Author's Notes: Speculative fic for season nine, so spoilery for season nine...
He's surrounded by cardboard boxes. The things in them are all relatively innocuous, pieces of a paper with signatures and degrees, a little name plate with dust edged through all the grooves, probably a yo-yo too, in at least one of them, if he knows Jack. He's pretty sure he does.
"It's for the best," he's telling him, not for the first time, and he's nodding, again. "It's not like I'm going to disappear off the face of the earth," he says, and smiles.
He smiles back faintly, but says nothing. It isn't as though he didn't realize this would happen eventually. It's not like he thought they would all be here together forever, or something. It isn't grade school—back then it was easy to think things might last forever, even though they changed all of the time. He had rarely ever been in the same class for a whole year until college, and this place, the SGC, was the only place he had ever stayed for so long, but even here, he had never allowed himself to entertain any notions of permanence.
"I'm not moving away. I'll still be around. Maybe go fishing at the cabin or something sometimes, but you can come with. I'm going to get you to like fishing, if it's the last thing I do."
He wants to say 'whatever' but that would probably be out of spite, and Jack doesn't deserve that. Jack has a right to have a life, and he shouldn't hold it against him. He nods again, and Jack turns around, packing up more of his things. He may not be sure he knew Jack, but Jack certainly knew him, and he knew he wasn't alright—but they were both pretending he was. It's an old façade they had often held up between them. It only sometimes works.
Jack sighs as he drops another handful of medals carelessly into a shoebox, like it was worthless confetti, and then meets his eyes. "If I didn't think I'd be signing all of our death warrants, I'd tell you to get out too."
He wouldn't know what to do with himself if he ever got out. This was all he had, all he had ever had—and though it had taken so much from him it had also provided him with the only constants in his life.
No, not constants. Nothing was constant. Nothing was forever. Those boxes and the trinkets they held were proof of that. He wants to tell him all of this, explain why he could never leave, but he knows he would never find the right words, and Jack already knew.
He could see in his eyes how hard this was for him, and he knew, that whatever Jack said he didn't really want to go. He had just reached the point where he felt he had no other choice.
He had retired how many times, anyway? There was no telling if this time was for good—nothing was permanent, after all, and Jack would be bored fishing. Then again, he'd told himself, at the beginning, when Jack had become a General, that he would be bored with that. He had been, a little, and he had liked to complain and smile about reports and inconveniences, but he had never come back to SG-1.
"Daniel," Jack sighs, in that way he had that held both exasperation and mild, morbid, amusement.
He doesn't look at him, he folds the flaps of one of the cardboard boxes. One down and two on top, weave a forth between them and set it aside. He feels like he's been doing it for hours, and when he looks at the clock, he realizes he's been here fifteen minutes.
"You left your Mad Libs in the top desk drawer," he tells him, still without meeting his eyes, and Jack moves to get them.
"How did you know about that?" he asks, when he drops them in another box, and though his eyes are narrowed they're sparkling for the first time that day.
"I was looking for one of my reports," he says absently. "I needed to fix something."
Jack sighs, but he can't hide the grin. "You can't just go snooping through a General's desk, Daniel."
He smiles sadly. "Why not? It's not like I got caught."
Jack hits him on the back of the head when he passes him to grab an empty box from the hall, but he's laughing when he comes back in. "You better behave with whoever replaces me, alright? Not everyone has my sense of humor."
"Thank god for small favors," he says wryly, because he knows Jack would worry if he had said anything else.
There's more laughter and Jack is setting the box on the floor. He glances over sideways when he sees Jack randomly pushing things into the box, pencil holder complete with pens and pencils falling in fragments inside of it, the stapler snapping as it drops to the floor. "What are you doing?" he asks.
"This is taking too long," Jack says, by way of explanation, and continues pushing everything in. He thinks that if the desk chair would fit, Jack would take that too.
"That stuff isn't really yours, you know," he says, though he says it mildly, because he knows already Jack simply doesn't care.
"I saved the world," he says predictably. "Just let them try and come after me for snatching some office supplies."
He grins and shakes his head, carefully placing Jack's photos into another box. He sets the one of Charlie on top, and he knows he's probably the only one Jack would have allowed to touch it. He drops a piece of bubble wrap inside and then tapes it shut.
When he turns around, Jack is standing right in front of him, leaning against his desk. He looks serious now, and he hasn't seen his eyes that sad since he had been watching him, that other time, as he walked into a Stargate in his own mind and disappeared in a flash of light.
He wasn't the one leaving this time, though, and he was realizing it was quite a different experience to be the one left behind. "What?" he asks, trying not to notice that everything is packed and there's nothing left on any of the shelves. Light was bouncing off the polished wood at all corners, and a few airmen had already wandered in, and started carrying the boxes out.
"You're not going to do anything stupid, are you?" Jack asks him, and there's a pain in his voice he can't quite understand.
"I always do things that are stupid," he says, because he might as well be honest. If he had said 'no' Jack wouldn't have believed it.
Jack grins briefly before it disappears again, leaving him solemn. "You've changed so much," he says.
Dying had a way of changing people. It was probably the killing, though, that had affected him the most. "We all have," he says, instead of what he's thinking, and his eyes stray to the ground. "You can't work at a place like this and not change, Jack."
"I want you to promise me I'm not going to be getting any three a.m. phone calls, Daniel," he says, tightly. "I want you to promise you aren't going to get yourself killed."
He sighs and leans back against the wall. "Jack," he says, and he doesn't need to say anything else. They knew each other well enough that it was enough.
"I know," he says, and looks away. "But you be careful, alright? 'Cause I swear to you, I couldn't—" he breaks off, and shakes his head. "I got you into this, and if anything happens to you, it's my fault."
"You didn't get me into this," he says, quickly, because he didn't want Jack to think that. "I got myself into it, and even after everything, I don't regret it."
"Sometimes I do," Jack says tightly. "I look at you, sometimes, and I regret it."
"You don't actually believe you could have stopped me…?" he asks slyly, because he knows he needs to say something, anything, to take that horrible look in Jack's eyes away.
It works, somewhat, and Jack smiles. "No," he says wryly. "Now that you mention it, probably not. I could have tried harder, though."
"We might not be friends," he points out. "I don't know about you, but I meant it, I don't regret any of this."
Jack glances towards the doorway. "I wish I could say that," he says. "I really do, and there are definitely things I wouldn't want to change, Daniel, friendships being one of them, but I've still made so many mistakes."
"Everyone makes mistakes, Jack. We move on."
"I know," he says quietly. "I'm trying to."
They both fell silent. The number of boxes dwindled, and none of the men who come to take them away say a word. They move silently, efficiently, and if he closes his eyes he can pretend they aren't there.
"I miss those first years sometimes," Jack tells him, quietly, like it's a secret he's been hiding all this time. He laughs then, and glances over at him. "You were so naïve back then, Daniel, I still have trouble believing it."
He glares over at him a bit, because that is what's expected, and he's never liked being called naïve. Jack could think he had been if he liked, but he hadn't been naïve since he was eight years old. "This was new to us all back then," he says instead, and Jack nods, giving him that much.
"Yeah, but none of us saw it quite the way you did," he says sadly. "That changed too, though, didn't it?"
He knows what Jack is referring to—his fall from grace, his plummet from the gloried ivory tower, but he regretted that least of all. The air that high had always been a little thin.
He almost tells Jack that everything changes, but Jack hates clichés, and he knows it well enough already, so he lowers his head instead, and says nothing at all. There's been no movement in the corner of his eye for a few minutes, and when he looks up again, he notices the office is empty but for the shell of the desk still in the middle of the room, and them, silent beside it.
He supposes that empty the office should have looked larger, but it felt strangely like the walls were moving closer in.
Jack's never been good with silences, and he begins tapping his fingers along the wooden desk, before speaking again. "I'm going to have a lot of free time on my hands now," Jack says, indolently, as though drawing it out will slow time. "And you know what that means."
He raises an eyebrow in mock speculation. "You're going to take up gardening?"
Jack laughs at the thought, but they both know it's a possibility, and he amuses himself with the picture of Jack in a straw hat and gardening gloves, before turning back to meet his eyes. "No," Jack says. "It means I'm going to have the time to make sure you have some fun now and then."
If things hadn't changed so much, if they were both still working here, he would have been frankly horrified by the thought. He found it comforting now, because even if he had to suffer through Jack's brand of fun, he at least wouldn't lose this friendship completely. Sometimes he forgot that for most people, work wasn't everything, it was simply a distraction.
Maybe that was all it was for him, too, a distraction—something to take his mind off everything else. Work wasn't taking his mind off this, because there was no way for him to separate the two.
"Tonight, for instance," Jack continues, because he hasn't said anything, and the silence would be grating on him by now. "You're going to come watch a hockey game with me."
It would be pointless to remind Jack again that he had no interest in hockey, and he knew he would go. He would end up drinking beer he didn't like, and rooting for the wrong team, but he would still have fun. Or, as close as he got to it, anyway, so he nods and says, "Sure," and Jack smiles before pushing off the desk to stand.
"It's going to be strange, huh? Without me around?" Jack asks, almost whimsically.
"I imagine it's going to be quiet," he says, because he knows it will make Jack smile, and it does.
"You're going to miss me," Jack says smugly. "We both know it, so you might as well knock if off."
"Oh, yes, Jack," he says wryly. "It's going to be quite a switch being treated as an adult, having no one pestering me about my eating habits—"
"Ah, but you forget," he interrupts, with a large grin. "I have your cell number. And I know where you live."
He smiles, but he's suddenly inexplicably sad—it had been lurking all night and he knew he shouldn't be surprised, but it had grabbed him now, completely, and it was becoming hard to breathe. He realizes, then, that this far underground, the air must be almost as thin.
Jack grabs his sleeve and pulls him into a hug, because he's always known just when he was about to lose it, and he always knew what to do to keep him together for a little longer. "You've got to look after Teal'c and Sam for me, you know," Jack says.
"I bet you said the same thing to them about me," he says wryly, but his voice is raw and most of the tone is drowned out by a strange hollow sound. Jack still laughs, because there's little else to do in such a situation as this. .
"I told them to get you a leash," he tells him, and his voice hitches near the end.
He let out a startled laugh and Jack squeezes him tighter for a second before pulling back and letting him go. "Hockey," he says, like it's the answer to everything, and then he starts for the door.
Jack turns off the light as he heads into the hall, and there, in the dark, it all seems suddenly real. His legs give out and he drops into the chair, the shadows pulling in around him until he thinks for a brief moment, that he won't ever be able to move again—but he still gets up, when Jack calls his name, and his hands don't shake as he closes the door behind him.