrist, the one he’s never taken off, and the mark burning underneath his own.

 

 

They hadn’t ever heard of the concept, on Abydos, which only confirmed his prior theories that they’d been somewhat recent, although to be fair “somewhat recent” in this context was not particularly useful. It came up, eventually, when Sha’re asked him one night what was under this brown piece of leather on his arm that he never took off, not even with her.

It hadn’t even crossed his mind to lie to her. He just sighed, once, for himself, and then undid the snap, and showed her what was waiting underneath — just skin, a little paler than the rest of his arm, and the name, perfectly centered beneath his palm, that had been there since he turned 18.

She’d been concerned that they had taken him away from his soul’s mate — soul’s mate, it sounded so much more poetic that way — until he’d reassured her: not everyone from his home had one, even those who did weren’t guaranteed to meet, even those who did meet didn’t always end up involved. Or shouldn’t. No guarantee of happiness, after all, or functionality, or relationship health, or … well.

“No point in sitting around just waiting, Daniel,” he remembered one of his roommates telling him, deeply solemn, two weeks before his birthday. “Maybe you’ll fall in love with the soulmate the instant you lock eyes. Maybe you’ll be platonic soulmates and you’ll know that no matter what happens you’ve got somebody that’s on your team and always will be. But, you know. Maybe they’re a serial killer,” she’d said, her solemn facade breaking as she tried not to snicker. “Maybe they hate the whole concept. Maybe they’re just an asshole and it’s not worth it. If they’re that meant-to-be, that … predestined, I guess, then it doesn’t matter what the hell you do, so you might as well just live your life. Otherwise, you know, you’ll end up an eyeless wandering widower, and nobody wants that. Especially if you didn’t get to be king first.” Actually he’s pretty sure she’d been more than somewhat drunk at the time, but the point she’d been making was valid.

His point, really, had been that Sha’re had no need to worry about having pulled him away from anybody, because realistically speaking there wasn’t anybody to pull him away from, and it didn’t mean he cared for her any less, or any differently. She had appreciated that.

In retrospect the two of them had proven his point, until life had come crashing back down on them.

(In retrospect he can barely believe he told her all of that with a straight face. He knows that’s inaccurate, knows he’s using current experiences to color past memories, and yet he still doesn’t know how he managed.)

 

 

None of the other worlds they travel to seem to have ever heard of the concept, either; from the evidence Daniel has so far it seems like an Earth-only thing. That fact alone is absolutely fascinating, but the personal implications of it don’t really occur to him, not in any concrete way, until he and the rest of his team are sitting around a campfire talking about nothing in particular, apparently-unpopulated world silent around them, and across from him Teal’c says, “Daniel Jackson. Colonel O’Neill. What is the significance of the leather cuffs you and some of the other members of the SGC wear?”

He’s struck dumb, abruptly, sitting there blinking at Teal’c like the man had somehow spoken to him in BASIC, until Sam — thank goodness for Sam — answers for him. “Do you have the concept of soulmates on Chulak?”

“Soulmates,” Teal’c repeats, and then is silent for a few seconds, thoughtful. “No. I believe I have heard references to such things since my arrival on Earth, but there is never context sufficient to decipher their meaning.”

“Okay, well —” He listens to Sam explaining the concept, realizes absently that he’s interjecting here and there with potentially-useful tidbits, and thinks about the difference between Chulak and Abydos, wonders if the slightly different phrasing that night he explained it to Sha’re had made the meaning easier to glean. Soul’s mate, he thinks again.

Next to him, Jack is absolutely silent until he announces he’s taking first watch, who wants the second, and when Teal’c volunteers Daniel sees him nod, stand up, and make his way over to the other side of their gear.

He looks after him for maybe thirty seconds, realizes as he turns away that Sam was looking in the same direction. Wonders how similar their reasons are.

Not worth thinking about. He shakes his head once, sharp, helps Teal’c bank the fire until it’s barely embers, and puts it out of his head.

 

 

His mark had shown up the day he turned 18, mid-afternoon, right on time: J J O’Neill, medium-to-dark brown, centered on the inside of his wrist. All that told him was that he was the younger person between the two of them. He’d wondered, then, what it must feel like to hit that milestone and think, okay, I don’t have a mark, and then a month or a year or three years later wake up and see text on your wrist where there’d been none the night before.

Really that roommate of his had had a point. If every person out there with no mark turned out to be someone whose counterpart simply hadn’t turned 18 yet, if they all lived their lives on hold, they’d all be absolutely, inexpressibly miserable. Easier to just assume that unmarked meant unmarked, that marked meant a maybe when it came to one person, specifically, and nothing where anybody else was concerned.

 

 

Daniel’s halfway through his first cup of punch — well, not actually punch, significantly more alcoholic than punch, but Sam had called it that once and somehow the name had stuck — when Jack comes to a stop in front of him, deeply amused look in his eyes. He transfers the cup from one hand to the other, once, twice, and finally says, “Okay, sit down or move on, pick one.”

Probably he shouldn’t be surprised when Jack sits down next to him on the bench, moving to hold his own punch in one hand and stretching the other arm out along the table. Behind him. He’s surprised anyway, somehow, doesn’t appear to hide it that well because he’s pretty sure Jack’s laughing at him, at least for a second, under his breath. Then he raises an eyebrow, and says, “That a bluff? You wanted to be left alone with your alien wine cooler, you should’ve been clearer.”

“It actually kind of smells like elderberries, I think,” Daniel says, since the question itself seemed rhetorical enough. “Or the berries they’ve got here that approximate elderberries the closest, I suppose.”

“Well, if we were gonna die we all would’ve keeled over by now,” Jack says, and Daniel’s got a response all lined up and ready to come out of his mouth when something on Jack’s face makes him pause, reassess. Pause again, surprised at the apparent conclusion.

“There’s no knockoff Teddy Roosevelt around here anywhere, I think we’re probably fine,” he says, a little slower than normal, and when Jack makes a yeah, fair enough noise he finds himself laughing.

A comfortable silence falls between them as they sit and watch the people of this world dancing with each other and with members of SG-5 and SG-11, and then Jack says, “Nice hairdo, by the way.” It sounds thoughtful, maybe; less mocking than he might have expected.

“Oh! Um. Yes. Thanks.” He reaches up, self-conscious now he remembers them, and touches one of the thin braids Sam had put in his hair. “Last time Sam sat down over here to catch her breath she talked me into it. She said something about not wanting me to be left out. Also something apologetic about the ones she was doing not being up to the current standard, I think.” He’s pretty sure that’s what she’d been saying, anyway, given the relative simplicity of the ones she’d given him and the clear skill with which the local women had handled Sam’s hair, catching it all up in some kind of braid, impressively intricate, complete with a few flower blossoms.

“Yeah, I think Carter told me once she cut her hair short when she was 18 and hasn’t gone back since,” Jack says, nodding, and then gestures vaguely with the hand holding his punch. “Do you mind?”

“No,” Daniel says, kneejerk, not really thinking the question through, and then the next thing he knows Jack is using both hands to unbraid whatever had been left from Sam, earlier.

“Okay, good,” Jack says, voice a little softer than it had been. Might be because he’d moved a little closer to Daniel. Probably. After a few seconds of what feels like Jack just running gentle fingers through his hair, he starts doing something that feels suspiciously like putting braids back in, but Daniel can’t find it in himself to complain.

Well. There’s complain, and there’s express concern, and this is very clearly a situation which calls for the second one, if only because — “Do you know what you’re doing up there?”

“‘course I do,” Jack says, and he’s too far over for Daniel’s peripheral vision to pick up detail in any meaningful way but that doesn’t stop the smile coming through in his voice. “I’m irritating you.”

Okay, not entirely untrue, but. “Look, there is an entire tangent I could go on here, out loud, about the usage of the word irritate in the context of human emotions and in the context of everything else,” he says, and pauses, because Jack’s hands in his hair remain gentle, and it’s nice. But. No. “But really my concern is that I’m going to walk away from this with one giant knot on my head.”

He hears Jack scoff softly. “I’m not giving you the bird’s nest look, Daniel, don’t worry.”

“Okay, then what are you doing?”

“All of Carter’s hard work was starting to fall out. I’m just reinforcing it.”

It kind of feels like Jack’s just running fingers through his hair again. He really should say something.

Instead, he reminds himself of the friend he had who’d said “you remind me of my baby brother, Daniel,” and then done something very similar to what Jack is doing now, and reminds himself of Sam, eyes sparkling in the firelight as she asked if she could braid some of his hair.

(He thinks, briefly, of one night Sha’re had done something that felt profoundly complicated to his hair, humming softly as she did it, and how much he misses her. It had stayed put for almost a week.)

He reminds himself that he can enjoy something even if he’d like it to mean something the person doing it absolutely doesn’t intend. Then he makes himself relax into the warm night and the buzz of conversation and the feeling of someone he trusts playing gently with his hair.

 

 

“Jack,” he says, when he realizes they’re parked in front of Jack’s house and not his own apartment. It’s almost a surprise they’re on Earth at all, even though he knows it shouldn’t be — he remembers the funeral on Abydos, coming through back to Earth, hearing Jack offer to drive him home. Everything feels strangely unreal; Sha’re is dead, and here he is, in front of Jack’s house. “What are we doing here.” He can hear how flat it comes out, wonders if maybe he should rephrase, decides it’s not worth it.

“Hammond stood us down for a while,” Jack says, pulling the key from the ignition. “Come on, I’ve got places to sit more comfortable than my truck.” Then he’s opening the door and stepping down to the ground, and Daniel supposes he might as well follow.

“You never answered my question,” he says, a few hours later. There’s a hockey game on the television, and Jack’s been alternating between providing commentary and shouting at the players or the referees. They’re on opposite ends of the couch. He wishes he’d gone back to his apartment on his own but can’t find it in himself to get up and leave.

“We’re watching hockey, Daniel. Well, some of us are, anyway.” Not an answer — not a real one, anyway — but at least it means Jack knows what he meant.

Maybe tomorrow he’ll get a real answer.

He’s sitting in the dark, later, eyes closed, knees up under his chin and arms wrapped around them, fully aware that he probably looks pathetic and unable to muster up enough energy to either care or move, when he hears soft footsteps nearby. Shit. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” Jack says. “Dreamed I fell down some stairs, that’s all.” He feels the seat dip next to him, hears Jack breathing softly.

“Oh,” he says. “Okay.”

A few minutes pass. He opens his eyes again and turns his head so he can look over at Jack, sees Jack looking right back at him. Decides against closing his eyes again, although he’s not sure why.

“Come on,” Jack says eventually, standing up and then rearranging Daniel’s limbs into a conformation that means he can stand. Then he grabs Daniel’s elbow and tugs, firm and careful at the same time. Daniel thinks about resisting, decides it’s not worth it.

They don’t stop at the door to the guest room, though. They don’t stop until they’re standing on one side of Jack’s bed, and then Jack pulls the covers back and nudges Daniel until he’s sitting on Jack’s bed, and it doesn’t make sense.

“This doesn’t make sense,” he says, a few seconds later. Not really expecting Jack to change that fact, since a lot of what doesn’t make sense here is a direct result of Jack himself. Mostly wanting to register the fact out loud.

“Sure it does,” Jack says, from behind him; he feels a hand on his elbow, tugging again, so he pulls his legs up onto the bed, under the covers, lets his upper body drop and registers vague surprise when he actually hits the pillow. The shadows on the ceiling are out of focus. He feels warmer, abruptly, and realizes that Jack pulled the blankets up to his neck while he wasn’t paying attention.

“You know,” he starts, and sighs, and thinks about not finishing the thought. He hears a soft noise from Jack’s side of the bed, encouraging, and sighs again. “I lived so many different versions of this when Amaunet was trying to kill me. You’d think it would — I don’t know. Hurt less. Hurt more,” he says, thinking of the cotton balls filling his skull, his veins, his heart. “I don’t know,” he repeats, helpless, not sure where it was going, not sure the train of thought is worth pursuing.

There’s silence from Jack’s side of the bed, for a few moments. “All that’s gonna do that for you is time, Daniel,” Jack says, after a sigh of his own. “But I know you know that.”

“Knowing it and being able to handle dealing with it are two different things.”

It seems like Jack is thinking about an answer, for a second or two. Then Daniel figures the conversation’s come to its natural end and can’t find it in himself to be upset. Then he realizes Jack is moving, rearranging himself in the bed, and then he feels weight on top of him, half of Jack still on the bed and half of Jack on him. “Just sleep,” Jack says softly, face tucked into his neck.

There’s not a lot about the weeks after her death that Daniel remembers clearly, later, but he remembers this: ten days of sleeping in Jack’s bed, Jack’s hand always finding a place to rest on his shoulder, Jack’s thumb stroking slowly back and forth until he fell asleep.

 

 

“Can I ask you a personal question, Sergeant Howe?”

The sergeant in question blinks at him, looking slightly baffled, and then shakes her head once and gestures to the empty seat across the table. “Of course, Doc, but I think you should call me Jamie while you’re doing it, or this conversation is gonna be even weirder than necessary.”

“Of course,” he says, sitting down. “Jamie. You might as well call me Daniel, while we’re at it, then.”

“Doc might be hard to shake, but I’ll give it a try. What’s going on?”

He realizes, abruptly, that for all he’d psyched himself up to actually start this conversation he’d entirely failed to plan how the actual conversation might go, and something must show in his face, because she winks at him and has another bite of pie.

“Okay. All right.” One more moment. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. “Your tattoo,” he says, gesturing to the wrist she’s got resting against the table. “Did you get it around here?”

At first, instead of answering, she rotates her arm and looks down at her wrist: a riot of blue flowers and green leaves, beautiful and vibrant. Hydrangeas, he thinks. There’s a name hidden among the blossoms, although he’s never looked hard enough to figure out what it is. Then she tilts her head to the side slightly, swallows her pie, chases it with a drink of water. “I did, actually, depending on how loosely you define ‘around here’. That’s not a particularly personal question, Daniel.”

“It might have been,” he protests, but it’s weak and he knows it. Another few seconds pass in silence as she looks at him, barely moving, and finally he gets out, “How did you make the decision to get it? Was it …” Hard, he wants to finish. Was it hard, was it easy, was it nauseating, was it everything you’d hoped it would be.

She has another drink, moving the liquid around in her mouth once or twice before swallowing. “I met my best friend when we were in kindergarten,” she says, evenly. “I let her borrow my purple crayon, she let me borrow her orange crayon, that was it. Neither of my parents had marks, and all my aunts and uncles who had them covered them up for their own reasons, but her parents kept theirs uncovered. It was the first time I’d seen them on any adults I really knew, first time that it actually meant something to me, you know?”

He nods once, just in case she wanted a response. And he remembers the feeling, actually. Both his parents had kept their marks covered, but there was a young woman who watched him sometimes who’d had a mark she refused to cover up. He’d been six when he finally got the nerve to ask her what it meant.

“Once I started getting older most of my other friends started talking about whose name they wanted on their wrist, who they wanted to see their own name on. I just remember thinking that if I woke up one day and saw any other name but Hannah’s, the whole system was broken. I couldn’t imagine wanting anybody else. She told me she wanted to go into teaching, and I had a vague idea that I would go to school for court reporting or something, but in all the plans we made it was always the two of us. Buy a house together, get a cat or two, spend our time with each other and be happy.” She snorts, suddenly. “Her first boyfriend always kind of hated me for it, honestly.”

“Jealous?” Daniel asks, smiling.

“Oh, terribly. She ended up dumping him because he was such an ass about it. The next guy she dated was a lot less of a jerk, at least. Even after I turned eighteen a month and a half after she did and we woke up to each others’ names on our arms, he didn’t turn into an asshole or anything. But, uh.” She takes her own deep, slow breath, lets it out. “They both died the summer after high school. Drunk driver. The doctors said it was instant for both of them.”

Fuck, Daniel thinks. “God, Jamie, I’m so sorry,” he says out loud. It doesn’t feel like enough.

“Thanks,” she says, half of her mouth lifting in something that wasn’t quite a smile. “It didn’t gray out or anything, I guess that’s just an old wives’ tale, but eventually I figured I’d rather have something pretty there. She thought hydrangeas were fascinating, and her eyes were blue, so it was easier for the artist to blend the letters in.”

Daniel nods, silent, not sure what to say here aside from I’m so sorry I brought it up for you. Maybe he’ll just go with that anyway. He’d known this was a bad idea, but of all the people working in the Mountain with that kind of tattoo she’s one of the only ones he’s ever even spoken to before, and the other three are all offworld. He really should apologize.

“Just,” she says, before he opens his mouth, “I guess, just, don’t forget, you can cover it up if you want, or you can not cover it up, but it’s just a symbol, really, at the end of the day. It won’t change anything about who you are, or who they are, or what you mean to each other, so don’t … go rushing into it, I guess, just because you think it might change something.”

Isn’t this what he’d wanted? A second opinion? An expert opinion, even?

What he’d wanted, he realizes, was something he could do to make himself feel less … oh, he doesn’t know. Less beholden, maybe, to this mark on his wrist he hadn’t asked for. And on the heels of that he thinks, oh, I think I wanted her to talk me into it, and wonders if he should’ve known better.

He’d been too afraid to go through with it, before, when they’d lost Jack on Edora and all he’d had was faith in Sam and a pit in his stomach. And then the Tollan had offered to help, even though it would have taken a year, and it was good to have a backup plan, but oh. Just. So many things to potentially go wrong. And as superstitious as it had felt, he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that if he got his mark covered they’d never get him back. And now Jack’s back on Earth, but the idea had gotten stuck in his mind. Embedded itself, like a splinter. Maybe now he can get rid of it.

“Thanks,” he says, finally, after he realizes he’s been sitting in silence for a few seconds too long. “I, uh. I appreciate the advice.”

It doesn’t feel like enough to him, but Jamie just nods, twice, has another forkful of her pie, and then genuinely smiles. “Also, lemme tell you, getting that part of you tattooed stings like a bitch.”

 

 

Another day, another near-death experience. At least this time Daniel’s not the one near death.

On the other hand, he’s really not sure it’s much better from this angle. Jack is pale under the lights of the infirmary, bruises up and down his arms thrown into sharp relief, and Janet had promised that he would be waking up soon. She’d been sure. Daniel trusts Janet, trusts that she knows what she’s doing.

Still. He manages to pass the time while Jack’s still unconscious by imagining any number of things that could’ve gone wrong and unnoticed, and then arguing with himself about how unlikely they all are. No possible way Janet would’ve missed a broken bone, given how far Jack fell and how banged up he is. She’d done the concussion check already. No, really, no broken bones. Sprained ankle, that's it. No torn knee ligaments or tendons, no broken bones.

No wonder he gets so much shit when he winds up in here. (Not the first time he’s had this thought, either.)

Once Jack is awake and upright, once Janet has come and gone, he manages to shut down the All Disaster, All The Time channel first in favor of resettling in the chair next to Jack’s bed, and then in favor of trying not to laugh as Jack mutters angrily about short people with too much power.

“Sure, sure,” Jack says, throwing him a look that’s probably intending to be baleful but landing a lot closer to cranky, “laugh at the guy covered in bruises. I see how it is.”

“Sometimes I think I get bruises when I’m standing still. Don’t start feeling special or anything.” Daniel smiles to take some of the bite out of the words, feeling triumphant when the cranky look cracks and Jack half-smiles back.

“Yeah, don’t worry, you’re still world champ in here. I’m just the upstart team coming in to get you a little worried before the playoffs start.”

“I was, actually,” Daniel says, surprising himself. “Worried. You were unconscious for a while.” Not the first time Jack’s been injured and he’s been fine. This really, really shouldn’t be such a big deal.

“Hey.” Jack reaches forward slightly, snags his hand where he’d been resting it on the bed. He squeezes, once, and then doesn’t let go. “It’s gonna take something stronger than a knock on the head to keep me out for long, you know. My head’s too hard.”

“Oh, no, I know,” he says, nodding a few times, looking down at his lap. “Janet was very sure you’d be fine.”

Jack is quiet, and Daniel snaps his head back up to make sure he’s still awake; what he sees, instead, is Jack just looking at him, head tilted very slightly to the side. He’s not really sure what Jack is looking for, but he can’t look away, either. After a few seconds Jack half-smiles again. “Not so fun from over there, is it.”

There’d barely been any warning before the ground had just … opened up, in front of them, taking Jack down with it. He’d just disappeared. Daniel remembers worrying, absurdly, before he’d managed to get himself moving and look down to see how Jack was, that a hole had opened up through to the center of the planet, and they’d never get him back.

It hadn’t been that bad. Obviously. No holes opening up through to the planet’s molten core. Just a hole, fifteen or eighteen feet deep. Some rope and a reinforcement or two and Jack had been aboveground again, clearly worse for the wear but nowhere near dead.

“I guess I see why you all give me grief about winding up in here so often,” Daniel says, instead of anything else he’s thinking. I thought you were dead: irrational. I was so scared: obvious, since he’d been there when Jack had woken up, and anyway an awful cliche. Don’t do that: irrational, again; dangers are inherent to the job they do. Also an awful cliche.

I think my heart stopped for a second when you fell: hyperbolic, and ridiculous, and, again, irrational. The inherent danger, after all; the knowledge that every time they step through the gate they go somewhere wholly alien. Into the unknown, MALP notwithstanding.

Also a little more of his soul than he feels like baring, at this point in time.

Hopefully none of that is showing on his face. If it is, Jack doesn’t let on; he just squeezes his hand, again, and starts to plan what he’s going to do once he makes it out of here. He never takes his hand back, either.

 

 

“Hey, move over, will ya,” Daniel hears over the tide, and opens his eyes to see Jack standing over him, looking expectant. For a second or two he considers refusing, making Jack get his own damn blanket; he checks his watch reflexively, reassures himself that he’s got almost an hour before he has to head back to the palace, and decides the urge was just garden-variety knee-jerk irritation. Then he moves over, just far enough off-center Jack has room to settle next to him. It’s not really a two-person blanket.

He keeps his eyes open long enough to confirm that Jack won’t make him move again, then closes them, rearranges his arms beneath his head, listens to the tide coming in and out, listens to Jack breathing softly beside him.

“Little cool out here for a nap,” Jack says, eventually.

“Fresh air’s nice,” he responds, and keeps his eyes closed because he’s absolutely sure Jack is turning his head to stare down at him. He can even hear the clothes rustling slightly. Instead of saying anything else he shrugs — as well as he can in his position, anyway — and a few seconds later he hears Jack snort under his breath and turn back to the water.

Silence falls between them, unbroken but for the waves breaking on the shore, and he thinks about how comfortable he is in Jack’s presence, how badly he wants to reach over and just — touch him, leave a hand on his hip or his thigh, just to have a point of contact between the two of them. Hardly a new development. It somehow feels more attainable here, though, like they’re existing somewhere removed from real space and time. Las Vegas, without the neon and gambling.

The urge to say something to Jack about it, about them, is almost overwhelming. He doesn’t even know what he’d say — there’s so much to say, and all of it’s true, and none of it comes anywhere close to approximating a good idea, and he wants to anyway, wants so much to just have out with it. It’ll never be the right time, he knows. Maybe that means it’s always the right time.

Or maybe it just means he’s a coward. That feels more likely.

“So what is it you’re thinking about so hard,” Jack says, a little later. Barely a question. He could choose to ignore it, he knows. Certainly what he’s actually thinking about is hardly a topic for casual conversation. Or whatever the hell it is they’re having, anyway, since casual feels the wrong word for it.

“Tunnel vision,” he answers, instead. “And a truly striking amount of arrogance.”

Not untrue. Ever since Shifu left he’s been torn between obsessing over what had happened and refusing to think about it ever again. Pointless: clearly he’d learned what he’d been intended to learn. No reason to dwell.

And yet.

“And how miserable Ke’ra was when she got her memories back,” he finishes, a few seconds later. There are two people inside of me, and one of them is a monster, he hears her saying.

You never were that bright.

Jack sighs. A moment later he feels the blanket moving. When he opens his eyes and looks, Jack is stretching himself out alongside Daniel, getting comfortable. Their elbows are nearly touching when he finally stills. “Look, Daniel,” he says, “you were the one who said she could change, remember? You were the one to convince the rest of us. You were the one who talked her out of suicide.”

“Murder-suicide,” he corrects, because it’s easier than addressing the point Jack is doing a decent job of making. “I was the one who wiped Moscow off the map because I knew, I knew, it was what had to happen. I didn’t even feel bad about it, either. Cold equations on a global scale, that’s all. I wouldn’t have lost any sleep, any more than I did when I got rid of Teal’c or locked Sam up.”

“Hey,” Jack says, and knocks Daniel’s elbow with his own. “Last I checked Moscow was still there, Teal’c decided to spend some time with his family since the three of us are stuck here finishing off our alien rehab, and Carter went off with Loran so he could show her something in one of the other wings of the palace. None of that happened. You didn’t do any of it.”

“I could have, though. I still could.”

“You won’t, though.” Jack sounds so sure. “In another universe Teal’c never left Apophis, you know. In a lot of them. Doesn’t mean I ever worry that he’s gonna decide he’s been wrong this whole time and sell us all down the river to be First Prime again, even though he could.”

The true measure of a man, Daniel hears Shifu say.

“In at least two other universes Carter and I got engaged. Doesn’t mean I’m ever gonna have romantic feelings for her. It’s not worth thinking about what you do when things are different, Daniel. You’re here, with me. With us. This is the version of you that counts.”

With me.

Daniel bumps his elbow into Jack’s this time, instead of answering. He’s not sure which part of what Jack said he’d end up responding to, if he tried. At some point while they were talking he’d straightened his head back out and closed his eyes again; when he opens them and turns to look, Jack’s looking back at him. There’s the ghost of a smile on his face, and Daniel realizes, abruptly, how close they are, how easy it would be to close the gap between them. To just … kiss him, one hand on his neck, and keep kissing him, the tide slowly coming in at their feet.

Maybe in another universe he does. Maybe in another universe Jack closes the distance instead, leans over and brushes a thumb across his cheekbone and kisses him.

Fuck.

This is the version of him that counts, and this version of him can’t bring himself to move. Of course; when it’s theoretical he has no problem making plans, but presented with a genuine opportunity all the removed from time and space disappears and all he can do is try not to look at Jack’s mouth too much.

Fuck.

When his watch beeps sometime later, he takes a deep breath and holds it and then lets it out, slowly, trying to imagine it’s taking his worries with it. Then he tells Jack he can hang onto the blanket and heads back to the palace, trying not to think about anything.

 

 

“Jack,” Daniel says, eventually, and then realizes he’s not sure he wants to finish the question.

“Hmm?” It’s more of a sound than a word, especially since Jack’s mouth is full of the cashew chicken he’d stolen from Daniel five minutes ago, but it’s accompanied by a turn in his direction and raised eyebrows. After a few seconds of chewing Jack swallows. “What’s up?”

Why are you here, he wants to ask. They’d all agreed, while they were on their way out of the Mountain for five days, to — well. Janet had said maybe you should all give each other some space, which was a pretty good way of putting it. Why did you show up on my couch with Chinese while I was showering, what are you doing, why does this feel weird. Or why didn’t I put some goddamn underwear on before I put my pajama pants on, but that’s not really a question Jack can answer.

Or why aren’t you wearing your cuff, because after the shock of seeing Jack on his couch surrounded by cartons of Chinese food had worn off that had been the first thing he’d noticed: Jack’s left hand holding the carton of lo mein, Jack’s left wrist bare, the stripe of skin there reminding Daniel of a farmer’s tan. Or what’s under a wedding band, some corner of his brain had helpfully supplied, but he had ignored that just as hard as he’d ignored the fact that he could’ve read the text there as he’d passed through to the kitchen for a bottle of water and the extra duck sauce living next to his silverware.

He’d left his own off, originally, because he’d expected to be alone for the evening. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, he knows, to just duck back into his bedroom and grab it, any more than it would’ve been a big deal to duck back into his bedroom for a shirt if he hadn’t already had one on. But he’d felt, strangely, like Jack was trusting him with something, so instead he’d just left it off and tried not to rub at his wrist all night.

“Soy milk is shelf-stable for a really long time as long as you leave it sealed,” he says, after he’s left the pause a little too long, an answer to a question Jack asked him earlier he’d never answered. “And unflavored tastes remarkably like regular milk, at least to me.”

There’s a long moment as Jack looks at him, and Daniel briefly thinks he’s not going to let it go. “Along with all those mini-boxes of cereal,” Jack says, instead, and Daniel takes a big bite of fried rice to excuse his silence as he nods, and Jack drops it, turns back to the television after a few seconds and puts another piece of cashew chicken in his mouth.

It feels, sometimes, like they do that a lot: let whatever passes for conversation at the time trail off, just look in each other’s eyes instead. He wonders what Jack sees; wonders if he’ll ever get a chance to find out.

Jack’s arm around him, left hand resting on his shoulder, startles him, although most of that is probably the fact that the documentary on cuttlefish they’re watching is surprisingly absorbing. He jumps, just a little, just enough he’s glad they’d both stopped eating a while ago, just enough Jack starts pulling his arm back, making some vaguely apologetic noise, and Daniel thinks, fuck it, reaches up with his own left hand and snags Jack’s, pulls it back down. “You surprised me, is all,” he says, leaves his hand on top of Jack’s until he feels Jack’s arm relax behind him.

“Oh,” Jack says, softer than he was expecting. “Okay.” A few seconds later his hand shifts down until it’s resting just above the waistband of his pajama pants. Daniel closes his eyes for as long as it takes to let out a long breath, feels the warmth coming through his shirt and tries to objectively assess their positions. Then he thinks, again, fuck it, and slouches down just a little, just enough he can rest his head on Jack’s chest and shoulder, ignores how ridiculous it feels at first in favor of how comfortable he is.

Somehow while he was moving his shirt must have rucked up a little on the side, because he can feel Jack’s hand on his bare skin, now, pinkie finger just barely under his waistband.

“Daniel,” Jack says, still soft, a few minutes later. Daniel makes a hmm? noise instead of responding out loud, and under his shirt Jack’s thumb starts sweeping slowly back and forth across the skin of his hip. “We — no,” he says, “I almost lost you. Twice. In the span of, what. A day and a half?”

Something like that, Daniel thinks, even though he knows Jack doesn’t really need an answer.

“I suppose I’ll allow that that’s excessive, even for me,” he says, after he realizes Jack won’t go on by himself without prompting, after he realizes he wants to know where Jack was going with this.

“Magnanimous,” Jack says. “I just can’t …” Instead of finishing his thought, he trails off, and then Daniel feels pressure on the top of his head, like Jack’s decided to bury his face in Daniel’s hair. Daniel thinks, you’re here, with me; thinks, I almost lost you; thinks about Jack’s hands in his hair.

And then he takes a deep breath and lets it out, sits up, catches Jack’s head from where he’d dislodged it with a hand on the side of his face and gently lifts. “Jack,” he says, waits until he sees Jack’s eyes open and focus on him, inches away. “I love you too.”

Jack blinks, once, twice.

Then Daniel sees Jack start to smile, feels a hand on his neck just under his jaw, feels an echo of Jack’s smile on his own face.

And then Daniel realizes, abruptly, that he actually can kiss Jack now, instead of just thinking about it, and leans forward and closes the gap between them. Kisses him, like he’s wanted to for weeks now, like he’s wanted to for years now.

Like he plans to do for weeks. For years.

From the way Jack’s kissing him back, he’s going to guess they’re both good with that.

 

 

“Hey,” Jack says, later. “C’mere for a sec.”

Daniel snorts softly from his place on Jack’s chest, runs a hand slowly down Jack’s side, ribs to thigh, and back up again.

Jack huffs half a laugh out through his nose. Then there are hands underneath Daniel’s elbows, pulling steadily, and he lets himself be manhandled until he and Jack are on their sides, facing each other, sharing a pillow. And then he reaches out and settles a hand on Jack’s bare hip, because he wants them to be touching, and because he can.

“So I meant to say this earlier,” Jack says, “but then somebody kissed me, and that took precedence.”

“Entirely fair,” Daniel says, trying for solemn. From the look Jack gives him he misses the mark somewhat; on the other hand, in response Jack rests a hand gently on his neck, thumb sweeping along the line of his jaw, so he’s not terribly upset.

“I appreciate your understanding.” Jack just looks at him for a few seconds, and then he smiles again, and then he says, “I love you, Daniel.”

And — well. He supposes he could accurately term what he’d had earlier an epiphany: the realization that Jack loves him the same way he loves Jack, that Jack’s been saying I love you in more ways than he can count for years now and he just hasn’t been listening right.

But there is, apparently, still something to be said for hearing the man you’re in love with tell you he loves you.

“Also.” Jack lifts his left arm off the bed, rotates it until the inside of his wrist is facing up. There’s just enough light Daniel can read the name there, D A Jackson in light blue. He doesn’t feel sparks between them when he lifts his hand off Jack’s hip to run his fingers over it, or anything, one more old wives’ tale; it still feels momentous. “What’s the A stand for?”

Daniel looks back up to Jack’s face just long enough to raise his eyebrows. “Doesn’t it say in my file?”

“Eh. Felt like cheating.”

“Ah.” Daniel nods, once, trying again for solemn, falling just as short as the last time. “Of course. Alexander,” he says, pressing down gently on the A; then he rotates his own arm, pulls it down a few inches so their names are next to each other. “Second J?”

“Joshua,” Jack says, leans over and presses his lips to Daniel’s wrist gently. “Afternoon baby, Daniel Alexander?”

“3:59 PM, Jonathan Joshua.” He ends up interrupting himself with a yawn, feeling ridiculous, but the only word for the look on Jack’s face when he can see straight again is fond. “What,” he says, flatly, trying not to yawn again.

Jack shakes his head. “Nothing, nothing,” he says, reaching down to draw the covers up over the two of them. “C’mon, scooch.”

“Oh, fine,” Daniel says, groaning on principle, as Jack pulls him a few inches closer. “But if I wake up and my arm’s asleep, I know who I’m blaming.”

“Yeah, that Teal’c can be a real jackass,” Jack says, but then he shifts his hands a little, pulls and pushes so Daniel’s rolling; when he stops, he’s facing the opposite direction, the only points of contact between the two of them Jack’s hands on his shoulders. “Now I’ll be the one who wakes up with his arm asleep. Better?”

“Not really,” Daniel starts to say, but he only manages one syllable before he feels Jack fitting himself along his back, knees tucked in behind Daniel’s, right hand coming to rest in the middle of his chest. “Fine, yes, I concede.”

“Yes,” Jack says. “Triumph.”

Daniel snorts. He also reaches up to cover Jack’s hand with his own, though, which probably takes some of the bite out of it.

“Good night, Daniel.”

“Good night, Jack,” Daniel says, feels Jack drop a kiss on the back of his neck. Thinks soul’s mate.

Then he closes his eyes, and he sleeps.