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throwing pebbles up a mountain

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By the time I finally got free of all the crap they like to shove in our faces around here, he'd gone home already. Signed out forty-five minutes before me. Yeah, too much to hope that he'd make this easier on me; I shoulda known better. I took the time to sweet-talk Hammond into forty-eight hours of stand-down before I left, and -- figuring the conversation I had in mind would go down better with a little lubrication -- stopped at the corner store and picked up a six-pack. And, on second thought, a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, and some eggs, because I doubted Daniel had been in any state to think about feeding himself on his way home.

The doorman knows me by now; he waved me in. I was juggling bags in both hands, so I nudged the door with my boot instead of knocking. I'd been conjuring up all sorts of images of Daniel drunk and despairing. When he opened the door and frowned at me, seeming perfectly normal, it took me a second to re-think my opening strategy.

"Jack," he said -- that's my boy; master of the blazingly obvious. We looked at each other for a minute, and then he shook himself and got out of the way. "Um, come on in. What are you doing here?"

"Mothering," I said, and dumped the bag with the groceries in his arms. "You ran off before I could see if you were all right."

He blinked a few more times, rapidly. "I'm fine."

I made my way into that kitchen he never uses, stowed the beer in the fridge right next to the tail end of the last six-pack I'd brought over weeks ago. "That's not what you said five hours ago."

"No," he allowed. "But I said I would be."

He had, and I knew Daniel; that can mean everything from "I'll be fine as soon as I get a good night's sleep" to "I'll let this eat at me until there's nothing left and I'll keep a smile on my face the whole time". "Didn't think you meant in a few hours."

He dropped the groceries on the counter without even bothering to look in the bag. "Yeah, well," he said. He pushed up his glasses. His hand hovered in mid-air afterwards, like he wasn't quite sure what to do with it.

"Not interrupting anything, am I?" I asked. Not that I cared if I were, but hey, polite to ask.

"What?" he asked, one second before those walls slammed back down and the only reason I could tell he was pissed at me invading his kitchen and his life was because I knew he had to be. "No. No, I was just --" He waved one hand to the living room, where I'd seen books and papers spread out on the coffeetable next to the ever-present cup of coffee. "Reading. Working. On -- stuff."

I unpacked the milk and the eggs, since it didn't look like he was going to, and put them away. "Stuff. Pretty specific there."

Temper flared in his eyes for a brief second. "Well, I have been specifically told to avoid giving you specifics unless you specifically ask for them, you know," he said. I didn't say anything, just gave him The Eyebrow, and his shoulders slumped a little. "Sorry."

"No problem," I said, and pulled out the last two cold beers from the fridge. He looked at the one I handed him like it was something small and goopy he'd scraped off the bottom of his shoe. I took it away again, opened it with the tail of my shirt, and handed it back.

"Not that you're not always welcome here, Jack," he said -- and the kicker of it was, he meant it, like me putting him up for a few weeks over a year ago had racked up some kind of unpayable karmic debt -- "but I, uh. Don't really think I'm fit for company right now."

I tapped my beer bottle against the base of his and took a swig. "Good thing I'm not company, then, isn't it," was all I said, then wandered into the living room to plop my rear end into one of his chairs.

For a second I imagined him counting to ten behind me, or maybe twenty, or a hundred. I could feel the minute he gave up on trying to dislodge me; he padded back (barefoot, I noticed, though he was still in his corduroys and that Godawful polyester button-down shirt that should have been burned back in 1981) and settled himself down on the couch.

He seemed to think that if he ignored me, I'd go away. I let it go for a carefully-timed three minutes, then put my feet up on the other side of the coffeetable and asked, "Whatcha workin' on?"

He closed his eyes. "Go ahead and say what you came here to say," he said, defeated. And I hadn't even had to start fiddling with his stuff; first point to me.

I tried to keep the smug out of my voice, though. Maybe even succeeded. "I just came to check up on you. You lit out of there awfully fast."

"What do you want me to say?" The light caught his glasses as he tipped his face up to look at me; it made his eyes opaque. "I delivered the child of my wife's rape and came home and now my world's crashing down around my ears?"

"It'd be a good start," I allowed. "Got a nice beat to it. Easy to work with."

His hand closed around the pen he was holding so tightly I imagined I'd hear it snap. "Well, I hate to disappoint you, but it'd be a lie."

Easy, easy; pushing Daniel's buttons when he was like this was like playing with a live grenade and after the week I'd had, I wasn't feeling too stable myself. "Yeah?" I took another sip of beer. Wasn't trying to get drunk, but if I drank, maybe he would too. "So, gimme another opening line."

When you push him, sometimes he pushes back and sometimes he rolls over. This was one of the times he rolled, though anybody else might not have recognized it. He put the pen down on the table with a click and looked up at me from underneath his glasses and all that hair. "How about I've spent the last five hours trying to decide who I'm most angry at: Amonet, Apophis, or Sha're?"

He spit it out like it was a challenge; maybe it was. I turned the bottle over in my hands, thought for a minute about the best way to handle it. "The snakes I can see," I finally started. "But Sha're?" I knew why I'd be angry, if it had been me, but time had done nothing but prove that mapping my reactions onto Daniel would lead us to an inevitable clusterfuck.

And sure enough, he surprised me. "If she'd told Kasuf sooner, we could have been ready to bring her back the minute we stepped through that Gate. We could have gotten her back to the SGC before Heru'ur tied up the Gate. We could have --" He broke off, sighed. "If I'd just listened to her, if I'd just been thinking a little more clearly --"

Yeah, hadn't thought we'd get to the "my fault" until at least the second beer. "Teal'c told me what went down," I said. "You moved quicker than I would have. Not your fault that the whole thing was bad timing all around."

"No offense, Jack, but that doesn't exactly make me feel better." He pushed up his glasses with the back of his hand, rubbed at his eyes. Then apparently decided this would be easier if he couldn't see me, because he took the glasses off and tossed them on the table.

"Didn't think it would," I said. "Just telling you how I see it."

"Yeah, well." He made a complicated gesture with one hand; I had no idea what he was trying to pantomime, but then again, I rarely did. Not a full translation, at least. "She apologized to me."

Daniel was the only person I knew who could change the subject by saying something that should logically follow from the last thing he'd said. I'd been trying to figure out how he did it since I met him. "For?"

"Being captured. Being controlled. Not being strong enough. Letting me down. I don't know." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't know what I'm supposed to feel."

And I didn't know what I was supposed to say, but with Daniel, it was usually safe to go for real over comfort. "I don't think anyone would." It wasn't enough, though, so I made a face and resigned myself to having to Talk About It. "Sometimes you just gotta ... stop worrying about what you're supposed to feel, and let yourself feel it."

He snorted a little, but he didn't say anything, not at first. I figured I'd already done enough pushing that it was time to let him sit and stew for a bit. Not too long, or else he'd talk himself up onto some invisible ledge somewhere in that head of his, but better to give him a chance to process a little. Even though I was pretty sure he spent too much time processing already.

"She told me it was all right for me to be happy," he finally said, and I relaxed a little, because it was the next layer of the onion peeling away and that meant I'd made the right call. "Without her. Now, I mean. She said she would -- rest a little easier knowing I was happy."

I huffed out a long breath. Dammit, Daniel, you're never easy. "She's a hell of a lady," was all I could think of, and that required some kind of punctuation, so I raised my beer in salute and drained it down past halfway.

"Yes, she is," he said absently, and his lips rounded in the faintest tease of a smile as he looked down at his hands. I could see him slipping back into memory, past the recent, most painful ones. Looked good, for that minute. Then his face sharpened again. I could have asked what made his expression change, but I was a little afraid I'd get an answer.

"So tell me some things that might make you happy," I finally said. Because when you stripped everything else away, when you got down to the core of Daniel, I didn't know shit about what might. Solving a hard problem, finding something new and undiscovered -- that got him going for a little while. But it wasn't happy, not exactly. Just satisfied, and satisfied goes away pretty fast afterwards.

Daniel took up the bottle of beer and picked at the label. "I am happy," he said.

Even I could hear the lie. "Daniel," I said, and it was the "don't lie to me, much less to yourself" remix.

He heard it too. "I am," he insisted, too fast, hard and tight like a bruise. He turned his head so I could barely see his face, fixed his eyes out the balcony doors. There was no way he could be seeing anything; his glasses were on the table, and he's way more nearsighted than he pretends to be, for all that he's learned how to compensate. "I have my work. Good work, valuable work. We're doing important things. I'm making a difference. I have -- you. All of you. I'm happy."

For some reason, when he said it, 'I'm happy' sounded an awful lot like 'I'm fine'. I could have probably said something, but I didn't. I just looked at the curve of his jaw, set and angry.

It worked. "I couldn't betray her like that," he finally said. The words tumbled over themselves like he'd been polishing them in his head before he'd worked up the courage to let them out.

Yeah, figured. "She told you it was all right."

If he'd been anybody else, he might have thrown the beer bottle at the window. "What kind of a man would it make me if I abandoned my wife to eternal slavery and concentrated on whether or not I was getting a good time out of life?"

Oh, Daniel, Daniel; you'd take the whole world's weight on your shoulders if you could, wouldn't you. I leaned back. Chose my words carefully, for all I tried to make them seem casual. "Well, first of all, I don't think there's anything on God's green Earth that would make you ever give up. Second, do you think you being miserable is any sort of comfort to her?"

He flinched. Yeah, okay, it was a low blow, but he should have known I play dirty. "You don't understand," he said. Anyone else might have read it as despairing, but I heard the anger.

I could have called him on sounding like a frustrated teenager, but it wouldn't have gotten us anywhere. "Nope," I said instead. "Haven't got the faintest fucking clue what it's like to lose someone."

That actually got a hiss out of him -- okay, okay, it was dirty pool, and I wasn't proud of it, but he whipped his head around to stare at me and it was a reaction, at least. He wouldn't have taken sympathy, wouldn't have accepted anything that was even vaguely reminiscent of pity -- but sarcasm, that he'd take. Maybe he was tired of people tiptoeing around him.

I pinned his eyes once he actually looked at me, held them. "You don't ever really believe it's all right to be happy again," I told him. "But after a while, you get better at lying to yourself."

He closed his eyes after a minute. Not a surrender, just regrouping. I backed off, let him stew a few more minutes. Handling Daniel was kind of like following a recipe, except there weren't any instructions and recipes generally don't blow up in your face if you get them wrong.

I couldn't tell a lick of what he was thinking, which was why I could probably be forgiven for nearly dropping my beer when he opened his eyes again, looked at me, and said -- in a tone that didn't give anything at all away -- "What would you do if I asked you to take me to bed?"

Jesus fucking Christmas. Okay, look, I'd handled a hundred cases of someone developing a case of hero-worship, deflected more passes than anyone would ever suspect, usually before the passer even realized she -- or he -- was being cut off, but I'd never been so fucking blindsided before. Daniel was staring at me, and I wondered what the fuck was showing on my face, but I couldn't spare a second to even lock it down, because "take me to bed" was echoing in my ears over and over again.

I prayed it was a hypothetical question. Because the very last thing in the entire world I needed tonight was The Conversation. You know, the one that starts with "bad idea" and ends with "we can't" and wanders through all the reasons why in between.

He was watching me. I couldn't even say why it bugged me so much, except without his glasses on he looked like a stranger. "I'd," I started, then cleared my throat and tried again, this time without the squeak I seemed to have developed along the way. "I'd remind you that we have to work together. And how much of a bad idea it would be. And then I'd probably ask you why."

He made a little thoughtful hum, like he was processing new data, and for the millionth time I wished for some way to see inside that head of his. Then some stupid part of my monkey brain slammed me behind the eyeballs with the image of him, naked, sprawled out beneath me, and for a second I forgot everything I knew about discipline and control and regulations and just wanted.


"You know why," he said, absently, and the bitch of it was, I did. He couldn't have picked someone he couldn't talk to about his day job, because it would have required too much lying; that ruled out everyone who didn't work at the Mountain. He couldn't have picked someone who didn't already know the details of him and Sha're, because that wouldn't have been fair, which ruled out everyone but the team and a few other people who'd been there for bits and pieces, because having to explain it all again would be like knives. He couldn't have picked a woman, because that would have felt too much like a betrayal even through this perpetual limbo he was stuck in, which ruled out Carter and Fraiser. And, well, he trusted Teal'c enough to step through the Gate with him, but still.

And anyway, the two of us had this thing going on, the one where I pretended I hadn't seen certain line items on his security clearance investigation forms and he pretended he'd never seen me checking out his ass in the locker room, and we both knew we might stop pretending someday -- way down the line. If things happened in a certain way. If things worked out. There was a part of me saying it wasn't fair for him to bring it up now, but hey. Life's like that; nobody knows that better than we do.

I didn't bother pretending now. He wasn't; why should I? But I could still keep it hypothetical, at least. "I do. And you know why I couldn't."

"I do," he agreed, and then there we were, two awkward guys trying not to meet each other's eyes. I was just about to get up, make my excuses, when he closed his eyes and blurted, "Will you take me to bed anyway?"

Will, not would. Daniel chooses his words carefully. "You're drunk," I said, more harshly than I'd intended. He knew better than to ask.

He opened his eyes again. When they met mine, they were clear, determined. He lifted the beer bottle to where it was backlit by his reading lamp so I could see the level of liquid hadn't moved.

"It's not about being happy, Jack." So simple, so forthright. "But you could help me forget. Just for one night."

It hurt how much I wanted, like iron bands around my chest. "And then you'd hate yourself in the morning. And me."

"I could never hate you." He didn't say anything about himself, and I knew he wouldn't. He studied my face for a minute more. I wished I could tell what he thought he saw there, because he got up and took his bottle into into the kitchen, poured the beer down the sink before I could protest. "It's all right," he called back. "Just forget I said anything. I shouldn't have."

No, he shouldn't have, but once he had, I couldn't let him start thinking my refusal had anything to do with me not wanting him. Because his face was saying he was about thirty seconds away from leaping to that conclusion with both feet, and, well. Just because this conversation shouldn't have ever started doesn't mean I don't have a responsibility to finish it the way it should finish.

He didn't realize I was right behind him, I don't think. When he turned around, he started, shied away. The sink kept him from going too far, so he brought his hands up and folded them around his elbows to put a little bit of a barrier between us.

I couldn't read his face, but the rest of his body was shrieking pretty loudly. "It's okay," I said. Coulda kept going with a whole bunch other things, but with Daniel, sometimes it was better to keep it simple.

"Yeah." He didn't sound like it was okay. He sidled sideways to escape and walked over to open the refrigerator, blindly. I'd lay good money on him not noticing a thing that was in there. He shut it again after a second, walked out of the kitchen. Paused at the top of the step down to the living room, and turned around.

"I'm going to bed," he said. The quiet dignity hurt to watch. "I'd like it if you came with me. I understand why you can't. Even if --" He stopped, closed his eyes. "Please -- if you could, tonight --"

What he was asking came to me in a flash. "I'll stay," I said. I remembered how quiet the house had seemed, after Sara had left me. Of course he'd feel it tonight.

He opened his eyes again, and there was a sick sort of gratitude there. Sick because it took so little to put it there. I wondered, not for the first time, whether he'd learned to stop asking for things because he'd never gotten them.

But he asked me.

He nodded once, then disappeared down the hallway to his bedroom. I heard a door close, heard water running. A minute later, silence.

With him gone, the apartment seemed a little smaller. Couldn't tell you why, except that there was something about him that lit up a room, drew your eye and made you forget about everything else around you. I thought about another beer, but it was probably a bad idea. I wandered through the dining area, headed back down to the living room. Sat down where he'd been sitting. Folded the earpieces of his glasses neatly and put them right where he'd find them in the morning when he went looking.

The couch smelled like him. Sandalwood soap and the laundry detergent he used when he did his own clothes instead of sending them off somewhere for someone else to wash them. I dropped my head back against the wall and closed my eyes.

The thought came as clear as bells: would it kill you to give the man what he needs?

Oh, no. No, no, wasn't gonna go there. It was a bad idea two months ago, it was a bad idea two days ago, and it was a worse fucking idea now. I ran through all the reasons why, one more time, just to remind myself. Male. Civilian. On my fucking team. Walking wounded in a way nobody should ever have to be. Married. Emotionally impenetrable in one light and a whole sucking vortex of need in the other.

Beautiful. Brave. Loyal. Smart as fucking hell. Determined. Stronger than anyone else I'd ever met.


I got up; I can't stand sitting still for any length of time at the best of times, and, well, this wasn't. The best of times, I mean. It was force of habit, nothing more, that had me starting the bug-sweep. I didn't ever really think I'd find anything, but paranoia had saved my ass once or twice in the past and it's a useful habit to keep up. Daniel always rolled his eyes at me, thinking I was just fiddling with his stuff. I never bothered to tell him what I was really doing; let him keep his illusions a little while longer.

Although, come to think of it, he had the most curious blend of idealism and cynicism I'd ever seen in anyone, so maybe I could explain it and he wouldn't find it odd at all. Maybe not. I could never tell with Daniel, not until we got there. I'd thought before that he was the one thing every commander hated: a wild card. A loose cannon. Never knew how the hell he'd react, and every time I thought I had him pegged he surprised me.

Like tonight. I could feel the tiny imperfections in the wood of the picture-frames as I ran my fingertips around their edges, but I wasn't really concentrating on them. Instead I was thinking about the way he'd looked at me, with that quiet acceptance. Knowing I'd turn him down, but having to ask anyway. Hell, I didn't blame him for wanting. I think there was a part of him that knew even as far back as Cimmeria, when I'd handed him the staff and taken that step back, that we weren't going to get her back. Not the way he'd known her, at least. I was surprised he'd lasted this long, really, but Daniel's more stubborn than anyone I've ever known.

-- Which meant, I realized, the proverbial lightbulb dawning, that whatever he was dealing with, tonight of all nights, had to be hitting him harder than anything he'd gone through so far. For him to be willing to give up that vigil he'd been keeping, even a little bit; for him to ask like that -- for him to put himself out, open and vulnerable -- for someone whose pride was so strong he'd have rather cut his own heart out than willingly display weakness in front of someone else --

Shit, he was in worse shape than I'd thought, and I hadn't even noticed.

Some friend you are, I thought, and then wondered if it would have made any difference. It wasn't as though knowing it would have changed any of the basic facts of life. I couldn't, couldn't get in any deeper than I already was with him, and I was pretty sure he knew it as well as I did. Hell, he could probably spout off thirty minutes of lecture about closed societies and the rules they develop and why it's important to adhere to those rules -- yeah, yeah, okay, I did listen to him when he thought I was tuning him out, but don't ever tell him that.

I knelt down in front of the couch, ran my fingers along the cushions, the frame. Autopilot. Easy enough routine to follow. My life was full of routine, and it'd always been a comfort before.

I couldn't hear anything from the bedroom. Not surprising; it was early still, but he'd had a bitch of a day and his sleep schedule was erratic at best and fucking ridiculous at worst. I'd believe he had crawled into bed and dropped right off; I'd seen him do it before, in the middle of missions where even Carter and I had been a little wound up, a little nervous. But not Daniel. No, he'd stay up all night gnawing on one tiny discovery and all its implications just as easily as he'd fall straight to sleep with wolves or the local equivalent pacing the circle of camp and howling at the moon. Somehow, though, I thought he was probably still lying awake in there, staring out in the darkness, replaying every inch of his fucking awful day and rewriting all his wrongs in his head until they came out right.

That, oddly enough, was what talked me into it. Because I'd been there. I knew what it was like when your mind got into a groove and couldn't shake it off, and I knew just how few things could get you out of it, and -- okay, fuck it. I'm human. And I can't watch my people hurting when there's something I can do about it.

I left the lights on in the living room as I nudged open his bedroom door. If he'd been sleeping it wouldn't have woken him; he sleeps like the dead. But he stirred quickly enough to tell me that I'd been right about the staring-at-the-darkness part. He rolled over onto his back, pushed himself up on his elbows. Blinked at the flood of light from the hallway. His voice sounded rusty, like maybe he'd been crying, but the light wasn't good enough for me to tell if his eyes were red or not.

"Jack?" he asked, and I nodded. Came into the room on silent feet. I'd never been in his bedroom before, actually; he kept the door closed when people were over. I almost stopped what I was doing when I noticed how carefully he was keeping to one side of the bed, leaving room for someone who might never sleep there, but.

He bit his lip as I pulled my shirt over my head and tossed it at the chair across the room that seemed to be where he dumped his own dirty laundry. "Jack," he said again, this time not a question. More of a warning.

"Shh," I said, and unbuttoned my jeans, shoved them down to the floor and stepped out of them. I was suddenly aware of my heart beating in my chest, a little tight, a little fast, and the way my elbows and knees were a little unsteady. Classic adrenaline response. He frowned. The light from the hallway illuminated his chest, bare beneath the sheet. I kept my shorts on; I didn't know if he slept naked or not, but if I didn't take mine off, it was a little more okay. Like I wasn't committing myself to anything.

"I don't --" he said, and I knew I had to shut him up before he said something that would fuck this, so I climbed on the bed next to him and fitted my hand over his mouth. His eyes met mine, wide and uncertain.

"This doesn't change anything," I said. As carefully as I could. Trusting he'd hear what I wasn't saying; trusting he'd know what I meant enough so that I didn't have to use words, because words would only mess this up and I couldn't think of them anyway.

Maybe it worked, because he studied my face for another long minute, while I almost held my breath waiting for a response. Then he nodded. I let my hand fall away, half-bracing myself for another flood of words, but he didn't say anything.

I picked up the pillow he'd been lying on and dropped it on top of the one on the other side of the bed, piling them both back against the headboard. Then I arranged myself on them, not quite sitting, not quite lying down. He watched me with that little frown, the one that doesn't show anywhere but between his eyebrows, which cleared up the minute I tugged on his arm. He came willingly, fitting himself up against me automatically, but I could feel the subtle thrumming tension in his body even as I wrapped one arm around his shoulders and tucked his head under my chin. Like he was still trying to hold himself apart.

"Shh," I said again, and stroked my other hand down his spine, like I might pet a cat. He tensed a little more, then relaxed, suddenly and shudderingly. I always forgot how much muscle he was hiding underneath those baggy BDUs; more and more every day.

Daniel's always been skin-hungry; I knew that from the first time I met him. His breath was hot and rough against my throat. I could feel my spine trying to tense at that, never comfortable with anyone so close to the vulnerable parts, but I didn't move him.

"Shit," he said, and his arm came up to span my ribs, holding on so tightly I thought they might crack.

"It's okay," I said. Wasn't all that sure what the hell I was talking about, because none of this was okay and it probably never would be, but once you've been a parent, you never quite fully lose that dictionary of meaningless platitudes. Even if you haven't given them a workout in a while. I rubbed circles with my fingertips at the base of his spine. I could feel the knots beneath my hands, but they were almost starting to relax a little. I wondered if he could hear my heartbeat, wondered if it was maybe lulling him.

For a minute, maybe two, I could fool myself into thinking it was doing some good. Then he breathed out like he'd been gut-shot and I realized that for all the leaning he was doing, he was angling his hips away from me and everything from the waist down was so tense I thought his tendons might snap like a twig if he so much as moved.

Jesus, Daniel, I said it was okay, I thought, almost said, but this was Daniel and for all he lives and almost dies by the word, he doesn't exactly have the best track record of believing them when they're said to him. And okay, I'd never exactly given him any reason to believe me, and he might be able to process lightning changes in circumstances without even blinking out in the field, but he's got a hell of a track record in missing by a mile when they're applied directly to him. So instead I hooked the back of my heel around one of his ankles and pulled, dragging his leg over mine, shuffling and re-settling and re-arranging us both until he was pressed up against my flank.

I'd been right; he slept naked. He wasn't hard yet, but he was starting to get there. Like he couldn't quite believe this was happening, like he was holding on to control with tooth and nail in case I was just dangling something he needed in front of him, ready to snatch it away the minute he reached for it. It pissed me off. He shouldn't have to think like that.

This was still the worst fucking idea either of us had ever had, and let me tell you, we've both got a lot of bad ideas competing for that title. Which was probably why I sighed against his hair and slid my hand down his back, over his tailbone, down to cup his ass and hold there, lightly. Wasn't quite sure if I was asking or offering. Didn't really matter either way.

He didn't quite pick up his head, so I could feel the buzz of his voice through my skin, all the way down into my chest. Couldn't see his face. It probably wouldn't have helped if I could. "What are you doing, Jack?"

Little too late to be asking that, Daniel. "Taking you to bed," I said, like it was the most natural thing in the world, and all of a sudden, as I said it, it was.

He was quiet for a minute, his body still humming against mine, holding himself back even as he leaned into me. "Why?" he finally asked. Yeah, that's my Daniel. Pretty sure that's going to be the last thing he says someday, trying to the very last to understand what the fuck is going on around him.

But I wasn't going to think about that, not right now. "Because you asked." I curled my other arm around him. Let my fingers rest at the nape of his neck, right where his hair hit. He shivered when I stroked. "I don't know what you want, and you probably wouldn't tell me even if you could. But I'm here."

Quiet again, but a different kind of quiet, like he was turning that over in his head. I shifted a little; the weight of him was resting wrong. This was maybe the weirdest fucking conversation I'd ever had. Wasn't even turned on, except in the way that I was always just a little turned on around Daniel, down deep in the bones where I never let it out for anyone to see. This wasn't about me, though. I was smart enough to see that. Or, well, it wasn't about me except in the way that I knew Daniel would never pull this stunt with anyone else.

"I don't know either," he finally said. I heard the helplessness in his voice, the confusion at hearing it, the anger at the confusion. Layers on layers, all packed into four tiny words in the way only he could manage.

Strangely, that got me a little further on the road to "okay with this". It was more normal, at least. I'd been steering Daniel through things that baffled him for a year and a half, even if he'd never quite noticed. Or at least let me think he hadn't. "Tell me if I get it wrong, then," I said, and tipped up his chin, the position awkward as fuck, to kiss him.

His lips were warm and dry and he tasted -- yeah, not at all surprised, here -- like coffee. There was a minute when I thought he might pull away from me, like it was crossing a line he hadn't even been aware of, but then he made a tiny noise in the back of his throat and suddenly it felt like I was in the middle of some natural disaster, hanging on for dear life. He kissed with more enthusiasm than skill, but one thing made up for it: the way he centered his attention on me, really focused, like I'd only ever seen him pay attention to dusty old books before.

His mouth was soft, nothing like I'd imagined, those few times I'd let myself drop the guard-rails and actually think about it. He rolled over, more on top of me, pressing me down into the mattress and spreading his skin over everything he could reach. For a second something buried deep in my skull considered freaking out at the weight, but I told it to shut up, this was Daniel, and then he settled his hips over mine and my dick rubbed up against his and yeah, that was okay. More than okay.

We were both breathing hard when he broke it off and stared at me, wild and hesitant at the same time. "Jack," he said. Third time since I'd walked in. I remembered him lecturing once, talking about some culture that had believed that when someone spoke your true name three times in a row they owned your soul. I almost laughed, because for a minute I wondered if that was how the inside of his head worked all the time, throwing out random references and facts at the strangest times, but I knew he'd take it wrong if I did and I didn't want to have to explain. And anyway, nobody with more than half a brain could doubt for a minute that in some way I couldn't even begin to explore, he owned my soul already anyway.

So I kissed him again, slow and deep, the way I like it best when there's no deadline and no hurry. His mouth opened against mine again and his hips rocked against me. Wordless need, the kind he couldn't have described even if he'd been willing to try. Yeah, I knew that one. It was the need that comes on you in the dark, after things go to shit and you can't help thinking it was your fault, and what you need is forgiveness but you'd settle for oblivion. Left me feeling all raw and jagged on the inside, because nobody should ever have to know that if they hadn't flat-out chosen to put themselves in a place where it'd be likely. Daniel had only chosen it because he couldn't have lived with himself if he'd chosen otherwise.

I'd been half planning, as much as I was planning this whole thing at all, to let him steer. Let him take what he needed and do my damn best to let him know at every turn that I was okay with it; best way I could think of to make sure he got out of this a little better than he'd been when we started. When he slid his dick over mine again -- and God, there were no fucking words for it -- and then froze when he realized what he'd done, I knew if I let him drive he'd probably wind up taking us over the edge of some cliff I never even saw coming.

With the sinking sense that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing -- okay, beyond the mechanics of it, because I'm sure as hell no blushing virgin -- I rolled us both over, came to rest with him on his back and me settled between his thighs. I set my head against his chest for a minute, until he could get used to the position, and I heard his heartbeat, steady and even. Slower than mine was right now. I couldn't decide if that meant he was less nervous than I was, or if he was just better at hiding it.

I gave him a minute. Two. Then I pressed my lips to the hollow of his throat, down the bright clear line of his breastbone, and told myself as sternly as I could manage that this was about need. Nothing more. We'd get up in the morning and walk away and nothing would have changed, except maybe he'd be able to cope a little bit more and I'd know the taste of what I wasn't going to be able to have instead of endlessly wondering about it.

He clutched the sheets when I dipped lower and touched my tongue to a nipple, and his head dropped back against the pillow. "Tell me what you like," I said, even though his body was doing a pretty good job of communicating all by itself.

"I--" He lifted his head again, blinked at me. There was something in his face I'd never seen before, some dark and distant struggle I'd never have thought I'd find there. I knew he could be one scary-ass bastard when circumstances were right, but every time it happened it was like discovering it all over again, and I'd never seen it quite like this. He closed his eyes again. "I don't --"

It probably would have been kinder to ask him to set himself on fire than to talk. I could see his lips moving, but I read lips -- long story -- and I couldn't make sense of the syllables I saw. Probably not English anyway. I got the urge to cover his mouth with mine again, take him away from having to face it head-on -- that was pretty much the point of all of this anyway. But I wasn't dumb enough to go into this blind.

Not and expect to still be able to look each other in the eye in the morning, at least, and the only way we were going to get through this without fucking the team, the mission, beyond repair would be for me to make sure I didn't accidentally set off a trip-wire. So, get it over quickly. Rip the bandage off quick and clean. Usually I'd insist on having The Conversation, you know, the one that starts off with 'what are you into and what are your rules' and winds up, if you're lucky, with 'top or bottom?' and the answer you're hoping to hear. But with him, I'd settle for just some hint. Maybe two. If I was lucky.

"It's okay," I said again, because he could probably stand to hear it every day for a year. "I just need to know."

Even in the low light I could see his cheeks flaming, and he couldn't bring himself to meet my look. "I--" He pushed himself up on his elbows, took a deep breath. I could practically see him retreating behind the shield of formal language, like using the big words made it academic instead of personal. Made it possible to talk about it at all. "Fellatio, giving and recieving. Hands. Mouth. Digital penetration. Intercourse, although not --" His blush deepened, and he took another deep breath. "Only after orgasm, and usually not as -- a means to another."

It would have been the least sexy thing I'd ever heard, that simple recitation of fact, except for the shape of Daniel's mouth as he formed the words, the trust inherent in him choosing to say them in the first place. I wondered how long it had taken him to experiment, to find what worked for him and what didn't; it'd taken me years and I knew I still didn't have all mine mapped out. Wondered just how many men he'd shared himself with in that dim and distant past we never talked about.

I thought, again, about the way his background check had been pretty damn conclusive that he probably weighed in at about a Kinsey 5, and how I still didn't understand quite where Sha're fit in. Then I stopped, because it didn't seem right to bring her into bed with us any more than she already was, and besides, there was no doubt in my mind he'd loved her. Did love her. I'd been trying like hell not to use the past tense, because Daniel chooses his words carefully and he appreciates it when others do too.

I put my hand against his cheek, sighed a little -- not enough for him to notice it -- when he flinched ever-so-slightly before leaning in. Still the stupidest fucking thing I'd ever done. But maybe, somehow, also the smartest.

"It was never that I didn't want to," I said. It suddenly seemed important that he know.

He smiled a little, and it was one of the saddest expressions I'd ever seen on anyone's face. "I know," he said. "I always knew, Jack. I'm sorry."

I didn't have the faintest fucking clue what he was apologizing for, but it really wasn't the time to ask. The conversation had brought him down from whatever edge he'd been riding, enough so I could tell he was thinking of bolting if I hadn't been half-holding him down. I put my mouth on his shoulder, trailed tiny feather-kisses along the curve of it. He shivered. I wondered, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, what the fuck was going on inside his head.

If I let myself stop to think about this -- about any of this, about what we were doing, about what had happened today, about dead people and dying people and people who were neither but probably wished they were -- I wouldn't have been able to keep going. So I didn't. Think about it, I mean. I could think or I could do and I've never been all that fond of thinking over doing. Besides, Daniel thinks enough for the both of us. I put my mouth back on his nipple and tried to tell him without saying it that it was all right, I had him, he could let it go for a little while.

It was weird; I couldn't remember how we'd gotten here, even though it had only been half an hour before. Couldn't remember how I'd talked myself into tossing all my good intentions out the window. But the way his hands came up to clutch at my shoulders, the way he moved underneath me like he was full of potential energy and looking for a way to let it out, told me I'd been right to do it.

I wasn't used to doing this in a bed. Usually I've got the other guy pressed up a wall somewhere, or we're on a bedroll or in an unused storage room or somewhere else where it's gotta be hard and frantic. But it'd been a long time since I'd done this at all, really; I'd stopped cheating on Sara just before everything went to hell in a handbasket, ironic, really, and I'd never quite picked the habit back up. He was more passive than I'd expected, more passive than I was used to. For a minute I wondered if that was how this was going to be; me giving, him taking. And you know, I was strangely okay with it.

Then he seemed to come to life beneath me. And yeah, it's a cliché, but it was the only thing I could think of to describe the way he lifted his shoulders off the pillow, twined his hands into my hair, pulled my mouth closer to him. Wrapped his ankles around me, up into the backs of my knees, and rocked against me. The noise he made could have been a gasp, could have been a sob. I didn't look up to see which it was, just let my teeth scrape over the nipple I was lavishing attention on and listened to his breathing getting rougher and rougher.

I re-settled myself between his thighs. His sheets were cotton or something, softer than they looked. They felt good against my dick. Which, okay, yeah, was quite happy with what was going on, because the way Daniel felt underneath me, hard and solid, was nothing like I'd fantasized about and everything I wanted. I reached between us, meaning to take him in my hand, rough and fast -- then changed my mind before I even got there. Instead I went past his dick entirely, gathered up his balls to cup them and pressed a knuckle against that space behind, and he almost broke my nose against his breastbone when he reared up off the bed.

Usually something like that would have gotten another apology out of him, but instead he just hissed and squirmed against me, a heel digging into one of my calves. He was asking, begging without saying a word, but for all that it was what I was used to, I couldn't bring myself to make this fast and furious. There are people you fuck and people you love and I'd never say it out loud, not in a million fucking years, but I knew damn well which category he fell into. Always had.

So instead I made my way on down, past abs and belly and down along the little curve of gut he'd probably never lose, down along the hip and the pubic bone and there it was, his dick staring me in the face like it was ready to make friends. And yeah, dicks are ugly. Shaped weird and curved funny and messy and undignified. And I'd seen his a hundred times before, in the locker room, getting changed, but I'd never really looked before. It wasn't as ugly as they usually were. I blew, gently, on the head of it, and he nearly hit the ceiling. Guess that rumor about uncut guys being more sensitive is true.

Sucking a guy off isn't my favorite thing in the world, but it's not like I hate it, either. It just always takes me a long time to remember how to breathe for it, every damn fucking time. I took one deep breath, another, giving my gag reflex a stern pre-show talking-to, and just as I was about to give it the old college try, Daniel's hand fell on my shoulder.

"Jack. You don't have to."

I looked up, because come on, what guy in his right fucking mind would stop someone five seconds away from giving them a blowjob? Daniel, that's who. His face still had that dark need to it, but there was confusion too, and a little bit of hurt that I couldn't figure out the reason for. He pushed himself up on his elbows and something about the tilt of his head and the way he couldn't meet my eyes made me realize what was wrong.

Shit. I'd been treating this like a mission. Objective: get Daniel out of his head for a little while. Strategy: give him something else to focus on, something physical, something tangible. Done it a hundred times, really; this one was different because it was more than just lending a buddy a hand, because Daniel was psychological dynamite waiting for a place to blow, but I'd been thinking of it with the same set of rules. Making myself think of it with the same set of rules, because otherwise he'd see all the things I wasn't ever supposed to say and know.

I hadn't realized that Daniel didn't know the rules, and to him, distance would read as disgust. So damn worried about not giving too much away that I'd forgotten that Daniel came to me because he thought he could trust me not to fuck this up, had asked me -- as he would see it -- to compromise all my rules and principles and common sense just to cater to something he didn't even fully understand. And he wouldn't have ever realized that the rules I was following weren't the regs -- they're fucking stupid anyway -- but the ones to keep a broken old man from making a fool out of himself.

So there was only one thing I could do, and I'd pick up the pieces and glue them back together in the morning.

"I know," I said, and I pushed myself back up and spread myself back over him, wrapped one arm around him and kept the other hand where it was, cradling his balls as gently as I could. Kissed one of his eyelids. The other. His forehead, his cheekbone, the edge of his eye where the skin was perpetually wrinkled from squinting.

Since about thirty seconds after I'd met him, I'd been avoiding thinking about how beautiful he was, and since about thirty seconds after he'd thrown himself in front of certain death to save me, I'd been avoiding thinking about how easily I could love him, and for about the last year I'd been mostly avoiding thinking someday, someday, because the time had never been right. It still wasn't right. But you play the cards you're dealt, so I pressed my mouth against his again, and this time, I let myself take all the middle-of-the-night dreams out of the box they lived in inside my head and tried to show him how much he made me want. Want things I never thought I'd have again; want things I never even thought of wanting.

It's hard to put you're beautiful and infuriating and I never know what you're going to do next but when you're not at my side I keep turning around to wonder where you've gone and when you're going to come back and I can't think of anything of mine I wouldn't give you in the end into a kiss, but maybe it worked. He made a small startled noise and his arms came up around me, holding, holding, and he unfolded into my hands and beneath my body. Reaching up, reaching out, like maybe in some small way he was starting to believe he could have, and it didn't fucking matter how I touched him, because all of it was an act of love.

I don't know how long it was that we stayed like that, kissing slow and wet and sloppy. Or when we broke it off so I could drop my forehead down against his and just breathe. I don't remember when I put my hand on his dick, and I don't remember when he started digging his nails into my shoulders, and I don't remember when I started rocking my hips against him, rubbing my dick against his, but I do remember him looking at me, straight down into my soul, and saying "I know, I know," over and over again. Took me a minute to realize the other voice was me, that my head was against his shoulder and I was repeating, in a voice that didn't even sound like my own, "it's okay, I've got you, I've got you".

And I guess he could hear what I really meant by it, because a little while later, after we were both sticky and my elbows and knees felt like lead while the euphoria was creeping through the back of my brainsteam and down into my chest, he let out a breath he'd probably been holding for longer than I'd care to think about. Said something in a language that sounded like the desert, then put a tentative hand on the side of my face, so hesitantly I imagined he was worried it'd burn him or shock him or something.

Didn't know what he said. Didn't really want to. If it was good, I'd figure out a way to read it without using words, and if it was bad, well, I'd just rather not know.

Most men get sleepy after they get off. Me, I get sappy instead. Always have. Usually I've gotta keep it locked up tight, but this time I turned my head and pressed a kiss into the center of his palm. Didn't look back at him, but he sighed, and it might have sounded a little sad, but it also sounded a little better than he had earlier. And yeah, still no fucking clue what he was thinking -- about his wife, about his choices, about us, about any of this crazy mess -- but somehow, finding out wasn't as urgent as it could have been.

I rolled over and grabbed us a handful of tissue, got us both as cleaned up as I could. When I looked up again, he was back to looking at me, looking just like he'd been when he'd asked the question that started all of this. But I thought I might see a little bit of hope underneath. Then again, I've always been pretty good at telling myself what I most want to hear.

There was awkward silence for a minute, like every bad morning-after I've ever had. Just when I was starting to get that cold sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, he sat up. Made this tiny half-assed gesture, like he was going to push up his glasses and then stopped when he realized he wasn't wearing them. Opened his mouth.

"Don't," I said, before he could say anything. I didn't want to hear him say thank-you, like I'd held a door for him or bought him lunch or something.

He frowned. I could see an entire miniseries running across his expression, but I didn't know what the script was. I was used to seeing the lightning flick, flick, flick of potential courses of action flitting into his head, marching across his face -- he couldn't keep anything from showing worth shit, and the only thing that saved him was that it was written in hieroglyphics or something -- and then being discarded. He did it again now. It's always weirder when it's about you.

He reached out, finally, and put his hand on my thigh. His skin was warm, like it was storing up heat and reflecting it. I'd noticed earlier, but I hadn't really spared much attention for it at the time. Other things on my mind.

"I was just going to say." He stopped, breathed in. Made himself look at me; I could see him forcing himself to meet my eye. "Not just because I asked you to."

Took me a second to realize what he was talking about, to trace the threads back. He does that to me a lot, picks up a conversation hours or days later and expects that I've followed whatever mental wormhole he took to get there. He was talking about what I'd said, when he'd asked me why.

I looked away. Couldn't say it to his face. "No," I said. He'd figure out the rest of it fast enough, if he was smart. And he is.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him nodding. Like it was another piece of information to consider, another fragment of the puzzle he was fitting together. "You might not believe it, Jack," he said. "But I am happy. As much as I can be."

I realized, suddenly and sharply, that I had no fucking idea whether this had been something he wanted or just something he'd needed, and I'd just pretty much given him my heart on a platter and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. If it had been anyone but Daniel, I would've been worried. But Daniel always takes care with precious things he's been entrusted with. Maybe it'd be enough.

I made myself smile. "Sometimes you are," I said, and reached down to pull up the covers. He'd asked me to stay. I was pretty sure it still applied. The light was still on in the hallway, but I didn't think either one of us wanted to get up to turn it off. Better to stay out of the dark tonight, anyway.

He hesitated for a minute, then gave up when whatever he'd been thinking of trying to say was lost in a jaw-cracking yawn. He gave me a little embarrassed smile after.

"Sleep," I said, and nudged him to lie down. He did, rolling over immediately; I've never seen him hop to an order so quickly in the field. I took a second to wonder if I was supposed to treat this like any other time we'd bunked down together, then realized I was back to trying to apply the rules again and gave up. I nestled up against his back, draped an arm over him. Always forget how much I like to cuddle afterwards; it's not like I get a lot of chance.

Couldn't last, but it was nice while I had it. I kissed the back of his neck, just at the knob of his spine. He shivered, tensed a bit. I bit my lip. Yeah, really not the smartest thing I could have done, but apologizing would have made it worse. Instead, I stroked my fingers over the side of his hip and just let it go. Stored up the feeling of him under my hand, the way he smelled like sex and deserts.

His voice, when he spoke, was sleepy but sincere. "I am glad you came over to check on me, you know." And he must have known me pretty damn well, to know that's the closest to a thank-you I'd have taken.

There were about fifty things I could have said to that, and most of them would have made me sound like a total asshole. Which there's a time and place for, and this wasn't it. I settled on just, "Always." And hoped he knew what I meant by it.

I didn't say we'll get her back. Not because it would have been in poor taste. Because I'd stopped lying to him a while ago, at least about the important things, and I didn't want to start up again.