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Up from the Abyss

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First published in Foundations 7 (2006)

 

Welcome to Minnesota, the cheerful sign said as his headlights fell on it. For the first in a very long time, Jack O’Neill felt his body relax into the truck seat.

“‘Star of the North,’” he muttered to himself. “Just what I need.” Maybe it would show him the way home.

But he kinda doubted it.

Jack kept driving, the sign falling behind, the road stretching clear and empty before him. He’d gotten a very early start from home, partly to make good time and partly to avoid well-wishers from swinging by one last time to see how he was doing. Like they didn’t all know how he was doing. Like the bottle he’d shattered against the wall next to Jonas’s head hadn’t been enough warning he was not fit company. Minnesota was the answer, just Jack, the fish, and lots of quiet and space. It had to be, because it was his last resort.

Jack curled his fingers tighter around the steering wheel, feeling the now-familiar but no less disconcerting flash of wrongness, like it wasn’t his body he was inhabiting. At least the whispers were quiet today. Funny how they got quieter when everything else around him did.

Thin-lipped, Jack took the upcoming exit and gently curved east.

The road was more remote here, single-lane, rough-edged, lined with trees, and nearly pitch black. Jack finally reached over to crack his window, and took a deep breath of the cold, pure air streaming in. He’d resisted the urge to take in the autumn air in South Dakota even though it had probably been just as icy and clean, wanting to wait until he was on home turf. Jack pulled in another lungful next to the sliver of opened window, before sitting back again to concentrate on driving.

“Nothing like Minnesota air,” he said softly.

He’d said as much to Carter when she’d wanted to know why he had to go three states away to relax. She still hadn’t understood. He’d stopped explaining then, just stood and stared at her until she gave up and changed the subject. Because it was Minnesota. Because it wasn’t Colorado. Because the memories here were still positive and joyful instead of the darkness that had taken over his life.

The turn-off looked like nothing more than a walking path into the forest, nearly invisible at night, but Jack took it without hesitation. There was something comfortable in the way the truck started bucking and rattling over the unfinished dirt road. This was his neighborhood: the trees, the unmarked road. The tension that made his fingers stiff and his shoulders ache reluctantly retreated another notch. If he couldn’t find peace again here, he wouldn’t find it anywhere.

And that, deep down, was what terrified him.

Jack stared grimly straight ahead, remembering the last time he’d been here. Shortly after Daniel’s ascension and still reeling from the loss of his friend, Jack had stumbled back here intending nothing more than escape and forgetting. What he’d found instead was understanding and acceptance, if not of Daniel being gone then of the fact that he was well and happy where he was. And the certainty Jack would see him again. He just hadn’t even remotely imagined how.

When had Minnesota become about fixing what was broken in his life instead of just a place to relax and fish? Too many more such visits and the good memories would be replaced by the series of traumas that had driven him back, destroying the magic touch. Already Jack feared he wouldn’t find it. His whole life had gone bad this time, no solid foundation left to start rebuilding from, and he doubted even Minnesota could help with that. There had just been no other place to go.

“You picked a lousy time to ascend, Jackson,” he addressed the windshield. How many times had he ended up at Daniel’s, soused on the couch or wired on coffee, pouring out all the pieces inside him that didn’t make sense until somehow they did? Daniel often didn’t say a word, just sat there and listened, but there was magic in that, too. Even better, it worked both ways, when Daniel finally got his fill of the world and showed up at Jack’s door.

But Daniel didn’t need him now and Jack…God help him, Jack still needed Daniel.

Well, Minnesota would just have to do.

One last turn and the shadowy shape of the cabin that had been hidden by the trees finally came into view. Despite himself, Jack took a deep breath and felt more of the leadenness clear out of his lungs. Home.

The truck jounced over the last few feet of dirt road and then crunched onto the gravel to one side of the front door. Even that sound was familiar, and Jack unexpectedly smiled, if just a little, as he turned the engine off. He’d put the gravel in one year when heavy snows had melted to form heavy mud, and he’d come out one morning to find his truck sunken a half-foot in sludge. He always had learned the hard way.

His amusement faded and Jack climbed out of the truck. Going around back, he retrieved his supplies: a duffel bag and a box of foodstuffs and paper goods. Laden. it took a minute to dig out the key, but then he fumbled open the cabin door and stepped inside.

As refreshing as the crisp Minnesota air had been, the faint mustiness of the cabin also felt comfortable and reassuring. Every year when he had come up there with his grandfather as a kid, that sense of disuse, of nobody having been there since their last visit, was the welcome to a glorious week of fishing, hunting, and s’mores in the fireplace. Even now, with his grandfather long gone, that feeling was clear and sharp.

Sharp. Jack flinched, remembering sharp metal, stabbing pain, his body on fire…

“Cut it out,” he growled, dropping the box to dig the heel of his hand into his eyes. He wasn’t going there, not while he was in the cabin. He refused to let that recent Hell taint the good memories.

The phantom sensations faded, and a quiet tick-tock seeped into Jack’s awareness in their place. It took effort to pry his hand away from his face. His eyes felt raw as he blinked at the wall across from the door, but the old clock slowly came into focus. It shouldn’t have been running, no one there for months now to wind it, but sometimes walking into the cabin jiggled the weights and set the clock into motion for a few minutes before it fell silent again. It felt important not to let that happen, so Jack set his duffel down and crossed the dark room with sure feet to wind and set it. It was nearly ten. He’d unpack and air out the bed, then have a quick dinner and turn in. Driving sixteen hours wasn’t as easy to do as it once had been; his sore, stiff body felt like it had hiked half the distance. Funny, he would have thought the sarcophagus—

“Not going there, Jack,” he reminded himself fiercely.

He found the oil lamps and lit one, carrying it with him from room to room. There was a generator out back he could have used, but it seemed too much trouble. Besides, he liked the oil lamp’s smoky light, so different from the sterile overheads of the SGC infirmary and…other places.

The whispers rose in him, and Jack flung a curse out into the dark room to dispel them.

There wasn’t much to unpack; the bed was ready in a few minutes. A fire followed, built from the stack of logs and chest of kindling by the door he’d filled the last time he was there. Shadows danced along the wall, filling the quiet with soft crackles and pops and the scent of burning pine, but those were familiar intrusions Jack had no problem relegating to the background as he returned to the kitchen.

There, he wavered in front of the cabinet, arguing with his lack of appetite. He finally settled on scrambling a few eggs—no knives needed. He didn’t like knives much those days. With a piece of bread toasted golden and buttery it was a dinner even his testy stomach could handle.

He ate in front of the fire, not paying much attention to the taste of the food. Other times, he would have enjoyed the simple pleasures of the crackling fire, the perfectly cooked eggs and toast, the bite of the cold water pumped from an underground stream. Now, they seemed superficial, pointless trimmings to an empty life. Jack sighed another, softer curse as he set the empty plate and cup down on the floor beside him.

“Oh, I don’t know, I think it’s kind of nice.”

There was, literally, only one person who could do that to him without making him jump, even pre-ascension. Post-ascension, it just explained how Jack suddenly had company on a solo trip to a remote cabin in Minnesota. He raised one eyebrow at the fire. “Daniel.”

“Jack.”

The voice brought as much pain as it did pleasure, reminding Jack of both his loss and the last time he’d seen Daniel. He’d still been fuzzy after fleeing Baal’s base, their subsequent rescue, and the long weeks of torture beforehand. Jack could barely remember what they’d talked about then, only… “Don’t you have someplace to be?”

“Actually, at the moment, no.”

He finally looked over. Daniel sat—or seemed to sit, anyway—in the rocking chair to one side of the couch that used to be Jack’s grandfather’s. He was still in that off-white sweater, like some kind of not-quite-angel. It was funny that of all the ways he could have reimagined his body, Daniel kept choosing that sweater, looking exactly the same as he had each time he’d shown up in Jack’s cell. Never changing, while Jack…

“I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

“I thought you could see everything from up there.” Jack hitched his eyes heavenward, then gazed at Daniel in innocent question.

“Actions, yes, and only if I’m looking for them, but that doesn’t mean I know what’s going on underneath.”

Jack made a face. “Yes, well, that’s always the question, isn’t it.”

Daniel leaned forward, clasped his hands loosely in front of his knees. The rocking chair didn’t budge. “I saw you getting better. I’m glad the withdrawal wasn’t as bad for you.”

“Funny thing about that,” Jack tilted his head, “it seems when you use the box for actual healing, coming-back-from-the-dead stuff, it’s not as addictive.”

“That’s good.”

Jack looked at his hand, flexed it into a fist. “It just feels like it’s not me anymore.”  

A pause. Then, quietly, “I’m sorry.”

He gave Daniel his most insincere smile. “I feel so much better now, Dr. Jackson—thank you. Don’t let the ceiling hit ya on the way out.”

“You want me to leave?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m not going to.”

Jack glowered at him. “You know, I thought you’d get a little less…I don’t know, stubborn, once you ascended.”

“It’s not like I died, Jack—I’m still me, I’m just—”

“Energy. I know. What I don’t know is what you want from me.”

“I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

Jack sighed, the sarcasm suddenly too much of an effort, and rubbed at his eyes again. Withdrawal had been mild but the headache lingered. “I’m fine, okay? Just peachy. I’m gonna do a few days of fishing here, get some color back in the cheeks, and go back to work. So you can quit worrying and go back to…floating.” He waved his hand.

Daniel leaned forward. “Jack, we’ve been friends a long time…”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Jack muttered.

“I saw what you went through, remember? You didn’t tell Sam, Teal’c, and Janet the half of it.”            

“Daniel—” he growled a warning.

“Jack, quit being so stubborn! I’m not saying you should let it all out or break down in tears or something—I know that’s not you. But you can’t keep ignoring it, either. Baal tortured you to death, over and over—”

Jack sprang to his feet, like a tightly wound coil that had been sprung, and loomed over Daniel. “And I remember every second of it. Just like I remember my best friend sitting there telling me he was really sorry, but he wasn’t going to do anything to help me. Maybe you didn’t die and you’re still you, Daniel, but I’m not. Being in that place…” His hand gestured uselessly. “It was like Iraq all over again, except with dying and no hope of it ending. I died a lot, and I think about it all the time. You sure that’s what you want?”

“How many times have you had to do something you didn’t want to do because duty, because your oath to that duty prevented you?” Daniel jumped up.

Jack stepped back even though Daniel wouldn’t be needing the space, andfrowned, thrown by the change of topic. “What?”

“I know there were times in the past when you were arguing for the SGC or the Air Force, not for Jack O’Neill, but you did what you had to because that’s who you are. Well, this is who I am, Jack. I didn’t swear an oath, but I’m just as bound by the ascended as you are by your duty.”

Jack blinked at him, looking for a loophole in his friend’s logic but not finding one. “I’ve broken rules for you before,” he finally said.

“And we both know I haven’t stuck completely to playing observer, either.”

He had no answer to that one. Daniel had never admitted it, but Jack knew without question Carter and the others had gotten a little nudge in their inspiration as to where to find him and how to help him escape. Just because neither he nor Daniel had said it aloud didn’t mean they weren’t both aware of the risk Daniel had taken. Jack made a face, reluctantly conceding the point, and turned back to the fire. “I didn’t forget. I’m just not sure what was left by then was worth saving,” he said quietly.

“It’s still you, Jack. The piece that feels like it’s missing, that’s from what Baal did, not the sarcophagus. If you could see you like I do…”

He stood silently, staring at the flames, not asking even though the question had stirred a dull curiosity in him like a disturbed layer of dust. Daniel saw him differently? Well, Daniel had always seen him differently.

The crackling fire and the ticking of the clock filled the quiet between them. Then Daniel spoke up softly. “Sixteen.”

Jack drew his eyebrows together and looked over at him. “What?”

Daniel’s face was calm, but his eyes ached. “Sixteen. That’s how many times he killed you.” Sixteen. He’d lost count. It seemed more than that, but then, who else could say they’d died sixteen times? More, actually, considering he’d died once or twice on missionsand managed to come back. No wonder he felt slightly unreal, out-of-sync with the world.

Jack squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the headache build. He’d never been very good at the metaphysical junk. That had been more Daniel’s area even before he’d become one with that world. His imaginary friend who was sitting there next to him, talking to him about the sixteen times Jack had just died.

Jack strangled a laugh and got abruptly to his feet. “You want a beer?”

“Uh, energy, remember?”

“So…that’d be a no?” Jack asked, rounding the sofa.

“You know, maybe you’re worried about being different, but you sound like the same—”

Crack.

Jack jerked. The sound was out of place, but he knew the feeling instantly: like someone had shoved him, hard. There was a flare of pain that continued to build even after he hit the ground. Warm, thick blood touched his cheek a moment later.

He’d been shot.

“Oh, my God! Jack!”

He heard it distantly, instinctively focused on the threat and on mounting a defense. There, on the window in front of him, mirrored against the dark outdoors, a small hole. Cracks spiderwebbed from it on all sides. Deceptively small; a bullet had to be fast to go through a window without shattering it. And fast meant more damage.

“Jack, you need to move.”

He blinked. Daniel was instructing him about tactics. That was hilarious. But he was right. The shooter was out front; Jack had to get behind some cover. He just couldn’t seem to get his body to move. Maybe he was paralyzed? Jack considered the possibility dispassionately as he stared up at the ceiling. There were cobwebs in the rafters. His grandfather had never cleaned up there, either. “Jack!”

“Daniel.” It came out slow, like syrup. Daniel’s face hovered over him, white and stretched tight. “Didn’t see this one coming?” Jack asked. The room behind Daniel was swaying.

“No, I’m sorry, I—Jack, you need to move, okay? Whoever’s out there might want to finish the job.”

Actually, that didn’t sound like a completely unappealing idea, but there was an urgency in Daniel’s voice Jack responded to as both friend and soldier. Daniel was right. Jack wasn’t ready to give up yet, and even if he were, this wasn’t the way to do it.

“You need to get behind some cover. Don’t quit on me, Jack.”

Not quitting, he wanted to say, just mustering strength and taking stock. The kitchen was still a good seven-eight feet to his left, the couch half that distance to the right. Jack took a breath, grimacing as bones grated, then rolled onto his good shoulder and began clawing his way toward the couch. His left arm was useless and flopping, the shoulder a blaze of pain. Fractured collarbone, leaking exit wound, possibly a severed nerve, he catalogued automatically. His lungs seemed intact—he knew what a pneumothorax felt like—but his shirt was getting soaked too fast, maybe a nicked artery. Not good. Not good at all. And he was still out in the open.

“That’s good. Just a few more feet.”

Daniel. He kept forgetting Daniel was there. Why wasn’t he helping? Jack opened his mouth to ask Daniel to drag him those last few feet, close the curtains, even just to duck. But then he remembered how it was Daniel was there, and what he’d said when Jack had last asked him for help. Gritting his teeth, Jack ignored his formless cheerleader and kept going inch by determined inche, leaving what he was sure was an impressive blood trail behind him.

There had been plenty of time for a second shot by now, even Jack’s warped sense of time acknowledging as much, but no second crack came. Nothing but the sound of his ragged breathing and the drag of his body over the wooden floor.

And Daniel’s voice, pitched low and encouraging. “You’re almost there.”

Half behind the end of the couch now, Jack reached for the far corner of it to pull his legs in. His hip bumped the edge, upsetting his precarious balance, and he rolled over, his bad shoulder smacking the floor.

A scream.

Darkness.

Daniel, frantically coaxing.

“Jack, please, you need to wake up. Don’t you dare do this—you did not survive Baal just to die in your cabin from some lucky shot.”

That was no lucky shot, Jack thought groggily. Almost a head-shot, even through glass, the darkness, and Jack’s movement—whoever the shooter was, he was good, a sniper or a hitman. Sniper…

“Jack! Wake up—this is not how it’s going to end, do you hear me?”

The wood was cool against his cheek. He was already feverish, his body protesting the assault of a small piece of lead. The wetness beneath him didn’t help, and Jack shivered, moaning as his shoulder spasmed from the movement.

“Jack! Jack? Are you with me?”

Funny question, that. “‘M not ‘scending,” he slurred with great certainty.

“That’s…that’s okay.” Was it possible for an ascended being to sound shaky? “Actually, I wasn’t offering this time. You wanted other options before? Well, you have one now—you need to call for help and keep yourself alive until it gets here.”

“Easy for you t’say…no body,” Jack muttered. He finally found his right arm, slid it underneath his body, and gave a tentative push upward, gasping at the flood of pain. “Daniel—”

“I’m here, Jack. I’m right here next to you. But you have to be the one who does this. You have to stop the bleeding first. Your jacket’s over here.”

It took precious seconds for the fuzz from his vision to clear, then for his eyes to go where he wanted them to. A cream-colored sleeve was pointing to his jacket draped over the back of the couch, no more than two feet away. “Sure,” Jack breathed. “Piece o’cake.”

His bad arm wouldn’t move, and the shoulder wouldn’t take his weight without his passing out. There was no way he could sit up, either, which left his legs. Jack kicked out clumsily with the nearest one, succeeding only in batting the corner of his jacket and sending it swaying.

“That’s good, try again.”            

“Daniel.”

“What, Jack?”

“Shut up.” He took another stab at it, his leg scissoring out with enough force to rock his body. Jack could feel every single bone shard in his shoulder grating, and clenched his jaw on another cry. The jacket slipped a few inches but remained solidly anchored on the back of the couch.

“Try to snag the pocket,” Daniel said.

Jack focused on that, feeling the sweat of exertion on his face mingling with drying blood. “Don’t s’pose…you’d wanna…give it a nudge.”

But Daniel wasn’t letting himself be baited anymore. “You can do it—you’re almost there.”

And he was. His toe had caught the edge of the pocket. As Jack slowly pulled his leg back, the jacket came with it, sliding down in a swish of fabric into a heap beside him. He closed his eyes with relief and exhaustion.

“That’s great. You’re going to have to wind that around your shoulder to stop the bleeding, but your cellphone’s in the pocket. You have to call for help, Jack.”

What? He’d drifted a moment, before snapping back with confusion. Call for help? The jacket…the sniper. Oh, right. Help. He’d been shot, and the only person around for miles besides him and the shooter had no heartbeat.

By painful degrees, Jack levered himself back onto his good side. There was a puddle under where his shoulder had lain. Not a nicked artery or he’d be dead now, but a lot of blood. Too much. There were eight or so pints in the body, and he figured he was about a quart or so low now. How many pints in a quart again?

“Jack!”

He started, grunting in pain.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t go to sleep, not yet, okay? You need to call for help. Your phone’s in your pocket. Get it out and call for help.”

He hated cellphones. They rarely worked at the cabin, anyway, but Jack obeyed orders. His stiff fingers fumbled the jacket, moving down to the pocket. The wrong one, of course—was that a Murphy’s law, that you always tried the wrong pocket first?

More fumbling. Something hard clunked against the floor through the jacket. His sight fuzzy again,Jack relied on touch to make his way to it. Eventually, he found the pocket, then the rectangle of cold metal inside. He pulled it out with agonizing slowness, and inched it open.

“Call the general, Jack—he’ll know where you are and what to do.”

George. He was on speed dial…wherever that was. Jack tried to focus on the glowing keypad and saw only light and blurred color.

“You’re almost there—it’s just two buttons. The one in the corner here…”

Daniel’s finger was blurry, too. Jack clumsily followed it with his own.

“No, one more over…there. Push that one.”

He did, following Daniel’s lead to the second one. Then Jack stared at it, trying to figure out how to lift the phone to his ear when he was perched on his one good arm.

“Just talk, Jack—he’ll hear you.”

He tried, managing a croak. Jack cleared his throat. “General.”

There was a hum of a distant voice coming from the phone. If it wasn’t the general or if reception was spotty, he was sunk, but Daniel seemed to believe this would work and Jack was trusting him.

“Shot.” Jack framed the words carefully. “Cabin.”

More distant, tinny words. Jack’s eyes slid shut.

“That’s good,” Daniel said gently. “Hammond’s sending help. But you’ll have to stop the bleeding if you’re going to make it until then. Jack, you need to wrap the jacket around your shoulder.”

“You do it,” Jack fell back to a whisper.

“I can’t, remember? I can’t interfere, but I’m trying to help, you just have to listen to me. You need to put pressure on your shoulder or you’re going to bleed out before help arrives.”

He didn’t care anymore, tired and sick to his stomach with pain. Every movement stabbed his shoulder like a knife, and the blood loss was making him dizzy. A little sleep would…

“Jack!”

He jumped. “Anyone ever tell you…how annoying…”

“—I am? Besides you? No, actually, which just goes to show how biased you are. Come on, Jack, I know you better than this. You’re not going to give up now.”

Daniel always thought he knew him so well. Jack took a cautious breath, feeling fresh blood well from his already soaked shoulder. “That’s where you’re wrong,” he whispered, the same thing he’d said to Daniel in the abyss of Baal’s prison. He wasn’t the man Daniel thought him to be; never had been, except for maybe the few times his civilian had ripped into him for being callously pragmatic. Maybe that was the real Jack, the one who had been ready to give up in that cell rather than continue in Baal’s cycle of torture forever. The same one who thought dying on the floor of his beloved grandfather’s cabin, his best friend by his side—more or less—wasn’t a bad way to go. The one that had been bone-weary tired before he’d even gotten shot.

But Daniel never did know when to pack it in. “What about finding out who did this to you?” he prodded, sounding a little desperate now in a way he never had in Baal’s fortress. “Isn’t that worth sticking around for?”            

“Chernay.”

He could just picture the frown on Daniel’s face. “What?”

“Chernay. Finish what…started.” He’d been thinking about it when his mind didn’t wander too much, and it made sense. Jack had known many snipers in his years in the service, but only one cocky enough to shoot once and not make sure of his kill, or with a serious bone to pick with him. Like the fact that Jack hadn’t died when Chernay had shot him…what, three, four years before? He’d almost forgotten about Kurt Chernay since then, but apparently the former special forces sharpshooter hadn’t forgotten him.

“Chernay.” The unusual cold in Daniel’s voice caught Jack’s fading attention. It wasn’t surprising the archaeologist remembered Chernay, either, considering he’d been the one to find the wounded and gone-to-ground Jack then, too, and walked him out to safety. “Okay, so you know who it is—do you want him to get away with this?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jack breathed. Maybe he’d gotten out of Baal’s little House of Horrors, but he’d left his hope behind. His good arm was starting to go numb, too, and the cold was creeping up his legs.

“Fine. You don’t care what happens to Chernay, that’s up to you. But what about Sam and Teal’c? They never gave up until they found you and got you off Baal’s planet. Are you just gonna give up on them now? How’re they going to feel when they find you lying here dead?”

It was harsh, but Jack knew instinctively it was meant to be. Daniel wanted him to get mad, to fight. It still had the desired effect, stirring his determination. “Daniel…”

“Don’t quit now, Jack. Don’t do that to us—them.”

It was, ironically, that little slip that did it. He’d never thought of Daniel as dead, not when he’d said good-bye, not when he’d walked away into the light. But Jack no longer thought of him as there, either, to come back to, to not let down. He was ascended, indestructible and immortal.

And had come back down twice now just because Jack needed him. Pained at the thought of Jack dying, afraid for him—that was the Daniel he knew, not the new all-energy version that couldn’t interfere. His team was still intact, if not quite the way it had once been. But that was still worth fighting for.

Jack clenched his jaw and reached for the jacket.

It hurt, on a level somewhere between Baal’s knives and the acid, bad enough that Jack sometimes had to stop and pant through the pain, willing himself not to pass out again. Over the shoulder, under the arm, a loose knot of the sleeves to draw it tight. He cried out at the pressure. God, that hurt.

“They’re getting close, Jack.” Daniel sounded ragged to his ears, or maybe it was just the rushing blood. “Put your feet up here.” His feet were soon propped on the bunched area rug.

Sometimes the clock ticked loudly in the background, other times he couldn’t hear it at all. Daniel was talking in snatches. Jack was losing time: he knew the symptoms. Much longer and help would be too late.

A hand slipped under his neck, warm and solid. Jack’s mouth twitched. “Oma’s gonna be mad,” he breathed.

“I’m just comforting a friend, remember? It’s not interference when it won’t change anything—you’re going to make it, Jack, trust me.” It was what Daniel had asked him to do before, but it meant something different now. It wasn’t just survival he was promising, but hope.

And that promise, from that promisor, stirred the first kindlings of it. “I can do that,” he murmured.

If Daniel said something in response, Jack didn’t hear it. Touch was the last sense to go, and with it the gentle squeeze of his neck.

 

It was a long time before he woke again.

He had more impressions than memories of light and sound and movement, and the ever-present pain. Someone telling him to count backwards. A deep darkness. And now…

“You’ll be able to use your arm again.”

He didn’t ask how Daniel had known he was awake; it was probably some new ascension talent. Jack wasn’t about to play poker with him, either. He grinned at the thought.

“Well, I can see you’re getting plenty of drugs.”

Might explain why he felt like he was floating. Jack curled the one hand that would respond around the edge of the mattress, just in case. “Surg’ry?” He recognized the taste in his mouth.

“Oh, yeah. Several hours. You’re lucky the bullet glanced off the collarbone instead of smashing through it. Still, it was broken in two places.”

“Sweet.” His tongue felt thick. Below the buzz of the medicinal high lurked pain and the discomfort of whatever get-up they had him in and the really sick feeling that followed blood transfusions, but that was tomorrow’s problem.

“The nerve wasn’t damaged, just compressed, and they replaced the blood you lost. Actually, you were pretty—”

“Don’t say it,” he growled.

“—lucky.”

“Jackson!”

“You know, that would be a lot more threatening if you weren’t lying flat on your back and I was corporeal.”

“I’ll call Oma.” But Jack was gritting his teeth because his stomach had lurched at the activity, not in exasperation.

“Shut up, Jack.” Daniel’s voice was almost tender. He knew. And since they were back to not touching, his voice was all he had to comfort with. Trust Daniel to do so while telling him to zip it.

But it was good advice, and Jack lay still a long minute, willing his stomach to settle. He finally risked another question. “Chernay?”

He could almost feel Daniel shift beside him. “Funny thing about that, actually—they found him a few miles from the cabin, run off the road into a tree. It looks like the impact killed him instantly.”

Jack pried his eyes open and stared at Daniel. “Run off the road?” he repeated disbelievingly.

Daniel’s eyebrows rose innocently. “I just stopped in to take a look. I guess I startled him. It’s a shame, really.”

Jack opened his mouth, but all he said was, “Huh.” There would have been a time when Daniel Jackson would have been appalled at the very thought of what they so casually weren’t saying. That was before they’d lost each other, and Sam and Teal’c, a couple of times. Before vanquished evil returned too often to haunt them again, and whole civilizations had fallen or flourished because of the choices they’d made. Daniel’s idealism had given way to reality, and Jack still regretted that sometimes.

But not right now. This wasn’t about vengeance, it was about what was important.

Jack yawned and let his eyes shut again. “You keep this up, Daniel, you’re gonna need the general and me to write you some excuse letters.”

“Considering the source, I’d probably be better off on my own.”

Jack made a face at him.

“Look, I need to be going and you need sleep. Sam and Teal’c are going to be here soon. I just…I wanted you to know something, Jack.”

“You’re always watching me? Kinda puts a damper on the social life, Daniel.”

“Believe me, I don’t want to go there, either.”

“Maybe I should talk to Oma…” He was so sleepy, it was an effort to listen, but his attention sharpened when Daniel spoke again.

“Would you shut up and let me say this?”

Jack’s mouth pulled up; that was twice in one conversation. Apparently, ascension hadn’t taught Daniel patience. At least, not yet.

“When I was growing up, a friend was someone I sometimes hung out with, someone who didn’t make fun of me and whose phone number I actually hung on to for a while. It took me a long time to figure out that’s not what you meant when you started calling me your friend.”

Jack didn’t open his eyes, but he was listening.

“You’re a soldier—for you, a friend is someone you trust to watch your back, who you one day maybe ended up giving your life for.”

Jack swallowed.

“I get that now.”

He had to clear his throat to talk. “Learning all kindsa things up there, huh?”

“That’s not where I got it from.”

He twitched, bunched the sheet in his hand, and wished he had the strength to look Daniel in the eye. However, all Jack said was a gruff, “And?”           

He could hear Daniel’s smile. “And…I think you know the rest. I never bought that whole dense act, remember?” His voice was moving away. “I’ll see you around, Jack.”

The corner of Jack’s mouth turned up.

A minute later, Sam and Teal’c walked into the room to find Jack O’Neill asleep and alone.

Or so it seemed.

The End