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Wandering Blind

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The house was definitely mocking him.

If Jack leaned out just a little farther, he'd be able to reach the end of the gutter, over at the northwest corner of the house. Of course, if he leaned out just a little farther, the ladder might tip. Okay, probably not, but if it did, that'd be a damn stupid way to die.

So the question was, did he really want to go to the trouble of moving the ladder for five inches?

As long as he paid attention, watched his balance...

"Mister O'Neill!"

Jack flinched, wobbled a little, snatched his hand back to grab onto the ladder, and then turned around very carefully to see exactly what he'd known he would see: Britzie McLean coming down the driveway. Britzie was one of the thirteen Coloradans living in Brewster--fourteen, now, if you counted Jack, which she ostentatiously did not. She was thirteen years old, and between being a born romantic and very fond of Daniel she had not approved of Carter's little cross-country jaunt to fetch Another Man.

The rest of the Colorado gang clearly thought this was cute. Jack didn't--it hit just a little too close to home--but he smiled for her anyway. You didn't want to make enemies in small towns, even if the enemy's barely into puberty, and he had high hopes that she'd eventually come around and start calling him Jack.

Britzie stood at the base of the ladder and frowned up at him. "I'm looking for Sam. Or Daniel."

"They're not here. Can I help you?"

"Where are they?"

Not here, he didn't say. And people said he didn't know how to hold his tongue. "They were going over to Helen's. Some sort of problem with the cistern."

She sighed. Helen lived another half hour's walk up the river, and judging from her frown Britzie was taking that fact personally. "Are they coming back?"

"I think there's a pretty good chance of that, yeah," Jack said.

"Soon?"

"Well, I don't know, Brit," Jack said, trying to be patient. "Why don't you tell me what you want them for, and then if it's not urgent I can tell them when they get back."

She thought about this for a while, presumably balancing the strain of an extra hour's travel against having to entrust her news to Jack, of all people. Laziness conquered vendetta, and some excitement crept into her voice as she said, "A trader came in up at the north door, and Christina wanted Sam to come and look. It's wagons not trucks, but he's got four of them, and they're big. He's from New Orleans!"

"Really?" That was a surprise. It was the rare person who got desperate enough to go into one of the cities, between the bodies and the difficulty of travel and the lingering fear of the gas, which had been potent enough to kill for months after the attack. Even in Brewster, where people knew the cities should be clean by now, no one had shown any particular desire to move back into one full-time.

"Well, you know, originally. Not now." She paused, scrunching her face up in thought. "You know, you're gonna have to move that ladder," she added, and walked away without a backward look.

"Thanks for the help," Jack muttered under his breath.

That night, he and Carter and Daniel all got to have dinner with Christina and Mark Payne (who, due to their location at the north entrance to town and their possession of a spare room, had a minor side business putting up travellers) and Mister Tony Spinosa, late of New Orleans. Carter was invited because she maintained a prodigious mental list of desired items, along with a well-deserved reputation for using said items for the public good. Daniel was invited because he and Carter were a package deal. Jack, as far as he could tell, was invited because he'd been standing right there at the time, which was fine with him. It had been beans and cornbread all week at home, but because Tony was a guest, Mark had barbecued rabbit.

Rabbit wasn't steak, of course, but it was a step in the right direction.

Eventually, the conversation came around to What Were You Doing When, as getting-to-know-you conversations pretty much always did. The Coloradans had sat down somewhere in Kansas and come up with a cover story, and surprisingly enough, their actual cover story had been useful for once; deep-space radar telemetry, last-minute calls from the Mountain, escape from Colorado Springs in the nick of time. It was even mostly true. The part where a few of them had known about the aliens for years before that didn't get mentioned, because hey, why ask for trouble?

When it came time to hear Tony's story, it turned out that he was alive because he liked to fish--Jack nodded approvingly at this--and he owned a boat. When everything had gone to hell, he'd headed for the boat rather than trying to drive out of the city, and then he'd bolted for the Gulf of Mexico. The Goa'uld had taken a while to get to New Orleans, and the wind patterns had been lucky--for Tony, anyway--so he'd lived to tell the tale.

"I saw one of the ships," he said, sounding almost awe-struck, even now. "I mean, you could tell it wasn't no airplane. That's how I knew it wasn't World War Three or nothing. It was this big thing, looked like... you know Star Wars? That first ship you see, kinda spear-shaped? Like that. Big thing, just cruising along, and then it went down."

They looked up at that, all three of them, surprised. "Went down?" Carter asked.

"Yeah. Crashed right into the Superdome."

"Intact?" Oh, yeah, Carter was definitely paying attention now.

Tony frowned at her over a forkful of green beans. "Well, I'm guessing the stadium's a got a big-ass hole in it, yeah. The ship wasn't, like, blown up, if that's what you're asking. Wait, you don't want to get near that thing, do you?"

"I'm just interested," Carter said, smiling widely and looking as innocently blonde as she possibly could. "I mean, come on, an alien spaceship. Can you imagine how amazing it must be?"

Gold interior, lousy climate control, and bizarre bathrooms with no showers, Jack thought. Yeah, I can imagine.

Tony chewed his beans in silence, then fixed Carter with a look, pointing his fork in her direction. "Not a good idea. I mean, yeah, I'll go in farther than most people, but I don't go into the core, and I sure as hell ain't getting near one of the things they used to spread the gas." He speared another couple of beans and waved them at Daniel. "Don't you let her do nothing stupid like that, okay? I don't want to come back through here a year from now and feel guilty when I hear she got herself killed."

Daniel gave him a closed-lipped smile and murmured that he certainly wouldn't want that either. Christina hid a smirk behind her napkin. Carter kept a smile on her face, but Jack could see her left hand tightening into a fist in her lap.

"So!" Jack said in a bright, throw-yourself-between-the-civilian-and-the-bullet kind of way. "Tony, you don't sound like you're from around here. Actually, I'm from Chicago myself, and I think I detect just a hint of the Windy City. Yes or no?"

***

Daniel, mostly deprived of the opportunity to pursue any more academic interests than amateur chemistry in drinkable form, had traded in his fascination with the workings of the past for one with the workings of the present. Once dinner had been cleared away, he talked Tony into the living room, produced a notebook, and began to pump him for information as thoroughly--if not more so--than he ever had any of the offworlders they'd encountered over the years.

At the first gap in their conversation, Carter leaned over and touched him on the arm. "Jack and I are going to go," she said, though Jack was fairly certain he'd have remembered if they'd discussed anything like that. He shot her a look, which went unreturned. "I'm guessing that this is going to take a while."

Daniel looked up at her, frowning slightly for a moment before his expression cleared. "Right. Yes, of course. I'll see you in a couple of hours. Don't wait up."

"Make a lot of noise coming in," Carter said over her shoulder, as Christina ushered her and Jack out the front door. "I have a shotgun, remember."

A front was coming through; the moon was still visible, but half of the stars were gone, disappeared behind clouds. Behind them, the screen door slammed open twice in the wind before someone latched it more securely. Carter's hair, now well past her chin, whipped around her face until she tucked it firmly behind her ears.

"Tony's got no idea what he's in for, does he?" Jack said.

Carter shrugged. "I think he's probably used to it." She pushed hair out of her eyes again. "I really need a haircut."

"You missing hairspray again?"

She smiled. "Yes, actually." They took a right onto Chestnut, leaving the last of the lighted windows behind. Carter slipped her hand into the pocket of his jacket and took his hand, squeezing it.

"Carter…"

"Hours, he said. He'll make sure not to show up early. And I really wish you'd drop the Carter thing."

"I tried. It felt weird. Actually, you can probably take 'it felt weird' as a given. You know, in general."

"Well, I could always settle down with a good book..."

"I didn't say that." He hadn't been able to break the ingrained habit of calling her Carter; why had he thought he'd be able to break the habit of wanting her that had made it so important for him to use that name in the first place? Even if he'd wanted to, and he wasn't that stupid. Christ, she was beautiful. And pushy; he kind of liked that about this new version of her. You'd think the end of the world would make someone more easily frightened, but with Carter, it seemed to have stripped her fears away instead, like someone walking out of a doctor's office with three months to live and a hankering to skydive.

"We could hang a sock on the door if it'd make you feel better."

"Dammit, Carter…" He shook his head, hard, trying to dislodge the weird feeling without looking at it too closely. "Let's not talk about it, okay?"

"Okay," she said.

She'd talk about it with Daniel, he thought, followed by: Right, because Daniel would make her. You just know he's like that with women. And then he lifted Carter's hand to kiss it, because it felt like the right thing to do, and because the feel of her skin against his lips made all of his confusion drain away.

Still, he took her into his bed rather than joining her in the one she shared with Daniel, and by the time Daniel came home, Jack was alone. Daniel was loud on his way up the stairs, whether by accident or by design, and Jack tracked his footsteps down the hall until they disappeared into the braided rug beside his bed.

***

The next morning was grey, with clouds hanging so low that they skimmed the tops of the pines. It hadn't rained overnight as far as he could tell, but the temperature had dropped enough that Jack pulled on a pair of wool socks and seriously considered firing up the wood stove. Then he thought about wood-chopping, and didn't.

The house was filled to the rafters with a heavy quiet, as if it was trying to match the gloom outside. Jack wandered into the kitchen, stared blearily into the silent refrigerator for a while, then dug a pint-sized Tupperware container of dried apples out of the back of the bottom shelf. Very briefly, he considered the possibility that they'd been put out of the way on purpose, but hey, he really didn't think he could be expected to read minds.

A flash of color caught Jack's eye, and he looked out the back window to see Daniel on his hands and knees in the garden, wearing his I-am-so-going-to-get-filthy orange sweatshirt. He looked up briefly when the screen door slammed, then went back to his task, inching down the row of sweet potatoes toward the house.

"Whatcha doing?" Jack asked, eating a slice of apple.

Daniel waved a knife at him. "Cutting the vines."

"And why are you cutting the vines? At... a fairly early hour, I might add. Wait, have you been reading agricultural manuals again?"

"No, this is the same way we did it last year," Daniel said. "Straight from Helen's mouth. You're not supposed to let the vines--" he grunted a little, sawing at a difficult stalk--"die first. It's not like regular potatoes."

Jack thought about this, eyeing the growing pile of greenery along the garden's edge. "Okay, well, you sure you don't want to use the shears for that? Or a hoe?"

Daniel sat up, letting his legs sprawl out to the side. He scratched at his neck--with his non-knife-wielding hand, thankfully--leaving a wide streak of dirt behind. "No, I don't want to use the shears. They're unwieldy. And every time I use a hoe I'm worried that I'm going to take my own toe off. What are you eating?"

"Dried apple." Jack waded into the ankle-deep vines and settled down next to Daniel, holding out the Tupperware. "Not bad."

"Where'd you find these?" Daniel asked, staring into the container.

"Fridge. Back of the bottom shelf, behind that big can of olive oil."

"Uh, you realize it was probably back there for a reason, right?"

Jack shrugged and ate another slice. "I wanted something sweet. Carter doesn't want me eating something, she's welcome to put a note on it."

"Trust me," Daniel said, "you don't want to go down that road. I had this roommate in grad school... I think we were communicating entirely through notes by the end. Bastard ate my peanut butter." He wiped his hand on his pants and took a slice of apple for himself, apparently unconcerned by any possible hypocrisy.

"Well, I say we should look on the bright side." Jack paused dramatically, but Daniel waited him out without changing expression, damn his eyes. "He's probably dead."

Daniel gave Jack a pursed-lipped look. "Oh, yes, thank you, that helps my leftover roommate psychosis a great deal."

"I aim to please," Jack said airily. He reached out toward the dirty streak on Daniel's neck, making the other man start. "Hold still, willya? You've got enough dirt under there to grow radishes."

"You know, in five minutes I'm going to be back in the dirt," Daniel said, but there was more amusement than irritation in his voice and he held still, letting Jack scrub at the stubble beneath his jaw. "Are you actually helping, or are you just smearing it around?"

Jack resisted the urge to lick his thumb to clean the last of the smudge off, brushing at an imagined spot on the other man's shoulder instead before drawing his hand back into his lap. "I'm helping, because I'm a helpful guy. I'm not planning to crawl down the rest of this row with you, though. Wait, didn't we talk about this? Weren't we going to leave them another couple of weeks?"

"Yeah." Daniel tapped the flat side of the knife against his knee. "Sam wants to go to New Orleans, though. I think it's likely we won't be here in a couple of weeks."

"Did she tell you that?"

"Did she have to? It was pretty obvious. I thought she might have mentioned it to you last night, actually. She was asleep by the time I got in." He glanced up quickly, then back down, pulling a bit of greenery out from under his laces and tossing it to the side.

"Ah, no, we didn't talk about it. Maybe she figured she'd do us both at the same time--" Jack faltered for a second, then forged ahead. "--two birds, one stone, that kind of thing."

"Right. Well, that's certainly possible." Daniel looked down and away, squirmed a little, and arched his back, stretching. Apparently they were going to let that particular slip of the tongue slide right on by. Okay then. "Anyway, I'm looking to cut down on reasons for her to say oh, Daniel, someone should stay home, there so much to be done..." He made a disgusted face. "I'm not giving her any excuse to leave me here again. And I wanted to get outside anyway. I've been feeling itchy all morning."

"I hate to break it to you, but that's the fleas."

Jack expected another look, but Daniel just smiled a little at the ground instead. "Yes, that must be it. What's your opinion?"

"About fleas?"

"About New Orleans," Daniel said, in his very special Jack-don't-be-a-dumbass voice, which Jack thought was a little unfair, really. He shrugged.

"Well, assuming our buddy Tony's telling the truth in the first place, if the thing could fly it'll be gone by now. Even if it's there, is it really worth the trip? Not to mention for all we know it'd still have a full load of the er-whatever-it-was gas stuff, which I'm a little leery of, just between you and me."

Daniel leaned forward a little, warming to the discussion. "Ereshmahar. And either it's still sealed, in which case we'd be fine, or there was a leak, in which case we'd still be fine because it would've activated on contact with oxygen and then died off."

"There's still the trip..."

"...says the man who drove cross-country last summer and said he had barely any trouble..."

"What's the point, Daniel?" Damn, he hadn't meant to say that out loud. Or that loudly. Daniel didn't blink twice, though, as if he hadn't been startled at all. Jack had always figured that as you got to know someone better, they got easier to understand, but sometimes he felt like the longer he knew Daniel the harder he was to read. Or maybe the more alarming Jack found the idea of being able to read him. One of those things.

"Well," Daniel said, considering, "as far as I'm concerned the point is that Sam wants to go and I'm willing to hear her out. She'll probably be able to convince me. I mean, if it makes her happy, right?"

Jack grunted and got to his feet. "Happy's no reason to be stupid."

"I'm not sure I'd agree with that, actually," Daniel said thoughtfully. "I mean, I think you can make a valid argument that happy is the best reason to do just about anything. Sam's certainly embraced it as a goal."

Jack looked down at him sharply, but Daniel was looking up at the house, not at him. Jack followed his gaze up to the window of the master bedroom just in time to see Carter appear in a flannel robe. She stood there for a moment, then made an exaggerated shrugging motion which Jack interpreted as "the hell?" She disappeared as Daniel said "I think we're in trouble."

"We?" Jack said, back on solid ground now. "Oh no. I'm throwing you to the wolves the first chance I get."

"You're the one holding the Tupperware."

"It was in the fridge! What, I can't eat something out of my own... Carter! Morning."

Carter paused on the porch steps, then came down the path on quiet, moccasined feet. It still seemed vaguely unnatural to see her without boots; why that was weirder than seeing her wrapped in a green-and-black plaid flannel robe he had no idea. Naked he'd gotten used to fast, but then he'd had motivation. Besides, he'd thought about Naked Carter before. Though apparently never about the fact that she wasn't likely to be wearing her boots in bed, so no foot fetishist he, and crap, she'd just said something. "What?"

"I said, are those the dried apples I put in the back of the fridge?"

"Well, they are dried apples, and they were in the back of the fridge, so I think it's reasonable to say... yes, they probably are."

Carter frowned a little. "Did it occur to you that I put them behind the olive oil and under two tins of potted meat product for a reason? Do I have to start putting notes on things saying 'save for holidays?'"

"I wouldn't recommend it," Jack said. "Apparently that leads to peanut butter theft."

Carter looked confused for a moment, turned to Daniel, turned back to Jack. "Peanut butter?"

"Grad school," Daniel said. "I told you that story, didn't I? Roommate Craig? Stole my peanut butter?"

"I don't think so--no, wait. Is he the one who put his name on his salt shaker?"

"That's him. Jack's trying to help by pointing out that there's a considerably better-than-even chance that he's dead."

"What can I say?" Jack shrugged. "I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy."

"Right. Anyway..." Daniel squinted up at Carter. "You're up early."

"So are you. Daniel, what are you doing?"

Daniel smiled, a little tightly. "Using up some energy. Getting rid of excuses for you to leave me here when you go to New Orleans. You know."

Carter rolled her eyes a little. "As if I wanted to have that argument again. I didn't expect you to be so gung-ho about the idea, though." She looked over at Jack. "You both coming?"

"We're talking, what, a couple of weeks, right?"

Carter nodded. "Probably. We'll have to swing north around Baton Rouge, I haven't heard that any of those roads have been cleared, but then we can come around from there and cross into the city on the causeway..."

"It's gone," Daniel said. "Or so Tony says."

"Really? Damn. Well, if we can't do that we get as close as we can with the truck, walk the rest of the way. Even if we can only get as far as Baton Rouge, that's what, fifty, sixty miles, all pretty much level? That's walkable, though not a lot of fun if we're carrying something on the way back, now that I think about it. We might be better off taking a page from Tony's book and getting a boat. I don't know if anyone's still living on the lake...?" She trailed off, looking questioningly at Daniel.

"Tony said there were, but not many, and they don't go into the city."

"That's what bribery is for," Jack said. "Carter, what do you want to get out of this? Are we talking hey, let's take a road trip or do you really expect to find something useful?"

Carter yawned, waving a hand apologetically, then pulled the robe a little more tightly around herself, pulling her hands up into the sleeves to ward off the morning chill. "Assuming it's an al'kesh, and assuming it's untouched--which I admit we don't know as of now--there are several potential benefits. For one thing, it might have an armory, so we've got an opportunity to acquire considerable firepower and the associated energy sources. I'd have to figure out a way to interface them with the remaining infrastructure, but if I could, we might be able to bring the power grid back online for a while."

"And?" Jack asked. "You said 'several.'"

"Communications."

Daniel looked up sharply. "Off world, you mean?"

"Yes. Now, I know the al'kesh don't usually have long-range communications, but the system they do have would be able to detect anything in-system, including Tok'ra emergency frequencies."

"Kind of a longshot," Jack said.

Carter leaned forward, tucking her hands into her pockets. "Not necessarily. I'm not talking about a live broadcast, I'm talking about an automated beacon--something like the beacon we used on Revanna. Assuming the Alpha Site wasn't compromised, all they would have had to have done was get here and set up a transmission saying hey, anyone else out there? Then they'd just have to check in every now and then. They've done similar things in the past as way to communicate with operatives. And before you say it, I know what you think of the Tok'ra, but Jack, my father's with them. I think he'd try." She trailed off, looking almost embarrassed to bring that up, but hell, of course Jacob would try, given a thread of hope to hang on.

"He'd have good reason to think you were dead," Daniel said, in that frustrating devil's-advocate tone of his.

"Yeah, well, so did I," Jack pointed out. "And yet, here I am."

"True." Daniel looked up--he was going to get a crick in his neck, sitting like that--and offered Jack a fleeting smile. "Okay. Let's say it works. Jacob calls, stops by for a visit, we're all glad to see him, we kill the fatted calf..."

"...or chicken, or rabbit..." Jack said, because he was pretty sure they couldn't spare a cow.

"...fine, whatever, fatted squirrel if you want, that's not the point. What then? I mean, don't look now, but saving the world's kind of a moot point."

"We've discussed this," Carter said.

"We discussed this theoretically nearly two years ago, and if I remember correctly you avoided the question at the time."

Carter sighed and dug at the lawn with the toe of her moccasin. "I don't know. I think--things are going to get worse here. We are not going to be allowed--" her voice caught a little, but she forged on--"to rebuild. You know that as well as I do. So if--if!--we're given another option, I think we should seriously consider it."

"Okay," Daniel said, and then, gently, almost embarrassed, "whither thou goest, you know."

"Sure, complaining all the way," she said lightly, aiming the faintest hint of a conspirator's smile in Jack's direction. "Jack? You don't have to come if you don't want to. Actually, it might be best if someone did stay here."

"You think I'm going to let you two go to New Orleans and have all the fun without me?"

"You do realize the French Quarter is no longer a going concern, right?" Carter asked.

"Yes, Carter, I'd noticed that," he said, feeling a little irritated until he saw the smile still lurking around her eyes.

"Fine." She yawned again, blinking hard and not bothering to cover her mouth. "I'm… going to go change. Daniel, you did notice we've got dark clouds?"

Daniel looked up, frowning. "So?"

"So it might rain…" She trailed off, obviously expecting Daniel to know where she was going, but he just looked at her sidelong, squinting a little more tightly. "…which is bad… because the yams need to be cured… which won't work very well if they get rained on…"

"Oh." Daniel glanced over the garden, then up at the sky again. "Right. Well. Hopefully it won't rain?"

"We'll bring them inside," Carter said authoritatively.

***

"You know, there's a marina in Monroe," Mark said. "Moon something. Moon River, maybe?" He stuck his head into the cramped stairwell leading out of the kitchen, aiming his voice upward. "Christina, what's the place I'm thinking of? The marina in Monroe, where we went to the wakeboard festival that time. Is it Moon River?"

"Moon Lake," she called. "Moon River's a song, sweetie." From her tone, Jack felt sure that if Christina had been in the room she'd have given Carter the look that said "Men," the one that he figured girls were all taught at about the same time boys were learning how to hide a hard-on.

"People name places after songs all the time," Mark shouted back a little grumpily before turning his attention back to Carter. "I know you've got a thing for big road trips, but I'd take the river instead if it was me. They've got the lock in Columbia rigged up so you can get it to work by hand; don't know if there are any more farther south, but we used to get shipping up through here, barges and stuff. So you used to be able to get through." He leaned back against the kitchen counter, eyes flicking from Carter to Jack and back again. "If you're just looking to scavenge, there's closer places, you know."

"None of them have crashed spaceships, though," Carter said.

"Right." Mark paused, leaving a space for Carter to continue, but she just played with the miniature lathe Tony'd left for them, spinning one of the handwheels back and forth. He turned his attention to Jack, who shrugged.

"It's a geek thing. You know Carter."

"Right," Mark said again. "You going to bring us back alien toys to play with, Sam?" His tone was half-curious, half-challenging, which was pretty much what Carter had said she expected during their walk into town. It's not that I don't trust Mark, she'd said, but… Jack, who'd lived a good portion of his adult life under one veil of secrecy or another, had just nodded.

"Well, it depends on what's there, and whether I can make it work," Carter said, and that was true, as it happened. "You don't think the marina would be cleared out by now?"

"Maybe, maybe not. Seems to me it'd be worth a shot, though. Especially if you want to be carrying things out of New Orleans, because I can't think the roads are anywhere near passable down there."

There was a pounding of footsteps on the stairs, followed by a sharp "Taylor!" from above. Mark turned his head to listen, then frowned at his daughter as she appeared in the doorway with Christina at her back and a chamberpot carefully cradled in her arms.

"Go on," Christina said, putting her hands on Taylor's shoulders and giving her a little push. Taylor screwed up her face in disgust, but complied, pink sneakers squeaking with every step down the hall to the front door. "She's supposed to empty it first thing if she uses it overnight," she continued in mother-expecting-sympathy tones to the room at large, "but somehow that never seems to happen, and someone didn't refill the toilet tank last night. How are you, Sam? Jack."

"Good," Carter said, over the top of Mark declaring, "They're going to New Orleans."

"Told you so." Christina poked Mark in the arm, obviously pleased with herself and not feeling any need for further public shaming over the tank issue. "They're going to go down the river?"

Carter looked over at Jack, who gestured with one hand: Go ahead. "That was Mark's suggestion," she said. "If the marina's been picked over it'd be a waste of time, but if there was something there… it'd be a lot faster. And we should be able to round up enough gas."

This last was directed toward Jack again, who figured he must look like he needed more convincing than he actually did. "Hey, if it gets me out of walking from Baton Rouge, I'm all for it. It won't be me making the thing run."

"You are taking Daniel this time, right?" Christina asked. "Please tell me you're taking Daniel this time. Because I'm not covering for you when he's not deathly ill."

"Believe me, we've already had that conversation." Ah, there it was--the "Men" look. Or possibly that look was specifically dedicated to Daniel, though Jack was pretty sure he remembered it having passed over his own head more than once back in the Mountain. "All three of us are going, once we get the house in order and find someone to feed the chickens. I was thinking about asking Britzie, actually."

"Be careful I'm not there when you do," Jack muttered.

Sam smiled widely. "She likes him, really," she told Christina--inaccurately, but Jack figured it wasn't worth arguing about. She'd learn the truth eventually. "And we'll have to get directions to the marina--do you have the address?"

"We've still got the Yellow Pages around here somewhere. It should be in there. You know," Christina added with a glance at Mark, "it'd be a lot faster for them to take the truck up there. You'd just need someone to drive it back--"

"They'd be coming right past here on the river!"

"And I miss driving, you know," Christina finished, as if she hadn't heard a word Mark had said.

"You leaving me a note?" Mark asked.

"What is it, forty, fifty miles? I'll be back before you notice I'm gone." She reached out and touched his elbow, eyes more serious now. "The north road's perfectly safe, Mark. Do you know how long it's been since I got out of town for a day?"

"Used to be you hated that commute," Mark grumbled. "Don't look at me--it's not my truck."

Christina turned a pleading look on Carter, who shrugged. "It's okay with me." Generous of her, Jack thought--she was protective of her vehicles, and didn't let just anyone drive them--but then she owed Christina one from the summer, didn't she?

Half an hour later, Mark still had the distinct look of a man who wanted to argue, but knew it'd be pointless. "She'd just come up with some damn reason or other that it made perfect sense for her to go if I did," he said, as he and Jack hauled the lathe out to the garden cart he and Carter had brought from home. "That's the worst part, when they get logical on you. You ever been married?"

"Once. Divorced." I don't want to talk about it, his tone said, and thankfully Mark let it drop. He wondered about Sara sometimes, when he wasn't quick enough to stop himself. She'd still been living in Colorado Springs, as far as he knew. They'd been hit very early on; it was possible she'd never even known what was coming. He hoped so.

Later, pulling his half of the load, he told Carter that it looked like she'd managed to make the entire male population of Brewster paranoid. She laughed. "Well, that's Mark for you. But if nothing else, he knows Christina would never take off and leave Taylor--he was poking me more than her. Probably revenge for having to listen to Daniel complain all summer."

Jack kicked a fallen branch out of the way of the wheels, then scuffed at the ground again, just to make the gravel spin from one side of the road to the other with a satisfying clatter. "Well, you gotta admit, that was some pretty impressive taking one for the team they did. What'd you do, blow your lifetime supply of negotiating skills on 'hey, stay with grumpy, pissed-off, convalescing Daniel for a few weeks for me while I run off to Utah?'"

"No, it wasn't… hang on, I need to switch hands." She stopped, letting go of the cart and stretching her hand as wide as it could go. The cart kept rolling for a bit, broad handle nudging Jack in the back, and he stumbled. "Sorry. It wasn't that hard. They'd seen how sick he was before we finally diagnosed the malaria--someone had to keep an eye on him, and I was leaving. That part wasn't negotiable."

"Hey, I'm just saying, you're lucky they agreed." Jack switched over to her side, taking hold of the metal bar where it was still a little warm from Carter's hand. Doing this errand before lunch had sounded like a much better idea an hour and a half ago than it did now, empty-stomached and still almost a mile from home.

"He's fine," Carter said, a little defensively.

"I didn't say he wasn't! I'm not arguing with you, Carter. Go over it all yet again with Daniel if you want, but give me five minutes' warning so I can get out of the house, will you?"

"Sorry," she muttered. "It's not you. It's just--" Her gestures sharpened, became more urgent. "After we were talking this morning, about leaving... that's part of why I think... you weren't here then. He was so sick. We don't know what strain it was, but if it was a bad one, he could have died." She looked away, frustration all over her face. "I can't fix people, and they're dying from the stupidest..."

"Yeah. Well. Not your fault." He wanted to reach out, pat her on the arm, something, but she had herself wrapped up as tightly as Daniel on a bad day and he honestly wasn't sure he'd keep all of his fingers. "This is why I personally prefer problems that can be solved with explosives," he said, offering up a joke instead.

She smiled--success!--and gave her hand one last shake before taking hold of the cart. "You know, I haven't blown anything up in years. I kind of miss it."

"We'll get you some fireworks in New Orleans," Jack said as they started down the road. "Shoot 'em off in the Superdome. It'll be great."

***

Used to be that departure times meant something--even to Daniel, who was easily distracted but rarely intentionally late. Jack still wore a watch, end of the world or no end of the world; he'd dug up a solar-powered one a couple of months after the attack, and followed the dictates of time zones and Daylight Savings Time to the letter. It was a satisfying, grounding sort of thing to do, and while Jack had always been a big fan of realism, he didn't think there was any harm in holding onto a few threads of the past. Or more than a few, so long as you didn't get crazy about it.

So on the one hand, he was annoyed. They'd planned to leave at 8:30; it was now 8:52 by his watch, and they hadn't even started to load the truck yet. On the other hand, motor vehicles were a rarity nowadays--well, the running kind were, anyway--and he wasn't even halfway heartless enough to begrudge Britzie the impromptu driving lesson Carter'd offered her when she'd shown up that morning to see them off.

Britzie was tall for her age, almost as tall as Carter, but the way she was hunched forward over the wheel Jack wondered if she could even see ahead of her. Carter had backed the truck out of the garage and into the road herself before sliding over and letting Britzie take her place behind the wheel, and Jack watched her blonde head hovering anxiously next to Britzie's dark cornrows until the glass caught the sun and he had to look away.
"Has Sam let her go over five miles an hour yet?" Daniel asked, sitting himself down next to Jack with a thump.

"Hell, no. She hasn't gone in reverse either." The truck drew a wide arc in the road, inching along the edge of a ditch and pointing its nose for home. She was going to miss the driveway with her right tires, but hey, what good was four-wheel drive anyway if you couldn't take it off-roading on the lawn? "Looks like that's that. You got everything?"

"Yes, Jack, I've got everything," Daniel said, all exaggerated patience. Carter had made the packing list, with Jack looking over her shoulder. Left to his own devices, Daniel preferred to pack from memory, but he'd done them the favor of going down the checklist the night before. Water for the first day; they'd drink from the river after that, filtered and boiled. Camp stove, though they'd likely go the campfire route instead if they could, since Carter fretted over the butane supply. Two tarps; they'd argued about that, but if things went according to plan they'd be in shelter anyway for the entire trip, so Jack put his foot down about anything heavier. Carter's blowtorch, with extra propane--also fretted over, and hopefully they'd be able to replenish that along the way. Gas for the truck, some of which would become gas for the boat. The Beretta Carter'd owned for years and the shotgun Jack had picked up in Utah. Peanuts, and jerky, and a copy of A Tale of Two Cities with a bookmark at page 152, because Jack had always kind of thought he should read Dickens and he sure as hell had the time to do it now.

The truck jerked to a halt halfway down the driveway, and Britzie hopped down from the driver's seat, beaming. "Oh my God, I so want a car," she declared.

"Well, you can't have mine," Carter said, coming around the hood. "Or my gas. Sorry, bucko."

"I know." Britzie slumped back against the door, kicking at the driveway. "It sucks. I miss cars." For once, Jack completely sympathized with the whine in her voice, though he didn't go so far as to say so. "Thanks for letting me drive yours, though," she continued, only a little grudgingly. "That was cool."

"Can we go now?" Jack tapped his watch, then held it up facing in Carter's direction, even though he knew she was much too far away to read it. She was a bright woman. She'd get the hint.

She actually looked embarrassed, and her "Sorry, Jack," sounded like it should have a sir tacked onto the end, which Jack enjoyed just a little more than he felt he really ought to. When he looked over to get Daniel moving, the other man was rolling his eyes, and that was pleasantly familiar too, so. Success all 'round.

"Wait," Carter said. "Why am I apologizing?"

Damn, Jack thought. So close. "Because we were supposed to leave half an hour ago?"

"Mm." Carter leaned conspiratorially in Britzie's direction, but her gaze stayed with Jack. "He has no sense of fun, you know."

"I have no sense of fun? Coming from the woman who used to go into work during her vacation? Of your own free will, I might add."

"That was fun, Jack."

"Fine. Whatever. Watch out for this one, Brit. Spend too much time around her and you'll start thinking calculus is better than sex." Daniel turned around, pack dangling from his hands, just to blink at him. Jack wilted a little under Carter's glare. "Which you shouldn't be having. Or thinking about. Obviously. Can we go?"

"Oh, I think we should," Carter said.

They dropped Britzie off a block from her house, Daniel promising to bring her a souvenir and Carter spouting reminders until Jack reached over and put the truck in drive himself as a subtle hint. When they drove up to Mark and Christina's their fourth was sitting on her front porch, elastics in her mouth, braiding Taylor's hair. The little girl started to get to her feet when she saw the truck, but was tugged back down firmly, head bouncing a little with the movements of her mother's hands.

They all wandered over and gaggled on the porch, Daniel explaining something to a patient Mark and Jack and Carter both examining Taylor's newly missing tooth with the appropriate gravity. Jack would never have mentioned the tooth fairy, but Taylor brought it up herself, insisting that she had to show them the new Barbie outfit she'd gotten in trade. "Eventually I'm going to run out of the stockpile from the after-Christmas sales that last year," Christina muttered as soon as her daughter was out of earshot. She looked genuinely worried about it, so Jack refrained from pointing out the long list of rather more important things they were also steadily running out of. Besides, the kid was seven. Toys were important too.

Jack had been expecting tears, but Taylor accepted hugs and kisses as her due and waved them goodbye merrily. Watching in the passenger's side mirror as they pulled away, Jack could see her waving until they were out of sight, though only Daniel in the back was facing her.

Another half a mile down the road, Christina held up a homemade tape triumphantly, and she looked so thrilled at the chance to actually listen to it that Jack managed to find it in his heart to suffer through the Nirvana. About twenty-five minutes in, he did promise himself a long, suspicious talk with Daniel, though. Upon further consideration, he'd volunteered to ride in the back just a little bit too cheerfully for a man who hadn't known that noise was in the offing.

They took the back road, crossing over the Bayou Lafourche in Hebert and motoring on through the woods up to Buckner and Rhymes. Monroe itself was still clogged, but the smaller roads surrounding it had mostly been cleared. "I have to assume all of the cars through here would've been stripped a long time ago," Carter said--needlessly, since Jack could see broken glass and dangling gas caps as well as anyone else, and there was no need to worry about the gas gauge just yet. They stopped three times in the first two hours, giving a couple of rides (including one to a woman with a two-year-old and a goat, who Jack quite gleefully stuck in the back with Daniel) and screeching to a halt just a few feet in front of a sprawled dog who looked up at them, yawned casually, and strolled off to the side of the road, having established who was in charge of passage around here.

They switched drivers at the highway in Rhymes, putting Christina behind the wheel so that she could prove her trustworthiness when it came to handling Carter's baby. Their route took them farther north, through the edges of what had been suburb, then back around and down, finally reaching roads too close to murdered Monroe for them to have been cleared. They were able to make another mile or so by going off-road, but eventually even the grassy strip between the shoulder and the trees became clogged and Christina gave up.

There hadn't even been any foot traffic for miles, but they opened the windows and the door over the gas cap anyway, trying to make the truck look like just another abandoned vehicle. Jack could see Carter frowning a little at the dirt it had picked up on the drive, too, but while her expression promised detailing, there wasn't much of anything she could do about it just then.

Daniel stretched out the kinks from a long, bumpy ride while the other three pulled their packs out of the back. If they'd been planning to walk any real distance Jack would've thought they'd brought too much stuff, but for the couple of miles they had to go the packs were all right, if a bit unwieldy when navigating through obstructions natural and man-made. Christina in particular made a habit of catching herself on things, though she did keep a sense of humor about it. Jack approved. He didn't mind complaining himself, but his patience for hearing it from other people was damn short.

The Ouachita veered into and out of view, now pacing the road, now hidden behind the oaks and other, less familiar trees. The sun was halfway down the sky when they finally reached the marina, coming to a halt at the closed gate to the driveway. Off to the right, there was a building that looked like a private residence; owners, maybe? The driveway went on past it and down to a boathouse by the river; if there were any actual boats to go with it, he sure couldn't see them from where he was.

"Anyone home, you think?" Jack asked.

"I doubt it." Daniel hitched his pack up a little higher and gestured at the late-model SUV parked in the driveway. "There's a body in the driver's seat. If someone had moved in, I'm guessing they would've cleaned that out."

"Yeah. Well. Still." Jack unslung the shotgun from his shoulder, saw Carter drop her hand to rest on the Beretta where it was strapped to her leg. Just like old times, he almost said, before remembering that they had a guest.

Carter took the lead, calling out a hello in the most feminine, I'm-no-threat-to-you-please-ignore-my-firearm voice she could muster, to no reaction from anything but a mourning dove on the telephone wire. Christina gave the SUV a wide berth; Daniel glanced inside, then looked away, mouth tightening.

"We should try siphoning the gas," Jack said, his voice sounding louder than he'd expected. Funny, how quickly you got used to having engine noise around again. "Carter?"

"Yeah, in a minute," she said, already halfway to the boathouse. She reached the corner, then turned around to walk backwards for a few steps, grinning. "We have boats! Anyone got a preference as to type?"

"Get me something expensive," Jack said. "I always wanted a yacht."

Despite the lateness of the hour, Christina insisted that she'd rather leave right away, in hopes that she could make it home that night. About half an hour after that, Carter started to look very, very sorry that it was Daniel who'd agreed to walk Christina back to the truck. She and Jack were waiting out on the lawn in a gathering twilight when Daniel came down the driveway, shotgun slung over his shoulder. "If you're going to tell me we have to walk back," Daniel said, "then… please don't tell me we're going to have to walk back."

"Nope, we're good," Jack said cheerily. "Just waiting for a tiebreaker."

Carter's expression, which had already been less than cheerful, sank even farther into Pissed. "We're having a disagreement on which boat to take."

"Okay, so…" Daniel let the shotgun slide through his hand to the ground, leaning on it while he craned his head around to look at the marina. "What are my choices?"

Jack opened his mouth, but Carter got there first. "Number one, we have the nice little green motorboat on the end there. It's small, it looks pretty new, and it won't burn a lot of gas."

Daniel shifted his gaze to Jack. "What's number two?"

Jack let the smile hit his face, annoyed Carter or no annoyed Carter. "There's a houseboat. Which has--you had your turn, Carter, now it's mine--bed space for all, a flush toilet, a TV and VCR, and a VHS collection which includes, among other things, what appears to be the complete oeuvre of that noted artiste Jean-Claude Van Damme. He's French, you know."

"He was Belgian," Carter said, sounding a little snappish. "And I still can't believe you're seriously considering taking that thing."

"Why the hell not? You'll forgive me if the idea of a few creature comforts is appealing."

"Yes, I get that it's appealing, but is it smart? Come on, be realistic."

"Does it run, Jack?" Daniel interjected. He was frowning, but at least he was frowning at Jack, which was definitely a good sign.

"Haven't tried yet. Don't see any reason why it'd be any less likely to than any of the others, though." Jack tried on his most winning smile, which he was pretty sure wasn't a patch on Carter's, but hey, you do what you can with what you've got. "Did I mention the potential for a hot shower?"

"Well, now you have." Daniel was suppressing the smile, but Jack could see in his eyes that he'd won. "Sorry, Sam. Jack's got my vote. Assuming--" he held up one hand--"that it runs."

"Fine." Still grumpy, Jack thought. Damn. Well, so long as nothing went wrong she'd get over it quickly enough. "When we run out of gas, you two are going to get more and I'm staying in bed." She broke out That Tone when she muttered "stupid" under her breath a few moments later, but Jack ignored it. He liked being magnanimous in victory.

Jack had to admit that a houseboat wasn't really the most practical option, and he'd always thought of himself as a practical kind of guy. But that'd been back when he didn't have to be practical if he didn't want to, and these days if the universe was going to give him the chance to use a microwave and watch a crappy movie or two he was damn well going to take it. Plus, his back would thank him for the bed, which would improve his mood, which would make the whole trip much better for everyone. So really, it was all in his team's best interest.

He hadn't thought of them as his team in a while, come to think of it. Something about going on the road with the two of them, probably. It was... kind of nice, really. Familiar, except for the Teal'c-shaped hole in the world to his right. An easy little salvage milk run, there and back again, no muss no fuss no need to make a daring run to the Stargate for backup. Hopefully, anyway, since that was gonna be a hell of a trip if they had to try it.

It was really too late to be fooling around with engines unless you were in a much bigger rush than they were, so they bedded down on the boat, well-bundled against the hint of winter in the air. Not that it was a real winter, the kind they had in Minnesota or Chicago or Colorado Springs, but Jack wasn't really feeling the need to prove his manliness by pointing that out. Carter and Daniel took the larger bed in the back; Jack took the single tucked away right behind the front console, which was still neatly made with musty-smelling bedding that reminded Jack vaguely of track suits from the 1980s. Older than the boat, almost certainly, and if you were going to buy a whole big houseboat wouldn't you buy new bedding to go with it? Jack thought he would have, or if he'd still been married--and why would he have bought a houseboat if he hadn't been?--Sara would have insisted.

Sara had liked flannel sheets, and had always wanted a down comforter, except she was allergic and so that was off the menu. And why was Sara on his mind again? She'd been doing that a lot recently, popping up in his thoughts more than she had in years. Something about the weird domesticity of the house in Brewster, maybe; Sara had been the last person he'd really shared a home with before moving in with Carter and Daniel.

They hadn't bothered to pull the sliding wall all the way closed, and he could listen to if not understand their murmured voices, hear the rustling of blankets and the creak of the mattress as someone turned over. That'd be a noisy bed to have sex in, Jack thought. Even if they tried to be quiet, he'd be able to hear them, guess what they were...

Crap. Dammit. No. No, he was not getting hard just from thinking about listening to his two best friends having sex. Definitely not. And he certainly wasn't picturing the way Carter looked when she came, or wishing he'd paid more attention to what she and Daniel were like together that one time he'd had the chance to watch.

Not at all.

***

It was Carter who woke him the next morning. More specifically, it was the clatter of a panel being removed with gusto and without consideration for anyone who might be sleeping six feet away. Jack grunted and lifted his head up off the pillow, squinting blearily in Carter's direction. She smiled, and if there was malice in her heart he couldn't tell by looking at her face. Her chipper "I know you like to get going early, so I figured I'd get started," was kind of a giveaway, though. Well, whatever. The boat was going to be worth it. She'd see.

Daniel joined him on shore, shamelessly ransacking the house while Carter handled the travel arrangements. They hit the kitchen first, emptying the pantry of everything that hadn't been devoured by the goddamn bugs that got into everything down here. Whoever had lived here before--Jack had made a point of not looking for their name--obviously hadn't been much into cooking from scratch, but they had a wide selection of everything from macaroni and cheese to several kinds of Hamburger Helper, and a stash of spices that was small in the grand scheme of things but made Daniel crow with delight anyway.

Frankly, Jack thought Daniel would've started prying fixtures out of the walls if Jack had let him. Everyone was kind of a packrat these days, and combined with what Jack would never, ever have described as Daniel's natural instinct for grave-robbing, well. Daniel'd had a squeamish side once too, Jack was sure he remembered that, but if so it was gone now.

They were debating the cost-benefit ratio of finding a place for the mountain bike when they heard a crystal-clear "Go, you bastard!" followed by the sound of an engine starting. The engine had died by the time they got outside, but Carter seemed cheery enough as she came up the lawn. "Well, it'll run," she said. "I had to switch out the battery, but I found an equivalent, so we should be all right. Are you done up here?"

"No," Daniel said, in concert with Jack saying "Depends on whether you want to open a Wal-Mart."

"Jack--"

"Daniel, we already have furniture of our very own back at the house, and if we overload ourselves we will sink the boat."

"Well, we're not talking about furniture, are we? We're talking about the bike, which is not all that heavy. Besides, we can offload in Brewster. We're going to go right past the house, for God's sake."

"I don't care about the damn bike, I just don't want you dragging the lawnmower onboard--"

"I didn't say anything about the lawnmower--"

"Hey!" Carter said sharply. "Is there an actual point to any of this, or are you just arguing for fun?"

Daniel crossed his arms against his chest, irritated. "We have…"

"…philosophical differences," Jack finished with him.

Carter stared them down for a moment, then sighed. "Look. I'm going to pull another spare battery if I can find it, and then I need to figure out how to run the gas pump off of the boat so we've got some backup supply in case we can't find more. Please, just… work it out, will you? Without bruises, if possible. And once you have, I'd appreciate a hand." She forced a smile, turned on her heel, and went back down to the river, following the path Jack and Daniel had beaten down that morning.

And well, okay, it was just a bike, and making Carter wait was a bad idea, and when had he become such a pushover, anyway?

In the end, Jack had to admit that the haul was pretty reasonable. He did one last walkthrough of the house before they took off, confirming that Daniel had managed to resist whatever urge to collect tchochkes he might've been feeling. It was funny, the things Jack did and didn't feel good about taking. Anything from the public areas of the house, fine; clothes, okay; jewelry, no, though he knew Daniel had gotten over that one and he had to admit it was probably just as well. People still valued sparkly stuff, and Jack didn't mind taking advantage of that, not even a little bit.

There was an overlooked stash of pens in the daughter's bedroom; he took them, along with the notebooks in what had presumably been her backpack, though only after he tore out the used pages and left them on her stripped bed. He briefly thought that he ought to look for something for Taylor, but it looked like the room's inhabitant had gotten the chance to grow out of dolls before she died. Or didn't die, the Daniel in his head said, but then the Daniel in his head was a hopeless optimist. More so than the real one, come to think of it. Huh.

Carter was easing the boat away from the dock about ten seconds after Jack's boots hit the deck--funny, how she got itchy when it was her schedule at stake. He tossed his prizes onto Daniel and Carter's bed, walking backwards for a few steps to make sure they all stayed where he'd thrown them before going on up to the front. A couple of minor, if noisy, scrapes later--it was a big boat, after all--they moved out into the middle of the river, with the engines going just fast enough to let them steer. It was actually Jack who'd reminded the other two about the whole concept of a current, and yes, he'd enjoyed the what an excellent point! look on Carter's face and the oh for fuck's sake, of course look on Daniel's very much, thank you.

"Should've done this when it was still hot out," Jack said, watching Monroe slide by. "Little barbecue on the deck, little swimming... we could've made a regular summer vacation of it."

Carter flashed him a smile. "But Jack, I thought you liked Texas."

"Hey, I liked Texas fine. I'm just saying, there was a distinct lack of barbecue and swimming. And frying eggs on the hood of the car doesn't count."

Daniel looked up from the pile of booty he was sorting through, a pair of kneesocks dangling from his hands. "Did you really--"

"No, of course not. We didn't have any eggs." Carter raised up off the seat a little so she could see the way ahead a little better, than sank back down, apparently satisfied. "Hey, we should get some in Brewster for the trip. The range does work, doesn't it?"

"Carter, have I been in here alone since you got this thing running? How would I know?"

"Well, you could always check," Daniel said innocently. "Since Sam's driving, and I'm kind of buried right now..."

Jack stared at Daniel. Daniel stared right back, straight-faced, not even an eyebrow twitch.

"Fine," Jack said. "Fine. You win. But I'm checking the TV first, and I'm calling dibs on the shower."

***

The shower was fucking fabulous. Carter had volunteered to go last, probably out of pure self-preservation, since she'd been in there for half an hour and showed no signs of emerging. She was even singing--badly, but singing, all the same.

"You know, if you'd told me three years ago that canned turkey existed, I probably wouldn't have believed you," Daniel said, poking at the pot on the stove. Jack wasn't entirely sure how he felt about what he'd seen going into that pot; sometimes Daniel got creative when it was his night to cook. But, hey, Jack was tough. Well-trained, iron stomach. Plus, Midwestern, so the dried soup packets hadn't thrown him.

"Six years of MREs and you're surprised by canned turkey?"

Daniel shrugged and poked at his creation again. His hair, still a little damp, was sticking up in back, and Jack had been resisting the urge to smooth it down since Daniel had emerged from the bathroom, warm and relaxed and smelling faintly of soap. "People don't buy MREs at the store. I don't know, canned poultry, it's kind of fifties bomb shelter, isn't it?"

"Who's laughing now on that one, huh?"

"Good point." Daniel switched off the burner and moved the pot over, slapping a plate on top in lieu of a cover, then flopped down next to Jack on the couch. "Brewster tomorrow sometime, I guess? So we'll have to offload all of..." He waved one hand at the stuff piled around the boat. They were more organized piles than they'd been when they'd pushed off, but still, piles. Moving sucked.

"Yeah. Midday maybe." There was still a faint strip of color along the horizon off to the west, but as of that moment the lights they had on were the brightest thing to be seen from one end of the river to the other. That was a weird combination of comforting and alarming; it was an old pleasure, having easy light to keep the dark at bay, but Jack wasn't entirely thrilled about being the brightest thing for miles. Not that he had any reason to expect trouble, but... but. Paranoia had never hurt anyone. Okay, it had rarely hurt people as badly as being insufficiently paranoid and thus shot had. "So, your... thing is ready?"

"Turkey tetrazzini," Daniel says, and Jack was fairly certain that classic turkey tetrazzini wasn't made with ramen noodles, but oh well. "Yeah. Shouldn't she be out of hot water by now?"

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Jack stared at the closed bathroom door, willing the shower to shut off. It didn't. "Think she'll mope if we eat without her?"

"Well, I'm not sure 'mope' is really the word I would use." Daniel paused. "You, uh... you want me to try to get her out of there, don't you."

Jack smiled a little. "Better you than me, buddy."

Steam billowed out of the tiny bathroom as soon as Daniel opened the door, along with a disgruntled "Hey!"

"Dinner," Daniel said shortly, and there was more conversation but Jack was distracted by... what was that noise? He abandoned the Carter extraction attempt for the rear deck, and yes, that was the sound of a trumpet floating up from downriver. Definitely a trumpet. Playing When the Saints Come Marching In. Badly. And suddenly Jack could see it, clear as day, some poor kid just growing his first mustache and his first zits, who'd been learning the trumpet before and now once a day had to listen to his mother telling him just because things have changed, that doesn't mean you get to stop practicing, Hubert.

Poor kid, stuck with a name like Hubert.

"I think a Hubert would play the tuba or the triangle or something like that," Daniel said later, sprawled across one of the beds. "I mean, if we're assuming that names should be determinative. Hubert's a dorky name, and cool kids play the trumpet."

"Cool kids aren't in the band, Daniel," Jack said with authority.

"Sure they are. Hey, Sam!" Daniel scootched himself forward a bit so he could see Carter at the sink. It was her night for dishes, and she was doing them without complaint, just like always. Carter very rarely complained about that kind of thing. It was one of the things Jack liked about her. "Can cool kids be in the band?"

Carter shook her head and put a little more elbow grease into pot-scrubbing. "God, no. What kind of high school did you go to, anyway?"

Daniel looked back and forth between Jack and Carter, mouth hanging open a little, then shut his mouth with a near-audible snap and shrugged. "An unusual one, apparently."

"This isn't the part where you tell us you were in the band, is it?" Jack asked, genuinely worried. He figured he probably would've known, but then Daniel had blindsided him before, and he had owned that piano...

"No," Carter said, wiping down the last plate and coming to sit next to Jack on the couch. "Daniel has depths of geekiness that you have not plumbed, but that's not one of them."

"Oh, like you have room to talk," Daniel said, and Jack really couldn't tell if he was kidding or not. When he glanced over at Carter, though, she just smiled a little sideways smile like Daniel was teasing and said "well, that's fair," so, hey, apparently it was all right.

They didn't get into Brewster until mid-afternoon, as it turned out, but at least everything came off of the boat faster than it'd gone on. The only real snag was having to use Stan-the-neighbor's dock, because Stan-the-neighbor's dock came complete with supervision from Stan-the-neighbor. Not that he helped any, but he did quite graciously take an interest in some of the bedding, along with trying to strike up a conversation with Carter about the condition of various engine parts.

Actually, he took enough of an interest in the boat that the three of them stayed onboard again that night. They killed the lights and pulled the shades to discourage visitors, and Carter, bless her, got the TV going once they found the spot where the power cord had been chewed through.

There wasn't any popcorn--Jack had to admit he was kind of disappointed they hadn't found any of the microwaveable stuff, what with them actually having access to a microwave--but Daniel broke out an unopened can of honey-roasted peanuts he'd found at the marina, and that was kind of the right idea, anyway. So that was good, and Daniel stopped bitching about having to watch Universal Soldier once they promised him they'd keep an eye out for a Blockbuster he could loot, and then things got a little awkward. Because the TV faced the bed, and they could have turned it, but Carter had already found her way under the ugly comforter and patted the bed next to her by the time Jack thought of it.

So Daniel ended up in the middle and Jack was on the edge and even making a point of leaving a gap between them, it was... weird. Awkward. The peanuts were in a bowl balanced on Daniel's stomach, and every now and then Jack's hand would meet someone else's--Carter's, which twice turned its scheduled withdrawal into a caress, or Daniel's, which would twitch a little in surprise and make Jack's scuttle back out of the bowl empty.

Carter wasn't the problem. Well, okay, Carter was kind of the problem, but that was status quo, nothing Jack wasn't already handling, and hey, wasn't that the perfect way to think about the situation? God. The worst thing was, if he'd actually said that to her he just knew she would've turned it into a come-on. Which... well, he liked handling Carter, and there hadn't been a peep of complaint out of Daniel, so they were good there. Apparently.

So no, Carter wasn't really the problem, other than the part where she wasn't waiting until she got him alone to mess with him. The problem was twofold. For one thing, Daniel fell asleep halfway through, and one of his socked feet flopped over to rest against Jack's, and it was warm and distracting and Jack had to admit that he was maybe just a little sorry that Daniel hadn't wanted more from Jack than what he'd gotten that first night.

He really didn't want to think too hard about that, though. Not like he hadn't handled a dick or two in his day, even before that night when he was pretty sure he'd gotten his hands on Daniel's, but the thing was, it had always been easy. Well, okay, easy in a terrifying he-could-lose-his-career kind of way, but that had kind of been why it was hot in the first place. Plus, simple. Straightforward. Daniel, on the other hand--complications out the wazoo, not even counting the Carter issue, and so, hell, when it came to tamping down inappropriate attraction Jack was a goddamn pro. No need to stir up trouble.

If it had just been the way Jack was feeling about ten times more aware of the guy's proximity than usual, that would've been fine. Easy to get around. But no, he had to look over and see Daniel's head on Carter's shoulder, the flickering light from the screen on his face and hers, and feel so damn jealous his teeth hurt. And not just of Daniel's right to have that part of Carter, either.

That was weird, and Jack's list of things he didn't think about was getting kind of long but he made a point of tacking that moment onto the end. Then he turned his attention back to Mr. Belgium--Belgium? Really?--and he knew it was a stupid movie, but he was easily distracted by stupidity so as it turned out he didn't mind at all.

***

They left early the next morning, the sound of the engine echoing off the river and disappearing into the fog. Carter drove until Jack got twitchy, and vice versa; Daniel seemed perfectly happy to leave them to it, and their shared boredom every time the other one got to drive kept them from trying to make him take a turn. Besides, while Jack knew Daniel understood basically how to handle a boat on the water--they'd made it down to that section of the training plan in the summer of '98, and no, Jack still didn't feel bad about having included beer as one of the required supplies--Daniel had never spent that much time on it, and certainly hadn't driven anything as big as what they were in now.

To be fair, none of them had, but if you could fly a death glider you could damn well drive a houseboat, as far as Jack was concerned. This was somewhat disproved when he scraped up the side pretty good maneuvering into the lock at the Jonesville Dam, but it wasn't like the boat sank or anything. The worst of it was the "I told you so" look on Carter's face, and she calmed down once she was sure they hadn't sprung a leak.

It was all pretty slow, and quiet, and actually, Jack was okay with that. He got up early one morning and caught a couple of nice bass, which was satisfying for everyone but the fish. They all watched Dennis Rodman's attempt to start a movie career by pairing up with good old Jean-Claude, and spent a good half hour trying to figure out how you could possibly end up with an entire video collection that was nothing but the complete works of one action star, a home-recorded copy of The Sound of Music, and The History of the Triple Crown. Daniel suggested that he'd gotten the Van Damme gift set; Jack and Carter felt fairly certain there was no Van Damme gift set, and if there had been, well, no wonder the world had ended.

There were probably crowds in which that joke would've been considered kind of offensive, but thankfully Jack wasn't in one of those.

It started raining the third day out from Brewster and refused to stop, a steady drenching that made navigation more difficult and going out to anchor or tie up a misery. It was gloomy, downbeat weather, and by the time they reached Baton Rouge they were all feeling it; Carter and Daniel were more snappish with each other than they'd been since those first few days after his arrival in Brewster, and after the second time Jack got his head bitten off for trying to smooth things over, he backed off and left them to their fun.

The city was grey and ghostly in the rain. They'd talked about stopping there on the way back, depending on how New Orleans went, but just then the place was a little too gothic for the thought of getting off the boat to appeal, so they ate dinner and bundled against the chill and played a few hands of pinochle, which Daniel had learned back in the mists of time on a dig in Syria or Libya or some other damn country that ended in a. It was the only card game in their repertoire that Daniel consistently won. Jack kind of suspected that this was because Daniel kept changing the rules, but they didn't play very often, and he didn't have any proof, so he usually just sucked it up and made sure to take extra-special pleasure in beating him at gin the next time they played.

Really, if he'd wanted to keep track of the rules he could have. But it was easier to just get Daniel to remind him, rather than wasting mental space on pinochle, and so when Daniel and Carter started in on the traditional scoring dispute he went to get the last of the rice from dinner while they hashed it out.

When he came back, they were looking at him.

"What?" he asked suspiciously, settling into his seat with a spoonful of pilaf halfway to his mouth.

"Did he tell us that we can't use the same queen in a marriage and a rope?" Carter asked.

"Hell if I know. Hey, actually, that's a pretty good hand you've got there--"

Carter shook her head impatiently. "The thing is, it's a better hand if it's scored as Daniel described it--"

"Hey!" Oh, that tone of voice set off alarms for sure. Daniel was pissed. "I described the scoring system correctly. Just because you weren't paying attention--Jack? Did I or did I not say you couldn't reuse cards the way that Sam wants to?"

Ah. Yes, that would be the alarms getting louder. Perhaps a flashing sign or two: Crazy people, crazy people. Jack very carefully put down his spoon, clearing the field of fire. "Look, if you say that's the rule--"

"That's not what he told us!" Carter said, and hey, she was pissed too. The hell? The traditional scoring dispute wasn't usually this snippy.

Jack snorted and pushed his chair back from the table, hoping for an escape. "It's pinochle, Carter. I don't feel that strongly about it. Besides, you think I was listening to him when he was blathering on about scoring?"

"Blath--never mind." Daniel was sitting back now too, arms crossed, face thunderous. "If people aren't going to listen to me while I explain the rules very clearly--" he aimed a glare in Carter's direction, letting it catch on Jack for a moment on its way there--"I really don't think it's my fault if they aren't aware of them. Don't you agree, Jack?"

"Oh, I think this is a two-person argument and I'm not in the middle of it. As a matter of fact, I'm going to go sit over there and pretend I'm not able to hear you from ten feet away. Have fun, kids." What he really wanted, in his heart of hearts, was to be able to just order them both to knock it the hell off, but somehow he doubted that would go over well. Or help. Dammit.

Carter reached out to grasp Jack's wrist, eyes a little anxious. "No, don't do that," she said. "Look, I'm sorry, you're right, this is a stupid thing to argue about. Just... sit down, I'll take the score the way Daniel wants it, we can move on."

"Oh, well, if Jack says--"

Jack pulled his arm lightly away from Carter's grip, then pulled a bit more forcefully. She frowned at her hand, as if she'd forgotten what she was doing with it, and then snatched it back into her lap, looking away. He sank back down into his chair slowly. "What Jack says is 'I can't believe you're actually having a serious argument about a hand of pinochle.' Also 'get a grip' and 'I would rather be spit on by a camel than sit here and referee your pissing contest.'"

"That's an... interesting comparison," Daniel said, after a brief pause.

"First thing I came up with. We gonna play cards here, or what?"

"Daniel, it's all right, I'll take the real score." Carter smiled at Daniel, then cut her eyes over toward Jack. He nodded approvingly.

A flash of something passed across Daniel's face, quickly controlled, as he collected the cards. "No, we can replay the hand. I'm not letting you decide later that I took unfair advantage of you."

Jack would probably have let Carter win at that point, but Daniel was either morally opposed to that sort of thing or just confused by it--Jack had never been quite sure--so that wasn't in the cards, no pun intended. So while the argument-smell lingered for a while, by the time Daniel triumphed, Jack figured that it was pretty much gone.

The weather broke briefly just as they tied up in New Orleans behind the Carnival Conquest, which was still patiently waiting for its next load of passengers, rising up out of the Mississippi like a skyscraper that had somehow gotten lost and wandered off for a swim. "See, now that's a big boat," Jack said, heartily impressed. Honestly, slipping in right behind it like they had made Jack feel a little bit like they were asking to be smushed--it did kind of loom over them--but if the thing had sat there for more than two years without coming loose, there was no reason to assume it was going to now.

He suggested they back up a little anyway. Not that there weren't other boats around if they had to replace this one, but he liked his boat, dammit.

They'd agreed to leave at seven-thirty the next morning. Jack set the alarm on his wristwatch in an attempt to hold them to that, but actually woke just before five to a--well, sort of a howl and a wail and a moan, all at once. It was pretty loud, but they were on the water, after all, and the doors were locked. So Jack thought poor puppy. Sucks to be him and rolled over and went back to sleep until the alarm beeped him out of pleasant dreams two hours later.

***

"It was a coyote," Daniel said for the third time, with that patient tone that meant he was feeling really, really impatient. "Or possibly a dog. But I'm guessing coyote."

"How do you know?" Jack asked from atop the hood of an abandoned Corvette. Nineteen eighty-two, he thought, and didn't look through the window to see whether or not the driver had made it out of the car before buying the farm.

"Well, for one thing, I know what coyotes sound like, and so do you. For another, zombies don't exist."

"Well, sure, that's what they say. They said the same thing about space aliens, and look where that got us." Jack gestured extravagantly over the edge of the elevated highway at the city below. There had been a fire at some point, and they'd figured it might be worth the trouble to get up above the surface streets. Even clogged with cars, the highway was proving to be an easier way to travel. Plus, if they gained some elevation hopefully they'd be able to get a good bead on the Superdome.

"That's completely different," Daniel said, sliding himself over the hood after Jack. "Space aliens are by definition located in space, and so it was entirely believable that they were out there somewhere--" he waved a hand at the overcast sky--"where we couldn't see them. Zombies, on the other hand, are earthbound. Someone would've noticed. I mean, I don't believe in Bigfoot either. Also, what do you mean 'they' said aliens didn't exist? I think you mean 'we,' white man."

Oh, can we please not have this conversation again. "You don't believe in Bigfoot?"

"No one believes in Bigfoot, Jack," Carter said from her perch atop a semi. Jack frowned a little. She could fall, he thought, and then wondered why he'd never thought like that back when getting shot at was part of her job. Well, other than the obvious, of course, and he wasn't thinking about that either because Daniel was standing right next to him wearing exactly the same frown.

Thinking was clearly not conducive to relationship management in this particular brave new world. Or anyway, it had better not be, because he was feeling like a damned old dog just at the moment. "I'm just saying, middle of the night, New Orleans, strange sounds, you've gotta be thinking zombies. Or possibly ghosts. Given those options who wants to go with coyotes? Boring."

Carter smiled, or anyway Jack decided to believe she did, because he couldn't really tell from where he was. "If you say--oh, yeah, look at that."

"You can see it?" Daniel rose up on his tiptoes--must have been unconscious, since the extra inch he was getting wasn't going to let him see past the permanent traffic jam anytime soon.

"Yeah. Hang on." Carter adjusted the binoculars she was holding, swept from left to right. "The stadium's still standing, but something made a big hole in the dome, Tony was right about that much." She put the binoculars away and lowered herself easily to the top of the cab.

Jack shifted his pack on his shoulders and took a deep breath. "So, still a chance we're gonna get more than beads out of this, huh?"

"Funny," Daniel said, straight-faced.
The Superdome was not, as it turned out, designed for drainage. Low spots were flooded with rainwater, and water had also worked its way into Jack's boots by the time they found their way through a back door and a maze of corridors to the field proper.

They came onto the field out of the tunnel that the players had used, back in the day. Jack could still remember watching the Patriots pull off a squeaker of a victory in this stadium; that Superbowl was the last time he'd had his whole team at his house before Kelowna. Daniel, who'd had a New Yorker's native disdain for Boston sports for as long as Jack had known him, had lost fifty bucks betting on St. Louis and skillfully avoided paying him off until after they all came home from Vis Uban.

Of course, not long after that it had all gone to hell. Might as well not have bothered nagging him about it, really.

Jack squelched his way to the mouth of the tunnel first, and when he said "Looks like we owe old Tony a beer," he was a little surprised to find that he didn't feel much of anything at all. The guy was right; it was an al'kesh that had crashed there. Ass-first, apparently, since the front half was mostly intact, nose resting on the thirty-yard line. Jack could see the remnants of something human-built, maybe an F-16, protruding from the thing's side. Good for you, he thought to its pilot, though again, they really might as well not have bothered.

"Oh! Look at her," Carter cooed from the space beside his right elbow, using the tone of voice that she reserved for babies, kittens, particularly desirable pieces of technology, and, just the one time, Jack's cock. He was pretty sure he would've found that deflating if he'd been able to rub two brain cells together at the time, but Daniel had been in the middle of...

Dammit. Bad combination of thoughts and road and he'd talked to himself about this already. No thinking.

"That thing is definitely not going to fly," Daniel said authoritatively.

"No, probably not," Carter said, "but flying isn't everything."

They started in the back of the ship and worked forward. The engine room looked like a complete loss to Jack, though Carter made some hopeful noises and Jack didn't see any point in dragging her down out of the clouds just yet. The armory was intact but disappointingly empty--either it had been stripped sometime after the crash or there hadn't been anything there in the first place, since they'd apparently never planned a full-on ground assault anyway--but Daniel found a zat underneath a cot in the main barracks, so that was something.

Once they reached the pel'tac and determined that it was going to be a while before the radio was working, Jack went back outside, partly because it seemed like a good idea to keep an eye out just in case and partly because watching Carter dig into the guts of funky Goa'uld technology wasn't really his idea of a good time. Eventually, though, it started to rain yet again, coming down hard through the gash in the dome and drumming on the skin of the al'kesh, so Jack went inside to wait it out with Daniel and Carter.

He settled down against a golden bulkhead and laid out his boots and socks in the middle of the floor to dry, not far from the scattered skeletal remains of a Jaffa. Coyotes again, he thought, as he said, "I'm telling you, zombies. You see any brains left? No, because the zombies ate them."

This statement got a weary snort out of Daniel, which wasn't anywhere near the reaction Jack had hoped for; he was a little disappointed that Daniel wasn't bored enough to give him shit about the zombie fixation. Of course, Jack was pretty sure that Daniel was entertaining himself by looking at Carter's ass where it was sticking out from under the main console.

That could be projection, but he didn't think so.

"I'm surprised they didn't come after this thing," he said, trying another tack. "I mean, it's not like they didn't have access."

"For one al'kesh? Why bother?"

Jack shrugged. "Just seems like a waste."

"Yes, because if there's one thing that's true of the Goa'uld, it's that they're not wasteful." Oh yeah, that was sarcasm right there, but he could see Daniel smiling in the grey light from the windows, so hey, progress.

"Know-it-all," Jack said anyway, just to poke the guy.

Daniel smiled a little wider and nudged Jack with an elbow. "So you admit it."

"When I say all--whoa!" The lights flared to life, and Jack squeezed his eyes shut against the glare for a moment. "Carter?"

"Alternate power supply," she said, her voice muffled. "Is anything other than the lights working?"

"Uh..." Daniel was closer; he levered himself to his feet and pulled his sleeve down over his hand, brushing mouse droppings off of the console. "Wow. Yes. Engine's shot, we knew that... weapons are registering but not charged..."

"Probably not enough power," Carter said as she emerged.

"Right. Life support yes, not that we care... oh, hey, if we want to hit the self-destruct we can, though I'm going to vote no… and look at that. Communications yes."

"Huh," Jack said.

Three hours later, it was dark outside and still raining and Carter's shoulders were somewhere around her ears (stress level: Elevated). They'd found three ham radio frequencies (nice to hear, but nothing new), one channel that Daniel described as air traffic control (where for exactly he couldn't tell, what with the Goa'uld place names), and another one that Daniel listened to for a minute and a half, eyes narrowed, before declaring it to be religious broadcasting and moving on with an angry stab at the controls.

Anyway, at the three-hour mark Jack stopped trying to imagine a Goa'uld Tammy Faye Bakker, reached over Carter's shoulder, and hit the off switch. "We can finish up tomorrow," he said. "You're getting grumpy."

"Oh, I like how you think you can tell me what to do," she snapped. "It's cute. Sir."

She reached out to turn the thing back on and Jack caught her hand in his. "Fine. Let's practice a little democracy, then. Daniel?"

Daniel shrugged. "I don't tell her what to do. Besides, I don't really care at this point."

Oh, yeah, that was helpful. "You're the deciding vote. You have to care. And if you don't vote, you don't get to bitch later on when her head explodes, and I'm making you clean up the mess."

"Convince her yourself," Daniel said with a shrug, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor again without taking his eyes off of Carter. She shoved Jack's hand out of the way and flipped the switch he'd been protecting, bringing up the static again. Jack stared at her to no avail, and damn did he want to issue an order or two at this point, but for the first time he wasn't entirely sure where that would end. He'd win the battle, sure, but the war? Not that there was a war. He didn't think there was a war, anyway. If there was, it was the weirdest, most fraternization-prone war ever.

Carter, he thought, would have been a hot spy. Maybe she could do an accent. Not Russian, something else--Cuban, maybe. Not that Carter looked Cuban. She'd have to be, oh, a Nazi who'd fled to Cuba--no, that didn't make any sense, the Nazis and the Communists had never gotten along--

"GodDAMN it!" That was Carter, without any accent at all, slapping both hands hard against the console. She took a deep breath and then glanced up at him, looking a little embarrassed. "Sorry. It doesn't want to pick up some sets of channels, I'm going to have to go underneath and pull the crystals--" She stood up, running one hand through her hair, and motioned Jack away from the open panel he was blocking. "It'll work, I just need to get at it."

"How long, Carter?"

"The damage didn't look that bad," she said, which wasn't an answer as far as he could tell, but who knew, really? Maybe it was an answer. Or maybe the answer was in her tone, instead; she didn't sound like a happy Carter at all. Not that a problem she still thought she could fix ought to be throwing her, but no matter what she said about it being a longshot, she was pretty damn committed to the idea that this communicator was going to do them some good. If it didn't... "I might just need to re-tune the resonance on the tertiary crystal." She slid to her knees, pulling a tiny flashlight out of her pocket.

He was trying to figure out how to get her to take a break without getting snapped at when Daniel slipped between them and reached down to wrap his hand around hers where it was clutching the flashlight. "Sam. Maybe you should think about taking a break. Just... listen to yourself for a second, okay? You've been going for a long time, you haven't eaten, we're all tired, and if there's a signal it'll still be there tomorrow. You can fix things then, when you aren't cranky and likely to drop something."

After a moment, Carter pulled her hand free and turned the flashlight off with a gusty sigh. To Jack's considerable astonishment, she took a deep breath, let it out, and said, "You're right. I could eat, anyway." She rubbed at her neck, thumb digging into the base of her skull.

Daniel laid a hand on her shoulder and hit her with his most earnest look, his whole body brimming with sympathy. Damn, he was good. "Ah, neckrubs are free tonight for all physicists, you know."

With a smile, Carter rose up high enough on her knees to kiss him. "I knew that Ph.D would come in useful one of these days."

Dammit, Jack thought, as Daniel gave him a triumphant look while Sam's attention was elsewhere. Why couldn't I do that?

Because Daniel knows her better than you do, dumbass. Plus he's got more practice using bribery to get what he wants.

It was strangely intimate in the pel'tac, despite the harsh lighting; something about the humidity and the sound of the rain made the room feel smaller than it was, cut off from the world outside. Carter sat on her bedroll, forehead on her knees, and Daniel braced one of her shoulders with his left hand while digging into it with his right thumb.

Jack had never seen him do that before; hell, Daniel had rarely even touched her, before, though she'd been more hands-on with him after he descended, as if trying to pat him back into shape after his year away. Jack wondered idly whether he'd been as casually intimate with Sha're, and decided that the answer was probably yes. On the one hand, it was kind of nice to watch, filling the room with something warm and very calm. On the other hand, Carter was making happy noises that reminded Jack of that time when Daniel went, of all things, fishing, and while he knew that Daniel knew, and for that matter, he was pretty sure Carter had sent Daniel fishing for the afternoon… and there he went thinking again.

Jack missed their house. At least there they had walls. Walls helped.

He'd go take a walk, if only it weren't raining.

***

The sun came out around noon the next day, and less than fifteen minutes later Carter let out a whoop, sitting back in her seat and pointing at the console. "Got it," she said.

It sounded like the same static they'd been listening to for hours to Jack, but then he wasn't the one with a Tok'ra ghost in his head. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure. Listen." She clearly expected him to nod and agree, but really it just sounded like static. Apparently his skepticism was showing, because she said, "I'm not kidding. There's a pattern, if you pay attention."

"Anyone in particular?" Daniel reached out toward the console, but Carter pushed his hand away protectively.

"No, it's… wait… no. Just a repeater."

"Voicemail?" Jack suggested, and she smiled at him. Mood: Sunny. Much better.

"Essentially, yes. If there's anyone in-system, they aren't announcing themselves. But someone went to the trouble of planting a repeater; they wouldn't have needed it before."

"So the question, then, is who's checking the messages."

"We agreed--"

"Yeah, we did." Jack drummed his fingers on the back of Carter's chair. "Jolinar?"

"I think that's the best course of action. Leave her ID, extract the comm equipment from the console--which reminds me I'm going to need the blowtorch--and take it home with us."

"…hoping that nothing nasty follows…"

"Well, hopefully they aren't listening all that closely," Daniel said. "They wanted to destroy us, not occupy us long-term. So long as we don't look like we're going to start blowing things up again, why would it be worth the bother for them?"

"We know they tried to dig out the Stargate," Jack pointed out.

"Sure, but even if they set it up again, what are they going to do with it? Export ponderosa pine? Much more likely they'd take it off world for reuse."

"I don't want that thing in town," Jack said, waving one hand in the general direction of the console. "Take it up the river and leave it somewhere close enough to make it easier to check on, that's fine, but I'm thinking a little paranoia is healthy in this situation."

Carter deflated a little, then came back to life. "So you're saying "hey, Dad, can you come pick me up 'cause I missed my ride" is a little more detail than you think I should leave?"

"I think he'll figure that part out on his own," Jack said. "Twenty bucks says the repeater was his idea, anyway."

"God, I hope so." Carter sounded kind of worried, really, which was weird, but then Jack had always suspected Carter was a pessimist at heart. Daniel dropped a hand onto her shoulder and squeezed, gently; she didn't shrug him off, at least, which Jack figured was a good thing. "Look, this is going to take a while," she said. "Why don't you guys take a walk? Remember, Daniel, you promised Britzie a souvenir."

"Trying to get rid of us, Carter?" Jack said, mock-offended.

She smiled up at him. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Right. Well, we do need to hit a video store, so Daniel can stop bitching about the in-flight selection. Or, hey, here's an idea, we could work on checking out what might actually be useful, huh?"

"Well, I did promise Britzie, Jack," Daniel said mildly. "We can even pretend it's from you, too. Maybe then she'll stop calling you 'the old guy' behind your back."

In the end, they went to the French Quarter anyway, practicality be damned. It was a little out of their way, but what the hell, if you're going to come all the way to New Orleans, right?

Even before it had burned, Jack thought he would've been depressed by the neighborhood around the Superdome. He was particularly disappointed by City Hall, which was a big and boring (if mostly intact) box instead of something more appropriately gothic or romantic or whateveric, and what was New Orleans doing having regular boring architecture, instead of quaint little cobblestoned streets? Filled with drunken, shirtless co-eds, if at all possible.

Daniel gave him a look when he explained the part about the co-eds, but Jack felt confident that Daniel could've been brought around, if they'd ever visited the place Before. Just liquor him up and set him loose; hell, it probably would've been good for him. The idea of getting smashed and picking up women with Daniel was kind of a fun one, come to think of it. More-recent Daniel, short-haired and muscled and more settled in his body, earnestly discussing the architectural implications of the city's history with some poor overwhelmed college student--no, make it a grad student, the thought of picking up twenty-year-olds was just a little skeevy--but the earnestness would still work, that always worked for Daniel. He had the eyes for it, and the ability to focus on whatever he was doing. Whoever he was... and oh, hello, there's another way that trip could have gone.

So, Colonel, how was your vacation?

Well, General, the good news is we were perfect gentlemen with the ladies. But you know how it would've looked really suspicious for me to do New Orleans with Carter instead of Daniel? Well...

"I'm surprised it isn't flooded, actually," Daniel mused, shaking Jack back to attentiveness. "Isn't New Orleans actually below sea level? I mean, don't they have…" He waved one hand vaguely oceanward. "I don't know. Dams, or dikes, or something?"

"Something like that." A wall had come down in front of them, strewing bricks across the street; Jack pursed his lips, tapping the zat against his thigh, then shot the rubble to make a hole. Carter wouldn't approve of the waste, but then Carter had never really successfully convinced him that you could run out of power when it came to Goa'uld tech. "Ask Carter, she'd know. Or talk to someone who's actually from here. Wait, you didn't ask Tony about this?"

"I asked him if the city was still here, he said yes. He wasn't really up for discussing details of civil engineering, if he ever knew them. You know," he added, "if the entire city is this bad we may as well just head back."

"You're gonna let a collapsed building or two stop you? C'mon, we're in New Orleans. We should live it up while we're young."

Daniel stopped dead in his tracks. "Young?"

Jack offered up his very best cocky grin. "Okay, young at heart, anyway." Actually, the streets were opening up again; the fire hadn't swept the whole city after all. A couple of pigeons walked out of their way, grumbling to each other as they eyed the human invaders. Jack halfheartedly kicked a plastic Coke bottle in their direction, to absolutely no response beyond a pigeony glare.

"You pulled the wings off of flies when you were a kid, didn't you?" Thankfully Daniel sounded amused rather than scandalized, despite the fact that he showed no sign of providing vital anti-pigeon backup. Damn civilians. You could never really rely on them to have the proper instinctive understanding of important tactical maneuvers.

"No, only off of pigeons," Jack said. "If you'd grown up in Chicago you'd kick crap at them too. There was this one that lived where I grew up--this is God's own truth--that used to go after the neighborhood cats. Seriously, they were all terrified of the thing, they'd cross the street to stay away from it."

"And..." Daniel said, once it was clear no further elements of the story were forthcoming.

Jack shrugged, peering down a side street. All residential, looked like. Pretty, all wrought-iron balconies and crap--that was more like it!--but he wasn't in the mood to deal with residential. "And then eventually it dropped dead, and the cats got over it. The end."

"Wow." Daniel swerved away, detouring around the far side of a watery pothole, then rejoined Jack on the other side, hustling a little to catch up. "That's... a really interesting story, Jack."

"I'm just saying, pigeons are scarier than you think. You know they evolved from dinosaurs? It's true."

"National Geographic?"

"Oh yeah."

When Jack glanced over, he could see that Daniel had his Seriously, You're a Fruitcake face on, arched eyebrows and all, but that was okay. Jack had long since decided that he'd be a lot happier if he assumed that deep down, Daniel was actually amused when he looked like he was considering how best to ease Jack into a straitjacket. "Soooo... if we have the pigeon for dinner, it would be like... eating a stegosaurus, then."

Ha. Totally right about the amused. Lightest mood Daniel had been in since they'd left Brewster. "Absolutely. Hey, didn't a bunch of Russians eat freeze-dried mammoth one time?"

"Actually, that's a myth--they thought better of it. Presumably on 'it's a bad idea to eat anything older than your grandparents' grounds."

"You never eaten Russian cuisine, have you?"

"Oh, like you don't know I've been to Russia--"

"Well, I sure as hell didn't feed you borscht when we were there. Please don't tell me they talked you into going authentic the second time. Seriously, Daniel, you gotta eat at McDonalds like normal people."

Daniel snorted, then said, a little wistfully, "You know, I really miss their fries."

They wandered aimlessly for a while; despite Carter going on about how if they were lucky November would be shorts weather, there was enough of a chill in the wind that they went searching for the sun, tracing the shadows of rooftops on the road. With the sunshine it was refreshing rather than unpleasant, though, and if they'd been outside the kill zone it might have even been a nice walk.

Bourbon Street looked a little depressing--apparently a significant number of people had turned to alcohol in the face of certain doom, which Jack understood, despite being more of a continue-trying-to-escape-certain-doom kind of guy--so they drifted back down southward toward the river. At the end of the street, Jack stopped dead in front of the very last store. "Okay," he said, "this is where you should be getting souvenirs. C'mon, what healthy thirteen-year-old girl doesn't want wacky voodoo paraphernalia?"

Daniel frowned. "You know, I was kind of thinking, I don't know. A snowglobe or something."

Jack ignored him and went in, hesitating for a moment in the doorway to let his eyes adjust to the dimness inside. Scent lay over everything like a cloud; Daniel'd be blowing his nose inside of five minutes, Jack thought, but the other man still followed him in without hesitating. "So," Jack asked, holding up a small bottle, "what exactly do people use voodoo powder for anyway?"

"Well, voodoo is actually a religion, which is based in West African beliefs brought to the New World by slaves. There's something of a Catholic overlay in many forms--"

"Yeah, whatever. Can I turn someone into a zombie with this stuff?"

Daniel held out his hand for the bottle and peered at it very carefully, looking at it from several angles, his expression one of the utmost seriousness. He nodded thoughtfully. "Um, no. First of all, zombies don't exist. Also I think you'd probably want the Domination powder for that."

Jack let himself smirk, just a little. "Kinky."

"Or possibly the Black Arts… oh, hey, they have scented soaps. That might work."

They avoided the Egyptian section by mutual, silent consent--who wanted Hathor perfume anyway?--but the rest of the store was kinda fun, soaps and oils and Magical Ritual Body Glitter, which would've struck Jack as being a little inauthentic except for that time on -257 with the glittery magical ritual that had, thankfully, turned out not to include sex after all. Daniel went to smell one flower tincture and ended up sneezing helplessly into a hand that stunk of Rock Rose ("For Sudden Feelings of Fear, Terror, or Panicking," according to the label), so Jack kicked him out and filled the rest of the pack himself. Carter would like the smelly stuff, he thought. She'd always liked that kind of girly shit.

Daniel was sitting on the curb when he emerged, still a little watery-eyed. "All done?"

"Yeah." Jack offered Daniel a hand up, then leaned in and sniffed. "Nice."

"Don't start with me," Daniel muttered, rubbing the offending hand against his pants. "You want to head back, or…?"

The shadows were definitely getting longer. It probably was time to head back, see if Carter needed a hand. Besides, he wouldn't mind a break from the exciting mass grave atmosphere that was any urban core these days. "Yeah. Time to go."

***

If it'd been a bootprint, Jack wouldn't have noticed it. Should have, maybe--he wouldn't have argued the point--but the prints from their passage through the tunnel to the playing field were still there, and plenty of them, so he wasn't looking all that closely.

He did notice, though, because right there in the silt that'd been washed down into the tunnel's low point over the years was the very clear print of something that was not a boot at all. A sneaker, he thought, one of those ones with the nubbly sole that you used to be able to buy at Wal-Mart for five bucks a pair. If it'd been there when they'd come in he would've noticed; it wasn't his, or Daniel's, or Carter's. Which meant they had a visitor. Which was... not necessarily bad, but unsettling.

"Daniel, hold up there a minute," he said.

"What?"

"Footprint. Not ours."

"New?"

"Yeah," Jack said, then, "Daniel--" as he turned back and kept walking toward the tunnel's mouth. Daniel stopped a good ten feet before he got there, thankfully, and kept his voice down when he came back. "Just wanted to see if anyone was outside the al'kesh and the answer is no." He looked a little worried, Jack thought; only sensible. "Only one?"

"Yeah, far as I can tell." Jack's lips tightened. Best-case scenario: They'd missed seeing the print coming in. Middle-case scenario: Non-violent local stopping by to chat. Worst-case scenario: Unfriendly local stopping by to pull shit he thought he could get away with one-on-one.

And of course Carter was armed, and not shy with a gun, but...

"I'm gonna go check it out. You stay here, wait for my signal."

"Uh, no." Daniel planted himself in the middle of the tunnel, giving every impression of being perfectly willing to block Jack's way physically if necessary.

Okay, things I don't have time for. "Daniel, think about this for a second, will you?"

"If there is a problem, you're going to want someone at your back."

"And if we're in an extra-special fun version of the worst-case scenario, there's someone sitting up in the stands above the exit there right now with a weapon. In which case I think that maybe someone should stay in here until we know the situation a little better. Whaddaya say?"

Daniel held his gaze for a moment--an old, familiar, challenging stare--then looked down, shifted his weight, and Daniel giving in was less familiar but always welcome. "You want me to get up into the stands?"

"No. Too much time to find a way up there, then too much trouble getting back down if you're needed," Jack said, moving Daniel from the section in his head marked "problem" to the one marked "asset (potential)" and leaving him there. He readied the zat--stupid design, they could build interstellar spaceships but they couldn't build a damn ray gun that didn't make noise when you turned it on, the dumbasses. If there was anyone listening, they'd've heard him and Daniel already anyway, though, so no harm done.

He paused in the mouth of the tunnel, Daniel about a foot behind him, and damn, he had better stay put like he'd promised. Jack just looked for a moment, doing his best to make out details in the dimness of the stadium. They'd closed the door of the al'kesh when they'd left, and it was still closed; no movement, nothing new on the field, nothing he could see in the stands.

With luck, he was just being paranoid. Still, he stayed close to the wall as he moved around to get a view of the rest of the stands, keeping half an eye on the al'kesh. Still no movement, and no one in the seats above the end zone where they'd entered either, or if there was someone there they were both patient and well-hidden. So, okay, fine. Gotta step out into the open eventually, and really, all the worry was probably unnecessary.

Probably.

When the door into the al'kesh slid open, he was pretty sure it wasn't.

Once Carter got invested in a project--and this whole trip had been her baby from the start--she didn't like to let it go until she was done. Also, she always, always, always cleaned up after herself. So Jack had figured he'd find her doing one of three things: still working (in which case he'd have to go annoy her to get so much as a hello), cleaning up and packing (ditto, as those were defined as part of Work in Carter's brain), or packed up and ready to go, in which case "hello" would've been swiftly followed by "I need you and Daniel to help me carry these large heavy objects." But there was none of that; just Carter, standing unsmiling in the doorway.

"Welcome back," she said, and the cheeriness Jack could hear in her voice was completely missing in her expression. Ah, shit. Someone close enough to hear her, then; good chance they could see him, too, and if they hadn't been armed she'd have laid them out on the Astroturf like a cat leaving bloody presents on the front mat. So, okay.

"Why thanks," he said expansively, holding the zat as unobtrusively as a big phallic raygun could be held. If they'd watched him come down the field, they'd know he was armed and suspicious. Might not have, though. Probably best to follow Carter's lead. "It's a great day for a walk. You shoulda come with!"

Two, Carter mouthed, confirming with two fingers of her left hand laid against the front of her jeans. "Well, you know me and exercise." She tapped her index finger once, then made a finger-gun briefly; one armed. Okay. She was using her left hand, so they wouldn't be on that side of her, which would mean that would be the way she'd go in order to get out of the line of fire. She'd have to come a good long step forward to clear the doorway; alternatively, go to the side while staying in the al'kesh, though there wasn't a lot of room... first things first. Give her some verbal cover, see if she can just step out.

Jack nodded slightly. "I do, I do. Which reminds me, I found this piano..." Carter wrinkled up her nose. Right. Piano. Because that made sense. What the fuck was he thinking, anyway? There wasn't something more reasonable that would take two people to move? Oh well, too late now. "...which you know I've been meaning to learn to play. Come give me a hand moving it, will you?"

"Sure," she said, and then she must've heard something because she was in the middle of turning back into the al'kesh when the zat fire hit her. Bad aim, Jack noted automatically, as Carter let out a kind of strangled yelp and fell out of his field of vision. He brought up his own zat and fired at the spot where his target had to be standing, a quick shot before ducking out of the way.

There was a cry from inside, followed by a thump; someone falling to the floor, hopefully. Jack fired into the airlock again, and looked very briefly around the edge of the door. Carter down in the doorway, not moving; nothing to be done about that right now. Another shape farther in, too low to have been hit by his second shot. Fine; he fired a killing shot, lower this time. Fucker shouldn't have messed with a professional, though why Carter hadn't... not now. Later.

Movement around the other end of the al'kesh. Jack nearly squeezed off a shot, before his eyes sent a message saying Daniel to his fingers. Lucky the message hadn't taken the long way around through his brain, Jack thought, God knew the way his day was going it would've gotten stuck. No point in being annoyed that Daniel hadn't waited for his signal, either; you had to assume he was going to show up once the shooting started.

Okay. One down, one to go, Carter's Beretta was unaccounted for but the one he'd put down had a zat--his mind twisted around that little fact for a second before putting it in the Worry About This Later pile--and Carter had said only one was armed, so hopefully the Beretta wasn't in play.

Still, worst-case scenario. Paranoia had been working for him so far.

Carter twitched a little, coming around. Good. "The one on the floor's dead, there's another one inside, Carter said unarmed but I don't know for sure. Get her clear and wait for me."

"Jack--"

"Get the zat from this one, too. Anything comes through that door that isn't me, shoot them." Jack didn't wait to see what Daniel did; concern for Carter would keep him where he was for a little while, at least. Check the hidden corners of the airlock; clear. Door into the rest of the ship was open; look left, step into the hall, sweep right. Nothing. Be easier with two people, but not good to give the second target extra time to get fancy, and he'd already been bitten in the ass once leaving someone alone today.

Room-by-room to the front, then; not much intact aft of here, and if #2 was back there he'd probably try to get out while Jack was up front, at which point Daniel could take care of him. The lights were still on; good, that meant he probably didn't know how to turn them off to make life harder for Jack. Besides, it made it a lot easier to close the door to the airlock.

The first storeroom was clear; so was the second, though the waiting containers of gas made him twitch. Dormitory, clear. Mess, clear--then zat fire from back toward the entrance, shit.

"Got her!" Daniel called, but Jack kept his zat up until he saw the body sprawled out on the floor of the airlock. Daniel was crouching next to--oh, yes, her, actually, one hand on her back, the other palm-out toward Jack. "Don't shoot. She's out."

Carter was on her feet, if still leaning against the doorframe; good. Conscious was good. "And we're going to do what with her exactly, Daniel?"

"Well, we aren't going to shoot her dead in cold blood," Daniel snapped, which... okay, he really kind of wanted to shoot her for fucking with Carter but Daniel was obviously going to make a thing out of it.

"She may not be a threat, Jack," Carter said.

He stared at her, disbelievingly. Damn, she had been hanging around with Daniel for too long.

"No, I know what you're thinking, but she tried to use something on me that looked a lot like nish'ta, so if she was dosed as well..." She trailed off, obviously expecting Jack to get the rest on his own, which for once he actually did.

Still, better safe than sorry. "Well, if no one minds maybe we can restrain her anyway, huh? Daniel, you did check her for weapons, right?"

"Yes, I checked, she's unarmed." He was using his best 'don't condescend to me, you nitwit,' voice, but he was also pulling his belt free as he spoke--not optimal, but better than nothing. Besides, she wasn't a very big girl. And he could always shoot her later, if he wanted. He left her to Daniel and stepped over the dead one--also a woman, huh--to get to Carter.

She was a little pale, but looked like she was bouncing back all right. "Sit down," he said. "We'll get you something to drink in a second. What happened? This is exactly the sort of situation for which we carry firearms."

"Hit me with the zat when I went outside to pee," Carter said, disgusted, as she slid down to the floor. "Then when I woke up they used the nish'ta, and I didn't pick up what it was fast enough--I think the one with the zat was worried I was faking. I tried to get clear before you got back, but--" She shrugged.

"Don't worry about it. You did good." Twice with the zat, then; she'd be shaky for a while. "You get any details about what they wanted?"

She shook her head, then winced. Jack knew all too well that it was never a good idea to slosh your brains around post-zatting. "Not really. It sounds like they saw us come in--they wanted me to help them get ahold of my 'two friends.' Other than that... this one started in with some God talk, but the dead one shut her up. Neither of them have a symbiote, but they're using Goa'uld weaponry, a Goa'uld drug, talking religion..."

"You think there's one of them here," Daniel said from across the way. He had #2's hands tied behind her and one of his own hands on her upper back, waiting for movement; judging by his expression, he badly wanted to be right where Jack was, but he had enough sense not to leave the prisoner unguarded. Good man.

"Pretty much." Carter smiled at him, a little wanly; it didn't seem to make Daniel feel any better. "Jack, if she wakes up clean we have to take her with us."

Jack looked back at #2. "Yeah. Well. We'll see."

***

The woman on the floor didn't come around as quickly as Carter had, but when she woke up she woke up fast, like she thought she was falling off of a cliff. She tried to squirm around onto her back, but Daniel leaned in enough to hold her down. "It's okay. We're not going to hurt you. Just relax." He didn't give an inch physically, but his voice was gentle, soothing, just the way he liked to make it sound when he got it into his head that someone needed saving. Which, hell, that might have to be nipped in the bud, because that was exactly the kind of thing that ended with 'dead' when it came to Daniel.

"What? No, I'm not--what are you doing?"

She sounded scared and confused, anyway, just like she should if she was coming down off of nish'ta. Daniel leaned in, voice still very calm. "We just need to make sure you're safe before we let you go, okay? What's the last thing you remember?"

"Safe from who?" she asked angrily, trying and failing to kick Daniel.

Jack walked over to her and knelt by her head, turning it so she could see him. "Well, the thing is, you just got done shooting one of my friends, so actually it's our safety that we're worried about. Why don't you go ahead and answer the man's question, before I decide to give you a thumbs-down?"

She tried to squirm backward, away from Jack; Daniel held her in position easily enough, but he didn't look happy. Jack grimaced and mentally backed up a step. "Okay, let's start with introductions, then. I'm Jack. This is Daniel, and the nice lady you shot earlier is Sam. You?"

"I didn't--" She licked her lips, eyes wide and a little wild. "Shoot? I wouldn't--I don't understand."

"Don't worry about it," Daniel said, shooting Jack a look. "Like Jack said, I'm Daniel. What's your name?"

"Tracey. Tracey Valero, and you have to let me go, you--" She stuttered to a stop, closing her eyes for a moment, and when she began again her voice was much more certain, with fear running just beneath the surface. "You don't understand. If we stay here we'll die, we don't have much time."

Shit. "You got friends on the way?"

"No, it's the death. It's been--what time is it? Is it night yet? I have to be back by midnight for treatment, and you've been here--you've been--" A look of confusion made its way onto Tracey's face and lodged there. "You've been here for more than a day. That doesn't... that doesn't make any sense. When was your last treatment?"

Jack glanced up at Daniel, but he clearly wasn't tracking this either. Carter appeared from behind him, laying a hand lightly on Jack's shoulder for support as she lowered herself back down to the ground. "We don't understand what you mean by treatment, Tracey," she said. "Are you sick?"

"No," Tracey said impatiently, "not so long as I keep up the treatment. You... really don't know what I'm talking about, do you? How are you even alive?"

Daniel loosened his grip on her a little, voice softening further. "Why wouldn't we be? The gas is gone, Tracey. I promise. I don't know how you think you're protecting yourself, but the cities are perfectly clean now. They have been for years."

"That's not true." Tracey tried to look up at Daniel, but couldn't twist enough, so settled for Jack instead. "It's not."

"Did you ever breathe the same gas that you tried to use on Sam?" Daniel asked. "That was supposed to make her more suggestible, right? Easier to handle?"

Tracey looked confused for a moment, then sucked in a sharp breath, and another, eyes closed. "Oh, God," she whispered, her hands clenching into fists where they rested in the small of her back. Jack clearly remembered the sudden shock of coming back to himself in Seth's compound; it had been a little overwhelming, even after just a few hours and having known ahead of time what was coming. If she'd been under for years...

Though Carter had picked up on her cues quickly enough to pretend to be under the influence. He had to keep in mind the possibility that Tracey was only pretending to be free of it.

With luck, Daniel would too. And Jack was a lucky guy, he knew that. The problem was, you could never tell from day to day whether the luck was going to be ridiculously good or ridiculously bad. So far, this day seemed to be running straight down the middle; bad luck to have wacky brainwashed attackers wandering into the Superdome, good luck that no one had taken any permanent damage from it. Which... didn't help him predict which way Daniel was going to jump. Damn. Well, he'd schedule in a five-minute meeting to pull him aside and smack him upside the head if necessary. That was always fun.

Oh, hell, he was going for her wrists.

"Daniel."

Daniel stilled, then looked over at Jack, his expression pleasantly inquiring. "Jack?"

"Whatcha doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?"

Jack lowered his voice, though really it wasn't like that would help much, given that the woman's ears were a foot and a half away from his mouth. "It looks like you're untying the nice lady who was shooting at us a couple of hours ago."

"Actually, it was the other one who was shooting."

"Daniel--" Jack scrubbed at his face, frustrated. Why did Daniel always have to pull this shit? Worse, why did Jack always want to fall for it? "Fine. Let's give democracy another shot, then. Carter? Care to be the tiebreaker?" You're on my side here, right, Carter? Please be on my side.

Carter looked a little squinty--headache, still, Jack guessed--but she sounded alert enough. "Give it a little longer, Daniel. We don't know what's going on yet."

"We won't know, either, not any better than we know right now. If you can't trust her enough to untie her now, what could you possibly learn over the next hour that'll help?" Daniel's hands were still on the belt; Jack grabbed hold of one wrist, and got a wide-eyed glare for his trouble.

The object of debate chose that moment to remind them all that she wasn't just an object, her voice quiet and more than a little challenging. "Barb isn't here. Why not?"

"She's dead," Jack said, because screw pussyfooting around. He looked Tracey straight in the eye; she drew back into herself, tucking her chin down, looking anywhere but back at Jack. "Assuming you mean the other woman who was here, she shot at me, and now she's dead."

Carter added hurriedly, "But it was self-protection. We don't want to hurt you, so long as we can be sure you aren't going to hurt us."

Tracey didn't meet any of their eyes, and her voice was shaking now, but judging by the anger underneath she wasn't interested in rolling over and showing her belly. "Hurt you? You killed Barb, and you're worried I'm going to hurt you?"

"Oh, for--sit her up. Dammit, Daniel, don't just sit there." Jack reached across and pushed ineffectively at Daniel's shoulder before giving up and grabbing Tracey under the arms himself, rolling her over and propping her up against the gold of the airlock wall. Carter grabbed hold of his arm; he pulled free, annoyed. "I'm not going to do anything to her, Carter. I just want some answers. And you," he said to Tracey, "if you try to kick me with that foot you're moving around I'll tie your legs, too. Now. Let's try another angle, shall we? Why did you attack Carter? Sam. Whatever, the woman you attacked."

"Shesar." Oh, yeah, she was pissed, which was fine with Jack so long as she kept talking. "Shesar makes the treatment. To make the treatment, he needs people. That's the price. Besides, you came into our city," she said, defiance building in her voice. "We have to keep ourselves safe first."

Daniel leaned in a little, crowding her. "Tracey, the gas--"

"What exactly do you mean by 'needs people'?" Jack asked, doing his best to pretend Daniel hadn't spoken at all.

Tracey looked down, clearly uncomfortable, and didn't answer. Daniel cleared his throat. "So, my turn now?"

Jack waited. Tracey didn't say a damn thing. Jack wondered, idly, whether he would've been better off not killing the other one after all. Maybe she would've been chattier. "Yeah, sure. Knock yourself out."

"Okay." Daniel poked him in the side; Jack looked at him blankly, then scrambled out of the way so that Daniel could sit himself down crosslegged right in front of Tracey's feet. She pulled her legs in a little closer to her chest, curling her toes away from him, gaze still fixed on the floor. "Tracey, what I'm going to do here is put our cards on the table. You tried to use a drug of some kind on Sam. We think we recognize it as a drug called nish'ta, which is used by the, uh..." He waved one hand around over his head, indicating the ruined al'kesh or the ruined city or the ruined planet, Jack couldn't quite tell which. "...the aliens who attacked us. It makes people very suggestible, so they'll do what they're told, even things that they might otherwise not do. If you get an electrical shock, that reverses the effects, so if this Shesar is one of the aliens and he used it on you, then you should be feeling... different just about now." He paused; Tracey grimaced a little, biting her lip, but said nothing. Daniel popped his eyebrows at her, to no effect. "Or... not..."

Tracey closed her eyes and said, very quietly, "I had a friend... she was rewiring one of the cabins, and she got a shock. Shesar said... she'd gone crazy, so we had to... Shesar said he was the Messiah. He saved our lives. He's not an alien, he doesn't look like... he looks like a person."

She knew, Jack thought, with a sudden rush of sympathy. He squashed it quickly, in case she was still acting, but really--he'd had moments like that, when his whole world had turned on its side, and if she was faking that look in her eyes she was a hell of an actress.

"I know," Daniel said, very gently. "They look like humans, but they aren't." Not entirely true, Jack thought, but complicated was probably not a good way to go at this point.

"And the gas... it doesn't kill people anymore?"

Daniel smiled a little and shook his head. "No. Not anymore."

Tracey nodded to herself, still not meeting their eyes. "Shesar said we had to take the treatment. It's... he said he stretched it as far as it could go, but that's why... because if it wasn't one of you, it would have to be one of us."

"You were going to kill us," Carter said.

"Not you. Not for a while. Men go first, Shesar says that we don't need so many men to repopulate... and besides, men are bigger, so they..." She swallowed, hard. "For the treatment. He uses... there's a special protein, he said, in the brain, so... oh, God, I'm going to throw up."

One thing Jack could say about Tracey: She was good to her word.

***

They cleaned her up and gave her some water and let her loose--Jack with a cheery waggle of the zat in her direction, because there was "sympathetic" and then there was "stupid." That got a glare out of Daniel, which, well, whatever. He should just be glad Jack wasn't rubbing in a good I-told-you-so about the zombie thing.

Tracey answered the rest of their questions tonelessly but without hesitation: One Goa'uld and about fifty people, counting children, all settled down happily on the Carnival Conquest. Tracey and Barb were expected back by midnight, interlopers in tow. Yes, there would be people watching for them, which would make safely reaching their own little boat difficult. No, no one was likely to come looking until they were late. Yes, there were more weapons on board the Conquest; no, they weren't carried as a matter of course.

"Jack," Daniel said, and Jack just knew. He couldn't even bitch, really. He'd been thinking the same damn thing.

Carter grimaced, obviously also following his train of thought. "I don't know, Daniel. The numbers aren't exactly in our favor."

"We'd have the element of surprise, though. Tracey walks us in, we take out Shesar, then work our way through the rest of them--"

"--all of whom are brainwashed, upset at us for killing their god, and capable of arming themselves." Carter shook her head. "I see why you want to do this, really I do. I just don't think it's a good idea."

"Tracey," Jack said. The other two looked at him sharply, and Tracey finally brought her head up as well, looking back at him. "How would it usually work, you bringing people back? Would Shesar be in the middle of a crowd, or alone?"

"I'm not going to help you kill any more of my friends," Tracey said, picking at the laces of her sneakers, her whole body tense. She looked like she'd be happy to crawl right back into the wall if only it weren't solid. "No matter what they--it's not their fault, and I won't help you kill them."

"The goal here," Jack said, "is to kill the bad guy. I don't get off on killing victims. If it's doable, then we could help your friends. If you get on board with that idea right now, maybe that'll happen. Otherwise, we walk. Your call."

Carter was radiating disapproval, but then she'd always liked poking holes in ideas that weren't hers. Besides, skepticism was good; Carter had a great mind for that, so long as she stayed objective. Tracey looked at Jack, evaluating, then turned to Daniel "Promise me he's telling the truth," she said, and why she thought Daniel was any more trustworthy than he was, considering he'd actually personally shot her--well, okay, admittedly not dead. Jack could see how that would make a difference.

Daniel attempted a reassuring smile, nodding earnestly. "Tracey, I promise you that we are the good guys here. Okay? We are very, very sorry that your friend died. I don't know if we can help the rest of your friends, but we'd like to hear more about the situation, so we can know whether it's even possible."

Tracey closed her eyes and rested her forehead on one hand, thumb stroking her eyebrow, face screwed up in what almost looked like a parody of the agony of decision-making. When she spoke, though, she sounded--not confident, that was too much. Like a woman who wasn't planning to turn back. "I can get you alone with him, so long as he can't read my mind or anything...?" Jack shook his head. "Okay. So we'd just have to act, right? If you can do it, I can." A hint of bravado crept into her voice, along with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. "Hey, I played Gertrude when we did Hamlet my senior year in high school. Everyone said I was great."

***

They didn't have to sneak around, going in, which was a nice change. Carter'd been pissy for a while; Jack knew her better than to think she was afraid, precisely, but apparently the cost-benefit ratios she was working out in her head weren't giving her the same answer as Daniel's and Jack's own. Not to mention she'd already had kind of a long day, what with the zatting and the being held hostage and the zatting again.

Daniel had gotten halfway into a sentence about if-you're-not-up-to-it before she'd pretty much bitten his head off.

Jack actually wasn't all that worried about the operation, as such. Which probably wasn't very smart, but fuck it, one Goa'uld. And not even a real Goa'uld, with Jaffa and crap, just some guy--thing--snake, whatever, playing cult leader for fun and profit. If everything went according to plan, the three of them could take him, easy.

Not that things usually went to plan. But it was going to work, dammit. This was his job, this was exactly what he was supposed to be doing, and Carter and her "if this were Teal'c's idea you'd bitch about Jaffa revenge things" could just go... jump in the lake.

Damn, he sounded like a twelve-year-old.

The sun was down, and the moon not yet up, so it was slow going back down the streets to the river. They'd left most of their stuff back in the al'kesh with Barb's body, which Jack quite frankly would have disintegrated if Tracey hadn't put her foot down about it. Bad enough the woman had wanted to carry a corpse back to the Conquest; given a different situation Jack would've sympathized with her desire not to leave her dead friend alone, but seriously, what was she, nuts?

Of course, he was the guy following her into a snake's den. Which was probably a bad idea, but dammit, just one win. It was doable, plenty doable, so long as Tracey was on the up and up, and their combined gut feelings said that she was. Which had to count for something, right?

Behind him, Daniel stumbled and swore out loud. "Daniel," Jack said, "so help me, if you fall down and break something..."

"I'm fine. Stubbed toe."

"Well, just--be careful." Jack shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his jacket, feeling cold worm its way under his shirt through the metal of the zat where it was tucked in his waistband. He'd have killed for a holster, but there was just no way that was going to look anything but ridiculously suspicious. Carter had the other zat, and Daniel the Beretta, which put him at a disadvantage but he was going to have to suck it up because Carter was a better shot. With luck they wouldn't get into a situation where they needed to be using real bullets anyway, and Daniel could play Good Cop with the wacky post-zombified people.

Crap, they were going to be up all night dealing with this, weren't they?

Tracey picked up a flashlight left by the entrance to the cruise terminal and clicked it on as she led them inside, illuminating the occasional sign pointing the way to customs or check-in, along with posters advertising the sunny Caribbean. They hadn't looked in here on their way into the city, but even if they had, Jack didn't think they would've noticed much of anything; footprints, maybe, but there were no signs of habitation, just the usual detritus of New Orleans' death throes.

The sound of their footsteps echoed off of the walls, but other than that it was dead quiet. Tracey obviously knew the way; they passed through a set of doors, then another, and then back out into the night air. There was a gangway directly ahead, angling slightly up into the ship; no light, though. Not that they'd seen any coming in that first night, and Tracey had said that was intentional, but... light would've been nice.

Metal rattled under their feet as they climbed up and in, passing out of the chill of the evening air and into the stale-smelling interior of the ship. There was still no one else to be seen, but Tracey was moving confidently, down the narrow, door-lined hall to an emergency staircase. It was a long climb up, and when she finally stopped they were all a little out of breath. "This is the living level; Shesar's on the next level up, but we're supposed to take the center stairs to get there. No one should get in our way."

"Okay," Jack said. Tracey took a deep breath, and didn't move. They all waited. Jack leaned forward, trying to keep the tension out of his voice. "Tracey? We good here?"

She squeezed her hands into fists, then shook them out. "I'm okay. You're all ready?" Daniel laid a hand on her shoulder. "Just get us in and get out of the way. We'll take care of everything from there."

Tracey nodded repeatedly, took another deep breath, and opened the door.

The new floor looked pretty much like the old floor, though it was a lot brighter; lanterns hung at regular intervals all the way down to the central atrium, lighting the whole scene with the soft flicker of candlelight. Fire hazard, Jack thought automatically; he'd spent too much time on spaceships to feel comfortable with the combination of any ship and open flame.

A tall, lanky figure appeared at the other end of the hall just as Carter quietly closed the door behind them. "Tracey!" he said, hurrying toward them. "You're back! I was--" he looked around and lowered his voice-- "worried. Faithless, I know, but Lord Shesar said it was a test for you and Barb, so..." He trailed off, shrugging and rolling his eyes at himself. "But you're welcome here," he said to Jack and the others. "I'm Jimmy, Jimmy Johnson, just like the coach except football was never my sport so please, don't ask me about it. It's good to meet you. Where's Barb?"

Jack was a little taken aback by this rush of words, but Tracey seemed to know the guy, anyway. "She's not here," she said, a little hurriedly. "Jimmy, we really need to get up to see Lord Shesar, so--"

"Well, you're in luck because they've already called us to treatment, so you--" he pointed at Jack and Carter and Daniel in turn--"will get to meet everyone at once. Everyone's going to be real glad to see you. Though Barb had better hurry, she'll miss treatment, and we don't want that, do we?"

Jack was ridiculously tempted to try to get through to the guy using logic--hell, how exactly did he think Jack had survived a night in the city, anyway?--but thought better of it pretty fast. Logic, unfortunately, was almost never the answer. Besides, this 'everyone' thing sounded like it needed immediate attention. "Tracey," he said, trying to sound pleasantly brainwashed rather than seriously irritated, "I thought we were going to get the honor of a private audience with Lord Shesar."

She brought her arms up to wrap them around herself, looking back at him wide-eyed. "Everyone will be there. At the treatment, everyone goes, I'm sorry, I should have thought of that, it's late enough..."

"Jimmy," Carter interrupted, "are you the only person left down here?"

He nodded, said "Yeah, I'm pretty su--" and Carter shot him once with the zat. Tracey flinched and twisted away, holding up one hand as if to ward away the electricity, but Jack managed to step forward quickly enough to break Jimmy's fall, blinking away the afterimage of lightning. Daniel had a door to one of the side rooms open by the time Jimmy hit the floor--that was one of the nice things about cults, Jack reflected, they didn't usually go in for locking their doors so much--and he and Jack pulled Jimmy inside, Tracey dragged after them by Carter's hand on her sweater.

The door closed behind them, and they were left in a pitch-black room, cramped and smelling a bit of close human habitation. "The flashlight, Tracey?" Jack said, trying to stay patient. She muttered an apology and turned it on, illuminating two single beds, a sink, a ceiling-mounted television. The door to the tiny bathroom was propped open with a pair of boots, and Jack could see a line strung up from shower to toilet, with socks and underwear hanging over it to dry. It was a cramped space for five adults; Daniel was all the way onto a halfheartedly made bed, his feet pulled up out of the way of where Jack had laid Jimmy out between the two beds. Jack reached one hand wordlessly back over his shoulder, and after a moment someone placed the flashlight into it. He shone the light on Jimmy's face, feeling the slight tremor in the fallen man's limbs. Crap, he wasn't going to be down for long. "Tracey," he ordered. "Get up here and give your friend here a familiar face to work with, will you?"

She tried to squeeze forward, but couldn't fit until Jack climbed up onto the empty bed, holding the flashlight in one hand and the zat in the other. The light wobbled wildly around the room before settling back onto Jimmy's face, just as his eyes opened. He flinched and closed them again, bringing up his hands to shield his face. When he tried to sit up, he was prevented by Tracey's weight where she straddled his legs. "It's okay, Jimmy," she said. "I promise it's okay. Just wait for a second and let me explain--"

"Jesus," Jimmy said, a prayer more than an oath. "Oh, Jesus, forgive me for what I did--"

"Not you," Tracey said, a little desperately--trying to convince herself, too, Jack guessed. "It wasn't your fault, there was a drug. Wasn't there?" she asked, looked up at Daniel.

He opened his mouth to reply, but Jimmy got there first. "It doesn't matter," he said, simply, and after that he was quiet, all the ebullience from the hallway gone.

"Okay, yeah, we've got no time for this," Jack said. "Jimmy, did anyone see us coming in? They know how many people to expect?"

He shook his head. "Latasha said she'd seen a light in the terminal, through the window, Latasha was on watch up on the deck so she would've seen the light. But she didn't say anything about numbers. I didn't ask, but she didn't say."

"Okay." Jack grabbed his hand and pulled; Tracey stumbled backward as Jimmy staggered to his feet, a little unsteady still. "Here's what's going to happen. You and I and Tracey here are going up to the big shindig. Carter, Daniel, you go to Shesar's room, wait there, take him out when--are they going to be able to get in there? He gonna bring the party back to his bedroom?"

"No, sir. I mean, yes--" Jimmy stuttered to a halt, closing his eyes in an effort to bring his brain back on-line; Tracey laid one hand on his arm to keep him quiet and answered Jack herself.

"It won't be locked. No one locks their doors here, we're family--" She tripped over that word, almost imperceptibly, then soldiered on. "I've been to see him plenty of times, gone to his room to fetch things during the treatment, it's never been locked. So you should be able to get in pretty easily. But he might bring a couple of people back with him, after. That, that happens sometimes. If he wants."

"Couple of people as in two happy groupies, or couple of people as in a dozen armed guards?"

Tracey's face tightened in anger. Well, tough cookies; he was not in any kind of a mood to watch his vocabulary. "Just two, maybe three, unarmed. There could be sex, yes, though why you think that would be any of your business--"

Whatever. "Fine, that works. Where's his room?"

"One more level up," Jimmy said. "You'll have to take the central stairs, the back ones are blocked off, remember when we did that, Tracey? So you should wait until everyone's out of the halls, I guess, there are stragglers sometimes but I think I was pretty much the last, they'll be wondering where I am now. We have to go, what if--should I go with you? I can show you the way, it's just up those stairs and down the hall to the right, all the way, last room on the left. 9206. But I can show you. Maybe I should--"

God, he was worse than Daniel at his most overcaffeinated. "No. You and I and Tracey are going up to make an appearance, because we don't want to make anybody suspicious. Carter, you got where you're going?"

She nodded, out at the very edge of the area lit by the flashlight. "Wait a while--ten minutes?" she asked, to nods from Jimmy and Tracey. "Up the main staircase, down the hall to the right, all the way, number 9206. But--"

"Jack, you shouldn't go in there." That was Daniel, speaking with real urgency, but Carter was nodding along. "There's no reason for you to go. Tracey can just go in and tell them that we got away."

"I'm not sending these two in there alone," Jack said, hoping that Carter and Daniel were getting the we don't really know these people well enough to trust them message along with the these people need someone to look after them. "No discussion, no democracy, that's an order. Jimmy, you saw me and Tracey coming up the hall, walked up with us to the big fiesta, don't know any more than that. Tracey, Carter and Daniel got away and Barb was killed--don't start with me, Carter, we are staying as close to the truth as possible here tonight--but I'm here as a new devoted follower of everybody's favorite snakehead Jesus."

Daniel reached out to grab Jack by the sleeve, and seriously, it was awfully crowded in there. "And when they decide to shoot you in the head for being involved in Barb's death?"

"I shoot them first and run like hell. Which reminds me, trade me the Beretta. Easier to explain than a zat." When Daniel made no move to comply, Jack just stuffed his zat into Daniel's empty pocket--pocket, Jesus, next time they went anywhere he was insisting on some kind of holster, conspicuous or not--and snitched his handgun from the other. "I'll come down to the snake's room soon as I can after we're done upstairs, we can work out from there. Be careful, don't be stupid, don't get dead. Tracey, Jimmy, let's go."

"Jack--"

"Let him go," Carter said, squeezing out of the way to let the three of them pass. Daniel stared at her for a moment, incredulous, then opened his hand and released Jack's sleeve.

"Fine," he said. "But I'm telling you right now, this is a bad decision."

Jack poked Jimmy in the back, hurrying him toward the door. "Yeah, well, you can tell me you told me so later." He slapped the flashlight into Carter's hand on the way out the door, closing it carefully behind them and looking both ways down the hall--empty. Good.

Jimmy was stopped again, looking at him. Jesus, was Jack going to have to drag him the whole way? "You military?" he asked.

"Was, yeah," Jack said. "Listen, we're in a little bit of a hurry here so..."

The guy just kept on rolling. "Me too. Four years in the Army, back in the eighties. Closest I ever came to combat was a bar fight in Wiesbaden. You?"

"Closer than that." Jack settled the Beretta in his waistband and tugged his jacket down over it. Long enough, thankfully. He was about two seconds from the pushing stage, but Jimmy just smiled, something much thinner than the beaming grin he'd greeted Tracey with a few minutes before. "Good," he said, and turned to go as Tracey echoed "Yeah. Good."

***

They went right back down the stairs they'd come up, single-file, following the glow of Jimmy's penlight. Tracey and Jimmy were silent, so Jack was too, following them through an empty, chandeliered restaurant into what had once been the ship's galley without comment. The furniture had been stripped from the restaurant--burned, Jack figured--but the galley was intact and still in use, judging by the faint scent of... rosemary. The kitchen smelled like rosemary.

Jack had never liked rosemary much.

They came out into another restaurant--less fancy, with wall sconces rather than chandeliers, and booths lining the walls. Past two sweeping staircases, past the information desk and a row of idled elevators, and Jack could hear voices now, coming from up ahead. Artificial light was shining out of a set of wide double doors, propped open so that as Jack approached he could see all the way down to the stage at the front of what was, according to the sign above the door, the Toulouse-Lautrec Lounge.

The Toulouse-Lautrec Lounge was... awful. Just really, really bad, all sparkly red sequins and inexplicable lighted windmills, and Jack was not at all surprised that a Goa'uld would take to it. The snake in question--or so he assumed--was standing on the stage, highlighted by a spotlight; the rest of the room was dim in comparison, but he could see the shadows and hear the rustling that meant people. Two kids were up on stage with Shesar, who placed something into their mouths like a priest offering the Host, resting his hands on each of their heads in turn. Jack kept a smile on his face and his hands off the Beretta, but only just.

As the kids backed away, Shesar raised his head, unhurried, like he'd just been waiting for the right moment to acknowledge the new arrivals. "Tracey," he said, smooth and warm and human. If not for the zats and the fake religion and the evil brain-eating, Jack might have doubted for a moment. "Welcome home. We were worried for you."

Tracey looked nervous, Jack thought, and if he was noticing it after knowing her for a few hours... well, at least she was reporting a failure to her prophet. A little twitchyness wouldn't be that unusual, so long as Jimmy didn't crack on him too. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be late, but... there was... an accident, Lord. A fight. I'm sorry. Barbara's dead." Her voice trembled a little; all to the good in that case, though. After all, her friend was dead. Looking sad about it wasn't going to be a problem.

Shesar turned his head and looked at Jack, still slow and easy. A human couldn't have seen a damn thing in the audience, not with the lighting the way it was, but Jack was pretty sure Shesar could see Jack as well as if they'd been standing outside at noon. "Come forward, child."

Happy zombie, Jack thought. Happy zombie, happy zombie, happy zombie... He let his smile widen a little--like the snake knew what he usually looked like, right?--and walked down the aisle to the stage, putting a little bounce in his step. Or should he be acting guilty? Well, too late now.

Shesar put up one hand to stop him as he reached the stage, and Jack was left standing there, looking up, his head at ankle-level to the snake. At least it didn't look like he was armed; Shesar had gone the skintight fashion route, black from head to toe, with intricate patterns picked out in silver thread. Way over the top, but that wasn't exactly new, and there weren't any unnatural bulges that indicated a weapon. He looked down, without crouching or letting Jack come any closer. "Did you cause the death of my daughter Barbara?"

The crowd at Jack's back was silent. Watching Shesar for direction, hopefully. Well, hopefully so long as Shesar's direction wasn't 'kill the infidel.' Jack schooled his features to shame and bowed his head. "I didn't know. I thought she was going to hurt me. I'm sorry." The butt of the gun pressed against the small of his back; he wouldn't be able to get it out as quickly as he'd like if he needed it, and getting up onto the stage and away from the crowd would be a problem. Dammit, whose idea had this been, anyway?

Oh, right.

Shesar was silent. After a decent interval, Jack looked up again, straight into Shesar's face, doing his damnedest to look like a supplicant. Just let me eat the freaking brains so we can get this over with and get you back to your bedroom and dead. "Please," he dared, hating the sound of the word in his mouth. "Forgive me? I didn't get that she was just, uh, you know... trying to help."

There was a murmuring from behind him now, an angry noise that made Jack's shoulderblades itch. Shesar held up one hand, and the room fell silent again. "I understand," he said, nothing but sugar and honey in his voice. "You are all flawed; it is a condition of humanity, and all of the sisters and brothers in this room were once as blind as you. But it is mine to forgive, and I do. You are welcome here. So it is." He spread his arms wide, and the response came back from the room: So it is.

Thank God for stupid aliens.

"What is your name, child?"

"Jack," Jack said, because really, common name, right?

"Jack," Shesar repeated. "Well then, Jack, come here to me and I will grant you the sacrament and the treatment." There was an altar in the middle of the stage, with a cabinet underneath, and Shesar went to get something out of it; more nish'ta for the sacrament thingie, probably. Tracey had told them it was normally a two-step process.

The snake was about an inch from having a plumber's crack issue, the way he was bending over, but whatever. Presumably once you were zombified, it didn't matter so much if your messiah was sticking his ass in your face. The stairs were at the sides of the stage, so Jack had to walk down in front of the people who'd gotten the front-row seats; a couple of guys, mostly women and kids, including a couple who were young enough that they'd just better not be Harcesis.

As he reached the stairs, Shesar stood and turned and smiled out at his worshipers again. "Peter, Berto, join us." Two men got up and moved for the stairs; biggish guys, both of them, and that was a bad sign. Shit. Jack very carefully did not glance at Tracey, and didn't reach back to take out his gun, no matter how badly he wanted to.

"My Lord?" Jack said, as politely as he could, stopping just out of arm's reach. Peter and Berto flanked him; one went to kneel, but Shesar shook his head slightly.

"Jack," he said, still so gentle. "Where are your companions?"

"Companions?" Jack asked, still a little hopeful he could bluff this one out. Shit. Shit, shit, shit, and damn Jimmy's bad intel anyway.

"When you entered the ship there were four--" and Jack went for his gun, fast, trying to get out from between the goons. He just barely managed to get a hand on it before they tackled him, pulled his hand free again, and sent the gun clattering to the floor. Jack struggled briefly, but there was no point. Hell. Hell, shit, fuck, damn, and why had he never gotten Daniel to teach him how to swear in Goa'uld, anyway? This was exactly the kind of situation where extra swear words would be useful.

He managed to get his head turned toward the audience, but the spotlight was still on the stage and he couldn't see what was going on at first. It came clear soon enough, though; Tracey being dragged down the central aisle, a dark woman on her right arm and Jimmy on her left. "Tie them," Shesar said; there was some fumbling around before something adequate was found, belts again, and really, Tracey must be pretty tired of this by now.

The two of them were shoved to their knees in front of Shesar, whose face was a parody of mingled sympathy and sorrow. Tracey was breathing real fast--scared, probably, which was smart of her if not necessarily helpful. Well, she'd been defiant before when she was scared, and with luck she would be again. At this point, anything that gave Carter and Daniel time was a good thing.

"The others ran away," she said, a little shakily. "There were three, like we were told, Lord, but the other two ran away--"

"Your sister Latasha saw four of you enter the ship," Shesar said, implacable.

"No, that's impossible, because the other two ran away."

Well, at least she wasn't getting creative. That was good, Jack figured. How long had it been since they'd left Daniel and Carter? Long enough for them to have left the room they were in, for sure. Long enough for them to make it to Shesar's room, he didn't know. Time to throw up a little chaff. "Yeah, you know, you gotta work on your recruitment pitch there. The whole gun-and-drug thing, it's just not--"

The blow from behind rocked him sideways, hard enough to stumble into Tracey, nearly knocking her over. "Okay," he said, once he'd gotten his breath back, "case in point, because OW."

He expected another smack for his trouble, but Shesar ignored him, still focused on Tracey. "You are telling a lie, Tracey. You know that lying isn't allowed, don't you?"

"I'm not lying," she near-whispered. "I'm telling the truth. They ran away."

Shesar squatted down and stroked his hand down Tracey's hair, slipping it underneath to grab hold of her neck from behind. "Where is your weapon, Tracey? You know you're not supposed to leave it lying around."

"Barb had it--"

"And why didn't you bring her home?"

"They, uh, the other two, they took the zat'nikatel, that's how Barb died so there wasn't a body—"

"You're lying." Shesar brought his hand around to the front of her throat, tightening it just a little when she tried to pull back. "You're lying, and you are no daughter of mine." He raised his voice a little, without looking away from Tracey, trapped there on her knees. "Leatta."

A female voice from the seats, older, harsh-sounding after Shesar's. "My Lord?"

"I want ten people to arm themselves and search the ship for the other two. See to it."

Damn it. Not yet. Jack raised his voice to match Shesar's, hoping to stall them for a little while longer. "You're wasting your time, folks. They never came onto the ship in the first place. Chickened out back in the terminal, the little weasels."

"Go, Leatta," Shesar said, without even glancing at Jack. He tightened his hand a little more, squeezing a gasp out of Tracey. "You know what has to happen now, child."

Tracey was white-faced and shaking and Jack was pretty sure he could guess at the shape of what was coming. Still, she had some guts; she got as far as "Leatta, don't--" before Shesar bounced her skull off of the floor. She shrieked, curling in on herself as her legs worked to propel her away from Shesar. Her goon caught her and held her as she gasped out, "He's lying, about the death, he--"

"Silence her," Shesar said, and her goon rolled her over onto her stomach, clapping one hand over her mouth. And Jack knew there wasn't any point, their audience wouldn't really be able to hear a word they were saying, but still--"The city's safe, no one needs treatment, and Shesar isn't a holy man, he's a goddamn alien serial killer," he shouted, squinting into the spotlight.

Utter silence from the room. Shesar deigned to glance at Jack. "My children know better than to believe a stranger, particularly one who has already confessed to murder. We regret that you were able to turn Tracey from the light. She will be missed, but at least her body will contribute to her people's survival. So it is," he added, almost as an afterthought, and the room echoed back the phrase.

Her body? Oh, that didn't sound good at all. "So I'm the bad guy here, right?" Jack said. It was hot under the lights; he could feel sweat in the small of his back, between his wrists and the leather of the bindings. "Talk to me, then. You're scared a couple of people were trying to come in and break up your stupid cult? We've got bigger plans than that, stuff we didn't tell your little groupie."

"Do you now," Shesar said. His voice was amused, but his gaze had sharpened. One of the good points of the Goa'uld; implied megalomania got a consistent response. "Sadie, Jacqueline, go to my rooms and fetch my tools for the sacrifice. Be careful, there may be evildoers on the loose." He paused, then smiled. "Michael, child, come up here and fetch me a knife from the altar."

Michael was maybe eight; he had to rummage in the cabinet for a while before he found and pulled out a simple chef's knife, showing it to Shesar. "Is this one okay, Lord?"

"It is." Shesar smiled. "You're a good boy, Michael."

Shesar reached out his hand for the knife; Michael looked down, a little bashfully. "I could use it for you. If you wanted."

Jack seriously thought he might vomit. The kid was so earnest, so hopeful, so damn ready to take a knife to someone for Shesar. And this is why Nancy told us to Just Say No, he thought. Inhale one time and next thing you know you're murdering people on the say-so of an alien in spandex.

"Not yet. But you can sit up here to watch, if you'd like. Won't that be fun, Jack?"

Jack looked at the knife--no point in looking away now, it'd still be there no matter what he did--and said, very calmly, "You people are assholes, you know that?"

"Shut up," the man behind him said, shaking him a little.

"Peter," Shesar said. "I appreciate the thought, but it's not necessary. Sticks and stones, after all. Now, Jack. Why are you here?"

"Hey, whatever happened to saying please?"

"I don't feel a need to be polite to murderers."

The kid, sitting cross-legged off toward the edge of the stage, nodded approvingly, clearly thinking that this was an excellent rule, one well worth following. Really, it was the support for old-fashioned family values that Jack had always appreciated about the Goa'uld. Also the hypocrisy. "Must make talking to yourself in the shower fun," Jack replied.

Shesar tapped the point of his knife idly against his lips. "You aren't as amusing as you think you are, you know, and I'm ready to move along to the less pleasant part of this conversation if you are."

One of Jack's feet was going to sleep; he shifted his weight, trying to bring it back to life, and got yanked upright by his buddy Peter for his trouble. "Okay, how about this? Promise to let us go and I'll tell you everything."

"Certainly," Shesar said, flipping the knife back down so it pointed toward the ground and taking a few steps back to lean against the cabinet. Jack was sure he didn't mean a word of it, but at least he was listening and not cutting, right? Oh, hell, now he had to come up with a story. A long story. With embellishments, and filigree, and extensive digressions.

Really, this was more Daniel's department.

"Well, this sure as hell wasn't my idea," Jack said, mind racing. "What, I'm gonna come all the way from Colorado for my health?" Shesar's face was blank. Oh, for... 'Colorado' didn't mean a damn thing to him. "I came from the chappa'ai? You might have heard of it?."

He sounded like what he was, an Earthling speaking the interstellar version of Spanglish, but he'd gotten Shesar's attention at least. The Goa'uld narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "You're Tau'ri," he said. "You're from this world."

"Doesn't mean I can't see which side my bread is buttered on. Listen, you sure you want to have this conversation in front of them?" He jerked his head toward the audience. If he could get them to retire to Shesar's rooms, just a few of them...

"I appreciate your concern, but my children are... extremely trustworthy." Shesar sounded mildly amused, if anything. Jack wondered idly whether actually yanking the symbiote out of his head and waving it under people's noses would even do any good. At least the occasional Jaffa had been subject to reason, dammit. "Please continue. You came from the chappa'ai?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I was sent by--" shit shit shit what was her name--"Igneous, chasing a rumor that you were down here."

"Ignasa sent you," Shesar said, doubtfully. He wasn't rejecting the idea out of hand, at least; good. Ignasa. Ignasa, that was it. Her name had showed up on the radio a lot, back in the al'kesh. It sounded like she was powerful enough to make Shesar... nervous enough to kill them. Okay, slight adjustment in plan.

"Sure did. I've been with her pretty much since she arrived. But you know, I'm not out to die for her here, so if you've got an offer to make..."

"I can be merciful," Shesar said. "To the repentant."

Jack squinted up at him. "So are we talking so long, have a nice life mercy, or...?"

"That very much depends on how useful you are," Shesar said, with a careless shrug and a bright smile. "My choice. Trust me or don't, it makes very little difference. For that matter, we could wait until Tracey has been properly punished, since I know she has nothing to share with me."

Fine. Have your weak point. "Hey, look, I'm not in charge here. Tracey talked to my boss alone this afternoon, and I have no idea what they said to each other. For all I know there's some special plan for the local girl. They don't tell me anything."

"Lord." That was the other one, Berto, who still had a tight hold on Tracey. "Lord, forgive me, but I don't think they're telling the truth. I think--" He paused, nervous, but Shesar just waited patiently. He had more self-control than most of the snakes Jack had known, he had to give him that much. Berto took a deep breath. "I think they're trying to take advantage of you, Lord. I mean, he had a gun. Why did he have a gun, if not to hurt someone?"

"Really, Berto," Shesar said, fondly paternal. "Do you think I can't tell the difference between the truth and a lie?"

Well, let's hope you're open to possibilities, Jack thought.

The ensuing conversation... well, it wasn't fun, but Jack had had worse. Much worse. For a good long while he just got to make shit up, with the occasional prompt; stories about Ignasa and her Stargate and the really spiffy new palace she was building, with gold! And a swimming pool! And peacocks! And then the knife was waved in his general direction, so his plot to use Dickens' paid-by-the-word philosophy of description to buy time had to be abandoned.

Killed a few minutes, though. Plus, he thought the peacocks had really added something to the story, a little liveliness, some color.

Jack was kind of hoping Tracey would try an apology at some point--probably wouldn't help, but you never knew, the snakes had some weird blind spots sometimes--but when Shesar turned to her, she fumbled and stuttered and eventually told a story that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Still, one motivation for killing Shesar or another, it hardly mattered at this point; if Tracey wanted to talk like Jack had betrayed her, fine, so long as everyone kept talking. She'd learned too much truth for one day, Jack figured; she was overflowing with it, and the audience was rumbling, and Shesar was starting to look serious about the knife again which meant Jack was going to have to come up with a new way to distract him, at which point the problem was solved for him by a zat blast from backstage.

Damn, Jack wished he'd thought of that.

The first shot took Berto down; Jack tried to twist out of the way but still ended up under Peter, who was lunging to put himself between Shesar and danger. Peter managed to scramble up to his feet, stepping on Jack in the process with what felt like a big-ass boot. There was a lot of noise, zat fire and shouting from the crowd, and Jack had just managed to get himself back up onto his knees when he was knocked over again by someone climbing onto the stage. His head hit the wood floor, hard, and he was still gasping for air when more hands appeared, and feet, and fuck, it was a big stage, did everyone in the world have to come right up over his part of it?

Then there was gunfire--shit, someone had gotten hold of the Beretta, but the zat was still going, he thought there were two zats going, though he couldn't tell for sure. People had finally stopped stepping on him, so he uncurled a little and opened his eyes. He couldn't quite get his vision to clear, but it looked like the doors at the far end of the room were just swinging closed--oh, good, hopefully at least some of the audience had run out, though then they'd be bringing in the people Shesar had sent hunting and they'd be armed, hell, they were gonna have to get out of this room.

Jack got himself up onto one knee just as someone grabbed his arms from behind, and oh no, he was not going to be dropped on his head anymore tonight. He threw his weight backward, to the sound of a startled oof. A familiar, feminine oof. Oh. Carter. Oops.

"Warn a guy, will you?" Jack said, rolling off of her and, finally, back onto his feet. There were maybe a dozen new people down on the stage; good thing the crowd hadn't all decided it was a good idea to run toward the gunfire. Carter had hold of his arm again, not stopping to get him loose, just pulling him firmly offstage like he was a vaudevillian gone sour, and where the hell was Daniel?

"Jack," Carter said, speaking rather like she thought he had a head injury which, well, he had to admit things were still a little blurry. "We need to hole up somewhere safe, just for now. People are going to start waking up, and we shouldn't be here."

"Shesar," he said, and where was Daniel? He and Carter were the only two people standing on the stage. "Daniel?" he said, just as Carter said "Dead," and then hurriedly continued, "Shesar, not Daniel. Daniel and Jimmy are with Tracey. Please, Jack, we have to go."

Okay. Shesar was dead, Carter and Daniel were all right, Tracey was--well, he hadn't actually clarified whether she was okay, but Daniel could handle that. No one was shooting at them. So, that was pretty much the Toulouse-Lautrec Lounge departure checklist, then. Time to go. Except, shit, that wasn't everything after all. "Someone's going to have to stay here and explain to these people--"

"I'm going to do that." That was Jimmy, and oh, good, Daniel with him, supporting Tracey between them. Her they'd taken the time to cut loose, Jack noted, a little jealously. On the other hand, she was bleeding pretty good from her shoulder--Berto must've cut her on his way to the floor--and she was clearly not putting any weight on her right foot. She looked a little shocky, but not like she was going to drop dead any second, which Jack took as a win. She even managed a slight smile, until Jimmy slipped out from under the arm with the shoulder wound and made her gasp. He flapped his hands at them, urging them in an unspecified away-from-the-stage direction. "You remember where I showed you? I'll come and get you when it's safe, so don't come out until I show up because--"

Carter cut him off. "I'm staying here to back you up. Daniel, take Jack and Tracey, go back to wardrobe, sit tight until I come get you."

"Sam, you shouldn't stay alone--"

She rounded on him, angry. "I wouldn't have to if you'd covered Jack like I told you to, because then his eyes wouldn't be pointing in different directions and he'd be able to stay, wouldn't he? Go, will you? They'll be coming around soon."

Jack kind of expected Daniel to snap back--and hey, what was that about his eyes, anyway? His eyes were fine. Okay, still, things a little blurry, but a guy in his fifties couldn't have a blurry-vision day or two? She didn't give Daniel shit for his eyesight and huh, speaking of Daniel, he'd kind of expected him to snap back at Carter, but he didn't. Just tipped his head back a little, eyes very wide, then shifted Tracey's weight more firmly onto his shoulder. "I'll be back," he said, and he turned and left the stage, yanking firmly on Jack's sleeve on the way by when he didn't move quickly enough.

The non-public areas of the ship didn't go in so much for the faux gold leaf and other decorative objects; the hall was cramped and a little dingy, with messages scribbled on the walls in magic marker. "ANGIE 1999, Love you all!" "Sore feet? Dance faster. Power outage? Dance louder. Sinking ship? Dance like Esther!" Which sounded a little bitter, actually. What was up with that? Hadn't they ever heard of the magic of show business?

The three of them ended up in wardrobe, which was surprisingly untouched, considering that there had been a Goa'uld running the place and he must have gotten the black-and-silver outfit from somewhere. It was cramped, clearly only meant for storage, and Daniel had to shove one of the racks out of the way before he could lower Tracey to the floor. Jack really kind of wanted to sit down again too, but for one thing he knew he should stay on his feet, just in case, and for another there weren't any chairs anyway, so he leaned against the wall instead.

Daniel carefully peeled Tracey's shirt away from the wound, where Berto had cut deep into the muscle running from neck to shoulder, curving from the very edge of her throat back to the back of her neck. It was bleeding pretty good, but she wiggled her fingers on command, so Daniel just had her hold a shirt to it while he finally got around to cutting Jack loose.

"Ow," Jack said, on general principles.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?" Daniel tossed the belt across the room and came around the Jack's front, taking him firmly by the chin and squinting at him. Jack yanked his head out of Daniel's hands, which ow for real this time, he had hit his head, hadn't he? "Headache," he said. "Several boot-shaped bruises. I'll be fine. Tracey?"

"I fell off the stage," she gasped, managing to put a thread of amusement into her voice. "There's a successful acting debut for you, huh?" Daniel reached down to move the foot she'd been favoring, and she sucked in air, pulling away from him. "Don't! Just... don't. I think it might be broken."

Daniel paused. "Okay, well, that's not something I can do anything about, actually, so..." He turned back to Jack. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Fine. Give me the damn gun, I'm going to--" He pushed off from the wall, wavered a little, then leaned back. "--lean here for a minute. Daniel, please tell me that the floor's doing that because we're on a ship."

"The floor isn't doing anything. How hard did you hit your head, anyway?" He probed at Jack's skull, making him flinch. "You aren't bleeding."

"Carter needs--"

"Sam will be fine," Daniel said, and hell, now he'd broken out the talking-to-a-guy-with-a-head-wound voice too. "She'll stay out of sight, and Jimmy will talk them down."

"And then everyone will go do room-to-room looking for people who are armed and know they're coming? Plus, will you stop it with acting like my brains are leaking out my ears? It's a headache, not an aneurysm."

"Headache can be a symptom of aneurysm, actually."

It was a halfhearted comeback, Daniel's mouth set on autopilot while his attention went to the door. He frowned at it, flexing his hand around the zat. The door was obstinately quiet. Tracey craned her neck around to try to see the cut on her back, which was just about as successful as it would be for most people who didn't have the neck musculature of owls. Jack, moving carefully, knelt down next to her and laid his hand over hers, putting some pressure on the part of the wound she hadn't been able to reach; she flinched, but thanked him anyway. "Is it bad?"

"Nah," Jack said. "Clean it out real good, slap on a little Neosporin, maybe a couple stitches, you'll be fine. Bleeding's slowing down. I think the shirt's a loss, though."

Daniel dropped his chin to his chest, let out a dissatisfied noise, and then whipped around to face Jack, producing the Beretta from God-knew-where. He held it out to Jack, butt-first, then waggled it when Jack paused for a moment. "I'm going back up to the stage," Daniel said. "As you said to me not so very long ago, if anything comes through that door that isn't me, shoot them. Okay, isn't me or Sam. Or--you know, just use your better judgment. It's four feet away, it's not like you're going to miss." He smiled, closed-lipped and humorless, and walked out the door before Jack had gotten his brains together to respond, closing it firmly behind himself.

Jack stared at the door for a while, talking to himself firmly about Carter's competence, and Daniel's, and his own wobbliness.

Tracey cleared her throat.

"Listen, I know I'm not a professional, but... should we lock the door?"

***

By the time Jack was unscrambled enough to realize how scrambled he'd been before, Carter and Daniel had reappeared, followed by an older woman with reddened eyes and a confident manner that was only a little undercut by the tremble in her voice. They'd had to take a couple of people down again with the zats, Carter said, but most of them seemed to have gotten the picture once Jimmy had opened the back of Shesar's neck with the chef's knife the snake had meant for Tracey and Jack himself.

The older woman was medical somehow, Jack wasn't clear on the details; anyway, she knelt down and took Tracey in hand like she knew what she was doing, and so Jack was just as happy to leave her to it and attend to the more important issue of not being left in a closet during the necessary sweep of the rest of the ship. He accomplished this task by pushing right between Daniel and Carter and out into the hall, trusting that neither of them would actually tackle him. Once he got to the stage, he figured it'd be easy; talk like you're in charge and an awful lot of people will believe it, even if you're looking a little battered, and Carter at least still had some instincts that told her to fellow his lead.

Daniel made a little noise about whether Jack was really up to this, but shut up after a quelling glare from Jack and a sharp "Jack knows what he's doing, Daniel," from Carter. They were spatting about something again, Jack figured; Daniel's choice to take out Tracey's guard first? Well, whatever. There would be time for arguments and logic later.

Jimmy looked up sharply from scrubbing the last of Shesar's blood off of his hands when they came out, asking "Tracey, is she okay?" with an anxious note in his voice.

"She's gonna be fine," Jack said, glancing at the wreck that had been made of Shesar's host and away to the people left in the theater. About half of them looked like they might be up for something above and beyond huddling in a ball and whimpering, which gave them, what, one to four odds, in a maze of a ship...

...or they could just give the all-clear and wait for the rest of the Conquest's residents to come to them.

"All right, people listen up!" Jack said, clapping his hands together sharply. "Here's what we're going to do."

Jimmy volunteered to go and call people back, but that was a no-go, in case someone had seen him joining in with the shooting. In the end, Jimmy recommended a heavy-set black woman who Jack hadn't met and whose name he gave up as a bad job at this point, and Berto, who wouldn't quite meet Jack's eyes, volunteered. Jack wasn't in love with that idea, frankly, but Berto seemed less shaken than most and he knew how to handle a zat. Jack just hoped that he wouldn't miss the henchman thing enough to screw around with the plan.

In the end, it went surprisingly smoothly. Leatta, God bless her, had told everyone she could round up to go to ground in the library and not let any strangers in, which made dragging everyone back to the Lounge unnecessary and made the shooting portion of the program a lot easier--like fish in a barrel, Berto said later, emotionlessly. Leatta herself had her guard up, insisting that she'd trust no one's word but Shesar's, and more to the point, that she wasn't going to be exposing her back to anyone else anytime soon. In the end, they had to lead her into Shesar's suite, where Carter was waiting next to the door to brain her with a heavy wooden walking stick she'd gotten from one of the older women who'd gone down in the first wave. So when the full ship's complement reassembled in the Lounge, they were shocked and occasionally bleeding, but not dead, which Jack figured was a win.

Unfortunately, once they were all back together again he lost his grip on the crowd. It started with the late, lamented--well, not by Jack--Barb. Tracey insisted that someone go back for her body right away, which Jack thought maybe ought to wait until they were a little more confident that no one was secretly planning to shoot anyone else in the back. Unfortunately, no one seemed to be all that interested in what he thought, up to and including Daniel, who promptly volunteered to go along.

"I think they've got it, Daniel," Jack said, because was he nuts?

Daniel bent down to tighten his shoelaces without looking up. "Someone's got to get our things too," he said. "Easier to do it in one trip, don't you think?"

"I'll come with you," Carter said, with a glance toward Jack. At least someone still had a healthy sense of paranoia.

Daniel shook his head. "No," he said, "I'm fine. Latasha? Ready to go?"

"Yeah," one of the younger women in the crowd said. Jack ignored her. "You're making my headache worse," he told Daniel, irritated. He kinda wished he were lying about that, but he had whacked himself pretty good back there, and then there'd been stress and arguing and a lot of shouting, none of which had made things any better.

Daniel gave him the don't be an idiot, Jack, look. "So take something," he said. "Or, I don't know, go lie down."

"Daniel--"

"Jack, don't you think we owe them this?" Daniel asked. And actually, no, Jack didn't think they owed anyone much of anything at this point, but he knew a battle not worth fighting when he saw one and so he shrugged, said "come straight back to our boat afterwards, you hear?" let it go.

So Daniel left, and there they were, Jack and Carter and Tracey and Jimmy and Leatta and all the other people who'd just woken up from a particularly nasty two-year dream to an even nastier, if more honest, reality. It was a little awkward, frankly. What with the decor and all, it was kind of like going to the prom at a strange high school, except with even more emotional trauma and a broken bone or two. Well, and the dead body sprawled on the stage.

As Jimmy tried to calm the crowd, Jack started to notice a lot of glances, and some sidling, and damn, his head still hurt. He should have remembered this part, where sometimes people didn't serenade you with "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" and name their children after you. Sometimes the ones who weren't curled sobbing in a corner looked at you out of the corners of their eyes and whispered to each other, and even though Carter had gotten her zat back, Jack was feeling unpleasantly outnumbered.

"Look," Jack said once Jimmy stopped to breathe, projecting his voice to reach as much of the crowd as possible. "You're a little freaked out right now, and I get that. So why don't my friend and I get out of your hair while you do your thing, and then we can get together again, say tomorrow, maybe have some dinner or--"

"You did this," a woman shouted. "You've come in here and killed us all--"

"That was a lie," Jimmy said, obviously trying to sound soothing. "I explained that to you, that that was a lie--"

"--and how do we know that? Even the Devil tells the truth sometimes, I was here at the beginning, I saw Raymond die--"

"Look, Angie, we know he had powers, he could have faked that too--"

"And you're just going to take their word for it?" Angie had been standing in the aisle, but now she scrambled her way up onto the stage, grunting a little with the exertion. She was short enough that it was a difficult climb, and Jimmy made an abortive attempt to help her up, cut short by an expletive from her. She got to her feet on her own and advanced on Jimmy, who had to have at least a foot on her if not more. Still, he was backing up. "Years we survived, during the dying and after everyone was dead, and you're going to tell me Shesar had nothing to do with it?"

Carter stepped forward, which was a bad idea, Jack thought, but he forgot, sometimes, that she didn't always look to him before she jumped these days. She spread out her hands, appealing to logic, to sanity--a very Daniel kind of move, actually. "I don't know enough to say why you survived initially, but I promise you, the gas--the substance that was killing people--is gone. I've been in the city for more than two days, and I feel--"

"And why the fuck am I supposed to listen to you?" Angie asked, soft and venomous.

"Angie," Tracey called, from where she'd been settled in the front row of seats.

"What do you all think?" Angie said, turning to the rest of the crowd. "You going to trust these strangers?"

Jack reached out and snagged Carter by the elbow, drawing her backwards toward the steps up onto the stage. "Yeah, I see your point. So we'll just be going..."

"Angie!" Tracey shouted, with just the slightest of slurs in her voice--someone had dug up a bottle of vodka that she'd been more than happy to accept as painkiller. "Are you going to call me a liar, too? Because it's been more than a day for me, too, and I'm fine."

"I believe you, Tracey," Berto said, quiet, but firm. He'd settled himself onto the edge of the stage as soon as the roundup had finished, and had spent the time since then staring at his hands, alone. "I don't care about these strangers, but I believe you, and I believe Jimmy. And even if I didn't, that thing--Shesar--that was wrong. That wasn't right. I'd rather be dead."

From there, it was all over but the shouting.

Jack and Carter, on Tracey's suggestion, skipped out on the mass debrief. "I think we need a little time to ourselves to work this out," she said, and hey, Jack was all for privacy. So they went back to the houseboat and, after a brief but spirited debate over whether 'nasty knock on the head plus bruises' was more deserving of sleep than 'zatted twice in the past eighteen hours,' flipped for it. Carter won, the cheater--Jack wasn't sure how she'd cheated at coin-flipping, but clearly she had--and so Jack crawled into bed and didn't wake again until Carter shook him a little before noon.

"Daniel went back up to explain things to them," she said. "I offered to go with him, but he said we weren't invited, so..." She shrugged. "I think it'll be all right; he said they seemed to have calmed down, and it's not surprising that they'd want more answers now that they've had a little time to come to terms with what happened."

"You didn't want to know what I thought?" Jack said, a little blearily.

"Well, you were asleep. And Daniel was going to go one way or another. Honestly, Jack, I don't think there's anything to worry about. You know Daniel. He'll be fine."

Jack scrubbed clumsily at his face, then pushed himself to his feet before he could think better of it. Coin or no coin, it was Carter's turn to sleep now. Still... "Right, because Daniel never gets himself into trouble."

As it turned out, it was well into evening by the time Daniel finally got back. The sunset slanting through the windows had turned the whole world pink, it seemed, walls and floor and people and all, but Jack couldn't appreciate the effect because he was itching to go back onto the Conquest after his missing man. So he was very glad to see that Daniel looked basically all right, no new missing limbs or bruises; apparently he'd read this bunch of people correctly.

"Couple people hung themselves in one of the rooms," Daniel said, voice flat. "Tracey said she wasn't surprised, wouldn't say anything else. They did something to family, probably. Other than that, people are coping pretty well, considering." He leaned back against the door, arms folded, gaze unfocused.

Carter looked at Jack, a little uncertainly. Jack looked right back at Carter, who could get on working things out with Daniel any time now, thanks. She still looked unsure, but when she walked over to Daniel he let her take his hand. "You must be tired," she said. "There's fish if you want it, which Jack only pretended to be able to identify but neither of us are dead yet, so..."

"Sure," Daniel said, without much interest. "Cold fish is my favorite."

"Well, if you hadn't run off to play with your new friends you could've had it right out of the pan like me and Carter." Jack had put out his pole as much as an excuse to sit out and stare at the Conquest as anything, and actually he'd been a little pissed off when he caught something; neither he nor Carter had been in much of a mood to cook, and dammit, it was times like these when he missed delivery. Pizza, maybe. Or sesame chicken. Mmm, sesame chicken. They'd filled up on peanuts in lieu of eating Daniel's piece--it wasn't a very big fish--and so Jack dug out the bag again and waggled it in his direction. "Peanuts?"

"Yeah, okay," Daniel said. "Actually..." He moved away from the door, leaving Carter behind, and practically snatched the peanuts out of Jack's hand, crowding him against the counter as he reached around for a fork. "I'm just going to take this outside." Fork obtained, he balanced his booty on the plate with the last lonely chunk of fish, heading for the exit.

Carter stepped in front of the door. "Or, you could stay in here with us. I'll even turn on the heat."

Daniel pulled up short, looking down at her. "Um, no."

She didn't say anything, but Jack was pretty sure Carter was ready for backup. "Seriously, just give in now, sit down, and tell the woman how your day was, huh? Trust me, it's easier that way."

"Butt out, Jack," Daniel snapped, without turning around.

"Daniel--" Now Carter's gaze did dart to Jack, over Daniel's shoulder, before she brought her attention back to the man in front of her and dropped her voice low enough that Jack couldn't understand her. Her eyes were wide and blue and Jack thought her tone was at least a little apologetic, so it was a relief when Daniel nodded and said, "I know. It's okay. I'll be back later."

"I'd like to know what's bothering you," Carter said, a little tightly. "I'd like to help."

"You can't," Daniel said. "It isn't yours. Sam, I just--can't be in here right now." He sounded frustrated, and his hands were starting to move, enough so that Jack expected peanuts to fly at any moment. "I'm sorry, but you are exactly the person who needs to leave me alone right now."

For a few moments longer, she stood her ground, looking up at him, but eventually she stepped aside and walked back into the living area without looking back. Her eyes were down, her face set, and she didn't meet Jack's eyes, even once Daniel left, sliding the door closed behind him.

After a little while they heard his footsteps echo through the boat from a few feet above them. And Jack totally got the whole go-hide-out-on-the-roof thing, he did, but... "Carter? You planning to take care of this?"

"He doesn't want me up there," she said, letting herself fall onto the couch with a thump. "I said I was sorry for getting upset last night. If he wants something else from me, he'll have to say so."

"Okay, see, this is not about you, Carter. This is about me, and how tired I am of you two pissing at each other. Work it out, willya?"

"I'm not the one with the problem," Carter said, picking at a loose thread on the armrest. "Besides, have you ever tried to get something out of him that he's not interested in talking about? It's like... trying to get you to listen to physics."

Jack frowned at the closed door and the fading glow of the sunset beyond, then nodded his head decisively. "Fine. You don't want to do it, I will."

With her typical ladylike grace, Carter snorted. "Sure, because if there's one thing you two do it's communicate."

"Hey! We communicate. Sometimes at volume, but... messages are passed." He faltered for a second; really, Carter and Daniel's thing was none of his business...

Oh, who was he kidding. At this point, either he was going to make it his business, or he just might be in serious need of a new place to live.

There was still a real chill in the air, though no wind, and Jack zipped his jacket all the way to his chin as he stepped outside, sliding the door securely shut behind him. Below his feet, the Mississippi ran down toward the Gulf of Mexico in the channel laid down for it years before by engineers in offices and button-down shirts. It wasn't quite aware yet that its chains were getting weaker, but Daniel had been on the right track, he thought; it'd likely jump its banks soon enough, take back its floodplain and escape.

It was a lot of work, keeping back a river. If you didn't keep on top of it, it'd surprise you.

The metal of the ladder was cold against his hands, and though he figured the sound of the door and the scraping of his feet on the rungs must've given Daniel plenty of warning, when he reached the roof deck Daniel was busy staring off westward and didn't so much as say hello. So Jack cleared his throat, because never let it be said that Jack O'Neill didn't take the lead when necessary, and waited.

"Hey, Jack," Daniel said offhandedly, without even glancing over. He sounded like he did when he was absorbed in a problem, like he was hoping to multi-task any required conversation for as long as possible while actually paying attention to the other stuff that he was genuinely interested in.

Screw that.

"Whatcha thinking?" Jack asked, jovially.

Daniel finally turned to look at him, resting his cheek on his knees. "If I wanted you to know what I was thinking, would I be sitting on top of the boat to do it?"

"So I can translate that as "fuck off," right?"

Daniel watched him for a moment more, then looked away, down, back out toward the city to where the sunset had been. "I am thinking," he said, "about ghosts. Do you believe in ghosts?"

"I thought we were going with a zombie theme for this trip."

"Fine," Daniel said with a minuscule shrug. "You asked."

"Daniel--" His friend's face was completely calm, without a ripple of emotion. Jack didn't like it. "No. No, I don't believe in ghosts, and you know that because we've had this conversation before."

Daniel frowned at him. "Really? When?"

"You remember. The thing. With the..." He searched for a polite way to put it, then decided polite was more trouble than it was worth. "Crazy."

"With the... oh! Right. Yeah. I'd forgotten about that, actually. Well, not the padded room and straitjacket part, obviously, that was memorable."

They sat for a while longer, listening to the river, until Jack cracked. "Why ghosts?"

"Oh..." Daniel shrugged again. "It's fairly common mythologically for ghost stories to be about people who died with things left undone, and just... kept at it, even though they were dead. Or people trying to fix something from their life, anyway. The murder victim who walks the earth to accuse his killer, that sort of thing. They're people who couldn't let go and move on. And, you know, I can... be that person, I think, sometimes, and I don't want to be. A ghost." His voice was even, idly curious--always a bad sign. "Does that make sense?"

"Sure. But Daniel, you were all for this trip, and you were all for the little let's-go-Goa'uld-killing expedition. The end of which I'm pretty pleased with, by the way."

"Yeah, well, I'm not saying--it's not about that. You wanted to know what I was thinking about. I was thinking about how to make sure I... let go of things that need letting go of."

"Such as?"

Daniel shook his head, then turned his attention to the Conquest, looming over them like a skyscraper. "They're going to have a rough time of it, now that they know. There's been a lot of blood."

"Yeah, how's Tracey doing?" Jack asked.

"Should be okay. Hurting, obviously. You know," he said in a rush, "it's not--if that guy had been about to cut you I would've done exactly the same thing, shot him, I mean." He sounded utterly miserable, and that was weird; confidence in his choices was not usually something Daniel lacked, and really, things had worked out all right, minus Carter blowing up at him. "And, God, I didn't even ask, how's your head?"

"The only problem with my head is the headache you two are giving me," Jack said, spotting the opening Daniel had left him and barging right in. "Look, you know this is not my forte, but you two need to work this shit out. I've gone down the arguing-all-the-time road, and frankly, divorce is just not as fun as the advertisements suggest."

"For one thing," Daniel said tightly, "I am not married, and neither is Sam. For another, I don't see how this is any of your business. What happened to not wanting to get in the middle, anyway?"

"I gave up. I live with you people, Daniel. I couldn't get out of the middle if I tried. Among other things..." Screw it, Jack thought. "...I'm fucking Carter."

Daniel's head jerked up, and he turned to look at Jack. It was too dark to really see his face, but his voice was a study in confusion. "I'm sorry?"

"Me. Carter. Screwing like minks. Making the beast with two backs, among other positions. Fornicating. Copul--"

"Yes, I'm aware of that," Daniel said, obviously still unsure exactly why Jack had decided now was the time to say it out loud. Actually, Jack himself wasn't sure. He thought, wistfully, of beer. This was definitely the kind of conversation that needed beer. Or whiskey. Or Everclear.

"Fine, you're aware. Do you care?"

"I told Sam I was fine with it--"

"Not an answer--"

"--and if it makes her happy--"

"Still not an answer, Daniel, and do not try to play dumb with me here, because I guarantee you I will win. I want to know if you care."

"I'm glad she's happy, and other than that it's her business who she sleeps with. It's not like there's some kind of special Daniel Jackson padlock on her pussy, for God's sake."

Jack stared at him, then said, very carefully, "I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that."

"Say what? Pussy?"

"Okay, see, you need to not use... that word... and we're going back to the original question, which was not about Carter, it was about you. This is a matter of some interest to me, Daniel. It's not a practice of mine to fuck around with other guys' women, and if there's a problem--"

"--there you go with the possession terminology again--"

"--shared Sha're around the campfire, did you? No? Didn't think so."

"Sha're," Daniel said, very carefully and very angrily, "wanted me. God only knows why, but she did. I would have given her anything she wanted, anything that would have made her happy. But that was not something that she ever asked for."

"And Carter did," Jack said.

"Yes!" Daniel shouted. "Yes, she did. As you may have noticed. And... I want her... to be happy."

Jack tapped his fingers on the roof a few times, thoughtfully. "You love her."

"Yes," Daniel said promptly, with just a touch of amusement in his voice, like maybe Jack was pointing out with great astonishment the blueness of the sky or the tastiness of beer. "Don't you?"

Jack let out a long breath and leaned back on his elbows. "For a while now, yeah."

Daniel spun around to sit crosslegged, a shadow in the dark leaning toward Jack with Daniel's let-me-tell-you-about-the-world voice coming out of it. "And, see, that's the thing, I get it, it's... I mean, I know a little something about, um, the starcrossed... thing. To be overly dramatic about it. So of course I care, but I don't blame anyone. Well," he corrected, "I'm trying not to. Since we're being honest. But we're still... I'll get over it. I just need some time."

The river kept rolling along beneath them, and something fetched up against the boat with a thump before continuing on its way. "You know, Carter could've told me this was what you were pissed about," Jack said, irritated.

"Well, we, ah, haven't discussed it. Actually."

With a jerk, Jack brought his head up to stare at the Daniel-shadow. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

"Oh, don't even start," Daniel snapped. "Like you of all people have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing me for not being touchy-feely-talky enough."

It was a low blow, and it stung--he kind of wished he hadn't put Sara on the table in this conversation, because he wanted to think that Daniel wouldn't have gone there without that tacit permission--but Jack was fixated now and he didn't let himself get distracted. "Okay, previously we were talking about you, but now let's talk about me and making me happy. It would make me very happy to know that you have discussed this whole... thing... with the woman to whom you have been practically joined at the hip for more than two years now, so that I can get rid of this nagging feeling that the grenade I have tossed into the middle of your admittedly non-marital bed is not so much of a fake as Carter has assured me it is!"

Silence, then the sound of Daniel gathering his plate and fork. "And now we're back to 'this is none of your business.'"

"I'm getting the details from you or I'm getting them from Carter. Talk to me, Daniel."

"She said she wanted you," Daniel said. "So I said if she could get you, she could have you as far as I was concerned. I don't see that there was anything more to say, and I--" He took a deep breath. "I understand, because--I don't want you to think I'm sorry that she went to get you and bring you, um... home. Because I was," he said, terribly carefully, "so glad to see you, Jack, and I wanted, and do want, to give you... whatever. Would make you happy. Both of you."

Jack really, really wished he could see Daniel's face. Even without that advantage, a number of ideas were sliding into place in his mind, slowly and much later than they really should have. His fingers were freezing, but buried somewhere under the skin was the memory of a hot night in August, and the beginning of a shiver was very nearly Daniel's fingers tracing his spine the next morning, before he'd gotten out of bed and had gone back to keeping his hands to himself. "You could've left," Jack said. "That night. You didn't."

"No," Daniel said. "I was curious. I'd been curious for a long time. And you didn't seem to mind."

"And?"

"And...?"

"Satisfied your curiosity, did you?"

Daniel laughed a little. "Does it matter? We did that chapter of the story already, Jack."

"Well then, tell me the ending."

"Unlikely as it may sound, you get to live happily ever after. Well, inasmuch as anyone does nowadays," he added, as something of an afterthought.

"Right," Jack said, pushing himself up to his feet. "And on that note, you are going to talk to Carter, right now. Up and at 'em, buddy. The two of you need to get on the same page here. I'll make it an order if I have to."

"Yes, because that's going to work well," Daniel said, but when Jack reached down and tugged on his collar, he came easily enough.

***

Carter looked up sharply when they came in, then turned her attention back to the book in her hands. Jack's book, now that he looked more closely. Oh, if she'd lost his place there'd be hell to pay. He was not going to re-read any of that crap.

"Better?" she asked.

Jack turned and looked meaningfully at Daniel. "You wanna do it, or should I?"

With a close-lipped smile, Daniel waved Jack on ahead. "Oh, be my guest."

"Fine. I have gathered--and correct me if I'm wrong, Daniel--that Daniel's wondering when exactly you're planning to switch from his bed to mine."

Carter frowned and put down her book. "I'm not. You snore."

Staring at her, Jack said, "I think I've taught you too well. Work with me here, Carter. Are you planning to leave Daniel for me anytime soon?"

"It's not about planning, Jack," Daniel said, over the top of Carter's "What?"

Jack reached out one hand and grabbed Daniel by the shoulder, getting a blinky stare out of the other man for his trouble. "Shut up, Daniel. Carter's talking now. So, Carter, have I ruined you for all other men? Because I can see how that could be a problem."

Carter's eyes flicked back and forth between their faces, looking for... something. "Is that a joke? Because it isn't funny."

Silence from Daniel's corner, which inspired brief fantasies of shaking on Jack's part. Possibly head-bouncing. "Not a joke. You really haven't had this conversation, have you? Jesus, Carter."

"Well, I don't know why Daniel would think that was going to happen, because I haven't said anything like that. I haven't even thought anything like that." Her attention went back to Daniel--finally--as she said, "Is that what's been bothering you? Because I could've told you not to worry months ago."

Daniel took a deep breath. "I'm going to stay here over the winter," he said.

The couch creaked a little as Carter leaned back, looking up at Daniel with a frown. "Why?"

Jack's hand tightened angrily on Daniel's shoulder. "Don't encourage him, Carter. He isn't staying anywhere."

"Tracey and Jimmy asked me to stay," Daniel told Carter, shrugging off Jack's hand and otherwise ignoring him. "They think it'd be helpful to have someone around whose head has been all there for the past two years, and I think I should take some time away from Brewster. I'll come home in the spring, once things are more..." He waggled his head back and forth uncertainly. "Settled."

"And this is about me and Jack," Carter said, adding, "Shut up, Jack," before he so much as opened his mouth. So he did. Who knew? Maybe she really did know how to handle Daniel, once she knew there was handling to do.

"I know where this is going," he said. "I don't want to be here for it."

"You don't know anything, Daniel. I can't be responsible for what you think you--"

"I do have eyes, you know. All he has to do is walk in the room and it's like a, a, a sunflower or something, all your attention goes straight to him--"

Carter still wasn't getting up off the couch, and her face was well into thunderous. "Well, you've got my attention now. Is that what you were trying to do? Because you could've had that months ago if you'd--"

"You want each other!" Daniel fairly shouted. "So take each other. It's fine, I give you my blessing, I wish you all the best--"

"I want you plenty, Daniel! How many times do you want me to say it?"

"It's not about what you say, Sam--"

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Jack muttered under his breath, dragged Daniel around so they were face-to-face, and kissed him.

As a way to shut him up, it worked pretty well. As a kiss, it was a failure; Daniel pulled back after the briefest moment, eyes wide and staring, arms still crossed against his chest. "What are you doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing? Pull away one more time and I'll stop." Jack leaned in again, more slowly, and this time when he reached Daniel's mouth Daniel didn't pull away. His eyes were still open, narrowed in thought, and he wasn't giving much back, but he was still there and Jack figured that was better than nothing.

Behind them, Carter cleared her throat. "Um, I'm just gonna--"

Jack snapped his fingers and pointed at her behind his back like a schoolteacher, keeping a good grip on Daniel with his other hand. "Don't go anywhere," he said, without looking her way. "I'm getting to you in a minute."

"I'm not going to be your pity fuck, Jack," Daniel said, but he still wasn't moving away, and when Jack moved in even closer he could feel Daniel beginning to harden. He cocked his head challengingly; Daniel's eyes closed, and he licked his lips, sucking in a sharp breath. Excellent. Because Jack had been kind of afraid this whole idea was going to go down in flames for a second there.

"This isn't pity. I want to get very naked and do things with you that would've gotten me kicked out of the Air Force so fast your head would spin, and I want Carter to help me, and then I want you to get the fuck over your problems so you can come home with us and have lots of sex. I think it's good to have goals, don't you?"

Daniel's expression softened from wariness into something that looked like it might even be affection. "I don't think it works like that," he said quietly, but his hand came up to smooth across Jack's cheek and it was a little weird, yeah, but good, too, to finally feel the guy wanting him.

"Well, you don't know until you try," Jack said, tone brisk. "Tell me what you want."

"What I--" Daniel blinked.

"What you want, Daniel. Tell me how you want me to make you come." He still looked a little dumbfounded; Jack ran his hands down Daniel's' back and cupped his ass, pulling him closer and mouthing a path down the side of his neck. Pity he couldn't relax and enjoy himself while he was still trying to haul Daniel over to his side of the line. Well, there'd be time for that later. "Stop thinking. There's no wrong answer here."

Carter was right behind him--how had he not heard her? Half a step back, and he'd be in her arms. "You should suck him off," she said, and Jack badly wanted to turn around and see the expression that went with that tone of voice but now was not the time to be shifting focus, beyond gratitude that she was following his lead rather than running for the hills. He nibbled his way up toward Daniel's ear instead, learning his taste, as Daniel tilted his head to give him more room. "Nice and straightforward. Daniel likes a good blowjob, don't you, Daniel?"

Daniel laughed under his breath, a little disbelievingly. "Uh, yeah. Sure, why not? That'll--God! No, don't stop--that'll work." He pulled away a little, attention shifting to Carter, voice dropping. "You going to watch?"

"Well, Jack did say he wanted help," she said, moving in close and settling one hand into the small of Jack's back. "And I am the expert."

After a heartstoppingly long beat, Daniel nodded, and that expression Jack knew--that was a Daniel whose mind was made up. "Fine. Okay. Fine. If we're going to do this, then let's, ah, let's do it." His voice was matter-of-fact, but when he reached up to unbutton his shirt, Jack could see that his hands were shaking a little. Arousal, not nervousness, he thought--or hoped, anyway. Christ, Jack wanted those hands on him. Next time, he thought, next time Daniel would be the one doing the work.

Possibly that wasn't fair. After all, Jack had already had his turn at being the one to lay back and enjoy the ride, back when this had all started. And look where that had gotten him.

Laid? a voice in the back of his head asked. Stupid voice. Good point, though.

"Crank the heat, Carter," Jack said, because he could feel goosebumps rising on his body as he shucked off his pants, and the cold would be just one more distraction in a situation where distractions were completely unacceptable. Nice to have backup you could trust; his attention was all on Daniel, who was naked and hard and on the bed. Waiting. For Jack.

So far, this was looking like the best idea he'd had in years.

Daniel still had his serious face on, so Jack straddled him and leaned in to kiss it away. None of that half-hearted shit this time; Daniel pulled Jack in hard with one hand on the back of his head, stroking the other one up Jack's bicep to his shoulder. Jack could feel him lifting up, hips just high enough to brush their dicks together, and damn did he want to just lean in and grind, down-and-dirty. Next time, he promised himself again. Daniel's choice, even if it'd been Carter's idea, and what Daniel said he wanted was damn well what Daniel was going to get.

Well, okay, Jack probably could've been talked out of it if Daniel had really pressed the point. But when Jack pulled back Daniel let him go without a sound, eyes closed, one hand twisting in the blankets. His dick left a wet trail on Jack's chest as he slid downward, and it was fucking great, that single point of contact, Jack let it slide all the way up until he could stroke it with his cheek, pressing his nose down into Daniel's curls where he could smell sweat and the sex. "Tell me how you want it, Daniel," he said again, very quietly. Nothing; he pressed a kiss to the base of Daniel's cock, wrapping his lips around it from the side, and put a cajoling note into his voice. "Tell me."

"Want it," Daniel said, eyes still closed. One leg came up and wrapped around Jack's ass, holding him there.

Jack smiled a little, and he could hear Carter laughing a little from somewhere outside of the bed--crap, Carter, he was supposed to have Carter--fuck it, too complicated. "Blood not getting to the brain," she said. "He likes--"

"No," Daniel interrupted firmly, head coming up to look at Jack. "Want it. That's what I want. Make me think you want it."

Jack met his eyes, and maybe a smile wasn't the best possible response to that but he couldn't help it. "Yeah," he said, "I think I can do that," he said, and went in for the kill.

He couldn't take the whole thing in his mouth, not without choking, but hell, that was what hands were for. Daniel made the most amazing, astonished, high-pitched little noise when Jack sucked him in, and his leg tightened around Jack, hard enough that Jack had to curl his toes under and brace himself to keep from falling flat.

After that, all he had to do was find the right rhythm, and from there on in it was easy. Jack closed his eyes and dug the fingers of his free hand into Daniel's hip, shifting over so he could rock his dick against Daniel's leg as he sucked him, nothing in the world but the feeling of Daniel's body against his, the familiar smell of him, the gasping sound of his breath. He was arching up into Jack's mouth and he could hear Carter sounding a little strained as she said "he's going to come" and Daniel reached down to push Jack off, a gentleman to the last, but Jack was making a point here, dammit, so he grabbed onto that hand and held on tight until he heard the long, low groan Daniel made when he came. It had been a while--okay, a long while--but he damn well knew how to swallow.

He pulled off slowly, giving the tip a last, teasing lick before crawling back up Daniel's body. He was pretty sure Daniel wasn't the kind of guy to leave him hanging, or anyway he sure as hell hoped he wasn't, because the sight of him sprawled and slit-eyed on the bed was turning what had already been a warm, aroused buzz into something a little more urgent.

Daniel smiled at him, a little goofily, and reached down to take Jack in hand. He was sweaty, still breathing a little heavily, but if he was the type to go right to sleep after he came Jack sure didn't see any sign of it. He stroked Jack once, from base to tip, and Jack groaned, burying his face in Daniel's shoulder and shoving himself into his hand.

Until Daniel squeezed hard enough to make him stop, and said, very calmly, "Having fun, Sam?"

Daniel was looking right past Jack, down the length of the bed to the loveseat against the far wall. Carter was sprawled there, flushed with arousal, one hand moving slowly inside her unzipped jeans. Jesus. He glanced back at Daniel, expecting a shared hey, look at the hot chick moment, but no; other than one thumb stroking absently over the head of Jack's cock, all his attention was on Carter. The air was electric, and Jack decided that the better part of valor would be to keep his mouth shut.

"I'm good, thanks," she replied--a little breathy, but controlled.

"Did you come yet?"

Carter shook her head, her "No" almost a whisper.

"Why not?"

Carter lifted her chin, holding his gaze. "I was waiting for you."

"Yeah," Daniel murmured. "I want you to stop touching yourself now, Sam."

"And if I don't?" Her hand slid farther into her pants, and she lifted her hips to meet it, the rest of her body tensing.

"I know you. If you wanted to come on your own you would've done it already. And if you don't stop, I'll make Jack come right now and you won't get to fuck him tonight." His voice was confident, and as calm as still water. Jack was feeling a little out of his depth all of a sudden, frankly--the idea of dragging Carter and Daniel into this together had seemed like a better one before they'd started to wave their private sex life around in front of him, somehow--but it didn't look like they cared much about his opinion.

Sam pulled out her hand and displayed it like she was trying to prove she didn't have a weapon, the barest hint of a smile playing on her lips. "Clothes," Daniel said, and she made quick work of it, ending up standing at the end of the bed with her hands on her hips and that tiny smile still on her face.

Daniel's thumb kept moving. A wet streak on Carter's thigh caught the light, and Jack couldn't look away.

Carter ran one hand across her belly, dipping just low enough to tease. "And?"

"God, you're beautiful," Daniel replied, and when Jack grunted a little in agreement he was relieved to hear an amused exhalation. "If you want a condom, you'd better get it now."

"Oh! Good point." She disappeared into the bathroom, and Jack took the opportunity to get Daniel's attention, poking his calf with one toe.

"Daniel, are you sure this is a good idea?"

"I want to put you together, and then I want to watch. This is about what I want, right?" Still smooth as deep water, and whatever was going on behind his eyes, he wasn't willing to talk about it. Okay then. Daniel stroked him one last time, then let him go, pulling away a little. When Jack went to sit up, Daniel put one hand on his chest, holding him in place. "No. Stay just like that."

The condom was cool, a little slick with lube, and Carter rolled it down in a businesslike way, though not businesslike enough to keep Jack from sucking in a deep breath. "You want me on top?"

"Yeah, on top," Daniel said, and she reached out and held Jack steady and sank down onto him in a single smooth movement, knees pressing against his sides. His hands came up to frame her waist; Daniel took the one closest to him firmly in hand and removed it, laying it back onto the mattress and fitting himself right up against Jack's side. "Don't move yet."

"Don't--" Jack choked, then let it go. Daniel's night. Daniel's rules. Okay. Not okay in about ten seconds, but okay.

Daniel leaned in and kissed Carter, and oh, Jack wished he had a better view than the back of Daniel's head because he could feel Carter responding, the way she lifted up a little and bore down around Jack.

"God," he said, almost pleading, and Daniel broke off the kiss, keeping one hand on the back of Carter's head and sliding the other down her side, around one breast, across her stomach to where she and Jack met. Clearly he knew where he was going.

"Lie still, Jack," Daniel said. "Sam, you can move on him now. Start slow."

It felt like it went on for hours. Every time she lifted up, Daniel's fingers were there on his cock, and Carter moved into Daniel's hand every time she came down again--just his thumb at first, but eventually grinding hard into the heel of his hand. She had Jack's hand in one of hers, and the other one wrapped around Daniel, fingers digging into his back.

After the third time Daniel stopped her on the brink, Jack opened his eyes--Jesus fuck he was close, but he was damned if he was going to come before she did--to see her bury her head in Daniel's shoulder, turning it almost frantically from side to side as she panted. The first time, she'd still been up for using words to complain, but she looked to be well past that now.

"Sam," Daniel said, a little breathlessly. She didn't answer; he turned a little and spoke directly into her ear. "Sam. I need you to tell me something."

"What?" she gasped.

"How long does Jack stay hard after he comes? I know you can tell me that."

"Long enough," she said. "Daniel, please."

Daniel let out a breath, almost-but-not-quite a laugh. "Oh, you love it. Did you know that, Jack? Ever make her wait?"

"No," Jack ground out, "and I'm about ready to explode here, Daniel, so if we could move along..."

"Such a gentleman. All right, Sam. Jack first, then I'll finish you off. Jack, you can move if you want to."

Really, it was the polite thing to do to get the woman off first. Jack was past polite. Carter twisted on the way down and Jack thrust up once, twice, it was awkward and there was no rhythm to it and it didn't matter because he'd been on the fucking brink forever and finally he could let it go and he was gone.

Carter didn't stop. Even as Jack felt himself coming down, muscles going limp, she was moving, head still buried in Daniel's shoulder, past speech and into the rhythmic grunting she used when she was getting down to business. She let go of Jack and grabbed Daniel's wrist instead, holding it steady while she used his hand; he cradled the back of her head, holding her against him for the few moments it took her to reach climax.

It went on for a long time, and even when she relaxed around him she kept moving for a while, noises softer and higher-pitched, almost plaintive. Eventually even that trailed off into a last, satisfied hum, and Jack could feel her letting go, letting Daniel take her weight.

They stayed just like that for a little while, panting, while Daniel stroked her hair. "You okay?" Daniel said, eventually.

"Did I sound okay?" Carter said, with something that was very nearly a hysterical giggle. "We should have done that months ago. Why didn't we?"

"Because we're very stupid," Jack said, from what felt like a thousand miles away.

The bed shifted as Carter pulled herself off of Jack and rolled over onto his free side, flinging one arm over his chest. After a moment, Daniel leaned down and kissed him--all lips, no tongue, but thorough all the same. Jack smiled, and it felt real. "You know," he said, once Daniel was done, "I'm impressed, but if you want to go again you're gonna have to give me... oh, five minutes. Ten, maybe."

Carter snorted, but Daniel didn't say anything, just looked at Jack and reached out to run one hand through his hair, before brushing Carter's cheek with the backs of his fingers. His eyes were very clear and his touch was gentle and Jack thought, oh, we have so got you, Doctor Jackson. You are whipped.

Which is why it was something of a surprise when Daniel nodded to himself, got out of bed, and headed for the pile of clothes he'd left on the floor.

"What, no cuddling?" Jack said, keeping his voice light. "C'mon, that was cuddle-worthy. Or, hey, cuddle-free basking, if that's what you're into."

Daniel ignored him, picking up the boxers he'd been wearing back when all of this had started. He sniffed them, wrinkled his nose, and went to root through his backpack, still naked as a jaybird.

Carter rolled over and hoisted herself up onto one elbow. "Daniel? What are you doing?"

"Getting dressed," Daniel said without looking up. He located a pair of briefs and pulled them on, before flinging socks and jeans and a flannel shirt over his shoulder onto the floor.

"Because..." Jack trailed off.

"Because I'm not staying here. Because that was fun and it was nice of you to give me the chance to experience it, but it didn't change anything. And because it's too cold out to walk around naked."

"Daniel, that's crazy," Carter said, swinging her legs around to sit up on the side of the bed. "It's okay now. We can just... go home, and it'll be fine."

Without looking up, Daniel pulled on one sock, then the other, yanking them hard enough that one toe broke through the fabric. "Sam, be realistic. This is all very nice, but it won't work."

"You, of all people, are going to lecture us on realism?" Jack snorted. "Tell me another one, 'cause that's a doozy."

Daniel was standing, now, and zipping up his jeans. Jack wondered where he'd put the zat, and whether Jack could get ahold of it before Daniel made it to the door. "Reality is that monogamy is an American cultural norm, and nurture is a powerful thing."

"Fine," Jack said. "Name me a culture where it isn't the norm. C'mon, for once I actually want the information. Sock it to me."

Well," Daniel said, looking somewhat distracted by shirt-buttoning, "that depends on the specifics. Obviously multiple wives is very common--any number of societies have practiced polygyny, right up to the present day. Polyandry is much less common, and we're working off of an American cultural script, not a Tibetan one. Has anyone seen my shoes?"

Sam brought one leg up and hugged it, resting her chin on her knee. "Find them yourself," she said, grumpily. "Daniel, as long as we've known each other you've been all about possibility and, and openness, and... why won't you even try?"

"I gave it more than two months. That's long enough to see where this is heading. Seriously, where are my--dammit!" Daniel lunged for his boots, but Carter was too quick for him; she snatched them up from where they'd been hidden under the discarded comforter, and held them on her lap. Daniel held out one hand imperiously. "Give me the boots, Sam."

"No," Carter said. "Not until we work this out."

Daniel pursed his lips, closed his eyes, nodded. "Fine," he said. "I'll just take Jack's."

"Like hell you will," Jack said. "I just finally got those things broken in. Also, you can stop with the... I don't even know what this is, but you can stop it right now. You can't stay away from us, and you know it. We've seen what happens when you try."

"Well, I'll be back in the spring," Daniel said. Which would be... okay if true, though not really the best of all possible worlds, but... shit. On the one hand, Daniel was the original cat who came back. On the other hand, Daniel was also the guy who could abandon his entire planet without blinking when he got an idea in his head, and he sure had one in his head now.

One of these days, he was going to slip through Jack's fingers for good.

"Well, I don't want to spend the winter without you," Carter said.

"Funny, I didn't want to spend the summer without you, either. But I did, because you get to make your own decisions. And hey, look at that, so do I."

Daniel grabbed for his boots again, and this time Carter let him claim them. He plopped himself down on the floor with his back to the bed, and so she directed her next salvo at his back. "That was completely different, and you know it. I was doing something that needed to be done and that you were not well enough to help me with; you're running away from me, specifically. From both of us," she added, with a glance over her shoulder toward Jack.

"No," he said tightly, "I'm not."

"Yes, Daniel, you are! You don't even tell me anything's wrong and an hour after I find out there is something wrong you're on your way out the door? That's not fair."

"First of all, I think the fact that you never considered there might be something wrong proves my point, and second, it's my call and I would love to see you stop me. What are you going to do? Tie me to the bed?" Daniel said, turning to face her.

"Don't tempt me," Jack muttered under his breath.

Carter took a deep breath and let it out, obviously trying to calm herself down. "Or we could talk. I know you've always been really excited about talking as a way to resolve conflicts, so..." Her smile in profile was hesitant, but hopeful, the smile of a woman who had not been primarily responsible for making Daniel Jackson toe something within ten feet or so of the line for the better part of a decade.

Which was to say, it didn't work. Daniel just shook his head, and actually took a couple of unconscious steps back, until he ran up against the couch on the other wall. "Sam--I can't. Okay? You'll be fine. You've got Jack. You don't need me here."

"Is that what this is about?" Jack said, without moving. It was either stay right where he was, he thought, or succumb to the temptation to shake Daniel until his teeth rattled. Carter started to say something, but Jack ignored her. "The problem here is that she doesn't need you?"

"That's not what I meant--"

"Jack, stop it, you aren't helping--"

Jack just rolled right over the top of both of them, bit all the way between his teeth. "Well, I'm damn sorry that we don't need rescuing and you'd feel better hanging around with the people who did. It's your funeral, and you're welcome to it."

"Wow, that's making me want to stick around." Daniel smiled mirthlessly and went for the door, stopping only when Carter hopped out of bed and actually grabbed him by the arm, still stark naked.

"Daniel," she said. "Stop. Just... wait a minute. You know Jack, he doesn't mean it--"

"Sure I do," Jack offered sourly.

"--he's just blowing off steam. And I need--you owe me a chance to fix this. Did you even think about that?"

"Yes, of course I did, but I don't think you can. It's not like we're arguing about who does the dishes, it's about..." Daniel's head bobbled back and forth in his signal for 'you-know-that-thing-which-my-brain-can't-think-of-right-now,' and Jack felt a tiny little bit of affection start to work its way back up through the overwhelming irritation. "Chemistry," Daniel finally said. "It's not the kind of thing you can sit down and work out."

"I love you," Carter said promptly. "And while physics is more my specialty, I can try to talk chemistry if you want. There are catalysts, and reactants..." Her voice was teasing, cajoling. "And sometimes, they make a really big explosion. In a good way. Though explosions can be bad, obviously, but what I meant to say was... good." She trailed off into her rare confused look, a little embarrassed at having lost herself in her own metaphor.

"I appreciate that." Daniel said, resting one hand on Carter's where it still gripped his arm. "But I have to go. We can talk about this some other time."

"Some other time as in half an hour, or some other time as in May?" Jack asked, quieter now.

"Tomorrow. Okay? I'll come back tomorrow." He pulled free and turned around--was he actually tucking in his shirt? Yes, he was. Daniel's reflection was clear in the window, but his head was ducked down too far for Jack to see his expression. Even if he had been able to see it, though, who knew if he'd have been able to tell whether Daniel was telling the truth?

Jack flopped back on the bed, letting out the smallest irritated noise that he was sure Daniel would be able to hear. "Well, take the goddamn zat, and if you're interested in some advice, I'd recommend you spend a little time thinking about what you want without all this 'I'm so self-sacrificial and unwanted' bullshit cluttering it up. Because I think it's pretty obvious that Carter wants to keep you, and so do I. For whatever the hell that's worth."

"We'll talk tomorrow," Daniel said again, without looking at either of them. He took his jacket off the chair, the zat out of the closet beneath the TV, and was out the door without another word, disappearing into the darkness.

Carter just stood there, staring out the door. Jack cleared his throat. "When he comes back," he said, "you zat him, I'll tie him down, and we'll boogie our asses right back up the river to the house. We smack him upside the head in shifts, and he'll come around."

He'd hoped for a laugh, or at least a half-smile, but all he got was the back of her head. He rolled out of bed and walked the few steps to her side--damn, it was cooling down again, she must be freezing standing around like that--and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Carter--"

She shrugged him off violently. "You should have told me."

"I did tell you! I told you tonight! I only found out tonight! And I should point out that you're the one who shares a bed with him."

Carter nodded, but when he looked over at her he could see tears starting in her eyes. Ah, hell. He hadn't meant to wound her, and it had been, he thought, a very long couple of days. He went to lay an arm across her shoulders, and was violently rejected again. "No," she said, sharply and in a voice that was only a little bit clogged. "Don't. Not now. I need..." She cast around for her bag, then dug out sweats and a pair of fuzzy green socks. "Where did you put those notebooks?" Her voice was muffled by the sweatshirt going over her head; when her head emerged her hair was sticking out in all directions, but she didn't stop to pat it down, or to see if Jack had an answer to her question. She turned in place, one way, then another, and finally went for Daniel's bag, extracting one of the notebooks Jack had found back in Monroe.

So. No cuddling, then.

"Whatcha doing, Carter?"

"I'm making a list," she said. "Daniel said we'd talk when he got back, so, fine. I'm making a list of topics to cover. If I can find a pen." She rifled through the bag some more, then finally found a ballpoint where it had rolled under the bed. In half a moment she was sitting at the tiny dinette table, scribbling furiously.

I thought the point was to make him want to stick around, Jack absolutely did not say, because he wanted to keep his head. Instead, he shrugged to himself and climbed back into Carter and Daniel's bed, until he heard Carter clear her throat. Meaningfully. Twice.

He looked up.

"Jack," she said, "maybe when Daniel gets back you shouldn't be in his bed."

"Right," Jack said, with a sigh. "Right. Good idea."

***

Carter would not turn out the light, but Jack got to sleep anyway. No point in worrying about potentially-spilled milk now; Daniel would come back or he wouldn't, he'd see sense or he wouldn't, and Jack was totally serious about the whole zatting thing anyway so hopefully there wouldn't be any long-term problem.

When he woke shortly after dawn Carter was still up, though no longer writing, and Daniel was still nowhere to be seen. They ate, and Carter fretted, and Jack made a couple of stabs at making her feel better, failing miserably each time. By nine, she was ready to go out the door, and talking about going back up to the Conquest to find Daniel, which meant it was a good thing that he came through the door at 9:03.

He looked tired, a little rumpled, maybe even a little abashed, though it was possible that Jack was just seeing what he wanted to see on that count. He didn't sit, but he did at least shut the door behind him and lean back on it hard enough to make it look like he was planning to stay a while.

"Hi," Carter said. "I'm glad you're back."

Daniel nodded, half to himself, eyes drifting off toward the ceiling, down to the floor. "I don't, uh... I don't want you to be someone else. So it's not that you aren't... I mean, that's not the problem."

"Well... good." Carter shuffled the torn-out pages in front of her, picking at the loose bits of paper where they'd been torn front the spiral binding. "I have a list," she blurted finally.

"A list."

"You said we'd talk when you got back. So I, um, I made a list."

Daniel squinted at her from across the room. "Is that it?"

"Yes. Mostly. There's a diagram, um, a couple of diagrams actually, so one of the pages is actually graphical..."

"Diagrams?" Jack said, from his half-hidden post in the captain's chair. "Jesus, Carter."

"I didn't see you helping--"

"Well, sure, because I understand that the goal here is not to make Daniel run screaming into the... morning... and it turns out he's way more of a guy than I thought he was--"

Over by the door, Daniel's head jerked violently. "Hey!"

"--when it comes to all this talking crap, so I'm not going to be responsible for a three-page outline for discussion and negotiation, thank you very much. I actually want him to like me."

"Yes, I could tell," Daniel said, a little snittily. Jack wasn't quite sure how to respond to that--on the one hand, snitty, but on the other hand, well, kind of deserved. Maybe. A little. There had been some entirely necessary yelling, he had to admit.

"Jack, please." Carter was halfway to her feet before some tightening in Daniel's expression made her sink back down, movements precise and overwhelmingly careful. She turned her attention back to Daniel, voice wavering between the professional briefing-voice Jack remembered from the Mountain and something much less certain. "The point is, there are things you didn't tell me, and things that I didn't talk about with you, and I think Jack's proposed some, um... changes that are worth discussing. But just charging ahead didn't work, so it seems to me that we ought to figure out the topics we need to cover ahead of time, like a negotiation. You're good at that, I won't mind, and Jack will hate it, but that's probably unavoidable at this point. So..." She seemed to run out of steam for a moment, before her spine stiffened again. "What do you think?"

Daniel let his head fall back against the door with an audible clunk, staring up at the low ceiling. "I think hearing you talk about 'concepts' makes me think 'really powerful weapons system,' actually."

"How does 'we should all get over ourselves and fuck' strike you?" Jack asked. He half expected another shushing from Carter, but she just tilted her head to the side, still watching Daniel.

With a frustrated sigh, Daniel bounced his head off the door a few more times. "It won't work, Jack."

Jack wanted a snappy comeback, he did. He wanted to dig at the man, because he was driving Jack bugfuck insane. But he couldn't quite muster the ability, somehow. He hadn't noticed his heart migrating up into his throat, but it must have at some point because there it was, getting in the way. "It could," he said simply. "You don't know. You're just making it up as you go. Just like the rest of us."

Daniel actually smiled at that, gaze flicking over to Jack and away. "Ah, but the thing is, I'm right and you're wrong."

"You were right about one thing," Carter said. "You get to make your own choices. So if you don't want to stay, we can't make you. But Jack was right too when he said you ought to be thinking about what you want." She put her pages down on the counter behind her and leaned forward a little, hands clasped in her lap. "Say it could work. Say it did. Say everything was just as easy as it was before Jack came home, except now Jack's right here to drive us up the wall. That sounds pretty good to me. What about you?"

"Easy? Hey, do we get electricity back too?"

"That's not funny." Carter's voice was tight, and she looked to be holding herself in her seat by pure force of will. "You know what I mean."

"And if I asked you to stop sleeping with Jack?" At Carter's silence, Daniel laughed a little to himself. "That's what I thought."

"I wouldn't give you up for him either." A ragged breath in, then out, and she continued on, voice shaking a little, somewhere on the fine line between anger and grief. "Daniel, we lost--we lost. Thank God I had you, because that's been the only thing holding me together, some days. And now Jack's here, and I swear, wanting him doesn't mean I don't want you. But I need you to tell me what's going on, because figuring this stuff out... it's not really my thing. You know? Engines I can do, but I'm not, really... I'm not so good with people."

"If I went back with you, there wouldn't be any clean way to make a break."

"Well," Carter said, with a shaky little laugh, "that's actually a feature, not a bug."

Daniel smiled briefly. "Sneaky."

"More like desperate. I don't know if you've noticed, but my track record with this kind of thing..." She paused. "Look. We're both tired. Would it help if we got some rest, we could have this conversation when we're awake?"

Craning his head around to the side to get a clear view, Daniel said, "What do you want, Jack?"

"Well, you know me. I like sleep. But I've already had some, so..."

"That wasn't exactly what I meant. You said I should think about what I wanted. Sam's said what she wants. What about you?"

Taking a deep breath, Jack grinned as charming a grin as he could muster and said, "I want you. I thought I made that clear. And Carter, but I've already got her, so long as she doesn't kick me out on my ass for getting between the two of you. Which was not my intention, and did I mention that I cannot believe you didn't discuss this shit? What kind of pillowtalk do you have, anyway? Actually, don't tell me, I'd just get depressed by the overwhelming eau de geek."

"Yes," Daniel said dryly, "we're big on discussing particle physics in bed. That and Nietzsche, if I've been particularly good."

"Well, there you go. Less time on philosophy and more on penises and you'd both be a lot happier."

Apparently Daniel didn't quite know how to respond to that. He didn't even muster up a stare, just looked down at his toes for a bit before offering, quietly, "I'll grant you one thing. My record with escaping you guys hasn't been very impressive." He took a deep breath. "So I, uh, I took this long walk and did what you said, Jack, thought about, um. What I wanted. And I don't want to walk away for good, and really I've done the celibacy thing and I like sex better, and I honestly think if we try to... share, it'll all come apart in the end and it'll be really ugly. But--" he held up one finger so characteristically that Jack half wanted to kiss him--"I think you're right, Sam. I owe you... something. Listening, at least." His eyebrows quirked as his gaze slid away from them again. "I could look at the list, anyway. I assume I get to add items to the agenda?"

"Yes! Of course you do. I have a pen." Carter practically sprang out of her seat, despite all Jack's attempts to beam a mental message to her to stay down, for God's sake, don't scare him off now. Or maybe something did get through; she halted halfway across the floor and let Daniel come to her, holding out the pen and papers in one hand. When he took them, he squeezed her hand briefly, before letting her go and sinking down onto the side of the bed. After a moment, Carter sat down beside him, looking down at her hands.

Daniel looked over at her, expression serious. "I'm not making any promises here, Sam."

"I know," she said.

"I have a zat," Jack added.

They both looked at him, Daniel's eyes narrowed and Carter's as wide as they could go. He shrank down a little. "I'm joking! I'm joking. Mostly."

"I promise I won't let him shoot you, Daniel," Carter said. "Actually, we could put that on the list. No shooting."

"What about shooting-for-your-own-good situations?" Daniel tapped the pen against his teeth a couple of times, flipping to Carter's last page. "Maybe 'no shooting for personal reasons.'"

"Well, that's no fun," Jack said. "I'm voting against it. I'm all for something about Carter wearing socks in bed, though, because her feet? Cold."

"I thought you disapproved of lists, Jack." Paper rustled as Daniel flipped through the sheets. Carter slowly drew her legs up until she was sitting cross-legged on the bed, one knee resting on Daniel's thigh, though she kept her hands clasped in her lap.

On the second page, Jack's curiosity finally got the better of him. He shoved his way out of his seat as showily as possible and stood in front of Daniel, reading upside down. When Daniel flipped to Carter's diagrams, Jack stared at them for a moment and then snatched the piece of paper away from him, with a "Oh, for crying out loud" just for good measure.

"What?" Carter said, defensively. "There are multiple possibilities, and some kinds of information can be communicated more quickly and clearly visually than they can be in text. Therefore--"

"You just wanted to draw porny stick figures!" Jack said. Daniel, who hadn't gotten much of a look at the pictures before Jack took them away, arched his eyebrows and reached up to tilt the pages down to an angle where he could see.

With a discomfited look, Carter protested, "They aren't porny. They're stick figures, they're just standing next to each other, and you can't even tell who's who!"

"That one on the left there has his hand on the middle one's ass," Jack said.

"Or her hand..." Daniel suggested.

"Or her hand. That is the shortest one. Here, give me the pen, I'll make that one Carter." Jack took the pen out of Daniel's hand without looking up, and tossed off, "Hey, so, you wanna be in the middle?"

Daniel sighed. "Subtle, Jack."

"Well, you know me," Jack said, putting the finishing touches on the skirt he was using to represent Carter in place of the oversized breasts that he'd really wanted to draw. "I'm a hopeless optimist."

Carter laughed out loud, and when Jack looked up, he saw that even Daniel had given in and smiled a little. "Good," he said. "You can keep me on the straight and narrow, then."

"Not likely," Jack said, flipping to the last page and writing clearly: 28. Jack will be optimistic about Daniel not--he underlined this several times--walking an entirely straight path. After a moment's thought, he added one more sentence: He also reserves the right to define "personal reasons" when it comes to shootings (non-fatal).

Daniel scrunched his eyes closed, then shrugged one-shouldered. "Yeah, well," he said in a long-suffering tone. "That's what negotiation is for."

***

Jack's been in a lot of uninhabitated houses over the past couple of years. The bodies suck, but he's used to them by now--already was used to them before, if he's going to be honest with himself. No, what's creepy about the empty places is the things left behind, waiting. The washing hanging on the clothesline, fluorescent pins still in place; the books on bedside tables with bookmarks showing that the reader was just ten pages from the end; the report cards attached to the fridge by cheery magnets letting anyone who cared know that someone had vacationed in Las Vegas, or Alaska, or Maine.

The house in Brewster must have been like that once, before the owners didn't come home and Carter and Daniel moved in. By the time Jack got there, only a few hints of them were left; a shot glass from the Bahamas, a box of pictures that Jack had found in the closet of what became his room soon after he moved in. And, yes, a magnet collection, every last one of them from New Orleans.

They don't have kids around to make drawings for the fridge, or people to send them postcards, or takeout menus to stick up there and forget about, so they don't actually put that much on the fridge. A note every now and then if someone leaves early, yeah, but mostly there's been just one thing up there since Jack arrived: the note that Carter left Daniel when she took off without him, going west to find Jack. It was there when they got back in August, stuck on with a jaunty little Mardi Gras mask, and there it stayed through the rest of the summer and into the fall.

Jack noticed it again while loading scavenged supplies into the fridge the day they got home from New Orleans, and thought about taking it down, but somehow that still didn't seem like his place. He went back down the bank to the boat instead, walking past Carter struggling with a large box without a word. Daniel, busy packing the last of the foodstuffs, gave Jack a smile when he came onto the boat, but Jack didn't say anything to him either, just took him by the waist and moved him firmly out of the way so he could reach the paperclipped pages lying next to the sink. They were a little wrinkled, and scribbled on in more than one color; Carter and Daniel had taken the whole thing pretty seriously, once they'd gotten into it. Jack had too, for that matter, but after the stick figures Carter had taken his pen away.

Back out into the air, up the dock, through the grass--needs mowing, he thought, mourning not having put "Jack doesn't ever have to mow the yard" on the list--and into the kitchen, where he carefully folded the pages so only the titles showed: Carter's printed Topics For Discussion, crossed out and replaced by The List, written in Daniel's round script. He grabbed a magnet at random, then stopped, put it back, picked up a resin image of the Superdome instead, and put the list up on the refrigerator, just to the left of the yellowing note from that summer.

The note disappeared one day, but the list is still there. Jack kind of expected Daniel to be taking it down every other day, what with his thing for perfecting treaties, but he never did; he talks things out instead, twitchy but determined, like a squirrel trying to decide whether to take a nut from a child's hand. They've added things a couple of times, but mostly it just sits there unnoticed, like a ring that's been on your finger for years. Sometimes, though, it catches Jack's eye while he's on his way to the back of the fridge for a treat. When it does, it always makes him smile.