Spreadeagled naked, Daniel struggled to break the ties that bound him hand and foot to the crude stone altar. It was no use. The ropes held fast.
This was it. He was going to die, violently and alone, on a planet light years from home. This time there would be no last minute escape, no eleventh hour rescue by the SGC cavalry.
He didn't know what had happened to Jack. He knew beyond question Jack would never abandon him, no matter how overwhelming the odds against them. No, something had happened to the team leader. Something bad.
Things had seemed so safe when they'd decided to send Sam and Teal'c home. Sam's sprained wrist hadn't been serious, only painful, but there was no point in her sticking around in that condition after her work was completed. Teal'c had accompanied her back through the gate so she could have the injury treated, while Jack had stayed behind with Daniel while he finished his translations of the writings they'd found in the ruins.
They'd had no indication the area was still inhabited, but Jack had gone to walk a patrol as a precaution, though Daniel suspected it was as much from restlessness and boredom as anything. Daniel had happily settled down and lost himself in his work so much that he had no idea how much time had passed when the place was overrun by the primitive people who carried him off as a prize.
Daniel had no doubt as to his intended fate. Nothing he'd said had swayed them from their conviction he was a gift from the god of the ruined temple destined for sacrifice. He'd been stripped and bound in place to await the culmination of the ceremony, which they'd begun at once.
As any prospect for rescue faded, Daniel could only hope Jack would survive and wouldn't blame himself for Daniel's death. He'd give anything to spare Jack pain.
Finishing their prayers, the priest and priestess approached the altar. The chanting throng facing them quieted in anticipation of the bloody sacrifice.
"The stranger was given to us by our great god K'tagalu. The gift shall be given back as a sign of our devotion." The priest brandished a knife before the cheering crowd.
Taking calming breaths, Daniel tried to maintain an academic objectivity. The knife appeared to be fashioned of bone with an elaborately carved hilt. It was most likely used exclusively for ceremonial purposes. Daniel's thoughts skittered away from cataloging its uses as he swallowed against sudden nausea.
"Make him cry." The priestess licked her lips, and a quiver ran through her nude body – adorned like the priest's in feathers, beads, and daubs of body paint – as though she could scarcely contain her hunger for blood. "The sacrifice must be made in both blood and water to honor the river god." Eyes lit with a savage gleam, she reached out a finger and lightly touched the corner of Daniel's eye.
He jerked his head away. There might be nothing he could do about them shedding his blood, but he'd be damned if he'd let them see a single tear. At least he could deny them that small satisfaction. He tried again to distance himself by concentrating on the cultural ramifications of the ritual.
"The pain will cause tears to flow and mix with his blood long before death releases him to the blessings of K'tagalu." The priest's assurance seemed to excite the priestess further, and she began to undulate to the chanting rising once more from the watching multitude. As the chanting grew in volume, she moved in a rhythmic dance around the altar, as the priest waited, knife raised over Daniel's sweat-sheened body.
Daniel's breathing quickened. Observing the native customs wasn't helping him at all. An image of Jack shimmered before his mind's eye. Thankfully he focused his attention on that instead. Jack meant so many things to him – safety, strength, courage. Wrapping himself in those feelings, he somehow felt the protection Jack had always offered him. Good-bye, Jack. I wish…
A shout rang out through the crowd, disrupting the chanting. Voices faltered, the dancing ceased, the knife lowered.
I know I'm imagining things, Daniel thought wistfully, but that sounds like Jack's voice. Turning his head to the side, he was amazed to see a tall figure clothed in tan camos stride steadfastly to the altar. It was Jack! Yes! Daniel's joy quickly turned to fear. No. "Jack. Get out of here."
"It's okay, Daniel." The brief smile for Daniel vanished behind fierce determination as Jack faced the priest and priestess. "Let him go. Take me instead."
"No! Jack, you don't know what you're saying." Daniel pulled against his bonds in frustration, but still they held fast.
"Shhh. I do know. I'm saying I'll take your place on that altar."
"You would offer yourself in sacrifice to our god?" There was an inflection of surprise in the priest's question.
"Yes, providing you let Daniel go free."
"No, the ceremony has already begun! It is too late to stop it now." The priestess' hands curled into claws as she raged.
"Silence!" the priest thundered at her. "We must hear him out. It is the law."
"Whatever we did to offend you, blame me, not Daniel. I'm the leader. I take responsibility for him. If someone has to die, it should be me."
"Jack, I don't want this. Please." As horrifying as it was to face this ordeal himself, he couldn't bear it if Jack suffered and died in his place. "Just go."
"Easy, Danny." Jack laid his hand soothingly on Daniel's shoulder, brown eyes gazing at him in apology. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get here. When I saw what was going on, there wasn't time to go back for help. And I don't have enough firepower to take on this whole crowd alone. This is the only choice." He rubbed Daniel's shoulder comfortingly. "You know I can't leave you here. And if I have to die, I can't think of a better reason."
"I won't let you do this, Jack." He directed his plea to the priest. "Please don't listen to him."
"You are more than a leader to this one." The priest looked from Daniel to Jack with narrowed eyes. "You are his heart keeper."
Jack nodded. "Sounds right."
Daniel blinked as he recognized the term from his study of the ruins. "Uh, Jack, you don't understand."
The priestess cut him off. "This cannot be. We found him alone in the temple."
"Yeah, well, that was my fault. I was patrolling the, uh, temple grounds to guard Daniel. You've got a lot of weeds growing back there. I tried to push some out of my way and scratched my finger on a thorn. Naturally I put the finger in my mouth. I felt dizzy and I must've passed out because the next thing I remember is waking up in the back garden."
The priest nodded sagely. "The sap of the rakuta thorn is a powerful sleeping medicine."
"Ah, that explains it. I hightailed it back inside, but Daniel was gone. I followed the trail here just in time to take in what looks like the last act of your little show. All I'm asking for is a change in cast."
"We will make no change," the priest intoned solemnly.
"Look, I told you, I'm the leader, I'll make a much more valuable sacrifice for your god than a measly scientist."
"K'tagalu has sent us a more wondrous gift than we at first believed. Not one to be sacrificed, but two to walk among us and deliver his blessing. Our people will prosper and rejoice in your visitation, and you will return through the ring to his abode and be joyful in his presence."
"I can do joyful, as long as we both get to go home through the ring. You got yourself a deal." Jack gave Daniel's arm one last pat as the priest sliced through the ropes.
The surge of relief flooding Daniel suddenly turned his muscles to rubber. He couldn't move as he watched the knife he'd thought would be the instrument of his death transform into that of his freedom. Once again it had been the teaming of him and Jack together which had saved them, though in a somewhat different context than he recalled ever happening before. He was sure Jack didn't understand the connotation, but it didn't matter as long as the priest believed it. He only wished… Firmly he pushed that thought away. No point thinking about hopeless causes.
He caught sight of the priestess standing apart, scowling. She didn't look like she'd be doing any rejoicing anytime soon. Daniel shuddered at his near escape from her predatory clutches.
Rubbing his raw wrists, he sat up with Jack's help. He rolled his aching shoulders, and seeing the movement, Jack kneaded the sore muscles while they waited for his clothes to be brought. He leaned into the comforting touch, basking in Jack's closeness until his own camos were returned to him. Dressing quickly, he got to his feet, Jack's arm across his back to support him.
"So we'll be leaving now." Jack looked warily around at the crowd as if he expected an ambush.
"We will walk with you to the ring and sing to make light your step." At a signal from the priest, the crowd parted before them.
"Whatever floats your boat." Jack guided Daniel through the mass of people, who fell in behind them and followed them back to the Stargate, chanting as they walked. The chorus of voices swelled in intensity, scoring a farewell as they entered the wormhole for their journey home.
Jack ushered Daniel into his apartment. "Let's get you settled on the couch, and then I'll fix some coffee."
"Jack, you don't have to treat me like an invalid. Janet said I was fine. You know she wouldn't have released me otherwise."
"I know, but she also said you should rest. You've been through a lot. And what's the big deal, unless you've got something against my coffee."
"Well…" Daniel gave in, sinking into the cushions with a sigh. It did feel good to sit down on something softer than stone. Other than the thin strips of gauze around his wrists and ankles where the ropes had abraded his skin, he really was fine.
Jack smiled serenely at him and walked into the kitchen. Serene – that was the word for Jack's mood since they'd returned through the gate. He'd waited for Daniel in the infirmary, sat through the short debriefing, and driven him home, all without his customary restlessness. Instead he appeared deep in contemplation.
It made Daniel nervous. He wondered how serene Jack would be when Daniel explained what the priest on P2H-461 had meant about their relationship when he used the term heart keeper. At the debriefing, Jack had said the people appreciated their friendship like in that Damon and Pythias story Daniel had told him once. Daniel was a little surprised Jack remembered that, but he knew Jack did listen and remember more than he liked to let on. Daniel hadn't contradicted his explanation in the meeting, but he ought to tell Jack the truth. He wasn't sure what to make of Jack right now, though.
"Coffee's brewing." Jack strode back into the room with his usual energy and flopped onto the small couch facing Daniel's.
"Jack. Thanks again. For offering to take my place."
"Couldn't do anything else. Can't say I'm sorry I didn't have to go through with it, though."
Jack's grin made Daniel's heart turn flip-flops. None of that, he firmly scolded himself. He'd come so close to losing Jack, it was no wonder his emotions were so close to the surface. "Me too."
"Lucky for us that priest could see right away how I felt, and it worked out so well with their heart keeper custom."
"Um, Jack, about that… he was talking about something more than close friends." Daniel sought for a way to put it into words that wouldn't get him decked by an indignant Jack.
"I know exactly what he was saying, Daniel." Jack's voice was infinitely gentle. "He saw it before I did, but then I understood. Your life is more important to me than my own. I love you."
Daniel's heart raced. He'd longed to hear Jack say those words, but he knew Jack didn't mean them in the way Daniel wished for. Still, Daniel cherished the feelings of close friendship Jack did have for him. He realized Jack felt comfortable enough to express them in the aftermath of their experience, but it wouldn't last and he wasn't likely to hear them again. At least he'd been privileged to hear them once. He'd never forget that. "That means a lot to me, Jack. More than you know. But according to what I learned from my translations, heart keeper in their culture isn't about the love of friends or brothers. It's…"
"I get it, Daniel," Jack interrupted with a quiet smile. "I guess in some way I should be grateful to that priest for putting my actions into his words. Daniel, I'm in love with you."
Daniel just gaped at him, unable to move, unable to process what he was hearing.
"Don't worry," Jack soothed. "I'm not going to jump your bones or anything. It's okay if you don't feel the same way, but I'm glad it's out in the open now. I've always been straight with you, and I don't want to change that. I won't let it affect our friendship or the team. Oh, coffee's ready. I'll go get it." He stood and walked back into the kitchen.
Daniel still sat there stunned. Closing his mouth at last, he looked wonderingly after Jack. Could he have had a concussion somewhere along the line and just dreamed those words? Or maybe Jack had one and didn't realize what he'd said. It couldn't be real. Could it? Could he have possibly gotten his heart's desire, his dream come true, in such a simple declaration? What, no explosions, no skyrockets, no firecrackers? Yet, his world had been rocked surely, if quietly. He'd been hopelessly in love with Jack for so long, he'd never dared to imagine his feelings could be returned. If they truly were, how could Jack be so calm about it all?
Jack returned then with two mugs of coffee. Handing him one, he sat back down and sipped from his own mug.
Daniel stared at his coffee as if it might contain the answers he needed, then took a long drink. Finally he set it down and looked at Jack. It was now or never time.
"You know, Jack, now that you've officially declared yourself my heart keeper, there are details about it you should hear, certain responsibilities that go along with the position."
"Responsibilities? Like what?"
"Oh, little things like filling my bowl from your harvest – dinner at that new French restaurant I've been wanting to try should fill the bill. Then there's clothing me with your finest garment – your leather jacket would do nicely, you won't mind giving that up, will you? And of course giving me the biggest fish from your catch – we may have to disqualify that one, considering your track record in fishing, though…"
"Yeah, and did I mention the foot washing? I'm sure foot washing was in there somewhere…"
Jack slammed his mug onto the coffee table. "Dammit, Daniel, if all you can do is joke about this…"
"Jack, shut up and kiss me. I'm in love with you, too."
For a moment it was Jack's turn to gape, then a delighted grin slowly spread across his mouth and the dark eyes lit with a warm glow. In a blink he was up off the couch, across the intervening space, and drawing Daniel into his arms as he leaned close, brushing Daniel's lips in a light, testing kiss.
Daniel hadn't known what to expect. He'd dreamed of this moment for so long, imagined Jack's feel, his taste… yet he left all his imaginings behind without a moment's regret as soon as the illusion became substantial. Reality was so much better than anything he'd fantasized.
Jack's lips were soft, their questing touch igniting a scorching heat throughout Daniel's body. With a sigh at knowing he'd found both safe harbor and exhilarating adventure, Daniel lifted his own arms, pulling Jack close for a second kiss. If the first had been a question, this was an answer, deep, passionate, as mouths opened and tongues tasted. Jack tasted of the coffee he'd drunk and the slight salt tang of skin, of excitement and security, of rugged strength and loving tenderness. He tasted like Jack.
Daniel couldn't get enough, and he knew it must be the same for Jack because soon they were exploring, nibbling across jaws and throats, temples and ears. Pressing closer, he moaned at the delicious friction of Jack's groin moving against his, and reveled in the answering groan from Jack.
He heard Jack mumble something against his neck as he tugged at Daniel's shirt.
"Naked," the gruff voice repeated.
Ah. "Naked." Naked would be… "Good."
After a bit of fumbling, they succeeded in removing each other's shirts, and Daniel was engrossed by the new sensation of skimming his hands through tangled chest hair as he caressed the hard muscle beneath. And speaking of hard…
Daniel arched with a gasp as Jack tongued his nipple, and he felt their cocks clash through the material of their pants. That gave him another idea, and he grasped the head now suckling his other nipple and lifted it gently.
"Jack," he panted in answer to the low growl of frustration, "bed."
"Bed?" Dusky eyes blinked at him through a haze of desire, then a grin curved those mobile lips. "Very, very good."
Without breaking contact, they managed to stumble to the bedroom where they maneuvered various fastenings (a ripped button and a broken shoelace being the only casualties) until they were completely free of the encumbering clothing. As they tumbled to the bed, Daniel was at last able to feel the warmth of skin against skin against the length of his entire body.
The feverish embrace inflamed him. Jack's fingers stroked his sides as their cocks stroked together tantalizingly. Their rocking grew more frantic until finally Daniel experienced the fireworks he'd been missing earlier. There was nothing quiet about this world-rocking occurrence as their mingled shouts heralded first his release, then Jack's.
Sticky and happy, Daniel lay catching his breath, fingers carding through the soft silver hair tickling his shoulder. "What was that you said about not jumping my bones?"
Jack captured his other hand, lifting it to his lips and pressing soft kisses all around the bandage on his wrist. "It got overruled. I'm sure bone jumping was in there with all those other heart keeper responsibilities, you know, along with the foot washing." Jack teasingly stroked one bare foot along Daniel's.
Daniel smiled and slid his arms around Jack. "I'm not letting you off that duty. I'm looking forward to some shared showers."
Lowering his head, Jack deposited a kiss on Daniel's chest directly over his heart before looking back up into Daniel's eyes. "I take my heart keeper position seriously."
Daniel felt warmed in love as Jack sealed his vow with a velvety soft kiss.
As they drew apart, the dark eyes danced with mischief. "But I draw the line at my leather jacket."
Daniel erupted into laughter, and stroked a hand over Jack's hip as he felt mischief of his own bubbling up. "Where would you like to start the negotiations?"