Automatic weapons fire draws me like a siren’s call. Years of experience inspires me to cant my head, ear forward, to hone in on her location. Her voice is suddenly silenced, which only spurs my drive to reach her.
Through the curtain of brush and jungle greenery I spy her, clasped in the hold of another. The siren’s song no longer echoing in my head, my focus turns to the man, my friend, Jack O’Neill. He absently strokes her, reward for a job well done. Not five yards away, bodies are cast about like so many downed trees.
O’Neill drops to his knees. His mouth is moving but at this distance I can’t make out anything he’s saying. If I push up on my toes, I can just see the person he’s talking to. Daniel Jackson – and damned if he isn’t alive. Pressed hard against the rough bark of a mahogany tree, he looks about like a wild thing cornered by a predator. O’Neill calls to him again and, as though his voice is the proverbial music, Daniel calms somewhat, his wide-eyed gaze turning on O’Neill. He’s still clutching a rock, the grip so tight his white knuckles are visible from here. As he relaxes, his hold slackens, the makeshift weapon falling to the ground with an impotent thud.
His hand going to his friend’s shoulder, O’Neill gives it a squeeze – a gesture of support – before lifting the hand to stroke the backs of his fingers over Daniel’s cheek. Probably just checking him for fever or something, though a palm to his forehead might have been more effective. Maybe the caress was just another means to comfort Daniel; he goes limp, basically becoming one with the tree.
The effect doesn’t last long; Daniel stiffens, a snarl of pain spreading over his features when O’Neill pushes a hand into the pocket at Daniel’s thigh. Withdrawing a long strip of cloth – hey, Daniel has a bandana like mine – he snaps it with a force borne of anger. Gripping two corners he twirls the cloth, winding it into a tight band, and slides an end under Daniel’s right leg. Daniel’s expression of pain deepens as O’Neill ties off the bandana. It’s a compression bandage. Shot in the leg, then. Lucky, considering he’s been in the hands of some of the most bloody-minded baddies in a region lousy with them.
To my left the narrow leaves of a tree fern sway madly, as though touched by a micro tornado. Branches snap, the green curtain stripped back to reveal…well, the first word that comes to mind is monster. He’s human–ish, but his eyes are ghostly white and sightless, his movements herky-jerky. I’m reminded of those old black and white Frankenstein movies.
With a good deal more finesse, O’Neill clambers to his feet, surprisingly quickly considering he has to yank Daniel from the ground with him. One arm looped through the crook in Daniel’s elbow, he tugs and spins, guiding Daniel behind the shelter of the tree. Popping out from cover, O’Neill trains his weapon on the intruder, takes aim and fires.
Bullets tear into the lone rebel as he lumbers forward, throwing bits of flesh around like so much confetti. He falters, arms pinwheeling, until the hail of gunfire ceases…then staggers forward again, his own weapon sighting on the source of the assault. Okay, I knew these guys were tough, but this is nuts!
O’Neill retreats behind the tree – what choice does he have? Luckily, my gun is bigger. Chucking a few more pieces of gum in my mouth, I work them in preparation for blowing a bubble – I’m going for record breaking – while I check the ordinance in my grenade launcher. “Hey,” I warn, “get down!” and fire on that rebel’s stubborn ass. He disappears – Poof! – in a shower of blood and microscopic pieces of flesh. My bubble pops in concert with the bad guy; there’s something poetic about that.
Peering out to make sure the coast is clear, O’Neill comes around the tree, Daniel hopping along beside him, an arm draped over O’Neill’s shoulder. I push my way through the brush to meet them.
“What’s with the guy from Evil Dead?” Seriously. This grenade launcher is almost like an appendage, I’ve used it so many times over the years. Never needed it to stop an assailant who blew off a hail of bullets, though.
Of course, they can’t tell me anything – classified and all that – but the question has Daniel gaping at me like I’m one of the undead. Or maybe he’s still out of it.
Mahogany is a damn sturdy tree and it’s a good thing because the way Daniel flops against it, a smaller tree would have dumped him on his ass. O’Neill unscrews the top on his canteen and gives it over. Fortunately, O’Neill has a hand on Daniel’s hip because, heedless of his precarious perch, the guy grabs at the container with both hands, squeezing it like he did that rock: like his life depends on it. Which is probably not far from the truth.
“Small sips,” O’Neill cautions as Daniel upends the canteen, trying to drain it in one go. A short wrestling session ensues – Daniel is surprisingly strong in his condition – with O’Neill finally tearing the thing from him. “You know better than that. What good will it do you if you puke it all back up?” Daniel lowers his gaze, but his mouth hardens so he ends up looking sheepish and indignant all at the same time. O’Neill puts the canteen away and reaches out, cupping the side of Daniel’s neck. It’s something I’ve seen him do before in stressful situations, a means to ground a teammate on the edge. Daniel must need an extra measure, though, as O’Neill moves his thumb in soothing strokes over Daniel’s roughened cheek. He’s not angry at Daniel’s extreme thirst. Well, he is, but the thumb action is probably meant to assure Daniel the anger is not directed at him.
“You good?” O’Neill asks. Daniel nods and pushes himself away from his buttress. There’s a moment when I think his legs haven’t gotten the memo, but O’Neill is there, a supportive arm encircling his friend’s waist. Daniel’s head falls forward, onto O’Neill’s shoulder, and once again I brace myself to catch Daniel should he topple in my direction. It appears, however, that he just needed some time to regroup. He lifts his head and gives O’Neill a tired smile. Clearly, he’s grateful for the assist, leaning into the hold until O’Neill is shoring him up every bit as much as that tree did. I’m surprised the guy can tolerate that much contact. Those cuts and bruises on his face are not from the tree, and everything I know about the bastards who kidnapped him tells me they would not have limited their abuse to visible places.
Daniel hefts his arm, points ahead, slightly right of our current location. “I left Bill over that way.” We don’t get a hundred meters before Daniel stumbles, leaning harder on O’Neill, who, true buddy that he is, reels him in closer. A harsh oath has birds scattering from nearby trees.
“Let’s take a break,” O’Neill dictates.
“I don’t need a break,” Daniel protests. “I’m fine. I just…slipped on a rock.”
“A rock?” O’Neill snorts but I don’t think he’s amused. “Only you could find a rock to trip over in the middle of a jungle.”
“Look around you, Jack. There are stones everywhere you turn.” Daniel flails his free hand about, his agitation gaining momentum the longer he speaks. “It could just as easily have been you that found it.”
“Okay, okay. Take it easy.” O’Neill gives him a calming pat on the chest, like you might try to calm a fussy child.” Daniel pulls in a shaky breath, his little tirade sapping what strength he had. Amazingly, he finds a means of regeneration in O’Neill’s next comment. “Maybe it would be easier if I just carry you out of here.”
“I can walk.” Daniel tenses, and if he didn’t need O’Neill for support, I get the idea he’d shove him away.
“Obviously, you’re having trouble –”
“No, I’m fine.”
“I’m not playing this game, Daniel.”
God, these two sound like an old married couple. I walk ahead hoping that’ll end the bickering. If not, at least I won’t have to listen to it. After the grief O’Neill gave me about chain of command, I can’t believe he’s giving this guy so much leeway. I know he’s a civilian, but cripes.
My strategy works: O’Neill and his charge are soon back with me.
It turns out we could easily have found Lee without Daniel’s direction; tropical foliage – caladium, vriesea, even a small cassia tree – are trampled or leaning nearly parallel to the ground in a somewhat straight line from the rebel camp to our current location. Still, O’Neill patiently shuffles along, letting Daniel’s hobbled gait keep the pace.
“Bill!” Daniel calls as we approach an especially dense copse of greenery. The leaves of a palm bush rustle before parting to reveal a rotund little guy who looks more like Stuart Little than Indiana Jones. Why would the USAF send a guy like that into this part of the world? Daniel, I could see; he looks like he can take of himself, his present condition notwithstanding, but Lee is about as out of place as –
My internal monologue waylaid by the oath, I turn to find O’Neill has a hand wrapped around Daniel’s forearm, desperately attempting to ease his descent to the ground. Head lolling drunkenly, Daniel’s not offering assistance or opposition. Passed out, it seems. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.
“That’s what comes of going without food and water for a few days.” I’ve seen this before; the rebels would have provided just enough sustenance to ensure their captives’ survival.
“And sleep,” Lee pipes up, his quiet voice fitting for the rodent description I gave him. “I think he kept watch the whole time. I was so exhausted, I didn’t have a choice.” He coughs roughly. Taking the canteen I extend in his direction, he brings it to his mouth. There’s no need to warn him against gulping as O’Neill’s bark startles him before he gets more than a mouthful.
“He didn’t sleep at all?” O’Neill’s on his knees next to Daniel. His uninjured leg folded under him when he went down. O’Neill tugs the limb, straightening it out.
“Not unless you count the time he was unconscious.”
O’Neill cuts his gaze to Lee, who flinches at the intensity of the glare. Me, too if I’m honest.
“No,” O’Neill retorts. “Unconsciousness does not count.” He cups Daniel’s cheek, careful of the split skin. Daniel turns his head slightly, nuzzling into the palm like a cat demanding attention. Rather than pulling his hand away in alarm, O’Neill once again rubs his thumb over Daniel’s three day stubble. “He’s hot,” he announces to no one in particular.
“Probably a fever,” Lee says. “The way he’s pushing against your hand, your cooler skin must feel refreshing to him.”
Lee unwittingly tilts his head and mimics Daniel’s nudge, probably wishing he had something cool on his face. It wouldn’t be a hand, though. It’s a good theory and it might hold water if not for the fact we’re standing in the middle of a tropical forest. I doubt that any part of O’Neill’s skin qualifies as cool just now. If I didn’t know O’Neill, I might think something more is going on here. It’s the third time he’s done that. Caressing your associate’s skin isn’t exactly standard military procedure. Still, Lee doesn’t think anything of it so I guess there really is nothing to see here.
There’s plenty to see when O’Neill lifts Daniel’s t-shirt. Parting the material from Daniel’s torso proves nearly as difficult as tugging it from his waistband. It’s almost as if his skin, tacky with sweat, doesn’t want to reveal its secrets.
It looks like a teenager’s face under there. Slick, pale skin is pockmarked with electrical burns, some weeping, others dry and crusted over, evidence of the seventy-two hours of hell this man endured. Dark patches mottle a wide area just below his ribcage, the product of multiple blows with a closed fist. As I suspected, the rebels were not content to just smack him around a little. On his side, too near the kidney for my comfort is a crescent shaped smudge. Someone kicked him with the toe of his boot.
A low growl has Lee looking with trepidation into the trees. My gaze is drawn to the true source, and the look I see is every bit as dangerous as the jaguar Lee feared was lurking nearby. I’m guessing whatever the archaeologists were here to find, it’s what brought that rebel back from the dead. I’m also guessing O’Neill is wishing he had it right now to resurrect the slimeballs that did this so he can kill them again. Slowly, this time.
O’Neill shoots to his feet so quickly even I’m caught off guard. And I’m rarely even rattled by explosions.
“I’m going to check out their camp. Dress those wounds, would you?”
“Sure,” I reply but he stalks away so quickly, I doubt he heard me. He’s a bit on the squeamish side but he’s seen worse than this; we both have. That was a purely emotional reaction.
“This isn’t the first time Daniel’s been hurt on the job,” Lee offers, as though he’s read my mind. “I think the colonel’s taking it personally because he feels he should have been there to watch him. Not that Daniel needs looking after, but he’s a member of O’Neill’s team. Plus, I think Daniel’s his best friend, so…”
“Yeah.” I get the teammate bond. I’ve seen way too many comrades injured and killed. It’s like a punch in the gut every time. I’ve never had to walk away before, though.
The pack on my belt is loaded with standard military issue supplies, including a first aid kit. Dry, sterile gauze pads are the best I can do for the burns. I clean the abraded skin of his wrists with antiseptic wipes and apply antibiotic cream before wrapping them with gauze. The bruises…well, we’ll just have to wait for the med team to determine if there’s any internal damage. With Lee’s help, I check Daniel’s back. Amazingly it’s nearly spotless – just the blue shadow surrounding that boot print.
I briefly consider cleaning the cut on his face but somehow that seems just a bit too personal – an odd sentiment considering I’ve just had my hands all over his bare chest.
Lee coughs again. I’d forgotten he was here.
“How are you doing? You need first aid?”
Lee looks away, but not before I note the deepening of his sun-reddened complexion. “No. They never really got that far with me. I’ve got bruises, but those will heal.” He seems on the verge of saying something more, so I wait. Ultimately he just shakes his head, so I reach for the bandana that covers Daniel’s gunshot wound.
“Hold off!” O’Neill hastens back into the clearing, slinging the strap of his weapon over this shoulder as he approaches. “The camp is clear. Let’s get him back there and settled. Burke, take point. Doctor Lee you follow. I’ll get Daniel.”
He’s in charge, so once I help heave Daniel onto O’Neill’s shoulders in a fireman’s carry, I move to escort the party back to the rebel camp. Guess I’m just the guide after all. Lee is more beside than behind me until we reach the perimeter. He hesitates just long enough to irritate O’Neill.
“Move your ass, Lee. Daniel’s no lightweight.”
He jumps at O’Neill’s tone, but it takes my tugging on his arm to get him to cross into camp. For shelter, there are only two roughly assembled wood buildings and the hollowed out hull of an old helicopter. A fence constructed of ten foot tall posts blocks easy access to the camp. Here and there, placed in strategically convenient locations, are dozens of heavy steel crates – the kind generally used to transport weapons and ammunition. Camouflage netting is strewn over a hastily built lean-to, a handy refuge from the tropical sun. There’s a fire going, something fragrant steaming in a pot above the flames. Over by the larger shack there’s an odd satellite dish that looks like a giant wire taco. Wonder if they get MTV?
“That’s where they kept us prisoner.” Lee indicates the smaller of the structures. “And that’s where they interrogated us.” He casts a nervous eye over the larger shack – the rebel leader’s lair which likely still contains the instruments of their torture – as though it’s a dark hole about to swallow him. “There’s a cot in there, Colonel.”
“Not any more. I moved it to the other shack, the one they use for hostages. Don’t worry I cleaned it up…some, and with the vent Daniel made in the back, the breeze coming through will carry out most of the stink.”
“Still, is that the best place –”
“I stowed that item you and Daniel were looking for,” O’Neill steps on Lee’s protest. “I don’t think anyone should go in there just now.” They both stare at the commander’s shack, O’Neill with barely contained rage, and Lee with trepidation. As they turn, they glance at each other, a shared look I’ve frequently seen on the faces of men accused of conspiracy.
“There’s an old couch there by the helicopter,” O’Neill continues. “The netting should afford you some protection from the sun.”
“Thanks,” Lee replies a bit breathlessly and lopes towards the promised place of rest.
O’Neill nods and skirts by me, headed towards the smaller shack.
“You need a hand?”
Pausing a few meters from his destination, he turns, stance wide to compensate for his top-heavy state.
“No, I’m fine. Believe it or not, I’ve carried Daniel out of danger before. Of course, he’s gained a few pounds over the years.” A grin of half-forgotten memories flits over his face before he sobers again. “Get Lee settled and give him something to eat.”
Watching just long enough to make sure he can navigate the opening without giving Daniel another knock on the head, I jog up to Lee and offer him a piece of gum. He stares at it like I’ve asked him to read my palm. “It’ll moisten your mouth as well as beat back those hunger pangs until I can get you an MRE,” I explain.
“Oh,” is all he says, before stuffing the small wafer into his mouth. Chewing noisily, he drags himself the rest of the way to the refuge O’Neill provided and falls onto the couch with a pained grunt.
“It’s gonna take a few minutes to heat up this meal.” I dig an MRE out of my pack with one hand, handing him a power bar with the other. “This will get you started.”
Extending his arm with what appears to take Herculean effort, he opens his hand for me to drop in the power bar. “Thanks. This is enough for now.”
“You’re sure?” I hand him my canteen.
With a sound like a car door in serious need of WD-40, he shifts his legs over the side of the sofa and struggles to a sitting position. He snags the canteen from me, hugging it against him. “This is good, thanks.” He bites the wrapper open and devours half the power bar in his first bite.
I toss a few more bars onto the cushion beside him. “I’m going to have a look around. I’ll be nearby. Just holler if you need anything.”
“Mm,” is as close to an acknowledgement as I get.
A quick turn around the edge of the camp convinces me there’s no one else around. Unless you count those two dead rebels dumped in the bushes north of camp. Guess sweeping out the prison wasn’t the only cleaning O’Neill did. There are no signs of living rebels, no movement, no sounds other than the birds and cicadas warring for dominance of this sweltering woodsy amphitheater. As I approach the rebel leader’s shack, the memory of Daniel’s injuries and Lee’s reaction to the place draws me inside.
The stench of sweat and blood stops me at the threshold. But it’s something else, something that’s making the hair on my arms stand on end that keeps me from crossing. It’s that thing, that whatever it is that brought those scientists to Central America. O’Neill said it’s in here somewhere.
That’s fine, it can stay here. I’m curious but I’m not stupid. That thing has nasty juju. I don’t have to know what it is to know that. Besides, it’s a military secret, need to know only. I may have been down here too long, as O’Neill said, but I know better than to get in deeper than my pay grade allows.
I can see the whole room from here anyway. Near the center a white, straight backed chair is toppled on its side. Most people would just see a discarded piece of dining room furniture, one in a set of six. I know what goes on in places like this, though, and nothing here is that simple. On both sides of the frame, just above the seat, the paint is worn, chipped away in a precise pattern. Yeah, seen this before, too, when the wrists of an abductee are zip-tied to the chair. They can’t help but pull against the bonds, dislodging the old paint in the process. The wounds on this chair go deeper, though, and a glance around the room provides a clue to their cause. On top of an old dresser, perched like a demon waiting to torment, is a car battery with a homemade generator and a whole network of jumper cables.
God, no wonder Lee looked like he was about to piss his pants. This place is the stuff of nightmares.
Speaking of which, that horrified shout sounded like Daniel. Weapon at the ready, I inch my way to the entrance of the makeshift prison. The door is open, for ventilation no doubt, but there’s a blanket draped over the opening for privacy – an O’Neill design extra. Inside, Daniel is muttering, panicked, out of breath. I’m a bit breathless myself, having envisioned another zombie villian on the prowl. It was probably a similar vision – or a nightmare – that had Daniel howling. O’Neill talks to him, his reassurances spoken with patient urgency.
I reach for the blanket, intending to offer my assistance, but I’m frozen by a sound unlike any I’ve heard before.
“It’s okay, baby. It’s over. You’re with me now.”
That was…was that O’Neill? And he was speaking to Daniel.
What do you know; O’Neill has a pet name for his archaeologist. And it’s not geek or nerd. This discovery makes the walking corpse reveal seem as exciting as the bubbles rising in my beer.
It does explain a lot, though. Suddenly, the day’s events rewind in my head, little oddities taking on new meaning: like the fact that O’Neill seemed fixated on Daniel’s fate; the look of dread he gave me when I joked that not all hostages were returned alive; the aura of desperation I sensed when we found the guide, Rogelio, transformed to hope when we learned he was alive; the transition back to desperate when Rogelio reminded us how vicious the kidnappers were; the panicked look on his face when we first heard the gunfire in the jungle; the possessiveness of his hold on Daniel even to the point it must have been painful to bear; the utter relief in Daniel’s eyes just having O’Neill near; the too familiar sniping and the too married couple-like quality of the arguments…
The internal film concludes on a hearty groan. The cot inside, in concert with its occupant, protests as Daniel moves. “As terrifying as it was being near the Telchak device, I can’t help but wish now that they’d left me there a while longer. Maybe I wouldn’t feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.”
Ah, so that’s what it’s called, the thing that brought the bad man back to life. Even the name is right out of the Twilight Zone.
Still, it pales in comparison to the evidence that Jack O’Neill has a boyfriend.
As if on cue, the subject of my musings steps out from behind the curtain.
“He okay?” I ask. It’s only neighborly.
“He’s sore as hell and I’m sure you noticed a few of those burns are infected, but he’ll pull through. Daniel’s a tough nut, even the Marines are impressed.”
But it’s nothing like the impression he’s made on you, is it? “I’ve been out of the military complex proper for quite a few years. Is that a new form of address for subordinates? Or is it just for the civilians?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Granted, he does look kinda young and innocent lying there, and I guess when you add the nightmare, it’s understandable why you might call him ‘baby’.”
He blanches and for the barest second I see something in his eyes, I’ve never seen – not in Uganda or even following his captivity in Iraq: fear.
He breaks the tension with a sigh. “Damn it. I’m usually a lot more careful.”
I remember that about him; Jack was always stoic and professional. I don’t think I’ve ever seen his heart on his sleeve before, not even when he was with Sara. Something has changed in the years since we knew each other.
“If it’s any consolation, I didn’t suspect anything until I overheard the term of endearment.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t really make me feel any better.”
“What is it about him that makes it so hard to remain detached?”
“Come on, Burke, you know the regs. You have to have heard of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ even in this godforsaken place. I can’t tell you anything.”
“You haven’t told me anything! I helped you save his life. The least you can do is explain why this particular archaeologist warrants a ‘baby’. You owe me that much.”
“I don’t owe you a damn thing!”
“You afraid I would use this information to maybe ensure a better place for myself?” Okay, that was the wrong thing to say. He’s in my face so fast I hear myself squeak with surprise.
“Don’t even joke about that,” he snarls, so close I can smell the remnants of the gum I gave him. “There are people who could do a lot of damage with even the whiff of impropriety. I could go to prison. Daniel wouldn’t survive the fallout. And you should know I’ll kill anyone who hurts him.”
My gaze wanders inexorably in the direction of that stack of bodies he’s left in his wake. “I think you’ve proven that.” I raise my hands in a conciliatory gesture and he takes a step back. His shoulders relax a bit, but there’s still the threat of murder in his eyes. “Besides, given your background, I feel pretty confident in assuming you wouldn’t have any trouble getting at me even from behind bars.”
One of his eyebrows – the one scarred during that FUBAR op in East Germany – slowly inches downward, the resultant look of menace confirming my theory.
“I don’t know why you’re so concerned. Given our history, no one will believe me if I did say something. You could make a very good case that I’m just trying to get back at you for what happened during our last op.”
He lifts his chin, presenting an unyielding jaw. Yeah, he’s not budging.
“Seriously, I thought we buried the hatchet here. I’m on your side, remember?”
He looks at me for a long moment, weighing my words against every deed that’s gone down this afternoon.
“You don’t have to worry about me. It’s not something I’m into but I’m glad you’re happy. Your secret is safe with me, buddy. I swear it.”
“For old time’s sake?”
Okay, that little rib is getting old. “Come on, throw me a bone here…no pun intended. I don’t get much action. I have to live vicariously through others.”
“So, you’re just looking for fantasies to jack off to? I’m not buying it. It still doesn’t explain why you’re pushing so hard for details.”
“Are you kidding? I run into a guy I haven’t seen in twenty-five years, a guy who, together with his wife was once part of my close circle of friends, and I find out he’s now knocking boots with his very male colleague. How can I not be intrigued?”
“Stop saying stuff like that! Shit, I must be losing my touch.”
“Hey, give yourself a break. Maybe it’s just that you came so close to losing him.”
“Maybe. Though, this is nothing new with Daniel. Hell, this isn’t even the first time this year we’ve come this close.”
“What? You said he’s an archaeologist. How dangerous can that be?”
“Obviously, I can’t tell you anything about that either.”
“Wow, when I said earlier you guys are into some crazy crap…”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
I take a minute to process that. What I’ve seen today – a re-animated dead guy who laughs at the spray from a P-90 – doesn’t even scratch the surface of what these guys deal with every day at work.
Nope, still not as fascinating as what they’re doing in private.
“So, no one else knows about you two? Not your CO? Not the other members of your team?”
“There’s nothing to know. Daniel and I have been friends for a long time. You know, working with someone as closely as we do, you form a bond. Daniel is the best friend I ever had and I was never afraid to show it, you know, with pats on the back and a hug here and there. At first, it was just to keep the jarheads from harassing him; a civilian on a military base, especially one as outspoken as Daniel, was bound to attract the wrong kind of attention. So I made sure everyone knew that Daniel was one of mine and messing with him was a bad idea.
“We were close from the start. Nothing we show publicly is different than what’s been on display for years.”
“That’s what Lee said. He certainly doesn’t suspect anything. I don’t think you’ve lost your touch at all.”
He smiles, a little grateful tug of his lips. Peaceful silence stretches out, unnerving us both until we begin avoiding each other’s gazes and spastically rearranging our uniforms. What can I do but shatter the peace? Besides, now that I know, I have to know.
“So, what? You’re gay? Did Sara know? I mean, you certainly weren’t showing any signs of that proclivity back when–”
“Hey, it’s not a proclivity. I’m not gay. I’m not attracted to men in general; it’s specific to Daniel. I can’t explain it. All I know is I can’t live without him. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
That single word hail is all it takes to get him darting back inside. It almost sounds like a WWF match in there. It appears all it took to get Daniel back in fighting form was a little food and water. Curse words, many of which I know only by the tone, fly out of the opening.
Maybe I should give them a bit of privacy. There’s a small stand of short but sturdy trees a few paces off. With my machete, it takes no time at all to fashion a suitable walking stick.
I arrive back at the shack as O’Neill and Daniel emerge. Daniel’s looking immeasurably stronger and I can’t help the gleeful grin that overtakes my face. Daniel raises his eyebrows, stress lines scoring his forehead; he senses something has changed. His worried gaze moves to the source of all things comforting for him. O’Neill jerks his head in an approximation of a reassuring nod, a nod which I mirror to O’Neill. I got your back, buddy.
To prove it, I hand over the homemade crutch. Daniel insists on walking and I have no doubt that O’Neill would carry him to the plane to keep him from hurting himself further. Likely, the med team would just see it as one teammate helping another, but why take chances.
“I’m going to do another perimeter check.”
O’Neill waves me off, his attention on Daniel as he tries to maneuver with the stick. His lightning fast reflexes – still pretty impressive twenty five years later – save Daniel from a face plant in the dried grass. Whether he’s embarrassed or just needs to prove he can walk out of here under his own steam, Daniel tugs his arm out of O’Neill’s grasp and hobbles away. Yeah, this is going to end well. Unless Daniel is unconscious again, they will argue over whether he needs a stretcher.
Maybe I should intervene and deal with Daniel myself when air rescue gets here. They’ve done a creditable job of hiding their relationship, but a little assist in the secret-keeping department can’t go amiss.
After all, that’s what friends do.