The Dirt of Sowing and Reaping
Daniel swings his sickle, close to the ground, severing the stalk in one stroke. It sounds a little like breaking bones. With each stroke he hears the brittle snap: wrist, shin. As his arm sweeps back and then down and the blade lops away another stalk, he doesn't wonder how he became a man who knew the right way to twist an assailant's arm so that the knife would fall from nerveless fingers, and how to twist a little further until there was a snap. He knows that once, back in The Day, if he'd voiced that connection between corn and bone he'd have earned a raised eyebrow, a forced smile. That kind of observation would have made a regular person change the subject, recoiling a little as though they'd stepped off a well-worn path into nettles. It would have been an indication that he had lived a strange life.
The sickle rises and falls, gleaming. Now, though, everyone knows the sound of breaking bones, on an intimate and a more general scale. Here in Carole, where they are surrounded by pasture and cornfields at the crossing of roads that no longer go anywhere, the knowledge is worked into the lines of their hands like the dirt of sowing and reaping. There are no regular people.
In the next row, Sam swings her sickle and the stalks sigh as they fall. Jack collects them and binds them at their crowns, stands them on end like teepees to dry. He pauses, leaning from side to side to stretch his back, a gloved hand swiping across his brow under his cap. He's thin and straight against the blue, cloudless sky.
Daniel swings his sickle in an elegant, efficient arc. The corn falls, snapping, sighing.
CHAPTER ONE: RAINING IN JULY
We fall like wheat
And lie like stone
("Harvest Night," Brighid E. Stone)
The way Jack remembered it, that July in Colorado Springs was wetter than normal, with endless days of penetrating rain, needles against the skin. Outside, the world was continually drippy and sort of sunk in a listless gloom under a clamped-down lid of grey clouds. Inside the mountain it was clammy, the usually crisp, recycled-tasting air heavy and hard to take in almost, like they were all breathing it through a damp towel. It was cool enough in the controlled conditions of the complex, but everyone was sweating anyway. He remembered that his hand left a perfect palm print on the table in the briefing room. He remembered that he was looking at the palm print, tilting his head a little to catch it in a different angle of light, while Daniel was talking about Baal. Jack didn't want to tune out important things like plans for kicking System Lord asses, but the Baal thing... his mind wandered, the way a kid retreated to another room and the television when parents started fighting.
So, he was looking at his palm print and trying to pay attention to Daniel when he heard, very clearly—although how he could have was still a point of debate—a young voice say, "I'm Michael."
Jack stood up abruptly—causing Daniel's voice to trail away mid-sentence, his mouth hanging open a little—and looked down into the Gateroom. Standing on the ramp, looking up directly into Jack's eyes, was a boy, maybe ten years old. He was wearing jeans rolled up at the ankles, a t-shirt that said "Sea World" on it, and a jacket, standard issue olive drab just like the one hanging in Jack's locker, right down to the SG-1 and Earth glyph patches on the shoulders. The sleeves were way too long, and they covered the boy's hands.
"What the—" Jack began.
"—hell?" he finished a heartbeat later, only now he was standing with his team on a dusty road. They were in the shade of a grove of leafy trees and the road wandered out across an open field into the glare of a hot July sun. According to Jack's watch, four days had passed. By then, they learned later, the war was already over and the world had already come to an end. One full kit, including a 9mm, sat in a backpack at Jack's feet. Daniel's mouth was still hanging open.
Lying on his side half in the ditch, the boy was twitching, white foam from the seizure drying around his lips. When Carter sat him up, he opened his eyes and looked at her glassily. He didn't say a word. He didn't say a word for four months. When he finally found his voice, it ribboned out of him, the unfurling of a coiled wail of anguish in the middle of the night.
"Try it now."
Crouching down again, Daniel flipped the toggle on the side of the generator. Nothing happened. He flipped the switch back and forth a few more times and then slapped the housing with the flat of his hand. "Sonofa—"
"Shit." Sam's voice was sharp enough on the edges to cut steel. "Shit, shit, shit." There was a clanking sound that didn't seem quite finessed enough to be involved delicate repair work and then two spark plugs shot out from behind the generator and clattered against the wall. "Can I murder Junst, Daniel? Can I just murder him a little tiny bit?"
"Murder him all the way if you want to," Daniel offered generously as he dragged himself upright and leaned over the dead machine to look at her. "I'll hold him down."
Lying on her back, Sam threw both arms over her eyes, a wrench in one hand, a rag in the other. "One ounce of naqada,and I wouldn't need Junst at all," she said for the two millionth time this month. "I'm not asking for the whole frigging galaxy, now, am I?"
"No, just an extremely rare and valuable part of it." Pushing her arms out of the way, he offered her a hand and pulled her awkwardly to her feet. Her face was smeared with grease and dirt, her hair escaping her braid and sticking in curling strands to her sweaty face. He swiped a hand across her cheek, gathering up the hair and tucking it behind her ear. "You'll get it to work," he told her.
"And if I don't?"
Then the hospital stays dark and the patients die. He said instead, "Then we put Junst on a treadmill and you get to hold the whip."
"Oh, man, you are so gonna get fucked snakewise," Tam crowed, his eyes bright with admiration and the anticipation of doom. "Fucked. Snake. Wise." He punctuated each word by jabbing Michael at the base of his skull with a stiff finger, ignoring the shocked, slightly frightened glances cast their way from the circle of women crouched in the doorway of the school. They were sorting nuts and bolts from a bucket, dropping them into smaller pails, their hands moving swiftly, the rattle of metal against metal drowned out by the din of the market.
Following them to the doorway, Ingram watched them go, her arms folded across her ample chest, her round, girlish face caught in an undecided expression somewhere between indulgent affection and exasperation. Michael tossed her a grin and turned away without waiting to see if it worked.
"Shut up, Tam." Michael deked around the end of a scavenge stall, but paused to line up a row of blackened spark plugs neatly along the edge of the wooden door that served as a table, switching the plugs around deftly so that they were arranged smallest to largest. As he was reaching for the messy stack of o-rings, Tam took his wrist and gently pulled him away, one hand on the back of Michael's neck steering him in a new direction and making sure he didn't look back. Michael's fingers were itchy. He put his hands in his pockets. Behind him, Junst, the stall owner, cackled. The old bastard was messing up the plugs, Michael knew it, but Tam's hand on his neck kept him moving through the crowd. "At least I'll get fucked somewise," Michael went on, shrugging Tam's hand away. "Which is more than we can say for some people."
Laughing, Tam patted the side of Michael's face with a calloused hand. "What? Mind-fucks don't count now?" As he met Michael's eyes, Tam let the laugh die, his mouth going grim, mirroring Michael's expression.
Finally, the corner of Michael's mouth quirked up, his dark brown eyes sparkling. "What's the last Law of Service, Mr. Ng?"
"The last Law of Service is—" Tam began solemnly.
"—to take it snakewise!" Michael shouted the last word triumphantly, turning in a circle, hands outstretched, daring anyone in the crowd to call him on his blasphemy.
Giving them a wide berth, the crowd parted around them and flowed onward. Michael stuffed his hands in his pockets and was starting to move on but found his path blocked by the stocky bulk of an old man, his jaw out-thrust in anger. Michael smelled sweat and dust and smoke; the old guy was crumpled and smoldering like paper on coals. When he opened his mouth to speak, ashes puffed out and drifted away on the wind, smearing the air with a greasy grey plume. Tam was listening to him, nodding his head with exaggerated politeness, and didn't seem to notice the way the ash was staining him, streaking his skin and hair.
Looking away, Michael squeezed his eyes shut and counted rapidly to ten and back. When he glanced up again, the man was still talking, but now only words stumbled out of him. Without bothering to listen (he'd heard the tirades about the wages of sin before), Michael stepped up and put his face close to the old man's. "Whatcha gonna do?" he demanded belligerently. They stared at each other for a long moment and Michael wouldn't let himself look away as the man darkened, going greyer around the edges. Finally, as the coot shuffled away with an angry swat at the air, Michael shouted, "Yeah, I know, I know. The god will have me for dinner."
"Well, you are a tasty piece of flesh," Tam observed.
"A delicacy, Mr. Ng," Michael agreed, and started off again against the flow of traffic.
Dropping the cutlery onto the table with a clatter, Daniel sorted through it, putting aside the matching pieces, the ones with the rosettes on the handle. Once he had a full place setting, he arranged them tidily, lining them up from shortest to longest—spoon, fork, knife. Finally, he ran his palm along the edge of the table to make sure the ends of the utensils were aligned perfectly. Then, he repeated the exercise with the mismatched cutlery, carefully laying out three more settings. His hand hovered over the last one, undecided, and then gathered up the cutlery. After a moment, he sighed and reset the place.
"Acceptable. But you know he's going to want to fix that one," Sam said as she set a bowl of mashed potatoes down in the middle of the table, indicating the row of utensils at her place, two rosette pieces and one with a squared handle.
Grabbing her wrist, Daniel sucked a daub of potato off of the side of her hand and then, releasing her, switched the square-handled spoon for one with a curly-cued end. Not a perfect match.
"Better," Sam approved and went back to get the stew pot from the fire in the little courtyard. She was humming softly, chuckling as she dodged Yana Maio from next door, who was collecting her own steaming pot. Daniel smiled.
"What are you grinning at?" Sam asked as she ducked through the slightly canted doorway, pausing halfway across the room to hiss at the heat of the pot handles on her fingers and then double-timing it to the little breakfast nook by the window. Some of the grey broth splashed over the edge onto her hand when she dropped the pot gracelessly on the table.
For the second time in two minutes, Daniel closed soft lips around the side of her hand, soothing the slight burn with his tongue. "You, with the humming," he answered finally. "I'd've thought you'd be grouching about the generator."
"Ah." Sam nodded as she swung her legs over the bench and pulled him down beside her. "I'm looking on the bright side."
"That side of Junst's ass I'm gonna be kicking from here 'til Sunday." Her smile was high on wattage and as happy as it was deadly.
Pouring half a cup of water into his mug, Daniel raised it in a salute: "To Junst, the soon-to-be unhappiest sonofabitch in Carole. May his ass be ever ripe for kicking."
"I get dibs," Michael said from the doorway, loping in and leaning between them to switch Daniel's knife for one at the fourth place-setting and carefully adjusting it against the edge of the table. "He laughed at me today." Coming around to the other side of the table, he slumped onto the bench, his bony wrists protruding a good inch from the grimy olive drab sleeves of his jacket. In the four-plus years since he'd appeared wearing it in the Gateroom, the jacket had taken a beating and was definitely on the way out. Not that Michael was going to let anybody lay a finger on it, though. He tugged the sleeves down self-consciously. "In other news, Ingram wants to expel me."
Sam ladled out a bowl of stew for each of them, adding a dollop of potatoes, before answering. "Ingram always wants to expel you, Michael. It's what makes you alluring to all the girls."
"There are no girls," Michael reminded her glumly as he stirred his stew, poking at it with careful attention. "The only one left is Lizzie Borden and she's wobbly on six levels at least, besides being, like, a foot too short." He lifted a lump of something brown on his spoon and held it out to Sam. "Is this meat?"
Dropping the lump back into his bowl with a scowl, he stretched a gangly arm across the table and helped himself to a chunk of coarse, brown bread. "And if I have to list those fucking laws one more time I'm gonna rip my tongue out."
"A-ah, Lizzie Borden?" Daniel asked, his spoon poised halfway to his mouth, eyebrows going up and then down in confusion.
"Took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks," Michael recited. He aimed his spoon at Daniel's face, "You can see it in her eyes: practically spirals in there." Scooping up a mouthful of potatoes, he laughed humourlessly. "She'd be a good snake-fuck, make a real scary overlord type." He swallowed the potatoes. "'Cept the snake'd prob'ly be too scared of her. Ha. Lizzie Borden, humanity's secret weapon."
Sam shook her head and dropped her spoon into her bowl. "Gee, and I wonder why Ingram wants to expel you?"
Michael's shoulders hunched up defensively as he aimed his reply at the table. "You're the ones who wanted me to go to that stupid mind-fuck school and get mind-fucked and recite mind-fuck laws and—"
"You need a new word," observed Daniel mildly. "That one's losing its shock-value pretty quick."
"Bullshit," Michael said flatly.
Closing her eyes, Sam caressed her lips with the flats of her fingernails for a long moment, visibly counting, her nostrils flaring. Daniel pressed his leg up against hers under the table, moral support. Finally, she opened her eyes and leaned forward. Michael was carefully lining up his cutlery at the edge of the table, rocking a little.
"You're obviously not being mind-fucked," she began patiently, "because you're too smart for that." Michael grunted and ran his palm along the table edge, fine-tuning his alignment. "But you have to go to school. You have to play the game. We're not asking you to believe it, but you have to understand it. You have to learn—"
"In the belly of the beast, in the belly of the beast, I know I know I know." He reached out to adjust the ladle in the stew pot so that it was on the same angle as the spoon in the potato bowl.
"It's dangerous to be who you are, Michael," Daniel added gently, catching him pointedly by the sleeve of his jacket. "You just have to try to fly under the radar a little longer, that's all."
A wry smile twisted up the corner of Michael's thin-lipped mouth. "You guys are seriously mixing your metaphors."
As it had for the better part of the summer, the fourth place setting came out again the next night, and the next six nights. At the end of each dinner, Daniel put the cutlery in the box on the shelf, blew out the candles, and crawled into bed, raising his chin so that he wouldn't be breathing in Sam's face, and puffing her hair out of his mouth. She curled toward him, her arms folded between them, fists knobby against his chest, one knee between his thighs. Her breath was only a little hotter than the August air that seemed to lurk, still and stagnant, in their room as though it, too, were waiting. In the next room, the one that had been the dining room back in The Day, Michael talked in his sleep. Although Daniel listened carefully, his eyes wide in the dark, he couldn't quite make out what Michael was saying. He'd only been able to conclude that the boy wasn't speaking English anymore.
On the eighth day, Daniel spent the morning listening to an argument between a man who ran a very successful brothel and the next door neighbour, who had opened her back door one morning to find a tangle of drunken, naked bodies on her porch. She had no real problem with that, but if the brothel-owner was going to use her tiny yard as an overflow room, she wanted compensation. There were negotiations, outrageous demands and more outrageous counter-demands and, finally, an agreement for the exchange of a weekly quantity of liquor and access to free services. The neighbour got a new, screened-in porch, and the brothel-owner got an extra room with herb tea and sliced tomatoes for his customers. Everybody was happy, especially Daniel, who collected a nice, red chicken and six eggs for his fee.
Weaving his way through the crowds at the market, dodging the occasional cart laden with vegetables, Daniel stroked the bird's head with his finger. "What will I call you, hmmm?" he asked her. Since she didn't have any good ideas of her own, he decided to call her "Dinner." She didn't seem to have much of an opinion about that.
He left the chicken at the butcher's stall and went to do some work in the public building, namely, the office spaces at the back of a mostly-sturdy movie theatre. As he passed through the auditorium, keeping close to the south wall where the floor was most stable, he wondered how long this place would last before the goons came and razed it like they had the last two. The goons were not big on home-grown civilian governance.
Noting his arbitration in his log book, he opened up the heating grate above the battered desk and slid the book inside the duct. Then, he read the minutes from the last meeting of the public works committee, which were hand-written in Jenny Peskadillo's defiant capital letters, and equally defiantly tacked up on the bulletin board for any passing squad to see. He grinned a little as he took the paper down. This time, he noted, the minutes were written on the back of a flier for a restaurant that was now a pit of black glass. "On special this week," the flier shouted. "Get mango shake for free!" Daniel's mouth only watered for a minute before he managed to put the idea of pad thai out of his mind. Number one on the agenda for the next meeting were Sam's plans to get the town water system running again. Daniel smiled, even though he knew that the plans would get vetoed as too ambitious. He was beginning to suspect that the committee chairwoman had some kind of monopoly on rain barrels.
By the time he was done puttering at "the office," dinner was waiting for him wrapped in a reasonably clean square of cloth at the butcher's stall. Daniel exchanged two of the eggs for the efficient service and headed back to the edge of town, walking down the middle of the cracked asphalt road to the sprawl of listing row-houses that they called home these days. Shooing a goose and a pink-white piglet off of his front step, he shouldered open the door, waving at Yana's little boy who was solemnly trying to herd the goose-and-pig team back onto his own lawn. As always, Lu blinked wide brown eyes at him and said nothing. Daniel smiled anyway. He was so busy wondering what a pig could possibly see in a goose that he didn't see the boots in the front hall until he tripped over them.
Catching himself with one hand against the wall, he swore softly as the sack of provisions swung from the handles looped over his wrist and connected sharply with the hall closet door. He was already working on the reaming he was going to give Michael for leaving his crap around again when he looked down and recognized the boots. The wave of relief that rose up in him made him close his eyes.
Leaning down to put the boots in the closet, he paused to run his thumb over one battered toe and into the creases at the ankle before shaking his head and tossing the boot in with its partner. He made himself go to the laundry room and lift the ceramic tile and put the chicken and the eggs down in the cool hole under the floor with the butter and the jar of milk. Need more milk, he thought. One of the eggs had a fine crack in it so he rummaged in the cupboard above the inert washing machine until he found another jar, cracked the egg the rest of the way, then put the jar in the cold cellar, too, with a saucer over it to keep the egg clean. Then he stood in the hallway, suspended.
It was the sound of water that got him moving again. He followed it out through the kitchen and into the courtyard. A duffel bag lay unzipped on the cracked paving stones by the kitchen door, half crushing the thyme and basil growing in a pot there. He lifted the bag and stroked the herbs upright again as the patter of water echoed in the small space. The sound raised gooseflesh on his arms as though it were trickling across his skin. Finally, he raised his head.
In the corner where the sun was bright and hot against the yellow brick, Jack was leaning over a basin on the workbench, squeezing a wet rag over his hair. The water streamed in quicksilver ribbons off of his bent head and back into the basin, and ran in serpentine rivulets down his back, leaving streaks of sunburned red showing through the grime. Spitting a little as the water ran into his face, he dropped the rag into the basin, squeezed the dirt out of it and raised it again. The waistband of his jeans was soaked. His feet were bare. He looked real, defined sharply by dark shadows, highlighted at the curve his neck and the slight jutting of his hip by the glare of the sun, substantial, undeniably there. Daniel closed his eyes again and the afterimage burned behind his lids, red and hot blue.
Rising, Daniel crossed the short distance in two strides and then his hand was reaching out before he even knew what he was doing, his fingers gently touching the back of Jack's neck, settling into the small, familiar indentations between his vertebrae. Jack didn't turn around, but he paused, and then a slow breath leaked out of him, softening the rigid lines of his shoulders. He dropped the rag back in the basin again and lifted it, dripping. Taking it from him, Daniel wiped at the dirt Jack couldn't reach between his shoulder blades, careful not to chafe his burned skin too much.
"You're late," Daniel said finally.
"Yeah. Got an invitation I couldn't refuse."
Daniel's fingers trailed down along Jack's spine and over the red sickle of a wound that curved across the small of his back, twice as long as Daniel's hand. It hadn't become a scar yet, was livid and puckered, and whoever had done the stitching hadn't been too concerned with aesthetics, but it didn't look infected, only sore. "Yeah, I can see that." Jack's skin twitched under Daniel's careful probing.
Reaching back to grab Daniel's wrist, Jack turned to face him. His eyes were tired, the lines around his mouth deeply etched in the afternoon glare. The skin of his forehead and between his eyes was a rash of red and flaking, dried blisters.
"Looks like it was a close one," Daniel observed, reaching out to touch his face.
Jack leaned away. "Isn't it always?" Bending to pick up his shirt from the ground, he used it to wipe his face and to scrub away the excess water in his hair. Daniel grinned at the silver-grey the makeshift towel left standing up at jaunty angles, but managed to keep his hands at his sides this time.
Gathering up the up the duffel bag, Jack disappeared through the door. "Carter?" he asked once they were inside.
Daniel followed, blinking hard in the relative dimness of the kitchen. "Hospital," he answered, and then, when Jack's head jerked up, he added, "Fixing the generator."
"Oh." Once more, Jack moved away and Daniel followed, trailing him down the hallway to the front of the house and into the living room that now served as their bedroom. Jack stood in the middle of the worn carpet, the duffel bag dangling from his hand until Daniel took it from him and stowed it on the bottom of the massive entertainment unit that covered one wall. The stare of the gutted tv was almost as blank as Jack's. Reaching inside the bag, he pulled out Jack's 9mm and slipped the magazine, putting the gun in the top drawer next to Sam's and the clip in a box on top of the unit. He stood on tiptoe to push the box back out of sight.
"Where's the kid?" Jack's hands were hanging at his sides like they were still weighted down, pulling his shoulders into a subtle slump of fatigue.
Again, Jack's posture straightened. He raised his eyebrows. "Would that be the mind-fuck school?"
Daniel didn't know whether to laugh or to sigh so he managed a breathy hybrid of both. "Jack, we've been over this—"
Waving his arguments away, Jack lowered himself stiffly to sit on the edge of the mattress and scrubbed at his hair again, yawning. "I know. I'm just surprised you got him to go, that's all."
Daniel confessed with an uncomfortable shrug, "Sam said we'd kick him out if he didn't. I guess he's still young enough to fall for coercion and threats of abandonment."
Jack nodded noncommittally and flopped back against the pillow. "Whatever works." After a second he added, "Ow," but didn't bother to turn over and take the pressure off his lacerated back. He threw his arm over his eyes.
Hesitating, Daniel watched him a moment longer before turning to go. As Daniel was pulling shut the French doors, Jack murmured, "Hey," and stretched an arm out across the bed, palm up, fingers waggling an invitation. Daniel sat on the edge of the bed and let Jack grope blindly for his hand for a second before reaching out and lacing his fingers with his. In less than two breaths, Jack was asleep. Measuring a perfect square around him, the sunlight that fell between the open curtains bleached the bruises across his ribs almost to nothingness. Daniel traced them with his fingers. Then he bent and touched them with his lips. Jack didn't wake, but he dropped his arm from over his eyes and wrapped it protectively around his body. Daniel's jaw tightened. With a final squeeze of Jack's hand, he stood, leaned over to pull one of the curtains a little to shade Jack's eyes, and then crept to the door.
"So-o, I guess you'll be here when I get back, right?" he whispered. "Good. That's... that's good."
When Jack opened his eyes again the hot, white square of sunlight had slipped off of the bed and scaled the wall at his feet, going ruddy and turning the wallpaper with its tacky border of polo ponies to a slightly more respectable dry-desert spaghetti-western sepia. As he'd done a hundred times before, Jack counted the ponies he could see from his position on his back, letting his vision blur until he could almost imagine the horses moving, cantering along above the chair rail and out of sight. Beside him, Carter was breathing shallowly through her mouth, turned away from him, her loose skirt pulled up high on her thighs. Her tanned legs were sheened with a fine sweat. Moving carefully, Jack rolled over, feeling every single joint and muscle creaking like rusty hinges.
As if she heard it too, Carter said, "You forgot your oil can again, didn't you." There was a smile in her sleepy voice. "Tin Woodsman," she mumbled, in case he didn't get it.
Sliding his hand across her damp thigh, Jack rested his forehead between her shoulder blades and groaned instead of making the patently unromantic crack he wanted to about lube jobs and who needed one. As if she'd heard this, too, she leaned back against him a little, shifting to give him more thigh to explore. Lifting his head, he looked at her face over her shoulder, able to see only the curve of her cheekbone and the tips of her lashes. He worked his hand under the skirt and up to her hip.
"Since when do you sleep in the middle of the day?" he countered, his lips against the back of her neck.
"Since when do you?"
"I have an excuse. I was cudgeled."
She leaned back further and craned her neck to look at him. "'Cudgeled?' What have you been reading?" The smile faded, replaced by a frown as she rolled over the rest of the way to face him. Slipping out from under her skirt, his hand skimmed over her hip and found its way comfortably to the small of her back. "You look like hell," she observed.
"Cudgeling does that to you. You don't want to try it."
"I've been cudgeled. And pistol-whipped and bludgeoned. I've been bludgeoned lots of times." Coming from anybody else, the pride in her voice when she said that would've struck Jack as more than a little sick. Of course, over the years he'd gotten a look at the other guys, the ones who weren't standing when she walked away, and the score was definitely in her favour, skirts and long hair notwithstanding. She moved to touch the blisters between his eyebrows but pulled her fingers back again and, instead, tucked her arms in, her knobby knuckles against his chest. "I guess you didn't meet up with Teal'c, then," she said finally, her voice dropping low with disappointment.
"Oh, I met him. Hence my belated but lively return." As she started up onto her elbow, he folded his hands around hers and she settled back again. "I put the offer to him, but he decided he'd better stick around there in case any other colonels—"
"— needed their sorry asses saved." He felt it as the disappointment seeped deeper into her body, made her heavier against the thin pillow. He recognized that weight because he felt it, too, only he'd had more time to get used to it. "He's not coming. Or not anytime soon, anyway."
"But he's okay, right?"
Jack shrugged. "Sure, if you can call playing pet Jaffa to some ass-hole collaborator 'okay'." He plucked a strand of her hair from where it was caught in the corner of her mouth and wound it around his middle finger. "He's a secret agent man. We should be proud."
"Speaking of secret agents... why don't you just come in instead of lurking like that?" Jack raised his head and pinned Michael with a glare as he was doing a quick fade into the shadows of the hallway. "Come on." Heaving a dramatic sigh, Jack pushed himself up to a sitting position and swung his legs over Carter's to get out of the bed. The slash on his back was visible in his head as he moved, a taut, pulsing line of red, stinging with the strain and itching like a bastard. He rubbed his eyes with he heels of his hands instead of scratching at the wound, swaying a little with the headrush.
"Dinner's ready," Michael announced, still hovering in the doorway.
As he started to back away again, Jack caught him by the sleeve and pulled him in for a quick hug, holding him until he felt Michael's hands pat tentatively at his back. Then Jack let him go with a gentle slap on the side of his face.
"What'd I tell you about wearing that jacket in public?" Jack demanded, tugging at the collar critically. It was a serious question, but he couldn't quite keep the grin from surfacing and ruining the menacing parental effect he was going for.
Michael shrugged and pulled free, but there was a glow in his eyes that he wouldn't let become a full-fledged smile. "Do you want dinner or what?"
"Is it meat?"
"It was a chicken. Daniel cooked it."
Michael set the table, carefully aligning Jack's set of matching cutlery. Since it was a special occasion, Michael got a whole glass of milk with dinner. It was warm and clung to the back of his throat and was better than candy. They didn't do much talking, but Michael could feel them, Sam and Daniel, watching Jack, noting how his movements—stretching for more bread, getting up to put his plate in the sink—were pretty much like normal, except with a kind of hitch in them when the gash across his back reminded him that he wasn't fully healed yet, no matter if he felt a lot better. The burns on Jack's forehead were faded, but Michael didn't miss how Daniel's gaze tended to rest there and slide away when Jack looked up. Jack wasn't going to tell them anything right then about what he'd seen or done or what had been done to him, but they were reading the story, anyway. The intensity of their attention prickled on Michael's skin, made him itchy and jumpy.
So, he talked too much, filling up the space where Jack's story wasn't. He talked about Tam and his message delivery venture, but not the spin-off blackmail venture. He talked about Ingram and the way she happily droned on day after day about the Laws of Service and Proper Obeisance and blah blah yadda yadda as if the god was ever going to come here himself to check up on them and let them bow at his stolen feet. And because he was angry about Ingram and the laws and school, he started to talk about the girls in his class, the ones who were gone, but when Sam's eyes went dark and her head bowed low over her plate, he wished he had ripped his tongue out, after all.
After dinner, they let him escape without doing dishes. He left them together in the kitchen, moving around in the small space, bumping into each other on purpose, the air around them practically sparkling, a ghost light around their bodies that intensified the closer they got to each other. When he closed his eyes he could feel it like a hum in his bones, just beyond the threshold of understanding. It was warm and bright and it scared him the way it opened him up and went right through him like that.
Slamming the door, his jacket half on, he ran down the road, counting his footsteps under his breath. Something like voices murmured in his head like a hive-full of lazy bees, inarticulate and insistent, waxing and waning as he passed along down the row of houses, and so he ran faster, counted louder. At the end of the street he cut into the cornfield, feeling the high, green walls folding shut behind him, muffling the noise with a cool, vegetable silence. Bursting out into the open suddenly, he crossed the cracked red earth to the shrunken summer river and splashed across a sandbar and up the opposite bank. Then he fell on his back into the scrubby, sunburned grass and counted out loud from one to five hundred and back to one again. By then the stars had started to wink with pinprick brightness in the east, and it was quiet in his head again; he was alone again. He got up, carefully brushed the dust off of his jacket, and wandered home the long way, upriver and across the bridge and down the street past one of Carole's three sets of dead, dark stoplights. He was sweating, his feet cold in his wet sneakers.
Jack's body was leaner than when he'd left, with a kind of sharpness at the wrists, the hips, the cheekbones, ribs that showed, the spaces between them wide enough for Daniel's fingers to lie there comfortably. Within the blurred contours of his fatigue there was a tightly coiled wire of tension his body wouldn't give up, as though it were giving him shape, as essential as bone. Daniel and Sam kneaded his muscles, kissed him, demanded his tenderness, reminded him what that was. But before gentleness there was struggle, force against force, Jack pushing and the two of them pushing back. Jack's muscles were ropy on his too-thin arms as he pinned a wrist, or balanced above them in turn, testing their solidity against his own. Sam knew when to match his strength with strength and when to give in. Daniel knew how to take him to the edge and when to let him fall. And when they did finally fall, crossways on the mattress in a tangle of sheets and limbs, the full moon was low and fat and orange in the sky, glowing like an erstwhile streetlight through the crack between the curtains and casting a long, thin blade of gold across their sweaty bodies.
Jack lay on his stomach between them while they studied him with fingertips and lips. Sam shared a pillow with him, almost nose-to-nose, and stared into his eyes, traced her fingers along his lean cheek, his jaw, his throat, comparing this new topography with the one in her memory. Daniel leaned on one elbow and caressed Jack's spine from the hair at his nape to the small of his back, following each valley between ribs until the bones touched the mattress on one side or Sam's stomach on the other, or until Jack's skin started to twitch on the verge of ticklish. Then Daniel doubled back to the spine again. It was like mapping the veins of a leaf, testing structural integrity. When he finally made it as far as the wound, Jack seemed relaxed, unwound and undone, but Daniel's fingers were shaking.
Running his middle finger along the uneven slash, feeling the fishing line stitches catching on his calloused fingertip, Daniel asked, "Knife?"
"Gauntlet," Jack answered, and Sam kissed the word away.
Daniel's neck muscles tightened as in his imagination Jack arched his back, straining away from pain, and the talon broke through skin and muscle and rattled along bone, seeking something vital.
"Jesus," Daniel hissed. "Damnit. Goddamnit, Jack." Jack rolled over, hiding the wound, but Daniel kept talking, words hot in his mouth, throat tight enough to raise the pitch of his voice. "Goddamnit, Jack. You fucking goddamn sonofabitch." His fingers glided along Jack's chest from sternum to stomach, reading the map of bruises there, his touch a gentle contradiction to the whispered harshness of his voice . "Damn you." His throat was burning.
Awkwardly pulling his arm out from between them, Jack put his hand on the back of Daniel's head and pulled him down onto his chest, heedless of bruises or Daniel's resistance. Sam didn't say "shhhh" but it was there in her fingers, cool on Daniel's temple, stroking back his hair.
"You are such an asshole," Daniel muttered, resenting the fact that his anger and fear were bleeding out of him when he wasn't done with them yet.
Jack groped for Daniel's hand, but it curled into a fist at his touch. Unwilling to let him work the fingers loose, Daniel made Jack settle for squeezing his wrist. "Yeah," Jack admitted, his voice vibrating through bones and bruises against Daniel's cheek. "So you've said."
After awhile, the pounding of Daniel's heart slowed until finally it wasn't competing with the sound of Jack's and he could listen to their breathing, the slow, measured swinging into the greyness between waking and sleep. "You're not going back out there alone again, by the way," Daniel announced with finality.
"Not your call."
"Well, I've seen you naked—"
"Me, too," Sam interjected, words indistinct, muffled against Jack's shoulder.
"—and nobody's saluted you in awhile, so whose call is it, really?"
"—sir," Sam finished, balancing on the line between respect and irony.
Jack said nothing, his fingers tight as a vice on Daniel's arm.
As was usual these days, Michael's sleep wasn't restful. The rhythmic breathing from the next room followed him into his dreams and became the harsh rasp of breath that tasted like blood, the endless sawing of smoke-sharp air through overtaxed lungs, counterpoint to the pounding of his feet against pavement, two stumbling steps for each of Daniel's sure ones. In the puddle of water that spanned the whole width of the alleyway the town burned upside down, livid and wavering, until Daniel's boots splashed through it and then there was only the brighter fire in the air above their heads, and the percussion of explosions Michael could feel in the marrow of his bones before the shock waves battered at his ears. A dark wing passed across the wedge of sky, chased by the wail of its engines. A truck crept across the alley mouth, flatbed full of men. Narrow-beamed in the smoke, flashlight speared into the alley's darkness, angled and danced crazily as the truck bounced and rattled along the pitted street.
"They want me," Michael said, only he said it without voice.
Turning to him, Daniel crouched and dragged him down to the wet pavement. One of Daniel's eyes was lit with guttering orange, the other hidden behind the blank lens of his glasses. "They want us, not you," he corrected as though he'd heard him, and leaned them both deeper into the shadow of a dumpster. "Because of who we are. For what we know."
His face muffled in the scratchy wool of Daniel's sweater, Micheal shook his head. "For what I know," he tried to say, but he didn't know what he knew and there were no words to say it.
And somewhere in the centre of things, behind Michael's fear-wide eyes, in the dark core of dreams, there was something darker scrabbling at the back of his gritted teeth, wanting words to give it shape, wanting out.
By the time the moon had set, the room was cooler and a sluggish breeze stirred the edge of the curtain, bringing with it the smell of distant rain. Moving very carefully, Jack inched his way down the mattress a bit until he could duck out from under Daniel's arm, pulled his legs out from under Carter's and shimmied off the end of the bed onto the floor. Neither one of them woke. Outside, a bird was singing in the softening dark, an endless tumble of notes that reminded Jack of Daniel, back in The Day, rattling out passages in arcane languages meaningful only to him. The bird paused. In the momentary silence, Daniel rolled over and Sam fitted herself into his hollows, her cheek against his shoulder blade, her arm draping around his waist, hand finding his. Daniel's fingers twined with hers as his mouth moved around an unvoiced reassurance. His own mouth as dry as sandpaper, Jack pulled on his jeans and padded into the kitchen in search of drinkable water.
He didn't jump when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, but his muscles snapped to attention, making his wound keen with a thin, stinging redness behind his eyes. Michael was sitting in his underwear on the bench in the breakfast nook, his narrow back a pale curve in the gloom. He was rocking slightly, chewing the edge of one thumbnail. On the table in front of him all of the cutlery was spread out in disarray. Michael wasn't crying, but his breathing was harsh and uneven, a prelude to tears.
Coming slowly up behind him, Jack could see what the problem was: Michael had begun to arrange the cutlery by size—spoons, the lone dessert fork, dinner forks, knives, serving spoons—but the patterns on the handles had derailed him. Forks matched forks, but the patterns were wrong, a kaleidoscope of difference and disorder. The fact that Jack recognized this was proof positive in his mind that he'd been hanging around with the kid for too long. Straddling the bench beside him, Jack sorted the cutlery into piles of matching or similar patterns. Leaving the biggest pile in front of Michael, he swept the rest into the box.
"We don't need these ones," he said, and leaned over to put the box on the counter, stretching to nudge it out of sight behind a sack of flour.
Nodding vaguely, but not in thanks, or even acknowledgment, really, Michael began to arrange the remaining pieces from smallest to largest, lining them up carefully against the edge of the table. His fair hair fell over his eyes but he didn't brush it away, so Jack did it for him, fruitlessly, as it turned out.
"Time for a haircut," Jack observed.
Michael's hands slowed to a stop, his body becoming still. "I'm not fifteen," he said, head bowed, shoulders hunched, as though he were confessing, expecting punishment.
Jack's stomach tightened to a knot. "Oh?"
"I'm older." Michael nodded, confirming this, and then shook his head slightly in denial. "And I'm younger." Raising his head, he searched Jack's face, his eyes afraid. The unshed tears there seemed to distill the wan, grey light so that his eyes gleamed like polished metal for a moment before he blinked and the tears coursed down his cheeks. "These aren't my hands," he concluded, bowing his head again to look at them, limp in his lap.
The skin prickling on the back of his neck, Jack cast a longing glance over his shoulder in the direction of Daniel and Carter. He cleared his throat. "Well," he began without any clear idea what was going to come next, "possession is nine tenths of the law." He cupped Michael's chin and made him look up. "They're your hands now." Again, he was rewarded with that strangely neutral nod. "C'mon. Back to bed. No school today." He grinned a somewhat brittle grin. "We'll go fishing."
"I hate fishing," Michael complained as he let Jack usher him back into his room. "It's boring." Obediently, he lay down and pulled the sheet up to his chin and didn't look like a fifteen-year-old at all.
"We fish, we eat. Unless you want Daniel to provide all of your meals. Or—" Jack paused for chilling dramatic effect, "—Carter."
This time, when Michael made an expression of mock fear, he looked like himself again.
"Go to sleep," Jack said. He waited until Michael closed his eyes before continuing through the room and slipping past the curtain that separated the old dining room from the living room. On the mattress under the window, Carter and Daniel had shifted again, were fitted like puzzle pieces, her head tucked under his chin, his knee between her thighs. Pulling the sheet up over them, Jack resisted the urge to wake them, to make them bitch about being alert before sunrise in a world without coffee. Instead, he threw his shirt on and went back to the kitchen, his mouth twice as dry as before.
The water in the "boiled water" bucket (easily identifiable by the neat, block letters in Sam's handwriting on the side) smelled invitingly clean, and he was reaching in with a glass to ladle some out when, in the next room, Michael started to whisper in his sleep. Pausing, fingers touching the tepid water, Jack listened until the hairs were standing up on his arms. Whatever the kid was saying, he wasn't saying it in English. Jack put the lid back on the bucket and opened up the cupboard over the stove instead. There was one bottle there, the existing label customized and edited in black magic marker to turn it into a succinct love letter: "Jack: Daniel's Special Blend—8000 proof. Use only under doctors' supervision." Taking the bottle down, Jack closed the cupboard and let himself out the kitchen door.
The flagstones of the courtyard were slick under his bare feet and cold with morning dew. In the square of sky visible above the close walls, the clouds were low and ominous, seeming to glow from inside somehow, and darker in the shadows because of it. Somewhere, the bird was still working its endless litany, variations on variations on a theme. Jack thought of harpsichords and fugues as he shouldered open the wrought iron gate and followed the path around the side of the neighbour's unit and into the garden.
Stretching out in both directions to the limits of the row of houses, the gardens were whispering, all the leaves turned his way on one side of him and away from him on the other, showing their undersides as the wind swept along close to the ground. Tomato plants clung heavily to their frames, gangly stems drooping under the weight of their fruit. Lettuce unfurled and bowed away from the wind, while cabbages were unmoved, stoic lumps. Further out, potatoes ruffled their leaves and kept their real opinions to themselves, underground, colluding with radishes and carrots. Pressing against the frost fence, the swaying, rustling cornfields marked the furthest margin of the town. Jack walked along the nearest row, the bottle dangling from his hand, and felt a little proprietary pride in the lushness of their own sliver of the garden, even though he'd been away for most of the growing season. By the time he made it to the fence, his pant legs were soaked with dew and his feet were cold.
There, at the end of the row, a pole-straight cottonwood bowed slightly toward him, hush-hushing, its tear-shaped leaves cutting the air. Below it, a wobbly plastic lawn chair sat next to a wooden crate. On the crate was a mason jar filled with withered dandelions. Slumping down onto the chair, Jack turned his face to the wind, tilting his head back, closing his eyes. The air was heavy with impending rain, and the smell of it, a cool, slippery gleam floating on the lingering warmth of dry, hot days, brought with it images, memory, things he felt in his skin.
He remembered lying on his stomach on a prickly blanket, his arms folded under his head. He was looking out over the scrubby undulations of foothills, and the sudden flatness of prairie, looking down on them, actually, from the height of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a ridge with history going back to before white men came and rewrote what they didn't erase. Below him, off close to the horizon, a grey sheet of rain was wavering in the wind like a billowing curtain, sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating, hovering for a long time at the yellow crest of the next hill, as though uncertain about taking the plunge into the shallow, flat-bottomed valley below. A dozen cattle were huddled in the lee of this hill and their agitated lowing came to him intermittently on the advancing curl of wind, dropping away again to leave only the uneven hissing of his breath through clenched teeth and the singing of the woman who was stitching him up. She sang the whole time she worked, telling an important story in a language he didn't understand, her deft hands pulling his flesh together with his own fishing line. Jack concentrated on the rain, the metallic smell of it, its elusive, seductive whisper, and tried not to flinch each time the darning needle pierced his skin. Above him, the sky was blue and the grass around him was dry, the soil warm against his body.
When Teal'c's shadow fell across him, he started, blinking up at the silhouette.
"You are in good hands, O'Neill," Teal'c said, crouching beside him, and Jack knew that what he meant was goodbye.
Finished her stitching, the old woman—a Peigan, and, apparently, one in Teal'c's expanding network of friends—slapped Jack gently on the rump and declared him "done!" As his tense muscles relaxed into this verdict, he tipped into an exhausted sleep where he drifted on the front of an uncertain storm, advancing, retreating, hesitating. When he woke up in the blue light of a half moon, the tents of the Peigan were gone, his spool of fishing line was short an extra 30 feet or so, not counting the length used to sew him up, and his backpack had been replaced by a duffel bag, all of his possessions—even his gun—carefully transferred over and neatly packed. The duffel bag wasn't as good as the backpack for long hauls, but on the other hand, slung over his shoulder, it didn't ride against his stitches, either. Not a bad exchange for his life, he figured, as he set off down into the valley, heading east away from the mountains and into the rain.
"Ah, I thought that was you I saw half-naked in my courtyard," a voice said, emerging like a brightly coloured bird from the cool green-grey cover of rustling wind.
Without opening his eyes, Jack said, "I'd've been all naked except that you were watching."
"Yes," the voice conceded with a touch of sadness. "In the tiny world of shared courtyards, I suppose I'm the Acteon to your Diana." There was a short pause and then the voice came again, this time from his knee level. "Acteon was—"
"I know who Acteon was." He opened his eyes to find Yana Maio sitting crosslegged on the grass in front of him, looking like a country and western buddha in jeans and a checked bowling shirt with a galloping horse on each breast pocket. Her straight, black hair whipped around her face as she looked up at him, smiling.
She blinked slowly at him, then raised a hand to pull the hair out of her eyes. "Huh," she said with a hint of admiration, the kind usually reserved for horses who did arithmetic. "I didn't picture you knowing mythology."
Jack reviewed about half a dozen witty responses to that and settled for a change of subject. He held the bottle out to her.
"Nuh-uh," she refused, shaking her head so that the hair fell over her eyes again. "I learned my lesson about that stuff. You weren't here to see it, thank the god-du-jour." Leaning back on one hand, she felt around in the front pocket of her jeans, pulling out a thin, slightly crumpled joint. "Besides, isn't it a bit early for that rot-gut?" Twisting to turn her back more fully to the wind, she cupped her hand around the lighter and lit the spliff, sucking in a long breath and holding it for a second before letting it out. The wind carried the sweet pungency of the weed away before Jack could appreciate it. When she held the joint out for him, he hesitated, then, shrugging, put the bottle down, giving it a twist to anchor it in the thick, soft grass.
The smoke bit his lungs and his throat, making him cough out the first toke. He did better with the second though, holding its heat in while he leaned forward and handed the spliff back to Yana. During a brief pause in the wind, he sat back in the chair and let the smoke wreathe out from between his lips, sucking the last of it in again and then letting it go. The high came from behind him, rolling over him like a wave with a frothy crest. As it swept through him, it seemed to lift his bones away from each other, loosening his joints in sequence—neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers—so that he was subtly floating on the passing swell, lingering tension washing out of him from spine to fingertips and coursing onward and away from him. With the wind in his face, then, he seemed to be looking the wrong way, or, maybe the weather was coming from the wrong direction.
"When I was a kid, I thought the trees made the wind," he said.
Yana's cackle was delayed and arrived finally mixed with the scent of illicit smoke. Only it wasn't illicit anymore. Like a lot of things. Thanks to the gods-du-jour, or at least the Jaffa who'd blasted the old world, the old rules, to dust.
"I'm glad you're back," Yana said. "Your boy Will did a good job negotiating my territory, but there's a guy over on Spruce been selling wheelchair weed—I think he swiped some clippings off me, the rat-bastard—and he's creeping into my zone. Maybe you could go ask him nicely to honour the contract." When he didn't answer, she tapped his foot with hers. "Or, y'know, not-so nicely."
"Jesus, Yana," he snorted. It was bad enough that Daniel was acting as chief negotiator; Jack wasn't sure he wanted to be remembered as the enforcer for the new world's incipient drug barons. Of course, he wasn't sure he wanted to go down in history for what he actually was, either, so it was a good thing nobody was too interested in writing history these days.
"C'mon, Johnny," she cajoled, nudging him again.
"John," he corrected her.
"John. What good are contracts if there's nobody to make sure people stick to them?" Deterred by his silence, she stopped nudging and turned to unwrapping the little roach—hunched low to shelter it from the wind—and dusted the remaining bud into a zip-lock bag from her pocket. "You know," she went on musingly once she'd tucked the bag away again, "back in the day, my, ah, horticultural skills were going to put Lu through university." She flopped back on the grass and folded her small hands on her stomach. "Back in The Day," she repeated, adding capital letters with emphasis.
Jack asked, "How is Lu these days?"
"Same," she told the sky. "Back in The Day I'd've moved out of this town and taken him to Vancouver or Calgary or maybe even Toronto—Sick Kids' Hospital was good, had a good rep, anyway—and I'd've found some hot-shit doctor with thirty letters after his name and he'd've told me what the problem was and Lu would've been in a special school and maybe someday he—" Her voice getting thin with suppressed tears, she stopped and cleared her throat. "But you don't get special treatment for being damaged anymore. Being damaged doesn't make you special."
Jack thought of Michael and his hand fell to the bottle beside his chair. He hooked it between his middle two fingers and lifted it onto his lap but didn't open it. Behind him, the sun was turning the sky to a paler grey, reflecting on the windows of the row houses, a long line of blind, unblinking eyes.
"Speaking of damage," Yana said, raising her head to inspect him. "What the hell happened to you this time?"
His mouth automatically started say "classified," but he caught it with a bit of a smile and a dismissive wave of a hand. "Long story," he answered.
"Why do you keep doing this to yourself?" she asked with the kind of weary, sympathetic condescension mastered only by mothers.
Standing, he plucked the dandelions out of the mason jar and tossed them over the fence into the cornfield, emptying the brackish water after them. "I'm good at two things, Yana. One of them is getting beat up."
As he walked away she called, "Plenty of ways to get beat up here, you know, at home with your friends and your kid."
He waved over his shoulder with his newly appropriated mason jar and headed back toward the house. He just made it to the kitchen door when a thin, cold rain began to fall.
CHAPTER TWO: GHOSTS IN THE EYE
A sheaf fallen and grain scattered
these few last apples
that are bitter to the tongue
("Harvest Night," Brighid E. Stone)
After Canadian Forces Base Suffield, they were silent in the lurching pick-up truck. It had been bad. Carter and Teal'c scavenged the base administrative area with grim efficiency while Daniel packed the plunder neatly into truck, one eye on the kid, and Jack prowled, keeping everyone in sight, the grip of the 9mm sweaty in his hand. It didn't take long to determine that they'd find no survivors, and, including the time it took to load up what little they could find of use, they were there for less than an afternoon.
Getting out of the base town of Ralston was more time-consuming, though, as they had to pick their way down back streets, often doubling back to find clear passage around the craters of black glass and the shifting hulks of collapsed buildings, stopping to gather supplies from any shop left standing. There was no shortage of loot there and no-one left alive in the town to claim it. It wouldn't be long, though, before survivors from outflung communities made their way here. In the last store, Carter paused on the way out and unloaded her pack again, leaving a line of canned vegetables and three bottles of water on the cashier's counter. She met Jack's eyes defiantly for a second before ducking her head and carrying the rest of her stuffed bags out to the truck.
Finally making it to the main road, they found a school bus on its side blocking their way, a dozen cars accordianed into its underside and scattered out around it, crumpled, blackened and, often, mostly blasted away, mangled remnants emerging from craters like creatures in some kind of B-movie. Around them, the air was greasy with sinuous wisps of smoke, cloying, heavy with the sickly-sweet smell of roasted meat. Leaving the road, Jack navigated around the wreckage and then stopped to check the map. While the truck was still rolling, Daniel scrambled out of the back bed and threw up on tarmac still hot to the touch from the strafing and fires. Then, he crawled back in without a word and they moved on.
The dirt road meandered in and out of stands of trees and arrowed forthrightly across empty plains and still didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular except generally south. Carter sat up front with Jack on the bench seat, the boy's head on her lap. His feet were pressed up against Jack's thigh, twitching as though he were dreaming, even though his eyes were open. Jack watched the road and didn't think too hard about where Michael got those sneakers, or if he'd ever been to Sea World before materializing out of thin air on the ramp in the Gateroom. He tried not to think about other questions like who or how or why, but they prowled at the edges of his attention like wolves. The truck's radio gave them only static on a wide selection of channels.
On the third day they came to the first marker. It stood at the top of a hill beside the road, black against the dark billowing of smoke that had smudged the sky to the south for the last day and a half. They'd been driving with the windows closed, the vents shut, taking turns in the back bed, hunching low with bandannas tied over their faces to filter the thick, churning air.
Skidding to a stop, Jack pulled the emergency brake and they all got out and climbed the hill, soot-stained grass brittle under their boots and crumbling when they grasped at it for purchase with their hands. They hadn't reached the crest when Jack looked over his shoulder at Teal'c and then nodded toward the standard.
"That looks familiar," he said, his voice muffled behind cloth.
It was goa'uld. Nailed to the pole beneath it was an upside-down ReMax real estate sign, the translation of the goa'uld warning spray-painted in black, uneven block letters: "DON'T."
Squinting above his bandanna, Jack continued upward, the rest of the team straggling behind him, Daniel with Michael bringing up the rear. Jack staggered a little when he crested the hill and looked down the other side.
The valley, the low hills beyond it, the plain beyond them, were black, all the way to the horizon to the south, to the east and west. It looked like a sea, slowly shifting swirls of ash drifting ahead of the restless wind, plumes of smoke curling sideways along the ground before dispersing upward to billow against the grey bellies of rain-heavy clouds. If you stepped onto that plain, Jack thought, you'd disappear up to your neck in ash. You'd drown in it. To the west, the sun peered blearily between banks of clouds, spreading a ruddy stain of light for just a moment before winking out, leaving the land without contours. The heat that rose up and pressed against Jack was dry, pulling moisture from his skin. The earth was still burning under there. Maybe it would burn forever.
Carter was breathing heavily beside him. He felt her turn, look back toward the standard, its makeshift cardboard sign rattling intermittently against the pole.
"Radiation?" she asked.
Teal'c answered from Jack's other side. "It is most likely."
Jack turned then. Daniel was behind him, Michael pressed close and clinging to the hem of his work shirt. For a moment, Daniel's hands closed into white-knuckled fists before he hid them under his arms. His eyes, grey and expressionless behind his glasses, were on the sky. Grinding his teeth, Jack looked left, then right. "We'll go west," he decided. "Maybe we can get around it."
They couldn't get around it. Every ten miles they passed another standard, and the ash sea rolled on and on beside them, making its own weather, churning up the sky. The first night, Carter sat hunched by firelight over the broken Geiger counter she'd scavenged from CFB Suffield, the shadows of her hands wavering around its dissected innards. As the sun was turning the black to grey in the east, she was rewarded with a stuttering chatter from the box that made Daniel raise his chin from his chest, eyes suddenly bright and naked in the pale light.
"Levels are good here," she reported, the relief a brittleness under the smooth, professional surface of her voice. "But we shouldn't get any closer.
Jack nodded. Daniel's tongue traced his lip and then he nodded too.
They stayed as far away as the road allowed. On the third day, the sea lapped listlessly against the flanks of the Rockies as far up as the treeline. At the Frank Slide in the Crow's Nest Pass, they were stopped by a wall of stone, the rock faces on either side of the pass scarred by the plasma blasts that had collapsed the mountains into the valley.
Climbing over boulders the size of buses, Daniel pried half of the tourist information plaque from under a heap of grey scree and wiped its face with a gloved hand. The old slide had buried a whole town, leaving then only one baby amid the rubble. "The miracle baby," he said, showing Jack the corner of the plaque where one tiny eye remained of the photograph.
No-one spoke as they backtracked and Jack turned the truck north, leaving SG-1 behind them, dwindling in the rearview mirror, like the mountains, lost in smoke.
By the time they presented themselves to the citizen's patrol on the outskirts of Carole, they'd become John and Will and Alison Baker (brothers, husband, sister, wife; they didn't really specify unless pressed). Teal'c was already gone, leaving behind him an absence they could feel like a phantom limb. Michael was Michael and they didn't specify much about him either. For a long time, Carter's sentences had gaps in them where the "sir" used to be.
Daniel watched Jack cross the courtyard, his figure blurred by the rain. Jack came in, brushing water out of his hair as he pulled the door shut, slamming it twice when it bounced open again after his first attempt. "Oops," he muttered. "Gonna wake everybody."
Pointing with his knife toward the street, Daniel said, "They went to meet the water truck," and went back to making breakfast. He was chopping fruit without his glasses on, a little exercise that drove Sam crazy, but that he considered essential skill-building: his prescription was already five years out of date and he wasn't getting any less astigmatic, even if the myopia was slowly being balanced by age-related far-sightedness.
"Ah. No harm, then."
As Jack leaned around Daniel to put the mason jar in the sink, Daniel turned his head and kissed him on the mouth. When he pulled back, he licked his lips. "Hm," he said, peering into Jack's slightly bloodshot eyes. "You taste... like you met up with Yana, actually."
Jack grunted and, putting down the bottle of Daniel's Special, took the paring knife out of Daniel's hand. Holding an apple in his palm, he sliced it in half, turning the cool, red fruit as the knife bit into the juicy flesh. Twisting the two halves apart, he put half in one of Daniel's hands and returned the knife to the other.
"Kind of early in the day for that, do you think?" Daniel went on lightly, slicing his half of the apple into cubes and dropping them into the pot at his elbow. "Yana's product, I mean, not the apple."
"You said it yourself," Jack responded, his mouth full. "Not like anybody's gonna be saluting me around here or anything."
Jack's tone was equally light, but there was a sharp edge of challenge in it—that razor in the apple mothers are always warning trick-or-treaters about—that made Daniel's hands pause, unsure. He didn't turn around, but he could feel Jack's gaze on the back of his neck. He was waiting, but Daniel didn't know whether stepping up to this would help Jack work through his frustration or if it would just lead them around in circles like it usually did. Daniel finished chopping another apple and said nothing.
The rain was coming down harder now, drumming on the window and the ceiling over the breakfast nook where the upper story of the house was partly blasted away. Daniel could hear the tarp up there snapping in the wind. He'd have to go later and weight it down again. Slicing the tiny rubies of a few late wild raspberries in two with careful strokes of the knife, he went through his weekly inner debate about moving on, finding someplace where the roof wasn't likely to collapse on them one day. But there weren't any such places in Carole, or not right now at any rate, with winter creeping closer every day and the scattered families coming into the town looking for someplace to wait out the impending bad weather. They were lucky to have this place to themselves. Yana would be sharing her house with at least two other families by harvest time. He scooped the berries off of the cutting board into the pot.
"You know she wants me to go rough up some guy on Spruce Street," Jack said at last, his tone inviting Daniel to join him in his disapproval. Jack's way of apologizing for his earlier testiness.
"Oh yeah. Him."
"Yeah, well Ms. Mini-Godfather over there wants I should teach him a lesson." The goodfella impression was marred by the mouthful of apple. Daniel measured water into the pot. "You should go talk to him," Jack advised.
Daniel shook his head. "My job is to arbitrate and memorize. Enforcement is not my branch of the municipal government. If we ever get a municipal government." He crouched to pull a bag of oatmeal out of the cupboard under the sink, checking the bottle of moonshine on the way down and noting that it was still full. "You know, that guy has a hell of a library. Too bad he has to keep it buried in his garage. Jenny Peskadillo is dying to get her hands on it." Standing, he propped the floppy bag on the counter and reached in up to his elbow with the measuring cup. "Maybe he'll let me get a look at it sometime. I should ask, make it part of my fee if he wants a new contract negotiated with Yana."
"It's heartwarming to see that you're so close with the local crime syndicates," Jack observed acidly, making Daniel's hands stop again.
Daniel smiled and dumped the oatmeal into the water. "It's not a crime anymore, Jack. They're just people making a living. Besides, I think this town could use a little mellowing out." He knew Jack certainly could. He looked over his shoulder at him, ran his eyes up and then down his body, braced against the counter, arms folded across his chest, head bowed. The calm they'd managed to massage into him last night was hardening into tension again. Sighing as he stirred the pot, Daniel decided to get it over with. Once more into the breach.... "So, speaking of crime bosses, I gather you met up with the king of the hill."
"And," Jack started to look shifty. "He's not so bad, really."
Daniel tried not to guffaw his disbelief and was only partially successful. "And?"
"And he sold me to the goa'uld."
"No, he's not really bad, really."
Jack waved his hands. "It was a big misunderstanding. We got off on the wrong foot."
He waved his hands again like he was trying to wipe Daniel's skepticism out of the air. "Anyway, the precise degree of badness isn't the point. The point is, Teal'c thinks we can use this guy."
"Use him. The guy who sold you to the goa'uld?" Daniel raised his eyebrows. Jack dropped his hands and shook his head, fixing his eyes on some spot in the middle of the floor. "Use him for what, exactly?"
Now Jack looked incredulous. "What the hell kind of question is that? To kick goa'uld ass, that's what."
"Joshua Mason is a thug, and a collaborator."
"I'm not saying we trust him, but he's got resources. Connections, and I mean underground Jaffa connections. You think he gets tretonin just by asking for it?" He waited, but Daniel made no answer. "He's a businessman. He'll do whatever serves his interests."
"Including biting the hand that feeds him?" Jack's gaze was back on the floor. A muscle was jumping in his neck. Resisting the urge to still it with his lips, Daniel opened his arms to include the kitchen with its water-stained ceiling, the house with its mostly missing top floor, the town with its dark streetlights and subsistence gardens. "What could we possibly have that he would want?"
Jack took a step across the kitchen and, backing Daniel against the refrigerator, pinned him there with his lean, hot weight. By reflex, Daniel's hands came up and gripped Jack's forearms. As intense as Jack' eyes were, though, the hands he placed on either side of Daniel's face were gentle, smoothing away his startled frown with a gently stroking thumb across the cheekbone. "We have this," Jack whispered, squeezing Daniel's head. "Brains. Experience. We're the best experts on the goa'uld this planet has to offer."
Daniel stared. Jack stared back. When Daniel spoke, his voice was quiet. "He's already made Teal'c into a slave—"
"He's got tretonin—"
"And we've spent four years hiding from him and the Governor—who already tried to fry your brain, by the way—and now you want us to—"
"As long as there's a goa'uld up there—" Jack let go of Daniel's face to point at the ceiling, his voice a low, furious whisper. "—we're all slaves."
"I know that."
"They're gonna keep coming."
"They're gonna keep coming here and blowing up your libraries and stealing kids out of school." He pushed away from Daniel. "What do you think a goa'uld wants with nine teen-aged girls, huh? Think about that when you're feeling complacent."
Daniel's laugh was unbelieving and bitter. "I was here. I was the one who held Sam when she cried all fucking night." He closed his eyes against the memory, Sam's anger, his fingers crushed in her fist, her voice hollowing him out—"They're just little girls"—and the vision of a smoke-stained Jenny Peskadillo kneeling in the rubble of the library. Jesus. Jesus Christ.
Running his hands through his hair, Daniel turned away and listened to the slowing patter of the rain, the goose kicking up a ruckus in the courtyard, Yana shouting from inside her kitchen,"Squeeze him like that, Lu, no wonder he squawks. Let him go." Normal sounds in a fucked up world. Finally, he slumped down on the bench with his elbows on the table and rested his forehead in his hands, working to bring his voice down to the typically conspiratorial murmur they used for these kinds of conversations. "Say we go against the goa'uld and we fail. Or even if we succeed. They'll just send another, and that's a best-case scenario." He met Jack's eyes. "What happens to Michael, then?"
Jack looked at him for a long moment, his hands going lax at his sides, then sat across from him. As he leaned forward, his body took on that painful, contradictory posture of weariness and tension, the slightly bowed shoulders, ropy muscles in the arms taut. This was Jack, these days, worn down by withheld action. His voice was a keen, insistent blade. "There's got to be a reason we're alive when everyone else in the mountain is dead."
Daniel bowed his head. The weight was so heavy he thought he could feel his bones splintering. But that was a familiar feeling. He wanted to take Jack's hand, but he didn't. "Maybe we're not meant to save the world, Jack. Maybe we're just meant to survive it."
Jack sat back, his expression unreadable. After a long moment, he stood and walked away.
Daniel was... smeared. The look of it—like someone had tried to erase him with a dirty rag, leaving him streaked and blurry—made Michael stumble in the hallway, spilling some of the water out of his bucket.
Looking up from where he sat at the kitchen table, hands limp and open on in front of him like they were birds shot on the wing, Daniel said, "Hey, careful there, Michael. That's your ration, too." Then he fished in his breast pocket for his glasses and put them on.
Putting her own bucket down in the middle of the floor, Sam brushed a hand through Daniel's hair and kissed him on the temple, leaving some of her own glow on him like a lopsided makeshift halo. As he leaned into her, the smearing faded a little, but left its mark on her, too.
"Okay?" she asked. He nodded, his eyes flitting over to Michael. Glancing back over her shoulder to where Michael still stood in the hallway with his bucket, she said, "Okay" again and turned to get the big pot down from the counter. As she knelt and started ladling water into the boiling pot, that glow that had surrounded her all morning, a brighter, smoother light than the one that had sparked between the three of them last night, dimmed and wavered. Daniel seemed to absorb it, and it lightened him a little and darkened her, until there was a kind of equilibrium, banked coals.
Michael's head was splitting.
Getting a rag out of one of the drawers, Daniel came to wipe up the spill in the hallway. "I got it," he said as he nodded Michael past him into the kitchen. Michael slipped by close to the wall, but felt the smear slide across his skin anyway. Like the light in Sam, this smelled like Jack. Michael spilled more water.
"Whoa!" Sam reached out to steady his bucket. "We're gonna be licking it off the floor if you have your way," she added. "Just set it here." Then she pointed to the pot. "You can put that one out on the fire. Don't forget the lid."
In the courtyard, Lu was wrestling with the goose. The bird was a flurry of panicky feather-shaped sparks; Lu was blank except for a blue wavering, a cool flare that enveloped the goose like the ghosted edges of aurora borealis. Closing his eyes, Michael took a deep breath and counted to twenty and back again. When he opened them, Lu was just Lu and the goose was just a goose struggling in the too-tight grip of a little boy.
Swallowing hard with relief, Michael put the pot on the flat rock at the edge of the smoky fire and crossed to Lu. "Easy," he said, kneeling beside him on the wet flagstones. "You're hurting him."
Looking at him with wide, black eyes, Lu opened his arms and dropped the goose, who flapped and waddled to the other side of the courtyard, his ruffled feathers settling. Lu's eyes were swimming with tears, but his face was otherwise expressionless. Michael took his hand and together they inched across the courtyard to the goose, who turned away, watching them with one suspicious eye. Pulling Lu down beside him, Michael guided his pudgy fingers to the goose's back, helping him stroke the white feathers.
"See? Gentle. He likes you, but you got to be gentle."
The chill of Lu's yearning flickered down Michael's arm and, for a moment, turned the feathers to glass.
Lu nodded and kept petting the goose after Michael stood and went back to the kitchen door.
Inside, Sam and Daniel stopped talking abruptly. Michael managed not to see the swirl of grey between them, but he felt it briefly, clammy against his face. "Where's Jack?" he asked.
"He went fishing," Daniel answered. "You could probably catch him if you run."
Michael didn't need any extra encouragement to get out of the kitchen. He jogged down the sidewalk with his eyes on Jack, who was almost at the end of the street, loping along at an easy pace with his fishing rod and tackle box swinging from one hand. Even at this distance, Michael could see that he was askew, like somebody had pulled him from square. He looked like a dislocated shoulder felt. In this, he was pretty normal, since there were more skewed people in Carole than otherwise, everyone to a lesser or greater degree yanked out of alignment, some part of them straining toward a world that was gone, people who were dead.
One of the more notable exceptions was waiting for him at the corner.
"Baker!" Tam shouted as he broke into a run to intercept him. "Hey, was that John?" he asked when he was close enough to talk normally. At the intersection, Lizzie was hesitating, a lock of dirty red hair in her mouth, trying to decide whether to follow or to keep going around the corner toward school. After a moment she started slowly toward them.
"Yeah, he got back yesterday," Michael answered.
Tam wasn't skewed. Tam fit seamlessly into the new world order like it had been made for him. His black hair was raggedly cut, his Roughrider's sweatshirt baggy around his thin frame, jeans rolled up at the ankles and sagging from his narrow hips, and still, for all that, his outline was sharp, etched clearly and precisely against the grey morning. Looking at him was like standing on solid ground after spending a long time clinging to icy shingles on a slanted roof. It was such a relief that Michael wanted to rest his head on that reassuring solidity for a moment, just to catch his breath. But Lizzie was there now, looking like somebody had cut her into uneven strips and put her back together again carelessly. Michael backed away a little.
"Hey, Michael." Her hand fluttered up in a little wave, but she looked away before he could answer.
"So what wagon ran him over?" Tam was saying, ignoring Lizzie's arrival.
"No shit!" Tam's eyes lit up with a kind of ghoulish admiration. "Did he see the snake?"
Michael nodded. "He got hurt pretty bad. A whole lot of stitches and burns." He covered Tam's forehead with an open hand. "Ribbon device."
"No shit!" Tam repeated, swatting his hand away.
Apparently unimpressed, Lizzie was looking askance at Michael, still chewing on her hair. Her dress was too small, the collar tight around her throat. Shifting to put Tam between them, Michael thought suddenly of Teal'c, wondered what he would look like now. Teal'c would tell him how not to see this way, how not to see the gaps in Lizzie where her pain leaked out. A wave of longing rose in him, leaving tears behind as it ebbed. Tam frowned to see them, but did them both a favour and didn't say anything about it.
Michael put a hand on Tam's chest. Steady. Steady. "I got to go," he said, careful to keep his eyes on Tam's, away from Lizzie's pale, obliquely penetrating stare.
"Ingram's gonna want to know where you are," Tam warned.
"Tell her I'm with my dad," Michael called over his shoulder as he took off running.
He caught up to Jack just as he was stepping over the sagging frost fence into the cornfield.
"I thought you hated fishing," Jack said without turning around. He did, however, keep a partially broken corn stalk from whipping back into Michael's face, holding it with his elbow until Michael took it himself. Then he set off down the row, tilting his head this way and that to avoid dripping leaves.
"Better than school," Michael answered, his head lowered, watching his own sneakered feet fitting into Jack's bootprints. He hardly had to stretch his gait anymore to do that. For some reason this made him feel a little sad. "Besides, Lizzie's back today." For a moment their footprints gleamed with the ruddy wetness of blood. "Farther away from her the better," he finished, looking up instead at the back of Jack's shirt, the grey checks interrupted at one shoulder by a green denim patch. Michael could see the jaggedness of Jack's wound low on his back, a sinuous red, flaring occasionally as Jack sidestepped a puddle or ducked low under a leaning stalk. Michael counted their paces silently.
Instead of following along the bank of the river, they splashed across the sandbar and cut across the prairie, the yellow, knee-high grass hissing against their pantlegs in a steady rhythm in time with their steps. In the distance to their left, the morning's storm was crowded up against the horizon, as if it could go no further, steel-blue clouds stacked high above skirts of rain. To their right, the river cut the plain in an arc, curving around in front of them as it disappeared into a coulie. Pausing at the top, they looked down into the ravine, the river's black band winding between red sand walls twenty feet or so below them. As they zigzagged down the bank, their feet turned sideways against the slope, they dislodged a dozen miniature avalanches, stones and sand cascading downward into deeper shadow. The cold air of night time was still lurking down there, and they lowered themselves into it like they were wading into water. Going down on one knee to steady himself, Michael zipped up his jacket and then half giant-walked, half surfed the last few yards, beating Jack to the one flat area of the bank.
They were silent as Jack settled down and prepared the tackle, choosing a hook and float from the neatly ordered box. The filament of line gleamed against the backdrop of black water when Jack cast into the middle of the river, out to where the shadowed reflections of the two steep coulie walls were separated by an uneven swath of silver sky. Michael stood with his hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his jacket and listened to the slow clack-clack-clack as Jack reeled in the line a little, taking up some slack.
"Stay awhile," Jack said finally, tilting his head toward the patch of gravel next to him.
Obediently, Michael sat down on his haunches, his arms across his knees. He watched Jack out of the corner of his eye, noted that he seemed less skewed now, overlaid with a gentle glow, almost the same colour as the red sand around him. "Huh," Michael said before he could catch himself.
"What?" Clack... clack... clack went the reel.
"Nothing." He could see Jack watching him, even though Jack's eyes were on the river. He shrugged. "I guess I sort of understand why you like fishing, that's all."
"Ah." Clack... clack...
Hesitating, Michael steepled his fingers, twined them, played "here's the church" a couple of times, wondered if it was worth it to open his mouth and risk skewing Jack again. Sighing, he dropped back to sit on the gravel, leaning back on his hands, then sat up again and looped his arms across his knees, fingers digging into his elbows. "I... brought you here... from the mountain." He rested his forehead on the back of his wrist, talked into the hollow of his body. "Didn't I?"
The reel made a zipping sound as Jack cast again, line looping out, a silver thread across shadow and light in Michael's mind's eye. Jack paused a long time. Michael thought of the cowboys in the round pen at the corral, sidling up to the nervous horses, advancing and waiting. Jack's curiosity was leaning pretty heavily on the facade of nonchalance, but he took up the slack on the line slowly, and Michael pictured the float turned sideways into the pull, bobbing at the notch of a silver V of wake. Clack... clack... clack.
"You brought us here. Yeah, that's a theory," Jack answered at last. Michael decided Jack would make a good cowboy.
Rolling his head to rest his cheek on his arm, Michael watched him. The glow was a little sharper around the edges, but Jack was still just Jack. "And now you're stuck here." He wasn't sure what he meant by "here." Carole, this planet, this life.
Lifting one shoulder a bit, Jack said, "Worse places to be," and something black twisted down through him, from head to earth, colder than the night air at the bottom of the ravine.
Michael closed his eyes, counting rapidly, up and then down. His arms came up around his head as he willed himself not to start rocking. "What am I?" The question forced itself out of him, from a tight throat, through clenched teeth.
"Not just Michael. Something else. Something..." He couldn't stop the rocking now, because it was that or running, and the walls were too steep and he was too tired for flailing.
"Look, you've been a good person. So far, anyway. Whatever else you are..." Jack's hand rested on the back of his neck, warm. "We'll deal with it."
Michael raised his head. "Doesn't that freak you out? What if I'm, like, I dunno, some kind of alien or something?"
"Hey," Jack retorted sharply. "Some of my best friends are aliens." A lopsided grin brightened his eyes and softened his face. Giving Michael's neck a final squeeze, Jack turned away and picked up the fishing rod again.
"I wish I could remember."
"I want to remember."
"I know." Jack slowly reeled in the line. Clack... clack... clack.
CHAPTER THREE: REFRACTION
... there should
be a moon
but there is none.
("Harvest Night," Brighid E. Stone)
Michael's howl yanked Jack out of an empty sleep and he was on his feet beside the truck before he was fully awake, Carter beside him, her eyes wide and searching. Daniel was already at the passenger door, pulling it open and crawling inside the cab. In the dim glow of the dome light, Michael was sitting up, hands over his eyes, mouth a wide, black circle. Drawing in a breath, he wailed again, fists now clutching at his hair. He recoiled from Daniel's touch and cracked his head against the driver's side window, the shock of it cutting off his scream abruptly.
"It's okay, Michael," Daniel was saying in a low voice. "It's okay."
Opening his eyes, Michael started to talk, words spilling out of him like the dam was broken.
Daniel froze, one hand extended toward Michael, the other on the dashboard. "Wow... that's Sumerian... Greek... Old High German... Arabic... no... some kind of derivative—" He was listing the languages mechanically, his brow furrowed with concentration as he tried to keep up. "—that's Egyptian." His eyes turned on Jack, wide and harshly blue through the cab's back window. "Goa'uld. Asgard. Latin. Anglo Saxon—"
"What's he saying," Jack demanded, coming around to lean in the passenger door behind him, knuckles white as he gripped the frame.
Jack blinked. "That's it? What hurts?"
"Everything!" Michael cried, finally making his way to English, putting his hands over his ears, and then over his eyes as he started to rock. "Everyone!"
So, after four months of silence, Michael talked for three hours straight. At first he wouldn't let anybody touch him, screaming "It hurts!" in twenty languages if any of them even looked like they might be thinking about getting closer. But at 2 a.m., when Jack swore under his breath and opened the driver's side door, Michael slumped out into his arms, his head lolling, eyes rolling up to show whites. By then, his voice was a rasping whisper. He stopped talking long enough to swallow an aspirin with water out of the canteen, and then started again.
Sitting on his sleeping bag near the fire, Jack cradled Michael in his lap while Carter stirred soup and Daniel sat across from them, his glasses opaque with firelight. Jack's left leg was asleep. He shifted and banged the heel of his boot on the packed dirt until the pins and needles started. Then he stretched out the other leg and flexed the ankle as much as he could. Somewhere at the back of his mind a memory stirred: a hospital waiting room, Sarah having her appendix out, Charlie curled up like this on the uncomfortable plastic chairs. Jack started listing all the things he'd give for one of those chairs right about now.
"I can take him," Daniel offered again, but when Jack nodded and started to lift Michael up, the boy clutched at his jacket and spoke more rapidly, eyes squeezed shut.
"I'm okay for awhile longer."
Daniel nodded and added more wood to the fire. The log popped and sent a spray of sparks up toward the bare branches of the cottonwoods. Michael opened his eyes and watched them, suddenly silent.
Jack had been awash in what seemed like an endless stream of gibberish for so long that he didn't recognize his name at first. "Me?"
Carter tapped the spoon on the edge of the pot and hopped up on the tailgate to grab the Hudson's Bay blanket. Daniel put another log on the fire.
Tucking the blanket around Michael, Jack asked, "You okay now?"
Michael shook his head slowly. "Who am I?"
A weary sigh of disappointment forced its way out of Jack and he didn't bother to look at Carter and Daniel. "We were kinda hoping you could tell us. You don't know?"
Another solemn shake of the head.
"Well, you called yourself Michael, so that's what we've been going with. But you know me?"
"What about them?"
Michael craned his neck to see better. "Sam and Daniel," he answered. "Teal'c's gone. Deal with the devil."
"So you know us but not you? That's... that's...."
"Inconvenient," Daniel finished half under his breath. Carter flicked him on the knee with her spoon. He caught her wrist and, taking the spoon away, laced his fingers with hers.
In Jack's arms, Michael shivered. Jack pulled the blanket up a little more and pressed the kid more tightly against his chest. "Does it still hurt?"
Closing his eyes, Jack squeezed him, drawing up his legs to hold him closer. "Okay. Now you're a little more... lucid, we can give you some more aspirin, but since we don't know what's wrong, I don't know if that will help." Daniel was already rummaging in his pack, his flashlight between his teeth. "What hurts?"
"Yeah, we got that."
"How do you stand it?" Turning his face to hide his eyes in Jack's flannel shirt Michael started to cry, the thin, voiceless sobbing of someone exhausted by pain.
"Okay, okay." Jack took the aspirin from Daniel, who stood to make room for Carter to hold the canteen to Michael's mouth. He swallowed the pills, coughed and fell back again. Carter brushed Michael's hair back with one hand, capping the canteen and holding it between her knees to tighten the lid with the other. Her eyes were a mirror for Jack's own, reflecting back his frustration and confusion and helplessness. "Okay. I'll tell you something." He waited until Michael opened his eyes and looked up at him. "I get banged up a lot. All the time."
"What? Oh. I dunno. I guess people are jealous of my good looks." He grinned and felt about as far from good looking as it was possible to get. And his left leg was asleep all the way to his butt. He ignored it. "Anyway, you know what I do when I'm in pain? I count. You do remember numbers, right?"
"Okay, so I count, say, up to ten. So when the pain is big, like bigger-than-you kind of big, you count to ten and that's as big as it can get and you can see it all there, sorta get a grip on it, like you get bigger with each step until you've got it all in your sights, right?"
"And then you count back down again, dial it down, make it smaller, each step dialing it down further and further until it's not bigger than you anymore. You can handle it. See?" Jack's mind did a familiar swerve around memories—dark places, hot places, pain way beyond a scale of ten.
Michael was watching him closely, his eyes black in the firelight.
"You want to give it a try?"
And, so they counted up and then down. Michael's shivering settled a bit as they made their way back to one again. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack could see Carter and Daniel counting too. Jack drank his soup one-handed and felt the pain ebbing and swelling in Michael's body as his tired whisper climbed the ladder of numbers and descended, paused for a long moment and started again, over and over until Jack's back was a single ache beginning at his tailbone and tightening up across his shoulders and his eyes were burning with smoke and sleeplessness. Reluctantly following his orders, Carter crawled into the bed of the truck and curled up tightly against the cold, her head toward them, her boots on inside her sleeping bag.
Gathering up his own sleeping bag, Daniel came and settled down inside it behind Jack, supporting him back to back. Gratefully, Jack let him take his weight, dropping his head against Daniel's neck and shoulder. Slipping into the black pool of sleep, he could feel Michael's breath against his chest, and the thrum of Daniel's voice against his back, as the two of them counted together, up and down... up and down... and when he floated up again and broke the surface of his shallow dreams, it was Carter who braced him, Michael had shifted so that only his head was resting on Jack's lap, and pale October sun was bruising the darkness in the east.
"So, Michael," Jack said with an air of making idle conversation as he ducked under a listing cornstalk, "what about the languages?"
Pausing for a second, Michael cast a quick, confused look over his shoulder and then started walking again. "What languages?"
Jack hesitated, chewing the inside of his lip. In four years, Michael had never brought up the issue of his origins on his own and had met their questions with a blank stare and a withdrawal into glassy-eyed silence that could last days. They'd stopped asking after the first few tries, worried that their probing would derail him for good. But now it was Michael doing the asking and Jack couldn't help but go through the door. "When you first started talking, you did it in every language under the sun... several suns, actually. And then after that you only spoke English."
Michael was silent for a long time. Then, he shrugged. "I don't remember that." Another pause. "Freaky, though."
"A little." Jack thought suddenly of interrupting Daniel when he was hunched over some scrap of ancient writing in his lab. The way he'd look up when you started talking and you just knew he was thinking in Arabic or something weirder, and then that rapid blinking as he shuffled things around in his head and found the right language to say, "Hey" in. For Jack, those few seconds were always low-grade freaky, watching Daniel step from one world to another like that, out of the one where he was alone with the dead and into the one he shared with the rest of them. Now that he thought about it, Jack realized that Daniel only spoke English now, too, even when he was cursing. The realization brought a little stab of regret to the middle of his chest.
"Alien languages?" Michael asked, still pacing evenly along between the rows of corn. Jack knew that he was counting and let his own steps fall in time.
"Yeah, a few."
Again, Jack hesitated. "Yeah."
Michael's steps faltered. "Fuck."
"And Asgard," Jack added hastily. "Good guys."
Michael stopped, his hands groping at the corn on either side of him until they settled, one twisted in a long, green leaf, the other wrapped around a stalk. His head hung between his shoulders as he swayed a little, taking this in.
Jack stood behind him and waited. In the field jacket (insignia long since torn away), Michael looked familiar, now that he was filled out a little more, was more comfortable with his new height (he'd grown almost four inches since last summer), and with his longish fair hair falling, no doubt, into his eyes as he bowed his head. It was Daniel, of course, way back when he'd first gone through the 'gate, before his shoulders had learned to lean the right way under a heavy kit, before he'd cut the hair off like he was getting rid of some obsolete version of himself. Michael was thinner, more like Jack had been at fifteen, but the hands that were steadying him were Daniel's, broad in the palm, not narrow and long like Jack's. That hunch in the shoulders was so typical of Daniel—that absorbing, and retreating, and regrouping Daniel used to face bad news—that Jack half-expected to see the gleam of Daniel's glasses when Michael finally raised his head and looked at him over his shoulder, his dark blond hair covering one eye.
"That's pretty fucked," Michael whispered hoarsely. Turning to face Jack, he started backpedaling down the row away from him, his hands pulling at the front of his shirt like he was trying to peel it away, like he was trying to tear himself away from himself. "That's so fucked, Jack."
Jack held up a hand. "Take it easy. We don't even know what it means."
"It means I'm—" He stopped walking, both hands stretching his shirt away from him, his jacket thrown off at one shoulder. His eyes were wide. "—what? What what what what—" He clutched at his hair and closed his eyes, his lips moving around the question until it erupted in a wordless growl of frustration.
Dropping his fishing gear and the stringer with its two fish, Jack caught him as he was falling and they crumpled to the damp earth together, Michael's face against Jack's chest.
"It hurts," Michael gasped, his body stiff in Jack's arms. He wound his fists into the front of Jack's shirt. "It hurts."
"Hang on." Leaning him back, Jack looped an arm under Michael's knees and lurched to his feet. By the time they broke out of the cornfield into the glare of the afternoon sun, Michael's head was lolling and his eyes showed only white.
"He brought it up, not me," Jack was saying when Daniel drew back the curtain and stepped into the kitchen from Michael's room.
"I'm not accusing you—" Sam protested in a strained whisper.
"—I'm just trying to figure out what happened."
"I—" Jack broke off and came to stand behind Daniel as he pulled the curtain closed across the door. "How is he?"
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Daniel shrugged. "He's sleeping."
Jack frowned. "Sleeping sleeping or comatose sleeping?"
"Sleeping sleeping, I think." Daniel jerked a thumb over his shoulder and bowed his head for a second. "He's talking a blue streak, so it's not normal sleeping, but...." His voice trailed away uncertainly and they all listened to the sibilance of Michael's whisper, eyes distant.
"What's he—" Jack began and then retracted the question with a grunt, lowering himself onto the bench beside Sam and rubbing his face with his palms. "I know: 'it hurts.'"
Sam reached over and pulled one hand away, lacing his fingers in hers. On the table at her elbow was another argument waiting to happen. She pushed the red-and-gold device aside with a sliding glance in Daniel's direction.
Leaning up against the refrigerator, Daniel folded his arms, listening carefully. After a moment he gave an irritated shake of the head. "I don't know. I think there's more to it than that, but I don't—" He raised his eyes to the ceiling, looking for something blank on which to let the words coalesce into meaning. "I don't understand. This isn't...." He let his head drop back against the freezer. "Shit."
"You don't even recognize it?" Jack's voice was strained with the effort of sounding less angry and frustrated than he was. Daniel appreciated the intent if not the result, which was kind of painful to listen to.
"It started a couple of weeks after you left," Sam began. Her thumb was making little soothing circles on the back of Jack's hand. "At first he was talking in English—"
"Just regular disjointed dream stuff," Daniel interjected.
"—but recently he's been doing this." She nodded in the direction of the curtain.
"He said he wanted to remember," Jack said.
"Well, maybe he is." Daniel considered the blank spaces in his own memory. He was pretty sure that what lurked there would drive him to worse than talking in his sleep. His eyes rested on the curtain, Michael's rasping whisper sawing persistently in his brain. Rubbing his forehead vigorously with the heel of his hand, he sat down across from Jack and Sam and picked up the hand device, holding it up with a pointed look in Jack's direction. Wryly, he wondered at the depths of his own masochism, but his head was swimming from listening to Michael talk and he needed the diversion. "Maybe we can talk about this instead."
Jack looked blankly at him, unreadable, too tired, maybe, even for defensiveness.
"Were you going to tell us about it?"
"I hadn't decided."
Sam looked over at Daniel, her jaw set. "So, if I hadn't decided to compromise my deep-seated feminist principles to do your laundry, we might never have known you brought home a goa'uld healing device. That's what you're saying?"
"I thought you weren't being accusing," Jack responded testily.
She closed her eyes wearily, "Jack—"
"Look, I wasn't exactly at my best," he said, pulling his hand from hers and pointing at the burns on his forehead. "It was there so I took it. But I know, I know that now you have it you're going to hear about some puppy or grandmother in dire need and you won't be able to stop yourself and then—" he made an exploding gesture with stiff hands, "—there's goes our cover. And this time it'll be your neck in the noose instead of Teal'c's."
The real fear there behind the anger made Daniel's hands ache. "Okay, it's an issue, but we'll work through it together. It's—"
"Not my call, I get that." Jack was shuttered, not even angry anymore.
They sat staring at the oval hand device, its red jewel dull in the dim light of the kitchen. Finally, Sam started to reach for it, let her hand drop, and then picked it up, slipped her hand into it and aimed it at the table. Immediately the device started to glow, a tongue of red flickering down from her palm.
"I could fix up your back I think," she said to Jack. "Even though you aren't a puppy or a grandmother."
"No thanks." Getting up, he went to look out the kitchen door. "My fish are probably toast by now," he said. "But I should go get the tackle at least. Those hooks are worth something."
Daniel was about to offer to go with him when Michael reached over his shoulder and picked up the hand device from where Sam had left it in the middle of the table.
"How'd you do that?" Michael's face was pale, his eyes bloodshot and sunken. His mouth was pinched, lips white and pressed tightly together. He was obviously still in pain. What kind of pain was a question Daniel wished Michael could answer. "Sam? This is snake stuff, right?"
Crossing to the table in a stride, Jack snatched the device from his hands. "It's nothing to do with you." Softening, he ruffled Michael's hair, peered into his face. "You okay?"
Ignoring his question, Michael pointed at the device. "That's snake stuff. How'd you do that?"
"It has nothing to do with you," Jack repeated.
"Right. I'm speaking snake and it has nothing to do with me?" Michael was belligerent, stepping closer so that he and Jack were chest to chest. "That is me." He reached for it again. "Let me try."
"You were speaking Greek, too, but that doesn't mean you can run the marathon." Holding the device out of Michael's reach, Jack stared steadily, unmoving, until Michael looked away.
Stepping between them, Daniel put a hand on Michael's chest and gently pushed him back. "It won't work for you. You have to have naqada in your blood."
"Which you don't," Jack pointed out.
"And she does?"
"From when I was a host." Sam's voice was steady.
Michael's mouth dropped open as he looked at her over Jack's shoulder. "You got snake-fu—?"
"Hey! Watch your mouth!" Jack stepped forward and Michael fell back until he was against the counter.
"It's okay—" Sam was on her feet, her hand on Jack's shoulder. Daniel started to step between Jack and Michael again but Jack's glare warned him away.
"I can't believe you got sn—" Michael's eyes skittered nervously over Jack's face and then back to Sam. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Spreading his hand gently against the side of Michael's head, Jack asserted again, "Because it has nothing to do with you."
Swallowing hard, Michael seemed to collapse a little inside. "Did..." He swiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket and swallowed again, speaking to some point in the middle of Jack's chest. "Did it hurt?"
Before Sam could answer, Michael stepped sideways around Jack and ran.
Daniel looked up as Jack banged through the kitchen door, leaned his fishing rod next to the refrigerator and threw his tackle box onto the table.
"He come back yet?"
Shaking his head, Daniel lifted the tackle box off of the book of matches and tried to strike one. The head of the match snapped off and rolled under the table, so he had to lie down on the bench to feel around for it on the floor. Someday Tim Merchant would get better at making matches. Not soon enough, though, in Daniel's opinion. Finding the match head, he tucked it into the book and struck another to light a stub of candle. Jack hadn't moved, a dark silhouette against the kitchen door's square of rusty evening light. Daniel rose and used the candle to light the lamp in the middle of the table and the pillar candle in the kitchen window.
"Son of a..." His hands on his hips, Jack glared around the kitchen as if his scowl alone could make Michael materialize out of the shadows. Lit from below, his face was craggy, the lines around his mouth and between his eyebrows etched deeply.
"Maybe Sam had better luck." Daniel stepped up close and kissed Jack's mouth, pressing firmly until Jack's lips started to soften a little, opening a bit to admit Daniel's tongue. Daniel could almost taste the fatigue in him, and the unyielding tension that made Jack's jaw bunch under Daniel's fingertips. Dropping his hands to squeeze his biceps, he tilted his head back so he could see Jack's eyes. "He'll be okay."
Jack let him kiss him again, his head dropping forward after so they were brow to brow, and his shallow breaths caught on the edges of unvoiced groans when Daniel worked his fingers into the knots of his taut muscles, up his shoulders to his neck. Eyes closed, Jack leaned into him, one hand on Daniel's hip.
"How do you know?" he said at last, pushing away a little and sitting down on the edge of the table, Daniel standing now between his knees. "Really. How do you know he'll be okay?" The question might have been mockingly accusing, but Jack's tired eyes were searching.
"I guess I don't." Sighing, Jack dropped his head with a thud against Daniel's chest and Daniel stroked the back of his neck and up into his hair. "You know," he began reluctantly, "we have to consider that he's right on some level."
"He's not right." Jack's voice was muffled by Daniel's shirt.
"Okay, he's not a goa'uld, but he's something, maybe fallen, like me—"
"How many times are we gonna have this conversation?" He tightened his arms around Daniel's waist, but Daniel wasn't going to be distracted.
"—and we can't let our feelings cloud our judgment about this."
"My judgment isn't clouded. I'm threat-assessing as we speak." He paused, assessing. "He's a fifteen-year-old boy," he concluded.
"Who just happens to speak a number of alien languages."
"So do you."
Daniel smiled down at him and yanked gently on his hair. "Yeah, but I had to learn them the old fashioned way."
Leaning back, Jack nudged Daniel out of his way and went to get a couple of glasses from the drying rack and then the bottle from the cupboard above the fridge. "Well, we can't all be geniuses." Pouring two fingers of moonshine into each glass, he handed one to Daniel, downing his own in one swallow. "Maybe he learned it in space school, up on Alpha Centauri before he teleported here and zapped us out of the mountain. Back when he was an intergalactic jellyfish or something." He put the lid back on the bottle and closed it up again in the cupboard. "And what difference does it make now except that it's making him nuts? Has he hurt anybody? Is he building a giant ray gun in the garage?"
"We don't have a garage."
"Well then, there ya go."
Daniel was considering pointing out that Jack was supposed to be the suspicious one, leaving Daniel to generously award the benefits of the doubt, when the door banged open again and Sam came in, bringing the sound of crickets and the smell of impending rain with her. Dropping her jacket on the bench, she took Daniel's drink out of his hand.
"That's not—" Daniel began.
"He's not at the school or at Tam's house," she reported, swallowing half the hootch and then coughing and wheezing as her eyes teared up.
"—water," Daniel finished.
"Yeah, I noticed that, thank you." She wiped her eyes with her knuckles and handed the glass back.
"He wasn't at the river, either." Grimacing, Jack put his hands back on his hips and tried glaring at the kitchen again, with a similar lack of results. "Crap."
"I did, however, pass a goon squad."
"Crap," Jack said again, without much feeling.
"Is there any chance they're looking for you?" Daniel asked.
Jack shook his head, his eyes distant. "They think I'm dead. Plus, I never told them I was from here."
"Must be a routine roust and rattle," Daniel speculated hopefully, although a sweep by the squad was hardly something to feel hopeful about. Nice range of options there. "Did they find the office?" He thought of his ledger hidden in the heating duct, Jenny's minutes most likely tacked up again on the bulletin board like a red flag.
"Don't think so," Sam answered.
Daniel put his glass down on the table and stared at the starburst of refracted candlelight that spiked out from its base. He gave it a quarter turn, realigning rainbows. "Okay," he said finally, "So, Sam and I can go look for Michael."
"And I'll stay here in case he comes back." Jack nodded, his eyes on the door. "Lay low, play dead," he murmured more to himself than to Daniel. He looked at Sam. "Take the 9mil."
Her face said, "Yes sir" as she turned away.
She was stepping back into the hallway, stuffing the pistol into her waistband at her back, when they heard the truck rumbling down the street. It was such an unusual sound now that it pulled Daniel's memory in two different directions: back to his old life, (how absurd to think of it as "secure" and "normal"), the hollow hissing of traffic on Crescent St. outside his house, headlights sweeping in predictable arcs across the ceiling above his bed; and, to the more recent past, another town, hunched in the shadow of a brooding, grey-flanked mountain, the trucks careening down the street across the end of the alley where he crouched, Michael beside him, watching. Joshua Mason's army was ranked in rows, sitting on the sides of the pick-up beds, rifles pointed in parallel lines at the sky. He remembered the way the lurid light of the burning town hall flickered between the gun barrels as the convoy passed, and that he'd thought then of sunset through aspens. Above them, the death glider wheeled in a slow arc and came in to strafe the empty street, Jaffa back-up making sure the huddled masses got the point the absent goa'uld governor was making: fear Mason as you would fear me. Michael's hand in Daniel's was clammy with fear.
Now the headlights, a cold and alien halogen white, crept up the hallway floor, the pattern of the leaded glass in the front door window stretching toward Jack's feet in the kitchen doorway. Sam stood unmoving, criss-crossed by shadows, one hand still on the gun at her back. Jack took two steps and, parting the curtain to Michael's room, disappeared into the darkness inside. Then the light on the floor narrowed to a wedge and slid up the wall, the sound of the revving engine and grinding gears stretching thinner as the truck passed on.
Releasing a slow breath, Daniel closed his eyes. When he opened them, Sam was at the front door, her hand cupped around her face as she peered through the beveled glass.
"They're here!" she announced and pulled open the door.
Stepping out of their bedroom, Jack aimed his Beretta at the floor. He let Daniel pass him with the lamp and followed them out onto the front steps where Tam was waiting, chewing nervously on his thumbnail. Beside him, hunched over his knees on the front step, Michael was rocking slowly back and forth. A girl about Michael's age stood in the middle of the walk, her hands folded at her waist, her eyes dark holes of shadows in her narrow face.
"Lizzie found him at Junst's place in the market," Tam began without preamble, stepping down onto the walk to make room for Sam to crouch in front of Michael. "The place was trashed. Junst was so pissed." He looked over his shoulder the way the truck had gone. "And the squad's in town."
"Wait a minute. You say Michael trashed Junst's stall?" Jack looked skeptical.
Tam shrugged. "Could've been goons. I dunno. But Michael was there, that's all I know. Lizzie came and got me."
"He was making rows," Lizzie said. Her hands fluttered out, marking parallel lines in the air, and then settled again, folded at her waist. She was wearing a blue checked dress with a white collar tight around her throat. Daniel thought of a sort of darkside Alice in Wonderland and decided not to look at her too much.
Motioning to Daniel to lower the lamp, Sam brushed Michael's hair off of his brow. "Michael, what happened to your face?"
The sound of cold shock in her voice rose gooseflesh on Daniel's neck. Sitting on his haunches, he held the lamp closer as Sam tipped Michael's chin up to the light. Around his eyes was a spidery pattern of cuts, black in the lamplight, his cheeks and temples and forehead scraped and seeping.
"Scratched 'em," Lizzie said in a sing-song voice. "Scratched 'em."
"Shut up, Lizzie," Tam hissed.
"He did. I saw." She pointed a thin finger at Michael and then raised her hands to her face and mimed scratching at her eyes. "He scratched 'em."
"Jesus," Jack muttered, so low only Daniel heard him. Bending, Jack put a hand under Michael's arm and helped him to his feet. "C'mon inside. We'll clean you up."
His eyes glassy, Michael nodded and turned clumsily, his fingers resting lightly on Daniel's shoulder for a moment for balance. His toe caught on the door frame and Jack wrapped a steadying arm around him as he stumbled.
"Easy," Jack murmured. "Go slow."
Making way for Sam to follow them, Daniel handed her the lamp and turned to Tam. "Thanks for bringing him home."
"Junst was so pissed," Tam repeated and started on his thumbnail again. His eyes were wide black circles in the new darkness.
"We'll deal with Junst." Daniel patted him on the shoulder. "It'll be okay."
Tam hesitated, one foot on the step. Leaning around Daniel, he called down the hallway, "'Bye Michael!" He waited but here was no answer.
"You can come back later to check up on him." Daniel looked down the street. There was no sign of the truck. "Do you want me to walk you home?"
Tam shook his head. "Naw, I think they're gone. We can go down the gardens anyway."
A cold wind lifted Lizzie's hair and blew it across her face. Daniel's hand passed across his own forehead, brushing phantom hair away, but Lizzie didn't move.
"I'll tell Ingram Michael's...." Without finishing, Tam turned and brushed past the girl, who still stood as before, primly upright with her hands folded, watching Daniel through one eye. "Let's go, Lizzie," Tam ordered, and she turned on her heel like a cadet and followed him down the walk.
Stepping backward into the house, Daniel swung the door closed and watched them go. The fancy glass of the window broke them into a dozen pieces.
He couldn't close his eyes.
Twisting, he rolled so that he could look up through the undulating green translucence of water plants—broad leaves like dessert plates balanced on the ends of thin, ropelike stems, narrow, veined leaves like blades aimed at the diffuseness of sun—and the water's surface was the wrong side of a mirror, silvered motion and shadows that weren't shadows but trees looking down, bystanders at a drowning.
He was so lonely.
He couldn't close his eyes.
He opened his mouth to scream but water rushed in.
Michael woke with a start, hands pressed to his eyes, his knees jerking up as he recoiled from the vague suppleness of floating and curled into the fetal position, all bones and angles. Still, he could feel the slick groping of weeds around his ankles, across his exposed back. He groaned softly.
"It's okay," Jack said, his hand on the top of Michael's head. "You're safe." Gently he pried Michael's hands away from his face.
Resisting, Michael hunched down lower toward his knees, but he couldn't help the way his fingers curled around Jack's and he shuddered out a sob between clenched teeth when Jack squeezed back. After a long moment Michael raised his eyes to look at him.
Kneeling beside the bed in the darkness, the light from the kitchen leaking around the curtain in a thin frame of orange, Jack should have been invisible; instead, he was outlined by a narrow halo of blue-white light. Michael thought of Lu, the way his yearning flickered around his blankness. But this was different, more focused. It was like the spectrum of Jack's light were honed, turned on edge and aimed precisely. Its intensity was frightening; Michael had to look away. But Jack's fingers were warm and tight around his and the attentiveness wasn't cutting or predatory or cold; it was simply earnest.
"It's okay," Jack said again as he settled down more comfortably on the floor. He sat silently and let Michael look at him. The light didn't waver. Michael ran his thumb over Jack's knuckles, tapping in sequence, back and forth, in time with the unvoiced ticking of numbers in his head. Finally, Jack brushed Michael's hair off of his forehead with his free hand. "You want to tell me about this?" he asked, his fingers not quite touching the tender spidering of scratches around Michael's eyes.
Michael tried to turn away, but Jack held him, gently insistent.
"It's okay," he prompted.
Michael's mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. "You won't understand," he mumbled miserably.
Jack sat up a little straighter. "Thanks for the vote of confidence there. Really, I'm touched."
In spite of himself, Michael almost smiled. Sucking in a deep breath, he said, "I don't want to see like this anymore." It was a confession that sluiced out of him like it was all one word.
"Like what?" The light around Jack was bluer now.
"Like I do."
"Can you be a little more specific? For the benefit of the slow of wit?" He squeezed Michael's hand again, encouraging.
Michael struggled to find the words. "I see the inside of things... no... not really, not the inside so much as the way people leak... people sort of leak into the world in colours and sometimes it's kind of beautiful like you when you're with them, Daniel and Sam... but mostly it's too much... too... not big, exactly... but there's so much...."
Jack's confusion and his need to understand coiled between them, too much like the tentative, blind touch of groping water weeds, and Michael's explanation, such as it was, foundered and slipped away. He shuddered.
"I'm tired," he finished, giving up. "It's too hard." He tried to turn away again, but Jack's hand was still resting on the pillow above his head, his other still gripping his fingers.
"Don't do that," Jack said. "Talk to me."
Tapping out his count on Jack's knuckles, Michael pulled enough of himself together to make a last attempt. "For a long time it was gone, since before Carole, but now it's back and it's worse and worse and I don't want it anymore, that's all." Michael swiped angrily at the frustrated tears on his cheeks, hissing at the sting of salt in the abrasions. "Fuck. I'm such a freak."
"You're not a freak. But you can't do this kind of thing to yourself." Jack's fingers hovered again over Michael's brow. "We'll figure something out. Or Daniel and Sam will, being the smart ones in the family." Jack's ironically self-deprecating grin was in his voice, but the blue light faltered, and Michael felt something in Jack falling away from square, determination subtly distorted by helplessness.
Michael shrugged. Jack's promise was no less hollow for all the good intentions that rang inside it. He wanted to say, "Thanks, anyway," but he didn't. For a moment the loneliness seemed to rise up over his head, black water, drowning him. This time, though, he was ready for it, resigned, and he refused to cry. Instead he asked, "How did I get here?"
"Tam and that girl, Lizzie, brought you back."
He felt the sudden sense memory of Lizzie's fingers fluttering like soft feathers across his face as he lay with his head on her lap, the hem of her skirt dabbing at his eyes, her too-young voice sing-songing, "Don't cry, boy, don't cry." Someone held his hands down at his sides until he stopped trying to claw at his face. Don't cry, boy, don't cry. And the light around her bowed head was honed and blue like Jack's, but twisted, a nerve pinched between bones. "Oh," he said. "Right. I remember."
"She's an interesting character," Jack observed. "Hang around with her and nobody takes you for the creepy one."
This time Michael smiled for real. Jack patted him on the head and pushed himself to his feet.
"Get some sleep," he ordered. "We'll talk about this later."
As he was turning to go, Michael said hastily, "I didn't do that to Junst's place. It was like that when I got there."
Jack paused, one hand holding back the curtain, his head dark against the candlelight in the kitchen. "Must've been the squad, then," he speculated.
"Looking for your snake stuff," Michael added.
"Yeah, maybe." Jack looked toward the kitchen. Under the curve of his arm Michael could just make out two hands clasped on the table top: Daniel and Sam, sitting silently together.
"Are you gonna watch me all night?" Michael tried to put irritation in his voice but the fear seeped through and ruined the effect.
Jack looked into the kitchen again. "Yeah," he said, dropping the curtain. He sat down on the chair in the corner of the room and propped his feet up on the end of Michael's bed. "And don't gripe about it."
"I'll humour you."
"You're big that way." He slouched down lower, the halo diffusing to an almost invisible white glow. "Go to sleep."
Burrowing deeper into the covers, Michael ducked his head low and gave in to the dream, as though his fingers had finally gone numb around a dangling branch and could no longer hold his weight against the pull of the current. He sank into the water, felt it pass through him, sieved it for oxygen, the water plants parting and folding around him again as he was carried along on the cadence of Lizzie's little-girl voice singing, "Don't cry, boy, don't cry."
Don't cry, boy, don't cry.
"Synaesthesia," Daniel said, blinking as he processed the implications of the idea.
"Right. That," Jack replied, pointing his spoon at Daniel's face. "That's exactly what I was going to say."
Sam snickered and hid it behind her glass.
"Well, it was."
Daniel swallowed a mouthful of oatmeal. "Probably connected to some kind of empathy. No wonder he's overloaded. Imagine what it must be like to see what people are feeling."
"Let's not," Michael groused from where he was perched on the counter on the other side of the kitchen. "And I'm right here, you know." He tilted his head way back and balanced a half-full glass of water on his forehead. "Look, no hands."
"You break it, you clean it up," Jack warned without turning to see. When Daniel raised his eyebrows, Jack pointed to his glasses. "Reflection," he clarified.
"Anybody consider that I'm just, oh, I dunno, insane?" Michael interjected testily.
Jack was still watching him in the reflection of Daniel's glasses, a strategy that was sort of unnerving for Daniel, actually, who looked into eyes that were looking back and not seeing him.
"Under normal circumstances," Jack was saying, "that would be the first guess, but you're—"
"A freak." Michael straightened and caught the glass as it fell, spilling the water down the front of his shirt. He wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his jacket.
"—a special case." Jack put his fork down, his face set in an expression of wearied frustration.
"It doesn't matter anyway," Michael concluded glumly and slid down from the counter and dabbed at his shirt with a towel. "What are you gonna do about it? Shut off my brain?" He put his index finger to his temple and mimed firing a gun. "Good luck with that."
Gathering up her bowl and glass, Sam rose and went to the counter. "Maybe it'll go away on its own," she suggested as she put the apple core in the compost bucket and and slid the bowl into the plastic basin of water in the sink. "It seems to have intensified right around puberty—"
"Aw, geez!" Michael protested, turning away with a hunched shoulders.
"—and it's possible it'll settle down when the rest of your systems do." She shrugged. "It's a theory."
Michael muttered, "Okay, then, I'll just go get laid and maybe we can all go back to not talking about me all the frigging time."
"In the meantime," Jack said, pushing away his mostly untouched breakfast, "you should stick around the house, stay away from the town until you feel better."
Daniel nodded in agreement, as did Sam. "Limit your exposure for awhile," Daniel added.
"Aw, geez!" Michael whined again. "I already feel better and Tam—"
"Just for awhile," Sam said, laying a placating hand on his shoulder.
He rubbed at his forehead again with his sleeve and Sam's brow crinkled into a frown as she tilted her head. Taking his shoulders, she turned him more fully into the light from the window.
"Wow," she said softly.
"What?" Jack swung a leg over the bench to face them.
"Look at this!" She pulled Michael closer so that Jack and Daniel could see.
The cuts on Michael's face were almost completely healed, showing now only as a hair-fine network of puckered scars radiating from his eyes across his cheeks, temples and forehead.
Reaching up to touch them with tentative fingers, Michael frowned, his mouth becoming a thin line, his eyes bright and defiant. "See?" he demanded, pointing at his face. "I told you: freak."
Wiggling the stem carefully back and forth to loosen the soil, Michael gave the carrot a last, sharp tug. It slipped out of the ground on a spray of earth and he lost his balance and fell backwards into the space between the rows. With a groan of frustration, he flopped back against the packed earth, and stared at the mackerel sky. Beside him was a half-full basket of vegetables—carrots, potatoes, tomatoes—and beside that, a pile of weeds withering in the dry prairie wind. He closed his eyes and listened to wind's whispering, imagined it as some kind of low-flying being sweeping toward him on wide, tattered wings of dust. Creepy as that image was, it was at least entertaining, not that it would take much to be more entertaining than a week of pulling weeds, in his opinion. He watched the sun making geometric patterns behind his eyelids and thought of the wind-being coming from someplace in the poisoned east to suck the moisture from his body.
"Fuck, Michael," he muttered to himself. "Even your fantasies are fucked."
A shadow passed over him. His eyes flew open and he squinted upward at the vague shape of a person standing at his feet, broken wings flapping listlessly against a pale blue sky. He put a hand up to shield his eyes and the shape resolved into Lizzie, who looked down at him with her head cocked quizzically to the side, her hair and her dress showing the direction of the wind.
"Shit, Lizzie, you got to stop creeping around like that," he grumbled as he sat up.
Lizzie just nodded and then cocked her head the other way to continue staring at him. Her hair was held off of her face by a wide ribbon of orange velvet. She was wearing a dress—at least a size too small—in some kind of shiny fabric that looked pink from one direction and sort of blue from another so that she seemed to waver in and out of existence as the wind shifted around her, rearranging the folds so that sometimes her outline blended in with the sky. She wore a pair of water-stained high-heeled shoes in the same fabric and little lace gloves that buttoned at the wrists. At her hip, a big bow flapped stiffly, a fake diamond pin winking at its centre.
"Goin' to a party or something, Liz?" Michael asked.
Shaking her head, she crouched down beside him, took the carrot from his hand and put it in the basket. "I brought you something," she said, looking at him out of the corner of her eye, her hands fluttering uncertainly over the vegetables, touching each one before she stood again and opened the little clutch purse that hung from her wrist. She pulled something out, sheltered in her curled fingers, and then crouched down in front of him again. Holding her hand out, palm down, she turned it over and opened her fist. In her palm was a small orange, no bigger than a walnut.
"Whoa," Michael breathed, reaching out to touch it with a fingertip. "Where did you get that?"
Shrugging with one shoulder, she looked away, at the cornfield rustling on the other side of the garden fence. "The woman has a little tree. The little tree bears little fruit. The little fruit are the sweetest fruit." Not looking at him, she thrust her hand closer. "It's for you."
Michael let his hand fall to his lap. "Isn't your mom gonna be mad?"
"The woman," Lizzie corrected him, her hand still outstretched toward him. Finally, she turned back to him, her pale eyes the same colour as the sky, like she was hollow and he could see right through her. "My mother said I was a pretty girl. When I was little. When I was little she said that." She smoothed the front of her dress, leaving it as wrinkled as before. "The woman doesn't know that." As a sort of conclusion, she picked up his hand and folded his fingers around the orange, squeezing them tightly in hers. Leaning closer, she whispered, "I had a brother once." Her eyes slid away from his as she fell forward onto her knees, cradled her arms, and began to sway them in a rocking motion, humming softly. She didn't say the words, but Michael could hear them anyway: Don't cry, boy, don't cry.
Turning away, Michael watched a beetle the size of his thumb dig its way out of the black earth and fumble along the row toward the hole where the carrot had been. Lizzie's shadow rocked back and forth in front of him. He wanted to run away from her, but instead he got up and held out his hand. "C'mon, we can share it." Helping her up, he didn't touch her more than he had to, bending hastily to hook the handle of the vegetable basket, and propping the orange carefully in the corner next to the tomatoes. When he started up the row toward the house, Lizzie stood still behind him, pulling at the thumb of her glove with her teeth. "C'mon," he said again. "We can get a drink of water. I've been out here all day."
The neighbourhood was quiet, all the kids at school, the adults mostly out in the fields picking the early corn. In the courtyard, Lu was stalking the goose, who waddled away from his careful approach, watching him with one eye. When they got to one wall, the goose would flap his way back to the other side of the courtyard and Lu would begin again, creeping along with his eyes narrowed to intent slits. Inside his house, Yana was clanking pans and singing to herself in a cracking falsetto.
Michael dropped the basket on the table in his kitchen and opened the cupboard to get two glasses down. Lizzie hesitated in the doorway, still chewing the thumb of her glove. He was scooping water out of the bucket when she said suddenly, "He broke it." He turned to find her pointing out the door.
Leaving the glasses on the counter, Michael came and stepped in front of Lizzie to see. Lu was kneeling on the flagstones, his mouth wide and round, no sound coming from him at all. In front of him, the goose was slumped, its neck twisted. The light around Lu was sparking, so sharp that Michael had to close his eyes. He stumbled backward into Lizzie, who caught him by the shoulders of his shirt and then let him go as he turned blindly, groping for her. He felt the lace of her glove pass over his face. Lu's anguish was stabbing through him, a million keen blades. Michael gasped and Lizzie couldn't keep him from falling to his knees.
"I'll get Tam," she said, her voice right in his ear.
It took him a second to realize that she was holding him, that his face was pressed to her neck. He pushed her away and sat back. "No. It's okay." Forcing his eyes open, he stared at the floor between his knees, breathing hard through his nose. "If they find out I'm losing it again I'll be under house arrest forever." A bitter grin twisted his mouth. He made himself look over his shoulder. Lu was as he was before only now his usual blankness was ice cold and limned with an iridescent blue. "I can fix this," he said. "I can fix it and then I won't have to see it."
Lurching to his feet, he made his way into the laundry room and fell to his knees again to pry up the ceramic tile. Pulling out the cheese and milk, he lay down on his side and groped in the clammy space until his hand closed around a cloth-wrapped package. Lizzie followed him back through the kitchen and into the courtyard. Distantly, Michael could hear Yana's singing drifting down now from an upstairs room. Lu was frozen, his mouth still wide. Michael wondered if he'd even taken a breath.
"Okay, okay, okay," he whispered to him as he sat down with his feet on either side of the goose and unwrapped the package without looking at it. The goose was an ebbing grey, a smear of faintly pulsing red at the base of its neck. Michael looped his hand through the handle of the healing device, raised it over the bird and concentrated on that fading pulse of red. In his mind he pictured it coalescing, drawing to a bright centre and then expanding outward in warm tendrils. He imagined the jaggedness of pain smoothing over, a quicksilver light coursing along bone and muscle, leaving everything whole again. And the light grew and he felt the tingling in his fingertips and his palms, felt it prickle up along his arms, each bright, sharp-pointed sparkle a lance piercing his skin and his flesh, and it frothed upward, blocking his throat and sizzling across his eyes.
When he could see again, the goose was blinking a dark eye at him. Then, it looped its long neck over its back and began to preen its ruffled feathers. Lu wasn't crying anymore; he was already patting the goose roughly, making it squawk and waddle away. Crawling along behind it a little ways, Lu scrambled to his feet and began stalking again, his hand held out beseechingly. He was still blank, but the shrieking corona of pain was gone.
Michael bowed his head low between his knees, the healing device dangling from his hand. "Snake," he mumbled, too tired even to cry. "Fuck."
Lizzie's shadow fell on him again as she knelt in front of him. After a moment, he felt her take his hand, the one still looped through the device. Lifting it, she leaned close and pressed it to her chest, above her heart. Michael looked at her.
"Now me," she said. She was hollow, and at the centre was a painful knot of hope.
His voice was weighed down with stones. It took him two tries to lift the words up to his mouth. "It doesn't work that way."
She pressed his hand harder against her, the device's textured crystal and its frame digging into her skin above the low neckline of her fancy dress. "Please, Michael."
"Lizzie... I'm so sorry."
She bowed her head, nodding, resigned, and then she crumbled under his hand, yawning open, the hollowness expanding around them, perfect, pure loneliness so cold and pristine that it had no colour, and he couldn't close his eyes and he couldn't look away, and the last thing he saw was Lizzie's hair falling over her shoulder slowly like a flow of russet silk, and, behind her, Yana Maio in her kitchen doorway, her face blank with fear.
And then there was nothing. And then there were voices, hundreds, millions of voices, each spark of light a voice, all of them speaking together in a score of languages, seething behind his eyes, and he was weightless, bodiless, and the black was so lonely, a hollowness limned with blue the colour of an empty sky, the colour of Lizzie's eyes.
He couldn't answer. He couldn't see who had called him. He waited.
"Michael, can you hear me?"
Opening his eyes slowly, Michael looked up at Sam. Behind her Tam stooped over him and behind him, Jack and Daniel were watching, frowning.
The world was... flat, like it had lost a vital dimension. The colours were just colours, edges defined against the yellow brick and the square of sky. He waved his hand through the air in front of him, then trailed his fingers along Sam's cheek. She was just Sam.
"Wow," he whispered.
"What is it?" Sam asked, putting a hand under his neck to help him sit up.
Michael's grimace widened into a toothy grin. "I think I blew a fuse."
CHAPTER FOUR: THE PRINCE OF RAYS
This is our harvest
harrowed from sinew and bone
("Harvest Night," Brighid E. Stone)
Daniel stood in the tall rectangle of the barn door, visible only because he was an absence of stars. After a moment, he slumped against the door frame and put his hands in his pockets. The wind made his nylon jacket snap against his arms, so he wrapped them around himself, becoming a smaller, more silent space of darkness propped against the sky.
Looking away, Jack sighed. "Teal'c, you've got to reconsider," he said, a last try, but he knew it was useless. Teal'c was already standing to go.
"It is safer for you if I am not with you," Teal'c repeated, imperturbably patient no matter how many times he had to make the argument.
He raised a hand briefly to his throat, where the raw skin was still seeping a little, gleaming wetly in the light of Carter's flashlight. Jack's fingers were still sticky from the blood on the rope, his fingernails broken from the effort of easing the knot in the noose. The town of Luca was now on his list of the top one hundred places on the planet least hospitable to Jaffa.
"I am the most likely to evoke fear and distrust, and I am the most recognizable. The bounty is generous. Sooner or later someone will claim it—instead of simply trying to kill me. Without me, you have a better chance of finding a safe haven."
Jack made a sound of disgust and turned away. Teal'c was unimpressed.
The light jumped and wavered as Sam sat down on a hay bale, resigned. "But Joshua Mason? He's a thug."
"Teal'c," Jack said, his eyes fixed on the blankness that was Daniel. But Daniel had no more to say, all of his eloquence exhausted. Jack turned away from that, too. "He'll use you."
A suggestion of a smile added new shadows to Teal'c's face. "Perhaps. But perhaps I may use him as well. He will provide tretonin, and I may work to mitigate the worst of his predations, as I did in the service of Apophis."
"Or he'll give you up to the first snake he finds."
Teal'c bent and shouldered his pack. "I do not believe so. If he has indeed recovered a ship, he will need a pilot. He will not give up such an advantage, even to the goa'uld. Assuming he manages to repair the ship at all." His gaze rested meaningfully on Carter for a moment, silently emphasizing another reason to protect their anonymity. "He cannot enslave my mind, O'Neill. And I may do some good."
Jack stabbed him with two fingers in the middle of his chest. "That's a devil's bargain and you know it." But, Jack reminded himself, unless they could come up with some way to make tretonin out of old batteries and beef jerky, Teal'c was dead anyway. Godamnit to hell. He ducked his head and took a step back, clearing the way for Teal'c to leave the barn. "We'll head south-east, toward Carole. We'll stay there as long as we can, in case, you... you know...." He let Teal'c pull him into a hug, slapped him too hard on the back. "Be careful."
Stepping away, Teal'c nodded, the tattoo on his forehead catching the light. "Good-bye Major Carter." She stood and his embrace lifted her to her toes. "Tell Michael I will miss him."
She nodded wordlessly, eyes large and dark in the cold light of the flash.
Passing through the door, Teal'c blocked out more stars as he hugged Daniel briefly. Then there was only Daniel's silhouette and the sharp-tongued wind rasping against the grass.
Somehow, it was this leaving that brought it all down on them, as though Teal'c had kept it at bay simply be being part of them, the team, the four-square solidity of SG-1. When he stepped away from the barn door and disappeared, it was like the last barrier had been pulled down and the cold weight of the truth surged in, swirling around them like floodwater, ice stabbing into soft flesh and ache leaching into bone.
Silently, the three of them unloaded the bed of the pick-up, piling the equipment—tents, shovels and axes, a camp stove, three ten-gallon jugs of water—neatly in one of the empty stalls. The cooler, the frying pan and Sam's precious tube of toothpaste, they stacked in the cab with Michael, who rolled away to press his face to the back of the bench seat, and didn't wake. As he did every night, Jack pulled the jacket up over the boy's shoulders, tucked it in close, and smoothed the hair away from his forehead. He couldn't remember exactly when he'd come to this gentleness, but it didn't seem important just then to think about it. He locked Michael in and went around the back of the truck to help with the bedding.
They hadn't discussed it; it wasn't even a conscious decision really, to squeeze all three of them into the bed of the truck between the wheel wells, but there was no way they could risk a fire—not this close to Lucas, anyway—and even through the closed door the October wind chilled the air so that their breath hung around their heads. But that wasn't even it, really. They'd suffered cold nights alone before.
They lay in their clothes on top of two sleeping bags, and under the third and the Hudson's Bay blanket with its ragged edge folded down away from their faces. In the middle, Sam faced Daniel, her head tucked down low so that Jack could see the paleness of her neck above her collar. Jack lay against his pack with his arm behind his head and listened to the door rattling against its frame. Somewhere in the hayloft above their heads, mice scurried across the boards, their feet scrabbling, a noise too big for their small size, and for an instant, a barn owl's eyes glowed cool green on the lintel. With a whisper of wings, the bird flew up to the rafters. A downy feather drifted down, its progress through light and dark revealing the latticework of slanting shafts of moonlight, until it settled finally, without sensation, onto the back of Jack's hand. He left it there.
It wasn't long after that he felt a shudder run through Carter's body. She was still for a moment, not even breathing, and then the shaking returned, growing in her until her back was heaving.
"Shh," Daniel whispered, his hand coming up to hold her neck, to pull her closer so that her head was under his chin. "Sam."
"Gone," was all she said, a whisper so broken that Jack might have missed it, except that it was an echo of what was already in his head.
"I know. I know," Daniel murmured. "Shhh." He didn't say, "It's okay." Jack was grateful for that.
Jack lay still for a moment while Carter's sobs shivered through him and thought of all the times they'd been lost, or stranded with no way home. Then, home was something in front of them, a goal, a place to go. Now it was only behind them, receding second by second into the past, like a bridge crumbling away from them, leaving only a yawning, impassible distance. Rolling onto his side, he looped his arm around Carter's waist. She took his hand and squeezed it tightly, pressing it to her chest. Daniel's other hand was there between them, too, and after a moment, he wrapped his around both of of theirs.
The cold pressed against Jack's back, like the barn was gone and the whole expanse of the empty world was leaning into him, every single absence a weight, crushing, forcing the air out of his lungs. If he turned over to look there would be a precipice, a palpable nothing. Squeezing Carter's hand tighter, he moved closer to the warmth of her body, to the sound of Daniel's voice. Above them, the barn owl hooted, spread its wings again, and another feather fluttered into Carter's hair, ghost-white in the gloom. He watched Daniel's breath stirring the fine down and felt Carter's grief against his chest, fitted perfectly into the hollows of his own.
They stayed like this for a long time, balanced together at the edge of loss. Finally, as Carter's body started to relax again, her sobs coming in uneven hitches, Jack made himself breathe deeply, in time with Daniel, and before long they were all breathing together, slower, slower. He let himself hush her a little, silently, his lips brushing the skin of her neck, and then, briefly, Daniel's cool fingers. Raising his head and resting it higher on his pack, he found Daniel watching him, his eyes a perfect ice-grey in the filtered moonlight. Lifting his hand from Sam's neck, Daniel laid it against Jack's face, his touch feather light there, hesitant, tracing his cheekbone, the line from nose to lip. When Jack closed his eyes, Daniel's fingers brushed his lashes.
Outside, the wind prowled around the barn, its breath heavy with the memory of smoke. Inside, Daniel's breath stirred the feather in Carter's hair, his fingers stroked Jack's lips and throat, and for a brief moment, his hand wrapped tightly in theirs, Jack didn't think about the heavy nothingness at his back.
The sun was at four o'clock, drawing their shadows out in front of them like spindly-legged puppets. Jack was up front, jumping occasionally on Daniel's shadow head as it wavered across the broken asphalt. Daniel was holding Carter's hand, swinging it wide. Jack's muscles were almost watery with fatigue after a whole day harvesting. The back of his neck was burned. So was Carter's. So was Daniel's. Jack jumped on Daniel's head again, just to prove he could still lift himself off of the ground. Daniel swung Carter's arm wide.
It was a total cliché, the idea that the summer had "mellowed," but that's what it had done. Everything around Carole had turned to a soft, rustling, powdery, gold-edged green and even the sky was warmer, no longer a piercing blue, but low and hazy and tending toward peachiness in the late afternoons. Birds flew languidly, practically in slow-motion. Cows, being cows and not terribly creative about what to do with their summer vacation, stood around the salt licks or stared at the ground. People got up early and worked while the air was still blue, and wandered back to the shade of leaning buildings in the middle of the day, wandered out to the fields again once that peachiness started to glow along the horizon. Sickles rose and fell, rose and fell, in a smooth rhythm and the sound of corn falling was like sighing.
Michael stopped seeing colours that nobody else could see and spent his afternoons running messages around town with Tam in exchange for an astonishing array of barter goods, including but not limited to bullets, pot seed and, once, a hand-cranked record player and a box full of thick 76s raspy with old time jazz. By the beginning of September, he and Tam had three other kids working for them. Tam was obviously going to be a tycoon. Michael didn't want to be a tycoon. He just liked riding the bike. Weird Lizzie didn't come round anymore. Jack got a craving for boisenberry jam, but Yana was gone to Juno to visit a sister or something, so he had to settle for honey.
Sam and Daniel still slept like puzzle pieces when Jack slid out from between them in dimness before dawn, and Jack still found himself sitting in the plastic chair in the vegetable garden, but the bottle of Daniel's special was still mostly full in the cupboard above the fridge. His back was scrawled with an uneven white scar with regular dots on either side of it where the Peigan doctor had pricked out her stitches with the darning needle and the fishing line. He looked like he had a zipper, Sam said. Daniel kissed the length of it one night in the dark and then it stopped hurting in that phantom way of scars and bad memories. Jack swung the sickle and helped to make the shocks of corn for drying. His muscles got harder like they always did this time of year, but his face got softer. Sam kissed the edge of his mouth one night in the dark and it stopped hurting to smile a little.
There was no word from Teal'c, but then, they hadn't expected any. Still, as they dragged their sorry asses back home from their corner of the cornfield, he let his eyes blur a little and imagined, just for a tiny moment, that there were four shadows wavering across the broken street instead of just three. He jumped half-heartedly on Daniel's shadow head again, and Daniel said "Ow."
Inside the rowhouse it was cool and quiet except for the faint sound of kids running through the rows of corn shocks out back, collecting silk for dolls and leaves to make boats for the river. Carter dipped three cups into the boiled water bucket and handed them out. They drank them straight down, water running down their chins and necks onto the sweat-stained collars of their shirts. Jack leaned heavily on stiff arms on the table, his head low. Carter laid herself along his back and rested her cheek between his jutting shoulder blades.
"I am so hungry," she said slowly, working up to the statement like each word was a boulder she was rolling up a hill. She didn't move to do anything about it, though.
"I'm tired," Daniel said. "Obviously," he added, the grin in his voice. He kicked the side of Jack's boot. "You? Okay?"
Jack straightened, dislodging Carter, who blinked like she'd just been woken up from a very deep sleep. He pulled a few strands of cornsilk out of his hair and tried to flick them onto the floor. They stuck fast. "Old," he answered finally, picking the cornsilk off with the fingers of the other hand and repeating the fruitless flicking procedure. "Like an old man." Flick. Flick. Pick with the other hand. Flick. The cornsilk stuck like cobwebs. Finally, Jack looked up. His eyes went wary. "What?"
They were looking at him, their affection glowing behind their weariness. They looked at each other—some silent consultation—and then back at him. Daniel licked his lips, slowly. Carter was grinning a sort of lopsided grin that said, "Hel-lo." Of course it was impossible, what he thought they were thinking, because they'd just spent eight hours hacking down an entire corn field—or, okay, just their little corner of it, but still, hacking and bending and sweating in the sun—and who had the spit left for what they couldn't possibly be thinking? He wiped the cornsilk off his hand onto the hip of his jeans. Of course, though, he was thinking it, and they had a decade on him each and Daniel's lip was gleaming a little where he'd licked it. "What?" Jack repeated, just as warily and, this time, a tiny bit hopefully.
Carter took a step toward him. "Old, huh?"
"Uh... um... well, I..."
Daniel took a step, his head cocked inquisitively. "Would that be tired old or dirty old?"
A bead of sweat slid into Jack's eye. He blinked it away and when he focused again, they were closer, grinning, both of them. That was a lot of teeth to confront all at once, and Carter's caught at her lip for a second. There was a smudge of dust across her cheek. He wiped it away with his knuckles. "Dirty?"
"BING!" Daniel exclaimed with a little jump. "You get to advance to the next round!"
"Which is..." Crossing her arms at her waist, Carter grabbed the hem of her t-shirt and pulled it off over her head. Sweat gleamed silver on the skin between her breasts. She had two tan lines, one higher on her chest and redder, the other lower, from that shirt she had with the flowers on the front and the little ties she always left undone. Jack liked that shirt.
"Michael?" he asked. The thought arrested his fingers on the way to touching that second line.
Daniel grabbed him by the collar and dragged him along as he walked backward down the hall, Carter falling into step behind them. "Ingram commandeered him to work on the corn roast. We have the place to ourselves." With his other hand, Daniel undid the buttons of this shirt, letting it fall open to show a damn fine six-pack. Harvesting really, really looked good on him.
Shouldering open the French doors to their bedroom, Daniel let Jack go and threw his shirt on the floor in the corner. By then, Carter was pulling Jack's shirt over his head, following the fabric up across his chest with a leisurely lick of her tongue. Her hair smelled of dust and sweat. He lowered his head a little to breathe it in. From beside him, Daniel reached around and undid the buttons of Jack's fly.
"Wait!" Jack protested, stopping to hold his breath while Carter's teeth did almost-painful things to his left nipple. "Socks first." He hated that no-pants-with-socks look. It was a thing. And it was too late; Daniel had finished with the buttons and Jack's pants were around his ankles and Daniel was pushing him backward toward the mattress on the floor, making him hop-shuffle in a very undignified way.
"Shh, Old Man," Daniel ordered, two fingers stiff against his chest, shoving him down onto the bed.
Before he'd flopped out flat, Carter was already working one bootlace, Daniel the other. In less time than would be possible for anybody other than a couple of geniuses, they'd removed boots, socks, and jeans and Jack was buck naked on the sheets, arms flung wide, muscles aching and, now, burning with more than fatigue.
Daniel stood up, came around to the top of the bed, and settled back down on it so that his knees were on either side of Jack's head. By the prickle of hair against his cheek, Jack knew that Daniel had lost more clothes on the way. Carter did a slinky kitten crawl up his body and laid herself flat on his chest. Their skin was slick with sweat. The button of her jeans was cold against his stomach. She licked her lips.
"I am so hungry," she said again, very slowly, her eyes narrowed. Lowering her mouth a little, she breathed on his face, her tongue flicking out across his bottom lip. "How 'bout you, Daniel?"
"Starved." Daniel's whisper was hoarse and raised gooseflesh on Jack's arms.
"Hmm," she mused and withdrew, rising up on her hands and knees and leaning down, more catlike than any cat Jack had seen lately, to lick Jack from navel to throat. "Mmm. Salty. But I dunno if an old guy like this can take it," she said between tiny bites on his hip bone.
"Fighter pilot," Jack offered. "Com—combat training."
"Yes, but... I don't know... I guess we'll just have to risk it." Daniel sighed resignedly.
"Risk it," was all Jack could say at the moment, but he wasn't sure if he'd said it out loud.
Daniel kneaded Jack's shoulders with his knuckles, working out the knots, pausing to sweep his palms down across his chest and up his throat to rest his fingers briefly on his lips. Shifting backward a bit, Daniel curled low and his lips brushed the ends of Jack's lashes, then the corner of Jack's mouth. "I'm starved," he breathed as he moved away, the words sifting on a thin, hot breath down onto Jack's face.
Now Carter was kneeling between Jack's legs, her hands stroking an intricate pattern of arcs and circles across his stomach. His muscles twitched under the delicate torture of her touch. Then, she raked her nails across his groin and down his thighs, again balancing him on the thin line between ticklish and pain. By reflex he moved to catch her, but Daniel grabbed his wrists and pulled his hands up over his head.
"Ah, ah," he warned. "Let the doctor do her work." Taking one wrist in each hand, Daniel spread Jack's arms wide and leaned down to wet each of his eyelids with his tongue.
Jack's muscles weren't tired anymore. They were humming. He closed his eyes under Daniel's gentle explorations. Holy fuck, he thought. Holy holy fuck.
Daniel's low chuckle went into Jack's mouth.
Then Carter laid her cheek on his hard cock, her breath stirring his pubic hair.
"Fuck," Jack gasped.
"Don't rush me," she admonished, and her breath was hot on him. His cock jumped and she caught it in her mouth.
"Fuck!" Jack said, louder.
"Oh, you lucky, lucky bastard," Daniel replied, his fingers tight around Jack's wrists.
Winding her tongue slowly around the head of his cock, Carter hummed agreement low in her throat, her fingers playing lightly across Jack's balls. She flicked the sweet spot once, twice with the tip of her tongue and then swallowed him whole, letting him go with maddening slowness, her tongue pressing hard on the raised spine and finishing with another languid swirl around the head.
Jack thought, "Fuck" again and there was only skin, and slick rhythm and Daniel's fingers digging into his wrists. Opening his eyes, he raised his head and looked at Carter, on her knees, her blond hair falling across his stomach, her back rising and falling as she sucked him.
"Holy—" He was wound so tight around pleasure that every muscle was vibrating, twanging, almost in pain. He couldn't even move his hips anymore in time with her stroking. His head fell back and he looked up at Daniel just as his tongue came out and slid across his lip, leaving it glistening. Jack's mouth was aching to taste it, but all that came out when he tried to ask was, "Please, Daniel—"
Bending Jack's arm, Daniel brought it close again, over Jack's head, and wrapped his fingers around his cock. As Jack's grip tightened and they began to move in time with Carter's liquid rising and falling, Daniel's hand over his, Jack closed his eyes and listened to her breathing and the small sounds that Daniel made, beyond words, pure language.
When Daniel let go of his other wrist and, instead, laced his fingers with his, Jack came soundlessly, Carter's fingernails digging into the sides of his hips. Daniel gasped for him and Carter's mouth was suddenly gone as she crawled up Jack's body and then her tongue slipped along his fingers and over Daniel's cock and in seconds Daniel's grip tightened hard enough on Jack's hand that he'd have worried about breakage if he there were any possibility of thought at all.
Then she was rising up onto her knees to kiss Daniel and then she was falling down again to Jack, her mouth hungry on his. Daniel was on her lips. She collapsed onto Jack's chest with a sigh.
There was a distant thud as Daniel's head fell back against the wall.
"Old," Carter said, her mouth against Jack's neck.
"Yeah, tha's what he said," Daniel confirmed from someplace in the floating space outside Jack's body.
Lifting his heavy eyelids, Jack looked up to see Daniel watching him. Stretching up an arm, he grabbed the back of Daniel's neck, pulled him down, and kissed the corner of each eye before releasing him and letting his hand fall to tangle in Carter's hair.
"By the way," she said after awhile, pulling him back from the precipice of sleep. "You guys owe me big time. Somebody make me a sandwich."
It was the tickle of hair on his stomach that woke him. When he tried to scratch it away, his hand connected with Carter's head. She was sitting on the floor beside the mattress, slouched down with her head resting on his hip. She held a piece of bread folded in half, purple leaking around its edges, and was tearing off little bite-sized pieces and popping them into her mouth. Jack intercepted her with a hand on her wrist and diverted her delivery his way. Then he licked the jam off of her fingers, slowly, one by one.
"Currant," she answered, batting him away when he tried for a second bite. "Yana made it."
Carter nodded, rolling her head on hip and tickling him again with her hair.
"So, it's not funny jam, is it?"
She cocked an eye over her shoulder at him. "I don't think that's possible." Still, she held the sandwich up and looked at it awhile before finishing it off.
In the dim, early-evening light that angled through the French doors from the hallway, her just-washed hair was dark, her face scrubbed pink. He ran his fingers through the wet strands, catching on a snag and carefully untangling it before moving on, working his way through all of her hair. She closed her eyes.
"Purr," she said, and then, "Love."
"Feeling a little left out, here," Daniel mumbled from the other side of Jack.
Carter turned to lean on her hip and rest her chin on Jack's stomach in the crook of her elbow. "You, too. The most," she told Daniel indulgently as he rolled away from them and twitched up the end of the curtain to look at the sky. Catching Jack's eye, she pointed to him and to herself. "You and me," she mouthed with a wink and a thumbs-up.
"I saw that," Daniel said.
"Only if your eyes are on stalks."
"Hey! Language!" Jack barked. "No corn-related words allowed."
Carter grinned evilly as she pushed herself up to her feet, causing Jack to groan out a breath as she used his stomach for leverage. "So I can't talk about corn flakes?" Taking Daniel's hand, she heaved him up too, staggering under his weight a little. He stepped over Jack, pausing to threaten him with a foot in the middle of the chest. "Or corn bread," Carter continued. "Or corn rows, or the corn roast we were supposed to be at an hour ago and Michael's going to kick our butts for missing?"
"I hate you, Carter," Jack said without much commitment.
"That's why I keep a spare." She smacked Daniel on the ass as he bent to pull open a drawer to rummage for a clean shirt. He yelped but kept rummaging.
Jack pulled a pillow over his head.
"You know," Daniel said, loud enough for Jack to hear through the pillow. "Corn is the new SPAM."
They left the house three in a row, taking up the middle of the street, Daniel holding one of Sam's hands, Jack the other. It was pretty rare, actually—they'd gotten used to not appearing in public looking like a team. But it was good to go out like a family sometimes. Jack would play husband, Daniel the protective younger brother. The Baker boys. Grinning a little at the mindtwist that made in his head, Daniel swung Sam's arm high once or twice, and, when Jack let her go to come walk beside him for a ways, Daniel let his arm brush against his, their fingers to tangle for a moment before Jack moved away again.
Their's was nowhere near the strangest domestic situation in Carole. When the goa'uld slammed the world to pieces, people had put it back together as well as they could, cobbling families out of the fragments, adopting each other because it was necessary to have someone to share the work and to watch your back and to keep you warm when there was less daylight than darkness. There was more to it than mere material necessity, though, something more essential to survival than work and safety and sex. Displaced, disowned and destroyed, people needed to belong, and they wove themselves into the new world by tying themselves to others. Even Jack had recognized this four years ago when he'd driven up to the town limits, faced another potentially hostile crowd, and made yet another attempt to find a place for them. Once more unto the breach....
Now, Jack sidestepped a rolling soccer ball, backtracked and kicked it into a waiting gaggle of kids. The group tightened to a knot and then exploded outward as one girl in an oversized cheerleader's sweater broke away with the ball and headed down the alleyway, one hand hiking up the skirt that threatened to slip down over her skinny hips. Jack watched them go, his hands in his pockets, and his shoulders a little rounded, his neck red above the collar of the plaid shirt he'd sneaked out of Daniel's drawer. The antsy hum of tension in him was almost gone now, having slowly eased in the weeks since Michael had "burnt out" and gone back to being as regular kid as you were likely to find in Carole. Daniel raised Sam's hand and kissed her fingers, squeezing them tight.
Turning, Jack shot them both a grin and led them into the crowd. From up ahead came the tinny jangle of a tambourine and the frenetic sawing of a fiddle, Jim Tennehey's band getting carried away on a big finish. Anybody who could dance to that had bionic legs. There was an eruption of applause and the solo collapsed back into the bounce and stomp of a country two-step. Sam bumped Daniel's hip, breaking his stride.
"Gonna dance with me?"
"You owe me. Plus, I'm very pretty tonight and somebody's dancing with me." She glanced at him sidelong and narrowed her eyes menacingly. She did look very pretty, with her hair all loose and curling a little against the collarbone showing above the ties of her shirt. Jack liked that shirt and for good reason.
"Get me drunk and we'll talk," Daniel conceded.
All around them people were heading for town square and the brightness of torches and the jangle of music, everyone in something that passed for fancy: a lot of Stetsons, one couple in matching square-dancing duds, the woman in petticoats that made her lime green skirt stand out stiff and sway like a bell above her shined cowboy boots, the man in shiny green breeches and a cowboy shirt with embroidered horses galloping across his shoulders. The little girls had bows in their hair and the boys had their shirts mostly tucked in. All the older boys were already in the square, running the buffet table, basting the pig, keeping the fires stoked under the boiling pots. Jack led Sam and Daniel on a winding path and all around them people were laughing and joking, even though they were bone-weary, with hands worn raw from hacking at cornstalks and stacking them in shocks. They had a few weeks now, before the shocks would be fully dried and the cobs could be picked, the stalks and leaves forked into the wagon for feed. But now, it was a Friday night, not that this mattered to most people anymore, and Carole was swinging into the late summer evening on flickering torchlight and the wail of Jim Tennehey's fiddle.
He was focused on the music and the sound of stomping feet on the plywood dance floor, so it took a second for Daniel's brain to process the new information. He saw the flash before he heard the hollow thwump! and rumble of the explosion. Then, as he was rising from his instinctive crouch, one hand spread protectively over the side of Sam's face, he heard another and another, each concussion lagging just a little behind its flash. Jack was turned away from him, toward the spreading black cloud and the rising glow of fire, his hands clenched at his sides.
Daniel had just enough time to shout, "It's the theatre!" before the rip-tide of the crowd surged between them, half the people running away from the explosion, the other half running toward it. Letting go of Sam's hand, he fell into the current and headed toward the red bite of heat and the smell of smoke. He heard Jack call his name, his town-name, but he kept running, catching his shoulder on the corner of the old post office and stumbling out into the street, where his ribs connected with the front grill of the pick-up truck slewed to a stop across the intersection.
Jack started after Daniel, knowing that Carter was right behind him. He watched Daniel turn the corner, catching himself on the building and spinning out of sight onto the next street. Jack was just breaking into a run when Carter grabbed his arm.
"Wait!" She pulled him back.
"Ali! Alison!" Tam was running down the street, a long pair of barbecue tongs in one hand. He dodged around one careening couple but miscalculated his trajectory and was bowled over by an old guy in a ten-gallon hat who didn't even stop to check on him before moving on at an uneven gallop. Picking himself up, Tam continued toward Carter and Jack, limping and waving his tongs. "Ali! John! They took him! The goons!" As he got closer, Jack could see that his teeth were bloody.
"Who? What?" Jack demanded, even though he already knew.
"They just walked right up to the table, walked right up and took him and nobody did a damn thing. Nobody did a fucking thing to stop it and he just went right along with them and didn't put up a fight and I kicked the goon good in the knee and he hauls off and lays one on me right on the mouth and nobody tried to stop them—" Tam spat blood. "They took Michael. He didn't even fight them."
Straightening to scan the street, Carter pointed in the direction Daniel had gone where a blue pick-up was tearing across the intersection and away toward the highway. "That one?"
"Nuh-uh." Tam shook his head and pointed back toward the square at a silver king-cab roaring a wide u-turn, scattering the crowd and heading off after the first. "That one! The one with the big lights on the cab." After a second, a third truck shot across the intersection by the post office and careened out of sight. "Nobody did a thing. Nobody." He was crying now, his face twisted with anger.
"You did," Jack said as he wiped a bit of blood off of Tam's chin with his thumb. He turned to Carter. "Get Daniel and meet me at Junst's place."
"Where are you going?" Carter shouted after him as he took of at a run through the crowd.
It was a few seconds before Daniel could draw a breath, a few more before he could open his mouth without risking dry heaves. He sat hunched over his knees on the curb and breathed through his nose, one hand feeling under his shirt for broken ribs. Bruises, yeah, but nothing went snap, crackle or pop. Fucking goons.
He raised his head and watched the theatre burn.
All around him, people were milling uselessly, not even bothering to set up a bucket line, their shapes bowed and beaten and wavering against the lurid flames.
Goddamn fucking goons.
He started at the touch of a hand on his shoulder and looked up to find Sam crouching beside him.
"Jenny was in there," he told her, waving limply at the theatre. There was a yawning screech as the marquee broke free on one end and swung down to crash against the sidewalk, lightbulbs popping like grenades. Daniel watched, unflinching. "They wouldn't let me go in after her. They—" He ground his teeth together for a moment, his fingers clutching at the boot-shaped bruises blooming on his side. "Fuckers."
"Are you okay?" Sam brushed his hair away from his forehead to peer closely at him. Her eyes reflected the flames.
Turning away from her, he held out a twisted bit of wire. She took it gingerly. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her turning it over in her hands like some kind of unclassified and possibly poisonous insect.
"They broke my glasses."
When Jack came out of the house, stuffing the 9mm into his waistband under his shirt, Yana was in her front yard waiting for him.
"John, I just wanted—"
"Not now!" He was almost on the sidewalk, but something in her posture, the round blankness of her face made him turn back toward her, his eyes narrowing.
She was in the middle of her walk, her hands in the front pockets of her jeans. Behind her, Lu's eye appeared in a crack of open door. The goose was asleep in the garden, between the withered petunias. "I just wanted to say I was sorry. About Michael." The way she was standing, her chin thrust out almost defiantly, said she wasn't sorry at all. Or, at least, that sorry wasn't nearly the whole story.
"How did you—?" He took a step back toward her and she retreated, her chin coming up higher. The realization grew in him like a storm front piling high against the horizon. "Yana. What did you do?"
Taking another step back, she looked away from him. "Lu, close the damn door," she ordered over her shoulder, waiting for the soft click before meeting his gaze again.
"What did you do?" The anger was making his face go rigid, expressionless. She backed up again.
"They said they'd help Lu. I did it for him." Holding up a warning hand, she went on in a rush, "And I saw Michael using that goa'uld thing." Her arm swung in a wide arc so she could point behind her at the goose. "I saw it. That is so not normal. He's not right, y'know. And they said that in exchange they would help Lu. I did it for my kid, John, okay?"
"You sold him to the goons." Jack thought about wrapping his hands around Yana's throat. The gun was cold against the small of his back. The curtains in her front window were parted and Lu was watching with wide, dark eyes. He stared at her until she looked down, and then he turned and stalked away.
'Damnit, Junst! You wouldn't even have the damn truck if it wasn't for us!" Jack said from behind Daniel.
Junst raised small, red-rimmed eyes and squinted at him impatiently. "It was the price of getting a place in our fair community. I don't remember you complaining at the time." He frowned, his chin disappearing into hanging jowls and rolls of fat. "Actually, I do remember you complaining." He waved a stubby-fingered hand at the door. "Go away."
"We need the truck."
"You can't have it." Opening his his ledger, Junst went back to his inventory, tapping the keys of the adding machine without looking at them, his lips moving as he recited the numbers silently.
Daniel could literally feel the air around Jack winding tighter. "Junst—" he began.
Looking up in an "oh, are you still here?" way, Junst sighed, one finger keeping his place in the column. "I don't remember you mounting a rescue mission when those girls were taken."
"They were taken by Jaffa," Sam explained in that clipped, urgent briefing room tone Daniel hadn't heard in years. "That means they were probably offworld in seconds. Michael was taken by Joshua Mason, which means there's a chance of getting him back. But if we have to go on foot, he very well might be offworld before we can get there."
"Why should I risk one of my most valuable commodities—and I suppose you'll be wanting gas too—on that little fre—"
Jack moved so fast that Daniel had no chance of stopping him. He shouldered his way between him and Sam and hauled Junst forward by the front of his overalls. Junst's beer-barrel of a stomach was pressed into the table edge as he came off his stool. His hands clawed at Jack's wrist. Jack aimed the 9mm between Junst's eyes and the hands fell and crumpled into the ledger's pages instead.
"Listen to me you sonofabitch," Jack said in a low, even growl. "They can have this whole fucking continent, but they cannot have Michael." He slipped the safety to underline his point. "I don't want to shoot you and take the truck. But I will shoot you and take the truck."
Leaning in over Jack's shoulder, Daniel said in his most soothingly diplomatic tone, "We'll trade." He pulled Jack back gently. "We'll trade for it."
Reluctantly, Jack leaned away and let Junst go, but he didn't give up his prime intimidation spot against the table. Junst settled back on the stool and smoothed the front of his overalls with a shaking hand. His chins shivered.
"What have you got to trade?" He eyed the gun significantly, but Jack slipped the safety on and put it in the front of his waistband where it was off the negotiating table and ready to hand.
"The house," Daniel said. He looked from Jack to Sam, and when they both nodded, he turned back to Junst. "The house, but we get enough fuel for a round trip."
The Bow River was a sluggish swirl of mud-brown and glacier turquoise. His forehead pressed against the cool glass of the window pane, Michael watched the patterns stretch and unwind and swirl tighter again downstream. He'd been at the window now for hours, it seemed, and the river way down at the bottom of the gorge had expanded in his perception until it was all that was left of the world. His lips moved around equally complex currents of words and languages he didn't understand and couldn't stop, the whisper no longer seeming to come from his own mouth but from the river, a sibilant rushing on the edge of meaning. In the fog of condensation made by his breath, his fingers moved, marking words on words, language unwinding and swirling again into tight knots, curves that were letters, lines that were ideograms, until there was just a scramble of smears and fingerprints on the glass.
In the room behind him, beside the locked door, a goon sat in a chair tipped back against the wall, a rifle in the crook of his elbow, booted heels braced against the chair legs. He wasn't as dark or as cold as Michael had expected him to be. In fact, when he'd strapped Michael in beside him in the truck, he'd been a sort of soft green shot through with an urgent red and outlined in a blue corona of attention. But still, Michael had been afraid, sitting curled up in the corner of the king cab, and the tissue between him and the truth of things was stretched so thin and the colours were getting brighter and he couldn't close his eyes. But the goon had been a gentle kind of green and he'd meant it when he'd said that Michael should call him if he wanted anything. When he'd offered to get him a Coke, he'd sincerely been trying to make Michael feel better.
Michael didn't feel better. He didn't feel worse, either. He felt only the incessant pull of the river and the scouring rush words streaming through him. He couldn't close his eyes and he couldn't look away.
After a long time the door opened and someone came in to talk to him, a thin voice pitched low to seem friendly. It's possible that there were questions, but Michael didn't turn from the window, and when long fingers closed around his arm to pull him away and into the middle of the fancy hotel room, Michael saw only the churning mingling of mud-brown and turquoise and the unspooling of memory in his mind. Then he was alone again with the silent goon against the wall and the voices in his head and the reflection of his eye on the window.
It was a few more hours before the images began to come together with the words, before the words stopped being gibberish, before he understood what it meant when the woman in his mind's eye bowed her head, her hair slipping forward over her naked shoulders like the slow falling of russet silk, exposing the tanned skin at the back of her neck, the subtle rise and fall of vertebrae. She was trusting; she was open and yearning and she was beautiful and lonely and she was waiting.
"And you shall be as gods," Michael whispered at the river. And the woman raised her golden eyes to him and smiled.
Bowing his head, Michael wept.
"It's a toll road now," the man said, leaning in close to the driver's side window. "You got to pay a little something to cross our territory." The moon made a white halo in the smooth, black hair that hung down his back.
With a sigh of impatience, Jack put the truck in 'park' and opened the door. The man backed away to let him out, his rifle held across his chest. Carter slid across into Jack's seat. Daniel tilted the map into the moonlight and squinted at the squiggles of lines he couldn't have seen clearly even with his glasses.
"We don't have anything to trade," Jack said steadily, his hands lax at his sides, the 9mm a slight bulge under the front of his shirt. The man's eyes passed over it and then met Jack's again.
"You got fuel." He gestured at the idling truck with the muzzle of the rifle.
"We need it."
"Well, if you want to get where you're going, and you're going through this territory, you need to trade. Otherwise, you can take it back where you come from." The headlights turned his coppery skin to silver. The beads at his neck glowed darkly as he jerked his head and Jack thought of the slick gleam of blood on Teal'c's throat.
"We're friends of Teal'c," Jack said quickly, playing his one trump card. "He brought me to you. One of your people fixed me up six weeks ago. Stitches. You took—we traded—my back pack."
The man considered him, his face unreadable. "Naomi-Ma!" he called without looking away from Jack. "He says he knows the Big Man."
A shadow separated itself from the shifting darkness of horses at the side of the road and stepped into the cool of the headlights. She was as tall as her companion, hair as long, and she wore a denim jacket like his and leather riding gloves. She came close to Jack and peered at him.
"I remember you," she acknowledged. Stepping back, she held out at hand. "I'm Naomi. This is Lucas. I figgered you'd've got enough of Joshua Mason the last time."
Jack cut to the chase. "He took our kid. We're going to get him back. And we can't trade fuel until we do." Behind him, he heard Daniel stepping out onto the road.
"You just gonna walk up and knock on the door and ask nicely?" Naomi looked skeptical. "He's not gonna just filet you this time, y'know."
"We're going to trade for him," Daniel interjected.
Naomi looked over Jack's shoulder at him. "Yeah? What are you gonna trade?" Not my fuel, her face said.
Daniel put his hands in his pockets and didn't squint. "Me."
"So, you're not really his mom, are you?" Daniel asked, looking over at Lucas who was helping Jack cinch the saddle on a long-legged roan.
Naomi laughed and tossed another couple of sticks onto the small fire. "No. He's my baby brother. I went up to the university in the interior and got my Master's in First Nations Studies and Psychology." She grinned at Daniel. "Naomi B.A., M.A, M.A. That's Naomi-Ma. He likes to remind me how useful my degrees are now."
Daniel smiled back thinly. "Yeah, I know the feeling."
Naomi tilted her head, considering him with the exact same lack of expression her brother had perfected. "What degrees?"
"Linguistics, Anthropology." Daniel waved his hand, wiping the credentials out of the air.
"This is what you got to offer Mason?" The assessing expression gave way to skepticism again.
"Not exactly. I've got other skills. And I'm worth something to the goa'uld." He waved a hand again. "It doesn't matter. The less you know the better."
She harumphed and watched the two men talking next to the horses. "If you say so."
Lucas pointed east. "Poison," he said to Jack. Then south. "Poison." Then west. "Blocked. Nice little reserve they made ya, eh? You can take it or leave it, but you can never leave it." He laughed, a big booming laugh that made Jack squint up an eye so eloquently even Daniel could see it by firelight.
"My brother has a strong sense of irony," Naomi-Ma said.
Daniel left before sunrise, riding the roan with Lucas in the lead on a high-stepping chestnut mare, while Naomi sat in the truck with Sam and Jack, rumbling along behind them until the sun turned the dry prairie grass to umber and cast their shadows ahead of them up the flanks of the rolling foothills. The shadow horses were spindly and Daniel thought of Picasso's Don Quixote. Sam's hand fluttered a good-bye out the passenger side of the truck as it peeled away from the highway and bounced down into the "U" between the next two hills.
"Later," Daniel said softly and urged the horse forward, spindly Picasso legs carrying him up over the crest of the hill and down the other side, back onto Highway One and into the mountains.
They met the first patrol in the ghost town of Canmore, where the jagged teeth of the Rockies started to close against the sky. They paced along down the middle of the crumbling asphalt, the horses' unshod hooves thumping dully as they passed under leaning roadsigns and through the shadows of empty-eyed resort hotels. The goons pulled up in a jeep, two with rifles in the back, the driver in a ball cap and sunglasses revving the engine and grinning when the horses danced away, nervous.
Climbing out, he ordered Lucas off his horse and they talked with their heads together for a few minutes. Daniel leaned slowly forward to ease his knotted back muscles and sat back, keeping his eyes on the road. Lucas nodded and mounted again, jerking his head toward the pass.
"Let's go," he muttered and led the way.
The goons sat in the jeep in the middle of the road. One of them held a radio to his mouth. The static crackled in the clear air.
Daniel didn't look back.
"What's he like? Mason," Daniel asked Lucas
Leaning over, Lucas spat onto the road. "Small man in big shoes," he answered, and that was pretty much it for conversation.
Evening fell early and quickly, the sun flaring once, brightly orange, in the cleft between mountains and winking out, leaving them in blue shadow. At the turn-off to the town they met another patrol. Again, Lucas dismounted and consulted with the driver of the pick-up, but this time one of the goons kick-started a motorcycle—something small with a high-whining engine—and waited for them, turning wobbly circles in the middle of the road. With this escort they wound their way into the town.
Back in The Day, Banff had been a resort town, the bigger, glitzier of the two tourist stops on the Ice Fields Parkway, Jasper to the north a slightly less commercialized little sister. Trendy clothiers and mountain outfitters lined the streets, ice-cream shops and brasseries and brew pubs ready to cater to hikers and skiers and white-water rafters. Even now, after the war, it still had that slightly flat, movie-set feel of places designed exclusively for play, with false swiss facades and villas perched high on the slopes of the mountains to offer the best views of the roaring Bow River. Now, though, the town was mostly dark, the hotels silent and brooding. Here and there candle light flickered in the window of a shop or chalet, but the streets were deserted and the motorcycle's yapping whine echoed and rattled down the valley, drowning out the sound of the river.
The exception, of course, was the Banff Springs Hotel, a massive castle of red stone and brick under copper green roofs at the edge of the gorge. Most of the windows were lit with the unfamiliar yellow-white of incandescence. Guards were silhouetted against the light spilling through the wide front doors onto the circle of the drive. Leaning back in the saddle, Daniel tried to count the floors, but gave up, his eye getting lost in the angles of turrets and wings. It was a medieval stronghold for a new dark age.
Cutting his engine, their escort leaned the bike on its kickstand and waved at them to follow. Daniel's knees buckled a little when he let himself down from the saddle and he shook them out before following Lucas into the glow. At the doors, goons searched them both before stepping aside to let them through.
Like all of the Canadian Pacific Railway Hotels, this one was built on a grand scale, with a provincial colonial-era view of old-country opulence. Sweeping staircases and thick carpets, vast ball rooms and tea rooms and the heaviness of aged wood and hushed elegance. Now, though, the wide main lobby was a field for a game of soccer and the two teams of kids squealed and shouted as they chased the ball from one end to another. Daniel thought of the girl in the oversized skirt, peeling away from the pack in the square in Carole, the torchlight on Jack's face as he turned and smiled. If not for the way his skin remembered the warmth of Sam's hand in his, he'd be easily convinced that it had never happened.
The girl who was playing goalie at the mouth of a long hallway called "Time! Time!" making a "T" with her hands before she left her post and trotted over to their escort. The game went on without her, another boy taking her place. Unstrapping his helmet, the goon pulled it off just in time to catch the girl as she jumped onto him and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek above his scraggly beard.
"You're supposed to be in bed," he scolded her as he put her down again, but there wasn't much bite in it.
"I got to stay up later because of Jason's birthday," she informed him and danced away back into the game before he could protest.
Giving Daniel a "what can you do?" shrug, he pointed them toward a door beside the reservations counter.
"How many people live here?" Daniel asked while they waited for an answer to their knock.
"'Bout sixty families in the hotel. Don't know how many in the town. Not too many, though. Safer up here and we've got power, too," the goon replied. "I just got here a couple months ago, so I haven't met everybody yet. Can't keep all those kids straight, that's for sure." He grinned and stepped back so Daniel could enter. "You hang here, Lucas," he said, a hand on Lucas's broad chest. "Mr. Mason'll send somebody to requisition the fuel for you."
"I need it before winter," Lucas reminded him.
"Yeah, okay," the escort said and closed the door between them.
Lucas obviously had a flare for the metaphors, because "small" was not a word Daniel would have chosen to describe Mason, at least in a physical sense, but his shoes were definitely on the big side. Daniel wondered if it was hard to find size-fourteen shoes in a post-apocalyptic scavenger economy.
Mason raised a bony hand and scratched at his thinning hair as he leaned his head close to the ledger one of his goons was holding. The goon was a stooping elderly man, with a hunch in his shoulders that pulled his work shirt tight against his neck on one side. He was nodding and making rapid notes as Mason gave instructions in a low, patient voice. When he was done, the old man looked up at his boss and grinned as he snapped the book shut with satisfaction. Mason smiled back and waved him to the door before turning and holding out a hand for Daniel to shake.
Daniel kept his hands in his pockets.
"Okay," Mason said with a little shrug of his narrow shoulders. He backed up a step and perched on the edge of the desk, crossing his ankles and folding his arms. He shifted his pale blue gaze over Daniel's shoulder and spoke to Daniel's escort who was hovering by the door. "Randy, you can tell Lucas his stuff will be on the next run. He'd better have a wagon at the meet, though."
"Yup, okay," Randy said and slipped out after the old man.
Mason didn't seem too worried about being alone in the room with Daniel. Daniel figured that the door behind the desk led to another room and some attentively waiting body-guards. He spent a few seconds calculating the distance between himself and Mason's relaxed body, wondering how fast he could move, how much of Mason's life he could squeeze out of him before that door would open and somebody would bury steel toes in Daniel's soft bits. But that wasn't what he was here for.
"I want to see Michael Baker," he said without preamble.
Mason was more inclined to stand on ceremony. "So, you're the arbitrator of Carole?"
"When I'm not harvesting corn so you don't starve this winter."
Mason ignored the dig. "You've been going by the name William Baker, right?"
"My friends call me Will."
Mason nodded and then gave the little shrug again as he filed the information under "irrelevant." "You have a lot of friends, then, in Carole?"
"Fewer now, because of you." Daniel's eyes narrowed against the memory of heat and smoke.
Again the nod and the shrug. He shifted his weight a little. "You negotiate contracts. You really keep all that information in your head?"
"It's the only place you can't burn."
Now, Mason straightened and he came to tower over Daniel, 6'5" at least, and glowering like a buzzard. "Well, if you would follow the rules, Mr. Jackson, I wouldn't have to keep burning things down," he pointed out, his voice more reasonable and controlled than his expression. His breath smelled of garlic under the mintiness of toothpaste. He backed up again and pulled at his shirt, smoothing wrinkles that weren't there, wiping the unsightliness of intimidation off of himself. "We have a zero literacy policy. You know that."
Daniel clenched his teeth and looked away, at the desk with its in-box and out-box neatly stacked with papers, the old man's ledger leaning against them. "Zero literacy for some people," he said in goa'uld.
Mason's eyes lit up with recognition before he hid it behind a blind of incomprehension. So, he was learning a little goa'uld, then, Daniel thought. Teal'c's tutelage no doubt. The better to carry out his master's administrative agenda? But no, the governor would never allow it. The Jaffa would carry his orders orally in the language of the slaves. The goa'uld himself wouldn't sully himself with it, now, when Earth was just a feed yard for cattle. If Mason was learning the language of his masters it was because he had his own agenda. Suddenly, he seemed a little more dangerous and a lot more interesting than Daniel had expected.
"Compliance is peace, Mr. Jackson. Go gently. Do what you're told and life will be easier for you." Mason was back on the edge of the desk again, leaning comfortably, but the knuckles of his braced hands were a little white. He unclenched one hand, indicating the castle around him to illustrate his point.
"You're a slave. And you're a killer." Daniel's tone was a civil as Mason's. This was the idle chat of the beaten.
"Some have to be sacrificed. The few—"
"Nine girls, stolen out of their school room. If they aren't dead now, they wish they were." Daniel's jaws were aching. "Do you want to know their names?"
"I don't need to." He watched Daniel for a moment. His mouth was turned down between brackets of deeply-etched lines. "And you are alive today because of them. The few will save the many. That's how it works." He leaned forward. "Get used to it."
Daniel shook his head in disgust. In his pockets, his hands were sweaty.
"You know," Mason went on. "If you would stop being a nuisance and let things run their course, those girls wouldn't know that kind of fear. In another generation they won't be afraid to be taken to serve their god. They'll be honoured."
Bile rose up at the back of Daniel's throat. He grimaced, swallowing it back. "Only because they'll believe the lies. And the truth will kill them anyway."
"Maybe. But until then they'll be happy. When the truth does you no good, lies are better."
Daniel didn't want to debate anymore. Mason's reasonable voice was making his teeth grind and he found he'd rather speak with knuckles on bone than with words. Maybe he was channeling Jack. Maybe he was realizing for the umpteenth time that talking was too dangerous. Colonization starts in rubble, but it takes root in the mind, in words. Maybe it was better just to harvest corn, hunker down against the winter, start it all over again. Write in soil with a plough. Steer clear of words. Give up to resist. He grimaced again.
"I'm offering a trade. Me for Michael. You let him go and I'll tell you everything I know about the goa'uld."
"And if I don't give him up?"
"Then I won't tell you a thing."
"Or, I could just sell you to the governor and keep the kid."
Daniel smiled grimly. "You won't."
"Why not?" Mason looked intrigued, folded his arms again and leaned back, ready to be amused.
"For the same reason you didn't turn Teal'c over. You want an advantage. You don't want the goa'uld to know everything. You want to know about them. You want your own little empire. You want their technology and we can help you get it, understand it and use it. That ship for instance. Lot's of goa'uld data crystals in there. Lot's of stuff to translate. Not to mention the fact that Teal'c can fly it if you ever get it off the ground. So can I, a little. That'd be quite an advantage on this planet, if the goa'uld didn't know about it." The grim smile came and went. "Of course, if you did sell me to the goa'uld, I'd be pretty pissed and maybe I talk a lot when I'm pissed."
Chewing the inside of his lip, Mason considered him for a moment before getting up and going around the desk to rummage in a drawer. "He means a lot to you, that kid," he said as he pulled out a little box and from it a key. He fitted it into the lock on another drawer. "Doesn't he?"
"You know he's whacked, eh?" Mason tapped his temple with a crooked finger. "More than a few bats in his belfry." He sat back and placed the healing device in the middle of the blotter. "One of your friends in Carole gave this to me." Holding it up to the light, he turned it this way and that, spraying Daniel with reflected sparks of red. "Can you make it work?" When Daniel said nothing, he sighed and put it back down. "Then you aren't worth as much to me as that kid, whacked or no."
"Michael can't make it work anymore than I can."
"Your neighbour says different."
"I don't think so. She was pretty broken up about ratting you all out. Speaking of which." He got up again and came close, looking down his hawk-nose at Daniel. "Where are your housemates, hm? The rest of SG-1?" Daniel pursed his lips and stared back. "I guess we'll find them lurking around here somewhere," Mason concluded.
"We don't want trouble. We just just want Michael."
"You can't have him. He could do a lot of good, you know. Help people with that thing."
Out in the lobby, the kids were groaning protest as someone broke up their game. The soccer ball caromed off of the office door with a mushy thump.
"Well, they're your people now, Mr. Jackson."
Mason did, after all, let Daniel in to see Michael.
"Maybe you can get something out of him," he'd said as he walked away, leaving Daniel in the hallway with Randy and the little girl, Jessica. She hung on Randy's skinny arm and leaned away from them.
"C'mon, Uncle Randy. I don't like that boy, okay? Let's go!"
"Hang on, Jess. Don't be such a brat," he scolded, rapping the door with the back of his knuckles and bracing his feet against her weight. When the door opened and the goon inside jerked his head to invite Daniel in, Randy saluted them with two fingers to his brow. "Later," he called as he let Jessica drag him away.
The guard was a tall man with sloping shoulders under a Grateful Dead t-shirt, his jeans low and baggy on his lanky frame. He ducked his head at Daniel, his fingers tightening nervously around the rifle across his chest, and looked more worried that Daniel would take something he cherished than that his prisoner would overpower him and use the gun against him. The gun stock was gleaming, polished maple, more carefully groomed than the man himself. Following Daniel's gaze, he held it up a little closer so Daniel could admire the finish, grinning shyly for a second before remembering that he was supposed to be the intimidating one. He jerked his head again and followed Daniel into the room.
"He's not doing so good," the guard said, hanging back while Daniel went around the bed and leaned up against the window frame. Michael stood with his forehead pressed to the window, one hand moving spasmodically, tracing unreadable lines on the glass. The guard continued, "I said I'd get him something to eat or something but he won't answer me. He didn't eat nothing since yesterday."
"Okay," Daniel acknowledged, his eyes on Michael. The boy's skin was pasty pale, blue circles under his eyes, his lips white. Then, turning to the guard, Daniel asked, "What's your name?"
"Vince Turlough. From Rupert on the coast." He pointed over his shoulder. "Randy's my cousin. I got him in here." He ducked his head again and looked up with his guard face back in place.
"Thanks, Vince," Daniel said. "Do you think you could have some food brought up now? He might eat."
Vince smiled, his persona slipping again. "Yeah, sure." Shifting his rifle to hang from the crook of his arm, he picked up the phone and ordered room service, just like they were travelers splurging on a night in a big hotel.
Shaking his head in bemusement, Daniel turned back to Michael and put a hand gently on the side of his head. Michael made no sign that he even knew Daniel was there.
"Michael, it's Daniel. Come on." He shook him a little. "How 'bout you snap out of it and have some food?"
Nothing. Just that unbroken whisper and fingers tracing signs on the breath-slick glass. Lowering himself into a crouch, Daniel leaned close, his head cocked to the side, eyes glazed, and listened. His mind tripping along smoothly from one language to the next, he translated unconsciously until in his head it was all one unbroken ribbon of speech, a story told over and over.
He didn't hear the door open when the food was delivered. He waved Vince away impatiently when he brought the tray over to him and left it on the table beside the window. Finally, he slumped down against the wall, drew his knees up tight, and put his hands over his ears.
Daniel jerked away violently when Michael put his hand on his knee, and he knocked the table leg sharply enough to rattle the dishes on the tray. A tall glass wobbled and finally fell over, spilling its contents onto Daniel's shoulder and then the carpet. It had the cloying, sweet citrus scent of flat Mountain Dew.
This information rose up in Michael's mind and he knew that this memory wasn't his. He'd never smelled Mountain Dew before. It came to him from Daniel's mind, or Jack's or Sam's—maybe Teal'c's, even—curled in among the tendrils of knowledge and experience that had come away with their borrowed DNA, when he'd fashioned himself in their image. From them he knew how to laugh, to speak, to breathe, to grieve. He knew how to swear and to chew food and to recognize stars and the smell of Mountain Dew. He knew how to recognize fear.
He knew that from before, of course, the vibrating purple of it, the way it burned out of the human visual spectrum into the pure, searing staccato of ultraviolet. Now, though, he could see it in the wide, black pupils, the flaring nostrils, the muscles bunching under the skin, energy ready to explode outward into motion.
The Mountain Dew pattered on the carpet. Michael watched the fear play itself out across Daniel's face until Daniel contained it, forced it inside with a few deep breaths released noisily through his nose. And then the patter became an intermittent drip and then the surface tension caught the liquid on the lip of the table so it was a gold sickle in the diffuse, tasteful hotel room lamplight. Daniel's fists unclenched and opened, one spread on each knee.
"It's not what you—" Michael began. But it was. He bowed his head, his tongue thick enough to choke him. This was guilt and grief. If he could see it in himself, if he wasn't in his own blindspot, it would be a dirty blue-green like the river outside the window, pale under a cold, distant moon. He made himself raise his eyes to meet Daniel's. He tried not to mumble, tried to speak it clearly the way he felt it. "I'm sorry, Daniel. I'm so, so, so sorry."
Daniel looked at him like he was the snake in the garden.
He wasn't far from right.
After a long time, Michael put a hand flat on the carpet, ignoring the cool stickiness of the spilled drink, and started to push himself up to his feet. But the glow around Daniel shifted suddenly, still in the painful range of violet, but softer, cooler. He'd made some kind of decision, shaping his fear the way he'd contained it before, the way he'd drawn it in on a deliberate breath. He caught Michael's wrist.
Michael started to cry, silent, dry sobs without tears.
Daniel pulled him close and held him tightly. Michael's legs folded under him, askew and bending awkwardly, jeans bunching and pinching at the knees in the thick pile of carpet. He was leaning against Daniel, couldn't get a foot under himself to pull away, and besides, Daniel wouldn't let him. His grip wasn't gentle or comforting—he was hanging on to Michael the way he might cling to a tiger in the ocean if the tiger could swim—but he wasn't pushing Michael from him and he wasn't turning away.
"I didn't know, Daniel," Michael whispered raggedly, his forehead against Daniel's chest. He wouldn't lay his cheek there, ask for that relief, and he could hear Daniel's heart beating, a leaden thudding that splashed rusty light across Michael's eyes. "You were so lonely. So lonely. And I thought you could save each other." He wound his fists into the front of Daniel's shirt, feeling the bite of fabric in the seams of his hands. "They were so old and they remembered everything and they were trapped and they were beautiful once."
"And you were so beautiful, too, but when you died—and you always died, and your lives were so short, just a flash—you took all you knew with you. And they remembered and remembered and nothing was lost. And you were both so lonely. I thought... I thought...."
"You thought we'd be better together. Humans and the goa'uld." Daniel's voice was without inflection, all the contours flattened and worn away by the knowledge, by the weight he held against his chest.
In Michael's mind where memory was shaped into pictures by his borrowed senses, the woman smoothed her hair across the scar on her neck, rose to her feet and looked around her. She spread her arms, embraced her new world, its groves of olive trees, its savannas and cool valleys and mountains like predatory teeth gnawing at the sky. She spread her arms wide and smiled, turning in a slow circle in the centre of her garden.
She was so beautiful. They were so beautiful then.
When Michael stopped crying, he pushed himself up, stiff-armed against Daniel's chest and, turning clumsily, crawled away and huddled in the corner made by the bed and the bedside table. He covered his eyes with his hands while his lips moved silently around the same words in so many languages Daniel lost count: "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Daniel sat against the wall, his hands slack and empty at his sides. After awhile, he started to shiver and then to shake as his body caught up to his mind. He pulled his legs up again and wrapped his arms tightly around himself. Across the room, Vince stood in front of the door, his expression caught between confusion and fear. There wasn't much of the guard about him now, and he cradled his gun to his chest protectively. Dully, Daniel thought that it would be easy to push past him now, to grab Michael by the scruff of his jacket and just push past Vince, using Michael's strangeness to ward him away. Daniel could imagine all of them, even Mason, backing away from the alien in Michael, the inescapable truth of him.
But they wouldn't. Because they didn't know what Daniel knew. To them, Michael was just a kid. Whacked. A freak. But a kid. They didn't know that there were things in the universe more ancient and more terrifying than the goa'uld.
"Michael." It came out as a voiceless breath of air. Daniel cleared his throat. "Michael."
Abruptly, Michael stopped talking and dropped his hands into his lap. His eyes were black in the indirect light.
Daniel felt a little like he was in free-fall, like he was in the grip of gravity but his mind couldn't process it as speed. He groped for something to orient him, tell him which way was up. "Are you an Ancient?"
Snorting out a laugh, Michael wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket and looked just like Michael for a moment. Then, his face fell into a strange neutrality, like he'd forgotten how to use it to express things. Daniel had to look away. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Michael shaking his head.
"Those guys? No." He sounded a little offended and Daniel stole a look at his face. It was still blank, as devoid of expression as a porcelain bowl. Daniel thought of Lu. No wonder Yana was desperate to find a cure for him.
There was a shifting of shadows. Michael shrugging. "We don't really have a name. We just sort of... are."
"Where? Where are you from?"
Daniel tightened his arms around himself and didn't look over his shoulder. Suddenly he felt very exposed, the whole black universe yawning open at his back. The room was greying with dawn, pale light leaching the colours from the paisley bedspread. Vince was sitting, now, in his chair by the door, his face hidden by shadows. His knee was bouncing. Daniel wondered how much he understood.
Free-falling again, Daniel caught at another question. "We? How many are there?"
Michael didn't answer for a long time. He put his index finger in his mouth and chewed at the nail. Then, when Daniel was about to ask the question again, he shrugged. "It doesn't really work that way." He spat a bit of fingernail out onto the carpet and held out his hands toward Daniel. "That's why we made this, so you could know me... us. We can see and feel, but we can't... we can't touch you. I wanted to touch you. I saw that they were coming for you and I wanted to save you all, to make up for what I did way back then when I gave you to them that first time. But I forgot."
"How much it hurts. To be human." Folding his hands into fists, Michael pressed them to his temples, squeezing his eyes shut. "God. How do you stand it?"
He knocked his knuckles against his head and started to rock. He looked so small, like he did that night years ago when he lay in Jack's lap and whispered his pain until his voice was hoarse. Daniel wanted to pull Michael's hands away before he hurt himself, but he couldn't make his arms unwind from their protective circle around his body.
After awhile, when the sunlight had swallowed the lamplight and the colour was seeping back into the room, Michael stilled again. He looked sheepishly up at Daniel, a wry smile curling his lips, and then he looked so much like the kid Daniel knew that Daniel's chest felt hollow.
Twirling a finger at his temple, Michael said, "I guess it was too much for me. I kinda lost it." He held his hands up in front of his face and studied them. "Lost me, I guess, in this."
It never failed. The bad guys with delusions of grandeur always wanted you to kneel. Jack was in the wrong line of work.
"I have to admit, I didn't expect to be seeing you again," Mason was saying. He was sitting on the edge of his desk eating toast. Beside him was a mug. Jack could see the steam rising from it. His nose twitched at the undeniable, poignantly familiar smell of coffee. If Mason didn't kill him this time, the coffee nostalgia probably would.
"Well, bad pennies, yadda yadda." Jack shifted a bit, turned his foot a little sideways so he could sit on it and take a little pressure off his knee. Carter did likewise. It was obviously going to be one of those long, drawn-out demonstrations of demagoguery. "How long do we have to sit here on the floor before we get our cookies?"
Laughing, Mason put down his toast on the edge of his plate—he'd already finished off the eggs and bacon—and nodded to somebody behind them. A door opened and closed. That left two goons, plus Mason: one one by the desk and one over by the window. The first one had a rifle held across his chest. The other looked like a rifle would be an insult to his hulking masculinity. He was cracking his knuckles and flexing Teal'c-sized biceps. Any second now, Jack figured, he was going to launch into a WrestleMania tirade. Jack decided to call him something like "Crusher" or maybe "Mr. Demolition." Naw, that last had too many syllables. Fuck, it sucked sitting on the floor. Casually, Jack lifted an arm and leaned his elbow on the seat of the chair next to him, smiling a little when the rifle-goon pulled himself to more rigid attention.
"Relax. I'm just getting comfortable." The ropes on his wrists made it pretty difficult to look nonchalant in that position, though, so he dropped his hands again into his lap.
Crouching down in front of them, Mason wiped his fingers on his jeans before reaching up and scraping with a blunt fingernail at the dried blood on Carter's temple. "You, though, I'm very glad to meet."
Turning her head away from his touch, Carter glared at him sidelong before letting her gaze slip over to meet Jack's. She rolled her eyes a little. Jack let his mouth hint at a grin.
"Your friend Teal'c told me you died from the flu," Mason went on.
"I guess I recovered." She leaned further away from him as he ran a hand through her hair. Jack stepped on a growl.
"I hear you're pretty good with goa'uld technology. Maybe you can help me get my ship off the ground."
"I think you get around enough as it is."
Mason sat back on his heels and let his hands dangle between his knees for a second before clapping them and rising to his feet. He was pretty spry for an old guy, Jack decided. No trouble with those knees.
"Mr. Jackson was going to trade his services in exchange for the release of the kid. I'd think you'd be willing to do the same." Carter continued to stare stonily at him, so Mason shrugged. "But I guess the fact that you two were skulking around suggests that he wasn't actually planning to keep his side of the bargain." Mason looked down at them like a disappointed father. "That's not right. It upsets the balance of things. If we can't negotiate an honest deal..." He spread his hands. "Chaos."
He pulled back a foot and kicked Carter in the ribs.
She fell backward and curled into a ball on her side. Jack lunged at Mason but took a rifle butt to the side of his head and this spun him backward, too. He landed in a heap behind Carter with his forehead pressed against her back as she clawed in a breath and coughed it out again. Levering himself up on his elbow, he blinked blood out of his eye and craned to see her face over her shoulder. Her eyes were squeezed shut as she coughed again. When they opened, she looked very, very pissed. Jack felt a little sorry for Mason, just then.
A goon grabbed him by his collar and pulled him back up onto his knees, then did the same for Carter. Hunched forward, she rested the sides of her fists on the worn carpet and coughed a few more times before pushing her self upright again. The glare she gave Mason could've peeled paint.
For his part, Jack's brain had clearly been knocked out of its little cup and he reeled a little before he could gather up his scattered senses and try to wipe his blood out of his eye onto the sleeve of his sweater. He considered puking on Mason's shoes, but he hadn't eaten anything since yesterday and it seemed a waste of effort. He settled for a mumbled, "Fuck you, Mason, you asshole."
Carter's grunt of agreement was lost in the sound of the opening door. Turning to look over his shoulder, Jack swallowed rising bile as the floor tilted under him. He closed one eye and concentrated on focusing with the other.
The missing goon was back, and behind him, hands tied in several more loops of rope than Jack's were, was Teal'c. His glare was a match for Carter's. Jack had a sudden urge to kiss them both. Behind him was another goon with a rifle and then came Daniel and Michael and another shuffling goon. One look at Daniel's face told Jack that something freakish was going down. In a strange way, he found this almost comforting. It had the cozy feel of normalcy to it.
It took two of the goons to get Teal'c to the floor and they both had to lean all their weight on his shoulders to do it, even after one had kicked him behind his knees to get his legs to buckle. His scowl must've impressed even Mason, who moved a couple steps back, closer to Mr. Demolition. Daniel assumed the position with a kind of weary resignation, but there was a scary kind of hollowness in his eyes that gave Jack a creepy feeling all up and down his spine.
It was like old times, the four of them in a row, Teal'c, Daniel, Carter, Jack, on their knees and waiting for some freakish luck.
Michael took one look at them and his hand came up to cover his eyes. He flailed in the grip of the last goon, twisting to get away and finally sliding down onto the floor with his jacket rucked up on his back and his head on the carpet in the circle of his arms. Jack could only imagine what he was seeing, what freakshow of colour and light they were giving off in that room. The bile in his throat tasted bitter.
"Michael," he called softly. "C'mon. It's okay." Michael was rocking and muffled words were breaking jaggedly out of him. "We're okay. Take it easy." Jack wondered how he could glow more, well, nicely. He turned to Mason. "Let me go to him."
"Then let him go. Just let him get out of this room."
Mason went around the desk and opened a drawer. "He does a little something for me and he can go. It's simple." He straightened up with the healing device dangling from his fingers. Nodding to the tall goon in the Grateful Dead shirt, he came around the desk again.
The goon knelt and tugged at Michael's shoulder. "Hey, kid," he said, head bent low next to Michael's. "You help out Mr. Mason and we'll go back to the room, okay? Just sit up and it'll be over."
With a frustrated growl, Mason crossed the floor in two steps, grabbed Michael by the back of the jacket and jerked him up onto his knees. "Get up." Another jerk and Michael was on his feet, stumbling after Mason. A thin strand of drool hung from his lips. His arms swung bonelessly at his sides and he didn't try to raise them to shield his eyes. And his eyes, red-rimmed and sunken, looked blind. Jack wondered if he'd blown another fuse. He let himself hope for this.
Spinning Michael around to face him between the desk and the kneeling prisoners, Mason held the healing device up close to Michael's eyes. They focused slowly on it. "You show me you can use this and you can get out of this room."
"He can't," Carter protested. "You have to have naqada in your blood. Michael doesn't."
Mason looked at her, Michael still dangling limply from his grip. "How do you know?"
"I just do."
"Well, I heard different, and until I believe it, nobody leaves." He gave Michael a little shake. "You want your family to get out of here? You want to go back to your room? Then make it work."
"He can't use it but I can—"
Carter's confession was cut short by Daniel's strangely flat, weary voice. "He's not what you think."
Mason was slipping the healing device over Michael's hand. Automatically, Michael's fingers curled around it.
"He has no naquada in his blood. He's not goa'uld. He's not even a real... He can't help you. You were right. He's whacked. He can't make your toys work so just LEAVE HIM ALONE!" The last words were bellowed and the tendons in Daniel's neck were standing out taut as ropes.
Dropping Michael, Mason spun and pulled the rifle from the nearest goon's hands. As Michael sprawled on the floor with his back against the desk, Mason pressed the muzzle to Daniel's forehead. Daniel blinked and stared impassively up at him, his unbound hands lying palms up on his knees.
"He can't help you," he repeated, and, with a flutter of fingers, asked Jack to stand down. Jack leaned away a little, but his muscles were still singing.
Mason smiled. That old, familiar, power-drunk madman smile. Jack could see why the goa'uld liked him. He also thought that maybe the goa'uld might want to watch his back.
"He just needs incentive," Mason said. The muzzle wavered in front of Daniel's eyes. "But I need you." He took a step to the left and aimed at Teal'c. "You too." A step to the right, a bead on Carter. "And you." The barrel swung again, arcing lower. "You, though, not so much," Mason concluded lightly, and shot Jack in the gut.
Teal'c roared as he lurched forward and froze. The muzzle of Mason's rifle was pressed into Sam's left eye.
"I don't know if the kid can fix this kind of damage, do you?" Mason asked with an air of genuine curiosity. Teal'c's teeth were bared. "Make a move and we'll find out."
Slowly, Teal'c coiled into his kneeling position again and just as slowly, Mason eased up on Sam's eye until she was free. Immediately, she curled low over Jack, awkwardly lifting his shirt. Her hands came away bloody. Beneath him was a spreading puddle, dark against the paisleys of the carpet.
Shuffling over, Daniel lifted Jack's head onto his lap. Jack's eyes were wide open.
"Oh, fuck, that hurts," he gasped. The words hissed out of him with bubbles of blood. "I'm a goddamn expendable cr—" His eyes rolled up in his head.
With a snarl, Sam turned and crawled toward Michael. Mason blocked her way.
"Michael can't do anything. But I can." She stretched out her bound hands toward the healing device. "Let me help him and I'll do anything you want." Her face was streaked with furious tears. "I can make it fly. But if you let Jack die I swear, I swear, I'll kill you before that ship gets off the ground."
Mason looked from her to Michael. The boy was still hunched against the desk, his face blank. After a moment, though, he blinked slowly and started to get up. Pushing him down with the rifle barrel, Mason took the device from his weak grip and handed it to Sam. "Show me what you can do. If it's good, everybody gets to have lunch."
Snatching the device away from him, Sam came back and, slipping it over her palm, held it over Jack's bloody body.
As the familiar whine grew and the red light licked down toward Jack's wound, Daniel leaned as low as he could over Jack's face, and for a second his numb mind retreated to memory: he could feel Jack's hand on the back of his head, his lips at the corner of each eye. "Hang on," Daniel whispered. "Sam's going to help you." Jack's face was as empty as Michael's. "Don't you dare go, Jack, or Teal'c is going to kick your skinny ass."
"I don't know... I don't know if ... I don't know..." Sam was chanting under her breath. Catching Daniel's eye for a fleeting moment, she changed to "Please please please..."
Her eyes were glazing with concentration when the room lurched sideways. Or seemed to. It wasn't so much a physical movement as a sort of sheering in the mind, and for a long moment Daniel couldn't see, although he was sure he wasn't blind. Later, he would remember a blur of colour and the sense of falling, but he was pretty sure that this was just his brain filling in blanks.
When he could see again, they were alone in Mason's office, and Michael was standing over them.
Sam and Teal'c were surrounded by a sparking halo of bright blue fading into something beyond the visible spectrum; Daniel could feel it sizzling along his nerves. When he held up his hand he could see the same surrounding the paleness of his skin. Michael was blue, too, only it was somehow more refined, sharp-edged. Daniel blinked hard but the halos remained. Only Jack was without this corona of heat and colour. Around him was only a wavering nothing limned with an almost invisible white, negative space, the opposite of light.
"No," Daniel said. His hands tightened on either side of Jack's face. "No."
In Sam's hand, the healing device was a serpent, a black seething of energy that scarred the air between her palm and Jack's body. Where it touched his skin, it left a cicatrice of red, a webbing of darkness that pulled his torn flesh together. She looked down at it and gasped, her face crumpling into a grimace of disgust. But she didn't stop. She wept, but she didn't stop. In Daniel's lap, Jack's body was warm and sticky with blood and his chest was rising and falling shallowly. His eyes were open again.
"Daniel" he said. "Fuck, Daniel, don't let it—"
An anguished groan forced its way out between Sam's clenched teeth. "Just a little more." Her hands were shuddering over the closing wound. The colour around her was tainted, a creeping black.
Then Michael's hands closed over hers and the serpent disappeared. He threw the device away, behind him. It clattered under the desk.
"Like this," he said, taking her hands and laying them flat in the blood, holding her tightly when she tried to pull away. "Shhh. Shhh. Don't close your eyes and don't turn away. See it. Just see it and make it right."
Sam's eyes were wide. "I can see... oh, God."
The darkness around Jack coalesced, seemed to draw inward, contracting like a collapsing star. And then there was a flash, white hot, and static sizzled across Daniel's eyes.
CHAPTER FIVE: AFTERGLOW
This is the harvest
Of what we have sown
("Harvest Night," Brighid E. Stone)
"Whoa!" Jack slammed on the brakes with both feet.
Teal'c had both hands braced against the dashboard but raised one to the jesus handle over the door as the truck fishtailed on the wet asphalt. In the rearview mirror there was a jumble of colour as Daniel and Carter rattled from one side of the back bed to the other. They let out a yell in unison. Finally, the truck skidded to a stop facing the wrong way in the opposite lane.
There didn't seem to be any other traffic.
But Jack wasn't thinking about traffic. He was ripping open his flannel shirt—a different one than he'd had on two minutes ago when he'd been dying—and feeling around for blood and guts.
There weren't any. Not on the outside, anyway.
Then the driver's door was being pulled open and he was being dragged out onto the road and Daniel was feeling around on his body for blood and guts and mumbling "holy shit holy shit" under his breath. Carter was behind him, her eyes glazed over. She was swaying.
Teal'c caught her as she fell and lowered her to the ground.
"M'okay," she protested and pushed him away, rolling onto her knees and sucking in a few deep breaths before using his pantleg, and then his shirtsleeve to pull herself up to her feet again. She squinted at Jack. "You?"
"Yeah." Jack nodded and pulled her into a hug. "Me, too." He held her until she stopped shaking. When she pushed away from him, he cupped her face and kissed her forehead gently. "Nice work."
"I don't think it was me. Not all me, anyway."
That's when Jack raised his head and looked around.
They weren't in Kansas—or Alberta—anymore.
The road coiled around the base of a series of low, worn mountains, hugging the overhanging rockfaces on one side and the slow churning of a wide river on the other. Small islands, shaggy with cedar and ferns, floated in curling mist on the dark water. In the middle of the nearest one, a snag hooked like a skeletal finger above the deep green foliage and from this perch an eagle was watching them. Down river, the sloping sides of the mountains receded in ranks, becoming bluer and more indistinct until they were finally lost in grey mist, leviathans captured in the process of diving from sight and frozen in time.
There was no sign of Michael.
"Damn. He did it again," Jack said, turning in a circle with his hands on his hips. "Where are we this time?"
Carter and Daniel gave him identical shrugs. "Maybe we ought to keep going in the direction he pointed us and see what we find," Carter suggested.
Instead of offering an opinion, Teal'c stretched out a hand and groped for the hood of the truck. Bent at the waist, he braced himself with another hand on his knee.
"T?" Jack stooped to look at his face. "What is it? You hurt?"
He shook his head. "I am uninjured. But, I feel very strange."
Daniel helped Jack ease him down against the tire. Teal'c's hands trembled a little as he worked at the buttons of his shirt and finally Jack had to help him.
"Holy shit," Daniel observed eloquently.
Jack's mouth opened around a silent "wow."
There was no pouch scar on Teal'c's stomach; the spidery X of paler flesh was gone. Crowded around him, all three of them touched his skin to prove it to themselves. It was like the symbiote pouch had never existed. His mouth hanging open with disbelief, Teal'c met Jack's eyes and Jack had to smile, a little satisfied grin that got away from him and became a chuckle.
"Michael gave you a gift," Daniel said.
Jack raised his eyebrows. "He can do that?"
"Uh, yeah, I think so."
Accepting this with a "you will fill me in later," look at Daniel, Jack slapped Teal'c on the shoulder. "Well, T, looks like maybe you're a free man."
Teal'c leaned his head back against the tire and laughed, a big, deep, rolling laugh that filled up the river valley with echoes and set the eagle to wing.
It was contagious. Soon they were all laughing. They laughed until they collapsed next to him on the road and they didn't care that a thin rain had started to fall or that their butts were getting soaked on the wet asphalt.
Finally, Jack stumbled up, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt, and ordered them into the truck, Carter and Teal'c up front with him, Daniel squeezed into the storage space behind the seat. Daniel bunched up a sleeping bag under him so he could see out the side window, and only observed mildly that he felt like the family dog. Carter patted him on the head. "Nice puppy," she cooed.
A few klicks down the road they found a sign on a leaning post. Teal'c tilted his head sideways and read it out loud. It said: "Prince Rupert 35" and "Port Edward 15."
"I guess I'm gonna be a fisherman," Jack said. He was grinning.
"I guess we're gonna starve," Daniel added wryly. He was grinning, too.
The river is alive with small boats, all with their bows pointed toward the canning house's wide landing with its barnacle-rough pylons and its waiting, hand-operated cranes. All around them, fishers are calling back and forth, shouting good-natured insults and comparing the day's catch. The air is heavy with impending rain and spray and salt and fish. The sky is the colour of polished silver, the sun diffuse and aloof behind a veil.
Jack is rowing, leaning into the strokes and then back, pulling his crew through the green water. He's humming something just under his breath, but Daniel can only hear it when Jack is curled forward toward him. On the back stroke, the effort stops up Jack's breath, creating a caesura in the song until it unfurls again wordlessly. It doesn't seem to have much in the way of a tune, but that doesn't seem to matter to Jack, and since he's doing the hard work, Daniel figures he can hum any old thing he wants. Daniel is helping reel the nets, guiding them up out of the cramped space on the bottom of the boat so that they lie flat on the spindle as Teal'c turns the winch. Jack's humming sets the pace and the three of them move in a measured synchronization, punctuated by the occasional splash as Sam ditches the small fry and tosses the silver sickles of halibut into the catch basins. It was a good day. Jack, it turns out, has an eye for the deeps and can find halibut with uncanny accuracy.
A squat man in the next boat waves and shouts to Daniel in Japanese. Laughing, Daniel waves back. There's wine to be traded after dinner, and students to tutor before it gets too dark. But it stays light for a long time here in the summer and the days unspool evenly in a routine set by tides and the arcane logic of traveling schools of fish.
While he's thinking of the wine, Daniel forgets to watch his hands and the wire leader that fastens the lead weight to the edge of the net cuts across his palm, opening it in an arc across his lifeline like a toothless grin. His hands are cold after a day on the ocean, so it takes a moment for the blood to seep up. He stares at it, waiting for the pain.
But before it can come, Sam rises and takes his hand between her own. Jack leans into the stroke, bends forward and back again and they surge steadily through the water, riding the incoming tide. "Ouch," she says in sympathy, and pulls a handkerchief out of her pocket, dabs at the cut. It's not deep. She ties the handkerchief around it and then turns his hand over and kisses his knuckles. All better.
When Michael appears, he's sitting on the prow with his feet on the bow locker. He's ten years old again and the sleeves of his olive drab jacket are gathered in his fists where he clings to the gunnel. Seeing Daniel's expression, Jack stops rowing, twists in his seat, and the little boat slows and bobs, corkscrewing on the chop as it turns broadside to the waves. Michael rises and falls, rises and falls against the white sky.
They haven't seen him for nearly five years, since the day Jack was dying and—so they've heard in rumours that have since become legends—the sky lit up with a flash and the goa'uld stopped coming for the harvest.
Teal'c bows his thanks. Rising, Jack reaches for Michael, maybe to help him down to a safer seat. But he's gone. Jack is thin and straight, rising and falling, rising and falling, against the white sky. Daniel can tell by the way he leans his head that he's smiling.
The "Prince of Rays" is defined in renaissance optics as the ray of light that strikes the eye directly. It is not oblique or diffused. It is associated with truth, spiritual purity and the divine.
Notes: Thank you to all you guys who prodded me to finish a draft of this. I dedicate this apoca3some (maybe 4some on the northwest coast, now, eh?) to Apocamomma, that is, Katie M. Much thanks to Brighid E. Stone for "Harvest Night." The association between corn and SPAM can be traced, I believe, to FBF. I blame SEF in a general way, who got me thinking about theophany. It's been so long in the writing, I hope I don't forget anyone who helped here. Special thanks for beta and encouragement to Otter, Aces, Cofax, Carolyn Claire, Eli, and as always, Martha (who read it against her better judgement and yet kept going anyway). You guys rock, roll and rule. All errors and foolishness I claim as my own.
Feedback welcomed at email@example.com.
Pegasus B |