Jack undid the buttons of his shirt slowly, starting from the bottom and working his way up. Now that the splint was off the two last fingers of his right hand, this was a little easier. But still, he had to use both hands, one helping the other. He was careful to keep the shirt closed across his stomach, his chest, until the last button was undone. His fingers weren't shaking, but that was because of the scotch. The mostly empty glass sat on the edge of the sink, too close to the edge, actually. He would probably knock it off and it would break, into the sink, onto the floor. Maybe he would cut himself, his feet or his fingers, slivers going in deep, under his fingerprints, painful lances like white shards of light.
He didn't want to think about light.
His hands weren't shaking.
He thought about doing this in the dark. Wincing a little, he shook his head in denial, even though nobody was there to see it but him, just his own face looking back from the bathroom mirror without expression once the wince was gone. At least, he was pretty sure nobody else was there. His hands stopped at the top button. He closed his eyes to feel around in the mental space. It was only dark and full of shapes, all of them recognizable and none of them . He opened his eyes. In the mirror, the face opened its eyes, too.
Not gritting his teeth, he pulled open the shirt, folding it carefully and putting it on the toilet seat before looking back up at the mirror.
His skin was smooth. Even on the chest, under the grizzled graying hair, there was only the uneven question mark scar along the sternum. He remembered the sound the knife made as it ripped through his shirt, how the blade rattled across the ribs like a stick along a wrought iron fence. He remembered the face of the kid who held the knife; he was barely old enough to shave, his uniform two different colours and rolled up at the wrists and the ankles. He remembered most the horror that twisted the kid's mouth when he saw Jack's blood.
Jack's hands weren't shaking when he undid the top button of his jeans and folded the waistband down a little, the underwear too, to reveal the stuttering, puckered line across his left hip. The heat and hiss of the shrapnel was still in it, somewhere, a hot, red line across that place in his memory.
Twisting at the waist to show his back to the mirror, he craned his neck over his shoulder, reaching around to put his fingertips on either end of the crescent-shape that followed the curve of his scapula, a little whiter than the rest of his skin. Below it was a circle of radiating lines like a stylized sun just the size of the pad of his thumb. That one was a splinter lodged without sound in his memory. They say you don't hear the one that kills you. But you don't hear the one that knocks you cold for eight days, either.
Squaring his shoulders again, he ran his hands over his chest. His skin was smooth. He could feel daggers, the hectic burn of acid. He could feel that going right through him, out the back of him, not taking all of his insides with it, not at first. He could remember it, but his skin was smooth.
Gripping the edge of the sink, swallowing hard and then coughing out a thin ribbon of bile, he knocked the tumbler of scotch onto the floor. It wasn't an accident. It landed on the mat and didn't break, instead rolling behind the toilet and leaving behind a spatter of amber. He scrubbed at his hair with one hand, wiping his mouth on the back of the other.
"Tell me, Daniel," he said, head bowed. "What's the definition of irony?"
But of course, there was no answer.
It's a game he plays with himself. And a kind of betrayal, the kind of mind-fuck he hated as a kid.
"Who was working with you?"
Don't answer. Not this time, he tells himself. And then, a cajoling promise: Maybe next time.
"You must have had an accomplice to have such detailed knowledge of this facility. Who is it?"
Not this time. Maybe next time.
"Tell me what I wish to know and I will end this. Who is your accomplice?"
After awhile it stops being a game. It becomes a serpent moving slick and polished and shiny through the centre of his mind. It stops being a thought. It becomes the condition of thought.
Jack batted away Frasier's hands, forgetting about the splint on his fingers. He'd've winced at the pain when the broken fingers connected with her arm, but his face was busy. "Cut it out, Doc." He spat into the basin. Frasier let her hands find their way into the pockets of her lab coat, but she didn't leave like he wanted her to. "I think I can puke without supervision," he growled. Infirmary food tasted pretty much the same going both ways, he decided.
"When was the last time you ate, sir?" she asked, taking the basin away and handing him a tissue.
Jack flopped back against the pillows. "I had chicken and potatoes in Antarctica."
Frasier smiled that down-turned smile that meant sympathy and incredulity. "I'm sure the Tok'ra fed you something."
"Oh, I'm sure."
"But nothing while you were imprisoned?" The hitch in the flow of her sentence was a pitfall as wide as the room and as black as black.
"I don't remember eating."
Because his arm was over his eyes, he couldn't see what her face was doing, but her sigh was eloquent. Inside him, all of his organs were twisting tighter and tighter like they were trying to wring themselves out. He would've clawed at his gut to unwind them if that wasn't a totally bat-shit idea.
"Well, it's no wonder your stomach's atrophied, then. We'll keep you on liquids for another day." She paused. Jack listened to her breathing. "You need to decide what you're going to do about the withdrawal. That's coming, and pretty soon. I've been consulting with Dr. Weiman. He's confident that we can go the anaesthesia route with very little risk. You're very healthy." Again, the hitch between words, the black space. "You'll wake up when it's over."
"It would significantly reduce your discom--"
"Alright." Her warm hand squeezed his leg below the knee, patted him gently, and withdrew. "I'll send a nurse to get some juice. Make sure you drink it."
When she was gone there was just the black space between words.
Sometimes the fall kills him. Sometimes he's dead before he falls. So, he never sees the Jaffa who come to scrape him up and tumble his brokenness into the sarcophagus. Good for them, really. He thinks suddenly of Sarah and Charlie bathing the cat, trying to stuff Juniper (named for the Donovan song) into the plastic washbasin, Charlie's hand on her back, Sarah prying first one clawed foot and then another from the rim. But Juniper always gets the first foot and the second back on the rim again before Sarah gets to the third or the fourth. Stalemate. Jack laughs. He feels that the laugh should hurt, but it doesn't.
"What's so funny?" Daniel asks.
Jack is lying on his back at the bottom of the well, looking up, his hands folded across his chest. Parts of his shirt are stiff, the fibres sharp like slivers, but they break off and crumble against his wrists. If he looks at Daniel obliquely, relaxing his eyes so that his focus blurs, he can see Daniel as he really is: a faint folding of space, like heat shimmer rising from asphalt in July. He knows that most of Daniel is elsewhere. That shouldn't hurt, but it does.
There is the sound of booted feet in the hallway at the mouth of the well and the Jaffa look down at him, sticking out at an impossible angle. Jack closes his eyes because that fucked-up gravity game gives him motion sickness.
"Never mind," he says to Daniel as the floor becomes the wall and he's on his feet again, waiting for them, his hands hanging limp and nerveless at his sides like they're attached with string.
Jack was still sitting on the floor in the en suite when the phone on the bedside table started ringing. He could see it from where he was leaning against the bathtub. After fifteen rings it stopped. Then, a moment later, his beeper shuddered across the bedside table and fell onto the floor. The glass was still there behind the toilet. Jack had considered drinking straight from the bottle, but that was quite awhile ago. Now, he was rolling the bottle back and forth on the tile, listening to the rattle of glass on ceramic and grout, a repeating rhythm like train wheels over track seams: clack-ca-clack, clack-ca-clack. His palm was a little numb, but he kept rolling the bottle. Inside, the scotch sloshed back and forth, frothed up a little and waiting to be swallowed. Under the bed, the beeper buzzed its way off of the area rug and onto the hardwood. It sounded like bees in a jar. After awhile it stopped.
"They're worried about me," Jack said. "Because I'm so well-adjusted." He stopped rolling the bottle, twisted off the lid, snapped it into the sink, and raised the last of the scotch, smiling around the glass mouth. "They'll be banging on the door soon." As the scotch touched his lips, he changed his mind and put the bottle down. "I suppose I should brush my teeth."
He waited a moment. Silence means assent. Grabbing the edge of the sink, he dragged himself to his feet and stood shirtless in front of the mirror. Slowly, he raised his eyes to his reflection.
This time he decides to be angry. He begins with word games, twisting Baal's questions back on themselves. But that doesn't last too long because pain is tearing swathes of his vocabulary away like strips of old wallpaper, leaving tattered emptiness behind. So he turns pretty quickly to curses. He uses every ugly sound his mouth can make, spears them together on each long exhalation until he has to pause to grab for air, until his voice is hoarse with the rasping violence of words. He calls Baal every obscene thing he can think of, drowning Baal's questions in filth until all of his wit is ripped away and he can whisper only fucking fucking fucking endlessly like a machine until Baal shoves him into death. Clawing at Baal's roar of frustration, Jack hugs it and drags it down with him.
This time he's resurrected smiling.
No, Jack said again. Over Frasiers shoulder he could see the monitor, a representation of his body--flayed, glowing, and colour-coded--and some other squiggly lines that probably had something to do with his brain. A stylized heart blinked on and off in time with the one in his chest and hed been looking at that so long that now, when the heart on the screen was gone, there was a blank space behind his ribs. He was sweating, shivering, cramps winching his limbs in close to his body, winding him tightly around himself. I said: no-one. Got it?
Pulling up a chair, Frasier sat down so that she could look him in the eye. It might help to have Major Carter and Tealc--
Nobody, he said.
It might help them, to be able to be here for you.
On the monitor, his heart winked out, leaving a blank space. No, he said.
"So, what d'ya think is the best way to come back from the dead?" he asked, aiming the question at the blot of light that had spent the last couple of hours creeping up from the foot of the still-made bed. It looked the same in the mirror as it did from the floor by the bathtub, only backwards. Now it was a long rectangle folded down the side of the bed, a precise angle, just missing the pillow. Soon it would slip onto the floor and get smaller and narrower until it was gone. Tomorrow morning it would be back, arriving the same way, creeping, folding, slipping, narrowing, disappearing. Just like yesterday. In the mirror, his face was familiar, but the skin of his chest was smooth.
His hand didn't shake at all when he lathered up his face with soap and drew the razor up his neck and across his chin with steady, even strokes. He didn't cut himself today.
Lying on his side, Jack stared at the I.V. tubing that, from this limited perspective, descended from nowhere. It gleamed inside with a liquid light, slithered up his forearm in an elegant curve, its single fang embedded in the vein at the crook of his arm. The light was going into him, he knew, not being drawn out of him through that fang. He was being replenished, not drained. He knew that. But he felt the light being drawn drawn drawn out of his veins by a snake that never stopped for breath, that swallowed and swallowed and swallowed and glowed against the grey concrete of the infirmary wall. In the part of his brain that wasnt just watching, the part that was foundering in sensation, he felt that the devouring snake was doing him a favour.
He knew this feeling wasnt real. Just like it wasnt true that there were rats in his gut, crowded together, seething and venal, clawing at each other and fighting for the scraps of him. He knew when he wanted to crawl back into the sarcophagus and let the light remake him that this need was not his, that it had been made for him, of him.
When that feeling was strongest he focused on the diffuse throbbing in the two fingers of his right hand. He remembered his fist ramming into the Jaffas face again and again, the wormhole billowing out over their heads while Jack pounded and pounded and never felt the bones snapping or the pain of breakage until hours later when the Tokra told him to lie still while she yanked the bones back into alignment and wrapped them up tight. Until that moment he remembered only blood and anger. He remembered lurching up from his knees, tripping over the fallen Jaffa, recovering, and swinging his broken fist at the Tok'ra's head. He remembered that it wasnt a case of mistaken identity.
When the phone rang again, he answered on the second ring: "O'Neill. Yeah, Carter, I'm fine. No, I must've been in the shower. The machine's busted." He toed the remains of the answering machine under the bedside table. "I'll be there. No, I said I'll be there and I'll be there. Quit clucking, will ya? If I'm talking to you I'm not gonna get there, am I? Right."
Daniel reminds him of Daniel, except now, instead of the lambency Jack knew--when he was able to taste the light of Daniel's slicked skin--there is only heatless flame flickering, mostly elsewhere, in the corner of his eye. Something that seems like Daniel's hand reaches for him as the wall becomes the floor, but it's his mind that is steadied, a colourless effervescence prickling across his thoughts.
But Daniel is mostly elsewhere. Jack knows that his flesh would crack, crazed across every surface, if he could feel the full extent of that presence now. He leans into it, yearns toward it, imagines it flaring and consuming him, like Daniel once could do.
"I don't want to hurt you," Daniel says, the heatless light withdrawing into the shape of Daniel.
Jack's laugh is a harsh bark.
Frasier found him on the floor beside the infirmary bed. His legs were stretched out in front of him as he leaned back on the concrete wall, his hands folded across his stomach. In another context hed look relaxed, like there should be a bottle of beer cradled between his laced fingers and his hospital whites.
Still not sleeping, sir? she asked. When he said nothing, she slid down the wall beside him and sat on the floor. The worst is over, but you need your rest.
Drawing his legs up, he rested his hands--loose fists--on his knees, then uncurled his fingers to inspect his palms in the dim light. They say that dying is like falling asleep, he said finally, hands closing up again, tighter than before. But they dont tell you that it works the other way around.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see her nodding. Youre afraid you wont wake up.
Nope. He had no control over the smile that pulled his lips up and he suspected it looked as ghastly as it felt. Im afraid Ill wake up and Ill be there. Turning to look at her, he watched the understanding seep into her like a stain. She swallowed hard and said nothing. Ive had this dream before.
When he hung up the phone he stood in the remains of the light on the rug, half-illuminated, like he was standing in water waiting for baptism. Spreading his fingers in the warmth of the sun, he thought about the heat of skin against his lips, the heat of breath, and need, the heat of bodies tangled and poised on the exquisite edge of desire, where everything is lost and remade again by the passage of a thumb across his cheekbone, a word, his name, whispered against his mouth. He touched the fading light and thought about the shadow beneath Daniels lower lip. But the curve of Daniels shoulders led him back and back and back to that oblique shimmer of presence that had no heat in it anymore at all.
Sitting alone at the bottom of the well, he remembers walking through a stand of fir, the forest floor springy with fallen needles, the air sweet, almost cloying with the smell of running sap. In his mind he comes to the remains of a camp, a dead campfire in a circle of stones. Kneeling, he pulls Charlie down to the ground beside him. He leans close to the fire pit and blows gently on it, closing his eyes against the ash that swirls up and falls as flakes and turns to talc on his skin. After a moment, a thin flame leaps up, a pale tongue of heat in the wan spring light.
"See?" he says to Charlie.
Charlie nods. He understands the lesson. Fire is wild. Fire is tenacious. It will live for days under its blanket of ash, waiting for the influx of air to awaken it. It should be stamped out thoroughly, smothered completely, drowned. Charlie understands this lesson about prudence and responsibility, so he nods soberly. But in his eyes is an unshuttered expression, one that tells Jack that Charlie believes down deep that his dad can kindle fire from ashes with his breath.
Jack believed this of Daniel, maybe five or six deaths ago, before he'd died even once, back when Daniel's breath kindled fire from Jack's ashes. I don't want to die. Your men don't want to die. These people certainly don't want to die. It's a shame you're in such a hurry to. He refuses to believe it of Baal, despite the evidence to the contrary, despite the fact that Jack feels the flame in his flesh gutter and die, despite the fact that it flares again inside the machine, despite the fact that he opens his eyes again. And again. And again.
Jack hates the light in his skin.
Frasiers hands were empty. Usually, shed have a bag full of supplements and sedatives and antibiotics and blue pills and pink capsules and a half-hour lecture about how to use them and how not to toss them in the first garbage can out of her line of sight. But this time she had only one word: Rest. She didnt even put a sir on the end of it.
Jack stood just beyond the square of light that fell through the infirmary door and felt healthy and wired and exhausted and sick of the place. He stood there looking at the sharp line of shadow at his feet until Frasiers hand on the small of his back propelled him forward gently.
The sunlight in the bedroom slipped silently away from his fingertips, receding, retreating. He let it go, and it left behind it the dark place, a blankness in his chest. His mind knew what had happened to him; his mind knew what Daniel was like now, how his voice sounded, a soft, familiar thrum arising from the breathless, alien simulacrum of his body. Jacks mind knew what it was to die and die and die. But his skin was so smooth. His body didnt remember. His skin was smooth, his body mute, amnesiac, and the time in the well was only, finally, in his head. Like you are, Daniel, he said, and although he wanted to make that a question, his voice wouldnt let him.
He was still standing there when the light narrowed to a sharp-edged blade across his boots and then was gone.
"Tell me what I wish to know and I will end this."
Next time, he promises himself.
Notes: This story was originally comprised of the sections in Ba'al's fortress. It was expanded for Otter's birthday, 'cause she KREEs so good. Thanks to Elishavah, Aces, and Destina for lightning betas, and to Otter for sort of beta-ing her own birthday present. Now, that's what I call dedication.
Feedback welcomed at email@example.com.