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With his face mashed into the open pages of a book and his glasses hiked up on his forehead, Daniel looked like a kid who’d fallen asleep over his homework. It occurred to Jack that if he woke Daniel now, he might see the imprint of actual knowledge on his face, ink that had bled into the skin and left its permanent stain.

Then again, he might just see a guy in need of some toothpaste and a quick change of clothes. Very quick – since it was 0750, and they were due to embark at 0800.

Jack looked down at the book. Around the edges of Daniel’s cheek, there were words about pre-Dynastic monuments and other stuff that had nothing to do with the mission they’d been preparing for. Jack had a bad habit of graying out in briefings, but he knew ancient Egyptian architecture had no connection to P8C-422’s development.

“Daniel,” he said softly. Daniel slept on like the dead, except for the intermittent off-key snoring. “Daniel!”

Daniel’s head came up off the book with a whiplash jerk.

Jack chuckled. He tapped Daniel’s glasses and knocked them into place on his nose. “Morning.”

“What time is it?” Daniel asked. He yanked at his sleeve to get to his chronometer.

“Ten minutes and counting.”

“Dammit!” Daniel glared at him, but wasted no time on words as he slid off the chair and sprinted down the corridor.

“Sure you don’t want to finish your nap?” Jack called after him.

Eight minutes later, Jack stood in the gate room, eyeing the heavy door.

Carter checked her chronometer with a frown. “It’s 0800, sir.”

“So it is, Carter. So it is.”

“There are sixty seconds remaining,” Teal’c pointed out.

“There’s no way,” Jack said smugly. “I found him face down in the lab again this morning.”

“He didn’t go home?” Carter asked. There was just enough alarm in her voice to make Jack feel like an asshole.

“Apparently not,” he said. Carter just looked at him, no doubt thinking about the twenty bucks she was about to lose when Daniel showed up late yet again. There was something vaguely accusatory in her stare. In his own defense Jack added, “Hey, it’s not like he’s never done that before. As I recall, you’ve spent a few nights here yourself.”

“But I don’t make a habit of it, sir.”

“Whatever,” he said, narrowing his eyes at her.

The door slid open and Daniel burst through, out of breath, pack in one hand and bandanna in the other.

“It is 0800 and 57 seconds,” Teal’c said. Jack could have sworn there was a smile hidden in that neutral intonation. “Please produce your required payment.”

“Later,” Jack hissed.

“You didn’t,” Daniel said, dismayed. He looked at Teal’c, and then at Carter, who had the good sense to look away. She never had been a good liar, Jack thought. Lousy at poker, too.

“Didn’t what?” Jack asked, clinging hard to his bluff.

“Jack,” Daniel said, in his most appalled tone. “You bet on me?”

“Against, actually.” Jack spread his hands, conciliatory and culpable.

“Returning the favor,” Carter said.

Jack nodded. They had bet on everything about Carter – how many dates she’d have in a six-month period (zero; Jack won), how many times she’d refuse leave (always; Daniel won); how many times she wore earrings to work in a month (once; Teal’c won).

Daniel’s mouth twisted into an amused line.

Jack noticed there were dark circles under Daniel’s eyes. He hadn’t spotted that before.

“Chevron seven locked,” Sergeant Davis’ disembodied voice announced, and the wormhole blew into life, a billowing column of time-space distortion.

“Off we go, kids.” Jack stepped onto the ramp, led the way…

…and stopped dead in his tracks before the gate.

Jack prided himself on his sixth sense. It was a warning beacon for when a mission was about to go bad. It was an instinct born of too many hours in dark places, too many missions gone off the track. Like an itch at the back of his brain, it filled his consciousness with wary alertness. He was always glad when the moment finally came and things went screwy. It saved him hours of wondering when things would come clear.

He was having that feeling all of a sudden.

“O’Neill?” Teal’c’s pronouncement of his name was a question.

Jack hovered before the event horizon, his face mere inches away. “Yeah. Fine,” he said, but his legs refused to move. The shimmering ripples reflected a pale light on his skin.

Teal’c stepped up beside him. “Don’t,” Jack said, and slapped a hand against Teal’c’s chest.

A millisecond later, they both stared in horror as the wormhole winked out of existence.

I could have been stepping through that, Jack thought, cataloging body parts to which he desperately wanted to remain attached. Sparks sizzled and arced around the frame of the gate.

“Off the ramp – now!” Jack shouted, backing up as fast as he could. “Don’t touch anything!” He bumped into Daniel as he moved and heard his friend’s muttered “Sorry.”

“Sorryhellmovefaster!” he ordered, as much to himself as to Daniel. He turned to shove Daniel ahead of him.

Clamps blew; artificial lightning stalked them down the ramp’s handrails. Jack made a dive for it with Teal’c just ahead of him. Daniel landed somewhere to his left with a muffled grunt, echoed by Carter’s
“ooof” on the other side. They covered their heads as energy crackled through the room, electrifying Jack’s body until his hair stood on end.

And then, it was over. Adrenaline branched through Jack’s nerves like an imprint of lightning, grounding in his fingertips and the soles of his feet.

“What the fuck was that?” Jack demanded, as he rolled to the side and stood up.

Carter was already standing. “I should go and help, sir. There might be—”

“Go,” Jack said. “All right?” he asked Teal’c.

“I have never seen a stargate behave in such a manner,” Teal’c said.

“Behave?” Daniel echoed as he stood up. “They’re not sentient, Teal’c.”

“They’re sure as fuck temperamental, though,” Jack said.

Daniel looked fine, Teal’c looked fine. Carter was already problem solving.

Fine. Everything was fine. Hammond’s voice came over the speaker. “SG-1, stand down.”

“Well, this is nice,” Jack said. He looked at Daniel, who really did seem tired. A twinge of guilt nagged at Jack.

Carter’s voice was next on the intercom. “Sir, it’s an internal error in the dialing system. Shouldn’t take more than an hour to fix it.”

“We can wait in the briefing room,” Jack said.

“Jack, I’m, um. Going back to the lab.” Daniel unclipped his daypack and let it fall to the ground. “I can use this time to do more research.”

“On what?” Jack studied Daniel’s wary expression.

“I’ve been working on a…on a paper.”

“Really,” Jack said, surprised. He had only the vaguest idea of what academic publishing was all about, but he’d thought Daniel had given up on the idea of publishing his research. Daniel had told Jack so a few months back when they’d been drinking and celebrating Sha’re’s life in the aftermath of her death.

“Could we talk about this later?” Daniel asked.

Jack couldn’t remember when he’d last seen Daniel so guarded. “Sure,” he agreed, and made a mental note to pick up that conversation later.

It was a quick hour, what with Carter appearing on the stairs every ten minutes to update them and babble about gate dynamics and superconductors and dialing sequences and so forth, and Teal’c intent on not talking, and Jack completely focused on the mental image of Daniel worn out and asleep in his lab.

He’d actually been watching Daniel for quite a while before waking him. He’d known Daniel wasn’t going home at night. An airman assigned to night shift at the base had mentioned it to Jack after finding Daniel half-asleep in his office at 0330.

Not surprising that Carter was concerned. More surprising to Jack was the fact that he hadn’t been watching over Daniel himself.

Jack thought about that, and about the way Daniel had looked in his sleep. Something was beginning to take shape in his mind as layers of the obvious were removed. Watching Daniel sleep was only the first layer, he supposed, and he really didn’t want to see the rest of what was inside that particular package.

Might be why he hadn’t been paying any attention to it at all.

It was a surprise to him when Daniel appeared on the cusp of the hour, ready to go.

“Didn’t think I’d give you any more ammunition, did you?” Daniel asked.

Jack smiled and said, “Carter hasn’t come back in a while to give us an update. Could be this mission’ll have to be scrubbed. Don’t know about you, but I’m not too thrilled about the idea of getting to the planet…half-assed.”

“Hm,” Daniel said, and stared at him.

Jack gave a little apologetic shrug. Some jokes were Carlin and some were Dangerfield.

“Sir.” Carter’s head appeared at the top of the stairs as she climbed closer to the briefing room. “I think we’re ready to go.”

“Have you determined the cause of the malfunction?” Teal’c asked.

“We think it was an error with the dialing computer. We’ve run two diagnostics; Sergeant Siler will run a more comprehensive diagnostic once we’re off-world.”

“You think it’s safe?” Jack asked.

“It’s no more dangerous than any other trip through the gate, sir. We’ve activated the gate five times and we sent a second MALP through. It’s transmitting valid data. There’ve been no subsequent interruptions or shut-downs.”

“Let’s get going, then,” Jack said. “If you’re sure.”

“Very sure, sir.”

They reattached their packs, shouldered their weapons, and trooped down to the gateroom. Jack could feel cold sweat on his lip as he stepped through the event horizon, but Carter was right; it was like any other trip. No problem.

It wasn’t until they stepped through the gate on P8C-422 that Jack realized it: the itch at the back of his brain – the going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket one, the one that told him things were on the road to ruin – that itch was still there.

******

They made their way toward the village in silence. The weather was crisply cold, the kind of day that would pass for a late winter’s afternoon on Earth somewhere in the Midwest. To Jack, all that was missing was snow, or maybe icicles on the branches of the tall trees – icicles to use for sword fights, like he had when he was a kid.

This was their second trip to the planet; their first had lasted only a few hours. In that time Daniel had befriended the local officials, including their leader. The people lived a very simple life, but they had some items that were of interest to the science geeks back at the SGC. So now they were back, scouting for more information, for samples, and to negotiate trade between the worlds.

“Talk to me, Carter.” Jack shifted the P-90 in his hands. “Tell me again why these medicines are so important.”

Carter gave him a look that clearly said Jack should have tried harder to track what she was saying at the briefing. He felt no remorse. Nothing like a little science first thing in the morning to kill any chance of feeling halfway intelligent for the rest of the day.

“The medicinal samples clearly showed evidence of Goa’uld engineering, sir. Their vaccines are highly advanced.”

“So advanced, these people have no idea how they were created,” Daniel added.

Carter nodded. “The vaccines appear to have an unlimited shelf life. The research possibilities alone are enormous. Sir, I think this mission has the potential to be the most profitable we’ve seen thus far in terms of retrieving technology. It certainly isn’t the kind of thing that’ll help us in our defense, but think of the possibilities. There’s so much we could potentially do with these vaccines.”

“It is fitting that Goa’uld technology should be put to use saving the Tau’ri rather than destroying them,” Teal’c said.

“Exactly,” Jack said.

“I hate to play devil’s advocate,” Daniel began.

“No you don’t.” Jack cut Daniel off, and at his quizzical look, added, “You love being the devil’s advocate. We should make it your motto.”

Daniel ignored him. “We don’t even know if these vaccines are viable. This is engineered technology, manufactured for diseases we may not have encountered yet. They may be treating diseases we’ve wiped out, or diseases we don’t want to mess with. If they are transplanted from Earth, they might have evolved with different immunity.”

“That’s true, but it’s possible we can use the basic formulas to create vaccines that suit our needs,” Carter said.

“What’s interesting to me is how they came into possession of those vaccines in the first place,” Daniel said. “I mean, their culture…it seems to have barely evolved. We don’t know how long ago they were transplanted here, but their complete avoidance of technology is strange.”

“Noticed that,” Jack said. “A few heaters could go a long way in this place.”

“Exactly,” Daniel said. “Except they don’t have them. It’s remarkable, really, their reliance on fire for cooking and heating. They’re clearly intelligent and curious and yet they have few machines, and no weapons. And they know nothing about gate travel, but welcomed us anyway. They took us at face value, in fact. It’s fascinating, when you think about it.”

“This makes you drool, doesn’t it?” Jack asked Daniel. “You can’t wait to find out what’s at the bottom of it all.”

“That’s…sort of what I’m here for,” Daniel said, frowning a little. “Sam has a theory, though.”

“I believe their technological development was hampered in some way,” Carter said. “It may be that their avoidance of technology is ingrained into their culture.”

“That guy,” Jack said. “What was his name…Annoy?”

“Ahnor,” Daniel corrected him.

“Right, Ahnor. Didn’t he say something about their laws, their…proscriptions?”

“Yes,” Daniel said. “I didn’t have time to delve into that when we were here before, but I have a number of questions about them. It may be that these people are forbidden to tamper with technology.”

“It’s very unlikely that they developed these medicines on their own,” Carter added. “They seem to be capable of reproducing the existing vaccines, but they can’t create new ones. Likely these were given to them by the Goa’uld.”

“How, then, do you explain the fact that the villagers were not alarmed by my presence?” Teal’c asked. “If, as you believe, the Goa’uld have imposed restrictions on their culture, then would they not recognize a Jaffa in their midst?”

“I can’t explain that, really,” Daniel replied. “Just another one of the questions I need to ask.”

They lapsed into silence again as they walked, Teal’c at point and Carter at the rear, with Daniel and Jack in between. Jack watched his exhaled breaths cloud the air and remembered being a kid in Minnesota, with scarves glued to his nose and mouth by ice crystals. Cold weather was always a prelude to snowball fights and ice hockey.

When he looked up, he caught Daniel watching him. “What are you looking at?” Jack asked, his tone light.

“Just wondering what’s got you so amused.”

“Amused. Well, that would be a little recollection about my misspent youth.”

“You had a youth?” Daniel was full-on smiling, now, and Jack chuckled. After a moment, Daniel went on. “Jack, there’s something I’d like to talk with you about. Something important. Now’s as good a time as any.”

“Shoot,” Jack said. A list of possible topics rattled through his head. Daniel looked much too serious all of a sudden. Not good, Jack thought. “Something wrong?” he asked.

“No, nothing’s wrong. Nothing dangerous or urgent.” He smiled at Jack, who could feel relief flood through him.

“What, then?”

Daniel looked at the ground, at the trees – everywhere but at Jack – and when his gaze finally leveled, there were shadows in his eyes. “I’m thinking that maybe when this mission is over, I’ll ask for a short leave of absence.”

Too soon for the relief, Jack realized, and the question almost asked itself. “You’re sure nothing’s wrong?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Jack, the Stargate program has become my whole life. I’m thinking that maybe I need to take a break, get my hands dirty again. Away from the SGC.”

“I only have a vague idea of what you’re trying to say, Daniel. Very vague.”

“You remember I said I was working on a paper?”

“Does this have something to do with that book you fell asleep on last night?”

“In a way, yes. I showed you some pictures a few weeks ago of a place that looked like Abydos – oh, never mind, I know you don’t remember.” It made Jack want to cringe, the way Daniel read his expression so perfectly. Daniel went on, “That was a dig in Giza, actually, one that’s not connected to anything having to do with the stargate. Continued excavation of a workers’ village.”

“And?”

“I’d like to participate on the dig for a while. Dr. Scheiffer has invited me – he’s one of the last legitimate archaeologists who hasn’t entirely written me off as a lunatic.” Daniel smiled slightly, but there was a familiar pain in his eyes.

“I’ll have to clear it with Hammond, but I think he’ll be fine with it.” Jack looked closely at Daniel. “You really want to do this?”

“Why do you ask like that?”

“Because this whole idea doesn’t seem to thrill you. You don’t seem excited. It’s not exactly like working your diplomatic and linguistic magic on alien cultures.”

“Jack, it’s…” Daniel hesitated; Jack could see him struggling with what to say. “That’s part of the appeal.”

“Oh,” Jack said. He tempered his next words, made them nonchalant. “You thinking of leaving the program?”

“No. No, nothing like that. Just…I need something else, for a while.” He stopped there, but Jack imagined he heard the rest of it, everything Daniel didn’t say, and it had nothing to do with credibility or papers or a bunch of goddamned artifacts. It had to do with being around like minds, discussing things that bored most people at the SGC; it was all about rushing from one project to another, without taking time to settle. Daniel needed a vacation from everything underneath Cheyenne Mountain. Including Jack.

They looked at each other for a long moment. Jack thought about arguments he might make against Daniel taking time off, but none of it would register. The guy was crazy-stubborn, sometimes; Daniel called it determination, but Jack knew it for what it was, and his bull-headed ideas weren’t going to go away under the weight of Jack’s attempts at persuasion.

Daniel would end up feeling coerced, and then he’d still go to Egypt, and maybe he wouldn’t come back.

“It’s your call,” Jack said quietly, thinking that maybe he’d said all there really was to say.

Daniel’s eyes lit with gratitude. “Thank you.”

Jack knew the depth of that gratitude was going to stay with him the rest of the day. It struck him hard, the thought that Daniel could be so willing to leave the team, to take a break. It wasn’t as though Daniel couldn’t have this, if he wanted it. Jack would talk to Hammond and secure Daniel permission to do anything he wanted, anytime he wanted it. That feeling of familiarity, of understanding the need to escape, was strong. He wanted to understand Daniel’s reasons, but he couldn’t get there without asking the questions.

And then, he’d have to be prepared to hear the answers.

Shake it off, Jack, he told himself, and breathed out a long, icy breath.

*****

 

Jack had taken it better than Daniel had expected. It wasn’t possible for Jack to understand why he wanted a leave of absence – Daniel didn’t fully understand it himself. He just knew he needed to get away, to take a break. Something different for a while, anywhere but at the bottom of a missile silo, and without the program he’d wrapped himself in like an academia-free cocoon.

A part of him was looking forward to tasting sand in everything from his coffee to his toothpaste, to digging and brushing and sketching all day without worrying about attacks from Unas or Goa’uld or any other enemy. Nothing to look out for but sand fleas and sunburn. The part of him that missed sand was the same part that was reminded of Sha’re every time he stood on a desert dune. That part of him had been diminishing lately, and he needed to find an anchor – one that wasn’t tied to the SGC.

Or to Jack.

It was time to reclaim his roots for a while. Long-term field work was something he’d been away from for too long, and he missed it.

He walked on beside Jack without talking. Jack’s face had taken on that blank expression he got when there was too much going on between the head and the heart. Daniel had no idea what it was about, but when Jack was this tightly controlled, it made him tense.

Not that he had much time to worry about it. The village loomed close, humming with activity. It was the kind of place Daniel felt welcome – where kids played in the streets and adults went about their business and nodded in a friendly way as strangers passed.

SG-1’s visit to P8C-422 had been, in Jack’s words, spectacularly boring. No one had been shot, no Goa’uld had come out of the woodwork, and there hadn’t been anything strange or unusual to throw a wrench in the works.

Even so, Jack was frowning as they passed the simple huts and stone houses, with their chimneys smoking up the sky. Just as Daniel opened his mouth to ask what was bothering him, Jack said, “Hey,” in a low, urgent tone. Sam and Teal’c instantly stopped and turned toward him. “Let’s just…be a little cautious, all right? Stay alert.”

“All right,” Daniel said slowly. Teal’c inclined his head; Sam nodded. Jack’s sixth sense was never questioned. Daniel had seen for himself how reliable it was, and not just for keeping them out of unstable wormholes.

The meeting hall was warm and inviting, with fires strewn through large pits around the room. Minister Ahnor was waiting to greet them there. Daniel was still puzzled by the physiology of Ahnor and his people; tall, with pale skin and dark eyes, they were striking figures, and taller by far than many humans. He and Sam had talked at length about their ancestry, and the possibility these people were descended from a place other than Earth.

“Colonel! Doctor!” Ahnor bowed to them. “We are delighted to have you back in our midst.”

“Thank you, Minister,” Daniel said, with a short, appropriate bow. “We’re very pleased to be able to return so quickly.”

“You remember my chief advisor, Heret. And our healer, Wellam.”

“Yes, of course,” Daniel said. Sam had been dying to get a crack at Wellam since they first met. Part of Daniel’s job was to see it happened smoothly.

Jack said, “We’ve been given the authority to discuss trade between our people, Minister. So we should have hours and hours of fun talks about it.”

“This is good news,” Ahnor said. Daniel watched as smiles blossomed on the faces of his advisors. One obstacle conquered; they were anxious to trade.

Daniel said, “One of our primary goals is fair trade between our people.” He gave a glance to Sam, and added, “As a first step, we’d like to discuss obtaining samples of your medicines.”

“Please, sit with us,” Ahnor said, and gestured to the long table at the end of the hall. Daniel looked to Jack, who nodded, and they followed Ahnor to the table. Ahnor sat in the center of one side; Jack took the center of the other.

Ahnor began the talks without preamble. “We are quite willing to trade with your world, but our options are somewhat limited. Our laws limit the kinds of materials we can make or trade. So I’m afraid we may have little of interest to you and there may be little you can trade in return.”

“Can you tell us exactly what you’re prohibited from trading?” Daniel asked.

“We do not accept new technologies; nor do we pursue the scientific disciplines. We do not need machinery or technology. Instead, we would be content with simple things – fabrics, tools. The necessities of life.”

Daniel looked at Jack, who seemed a little surprised, and replied, “I believe we can satisfy some of your basic requirements, Minister. Are you prohibited from trading your medicines?”

“No,” Wellam said. “Doctor Jackson, we’ll freely give you any of our medicines you require as a gesture of good faith. Our needs are few and we can quickly dispose of our list of goods to receive in trade.”

“That would be wonderful,” Daniel said. He tried not to show too much enthusiasm for the bargain they were about to make; it was like trading granite stones for gold, and he felt a little guilty. Jack, however, rarely suffered from such minor ethical qualms, and he was already pushing back from the table.

Ahnor stopped Jack with a sweep of the hand. “Surely, Colonel, you need not hurry back to the portal?”

“What’d you have in mind, Minister?”

“We will prepare the medicines for you; you may take them with you when you leave. There is, however, another reason to remain. You have come at a joyful time. We would be honored if you would join us for the evening feast.”

Daniel asked, “Is there a celebration?”

“You have come on my daughter’s wedding day,” Ahnor answered.

“Congratulations,” Daniel said. Jack fidgeted next to him.

“A moment, and I will introduce you.” Ahnor nodded to Heret, who excused himself from the table with a nod to SG-1 and left the hall. “Will you stay and feast with us tonight?” Ahnor looked from Daniel to Jack, then to Sam and Teal’c. “Please. It would be a chance for us to share our culture with you.”

“Can’t resist that,” Jack said brightly.

Daniel looked at him, checking to make sure there was actual approval in there amidst the subtle sarcasm, and then said, “We accept your invitation. Thank you.”

Heret entered the hall behind them; a woman walked by his side – or more precisely, a girl, Daniel thought. She was young and very pretty, all pale skin and dark eyes, like Ahnor, who took her arm as she approached. “I would like to introduce you to my daughter, Ionora.”

“Hi,” Jack and Daniel said at the same time. Daniel refused to look at Jack, and he shrugged one shoulder in response to the teasing Jack couldn’t deliver out loud. Oh, but he could hear Jack thinking.

Ahnor smiled at the girl, who smiled back. “My daughter will be responsible for delivering our medicines to you. She will answer all your questions, Doctor Jackson.”

“It is my honor,” Ionora said, in a lovely, musical voice.

“Colonel, perhaps we could discuss this trade agreement in more detail?” Ahnor asked.

“Right,” Jack said, completely without enthusiasm. Daniel hid a smile. “Daniel, you and Carter go with Ionora and…”

“Wellam, sir,” Sam supplied.

“Wellam. Teal’c and I’ll continue discussions with the minister. Report back on the half hour. Since we’re staying for dinner, I guess there’s no hurry.”

“Yes, sir,” Sam said.

“I will leave you in Ionora’s capable hands,” Ahnor said. Once the requisite round of head-bowing was completed yet again, Ahnor led Jack and Teal’c away with him.

Wellam remained behind, smiling at them. “I’ve been looking forward to your return. I was hoping we could discuss your plans for the medicines. It is rare to have an opportunity to speak of such things here.”

“I was wondering about that,” Daniel said. “Why aren’t there any scientists among your people?”

“’Tis forbidden by the Proscriptions,” Ionora said. She extended her hand in an invitation for them to follow. “This way, please.”

They fell into step behind her. “Could you, um, tell us something more about the Proscriptions?” Daniel asked.

“They are the primary laws of our people, given to us by the Gods in antiquity.” Ionora gave Daniel a curious glance. “Do you not have such laws among your people?”

“Not exactly, no. We have many different gods on our world, and some of those gods are believed to have given us laws to follow. But they govern moral behavior rather than the development of our society.”

“Most interesting,” Wellam said. “Our laws are designed to prevent us from bringing our society to ruin. There are things men should not know. Things they should not do. Science is considered a difficult discipline to govern.”

“But aren’t you curious as to how things work?” Sam asked. “I mean…don’t you see ways you could improve your lives here with technology? There are things we can offer you in trade, things that--”

“We have all we need,” Ionora said pleasantly. “On the rare occasion that a problem must be solved in this manner we have Wellam to provide the solution for us.”

“If you’re the only one who can make the medicines, how do you pass the knowledge down to generations that follow?” Daniel asked.

“I have apprentices,” Wellam said. “But it is not a concern for our people. We enjoy good health and long lives. Our world is peaceful. Ours is a good life.”

Daniel had to silently agree. He’d lived among simple people for many months, working hard for his daily existence. Less was often more.

They had reached a low building, made of gray stone. Wellam ushered them in. The pleasant smell of wood burning in a firepit greeted them as they made their way inside. “This is where our sick come to be healed,” he told them.

There were beds along one wall of the building, and at the other side, a workstation where various bottles were stacked on high shelves. The shelves extended through a doorway on the far side of the building and into another room.

“Like an apothecary shop,” Daniel murmured, more to himself than to the others. “So, you’re able to make new batches of the same medicines, but you don’t create new types of vaccines?”

“That is strictly forbidden,” Wellam said. “We would not know how, even if we were to have the desire or the need.”

“You haven’t encountered a disease yet you couldn’t cure?” Sam looked astounded.

“There was one several years ago. A plague which caused much suffering and grief. Many were lost.” Ionora picked up a basket from the counter and fingered the plants inside. “I was a small child then. My mother succumbed to the sleeping sickness. I do not remember much of what took place.”

“Has the plague recurred?” Sam asked.

“No,” Wellam said. “Some of our smaller children contract the symptoms, from time to time, but the adults do not seem to be affected.”

“Immunity,” Sam said. “Eventually they will pass it on to their children.”

“Immunity?” Wellam asked, looking from Sam to Daniel. “I do not know this word.”

“A natural resistance to disease,” Sam explained.

“Ah. Then yes, that is a likely explanation,” Wellam said, and smiled at Sam. “Please – tell me more of immunity, and of the healers on your world.”

“My father has told me of you, and yet I do not know your names,” Ionora said suddenly. “Are you more than your titles?”

“Sometimes,” Daniel said. “My name is Daniel. This is Sam. I’m a doctor, she’s a major…that’s not important. What we do isn’t necessarily how we are identified.”

“Daniel,” she said, repeating the name as if to try it out. “Sam. Have you any questions I may answer for you? I know my father will want to speak with you at length about your world.”

Questions. Yes, Daniel had a thousand questions, and there was never enough time to find all the answers. “This is your wedding day?” Daniel asked.

“It is.” Her entire countenance shifted in an instant; an expression of anxiety crossed her features and was swiftly gone.

Daniel and Sam exchanged a look. “This must be a pivotal moment in your culture, as it is in ours,” Daniel said.

“One does one’s duty,” Ionora said.

“Duty?” Daniel asked.

“Marriage is but one duty in life. There are so many others. It is perhaps best to move this one out of the way and move on to others.” Ionora smiled at Daniel. “Is your world so different?”

“Well, no, but…” Daniel hesitated. “We don’t really think of marriage as a duty anymore. Many of us choose not to marry for…various reasons.”

Ionora tilted her head. “You may choose not to marry? How then do you perpetuate your kind?”

“Perpetuate? Oh. Well, marriage isn’t required for that. It tends to happen whether we marry, or not.” He looked at Sam, whose smile was growing wider by the moment.

“We do not choose,” Ionora said. Her shoulders settled a bit, taking on a tired slump. “Our husbands are chosen for us.”

Daniel said. “Your father chose your husband for you, I take it.”

“It is our way, Daniel.” Ionora smiled at them. “We are content with it. There is a time when our bodies demand we take a husband; this is my time, and I am prepared. To refuse would not be possible.”

Daniel was suddenly back in a firelit room, behind a curtain with a beautiful woman whose eyes spoke a language he had not yet mastered, and the memory left him warm.

“Please do not trouble yourself,” Ionora said. She reached out a hand and touched Daniel’s sleeve. “Our customs are strange to you, as yours will no doubt be to us. This is part of learning of one another, is it not?”

“Yes, it is.” Daniel returned her smile. “Ionora, I have many questions, but perhaps it would be better if we spoke of these things another time. It might be helpful for me to observe your people tonight and to spend time with them before I begin asking questions. I might find answers myself that way.”

“We are pleased you have agreed to join us,” she said, and smiled. “You will be our honored guests.”

“Thank you,” Daniel said.

“Please excuse me,” Ionora said. Head-bowing ensued once more as she left them.

“Major Carter? Here are the samples.” Wellam placed a box into Sam’s extended hand. The tops of several small vials protruded from an open rack. “And now, if you please? A discussion of your healing methods?”

“Of course,” Sam said graciously. Daniel watched as they put their heads together and began discussing medicine and technology. Wellam seemed very curious. Daniel was also curious about a number of things, but most would have to wait until the feast.

He keyed his radio. “Jack, come in.”

A burst of static, and then: “Go, Daniel.”

“We’ve received the samples. We’re the honored guests at the feast tonight.” Daniel couldn’t keep the smile out of his voice.

“Lookin’ forward to it,” Jack said. The tone in his voice made Daniel grin.

*****

The town hall filled up quickly with townspeople once night had fallen. It was certainly the coziest place in the village; Jack was perfectly content to stand near the fire pit and drink cups of warm wine.

“This is the advantage of communal living,” Daniel said. He took another sip of his wine. “They gather together to celebrate important occasions. Reminds me of Abydos.”

Ionora was standing with her father, talking animatedly with him. The team watched her for a short while in silence.

“It’s really unfortunate that their marriages are arranged,” Carter said. “In a place like this, you would think they would have moved beyond that.”

“They don’t seem to do much moving,” Jack said. “Sort of stuck in a rut, it would seem.”

“Jack’s right. They’re sort of…medieval feudal, without the feudal lord to report to.” Daniel nodded at Wellam. “He’s the only one here who’s thinking about the possibilities of advancing their civilization. Sam, it seemed to me like he was dying to hear you tell him about our technology.”

“You’re exactly right,” Carter said. “It was sort of odd. He wants to know, but he doesn’t. I tried to avoid telling him things that would make him overly curious, sir.”

“What about those Proscriptions, anyway?” Jack shifted on the bench. His ass was half asleep and the rest of him wouldn’t be far behind. “Sounded a little like Moses on the mountain.”

“I’m hoping to get a glimpse of their documents at some point,” Daniel said. “It would be interesting to see what the original language was. It may be that their ‘gods’ were Goa’uld, and this was their way of keeping these people at a certain level of development without letting them become a threat.”

“Why do you suppose the Goa’uld haven’t been back here?” Carter asked.

“The Goa’uld hold few worlds in reserve,” Teal’c said. “There are hundreds of worlds that are culled for hosts on a regular basis. When those worlds are exhausted, the Goa’uld move on to others. It may also be that these coordinates were lost. I did not recognize this address.”

“Is it just me, or does the bride-to-be look a little…bored?” Jack nodded toward Ionora.

Daniel followed his line of sight. “Yes, she does. But where’s the groom?”

“I believe that is the groom, Daniel Jackson.” Teal’c pointed toward the man seated to the right of Minister Ahnor, an older gentleman clad in golden robes.

“Isn’t he a little old for her?” Sam asked.

“Not necessarily. Different cultures have different marriage customs. In some cultures it’s traditional for older men to take younger wives, particularly if their wives have died.” Daniel took a closer look at Ionora. “It is interesting, though, that she’s not seated with her father; she’ll be sitting with us.” He looked down at the chair next to his own. “It’s as if her participation in this isn’t as important as the bridegroom.”

“Sure not the way it was at my wedding,” Jack observed, sarcasm dripping from every word.

“That’s not generally the way it is at any wedding,” Daniel said absently. Ionora looked up at them, and Jack was struck by the defiance he saw there, a brief spark that quickly passed. Daniel said, “I’d like to know how this custom evolved. Maybe she can tell me.”

“And maybe she’s grumpy, and she won’t feel like telling you.”

Daniel gave Jack a mild look. “Well then, she won’t tell me. Will she?”

Jack sighed. “Fine.” Daniel frowned a little, and gave Jack a searching glance, but Jack wasn’t going to be trapped by that. “What?” he asked.

“You’re worried about something, aren’t you?”

Jack sighed. “What’s to be worried about? Great wine, good food, terrific party.” He took a sip of his wine. “Also, Carter tells me you and the bride-to-be hit it off.”

“We didn’t have time to hit it off,” Daniel said. His frown deepened.

“What is it with you and alien women, anyway? Like a moth to a flame. Like flies to…”

“Honey?”

“Not really where I was going with that, no.”

Daniel’s eyes narrowed just a tiny bit as he looked at Jack. “I’ve seen a few alien women come on to you, Jack. So you don’t have much room to talk.”

Jack opened his mouth, then closed it. Then he said, “She’s getting married, Daniel.”

“She’s being diplomatic, Jack.” Daniel’s gaze softened, and the moment between them stretched out uncomfortably.

Daniel wasn’t doing anything new or different, just meeting and greeting the locals. Jack had seen this a hundred times, and he’d been bored by it every time. Until now.

“Jack…” Daniel began, then stopped. His gaze dropped to a point on the floor, then lifted again to meet Jack’s eyes, and Jack’s heart stopped for a moment.

“Sir?” Carter’s voice made both Jack and Daniel jump. “I’ve put the vaccines in a cold pack, although I don’t see the need for it. None of these vaccines are kept cool.”

“Good,” Jack said. With effort, he shifted his attention to Carter. “So anything beyond this is gravy, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then I’ll corner Ahnor after the big event tonight and start some discussion about that treaty. After that, we’re out of here.”

“Do you still wish us to remain cautious, O’Neill?”

“Yeah. I do. Not sure what…” Jack’s words trailed off. No way to put a finger on this. “Just be on your guard.”

They were all looking at him now. Strangely, it was only Daniel’s gaze that registered, until Daniel looked away.

The four of them stood companionably together, lulled by the cheerful atmosphere in the room, and watched the dancing and eating going on in the Hall. Jack turned his head slightly to watch Daniel watching the villagers. It always intrigued him, the way Daniel could become so focused on interactions, dissecting them like puzzles – and yet, two minutes later, be asking a thousand questions, completely absorbed in whatever the natives were doing.

Ionora made her way down from the head table. Teal’c bowed slightly to her as she joined them by the fire. “I am so pleased you were able to attend the banquet,” she said, and reached out a hand to Daniel, who took it with a smile. “Colonel, I trust your time with my father was enlightening?”

“Oh, your dad’s a great guy,” Jack said. “I enjoyed the tour.”

“I’m very glad. Please, will you take your seats? The ritual is about to begin. Daniel, you expressed an interest in discussing our culture; you will be seated at my table. Your friends will be nearby.”

“Nearby?” Jack said as Ionora moved away. He raised his eyebrows. “What are we, your ladies in waiting?”

“Jack,” Daniel hissed, and Jack stared back at him.

“We’ll just be over here,” Jack called after him, as he and Teal’c and Carter were led to their places.

****

Daniel watched Jack being led away and wondered what the hell was wrong with him. He’d been sarcastic since the moment he woke Daniel up that morning and it was a bit much, even for Jack. He didn’t have time to wonder for long, however, because Ionora was taking her place at the table, and she gestured for him to take his place beside her.

“I appreciate the favor you’ve shown by including me in this celebration,” Daniel said. As he spoke, he noticed her hands; intricate patterns had been drawn down the backs of them. There were concentric circles and odd shapes, fine delicate lines inked over every inch of skin he could see.

Ionora extended her hands. “My marriage tattoos,” she explained. “Tonight, they are placed on my skin as decoration. They will be made permanent tomorrow.”

“They’re lovely,” he said. “May I?” She nodded and placed her hands in his. He turned them gently, trying to get a closer look. “These designs are of Goa’uld origin. Very ancient. I don’t know what they represent.”

“Perhaps your Goa’uld are the descendents of our Gods?”

“Hm. Well…they’re not exactly ours, but yes, they do tend to think of themselves as gods.” He released her hands. She folded them in the lap of her shiny red robes.

“How is it where you come from, Daniel?” The henna-like hues of her hand designs glowed in the firelight. “You do not have the marriage tattoos. Are you not with someone?”

“Tattoos? Oh, no. No, I’m not with anyone, but my people don’t necessarily use tattoos to signify our relationships. Some wear rings…bands of metal, on their fingers. And we choose our own mates. They aren’t chosen for us.”

“I see,” she said. “Then I was mistaken about you.”

“Mistaken?” Daniel asked.

“I thought there was someone for you,” she said, with a soft smile.

“Someone for me. Well, there was, once.” Daniel looked into Ionora’s eyes, where many questions remained unasked. “I didn’t choose my wife, exactly. But I loved her very much. In the end, I suppose it could be said I did choose her, just…not at first. That’s confusing, isn’t it?” He smiled a little, embarrassed by his inability to say what was in his heart. “My wife died recently.”

“I did not mean to remind you of painful things,” Ionora said.

“It’s all right,” Daniel said, and meant it.

“Still, I am sad to see I was wrong.”

“Wrong about what?” Daniel asked, but there was no time for her to elaborate; Ahnor was about to speak.

“Honored guests.” Ahnor stood, with Ionora’s husband-to-be at his side. “Thank you for joining us to celebrate this day.”

Everyone other than the bride stood. Daniel followed suit and motioned to Jack and the others, who stood as well. A small procession of older women approached Ionora, carrying a chalice on a small wooden tray. Daniel assessed the craftsmanship as they came closer; it was very old, and made of something like silver. It was certainly the work of a smith or craftsman and was by far the most ornately decorated object in the room.

“On the occasion of your wedding.” The eldest of the women set the tray down on a small stand in front of Ionora, who stood and bowed her thanks. She regained her seat and the assembled guests sat down to continue the feast.

Daniel looked around and sat down. Not much time left to gather information. He focused on the bride-to-be. “What’s the significance of the cup, Ionora?”

“It is a symbol of passing into the adult world. When I am ready to end the feast, I will drink from the cup, and the ceremony will begin.”

“I see,” Daniel said slowly. “Ionora, are you happy…doing your duty?”

“When it is one’s time, one must accept womanhood and take a husband. It is the way of things,” she answered.

“One’s time?”

“The time when one’s body turns from a child’s into a woman’s. That is when I will be vulnerable to all the illnesses of the world. Is it not so on your world?”

“Uh, no,” Daniel said, as he tried to put the expression in some sort of context. “Not exactly.”

“My husband is a kind man, and very generous. I will be well cared-for.”

“So he’s a good man?”

“Yes.”

Daniel watched her hands move nervously over the table, drawing invisible patterns of restless fear. “You don’t really know him, I take it,” he said.

Her hands stilled. “It is the way of things,” she said.

For a short while they sat without speaking, listening to the musicians playing their strangely exotic music. Ionora picked at the food on her plate, then pushed it away. “The night grows short,” she said. Daniel heard regret in her words. “Soon the ceremony will be performed.”

“I wish you happiness, Ionora. You’ve been very gracious with all my questions.”

Ionora smiled at him. “You are kind, Daniel.” She reached across the table and lifted the chalice from in front of her plate. “Would you share the cup with me? I would be honored.”

“I would be honored as well,” Daniel said gravely, as she offered him the ornate goblet. He took one experimental sip and the taste made him smile. “It tastes like licorice,” he said, and took another swallow.

“Licorice?” Ionora asked.

“Oh. Um, candy. It tastes like a type of sweet food on my world.” He took one more long sip and handed the heavy goblet back.

“Ah. We do not often indulge in sweet foods here.”

Daniel closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Sounds seemed louder; the music was close, weaving in and out of his mind, and the smell of roasted meat and spiced wine was cloying, like a sickening perfume. A cold sweat broke out across his body as he opened his eyes. “Ionora…”

“Daniel, what is wrong?”

“Something…I’m not feeling well. I should…” Clumsily, he stood, but he couldn’t seem to make the connection between brain and body, and his limbs betrayed him. He saw Ionora’s face before him, a pale moon of concern, and then –

– darkness.

****

“O’Neill!” Teal’c was up from the table and running. Jack was right behind him on instinct, even before he saw what had thrown Teal’c into motion.

Within moments he saw Daniel sprawled on the floor unconscious. “Daniel!” Jack crouched beside him and turned Daniel’s head to the side; he pressed his fingers hard against the artery in Daniel’s neck. The pulse beat strong against his hand, vibrant with life.

“Carter,” Jack barked, but she was already checking vitals. “What the hell happened?” he demanded, with a fierce glance at Ionora.

She gave him a stunned look, eyes wide. “I do not know. We were discussing my people and our customs, and…he shared the marriage cup, to honor me…What has happened to him?”

Jack ran it back in his mind. She’d asked Daniel to share the cup with her. Share… “Did you drink any of it?”

“No, there was not time!”

Jack advanced on her. “What the hell was in that cup? Answer me!”

“What has happened?” Ahnor’s demand came from the other side of the table.

“Now you want to pay attention?” Jack said, without taking his eyes off Ionora. “Something’s happened to one of my people and I want an explanation. Now.”

“Then let us get to the bottom of it,” Ahnor said, in his most soothing tones.

“Yes, let’s do that,” Jack spat. “Let’s start with your daughter. I’m gonna ask you one more time: what was in that cup?”

“Cup?” Ahnor asked. “Daughter! You gave him the contents of your marriage cup?” he said angrily.

She said nothing, but gave a quick nod. Jack saw fear in her wide eyes.

“Stupid child,” Ahnor hissed. “What have you done?”

“Hey!” Jack cut him off. “Answers. Now.”

Ahnor stared at his daughter for a long moment, then gestured to his guards. “Remove her,” he said. They hastened to comply. “Clear the hall.”

“Father!” she cried. She struggled against the hands of her jailors. “Father!”

“Quiet,” Ahnor said. “We will speak of this when I have apologized for your behavior.”

Jack looked down at Daniel, then at Carter. “Report.”

“He’s unconscious, sir, but his respiration is strong, pulse normal. Eyes aren’t dilated. He might have a slight fever, but other than that – he seems fine.”

“Then why is he still unconscious?” Jack said irritably.

“I am truly sorry, Colonel. My daughter’s foolish actions are to blame. The marriage cup is for the bride alone.” Ahnor took a breath, then went on reluctantly. “The cup contains an elixir.”

“What, like an aphrodisiac?”

Ahnor frowned. “This word…I am not familiar with it.”

“An aphrodisiac enhances pleasure during sex,” Carter said, automatically offering the explanation. Jack gave her a look and her expression became annoyed. “What?” she asked.

“Ah. No, this is quite different,” Ahnor said. “Pleasure is not an effective inducement to obedience.”

“So, what is it, then?” Jack realized he was hovering over Daniel and made himself stand.

“The elixir causes fever and tremors in the bride. The physical symptoms worsen until the bride agrees to the marriage bed. The condition is easily reversed through the exchange of pleasure on the wedding eve.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you use this stuff to make the women think they have no choice – either suffer, or take a husband?” Jack’s jaw was so tight he could barely speak.

“They do not know their symptoms spring from the marriage cup. They believe it is their time for marriage. Thus the symptoms will worsen until the marriage is consummated. It is part of the ritual of womanhood.”

“Oh, for—” Disgusted, Jack dropped back down beside Daniel. “How long until this potion wears off?”

“Less than one cycle of darkness.”

“Six hours, sir,” Carter supplied, with a fierce glare at Ahnor. “This is reprehensible, Minister. It’s akin to coercion. You trick these girls into thinking marriage is the only way to cure a nonexistent illness.”

“It is our way, Major Carter.”

“Jack…” Daniel was moving, eyes still closed.

“Right here. Take it easy. You’ve been dosed with some kind of wacko alien sex drug.”

“Of course I have,” Daniel said. Jack felt his anger lessen at the humor in Daniel’s weary answer. “I feel like I’ve had too much to drink.” Daniel’s eyes flickered open and locked in on Jack; something in Jack’s expression must have worried him. “What? Am I all right?”

“Well, unless you count the fact that you’re going to have to take a husband, I guess so. How do you feel about the marriage bed?”

“What?” Daniel blinked at him and paled.

Jack chuckled. “Kidding, Daniel. It doesn’t work that way. Does it?” he asked, favoring Ahnor with a nasty glare.

“No indeed, Colonel. The effects are temporary.”

“This concoction wears off – what, overnight?” Jack looked to Carter for confirmation.

“One cycle of the night here, Daniel – a few more hours.”

“He will be quite uncomfortable until then,” Ahnor said. “Colonel, I offer my apologies for what has transpired.”

“You should offer your apologies to your daughter,” Jack said.

“Ionora,” Daniel said. He tried to sit up. “Is she all right?”

Jack held him down easily with one hand and noticed that Daniel was trembling beneath his touch. “Oh, sure. She’s fine. She was too smart to drink from the damned cup.” He looked up at Ahnor again. “Don’t you people have an antidote to this?”

“We do not.”

“Well, then how does the marriage bed cure the bride?” Carter asked.

“As I have said, Major. It is an exchange of pleasure.”

“I think he means an exchange of bodily fluids, sir, or bodily contact – some kind of chemical reaction through touch.” Carter said softly. “Is there something the partner ingests?”

“There is another elixir, yes. We do not know how this works. Only that it does.”

“Sir, if we could get some of both elixirs, maybe Janet can find a way to ease Daniel’s symptoms until this passes.”

“Terrific idea. Minister?”

“We will of course provide whatever you may require,” Ahnor said. “I will have my daughter brought to you, Doctor Jackson, and she will take her place by your side to ease your suffering. ‘Twill be her punishment.”

“Are you kidding me?” Carter said hotly, but Jack waved a hand at her. Not the time.

“Uh, no.” Daniel drew in a shaky breath. “Absolutely not.”

“I understand,” Ahnor said smoothly. So much the politician, Jack thought. They were the same everywhere. “Of course she would not be the one for you, as she has caused this. We will give you another. Any you desire.”

“I said no.” Daniel looked up at Ahnor, and then transferred his look to Jack. “I’ll be fine.”

“Can you stand?” Jack said. Daniel nodded. He slipped his hand underneath Daniel’s arm. Teal’c took Daniel’s other arm and they hoisted him to his feet. Surprised, Jack caught Teal’c’s eye and saw the same concern there as he felt himself; Daniel was shivering violently. “Carter, get me a thermal blanket.” She produced it quickly from the daypacks on the floor behind them. “Now, Minister. Give Carter the elixirs. Please.”

“Yes, of course.” Ahnor gestured at Wellam, who had been standing by silently through the entire exchange. Wellam left the hall at a run, with one last worried glance toward Daniel.

Daniel was gray. His eyes were closed and a sheen of sweat had appeared on his upper lip. “Daniel,” Jack said softly. “I need for you to tell me how bad this is getting for you. All bullshit aside.”

Daniel opened his eyes and weighed that before speaking. “I feel like I’m on fire. I can’t stop shivering.”

Jack took a deep breath. “Getting worse?”

Daniel nodded.

“Minister, I think you’d better find us a place where he can rest until all this is over.” Jack fixed Ahnor with a look.

“We have quarters available, Colonel. I will place them at your disposal immediately. I’ll lead you there myself.”

“Carter, take the samples and head back to the gate. Do your thing with them. Send Doc Fraiser back here.”

“Yes, sir.” Carter squeezed Daniel’s shoulder, then followed Wellam away from the small crowd around Daniel.

“Can you do this, Daniel?” Jack asked. He patted Daniel’s wrist where it rested on Jack’s shoulder.

“I can walk on my own, Jack. I’m just shaky. Dizzy. I feel hung over.”

“Always knew you were a cheap date,” Jack said softly, and was rewarded with a weak smile. He released Daniel’s arm, then pulled his own arm away from Daniel’s waist. Teal’c remained in place until Daniel straightened, then released him as well.

“Perhaps we can conclude our treaty talks at another time?” Ahnor said. Teal’c’s eyebrow rose in response.

"Perhaps,” Jack said. He watched Daniel wobbling his way across the Great Hall.

Buzz, buzz. The itch at the back of Jack’s skull just wouldn’t quit.

*****

“Charming,” Jack said, as he looked around the small house. A stove in the center of the dwelling was generating a substantial amount of heat, thanks to the quick work of Ahnor’s minions. The hut was divided into two very small areas. Each contained a bed and a low table. Wellam had brought water for them in small ceramic basins and pitchers. It all reminded Jack of some old B western.

“Don’t knock it,” Daniel said wearily. He was perched on the edge of the bed, working at his boot laces with tired fingers. He looked as though he might fall over any moment.

“Does this remind anybody else of the kind of motel you pay for by the hour?” Jack asked. He went to Daniel and knelt down. “Stop it.” He swatted Daniel’s hands away and began unlacing the boots.
Daniel shrugged helpfully as Jack peeled Daniel’s jacket off. “Into the bed,” Jack ordered. Daniel obediently crawled in and settled down with a groan.

Jack turned to Teal’c. “Not much we can do besides keep him warm until Fraiser gets here.”

“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” Daniel said, his disembodied voice rising from the heap of blankets. “I hate that.”

“Pretend you’re unconscious,” Jack said to the lump in the bed. “Teal’c, how’re you fixed for sleep?”

“I do not need the restorative assistance of kelno’reem at this time.”

“Good, then you take first watch. Don’t want any helpful villagers dropping by with chicken soup.” Jack sat down on the edge of the bed. “I told you, Daniel. You and those alien women.”

“This is not my fault,” Daniel protested. The bed shook, and Jack realized Daniel was shivering. He got up and retrieved another blanket from the unused bed.

“You just had to drink from that cup, didn’t you?”

“How was I supposed to…” Daniel’s voice trailed off.

“Daniel?”

“I’m fine.” The bed trembled again and the lump shrank in size as Daniel drew himself into a ball under the covers. “Feels like the flu.”

“Great,” Jack muttered. “Don’t throw up on your boots.”

“You’re not funny, Jack.” But the bed was trembling again, and this time, Jack was pretty sure Daniel was laughing.

In less than an hour, Teal’c’s call summoned Jack outside, only to see Carter trudging back from the gate alone. No Fraiser in sight, and no medical team trailing behind. Alarm notched up inside Jack’s gut as the sixth sense flared into brilliant life again.

“What happened?” he asked as she set down her pack.

“Sir, I can’t get a lock. The dialing sequence goes through perfectly, but…I can’t get a lock,” she said again.

“Is it the DHD?” Jack asked.

“I don’t think so. It’s not a problem on this end, sir. Nothing I can fix, or even find. Something must be wrong with the gate on Earth.” Carter’s frustration was obvious.

“I thought you were very sure it was fixed this morning,” Jack reminded her.

“I was, sir, but apparently I was wrong. Something must have happened.”

Jack ran down the chain of disasters. Stuck on an alien world with a drugged-out Daniel. Stargate not working – no way to find out why. That should have been enough to satisfy the gnat in his brain, but no. Still buzzing.

“Sir, if you’d like, I can camp by the gate and attempt to dial home every half hour or so, or wait until the general sends a signal through.”

“No,” Jack said. “Carter, it’s too damned cold out here. Daniel will just have to ride it out. We’ll take turns on watch.”

“I will stand first watch as we discussed,” Teal’c said.

“Right. Carter, there’s two beds. You can bunk up alone.”

“I had planned on it, sir,” she said, giving him a strange look. “I’ll take second watch.”

Business disposed of, Jack ushered Carter into the temporary quarters and closed the door. Watch was going to be miserable duty, even with heavy jackets and thermals. “Carter,” he called. “You bring your long johns?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, from behind the partition.

“Good. I’d loan you mine but you’d stretch ‘em.”

“I appreciate the sacrifice, sir,” she said dryly.

Jack waited until he was certain she was in bed, then lifted the covers and crawled in behind Daniel.

“Jack?” Daniel’s voice was faint.

“Who’d you think it’d be, Teal’c?”

“No,” Daniel said, not biting.

Jack rolled onto his side and looked at Daniel’s back. The pronounced shivering was easy to see in the dim glow from the stove, even if he hadn’t been able to feel the bed shaking. He grabbed the covers and pulled them up over Daniel’s hunched shoulders.

“Thanks,” came the muffled response.

“You still cold?”

After a slight hesitation, Daniel said, “Freezing. God damn it, Jack. I can’t believe they put these women through this. This is supposed to make them want to fuck?”

The word registered late with Jack, and it registered hard. He couldn’t recall ever hearing it from Daniel before in any kind of context. That word off Daniel’s lips did some seriously freaky things to his body. Things it should not have done with Daniel not a foot away from him in the same bed.

“I think the point is, it makes them want to feel better, so they take the more attractive option,” he said softly, and began running through the principles of aeronautics in his head. Anything to make the sudden, inappropriate, awful ache in his balls go away.

Daniel shuddered hard and curled into himself, almost fetal. “Can you stoke up that fire?” he asked, between gritted teeth.

That did it. Jack scooted over to Daniel. Without hesitation he wrapped his arms around Daniel, blanketing as much of Daniel’s body with his own as possible. “This body heat thing works better skin to skin, but that’s not such a great idea right now,” Jack said, close to Daniel’s ear.

“Probably not,” Daniel agreed.

“Fraiser’s gonna love getting her hands on you. Wait ‘til I tell what you went through to get laid.”

Daniel shook against him, but this time it was laughter. “Not funny, Jack.”

“I know.” His arm tightened around Daniel’s waist for a moment.

“Jack, are you really coming back here to finish this treaty? I mean…” Daniel hesitated.

“Don’t know. I can tell you I’m going to recommend to Hammond that they send a diplomat back for all that. I don’t trust what I might say. Besides, we got the samples. That’s all we really need. I think.”

“Good. I wonder what happened to Ionora,” Daniel said, in a drowsy mumble.

“They dragged her off somewhere. I’ll check it out tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Jack.” Daniel’s breathing grew deep and even, although he continued to shiver. Jack moved even closer, as close as he could, and closed his eyes. They fell asleep that way – Daniel first, and Jack much later, while mentally reciting a litany of aircraft instruments in an F-15E. It was easier that way, to keep his mind away from dangerous things.

*****

“O’Neill.”

Jack was instantly awake at the sound of Teal’c’s voice. He shifted in the bed and sat up. Sunlight was streaming through the small opaque window beside the door. “Where’s Carter?”

“She has gone to see if the gate is functional again. She should return within the hour.”

“You didn’t wake me for watch,” Jack said, astounded.

“You were tending to Daniel Jackson,” Teal’c said, as if that explained everything. Jack let it go, for the moment.

Jack stretched, then put a hand on Daniel’s arm. “Daniel,” he said, and shook him slightly. Heat rose from beneath the covers; Jack could feel it even without touching Daniel’s skin. “Teal’c, get me the medkit.” He yanked down the covers. “Daniel?” He turned Daniel over carefully.

Daniel’s skin was flushed and hot and his eyes were closed. Jack put his hand over Daniel’s heart; it was beating too fast beneath the black t-shirt. The heat coming off his body was incredible. “Damn,” he said softly. “Daniel, wake up. Daniel!”

Teal’c reappeared with the med kit. Jack took it and rummaged until he found a strip thermometer. “Wet down a piece of cloth for me,” he said over his shoulder to Teal’c. Daniel stirred finally, sluggish and half-aware. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” Jack demanded, as he pressed the thermometer to Daniel’s forehead.

“No point,” Daniel said. “They said…it would pass. Right?” His eyes blinked open slowly. “I feel like shit.”

“Really,” Jack said. The temperature on the strip rose to 103.7. “You sure? You seem fine to me.”

Daniel chuckled softly. “Sure I do.”

Teal’c handed Jack a bandanna soaked with cool water and Jack blotted Daniel’s head with it. “We’ve got to get your fever down,” he said. “Teal’c – go find Ahnor and drag his ass back here, and whoever else might be able to help.”

“Understood,” Teal’c said.

“Hang in there, Daniel.” Jack touched the wet cloth to Daniel’s head again, then stroked his throat with it. The skin there was flushed red with heat.

“Did you check on the girl?” Daniel rasped, as Jack drew the cloth gently over his lips to moisten them.

“Haven’t had a chance. She’s not really a priority right now, Daniel.” Jack watched as Daniel’s eyes flew open and he gave Jack the familiar patient look, the one designed to make him cave in. “Later,” Jack promised. He slid off the bed and grabbed the canteen. Daniel drank deeply, gratefully, but his arm was shaking as he lifted it.

The door swung open and Carter came in, trailing frigid air behind her. The expression on her face told Jack everything he needed to know. “Colonel. Daniel! You’re awake. I…” What had been a momentary smile died out as she got a good look at Daniel.

“Am I that bad?” Daniel asked.

“You look like you feel,” Jack told him. He stretched out on the bed beside Daniel. “Can we dial out to other worlds?” he asked Carter.

“Anywhere but Earth, sir. I tried two other designations. It’s not the gate or the DHD here that’s the problem.” She looked frustrated and on the verge of furious. “I’m sorry, sir.” She set down her weapon and the small pack containing the vaccines and elixirs. “Daniel, do you feel any better than you did last night?”

Jack could see the lie forming on the tip of Daniel’s tongue. “Worse,” Daniel said finally.

Jack wiped his face with the bandanna again and then flipped the cloth over. “Carter, can you do anything with those elixirs?”

“I don’t have any equipment, sir. Even if I did, we really need Janet – I don’t have the necessary expertise. For all we know, attempting to formulate an antidote could do Daniel more harm than good.” She watched Daniel as he shifted beneath the blankets. “Maybe we should take him off this planet.”

“Not unless there’s someplace you can think of where the level of medicine is better than what we can do here. Otherwise, we’re not moving him.”

“Hello? Still here,” Daniel said. “Ask me what I want.”

“No,” Jack said, and looked back at Carter. “Wellam?”

“I was on my way there next, sir.”

“I sent Teal’c to get Ahnor.”

“Jack.” Under normal circumstances, that tone in Daniel’s voice would be the precursor to a big, ugly war of wills. At the moment, however, he sounded weak, so much so that Jack looked at him with alarm. Daniel swallowed and said, “I feel bad, yes, but I can make it to the gate. Or anywhere else I need to go.”

“Daniel, I don’t see the point. You’re sick and you’re getting sicker. You need to rest.”

“You need fluids,” Sam said. “More than you want to drink, Daniel. As much as you can.”

“I know,” Daniel said, but he made no move to lift the canteen. After a moment, his eyes fluttered closed – unconscious, or asleep, Jack couldn’t tell.

Teal’c’s voice drew Jack to the door. “You may not enter the dwelling, Minister. I am sorry, but you will wait here.”

“Very well,” Ahnor said, but by that time Jack was outside and face to face with the man.

“I thought you said this thing would wear off overnight,” Jack said. “He’s worse. Care to explain why that might be, Minister?”

“I do not understand this,” Ahnor said. “I have brought a healer, one of Wellam’s apprentices. Perhaps he can assist Doctor Jackson.”

“What’s he waiting for, then?” Jack asked, more harshly than he had intended. Ahnor made a slight gesture with one hand and the young man entered the hut.

“We did not want to intrude without your permission.” Ahnor gave Teal’c a hard look that bordered on a scowl, but kept his attention on Jack. He folded his hands together in the full sleeves of his robe. “Colonel, you must understand. We have never had this dilemma before. The elixir is for our women. I can only speculate that it has had an unfortunate effect on Doctor Jackson.”

“Unfortunate?”

Ahnor blanched; his already pale skin turned a ghostly white. “Perhaps that is a poor choice of words. Wellam believes it is possible the effects of the elixir will in fact magnify in Doctor Jackson, to a point where we cannot help him.”

“So you’re saying this might not wear off?”

“I am saying that, yes. I believe it is possible the symptoms will worsen and his condition will be adversely affected.”

“Adversely in what way?”

“Doctor Jackson might die.”

Jack stared at him. Stared, and forced his hands down at his sides before he did something crazy with them.

“There is really only one solution to this problem,” Ahnor said. “It is why I brought Kasel with me.”

“Kasel?”

“Wellam’s assistant.”

The pieces clicked into place for Jack and he knocked Ahnor aside in the rush to get into the hut. Behind him, he dimly heard Teal’c saying something ominous about being forced to hurt Ahnor if he moved, but that didn’t matter. He had to stop that kid, stop him before –

Carter was right beside him when he stopped short and stared at the kid – not a kid, but a young man. A naked young man who was climbing into bed behind an unconscious Daniel.

It was all a blur after that. Jack knew he’d put hands on the boy, had hauled him out of the bed and thrown him on the ground. Carter had probably stopped him from killing the kid. He had no idea what he’d said, but he knew it was all ugly. He dragged the naked boy outside and shoved him at Ahnor. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” he shouted. “You think raping an unconscious man will make this better?”

“Colonel, please!” Ahnor helped the boy up. For the first time, Jack noticed the kid was crying. Well, great. Nice going, he thought, and kicked his own ass for a moment as the anger began to fade. Not the kid’s fault.

Ahnor said urgently, “Kasel would not have hurt Doctor Jackson, but we know of no other way to help him.”

“Not going to happen,” Jack snarled. Carter came out of the hut with Kasel’s tunic in her hand. She averted her eyes as Kasel took the garment and dressed.

“I meant no harm,” the boy said, his eyes huge and round. He flinched away from Jack as he turned to Carter. Jack mentally kicked himself again.

“Sir, aside from the fever, Daniel’s dehydrated. I’m afraid his body is shutting down.” Carter delivered her opinion in such a dispassionate tone that Jack could feel his blood pressure rising on each word.

“Teal’c.” Jack looked up at his friend. “Stand watch. Right here, in front of the door. No one goes in or out other than you, me and Carter. No one. No one fucking touches Daniel. Is that clear?”

“Extremely.” Teal’c drew himself up; every inch the warrior, he would have intimidated anyone.

“Minister, if you come up with anything, you let us know.” Like a whispering reminder in the back of his head, he heard Daniel’s voice asking him to check on the girl. “One other thing. Where’s your daughter?”

Ahnor’s eyes were cold and hard as stone. “She is no longer in the village.”

“Meaning…?”

“She has been banished.”

“You son of a bitch. That girl didn’t do anything wrong.” Jack’s sense of outrage mingled with the anger he knew Daniel would feel.

“She has broken our laws and caused injury to a stranger. This cannot be permitted. She has been suitably punished.”

“She’s your daughter,” Carter said. “Don’t you care about her welfare?”

“She is still subject to the Proscriptions, Major.” Ahnor was calm in his righteousness.

“Son of a bitch,” Jack muttered.

Ahnor hesitated a moment, then said, “Our humblest apologies, Colonel, for this misfortune we have caused Doctor Jackson. If there is anything you will allow us to do for him—”

Jack would never dream of letting loose with a cliché like “you’ve done enough,” so he slammed the door in Ahnor’s face instead.

*****

Hot. Burning. Every part of his body was on fire, trembling with fever and cold. Every breath of air that touched Daniel’s body was like ice in his blood.

He nestled down in the bed. It had been easier to fall asleep with Jack’s warmth against him, sheltering his back against the cold draft from the door. Now he had a hazy impression of daylight; he’d probably been asleep for a while. Daniel searched for a word to describe what he felt and came up with sluggish. Yes, that was it. It was hard to picture throwing back the covers and getting out of the bed. He was weak, and Jack had said he needed to rest.

Jack. He heard Jack’s voice, and Sam’s voice as well. They weren’t talking to him but that was just as well, because he couldn’t concentrate very well. He picked out pieces of their conversation, fragments of information. They were talking about him. He should be better and he wasn’t.

“Sir, we may not have any options left.”

“Bullshit.” Such a savage, spitting response from Jack, and then there was the clink of glass as something was set down on a table. “Put it away, Carter.”

“I don’t like it any more than you do, sir. What they are doing to the women of their village is disgusting. But I don’t want Daniel to die, either, and this is a small price to pay for something pretty damned important.” Sam sounded angry, too.

“You think letting one of these people rape Daniel is a small price to pay?”

Rape him? Now Daniel remembered. Dosed with a wacko alien sex drug. It must not be wearing off, so he was getting worse. They didn’t have to tell him that. His entire body ached; it was like being on fire. He wanted nothing more than ice all over his skin, and hands that were cool and knew where to touch him. Hands that were capable and strong – hands that wouldn’t let him burn.

God, no. Anything but that. Not that man, and not those hands. He’d die before he’d give that secret up. Nothing would ever be the same again.

He buried his face in the pillow.

“I would never condone that. Sir.” Sam sounded as though she were about to spit nails. “But it’s not rape if he consents.” Her voice was rising slightly. “If it’s the only way, sir, then why would he refuse?”

“Because he’s stubborn like that and I happen to agree with him.” Jack’s voice was the ice; Daniel wanted more of it. He twisted in the sheets, desperate to escape the heat and pressure.

“Daniel?” Sam’s voice softened and filled with compassion. She was there beside him, one hand on his forehead. “Oh, Daniel.”

Daniel looked up at her and saw the worry in her eyes. “Not doing it,” he said, and though he was hoarse, his words were distinct. He was grateful for that.

“You’ve been listening?” she asked quietly.

He nodded. “Can get through it, Sam. Have faith…will wear off.”

“Daniel, I’m not so sure. We can’t take the risk. It’s like you’re burning from the inside out. Soon your body won’t be able to cope with it.” Her words were so gentle, so persuasive. “They have healers who…”

“No. A stranger…no.” The word came out strong.

“Not even to save your life? Daniel, it’s just sex.”

Daniel shifted and looked for Jack, who had been strangely quiet. As if he knew what Daniel wanted, Jack appeared and perched on the edge of the bed. “Hey,” he said.

“Jack…don’t let any of these people be used to help me. These women…bad enough what they’ve done to them. It’s abuse.”

“I hear you,” Jack said, and ignored the look Sam was giving him.

Daniel touched Sam’s hand; it was hot to him. But Jack’s hand against his arm was cool, and Daniel fell asleep to fever dreams of something that could never be.

*****

It was a long day, full of agonizing trips to the Stargate by one or the other of them while the others waited for the radio transmission that would send them hurrying to the functioning gate with Daniel in tow. That call never came. With each trip, Jack’s hopes sank further. Daniel worsened over the course of the day, until his fever had reached 105. Carter was frantic with worry, though she didn’t say so. Jack knew the outward symptoms because he was working hard on hiding them.

They took turns sitting with Daniel and talking to him softly, tending to him. Even Teal’c took a turn at a different kind of watch.

Every so often, Jack’s gaze fell on the small, dark vial on the low table. He would look at Daniel and think of broken regulations and courts martial and spending the rest of his life in prison for having non-consensual sex with a member of his team – a living, breathing member, who would hate Jack for saving his life in that way.

Still, the idea gathered strength as the day went on. Once, Jack caught Carter staring at the vial, and he knew then that her thoughts ran a parallel path to his own.

Just so they were all on the same page.

Daniel seemed to have reached a restless plateau by nightfall. He had stopped tossing and turning and was motionless, exhausted by his body’s struggle. Carter and O’Neill went outside and sat with Teal’c beside the small fire he had built.

No one spoke for a while. And then, finally, Carter began. “Nothing is going to bring that fever down, sir. I’ve tried everything in the med kit. The alcohol rub was slightly effective, but those shakes…”

“We’re out of options, then.” Jack rubbed his gloved hands together. “No one to go to for help and no way to get home. Daniel won’t sleep with the locals to get the garden variety cure. No medicine. Any other ideas?”

Another long round of silence, then Carter said, “I understand why Daniel turned down Ahnor’s help. It’s noble, but sir…it’s all we have left. That healer was—”

“That healer was not what Daniel wanted, Carter.” Jack was sharp with her.

“Does it matter what he wants anymore, sir?” Suddenly they were on that parallel path again, with only intent to guide them.

Jack shrugged. His heart came up into his throat as he said, “If you’re saying it has to be one of us, I agree.”

“Even if Daniel Jackson does not consent?” Teal’c’s question was posed in a quiet, neutral tone.

“He might, if it’s us,” Jack said.

“And if he does not?”

“Well, then, we’ve got a problem,” Jack said slowly, and then his mind took a plunge into uncharted territory: sex. Sex with Daniel.

Jack’s mind was going in ten different directions – most of them prurient and entirely unproductive. He shook it off and started to put the options in a rational order. “How do we…how would…” He stopped, then tried again. “Does it have to be…?”

“I’m not sure, sir.” At least Carter could still understand him, even though he suddenly was incapable of forming coherent words. Jack was grateful she had spared him from putting those cards on the table. “I don’t know if skin to skin contact is enough, or if it’s an exchange of bodily fluids. We can’t know until we try, but I’m fairly certain it’s the latter.”

The latter. Such a sanitized way of putting things. “I was afraid of that,” Jack said.

Teal’c stood up, hands clasped behind his back, and spoke. “I am the logical choice.”

Carter stared at him. “How, exactly, have you come to that conclusion?”

“Daniel Jackson and I are brothers. He cannot be made to feel uncomfortable by my presence. When it is done we will speak no more of it. There will not be an awkwardness.”

“Won’t there?” Jack tossed a twig onto the fire. “No offense, Teal’c, but this is one of those things where there’s bound to be an awkwardness. A big, hairy, ugly awkwardness.”

“O’Neill. There will not be the automatic assumption of intimacy that would come with the performance of this act between a man and a woman.”

Carter said, “You think he’ll be more comfortable because of the lack of intimacy? I’d have to disagree with you there, Teal’c.”

“Does anybody care what I think?” Jack asked, annoyed.

Carter and Teal’c turned to look at him. Both were silent.

Jack sighed. Right. He could take a hint. “Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. Look. Teal’c, if he…you know…with you, it’d be too much like…a thing.”

“Sir?” The look on Carter’s face challenged him to elaborate, and Jack really, really didn’t want to.

He tried anyway. “There’s going to be baggage. After.”

“I consider that to be an acceptable risk,” Teal’c said.

“Well, it’s not. This has to be handled carefully or someone will be damaged by it.”

“And you don’t care if you’re the one who’s damaged. Do you?” Carter asked.

Jack blinked. “What’s that supposed to mean, Major?”

“Not a thing, sir.” Carter was looking straight through him, as though she could see everything he was thinking. If she could, a part of Jack wished she would explain it to him, because he had no clue what he was doing.

Jack gestured at Teal’c. “Teal’c, no offense, but if you go in there, I don’t care how close you think you are to Daniel. He’s going to feel intimidated. And he’s not going to just forget this like it never happened.”

“What, then, do you suggest?” Teal’c asked.

“I’ll go.” Jack said it as though it were the most reasonable, rational thing in the world. “If there’s going to be any regulations broken around here, I’ll be doing the breaking.”

Now Carter was staring at him with a decidedly determined look on her face. “What about Daniel’s feelings? Shouldn’t we ask him?”

“Oh, good, Carter. ‘Hey, Daniel. Could you just do us a favor and pick a friend to have unprotected sex with? That’d be great. Thanks.’” Jack glared at her. “Maybe not.”

“Sir, I’m only suggesting that we do what we can to make this comfortable for him.”

“Like anything we can do will make it comfortable.” Jack stared her down. “He’s not going to agree to this with Teal’c. I think…I’ve known him the longest. Maybe with me, it won’t be so…”

“Awkward?” Carter suggested.

“No. No, it’s going to be awkward.” It already was; once the reality of this had started to creep up on Jack, he found he could barely look Carter and Teal’c in the eyes. “Really, really awkward.” He took a deep breath. “But I’m not going to let him die.”

Carter sighed out a long relieved breath of her own. She met his eyes with that direct gaze he’d come to know and respect. “Which vial is it?” Jack asked.

“I put the rest of them back in my pack. It’s the only one still on the table, sir. And sir…there’s, uh.” She paused, then swallowed hard, and said, “In my pack, there’s lotion.”

Jack only nodded. Carter was ever practical, and it was too surreal to be embarrassing. At that moment, all Jack could see in his mind’s eye was Daniel’s face; he couldn’t even conjure up the end of his career. It didn’t matter. He’d had a good run.

Jack stopped at the door and looked at Teal’c. “No one goes inside,” he said, though it didn’t need saying. “Even if he…” Visions of holding Daniel down, of stifling his protests, flashed through his mind’s eye, and he winced.

“Understood, O’Neill.” Teal’c’s words had a quiet gravity. They were committed to this thing, now, and there would be no going back.

Jack went into the dark dwelling and closed the door behind him.

In the faint lantern light, Daniel seemed very still. Jack’s heart stopped for a moment, until he saw Daniel’s shoulder move. He blew out a breath between pursed lips, then shucked off his jacket and gloves.

"Daniel?" Jack waited for a long moment in the semi-darkness. "Daniel. You awake?"

"Yes." The word came out on the fine edge of a shiver, and Jack winced. "Can't...talk...too well."

"I know. I'm here to fix that." He took a deep breath and shed his clothes quickly, peeling off layers of his identity one at a time - t-shirt, fatigues, boots, even dogtags - until the military was in a pile on the floor, and he was just the man beneath. He fished through Carter’s pack for what he needed and tossed it on the bed.

Jack held his breath as he drank down the elixir. The liquid burned the back of his throat and its bitter taste made him cough. Nasty shit; he figured it would have an equally nasty effect.

He felt as though he were undergoing a ritual prior to sacrifice. It gnawed at him, the sensation of ends justifying means, and he hoped Daniel would understand in the morning.

In the morning. After they had...

Jack closed his eyes. Not like he could avoid the images. Or the reality.

He pulled aside the blanket and crawled in behind Daniel, who flinched. "Jack?"

"Easy, Daniel. It's just me." Christ but Daniel's skin was burning; the heat radiating from his body was incredible. He waited a moment for the implications to sink in and for Daniel to pull away, but...he only made a small noise that might have been surrender, or maybe despair.

“Jack.” Daniel’s voice was low and he shivered against Jack’s body.

“Easy,” Jack said softly. He pressed his body against Daniel’s back, muscle against muscle, molding himself to the contours that were both familiar and terribly unfamiliar. It was all about the context. Gently, he stripped the t-shirt from Daniel’s body, and then the shorts; Daniel didn’t protest.

He drew his hand down Daniel’s arm, let it drift until it rested against Daniel’s bare hip. It was as much as he could bear to do until Daniel said something, gave him some kind of permission or sign, or fucking said something, anything at all….

“You draw straws?” Daniel asked.

Relief washed over Jack; that Daniel had any sense of humor at all was something small to cling to in this giant mess. He dropped his head down and did what seemed most natural; he kissed Daniel’s shoulder. “Would have volunteered, but Teal’c wouldn’t have that.”

“So you lost.” Daniel was shaking so hard Jack could feel the tremors passing through his own body.

“I won. It was rigged anyway.”

That shut Daniel up for a minute. In that time, Jack was busy. He nuzzled the nape of Daniel’s neck and breathed cool air against the soft skin. He pressed gentle kisses there as he watched the flex and curve of muscles beneath his touch.

Jack felt he had to ask, for Daniel’s sake. “You okay with this?” The words were whispered out against Daniel’s shoulder.

Daniel moaned, and the sound of it was something dark and needful. Jack closed his eyes against the rush of sensation that came with that sound. “Jack,” Daniel said, and the word was a plea. “Just touch me.”

Jack exhaled slowly, stunned at the permission he’d been given and desperate to get it right. He slipped an arm beneath Daniel and turned him so Jack could have access to every part of him. Daniel’s eyes fluttered closed as Jack’s hand slid down his torso, across the firm muscles of his stomach. He knew how to touch, what to do – more or less – but to have Daniel in his arms…

Daniel. In his arms. Needing him.

“Where should I touch you?” he asked, willing to do anything, once he knew what Daniel needed.

“Anywhere,” Daniel said. He tilted his head back into the pillow, with his eyes still closed.

Jack lowered his head into the curve of Daniel’s neck, buying a few desperate seconds to think, to try and get clear of the sudden flood of feeling. There was no way could he make this quick, clean, and efficient like a military operation. It wasn’t going to be like that with Daniel.

In some dim recess of his mind, Jack remembered this was supposed to be awkward. It should be harder to do, but it was easy, really. Daniel needed him, but Daniel…hadn’t answered his question, had never said that yes, he was okay with this.

“Daniel.” God, the sound of his own voice – Jack couldn’t believe how harsh he sounded, how desperate and jagged his words were. “Look at me.”

Daniel said nothing, but he opened his eyes and met Jack’s gaze. Jack looked hard, seeking something he couldn’t name…

…but it was there, simmering at the back of that look. It was more than desperation or release from misery. The understanding that Daniel wanted him arched through Jack; he knew there was more than this moment behind Daniel’s need to feel Jack’s hands on him.

Jack’s hand fastened at the nape of Daniel’s neck, denying him permission to look away. “I have to hear it,” he said, fixated on the sight of Daniel licking his lips, of the blown pupils and flushed-hot skin.

“It’s you,” Daniel said. So many meanings in such a tiny space, and his voice broke on the word that was a substitute for yes and now and god, please, anywhere but in this place where they had no privacy and no will of their own and so damn much was at stake.

Jack closed his eyes and shook his head. “Dammit,” he said.

Daniel turned his head, seeking, and his skin moved beneath Jack’s restless hand. “Jack,” he whispered. “It’s all right. Don’t—”

“Shut up,” Jack said hoarsely, and made his point by raising his head and capturing Daniel’s mouth in a kiss. Daniel’s lips parted for him and he kissed Daniel hungrily, all pretense gone. Daniel reached for him, body shuddering beneath Jack’s touch, and deepened the kiss. His tongue stroked into Jack’s mouth, teasing, drawing him in.

Jack took his mouth, then. Slow, wet, and infinitely sensual. Daniel was willing beneath his gentle assault. Jack took his time there and allowed the desire in his belly to grow, to lengthen and thicken into something he had never believed he would feel for anyone again.

He put his hands everywhere he could reach on Daniel’s body. Slow, sure paths over chest and arms, with pauses to kiss here and there, just long enough to make Daniel’s heart beat faster beneath the pulse at Jack’s lips. With every moment of touch, the fever seemed to cool a bit; Jack was becoming familiar with the feel of the smooth skin beneath his palms, and soon he would be able to read Daniel without seeing him.

He wanted to see him, though. Every part of him. The realization stunned him, made him crazy.

Jack broke away to rise up and straddle Daniel’s thighs. Daniel made a faint moan of protest; Jack silenced him by leaning down to kiss the moan away. He licked Daniel’s lips open as he took hold of Daniel’s cock, swallowed the cry that came from him as he quickly stroked Daniel until his body arched off the bed.

Daniel’s jaw tightened; he strained into Jack’s hand, and Jack bent down again, close to Daniel’s ear. “Do it,” he said, low and guttural, and quickened his pace. “Let go.”

Daniel came without a sound, his cock pulsing in Jack’s hand like an erratic heartbeat. Jack slowed his frantic strokes, let Daniel ride out the waves of sensation until his hitched breaths were even again. Jack stared, unable to take his eyes off of Daniel. The way his body moved, the smell of his skin…it was all too much.

No thinking. That was for later.

He didn’t give Daniel a chance to think either, because the shivering had begun again and there was no time. One more rough, wet kiss, with Daniel panting into his mouth before it was done, and he turned Daniel onto his stomach.

This, then, was what Daniel had to have, what he…Christ, what he needed, and Jack was hard, harder than he had ever been in his entire life. He covered Daniel with his body, dropping kisses down the length of his spine as Daniel writhed beneath him. Daniel’s pleasure fed his own with soft sounds and cries he had not made when he came, but this was different, and Jack couldn’t see his face.

Jack knew what to do, though he had no idea what Daniel’s experience had been. He took his hands away from Daniel just long enough to open the lotion – which smelled like Carter, and evoked a choked laugh – and slick down his cock. Just that much pressure made him groan out loud, and Daniel mumbled something into the pillow.

“Shh,” Jack said, and slipped a finger inside Daniel. With his other hand, he rubbed gentle circles on the small of Daniel’s back and listened to Daniel’s moans. They were the signal, the way he knew when to move his fingers, when to stop, when to press deeper.

It occurred to him that Daniel didn’t have the strength to go to his knees, and Jack couldn’t risk hurting him. He closed his eyes and willed himself not to come right that moment. It would have to be face to face.

He rolled Daniel over and stared at his flushed face and parted lips. “Daniel,” he said. Daniel opened his eyes. The liquid heat there nearly pushed Jack over the edge. He began to push Daniel’s legs apart, but Daniel was ahead of him and spread his thighs wide under Jack’s touch.

Jack gave Daniel a slow, sensuous kiss, and pushed carefully inside him at the same moment he claimed Daniel’s mouth. One long, slow, deep stroke, and Daniel was so fucking tight, and…this was not going to last. It couldn’t. Jack didn’t have the strength to keep it up; his body was in a race with his mind.

He began to move, hips pushing forward as he stroked deep into Daniel’s body. Daniel’s head went back and he cried out, but not with pain – with something far more primal. His eyes fluttered closed and he panted, making the most delicious sounds Jack had ever heard.

“Daniel,” he said roughly, as he thrust hard and deep. “Daniel.”

Daniel moved, meeting Jack’s thrusts as Jack fucked him slowly, so slowly, and he realized that Daniel was saying his name, over and over, sighed out on a long breath. Daniel shuddered beneath him and for a moment, Jack’s world went black as he came inside Daniel’s body. There was only the sound, the feel, the ecstasy of being inside Daniel.

Carefully, Jack pulled out of Daniel’s body and let go of his legs. He moved to the side, exhausted but unwilling to move too far away. Some instinct – possessive, perhaps, but important – made him curl up against Daniel and take Daniel in his arms.

Daniel’s body heaved in Jack’s arms; his shoulders tensed. Jack ran a hand through Daniel’s short hair, pulled him in tight until his face was hidden against Jack’s neck. He closed his eyes at the sensation of warm wetness on Daniel’s face and stroked his back gently, without stopping, until Daniel slept.

Jack kissed Daniel’s face in the darkness and tasted salt.

 

*****

Voices outside carried into Jack’s dreams. They were feverish and half-formed, existing on the edge of his consciousness. Something about running naked through the Stargate, drowning in ice, and calling Daniel’s name.

His eyes flew open. He adjusted to the pale morning light and to the feeling of Daniel’s body draped against his, spooned together in that way exhausted people have of letting their limbs tangle carelessly. Daniel’s arm was flung over his chest. Jack decided he could like it, could get used to having this kind of anchor every day.

That led to a long string of thoughts, most of them tied to mission reports and the other members of his team. He sighed into the flat pillow.

Something tickled at his shoulder, just a fleeting brush of softness against skin. After a moment, Jack recognized the sensation: eyelashes, sent into motion when Daniel blinked. Daniel’s even breathing had grown more rapid; his breath ghosted against Jack’s skin.

It sent a pang of longing through Jack – awake, together here, not moving. Like a moment outside of time, where there were no consequences. He supposed the strange reluctance to leave the bed was the same for both of them, although he briefly wondered if it was shame or embarrassment for Daniel. For Jack, it was…more complicated.

They remained quiet together for a time; Jack didn’t know how long, but he could almost feel Teal’c eyeing the door, trying to decide how long to wait before he braved some reconnaissance. He closed his fingers around Daniel’s hand and held it lightly where it rested against his chest. Daniel squeezed his hand. Just enough.

Jack got out of the bed and washed up quickly. He picked up his clothes. Shorts, pants. Socks, boots, shirt. Dog tags, last of all. He grasped the tags with his hand, closed them in his palm. Eventually, he slipped them over his head. They seemed heavy after one night without their weight against his skin.

Daniel hadn’t moved behind him. Eventually, there was the sound of rustling blankets. Jack turned to see Daniel watching him.

Jack hesitated a moment, then went to the bed and sat down on its edge. Daniel looked up at him, wearing that strangely oblique expression, the one Jack desperately wanted to burrow beneath and get to the bottom of. There were red blotches on Daniel’s skin, faint impressions where Jack had sucked and licked and bitten him. Already they had begun to fade. Jack traced one of them; Daniel pulled his gaze away from Jack’s.

“Daniel,” Jack said, though he had no thought to follow it with actual words. He had no idea what there was to say, even if he’d been able to deliver the thought with something like coherence. Everything was a jumbled mess. He placed his palm against Daniel’s forehead and felt for fever. The skin was cool to his touch.

He braced himself with one hand on the other side of Daniel’s body, then leaned close. Daniel smelled of sweat and come and Jack felt his cock stir at the scent of Daniel’s skin.

The dog tags brushed over Daniel’s chest when Jack kissed him, slow and sweet, trying to reassure Daniel in the only way he could. He lingered there, tasting and exploring, or perhaps revisiting territory he’d already marked. Couldn’t really claim it as his own. He had no right to it.

Daniel’s fingers toyed with the chain. He took the tags in hand and twisted the chain furiously until Jack felt it cutting into his neck. He let Daniel’s passion consume them both.

When Daniel released him, Jack drew back and slid from the bed. Eyes closed, he made his body comply and redirected his thoughts.

Teal’c and Carter were hovering just outside the door, so close he almost ran into Carter when he stepped outside. Her expression was neutral. “Sir.”

“How is Daniel Jackson?” Teal’c asked, in a voice softer than Jack had ever heard him use.

“He’s fine. Fever is gone and the shivering has stopped. Looks like he’ll be good as new.” Except for the part where I fucked him, Jack thought, and winced again. He ran a hand over his face, annoyed with himself.

“And you, O’Neill?”

Well, there it was. “Fine. I’m just dandy.”

“Sir. About Daniel’s antidote.” Carter looked him dead in the eye.

Jack gave her a wary glance. “Antidote? You’ve got a hell of a way with words, Carter.”

“It is clear the substance Daniel Jackson ingested caused a cessation of his symptoms,” Teal’c said, face and tone void of all expression. “When Dr. Fraiser examines him, no doubt she will find traces of a foreign substance in his blood stream.”

“But she won’t be able to determine if it was the cause or the cure, sir.”

Jack felt a surge of gratitude as he caught on. He wondered how long they’d discussed it the night before, and whether either of them had gotten even a wink of sleep.

“Good point, Carter.” What was another little lie on an official report; he’d done it before for Daniel.

Anything else he might have said, or wanted to say, was lost the moment Daniel emerged from the dwelling, dressed and alert. Carter brightened at the sight of him. “Daniel,” she said, favoring him with a smile that was made for comforting weary teammates. “How do you feel?”

“Okay,” Daniel said. He met her eyes. “I’m okay,” he added, for emphasis, with one brief glance at Teal’c. His gaze flickered over Jack but didn’t rest there.

Jack began to wonder, in that moment, if they were ever going to get past it. Or if he wanted to. Or if Daniel would be able to.

Thinking. Well, it was morning, and he’d managed not to think about it for a little while. Not his fault the entire universe had shifted around while he was fucking Daniel last night. Not his fault at all.

“Carter. You tried the gate yet this morning?”

“No, sir. But I’ve been thinking. Since Daniel is better, we could gate to P3X-797and wait there for the gate to come back online. Tuplo’s people would welcome us for the duration, I’m sure.”

“A wise choice,” Teal’c agreed. “It would be a suitable place for you to continue your recuperation, Daniel Jackson.”

“I don’t need recuperation, Teal’c. Really.” Now Daniel looked straight into Teal’c’s eyes and waited for the nod of assent.

“It’s better than here,” Jack said grimly. “Let’s go.” He collected his weapons and pack from Carter and geared up. Teal’c had already taken control of Daniel’s pack; Jack knew Daniel wouldn’t argue with him over it the way he would if Jack had picked it up. Smart move.

“Wait – Jack.” Daniel made a little motion with his hands. For the first time since they’d left the hut, their eyes met. “I’d like to talk to Ahnor before we go. Ask about Ionora.”

“O’Neill made the inquiry. She is an outcast,” Teal’c said. “I do not believe she is in the village.”

“Please, Jack. It’s not her fault.”

Jack sighed. He knew Daniel was ready to plead her case, though it wouldn’t do any good. “Fine. But let’s get this over with fast.”

The villagers were milling about, tending to daily chores, but all moved silently out of Teal’c’s path as he led the way to the village square. Jack thought Teal’c looked spectacularly pissed off; that probably had a lot to do with it.

Ahnor emerged from the door of his home as they approached. Jack wondered which of his spies had warned him they were on the prowl. “Doctor Jackson! You are well, I see.” To Jack, Ahnor said, “I am pleased you were able to find a way to cure your friend. Perhaps you will share your medicine with us?”

“Perhaps not,” Jack said, without looking at Daniel. “Besides – you don’t need any medicine. This thing wears off in your women.”

“That’s not really the point,” Carter said sharply from behind Jack’s shoulder.

“No, it isn’t,” Daniel agreed. “Minister Ahnor, where is Ionora?”

Ahnor looked at Jack, as though he was puzzled by the question already asked and answered. “She broke our laws and has been suitably punished.”

“Broke your laws? Because she shared a cup with me in friendship?” Daniel had the doesn’t-make-sense look on and his face contorted as he worked up his argument.

“It is forbidden to share the marriage cup. She might have cost you your life!” Ahnor sounded outraged.

“Yes, but she didn’t *know* that.” Daniel frowned. “She didn’t mean to hurt me.”

“It is out of my hands,” Ahnor said. “She has been banished. She will not return.”

“Perhaps you could rethink your decision,” Daniel said. Urgency thrummed beneath his words.

“I will not. It is done.”

“Minister…” Daniel looked at Carter, then back at Ahnor. “I wish I could persuade you to have as much compassion for the women of your village as you had for me, a total stranger.”

“It is our way,” Ahnor said again.

Jack couldn’t stop himself – his eyes rolled almost of their own accord. “Yeah, well. Your way sucks,” he said savagely.

“Jack.”

“Daniel.” He fixed Daniel with a look, one that was filled with so many things – warning, anger, disgust. “We’re getting the hell out of here. Now.”

Daniel met Jack’s eyes and then gave a short nod; message received. They bowed slightly to Ahnor.

Ahnor bowed in return. “We deeply regret what has transpired between our people, Colonel. It is my hope we can continue to negotiate for goods and medicines.”

“We’ll see,” Jack said. He felt Carter’s outraged glare more than he saw it, but ignored it while Daniel finished the rest of the diplomatic goodbyes. He ignored it all the way out of the village until she finally exploded.

“Sir! How can you even consider—”

“Ah!” he said, holding up a hand. “I’m not, Carter. We got the samples we came for. We’re done here. It’s the diplomats’ problem now. Not ours. You know what I’m going to recommend.”

“All right,” she said, mollified. “Good. Thank you, sir.”

Daniel was quiet for a time, but Jack knew it wouldn’t last. He could see the conflict inside Daniel manifesting in the frown on his face. It was a relief when Daniel finally started talking. “Jack, maybe we should look for Ionora. It’s partly our fault that she’s out there.”

“Daniel, you can’t take responsibility for laws that have existed here for who knows how long. My first priority is to get you medical attention.” Jack slowed his pace to walk beside Daniel. “These people have their own way of doing things. You can’t fix it.”

“If we hadn’t come here, this wouldn’t have happened to her. I think we owe her something.”

“Well, then it’s a debt that’s not going to be paid.” Jack wasn’t going to budge.

Daniel fell silent again.

They moved on, taking the hike to the gate one step at a time. Jack hovered near Daniel, as did Teal’c; they tried not to be conspicuous about it, but Daniel was slowing down with each step, until finally –

“Jack,” Daniel said. He fell to his knees.

“Right here,” Jack said as he crouched beside Daniel.

“Guess I’m not a hundred percent yet,” Daniel said. He straightened.

Daniel scowled down at the ground, but Jack squeezed his shoulder; it was easy to tell how frustrated Daniel was. “Let it go,” he advised. “Just for now.”

“Fine,” Daniel said, so quietly Jack doubted anyone else had heard it.

Jack hoisted him to his feet and slung Daniel’s right arm over his shoulder. “You do know I’ll have to drop you if I need to shoot?” he asked cheerfully.

“Nice,” Daniel said, but there was laughter in his voice.

They moved on, marking time to the gate. Carter took a look at Daniel’s face and signaled a rest break after another half a mile. It was damn near as if she had read his mind, Jack thought. Perfect timing. Daniel was gray as ash and breathing like he’d run a marathon.

He settled Daniel against a tree and dug out MREs. They warmed the packets and ate in silence while they listened to the leaves rustling, and to the birds answering the call of the wind. Carter walked up a short distance with Teal’c; they were deep in conversation, heads together.

“Daniel, I…” Jack started to give his spiel, to offer himself up for whatever kind of justice Daniel might desire, but one look at Daniel’s face made him stop. Instead, he took another bite of beef stew. Finally, he said, “Carter and Teal’c weren’t a party to what we…what I did…last night.”

“Yes, they were,” Daniel said steadily. He set down his soup and looked at Jack. “I understand, Jack. This was my life you were talking about. I didn’t realize…well, that it was important enough for you to do…what you did.”

Jack felt as though there were an elephant on the ground between them and he could barely see around it.

“I know you didn’t want to do it,” Daniel said, over a mouthful of crackers.

“What?” Jack put down his canteen and stared at Daniel.

“What happened with us. It wasn’t consensual.”

Panic began in Jack’s gut and spread quickly to his brain. He resisted the impulse to touch Daniel. “Daniel, I asked you if you were okay with…Jesus. Christ.” He knew he’d gone pale; Daniel scrambled over to him.

“No, Jack. No. You don’t understand.”

“Just…don’t.” Jack looked at him; his body seemed too heavy, his mind too dull, and there was an ache in his heart, an insistent pressure. “Don’t tell me I…fuck. Goddamn, Daniel. I—”

“No, Jack. I…you have it backwards. I…” Daniel sat down next to him. “I consented, yes. I knew…I had no choice, but it was…” Daniel flushed crimson. “What I wanted didn’t matter.”

“Yes, it did.” Jack felt his breath quicken, and his heart with it.

“Jack. You would have done anything to save my life.”

And it was true. Stunningly, brilliantly true. Jack groped for his canteen, but let it rest in his lap. His fingers clenched around the neck.

“This wasn’t what you wanted. I understand that.” Daniel ducked his head down. “I consented, but you had no choice.”

Jack tossed the canteen aside and reached for Daniel, caught his arm in a grip of steel. “Is that what you think of what happened back there?”

“I think it was something you never planned,” Daniel said softly. He made no move to get away, but instead just looked at Jack. His eyes spoke eloquent words his lips simply would not say.

“Do you think I wouldn’t have done whatever it took, to make you well? Anything,” Jack rasped. “I’d have done worse things. I’d have…”

“I know,” Daniel said. He rested his hand on top of Jack’s. “That’s my point. You were victim to my needs.”

“The only victim in this was you.”

“Stop it,” Daniel said. “Don’t make this sound as though you hurt me somehow. You didn’t. Don’t you think I know how hard that was for you?”

“Not the way you think,” Jack said. He caught Daniel’s gaze; Daniel’s eyes were sad with the weight of misunderstanding, and Jack knew Daniel didn’t believe him. He knew because there was a gaping hole in his heart and he was half-dead from it already.

He released Daniel’s arm. After a long moment, he said, “Carter and Teal’c are ready to go on record as saying that you drank an elixir to cure the first dose. The substance will be in your bloodstream. Fraiser won’t know the difference.”

“That might be best,” Daniel said. He seemed weary. “I wouldn’t want anything to be misinterpreted.”

There it was, then.

Jack cleared his throat. “Daniel…”

“Jack. I’m tired.” Daniel gave him a bitter smile and closed his eyes. “We can discuss this later. Please.”

“Sure,” Jack said. Daniel closed his eyes and put his head down on his folded arms. Jack watched him, unable to tear his gaze away.

Jack’s mind spun furiously. If he tried to form words to explain, he’d never get his point across. He’d never been articulate where emotion was concerned; it had cost him his marriage. He didn’t have Daniel’s talent for explanation.

He reached out with one hand and rested his fingers lightly in Daniel’s hair. With gentle motion, he stroked Daniel’s hair, then down, to the nape of his neck. Muscles tensed beneath his touch, but he didn’t move his hand.

Minutes passed before Daniel lifted his head and looked at Jack. The look in Daniel’s eyes was enough to calm Jack’s heart, though there was still much to talk about. Jack moved his hand away.

Daniel turned his head to look over at Carter and Teal’c, then said to Jack, “I’m ready. We can go anytime.”

Jack helped him to his feet. They finished the rest of the short walk to the gate without much difficulty; by the time they made it there, Carter had dialed Earth without success.

“Guess it’s the Land of Light, then,” Jack said.

Daniel sighed. “Hope they have soft beds.”

“You’re the only one who’ll be sleeping,” Jack said. “Carter – when we debrief, we’re going to have a little chat about malfunctioning gates and the meaning of the words very sure.”

“Yes, sir.” She shot him an apologetic look.

*****

Tuplo was happy to see them as always, even if they did arrive in the middle of the night on P3X-737. Having those folks as friends had paid off in so many different ways, Jack had lost count. Wine flowed, food was served up in huge quantities, and Daniel was whisked away to one of those soft beds he’d hoped for. Teal’c went off to wake his wife and son and spend a little unexpected quality time with them. Carter’s suggestion had been a good one all around.

Carter looked tired enough to sleep for a week. Jack watched her scarf down some food, then said, “Carter. Go grab a nap.”

“Sir, I’m thinking I should try to dial Earth again.”

“I’m thinking you’re dead on your feet. Even if they get the gate open and send a transmission to 422, Hammond won’t start to worry until we’ve missed our actual check-in. That’s not for another few hours.”

She hesitated just long enough for Jack to consider making it an order. Not that it would matter. His team defied those kinds of orders as a matter of routine lately. “If you’re sure, sir,” she said finally.

“Sleep, Carter. Now.”

“Yes, sir.” She shuffled off after one of Tuplo’s gracious courtiers.

Jack tried to concentrate on bits of conversation – not that the latest gossip ‘round the Land of Light weren’t fascinating business, but his mind was on other things. Having Daniel out of his sight made him feel restless. Knowing Daniel was out of danger and convincing his instincts to settle down and accept that were two different things.

There was also another kind of restlessness lurking around Jack’s heart, the kind he couldn’t resolve while engaged in idle chatter in the Land of Light.

After a while, he asked to be taken to Daniel. They offered him his own room, apart from the others, but he refused their generosity. He only wanted to see Daniel and to know he was sleeping peacefully.

Daniel was sprawled out across this bed, not huddled into a ball as he had been the night before. His shoulders moved with every even breath; he seemed peaceful in his sleep. Better off, in some ways; at least he was spared from thinking about what had happened just a few hours before, and what would happen a few hours down the road. Jack didn’t have that luxury.

Jack sat down on the floor by the bed and leaned up against it. He listened to Daniel’s quiet breathing and thought of the lies he was going to tell and the truths they would have to face. He fell asleep that way, waiting for morning.

A gentle touch woke him – not that it took much; Jack was always a light sleeper, even in his own bed. Daniel’s hand was buried in the short softness of Jack’s hair, and his fingers were stroking lightly. After a moment, the hand withdrew. Daniel rolled out of bed and began to dress without a word. Jack closed his eyes against the ache in his chest.

He followed Daniel from the room several minutes later.

Everything went along predictably after that. Teal’c seemed like a new man. Carter dialed Earth and got a lock. Jack refrained from making caustic jokes about the timing, because Daniel looked stronger and was almost back to normal.

Just one thing was bothering Jack, and that was Daniel’s inability to meet Jack’s eyes. He chalked that up to a number of things – Daniel’s need for more rest, the debriefing and medical exam to come, the predicted awkwardness between them.

But the itchy sixth sense was back, clawing at Jack’s brain, stronger than it had been when they had stepped through the gate on Earth before this whole mess had started.

The itch persisted through his physical, through the torturous debriefing, through his hot shower, all the way up to his command briefing with Hammond. Jack was not the soul of patience on a good day, but this day…he wanted out, he wanted to be done, he wanted Daniel face to face and time to work things out.

It wasn’t until Hammond told him Daniel had requested a leave of absence – until the moment he realized Daniel had approached Hammond directly – that the buzzing in Jack’s skull faded away, and he knew, finally.

Daniel was gone.

 

*****

 

The arid heat of Egypt had always soothed Daniel. He’d been comforted by it since he was a child; finally, the persistent chill of the Colorado mountains was fading into memory. There was peace to be found in the shimmering desert. Time stood still; modern and ancient ways mingled and were one.

A month of brushing sand away from crumbling artifacts had brought things home to Daniel in visceral ways, ways guaranteed to make him think wistfully of his starving student days. Back then, a stretch as a research assistant or digger was easy money, a learning opportunity. There had been a time he couldn’t wait to get down into the sand, to search endlessly for pieces of the past until some small fragment came to light.

He no longer had the fire for seeking the past. Now he was restless, longing for home.

A breeze blew sand down into the pit, showering the workers with grit and dirt. Daniel pulled the loose bandanna from around his neck and covered his nose and mouth. Sand was everywhere on a dig like this by the very nature of it. Grit scoured his skin like sandpaper and made him rough and raw. His mouth felt dry as an old bone, too, and soon he’d have to climb out and get some water.

The excited chatter of diggers brought him back to the moment. Daniel pulled down the scarf that covered his mouth and nose and made his way to the huddled group of workers. “What is it?” he asked in Arabic.

“An inscription!” One of the workers, Fouad, pointed to the ancient stone. His worn white teeth flashed, revealed in a crooked smile framed by a dark face. “There, Doctor Jackson! Marked for you. But it is broken, though we were careful.”

“Ma’alesh,” Daniel murmured as he bent close to see the ancient graffiti. With the ever-present brush, he flicked away sand and dirt until the faint scratches in the wall became more clear. He scanned the text. Nothing unusual; the graffiti gave the name of a man and his family, plus what appeared to be a list of supplies.

“Are you not pleased?” Fouad asked.

“I’m very pleased.” Daniel pushed the brush back into his hip pocket. “Dr. Hawass will be pleased as well.”

“You do not seem pleased.” Fouad looked at him anxiously.

Daniel opened his mouth to reassure Fouad, and realized: the man was right. He wasn’t pleased. He wasn’t anything, really; just tired, and dirty, and ready for…what was he ready for?

He wanted to see something in the ruins that would excite him. Something to make the fire burn again. Something unusual. Ten years ago, he’d have been out of his mind and delirious at the discovery of an inscription to give context to the endless shards of pottery and layers of debris. Not anymore. Ten years before, he’d have babbled to colleagues for hours about the significance of a list of equipment and supplies. Now it seemed familiar and understood, like yesterday’s newspaper.

His life’s work was stretched out across and beneath the Giza plain, but he could no longer hear its siren call.

“I’m just tired, Fouad.” He smiled at the crew leader and patted his shoulder. “I’ll go and get Dr. Scheiffer. He’ll want to see this.”

A million rickety steps up the ladder took Daniel to the top of the pit, out into the heat and direct sunlight. Mark Scheiffer was sitting on a low wall, sketching something with a pocket ruler and a pencil. He looked up as Daniel approached. “Find anything interesting down there?”

“Yes, actually. A bit of an inscription, on one wall.” Daniel sat down on the wall next to Scheiffer. “Looks like graffiti, maybe a list of supplies. Also some names. Could be the family that lived there.”

Scheiffer grinned. “Hawass will love that. We haven’t found anything more than garbage and pottery in a couple weeks.”

Daniel shrugged. “I didn’t find it; the crew found it.”

“They work extra hard for you, Daniel.” Scheiffer looked at him thoughtfully. “You’re a natural. I’d forgotten how easy you make this seem.”

“Not as easy as it used to be.” Daniel looked up at the Great Pyramid, Khufu’s masterpiece.

His mind wandered back to the moment he had stepped out into the hot winds of Abydos. He’d thought of Abydos as home for two years after he’d returned to Earth. It was the kind of memory he’d love to share, in a moment like this with an old friend.

But he couldn’t share it. Not with this friend. Those memories were top secret, a sealed-off part of his life now.

Sha’re’s face was distinct in his mind. He could still see her eyes, warm brown and mischievous, and her sultry smile. He still felt the force of her strength and courage. She had seemed so alien to him that first night. One night that blended into a hundred others, too soon over. He had found her with Jack at his side; he had lost her in much the same way. Catherine had given him some nonsense about doors closing and windows opening, but he hadn’t wanted to hear it. Not when his grief was so raw.

Jack had always been there. Would always be there, through things neither of them had ever imagined.

It was a path of small steps – Egypt to Abydos, gain to loss, theory to proof, friendship to love. Not that Daniel understood what the next step had to be, or how to take it. He only knew he couldn’t follow this path from his past any longer.

“Daniel?”

He jumped as Scheiffer grasped his shoulder. “Sorry,” he said. “My attention strayed for a minute.”

“I noticed.” Scheiffer smiled at him. “Dr. Hawass will be here tomorrow. I’d like for you to tour your area of the dig with him and let him see the progress you’ve made. I’ve been going over your field notes—”

“I can’t,” Daniel said. He smiled at Scheiffer. “Mark, I appreciate what you’ve done for me here. I wondered if I’d ever make my way back to field work. I want to thank you for the opportunity.”

“I hear a ‘but’. You’re telling me you’re done, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“It’s your decision, but I wish you’d reconsider.”

“Sorry.” Daniel stood and stretched his back. The shadows were lengthening across the sand. Time to make his way back to where he belonged.

 

*****

A month could be forever, under the right set of circumstances. Forever could be so many things. It could be a month of missions without Daniel. It could also be the growing certainty that Daniel would never come back.

Tension hung in the air between Jack and Carter and Teal’c, until he took them out for dinner and a beer – Teal’c didn’t drink, but that wasn’t the point – and then things were smooth again. They worked well together, as they always had, and they tried to put their guest archaeologists to work, but none of them were as good as Daniel. No one could be; Daniel was theirs and they missed him.

Jack missed him.

He’d been trying not to think about it. Not at work, when he found himself wandering down to Daniel’s office in a forgetful moment of need. Not in briefings, where Rothman puffed on an inhaler every five minutes between excited interpretations of boring MALP readings. And not at home, where he was awake every night, trying not to remember the way Daniel felt in his arms, or the way he looked, smelled, tasted when he came.

Certainly he didn’t think about it when he stroked himself to climax in the shower, before putting on his duty and wearing it like ashes and sackcloth all damned day, every day.

He had started to suspect Daniel wouldn’t be back on the day Hammond sent an SF to box up a few books Daniel had asked for, things they would ship to him in Cairo. It was only the start of the steady stream, he thought. Carter thought so too. The sadness in her eyes confirmed it for him.

Jack’s house had long been empty, a place of refuge and quiet. Now it was too quiet.

On the forty-first day of Daniel’s leave of absence, Jack’s phone rang. He didn’t run to catch it but he did reach it in time.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Jack.”

“Daniel,” Jack said. A grin broke free right away. “It’s good to hear your voice.”

“It’s good to hear yours, too.”

“You sick of all that sand yet? Ready to get back to work?”

“Thinking about it, yes.” Daniel said.

That was apparently the end of their brilliant conversation. They lapsed into an awkward silence; Jack picked at the edge of the kitchen counter and listened to Daniel breathe.

“You calling from the dig?” Jack asked. “What the hell time is it there, anyway?”

“Nine o’clock.”

Jack twisted around and took a look at the kitchen clock, which ticked past 9PM as he stared at it. “You’re back,” he said softly. “Where are you?”

“Sitting in a cab at the airport. I didn’t…” Daniel hesitated. “I didn’t want to come over unannounced. I thought it would be awkward, if you didn’t…”

“Daniel,” Jack said impatiently.

“Should I go home, Jack?” Daniel’s voice was low and very calm.

“Come here,” Jack said. “Come right here. Don’t stop anywhere. Just…get over here.”

There was a long silence. For a moment Jack was afraid he’d said the wrong thing, given the wrong answer somehow. Maybe it was a test and he’d failed it.

Then Daniel spoke again. Relief was evident in his tone. “I’ll be there soon.”

“Good,” Jack said, and then for emphasis – “Good.”

“Jack…”

“Not now, Daniel. When you get here.”

“Okay.”

Jack hung up the phone and ran a hand through his hair. He had no idea in the world what the hell he was getting into, but he supposed he’d figure it out when Daniel was in the room, where he could see the look in Daniel’s eyes. Then he’d know whether or not he was ready for…whatever was next.

He paced the house. He briefly considered leaving before Daniel arrived, which was absurd and also made perfect sense. He drank a beer, set up the coffee maker, looked for tea in the cupboard. He thought he might never have been so nervous, not since Sarah, and their first awkward moments together. Not that there was a comparison. Not yet.

The doorbell startled him, though he’d been hovering near the entryway the entire time. When he opened the door, Daniel was there, scruffy with a day’s growth of beard and without glasses. His hair was longer than it had been the last time Jack saw him.

“Jack,” Daniel said.

Jack stepped aside to let Daniel in. Daniel was so close Jack could feel his body heat, close enough to obliterate all notion of separation. Daniel dropped his bag on the floor and reached up to touch Jack’s face. His hand slid down until it rested on Jack’s chest, over his heart.

“Welcome home,” Jack said.

Daniel smiled.

End
April 17/Sept 1, 2002