Weight of Things




WOULD, BUT NOT UNLESS: the weight of things
By Salieri

"This is to be said on the day of burial, upon going into the netherworld, after coming forth to life"--The Papyrus of Hunefer

-1-PASSAGE WEST



Daniel is standing in the parking lot outside the mountain, his feet spread, knees hyperextended in that way that makes Jack squint up an eye. He's tossing his keys from hand to hand, a low, short arc, left to right, right to left, a sharp glitter of rhythm against the heat-doped stillness of noon. Jack can imagine the way his palms are a little numb from the exercise, left to right, right to left, the way muscle memory has taken over so that Daniel doesn't have to think about what he's doing.

What is Daniel doing?

Beside him, the door of his dusty Honda is open and Jack can see the distortion wavering from the inside of the car as the trapped heat expands into July. The sky behind Daniel is white with a thin wash of unbroken cloud-cover that does nothing to shield them from the fierceness of the sun. Jack thinks of basilisks and a beat later wonders where the heck that came from. The answer comes in the memory Daniel's words, emerging from inside his sleeping bag four hundred light years from this parking lot. His voice had been worn almost featureless with exhaustion, could have been the whisper of snow across the nylon of the their tent, when he told Jack how he couldn't look away when Sha're pinned him with a stranger's gaze across the banquet table. How the golden glow in her eyes was a truth that killed him. You're not dead, Jack said.

The memory interrupts Jack's stride. He pauses, slips his sunglasses out of his breast pocket and puts them on, squinting up at the sky. The cloud-cover seems to intensify the heat, capture it, diffuse it from horizon to horizon so that there's nothing to look away from, no way a raised hand can shield the eyes. It's like the sun has expanded to enclose the whole planet, and at the centre of it, Daniel is standing in the shimmer, trapped between the lens of the sky and the throb of hot asphalt, marking time with the regular clatter of keys.

Up close now, Jack can see that Daniel's pointedly non-regulation long hair is curling against his neck, his temple, white-blond with reflected light at the crown. His shirt is too heavy for this weather, a thick cotton, button-down collar unbuttoned on one side and lying low and askew at the back of his neck. The shirt sticks to the small of Daniel's back, damp with sweat. The sleeves are rolled to the elbows, showing the flexing of tendons in his forearm as he tosses the keys; the subtle flash of shadow ticks away like a second hand. Daniel stands in the crucible of the parking lot and doesn't go home.

"Hey," Jack says, making him start and drop the keys.

"Hey, Jack." Daniel picks them up, and when he straightens, he's blinking rapidly maybe from the headrush, but his eyes are gleaming, pewter. He looks down at his keys, hair closing like a curtain across his forhead, in front of his glasses.

Jack waves a hand toward the Honda. He can feel the heat from inside, stinging like nettles, violin sharp and insistent. "What the Air Force pays you, you could buy a car with air conditioning."

A bit of a grin shows a few teeth before Daniel leans into the car a little to see if the conditions are bearable. Deciding no, he faces Jack with a shrug. "Yeah. But that seems like..." A grin without much grin in it. "I dunno. Too much of a commitment." He leans the side of his fist against the top of the door frame. "This one, I paid cash."

"Ah," Jack says. "Right." He thinks of Daniel in the gate room on Abydos, all folds of rough homespun, and, later, hiking to the map room, striding along the spine of a dune, never falling for the treachery of shifting sand.

Jack's truck is on the far side of the parking lot, in the shade. It's got twenty-one more payments on it. He stares at it. Daniel stares at him.

Finally, Daniel's voice. It's got a kind of breathy serration on it, Jack notices, that sort of sands away at things, smoothes them out somehow as it makes a path through the heaviness of heat and silence. "I guess I'm just trying to wrap my brain around it," he says, in a tone that says that this is just idle conversation.

"Around what?"

"Well." Putting his hands in his pockets, Daniel hunches his shoulders. "Twelve hours ago I was wearing my parka inside my sleeping bag."

"Gatelag," Jack offers.

"Yeah, something like that." Daniel's eyes roam the parking lot, squinting against the glare of sunlight on chrome and mirrors. "Makes everything sort of unreal." After a moment he corrects himself, "Surreal. Like out here is a dream and the crazy in there...." A nod of the head toward the dark mouth of the mountain. He trails off, his own mouth hanging open a little, words hesitating in the hollow behind his teeth.

Around them, the world wavers, as if it would evaporate if the sky wasn't pressing down so hard.

"You know what they say," Jack says.

When he doesn't go on, Daniel looks at him askance; then a frown competes with a grin. "Uh, no. What do they say?"

Jack waves a hand again at the generic they. "You know, something about parkas." He lets his hand fall. "And how you'll be fine."

Daniel's expression goes quizzical and then distant as he searches the database for some proverbial gem that even comes close to this. In the end he laughs. "Thanks. Really. That's...." Some eyebrow gymnastics. "That's inspirational."

"Don't mention it," Jack says and points toward the car. "Come on," he orders as he walks toward his truck. "I'll buy you a beer."

"I don't like beer."

"Then I'll buy you a Shirley Temple," Jack calls without turning around. In the truck, he doesn't check the rearview mirror to see if Daniel is following.


-1-SNARE


He thought he was holding an apple. Cool in his palm, rounded, curved just right so that it fit perfectly, his fingers splayed around it, sweat-slick on smooth, ripe-red skin. He thought he could taste it, a sweet-sharpness at the edges of his tongue, a brightness in his mouth.

He was surprised when the bright-sharp-sweet flavour of apples turned out to be the shape of a scream, when the cool curve of red-ripe skin bruised under his clutching fingers, when the muscle under the skin went taught, quivering in his grip.

"Hang on, Jack," Daniel said. He didn't try to pry Jack's fingers from around his arm, but covered Jack's hand with his own and squeezed hard, his other hand twisted in Jack's collar like he was dragging him back from the edge of a cliff. "Hang on, they're here."

There were wings beating the air above the branches, black on white, feathers spread wide like fingers stroking space, clutching at the pale sky.

"Give me some room," Fraiser said far off, out of breath. "Daniel. Please. I need some room here."

Light jagged across Jack's eyes, forked lighting in his head, the gnarled branches of apple trees black against the whiteness. There were apple trees, rows and rows of them, and the air was thick with the smell of windfall rot.

^^^^

The old man is calling him.

His name is broken in the middle, collapses into a rush of breath like a cairn of ash disintegrating. At Reynolds' feet, the man lies curled around the pain of Reynolds' P90 butt solid under his ribs. The bowl the man was carrying rolls across the uneven stones at the foot of the stairs, follows the curve of its own rim in a tightening spiral, and finally wobbles with an upwinding rattle to a stop, upside down.

Before he can remember his anger, Daniel steps forward, down the steps, but by the time he's got his hand on Reynolds' arm, gently restraining, he's ringing with it again, like Reynolds' fury is a tuning fork and Daniel is a bell. Still, though, the man on the ground is a man, and even Reynolds knows that, steps back. At their feet the man is a crumple of rags and angled bones, splayed legs and outflung arms like cuneiform, reaching toward meaning.

Teeth grinding, Daniel bends and hefts the man to his feet, holds his shoulder while he sways. His name is Bronek. One of his eyes is blue, the other milky white. His breath whistles through the gap in his teeth. Around his throat is the ivy tattoo that identifies his status in his clan. Speaker-to-spirits: it's his job to watch the soul depart, to make sure it doesn't come back.

Daniel wants to punch him in the mouth.

"Please," Bronek says. His hand flutters in front of him, beckoning, warding off. He leans into Daniel and grips his arm for balance as he stoops, gropes blindly for the bowl. He keeps his one keen eye on Daniel's face. "Take this. Take this." He fumbles the bowl up by bracing it one handed on his shin, knee, sliding it up against his hip and then his chest, until he can right it and hold it toward Daniel. "Take this and then there will be no offense. You will not punish, if--"

"If." Daniel's mind baulks there, at the edge of "if," and the word is part threat, part prayer. He accepts the bowl, turns, takes his position again beside the stretcher, and follows Reynolds and Sam and Teal'c and Fraiser back through the 'gate.

^^^

The taste of apples lingers, thick and brown-edged under the smell of antiseptic, the resistance of rubber tubing between his teeth, the powdery cling of latex gloves against his face.

Voices hover around him and their smooth reassurance is fractured by the tracings of branches. The branches were bare, he remembers, recently harvested. Plucked by the cold wind, the leaves crackled and drifted under his feet, rattled and sighed against the bark.

Wings open and close, black on white. Later, he will know that this is the sound of his own breathing. Now it's the rasp of feathers against cloud.

"Okay, Colonel. Hang on. We had to intubate, but we'll pull that out now." Latex gloves, the prickling sting of tape pulled away from his lips. "Welcome back."

They hid in the wind. How many? Naked against the white sky, their arms and legs gnarled with painted tree limbs, hair matted and twined with twigs and vines, they were invisible in the shush and tumble of autumn and the aimless light. He turned to see Daniel's glasses opaqued like moons, his mouth open. Daniel's shout of alarm was a burst of colour in the ink-washed landscape, tattered and tangled in the branches of trees as Jack looked up and his body, pierced by short bolts of arrows, went numb and his mouth filled with the mushy, mealy flavour of bruised apples.

^^^

Bronek's hands are twisted with arthritis, the left one a tight claw gripping the crook of his staff like the foot of a crow. On each knuckle is an open eye. When he bends his head to direct Daniel's attention to ranged pots on the shelf under the window, another eye watches Daniel from the nape of Bronek's neck, peering from between the twisted dreadlocks and the entwined ivy. Daniel is pretty sure there are eyes on the soles of his feet, the backs of his knees, the base of his spine, his abdomen, and when Bronek kneels to lift a bowl from the shelf and his slipper flaps limply away from his heel, Daniel's suspicion is proved correct. Bronek watches. His whole body watches with mystical eyes, follows the wending of spirits among the branches and the fruit. He keeps the spirits away from the butter churns and the calving cows and the laying chickens. He watches because spirits spoil what they can no longer enjoy. His is an envious universe.

His bowls are filled with powders and thick pastes, each one to be applied carefully to the skin of the dead in precise patterns, the intricate latticework of riddles and runes snaring the spirit in the flesh until the body can be burned and the envious soul purged. Or, sometimes, on the dark days, the patterns of colour and words keep envious souls out. Bronek remembers when there were body-snatchers. Evil souls wind sinuously into the flesh and their cruel hunger is a fire in the eyes.

Daniel wrinkles his nose at the pungent sting of spices and Bronek whistles a laugh through the gap in his teeth.

Only hungry beings come to Bronek's world from the bowl of stars. Daniel's eyes roam the hut, devouring. At dusk, Bronek will order his people to hide in the wind, naked and painted in the orchard. When the visitors are dead, he will paint their skin with the powders and pastes, trap them in riddles and cleanse them in fire.

Gnarled on the outside, smooth inside, all the bowls are made of wood. All are full of potions against the hungry dead. Except one.

Rising unsteadily, Bronek mouths a charm before he turns and leans heavily on his staff. He gives Daniel the one empty bowl. Glowing inside with a honey warmth, the whorls of the grain are bands of cinnamon and gold. Daniel's gaze swirls inward along those winding lines and for a moment the bowl seems bottomless. He blinks hard and hands it back hastily.

"What is it?"

Bronek makes a curious, deferent duck of the head, his one eye cocked at the tangled branches that line the roof of his cottage. Taking Daniel's hand, he spreads it across the mouth of the bowl and lays his own over top, making a puzzle of their fingers. "Soul keeper," he answers.

^^^

Daniel is sitting next to the bed, elbows on his knees. His head is bowed as if in prayer. Jack can't see if his hands are folded that way.

"Hey." Brittle, his voice flakes like dry leaves.

When Daniel looks up at him, his glasses are opaque, but then the angle of his head changes and he's blinking rapidly behind them. "Hey, Jack."

Standing, he braces a hand against the bed above Jack's pillow and watches him closely until Jack starts to feel self-conscious. He doesn't want to close his eyes in case Daniel takes it the wrong way, because Daniel doesn't look like he quite believes just yet that Jack is looking back at him.

"How long?" Jack asks.

"Four days."

"Crap. I hate when that happens."

Daniel's smile crinkles up his nose and one eye. "Yeah, well. I taped your show for you." He straightens and picks something up from the bed. Jack follows his gaze down to the bowl he's turning around between his hands. The grin is gone.

"What's in the bowl?" Jack wonders, and is a little surprised when Daniel answers, because Jack's world is going softly liquid and he's sinking away--shallow waters, this time, not the deep black--and he didn't realize he'd spoken out loud.

Daniel holds it up so he can see. "Nothing. Now."

Jack's eyes settle on the blurring curves of light and shadow, Daniel's fingers curling around the open mouth of the bowl. "Too bad," Jack says, maybe out loud. "I was hoping for peanuts."



-3-EDGES


Jack runs a finger along the edge of the desk, comes to the corner, raps his knuckles on it twice, and says, fuck under his breath. The sun angles in through the window, cutting the desk in two, and he traces the terminator, gets to the other corner, lifts his finger to look at the dust on it. Figures. But this isn't MacKenzie's regular desk, which is in the mountain, so maybe Jack can cut him some slack.

Jack doesn't.

There's a plastic bag at Jack's feet. The window doesn't have bars on it, which is crazy, Jack thinks, since this would be a place he would totally escape from given the slimmest hint that it was possible. The tree outside is blooming and it turns the light in the room pink and soft-focused like a Hallmark card. Get well soon. Jack runs a hand across his chin. Seems he forgot to shave.

He raps his knuckles on the desk again, on the dark side of the line, inches his fingers to the edge of the warmth. If he stands there long enough, the sun will come to him. He stands there long enough. When he's in up to his first knuckle, the door opens.

For some reason, MacKenzie always makes Jack think of a Mechano set, or some kind of kit where the pieces come with tabs and slots. His face is a series of rectangles leaning together, sharp creases at the jawline, hair all of a piece, that careful expression factory standard for shrinks. Even his wrinkles seem calculated and measured. For a minute, while he watches MacKenzie come around the desk and shuffle through the pink message slips, Jack savours a wicked fantasy about his fist and breaking toys. He considers making a move, abrupt, threatening, just to see if MacKenzie's eyes will open wide enough to register something other than that smug confidence that things are predictable. Instead, Jack raps the desk again, twice, like he's knocking on a locked door and isn't stopping by for a friendly visit. MacKenzie doesn't look up.

"Dr. Jackson is cleared to go," he says with half-attention, tilting his head and reading his messages while he speaks. "But he shouldn't drive."

Hence the driver, present and accounted for, dickwad, Jack thinks, and winces because MacKenzie's doing his job and how the hell was he supposed to know that Daniel really was hearing voices and hadn't just cracked up--predictably--like he should have ages ago? Because Daniel said so. He said so before, during, and after, dickwad. That last isn't entirely for MacKenzie. Jack's neck muscles are twitching and everything in his chest has turned to stone and so he smiles, slouches with his hands in his pockets, doesn't go over the desk.

"Sure," Jack says lightly. "Where is he?"

He gets to the nurse's station late. Daniel's already there. Beside him is the empty wheelchair and a beefy orderly with his hand on the back of the seat, waiting politely for Daniel to sit down. It's hard to tell if this is one of the gang who wrestled Daniel to the floor, before, not that it matters to Daniel. His whole stance tells Jack that he remembers the weight and the muscle of the place; the pieces are interchangeable. Jack can tell by the folded arms and bowed head that Daniel isn't going to let any of these people do the driving, and by his subtle leaning toward the squares of light in the doors at the end of the hall that Daniel is already running.

It's the crinkling of the plastic bag as Jack switches it from his left hand to his right that makes Daniel raise his head. Inside the bag are the BDUs Daniel was wearing when they brought him in, his tags, his glasses in a cardboard envelope. Jack can see the recall reeling through Daniel's head and he winces again because he was hoping Daniel would get a pass on that part. But, fuck you, too, universe, and thanks for nothing. He fishes out the glasses, pops the end of the envelope open one-handed and holds it out to Daniel like he's offering him Bridge Mix.

While he cleans the lenses on the hem of his t-shirt, Daniel watches Jack, or doesn't. His eyes keep going unfocussed, or they sort of skid over Jack's shoulder and snap back guiltily. Jack knows he's checking the interior world against the exterior one and they're supposed to be mostly aligned now that he's not under alien influence anymore. Whatever he's seeing is what everyone else is seeing. Daniel's been told that, and he answered lucidly when he was supposed to, right as rain, except that now when Daniel's eyes finally lock on Jack's, the panic is there underneath all of that carefully correct skrim of reasonable.

Jack wants to take Daniel's hand and lay it on everything from the rack of charts on the counter to the orderly's shirt to the squares of sunlight on the checkered tile floor and say, "Yep," and "yep" and "yep." He wants to put Daniel's fingers on the back of Jack's own neck where there isn't a fresh entry scar and say, "No, never happened," and map out real things and imagined things, draw a line between them. But Jack's pretty good at carefully correct reasonable himself, so he's probably not all that qualified.

So, he slouches and puts his hands in his pockets until Daniel slumps grumpily into the wheelchair.

"How's Teal'c?" Daniel asks.

"Not good."

"I think I have an idea about that."

"Of course you do." Jack wraps his hands around the handles at the back of the chair and steers Daniel toward the light.



-4-Scissors


The apartment is blue-dark, shadows all slanting the same direction, away from the wedge of pale light through the balcony door, as though everything in Daniel's space is leaning away from the edge, the railing, the space beyond it. Jack stands in the middle of the living room and looks at Daniel's shadow at his feet, long, leaning too. But Daniel is at the railing, perpendicular to the rest of everything, almost as insubstantial as shadows against the low-lying stars and their reflection in the city lights below. His hands are in his pockets. He's looking down.

Jack swallows hard, bites hard, his teeth off-set, jaw thrusting as he hesitates. Even though in the last three weeks his hair has grown a bit shaggy, the back of Daniel's neck is exposed, a smudge of deeper shadow at the base of his skull like he's been gripped by an artist's hand, a thumb whorled and blackened with charcoal. His sweater lies in folds around his elbows, rucked up a bit at the wrists where his hands disappear into his pockets, and its warmth blurs him even more. But the slope of the shoulders is familiar, the angle of the head as Daniel looks down.

The apple core is now browned and shrunken and withered on the table, but this time, at least, the sun isn't watery through cloud, denying shadows, the door isn't ajar, and the kettle isn't boiling dry on the stove. How long does it take water to boil? Four minutes? Five? Three weeks ago, it took Daniel only five minutes, less maybe, to go from wanting tea to leaning out over traffic, more empty on the inside than all the space around him. Today he's on the right side of the railing. But the slope of the shoulders is the same. And when Jack looks out through the balcony door at Daniel looking down, the sharp twist in Jack's gut feels the same.

On the carpet the scissors open their jaws under the sole of his shoe, a liquid gleam of silver like the beak of dark-winged bird. Around them are fragments, paper chopped into a hundred perfect triangles. His eyes still on Daniel, Jack crouches, gathers a few bits with unseeing fingers and raises them up, angles them like tiny playing cards into the oblique light. The writing is small, regular, unreadable. Reaching out, he fumbles a hand across the side table, finds the lamp, pulls the cord. He's holding his name in his hand, and Carter's, Teal'c's. Turning the pieces around, he cocks his head, gathers a few more. Under the coffee table is the cover of the journal, lying splayed like a murder victim, jagged innards, pages torn close to the spine. Jack closes the scissors with a quiet "snick," and with cupped hands, sweeps the pieces--what planet? which mission?--into the cover of the journal, closes it as best he can and puts it on the coffee table.

When he looks up, Daniel is watching him.

"I don't remember why," Daniel says. "I think I didn't want you all to--" and the words lean away from him, into the apartment, seem to disperse in the warmth of the lamplight.

"What?"

Daniel looks away, lifts a hand and scratches the back of his head. "Fall," he answers, finally, but it sounds more like a question.

Standing, Jack shrugs with one shoulder, slides his hands into his pockets. "We didn't," he says, putting a little force behind it so that his voice will carry from the yellow circle of light into the shadows where Daniel is. "We won't." In his pocket, between his fingers, he folds his name, Carter's, Teal'c's up tight.



-5-PIECES


Reese's pieces, Jack thinks as he watches Hammond through the briefing room window. The general's on the red phone and one hand rests on the top of his head for a second before the fingers curl into hair he probably hasn't had for twenty years. Hammond meets his eyes and Jack twitches up the corner of his mouth in a small-scale semaphore pep talk.

"Yes," Hammond is saying, "it was close." He closes his eyes before raising them to the ceiling. "Yes, Mr. President. Everything will be on its way to Area 51 by the end of the day."

Jack leaves Hammond to his reassurances and goes downstairs to the Gate level.

Reese's pieces. It's a bad phrase, but it's hooked in his brain like a burr. The airmen use it while they're shoveling the inert blocks into bins, and it makes them laugh. He should've reprimanded them, but hey, whatever counts as coping, right? He blames advertisers, and the English language in general, for making the words too easy. Whenever he thinks them, he winces up an eye. Laceration.

They're still at it in the corridors, although the Gateroom is clean, and the shovels scrape against the concrete and the pieces don't even clatter against the bin anymore because the bin is pretty much full. The blocks just slide against one another like they're grasping, whispering. But Carter says they aren't, and he has to believe her.

If he had his way, he'd just tip the bins through a wormhole aimed at some Goa'uld homeworld, but that's not exactly responsible. Neither is keeping the buggers on hand, though, even the small sample that's going to Nevada. Disposal is a problem. How small do these things have to be crushed before they won't ever be able to put themselves together again? They'll be burned. And the particulate--fragments of the SGC--will be scrubbed from the air before the rest belches out the end of a smoke stack and thins on the wind. Going, going, gone.

There's a coffin in the hallway by the elevator. Daniel's standing at the foot of the dolly, staring down at the box. He's got his feet apart and his head down--immovable object--and he'd have his arms wrapped around himself except that the cast and sling make that awkward. His free hand hangs at his side, clenching, splaying, clenching slowly like a flower blooming in time-lapse photography. He hears Jack coming and stopping behind him. Jack knows he recognizes his footsteps because the fist doesn't unfold this time.

The coffin--the box--is a nondescript packing crate, except that this one is lead-lined. Without the power source, Carter assured him, there's no way the robot could communicate with the Replicator pieces, even if many of her--its--key systems weren't already damaged. But the box is lead-lined, anyway. The geeks at Area 51 will get to poke around inside her for a bit until the Asgard come to get her. Carter's keeping the power source in the mountain until then. All of this is a bad idea.

He watches Daniel watch the box. Standing guard. Vigil. Whatever. At the end of the hall, an airman is scraping blocks with the shovel, scattering them down the control room steps while another sweeps them into a pile. They don't touch them with their hands.

"Would you," Daniel begins, sighs out a long breath, and starts over. "If she was younger--" Again, he stops, raises his head, screws his eyes shut and then aims them at the ceiling as he rephrases. "If she looked younger--"

"What the hell kind of question is th--"

Daniel's eyes slice through the protest. "--would you have killed her?"

Jack would walk away, but he can't feel his legs. Shot through the spine.

Daniel does it for him.

Watching him in his peripheral vision, Jack waits until he turns the corner before he says, "Touché."



-6-STONE


Daniel's sure he's never been here before, although he knows the place exists. The universe is infinite, so it stands to reason that anything he can imagine must exist somewhere. But he's pretty sure that this place isn't his, even though he's conjured it, planted his boots firmly on the slippery bank where the smooth stones are coated with a thin layer of ice that makes them glisten, each one with a crescent at its edge like an infant moon. The real moon is full and round and balanced on the point of a fir tree, like the finale in a magical circus show, something from the mystical heart of Asia, maybe, where spectacle is elegant and slow-moving and laden with meaning. It's almost dawn, then, although the sun is still far enough away that the sky behind him won't blush and bruise for hours still.

At his feet is a silent pulling, the steady downhill sluicing of a creek almost sheeted with ice. The water is black where the current has worn its way through and creased with silver where the ripples catch the moonlight. The bank is narrow and white with crusted snow. His footsteps must have sounded like the world collapsing when he walked down here from... wherever he would have come from had this been a real place. Behind him, and in front of him across the creek, the forest leans darkly inward, attentive.

His breath hangs in the air around his head, ghost-drift.

Rubbing his hands together, he crouches and picks up a stone. He has to work it out of the frozen ground a little, but when he holds it in his palm it's already warm. It's worn, rounded. He closes his fingers around it but it's cooling fast. Cupping it between both hands, he raises it to his mouth and blows into the hollow.

But his hands can't catch its warmth because these aren't his hands. And his breath can't warm the stone because he gave up breath when he gave up hands.

In Daniel's peripheral vision, Jack's there, wearing his parka, skidoo boots, jeans. His hair is the same colour as the light trapped in the creek. He doesn't say anything when he turns and walks away, upstream, his feet making crushing sounds in the brittle snow.

This place is a dream Daniel dreams because, even with all he knows and all he's seen, he can't forget his hands, or the rush of breath. And he can't make this decision without them. He dreams this place because his mind is still not free enough to look directly at what's happening to Jack. He flinches and the flinch makes this place.

The stone is cold. He can't warm it. But if he tries--it would take very little concentration--he could make sure that the cold takes. This is what Jack has asked for.

"I'm sorry!" Daniel calls into the black shadows, flinging his voice against the white ice. "I can't do it. I can't."

Jack doesn't turn around. Daniel blinks and he's gone. And then the cold stone in Daniel's fist is warm again and Daniel wants to cry, but of course he can't, even though he remembers how.

He's not there when Jack wakes up--again--in Ba'al's golden box, the stone under his ribs hot, throbbing, so he doesn't hear Jack say his name, almost a curse, but mostly a prayer.



-7-SLIP


Jack finds the paper in a stack of junk mail, between an ad for a travel agency offering 'adventure vacations' and a word from his local politician. The guy is smiling in a twitchy-pained way like he's standing in a bucket of eels. Jack sticks the picture to the side of the fridge with a magnet to remind himself who not to vote for and is taking the rest of the crap to the recycle bin when the little square of paper slips out, flutters down and lands edgewise between two toes on his bare left foot.

"Special delivery," he mutters as he stoops to snag it.

It's a sheet from his notepad by the phone and it's covered in tiny, regular writing, much of which is unreadable because at some point the paper has gotten wet and the ink has run. It 's Daniel's handwriting, though.

A wire tightens across his chest.

Holding it up to the early morning light slanting through the kitchen window, Jack tries to decrypt it. He can make out what might be a 'J' and something that looks like "you" and "I would, but not unless." Around the edges are what appear to be doodles of gate glyphs and pyramids with flowers bursting out their tops. That's the doodling of someone trapped in a long phone conversation with a dotty relative. Daniel didn't have any dotty relatives--at least none who had ever phoned Jack's house. Or who still live on this planet.

Leaning his hip against the counter, Jack drops the pile of junk mail and thumbs through it with his free hand. None of it is more than two months old. The pile has been accumulating on top of the bread box and he's always forced to deal with it when he can't fit anymore between the bread box and the cupboard above. That's two months. He knows this with the same certainty that Daniel had when it came to counting eons in strata of sandstone. Just to be sure, he unfolds the bottom flier. The sale on indoor-outdoor carpeting was six weeks ago. Daniel has been gone for six months.

Jack wrinkles his nose and lifts his eyes to the window. The shadow of the neighbour's maple tree is splayed across the green of Jack's back lawn. Soon it will creep backward, sliding like an escaping burglar up and over the fence and Jack will drive to the mountain. Two hours after that, he'll step into evening, or tomorrow morning and someone will greet him with fear, or bowing, or smiles. Or projectiles. He has to eat something, shave, get his face in order.

He stands in the kitchen, watching the tree fidgeting in the wind. Flickering between the shifting leaves, the light is pin-sharp and reminds him of plucked violin strings. The little square of paper is slotted between his middle and ring fingers and he taps its edge against the countertop in time with the silent music in his eye. He tries to do the math, run the scenario in which a discarded, forgotten note slips, maybe, from the top of the fridge into the junk pile, but his brain comes up against a wall, swerves, and is deflected along it, slippery, sliding away from explanations. He needs to go dig a shirt out of the laundry and iron it.

He pushes away from the counter, makes it as far as the middle of the kitchen, two steps, starts to reach the note toward the fridge, to tack it up there next to the local politician and the grocery list, but he hesitates. Turning on his heel, he does a 360, looking for a place to put it down. "I would, but not unless." What the hell does that mean? Would what? Unless what? He glares out at the yard, the light prickling between the leaves. He has no memory of Daniel's tendrilled light actually touching him when it bloomed out of the bandages and rose up through the ceiling, but he knows it's not like this, keen, pontillist, like grit in the eye.

The paper has pinned him in the kitchen. Its edge bites into the webbing of skin between his fingers and Jack can feel it slicing across this kitchen and that other one, the one where the note made it to the recycle bin with the fliers and the free offers, and then to the curb, and then to wherever that stuff goes to be shredded and made into dixie cups or toilet paper. The near miss cuts so razor close that Jack can't put the note down.

Quietly and ferociously, he curses Daniel for mumbling.

He dresses with the paper clamped between his teeth. In the change room at the mountain, he smooths it against his thigh and slips it into a ziplock bag, folds the edges around it and puts it in the inside pocket of his vest.

When he steps through the gate into evening, he can feel Daniel's voice against his chest.



-8-WOULD BUT NOT UNLESS



Jack's house smells like Jack, wood, worn leather, ash. Daniel's brain tells Daniel this like it's reciting the multiplication table, the way it tells Daniel about the things he's supposed to know about his own life. Daniel is living by rote.

These are Daniel's hands. These are Daniel's legs. This is the way Daniel walks beside Jack. This is the way Daniel isn't supposed to hesitate in on the landing when Jack toes off his boots and drops his jacket onto to a hook behind the door, snags the loops of the grocery bags, disappears into the kitchen.

"Beer?"

Daniel doesn't like beer. "I don't like beer."

Jack's head appears around the edge of the kitchen doorway. He takes in the fact that Daniel is still on the landing, hesitating in a pair of slushy footprints on the mat. "Well, I figured maybe They fixed that part." He makes a disappointed face and withdraws.

Maybe They did fix that part. "Uh, okay. Yeah. Beer's good."

"Crap."

Daniel waits. The curse is barely audible, and doesn't seem meant for him. And does seem meant for him. Slipping off his boots, too, he crosses the hall, rests his shoulder on the wall and looks around the corner. Jack is braced stiff-armed on the counter, head down. He hasn't turned the light on in there yet, and so he's a shadow edged in the red and green of the neighbour's Christmas lights, mostly negative space and subtle arcs of colour. Long-boned, Daniel thinks. The colour would taste like Jack. Daniel blinks and stays in the hallway, chilled along the skin of his neck by the passing of his ghost which is already in the kitchen, leaning....

"Or... not?"

Jack raises his head like he's been ambushed, straightens, starts unpacking the bags. Cans hit the counter like artillery. Daniel thinks in twenty three languages, and can't quite find the one that hears what Jack's hands and the tight line of his neck are saying.

Jack waves Daniel's uncertainty away. "No, I just left the beer in the truck, that's all."

"I'll get it."

"Thanks. Passenger side, behind the seat." While he's talking, Jack walks over to the kitchen door and flips the switch on the wall. "I start forgetting the beer, time to put me on an ice floe," he says with his grin a foot away from Daniel's face. Daniel's ghost leans...

Back on the landing, Daniel stuffs his feet into his boots and goes out the door, getting to the bottom step before remembering he needs keys. Back inside, he lets the door close behind him and pats Jack's coat, finding the keys in the inside pocket. When he pulls them out, something else comes with them, flutters, and lands on the top of his boot. It's a ziplock bag with a piece of paper inside. He's fumbling the pocket open to put the bag back when his eye snags on a curl of writing, a "J" he recognizes.

Jack is in the kitchen, banging cupboards.

The ziplock bag is well-worn, milky with scratches and folds, and probably isn't waterproof anymore. Inside it, the paper has been places, too. The creases are so fine now that the paper has a kind of crackled patina and, when Daniel unzips the bag and pulls it out, the paper falls over his fingers like a swatch of linen. The keys drop out of his hand onto the mat, the bag following them, as he holds the note up in the light spilling over his shoulder through the window by the door. The note's mostly illegible, just a sandstone wash of faded, water-stained script and the occasional phrase still visible inside a border of glyphs and pyramids. It's his handwriting though. This is how Daniel left Jack a note, once, his brain says reasonably.

His eyes drift down to the bag on the floor, tented up along the lines of the folds, making a square just the size of this piece of note paper. His thumb rubs across the blurred letters of the note as though he can read the traces of his pen's pressure by touch. He can't.

When Jack comes out of the kitchen, Daniel is sitting on the floor with his back to the door and his knees drawn up. In one dangling hand is the note, in the other, the ziplock bag. In his head, his brain is saying, This is how Daniel... This is how... This...

He holds the note up so Jack can see it. "What did it say?" he asks.

Jack stands between the yellow light from the kitchen and the blue streetlight from outside and puts his hands in his pockets, casually. But his feet are spread a little too wide, his shoulders set, and even in the shadows Daniel can see his eyes narrow: risk assessment.

Finally, he shrugs. "Don't know. It was like that when I found it."

"When you found it?"

"Later." A hand comes out and waves first at Daniel and then at the air above their heads. Outside, the street hisses with car tires, and then there's the crunching of unshovelled snow as the car turns into Jack's driveway. "After," Jack clarifies, the hand safely back in the pocket. When Daniel holds up the bag, Jack shrugs again, stiffly, neither confirming nor denying. A door slams, and another. Voices come closer.

"You kept it," Daniel says. There's pressure at the base of his throat, some upsurging of words, maybe, or something wordless.

Stamping on the porch, snow kicked off of boots against the riser of the steps. Sam is laughing and her shadow blocks the light for a second, just when Jack says, "Apparently," so that Daniel can't see his face.

This is how Jack... This is the way Jack... neither confirmed nor denied.

"And you're keeping it now because...?"

The doorbell rings. Jack breathes. The doorbell rings again as the realization draws Daniel to his feet.

"Because I'm still gone," he says.

Jack flinches without moving at all.

"Are they in there?" Sam asks on the other side of the door.

Teal'c's answer is just a rumbled pressure in the air.

Stepping forward, Jack stretches out a hand and Daniel leans into it, without thinking, fitting into the outline of the ghost like he's being re-souled. But Jack's reaching for the doorknob, expecting Daniel to move out of the way. This is how Daniel should move out of the way. He doesn't. And Jack's momentum brings him up short against Daniel's chest. He starts to step around him, but Daniel's hand is on the side of his neck and the note paper crumples softly between his skin and Jack's.

In the shadow of the door, his lips beside Jack's ear, Daniel whispers, "I would, Jack." And then, "I will."

Jack's taut body loosens all at once against Daniel, resistance sluicing into relief. Daniel braces under it as Jack's head tilts a fraction into the support of Daniel's hand on his neck. Jack's eyes close briefly and when they open and meet Daniel's, he says, lightly, "Okay," like Daniel's just come up with a good idea out of the blue. But when Daniel comes close, seeking his lips, Jack pulls back, his face stern. "But no more memos."

Daniel's laugh goes into Jack's mouth. Then Daniel steps aside, folding the paper into his jacket pocket. When Jack opens the door, his grin is pretty smug.


"The day is everlasting and the night is eternity, which exists in the head of every man"--The Papyrus of Hunefer


THE END


Notes:  I asked the folks on LJ to suggest an object and/or a time of day. Each of these snippets is a response to one of these suggestions, and together they map a progression from season 1 to season 7 of the show, sometimes hooking into a particular episode, sometimes not. Thank you to all you guys who played, and to Destina, Martha and Katie M for beta. This series as a whole is dedicated to Destina and Martha, who were sad that there was less J/D in the world these days.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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