"It's strange being like this. So. . . new. Like a passenger in myself, inside my body."
"Technically, it's not your body." Shifting uncomfortably on the bedroll, he winces as the bandages on his leg pull and blood begins to seep from beneath them. There is sweat beading on his upper lip. He wipes it away with the side of his hand.
"True." He seems surprised by this answer, his eyebrows arching upward for a moment. I continue, "But I can't apologize for what I am by nature. This body was dying, anyway. We saved each other. Are you certain that, if you were in my place, you would act any differently?"
"I'd like to think so."
"Yes, well, perhaps you'll never have to make such a choice."
His mind is closed on this subject. His attention shifts over my shoulder and I know that the Jaffa has turned from his post at the cave entrance to observe us. There is some silent communication between them. My hands bound in front of me in the plastic restraints, this body not quite recovered from its injuries, I suppose they've decided that I'm not much of a threat. For now, anyway. I need them as much as they need me; our intersecting self-interest is a tenuous guarantee of safety, for both of us. He looks back at me and I know that the Jaffa has likewise returned his attention to the darkness of the passageway, but that attention remains divided, I'm sure. I don't bother to turn to look. Instead I continue to study Daniel. The blue drained away by darkness, his eyes are orange with reflected firelight and he's watching me warily. He's curious. I can see this.
I pluck his glasses from where they lie next to his gun on the bedroll beside him. His hand abandons the gun and comes up to stop me, a reflex action, but I wave him away. I can see the pulse quicken in his throat as I open the glasses and hold them up, away from him. So dependent on this simple technology. As his hand returns to rest loosely over the gun, his eyes shift over my shoulder again, and I know that the Jaffa is watching. Beside us, the woman, Carter, stirs in her sleep. Making what I hope is a reassuring smile, I peer at Daniel's distorted image through the lenses before handing them back to him. He puts them on.
"I corrected such a deficiency in this body," I inform him.
"That's. . . nice," he replies neutrally, but I can tell that the idea of my intervention disgusts him.
"We have very poor eyesight in our individual form. Does that surprise you?"
He considers for a moment. "Not really. You go from Jaffa to host, or, I guess, from water to host. Once you find your target, not much use for eyes."
In the shifting light, I study his face, its planes and angles, the strong jaw, the straight line of his nose. The rims of his glasses cast shadows that make him look sad. Between his brows are deep lines etched by the pain.
"There's so much colour, now. So much detail. It's confusing, trying to put sight together with touch, colour and shape to texture." Reaching out, I finger the hair that falls across his forehead and, although the strands of gold in it looked like they would be cold, maybe brittle, his hair is soft and warm. The pulse in his throat quickens again as he turns away from me and I let my hands fall. His curiosity is greater than his fear and he looks back.
"It's like language, you know. I feel, but I'm not sure what the feelings mean. I speak this language, hear it in my head, but it's not my language. Not yet."
He leans forward a bit. "You think in the language of the host?"
"Of course not." My disdain is an error and he withdraws. Trying to bring him back, I qualify, "And yet. . . and yet, I do, too." I squeeze my eyes shut, searching for a word that would describe it. There is none. There are strange, disturbing blanknesses in this mind I inhabit, deficiencies and injuries I could not repair. "I would tell you if I could. Everything."
For a moment the firelight plays across the lenses of his glasses and I can't see his eyes. But then he tilts his head and the lenses clear and I see that this response surprises him, too. I'm not what he expected. I watch him bow his head, his hair falling across his temple and over his eye, and something stirs in me I don't understand. Sifting through the scraps that remain of Murdoch's memories, I try to attach the feeling to something concrete that I can make sense of. I sigh, frustrated. "I have so much to learn. So much you can teach me."
In his lap, Daniel's long fingers jerk and close into fists, clenched against the pain in his leg. His breath hisses between his teeth. After a moment the spasm passes and he relaxes, but he's trembling a little. His hair still hangs in front of his glasses and he reaches up and runs his hand through it, pulling it away from his face, showing me a brow furrowed with pain, eyes bright behind the lenses. I can feel the heat of him from where I kneel on the stone floor by his knees. The stirring inside me returns as his tongue slides across his dry lips and suddenly a fragment of Murdoch's past lodges like a leaf on the bank of a pool, an image torn from its context, but somehow evocative of something bigger, more complexly meaningful. A gesture.
The kiss startles him, so much so, that for the briefest fraction of a moment his warm lips are pliant and soft. Pushed against the rock wall, he can't shift away from me now. My bound hands are spread at the base of his throat, fingers on his pulse, and I can feel the blood rushing through him, too hot. And then I feel his teeth.
I have barely enough time to cry out before I'm grabbed from behind, dragged to my feet and propelled backward into the stone wall, O'Neill's knife at my throat, his face inches from mine. That face is a rigid mask, the eyes deadly cold.
"Touch him again and you die." His voice is quiet, more menacing than the knife.
"You need me," I remind him through clenched teeth.
Leaning even closer, he hisses, "I don't care."
He's telling the truth. I wonder for a panicked instant if he's crazy, but I know he is not; he is simply making choices.
I could break him. His hip presses into me as he shifts his weight. His fist is bunched in the shoulder of my jacket. The long muscles of his legs and his arms are vibrating against my legs and my chest. Even injured as I am, my strength is twice his. But the blade is poised to bite and the woman is on her feet, the Jaffa blocking the doorway, their weapons raised. Still, I could break him. The look in his eyes tells me that he knows this, and that he doesn't care. He doesn't care that I'm stronger. I realize with a jolt that his body is simply a tool, an extension of something less tangible. I could break him with violence but that won't be enough. I lower my eyes.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know that he was yours."
"He doesn't belong to me!" His voice erupts in a shout and he emphasizes his words by pressing the blade harder against my windpipe. But then he reins himself in, speaking in a vehement whisper of controlled fury. "We don't own each other. That's one of the things that makes us the good guys." Releasing me, he strides away, anger still in his hands. Carter keeps the muzzle of her weapon aimed at my eyes.
Kneeling, he places a hand on the side of Daniel's head.
"Jack, I'm fine."
He wipes blood from Daniel's chin with his thumb and shows it to him.
"It's not mine."
O'Neill jerks his head and Carter responds by waving me toward the cave's entrance with her gun. Her face is less impassive, her mouth pursed with anger. Teal'c falls into step behind us, an eloquent grimace turning his full lips into a downturned line of suppressed anger. As we pass, O'Neill stands and leans in close again, speaking still in that low, tight voice, his gaze venomous. "It's your lucky fucking day, snake-boy."
Oh, yes. O'Neill lied. He owns them. But Daniel owns him.
* * *
Jack is prowling.
On the third lap of the cave, I reach up and catch him by the flap of the utility pocket at the knee of his pants.
"You're making me dizzy."
He looks down at me, something strange in his eyes that I haven't seen before, but then he turns and strides over to the door, an oblong gash in the solid rock of the cavern. It opens onto a passageway and then another cavern and another passage. . . endless regressions into deeper and more silent darkness. It's hard to believe that there's still a world up there, above the distant ceiling of rock and the tonnes of mountain on top of it. I try to picture it: green trees, water, snow-capped mountains in a ring around the horizon. A paradise really, except that if I were up there right now I'd be stone blind in ten minutes, my retinas seared by a storm in the sun. In here, only the small fire in the pit near my feet keeps darkness out, and in my head there's just a dull swirl of red. Jack leans out, checking on Sam.
"It wasn't her fault," I tell him. "Or Teal'c's. Or yours, for that matter."
He steps back in, a darker, more solid concentration of shadow stalking the limits of the firelight. "That's why they call it 'watch,' Daniel," he answers acidly. "It means they're supposed to be watching. Not letting some snake-head have the run of the place." He stops pacing and stands, hands on his hips, staring at me, his expression unreadable in the dim light. Suddenly I feel exposed, but I glare back and he shakes his head, exasperated. I feel a decidedly adolescent sense of satisfaction. "What were you doing letting him get that close, anyway?" he demands after a moment, finally getting to the point. It's not about the watch.
"I wanted to talk to him. Believe it or not, sometimes going all Alpha male isn't the best way to get information. I was doing my job."
"He could've killed you."
Of course, the trump card. Jack's anger is fully focused on me now, for being stupid, for being curious; in other words, for being me. How many times and how many ways can we have this argument? I wonder if I'm grounded. Good thing I didn't have plans for the weekend, anyway, beyond sitting in a cave watching gangrene eat my leg.
"He didn't want to kill me," I answer wearily, hoping the slightly condescending tone will suggest that Jack might want to open his mind just a crack to let a new idea squirm its way in. But even I'm not entirely sure what that new idea might be. "He wanted I dunno to "
"To what? Make you his bitch?"
God, I'm tired. And my leg is starting to scream again for painkillers, but we're rationing them. I have to wait. "It doesn't have to be about power," I snap at him peevishly.
"It's always about power, Daniel."
Okay, fine. So maybe he's right. A snake is a snake. It's hard to believe that this one would be after anything different. But what if Jack is wrong? This is not like the other Goa'uld we've encountered. These ones have been isolated here for millennia, cut off from the sewer of a gene pool the System Lords crawled out of. This one's memories are different. Maybe his goals are, too. But this idea makes my stomach turn over, sickened by possibilities and implications I can't understand right now. I can't figure it out. I think I know what he wants, and then the insight is blotted out by the red throb of pain that is diffusing through my whole body like a toxic fog. My head is pounding and my skin is starting to feel raw and prickly with the beginnings of fever. The wound is definitely infected.
"I'm nobody's bitch," is all I can think to say.
* * *
Finished retying my hands behind my back, Carter moves to my feet. She slips the plastic restraints over my boots and fastens them tightly around my ankles. "I can't believe we let him do this." She's angry at me, but also at herself. Teal'c shifts his weight behind me, the butt of the staff weapon clanking dully as he plants it on the floor. Carter looks over my head at him. "The colonel's going to bust me down to sergeant."
"DanielJackson did not seem unduly perturbed by the Goa'uld's presence until "
"Yeah, until." She tries to blow her hair out of her eyes and when that doesn't work, pushes it away with back of her wrist. She looks up at me. Her eyes are in shadow and I wish I could see the expression there. "You're lucky Colonel O'Neill didn't kill you." Giving a final tug on the restraints, she sits back on her heels. "We should have been on the ball." She addresses me again, "We're not going to make that mistake twice, so forget about whatever it is you've got planned for Daniel. Next time you won't be so lucky."
Behind me, the Jaffa stands silently. I can feel him taking up space back there, like an obelisk charged with some kind of magical energy. His silence is distilled attentiveness, Carter's promise made flesh. I feel my neck bowing under its weight.
"Why does he hate me so much?" I ask. She stands, but doesn't answer, backing up a step and looping her hand loosely over the weapon on its strap around her neck. "Why does O'Neill hate me so much?" I ask again.
Her brow furrows, as though she really cannot understand why I have to ask such a question.
"You attacked his friend," Teal'c answers for her.
"I didn't attack him. And he hated me before that. He hated me before he met me, I think."
"The Goa'uld have done a lot of damage," Carter responds. Now her anger is all for me. "Colonel O'Neill has lost friends. We all have." Then she adds, "They took Daniel's wife," and this is all the explanation she needs to give, it seems.
"So this is about revenge."
"No! It's not about us," she asserts. "This isn't some vendetta. The Goa'uld enslave people, millions of people, all over the galaxy." She makes a sweeping gesture with her arm, indicating the worlds I've never seen.
Silently I shift, turning sideways and awkwardly presenting my bound hands.
"That's different." Looking away, she shakes her head. She wants me to be quiet.
"I've never left this planet and I haven't enslaved anyone," I point out.
"I don't think Murdoch would agree with that."
"Murdoch was already gone or most of him was. He wasn't going to come back."
She makes a small, disgusted sound in her throat and turns her back on me.
"The Goa'uld are parasites and predators," Teal'c interjects. "You are by your very nature dangerous."
"I wasn't holding a knife to anyone's throat a few minutes ago."
Carter is becoming exasperated by this line of argument. She turns to look at me and I wish I didn't have to see her eyes now. Like Daniel's, they are blue, but turned yellow by the feeble light that spills out of the cavern across us, and she aims them at me like she would a weapon. Her teeth are set and her words are forced out between them. "He was protecting Daniel."
"Daniel didn't need to be protected from me. I had no intention of hurting him."
Her hand tightens around the gun as she leans closer. "If you force yourself on someone, you're hurting them. It doesn't matter what your intentions are." She glares at me for a moment and then turns and walks out of the dim wedge of firelight in front of the cave entrance and into the darker shadows. "Why did you do that?" she asks sharply.
"Because he was " I cast around in the darkness of this mind, looking for the word, and finally I glimpse it, a silver-backed fish flashing through a diffuse shaft of sunlight. "Beautiful." And suddenly I know that this is the truth of the stirring I felt, that tightening of the throat as my new eyes drew in the colour and the light of him, of all of them. Even now, Carter hidden in the gloom beyond the firelight, Teal'c invisible behind me, I can feel their expressiveness. They are. . . luminous. Beautiful. My throat constricts again now, and, alarmingly, my vision blurs. I blink and I can see again, but there is something on my face, moving with a wet, sinuous slowness. I have no free hand to reach up to stop its progress down my cheek, to learn what it is. It catches at the corner of my mouth and I touch it hesitantly with the tip of my tongue. Salty. "I only wanted to touch him. . . to know him."
She is silent, considering me. When she speaks again her insistence is softened a bit, not gentle, but hinting at some kind of grudging recognition. "Alright," she sighs. "But he didn't want to be touched." Then her voice hardens again, the sharp edge of anger blunted by weariness. "Not by you. You just can't do that," she concludes grimly, the words disembodied and echoing slightly.
She doesn't answer. I can hear the sound of fabric sliding against stone as she lowers herself to the ground.
"You really don't understand, do you?" Her boots scrape the floor. "God, sometimes you seem so. . . human, but then you. . . . Look, we just like to have a say in who touches us and how, that's all."
"O'Neill touches him. And he doesn't ask." I turn my head and look into the cave where I can see Daniel sitting against the far wall. O'Neill is pacing, his shadow looming over them. Daniel reaches up and catches him by the pant leg. A moment later, O'Neill turns brusquely away. "Because O'Neill is the leader, he has the right," I surmise.
"It doesn't work that way. Or at least it shouldn't." She stops as O'Neill comes to the entrance and leans out, searing me with his stare. "All secure, sir," she reports. He grunts, not quite in approval.
When he withdraws, Teal'c speaks, his voice firm with conviction. "It is a question of trust. This is something you earn, not something you take."
* * *
Sam pulls the bandage away from the wound. She's trying to be gentle, but the skin is so inflamed that even the lightest touch sends successive waves of pain sizzling along about a million exposed nerves. The gash is an ugly, seeping mouth, a toothless grin stretching from mid-thigh to just above my knee, Sam's rough sutures holding in what would surely be an evil cackle of a laugh. Apparently, my fever has granted me the unenviable ability to actually see pain in lurid technicolour, to hear it, to taste it, a weird synaesthesia: if razor blades and shrapnel could scream this pain would be just like that. Only red and pulsing. With sparks. The flavour of iron and bile. You would think that a brain like mine could come up with a more productive use for an imagination.
Jack is lurking somewhere nearby, keeping an eye on the Goa'uld while Sam tends to me. I can feel his attention, even though I can't see him, and I appreciate the way Jack's nerves twist in sympathy with mine. A misery and company thing, I guess. I try to focus on him, if only to have something to hang on to while the world is scorched away by my non-vicarious and way-too- immediate experience of pain. Jack has helpfully informed me that if it hurts it means I'm still alive. Why is it, I wonder, that the blessing is always predicated on the curse? Proof of Manicheanism? Concordia discors? Felix culpa? A cosmic joke? Is it possible that Sam is actually trying to kill me, very gently?
Jack's aphorism has set my mind spinning in wobbly circles, its hands over its metaphorical ears, trying to drown the screech of pain in a babble of specious philosophizing. Consider: G. Gordon Liddy said, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." So, you dodge a few staff blasts, crawl out of a pile of rubble, the astrophysicist cum medic sews up your leg with fishing line and you get dragged two miles into a darkness deeper than Hades where you sit on a cold floor for days while, above you, the world burns in invisible fire. Then your leg begins to turn black. So by that point, according to Liddy, you should be pretty strong. Constitutionally robust and wielding a muscular will. If it hurts you're still alive. G. Gordon looks smug.
But, then you get kissed by a Goa'uld and the whole theory goes to pieces when you realize that what doesn't kill you simply hasn't finished punishing you for the pitiable hubris of thinking you were actually in control. Not an epiphany worthy of Aeschylus, but there it is. I squeeze my eyes shut and suppress a groan. Go play with Jack, G. Gordon, I'm busy being gentled to death.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry" Sam breathes as she works, her face crumpling up more each time I flinch. Trying to distract me from what she's doing, she puts on her mock-superior officer voice, which sounds a little like Jack's, actually, and scolds, "The next time you want to get caught in a rock fall don't."
"Next time, you could kill the Jaffa before they make the rock fall and OW! Jesus God! . . . and then. . .argh. . . and then my part of the deal would be easier to keep." I clamp my teeth down on what I suspect would be an hour-long string of obscenities in at least four languages and try to hold my breath until she gets the bandage rewrapped. By the time she's finished, my head is swimming and my t-shirt is clammy with sweat. "What an ass!" I snarl with deep resentment. I open one eye. "Not you. Liddy."
Sam's face is a mirror; in it I see how utterly ghastly I must look. Her nod is sympathetic but judiciously noncommittal. Either she's on my wavelength or she's smart enough not to be. Wiping my forehead with the sleeve of her jacket, she squeezes my hand before getting up and moving to stir the pot on the fire. The odour chicken soup, supposedly makes me feel nauseated. I let my head fall back against the stone and take deep breaths until my mind begins to clear and the pain settles into my leg I can picture it hunkering down, rubbing its bony hands together, gleefully planning its next attack. I hate my brain. Hoping for respite in the world beyond the limits of my skin, I open my eyes.
Across the firepit, the Goa'uld is watching me, openly curious and unblinking.
I return his stare. He has Murdoch's lean, angular face, those prominent cheekbones and the slightly weak chin, but the directness of his gaze is definitely not Murdoch at all, whose shyness almost never allowed him to look anyone in the eye. In fact, so rarely did he do this that it was hard not to start in surprise when the soft green eyes came up and made contact, alight with some discovery. I didn't know him all that well we'd worked on a couple of projects together but on some level I guess I identified with him. A geologist, he was always more at home poring over maps and charts amid coffee cups and candy-wrappers in the commissary than toting a P90, even if he was also military. He spent the minimum amount of time required pumping iron with the other Marines, preferring instead to run. I'd passed him innumerable times on the winding road up the mountain, in every kind of weather, shuffling along the shoulder, the muscles of his long legs ropy below his shorts, his feet barely clearing the asphalt, his arms hanging at his sides in the attitude of the genuine long-distance runner, no unneeded movement, no wasted energy. It seems strange to be thinking about him in the past tense, with his eyes on me like this.
"Tell me about Murdoch," the Goa'uld says suddenly, as if reading my mind.
He has Murdoch's slightly nasal voice, too, but not the rhythms of his speech, the way he would work up to a statement elliptically, like he was expecting you to shoot him down or declare him a fraud. And yet, like other Marines, Murdoch probably knew five ways to disable a man with his thumb, and could do it without hesitation. I wish I'd had a chance to talk to him more often. I think somehow he could've helped me understand things, things like Jack for instance, or how to make peace with contradiction.
"You're in his head. You know everything there is to know about him," I answer. I feel a small twinge of envy at the unequivocal intimacy and directness of that kind of understanding, but that feeling is just scary and disgusting and I turn it over roughly, calling it anger. The Goa'uld is a thief.
"I told you. He was damaged. What you would call Murdoch is gone."
"Goa'uld always say that."
He shakes his head slowly, sighing. "I don't know what Goa'uld always say. I'm just telling you how it is."
I decide that I don't want to talk about Murdoch with this. . . thing that isn't Murdoch. I change the subject. "The Goa'uld that use Jaffa as incubators have to take hosts at maturity. But you seem to be able to survive in the pools alright. Why did you take him?" A voice in my head answers, "Because they take. That's what they do," but my more scientific brain, the part I want to exercise so I can get out of my wrecked body for awhile, suspects that the situation is more complex than that. Besides, when else am I going to get an opportunity to speak to a Goa'uld that wants to share information instead of just bombastic self-aggrandizement and predictions of my premature and grisly death?
He settles as comfortably against the wall as he can, given that his hands are tied behind him, and looks away. For a second I see Murdoch there, mentally mapping out a problem, his expression distant with calculation. But then the Goa'uld looks back with that disturbingly direct gaze and the illusion fades.
"We were like you once," he begins in a cadence that suggests a long story. "Our hosts were different, of course. You know, they could not see the colour green. This world was grey to them." He muses for a moment, then, seeming to shake himself, goes on. "We went through the Stargate, explored. We were among the first to travel. So long ago. We came here, the first colonists of our kind, I believe. But, though it was beautiful, this place was also deadly. When we had settled and made our lives here, the sun began to rage, burning us, making us sick and mad, and the earth was unstable and in the earthquakes the Stargate was lost. I suppose it's been lost all this time."
"We think the recent upheavals turned it up again," Sam offers. She stirs with one hand, the other resting on her holster. "Or the Jaffa may have excavated it when they came to scout for naqadah."
"It's a mineral the System Lords use in their technology. It's all through these caverns " she begins, but, catching Jack's eye, closes her mouth and returns to stirring the soup.
"Well, that must be after our time." The Goa'uld turns back to me and continues, "The storms came, the solar flares, radiation. Most of us died. Some of us took shelter here in these caverns and survived. But eventually the hosts were gone and we retreated to the pools. That was hundreds and hundreds of generations ago. We've never seen a Jaffa or a System Lord, although you say that now they'll come to this planet to mine their naqadah. I imagine they'll find us." It's impossible to tell from his expression what he thinks of this.
He is silent for a long while, and we wait as the fire crackles and sends out sparks. Jack crushes an ember with his foot as it comes to rest on the edge of my bedroll, leaving a small, circular hole in the nylon.
The Goa'uld considers Jack thoughtfully for a moment, Murdoch's ghost appearing fleetingly again, and then turns back to me. "You are sentient," he observes.
"Uh, yes. Of course."
"Then you know why I took a host, even though I can survive in the pools." He leans forward, Murdoch's blond hair ruffled and catching the orange light, the long, gaunt face intense and alien somehow, painted by shadows, and suddenly I'm glad Murdoch wasn't my friend. "Imagine you are as you are now: sentient, curious. And you have a healthy life span of, say, 140 years. And you know that you will spend that century and a half only in this room, with just this small fire for light, only the rock for a sky, the same walls around you day after day and a whole world above you that you can't touch."
He watches me, and, satisfied that I'm beginning to understand, he goes on, his eyes fixed on mine. "And then imagine that you spend these endless years in this small, dark place with fifty or a hundred others. And you can never rest and you can only think about food and of not being devoured by someone hungrier or more desperate or more mad than you are. How long would it take before your intelligence became a curse? An instrument of torture? How long would it take before you would wish every moment that you had no capacity to wish for anything?" His words are heavy with a kind of horror that seems all the more freakish because it has become commonplace, something that can be spoken in Murdoch's measured and reasonable voice.
"'What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more,'" I recite, retreating to the safety of a memory, the protection of someone else's words. How many times have I heard that speech since I was a child? And, still, I always hear it in my father's voice, coloured by lamplight and smelling of sand and my mother's hair. The Goa'uld is looking at me, no recognition in his eyes, and I continue, "'Sure he that made us gave us not that capability of godlike reason to fust in us unused.'" I take the proffered mug from Sam and stir the soup absently with the spoon. "It's from Hamlet, a play by William Shakespeare."
"Well, then William Shakespeare already answered your question." He leans back against the wall, the wavering light gleaming in Murdoch's eyes, turning them gold. "We are sentient, but our sentience can only be articulated fully in union with another. Without this, we live in despair."
"What about the host's despair?"
Before he can answer, Jack makes a small snort of irritation and collapses down on the bedroll beside me. "Getting a little chummy with the prisoner, are we? Is that wise?" he drawls, raising an eyebrow at me as he takes his mug from Sam.
"It's my job to understand things, Jack. It's your job to kick ass. Understanding first, then ass- kicking." I drop my spoon into my mug and rub my gritty eyes under my glasses with a finger and thumb. "In a sane universe, that's the natural order."
I'm tired of talking. That was just way too many sentences in a row. My head is starting to pound again and the soup is making me feel sick. I put it down as Sam steps around the fire and releases the Goa'uld's hands, giving him a mug and settling down in front of him with her pistol available on her lap.
Jack slurps the broth and shovels noodles into his mouth like he's in a race. When his mug is empty he picks up mine. "You gotta eat this, Daniel," he says, holding the mug out to me. I shake my head and he holds it closer. "You're already dehydrated as it is."
"If I eat that I'll be dehydrated and puking on your sleeping bag. Choose your own adventure."
Resigned, he puts down the mug and pulls out his canteen. "At least drink water, then."
I wave it away. "That's yours."
"For cryin' out loud, will you just do as I say before I get Carter to kneel on your chest and pour this down your insubordinate throat?"
Grabbing the canteen, I take a few small sips, making it look like I'm taking a few big ones, and hand it back to him. I'm not drinking Jack's rations.
Before we can really get into it, Teal'c returns from the collapsed cave mouth with the latest radiation readings. He has made the four mile round trip and has taken his readings in just under two hours. Incredible. My own memory of the wild dash down into the heart of the mountain is blurry at best, but I recall endless turnings, openings and tunnels so tight that we had to shimmy through on our backs, the rock inches from our noses. Jack looped his belt under my arms and dragged me, I remember, and the floor underneath me was slick with my blood. I can see it right now, a dark smear on the back of Sam's jacket. She must have followed me through. I don't remember that. I wonder if my blood is the trail that Teal'c follows through the labyrinth, from the safety of this dark place to the cave mouth, where the radiation seeps even through the tonnes of rock that the Jaffa brought down to seal us in. I guess I was at least that useful.
"So, what's the joy?" Jack demands, rising as Teal'c joins us.
"No joy, O'Neill," Teal'c answers.
Sam takes the meter and slumps when she sees the data. "Still way too high, sir. But down a tiny bit. Looks like we're going to be here for awhile longer."
"Any contact from SG 11?"
"Their signal may be blocked by the mountain," Sam conjectures. "Or they made it to the 'gate before the storm hit." She doesn't add the third possibility, that they're dead, killed by Jaffa like Murdoch was almost, before our friend conveniently took over his body or fried by the same radiation that's keeping us prisoner here.
Jack turns to the Goa'uld. "Are there other caves they might've crawled into?"
"Some. Not as deep. Not as safe. But they could survive there."
Jack files this with the other information and turns back to Teal'c. "Okay, what about the cave- in?"
Teal'c shakes his head minutely. "I believe it is too unstable to attempt to blast through with the staff weapon. Such a strategy would more likely make the situation worse than improve it." Frustrated, Jack dismisses him with a wave of his hand. Crouching down on his haunches and picking up my barely-touched mug of soup, Teal'c raises a questioning eyebrow, asking, "Is this my ration?" When I nod, he finishes my soup in a couple of gulps, thereby conveniently resolving my conflict with Jack. For his part, Jack is too busy doing risk assessment in his head to notice. Apparently the issue of my eating habits has been downgraded for the moment.
"Crap," Jack spits and takes over for Sam, sitting in front of the Goa'uld with his Beretta on his knee while she eats her soup. Cocking his head, he addresses the prisoner, "Okay, snake-boy. Since we're all becoming such cosy friends, how 'bout you pony up here and tell us about the back way outta this place."
The Goa'uld says nothing, staring stonily at the fire, his empty mug hanging by the handle from his finger.
"C'mon. That was the deal. We bring you along and promise to play nice and you get us out of here." Jack fishes in his vest and produces a small note pad and a stub of pencil, tossing them to the Goa'uld's feet. "Draw us a picture."
He doesn't move. "I will lead you out myself when the time comes. Until then, no."
"No?" Jack's eyebrows come up in mock surprise. I can tell he's relishing this defiance. He's spoiling for a fight.
The Goa'uld glares at him, no trace of Murdoch's deference left. "If I draw you a picture, what's to stop you from killing me?"
"We keep our promises," Jack blusters. "But you Goa'uld don't have such a good track record as far as honourable conduct is concerned, so I'd like a little insurance."
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, you don't have any track record," he responds archly. "So I think I'll be my own insur " He falls silent, staring.
"Sir " Sam begins, but we don't get to find out what she was going to say because something strange is happening to the Goa'uld. A thin stream of foam leaks from the corner of his mouth as his eyes roll up in his head and his hands begin to tremble. In a second his whole body is shaking, limbs jumping, head thrashing back and forth. He slides, jittering, onto the floor. Sam drops her mug and leaps onto him just as one of his flailing legs bursts the restraints and kicks through the firepit, dislodging a stone that bounces onto my bedroll and against my wounded leg. I scream in agony. Teal'c lifts the stone off of me and drops it into the pit before helping Jack catch the Goa'uld's legs. All three of them lie on top of him while the attack plays itself out, the jerking convulsions giving way to twitches and then to stillness.
Scrambling up onto his knees, Jack gasps, "What the fuck was that?"
Sam turns the Goa'uld's head to the side and vomit spills out and puddles on the floor. She peels back an eyelid. "Some kind of seizure, sir."
"Gee, ya think?"
"He said Murdoch was damaged. I guess he wasn't lying."
* * *
I've been awake for hours, lying perfectly still, listening. Teal'c has returned to the cave mouth. O'Neill has gone again into the caverns, continuing his search for a way out. This is especially urgent to him now as he believes that I'm in a coma, my knowledge lost to him. I've had to control my body very carefully, right down to pupil responses, in order to maintain this illusion. It has been difficult. The seizure was unexpected and frightening and the blank areas of my mind have expanded while I was unconscious. I can't stay in this body. It's not safe.
Surreptitiously I turn my head a bit and open my eyes to slits. I'm lying down on a bedroll on the floor across the firepit from Daniel, my hands bound in front of me. Daniel is propped up a bit against a pack and even in the uncertain light I can see that his skin is pasty, unnaturally pale, his eyes closed, the light in him dimmed. He's twitching fitfully. Carter kneels beside him, pressing a temperature strip to his forehead. After a few moments she peels it off and peers at it under the focused white beam of her flashlight.
"Ho-ly Hannah," she gasps. Lifting her eyes to the ceiling, she whispers, "God, don't." Then, she crawls over the empty bedroll next to Daniel's and reaches for her pack, pulling foil packages out of the pockets. "Don't you dare do this to me," she mutters under her breath.
I move stealthily, keeping the fire between us as long as I can so that she won't see my shadow. Reaching behind her, she gropes for the flashlight, but I take it first. She is just turning to look for it when I swing my arms in an upward arc and catch her with the flash under the chin. Dazed, she pushes herself away from me with her feet, fumbling for her gun, but I knock it out of her hand, hitting her twice more. Then she is still. It would be easy to take her now her healthy strength would be useful but she is not the one I want. She is not the one I need.
I pull out her knife and clumsily cut through the restraints. The blade is so sharp that I don't even feel the cut I give myself on the wrist until I see the blood welling up, black in the firelight. It doesn't matter now.
I turn to Daniel. His glazed eyes are open, wide, not with fear but with anger. He can't find a voice in his dry throat. His hands are groping in the tangled bedroll. His hair falls across one eye.
Kneeling over him, I straddle his hips, careful not to put pressure on his leg. I reach down and gently brush the hair away. "It's alright. She's not dead," I reassure him. My words are slurred, difficult. There is an erratic flashing in my head that signals another seizure. I don't have much time. "It's alright," I murmur soothingly. "It won't be long." Placing a hand on each side of his head, I press my thumbs into the hinges of his jaw. He tries, but he's too weak to resist and his mouth falls open. Parched and cracked, his lower lip splits and blood seeps out. I taste it when I cover his mouth with mine.
* * *
The body is heavy against me, crushing. I try to push it off of me, but my arms are too weak. Suddenly, though, it moves away. Those eyes are on me, Murdoch's eyes, so empty. Groping in the folds of the sleeping bag, my hand finds the gun. I pull it out by the muzzle. It takes two hands for me to turn it around and slip the safety. Murdoch's heavy weight is still straddling my legs, and he's starting to twitch, his eyes rolling upward, showing only white, and then snapping back to meet mine. His hands are reaching out for me, fingers clawed and stiff, falling on my shoulders and clutching my shirt. I aim the gun and pull the trigger. The shot catches him in the throat, and he drags me forward as he's knocked back onto my ankles. The pain this causes my wounded leg is distant, irrelevant, drowned by the sound of blood rushing in my ears. I keep firing, one shot into the chest, three more into the throat, and his body jerks with each impact, the eyes rolling back in their sockets for good this time as his heart pumps his blood out of his carotid artery, splattering me and the wall behind me and the floor around us in sweeping, diminishing arcs. Finally, his hands go slack and he topples backward into the firepit where the flames leap up, eating hair and clothing. I pull the trigger until the clip is empty. I'm still pulling the trigger when someone pries the gun out of my hand.
* * *
"There's nothing there, sir."
Sam's voice. Very close, muffled. My forehead is resting against her shoulder as her fingers probe the back of my neck.
"You sure?" Jack, farther away.
"There's nothing there," she repeats.
I feel hands lowering me back down. I can't tell whose. The ground is lurching and swaying under me, like a raft caught in slow ocean swells, the world slipping away as I slide from the crests into the troughs. I can't see. Or, what I see I can't understand. Everything, even time, seems stretched and twisted. I close my eyes.
"Teal'c. Did you get. . .?"
". . . is not much left to look at, O'Neill. I do not. . . survive such an attack. . . . there is much charring and it. . . certain. . . ."
". . . a flashlight. . . sweep of this place."
"The symbiote. . . very weak."
". . . stomp it six ways from Sunday."
* * *
. . . ya hear that, Danny-boy? Teal'c says you got good aim. Of course, who wouldn't from a foot away, but, hey, who's counting, right. . .
* * *
. . . c'mon, Danny, c'mon. Easy. . .
* * *
. . . Pick a language, buddy. English would be good . . .
* * *
. . . gotta get him outta here. . .
* * *
. . . fever's broken. . . Jeez-us, Daniel, don't scare me like that again. . .
* * *
Moving carefully, I turn, resting on my hip, my shoulder against the wall, so that I can look down at Jack. He's lying on his back, one hand on his chest, his calloused fingers tanned against the dark fabric of his half-gloves, the nails broken and black with dirt. Breathing deeply, he sleeps, unmoving except for his chest rising and falling beneath his black shirt. His face is turned partly away from me, and I can see the curve of his neck, the tendon knotted behind his ear, the pulse beating there in his throat, strong and slow. The fire has burned low, just a glow of banked embers now, and the light steals over him, an alchemy that turns the few strands of silver in his light brown hair to copper. Shadows pool on the closed lids of his eyes. He looks vulnerable, exposed, but I know that if I touch him he will be instantly alert.
I touch him, laying my fingers lightly against the hair at his temple, and his head turns, eyes flying open, focusing on mine without uncertain wandering or hesitation.
"What is it?" he whispers, his other hand finding his holster on the floor beside him.
"Nothing," I whisper back, shaking my head.
"Do you need something?"
His eyes are still in shadow, but I can see enough to know that he's concerned for me. For a moment I'm surprised by this. But I'm forgetting who I am.
I shake my head again. "No." I'm close to something now, something important. "Yes." What was so confusing and disjointed in Murdoch's broken mind is clear in Daniel's, this desire and its expression falling together seamlessly, concentrated in this caress of the backs of my fingers against Jack's temple. Daniel has resisted me, trying fiercely to close me out of the most private spaces of his mind, but in this gesture I feel that I've tapped into something that runs so deep in him that, even swimming effortlessly as he does in the mingled currents of many languages, he's never put a name to it. It burns between my fingers and Jack's skin, lambent. Jack doesn't speak or move. He is contained, but poised for openness.
Gently, I move my fingers into the pool of shadow nearest me and brush his lashes. I feel his eyelids close and then the lashes flutter against my skin. He doesn't flinch away at all. Then my fingers travel across his high cheekbone and the hollow below it. I'm surprised to find that the three days' growth of beard has a grain, spiky in one direction and soft in the other. I wonder idly if my own is like this, and raising my hand to see, I learn that we are alike this way. Touching my lips with my fingertips, I realize that I'm smiling. I reach down again to trace my thumb across Jack's lips. They are thin, dry and a bit chapped; he's been sharing his water ration with Daniel because of the fever. For an instant his lips part and his tongue emerges, but disappears again as if startled to find me there. I continue across his chin to his throat, pausing to feel the rapid rhythm of his pulse and coming to rest just below his adam's apple. He makes a small sound I can't really hear, but I can feel its vibration in my fingertips. I lay my palm on his chest, over his heartbeat, and his hand moves hesitantly out of the way, resting instead on his hip, the fingers curled loosely but not relaxed, tensed with a kind of waiting. He's breathing rapidly, shallowly, as I move lower, my fingers following the curve of his ribs and across his stomach. I want to see him, the light in him, and I tug at his shirt.
His hand darts out and he catches my wrist. Suddenly panic rises up inside me, and I feel. . . I don't know what it is, but it scares me. My fingers are still touching him and the taut muscles of his stomach are quivering. He makes another almost inaudible sound in his throat and each nerve in my body lights up, white hot. I don't know what to do.
In my panic I think of Murdoch, when he fell bleeding into the water and I took him as he drifted downward into the darkness trailing a silver chain of bubbles. I took him, but I couldn't breathe for both of us. His body was huge and ungainly and numb from the shock of his wounds, his brain already starved for oxygen. And we were drowning. And I panicked then. So I let him come back, just a little, just enough so that his instincts would save us. He clawed our way to the surface, swimming for the shore, gasping air, his dying brain alive enough to struggle for life. And by the time he pulled us out onto the bank and collapsed, he was damaged, but mine.
And panicking now, I feel the other presence rising up in me and I hear my voice say, "Jack! This is me. This is " My voice but not my words. And they bring with them a wave of anguish and an almost murderous hatred that terrifies me. I struggle to contain it, somehow.
His brow furrowed, Jack lifts his head from the pack he's using as a pillow. He's opening his mouth to speak.
"Jack, I don't know what You have to tell me. Show me," I plead, my hand still on him, but trembling. And inside me there is a thrashing.
He hitches himself up against the pack and the light catches his eyes. There is so much there, so much contradiction, that I can't read him and I'm almost swamped again by panic. But then something resolves in him and he opens up for a moment his eyes are unguarded and I know that I can reach right into him.
But before I can speak, the shutters fall again, doubt and something. . . else. . . turning him wary. Once again, he's at a threshold, poised, but needing. . . what? His eyes narrow. "You want this?" he asks.
I nod mutely.
Daniel twists inside me and I'm tangled again in a net of emotions betrayal and helplessness, all shot through with the bright wire of need and the hatred Daniel feels for me makes me grab convulsively at Jack's hand, crushing his fingers together in my grip.
"Hey, easy." He sits up and wipes one of Daniel's frustrated tears from my jaw with the back of his hand, frowning.
He seems about to say more but there is movement in the passage beyond the door and abruptly he rolls to his feet, snagging his holster as he does so and belting it to his hips.
"Where are you going?"
He looks down at me briefly as he bends to tighten the strap on his thigh. "It's my watch." He avoids my eyes as he tucks in his shirt. "You need anything before I go?" When I shake my head he says, "Well, at least lie down, okay?"
Feigning a wince of pain the leg is almost completely healed now I let him ease me down. He rearranges the jacket under my knee and pulls the sleeping bag up around my shoulders. I can smell Murdoch's blood in the fabric. There was no water to spare to wipe it clean away. Then he pokes at the fire and adds a small log, almost the last in the pile. We'll be in darkness soon. He's moving purposefully, outwardly calm, but I notice that his hands are shaking.
Zipping his jacket, he crouches down beside me. "Get some sleep," he orders.
"You're afraid of me, aren't you?" I ask him as he starts to get up.
He settles down on his haunches again for a moment, considering me. Then he checks over his shoulder. Over by the door, where light gives way to shadow, Teal'c sits, so still in Kelnoreem that he might be a bronze statue. Jack watches him for a moment and there is no indication that the Jaffa is at all aware of our presence. But of course he is. "Not afraid," Jack answers finally, turning back with a wry half-grin that fades immediately. "Or," he waves vaguely, "not of you." Making a small, self-deprecating shrug with his face, he lays a cool hand on the side of my head and for a moment it is that same friendly, protective gesture Daniel has felt countless times before. Then, Jack's calloused thumb strokes my cheek. He blows air through his nose and shakes his head, a variation on his old exasperation, and grimaces when his knees crackle as he rises to go. He pauses at the entrance and his voice comes to me out of the darkness. "Sleep." Then he's gone.
In a moment, Sam comes in and takes Jack's place on the bedroll next to me.
"You need anything?" Her voice is thick with exhaustion.
She mumbles something and in seconds is breathing deeply, already dreaming.
Inside me Daniel is an awful, cold contraction of pain. I crush it, but a jagged edge remains and I know he won't ever let me sleep.
* * *
I do sleep, but fitfully. There are dreams. None of them ends well, and in most of them I'm trapped and the walls are collapsing in on top of me. I don't know if these are my dreams or his. I wake at the sting of adhesive tearing from my skin. Jerking up onto my elbow, I find Sam kneeling beside me removing the bandage from my thigh.
"Sorry to wake you," she apologizes without looking up. "Now your fever's broken which is a miracle, by the way we'll just see how the infection's doing. The radiation levels are dropping, so we should be out of here before too long. Maybe we can let up on the rationing a little if you need another painkill "
The words die as she peels away the last layer of gauze and sees what was once my wounded thigh. Unbelieving, she touches me to confirm what her eyes tell her, pulling a length of fishing line through the ugly, puckered scar on my skin. I feel its whispering tickle as the now-useless stitch comes free. She raises her head, her eyes widening with understanding. As the colour drains from her face, the bruises on her cheek and across her jaw stand out black. There's a strand of her bangs clinging to her eyelashes and I reach out and brush it away. She doesn't move.
My voice launches her into motion and she propels herself backward away from me, scrambling to her feet and pulling her gun from its holster. The muzzle wavers as I get up and stand over her.
There is the sound of running feet in the passageway. I'm still weak from the transfer, but I'm reasonably sure that I have enough in me to take advantage of her shock. I take a step toward her, but she moves warily out of my reach.
"Carter! What the fuck?"
"He's Goa'uld, sir," she says, her voice hard and level, but with a tremour of panic just below the surface. "Daniel didn't kill it. It took him." Jack stands frozen. "His leg's healed already," she adds to make her case, pointing with the gun.
He looks at the healthy skin showing through the tear in my pant leg and nods. Stepping carefully away from her around the firepit, he puts distance between them so that I can't see them both at once without turning my head. I follow him with my eyes, turning slowly on my heel as he moves around me. In my peripheral vision I see Teal'c's dark shape loom up in the doorway. He says nothing, instantly reading the scene and understanding what it means.
I hold my hands up, palms outward, a gesture that I hope tells them I'm no threat.
"So that wasn't " he begins, but bites off the question before it can force its way fully out of his mouth. At the same time, his hand makes a small, involuntary motion toward the bedrolls behind him, but he catches the gesture half-made and crushes it in his fist.
"No. . . yes. I don't know. It was both of us," I answer truthfully.
A muscle in his cheek twitches as if with pain. His eyes flick from Sam to Teal'c, but by the time they return to me he is once again closed up and cold. "One body wasn't good enough for you?"
Teal'c moves in behind me and I hear the head of the staff weapon split open, the electric crackle making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
"I told you. That one was damaged. I couldn't repair it."
"So you thought you'd just help yourself to another."
I point to the bedroll, seeing in my mind's eye Daniel lying there, his skin clammy and glistening with sweat, his eyes glazed. "Daniel was dying. The fever. He wouldn't have lasted six hours."
"So you did him a favour." Jack's voice is low and vibrating with fury.
"I just wanted to understand."
"This! This life. These feelings. His feelings." I put my hands to my head and clutch my hair. "I just want to live."
With an inarticulate roar, Jack tackles me and slams me into the wall, recoiling and slamming me again, finishing with his forearm across my throat. "What about Daniel, you sonofabitch? Do you think he wants to live like this?" He reaches down with his other hand and in a second I feel the muzzle of his Beretta under my chin. With his thumb, he releases the safety.
Both Teal'c and Carter shout at once, but neither one comes closer, kept at bay by the code of command. Jack and I are alone, cut off from them by the intensity of his fury.
Jack pushes the gun harder into me. "Do you? Why don't you ask him? I know he's in there. Ask him!"
For a moment my mind blanks out with static. In a few more hours I would have been able to take him, but I'm still too weak and his rage has made him so strong. Inside me, Daniel is a dark, relentless undertow dragging at me. I can't fight both of them.
"You were going to let me live in Murdoch," I shout at him. "You were going to let me live in him!"
That makes him pause, relaxing the pressure on my throat fractionally, but only for an instant. "That's different," he whispers hoarsely.
"How? How can it be different? How can one life be worth more than another?" But I know how. And suddenly I know how I'm going to survive this. I loosen my hold on Daniel a tiny bit. Just enough.
My legs are useless. The only thing holding me up is Jack's weight pressing me against the wall. I can feel his heart hammering against my chest as he shifts and rams the Beretta against my temple.
"Do it!" My voice is raspy with desperation as he hesitates. "Damnit, Jack, just do it."
His face changes. The rage drains away as he looks into my eyes. "Daniel?"
"Yes! Don't leave me in here, Jack." I remember the flutter of lashes what the snake gave to me, and stole from me. "I can't watch it live my life."
As understanding darkens Jack's eyes, I feel the snake's panic, a fear like freezing water. I open my mouth to speak again, but behind my eyes the snake grabs at me and I lose myself for a moment. Jack can see it and the muzzle of the gun presses harder against my skin. But then I'm back and I struggle against the snake for control of my limbs. My hand comes up and folds around Jack's and the gun, my finger against his trigger finger. I don't know if it's me or the snake doing this, moving to help Jack pull the trigger or to fend him off. I don't trust my hands. I need Jack to be my hands. He's shaking, his muscles knotting around the emptiness this is going to leave in him.
I've never seen eyes so naked. I can see right into the heart of him. God.
I feel his finger quiver on the trigger and he shifts his weight, bracing himself. He doesn't speak, his face becoming a determined mask, but his eyes say "Daniel." I want to squeeze my eyes shut so that I don't have to watch what this is doing to him, so that he won't have to look at me when he does it. But I can't look away. The snake won't let me. It won't let Jack go.
"It's okay." My words taste like blood. "Just just close your eyes."
At the gentle, broken sound of my voice, Jack's body shudders. I feel it start in his chest and travel outward along his arms and his legs, turning into a choked groan in his throat as defeat wells up inside him. Sagging, he lets his head fall forward onto my chest. I try to squeeze the trigger, but instead my hand is taking the gun from him and tossing it away as we slide to the floor together. And then the snake surges up inside me and I'm
"Thank you," I breathe into his hair. "Thank you, Jack."
Slowly he raises his head. He recognizes me now. He knows. Daniel is mine and I can wield him like a knife. And Jack is mine now, too. But, somehow, he's gone before I can claim him, his eyes flat, unreadable, and I feel no triumph, only the sickness of adrenaline and a cold, dead weight in my chest. Loss grows inside me like a skim of new ice across the surface of a pool, blocking out the sky. I tell myself that this feeling is Daniel's, not my own.
Stumbling to his feet, Jack begins to turn away. But then he swings his arm and hits me, backhanded, across the face. I taste blood. "Never call me that," he growls at me. And then he is gone.
* * *
"I'm sorry I hurt you," he says, crouched down in front of me, watching the bruise fading away on my jaw.
"It's alright. I've already repaired the damage."
"I wasn't talking to you."
* * *
It would be easy, now, to break these restraints. But I don't. I sit on the cold stone floor, leaning against the wall, and watch them consulting. Jack O'Neill won't let me return to my Daniel's bedroll. They are watching me, too, standing side-by-side and talking without looking at each other. Carter's cheeks are streaked where her tears ran through the dirt on her face. I don't remember hearing her cry.
"Sir," she begins, and then hesitates. She's crossing some kind of line. "Sir, it's not your fault."
He looks down at his boots. "It was my call, Carter." When he looks up again, his eyes are narrowed in a squint aimed at the wall over my head. After a second, his gaze falls on me and for just a moment the shutters open. What I see there behind them it's like vivisection, watching a heart beating through an ugly tear makes me flinch as though I've been stabbed. I never want to see into somebody this way again. This knowing is obscene. O'Neill talks to Carter while he stares at me, his face expressionless. "You cut a deal with the devil and somebody always ends up in hell. Remember that. And if I ever forget it," he concludes flatly as he turns away, "shoot me."
I hunch down a bit. I survived and I have the right. If I'm a devil, then so be it. I am what I am.
Teal'c returns and O'Neill steps over to meet him, coming back to show Carter the display on the meter.
"Good news, sir. The levels are down. We can go."
He nods curtly. "Gear up. We move in five." Then he comes to me and hauls me to my feet by the front of my shirt. "Time to go to work, snake-boy," he says without meeting my eyes.
* * *
It takes hours to wend our way through the maze of tunnels. I never hesitate in my choice of one fork over the other, pacing evenly in front of them, my hands tied behind me, a rope lead connecting my wrists to Teal'c's fist. They aren't going to risk my bolting and leaving them stranded here in the dark. I could do it. But I know I won't, even if they don't. I'm tired of fighting them. There's no point telling them this either. None of them will speak to me.
Finally, I stop and point with my chin to a sliver of light showing between a black megalith of a boulder, twenty feet high, and the smooth rock wall. The opening doesn't look wide enough to be useful, and O'Neill rounds on me.
"What's this? An escape hatch for snakes?" He catches his own pun late and shakes his head, looking away.
"It's wider than it looks from this angle, up in the chimney. We have to go around the far side of the boulder. There's a ledge."
I'm worried that in the years since a host used these caves the quakes might have shifted the stone, and that the exit really has closed up. Or that the human bulk won't fit through a space that was big enough for our hosts, who were smaller, with double-jointed legs and sharp hooves good for scrambling over rocks. But after a few minutes of difficult climbing especially for me with my bound hands we emerge at the ledge, the gap, which had been mostly masked from below, opening up in a widening V. Carter goes first, then O'Neill. Teal'c boosts me up from behind and then drags himself through. It's a tight squeeze for him, but he makes it with a few scrapes for souvenirs.
Immediately, O'Neill's radio crackles with a series of clicks. He responds with a similar series and then says over the open channel, "What's your status?"
Even over the thin hiss of static, Kirby's slow Virginian accent is discernable. "We're about two klicks from the gate, sir. Hungry as hell, but otherwise we're five-by-five." A pause. "We lost Murdoch."
"Acknowledged. Any Jaffa activity?"
"None, sir. We figger they booked for the 'gate before the storm hit. Captain Scott's betting they got crispy-crittered, though."
"Well, keep having those happy thoughts, Kirby. We'll rendezvous at the 'gate. Nobody goes through until we get there."
The air is warm and we stand for a moment blinking in the bright sunlight. Carter pulls a cap out of her pack and puts it on to shield her eyes. We're all a little sensitive after being so long in the dark. After a moment's hesitation, she gestures to Teal'c to turn around and, opening Daniel's pack, which he carries in addition to his own, she retrieves a boonie, coming over and putting it on my head. A wince of pain narrows her dark blue eyes for a second as she looks at my face, and then she turns away, shouldering her pack and following O'Neill up between the tumbled boulders and down the other side toward the forest.
The shade under the trees is a cool, dappled green and the filtered sunlight seems to flutter down between the branches like falling leaves, brushing my skin with fleeting touches of warmth. It hardly seems possible that at the height of the storm such a gentleness could have killed us. On the mossy ground, our feet make no noise and the only sounds are our breathing almost all in time with each other as we fall into step, marching single file and the occasional whirring protests of some small animal whose territory we've invaded. It's amazing to me how much I know about this world that has been out of bounds for us for thousands of years, the memories hanging suspended in my mind like weightless debris in standing water. Such an ancient memory tells me that the small animal is scaly and green with a long, whiplike prehensile tail. Good in stew if you boil it long enough, and if you can lure it from its deep burrow in the first place. Everything on this planet has learned to live underground or, like us, underwater.
But the images I see in my mind don't feel like mine anymore. The whirring voice reminds me of the chattering of the red squirrels in the trees in Colorado, having same character of tiny outrage and entitlement: My tree! Get out or else! This memory doesn't feel like mine, either.
By the time we top the rise over the pool, I've made my decision.
O'Neill is standing on the top of the hill, looking down the meadow at the pool where the others like me glide, invisible, beneath the surface of the still water. The muscles of his neck are twitching beneath the fringe of greying brown hair at his nape. Carter moves over to stand by him and she communicates something without speaking or touching him. Whatever it is, it seems to help and he nods slowly, starting to walk again toward the 'gate over the next rise.
"I want to go home," I say loudly, abruptly, and they all stop and look at me.
"What?" O'Neill asks, impatiently.
"I want to go home." He doesn't understand, so I clarify, "And Daniel can go home, too. With you. If I can stay here." The memory of that openness passes through my mind and I think for a second that it's there in O'Neill's eyes again, an ember sparking to life behind the cold and the deadness.
"What?" he says again.
"I'll give him back to you."
Shifting his weight, he cocks his head. "Why would you do that?"
The lump of guilt in my mind is practically worn smooth from handling and it's a weight that I don't want to carry forever. I suspect that this is Daniel's doing, that undertow that swirls around my sense of right, of ownership, pulling me off-centre, making me lose my balance. "He's more yours than mine," I answer. "Do you want him back or not?" They're all staring at me, unmoving. "He won't be damaged." Still, they are silent, unbelieving.
O'Neill shakes his head. "Not an option."
"But. . . why not?"
"The Jaffa are coming back. You know too much about us. It's not an option."
"But Daniel "
"Daniel knows the score."
And he does. The bitter taste of resignation does nothing to lessen the intensity of his conviction that this is how it has to be. I could accept it, go back with them. I'd be their prisoner, but Daniel would still be mine, would still be my eyes, my hands. They call me a devil. I could accept that, too, and be a tyrant in hell. So easy.
The light in O'Neill goes out as he turns away, closing the subject.
I follow him to the end of my tether, feeling the edges of the plastic cut into my wrists as Teal'c pulls against me. I know that it would take little provocation for the Jaffa to break my arms. He knows the Goa'uld. I look over my shoulder at him, pleading. I'm Goa'uld, but I'm not. He is a Jaffa, but he isn't. He tilts his head, his eyes pensive and calculating, reading this on my face. Then, he relaxes the tension on the rope a little bit, allowing me to come within a few feet of O'Neill's back without slicing my skin on the restraints. Carter stands a bit to the side, prepared to step between us.
I speak earnestly, knowing that this is a tone of voice that O'Neill is familiar with, Daniel's voice, pleading a worthy cause, prodding his conscience. "Maybe. Maybe the Jaffa will decide that this planet is worth the risks and they'll come back to mine their naqadah. Maybe I would survive another transfer unlikely as that is and maybe among all the Goa'uld in this place the Jaffa would find me and maybe I would tell them what I know. And maybe none of that will happen." I'm talking to O'Neill's back. His head is bowed. "Do you want him? Or not?"
There is a long silence while O'Neill thinks. Behind us, the small animal whirs out another protest. I grope for Daniel, to make him help me, but he has retreated and I'm alone with O'Neill.
Finally, he turns back to me. "Alright," he says, his voice flat.
"Carter, I know what I'm doing."
"If this is a trick "
"It's not," I assure him. "And if you have any doubts after, you can always shoot him."
* * *
I sit on the brown, sunburned grass above the pool, my legs stretched out in front of me. This far away we're safe from the Goa'uld in the water. They don't even seem to have noticed our presence yet. I rub my wrist where the restraints chafed the skin raw, enjoying the small sensation of pain, the soothing pressure of my hand. My hands are warm. O'Neill's were always cool when they touched me.
"'I've shot my arrow over the house and hurt my brother,'" I quote. "That's from a play that Daniel likes. Hamlet."
"I know it," O'Neill answers from behind me.
"It's a good play?"
"It's a very long play."
I laugh a little, pulling my legs up and looping my arms around them. I feel so strong, but not at ease in these limbs. Absently, I reach up to adjust my glasses before I realize that I'm not wearing them. That was Daniel's gesture, not mine. I resolve to un-repair the defect in his eyes, to return that reflex to him untainted by my presence. After a moment I lie down on my side, my head pillowed in the crook of my arm. I feel O'Neill's shadow fall across me.
"Why are you doing this?" he asks again.
"I've learned some things."
I think of Murdoch, the strange, structured emptiness of his mind, like a grammar without words. "Daniel is what makes this body make sense. Without him, there is just sensation without meaning. Because of this I can't deny him, and I can't escape what he feels. How can I say that this despair isn't my own when I feel it, here?" With my free hand, I clutch my jacket over my chest, the constriction there like a fist around my heart, and involuntarily I draw my knees up, curling around the pain.
I am silent for awhile, listening to Daniel, a constant murmur that will never become mere white noise because this is the language of my thoughts. "You tell me that the Goa'uld say the host does not survive. If they believe their own lies, it must drive them insane. I don't want to be insane and I don't want Daniel to be my hell and I don't want to be his."
O'Neill shifts behind me. I don't expect them to understand. I sigh, concluding, "Or maybe I'm just not good at sharing, and Daniel's a stubborn pain in the ass. It's exhausting."
I hear O'Neill's snort of agreement as he crouches down behind me. I know that this is a joke he's sharing with Daniel, not with me. Carter kneels at my feet, her side arm drawn, while Teal'c remains on his feet by my head. "This is going to take awhile," I warn them. "It takes awhile if you don't want to leave any scars."
* * *
I let it all go gently, reluctantly, each sense slipping away from me, returning me to my own alienness. The taste of dust and the remembered iron tang of blood from where O'Neill's slap made my teeth break the skin inside my mouth. Then the smells, the musky odour of leaf mould, the salt of my sweat in the fabric of my shirt. Then the nagging itch on my ankle below my boot top, the slight cramp in the elbow bent under the weight of my head, the delicate, almost imperceptible tickle of my hair brushing my wrist. Then the shushing sound of the wind stirring high up in the branches of the trees around the pool, O'Neill's breathing behind me and the creak and rustle of a pack as Carter settles against it.
I look down along the slope of the meadow, pat the blur of small yellow flowers in the foreground, to the pool. Each tree and cloud is doubled in the mirror-still water, only in colours that are more muted, the shadows darker. It is a picture without sound, fragrance or texture. Finding its way down through the trees into the hollow, the wind finally ruffles the surface, each wave casting up a spark of light. And then, that too is gone.
* * *
The first thing I'm aware of is the sound of breathing. I listen to it for awhile before I realize that it's mine, strange without the underlying wheeze of allergy congestion. Then I hear the rumble of Teal'c's voice and then Sam's lighter tones. I can't make out what they're saying, but the sound is soothing, anyway, voices rising and falling in the flow of normal conversation. I know that Jack is sitting next to me; I can hear the familiar sound of his fingers tapping an uneven rhythm against the leather ankle of his boot as he waits for me to wake up. Prying open my eyes, I'm surprised to see firelight playing across the nylon ceiling of a tent instead of the heavy, looming darkness of a distant roof of stone.
I turn my head. He's a silhouette against the wall of the tent, the only detail the glint of his dogtags and a momentary gleam of light on his eyes.
"I guess I wasn't much help there, huh?" I admit apologetically.
I feel him shrug. "We're getting used to carrying you." He pauses. "You might wanna lay off those cookies, though."
I throw him a sloppy salute that ends with the heel of my hand pressed into my eye as a stab of pain lances through my head.
"What is it?"
"Migraine." My mouth feels like it's full of cotton.
"Meds in your pack?"
"Vest. Top left pocket."
He shuffles around for a moment and turns on a flashlight briefly, shielding the lens with his hand so it casts only a red glow. Soon he opens my hand and presses a capsule into it. I swallow the pill dry.
"You're sure it's just a migraine?" he demands, a little harshly, I think.
I open one eye and peer at him. "There's no such thing as 'just' a migraine." But he's waiting. "Yes. You can't mistake them, y'know. The telltale icepick in the eye."
He sits back on his heels. "Good. I mean, not good. You know what I mean."
I don't. If I didn't have a marching band tuning up inside my skull I'd ask him what the hell his problem is. Instead I ask about SG 11.
"They're good. Camped over the next ridge by the 'gate. They holed up in some caves."
He pauses for so long that I start to repeat the question, but he cuts me off. "I heard you. Murdoch's dead."
"The snake. . . couldn't save him."
"Maybe it's better that way." I squeeze my eyes shut and concentrate on keeping my own neck muscles from twisting my head off. "Or maybe not. People want to live, even in hell, I suppose." Jack shifts suddenly, jerkily beside me. I start to turn to look at him and regret it instantly as the icepick twists in my eyesocket. "And the Goa'uld?"
"Carter's got it in a HazMat jar. Doesn't look too good, though. But, then again, who can tell?" His attention is palpable, like static electricity on my skin, ready to discharge with a spark. He's waiting again, but I don't know what for. After a long while he says, "Get some rest. Don't expect us to carry you to the 'gate tomorrow."
For once I feel like complying without protest, although I'm not sure how he's expecting me to walk to the 'gate. Miraculously though, my leg doesn't seem to be hurting. I steal a quick glance down, just to make sure it's still there. It is. Relieved, I breathe shallowly as my head pounds in time with my heartbeat and I begin to practice one of the visualizations Teal'c taught me: a cool pool of water, floating, weightless, the pain ebbing out of my body in dissipating ripples.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I'm caught in a feeling of panic, drowning. My chest constricts as my heart races, making the blood roar in my head, my hands coming up to keep my skull from splitting open. I hear Jack's voice saying, "Easy, easy," and I focus on his presence beside me, the momentary cool touch of his hand over mine on the side of my head. The panic receding, my heart slows again. Once I'm calmer, avoiding the water and trying instead to get a grip by matching my breathing to Jack's, I feel the whisper of another sense memory: the flutter of lashes against my fingertips. I rub my fingers and thumb together, trying to place the sensation. There's something there, something important poised on the threshold of memory. But for now it recedes out of reach, sinking down into the darkness trailing a silver chain of bubbles. I let it go.
Notes: Special thanks to Aces, who read draft after cringy draft and astutely kept sending back the 'less is more' message. Aces is the goddess of my idolatry. And to Martha, for reading carefully, for picking up on all the right things and for generally making me feel better.
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