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A Place to Heal

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VII

She saw the young two legged run from the lake, his mane flying around his head and his skinny long legs working hard to get away from the man who had just pulled him out of the water.

The very young sometimes didn't know when their elder meant only their best. She guessed it was no different with the two legged. But this child was hurting deeply. She had sensed it when he had touched her and she had seen it in those beautiful sad eyes that reminded her of the sky so much. Right then and there she had known she must not fear the young one. That he would never harm her in any way.

He didn't trust and he didn't know if things around him were going to stay safe. There was a fear so deep she almost was scared by it, too. Not by the child, but the fear and darkness inside him. But his touch was gentle and so soft. She had never been touched by a two legged foal like this. His hands were as tender as the man's hands. They must be of one family. Yet, the child ran away from him.

She let out a snicker as he passed her. He was weak and the fight with the water and the man had drawn the strength from him. A few steps away from her he stopped, breath hitching and tears streaming down his face. She knew the two legged cried. It was something she sometimes envied. She wasn't able to cry like that. It seemed like the tears would wash out all sorrow and pain from the two legged souls. She had seen them cry and smile afterward.

He slumped down on the grass and curled up, too exhausted to run away, but not willing to let the man near him.

She took a step forward, ignoring the ache in her hoof. Another step and she could reach his back with her mouth. She nibbled his shirt and sent warm breath over his trembling wet body. If this was her foal she would probably lick his fur or nibble his mane. But it was up to the man to do that. It was also his duty to keep him safe from harm and make sure he wouldn't flee like this again. Only little ones and fools didn't know there was always danger in the water and that if they needed to flee they should always try to reach safe ground. This young also had to learn not to run away from his family as there was no need to do so.... She wondered if the man would punish or exile him from the herd like the adults of her kind would do with a naughty immature horse. They would always let him back in after a while, though. Young ones had to learn so much and sometimes they needed to be corrected.

The man had only wanted to help his young. But the child wasn't responding well. Maybe before this foal needed correction it first needed to learn to trust its family.

The man came closer now. He stood a few feet away from them and watched. He was trying to do what was right. She snickered again. He had to come and teach and comfort this child of his. He had to come and make this young see that it would be safe with his family.

***

Jack let himself slump on the warm grass next to Daniel and buried his face in his hands.

Why won't you let me help, he thought, even though he began to think he knew part of the answer. Why should he? I let him go and die out there. Didn't go after him, wasn't there with him... It was a risk he'd been willing to take... He'd only done his job and I did mine. But I should have known... I should have gone looking for him... trying... anything... instead of shooing Carter off with some phrases... should have gotten my ass into gear and search the whole damn galaxy for him... try anything... we used to be a team, for crying out loud. We used to be the best. All of us, close as a family. And I let it go for what? A promotion? A parking space? I thought I could do more as the head of the SGC, keep in touch with Washington, try to keep the balance between the SGC and the "real world"

Negotiations, Jack?

Crap.

I should have stayed with what I did best. Leading SG-1.

Staying with Daniel.

Instead he'd pushed him away. Again. Let him sacrifice himself. Again.

But if that was the reason why this reincarnation of Daniel wouldn't open up to him, why did he come with him in the first place? Why had he turned to Jack nevertheless...

He'd always thought I'm some fucking knight in shiny armor to come and rescue him. Or that we would make this world - this universe - a better place together. Maybe we even did for some folks out there. But for us I screwed it up. You should have learned that by now, Danny-boy. That I'm not the man you want me to be. I'm not one to look up to.

Come to think about it, this little Daniel seemed to be eager and scared of being too close to O'Neill at the same time. He wanted to sleep in the same room, wear his clothes and listen to his voice... but he seemed to need space and be alone during the day. And he didn't let Jack come near enough to touch him.

Yet, he seemed to want to be near him, too. It was like he wanted Jack to be there and take care, but was too scared to give in to it.

O'Neill rubbed his hand over his burning eyes and looked at the ball that was Daniel.

Or some version of Daniel.

Small, skinny, hurting.

"Hey, kid," Jack croaked, not sure what he was going to say. But he couldn't just sit here and ride the guilt trip while Danny was playing hedgehog. "I'm sorry. Look, I know you’ve probably been mad at me for a long time. Maybe you don't even really know yourself. But you should. I've been a crappy friend at times. And I left you behind. Which is something I vowed never to do. Well, okay, I didn't exactly leave you behind. More like I stayed behind and let ya go. All of you. When Carter and T came back and told me you were.... gone.... I didn't believe them. But I didn't go after you either.... I just... They said you were dead, Danny. I refused to listen to Carter. But did I come to the rescue? No. You ask me why? I can't give you an answer. Every single word I'd say would be a lame cowardly excuse. Maybe I didn't want to find out you're really dead this time. Maybe I thought if I'd wait you'd come back from the glowy club again. I just assumed you went there.... 'cause you couldn't die. Not you, Daniel."

He watched the mare rubbing her nose over Daniel's back and giving a low snicker. Then she came over to him and tousled his gray hair with her soft lips and blew warm breath into it. Despite the anguish he felt, Jack had to smile. "Thanks, ma'am. You know that most of this gray hair is his fault?" He reached up and fondled her huge head with one hand, then looked at Daniel again.

"I had to pull you out of the water, Danny. You would've drowned. I know you don't want to be touched. But I had to. Whatever it is that is haunting you... for whatever reason you're still afraid of me... I won't force you to do anything you're not comfortable with. But you have to know there are situations when I have to act. I won't leave you again. And I won't let you go again either. If that means I have to touch you to save you, so be it."

Daniel's shoulders started trembling as silent sobs were shaking his body. He was crying again. Jack had noticed the tears before. He had no idea why the kid had been crying when he'd found him at the cove, but tears were good. Tears were a form of communication, a physical reaction, a way to let go of things.

"Danny," he whispered, not daring to speak loudly. "You're crying. Crying's good. Real good. Can you look at me, Danny? I know you can. Come on, kid. I have to tell ya something. And I'd rather do it face to face."

Daniel shook his head no, curling up even more. Jack closed his eyes for a moment.

"Right. I'm sorry... I don't know what's going on in your head. But I'm here. Always here, okay? I'm not leaving and neither are you. We have to find a way to work this out because I won't lose you again. Sha're came after you through the gate to tell them to get me, Daniel. It has to mean something. She knew I'd come. Janet showed up, too. Did you know she's all glowy, too? She's concerned. Said I had to get you outta there. See, I've talked more in these last few weeks than I would normally in a year. And I'm really bad at this talking stuff. Looks like words are all I've left to get through to you though, and I'm not even sure how much of what I say actually reaches you..."

Jack sat there and thought they made a nice picture. A man, a kid and a horse next to a little lake in the Minnesota sun, surrounded by woods and the cabin. The horse was dozing again, standing more on three legs than on four.

Daniel dried in the afternoon heat.

After a while Jack just sprawled out next to the kid, staring up at the almost white sky. He had no idea what to do. All he knew was that he couldn't leave the kid alone out here now.

He must have fallen asleep, because he woke when something was brushing over his face. He was awake immediately, but stayed perfectly still, his eyes closed as small hands were patting his cheeks and hair. He would have stopped breathing if necessary so he wouldn't disturb Daniel's exploration. Jack could smell the lake water on Daniel, could hear the kid's fast breathing. His hair was brushed away a few times and then trembling fingers wandered over the outlines of Jack's face.

Then the hands were gone.

Jack slowly opened his eyes and blinked into the evening sun. He turned his head. Daniel was sitting a few feet away, hugging his knees to himself. But he was looking at Jack, his eyes red rimmed from crying, oversized black t-shirt showing traces of snot.

"Hey," Jack whispered.

Daniel nervously started chewing his lower lip. That was new. Yet, it wasn't, because it had been something big Daniel had always done. That, and rubbing his thumb with his second finger.

Jack sat up and mirrored Daniel's position minus the self hugging. He stretched out his legs and placed his hands on his thighs. "You wanna explain why you ran away?" he asked gently.

A nod.

"Okay."

Daniel sat there a moment longer, his bottom lip firmly between his teeth, his head tilted a little sideways. Then he got up and waved Jack to follow. Without looking back he stalked towards the cabin and Jack followed suit.

Once inside, the kid walked straight to Charlie's room and opened the closet. He gazed for a moment at Charlie’s things in there and then reached into it and pulled out a box. In it were the crayons and some paper Jack had taken with them from the SGC when they'd left. He'd also taken the books and some of the stuffed toys. So far Daniel had never wanted any of the stuff since he was mostly just sitting somewhere, doing nothing.

Now the kid pulled a piece of paper out of the box and showed it to Jack, then pointed at the crayons.

"You want to draw a picture," Jack guessed, amazed.

Head shaking. No. Daniel pointed at Jack, at the crayons and then at the paper. Then he folded the paper and put it into the pocket of his shorts. Again he waved at Jack to follow as he ran out again.

When they stood on the pier, Daniel gestured at the horse, then over towards the cove. Then he pulled out the paper piece and placed it on the wooden planks. He covered his eyes, shook his head, then went down on his knees and hands and ...

"You were searching... You took the picture with you when you saw the horse," Jack guessed. "You... I know. You're carrying it around all the time.... wait..." He remembered what happened this morning and it dawned to him. "You swam over to the cove, right? You lost the picture... it got wet... and you lost it? That right?"

Frantic nods were the answer.

"And you remembered it when I told you to change and get dry clothes on. Then you left to search for it," O'Neill continued, finally piecing it together.

Daniel picked up the paper and balled it together. He hung his head and nodded again.

Jack let out the breath he had been holding without realizing it. "Daniel," he said. "Look at me."

To his surprise the kid's head came up slowly. Again there were tears glistening in his eyes.

"I understand. I know that picture meant a lot to you. And when I came down there and snapped at you I scared you. I'm sorry for that, okay?"

A tiny nod.

"But, Daniel... do you know why I snapped?" Jack decided to make this point while Danny seemed to be ready to communicate. He might snap shut like a shell any minute.

He shrugged his shoulders and blushed, staring at his bare sandy feet again.

"Look at me," Jack repeated patiently. He waited until Daniel's eyes were locked with his again. The kid blushed even more and once again bit on his bottom lip.

"I think you know very well, why,” Jack guessed from reading the kid's body language. “I thought you ran into the woods and got lost. I was looking for you and couldn't find you in the house or at the pier. Couldn't see you anywhere. I didn't mean to scare you and you have to believe me that you never have to run from me, kid. I'm not going to hurt ya, no matter what. But you have to tell me where you're going, or show me at least. You can't wander off into the woods. It's dangerous."

Daniel stood very still and just looked at him, his eyes like saucers. Then his arms were creeping around his body. But with a lot of willpower – or so it seemed to Jack – he stopped himself and instead of hugging himself, he dropped them to his sides again.

More progress. Good.

While he had the kid's full attention, Jack continued, “Daniel? Can we agree on a deal here? You can stay anywhere you like around the cabin. But you're not walking into the woods. And you show me when you want to take a walk along the lake, so I know where you are, okay?”

A slow up and down of the head was the answer.

Jack smiled, feeling a rock falling from his chest. He wasn't sure if Daniel would remember this rule if something really intriguing crossed his way. But it was a start and the crisis seemed to be over for now.

"Okay, grasshopper. Why don't we go inside and see if we can draw a new picture for ya?"

The kid's eyes grew big. This time the nod came enthusiastically and off he dashed into the house.

Jack checked on the horse and went to change her bucket of water before he followed his kid inside.

When he entered, Daniel had already placed the crayons and a new sheet of paper on the coffee table. He sat on the couch, his young face very serious, and allowed Jack to sit next to him.

Jack grabbed a brown crayon and started to draw the cabin. He even managed to do windows and a door this time. Daniel watched this for a moment and then tentatively reached out for a blue crayon.

"You wanna color the sky? Great.... here ya go." Jack encouraged him.

The first few attempts of coloring looked a little insecure. But after a few more strokes of crayon Daniel seemed to get more confident. He colored the sky blue and added a yellow sun. When Daniel was done, Jack worked on the grass and a clumsy excuse of a lake.

"Hey this one's much better than the first one," he pointed out, grinning as he started to draw a stick figure next to the cabin. He wrote his name under it like he had done on the first one.

"Now it's your turn. Where are you? And our four footed friend out there?"

Daniel took a black crayon and carefully drew another stick figure next to Jack. Then he drew the horse. He paused again and looked at their piece of art. Suddenly he drew a box around himself. He stopped again, his teeth working on his lip.

Then he pulled the paper over to him and started working. Jack sat there stunned as he saw what the boy did with their colorful little picture.

"Daniel..." he began, but didn't say anything else when he suddenly realized what exactly Daniel was doing.

He was drawing a net of little black outlined patterns all over the picture. At first sight they looked like little puzzle pieces. After a second look... Jack felt a shudder running down his spine and the hairs on his neck were rising. With a sickening, horrible, fascination he watched Daniel covering the whole paper with the tiny little things until the sun, the grass, cabin and lake, even Jack and the horse were behind a web of … pieces. Only the smaller stick figure in its box was clearly visible now. Daniel put away the black crayon and took a red one.

He wrote something underneath his stick figure.

Daniel alone?

Then he handed the picture to Jack who took it with trembling hands. "No. No you're not alone, Daniel. I just told you. I won't let you go," he whispered. "God, what happened to you? Replicators... Did the bugs beam you off the ship? Is that what happened? Did they hurt you?“ He closed his eyes briefly. “Of course they did. What else would they do. Aw, Daniel...”

When the kid didn't respond, Jack took a new piece of paper and shoved it towards the kid.

"Show me," he whispered.

For a moment Jack feared he had lost him again. Daniel's eyes became vacant and he didn't react. Then he slowly reached out for one of the crayons again.

Black.

Daniel drew replicator pieces again, all around the edges of the paper. In the middle he drew another stick figure. With glasses. And a second one. He stared at them, then took the yellow crayon and added a mop of blond hair to the other figure.

A cold, cold hand clutched around Jack O'Neill's heart.

The blond figure's arm rested at the head of the stick figure with glasses, like she was caressing him... but Jack knew... a flashback of another replicator being reaching into his head with its hand... reading his mind... knowing his grief and secrets... hurting him...

Daniel shoved the picture at him and grabbed the next paper.

He drew both figures again in the middle of the sheet. Then he started coloring a Stargate, four figures - SG-1 - a woman with dark hair - Sha're.... a pyramid... something that looked like a head in a cloud - Oma deSalla...

Jack knew this was important. And he was so close to getting it. He stared at the three pictures in front of him.

Daniel had stopped drawing and looked at him questioningly.

"Carter," Jack mumbled. "She was... repli Carter... probing your mind... stuck her arm into your head, right?"

A nod.

"She was searching for something? There's Oma... Repli Carter was searching for Ancient knowledge? Technology? The weapon on Dakara? The one we used to destroy those freaking bugs?"

Another nod.

"Okay, okay... what's with this one?" Jack pointed at the cabin pic covered with replicator pieces.

Daniel took the red crayon again and wrote a word over the whole drawing.

Real?

"Yes. They are real. But they can't hurt you anymore. Because we killed them," Jack hissed, feeling a cold rage surging through himself. "We killed them all. With that weapon Teal'c and Bra'tac found on Dakara. They'll never hurt you or anybody else ever again."

Daniel took the second picture with himself and repli Carter who was sticking her hand into his head. As he worked on it again, she got a blade into her other hand. A knife... no... it was a blade that came right out of her other arm....

The blade touched the Daniel figure.

Then there was red attached to the blade.

Lots of red.

Everywhere.

Jack groaned. He thought he was going to throw up. Oh. God.

Daniel took the last empty piece of paper and quietly started coloring again.

The house, the lake...

Jack watched, amazed at how his hands became more and more steady and how the house looked much better than the one Jack had drawn. Yes, Daniel had always been good at drawing. It still looked like a child's picture. But there was progress. As if he remembered how to draw while he was doing it.

The sun, the sky, the grass...

And all the time O'Neill tried to wrap his brain around those other pictures. Repli Carter had killed Daniel. Had probed his mind, abused him in the most horrible way - and then killed him off.

Well, she was no more. "It" was no more. Because no way would Jack think of this monster as a "she". It was dead. So he didn't have to dwell on that one. He needed to get a grip to be calm for Daniel.

Daniel, who was now finishing the new picture with the two stick figures and the horse. He hesitantly wrote Jack's name underneath the taller figure and his own name under the smaller one.

Jack blinked.

They were holding hands on the picture.

Daniel picked up the red crayon again, His hand was trembling as he wrote above their heads, in unsteady huge letters.

Real?

O'Neill stared at all the pictures lying in front of him in a row now.

Suddenly the pieces fell together and the urge to throw up was getting stronger again.

All the time since Daniel had come through the gate.... maybe before, wherever he had been before and however he'd come back from the death... all this time...

"God yes, Daniel. Yes. It's real. I'm real. This isn't some replicator illusion. It's not a trap. You’ve got to believe me. Trust me. You came back... somehow... again.... No no, don't do that, kid. Stay with me, okay? Look at me... yeah, that's good. It's me. It's really me. The SGC, the infirmary, this... it's all real, Danny."

What could he do or say to make him believe. Jack knew Daniel wanted to. He was trying to believe, but parts of him were too scared to allow the guards to go down. He was hiding. Not from Jack. Not from the world. Daniel’s mind insisted he was still on the replicator ship. That "it" was still sticking its hand into his head and messing with his brain.

Jack had heard about it from Carter after they'd found her on that Asgard planet. How Fifth had made her believe she was on a farm, living with Pete. How real everything had appeared to her. He had no way to really prove to Daniel that this was the real world and not only in his head.

"Tell me what to do, Daniel. How to make you believe you're safe?"

Daniel swallowed. His eyes were boring into Jack's now and he was worrying with his finger on his thumb. He was coming back, little by little. And Jack held his breath for a moment, struggling with words. He didn't want to lose him again.

"You touched me. Outside when I slept... wait... it's okay.... don't flinch. I was waking up and I felt it. Touch me again. I won't touch you back, Danny. But you could touch... " Jack was stabbing in the dark here. He knew that in Carter’s replica world she had been able to touch Pete, too. She had it in her report. He'd even made her pancakes and she ate them.

For crying out loud. How could he ever make Daniel trust him?

"Do you believe the horse is real, Danny?"

A nod. Then a head shake. Then another nod.

"You aren't sure. But you tried to help her, right? It's what you do. Only you, Daniel. You're the only one who would come out to help if it's needed, no matter what's at stake." Jack held his breath again and paused until he was sure the kid was focusing on him. On his eyes. "Look at me," he repeated softly. "What do you see?"

He could hear Daniel's breath quickening, could see the fear in his eyes. But he held his gaze. "You know I'm not a fake, kid. You want to come out. You carried that picture around with you like an anchor. You came with me."

A trembling hand reached out and Jack sat completely still as a fingertip brushed over his cheekbone, then jerked away. Daniel scooted back on the couch until he was sitting at the other end of it.

"It's all right. You know. Deep down inside you know, Daniel."

Daniel slapped his hands over his face and shook his head as he began to rock back and forth. O'Neill bit his lip to keep his frustration under control. They had been so close. Forcing himself to stay calm, he offered, "Look, it's okay. You take your time. We have to build that paddock outside. How about you come with me and watch me work? She's still hurting and won't go away for a while. But once the pain eases she might want to leave and I can't let her. Not yet."

It seemed to take an eternity for the kid to make a decision. Jack waited and watched him struggle through his own little world of lonesomeness and fears, his heart wrenching because he couldn't help.

Finally Daniel sat up straight and nodded. Before they went outside he pointed at his t-shirt and grimaced. Jack nodded. "Yeah. You better change that, huh?"

When Daniel came back he was wearing another one of Jack's shirts. And jeans that were actually his own size.

Jack smiled.