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The Archaeology of Skin

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“This is home, after all.”
     ~ Harlan, Tin Man

This is how it begins:

Sam’s repaired enough of the systems that they have spare time now, so Daniel sits shoulder to shoulder with her on a rickety set of stairs in Section 3 — he translating an 11,000-year-old operating manual for a long-dead transportation device, she tapping at the pseudo-laptop she’s cobbled together. (“Oh oh oh!” Harlan said.) Numbers and symbols float across the screen, more foreign to Daniel than anything on Altair. Harlan’s had to learn Earth mathematical notation, just to keep up.

She’s talking gobbledygook, thinking out loud. Daniel could understand if he tried, but he’d rather just listen to the sound of her. She turns to him, probably expecting the answer to some question he didn’t really hear, but finds him smiling and stops up short. “What?” she asks.

“Nothing,” he says. “It’s just nice to see you like this.”

She smiles, too. “It’s nice to see you like that. Even if it is just an old instruction book.” She watches him while, he knows, his expression slides into another. “What?” she asks again.

He casts his eyes around Section 3, and settles back on hers again. “We’re comfortable here,” he says quietly. “We’re home here. When did that happen?”

Her lips curl down, just a bit. “I don’t know.”

He thinks he does, though. Home was Earth, for a while, and then Abydos, for far too short a while. Now the word just means something different.

She squeezes his hand. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m good. I kind of want to kiss you.”

The smile takes over her face slowly, and oh, yes, he really does want to kiss her. He raises his free hand to drag one fingertip across her jaw. The muscles twitch under his touch: she’s swallowing, and still smiling, softer now. She traces the tendons in his wrist with her thumb. And then she’s leaning closer, so he clasps the back of her neck to help out.

Her mouth is warm, her lips a little dry. (“No Chapstick,” she’s complained before.) Her tongue darts out to taste his bottom lip. She’s still smiling, he can feel it. So he smiles back.

She pulls away just enough to rest her forehead on his. “Still okay?” she asks.

He knows she means Sha’re. He responds by pulling Sam close again, this time meeting her tongue with his own. She shifts, turning the rest of her body so they’re at a better angle, and her palm lands on his chest. Her other hand squirms free of his to tangle into his hair, and then she’s kissing a line down his neck, pushing his shirt aside, nipping at his collarbone.

The book and the computer get set aside gently. The clothes don’t get the same treatment.

***

Sam had adjusted more easily than Daniel and the others. Sam didn’t have a wife, an ex-wife, a son; she wasn’t close to her only sibling and apparently hadn’t talked to her father in months. So Sam adjusted more easily.

Not that she loved it; Daniel knew she didn’t, because he and Sam were the only ones who still talked. But Sam had a massive mechanical challenge and her eyes were wide with ideas. If the levers and pulleys and spokes weren’t as much fun as plasma and atoms and quarks, she obviously still enjoyed them.

The others all circled around her, in different orbits, a less predictable but no less complex system than Harlan’s world. Teal’c and Jack would disappear for days, reappear for a week, disappear for two more. And since Daniel was usually wherever Sam was, that was when he saw them, too.

Harlan flitted between them, tut-tutting, concerned but lacking the insight or programming to understand why his new friends were unsettled. He was happier than he’d been in a hundred centuries.

***

They’d explored a little, in the beginning. Daniel dragged Sam along and figured a place this old had to have something of archaeological interest. There was nothing but machinery for a long time; and then one day there were books, seventeen of them, locked in a steel chest in what had once been living quarters. They were made of some plastic polymer, written in a script based on nothing he knew — very different from the symbols scattered around the complex — and he was on solid ground again. Not the ground he would have chosen, but not the hell Jack apparently thought it was, either.

Jack’s problem, Daniel decided, was that he was unhappy in his own skin, whether the skin was biological or synthetic. He suggested this to Sam, once. She said, “Hmm.”

***

“No no no no no! You must not turn it that way. Like this, you see? Like this.” And Harlan demonstrated, with a flourish.

Daniel rolled his eyes but followed directions. It didn’t take much to keep Harlan content, and Daniel figured the guy was probably due. “I thought Sam upgraded this section?”

“Oh, she did, she did!” He stopped. “She is. Soon, soon!”

Not soon enough, Daniel thought. But he corrected himself; she’d already done more in a year than Harlan had ever managed. Their technology was more advanced, but Harlan wasn’t designed for creative problem-solving.

Besides, the more improvements Sam made, the more obsolete Harlan became.

“Well, you are eleven thousand years old,” Jack said once, when he happened to be around. And later, once Harlan was out of range: “Carter, can robots go nuts? ‘Cause I’m gonna.”

***

Her skin feels like skin, smells like skin, tastes like skin. She says his does, too, and wonders aloud whether sex was part of the plan for the original thousand.

“It must have been,” he says between tiny bites on her thigh. “It’s a basic human need. They couldn’t have foreseen how quickly their numbers would decrease.”

Sam’s hand twists in the synthetic sheet: she’s built them all beds to recharge in, instead of the coffin-shaped cots Harlan prefers. “Had to entertain themselves somehow,” she says, tugging Daniel’s head up toward hers. He resists, stopping along the way, his lips and tongue in her curls, in her navel, on each breast. When he finally reaches her face, she kisses the tip of his nose. “Daniel,” she says.

He resettles, slides in, gasps as she clenches around him. Robots have stronger muscles in curious places.

Her mouth finds his, their tongues sliding over each other; her fingernails scratch his back. The milky-white scratches won’t heal by themselves: she’ll have to repair them, later.

He braces himself on his elbows and they flow together until neither of them can move anymore.

***

Jack and Teal’c kept up with their work when they were … wherever they went. Sam had rigged the system so they all felt an alarm when there was a problem, and sometimes the problem would just be fixed, without a word.

“Teal’c,” Daniel asked once. “Where do you go?”

Teal’c gave him a long look and, Daniel thought, almost told him. But in the end he said, “I do not wish to divulge that information, Daniel Jackson.”

So Daniel asked Sam about it. They were back on their stairs, Sam one step lower, between Daniel’s knees. No one had ever found them here.

“It’s hard for him,” she said.

Daniel’s hands were in her hair, dancing lightly over her scalp; he shook her head. “Duh.”

She thought for a minute. “He runs a lot, I think.”

“He works out? Here?”

“Well, he can’t meditate anymore, at least not very well. But the endorphins from exercise have a similar effect.”

Yes, endorphins. Daniel knew that their synthetic endorphins worked just fine. He shifted one foot to a lower step, making the entire structure creak. “He tells you this stuff?”

Sam leaned back, her head against his chest. “He uses a lot fewer words than I do,” she said dryly.

“Does Jack tell you stuff, too?”

“Jack doesn’t tell anybody stuff, Daniel.”

“Do you know where he goes?”

“Not really.”

But Daniel could hear it in her voice. “You have a good idea, though,” he said.

Sam sighed, giving in. “He likes to know where everything is. It’s a military thing.”

“We have schematics hard-wired into our brains.”

“It’s not the same.”

“No. I guess it’s not.”

Sam snaked an arm under his knee, pulling his leg closer. “I don’t think they see each other much, when they’re gone,” she said.

Daniel thought about this. What he thought was that even though Sam was only a year older than he was, and even though he’d always thought of her as somehow younger anyway, they all tapped into her strength — Daniel constantly, Jack and Teal’c when their emotional reserves got low.

He’d never liked to think of himself as needy. But he wasn’t going on walkabout, either.

He bent to kiss her neck.

***

Daniel was deep inside her when she stopped moving. He opened his eyes and realized that hers were aimed elsewhere.

“Daniel,” she said, angling her chin toward the door.

He looked over his shoulder, and there was Jack, eyes full of — something. Daniel rolled off Sam; she didn’t bother to cover her bare chest.

“Jack,” she said. Jack shook his head, and she said nothing more.

Jack hadn’t known, Daniel realized. How could Jack not have known? Daniel didn’t usually sleep in Sam’s bed when the guys were around, but they hadn’t been hiding it, either. Or they hadn’t consciously been hiding it.

“It isn’t — ” Daniel started, and stopped, because yes, it was. “Jack, you –”

“Don’t,” Jack said. “Just — don’t.” And he turned, and was gone.

“Shit,” Daniel said.

***

Daniel wondered if they should go looking, but Sam said he’d come back when he wanted to come back. Because she’d gotten used to it; because she knew he’d seek her out, if she waited long enough.

Daniel had things he wanted to say, only he wasn’t sure what those things were.

After thirteen days, he was struggling to replace a busted coupling in Section 14 — he’d never be an expert at this stuff, no matter how much had been downloaded into his head — when suddenly Jack was standing beside him. Jack could still move as silently as ever, and it kind of pissed Daniel off.

“Jesus, you could at least say hello.”

“Hello.”

Oh, that was much better. “Here, hold these, will you?”

Jack accepted three wrenches, two pliers, and a jar of joint compound, and watched as Daniel resealed the casing. Daniel kept staring at his handiwork even after he’d tested it twice.

“I just talked to Carter,” Jack said finally.

“Jack, we don’t want you to think –”

“I don’t think anything. You’re married, Daniel.”

Daniel had known this conversation was inevitable. “No,” he said. “I’m not married. I’m not anything. I’ve only been alive for 561 days.”

Jack’s jaw was tight, his lips a narrow line. “You have as much of a right to her as he does.”

“Even if that were true, which it isn’t, she wouldn’t understand what I am, Jack. I’m not the one she married.”

“You might as well be!”

“But I’m not. God, Jack, we are never getting off this rock. Maybe you can live with that cloud of resentment, but I can’t. This is who I am now.”

There was long pause. “And Carter?”

Daniel shook his head. “Don’t you ever just want to touch somebody? Don’t you miss that?”

“Is that what it is?”

“No. Yes. I don’t … Jack, it’s just the four of us for the next I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of years.”

“Oh, there’s a cheerful thought, thank you.”

“Whatever. If we’re going to be here, and we are, I like my approach a lot better than yours.”

Jack’s eyes looked dangerous.

Daniel sighed and started collecting his tools. Jack handed them back silently, one at a time.

“You don’t have to be alone, you know, Jack. If you choose to be, we can’t stop you. But it is your choice.”

“Yeah,” Jack said. “It’s my choice.”

They didn’t see him again for four months.

***

She’s quiet, now. Her skin still smells like skin but she tastes like something else. Daniel kneels before her and explores her body with his tongue, trying to figure it out; he bites the skin over each artificial rib. Then she’s pulling him up onto the bed, sliding down his body and sucking his balls into her mouth. He twists, still wanting to taste her, and reaches for her hips.

“God, Sam,” he says into her upper thigh. She rocks against his lips, tracing the veins on the underside of his penis with her tongue and her teeth, and he comes before he’s even in her mouth.

Later, he looks at the door. There’s no one there.

***

“What is the matter?” Harlan asked Daniel, and Sam, and then Teal’c, when he next appeared. “He has never been away this long. Oh!”

“Nothing is the matter,” Teal’c said. “It is unhealthy to worry as much as you do, my friend.” Harlan frowned, still more perplexed by Teal’c than by the rest of them, and fluttered off to his recharging chamber.

Sam poked at keys on her laptop, sighing, and Daniel talked Teal’c into a game of chess. Jack had molded the pieces early on, bringing a new one each time he visited, and Sam had made the board, carefully blackening every other square with a small welding torch.

“Teal’c,” Daniel said, three moves in, “You know that Sam and I are … ?” Sam looked up, but didn’t look concerned. Daniel shrugged at her.

“I do,” Teal’c said, studying the board. Of course he did. Whether Sam had told him or Jack had told him or he’d guessed in the beginning, Daniel didn’t know.

“We didn’t choose each other over the two of you,” Daniel said. “It’s not like that. I still –” He paused, sure of what he felt but unsure how to say it. “I wish you were here more.”

Teal’c looked up, and his eyes were warm, for Teal’c. “I am aware,” he said. “O’Neill will be aware also.” And after a beat, with a note of humor in his voice, “Eventually.”

“Terrific,” Daniel said.

***

“Damn, this one’s rusted out, too. I’m going to have to cut it out and start over.” Sam lay on her stomach, leaning over the edge of the walkway, her fingers and her face smudged with red. They’d come to Section 17 to fix one valve, but the toxic rain from the surface had seeped into this area, and it was in bad shape. “I should have brought more spares. Can you –”

Daniel stood. “Yeah. Be right back.”

But when he returned, Sam wasn’t alone. She was on her toes, hugging Jack fiercely, her hand rubbing his back. His chin was tucked into her neck, his eyes shut tight. It was, as far as Daniel knew, the first non-human contact Jack had had since their other selves had left through the gate.

Daniel stood against the wall and heard Sam, muffled: “We miss you.” Jack’s face relaxed a little, while his arms squeezed her closer.

“You’re warm,” he said.

Sam pulled back; Jack opened his eyes and spotted Daniel a few feet behind her. His hands stayed on her upper arms, hers on his chest. “We’re not dead, Jack,” she said, and Daniel recognized a hint of a laugh.

“So I’ve been told.”

Sam followed Jack’s gaze, smiled when she saw Daniel, and held out a rust-covered hand. Daniel took it.

Jack stayed near them all day, while Sam puttered around and Daniel checked maintenance logs. He didn’t say much, but he didn’t seem tempted to bolt, either, and then he trailed them back to the sleeping quarters. Sam took Jack’s hand lightly as they walked. Daniel went ahead, and heard them stop as they entered the corridor leading to the bedrooms. When he looked back, he saw Sam still grasping Jack’s hand, their arms outstretched between them.

“Stay,” she said.

Jack looked from her to Daniel. Daniel smiled. “I miss you, too.”

Jack scowled, but Daniel could tell he didn’t mean it. “Sleep,” Jack said. “I haven’t slept for weeks.”

Sam turned to smile at Daniel, and Daniel said, “Sleep is good.”

The beds were big: she’d made them for people as tall as three-quarters of SG1. Jack ended up between Daniel and Sam, their arms and legs curved around him protectively.

Daniel kept his eyes open a long time, in the dark, watching them both shut down.

***

Jack has new scars on his chest, his thigh, the palm of his left hand. He wanted to see how these bodies worked, he says. Daniel doesn’t say that they all had that knowledge already. It isn’t the same.

Sam licks each scar, up and down the length. When she’s done with Jack’s left hand, Daniel picks it up and kisses it, too. Jacks eyes meet his, serenely. But then he arches as Sam slides under the sheet.

Daniel draws a finger down Jack’s chest, past his stomach, finally stopping on Sam’s head. Jack’s fingers are already there, twisting lightly; Sam loves hands in her hair. She hums her appreciation and Jack arches again.

Soon there’s more twisting and turning, Sam’s lips on Daniel’s spine and Jack’s on his throat. Someone says his name. Then Jack’s under the sheet, and mouth and hands and blonde and brown hair, and the scent of skin and sex; Jack on elbows and knees, his face buried between Sam’s legs, his hips jerking back onto Daniel.

Afterwards, they sprawl in a jumble of limbs and synthetic sweat. “We really missed you,” Daniel says, just to make sure.

***

Jack volunteered to play cadaver. Sam had finished improving the station, and moved on to improving them.

“Oh, you must not do this,” Harlan said. “It is dangerous, dangerous!”

“It’s fine, Harlan,” Sam said, slicing Jack’s chest. “He doesn’t even feel it.”

“No pain, Harlan,” Jack confirmed. He looked up at Sam. “Just the scalpel and your fingers, which is really fucking weird, but really fucking cool.”

Sam had shut off his pain receptors. Daniel thought that was pretty fucking cool, too, but his chest burned with sympathetic pain. He was as close as Sam was, across the table from her, and he flinched as she moved. He could hear the blade.

“But the access panels,” Harlan said. His eyes were fixed on the back of Sam’s head, as if he were afraid to look at what she was doing — which he probably was. “You must use the access panels!”

“There isn’t one where I need it,” Sam said patiently. “I need to get at the wire that — ah, there it is. Just a little more, Jack.”

Harlan drew closer, not quite looking around Sam’s arm.

“Still nothing?” Sam asked.

Jack waved a hand. “Nope. Nothing.”

“Ow,” Daniel said.

Sam put down the knife. Jack’s chest was open from his throat to the metal plate that would be his breastbone, revealing a dark hole filled with small pumps and multicolored circuits. She touched each of them, matching them to what they all already knew. Then she reached up to focus the lamp.

“It’s this one,” she said. She held a green wire between her thumb and forefinger. It led from Jack’s supplementary power reserve to his neck, where it connected with two more green wires.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Daniel agreed. “You’re not going to make him deaf, are you?”

“Oh, very funny,” Jack said.

“Actually, you might not be able to hear for a few minutes,” Sam said.

Jack shrugged, contracting his chest. Sam lightly slapped his shoulder and told him not to move.

Daniel handed her the plastic wire cutters.

“Oh oh oh!” Harlan said. “This is not wise!”

“It’s very wise, Har–” There was a snip, and Jack stopped, raising a hand to his ear and sticking a finger in. Then, loudly: “Yep. Deaf as my Great-uncle Erwin.”

Daniel captured Jack’s hand and squeezed.

Sam worked quickly, securing the minute radio receiver and its even more minute antenna to his aural systems.

“Really fucking weird,” Jack said.

“Almost done,” Sam mumbled.

Harlan had moved closer again, just out of the way of Sam’s elbow, and he was mumbling, too. Poor Harlan.

Sam exposed the wires and twisted them together; the power indicator on the little radio lit up. “Better?”

Jack’s eyes shot from Sam to Daniel and back. “Hey, I heard that.”

“Thank God,” Sam said, and let out a breath.

“You were concerned?” Jack asked.

“A little,” she admitted.

“I do not understand the need for this device,” Harlan said. “It is unnecessary.”

“It’s so we can communicate with each other from a distance, Harlan,” Daniel said, and then, before Harlan could object: “Sam? You ready to test it?”

She nodded, eyes wide and bright, and Daniel took the full-sized radio three rooms away.

“Jack? Can you –”

The speaker crackled. “Really fucking weird.”

***

Teal’c stopped by that night for a game of chess. In the morning he was still there, cross-legged and razor-straight, meditating against the wall. Daniel woke early and stared at Teal’c for a few moments, wondering if something was wrong. He decided Teal’c would wake them if there were a problem, and rolled over, closer to Jack.

When he awoke again, Teal’c was gone.

***

“I’m bored,” Jack said, his head propped up on one hand. He’d been back with them for seven earth months. His legs were restless under the sheet. “Aren’t you guys bored? Teal’c's bored. Harlan’s probably bored, but I don’t know how to tell.”

Sam looked sideways at Daniel before answering. “A little,” she admitted. “Sometimes.”

“Oh, thank you both very much,” Daniel said.

“Not with you guys, Daniel.” Sam patted his hip, then pulled herself up to sit against the recharger that served as a headboard. Her breasts landed at Jack-eye-level, though she didn’t notice how much they distracted him. Daniel noticed, and smirked at Jack, but Jack wasn’t paying attention and Sam had already gone off into that tech dreamland of hers.

“Actually,” Sam said, “I’ve been working on something that might allow us to go offworld.”

That got Jack’s attention. “You mean we can leave this shithole?”

“We can’t go home, Jack,” Daniel said.

“I know that.”

“It wouldn’t be permanent,” Sam said. “At least not right away. Maybe for a day or two.”

Jack fell onto his back. “Air,” he said. “Sunlight. Hell, rain.”

Daniel had to admit that non-recycled air would be nice. “What is it, Sam? Those power packs Harlan talked about once?” And not since, Daniel realized. Harlan would have a meltdown if they did this.

“Yes, but smaller. I think I can install them in the main access panel. It could work around here, too — we can get further from the core, maintain the more distant sectors.”

“Carter, you’ve already got this place running so smoothly that we’re all superfluous.”

“Um, guys?” Daniel said. “I don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun, but we did promise the other us that we’d keep the gate buried.”

“What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em,” Jack said. Sam just shrugged.

“I guess we’re going offworld, then,” Daniel said. He got a grin from Sam, and a hand in his hair; Jack reached across her to Daniel, and they faded into touches and murmurs and the rustling of sheets.

***

The second time Teal’c was there when they woke up, Daniel didn’t notice at first. He gave Sam a sleepy kiss, and she shook her head and whispered, “Teal’c.” And there he was, his back pressed to the wall and his eyes closed, again.

The third time, Daniel nudged them both awake and they all looked up. Then Sam dropped her head onto Daniel’s shoulder; Jack lay close on her other side, playing with her hair and occasionally kissing her neck. They stayed that way, all four of them, until Harlan appeared in the doorway and asked if they’d malfunctioned.

“Is Teal’c okay?” Daniel asked Sam hours later, while she tested her latest prototype of the mobile power unit on him and Jack. He jumped as she adjusted the current, and Jack snickered until Sam reminded him that he was next.

“Teal’c's still getting used to us,” she said.

The fourth time, Sam stepped from the bed, still naked, and crouched down before Teal’c. “You know you don’t have to sit there all by yourself,” she said. Teal’c hesitated, then gave a slight nod and wrapped his fingers around Sam’s. They’d been spending a lot of time together over the past few days, and Jack and Daniel had given them the space to do it.

“We’re all we have, Teal’c,” Daniel said. “I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”

Sam turned slightly, smiling at Daniel, and Daniel felt Jack’s body very close.

Jack said, his mouth by Daniel’s ear, “Gets a little cold, recharging alone.”

***

Teal’c has no scars, and his stomach is smooth: no symbiote pouch. Jack flattens his palm over the skin, and Daniel says, “Do you miss it?” Once, when Daniel had gone to Section 12 to fix a leaking pressure valve, he found Teal’c already there, raising his singed shirt to check for damage.

Sam lies on her side, her head in Jack’s lap, one hand on Teal’c's thigh.

“It is not a matter of missing it,” Teal’c says. “I was, as Harlan would say, accustomed.”

He looks down, studying Jack’s hand on his belly with something like wonder. So Daniel climbs over Sam and kisses Teal’c, very lightly, and Sam’s smile is as bright as a star when she reaches between Teal’c's legs. Jack follows Sam; Daniel twines his fingers with Teal’c's and squeezes, hard. Teal’c shifts in the bed and sucks in a sharp breath before kissing Daniel back.

“See?” Jack says. “Much warmer this way.”

***

The station on Altair was dark after an afternoon in sunlight. Sam and Teal’c followed Daniel through the event horizon; Jack appeared a few seconds later. He wore a small smile that, in Jack terms, meant he was having the time of his life. Teal’c looked much the same, and Daniel figured he probably did, too.

Sam ignored them all and walked down the steps, in brand-new-idea mode. “The radios,” she said. “I think I should connect the transmitters to our neural nodes so we can communicate silently. All I’d have to do is — ”

“Carter, whatever it is, we’re all for it,” Jack said.

Sam smiled, looking up at each of them in turn. “That was fun, wasn’t it?” she said.

Jack said, “Oh, yeah,” and Daniel said, “Hell, yes,” and Teal’c said, “Indeed,” and then they all grinned stupidly at each other. They had found only trees and grass and sun, but they’d lingered at the gate before coming home, sitting close together on the steps.

Harlan came at something like a run, too agitated even to greet them. “You have returned!” he said, with a good impression of breathlessness. “I was certain you would not return!”

Daniel’s internal clock told him they’d been gone for four hours.

“Of course we’ve returned,” Jack said, obviously trying to sound annoyed but not getting it right. “We told you we would, didn’t we?”

***

This is how it ends:

“Goooood morning, campers,” Jack says. “We’re just about ready for takeoff. Please fasten your seatbelts, and keep your hands inside the wormhole at all times. We expect the weather on P3X-729 to be actual weather.”

Harlan hovers as far from the gate as he can get while staying in the same room. His fingers are pressed together so tightly that his hands shake. He does this every time they leave. “Please return quickly!”

“We’ll be fine, Harlan,” Sam says kindly, and Teal’c, just as kindly, says, “Do not concern yourself with our well-being. We will return.”

Jack adjusts his cap, readies his weapon, and makes eye contact with each of his team, to be sure they’re ready. Then he plunges into the event horizon, with Sam close behind. Daniel has just enough time to hope there’ll be sun before he and Teal’c follow.