Title: The Widowing Field

Author: Sunrise

E-mail: sunrise@lightfirst.com

Rating: PG

Category: Gen, Angst, H/C

Season/Spoilers: Forever in a Day

Date: November 30, 2003

Status: Complete

Archive: Alpha Gate, Stargatefan, Comfort Zone

 

Synopsis: Sha're is dead and Daniel has lost his way. A mission gone wrong forces him to deal with who and what he's become.

 

Notes: Thanks to DebA for her medical know-how, babs for alpha and Jo for beta. Not to mention all the encouragement from fellow "clippy" exchangers--you know who you are. I frequently find inspiration in music, and this story was no exception. I've included some lyrics from the song that gave me the title at the beginning of the story, and some additional lyrics from another at the end. I highly recommend JayEm's wonderful music vid "The Widowing Field," which was what started this whole story forming in my head. You can find it on Ancient's Gate, Jmas' website.

 

Disclaimer: The characters mentioned in this story are the property of Showtime and Gekko Film Corp. The Stargate, SG-I, the Goa'uld and all other characters who have appeared in the series STARGATE SG-1 together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MGM-UA Worldwide Television, Gekko Film Corp, Glassner/Wright Double Secret Productions and Stargate SG-I Prod. Ltd. Partnership. This fanfic is not intended as an infringement upon those rights and solely meant for entertainment. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.

Minor Daniel whumping and major Jack whumping. Yeah, Jack whumping. From me. Who'd a thought? <g>

 

 

I'm sure that I can never make it through the night without you here

The fires in the sky illuminate the demons closing in

Have mercy on my soul if I am not the last

Have mercy on my soul if I am not the last to go

 

As I crawl around these trails, fight upon this widowing field

The ground below is bare and burned with the places I have learned to trust you

Have mercy on my soul if I am not the last

Have mercy on my soul if I am not the last to go

 

The Widowing Field -- Jars of Clay

 

The Widowing Field

By Sunrise

 

 

"Come on in, Jack. Have a seat."

 

Uh-oh. Jack pasted on a smile and took the indicated chair. The fact that Hammond was conducting this meeting in his office, coupled with the absence of his teammates set off all Jack's warning bells.

 

Something was on George's mind, and he had a pretty damn good idea what it was.

 

"How's Dr. Jackson?"

 

Yup. Pretty much what he'd expected.

 

"Turns out hardheadedness actually comes in handy. Doc says a good night's rest and he should be just fine." Jack picked a paperclip off the corner of the desk and twisted it into a triangle.

 

"That's good news."

 

"It's also old news." He stopped fiddling with the piece of metal and met Hammond's concerned blue eyes. "I heard Fraiser speaking with you on the phone, Sir. You didn't call me here to rehash Daniel's medical condition."

 

"In a manner of speaking, it's exactly why you're here, Colonel. But I think you already know that."

 

The tart reply reminded Jack that Hammond's familiarity only extended so far. He unconsciously straightened his slumped posture. "Yes, Sir."

 

"Are you aware that Dr. Jackson has been injured on three out of the last ten missions?"

 

Actually, it was four if you included the slice to his palm from an overzealous native's spear. Except he'd let Daniel coax him into not reporting it, both to Fraiser and during the debriefing.

 

"Well, you know what they say, Sir. 'Gate travel can be hazardous to your health."

 

"Jack. You and I both know that covering for him isn't in Dr. Jackson's best interest. Or SG-1's."

 

Hammond was right, and he damn well knew it. Jack had been wrestling with his own doubts where Daniel was concerned. For that matter, he'd seen both Carter and Teal'c watching their archeologist when Daniel wasn't looking.

 

"He would never put his teammates at risk, Sir."

 

"I believe you. But that's not the problem, is it?"

 

Jack clenched his jaw, fighting the urge to look away. "No, Sir."

 

"Level with me, Jack. Is he suicidal?"

 

Jack flinched. All these weeks watching Daniel, searching for some sign that things were getting better, when in his heart of hearts he knew the opposite to be true. He'd stubbornly refused even to think the word, though it flitted at the edges of his consciousness, a nagging fear that he couldn't quite banish.

 

He scrubbed both hands over his face, abruptly exhausted. "I... General, I don't believe Daniel would actively seek his own death."

 

"But?"

 

Saying it hurt more than he would've imagined. "I don't think he's actively avoiding it, either."

 

"Then, Colonel, we have a problem." Hammond stood and walked to the window overlooking the 'gateroom. "As of this moment, I'm placing Dr. Jackson on stand down pending a full psychiatric evaluation."

 

Jack sprang to his feet. "Sir, you can't do that!"

 

Hammond shook his head. "Jack, it's already done."

 

"Just...just please, listen to me for a minute. For three years Daniel has lived and breathed for one purpose--finding and freeing his wife from the Goa'uld. When Teal'c...when Sha're died, so did his reason for getting up in the morning. He's not only grieving, Sir, he's adrift. SG-1 is the only thing he's got to hold onto, the only thing keeping him from flying apart. You take that away, and we *will* lose him."

 

Hammond hesitated, then sighed. "All right. It's against my better judgement, but I'll allow him to remain on the team. For now. But only if he agrees to regular therapy sessions. With someone other than Dr. McKenzie," he added when Jack grimaced.

 

Daniel was going to go ballistic. Still, it was better than being pulled off the team. Jack nodded. "Agreed. Thank you, Sir."

 

"That's all, Colonel. You're dismissed."

 

"Sir." He turned to leave, feeling as if Daniel had just dodged the proverbial bullet. Again.

 

Hammond's soft voice caught him at the door. "I hope you're right about this, Jack."

 

Jack paused but didn't turn back. "So do I, Sir."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Fraiser ambushed him the moment he stepped into the infirmary. "Colonel, I'd like a word with you in my office, if you don't mind."

 

Crap. He'd already done this dance with Hammond. "I, ah, just popped in to check on Daniel, see if he needs anything." He inclined his head toward the exam area, and actually managed four steps before she reeled him back in.

 

"Perfect. I can fill you in on his condition before you do." When he didn't move right away, she swept her arm toward the door. "After you, Sir."

 

Déjà vu. Seated in another chair, across another desk, Jack watched Fraiser lay her folded hands on the blotter and lean forward. "Colonel, when was the last time you looked at Daniel?"

 

Oh for cryin'... "I try not to. You know how the rumor mill is around here. People are so quick to talk." He batted his eyes.

 

"Colonel."

 

Great, now she was pissed. Jack folded his arms and countered with his best hardassed Colonel glare. "Fine. The last time I looked at him was about an hour ago when I hauled him back through the 'gate and deposited him into your capable hands."

 

"I think you know that's not what I meant."

 

He knew exactly where Fraiser was headed and he so did not want to go there. Jack blew out a long breath of air. "Okay, so he's, uh, lost a little weight."

 

"Ten pounds."

 

*Ten*? Jack opened his mouth but the grim expression on Fraiser's face killed his protest. "I didn't realize it was that much."

 

Her lips twisted in a rueful little smile. "Flak jackets conceal a multitude of sins, Colonel. And I've noticed he's taken to wearing sweaters and oversized flannel shirts when off duty."

 

Jack scowled. "You're saying he's deliberately concealing it?"

 

Fraiser just looked at him.

 

"That little shit."

 

"The truth of the matter is he's not sleeping any better than he's eating. Daniel's always had a propensity for burning the midnight oil, but lately he's here till all hours, holed up in his office with those damn translations."

 

Jack regarded her with narrowed eyes. "How do you know so much?"

 

She arched an eyebrow. "I have an extensive spy network, Sir. You'd do well to remember that."

 

Which partially explained why someone half his size scared the shit out of him. "Doc, I've got a handle on the situation."

 

"With all due respect, Sir, you could have fooled me. I think you should know that I've recommended Daniel be temporarily removed from active duty."

 

"General Hammond and I had this discussion not ten minutes ago. He's agreed to leave Daniel on the team with the stipulation that Daniel talk to someone."

 

"He said that?" Janet pressed her lips together and shook her head. "I think you're both making a big mistake. Daniel needs--"

 

"Daniel needs something to put his back against. He *needs* the team. Now, if that's all..."

 

Janet followed his lead and stood. Her rigid spine and frosty voice told him that while the conversation may have ended, she was far from finished. "He has a grade 2 concussion. I'm willing to release him in the morning, provided someone stays with him."

 

Jack pressed his hand to his heart. "I'm your man."

 

Daniel lay on a gurney, a hospital gown in place of his blood-stained black tee shirt and BDUs. One arm was thrown over his eyes, partially concealing the white bandage at his temple.

 

Jack tapped one long leg. "Wakey, wakey, Daniel. Doc says you gotta spend the night, but I can take you home in the morning."

 

Moving his arm just enough to peer at Jack, Daniel squinted against the bright lights. "Huh?"

 

"A little disorientation is completely normal," Fraiser said, sotto voce. Raising her voice, she took Daniel's arm. "Come on, Dr. Jackson. Let's sit you up so I can take a look at you."

 

With Jack helping, Daniel let her ease him upright. He moaned, arms wrapped around his stomach. "Oh, God. I feel like I'm going to puke."

 

"And nausea," Janet added.

 

"Better kick that by morning, Dannyboy. Puking is not allowed at Chez O'Neill. Or in the car on the way there, for that matter."

 

Daniel scowled at him as he breathed carefully through his mouth. "Then it's a good thing I'll be going home."

 

"I'll release you under supervision only, Daniel." Fraiser finished taking his pulse and pulled out her penlight. "I'm afraid it's either Colonel O'Neill's place or you stay here."

 

"That's some--ow!" He flinched, pulling away from Fraiser's gentle grip on his chin. "--some choice."

 

"Photosensitivity and irritability. Also normal," Fraiser murmured.

 

"Who wouldn't be irritated? You shined that light right in my eye." Daniel stuck his lip out. In his rumpled hair and sock feet he looked like a cranky preschooler.

 

"What do you mean, 'some choice'? What's wrong with my place?"

 

"Lousy coffee."

 

"Geez, you're an ungrateful little... I'll have you know I went out and bought some of that overpriced European dark roast after the last time you whined about my coffee."

 

"I do not whine."

 

"You so do."

 

"Don't."

 

"Do."

 

Daniel opened his mouth only to grimace and clutch his head.

 

"Did I mention one heck of a headache?" Janet stepped between them and helped Daniel settle into a semi-reclined position. "Daniel, you know the drill with a head injury. I can give you Tylenol with codeine, it should make the pain manageable."

 

Daniel gritted his teeth. "Not to be crude, Janet, but anything you ask me to swallow is going to make a repeat appearance."

 

"I figured as much. Fortunately, there's a simple solution--I can administer codeine via an intramuscular injection."

 

"Wow, that's awful good news."

 

She ignored the sarcasm. "I'll get you some now, and then you can sleep."

 

"Not for long. How can I possibly sleep when every time I do you shine that stupid light in my eyes and ask me what my name is?"

 

Fraiser smiled sweetly at Jack. "He's all yours. I'll be back in a few minutes with the meds."

 

"Gee, thanks."

 

Jack watched Daniel squirm, squinting against the harsh fluorescent lights as he searched for a comfortable position. Jack observed the dark circles beneath blue eyes that looked too large in Daniel's thin face. The hospital gown had slipped off one shoulder, revealing a too-prominent collarbone. Damn. Fraiser was right. He hadn't really been looking at his friend. Maybe deep down he'd been afraid of what he'd see.

 

Daniel caught him looking and quickly tugged the gown back into place, his eyes skittering away from Jack's. His long fingers plucked at the blanket and he gnawed on his lower lip.

 

"Go home, Jack. At least one of us can get a decent night's sleep."

 

//I'll let it go for now, Danny. But you and I are going to have a serious talk.//

 

"Actually, I think I'll just crash on base tonight. It's already late, and I have to be back here bright and early to spring you from Dr. Dread."

 

"I heard that, Colonel." Fraiser bustled in, giving him her death glare as she pushed up the gown and swabbed Daniel's arm.

 

Daniel frowned at the hypodermic in her hand. "What's that?"

 

"Codeine, Daniel. For the headache, remember?" she answered patiently. She swiftly injected the contents and capped the empty syringe. "Five minutes," she warned Jack. "He needs sleep." The underlying message was clear: Don't say anything to upset him.

 

Jack saluted lazily. "Gotcha."

 

Daniel curled up on his side, one hand tucked beneath his chin. "I hate hospitals."

 

Jack folded his arms and leaned one hip on the mattress. "I don't think they rank high on anyone's list."

 

Daniel's eyelids drooped. "They remind me of social services. The dorm rooms all had metal-framed cots that looked like hospital beds."

 

Jack went still. Daniel never voluntarily talked about this aspect of his childhood. This was the concussion talking. Feeling guilty, he listened as his friend rambled on.

 

"There were eight of 'em to a room so you never got any privacy. Someone was always around to bug you, pick on you. Smelled like a hospital too, like disinfectants and puke." He yawned and his eyes slid all the way shut. "I hated it there. Cried every time I had to go back."

 

Throat tight, Jack patted one blanket-covered leg. "It's only for tonight, Danny. I promise I'll bust you outta here first thing in the morning."

 

Daniel didn't open his eyes, but his lips curved. "'K. Thanks, Jack."

 

"You're welcome."

 

He waited until Daniel's breathing evened out, then stood, careful not to jostle the mattress. Feeling a little foolish, he tucked the covers more securely around his friend's body.

 

"Good night, Daniel. Sweet dreams."

 

More than empty words, he meant it as a benediction. With a last glance at his friend's peaceful face, Jack headed off to his own bed.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hands in his pockets, Jack whistled as he strode briskly through the halls. The on-base cot hardly compared with his king-size bed, but he'd managed a solid five hours of sleep. Knowing Daniel would be anxious to escape Janet and her merciless angels, he'd donned yesterday's clothing and headed straight for the infirmary so as not to keep his friend waiting.

 

Daniel was dressed and sitting on the bed, legs dangling. Damp, spiky hair testified to a shower but Daniel's eyes looked sleepy and vague.

 

"Top of the morning to ya, Dannyboy," he chirped in his best Irish brogue. "And how are ya feelin' this fine mornin'?"

 

Daniel peered over the top of his glasses, surveying Jack's slightly rumpled appearance. A little line appeared between his brows. "Did you go home last night?"

 

"No. Why?"

 

Daniel blinked and looked away. "No reason."

 

Wait a minute. What exactly did that mean? Jack opened his mouth but Fraiser swooped down on them like a bird of prey. A small...white...bird of prey. Jack shook his head.

 

"Good morning, Colonel. Looks like you got some sleep."

 

He folded his arms. "What's that supposed to mean?"

 

Fraiser's eyebrows soared. "Ah...that you look rested?"

 

"Oh. Well, I am. Rested. Thank you." Jack made a face. "How's he?" He cocked his thumb at Daniel.

 

"I'm good. Real good." Daniel smiled. With teeth.

 

This time Jack's eyebrows crawled up his head. "Great! Glad to hear it."

 

"I just gave Dr. Jackson another shot for his headache. He probably should lie down once you get him home."

 

"Why? I feel fine." Daniel slid off the mattress but his knees buckled and he continued toward the floor.

 

Jack caught him by the arm and hauled him upright, steadying him before he let go. "Uh-huh. If it's all the same to you, I think I'll take the doc's word on this one."

 

Daniel snorted. "That's got to be a first."

 

Janet thrust a prescription bottle into Jack's hand as they followed Daniel's somewhat meandering path to the door. "Antibiotic. Make sure he takes it with food or I guarantee there will be puking at Chez O'Neill."

 

Jack grinned. "Gotcha."

 

"And don't let him get the stitches wet."

 

He waved acknowledgement, breaking into a jog until he caught up with his friend at the elevator. "Hey, where's the fire?"

 

Daniel wrapped his arms around himself and shrugged. "Just glad to get out of there, I guess. Something about the infirmary..." He shrugged again, flushing. "Well, I mean, who'd want to be cooped up in there, right?"

 

So he didn't remember last evening's confession. The elevator doors rumbled open and Jack followed him inside. "Yeah. I know what you mean."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jack leaned in the guestroom doorway, watching. Seeing.

 

Blinds shut against the late morning sunshine, the muted light revealed the signs Daniel had worked hard to conceal. He slept restlessly, body tense and limbs twitching as if demons hounded him even in dreams. His tee shirt had ridden up, exposing ribs no longer softened by healthy flesh and a waistband that hung alarmingly low on too-slim hips.

 

Jack backed out and quietly shut the door, descending the stairs with heavy feet. In the kitchen he tugged open the refrigerator and, after a longing look at the beer, pulled out the orange juice. Swigging directly from the carton--something Sara would never have allowed--he sat down at the table. He turned the container in his hands, thinking guiltily about his conversation with Daniel.

 

Stoned on Fraiser's pain meds, Daniel had fallen asleep three minutes after leaving the mountain, head tilted awkwardly against the passenger window, his breath fogging the glass. Jack had manhandled his sleepwalking archeologist into the house and up the stairs to the guest bedroom. Daniel had folded onto the mattress, allowing Jack to remove his shoes and tuck him beneath the blanket without complaint.

 

"Thanks, Jack," he'd slurred, grasping Jack's shirtsleeve with clumsy fingers. "You're a good friend. Best I ever had--not that I've had that many."

 

 Jack had patted the hand, amused by the uncharacteristic declaration from his normally reticent friend. He'd thought Daniel was chatty on alcohol. Give him a little codeine and he really spilled his guts...

 

Jack took another gulp of juice, grimacing. Which was when he'd identified his opportunity and, like a good special ops Colonel, taken full advantage of it...

 

Daniel was on the cusp of sleep, the relaxed, blurry state between awareness and unconsciousness, when Jack lowered himself to the mattress. Running his hand up and down Daniel's arm in a way he knew soothed his friend, he pitched his voice low and soft.

 

"Friends look out for each other, Daniel. And right now, I'm a little worried about you."

 

Daniel's eyes closed. "You don't have to worry 'bout me, Jack. Was just a little bump on the head."

 

Jack shook his head. "Not the concussion. I..." He chose his words carefully, keeping his tone unobtrusive. "I'm worried because I get the feeling you're hurting. Inside, where it doesn't show."

 

Daniel's lips curved. "Thought I was doing a pretty good job hiding it. Guess that's why you're the team leader."

 

"So tell me. What's going on in that head of yours?"

 

Daniel didn't speak for a long time. Just as Jack was convinced he'd fallen asleep, blue eyes cracked open and regarded him solemnly. "Can't figure out why I'm here."

 

Jack tapped his cheek when his eyelids started sliding shut. "You're here because SG-1 needs you. You're a valuable member of the team."

 

Daniel blinked glassy eyes and shook his head. "Not true. SG-1 needs soldiers who can bring back weapons, not a geek who gets all worked up over useless rocks."

 

Jack winced, hearing himself in the blunt dismissal. "You're invaluable as our point person for making first contact--"

 

A soft snort interrupted him. Daniel touched the bandage at his temple. "Yeah. I do a bang up job, don't I?" He sighed. "I want to make a difference, Jack. But I just wind up failing everyone who depends on me--Skaara, Sha're, her child."

 

"You did everything in your power to save Sha're, Danny."

 

"Wasn't good enough, was it? Kasuf lost his son and his daughter to the Goa'uld, thanks to me. I should come with a warning: Getting close to Daniel Jackson may be hazardous to your health."

 

"That's self-pity talking." Jack softened his harsh tone. "I've known you four years. You've never failed me."

 

"I will, though. Just a matter of time."

 

"You're in pain, Danny, and you're not thinking straight. Grief does that to you. It'll get better, I promise."

 

"I'm tired, Jack. Too tired to go through this again. If something happened to you, or Sam, or Teal'c..." Daniel's eyes fluttered shut and his words slurred. "'S why I shouldn't still be here. But I can't seem to let go..." His voice trailed off into the deep, even breaths of sleep...

 

Jack tightened his grip on the carton. Despite the guilt he felt for manipulating Daniel into talking, he didn't regret his actions. He'd learned more from a few minutes of Daniel's drugged ramblings than he'd have gleaned over days of probing.

 

Now came the hard part--deciding what to do. Daniel's emotional state was far more fragile than he had guessed. One misstep and the SGC would lose its premier archeologist. And Jack O'Neill would lose his best friend.

 

Both outcomes were completely unacceptable.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Hey."

 

Jack looked up from slicing vegetables, finding a tousled and still somewhat dazed Daniel standing in the kitchen doorway. He set down the knife and gestured to a chair.

 

"Sit. Are you thirsty?"

 

Daniel shuffled over and dropped into the seat, smothering a yawn. "Coffee?"

 

Jack snorted indelicately. "Nice try. Juice?"

 

Daniel wrinkled his nose. "Water."

 

Compromise reached, Jack filled a glass with ice and water, presenting it with a flourish. "You need your antibiotic, but not on an empty stomach. Soup should be ready in half an hour."

 

"'K." Daniel drank deeply, draining half the glass in one draught. He set it on the table with a contented sigh and scrubbed both hands over his face.

 

Jack reclaimed his knife and continued slicing carrots. "How's the headache?"

 

A little line appeared between Daniel's brows as he considered, then smoothed away. "Better. Much better."

 

"Glad to hear it."

 

"Me too. Janet's pain meds pack quite a punch. What time is it, anyway?"

 

"Almost five."

 

"*Five*?" Daniel's eyes darted to the window, taking in the deep shadows of impending twilight. "That can't...That means I slept--"

 

"Over six hours straight. Like a baby." Jack erased his smirk when he saw genuine dismay in Daniel's wide eyes and flushed cheeks. "You needed it, kiddo. Hey, I've bunked in the infirmary often enough, I know how it goes. Every time you drop off, one of Fraiser's minions is grabbing your wrist or sticking a thermometer in your mouth."

 

"You've got that right." Daniel sipped more water, scowling. "They wake you up out of a sound sleep, then tell you your pulse is racing. No shit, Sherlock."

 

Jack added his carrots to the pot, hiding a grin as he gave the soup a vigorous stir. Daniel's profanity always increased under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Some of Fraiser's happy shot must still be floating around in his system.

 

"More?" he asked, lifting the now empty glass from the tabletop.  When Daniel shook his head, Jack deposited the glass in the sink and joined his friend at the table.

 

Now for the hard part.

 

"Daniel... We need to talk."

 

Daniel stiffened, his relaxed sprawl turning rigid. "Talk?"

 

"Yeah, talk. You know, I say something to you, you listen, you say something back, I listen..." Jack grimaced when Daniel met his lame attempt at humor with a shuttered stare.

 

"About what?"

 

"I've been thinking about P28-779. About what happened before all hell broke loose and the welcome wagon started chucking rocks."

 

Daniel's tense posture eased and he leaned back in his chair. "I told you--they didn't understand, Jack. I tried to explain that we were peaceful explorers interested in learning about their culture, but they were convinced we meant to steal their food and harm their women and children."

 

"Yeah, I got that part. What I don't understand is why you didn't back off when it became obvious things were headed south. Even I could see you were getting nowhere, that they were becoming more and more riled up. Why did you keep pushing?"

 

Daniel looked at him with wary eyes. "You above all people are familiar with our prime objective. Sam's geological survey showed the planet held several major Trinium deposits. Successful first contact with those natives would have been extremely beneficial for the SGC." He shook his head. "Look, I'm sorry I wound up injured, but what's the big deal, Jack? This job can be hazardous to your health--we both know that."

 

"The 'big deal' is that lately it's always *your* health taking a hit. Too damn often for comfort."

 

Daniel slowly sat up. "What exactly are you saying?"

 

"You've been injured in four out of the last ten missions, Daniel."

 

"So?"

 

"*So*? That's forty percent! Are you honestly telling me you don't see a problem here?"

 

Daniel's voice was glacial. "Why don't you tell me, Jack? You seem to be the one with the agenda."

 

Jack curled his fingers into fists--it was the only way he could refrain from wrapping them around his archeologist's neck. "There's no agenda. I'm just trying to understand what's going on inside that head of yours."

 

"I'm doing my job. The one I was hired to do, the one General Hammond expects of me." He gritted his teeth. "The one my team leader expects of me."

 

"Bullshit! Hammond doesn't expect you to kill yourself, Daniel, and neither do I."

 

Silence. Daniel's face turned pale except for two bright spots of color burning in his cheeks.

 

"You...you think I'm *suicidal*?"

 

Jack blew out a gust of air, releasing his anger along with it. "I think you're a little lost right now, Danny. And a lot reckless." When Daniel looked away, blinking hard, he continued. "Grieving is a process. You can't expect that it will just disappear overnight.

It--"

 

Daniel laughed, a jagged, humorless sound. "I hardly need a lecture on grief, Jack. Practice makes perfect, after all."

 

"Daniel."

 

"What do you want from me?" Daniel turned hard, dry eyes on Jack's face. "C'mon, I know this has to be leading somewhere."

 

There was no way to soften the blow. Jack spit out the words like yanking off a band-aid.  "Continued participation on SG-1 is contingent on you talking to someone."

 

Daniel was white-lipped with fury. "I assume 'talking to someone' doesn't include you, Sam, or Teal'c."

 

"Someone from psych services. *Not* McKenzie," Jack quickly added.

Daniel nodded, face blank. "And if I decide to appeal this decree of yours? Maybe go over your head to the General?"

 

"Danny, this came from Hammond. I just got to deliver the news."

 

"I see." Daniel shoved back his chair and stood. "Call me when dinner is ready." He stalked out of the room.

 

Well, shit.

 

Jack gave the soup another stir, turned down the heat, and followed. He found Daniel on the roof, hugging himself against the chill air. Jack stood beside him, close enough that their shoulders brushed. Close enough to feel the tension thrumming through Daniel like electrical current.

 

"Sha're loved the stars."

 

Daniel's low, pained declaration took him by surprise. Jack looked at his friend's face, tipped toward the sky, but said nothing.

 

"She said they were the souls of loved ones who had passed on into the great beyond. That they watched over us like...like guardian angels."

 

"Nice."

 

"Why couldn't I just be content, Jack? If I'd done what I was supposed to do, left the 'gate buried... Sha're died because of my damn insatiable curiosity."

 

Jack shoved his hands in his pockets. "Daniel, your curiosity, your...sense of wonder, is what makes you the man you are. The man Sha're fell in love with. Trust me, she understood."

 

"I had everything," Daniel said, voice choked with unshed tears. "I had everything I ever wanted, Jack, and it just...it slipped through my fingers like sand."

 

"I know." The reply came out sandpaper rough. Jack fixed his own gaze on the night sky, not trusting himself to say more. He heard Daniel suck in a sharp breath as he recognized the full impact of his words.

 

"I'm sorry. I know you do."

 

Impressions flickered lightening-fast through his mind. Charlie's dimpled grin. Sara's silky soft skin. The coppery tang of blood. Bitter tears and recriminations. The smooth, cool, comforting weight of his gun.

 

He'd stood in Daniel's shoes, looked out at the same, bleak landscape. Sometimes it felt like a lifetime ago.

 

Sometimes it felt like yesterday.

 

"You know...someone once gave me hell for my willingness to die. Told me life was still worth living, despite my pain."

 

"Imagine that." Daniel's voice was flat, emotionless.

 

"Yeah, yeah. It pissed me off, too. But you know something? The pushy little bastard was right." Jack faced his friend. "I realize you're hurting. I'm here to tell you it *will* pass, Daniel. You still have a life here, with us, with SG-1."

 

"Do I?"

 

"Yes! Damn it, why would you even ask?"

 

"Why? Jack, we both know Hammond never wanted me on SG-1 in the first place! *You* are the only reason he allowed me to set foot through the 'gate.  You and Sha're." Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut. "Sha're is gone. All I have left is the promise I made. A promise no one is willing to help me keep."

 

Aw, hell. Jack clenched his teeth. "The child."

 

"The Harsesis. Offspring of two hosts, containing the genetic memory of the Goa'uld race." Daniel turned away from the disbelief on Jack's face. "Just another wild goose chase, huh, Jack? A delusion conjured by my inability to accept Sha're's death. Isn't that right?"

 

Jack flushed--he'd believed Daniel unconscious when he, Fraiser, and the General had had that discussion. "Daniel--"

 

"I can't really blame you. I know it sounds crazy. I probably wouldn't believe me either."

 

You would, though, Jack thought, studying Daniel's rigid back. You're too damn ready to believe. That's the problem.

 

"Whether I believe or not doesn't change the fact that you're needed on SG-1. Admit it, Daniel. Going through the 'gate hasn't just been about finding Sha're for a long time."

 

"Needed?" Daniel laughed, white puffs of vapor in the chill air.

 

"Yes, needed. We're a first contact team, Daniel. You're good at making nice with the natives, you're a walking encyclopedia of ancient cultures, you speak more languages than God..."

 

"You don't need someone who knows cultures and languages! You need someone well versed in weapons and defense technology. Someone you can depend on to watch your six and hold his own in a firefight if it all goes to hell. You need a soldier, Jack."

 

Jack put his hand on Daniel's shoulder. "Daniel, you're not the inept geek who conned his way through the 'gate four years ago. I've seen you in a firefight, buddy. You are a soldier."

 

Every muscle in Daniel's body turned to stone and Jack could barely hear his ragged response. "That's what I'm afraid of." He shrugged off Jack's grasp. "That soup must be just about ready. We'd better eat."

 

Conversation over. Heartsick, Jack followed him back into the house.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"It's another beautiful day, campers. We've got fresh air, sunshine--times two, and...trees. Lots of trees." Jack adjusted his sunglasses. "And according to the UAV, we've also got some totally awesome mineral deposits and a most excellent set of ruins about 6 clicks due south."

 

Carter rolled her eyes. "Colonel, have you been rediscovering the eighties with Teal'c?"

 

"Indeed." The Jaffa moved up beside them, staff weapon in hand. "O'Neill kindly provided me with many narly cultural samples of the time period. The dude rocks."

 

"Back atcha, big guy. Let's hit the road, kids. T, you take point. Carter, you're next. Daniel and I have your six."

 

Teal'c inclined his head and set off, Carter falling in behind. Jack trudged along beside his conspicuously silent archeologist, hating Daniel's ramrod straight back and blank, guarded expression.

 

Three weeks had passed since the conversation on his roof, but his concern for his friend had only grown. Oh, outwardly Daniel was the picture of cooperation, seeing Dr. Larson twice a week, eating regular meals, going home at a reasonable hour. Yeah, he had the General, and even Fraiser, pretty much buffaloed, certain he was on the road to recovery.

 

Jack wasn't fooled.

 

What little Larson could divulge without betraying patient confidentiality convinced Jack that his too-clever-by-far genius was manipulating the shrink to his advantage. Not to mention he was pretty damn sure Daniel only ate when he had an audience and took his laptop home with him.

 

The little shit.

 

Things had been decidedly frosty between them since that night. Not that Daniel was exactly being Chatty Cathy with Carter and Teal'c, but Jack bore the brunt of his reticence. Daniel stuck to business, refusing to be drawn in to the banter that so defined their friendship. It hurt, but Jack understood.

 

Daniel knew he knew. And he wasn't taking any chances.

 

Jack rested an arm on his P90 and pasted on a smile. "So, Daniel--"

 

"I know what you're doing, Jack."

 

Jack raised an eyebrow at the clipped tone. "You do?"

 

"You're screening the missions. We haven't visited an inhabited planet since P28-779."

 

//You're not the only one who knows how to work the system, Dannyboy.//

 

"You're right. I am."

 

Daniel stumbled, then rounded on Jack. "You admit it?"

 

"Hey, they say confession's good for the soul. Why don't you try it?"

 

Daniel scowled at him through narrowed eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"

 

Jack lowered his voice when he saw Carter turn her head. "There were conditions to your continued 'gate travel."

 

"That’s--I did what you asked. I'm seeing Larson twice a week, damn it!"

 

"Seeing. That's a good way to put it, Danny. 'Cause you're not doing much talking, are you?"

 

"That's completely unethical. He had no right--"

 

"Keep your pants on. He hasn't given me any more than the required progress report."

 

"Then how--"

 

"You're my best friend. I know you." When Daniel just continued to snarl, Jack huffed. "Fine. Tell me, Daniel. Look me in the eye and tell me you've been straight with Larson. Your word is good enough for me."

 

Daniel hesitated for a moment before his eyes slid away and he pressed his lips together.

 

Jack sighed. "Yeah. That's pretty much what I thought."

 

"O'Neill." Teal'c materialized at his side, Carter close on his heels. "Strangers approach. Their footfalls suggest they number at least eight, most likely warriors. I suggest we conceal ourselves immediately."

 

Jack had stopped questioning how the Jaffa could detect so much from so little. "Go."

 

They moved into the underbrush, withdrawing far enough from the path to hide yet still maintain surveillance. Within seconds the forest went still, birds and small creatures silenced by the rhythmic tramping of booted feet. Jack cautiously lifted his head and peered through a gap in the leaves. Every muscle in his body tensed. Teal'c, crouching at his elbow, hissed.

 

"Jaffa."

 

Eight armored warriors marched in perfect formation, heads held high and staff weapons clutched in their hands. Jack watched until their footfalls faded. A bird warbled, followed by another and then the drone of cicadas. He slowly stood, brushing bits of dirt and leaves from his BDUs.

 

"What in the hell is a platoon of Jaffa doing on this planet?"

 

"I cannot say. But I believe it would behoove us to find out."

 

He looked sharply at Teal'c, but the warrior's stone face revealed nothing. "Carter?"

 

She picked a twig from her hair. "I can't explain it, Sir. The UAV readouts didn't show anything that might attract the Goa'uld to this location."

 

"Newsflash, Carter. They're here." Jack hesitated, biting his lip. "Teal'c is right. We need to know what they're up to, not to mention which snakehead we're dealing with. I couldn't make out whose mark they wore."

 

"Nor I."

 

"All right, let's do a little recon, see if we can answer some of these burning questions. Teal'c?"

 

The Jaffa inclined his head and moved off, skirting the path and winding his way easily through the tangled groundcover, trees and bushes. Jack motioned Carter and Daniel to follow and brought up the rear.

 

Jack watched Daniel keep pace with Teal'c, weaving through the trees. Swift, graceful, almost as silent as the Jaffa. Daniel didn't move like an archeologist, he moved like a soldier. Unbidden, his friend's hunched shoulders and choked voice echoed through Jack's thoughts.

 

//That's what I'm afraid of.//

 

Jack shoved the memory aside and focused on covering his teammates' backs.

 

They followed the warriors past the gate and on through a seemingly endless stretch of trees as the planet's two suns rose higher and the temperature crept from comfortably warm to blistering hot. Despite the trees' shade, sweat stung their eyes, trickled down their backs, and glistened on Teal'c's head.

 

Eventually the ground became rockier, gradually sloping upward, scrubby bushes and tall grasses replacing the trees. They crested a rise and Teal'c dropped to his belly, gesturing for the others to do likewise. Jack crawled past Carter and Daniel, settling in beside the Jaffa.

 

Before him the ground dropped sharply away into a huge, bowl-shaped crater devoid of vegetation. Nestled into the depression, gleaming in the sunshine, rested a Goa'uld tel'tak. The Jaffa they'd been tracking had scrambled halfway down the steep slope, hailing several of their counterparts who were walking the perimeter.

 

"Well, lookee what we have here," Jack murmured, slapping at a particularly persistent mosquito--or the planet's equivalent. "Someone threw a party and didn't invite us."

 

"Heru'ur." Daniel squinted at one of the guards through glasses that insisted upon sliding down his nose.

 

"Daniel Jackson is correct."

 

"Which still doesn't explain why they're here."

 

"It may be they seek to acquire raw materials or weapons undetected by our instrumentation," Teal'c said.

 

"It's also possible their presence has nothing to do with the planet itself, Sir," Carter countered. "They could have set down for engine repairs, or even to evade pursuit."

 

"Except...that patrol we nearly ran into was an awful long way from the ship," Daniel said slowly. "And coming from the direction of Sam's mineral deposits."

 

"As well as your ruins, Daniel Jackson."

 

Jack tugged off his cap and mopped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. Carter, Teal'c, you circle around to the north, Daniel and I will head south. The objective is to gather any information that will clue us in to why a remote, unpopulated planet is currently a Jaffa hotspot. Don't, I repeat *do not* break cover or approach the ship. We're outnumbered and isolated; we can't afford discovery. We'll meet back here in one hour."

 

Sam and Teal'c nodded in acknowledgement, and within seconds vanished into the tall grass. Jack followed the crater's rim as it curved in a gentle arc. His knees ached and his tee shirt, drenched with perspiration, stuck uncomfortably to his chest and back. The furtive rustle of small animals, a half-obscured trail of footprints, even the subtle odor of the man following on his heels, all filtered through senses hyper-attuned to danger.

 

Occasionally one of the patrolling Jaffa would wander uncomfortably close to their position. Each time, Jack dropped to his belly, cheek pressed to the rocky soil, until fading footsteps signaled danger had passed. Jack was pleased that in every instance Daniel's response instantly and without hesitation mirrored his own.

 

When had Daniel changed from a well-intentioned, slightly oblivious geek into a competent soldier?  Jack knew it had been a gradual transformation, born of necessity and even desperation. Physically, Daniel had evolved, developing a warrior's skills to protect himself and his teammates. Mentally and emotionally, however, he still agonized over what he'd become.

 

After nearly fifteen minutes of the nerve-wracking, back-breaking trek, Daniel latched onto his arm and pulled him up short. He guided Jack to the very edge of the drop-off, gingerly parting the weeds standing like a curtain between them and the ship. Thrusting his chin, he urged Jack to take a look.

 

Four or five Jaffa clustered around a huge, charred hole in the tel'tak's bulkhead. One was using something that looked amazingly like a blowtorch on the jagged edges, while the others propped several large sheets of metal against the hull.

 

"Guess Carter wins the door prize," Jack said, sotto voce. He watched the activity for a moment longer, then hooked his thumb over his shoulder and they both eased back from the crater's edge. "We've got our answer. Let's get out of here."

 

"So they set down to make repairs," Daniel murmured as they began retracing their steps. "It's just coincidence they picked this planet."

 

Jack huffed under his breath. "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world..."

 

Behind him, Daniel spluttered, then whispered with clear delight, "Casablanca, Jack?"

 

"Bogie, Daniel. 'Nuff said."

 

Jack crawled along, spine aching, knees twanging. Senses still on alert, he let his brain puzzle through the best way to get them all safely through the 'gate without bringing a herd of Jaffa down on their heads. Damn them anyway--couldn't they have picked the next planet on the block?

 

Three quarters of the way back to the rendezvous point a twig snapped, then a shower of pebbles tumbled down the incline. He went to ground, body still as stone, barely breathing. Faintly sensing Daniel's warmth along his right leg, he listened for the familiar sound of retreating Jaffa.

 

Two boots appeared before his eyes. Jack let his gaze travel up long legs to an armor-clad torso and finally the scowling face. "Hi there."

 

The Jaffa's lip curled and he glanced over his shoulder. "Tau'ri."

 

Which was when Jack noticed the second warrior with his staff weapon pressed against Daniel's back.

 

Shit.

 

Jack's Jaffa--damn, that was so not what he wanted for Christmas--delivered a brutal kick to his ribs that flipped him onto his back and nearly sent him tumbling down the dropoff. "Tau'ri. Kree!"

 

Pain knifed through his chest and he heard an ominous snap. Instinctively curling into a ball, Jack gulped for air. Rough hands stripped his P90 from his back and flung it aside, found and confiscated his knife, as black spots danced on the edges of his vision.

 

He rolled onto his hands and knees, searching for Daniel. His friend was getting to his feet, hands raised, babbling something in Goa'uld. Jack saw his Jaffa's head snap around, drawn by the unexpected sound of his own language. Daniel's warrior looked equally startled; the upraised staff weapon dipped slightly.

 

"Daniel, now!" Jack launched himself, curling both arms around his Jaffa's lower legs as he body slammed into the warrior.

 

He got in several hard punches before the Jaffa rallied. Fists knotted in his shirt and suddenly he was sailing through the air. He hit the ground with bone-rattling force and the ache in his ribs blossomed to agony. He sucked in a breath before the Jaffa was on him, fists pummeling his head, sides, and abdomen like pistons.

 

Time slowed to a series of snapshot impressions.

 

Scuffling, and the thud of fists on flesh. Daniel's pained grunts. The Jaffa's grinning face. The smell of sweat. Hot, loathsome breath. His heart hammering double-time.

 

Ears ringing and vision blurring, Jack flung out one hand, desperately scrabbling for his gun. His fingers bumped something hard and round. Forcing them closed, he gritted his teeth and swung his arm upward with all his remaining strength.

 

A sickening crack as the rock connected with the Jaffa's skull. The warrior's eyes flew wide open, then glazed, as blood gushed and poured down his face. Two hundred pounds crashed onto Jack, a dead weight.

 

Jack struggled under the suffocating pressure, finally rolling the limp Jaffa off. He hauled himself upright, squinting. Daniel and the other Jaffa, locked in a furious contest for the staff weapon, wavered and swam before his eyes, as if underwater. The warrior brought the weapon sharply upward, clipping Daniel hard on the side of his head. Daniel staggered, arms pinwheeling, fighting to regain balance. The Jaffa bellowed in triumph, priming the staff as he aimed for Daniel's chest.

 

"Daniel!"

 

Without stopping to think, Jack flung his body between Daniel and the weapon. He heard a high-pitched whine, felt a blast of white-hot agony. Then someone, mercifully, turned out the lights.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"...work with me...do this alone...help..."

 

He needed to puke.

 

Jack forced leaden eyelids open, then slammed them shut against the topsy-turvy riot of shapes and colors. He was bouncing up and down, head swaying, arm dangling. Everything hurt--ground glass filled his gut, his shoulder burned fire, his skull had obviously cracked wide open and, oh yeah. He really needed to puke.

 

"...crazy. I mean, what the hell were you thinking, Jack? You're lucky you're not dead, although if I can't find someplace to hide--"

 

"Down."

 

The word came out as a groan, but Daniel caught on. The nauseating motion stopped, and a moment later he felt solid ground at his back. He floundered; his uncooperative limbs would not allow him to turn on his side. Strong arms lifted him, supporting him as wave after wave of paroxysms rolled through his stomach. Each spasm further tormented his gut, his arm, his head.

 

When he finally stopped heaving Jack collapsed against Daniel's chest, limp as a rag doll. "That...was disgusting."

 

"I hope this means you're back with me, Jack, because I could really use your help." Daniel's hoarse voice trembled as he held his canteen to Jack's lips.

 

Jack swallowed two mouthfuls, coughing, then groaning. He averted his gaze from the bloody, charred flesh of his shoulder, staring up at overhanging branches. "Where?"

 

"How the hell should I know?" Daniel sucked in a deep breath. "I got us back to the trees but we're cut off from the 'gate. We need to keep moving, Jack, they've got patrols out looking for us."

 

"Carter and Teal'c?"

 

"I'm not sure. I managed to radio Sam, told her to go for reinforcements. We were cut off--I have no way of knowing if they made it."

 

"Need...cover."

 

"Yeah, I know. Think you can move?"

 

"Piece of cake."

 

Jack couldn't bite back a cry of pain when Daniel dragged him to his feet. His knees buckled and he sagged against his friend, panting.

 

"Sorry, sorry." Daniel tugged Jack's arm more securely across his shoulders, his breath wheezing in Jack's ear.

 

"You okay?"

 

"Compared to you, I'm terrific." Daniel set off through the trees, half dragging, half carrying Jack. "Throwing yourself in front of a staff weapon, Jack?"

 

Jack chuckled, quickly regretting it when pain spiked through his already abused stomach. "Little trick learned...from a friend."

 

The fingers curled around his waist tightened and Daniel swallowed hard. "Sounds like an idiot."

 

"He grows on ya."

 

They fell silent, Jack hurting too much to talk and Daniel pouring all his flagging energy into moving them forward. Jack tried to help, but his feet kept getting tangled up and his knees had a mind of their own. Sweat poured off his body and his tongue felt three sizes too large for his mouth. Everything faded to a green blur as his eyelid fluttered and his chin dropped to his chest.

 

Something thumped against his back, pulling him from his stupor. He craned his head, ignoring Daniel's irritated hiss.

 

"Got...P90?"

 

Daniel lifted his free arm, swiping at the rivulets of sweat trickling into his eyes. For the first time Jack realized his friend's glasses were missing, his face contorted into a perpetual squint. He breathed in short, sharp pants and his muscles vibrated with fatigue.

 

"Got it. Would've taken...staff too, but...couldn't carry both of you."

 

"Jaffa?"

 

"Dead."

 

Jack swallowed a flood of questions, hearing the ragged edge of exhaustion in Daniel's terse reply. He pulled himself upright, teeth gritted against the pain, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

 

The brief burst of energy didn't last long. His limbs turned leaden and his eyes insisted on sliding shut. Lulled by Daniel's seductive strength, he slipped into a gray place--neither asleep nor awake, but a little bit of both.

 

Abruptly, he pitched forward. Jack gasped, eyes flying open and body stiffening as he seemed to plunge face first toward the ground. He got a vague perception of walls pressing inward and increasing darkness. Pushing with rubbery legs, he tried to uncurl his back. The band around his waist tightened, forcing him down as easily as if he were a small child.

 

"Damn it, Jack, quit fighting!"

 

Daniel's breathless admonition cut through the confusion. Blinking, the constriction around his waist resolved into Daniel's arm. He kept his head down, turning it slightly to assess his surroundings. Solid rock, above, to both sides, and beneath his feet. Four more steps and the passage opened up into a small, oblong chamber, the stale air damp and cool. A cave.

 

Thank God.

 

Daniel stumbled, staggered as he struggled to keep his feet. "Got to...got to set you down, Jack."

 

Then they were falling, a controlled, sliding descent down one of the smooth walls. Jack groaned as his butt hit the floor, shock waves rippling through his head, shoulder and gut.

 

"Ah...God." He breathed through his mouth, tamping down the urge to vomit.

 

"Sorry. Sorry, Jack, I... So tired." Daniel's breathy voice broke on the apology.

 

Clenching his teeth against the pain, Jack slid his hand across the floor. Curling his fingers around Daniel's arm, he squeezed. "I'm okay...I...I'm okay."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Jack. Jack, I need you to wake up."

 

Jack blinked and Daniel's face slowly slid into focus. Daniel's brows drew together, worry lines etching his forehead and the corners of his eyes. A spectacular bruise was blooming on his right cheek, and blood trailed down the side of his face.

 

"'M up, 'm up. Ah--shit." Jack grimaced as pain returned on the heels of awareness.

 

Daniel pressed a hand to Jack's chest. "Don't move. Just tell me where you're hurt."

 

"Everywhere."

 

Daniel rolled his eyes, but looked worried rather than exasperated. "Could you be a bit more specific?"

 

"You want a list? Fine. Probable concussion, couple a cracked ribs, a superficial staff burn to the shoulder. Happy?"

 

A little of the tension seeped out of Daniel's body. He helped Jack unbutton and remove his fatigue shirt, easing it carefully off the injured shoulder. After a moment's consideration, he pulled out a knife and cut away the tee shirt. "Not happy, Jack. I can't predict how long we'll have to wait before Sam and Teal'c bring the cavalry and all I've got is the med kit from my pack. Minor injuries I can handle but..."

 

//Anything serious and I'm screwed.//

 

Which was precisely why he had no intention of telling Daniel about the sullen ache deep in his abdomen. He'd been around the block a few times, enough to recognize when something was busted inside. He watched Daniel open the med kit, fumbling antibiotic cream and bandages with shaking hands. Best to keep his friend in the dark for as long as possible. If Jack was hemorrhaging internally, there was nothing Daniel could do but agonize over it.

 

Pain lanced through his shoulder.

 

"Ow! Damn it, Daniel! Take it easy!"

 

"Sorry." Daniel's cheeks were pasty white, a stark contrast to the dark red blood. He continued spreading cream over the charred flesh, biting hard on his lower lip. "I know I'm not very good at this. I wish Sam was here, too."

 

Jack laughed, then choked. "Carter's no...angel of mercy... She sucks...at this."

 

"Jack!" Daniel's tone was reproachful, but his hands steadied. After a moment he quietly asked, "Really?"

 

"I'm lucky...I've still got my leg. Thought she was gonna...twist it off."

 

Daniel's lips twitched as he covered the wound with gauze pads. Jack waited a beat.

 

"'Course...she's a heck of a lot...better looking."

 

Success! Daniel chuffed a weak laugh. "That's gratitude for you." He finished bandaging the wound and sat back on his heels. "I'm not sure what to do about your ribs."

 

"Rip that...into strips." Jack gestured to his tee shirt. "Wrap around...chest. Helps stabilize...breathe easier."

 

Jack tipped his head back against the wall, closed his eyes, and concentrated on pulling air into his lungs. Now that the adrenaline rush had dissipated, the pain was unbearable. All he wanted was to sleep, to escape for a little while, but he couldn't let go just yet. He looked at Daniel.

 

"What happened back there?"

 

Daniel's face closed off. He began tying the cotton strips together, focusing on the task and evading Jack's gaze. "I thought we covered that already. You did something incredibly stupid and got zapped for your trouble."

 

"Yeah, that much...I got. It's the rest that's...a bit fuzzy."

 

"Hold this." Daniel pressed one end of the strips to Jack's chest. When Jack anchored it in place, he began wrapping the material snugly around Jack's ribcage.

 

"So, I--ah! Not so...so tight." Jack puffed for breath until the pain eased. "I repeat--what happened?"

 

"I took out the Jaffa who shot you, threw you over my shoulder, and ran like hell."

 

Jack watched his friend through narrowed eyes. Daniel's voice was strained, his manner uncomfortable. He was omitting something important.

 

"Took out? How?"

 

Daniel tied off the makeshift bindings and sat back on his heels. He mopped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve, inadvertently smearing fresh blood down his cheek. "It's not pretty, but it should help."

 

"Daniel."

 

"Jack?"

 

Jack sighed, grabbing hold of his friend's wrist when Daniel started dabbing at Jack's split lip. "How did you take out the Jaffa?"

 

Daniel's shoulders curled inward. "I, ah... I grabbed your P90 while he was focused on you. I shot him." He looked away, jaw clenched. "And when the other one started waking up, I shot him, too."

 

Bingo. Now things were beginning to make sense.

 

"You had no choice." Jack squeezed his friend's arm until Daniel gasped and looked him in the eye. "You saved my life. Thank you."

 

"Yeah, well, you'd just done the whole swan dive thing. I couldn't let you show me up."

 

Jack released his grip. "Are you all right?"

 

"I'm fine." Daniel dabbed at the lip again.

 

Jack cursed when the antiseptic burned. "Ow! Enough, Daniel. Just..." He gentled his tone. "Give me a break and take care of yourself, okay?"

 

"I told you, Jack. I'm fine."

 

"Really?" Jack ran his index finger down the side of Daniel's face and showed his friend.

 

Daniel's jaw dropped and he instinctively brought his hand up. When he felt the sticky blood, he grimaced. "Guess he hit me harder than I thought."

 

"Ya think?"

 

Jack leaned back against the wall, watching through slitted eyes as Daniel awkwardly cleaned the gash that was concealed by the hair just above his ear. When he'd bandaged the wound as best he could, Daniel collapsed beside Jack and passed him the canteen and some Tylenol.

 

The first mouthful slipped down his throat, deliciously wet and cool, reawakening the sleeping giant of his thirst. Jack chugged several more gulps before common sense kicked in. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he tried to return the canteen.

 

Daniel blocked the attempt, gesturing for Jack to take another drink. "Go ahead. I'm fine."

 

Jack couldn't resist a few more swallows. He licked his lips as he pressed the canteen firmly into Daniel's hands. "Go on. You hauled me at least a couple miles in that sauna out there. You must be thirsty."

 

Daniel took a few anemic sips, shrugging when Jack frowned. "I had some earlier, when you were still pretty out of it. Besides, you need it more. Puking dehydrates you."

 

"Thank you so much for that reminder, Dr. Jackson."

 

"You're welcome."

 

"You should head back to the 'gate." Jack's tongue felt thick and clumsy. He forced his heavy eyelids open. "Find Sam and Teal'c."

 

"I'm not leaving you alone. Besides, the woods are swarming with Jaffa." Daniel's cool fingers touched his cheek. "You want to lie down?"

 

Jack shook his head, regretting it when the world dipped and spun. "Sit up. Breathe easier." Waves of darkness lapped at the edges of his vision; he let his eyes flutter shut. "Jus'...gimme a minute. Need a minute."

 

Daniel's voice sounded hollow, as if he were speaking from the end of a long tunnel. "Sleep, Jack. I got your six."

 

He wanted to argue but another wave rolled in and swept him away.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Pain. Everywhere. Even his damn hair hurt.

 

Jack pried open sticky eyelids. He was curled on his uninjured side, Daniel's pack and a thermal blanket tucked under his head. The cool stone chilled him to the bone, raising gooseflesh on his arms and stiffening already abused muscles. The cave was bathed in deep shadows now; he could barely make out his hand in front of his face.

 

Jack pushed himself upright, groaning. His shoulder burned, the dull ache in his gut blossomed into razor-sharp agony, and someone was playing a drum solo in his head. Jack folded over, arms clutching his stomach.

 

"Daniel?"

 

Was that weak, pathetic croak his voice? Jack gritted his teeth and eased back against the wall, panting as if he'd run a marathon. Shivers wracked his body, but the blanket now lay tantalizingly out of reach.

 

"Danny?"

 

The name echoed off the walls, hollow and empty. Where was he? Jack hugged himself more tightly and ran his tongue over dry, cracked lips. God, he was thirsty. Forget Daniel. Where the heck was the canteen?

 

He squinted against meager light and blurry vision, finally locating the precious container about five feet from his right boot. Jack closed his eyes. Might as well be five hundred feet. No way in hell could he make it that far.

 

Five minutes passed. Then ten. Jack stared at the faint outline of the canteen, no longer able to summon enough spit to wet his lips. The thirst eclipsed even his worry for Daniel, though the anxiety was always there, like a pesky dog nipping at his heels. He tried focusing on other things, but hockey stats led to pizza, pizza to ice cold bottles of beer, and he was right back where he started.

 

Fifteen minutes.

 

Jaw clenched, he gingerly inched away from the wall, scooting on his butt. Despite his care, fire licked its way up his arm, across his chest and kindled in his gut. He froze, gulping air, and glared at the flask.

 

//Damn it, Daniel! Where *are* you?//

 

Flexing his foot, he used the toe of his boot to hook the canteen's strap. Eventually, after many near misses, he snagged the strip of canvas and slowly dragged it toward his outstretched hand. It moved a few inches, then slithered off his foot and the canteen rolled even farther away.

 

Something inside Jack snapped. With a growl he dragged himself up on his knees and lunged for the object of his torment...

 

...Collapsing in a heap when his wobbly arms refused to bear his weight. The pain, too enormous for his brain to process, exploded into brilliant, multi-colored sparks behind his eyes. He clung to consciousness by a thread, dimly aware of wetness leaking from his eyes and rough stone beneath his cheek.

 

Then, abruptly, hands were tugging at his body; a voice babbling in his ear. Daniel's hands and Daniel's voice. Everything turned head over heels, fresh agony flared, and bile rose in his throat. Clamping his lips shut, Jack groaned, too far gone to care about anything other than making the pain stop.

 

Oh God, please make it stop.

 

Gradually, the world stabilized and his distress settled into a steady, throbbing ache. Words filtered through the roaring in his ears.

 

"...only supposed to be gone a few minutes...so sorry...Jaffa...couldn't get back..."

 

"Water."

 

He heard cursing in Abydonian, then something nudged his lips. Jack opened his mouth, whimpering when water dribbled onto his tongue and then disappeared.

 

"Easy, Jack. Nice and slow or it's going to come back up."

 

He felt like indulging in a few curses of his own, but his mouth was too busy slurping down the water Daniel doled out in miserly drips. Thirst finally slaked, he let his head fall back with a sigh.

 

For the first time he realized yielding warmth rather than unforgiving stone cushioned his back. A pale shaft of moonlight spilled through the cave's opening, providing just enough illumination for Jack to see the long legs bracketing his own. He tentatively explored a band of warmth draped across his chest, his clumsy fingers brushing Daniel's arm.

 

Jack stiffened, face heating when he realized Daniel was cradling him against his body. "Sure hope...that's your sidearm."

 

"Shut up, Jack."

 

Daniel's words, laced with exasperation, put Jack at ease. Daniel's heart thudded rapidly against Jack's spine and occasional tremors vibrated through his limbs.  Realizing Daniel needed the contact as much as he, Jack relaxed into the firm embrace, soaking up the tiny bit of comfort amidst the overwhelming pain.

 

"Where the hell...were you?"

 

"Doing a little recon. Everything seemed quiet. I was hoping the Jaffa had pulled back, that we might be able to make it to the 'gate." Daniel sucked in a shaky breath. "I'm sorry, Jack. I thought it would only take a few minutes, that I'd be back before you woke up."

 

"I take it...still out there."

 

Jack felt Daniel nod, his chin grazing the top of Jack's head. "I went too far, got cut off from the cave. All I could do was hide and wait for them to move on. I never should have left you alone like that, Jack. I thought...I didn't expect..."

 

He squeezed Daniel's arm, cutting off the tumbled flow of words. "Hey. You're doing...best you can. So far I'd say it's been...pretty damn good."

 

"Not good enough."

 

"Daniel."

 

"Jack." Daniel's body tensed and his voice vibrated emotion. "When were you going to tell me?"

 

Crap. Daniel was too darn observant for his own good. He so did not want to discuss this.

 

"Tell you what?"

 

"Don't! Just...cut the bullshit, okay? You're hurt worse than you let on. How bad is it?"

 

He hurt too damn much to argue. The pain was wearing him down, eating him from the inside out. Jack scrubbed a hand over his face. "Pretty bad."

 

"Internal bleeding?"

 

Jack ached at Daniel's even, carefully controlled tone. His friend was trying so hard, doing everything he could to hold them together and keep them safe. Daniel's emotional state was fragile before this train wreck of a mission. If Jack didn't make it, if Sam and Teal'c didn't find them in time...

 

"How did you figure it out?"

 

"Just now, when I picked you up off the floor... I grabbed you around the waist and..."

 

Oh God. Daniel's voice broke and Jack heard quick, shallow breathing as he fought to suppress tears.

 

"Daniel, I--"

 

"You screamed. It was like I'd stuck a knife in your belly, I...I nearly dropped you. I didn't know, I...I...If I made things worse--"

 

"You didn't."

 

Daniel sniffled. When he spoke again, anger had crept into his words. "Why didn't you tell me?"

 

"Knew you'd worry. Nothing you can do. Needed you to...keep your mind...on taking care of business."

 

"Yeah, well, taking care of business requires me knowing any and all weaknesses that might impact our chances for survival. You should have told me, Jack."

 

Jack smiled. He much preferred a feisty, pissed-off Daniel. "You're right. I'm sorry."

 

Daniel huffed, but let the matter drop. Jack heard rustling paper and a moment later Daniel pressed something into his hand. He ran his fingers over the rough, slightly sticky surface. A power bar.

 

"Try to eat," Daniel mumbled around a mouthful. "I don't dare start a fire. The light could draw them right to us. This will have to do."

 

Jack sniffed the bar, nose wrinkling. "Not sure...I can."

 

"You have to eat to keep up your strength. First rule of survival."

 

Jack blinked, lips curving. "Where'd ya hear...that crap?"

 

Daniel laughed silently, soft puffs of breath ruffling Jack's hair. "From one of those hardass military types."

 

"Figures." Wrinkling his nose, Jack nibbled on the bar. After three bites he dropped it and breathed slowly through his mouth.

 

Daniel's fingers brushed his forehead. "You okay?"

 

"Can't... Any more goes down...'s comin' back up."

 

"Here." The canteen touched his lips.

 

Jack drank, remembering to take small sips. Sunset had brought some relief, but the elevated temperature, humidity, and lack of airflow left the cave stifling. Though still thirsty, he passed the canteen back to Daniel.

 

"Water's getting low."

 

Daniel capped the canteen and set it within easy reach. "I know. That's part of the reason I ventured so far from the cave. I was hoping I'd find a creek or maybe a lake."

 

"Did you?"

 

"No."

 

Silence stretched between them. Jack stared at the anemic puddle of moonlight and listened to the soothing song of crickets and tree frogs. Daniel's soft voice startled him.

 

"It's not just about losing Sha're."

 

It took a moment for Jack's lethargic brain to catch up. "I know."

 

He did. Daniel had loved Sha're deeply--you'd have had to be blind not to see it. But she'd given Daniel so much more than companionship and affection. Family. Stability. A sense of belonging. Apophis had not only robbed Daniel of his wife; he'd stolen his dream.

 

"I'm not the person I thought I'd be." Daniel sounded bewildered. "I... Jack, how did I end up here?"

 

"You got in the car...with a stranger. Didn't anyone ever...warn you about that?"

 

"I'm serious."

 

"Hell, Daniel. You think I'm where...I thought I'd be?"

 

"You dedicated your life to the service of your country. You're 2IC at the mountain, leader of the SGC's flagship team--"

 

He was getting pissed off now, pain and exhaustion wearing away his patience. "My kid shot himself with my gun...and my wife left me. Trust me--this isn't the life...I had planned."

 

Daniel's breath caught in his chest. "Sorry."

 

Damn. The last thing he wanted was to contribute to Daniel's stockpile of guilt. Jack gripped the arm clasped across his chest.

 

"Don't apologize. You have every right...to grieve. God knows...I have."

 

"All those years being passed around like some kind of hand-me-down. Of feeling invisible, like I could disappear and...and no one would notice. I promised myself that they were wrong. That I did matter. I was going to do big things. Make a difference. Show them all."

 

Daniel chuckled, a bitter, jagged sound. "I showed them, all right. I'm the laughing stock of the archeological community. A joke to my peers. I'm a failure, Jack."

 

"You killed Ra. Saved the Abydonian people...from a life of slavery."

 

"But I couldn't save my own wife."

 

What could he possibly say to that? Jack closed his eyes in resignation, but Sha're's face intruded. Sha're--hell and spitfire concealed beneath a deceptively fragile beauty. Jack harbored no doubts that Daniel's wife never blamed him for her fate. By Daniel's own account, she'd reached out to him even at the moment of her death.

 

"Sha're didn't think...you were a failure. She never stopped...believing in you. She trusted you...to find her child. Right?"

 

Daniel didn't speak for a long time. When he did, his voice was thick. "So?"

 

"So the least you can do...is honor that trust."

 

"Yeah? And how am I supposed to do that?"

 

"Believe in yourself." Jack waited a beat. "I do."

 

"You're lying in a cave, surrounded by Jaffa, bleeding to death. How can you possibly trust me?"

 

"For cryin' out loud, Daniel! I'm still breathing...thanks to you. Cut yourself...some slack."

 

Jack ground his teeth together and bit back a groan as needle-sharp spasms tore through his gut. Hammond was always saying his temper would be the death of him. Right now that prediction felt a little too close to the mark.

 

"You really do trust me?" The soft question held a glimmer of hope. "You're not just saying what you think I want to hear?"

 

Jack snorted, grimacing. "Me?"

 

"I see your point." Daniel must have felt the tension in Jack's body. To Jack's surprise, his normally undemonstrative friend began rubbing soothing circles over Jack's heart. "I'll get you out of here, Jack," he vowed, weariness blurring the words. "Everything's gonna be all right."

 

Daniel's cheek settled against the crown of Jack's head and his stroking hand slowed, then ceased. Jack battled heavy eyelids, his limbs weighted and his head stuffed with cotton. One of them needed to keep watch, and Daniel had been going nonstop since they'd stepped through the 'gate. If he could just stay awake an hour or two, long enough for Daniel to get his second wind...

 

The weight of Daniel's arm and the steady puff of his breath lulled Jack into slumber.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

A sharp crack and then heat stung his cheek. His eyes flew open and he sucked in a noisy gulp of air. A hand clamped over his mouth, smothering the harsh, grating coughs that immediately followed. Jack gazed up into huge blue eyes, words gradually seeping past the ragged sounds of his own breathing.

 

"...quit on me now, damn you, just breathe! That's it, nice and deep..."

 

Jack blinked, but everything swam in and out of focus. A cool breeze ruffled his sweat-damp hair, and he suddenly realized there were stars overhead and a tree root digging into his back.

 

"Where...?"

 

Just getting his lips to work took effort; the question emerged as little more than a puff of air. The agony in his shoulder and belly had receded; his body felt heavy and numb. He didn't even realize he'd closed his eyes until Daniel slapped him again.

 

"Don't you dare fade out on me. I'm getting us out of here and you're going to hang on while I do." Daniel's hushed voice sounded strained. "That's an order, Jack."

 

He smiled, feeling punch drunk and more than a little dizzy. "I'm...Colonel. I give...orders."

 

"Yeah, well there's been a mutiny. I'm in charge now."

 

"'K." His eyes started sliding closed. He vaguely remembered Daniel saying something about that but he was too tired to worry about it.

 

"Damn it, Jack."

 

He was tugged up and then hoisted into the air. Jack snapped back to consciousness when his body impacted something hard, his rudely awakened nerve endings screaming their protest. His face pressed into something soft, muffling his involuntary moan. Jack snuffled, smelling sweat and Daniel.

 

"Wha...?" He couldn't seem to lift his head and his arm thumped bonelessly against Daniel's chest. His friend was moving stealthily through the trees, Jack curled across his shoulders.

 

"Shhh. Just be still and don't fight me. You're going to bring a bunch of Jaffa down on us."

 

"Wait...help."

 

"We can't wait."

 

Jack licked his lips, shutting his eyes against the nauseating up and down motion. "Not...safe."

 

"Screw safe. You wouldn't wake up, Jack." Daniel's fingers clamped down on Jack's arm and leg and his voice broke. "You're dying, you stupid bastard. I'm not going to sit around and watch it happen."

 

Dying? Was he? He caught himself nodding off even as he considered the question. The creeping numbness was seductive--he was so damn tired of hurting. Jack distantly felt his head sink more heavily onto Daniel's shoulder. Drifting...

 

As if in a dream, he saw Daniel stagger, legs quivering with exhaustion. Heard the hornet's buzz of a staff weapon just before sparks rained down around his friend. He watched Daniel crash to the ground, rolling Jack's limp form off his shoulders and fumbling for the P90. Saw his own body, sprawled motionless amongst the dirt and dead leaves.

 

Felt...nothing.

 

//Dad?//

 

Jack spun around, heart pounding. Daniel, the Jaffa--even his own battered and failing body faded from existence as he stared down at the fingers tugging the hem of his shirt.

 

//Charlie?//

 

Jack dropped to his knees, enveloping the small body in a bear hug. He buried his nose in the curve of a shoulder. Soft, warm skin. Silky hair. The familiar scents of soap, shampoo, and--Jack squeezed his eyes shut in a futile attempt to contain his tears--a well-worn leather baseball glove.

 

//I miss you, kiddo. So much.//

 

Charlie burrowed into the embrace, sniffling a little as he clutched Jack's tee shirt in both fists. //Me too, Daddy.//

 

Jack pulled back, cradling the beloved face between his palms as he examined every inch of his son with hungry eyes. He thumbed a few tears from Charlie's cheeks, smiling ruefully.

 

//I'm guessing your being here means I'm not doing so hot, huh? You willing to hang out with your old man again, show him the ropes?//

 

Charlie let go of his shirt and stood tall, tipping up his chin and swiping the last of the moisture from his face with the back of one hand. //You don't belong here, Dad.//

 

Jack frowned, studying his son's expression. Charlie's blue eyes shone with love, regret, and a wisdom far beyond his earthly years. For a split second he had the strangest feeling he no longer knew the little boy standing before him. //What are you talking about? I'm here, aren't I?//

 

//You have to go back. Your part of the story isn't over. You still have things to do, people who need you.// Charlie pointed to something beneath them. //Daniel needs you.//

 

Jack looked down. From a distance he could see Daniel hunched over a body, frantically performing CPR. Face pale and twisted with grief, his friend rocked back on his heels and shook the limp form beneath his hands, sobbing for breath. "Don't do this to me. Please, Jack. Don't do this to me."

 

Feeling as if he were being torn in two, Jack turned back to his son. //What about you?//

 

Charlie smiled, the wide, beaming grin that never failed to melt Jack's heart. //I'm all right, Dad. I'm in a good place. You don't have to worry about me anymore.//

 

Jack held out his arms. Charlie flung himself into the hug, nearly knocking him off his feet. The old game, a bittersweet reminder of another time, made him laugh even as tears clogged his throat. He kissed his son's cheek.

 

//I love you, Charlie. Wait for me?//

 

//Yeahsureyoubetcha.//

 

Letting go was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. He'd only taken two steps when Charlie called to him. //Dad?//

 

//Yes?// Despite his best intentions, he choked on the word.

 

//It wasn't your fault. Tell Daniel--it doesn't have to be anyone's fault.//

 

Something in his chest loosened--a tight fist that had been clenched around his heart for years. Jack stared into his little boy's eyes and took the first step toward forgiving himself. //I will.//

 

He experienced a brief, dizzying sensation like free fall, weightless as a dandelion seed floating on a gentle breeze, before he slammed into his body. His senses were instantly assaulted with a cacophony of input--the smell of sweat, smoke, and blood, the sound of Daniel's hoarse, anguished pleas, the sight of his friend's wild, tear-streaked face. And overlaying it all, agony slicing through his belly, his chest, his head.

 

Jack moaned.

 

And found himself snatched from the ground and engulfed in a rib-crushing embrace.

 

"Damn it, Jack. I warned you not to do that to me." Daniel's voice cracked and Jack felt hot moisture trickle down his neck as his friend rocked back and forth.

 

"Glad to...see you, too...Danny...but you're...ah, God...you're gonna bust...the rest of my ribs."

 

He regretted his flippant words when Daniel stiffened and gently eased him back onto the ground. His friend busied himself with checking Jack's pulse and fussing with bandages, but Jack could see how deeply shaken his little trip to the Twilight Zone had left Daniel.

 

"Jaffa?" he croaked.

 

Carefully supporting Jack's neck, Daniel helped him drink some water. "Clear, for now."

 

"Heard shots."

 

"Close call. One of them spotted us and nearly hit me with a staff blast. I shot him with your P90 and got us out of there before the noise could draw reinforcements."

 

Even muzzy, Jack noticed the way Daniel's hands clenched into fists. More killing. He wondered just how much more his gentle, peacemaking archeologist could take.

 

"'Gate?"

 

"Only about three clicks--I think."

 

"Should...keep going."

 

"Yeah, well..." Daniel tucked his arms around his chest and looked away, throat working. "Figured it was time for a break. You know--rest my legs, take a drink, see if I could start you breathing again."

 

Damn. So it wasn't just a really weird hallucination. Jack plucked weakly at Daniel's sleeve. "'S two...I owe ya."

 

Daniel swiped an unsteady hand across his eyes, smearing dirt and perspiration in grimy streaks. "Don't worry. I'm keeping track."

 

Jack's stomach cramped, spasms tying his gut into excruciating knots. He involuntarily curled into a ball, panting and groaning. Hands slid under his arms, pulling him against solid warmth, massaging, soothing.

 

Eventually the convulsions abated and he lay spent in Daniel's arms. Jack tipped his head up so he could look into his friend's haunted, bloodshot eyes.

 

"Go now...Daniel."

 

Daniel's laugh held a note of hysteria. "Sure, Jack. Shall we walk or jog?" When Jack's gaze didn't waver, anger crept in. "You stopped breathing for almost five minutes. You're in no shape--"

 

Jack dug his fingers into Daniel's thin tee shirt. "Time's up. Now...or never."

 

Daniel flinched as if Jack had slapped him. "I don't know if I can... I never saw that Jaffa, nearly got us killed--"

 

"Daniel."

 

"Jack, I don't know if I can do this!"

 

"Trust you." It came out a breathy whisper, not at all what he'd intended. Jack cleared his throat; tried again. "Trust you, Danny."

 

Something indefinable shifted in Daniel's expressive eyes. Panic receded, replaced by grim determination. He eased Jack off his lap and stood, shouldering his pack and Jack's weapon. When he bent down and took hold of Jack's arms, he mustered a smile.

 

"Let's go home."

 

No amount of preparation could counteract the torture of being hoisted yet again onto Daniel's shoulders. Jack grayed out for a while, only vaguely cognizant of Daniel's pained apology as they began moving. Awareness slowly returned, and with it the understanding that he wasn't the only one in distress. Daniel's rapid heartbeat, labored breathing, and faltering gait betrayed his exhaustion.

 

Daniel stumbled, the resulting shock wave jarring through his body and into Jack's. Jack bit down hard on his lip, stifling a groan. He was 200 pounds of dead weight, contributing nothing. The least he could do was keep silent.

 

He faded in and out, no longer perceiving the passage of time. He'd surface briefly to darkness and pain, Daniel's wheezing breaths and jarring footfalls, then slide back into oblivion. Over and over, the cycle repeated in a dreary, unending loop.

 

He was hovering somewhere between alert and unconscious when Daniel pulled up short, his entire body rigid, then ran.

 

Jack clutched at Daniel's back, fingers sliding over the damp tee shirt, grunts and groans ripped from his throat as every footfall spiked fire through his belly. Tremors vibrated through Daniel's muscles, and his friend's frantic gulps for air seemed deafening.

 

Daniel tripped, staggered, and crashed to his knees. Jack screamed as he hit the ground. Sparks flashed, obliterating his vision, and then everything turned black and silent.

 

Daniel's voice pulled him back. They were half-seated, half sprawled in the dirt. One of Daniel's arms was clamped uncomfortably across Jack's injured ribs; the other pointed a wavering P90 into the trees. Jack squinted through blurry eyes, heart sinking at the flicker of distant lights.

 

"Sorry, Jack...Tried...I...I tried."

 

He wanted to pat an arm or one of the legs protectively curled around him, but nothing would move. It took every ounce of his remaining strength for Jack to choke out a reply.

 

"Not...not your fault."

 

The lights bobbed closer, and now they could hear the snapping of twigs. Daniel extended the gun, shivering. He jerked, nearly dropping the weapon when Jack's radio crackled to life.

 

"Colonel O'Neill, do you read me? Please respond."

 

Oh, God. It was Carter and the cavalry. Jack's vision blurred again, this time with relief. Daniel dropped the gun, shivering harder as understanding set in. His voice shook so badly he could barely speak.

 

"Sam? Sam, it's D--daniel. We're ab--about 600 yards st--straight ahead of you. Oh God, Sam, h--hurry. Jack's hurt b--bad."

 

As if on cue, another round of cramps ripped through Jack's belly. His fingers dug into Daniel's flesh with enough force to bruise as every muscle in his body went rigid.

 

"Jack? Jack, hang on! You can't quit on me now--"

 

//Sorry, Danny.//

 

Jack let go.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Bright lights filtering past his closed eyelids, incessant, annoying beeps, scratchy sheet under his fingertips, and--oh, yeah, that godawful smell. Had to be the infirmary.

 

Jack cracked open one sticky eye, confirming his diagnosis. Yep, he was even lying in his customary bed--how pathetic was that? Home sweet home.

 

"Colonel?"

 

He shifted his gaze to the right and Carter swam into focus, seated in a chair pulled up beside his bed. Blonde hair rumpled and eyes shadowed, she looked as tired as Jack felt.

 

"Carter." It sounded and felt as if he were speaking around a throat full of cotton.

 

Carter reached for a plastic cup and spooned a few ice chips into Jack's mouth. He savored the cool wetness as they melted on his tongue. The pain, though still present, was muted--a low murmur rather than an angry roar. Drugs, he thought muzzily. Good drugs.

 

"How are you feeling, Sir?"

 

"How do I look like I'm feeling?"

 

Her lips twitched. "Better than when we found you."

 

And then it hit him. Daniel. Where was Daniel? Jack tried to bolt upright, regretting his impulsiveness when pain and monitors skyrocketed. He collapsed back against the pillow, eyes squeezed shut, panting.

 

"What's going on?" Fraiser's voice, sharp and businesslike. Fingers pried open his right eyelid and a penlight stabbed straight into his brain.

 

"Ow! God!" Jack batted the hands away, squinting at her.

 

"He just woke up a moment ago. We were talking and then all of a sudden he tried to sit up." Carter hovered at Fraiser's shoulder, her forehead lined with worry.

 

Fraiser arched an eyebrow. "Not one of your brighter moves, Colonel. You're barely eight hours out of surgery, you--"

 

"Daniel?"

 

Understanding replaced irritation. Fraiser took hold of the privacy curtain and tugged it back. Daniel was tucked into the adjoining bed, sleeping soundly. Jack's muscles uncoiled and he sank further into the mattress.

 

Teal'c, sitting vigil in a chair identical to Carter's, inclined his head. "It is good to see you regaining strength, O'Neill. We have been most concerned for you and Daniel Jackson."

 

"Good to see you, too, T. Thanks for saving our butts--again." He directed the words to Carter as well as the Jaffa, then turned his complete attention to the man in the bed.

 

Daniel slept on, oblivious to the activity around him. He was turned toward Jack, one hand curled beneath his chin, the other sporting an IV line that snaked into a bag of clear fluid. Face nearly as pale as the white bandage covering his temple, dark circles beneath his eyes, he looked young and frail. Certainly not capable of hauling a 200 pound dead weight through a forest while dodging Jaffa.

 

Jack tore his eyes away, focusing on Fraiser. "He okay?"

 

"Compared to you he's ready for a night on the town." When Jack didn't smile, she sobered. "He'll be fine. The concussion is mild and his head is hard--much like a certain Colonel we all know." When Jack pressed a hand to his chest with his best wide-eyed look of innocence, she chuckled. "I'm most concerned about the dehydration. It's undoubtedly what caused his collapse."

 

"Collapse?" He pinned Fraiser with a CO glare. "Back up, doc."

 

Sam jumped in. "We found you and Daniel about a click from the gate, Sir. You were unconscious--Daniel was terrified that you were dying. We rushed you back to the 'gate, double time. Teal'c carried you, but Daniel assured us he was fine, he could make it on his own. And, well, to be honest, Sir, the darkness prevented us from really seeing either one of you clearly enough to assess your conditions. We had no idea..." She pressed her lips together and looked away, blinking hard.

 

"Go on," Jack encouraged.

 

"Daniel kept pace with us the whole way, never complained or gave us any indication he'd been injured. When we hit the ramp and I saw..." She swallowed. "Daniel held it together until you were on a gurney, headed for the infirmary. Then he just...dropped. Scared the life out of all of us."

 

"Between the concussion, exhaustion, and severe dehydration, it's a miracle he made it that far," Fraiser murmured, slipping a thermometer between Jack's lips.

 

"The stubborn fool insisted on giving me all the water," Jack grumbled around the thermometer. "Wouldn't drink more than a few mouthfuls."

 

"That stubborn fool saved your life, Colonel. You sustained damage to your spleen, a slow, internal bleed. We caught it just in time--even so, you coded before we could get you into the O.R. If Dr. Jackson hadn't gotten you to us when he did..." She shook her head and pulled the wand from his mouth. "100.2. Not too bad. The antibiotics should knock back the infection soon enough."

 

Exhaustion, blood loss, and Fraiser's happy juice conspired against him. Jack fought the pull of sleep--he needed answers. "Why's he still out cold?"

 

Fraiser looked at Daniel, lips pursed. "He's not unconscious, Colonel; he's sedated. It was the only way I could treat him. When he woke up in that bed he was madder than hell. He wouldn't let any of my nurses touch him until you were out of surgery, and then we couldn't pry him out of that chair with a crowbar. I've made sure he won't wake up for another few hours. By then he should be rehydrated and able to move to a VIP room where I can keep an eye on him."

 

"Slipped him a mickey, huh, Doc?" Jack's grin turned into a yawn and his eyelids drooped.

 

"All in good cause. Now get some sleep, Colonel, or I'll be forced to give you one, too."

 

"Not necessary." Jack's eyes closed of their own accord. "Tired." He shifted, searching for a more comfortable position and grimacing at the corresponding ache in his belly.

 

"Sleep, Sir. You'll feel better when you wake up."

 

Was that Carter or Fraiser? He was still puzzling it out as he drifted off.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Jack."

 

Busted. Jack took another pull from the bottle, musing that for a best friend Daniel could sound a helluva lot like a wife. Not deterred by his silence, Daniel stalked closer.

 

"Janet said no alcohol."

 

"Fine, Janet doesn't have to have any." Jack sighed, feeling like a jerk when he saw the grocery bags Daniel clutched in his arms. "One lousy beer, Daniel. It's not gonna kill me."

 

Crap. Poor choice of words. Daniel turned quickly toward the kitchen but not before Jack saw him wince. The beer, which had tasted so good going down, curdled in his stomach. In the kitchen, cupboards opened and closed; the refrigerator door shut with a rattling ka-thunk.

 

Daniel eventually wandered into the living room, the beer bottle in his hand betraying his state of mind. He sat in the chair across from the couch and took a long draught, evading Jack's eyes.

 

"Sorry." Jack was. He knew better than anyone how close he'd come to dying, and how deeply it had affected Daniel.

 

Daniel shrugged. "It's your stomach. Just don't blame me if--"

 

"I meant I'm sorry for that crack about it not killing me, not for drinking it. It tastes great."

 

Daniel looked at the bottle in his hands, picking at the label with his thumb. "I'm a linguist, Jack. I know a colloquialism when I hear one."

 

Silence stretched between them like a chasm. Jack took another swallow, watching his friend from the corner of his eye. Daniel had been quiet lately, and that made him uneasy. A quiet Daniel was a pensive Daniel, which--in Jack's experience--always signaled trouble.

 

Not that Jack *liked* talking all that feelings crap. Far from it. He much preferred the "bury it and pretend it never happened" method when dealing with post-traumatic stress. But words were Daniel's lifeblood, the way he processed the world around him. If he didn't talk about what happened on the planet, those emotions would fester, spreading like poison, and they'd lose him. Jack feared Daniel was halfway gone already.

 

"Hammond called while you were out. He mentioned he's looking into some kind of official commendation. He's determined you should be recognized for your conduct on P79-225, even if you are a civilian." Jack sipped his beer and watched.

 

Daniel had stiffened at his words, his grip on the bottle white-knuckled. "I don't need a medal for taking lives."

 

"How 'bout for saving mine?"

 

Daniel's eyes darted to his, and for the first time all afternoon he met Jack's gaze. "You're alive." He looked down at his shoes, mouth twitching. "I'm rewarded every time you whine about how bored you are."

 

"I do not whine." Jack put on his most aggrieved tone, inwardly pleased by the flicker of familiar banter. Lately humor had been in short supply.

 

"Jack, there's a reason Janet is always so quick to discharge you from the infirmary."

 

"You're referring to my incredible powers of recuperation?"

 

"Actually, I was speaking of the death threats."

 

Silence again, but this time the air between them felt lighter. Jack drained the last drops from his bottle and set it on the coffee table.

 

"Daniel, I wanted to say...uh--"

 

"I know, Jack."

 

"You do?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"How?"

 

"What?"

 

"How do you know?"

 

"Well, because I would be, too...if you'd...you know."

 

"Yeah." Jack rubbed his chin. "Anyway, you did good. Real good."

 

Daniel hunched his shoulders, flushing a bit at the praise. "I did what anyone would have done." He abruptly stood and disappeared into the kitchen, returning a moment later with another beer.

 

Now they were getting somewhere. Jack waited until Daniel had settled back into his chair, then picked up where he'd left off.

 

"You're wrong, Daniel. I've seen veteran soldiers crack under less pressure. Fear of death can do strange things to a man, even if he thinks he's prepared for it."

 

"Guess they didn't understand there are worse things than dying."

 

"Really? Enlighten me." Jack kept his tone deceptively light.

 

"Being left behind." Daniel's smile didn't reach his eyes. "You'd think I'd be used to it by now, considering all the practice, but guess what? It gets harder, not easier."

 

"I'm sorry, Danny. I wish I could promise it won't happen again, but we both know that would be a lie."

 

"I don't want to fail another person in my life, Jack."

 

"The only way you could do that would be by quitting. Daniel, in the four years I've known you, you've never backed away from a challenge. Don't start now."

 

When Daniel shook his head, Jack held up a finger. "Ah, ah! I'm not finished."

 

Daniel rolled his eyes but slumped back in the chair.

 

"Back on the planet, when...uh...I stopped breathing, I had some kind of...well...near death experience." Jack made a face but plunged ahead. "I know how crazy that sounds but--"

 

"Not really. Near death experiences have been well documented in many cultures--"

 

"I saw Charlie."

 

Probably the fastest he'd ever managed to shut Daniel up, Jack thought ruefully. His friend looked stricken, lips parted and eyes huge in his still-pale face. "I-I-I... I don't know what to say, Jack."

 

Jack shrugged, irritated when he felt a lump form in his throat. "Nothing to say. I thought we could hang out together, but he turned me down. Said something about my story not being done yet." He chuffed, blinking. "He always did have a mind of his own."

 

"Just like his dad." Daniel's eyes were so warm and sympathetic, Jack had to look away.

 

"Yeah." He cleared his throat. "He told me something before I left, said to share it with you."

 

"With me?"

 

Jack nodded, smiling a little at the bewilderment in his friend's voice. The smile faded and he sucked in a deep breath. "He said...he said that what happened to him wasn't my fault."

 

"It wasn't," Daniel agreed quietly.

 

Jack pinned him with a piercing stare. "He said to tell you that it doesn't have to be anyone's fault." He saw the implication sink in. Daniel's eyes welled and he quickly averted his face, but Jack went on. "What happened to Sha're was a nightmare, Daniel, but if you're honest with yourself you'll see there was no way you could have prevented it. If we'd've been there when Apophis came through the 'gate, we'd most likely have wound up dead--or snaked."

 

He gentled his tone. "You never gave up on her, Danny. You went to the ends of the universe to free her. Now, maybe you couldn't save her, but you did save her son. And if he's out there, like Sha're said, we *will* find him."

 

Daniel's head whipped around. "*We*, Jack?"

 

"You heard me."

 

Daniel nodded, a slight bob of his head, but Jack saw tension flow out of him. Satisfied, Jack clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back into the couch cushions, flinching when his gut protested. Damn stitches.

 

"So, what did ya get at the store? There wouldn't have been some triple fudge ice cream in those bags, would there?"

 

"You are determined to thumb your nose at every one of Janet's restrictions, aren't you?"

 

"Just the ones that don't make sense."

 

Daniel heaved a martyred sigh and stood. "There's vanilla." At Jack's dismayed expression he added, "And maybe a little chocolate syrup."

 

Jack grinned. "Now you're talking, Dannyboy." When Daniel turned toward the kitchen, he leaned forward. "Daniel?"

 

"Jack, I'm not letting you have nuts, so you can just..." Daniel trailed off when he saw Jack's face. "What?"

 

"I know you're not where you thought you'd be. But is where you are so damn bad?"

 

Daniel ducked his head, lips curved. "I guess almost losing something can make you appreciate it in a whole new way."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Cool."

 

Jack settled back and waited for his ice cream. He needed to have a chat with Hammond. Daniel was going to be just fine.

 

 

End

 

 

When you are a soldier, I will be your shield

I will go with you into the battlefield

And when the arrows start to fly

Take my hand and hold on tight

'Cause I will be your shield when you are a soldier

 

When you're tired from running, I will cheer you on

Look beside you and you'll see you're not alone

And when all of your strength is gone

I'll carry you until you're strong

And I will be your shield when you are a soldier

 

And I will be the one that you can cry your songs to

And my eyes will share your tears

And when you are surrounded, the enemy is closing in

I will fight with you to the end

 

When you're lost in darkness, I will hold the light

And I will help you find your way through the night

I'll remind you of the truth, and keep the flame alive in you

And will be your shield when you are a soldier

 

Soldier -- Steven Curtis Chapman

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