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Prodigal Son

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Jack O'Neill and Daniel Jackson

Leaning against Daniel's lab bench, Jack thoughtfully observed the stubborn set to his friend's shoulders. "How did we get from me not going to this shindig on pain of death, to you picking out your wardrobe to come with me?" he enquired politely, frankly surprised how fast he'd got Daniel from A to Z without getting stalled in arguments around D and J.

Theatrically occupied with making energetic notes in his journal, Daniel was the picture of butter-wouldn't-melt demure innocence, always a sure sign he was under the impression he was being sneaky.

"I want to see you interacting in your natural habitat," he informed Jack blithely. "With the rest of your family grouping."

This particular tone always told Jack he was in deep trouble. Long experience with the archaeologist had shown him he was going to lose whatever the argument was, there was no question of that, it was only a matter of how much time it took and how creatively Daniel would make him suffer until he threw in the towel. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

"My natural habitat? Really?" Jack drawled lightly, obediently responding to his cue. "You watch those nature programmes on Discovery Channel, Daniel?"

"You know I do." Daniel shot him a quizzical look, knowing Jack was playing him. "I was at your house just last week. And the week before that. You whined for hours when I -"

Aware he had the high ground on this one, Jack neatly headed Daniel off. "You know perfectly well I was under the impression I was taping a game," he reminded him pointedly. He owed him some friendly torture on the thorny issue of TV and VCR remote appropriation but this wasn't the time for such a fruitful tangent. That particular discussion deserved days of concentrated attention. "Imagine my surprise when I got?" He left this hanging invitingly, thanking his Mom and Special Ops interrogation training for his expertise in the framing of irresistibly leading questions.

Taking a keen interest in a particularly compelling passage in a textbook which happened to be upside down, Daniel cleared his throat slightly. He scowled malignantly when Jack calmly took the book from him, turned it around and handed it back with a cheery smile.

"What did I actually get, Daniel? Hmm?" Jack gently pressed home his advantage as a certain archaeologist completely failed to meet his eyes. "Hmm?"

"The migration of flamingos across the salt flats of Namibia." Daniel's tone dared Jack to make something of this. "You did get to see quite a lot of the game," he insisted. "I hadn’t accidentally taped over the entire exercise in sporting futility. You also can't deny you enjoyed the documentary!" he added accusingly.

"I did not," Jack argued briskly. "I amiably tolerated it for your sake. Once the shock had worn off, that is, and I’d broken out my Glen Livet. Then the Glenmorangie. Then the Glen Farclas. I covered more Glens in an hour than a map of Scotland."

"It was very dramatic footage," Daniel countered, smiling reminiscently.

Jack had an uneasy feeling Daniel, a Glen or two behind him in the drinking stakes, could remember the evening's festivities with aggravating clarity.

"Remember the little flamingo?" Daniel enquired softly, his eyes fixed on Jack's face, glinting with evil amusement. "The one with the salt crust around its foot, falling farther and farther behind? You were mesmerised."

"I was paralysed with boredom," Jack firmly rebutted this outrageous accusation. "I'm not just trained to kill, you know," he reminded Daniel. "I like it."

Sitting back comfortably in his chair, Daniel looked up at him, nodding understandingly. "Ruthless bastard?"

"Exactly!"

"With no interest whatsoever in the health and welfare of little pink flamingos?"

"They're not even good eating," Jack sneered.

"You did a Mexican wave when the film crew went back and saved the little flamingo, Jack," Daniel reminded him ruthlessly. "I distinctly remember that. It being after the end credits and all."

This was, regrettably, true. "I was stoned on cooking sherry by that point, out of sheer desperation," Jack contended with a certain crispness, trying to avoid any towel-throwing tone to his on-the-ropes voice.

Daniel gave him a sad little shake of the head. "You’ve still got the tape, Jack."

TKO! Shit.

There being no adequate defence he could mount in the face of incontrovertible evidence, Jack dragged himself back to his original point. "In those documentaries, you know there’s always some helpless furry little mammal right at the very bottom of the food chain? Always on some predator’s a la carte menu? That’s me!"

"Edible?" Daniel commented knowledgeably.

Jack gave a gloomy nod. "My mother is the Alpha Bitch of the pack."

"You’re not going home because you’re scared of your mother?" Daniel appeared to find this even funnier than the flamingo-fest.

"Did I say scared?" Jack tried for dignity. "I . Er." He fell a little short. It was very hard to lie when he was shit-scared of his mother. Not as scared as he got when Daniel spit in Apophis' eye, but close. Very close. And unlike Apophis, his Mom was always with him in spirit. He loved her to death, of course he did, and tried not to think of her overwhelming mental presence as being in any way Goa'uld-like. His Mom was all for free-will and stuff, absolutely, just not in his case.

He had to admit this one was kind of tricky.

It wasn't like he had a lot of options, here. If he told Daniel he was coming to Chicago because he looked like, and, according to Doc Fraiser, felt like shit, and Jack was not about to leave him behind, he wouldn't get him to the old homestead if he zatted and hog-tied him first. If he asked Daniel if he wanted to come to Chicago, Daniel would ask why, and fix those big, blue eyes on him.

Like…now.

Big eyes. Blue. Very. Intense, compelling eyes.

Jack shifted uncomfortably, the way he always did when he noticed stuff about Daniel. He seemed to do that. Notice. He seemed to look at Daniel a lot. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that. They were tight. Friends. Still. Sometimes, he felt he looked more than he was supposed to.

They really were tight. Close. Daniel got Jack to spill his guts. There was no explaining it. He just did. One question here would lead to another there and Jack would be right back to Daniel looking like and feeling like shit. Daniel would insist he was 'fine'. He was always 'fine'.

The only thing Jack could think of which could possibly lure Daniel to Chicago would be a lie so outrageous he would not believe it. In his incredulity at the whopper, he also wouldn't be able to resist it. Of course in this case the lie was the literal truth, but Jack wasn't about to let Daniel in on that. He was a Special Ops colonel. Trained. His Mom had left him some pride.

"Yes," he stated baldly.

"Wuss," Daniel sneered.

Gritting his teeth, Jack let this go, mostly because he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Daniel look as if he were really enjoying himself. It threw him off-balance. He was supposed to know Daniel. He was never supposed to be surprised by what Daniel did. Amused, entertained, infuriated. This thing they had, this friendship thing, there was a rhythm. They worked at it. Nothing disturbed it. Nothing should.

"My last family reunion didn't work out so well." A small stone tablet on Daniel's desk suddenly seemed to hold the key to the mysteries of the universe, the sheer concentrated attention it was getting. "Maybe yours will be better."

There was a long, crowded silence as Jack choked on his carefully prepped cover story, trying to tell himself this was for Daniel’s own good, really. The anniversary of Sha’uri’s death had passed seemingly without anyone noticing and then Daniel had to lose someone else he was close to, had to sever another tie to the life he had before he met Jack. Maybe the last one. There seemed nothing left for him there in the past.

In Jack's opinion, and the general's, Daniel was exhausted to the point of collapse. Shit happened to Daniel Jackson apparently for no other reason than he was Daniel Jackson. It never let up on him. Which was where Jack came in. Between Daniel and whatever it was, if he could be, picking up the pieces if not.

Jack was sure this Sarah Gardner hadn't meant a lot to Daniel. He'd never mentioned her, never had anything draw him into bringing her up, never had specific memories triggered. Nothing. He'd blanked her. She was a girlfriend, left her behind. A type. Most likely the reason Daniel went for Linea too. Not too many girls with curls and minds like whips.

Yeah. A type. A part of Daniel's past which was gone now.

Jack really wanted to get Daniel to Chicago. He couldn’t explain the urgency he felt or the rightness of his determination. He was going to do this. His family were private to him, never shared willingly with anyone, and suddenly he wanted Daniel there, wanted Daniel to know roots.

He couldn’t account for this need to tie Daniel down.

Trying to shake off his weird mood, Jack told himself everything would be just fine and dandy so long as Daniel never found out he was actually on medical leave, in Jack’s custody, and under his supervision for the duration. Spending three days with the folks in Chicago beat the hell out of him enduring three days of enforced bed rest in the infirmary because he hadn’t had the sense not to push himself night and day after surviving the latest attempt to ribbon him into a charred heap.

This was for the best.

"Bring plenty of sweaters. My folks live in the kitchen and they keep the door and windows open. You know they don't call Chicago the Windy City for nothing." What else? "Pyjamas. A gun." Both of which were essential for Daniel's protection even if he didn't grasp that at this point.

Daniel’s relish at Jack's capitulation faltered. "A gun?" he asked warily, trying to work out where the punchline was coming from.

"My Aunt Ruth will be there. Trust me on the gun thing. It’s for when you lose the will to live. It’ll just help out knowing you have other options." Jack couldn’t control a shudder, consoling himself with the thought Ruth made him feel weirder than Daniel ever did. When he was safely ensconced en famille O'Neill, Daniel wouldn’t know what had hit him, there would be no time for rows and recriminations about any possible economies with the truth on Jack's part.

"I’ll pick you up at 06:00. It's a direct flight, pretty good. There by lunch." He headed over to the door, hesitating as another slightly weird thought occurred. He shrugged, feeling he might as well salvage something from the general debacle. Thinking and hoping for the best didn't mean it couldn't all go horribly wrong. "Daniel? My mother has an aversion to checked shirts. Just stick with the sweaters, okay?"

Daniel gave him a surprised, hurt look, which he blanked. "Don’t forget the gun!" he called out, making a rapid exit. General Hammond was waiting to hear if his mission was a success, like there was ever any doubt. Jack really was a bastard, most of all when it was for Daniel's good.

Watching Jack limping out of his office, doing his utmost to look like a broken man, Daniel had to admit he was quite looking forward to going to Chicago. He wanted to see for himself the people responsible for inflicting Colonel Jack O'Neill on an unsuspecting and, he thought, fairly undeserving archaeologist.

He was also, maybe, sort of pleased to be asked along. He and Jack had stopped seeing each other outside of work for a while there. He still wasn't sure why. Something about him walking into a room had made Jack want to walk out of it. It was hard not to be hurt by that and impossible to talk about it.

For one thing, he wasn't prepared to have Jack know how much of a hold he had on him. Hadn't quite been prepared for that himself. He'd never had so many friends he'd learned to rely on them. Jack, though? Jack needed him to lean, even a little, and Daniel didn't realise himself it was as much for his sake as for Jack's until that support was withdrawn.

He chose not to be dependent, not to expose himself more than he felt he had, so he said nothing, only went with Jack's flow. The fighting had made it easier than he expected to keep his distance.

Jack was better now, though, open to him again, and he still didn't know why. If it were him or if it were Jack at the root of it, Jack seemed to be past it now and acting as if nothing had ever changed between them. Take-out and TV were back on the menu, any free night of the week . A beer and a steak. Hanging out. The occasional game of something, Daniel couldn't get out of. Their usual stuff.

Daniel hadn't quite let it go, though, and somehow, he doubted Jack had. They were both working just a little too hard.

He was pleased about Chicago. Curious, too. Jack didn't let just anyone in and the timing, after three years of no more than the occasional fondly exasperated mention of his folks and the outrages they perpetrated, the timing had Daniel suspicious.

Jack was tired, though. He'd almost died out there in space with Teal'c and somehow it had softened him. He'd actually been pleased to see Daniel again, all that gut-twisting tension which had so troubled their friendship gone from him. Things weren't normal, but close, and this invitation into Jack's private life was a huge gesture. An important one.

Whatever the game was here, if it helped Jack, then Daniel was more than prepared to play along.

 

 

Jack paid off the cab and did his utmost to glare at Daniel, who was making it difficult by being bright-eyed and bouncy at him. "You just had to tell everyone, didn’t you?" he accused him indignantly, cranking up the outrage.

"I never mentioned your mother!" Daniel retorted, feeling he was on unassailable ground on this point at least. This was the fourth, or was it the fifth, he was losing track, this was the sixth time they'd had this exact argument since they got on the plane. He was pleased to see Jack was getting so much into the holiday spirit.

"And that requisition you asked General Hammond to sign?" Jack asked, all gritted-teeth, saccharine sweetness and light. "Which you handed to him only after you told everyone where we were going? And why." Much as it pained him to have to acknowledge such an outrageous abuse of their whole friendship thing, he had to give Daniel points for creativity on this one.

"You told me to bring a gun, Jack," Daniel responded meekly, well aware he was doomed to be the straight-man but still willing to indulge Jack with a little in the way of Abbott to his Costello.

"Not a zat gun!" Jack protested vigorously. Not that the idea didn't have its engaging qualities, vis a vis Aunt Ruth, an insidious little voice inside had hoped the general would go for it, but still. "That was embarrassing."

"I know." Daniel smiled at him with reminiscent enjoyment. "Why don’t you take cover in the shrubbery while I get the door, Jack?"

"Ha ha."

"You could just sort of hunker down." Daniel’s airy gesture took in the impeccable sweep of velvety lawn and sculpted Alpine shrubbery. Dwarf Alpine shrubbery. "After all, I can’t be too careful with you, can I? Not after General Hammond made me personally responsible for your safety for the duration of this perilous excursion."

And a good time was had by all in the briefing room, including three technicians who had been unable to tear themselves away.

"Careful, Daniel," Jack warned him softly. "Be very careful. Otherwise I tell Aunt Ruth to call you Spacemonkey the whole time we’re here and I'll make damned sure she knows that comes with hugging too."

"Is that a threat or a promise?"

"It's a threat! And it's a good one. Trust me on that." Jack flicked Daniel's shoulder irritably. "You're a very annoying man, do you know that? Stick with the script, already! As my friend and faithful sidekick, it's your job. When I act threatening, the appropriate response is for you to act threatened. You owe it to me."

"I might like your Aunt Ruth," Daniel explained his dereliction of duty. He appeared to feel this was enough.

Jack smacked him in the shoulder, more than ready to escalate hostilities if he wasn't going to quit with the situational adlibs.

Daniel had been waiting patiently for Jack to make a move towards the front door. He finally realised if he didn’t do something himself, they’d be spending the night out here bickering, so he stuck his tongue out at Jack and walked up to the door. Conscious he had no real idea what he was getting himself into here but still hoping to make a good impression on the family for Jack's sake, he knocked, very respectfully.

He waited. He waited some more. Then he decided they must be out of ear-shot, knocked vigorously and stumbled forward in shock when the door was wrenched open, without any warning whatsoever, mid-blow.

He was vaguely aware of a small figure neatly side-stepping him as he staggered several involuntary steps and barely avoided kissing elegant black and white tiled floor.

"Mmm. Nice butt."

Slightly stunned by his velocity, Daniel turned giddily to find himself facing a tiny, vital woman with silver gilt hair and laughing brown eyes in a beautiful face bursting with character. He decided he couldn't have heard that remark correctly, smiled hopefully at her and held out his hand.

She took it at once, her smile widening.

"Hello," he said warmly. "I'm Daniel Jackson. I'm a friend of Jack’s."

"Well, into every life a little rain must fall. Come on in, sweetheart." She turned her hand in his and drew him into the hallway, Jack trailing reluctantly behind.

"You look just like Jack!" Daniel blurted out ridiculously, feeling a trifle overwhelmed and decidedly nervous. "He’s got your eyes."

Neither O’Neill seemed thrilled by this comparison, weighing one another up in a manner strongly suggestive of clichéd gunfighters at high noon in cheesy westerns.

Daniel could only be grateful they were so distracted because he could not believe he'd just said that. It wasn't that he'd never noticed how Jack looked, it was just totally embarrassing to comment on it, especially in Jack's hearing.

"I see he’s got my hair now, too," Mrs. O'Neill commented dryly, quirking an eyebrow in Jack's direction.

"Mom," Jack said warningly.

"L’Oreal does a good range for men these days. You should check it out," Mrs. O'Neill advised her first-born kindly, dimpling up at him, far from adoringly.

"Mom!" Jack hissed.

Daniel had a feeling Jack's mom had just kicked Jack's ass. In less than, he checked his watch, a minute. He was conscious of a certain awe at this brutally efficient dispatch. He also felt obligated to break up the combat before she verbally disposed of Jack's smoking corpse. "Mrs. O’Neill?" he interjected, dropping his head with the kind of submissiveness he automatically accorded a charging Unas.

"Call me Kate," Kate invited him warmly, smiling up at him, once more taking his hand in hers.

Daniel blushed, very conscious of a Jackian Mack truck-like charm without the obvious malignant drawback, who was standing by the door glowering indiscriminately at them both. "Kate, may I?"

"You may, whatever you like, honey, just soon as you’ve unpacked and I’ve fed you. You look like you could use a little meat on those elegant bones. Although I will just say again what a nice bu-"

"Mom!" Jack hollered.

"Lasagne sound good?" At Daniel’s grateful nod, Kate beamed, giving his hand a small, pleased shake. Then she eyed her beloved son thoughtfully. "I’ll rustle you up a salad," she sniffed.

Cursing his mom's unerring aim for a weak spot, Jack bristled. Despite what his mirror, assorted security cameras, occasional pairs of his more venerable jeans and a happy, drunken Daniel might be insisting to the contrary, he was not getting fat.

"Make yourself useful, Jack," Kate suggested critically, clearly disapproving of his two minutes of bone-idle occupancy of her hallway. "Carry the bags up to the bedroom. Daniel is a guest." She smiled up at Daniel, whose hand she had forgotten to let go of. "I’m sorry, Daniel, you’re going to have to share with Jack. Ruth is lying in state in the spare room and the attic is being remodelled." She glanced at Jack, her lips twitching as he gathered up stray luggage. "Fortunately, it’s a queen-sized bed." Kate stole another little sidelong glance, just obvious enough to piss Jack off with it. "It’ll be a bit of a squeeze but I’m sure you’ll manage. If he crowds you, just make him sleep on the floor."

Daniel gave Jack a helpless look and tried very hard not to laugh as he trudged off towards the stairs laden down with all the bags.

Kate permitted Jack to reach the turn in the stairwell. "Doesn’t the Air Force have a strict weight requirement?" she commented chattily to Daniel. "You could drop him a gentle hint, you know. While it can all still be fixed."

They both observed Jack’s rigid back with interest.

"I know he’s getting on a bit," Kate observed brightly, "but, honestly, he’s going overboard on the middle-aged spread thing."

Daniel heard a distinct snarl from the stairs. Kate winked at him, patted his hand, and ordered him to make himself at home before swaggering off towards what he presumed was the kitchen Jack had spoken of, her work here done. Jack had had all the tender mother-son bonding he could apparently take for the moment.

He intended to follow Jack upstairs, but came to a halt as soon as he glimpsed the first of a series of photographs in its severe silver frame. Kate's face was laughing and young, a tall man with something of Jack in him smiling dazzlingly down at her and the baby in her arms. In another, the three were dressed in their best and posed stiffly, surrounded by people older than themselves. Fascinated, Daniel slowly made a circuit of the hallway, peering intently at each photo in turn.

Together, they brought this normally dead, transitional space alive. There was Jack as a small boy, his parents each holding a hand, swinging him between them, his feet off the ground and his head thrown back with laughter. There were other times, other moods, drawing Daniel to linger. He saw Jack's looks in Joe's face, his spirit and humour in Kate's eyes.

Jack wasn't the only child on these tastefully crowded walls. There were small images of Jack's son Charlie, faithfully tracking him through each of his years in school, the sequence beautifully grouped and brutally short, candid pictures of his parents nestling either side. In Charlie's round face and long, silken hair, Daniel saw Sara and felt instinctively the likeness was something Jack loved in his son.

As he climbed the stairs, the photographs showed the rising age of their subjects, some recent but all of them formal and posed. He found himself looking for Jack in all of them, a little surprised by his disappointment when he realised these weren't necessarily intimate choices. They seemed to him to be more memories of times and events, markers in the lives of the O'Neills, too important to be boxed away, maybe too well remembered to be in any other place in the house. Here they would be seen every day, glimpsed as the family passed, ready reminders for anyone who chose to linger. This wasn't the house Jack grew up in, but those times in Minnesota had a presence here. Daniel wondered how often anyone took the time to look, as he was looking now.

There would be other photographs, stronger and candid, more precious to the family because of that.

He was hungry for more, a little disgruntled when an open doorway revealed Jack in a bedroom dominated by a beautiful abstract stained glass window. When Daniel went in, he found all the furniture was mahogany, unexpectedly in the delicate Hepplewhite style, glowing with age and care. Carefully folded, an antique patchwork comforter hugged the foot of the huge bed, its intricate cream, navy and wine design mirrored in the rest of the colour scheme. It was very elegant, very restful.

Daniel thoroughly approved, accepting the inconvenient sleeping arrangements philosophically. He'd shared a tent with Jack on and off for years and was inured to being snored at, farted on, verbally abused and used as a mattress.

Jack was mechanically hanging clothes up in the armoire, his spine radiating disapproval. The silence was glacial. Daniel tried. He really tried. Then Jack bent down to retrieve an errant sneaker and Daniel lost it.

Jack wasn’t positive he’d heard right until he turned around and found Daniel sitting on the bed, chortling. He was touched, not certain he'd ever heard Daniel laugh before. He allowed himself a moment or two to savour, then resumed his allotted role in the family melodrama. "Daniel? Did you just say something about a wide load?" he asked with exquisite, freezing politeness.

The stammered 'no' from the bed was not in the least convincing.

"Daniel? Remind me to kill you at our earliest mutual convenience."

"I think I’d better. You might forget." Daniel’s voice was shaky but gamely trying to ooze innocence. "What with your advancing years and ev-ever-everything."

Jack would have retaliated physically but he knew from experience the furniture wouldn’t take it and neither would his mom. Revenge was a dish best served cold to the terminally unsuspecting. He settled in the interim for a malevolent look.

"Jack?"

"What?"

"About your mother?"

"What about her?"

"I couldn’t help but notice she’s wearing a checked shirt."

"Did you also notice she checked out your butt?"

Daniel looked shocked. "I thought I misheard!"

"Oh, no," Jack drawled. "Be afraid, Daniel. Be very afraid." He noted with a sigh that Daniel was still reading from a different script and refusing to act decently threatened to cue. "Thanks for coming with me. You’re cute and cuddly and even lower down the food chain than I am. Fresh meat. She’s going to tease the shit out of you," he gave Daniel fair warning. He felt obligated as this was exactly what would happen and it certainly wasn't his fault if Daniel didn't believe a word of what he said to him. "Now get your butt off my bed and hang up your stuff."

"Do it yourself, Jack. I’m a guest, remember?"

Daniel stretched himself out luxuriously on the bed, pillowed his head on his arms and heaved a theatrically contented sigh.

Jack kept up the petulant act until Daniel’s breathing evened out. Then he smiled to himself and unpacked the rest of their clothes without making a sound, checking back now and then on Daniel. When he was done, he crept noiselessly over to the bed and delicately eased off his glasses. He folded them and put them where they’d be obvious for Daniel to find when he was waking up, on the bedside cabinet by his pillow.

He went over to close the drapes, hoping to block out some of the afternoon sun and keep Daniel sleeping longer. Daniel stirred and Jack glanced back at him, freezing as he rolled from his back to his side, sighing as he tucked a hand beneath his cheek. The light framed him and Jack guessed he'd rolled into that spot instinctively in search of heat.

Jack stood patiently by the window, waiting for Daniel to settle into deeper sleep before he would risk closing the drapes. It was somewhat of an irony he was so practiced with this routine, putting a tricky, pouting sleeper down for a nap. It had been years, but he still had the knack.

He stayed where he was, his eyes lingering with the sunlight on Daniel's face. He could track the lines of experience there, a certain weight he understood from long experience of combat. Daniel didn't always have that ingenuous light inside like he used to, there was some bitterness there, and grief, but his energetic friend still had a capacity for wonder and compassion which could make Jack's heart skip a beat.

There couldn't be a more unlikely soul alive to be the friend Daniel was to him, the kind of friend he'd never truly had, bursting out of every neat compartment Jack would try to box him in, poking his nose into every corner of Jack's psyche he wasn't supposed to be.

Daniel broke the rules, even the ones Jack set for himself.

It was damned embarrassing Jack had been so reluctant to accept their friendship had changed. It had deepened over time, Daniel needing less of the blessed protector act from him, less of the big brother, more from an equal. Jack wasn't good at cutting ties, at letting go of anything. He wasn't so blind he wasn't aware that he was slow to adjust, he resisted Daniel's increasingly demonstrated independence in a way which troubled him. It mattered to him almost more than he felt it should.

Mostly he thought of the unquenchable innocence he valued in his innocent friend and had to watch stripped away layer by layer. As long as Jack had known him, Daniel had always been capable, but he'd grown to be hard at times, and dangerous. It didn't fit with his passion for life or the way he would tear himself apart to help people. Jack couldn't protect Daniel from that. Sometimes, he saw maturity on Daniel's face, at others, his failures. The failures, in fact, of both of them.

Whatever the cause, Daniel's face drew Jack's eyes more and more.

A shadow at the doorway brought his head around quickly to meet his mother’s shrewd, laughing eyes. She pulled a face at him and snuck over to the bed. Jack went over to join her and they stood side by side, looking down at Daniel for the longest time. Jack knew what had caused the pallor, the visible exhaustion, but he wondered what his mother saw.

He'd long believed Kate and Joe O’Neill together could fix just about anything between them if they were only given the chance. Hence the road trip, and Daniel’s incursion into the most private part of his life. Nothing in his career had ever impacted here. He wouldn’t have done this for anyone but Daniel. He hadn’t been there when Daniel lost Sarah Gardner and the last ties to an important part of his life were severed with surgical precision by Osiris and by the greed of a so-called friend. Jack wasn't there, worse, he was petty enough to cut Daniel off when he'd tried to involve him, so Daniel got to be here.

He nodded at a questioning look from his mother, and she reached out to tenderly stroke back the hair from Daniel’s brow. Then they each grabbed a corner of the folded comforter and drew it up over him. It would be hours before he woke up. Just in time for dinner.

Jack waited until they were safely downstairs and well out of earshot before he swept his mother off her feet into a bearhug. "Well, hello Mrs. Robinson!" he hissed at her, genuinely aggravated by her atrocious display in the hallway.

Kate gave him a smug look and a huge smooch of a kiss. "Nice touch, wasn’t it?" She then missed severity by a mile as she demanded, "Put me down this instant. You’ll crack a rib."

Jack put her down, puffing like a bellows. "Only one of mine, Mom," he said meanly. "You must've been living on peach cobbler since my last visit. Oh, and, Mom? Nice butt? Nice butt? I nearly died. Daniel nearly died when he realised he did hear you right."

Kate gave an evil chuckle as she led him by the hand into the kitchen, casting exaggeratedly adoring fifties sit-com mom looks up at him. "I know," she purred. "You could have warned me! He’s drop-dead gorgeous. I could eat him up with a spoon. I’ve already told your father he’s sleeping with number one son while I get to snuggle up with Daniel. I could do with a sexy boy like him. Brighten things up around here."

An equally evil, baritone chuckle sounded at the kitchen table. "Isn’t one enough? Speaking of which, have you been to see your Aunt Ruth, yet, Jonathan?"

Kate elbowed Jack in the ribs when he failed to respond.

"Ow! Jeez."

"That’s you, Jack. Remember!"

"I’ve never answered to Jonathan in my life!" What stupidity had led him to enlist his folks as co-conspirators in the first place? He should only be grateful he hadn't come home to find them both in costume.

"About time you made a start, then, son. Jack conjures up such images of youthful vigour and - "

"Can it, Mom!" Jack said rudely.

Kate stalked over to the stove muttering darkly under her breath about ingrates, the sharpness of serpent's tooths and bosoms. "I get no respect," she complained.

Joe folded his newspaper and stood up slowly. Jack waited tactfully until his father had his cane in hand and was steady on his feet before heading over for a markedly less exuberant but no less affectionate hug.

"Welcome home, son," Joe said softly. "From what Kate tells me, you did right to bring that boy to us. We’ll do for him what we can."

"You don’t mind, Dad? Never brought work home before this." That was an understatement. Until Daniel Jackson erupted back into Jack's life, Kawalsky, his best friend at that point, could've been forgiven for thinking Jack came out of box this way.

"Well, I understand my role in this stirring family melodrama is ‘Domestic Tyrant’. Better brace yourself for some tyrannising, my boy. I’ll be showing no mercy."

Deciding fighting his mother's penchant for dramatic embellishment and overblown lily-gilding would be an exhausting and ultimately futile effort, Jack confined himself to a wry grin. "Looking forward to seeing you in action, Dad. Won’t be for long, I guarantee it." It probably wouldn't be kind to suggest his Dad would crumble and fold as soon as he laid eyes on the boy. "Daniel is a very bright guy. A genius in fact," he hinted, tactfully laying the groundwork for a graceful out for them when they inevitably, and no doubt rapidly, got busted.

"Genius?" Kate’s inquisitive voice rang clearly out of the pantry.

"Daniel is a Doctor of Archaeology. And of Linguistics. He speaks twenty-three languages. With appalling fluency and staggering-"

"Be nice, Jack. So, he’s way smarter than you?" Joe’s voice was amused.

"Much prettier too!"

"Thanks, Mom. Can’t you even try to behave like a normal car pool kinda mom? For the sake of my sanity." Jack hesitated. He had a question for her. "Er, why are we sharing a bed?"

"We figured he could hold Ruth down while you made a run for it," Joe suggested sweetly. "She's feeling frisky."

Jack refused to dignify that with any kind of response, leaving his father victorious on the field of verbal battle. Plus, he wanted to see for himself how Ruth was doing. He was on the shady side of forty and killed people for a living, and the folks still flannelled him automatically. His mom still thought he had a bedtime. Ruth at least would tell it to him straight, at length, and in excruciating detail, if she felt like shit.

When he was certain Jack didn't have any kind of comeback, Joe smugly retreated to his newspaper.

There was a moment of silence.

Two voices chorused as one, "Archaeologist?"

Kate emerged from the pantry, clutching flour and eggs. "Jack, you did warn him about Ruth, didn’t you?"

Jack squirmed, as aware as anyone there were limits to his communication skills. "Not every little thing," he said sullenly. He got identical disbelieving looks from both his parents. "Daniel expects he'll like her. He's looking forward to meeting her, in fact," he insisted defiantly.

Kate gestured vehemently to high heaven. "Sometimes, I find it hard to believe you and I are in the same damn gene pool, Jack, my boy. He’ll probably take one look and try to stuff her back in the nearest sarcophagus." She dumped her ingredients and headed off for more, still muttering darkly. "Mama O’Neill didn’t raise no fool. Oops. Silly me. Of course she-" The rest of this embittered pronouncement was fortunately obscured by Kate delving into the depths of the pantry.

Jack shot a guilty, slightly apologetic look at his father.

"Did you mention ‘The Little House on the Prairie’?" Joe asked sternly.

 

 

Daniel was awakened by the indefinable feeling of being watched. He opened drowsy eyes into late afternoon sunshine slanting through a gap in the drapes and found himself face to face with Queen Hatshepsut. The mummified version.

Coal black eyes twinkled out of a wizened face. "Hello, Gorgeous."

Given he was the only one in the room, Daniel didn't feel able to evade this appalling appellation. "Um, hello yourself."

"Ruth," the mummy greeted him, smiling. "Come over here and give me a kiss."

As usual, Daniel found himself unable to deny his O'Neills anything, decided Ruth was his type of person, scrambled carefully out from under the hand-sewn comforter and planted a sound smacker on her nut brown cheek. "You have an extremely handsome face," he admired with sincere admiration. "Queen Hatshepsut was a Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, a master politician with enough charisma to kick Egyptian ass for twenty years. You look remarkably like her."

"Only if she looked like she’d been dead for a few years, honey."

Daniel grinned.

"Is my Jack with you?"

"Oh, yes. He was around here a minute ago." Daniel looked around vaguely.

"A few hours now. You’ve been sleeping like a baby. Looked like you needed every minute. Come and see my room," Ruth invited him. "You could give an old lady a hand, if you like. I’ll keep mine to myself, I swear to god, no matter what he told you," she reassured him.

Daniel leant support with alacrity. "He?" He found he was interrogating the top of Ruth’s head. She was even smaller than Jack’s mother. He escorted her tenderly out of his room and along the landing to hers, wondering why Jack had been keeping this amazing lady all to himself when he had to know Daniel would be…

He stopped in his tracks when he took in the décor in Ruth's room. He turned fascinated eyes on his hostess.

Ruth gave him an evil grin. "I’m eighty-two, Gorgeous, and my plumbing ain’t what it used to be. If it’s a choice between the senior citizen’s centre for bingo, or torturing my only living relatives, well, what’s an old lady to do?"

 

 

Daniel came lightly down the stairs two at a time and followed his nose to the heavenly scent of simmering coffee and freshly baked cake. Chocolate cake. In his opinion, these were fabulous people with a keen grasp of the essentials of life.

He insinuated himself shyly into a beautiful, homey kitchen. A huge oak table, which presently held Jack, Kate and an older man he took to be Jack’s father, dominated. He smiled in their direction but couldn’t stop looking around at the room. Gleaming copper pans hung from a rustic pole, pots of fresh herbs were stacked in the bay window, a comfy couch heaped with cushions where a reader could catch the light, an honest-to-goodness pantry side-by-side with a modern range. Not an ugly appliance in sight. It was the heart of this home.

"Shaker?" he genuinely admired the exquisite craftsmanship. "I think you’ve got it just right. Modern in execution, but the classic simplicity is preserved."

Jack was alarmed at a very familiar stance. Daniel was going into his infamous lecture mode. He shot him a repressive look which he completely ignored.

Daniel stroked his fingers down a silken cabinet door. "The early Colonists and Shakers used a formula which dates back to ancient Egypt, you know," he said enthusiastically, unable to resist the urge to torture Jack a little. He didn't want him getting complacent just because they were on vacation. "They coloured their furniture and interiors with a handmade paint made from milk protein, lime, earth pigments and clay fillers. I’m so glad you went for the traditional finish. It makes all the difference."

Jack watched without any surprise whatsoever as another O’Neill went down like a ninepin in the face of the truly supportive. He knew this would happen. His father’s smile was ear to ear. So much for the resident Domestic Tyrant.

Correctly interpreting Joe's modest look, Daniel took a quick, delighted step forward. "You built this?" he asked eagerly. "You’re very skilled. All the hard work this must have taken has more than paid off. I'm no expert on interior design but even I can tell the texture is perfect."

Joe was clearly gratified, starting the slow haul to his feet.

Jack knew he could rely on Daniel to get it just right, which he did, chattering amiably on about the Hepplewhite upstairs without any sign he noticed Joe’s painful attempt to get up or worse, thought he should rush to help. Joe hated that kind of officiousness. He had recovered well from his stroke, better than anyone except perhaps Joe had predicted, refusing to let his mobility problems impact significantly on his life and the hobbies he loved. His workshop was state of the art and he made full use of all the assistive technology and modified tools he could lay his hands on.

Jack shuddered as Daniel made all the right noises. Hepplewhite? Dear god. He never ceased to be amazed by the inexplicable things Daniel knew.

As soon as Joe was set, he stuck out a hand and engulfed Daniel’s slender fingers. "Dr. Jackson," he beamed. "Pleased to meet you, son. Let me just show you the pantry," he urged, imperfectly concealing anxious pride. "It’s my best piece, got the idea from, er." He shot a guilty look at Jack.

"Call me Daniel," Daniel invited gently. "I know your source of inspiration, Mister," he correctly interpreted a ferocious scowl and smoothly changed social gears, "Joe." He waited until he was almost at the pantry door and Jack had slumped against the table to deliver his coup de grace on Ruth's behalf. "Speaking of which," he said brightly. "Oh, Manly?" He could hardly get the name out, it was so horrifically unlikely.

He watched gleefully as Jack froze, then he failed to die on the spot as Jack’s eyes were so clearly demanding he did.

"Manly, Laura says hello," he reported dutifully, hoping he was getting this right. "She’d like you to go up and see her, as soon as you can. You’ve been away working the railroads so long."

Ruth was evil. Absolutely evil. Daniel adored her and knew no hesitation in signing on as her chief acolyte and devotee. It took a massive personality with a vast appetite for life to keep Jack O'Neill helplessly in thrall and Ruth's approach was entertainingly insane. She enjoyed herself hugely tying Jack into helpless, seething knots.

There was a fair bit of unseemly sniggering from the older generation of O’Neills as Jack’s deepest, darkest secret was revealed, leaving him squirming for their enjoyment in a familial Kodak moment.

"I’ve never even seen ‘Little House on the Prairie’," Daniel admitted. He'd been ruthlessly drilled by Ruth to impart the little he had. "The collection Ruth has amassed is very impressive." Much of it purchased for her delectation by her die-before-he'd-admit-it besotted nephew. "Museum quality." He could pay no higher compliment.

Watching his son, Joe was shaking with barely suppressed laughter. "It’s harmless enough and it keeps Ruth happy."

Happy was not quite the word Daniel would've used.

"Very happy," Kate agreed, chuckling malevolently. "Now her best boy is back in town."

Jack had one of those ‘wish the floor would open up and swallow you whole’ moments. He scowled after Daniel’s retreating form and was easily able to ignore the enthusiastic carpentry commentary coming from the pantry.

"He’s a really nice boy," Kate sighed admiringly, coming over to sit by him and give him another kiss. "Just lovely. A credit to-"

"Himself," Jack interrupted with surprising heat. He gave his mother an apologetic look. "His parents died when he was eight. He was fostered after that. He doesn’t talk about it."

"Or about a lot of things, I think," Kate recognised shrewdly. "Like someone else sitting not a million miles from here, sulking like a two year-old just because his great auntie by marriage is delusional and feels him up from time to time." Then she slapped his reaching hand. "Leave the cake alone. It’s too close to dinner. You’ll ruin your appetite."

Jack nursed his stinging hand. Kate had reflexes which would make Teal’c get all pensive.

The moment Joe was settled back at the table, Daniel sat down too. His gaze went straight to the cake. "Chocolate fudge?"

Hopeful blue eyes cut through Kate’s resolve like a blowtorch through soft butter. "Can I warm that for you?" she coaxed, caving without shame or hesitation. "We have some fresh cream." She peered over at the formidable fridge, nibbling her lip. "Or ice cream. A nice scoop of classic homemade vanilla," she decided. "And coffee too, of course."

Daniel sniffed the rich meaty scent of the kitchen. "Isn’t dinner nearly ready? Um." He was somewhat at a loss to deal with this slightly aggressive hospitality.

Jack watched indignantly as his own mother gave Daniel an indulgent, ‘got to fill a growing boy’ kind of look, ruffled his hair and trotted off to fetch provisions. Then she trotted back with the steaming coffee and a slab of cake which would have choked a starving python. It came with an ocean of fresh cream and, erring on the side of clogging Daniel's arteries, two lavish scoops of ice cream.

Daniel applied himself to the cake vigorously, and after the first few bites, ecstatically. In fact, he kept closing his eyes and making appreciative "mmm" noises which he took care to aim in Jack's direction across the table.

Jack wasn’t dumb enough to think for a heartbeat this meant he had permission to eat cake, with or without artery-clogging accompaniments. He wasn’t about to risk it. Bad enough Daniel knew about Ruth’s ‘Little House’ fixation without having to watch his best friend and erstwhile team leader get taken out by his own mother.

As ritual humiliation was heaped upon ritual humiliation, it struck Jack as being absolutely, utterly gooned out of his tree whacko he could think for even one second bringing Daniel here was a good idea. His credibility would not survive this. He knew how susceptible he was and he was made of much sterner stuff than his folks. Their standards were so low they even loved him, for cryin' out loud. Not enough to refrain from sacrificing him in their competitive efforts to entertain their guest, of course. There were limits to family loyalty.

The only plus Jack could see was that Daniel wasn't going to know what would keep on hitting him until he was on the plane home.

Daniel serenely ate the most extraordinary chocolate cake he’d ever tasted in his life, under the doting gaze of the two elder O’Neills, and the frankly hostile gaze of the younger. Served Jack right, getting him here under false pretences.

"Can I paint you?"

He looked up at this, surprised. "Kate?"

She smiled at him, for the first time appearing a little embarrassed. "I’m an amateur artist," she confessed.

"Kate is entirely too modest," Joe said proudly. "My wife has had quite a few paintings exhibited in local galleries and even in a special display of work by local artists at the Art Institute, Daniel."

"I'd like to see your work, if I may?" Daniel was savouring these revelations. He wondered if Jack appreciated how fortunate he was in his family. They absolutely loved him to death or they wouldn't tease him so relentlessly. He grew up with every rich thing Daniel had lost beneath a falling cover-stone in New York. "I'm loving hearing about all your creativity," he confessed shyly. Kate promptly kissed him.

"What about archaeology, Daniel?" Joe asked interestedly. "I don't know much more about it than we've seen on the History Channel."

"Which is peopled by talentless hacks and their loony tunes populist tabloid fodder," Jack interpolated cheerfully. "To paraphrase an opinionated archaeologist, sitting not a million miles from here."

"Jack says the same about C-Span," Daniel chose to share.

"And he's not a doctor of anything," Joe noted.

"To answer your question, Joe," Daniel decided to draw paternal fire meant for Jack, "My area of expertise in both archaeology and anthropology is linguistics. My research specialises in the study of ancient writing systems and languages. Technically, that's known as philology."

"There is absolutely no need for you to explain what that means," Jack insisted.

"I'd be happy to explain about philology." Naturally, there were limits to Daniel's altruism. "In as much detail as you'd like."

"We'd be happy to have you explain," Joe urged, backed up by Kate's vigorous nod.

"Philology is the science of language," Daniel began in his best 'once upon a time' tone, smiling. "It's the study of etymology, grammar, rhetoric."

"Rhetoric?" Joe perked up. "I've seen the term here and there but never got what that means."

"Oh, please!" Jack slumped pitifully, groaning.

"Rhetoric is the theory and practice of eloquence, whether written or spoken," Daniel supplied cheerfully.

"Really?" Joe was fascinated.

"Think used car salesmen," Jack said sarcastically.

"Rhetoric is an art," Daniel acknowledged Jack's point. "That of using language to persuade others."

After taking a moment to absorb this, everyone looked at Kate. She preened, graciously accepting the implied compliment.

"I'm fluent in twenty-three languages, some dead, both written and spoken, but my opportunities for artistic endeavour outside of calligraphy are limited," Daniel said with a faint sigh. "I can make accurate sketches of artefacts, dig sites and architecture, and I do a lot of rubbing." He took a few appreciative sips of excellent coffee. "Pictograms, runes, glyphs."

"Backs."

Kate and Joe frowned at Jack. Daniel did too.

"Hey, he never goes anywhere without his Zips Muscle Rub. The average field archaeologist spends more time rubbing stiff necks than a physiotherapist does."

They continued to look at Jack.

"They dig stuff up. On digs." Jack made a little shovelling gesture. "That's why they call them," he trailed off, apparently sensitive to atmosphere. "Digs," he muttered under his breath. His parents looked expectantly at Daniel.

Daniel shook himself and picked up where he left off. "Plans, whether hand or computer rendered. Structural representations," he said dismissively. "I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. Unlike Jack."

"Jack?" Kate was astonished.

Jack sniffed disparagingly. He was thinking of withholding his presents as a protest at his inhumane treatment by the regime.

"He brought you a present," Daniel announced. "A bowl he made for you. A peace offering, he called it. But I guess he managed to successfully negotiate a truce while I was, um, resting my eyes."

"Snoring like a buzz saw," Jack corrected snappily. "He has allergies, that’s all," he added hastily, as his mother’s fulminating eye suggested he’d better not criticise dear little Daniel anywhere near her.

"You're not very good at this," Daniel informed them, with a fugitive grin.

"Correction," Jack smirked, jerking his thumb at the folks. "They're not very good at this. I, on the other hand, am more than good enough to have got you to the Windy City in one piece and with the minimum of whining."

"I was lulling you. I never bought that line about your parents being, um," Daniel hinted slyly.

"Your parents?" Kate prodded Jack.

He scowled at her, rubbing his arm.

"Your parents?" she repeated, finger poised to prod again.

"Jack implied you were," Daniel paused for effect. "Difficult."

"Difficult."

"Isn't that kind of pot and kettle, son?" Joe asked dryly.

"Jack's cover story was pathetic. Every time he embroidered the original tissue of lies, he contradicted himself," Daniel said unkindly.

"He just thought you’d like us, and you do, don’t you, darling?" Kate asked him winsomely, feeling the need to reach out and touch, taking Daniel's hand again.

Jack watched smugly as Daniel tripped all over his own tongue in an attempt to convince the folks, yes, indeed, he liked them just fine, even if they were terrible amateur thespians.

"And you’re happy to be here with us?" Kate had big brown eyes and she knew how to use them to devastating effect. "I know we’re happy to have you. Aren’t we, Joe? Jack?"

Joe happily agreed and Jack managed a vague, resentful ‘what he said’ grunt. Truly the latest dumb idea in a depressingly long line of them.

"So can I paint you? Would you mind?"

"Okaaay," Daniel consented cautiously, looking extremely nervous. "Where? Er - how?"

"In the attic," Kate smiled sweetly. "In the nu-"

"Mom!"

"New," Kate went on smoothly, "fisherman’s sweater I bought for Jack. It’ll be a little big for you, but that’s just fine. The cuffs will fall down over your hands." She glanced down at the elegant hand in hers and smiled. "Did you bring any jeans?"

Looking slightly alarmed, Daniel nodded.

"Yes? Great." Kate eyed Daniel judiciously, suppressing an attempt to break free of her finger lock. "Bare feet, I think" she decided. "I’ll give you the sweater when we get up in the-"

"Mom!" No way was Jack letting Kate romp around the attic with a half naked archaeologist.

Kate scowled at him. "Morning!" she finished with a snap. "If that’s okay with you? Jack?"

"I’ve never posed before," Daniel confessed shyly. "What do I have to do? Will it take long?"

Jack could see Kate was sorely tempted but she sighed and allowed artistic integrity to force her into making a tragic admission.

"Not that long, just the morning. We’ll find the right pose for you, I’ll take some photographs, rough out some sketches. My work is impressionistic. I’ll find a suitable backdrop for you." Her voice trailed off, musing. "A cliff’s edge, by the sea. Just gazing into the distance."

Daniel had always associated himself with the desert, never with the sea. He honestly didn’t know what this image suggested to Kate. Maybe he’d have to see it to understand.

Jack was cringing. Daniel poised on the edge of a cliff? Great image to take to bed with him. This would really help with all the sleep he wasn’t going to get, what with Daniel’s sinus problems and all.

Daniel suddenly brightened up, shooting him a sneaky look. "Jack’s bowl is impressionistic, too."

 

 

"Can I come in?" Daniel peeked around the open bedroom door.

Ruth looked up from her nest of pillows, responding with a gamine grin and a wave of her TV remote. She patted the bed invitingly and Daniel sat beside her, looking over in some awe at the lavish home entertainment centre and the vast wide screen TV. He was fascinated at the surround-sound gunfire bouncing off the walls, glancing questioningly at Ruth.

"Look at those muscles," she breathed reverently.

Daniel looked at a confusion of khaki, sweat and dirt, gritted teeth and big guns. "Whose?" he asked, perplexed.

Ruth hit him with the remote. "Zeke!"

"Um." Daniel looked at the flying body parts on screen again.

"You may be gorgeous, sweetheart, but, damn, you're slow," Ruth sighed. "Him!" She jabbed the remote in the direction of someone with a bandana tied like a sweat-band around his brow.

"Did they have a war in California?"

Biting her lip, Ruth hit him again. Daniel winked at her and settled back against the padded headboard.

"That's Vietnamese rainforest," she corrected him with a patronising sniff, as if it were self-evident.

Daniel looked at some stripped, grimy trees and dry grasses. "Nooo," he said slowly. "I know Vietnamese rainforest and this isn't it."

"Agent Orange," Ruth insisted defiantly. "Only you can prevent forest!"

"Have you ever seen what Agent Or-?"

Ruth clapped her claw-like hand over Daniel's mouth. "Will you just stop yakking and suspend your disbelief, already?" she demanded. "I'm trying to watch, here."

Daniel took her hand from his mouth and held it gently between both of his.

Ruth, apparently willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, graciously refrained from wielding the remote in his direction. She snuggled back into her pillows, her handsome face relaxing into a broad smile, her sharp eyes melting. "He's da man," she confided chattily, making a little 'fanning self' motion as her eyes dwelt with fond lust on a large, muscular body.

Daniel, who'd watched TV with Jack on any number of occasions, wasn't fooled. He kept his mouth firmly shut and kept patting Ruth's hand.

"Myron is hot too," Ruth commented as a fair-haired boy got shot and tumbled to the ground. "But he looks like he's barely out of high school and I'm not a total pervert." She gloated loudly when her manly sergeant rushed to the boy's rescue. "His girlfriend was a complete bitch. I cheered when they offed her. Always rewind and replay that scene with the doohickey so she dies slower," she said nostalgically.

During the commercial break, Daniel saw the name of the show he was obediently being baffled by, noted a fat run of videos on the shelves but decided it was a minor detail, unworthy of comment. Ruth was enjoying some lingering butt shots and what she described as snugglin', with much winking and nudging, and he was enjoying Ruth.

He was surrounded by exquisitely hand-crafted rag dolls of the Little House characters at various ages, a doll's house replica of the Little House itself, all the books, the books about the books, the complete video collection, including reunion specials, embroidery samplers, cross-stitch pictures of illustrations from the books, sepia reproduction photographs of Laura and her beloved Manly, as a girl with her precious family, and in a jointed wooden frame in pride of place by Ruth's pillow, a handwritten letter from Laura herself in one half, and in the other, a photograph of Ruth's much-worshipped husband.

Ruth's world had become very small, with the echo of many losses, but it was a world she filled with love and passion for all the life her frailty allowed. There was an unhealed wound where her husband had been, the only children she had were those she taught, but those spaces she filled too, as best she could, with Kate and Joe, and her darling Jack. She was a scrapper, zestfully playing her wicked games and taking great joy in her small, frequent victories.

Daniel thought she was a very great lady, even if she was a pervert with an unhealthy interest in his thigh.

"You don't talk much, do you?" Ruth complained as the credits rolled. "Doesn't exactly make for scintillating company, you know. You'd think a nice boy, visiting with a tired old lady, he'd put in the effort, offer up a little in the way of conversation."

She had the same attention span as Jack, too.

 

 

"You make your own pasta, Kate? I'm impressed."

"I also grind my own beef," Kate told Daniel happily.

Jack coughed slightly. This was not strictly accurate. His mom had kept him pretty busy while Daniel was napping.

"Jack helped," Kate acknowledged grudgingly.

"I don't see any cartons," Daniel blinked in exaggerated confusion, peering at the pristine kitchen counters.

"Wiseass," Jack complained lazily, too full of homemade everything to fight, even if he was the one to make it. "For your information, I pasta'd, ground, chopped, seasoned, layered and grated. I also mowed, raked, chopped, weeded, vacuumed and dusted."

"Chopped?"

"Tomatoes, herbs and logs."

"I supervised," Kate winked.

"Criticised," Jack corrected.

"That was a, that was a long nap," Daniel said guiltily, very embarrassed.

"If you slept, you needed it," Ruth shrugged.

"And Ruth should know. She's an expert napper," Joe snorted, amused. "It's like she flicks a switch and goes out like a light."

Ruth looked modest.

"Usually when we want her to do something she doesn't want to do," Kate added dryly.

Ruth's sly face said, 'of course.'

"I know the feeling." Daniel shot a bland look at Jack.

Jack held up the ice cream carton and waved it temptingly. Ruth's face brightened greedily and she slid her crystal sundae dish across to him.

"You've had enough," Kate warned. "Both of you."

"Cream with that?" Jack enquired as he lovingly nestled a generous scoop of café au lait richness in the dish.

"Mmm!"

"Selective hearing, too," Daniel commented to the table at large. "And knees," he added vaguely.

"My back can also be tricky," Jack reminded him, with an eye to future exploitation of his infirmity.

"Weather and activity contingent," Daniel finished with a grateful nod to Jack.

"Activity?" Joe was curious.

"Pitching tents, digging latrines."

"Ah."

"These kinds of activities only seem to happen to other people."

"Sounds like Jack and high school," Joe snorted.

"Oh, let's not go there," Jack argued at once.

"Let's!" Daniel pleaded, entranced.

"I never really embraced high school," Jack announced as if this was all there were to it.

"Nor did I," Daniel asserted, to everyone's surprise.

"I thought you were a geek!" Jack objected.

"Well, you act the archetypal 'dumb jock'," Daniel countered a trifle coldly.

"Boys," Kate warned them crisply. "Play nice."

"I loved to learn. I loved to ask questions. I preferred to make up my own mind how I thought and felt about things," Daniel shrugged.

"A good teacher will foster talent and originality," Ruth, once a teacher herself, spoke up. "And always encourage honest endeavour and passion regardless of the ability of the student."

"Not all teachers are good," Jack said. "Some of them just want more miles to the gallon until they get their pension."

"Not all teachers are willing to have their assumptions challenged or are prepared to defend their position," Daniel added. "That isn't about learning, merely discipline."

"In a perfect world every child would embrace their education, give all their attention and commitment and hang on the words of their inspiring teachers," Ruth said wryly. "This is a far from perfect world. Control is a necessity and discipline must be imposed to create an environment where you make it possible for those who wish to learn to do so without harassment."

"Harassment? That’s something teachers don't necessarily want to see, let alone act on."

"I agree with Daniel on that one." Jack responded automatically to some hopeful craning towards the ice cream carton, obligingly sliding it in Daniel's direction. "Some teachers are also less concerned with maintaining control than with exercising power. They're the ones who do the harassing."

"Fear is never conducive to learning." Daniel tilted the almost empty ice-cream carton towards Kate and gave her an expectant look. She rolled her eyes, which he took to be permission to pig out. He shoved his sundae dish out of the way and launched into an excavation of the carton. "Whether it comes from the students or the teacher."

Jack grinned as Kate's eyebrows went up. "Daniel never forgets his point. Doesn't matter how long you think you've kept him distracted or what you've distracted him with. As soon as you shut your yap, he opens his and picks up right where he left off. It's a gift, and a damned annoying one."

"Were you bullied at school, son?" Joe gently asked Daniel.

"Let's just say I'm not your stereotypical pacifist," Daniel replied uncommunicatively. "And I don't care for labels or the people who apply them."

"Ouch," Jack winced, stung by the blunt condemnation and aware it was probably intentional.

"Did I not just hear the phrase 'dumb jock'?" Kate wondered aloud, before Jack could think of anything to say.

"No, you heard the phrase 'acts the archetypal dumb jock'." Daniel was unmoved by the implied criticism. "Which he does, for reasons no one but he can fathom."

Jack winced again and avoided his mother's eyes. "Didn't I say he never loses track of an argument?" he grumbled. "He calls me an ass, you know," he complained, looking for allies.

"Only when you act like one, and even then I don't apply it as a label," Daniel briskly rebutted this accusation. I say, 'don't be an ass,' not 'you are an ass,' Jack."

"He has an ass," Ruth said fondly, responding to the only word which mattered. "A great one."

"There are no labels for you!" Jack shuddered. He had an ass, alright. A bruised one.

"Our boy wanted the Air Force," Joe said with a smile, also keeping track of his original point. "He always wanted to fly."

"Jack applied himself to what he needed to get him into the Academy and blanked the rest," Kate sighed. "High school was a means to an end, nothing more. PTA was always a minefield."

"Dogs were always my favourite people." Jack felt this personal philosophy needed no further explanation. Dogs forever.

"Interesting you chose to exchange one institutionalised closed society for another," Daniel was intrigued.

"No," Jack took instant exception to this insulting assessment, which was only accurate in sociological terms. "It isn't. It's simple. I like having fun. The Air Force is lots of fun."

"It also has lots of rules and regulations which aren't flexible or weather contingent," Daniel reminded him. "Or fun."

"Did I mention the nagging persistence?" Jack muttered out the corner of his mouth to an attentive Joe.

Joe glanced involuntarily at Kate but heroically refrained from comment. She scowled at him anyway, knowing an insult when she didn't hear one. "We were proud of Jack," he hastily changed the subject. "Even though he loathed high school with every fibre of his being, he turned up most days and got through it without killing anyone."

"Which is more than can be said for every mother's son in Alida," Kate said proudly.

"Alida? She's referenced in one of the Belpre Legends from Puerto Rico, the Legend of the Hummingbird," Daniel babbled out on automatic pilot, perking up. "It's a very romantic-"

"We do not need to know this!" Jack objected loudly.

"Yes, we do," Kate corrected him. "Romantic?" she prompted hopefully.

"You see what he's like?" Jack appealed to his father, a sensible man. "You see how impossible it is to have even the simplest conversation with him without it turning into this? Pointless crap you don't want to know and didn't dream existed?" This didn’t have quite the effect he hoped.

Joe's eye brightened. "You do crosswords, Daniel?"

"No, I'm sorry, Joe, I don't. Not really. I've spent half my life studying the written word and I find there's no real challenge for me in a crossword. It's the same with word games, like Scrabble, unless you play with Jack's rules."

"Do I want to know?" Kate asked rhetorically, giving Jack a shuddering look.

"I didn't," Daniel assured her.

"I have a Scrabble board in my closet," Ruth smirked at Jack. "I guarantee I'll kick your ass, whatever you think the rules are."

"Well, it would make a nice change from pinching it."

Daniel was starting to think his view of family life was perhaps a tad idealised. Or maybe just young. Maybe, if they'd lived, he and his parents would have reached a point where there was so much love and trust, such a deep bond, it was beyond expression. Except through gratuitous insults, expert aggravation and tangential, subtly layered squabbling.

He felt out of his depth here. For the first time, he understood how Jack could feel such certainty in his identity and his place in the world. He'd never lacked for validation; there was an affection, a protective empathy and generosity here Daniel couldn't remember. He was just too young when he lost it.

It was difficult for him to imagine a life without walls and defences, an, in his experience, necessary distance. Jack and his family, they were one, a whole, so much a part of each other it hurt him, some, to see it.

He was afraid he was falling a little bit in love with these people.

 

 

"Why exactly did you bring me here, Jack?" Daniel’s voice was very quiet.

Jack glanced down at his best friend and bête-noir, currently sprawled all over the bed. Barefoot. In jammies. Cute, baggy, navy tartan fuzzy flannelette bottoms which hung low on his hips and a clinging t-shirt with Road Runner on the front and Meep Meep on the back. Quite a lot of respectable muscle showed.

His mother had lingered over her goodnights. He’d finally had to evict her, uttering a slightly dazed, "Oh yes, bare feet, definitely the way to go," as she went. It had looked for a while as if force would be necessary. He was going to insist on chaperoning the arty stuff. He didn’t trust his dear old grey-haired mother an inch.

If he didn’t know the folks were spooning up together right now? Sometimes it was impossible to cope with the fact his parents were still like honeymooners closing in on forty-eight years of marriage. It made him feel, well, inadequate wasn’t too strong a word.

Right now, it helped him put his mother’s little crush into perspective. Plus, he wouldn’t put it past her to be working him up deliberately. After dinner tonight, Daniel had a pretty good notion Jack O’Neill had learned his trade at the knee of a master. And occasionally on it.

"Jack?"

"Scoot over, big guy."

Jack stretched out and made himself at home as Daniel curled up in a ball, cheek resting on his hand. He always looked ridiculously young without his glasses, and when you added low riding flannel to the mix, it all got kind of disturbing. Jack kept catching glimpses of a smooth, sculpted abdomen and didn't know where to put himself. Downstairs on the couch seemed like the best plan. He felt - weird. It made him conscious of the usually comfortable silence and he found himself spouting forth without a clue where he was going.

"Daniel, just listen, okay?"

He was greeted by silence.

"Okay?" Jack stirred him with a gently nudging knee. The silence became slightly more receptive.

"Did you eat good food?"

"Fabulous food." Daniel was emphatically grateful for this.

"Did you like the folks?"

"Loved them." There was a slight pause. "Um."

"I know what you mean."

"No," Daniel disagreed gently, surprising him. "No, I don't think you have a clue."

It was beginning to seem that way to Jack, yes. Daniel's bright enthusiasm of earlier seemed to have evaporated and he wasn't sure why. "Was this a mistake?"

"Not a mistake," Daniel sounded melancholy. "I'm sorry, Jack, really, I just seem to have a lot on my mind."

"Maybe bringing you right back to Chicago wasn't such a swift idea," Jack acknowledged ruefully, knowing he'd pushed it. "Steven Rayner didn't even get out of hospital yet, did he?"

"I don't want to think about Steven."

There was something in Daniel's voice which made Jack straighten up. "Daaaniel?"

"I'm, I'm pretty sure he killed the lab technician, maybe the curator too."

"Isn't Osiris the obvious suspect?" Jack asked, startled by this unexpected accusation.

"Obvious? Yes." Daniel turned fully onto his side, facing Jack and too close, actually too close to him. "I was there when Osiris found the email from the lab technician, Jack. He was as surprised as I was by the results of the carbon dating analysis and the fact they'd gone to Steven as well as Dr. Jordan. He was thrown by it, as if it weren't something he'd planned for. The Goa'uld," Daniel hesitated, searching for a way to put this, "they just aren't that subtle."

"You really know how to pick 'em, Daniel." Somehow, Jack couldn't bring himself to doubt this was exactly what had happened. Rayner's reported epiphany in Osiris' tomb in Egypt probably had more to do with Daniel's influence with Hammond and the Air Force keeping him out of jail than any genuine desire for reconciliation.

Jack filed this information away for future reference. He would need leverage if Rayner made waves about what he'd seen. He would bury the sonovabitch if he had to, murderer or not. Rayner disappointed Daniel and that was enough for Jack. Daniel had been disappointed by too much in his life for Jack to tolerate it.

He didn't care how that looked, not to anyone.

"Apparently," Daniel snorted with a flash of grim humour. "My career effectively ended five years ago by any standard my colleagues knew, Dr. Jordan was dead, and Steven was still obsessed with beating me. I don't know, Jack." Hurt bewilderment sounded in his voice. "I don't know what I could have done to have earned such enmity, then or now."

"Do you mind an opinion?"

Daniel's brows went up quizzically, though his eyes very soft, shining in the lamplight.

Jack shifted uncomfortably. "You're better than he is," he said flatly. "Better than all of them."

"That's not what you-"

"I know what you do," Jack cut him off. He wanted to make a point here, not bicker. "I know what you're capable of. Believe me, I know. It's at the back of my mind every time we gate out, exactly what you're worth to the SGC."

This seemed to be news to Daniel, who wasn't sure how to take it.

Jack wasn't sure either. He'd just opened his mouth and launched in without any kind of a game plan. "Hammond was right about you, you know. About your expertise being too valuable to risk and needing you on base to advise the other teams."

He could see Daniel was getting pissed, reading this as a judgement, which in a way it was.

"The thing is, I'm right too," Jack went on. "I need you on SG-1. The team doesn't function without you."

Daniel's mouth fell open and he flushed painfully.

"You won't tell anyone I?" Jack hinted uncomfortably. Got mushy. Whatever.

"They wouldn't believe me," Daniel said depressingly.

"Cheap shot, Daniel. Cheap." Jack was stung, again. Uneasily aware that the closeness he and Daniel shared made any estrangement between them, on any level, painfully apparent to the base. More people seemed to watch the two of them than SG-1. "I don't know Rayner. Going by report, I don't want to know him. It doesn't change the opinion of a relative outsider that he's jealous of you." Daniel's relationship with Sarah Gardner was an obvious bone of contention, but Jack was oddly reluctant to bring her up. It was precisely because it bothered him he asked about it.

Daniel frowned, seeming to give the question weight before he shrugged it off. "Our relationship ended badly," he admitted stiffly.

Jack was embarrassed by his avid, immediate curiosity.

"And I was gone for years. Sarah - Osiris said Sarah had looked for me on the fringes of the profession and found no sign. There was nothing to threaten Steven, no indication from either of them they'd ever developed anything more than a friendly working relationship." Daniel looked wry. "To be honest, Sarah was as competitive as Steven. They were far more interested in their relationships and relative positions with Dr. Jordan than they were in each other."

"Uh," Jack said edgily, aware he was inching out onto extremely difficult ground here. "It might not have been you Rayner was jealous of."

Daniel didn't seem able to make sense of this.

"It might have been her. Sarah." For a moment, Jack wished he didn't sound so grudging when he said her name. Daniel had feelings for her one time and she was gone now. He could afford to be more generous. "It might have been."

Daniel opened his mouth to fire back an instant rebuttal, then subsided, red-faced and uncertain. He was also pretty annoyed with Jack for making him go there.

"After five years, the guy was still fixated," Jack pointed out. "I'm not even going to pretend that's healthy, but it sure explains why-"

"I get the point!" Daniel interrupted with a flare of irritation.

He was as uncomfortable as Jack, who couldn't help but think he'd crossed a line here. "I'm sorry I wasn't there," he apologised stiffly. "I should've been with you."

"I don't need you to hold my hand, Jack," Daniel contradicted, annoyed. "You're my friend, not my keeper."

Right out of the blue it occurred to Jack this was exactly what he needed to be. Feeling in his gut this was at least part of the truth, he changed the subject at once, feeling almost panicked. "Did you drink fine wines, enjoy good conversation, and generally chill out this evening?" he asked in a jarring change of subject.

"Er - yes," Daniel said awkwardly, seeming as glad to let it go as Jack and about as quick to make the conversational shift.

"Did you scarf down about a gallon of home made café au lait ice cream after you’d already eaten half a chocolate fudge cake and two helpings of lasagne?" He obligingly joined some dots for Daniel, health-wise. "After which blow out, is it any wonder you now feel kind of weird? Given you’ve been living on caffeine and adrenaline alone for days? And of course, being you, you have to share the weirdness."

Daniel ignored the petty and unanswerable.

After a short pause, Jack heard a muttered, 'You’ve got great ‘pecks,' and was grateful to Daniel for following his lead as soon as he came up with something to say, even though he must be wondering what the hell was going on with Jack. "Daniel, if you want to live ‘til morning, cut the mother hen cracks, okay?" he responded with obvious effort to an obvious prompt, ambushed by awkwardness. "I know it wasn't a brilliant idea to bring you right back here but I figured you'd like my parents and I, well, I ignored all the rest."

A swift sidelong glance revealed a mutinous archaeologist, one stubborn finger tracing the pattern on the comforter over and over.

"Same old, same old," Jack sighed. "So it was a dumb idea to ignore anything. I feel crappy, all right?" he apologised roughly. "I wasn't there when all of this went down and this is my way to, er."

"Apologise?" Daniel's eyes were filled with sly, sudden humour.

Jack grinned ruefully, a little relieved, recognising this particular expression. "Jeez, you’re gonna make my life a living hell over this, aren’t you?"

"It’s in my job description," Daniel replied demurely.

Jack's grin steadied. "I know it. Given all that good stuff, Daniel, can you think of one single reason why I shouldn’t have brought you home to the folks apart from the simple fact they live in Chicago?"

"Cornucopia," Daniel said obscurely.

"What?"

"The pattern on the comforter. Cornucopia. The horn of plenty."

Jack didn’t follow the connection, he rarely did, but he knew Daniel well enough to know he’d just surrendered his advantage on this particular argument.

Which was as it should be. Every O’Neill in this house knew what was best for Daniel, way better than Daniel knew what was best for himself. You just had to sneak it up on him. Jack reached out and ruffled Daniel’s hair, which was something every O’Neill also knew on some genetic level annoyed the hell out of him, and hit the light switch.

"Sleep, Daniel. That’s an order."

"Go to hell, Manly."

Jack grinned, recognising this as sheer bravado. Daniel was already getting drowsy and yawning, he’d just never quit unless he had the last word. So Jack kept his yap shut, wondering if he'd cleared up anything or just confused them both further, and glad Daniel was too tired to really fight.

Beating Ruth's record for speed-sleeping, Daniel rolled cosily into Jack, throwing an arm heavy across his chest, seeking a closeness he'd never admit to when awake.

Jack was tired, and Daniel, even clingy and snoring, was familiar. He should've been able to melt into an easy sleep but he wasn't comfortable, he couldn't rest until his arm found a spot which fit, curled around Daniel's waist. Blanking his mind, he held him and didn't sleep for a long time. He wasn't a fool and keeping his gritty eyes shut was easier for him than staring into the face he was drawn to.

He didn't need to be told how impossible it was. How necessary he clung to his illusions of friendship. There could be nothing more. There shouldn't be.

He was still drawn, though.

 

 

"Good morning." Daniel hesitated in the kitchen doorway, the picture of schoolboy guilt.

Jack glanced at the clock, waited a beat, then called out a cheery greeting which belied his restless night. "Good afternoon, Daniel. Sleep well?"

"Sorry."

"Jack." Joe’s mild reproof sounded from behind the newspaper.

"Hello, Gorgeous."

The rest of the O’Neill’s watched in stupefaction as Daniel kissed Ruth enthusiastically on the cheek.

She patted his cheek gently and sighed. "You’re a good boy. Sit here by me."

Jack shook his head in disbelief as Daniel promptly settled down beside her, proving yet again he had less sense of self-preservation than a depressed lemming. Fortunately, Ruth was just holding onto his hand. It could be worse. Much worse. Jack now had matching bruises on his cheeks.

Kate shot Jack a wicked look and closed in on Daniel for a kiss too.

Ruth grinned. "A rose between two thorns."

Both she and Kate sniggered.

"I’m a terrible guest," Daniel apologised profusely. "All I’ve done since I got here is-"

"Talk," Jack supplied helpfully.

"Sleep and-"

"Talk."

"And eat is what I was going to say. Stop putting words in my mouth, Jack."

"The problem isn’t so much putting words in your mouth as it is getting them to stay there."

Kate’s smile never faltered as she kicked him on the shin. Jack yelped as Daniel crossed his arms in front of his chest and smiled sweetly at him.

"Jack, did I mention I promised Ruth we’d take her to the Oriental Institute this afternoon? She wants to see the treasures from the royal tombs of Ur."

Jack was speechless with indignation. The sneaky little shit. He couldn’t possibly refuse if Daniel was willing to go back to the very museum which kicked off the whole miserable Osiris business in the first place, not after all the stupid stuff he blurted out last night. He also took the point very well. Daniel was prepared to enjoy himself this weekend just so long as Jack let up on the attempts to nanny him. Enjoy himself at Jack’s expense, that was.

"Ur was fabled as the city of the Sumerian moon god Nanna and the traditional home of the biblical patriarch Abraham," Daniel explained kindly. "I’ve got lots of interesting things to tell you about the exhibits, which I’m sure you’ll enjoy hearing all about."

Jack was going to go down fighting, but he knew he was going to go down just the same. "Even these treats in store don’t tempt me to-"

"Feel like some company, Daniel?" Joe asked mildly.

"Mmm, please, honey. I've never been around an archaeological museum with someone who knew what they were talking about." Kate was enthusiastic. "The painting can wait ‘til tomorrow, Daniel, darling, if you’re still up for it."

"If he gets up for it," Jack said sourly.

"The Oriental Institute have a fabulous collection of cylinder seals and vessels made from stone, metal and shells," Daniel said brightly.

Jack smiled sickly, seething as he was neatly outmanoeuvred and definitely outnumbered. "Can’t hardly wait."

"We can also check out the new Egyptian gallery."

Jesus. Saturday afternoon in a museum with the folks, a horny old lady and a talkative archaeologist with a score to settle with Jack for being nice to him.

"Jack can make himself useful and push your chair, Ruth," Kate volunteered him.

Ruth leered across the table at him. Jack barely repressed a shudder. Daniel and everyone else beamed at him. They were gonna eat him alive. He could just tell.

"Who’s hungry?" Kate asked cheerfully.

"We just ate!"

"Well, the way you keep packing it away, son, I guess you won’t-"

"Gluttonous!" Joe called out triumphantly. "Thanks, Kate. That clue was driving me nuts. Daniel, what’s another word for dense? Eleven letters, got a couple of ‘t’s in there."

Daniel eyed Jack thoughtfully. "Substantial."

Jack sighed, forced to resist the urge to retaliate in case the folks escalated. "Dad, I got thirty four across now. It’s ‘wretched’."

 

 

"The great lyre is one of the masterpieces of the exhibition. Most of the lyre is made of plain wood, but the front bears a magnificent bull's head above a series of shell plaques decorated with figures of heroes, animals, and composite creatures. The bull's head is made of precious materials laid over a wooden core."

Daniel paused. Jack guessed it was just because he needed breath for the rest of it. He was going to explain how the bull's head was constructed. Jack knew this. Daniel made his teeth ache just like damp made his trick knee.

"A gold sheet was used to form most of the head and horns. The curls of hair on the forelock, the tips of the horns, and the curls of the beard are fashioned of lapis lazuli, which, in the case of the beard, is set in a silver backing. The eyes are made of shell set in lapis with lapis pupils."

Jack sidled a step further away from Ruth’s wandering hands and listened to Daniel droning on and on without a blink. He was tapping into the reserves of patience he usually associated with mission surveillance. This meant he was building up to some explosive action and someone, namely Daniel, had better damn well be moving when he reached boiling point, otherwise said someone was going to die. Slowly, painfully and with astonishing imagination.

They all regarded the Great Lyre.

"Yep. Definitely bull."

They all regarded Jack with varying degrees of disappointment.

"You should know, hon," Ruth drawled. "You’re full of it."

Jack watched his adoring, happy, hysterical family with a jaundiced eye as Dr. Jackson’s credentials tragically saved them from summary eviction. He had to admit, delusional or not, the horny old harpy could still nail a punchline every damn time.

Any more of that and Ruth could push her own damn chair.

 

 

Despite coffee and pastries in a café near the museum, Kate seemed convinced Daniel faced imminent starvation so they headed back. Kate also insisted on driving, which meant Jack was stuck in the back with Ruth sandwiched between him and Daniel. More against him than Daniel, he couldn’t help but notice.

Ruth was obviously having one of her on days and was chattering away with Daniel as they walked up the garden path. Since she’d been a French teacher he couldn’t follow a damn thing they were talking about, but after an admiring glance in his direction from Ruth, he picked out a word. Hottie?

"Il est un tel Hottie. N'est-ce pas Daniel?"

"Je ne crois pas y avoir jamais penser de cette façon auparavant." Daniel had never thought of Jack in precisely those terms, no.

"Regarde ses fesses! Elles sont tellement fermes. Est-ce surprenant que je ne puisse m'empêcher de les toucher?"

Daniel briefly inspected the portion of Jack’s anatomy currently under discussion. Buns of? Well, yes, they did do a lot of walking. It kept things, um, toned. And he had noticed Ruth couldn’t keep her hands off them, true enough.

"Mutin."

"Daniel." Despite himself, Jack couldn’t help sounding a warning when Daniel sniggered.

"Ruth was just saying you’re, um, pert," Daniel explained.

Pert? Jack wasn’t really prepared to aggressively tackle any conversation between his dotty aunt by marriage and his best friend and teammate, not one in which he figured prominently as a hottie. He knew perfectly well Daniel would lie without shame if he called him on it and then tell Carter when they got back.

"Flippant?" he offered a cautious synonym.

Daniel rigorously suppressed another snigger. "Perky."

After the long night he'd had, trying to sleep and not managing well, this was too surreal for Jack. His own thoughts about Daniel had been difficult and ultimately, not all that different than this. The thing of it was, he hadn't seen a funny side. What he saw was a world of hurt unless he got a lid on this. Seeing Daniel as attractive was one thing, that he could live with, but feeling attraction?

Unable to face the usual round of good natured bickering, Jack walked away and left them.

 

 

"My theories on the age of the pyramids weren’t popular. I lost my research grant, everything. I was - My last lecture didn’t go well. I wasn’t looking forward to the eulogy. Not in the least. I was expecting hours of pitying looks and contempt."

"Spurious sympathy," Kate snapped, her eyes flinty.

Daniel sighed. "Exactly."

Joe poured out another generous glass of burgundy for Daniel, which made Jack wince. Daniel and alcohol did not go well together. Hence the current confiding mood.

"So Jack came with you?"

Daniel looked up with sparkling eyes. "Full dress uniform, sunglasses, attitude, the works. Intimidated the hell out of everyone in there."

Jack failed to look modest but had noticeable success with gloating offensively. "I destroyed them," he announced smugly. "Absolutely destroyed them. By the time I’d let them clue in on Daniel’s job security, limitless funding, access to all the biggest and best toys?"

"And being important enough to rate having Jack as my bodyguard."

"They were losing the will to live."

Kate headed off to retrieve the desserts.

Jack took a few sips of wine. "Especially that guy, what was his name again?"

"Doctor Dawson. He was hinting about jumping on the bandwagon and Jack told him."

"We don’t take applications." Jack finished triumphantly.

Joe’s shout of laughter brought Kate hurrying back.

A little of Jack’s current good mood had to do with Ruth being worn out by the alleged excitement of the museum and going to bed with a bowl of chicken soup. A lot to do with Daniel being so relaxed and maybe, by Daniel's standards, happy. He was certainly communicative, and that wasn't just the wine.

Kate had been busy while Daniel was sleeping. The dessert had been made entirely in his honour.

"It didn’t stop there, though, Jack had to - o-oooh!"

Jack indulgently enjoyed Daniel’s open mouthed astonishment. "Jeez, you’d think nobody had ever made you a chocolate pyramid before."

"No trouble at all once I’d made a mould," Joe said, carefully casual.

"The filling is coffee mousse. Jack said you’d like it," Kate fussed. "It was this or?"

"Ruth in chocolate body paint," Jack interrupted flippantly. "Like the chick in The Mummy, y’know?"

"That wasn’t funny the first time, Jack," Joe said severely. Then he grinned at Daniel. "Ruth taking him up on the offer was damned funny though."

"Jack jumping two feet in the air was even funnier, Daniel," Kate added with a derisive snort. "All those finely honed survival instincts? Phooey. He was whining about even a rattlesnake giving you some warning."

There was a breathless hush of anticipation as Daniel excavated the pyramid with the respect it deserved.

"Belgian chocolate." Kate emphasised.

The very first taste utterly blissed Daniel out. He lost it completely in sensory overload. Kate and Joe beamed as he closed his eyes and just let the chocolate melt on his tongue. "Mmm."

"Colombian coffee beans."

"I can tell," Daniel breathed sincerely. "This is wonderful. Thank you."

"Sick to my stomach here. Two days with Daniel and we’re turning into the Waltons," Jack mourned.

"No fear of that, Jack," Daniel said wickedly. "Grandma never felt up John Boy that I can remember."

Jack cuffed him gently round the head, then succumbed to irresistible temptation and laughed too.

Joe was curious. "What did Jack have to?" He waved a ‘you know what’ hand, "At the eulogy?"

Daniel sighed.

Jack’s face darkened. "Let’s just say as the drink flowed, and the word of Daniel’s good fortune spread, the mood graduated from pity to out-and-out resentment in some quarters."

Daniel shot Jack a mischievous look. "Somebody dared to use the phrase ‘sell-out’ in Jack’s hearing. The fallout wasn’t pretty."

"I never touched him," Jack insisted.

"You didn’t have to. You just loomed. In an unmistakeably and increasingly menacing manner."

"Well, he might be able to pull off menacing," Kate sniffed, eyeing Jack's reaction to this extremely critically, "but modest is totally beyond him."

"I allowed my body language to imply a threat I was more than willing and able to make good on if anybody wanted to take the discussion outside. Which they didn’t." Jack’s voice was not wholly free from regret. "I merely did my duty as Daniel’s bodyguard," he added virtuously.

"He enjoyed himself hugely, ruthlessly intimidating an entire room full of archaeologists," Daniel hooted disbelievingly. "He had a blast. I sensed a definite personal agenda. Jack got more and more outrageous as the night wore on. It was, it was primal. Despite pretty much being what Jack was loudly commenting they were, they were still smart enough to recognise an apex predator when they saw one. Especially once he decided we needed to circulate. After a few preliminary skirmishes, my esteemed colleagues in the Society for Archaeological Sciences tried to flock together for safety, then scattered whenever they saw Jack swooping down on them, picking off the strays."

"The terminally unsuspecting or downright aggressive. Culled neatly from the flock." Jack’s smile was wolfishly satisfied. "Survival of the fittest and all that. Very Darwinian, very scientific."

"He kept making provocative comments like, 'Oh yes, I thought that was an excellent point when Dr Jackson first made it, three years ago.'"

"Had you?"

"Not in that case, no. But he said it with such superb conviction." Daniel rolled his eyes in pained remembrance. "I made a fatal error later and showed him my invitation to the AGM of the Society. It’s normally just a standard circular but mine had a memo attached, stating any military escort would be deemed acceptable, except Colonel O’Neill. They mentioned him by name, three times, in as many paragraphs. He sulked for days when I refused to attend."

Jack looked wounded, glancing appealingly to his parents for support. "He also refused to nominate me as an Associate Member of the Society."

Daniel ate some more of his pyramid, then responded to the blank looks. "Clause 13, sub clause 5, of the Society’s constitution, allows for final appeal, in person, before a quorate panel at the AGM if membership is refused. Which in his case was a foregone conclusion. He was strongly drawn to that."

"Democracy at its best." Jack gave them his best grin and vigorously attacked his pyramid, smacking the spoon down, dramatically flattening the fragile chocolate. He then ate it with relish.

Daniel winced.

"Jack is very talented," Kate marvelled, watching this display. "All he’s doing is eating, and he’s still managing to annoy everyone else in the room."

"Multi-tasking." Jack sent an exploratory spoon out towards Daniel’s plate. "You gonna eat the rest of that?"

"Yes. I’m savouring."

Jack struck.

"Jack!" Daniel howled, outraged.

"Too slow, kid. Too slow," Jack gloated, flaunting his stolen piece of Daniel’s pyramid.

"Hey! Give that back!"

"Isn’t that what the chieftain said to the archaeologist?"

 

 

There were ways to make the archaeologist talk.

Jack needed the right ambience. Having said archaeologist snuggled up next to him in his jammies, slightly drunk, very relaxed and still on that post-pyramid chocolate high was a good start. Jack put his own troubles down for the moment and made the effort to do what he brought Daniel here for.

"I didn’t forget, Daniel," he said, very gently.

"Hmm." A drowsy murmur.

"It’s been a year. I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten."

Timing. Timing was everything. Jack waited patiently, knowing Daniel’s guard was as down as it was ever likely to be.

"I still miss her." Daniel’s voice was soft. "Every day."

Aah. Caught him on the cusp of sleep. Despite himself, Jack's fingers were tangled in the rumpled softness of Daniel’s hair before he could stop himself. "I still miss Charlie," he confessed, shaken by an affection he never used to question. "Every day."

"Does it get better?" Daniel asked with gentle curiosity.

"You learn to cope better," Jack said cautiously, unwilling to offer any more comfort than this. He wasn't the best one to ask. He was never sure how well he healed or if forgetting was better than forgiving. He still didn't know which was letting go. "Give it time. It’s only been a year."

"Yes. One. Just one." Daniel’s eyes remained closed for all his fierce emphasis. It was difficult for him, to even think that Sha'uri was gone a long time, that there had never really been hope.

It was difficult for Jack too. He was the one who made the rash promise, the one Daniel believed in, trusted implicitly to help him find Sha'uri. She was free now, but the price paid by those around her was as high as her enslavement.

Jack continued to stroke his hair. "You never gave up, Daniel."

"We," Daniel corrected him automatically.

It warmed Jack right through. "Just wanted you to know, Daniel. Nothing’s forgotten."

"No, Jack. Nothing’s ever forgotten."

Jack sat beside his best friend, lulled Daniel to sleep under the steady, comforting pressure of his hand. It was all in the timing. Or maybe, it was just in the caring. This was clean and good, this was what their friendship was supposed to be, the reason he'd been able to let Daniel get so close to him. Neither of them found it easy to talk, but they did talk, to each other.

It was a long time before Jack was able to move his hand from Daniel's hair.

 

 

"It’s falling off me!" Daniel was irritated.

"I wish," Kate sighed gustily.

"Mom. For the thousandth time," Jack protested wearily.

Kate just winked at Daniel.

Daniel was well aware blushing only made Kate tease him all the more. Unfortunately, knowing this wasn’t the same as being able to do anything about it.

"It’s huge." Daniel fingered a cuff tentatively. The sleeves were so long they were spilling down onto his hands. Maybe if he turned them back? "Ow!" He shook his stinging hand. "I’ve seen snakes strike slower than you do, Kate."

Jack was not without sympathy. "I keep telling her a firm ‘No!’ will do it every time, but does she listen?"

"It’s supposed to be huge, Daniel. It’s for Jack. He’s taller than you."

"Only by two inches," Daniel muttered resentfully in the direction of the big, handsome All-American, annoying as hell hero.

"Two inches can make all the difference," Jack smirked on automatic pilot.

"And the sweater will cover a multitude of sins," Kate offered absently.

Jack rolled his eyes heavenward and stalked over to the window seat. "Okay to sit here?" he asked his loving mother with awful sarcasm.

"Yes, love, perfectly okay." Kate sounded very distracted. "I’ve had the joists reinforced."

Jack froze for a moment as Daniel snorted explosively, then sat down with a solid thump, glaring out of the window. Daniel was glad he wasn’t the only one suffering here.

"Shoes, Daniel!"

"Er, I thought perhaps not?" Daniel protested feebly, struggling to resist Kate's wiles.

"Shoes." Kate was inexorable. "Glasses, too."

Daniel reluctantly removed the offending items.

Jack was staring out the window when he heard Daniel ask carefully, "Kate? Er, what are you, er, doing?"

"You’re supposed to be windswept."

"Oh."

Then Jack turned around and settled down to enjoy the show, horrified but mesmerised. Kate had a firm grip on Daniel’s chin and was using it to turn his head this way and that while she mussed his hair. Jack noted she seemed in no particular hurry. No hurry at all.

"How old are you, Daniel? You’ve got skin like a baby’s bu-"

Even the glare scorching across the attic didn’t stop Jack’s voice shaking with laughter. "Thirty-four." He’d have to remember that one.

"Really? You don’t look a day over twe-" Kate subsided as Daniel’s furious eyes dared her – dared either of them - to finish that statement. She gave him an insouciant little pat on the cheek and headed over to grab her camera.

Daniel folded his arms over his chest and scowled.

"Keep that pose but lose the pout, Daniel. Try for pensive." Kate was in full artist mode, which was actually no more nor less commanding than her usual mom mode. "Lift your head, stare off into the distance. Mmm," she murmured appreciatively. "That’s it."

"I’ll be staring right at Jack the whole time if I stay like this. He’ll just keep pulling faces or something, distracting me." Daniel wouldn’t put it past Jack, he could be alarmingly juvenile sometimes.

"Go away, Jack," Kate ordered at once, an unspoken 'or else!' colouring her tone.

Jack settled himself more comfortably.

"Bare feet, you have very elegant hands and feet, Daniel," Kate praised him with matter-of-fact rapidity, "jeans, fisherman’s sweater. Arms crossed." Kate darted forward, and twitched an errant hand into the perfect spot. "Hugging across the chest. Nice." She tilted Daniel’s chin just a tad further. "Face, pensive, yes, hair, windswept." She sighed. "Just beautiful." She raised the camera. "Stop laughing, Jack. Why are you still here?"

"I’m not about to leave Daniel in his hour of need," Jack replied glibly, blandly ignoring his mother's scorching look. "He’s too young and impressionable to leave alone with an old reprobate like you."

Kate stuck her tongue out at him and started taking pictures from every conceivable angle.

Daniel gazed at Jack and wondered how hard it was for Jack to be here, in a house full of pictures and memories of his son. Whether he was able to talk about Charlie with his parents. There were pictures of Charlie, of Jack with Sara, candid photographs of them as a family, different than Jack's few snaps and portraits. Daniel knew those. Sometimes, after a beer too many, Jack didn't want to forget. He would talk of his son, his life before. The weight he carried, never leaving him. He never did truly forget. Daniel's grief was different but as always they found a common ground, an understanding which didn't need talking through. Comfortable silence could be enough.

It was hard for Daniel not to be curious, to wonder if Kate and Joe respected Jack's silence or if he could talk with them for their sake. He'd come to think of Ruth's man-eater act as a uniquely creative and loving distraction. Her antics filled up a lot of time and empty space for Jack whenever he was with his family, time he wasn't dwelling in the past. Ruth knew what it was to yearn that way. Daniel understood it too.

There was no immediacy of grief here, as in the home Jack used to share with Sara, the home where Charlie died, but Daniel was sure the grief here ran just as deep. He wondered if Jack knew how lucky he was to have people like this, loving and supporting him without limit or question. He couldn’t help but smile, though it was bittersweet. He'd never walked into a foster home and just connected with the people he found there. He was used to having to work, to give something of himself, however small, and then to move on.

He felt, a little, that Jack didn't truly value the permanence of his parents' love. In some ways, Daniel was still angry with his own parents for the choices they made. He was part of their life, they made room for him, but he was only a part and not always the most important. Daniel knew love, but he also knew a place. He knew limits. All in all, there had been less love in his life and more limits and he could give, he could trust himself more easily than he could take.

It unnerved him, how much he took from Kate and Joe, and Ruth, how unthinkingly, overwhelmed by their emotional generosity.

He took more from Jack, more than from anyone. Demanded it, almost. Jack was, Jack was different. There was no way for Daniel to quantify this and he had tried, on occasion. He'd simply grown to accept and even to rely. He wasn't comfortable with needing Jack, but they were so bound up in each other, there was no walking away.

Most times, it was worth his risks. Most times. Jack was Jack. His friend.

Jack returned Daniel’s sudden shy smile. He’d certainly managed the pensive look Kate wanted. No wonder, with the most important person in his life so much on his mind.

Jack turned his head to the window and remembered Sha’uri with the same sense of regret and resentment he always did. It was terrible and he knew it, but he'd come to wish she'd been killed outright in the beginning, in the raid on Abydos. He had lost much of the value he once had for her, she had become less real to him than Daniel's pain without her. He was glad, he was very glad and relieved Daniel sensed none of this, that he could reach past it when he had to, as he had last night.

He hadn't seen the two of them together, not really. What he'd seen most was Sha'uri's need, her insecurity. Daniel loved her but it wasn't enough, not for him, not for her. Not for Jack. Right from the start, he hadn't trusted the feeling Sha'uri wanted him to see.

Were they a threat to one another, even then? On some instinctual level had they always known they wanted the same thing? He looked back at their reunion and all he saw was Daniel, his reaction to him. Skaara had faded from a memory sharpened by loss, no longer overshadowing subtler emotions.

Jack was uncomfortable, questioning, and not liking the answers he was beginning to find. He knew where he stood, here, even if he didn't know or maybe wouldn't let himself know what he wanted. To break with Daniel was as impossible as pushing for any deepening of their relationship. He told himself he didn't want that, it wasn't that way, but the voice in his head spoke by rote, lacking all conviction and his eyes returned again and again to Daniel's face.

 

 

Kate was engrossed, developing her photographs, so Daniel had been despatched with orders to eat and rest, otherwise he’d have her to answer to. He was drawn along the landing by the cadences of Jack’s voice. They’d lost him an hour ago to a querulous complaint from Ruth.

He hesitated, then cautiously crept into the open doorway. Jack sat in the fragile chair by Ruth’s bed, holding a claw-like hand in a comforting clasp, patiently reading.

"’Sing, Carrie!’ Laura said hurriedly. So Carrie began to sing, then Mary’s sweet soprano came in.
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand
And cast a wishful eye
On Canaan’s bright and shining strand."

Daniel found himself staring at Jack's face, a little breathless at the tenderness he saw. Jack's was a strong face and handsome, lived in, lined, humorous and as vivid as his personality. It was a face Daniel knew better than his own, one he'd seen ugly with anger, harsh with contempt, sly with humour and sarcasm. There was so much Jack felt and hid and it was only in moments like this, when he was with certain people or when he was unwary, his true warmth shone. Daniel was attracted to all these qualities in Jack, to all his contradictions and his complex humanity. He had always been.

Jack looked up, shooting a comically long-suffering look at Daniel, waving the book in evidence.

Daniel took the hint and left him to it, wondering if he’d ever get to the bottom of Jack. He’d done nothing but complain about and to Ruth all weekend and yet here he was, reading her a children’s story without a hint of reluctance, giving it his all, just because she wanted him to.

Jack was so good at giving of himself, at sharing comfort, it seemed churlish to refuse it. Jack thought of others, he cared for them, but his care also spoke to a deep need within him. Daniel couldn’t bear to have a wound touched, but he also couldn’t deny Jack anything he could give him as a friend. If Jack needed to share, it behoved Daniel to accept without making Jack work so hard for it. SG-1 were family after all, as real to Jack as this family was becoming to Daniel. Maybe it wasn’t the American dream nuclear family, but it was pretty good nonetheless. It just meant Jack had three kids, one of whom was twice as old as him, one twice as smart as him, and one he got to enjoy himself hugely treating like a kid whenever he could get away with it.

Three kids? Well, three point five if you counted Junior.

Feeling he was falling deeper in it every moment he spent in this house, Daniel went downstairs to find Joe, wanting to ask about Jack, when he was young, before he was a soldier. It seemed Jack barely remembered that person, had buried him. Joe would know, and he would talk, in a way perhaps Kate wouldn't. Joe teased, but he saw a man when he looked at his son, while Kate saw and felt for her darling boy.

Joe looked up from his newspaper when Daniel went into the kitchen, his lined, tanned face softening into a warm, genuine smile which reminded Daniel irresistibly of Jack. There was a certain look he got, a, a melting warmth in his eyes which went with this smile. Seeing the self same look on Joe's face shocked him into belated recognition this was a smile Jack only ever had for him. He couldn't imagine how he'd never seen this before. Jack was, Jack was different with him.

Daniel felt the worth of this, guessing Joe's reserve went as deep as Jack's. There was a line Jack let no one cross, a line he drew emotionally. On one side, he kept his buddies, at a safe, discreet distance. On the other, there was, really, there was only Daniel.

"Slipped your leash, son?" Joe asked teasingly.

Joe's seemingly casual affection reminded Daniel immediately of General Hammond. What sounded unthinking was far from it, for both men.

"Feel like taking a look at my workshop?" Joe offered, clearly taking advantage of Kate's absence, telegraphing a wary glance at the open doorway behind them.

"I'd be honoured," Daniel said sincerely, accepting the implied compliment. A man's bond with his tools was near sacred. He'd made a good impression, somehow, and he was grateful for that. There was nothing more painful than effort at liking. It could never be missed. Perhaps that was why he was so sensitive to the faint but discernible shift in his friendship with Jack. Something was causing them both to lose their balance, making them both work just a little bit, and he wished he knew what it was.

He followed Joe out onto the wide deck, not slowing his pace, but going ahead to poke around, check things out, exciting bursts of alien colour in baskets, pots, beds. He saw a lot of structure in the garden, a lot of depth to colour and texture, pleasing lines which drew the eye first one way and then another. He babbled on almost at random about what he liked, enjoying the way Joe would light up and launch into a detailed explanation, or would deflate and frown, questioning any creative choice insisted on by the nagging, absent Kate.

There were more complex, knowing rivalries than that between parents and son.

"You're still in love," Daniel blurted out, then felt ridiculous.

Joe didn't rush to answer, he never did, he merely went on walking with his usual care, a reflective face and a warm, broadening smile. "We feel more all the time," he decided, "not all of it good," he added with a rueful chuckle. "There are times I could kill Kate, times she drives me right out of the house. We fight and mean it, knowing which buttons to push, which words hurt the most." Joe reached out, hugging Daniel's shoulder as they walked. "The truth is, we're so tangled up, I'm not sure anymore where one of us ends and the other begins. Kate isn't part of my life, she's part of me."

"I've never had that. I've never known that emotional depth," Daniel faltered, more moved than he could adequately express. He'd never had the time, never loved anyone long enough to learn to know them the way Kate and Joe knew one another. Daniel was always adjusting. Sometimes, he thought his stubbornness came from the many compromises his life had caused him to make just to get by. He was never entirely sure of his place and his values were his core, his certainty.

"You're looking in the wrong place," Joe advised him with gentle conviction. "Give it time, Daniel. It'll come."

"It's not a priority." Daniel shrugged deprecatingly. He did just fine on his own, and preferred it that way, when Jack let him.

"Life has a nasty habit of surprising us, son," Joe commented with fond exasperation. "People have been trying to explain that since they could walk upright and string two grunts together to form a sentence. Where do you think religion, mythology, philosophy and science came from?"

"I'm sorely tempted to answer that, Joe. I could. I could answer that." Daniel stuffed his hands under his armpits and tried hard to look at all the pretty flowers. "Talk about throwing down a gauntlet," he grumbled.

"You're a good boy." Joe patted him. "And you could always take a later flight."

"We're talking days, not minutes."

"We have webcam."

Joe took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door of his workshop, a small, solid, single story building with plenty of windows and light. Daniel followed him in, looking around with interest at a vast array of impeccably organised tools and equipment, little of which he could identify, crammed into every conceivable nook and cranny. The totality should have been chaotic but it was perfectly ordered, the things used most found easily to hand.

"I tinker," Joe noted modestly.

"I wouldn't describe it that way." Daniel leaned against the workbench beneath the window, looking around. "Jack isn't creative, at least, he doesn't have that consuming drive."

"He never was," Joe grinned. "He liked living things best of all, he liked always to be outdoors. He was nuts over animals, especially dogs. He was always out of the house, up a tree, on his bike, in the lake or on the dock."

"I'd love to tell you I don't mean to pry." Daniel swung himself up to sit on the bench as Joe carefully sat on his stool.

"That's okay," Joe said easily. "Pry away. The one thing we never tire of in this house is talking."

"Jack liked the outdoors?"

"He roamed around in a pack with his buddies, would stay outside as long as we'd let him. He fished and swam, hiked, climbed, hunted. All the usual stuff boys did growing up in rural Minnesota."

"He never really embraced school?" Daniel prompted.

"Oh, he was bright enough."

"He's very good at hiding at that," Daniel noted with a sigh.

"Always was," Joe said dryly. "It used to drive us nuts. We'd talk with his teachers and hear about a different boy than the one we knew. Jack was always sociable, always looking to have fun, more interested in hanging out with the other kids than in anything he was supposed to learn. He got by in his classes, always did just enough to get the grades he needed, but he didn't care and it showed. He had a lot of charm, though, enough his teachers liked him even if he was a smart-aleck pain-in-the-ass."

"What about sports? Did he excel at those?" Daniel was trying to puzzle out what attraction school had had for Jack, what had made it bearable, if not necessarily enjoyable for him. He wasn't quite ready to accept Jack could be so ruthlessly pragmatic. He'd chosen the Air Force, which Daniel knew prided itself on the intellect and sophistication of its career officers, and placed great value on continuing education and training. If Jack loathed learning as much as he professed to, then he had the greatest discipline of anyone Daniel ever knew to subject himself to lifelong learning, to not just succeed but excel so far as the Air Force was concerned, without taking any joy in the process at all.

"I always used to think he liked the teams more than the sports," Joe remarked. "I don't think that's a bad thing and ultimately, the Air Force didn't either. Jack was never the star, he never had that kind of talent for any specific sport, but he played most team sports and was good at everything he did, he was tough and aggressive, he was smart, and when he talked, the other guys listened. He had a real way with him."

"He still has it now. That belief and commitment to a team would mean a lot to the Air Force," Daniel agreed. "There's a special skill in leading a unit, in drawing the best from people in terms of their talents and commitment, in trusting those under your command enough to let them do their thing. Jack is the best at that."

Joe was smiling at his enthusiasm. "He's still a smart-aleck pain-in-the-ass," he translated without difficulty.

"Yes."

"With charm."

Daniel was a trifle embarrassed it showed.

"I think our boy was smart enough to learn early on in life that playing dumb was the smartest thing he could do."

"I think I agree with that assessment, Joe."

"He cared about people, though," Joe said reflectively, looking up at Daniel. "I think it worked for him as much as that charm of his. He would stick up for anyone who needed it and never faulted anyone who couldn't fight that I recall. It was only on paper he was ordinary, Daniel. He always did stand out, he had something about him which was different from anyone else. He was buddies with a lot of different boys, he had time for 'em all. His mother was proud of him for that, for not letting anyone tell him who he should like or what he should do to fit in. I used to think he made the other boys fit him."

Daniel had long experience of Jack's charisma and the unexpected benefits it reaped. One of the greatest of them was Teal'c's presence on SG-1 and the friendships he shared with each of them.

"Jack had a lot of flaws but there was always good in him. He knew what a coward was and it wasn't the boy who couldn't fight or believed it wrong to, it was the bully, the boy who got others to do the dirty work for him. He would not abide that."

"You sound as if that isn't a random example," Daniel prompted, finding all of this familiar, reassuring even. No one could know Jack better than Joe and Kate did and it made him feel more confident in his own perceptions of his friend to know they were shared.

"Oh, my boy got into some fights, alright." Joe shook his head heavily at the memories.

"He won't leave anyone behind," Daniel offered. "It's one of his core values, part of what makes him who he is. It's not something the Air Force hammered into him, it comes from Jack and he believes it so completely, he influences everyone around him."

Joe nodded thoughtfully at that. "That's about the long and short of it," he agreed with a smile. "He almost got himself expelled one time, fighting, and it was only the fact he took on a gang that kept his butt in school."

Daniel had taken on gangs, he remembered being taunted, being harrowed, being quiet at first and when that didn't work, he would fight back with words, baffling the rising aggression when he could. He stood his ground and he measured strength differently from most of the boys he knew. Dignity was important to him, more important than pride. At times he felt as if he spoke a different language than anyone he knew. It was Jack O'Neill who understood him, who communicated understanding more than he ever did agreement. And yet, for all their seeming opposition, the radically different expression of their beliefs, at their heart, they were the same.

"Don't hate me for saying this," Joe grinned. "But it makes Kate and me happy that Jack knows a man like you and to see for ourselves how much you value him."

"He's my friend."

"That's real important to us." Joe began a careful climb to his feet. "Jack always had all the time in the world for the kids he hung out with, he brought them home and we fed them after practice, let them hog our TV and wreck his room, but it always seemed to us there were a lot of kids he knew, too many for any of them to be close. The house was always full but he never did have that one boy, the one he could talk to."

"Not everyone does," Daniel said quietly. He'd never thought of it in quite these terms but he was glad their friendship was as unique to Jack as it was to him.

 

 

Jack had finally gotten Ruth off to sleep. He was going to have to hurt Daniel severely if it got out Colonel Jack O’Neill had been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it could have been much worse. Ruth was also excessively fond of Winnie the Pooh, particularly the small, cute pinkness that was Piglet.

He took the stairs down two at a time, magnetically attracted to the smell of food. Every time Daniel slowed down, somebody fed him. When he got into the kitchen, he found Daniel at the table with Joe and Jack’s bowl. Daniel was handling the bowl with sensitive fingers, painting what Jack recognised as hieroglyphs.

"Jack!" Joe looked up with a big grin. "We wanted a memento of Daniel’s stay with us, so he’s decorating your bowl, instead of Kate."

"What are you writing, Daniel?"

"As joy is not without its alloy of pain, so neither is sorrow without it's portion of pleasure." Daniel smiled gratefully up at Jack for a moment.

Jack touched Daniel’s shoulder for a moment. Then he pointed at another set of meaningless squiggles. "And this one?"

Daniel smiled at Joe. "A house has the character of the man who lives in it."

"What was that first one again, Daniel, the one for Jack?" Joe asked, imperfectly concealing his gratification.

"By knowing one reaches belief. By doing one gains conviction. When you know, dare."

Jack coughed slightly, surprised by an ambush compliment. "What about Mom?" he asked gruffly.

"Men need images. Lacking them they invent idols. Better then to found the images on realities that lead the true seeker to the source."

Jack could follow that one well enough too; Daniel was complimenting more than just her painting.

"Do you have one for Ruth?"

Daniel gave him a sneaky look. "Know the world in yourself. Never look for yourself in the world, for this would be to project your illusion."

That one went right over Jack’s head. "And what about yours?" He couldn't help but wonder just why it was Daniel kept all of this insane crap in his head.

"Each truth you learn will be, for you, as new as if it had never been written."

Jack couldn’t help the slow smile spreading across his face, reaching out to ruffle Daniel’s hair as he headed over to the coffee pot. This was a true enough sentiment for Daniel, still bouncing around the galaxy ready for any and every new experience when he was allowed to. "Anyone for coffee?" This was always a rhetorical question where Daniel was concerned.

Joe was examining the bowl with reverent hands. "Cut Daniel some of the coffee walnut cake while you’re at it. He’s looking peaky again."

Jack grabbed the cake and didn’t bother to suppress his grin. Daniel definitely had a way with him, especially around susceptible O’Neills, even if he was the only one not to know it.

 

 

"Daniel?" Kate looked up questioningly as Jack strolled into the attic.

"I fed him twice and put him down for his afternoon nap." Jack shrugged off Kate’s approving nod and started inspecting the drying photographs, ignoring her agitated clucking and shooing.

"He’s looking better."

"He's feeling better, I think."

"You love him, don’t you?" Kate’s voice was calmly certain.

Jack figured it was only asking for more trouble than even he could handle to deny it. "Sure," he said lightly, admitting this to the only person he would. "Best friend I ever had." Friendship was what he wanted, what Daniel believed they shared. There was no room for anything more and he knew it. He knew it on every conceivable level. It shocked the hell out of him that he could even think, that it would occur to him for a second…

Friendship. That was all there was. That was all there could be.

Kate busied herself pegging out the rest of her photographs. "You drive him absolutely crazy, you know," she twinkled.

Jack grinned, responding automatically to her bantering tone. "Every day, in every damn way I can think of."

"He’s a sweetheart, Jack. I don’t blame you for being overprotective."

Jack acknowledged the hit with a wry grimace. "Pot and kettle, Mom?" he asked dryly. "I'm swimming around the same damn gene pool, remember?"

Kate winked. "You know it," she beamed, admitting to pride where there was no one around to see her being all maternal and mushy. "Watch and learn, kiddo, watch and learn." Then she sighed. "I suppose you’ll be stealing him away from us just as he’s getting nicely settled? All packed? What time is the flight?"

Jack suddenly found a view of the garage utterly fascinating. "Nine am tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?"

"I, well, he looked so damn peaceful I hated to. Er. I called the general, okay, got him to re-schedule the briefing. And you can just wipe that smug look off your face," he snarled without turning around. A moment later, arms snaked around his waist and he found himself unable to resist an exuberant hug which actually came close to lifting him off his feet..

"We get to keep him!" Kate crowed.

"Just one more night. He’s thirty-four, Mom. You don’t get custody," Jack pointed out mean-spiritedly.

"Sez you!"

Jack hid a grin and waited patiently.

"Of course, we’ll miss you too," Kate said obediently after a perceptible pause, sounding like a child which had just been slyly smacked to get it to say thank you.

Even without looking around, Jack knew perfectly well she was laughing all over her face. "Et tu, Mom."

"The two of you are close," Kate commented, squeezing him that bit harder.

Jack covered her hands with his own, smiling as her face came to rest against his back. "Daniel is a good friend."

"I see that," Kate agreed. "Your father and I were talking how it only took you about forty years to grasp the essential difference between 'buddy' and 'friend'."

"I never was a quick study," Jack tossed out dismissively, trying to lighten the tone.

"Quick is not the issue, son. The issue for you has always been trust. Daniel is about the last person I'd peg as your friend." She sounded as if this pleased her rather than not.

"We're more alike than you know."

"If you'd let me finish," Kate said a trifle coldly. "I was going to say, on the surface, Daniel doesn't look like the obvious choice for a friend. I have eyes in my head, though, and I see how he brings out in the best in you."

"Mom!" Jack cringed. "Gimme a break, here."

"I'd love to hear a bookie quote the odds on that." She waited, giving him the usual chance to retaliate in kind, and when he didn't, gave him a cuddling squeeze. "Daniel gets you talking." There was wonder in her voice and something else. "I've never seen that before."

That stung Jack. He knew exactly what she meant and there wasn't any defence he could offer up against it. He knew, no one better, he couldn't talk to anyone. He never had. Except, now, he could. Couldn't stop himself, if the truth were told. Like all the things choking him up inside, all he'd left unsaid, just needed the right trigger.

"Daniel is special."

Daniel was different than anyone, more troubling, more consuming to Jack than anyone had the right to be.

"I guess I'm trying to say you have a bond with him, Jack, and I'm happy to know you have someone."

His mom didn't mean this the way it sounded, she couldn't, but he took it hard, almost jerking away.

Kate caught at his hands, held them in her own, held him. "The heart is a lonely hunter. I heard that someplace, can't remember where. I never knew what it meant, not really, but life happens and some meanings come clear. You can't always make a choice, Jack. That's all it means. I don't know why you couldn't talk to Sara when you loved her as much as you did. You don't know it either, I guess. You can't change it, though. You can't go back. There's no comparison, there are only Sara and Daniel, your wife and your friend. Don't hate yourself because you didn't talk to her, that it was beyond you, be grateful you can talk to him."

"You were on my side," Jack recognised abruptly, seeing for the first time there was a side to take.

"You're our son."

Kate didn't think in terms of just herself, Joe was so strong a presence in who she was. Jack was part of them too, without the barriers and defences which broke his marriage. It disturbed him Daniel was inside of his defences too. He didn't want to talk anymore, didn’t want to think, so he fired a question almost at random, a distraction. It galvanised Kate.

"I’ve got nothing planned for dinner!" she panicked on cue. "We have no food! You’ll have to go to the market. Now!" When Jack didn’t move quick enough for her, she slapped him on the rump and got demanding. "Show some hustle, boy! Got an archaeologist to feed."

A firm hand propelled him out the door and kept up the pressure until they got to his bedroom. Kate snuck in for a quick maternal peek at Daniel, and seemed very much inclined to linger and admire, making Jack scowl at her ferociously. He mouthed savagely, "Don’t wake him up!"

He was pretty sure her equally silent response was "Phooey!", then she leaned down and deliberately kissed Daniel’s brow. Only then did she sneak back over to him, looking insufferably pleased with herself. Jack escorted her from the room with cold dignity, then they both checked in on Ruth.

Both of them were sleeping safe and sound.

It had taken very little persuasion to convince General Hammond to give them the extra night. He’d only had to paint a pithy word picture of how hard it was to keep Daniel awake, him being so stuffed full of Mama O’Neill’s divine home cooking and all.

The general was toast, a distinctly paternal chuckle proving to Jack his respected C.O. was rather enjoying the image of Daniel being spoilt rotten by all the O'Neills of the Windy City. His mental picture of Jack's dear grey-haired old mother was a product of his Texan upbringing, an image Jack felt it was cruel to deprive him of with any inkling of the truth.

His order to continue to compel Dr. Jackson to rest and recuperate by any and all means necessary was certainly well within Jack’s power to deliver. The sensible thing would've been to take Daniel home on schedule, give himself a chance to get his head straight. He failed to resist, though, which was his problem. He always did.

His mom grabbed a handful of his shirt and pulled him down for a kiss. He kissed her back, understanding he was reading more into what she said than she intended, was letting it get to him too much. His mom had never had time for macho posturing and always talked straight. She was talking about friendship, he was just hearing more.

 

 

"Daniel." Jack gently shook Daniel’s shoulder. "Come on, Danny, time to wake up. Feeding time. Again."

Daniel jumped, gasping, looking around him blindly until he focused on Jack, his head dropping back to the pillow. "I fell asleep again?" he said, bewildered. "I don’t believe this."

"I’ve been drugging you, in the vain, despairing hope of shutting your yap for longer than two minutes," Jack said as cheerfully as he could, not sure if Daniel needed to talk and wanting him to have an out.

"Thanks," Daniel said witheringly.

"S’what friends are for."

Daniel scrambled up and then seemed to run out of steam, standing there by Jack, looking helplessly around the room.

Oh. That was a good point. Impossible to find your glasses when you needed your glasses in order to…Jack spotted them on the linen chest and grabbed them before Daniel had to start a systematic search of every flat surface in the room.

Daniel took them but made no move to put them on.

"Are you okay?" Jack asked, his hand already reaching out.

"I don't know." Daniel's face showed his uncertainty. "I'm thinking about so much I never expected." His breath huffed impatiently. "I feel as if I've exchanged one set of problems for another, no, no, not problems, that's not the right. Um. What I mean is, I see something I never had any expectation I'd know and I feel, I feel." He frowned at Jack. "I don't know how I feel."

Jack was right there with him on that.

"I feel good and yet," Daniel struggled for a word which fit. "Exposed."

"It's family," Jack shrugged. Daniel's gaze flinched and he realised too late what the word meant, a loss as great, as little healed as his own.

Daniel pulled away from him without a word, not angry, but tired. Too tired to say what he felt.

Cursing his ineptitude, Jack followed him out at a more leisurely pace, giving him some distance, waiting where he was the first thing Daniel saw as he emerged, slightly damp around the edges, from the bathroom. He nodded a small, perfunctory acknowledgement of Jack's apologetic look, then they headed off downstairs together.

Still punchy and out of it, Daniel shot Jack several puzzled glances, trying to work out what was wrong with this picture.

Jack took pity on his evident confusion. "General Hammond gave us an extra night. The mission briefing has been put back until 14:00 hours."

"Oh. That’s good," Daniel rallied somewhat, looking affectionately at Jack. "I’ve been thinking you looked tired for a while. The extra rest will be good, I think."

Jack could hardly believe Daniel’s magnificent disregard of the facts. "There’s just no fooling you, is there?"

"No."

Jack heroically forbore to point out just who it was had spent most of his visit horizontal and let Daniel actually walk into the kitchen before he made a point. "Daniel?"

"Hmm?"

"Shoes."

Kate froze and then peered round. Her eyes focused at floor level and she brightened visibly. "Don’t bother on my account, sweetheart."

Daniel hesitated, held out a bare foot, wriggled his toes thoughtfully, then bashfully sat down. He sniffed appreciatively. "What are we having? Can I help?"

"Chicken en croûte. Jack says you like chicken. You can help by eating. I’ve been admiring the bowl you’ve both done for us. Going to take it in to my art class, glaze it and fire it. Can’t risk it getting damaged," Kate chattered a-mile-a-minute as she began to set the food on the table.

Jack thought Daniel needed a few more visits before he learned. When his mother wanted help, she extracted it from you against your will. Otherwise, you sat on your ass and did as you were told. Kate wasn't admitting to age. She hated reminders, she hated to feel less than she was, and she lacked the capacity for compromise his father had. It was one thing among many for them to worry over and fight about. Part of what made them who they were. His parents weren't perfect, but there were ways, over time, he could make them see sense.

"Speaking of the bowl, we've decided we’ll keep it right here on the kitchen table where we can all see it," Joe told them happily. "Although Ruth is very disappointed you didn’t put any dirty jokes on it."

"Speaking of the old," Jack took in the look in his mother’s eyes and smoothly finished with a more innocuous name than he'd intended, "dear, where is she, anyway? Still not well?" He got up and headed over to grab a few beers. When his head was safely buried in the refrigerator, he called out casually to his dad. "You call the doc?"

"Grab the lemonade for Daniel while you’re in there, sweetheart," Kate instructed. And don’t worry, Ruth is fine. She’s just tired from all the excitement, that’s all."

Jack slammed the refrigerator door with his butt. "Did I say I was worried?" he argued. "I’m just - Wipe that smirk off your face, Daniel. Smugness is one of your least attractive character traits."

"That's a staggering accusation coming from you, Jack," Daniel retorted, then he turned his attention to the chicken. Beautifully tender white meat, crisp golden pastry. He gestured at Jack with his fork, managing to sound surprised. "Tastes like chicken."

Kate eyed them in bewilderment. "What’s so funny about chicken?"

Jack grinned. "Long-running, kind of pathetic in-joke."

"Did I mention Ruth has some of the family photo albums in her room, Jack? I saw some amazing pictures. Wonder what they’d give on base for pictures of a naked Jack O’Neill, sprawled all over a fur rug, clutching his teddy? Sam’s in the market for the ultimate screensaver."

"You’ll never make it out of Chicago alive, not with those pictures."

Joe looked smug. "He doesn’t need to, son. Daniel scanned them and emailed them while you were reading to Ruth. Quite a large selection on a similar theme took his eye, isn’t that right, Daniel?"

Daniel nodded vigorously round a mouthful of chicken. "I think in the last one you were about, oh, what was it, Joe?"

"Seventeen."

Daniel was innocence personified. "Ruth’s favourite picture. The one that inspired her to start calling you Manly."

"He was always big for his age," Kate said fondly. "Were you?" she asked Daniel directly. "What were you like when you were a boy?"

"Kate!" Joe straightened up. "For cryin' out loud! I knew you couldn't get through this visit without needing to pry. Leave Daniel alone," he ordered, something of a snap in his voice. "Let him eat his dinner in peace." He glanced at Daniel as if to say, 'see what I mean?' then looked to Jack for support.

"You never do talk about your childhood," Jack said slowly, wondering if he were pushing it.

"There's nothing to tell." Daniel seemed surprised they would even ask.

"An answer guaranteed to make Mom twitch with curiosity until you put her out of your misery."

"I was a quiet child, I think," Daniel offered by way of a palliative.

Jack checked out his mother's reaction to this. "She's looking for more." She looked like she was prepared to come right over the table to get it too, by the throat if necessary. His mother was unflinching when it came to tough love.

"I was a loner. I still. Um. I never really made friends." Looking around the table, Daniel wasn't sure how this sounded to them and tried to explain. "It took me a long time to be able to make that connection with someone, to let them in, and there never was time for that. I was always moving on."

"Moving on?" Joe asked, then flushed apologetically, mortified by this lapse into Kate-like vulgar curiosity.

Jack was thinking how fast he and Daniel clicked when they met, how they managed to reach each other. Part of it was the circumstances, part of it just them, who they were, he guessed. They were opposites in many ways, but in others, in the essentials, they were the same, they felt the same even if what they thought and how they got there was different. It was near impossible for him to quantify just what it was which drew them together, which held them as it did, but they were stuck. He wasn't sure either of them could walk away if they tried anymore than he was sure what it was which made them both reach out and touch in the first place when it was so unlike either of them.

"I was fostered," Daniel explained, aware he was upsetting Kate. She had a look on her face which suggested she was mad at the world and he hadn't said a thing yet about how it was for him, how it made him feel. The very notion of fostering was offensive to Kate. It was the same look Jack had if Daniel ever talked about Nick and a reason he talked about so little else. People were too quick to decide for him how he was supposed to feel in order to suit them and the worst of it was their well-intentioned pressuring of him to conform to their outrage. "To cut a long story short, my parents were killed in an accident while we were setting up a museum exhibit in New York, I was taken into the care of social services and fostered." He got through this by rote, as he always did when it was unavoidable, refusing to inject melodrama into the bare facts.

"You weren't adopted?" An uncertain Kate was looking to Joe for support.

"Nick, my grandfather, was travelling the world. He couldn't take responsibility for a child," Daniel said straight-forwardly. He thought of the way the O'Neills had taken in Ruth when she needed them and made her their own. He knew they didn't, couldn't understand Nick. There were times Daniel felt, hoped, he would make different choices. He didn't want what he loved to become an obsession, he wanted it to be his choice, not a compulsion he couldn't control.

"Isn't the goal of childcare services permanency?" Kate was mystified. "If your grandfather couldn't take you, surely there was someone else?"

"I was fostered," Daniel repeated.

"Kate!" Joe said warningly before she could speak again.

"How could anyone not want you?" Kate asked anxiously, her eyes pained and incredulous.

"I wasn't a communicative child," Daniel said carefully.

"Kate, that's enough." Joe's quiet sternness stopped her in her tracks, her mouth at half-mast.

"It's okay," Daniel tried for casualness.

"No, it's not," Jack disagreed. He always did, whether he spoke up or not.

"It was a long time ago."

"Daniel."

He looked up at Jack. "I had parents. I never accepted." He stopped, and tried again, speaking to Jack as if he were the only one in the room. "I was co-operative, I was quiet, I worked hard in school, I read. I loved to read, to lose myself in that. I had my own world, Jack, a different world than any of them knew and I kept it for myself. I stayed in my room and I was no trouble but I never."

Becoming aware of the silence, the intense, feeling scrutiny, Daniel shifted uncomfortably before he went on, feeling obligated to finish and wishing he'd never started.

"I had my parents and even though I knew, I didn't need to be told they weren't coming back, I didn't let go. I adjusted, I think."

Daniel, looking down at his plate, missed the sorrowing looks exchanged between Kate and Joe.

"I went in and fit myself to what and who I found in every new situation, I gave no problems and I was always, I imagine I was always alone." Daniel knew this sounded bleak but in his own head…"I didn't care. It wasn't me. I wasn't myself again, except in my mind and my books, until I was sixteen and they finally let me go. I'm sorry," he apologised as if he felt the need. "There's nothing more to it than, than disappointment. I'm not hiding anything, there's nothing there to hide. I just don't think about it."

He tried not to, to leave it always behind him. When he couldn’t, when he had to think, there was one question he would ask of himself, a question he couldn't answer. Did anyone want with him what he saw so clearly here, around him at this table? Permanency? A family? Did anyone want him? Did he leave anyone behind, loving him, a little? He didn't know. Why didn't he? Was he so distant, so difficult? Did he hurt anyone?

"You were hurt, son," Joe promised, his heavy hand reassuring on Daniel's wrist..

For a moment, Daniel was disoriented by the soft words so closely mirroring his own, thinking he'd spoken those most private feelings aloud.

"You were hurt the worst way a child could be, Daniel," Joe went on. "You were young and you were left alone."

Younger than Charlie when he died, Jack thought, watching Daniel's difficult, resistant face as the folks charged in where he didn't let anyone tread. He was not prepared for this kind of emotional pressure and Jack felt for him, even though his parents were dragging out of Daniel things he wanted to know as well.

"Everything you loved, everything you knew was taken from you," Kate said gently. "I've seen the impact loss can have on a child, Daniel. It cuts the heart out of them, leaves them hopeless, adrift, even worthless. In place of security and a love they trusted, there's doubt and blame, despair and great anger."

"Foster parents know the situation going in," Kate went on, her face quiet. "Their responsibility is for the welfare of the child they care for. I could be hopelessly idealising but isn't the point of this what foster parents can give, not take?" She wouldn't wait for an answer. "If you weren't able to settle, if you weren't able to love, then trying to hold you would only do more harm than good." She smiled suddenly at Jack. "Your children love and worship you, they hurt you, they exhaust you, they thrill and charm and irritate and stun you. It's no one thing, it's all of those things and more, and most of all it's love, it's what you can give, which you hope is far more than you take."

"There were no promises, Daniel," Joe told him softly, squeezing him for emphasis. "No expectation other than the foster parents doing their best for you, not themselves."

"I'm sorry," Daniel flushed miserably. "I didn't mean to upset anyone." Or give the family permission to overwhelm him with the strength of their views on his personal life. Jack was the one who - he didn't talk, though, not like this. Daniel wasn't quite sure what he was apologising for, except maybe losing control of the situation.

"Don't be sorry. I'm only glad you could trust us enough to share this with us," Kate promised him, reaching out to give his hand a little admonishing shake.

"I don't know why I," Daniel fretted.

"Emotional blackmail," Jack said gloomily. "They're past masters. Trust me, they went easy on you."

"Easy?"

"It was your first time."

Daniel's mouth came open, air snuffed in a perplexed little gasp. Feeling a certain sympathy, Jack reached across to him and rubbed his back.

"It gets worse," he promised. "You never said what you were like when you were small," he went on, going for a distraction while the folks absorbed Daniel's bleak little childhood in silence.

"You never said what you were like either and I asked first," Daniel retorted.

"Daniel was a darling," Kate decided, her fond eyes far away. "Just like he is now." She snorted unkindly as the three men reared back as one from this unexpected feminine volley, visibly appalled.

Jack wasn't sure if he understood Daniel more now, or less. He did have this impression of heartless, neglectful money-grubbers refusing to take Daniel in. The parent in him loved - he could see - it was impossible for him to understand how anyone could not love Daniel. It had never occurred to him fostering was all Daniel was prepared to take.

He knew the man and there were times he could see the boy, quiet, withdrawn, painfully anxious. Unsure of himself and his place in the world, holding on to what he knew, longing for all he'd lost. To be wrenched away like that, to be so helpless, it had cut to the heart of who Daniel was. There were insecurities, a questioning that he was trusted, always with the questions, of himself, of everything.

Jack would love to meet that little boy because he saw echoes in the man. Daniel was responsible for who and what he was because no one else had stayed with him. Jack and SG-1 were pretty much it for him.

"You're easy to love, darling," Kate promised, her eyes soft with tears as she put her arms around Daniel and kissed him. "We're keeping you," she added, "so no trying to get away."

"I w-w-wasn't," Daniel stammered, thrown by her passionate conviction and the sinking realisation he was doomed to be her 'darling' forevermore.

Kate kissed him again.

"I feel a lot better knowing Jack has someone like you around," Joe agreed. "You're welcome here, son, for your own sake."

Kate was lingering, her face against Daniel's arm. Feeling, well, he wasn't sure what he was feeling, he took her hand.

"Jack is actually pretty annoying, so come without him next time, if you like," she coaxed him.

"What would be the fun in that?" Daniel asked in surprise, looking up again at Jack, who fitted these people in ways he fit no one else, his necessary connection to the seductive whole. "I can't imagine."

Oddly, Kate began to smile, taking this extremely insulting, Daniel realised belatedly, sentiment quite well. She shot a look at Joe, a hint of challenging satisfaction only he could read, then the two of them smiled in unison, for a moment leaving Daniel and Jack behind in their moment of mutual, exclusive understanding. They didn't need to speak; the look was enough.

For the first time, Daniel was conscious of a twinge of jealousy, a longing for something he felt he would never have. He had his parents, he had his wife. He was married. Part of him would never move on from Sha'uri and even a year after her death, he didn’t know yet how big a part that would be. He was lucky that all his friends, his family of SG-1 all knew loss and shared his grief with him, Jack most of all.

Jack was always the one who understood, the one who didn't need to be told. Daniel was lucky to have him.

 

 

Daniel curled up against the pillows. "Siler has this really great software program which can add morphing effects," he prompted provocatively, still feeling they got into some unexpectedly emotional ground over dinner and wanting to keep things upbeat. They were supposed to be on vacation. The crises and Jack's inevitable questions could wait a day, he hoped. He was ruefully aware of Kate and Joe revealing a weakness which Jack wouldn't hesitate to exploit. "We can start with you as a newborn and morph you from one year to the next."

Without warning, Jack pounced, slid his hand around the back of Daniel’s neck, fingers probing for just the right spot and squeezing, causing Daniel to yelp in a very satisfactory manner.

Jack forced Daniel flat, hissing maliciously, "It’s hell being ticklish, huh, Dannyboy?" Then he knelt on Daniel’s back and kept up a light, kneading pressure on the hot spot, waiting for the next verbal volley and enjoying the mixture of laughter, whining and pleas for release.

Daniel’s voice was muffled in the pillows but still defiant. "Got to have the right music. How ‘bout the theme to?"

Jack pulled up Daniel’s T-shirt. "I’m warning you! Don’t say it or you get the ribs."

There was a brief silence. Jack sat with his hand poised.

"The theme to."

Jack mercilessly sent his fingers dancing over Daniel’s ribcage. Made him squirm.

"Li-little-h-hou-house. Jack!"

Daniel was wriggling wildly under him. Jack paused for a second, hand ready to strike. "Give up?"

"Ontheprairie."

Jack retaliated with a precision run on a specific spot under Daniel’s arm which made him scream with laughter into the pillow. He didn’t keep it up for too long, there was always a very fine line between fun and pain for the ticklish.

Naturally, the instant he had his breath back, Daniel had to raise the stakes. "We could add a rollover for the screen, Ruth could pick the spot."

Jack shifted his weight and went for the kneading pressure on a spot on Daniel’s side, just below his ribcage. Daniel reflexively curled into a ball, desperately trying to get away from the bombardment, shuddering and gasping out between giggles, "Tou-tou-touch."

Jack launched an all out assault, multiple targets, made Daniel howl, and then lost his grip during the lively struggle.

Daniel almost made it off the bed before Jack grabbed him again. "Touchheretoenter!" he yelled defiantly. Then he rolled madly and the world tilted crazily, ending in a bone jarring thud.

"OOF!"

Eyes closed, Daniel lay absolutely still. He was afraid to look. "Jack? Are you, um, okay?" It seemed inadequate after that thud.

There was a very long silence.

"No," Jack groaned painfully. "How ‘bout you?"

Daniel was losing it, stuttering with suppressed laughter. "Fi-fine. I see-seem to h-have." Daniel took a deep breath and tried to get it out in one go, "landedonsomethingsoft." Then he laughed so hard his abused ribs ached.

Jack rolled Daniel onto his back and pinned his wrists to the floor. "You just had to fall off the bed, didn’t you?" he hissed indignantly. "And you just had to land on me, didn’t you?"

Wriggling ineffectually, Daniel managed to pull himself together slightly. "I’ve got no sympathy. Serves you right for throwing your weight around."

Jack froze. He glared down menacingly into unrepentant eyes. "For the last time, I do not have a weight problem."

"I don't know about that," Daniel grumbled, writhing, trying to throw him off.

Jack let him get so far, then shoved him back, cat and mouse. Daniel's wide blue eyes were laughing and indignant at once, seeming full of light, and all the breath was punched from Jack's chest, his body hot and singing with wanting, heart pounding, his face falling towards Daniel's.

The door was flung open. A small, terrible figure barged in. "For cryin’ out loud! What the heck is going on in here? You sound like a herd of elephants from downstairs!"

Close to panic, Jack scrambled away, blanking his mother's scolding, reaching out automatically to pull Daniel to his feet. He looked into his face and as quickly away, not certain what he saw there. If Daniel had seen or, or felt anything from him, if Daniel knew? There was nothing he could say, no excuse he could offer. Jack wanted him. He knew it now. Couldn't dance around it with euphemism any longer. He wanted sex with Daniel.

He put out the light with shaking hands and climbed into bed like an old man, a man whose life was crumbling round him. He stretched out stiffly, lying still and jumping out his skin, aware of Daniel's increasingly quizzical looks. What could he do? There was nothing he could do. Nothing he was allowed to want or could have. Nothing.

"Jack?" Daniel's hand touched his arm, burning him.

"Get some sleep, Daniel," Jack ordered gruffly.

"Did I hurt you?"

"No. Not you," Jack promised, snapping it out with more emphasis than necessary. "Just let it go, huh? I'm tired tonight. I'm tired."

Daniel stretched out at his side, watching him and wanting to help.

It took everything Jack had not to turn his back. He lay stiff and close to resentful, unable to think coherently, unable to plan. He could only react, to his shock, most of all to Daniel's presence, his skin pricking with arousal, a shiver deep inside him so intense he felt cold.

Despite his concern for Jack, exhaustion beat Daniel. He slept and flowed into Jack as if he belonged there, holding him with an ease he never had when he was conscious. Jack reached up, curling his hands over the arm hugging his chest, Daniel's skin warm against his palms.

They danced around their feelings, never admitting how they felt, though it showed in many small ways they couldn't help. They loved each other, they were friends who needed, friends who touched each other in ways neither had imagined possible until they met. Most everything Jack lacked, he found in Daniel and he knew it was the same for them both.

He and Daniel were tangled up, so much a part of one other they didn't see it, the way it was with his parents. They each pushed into places they'd denied others, even denied to themselves, and there was no separating them. Jack couldn't function. He looked at Daniel for the first time in a while, seeing his face slack and contented, a comfort there he never showed that Jack remembered.

He let Daniel in too close, his own choice, impossible now to pull away, to hurt Daniel, impossible to push for what he wanted. This was his problem. He would bury it.

 

 

Sitting with Jack on his right and Joe on his left at the head of the table, Kate and Ruth opposite, Daniel nursed his coffee with real gratitude, watching the O'Neills in their element, wolfing down crisp bacon, fluffy scrambled eggs, waffles, pancakes, honey-sweet biscuits and their trademark insanely tangential conversation. They never got enough of each other, never lost interest, poking, prodding, persuading until they were in, until they knew.

No one here was admitting to sadness, there was verve and energy, warmth and pleasure, teasing humour, a serene, sincere certainty Jack would be back and soon, Daniel, they hoped, with him. The family were happy and Daniel blamed below par caffeine levels for being so slow to understand the reason why. He doubted it had occurred to Jack, but in the little they'd said, it was clear they worked together. Kate and Joe couldn't conceive of Daniel in combat, in danger, and for them that meant Jack too was safe. They didn't say anything specific but still, he knew. There was nothing he would say to them, but he could to Jack, later. He had to give him the choice to correct a misapprehension he maybe wasn't seeing.

All the O'Neills were generous, drawing Daniel into their conversation, talking about each other and Jack in ways he could contribute to, even only with his inevitable questions. He was content, basking in a beautiful rhythm which made a place for him. He didn't love easily and he was never certain he loved well, but for what he was worth, he loved the people at this table. He loved who and what they were, what they stood for. He wanted them with a passion which almost dismayed him, wanted them in his life.

"I'm thinking," he mumbled, mostly to himself.

"I'd be shocked if you stopped," Jack retorted, spearing a mushroom from Daniel's breakfast platter.

"Thinking what?" Kate's antenna was clearly twitching.

"Tell her before she explodes," Ruth advised acidly, her own need for caffeine in the a.m. even greater than Daniel's.

"Nothing," Daniel blurted out, belatedly remembering where his blabbermouth took him the night before. "It's nothing."

Kate shook her head sadly. "Oh, sweetheart!" she chided him.

"That's pathetic, son," Joe agreed with his wife.

"Give him another cup o' joe, he might come up with something better," Ruth advised, gulping down some of her own drug. "I don't like to be so unsporting," she grumbled, apparently blaming Daniel for his manifest inadequacy as a liar. And the fact she was almost out of coffee in her cup. "Give him another shot at brushing you off and while you're at it, fill this up," she ordered, imperatively tilting her vast breakfast mug, looking like she was ready to shoot her java direct into a vein.

"We could set you up on a drip," Jack suggested, obeying before Ruth got ugly.

"I don't want," Daniel began.

"They know you don't," Jack interrupted dampeningly, taking an interest in the waffles now he'd actually eaten down to the point he could see the pattern on his plate. "Take my advice, throw 'em a bone."

Daniel flashed a nervous smile at his hosts. "I had a lovely time."

They smiled warmly back at him.

"Thank you," he added conscientiously, minding his manners.

"You're welcome, darling," Kate said sincerely. "Now, what were you thinking?"

"That I had a lovely time."

Kate nodded thoughtfully. "And?"

Daniel ate some bacon.

"Nothing?" Joe said helpfully.

Daniel waved some bacon at him gratefully then ate that too. Maybe if he kept his mouth full, nothing mortifying would sneak out of it.

"If it's nothing, then you won't mind talking about it," Joe concluded, hospitably nudging the eggs closer.

"It was good to meet you?" Even Daniel heard his voice rise uncertainly on the question.

"You like us?" Kate made with her devastating winsome eyes.

Daniel swallowed, although he wasn't chewing at that point, and nodded. "Very much."

"Classic rookie mistake," Jack shook his head disapprovingly. "Don't elaborate," he advised. "You only get yourself in deeper."

"Jack speaks from years of experience doing exactly that," Joe observed, watching in fascination as Jack drizzled a little face on his waffles with the maple syrup.

"Daniel? Darling?" Kate coaxed, dimpling at him.

"I enjoyed being here. Spending time. Here. With you." Daniel jumped as Jack waved a hand in front of his face.

"Don't look into her eyes! You never see that snake in The Jungle Book?"

"We loved having you here with us, Daniel," Kate promised faithfully, ignoring Jack. "And we expect to have you back with us soon, otherwise we'll have to come get you."

"That's not an idle threat," Jack noted unnecessarily. "Once they get their claws in you?" He shuddered, cutting an emphatic finger across his throat.

Daniel found himself looking from Kate to Joe and back, hoping they meant this, that they weren't being polite. He felt pathetic, wishing they would want him around for his own sake when really, it was because he was a friend of Jack's, the first Jack had brought to his home, a link for Kate and Joe to a part of their son's life they didn't know.

He realised everyone was looking at him. "I don't mind." It was the first thing that came to him. Not the most gracious! "I mean, thank you. I'd love - I'd like - that would be."

"Nice?" Jack hissed helpfully as Daniel floundered.

"Nice."

Jack shrugged at his parents. "I told him he'd be bottom of the food chain round here," he explained deprecatingly. "You can see why."

"You were partially right," Kate winked. "For one thing, I wouldn't give up torturing my favourite victim for anyone."

"Love you too, Mom," Jack retorted, delving into the pancake stack.

"Well, if you're going to get personal, I'd have to say Daniel is adorable and you're not."

"Can you not?" Daniel winced. "You know. Say that?"

"Sweet?" Kate suggested an alternative, possibly willing to stretch a point.

"No."

"Joe, what's another synonym for Daniel?" Kate asked impulsively.

"Ours?" Joe smiled at her and she smiled back, leaning over to kiss him softly and rub her face into his.

Daniel was shocked and flaming with gratification his liking was returned, looking around instinctively to Jack, for his reaction.

"I knew they'd be toast," was all Jack said but it was enough.

Unaccustomed, Daniel melted into a moment of unalloyed pleasure, stammering out something incoherent which made Kate laugh and snuggle into her husband. It wasn't often he got what he wanted and he felt oddly vulnerable, exposed in his thrill. Everyone read him clearly in this moment, he knew it, but he couldn't close himself off to them. As it was for him with Jack. However deep he went, with Jack it was never deep enough though Daniel felt Jack knew him to the core.

Acceptance left him defenceless and it was known, it was understood. The family put a value on him, he could see it in their faces when he could look, it was for all which made him who he was, even what he wouldn't have touched. It stunned him they could know him so little and yet know him enough to offer this. He was humbled and shaken, so grateful to have even this small piece of who and what these people were to one another. They were making a place for him and he knew he could not say what this meant.

"Our boy has a friend!" Kate crowed happily. "I had every confidence," she firmly informed the family at large.

"Forty-odd years, he finally brings home someone we like and has all his teeth," Ruth announced, slightly obscurely but with distinct approval. "Hallelujah. We knew he had to beat the odds some time."

Jack was thinking he was driven to bring Daniel here, to see him put down roots when he seemed so lost. The reason for his urgency was so clear to him now and he was dismayed. He'd wanted to help Daniel, he still did, but he'd wanted to help himself. The Stargate and SG-1 had tied him to Daniel and Daniel to him and when it seemed, when he thought…His parents were another tie and they would hook in deep. On some level he knew this would happen, even when he was lying to himself about why it was so damned important to him.

He could think about Daniel in all of this. He should. Daniel had found something here with the folks, something Jack couldn't take away. He was going to have to keep his feelings from Daniel as best as he could, put down this attraction himself. It was his problem. It had to be his alone. He meant for something good to happen, he felt it was right Daniel should be here. He wouldn't let it be about him, about what he wanted and he needed.

What he needed was to be a better man than that. He was a better man.

"Jack?" Daniel laid tentative fingers on his arm, sensitive to his silence. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass everyone all over again."

"Don't be silly!" Kate interrupted him briskly as Jack smiled jerkily and snatched up his glass to cover. "Breakfast has always been a minefield in this house. You'll never top the morning Jack slumped tragically over his oatmeal and announced to us he woke up gay."

Jack sprayed orange juice across the table, choked and sputtering with astounded indignation as everyone shouted with laughter around him. Daniel pounded him on the back as he wheezed helplessly, totally floored by this revelation as his mom did her 'undisputed champeen o' the world!' act and high-fived a horribly amused Ruth.

"You think sharing a house with those two is easy?" Joe asked rhetorically. "A man needs to read minds just to-"

"Excuse me?" Kate interrupted loudly. Her attention never wavered that much.

"He also needs ears like a bat and eyes in the back of his head," Joe finished calmly, a certain glint in his eye when he looked at his wife.

Kate was right, Daniel realised. Family was all of the things she said, and more, it was no one thing and it wasn't necessarily easy. It was all love though, it should be. He felt Jack was watching him and kicked him under the table. Eyes still watering and his face brick-red from the drubbing Kate just dished out, Jack relaxed, and smiled a little, and kicked him back.

 

 

"You come back soon," Kate demanded, her face buried in Jack's chest. "No hiding from me for months on end or I warn you, this time I come looking."

"I love you too, Mom," Jack promised, lifting her off her feet and kissing her, which she loved and always argued she hated.

"I miss you," she sniffled, a distinct shimmer she couldn't quite blink from her eyes. "I think about you all the time."

"I know."

Kate tucked herself into the crook of his arm as his Dad took his hand between both of his and said nothing for a while. Then Jack put his arm around his Dad and they stood together, hugging him and each other. Jack held on and let himself feel better.

He kissed them both and was scolded for being mushy.

 

 

Jack was glad his own goodbyes had been a tad more dignified. And private.

Daniel shook Joe’s hand and found himself pulled into a bearhug.

"Take care, son. Come back soon," Joe said gruffly, fighting down some unmanly emotion.

Kate was sniffing as she reached up on tiptoe and kissed him. "We’ll miss you, sweetheart." She said fiercely to Jack, "You take damn good care of him, you hear? Or you’ll answer to me."

Jack was unperturbed. "I always do." He watched Kate. "Mom." He watched some more. "Mom! Let go! I already told you, you don't get to keep him." He shook his head in despair, looking in horror around the busy concourse. "We had to do this at the airport? In public? Jeez. MOM!"

Kate peeled herself away from Daniel, snarling. "Alright already!"

"Thank you, thank you all. I had a wonderful time. It was. I was. I. Um." Daniel was speechless, blushing furiously, giving them all the benefit of his shy little smile and blinding blue eyes, which melted hearts around the galaxy.

Jack hooked his mother’s shoulder as she headed purposefully back.

Kate looked innocent. "I was just."

"No."

"How’s the butt, hon?"

Jack froze. "You tell me, Ruth. How’s it feel?"

 

 

Jack was still whining about having the aisle seat. "Your arm gets knocked by every goomba passing by."

Daniel eyed him thoughtfully. "You’re right. It was very thoughtless of me to obediently sit in the exact seat you picked out for me, after rejecting three other rows in which I was perfectly comfortable, and I’m still not buying that line about explosive decompression," he said flatly.

Jack failed to look guilty. The last row had contained a Mrs. Pulaski from Seattle, who had looked Daniel up and down in a manner which reminded Jack forcefully of Hathor.

Daniel turned to the passenger in the window seat, smiling. "Buenos días, la Hermana. ¿Espero que usted esté a gusto?"

Jack beamed at her too. He had a special fondness for the Little Sisters of the Poor.

"I had a great time. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m glad you lied to me and lured me here on false pretences, Jack," Daniel said sincerely.

Jack nodded with suitably dismissive casualness. "My pleasure. That’s what friends are for. Yadda, yadda," he mumbled pleasantly. "And just in case you feel compelled to share a single, solitary detail about this weekend with the world, you should know." He paused for dramatic effect. "I’ve got a P-90 and a shovel. I doubt anyone would miss you." He was not surprised Daniel once more failed to stick with the script and even pretend to look mildly threatened and knew, he just knew he was going to have to work for months to get past the gay thing.

There was something savage in the irony but he wouldn't think about that. Not now. He wouldn't begrudge Daniel the energy, the spark he'd found. They both knew each other better than before, which he hadn't expected, and he would have to settle for that. It wasn't time to be dwelling on what he knew now about himself.

"I’m overwhelmed by your touching faith in my discretion," Daniel announced in a deeply-moved tone. He waited a beat. "Siler and Sam are working on the screensaver as we speak. There’s a solid cash offer on the table from Ferretti for one of the original prints. He’s talking T-shirts for the street hockey play-offs." This was greeted by deadly silence. Daniel happily added a little more fuel to the fire. "The one with the teddy."

"There are other photographs with Carter right now," Jack countered with his sweetest smile. "Of a certain too-clever-by-half-but-still-not-clever-enough-to-beat-my-ass archaeologist, sitting not a million miles from me. Who’s beginning to sweat from the look of things."

Daniel stiffened. "Which photographs?" he asked warily.

"The photographs taken by an expert in reconnaissance and surveillance, then developed by his Mom for the cost of keeping the negatives," Jack explained willingly, Cheshire-cat sleek. "Said archaeologist is sprawled all over a bed in navy blue fuzzy jammies, with his T-shirt ripped in a very interesting spot after falling out of said bed the night before. Said archaeologist looks ‘adorable’ according to Carter, and ‘sweet’ according to the Doc." He smirked at Daniel. "It’s the bare feet peeping out from under the jammies, apparently. Adds the essential little touch of vulnerability required to make the truly discerning really work those credit cards. Carter is creating a 'Meep Meep' sound-effect for the screensaver as we speak. Teal’c?"

Daniel’s attempt to maintain a dignified front was congealing. "Teal’c?" Teal'c? He couldn't imagine.

Jack went for the jugular. "Teal’c just wanted to know about the teddy. You’ll know it when you see it. Amazingly, he was still in perfect condition even after all this time and the manoeuvring it took to get him in touch with a very special wide load."

Daniel had a horrible feeling he knew where this was going.

"For these photographs, I understand it’s not so much a cash offer as a bidding war. I refuse to speculate about Ferretti’s sealed bid for ‘Daniel in his jammies #14’, but just remember there are two sides to every T-shirt."

Daniel scowled at his best friend, team leader and bête-noir. "You’ll be on the back side, then."

Jack beamed at him. "Funny you should say that."

 

 

Kate swallowed a watery sniff and cuddled up to Joe, settling her head on his shoulder. "Our boy is in love," she said at last.

"Do you think he knows?" Joe lovingly wrapped his arms around her, his lips gentle in her hair.

"He's close and fighting it, love. It's not what he hoped," she said sadly. "He was never going to bring Sara home to us again, I know, but in time? I did hope to see him with another family. I did hope."

"We can't live Jack's life for him, Kate. We can only accept the choices he makes and be here for him."

Proud, Kate cradled her husband's cheek and they kissed lingeringly and in tenderness. "I can accept Daniel," she promised. "I can see why Jack loves him. Such a gentle, beautiful boy, so very kind. He's been good for Jack for such a long time, we've known that. Now we've seen with our own eyes Daniel thinks the world of Jack. How can we not make room for him here, Joe? How can we not love him when Jack needs him so much?" She smiled up at her love. "Jack has his heart set on Daniel."

"Then he'll bring him home to us," Joe returned her smile with warm satisfaction. "Count on it."

FINIS