Daniel fixed his eyes on the ripples in the event horizon. It was a beautiful sight, one that had never become mundane or everyday. A blue lake of infinite possibilities.
Standing beside him on the Gate ramp, Sam asked her question for a second time, a little impatience lacing her words.
It would be so easy, so easy to say no.
“Yes. I’m sure.” Daniel replied, and he was surprised at how level his voice sounded.
Sam half turned to face the control room. She nodded to the technician.
Daniel checked his watch; 37 minutes. Roughly 60 seconds to go. He mentally willed the message to get through, even while he knew that it was a long shot, and it was probably their final chance to save Earth. This Earth.
Lost in thoughts that were another dimension and a lifetime away, Daniel started as the Gate shut off, the whoosh of the wormhole as it winked out of existence leaving a painful echo.
“There’s a good chance the message got through,” Sam said brightly. Maybe a little too brightly, then, “I’m sorry, Dr. Jackson.”
Daniel closed his eyes and tried not to flinch as Sam laid a hand on his shoulder before walking away.
Daniel swallowed hard, tried not to think about the fact that his last chance to go home had probably passed, and turned to follow Sam. No. Not Sam. Dr. Carter.
It was only as he left the Gateroom that he realized he had no idea where to go or what to do. This world was fighting for its existence and he had no role here.
This was not his world.
Left to his own devices, Daniel warily mounted the control room steps, uncertain of his welcome. It was crowded and noisy. Daniel could almost taste the fear that was barely concealed by the professionalism of those present. Reports were coming in by the second; another city fallen, thousands more lives lost to the invaders.
“The President’s plane is ten minutes out of Peterson,” Walter announced as Catherine Langford entered the room, closely followed by a grim looking General O’Neill.
If Daniel needed any reminder that this wasn’t his universe, there he stood.
The Jack who wasn’t Jack. Who was nowhere near the man who had begun their last mission with a cheery, “Good morning, campers.” Was it only a few hours ago?
Not that Jack at all.
This Jack – Daniel could only think of him as O’Neill – strode up to the telephone on the wall and pulled it off the hook. “Get me Peterson.” He put a hand over the receiver and turned to Dr. Carter. “Any response to the message yet?”
“Not yet, Sir. It’s only been six minutes. We were lucky to get the Gate open at all. The fast dialing program gave us one chance. We’re blocked now for the next 38 minutes or so. Who knows if we’ll hear anything by then, or get another chance?”
“Yeah?” O’Neill said into the phone, tone clipped. Something flickered in his eyes; there and gone. “Roger that,” he said, slowly replacing the handset.
He turned and faced Dr. Carter, his gaze barely grazing Daniel on the way. Daniel felt uncomfortably unwelcome.
“Air Force One has vanished from radar. One of the big alien ships is on its way here, ETA four minutes.”
There was a moment’s silence as everyone digested exactly what that meant.
“Hammond,” O’Neill turned to the Colonel – and Daniel really could not grasp this particular difference – “Get everyone together. I want everyone who has not gone through to the beta site fully armed, MP5s, grenades, C4, whatever you have time to lay hands on, and ready to defend that Gate and this base. If we go down, we go down fighting.”
Hammond snapped off a quick, “Yes, Sir.” And it sounded so much like the leader he respected at his SGC that it made Daniel’s heart lurch.
This made no sense. No sense at all. Just this morning, Jack had been ragging him about needing a haircut. Said his bangs were way too long. Were a hazard to his already lousy vision. Gentle, not-really-meant ribbing that had made Sam smile as they geared up for P3R-233.
“Jackson,” O’Neill turned cold brown eyes on him and, for a second, Daniel found it hard to respond. In the couple of years they’d known each other, Jack had looked at him with frustration, with impatience and occasionally with anger, but he’d never looked at him like that.
“Yes,” Daniel answered, pulling himself together, unwilling to give O’Neill any further reason to dislike him. To have no time for him. Jack always had time …
“Can you handle a weapon?”
Daniel felt affronted. “I’m a member of SG-1, General, what do you think?”
O’Neill’s eyes narrowed. Daniel couldn’t read what he saw there. That unsettled him every bit as much as all the other elements of this whole sorry alternate reality end-of-the-world scenario.
“I think I have no idea what an archaeologist is doing on a frontline SG team. I think I don’t know whether you know how to fire an automatic weapon, Dr. Jackson, that’s what I think.”
Well damn. Now he’d really pissed him off. Seems he could annoy a Jack O’Neill in any dimension without trying too hard.
“Sir,” Sam interrupted, whether to defuse the tension or draw the General’s attention back to more immediate issues was hard to tell.
Daniel ignored her.
“I carry a Beretta. Your people took it off me when I came through the Gate,” Daniel offered in a more conciliatory tone, fiddling with his glasses, angry with himself for inflaming the situation with O’Neill when there were far more pressing matters at hand … the fate of the world, for one.
“Fine. Then arm yourself and stay close. We’ll do our best not to get you killed.”
Daniel, blinking, followed O’Neill out of the control room and watched as airmen handed out a vast cache of weaponry.
O’Neill barked orders to blow the elevator shaft to Level 28 as he garnered a veritable arsenal of ordnance.
Daniel accepted a handgun from Hammond and had to stop to himself from saying, “Thank you, Sir.”
Dr. Carter took a pistol. She hurried up the corridor after O’Neill, and Daniel watched as she put a hand on his back and he halted, turning around to face her. She said something and then put a hand to his face, cupping it. O’Neill pulled her into a hug and pressed his face into the side of her neck.
Daniel had to look away. He knew instantly that he was witnessing a lovers’ goodbye; possibly their last private moment together, and it was in front of a corridor full of AF personnel, and wasn’t private at all.
The couple drew apart and O’Neill hurried away, leaving Dr. Carter standing in the midst of a maelstrom.
She seemed lost and very alone, almost fragile. Very un-Samlike. He longed to tell her it would be all right, but, in truth, he had no way of knowing and anyway there was no time.
Daniel jumped a little as the C4 exploded, cutting off the one route to the surface.
All around him, airmen were taking up defensive positions. He couldn’t stay close to O’Neill because O’Neill was at the far end of the corridor, at the head of his men.
Daniel checked his gun.
They waited. Time seemed to stretch endlessly.
It seemed eerily quiet. Daniel could hear the blood rushing in his ears and was conscious of every breath he took. Each one could be his last.
There was a distant rumble, like thunder across a valley.
“All right. Heads up,” O’Neill shouted. “There’s no knowing how long it’ll take them to get down here from the surface.”
There was another, slightly louder noise. Two more explosions and Daniel felt the ground shift slightly beneath his feet.
A light shower of concrete dust fell from the ceiling. It landed on Dr. Carter’s hair. She didn’t bother to shake it out. She was tucked into a corner just across the way from Daniel. He wanted her to turn his way. He wanted to smile and reassure. She looked frightened. It struck him forcibly that this was Civilian Sam, not Military Sam. So not his Sam.
Minutes ticked by and distant sounds of Jaffa forcing their way through the levels grew gradually louder.
It was agonizing. He wanted it over with.
He gripped his Beretta until his hand ached.
Here was where they would make their stand.
Here was where his grand adventure would come to an end, a universe away from the place he called home and the people he loved. He suddenly missed them with an ache that was physical.
He missed Teal’c’s solid strength, Sam’s enthusiasm and military competence, and when he thought of Jack, he thought of an unlikely friendship that had turned into hard-won love and respect.
And then he didn’t have time to think at all.
He heard a distant shout of “Here they come!” and gunfire. He heard a blast behind him in the Gateroom that momentarily left him partly deaf, as though he was hearing everything underwater.
Then he was firing and he kept on firing until he had to replace the clip.
The familiar sound of staff weapon blasts mixed with automatic fire to create a deafening symphony.
Daniel fired at any glimpse of metal armor he saw. He was aware of airmen pulling back, retreating down the smoke-filled corridor towards him. He found it hard to breathe.
As he reloaded, he saw Sam struggling to do the same, but there was no time to help.
A young airmen fell to the ground beside him, his stomach half blown away by a staff blast. His buddy leaned out from the safety of a metal arch and hauled him away, catching a blast himself in the process. He screamed in agony. Daniel tried to close his ears to it.
They were losing the battle and he knew it.
It felt like they’d been fighting for hours. In reality, it was probably less than ten minutes. There was no way they could hold them off for long. Time was running out.
His heart was thudding, his thoughts racing. He thought of his parents, of his first nurse, of the dog they rescued from the streets of Cairo when he was a boy. He saw pillars fall in a museum, felt the rain on his face as he stood destitute and ridiculed outside a lecture hall, saw Lya smiling, Omoc scowling, Kawalsky screaming in fear, and Sha’uri smiling shyly at him as she drew the symbol for Earth in the sand.
He kept on firing, realizing that his suddenly blurred vision was not caused by the loss of his glasses.
An airman fell beside him, screaming the kind of scream only the frightened and dying made.
There was silence.
Like pain when it stops.
Like the calm when a nightmare fades into nothing more than a dream.
And he was alive.
The fighting had stopped because there was no one to fight. The Jaffa had … gone. Vanished.
From further up the corridor a voice said,” What? They’ve just … gone? Like some kind of fucking magic?” in a voice that was half terrified and half relieved.
People who had seemed frozen in place around him started to move. Training kicked in and the injured were checked over. He heard voices, calling for medics. Airmen closed the eyes of fallen comrades.
Daniel fought to get his breathing under control. He felt disoriented, became aware that he was gripping his gun so tightly that his fingers were shaking. Actually, the rest of him was shaking, too. He looked around, scanning faces. Walter was helping an injured woman to the infirmary, Siler was surveying damage, reporting to Hammond, who had a nasty gash on his forehead but was waving off assistance.
Dr. Carter walked towards him, face coated in more concrete dust where staff blasts had carved chunks out of the walls. She asked if he was OK, concern in her eyes. But Daniel’s gaze was searching, seeking the one face he always sought in extremis.
He heard O’Neill’s voice before he saw him, issuing orders, and then he was there, coming towards them behind Dr. Carter, dust in his hair turning the brindle to gray. His BDU jacket was flecked with blood and there was a cut on his right cheek.
The relief at seeing him was overwhelming. If Jack O’Neill was all right, then everything would be all right. Simplistic and probably untrue, but it’s what Daniel felt in his soul.
O’Neill asked him, “You all right?”
Still facing Daniel, Dr. Carter answered, “Don’t worry. I’m fine,” without realizing the question hadn’t been addressed to her.
But O’Neill’s eyes were on Daniel and stayed on Daniel, even when Dr. Carter turned to face him.
She hugged him, hanging on tightly as though she needed to physically check for herself that he really was alive. Daniel heard a whispered, “Oh, Jack. Thank God.”
“Looks like your message got through,” O’Neill said, patting Dr. Carter’s back a little awkwardly, still watching Daniel.
“Yes. Maybe. Looks like it.”
O’Neill pulled away from the hug and started to walk away to check the damage in the Gateroom, but he half-turned and said, with more gentleness than Daniel had suspected he was capable of, “Thank you.” His eyes raked Daniel up and down, assessing, perhaps re-assessing, then he was gone.
Daniel let out a ragged breath.
Saving the world wasn’t something you did every day. Just some of them.
The airman leaned heavily on Daniel as they made their way slowly to the infirmary.
His name was Sean, he had a little girl called Anna and was married to a great gal from Oklahoma. It was amazing how much you could learn about someone on a painful, slow journey through endless corridors. Daniel was happy to listen, especially as it seemed to take the injured man’s mind off the knife of pain in his side and leg.
Daniel handed him over to a tired-looking nurse and took a moment to rest. Leaning back against the wall by the entry to the infirmary, he closed his eyes.
That was his fourth handing-over of a patient. At least he felt useful.
“You all right, son?”
Daniel straightened and opened his eyes. Hammond stood in front of him. It still seemed strange to see him in BDUs. No stars on his shoulders.
Daniel wanted to tell him the truth. “Not really. I was seconds away from death, I’m standing exhausted in the infirmary of an SGC that isn’t mine and I’m not sure I can get home.” But Hammond didn’t deserve that. His concern was genuine enough.
“Um, I’ve been better.” Daniel said.
“It was a pretty close call out there,” Hammond offered.
“Well, I’m not entirely unused to the whole … deadly peril thing.”
Hammond nodded. “General O’Neill wants to see you. Asked if you could meet him in the commissary.”
The thought of food made Daniel’s stomach do a barrel roll, even though he couldn’t remember when he last ate. “Of course.”
Hammond nodded and turned to leave. “Gen … Colonel Hammond? Is there any news on the Gate?”
The uncomfortable look in Hammond’s eyes told Daniel all he needed to know.
Daniel went into a men’s room on the way to the commissary. He splashed water on his face and tried to clear his head. As he dabbed his face dry, he checked himself out in the mirror; face pale, eyes squinty and tired. He looked like shit.
How appropriate, he thought. I’m waist deep in the stuff and the levels are rising.
It was amazing to Daniel how quickly things appeared to begin to return to normal. The military mindset of obedience and order at all costs did have some merits.
Repair teams were in action all over the base and there was plenty to keep them occupied. The Jaffa hadn’t exactly been subtle in their attempts to gain access. They merely blasted their way through layers of concrete. Direct and very effective.
Daniel could only wonder at what the scene was like in the outside world. Multiply this by a million. The magnitude of the destruction was unthinkable.
But here, at least, work was beginning. Less than three hours ago, the halls had been strewn with rubble, the injured, the dying and the dead.
Now, if you ignored the banging and drilling and carts full of concrete pieces clogging the corridors, you could almost believe none of it had happened.
Maybe it hadn’t.
Maybe this was all some huge intergalactic, inter-dimensional joke being played on him by Jack, who was pissed off that Daniel hadn’t reacted quickly enough when he told them they were leaving P3R-233 and fast.
Or maybe he’d wake up any second in his own bed in his own apartment and berate himself for the red wine and cheese he’d scarfed down before going to bed late and over-tired.
“Dr. Jackson,” Dr. Carter called to him as he entered the commissary. She waved him over to where she sat in a corner with O’Neill and Catherine. “Come and join us.”
He weaved his way through the tables and took a seat next to Catherine, opposite O’Neill, who was scooping up the remains of apple pie.
“Want something to eat?” he asked, around a mouthful of dessert. Daniel smiled to himself; Jack O’Neill and pie was a pan-universal obsession, then.
“Um, no, thank you. I’ll maybe have some coffee.” He rose to get some, but Catherine’s hand on his shoulder pushed him down again. “You wait here. For what you did, you get the silver service treatment.” She smiled down at him and patted his shoulder again.
“We have so much to talk about. There’s so much I’m dying to ask you,” Dr. Carter began, folding her hands and leaning in, all bright-eyed eagerness.
“I’m sure there is, however, there is one question I have to ask you first,” Daniel asked.
She smiled at him. “Go ahead”.
“When can I go home?”
Her crestfallen face more than matched the look in Hammond’s eyes earlier.
“The Gate is,” Daniel watched her casting her around for the best way to put it, “non-operational. Structurally, it’s in one piece. Which is great. The problem is, it thinks it detects unsafe conditions and won’t dial through. The dialling sequence automatically aborts part-way in. We’ve tried dozens of addresses and it’s the same every time. As you know …”
Daniel knew the signs. Here came the technobabble. He glanced across the table at O’Neill who caught his eye and raised his eyebrows slightly in a “Yeah, here we go” gesture that Daniel recognized as his Jack’s. His Jack’s … His. He was using that word to differentiate between the two men. That was all. That really was all.
Daniel quirked a quick smile of understanding at O’Neill and tuned back in.
“Doctor,” O’Neill began, a gentle warning. “Tell Jackson what he wants to know. Bottom line.”
Dr. Carter paused and bit her lip, consciously reining herself in. “The Gate isn’t working and there’s no way of telling when it will be.”
Daniel licked his lips. Now they were getting to it. “But you said ‘when’ not ‘if’, so that’s good. Right?”
He didn’t miss the sideways glance between O’Neill and Carter.
Dr. Carter clasped her hands a little more tightly on the table top. “I’m sorry, Dr. Jackson. It could be ‘if’. We really don’t know. We’re working on it and we’ll keep working until we find the answer.”
“If you find the answer,” Daniel added, his stomach falling. He was glad he hadn’t eaten anything.
Catherine returned to the table and placed the coffee in front of him. It looked strong and black and he needed it. He wrapped his hand around the mug and raised it to his lips. His hands were shaking. He saw that O’Neill saw, although he said nothing and flicked his gaze away quickly. He took a long gulp. It was only lukewarm and fairly bitter, but he didn’t care. It stopped him from screaming.
“Thank you for your candour,” he managed.
The table fell into an awkward silence.
“Maybe you should get some rest,” O’Neill said, finishing his own coffee. “I’ll have Walter assign you a VIP room. We’ll debrief further in the morning.”
“Thank you, but I’d rather be useful. Busy.”
Catherine touched him on the arm. “Perhaps you should rest. It’s been a very long and trying day, I’m sure. We can talk tomorrow.” Her smile was kind and full of sympathy and it was all Daniel could do not to shout at her, ask her what did she know about anything, upend the table and storm out of the room.
He wanted to go home.
He needed to go home.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said, and his voice sounded flat even to his own ears.
“Good,” O’Neill said, then after a pause added, “and thanks. I think we owe you, big time. You and your friends who can make bad guys disappear.”
Yes, Daniel thought. You do.
More sympathetic smiles from Dr. Carter and Catherine, and a long, intense look that Daniel, again, couldn’t read, from O’Neill.
Exhausted and unsettled, Daniel fell into a bed in a VIP room and dreamed.
He saw Sam working tirelessly in her lab while Teal’c stood by, attentive and ready to assist. He saw Jack sitting alone at his house, a half-empty whiskey bottle in front of him. His head was in his hands. He saw Sha’uri on Abydos as she was when they first met, dressed in a coarse nightshirt, her hair a tumble of dark curls falling across his chest and face as they loved and laughed. Then, she lowered her head so that he couldn’t see her face.
As she raised her head, her eyes were hollow, empty, and she said, “I’m lost. I can’t find you.”
But the voice wasn’t Sha’uri’s. It was Jack’s.
“Can you tell us about the message you had us send?” Dr. Carter asked.
Daniel cleared his throat and surveyed the briefing room. Dr. Carter sat across from him, Colonel Hammond next to her. Next to Daniel was an envoy from the Pentagon whose name Daniel didn’t catch. On his other side sat Catherine.
“It really was a long shot. They’re called the Nox. An advanced race we met on P3X-774.”
“We haven’t been there. How did you know that planet, that race, existed in our reality?” Dr. Carter said.
“I didn’t. Like I said. Long shot. They’re, an ancient, gentle, pacific race. Highly intelligent, possessing powers and abilities far beyond our own. I didn’t get much of a chance to uncover a great deal about their culture, but I believe they may have friends, allies, with the power to handle the Goa’uld. I like to think the Goa’uld have as many enemies as the Nox have friends. It may have been the Nox who came to the rescue, or it may have been one of those allies.” He paused for breath, tapped the pencil he was holding on the notepad on the briefing table.
“Why haven’t they tried to contact us again since the attack was halted and the attackers destroyed? If they are as advanced as you say, why do they even need a Stargate?” Catherine asked.
Daniel sighed. He had a headache. He hadn’t slept well. The dream had ruined his night’s sleep. “I have no idea. Maybe they’ve tried to reach us through the Gate but they can’t because it’s broken on our end. Maybe that’s the only way they can reach us.”
“Well, I for one am just glad they did what they did,” Dr. Carter said.
“Dr. Jackson, would you be willing to share your knowledge of the other planets and races you’ve encountered in your reality? I think Earth might need a great deal of help to recover from this attack, and who knows when the Goa’uld might strike again?” Catherine asked, turning towards him in her seat.
“Yes. Yes, of course. The Goa’uld are motivated by greed and power. They exist to dominate, to enslave. They won’t give up.”
“Then neither shall we,” Catherine answered, softly.
Daniel spent the day in an office that was assigned to him. He was given a computer, a telephone and a coffee machine.
The room was at the end of a corridor just down the row from Sam’s lab. It was nothing like his lab in his reality, no books, no journals, but at least it was a space he felt he could call his own.
He worked undisturbed until early evening, when he realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He threw two aspirin down his throat dry and set off in search of a sandwich.
Somehow, without thinking, he found himself way off course and heading for the Gateroom.
The rubble had been cleared and the Gate stood in its usual splendid isolation. It looked … fine. Fine except that it didn’t work. He leaned against the entrance and stared. It was beautiful.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
For a second, Daniel couldn’t answer, thinking he was merely hearing his own thoughts echoing back at him. He turned. O’Neill was in civilian clothes; cream chinos, black leather jacket, gray sweatshirt.
“Yes, yes it is.”
O’Neill nodded, as though he’d run out of conversation and didn’t really know what to say next. “Never used to think that way. Just saw it as piece of machinery. I’ve been shown the error of my ways,” he said, wincing slightly.
“Dr. Carter,” Daniel said, smiling a little.
They fell silent, both looking at the similarly silent Gate.
“What are you doing now?” O’Neill asked, shoving his hands in his pockets.
Daniel shrugged. “I really don’t know. More work, I guess. I was looking for something to eat but I seem to have ended up here. I don’t really know what to do with myself, to be honest.” He shrugged again.
O’Neill looked thoughtful for a moment, then he stepped back and waved an arm towards the elevators.
“Come on,” he said.
“Where are we going?” Daniel asked, following without even thinking about it.
“Somewhere where the tuna sandwiches don’t curl at the edges and the coffee doesn’t climb out of the mug of its own accord.”
Daniel stopped in his tracks.
O’Neill turned and gestured for Daniel to go ahead.
It was Daniel’s instinct to follow Jack. Always. But this wasn’t Jack. He knew that. It disturbed him more than a little that he still couldn’t say no.
He passed O’Neill and headed for the elevators.
Eating alone sucked, he told himself. Anything was better than that.
Of all the similarities in this universe, it was O’Neill’s house that hit him hardest.
It was so much Jack’s home that Daniel, tired, anxious and more than a little homesick, found it desperately hard to cope with. The furniture was arranged the same way, there were pictures on the mantel, different photos, same grouping.
He wanted this to be Jack’s house, where he felt safe and comfortable.
It was built of the same wood and glass and had the same feel of permanence and solidity. But it wasn’t Jack’s place and he had to keep telling himself that. And the more he reminded himself, the worse he felt.
“There’s grilled cheese sandwiches on the way. Beer?” O’Neill asked, stepping down into the living room and holding out a Bud.
Daniel perched on the sofa, feeling a little like a schoolboy in the headmaster’s study; hoping he hadn’t done anything wrong but not really sure why he was here.
“Why am I here?” he asked, berating himself even as he spoke. He hadn’t really meant to say that out loud.
“I’m partial to waifs and strays,” O’Neill offered, sinking into the armchair by the fire and putting his feet on the table. “Honestly? I don’t know. It’s not like me to … get involved.” He took a drink.
“No. I guess not.” Daniel followed suit. He didn’t much like beer in any reality, he decided.
O’Neill regarded him carefully. “I guess I’m intrigued. Not every day you run into someone who knows another … you. Me. You know what I mean.”
Daniel smiled. “Yes. I do.”
“This mirror thing. You touched it and …?”
“Nothing. Everything seemed the same. Except my team had gone. I thought maybe Jack was pissed because I was slow to respond. I dialled the Gate, went through …”
“And you weren’t in Kansas any more.”
Oh God. Oz. Daniel smiled to himself.
They sat quietly for a while, the only sound the crackling of the log fire.
“What’s he like?” Jack asked.
Daniel thought for a while. “He’s sarcastic, occasionally arrogant. Impatient, sometimes rude, doesn’t suffer fools gladly or at all, and can be incredibly dismissive.”
O’Neill took another swig and said nothing.
“He’s also loyal, an excellent soldier, fiercely protective of those he cares for, very intelligent, although god knows he hides it well for some reason I haven’t yet fathomed, and a very good friend.”
O’Neill’s face was unreadable. “Sounds like quite a guy,” he said, slowly.
“Yes. He is.”
O’Neill emptied the beer bottle. “Do I remind you of him?”
Daniel swallowed. He felt compelled to offer the truth. Even if it hurt, there was always only truth between him and Jack. “I don’t know you. But I see things in you that I saw in the Jack O’Neill I first met.”
“Do I want to know?”
Daniel took another drink. God, this stuff was awful. He longed for a glass of Merlot.
“The Jack I first knew was … very sad and lonely, I think. His son had recently died. Charlie took a large part of Jack with him to the grave. He was shut down. Angry. Didn’t like himself and didn’t much like anyone else either. In many ways… he was a dead man walking.”
O’Neill’s face was shuttered. He was so hard to read. He wasn’t Jack.
O’Neill rose from his seat, jaw clenching. His voice cold, he said, “I’ll check on the sandwiches,” and left the room.
Daniel sighed. He’d said too much. He always said too much. Eager to make amends, he followed O’Neill into the kitchen, found him banging about noisily, shoving grilled cheese onto warm plates.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have … I don’t know you. I don’t know if that is you. But there’s something in you that …” He couldn’t finish with cold brown eyes boring into him.
“Eat it while it’s hot,” O’Neill said, thrusting a plate into his hands and pushing past him, reaching into the refrigerator for two more beers.
“No thanks,” Daniel said quietly.
“Fine.” One bottle was shoved back into the fridge and the door slammed shut with unnecessary force. O’Neill picked up his own plate and stalked back into the living room.
Daniel walked slowly back down the steps and sat on the sofa again. He picked at his sandwich. He wasn’t hungry. He’ d passed the point of being hungry hours ago. O’Neill fell on his food like he hadn’t eaten for days and started on his second beer.
“You said that was what he was like when you first met him. What changed him?”
Daniel sat on his hands. He was cold. He was tired. He didn’t want to do this.
“I don’t know. Maybe time healed. Perhaps he managed to grieve properly over the loss of Charlie and Sara …” As he said her name, O’Neill’s head whipped up and his eyes met Daniel’s.
“He was married to Sara?”
“Yes. I think they were very happy until …”
“He left her?” Jack’s gaze burned into him.
“They parted. They couldn’t make it work.”
“She was alive and he left her.”
Daniel was puzzled at the intensity in the other man. “I think she left Jack while he was on the first Abydos mission … I don’t know all the details.”
O’Neill slammed his beer bottle on the coffee table. “Alternate universes, parallel lives, forks in the fucking road. We shouldn’t have to be faced with this shit.”
He was angry. For the first time, Daniel felt a little afraid.
“No,” Daniel whispered. “We shouldn’t.” He didn’t know what else to say.
Daniel’s eye was caught again by the set of photographs on the mantelpiece. One of Charlie, an official shot of O’Neill being promoted to General, and one with his arm slung around a service buddy’s shoulders. Daniel didn’t know him. None of Sara. Perhaps there once had been, but he was engaged now.
“I think,” Daniel began, slowly, “that Jack always regretted the break-up of his marriage.”
O’Neill was quiet for a long time. The he said, in a low, pained voice, “Sara had a breakdown after Charlie died. She pushed everyone away. I couldn’t … reach her. She left me. Eight months later, she walked in front of a train.”
Daniel felt sick with sudden grief. “I’m so sorry.”
O’Neill shrugged, the emotionless mask back in place. “And I have no fucking idea why I just told you that.”
“I’m glad you did,” Daniel replied, wanting to offer something. O’Neill had shared far more than Daniel thought he would. That fact moved him in ways he couldn’t define.
They sat in silence again but it wasn’t heavy or awkward, just a natural break while both men assimilated information, adjusted to the knowledge shared.
“I think I’m dead. In your universe,” Daniel said.
“Because my last known place of residence here was Egypt and that was just a big red blob of destruction on your map.”
O’Neill turned his attention back to his beer. “Doesn’t mean squat. Archaeologists are nomads, right? You could have been digging up bones in Peru.”
Daniel considered the possibility. Peru was unlikely, but the principle was sound.
“Maybe,” he offered.
The question surprised Daniel, although he wasn’t sure why. “Yes. I am. It’s … complicated.”
“What? More complicated than alternate realities, lives that are yours but aren’t really?”
“Well, when you put it like that … I met my wife on Abydos. She was a big part of the reason we triumphed over Ra. I stayed on Abydos for her.”
O’Neill’s eyes narrowed. “What’s her name?”
O’Neill’s eyes widened. “I know her. Knew her. She led the rebellion with her brother and father. She … took a staff blast that was meant for me. Died. She was … quite a woman.”
Daniel felt stunned, gut-punched. “She’s dead?”
This time, Daniel really didn’t know what to say. He suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and close his eyes to this whole mess. He shivered, exhaustion exacerbating the chill he felt despite the fire.
“She’s still alive? In your dimension?” O’Neill asked, reaching behind him for his jacket, which he held out to Daniel.
“She was taken by Apophis as a host for his Queen. She’s out there somewhere. Jack says we’ll find her.”
A wry smile touched O’Neill’s lips. “And what Jack says …”
Something in the way he said it, some petty, patronizing hint of jealousy made Daniel so angry he wanted out of there. Couldn’t stand to be in the house that wasn’t Jack’s a second longer.
“I should go,” he said, getting to his feet and handing back the jacket. “If I may use the phone, I’ll call a cab.” He headed for the hallway.
O’Neill stopped him with a hand on his arm. He gripped tightly. Daniel swayed on his feet. He really was so tired. O’Neill’s touch burned.
“Wait,” O’Neill said, standing close. So close Daniel could feel his warm breath on his face. Could smell aftershave that wasn’t Jack’s, soap that wasn’t Jack’s. “I’m sorry. I just find all this a little … odd. And subtlety never was my strong point. You probably already know that.”
Daniel closed his eyes. O’Neill seemed reluctant to let go. Daniel really needed him to let go. He wanted the touch too much. It was too reminiscent of Jack, of the support he was always willing to give. “I’m very tired,” Daniel said, desperate to be out of there. To take a time out from alternate universes and different realities and Jacks who weren’t Jack.
“There’s a spare room. The bed’s made up. Stay the night. You’re out on your feet. There’s no way I’m letting you leave here and go back to the Mountain.”
For a second, he sounded so much like Jack that Daniel was afraid he was going to cry. His emotions were running way too close to the surface. He muttered, “Thank you,” and allowed himself to be shown to the bedroom. Jack laid out spare sweatpants and a T-shirt, pointed to the bathroom and left him to it.
Daniel crawled under the covers, curled up into a tight ball and willed his body to stop shaking.
His thoughts were swirling, wouldn’t leave him be. He thought of Sha’uri and what she must be going through, of Sam, pushing herself too hard to find answers.
And his last thoughts as he finally drifted off to sleep were of Jack.
He missed them all.
Sometime in the dead of night, Daniel woke.
He didn’t know he long he’d been asleep; probably not long. He thought he’d heard Dr. Carter’s voice as he drifted off to sleep. She’d worked late. Very late.
He turned onto his back and stretched a little. He felt tense, not properly rested. His eyes adjusted to the dark and he checked his watch for the time; 2 a.m.
He heard a muffled noise, wondered if that’s what had woken him up.
Then he heard another, and this time he knew what he was hearing.
Soft rhythmic sounds, muffled moans, a woman’s, then a harsher sound, then another. More moans, a little louder but stifled, and a series of soft “oh, oh ohs,” followed by a bitten-off, harsh grunt. A grunt that brought with it a shocking moment of recognition. It sounded like the noise Jack made when in pain.
Daniel really didn’t want to hear this.
He didn’t want to know what O’Neill sounded like when he came. Even less did he want to know that the sound reminded him of Jack.
It went very quiet. Daniel lay listening intently. The silence stretched. He took a moment to orient himself in the bedroom that was eerily familiar but different, pretty much like everything else in this reality.
He needed to pee – another minus mark for beer – so he slid quietly out of bed, wincing at the ache in his back from sleeping on an unfamiliar mattress, and padded down the hall to the bathroom. He took care of business, washed his hands and decided to head for the kitchen for a glass of water.
There was no sound from the master bedroom. Hopefully, they’d fallen asleep. Sex had a habit of doing that for you, he thought. Long time since he’d enjoyed the blissful lassitude of post-coital sleep. He decided not dwell.
Taking the glass into the living room, he sat down on the couch. The fire was long dead. Tonight had been … odd. It had been so much like the evening he spent at Jack’s when he returned from Abydos, only minus Jack and the tears that fell later, when he curled up in the spare room and began to mourn his lost wife. A mourning that had never ended, never been resolved, because she was still out there.
Daniel shivered. How had things got so fucked up that he was sitting musing on his weird-shit life on a sofa in a house that wasn’t Jack’s, in a reality that wasn’t his, with little or no prospect of getting home? He let his head fall back and closed his eyes. He wouldn’t sleep anymore tonight.
“You all right?”
O’Neill’s voice startled him. Daniel squinted into the dark. O’Neill stood at the top of the steps, dressed in sweatpants and a faded AF T-shirt. He looked wide awake for someone who should be fast asleep after great sex. Daniel assumed it was great sex. Everyone had great sex, didn’t they? One of the unwritten truths. Everyone was getting more sex than you, and everyone was having better sex than you.
And why the hell was he thinking so much about sex anyway?
“Yes. Sorry. I’m fine. Just couldn’t sleep.”
Jack slumped onto the couch beside him. “Something wake you up?” he asked.
Daniel didn’t answer. Lying never came easily.
Beside him, Jack sighed and ran a hand over his face. He looked rumpled. His hair was mussed, he had stubble on his chin. He suddenly didn’t look like the blank-faced military man anymore.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, not looking at Daniel.
Daniel swallowed. The word ‘uncomfortable’ had been invented for this moment.
“Nothing to apologize for,” Daniel said.
“This is … awkward,” O’Neill offered.
“No. Not at all.”
“It shouldn’t have …”
“Please,” Daniel stood. “I’d really rather not …”
Jack stood. They were close, facing. Daniel couldn’t look at Jack’s face. He studied the way his neck curved into the beautiful arc of shoulder instead. He’d never noticed that before.
“I’m sorry if you feel uncomfortable. You have enough to cope with.” The words were spoken softly, and O’Neill sounded so much like Jack that Daniel couldn’t fail to respond.
Daniel felt his heart thudding in his chest, could smell beer and the sweet-sour lingering scent of loving a woman on O’Neill’s breath. It was heady; a reminder of the beautiful physicality of love-making, and he ached for it. He was so close … this copy of the man who always made him feel safe was so close.
Daniel raised his eyes to O’Neill’s, saw the first glimpse of compassion there, and it was his undoing. He closed his eyes, moved closer, tilted his head and brushed his lips against O’Neill’s. It was brief, tender. O’Neill’s lips were warm and surprisingly soft. They felt fuller than Daniel had imagined. He felt the sharp caress of stubble. It sent a slight shiver through his body. He noted the soft, clicking sound as he drew his lips away after the light feathering touch. It was over in seconds. There and gone. Nothing. It was nothing at all, really.
But at that moment it was everything.
O’Neill’s sharp intake of breath chased away all thought and anchored him firmly in the here and now.
Here in O’Neill’s living room, now, in the dead of night when he’d just kissed a stranger with Jack’s face.
What the fuck had he done?
He let out a ragged breath and stumbled backwards, the backs of his knees hitting the couch. He sat down with a thump. He scrambled to his feet. Away. He had to get away.
“I’m sorry … so sorry …I’ll …” He pushed past O’Neill, heard his name called, fled to the bedroom and closed the door, standing with his back to it.
Oh, christ, oh fuck …
Daniel punched the word ‘Tollan’ into the new document. The cursor had been flashing at him for a good ten minutes. He couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t think beyond the fact that he’d kissed O’Neill in lieu of Jack when he hadn’t even realized he wanted to kiss Jack.
God, he needed to go home.
Beyond the fact that he couldn’t remember one damn useful thing about the Tollan at this particular moment – silver suits, pissy leader, bad attitude did not an incisive report make – he was dreading running into O’Neill.
Somewhere in the night, between fleeing to the bedroom and leaving for the Mountain with Dr. Carter, he thought he had heard footsteps come to a halt outside his door, then move on without knocking. By the time he’d plucked up the courage to open the door, O’Neill had left for work. Left for Washington, actually, or what was left of the city. It was still the home of Government. Symbolically, Daniel supposed, it had to be. Jack would likely be gone for a couple of days. He didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry. If he was around, at least he could get the humiliating apology over with. On the upside, he had time to think about how to mitigate his actions.
“Time for lunch, Dr. Jackson.” Dr. Carter stood the entrance to his office, smiling. She didn’t seem to have Sam’s dimples when she grinned. Daniel missed them.
“Oh, I’m really not hungry,” he said, making a show of studying his computer screen.
“Well I am, and I hate eating alone. Besides,” she added, clapping her hands together, “I’ve got questions.”
Daniel sighed. Yes. Everyone had questions. They all had questions, just no answers, especially the one he wanted to hear.
He hit ‘save’ reluctantly and they wandered to the commissary together, past airmen plugging blast holes in walls and electricians working on multi-colored cables.
They picked out salads and Dr. Carter added a yoghurt, and sat in a corner. It was early in the lunch period and quiet.
“So,” she said, picking at a sad-looking lettuce leaf.
“So,” Daniel replied, inspecting the coleslaw.
“Tell me about your world.”
Daniel chewed for a few moments. “It’s like this one,” he said.
Dr. Carter stopped eating. “Well, I know that. But the differences … what are the biggest?”
That I haven’t kissed Jack in my world and have never wanted to, and can’t quite believe how hard I got when I thought about it afterwards.
“Um. It hasn’t being ravaged by the Goa’uld. Yet.”
Dr. Carter placed her fork on her plate and folded her hands. “Have I done something to upset you?” she asked, fixing him with those large, expressive eyes.
“No. No, of course not.”
“Then why the attitude?”
Daniel put his fork down, too. “I’m sorry. It’s just … everyone keeps asking me questions. I didn’t mean to be … I forget sometimes that you’re not her. Sam. She knows me. Understands my … ways.”
Blue eyes blinked at him. “What’s she like?”
Daniel smiled. “She’s great. A little serious sometimes. Our humor doesn’t always coincide. But she’s a good friend, I think. And a great scientist. Very … committed.”
The blues turned skeptical. “By committed you mean obsessed. A workaholic.”
“I think she’d prefer ‘focused.’”
Dr. Carter smiled and picked up her fork to resume eating.
Daniel liked her. Yes, there were differences between her and Sam, but their essential goodness and heart were the same, he could tell that much already. He felt a sharp stab of guilt for what had happened between him and O’Neill.
And that guilt extended to Sha’uri. His lost Sha’uri.
But he could still feel O’Neill’s lips on his.
They ate in silence for a while, then she asked, “In your world, is Sam with Jack?”
“God no,” Daniel blurted out, realizing as he spoke how horrified he must have sounded and regretting it. “I mean. No, they’re not. They’re close colleagues who share a healthy respect for each other and the job. But there’s nothing more. The regs, and all that.”
“Ah yes. The regs.” She spoke using invisible quote marks.
“They’re not a problem for you, right? You’re getting married?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. It was heavy, sounded burdened.
“Have you set a date?”
“It’s … complicated.”
There was that word again. Seemed their lives were complicated universes over.
“We’ve been engaged for six months. Three weeks ago, I was offered a job overseeing R&D at Area 51.”
Daniel thought about that. “Oh.”
Dr. Carter shifted a little in her seat and reached for a glass of water. “Yeah. Odd isn’t it? Our world was almost wiped out and here we are, eating lunch and discussing something as inconsequential as job offers.”
“Yeah. Odd,” Daniel replied, adding it to the growing list of ‘odd.’
“Jack doesn’t know they’re looking to hire me away to Area 51,” Dr. Carter said, taking a close interest in the contents of her plate.
It was Daniel’s turn to blink. “You haven’t told him?”
“Not yet.” She bit her lip, seemed lost in thought.
“It hasn’t fallen across his desk?”
“It will. Eventually. It was an off the record approach by one of the top guys, there, Dr. Lee.”
Daniel thought some more. “I see.”
“Do you?” There was note of pleading in her voice, as though Daniel could offer some clarity of thought that she was lacking.
“Not really. Not beyond the fact that it will keep you apart.”
Dr. Carter sighed and sipped some more water. “I keep going round in circles. Can’t see the forest for the trees. I mean, we nearly died just now. I saw my life and it was work and science and … where were the people? What was it all for? Long-distance relationships rarely work. My father worked for the Space Program and his work took him away a lot. Things weren’t always easy at home, for mom or for me and my brother.” There was a distant look in her eyes, like she was back in a time that wasn’t all good.
“When do you need to make a decision?”
“Yesterday. This whole invasion thing has kind of taken over. I can’t believe I have to think of this now, after …. So many people died. The enormity of it.” She stopped, swallowed hard. “It seems so meaningless, after all that. But they’ll need an answer soon.”
“What are you going to do?”
She looked desolate, one step away from tears. “I met Jack on the rebound. I was seeing a cop when I worked at the Pentagon on the program, before Catherine figured out how to open the Gate. We were set up on a blind date by my brother, actually. It was good. For a while, it was really good. Then it wasn’t and we parted. My choice. I surprised myself by falling for Jack. I didn’t mean to fall in love. It’s ironic … he’s not an easy man to love.”
Daniel quirked a close-mouthed smile. “Everyone falls in love with Jack a little, I think. People are drawn to him.” I was drawn to him from the start. I just didn’t know I felt like this. “He has a good heart, and that’s all the more remarkable because the loss of Charlie almost destroyed him. It’s still very raw for him. People respond to his strength and his vulnerability, I guess.”
Dr. Carter pushed away her plate, her lunch only half-eaten.
“In your world, your Jack and Sam. If it weren’t for the regs?” She seemed to have to know.
Daniel felt hugely uncomfortable. “I’m really not the best person to ask about all things romantic. I’ve only ever loved two women in my life and I lost them both.”
Dr. Carter’s eyes were filled with empathic understanding. “Jack told my about your wife. I’m so sorry. You’ll find her, Daniel.”
She called him Daniel. He found he liked that. In the course of the conversation, he was starting to think of her as Sam, now, not a copy, another version of little consequence.
“Jack will find her,” he said with conviction. He had to believe that.
“You have such faith in him,” she said softly.
I love him.
There it was. The unvarnished truth. The words sounded in his head in perfect clarity, like a bell tolling on a still, winter morning. A simple, beautiful truth. The one thing in this crazy, fucked-up situation that made any sense.
“And in your wife.”
I love her.
“You must love and miss her very much,” she added.
Daniel swallowed the tears that were always close when he thought of Sha’uri. “Yes.”
Dr. Carter nodded. “I’ll do everything I can to get you back to your life, Daniel. I’ll do everything I can to get you home.” She reached across the table and placed a hand over his, squeezing lightly. The warmth, the human contact was so, so comforting.
He felt another uncomfortable pang of guilt. She was being so kind.
I love them both.
“Thank you,” he said, turning his hand and squeezing in return.
I love them both. What the hell am I going to do with that?
The small TV screen in the corner of Daniel’s quarters was filled with the face of the new president, some guy Daniel didn’t even recognize.
He spoke of reconstruction, of a world working together to rebuild, of a new spirit of co-operation and understanding. There was to be a world summit, where new accords would be signed, heralding a new era of joining together against a common enemy. Work would begin straight away on a space defense system, funded multi-nationally. The best minds on the planet would pool ideas and skills. He spoke in measured terms of mourning the losses and never forgetting but moving on with a common purpose.
Earth would survive.
Mankind would come through this trial stronger and more united.
Daniel lay on his bunk and wondered about the Daniel in this universe.
Was he dead? Or had he somehow survived? Was he fighting to make the world a better place now in whatever way he could? There was a part of him that had to know. He also wondered if he would physically feel the existence of another Daniel. After all, he was screwing with physics by being here. How hard could it be to find out if was still alive? The military had the wherewithal, surely?
Daniel watched the President’s speech with a wary detachment.
He didn’t want to think of this world as his. Didn’t want to care too much.
The knock on the door came just as the new president’s face faded from the screen.
He hauled himself to his feet, half expecting to see Sam in search of a dinner companion.
Instead, O’Neill was leaning one-shouldered on the wall opposite, hands in service dress pockets. Just back from Washington, he guessed.
Daniel shifted from foot to foot. He’d known he had to face this, of course, he just wasn’t sure what to say, even after two days of it being on his mind only all the time.
“You gonna invite me in?” O’Neill asked, eyes flicking to the inside of the room.
Daniel’s throat was dry. Failing to find any words, he opened the door wider and stood to one side.
O’Neill pushed off the wall and walked past him.
Daniel closed the door slowly, the click of the catch sounding too loud. He was playing for time and he knew it.
O’Neill indicated the TV, which had switched back to a news channel and was showing pictures of battle-weary soldiers carrying out humanitarian work somewhere in Asia, by the looks of it. “Brave new world out there, Daniel.”
Daniel blinked. He’d finally decided on what he was going to say and O’Neill threw him off his stride.
“You called me Daniel,” he said.
One side of O’Neill’s mouth curled into a smile. It shocked Daniel to see it.
“I thought we should be on first name terms now, after our first kiss and all.”
Daniel put a hand to his forehead and rubbed. He could feel a headache coming on.
“God. Look. I’m sorry, OK? I have no idea why I did that. I’d had beer. Beer and me do not mix. Wine, I can handle, even whiskey in small doses, but beer …”
“Whoa,” O’Neill held up hands, as if warding off the flood of words. “I didn’t ask for a dissertation.”
“Sorry. Really, look … can we just forget it happened?” Daniel was pacing the room, small, agitated steps that took him nowhere; got him nowhere.
“Daniel. Stop. It happened. OK? You kissed me. It’s no more ridiculous, whacked out or hinky than anything else that’s going on in this world right now.”
Daniel halted his pointless wanderings and sat down on the bunk.
“Wow. I, um, can’t believe you’re not freaking over this. I mean, you’re military. You don’t know me and you’re … straight.”
O’Neill tilted his head and regarded Daniel thoughtfully. Then he sat down next to him. Not touching but close.
“I’m military and I know you a little.”
Daniel considered his answer for a moment. Considered it some more and realized what O’Neill hadn’t said.
“What? Come on. Mr. Anthropologist Guy.” O’Neill looked at him expectantly.
“You’re getting married. You’ve been married.”
“Military and human. It was a long time ago, the last time. But it doesn’t just go away.”
Daniel’s mind was racing. Of all the responses he’d imagined from O’Neill, this wasn’t one of them.
“And how about you?” O’Neill went on. “You’re married. How do you square that circle?”
“I don’t. Like I said. I’d drunk beer. I was … confused. Upset. Jack’s a good friend. I don’t have many. God, I can’t think straight.”
“Interesting word choice there,” O’Neill said, dryly.
Daniel sighed, and it turned into a resigned chuckle. Then he scooched his feet up on to the bed and leaned his back against the wall. Tiredness swept over him in a crashing wave.
O’Neill matched his position on the bed.
“I think you love him,” O’Neill said. So matter of fact. He was staring straight ahead, eyes fixed on the wall. “And I think you love her, too.”
Daniel couldn’t think of a single thing to say. The man was inside his head.
Daniel had spent all this time thinking the two versions of Jack were so different, separating them out. Yet this man knew him.
Daniel felt rather than saw Jack turn his head towards him. But he felt the warmth of his breath on his cheek when he said, quietly, “I’m not him, Daniel.”
“I know,” he said, the words clogging his throat.
“Even if you stay here, I could never be the man you want me to be.”
Daniel closed his eyes. He could feel the tears, a hot rush behind his eyelids. He couldn’t cry. Not now. So he swallowed hard, forced the tears back down where they wouldn’t give away how close he was to losing it, and himself, so completely.
“I love my wife,” Daniel said desperately. He did. So much that sometimes he could still feel her skin beneath his lips, hear her full-throated laugh in his dreams.
“And you love Sam.”
There was a moment’s silence that grew so heavy Daniel wondered if he’d gone too far and been too presumptive in discussing O’Neill’s private life.
“Sam’s great. She’s bright, warm …”
“But she’s not your wife,” Daniel said, mentally telling himself to shut the hell up but saying it anyway. “She’s not Sara.”
Jack pulled his knees in tight to his chest and hooked his arms round, clasping hard. “I’m not being fair to her. I’ve tried … She wants marriage, kids.”
“And what do you want?”
O’Neill rested his chin on his knees. “Honestly? I don’t know.”
Daniel sighed. “We’re a pretty mixed up pair, huh?”
O’Neill let out a sound that was half laugh, half despairing snort. “Fucked up beyond all hope I’d say was more accurate.”
Daniel regarded him closely. He looked tired, the lines around his mouth and eyes deep and defined, burdened by the weight of responsibility, both public and private. Sad.
After a while, O’Neill said, “I’m a ruthless bastard, Daniel. I’m a selfish, sealed-up, unforgivably solitary man. I’ve driven people I loved away. I’ve been responsible for too many deaths …”
“Don’t,” Daniel interrupted forcefully. “People love you. There’s … something in you. Something that’s ...”
“Dangerous. Cold. Hard to reach.”
Daniel fixed him with an intense look. This was almost too hard to hear. “Not from where I’m sitting,” he said, softly.
O’Neill straightened, leaned back against the wall, turned again to face him. “I can’t be the man you know, Daniel. I can’t give you that.” He sounded regretful. Anguished even.
Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off O’Neill’s mouth. He wanted to feel those lips against his again. Fall into that warmth. “Then give me this,” Daniel whispered and took O’Neill’s mouth in a bruising kiss. He moved his lips, pushing hard, put a hand to O’Neill’s face, scrunched his short hair and ran his fingers through the soft strands. It felt so good, so fucking good.
O’Neill made a small noise in the back of his throat and Daniel felt the second he gave in. Daniel’s face was held in the grip of two firm hands and together they fell deeper, opening mouths, teasing with tongues. They delved and explored and shared soft, desperate moans.
Taking a breath, they pulled apart, Daniel’s gaze fixed on O’Neill’s kiss-swollen mouth. It was so beautiful.
“Not here,” O’Neill said, quietly, thumbs caressing Daniel’s cheekbones.
Daniel closed his eyes. O’Neill kissed him again. “Home.”
Not his planet, not his reality, but, in every sense that mattered, Jack O’Neill was his home.
They got up from the bed, Daniel dazedly searched for his jacket, pulled it on, willed his body to remember how to walk and followed O’Neill out of his quarters, closing the door firmly behind him.
One hour later, in O’Neill’s house, in O’Neill’s bed, it was all heat and fumbling and gasping for breath as their bodies strove for a shared rhythm.
“Oh. Oh fuck, yesss, yes.”
O’Neill took him hard from behind; no preamble, no verbal niceties, no questions. No fear. “That good?” he ground out, breathing hard, the warm moisture on the back of Daniel’s neck sending harsh shivers down his spine.
“Ynnngh,” was all he could manage, clutching at the sheets until his hands were like claws. Aching.
O’Neill shifted the angle, pulled Daniel back and up towards him, clasped arms tightly around his waist and drove into him. Hard, harder and then held there, right there. So deep inside, Daniel thought he’d feel him there forever after.
“Jesus, Daniel, what you fucking do to me,” and he thrust again, short, sharp jabs, right into the sweet spot. Over and over until Daniel was moaning continuously, all capacity for verbal coherence lost.
No talking. Only sounds, the wet sound of flesh on flesh; Daniel could feel O’Neill’s balls slap between his legs and he cried out louder, wanting more.
It hurt, it burned and he felt stretched and filled and it still wasn’t enough. Wasn’t anywhere near enough.
“Take it,” O’Neill gritted out between clenched teeth. “Fucking take it all.” Then he shouted, a harsh bark, and stilled, and Daniel felt him come, took the tremors into his own body and made them part of him.
O’Neill breathed out a long “Ahhhh,” that sounded pained, almost angry.
Daniel felt dazed. He was so hard and so lost in O’Neill, he moaned and reached for his leaking dick, began stroking himself. Inside, O’Neill was still hard and, as Daniel whipped his cock in fast, shivery strokes, O’Neill moved on him again, supple flexions of hip that stroked Daniel’s prostate sweetly. With a high string of “ah, ah ahs,” he came, streaks of white creaming his chest and belly, and O’Neill’s strong hands rubbed it into his skin with hard, deliberate motions.
Daniel closed his eyes, reached back and around and kept O’Neill close. Needed to feel him there.
As the sweat stung and cooled, as ragged breathing calmed, O’Neill mouthed Daniel’s hair and bit lightly where shoulder and neck met.
“Not him,” he whispered.
“I know,” Daniel breathed out. “I know.”
In Jack’s house, in the afternoon, two days later, sun streaming in through open windows. Jack stroked into him, slow and deep.
And when Daniel came, looking up at O’Neill with tear-filled eyes, he called him Jack.
Jack laughed and bent down and kissed him. “You called me Jack,” he said, smiling, one hand stroking Daniel’s hair into sweaty spikes.
“I did,” Daniel said. But he wasn’t smiling.
He was falling.
In the mountains, on a rainy Sunday, sheltering in a rock overhang in a clearing. Daniel sucked him slowly, Jack’s hips pushing his cock into Daniel’s mouth in tight, small movements.
Thunder rolled in the distance and they both laughed when Jack’s shout of completion timed to perfection with a flash of lightning.
The laughter felt so good.
There was no accounting for this. No accounting for how it felt so good and how it had happened so quickly.
It felt so right.
In a shabby motel room, five miles from the Springs, with 1970s wallpaper on the walls and a bedspread like Daniel’s grandfather had when Daniel was a boy.
A snatched afternoon of love-making that saw Daniel clinging to Jack with a deep-seated intensity that shocked them both.
Daniel cried when he came, wrenching tears that he tried to hide in the musty-smelling pillows. But Jack wouldn’t let him hide, pulled him over and into his arms, held on tightly and wouldn’t let go.
“It’s OK, Daniel,” he said, kissing Daniel’s hair. “It really is.”
Daniel couldn’t answer, couldn’t find the right words, any words.
So he cried himself out and tried not to count the minutes until he had to leave the sanctuary of Jack’s arms.
In Daniel’s quarters at the end of a day when Daniel felt nothing but confused and lonely and lost.
No sex, not on-base, just talking and holding, in the half hour Jack could snatch between endless rounds of briefings and meetings.
As time ran out, Jack ran his fingers down Daniel’s face with a peculiar tenderness that nearly broke Daniel’s heart.
“Not from where I’m sitting,” Daniel said absently, not realizing he’d spoken out loud. He watched Jack cycle back mentally through conversations, saw the second he hit on the relevant one. “I don’t think I’m that man anymore,” Jack said, settling Daniel into the crook of his arm and running fingers through Daniel’s hair.
Daniel smiled sadly, leaned in and touched his lips to Jack’s, a gentle sign of understanding.
Neither of them was the same.
In another motel room, eight miles from the Mountain.
They’d stolen away for a precious couple of hours.
Jack had suggested it. He’d sounded uptight on the phone.
Daniel was just glad to be away from the concrete and walls and dry air. Here, on bright, sunny afternoon, he could breathe again.
Daniel was on his back, legs on Jack’s shoulders and Jack was fucking him with a focused intensity that left Daniel awed. When had fucking become loving? Or wanting become need?
When had O’Neill become Jack?
Lines that clearly delineated O’Neill and Jack were blurred beyond recognition.
More and more, Daniel was thinking of O’Neill as Jack, and that hurt more than Daniel thought possible.
The chances were that one day he would lose this man, and that would make never having the Jack in his reality unbearable.
Christ. Confused and aching didn’t begin to cover it.
Daniel looked deep into Jack’s eyes as Jack stroked into him. Sweat sheened his face and chest, ran into the forest of chest hair and was lost. Daniel longed to lick the salt tang from his body. Soft words of encouragement fell from Jack’s lips, and his eyes, oh his eyes, were filled with light and desire and … love.
Daniel’s orgasm burst upon him. No, not yet, not yet. It hit him so unexpectedly. He wasn’t ready. The look in Jack’s eyes had been enough to push him over the edge.
Jack bent low and kissed Daniel’s eyelids, his cheeks, his mouth, then nosed down into his neck. It seemed he couldn’t touch enough or get close enough.
It was as if he was trying to say something with his body that wouldn’t come out as words.
“Jack,” Daniel said softly, still panting.
Jack closed his eyes and moaned, shook his head, then opened his eyes and fixed his gaze on Daniel. Then he left go, let slip the safety catch and thrust close and fast and deep. He grunted with every movement, each sound louder than the last, until he stilled and came, his whole body convulsing as wave after wave of pleasure rippled through him.
“Oh god, Daniel,” he said, breath coming in hitching sobs. “Oh, god.”
Daniel pulled him close and held on.
“I don’t have a name for this,” Jack said softly, face buried in Daniel’s shoulder. Orgasm had weakened his defenses. “The day I first saw you, I knew.” Daniel waited but Jack didn’t explain, didn’t elaborate, so Daniel waited him out.
“I … felt something inside me begin to ease. Give way. Ice melting, bricks falling from walls, and I don’t fucking understand this. I don’t understand how I can let you do this to me.” Jack kissed him, endless, small, nuzzling kisses to his neck and shoulders while hands roamed and spoke of affection that amazed and delighted Daniel.
Eventually, Jack settled, his head resting on Daniel’s chest, his fingers massaging Daniel’s semen into his stomach. It felt like he was claiming him, marking him. It made Daniel want to weep.
“I think,” Daniel began, slowly, gently, “that in any dimension we will find each other. That we’ll be friends.” Daniel ran his hand slowly up and down Jack’s back.
“Friends,” Jack said, voice barely there.
“Friendship is the heart of what we are, Jack. Who we are. Anything else is …”
“Icing on the cake?”
Daniel smiled up at the ceiling. “It’s already a pretty great cake.”
He felt Jack’s lips curve into a smile against his chest. “There should always be cake.”
They fell into silence. Daniel listened to the tap, tap of a tree branch against the window. Not for the first time, he wondered what excuses Jack made to get away from the Mountain for these precious moments together. Wondered if he made excuses to Sam, too.
Jack had softened inside him, and he lifted himself off Daniel to pull out carefully. It still made them both wince. It felt like a loss.
Jack eased down to rest his head on Daniel’s chest again. Into the silence, in a hushed, strained voice, Jack said, “Sam says they’re close to solving the problem. They’re testing the Gate right now.” He went still. Daniel felt the tension in his body.
Daniel swallowed hard. “That’s why you wanted this today. Because it could be our last time together.” He did a remarkably good job of keeping his voice even.
“Yes. No … fuck, I just wanted to be with you. And that’s it, Daniel. That’s what all this boils down to for me. I don’t have to fuck you, I don’t need you to suck me off. I just want to be with you. Being here, with you … it’s enough.” Jack cupped Daniel’s face with the hand that had rubbed his come into his belly. Daniel turned his lips to kiss Jack’s palm and tasted himself with the underlying tang of Jack’s sweat and skin. It was intoxicating. “How fucked up is that?” Jack finished, anguish in his voice and eyes.
“Not fucked up at all,” Daniel said, raising his hand to cover Jack’s. “This is what it is. And I thank you for it because I couldn’t have got through this without you.”
Jack took his mouth in a kiss that ached with tenderness. “And now I have to let you go? That’s it? That’s all she wrote?
“It was always going to end this way, Jack. If Sam found a way, and Sam always does. We both knew that.” He was sounding a whole lot calmer and more rational than he felt.
Jack edged closer, gaze alight. Daniel could almost see the idea forming as a living thing. “You could stay. You don’t have to go back. We need a cultural expert. You could have your own department, train others, write the manual …”
“You could get an apartment, we could see each other there. You say we’re friends, right? Friends spend time together. It would be hiding in plain sight …”
“Don’t say it,” Jack said, harsh, hurting. “Don’t say you have to go. You don’t. You could stay.”
Daniel prised Jack’s hand from his face. His fingers had tightened and it was starting to hurt. It was all hurting too much.
“You’re dead, Daniel. Here. In my world. I checked. You’re dead. You died in fucking Egypt. You’re gone.” Jack was almost shouting. Almost losing control.
Oh god, this hurts …
“Please. Don’t make this any harder.” Daniel threaded his fingers through Jack’s and held on. It felt as though he were holding Jack together.
“I don’t understand this, Daniel. I loved Sara. With everything in me, I loved her. But this …” he pulled Daniel tighter with one arm, while they both stared at their joined hands.
They couldn’t let go.
There were no words.
They’d drained the well dry.
This was goodbye and it hurt and burned and they couldn’t say the word.
So they lay together, listening to the breeze whip the leaves against the branches and the branches against the window frame.
They soaked each other in through skin, packed memory of touch and love into their bodies until it resonated on a cellular level. Until it went so deep it could never be excavated.
Lost in the feel of skin, exhausted by emotion, Daniel drifted on the cusp of sleep. He let himself be lulled by Jack’s steady breathing, reveled in the peace. Then, almost lost to sleep himself, Jack whispered, “Promise me. Promise me you’ll tell him how you feel.”
Daniel couldn’t answer him, because Daniel didn’t know if he ever could or would speak to his Jack about his feelings.
There was too much at stake. He could lose too much.
And if losing this Jack felt like this, how much worse would losing his Jack be?
Daniel couldn’t answer.
They lay together as the afternoon wore on, clinging to each other and every last valuable second, until Jack kissed him one last time, long and lingering, and left the bed in a soft rustle of sheets that Daniel heard as painful regret.
It was only as Daniel dressed, in wooden, leaden movements, that he realized they’d never said the words.
They never would now.
Or maybe they’d said them in ways only the two of them ever heard, in any universe.
Daniel was drinking his first coffee of the morning, and trying not to think of yesterday and painful conversations, when Sam ran into his office. Out of breath, eyes shining she said, “It’s fixed. The Gate is fixed, Daniel.”
She ran over to where he was sitting and enveloped him in a hug. “I figured out a way to override the safety protocols. I don’t know why it took me so long. It shouldn’t have taken so long … I guess I dismissed the idea out of hand to begin with because the ramifications could be immense but …” Daniel saw the same eagerness to please, the same longing for affirmation in this version of Sam that he sometimes saw in his own. “It’s fixed.”
Daniel clung to her. She wore a light floral perfume. His Sam never wore perfume on duty. He suddenly longed to smell his Sam’s soap and shampoo.
Sam pulled back and held him at arm’s length.
“You’re going home,” she said, smiling. “We test dialled P3R-233 twice. We got a solid lock both times. We sent a MALP through. Everything looks fine. We’re good to go when you are.”
Daniel smiled back at her. “Thank you,” he said, softly.
Sam squeezed his arms, then let go and did a little back step and turned to leave. Half way to the open doorway she stopped, hesitated and turned back. “Area 51 is off the table,” she said, pushing her long hair behind her ear in a nervous gesture. “I had a call from the President’s office. They want me on the multi-national team that’s working on developing a space defense system.”
“Well, the President did say the finest minds would be working on it.”
Sam smiled at the implied compliment. “I don’t know how long I’ll be away. It’ll give me some space. Time to think.” She wound her fingers together, looking every inch the schoolgirl standing before the principal.
“That’s good, Sam,” Daniel said.
Sam nodded. “You said … in your dimension, that you and Sam are good friends.”
It was Daniel’s turn to nod.
“I think that works in any dimension,” she said.
“I think so, too,” Daniel affirmed.
Sam nodded again and left.
Daniel listened to her heels on the concrete until he couldn’t hear her anymore.
Daniel hit save and logged off the computer. His notes were nowhere near complete but there was still a wealth of information on the races he’d encountered. It would form the basis of a valuable resource. He wrote a letter to Catherine, wishing her well in future research. He wanted to say more, but this wasn’t the woman who’d pretty much saved his life, so he kept it professional and courteous.
He walked down to his quarters, placed a neat pile of borrowed clothes on the end of his bunk and gathered up the few things he’d accumulated in his stay of three weeks, minus one day.
As he walked to the control room, he had the distinct feeling that rather than walking towards something, he was leaving something behind.
Surely, going home shouldn’t feel like that.
This was all happening so quickly. Too quickly. In some nebulous, never properly defined way, he’d always thought he’d have time to prepare. He was leaving and he wasn’t coming back. Surely there was more to this than hastily penned letters and neat piles of clothes?
Hammond shook his hand, wished him Godspeed.
Walter nodded to him and smiled and, at Sam’s instruction, dialed the Gate.
Catherine hugged him, thanked him for saving the world. She said it with a glint in her eye. She was quite a woman in any universe.
Daniel went through the motions with all of them, grateful for their good wishes but operating on autopilot.
There was no sign of Jack.
Daniel felt heartsick. He needed to see him one last time. To look into his eyes and know that he’d been forgiven for leaving.
The chevrons locked, one by one, with the familiar heavy clunk, until the wormhole rushed towards them and fell back into the shimmering pool.
He walked down to the Gateroom with Sam, legs and heart heavy.
He wasn’t ready. He couldn’t do this. He wasn’t ready.
An SF handed him his Beretta and his pack. Daniel slipped the handgun into its holster and Sam helped him snap his backpack into place.
He wasn’t ready. He couldn’t leave like this.
Just as he was about to put a foot on the Gateramp, he heard heavy booted feet behind him and knew Jack was there.
He steeled himself to turn. Jack stood before him, hands in pockets, every inch the buttoned-down military man who initially had seen Daniel as nothing more than a pile of tedious paperwork.
But Daniel thought about they way they’d loved and touched and shared confidences and laughter, and he knew the man standing inches from him now wasn’t that same man at all.
Sam stepped forward and hugged him hard. “Take care,” she whispered.
Daniel didn’t trust his voice, so he simply nodded.
Then, as he always did, he sought out Jack and their eyes met.
Daniel saw a flicker of gentleness, a single moment of vulnerability that he knew no one else would ever see or recognize. Jack’s eyes creased into a small wince, which Daniel read as a sad but real smile. A hidden smile for him alone. A smile that said, “I love you. I always will. Carry that with you to your universe. There’s nothing to forgive.”
Daniel smiled back. It was tentative. But he knew Jack would understand that.
Jack gave him a tight, barely-there nod, and, from somewhere, Daniel found the strength to turn and climb the ramp.
The Gate in all its mysterious glory really was a beautiful sight, shimmering with infinite possibilities.
Sha’uri was out there. Sam and Teal’c were waiting.
Jack was waiting.
He was ready, now.
He was ready to go home.
He closed his eyes, let out a long, ragged breath, and stepped into the blue.