the certainty of loss, the body
with its flawed grace falling
through the seven spheres
back into the known world.
(Lorna Crozier, "Fallen Angels I")
Black. Everything. The place looked like the surface of the moon. The dark side. Except the sky that loomed too close was way too alive to belong to the moon. It looked like it was turning in on itself, like somebody who'd just been kicked in the gut, the clouds green and churning around a slowly swirling centre black with a darkness that had nothing to do with night. It was like looking up at the ocean from underneath, disorienting, just not. . . right. And it was too quiet. A sky convulsing like that should have been howling, but the only sound picked up by the MALP was a faint high-pitched keening. Two days ago Jack had stood beside the MALP and made a crack about the trees. Now there wasn't a tree standing. The ones that weren't reduced to charred stumps were flattened, splayed out in a wide arc around the 'gate. And almost indistinguishable from that wreckage were the bodies. Four they could count from this vantage point, their blackened forms identifiable as human only because they were twisted in ways that spoke too clearly of terror, panic, and pain.
"SG-9," Jack said. No-one replied, but the tenseness in their bodies was more than enough acknowledgement.
The MALP's mic rotated toward the keening sound, which had risen now to a strained wail. The camera followed, panning slowly across the blast field until a faint white smudge came into the frame, the pale gleam of skin against the ash.
"It is a boy," Teal'c observed, his flat tone nevertheless conveying the strangeness of that statement.
Naked, arms clenched around his knees, the boy mirrored the sky, curling around some kind of pain as though he were trying to fold his body into itself and disappear. His profile etched sharply against the darkness, his narrow back was partially turned to the camera, spine knobby and vulnerable, shoulder blades jutting out like shorn wings. He was rocking back and forth, his mouth too wide for the thin sound that came from it, his eyes fixed on something they couldn't see.
Shifting his weight, Jack decided he was relieved he couldn't see it. But he knew he'd have to, eventually. He winced and shifted his gaze from Carter's monitor to the one over his head. It didn't help. Leaning over Carter's shoulder, Daniel pulled his hand out of his pocket to point mutely at the screen, but her fingers were already moving across the keyboard, focusing the camera and zooming in. As if he could feel the mechanical gaze on his bare skin, the boy turned his black eyes toward them.
"Daniel," Shifu said in a small, wavering voice. "I am so cold."
Resting on one knee, Daniel watched the centipede as it grappled with the stitching around the sole of his boot and finally managed to pull itself up onto his foot. An inch long with legs like fine orange hairs undulating around a bright yellow, fuzzy body, the insect was a miracle of colour in a world of grey. It paused to investigate the lace of the boot before continuing on its way toward Daniel's instep. Reaching down with an extended index finger, Daniel stopped the centipede's progress and it begrudgingly executed an awkward u-turn and headed back the way it had come, only to be stopped by Daniel's finger again.
The knee of Daniel's uniform was damp where it pressed into the soft grass. This patch of green was no more than two feet in diameter and the soil beneath was moist and rich and alive with insects and grubs. Dr. Hakim had already taken her samples, leaving a small divot in the middle of turf. Daniel imagined he could still feel the heat of Shifu's body there in the earth, a small oasis of life surrounded by ash and cold.
Shivering, he tried not to think of the sound the boy had made when Daniel had touched his head with his hand; the wail of terror had been barely human, rising up into the air like a scrawl. If Daniel hadn't seen the MALP playback of Shifu speaking those words, "I am so cold," he wouldn't have believed that the boy who sat rocking in a blanket on the back of the FRED ten feet away could be capable of even that much coherence. Daniel cast him a sideways glance, but the sight of Shifu's bare feet dangling down, pigeon-toed and ash-covered, made his chest tighten and he looked away.
Opting for a direct solution to the problem of obstacles, the centipede crawled over Daniel's finger and down the ankle of the boot. Daniel let it go.
"Okay. Last one."
He raised his head to watch two airmen as they spread out a vinyl body bag in the ash beside one of the corpses. The body was completely black, no distinguishing marks left, all gear and clothing but metal fasteners and dogtags burned away. Hakim had collected the dogtags and photographed all of the dead soldiers from every angle before grimly nodding to the waiting aids to wrap them for the trip home. Now, she stood gazing at the 'gate, her clipboard pressed against her chest and wrapped tightly in her folded arms. Her face held no expression. A lock of her dark brown hair slipped out from beneath her cap and fluttered across her eyes. After a moment she reached up and brushed it away.
"Take the feet. I'll get the head." Payton's voice was level, but his movements were jerky as he waved his partner, Schroeder, his nametag read, into position.
Crouching, Payton grasped the body to transfer it to the waiting bag. His gloved hand broke through the charred skin and suddenly the shoulder of the body dissolved in a silent puff of ash. Losing his balance as the expected weight and resistance disappeared, Payton put out hand to brace himself, coming down on the centre of the blackened chest and breaking through it with another hiss of crumbling flesh.
"Aw, fuck. Fuck," he swore softly, his voice toneless with horror as he scrambled backward and lurched to his feet.
Rising from where she knelt next to another body bag, Sam came over and stood a few paces from Payton as he heaved and retched. When he had nothing left to cough up, she silently handed him her canteen. He took a long drink, swishing water in his mouth and spitting twice before handing the canteen back.
"Thanks, Major," he said without looking at her.
Sam said nothing, only turning to walk with him to join Schroeder. Between the three of them, they managed to carefully slide the bag under the body and close the dead soldier away.
Daniel jumped at the touch of a hand on his shoulder.
"Sorry," Jack said.
Beside Daniel's boot, the centipede burrowed into the grass. Hakim bowed her head over her clipboard and didn't try to brush away the hair that blew again across her eyes.
"S'okay." Standing, Daniel looked at the patch of grass and felt Jack shift, turning on his heel to scan the horizon. The strange stillness of the air had broken and the whole empty plain was sighing; the ashes around their feet stirred and crept ahead of the wind like the familiar sand ghosts of the desert, seeming almost purposeful as they sifted around the four bagged bodies with something like curiosity. "Find anything?"
He felt Jack shake his head. "It's the same, far as the eye can see. Whatever happened here, it was big."
"Colonel." Frasier caught Jack's eye and, when he acknowledged her with a nod, started over to them. Her attention on the two men, she inadvertently stepped on the grass and then immediately drew her booted foot back with a sharp intake of breath. The expression in her eyes as she met Daniel's was hard to read, but settled finally into an uneasy apology. Daniel stepped away from the grass and turned his back on it as she came around them from the other side.
"He's in shock," she reported without preamble. "He doesn't seem to be injured, but he's unresponsive. To all appearances, though, he's a normal human boy. I need to get him back to the infirmary so I can run more extensive tests."
Jack's gaze rested on the four black bags as he shook his head. "Can't do it, Doc."
"That kid's in the middle of this." He waved a hand at the small patch of turf at their feet. "Literally. He doesn't set foot on Earth until we know that what happened here isn't gonna happen there."
Frasier's mouth tightened, but she only said, "Yes sir," and folded her hands behind her back. "Request permission to radio for supplies and equipment."
"Get whatever you need. We'll set up camp over there." He indicated what would once have been a large clearing before whatever happened had happened. Now it was only a bare patch surrounded by the precise, radiating pattern of fallen trees.
The rain that finally fell was cold and gritty, streaking the tents and the silent hulks of the MALP and the FRED and pooling in the boot tracks that churned up the ground around the gate. The clouds were still roiling, but the failing light had at least hidden the swirling eye of the storm. There was lightning in there somewhere, flickering in muted reds and greens. There and gone before Jack had time to really register it, the rippling light tickled his brain with the vague urgency of a forgotten commitment. Even though he hunched his shoulders and buttoned his collar, the water still worked its way in and soaked his neck as he tromped through the mud toward the medical tent. He passed Carter on her way back from the med tent to her own and gave her a nod, but she continued on, more interested in getting someplace dry than in conversation. That was fine with him. Off at the perimeter of the camp, Teal'c was a darker blot of shadow, his staff weapon pointing at the sky.
Jack ducked into the med tent with relief and carefully pulled the flap into place to block the wind. Inside, the only light came from a battery-powered lamp hanging from an overhead strut. Turned down low, its ordinarily harsh whiteness was softened, leaving the corners of the tent in deep shadow. Monitors and equipment slumbered or winked in their arcane code on a long table beside the door. On a cot against the wall, Frasier lay on her back with her arm thrown over her eyes, her muddy boots still on her feet and dangling over the end of the bed. Daniel was just finishing spreading a blanket over her, tucking it carefully and gently around her. She didn't move.
Holding a finger to his lips, he motioned Jack in and lowered himself into a chair beside the other cot where Shifu lay under a mound of blankets. The boy's small hands were clenched under his chin and his dark eyes were wide open. Still staring at nightmares, Jack guessed, but he didn't want to pursue that right now, thanks just the same. Shifu had finally stopped that inhuman keening, but his mouth still hung open as he panted shallowly. Daniel started to tuck the blankets around him, too, but his body stiffened and Daniel withdrew, his hands resting in loose fists in his lap.
"Can he. . . . He's. . . not unconscious, right?" Jack asked in a low voice.
Daniel shook his head. "He responds to touch, but there's no indication that he understands us, that he even knows I'm here."
"He asked for you."
"Yeah, I know. But now. . . ." He shrugged. "If there's somebody home, he's locked all the doors and isn't answering the phone."
"Oh," Jack said silently and tried not to look at the line of tension in Daniel's shoulders.
"He must've known how to cry once," Daniel went on. "I suppose he's forgotten."
Outside, a tarp broke loose of its moorings and flapped and clattered in the rising wind.
"Raining," Daniel observed after awhile.
"Yeah. Keep the dust down, at least."
"Ash," Daniel corrected.
Cocking his head, Jack returned Shifu's blank stare, unable to shake the feeling that the kid was looking right into him. Maybe Shifu really wasn't aware, and maybe Frasier didn't have a frigging clue. He shifted his attention to Daniel and the way his back curved as he leaned his elbows on his knees. He could feel Daniel waiting, his muscles vibrating with inaction, wearing him down into bone-tiredness just sitting there. Jack's own muscles were starting to hum a little, sympathetic vibration. For the umpteenth time Jack tried to imagine what it must have been like, being dragged back down out of weightless light into the clumsy, beautiful heaviness of flesh and blood and bone. Suddenly, as he watched Daniel's fingers twining together between his knees, an intricate, unconsciously graceful movement, Jack felt his own weight on his bones, and shuddered at how strange that feeling was, if you thought about it too much. No wonder Shifu was freaked. The real wonder was how Daniel had managed not to be insane. Maybe that's why Oma had wiped his memory, so he wouldn't wake up an alien in his own skin.
The tarp was still rattling, the rain on the roof of the med tent sizzling like static. Jack shifted uncomfortably. "Was this how it was for you?" he asked suddenly. "When you, you know, un-ascended." He waggled his fingers in a falling motion. "Descended."
Daniel snorted out a small laugh. "I didn't flatten twenty square miles of forest."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know." He bowed his head and looked at his hands, pulling at a hangnail on his thumb. "Yeah, it was a little like this," he answered finally.
Something in Jack's gut twisted a notch tighter. "Okay, then," he offered, his tone too light. "So, he was way better at the ascension thing than you were, and you managed to survive it all."
"Maybe," Daniel said, his voice a dim glow in the gloom. "But I wasn't Harsesis."
Not much to say to that. The nightmares Jack didn't want to think about loomed closer. Shifu continued to stare into Jack's head. Or not.
Finally somebody had decided to do something about the damn tarp. He could make out Hakim's voice and Teal'c's. The rattling stopped, leaving only the rain and the wind and the rapid, panicky breathing of the boy in the cot. Moaning, the wind surged around the tent, making the door flap billow inward and the lantern sway on its hook. Daniel's shadow wobbled high and then low on the wall, at sea. Impulsively, Jack reached out to steady him, resting his hand on his head and then, after a moment, trailing his fingers down the back of his neck to his shoulder where he twisted them in the epaulet of Daniel's jacket. It was dawning on him that this was a little absurd when Daniel reached up and squeezed his hand, his fingertips cold against Jack's skin. Frasier mumbled in her cot and Daniel's hand dropped again to his lap.
"You should get some sleep," Jack advised gruffly, letting Daniel go and leaning over instead to steady the lantern.
"Yeah. Okay." He continued to stare at Shifu, still absently picking at his thumb.
With a resigned sigh, Jack pulled up a second chair and slumped into it. Daniel didn't look at him, but he nodded.
Daniel's slap on his shoulder roused Jack instantly. He bolted upright in his chair in time to catch sight of him ducking out through the door flap. Frasier was already on her feet. Shifu's cot was empty.
Outside, the wind was whipping around the camp so hard that it tore the breath out of Jack's mouth before he had a chance to use it to shout. The tarp that had been tied down over a stack of equipment cases had broken free again on one end and was so taut in the wind that it was almost motionless. Above the camp, the eye of the storm was a seething red, the sky crazed with lighting that seared Jack's eyes, the flashes coming so rapidly that his vision was distorted by layer after layer of glowing afterimages. It was like watching an old movie, the scene flickering, people revealed in a succession of awkward poses as they scrambled out of their tents into the howling air. In the centre of it all was Shifu, standing stiffly in his medical gown with his fists still clenched under his chin, his wide eyes aimed at the sky, his wail no competition for the storm. Daniel knelt in the mud in front of him, his hands extended helplessly. He was shouting something Jack couldn't hear.
Carter was between them and Jack, pointing, her mouth open in warning.
Jack followed her lead with his eyes. "Holy crap," he breathed, and the words were snatched away before they were fully formed.
The plain to the west of the 'gate was alive with twisters. A dozen of them at least. They snaked down from the churning clouds and writhed around each other like partners in some kind of crazy elemental tango. At the horizon there was only a black wall of storm and rain and wind. He could make out scattered glints of light, but it took him a few precious seconds to understand what they were: the trees were flying, the debris of an entire forest slicing through the air like a barrage of arrows. And it was all coming their way.
Behind Jack, the stakes that anchored the guy wires for the med tent pulled free, one of them singing past his head like a dagger, and the whole structure blew sideways, yawning upward and collapsing in a tangle of nylon and canvas before starting to roll away ahead of the wind. Frasier's hands shot out as though she could catch it and then she clutched at her head. "--notes!" she shouted at Jack and started toward the flapping remnants of her workspace. Jack hooked her arm.
"We're going!" he shouted into her face and pointed over her shoulder at the approaching nightmare. She followed his gaze and when she looked back at him her eyes were wild for a second before assuming the steely calm Jack counted on.
"--my patient!" she yelled back.
Jack pushed her toward the 'gate. "I got 'em."
"--sir!" She nodded and headed toward the DHD where Carter was waiting. Jack whirled his hand over his head in a dialing motion and Carter immediately turned to stab at the symbols with stiff hands.
Her sample case banging against her thigh, Hakim dodged a rolling tent and then a flying chair as she made for the 'gate. She paused just long enough to grab Schroeder, who had fallen face down in the mud, and heave him to his feet. Teal'c grabbed the airman's other arm and they half-carried, half-dragged him toward the group gathered around the DHD. The wormhole vortex exploded outward, seemingly silent in the raging of the storm, and settled back again, a welcome quicksilver glow in the frenetic light.
"GO!" Jack roared at them as he ran across the muddy field toward Daniel and Shifu. He didn't bother to watch to see if they followed orders. Skidding on the slick ground, he went down on his hip beside Daniel. "C'mon kids," he panted, his mouth brushing Daniel's ear. "Time to go!"
"He won't move!" Daniel shouted back.
"Aw, fer--" Jack climbed to his feet and, grabbing the boy, threw him over his shoulder. Shifu's screams were loud in his ears, but they were just another voice of chaos.
He followed Daniel up the steps to the event horizon, where Daniel turned and put his hand on Shifu's head. Jack heard him shout something to the kid, but the words didn't seem to help, and in any case, they were mostly lost in the din. Jack looked over his shoulder just as a bolt of lightning struck the FRED, launching it high into the air where the wind caught it and whipped it sideways like a sweet fastball connecting with Sammy Sosa's bat. The force of the blast blew the three of them into the safety of nothingness.
"Light slips out of / any darkness" ("God's Bones")
Jack twisted as he fell to the ramp. That much Daniel could remember. The picture was burned into his retinas, a glowing afterimage, white and shifting red, that he saw when he closed his eyes. Jack had twisted his body as the blast threw them through the 'gate, turning in mid-air to protect Shifu. He'd rolled, his hand coming up to brace the boy's head. Daniel had been on his back on the ramp, watching, unable to move as the two of them had arabesqued over him. How Jack hadn't broken his neck was a mystery to Daniel, but he'd managed it somehow. And through the ringing in his ears, Daniel had heard that keening wail of fear, the same one he could hear now coming from the next bed, from behind the curtain. And Janet's voice, too, softly crooning, "Shh, shh, it's okay, it's okay, shh," a gentle sing-song broken occasionally by orders, questions, but she always returned to it, a refrain of comfort that followed him into a deep blue, weightless sleep.
When he woke again, Jack was slouched in a chair between Daniel's bed and Shifu's. He was slowly dismantling a Styrofoam cup, working his way around the rim, peeling it off in a long spiral, winding down until there was nothing left of the cup and the Styrofoam curled away out of sight toward his feet.
"Nice," Daniel observed.
Jack's head jerked up, his eyes focusing on him blearily. "Thanks," he said. "I do my best work when I'm 'luded to the gills." His smile was crooked, deformed by the beginnings of a bruise that stretched from his cheekbone to his jaw. His lip was split and, mumbling "ow," he dabbed at it with the back of his hand, checking for blood. Catching Daniel's expression, he asked, "Bad?"
"No," Daniel lied.
"Hmph." He dabbed at the lip again, dropped his artwork and bent to collect it.
Over his back, Daniel could see Shifu lying on his side, fists curled loosely under his chin, his eyes closed.
"How is he?" Daniel started to sit up, but hesitated, feeling a dull wrenching in his chest that would be pain if it weren't muffled by the thick gauze of drugs. "Ow?"
"Easy," Jack advised, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Coupla cracked ribs."
Daniel lay back again. "Yes. Yes, I think that's true." The wrenching settled into a vague throb. This was going to hurt like a son of a bitch when the drugs wore off. "Is he okay?"
Settling down in the chair again, Jack shrugged. "Sleeping."
"They're okay. Got knocked around a little. Teal'c took a packing case in the head, but you know him." Jack inclined his head and intoned in a reasonable, if somewhat slurred, impression of Jaffa stoicism, "'My injuries are not incapacitating.' Then he waltzed outta here to kel-no-reem." He knitted his brows for a second and started to reassemble his cup. "That's kind of annoying isn't it? Just once he could say 'ow,' just to humour me."
"I don't want to see the pain that makes Teal'c say ow."
"Hel-lo." Daniel raised his head to peer around Jack. Shifu's eyes were open. They followed Daniel's movement. "Hi," he said, waggling his fingers and trying to sit up. Jack stood and supported his back, then his elbow as he planted his feet on the floor and shuffled over to Shifu's bed. "Remember me? I'm Daniel. We're friends." Giving no indication that he recognized him, Shifu continued to stare, but he was watching him carefully, rather than staring into space. Daniel was happy with what he could get. "I know you're scared. I remember. But you're safe now. It's going to be okay."
It wasn't clear that Shifu understood him, but his fists relaxed slightly. Hesitantly, Daniel stroked the back of his hand very lightly. He didn't stiffen or pull away, so he kept doing it, murmuring to him softly. He barely noticed when Jack pushed the chair in behind his knees and eased him into it.
Dr. Taylor folded her hands on the table in front of her and reported without consulting her notes. Her voice was measured, her movements contained and economical. If she were twenty years younger and military, Jack would've been happy to have her next to him in a firefight. Unflappable. He could picture her hunkered down in a foxhole in her navy blue pinstripes, slapping a mag onto a P-90 with the same calm efficiency that she radiated as she sat at the conference table. He congratulated himself silently for thinking so magnanimously about a scientist, and a shrink at that. How he'd grown.
"I'm afraid I have little to say at this juncture, general. The boy is suffering from shock, probably post-traumatic stress, but, in all honestly, we don't really have a lot of ready-made models to help us to deal with someone who's been suddenly. . . recorporealized." Her mouth turned up in a smile that made her eyes disappear behind folds of crinkles. "That said, I think there are a few inferences we can make. As I understand it, the being, Oma Dasala, suppressed his goa'uld genetic memory when he was in her care. The worry for us now is whether those memories will remain suppressed now that he's no longer under her influence. I don't have to tell any of you what the consequences of such a resurgence might be for him." Looking at each of them in turn, she spread her hands flat on the table. "In addition, if we can extrapolate from Dr. Jackson's similar experience, we can assume that he will retain little or none of his memories of his life while he was ascended. That, I'm afraid, leaves him with very little to work with."
"So, this is why he's. . ." Jack waved a hand in front of his face and stared blankly.
"Likely, yes. We'll know more in the coming days. I'm hopeful that he'll recover enough, learn enough, to live a reasonably normal life."
Hammond spoke up. "But will he be able to tell us what happened to our people?"
"We can only wait and see, sir. I wouldn't want to push him at this point. He's got a lot to deal with."
Daniel's knee was bouncing under the table. Jack reached over and patted it. "Easy," he mouthed silently at him as the general turned to Frasier. "Your assessment, doctor."
"Physically, he's in perfect health. His body temperature is lower than normal and his adrenaline and serotonin levels are higher, but that's not unexpected. If you're going to ask me how he could possibly have survived what happened there, I'll have to say I have no idea."
Carter leaned in. Her face was pale over her black jersey. "He must've arrived after the explosion, or whatever it was."
"And just happened to sit himself down on the only plot of grass for miles around, which just coincidentally happens to be the dead centre of whatever it was," Jack objected. Daniel's knee was bouncing again. He stuck out his leg and stilled him.
"Perhaps this boy is in fact 'whatever it was,'" Teal'c observed, voicing what they were all thinking, or not-thinking as the case may be.
"But when Daniel returned, there was nothing like this kind of cataclysm. At least according to the people who found him," Carter offered. "What makes Shifu different?"
"Maybe he resisted," Jack said. Beside him, Daniel's muscles were starting to hum again, although he managed to keep his leg still for ten seconds in a row. Daniel's tension was giving Jack a headache. Scratch that. Daniel's tension was making Jack's three-alarm headache worse.
Frasier shook her head. "I'll keep looking, sir, but all I can say is that physiologically he's a healthy, human boy. Beyond that, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere for answers." She turned pages in her folder. "As for the team that went through the 'gate, all of them, including me, have reported fatigue and headaches, and we all have slightly elevated white blood cell counts, but there's no sign of infection. I'd say that these symptoms are to be expected after what we experienced there." She met Jack's eyes. "Stress," she said pointedly. He quirked his eyebrows and looked away, his whole posture saying, "whatever." She sighed. "I recommend light duties for a few days."
"Very well," Hammond conceded.
Frasier cast an "I win" glance in Jack's direction. He pretended not to notice.
Turning finally to Captain Hakim, Hammond asked for her report.
"The place is dead," Hakim stated flatly. Her clipped British accent was usually matched by her cool and occasionally abrupt manner, but today, she was visibly flagging. Her tawny skin was dark around her brown eyes, her mouth tight as she spoke and she sagged a bit in her chair. Shaking herself, though, she straightened up and her eyes became a little more lively as she warmed to her subject. "There is no life at all within the test area. Nothing. Not even microbes."
"Yeah, well did you get a look at the place? What did you expect?" Now Hakim's tension was giving Jack a headache. He looked around the table. In fact, everybody was conspiring, he was pretty sure, to make his head explode.
"True, sir, but we took core samples, and we'd expect to find surviving organisms in the substrata. There are none. Furthermore, the rain that fell after our arrival should be counted on to reseed the area with micro-organisms, spores and the like. Winds and rain, especially of the magnitude that we witnessed, can carry organisms for hundreds, even thousands of miles." She smiled, her eyes glittering. "In fact, there was a case in which frogs were transported across an entire county and rained down -- " Stopping abruptly, she frowned, consulted her notes, and then picked up the narrative where she left off. "But samples taken after the rain, and samples of the rain water contained no living species at all."
"Except the patch of grass where we found Shifu," Daniel prodded when she fell silent.
"That's interesting as well. All of the live samples taken from that site were dead by the time we returned to base. In fact, the larger specimens turned to dust the moment we opened the containers." She pinched the bridge of her nose before going on. "What's more, the ambient temperature around the sample containers has on average remained three or four degrees below that of the rest of the lab."
"So, something sucked the life out of the place," Jack summarized, resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of his own nose. Daniel's bouncing leg was making him crazy. He clamped his hand down on the knee and squeezed so hard that Daniel's mouth opened in a silent "ow."
Hakim nodded and sat back in her chair. "That's a pretty accurate description, colonel."
Six hours later, Jack was back in the infirmary, watching Daniel sitting next to Shifu's bed, gently stroking the back of the boy's hand and talking to him softly, an incessant flow of reassuring words that the kid probably understood about as much as a dog understood a Sunday sermon. Slipping down from the bed across the way, Carter came over, hugging herself with her arms. He could feel her shivering as she stood next to him.
"How you doing, Carter?"
"Fine, sir," she answered without looking at him. "Daniel's making some progress, maybe. Shifu said his name. Daniel's, I mean."
"Good." He leaned around into her line of vision. "What the hell are you still doing here? I thought I told you to go home."
"Yes sir. I just wanted to make sure--" She waved a hand in Daniel's direction. "He's been here all day."
Jack rubbed his nose with the side of his hand, sighing shallowly--deep breathing made his skull ring like a bell--and tilted his head toward the door. "Carter, just pretend for once like I'm your commanding officer and go home like I ordered you to. I got this."
"Yes sir," she said, and, with a final glance over her shoulder at Daniel, headed out the door, rubbing her arms with her hands.
Sidling over to the bed, Jack concentrated on breathing in slow, measured breaths. The closer he got to Daniel, with that tenseness singing below his relaxed posture, the tighter the muscles in Jack's neck twisted. There was something in Daniel's soft, kind voice, an undertone of fearful need and longing, that made Jack's hands ball into fists in his pockets.
As he approached, Shifu shifted his gaze to look at Jack over Daniel's shoulder, and his eyes were fathomless and empty, like unshuttered windows letting in the chill of a moonless, starless black night.
Suddenly the mountain's low rumble, normally a familiar presence like the rush of Jack's own blood in his ears, felt like a physical weight, dragging on his bones like an undertow. And, worse, the nurse at her station near Shifu's bed was clicking her pen repeatedly as she reviewed charts. A very clear picture flashed into his head of himself strangling her with a stethoscope. He so had to get out of here.
"You'll like it once you get used to it," Daniel was saying. "I don't have a tonne of space in my new apartment--I lost the last one when I, you know--" He pointed upward. "--but you'll have your own room. It's full of books right now, but I can put them. . . well, I don't know where I'll put them, now that I think about it, but that's not your problem, right?" He paused as though he actually believed the kid might answer him. "Right."
"So," Jack interjected before Daniel could launch into another stream of commentary. "Got it all planned out, I see." Daniel didn't turn to look at him but bowed his head, stiffening against the implied criticism. "Don't do that," Jack ordered, then frowned and softened his tone. "C'mon." He tugged at the collar of Daniel's shirt. "This place is getting on my last nerve."
"I think I'll stay a little longer."
"I think you'll come with me or I'll stay here and annoy you until you crack. Your choice." He tugged the collar again as a demonstration of just one of his arsenal of tried-and-true tactics. "He'll still be here in a couple of hours."
Making a show of his reluctance, Daniel heaved himself to his feet, whispered, "I'll be back soon" to Shifu, who gave no sign that he understood or cared, and followed Jack up into daylight.
They said nothing as they drove into town. Aiming for his favourite hole-in-the-wall--beer and burgers and big-screen TV--Jack turned into the parking lot of a strip mall, but changed his mind before he'd even rolled to a stop, pulling a u-turn and heading out again. He drove through back streets, slowing for school crossings and stopping for almost-empty school buses, until he finally eased into a spot on the curb by a park. Normally, he figured, the place would be full of kids playing on the swings and monkey bars, but today the wind was bitter, scouring a piercing blue sky darkening to indigo in the east, and the kids had retreated to family rooms and comic book stores and wherever else they went when it was too cold to play outside. That suited Jack just fine. He needed a little privacy, open space, a stiff breeze to blow the cobwebs out from between his ears, some green and autumn gold to rest his eyes on.
Daniel looked up, his brow furrowed, dragging himself out of his musings. "Where are we?"
"A block from your house, Daniel. Geez. Get out much?"
"Other planets don't count?"
Jack shook his head in mock-despair and they got out and followed the asphalt path down through the aspens, their hands deep in their pockets. The grass was still green, but the trees were a contrasting splash of glowing heat; their silver dollar-sized leaves had turned almost overnight to brilliant yellows and shivered on the branches like moving mosaics, glittering against the sky, almost bright enough to sting Jack's eyes. But it was a good sting, one that woke him up, raised his eyes from the ground, the way the wind, hurrying them along from behind, seemed to lift him off his feet, make him feel less heavy. It wasn't Minnesota, but the basic principles were the same. Beside him, Daniel walked with his head down, his mouth twisted in a thoughtful frown. Jack wanted to put a hand under his chin and lift his face up to the light, to make him turn outward just long enough for the colour to wash some of the grey out of him. He kept his hands in his pockets.
After walking in silence for a few minutes, Daniel sat down abruptly on a wooden bench, rubbing his hands together, his shoulders hunched against the wind. He looked across the park at the empty wading pool, the swings blowing a little back and forth, also empty. After awhile, Jack sat down next to him.
"Are you sure you're up for this?" he asked, squinting into the slanting, orange sunlight.
"No," Daniel answered immediately. "But I made a promise. I intend to keep it."
Jack could feel Daniel turning to him, feel the hostility and defensiveness prickling across his skin. He didn't look.
"Other single parents do it, and get along just fine."
"Okay, is all I said," Jack responded, keeping his voice level.
"And everybody does just fine," Daniel repeated.
"Who're you trying to convince here?" Daniel leaned his elbows on his knees and Jack talked to the back of his head. "Other people do it, sure. But other people aren't way, way out of town risking their asses three days a week."
"I'll make it work." He looked over his shoulder, his face surprisingly unmarred by accusation. "You were a father in the Air Force. You risked your life all the time. Iraq--"
"I had a wife, a partner."
"And I have you." Daniel turned back to the pool and the swings. "The team," he added after a beat.
Jack took a long time to work up to the next statement, feeling a little like the words were a shiv aimed at the soft spot just under Daniel's ribs. "Yeah, of course you do. But. . . we could find someone, a family with clearance, some stability."
Pinning him with a glare, Daniel spoke with that quiet, slow emphasis that meant he was furious. "Absolutely not."
Jack held up his hands defensively. "Hey, don't go all immovable object on me here. I'm not talking about foster care."
"I'm just sayin'."
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Daniel blew out a sigh and slumped back on the bench. In the late afternoon sun, his hair was red, his features sharpened by highlights and deep shadow. He looked tired. The wind suddenly dying, his breath curled out as vapour from between his lips, a wraith of voice carrying something Jack couldn't make out.
"What?" Jack sat forward and leaned closer. "Say it."
Daniel's eyes flicked up and across Jack's face before settling on the middle distance. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times while he searched for words, closing his eyes, frowning again in low-grade frustration. "When I came back, I was, well, to say I was fucked up would be a gross understatement. Couldn't walk, couldn't dress myself. Clothing, that rough homespun, was an agony. I could feel it touching me all over and I could barely stand it." A smile flickered. "They didn't call me 'naked one' just because they found me naked. I didn't know how to eat." He looked earnestly at Jack to make sure he understood what he was saying. "They had to show me how to ingest food, how to chew, how to swallow. It seemed absurd, like they were asking me to choke myself." He stopped, his eyes narrowing.
Jack could see him clenching his teeth against the words, could feel them in his own throat, a building pressure. Daniel clamped his teeth down on his lower lip. Jack winced. "Say it," he prodded, literally, nudging Daniel's elbow with his own.
Daniel huffed out a little, grim laugh. "The first time I took a leak, I thought I was dying. I'm standing there, piss running down my legs, crying. No, actually, sobbing. Christ." He ran his hands impatiently over his hair and laced his fingers behind his neck as he leaned forward, hiding his face between his elbows, rocking slightly. Jack reached over and gently untwisted Daniel's fingers, pulling his hand away. Daniel let him, and squeezed his fingers in his fist for a second before letting him go. "The miraculous resurrection," he muttered bitterly, raising his eyes up to the trees as a gust of wind sent a swath of leaves sweeping through the air like a flock of yellow birds. "Glorious fucking renaissance. My body was this little hell, a six-foot-one-inch torture chamber."
Nodding, Jack was silent. He knew what it was like to feel his own body turn against him, its needs, its thirst, its hunger betraying him, when principles and duty were crap and less than crap compared to the need to just stop hurting. Flesh was a bitch, pure and simple. But he didn't have to say that, and he just nodded his understanding, Daniel acknowledging it with something that didn't quite become a smile. Leaves fluttered down around him, landing on his shoulders, on his head. Jack plucked one from his hair and paused to brush the backs of his fingers against Daniel's temple. His skin was so cold.
"That's my first real memory, thinking I was dying," Daniel went on finally, leaning his head almost imperceptibly into Jack's hand. "I didn't even know what it meant to be alive, but still I didn't want to die."
Jack wanted to open his hand flat against Daniel's face, caress his cheek with his thumb, but the angle was wrong, among other things. He let his hand drop to his lap and gripped it with the other. "That's an improvement. Over the time we talked before you. . . went. . . I mean, when you were reciting the symptoms of terminal radiation sickness like you were reading a recipe for birthday cake and I wanted to strangle you with your I.V." He turned up his lips in a thin smile. "You'd've let me back then."
"Live--and die and come back from the dead--and learn," Daniel said wryly, a grin brightening his eyes, but it didn't last. "Shifu needs someone who understands what he's been through. Find me one other person on this whole planet who knows, who understands better than me, and I'll hand him over." The last words were carried on a broken voice and crumbled into silence.
"Okay," Jack said. "So we make it work. Y'know, SG-1 and the single father." He raised a finger as an idea struck him. "I think there's a theme song there."
"He didn't know / this would be the end of the straight answer." ("God's Yes and No")
"Daniel!" Jack's voice was muffled, and Daniel craned his neck around the door of the balcony to see why. The colonel's face was obscured by a stack of blankets topped by a large paper shopping bag. "I could use a hand here."
Leaving the dust pan and the little broom on the plastic table, Daniel came into the apartment and managed to snag the shopping bag as it was sliding off of the pile.
"Sure. What is all this stuff?" He put the shopping bag on the coffee table and started to unpack it. It was mostly kid's clothes, jeans and sweatshirts, a few matchbox cars, and at the bottom, a stack of comic books. Trying to keep his lips from turning up in a bemused smile, he held up a Fantastic Four comic with mock disapproval. "Is this appropriate for an enlightened being?"
Jack snatched the book away and flipped through it. "Are you kidding? You got everything an enlightened being needs: good guys, bad guys. . . ."
"A lot of women wearing lycra."
"That too." He turned the comic around and pointed at an image of Medusa wrapping up a hapless baddie in her sinuous red hair. "Liberated and capable women in lycra." He paused and found another picture, this time of Mr. Fantastic. "And men. Equal opportunity lycra." He cocked his head. "This guy looks a lot like me, actually," he observed, indicating the distinguished silver hair at the temples. "Of course, I can't tie my own legs in a bow."
Chuckling, Daniel sorted through the rest of the pile. "What? No X-Men? Uncle Jack, you disappoint me."
"Wusses," Jack snorted dismissively and headed for the tiny guest bedroom at the back of the apartment, the stack of blankets under his arm. "Where's the kid?" he asked when he came back for the clothes.
"The girl-gang took him to the park. Cassie thinks he's a toy."
Jack's face went grim for a second before he reorganized his expression into a smile. He looked like he was searching for a witty quip about playing with fire, but prudently he gave up. Daniel thought of lightning and a tortured sky and turned away to gather up the clothes.
"I got it," Jack said, taking them from him. He pointed at the open balcony door with his chin. "Whatcha doin' out there?"
"Oh," Daniel said, remembering. "A dead bird. I was just cleaning it up." His mouth twitched up at the corner. "I never know if I should have a funeral or just dump the corpse in the incinerator."
"I'd go with the incinerator and a minute of silence."
"Right." Daniel let Jack take the clothes to Shifu's room and went back out to play mortician.
It was a sparrow, a pretty large one. Daniel figured it had flown into the window and broken its neck. "Okay, my friend," he muttered under his breath, "To make an end with you." He wondered what bird heaven would look like as he swept the limp body into the dustpan. As he was getting up, a little flash of white caught his eye. Bending closer, he tipped the bird's head back with the end of the broom. "Holy shit," he breathed.
"What?" Jack asked from the doorway. He came and crouched next to Daniel. "What's the matter?"
Daniel tilted the dustpan so that Jack could see. Around the bird's neck was a tightly knotted noose of string.
Shifu's eyes shifted from Daniel to Jack and back again. Finally, he looked at his hands, clasped formally in his lap. "Are you angry with me, Daniel?" he asked.
"No. No, I'm not angry." Daniel sat down on the coffee table and ducked his head so he could catch Shifu's eye.
"I just want to understand." When the boy continued to look pointedly downward, Daniel touched his cheek and made him look up. "Just tell me what happened. Did you mean to kill the bird?"
He shook his head.
"Then why did you tie the string around its neck?"
"It wouldn't stay. I wanted it to stay." He looked over Daniel's shoulder at Jack. "It had a small voice," he added, as if this would explain everything.
Oddly, this did seem to explain things, to Jack anyway. "Sure," he said. "I get that." He came around and sat down on the couch next to Shifu. "Who wouldn't want to keep a small voice? But some things don't make good pets. 'Specially the small voice things." He looked at Daniel, his eyes saying, "Jump in any time."
"Wild things aren't meant to be tied up. You just have to enjoy them when they come to you and then let them go."
"Oma says--" Shifu's eyes snapped up to Daniel's, bright with sudden panic.
"What does Oma say?" Daniel tried not to let his voice betray the urgency he felt. Shifu stared, silent. "It's okay to talk about Oma. Did she tell you about wild things?"
Shifu covered his face briefly with his hands. When he dropped them again to his lap, the panic was gone, a small, mischievous smile curling his lip. "Oma says it's a secret and you'll know it when you find me." He leaned close to sing-song, his little boy's treble husky in a whisper, "Oma says you can find me, find me, find me."
For some reason, Daniel cringed at the brush of Shifu's lips against his ear. He sat back a little. "Find Oma or find you?"
"Oma says, Oma says, Oma says," Shifu sang. "Oma had a small voice, too."
"What you've called a soul / hovers just beneath your skin" ("Evolution in Moonlight")
Germaine Taylor handed the box of coloured pencils to Shifu and spoke softly to him before getting up to usher Daniel into the inner office. Her greying ash-blonde hair was swept away from her forehead and pinned at the nape of her neck in a plain silver barrette. Under her lab coat she wore a pearl grey suit and silk blouse, a thin silver chain with a round locket showing just above the top button. She folded her hands on top of her empty desk and smiled warmly at Daniel, her eyes attentive and a little tired.
"So, Daniel, how's it going these days?" she asked, tilting her head to regard him with an appraising gaze.
"Ah, well, I was hoping that you'd tell me." Twisting in his chair, he looked out the observation window at Shifu, who was sitting at a table with a large pad of paper and his pencils, drawing with his head resting on his folded arm. "Hm," he said thoughtfully, "I used to sit like that when I was a kid. My Dad said I'd go blind reading with my eyes so close to the paper, not to mention the bad posture." He sat up straighter and adjusted his glasses while Taylor's smile broadened.
"I wasn't asking about Shifu," she clarified and sat back to rest her elbow on the arm of her chair, her lined cheek leaning on her fist. "How are you adjusting to all of this?" She breathed deeply, suppressing a yawn. Her pale skin was marred by faint blue smudges under her eyes.
Daniel sighed and leaned back himself, feeling suddenly bleary, and tried to organize his thoughts enough to make a useful answer. He felt like he was walking through low-lying fog. "It's a lot more work than I thought it'd be." A small, self-deprecating smile suggested itself and then disappeared. "I'm not June Cleaver, that's for sure. But he hasn't set himself on fire or downed a bottle Drano so far, so I'm thinking we're doing pretty well." He paused, unsure how to put his concerns into words. Perspicuity was an old friend he was missing sorely these days. "He's good. I mean, he's obedient. He's like a very well-trained dog. He does everything he's told. Sometimes he asks why, but most often he just does it. I think I could tell him to crawl into the oven and close the door so I could roast him and he would do it." He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder again. "Actually, he's so. . . flat sometimes that it. . . ."
"Freaks you out?" Taylor offered helpfully.
"Yeah, actually," Daniel admitted, thankful to her for opening the door for him. "He freaks Jack out worse, although he won't admit it. He really wants him to be a normal kid. Jack's great with kids." Suddenly he couldn't keep the misery out of his voice. "He's not a normal kid."
Taylor's smile became sympathetic. "No, he's not. But you knew that, didn't you?"
Daniel nodded. "Yeah. But I guess I hoped. . . I don't know what I hoped." He fought to keep his face neutral. "I guess I hoped he would. . . ."
She waited a good long time for him to finish, and when he clearly wasn't going to, she did it for him. "You hoped he'd love you."
"Yeah." Suddenly he felt foolish, childish.
"You were a grown man when you, ah, died and went to heaven." Her eyes crinkled up again. "And when you came back, you had a whole life as a human being to draw on. He was human for only a few months."
"He's got nothing, in other words," Daniel finished, feeling a heaviness settle over him.
"That's not entirely true. He has no emotional context, none of what we call 'emotional intelligence,' really, so his responses are going to be off. He's like an autistic child in that sense. That's very difficult for people to deal with, the absence of emotional affect, especially for someone like you who is used to relating to people on an emotional level." She raised a hand to silence his protest. "And don't tell me you aren't or give me that objective scientific perspective garbage. I've watched you. You're good at what you do because you feel deeply. That's nothing to be ashamed of. And that quality is going to be helpful, even as it makes you more sensitive to the pain of this process." She folded her hands again, her voice gentle. "Until he's ready, you'll just have to feel for the two of you."
So cold. He turns his face into the soft grass and breathes in the smell of earth. But he doesn't know it's grass, doesn't know it's earth. Curling tighter, he feels the wind blowing across his skin, a touch like fumbling fingers. But he doesn't know the touch of fingers. It comes to him as colour, the grass and the wind two shades of rippling blue, one dark the other light and verging on silver, the earth a heavy orange that curls in his mind like a grasping root. But he doesn't know root, doesn't know mind. His mouth opens and the dark colours of sound erupt from him, red, ochre, purple. The heaviness of him is crushing, the smallness of him is smothering, and as his lungs draw in the silver-blue of wind, he remembers expansiveness, tendrils of whiteness, weightlessness. But then his ribs close around him like a cage and the wind turns inside him and flees. The dark colour of his voice bruises the air again, meaningless.
Outside him. Another voice tracing his skin gently, an undulating green, soft yellow, giving him shape, the wind's blind touch replaced by deftness, by a knowing caress that tells him where he begins, where he ends.
"You're Daniel, remember?" The voice closer, warm, closed lips holding his name like water and releasing it into his mouth, teaching him to know the taste of it, the simmering heat of it. He smells wood smoke, gun oil, sweat, damp hair. "This is your hand." The brush of lips on his palm. "This is your wrist." Another kiss over his pulse, and another at his elbow, below his ear, at the base of his throat, his body coming into being, warmth blooming from stroking fingertips that leave trails of incandescence on his skin. "This is your mouth." And the loss of his other expansive life is forgotten; he no longer feels trapped in the frame of his bones. Now he can find himself in his flesh, and lose himself, opening, and not be lost: his tongue slides over, under, another, legs twined around legs, and the heaviness of a body on his shows him where he is, gives meaning to "here." "These are your eyes." Lips softly there, first left then right. "Open them."
He does and finds himself twinned there in dark brown reflections.
Putting a finger over Daniel's lips as he opens them to speak, Jack says in Shifu's voice, "They're all dead."
Daniel scrambled blindly backward out of the dream and found himself awake, hitched up against the headboard, the burn of need bleeding away into the dark chill of the apartment. He started again when a shadow moved at the foot of the bed and his hand leapt guiltily away from his softening cock as he recognized who it was.
"Shifu, what's the matter?"
"They're all dead," the boy repeated, pointing toward the bedroom door.
He pointed again silently.
Pulling on a sweatshirt and track pants, Daniel followed him out into the darkened office. Moving silently, Shifu went and stood solemnly next to the fish tank that glowed blue-green in the corner. It was empty. Or so it seemed until Daniel bent low and looked up at the surface of the water where all of the fish were floating. They really were all dead.
"What happened?" he asked. Shifu said nothing. "What are you doing in here in the middle of the night, anyway?"
"I could hear them."
"You could. . . you could hear them." Shifu nodded. "What do you mean?"
"Their voices." He pressed a finger up against the glass of the tank. "They had small voices. Crying. Like you were crying."
"I was crying?"
"Until he came to you and drank your tears." Shifu's face was pale and expressionless in the cold light of the tank. His eyes were pools of darkness, and suddenly Daniel could feel him looking through him like he was transparent as glass, a vessel full of light and smoke. Shifu's cold fingertips feathered across the back of his hand. "This is your hand," Shifu said. "You're Daniel, remember?" His voice was a young boy's voice, but the tone and inflection were perfect Jack O'Neill.
Daniel jerked his hand away. Swallowing hard, he caught his lip between his teeth and made himself think calmly. Fish die. It happens. Something in the water. Bacteria. Jonas would be pissed, though. And Shifu was dreaming, that's all. Straightening, he put a hand on Shifu's back and guided him toward his bedroom, stopping on the way to raise the temperature on the thermostat.
"We'll deal with the fish in the morning," he told Shifu as he tucked the blankets around him. "Try not to wander around all night, 'kay?" Shifu rewarded him with a wan smile and rolled over, pulling the blankets up to his chin.
Back in his own room, Daniel crawled under the covers with the sweatshirt and track pants on and curled up tightly on his side, his arm draped around a pillow close to his chest, his other hand between his knees. He tried not to think about lips, the soft burr of his name being whispered against his skin. The heavy feeling of loss stalked him into sleep and in his dreams he was looking for someone he couldn't find and he couldn't call out because he had no voice and the ice under his feet was cracking and beneath it he could feel the cold, inexorable surge of dark water.
"Hey, that's not bad," Jack crowed, slipping the paper out from under Shifu's folded arm and holding it up for Daniel to see. It was a series of intersecting circles of varying sizes. "What is it?" he mouthed, his back to the kid.
Daniel smiled. "Yeah, Shifu's very good at circles. He likes circles. A lot." He waved a hand at the refrigerator where four drawings were tacked up with magnets. They were all pictures of circles.
Jack handed the page back to Shifu, who was waiting with his usual expression of imperturbable patience. He laid his head on his arm again and continued to draw, his pencils spread out in front of him arranged by colour.
"Okay," Jack said with extra enthusiasm, and started to unpack his grocery bag. "Where's Carter?" He placed tomatoes and mushrooms carefully into the sink and washed them under cold water, handing each one to Daniel when it was done.
"Not coming. She's not feeling too well, and this whole reconfiguration of the --" He waved his knife vaguely in front of him, the words slipping over the horizon of his mind, pretty much like they had when she'd told him about it the first time, "--subspace thingummabob--"
"I think it's actually a whatchamacallit."
"You might be right." Blinking, he went on, "In any case, it's being a b-i-t-c-h and she's not coming out of her lab until it's subdued and begging for mercy. Her words, not mine." He started chopping tomatoes with swift, efficient strokes, the thunk of the knife on the wooden cutting board vibrating along his bones to the back of his neck and aggravating his incipient headache. "I thought you were bringing Teal'c."
"Y'know, he blew me off." Unwrapping the cellophane from a tray of hamburger, Jack slapped the meat into a frying pan.
"He's been doing that a lot lately."
"I noticed this. I even dangled a movie as enticement but he said he'd rather kel-no-reem."
"My word exactly."
Daniel rubbed his forehead with the back of his wrist and sliced another tomato in two. Behind him, he could hear the sound of Shifu's pencil on the paper, even over the sizzle of frying meat and Jack's sotto voce bastard Italian quasi-opera "singing." The rasp of the pencil, repetitive, grating, felt like sandpaper on Daniel's brain and the hairs on his neck were standing up. Rolling his shoulders, he tried to ignore it, concentrating instead on what Jack was singing--something about spaghettini and Mussolini--and on the knife cutting cleanly through the red meat of the tomato with each deft stroke of his hand. It was a very sharp knife and it made a whispering sound as it broke the skin, delicate, efficient, incisive, not at all like this buzzing, this unfocussed haze of sounds, this restless, useless, relentlessly stupid fumbling around in the fog. It was a sharp knife, a blade that could cut through all of that, open him up to clarity finally----
"Jesus Christ Daniel, what are you doing?" Jack's hand wrenched the knife from Daniel's as his voice wrenched Daniel back from. . . where?
Daniel looked stupidly down at the cutting board, at the tidy mound of cubed tomato, at his wrist, criss-crossed with neat red lines. It was a few seconds before he recognized them as incisions, and the realization arrived at the same time as the pain, just as the welling blood rose like canals swelling over their banks and effaced in a wash of red the cross-hatching he'd made with the knife on his skin. He didn't have long to stare at it, bewildered, before Jack guided his arm to the sink and cleaned it carefully under the tap.
"Fuck, Daniel," Jack muttered as he gently probed the cuts with his fingers.
"Sorry. It doesn't look too bad, but Frasier should look at it, anyway. Maybe you'll need stitches." He raised his head and, although his face was set and angry, his eyes were scared. "What were you doing?"
"I was cutting tomatoes," Daniel answered as truthfully as he could. He turned to say something reassuring to Shifu but the boy was staring at him, his eyes dark and unconcerned, utterly devoid of curiosity or worry, and the words seemed suddenly unnecessary. "I was just cutting tomatoes."
"his mind is dark water / running under ice" ("The Wild Boy")
Daniel paced back and forth in Taylor's small office, trying not to look at his watch. Through the observation window he could see Shifu at the table. His pencils were spread out in front of him, carefully arranged by colour, but Shifu wasn't drawing. He was staring at Daniel, nothing Daniel could read in his eyes. He was just staring. Daniel turned away.
Just as he was about to go looking for her, Taylor came in, a stack of books under her arm, a paper bag caught between her teeth. Her usually neat hair had escaped its barrette and hung in long strands in front of her eyes. Putting the books down on top of a filing cabinet, she pushed the hair away with her arm, but the sleeve of her thick wool sweater managed only to add static and her hair fuzzed out and stuck to her cheek. Swearing under her breath, she swiped at it again, this time with her hand. It didn't help.
Waving him to a chair, she transferred a stack of files from her own chair to her already overflowing desk and sat down, keeping the stack from sliding onto the floor with one hand. Daniel noticed that her nails were bitten to the quick.
"Everything okay?" he asked as he lowered himself into his seat.
"What?" She was pulling a doughnut out of the paper bag, looking for a clear space to put it, and finding none, perched it on top of her monitor.
"Are you alright?"
"I'm fine. Thanks," she added as an afterthought. Her eyes were puffy.
"Have you been--"
"What can I do for you, Daniel?" Folding her hands in front of her on the desk, she leaned in impatiently.
Daniel rubbed his palms on his thighs, feeling nervous, as though Taylor's agitation were contagious. "I wanted to talk about Shifu. Do you think he's making progress?"
Slumping back in her chair, Taylor picked up her locket and began to twist the chain around her middle finger, the fingers of her other hand drumming the stacked folders in front of her. After a few seconds she ran her hand through her hair.
"Look, Daniel," she said, her voice weary with a hard edge to it. "We've been over and over this. He's not going to be the kid you wanted. It's not going to be baseball in the park and father-son picnics with him." She pointed over his shoulder to the observation room where, Daniel was sure, Shifu was still watching impassively. "He's messed up."
Taken aback, Daniel frowned. "Oh."
Her eyes rested for a moment on the bandage peeking out from under the cuff of his sleeve. Self-consciously, he folded his arms, the bandage pressed out of sight to his chest.
"You want to talk about your arm?" she demanded, with an accusing twist of the lips.
"I already talked about it with MacKenzie."
The chain twisted a turn tighter. Her fingertip was purple. "You spend a lot of time talking to MacKenzie."
A nervous laugh escaped him. "Ah, not really. And what's that supposed to mean, exactly?"
"My only concern is for the child." Her words were placating, but her face said otherwise.
"Right. That would be the child whom, after six weeks of careful study, you've just diagnosed as 'messed up?'"
"For him or of him?" Daniel looked away. He had no answer that didn't make him feel like a failure and a monster. Taylor continued to twist the chain around her fingers. "You wanted this, Daniel, so now you should either live with it, or find him another placement." Around her neck was a darkening red line made by the tightening chain of the necklace. She didn't seem to notice. "Maybe he would be better off with somebody who could give him the attention he needs."
Daniel could feel Shifu watching him. His face crumpled up in self-disgust, his eyes darting around the room. Rubbing his mouth with his hand, he shook his head helplessly. "He's Sha're's son, too," he finished lamely. "Damnit."
"Then make it work," Taylor said, and opened a file in front of her, dismissing him.
Jack braced his knuckles on the tiles and locked his elbows, ducking his head low under the needling, scalding water of the shower, letting it loosen the knots in his shoulders and his neck. It wasn't as good as a real massage--a fleeting image of strong hands kneading his muscles passed through his mind; he let it play warmly across his senses for a minute too long before putting the image away-- but, still, it was something. Arriving at the mountain in the early darkness before 5 a.m., he'd planned to run the paths that wound down through the forest to the valley and back, but the rain that began as he drove in, cold, grey, penetrating, had deterred him and he'd done five miles on the treadmill instead, keeping a punishing pace until a knife of pain stabbed through his knee each time his foot hit. He ran with his eyes closed and the pain was a slash of ice-blue against the throbbing red of his flesh, the bone gleaming white. For the last mile he ran full-out, the blue light strobing behind his eyelids and his breath rasping in his throat until he tasted blood.
Now, he opened his hands and pressed his palms to the wall, feeling the mountain thrumming: generators, electricity surging through power cables behind the wall, dark space leaking in through the 'gate, maybe even the shudder of the Earth as is turned on the spindle of the poles for all he knew. Whatever it was, it rattled through the hollows of his bones and made him grind his teeth. Fuck, he wished he could turn himself off, somehow. Scotch was next on the list, but seven a.m. was a little early for that strategy. With a snort of disgust he shut off the water and stood shivering in the sudden cold while the headache gripped the back of his neck with thick, numb fingers. Outside the shower stall, a fluorescent light was flickering, each minute flash accompanied by a shift in the ambient buzzing of the bulbs. Christ. He toweled dry in the stall, keeping his eyes shut as much as possible.
In the locker room, he sat on a bench to tie his boots, ignoring the way his knee protested, and worked on ignoring everything else. But it wasn't going to be possible. There was something wrong in there, like space was stretched too thin, too taut. Raising his head wearily, he looked around and immediately found the problem. Two airmen, the same two who'd help recover the bodies of SG-9 at the blast area, were squaring off over by the sinks. They weren't talking, but they were standing too close to each other, almost chest to chest, fists clenching at their sides. For a moment, they looked almost comical, like a cartoon, their muscles bulging, chins jutting out belligerently. But then Schroeder, shorter, stockier, made his move and in a second had the taller, leaner Payton face down on the tile, one fist knotted in the back of his shirt, the other in his short shock of blond hair, and was lifting his head up to drive it back into the floor.
"Hey!" Jack shouted and Schroeder stopped, but not before he'd smashed Payton's face once, hard. Blood spattered. The look in Schroeder's small, blue eyes was chilling. He wasn't angry, or scared. He was blank. Leaving Payton sprawling, he bounced fluidly to his feet and came at Jack, his meaty fist pulled back. Jack sidestepped the punch and stabbed two stiff fingers into Schroeder's throat, just below his adam's apple, not hard enough to collapse the windpipe, but with enough force to drop the airman to his knees. Clutching his neck with both hands, Schroeder wheezed in a breath and brayed it out again before slumping sideways onto the floor.
Jack was stepping back toward the phone to call the SFs when Payton broadsided him and knocked him to his knees, coming down behind him, his wiry forearm across Jack's throat. "Filth," the soldier hissed into his ear. "How can you stand yourself?" His voice was slurred, his breath whistling through his broken nose. Turning to the side a bit, he spat blood, then clamped his other hand on the side of Jack's head, ready for the twist that would break his neck. Jack reached back blindly and gouged his thumbs into Payton's eyes. With a howl, the airman loosened his grip. Falling onto his shoulder, Jack rolled over and aimed a kick at Payton's solar plexus, catching him square with his boot and flattening him to the floor. By the time he'd wrestled the airman over onto his face and twisted his arm behind him, the SFs were there with their cuffs.
Before climbing off the airman's back, Jack leaned down and growled, "You are making paperwork. I hate paperwork."
Stumbling back to lean on the bank of lockers, Jack gulped air and wiped Payton's blood off the side of his neck with the back of his hand. The fluorescent light was still flickering.
" I am speaking / in the voice of thorns, the voice of wire" ("What I Gave You, Truly")
"Sam, hey," Daniel said as he drew up in the doorway to her lab. She was bundled up in her field jacket over top of her jersey and her heavy BDU shirt. Looking up, startled, she beamed out a smile, but her face was pale, dark circles under her eyes making her smile seem somehow sad.
"Daniel. Look, I managed to reconfigure the. . . ." Both her voice and the smile faded as she caught sight of Shifu standing still in Daniel's shadow. "Hey, Shifu. How's it going?" The smile that returned to her face was strained.
Shifu nodded slightly and continued to stare. Reaching for him, Daniel propelled him forward a little as he came further into the lab. He leaned down and whispered, "Don't stare like that, Shifu. It makes people uncomfortable, okay?" Shifu nodded again and lowered his eyes, his face still blank.
"Look, Sam, I know you're busy, but Gerry Taylor didn't show up for work today--"
"Why? Is she sick?"
"What? Oh. I don't know." Shifting his files from one hand to the other, he adjusted his glasses and gave her his best puppy dog look, even though it sort of made him want to gag. Fatherhood. All about the sacrifices. Principles mostly, friends, friends' free time. "The point is, she's supposed to have a session with him, and I have this briefing for SG-12." He brandished the stack of folders as evidence. "And Shifu's been stuck in my office all day and I have twenty minutes to put something together-- "
"And you want me to take him home and make him dinner and watch him until you're done with the briefing," Sam finished for him, mimicking his breathless phrasing and desperate expression with an added twinkle in her eye to soften the satire.
"Would you? I'd ask Jack but he's not around. Hockey game, I think, or something, and Janet's not picking up and Cassie's at a swim meet, or maybe it's choir practice. I don't know. But it'll only be a couple of hours, promise." He made a show of crossing his heart and hoping to die.
Sam smiled, genuinely this time. "Fine, since I'm your first choice. But I can't promise that my cooking won't turn him against me forever, and then you'll be stuck with the second-string babysitters, won't you?" She bent down and fixed Shifu with a narrow-eyed stare. "I'm going to cook for you. You will have to be eternally grateful and visit me in the old folks' home when I'm ninety even if I smell funny, got it?"
Shifu nodded. Daniel kissed him on the top of the head, admonishing, "Be good and learn all about irony while I'm gone," and then kissed Sam for good measure. "I'll visit you, promise, even if you smell funny."
"You're older than me," she shouted after him, but he didn't have time to reply.
The briefing was a bear, even more so than usual. It was never fun lecturing soldiers on the finer points of cultural sensitivity, but giving a lecture on the basis of twenty minutes prep time was about as far from fun as Daniel could get without opting for procedures with dental tools. The slides were out of order and, having dropped his file folder down the stairs on the way to the briefing room, so were his notes. Hammond was stonefaced by the end of it, but had simply thanked him like he always did and shut himself in his office. Daniel said, "my pleasure" to his closed door and was thankful for the general's good breeding. Or long fuse, or whatever it was that helped him put up with Jackson-caliber crap.
Gathering up his notes, he tried to remember the last time he'd felt this tired, and found himself wondering what Jack would say if he just showed up at his door and demanded. . . something. Beer. Something weirder. Something better. But then he felt that strange tugging at the edges of his memory, the feeling of cold and the pull of dark water, and he shook his head hard. He had to pick up groceries, get home, read a book, make his brain stop doing whatever this was it was doing. And the stitches on his wrist were stinging like a bastard. Fuck.
Ninety minutes later he was dragging his feet on the carpet in the hall of his apartment building, thinking of nothing in particular, which was both troubling and a relief. The grocery bag and his satchel in one hand, he fumbled in his jeans pocket for his keys, the fingers of his other hand protesting as the handles of the plastic bag stretched and cut off his circulation. He was just fitting the key in the apartment door when it sprang open.
"Uh, Sam. Thanks," he said, as she pushed past him without a word. Turning to watch her, he called, "Hey, what's the rush?" She only waved her hand over her shoulder and turned abruptly into the stairwell, practically running. He was considering going after her, but at that moment the stressed handles of the grocery bag broke and the jug of milk and a carton eggs tumbled out onto the carpet, followed by three grapefruit and a box of fruit juice popsicles. "Aw, fer-- " Sighing, he knelt and inspected the eggs, relieved to find that none were broken.
Giving up on the bag, he shoved the groceries into his entry hall, crawled in after them and nudged the door shut with his foot. As soon as he was inside, the fog that had curled around his thoughts all day seemed to thicken, clammy and smothering, and he could almost literally feel cold water sluicing through him. He leaned his back against the door, feet straddled around the packages, and rubbed his eyes with his fists until the stitches in his arm started to protest.
Shifu was standing in the hallway in his pajamas watching him.
"What happened with Sam?" Daniel asked as he replaced his glasses, gathered up the food and headed for the kitchen. Shifu shook his head mutely. "Did she get a phone call or something?" Another shake. "Did you have a fight?"
"No," he answered, leaning his cheek on the doorjamb while Daniel put the food in the fridge.
"Then what's wrong with her?" Daniel shivered. "Why's it so cold in here?"
"I don't know, Daniel." Shifu shrugged, but it wasn't a gesture he was good at yet, and it made him look like someone was pulling strings.
Chewing his lip, Daniel went to the living room and picked up the phone, hitting the speed dial for Sam's cell with one hand and reaching to adjust the thermostat with the other. It was set at 74 degrees. No way it was 74 degrees in the apartment. After eight rings, he hung up.
"What was she doing just before I got home?"
Shifu pointed toward Daniel's office. "She was working."
Sam's laptop was still open on Daniel's desk, his own computer keyboard perched on top of the monitor and his books stacked neatly out of the way. She hadn't closed the file or locked the computer. "That's odd," Daniel murmured as he scrolled up a couple of screens. There was the usual gobbledygook that was Sam's pet language: numbers, symbols, the magic incantations of non-Euclidean geometry. But then, the last two pages of the document were neat paragraphs of true gibberish, as though Sam hadn't gotten her fingers on the home row on the keyboard and had kept typing without noticing.
"Shifu, go get your coat."
Saving the document, Daniel closed the laptop and slipped it into its case. "Just do what I said, okay?"
In the car on the way to Sam's house, Daniel continued to ask Shifu questions, and continued to get no useful answers. Sam was working. She hadn't been sick or upset. She'd made them macaroni and tomato sauce for dinner and hadn't made him eat all of his salad and let him have ice cream anyway. No-one had called or stopped by. Shifu had watched television, but it was boring so he'd sat in Daniel's office on the floor with his pencils and paper and Sam typed and typed until Daniel came home. End of story.
Sam's silver Volvo was parked askew at the curb in front of her house, the driver's side door standing open. Daniel closed it and pulled out his keychain as he strode up the front walk, sifting through the keys in the dim light from the streetlamp until he found the one for her front door. He rang the doorbell a few times and rapped on the window, calling her name, but when there was no answer he unlocked the door and stepped into the entrance hall, Shifu close behind him.
The wave of heat that hit him made him gasp. Switching on the hall light, he checked the thermostat. It was turned up to 90 degrees.
"Shifu," he held out a hand and the boy stepped into it like an obedient dog. "Just stay here, okay?" He felt him nod.
Unbuttoning his coat, he looked in the mud room and then the dining room and the living room. Empty, as were the kitchen and Sam's small office. The computer was on, the screen showing a Word document and a few lines of gibberish. Books and papers were scattered on the floor, a drawer upended and leaning against the bookshelf. The shelf itself had been swiped empty.
When he got back to the front hall, Shifu was gone, but he could hear him humming somewhere upstairs. "Sam?" Daniel called softly as he climbed the steps slowly, cursing himself for not leaving Shifu with Janet, for not calling Jack. And he'd be happy for some nice, burly Jaffa back-up right about now. "Shifu?"
The bookshelf in the upstairs hall was emptied, photographs and books in a jumble on the rug. There was a dent the size of Daniel's fist in the drywall next to the bedroom door and a broken lamp below it on the floor. "Shit," he said under his breath and followed the sound of Shifu's voice.
He was sitting on the edge of Sam's high brass bed in a square of blue light from the streetlamp outside, feet swinging in time to his wordless song. Looking up from the photograph he was holding, he said, "She has a small voice, too."
Daniel could hear her, and it was a small voice. Standing very still, he held his breath and tried to pinpoint it, his eyes roaming the room, but really this was just a delay: he knew where her voice was coming from; his brain wouldn't quite let him believe it. His joints feeling stiff as wood, he made himself cross to the bed and kneel down beside it, laying a hand on Shifu's knee to stop his swinging legs. He lifted the edge of the quilt and bent low to peer into the darkness.
Sam was curled up tightly against the wall at the head of the bed, her feet toward him. He couldn't see much more than her dim form, but he could hear her talking, rapidly, breathlessly. She wasn't speaking English. He caught a scrap of Aramaic, a phrase of Hindi, of Arabic, a few others that were too garbled for him to make out. Above him on the bed, Shifu continued to sing softly, his legs swinging.
Sitting up on his heels, he gripped Shifu's leg again. "How 'bout you go stand in the hallway?"
"May I take the picture?" Shifu asked, holding it out for Daniel to see. It was a 4x6 image of Sam and Cassie in a silver frame.
"Yes, just go right now and stay there, just outside there." Obligingly, Shifu slid off the bed and headed for the door. "And watch your step. There may be some broken glass." Shit, Daniel thought, shaking his head. Some parenting skills he had. Go play with the broken glass, sonny, while I coax crazy Auntie Sam out from under her bed. It's just a little glossolalia. Nothing to worry about. Jesus.
He watched until Shifu turned the corner and then switched on the bedside lamp before bending down again, calling softly, "Sam, it's me, Daniel. What say you come on out of there now, okay?" Slowly, he stretched out a cautious hand and touched Sam's hip. As soon as his fingers brushed her, she shrieked and kicked out, catching him square on the shoulder with the heel of her boot. Rolling away with a shout of his own, he scrambled into a sitting position with his back against the bedside table. Shifu's wide, dark eye appeared around the corner of the doorway.
"It's okay. It's okay. Just. . . ." He waved one hand in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture while he rubbed his collarbone with the other. It didn't feel like anything was broken, but he'd have the tread of Sam's boots impressed in black and blue on his skin for a few days, for sure. Under the bed, she'd gone back to the jagged speaking-in-tongues. With a wince, he reached up over his head for the phone and called in the cavalry.
The World Arena was packed for the Gold King's first home game, and Jack had to weave his way through the crowds to join the line at the concession stand. He had a vague idea that a hotdog with cheese and onions might be the cure for all his earthly troubles and was glad when his mouth watered at the thought. In the stands, the fans were cheering and stomping and clapping--Stomp-stomp-CLAP, stomp-stomp-CLAP--singing "We-e will, we-e will ROCK YOU!" The whole place was swayng with it.
Wedged between a large woman in a prodigious pink down parka and three teenagers in leather jackets and unlaced high-tops, Jack tried to make himself thinner, hunching his shoulders and stuffing his hands in his pockets while the line inched forward. One of the kids, a skinny one with a buzz cut and a rat-tail down to his waist, was telling a story about--Jack had no idea, a video game, maybe--punctuating the tale regularly with abrupt, jabbing gestures that invariably ended with a pointy elbow connecting with Jack's ribs. After the fifth or twenty-fifth time, Jack's hand left his pocket of its own volition and caught the offending elbow in an iron grip.
"Please don't jab me anymore," he said politely when the kid turned his pimply face in his direction, his mouth curling in a snarl of protest. For one sickening moment, Jack's mind was hijacked by an image of the kid on the floor, his nose broken, Jack's fist pistoning into it, once, twice, three times. Brusquely, he let him go and backed out of the line, his hands held up in front of him in silent apology.
"Screw this," he spat and stalked toward the door, leaving it up to the crowd to either get itself out of his way or get run over. The stomping and the clapping followed him out into the parking lot, where he leaned against a lamp post and rubbed his mouth with a gloved hand.
As he was sitting in the truck, the heater blasting on high and the engine running, his cell phone rang. "O'Neill," he snapped, pulling a glove off of his other hand by wedging it between his knees.
"Jack, please come." It was Cassie, her voice tremulous with tears.
Switching the phone to the other ear, Jack put the truck in gear. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"It's mom. She won't come out of the bathroom, and I think she's crying. I don't know what to do."
He turned onto Venetucci Blvd. and gunned the engine. "Just hang on. I'm ten minutes away."
He made it in six-and-a-half.
Cassie met him at the door and led him upstairs. Her face stained with tears, she'd stopped crying and simply watched him with an expression of dread while he knocked on the bathroom door and leaned his head close to it to listen. He could hear water splashing and a familiar, low keening that made the hairs on his arms and neck stand at attention.
"Frasier," he called through the door. "Janet, it's Jack. Open up. You're scaring Cassie." Nothing. Looking over his shoulder, he waved Cassie away. "I think I'm gonna try a little brute force here." She returned his crooked half-smile with a nod and continued to twist the hem of her shirt around her fingers. Stepping back, he kicked the door once near the knob and it popped open, releasing a cloud of steam into the hallway, along with the biting, acrid smell of bleach.
Pushing past him, Cassie fell to her knees next to the bathtub. "Mom! Oh, Mom, what are you doing?" Unable to find a place to touch her, Cassie's hands fluttered around Janet for a moment before gripping the rim of the tub as she bowed her head and sobbed.
Jack leaned down and, taking her by the shoulders, gently pulled her away. "Go call the base. Tell them to send an ambulance."
Janet sat in deep, red-tinged water that reeked of bleach. All of the skin that Jack could see was scrubbed raw, seeping blood in places. Rocking slightly, she drew her knees up to her chest and clenched her fists under her chin, a thin, desperate cry rising up from her throat, her eyes staring sightlessly. He pulled the plug and dragged a silk kimono down off of its hook on the door, draping it loosely over her shoulders, trying not to brush too hard against her tender skin.
Flinching, she looked sharply at him, her eyes wide and glassy. "Filth," she whispered. "How can you stand it?"
General Hammond frowned, his chin tucked into his chest, while he listened to MacKenzie's report, nodding occasionally to show that he was following. "Is Major Carter still talking?" he asked finally, looking up at Daniel.
"Yes," Daniel answered, reaching over to still Jack's tapping pen. Jack put it down on the conference table and then picked it up again as soon as Daniel had withdrawn his hand. "She's speaking at least a dozen languages, ancient dialects, and two or three that I don't recognize. They might be alien, but I'm not really sure."
"Why?" Jack asked, trying not to tap the pen and, failing, letting Daniel take it from him.
"Because I've never heard them before."
Jack rolled his eyes. "I mean why is she speaking a dozen languages, some of them alien?"
"We think that she's reliving memories," MacKenzie interjected and then added after an uncomfortable pause, "Host memories. Jolinar's, and most likely those of the other goa'uld whose genetic memory Jolinar shared."
"Oy," Jack breathed, and rubbed his forehead.
"Specifically. . . ." Pausing, Daniel ducked his head, his mouth twisting and then settling into a grim, controlled line. Jack braced himself as Daniel assumed his neutral face, the one that meant he was stepping out of himself, putting distance between his emotions and the facts. "Based on what she's saying, I'd say she's specifically reliving each host's moment of being taken."
Jack recoiled like he'd been struck, his face crumpling in an expression of pain and disgust. "Son of a bitch," he growled, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes for a second before glaring at MacKenzie. "Why now? She's been carrying that Jolinar crap around in her head for five years. Why now all of a sudden?"
Spreading his hands in a gesture of helplessness, MacKenzie shook his head. "I don't know colonel. She was lucid for a few seconds when we first brought her in, but all she would tell me was that she was cold."
"Cold?" the general asked.
"Yes sir. She repeated that several times. Dr. Jackson said the heat in her house was turned all the way up, but her body temperature was very low when she came in. The same is true of Dr. Frasier. I can't explain that yet."
"Neither can I, doctor, but there's an interesting coincidence you should know about." Opening the manila folder in front of him, the general pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to MacKenzie, who looked at it before passing it on to Teal'c who raised an eyebrow. Daniel accepted it from him and then stared at it for so long that Jack reached over and eased it out of his stiff hands. It was a faxed copy of a handwritten note. In large, scrawling letters were the words: "I am so cold."
"So, what's this?" he asked, sliding it across the table to Hammond before Daniel could take it back from him.
"That was found in Dr. Taylor's apartment. When she didn't report in today one of her colleagues stopped by to check on her. He found her dead. She'd hung herself in the bathroom from the showerhead." He lowered his chin to his chest again and closed the folder without showing them the glossy 8x10s Jack could see poking out behind the paperwork. "I think it's safe to assume that Shifu is involved in this somehow."
Jack could feel Daniel's body tense up and he kept his eyes on the table.
"Dr. Taylor, Dr. Frasier and Major Carter have all spent considerable time with the boy," Hammond continued.
Stealing a sideways glance at Daniel, Jack could see that he was looking at the table, too, his jaw clenching and unclenching rhythmically. His posture was the same as before, slouched in the deep chair, but his muscles were humming again, Jack's picking up the vibration, tightening along his shoulders and up into his neck. The headache opened up inside his head like a blooming flower. Damnit, he thought. Fucking snakes.
"I've spent lots of time with him, too, general," Daniel objected, "as has Jack, and, well, I can't speak for him, but I don't feel compelled to commit suicide."
"But you have engaged in some self-destructive behaviour," MacKenzie contradicted, pointing with his pen at Daniel's bandaged wrist. "As have the two airmen who attacked Colonel O'Neill in the locker room. Both of them have healing scars on their arms similar to yours, and both have said that their attacks on each other and on the colonel were motivated by a loathing of 'filth.' There's a definite pattern here, and all of the personnel who went through the 'gate to recover Shifu and SG-9 have exhibited abnormal levels of anxiety. Even Teal'c has expressed difficulty achieving kel-no-reem, although he seems the least affected of all of you."
"What is the condition of Captain Hakim?" Teal'c asked.
"She requested a leave of absence to visit her family in New York. We're attempting to locate her and bring her back for observation," Hammond answered. "In the meantime, I want you all to remain on base. And I think it's time you had a serious talk with the boy."
"Yes sir," Jack said, rising with everyone but Daniel as the general stood and headed back to his office. Jack remained standing by his chair, his fingers drumming the table until only Daniel was left. Turning to look down at him, Jack said bluntly, "You lied."
"What?" Daniel looked back, genuinely bewildered.
Jack leaned his knuckles on the table and peered into Daniel's tired eyes. "C'mon Daniel, it's all over you. I can practically smell it."
"It's not real." He bowed his head and closed his eyes, trying not-too-subtly to shut Jack out.
But Jack wasn't going to let go of this because beneath the pervasive, maddening thrumming of his bones, there was that dread, that opening into cold nothingness he'd seen when he'd looked into Shifu's eyes, and there was no way he was going to lose one more person to it. Not a fucking chance. His determination made his voice a harsh whisper. "Doesn't matter if the feeling's a delusion if the noose is real."
"I'm not going to hang myself if that's what you're thinking."
"I'm sure Taylor would've told you the same thing right up until she kicked the stool out from under her feet." He leaned closer. Daniel bowed his head lower. "It's the kid, Daniel. You know it."
"He's a victim here, too," Daniel said to the table.
"He's a victim, sure, but I've felt him crawling around inside my head and don't you tell me you haven't."
Daniel went very still.
Abruptly, Daniel pushed back his chair and stood up without meeting his eyes. "Let's go talk to him, like the general asked," he said, and his voice, heavy and cold, rippled like icy water across Jack's skin.
"his cry not what you would call / a song, he's so much // made of winter" ("Blow wind. The bell is lonely")
Daniel averted his eyes as Jack tucked his Beretta into his waistband and took a zat from Teal'c. He didn't even bother saying that weapons were inappropriate. There was no point. Jack wasn't letting him go into the holding cell without him, and Jack wasn't going in unarmed. Daniel would have about as much luck telling the sun not to come up. And he wouldn't admit to himself that he was glad to have Jack there, relieved that he was going in with the guns. That truth made him feel physically sick.
Swallowing hard, he let Jack nod to the SF at the door, who swiped his card and opened it for them. Jack went first, Daniel following, hovering near the door as it closed, Teal'c on the other side with the SF. Teal'c's face appeared immediately at the window, watching them.
Shifu looked up from his colouring. Wearing the Spiderman sweatshirt Jack bought him, he swung his legs rhythmically under the table, his jeans rolled up at the ankles. "Daniel," he said, holding up his pad of paper, "may I have more?"
Daniel's throat closed over. Buying himself some time, he pulled out a chair across the table from Shifu and sat down, wrenching his face into a smile. Clearing his throat, he took the pad and put it down on the table next to the carefully arranged pencils. "Maybe in a little while. We need to talk about some things first, okay?"
Shifu nodded and slid the pencil he was holding into place in the row, nudging it with his finger until it was perfectly even with the rest of them before folding his hands in his lap and meeting Daniel's eyes steadily.
Jack moved away from the door and leaned against the wall behind Shifu, his face unreadable, the zat closed.
"I want to know what happened to Sam, and to Janet." Daniel tried to keep his voice mild but he couldn't stop the grimace of pain that passed over his face when he said his friends' names.
Shifu shrugged, that puppetlike, awkward gesture.
"No. No more of that. You tell me what happened to them, now." When he didn't answer, Daniel prompted him, "Are you. . . are you teaching them? Like you did me?"
Looking down at his hands, Shifu considered the question, then raised his eyes and nodded. Behind him, Jack grunted and shook his head, vindicated and not happy about it.
"What are you teaching them?" Daniel asked.
Shifu took a long time to answer, and when he did, his voice was too light for the words. "I'm teaching them to know their place."
"Well, stop it!" Jack snarled, stepping toward them. Shifu looked over his shoulder and Jack didn't come any closer.
Something ugly writhed down Daniel's spine into the pit of his stomach.
"They have small voices," Shifu continued, turning back to Daniel.
"Right," he answered with a dry mouth. "Like the bird."
"You taught it to know its place?"
Daniel chewed his lip for a moment while he worked up to the next question. Shifu waited patiently, his legs swinging under the table.
"And Oma? Did you teach her to know her place?"
"Fuck," Jack muttered. Daniel heard the electric springing sound of the zat opening to firing position.
"Is that what happened on the planet? You struggled with Oma? You resisted?"
Reaching out to adjust the arrangement of his pencils, Shifu answered, "To be truly enlightened, the mind must be free." He slid a peacock blue pencil out and moved it over two spaces, lining up the point even with the others. "My mind was not free. I wanted to be free."
"There's a reason for that, Shifu. Oma hid the bad memories from you in order to protect you."
"I wanted to be free," he repeated, shifting another pencil.
"You can't be free," Jack insisted harshly, taking another step forward. As Daniel held up a hand to stop him, he settled back again, his feet spread wide, the zat open at his side.
Turning to point at the zat, Shifu informed him matter-of-factly, "That won't work here."
"Don't give me a reason to try."
Shifu faced Daniel again. "I want to go now. You should take me to the Stargate."
"That is so not going to happen."
Slipping off of his chair, Shifu looked up at Jack for a long moment, then raised his hand, palm outward toward Jack's chest. Gasping, Jack fell back a step. The zat clattered to the floor. "You should take me to the Stargate," Shifu said again to Daniel, his voice as neutral as his face.
"No." Daniel stood up slowly and came around the table. Jack was staring blankly, his mouth hanging open. "Stop it, Shifu. Whatever you're doing, just stop it."
With a thoughtful tilt of the head, Shifu watched the colour drain from Jack's face. "The ice is very thin. The water is very cold." He turned his hand, palm down, and Jack sank to his knees. "Take me to the Stargate."
"No." Daniel could feel the cold seeping into him, emanating from Shifu, from Jack, the icy undertow, the black fog. "Teal'c!" he shouted, but Teal'c remained unmoving at the window, attentive and unseeing.
Daniel's body was so heavy, so cold. He tried to cross the floor to Jack, but he couldn't make his legs move, and deep in his mind the water was welling and he knew it was useless, a waste of time, all of it a waste. There was no point. The water was black. The ice was thin. His knees buckling, he collapsed, toppling a chair as he fell. Trying to sit, he gasped, his lips numb, "Shifu, you don't have to do this. You can stay here. You can just be a boy."
"A boy is small. I don't want to be small anymore."
Shifu's voice came to him from far away.
Turning to consider Jack, Shifu asked conversationally, "What shall I teach Jack, Daniel? Ma-aybe. . . maybe that some things aren't meant to be held, to be kept. 'Specially the small voice things." He looked back at Daniel. "You have a very small voice, Daniel." Stepping over Daniel's splayed legs, he walked up to Jack and touched his forehead.
Jack jerked like he'd been kicked, his mouth opening in a silent scream, and he fell forward, bracing himself with one hand on the floor, the other wrapped around his chest. A sob, harsh and ugly, burst out of him.
"What did you do?" Daniel watched Jack lean back, sitting on his heels, and when he raised his head, his eyes were glassy with tears. "Shifu, what did you do?"
"He killed you. He didn't want to, but it wasn't an accident." Shifu came and stood over him. His eyes were empty, as completely devoid of feeling as the sockets of a skull. "You should have listened, Daniel. And now the ice is thin and the water is cold." His hand fluttered at his side and Jack reached behind him and pulled the Beretta from his waistband.
"Shifu, please," Daniel pleaded, then shouted, "Jack! I'm here! I'm right here." He tried to stand, managing only to get to his knees, one hand stretching out past Shifu's sneakered feet toward Jack. "I'm right here."
Slipping the safety, Jack raised the gun and pressed it to his temple. The tears that shimmered in his eyes spilled out and down his cheeks.
"NO!" Gripping the cuff of Shifu's jeans, Daniel pulled himself closer to Jack. He was drowning, water roaring in his ears. "Shifu, listen, please, just listen to me. Oma said that there's only one thing we can control in this life."
"What's that, Daniel?"
"Whether we are good or evil."
Shifu put a finger to his mouth, tapping his lips, his brow creasing. After a moment, he bowed his head, nodding a little. Behind him, the gun wavered in Jack's hand and through the fog Daniel caught a glimmer of light. But then, when Shifu met Daniel's eyes again, his face was an expressionless mask.
"Oma was wrong," he said flatly and drew his finger through the air in front of Daniel's face.
It was like Daniel's throat had been cut with a blade of ice. Kicking backward, he collided hard against the concrete wall. His hands came up and clawed at his collar, his mouth opening and closing helplessly, his lungs screaming for air. Blackness was swirling around Shifu like something alive, creeping outward and wrapping the three of them in its clammy tentacles. Jack's grip tightened again on the gun and Daniel screamed in his head, DON'T DON'T don'tdon'tdon'tdontdont. Leaning over, Shifu peered closely at him, his dead eyes narrowed, his lips stretched tight across his teeth in something that wasn't a smile. Daniel jerked backward into the wall, his body twisting with spasm, fighting the pull of the undertow, his legs kicking out. No air. He was dying. He was dying and he was alone. So cold.
He felt the shrapnel, slivers of concrete slicing into the side of his face and his neck, before he heard the shot, before the blood splattered across the lenses of his glasses, before Shifu fell forward into his lap. The air rushed into Daniel's lungs and escaped again as a shriek of pain. In front of him, Jack sank down again onto the floor, his head hanging, the Beretta dangling loosely from his hand between his raised knees.
Tearing his glasses off and tossing them away, Daniel turned Shifu over. The boy's eyes were full of tears that welled up and spilled across his temples. "Shh, shh, it's okay," Daniel whispered to him, wiping the tears away with this thumb.
His mouth turned down and his lip quivering, Shifu hitched in a gurgling breath. "Daniel," he said as his hands came up under his chin, "I am so cold."
"I know. I know." He gathered him close, rocking him while the cold seeped out of him into Daniel's chest. "I know."
Shifu's last breath bled away slowly.
Daniel waited. He waited to feel the boy's body dissolve into weightlessness, for the room to fill with light as he climbed upward out of the agony of flesh. He waited while Teal'c came in and took the weapon from Jack's unresisting hand.
"Please," he begged as Jack raised his head and met his eyes. "Please, Oma, take him back."
He waited. But Shifu's body, though it was small, remained heavy in his arms.
"I am out here in the large and lovely dark / the taste of you, the taste of apple in my mouth" ("What I Gave You, Truly")
"Hey, Carter, welcome back." Jack stood up and leaned over the bed. "How you feeling?"
"Sir. . . ." Her eyes closed and didn't open for a long time. He waited, unmoving. Finally her lids fluttered. "Shifu. He's not what we--"
"I know." He squeezed her shoulder. "He's gone."
Her eyes closed again, this time with relief.
In the next bed, Frasier slept quietly, her hands curled under her chin, Cassie slumped in a chair beside her, watching.
Jack drove around the block twice. He told himself that it was because there was no parking on Daniel's street. Then he told himself that he was being an ass, and pulled into the space he'd seen the first time he'd passed the building. Gripping the steering wheel, he craned his neck to look through the windshield into the rain, telling himself that he wasn't hoping that the windows of Daniel's apartment would be dark. They weren't. He got out of the truck and went inside.
Daniel didn't meet him at the door, but the security bolt was shot to keep it ajar. Jack eased himself inside with the same wariness he'd use slipping into a corridor on a mothership. Daniel wasn't in the living room, but the light was on over the stove in the kitchen, and the kettle was not quite hissing steam. As he threw his jacket over the arm of the sofa, Jack could hear the refrigerator open, bottles clinking, the gasp of a cap twisting free.
Daniel wordlessly handed him the beer as Jack leaned around the door jamb. He swallowed half of it in one gulp, leaning on the counter while Daniel rummaged in the dishwasher for a mug. The side of Daniel's neck was peppered with tiny cuts, a long one like a slivered moon on his jaw just below his ear. Jack could feel the shards of concrete strafing Daniel's skin, the heat of the bullet, could hear the sound it made as it ripped through air and flesh. Crazily, the memory wound backward along that path, from wall to bone to his own hand, his finger on the trigger. Wincing, he looked away and drank again, not clenching his free hand into a fist even though it ached.
"Jack, please." Without looking at him, Daniel flipped the dishtowel off the handle on the oven door and wiped the mug carefully inside and out, and then did it again. He was wearing a sweater over a t-shirt and a flannel shirt over both, track pants and a thick pair of wool socks. He pushed the sleeves up to his elbows, and goosebumps puckered the skin of his arms, muscles ropy as he wiped and wiped the mug with the towel. Jack closed his eyes while he downed the rest of the beer, but when that was gone, he was watching Daniel's hands again. The kettle started to moan.
"Look, I don't know what--" Daniel's hands stopped moving. Jack stopped talking. But then he started again, because the words were turning into some kind of logjam in his throat and if he didn't get them out he was pretty sure he'd choke on them. So he made his mouth open and his tongue work. "I know. . . . He was all you had left of Sha're--"
"--and I--" He stopped and looked down at the bottle he was twisting in his hands and wished it were full again. He put it down, patted it gently, stupidly, on the head like a good dog, and splayed his fingers on the counter to keep the fist from forming. The kettle was steaming now, whistling softly, edging toward urgency. The steam fogged the stainless steel on the splash board behind the stove. Daniel's hands were still. "I'm sorry-- "
The mug exploded against the cupboard beside Jack's head.
It took everything Jack had not to deflect Daniel as he smashed into him, picking him up by the collar of his shirt and slamming him into the refrigerator. Magnets and Shifu's drawings scattered. A grocery list fluttered down and lodged in the crook of Daniel's elbow. Holding his hands wide, Jack didn't reach up to grip Daniel's wrists.
"Don't you dare," Daniel hissed into his face. "Don't you fucking dare apologize to me."
There was nothing to say, then, because an apology was all that Jack had. He let Daniel shake him, hard. Their hearts were pounding in a rough syncopation that made Jack's brain stutter, but he let Daniel lean into him and shout into his face, let the spit fly from Daniel's lips onto his, even though with one swift move he could have him on his back.
"The snakes, Jack. The fucking, fucking snakes. They take us and use us and twist us and make innocence a fucking joke." He barked out something that might have been a bitter laugh if it weren't so warped by the clenching of his jaws. "Don't you dare apologize. Don't you dare accept the blame. They aren't going to twist you that way. Not you. Not you." He repeated the words like he could nail the truth of them to the world with his voice, saying them over and over until he ran out of breath.
After, Jack couldn't remember who had moved first, only that when Daniel had finally said, "Please Jack," he'd stolen the breath from Jack's mouth, and when he'd finished saying it, Jack had breathed it in and the words had seared his throat with need. Now, when he rolled onto his back, Daniel rolled with him, coming to rest with his head in the middle of Jack's chest. He knew that he couldn't give Daniel what he'd asked for, but he could give him this. His fingers resting gently on the pulse in Daniel's throat, he ran his thumb through the hair at Daniel's nape and listened to the rain, a small voice whispering in the dark.
"I give you the apple and you see
your lover for the first time, this wonder
repeated in the flesh"
("What I Gave You, Really")
Notes: The title of this story is taken from a book by Jack Kerouac. The epigraphs are all from Lorna Crozier's amazing collection of poems called Apocrypha of Light. This story is dedicated to Barkley, the genius of my website. I don't know if I hit all the criteria on her wish-list, but I hope she likes it just the same. So, Barkley, thanks for the space, your hard work and Happy Birthday. Thanks as always to Aces for beta and to Martha for comments and encouragement.
Feedback welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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