Context




Context

It was a regular day. He waited beside Jack at the end of the ramp the way he had many times before, watched the 'gate billow open. He didn't think about how that shimmer was really the universe tearing. The part of him that was learning to lean away from wonder saw only water, a circle reflecting light. A different part of him was a little sorry about that.

It was the day he watched himself climb out of the well, saw himself walking down the ramp toward them on slightly unsteady feet, hand outstretched, the walnut-sized sphere in his palm glowing at the seams.

It was the day Daniel Jackson stepped out of the space between universes, looked into his own eyes and said, "I'm sorry."


^^^


"So-o, not furry, then," Jack said, trying not to sound as disappointed as he felt.

The room full of Furlings sort of... cascaded... in his peripheral vision, and then for a moment they were furry, except more like a furriness of sound, a softly bristling flutter across the side of his face, against his ears, like his hands were brushing the silvered silkiness of a wolf's hair backward at the neck, revealing the downy undercoat. He smelled the musky scent of woods and predation. Then the furriness was replaced by a feeling that was a lot like a bunch of Victorian grandmothers hiding their delicate laughter discretely behind bony, well-manicured hands.

Furlings, Jack decided, made him feel seasick. As he was thinking this, the room cascaded again and turned a sort of bilious green, the floor rising up under his feet and canting a little to the left and then right, a boat corkscrewing over the chop. Turning sort of green himself, Jack tried not to think of that kind of thing at all after that, or that he might actually hate the Furlings, in addition to being disappointed by the false advertising of their name. That not-thought spread like a blot through them, and they backed away from him, leaving even less than their usual visual shudder in the space around him. Carter had insisted that the Furlings were physical; it was just that their physics didn't exactly match up with those of the familiar human universe. They were definitely there, but mostly... not. It was at that point in the conversation when Jack had wanted to grab something and twist.

"Look, I didn't mean it." The shudder intensified and resolved into a slightly iridescent liquid blur as they came back to him from whatever non-place they mostly existed in. He closed his eyes for a moment, watching their vaguely humanoid smeariness on the inside of his eyelids--or inside his brain, actually, according to Carter. Sighing as he opened his eyes, he focused on the featureless white wall, and pretended his senses weren't swimming with input they couldn't quite grasp. "I just want to see Daniel. That's all."

Grimacing a little as his fingers passed through Furling-smear he couldn't feel, he put his hand on the wall, and the smooth surface was as solid as it looked, but warm as skin and thrumming slightly as though blood were pumping through invisible veins.

"It can't hurt anything just to let me talk to him." He didn't think, "I don't want to shoot you nice non-people, but I will." He didn't actually think it, or think it would do any good, but the sentiment leaked out of him anyway and the blur turned to a noiseless rattle of agitation. His vision was swamped momentarily by the Furlings' opinion on the matter: there was a cave and dark, hulking figures in the shadows and a thick, sickly-sweet stench, and it was flesh, unwashed, unhealed. Responding before he could help it, Jack stood still and thought instead of the texture of the skin just below Daniel's ear, how it felt when he passed his thumb over it and into Daniel's hair. After a moment, the rattle subsided, became instead a slowly unfurling, flower-like sigh of acquiescence, and the wall stretched and thinned until it was only a taut membrane, translucent and traced with a network of blue and red filaments. Blood, it seemed, really was pulsing through veins. Jack swallowed hard and wiped his hand on his pants.

Daniel was watching him, blurred and softened by the screen between them. His eyes were only dark patches in the vague oval of his face, but his posture said everything Jack would have read in his expression: hands in his pockets, feet apart, shoulders hunched a little, like he was braced under an invisible weight. Jack knew he could expect that ironic non-smile that Daniel produced when he was resigned, when he had remolded himself around the inevitable. Jack hated that smile, and was glad--a little bit--that he couldn't see it clearly.

"You okay?"

Daniel's nod was a ripple of shadow. "Yeah, pretty much." His voice was muffled, blurred like he was. Jack leaned closer to hear him better and the wall thrummed and pulsed inches away from his skin, radiating heat like a sleeping body. "Of course," Daniel went on, "I've never been considered toxic waste before, so that's a little hard on the ego, as you might imagine."

"Well, there was that time after Frasier's New Year's...." Daniel said nothing, unmoving. Jack couldn't tell if he was smiling. "But that's beside the point."

"Jack--"

"Carter's working on a way to bust you outta here." Around him, the Furlings became a transparent solidity, refusing this possibility. The wall began to thicken.

Taking a step forward, Daniel put his hand flat against the membrane. "It's not a prison, Jack. It's quarantine." It was Daniel's reasonable voice. The partition began to thin again, opacity giving way to that frosted-glass translucence. This close, Jack could almost make out that damn smile.

"You are not a disease." Objecting, the Furlings ruffled space, and Jack could smell rotting foliage, feel slime, slick under grasping fingers, and again, the stench of unclean flesh. Jack turned to the room. "Okay! You have a problem with the whole human body idea. We get that. Do ya think you could turn down the smell-o-vision for five minutes so I can talk to my friend without puking?" He waited until the room settled again to a reasonably neutral, if somewhat sickly white. "These people have serious issues."

"They're scared."

"What. Of you?" Jack frowned and waved a dismissive hand in the direction of Daniel's voice.

"Yeah, well, I don't think they fabricated this whole... holding dimension thing... just for kicks."

"And about that." Jack flicked the membrane with a finger.

"I think it's supposed to be comforting."

Snorting, Jack was incredulous.

"They're aliens," Daniel offered in the same exaggeratedly patient and slightly condescending tone he'd used to offer that same explanation a thousand and two times before. "And I am a disease, to them. Because of what I was. What I did."

"You didn't--"

"I made the decision. I didn't want to die. Oma broke the rules for me--"

"Then it should be Oma in there, not you."

"Well, I broke some pretty serious rules all on my own." He sighed as he leaned his shoulder on the membrane and bowed his head. "Maybe Oma's the disease, but I'm the..." The ironic laugh he made was one of the things Jack had decided not to miss from the "Old Daniel" days. "I guess that would make me the tumour."

"Oh please." Jack flicked the membrane again, hoping Daniel would straighten out of that defeated posture. It worked. He did.

"I dunno, Jack. Maybe I came back wrong."

"You didn't come back wrong. You're fine. You're you."

Jack could see Daniel peering closely at him, his face close to the barrier. "To your eyes I am. But they don't see with your eyes." Stepping away, he went on, "They see a botched experiment. Miscarriage. Like Reese in a way, Ancient style. Like Anubis."

Now Jack straightened. "Hey, don't you go comparing yourself--" He clamped his jaws shut against the sudden taste of bile as the Furlings' agreement with Daniel's analysis filled him like coiling, sooty smoke. Unable to look away, even with his eyes closed, Jack was awash in Anubis's corrupted light, the moldy taste of sweetness on the verge of putrefaction, Anubis's voice a dark smear that obscured stars. The Furlings were a blue-white swirling of heatless light going black at the edges and he felt them decay, the darkness eating at his flesh like acid. Jack spun on his heel, an insistent finger stabbing the air: "You do not get to put Daniel in the same category as that freak."

"But we are the same, Jack, from their perspective. Perversions, distortions, contamination. Toxic waste."

Daniel's reasonable voice was going to make Jack crazy, no matter how much it seemed to soothe the Furlings, and his lips almost touched the barrier when he turned back and whispered roughly, "I don't give a fuck about their perspective." The membrane went momentarily opaque around him like he'd breathed on cold glass.

The resignation was in Daniel's voice, and in the dim, blurred curve of his shoulders as he bowed his head again. "There are consequences to everything, Jack. I chose, and now they're dying."

Jack didn't say it, that it was maybe a bargain he could live with, but it whiplashed out of him and around the room that wasn't a room, through the people who were barely people, a black, slashing swath. Knotting themselves together to resist it, the Furlings became a hardness that gleamed smooth and impenetrable, and his anger crashed against them like a wave against a rock, rebounding, riptide, undertow. Jack stumbled against the wall, gulped for air that wouldn't come, and when it finally did, it filled his lungs like ice water. When he looked up, he could just barely decipher the outlines of Daniel's hands pressed against the barrier on either side him.

Daniel's words came to him indistinctly through the thickening wall. "They only want me. You're free to go."

Leaning his sweaty forehead there between the vagueness of Daniel's hands, Jack said, "No. I'm not."


^^^

Daniel broke off another small piece of powerbar and chewed it slowly as he watched Jack sleep. From his perspective, the barrier between them was transparent except for the fine blue and red tracings of veins, but, based on the way that Jack had leaned close to squint at him before, he suspected that this wasn't so on Jack's side of things. The accommodations, however, were pretty much on par: like Daniel, Jack had only the floor to sit on--or lie on, as the case may be--and the room on his side of their tiny world was as bare and white as it was on Daniel's.

The difference was, of course, that Jack could leave his cell, as he had done a few times already, simply by walking away; the walls receded ahead of his will until he became small with distance and finally faded as if into a stagnant mist. That process of leaving took a long time, and as Daniel watched, his jaw clenched tighter and tighter. Now, Jack was back and Daniel had a headache, which he figured was due punishment for believing in even the most rebellious part of his mind that he'd never see him again.

But of course Jack came back, each time looking a little grimmer. His tone of voice remained the same, though--light, encouraging, sarcastic--more support for the theory that he couldn't see Daniel as well as Daniel could see him.

"We're working on the dinner thing," he'd announced the last time. "They get the concept of food, but the specifics, not so much." He grimaced eloquently. "They said--well, they didn't say say--that I could give you this" The powerbar had disappeared from his hand and turned up balanced precariously on Daniel's raised knees. "I guess they're just going to bore you to death, instead of starving you." That time, his voice darkened to match his expression.

And that was the other major difference between Jack's side of the world and Daniel's: Jack got the "smell-o-vision" and Daniel didn't. Since his sentence was passed, Daniel had heard nothing from the Furlings, and now that Jack was asleep, there was only the faint hiss of his breathing and Daniel's own, and when Jack was gone, there was only unremitting whiteness and a silence that was physical, syrupy, heavy on Daniel's ears. He cleared his throat intermittently just to make sure he hadn't gone deaf. When Jack was gone, there were no landmarks, no sense of scale or point of reference, and even with his eyes wide open in the bright space, Daniel felt like he was floating in blind darkness, weightless, bodiless. With his eyes closed, it was worse. So, he was careful not to close his eyes, and he let his breath out slowly between pursed lips when he saw a dot slowly resolving into Jack's familiar shape, no-place becoming someplace again, like Jack was bringing "here" with him. One, Daniel mused, was meaningless. Only two made space.

Now, though, Jack was there, lying on his back with his knees drawn up and his gloved hands resting limply across his chest. If they'd been back on Earth, in Jack's back yard, he would have had his cap over his eyes to block out the light. But here, he didn't. He slept reluctantly, his eyes snapping open every few minutes, his head turning so he could check on Daniel and then rolling back again as his lids fluttered shut. After the fourth check-in, Daniel stopped waving.

By the time Jack opened his eyes and they stayed open, Daniel had counted 734 of Jack's breaths. The numbers kept ticking away in his head now, mapping time.

"Ghosts," Jack said, staring upward at the blankness that wasn't a ceiling.

Daniel tried not to sigh out loud with relief as Jack's voice filled the whiteness. "Ghosts?"

Sitting up, Jack scrubbed at his hair with both hands, leaving it poking up in the back. He put on his cap and adjusted it carefully before explaining. "Back on Earth, all those stories about cold spots and seeing things that aren't there and feeling like you're not alone."

"Ah," Daniel said. Jack yawned mightily. "So, you're saying that ghosts are Furlings."

"Goa'ulds as gods, Omas as forces of nature...."

"It's plausible."

Daniel could see Jack assessing the tone of his voice, judging whether or not Daniel was being sarcastic. After a moment he accepted it at face value, his expression turning to that familiar suspicious irritation usually reserved for the Tok'ra. "I bet they've been looking over our shoulders for ever." He paused, considering. "Why do they do that, d'ya think?"

Daniel laughed. "I guess we're just so damn pretty."

At that, the grin that was starting to form on Jack's face collapsed into another grimace as his eyes closed and his hands came down, palms flat on the floor to steady him.

"Jack?"

He waved Daniel's concern away and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Problem with these guys," he growled, "is the editorializing. They have an opinion about every fucking thing." Dropping his hands to his lap, he squinted at Daniel. "You're not getting any of this?"

"No." Grunting, Jack pressed his fists into his eyes again. Daniel crawled forward until his face was close to the barrier. "Jack, you have to get out of here."

"So do you."

"This place is messing you up."

"You too."

"Not like you. I can't hear them, remember?" Jack lowered his hands and stared at him impassively. "I'll be fine here, but you won't."

Lacing his fingers, Jack said lightly, "Unless I'm missing my memos, the SGC hasn't changed its policy on not leaving people behind."

Daniel cut the air with an impatient hand. "This is why there are rules."

"I'm sayin'."

"No." As Daniel struggled to his feet, Jack looked up at him, still immovably impassive. "No, this is why there're rules against fraternization. You're endangering your team because of your feelings for me."

Now Jack's expression hardened, his eyes steely as he stood up and came close to the barrier, too. "No-one gets left," he said evenly. "No matter who. Give me a little credit, Daniel."

Standing this close, he should have been able to taste Jack's breath. Daniel's fingernails made a whispering across the membrane as he curled his hands into fists. Jack's face wasn't angry. It was his game face, the colonel face. The face he wore to make decisions, to bear responsibility.

Sighing, Daniel tried another tack. "How are Sam and Teal'c?"

"Teal'c's doing that kelnoreem thing, so he's pretty steady."

"Sam?"

The expression faltered, one eye wincing up infinitesimally.

"How's Sam?"

Jack blinked; the eye winced up again. "She's not so good."

Daniel said nothing. The silence folded down around them.

"No-one gets left." Jack turned away, taking space with him.


^^^

Jack had had lots of practice thinking about nothing. He knew what happened when the silence went on and on and there was no sun and no moon and nothing to mark the time but breath and heartbeat. He knew that, in that kind of non-place, that kind of nothing could twist bones, tear muscles. He knew that yearning for something, anything, to break the silence could pull you apart at the seams, cracking you open like a shellfish, soft flesh exposed. He knew what it was to whisper, "Please," into the air even if that meant asking for the footsteps in the hall and another kind of rending. He knew what it was like to yearn for the return of captors, for the sharpness of knives, the searing of electricity, the dull percussion of fists, anything that would demarcate the limits of his body and remind him that he still existed. Jack knew about solitary confinement. He knew that this yearning they created in him, carved out of his flesh, made him theirs, made him want to please them. So he learned way back then in a dark hole in a hot desert not to think beyond a single moment, not to count breaths or heartbeats, not to feel the passage of time, not to know how long he was alone.

He learned to forget that there was a beginning, and so, not to yearn for an end.

Now, fifteen years later in the Furlings' quarantine pen, the air crackled with ozone and the smell of burning flesh, vibrated with a tenuous echo of a scream from someplace far away down in the dark labyrinth whose Byzantine hallways led only inward toward the things he should forget. The Furlings shuddered at his memories, and the smell of charred skin and the crackle of electrodes grew stronger, multiplied and amplified as the aliens passed the sensations among them, tasting a pain he himself could always taste, even after all these years, if he let himself think about it. He put his hands over his mouth and then over his eyes, trying to block them out. It was no use; it was inside him already, and they kept bringing him back here, to his minotaur, this place in his past where he learned to think of nothing. The blood-and-piss taste of it made him sick.

He wanted to think of the Furlings as sadistic bastards, but their horror outweighed their fascination, and the memory that washed through and through and through him was, each time, softer around the edges, the palette more muted, tinged with the warmth of compassion. He hated them for that, too, and hated wanting it from them. They rocked him gently while they carried him along down dark passages of recollection, shush-shushing him and making it all right.

It was not all right.

He grunted and let his hands fall to his lap. Daniel was watching him. He knew that Daniel was counting.


^^^


Jack was gone again. Negotiating. Threatening. It had taken him an exceptionally long time to disappear this time, and Daniel wondered if it was Jack's reluctance that stretched perspective out like that, or his own.

Now, Daniel was lying on his side, glasses askew on his face. Through the one lens that was mostly over his left eye he was watching his hand. If he stayed very still he could see the pulse beating in his wrist, just beyond the elasticized cuff of his jacket. He'd been staring at his hand for so long that it had stopped being his hand. It was an image, a representation of a hand, bound by the off-centre frame of his glasses. He couldn't feel it anymore and, when he wiggled his thumb, there was no real sense that the movement derived from his own intention. The fingers were curled slightly, as though they had once cupped something delicate that had recently flown away. Around it there was only whiteness and Daniel was only a pin-point of awareness, a floating consciousness without context.

He was freaking himself out, frankly.

"Sit up, Dr. Jackson," he said firmly, and then he had a mouth, too, as well as eyes. "And fly right." Deliberately, he folded his hand into a fist and rapped the back of his knuckles against the floor. The surface gave way slightly, pliable, almost not there even as it resisted him. "Knock, knock," he whispered as he watched the slight divots his fist made give up their shadows as they smoothed out again. The sound of his voice filled the space between his face and the floor, and then he had ears again.

"Daniel."

Startled, he jumped, and then he had a body. Focusing past his hand, he could see two pairs of booted feet. Heaving himself to his feet, he readjusted his glasses.

"Sam!"

She smiled wanly and ducked her head in greeting.

"Hey Teal'c."

An incremental bow. "Are you well, Daniel Jackson?"

Daniel adjusted his glasses again and tugged his jacket down, making himself a bit more presentable, even though he could tell by the way Sam's eyes focused uncertainly on him that his friends couldn't see him very well. "Yeah," he answered. "I'm fine. A little bored. Very bored, actually. As it turns out I'm not exactly the scintillating company I thought I was." When Sam's face crumpled up and she bowed her head, he knew he'd said exactly the wrong thing. He wondered when he'd gotten so good at emotional blackmail that he could do it without even knowing he was doing it. "Really. I'm fine."

Sam raised her head and he swallowed hard when he got a good view. She looked haggard, dark circles under her eyes, her skin pallid and clammy, her lips almost white, pressed hard together and still trembling. Her eyes were blurry with tears.

"The colonel's ordered us to leave," she told him, her voice cracking on the last word. Her head dropped again and she kicked at the barrier in frustration, causing it to frost almost to opaqueness.

Daniel put his hands flat against the membrane, willed it to transparency. "It's okay, Sam--"

"You have to convince him to change his mind." Her voice was husky with feverish vehemence. "Make him let us stay." When he shook his head, she rushed on, "I can figure this out. I just have to concentrate a little harder."

"Sam--"

"I just need more time!" She pressed her fingertips hard into her eyes and swayed on her feet. Daniel noticed that even Teal'c's hands shook a little when he reached out to steady her.

"Look," he said calmly. "You can work someplace safe, figure out some brilliant and unlikely plan and then come back for me."

She started shaking her head before he'd finished his sentence. "No. No, no, no, Daniel." When she looked up at him the tears were gone and her eyes were dry and bright and angry. "You're not getting it. If we leave this place, I don't think we can ever find our way back again, at least not without the Furlings' help, and they aren't likely to be giving any." She pulled her arm out of Teal'c's grasp and leaned against the barrier. "Daniel, if we go, we won't be able to get you back." Closing her eyes again, she gasped and slumped down until she was sitting on the floor, her fists in her eyes. "Make him let us stay," she repeated through clenched teeth.

Wiping a hand across his mouth, Daniel let his eyes roam around the cell, looking for something to anchor himself to, something neutral and not aching, so that he could think clearly. But there was nothing there but himself and Teal'c and Sam, blots of colour and feeling on a field of white. Crouching down beside her, he wanted to touch Sam's hair, but of course he couldn't, so he folded his hands together.

"Please, Sam," he said gently. "You're going to lose it here and then you'll be no good to anybody. Please. Just go. It's okay."

"It's not okay," she mumbled and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her jacket.

He knew that somewhere inside her she was hating herself for collapsing, for not being stronger. He could almost hear Jack's voice saying, "The bigger the brain, the worse the effects. Good thing I'm here, then, dontcha think?" In spite of himself, Daniel smiled. "It's not over yet," he offered. "Who knows what will happen? Maybe Jack will have some kind of diplomatic breakthrough." He smiled wider when she huffed out a laugh. "Stranger things have happened."

"Not much stranger."

"Daniel Jackson is correct, Major Carter," Teal'c said. "We cannot be of service and this environment is dangerous. The prudent course of action is to withdraw." He bent down and took her arm again, lifting her to her feet. "We will not cease in our efforts," he concluded, and Daniel was pretty sure that this assertion was made more for Sam's benefit than his own.

"I'm sorry," she told him.

"Don't be." He smiled reassuringly at her, even though she couldn't see it. "Go on."

Bending down, she unzipped her pack and stacked her provisions on the floor near the barrier, then went around behind Teal'c and pulled out all of his, too. Then, she let him clip her pack onto her vest. "Bye, Daniel," she said, waving a little. The two of them turned and walked away; instead walking forever until they were small and indistinct, Sam and Teal'c took only two steps and winked out of sight.

Daniel silently thanked the Furlings for small graces.


^^^


Jack woke with a start, hands slapping down on the spongy floor. He'd been falling. With his eyes open, though, he was still falling, plummeting through whiteness from nowhere to nowhere. Slapping the floor again just for the sound, he stretched out his legs and stared at his feet, tapped his boots together a few times to feel the vibration in his bones, lifted his hands and scrubbed at his hair. Then he was present from head to toe again and the room was more-or-less solid around him.

Daniel seemed to be asleep, lying on his side, his slightly open mouth a vague darkness in the blur of his face. One hand cradled his cheek; the other was tucked into the open front of his jacket. Jack knew it wasn't cold over there on Daniel' side of things. The hand curled up inside the jacket was a hook in Jack's flesh. He made himself look away.

One of Daniel's bootlaces was undone; Jack could just make out the looseness of the boot at the ankle. The way the tongue was angled, askew, bothered him a lot. He laced his fingers across his stomach and tried to ignore the itch in them. Daniel could tie his own boots, for Christ's sake.

Jack thought of Daniel's fingers pulling the laces taut, making the intricate loops, over, under, moving swiftly with unconscious dexterity. Pulling his jacket sleeve lower over his hand, Jack wiped his eyes.

Fuck. Leave me alone, he thought at the Furlings, but was too tired even to put his hands over his ears when they purred closer to him and drew out of him the feeling of Daniel's fingers circling his wrist, squeezing hard enough to bruise, and the sound of Daniel's breath, catching in his throat, breaking out again in something not quite a moan, not quite Jack's name. He didn't resist them when they found in him the taste of Daniel's skin at the notch in his throat, the shadow at the hollow of his hip that grew and disappeared with the rhythm of their rising and falling.

Daniel's boot was unlaced. He hadn't bothered to tie it.

He was sleeping.

Jack fell through whiteness from nowhere to nowhere and counted Daniel's breaths.



^^^


It wasn't a dream, but it felt like it, had that slippery fluidity of logic where even the strangest connections felt seamless. It made perfect sense to go from the texture of Jack's hair at the back of his neck to the twisted helix of DNA, from the shock and release of orgasm, Jack's teeth in Daniel's shoulder, the jerking and then heaviness of his body, to the folding of time, the re-creation of the universe. It made perfect sense. It was a chance, they told him. He could take it or not. It was his decision.

Jack was dying.

The Furlings showed Daniel this, the unraveling of the order that was Jack, the tight knot of disciplined selfhood unwinding into a wiry tangle of memory, brittle, breaking into slivers, bent fragments.

But there was a solidity, a stubborn refusal, at the centre of entropy, and Daniel heard the ticking of numbers in Jack's head as he counted, making time for both of them. Teal'c and Sam were gone. Jack stayed behind because it took two to make space.

"No-one else will be hurt," Daniel demanded in the not-dream. "You promise me."


^^^

"Jack."

There was weight, solidity, warmth, breath against his face and somehow Jack found his hand, like he had before when Daniel wasn't his, made it move, fumbled along a sleeve to a shoulder, to a neck and now there was the brush of short hair between his fingers and then he was twisting longer hair between his fingers and his hand closed around a familiar neck, each vertebra and hollow known territory, and his hand closed for the first time around a newness, and his hand was shaking, but he did it anyway, damn the regs, the torpedoes, and he did it anyway, because this was his and this had been his for years and years, and he pulled Daniel to him and found no resistance, not now, not then, and the near miss, lips against the stubble beside the mouth, slipping along the angle of the jaw to come to rest in the vulnerable softness of Daniel's throat, Daniel's almost silent laughter palpable, almost enough to still the panicked trembling, the fear of this thing that they'd done, this chasm they'd leapt, away from the place where Daniel wasn't his, almost enough to make it safe, and it had been safe for years and years, and Daniel turned his head and his lips were warm and his mouth opened and his laughter rushed into Jack, cool water, and kiss became kiss became kiss became absence, the echoing ache of Daniel's leaving that wasn't dying or living, no body left, even, to throw dirt on, and then when Jack made a sound of protest, Daniel was there again, miraculous, returned naked without context and when Jack's fingers finally fumbled up a sleeve to a shoulder, to the back of his neck, pulled Daniel to him, found no resistance, and Daniel opened his mouth, then Daniel's new-made voice filled Jack's throat, saying, "Oh. God. I remember. I remember this."

Somewhere, there was a Jack who wanted hate the Furlings, who knew that they had made him theirs, who wanted to go back to the desert, even, to the darkness and the pain. Pain could be resisted, withstood. Daniel's mouth opened a little wider and he swallowed the noise Jack made, and when the sound was gone Jack was utterly hollow.

"Open your eyes, Jack." Lips moved against his eyelids, first one then the other. "It's okay."

Obediently, Jack opened his eyes, and started to fall, but Daniel put an arm over his chest, leaned his weight on him, kissed him again, and caught him.

Blinking, Jack pulled a hand out from under Daniel's warmth and rested his fingertips on Daniel's lips.

"No, you're not dreaming." Under his fingers, Daniel's mouth twitched up into a smile. "I'm really here. And it's time to go."

There was a subtle cascading of colour--pale yellows drifting to blue--the shimmering flutter of wings against clouds, and Jack was untethered again. He groaned a curse and closed his eyes, but the sky still opened all around him and he was weightless, birds turning into the diffuse sun, flashing silver inside his eyelids.

Resting beside him on the floor, though, his arm tightening around him, Daniel was heavy and solid on Jack's chest. The weight of him made breathing an effort, so that Jack had to have lungs, ribs giving and resisting in just the right way. Daniel's weight gave him boundaries, an inside and an outside.

Opening his eyes and focusing on Daniel's mouth, Jack remembered how to form words. "How?"

The smile appeared again, briefly, and was gone. "I guess they finally realized you weren't going to leave me here." He kissed the callouses on Jack's palm. "They don't want to kill you." In the white light of the cell, Daniel's eyes were too blue, too bright and steady. "So we're leaving here. Both of us."

The birds were brush strokes of shadow against a red horizon. Under Jack's back, the ground was solid, smelling damp and green and darkly alive.

^^^

Jack kept his back to the 'gate and watched Daniel dial home instead. Daniel was back-lit by the setting sun so that his outline enclosed a blankness and his shadow folded, sharply-etched, over the DHD and onto the polished stone of the 'gate platform. Then there was that familiar plunging rumble behind Jack as the 'gate billowed open, and Daniel's shadow split into three, four, wavering and shimmering in all directions around his feet as he came to climb up the stairs.

Just in front of the event horizon, Daniel stopped him, squeezed his arm tightly, then raised his hand to rest on the side of Jack's face. His eyes were still too blue, too steady.

Leaning in, Daniel kissed him slowly, opened him and breathed into him. "I love you," he said against Jack's lips, and Jack's gut twisted.

"Daniel," Jack said, his voice low, suspicious, his fingers fisted in the sleeve of Daniel's jacket. "What did you do?" He jerked away from Daniel's attempt to kiss him again, but didn't let him go. "I swear, Daniel, if I walk out the other side and you're not with me I will find my way back here and fucking kill you myself."

Surprisingly, Daniel laughed. "You know, you could just say 'I love you, too.'"

Jack stared at him for a long time, watching the 'gate's glow reshape his features, shadows and liquid light playing across the suddenly unfamiliar planes of cheek and forehead. While Daniel waited patiently, the smile faded from his lips but stayed in his eyes. "Okay," Jack conceded, grudgingly. "And I love you, too."

Turning, they stepped through the 'gate, Jack's fist still clenched in Daniel's sleeve.


^^^

It wasn't possible that Daniel felt it when Jack's grip on his arm was lost and the Furlings spun them away from each other, down branching pathways, one into the past, the other into the future.

The Furlings didn't say good-bye.

There was a brief moment of vertigo as he stepped through the 'gate, but it passed quickly when he felt the rattling vibration of the 'gate ramp under his boots and smelled the scrubbed, cool air of the Gateroom. Hammond was at the observation window in the conference room. At the foot of the ramp, Jack was waiting, his hands in his pockets as though this wasn't an unscheduled 'gate activation. Beside him, another Daniel stood, unconsciously assuming Jack's posture, his long hair falling over one lens of his glasses. His mouth fell open as he watched himself walk toward them.

"Who--?"

Daniel could feel the heat against his skin as the walnut-sized sphere glowed at the seams, scanning the room while the defense teams lunged into position around the ramp, P90s raised and aimed precisely. As he held the device out toward his younger self, Daniel knew his hands were different now, eight years inscribed in callouses there. The Jack at the bottom of the ramp hadn't felt Daniel's hands on his skin, hadn't memorized the lines of his palms yet. Remembering the rough texture of Jack's palm against his lips, that point of purchase in the white nothingness of the Furlings' containment cell, Daniel closed his eyes for just a second to savour it.

"I'm sorry," he told himself. The younger Daniel didn't have a chance to ask what for.

Flaring with a bright, blue light, the device honed in on the shared DNA of the two Daniels--

"No-one else will be hurt. You promise me."

--light frothed into the spaces between atoms, broke bonds, unspun the younger Daniel from his core, scattered him into nothingness, non-existence.

Then there was only one Daniel on the ramp. He had only a moment to meet Jack's eyes. "It was the bargain I made," he told him. "It was a good one, Jack."

And then he was gone, too, and the universe swerved.


^^^


"I'm sure Rothman can entertain you with the details," Jack told Hammond, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. "For my part, I can tell you that we found precisely nothing with a side order of nothing with nothing sauce."

Jack could feel Rothman's glare between his shoulder blades.

"No," Rothman objected,"There was definitely something there."

"No Furlings," Jack interjected testily, turning to pin him with a glare. "You said we'd meet Furlings. There were no Furlings."

"There was something, sir," Carter told Hammond as she stepped off the ramp and unclipped her pack. She set it down to reposition it, and then heaved it up again over her shoulder by the handle. Teal'c steadied her as the weight threw her sideways a little and she smiled up at him before turning back to the General. "But we couldn't find the source of the energy readings. Maybe a fly-over with the UAV would help with the triangulation."

"We'll discuss that at the briefing in one hour," Hammond replied, waving them off to the showers.

"I wanted real, live Furlings," Jack moped as he followed his team out of the Gateroom. "You know what?" he finished churlishly to Teal'c, "I bet they aren't even furry."


THE END


Notes: This is for Destina on her Birthday, because she's weird that way. Much thanks to Otter for beta.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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