Actions

Work Header

In the Plain of Dura

Work Text:

"So," Jack said to Daniel. "Pull a maneuver? Or you're 'fine'?"

It was a combination of old and new shorthand, delivered quickly, in an odd moment when Daniel's team had been pulled away by other duties and the medical staff were all out of earshot at the same time.

"Maneuver," Daniel said.

It would take more than a maneuver. There'd be heavy surveillance on him until higher was convinced that he was really Daniel Jackson again. Jack would have to tapdance, pull strings, and run a confidence game, all at the same time, to get Daniel released and to get both of them together someplace where nobody was watching. But Daniel knew that, and if Daniel was opting for the more-than-a-maneuver, it meant that Daniel was a lot more fucked up than Daniel was letting anybody see, and Jack would do whatever was necessary to get him what he needed.

Six hours later he had Daniel in a stealthed safehouse halfway between the Springs and nowhere.

"Thank you," Daniel said, almost formally. He sat down on the foot of the bed and lifted his glasses off his face with both hands. "And I'm sorry."

Jack took the glasses and set them on the plain oak nightstand. "For the galactically massive trouble of that entire incident, or for the relatively minor hassle of coordinating this?"

A brief hesitation, and then, "This."

"No trouble," Jack said, and sat beside him. "I'm thinkin' the precautions are gettin' a little old, though."

"Considering taking your chances again?"

"Something like that. If I don't have the authority to countermand it when the IOA puts a hit on you, there's not a lot of point." The only reason they'd worked so hard all these years to keep this under the radar was so that Jack could keep the rank and power he'd acquired. He wasn't so sure about the power now, and he didn't care as much about the rank as Daniel thought he did.

"Being who you are put you in the room. It's probably why they backed down on the termination thing and agreed to the stasis pod, not that Cam's idea didn't help. If it came down to it ... "

He left the sentence hanging. Jack threw an arm around him, squeezed. "I shouldn't have brought it up. Let's save the rest of the debrief, huh?"

"I need more than one night."

"I know." He shifted to lie on the bed, pulling Daniel with him, and pressed his face gently into the side of Daniel's. "I know." He rubbed softly with his hands, opening clothes as he went. Daniel's eyes closed, and stayed closed. He touched his lips to Daniel's and said, "I want to make love to you, like this, until both of us come, then massage you 'til you sleep. Warm shower when you wake up, then dinner, talk, back to bed. Long talk. Very slow sex."

Laying out his intentions was an invitation to ask for something different, or change up the order. Daniel had spent a lot of time unconscious in Odyssey's sickbay, and he'd slept a lot in the SGC infirmary afterwards, but mostly under sedatives. He might need some real sleep first. Hell, he did need some real sleep, and a lot of it; at least a week of full nights, preferably not alone. Jack needed the same. He'd been running on about two hours a night since Daniel was nabbed. Last time it was three, the time before that four; next time it'd be an hour a night, and after that he'd just give up trying to sleep at all, for however many months it took Daniel to get home.

"I need to talk to you," Daniel said. Very softly, and still with his eyes closed. "But it's been so long."

That wasn't a good kind of need to talk. Daniel's body was saying sex now please very loud and clear, but Jack knew that if he pushed close he'd start hearing the frustrated, pissy little no sounds that didn't really mean no, just not like that -- and there wouldn't be a right way. Go down on him and he'd say Jack was too far away. Jerk him off and he'd say he might as well be doing himself. Frottage wouldn't be enough stimulation, penetration would be too much. It was the worst kind of exhaustion, the kind that no one thing could ease. What he probably needed was to work off the wired tension in the gym or on the court, then move through shower, food, and sex to a restful sleep. But he wasn't cleared for that kind of activity yet, for reasons Jack agreed with. Jack could push him into a hard fuck that might tire him out, but neither of them wanted it that way right now, and he didn't think Daniel would last long enough to make it a workout.

He'd be happy just to turn the tube on, lie there with him 'til the words started coming out, but "it's been so long" was an understatement, and the electric attraction never faded; arousal would itch at both of them until they did something about it.

"What say we get out of these clothes," he said, abandoning the slow mutual undressing he'd thought would be relaxing. "Get into this bed." He rolled up and started shedding clothes, and after a second Daniel did the same, and turned the covers down and got in.

Jack took the Trojans and one of the bottles of Astroglide out of the convenience-store bag on the TV stand and got in with him. The covers came up to mid-shin, just high enough to keep their feet warm. Daniel watched him, attention split between his face and his hands. Jack lifted the hard penis so that it lay along his palm, flipped the cap of the bottle with the other thumb, and poured lube into his cupped hand. It pooled along the shaft, cool and thinly viscous, and seeped between his fingers. He moved his lower hand up a little and poured some more. Daniel had something close to a fetish for the stuff, liked the chill, liked the slippery slickness on his balls and his nipples, liked copious amounts poured down the crack of his ass. Jack squeezed some more out just so that Daniel would feel it coat his glans, slither down the slit; he poured way more than they'd need for any kind of sex, just for Daniel to feel the sensation of having it poured on him. Finally, like a delayed reaction, he got a soft gasp, and Daniel's eyes came up dilated and off-focus to find his and look into them.

"Move a little," Jack said, very low. Daniel's hips gave the suggestion of a thrust and eased back, and his dick hydroplaned on its surface of lubricant along Jack's cupped hand. "Again," Jack said, and smiled a little. "Again and I'll give you some thumb." Daniel thrust again, twice -- it was a maddening tease even for Jack -- and Jack laid his thumb along the shaft and provided just a little pressure. A couple more and Daniel was starting to find a rhythm, and Jack closed his fingers and let his thumb rove. Daniel's lips parted and his brows drew together and he made a low noise.

Jack closed his whole hand, gave him something real to thrust into. Daniel groaned and reached to grab Jack's hip for leverage. He kept groaning, thrusting; Jack rested his left hand on the outside of Daniel's shoulder, as turned on by the feel of the smooth, warm skin and hard muscle as he was by the dick moving back and forth in the sheath of his right hand. Daniel's hips were really driving now, and Jack thought maybe he'd misjudged the hard-sex thing because the tighter he made his hand the more desperately Daniel drove into it. His expression was a little closer to pain than Jack liked, hard and tight, eyes squeezed shut, but all the other signs -- the flush, the shape of his lips, the sounds -- said he was getting close, and Jack could feel it, the twinging surge that went through his own body when Daniel was about to come. He'd never figured out what cued it, after years of observation. Daniel would start to come, and Jack's body would flood with heat, straining for that climax --

Daniel wrenched out of Jack's hand and onto his back. He lay there shaking, his cock weeping. His eyes were wet when they blinked open, and they looked soulless, fixed on the ceiling. "I can't," he said.

That was new. The pulling-away, the look in the eyes, the tears, all of it. Fear coiling in Jack's belly made his voice low and calm. "OK," he said. He braced up on his elbow. Softer, gentler: "OK ... "

"Oh, god, Jack ... " Anguish creased Daniel's eyes, and then he took a deep breath, went flat again. "I want to fuck you through this bed. I want to fuck both of us into oblivion."

That was the kind of thing that Daniel would roll him over and mount him and hold him down and whisper into his ear; it was just weird, just off, for him to say it like that -- as if it was something he shouldn't want, as if it wasn't something that was always on offer to him ... as if he meant it. Carefully, Jack said, "And that would be bad because ... ?"

"I don't know," Daniel said. His eyes closed, creased again, welling up at the corners. "It hurts. Everything hurts."

Jack laid a hand on his chest. "Touching hurts?"

An incongruous twitch of smile. "No, that feels good." He was really crying now, still and quiet crying, tears spilling down into his sideburns.

Jack pushed up and knelt between his legs, nudging one thigh out to make room for his knees. He leaned down on one arm and kissed Daniel's face, somewhere to the left of his nose. "Kissing hurts?"

Another fleeting smile. "Kissing's nice."

Jack stroked his lips over Daniel's and then took Daniel's cock in his hand again, gently, stroking with his thumb. "How 'bout I make you come?" he asked, with just a little emphasis on the make -- stroking, lips and thumb. There were enormous psychological differences for Daniel between doing and being done.

Instead of answering, Daniel said, hard and sudden, "Jack I had sex with her."

"OK," Jack said, seamlessly, easily, and lied, "I kinda figured that."

"More than once," Daniel said.

"OK," Jack said.

"Kind of a, kind of a lot, after a lot of ... "

"OK," Jack said.

"I wasn't the one who -- but it was my body and I -- God. God."

"Shhhh," Jack murmured, stroking his mouth over Daniel's cheek, up the side of his nose; stroking his fingers and thumb up and down through the lube on Daniel's cock, slow and light, just keeping it going. This wasn't about fidelity. Not to him, anyway. They didn't have fidelity issues. Which left some things he had to be careful how he engaged with, because he'd lose it, and that wouldn't do Daniel any good. Ixnay on the aperay, acknowledge and leave it at that. Arm's length. "That's why you can't?"

"I trusted him," Daniel said. "He came through, he held up his end, he protected me as well as he could, it worked because of him, but I -- but he -- " He let out a groan that could be pleasure or anguish and was probably both. His eyes opened; they looked pleading. "Jack ... I was so stupid ... "

There was no right response to that. Stupid's not possible for you would piss him off because it wasn't true, and any leaps Jack made -- not naive, not weak, not foolish -- would be left-handed accusations instead of headings-off. Jack kissed gently over his face, pulling back between each kiss to maintain the eye contact, keeping his gaze warm and calm, not an iota of the boiling coldness in his gut coming anywhere near his expression.

Daniel's gaze roamed over Jack's face, between the kisses and while his mouth was chasing after them. "You're pissed. You're hiding it."

"Mmm," Jack said, a noncommittal sound that he knew was soothing, too, and took Daniel's mouth, and pushed it open, gave him some tongue. Pulled up, still stroking Daniel's cock, a little faster now. "You know you belong to me," he said.

It was a guess at what Daniel needed, an intuitive hunch, a shot in the dark. Usually those worked. Sometimes they backfired.

This one worked.

"Yes," Daniel said, watching Jack as if he was dying for it to be true, dying for Jack to convince him, his heart breaking because it had been proven false so many times and in so many ways, and this was eight of them right here, what he was talking about, and he didn't think he could stand it, even though that wasn't what he couldn't stand at all -- what he couldn't stand was that he hadn't belonged to himself for months, maybe years, and he didn't know if he ever would again, not after this.

Jack tightened his right hand, started pumping, long and slick and smooth. "This is mine," he said. "No matter where it goes and what it does, it belongs to me."

"Ymmf," Daniel said, a yes half strangled as Jack took his mouth again, forcing it open even though it was yielding to him, forcing his tongue in even though Daniel's was giving up on the 'Y,' falling away.

Jack tongue-kissed him breathless, working his cock faster and tighter. "You're gonna come for me, Daniel," he said into Daniel's mouth. Into his cheek: "Because I tell you to." Into his ear: "Because you're mine. Your cock is mine. Your ass is mine. Your mouth is mine. All of it belongs to me." He spread his knees, pushing Daniel's thighs out. He pulled on Daniel's cock, slick and rough, easing his hand on each downstroke to make it feel like one hard squeezing upward pull after another. Hot and wet, in his coarsest command voice, he said, "I own you from the inside out. You're gonna come for me and then I'm gonna prove it." He was jerking the whole assemblage now, every hard pull dragging the balls up after it. He knew that Daniel, spread wide, was feeling it right down to his ass. "I'm gonna fuck you so deep that my dick comes out of your mouth." He gripped hard just under the head and jiggled his hand fast and gave the order. "Now, Daniel. Come."

Daniel huffed a couple of times, helpless sounds, and then came, very loud, very hard. Jack pushed up on his arm and shifted his grip and worked it, watching Daniel's expression. His features twisted away from themselves, jaw down and out, brows and cheeks up and in, as if his face was trying to crack apart. It looked like a mixture of transcendent awe and unbearable grief. He'd never figured out whether the orgasmic contortions of Daniel's face coincidentally resembled emotions he wasn't feeling, or revealed blink-of-an-eye glimpses of true faces he hid even from Jack.

"Come on me," Daniel said, out of nowhere, mouthing the words more than speaking them because he had almost no breath to speak with.

Daniel had never in Jack's presence been able to get words out during orgasm, but Jack's startlement lasted less than a second. "Where?" He thought Daniel might want it on the face or over the mouth, and he didn't think he could do that, Daniel liked to feel forced sometimes and dominated sometimes but had never wanted that before, knew Jack grimaced away from it in distaste when they watched stuff -- but he'd manage, somehow, he'd do it, if it was what Daniel needed.

"Balls," Daniel said. His voice hitched. He was still coming. "Cock."

Jack pushed up straight and sank down onto his calves and put his lube-sticky, come-sticky hand on himself. Daniel stretched a hand up and Jack leaned forward and braced on it, palm to palm. He held his dick over Daniel's groin and felt the muscle in Daniel's arm rock-steady against his and came with only a thumb and two fingers on himself.

Maintaining the control to aim it while it was happening made it last longer, made it good in some way he'd never experienced before. For a sharp second he was speared by triumphant satisfaction at marking what he owned, and the last sound he made as he emptied himself was closer to a snarl than a groan. Daniel let out a small, gasped "Yeah" in response, and when Jack's gaze flipped up, guilty and embarrassed, to meet his, he saw that Daniel looked like Daniel again.

"Yeah," Daniel repeated, head falling back, features relaxing, eyes sliding closed. "Oh, god, yeah, yeah." Then, his hips rising reflexively, "Oh, fuck, yeah," as Jack reached down between them and slowly massaged his come into Daniel's cock and balls.

Jack came back down onto one arm again while he did it, looking into Daniel's face while he smeared the lube and semen around, added the thick gloop from Daniel's belly, mixed it all together. He rubbed it up under into the exposed perineum, rubbed it into the hair with his thumb while he gently squeezed the softening package overhand. "Can't reach your asshole," he said, soft and low, like an endearment, and felt Daniel's whole groin twinge under his hand. Felt his own clenched gut relax when Daniel's eyes opened and his face lit with a real smile.

He smiled back, and brought his hand up to brace so he could lean down and brush faces, so Daniel could kiss him. Still smiling, still kissing, Daniel said, "Not that I didn't want you to nail me so deep I'd choke on your dick from behind."

"Only said all that to make you come harder," Jack said, even though it wasn't exactly what he'd said, and Daniel said, "I know," and then their mouths sank together and they just tongued and sucked and kissed until Jack couldn't hold the half-pushup anymore and had to ease down onto his side. Daniel straightened his bent legs with a groan of relief and rolled toward him, threw an arm over him.

Jack woke up two hours later, startled that he hadn't felt himself going to sleep or been aware of his own sleeping state. Daniel was sleeping heavily against him, and to avoid waking him Jack willed himself not to go tense as he pinged his surroundings, felt and listened for any change; but his heartrate briefly increased, a small adrenaline surge, in preparation for responding to anything amiss and because he just didn't conk out like that, not in premises that couldn't be hardened without drawing attention. Losing my edge and fucking desk job and wake-up call went through him in so many words, sharp and cold.

The change in his heartbeat was enough to make Daniel stir. He didn't say What? or You OK? -- he'd learned how to wake up in strange places, he'd learned long ago to wake up silently, to think and listen and feel before he committed to sound or movement. Jack stroked a reassuring hand down his back, but rolled over and sat up to take stock.

Nothing. He signed for Daniel to stay, got up and padded out to the kitchenette, listened some more. The only sound besides the hum of fridge and overhead fluorescents was an ordinary rustle of sheets, as if Daniel had turned in his sleep; when he got back to the bed he'd find Daniel sitting quietly with his feet freed from the covers and Jack's sidearm in his hand. The place was a small vacation bungalow outside a town whose attraction to tourists had faded; carport to shield their fake-registered vehicle from aerial view, utilities on, clean bedding, stocked with nonperishables, interior renovated with surveillance-opaque materials, good view of the road, not a lot of cover for a stakeout. It didn't take long to secure the inside. He went back to the windowless bedroom to put on some clothes to check the outside.

"False alarm," he said. What had woken him up was his own lower-level awareness that he was sleeping too deeply. "Just gonna poke my head out on general principles."

"I'll take the back," Daniel said.

Jack hesitated, then said, "Yeah, all right. You keep the Five-Seven."

There was nothing outside but thick sunset-orange air dusted with drifting motes of whatever was seeding this time of year. When they got back in, Daniel sneezed for a full minute to make up for holding it in outside. Jack smiled with an old fondness. The smile faded as the metaphor sank in.

While Daniel showered, Jack laid out the sandwiches and macaroni salad he'd picked up before they switched vehicles. They ate in bed, down to boxers in the lingering warmth of the day, drinking root beers chilled in the freezer and flipping between local news and old syndicated reruns. Daniel napped some more; Jack cleared up, then went back inside, propped his back against an upended pillow, and lifted Daniel's head onto his lap to stroke his hair while he slept.

About ten minutes into Wheel of Fortune, he muted the sound because it was annoying and he didn't need it to solve the puzzles, and the silence woke Daniel up.

"It wasn't horrible," Daniel said, into the blue-flicker quiet.

"OK," Jack said.

"I mean, the, the act wasn't horrible. She's ... exquisitely beautiful."

Yeah? So was Hathor. "Yeah," Jack said.

"It wasn't ... violent. It wasn't an assault."

Neither was Yu. Jack nodded, wishing that muting his own voice didn't activate the closed-captioning. He didn't want to be humoring Daniel. He didn't want to be trying to talk Daniel out of telling him how bad it wasn't, even in his head. He'd have liked to believe it wasn't that bad. But he already knew it was.

"I was pretty distanced from it, really. Aware that it was happening but not ... connected to my body. Not dissociated in a traumatized way. Disconnected in a ... well, a Goulded way, I guess. I could see my hand touch her but I couldn't feel what my hand was feeling. I could sense where the rest of my body was, I knew what it was doing, but I couldn't feel what it was touching. I knew I came, I mean I knew my body was ejaculating" -- under Jack's hand on his back, his heartrate spiked, terror that he'd fathered something on that half-human girl, and Jack logged that with the rest of it, arm's length, just note the datum and let it pass -- "but I was cut off from the sensation of it."

Jack squelched the internal subtitling too. He'd learned a long time ago that when Daniel was angry at himself, anger on his behalf made it worse. Daniel twisted it back on himself, took it as additional evidence that he was to blame instead of validation of his anger at what hurt him. Daniel's first instinct was to protect the person he loved from being hurt by what had hurt him, and Daniel's primary defense mechanism was to keep Jack from being angry at him by understating the degree of harm. Jack didn't like what that said about how he'd responded to Daniel in the past. But he knew this much: express hurt, show anger, and you only told him he'd screwed up.

Underneath, deep underneath, in a slow dark sludgy part of his mind he had no control over except to keep it down there, his silenced voice said, I will follow that motherfucker into hell -- but the thought didn't complete, it wasn't a real thought, just half-verbalized reaction, suppressed rage banging around down in the sewers of his head. He disconnected himself. Cut himself off from the sensation of it.

Wait, he told himself. Listen. He couldn't suppress awareness of the things he knew -- that the nicest guys could turn out to be the sickest fucks, that the Ancients were not trustworthy and not their friends no matter what Daniel yearned to believe, that being a technologically advanced millennia-old former Ascended didn't mean that Merlin wasn't a lecherous old bastard too; that some mission objectives required the use of any and all means to succeed, that being a wise and kindly old man didn't mean that Merlin wasn't also a cold, calculating tactician; that there were times when he himself had ordered Daniel to do things Daniel didn't like, and some of those times he was right, and some of those times he should have tried it Daniel's way, and he still to this fucking day didn't have a reliable mechanism for determining which one of those times this time was -- but he could wait for the rest of the story to resolve out of the dozens of possibilities that had already cycled through his analytic engine.

"I didn't want my body to fuck her. He knew that and he did it anyway. But that wasn't what -- That wasn't -- " Daniel groaned and crunched up sitting, pushing the heels of his hands into the bone around his eyes. "He tricked me. He persuaded me that he wasn't capable of taking control and implied that we'd cooperate in everything. We sat in that cell for hours sorting out when we were him and when I was me so that it wouldn't bleed through by accident anymore. By the time she came in the first time he had me completely snowed. I gave him access. If I'd kept my guard up I don't think he'd have been able to take control. But I believed him. I gave him the foothold he needed."

Jack sat up next to him, slowly. Daniel's hands fell loose between his thighs. His head was hanging. Jack braced an arm across his back for them both to lean on, supported him with a shoulder. Daniel wasn't angry about being tricked. He was angry about falling for the trick. Angry at himself for choosing to give his trust and being wrong.

Daniel never went easy on himself when he thought he'd been wrong.

"You want to know why he did it," Daniel said. "You're thinking that there must have been a tactical justification for it. That you might have done the same thing under the circumstances."

Yeah, and he never went easy on anybody else, either.

All I want is for you to keep talking, because the only way to stop it looping through your head and fucking you up forever is to tell it. It had taken ten years to knock the looping films in Jack's head off their spindles, unspool them, lay them flat -- ten years of having Daniel to talk to.

"I'm sorry," Daniel said, before Jack had come up with a response that wouldn't sound wrong. "That was a crappy thing to say."

"Daniel," Jack said. He hesitated, blew out a sharp, unhappy sigh, then said it: "He raped you. He used your body for sex against your will." He did his level best to gentle his voice, make it matter-of-fact if not reassuring, but the tightness of the words betrayed the bitter menace underneath them: "Whatever the reasons were, I'm not gonna agree with 'em."

Menace he could never realize, towards a man twice dead.

Arm's length. Disconnect.

"She was attracted to me," Daniel said. "It was tied up in a different seduction, the seduction of evangelism, and a lot of what she found attractive was a kind of glamour of ascendedness and a bizarre conception of the power of persuasion I could exert over Earth's population -- I mean, there was so much else going on there, god, Jack, I can't even -- her need to get her mother's approval and punish her at the same time, her conviction that Vala's in love with me and if she converted me Vala would follow, a host of disturbing father issues -- she's a child of the Ori and the Ori are ascended beings and I used to be an ascended being, never mind that I'm just old enough to have really been the father of a -- but it was also just ... well, a crush. On me, not the power or influence she ascribed to me."

"This should surprise me?" Jack said, because he saw where this was going, and none of it surprised him now. "I had a crush on you for years. Still do."

Daniel glanced over and not quite up at him, and Jack relaxed a little because it was a wholly Daniel expression -- for that blink of an eye it was a glimmer of ordinary Daniel giving him an ordinary half-sour, half-pleased look. "It's awfully easy to fall for you, Daniel," he said, and he felt Daniel relax, too, in unconscious response to the easygoing affection. When Daniel's head went down again it wasn't that hangdog anguish but the old shy dip, the old embarrassment to be caught taking pleasure in hearing things he'd secretly longed to hear from Jack.

It wasn't modesty. Daniel knew how attractive he was. He had a multitude of tools at his disposal for handling people who wanted him, from disarming charm to professorial abstraction to a mild, deadpan, scalpel-sharp wit. He was easygoing and good-humored with young adults who developed infatuations. He was gentle and sweet with teenagers. He was smiling and merciless with sexual predators. When it went the other way, he was also a pathetic flirt; with women who dazzled him, he started out giddy and transparently obvious and graduated to patronizing to compensate for feeling powerless. And he was absolute shit at calculated seduction. He considered it despicable and he was terrible at it. He wouldn't have wanted Merlin to seduce that girl -- and Merlin wouldn't have let him try even if he were inclined to, because he'd have fucked it up. Did Daniel know that? Should he tell him? Would that make it better or worse?

"I don't think she fell for me. I don't think she even knew that sex was what she wanted, or that what she wanted could develop into sex. There was no Goa'uld posturing -- she didn't pull rank as the Orici and demand service. She wasn't sexually sophisticated enough for that. She made ... these innocent little overtures. She was hesitant, almost shy about it. Sexuality is a very human thing and she's very inexperienced at being human."

He stopped again, and to keep it going Jack said, "Which was a vulnerability, which Merlin thought one of you should exploit, and you ... disagreed."

Daniel nodded. "I advocated killing her when she was biologically a little girl, I'd have killed her a dozen times over by then if I'd had the power, and it's not like I've never performed a sex act to maintain a cover ... I just ... I couldn't ... "

"She's still a little girl."

"Yes," Daniel said. "In that respect, she's still a little girl. All that seducing her would accomplish was to get her to trust me more, maybe encourage her to overlook any slips, get her more emotionally invested in my conversion. I'm not saying that wasn't useful, it was useful, it accomplished all those things and it's probably why she let me go out proselytizing on my own, it was just so weird that out of the blue she decided they needed more worshippers before it'd be safe to complete the weapon, it had to be stalling for ... more time with me, time to understand her own feelings, something, I don't know ... but it wasn't like I'd be able to kill her while she was in the throes of orgasm or deprogram her through sex. It wouldn't advance any critical objective and it wasn't necessary for the plan to succeed. The potential tactical advantage of fanning the flames of that crush into a sexual obsession wasn't worth what it would take out of me. Merlin did bear the brunt of the indoctrination, but she liked me better, she responded to me, and I was already ... pretending to ... give up so much of what ... "

"And you didn't. You didn't give up what makes you one of the good guys. That's why it sucked for you when he did it anyway." When it starts to seem like it's kind of OK, that's when you worry. Trust me on this.

"It didn't suck for me. I told you. It wasn't horrible."

"Yeah it was, Daniel. It was."

"Yeah," Daniel said, after a while. "I guess it was." He flexed his hand, turned it over and flexed it again, looking at it the way Jack remembered his robot copy doing, the way he'd done when he was in Jack's own body. "I don't think there are enough psychiatrists on the planet."

Jack put an arm around him, rubbed his thigh for a while, rubbed over his knee, down his shin. He rested his head against Daniel's, watching Daniel's hand flex, turn over, flex again.

"I let him," Daniel said, almost in a whisper, after a very long time. "That's the thing. Not that he took advantage of it. Not that he lied to me. Not that he hijacked my body for a repulsive act. That I let him in the door." His fist clenched, and he looked up, suddenly, but not at Jack. "If I tell you I need you to fuck me, really, really hard, is that forcing you?"

"No," Jack said -- sharply, because their relationship had never been about that and this shit wasn't going to paint it that color; or maybe because the question hit a nerve, but damned if he was going to engage with that right now. "It's not."

"You never say no to me. You've never once said no."

"Never once wanted to."

"I want you to fuck me," Daniel said. "Really, really hard."

"Then I will," Jack said.

Daniel said, "As hard as you can."

Daniel knew how hard that was. Jack took a deep breath, released it and with it his reflex response to being pushed, and pushed his face into Daniel's hair. "Daniel."

"If you're not in the mood, say no."

"It's not about mood. It's always yes." He always wanted Daniel -- always craved the taste of him, the feel of him, even when he was kissing him and touching him. Although age hadn't put much of a dent in his overall performance, he had some pills in his jacket pocket in case getting it up became an issue; but wanting it wasn't an issue.

Which Daniel knew, and which Daniel had just bluntly confirmed twice when he'd never once asked for confirmation before, and which left what Daniel knew was exactly what made Jack reluctant, and so Daniel said, "I'm not asking you to punish me."

"I'm not saying no if you are." He'd do anything for Daniel, anything Daniel needed, always had, always would. Their sex life had been about what Daniel needed for a long time, and Jack was fine with that, because mostly all he ever needed sexually was to be touching Daniel, and the other things he needed ... well, he hadn't needed those in a while. Hadn't needed much of anything, since he'd left the field. He tried not to think about that too much.

"I know. But you think I am, and that disturbs you. I'm not."

Again with the goddamned preemptive assumptions. "I'm not disturbed, OK? I'm wary. We don't do rough sex very often, and under the circumstances -- "

"I'm not saying rough, I'm saying hard, all your strength -- "

"And how is that not asking me to hurt you, Daniel, huh?"

"Jack, dammit, I don't want to be hurt, god, I've been hurt enough, I've really, really -- I just want you to take me, handle me, you, you --"

"OK," Jack said, "all right, OK." He said it into his hair, his face, his neck, wrapping him up in arms and legs, not because Daniel was freaking out or working up into a rant but because the words were gritted out, almost mechanical, forced in the worst way. He wasn't moving, gesticulating, angry, and he wasn't writhing and petulant; he was sitting statue-still, pulling tighter and tighter into himself with the anguish of it. Jack understood it now, Daniel hadn't given it a chance to percolate down but he understood I let him now, he got it now, finally -- how what Merlin used him for coopted and twisted something integrally, intimately theirs.

Daniel was still grinding sentences down to fragments: "I was never like this in bed with anyone else, never gave it up for anyone else, never let anyone, never let, anyone -- "

Jack gripped his chin and took his mouth. Jack had it tied up in his head with penetration, but it wasn't about that. He'd thought the point was that Daniel had never given his ass to anyone else and needed Jack to reassert ownership of the one thing no one else had ever had, but it wasn't about body parts, and it wasn't about the parts that only Jack had ever had. He'd expected Daniel to need to take him, to penetrate the person he loved the way he'd been forced to penetrate someone he didn't; without thinking, without examining it, while they napped and ate and sat around not talking he'd been waiting for Daniel to work up to fucking him hard and deep enough to drive all the he made me fuck her out of him. Work him up to it, if that's what it took. Goad him into it, if Daniel needed him to -- make him do it, with all the head-twisting irony that involved; or just be there, be available, be present for Daniel to make love to if he wanted to, when he wanted to, for as long as he could make this retreat last. But this was Daniel. Of course it wasn't that simple.

Inviting domination, allowing it, was a deep-seated psychosexual necessity for Daniel that was unique to his relationship with Jack. Merlin could have sodomized him in the flesh and Daniel would have reacted the way he did to any other kind of physical abuse; it wouldn't have touched his sexuality at all. Merlin could have held some bystander at gunpoint to make Daniel have sex with the Orici, or taken control of Daniel's body against his will to play the brainwashee and build the weapon, and Daniel would have been outraged and disgusted but not twisted up like this. Merlin could have said "I should like to get laid one last time before I go permanently into oblivion" and Daniel would have arranged it with the escort service and sat back and told him to have at it. But Daniel had trusted him and opened his insides to him, and what Merlin had done with the control that gave him had hit Daniel in a deeply guarded, private place that nothing -- no torture, no sex act, no drug, no other person, no one but me -- should have been able to reach.

It was the snaking that Daniel had lived in terror and loathing of year after year, catching up with him when he least expected it, blindsiding him. The kindly old magician. The wolf in Grandpa's nightgown.

Yeah, he got it now. How talking and touching and fucking would salve the other wounds, but something else was needed for this one. How direct it had to be. How much control he had to exert over Daniel so that Daniel could let him exert it.

Crap, he thought.

Anything you need, he thought. Anything.

I know what I'm doing, he thought. I'm the only one I'd trust.

Not forcing me, he thought. My idea. My decision.

I love you, he thought.

He kissed deep and wide, levering Daniel's mouth open with his mouth, pressing fingertips to the hinge of Daniel's jaw. He didn't have to lever or press very hard; Daniel opened to him with a grateful moan. Daniel's mouth yielded and the rest of him followed. Jack eased him down onto the bed, balancing him between the hard pressure of his mouth and the muscled resistance of the arm around his back. He pushed his hand down the front of Daniel's body, a long, firm assertion, and pressed Daniel's legs down flat so that he could straddle him. He tilted his head to get in deeper, he stuffed Daniel's mouth full of tongue and drove Daniel's head down as far as the pillow would give, and then he moved both hands up, cupping Daniel's head from top and bottom. One hand pressed his windpipe, fingers holding his jaw; the other covered his face from eyes to lips, fingers splayed.

Surprise briefly tensed Daniel's body as he realized what Jack was offering. Jack waited, part of him hoping that Daniel would shake him off, make an nng-ng sound, tap out, anything. But the startlement relaxed into a mixture of profound relief, blissful acceptance, and quivering expectation. He'd felt that limp abandon in Daniel's body before, when he had Daniel locked up tight and was fucking him exactly the way Daniel wanted him to. He'd felt that electric anticipation -- not in years, not since the first times they played with restraints, masturbation sleeves, vibrators, but often enough to be sure of it when he felt it again.

Slowly, gently, firmly, he brought the splayed fingers together, and closed Daniel's airway.

Daniel's pelvis rose up under Jack's groin, once and then again. Daniel's remaining breath pushed into Jack's mouth as a muffled grunt, and then he didn't have any air left. Jack stroked with his tongue, holding Daniel's face, holding him there -- holding, even though Daniel could free himself with one thrash of his head. Daniel's hips thrust up and held, trembling. He arched under Jack, his hands passive at his sides, his cock shoved into Jack's hanging balls. Two pairs of boxers barely blunted the sensation. He was harder than Jack had ever felt him get.

Jack held him until he felt the hitch in Daniel's diaphragm and throat that meant his autonomic breathing reflex had kicked in, and then kept holding him, pushing deeper with his tongue, strangling-deep. Daniel's arms and hands came alive, scrabbling at the bedding, but they didn't scrabble at Jack. The rest of him went as rigid as his cock.

Jack rubbed loose cotton and soft genitals over Daniel's taut, distended penis and scrotum. He gauged three more seconds until loss of consciousness. He wouldn't hold him that long. He rubbed more, and felt that undefinable change, that tightening-down, and knew that he wouldn't have to.

Daniel orgasmed explosively, arms slamming the bed to either side, legs jerking spasmodically. Jack freed his mouth and nose. Daniel sucked in a great gulp of air when he would have shouted, and the crashing conflict of reflexes misted eyes already glazed from the hypoxic high, tearing now from overload instead of stress. Jack stayed on his elbows, face right in Daniel's face, risking a broken nose if Daniel wrenched up into a curl. Daniel didn't curl; he seized and then deflated, sinking into his own body, into the bedding. Jack licked the wet away; it was tasteless until he closed his mouth to swallow it, and then it was sweet, not salty, mixing with his spit.

Daniel's eyes slid closed. He was panting out short, shocked huhs. After a while, he dragged in a deep breath, let it out in a shuddering moan. He put his arms around Jack as if it was the last thing he had strength to do.

It took a long time for the sparking twitches to ease off. At the end he gave a weak hug, as if Jack needed comforting, and dug in with his fingertips, as if Jack might float away.

"That was new," he said, with almost no voice at all.

Quietly, Jack replied, "It's always something, isn't it."

Daniel huffed softly, like an echo of his last breath, a laugh as weak as the hug. Daniel's arms slid away with a sloppy pat, signaling for Jack to come out of his crouch, lie down with him.

Jack stripped the wet boxers off him, used the dry parts to wipe him off, then lay down against his side, pressed up close but putting no weight on him. Redirecting a move to check the pulse in his neck, he laid his hand on Daniel's chest, on the other side from his heart, so it wouldn't be quite so obvious that he was monitoring heartbeat and breathing. His own heart was pounding very hard, deferred fear insisting on being felt.

"No chest pain," Daniel said. "No pressure, no tightness, no numbness. No headache. We're somewhere in Wyoming. It's two thousand and six. The president of the United States is Henry Hayes."

Jack said, "You're not even supposed to play basketball."

"If I say 'Thanks, I needed that,' will you take it as an indication of brain damage?"

"You're welcome. And never again."

"I know. And for the record, I meant fuck my ass as hard as you can."

"I know. I'll do that too."

"You're not hard. You never got hard."

"Be worried if I had."

"I could suck you up."

"Keep saying things like that and you won't need to." Daniel knew blunt offers got him going. Blunt language in general. That 'for the record' wasn't for the record. "You really want a hard pounding right now?"

"No. When you want to, if you want to. Because you want to."

Just making sure, then. Making sure Jack hadn't missed out on something Jack wanted. Making sure that Jack wasn't looking to be turned back on after doing something that turned him off. "OK," Jack said. Daniel liked to be used hard after orgasm, but right after, not when he'd already come down. At least that hadn't changed.

"What you did -- that was better," Daniel said. "For me."

"Good," Jack said. His own heartbeat started to slow, soothed by Daniel's slow, regular breathing. "OK. Good."

"It's not good. This is what my shit forces you into."

"You know, I considered that. And I did it anyway."

"Because you love me."

"Yeah. You have a problem with that?"

"Not with that. No. Not at all." Daniel's left arm pushed to go under him; he hiked up to give it room, then sank back down as it closed around him, more muscle to it now. The other joined it and squeezed him in tight, pulling him over more. He slid his thigh over and slotted his leg between Daniel's, slid his hand under Daniel's shoulder blade. Except for his right arm folded up between, they fit easily, seamlessly.

He let his face sink into the pillow. The plain white case had a rough weave, smelled like cheap detergent. He was struck with pang of uncharacteristic longing for home. Either home -- the Springs apartment or the Arlington condo. Daniel was his home, but he didn't want to be doing this in Whateverthefuck, Wyoming, in a deliberately nondescript, dime-a-dozen holiday unit outside a dying town with an attraction that wasn't attractive anymore. Too old for this. Too married for this. They should be in their own bed.

"I wish we were home too," Daniel said, reaching his free hand up to thread his long fingers through the hair Jack kept shorter now than he had when the kind of opponents he faced might try to grab him by it. Gentle scalp massages usually soothed Jack off to sleep, but he stiffened slightly, and Daniel said, "I can't hear your thoughts. I got telekinesis from the headsucker, not telepathy, and Merlin's gone. Same wavelength, that's all. Same as ever."

Daniel hadn't been home yet. Daniel hadn't been home in weeks. "Next reunion we spring for the honeymoon suite," Jack grumbled into the pillow. "Mirrored ceiling, big kitschy heart-shaped bed with red silk sheets, jacuzzi, room service."

"Places like this remind you of your old job," Daniel said, gently massaging.

"My old-old job," Jack said. "Some, yeah." Daniel was trying to draw him out, get him to talk about himself. What was there to say? You disappeared. Again. I lost my fucking mind. Again. My new job sucks. Still. Same old shit. Broken record. He twisted to press a soft kiss into Daniel's jaw without dislodging Daniel's hand, then let his head settle back. "Sleep now."

"You first."

Jack pulled his hand out from under Daniel and pushed it up under the other pillow in search of the TV remote. Found it shoved between the bottle of lube and the strip of condoms. He despised the condoms, suddenly, with a vicious ferocity that made him want to take hold of them instead, rip the packaging open, shred the latex with his teeth. Despised the agreement they'd made to use them as long as the separation lasted, spare each other questions, awkwardness. Hadn't bothered him when what all it meant was that Daniel might have had some fun without him. But Daniel hadn't had fun, and Merlin hadn't played safe.

Just as suddenly and twice as fervently, he wished that he never had to know what happened to Daniel out there. Wished he couldn't know, wasn't allowed to know, wasn't cleared. He couldn't imagine it, but he wished for it.

He closed his hand around the remote, pulled it out. "You mind the dark? I'll turn off the set."

"There's light from the front." Daniel took the remote from him and shut the TV off. The darkness was a soothing wash. Jack closed his eyes to appreciate it before they adjusted and picked up the seep of light from the fluorescents in the kitchenette ceiling, the glow from the little night-light plugged into the outlet over the bathroom sink. Daniel laid the remote aside and threaded his fingers back into Jack's hair. They lay there listening to the twang of frogs from the pond out back, the high throbbing tweedle of crickets around the building, the irregular ticks from the cooling picture tube. After a while, Daniel said, "You're not sleeping."

"Don't need much these days."

"So you say. But what you do need there's no way for me to give you, the half-assed way this plan turned out, so these getaways end up being about what I need."

"Guy who goes through hell gets the attention," Jack said. "House rules. In any house."

Daniel shifted a little -- uncomfortably, Jack thought -- and his heart beat a fast tattoo against the inside of his ribs. Jack moved his hand to Daniel's chest to draw his attention to it without verbally pushing, and Daniel took the hand, pulled the arm around himself, put his arm around Jack over it. He capped the don't change the subject message by saying, "What you need is comfortable lovemaking for its own sake on a regular basis and to not be alone anymore."

I do fine alone. Jack pulled the punch. Defensive much? He wasn't doing fine alone. He was a shadow of himself. Half of himself, without Daniel.

They'd agreed on two years. Daniel would give Atlantis a shot, he'd give the Pentagon a shot, they'd accomplish what they could. It was a bad plan. They'd characterized it as a deployment, sweetened the pill with metaphors of sailors on long sea voyages, soldiers on extended tours of duty; but he had no goals to meet in Washington, no talent or desire to be a security chief or a fleet commander, nothing but a vague notion of being the authority for Landry to appeal to when it got bigger than Landry, and Atlantis was never going to measure up to Daniel's expectations. Half the plan fell through, but too late for him to un-commit to the other half. With the Ori incursion came shared leave, a long-distance relationship instead of a complete separation -- and no end in sight anymore. Their two-year target evaporated. He'd have been starting the retirement paperwork in a few weeks; now he might not get out until they booted him at sixty. Daniel, over and over again, put on a last, all-out burst of effort only to find that the finish line had been moved another thousand yards.

They'd prepared for the misery but not the performance hit. They weren't just unhappy apart; they functioned at only a fraction of their combined effectiveness. He could kick the both of them for not figuring that out the year Daniel was ascended. They'd had no idea how much of what made each of them work owed to the other.

Now they knew. Knowing didn't change anything. These pit stops weren't enough. They were running out of gas. Seeing the needle creeping towards E didn't stop it. Knowing what kind of fuel would supercharge the engine didn't fill the tank.

He opened his eyes and shifted up onto his side, rolling his shoulder under him. Daniel didn't pull his arm out but left it under his ribs, pressed into the mattress. The room was a dim assemblage of shapes, the outlines of a room, barely illuminated by the light from somewhere else. Splotch of dark square on the wall was a Kmart print of a waterfall. Shadowy blob like a hunched, vaguely human figure was a chair with his gear piled on it. Charcoal rectangles were the empty dresser and nightstand. No Gideon's Bible.

No Book of Origin.

"Yeah," he said, finally, honestly. "I'd like those things. I want those things. But what I need is you, and I've got you. So what gives? You feeling uncomfortable about being needy?"

"I'm fine with being needy. I'm not so fine with you martyring yourself to it."

"No martyrdom required," Jack said. Then, truthfully, awkwardly: "I'm good at taking care of you, Daniel." A hell of a lot better than I am at whatever the hell I'm doing out East. "I like being good at things. I wasn't kidding when I said I missed being needed. I ... get as much out of it as you do. It just used to be a little more ... " He didn't have words for it. More give-and-take in both directions. When they were fighting the Goa'uld and the Replicators and Anubis, they'd taken beating after beating and kept each other going, but when it was over it ended for him and started up all over again for Daniel. Jack hadn't wanted that for him. Jack hadn't wanted him to go to Pegasus. Whole nother war going on there, and if Daniel had joined that battle he'd have been fighting for another eight years, or eighty, and he'd done his tour, paid his dues. So no, he wasn't sorry when that ship sailed. But Daniel had only been called up for another war at home. Some soldiers were in it for the fight, because fighting was all they knew and all they wanted, and Jack respected that. Daniel was the other kind. The kind who stayed in because they were the only ones who could win it. The world was never done with guys like those. He knew that because it was his job to make that assessment about the personnel he deployed. He knew that because he was one of them. But what the world seemed to want from him now didn't make sense to him, and what it took from him he didn't think that Daniel could give him back.

"No," Daniel said, quietly, opening his eyes, looking into Jack's face. "It still is."

"You don't know what I was trying to say. I don't know what I was trying to say."

"Yeah, I do," Daniel said. He pulled his arm out, got his shoulder under him, mirroring Jack's position. "You can't put it into words because you have no conception of what that job is doing to you."

"Don't start that again."

"It never stopped. You think you're catching a break you don't deserve, you think you let yourself take a time-out. You never stuck it to the Man, Jack. You never thought enough of the Man to bother. Now you're the Man and you don't think much of yourself. Hammond's the only higher-up you've ever really respected. Sometimes I think that as much as you hate me putting my ass on the line in the field, if I stopped going out there I'd stop ... signifying, for you, in a critical way. You've stopped signifying for yourself and you don't see it and so you don't acknowledge the damage you're taking. Damage like that doesn't count, for you."

"What the fuck, Daniel."

Daniel shrugged, and Jack pressed tighter, wanting to feel more than the movement of shoulder under his hand. Daniel pressed into him too, fit their bodies together front-to-front. Jack moved his hand down Daniel's back, over his hip, his thigh, his ass, needing more warm, bare skin against him, more Daniel, closer. Daniel's hand covered his shoulder blade, thumb stroking, and it was better than orgasm, that touch. It was better than almost anything.

"So, what, you've been patching me up and sending me back out since I made general and I never noticed and you never happened to mention it?"

"Pretty much. I think we eroticize it on a deeper level than ... you know, this. My issues, my shit. Or ... " He hesitated, then said, "Or dealing with my shit is the patch, because for you it's the only thing left that counts."

With something like terror -- the kind you felt when you stood in a jump door looking out and down at twenty thousand feet of night, the kind you mastered and contained but never stopped feeling -- Jack said, "So we retire to a cozy cottage full of books on some peaceful world and next thing we're griping about how all the spice has gone out of the marriage?"

"God, no." Daniel put his hand on Jack's face, put his face right up in Jack's face, kissed, nuzzled, sipped breath. "No. We're just in the wrong places right now. Both of us. That office is killing you and it's killing me to see it and you have to get out of there and you won't, I know you won't, until this battle is over, and it could last the rest of our lives and I can't -- I can't even engage with that thought because it's too much to stand." He rested his brow against Jack's, bone on bone. "I'm so tired, Jack. I'm really tired. I don't want to stop going out there but I want to explore, I want to learn ... I don't want to fight anymore." There were the tears again. He hadn't cried in years the way he'd cried in Jack's arms when he crashed from sarcophagus withdrawal, the way he cried in Jack's arms when Sha're died; since he'd come back from his first Ascension, he hadn't once broken down and sobbed; but he'd gone damp-eyed sometimes with hurt and rage, and this wasn't that, either. There was no crying with tears like these, no getting it all out, no racking sobs and release and relief. They didn't purge anything. They just happened, like a leak -- like a bleed. These were bad, bad tears, the worst kind of tears. In a soft, hoarse voice, Daniel said, "I'm sorry. I know you hate when I make it about you. I do want you to get out, I love you and they're torturing you out there and sometimes it has to be said even though I know you know but I also, I just ... I don't want this to be about me anymore. What I turn into when it's about me, when it's down to me ... I can't be that, Jack. I'm so fucking scared of being that."

"That's why you have a team, Daniel. That's why you have me."

Daniel sagged, not rolling away so much as toppling over onto his back again. "Somebody else needs to be the hero of this story."

"They will be. They stepped up while you were gone. They'll step up more now that you're back."

"That's not what I mean."

Jack waited for him to explain what he did mean. Daniel lay still for another minute, tears bleeding into his ears, then gouged the wet off his face with the heels of his hands and pushed up sitting, throwing his legs over the side of the bed.

"It wasn't that bad."

"Oh, here we go. Monkey, meet weasel. Or, you know, not."

"Mulberry doesn't do well in this climate."

"You can't just rough this off."

"No? That's what you do."

"Not anymore. Not in private. Not with you."

Daniel twisted around to shoot him a look of disbelief, then threw a hand up in a disgusted yeah, whatever wave and turned away. "This is too much fuss about business as usual. Shit happens. Shit has always happened. It was only a few weeks. It wasn't like being Goulded for years or centuries. The worst part wasn't even screwing Adria or being Priorized, it was the pressure to figure out a way to deliver the weapon if you guys wouldn't believe that I was me."

"And?"

"There's no 'and.' That was the totality of the suckage. That's what I'm saying." Daniel got up, grabbed his come-smeared shorts from the foot of the bed, went into the bathroom. Water ran in the sink, a dull bang shuddered through the pipes, the water stopped. They hadn't brought any spare clothes. Jack hadn't thought about that when he wiped Daniel up. Odyssey had beamed him up from the secure Pentagon transport zone in the middle of a workday, all he had in the quick-exit duffel he kept in his office closet was one set of fatigues and the street clothes he'd worn here, and he hadn't thought to pick up a change of underwear with the snacks. Daniel called, "What the hell is that? The kitchen pipes did that before."

Jack rolled off the bed to follow as far as the bathroom doorway. "Water hammer," he said. "Change in pressure sends a shockwave through the pipes, need an expansion tank or an arrester to dampen it. Probably loose brackets too, but pipe clatter sounds different. It wouldn't bang like that if it had an air cushion."

"Huh," Daniel said. "How symbolic." The glow from the plug-in light showed him scrubbing the shorts with the little bar of hand soap, sloshing them around, scrubbing some more. "How do you fix it?"

"Depends. If it's a clog or scale deposits, gotta open things up and scrape it out. If it's a waterlogged arrester, turn off the main, drain the system, turn it back on."

"Scraping it out requires tools?"

"Nothing I couldn't scrounge up from what's here. You want me to fix it?"

"Maybe we could try the draining thing before we go," Daniel said. Sloshing. Scrubbing. "Save somebody else the trouble. Whoever maintains this place."

"Sure," Jack said. He didn't care about the plumbing. The people who maintained safehouses like this were amply compensated and too savvy to draw attention to them by maintaining them too well. He cared about Daniel's thing for symbolism, and what it might mean that Daniel was trying to provide him with something fixable, and what it might mean that Daniel was offering to try to fix it with him. But he didn't care enough to let him off the hook.

"There's an 'and,' Daniel," he said. "I don't know what it is but it's there."

"Why?" Daniel put the soap into the sink-edge depression that served as a soap dish and started rinsing. "Because it turns out it I really shouldn't be this fucked up? Because there had to be something worse?"

"No. Don't put words in my mouth, don't accuse me of shit like that. I don't work that way. I'm not Mr. Ulterior. I'm not a shrink." He leaned on the doorjamb and watched Daniel scrunch the shorts under the flow of water, ball them up and squeeze, rinse them some more. "You need me to validate your damage? I was snaked for possibly the briefest period in the history of snaking, and it fucked me up. I had an Ancient database in my head for a few days and it fucked me up. I was undercover for a week with almost everyone I love buying my darkside act and it fucked me up. I had replicator hands shoved through my forehead for a few seconds and I'm still fucked up. Now, granted, most of that stuff happened twice, but I never had someone I liked and admired commit statutory rape using my body against my will with me in it and incidentally fuck up a private kink that's really, really important to me. This shit fucked you up. I've been watching you get fucked up for a long time and I've never seen you like this. What you've already told me is plenty. Half of what you've already told me is more than most people could handle. But there's more, there's something, and every time it tries to come out you tell me it wasn't that bad."

Daniel had wrung the shorts out to within a thread of their life. He had them rolled in a towel now and was pressing the towel down on the closed toilet lid, leaning his weight into it. He didn't speak. Jack didn't point out that there was a washer-dryer in the utility room. He considered adding some slow, deliberately ridiculous coda like There is ... andness to gentle the rant, ease it into silliness they could bat around and then let go, but he was too pissed, he was fucking shaking -- it had taken a toll on him too, seeing Daniel come back alien and mutilated, believing utterly in Daniel in his heart and knowing he couldn't afford to trust that belief, the pressure of the decision to open the gate, the weight of the consequences, even the emotional toll of the past few hours, trying to feel his way into what would help, not make it worse, the pain of seeing Daniel in this much pain, the helplessness in the face of anguish so profound, while the two-star-general part of his brain was pushing him to get this fixed because six invincible ships came through the hole they opened, half of him ready to pick up the phone and extend this leave to the week Daniel needed and half of him pushing to get them both the hell back to their posts ... and he was shoving it all down because Daniel needed him, because he needed to not be the fucked-up one right now. And this was what came of it. And.

Daniel unfurled the towel, draped towel and shorts side by side over the bathtub curtain rod, and walked out past Jack and back to the bed. Sat down at the foot of it, same way he had when they first arrived, as if he wanted to start all over again. Jack flipped the toilet seat up and took a long leak. Still waiting for Daniel to talk, he shook, tucked, washed his hands; dried them on the damp, hanging towel. Daniel was still sitting silently, facing the lifeless eye of the TV screen, matte grey and blind, nothing to reflect in the dimness. Jack went and sat next to him, on the other side this time. Daniel turned away to snag the remote, one leg kicking out as he twisted, then came back around, pulled his legs in, switched the set back on. He muted it after a bark of dialogue and its echo hung alone in the ear, a meaningless syllable. Some faded-looking re-run, Little Joe Cartwright with middle-aged spread and too much hair. Not the prairie show. Something contemporary. If the 1980s counted.

"I think I could have grabbed control back," Daniel said, almost too softly for Jack to hear even in the near-silence. "When she Priorized us. He was afraid. It needed to happen, but in the event he ... ducked. I had a chance. But I didn't take it."

"Happened pretty fast," Jack said.

Daniel looked down and then sidelong at him, very slowly. "No. It didn't."

In a level voice, Jack said, "You told your team that she waved her magic pendant at you and abracadabra ... "

" ... I'm Bip the Clown, yeah. Actually what I told them was that she knelt facing me and put her hands on my arms and the pendant emitted a white glow and then I was a Prior."

Flatly, pressing down the sick gut-twist of foreknowledge it was to late to unknow, Jack echoed, "And then you were a Prior."

"Yeah, I kind of left something out."

Fuck, Jack thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

Daniel turned his gaze back towards the television set without looking at it. "The pendant couldn't have transported me physically to the Plains of Celestis. If Ori minions were capable of that kind of teleportation they wouldn't have needed to use the gate system. Possibly the pendant projected a virtual environment, a construct of the temple there, but I've been headfucked six ways from Sunday and I've fallen for a lot of Ancient sleight-of-hand and I'm reasonably sure it wasn't a hallucination. I don't know if the rings on Ver Ager are an illusion or a form of physical transportation. I do know that I did know, when I was a Prior, and while most of what I knew is gone now, I'm pretty sure that the City of the Gods itself doesn't exist wholly on Celestis. Or it does, but there's ... a dimensional overlay. It's some kind of halfway point. Maybe a tesseract. More substantial than the gateroom where I asked you to let me go with Oma Desala, less ... mundane, four-dimensional than Kheb. Like the waffle house where I talked to Anubis, only there's a real waffle house in the same location. A five-dimensional meeting place where the Ori can manifest as the Flames of Enlightenment." He laughed, sharp and short and mirthless. "And I used to think the SGC briefing room was hot."

Guy who goes through hell gets the attention. Of course he'd twitched. Of course he'd fucking twitched.

"They're real flames, or they feel like they are, and you really walk through them. The ... " Staring sightlessly at the TV, he waved toward his face. " ... dermal patterns are real brands, from real branding irons. The creepy eyes are more of a laser-beam thing, a, a, a blinding radiation. You develop thick cataracts but get a kind of broad-spectrum visual reception, infrared and ultraviolet, even X-ray vision I guess ... It's really weird, because you can't actually see the text of the book they have you carry around, it's all stored in your head, that's all gone now too, but you can still ... Digression. I'll make a full report about that, maybe it's a vulnerability somebody can figure a way to exploit. Upshot is, they brand you, blind you, burn you, heal you with the breath of the gods, feels like a sweet, cool breeze. After you've, you know, screamed and flailed around for a while, felt your flesh melt and char down to raw nerve and bare bone, blundered your way out of the fire. Pointed out to no avail that Daniel was the scion of Judah who got thrown in the lions' den, not the furnace." He swallowed, and then put on a smile. In the bluish light from the old tube TV, which blanched his face to a morbid paleness, the smile was ghastly. "Reconsidered what a wuss you've been about Lasik."

Blinding had always been Daniel's deepest, most visceral fear, worse than the fear of losing his hands. Since Kelowna, he'd had an aversion to the sun, to medical radiology, to anything that reminded him of the flesh sloughing off his bones. It didn't matter whether what he described had happened to his body in another dimension or to his brain in a simulation. It didn't matter if he knew at the time that Merlin would put him back the way he found him when it was over.

This couldn't happen again. He had to pull him.

He put an arm around Daniel and pressed close. Not for Daniel; for himself. Instinctive need to feel him whole and well, wrap him up; try to protect him from what had already happened. Daniel didn't seem to feel it. Jack knew that numbness. He'd never felt it in Daniel before. It was deadness, not rejection. Everything hurts was an improvement on that kind of deadness, a step back in the direction of feeling and life. This was a step in the other direction.

He had to pull him.

If they'd pulled him after the Hussein Hilton, if they'd pulled him after the Baal Biltmore, if they'd pulled him either of the times he'd have pulled him if he'd been under his command --

"They render you grotesque in order to intimidate the masses," Daniel was saying, in an affectless version of Lecture Voice. Taking refuge in pedantic explication the way Jack would in delivering a crisp, emotionless situation report. "They make you what many human cultures perceive to be ugly as an outward and visible sign that mortal beauty means nothing. You're beautiful in their sight and you'll be gloriously beautiful in the Ascended afterlife. Enduring the agony of mutilation is supposed to make you feel worthy and invincible -- make you feel fundamentally superior to the heretics you'll be burning alive, because you burned, but you survived, and it earned you special powers. A rite of passage, excoriation of the flesh to purify the spirit -- but the truth is, it's vindictiveness."

Ya think? Even the voice in his head had a high edge of hysteria to it. He couldn't risk saying anything out loud.

"The people they choose for Priors already believe with all their hearts. They could transform them without putting them through that. But belief's not really what they're after. Submission to their will sustains them, they feed like vampires on the energy of free will, but even prostration isn't enough. They detest sentient corporeal life. They hate being dependent on it as a power source. They have nothing but scorn for true belief; they know they're selling a crock of shit and they're disgusted by anyone who buys it. They're addicted to the worship they receive, but they resent and abhor their worshippers. They abominate the ones they find it necessary to invest with powers to do their work on the corporeal plane. When they turn corporeal life-forms into tools, they want it to hurt. They make it as horrific and painful as they can without rendering the tool unusable. They scar their tools because they despise them. That's why they made a single human avatar. She doesn't channel that much of their power. Why not make dozens, hundreds? They could barely stand to make the one and let it be beautiful. They could barely stand to make the one and not break it. If humans are generators, alternators, why wipe out entire villages or burn a single heretic? Why dominate through violence and terror when persuasion and reward would yield more energy? They're as hungry for suffering as they are for power. They despise themselves for their own origin in corporeal life; that origin and that loathing are the core of the doctrine they crafted to subdue and harness the corporeal life they created to empower themselves. The only thing they hate more than us, and themselves, and their Priors and their Doci and their Orici, is the Alterans, because the Alterans don't share their dependency. The Alterans act like they're above it all. The Alterans survive without it. As far as they know, thrive without it. And the Alterans made more of us. They seeded humanity all over again and they don't even feed on it."

They knew that Daniel's body had carried Merlin's mind in it, even if somehow they missed noticing that it still did. They knew that Daniel had taken Ascended form himself. They processed him through the very specialest of special hells.

And Jack couldn't pull him. Because they needed him. Because a point was coming, in this story, where Daniel gave up, for real -- but Daniel was here, sighted, whole, alive, dePriorized, and the Ori were there, in the past, thwarted, outsmarted, maybe even dead. Because if Daniel was going to lie down and stay down, he'd still be down. But he was here. He'd gotten up and gone on.

Because the worst was not, so long as they could say This is the worst.

"There is some poetic justice to it. Suffering what Vala suffered because of my desire to find some Ancients I thought might be older and wiser and more helpful than ours. Cosmic payback for getting Sallis and Harrid busted for heresy and leaving them to burn. Doesn't help. Doesn't un-burn them. But at least there's ... symmetry."

Jack's hand had closed into a fist against Daniel's far shoulder. He was knuckling into muscle. It would have hurt, if Daniel could have felt it. He opened his fingers with an effort of will.

"So it didn't happen fast," Daniel said. "When I got back, the chronometer on the wall behind her had only advanced a few seconds ... but it wasn't fast. If Adria suspected about Merlin and thought the Flames of Enlightenment would burn all traces of him out of me, she was pretty close to the mark. He could stand up to her indoctrination, but he couldn't face that. He withdrew completely. He found what felt like a, like a drain in the bottom of my mind and seeped down into some ... lower level where he was safe. Maybe where I went during the Stromos thing. The place I tried to find and couldn't fucking find when he was fucking Adria. I had time. I had control. I could have kept it." He took a long breath, released it. "But I let go. Right after the wounds scarred over and the breeze died away. Just as the pendant's white light was sweeping back in. I let go."

He relaxed, suddenly, as if he was letting go now, or letting go all over again, and said, "For those few minutes, I just stopped caring. I really didn't care, Jack. The whole galaxy could burn. Merlin could have my body. I didn't want it anymore. Not even to bring it home to you. I can't describe the ... relief I felt, the gratitude when he took over again and I didn't have to talk or act or think or feel anything that was happening. Not the cellular memory of the pain, not Adria's fingers exploring the changes in my face, none of it." Remembering it smoothed his features into an awed beauty that Jack hadn't seen in the better part of a decade. "God, Jack. God. It felt so good."

Jack knew that peace, that ecstasy. He knew how hard it was to leave that place, once you found it.

"And then I woke up," Daniel said -- smiling, as if with a wry, soft regret. "Contingencies to plan, people to convert, friends to manipulate."

"And then you got up," Jack said quietly. "You got up and you went on. Carried out the plan you made, prevailed against all odds. You survived. You succeeded." He wrapped both arms around Daniel, rested his face in the curve of Daniel's neck beside his spine, breathed the scent of his skin. There were no words for the power of his pride, his rage, his admiration, his heartbreak. "Tulit ergo Daniel picem, et adipem, et pilos, et coxit pariter," he murmured. "Fecitque massas, et dedit in os draconis, et diruptus est draco. Et dixit: Ecce quem colebatis."

The charge that always flared at any contact between his flesh and Daniel's wasn't there. Daniel's skin was silent; Daniel's body felt ... uninhabited. But Daniel could still register surprise. Jack could still surprise him, after all these years.

Thereupon Daniel took some pitch, and fat, and hair: these he made into cakes, and put them into the mouth of the dragon, and the dragon was burst asunder. "This," he said, "is what you worshipped" ...

"It's how you taught me Latin," he said, when Daniel didn't ask. "In the time loop. I already knew the Bible. Connecting the dots was faster than starting from scratch."

"I taught you Latin with the Vulgate," Daniel said, in flat disbelief. "Catholic deuterocanon."

"Made it easier on everybody, once I decided to cop to the Bible thing." He'd wanted out of that loop. A lot. So much that to speed up their escape he'd volunteered to open himself to all the associations of darkness and shame and confusion and anger that that book dredged up from his youth, so long as the only part of it they used was Daniel's story.

Daniel opened his mouth, breathed in, probably to say something like And you memorized it? Jack felt something stir, deep in Daniel's cells, way down under the deadness -- an impulse to engage, a tenuous thrill of excitement, a flutter that wanted to be laughter because it was Jack, and Latin, and the Vulgate, the kind of insanely improbable and delightful thing that under any other circumstances would turn him on and crack him up simultaneously. Jack didn't want him to ask how he could quote the text from memory. Jack didn't want to have to admit that he might have maybe read the Book of Daniel a couple more times after that, found some comfort in the story of that other Daniel, that mythical Daniel beloved of a god who protected him, in his darkest hours the year his Daniel was gone. But his Daniel let the breath out soundlessly, and the tiny surge of engagement subsided, and for a long time there was only the phosphor fizz of pictures shifting on the TV screen, the indifferent flicker of bright ads for greatest hits, redundant gizmos, ambulance chasers.

"OK," Daniel said, slowly, at last. "Let's say we did succeed. Let's say we succeeded in actually destroying the Ori, not just letting more of their ships through. We shoved the cake down the dragon's throat and burst it asunder. If that's the case, we succeeded because Merlin left me to burn. If he hadn't hidden, that experience might have revealed his presence. If he hadn't hidden, he'd have been in no shape to take over when I gave up. It would have all fallen apart right there, right then, all that pain would have been for nothing, if he hadn't saved himself for when he could do some good. Even if he fled in abject cowardice, even if he did the right thing for the wrong reasons, it was the right thing. The most effective deployment under circumstances neither of us remotely expected. That is what you're thinking, isn't it?"

Maybe he did expect it. Turned tail down that drain in your head PDQ for a guy who couldn't have seen Hell coming. "No," Jack said. "It's not."

"Then I'm projecting. Because I think you'd be right if that's what you were thinking."

I'm not thinking, Jack thought, I'm listening, goddammit, and then OK, fine, yeah I'm fucking thinking, I'm thinking it should have been me in there with you, I'm wishing to bloody hell it had been me, could have spared him the brainwashing and the torture, seduced the goddamn girl with charm instead of sex, only thing he couldn't have done twice as effectively as that ghost of a mad scientist was build the weapon, but it wasn't him, he wasn't there, he was never there anymore, no chance to stop him this time, shove him aside and stick his own head in the motherfucking --

Machine.

Not ghost.

Machine.

Jack ran his hand down Daniel's arm to where his hand was still holding the remote. He disengaged the plastic rectangle from Daniel's unresisting grip and turned off the TV. Keeping a leg on Daniel, he scooched back and twisted around and found the chain on the nightstand lamp and pulled it, bathing the room in a more humane, incandescent glow. "You said you tried to find that drain in your head and go down there," he said, elbowing back, sitting up. "The Stromos drain."

Daniel's shoulder lifted and dropped in a listless shrug. "When he was doing her. Yeah. I didn't think of it as a drain until ... well, until just now when I was trying to describe it to you, but I tried to shut down, crawl into a corner of my head and count to a thousand in every language I know so I wouldn't be aware of what he was doing, but there was no far enough corner, no deep enough crack in the floor. I couldn't just go to sleep. He tried to suppress me and he couldn't. I could feel him trying to sit on me, squash me down, knock me out. I tried to let him -- I tried to help him."

"Did you try to follow him down that drain?"

"It wasn't there. It didn't exist for me. It's my mind."

"It was there when the Stromos crew moved in."

Daniel stirred, just a little. "You think he blocked it? Went down a manhole and pulled the cover over it behind him?"

"I think the Stromos people were people, living beings, human consciousness. I think the thing in your head wasn't, and I think it had control of the doors the whole time."

"I don't understand," Daniel said. His tone said he did, but he didn't want to.

"You said the worst part wasn't that he hijacked you but that you let him. I'm saying you didn't let him and I'm saying there was no 'him.' The only time you opened a door was when you stuck your face in the device. After that it wasn't about friendship, or trust, or respect, or ethics -- I'm saying I'd like to tear the motherfucker limb from limb, and there is no motherfucker. What you had in your head was a machine consciousness. I had my head sucked by two of those things and there was nothing human about them. They're programs. Yours just got a better score on the Turing test."

"There was a bright light -- a bright, ethereal glow -- when he transferred his consciousness -- "

"There's a bright light when you run off a photocopy."

At least that got the suggestion of an eyeroll, a stubborn cock of the jaw. "It was just like Oma Desala's visible-energy form on Kheb. Like what Shifu looked like when he left us. Like a split-second manifestation of the, the ... glowy thing on the security footage when I left my body in the infirmary."

"You didn't leave your body. Your body transformed into energy. Merlin left a corpse. He didn't Ascend into the headsucker. He might have used glowy powers to imprint information on its circuitry, but he didn't go in there. He wasn't in there. And he wasn't in your head."

"So it's your contention that I feel betrayed and used by a person, but it's like being pissed at the flu? That's too metaphysical a distinction for me. What got injected into my head was a virtual construct of his sentience. As far as I know, indistinguishable from the original. It doesn't matter if it was his 'soul' or his 'mind.' It doesn't matter if I'm anthropomorphizing it. It behaved like a person. It felt like a person."

"So it had a mockup of Merlin's personality in it. It was the same damn piece of Ancient technology and it had exactly the same capabilities. Once you let that thing zap you, you had no more choice about what happened to you than I did. Yeah you're a former Ascended. Yeah I have the gene. But we're both human, Daniel. Those things are more powerful than us."

"Did yours talk to you? 'Cause mine did. In so many words."

"So that headsucker was programmed with a higher-level interface than mine were. So he made some improvements. Or Morgan did. Still a machine."

"Or something left over from being Ascended let me hear and feel and understand in ways that you couldn't even with the Ancient gene. He had emotions -- feelable emotions, responses I could sense. He felt that what he was doing with Adria was necessary. He was sorry he couldn't suppress me to spare me the experience. He was annoyed that he couldn't suppress me, because I'm a pain in the ass. He had no plan for what to do once he built the weapon and he was worried that what he was doing would distract me from coming up with one. He was determined to shield me from indoctrination. He was right about most things, Jack, and he wasn't ... inhumanly cold about it. In taking control by force he relieved me of any complicity in an act I would have found too ethically and emotionally repulsive to commit. By hiding from the flames he kept one of us fresh and functional for what came after."

"And none of this could have been part of the programming. None of this could have been part of the con."

"The con was getting me to let my guard down."

"Daniel ... I think the con was getting you to believe you had."

Daniel pulled away, but he pulled away facing Jack. "He suckered me into thinking he'd suckered me? What the fuck would that achieve?"

"It kept you believing that you could take control back, if you were just strong enough and smart enough. The machine needed you to come up with a plan for deploying the weapon. Merlin the man who invented nifty stuff and worked in secret all that time, he'd have had a plan. This thing didn't have that kind of capacity for creative thinking. It didn't need to keep you sweet, or even sane -- it needed to keep you thinking, working, not shutting down. Using your human brain to think in ways a machine can't. Maybe I'm even wrong about it being a con. Best way to keep you functioning was to convince you that you were sharing control equally, but it hit a bump when it concluded that seducing Adria was the right move, and you wouldn't do it -- "

"Couldn't do it. I suck at that kind of seduction. I'd have blown it anyway."

"Yeah, well. Yeah. So the machine decided that taking control was more important than snowing you about sharing. But it could still encourage you. Pretend it was trying to put you to sleep, and fail. Partition your head to cut you off from your own hiding places."

"You should get some kind of genius award for this. This has to be the most elaborate construct in the history of soothing lies."

"If I were gonna fabricate some bullshit to make you feel better, we'd be sitting out in that kitchenette right now," Jack said. "I promised you I'd never lie to you in bed."

Daniel stared at him, shaking his head, as if this was a level of inanity beyond what he'd expect even from Jack and yet it didn't surprise him at all. He snorted, turned away, scrubbed a hand through his hair. Turned back, shook his head again ... and almost, almost smiled. "I don't think sitting on the foot of a bed actually counts."

"You thought all I meant was I'd never lie to you about sex during sex?"

Daniel's head tilted, and his eyes softened, and the hint of an upward curve touched the corners of his mouth. "Yeah," he said, in weary, loving exasperation, "kinda thought that's what that meant."

Jack threw an arm back around him, and this time the slide of his bare skin left a wake of gooseflesh in Daniel's. He stroked into it with his hand, drinking it into his pores, and said, "Yeah, well, I'll never do that either." The numb freeze in Daniel's skin was thawing, and he could feel a stir of heat underneath it, a slow flare of interest, cognizance that he was naked and Jack was as good as; a rise of warmth when he laid his free hand on Daniel's chest, palmed up to his collarbone, squeezed. "Merlin died, Daniel. The wise old Ancient you trusted, the old guy you liked, he wasn't there."

"God, Jack." Daniel slumped against him, and Jack gathered him in, rubbing, hugging. "I don't know which is worse."

Raging at a man whose work he'd followed, whose trail he'd followed, whose memories he'd shared, or cringing at the chill horror of having a machine in his head all those weeks, cold code slithering across his synapses, a metallic simulation of another mind, no one really there at all.

Jack remembered the taste of synthetics in the back of his throat, on his tongue, in his sinuses, spit that tasted the way melting plastic smelled. He'd never known if it was imaginary or a real chemical by-product of the repository.

"Is it crazy to feel better about having no choice than having a choice and making the wrong one?" Daniel asked.

Jack bent the arm that was around Daniel, threaded fingers through his soft, tousled hair, gently scrunched his scalp. Half-conscious urge to reach into his head like one of the humaniform replicators and soothe his tormented brain, smooth out the frowny furrows in it, give him a few hours' peace. It wasn't crazy. It was typically Daniel. He could stand anything but being wrong. Anything but being less smart than he expected himself to be.

Almost anything.

"Not crazy at all," he said out loud, nuzzling into Daniel's sideburn.

Daniel shivered, and said, "It's not actually cold in here, is it."

It wasn't. He was just starting to be able to feel how his own body had shut down. "Wanna pull some clothes on, make some coffee? You can have these shorts. I'll go commando. I can do that. I am a commando."

"I'd rather just get into the bed," Daniel said. He got up and went around to pull the covers down. His movements were sluggish, but as Jack went around to pull the covers down on the other side, his gaze dipped down Jack's body, and he did a funny sort of double-take, and paused with the covers bunched in his hand to gave Jack a keener look. "I wouldn't mind if you lost the shorts, though."

Jack skinned them down, and took his time stepping out of them. He was hoping Daniel would keep looking. The way Daniel's eyes had darkened made him ravenously hungry for Daniel to want him. The way you could go for days without food, forget about food completely, not even think you were hungry anymore you'd suppressed it so well, and the first whiff of something cooking set you salivating and your belly churning and pleading. He got into the bed, pushed his legs under the covers, reached to pull the covers up over both of them, and Daniel pushed his hand and the covers away, pushed him onto his back to run the hand over the front of him. Daniel appraised his body with a smoky absorption, feeling him up, and he arched into the touch with a high, choked sound he couldn't squeeze off, he was that starved for Daniel's hands and Daniel's attention.

"You're letting me grieve the man I ... knew, a little, the man I felt for and respected," Daniel said. Stroking down his chest and belly, up the inside of his arm, over his shoulder and collarbone, his eyes following his hand. Not stroking to arouse him, though it was sure as hell doing that; stroking him to feel him, remember the shape of him, the pleasure of touching him. "You're letting me separate him from what the machine made out of what he put in it."

"I'm telling you what I think," Jack said, voice strained, doing his best to hold up his end of the dialogue while Daniel's dark, intent eyes examined him. Daniel's fingers explored the curve of a pec, the arch of a rib; drew a line down to his navel; traced the faint trail of hair below it, widening and deepening down to his groin. "I wasn't there. If that's not what happened, it's not what happened."

"It is what happened." Daniel pushed up to brace on an arm and ran his thumb down the soft skin in the hollow of Jack's hip, then feathered fingertips up the insides of his thighs, opening his legs. "It's sadder than what I thought happened, but I couldn't live with that. I can live with this."

Jack reached up and palmed the side of Daniel's face, his strong, beautiful, tired face, and gently thumbed his cheekbone. "Better than the alternative," he said, moaning in the middle of the last word as Daniel touched him between the legs, caressing, scooping, weighing. His testicles stirred inside their sac, and Daniel stilled his hand and just held them, feeling it.

"Being alive usually is," Daniel said. The warmth of his hand was spreading through Jack's groin, filling his cock, replacing the prickly quicksilver skingasm with throbbing sexual need.

"Always," Jack said, and slid his hand down, turning it, to run knuckles down the valley of Daniel's chest and rub lightly back and forth just under his abs. Right above the hair was a hot spot; rubbing it made Daniel's belly contract and his jutting hard-on twitch.

"Jack," Daniel said, frowning, blinking, and then he was bending to kiss Jack's neck, his sternum, a nipple, shifting around to lean over him, get between his legs. "I want you," he said, hot breath on Jack's skin. His hand groped up Jack's shaft and then focused pressure right on the crown, squeezing and releasing, making Jack's hips jerk. He kissed Jack's throat, then nudged Jack's chin up out of the way and sucked, right over his Adam's apple, mouth open wide enough to bite. He kissed around to Jack's ear, leaving the wet to cool over his windpipe, and breathed, "I want you so much. I forgot ... I forgot this was possible."

Jack ran hands up his arms to ride his shoulders as he moved, kissing and licking and sucking his way down Jack's chest and back up. When he took Jack's mouth, Jack went still, stunned with the sweet, hot newness of it, as if it were the first time they'd ever kissed, the first time Daniel's tongue had touched his, while Daniel's hand loosely wrapped his cock, a negligent, thoughtless familiarity. Daniel tilted his head to get in deeper and probed with his tongue, all heat and spit and groaning hunger. His braced arm was shaking, and Jack felt sweat on his upper lip, sweat on the palm cradling his dick. Daniel tried to slide his own dick into his cupped hand beside Jack's, and it bumped and jammed and sprang up and bumped as he tried again, too tacky to slide, his thrusts too needy and awkward to finesse it. He groped with his thumb to catch it, closed his hand around both and squeezed, and tore his mouth away with a deeper, hoarser groan, his it's-too-much-but-it's-not-enough sound.

Jack pulled the lube and condoms out from under the pillow and knocked them lightly against Daniel's shoulder. Daniel growled something into his neck, let go of their cocks, and rubbed lower into Jack's groin, trying to get more friction from the hair. He needed in, and he needed it now, no control to spare for opening Jack up, and Jack thought, Should have brought a goddamn plug and stuck it in at the first rest stop. Pain didn't bother him much, he kind of liked having the urgency knocked out of his hard-on so he could come back up with the pressure inside him, he wouldn't mind Daniel pushing right up into him, but Daniel wouldn't do it. He'd stayed hard the first time Jack got him to, blown away by the tightness, but the couple of times after that he went soft when Jack did, and since then he'd flat-out refused on the grounds that not minding wasn't anywhere close enough to enjoying.

Jack couldn't go roaming around Air Force facilities with sex aids in his duffel, and rest stops didn't sell butt plugs; Astroglide and Trojans were the best he could do. "Flip around," he suggested. "I'll entertain you while you work." The bed was big enough for two six-foot men to sixty-nine on a diagonal, with knees drawn up to provide thigh-cushions for each other's heads, but Daniel said, "I'll come in your mouth, I can't, I'm sorry, I'll slow down, give me a second, just let me breathe."

"Then we'll do it together," Jack said, and gave a push. "Off."

Daniel rolled onto his back, gripping his cock, groaning frustration with himself. He didn't seem to have heard anything but the 'off.' Jack flipped the bottle open with his left thumb and poured lube over his right fingers, careless of the dripping, and Daniel looked over, squinting through his own effort to calm down. Irritated and embarrassed by his own urgency, no idea at all of how freaking hot it was to see him like this, how beautiful he was when he could barely stand to wait through a few minutes of prep.

Jack cocked his hip up and reached around under his ass cheek and slicked himself. When he pushed a finger in, Daniel elbowed up to watch, and when he started moving it in and out in slow, exaggerated thrusts, Daniel reached a hand out to ride his, entranced into forgetting his desperation. Jack pushed over more onto his side so that Daniel could see, and it bowed his body back, and Daniel made a low sound and pushed up on his arm to reach around, run a hand up his thigh, over his hip, over his exposed chest. He groaned at the brush of fingers over a nipple, and Daniel murmured a soft, sibiliant "Yesss" and did it again. He knew that the only time Jack had any sensitivity there was when he was very turned on. Probably thought it was finger-fucking himself that did it, or displaying it to Daniel, and he wasn't completely wrong if he did, but what really got Jack going was Daniel being turned on -- Daniel wanting it so much that it took this to distract him into patience.

Jack still had the bottle of lube in his left hand. He pressed it against Daniel's forearm. Kept his finger moving while Daniel slicked up, stopped and held it still inside himself when he heard the cap snap back down. Daniel's slippery fingertips slid over his knuckles. He drew his index finger partway out and curled his other fingers out of the way. Daniel's face pressed into his shoulder. Daniel breathed his name into his skin. He said, "C'mon, Daniel." The raw need in his voice was genuine. His asshole was throbbing around his finger, begging for more stretch.

Daniel arched his finger and scraped the nail down the length of Jack's to keep it from catching the lip of the hole, scratching a line of fire through the lube into Jack's skin, and nudged in. His finger straightened to slide down the length of Jack's. His hand met Jack's, and covered it, and closed around it, and then he pushed.

Both fingers sank in deep. Jack made a high, broken sound and arched back more, trying to push his ass onto it, and Daniel pushed both their hands into the movement and then started rubbing. He was rubbing Jack's finger, not Jack's ass; rubbing up and down inside him, holding Jack's hand still. Jack uncurled the rest of his fingers to flatten them and get more of that one in, and Daniel pressed harder, putting some leverage into it, pushing Jack's finger deeper than he'd ever gotten it to go by himself. Still rubbing the pad of his finger into the first knuckle, rubbing into the dull sting of the line he'd scratched, rocking his knuckle in the tight, slippery space, massaging and stretching.

Jack clenched involuntarily, moaning for more. Daniel's hot breaths drenched his shoulder, coming fast, and he could feel Daniel's eyes screwed shut, but Daniel's hand urged patience, forced patience, slowly and rhythmically rocking. He huffed, trying to laugh at the switch; in distracting Daniel he'd driven himself to the edge. Daniel smiled a little, kissed; said, "If I give you another one now I might as well have just taken you the way you were." Jack's groan of response was close to begging. Daniel gave him more friction instead, moving both hands, controlling both hands with the leverage of his arm to piston the fingers inside him. Slippery sucking sounds joined the hum of fluorescents and fridge, the muted chirr of insects, and combined with the thick glycerine scent of body-warmed lube to cue Jack's backbrain to expect an orgasm soon, to push and thrust for it, try to make it happen. Nothing touched his taut cock and balls but air. He'd have fucked smoke right now if he thought it would get him off, except he wouldn't, because Daniel wasn't even nearly finished with him.

"You do it," Daniel said, and rubbed Jack's middle finger with his. He lifted his hand and held his finger still, and Jack, grunting with the effort of coordination, slid his index finger mostly out to slot the other in next to it. He paused, and then realized that he was waiting for an order that Daniel wouldn't give, and pushed the two fingers into himself inside the curve of Daniel's finger. He groaned with the intense pleasure of the stretch, the pleasure of hearing Daniel's groan, feeling Daniel's face twist against his shoulder.

"Yeah," Daniel panted as Jack started rocking his hand. He rode Jack's knuckles with his palm, following the movement, echoing it. "Oh, god, Jack, yeah, yeah ... " He was lost in the sensation of having a finger in Jack while Jack fucked himself. In a minute or two he'd surface, start to think, ask if Jack's arm was OK, if the position was OK, if it felt good, make sure that Jack was doing it for himself and not just to please him, get worried that his verbal encouragement was prompting Jack to do something uncomfortable. So Jack said, "Daniel," and when Daniel returned a blurry "Mmm?," he said, "Give me another," because it was good, it was so good, and they'd played with each other's asses together before but they'd never done this, never both put fingers all the way in like this, and if he could feel two of Daniel's against the two of his ...

"Four's a lot," Daniel said, and he said, "Four's barely as thick as your cock," and Daniel said, "I don't know about that," and he said, "Tape measure later, fingers now." All the more deliciously for the slow, painstaking care, Daniel retracted the one and pushed two into its place.

"Ah -- gaaah." Jack's head went back, and his body bowed, straining, the pillow squooshed up against the headboard, the swelling slippery surge of pressure like an icy heat through his pelvis, down his thighs. "God ... good ... Daniel ... "

Daniel eased down on his elbow to press his face into Jack's neck. "Should I ... What should I ... "

He was asking if he should move his hand or keep it still. "Get a rubber on," Jack said.

"I kind of ... " Daniel tried hard not to laugh and failed. His hands were pretty occupied. "I can't really ... "

Jack curled his fingers slightly, pressing with the pads, and groaned at the unbearably sweet-sharp sensations that rippled outward, the answering contraction in his balls. Daniel could reach the condoms and get one on left-handed if he had to, but if he moved his right hand at all while he was doing it, Jack wouldn't be able to hold it; at this point the air molecules stroking his dick were nearly enough. "Pull out," he said, "slowly," and he pulled his own fingers out a hair behind Daniel's and even more slowly, and then he was elbowing and rolling, swiping his hand through the sheets, fumbling with a condom packet, fingers still too smeary to grip.

Daniel took the packet on the other end of the strip and tore it open with his dry hand and his teeth, and Jack almost said fuck it, forget the damn thing, if Merlin's rollback couldn't roll back STDs then it didn't roll back everything and STDs were the least of their problems and if Daniel had caught something that was going to kill him then he was fucking well going down with him, but Daniel would click off like a switch at the slightest suggestion of exposing Jack to anything. What Daniel needed was his skin on Jack's skin, his bare dick up Jack's ass, but they couldn't have the condom argument right now because the fuck would be off and Daniel had only just come back on, not to mention that Jack was a little insanely fucking impatient himself at this point, so he went for the lube while Daniel pried the rubber out and rolled it on, and squirted a ridiculous amount of the stuff on the lubricated condom because he had to tip the bottle down and wait and his hand was squeezing three times too hard by the time the contents slopped over to the nozzle end. Daniel really was laughing at him now, distributing the lube evenly over the condom with one hand while the other went up to take Jack by the back of the neck and hold him for a laughing kiss on the mouth, to steady him, to center him, to still the fierce urgency he'd traded patience to Daniel for.

"How do you want me?" he said against Daniel's mouth, meaning Choose. Now. Do it, and Daniel smiled out of the kiss and looked him in the eyes and pushed him off his knees onto his hip, then onto his back.

"Like this," Daniel said, kneeing between his legs, and scooped Jack's right leg up while he leaned across to brace on his right arm. Jack's hips followed his leg, tilting to his left, and he flung a hand up to drag a pillow down and stuff it under his tailbone. Daniel didn't have a hand free to aim and his dick rode high when he was really, really hard, so Jack reached under for it as Daniel shifted his knees down and lowered his hips. His fingers caught it, slipped off, caught it again in a better grip when Daniel adjusted, lined it up. A groan pushed out of him when Daniel pressed the rubber-nippled tip into the hole to lock it in place. His ass opened, trying to suck it in, hungry for something meaty and thick to scratch the pressure-itch their fingers had left there.

"You sure you're ready?" Daniel said, his mouth curving, his eyes laughing.

Jack was out of comebacks, had nothing but adoration for that laughing face and burning need for that heavy cock; all he could manage was a growl.

Daniel's hips rolled forward. His sheathed erection slid past Jack's fingers. He filled Jack in a slick surge. Daniel's head dropped down, Jack's dropped back to thump on the mattress. Daniel's hand clawed on his thigh; his hand clawed on Daniel's arm. Four fingers had opened him wide enough to take Daniel's thick cock like butter, but even their long fingers were no substitute for full penetration. Jack felt it right up through his guts, down to his toes; he felt it in his teeth. He rasped out a "Yeah" to let Daniel know it was all right, that the shocked stillness in his body was the fuck that's good kind, not the fuck that hurts kind, and then he kept saying it, because Daniel was moving already, moving in him, repeating that surging thrust of penetration over and over again, because yeah it was still tight but the fit was perfect and with the right prep no pause for adjustment was ever needed.

"Fuck, how is it so tight, four fingers, Jack," Daniel was saying, lifting his head, still checking even though he was moving, even though Jack was gasping out "Yeah"s of pleasure, even though he could feel how absolutely fucking perfectly perfect it was.

"Long time," Jack said, raspy and hoarse, rocked on the swells of Daniel's thrusts. "It's always like this. Just forgot how it felt."

"Fuck," Daniel said, which during intercourse passed for a "Yeah" with him, "fuck, Jack, fuck, fuck ... "

His head dropped again, and his thrusts sped up, outstripping his swearing. A tension deep in Jack's chest unknotted and eased away as Daniel's body buckled down to the work of fucking him. Language dissolved into the low, rhythmic vocalizations he made when he was doing the work, whether like this or when he was riding Jack's cock, wordless sounds that spoke as clearly as words, a flow of pure voice that Jack closed his eyes to bask in while Daniel plundered his body. When Daniel changed the speed or the angle, words would come back in bursts, then ebb away into swearing and lapse back into grunting moans --

Until Daniel froze. His head jerked up, and right before he focused on Jack's face there was blind terror in his eyes. Before Jack could react to it, Daniel's expression turned almost grief-stricken with relief, and he said, "It's you. It really is you." Jack slid fingers up into his hair and scrunched his scalp and said, "It's really me, baby," and Daniel curled over and pressed his brow into Jack's chest and moaned, "Oh, god, thank god. Jack." More grunting, deeper thrusting, his arm and shoulder shifting Jack's leg higher to open him more, and Jack wanted to keep his hand in Daniel's hair, keep his head pressed close, but he had to throw the arm out for balance against the pull on his leg and Daniel was bracing up over him again to get more play in his hips. "I missed you," Daniel moaned, breathless now and half sobbing the words, fighting to get them out, or maybe to keep them in. "I missed you, I needed you, Jack, god, fuck, fuck, fuck ... " Jack ran nails down the arm that was holding his leg, stroked the pads of his fingers into corded muscle, riding it, caressing it. He said, "I'm here. It's me. I'm here," over and over again, low and soft in his raspy shaky voice, until he thought that maybe it was sinking in, until he could feel a hungry surge in Daniel's body that said belief had made it down into muscle and bone, Daniel's flesh remembering that this was where it belonged, that this was who it chose to fuck, that this was home, as he slid home again and again.

Jack scooped his right leg out of Daniel's grip and shoved his other hand down for his left, dragging it up and getting ahold of it to pull himself all the way open and make room for Daniel's knees. Daniel surged into the movement, kneeing up the bed in rocking shifts to come flush against Jack's ass and frame Jack's hips with his thighs and lift Jack's pelvis with his. The pillow sprang away, and Jack hooked his legs with his arms and pulled them higher. He said, "Harder, baby, come on," and grunted with the impacts as Daniel's thrusts got shorter and sharper. For one awful second, looking at Daniel from the adjusted position, dully comprehending why Daniel had chosen this position whether Daniel was aware of it or not, he thought This is what she -- but a thrill of heat through his lower body swept it from his mind, response to the unqualifiable subliminal cues that Daniel was starting to come. He said "Oh god," lifted on a sympathetic orgasmic surge, and like a continuation of a sentence Daniel moaned, "Oh fuck, so close ... "

Daniel leaned hard into his legs, bending him nearly double, driving into his ass. Jack dragged his arms free and groped up Daniel's arms and dug in to hang on. When the orgasm was contained and controlled and implosive, Daniel came in quaking stillness, but when he felt free to let loose he either threw his head back and shouted or curled over into expulsive groans. Jack was prepared for either of those. He wasn't prepared when Daniel lifted his head and made hard, desperate eye contact.

I can't, the look said. The same I can't as when they started. The same driving need running up against the same anguished block.

The difference between now and then was that now Jack understood why. Jack knew how hard Daniel had fought to disconnect, to have no part in it. Jack knew how impossible it was to unclench the fist of yourself when you'd kept it clenched that tight, that long. Jack knew the magic words that would let it open.

He dragged his arms around between them and cupped Daniel's face in his hands. "It's you, Daniel. Just you. It's you, it's me, it's us. Just us. You're home. You can let go."

Daniel's eyes creased half shut and his cheeks went tight and his mouth opened and he twisted his head to jam his face into Jack's palm, and his cock pumped in powerful bursts in the sheath of Jack's ass. Jack's words broke into a low cry of vicarious orgasm that punctuated the harsh moans Daniel was gasping into his hand. He held Daniel's head, stroking him through the climax, watching every rippling twitch in his features, feeling lips tremble in his palm. He gripped firmly when Daniel froze at the peak and held him steady while he spilled out of himself, eyes squeezed shut, body jerking, voice shredding. He soothed him down the other side, combing the damp hair off his brow, smoothing his skin as his face went slack, caressing and gentling until it was only twitches of aftershock, thundering heartbeat, voiceless panting breaths.

After a long time, Daniel groaned. An attempt to say Jack's name.

"Shhhh," Jack whispered back, thumbing Daniel's eyebrow, stroking around his ear. His balls were tight and aching, his own pulse throbbed in the tip of his cock, he felt huge and distended, so engorged that he'd burst his own seams. It was better that way. He didn't like having anything in him after he came. This way Daniel could stay in. This way he could relish every moment of soothing Daniel down.

Daniel's eyes opened, the clear blue that was still startling after all these years, that arresting clarity. He reached around for Jack's erection, and Jack caught his hand and stroked the knuckles: Not right now.

Daniel nodded. After another while, as language returned, he said, "I'll pull out then," voice quiet and shaky. "So you can put your legs down."

He'd have preferred that Daniel stay in him, fall asleep with their bodies joined, but in this position that wasn't going to happen. He grunted an affirmative. Daniel kissed the heel of his hand and pushed back off his legs and upright, then drew out in a long slide. Jack was still throbbing with arousal, and a tremor went through his hips and his abs. He couldn't tell if the condom had come out or stayed in; the flesh-memory of pressure persisted and it felt as if Daniel were still in there even though he'd felt his ass close up around the withdrawal. Daniel shifted his knees out of the way, closing his legs to make room for Jack's on either side, and eased his butt down. Jack got up on one elbow as soon as his heels touched the mattress. He saw Daniel palm the rubber off, start to chuck it at a wastebasket that didn't exist in this bedroom, then realize, and sit there on his heels, blinking.

For a few minutes he'd been home, so he'd thought he was home.

Jack pushed up sitting to face him, and took the wet dangly condom from his fingers. Felt like half a quart when Daniel unloaded it into him; never ceased to amaze him that this was all there was. He laid the condom on the flat of his hand and tugged the reservoir end to dump the contents into his palm. Let it drip for a few seconds, shook it, then tossed it aside and rubbed Daniel's come over the front of himself, nipples and ribs and belly, a flourishing swirl in his navel. Lifted his palm to his mouth, and licked it clean, watching Daniel watch him do it.

"Oh my god," Daniel said, halfway between amusement and dismay. "I don't know if there's much point if you're just going to eat it afterwards."

"There is no point," Jack said, and rolled the bittersweet taste around in his mouth. "No more condoms after this." Daniel's eyes sharpened, rejecting that and cautioning him, and he said, "We'll have that fight later. That and the tape measure." He took Daniel's chin in his sticky hand and kissed his lips, gently, tenderly. "Now you sleep."

"No way," Daniel laughed, and stroked a finger down the length of Jack's dick, making it jump, making Jack's balls twinge. "You're putting a rubber on this and then you're telling me whether you want it in my mouth or my ass or both."

Jack huffed a laugh in return, blinking at the fresh surge between his legs, what Daniel could do to him with a handful of words. Then he said, "I want you to sleep now. I'll make love to you in the morning. Only so much oil in the tank."

Daniel shook his head. "I know you have pills, and you know you won't need them." He ran his hands down Jack's inner thighs and gave a light squeeze. He had blanket permission, always, to touch Jack anywhere, but he was making this a negotiation and he wouldn't touch him between the legs again until it was decided.

All right; Jack could negotiate. Not the ass, because Daniel's body didn't tolerate penetration well this far into the afterglow, and Jack would never accept that what he was willing and eager to put up with to give Daniel pleasure should ever go the other way. But Daniel was always oral, always hungry. Always trying to get Jack to fuck his mouth in ways that even after all these years together Jack wasn't completely comfortable with.

Jack looked him straight in the eyes. "Then you suck me. But no condom."

"Jack."

"Daniel."

"Jack ... "

"Final offer, take it or leave it."

"Jack -- "

Jack displayed his hand. "Look at this, Daniel. It's had your come all over it twice tonight. See there, and there? My hands are always banged up, nicks and scrapes and shit from working around the house. I gnaw on my cuticles when you're missing; did a number on myself this time. And OK, this one's a papercut, so's that, got more of those now than anything else, but my hands have always been like this and I've been jerking you off bare skin on skin for the better part of a decade. Yours are just as bad, and you just had them jammed in my ass tight enough to abrade tissue. We've never played really safe, you and me. We've never played safe enough."

"Right, fine, and I give in on fellatio, the next thing to go is interc -- "

"Appetizing as the slippery slope is in this context, the choice remains."

Daniel looked away. "This isn't the time, Jack."

Jack scooched up closer. They both knew all the sides of this. How Merlin's rollback had probably taken care of it but they couldn't be sure no matter how many blood tests Daniel passed. How the Orici had never had sex before and was probably clean and anything she was carrying could have an incubation period of years and completely escape the medical profession until symptoms developed. How there was no way they were waiting years to have each other bareback again, and it didn't make any more sense to wait six months, or two months, or until morning. How it still felt unsafe to Daniel, just felt wrong to risk his partner after the way he'd been put at risk. How it was still too soon, for him.

OK, it was too soon. It was too soon for unprotected intercourse. But intercourse wasn't what Jack had picked. And STDs weren't all they were talking about.

"It'll never be the time." He pressed his cheek into Daniel's, kissed down into his neck. Affection, not foreplay to win the argument; he was the one who wanted Daniel to capitalize on nature's shot of oxytocin and get some sleep. "I won't back down on the oral-sex thing. You're not sucking any more prophylactics. Not with me. So wait until morning. Sleep with me first. Sleep in my arms. When you wake up I'll be beside you and you'll have that renowned morning wood and I'll do anything you ask me to do, any way you ask me."

"Jack." Daniel nuzzled into his hair, breathing him in, squeezing his thighs. He said Jack's name again, a lower sound, closer to a growl. His hands swept once, lightly, over the hair on Jack's legs, deliberately raising a prickle of goosebumps, then came up to push Jack firmly towards the headboard. "Scoot back," he said. It wasn't a suggestion. "All the way back, so I can stretch out."

Jack moved in response to the order, but slowly, pushing off his heels, dragging his ass. "Daniel, that wasn't -- I wasn't trying to -- "

"I know," Daniel said. He was looking between Jack's legs, assessing. His hands were on Jack's shins. He gave a push. "Move. I can't lift you up there from this angle."

Jack pushed back until he hit the smushed-out-of-shape pillow. When he reached around to pull it out of his way, Daniel belayed him and turned it on end behind him and stuffed the other one in horizontally, then pressed him back and slid hands down to grip his hips and pull him into the position he wanted him in, slumped comfortably into the pillows, legs open, ass accessible. He groped around for the bottle, found it somewhere in the rucked bedding. Jack was fully hard again by the time Daniel was pouring lube over his fingers; when he saw Daniel turn his hand under the flow and then smear the stuff around with his thumb to make sure that all four fingers were slicked, a fresh throb of blood surged through his groin. He wouldn't get all four in, not from this angle, not very far anyway. But fuck if the thought didn't count big-time.

Daniel stretched out, feet hanging off the end of the standard-size bed, and nosed deeply into Jack's groin. He rubbed his face through the hair, rubbed his one-o'clock-in-the-morning shadow around Jack's shaft and his sac, then soothed the light burn with his tongue. He kissed, and licked, and pulled back to admire the glistening spit on Jack's glans, the dampened hair on his balls. He knew what exposure to view did to Jack, when it was his view Jack was exposed to. He teased and watched the effects of his teasing until Jack's legs flopped open wide and Jack was shaking. Then he hiked his left elbow into a comfortable position under his chest, and pushed two fingers into Jack's hole, no warning, no preamble, twisting them as they went in.

Jack fisted the bedding and groaned. His head clunked back against the headboard over the highest pillow. Daniel's fingers curved up to brush his prostate, and he wasn't all that much of a prostate guy, didn't like having it repeatedly nailed when he was being fucked, his thing was pressure and fullness the way Daniel's thing was depth, but the light stroke of Daniel's fingertips was bliss. Silvery sweetness ran in a current from the gland into his testicles. He touched a hand to Daniel's head, to connect and to warn that Daniel was pushing him too close, and Daniel laid a tender kiss on the head of his penis and and said in a warm, rich voice, "You're not supposed to last for this. The plan here is pretty much to just suck it right out of you."

Daniel's lips closed over his glans and Daniel's tongue swirled warm and wet over the taut skin. Jack couldn't get enough breath to say "Go" or enough control over the shakes to say "More," but Daniel was fluent in the language of his body, and went down on him in a wet slide. Drenched, slippery lips, slick slippery fingers, tongue and throat and hand all working him at once, the brilliant, precious head between his legs, the familiar, beloved face in his crotch, the hot mouth engulfing his penis, the broad-chested, slim-hipped, round-assed, long-legged body stretched down the bed, long fingers flexing inside him, the pressure, the suction, the muscle -- he erupted into Daniel's mouth and spasmed around Daniel's fingers. He flattened against the pillows and headboard as if the bed were an acceleration couch and the room were pulling four g's.

He could hear and feel Daniel gulping the fluid down. The fingers inside him eased out just before the penetration got uncomfortable. Daniel's mouth softened as the spurting stopped; his tongue made a broad cushiony warmth for Jack's dick to lie on. He sighed contentment, long and low, a warm puff of air over Jack's wet shaft. He'd stay like this until Jack was completely soft again, and then he still wouldn't move until Jack shifted, or signaled with a touch or a sound.

Jack stroked his hair, murmured his name. Daniel opened his eyes and looked inquiry up at him. Jack nodded, reluctantly. He needed to get off his back and straighten his legs. He didn't train his body to bend this way in the gym. Weeks of no sex left him out of condition for this stuff.

Daniel drew off him, kissed the inside of his thigh, came up to kiss his mouth. Jack wanted to pull him down flat, pull him into his arms, see if he was sure enough of his own body and identity now to accept the cuddling kind of comfort Jack wanted to give. But Daniel got up before he could scooch down and pull; pushed off from a last kiss and went into the bathroom and took a leak and padded out to the fridge. Jack sorted the pillows out and collapsed facedown into one, arms around it, legs stretched out, feet more or less under the covers. Daniel came back with a couple of bottles of water, and Jack pushed up to chug from one, then flopped back down. Daniel got into the bed and pulled the covers up over them and pulled his pillow close and lay on his side, rubbing slow circles into the muscles of Jack's back with his palm.

Jack fell into a half-doze fantasizing about Daniel sprawled nuzzley and safe in his arms, waiting for Daniel to fall asleep, waiting for the hand to go limp and heavy on his back and slide away. He surfaced half an hour later when Daniel's hand went still because Daniel thought he was asleep. Daniel was lying there quietly, thinking, not sleeping.

Jack reached out and pressed knuckles to his chest, to let him know that he was awake, that he was here.

"When it was you, both times, the stuff in your head did what you needed it to do," Daniel said. "Added new gate addresses, fixed the DHD, dialed the Asgard. Told us where Teonas was, rigged the ship to go faster, got the charged ZPM, took us to the weapons outpost, put you in the stasis pod."

Oh, god, honey, stop, Jack thought. Sleep. He let himself think it. He'd never have let himself voice it. How many different ways had he told Daniel the same crappy, unbearable stories, how many unanswerable questions had he asked Daniel to answer in the middle of the night, how many times? This was how it worked. Recounting the same experience over and over, bleak one night and raging a month later, probing the memory from every angle, telling the story again and again until even you got bored with it, telling it however many times it took to drain its power to hurt you. Daniel had only just begun processing this. Jack had only just begun processing this.

"You needed it to take the brunt of the brainwashing and build the weapon. That's what it did."

"Maybe I needed it to seduce Adria too."

Jack hauled his face out of the pillow and curled up on his side with his hands between his thighs. He thought for a while, then said, "There's a difference between 'seduce' and 'fuck.' Judging from what you've told me, sexual intercourse wasn't necessary. Making her want you, leading her on, kissing her a little bit, whatever -- that would have clouded her judgment enough to let you off the leash and delay the weapon. If you want my tactical evaluation, that's it. You were right. The machine ... overcompensated."

"You'd have charmed her. If it'd been you."

"Yeah. Because I can be that much of a ruthless schmuck, and because I'm human. The machine was ... well, it wasn't human anymore. It could play the convert OK, but it couldn't fake the kind of shit you have to fake for an effective flirtation. It couldn't have sold it, and neither could you even if you'd been willing. So it had to use sex."

"I guess it couldn't fake agony either."

Jack went quiet. Insta-shutdown. He tried to breathe through it. Funny, he thought, how the walls snapped up out of the black like that to slam you. Funny how surprising it could be even when you knew full well that you were hurtling down a booby-trapped road.

"I'm sorry," Daniel said, after a long silence. "I'm being naive."

Jack closed his eyes for a second, so that he was looking at the dark, then opened them, so that he wasn't. "Maybe pain that severe would have fried its circuits."

"Yeah," Daniel said. "Maybe."

Or maybe there's a note a human voice hits when the pain gets bad enough, and torturers know that sound, and no machine consciousness could plausibly imitate it. Neither of them said it. Jack couldn't say it, not because he'd been the one making the sound, although he had, times without end; because he'd been the one listening.

What Daniel had described about the Priorization process explained a few things about the Priors they'd had in custody while Daniel was missing. Things he'd have just as soon Daniel not know. Things Daniel did know, now, because Daniel heard every note his silences hit.

There wasn't much he wouldn't have done to get Daniel back. Daniel knew that. Daniel would have figured it out eventually.

"They didn't feel any of it, Jack. It wasn't just Merlin or shock that numbed me out after Celestis. It's a Prior thing. Immunity to pain. Lack of sensation. They couldn't feel anything."

In a very low voice, Jack said, "I know." He pushed up and over to half-cover Daniel, thigh across Daniel's thighs, chest on Daniel's shoulder, and just lay there, breathing.

Daniel's hand came up and gently rubbed his arm, his shoulder blade. Jack could hear him saying You were right too. There is an 'and.' He could hear his own moaned I knew it in the depths of Daniel's pillow, which was how he knew they weren't talking aloud, because he'd never have said that in his outside voice. Sometimes this was when Daniel released the worst stuff he was holding in, some instinct for reciprocity maybe, or as if the shift of focus to Jack's stuff took the pressure of attention off him enough for his suppressed stuff to break the surface. But Daniel just rubbed and stroked, shifting his body, worming his way more underneath. Jack got heavier, falling slowly towards sleep, emotional exhaustion like a sinker dragging him under, so tired, so good to have Daniel to sink into. You're here, he tried to say, because the whole meaning of existence came down to that right now. You're back. We're together. It was why he could sleep. But he was sleeping, and he couldn't connect to his own mouth.

What felt like a minute later but he knew was about seven hours, he opened his eyes to a greywater wash of daylight diluting the poured yellow of the lamp they'd left on. Daniel had rolled onto his side in his sleep, and Jack had slept slumped against his back, arms tucked up between; as Daniel stirred, feeling him wake, Jack slid one of the arms around the warm bulk of him, shifting up and in to slot his face in behind Daniel's head. Daniel wrapped arms around his arm to cuddle it in close, and pushed back into him.

I don't want to take you back there, Jack thought.

"Time?" Daniel asked, slurry-voiced.

Ever, Jack thought. "Nine-ish."

Daniel grunted. Jack squeezed in tighter, pressing his face into Daniel's hair, pressing his skin into Daniel's skin, trying to get more of the warmth he needed, and Daniel pushed closer to him, pulled him more around, slid a leg back for him to sandwich with his thighs, trying to give it to him.

He'd had trouble with the cold since the stranding in Antarctica, especially in his sleep, even if the room was warm, and the sleep part had gotten worse since his stint in the Ancient stasis chamber. He'd always slept differently at home -- on the job he slept silently and lightly, one ear open for trouble, and at home he slept deeply and snored -- but as the crazy shit had piled up over those seven, eight years of going offworld, his onworld sleep metabolism had changed. As if, when he was safe and home, it downregulated into something like hibernation, like cryogenic suspension, and he always woke chilled to the bone. So chilled that his own body heat couldn't warm him even though he slept in sweats and socks, mounded himself in blankets. Even another human body in the bed couldn't warm him unless that body was Daniel's. He'd found that out in those weeks after the NID came close to nailing them and they accepted Johnson's offer and tried bearding him. He hadn't taken to sleeping in his own space again a week in because he didn't like sleeping wrapped around her or because he liked it too much for comfort; up-close-and-intimate hadn't auto-triggered him for sex since he'd joined his junior-high wrestling team, forget Basic, forget Special Forces, and if it had he'd have been as unbothered by it as she'd have been good-humored and practical. He'd retracted from the middle of the bed back into his side because waking chilled and reaching for Daniel and wrapping around someone else's warm, sleepy body left him colder and more miserable than he'd have been on his own. It wasn't a physical chill, even though it felt like one. It wasn't even psychological, psychosomatic. It was a spiritual chill he'd caught in the drifting, anchorless void of that stasis pod, and he suffered a relapse every night in the lonely dreamspace of his own brain. Getting up, getting going, working out, coming to grips with the demands of his day got his circulation going again and banished the night's chill. But in bed, when he first woke, cold to his core, Daniel was the only thing that helped. A full night's sleep with Daniel was the only thing that kept him from waking that way in the first place.

"Better?" Daniel said, after a while, when Jack's first blind seeking push toward the radiant heat of him had eased into a comfortable slump.

"Yeah," Jack said, and kissed a soft thank-you into the shell of Daniel's ear.

Daniel said, "And I'm afraid that when I'm the only one with the knowledge and power to save the world, I turn into a monster."

And.

That was the 'and.'

Before coffee? Jack's brain cried out, but there wasn't time, and he knew it, and apparently Daniel knew it. If it wasn't something they could discuss on the ride back, it was now or ... not for a long time. It could be weeks before he was back in the Springs or Daniel could get away.

Daniel needed more than one night. They couldn't afford to take another day. He was this close to making the calls to alert Landry and adjust his schedule, but he stilled the hand that would have reached for his phone and took a long, deep breath instead.

Daniel logrolled in his arms, surprising the breath out of him, kissing away whatever he'd have said. He kissed with his lips, no tongue; not sex kisses, not do-me kisses -- love-you kisses, morning-breath kisses, chapped dry mushy-from-sleep kisses.

He wasn't hard. With the exception of the mornings after he'd had too much to drink, he woke hard every day, at home or on base or offworld, no matter how much sex he had or hadn't had the night before. Physiological systems check, hardwired in. Just another thing captivity had disrupted, Jack told himself. A connection between mind and body that hadn't connected back up yet. He felt guilty for being glad of it. Glad not to be called on to deliver therapy sex or an intelligent rebuttal to that motherfucker of an 'and' first thing. He shouldn't be glad. It was probably a problem. But it got him this. An armful of Daniel and warm sleepy undemanding kisses. He needed this. He needed a lifetime of this.

He needed to enjoy this without feeling it was the reward for doing his job in the field, and therefore a pleasure he didn't deserve because where he was working now wasn't the kind of field where you earned something like this.

"Coffee," Daniel said, and kissed Jack's chin. It was I'm sorry for bringing it up and Let it go for now. "I'll fix it." He didn't get up.

"There's only instant. I didn't know about the coffeemaker."

"If you can stand it, I can stand it." Daniel ran the back of his hand over the frosting of dried come on the front of Jack's body. "Shower. I'll come in."

Neither of them moved. Jack kissed Daniel's mouth, gentle and slow, savoring the fleshy fullness of his lips, the soft intimate contact. His chest itched where Daniel's knuckles had brushed it, and Daniel turned his hand and scritched through the hair, sent a drift of sugary flakes down between them. Jack moaned, low and longing, and kissed deeper. He wanted to lose himself in the touching, the kissing, but he couldn't damp the echoes in his head. The more awake he got, the more clear and insistent Daniel's words got.

What I turn into when it's about me, when it's down to me, he'd said.

I can't be that, Jack, he'd said. I'm so fucking scared of being that.

And Jack had said -- what? Something about his team stepping up. Something that didn't remotely address the problem as stated. Something that didn't help at all.

They drew back at the same time, drew breath at the same time. Daniel was faster on the trigger. He said, "You don't usually wake up cold with me."

Knocked off track, Jack said before he thought, "You don't usually wake up soft at all."

Daniel's searching look went flat. "Yeah, well. Guess they wore me out, huh."

"Jesus, Daniel, that's not what I -- " But Daniel was already rolling to his feet, pushing away the tangling covers. He stood, the curve of spine and ass lit by daylight from the front room, skin that sunlight had barely touched in weeks looking healthy and lightly tanned, muscles as toned as when he left. All the wounds, all the scars, invisible. He took his glasses off the nightstand, unfolded them carefully and put them on. Jack said, "I'm sorry."

"Me too," Daniel said. "I'm ... still feeling kind of estranged from this body. As if I'm ... I don't know, pissed off at it for all the sex it had with someone who wasn't you. Pissed off at it for being capable of that. Pissed that fucking you didn't magically make it all better." He shook his head, then said over his shoulder, "Go take a shower so we can fix the water hammer before we go."

So we can fix a fixable thing. They should launder the bedding before they drained the pipes. One thing at a time. "OK," Jack said.

Daniel looked poised to stalk off, but he sat down again, suddenly, as if someone had kicked him behind the knees. "I guess we'll need to do the sheets, too. But if I run the washer while you're in there it'll suck up all the hot water."

Jack sat up beside him. "Shower, then laundry," he said.

"That'll take too long."

"No. It won't."

"I don't know what you -- I don't know when I'm expected to -- when I'm supposed to be back."

"Sometime this evening. There's no exact time."

"OK," Daniel said. "OK. Shower, then laundry."

When Daniel put a hand on his thigh and squeezed, he ran a hand up Daniel's back and put the arm around his shoulders.

"We can stay another night, Daniel. I'll make it happen."

"I know," Daniel said. His tone said But we can't, or maybe But it still won't be enough time, or maybe But there's no point if it's not forever, and this isn't where I want to spend forever, even with you. Or maybe Jack was only hearing his own thoughts in Daniel's voice. That happened sometimes.

"I'll come in," Daniel said again, even though Jack was pretty sure he wouldn't, and pushed up from Jack's leg to go put water on for the coffee.

Jack tossed Daniel's still-damp shorts into the little dryer in the back and got into the shower. Daniel came in just as he finished, but let Jack stay, let Jack lather him, stood with his eyes closed in sensual bliss and a hand on the shower's grab bar for balance while Jack massaged shampoo into his hair. Jack was against shower sex as a rule; close hard-tiled spaces weren't generally where he preferred to engage in activities where people tended to lose control. He'd have made an exception today, but Daniel seemed more than content just to be touched, stroked, rubbed. He'd have liked to just stand with him under the spray, pressed close, skin to skin, until the water ran cold, but the teakettle was crying for attention and they had to save some hot water for the laundry. They got out and toweled each other dry. He tried to be content with the brisk rub of the nubbled cloth.

Daniel had stripped the bed before he came in. Jack threw the towels in with the bedding and ran the washer while Daniel mixed the coffee. They ate breakfast bars in their shorts at the kitchenette table in the sunshine, morning news on the cheap little countertop radio. When the news gave way to a string of pop songs, Daniel looked up, and Jack quirked a brow at him: Monster on the table. What do you say. Talk about it? Daniel shrugged and shook his head: Leave it, forget it, never mind, it's OK. Jack rolled his head, pursed his lips -- Don't 'OK' me anymore, enough with the 'OK's, you're not OK -- and Daniel blew a soft, voiceless raspberry and gestured with fanned fingers: Fine, you have something to say, say it.

"So you meant that before, or it was some bad dream talking?"

"I'm regretting I said it. But yes, I meant it."

"Why regretting? You can't tell me things now?"

Daniel's hand tightened on his mug, and he turned his face away. Jack had rarely seen him blush, but color rose into his cheek. This one really did cut close to the bone. The only reason he'd come back to it at all was because he was half asleep at the time. He'd probably vowed to spit it out quick in the morning, before he had filters in place to stop himself, then cringed when he heard himself say it out loud, and wished he hadn't.

"You know," Jack said, "some days I would really like to go track that kid down and kick his incorporeal ass. That vision was a fable. It was specific to the genetic knowledge of the Goa'uld and the evil fuckwaddery that comes with it. The moral was 'You aren't immune to the fuckwaddery of the Goa'uld's genetic memory, so leave it the fuck alone,' not 'You will become a megalomaniacal mass-murderer any time it's in your power to save the world.'"

"It's not just about what Shifu showed me. It's not about 636, either, although I think the effect repeated sarcophagus use had on me is a valid indicator given the effect it didn't have on you. It's about the way I behaved when I was ascended. I mean -- " He shoved the mug away from him. Coffee sludge slopped up the sides but didn't clear the rim. "I couldn't tell, Jack. I came back begging you guys to carry out my plan because I was me, begging you to believe me because it was me, Daniel -- but I didn't know which me it was, the regular one or the one in power mode tweaking on higher-plane meth."

He was flexing his hand again, turning and examining each side, and Jack remembered the other times he'd seen Daniel do that: when he was high on the sarcophagus, and in the weeks after he'd come back from his first ascension.

"I tried to tell you," Daniel said. "When I brought up the thing with Baal. I tried to warn you that I might have turned into something like what I'd turned into then."

"It did seem like an ... odd thing to bring up," Jack said, carefully, awkwardly. "A situation where you knew that at the time I ... felt you let me down. I mean, since I thought the idea was to remind me how tight we were without announcing to the whole ship that we'd been secretly married for years." In fact it had been a gut punch, when Daniel said it. But he'd chalked it up to the recorded interrogation room, the private minefield they were mincing through in public view, the stress of keeping their personal secret on top of everything else.

Daniel's flexing hand clenched into a fist. "I believed I was doing the right thing. But I knew I'd believed that before and been horribly wrong. I wanted you to answer the question you and everybody else were asking me. I wanted you to tell me whether I could be trusted."

"Well, I guess I did," Jack said, as if he'd only just realized it himself. "I gave the order to open the gate."

"I could still be a sleeper," Daniel said. "Just because I didn't jump up and take command of those ships doesn't mean I wasn't ... programmed to open the hole for them. There could be something Merlin's system restore didn't roll back. Some Prior trojan lurking in the bottom of my head. Something way worse than an Ori venereal disease."

"Everyone's well aware of that, Daniel. In fact, you're irreparably compromised. They just can't afford to summarily deactivate you. They need you too much. Even they know that. Part of the way I finagled this road trip was by telling Landry and the IOA that I was the only one qualified to assess your, you know, youness, but I needed a day of complete, unsurveilled privacy with you to do it."

Daniel hooked the ceramic handle with his finger to draw the coffee mug back into range, and said, "Kinda figured that."

Jack twitched a smile at the tit-for-tat lie. "They want a positive report. Obviously they'll get one."

"Obviously?"

"Obvious to me."

"And Landry?"

"Landry, who thinks this was performance management -- which isn't totally untrue, but whatever -- will get his own private report and think we put one over on the IOA."

"They were ready to kill me, and now they're ready to buy anything you tell them as long as they don't lose me."

"Yep. Go figure."

Daniel tossed back the dregs of the horrible instant coffee and got up to turn off the radio. "Washer's stopped. How about we go find the water main."

They found the main, turned it off, and opened all the taps to drain the system. Now they'd have to wait a few minutes, give the thing a chance to dry out. Jack put the linens in the clothes dryer while Daniel bagged the trash and put it out. Jack could have used some air, had half an eye on the rickety chairs on the little porch, but he couldn't face the glare of the sunshine, and Daniel came back sneezing; there'd been no reason to renew his allergy meds in the infirmary, then no time as Jack whisked him away, and whatever had been in his system when the headsucker set its restore point had worn off. Jack flopped back down on the bed, already feeling the sticky midday heat, appreciating the smooth, cool quilting of the bare mattress. Daniel finally stopped sneezing, tossed the toilet paper he'd used for tissue, and stretched out beside him.

"How broken am I, Jack?" Daniel's voice was soft, matter-of-fact. He already knew the answer. He still needed to hear it.

"Not broken enough." Jack's voice was low. This hurt to say. "If the next time doesn't break you, the time after that will. But you can go on. You can do your job. Effectively. Reliably. You're not broken enough to pull."

"You want to pull me."

Jack rolled to face him. "With all my heart."

Daniel bent his nearer arm up to curl his hand around Jack's triceps, coincidentally the spot where Jack was most self-conscious about retreating muscle and encroaching flab. "You're the last person I should have told the whole story. The one person with the power to yank me out by the scruff of the neck who also loves me too much to see me stay in."

"You told me anyway."

"You're the only person who could answer the question."

"Yeah," Jack said. He laughed, bitterly, inappropriately. "Yeah, that's why we're here."

"You can lie. This is your chance to get me benched and screw them over at the same time. They were going to execute me. Now they want me back and they can't have me. Payback's a bitch."

That hadn't occurred to him. He wasn't above it, now that Daniel mentioned it, but he didn't see them as that kind of adversary. What Daniel had said before, about the Man, about respect ... "I don't want to stick it to 'em. I just want 'em to get out of my fucking way." He stared at the faux-pine paneling on the walls. Supposed to make the place look as if the owners were going for rustic charm. He'd have figured they were too lazy to re-plaster if he didn't know the stuff was there to hide the surveillance-opaquing. The knots looked like eyes. Hardy har. "I won't pull you for your own good. It has to be your decision. But if you want me to, I will."

"You'll be the bad guy if I need you to. You'll do it for me if I can't bring myself to quit. You'd rather have me alive and sane and hating you for enabling my cowardice."

"You wouldn't hate me. You'd hate yourself and take it out on me."

Daniel's hand contracted in a too-sharp squeeze -- the equivalent of a wince of regret and apology.

"The IOA would only overturn it later anyway," Jack said. "Give you a few weeks to recover, ask you back. And you'd go. For the same reasons you won't ask me to pull you right now. For the same reasons I haven't resigned." He couldn't look at that paneling anymore. The layered shielding it concealed made the room smaller, more constricted. He rolled onto his back and pressed his shoulder against Daniel's so that it wouldn't seem like he was rolling away. The ceiling was no better. Snow-white stucco. Christ. "If you were so broken you had to get out, you'd know it. Just asking me the question answers it. And if this is a power thing, then rest assured that any power I have over your deployment is temporary. Anything I could force on you or trick the IOA into, you could undo with the wave of a finger. No magic powers required."

"I am the master of my fate." Daniel's tone was only tinged with mockery.

"In this respect, yeah. Because you're that valuable. That irreplaceable."

"No one's irreplaceable."

Jack shook his head. "You are. You, Carter, Teal'c." He looked over. "Rodney McKay."

The corner of Daniel's mouth quirked up, and then he chuckled, like a low rumble of thunder after a flicker of lightning. Less than Jack had been going for -- he meant it about McKay, but he'd thought Daniel would laugh outright to hear him say it -- but some relief, at least.

Daniel started to say something, stopped himself, then said, "I guess I don't want to know what you told the team."

"I didn't have to tell Carter and Teal'c anything." Teal'c had known about the two of them since the time loop, Carter since right after they got Thor back from Anubis. Hammond had known since Nicaragua, Hayes since right before Jack's last promotion, the one they pushed through early so he'd qualify for the DHS gig. "Mitchell expressed concern that higher wouldn't reactivate you, and I told him I am higher and I'd take care of it. If he knows about this trip at all, he figures this is me taking care of it. I'm pretty sure Mal Doran's got our number, by the way, and it's a matter of time before she shares with Mitchell."

"She doesn't have anything."

"She's a bloodhound. You should stop trying to make her a lapdog."

"She likes my lap."

"I noticed. You know what I mean."

"Yes, because you've told me that before. Ad nauseam."

Because he kept ignoring it. He moaned and groaned about the lecturey professor he kept turning into with women he had a thing for, but when Jack pointed out that he was doing it again he told Jack to fuck off. He was doing it again. Mal Doran was the central feature of his fantasy life for weeks after that hijacking, and while he was hot for the idea of her, not particularly for her, it got all scrambled up when she walked down the gate ramp, and one sniff told her exactly how to manipulate him. Jack had more than a little admiration for that -- not many people could get Daniel's goat -- and no sympathy whatsoever: until her change of heart, she deserved every ounce of crap Daniel threw back at her. But she had genuinely changed sides, and the way he kept patting her on the head for being a good girl was beating her into the ground. Was that evidence of an inner evil dictator, or just evidence that Daniel could be a dick?

For a while they lay there, shoulder-to-shoulder, listening to the birds sing and the bedding flop around in the dryer, staring at the hideous swirls of plaster on the ceiling. Jack was pretty sure that Mal Doran wasn't what Daniel was seeing up there, but finally he went ahead and said, "She's a sharp operative. You keep deliberately dulling her edge and she won't be." He waited for Daniel to tell him to fuck off, but Daniel just kept staring straight up, so he finished, "She's not a sexual threat anymore. She's your teammate and your friend. She'll be just as loyal to you and a lot more useful if you knock off the judgey patronizing crap. I'm just sayin'."

Solving the question of the ceiling, Daniel said, "That's what I turned into with you. When I was ascended. This self-righteous asswipe making judgments about the, the, the, the worthiness of your spirit."

Well, yeah. When he felt powerless -- against a cabal of ethereal superbeings, against a clever button-pusher and his own button-riddled psyche -- he lashed out with moralizing intellect. It was offensive as hell until you understood where it came from. "You were trying to buck the censors without getting hooked off the stage. I know that now. I know what that looks like now. Maybe that's why I gave the order. Because I know how you get."

"How I get when I'm convinced I'm right? When I'm willing to do anything, manipulate anyone, sacrifice anyone, to get my own way?"

"How you get when you're trying to do the right thing and the higher powers are wrong."

"This time I was the higher power."

"No you weren't. The IOA was." Jack's gut rumbled. Not hunger; a tumbling burble of acid. It wasn't audible, but he reached across Daniel to snag a bottle of water off the nightstand anyway, twisted the cap off and knocked a few swallows back to damp it down, at least provide an excuse for it if it got loud. "You don't turn into a monster any more than I do, and I have a crapload of power, and I was in the same goddamn position. So you didn't whisk me away from Baal's. You did what you could, within the constraints you had to deal with and given what you knew at the time. You jiggered it so the team could do their thing and I could get myself out without Oma pulling your plug. And c'mon, talk about hubris -- you think you were alone in this? I gave the order to open the gate, your team made it happen. You don't get that one all to yourself." He took another swallow of water and handed the bottle to Daniel. "Never mind that MechaMerlin was kibbitzing the whole way."

Daniel elbowed up, drank, offered it back, capped it when Jack shook his head. "What if I do, though? What if there was no Merlin? If he was a construct, what if he wasn't a construct of the machine, but a construct of my own mind? What if some last wisp of my own ascendedness flared up when I interfaced with the machine, and the only way my mind could cope with it was if I personified it? What if it was all me?"

"What if it was? You scared the crap out of Woolsey but you didn't kill him. You knocked out a couple of MPs. You beamed a few people around. If that's as bad as you get, that's good."

"Then it was me doing that to Adria."

"Then it was you. Overcompensating, using sex because you're crap at seduction, doing something you don't know how you're gonna live with, committing an act you find morally repugnant. Is that what happened? Because I know from that, Daniel. If that's what we're talking about, then let's talk about it."

Daniel was very still beside him for a very long time. The bungalow let out a couple of low creaks as its timbers swelled in the heat. The birds kept singing, oblivious. Finally, quietly, Daniel said, "No. That's not what happened."

"OK," Jack said. "I didn't think so. It's OK if it was -- "

"It wasn't."

"OK. So? What was so monstrous?"

"I used all of you to secure an objective."

"Well, hell -- welcome to my world. For fuck's sake, Daniel, I've been using you since I met you."

"Not under pretenses. Not like that."

"What pretenses? Pretending to be you so that we wouldn't realize you actually were you, only this scary woo-woo you we shouldn't trust because you can't be trusted with that kind of power?"

"Treating you all like gamepieces I was moving around on a board. All of you. Even Sam. Even Teal'c. Even you." His voice dropped. "Maybe especially you."

For one brutal instant Jack wanted to snarl, Grow the fuck up. It was called deployment. It was what leaders did. Even the ones who worked with their friends and their spouses. It sucked and it was hard but you bit the bullet and you did your job. Willing himself patient, he said, "You had a mission to complete and when explanation and persuasion failed you did what had to be done. The beaming thing, OK, that was pretty chesspiecey, but you were right that it had to be you in the chair. Nobody else could have whammied the Orici."

"I know. That's what I mean. That's what I meant before. Nobody else could sit in the chair. But I don't belong in The Chair. The Chair scares the hell out of me." He looked at Jack. "That kind of fear is incomprehensible to you."

"I don't have to share it to get it, Daniel. You want fear? Power makes me conservative. It makes me overcautious. It makes me overthink. Well, it means a buttload of paperwork, too. But it makes me think three times instead of twice about taking the kind of shots that used to save our asses on a regular basis, and that kind of hesitation gets people killed."

"So you're still adapting to command on that scale. With the brief exceptions of some piloting and Incirlik, you were small-unit-tactics guy for the better part of three decades, and now you're prosecuting a guerrilla war across an entire galaxy. But you're a born leader. You thrive in a culture where leadership is a basic skill and a universal ambition."

Not so basic or universal, Jack thought -- and not meant to be, and that was important. They also serve who only get their heads sucked by alien gizmos and go under deep cover for weeks and come back as traumatized French mimes and face a guillotine. But Daniel was right about the three decades. Jack had been evaluating leadership ability and command performance for thirty years. He'd never evaluated Daniel's. Only ever assessed him as an operative, a specialist; only ever evaluated his mission performance. It felt wrong, it felt transgressive, it felt like too little too late, but he gave Daniel a long, hard look: the look he'd give a cadet or an officer candidate. Damn near impossible to judge him by those standards. He was a formidable, experienced veteran, quick-thinking and shrewd and resourceful, a force to be reckoned with, a hero -- but he was not, by any stretch, no matter how he might present to any given civilian, military.

He wasn't military. He didn't think military. He couldn't be comprehensively assessed by military standards. And this wasn't about judging him. This was about how he judged himself.

"All right," Jack said. "This fear. This monster. I might have an idea." It took conscious effort to discard the language of military evaluation and just tell Daniel what he thought. "I think you believe you have to turn your humanity off to make command decisions. I think that empathy is so integral to how you evaluate situations that when you do that, when you flip that switch, you don't trust the decisions you make and you don't feel like it's even you making them."

"Your command objectivity is not monstrous."

"No. But apparently yours is."

For almost three minutes, Daniel looked completely blank. Not baffled, not poker-faced, not even neutral, just -- deactivated. Then he rolled his head and looked quietly at Jack. "Yeah," he said. "It seems that way to me."

"You don't have to turn it all off. It's not all or nothing."

"Maybe it is, for me. Maybe I ... just can't be you."

Every hour of every day out East, Jack found himself in situations that made him keenly aware of how much he was not Daniel. It wasn't all circumstances and training; it was inclination and instinct, too. Daniel was command-capable. Daniel could be trained to be more capable. But Daniel would still pay this price for being in charge, every time. And come right down to it, it wasn't Daniel's job.

"You're not supposed to be," Jack said. "Any more than I'm supposed to be you." He elbowed up. "I don't know if there's going to be anything I can do to keep you from being put in that position again," he said. "But if there is, I'll do it, Daniel."

"I know you will." Daniel rested the side of his hand on Jack's breastbone. He looked grateful to be heard and understood, grateful for Jack's help in solving the puzzle of himself. He looked like he didn't expect a solution, didn't think there was a solution, but what mattered to him was understanding the problem, and he did now, and Jack did too, and that ... helped.

Jack wanted to fix it. Jack wanted it not to have gone wrong like this in the first place. "What I am supposed to do is make evaluations like that when they count, not two days later. I'm sorry. I won't make that mistake again." He flopped back down, flung an arm up over his head, regretted not grabbing back one of the pillows Daniel had put off to the side when he stripped the bed.

Daniel lifted the hand off him and waved it. Dismissal, not a remnant of superpower habits. "Suppose you'd told me straight up that it wasn't me -- do you think I'd have stopped? I'd have done exactly what I did anyway as soon as I got past that device."

"It was you. If I'd been able to get a decent look at you, I'd have told you that, and everything would have gone a hell of a lot more smoothly. If it wasn't, well, who knows what Merlin or some brainwashed Prior would have done -- it wouldn't have been you doing it. You knew you were right because you were right. The problem was that I couldn't see past my own bullshit."

"Are you trying to take the blame for this somehow?"

"What, to make you feel better?"

"That's what you do. Take responsibility for everything your unit does. This wasn't your unit. This wasn't your mission."

"It was once they called me in on it."

"Oh my god. Now who's trying to get this one all to himself?"

"You needed me to believe it was you, which I would have if I hadn't been acting like an idiot. You needed me to get behind your plan and see that it was carried out, which I would have if I'd been sure it was you. You didn't want to be in command -- you wanted to be deployed. There's not a damn thing wrong with that. What's wrong is that you were called on to do two people's jobs. You needed someone to take command so that you could be the specialist you're supposed to be. You needed me to take command, just like in the old days, so that you could be who you're supposed to be, on the team you're supposed to be on."

Daniel looked away, but not soon enough to conceal the hurt and longing in his eyes. The truth of how he'd never really gotten over Jack leaving that team. "I didn't expect you. I expected Landry, and I expected him to assign it to Mitchell."

"But you got me. And I let you down." Getting him should have solved the whole problem. He should have been able to quickly and efficiently evaluate whether to trust Daniel and he should have had the authority to act unimpeded on his evaluation. But the situation screwed him both ways, and so it screwed Daniel. It forced Daniel to use his Prior powers to deploy himself, which made him think he'd turned into the freaky powermonger he was afraid of. If he hadn't had to act like Daniel was just a guy he used to work with, he'd have assessed him in fifteen minutes and they'd have deployed that weapon before the IOA had time to concoct a way to fuck them up, before the Orici got suspicious about her pet Prior's extended absence and ran back to her ship. If she was dead, maybe it was better the way it went down; taking her out was a benefit the original plan hadn't provided for. But the delay in interrogation and evaluation had brought the mission close to failure. "I let you down because I couldn't be me. Half the shit that hit this fan could have been avoided if I could have talked to my fucking partner in that holding cell."

"Jack -- "

"It fucked us up, Daniel." He knew that Daniel had a terror of him outting himself. He understood that terror. It was the same terror he had of Daniel being captured, tortured, mutilated. Things he'd accept as par for his course if they happened to him, but couldn't bear if they happened to Daniel. He did bear them; he was bearing them right now. Daniel didn't think he could bear Jack's public defrocking -- what he thought it would do, to Jack, to be stripped of his rank, his uniform, his military identity, even in a backroom deal to step down quietly, even if resigning was something Jack fantasized about every day. Daniel felt that being publicly discredited, humiliated, was par for his course and not something he could bear if it happened to Jack. But he would bear it if he had to. "That's never happening again."

"If it were just us?" Daniel said. "You'd have thrown your hands up and walked out after two minutes instead of five. I whined at you. I threw tantrums."

"Because aside from having an intolerable amount of pressure on you, a fuckload of post-traumatic stress, and a geriatric magician in your head, you weren't talking to me. You were talking to that clown I use for cover." His act had been for the cameras and mics, but it had also been a ploy to get Daniel to come out by behaving in a way that pissed the crap out of Daniel. It worked -- it pissed the crap out of Daniel, set him bouncing and wriggling in the chair -- but he didn't see that for the clue it was, because it wasn't the reaction he was looking for. His Daniel froze him out when he pulled shit like that. But Daniel couldn't be his Daniel in that room. No Ori Prior or virtual wizard could have faked being who Daniel was with him ... but he couldn't be who he was with Daniel, so there was no him there for Daniel to be Daniel with. He'd put on a mask that neither of them could see through. "It was the Bip and Bozo Show. No wonder we didn't get anywhere."

"If you'd outted us -- "

"The mission objective would've been secured before they had time to relieve me of command."

Daniel stared at him for a long time, and then said, "That only works once."

"So does both of us going down in a hail of weapons fire because they think 'over my dead body' is a figure of speech."

"That's what you said when the termination order came through?"

"Of course that's what I said."

"Nobody would've fired at you, Jack."

"Of course they wouldn't. Or you either, even looking like that, if I told them not to. Even if Landry backed the IOA and ordered them to. Push comes to shove, those people will still follow me. I'd have led a military coup against the IOA, thrown Woolsey in the brig, relieved Landry if necessary, carried out your damn plan as a rogue if I had to. And gotten a lot of good men cashiered for it, your team included. It can't keep going down like that."

"It didn't go down like that this time."

"It was close."

"It's always close."

"It shouldn't be that kind of close anymore!" He'd shouted, loud enough to make Daniel blink. He ground his voice back down to an ordinary level. "It shouldn't be a squeeze play. All those years, a war on two fronts, the enemy on one side and the Kinseys on the other -- that problem was supposed to be solved. I'm supposed to be able to protect you from that now." He was shaking again. It wasn't passing this time. It was getting worse. It was adrenaline-crash shaking, it was deferred-fear-response shaking, it was how you shook after the superhuman effort to save a life, how you shook after a near miss when the could-haves caught up with you. It was all the fear you couldn't get the job done if you let yourself feel, demanding to be felt, smashing through the bars of the cage where you shoved every other inconvenient and debilitating response. All the shit that was triggered by the most innocuous detail. The streak of rubber left on the pavement showing the swerve of the vehicle that hadn't hit the baby stroller. The crushed rations in your pack after the fall that didn't crush your bones. Daniel was here, alive and whole beside him, and for a blinding moment all his presence amounted to was a reminder of what could have happened. The quantum mirror had nothing on this. A toy, a mockup, clunky and simplistic, the little lightbulb in an Easy Bake Oven stacked up against the eternal fires of damnation. This was why he rejected his robot copy, his clone, his reflections in the quantum mirror. Not because he couldn't stand them being him too, couldn't stand not being the only one of him. Because he was only one thin mirrored surface away from being any one of them.

He rolled onto his butt and sat up, pulled his knees up, braced his elbows on his thighs. Heard Daniel say his name, quietly but not that quietly, as if Daniel were a mile down a well, his name a call from down at the end of a roaring wind tunnel, and he thought, Bad sign, bad bad sign, shake it off, O'Neill. But he couldn't shake it off. He ground the heels of his hands into his brow, not sure whether the impulse was to hide or to press sensation into his own skin, prove he was still connected to his own face. Wait it out, then. It would pass. He'd been through this before. It always passed. But it wasn't passing. It was growing, rolling up from deep inside him, sweeping up all the crap, all the detritus collected in the gutters of his history, the psychic debris of thirty years of close calls, thirty years of catastrophic fuckups, Michaels, Kawalsky, Fraiser, my son, all the king's horses and all the king's men, stars after bars and leaves and birds and not one of them proof against the forces of error, negligence, evil, gravity, ballistics -- not one of them a magic pendant, no rank powerful enough, no powers powerful enough, no position high enough no matter how high he climbed, nothing earned in the end by spitting on the ladder and making the climb crumbling foothold by bloody handhold. He felt a rant swell up in him, a tsunami of helpless raging, and in his softest, most carefully measured voice he said, "I accepted that job and that extra set of stars so that I would be where the buck stopped, and they sold the place to the IOA and cut my legs off. And how fucking clichéd that the straw that makes me lose my shit over that is a pissing contest over you."

Daniel sat up beside him. No hand on him, no arm around him; Daniel knew better than to grab him and shake him awake from a nightmare. He just leaned, pressing close, side and arm and shoulder. "You know I'm not into watersports," he said.

A laugh pushed out of Jack, involuntary, like a belch or a cough. "Yeah," he said, and shook his head. Feeling Daniel's dense, muscled frame absorbing the vibrations in his body, damping them. He leaned into it. Leaned into Daniel.

For a long time they just sat, pressed up close in the clean and worn old room with its atmosphere of use and absence, nothing left of whoever'd been here before them hiding or resting or staging. Nothing of them in it except some lingering odors of sleep and sweat and sex that would be gone by the time they pulled out of the carport. Jack leaned into the warm solidity of Daniel until the ghosts of could-have-happened detached themselves and wisped away, and there was just the bed, the light, the room, reality, and he could breathe again.

"OK," Daniel said at last, on a breathy exhale after a deep, chest-filling inhalation, a sympathetic breathing-in when he felt Jack turn the corner. "It's OK now."

"You think?"

"Mm-hm."

"Can't quit," Jack said, singsonging the litany of suckage. "Can't shack up to make it bearable. Can't get rid of the IOA while we're on a wartime footing. Can't rest you while you're the operative most likely to dig up the thing that'll turn it all around. This qualifies as OK to you?"

"We can do any of those things. We're choosing not to, for good reasons, and I'm OK with that. If you're OK with it, then we're OK."

"I'm not jeopardizing another operation or your safety to keep that fucking closet door closed, ever again."

"OK. I get superpowers that freak me out and make me doubt myself what, every three years or so? We're not due until 2009. Just don't schedule a press conference. Just don't -- fall on your sword."

"No proactive hoisting the rainbow flag. No gravity-aided seppuku." He looked over. "You need me out there. I need you out East."

"It needs to be us. I know. But it is what it is. All we can do is hold on, keep working to bend the fork back together before the tines break off."

"I don't know if I can hack the politics without you."

"I don't know if I can hack it offworld without you. But you've been hacking it for two years. I've been going out there without you for three, and I still look for you every time I walk up that ramp. We'll keep hacking it until we can't anymore."

They were talking about the same crappy situation as they had last night, but Daniel's tone was relaxed and matter-of-fact. Not tight, not brittle, not defeated. Jack twisted on his butt and gave Daniel a good hard once-over. His eyes were tired and red, but dry. No more bleed, no more leak. "You are OK," he said. An expression of surprise. A request for confirmation.

"As OK as I'm gonna get for the time being. Wanna know how I know that?"

Jack grunted an affirmative, watching him closely.

"Because you don't lose it like that until after the situation is resolved."

Jack blinked at him, raised his brows, blinked again as he realized that it was both completely true and completely ridiculous. "That's a terrible barometer of OKness."

Daniel threw an arm around the leg Jack had bent up against him when he hiked around. "Accurate, though." He stroked through the hair on Jack's shin with the fingertips of the other hand. "You do know you're more powerful than the IOA, right? The right words in the right ears and it's no longer politically expedient to let somebody else foot the bill for the Program -- the U.S. government will snatch it back and find the money somewhere. I'd rather see the IOA rehabilitated and expanded with an eye toward taking the Program public, so I hope you don't say those words in those ears. But you can. If it comes down to it. Do you know that?"

Of course he knew that. He could give a gut-busting tug on the strings, get their charter revoked, get the gate back into the hands of the government he reported to, close his eyes and pray that it didn't start the next world war. Then he'd just have another Kinsey to deal with. Maybe a whole congress full of Kinseys. No political infrastructure was free of incompetent, self-aggrandizing, meddlesome bureaucrats. "I know they're the devil we know. I know that imagining them all sitting bareass on the can stopped being fun when Woolsey came on board." He shrugged.

"I mean really know, Jack. Look at them when you're talking to them and know that you could end their careers over coffee and a sandwich with Henry."

"There's a difference between having friends in high places and running to Daddy when the other kids don't play nice."

Daniel nodded, unperturbed, inexorable: "And there's a difference between being powerless and choosing to hold the power you have in reserve."

Jack squinted at him, then sat back.

The IOA should have been too savvy and too scared to risk pronouncing a death sentence on an operative with as much personal and professional value to General O'Neill as Daniel Jackson had. The lack of savvy was their failing. The lack of fear was his. If the order was for real, his answer should have been "Over your dead career prospects." If the order was a bluff, a negotiating tactic to provoke an "Anything but that" response and get them whatever they did want handed to them on a platter, he'd completely misplayed his hand, checked when he should have raised -- folded when he should have paid whatever it cost to make them show their cards.

He was a better player than that. At least, he had been until he'd decided he had no choice but to live with this shit, and settled into the shithouse.

Used to be, they cut off his legs, he built himself a go-cart. Used to be, his hands were tied, he used his head.

He'd resigned himself instead of his commission.

"I do now," he said quietly.

"Good," Daniel said. He gave one of those downward nods, dropping his eyes, then his head. "Good. I hope it helps." He applied himself to stroking the bumps in Jack's kneecap as if he could read messages in the bone.

Daniel had always said that he had ridiculously sexy knees. They didn't feel sexy to him. They felt vulnerable. He liked Daniel touching them, because of that. Daniel knew that, when Daniel touched them.

Ten years of proof that bitching and moaning out loud, to Daniel, was the only useful way to process the crap he carried, and he'd still bottled it all up until the cork blew off.

"This is how you patch me up," Jack said. He'd done it not forty minutes ago, reminding Jack that this was a commando war and he was a commando, slipping it in when Jack was busy puzzling out the monster thing, so that Jack hadn't even noticed, until this moment when he became aware of it, that Daniel had pulled him up from a months-long not a security chief not a fleet admiral what the hell am I doing out here graveyard spiral and leveled him out. For years, since way before that first set of stars punctured his shoulders, Daniel had been making a mild statement here, an offhand observation there, each of them the one simple but critical thing Jack needed to hear. "This is what you meant."

"Pretty much."

"This time you let me feel the patch go on."

Daniel shrugged. "You don't want to hide this anymore, I don't want to hide that anymore. Even if it won't work if you know I'm doing it."

"We handle each other. We've always done that. I'm good with that."

"So am I. I like being handled by you. I rely on you to handle me, your handling's kept me going for ten years, I'm OK right now because you just spent nineteen hours handling me. But when you do it we both know you're doing it. I just need that to go the other way. No more stealth handling. Not from me."

Daniel's light touch was like acupuncture. It came nowhere near his groin, but it made the drape of cotton boxers between his legs feel really good. "You haven't been stealthy. I've been obtuse. You're subtle, but you never hid what you were doing. I just never ... noticed it. Appreciated it."

Again the shrug. "Maybe. As long as you know now."

"I know now." Jack reached for Daniel's chin, coaxed his head up, looked into his eyes. "Thank you."

Daniel's pupils were dilated in the day-bright room. His skin was flushing with warmth against Jack's thigh, his heartbeat getting hard enough to feel. But he gave a slight nod, not enough to dislodge Jack's fingers, and closed his eyes, briefly, in response. You're welcome.

The dryer signaled the end of its cycle with a droning buzz.

Holding Jack's gaze, stroking swirls over Jack's knee, Daniel said, "Laundry's done."

"Yep."

"Guess we should make this bed. Start packing up."

"It's still morning for another twenty minutes."

"So?"

"I told you I'd make love to you in the morning."

"Is there time?"

"It's also called making time."

"We'll stain the mattress."

"Not if -- " Jack stopped. "Really?"

"No more latex, either."

They were long past are you sure. If Daniel was saying it, he was sure.

Jack's duffel was next to a chair in the far corner. A garment bag was draped over the back of the chair. Jack went over, unzipped it, and wrestled the blue jacket inside off its hanger and out from around the slacks.

"Really?" Daniel said.

Jack gestured him off the bed with a thumb and spread the jacket open on the mattress, lining-side up, where it would stretch from thighs to back if they lay back down where they'd slept. "This is where I finally get to prove to you that the uniform doesn't mean as much to me as you think."

Daniel stepped up to him. Ran hands over his shoulders, down his chest, down his sides. "You're hot in it," he said. "Devastatingly handsome. But you look better without it."

Jack ran hands up his biceps, over his shoulders, feeling him up. Appreciating the strong bones of his collar, thumbing the tender skin in the hollow of his throat. Daniel's fingers hooked the waistband of his boxers; Jack's hands followed him down and back as he dipped down to pull them over Jack's hips, then rode a full-body wiggle as he pushed his own off. For a while they stood just looking, touching. Daniel's package hung beautifully heavy between his thighs, softly shadowed by hair. Jack stepped out of his shorts, stepped closer, fit his against it; fit his mouth to Daniel's.

Daniel opened for him, licking into the slow surge of tongue, and rubbed his lower body into Jack's. His soft lips firmed as he took control of Jack's mouth and worked it; he took such firm charge of Jack's body that Jack was mildly surprised when he drew back and said, "I want you to fuck me. Very slow and very deep. I want you to fuck me without a condom. I want you to fuck me because you want to."

"I want to," Jack said.

"I want you to come in me. Way up into me."

"All the way up," Jack said.

"I want all the cock you can give me. I want you as deep in me as you can get."

"All I've got," Jack said.

Daniel stepped back and out of his puddled shorts, turned to set his glasses on the nightstand, sat down on the bed, and rolled into the spread jacket, onto his side, facing away from Jack. Following him, Jack positioned himself so that the jacket stayed open as wide as possible. It felt a little like lying down on himself. He liked seeing Daniel's skin against the silky lining, Daniel's powerful shoulder pressing the collar flat. Daniel bent one leg up to catch the jacket's skirt and hold it, and tilted himself enough to lay his face flat on the mattress. He smoothed his hand down over his hip to his ass, drawing Jack's eyes there, displaying it.

Jack reached around for the lube and put a few drops on his fingertips. Daniel cupped his ass cheek and opened himself, and Jack gently slicked the hole. Touching it started to get him hard. Daniel's penis would just be brushing the coat's silk interior. Maybe catching a little of the inner pocket, rubbing the seam. Imagining that got him fully hard. He wouldn't be needing the pills in the pocket of the other jacket.

He slicked two fingers and his penis, sparing with the lube, only a thin coating, so it wouldn't drip. Barely half a finger was left in the bottle he set back on the nightstand. If they'd stayed the extra day, he'd have needed the other bottle. He pretended he still might, and screwed his index finger, slow and steady, into Daniel.

"Oh," Daniel whispered. His chin went down, his face sliding over the mattress. "Oh. Oh."

Jack's breath caught. The last time he'd heard a sound like that from Daniel was the first time he ever did this. The first time anyone had slid a bare finger into him; the first time anyone had slid a finger into him for pleasure. It had been that long since the last time, and his body had forgotten that much while it was being used for other things. It put Jack back in that room in his old house in the Springs, the bed with the rose spread to match the roses he'd trained up around the window, the mission headboard with the vertical slats Daniel could never stop himself from gripping. Worry for crushed fingers had compelled Jack to haul the whole bed six inches towards the center of the room and bolt steel braces into the underframe so it wouldn't sway into the wall when the action got going. But that first time Daniel hadn't moved at all. His body had taken Jack's finger with a ripple of astonishment, and he'd let out that soft oh sound and held completely still, everything focused on feeling it inside him.

Jack pushed it all the way in, steady and slow. The contrast of cool lube and hot flesh blended into a viscous warmth, and he twisted his finger in it, rubbed into it, feeling Daniel so that Daniel would feel himself being felt. Daniel shivered all up through his trunk. Jack knew that his eyes were closed, his brows pulled together.

"Two," Daniel said. "Slow. All the way."

Jack pushed two fingers into tight, willing heat, steady and slow, until the rest of his hand stopped him. Daniel's hand was still on his ass, but it was going limp. His cheeks hugged Jack's knuckles. His fingers lay on pale skin, tan by comparison. Still curved around the curve of his buttock.

Jack moved the fingers gently inside him, pushing and stretching. Daniel never wanted more than two. It seemed strange to him sometimes that they could have almost exactly the same equipment and orientation and such different preferences and tastes. Sometimes he felt like his own doctorate was in Daniel, and it had taken him ten years to earn it, six years on the sexuality module alone. He eased his body closer, relaxing into the position, settling in to keep his hand where it was for a while. He dipped his shoulder so that he could rest his temple on the mattress. The join of Daniel's neck and shoulder came under his lips, soft Daniel-scented skin.

He wanted to mark him: make a seal and suck until the capillaries yielded and tattooed Daniel's flesh with blood in the shape of his mouth. He wanted to murmur passionate endearments, but Daniel's endearment receptors were like his nipples, responsive only when he was very turned on. He focused on his fingers, on delivering an arousing, relaxing massage. He could feel the anal pleasure spreading through Daniel's body, feeding into the sexual pleasure, heating it. He fed it like a fire, steadily sexualizing the motion of his hand, gradually transforming foreplay into fucking. When Daniel was grunting into the mattress on each slow push, he started putting his body behind it, thrusting his hips into his hand. It rubbed his erection into Daniel's inner thigh. It drove his fingers deeper. Daniel's grunts opened into low cries.

Slow and steady, he fucked Daniel with his hand until Daniel was dying for cock, begging for it, and then he slid his fingers out, and pushed his cock in.

Jack's erect cock was a lot longer than Jack's fingers. At the same measured pace, it took longer to insert. Daniel moaned through the whole, deliberately prolonged entry. He swung his arm over to brace with his hand. His fingers scrabbled at the mattress quilting. When Jack's cockhead went up into parts of him that hadn't been touched in weeks, he clutched at the jacket's arm. When Jack's groin came flush against his ass, he squeezed a handful of wool into his fist. His long moan cut off in a soft cry. His anus throbbed around the root of Jack's dick.

Jack drew even breaths through his teeth. The sensation on his bare erection was intense. If he let himself be too aware of the penetration, the burning sweetness, the sheathing, sucking heat, the way Daniel's body was taking him -- He could only get one arm around, lower one was folded up between them, elbow rucking the silk, and only one nipple was available, with Daniel's lower arm folded up against the other, but he could rub deep circles into it, rub sensation across it, rhythmic and relentless. Concentrate on fucking him there.

"I'll come from that," Daniel said. His voice had gone up into a soft, high range that did crazy things to Jack's libido. "You know I'll come."

"I know," Jack said. He pinched, and Daniel's rectum clenched. He tugged outward and held the tension until Daniel's whole torso was vibrating. "You want to?"

"I'm too close to the edge."

That'd be a no. Jack eased the nipple down. "OK."

"No, I mean the -- " Daniel shoved his ass back, a hard scooch. Jack was caught in the middle of bringing his hand around to lick his fingers to soothe the nipple. He clutched at Daniel, seeing stars. "I'm running out of jacket. I'll come on the mattress."

"Forget the damn mattress."

"Turn us," Daniel said. "So I'm coming on me. Pull me on top."

Jack couldn't execute the order by himself. "You'll have to roll with me."

"OK."

They rolled on three. Somehow Jack stayed in without sustaining an embarrassing injury. Daniel arched his back and wriggled his ass down; his groan at the redoubled penetration was only slightly louder than the sound the wriggling pushed out of Jack. Jack could get both hands on him now, get hands all over the front of him. He could feel himself get harder, up inside Daniel, as he stroked both nipples, an aching response to the unimpeded access. Daniel's head lolled back beside his; Daniel's ear rubbed his cheek. Daniel's body relaxed onto his, blissfully impaled. Daniel's arms flopped down to either side. Most of his weight was in his torso and so most of his weight was on Jack's chest, but when he eased down flat it was distributed enough that Jack could breathe.

The muscled density of Daniel pressing him into the bed made him go still inside. He'd never taken Daniel's weight, full-body, with Daniel up against the front of him and his dick in Daniel's ass. The deeply relaxing pressure combined with the drugging touch and scent of skin and the intense sexual stimulation was a potent mix of comfort and arousal. Daniel was still in a different way, a thrill-across-the-skin way, speared and trembling, exposed to the room, laid open to the air.

Jack slid his arms out from under and lifted Daniel's hands around front and down between his legs. It was a suggestion, not a demand. He drew his hands back a little, rode Daniel's forearms with his fingertips. Daniel pushed his arms down and in, reaching, and a jerky shudder went through him when he made contact. Jack wished he could see it, wished for the mirrored ceiling in his kitschy-getaway fantasy, but he could feel it in the angle of Daniel's arms, the shift of muscle under his fingers. He closed his eyes and turned his face to put his mouth against Daniel's ear. "If you want to," he murmured. "Only if you want to. I can reach."

It wouldn't be the first time Daniel had masturbated for him. It would be far from the first time Daniel had brought himself to orgasm while Jack was penetrating him. It wouldn't even be the first time Jack had held him while Daniel stimulated himself to reconnect with his body after an identity-shaking trauma, to reclaim his body as his own. They'd done it after both ascensions. They'd done it after the Stromos thing. They'd done it after Ma'chello's machine, when they were still just friends who companionably jerked off together sometimes; the mental-health wanks dated back to Daniel's sarcophagus withdrawal, the week he'd spent in Jack's house after the first time being drunk on power made him a stranger to himself -- which was also the third time he'd had sex under alien influence with someone who wasn't his partner, which made that time a precursor to this one in ways Jack wasn't going to grapple with right now. But they'd never done it in this position, never done it for this reason with Jack up in him, never done it after a double whammy of transformation and possession. Daniel might still need connection with him more than connection with himself.

"I want to," Daniel said. His voice was shaky, stuttery; he was intensely turned on. "Just ... touch me. Anywhere. Juh, juh ... " He contracted up inside, and writhed, heels pushing at the mattress by Jack's ankles. "Nnngh, your cock, you're so, it's so, but it's not, I ... nnnng ... "

Jack was touching him, but just to be touching him, feeling him, not to stimulate him. He needed his own hands, but he needed Jack's too, and he needed more than the skin-hungry groping Jack had been giving him before. Jack smoothed palms up over his ribs and his pecs, swirled thumbs around his nipples, rubbed deep, sultry circles into the areolas. He worked his way down over ribs and abs, then moved his arms around to slip his hands up under Daniel's arms. With his left he stroked the spot just above the pubic hair, the erogenous zone where public shaded into private. He swirled the pads of his fingers down into the hair, exploring the borderlands of intimacy, feinting at the base of Daniel's cock; Daniel's chesty groan thrummed into his chest. He feathered his right fingertips over Daniel's glans, light dabs and pats, soft pulls. It bobbed as Daniel's fingers started to work the shaft, and he followed the motion by feel; the accidental bumps and grazing touches when he misjudged made Daniel's breath hitch.

The bone of Daniel's forearm dug into his wrist as Daniel reached deeper between his legs. The muscle of the other forearm twitched against the instinct to grip and pump, then paradoxically tensed to keep his hand slow and open on the shaft. Jack stroked over those knuckles, felt the forearm relax; let his hand hover, brushing. Daniel had been close to the edge before and he was quivering on the precipice now. Jack wasn't sure whether he was holding back to savor the touch of his own fingers, the feel of his own penis, the power of holding his climax in his own hands ... or freezing, seizing, choking.

"Jack," Daniel said, strained and tight.

No "I can't," Jack begged silently. Please. No "I can't" this time.

"Jack ... voice, too."

That was old, old shorthand, as old as the relationship. Older.

Jack started talking. He described how Daniel's skin felt under his fingers, how Daniel's ass felt up against him, how the inside of Daniel's body felt around his naked cock. He told Daniel how hard it got him when Daniel touched himself, how much he loved knowing Daniel so well that he could watch it in his mind even when he couldn't see it, how he fantasized about it when he was alone. All things he'd told him a hundred times before, said out loud so that his presence would be in Daniel's head. Another way of getting inside him; another way for Daniel to feel him inside. With most of Daniel's weight on his chest, he had to ration his breath, but he could keep a continuous flow of voice going into Daniel's ear. He started narrating Daniel's technique, reporting what he sensed and imagined Daniel doing to himself, and after a while there was nothing at all left of what had brought them here; it was just something they did, something they'd always done, one of them touching himself, one of them talking him through it. He made the room into his mirrored fantasy room for Daniel, heart-shaped bed and silk sheets and all; his jacket lining was the silk, his words were the mirror, and it was just them in that room, together behind their closed eyes.

Gradually Daniel's sounds got louder, more punchy and needy and demanding. He wrapped his right hand around his shaft. Jack lifted his hips. No purchase for his heels on the slidey mattress, not much leverage, but his back was still strong and it was enough thrust to make Daniel whine. "That deep enough?" he said, hot breath into Daniel's ear. "That enough cock for you?"

"Almost," Daniel said. Jack rolled his hips again, hand pressing to push Daniel down into the thrust, and Daniel arched again and groaned a deep affirmative. He was jerking himself now, short tight stuttered strokes. His legs were wide open. His left hand was working between them, squeezing and thumbing his testicles, rubbing behind them. He was hard on his balls when he got really close, harder than Jack could ever bring himself to be, pinching the sac, pulling, and if he let out that "I can't" now, if he --

"Coming," Daniel gasped. "Nngh -- hold -- twist -- "

Jack closed his thumb and forefinger on the head of Daniel's cock the way you'd grip a bottle to twist a cap off. Daniel pumped twice as fast, twice as hard, clutching his sac in the other hand. "Yeah," Jack panted, "yeah, oh, Daniel, yeah ... " Semen squirted out, bathing Jack's palm, his wrist, deflecting back between his fingers. He screwed his hand into the slickness, back and forth, his other arm locked across Daniel's ribs. Spasms sucked at his dick, deep in Daniel's body, and his hips lifted again, not his doing this time, fuck, he was going to pop, he'd meant to flip Daniel over and finish him hard into the jacket but he wasn't going to make it and if he pulled out now to get them turned he'd only spurt all over the damn place and it was already too late, just the idea of drilling that exquisite ass while Daniel was still coming, the sense-image of driving Daniel's hips into the slippery-smooth lining, fucking Daniel's sticky, sensitized package into the silky insides of his uniform --

His balls clenched and ecstasy gushed up through his cock. His vision went white, a roaring foamy rush expanding inside his skull. When he thought it couldn't get any more intense, a more powerful wave rippled through him. When it peaked and he started down the other side, it only got sweeter. Vaguely he wondered if that was oxygen deprivation. Didn't remember feeling this kind of euphoria the last time he ran out of air. It felt like he'd never run out of come. He was still pulsing into Daniel's body.

Daniel was gasping his name as if Daniel were the one who couldn't breathe. Daniel's ass squeezed his cock, deliberate contractions replacing the clench of glutes. He fumbled a hand down to cover Daniel's hand on Daniel's dick, and Daniel's fingers spread to take his in a wet sliding weave. The blinding fizzy pressure in his head started to clear, and he became aware of his crashing heartbeat and shallow breaths. Daniel's ass relaxed completely and oh, fuck, fuck that was good, so good, thick and slippery and yielding, open for him, full of him. He could feel his own come squishing around his bare cock, and for a couple of seconds he thought he might be headed for a twofer. Turned out to be the tail end of the same monumental orgasm, couple of last, unbearably sweet twinges, aftershocks zinging through his balls, sparking through his skin. His cock gave a last twitch in the lubey, cushiony confines of Daniel's body, and Daniel arched up one last time, grinding down onto it, not much muscle left but still straining to squeeze all he could out of both of them before he collapsed back down.

"Oh," he was saying, "Jack, oh, oh ... "

"Yeah," Jack said. He was barely able to voice it, but it didn't matter; his mouth was right up against Daniel's ear, and the lightest whisper carried right into Daniel's brain.

They lay there heaving for a while. Daniel's breathless moans slowed, softened, then started turning into laughter. "God I love it when you lose it like that." He took Jack's hands, pulled Jack's arms around his middle, held them. "I had, I had visions of you flipping, me over and -- nailing me into your -- coat, but this was -- so much better." He lifted Jack's hand to his mouth, kissed it, then put it down and patted both of Jack's arms, a signal to let him up.

Jack stayed the way he was. "My fingers are still hard," he offered.

"No, I'm good, I'm -- god, god, I'm more than good, that's not what I mean, it was the jacket thing I was into." He gave a slight wiggle, same message phrased differently, and Jack stroked both hands lightly down the front of him, temporarily stilling him with goosebumpy pleasure.

"So we'll do it again sometime," Jack said, trying not to sound as strained as he felt with Daniel's two hundred pounds getting heavier the more he relaxed.

"It might not be the same with kink aforethought."

"Nope," Jack agreed. "It might be better."

"Can you hear yourself? Come on, I'm too heavy, you can't breathe."

"Nnh-nn." Jack wrapped his arms more around. He was getting enough air. The discomfort was more than outweighed by the sweetness of this warm melty Daniel topping.

Daniel shifted, trying to plant an elbow. "Let me -- Jack, come on -- "

That brought it too close to holding him against his will, so Jack loosened up and tried to let him go. Their arms banged and tangled, and Daniel laughed again, with voice this time, high and musical, because he was stuck on Jack's still half-hard dick and couldn't dismount without dragging his ass up and couldn't get the leverage to do it. Finally Jack rolled partway with him, held Daniel's hip still, and withdrew. They both paused for a few seconds, awkwardly poised, adjusting to the unwelcome separation. The room was summer-sticky but the air felt chilly on Jack's wet cock, and that took care of what was left of his hard-on. He straightened an arm to keep the jacket spread while Daniel got his hip and shoulder under him and hiked up to keep his leaking ass off the mattress. Jack expected him to sit up as soon as he had enough jacket to sit on, but he rolled -- towards Jack, facing Jack, onto Jack, into Jack's arms.

"Oh god," Jack blurted. "Daniel."

"Just for a minute," Daniel said. "We'll go in a minute."

Jack got a hand up to stroke fingers through his mussed hair without losing contact between his arm and Daniel's skin. He was holding Daniel with care, as if he might break something, as if Daniel might rise away from him at any moment -- as if Daniel might need to be let go. But he'd already let go, and Daniel had cuddled into him promptly, joyfully, naturally. Daniel was slumping more heavily onto him, getting sleepy and logy. Daniel was smiling into his neck, still huffing little amazed laughs, playing it back in his head. Daniel was still talking even as he started to drowse, telling Jack how good it was, how he'd forgotten what it was like to take him bare, how much he loved his hands, his cock, a whole list of body parts; how much he loved him.

His mumbly, bubbly babble was like a fizz of champagne, sugary and intoxicating. Daniel was happy. This wasn't over, this wasn't fixed; months of desperate late-night out-of-the-blue phone calls lay ahead, times in the middle of laid-back weekend leaves when Daniel would go stiff and still, remembering; one of the greatest gifts he'd given Jack was never once to say or indicate "Oh god not that again," and no matter how bad the timing, no matter how repetitive the freakouts, Jack would always be available to him, to touch, to soothe, to reassure -- to be there, on the other end of the line or the other corner of the table or the other side of the bed. To be the guy who knew the whole story and understood without explanation, who'd get it without Daniel having to say a word, who'd ride out the silence with him when it hurt too much to speak. To be the guy who knew the whole story and would listen to it all again anyway, over and over and over, however many times it took. The day when Merlin had no power over Daniel anymore was a long way off, but right now, for this astonishing moment, Daniel was happy -- purely, delightedly, ridiculously happy, not the barest hint of shadow around the edges.

Jack gathered him up and held on tight.

Daniel kissed his throat, the bone of his jaw. The kisses were soft, sloppy; his lips were falling asleep. "It was so good, Jack." He mumbled something in another language, drifting away into dreams. "So good."

"It was great," Jack said into his bangs. He kissed gently down Daniel's forehead, kissed his eyelids, kissed him off to sleep. Daniel's mouth went lax and his next breath caught on a light snore.

"This is better," Jack said, soft and low, and closed his eyes.

They woke at the same time, in late afternoon, face-to-face and wrapped around each other in the silky-sharp nest of blue jacket. The epaulets had twisted over. A star was jabbing Jack below one shoulder blade. It wasn't a particularly novel sensation. "We slept too long," Daniel moaned, and Jack squeezed him and kissed the furrow out of his brow and said, "It's fine, it's only five-ish, you'll be back by ten. No broken curfew, no papa at the door with a shotgun."

"No ooh-la-la," Daniel said, muzzy reference to the song that had disproved the standing theory that they had no musical tastes in common. He started untangling his limbs from Jack's. "Thanks for letting me sleep. I still don't get much on base."

"You're not going back to the infirmary tonight," Jack said, pushing up onto his elbow. "I'm taking you home."

Daniel was surveying the damage to the jacket. Wasn't much; a few streaky smears on the lining, spread too thin to soak through into the wool. It'd rinse out in the sink, dry in the car. He looked up. "Am I cleared for that? I mean, to be un...chaperoned like that?"

"You will be after I make the call." He rolled to his feet and went into the bathroom to get Daniel a wad of tissue to stem any residual leakage between bed and toilet. "You'll be surveilled, but you'll get to sleep at home, and I want you to sleep tonight." He went back out and handed Daniel the tissue. "That OK with you?"

A study in decadent beauty sitting on one hip in the debauched sprawl of Jack's class-A's, Daniel nodded. It was as OK as it was going to get for the time being.

Gruffly, because he sucked at this part, the transitional part they were moving into now, the torturous peeling-apart of one happy, functional organism into two lonely, repressed men living half a life each, Jack said, "There's water in the bowl and the tank, but don't flush 'til I turn the main back on," and went to get the water running again.

No banging shudder when Daniel opened the bathroom faucet to wet paper towels to wipe themselves up with and fill the sink to rinse the inside of the jacket, or when Jack turned the kitchen taps to wash the coffee mugs and spoon, after they'd dressed and made the bed and set out the fresh towels and swept and aired the rooms and packed up their stuff. The water hammer was gone for a while. They were leaving the place better than they found it.

Four hours and a roadhouse supper later he was dropping Daniel off at his apartment building. He was this close to going up with him, saying fuck it to the red-eye and changing his flight to the crack of dawn, saying fuck it to the surveillance, taking his chances. But they had work to do, and a war on two fronts; he wouldn't make it three.

He watched Daniel through the glassed inner entry and into the elevator, and after the brushed-steel doors closed on Daniel's signature little wave, he returned the vehicle to the SGC, spent half an hour in with Landry and on the phone with his aide, and had an airman run him over to Peterson, catching up on his email in the car and while he waited to board.

On ascent, he looked down at the nighttime vista of the Springs, a jeweled spread on the doormat of the Rockies. His pilot's eye located the landmarks, followed the streetlit paths of the avenues to Daniel's neighborhood. He imagined Daniel at the window, looking up at the blinking running lights of the plane banking across the night sky, wondering if it was his plane. Checking his watch, deciding it was. Watching it shrink until it was just another star in the black.

He slept alone in their Arlington bed, his cell phone clutched in his hand. It didn't buzz until he was up and finished with the Soloflex and showered and dressed and hefting his briefcase, about to walk out the door.

Seven hundred hours here, five in the morning there. He flipped the phone open and said, "I thought I told you to get some sleep."

"I did," Daniel said. "Hit the sack right after your flight left, slept fine hope you did too. The thing is, the reason I'm calling -- " He hesitated long enough that Jack decided to go ahead and open the front door, then went on, "I had a ... vision. After I woke up. Not a dream. Not a hallucination. Definitely not my own subconscious weaving stories out of symbolic referents and crappy personal experiences, and because of the content I think it might seem that way so I want to get that clear up front. Gamekeeper's device, blood of Sokar, memory stamp -- "

"Six ways from Sunday," Jack acknowledged. He switched the phone to the other ear and held it with his shoulder while he turned the deadbolt with the hand not holding his briefcase. Locked doors and leather attachés were capitulation enough to D.C. life; damned if he'd walk around with a Borgtooth thing clipped to his head. "I know you know the difference."

"OK," Daniel said. It took him a second to stop having the argument they weren't having because he'd already refuted the accusation Jack wouldn't have made even if he'd known what they were talking about yet.

"OK," Jack said, and started across the sidewalk to his waiting car. "What was it a vision of?"

"There was an image of a small trunk or chest, and when the lid opened, light blazed out of it -- some kind of energy, very powerful but not deadly, not even necessarily physical. Possibly a metaphor for whatever's contained in the chest, possibly indicative of the effect of some kind of device. Then there was an image of a mountain exploding -- I know that sounds bad but I'm a hundred percent sure it wasn't our mountain, and it didn't blow up because the box was opened, someone deliberately, I don't know, set a charge or something to cave the whole thing in -- and the sense that the chest had been buried but not destroyed. Hidden. I think it was an ark."

Jack had paused, holding a finger up for the driver to give him a sec. Now he turned away at an angle. "As in, Noah and the?"

"As in Indiana Jones."

"The Ark of the Covenant?"

"Well, no, but if the vision was of a real object it could well have been a precursor in the sense that ... " Daniel sighed. "No, Jack. Not the Ark of the Covenant."

Jack turned and crossed the distance to the car. Briefly shouldering the phone again, he took the coffee his driver held out for him. "OK." He tossed his briefcase into the backseat and followed it. "Is this a problem?"

"On the contrary -- Jack, I think this is the solution. I know what to look for now. I have something to work with. He left me a clue, a big honkin' clue, but I'm concerned that it might be interpreted to mean that -- "

"Gotcha," Jack said, cutting off what it might mean, unwilling to have it stated across even the most secure, most encrypted link, unwilling to have Daniel say it out loud in his own surveilled premises, even with the shower he could hear running in the background, the news and weather blaring from the bathroom radio. Daniel wanted to rush back to the base and dive into his books and run searches through the mainframe, but he knew that his usage would be monitored and he needed to be sure that he could proceed without red flags snapping up and klaxons whooping. Underneath that was a plain, simple need to share the exciting news -- with his partner, not a teammate, ex or otherwise -- and under that was the real reason he'd called: for Jack to tell him whether this was a problem.

For Jack to tell him whether or not this meant that Merlin was still in the house.

The driver pulled away from the curb and slid the car smoothly into the thickening traffic on the avenue, other cars and other drivers, other people in suits on the phone in the backseats. To anyone peering through the tinted window, Jack would seem to be listening to a caller going on and on, patiently and old-fashionedly holding the phone to his ear, slurping coffee through a hole torn in the plastic lid of a Dunkin' Donuts container. But there was only background noise through the connection. He'd acknowledged Daniel's query. Daniel was waiting for him to respond.

Jack was listening to the echo of Daniel's voice, a submariner listening to pings and building a mental model of the shape the sounds described. Listening to the way the words tumbled over themselves to get out, the consonants slurred or dropped altogether, the mix of headlong, oblivious boyishness and mature, rich, self-aware irony. Comparing the echo of Jack, I think this is the solution to other echoes, That's it! That's what we're looking for! I knew they'd have it written down someplace and This could be the key to understanding our existence -- everyone, everything's existence and I think the monument contains a repository of the Ancients and Jack, think about it: with a fully functional ZPM, we could power Earth's defenses and open up a wormhole to the Pegasus Galaxy.

They were the same. This was the Daniel who fumbled and stuttered to explain the symbol of origin to a roomful of people who'd been stumped for two years, the Daniel who couldn't wait until an 0900 briefing but followed him into a men's room at 0855 to announce that they'd found Kheb, the Daniel who called him over a crappy, crackly sat phone from the frozen ass of the world to tell him he'd figured out the gate address for Atlantis. The vision Daniel had reported gave him the same hinky feeling, spiked his dangerometer into the same red zone, sent the same shiver through the psychic sensor net wired through his bones. Wherever this intel led, it was going to be a teeth-jarring ride with no guarantee of getting back. But the intel was solid. Whether it was a time-release information capsule the Merlin construct left in Daniel's brain, a critically valuable piece of data that Daniel acquired during his captivity and squirreled away in his subconscious for retrieval if and when he made it home, or a cryptic message from some anonymous Other desperate enough to bend the rules but not ballsy enough to break them, Daniel and Daniel alone was the one reporting it.

This was Daniel hyped up on new information, tweaking on the exhilaration of discovery, jonesing for exploration. This was the Daniel who figured out the gate symbols, the Daniel who gave his all to the search for his wife, the Harsesis, the Lost City. This was his Daniel, their Daniel, the Program's Daniel, in full swing, back in business.

The assessment left him so stricken he couldn't speak, and his own emotional response was confirmation. Searching was what kept Daniel going when he was this close to not being able to go on at all. A new search would take him away again, put him at risk again, start it all again even if it ended it too. And Jack had to let him go on. Daniel was the operative most likely to dig up the thing that would turn it all around. Whether he dug it up from the ground on some unthinkably distant world, or from the depths of his own mind. Whether he broke his hands digging, or his back, or Jack's heart.

The car cleared the highway overpass, and a somber buff facade of the Pentagon came into sight through the windshield, long and squat and flat as a prison compound. Jack cleared his throat.

"Give it two days," he said. "You're squared with Landry, but it's gonna take me most of today to mop things up with the folks out here. You're in the infirmary all morning, debriefings all afternoon, and then your team's gonna want some quality time, so you can't start today anyway. Tomorrow you confine yourself to the musty tomes, stay off the computer 'til the day after. Can you do that?"

He could hear the smile over the phone. "Yeah. I can hold on that long."

Then so can I, Jack thought.

One day at a time, one foot in front of the other, until it was over or they couldn't hack it anymore.

"It'll be OK, Jack. You'll see. This is the clue we need, and I can figure it out. I'm sure of that. We're gonna be OK."

"Yeah," Jack said. He forced the sides of his mouth into an upward curve so that Daniel would hear a smile too. "We're gonna be fine."