DEUS EX MACHINA

 

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and

count myself a king of infinite space, were it

not that I have bad dreams.

Hamlet

 

 

Timeline: a year or two from now

* I *

The small community within a dozen miles of the Canadian border had houses in pale pastel colors with low shingled roofs and well-maintained gardens, like something out of Pleasantville or The Truman Show. It also had good sports facilities, libraries, schools, rail services, a small airport, churches, shopping malls, thriving businesses and no more crime than any other settlement of its size. In short, it was a place where nothing bad could ever really be expected to happen - and that in itself made it pretty much the ideal settling down location for anyone who'd seen too much and done too much and just wanted his life to be something like normal for a while.

Whether anybody who'd seen and done that much could blend in and make his neighbors believe he was just like them, however, was a whole different matter; the notion that Jack O'Neill, of all people, could even begin to contemplate adapting to this kind of life had seriously troubled Carter at first, but although it had frustrated the hell out of him he'd worked conscientiously at being inconspicuous and had succeeded with some brilliance in passing himself off as just another ordinary guy next door.

She had to admit, however, that he'd had quite an incentive - and not one she envied him, although the thought had certainly run through her mind for all of half a second before the colonel beat her to the punch. Fortunately, she had dismissed it out of hand. Equally fortunately, he had not been prepared to let it go. Well, fine. Her career was important to her, and O'Neill's resignation had been just the boost she needed. The moment he staked his claim, she knew SG-1 would be hers. SG-1 now - and, a few years down the line, General Hammond's job.

So she owed Jack O'Neill. Big time.

Carter's rented silver Toyota purred to a halt in the wide driveway of O'Neill's pleasant suburban home. The yard was neat and tidy, his red 4 x 4 polished within an inch of its life as though he had been taking out multiple frustrations on its acres of gleaming chrome. There was a basketball hoop above the garage door, and she noticed a new set of passive infra-red detectors and at least two video cameras tucked discreetly into the frontage of the house. She could see them clearly, which indicated to her trained mind that there should be several more scattered about that she could not.

Way to go, Jack.

Retired he might be, but that didn't mean he'd let his standards drop. In fact it seemed to her that he was rather more careful these days than he had ever been in the service. More motivated, she had no doubt. Years before, his first son had slipped through his heedless fingers; Carter was not the only person to have observed how obsessively determined he was not to have the same thing happen with the second.

 

O'Neill was so quick to answer the door that Carter suspected he had been lurking on the other side, waiting to pounce. Although she still saw him as often as could be arranged, she was always surprised at how much older he looked now that he was permanently out of uniform - and the silvery-gray smudge of beard definitely wasn't helping. His hair was getting longer, too, curling a little on his collar, and his eyes seemed to have sunk back into skin so pale as to be almost transparent. With a twinge of pain she acknowledged that one day he might grow old and die like some ordinary mortal. It had never seemed even a remote possibility before, but now it loomed as a contingency that must eventually be faced.

"Hey Sam!"

"Jack!"

Carter liked it when he made an effort to remember that they were no longer superior and subordinate. She liked it even more when he reminded himself to hug her, and for a moment they did a little role-playing; brother and sister, close friends of the opposite sex. Jack was emphatically the big brother she would have chosen for herself.

He backed off after a few seconds. Effusive family stuff was still a little strange to him, and she knew she was prompted more by awareness of the way people acted in soaps than any genuine experience of her own.

"So how's life?" she asked, as he escorted her into the living room. The mustardy-colored carpet and dark brown furniture wouldn't have been her choice, but it was a sunny room at this time of year and cosy in the winter so she guessed it worked. She couldn't have lived with it, though. It was a good job she didn't have to.

"Insane," he vouchsafed, sitting her down. His sagging old green couch looked wildly out of place, even with a cream throw draped over it. Carter wondered why he hadn't gotten rid of it when he moved here, but admittedly it had all been too frantic at the time. Surely he could afford to replace it now, though? "I'm too old to be a dad," O'Neill groaned. "Most of DJ's friends have grandparents my age."

It was not the first time Carter had heard this particular complaint. Tempted to mutter something soothing but blatantly untrue, she decided instead to pay him the compliment of honesty.

"I know. Where is he?"

"Teal'c took him to see Men in Black 3 again. The kid has the biggest crush on Will Smith."

Carter's eyebrows rose. "Good taste," she approved.

"Aw, not you too?" O'Neill groaned theatrically. "All I hear morning, noon and night is Will Smith. The damn' Bagger Vance DVD is just about worn through."

"He'll get over it," she told him, gently. "Like Buffy. Just this week's 'one true love'. Some of the people Cassie got stuck on would amaze you. She even had a thing for you at one point." Tactfully she omitted the fact that Janet Fraiser's adopted daughter still had a serious thing for O'Neill, only it had developed way beyond wanting to lure him into her teenage bed. Now she wanted to be him.

"I know. It has nothing to do with anything. But suppose he's really gay, Sam? What do I do then? How the hell am I supposed to talk to my gay teenage son?"

"Ah." She ought to have known. An invitation to visit Chez O'Neill didn't come along all that often, and it was even rarer that the request was passed on through General Hammond. At the back of her mind she'd been aware that something was troubling Jack and that he wanted to talk it through with her, but she had long ago stopped trying to second-guess him where DJ was concerned. It just confused her that he imagined an unmarried, childless female soldier like herself could have any worthwhile advice to offer a man in his position.

"Don't do it," she suggested, abruptly.

"What?"

"Don't talk to your gay son, just talk to your son. After all, whether his thing is men, women or goats, he's still DJ. Isn't he?"

"Goats," he repeated faintly. "Jeez, I hope not."

Carter chuckled. "Well, you know what I mean."

"Yeah. That's what you think I should do, is it? Accept him as he is? Don't try and guide him, or steer him, or shelter him from anything? Just let him know that whatever he ends up choosing, I'm not going to stop loving him?"

"Back him all the way," Carter confirmed. "Let him see that all you want is for him to be happy. And don't ever forget who he is. Wasn't that what got you into this mess in the first place?"

"Yeah. Yeah, it was. Not that I'd call it a mess, exactly."

Not exactly. It was just turning out to be far more of a challenge than even he had envisaged. A hyper-intelligent fourteen year old who thought he might be gay would be a tough enough proposition for any retired career military single father, but in addition Jack was stuck with The Child From Hell. Aspiring surgeon, rock musician, basketball star and Kid Most Likely To Be President - all of which he was likely to accomplish before he turned twenty-one - Daniel Jackson O'Neill had turned his life upside-down and didn't even know it. As far as DJ was concerned, this was the way the world always had been and always would be. Those around him, however - including the man he believed to be his father - knew something a little different.

 

"Sooooo... " O'Neill said slowly, crossing to a mahogany desk and bringing out a neat package of papers, "you and Fraiser are joint testamentary guardians. I wanted to include Teal'c, but his legal status on Earth is kinda questionable and even with the SGC lawyers drawing this up for me we couldn't find a way around that. I just need your personal assurance you'll keep him in the loop."

Carter nodded. She hated this kind of long-term planning, no matter how sensible she knew it was, and she couldn't think why she'd had to travel all this way to deal with it. Except, of course, that everyone was madly trying to keep the existence of SGC and the Stargate secret from DJ. A happy and uninterrupted adolescence was all any of them wanted for the kid.

"Daniel's salary is still being paid," O'Neill went on. "It goes into a trust fund. If he doesn't show up within the next seven years, DJ gets the lot when he's twenty-one. Whatever happens."

Carter let the 'whatever' go without comment for the time being. There had been times in the past two years when she had seriously expected to hear that O'Neill had finally given in to temptation and taken one last, long midnight stroll along the railroad track. It still occasionally surprised her that he had managed not to do so. "Okay."

"My health's pretty good at the moment," he continued. "Apart from the obvious signs of age. Slowin' up, you know. But I fly over some pretty inaccessible country at times - and anyone can get killed crossing the road. I need to know you guys are ready to step in the minute you're needed."

"You know it, Colonel."

O'Neill nodded. "All right. And that goes for temporary or permanent incapacity as well as death; hospitalization, mental incapacity, imprisonment for any term longer than ninety days."

"Understood."

"Right. I have a good relationship with DJ's school and I'd like him to stay there until he goes to college. Teal'c's agreed to move in here and look after him if necessary. I don't need to tell you the kid's grades are phenomenal; he can do pretty much anything he wants with his life. At the moment he's talking about being a surgeon, so we'd be looking at a pre-med course somewhere. I've got some options lined up, nothing definite. He could change his mind again next week."

"Doctor Daniel Jackson O'Neill." Carter tried the name over thoughtfully. "It has a ring to it."

"It does, doesn't it?" O'Neill conceded with a cautious smile. "I kinda think Daniel would approve."

"I'm sure he would. And DJ's getting a real childhood, too, which is something the original Daniel seems to have missed out on." Carter hoped her smile was reassuring, but it felt as thinly stretched as the bleak grin of a shark's skull on the beach. "I'm glad he has that chance. This is a good thing you're doing, Jack."

"Yeah." O'Neill did not seem comforted, however, and he fell silent for a long moment. When Carter looked up at him again she found him staring at a photograph of Daniel, running a thoughtful finger along one edge. Noticing her interest, O'Neill handed it over: Daniel surprised at an SGC barbecue, clutching a hot dog as if it were some precious Mayan artifact. "But sometimes I wonder how much longer I'm gonna be able to go on doing it."

Startled, Carter studied his face. It was shuttered and revealed nothing of whatever he might be feeling, but he had already betrayed greater doubts than the old Jack O'Neill could ever have admitted to. Only of course this wasn't the old Jack O'Neill; it was the even older Jack O'Neill.

"You'll see when he gets here," the Colonel went on, softly. "The kid's growing so fast I can't keep him in clothes or shoes. He's filling out, bulking up, changing from a weedy kid into a fit young guy, and he never seems to think about anything but sex. Mainly sex with Will Smith, from what I can gather. His hair is long, his eyes are blue, he wears glasses...," he enumerated desperately. "Carter, he's changing... into Daniel!"

"And this is a bad thing because... ?" It didn't seem to her to be the appalling catastrophe his tone implied.

He shot her one of his patented 'nobody understands me' looks.

"Because I don't know who he is. Is he Daniel? Or is he Daniel's kid? Does anybody know?"

Carter shrugged. "Janet says..."

"I've heard what Janet says," he told her, repressively. "That he's probably a clone. I'd... sorta got into the habit of thinking of him as Daniel's son. Someone Daniel left for me to look after. But suppose he's Daniel, age-reversed, victim of a transporter malfunction, whatever..." Nobody could say for certain, that was the problem. They just didn't have enough information to work from. All anyone knew was that a healthy adult Daniel Jackson had strolled through the Stargate one day, as unconcerned as if he was merely sauntering down the street to catch a bus. Forty eight hours and the death of a planet later, a distracted child of twelve had been returned to them. A child who was Daniel, right down to the DNA, but who had none of his memories. The same child who now went by the name of DJ O'Neill.

"Colonel, I don't..."

Carter spread her hands helplessly, but he had already stopped paying attention to her.

"Ixnay, Carter, they're back. Big smile now." The inflection was exactly that of a elementary school teacher chivvying a bunch of children to grin for a photographer. Already O'Neill had taken his own advice and was grinning as though he hadn't a care in the world. "DJ! Teal'c! How was the movie?"

An eruption of teenager into the room was followed at a more leisured pace by the large bulk of Teal'c, dressed as inconspicuously as a man of his size and appearance could be.

"Cool!" DJ enthused. "Hiya, Sam!"

"Hey, Deej! How was Will? Your dad tells me you're a fan?"

DJ groaned, looking mildly embarrassed. "He was great. They have this fight with these kind of light-saber things, whooommmmm, whooommmmm, and this guy's head like goes flying off... Awesome."

Carter summoned up a very bright smile. "Hey, sounds as if I'd enjoy that. I should go see it."

"You like Will Smith too?" DJ glanced at her sharply, learning for the first time that it might be possible to discuss his taste in men with a woman.

"What's not to like?" demanded Carter. "The tee-shirt, the earring - he had me from the first movie. In fact I don't think there's anyone in this room who would kick Will Smith out of bed on a cold night. Right, Teal'c?"

Teal'c considered the proposition briefly, making a determined effort to ignore the sparkle of mischief in Carter's eyes.

"He is attractive, an awesome warrior, and has a sense of humor," he delivered eventually. "I would allow him to stay, if the night was cold enough. Jack?"

Carter suppressed her astonishment. She knew it had been something of a trial for O'Neill to persuade Teal'c to use his first name - he had not considered it respectful to do so - but now that she heard him say it, it sounded almost natural. She doubted DJ had noticed the slight beat of hesitation before the word was produced. They were all acting just about as normally as three adults in their situation could be expected to, given their determination not to alarm the teenager in their midst.

Jack dived in without allowing himself time for conscious thought. React first, think about it afterwards, that was the way he'd learned to deal with DJ. He was trusting his own instincts, and gradually they were becoming less like those of a CO and more like those of a father.

"Will Smith? Bet yer ass, DJ. He looks kinda fun. Yeah, I'd keep him. I guess if he ever comes knocking at our door we have to fight over him, don't we?" he teased.

"No way! You're too old for him!"

"Am not! I'm years younger than Tommy Lee Jones and they are so doing it!" He fell quiet for a moment. "K survives, right?"

"He does." It was Teal'c who responded, aware that for some unknown reason it was important O'Neill have this information.

"And he doesn't get flashy-thinged and neither does J," DJ filled in, enthusiastically. "They're leaving it open for another film."

"They'd better hurry." O'Neill pulled off his son's bandanna and ruffled his hair enthusiastically. "Will's gonna be pushing Tommy Lee around in a wheelchair if they wait much longer. Sam, Teal'c, are you guys staying for dinner?"

"Love to!" Carter jumped in, quickly. There was a really good Thai place close by which delivered, and the delivery guys tended to be on the extremely cute side too.

"Dad's cooking." DJ's warning came just a little too late. "But he's getting a lot better. He's taking lessons."

O'Neill's expression was carefully neutral under Carter's intense scrutiny. "Local college has a 'Cooking for Men' course," he said, uncomfortably. "We're mostly widowers, divorced, guys just out of prison. They're teaching me not to cut my thumbs off. There are two things I can cook now, and I don't burn lettuce any more. Couldn't just heat stuff up in a microwave for the rest of my life."

Carter's heart did backflips. Somewhere in her tortured imagination there was an incongruous image of her dearly beloved rough, tough CO, scourge of Cheyenne Mountain and hammer of the Goa'uld, learning to beat eggs and julienne vegetables among a posse of ex-cons, senior citizens and losers, all for the sake of this oblivious teenager.

"Love to," she repeated. Let him do his worst; she had never seen anyone try quite so hard to be a good parent, and his determination gave her some slight insight into his state of mind. Daniel's kid. That was what made all the difference.

"Who's this?" DJ asked. Perpetually hopping from one distraction to another. He had noticed the picture of Daniel on the table and was inspecting it curiously.

O'Neill coughed, resolutely swallowing down some obstruction in his throat.

"That's - uh, that's Daniel. Friend of mine. You were named after him."

"You kinda look like him, Deej," Carter joined, anxiously. She did not particularly like the pale color O'Neill's skin had taken on.

And I thought I missed him, she mused, watching O'Neill with the child who might - or might not - be the friend they had all loved and lost.

There had been times in her life when Samantha Carter had honestly believed that she was lonely, but now she looked into the hollow eyes of Jack O'Neill and saw that there was a whole order of magnitude of loneliness she knew absolutely nothing about. He was missing Daniel so much it showed in his face every time he looked at his son.

"Did he die?"

"He's MIA," O'Neill said, kindly. Silently Carter applauded his painful honesty; he was even more impressive now than he had been on active duty. Killing Goa'ulds had seemed a walk in the park compared to the constant emotional strain of parenthood. "I can't tell you much," he added, "it's still classified. But you're turning out just like him, son, so sometimes it feels like he isn't gone at all."

"You miss him?"

"Sure. Daniel was the best friend I had in the world. Loved him a lot. You know, like Will and Tommy Lee."

"Really?"

"Really. Just like. Dinner's in half an hour," O'Neill added, turning the subject briskly and tearing himself away from his son. "Maybe Sam'd like to hear that new song you've been working on?"

"Yeah!" DJ enthused. "Gotta be better than that Pearl Fishers thing you're always playing. Those guys sound like they're groaning in agony."

"Go get your guitar, squirt!" O'Neill ordered, in his best drill-sergeant manner. "And stop dissing my taste in music! Teal'c, want to help me with the salad? And you, Colonel Carter, sir, can open the wine."

"Wine?" Carter's eyebrows lifted in astonishment. "Cooking and wise parenting and Will Smith aren't enough for one evening, Jack? You have to hit us with a gourmet wine list, too?"

"Okay, it's beer." O'Neill shrugged his self-deprecating 'I-am-an-oaf' shrug, which was known to half the universe and which nobody with half an ounce of common sense would dream of taking at face value. "In the refrigerator."

"Much better," Carter acknowledged, her heart lightening considerably as she followed her friends through to the kitchen.

 

* II *

Fraiser tore the blood pressure cuff off O'Neill's arm with a flourish, nodding her head in approval. "Still working out regularly?"

"Yep."

"Watching your diet? Or do you still have Pizza Hut on speed dial?"

"Hey, I cook," he informed her, with wounded pride. "And we do a lot of salads," he admitted. "They're easy."

"That's good."

"Yeah." His insincere smile told her he was bluffing, and she wondered whether he had any idea that all parents did that. Make it up, make it look good, react; she'd been through the same dance herself. He hadn't been capable of fooling her since the first time she told him to drop his pants and cough. In fact, she knew things about Jack O'Neill that would probably shock even him.

"So..., " she slapped him on the shoulder enthusiastically, "...any pictures?"

"Are you kidding?" From the inner pocket of his leather jacket he retrieved a wad of photographs big enough to choke a horse. "Got three or four hours to spare?"

"Proud father, huh?"

O'Neill spilled the pictures out onto the examination couch beside him. DJ in the neighbor's pool, DJ riding a bike, on inline skates, on monkey bars, dressed as Darth Vader for a school costume party. "Hell yes."

Fraiser chuckled. Every time he dropped by the Mountain for his quarterly physical it was the same thing; they were all a little older, a little grayer, a little heavier, and all they ever seemed to talk about was DJ. Sometimes they took their families and visited with the O'Neills, but it was difficult to find things to talk about that did not involve violating the O'Neill First Commandment: Thou shalt not mention the Stargate in DJ's hearing. He was fiercely determined to keep the kid's childhood sacrosanct; nothing would get between DJ and happiness if O'Neill had anything to do with it.

"Why don't you bring Cassie to visit again?" he asked, hospitably. "I'm sure DJ's got over that whole insane rivalry thing. And anyway his hormones have cut in now and she's a girl."

"Last thing I heard, your son thought he was gay," Fraiser teased, dutifully inspecting the photographs. "Oh, could you get me a copy of this? He looks just like Daniel."

"It's the bandanna," O'Neill smirked. "Keep that one, I'll get some more printed." Thoughtfully he scratched his chin. "Maybe I'm hoping I can change his mind about the gay thing before I have to buy him the damn' black suit he wants, but I have an idea he'll still want to look like You Know Who. He got an outright 'no' on the earring and I may have to kill Carter for even putting the idea into his head."

"Kids," Fraiser laughed, sympathetically. "We'll definitely have to see what we can arrange. Where's DJ today?"

"Teal'c took him fishing."

"Teal'c likes fishing?"

"Teal'c hates fishing, but DJ adores it and he adores DJ. How's that for irony?" he added, wryly. "I finally find a Daniel Jackson who'll sit for hours not catching fish and won't chew my ear off about it, and he's young enough to be impressionable and thinks I'm God into the bargain. How sweet is that?"

"Very," Fraiser acknowledged. "So, what's next - lunch with the General?"

"Yeah. Show him the pictures, reassure him there aren't any snake-heads showing up at DJ's school, catch up on the latest SGC gossip, and then I'm on the last flight home. Not that there's ever a lot of gossip any more. Either the galaxy's gotten a whole lot quieter since I retired, or I'm being edged further and further from the loop."

"You care?" Fraiser asked, an eyebrow lifting at his mildly wistful tone.

"Not really."

"Okay, I'll have you escorted up. And I'll call you about getting together, but it can't be for a couple of weeks yet."

O'Neill wondered if he was being given the brush-off, ever so politely. He wondered whether DJ and Cassie actually liked one another, and whether they ever would. The girl was a couple of years older but intellectually DJ was streets ahead, and they were both heartily sick of being compared and contrasted by their respective adoring parents. It was not exactly a recipe for a happy association.

"Whenever," he shrugged.

"Okay." She was looking him over carefully now, her eyes asking him questions that her mouth could not. Questions that would never appear in any medical record because they had no place in a formal examination and were founded only on gut instinct.

Still missing Daniel?

What do you think?

Still missing Daniel.

Yeah.

"Airman, would you take Colonel O'Neill along to General Hammond's office? Thank you."

And Fraiser watched him as he meekly submitted to being escorted through the halls of the SGC by an airman who hadn't even walked into the place before O'Neill walked out, and who had no idea who he was or what he had done, and she shivered at the way the world had changed. Such a small change, but such a big difference had it made.

The absence of Daniel Jackson had changed Jack O'Neill from a lion into a lamb - and, although she loved him as sweet and docile as he was, and admired the way he had adapted to his new circumstances, there were times when she would have given anything, anything, to hear him roar just once more.

 

General Hammond wanted to talk about education. His two grand-daughters were approaching DJ's age, and he and his widowed daughter-in-law were facing the same choices about their future the O'Neills had already begun to contemplate. Thus it was that when the klaxon sounded in the gate room O'Neill found himself perched on the edge of the General's desk idly shooting the breeze about the merits of a dedicated scientific versus a good general education, with particular reference to DJ simultaneously finding a cure for cancer and ending world poverty.

"The awooga two-step," he remarked, calmly. "They're playing my song."

"Off world activation. SG-1's code."

"One aren't off-world," Hammond muttered, unfurling from his relaxed posture behind the desk. One were so far from being off-world, in fact, that their leader was currently behind the control room's glass observation panel side by side with the technician who had sounded the alarm. She spared them a quick, concerned glance, then leaned back into her VDU screen and started punching buttons again.

"Sometimes feels like we gave out our code to half the universe," O'Neill mused, unconcerned. "It's probably Bra'tac. Wouldn't mind seeing the old bastard again. Mind if I ride along, General?"

Mildly surprised to be asked, Hammond reminded himself that these days O'Neill did need formal permission to join him in the gate room. "Sure, Jack."

Half a pace behind, O'Neill reached the floor of the gate room just as the team assembled. He watched the event horizon form and felt... nothing. No nostalgia for the way things used to be, no sense of impending disaster, and above all not the slightest spark of any desire to step through the gate. Nowadays it was simply something that happened to other people; his horizons were lesser, and closer, and circumscribed by cooking lessons, the PTA and the Public Library. Two years of domesticity and unplanned parenthood had rendered him useless for the kind of emergency encountered on the other side of that deceptively tranquil blue horizon. It had pretty damn' near neutralized him for coping with anything that came through it into his own less than tranquil universe, too; a fact which was borne in on him when something humanoid suddenly stumbled through the gate and dropped to its knees, spilling a homely burden of blankets, cooking pots and hand-made bits and pieces down the ramp.

"Get your hands in the air," someone barked, and O'Neill thought what an exercise in futility that was. As if this person could automatically be expected to understand English in the first place, and as if the whole hands-in-the-air thing was a universal indicator of surrender in the second. True they'd found that it pretty much was, but that didn't mean all races understood it in the same way. One day they'd probably come across people who would take the request as an improper suggestion and launch a preemptive missile strike on the strength of it. Cultural misconception, Daniel would have called it.

The poor guy was obviously too debilitated to stand up without help anyway. If O'Neill cared he would have taken a couple of steps forward and helped him to his bare feet and brushed that long stringy hair back from his face and tried to make him welcome. If he cared.

Which he didn't, right up until he heard the groan of exhaustion. Then his legs vanished from under him and before he knew exactly what was happening, or how, he was on his knees at the top of the ramp with his arms full of something pale and thin in a loose green homespun robe; something which gasped 'Jack' and collapsed against his shoulder as the last vestige of strength drained from it; something which but for its terrifying weakness and the long hair and straggly beard of an Old Testament prophet he would tentatively have identified as bearing more than a passing resemblance to the original and very dearly lamented Doctor Daniel Jackson.

The real Daniel.

The missing Daniel.

At last.

 

The iris clanged shut with emphatic finality, but O'Neill barely noticed it - or that the troops in the gate room were being silently and efficiently stood down. Within five minutes they would be gossiping in the commissary and five minutes after that it would be all over the base that Daniel Jackson, a figure with about as much substantive reality as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, had fallen back through the Stargate weakened, emaciated and barely able to stand, dropped into the arms of his former CO and... just stayed there.

And was there still, undisturbed, while the universe realigned itself once more to receive him, to fold him in and hold him safe.

Everyone in SGC knew the Myth of Daniel Jackson: everyone knew how he had been loaned to SG-19 for a mission to an agrarian planet known as Vell, and how they had all stayed far too long staring at the Cities of the Plain and been changed into pillars of salt. Officially all five of them had died on that mission two years before, had long ago been mourned, and had subsequently been all but forgotten - but if Jackson had somehow, miraculously, found a way to crawl back from the abyss, could Cooper, Kaur, Buller and Novarro be far behind? Quietly, throughout the dark recesses of the Mountain, tendrils of hope began to reawaken in the hearts of those who remembered them.

Meanwhile, the gate room was eerily quiet. Someone was sobbing, muffled into a strong and accommodating shoulder, but there was no telling for certain who it might be. Everyone else was simply concentrating, fixed, obsessed on what had become an indistinct green and black blur against the gray metal iris shielding. Hammond, Fraiser - God knew how she had got there so quickly - Carter and a couple of technicians were all that remained; none of them made any attempt to move closer, to intervene, or to resolve the scene before them. Without consultation they stayed back, afraid to disturb the delicate balance of a house of cards with a hasty or ill-considered movement, afraid to touch the shiny surface of a bubble lest its transient rainbow vanish on the air.

After a long, long time O'Neill pulled back slightly from Daniel's wasted frame, scrubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand.

"Where you been, Hippie Boy?" he demanded, with the assumed brusqueness that concealed the softest of hearts.

"Hippie Boy?" Only a tenuous thread of a whisper.

"Bare feet, a dress, a beard? Dammit, Daniel, you're so thin! Haven't they been taking care of you wherever the hell you've been?"

"I've been alone," Daniel muttered. "Nobody to... Jack, you look... different."

"Oh yeah. This." O'Neill plucked at his black teeshirt. "Promoted."

"Pr... ?"

"To civilian. Can you stand up?"

"I don't think so. Look at my legs."

O'Neill twitched back the hem of Daniel's long robe and looked in horror at oedematous ankles and ulcerated, stick-thin legs.

"Daniel!"

"I may only have come home to die, Jack." The words were astonishingly calm, rational, poised. "I'm sorry, but you need to know that right from the start."

"I'll take what I can get," was the equally serene response. "I'm not proud. Hang on." And in one movement he rose and swung his underweight burden up into his arms and felt the settling against his shoulder as Daniel subsided with a gasp, falling into him as though casting himself adrift on an ocean current.

"Jeez, Daniel, where did you go?" He was fifty years old, and Daniel was almost as tall and as strongly-built as he was himself. Heavier, probably. At least, the Daniel he remembered was. He should not have been able to scoop him up so easily nor carry him without much greater effort, but this waif-like creature had lost body mass until he looked like something out of a flickering black and white documentary. Something liberated only at the point of death. "Daniel?"

"He's lost consciousness," Fraiser said, softly, casting an eye over the collapsed bundle of rags resting easily in O'Neill's embrace. "Fainted. Looks like he went through a lot to get back to us. Jack, will you manage to carry him to the infirmary?"

The pugnacious look O'Neill shot in her direction was all the answer Fraiser needed. She would need to break both his arms before he would begin to contemplate letting go.

"Let's move, then," she said, sharply. "General, we should have his belongings collected up, too. They're obviously important to him."

"I'll arrange it," Hammond said. "Colonel Carter, I'd like you to telephone Teal'c and let him know what's happened."

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," Carter muttered, not totally in contact with reality. Fraiser, O'Neill and Daniel were already out in the corridor, and with part of her brain she managed to notice the way O'Neill's back flexed as he took a firmer grip on the man he carried. She was not at all sure what she had said to Hammond, or whether it had been appropriate, but somewhere in the deepest recesses of her subconscious she understood that what brought out the greatest strength in Jack O'Neill was weakness in Daniel Jackson, and he was responding magnificently to this latest challenge. If she had had a lot less self-respect she would have slumped against his shoulder years ago the way Daniel was doing now, but she doubted his response would have been quite the same. And anyway she had left it far too late and decided in the end that it was not what she wanted after all.

 

"Classic symptoms of malnutrition and self-neglect," Fraiser was saying as they reached the infirmary. "I don't think he's going to die any time soon, but I'd like to know what he's been doing to himself. He certainly hasn't been eating properly and conditions on that planet must have been rough. Put him down here."

"I think he's got company," O'Neill said, without criticism. "Something's livin' in his hair."

"Lice, probably," Fraiser supplied, in the tone of one who has seen all and is never surprised any more. "You'd better go shower and change your clothes, Jack. I'm sure we can find you something to wear."

"Do I have to?" He sounded so much like a whining six year old that Fraiser rounded on him in astonishment, her gaze met by six-feet-two of iron-gray bashfulness. "I mean, I don't feel much like leavin' him alone at the moment."

"Leave," she instructed. "I'm not having this entire base infested with whatever Daniel's brought back. Clean yourself up, and afterwards don't get within six feet of him again until I've got him decontaminated."

"This never happens on Star Trek," O'Neill muttered, retreating a step, reluctantly.

"I know," Fraiser responded sharply. "And unfortunately we don't have a Vulcan female with spectacular mammary development to smear you in blue gel, either, Colonel, so you just take a large bar of yellow soap and wash every one of those cooties down the drain. Now."

Still hesitant, he took another step away. "I..."

"He'll still be here when you get back," Fraiser told him, her voice gentling. "He's very weak, and he'll need to stay in the infirmary for several days. You can come and go to please yourself, as soon as I've got him stabilized. Now get out of here, before I have to call in a little help."

The thought of having to be manhandled into the shower by a couple of enlisted and held there until he was good and clean flitted obscenely through O'Neill's brain. He had not a moment's doubt that Fraiser would do it, too, if he gave her sufficient cause.

He got, while the getting was good.

 

"Jack?"

He had been under the almost-scalding shower with the yellow soap for a good twenty minutes before he heard Carter's voice. He had lathered every part of himself clean and stood and watched the soap bubbles swill away, then had begun the entire process all over again, brain in neutral, not thinking. No, definitely not thinking. All that was in his head was the sound of the falling water, the smell of the soap, the pinpricks of heat on his skin, the drumming between his shoulder blades which was as good as a massage any day and a lot cheaper.

"Carter," he groaned. He had stopped caring about her seeing him naked years ago; dammit, if women wanted to be in the Air Force they could just learn to accept people as they were. Him, in particular.

"Brought you some clothes."

"Yeah?"

"They're Teal'c's. I got them out of his locker."

"Okay." He shut off the water. "Hand me a towel, will you?" A moment later a large, white towel was put into his outstretched hand.

"I spoke to him. I told him Daniel was back."

"Yeah? What'd he say?"

"He..." Carter coughed, awkwardly. "He cried."

"He did?"

"Yessir."

O'Neill stepped from the shower cubicle, towel around his waist, and strode over to the bench where Carter had left the clothes. She was sitting on the other side of the room, and turned her head away politely while he dressed.

"So did I," he said, eventually.

"Yes." Then, a little belatedly for O'Neill's taste, "I mean, so did I. You bet." A brief silence fell, and then, "Teal'c asked me what you wanted him to tell DJ. I said nothing. I said you'd tell him when you got home."

"Good. Thanks." O'Neill had pulled on black sweat pants a size too large, and a voluminous burgundy tee shirt which hung loose on him. There were brand new white sports socks there too, and he slid worn old boots over them with a sigh. "I don't know how," he admitted. "I don't even know what. If this Daniel is our Daniel, who the hell is DJ?" He scrubbed both hands distractedly through damp hair, unwittingly giving himself the look of an unkempt teenager in his over-large clothes. "I have no idea if the Daniel who came back is the same Daniel who left. Maybe any Daniel is better than no Daniel at all - but in that case, what the hell am I supposed to do with two?"

"I don't know," Carter conceded. "Listen, Teal'c says he'll stay with DJ as long as you need him to, but if you won't be home tonight he wants you to call DJ and explain it to him personally."

"That's fine, but I can probably still make my flight," O'Neill mused. "As long as the de-brief doesn't go on all night. I need to talk to Daniel before it starts, see if I can find out who he is. Make any sense to you, Carter?"

"Yes." Surprised, she raised both eyebrows. "Actually it does. You need to know whether Daniel is going to be a permanent feature in your life before you can think about introducing him to your son."

"Wise parenting," O'Neill teased, fastening his watch strap with a pat and heaving the used towel into the hamper. "See, we can all do it when we have to. And I also have to tell Daniel about DJ," he added, "which is going to be strange. How do you explain something you don't understand yourself? And is it even safe to have them in the same room together? Can we introduce them to each other? Or do we run the risk of one of them spontaneously combusting before the conversation's over? Or maybe both?"

"I haven't detected any evidence of a quantum mirror or a potential cascade failure," Carter told him, in a mildly informative tone, "but Daniel was still unconscious when I looked in on the infirmary and Janet won't let me anywhere near him yet. I hope you left some yellow soap, Jack," she added, smiling. "I think there might be other people who need it before the day's out."

"Plenty more where that came from. They were real cooties, then? I thought it might just be Fraiser's way of keeping me out of her... uh... hair." He grimaced, hearing the words as he said them.

"Real cooties," Carter chuckled.

"Not any more. Drowned 'em all."

"Shame," Carter told him as she followed him from the room. "They're probably the only intelligent life form on that planet, now that Daniel's left!"

 

* III *

"I'm still waiting on final toxicology results," Fraiser said, half an hour later, "but it's almost certainly some kind of alkaloid poisoning, probably swainsonine. You don't see it too much in Earth humans, but it's common in stock animals; the toxin inhibits an enzyme essential to glycoprotein metabolism... "

A wave of his hand stopped her. "You Doctor, me O'Neill," he pointed out, one eyebrow lifting in bewilderment. "Why don't we have the simplified version for those of us who were apparently out sick the day the Air Force Academy did veterinary medicine?"

Fraiser absorbed the comment with a smile. "It looks as if Daniel's been eating something which has actually inhibited his body's ability to metabolize food," she said. "The usual candidates are the Astragalus and Hedysarum plant families. Locoweed and some varieties of wild potato. I don't know what his diet's been like - pretty rugged, I imagine - but if he'd had a catered ten course banquet set down in front of him it wouldn't have made much difference. He could have eaten until he burst and still not derived any benefit from it. I think Daniel has a condition very similar to locoweed poisoning."

"You're kidding? Isn't that usually...?"

"Fatal? In animals, yes. But then as a rule no-one takes a great deal of trouble to fill an animal's system with glucose and amino acids to help it excrete the toxin. Most stock animals aren't quite as valuable as this one."

She could say that again. O'Neill's lips pursed in a soundless whistle. "So, you'll... what?"

"Fill him up with sugar and keep checking his urine until he's flushed the poison through his system."

"Sugar water."

"Among other things, yes."

"Great. A bug in a Daniel suit."

"Huh?"

"Aw, Men in Black," O'Neill said, dismissively. "DJ knows it word for word, so I have to too."

"Got you. Anyway, you'll want to talk to him."

"He's awake?"

"Yes. I think we've got him stabilized for the time being. Don't take his mood swings too seriously; it's not called 'locoweed' for nothing - nervousness is one of the symptoms of the poisoning. And he's also mad as a badger because I won't let him have any coffee. Of course that's all he's been craving for months, but in his present condition caffeine could be fatal. His heart's very weak at the moment."

"So no nasty shocks, then? Only I have to..." Silently O'Neill indicated the photograph of DJ he had taken from her desk.

"Take it gently," she advised. "Are you okay by yourself, or do you need me?"

"I should handle it."

"You should," she agreed. "Deep breath, Jack - and remember this isn't the toughest thing you've ever done."

O'Neill glanced across to where a nurse was drawing screens back around a figure on a bed. Daniel was now dressed in a disposable paper hospital gown instead of the pale green robe; he looked considerably cleaner and his long hair had been pulled back into a makeshift pony tail.

"This doesn't even make the top five," he remarked, thoughtfully. "Still, I'm kinda out of practice where he's concerned."

"I know. I would imagine the General will want to de-brief down here?" she asked, switching back to business without pause.

"He says so, but first I'm supposed to find out whether this is really the Daniel we lost two years ago."

Fraiser's eyebrows rose in mild astonishment. "How are you planning to do that?" she asked.

"Don't worry," he smiled, utterly without humor. "I'll think of something."

 

"Got a million questions." Assuming an air of nonchalance O'Neill levered himself onto the examination couch opposite the battered remnant of Daniel Jackson. The outdated-looking beard and ponytail were completely wrong on him, like a throwback from the Eighties, some Bjorn Borg or Maurice Gibb thing. O'Neill was distressed to note that there was gray in both hair and beard.

"I'll just bet you do."

"So...," long drawn-out, with teasing challenge in the tone, "keeping that peachfuzz?"

"Keeping yours?"

Shocked, O'Neill put a hand up to his own chin. He hadn't even thought about it; it was just a way of being different from the uniformed jerk he'd been most of his life.

"Maybe."

"Maybe, then," Daniel responded, with a wan smile. "Janet says you've retired."

"Yeah. That's kind of a complicated story. Daniel, I need to ask you some stuff." Every word of this utterance sounded as if it had been dragged out of O'Neill during unanaesthetized root canal.

Beneath the sunburned forehead, pale eyebrows knitted together in consternation. "Jack..."

"Easy," O'Neill soothed. "Gotta understand, Danny, you've been gone two years. There's people around here who aren't going to just accept you're who you say you are. Not right away."

"And you're one of them?" Daniel speculated tiredly.

"Give me a break. I'm the guy with the casting vote. I'm the one who knows what happened the night before you left for Vell. Remember, we had kind of a big argument and you stormed off in a foul mood?"

Daniel regarded him quizzically, his wide blue eyes growing impossibly larger in a face that had lost much of its flesh.

"At least that's not as lame as 'what dress did my sister wear when she dated you'," he said, after a long pause, remembering a previous occasion when he'd been required to prove his identity. "As if I'd let any sister of mine date Jack O'Neill!"

O'Neill winced. It hadn't exactly been his finest hour, but then so few of them had. "Just tell me what happened the night before you left for Vell."

"Okaaaaay. We spent the evening watching TV at your house. We heckled the John Romer Egyptology Special and we were very uncharitable about Zahi Hawass. We ate chicken and drank wine and fell asleep on the couch, and when we woke up it was three o'clock in the morning and we watched that dumb thing about cloning the mammoth for the seventeenth time because..."

"Close enough." Ruthlessly, O'Neill stomped down on the reminiscence.

"...because you had your arms around me and you wouldn't let me go," Daniel pursued. "You weren't ashamed of it then; why are you now?"

"A lot of stuff's happened since." O'Neill would not quite meet his gaze.

"No shit?" The words were a shock coming from Daniel. "So, I'm assuming you haven't told anyone what happened that night?"

"Nothing to tell." Wincing, as though Daniel's fingers had just touched an open wound.

"No. But I guess if we'd had a little more time there would've been?"

"Maybe."

"There would, Jack. We both know it."

"That's totally irrelevant now. It's like it didn't happen, or it was two other guys on another planet."

"'That was in another country; and besides the wench is dead?'" Daniel quoted sadly.

"Uh - yeah." Awkwardly O'Neill looked away.

"You're telling me you want it not to have happened?"

"Daniel, nothing happened!"

"You kissed me, you bastard!" Daniel exclaimed. "How is that nothing?"

Anxiously, O'Neill glanced around to try to discover whether Fraiser or her nurses had heard anything.

"Keep your goddamn' voice down," he said, roughly. "Daniel, it was two years ago. I'm not the same guy I was then. My life's changed, I can't just... Oh god, it wasn't supposed to be like this, but... I have a son, Daniel."

The doll-like china blue eyes expanded still further. "You've married again?" Dull, wasted, defeated sounds. "Hell, Jack, I guess that's one way of avoiding the issue." For a moment the frustration of two years of lost hopes overwhelmed every other consideration. Then, slowly, the promptings of Daniel's rational brain took over and his chin lifted again. "No, that isn't it, is it?"

"No. See, this is where it gets complicated." O'Neill looked down at his old boots and wished, not for the first time, that he wasn't still in Teal'c's borrowed sweats. Suddenly he didn't recognize himself at all. "I'm not married. Well, you know that. I haven't even... while you were away, I mean... Daniel, you know we coulda, woulda and we probably shoulda that night."

"Yeah."

"The road not traveled, you know?"

"Right."

"But we didn't, and you went to Vell, and while you were away... look what happened." He handed over the photograph of DJ which he had borrowed from Fraiser and sat back firmly, waiting for a response.

There was a long silence while Daniel contemplated the picture. Eventually he said, in a small voice and remarkably even tone, "Well, this is... bizarre. I thought this was me, but this boy's wearing a Men in Black teeshirt - which dates it no earlier than the late Nineties - and I don't recognize the setting at all."

"'s my house. My new house. And he is you. Kinda. His name's DJ."

"DJ for... Daniel...?"

"Jackson, yeah."

"So how is he your son? I've only been gone two years. This boy's a teenager."

"I adopted him. Fraiser's not the only one who does crazy things." A self-deprecating shrug, and a general evasiveness about the eyes. "He walked in through the Stargate just after you walked out. He's you down to the last detail. Bright, funny, cute... We didn't know where he came from or how he got here; all we knew was that we'd lost a dollar and found fifty cents. So, I..."

"...adopted him," Daniel completed, thoughtfully, breath almost taken away by the simple grandeur of the notion. "You had no idea who he was but you thought he might be me, so you adopted him." He was still staring at the photograph intently. "Thank you. He isn't me," he added, after a long pause.

"I know that now. I don't know, Daniel, maybe I was missing Charlie, maybe I was missing you, maybe all I wanted was to give you... him... a chance to grow up with... I mean, y'know, some kind of a proper childhood? Kid had no memory when he came to us; he really believes I'm his dad. My ex-wife helped us rig the evidence, and Carter's been unbelievable. You know they gave her my command? She's running SG-1 now."

"If she wasn't, there'd be no justice." Daniel settled back on the pillows. "So where is DJ?"

"Home. Teal'c's baby sitting. I came in for a medical - only supposed to be here a few hours. Want to keep that?" he asked, indicating the picture.

"Can I?"

"Got plenty more."

"I'm sure. He's lucky to have you for a father," Daniel added, wistfully. "I wish I..." But he fell silent again there; regrets were idle beasts, and anyway he certainly did not wish that Jack O'Neill had been his father - not even in the adoptive sense. "I wish I'd had someone like you when I was his age," he finished, limply.

"I think I'm kind of a mixed blessing," O'Neill conceded. "We have a lot of fun together, but I embarrass him sometimes, too." He indicated his gray hair. "I'm nearly old enough to be his grandpa. You'd like him, Daniel."

"Yeah, I think I would. When do I get to meet him?"

O'Neill shrugged. "Janet says the swainsonine has affected your heart," he said, slowly. "You won't be able to fly for a while, and anyway you need to stay in the infirmary until all the toxins are out of your system. It's gonna be weeks before you're fit to travel, and I refuse to bring DJ to the Mountain. He doesn't know a thing about the Stargate and we're hoping to keep it that way."

"Did you tell him anything about me?"

"You're my friend, you're MIA, he was named after you. Nothing else. Except now he's turning into you and sometimes it scares the livin' crap outta me. He's even decided he's gay, would you believe? Got a massive thing for Will Smith. You know, from Men in Black?"

"Hmmmm." Daniel was thoughtful. "I can get to that," he said, eventually.

"God, Daniel, not you too! Carter was bad enough, and I nearly freaked when Teal'c said he wouldn't turn him down either!"

"You have a horny gay son who lusts after smart black guys and you've left Teal'c babysitting him?" Daniel asked, one eyebrow lifting incredulously. "Isn't that dangerous?"

"Quit that," O'Neill said, repressively. "I'm not as dumb as I look, Daniel."

Daniel looked him up and down, measuring his response for a long time before he finally got around to uttering it. "I don't see how that would be possible, Jack," he said, eventually.

 

Fifteen minutes later Hammond, Carter, O'Neill and Fraiser were all seated in chairs ranged around Daniel's bed.

"We should start," the General said, his voice as level and matter of fact as if this was a regular SG-1 de-brief. "Jack has a flight to catch."

"General, I'm sorry, I need to know..." Anxiously, Daniel twisted his hands together. "Did I have anything with me when I came through the gate? Specifically something that looked like a rolled-up blanket?"

"Daniel?" Carter was regarding him quizzically. "We thought it was your bed-roll. Is it something important?"

"Uh, you were supposed to think that. Or rather, other people were. Yes, it's important, Sam. It's a Codex; the ancient script of the Vell people, in their woven language. It represents the entire body of their surviving literature and it could be a star chart or a shopping list for all I can work out so far. The techniques of making and interpreting Vell documents were lost over twelve hundred years ago. The Vell of the modern era have been recycling their people's greatest library for clothing, cutting up their classical literature to keep them warm. It's like Thomas Carlyle's servant using his manuscript as firelighters."

"Hey, don't knock it, Daniel," O'Neill rumbled. "If the night was cold enough, you'd burn nearly anything to stay alive, too. Trust me. An' if you're starving to death it's no consolation to have a Rembrandt on the wall."

Daniel glared daggers at him, but continued stoically as though he had not spoken. He was used to having to ignore Jack O'Neill. "Anyway the Codex was the discovery Shally made which caused her to send for me in the first place. You know she's really more of a geologist than an archaeologist. I mean, I suppose... she was." He stopped, suddenly horribly aware of babbling inanely. "I imagine she didn't come back?" Hopefully he glanced around the table.

"You're the first," Fraiser said, quietly. Her face contorted for a moment, reflecting the hours, weeks and eventually months of disappointed hopes the whole of SGC had endured waiting for news that did not come. "The planet exploded."

"Seismic activity started while I was exploring the Cave of Prophecy," Daniel recalled, his gaze focused into the middle distance so that he need not look at any of his companions. "It opened up fissures in the rock and I presume I was overcome by some kind of naturally occurring gas. I was told later that Colonel Cooper and Lieutenant Novarro dragged me out by the hair, but it seems a little unlikely." A mirthless laugh at what had patently not been a joke.

"Daniel, son," Hammond put in, kindly, "I need to know whether any of SG-19 are likely to be still alive. Did you see any of them after you collapsed in the cave?"

"Yes, General, I did. I'm assuming Ben and Shalinder... I mean, Colonel Cooper and Major Kaur... died in the explosion. At any rate they never made it through the Stargate. It was Captain Buller and Lieutenant Novarro who organized the evacuation. The three of us, plus a hundred and forty five of the Vell, found our way through to the second planet - we called it Vell 2. All I can tell you about it is that it's somewhere in the vicinity of Sigma Draconis; I'm fairly certain I identified Hipparcos. But you have to understand I don't remember much about getting there. I was unconscious when they carried me through the Stargate."

"So you don't know why they didn't dial here?"

"Actually, I do. Sophie... Captain Buller... told me it was the Vell themselves who did the dialing. They dialed at random, and they were lucky enough to strike a safe planet right away. There wasn't a lot of time for decision-making, so Sophie and Felix just went with it; anything to get the people to safety. They thought either Ben or Shally would be able to dial home as soon as they arrived, and for the time being all they cared about was getting as many of the Vell out as they could. Of course, the rest of SG-19 never did arrive - just a lot of debris, blasting out of the Stargate. That was how they knew the planet had gone."

"But you managed to dial Earth, Daniel? Eventually?"

"'Eventually' is the right word, Sam," he answered, turning back to her. "I'd been camped by the DHD for a month trying different combinations. I could have tried a lot sooner if I'd had a GDO, but it was months before I could get Sophie's husband to steal it for me, and then I had to..." His eyes closed, a look of extreme discomfort passing across his face. "Well, it wasn't easy. Boaz didn't want to defy Felix, but he'd already done it once and eventually I managed to persuade him to do it again. I think he might challenge Felix for the leadership now that I've gone, which means he'll probably end up having to kill him..." His voice trailed off into troubled reminiscence. "Vell internal politics," he said, unwilling to elaborate further.

"Then I'm assuming we should mount a rescue mission and try to extract Buller and Novarro?" Hammond asked. "I can have SG-14 and 17 tasked and ready to go within the hour."

"I'm sorry, General, Sophie's dead too. She died on Vell 2. Felix was still alive when I left, but I'm not sure you'd want him back here - and anyway I don't know if he'd be willing to come. Felix Novarro is... among the Vell, he's the one-eyed man."

"Is that like a Fugitive thing?" O'Neill asked, brows knitting. "The one-armed guy who killed Kimble's wife?"

"Not exactly. It's a proverb. 'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.'"

"I knew that."

"So you're saying he's gone native?" Hammond asked, obviously greatly concerned. "Lieutenant Novarro is now leading the Vell? He's their equivalent of Moses?"

"Yes, General. Exactly that."

"I don't get it," Carter put in. "I mean, Novarro's a pretty smart guy and I'd be happy enough to have him around in a crisis, but why choose him? Weren't there any better candidates among the Vell themselves?"

"Damn the Vell, Carter!" O'Neill put in, exasperated. "What was wrong with you, Daniel? Why wouldn't they have you as their leader? You've got a dozen times more smarts than Novarro and that makes you at least fifty times brighter than anyone else on the damn' planet, and I'm betting they could see that the first time they set eyes on you. So why'd they choose Novarro over you?" Why would any rational group of survivors put its fate into the hands of a plodding donkey like Felix Novarro when they could have had one of the brightest human beings ever to step off his own planet?

"I didn't meet the requirement, Jack. Human groups and societies define themselves almost entirely on the basis of exclusion; social cohesion relies on identifying the difference between 'us' and 'them'. No group can function without knowing who it excludes. The Vell chose to exclude me."

"Why, for God's sake?" Knowing he sounded insane, O'Neill could still not help himself; suddenly he was bubbling over with righteous anger at this vicarious rejection.

"I wouldn't fight and I wouldn't fuck," Daniel told him, brutally and deliberately. "Everyone else did both. Even Sophie, eventually, although she really didn't want to. We held out for the longest time, the pair of us. She... I think she died still loving Ben, but after a year when she knew she was never going to see him again she gave in and let Boaz have her. She didn't want to be pregnant, she just wanted someone. Some company. Having the baby killed her," he added, sadly. "I'm sure she knew it would. It was her way of committing suicide."

"Wait a minute. You wouldn't fight... and you wouldn't fuck?"

"Yeah, Jack, which part of that didn't you understand? The way to join the tribe - if you're a guy, anyway - is either to beat one of their men to a pulp or make one of their women pregnant. A woman only has the option of becoming pregnant by a Vell man. Novarro qualified the first day; he pounded Boaz's brother until he couldn't walk; that made him a warrior in their eyes."

"And you chose...?"

"I chose to live apart from the Vell rather than wound a man or use a woman. What would you have done?"

"Beaten the shit out of Novarro and jumped Buller for an encore," O'Neill growled, dismissively. "How the hell do I know, Daniel? I'm not the guy who does this stuff any more. I'm the guy on the school run who teaches people to fly on weekends."

"Exactly. You weren't there, so you have no right to criticize. While you were living your nice suburban life with DJ, I was slowly starving to death. Sophie was the last friend I had on that planet; after she died, they left me completely alone. Completely, Jack. Even Felix didn't waste his time with me any more. In five months, the only person I've really spoken to is Boaz - and I doubt if you'd have done what I had to do to get him to give me the GDO."

O'Neill's face blanched. "What... what'd you have to do, Danny?"

"Nothing I hadn't done before," was the weary response.

O'Neill took in the bowed head, the defeated tone; the fact that Carter and Fraiser were so obviously looking anywhere but at Daniel, or him, or each other; the stunned expression on General Hammond's face.

"Oh, crap," he said, almost lightly. "General, sir, permission to take a party back to that planet and tear a coupla people new assholes?"

"Denied," Hammond told him, without a flicker of humor. "You're a civilian with a family these days, Jack, and if what Daniel tells us is anything like accurate you'd be walking into a solid wall of hostility."

"Oh, like that's anything new!"

"Granted, but the answer's still 'no' - at least for now. When we've had a chance to evaluate the situation further I'll give serious consideration to a surgical strike to recover Lieutenant Novarro. We should at least offer him the option of returning home. What about Captain Buller's body, son; is there any possibility of retrieving it?"

"No, General," Daniel said, sullenly. "They cremated her. I got her tags, though." O'Neill and Carter exchanged uncomfortable glances as he fingered the chain around his neck.

"And her child?"

"Didn't survive. It was born alive, but... malformed, somehow. It only lived... minutes. They burned it alongside Sophie. I wasn't there, but Boaz said the sight of the baby disgusted him. He couldn't even tell what sex it was."

"Charming," O'Neill commented, dourly.

"It's a brutal life they lead," was the sharp retort. "What did you expect, Jack, silverware and table napkins? Life's a bitch, then you die. All the Vell are interested in is a continuing supply of healthy babies; they have a whole planet to stock and a minuscule gene pool equivalent to about half a small village. If Sophie and Boaz could have produced viable children they'd have strengthened the breeding potential of the entire colony. I'm no geneticist, but even I know that without new blood they'll be so in-bred they won't survive more than two or three generations. Boaz was better than most of them; Sophie would never have let him touch her if he wasn't. He was rough and primitive and he had a lot of prejudices you'd probably consider ludicrous, but he did the right thing in the end. And God help us, Jack, if you ever start criticizing another man for being a Neanderthal! Maybe you should take a good long look at yourself in the mirror first!"

"Hey, back off, Daniel! I just tell it like I see it - although I'm willing to concede that I may not have the whole picture." One long, deep breath, carefully exhaled, and for the first time in many years O'Neill wished that he had not been in such a hurry to give up smoking. "Sounds as if you almost liked this Boaz guy, in spite of everything."

"Well, maybe I did," Daniel conceded. "But all things considered, Jack, I don't think I had a lot of choice."

 

"I'm sorry, okay?" After the others had gone O'Neill leaned back against the infirmary wall as a spasm of pain crossed his face. Only Fraiser remained; she was pottering about in her office observing the two of them covertly from time to time.

"It wasn't exactly constructive, was it?" Daniel mused.

"Hey, nobody called you a Neanderthal!"

"Bizarrely enough, when you consider I've been living like one."

"Yeah, well I'm sorry about that, too. I'm sorry about the whole mess - the stuff that's my fault, and the stuff that isn't - but I don't know what I could've done different, Daniel."

"Nothing, Jack. That's the point. I don't see where you went wrong at all; it's just that people change. They start to want different things. We haven't seen each other for two years and maybe I was wrong to try and hang on to something that didn't really exist in the first place, but you have to understand that it was all I had."

"I do understand." O'Neill was still not meeting his gaze. He stood with both hands tucked behind him, staring at some complicated piece of monitoring equipment installed two beds over and wondering just what all those tubes and wires were supposed to do. "But we're further apart now than when I came through the Stargate to find you on Abydos."

"I wanted you to hug me then," Daniel said. "But you pushed past me and grabbed Skaara. That was when I realized you were always going to keep me off-balance."

"You were married, Daniel," O'Neill reminded him, pointedly. "And I liked your wife. Besides which, d'you think after a year on my own I had a clue what I wanted?"

"Why not? I knew."

"You were married to Sha're and you wanted to be with me?"

"Yes."

A long silence fell in the otherwise empty room. Eventually, O'Neill said; "Sha're was..." he held his hands in front of his chest, mimicking full breasts, "...beautiful. Really put together. How could you...?"

"Gay," Daniel said. "Always."

"Apart from the girls, yeah, right."

"You're not listening, Jack. Are you gay or straight?"

"Straight," O'Neill answered without hesitation. "Only..."

"Jack, in the movies, what's the difference between a straight actor kissing a man and a gay actor kissing a woman? Can a pacifist pretend to be a psychopath or a nymphomaniac a nun?"

"Sure they can, but..."

"Don't tell me it's irrelevant!" Daniel snapped, forestalling the obvious comment. "It's very relevant. And after two years on my own, Jack, I know exactly what I want. You may not want the same thing, I accept that, but if either one of us is going to deny what happened I don't want it to be me. No more running and hiding, Jack. I'm out to everyone from now on."

O'Neill's lips pursed thoughtfully. "You'd better tell the General, then," he said, without emotion. "He's gonna offer you a place to live. They had an extension built on the house when his wife was ill; two rooms, a bathroom and a sheltered sun terrace, all specially adapted to take her wheelchair. Ideal for the convalescent, I would have thought."

"What?"

"Better take it, Daniel. I can't have you with me yet, anyway, and I have a feeling we'll need to build a lot of bridges before we even think about that. If George is willing to have you at his place, maybe you should just smile and say 'thank you'."

"More handouts," Daniel murmured.

"Yeah. You've been two years on another planet, Daniel. You have to start from scratch with everything."

"With you too?"

"Yeah." O'Neill's mouth shut like a steel trap, and then he relented slightly, "Well, maybe not right from scratch. Maybe from the part where I stopped thinking you were an annoying geek and started wondering about kissing you."

"Just before..."

"Rewind two years," O'Neill said. "Only remember that this time I'm a single father with an impressionable kid and I'm not in the market for casual affairs. We do this, Daniel, we do it right. No half measures. All or nothing."

"Okay."

"Okay?" Suspiciously.

"Okay, Jack, I'll think about it. We'll build bridges. We'll start at the beginning again."

"Okay." O'Neill shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "I have to go. Will you be okay?"

"Uh-huh."

"I sort of feel like I ought to kiss you goodbye, but you have a beard."

"So do you."

"Yeah. I wouldn't want us to get Velcro'd together. Be kind of a giveaway if Fraiser had to come in and separate us with scissors."

"Potentially very embarrassing," Daniel conceded.

"Right. Uh. Well, take care of yourself, Hippie Boy. Or let Fraiser do it for you. Let me know how the thing works out with Hammond. I'll be in touch."

"Good flight back," Daniel said, softly. "Tell DJ I said 'hi'. Tell Teal'c to come see me."

"Gotya. Daniel, I..."

"Out, Jack, now. While I can still let you go."

A scared rabbit kind of look crossed O'Neill's face briefly, then dissolved into a moment of helpless longing as his brown eyes met Daniel's blue across an expanse of infirmary only just wide enough to be safe.

"Gone," he said, abruptly, and spun around. A moment later he was in Fraiser's office, picking up a box of tissues from her desk and thrusting it into her hands. "Take him these," he said - and before she had time to acknowledge the instruction, he had indeed gone. And this time he did not return.

 

* IV *

"It's not much, son," General Hammond said later, with the air of one who breaks bad news, "but it has to be better than a hospital bed twenty stories below ground. It has a view of the garden, for a start."

Daniel looked at the photographs and architectural plans in bewilderment, self-consciously running a hand across his now smooth chin. O'Neill's parting remarks had jolted him badly, but it had been Fraiser's quietly empathic comment that had finally prompted him to action.

"You don't need it to hide behind any more, Daniel."

He had looked her in the eye and blurted, "Don't you mean 'Come out come out wherever you are'?" but she had responded only with an enigmatic Mona Lisa of a smile and a warm hand on his shoulder.

"I'm afraid a view won't be much use to me, General," he smiled, sadly, pulling his wandering attention back to the present only with difficulty. "Not if I'm going to be working. I'll have to install UV filters at the windows, and it would be wise to add a set of blackout blinds as well. But I guess I can walk in the garden when I'm not working," he added, knowing the pride his would-be host took in his small corner of Heaven.

"This time of year we mostly live in the garden," Hammond told him, with a chuckle. "My daughter-in-law likes to cook outside, and the girls play in the pool every day when the weather's good enough. Ann used to wheel herself out and tend to her roses whenever she could." He coughed, clearing his throat. "Daniel, son, if you'll forgive me, I think you could stand a little family life for a while. You'd have your own bedroom and bathroom and a large room to work in, and I'll make sure you get all the facilities you need. You can eat and spend time with the family when you feel like it, or you can shut yourself away and work through the night. And it's time we started using those rooms again; they've hardly been touched since Ann died."

"General... George... " Daniel felt he could hardly go on addressing Hammond by his military title when the man had just virtually offered to be his father, so he made an effort to inject a little warmth into his tone. "I'm not used to... I mean I've been living in caves. Indoor plumbing will be a great step up for me. And I haven't attempted to study the Codex at all; I was afraid of what the UV light on Vell 2 might do to it, if it was exposed for long. I did try to examine it once by firelight, but I couldn't get it bright enough and the smoke smelled so bad..." He trailed off then, thinking of all the nights he had been afraid to light a fire for fear of giving away his location. Staying close to the Vell settlement was the sensible thing to do; he had sometimes been able to steal food, and anyway it had kept him within striking distance of the Stargate. It had also had its disadvantages, however, in that once or twice Novarro had seen fit to come and find him - and it was never pleasant when he did.

"Well, give us a few days and we'll get the rooms fixed up to your specification. Anything you want - computers, microscopes - can be brought from the Mountain. I'll have Kezia redecorate the bedroom and bathroom and put in a proper bed. I hope we won't be needing Ann's special bed again; perhaps Doctor Fraiser will find a use for it."

"You haven't touched her rooms since she died," Daniel whispered, stunned by the realization. "Are you sure you want me in there, disturbing your memories?"

Hammond laughed wryly. "Daniel," he said, gently, "my wife was a good and sweet woman. I almost feel I can hear her voice now, telling me to 'give that boy a home'. If she'd been alive, she'd have made the offer herself. Come along and convalesce with us, son. We'll feed you up and give you a place to rest - and work if you want to - and there'll be cars to take you back and forth to the Mountain whenever you like. Oh, and one more thing. I don't know how much it matters to you that Jack won't bring DJ to the base - but there's no reason on Earth why he wouldn't bring him down for a visit to the Hammond family in their home, now, is there?"

Daniel's mouth had compressed to a fine line. "No, there isn't," he admitted. "I want to accept, but you should understand..." He stopped, bit his lip, and then said, "George, I've been alone a long time and I've done a good bit of thinking about what was important and what wasn't. One of the things I decided is it's time to stop hiding from the truth... and from myself. Before I accept your offer you should be aware... I'm gay. Homosexual. I always have been."

Hammond nodded. "I know that, son," he said, calmly. "To me, what you are is a friend who needs a home, and I happen to have a home that might just suit you - until you get yourself fixed up, at any rate. If you want to have friends to visit, of either gender, that's fine. I'll only ask you to be discreet in front of the children until Kez has a chance to explain things to them. Other than that, your private life doesn't make a scrap of difference to my offer. Should we give it a trial, do you think?"

Overwhelmed, Daniel looked away. "Thank you," he said. "It's the most generous... It's been so long since... I may have trouble adapting," he finished anxiously.

"Then we'll take each day as it comes," Hammond smiled. "I'll tell Kez to go ahead and choose the paint colors. Any preferences?"

"Anything," Daniel said, bewilderedly. "Anything at all, George, as long as it's not gray."

 

Over the next few weeks the garden extension at the Hammond residence quickly became an adjunct to the SGC, with Daniel's books and papers in piles on the floor and his maps and diagrams stuck up on every available wall. Within hours of him taking up residence with the family it became apparent that he was utterly paranoid about any of his belongings being touched, and in the interests of domestic harmony the Hammonds thought it best to ignore the existence of his living and working space in its entirety for the duration.

The large windows of his workroom that gave onto the garden had been shielded to reduce light levels, and on a wide table, on top of several layers of acid-free tissue, a delicate pale-green textile had been carefully unrolled and secured. When Janet Fraiser entered from the house on her first visit to Daniel she found him bending low over the fabric, scrutinizing it closely with a hand lens, occasionally dictating a few muttered words into a microphone slung around his neck.

"Hey, Daniel."

He stopped what he was doing and stepped back suddenly, a puzzled expression on his face.

"Janet? Um - I'm sorry, was I expecting you?"

"No, sweetie, but with SG-1 out of town my workload is severely reduced, so I dropped by to see how the work on the Codex is going. General Hammond told you they're on Vell 2, trying to recover Felix Novarro?"

"Yes. Have you heard from them?"

"Just a routine check-in. They'd located the village and were keeping it under observation. You know Sam won't take any stupid risks."

"I know. She's more like Jack than either of them would want to admit." He unhooked the microphone and clicked a mouse button on his PC. "Have you seen the intricate pattern of the raised stitches?" he asked, wafting a hand towards the delicate green fabric with minuscule bumps and twists crammed tightly together in every square inch. At first it looked completely random, but closer examination revealed a bewildering systematization to it; each row began with an elongated dot, continued for a longer or shorter distance, and then concluded with a small cross. It did not take a great leap of the imagination to see these conglomerations of shapes as words, or perhaps sentences. "Actually it's more of a code than an actual writing system, the equivalent of Braille or Morse in our world. I believe the ancient people of the original planet started leaving messages for one another made out of patterns of small stones, sticks, animal bones, which they later represented in various other ways - on clay tablets, jewelry, carved on wood, and eventually in woven textiles. I can't quite comprehend the ideology that would make a tactile language seem more natural than a written one, unless the original planet went through a long period of global darkness. I'm hoping there's something in the Codex to give me a clue."

"You'll figure it out, Daniel," Fraiser soothed. "If anyone can. Are you still taking your medication?"

"Religiously." Daniel peeled off the thin cotton gloves he had been wearing to examine the Codex. "Kezia follows me around like a mother hen. She's worse than Jack. Are you here to examine me?"

"Only incidentally," she conceded, with a reassuring smile. "How about letting me listen to your heart for a moment?"

Daniel had become accustomed to Fraiser's apparently obsessive need to examine him at all hours of the day or night, and he did not hesitate. He simply lifted his tee-shirt and allowed her to place her stethoscope against his chest. After a short while, she nodded in evident satisfaction.

"How's the breathlessness?"

"Better. I've got an exercise bike set up on the sun terrace and I've started working out a few minutes every day like you suggested. My legs get tired very quickly, but my breathing seems to be holding up."

"You're still weak, Daniel. There's so much muscle wastage, it could be years before you fully regain your strength. But you're fit to fly," Fraiser added, thoughtfully, packing away her stethoscope into a shoulder bag.

"Fly? Am I going somewhere?"

"There's an Air Force transport waiting for us as soon as we can get moving. Jack called an hour ago."

"What?" Daniel's face was white. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm afraid so. DJ was attacked in the street and badly injured. In fact he's in the hospital and he hasn't regained consciousness yet. There's a chance he could die or be permanently brain damaged. I don't have all the details, but it's serious enough for General Hammond to want to get us both there as quickly as possible. He's making the arrangements as we speak. You'd better pack an overnight bag; our flight should be warming up on the tarmac by the time we get there."

"Wha- I mean, why-?" Utterly helpless, Daniel opened his hands to Fraiser and his silence asked questions he could not frame.

"Jack needs you," Fraiser articulated, very precisely. "When have you ever needed more than that?"

Paralyzed for a moment, he stared at her without immediate comprehension. Then, "Ten minutes. It'll take me ten minutes. Tell Kez where I'm going and I'll meet you out the front in ten minutes. Where are we going again?"

"Canadian border. Think 'ten degrees cooler'."

"Got it," he said. "Ten..."

"...minutes," she smiled. "Good boy," and watched him go.

 

"Jack told Sam he's always thought of DJ as your son," Fraiser said, calmly, an hour later. There was a wildness about Daniel's eyes that she distrusted entirely, as if some confusing emotion was breaking out of containment and threatening to overwhelm him. Someone had to do something to reduce his level of tension; he had been gripping the arm rests with paralyzed fingers since takeoff, and having sought in vain for a distracting topic he could respond to she now decided instead to deal with the elephant so largely and manifestly occupying space in the room.

"Mine?" A faint, bemused echo. "How could...? I mean, it's not..." His gaze flickered across her momentarily, and then away. Late sunshine was pouring through the cabin of what would in civilian life have been a twelve seater corporate jet; in its military guise it was a flying conference room which was occasionally loaned to senior government personnel. It had a crew of five, just two passengers, and no movie.

"You know as well as I do, Daniel," she responded, in a mildly lecturing tone, "people will invent their own explanations for whatever they don't understand. Jack wanted an explanation for DJ's origins that he could accept, and when he made up his mind that DJ was your child - well, that was when he offered him a home. You must realize, we didn't have enough information to determine whether DJ was you - or just a copy of you. We still don't. If he was a clone, for example, how was your genetic material obtained? Do you have any recollection of, say, contributing to a sperm bank in your early twenties?"

"I've never-" Acutely embarrassed, Daniel modified the loud outburst that had almost escaped him. "No, I've never done that."

"No-one ever tried to convince you that as one of the brightest human beings on the planet you owed it to posterity to leave a little something on deposit?" she teased, gently.

"No! At least, I remember the usual drunken late night conversation - but I never did anything about it."

Fraiser shook her head thoughtfully. "So what about relationships at the time? Was there anyone you had sex with who could have had an alien origin? Anyone who could have obtained your DNA by deception?"

"Janet!" Scandalized, he turned in his seat. "What is this?"

Her lips thinned. "Daniel, we both know how far the science of human cloning has advanced here on Earth; we're decades away from possessing the technology to clone a whole human being. Particularly a male human being," she added, thoughtfully. "Experiments in animals only work with female subjects; the only way we know how to make a male embryo at the moment is to clone a female embryo and then give it a massive shot of testosterone in utero. That's quite obviously not how DJ was created. The simplest explanation for him is that some alien culture obtained your genetic material with the specific intention of cloning you, and either that happened fifteen years ago and he was grown in real time - in which case they may have had knowledge of your future involvement with the Stargate program - or it's happened since and his growth was accelerated. We know the Ree'tou are capable of accelerated clone growth, but their technology is flawed - we saw that with 'Charlie'."

Briefly they both remembered a little alien boy with waxy transparent skin and huge, distressed eyes who had been a tiny pawn in a great game, and would have ended up as a pawn sacrifice but for Jack O'Neill.

"What you need to understand, Daniel," Fraiser went on, carefully, "is that DJ being your clone makes you his biological parent. DNA tests show you to be either father and son or twin brothers. On the genetic evidence you have the same rights and obligations towards DJ as any natural father. Jack knows that. It's why he's asking for you now."

Daniel was silent. He turned and looked out of the window, not seeing the whipped-cream clouds or the golden caramel sky but looking instead, inside his mind, into the rich mystery of O'Neill's eyes. Whatever had been there before he went to Vell with SG-19 was still there, only changed, modified. It was no longer unconditional, but it still begged.

"I'm his... father?" Daniel tried the word for the very first time.

"His biological father," Fraiser repeated. She had never imagined that she would have to go through this in such excruciating kindergarten-level detail with a man of his intelligence, but then the emotional implications had been difficult for them all to grasp. O'Neill's stunned and almost savage response to Daniel's unexpected return had been the defensive instinct of a man who wanted to open out and close up all at the same time; conflicted, he had withdrawn from the source of the confusion as soon as possible.

"Jack...?"

"Is his adoptive father. You both have legal status in DJ's life. You're both," she added, as gently as she could, "his parents. DJ belongs to the two of you. Together."

Stunned, he leaned back in his seat. "Jack and me? Parents?" It sounded so reasonable at first that he found himself grappling with a surreal 'what is wrong with this picture' moment.

"Yes. How do you feel about that?"

Scared, he thought. No, actually, terrified. I'm not ready to be a father.

"I have no fundamental objection to having a child with Jack," he heard himself say at last, surprised by the smoothness of his answer. "I never did. Although I would like to have been consulted first."

"I know." Fraiser accepted his words without comment. "But a lot of people become parents by accident. I did, after all. You just have to do the best you can. It's what parents do." She sighed. "It's difficult to imagine why the Ree'tou or any other advanced species would invest precious resources in making a clone of you and then abandon him on Earth; there's definitely no sign of any sleeper weapons technology in DJ's body like Cassandra had. It's taken me nearly two years, Daniel, but in the end I've come to the conclusion that DJ's a normal human child - with the minor exception that he originated somewhere else and he's an exact copy of you. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to make him perfect, but I have absolutely no idea why."

"To give Jack something to do in his retirement," Daniel speculated, a searing edge of unwonted flippancy to his tone.

"He does seem to be enjoying the whole parenting experience," she smiled. "I'd say it had been good for him."

"Yeah." Daniel closed his eyes. "Gives him an opportunity to look after somebody too young and too awe-struck to protest. He'd have ended up smothering me if I'd let him."

"Did he ever get the chance?"

"No."

"Will he?"

There was silence from the seat next to her; silence so long and so profound that Fraiser almost became convinced that despite the circumstances her traveling companion had fallen asleep. Then, eventually, Daniel said, "We want different things, Janet. Jack's happy the way he is. I wouldn't want to change anything."

"I think we should let him make that decision, sweetie," she replied, patting his hand. "Don't you? You never know, he might surprise us both."

 

Walking beside Janet Fraiser into the little local hospital where DJ was being treated was something of a revelation to Daniel. He watched her virtually shoulder-charge aside any potential opposition with the words, "Dr. Fraiser for Dr. Nagama", and at the entrance to Critical Care she said simply but firmly, "Dr. Jackson is DJ's other father," and to his astonishment that was enough to get them past the barrier and into the elevator.

"Janet!" The doors closed on his protest. "That makes it sound as if we're..."

"Partners," Janet shrugged. "How else are the people here supposed to interpret two men as the parents of a young boy, Daniel? Yes, they're going to think you're gay - which in your case is perfectly accurate anyway - and they're going to think you and Jack have a physical relationship. So on a scale of one to ten, how dreadful is that?"

"It's about... a one or a two," he admitted.

"Right. You guys love each other and now you have a child; I think we're looking at a natural progression here."

"Maybe." The elevator doors opened quietly, and Daniel watched as Janet greeted a petite Japanese woman in a doctor's white coat who wore a lapel badge identifying her as Dr. Nagama.

"Ayumi, this is Dr. Daniel Jackson. Daniel, Dr. Ayumi Nagama."

Preoccupied, Daniel half-bowed. "Konbanwa, Ayumi-san," he said, code-switching into Japanese without so much as a half thought. He was wondering which of the white doors Jack and DJ were behind, and what would happen if one of the red lights above those doors suddenly started flashing.

"Ouch!" Nagama responded, with a smile. "Dr. Jackson, I don't speak a lot of Japanese - and your accent is much better than mine. Could we stick to plain American, please?"

"I'm sorry, Doctor. How's DJ?"

"Badly concussed. We're keeping him sedated to reduce the swelling in his brain," Nagama replied. "Otherwise we've repaired most of the physical damage. Why don't you go along and see him? Room 4."

"Go ahead, Daniel," Fraiser encouraged. "I want to talk to Ayumi about DJ's treatment, and maybe you can stop Jack terrorizing the poor nurses for a while."

Still Daniel hesitated, but Fraiser's hand on his shoulder supplied the encouragement to get him moving.

"I'll be along shortly," she said. "Don't try too hard. Just be yourself. Be whatever Jack needs you to be."

I can do that, he realized, and the thought surprised him with its simplicity. Yes, I can be what Jack needs me to be. For a little while, at least.

A few paces down the corridor, Daniel opened the door of Room 4 quietly and slipped inside the standard small white room, its shuttered window giving onto featureless night sky, its white-covered bed surrounded by things that beeped hypnotically. O'Neill was hunched over the bed and had all his attention concentrated on the small form of his son, making no effort to move or even turn in Daniel's direction. By now he was so inured to the comings and goings of hospital staff that one more intrusion into his closed little world made not an iota of difference.

"Jack?"

Surprised by the sound of his voice, O'Neill turned and stared for a moment, then said, cautiously, "Daniel? That you?" as if he could not quite believe the evidence of his eyes.

Daniel shrugged. "I guess." He stepped closer to the bed, somewhere in the middle of which was a battered shape with long light brown hair and a Men in Black tee-shirt. This child looked much younger than the fourteen years old he knew DJ to be, and his face was misshapen and discolored with bloody bruises and splits in the skin. Above his left eye rose a bulge the size of a small egg, and his nose was bent sideways and the nostrils purple with dried blood. The last person Daniel had seen in that condition had been Rocky Balboa after fighting Apollo Creed.

Daniel felt his heart seize up suddenly. If this boy had been more literally his own child, his own flesh and blood, this was exactly how it would have felt to see him in such a state. Some primitive paternal instinct in him was cutting in, something coming online he had never suspected was part of his makeup, some atavistic urge to put both arms around the boy and snarl at the world.

"So this is DJ?" he breathed, softly, letting bewildering emotions roil unattended at the back of his consciousness.

"Yeah."

"Our son?" Fraiser's words had not come precisely as a surprise, but until this moment he had had very little understanding of their implications. "That's really how you think of him?"

"Yours and mine," O'Neill confirmed, as if he had been expecting the question. "This wasn't how I wanted to do this, Daniel. I wanted to give us all a lot more time."

"Doesn't matter." He slumped into the chair beside O'Neill but kept his gaze on DJ. "What happened?"

O'Neill groaned softly. "I had one of my student pilots soloing this afternoon so I had to be out at the airfield. Deej went to a movie with his friend Toby, and Toby's father was supposed to pick them up. He was a little late so he called on Toby's cellphone and told them just to wait on the corner, and that's exactly what they did. They're good kids, Daniel. But they're kids, and they think they're gay, and they're flirting with each other all the damn time - and our kid, our precious fourteen year old hero, is so not scared of the world that he has no hesitation in kissing his boyfriend right out there in the public street. You know it would never cross his mind that anybody might object."

"And somebody did? Let me guess. Toby's father?"

"Aaron? Are you kidding? God, no. He's blaming himself for stuff like being late to pick them up, and not realizing there was anything wrong. No, it was a bunch of kids their own age, maybe older. Skinheads, punks, whatever kids are these days. The nasty kind, you know? Toby split and ran; DJ tried to stand and fight. Little guy just got overwhelmed. He has boot marks all over his body. Aaron called the cops when he got there. Then he called me." He paused, looked across at Daniel. "I taught him too well. Taught him not to be afraid of anybody, to be proud of who he is, to stare the whole world right in the eye. I taught him to stand up for his friends, not to back away from a challenge, and to try and protect anybody weaker than himself. When you boil it all down, Daniel, this is my fault. I did this to him."

"No, you didn't." The words came automatically; Daniel didn't even have to think about them. "He's your son; he couldn't live with himself if he'd chickened out in a crisis. I'm guessing you taught him to be stubborn, too, just like his dad."

"Cussed," O'Neill confirmed.

"But that's good, Jack. In fact it's great. You wanted him to be strong. You wanted him to be the kid I would have been if my parents had lived," Daniel went on, evenly. "Didn't you? You wanted him to have the kind of upbringing I didn't get. And on top of that you wanted him to have the future you once wanted for Charlie."

"Yeah."

"That figures. I always knew under that hard-bitten, seen-it-all Colonel you were a total bag of mush - especially around kids, small animals, and a certain archaeologist."

"Space Monkey," O'Neill corrected, and a hint of color rose in his pale cheeks.

"Uh, yeah." A rueful cough, but there was a fondness, an indulgence, in Daniel's eyes when he looked back up. "I'd like to get to know your son, Jack. Our son. D'you think when he's well again we could all... do some stuff together? The kind of stuff families do?"

"Like...?" O'Neill prompted.

Daniel shrugged. "I don't know what kids do these days," he confessed. "Swim? Ride horses?"

"Okay."

"Eat pizza? Watch movies?"

"Yeah, he likes to eat," O'Neill admitted, almost apologetically. "The kinds of things you probably wouldn't insult your digestive system with; burgers and fries, popcorn, ice cream."

"Stuff I really missed on a planet in Sigma Draconis where there wasn't a McDonalds or a Starbucks for twenty light years," Daniel reminded him, with a smile. "And what I was eating out there nearly killed me. A couple more weeks and I wouldn't have had the strength to step through the Stargate."

"Yeah, I know. Locoweed, Daniel, for Pete's sake."

Daniel grimaced. "I hate to speak ill of the dead, Jack, but Sophie was our botanist and she said it was safe. The Vell are probably still eating it, but they have other resources too. Fish, wildfowl, you know."

"Uh-huh." While the dietary habits of the transplanted Vell were obviously relevant to something, O'Neill was having great difficult understanding what they had to do with the present situation. He reached a hand out and patted the back of Daniel's wrist to silence him.

"I'm babbling, aren't I?" Daniel asked, embarrassed.

"Yeah." O'Neill seemed to gather strength from somewhere outside himself before proceeding. "I want DJ to know you, Danny. I always did. I was planning to sit him down some time and tell him about you, but I haven't even told him you're back. The time never seemed to be right, you know? But you guys have a lot in common - and not just the size of your brains. Do you think maybe if he doesn't change his mind again you could teach him how to handle being gay?"

"I'm not sure," was the subdued response. "I haven't handled it very well myself. I'll help if I can, but so far you're doing a hell of a job. There probably isn't much I could contribute."

"I need you around." The statement was bald and unembellished, raw with agony. "I was losing track of who was who. Couple of times lately I've heard myself calling him 'Daniel'. He has these blue eyes and this smile that's so much like yours and sometimes I look at him and it frightens me. If you hadn't come back when you did I might have ended up..." O'Neill could not meet Daniel's concerned gaze. He wasn't sure how he could ever explain the terror that had begun to overwhelm him; terror that as DJ matured he might find himself sexually attracted to a boy who was the image of the man he had lost; one he had sworn to protect from everything malign for the sake of who he appeared to be. "Dammit, Daniel," he exclaimed, "I missed you so goddamn' much I kept every goddamn' thing I could ever remember you touching including the couch we made out on the night before you left! It made me feel closer to you. It made me feel like one day you might be coming back. Oh god, I am such a tragic old bastard!"

Appalled, Daniel slid a comforting arm around his shoulders. It was the first time they had hugged since O'Neill had declined to kiss him goodbye in the SGC infirmary. "You're not tragic, Jack," he whispered. "You're not old. And I would never have left you if I'd had the choice, but I was committed to go to Vell with Nineteen and you approved the mission."

"Biggest mistake I ever made," O'Neill conceded, angrily. "But who knew the planet was going to have a cataclysmic seismic event two days later?"

Somebody should have done, certainly. Somebody in tech section had fucked up big time, and there had been some rather sudden and unexplained resignations in the few weeks after Daniel's disappearance. Hammond and Carter had investigated the mission prep for Vell and found it so full of holes you could drive a whole squadron of C5A Galaxy freighters through it. By the time they had got that far, however, all the remaining evidence pointed the finger of blame directly at the late Colonel Ben Cooper and his team, something O'Neill had resolutely refused to countenance.

"What was I supposed to do after that?" he went on, wearily. "Sit and wait for a miracle? Well, I would have, if DJ hadn't come along. But I had to try to build a life for us both. It's what I thought you'd have wanted."

"It's exactly what I wanted," Daniel soothed. "You to love somebody else for my sake. That's healthy, Jack. That's the way it's supposed to work. And every night for two years I sat in a smelly cave on that toilet of a planet praying that you'd find the strength to carry on without me. I wanted you alive and happy, that's all. Even if I never saw you again."

"Oh god." Groaning, O'Neill leaned forward and buried his face in both hands. "Daniel... You can't say things like that!"

"Why? Because we never got around to using the 'l' word? So what was kissing me senseless on your couch all about, Jack, if it wasn't about love? And what was that whole Space Monkey thing in the gate room that time?"

"Embarrassing, that's what it was. Sometimes my mouth just opens and the damnedest things come out. Don't tell me you weren't embarrassed. You were red as a boiled lobster. I still have cold sweats thinking about it."

"I wasn't embarrassed," Daniel insisted. "It was what I wanted. Why didn't you just go ahead and kiss me when you had the chance? That was the first time you knew you wanted to, wasn't it?"

"Hell, no." Flat denial, rising to absolute incredulity. "The first time? God, Daniel, is that what you think? Do you actually know me at all?"

Silence. A slow, festering silence while Daniel's universe re-ordered itself.

"A-Abydos?" he faltered, eventually, unable to credit his staggering senses. "Abydos? Jack, you can't... you couldn't... you didn't...?"

"Can. Could. In fact, did." The even, matter of fact tone could have been announcing the time of the next bus to Pittsburgh for all the emotion it contained.

"Abydos? You sidestepped me to get to Skaara, remember? I was there waiting when you came through the Stargate and you hugged Skaara. You think that didn't hurt?"

"Well, duh, Daniel, you had a wife, remember? And she was there with you. How crass d'you think I am?"

"Pretty crass." The knee jerk reaction was quickly amended. "No, not even a little bit. You were scared, weren't you?"

"Shitless," O'Neill confirmed inelegantly. "Think I didn't want to touch you? Think I didn't want to hold you and kiss you and drag you behind the nearest sand dune and make sweet love to you? Think again, baby. I wanted all that and a hell of a lot more, and I still do. It's just that... stuff gets in the way. And now there's DJ - and heaven help me, Daniel, if I ever have to choose between your interests and his..."

"You'll choose him. I know."

"Yeah. And you know why?"

"He's your son. You're his father. While he's too young to fend for himself, his needs take priority. Don’t worry, Jack - that's exactly what you should be doing. It's what dads do."

"Yeah, only with one minor exception, remember? You're his dad too. We're his parents. You and me." He shook his head as if he had still not quite reconciled himself to the knowledge.

"I know." Daniel stared at the blank wall behind the bed, thinking in some corner of his mind how much better it would look for some inoffensive print of flowers or a beach scene. Then he let out a deep sigh. "Tell me it gets easier?"

"Being a parent?" O'Neill shook his head slowly. "I could tell you, but you wouldn't believe me. You get your good days and your bad days, you get your even worse days and your deep shit days and you cope with them all. And then sometimes - well, just when you think you're starting to get the hang of it, you get days like this one. An' that's when you wish you could send the kid back and claim a refund, but it doesn't work like that. Make one mistake, Daniel, and you're stuck with it for life. I'll take The False God Apophis any day of the week."

"Kind of makes you wish for the good old days fighting off the Goa'uld, does it?" Daniel asked, allowing a smile to touch his mouth.

"Believe me," O'Neill groaned, "we didn't know how lucky we were."

 

* V *

By three the following morning Daniel had run out of conversation and had dragged himself through about as many 'least favorite Goa'uld' reminiscences as he could tolerate for one night. He had loosened his shoes and the belt of his jeans and stretched his long legs out in front of him, tucking his head down onto his shoulder and covering himself with his jacket as he often did on airplanes. At the very least it signified that he did not want to be disturbed, although he was not sure whether he slept or not; he seemed to hear every sound in the room, from the creaking of Jack's chair to the soft breathing of the boy on the bed, and he was aware of every set of footsteps that passed in the corridor. However he was so close to the edges of sleep that when Fraiser put her head around the door to say she was going to grab a couple of hours' rest in the doctors' lounge he let Jack answer for them both with a taciturn grunt of acknowledgment, probably followed - although Daniel did not see it - by one of his winsomely apologetic little-boy smiles.

"Goodnight," Fraiser wished them, quietly.

"Yeah, g'night," O'Neill replied. Daniel knew he had ceased to think about Fraiser almost before the door closed behind her.

By five, the sky was light and the early shift of cleaners had come on duty. The distant sound of buffing-machines getting to grips with the floor had its counterpoint in the more frequent soft chime as the elevator once again reached their level; the waking-up noises of a busy hospital wing threaded together into a pattern of sound reassuring in its sheer banality. The wider universe was behaving perfectly normally; only in their little corner of it had the erratic courses of certain stars caused a fluctuation to the surface of space, time and reality.

Daniel's mind was still caught in limbo. Half-conscious, puzzling his way through the complexities of the Vell Codex, he always arrived back at the same place - wondering whether the latest thinking about the nature of the Oracle at Delphi had any bearing on the Vell legends of the Cave of Prophecy and how he or anyone else could be expected to prove a single thing about the Vell now that their planet was dust and their people had relocated to Sigma Draconis.

"Coffee," O'Neill said, distinctly, apropos of nothing else. "You are allowed coffee now?"

"Unh." It was the closest to a response he could frame, but the man beside him seemed to understand.

"I'll take that as a 'yes', then."

"Okay - um, got enough - change?" It was little use, Daniel thought, having the mind of a lexicographer allied to the vocabulary of a cane toad.

"Think so. I'll freshen up a bit first. Be about twenty minutes."

Opening his eyes a fraction, Daniel confirmed that his co-parent could certainly stand some freshening up. His eyes were deeply sunken into a pasty gray face, his hair mussed and spiked from being grabbed in his own despairing fingers, and his clothes, which must at some stage have been reasonably smart, now looked as if they had been kicked several times around the hospital parking lot - with Jack still inside them.

"Good idea."

"Oh yeah? Go on and take a look at yourself, Monkey Boy," O'Neill advised with a laugh completely devoid of any amusement. "Hardly a GQ cover shot."

"Coffee?" Daniel repeated, dangerously.

"Coffee," O'Neill confirmed. "No chance of a civilized conversation with you until you get your caffeine fix, is there?"

"None." Daniel let his eyes close again. "A few more minutes, Jack. Just a few more minutes."

"Yeah, Daniel," the older man groaned, levering the door open despite extreme weariness which weighted every bone in his body. "That's what they all say."

 

"Daniel?"

Not again. He swore was going to kill someone in a minute if they didn't let him sleep for five uninterrupted minutes. Just five. Ten at the most.

"Dan-iel?"

Ugh. Breaking his name into two coaxing syllables like that always annoyed the hell out of him. It reminded him of the tactics adults tried when they thought children should be out getting more fresh air or tidying their bedroom or putting on a clean shirt before Auntie Maud got here.

"Daniel?"

More insistent still, and all the responses that occurred to Daniel seemed to contain the word 'off'.

"I'm dead," he growled. "Seriously dead. And I didn't leave a forwarding address."

"Daniel Jackson? Really and truly Daniel Jackson?"

It didn't sound like Jack's voice, now he thought about it. Nor any voice associated with work or duty or giving up so much as a precious minute of sleep. Nor in fact any voice he recognized at all.

His eyes snapped open suddenly. While his brain was still nothing like online there was at least some sense in which he was processing information, except that it could not have been more confusing. He had never been vain as a child; he had merely spent an average amount of time looking into mirrors, examining pimples or watching himself brush his teeth. He had never worked out the anthropological significance of brushing one's teeth before a mirror but he supposed it must have some. Now, however, he was face to face with a teenage time when he had known far less about the boy in the mirror than he did today.

"DJ? Uhn, DJ, I'm - "

"Daniel Jackson," DJ returned easily. In fact he almost savored the words, as if he was saying 'cappuccino ice cream' or 'tiramisu'.

"Yeah, I'm - your dad's - f-friend," Daniel stuttered, hearing the word and thinking exactly how far it fell from what he was to Jack or Jack to him. Yet 'lover' would not be strictly accurate and 'partner' was a world away. "I should call him. He only went down the hall to get coffee. How are you feeling? Should I call the nurse?"

"I'm okay. Where's Toby?" DJ sounded a little sluggy, still medicated to the eyeballs, thought lagging behind speech.

"Toby?"

"Toby's my friend. I was with him after the movie. Was he hurt too?"

"No. Just scared I think. He's home with his family." Daniel leaned closer to the bed, not sure whether he ought to try to take DJ's hand in his own, very aware of the horrible spectacle he must be this morning. Lounging around at the Hammond home doing desultory research on the Vell Codex hadn't required a high standard of dress or personal appearance and he was wearing whatever he had thrown on when Janet called to fetch him. He reckoned he probably looked the epitome of a child abuser, and he didn't want the boy frightened any more than he had been already.

"He's cute." DJ smiled as well as he could; his face was badly torn and there were some muscles in his cheek which adamantly refused to become involved.

"I didn't - meet him." Daniel declined to express an opinion as to Toby's alleged cuteness. "He'd left before I got here."

He wondered if he should make some comment about DJ's relationship with Toby. What would Jack say in the circumstances? Or Samantha Carter? Lately she had seemed to be much more sensible and reliable than the pair of them put together. SG-1 could hardly be in better hands.

"Ummm, you know, DJ, maybe kissing Toby in public wasn't the smartest move you could have made." He couldn't for the life of him persuade his tone to be any more than mildly critical. Jack had asked him to try to help the boy handle being gay; the best he could do for him at the moment was to counsel caution.

Blue eyes watched him out of a ruined face.

"He's my boyfriend," DJ objected, stubbornly. "Duh!"

"I know that, DJ, but - Some people don't like seeing that stuff. They like to pretend it doesn't exist."

"So I should be scared of them? I don't think so." DJ was silent for what seemed a long time. Then he said, "Daniel Jackson?"

The inflection was all Teal'c; Daniel wondered briefly if they had discussed him during one of Jack's many absences on SGC business. Did DJ already have a mental picture of who Daniel was, and was he therefore in danger of disappointing this boy Jack insisted was their mutual son?

"Yes?"

"Toby's grandpa comes from Holland. He's got this number tattooed on his arm where somebody tried to pretend he didn't exist."

"It's not - " Leaping to his own defense, Daniel wondered why he hadn't thought of that for himself. "Actually, it probably is the same, isn't it?"

"You just are what you are," DJ told him, sadly. "If other people don't like it - "

"It's their problem?"

"Yeah."

Daniel wished it was that simple, he really did. In a perfect world, that's how it was supposed to be. How it should be. He was tired enough and weary enough that for the life of him he couldn't think why it wasn't that way for everybody, but he was sure that it wasn't and wondered whether DJ would ever begin to understand.

 

Jack returned within minutes, the coffee he brought destined to be poured away untouched an hour or two later. In fact, when he saw his son awake, he had difficulty setting the paper cups down safely; his hands were shaking so much that he had to allow Daniel to relieve him of his burden before he fell over.

"Deej!"

"Hey, Dad."

"Daniel, did you call a doctor?"

"No. I was waiting for you. I'll do it now." Daniel set the cups down on the windowsill and put his head out of the door to attract attention. Jack quickly appropriated his seat at the top of the bed and grabbed DJ's hand as Daniel had not managed to bring himself to do. It was his right. He had a history with this boy.

"So - you met Daniel?" Jack asked, punchy from lack of sleep. He brushed the kid's hair back from his forehead and was reminded suddenly of Daniel languishing in the infirmary, pale, bearded and emaciated.

"Yeah! You said he was MIA! How did he get here?"

"He was. He just - turned up again a few weeks ago. I fed him and he followed me home," O'Neill joked, limply.

"Through the Stargate?"

"The what?" A chill seeped down O'Neill's spine like the mercury shrinking back down inside a thermometer. It hit a low point in the small of his back and settled there as a cold weight.

"The Stargate?" DJ repeated, patiently. "I had a dream about a gate that goes to other planets. Daniel came back through it."

Bland-faced, O'Neill shook his head. "Doesn't sound familiar," he replied, with a frown. That brazen ignorance had fooled System Lords and other creeping horrors throughout the gazetteer of the universe; it would take more than one fourteen year old kid, no matter his origins, to frighten Colonel Jack O'Neill. Retired. "Maybe you'd better tell me the rest later. Oh hey, look who's here; good old Doc Fraiser." The relief in his tone was almost palpable.

Arriving, Fraiser shouldered her way into the room past the exhausted form of Daniel, now leaning back against a fresh white wall which showcased his unutterable weariness and condition of abject dishevelment perfectly.

"How're you feeling, DJ?" she asked, shining a light into each eye in turn. Jack had taken a step back from the bed and now exchanged pensive glances with Daniel over the heads of their two companions.

"I'm okay," was the reply. "I wanna see Toby."

"It's five thirty in the morning, Deej!" O'Neill protested. "His father won't bring him over this early, even if he's awake! But I'll call at six and see if he can bring Toby in to have breakfast with you. How'd that be, Doc?"

"Shouldn't be a problem," Fraiser confirmed. "I'll talk with Ayumi before she goes off duty. But you'll keep calm, young man, and you'll stay in bed until I say otherwise. Understood?"

In response DJ fluttered his eyelashes at her; they were long and fine, just like a girl's, and he seemed to have inherited them and the gesture itself from his genetic parent.

"Won't work on me, Danny O'Neill," Fraiser said, repressively. "I've been conned by experts." She glanced up at Daniel, her look making it clear exactly who she meant. "You can see Toby for a little while, but you'll both be perfect gentlemen or I'll order complete isolation for a week." Her expression softened. "On the other hand, behave yourself and you might get to go home the day after tomorrow."

 

By seven thirty Toby and his father, Aaron, had arrived in the room carrying with them flowers, candy and expressions of goodwill from Toby's mother and two younger sisters, who had all mercifully remained at home. Somehow, in the initial melee, O'Neill managed to introduce Aaron and Daniel to one another. He watched in detached amusement as Aaron's gaze went slowly from Daniel to DJ and then back to Daniel.

"Are you...?" Aaron began hesitantly.

"Ummm," Daniel responded. He, Jack and Janet Fraiser had all been too stunned by the speed of developments to have any kind of cover story worked out in the event that anyone was bold enough to inquire about the obvious likeness between himself and DJ.

O'Neill's large hand landed on Daniel's shoulder. "Kinda complicated, Aaron," he said, wincing. "Little pitchers, you know?" His eyebrows lifted in the direction of the two boys. Toby was already half-sprawling across the bed, holding hands with DJ and giggling with him, brows almost touching.

"They wouldn't notice the end of the world, Jack, as long as they were together." Aaron grinned; he was curly-haired, a teacher of computer science with a geekish sense of humor. He was also at least six inches shorter than O'Neill. "I can't decide if it's disturbing or kind of... sweet."

Daniel's eyes closed briefly. He wondered if he'd ever known that uncomplicated a love. If so, he couldn't recollect it. He wondered if maybe he was jealous, because it was apparently all so simple for the boys. They had each other and they had supportive families; the world's condemnation would seem a minor inconvenience compared to that.

"Have a beer with me one day soon," O'Neill invited Toby's father. His fingers had taken up a stronger grip on Daniel's shoulder; in fact they were all that was keeping Daniel on his feet just at the moment as exhaustion had him swaying backwards and forwards like a palm tree in a typhoon. "I'll tell you the whole story."

Just give him a day or two to come up with something plausible, Daniel's mind added cynically.

"Thank you. Are you staying with Jack, Daniel?"

And isn't that a loaded question?

Aloud, Daniel said, "I have business in Colorado, I'm not sure how long I'll be here. I - uhn - I'm an archaeologist. I'm working on some delicate textiles. It's a time-sensitive project and I need to get back to it."

"Oh. That must be fascinating." Cocktail party small-talk. Aaron was a good man, well out of his depth, trying to make conversation with a chronically exhausted and emotionally shattered man who seemed barely in contact with reality.

"It is, but... I'm sorry, Aaron, I didn't get a lot of sleep."

Guilt flushed across the other man's face. "Of course you didn't, Daniel, no need to apologize. Look, why don't I wait outside? Send Toby out when you've had enough of him."

O'Neill shot him a look of gratitude. "That's a good idea," he said. "Thanks. I'll be along to talk to you in a little while."

"Sure." With a 'no hard feelings' smile, Aaron extracted himself gracefully from the room.

"Appreciate it," Daniel called after him, only slowly managing to realize that they were being given space. Time. He sagged back into a chair against the wall, watching in fascination as Toby's curls brushed across DJ's forehead and the boy leaned down to snatch a kiss. He guessed what Janet Fraiser didn't know about wouldn't hurt her.

"Should I be trying to stop them, do you think?" Jack murmured, close to his ear. He had an arm around Daniel and now pulled him a little closer, so that Daniel's head came to rest easily on his shoulder.

"Probably."

"Okay." But the inflection was idle, as if the middle of next week would be plenty soon enough. "I mean, he's gotta be alive to kiss anybody, right?" O'Neill pursued, in a reasonable tone.

"Definitely easier that way."

"So as long as the kid's alive, maybe it doesn't matter too much what he's doing?"

"Assuming he doesn't pull his stitches out," Daniel conceded equably.

"Well, we're here. We can keep an eye on him. Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid. Our kid, Daniel," he emphasized, with sudden passion. "Ours. What does that do to you?"

"Nothing. Nothing. Jack..."

"Can't be nothing, Daniel. Don't believe you." And his lips were so close to Daniel's ear that his breath gusted inside it, and the bristles of his beard brushed across Daniel's cheek like the rasp of thorns on over-sensitized skin.

Daniel wanted to respond, to understand, but his stomach was empty and his brain was filled with clouds and he could barely remember having had anything that felt remotely like sleep. All his vulnerability reached out to the man at his side, suddenly a stronger and more comforting presence than ever.

"It scares me," he admitted at last, sifting through erratic memory for just the right word. It must be in there somewhere; they all were, only the recall was not what it had once been. "The... responsibility."

"You're tied to him," Jack said, almost nuzzling at his hair. Their proximity was somehow so familiar, so real, that it didn't seem at all unusual. "To our son."

"Yes."

"You could run away from me, but you can never run from DJ. Whoever he is, Daniel, he's too much a part of you. Wherever you are, whatever world you're on, there's always going to be this thread holding you to him. If I'm going to be part of his life, at least that means I should get to see you occasionally."

"Run away?" Daniel repeated, numbly. "Whatever...?"

"I figure..."

"No, Jack."

Bewilderingly, this didn't seem part of the previous conversation. O'Neill could not understand how it followed.

"What?"

"You can't think I'd ever run away from you? You know I'm afraid, I've told you that, but it doesn't mean I don't want to be with you. With DJ. I just... don't know how. I don't know anything about families. You'll have to teach me. Take it gently."

"All right. But you have to promise not to go scrounging off around the galaxy rescuing doomed civilizations without decent mission prep and the same level of backup as the President."

"Couldn't if I wanted to," Daniel said, morosely. "Hasn't Janet told you? I'm grounded for the next year at least. The swainsonine put a severe strain on my heart, so gate travel is out for the foreseeable future."

"No, she didn't mention that. Patient confidentiality, I guess." O'Neill thought about it for a moment. "That mean you're gonna be around long enough to give us a real chance this time?"

"Looks like it," Daniel conceded weakly.

"SGC's loss is our gain." The remark was deliberately dismissive. O'Neill knew well enough how the ramifications of being unable to travel back and forth through the Stargate would alter Daniel's life, just as the arrival of DJ had altered his. What he had given up without regret might prove more of a wrench for his companion. It was a can of worms they would have to open and deal with at some stage, but now was not the time.

"Looking on the bright side, Jack?"

"Doin' my best," was the mildly smiling response. "You think the boys'd mind if I kissed you?"

"Here?" Daniel gasped, looking up at him with a bewildered expression in his eyes. He had been through the mill in the last twenty-four hours and he was now approaching a state of catatonia in which he was quite willing to let anyone make virtually any decision on his behalf as long as he didn't have to put any effort into it himself.

"Why not? It's been too long, Daniel."

"I know." But O'Neill made no move to get closer, and in the end Daniel settled back against the comfort of his strong shoulder. "They're not noticing much of anything at the moment," he remarked, calmly, "and I don't mind, which is really more important."

"Certainly is," O'Neill whispered, and brought his lips close to Daniel's. A moment later Daniel's hand was on the side of Jack's face and Daniel's sleep-deprived body was surging into Jack's embrace where it was surrounded, engulfed and supported as though by a soft and yielding cushion. He felt he could cast himself into the safety of Jack's arms and drift there for ever; as if love had reached out to him through the Stargate, and found him, and brought him home.

"Well well," a soft voice said from the doorway, full of affectionate amusement. "And aren't the four of you absolutely adorable?"

"Dammit, Fraiser!" Jack's mouth had barely touched Daniel's and abandoned the project only with extreme reluctance. He made no attempt to turn and look, but instead contented himself with looking into Daniel's eyes.

"That's Doctor Fraiser to you, Flyboy," she laughed, and her tone was more than merely a comfort. It was sanity and the real world and a welcome reconnection with what was known and understood.

"That's Colonel Flyboy to you, Doctor."

"Yes, sir." But now that he met her gaze, O'Neill saw only friendship and encouragement, and although Daniel shrank against him in mortification there was nothing at all in Fraiser's demeanor that would cause either of them a heartbeat of concern.

"Something we can do for you, Doctor?"

She stepped closer. "Why don't you take Daniel home with you for a few hours, Jack?" she suggested gently. "He needs rest, and it would give you some time to yourselves. Daniel, I need you back here no later than four this afternoon - and don't forget your heart medication."

"I won't." It was the only safe promise he could make at the moment. Everything else in his life was up for grabs, but he could probably remember to take his tablets.

"And drink plenty of water," Fraiser reminded him, severely. "Keep your system flushed. I'll look out for DJ while you're gone, and maybe Toby and Aaron can stay here for an hour or two."

"Okay." O'Neill got to his feet, unexpectedly reaching out a hand to Daniel, who slowly drew himself upright and then found that he was unable to let go of the hand. "Let me talk to Aaron, and then we're out of here." He walked over to the bed, where the two huddled boys were watching proceedings with interest. "How's that work for you, son? Okay if I leave you to talk with Toby for a coupla hours while I look after Daniel?"

DJ didn't answer him immediately. Instead his wide blue eyes focused on the older man who was his genetic double.

"Are you going to stay with us?" he asked, glancing down pointedly at the joined hands.

Daniel dropped Jack's hand as if it was a live boa constrictor. He rubbed his palms together as though trying to brush away Jack's skin cells or molecules of his sweat.

"I'm not sure," he acknowledged. "Um, not that I've exactly been asked. This probably isn't the best time for making any big decisions, anyway, Deej. Are you sure you don't mind if we go off by ourselves for a few hours?"

"Sure. Go ahead." But DJ had detached himself from Toby's embrace and now held out both his arms to Daniel, who was momentarily paralyzed with astonishment. Kids the galaxy over ran to Jack O'Neill for hugs and comfort; they saw through the bluff soldierly exterior to the solid heartbeat of affection beneath. They did not, as a rule, look for the same from the bookish Daniel Jackson, as if somehow they sensed that he had never quite been a child and did not know either what they wanted or what he was capable of giving. Now DJ O'Neill, a child who was Daniel Jackson in every way that counted, spontaneously held out his arms and silently demanded to be hugged, and Daniel found himself stepping forward without for one moment intellectualizing the experience. It was just a hug, that was all, and as DJ was fragile and bruised it was a very light and gentle one.

"Daniel," DJ said, and slowly let him go.

"Oh god." Daniel backed away carefully and stood, trying to keep his eyes averted so that no-one would see how he was struggling with tears.

O'Neill was busy embracing both boys. When he straightened, he said, "Keep an eye on him, Toby."

"Yes sir." Almost as if the kid was a member of the SGC responding to an order, but the cheeky grins on both sides belied that impression.

"Ready to go home, Danny?"

It was a moment before Daniel understood that the words had been addressed to him. Then he nodded, and let his hand be taken again, and let himself be led from the room. As he stepped out into the bustling corridor at Jack O'Neill's side, he heard Janet Fraiser's indefatigably brisk tones begin issuing a set of instructions and cautions to the two boys left behind in the room, and he felt his mouth beginning to curve into something that might almost have been a smile.

 

* VI *

Escaping from the hospital was a long, drawn out business in itself, but eventually they reached the O'Neill home. Daniel had the vague impression of somewhere clean, smart and spacious, furnished with a surprising number of his own possessions; somewhere he could probably settle if he felt the inclination. It did not really seem to matter, however; he was led by the hand towards the bedroom, seated down carefully on the edge of the bed, and virtually undressed layer by layer.

"You know, I really don't think...," he began, timidly, and then O'Neill yawned and suddenly he did not feel quite so uncomfortable. "Oh."

"Hell, Daniel, I'm not Superman. All I'm thinking of is catching a few zees. I can sleep in DJ's bed or the spare room if you like - or you can. I just thought... You know, maybe waking up together..." Hesitantly, signifying the importance of the suggestion.

"We should talk, though," Daniel reminded him, letting the implied invitation go unanswered.

"We should. Just let me get three or four hours' sleep first."

"Okay." And without further discussion Daniel stripped down to his underwear and rolled over to the far side of the bed, and O'Neill did likewise and fell into the space beside him, and there was no awkwardness or sense of dislocation as they fell into sleep side by side just as much of the rest of the world was beginning to awaken for the new day.

 

Four hours later, waking slowly to the sullen sound of rain on the windows, O'Neill found that he had one arm wrapped around Daniel's shoulders as they both lay face down on the bed, the covers heaven only knew where. Daniel was a restless sleeper; his black tee-shirt had ridden right up until it was rolled into his armpits and made only a thin dark band across his back. His white briefs had wriggled down until they were barely a narrow string across the tops of his legs and his perfectly naked backside was exposed to the cooling air.

Even for a man of iron will this would have been temptation beyond suppressing, but by this stage O'Neill's willpower had all the adamantine qualities of a marshmallow. Tugging the neck of Daniel's tee-shirt out of the way, he leaned over the gap between them and kissed the top of his spine, just where the first vertebra protruded. That was where all the pain and stress gathered, just there; that little knot of bone and muscle seemed to harbor all Daniel's demons, and this gentle caress was intended to drive them away. It didn't strike him as strange, after all the anguish, that he should be the one seeking to comfort Daniel, and not the other way around. He had become accustomed to weirdness in his life, and whatever he could do to protect either Daniel or DJ from anything that might distress them was just fine by him.

A half-smothered little sigh broke from the man beneath him. It was impossible to tell whether he was awake or asleep, but in either case his body lay meekly compliant to O'Neill's touch. Briefly he considered waking Daniel with kisses; with a trail of sweet kisses down his spine. For a moment it was the most madly romantic idea he could come up with, short of filling the room with roses and waking him with champagne and gypsy violins, and it was the thing he most wanted to do.

"Daniel." He dropped another kiss below tee-shirt level and was rewarded with a tiny squirm of acquiescence. "Daniel," on the next vertebra and on the next, "baby," and again, "sweetheart," and on, and on, a different endearment with every kiss. His fingers tangled in the briefs and pulled them still lower, and he kissed across the smooth cheek of Daniel's backside and inhaled the scent of his skin, licking and opening his mouth wide to take a playful bite out of yielding flesh.

"Oh god, Daniel, I want to - "

But the body beneath his was trembling now, and not in a good way; Daniel was rigid and thrumming with tension, every nerve and sinew strained, fingers clenching and unclenching convulsively.

"No."

"What?" Shocked, he scrambled back, lifted up onto his knees. "Danny?"

"No! Get your hands off me, you bastard, I'm not a toy! I don't want to be slobbered on! Leave me alone!" In a swift movement he had backed off the bed, rolled the tee-shirt down and the briefs up, and was scrambling back into the jeans he had discarded the previous night.

"Daniel!"

"'Daniel!'" O'Neill's gasp of astonishment was parodied back to him with vicious accuracy. "'Daniel darling, Daniel baby, Daniel sweetheart'! Can't you come up with anything original, Jack? What is it you want from me? Do you even know?"

"I - no." Hanging his head, O'Neill had to admit to his own deficiencies. "I'm no good at the talking stuff, Daniel. I think we established that the night before you left for Vell. I didn't want any of that to happen; I wasn't ready for it. All I wanted was to try and tell you what you meant to me. I screwed up."

"Royally," Daniel agreed, with a stab of anger. "Was this what you did with Sara? Try to bully her into it when she wasn't in the mood? Emotional blackmail? 'I'm a man, baby, I have my needs'? What about my needs, Jack? What about my need not to be touched? I'm only here because your son - our son - " He stopped then, one hand burrowing into his over-long hair and pulling hard as if he wanted to tear it out by the roots. "DJ needed us both," he said. "I didn't make you any promises. Just at the moment, Jack, I want to be part of DJ's life - and I want to be part of yours... but I don't know if I can cope with being this part."

"You wanted me to kiss you," O'Neill objected, lamely. He was sure there had been a couple of experimental kisses somewhere about the time they tumbled exhausted into bed at nine in the morning, unless he had dreamed them. They had seemed so sweet and satisfying that perhaps they had not been real, although their clumsy awkwardness had the ring of authenticity to it; men who were out of practice with one another, with any lover at all, re-learning intimacy by trial and error. Mostly error, it seemed. His whole body felt limp; it was not just his rejected manhood that sagged impotently but his whole frame, and the soul within it. "I thought you liked it."

"I did like it, Jack. Actually I loved it; two years ago when you first did it, and again this morning. If I thought it would stop at kissing I'd be happy, but you want more - and I don't know if I can give it to you. Not yet, and maybe not at all. I knew we should have talked," he went on, despairingly.

"Why?" The question was about as bald and uncompromising as it could possibly be. Damn, the curse of an undiplomatic tongue! Surely he could have wrapped it up a little more. What would a lover, a true romantic, say in this situation? O'Neill tried again. "I mean, Daniel, why not?"

"I can't, Jack. I can't be what you want me to be. I may be weak and quiet compared to you, but I'm not passive. The name is 'Daniel', not 'Spaniel' - and I won't just roll over for you to tickle my tummy. Also I'm not a girl, so it's no use expecting me to flutter my eyelashes and squeal 'take me, you big hunk'. I don't even think I want to be taken, and I can't really imagine you wanting to be fucked!"

"It - " Impulsively, O'Neill had started to speak before his brain cut in.

"What?"

"It wouldn't be the first time."

"And how old were you, and did you like it?" Daniel pursued.

O'Neill hung his head. "Twenty. No."

"QED, I think. You're a natural-born fucker and you won't be satisfied with less than everything. You've got a bad case of testosterone poisoning, Colonel, and you're not going to inflict it on me. I'd have you as a lover, you know I would, but I refuse to be used. Been there and bought the tee-shirt, Jack. Bought it, took it home, washed it and ironed it. Wrote the book on the damned tee-shirt."

And to his own and Jack's profound embarrassment Daniel heard his voice crack and a sob force its way out of his throat, past barriers he had set up in the previous two years, past all forms of control, bursting through the trinium iris welded across his emotions and releasing a flood of pain and acute distress so severely jumbled together with anxiety over DJ that it was impossible to tell which of a dozen competing griefs had been the cause.

"I'm going," he gasped, turning away.

"Daniel, no!" O'Neill was still struggling into his pants. "Not like this!"

"Yes! Let me go!"

"Where? Where will you go? You don't know anyone here!"

"Janet. I'll call Janet. She can pick me up."

"Oh god. Yes. Janet. All right. Let me call her. I'll tell her to come right away."

"And you'll let me go with her? You won't make a scene?"

"No scene, Daniel. Promise. You can go."

 

And so he left, without any kind of a scene, without a battle, without a regret. Janet Fraiser came to collect him in a car, with a driver, with both their overnight bags in the trunk, and mentioned a flight time having been pre-arranged and Dr. Nagama being back on duty and DJ asking to see his father.

The whole thing was anti-climactic to the nth degree. Bathetic, in fact; reduced to the little commonplaces of travel and courtesy and apology. He hadn't meant to hurt Daniel, of course he hadn't, but that 'I'm a man' crack had stung so badly he knew he must have done. Was it just that Daniel had wanted to make the running in this relationship? Could he do that - back off and let Daniel court him?

Of course he could. He just needed some kind of hint that was what was required. He wasn't psychic. Wasn't intuitive about people. Didn't even understand himself, half the time. Look how long it had taken him to recognize his feelings for Daniel in the first place. And when they'd found themselves turning into one another’s arms the night before the Vell mission and Daniel had accepted it without freaking out, O'Neill had been shocked at how easy it all was, how inevitable it felt, and how right it seemed.

 

He went back to the hospital to see DJ, spent an hour fielding questions about Daniel and the Stargate, promised that Uncle T would visit the moment he got back from his business trip abroad and that come hell or high water DJ would be home the very next day, and then pleaded exhaustion and dragged himself home again. He called out for a pizza, and while he was waiting for it to arrive he stripped the sheets off the bed in his room and threw them into the washing machine. He was remaking the bed when General Hammond called to let him know that SG-1 had returned from Vell 2 without Lieutenant Novarro, and that Carter would be traveling up overnight and would see him in the morning. After he put the phone down he realized that Hammond's tone had been unprecedentedly somber even for a man who tended to take most things seriously. Something had gone wrong on Vell 2, then, and presumably Novarro was dead. Well, he hadn't liked the man much. No reason to wish him dead, though.

When the pizza arrived he got halfway through it before deciding he might have done better to eat the box. He threw the rest away, showered, fell into bed, and didn't sleep.

 

In the morning he was putting himself through a mechanical routine of breakfast and house cleaning when the rented Toyota showed up again. At least Carter was consistent in her choice of transport. He saw her looking up at the PIRs as she locked her car, and walked slowly to meet her at the front door.

"Where's Teal'c?" he asked, ushering her into the living room.

"Where's Daniel?" she countered, almost brusquely, knowing the answer as well as he did.

"Back at the Hammond place. He left yesterday."

"I know." Carter looked up at him. Her eyes had become sharper than he ever remembered them; in the past there had occasionally been a certain softness when she looked at him, but now there was nothing but flinty criticism behind the blue. "Are you out of your mind, Jack?"

"What?" He was half way across the room before he realized that if slugging a fellow officer was more than mildly reprehensible it was somehow ten times worse when the fellow officer was female. Dammit, he kept forgetting she was a woman!

Carter grimaced, obviously aware of his discomfort.

"Daniel," she said, slowly. "There's stuff you don't know." She paused, then cleared her throat. "You want to get coffee or a beer or something? This could be a rough ride."

It ran through his mind to tell her that he was tough and he could take whatever she threw at him. Then it dawned that she was actually pretty serious about this; the look on her face was one he had often seen before when she had unpalatable news to break.

"Yeah. You want a beer?"

"Sure."

It was still only mid-morning, but when he brought through two long-necked bottles and popped the caps Carter took one from his fingers and curled her hand around it and chugged the refreshing cold, clean taste in deep appreciation.

"Oh god, Jack, that hits the spot," she grinned at him.

"Does, doesn't it?" But he looked tired, and was drinking slowly and thoughtfully. "Okay, Samantha, what's on your mind?"

Carter put the bottle on the coffee-table and looked at him over the top of it.

"You remember what Daniel told us about the power struggles among the surviving Vell?" she asked.

"Uh-huh."

"Specifically, that there was conflict between Lieutenant Novarro, who'd set himself up as their leader, and a guy named Boaz, who had been the mate of Captain Buller before she died?"

"Yeah, I caught that, Carter," he rumbled, making a 'get on with it' gesture with one impatient hand.

"Right. Well, SG-1 were tasked with bringing Novarro back to Earth through the Stargate. Obviously we had a contingency plan in case he put up a fight. Turned out it wasn't necessary." She fiddled with the neck of the beer bottle, and her eyes turned towards the sunlit square of the window. O'Neill wasn't sure whether they were just bright or whether she was fighting against tears. Strange, because if it had been Daniel he would have been able to tell right away. He didn't read Carter with anything like the same accuracy, but then he probably wasn't in love with her. That would be the difference.

"So...?" he prompted. "Not necessary?" he reminded her, when she turned to him in bewilderment.

"Oh, yeah. Well, General Hammond wanted Novarro back. We were going to 'persuade' him at gun-point, you know? But we were too late. Apparently the Vell hacked him to death; cut off his limbs with an ax and then kicked the head and torso around for a few hours. I don't think they noticed he was dead for quite some time."

O'Neill's lips pursed. It was pretty brutal. Not the worst he'd ever heard of, compared to mediaeval torture executions, but bad enough for the poor bastard being put through it.

Sympathy for Novarro was kind of an unexpected emotion. He set it aside to deal with later. Much later.

"The point is," Carter went on determinedly, as if there could be a point other than the slaughter of one of their own, "for all his faults Novarro had led them to safety and he'd kept them safe. He'd been a strong leader when they needed one, and although he'd taken his share of the women and beaten up a good few of the men that's exactly what their culture demands. Daniel told us that himself. You remember you asked him why he hadn't ended up as leader, right?"

"Yes." He had an idea where this was going, and he wasn't sure he liked it.

"That's why. Daniel had studied enough of their literature to know what they would eventually do to anyone who set himself up as leader. Dogs eat dogs, Jack, and Daniel knew he had to stay alive."

"So..." His brow furrowed. He could see that she was urging him to reach some kind of conclusion that seemed glaringly obvious to her, but he supposed he must be just as dumb as he had pretended to be all those years. The connection just wouldn't click into place for him; facts that didn't seem to lock together hovered in inchoate patterns, dazzling him with their myriad possibilities.

"Daniel was smart," Carter said, softly. "He knew the Vell - better than Novarro did, anyway. He understood that he had a choice. As long as the Vell perceived him as a man and an outsider, they would see him as a threat. He had to neutralize himself in their eyes. He had to make sure they started treating him as a woman."

"What?" O'Neill coughed, trying to cover up the exclamation of anguish that had burst from him. "Dammit, Carter..."

"No, just listen, Jack." Her tone was cold, forceful. "Blustering and protesting won't help. Forget the macho posturing and just hear what I'm telling you. The Vell don't understand subtleties of sexuality; men are men and aggressively masculine; women are submissive and obedient and there to be used. They couldn't understand Daniel as a man any more than they could understand me as a woman," she went on. "They got around it by reading me as a man. You know what that meant for Daniel."

"Submissive and obedient?" O'Neill repeated numbly.

"There to be used," was Carter's calm and deliberate confirmation. "Homosexuality is entirely alien to Vell culture, so Daniel set out to convince them he'd always wanted to be a woman. You can bet they made him prove it, too. After that - well, they despised him, but at least they left him alone."

"Jeezus. Daniel said 'I doubt you'd have done what I had to do'. About getting the GDO. Do you know what he had to do?"

"Most of it. Buller's journal contains a lot of detail and Boaz was pretty graphic when he talked about Daniel. It was only Teal'c threatening to tear his head off and piss down his neck that shut him up."

"Teal'c said that?"

"Jaffa equivalent," Carter shrugged. "Earth humor - ark ark." Bitterly misplaced and abysmally lame, but it was at least an attempt to mitigate the horror.

"Right. So it was..."

"At least one publicly-given blow-job, for a start," Carter told him, gravely. "It's recorded in Buller's journal. I've got that with me, by the way; only Teal'c, Hammond and I have seen it. Daniel obviously knew she was keeping it; his handwriting's in there too."

"Oh god." Not only to conspire in one's own abject degradation, but to do it in the knowledge that it was being recorded for posterity; what kind of guts must that have taken? O'Neill wondered if he had any right to be proud of Daniel for surviving all that and coming home as a functioning and rational being.

"To hear Boaz talk you'd think Daniel was some kind of town whore," she went on. "Trading sexual services for food. He was a novelty for a while. When they got tired of him they just ignored him. That's when he started eating the plants. But even when he was starving, Boaz was still visiting him from time to time."

"And Novarro?" He willed her to deny it, knowing full well that she wouldn't.

"Yes. Although from what I can gather he was more interested in violence and humiliation than in sex. It was a power thing all along the line with him."

Belatedly, O'Neill recognized that his legs were giving him the signal to move. He pushed up from his chair as though he could hardly support his own weight, crossed to the window and stared out blankly.

"Tell me about Boaz," he said, aridly. "Big man, physically imposing? Someone who could dominate Daniel easily?"

"Kasuf," Carter told him, shaking her head. "He looks like Kasuf. Little, bearded, face like a frog. Ugly as sin, Jack, and body odor you could cut with a knife. I think the Vell take a bath once a year whether they need it or not."

"Danny," O'Neill groaned, feeling his heart scythed and shredded into tiny segments.

"Yeah."

"Shit."

"Yeah."

And the room fell silent, and the beer bottles remained neglected, and O'Neill stayed where he was with his back to Carter, and whether or not he cried she would have been hard pressed to tell. His shoulders did not shake; his chest did not heave. If he was shedding tears he was doing so silently and economically, the way a warrior should.

"So, you and Daniel," Carter suggested eventually, without a hint of condemnation.

"Uh-huh. Always was."

"Always will be," she completed. "God, Jack, did you seriously think you were fooling anybody with that Big Tough Colonel routine? I saw through that the first time I met you."

"Ya did, huh?" His tone had settled down again; it sounded almost normal.

"Practically."

"I'll have you know, Carter, there was a time when I used to be a big tough colonel. Then I got ordered to babysit some geeky archaeologist and he moved all the goal posts on me. Keeps on doin' it, too. Just when you think you understand a guy, you find out he... he'd sell his soul... to get back... to be where..." He stopped, quelled the panicked leaping of his heart and the unevenness of his breath. "You know I really think I love him." And then he wondered why he had said that now, and to Carter of all people, when he couldn't find a way of admitting it to Daniel. Not that his actions had left either of them in any doubt.

"I think you should tell him that, Jack. Not me."

"He knows."

"Even if he does, this would be a good moment to remind him of it. That's where Teal'c is now," Carter continued. "With Daniel. Telling him about the journal and how Boaz is boasting to everyone he meets that he fucked two members of the SGC and killed a third. Anyone who walks through the Stargate onto Vell 2 is going to get the whole story, in glorious living Technicolor with added circumstantial detail. We can do damage limitation with our friends, Jack, but what do you suppose our average friendly neighborhood Goa'uld would do with the knowledge that Daniel Jackson can be bought?"

"Nothing." He turned back to her determinedly.

"No?"

"Absolutely nothing. That knowledge is completely worthless unless one of two things happens. Either the Goa'uld take over Earth, in which case we'll have bigger things to worry about than Daniel's hurt feelings, or..."

Carter's eyebrows lifted, and she regarded her former CO with affection and renewed respect. Thank goodness he was seeing it clearly. Thank goodness he understood what he needed to do.

"Or Daniel ever sets foot through the Stargate again," she finished for him, watching his lower lip tremble and knowing that he was a breath away from throwing himself at her and howling on her shoulder. "Can you give him a good enough reason never to want to?"

"I don't know," he replied unsteadily. "But I'm planning to try. Do you think offering him a home and a family would do the trick?"

"It might," she conceded, with a gentle smile. "But why don't you just make sure he knows you love him?"

"Yeah," he said, after a long pause for what was apparently very profound and ultimately satisfying thought. "Why don't I just do that?"

 

* VII *

"Daniel? Whatcha doin'?" O'Neill's tone was as wheedling and non-threatening as he could make it. It was later that same afternoon and the Hammond garden was a riot of color. Daniel was sitting cross-legged on the lawn, a large straw hat pulled low across his brow, a box of pastels open beside him, determinedly shading in the twisted trunk of a cypress tree.

He paused, pastel immobile in his fingers, and did not turn.

"As you can see, Jack," he said, mildly sarcastic, "I'm just whitewashing this hippopotamus."        

"All right, I'm sorry, it was a dumb question." O'Neill hunkered down beside Daniel, looked over his shoulder. "That's pretty good. I'd forgotten you could draw."

"Years of recording artifacts," Daniel murmured. "That's usually ink, though. I haven't sketched for pleasure in... I don't know how long. I'm pretty rusty." He turned to hand the sketch pad to Jack for his inspection, and only then looked up at him. "You shaved off your beard," he noticed, in some astonishment.

Self-consciously O'Neill ran a hand across his chin. He would have to go through this rigmarole again with every mortal soul he knew; they had all had comments to offer on the beard when he grew it, and they would all now want to make equivalent remarks about its demise.

"I got the idea you didn't like it much," he said, careful to keep his tone neutral.

"No, I didn't." Daniel looked away. "How's DJ?"

"He's good. I brought him home this morning. Carter's staying with him. We're gonna need to talk to him about the Stargate at some point, Danny; I think he heard pretty much everything we said at the hospital. He was asleep and he thinks he dreamed it, but he's getting the details right. You know he's gonna want to go through the damn' thing as soon as he's old enough, don't you?"

Daniel put the lid back on the pastel box and climbed slowly to his feet. He was barefoot and wearing a disreputable short-sleeved shirt and shorts which displayed his scarred, stick thin legs in pitiable detail. Despite having regained a lot of his color and vigor he still seemed weak, nervous, unbearably vulnerable.

"Do you think he'll join the Air Force?" he asked, beginning to move towards the sun terrace. O'Neill followed, hunching protectively at his shoulder as though to ward off a blow. What danger could be expected when they had the house and garden to themselves he could not have said; only that it was instinctual, and always had been, to put himself between Daniel and harm.

"I'm hoping he'll get his medical degree first," O'Neill said, calmly. "But that'll make him a natural for the SGC, if it's still going. Maybe by the time Carter's in Hammond's job - ten years from now."

"I can see that," Daniel mused. He put his hat and sketching materials down on the table on the sun terrace. "Want a drink?"

"Sure. What you got?"

"Juice." Daniel was vague. There was a refrigerator in the hallway just inside the door and he pulled out a jug of something pink and citrus-smelling. "Glasses? Probably all in here," he muttered, and opened his bathroom door. Through the open doorway on the far side, O'Neill could see a rumpled and unmade bed, low and wide, unbleached Egyptian cotton bedding scrunched up as if it had been dropped there out of a laundry chute. There were books stacked everywhere, on the floor and on every surface, and clothes scattered at random. It was a student's bedroom, a teenager's room as untidy as anything DJ's generation could have come up with. It lacked only the tasteless posters of pneumatic starlets and oiled hunks DJ had favored before entering his current Will Smith phase.

While Daniel rinsed two tall glasses in the bathroom sink, O'Neill parked himself on the closed lid of the toilet. The room was bleak, all dimpled non-slip tiles and grab-rails, with a drain in the middle of the floor. There was a shower curtain at one end but no pan; the whole room became the shower cubicle, and a wheelchair could be pushed into every corner. Hateful institutional touches abounded; exposed bolts, lifting mechanisms, taps with large levers easy for arthritic hands to push. The colors were cheerful in their way, but they seemed to giggle nervously against the more condemnatory tone of the architecture. O'Neill hated the place; he couldn't understand how it could be any better than a cave on Vell, except that what was outside was infinitely more pleasant.

"So," he said, "DJ and...?"

Daniel met his gaze blankly.

"Carter's SG-1?" O'Neill prompted. "The 'next generation'?"

"Oh." Daniel hadn't realized they were playing 'guess the future'. He poured juice and handed it to O'Neill, wandering idly towards the bedroom and leaning his weight against the foot board of the bed. "I don't know. Cassandra Fraiser?"

"Good choice. I'd pick her as leader; I think she'd keep DJ in line."

"Okay. Our son, and Janet's daughter, and...?"

"Rya'c," O'Neill contributed. "Gotta have a Jaffa."

"Of course." Daniel managed what might have been considered a smile. "Cassie, DJ and Rya'c. Who'll be their fourth, though, Jack? One of the Hammond girls?"

"Toby Feldman," O'Neill chuckled stupidly. "I can just see him with a pair of little round eyeglasses and an earnest expression and hair flopping into his eyes. There'll be DJ, all macho and tough in his best uniform, sitting up straight and taking orders like a good little soldier, and then in walks this devastatingly cute archaeologist or anthropologist or social scientist and what happens? The sky falls on him."

"Devastatingly... cute?" Daniel repeated, not certain whether he had heard aright.

"The world broke apart, Daniel," O'Neill went on, softly, abandoning the future fantasy without regret. "There you were, talking incomprehensible garbage about opening the goddamn' Stargate, and there I was thinking, 'Oh shit oh shit, please don't let me fall in love with this guy'. Well, guess what, Space Monkey, it was already too late."

"In... love?"

"I've been in love with you since Word One, Daniel. Don't pretend you didn't know."

Daniel's eyes fell away. "No," he admitted. "I knew. I just didn't realize you did."

"Tried to tell you," O'Neill murmured, apologetically. "Before you left. Made such a mess of it. And then I thought I could put it right when you got back. But you didn't come back."

"I wanted to."

"Of course you did, baby."

The betraying hoarseness of O'Neill's tone cut through the bullshit. Daniel abandoned his glass of juice on top of a pile of books, failing to notice that the base was wet and that it was carving a ring of destruction into a fine leather binding.

"You know all about it, don't you?" Daniel asked, breathlessly. "It's why you're here. Teal'c told me they'd gotten the whole story from Boaz, and of course they told you! I want you to know, Jack, I'm not denying a word of it. I refuse to be ashamed."

"Don't you dare!" O'Neill exploded. He thumped his glass down onto a nearby piece of furniture and took a step forward. "Don't you ever let anybody make you ashamed of what you did, Danny! You worked out a way to survive and you stuck to it, and you didn't care what you had to do."

"Oh, I cared," Daniel corrected him abruptly. "But every time one of them touched me, I tried to pretend it was you. Sophie and I used to talk about you and Ben all the time; how much we loved you both, and how you'd come roaring through the Stargate side by side and cut the Vell down like a field of wheat. But she lost hope, Jack. Boaz wanted a child, and in the end she just gave up and let him have her. I think she wanted to stop him humiliating me in public just to prove that he could."

"He made you blow him. With an audience. That was what you meant when you said I wouldn't have done it."

"Yes."

O'Neill's chin lifted. "Newsflash, Danny; I would have. I'd have blown Boaz and Novarro and every other dick on the planet if I thought it would have got me back to you a minute sooner. With an audience, without, on prime time TV if I'd had to. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in my life that means as much to me as you do."

"Except DJ."

"No, not except DJ, because he's you. He's what kept me alive. If I hadn't had him to take care of, I'd've eaten my gun a year ago. I thought you were dead, for god's sake!"

"So did I," Daniel whispered. "So did I."

"There's no way that bastard can hurt you again now. You know that, don't you?" Anguished, O'Neill's tone rose half an octave. "I wanted to kill him when I heard about it, and I still do. But more than that I want to make sure you realize he'll never touch you again because he's gonna have to go through me first. Understand, Danny?"

"Yes, Jack."

"I can't make it not have happened. I wish I could. But I can make it..."

"... go away?" Not - quite - daring to hope.

"If you'll let me?"

Daniel shrugged. Little, defeated movements. "If you like," he said, sadly. "I don’t care. Anything. Whatever you want to do."

"Not any more," O’Neill growled, reaching for him, pulling Daniel to him with a kind of savage protectiveness, Daniel's still over-long, summer-scented hair lush against his cheek. "This isn’t about what anybody else wants to do to you, Daniel. This is about you and what you want. Nobody’s going to use you, ever again. You’re not the only one with standards, you know."

"Huh?"

Incoherent, tucked against O’Neill’s shoulder, watching the world spin laterally in eccentric orbit around them, Daniel felt as if he was barely clinging by his fingernails to a crumbling reality. In silent movies the hero had dangled from vertiginous heights while the camera zoomed and swooped and the peril had somehow been hysterically funny even though an actor missing his footing would have ended up as street pizza almost between frames. Now Daniel clutched at words as if they were fingerholds, as if they were clock hands slowly bending towards the ground but still just, just, supporting his weight. The fall-

Oh god, the fall was so far he could not bring himself to look down!

"Standards," O’Neill repeated stolidly. "You wouldn’t make use of any of the Vell women to gain acceptance with the tribe; you preferred to let the men use you." He ignored Daniel’s grunt of bitter acknowledgment, plowing on regardless. "Do you think I’m Boaz? Do you think I’d treat you the way he treated you? Do you think you’re not the most precious thing in my life? Think again. This is nothing to do with using and being used, Daniel; this is to do with loving and being loved. I do, and you do, and we can get through this together if you’ll just start trusting me again."

"Do trust you." Trembling fingers on O’Neill’s chin. "Now."

O’Neill’s heart sank. The reasons for Daniel’s freak-out in his bedroom hadn’t been apparent until he’d heard Carter’s description of Boaz; little, bearded, froglike. The kind of man who would sneak up on a sleeping Daniel and inflict beard burns on his quiescent backside, just as Jack himself had attempted to do. No wonder that, in waking from a troubled sleep, Daniel had been disorientated enough not to know them apart and to shut down his affection for Jack in face of the horrors of memory.

"I couldn’t have known, Daniel. How could I know the bastard had a beard? How could I know there even was a bastard, eh? When you were away I only had myself to please and I got away with all kinds of crap. But I can change. You’ll see how I can change. I just need you to put me on the right road."

"You shouldn’t have smooth skin," Daniel muttered, unsteadily. They both tactfully ignored the tears rolling down his face. "At your age, with the life you’ve led, you shouldn’t be - beautiful."

"You’re kidding." If O’Neill needed any further proof that Daniel had finally taken leave of his senses, this was certainly it. "You can look at this mug and see beauty?"

"No." Daniel thought about it for a long time, and then said very carefully, "But I can look at beauty and see you. I’m not sure that isn’t worse."

"Much worse. You’re a sad case, Dr. Jackson," O’Neill gasped, not exactly processing Daniel’s words but forging ahead anyway.

"Tragic. Irredeemable," Daniel agreed. "Totally beyond hope,"

"I don’t have much to offer you," Jack continued. "Me and DJ and our messy little life. But it’s a nice house and it’s all paid for and I’ve got a job. Sort of. And I’m learning to cook. Could that - Daniel, is there any way that could be enough for you?"

"It could - " Daniel began, hastily, reassuringly, as if he was about to go on and make some proviso, impose some caveat on the bargain.

"But -  ?"

"It - could - " Daniel repeated, more slowly, turning the idea over in his mind. "If you don’t mind handling soiled goods." Such an old-fashioned phrase, like something out of a Victorian melodrama. Like a store clerk measuring out lengths of scuffed and dirtied ribbon and writing discount tickets for items grown dusty on the shelf.

"You’re not soiled, Daniel," O’Neill told him determinedly, "and even if you were, I can make you clean again."

"You can? How?"

"Trust me?"

"Of course."

"Okay." And O’Neill shifted his grip, swung Daniel up into his arms, and carried him like a child, back through the doorway and into the small bathroom. A second later he had thrown the shower curtain across and switched on the shower, warm water was cascading over them, both still fully dressed, and he had slammed Daniel back against the rear wall of the little room as their mouths found one another.

Daniel’s arms wound around his neck; his kiss was deep and frantic, as though the end of the world was once again at hand. Daniel climbed him, tried to climb inside him, held him with hands that were as urgent and demanding as his own, gripped him as if he were the last helicopter out of Saigon and the Goa'uld were at the gates.

"Jack, are you insane?" Breaking away, breathless, wild-eyed, Daniel asked the same question Carter had asked earlier.

"Totally," O'Neill confessed, cheerfully. "Utterly. But I promise I can wipe him away." Water was already dripping from his hair onto Daniel’s cheek and into his half-open mouth. His hands were at Daniel’s shirt, pulling it apart and dropping it into a wet crescent on the tiled floor. Daniel’s shorts clung tenaciously to his chilled skin, confining and outlining a condition of confused semi-arousal. "I can scrub off every trace of him and flush him down the drain. I can wash him off your skin and out of your hair and rinse him away and the only hand-prints you’ll ever have on you from now on will be mine."

"Please, Jack. Please." And there was no question now that Daniel was sobbing, released by the power of the water streaming down his face, disguising his own cleansing anguish against the greater flood. "Just touch me anywhere, you know I want you to. But it could be months before I can have you inside me, if I ever can. They hurt me, Jack. Badly."

"I know." He pressed Daniel's head into his shoulder and stroked his sopping hair as he felt shudders run through them both.

He did know, and dammit he wished he didn't! Carter hadn’t pulled her punches, and apparently she knew everything there was to know. Rape with objects and forced fistings in the unsanitary conditions of that backwoods planet, and the disdain in which the Vell had held Daniel, contributed to a horrifying picture of ill-usage only now beginning to gain focus in his mind. Daniel had mortgaged himself to a man whose idea of entertainment was to have him act out every sexual humiliation his twisted brain could devise - but Daniel had walked away from him in the end, alive and very nearly still sane. He had dragged himself through the Stargate using a GDO for which he’d had to sell not only his soul but also his body - all with the knowledge and enthusiastic cooperation of a member of the SGC itself. How had they managed to get Felix Novarro so wrong? Or had he been Goa’ulded or infested with some unknown alien parasite which had run screaming through his sanity? Would they ever know, and did he really care any more? "But you can do me, Daniel."

"What?"

"I said - " O’Neill had him naked now, and paused in removing his own drenched tee-shirt. He should have had more foresight than to get into the shower in leather boots; he didn’t think for a moment that he would be able to pry them off his feet without a fight and he was damned if he was going to slow things down by standing on one leg wrestling with the blasted things. Well, screw dignity, he’d damn’ well make love to Daniel with his pants around his ankles and worry about refinements later! "I said, you can do me, any time you like. I know I said I hated it before, and I did, but Daniel - that wasn’t you. You get that, don’t you? You get that I can think of things with you that I wouldn’t contemplate with anybody else?"

"Tell me you’re only gay for me and I’ll slap you," Daniel told him, breathlessly.

"This has nothing to do with being gay or straight," O’Neill countered. "Only with being us." With a final despairing twist he managed to haul his soaked clothing down below his knees. "Want me to turn around?"

"N-no." Daniel’s eyes fell away. "Look at me, Jack. I can’t even get hard any more. And if I do, it doesn’t last. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do you. I can't fuck you, and I can't let you fuck me. Why the hell would you want me on that basis?"

"Because I’m dumb, all right?" O’Neill virtually yelled at him. "Dumb, dumb, dumb! And so in love with you I have days when I can’t even remember my own name!" And when the man he held flinched away under the vehemence of his outburst he continued, more gently, "Why don't you let me try sucking you, Daniel, okay? That shouldn’t hurt, and you might even like it."

"I can't promise anything."

"You don't have to. Just let me try. I want to do this, okay?"

"Okay." Stunned, Daniel sagged back against the cool tiled wall and watched as Jack O’Neill dropped to his knees beneath the streaming water. Jack, buck naked but for his boots and slopping rolled-down pants, silver hair plastered to his skull, ignoring the aches and pains in his knees and the ugly ridges on the non-slip flooring to bend his head and take Daniel’s limp, dripping penis into his mouth; just to hold it there, just to caress it with lips and tongue, not to arouse, just to soothe.

"You suck," Daniel murmured, shaking his head incredulously. "I can’t believe that Jack O'Neill would actually suck - anyone."

"I suck at a lot of things," O’Neill grinned up at him, eyes blinking against the falling water. "You’re not my first, Daniel."

"You’re not my first, either," was the sad rejoinder. "I wish you had been."

"I kinda - got that," O’Neill acknowledged, licking his lips slowly. "But I’d like to be your last, you know. Last ever. For ever." The sheepishly hopeful expression on O'Neill's uplifted face belied his almost glib delivery. His heart was thudding perilously, and the sudden shortness of his breath indicated exactly how important this was to him. It was unpremeditated and sadly lacking in romantic atmosphere, but suddenly he knew that was precisely what he had needed to say to Daniel all along. Don't leave me again, Danny. Don't ever be further away from me than this. I can't take being apart from you a moment longer.

"Is that a proposal?" Daniel asked him, dizzily, fingers burrowing into soaked silver strands and coaxing O’Neill back to the task he had undertaken.

"Give me a break, Daniel, I’m on my knees here - of course it’s a proposal!"

"Then I think - " The air was shocked out of Daniel's lungs by the renewed touch of O’Neill’s mouth, this time moving with greater intent, more purposefully, his thick tongue licking determinedly and his cheeks hollowing as he took the merest tip of Daniel’s manhood between his lips and drew on it like a drinking straw. Somewhere deep in the recesses of memory something began to reconnect; pleasurable stimulus begat pleasurable response and a slow tingling warmth suffused his nerve endings. This was how arousal used to feel, long years ago when Daniel had actually been capable of it; how sex had felt in the days when he and his partner had both been willing participants. Those times were as dim as a race memory to his conscious mind, but somewhere below the surface his unconscious or his subconscious still knew what to do. And his unconscious or subconscious knew, just as well as his conscious mind, that above all things on this or any other planet he wanted this, and he wanted it with Jack O’Neill.

"You think?" Muffled, inevitably, between lips that would not soon relinquish their quickening burden.

"I think - " Daniel gasped, as Jack’s mouth opened and drew him carefully inside, "I probably accept."

 

* VIII *

"I know who you are, Daniel. I worked it all out. Took me a while, but I got there."

An hour later they lay, Daniel wrapped in a white towel, O'Neill in a dark blue terry cloth robe, on the damp sheets of Daniel's tumbled bed, their experiment in intimacy reduced to affectionate touches and occasional lazy kisses. It had been a long way short of spectacular and nowhere near conclusive; illness and stress had conspired against Daniel, age and sheer mental exhaustion against O'Neill. But on the whole, cheap sexual gratification had not been the object of the exercise - to the point, in fact, where it could have been positively counter-productive. If he was trying to prove that he was different from Boaz, O'Neill reflected, then not jumping Daniel's bones at the first available opportunity constituted the clearest indication he could have given. Instead they'd pleasured one another a little, teased and petted, tempted one another with samples of how it could be between them, and had fallen into bed still wet from the shower and fully convinced that being comfortable together mattered more than all the sexual gymnastics their minds and bodies could invent.

"Who am I? Besides Daniel Jackson and your - I don't know, your partner?"

"Partner." O'Neill mouthed the word. It was the one the outside world would use for what they were; husband and wife, team members, brothers who accidentally happened to have different parents, friends who ate and drank and slept and made love together; men who shared the parenting of a child. Such an ordinary word, as if they were no more than coworkers in a business, senior members of a legal practice. He would have to ask Daniel if there wasn't some expression in one of the dozens of languages he spoke that covered what he considered them to be; halves of something, separated for far too long, finally reunited and forging a closer and closer union with every second that passed.

"Who am I?"

"Huh? Oh, you're Hamlet," O'Neill said, unexpectedly. "What? Daniel, I had an education, you know. And anyway some nights you just end up against your better judgment watching PBS. It happens."

"I know. I just didn't expect it ever to have happened to you." Daniel rolled over, kicking the white towel open and letting the air dry his scarred skin. "But I'll bite, Jack. Why do you think I'm Hamlet?"

"Because when the wind is southerly, you know a hawk from a handsaw," was the slick response. "You played the idiot card, Danny; you're a tough and intelligent guy and yet you let them think you were a fool. You neutralized yourself, you let them humble you, so that you could come back in Act Five and fill the stage with the bodies of your enemies. I'm assuming the Vell haven't read Shakespeare?"

"I imagine not." Daniel was looping an idle finger into a strand of Jack's hair and thinking of delicate platinum filigrees; of elf-mail woven out of strands of mithril. "Which of course is why it worked. And who are you, Jack? Horatio?"

"'An attendant lord'," O'Neill quoted, softly. "'One that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two, advise the prince'. Can't have a school-age kid without learning something," he finished, self-deprecatingly.

"Oh, I've long suspected you read the occasional book," Daniel laughed, indulgently. "Not just Where's Waldo? But I don't think I remember hearing about Hamlet having a thing with any attendant lord except Horatio. I've always thought Horatio was a little older, a little wiser, probably a soldier. Totally gone on the Prince and jealous as hell of Ophelia."

"Jealous," O'Neill mused. "I can do jealous."

"I'm sure you can. But I don't want to give you any reason to prove it."

"If I see you so much as talking to any other guy, Jackson, you're dead meat." It would almost have been a convincing threat, but for the ironic laughter which followed it. "Not true, Danny; you're free as the wind. I'm not going to put chains around you. They say if you love something you should let it go; if it doesn't come back to you, it was never yours in the first place."

"You keep letting me go. And I keep coming back. You know what that means? That I was always yours. Only you just didn't see it."

"Too caught up in my career. And you weren't part of the original plan; wife, house, kid, promotion, respect, adventure, yadda yadda. You know what, Daniel? It was a house of cards. It was built on nothing. On fresh air. That was why it all came tumbling down."

"And then you started again," Daniel reminded him, softly. "Look at what you've got now. A son, a house, a career, friends who love and respect you - and you've had more adventures than a hundred guys your age. You're where you always wanted to be, Jack. You just took a different road than the one you thought you were on."

"Wife?" O'Neill asked, hoarsely. It was the only element missing from the original list.

"Partner," Daniel corrected. "I can't be a stay-at-home little woman for you, and you'd soon get sick of me if I tried it. But if you want other people to see us that way, I won't argue. I'm happy enough for you to be the guy."

"You know you don't need to do that any more, don't you? You know I can handle it if you want to do the macho thing for a change?"

"I don't. That's never really been my scene. That's why it went over so well with the Vell. Their kind of aggressive masculinity just couldn't have worked for me; I couldn't have kept up the pretense. But by being just a little bit more gay, a little bit more out, I was able to convince them I got my kicks out of being roughed up by big hairy soldier types. Given the ratio of men to women after the disaster, and the fact that most of the women were pregnant most of the time, they found me a useful outlet for all that undirected sexual energy."

"They're a race of sick bastards," O'Neill commented, sourly. "I'd like to go in there with a crate of soap and the Word of God and emancipate the women and castrate at least half the men."

"Convert them all to your missionary position?" Daniel laughed. He stretched a little, tangled his legs with O'Neill's, stroked a lazily familiar hand down the man's well-defined chest and rested it easily on his flat belly. "We have to try again with the Vell," he went on, soothingly. "Just because we don't like some of their traditional practices, that's no reason not to offer them all the help and support we can. Making them conform to our template of civilization and ignoring them if they don't would be the worst kind of cultural imperialism. It's what we did to the native people of the Americas, and the indigenous populations in Australia and Africa. I just think that in the future we should be very careful about the gender balance of the teams we send in, and rotate personnel frequently."

"You know whoever we send in, the first thing they'll tell them will be stories about you," O'Neill objected, shifting to pull Daniel more tightly into his arms. "They'll drag your name through the dirt. They'll tell the 'Legend of Daniel Jackson' over and over and add to it every time until you end up sounding like some male nymphomaniac who can't keep his hands off other guys' dicks."

"Sweet of you to care, Jack," was the reassuring response, "but it doesn't matter what they say about me. I won't be there. I'll be with you, remember? And you know the truth, and so does everybody else who matters. As for the rest - screw them. People who don't know me can believe whatever they want to believe. I couldn't care less. And even if I did," Daniel went on, more determinedly still, "I couldn't let my personal feelings stand in the way of offering humanitarian aid to the Vell people. Do you really think I'd let a whole civilization die just to make me feel better?"

"Why not? I nearly did. On Abydos."

Daniel chuckled softly. "I never believed that for a moment, Jack. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you are nowhere near being the hard-ass you would've needed to be to set that bomb off. You were looking for an excuse not to do it right from the start, and if I hadn't come along and said all the things you wanted me to say you'd have found another way to get out of it. 'Sorry, General, I broke a fingernail and I couldn't press the button'."

"How did someone so young and so beautiful ever get to be so cynical, Dr. Jackson?" O'Neill asked him, snuffling sleepy kisses into Daniel's hair and down the side of his face.

"Been around you so long, Colonel O'Neill, some of it was bound to rub off eventually," was the sleepy response. "And just because I'm cynical," he added, burrowing into the firm shoulder beneath his, "doesn't mean I'm not right."

 

Although they were both unutterably worn out after a fierce emotional battering, it was still early evening when they retired to bed and neither man had the least intention of falling asleep - so, of course, that was precisely what happened. In the early part of the night the weather changed, and what had fallen into O'Neill's dreams as the incessant dripping of the shower resolved itself into the comforting rattle of rain on the windows. He had meant to turn right around and go home that same evening, taking Daniel with him if he could, but, by the time his half-asleep senses remembered that, he was no longer capable of moving from the bed. Daniel was heavy against his shoulder, so deeply gone in sleep it would be a crime to wake him, and the world would find them soon enough if they were needed. They had good people tending to their interests.

The promptings of his conscience were so weak that it took little more than the touch of Daniel's breath against his cheek to make O'Neill abandon them altogether. See how easy I am, Daniel? his mind asked, as he carefully reached down to pull one thin cover over their twisted bodies. I'm just gonna stay here and see how long it's possible to keep in one position without getting a cramp.

A considerable time, was the answer. All his limbs were heavier than lead, and Daniel's body was completely lax at his side, O'Neill's left arm tucked solicitously round his neck. He had a vague recollection of Daniel toying lightly with his nipples just before they fell asleep; some mention of a future intention to lick them, suck them, pinch them had disintegrated into a powerful need to yawn over them, nuzzle them tiredly, sprinkle them with sleepy kisses and abandon them almost completely except where a large flat palm rested on the curve of O'Neill's breast. In this position Daniel slept soundly, only the odd distressed whimper like that of a puppy disturbing his rest, and even then he did not wake completely. He merely settled deeper into O'Neill's warmth, leaving the older man to recollections of mingled pride and humility; Daniel was his, Daniel had accepted him, they were a couple now in the sight of everyone who knew them. There would be no need for any kind of announcement, no fanfare; the simple act of taking Daniel home with him would set the seal on the way it was between them. The way it was always meant to be.

Carter had known all along, and the General, and Teal'c and Fraiser - and probably Ferretti and Siler and Bra'tac and Jacob and at least half the System Lords. They had all known before O'Neill himself. They knew that Daniel had been his from the beginning, and that it was merely a matter of reversing the polarity of the entire universe that would allow them the luxury of acknowledging it. A thing like that could make a guy believe in a loving god, if he wasn't quite so blasé about gods as a species. They'd never met a System Lord yet who'd set himself up as Yahweh and he wasn't sure he wanted to, but he knew that there were devout Christians working at the SGC who didn't see any conflict between their faith and their day job exposing false gods. They'd have told him that their god was the real one, that this was all predetermined, and that being apart from Daniel for two years had been part of a higher plan. And maybe it was, at that, but in that case he was certain that its instigator was not so much a divinity, more an alien race with technology unimaginably in advance of their own and an agenda so vast their limited human minds could not encompass it. Which amounted to pretty much the same thing in the end, now that he thought about it.

So who could do a thing like this? Who had the ability to clone Daniel with material gathered who-knew-where and send him through the Stargate simply in order to stop Jack O'Neill self-destructing? The Ancients? The Asgard? Thor would have owned up to it, if it had been him, but there were other, older powers in the Universe; they did not call themselves gods, but their influence on lesser species was just as great. Benevolent, mysterious, they wove plans well beyond the comprehension of mortals like himself. That, he supposed, brought it all down to a very simple equation; just take what you're given and be grateful for it.

Grateful, for Daniel's soft breath against his neck.

Grateful, for Daniel's complete acceptance of him and his world.

Grateful, for the friends who would support and sustain them together.

If I knew who I had to thank for this, he thought, quelling a trace of nightmare in Daniel's sleeping form with a reassuring touch of his hand, I would definitely be prayin' to them right now, so whoever you are I hope you can hear me. You gave me this second chance, and there is no way, no way, I am going to screw this up again. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

And he fell asleep again, listening to the rain, and to Daniel's sleeping breath, and to the contented beating of his own heart.

 

Morning was only the vaguest shiver of promise on the horizon when Daniel eased carefully out of O'Neill's arms and stumbled into the bathroom without turning on the light. He relieved himself, flushed, washed quickly and returned to bed, smelling cleanly of soap and cold water, and settled down again on his back as if he thought he could make the entire journey without Jack being aware either of his absence or of his return. Instead he found that fingertips landed across his lips and heard a softly insistent 'sssshhhhh' very close to his ear. Not that he had ever had any intention of talking. He could not think of a single thing to say that would be either relevant or appropriate in the circumstances.

Jack shifted in the bed, rolling over to straddle him, resting on hands and knees above him. Then, with tender care, he lowered his head and kissed Daniel's mouth deeply, thoroughly, luxuriating in the arms that rose and twined around his neck, the stroking fingers that whispered across his shoulders.

"Be still, baby," Jack breathed, dropping kisses onto his upturned face. "Be still and quiet. Let me do this."

"Uh-huh." Not even real words, just a sound, and only then because a nod of the head would have fallen into shadow and gone undetected.

Jack detached Daniel's arms from around his neck, pushed them above his head, wrapped Daniel's fingers around the uprights of the slatted bed-head. "There."

Daniel waited, limp, relaxed. Nothing could have been further from his mind than sex when he got out of bed to empty his bladder; this was the unholiest of hours in the middle of the night and he was not even remotely beginning to be aroused. On the other hand there was something unbelievably seductive about being overwhelmed, being ambushed, being desired in the velvet anonymity of darkness by someone who loved him infinitely and could be or do or imagine almost anything on his behalf.

It was not even that it was Jack, any more than it was that he was Daniel. It was more that this was the body that belonged with his own, that it completed him and he it.

His mouth moved avidly beneath Jack's, accepting the deep thrusting of his tongue and returning it so that they were licking along the surfaces of one another's tongues, letting delicate nerve endings become better acquainted. He couldn't remember ever having done this before with a partner and he wondered why it had never occurred to him until now. In the past, had he always held something back? Had there been a sense in which he'd never given himself completely before this because at the back of his mind he had always known that he was waiting for Jack O'Neill?

And then the hot mouth moved from his and began kissing its way along the midline of his body, slowly and with almost manic determination progressing down the fine trail of hair across his belly and on down the length of his still-sleeping penis to press a deep and almost painful kiss into the base. Daniel's thighs parted further as the kiss became deep-tongued licks down behind his scrotum, into the tender taut flesh of the blind crease between his legs, became little teasing bites, became an abundance of saliva cooling on him as it dried.

O'Neill's mouth returned to the base of Daniel's penis, and the wet licks continued slowly up the mildly responding shaft to encompass the soft, limp head in that incredible wetness. Then he felt teeth locating carefully below the crown and a very gentle tugging sensation as the organ drew taut and, almost against its will it seemed, began to fill with blood.

"Oh!"

But fingers that smelled of himself closed his mouth before he could utter another word.

Make me hard, he would have said if he could. Make me hard, Jack.

Instead his head thrashed from side to side as he bit down on the words, mouthing them into darkness. He wanted to beg to have his nipples squeezed, too, but those words - any words - would break apart the hermetic covering of secrecy protecting this most precious of moments, and he did not dare to utter them.

In the morning this won't have happened, he thought to himself. In the morning Jack will still love me, but it will be a daylight love, and clean and acceptable and nothing to be embarrassed about. It won't be his mouth on my dick and his fingers learning my ass. It won't be me getting hard at the feel of his teeth pulling on me; a little pain, a little pressure, a little roughness just where I need it.

As if he had read Daniel's mind, O'Neill increased his attentions to the crown of Daniel's manhood, and as if he could see it Daniel knew that it had grown purple and taut and that the skin was pulled shiny-smooth like the skin of a balloon. And then while the teeth held him in place, O'Neill's tongue-tip dipped lightly and repeatedly into the slit on the head, thrusting into it as into a tiny mouth that opened to his pleasure, and Daniel felt a shiver run through him as his body pulled and twisted and a sensation long absent boiled up from his balls and thundered through unprepared flesh and laid a weak tribute of come against Jack's tongue.

"No," he moaned, shuddering, swamped by the emotional implications of what he had done. Swamped by the knowledge of having let go, at last, every anchor holding him to reality. He had abandoned himself completely; he was Jack's, now; he was owned. "Noooooo!"

"Husssshhhh." Jack was there in a second, wrapping him in a protecting embrace, stroking his hair. "It's okay. Don't cry."

"Too soon." Daniel hid his face against Jack's neck. "I didn't mean to. I'm sorry, Jack. Sorry."

"I know, Danny. Don't worry, I know."

But Daniel was inconsolable, the relief of orgasm drowned in a flood of tears as the last of his carefully-composed defenses were overwhelmed.

"I don't understand," he gasped. "How can this happen? How can I possibly have you? How can I even deserve you, after what I've done? How can you bear to touch me like this when you know how many other men have been crawling all over me and what they've been doing? How do you even know I'm the real Daniel Jackson?"

"What're you talking about? Of course you're real!"

"Jack, you said yourself you didn't know if DJ was a clone or an altered version of me. You still don't know. What if he's the real Daniel and I'm the copy? The robots believed they were us, didn't they? They knew they were the real SG-1. The other Jack thought you were the usurper."

"Yeah, but - "

"Well, suppose I'm a quantum mirror Daniel or something? Suppose I'm not the person who left here two years ago? Everything's so different from the world I left, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm here under false pretenses. I could be a fake. You could be giving your Daniel's love to someone you don't really know."

Calmly, O'Neill sought to quell the incipient hysteria rising in Daniel's tone.

"I don't care, Daniel. I don't care if you're not exactly down to the last molecule the guy who walked through the Stargate two years ago. You're Daniel Jackson, and whether you're 'real' or not doesn't matter a scrap to me as long as you're my Daniel Jackson. We've fought and suffered and lived and died side by side for nearly ten years now and I love you. I can't change that. You could be a set of Russian dolls with a different Daniel on every layer and I'd love each and every one of you. I'm not pretending here, Danny. This is serious, and as far as I'm concerned it's permanent. It's you, or it's nobody. I'm not just waiting for a better offer to come along. Given the way I feel about you, Daniel, I think that would be a pretty long wait."

"And - if I don't feel real?" Daniel asked him nervously, almost afraid to let the words slip past his lips.

"Then I'll love you enough to make you real. But right now, sweetheart, all I want is to take care of you. I just want you to be happy."

"Happy?" It was a concept he could not - quite - begin to grasp.

"Yeah," O'Neill said, ruefully, touching his lips to Daniel's hair. "You know. For ever and ever. This world and the next. To infinity and beyond. And crap like that."

 

* IX *

"Good morning, Jack!" Kezia Hammond was industriously assembling breakfast as O'Neill sidled somewhat self-consciously into the kitchen several hours later. He was wearing gray sweatpants and a plain black tee-shirt, and was barefoot. "Did you sleep well?"

"Kez? What time is it?" Vaguely he recollected having a watch when he arrived; it was probably somewhere in the debris of Daniel's bachelor bedroom, maybe buried under the covers with Daniel himself.

"Nine thirty. George took the girls to soccer practice, but he'll be back in a few minutes. I know he was worried about you boys last night."

O'Neill quirked an eyebrow at her. He hadn't found anything in Daniel's bathroom with which to shave himself and his bristling chin made him look and feel utterly disreputable as he watched her with large, woebegone puppy eyes.

"We're fine," he said, awkwardly. Then, recollecting that she was not only a friend but one of many who would eventually have to know, he tried saying it for the first time. "We're together."

"Good." Without asking, Kezia pushed a mug of coffee under his nose. It was strong and bitter, harsh enough to strip the lining out of his throat, but the jolt of caffeine went straight to his nervous system and woke up those parts of him that were still slumbering. "Are you taking Daniel home today?"

"If he ever wakes up, yeah. And I need something to wear, Kez; all my clothes are soaked - these are Danny's. Could I borrow your laundry room for an hour or so later?"

"Give me the clothes, I'll take care of them. Did you get caught in the storm? I thought you must have come in from the garden in a hurry because Daniel's hat and sketching things were still on the table. They're ruined, I'm afraid."

"Oh." That was sad news, but he suspected Daniel would survive it. "I'll buy him a new hat," he replied, absent-mindedly. "I think the water killed my cell phone, too," he went on in a mournful tone. It was fine and romantic hauling one's lover fully-clothed into the shower, but he had learned the hard way that it was probably best to empty one's pockets first.

"Yes," Kez smiled. "Samantha called earlier. She said she couldn't get through on your cell. She just wanted to make sure everything was okay between you and Daniel."

"Never been more okay," he told her gruffly. "I'll call her."

"She said to tell you Toby Feldman came by last night and the pair of them made her watch Bagger Vance again. Toby left at nine thirty and DJ had a good night's sleep. Oh, and Teal'c's on his way there and he's bringing some game for DJ's Play Station, I forget what."

"Lara," O'Neill groaned. "DJ and Teal'c are crazy about Lara."

Kez shook her head. "Boys," she muttered. "The worst I have to worry about with my two is boy bands and Barbie dolls. I don't think I ever remember being that age," she added, sadly. "You want waffles or pancakes, Jack?"

"Pancakes," he said, without thought. "But I'll wait for Daniel if that's okay."

"It's fine. Is he feeling better? He's been so depressed since he's been with us."

"That's partly the poison, Kez. It could be a long time before it's completely out of his system. But the other part of it's me," he admitted, with a rueful shrug. "I've really made a mess out of this; I'm amazed he's still talking to me."

"I suspect he loves you, Jack. You forgive an awful lot if you love someone." For a moment her tone was wistful and O'Neill wondered whether she would ever marry again. She and her daughters were well provided for, there was nothing material she needed, but surely she must long for a little companionship from time to time? Wasn't she sometimes downright miserable as a lone parent, just as he had been?

Just as he wouldn't be again, since he was no longer a lone parent.

 

Daniel had still not emerged from his temporary quarters by the time Hammond made it back from soccer practice a short time later. It was difficult to think of him as a senior military officer when he breezed in wearing a check shirt, cord pants, baseball cap and dark glasses, looking like nothing more imposing a neighbor who had called around to borrow the hedge-trimmer.

"How's our boy, Jack?" he asked, mildly.

"Oh, you know, shaky," O'Neill admitted.

"Only to be expected." Hammond spooned sugar into his coffee, ignoring two pairs of eyes turned in his direction. "The girls are going for ice cream with Madison and Katie on the way home," he informed Kez. "They'll be back between eleven thirty and twelve."

Kezia Hammond nodded. "Jack tells me he's taking Daniel home with him," she said softly.

Hammond seated himself at the table opposite Jack. "Things working out?" he asked hopefully. "Between the two of you?"

"Uh - "

"Jack," the General began, gently reproachful, "which part of all this did you think I wouldn't know about? Your history? Daniel's? Your feelings for each other? The abuse? Any of the above?"

Oh god, O'Neill thought. Busted. Busted wide open. Why the hell did I imagine he wouldn't understand?

"Not exactly," he conceded. "I'm just - I've done more talking about my feelings in the last couple days than in the whole of the rest of my life. And no offence, George, but I never thought I'd ever be sitting at your breakfast table talking to you about starting a new life with Daniel."

"Well, I can understand that." Hammond's reply was a sympathetic rumble. "You must've felt you'd lost him forever."

"I did." O'Neill did not protest when Kezia removed his coffee cup from his fingers and refilled it for him. He did not drink, however; just wrapped his hands around the mug and stared into it as if she had poured him some new revelation. "How long have you - ? I mean - " There really was no way to express the question without sounding ridiculous. "You always knew?"

"Suspected," Hammond amended. "And if you think I haven't discussed the pair of you with Doctor Fraiser a couple of times - or a couple of hundred - "

"Yeah, she knew." He'd lost count of the times she'd protected one of them, or the other, from some investigation that had run a little too close to examining their innermost motivations. They hadn't wanted anyone to know how they felt about one another. Hell, for ninety-five percent of the time they hadn't wanted to know about it either.

"She did. I think the ship's pretty much sailed on that one, Jack. With most people, in fact."

For a long time they did not speak. Nor did they meet one another's eyes. It was one thing for O'Neill to acknowledge his feelings for Daniel in the face of the world, but another matter entirely trying to do so without believing he had lost the respect of his former commander.

"Not going to offer me any fatherly advice, George?" he asked, eventually, lifting his head in awkward defiance.

"I don't think so," was the response. "You know what you're doing. You always did. And for the record, I'm completely convinced you're doing the right thing here. He may never again be the Daniel Jackson we lost two years ago, but if you take really good care of him he can start to rebuild his life. Any idea what he's planning to do about his career?"

Jack shook his head. "He's out of the archaeological establishment, that's for sure. He's talking about concentrating on his linguistic work. A book? I don't know, he mentioned a 'point by point refutation of Halliday', whatever that might be. I'm going to have to learn what all this stuff is, aren't I?"

"True. But he'll have to learn about the things you like to do, too. That's what marriage is all about, Jack; sharing the things that give you pleasure."

O'Neill's face split into a grin. "See, there's that fatherly advice. I knew I'd get that eventually. Maybe I can teach him to fly," he added. A momentary vision of the two of them side by side at the controls of some little plane out over the northern wilderness turned in his mind's eye into a metaphor for their relationship. Side by side, navigating around obstacles, rising above rough terrain, one of them in control and the other backing him up all the way. Didn't matter which way around it was; they'd always have something to learn from one another.

"It'll pass the time until you have to teach DJ," Hammond chuckled. "You won't be able to keep him out of the air for long once he's old enough."

Wearily, O'Neill rubbed his eyes. "It's worse than that," he warned. "He wants to go through the Stargate. He heard me and Danny talking in the hospital, and now we owe him a proper explanation. Edited highlights, I guess," he added quickly, thinking about the Goa'uld and the Vell and some of the other nasties they'd encountered along the way. "Bra'tac, maybe. The Asgard. The Tokra."

"All right. You and Daniel decide exactly how much you want him to know and I'll authorise a visit to the base. And I'll give sympathetic consideration to any plan to take DJ through the Stargate to a safe destination," he added, "but only once. He won't be able to do it again until either he's on the SGC staff or someone else is in command. We're not running a tourist agency down there."

"Understood. Thank you, George."

Hammond waved a hand dismissively. "Least we can do, Jack. You and Daniel have put everything you had into your work for SGC. You put the organisation first every step of the way. I figure a grateful government owes you one."

"Yeah," O'Neill gruffed. "Maybe it does at that."

The sound of water running which had underscored the latter part of this conversation was superseded at this point by the creaking open of a connecting door and the arrival in the kitchen of a somewhat somnolent, shuffling Daniel wearing a pair of battered old shorts even worse than yesterday's and a red tee-shirt with a Jim Beam logo. He had his glasses dangling limply from one hand and was rubbing his sore eyes with the heel of the other. His hair was a new-born-chick frizz from the shower.

"Good morning, sleeping beauty," O'Neill said, warmly.

Daniel did not look in his direction. He was still blinking awkwardly. "Jack did you lose a watch?" he asked in a puzzled tone. "Only I think I was sleeping on it most of the night. It doesn't seem to be ticking any more."

O'Neill was on his feet. He rounded the end of the table and grasped both Daniel's wrists, and before he could think about what he was doing he had kissed him gently on the cheek.

"Hell with the watch," he told him. "How're you feeling?"

"Good." Slowly Daniel extracted himself from the affectionate grip and finished the tricky business of settling his glasses on his nose. "Good morning, George, good morning, Kez," he said, evenly. "Are the girls at soccer?"

"Morning, Daniel," Hammond said. "Back in a couple of hours."

"Okay, thanks. Jack, I don't want to leave until I've said goodbye to them. And anyway it'll take me a couple of hours to pack."

"That's fine, Danny, I haven't shaved yet and I won't have anything to wear until Kez has done some laundry; I'm not flying home in your old work-out clothes, believe me! What the hell I'm going to do about boots I don't know; I don't think that pair will survive a power shower and having their laces cut. Wasn't the greatest tactical maneuver I've ever pulled, was it?"

"It was an ambush," Daniel said, flushing slightly, "and it worked." He side-stepped O'Neill and kissed Kezia when she handed him coffee.

"Pancakes, Daniel? We were waiting for you."

"You shouldn't have. But yes, thank you."

They sat themselves down at the table as Kez busied herself with the pancakes.

"My boots would probably fit you, Jack," Daniel said, thoughtfully. "I've got some spares. Have we heard from DJ this morning?"

"We need to call him after breakfast," O'Neill responded, "but 'Nurse Carter' reported in. He spent the evening drooling over Will Smith and he's going to spend the day drooling over Lara Croft. That's one mixed-up child we've got there, Danny."

"He's just keeping his options open," Daniel mused. "I was the same at his age. In fact I was the same right up until I met you." He stopped speaking, glancing anxiously around the table. "I'm assuming we're well and truly out of the closet by now?" he asked, belatedly.

"Were we ever really in it?"

"Probably not."

A short silence fell, and then Hammond said kindly, "So, Daniel, you're moving in with Jack?"

"Yes. It's not that I don't really appreciate your hospitality, George, but I think that's where I need to be."

"Couldn't agree more, son," the General chuckled. "But I think you should keep your options open, too. SGC can still make good use of you if you want to come back, even if your health won't allow you to go off-world regularly. Why don't you take a year's sabbatical? Write this book Jack's been telling us about. Use the time to decide what you want to do with your future."

"Well, someone should challenge Halliday," Daniel conceded. "His sociolinguistic work is so old it has mold growing on it. No-one's ever questioned the validity of my linguistic work, and I could use the surname Jackson-O'Neill - oh, that is, if that's okay with you, Jack?"

"Is it okay? Is it okay?" O'Neill repeated, thunderstruck. "Dammit, Daniel, you're asking if you can take my name, let the entire world know we're a couple, and you want to know if it's okay? What am I supposed to say to that?"

"You could say if it's okay or not," Daniel pointed out calmly.

"Yes, it's okay, but this discussion isn't over," O'Neill told him dourly. "Actually, George, a year should be as much time as I need for the alterations I'm planning to the house," he went on, looking back across at Hammond. "You know - moat, drawbridge, a couple of machine-gun towers. God only knows what I did to deserve it, but I now have two Daniel Jacksons to look after and I'm not taking any unnecessary risks."

"That's Daniel Jackson-O'Neill," Daniel reminded him. "Twice."

"Yeah. And one of you's quite manageable, in his own little way. You, on the other hand, I may have to consider keeping chained up in the basement until you learn to behave yourself. At least it'll stop you wandering away from me again."

"Promises promises," Daniel shot back automatically, then coughed and went for a diplomatic change of subject. "George, I want to continue my work on the Vell Codex. I've been wondering if we shouldn't look around for a blind person, a Braille user, someone with a greater sensitivity to the nuances of a woven language." Daniel helped himself to a pancake from the pile Kez had set on the table. Jack passed him the maple syrup as if they did this every morning; there was something so familiar and comforting about being together that it had already ceased to be a novelty. "There's an expert attached to the British Museum who might be willing to come over and help us out. I could make some inquiries, if you agree?"

"Assuming we can get the appropriate clearance for him or her that shouldn't be a problem," Hammond acknowledged. "But give yourself a couple of weeks' break from work first. Get to know your son. Get used to being a family. Get used to having Jack around full time." The tone made it apparent Hammond wasn't at all sure whether this was a blessing or a curse.

"Ah - thank you. Yes, perhaps I should. Oh, and I really think I should go back to Vell 2 some time and face Boaz."

"What?" O'Neill's fork clattered onto his plate and he stared across the table at his beloved partner with an expression of distress and bewilderment. "What the hell next, Daniel? You'd really walk back into that maniac's clutches after he - "

"I won't be in his clutches this time, Jack," Daniel returned firmly, "and I want to look him in the eye. I want to stare him down. I want him to know that breaking my body is not the same thing as breaking my spirit. I want to make him and all his people see that we can be magnanimous, no matter how badly they may treat us. I want to be so generous and forgiving it makes him look like a toad. You can understand that, can't you?"

"You want to go back to his planet with a hundred guys for backup and make him eat shit," O'Neill mused. "I can relate to that, Daniel. In fact I'm proud'a you. General, permission to - "

"We'll talk about it nearer the time, Jack," Hammond said, repressively, "but believe me, I think I'd like to be there, too."

"You and everyone else who cares about Daniel," was the rejoinder. "It's a pity we couldn't bring DJ and make it a family outing."

Hammond laughed easily, reaching across for his coffee mug. "We'll be seeing that young man at the Mountain soon enough in any event," he said. "Let's not rush into anything foolish, shall we?"

 

Whilst the two Hammonds cleared up after breakfast, Jack and Daniel adjourned to the General's study to use the phone in private. Closing the door behind them, Jack paused less than half a second before winding Daniel into his arms and just holding him; suffocatingly close, insanely possessive, but just holding him.

"Octopus," Daniel murmured into his shoulder.

"Yeah. I love you too," was the answering growl. "Sure you're okay with all this?"

"One condition. You’re really not going to lock me in the basement, you know."

"I know. Free as the wind. No chains. I promised."

"And you also have to remember which Daniel is which," his lover went on, persuasively. "Don't let the surname fool you, I'm not looking for a father figure and I'll resent the hell out of you if you patronise me."

"Huh? I'm not - "

"Jackson," Daniel elaborated. "Jack's son. I'm saying we don't have to take it literally."

"Oh. Got you. Any more than 'Daniel' being an anagram of 'denial', you mean?"

Daniel's animated expression stilled while he considered this suggestion. "God, so it is," he admitted eventually. "Can you believe I'd never even realised that?"

"Call yourself a linguist?" Jack teased, kissing away the hair that fell onto Daniel's forehead.

"A cunning linguist," Daniel laughed. "No, that would be you, wouldn't it? Have your knees forgiven you yet?"

"For the time being. But maybe I'll get a pair of hockey knee pads if we're going to do that again."

"Maybe we should just not do it on a tiled floor," Daniel suggested affectionately. "Or maybe I should do it to you next time."

"Only if you want to. Only ever if you want to."

Daniel hugged him tighter. "Okay," he said, although he did not explain which particular 'okay' he meant. "We'd better call DJ then. What are we going to say to him?"

"Hmmm." O'Neill released him then, and they stared thoughtfully at one another. "I was thinking of something on the lines of 'DJ, it's dad' to start with."

"Good idea," Daniel teased. "What next?"

"Well, nothing about the Stargate yet. We'll save that till we get home. Sam and Teal'c can help us explain it all. He'll probably want the technical stuff anyway, and Teal'c can tell him the real reason he always wears that hat, and then he can show him Junior and after that I guess we all sit around answering questions until DJ's good and tired of asking them. A month or two, maybe."

"And what about us? What are you going to tell him about me?"

O'Neill shook his head. "That's a tough one," he conceded. "I don't know if the cloning business wouldn't be too much all at once, especially as we don't really know how it happened. I'm thinking maybe we'll save that for Phase Two."

"All right. So Phase One - ?"

"Phase One is 'DJ, I love Daniel with all my heart and soul and unless you have any objections I want him to come and live with us and be your other father.' I was thinking of adding 'by the way, son, I'm gay' but it's probably a fraction too late for that. He's a bright kid, he's probably noticed."

"If he saw you trying to kiss me at the hospital he might just have made the connection," Daniel conceded, smiling.

"That too. So, any part of the plan you don't like?"

"Only the bit about him having objections," Daniel told him unsteadily. "He won't, will he?"

"C'mon, how could he not love having you around? But you're forgetting that he's really you, Daniel. What do you think he's gonna say?"

"I think - " Daniel swallowed, beginning to recognise the implications inherent in his strange relationship with DJ. "I think I'm going to enjoy being with you," he acknowledged, "but being a father is going to take a bit more getting used to."

"Yeah, well, don't tell anyone, but I don't think I'm really 'dad' material myself," O'Neill admitted. "If you want the truth, I think I'm more of a frustrated 'mom'."

Unevenly, Daniel chuckled. "You weren't kidding, were you? About letting me do the macho thing if I wanted?"

"Nope," Jack told him in a tone of infinite indulgence. "Whatever lights your candle, Doctor Jackson-O'Neill."

"You do, Jack. You and your home and your life and your... our son. You're everything I ever dreamed about, the pair of you. On Vell, the women used to shout insults at me for stealing the seed from the men and not having the decency to get pregnant. That's when it came to me that there was only one person I had ever really wanted to have a child with. I must admit," he concluded, with an odd little laugh, "I did think both being men would be a bit of a handicap in that respect. Turns out it wasn't a problem after all."

"And nobody had to go through morning sickness or labour pains either," was the rejoinder. "I guess we did it the easy way."

"Wait a minute, Jack, I had the cravings and the swollen ankles," Daniel pointed out. "And the long hair and the dress!"

"And a beard, Danny," O'Neill reminded him. "Doesn't really fit the image, does it?"

"Oh. No."

"And we didn't get to do the things you have to do to get children," O'Neill returned, more softly. "Not before he arrived, anyway. I'm hoping we can get in a little practice now he's all grown up."

"Maybe I should ask DJ if he's got any advice on the subject." Daniel's expression was calm and serene. "I think that boy already knows far more about being gay than I could ever teach him, Jack. Perhaps he's the one who should he helping me."

"'The child is father to the man', eh?" Jack quoted gently. "I like that. It could work."

"Yeah. It could."

"So what do you think, Daniel? Think we should call our son and tell him we're coming home? And this time we're staying?" He had taken both of Daniel's hands in both of his, and was looking down across them into Daniel's eyes, bluer and wider than they had ever been and now, at long last, completely and utterly focussed only on him.

"Make the call, Jack," said Daniel - but it was a long time after that before he once again allowed O'Neill the unencumbered use either of his hands, or of his mouth.

* * *

 

 

Notes:

 

Quotations used in the text are as follows:

'a king of infinite space' * Shakespeare: Hamlet Act II Scene 2 line 290

'the wench is dead' * Marlowe: The Jew of Malta Act IV lines 42-43

'a hawk from a handsaw' * Shakespeare: Hamlet Act II Scene 2 line 400

'an attendant lord' * Eliot: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock lines 126-130

No prizes for 'a bug in a Daniel suit'.

 

Hedysarum and Astragalus:

I am indebted to a Cornell University veterinary medicine website which can be found at  http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/locoweed/swain2.html and particularly to Jon Krakauer's haunting 'Into The Wild', ISBN 0-330-35169-9, the story of the strange, sad death of a young man named Chris McCandless.