"Daniel, don't you ever get tired of crawling around in the dirt?" Lt. Winchell pushed back his cap and swiped a palm over his sweaty face. "I don't know how you can stand it."
"It's not my favorite part of the job," Daniel said. He leaned back against the wall of the pit, resting for a moment. The oppressive heat exhausted him. "But sometimes we find things that make it all worthwhile."
"Seriously?" Winchell peered down into the pit. "It'd have to be pretty damned exciting to compensate for the dirt and the heat, man."
"It all depends on how you look at it," Daniel said, with a glance at the worn stone walls, still half buried in the clay.
"I guess." Winchell shifted his P-90 until he could lean over far enough to see the writing. "I thought your job was to authenticate and let the rest of those guys unbury it."
"I'm an all-purpose archaeologist."
"Funny," Winchell said with a grin. Daniel smiled back. Winchell's smile was broad and mischievous, like Sam's could be sometimes. Daniel missed her. He missed all of SG-1. He'd been out in the field with SG-11 for almost three weeks, and although they were a particularly easygoing group of soldiers, nothing was a good substitute for Jack's acerbic wit. Daniel had a fondness for the combination of heat, dirt, food in pouches, and continual sarcasm.
Winchell glanced at his chronometer, then looked up. "There's Palmer. Right on schedule - it's almost lunch time."
"Toss me down an MRE, would you? I've got to get back to this." Daniel opened his canteen and took a long swig of water.
A figure appeared above, silhouetted by the sun. Major Palmer was squatting beside the edge of the pit. "Dr. Jackson, you're going to have to pack up."
Daniel shaded his eyes from the late afternoon sun and turned a puzzled face to the sky. "Why?"
"Hammond wants you to report back to the SGC on the double."
Daniel frowned. "Did he tell you what's going on?"
"No, sorry. Pack up. I'll escort you back."
They made it to the stargate in less than an hour. Daniel's minor annoyance at having to leave the dig was tempered with the understanding that Hammond wouldn't have recalled him from an offworld assignment without a good reason. When he stepped through the gate into the wormhole, he had more or less decided it was either a problem with translation, or with identification of a specific artifact.
More than likely, it would be something he could take back to the planet with him and work on in his rare down time. At least when he got back to Earth, he'd be able to shower and grab a meal with the rest of SG-1, unless they were somewhere on assignment. Whenever he was temporarily reassigned to other teams, he always seemed to miss his friends when he checked in. His timing was just that bad.
The interrupted thought resumed when he emerged in the gateroom of the SGC, but his curiosity gave way to a sudden, stomach-churning apprehension when he saw the welcoming committee standing at the foot of the ramp, waiting for him: Sam, Hammond, Teal'c, Fraiser.
Daniel's attention shifted to the rest of the room, searching. Jack wasn't there. Dread settled over Daniel, powered by a sudden understanding, but he pushed it away. He might be wrong. He wanted to be wrong. "Sam?" His gaze flicked from her face to Teal'c's and back again; Sam's eyes seemed very blue, shining behind a veil of pulled-back tears. "What's going on?"
She swallowed hard and lifted her chin. "Daniel, the colonel is dead."
Daniel stared at her. The words made no sense at all; they tumbled around his mind without meaning attached. "What?"
"He was killed by Cronus' Jaffa on P3X-729 - on Juna." Sam's lips worked as though she had more to say, but no sounds came forth.
Hammond's voice was soft. "Your replicas got themselves into trouble there and SG-1 went to assist. At a very high cost, I'm afraid."
"Jack is dead," Daniel said, not believing it, because he couldn't believe a completely impossible thing. Not possible. Not. His gaze drifted to the sturdy metal mesh of the ramp and fixed there. Jack is dead.
"Daniel," Sam said, and he knew Teal'c was reaching out for him, but it was too late; the bottom of the world had already dropped away, and he was tumbling through.
One year later
Jack's office was sandwiched between two storerooms at the north end of Level 23. Daniel understood completely why Jack had chosen it for his own. No traffic in the hallways, no curious visitors. No one would stop by unless they had business, unless they knew he would be there, and he'd never been there. He'd always been in Daniel's office, in Sam's lab, or at the mess hall. Somewhere in the middle of the action.
No one on base wanted the office, even a year after it became available again. It was still Jack's, a space made notable by the lack of Jack's presence, a memorial to what was lost. Daniel drifted down once in a while to sit in the debris left behind by Jack's sudden absence, but he never felt any sense of Jack there. Even the pictures looked like recruitment office fodder liberated from base surplus: an F-16 here, an SR-71 there. Jack had wanted once to be an astronaut, Daniel supposed; most little boys did. There was a framed photo of the Saturn V above the filing cabinet.
On the far wall, there was a calendar without any marks - standard government issue, and nothing to indicate the passage of time through that awful expanse of days.
Daniel never sat behind the desk; he preferred the chair in front of it. Only one chair for visitors. It looked new, as though no one had ever used it. Much like the office itself, in fact. Daniel ran his fingers over the cold metal arm and wondered if there was anything in the desk drawers. He suspected if he looked, he would find stacks of blank report forms in no particular order, or maybe assorted office supplies Jack had always meant to organize if he was really, really bored one day.
Daniel never snooped around the office. Not because of what he might find, but because of what he wouldn't.
He glanced at his watch. Almost 0800. He pulled the office door shut behind him and headed off to the elevator, past the sentry in the hallway, who nodded at him. The SFs were used to seeing Daniel emerge from the office at all hours of the day and night. No one even raised an eyebrow anymore. Not like those first few weeks, when everyone wanted to hug the living members of SG-1 and offer words of consolation. Jack's office had been Daniel's only refuge from the unrelenting barrage of kindness.
Daniel climbed the stairs to the briefing room and realized he was the first to arrive. Not surprising. Sunday morning briefings weren't unheard of, but they weren't the norm, either. It didn't matter to Daniel what day of the week it was. He'd already planned on working most of the weekend. Sam's call had been just one more reason to go to the mountain. He poured a mug of hot coffee, slipped into his usual chair, and waited for his CO to make her way up to the briefing room.
"Good morning, Daniel Jackson." Teal'c situated himself in the chair next to Daniel.
"Major Carter has not yet arrived?"
"Not yet." Daniel set his mug down where the briefing packet should be. "You don't know what this is about, do you?"
"I do not. At some point last evening, a message was received through the gate from P23-R31. I was informed of the briefing at 2300 hours."
"P23-R31...SG-12 was there on survey, right?" Daniel murmured.
Footsteps on the stairs, and Carter's head appeared, bobbing up a foot at a time. "Morning," he called to her, and nodded to Paul Davis, who was just behind her. "Hi Paul. What are you doing here?"
"Special request from General Hammond," Paul said. "Command performance, you might say."
"Really?" Daniel raised his eyebrows.
"Thanks for coming in," Sam said, nodding at them both. She stood behind her chair; Paul grabbed a seat beside her.
"Sunday morning at work. Might as well be at the Pentagon," Paul said. "It's the nature of the business, I suppose."
"Except our coffee is worse," Daniel said with a smile.
"Oh, no doubt about that. Speaking of which..." Paul got up and poured himself a cup.
Just as Daniel opened his mouth to ask Sam about the message, Hammond emerged from his office. "As you were, people." He took his customary chair. "Major Carter, perhaps you could explain why we've called a special briefing."
"Yes, sir." She pulled out her chair and sat down. "Last night at 2200 hours, SG-12 checked in on schedule from P23-R31 and informed us that they were not the first SG team to reach that world. It appears the replicas of SG-1 visited there just over two years ago and had some sort of mishap during their first contact with the natives. Because of this, SG-12 came under fire almost immediately. Fortunately, they were able to identify themselves and make a temporary truce until the confusion was sorted out." She looked to Hammond. "This illuminates a problem we back-burnered after Colonel O'Neill was killed."
Hammond took over smoothly. "Debriefing the colonel's replica after the mission was impossible because of the damage it had sustained, as you all know; it was imperative that repairs be concluded as soon as possible. Therefore, the replica was returned with Harlan to its planet of origin."
Sam nodded. "For obvious reasons...we dropped the ball on returning to P3X-989 to discuss the robot team's missions with the replica. To correct this, last night the general asked me to send a message to the planet, requesting information on the status of the colonel's replica and explaining the reasons for the inquiry." She glanced over at Daniel. Finger on the audio button of the remote, she added, "The reply concerns you in particular, Daniel."
"So let's hear it," he said, raising his eyebrows at her.
She keyed the audio and a familiar voice filled the air. "Hello, kids. It's me. Well, not me....the other me. You get the idea. Listen - got your message, thanks for keeping in touch."
Daniel winced and stared down at the tabletop. His throat tightened as a dead man's disembodied voice reverberated through the briefing room. "I'd be happy to pay you a little visit and run down the list of hot travel spots, but you know, things are a little busy here. Actually, not to put too fine a point on it, but we're in a world of hurt. Not enough hands to run the planet, dying culture, yadda yadda. We could use a hand...hands...to help out. So I've got a wacky little idea for you. You send Dr. Jackson over here and let Harlan make a copy of him while I'm doin' the debriefing thing. How's that for a trade? Daniel? You there? Listen, help a guy out, would you? I'll wait to hear from you. O'Neill out."
One long, slow breath, inhaled, then exhaled, and Daniel could feel his heart twisting, beating faster from the exertion of not breaking.
Sam clicked off the audio and said slowly, "It's a reasonable request, from the replica's point of view, and we--"
"No." Daniel ran his index finger around the lip of his cup. "I won't do it."
Hammond's sharp blue eyes locked on Daniel. "Doctor Jackson, I realize this is an unusual situation, but given your past feeling about artificial intelligence, Major Carter seemed to think you--"
"She was wrong." He met Sam's eyes, frowned at her worried expression, and looked away.
"Daniel, you know as well as I do that Harlan needs help running the planet. We'd be assisting him with the preservation of his world if we do this."
"Fine. One of you do it, then." He nodded to Teal'c. "You're stronger. You'd be the better choice."
"The replica of O'Neill was very specific. I am not the replacement he requested."
"Why are we letting him tell us what he'll accept, anyway?" Daniel looked around the table. "What possible reason would he have for wanting me to be the one to be copied?"
"He didn't elaborate, but knowing the col...." Sam's voice wavered. She straightened in her chair and went on, "I'm sure there are good reasons." She seemed expectant, as though those words would sway Daniel, convince him somehow.
"Well. That's too bad, then."
"The process is painless, Daniel Jackson."
"I don't care. That doesn't matter." Daniel could feel the edge of anger again. "It would be as if I was abandoned there myself...condemning myself. I don't have the right to make that choice for another sentient being."
Sam folded her hands in front of her on the table. And then slowly, she said, "Harlan did send along a separate message. He offered to provide a replica of the colonel in return for your help."
"What?" Daniel leaned forward. "General, you're not--"
"Of course not, Dr. Jackson. And you know as well as anyone that we can't have alien technology here on the base for any protracted length of time without sending it to the NID for study. It might be a robot, but I'm well aware that it still retains the thoughts and memories of Jack O'Neill." Hammond's voice was as gentle as muffled steel. "I wouldn't put any sentient being in that position, and since Major Carter assures me that the robot thinks of itself as Colonel Jack O'Neill, it certainly qualifies as sentient."
"It'd be Jack's worst nightmare." A quick flash of imagination: Jack's replica, torn apart but alive, reduced to logic circuits and moving parts, with his consciousness intact. "My god," Daniel muttered.
"It would also be a copy of a copy, and we couldn't guarantee the quality of the replication," Sam said. He could hear the sorrow in her voice, but the implication left icewater in Daniel's veins.
He stared at her. "Nice to see you've thought of the practical aspects of this."
"Daniel." He knew that tone, too; he was an expert in reading Sam-speak, just as he had been at Jack-speak. Maybe it was CO-speak, after all. "I have to say, this is quite a reversal for you."
"Yes, well, we're talking about Jack, now, aren't we? And it's considerably different when he's not here to defend his position. In fact, I find it bizarre that his replica would even ask something like this. It carries around an imprint of who Jack was, but it's not him. This is proof."
"People," Hammond said, in the tone that ended discussion. "I appreciate your feelings regarding the replica, but ultimately, it's Dr. Jackson's decision."
Daniel felt mute. Bitterness coated his tongue and the words dragged out slowly, thick with hypocrisy. "I won't agree to it. Sir. His team is dead. Our Jack is dead. We can't replace ours, can we? So what's done is done."
"Very well, then." Hammond paused. "I'll expect you to inform the replica of your decision. Major Carter?"
"We have a real-time communications link scheduled for 1100, sir."
"Fine," Hammond said. "Then Dr. Jackson will be there. When he's finished, Major, make arrangements with the replica to come through the gate for debriefing. Major Davis will conduct the interrogations."
A thought struck Daniel, washed over with guilt, and he said, "You don't think he'd refuse because of my decision, do you, sir?"
"The real Jack O'Neill wouldn't allow our people to go into danger if he could prevent it. I'm certain of that. But as you point out, Doctor - this one isn't human. Nevertheless, he put no conditions on this. I'm sure he's aware we could simply go and get him." Hammond nodded curtly at him. "Dismissed."
They stood. Daniel and Sam stared at each other. "It'll be strange for me too, Daniel," she said. "For all of us."
He nodded, but left the inadequate words unsaid.
Daniel dawdled in his lab for as long as he could get away with, as long as he thought he could push it without Sam sending Teal'c to find out where he'd gone. By the time he reached the control room, Sam looked a little pissed, but he'd managed to get there in time.
"We were just about to close the gate," she said tightly.
"Sorry," he said. "I was busy."
She ignored the lie and tapped Sgt. Davis on the shoulder.
"Whenever you're ready, Dr. Jackson," Davis said.
Daniel cleared his throat. "This is Daniel Jackson," he said to the air.
"Daniel?" The sound of his name, in that voice, made him shiver. "Damn. It's good to hear your voice. I was just telling Carter, it's lonely as hell over here."
"I'm, uh. I'm sure it must be." A natural empathy, a kinship of loss...they had those things in common. "I considered your request, about being copied again, but it's not something I'd feel comfortable doing. I'm sorry."
"That's too bad." Disappointment hung heavy in the replica's voice.
"I'm sorry," Daniel said again. A thread of doubt wound itself around his resolve, but he ignored it.
"Hey, whatever. We'll get by. Listen, Carter, no reason to wait around on this debriefing thing, right? You guys are ready to go?"
"Yes, sir." She caught herself as the word died on her lips and squared her shoulders. "Whenever you're ready."
"Harlan's coming with me. He's bringing some equipment. Nothing dangerous, I promise."
"That's fine. We'll shut the gate down so you can dial home."
Daniel looked out at the glowing Stargate as the wormhole stuttered out. When he turned to go, Sam's voice stopped him. "You're not staying to greet them?"
"Daniel..." Sam hesitated; he stopped, suspended by her unspoken order. She came over to where he stood, poised on the edge of the stairs. "You don't have to be a part of this, but I thought you might like to at least..."
"Say hi?" His soft sarcasm made even his own skin crawl, so he touched her hand to ease its impact. Sam squeezed his fingers. "Listen, Sam. I will see them before they go back to the planet. Just not today. Okay?"
"It's up to you." She looked at him, puzzled but sympathetic. He couldn't blame her.
"Offworld activation," Sgt. Davis said, from behind him. The ground vibrated; Daniel's stomach lurched as the wormhole engaged. He tore his hand out of Sam's and left the control room without looking back.
Sometimes Jack wanted to experience the vagaries of time passing, to not know the exact count of seconds, even milliseconds, ticking by. He'd learned not to focus on it once he got used to the fact he had the capacity to see things as he wished, to incorporate only the things he wanted to know, instead of every fact available to him.
Even so, the count came unbidden: 387 days, twelve hours, seven minutes and five seconds since his Daniel had been killed before his eyes. The grief rose in choking, invisible waves, bitter and unpredictable. There was no intervention for it, no process to prevent it. If feelings make us human, Daniel had once said, we are all as human as they are. Maybe more so, because we're already grieving for what they have yet to lose.
How right Daniel had been. How right he always was.
He sighed and stuck his head back into the cavern of tubes, metal and wires. It only took a few moments to find the problem, so he switched around some wires, slid some do-dads into place and rigged the thing up in a way that would make Carter proud. If she had been around to see it, that is - which of course, she was. Just not the same Carter. It was a little tough to get used to, and now that he was on the mountain again - like he belonged there, which of course he didn't - he didn't know how to think of her, anymore. Or how to think of Teal'c, or Daniel, or of himself.
He stared at the curved walls of the conduit. He'd started thinking as Jack as O'Neill the moment he'd awakened, and once he'd learned the truth, he thought of himself as...Jack O'Neill. Who else? It was who he was. Skin, bones and blood notwithstanding, he had the memories, the personality, the features, the habits, and the feelings. He was Jack O'Neill. And more than that, he'd diverged from the original. Become uniquely himself.
Jack supposed it would seem odd to anyone else that he thought of himself as Jack, as though he were the original, the one and only. But then again, what wasn't odd about the whole thing?
And then he started wondering what the human Daniel would call him, and he couldn't stand it. So he shifted in the uncomfortable space and went back to work.
His fingers flew across the keypad, entering a string of code that barely required any thought.
Do we think? he'd asked Carter one night, while they were camped on a strange world, one of the first they'd traveled to in their second lives.
Not exactly, sir. We process.
Like computers? He hadn't liked that analogy at all.
Much the same as a human brain processes thought, we experience calculations on the level of thought, because that's how we're programmed to understand the experience.
Oh, Jack had said, comprehending completely, and hating the fact that a string of numbers flying through his head had just been the substitution for the organic synaptic responses he wanted to have. Someone else still had them, though, and the surging envy had threatened to bring anger in its wake.
Until Daniel had spoken up. We still feel, Daniel had pointed out. He'd raised his head and looked at Jack. I feel everything now, just like before. The same...thoughts...and feelings, just...
Better, Jack had said, meeting Daniel's eyes.
Yes. Daniel's expression had shifted subtly, almost sweetly. Better.
They had not believed much in the silver linings, until then. So there were some things to be grateful for, if you could call it that.
It took him 54.9 seconds to enter the code. By the time he was finished, he'd relived a dozen missions and a few precious conversations with Daniel. For the first time, he was happy to have perfect recall. It kept him from feeling totally alone.
"Oh, this will not do, it will not do at all." Harlan's fretful voice echoed from the other end of the machine. "The equipment here is simply inadequate! I cannot do much with it, I'm afraid."
"Well, it's the best we've got. And like the stuff on Altair is so much better," Jack said. He peered through the aperture at Harlan's moon-face. "Listen, I'm staying here for the time being, and I don't want to start fading out in a few hours when the juice goes dry."
"If only Captain Carter were here, she could make everything just right," Harlan said.
"Yeah, well." Raw pain clawed through Jack. He ignored it. "Let's just do the work, Harlan."
"I am trying. But it is very difficult," Harlan said earnestly.
"You kept a whole planet running by yourself for 11,000 years. How is this difficult?" Jack raised up on one arm and stared at him.
"This is far more important!" Harlan raised his brows and lifted his hands. "As you said."
"I guess," Jack muttered. He stuck his head back into the tunnel of metal. "You're sure this thing is going to work the same way the power source works on the planet?"
"No, I am not certain."
"Is it going to keep me alive?"
"For the time being. You must keep the machine in good working order or things will be much as they are when you venture off our world. Too long away and you will run out of energy." Harlan tapped on the top of the machine. "But you will not need it forever. You will come home soon, yes?"
In answer, Jack grunted something - he'd learned Harlan talked even more when he didn't get some sort of response.
"I heard you, Harlan."
"No - Colonel..." Harlan peered into the opening. "Colonel, you must come out."
Jack squinted at him. "What for?"
Harlan made a high-pitched humming sound. "You must come out now!"
"Fine." Jack scooted out and sat up. Harlan was rubbing his hands together anxiously. "What's the-" He broke off, staring to the left of Harlan.
Daniel stood in the doorway. Like some phantom from a nightmare - a dream Jack couldn't have, because he didn't dream, anymore. Daniel hovered, as though he hadn't quite decided whether to stay or go.
Jack wiped his hands on the green fatigues and hauled himself up from the ground. There was a shuttered, wounded look in Daniel's eyes; Jack had seen it before so many times, in so many other places, but never for him. Jack thought he could understand a little of what Daniel saw when he looked at him. Seeing phantoms was all that was left for them.
The cold truth came to Jack automatically in the form of facts and figures: 385 days, eighteen hours and twenty-six seconds since he'd carried the human Jack O'Neill's dead body home for the last time.
"Hello, Doctor Jackson," Harlan said. The words emerged through that same nervous hum. "I am glad to see you again, despite these circumstances."
"Hello, Harlan." Daniel let go of the doorknob. "You should go see General Hammond. He's, uh. He's making preparations to send you home."
"I will do so, yes." Harlan glanced at Jack, who nodded at him, giving him subtle encouragement to go.
Jack stuffed his hands in his pockets and stood still for Daniel's scrutiny, aware that he was only a mirage, an echo of Daniel's blown-apart life. He tried not to look too long or too hard at Daniel in return, but it was impossible; Daniel's presence in the room was like water in the desert. Too much, and he could still drown.
"It's...strange...to see you," Daniel said finally. Even as he said it, he dropped his gaze, searching the floor for a place to lock his eyes, somewhere away from the place where Jack was. Or, more accurately, where Jack wasn't.
"Likewise," Jack said, although it wasn't. It was, in fact, like seeing Daniel's ghost come to life. He'd been acquainted with Daniel's ghost for over a year, had talked to it, tried to touch it, had felt a part of him die every time he failed.
This was much more painful.
Daniel pulled at the edge of the door with his fingertips to close it, then thought better of it. He pushed it wide open; the knob clunked against the wall. He took a chair from behind the desk and pulled it near the door, then sat down. "What's, um...what's that?" he asked, pointing at the power source.
"A little jerry-rigged version of the power source on the planet. Something to keep me running for a while." He didn't say alive, as he'd intended to, because it would have hurt Daniel, and he didn't want to see those blue eyes grow hard.
"You understand how that works?"
Jack shrugged. "Carter explained it to me once, after she cooked this thing up. My Carter, I mean." He cleared his throat, though he didn't need to. An old habit, in awkward moments.
Could you explain to me why it is I still have these bad habits?
Because you're predictable, Daniel had said. And he'd smiled, and stroked Jack's throat.
"Huh," the original Daniel said, staring at him.
Jack smiled, just a quirk of one side of his mouth. "The thing is, I couldn't help but get it. I tried to tune her out, but I remember everything that's said to me even if I'm not paying attention."
Daniel smiled. "But I suppose now you comprehend the science of it, too."
"Oh yeah. It's great, except when I'd rather not. Being smart is a pain in the ass."
"Jack was always smarter than he wanted to let on." Daniel wrapped one arm around his chest and slumped down in the chair.
"Yeah." Awkwardly, Jack rocked up on the balls of his feet, then back again. "I'll bet if you started babbling at me in ancient whatever, I'd get it now. I might even pick up languages faster than you. And let me tell you, that's a skill I could do without."
"Linguistic ability like that must come in handy. It must have rendered your Daniel's skills unnecessary."
Jack frowned. "Not quite."
They paused, a mutual breather while they regained their bearings. Daniel kept glancing over his shoulder at the doorway. Jack knew exactly what he was looking for. He had a hard time not staring out the door himself, waiting for someone who was gone now.
"Your glasses," Jack said.
"What?" Daniel dragged his stare back to Jack's face.
"I'm not used to seeing glasses on you. My mental image is a little...different. Actually, you look..." Words suggested themselves; none of them were appropriate.
"Less like a scientist?"
"Something like that." Jack felt absurdly sad about it, and about Daniel's shorn hair. He knew what it felt like to draw his fingers through Daniel's hair, to gently pull it back, to bare that neck and taste his skin. Or an approximation of it, anyway. "Did O'Neill put you up to the haircut?"
Daniel gave him an odd look. "Jack never cared about that. I always was able to handle myself. You should know that."
"Hmm." Jack started to tell Daniel just how untrue that was, but he stopped himself. Instead, he said, "You might be surprised at what went through his head sometimes in that first year."
"That's..." Daniel closed his eyes. "I don't think I want to know the kinds of things Jack was thinking. If you could just...not do that, I'd appreciate it."
"I'm not sure I can help you out there." Jack went around to the other side of the power source and activated the core; better now than later, to give invisible batteries time to charge. "What he thought, I think. There's really not a lot of difference."
"Maybe not. Except for one thing." Daniel's other arm came up and covered the first, enclosing him in full-torso armor. "You're not Jack."
"No." Yes, screamed the part of him that was still in denial about this whole fucked up mess.
You'd think Harlan could've done some personality adjustments when he Xeroxed us, Jack had said to Daniel, while they were sprawled in the grass of some far-away planet, staring at a pink sky.
I could use some adjusting. I'm not saying I'm flawed...I'm just...some minor improvements, maybe. Out of the corner of his fake eye, he'd watched Daniel chewing on a piece of grass.
Finally, Daniel had given him a thoughtful look and had said, No...no, I don't think so. You're you.
It had been all Jack wanted to hear; it had made him half-crazy with relief, grateful for such simple reassurance. When Daniel had curled against him, lazy because of the warm pink sunshine, Jack hadn't minded the price they'd had to pay.
For that moment, anyway.
"I'm sure it must be difficult for you, too. Seeing me, and all of us, that is."
"Difficult?" Jack's fingers bit into the sides of the power source so hard the metal caved in at his touch. "That's an understatement, Dr. Jackson."
A long, slow nod of his head, and then Daniel bent forward and stared at the floor. They both took advantage of the silence; it soothed Jack.
"I'm not sure why I came down here," Daniel said softly.
Jack picked up a sharp-point tool and began re-routing wires. "I could make a guess."
"Yes, I suppose you could." Daniel's voice was muffled, pointed toward the floor.
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to see him," Jack said. He wondered if the human O'Neill would have descended into pop psych pseudo-counseling too, if he'd lived a little longer. But he also knew that wasn't really it. Not at all. "Or with wanting to know what happened."
"I know exactly what happened. You didn't bury your gate, and because you thought you knew what was best, Jack is dead." Daniel's tone was tough to read, but Jack could still hear the accusations underneath. Arrogant. Stubborn. Reckless.
"O'Neill knew I wouldn't bury that damned gate. He's me. I'm him. He knew." Jack's voice had the hard edge of anger now, and he recognized the answering expression on Daniel's face, knew it so well he was sure Daniel's anger would sputter out under the concrete weight of rationality.
But Daniel looked away, and down at the ground, and Jack wasn't able to see it happen. "He's the one who paid the price."
"Yeah." Jack looked at his hands. No calluses. He missed them. "I would have traded places with him, if that makes you feel any better."
To the curve of Daniel's neck, to his bowed head, Jack said, "So do you?"
"Do I what?" Daniel's shoulders hunched and tensed even more, if that was possible. Jack had an urge to go to him and touch him until the tension melted away. But there wouldn't be any of that, ever again.
"Want to know what happened. At the end."
Daniel looked up, and Jack watched while Daniel's face transformed, while the struggle inside him surfaced in the stone of his expression. And then, it all dissolved into an open, needful longing, as the stone cover cracked and everything spilled out. Daniel leaned forward. Softly, urgently, he said, "Yes. Tell me what happened."
"Are you sure you want to hear this?"
"No." Daniel's nostrils flared; his lips thinned.
Jack turned to the wall. He put one hand out, anchoring him to the cool concrete, and listened to his Daniel's soft voice inside his head, a memory so close and real it was almost new.
Jack, they'll go through their whole lives never knowing what it's like to love each other.
Then they deserve to be unhappy.
"He was talking to me when it happened - trying to see how badly I was damaged. I was oozing that crap that passes for blood in us - the fluid that lubricates our moving parts. He fell across me when the staff blast hit him." Jack paused, eyes closed. "I knew the others - my team - were dead. I'd been conserving energy. I was going to expend it all at the end." He fell quiet, uncertain of how to describe it.
"But you didn't." The raw anguish in Daniel's voice pushed Jack to continue.
"I took his weapon and rolled his body off mine, and I took care of the Jaffa." He hesitated, then said tightly, "He was dead when he fell."
Daniel didn't speak. Jack didn't need to ask why.
"I carried him back," Jack said, almost as an afterthought. "Teal'c wanted to take him, but his wounds were too severe. He could barely walk. Carter had to help him." He didn't mention Teal'c crouching over the body, howling with rage and grief. He couldn't bear to think of it. It wasn't an image Daniel needed to carry, too.
"Is that all of it?"
"All that matters."
"So he died instantly."
"Yeah." Jack turned to looked curiously at Daniel. "You thought maybe...what?"
"I don't know. It doesn't matter." Daniel turned sideways in the chair, away from Jack.
"Hammond wants me to reconstruct our mission schedule, give him details of worlds we hit so there won't be any more unfortunate accidents like this one."
"Unfortunate accidents." Daniel drew the words out, giving each of them weight. "Is that how you think of this?"
"Hey," Jack said. His hand flashed out, index finger extended. "Hammond's words - not mine. And he was referring to this thing with SG-12, not...not what happened to your colonel." Annoyance gave his words an edge, made them careless. "And, just as a little reminder? My team is dead. In case you missed that detail." Jack stood a little straighter. "I still know how to take orders, Daniel. That's what this was. Not a request."
"You'll debrief, and then you'll go?"
Jack winced at the hopeful demand in the question. "Nothing keepin' me."
Daniel's breath hitched, then steadied again. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't come to my office," he said. "That will make it...easier." He rose from the chair and bolted from the lab in his unique Daniel way, almost in slow motion, without looking back.
Jack could remember what it was like to feel old. He supposed this moment was as close as he would ever come to it again.
Driving away from the mountain always gave Daniel a sense of freedom, but there were still tethers, invisible ties to all the worlds as yet unexplored, all the mysteries he'd been born to solve. He felt some possessiveness toward them. They were his, as much as they were any human's, but more so. He'd opened the door, after all.
He went straight home, a route he knew without thinking, and soon enough he was standing in the dining room of Jack's house.
Daniel hung his jacket on the back of one of the chairs, then pulled the chair out and sat down. Jack's house was his house, now, filled with his things, his because Jack had given him this option as executor, and because Daniel couldn't bear to sell it. Too much of Jack was invested in this space, and too little of Jack remained anywhere else. No children, no family to speak of. This place, this permanent reminder, was all Daniel had. And memories, which were transitory and unreliable.
He sat at the table until the sun had gone down, until the room was totally dark. He didn't pay attention to his growling stomach, or his full bladder, or his exhaustion. Instead, he ran the words over and over in his mind, paired with vivid images.
He was dead when he fell.
Daniel could smell the ozone from the staff blast and the stink of charred flesh. He could hear Jack's gasp of surprise, picture his eyes wide open, frozen in shock. He had to imagine the feel of Jack's cold skin beneath his touch, because he'd never had that memory to draw on.
This was the most deadly of all his sins. The most common litany, the one that often kept him awake at night. He heard it like a chant in his mind, continuous, always painful. Should have been there, should have been there, should have been there...
There was a dull roar in the back of Daniel's brain, an unending stream of invented images of Jack's death. We know you two were close, Dr. Jackson. We know you must miss him. The sad eyes and gentle touches of well-meaning staff had enraged him.
Always, in his mind's eye, he could see Jack. Not alive, as he would have liked to have remembered him, but dead, bleeding out on the ground of a planet he couldn't remember very well. The harder he reached for the details of Jack's smile, the more elusive they became.
Daniel lowered his head onto his crossed arms and closed his eyes.
They should have known they were on borrowed time. There had been so many close calls, so many moments where luck or skill had saved them, where miracles had brought them back together again. Too many people close to them had been torn away. Even with all of that, it had been easier for Jack to live each day as it came, to hesitate on making plans. Daniel had started to think he could understand why, and then Jack had pulled the rug out from underneath him.
Daniel's fingers tightened around his skin, holding it together; he could feel the grief cutting into him, tearing him into shards of memory. And now, everything he'd lost had come back to remind him, and he couldn't avoid it, or escape it.
He fell asleep at the table, head down, too tired even to move back to the bedroom. The memories were everywhere, but it was easier to rest among them.
Jack passed the time between debriefings by reading. Not that he had to read--he could absorb the information contained in a book within the span of seconds--but he enjoyed the process of reading, of painting pictures with his imagination. At least, it was something close to imagination; it worked the same way, and seemed to give him the same gratification. Jack didn't think about it too much. He suspected he wouldn't have liked the answer Carter would have given him, about imagination, so he'd never asked. It was far too satisfying to take a stack of books and settle down with them, feet up on Carter's desk, no reading glasses required. The original O'Neill had been self-conscious about his need for the little buggers. It had been a well-kept secret he'd carried to his grave.
Jack's feet thumped to the floor and he whipped around, startled. Daniel stood in the doorway, hovering there, not quite in, not quite out. "Hello," Jack said.
"I wouldn't think you could be surprised," Daniel said.
"No hair-raising instincts. They were part of the original package. Not included with the upgrade." Jack pulled the book to his chest.
"Right," Daniel said, so quietly. "What are you reading?"
"A biography of Rommel. Never managed to make my way through it before, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to get it read. It's been years since I've read anything..." Jack trailed off as he realized what he was saying, but Daniel seemed to take it in stride.
"We should send some books back with you. Maybe some of the stuff that's on disk for the alpha site."
"I'd appreciate that."
Daniel nodded. "I'll arrange it, then." He looked around the lab, which Jack supposed must have looked more or less like it looked every day Daniel had ever seen it, except without Carter and with the big steel tunnel running the length of it. "So you've been staying in here?"
"They gave me the VIP quarters, but I don't really need to sleep except once every few days...so, hey. Why are you here?"
Now it was Daniel's turn to look surprised. "Why?"
"Yes. Why." Jack's fingers drummed on the cover of the book. "I didn't think you'd be back. And you ordered me to stay away from you, so. Why?"
"I, uh." Daniel's gaze shifted to Jack's fingers. The silence stretched until it filled the room, and still, Daniel didn't speak.
"Why don't you sit down?"
"I shouldn't stay," Daniel said, too quickly.
"Okay," Jack said amiably. The more he looked at Daniel's haunted eyes, the more he thought it might be better if he didn't stay, but he couldn't seem to help himself. "Shouldn't, or...?"
"General Hammond told us not to interfere with the debriefings." It sounded so automatic. Jack wondered if Daniel had any clue how transparent he had been to the original Jack, and how often Jack had chosen to pretend otherwise.
"Which has to do with you being here...how?"
Daniel tilted his head to the side, and then the words came, as though they'd been dragged out. "It doesn't."
Daniel locked eyes with him, an intense, pain-shaded blue. "We can only cause each other pain."
"Speak for yourself," Jack said. A pang of sadness echoed through him. Roughly, he said, "You're as close as I'll ever get to seeing my Daniel again."
Daniel's face paled; Jack's internal sensors told him the temperature had just risen in Daniel's body, but he tamped down on that reading because it drove him batshit, and because he didn't want to know. Too personal.
"I can't look at it that way," Daniel said.
"Sure you can." Jack smiled. "But you won't."
"This is...just a little too strange for me." Daniel cleared his throat, then stepped inside the room. He walked around the counter, putting distance between them. "I brought something for you." He patted down his pockets and, from the top outside pocket of his shirt, he withdrew a small square of paper. He handed it to Jack.
Charlie's face smiled out at Jack, joyful after a trip to a playground. Immediately, Jack was snapped back into the memory. His son had been four, or maybe five, back then; they'd been running around all afternoon, wrestling and climbing, having more fun than should have been legal. And over at the side, where the camera hadn't found her, Sara had been sitting, smiling at them.
Not his son. Not his family, his ex-wife, his life. But the memories were real.
He waited a moment more, because he didn't trust himself to speak. In the silence, Daniel went on.
"I gave almost all the pictures of Charlie to Sara, but this one was in a frame, in the bedroom. I...don't know why. I kept it. And some others, too. Your family. I brought them." Daniel licked his lips. "If you want them."
"Yeah," Jack said. "I do." He propped the photo up against a toolkit on the counter. Looking at it made him hungry for all the missing pieces of his life. Gratitude warred with regret as he looked at this picture of a child who was never his, and yet would always be his. He looked up at Daniel. "Thanks."
Daniel nodded. "I'll just...I'm going to go." He was already edging toward the door, walking sideways.
It's like a dream. Daniel had said it, just after they had first begun to learn to touch each other, and Jack had misunderstood.
This? He'd said it with an illustration, hands on Daniel's manufactured body, giving pleasure. What a surprise that had been for them both.
No, I mean...thinking back on our lives. What came before.
Yeah. The lives that don't belong to us anymore. He hadn't wanted to be bitter about it, but it was damned hard.
It seems far away, Daniel had said. He'd smiled into the kiss Jack had given him. Like a dream, but more vivid. It's easier to think of it that way.
Not to me, Jack had said.
From the doorway, Daniel said, "Um..."
Jack bowed his head; he had known it would be impossible for Daniel to say his name. "Yeah?"
"I'm sorry, I jumped tracks. I mean-why me, for replication? Why not Sam, or Teal'c?"
Jack picked up the photo and drew his fingertip across Charlie's face. "Oh, you know. You're handy with things."
"No I'm not." Daniel's eyes were narrowed.
Jack tucked the picture into his pocket. "Okay, then. Why do you think I asked for you?"
Daniel looked caught-trapped, Jack thought. "I don't know how to answer that," Daniel said. A hesitation, and then: "Without asking a question."
And then the phone rang, startling them both. Neither of them moved to pick it up. On the third ring, Daniel said, "They, um, wouldn't be looking for me here."
"I'm just a guest, remember?" Jack sat down, smiling broadly. "Guests don't answer the phone."
Daniel grabbed the phone. "Hello?" He listened for a moment, then said, "Sure, Sam. I'll tell him."
"Don't tell me--let me guess," Jack muttered. "Time for round twenty of Name That Planet."
"Yes," Daniel said, as he hung up. "They want you in the briefing room."
"Duty calls," Jack said. He hopped off the chair - there was a certain satisfaction in having perfect, painless knees - and stuck his hands in his pockets. But he hesitated. Daniel's posture was so damned stiff, and he couldn't just leave him there. "Daniel," he said slowly.
"I'd like to...talk more. If you want," he added, too quickly, because Daniel's face became a mask again. He waited a moment, until he was sure Daniel didn't plan to answer him, then nodded slowly and went to join the escort of SFs in the corridor.
"Wait." Jack turned back, on command. Daniel swallowed hard. "Maybe...maybe tomorrow."
Jack was selfish enough to be pleased by the concession. "Sure," he said. "Tomorrow."
"Your move," not-Jack said. He sat back on the stool and folded his hands behind his head.
Daniel had been watching the robot's hands for quite some time. The replica moved like Jack, spoke like Jack; his hands were clean, like Jack's, perfectly manicured. For a moment, Daniel wondered if anything about the replicas was natural and messy, if they had done anything the way humans did. "Is this even any fun for you?" Daniel asked, as he made his move.
Not-Jack stuck his chin out and smiled. "Sort of," he said. "I'm not using my ability to calculate, so I'm playing on your level."
"I think I've just been insulted," Daniel said, smiling.
"Nah." The robot sat up and stared at the board for a minute before moving his piece. "It's interesting, this way. I only ever played Daniel...my Daniel, I mean...with all the math circuits on."
"Did you beat him?"
"We never finished a game."
Daniel frowned. "Never?"
"We knew how they'd come out from the first move." The robot shrugged. "Took the fun out of it."
"At least you were on a level playing field," Daniel said. He toyed with several of the pieces in turn, touching one and then moving his hand to the next.
"This is better."
Daniel caught a glimpse of...something...in the robot's eyes. Sadness, and maybe...Daniel didn't want to speculate, but it seemed like longing. Those glimpses of emotion unnerved Daniel in ways he'd never believed possible. There were notions of 'soul' and 'personality' flickering in the back of his brain. He watched the robot pushing a chess piece with one finger and thought: It's still him. Still Jack.
As if on cue, not-Jack said, "You're wondering about the soul, aren't you."
"What? No." Daniel's answer was automatic, but guilt twinged in his heart, and he shook his head. "Maybe."
"The other Daniel did, too. Went on for days about it. Carter finally asked him to shut up because he was depressing her."
"Did he come to any conclusions?" Daniel asked.
"Nope. Not a one. Just that there's...something. Not sure what, but something. We're unique. We feel, we want. We love." Not-Jack was looking scrupulously at the chess board. "Whatever makes human beings tick makes us tick, too."
"The Western concept of a 'soul' doesn't allow for that," Daniel said softly. "In fact, in many religions of the world, there can only be one unique being with an individual soul at any given time."
"Well, then," the robot said, and left the rest unspoken. It all worked out, didn't it? But Daniel knew what it was thinking, in the same way he'd heard the human Jack broadcasting all the way across any room.
"Why didn't you bury the gate?" Daniel asked. The suddenness of his own words surprised him. He hadn't even known that question was next in the queue, and now here it was.
"Besides the obvious?" The robot raised his eyebrows.
"You were bored."
"We were desperate. Do you have any idea what it's like not to see trees? No plants, no dogs...no life. Not even our own." He was pushing a rook around inside its square, faster and faster. "I wanted stars. I wanted...something like home."
Daniel nodded. He understood. So many scorching days on Abydos, and on some of them he would have given almost anything to see a tree, or a lake-any glimpse of Earth.
"I taught Carter to fish." Now the rook changed spaces.
"I imagine your Daniel wouldn't have been interested in that."
"Not at first. He warmed up to it."
"Oh." Daniel moved his bishop, then said, "Jack, what about...." He caught his breath and looked up. The robot was staring at him with naked grief written raw on his expression. No programmed response should seem so real, so filled with sadness. He leaned forward, caught by his own confusion; his long-ignored sadness welled up like blood at the surface of a wound, and he asked, "Does it bother you, if I call you that?"
"You don't think of me that way. I know." Jack looked away. "I don't expect you to call me by his name."
"It's your name too," Daniel said, half-convinced, but the truth was there: he was thinking of the robot as Jack, now. It always had been, right from the start.
"Well, I'm not going to call you 'sir'," Daniel said, with a smile.
"You have noticed I'm kicking your ass in this chess game, haven't you?"
"The game's not over yet." Daniel thought for a moment about his own robot counterpart, who had been destroyed without knowing Sha're had given birth to a child, without experiencing her death. "You haven't asked me about anyone. About what's happened to people the last few years. Your friends." He paused, then tried again. "I thought you might want to know-"
"My friends are dead," Jack said. His hand stilled over the chessboard, then withdrew to his lap.
Daniel shook his head. It had been a stupid thing to say, and he felt like an inconsiderate ass. "I'm sorry," he said awkwardly. "I didn't think...I'm sorry."
"It's easier not to know about the ones here who are still alive." Jack was eyes front and down, fixed on the chessboard. "So I don't ask." He glanced up; his lips twitched briefly into a humorless smile. "Believe me, it's better if you don't tell me."
"You'd rather live on memories?"
"I try not to." Jack's eyes were cold. "But I can't create new ones, so these are all I have."
"I'm sorry," Daniel said again, helplessly, and almost as soon as the words left his lips, Jack pushed up from the seat and turned away from him. In the uncomfortable silence, the base klaxon began wailing; SG-14 was returning from their latest mission.
"Look, Daniel." Jack's shoulders stiffened. "My memories aren't so bad to live with. They include some things you don't know about. Things O'Neill didn't experience. So some memories are my own. Just mine. No one else's."
Daniel stared at Jack's back as if it were a blank page where all the memories could be written for him to understand. What kind of life could it have been, living on Harlan's world, mired in the sadness of what they could never have? He wanted to say he didn't understand; he wanted Jack to share, so he could be witness to it. He had known what it was to be lonely, but there was no frame of reference for Jack's total isolation.
Instead, he bit his lip until he tasted blood, bitter and copper and sweet, and then licked it away. He picked up his queen and king, then the rest of his pieces, and set them back in the box. The game was over; it had been over since it began.
"You were going to lose," Jack said, without turning around.
"I know," Daniel answered quietly.
When he'd finished stowing the pieces, Daniel waited a moment. Jack still hadn't moved. He looked at Jack's back, at the curved line of his shoulders. For the first time since Jack's death, he saw someone who understood that there were too many lost chances. Someone who might understand why Daniel would live a lifetime filled with regret, if only Daniel could bear to say it out loud, to share it with the one person who might have sympathy for his loss.
"We were as happy as we could be," Jack said, his voice so low Daniel barely heard him. "It was almost worth it."
The words were like gut punches, low and fast and hard, and they hollowed Daniel to the core, stripping away any illusions he might have had about what his other self had been to this Jack, what they were to each other. He took an involuntary step backward. He had known in the back of his mind, in the part of his heart that had been ready to know, even when he didn't dare assume. "Jack," he began, then stopped, silenced by the enormity of the gap between the life he was living, and the one Jack had left behind.
"Shouldn't you be translating something?" Jack asked, his voice very hard.
Daniel tucked the chess game under his arm and turned to go. For a moment, the pull of connection, of subjects left untouched, was so strong he barely dared leave.
But the moment passed, and he left Jack standing there, looking into his memories at something Daniel couldn't see.
"Colonel, could you describe the technology of P44-119 in a bit more detail?" Major Davis had stopped scribbling notes, but Jack was pretty sure it was because he had writer's cramp. He'd never seen anyone take that many notes, except for Daniel, who had missed the visceral feel of writing once he was able to remember everything in perfect detail.
"You really need Sam for that," he answered, frowning a little.
Davis and Hammond exchanged a glance. "I thought you had perfect recall," Davis said.
"Yes, but...I really wasn't paying attention," Jack said. He smiled apologetically. "Some things never change."
"No, I suppose not," Hammond said. A flicker of humor lightened his expression, but it faded quickly. If Jack hadn't known him so well, he might have thought he'd imagined it.
Early on, Hammond hadn't known what to call him. It probably hadn't helped matters that Jack shook the general's hand like an old friend - which, of course, he was, from a certain perspective - and had said, "How ya doin', George?" Straight off the gate ramp and into Hammond's office, and in every moment they'd been together since, George was still wearing that wary, flint-steel expression. Jack was pretty sure that George and Major Davis had discussed the little matter of a name, because they'd been calling him 'colonel' ever since. Not that it mattered. Naming him didn't make him theirs, any more than they were his.
"Anything else notable about this particular mission - anything we haven't asked?" Davis said.
"Not a thing. You've drained me dry, Major."
"Well, then." Davis nodded to the technician on the other side of the table, who switched off the camera. "Thank you, Colonel."
"Don't mention it." Jack put down the piece of paper he'd been folding. "Since there aren't any more missions I can tell you about in minute, excruciating detail, I suppose that's the end of the welcome wagon."
Hammond nodded once. "You're scheduled to depart for Altair tomorrow at 0900."
"I'd rather not, sir." Jack had it all planned, start to finish, everything he wanted to say, but the look on Hammond's face stopped him cold. "No, sir, don't misunderstand. I'm not asking for a permanent visa. I have something else in mind."
Jack glanced at Davis, then decided it didn't matter if he was there or not. "Sir, once I shut down the power source, it'll only take 24 hours for me to...run down. That's not the technical term, it's...anyway, I don't want to go back and live forever on that planet with Harlan. You'll understand, sir, when I say that's not how I envisioned going out."
"No," Hammond said. Soldier to soldier, Jack knew they were on the same page. "Let me make sure I understand. You're asking us to let you die."
"And what about Harlan?" Davis asked. "What will happen to him, to his world, with no one to help him?"
"Oh, listen. Harlan got along just fine for a thousand years before we came along. And anyway, there's nothing on that planet to keep alive, anymore." Jack shook his head. "General, I can't go back to that alone. Please, George. I'm asking you to help me."
Both men were silent. Jack watched their expressions, waiting for some sign they understood. It seemed to take forever. Jack deliberately didn't keep track of the elapsed time.
Finally, Davis said, "Sir, the Pentagon has what it needs. But if you're going to approve this...I won't hand in my reports from these sessions until the 24 hour window has passed. That will negate the chance of interference by certain parties who might try to interrupt the process."
"A wise idea, Major." Hammond folded his hands on the table. "Colonel, your request to remain on this base for another 24 hours is granted. Please take the necessary steps to ensure..." Hammond stopped in mid-sentence. His eyes met Jack's.
"To ensure I wilt by the expiration date? Yes, sir." Jack stood up. "One more thing, sir. I'd like to keep this confidential. I'd rather Dr. Jackson and the others don't know."
"Understood." Hammond stood up as well, Davis beside him. "Thank you for your assistance," he said, as formally as he might speak to an alien dignitary.
Which was, Jack reflected, pretty much the state of things.
He wandered down to Sam's lab with his personal watchdog at his heels, feeling quite a bit more cheerful than he had since his team had been destroyed. Not that death had any particular charm for him, but this was something he could control. The idea of being alone forever - or with Harlan, subjected to his constant state of emergency - had been in the back of his mind for a year now, and with each passing day, he'd become less inclined to stick it out alone.
He would've gone off and found a way to bring down some Jaffa, sort of a practical last stand, but that was too dangerous, now. And Captain Carter wouldn't be around to help him get the coordinates right.
He took out a pair of pliers and pulled a few key wires, and just like that - his life expectancy went from infinite to finite. He was in freefall, and it was perfect.
Just a couple of loose ends to tie up.
He turned to the SF and said, "Hey, do me a favor. Have someone find Dr. Jackson, would you?"
Sam ran a fork through her salad again, moving the greens around without actually lifting any to her mouth. "Did you two read the mission schedule the general posted this morning?"
Daniel picked at his chicken and contemplated going back to the mess line for some pie, but he wasn't really hungry, and the pie would go to waste. "The missions are stacked up through Christmas," he said. "What's put us so far behind?"
"With SG-10 and SG-3 on stand-down due to injury, we're cutting down the time between missions to make sure we hit all the identified dialing targets on schedule. Diplomatically speaking, we want to strike while the iron is hot."
"Pressure from the Pentagon?" Daniel asked. He already knew the answer. Paul had told him the NID was climbing the walls, trying to find a way to get their collective hands back in the pie. Sam nodded.
"It is never wise to compromise safety in pursuit of intangible objectives," Teal'c said. He polished off the last bite of his orange. "The preparation time for these missions has been lowered considerably."
"True." Sam finally put down her fork, abandoning all pretense of eating. "We'll have to spend more time prepping between missions, so there won't be much down time."
"We're used to it," Daniel said, with what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
"There's something else I've wanted to talk with you both about," Sam said. "I've been thinking about adding a fourth to the team. Since neither Reynolds or Hooper worked out, I haven't looked at the personnel lists the general forwarded to me. I've been doing some recruiting, and I've found some candidates."
"Reynolds and Hooper were both..." Daniel fumbled for a word.
"Extremely naive," Teal'c finished for him.
"Yes," Daniel said, pointing his fork at Teal'c. "Exactly."
"There aren't enough seasoned officers to go around. It's unfortunate that we have to spend so much time introducing our fourth to field techniques, but the training program is improving, and that will give us a head start." Sam sat forward over the table and nodded at them. "I think it's time we gave it another try."
"Agreed," Teal'c said, startling Daniel. It wasn't that he didn't understand the need for it, or even agree, but it was hard to wrap his brain around filling the fourth position permanently.
Especially when he felt as though Jack wasn't really gone. He knew they were all feeling it; they were all off-balance, trying not to think about the hole in their team and the ghost in Sam's lab.
They were both looking at him.
"You're right," he said, looking at Sam. The relief that crossed her face made him sorry he'd been resistant to it, even if he hadn't said it out loud.
"Good. I'll make a selection this week. We have several low-key missions ahead, starting with introduction of diplomatic relations with Kelowna next week. That might be the best time to bring the fourth on board."
"And by then..." Daniel cleared his throat. "The robot will be gone."
"I have to say, I won't be sorry to see him go." Sam pushed her chair in and picked up her tray. "I didn't think having him here would be so difficult."
"It is extremely unnerving," Teal'c said. "And most unfortunate."
"I'm pretty sure Jack feels the same way," Daniel murmured.
"I'm sure he does." Sam was looking at him oddly, as though he'd said something which concerned her. And then he realized what it was.
"It's easier to call him Jack," he said, by way of brief explanation.
"I know," she answered, and smiled. "I do it, too." She turned on a dime and became all business in the blink of an eye, illustrating perfectly why Hammond had agreed to give her command. "Let's meet tomorrow at 1100. I'd like to go over the translations you provided, Daniel, and debrief some of the problem areas with the mission to P77-341."
"Your office?" Daniel said, then shook his head. "I keep forgetting. My office, then. Since Teal'c doesn't have one," he said, smiling just a tiny bit at Teal'c, who collected Daniel's tray along with his own.
"Dr. Jackson?" He looked up into the eyes-front face of an SF. "The O'Neill robot has requested to see you. I left a message for you last night, but you had already left base."
"Why didn't you page me?" Daniel asked.
"The robot said it wasn't urgent."
Daniel avoided Sam's searching gaze. "Thank you," he said, dismissing the SF.
When he left the mess hall, he went straight to his office.
For the rest of the afternoon, Daniel set to work on a lengthy passage of Ancients text from an old artifact. He'd been refining the translation for what seemed like months, but it was still a difficult language to read. Every so often, he was tempted to send the thing to Area 51 and let Nyan and the others take a crack at it, but he was too stubborn to allow it. It was the kind of thing Jack could have cared less about, and he would have asked deliberately dense questions to annoy Daniel, and eventually he might have asked him why someone else couldn't waste a few months of their life doing what Daniel was doing, when Daniel could be doing something else.
Daniel dropped his pencil and rubbed his eyes. It was hard not to think about Jack. Harder still not to walk to Sam's lab and sit and be with what was left of him until that was gone, too, back to a world they would never visit again.
His eyes traveled the photographed text, scanning over lines that were familiar. Some of the words were sounds he'd first heard Jack speak years ago, when he still had the knowledge of the Ancients.
Abruptly, Daniel shoved the papers together and stuffed them into his open journal, and then slammed the magnifying glass down on top of the stack, sealing everything under its weight. Jack's presence was everywhere, even in places he'd never really haunted when he was alive.
The memory came quickly, a flash of light in the back of Daniel's heart:
Jack, on Daniel's couch, head back, almost asleep; he was holding a pillow to his stomach in a loose embrace. It was a scene they'd repeated a million times before. Daniel's feet were up on the coffee table, his eyes heavy as the TV chattered absently, just background noise. Subcurrents of unasked questions and side conversations; things Daniel wouldn't ask and Jack wouldn't volunteer.
Jack's voice was rough with exhaustion when he said, "So, let's have a little talk, shall we? Commanding officer to archaeologist."
"What?" Daniel was startled; the words didn't quite compute after the long silences, the weeks of introspection and aloneness in the Goa'uld pleasure palace. "I...what?"
Jack's eyes were filled with complicated darkness. "How about if we make a deal? While you're out there with SG-11, you do your best not to get kidnapped by Unas, brainwashed by fancy lights or kids in orange robes, or almost-killed by a Goa'uld."
"I'm not the one who was almost eaten by replicators. I'm also not the one who was lost in space," Daniel pointed out.
"That was so not my fault," Jack said testily. "You're missing my point."
"Am I? What is your point?"
"You almost committed suicide," Jack said.
"So did you," Daniel shot back.
"That was a long time ago. This thing with you was much more recent."
"Well, I wasn't exactly myself, was I?" Impasse. Jack tossed the pillow aside; Daniel picked it up and studied it. "I thought you said didn't want to talk about that whole episode."
"And yet you are."
Jack nodded slowly. He unfolded himself from the couch and picked up his jacket from the piano bench. "Maybe we should have the rest of this talk when you get back."
"What are you trying to say, Jack?" Daniel stood, hands on hips, impatient for there to be a point somewhere in the midst of the lecture.
"You're going to be gone for a while," Jack said. He moved toward the door and Daniel followed him like a rabbit after a dangling carrot, trailing the threads of that thought. Beside the door, Jack stopped to shrug on his jacket, and then he put a hand to Daniel's chest and pushed him against the wall. He bent closer and said, "When you get back, we'll have the rest of this talk."
And then his lips brushed across Daniel's, and every functioning brain cell in Daniel's head imploded, collapsing under the weight of shattered assumptions. Jack's hand stayed flat against Daniel's chest, holding him still without force. Jack's lips weren't tentative at all. His kiss tasted like beer and avocados; his fingers gripped the nape of Daniel's neck, holding him still, giving him no choice but to feel everything, feel the press of their mouths together, the slow erotic burn of desire as Jack's tongue flickered over his own.
Daniel caught his breath as Jack withdrew. "We could have this conversation now," Daniel said, wanting it. Wanting everything.
"When you get back."
Not possible, now. It would never be possible again. And he would never know how much Jack would have said, or what he would have asked in return.
Daniel sighed and closed his eyes. Jack was still Jack. Not his Jack, anymore; never his, really. It was only selfishness that made it seem so unfair, and he couldn't avoid this Jack forever, or continue to act like a clueless bastard every time he had the chance to set him at ease. He'd never had so much trouble finding words before. They seemed to stick in his throat, or emerge twisted and unrecognizable, every time he tried to talk with Jack.
It didn't help that this Jack had known something with the other Daniel, something Daniel had lost before it was even truly found.
He spun around in the chair and chewed his well-used pencil. He'd done little enough for Jack; he'd been holding back for fear of - what? Being found out? There was nothing to know. He'd gone out of his way to give Jack...nothing. A few books, some photographs, a chess game or two; the low limits of his generosity made him cringe. He thought about Jack's future, cooped up on Altair with Harlan forever, and of who Jack had been. What he would have wanted; what he might have dreamed.
Daniel thought there might be something he could give Jack, if the general would approve it. What he had in mind was small token in the scheme of things, but he owed it to Jack.
To both of them.
Jack loved fresh air. Right now, air was brushing over an approximation of skin that was sun-warmed and not receptive to its tanning properties, air Jack couldn't breathe and appreciate for what it was.
He closed his eyes and leaned closer to the open window as Daniel drove them toward Colorado Springs. Daniel seemed to know where he wanted to go and what he wanted Jack to see; he hadn't asked for input. Jack was okay with it. The sun felt good, and he was tired. Already, the energy drain was notable. His motivation was suffering, and he felt like he had...would have...if he'd been human, the way the real Jack had felt after long missions.
"So where are we headed?" he asked, as he watched the world streaking by outside.
"Home," Daniel said simply.
A vision of past things remembered: Jack O'Neill, this is your life! Only it wasn't life, and it wasn't his. It'd be easy to forget that. Not that it mattered much anymore.
"When did you buy a truck?" he asked, running his fingers over the leather seat.
"A few months ago. It's too difficult to get around in the winter without it."
"Never figured you for a truck kind of guy," Jack said. "But I've been wrong before."
"Repeatedly," Daniel said, smiling.
"How'd you talk Hammond into letting me leave the mountain?" Jack asked.
"I reminded him that Jack O'Neill would never do anything to jeopardize the security of the program."
Jack O'Neill. Daniel's confidence touched Jack. He turned to stare out the window. "Like try to escape, you mean." The leaves of the trees were starting to turn red and gold. Though he had remembered what they looked like, they had never seemed this vivid to him before.
"I also reminded him that we owed you, in a way." A half-smile ghosted over Daniel's face.
"Don't suppose you want to let me drive for a while, do you?"
"Give you a special intergalactic driving permit on Altair, did they?"
"That's just a technicality."
Before long, they'd arrived at the driveway of Jack's home - what used to be his home, anyway. There were small changes, Jack realized, as he climbed out of the truck. The place needed some maintenance. He glanced at Daniel. "We just going to go in?"
"I happen to know the owner." Daniel's keys jangled in his hand.
Compassion swelled inside Jack, a surge of affection for this Daniel, who was everything his Daniel had been. "First a truck, and then a permanent residence?"
Daniel didn't answer. He unlocked the front door and stepped inside, and left Jack to follow. Jack glanced over his shoulder at the black SUV that had pulled up across the street. "My watchdogs just arrived," he said.
"Sorry about that," Daniel said, from inside the house. "I couldn't get around it."
Jack smiled and waved in the direction of the SUV, then followed Daniel inside.
The house didn't smell the way he remembered it. He was used to food smells: popcorn, burritos, salsa, beer, hamburgers. Now it smelled...clean. Not antiseptic, but lacking something. Without presence. He shrugged off the jacket Daniel had given him and looked around. Top to bottom, the place was a showcase of books and artifacts, except for the...oh. Jack's medals still graced the top of the mantel. He averted his eyes. "Daniel. Why bring me here?"
"To remind you. Or maybe to remind me. I don't know." Daniel leaned against the cold stone of the fireplace and folded his arms across his chest. "I thought you might want to get out once more before you go back."
"I appreciate it," Jack said. "But..." He sighed and sat down on the couch. "You know, I'd give up an arm and a leg if I could just drink a beer. It's not like Harlan couldn't grow me new ones."
"There must be a lot of things you miss," Daniel said.
"Too damn many." Jack picked lint from the couch. "I'm not going back."
"What?" Daniel unfolded and sat down on the edge of the coffee table, in front of Jack. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, hell. Who wants to live half a life with no one for company but Harlan?" Jack looked at Daniel, smiled a little at the stunned disbelief on his face. "The place is a living hell for me, Daniel. The trick is...always was...to go gracefully. No one is meant to live forever."
"I don't understand," Daniel said, though his expression said he understood very well.
"I was meant to die on Juna. Not your Jack. Me. I only lived as a memorial to him."
"How can you want to trade life for death this way?"
"It's what soldiers do. I'm tired. It's time."
"Bullshit." Daniel leaned forward and gripped Jack's arm. Jack looked at his hand and thought about how easily he could snap Daniel in two. The inequities of their physical forms were shockingly apparent. "You don't get to give up because you can't have what you want."
"Really?" Jack placed his hand over Daniel's and removed it from his arm. "You don't get it. The human Jack O'Neill planned to die in battle. Not behind a desk. Not in the shower. This is no different. I have to take what I can get."
Now Daniel was staring at him with a kind of angry horror. "You've already done it, haven't you. You disconnected the power source."
"God damn you." Daniel rose up from the table and hovered over him. His body was trembling; his lips were thinned into a straight line.
"Daniel." Jack stood up from the couch, toe to toe with him. "I'm not killing Jack O'Neill. He's already dead."
They stared at each other; for a moment, Jack thought Daniel was about to hit him. But the fury in his eyes shifted into despair and he turned away. Jack put out a hand to touch him, but Daniel jerked away. "You're not just a living memorial. You're...more..." The words died in Daniel's throat; Jack had never seen that happen before.
"You wondered why I wanted another replica of you," Jack said. "It's because I didn't want to be alone, because I wanted something I'd lost. But I had it all wrong. The replica would be you, and not my Daniel. It wouldn't replace him any more than I can stand in for your Jack."
"You don't know what you're talking about," Daniel said tightly.
"I think you have that backwards." Jack ran a hand through his hair. "At least I'm honest with myself about what I wanted." He watched Daniel shrink in on himself. Jack had inside information, and it didn't seem fair, somehow, for him to know so much about what Daniel felt, things he was almost certain the original Daniel had never told anyone. Daniel had loved Jack almost from the beginning, and it had been mutual; Jack was in a unique position to know. "Am I wrong?" he asked, then softened his tone. "Just tell me if I'm wrong. But I don't think I am."
Daniel exhaled a long breath and turned his back to Jack. "I'm sure you know you're not wrong."
"You can't spend forever grieving for what might have been."
Daniel stretched his arms out to the sides and put his hands on the mantel. He bowed his head. "We ran out of time," he said. "If we'd had one more week, one more mission...if we hadn't waited so long..."
Jack moved up behind him, drawn by the urge to comfort him. Slowly, he pressed a hand to Daniel's shoulder, then brushed his fingertips over the nape of Daniel's neck, up into his hair. Daniel shivered. Jack wondered if his skin on Daniel's skin felt the same to Daniel as it did to him - soft, genuine. Real.
"Close your eyes," Jack whispered, and waited. After a moment, when Daniel didn't move, Jack wrapped his arms around him and pressed a gentle kiss to his neck.
Daniel made a strangled noise and pressed his hands to his eyes. Jack had seen Daniel grieve before, had seen him willing the grief back inside, back down into a manageable place, somewhere safe and away. It was his job to raise the grief to the surface, to make Daniel understand he couldn't push it away.
Jack's hands skimmed down Daniel's body, rested on his hips for a moment; he lifted Daniel's shirt and pressed his hands beneath, a light touch to Daniel's abdomen, and then gentle pressure on his nipples. He kissed Daniel's neck until, finally, Daniel's head dropped back on his shoulder, and Jack had access to him. Daniel's eyes were closed; tears had gathered on his lashes, falling silently down his cheeks. Jack put his lips next to Daniel's ear and said, very softly: "I wish I could cry."
Daniel's eyes closed even more tightly and he turned his head, lips parted, seeking. Something twisted inside Jack, some feeling he shouldn't have, but did; some vestige of need he couldn't ignore, and he lowered his head until their lips touched, until Daniel's hand rose to twist in his hair and yank him closer, and they were kissing, and it was wrong, and not what they needed, or maybe it was exactly what they needed; it was all either of them had, anymore.
Beneath Jack's hands and lips, Daniel shivered. He moaned into Jack's mouth, a low, keening sound. Jack had never known the taste of Daniel on his tongue, or the feel of his warm, living body against Jack's fingertips. He fought the urge to push Daniel away, to catch a breath he wasn't breathing, and Daniel's mouth pressed closer, hungry. Daniel's body was shaking. Jack wasn't at all sure he wasn't shaking as well.
"You're not real," Daniel whispered. It struck Jack quietly, an invisible wave of doubt and grief, and he buried his lifelike hands in Daniel's hair and tugged him forward until he was caught in Jack's arms, held tightly. Daniel rested his face at the curve of Jack's neck.
"No," Jack agreed. He tipped his head up, looked at the ceiling, at the blankness broken by long beams, and thought it through --
He would touch Daniel until he cried out, until he growled and panted and bucked up, begging for it, until he was something more than this empty body and fragile soul from which his Daniel had been copied. Daniel would spread himself out on the bed and look up at him, dark eyes and an angry set to his lips, demanding all that had been taken from him, tracing lines of desire over perfect, artificial skin where the shadows of life once lived, and they would fuck, Daniel face down, sobbing into his pillow, shouting angry truths at the universe they'd both sworn to protect, until Jack stilled inside him, just a phantom, nothing more than an approximation, a ghost --
Jack's arms tightened around Daniel for a moment, and then he pushed Daniel away. "No," he said again. Daniel shoved him back suddenly, strong -- more so than Jack remembered, and less than he was used to.
Without any effort at all, Jack threw him down and pinned him in front of the hearth, and some part of him splintered when Daniel was pliant in his grasp. "I could break you," he hissed. "Snap you in two."
"Fucking do it," Daniel spat. His fingers tore at the clothes Jack was wearing, representations of a life gone to shit in an instant of blood and smoke, and Jack slapped them away.
"You're crazy," Jack informed him, as he stripped away Daniel's shirt, his pants, leaving him bare to Jack's gaze. Identical, he'd thought, but here was something new: a scar, across the side of Daniel's abdomen. It burned like a brand on his own false skin, a reminder that this was not what he'd wanted, what he'd gone looking for.
"Shut up," Daniel pleaded with him, and Jack realized he was speaking out loud. It was deliberate, of course; it couldn't be anything else, because he wasn't human, subject to unconscious desires. Daniel moved beneath Jack, and Jack wondered how it was possible that a machine should crave, should desire, should want so goddamned much, but he did; he always had. Daniel moved beneath him, thrust up, gasping for air, moaning, tearing at his skin with strong fingers.
"Son of a bitch," Jack gasped, as Daniel forced his hips up, rubbing against him, his face a rictus of pain and ecstasy. He slammed Daniel's arms into the ground, and then released them, and Daniel touched his neck, his face, the bare space on his chest where his dogtags should be, as though he could still see them around Jack's neck. "Son of a..."
"You..." Daniel whispered, and then he was kissing Jack feverishly. They were caught in the chasm between reality and loss, and neither of them wanted out.
They thrust against each other, grunting and moaning and teeth bared and gritted, hands clutching, until Daniel's hand ran through Jack's short hair and cupped his skull, and Daniel came, messily, sticky against Jack's belly, mouthing the skin at his neck. So different; so perfect. Jack's orgasm swept through him, dry and empty, without comfort.
Their motions slowed. Jack bent his head and kissed Daniel, so gently, afraid once again of breaking him, of damaging him beyond repair. Their lips brushed together, and the residual rhythm of pleasure carried them both to a stopping point.
Jack rested his forearms on the floor and raised himself above Daniel. For a long moment, they looked at each other, until finally Jack asked, "Why?"
Daniel didn't answer. His touch was almost what Jack remembered, almost what he'd hoped for, as he ran his hands over Jack's back, mapping paths they'd never known. "I should have made him stay," he said, finally, and met Jack's eyes. "I shouldn't have let him leave, that way."
"No second chances," Jack said. He kissed Daniel's collarbone and rose to his knees.
"Not for me," Daniel said. He traced the line of Jack's jaw with one fingertip. "You're not just his ghost. What you're doing...you can't do this."
"There's nothing for me on Altair, Daniel."
"There could be."
Jack sat back on his heels. "What?"
"I'll do it. I'll let Harlan duplicate me again."
"No." Jack's horror must have shown in his expression, because Daniel raised a hand to stop his objections. "I didn't do this so--"
"I know why you did it."
"I understand now," Daniel said. "We wanted the same things. It's just...you were in a position to ask for it. To offer it. I...couldn't." He licked his lip, then bit down on it. "How could I...not want this? Even if it's not...for me?"
Jack ran his thumb over Daniel's lip, soothing the spot where Daniel had bitten it. "I was asking you for something neither one of us was meant to have."
"No," Daniel said, voice breaking on the word. He reached up; Jack caught his hand and kissed it, pressing his lips to the center of Daniel's palm.
"It was a fluke," Jack said. Daniel's eyes were very blue. He could have lost himself in them completely, but it was a different paradise -- the wrong paradise. Slowly, he said, "There was only one Daniel for me."
Daniel's body was heavy against Jack's; his restless, anxious motions faded into stillness. "I know."
They looked at each other until Jack couldn't take it, until Daniel's tears began to hurt him like a physical wound. When he kissed Daniel's cheek, he was surprised to taste the salt of Daniel's tears. It had been a long time since physical sensation had mattered to him, since anything at all had mattered.
He lay down on the floor beside Daniel, curling one arm over him, and Daniel sighed. Words seemed pretty much impossible to Jack at that moment, so he watched Daniel's face, his chest, the rise and fall of breath and life beneath bone and muscle, and for the first time, didn't envy it; he only marveled at the unique miracle it was.
Daniel dozed off for a few minutes. In the restful lightness of sleep, the stress of his body eased and his face looked young, free of sadness. He woke with a sudden jerk, but Jack held him easily with one arm. Daniel stared at him, until Jack quirked a smile, and Daniel moved slowly, to press against Jack, to wrap his arms around him. Shaped together that way, they rested a while longer.
The sun was setting outside, and the light was low in the room. Jack nuzzled Daniel's hair. "Hey," he said. "Do you suppose we could get in a little walk around the backyard?" He smiled. "I haven't seen a tree up close in a while."
"You were tired of trees, once," Daniel said, muffled against his chest.
Daniel's hand curled into a fist at the small of Jack's back, and they rocked together, quietly, until Daniel's tears were spent.
Orange clouds cut across the blue sky, backlit by the setting sun. Daniel sat on the steps of the deck for a while, watching as Jack walked around the yard by himself. Every so often, Jack stopped and stared up at the sky, or at the trees. Traffic noises drifted in from the streets nearby.
Daniel checked his watch. They'd only been gone two hours.
He went to the shed and bypassed all sorts of accumulated junk to haul out two rickety lawn chairs. Sturdy enough to hold a grown man, he hoped; sturdy enough to hold Jack, too. Without ceremony, he unfolded them in the shade of the house and planted them firmly in the grass; an open invitation. Then he flipped open his cell and wandered into the house.
"Dr. Jackson for General Hammond." He poked his head into the fridge, searching for something that had been in there a very long time, and waited to be connected.
"Just checking in, sir, per our agreement. We'll be staying here a while longer, with your permission."
"Dr. Jackson, I don't believe that's a wise idea."
"I know about Jack, sir. About the power source."
Hammond paused, then said, "I see. It might be best for you to return here before the deadline."
"That's just what he wants to avoid." Daniel closed the refrigerator door and leaned heavily against it, eyes closed.
It seemed to take forever for Hammond to answer, and Daniel half hoped he'd say no, but he only said, "Do what you think is best, son."
"Thank you, sir." Daniel set the cell on the counter with a shaking hand. What he thought was best was in serious question. He wouldn't have dared try to argue his position with Hammond, because he could barely reason it all out himself. His stomach turned over; he leaned over the sink until the shaking stopped.
By the time Daniel got back outside, Jack had pulled one of the lawn chairs aside and was sprawled in it, waiting for him. "So how often do you mow the lawn, Daniel?" Jack asked, eyeing the sprouting crabgrass all over the yard.
"It's not high on the list of priorities," Daniel said. He handed Jack a bottle of Guinness he'd liberated from the vegetable crisper, then sat down and fidgeted on the lawn chair until he found a comfortable position. "I'm really not here that much."
"You shouldn't spend all your time at the mountain."
Daniel had a sudden flash of memory: Jack, standing at the head of the conference table, lecturing him and Sam. Don't think I don't know what kind of hours you're putting in here. You both need to knock it off. Get out of here and don't come back until you both have a hobby that has nothing to do with artifacts and math. In fact - I order you both to get a life.
They hadn't done it, of course, and Jack had given up. Daniel wasn't sure what Jack would have done if Daniel had followed his orders. He could see Jack's face clearly again in his mind's eye, see the fond exasperation and worry on his face, the memory of his features no longer indistinct. "Yard work isn't my favorite activity."
"Have you ever mowed a lawn?"
"I don't know what that has to do with anything. And besides, no lawn should be perfect." For a moment, Daniel thought Jack might get up and demand to see the lawnmower - which Daniel was fairly certain was out of gas, and rusty. Not that he had looked at it recently.
"I'm looking for an excuse you can give the neighbors. Incompetence with lawn tools would be your best option." Jack twisted off the non-twistable lid and lifted the bottle of beer to his nose. A beatific smile crossed his face. "You know, Harlan really missed the boat on that whole taste bud issue. No point in having 'em if I can't use 'em the way they were designed to be used."
"Designed," said Daniel. "That's an interesting choice of words. Practicality and functionality over the simulation of lifelike-"
Jack groaned and reached out to tap him on the arm. "Don't start. I'm begging you. Please, no philosophical hard-ons tonight."
"I wasn't," Daniel began, but Jack wagged the beer bottle at him.
"Oh, yes you were. You just can't help yourself, can you?"
"I can so."
"Then prove it."
Daniel found himself staring at Jack's features in the dimming light, examining every aspect of his face, from his smooth, unscarred eyebrows to the shape and curve of his lips. Jack sat motionless under his scrutiny; after a moment, Daniel realized Jack was looking at him in the same way.
"Actually, I was thinking that nothing should be perfect," Daniel said.
Jack pointed the bottle at the flock of crows moving from tree to tree. "You're right. Nothing should be. Except birds, maybe."
"I'm sure I'll be sorry I asked, but what makes birds perfect?"
"Easy - it's the homing instinct. Birds always know when it's time to head home."
They lapsed into silence for a while. Around them, the world was settling down to mundane things, the tasks of everyday life and evening routines. Flocks of crows dotted the sky on their way to roost in the massive pines.
Daniel picked at the label on his bottle. "It's not too late."
"Yes, it is."
"I can get you back to the SGC in time."
Jack shifted in the lawn chair and said nothing.
"Daniel." Jack reached out and put his hand on Daniel's arm, then slid it down to cover Daniel's hand. Jack's hand was cold against Daniel's skin, but Daniel curled his fingers up and around Jack's fingers. They slid together easily, an easy fit. Little by little, Jack's hand warmed to the temperature of Daniel's.
"Are you sure?" Daniel asked, very softly. Jack's thumb rubbed the back of his hand, all the answer he was going to give. Daniel nodded, though he felt as though something was crushing his chest, squeezing the breath from him.
"You could at least drink your beer," Jack said, a little grumpy. "So I can get some vicarious pleasure out of it."
Daniel obligingly took a sip. "Mmm," he said, with so little enthusiasm that Jack chuckled.
"Can't you fake it a little better than that?"
"I still don't really like beer," Daniel admitted.
"Well, then why have it around?"
"For company that drops by," Daniel said, though he was sure Jack knew he was the first company Daniel had had in a year. "And...it reminds me, of before."
"Ah." Jack smiled. "You never were one for letting things go."
"No, I guess not." He thought of all the stories he could tell - a dead wife, fractured friendships, missions gone to hell and hanging on a thread of persistence - and decided against it.
"It's one of two fatal flaws in your character," Jack said. "You can't let go, and you don't lie easily."
Daniel raised his eyebrows. "I'd rather be a bad liar than a good one."
"I'm stung by your insinuation, Dr. Jackson." Jack's face was half in shadow. He dropped the teasing tone and added, "You know, if the original me ever fooled you, it was because he'd had some practice."
"What do you mean?"
"He'd been lying to himself for a long time where you were concerned," Jack said. "Trust me on this."
Daniel flinched and looked up at the fading streaks of color in the sky. "Maybe so. It doesn't matter now."
There was no good answer to that question, so Daniel swallowed hard and bent his head, and didn't speak his thoughts aloud. Jack had been entitled to his secrets, even to his lies. Daniel had known more about Jack than any other person, except perhaps for Sara, and he'd known things Jack told him, and things Jack didn't. They were both to blame for what had happened, and for what had not.
Neither of them spoke again until the sun had faded behind the trees and the evening chill was setting in. Daniel wobbled forward in the chair and set his bottle down in the grass. "Want to go inside for a while?"
"Cold?" Jack asked.
"No," Daniel lied.
Jack chuckled. "You remember coming out of the gate that first time, encrusted with ice crystals?"
"Oh, yes." Daniel shivered. "And the nausea."
"I had...O'Neill had forgotten how cold the desert could be at night. It never seemed to bother you, though."
"I spent half my life wandering around deserts," Daniel said. He'd trudged through more sandstorms and dunes than he could count.
"How about when you and Jack rode away from Ra's Jaffa on that big...camel-thing? You remember that?"
"I remember falling off," Daniel said. "And walking through a sandstorm."
"Jack was sure you were going to die there."
"He went to Abydos to die," Daniel said softly. "He hadn't finished his mission."
"He wasn't shaking beside that fire because he was cold, Daniel. Or because he was afraid for himself."
Daniel shook his head. Jack had been covered head to toe with sand and huddled under a blanket. He'd shivered by the fire until an argument between them had distracted him. Daniel could see Jack clearly in his mind's eye; hands pressed together, face turned away from Daniel, scrupulously avoiding his gaze. "Even that far back?" he asked softly.
"That far." Jack touched his arm again, then moved his hand away. "Don't count any of it as time wasted."
"Yes, you do. But you shouldn't." A pause, and then - "He wouldn't."
Another statement for which Daniel had no answer. What was he supposed to say? All those years that they could have loved each other were just water under the bridge? He would never feel that way. He could easily imagine what might have happened if there had been no Sha're, if their twin paths had played out differently. It was something he'd thought about incessantly for a year.
"Don't obsess about this, Daniel."
A snort came from the darkness beside him; Daniel smiled. He tipped his head back against the cool metal frame of the chair and stared up at the stars emerging in the night sky. "You know the names of all those stars, don't you?"
For a long moment, Jack didn't say anything. Then he said, "Not all. Some."
"I've always wondered which one is Abydos."
Jack didn't answer.
Daniel twisted around in the chair until he could see Jack's still form, silhouetted in the faint light; his eyes were closed, as if he were sleeping. Daniel looked, and kept looking, until his vision blurred with tears. He turned his face back toward the stars and let them fall.
March 24, 2003/March 14, 2004