It was such a simple thing, having regular clothes, a belt and shoes that tied, but it meant the world to Daniel. Sam must have gone to his apartment to put together the outfit, he thought, and she would have known about the shoes. She would have known and understood the importance. Leaning over his knees, tightening the laces again and again, feeling the sturdy leather grip the sides of his feet, Daniel immersed himself in the perfunctory task. He wished all of his clothing had ways to make them tighter, more constricting, because every minute the clock moved toward eleven hundred hours, Daniel felt his joints and tenuous grasp on control coming unhinged.
A soft rap on his door startled him more than he would have liked, and when his sight came to focus on the figure entering, he was relieved to see it was his physician and not one of his friends, come to offer him words of support.
"How are you feeling?" Doctor Sebastian asked, her hands nervously twitching behind her back.
"Oh, I don't know," he said, bending to finish tightening his laces. "I suppose I'm anxious, in the most clinical sense of the word."
"I will remain at your side throughout," she said. "You need only tell me, and I will stop the proceedings."
"I'll be fine," Daniel said, trying to convince himself more than her.
"No, you won't." The patient lifted his startled face to the physician, and the grievous truth that her words launched gave him permission to be afraid. "But when it is over, we will repair any damage done. I promise you this."
Daniel locked eyes with her, mined for some strength he would be able to carry with him. He drew in his lower lip and looked away. He worried that the damage would be too great.
"They are waiting," she said, giving her hand to him if he needed it.
Daniel stared at the proffered hand, blinked and felt his shoelaces loosening. He leaned over, unlaced each one quickly and then pulled each section up until they were firmly tied. Doctor Sebastian frowned at the new compulsive component of his illness, and knew the stress of the day had already begun to take an enormous toll. However, when Daniel looked back to her, she was smiling, her eyes slightly narrowed-half moons of compassion.
"Ready?" she asked, masking her concern.
Daniel said nothing, but was on his feet and halfway out the door before she could catch up with him. She watched his measured, careful footing, his hand now and again touching the wall. Was he steadying himself? she wondered.
"Daniel, are you dizzy?" she asked, stepping to his side.
"I'm fine," he said. His focus was drilled to the end of the long, antiseptic hall where the conference room was. The more he stared, the faster the lines of the corridor began to merge until they disappeared into the bright, diffused light at the end—an apprehensive lesson in vanishing point perspective. Even the thin lines of the tiles carried his vision to that appointed place on the horizon where he'd be forced to couple his past horrors with his present incomprehensible nightmares.
"Sergeant Garanzia tells me you turned down the Valium I had prescribed."
"I don't need it," he told her, his eyes riveted to the horizon, his feet carrying him as if of their own accord.
"Very well." The knot in her chest tightened with every step. Barbarism, she said to herself. Forcing my patient to remember that which his mind is only now supplying him incrementally is barbarism, she contemplated. Sons of bitches. Ridiculous, self-serving, arrogant bastards, she thought she had silently said, but when Daniel glanced at her, one corner of his mouth up-turned, she realized her anger had spilled into the auditory. Doctor Sebastian felt her face become hot.
"Excuse me. I did not mean for that to be heard. I don't usually speak those kinds of words, especially not in English."
"That's all right," he said, finding the short journey into the vulgar rather comforting. Daniel turned his attention back down the hall and smiled. "They sound better in Korean, anyhow."
Doctor Sebastian lowered her eyes and laughed, realizing that she had, indeed, spoken in her native tongue where she had always felt more comfortable expressing anger and derision. "Of course, Korean is one of yours."
Daniel shrugged and became silent again. So, too, did Doctor Sebastian.
When they had at last reached the room, Doctor Sebastian turned to Daniel and tried to put him at ease with a smile. Her fingers grasped and gripped her hands in front of her. "I need to speak with General Hammond. Will you be all right for a moment?"
Daniel nodded, and she left him alone. He thought he'd be able to take those few seconds she offered him to pull himself together, but without pause, his friends, his former teammates began to appear in the hall. Sam was the first, reaching out her hand in that slow, unassuming way he had come to expect. Daniel took it, almost gladly, and when Sam felt him give her hand a gentle squeeze, she tentatively stepped in and gave him time to fend off a quick kiss on the cheek, which he did nothing to stop.
Stepping back from their fleeting moment of tenderness, Sam smiled and said, "You look nice."
Daniel ran his free hand across the crisp cotton shirt and over the fitted waist of the worsted wool slacks and said, "I think I have you to thank for it." Sam shrugged her shoulders and waved off the need. Daniel brought his eyes up to hers and said, "And you look…official."
"Well, color me military," Sam said, smoothing out the lines of her Class A uniform.
"It is good to see you, my friend," Teal'c said, pressing his hand forward. "It has been far too long."
"Yes, it has," Daniel said, finding the warmth and protection of Teal'c's familiar hands more comfortable than he would have ever imagined. Maybe I am getting better, he thought. "How's R'yac?"
"He is advancing well through his training with Master Bra'tac." The Jaffa tipped his head respectfully and smiled. "They both send their respect and regards."
"Thank you," Daniel said, his eyes sliding away, embarrassed that even more people knew of his pathetic experience.
And while he stared at the highly polished floor, two size twelve shoes, also highly polished, came into view. Daniel braced himself for the first hurdle he would need to overcome before the day could end, and slowly he brought his eyes up the dark blue slacks, over the jacket emblazoned with bits of colorful ribbons and medals, and to the face, whose mouth was bracketed by ever-deepening lines. Daniel felt half-responsible for the sudden aging in all their faces, a responsibility that was becoming increasingly more cumbersome. So he pulled back his lips across his teeth, grimaced and drew together his brow.
"Jack," he managed to say.
Jack lifted his chin in salutation, blinked a few times and asked, "How've ya been?"
"Fine," Daniel lied, his eyes darting over Jack's shoulder, across his chest, past his jacket-never settling on Jack's face. The pain was too close, the wounds too near the surface.
Sam's attention was divided equally between the three men. To Daniel, she wondered why he was suddenly so nervous. She thought he and the colonel were getting along. Had the colonel said something? As for the colonel, Sam wondered why he was returning to the rigidity of months past. But then again, when she looked further, it was more like a deep sorrow she could sympathize with, but she wasn't sure she could fully understand. Turning to Teal'c, she silently asked him if she were the only one seeing the awkwardness between these two, who were, at one time, great and devoted friends. The not so subtle lift of Teal'c's eyebrow told her she wasn't alone in her observation.
Jack shook his head, his mouth agape, in that nervous habit he'd never managed to rid himself of, and said, "So, you ready for this?"
At that moment, Daniel would have given anything to be able to stoically answer in the affirmative, be able to put Jack and the others at ease. But he could feel his fingers tingling, his chest tightening, and when he did offer his one word answer, it came out in something of a laugh, something of a cry. "No."
The corners of Sam's mouth turned down and she swallowed the lump in her throat. "Daniel, you don't have to do this."
"Yes, I think I do," he told her.
"We shall be seated together, DanielJackson," Teal'c said to his brittle friend, caressing Daniel's quarrelsome nerves with his voice. "As a team we shall accompany you until this distasteful event is completed."
Daniel nodded and clenched his teeth. "I appreciate that, Teal'c."
"I believe we are ready to begin," Doctor Sebastian said, appearing at Daniel's side. She gently smiled a greeting to each, her hands clasped behind her back to mask their tremors. "I wonder if the rest of you wouldn't mind if I had a moment alone with Doctor Jackson."
"No. We'll, uh…" Jack began, pivoting on his heels toward the room and then back to Doctor Sebastian. "Yeah. Yeah, we'll just…go inside." Jack tried to force a smile, a thing he had never been able to do, and then turned away. Regret for yet another missed opportunity pierced Daniel's heart.
"Good luck, Daniel," Sam said, touching his fingers. Daniel was able to flip his hand around fast enough to catch Sam's, and although he couldn't quite meet her eye, at least he felt like he could breathe.
He nodded, bit the inside of his lip, and whispered, "Thank you."
Sam's voice was suddenly gone, so she did her best to acknowledge she heard him. She worked up a timorous smile, and let Teal'c escort her into the conference room.
Daniel, relieved that the well wishing was over, wrapped his arms around his chest and closed his eyes while he breathed deeply and let it out in an explosive gust. Doctor Sebastian kept watch over him and allowed him the moment to center himself. He'd need it.
"This will not be easy," she said, using her voice like a soothing balm across barely healed wounds, "but you are very strong. I will remain next to you for the duration, and at any time you wish it to end, you need only to glance in my direction."
"I…I know everything, right?" Daniel asked as his brow line reached high above his darting eyes. "I mean there's nothing in that file I don't know, right?"
Doctor Sebastian rounded her shoulders for a moment and smiled, sadly but with compassion, "We shall see."
"At the very least, it'll give us something to talk about tomorrow," Daniel chuckled, but the truth of the matter was far from humorous, and neither he nor Sebastian could rouse their amusement. Doctor Sebastian waited for him to pass through the futile act of repression, knowing it was merely a staging area in preparation for battle. His eyes fluttered shut and he began to go through the breathing exercises they had practiced. When at last his eyes opened, she saw in them fear but a great deal more resolve. "I'm ready."
Together they walked into the conference room. Clean and bright and cold, the room was a contrast between shiny chrome and the darkness of dress uniforms. General Hammond and the three others stood next to their chairs, a stenographer sat inconspicuously in the corner, while Major Paul Davis remained fastidiously studying a document Daniel presumed was his file.
"You're looking well, Doctor Jackson," General Hammond said, pulling Daniel's attention away from the point of interest that all too soon would be the focal point for Daniel as well.
Daniel gathered himself enough to see that the general had offered him a hand, which Daniel took. "Thank you, sir,"
"We're going to make every effort to see that this ends quickly," he told Daniel, and then redirected his gaze to the woman seated silently in the corner, a black stenography box at the ready. The general nodded in her direction, and her fingers alighted over the keys. "With that in mind, why don't we take a seat?"
Doctor Sebastian motioned for Daniel to sit at a chair closest to the door, just in case, and she took one right next to him. Before Daniel could sit down, though, he looked across the table and watched Paul Davis scan the remaining few lines of the egregious file. His hands shaking, Paul never looked up from the horrific words to see that the subject of the recorded brutality was standing directly in front of him. When at last he reached the end of the report—a litany of one inhumane atrocity after another—he closed his eyes, closed the file, drew a hand across his face, and shut out the rest of the room. Breathe, he told himself, breathe, or you'll throw up.
"Major Davis," General Hammond prodded.
Paul Davis dropped his hand, startled, and saw for the first time that the room was filled with all the people who needed to be there, including Daniel Jackson, and Paul wished to God he didn't have to be one of them. Shaking his head, profoundly bothered by the images running amok in his mind, he stood and couldn't for the life of him remember how he was supposed to address the man not four feet away. "Daniel, I…"
Daniel noticed the gray pallor of Paul Davis' skin. How it reminded him of bleached wood, washed up and stranded on a beach, and he almost felt sorry for the major. Almost. "I can tell you what happened, but can you really understand?" Daniel asked with a gentility that fluctuated between contempt and compassion.
Davis, thunderstruck and destroyed by proxy, could only offer the two words he hoped would stand for all the turbulence in his heart—for Daniel's ordeal; for the inquiry; for having been given the disgusting orders to familiarize himself with Daniel Jackson's most private nightmares. "I'm sorry," he said, and never meant those two words more in his life.
Daniel met Davis' gaze, saw the profuse remorse in them and nodded. "So am I."
Reeling from the incomprehensible thought that Daniel could actually still be alive after the months of abuse and torture, Davis, unable to move, remained standing for a moment while Daniel sat down.
"Major Davis, if you'll take your seat, we will begin," General Hammond said. "Doctor Jackson, I would officially like to go on record stating my absolute distaste for these proceedings. I think they are outrageous, uncalled for, and an act of personal cowardice on the part of the person responsible for them." The stenographer dutifully recorded each word, and General Hammond was well pleased that she did. Jack O'Neill lifted a bent finger to his lips and squelched a "Yes!" "But orders must be followed, and so we are here. Major Davis, if you'll pass me that file." Paul Davis gladly abdicated responsibility for the file to the general and then sat back, nervously waiting for the obscene business to begin.
General Hammond placed the file in front of him and prayed that it wouldn't be the ruination of one of his people. "Doctor Jackson, I wish there were some way I could…effectively convey to you the deep regret I have over this entire affair." The general ran his fingers along the edge of the file, too ashamed to look Daniel in the eye. "Before we begin, is there anything you'll need to make this…at all easier?"
"I can't imagine such a thing exist, General," Daniel said, biting the inside of his lip. Sam sat next to him, her fingers dovetailed together in her lap, while Jack sat at the far end of the table, his head propped up in his hand, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all, contemplating retirement and alcohol. "I suppose the best thing to do is just get it over with."
General Hammond nodded, and slowly pushed the file to Doctor Sebastian, who regretfully slid it in front of Daniel. Daniel stared at the file in front of him, pulled a shaking hand across his mouth, and stared some more. His heart began to crash against his ribs, and his veins throbbed with the frantic rhythm. Breathing in and out of his nose, Daniel threw off his glasses and tossed them onto the table.
"Doctor Jackson," his physician began, touching his hand with the slightest pressure.
"I'm fine," Daniel asserted, and fumbled with the front cover, crumpling it before he could get it open completely. "I'm fine."
It started off as many personnel reports do—height, weight, distinguishing marks, health—the salient yet unemotional facts and figures of a man, sans the spirit. Daniel took a certain amount of pride in the supposed psychological profile—stubborn, antagonistic, pugnacious. But then it went on, and his throat began to close.
"May I have some water, please?" he asked, barely able to make his voice heard. The general, Doctor Sebastian, Sam and Major Davis all vied for the carafe in the middle of the table. While Daniel continued to read of his troubling past, Sam poured a glass of water for him and set it near his hand. He thanked her, drank the water, and tried again to read.
"Fifty…fifty-two thousand mead," he whispered, raking one hand through his hair. He read on, and began to breathe more heavily. Daniel pressed the palm of his hand over his mouth, but he was unable to mute the sounds of his increasing fear.
"Daniel, are you all right?" Doctor Sebastian asked, leaning in very close to him.
Daniel's head bounced up and down, quick movements, and he said, "I, uh…the Corrections." He switched hands, and dug at the tension grinding against his brow, his eyes tightly closed. "Funny, I…Corrections seems so…It's not what I would have called it."
Jack O'Neill, unable to sit still and listen, exploded from his chair and strode to the window. He massaged his temples and tried to drown out the sound of Daniel's agony by reminding himself that none of it would have happened had he not stopped to exchange snide remarks with Sam. When his guilt did little to mute Daniel's words, he forced himself to listen—the only penitent act he could offer.
"I had no idea…there were that many. I lost track after…after thirty, thirty-two. I had no idea…fifty corrections." Sucking in air as quickly as he could, Daniel grabbed hold of the edge of the table with one hand, the seemingly shattered bones of his skull in the other.
Doctor Sebastian turned to the general and said, "I think we should stop."
"No," Daniel called out, covering his eyes with both hands. "I just…I need a minute. I'll be okay."
It was unbecoming of a Jaffa to lose one's composure in battle, but this battle that Daniel Jackson alone faced was more than even the old soldier could bear. What started as a tremble in his chin, a quavering of his cheeks, continued until one solitary tear furrowed a path down his iridescent cheek. Of all the unjust acts he had been witness to or had carried out in the name of Apophis, this suffering seemed the most heinous, and Teal'c knew there was precious little he could do to change it, nor to change the past. And so he wept.
When at last he was ready to speak again, Daniel slid the file forward and pressed his back into the chair, his eyes yet closed. With one final cleansing breath, Daniel spoke. "You'll want to know about the healing device. It's the only technology I experienced." Daniel opened his eyes and looked directly at Paul Davis' pale face. Daniel wasn't sure what was worse at that moment—having to recount his story, or the pity, the fearful pity in Davis' eyes. He wondered if Davis was the only one looking emotionally disheveled, so Daniel glanced from face to face, a ring of people, all looking defeated and tired. Daniel wanted to give them some assurance that the feeling would pass, that it would get better over time, but he couldn't convince himself of that, so how could he offer a lie to them?
Davis, mouth slightly agape, stared back at Daniel, absolutely staggered by Daniel's ability to soldier on, even under the circumstances. He shook his head, having not heard exactly what Daniel said.
Daniel's focus came to rest once more on Paul Davis, and he said, "You'll want to take notes, Major, because I'd rather not go through this again."
"Certainly," Paul said, completely unsure why he was picking up his pen and opening his notebook, but whatever Daniel was willing to offer, he'd dutifully, hopefully with a deaf ear, dictate.
"Each time I was brought into the…I'm not sure what you'd call it," Daniel began, grasping the side of the table, closing his eyes to better remember. "It was a room, a dank room, made of stone—like most of them were in that section—and the healing device was controlled by one person. If I had injuries to my face, which I normally did, the healer would, um…" Daniel touched his face with his hands, his lips relentlessly trying to speak words his mind hadn't yet called up.
"Take your time," Doctor Sebastian whispered.
"There was a salve that was applied to my face," Daniel said. "I—I—I don't…I don't know what it was made of. Musty. Um, I'm sure herbal in content." He swallowed and could smell the pungent rot of it, the chilled presence of it on his skin, and his flesh began to writhe. "Um, I would lay on the ground, a long, rectangular rock with grooves on either edge, and a blanket of sorts, a sheet made of…of Kevlar, maybe? I'm not sure. Something, a conductive agent. Sam could…Sam would be able to figure it out. In any event, it was a blanket that was tucked around my…my body, but only up to my chin."
Daniel's hands fell to the edge of his chair, which he grasped, and he rocked and moaned without realizing it. Forced himself to breathe. "I don't know, but I assume the device could not be used on head injuries. At least it never was on me."
Paul Davis wrote as quickly as he could, grateful that he had something to do other than just have to sit by and listen. Transcribing Daniel's experience removed the horror and left only words. Paul wondered if he'd spend the next few days trying to transcribe the sounds of the world so that he wouldn't have to listen to the emotion. But there were questions that needed to be answered, and it was with a great deal of separation from his natural instinct to forget that Paul Davis asked, "Was there a pattern to the amount of times they healed you?"
From his curled position on the chair, Daniel nodded and said, "Yes, I believe in the beginning—during my…Corrections, was it?—the healings came…every sixth time."
Davis looked up from his writing, blinked and asked, "Why every sixth time?"
"Oh, for God's sake, Davis!" Jack growled from his position next to the window. "Don't answer that, Daniel."
"I suppose it was to ensure continuity of…structure," Daniel managed to say. Jack dropped his head into his hands and cursed. Daniel hoped Davis would take him for his cryptic explanation, and not need to have it explained. Daniel was sure he wouldn't be able to do that. But when he saw the look of perfect confusion on Davis' face, Daniel bit the inside of his cheek, closed his eyes, and said, "After six…Corrections, I think I was...It was a matter of…elasticity."
"Jesus Christ," Jack uttered, bile rising in his throat.
It was amazing to Daniel that Paul Davis' face suddenly became even more blanched at that moment when comprehension finally blossomed in his mind. Daniel didn't know whether to chide him for being so slow on the up-take, or pity him that he could even begin to possibly understand.
Jack's hands flew to his hair, to the back of his head, to his neck. If he had a gun. If he had a gun…This was the reason he didn't want to read the report in the first place. How could it possibly do anyone any good? It was the stuff night sweats were made of. The stuff that wheedled through the subconscious and pried out past traumas, past failures. If he had a gun…
"The, um, healing device," Daniel went on in a voice that was far too controlled for the situation, "was, as far as I can remember, a…particle stream, only in a circular form. I guess the best way to describe it is…it was similar to an MRI, only it was…pin-points of light, held independent of each other through the air." The table in front of Daniel began to lose its vertical hold in his eyes. Shapes and figures began to pull like taffy, strangely comical to only Daniel. "I know that's hard to understand; believe me, it was for me. The light came out of the wall; it started at my feet and made its way to my neck. 'Scuse me," he suddenly said, and rushed to his feet. Doctor Sebastian was at his side in an instant.
"Daniel?" she said.
"It's…it's getting hard to breathe," Daniel panted, pacing with his eyes closed, too dizzy to watch the entire room tilt. His hand waved through the air, searching for something to grasp, and what it found was Sam's hand.
"Perhaps we should end this," Doctor Sebastian said to him, holding him by the elbow. Sam nodded her vehement approval.
"No," Daniel said. He threw back his vertiginous head and pulled his arm away from Doctor Sebastian, but grasped more strongly onto Sam's hand. "I need to do this."
And while Daniel gasped at air that wouldn't come, Jack, from across the room, watched through deeply narrowed eyes, feeling as raw and undone as he ever had in his life.
"The pain…um, like scraping, uh…knife-like. It caused seizures and…" Daniel felt his knees begin to buckle. In an instant, General Hammond and Teal'c were with him. Four sets of hands, guiding him to his seat.
"Please, don't," Daniel begged, pushing away their hands. Even when after they had backed up, Daniel continued to wave them off. "Please, don't. Just…Please."
"All right, son," General Hammond whispered, beckoning Doctor Sebastian and Sam to assist Daniel to his seat.
Sam clenched his hand and cloaked him with her arm. "Daniel, let's sit down." After a moment, after his air didn't come to him through a tightly constricted pipe, Daniel allowed her to steer him to his place at the table.
"I think we've heard enough," the general said, standing behind Daniel.
"I concur," Teal'c said.
Daniel, his arms crossed on top of the table, his head cradle therein, began to whisper a message to himself, one that had sustained him so often. "It was just my body. It was just my body."
Doctor Sebastian sat down next to Daniel and touched his elbow. "Daniel," she whispered, "let me take you back to your room."
"No," he whispered back, and when he lifted his face, his skin was ashen, his hands, pressed against his forehead, shaking. "No. I can do this."
"Yes, you can," she said. "But you do not have to."
"I need to know," he said. "Just give me a minute, okay?"
Doctor Sebastian drilled into Paul Davis with an iron glare. "When you report back to Washington, do not forget to tell them of this, of what they have done," she demanded.
Paul Davis swallowed hard and said, "You have my word."
Teal'c and General Hammond walked back to their seats, which left Sam Carter staring at Jack O'Neill. She knew him to be steely, cold, indifferent, when he had to. Charming, humorous and warm when he felt comfortable. But never, in all the years she had worked by his side, had she seen him look so afraid, so catastrophically undone. She felt herself begin to crumble, so she slid into her chair and shielded her eyes.
Finally, when he felt he had stepped back from the brink of tears, Daniel lowered his hands and just breathed. Breathed with his eyes closed, like he had learned to do the first day he had entered Doctor Sebastian's office. Breathe…
And then he pulled the file to him again, and hoped he could get through it without his internal organs bursting.
"Lev…Levan," he whispered, his eyes wide, red rimmed and wet. Daniel nodded, and found that another unasked question now had an answer. Anonymity, he thought, was somehow safer. "He has a name. Levan." One could hide behind the rationale of "The monster has no name, therefore the monster doesn't exist." Daniel's fingers grazed over the words, aiding his blurred vision to keep track of which line he was on. It was becoming more and more difficult for him to read the words—they kept waving and jumping from the page, bending and disappearing in flashes of light—but her persevered, until he came to a new word, a title. He backed up and read the sentence again. "Um…creature trained to…to…Slaker?" Daniel looked to Doctor Sebastian, who shook her head. "Slaker? Like, to slake? Um, think…Old English—slacian, loosen. Middle English, to lessen, diminish. I don't…I don't understand. Um, slake. It means to quench, to allay, to…to…"
There was a collision of words and hidden images in his head, and Daniel gasped. "To satisfy."
In that moment, when the alternate definition and his latent memory met up, his body emitted a strangled sob. His hand trembled against his mouth, and the tears once obstructing his view, began to freely tumble down his cheek.
"Please, Daniel," Sam begged, seeing his obvious horror. "Please, stop."
Daniel's eyes were riveted to the word, and as he stared, hazy images of his life as a Slaker churned up in his mind. He lifted his eyes to the ceiling, ashamed and aware, bit his lip and uttered to himself, "My God."
Jack clutched the window ledge in his hands, stepped back and dropped his head between his shoulders. Every nerve in his body sparked in rage. Every molecule clenched in black anger. "Daniel…" he tried to say. "God, Daniel…"
Doctor Sebastian took her patient's arm, hoping to persuade him to put an end to the trauma. "Daniel, you've read enough."
He turned to Doctor Sebastian and whispered, "I guess I didn't know everything that was going to be in the report, did I?" Daniel pushed her hand off his arm and turned the page of the report. Two pages in, he was met by words that burned into him insidiously—"Strong, healthy, able to withstand physical punishment. Addle brained, imbecilic, torpid, unable to understand simple directions." There was nothing there he could find to argue with, so he turned the page.
Sam rocked back and forth in her chair, one arm bound to her aching stomach, one hand to her mouth, and wept. Each time she tried to look at Daniel, the tears came more insistently. She wept, and didn't give a damn what anyone thought of her.
Jack heard her sobs from his post at the window, but knew there was nothing he could do to comfort her. He lifted his pale face to the bright sunlight and looked out past the grass and the trees and the cement walkways to a brick in a wall that knew nothing of him, and even less of his pain. He focused his energies and his sorrow on the spot, and shut out the rest of the world.
On the last page of the report, Daniel came across a figure, the sum of his existence, and began to chuckle, and then to laugh. Even Jack turned to see what had brought on the inappropriate outburst. Daniel's eyes, squinted down to slats through his dark laughter, looked directly into Jack's, and when he did, the laughter faded, and the expression changed to unfathomable sadness and tears.
"I was sold for sixty-two thousand mead, Jack. I don't…I don't know the exchange rate between mead and dollars, but…but it sounds like a lot. At least I had worth." Without taking his eyes off Jack, Daniel trembled and wept. "At least I was worth something."
"That is enough," Doctor Sebastian said, closing the file, shoving it away from Daniel. She reached across his back and tried to persuade him to stand. "It is over. I won't let this go on any further."
Sam jumped to her feet and took one of Daniel's arms, assisting Doctor Sebastian in lifting him. "Come on, Daniel. Stand up, sweetie."
"I had worth, Jack." Daniel let himself be raised from his seat, all the while shaking his head and relentlessly holding Jack's pitiful focus. "I was worth something."
"Come, Daniel," Doctor Sebastian said, but the connection between Daniel and Jack would not so easily be broken. The colonel stood blinking, utterly unable to speak, to lend support. All he could do was hold Daniel in his sorrowful focus, try to force himself to speak. Nothing. He was paralyzed, caught in the excruciating gaze of his friend's agony with nothing to do but stare back and shake his head no.
After a moment, Daniel lowered his face. What could Jack offer him? he wondered. What could he possibly say that would make it any easier? Daniel wiped the tears from his face, bit the inside of his cheek, and gathered himself just enough to report what he had been ordered to do.
With a voice that was far too normal, much too gentle, Daniel said from his slumped position between Sam and Sebastian, "It's true. The file—it's all true."
Doctor Sebastian and Sam took great care to navigate his tremulous body away from the table. Teal'c joined them and took over for the two, grasping Daniel's hand in his, one large, sturdy arm wrapped around Daniel's back.
Three men, dressed in their dignified Class A uniforms, remained motionless, barely breathing, while the crushed remains of their friend, their subordinate, their colleague were rushed out of the meeting room and back to his room.
Two men, who dared to split the subtle meaning between responsible and censurable, remained behind in the silent room when the third left to report back his findings. Two men remained, a general and his 21C, ashamed to look at the other, ashamed to see their own answerable guilt.
One man, whose shoulders bore stars and responsibility, stayed behind in the hallowed room, left behind by his 21C, who ran from the room in search of a private place in which to get sick. One man remained and found his own face awash in tears.
His jacket hung limp over the back of the chair, as limp as his head between his arms, propped up on his knees. In his hand, Jack held Daniel's glasses, the only vestige of the day that remained in the antiseptic conference room.
General Hammond had excused himself hours earlier to return to the SGC, but not before checking in on Daniel. The general had kindly made his way back down to the conference room, knowing Jack was there alone, and more than likely was concerned. The general told him that Daniel had been given a light sedative and was sleeping, to which Jack nodded. General Hammond asked Jack if there was anything he needed, to which Jack shook his head.
"I've been witness to more disturbing images than I care to remember, Jack," he had said, seeing the disconsolate slump of Jack's body. "I thought, maybe naively, that this…nightmares would end when SG1 was reunited, but it just seems to be going on and on." The general watched the remaining light of day sift away through the grounds of the Air Force Academy. "To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if this particular nightmare will ever end. And I don't mind tellin' you, that scares the hell out of me."
Jack shook his head and turned the wire-rim glasses over between his fingers. "Sir, I think it's time you assigned Andy Packard to SG1 on a permanent basis."
The general turned to Jack and understood why his team leader chose at that moment to talk shop. After all their years together, General Hammond understood a thing or two about Jack O'Neill, and with this recommendation, he understood it was the only way for Jack to come to terms with his profuse grief. The general rolled back his shoulders, laid his hand on Jack's slumped back and said, "I'll fill out the paperwork first thing in the morning."
"Thank you, sir," Jack barely managed, tapping the glasses against his palm.
"Jack," General Hammond began, using his voice like a soothing hand, "it'll take a day or two for the paperwork on Packard to go through. SG1, therefore, will be on stand down. I'd like to suggest you take a few days, take care of yourself. I'm going to tell Major Carter and Teal'c the same."
"That won't be necessary, sir."
"Maybe not," the general said, "but it's what I'm going to recommend."
Jack took the general's words for what they were—a carefully couched order—and agreed. "Yes, sir."
And then Jack was alone, left in the lifeless sterility of the white room, where echoes of his friend's demons still hung in the air. He was left alone to attempt to recount each step, where he had failed, where he had miscalculated, where he had simply read the signs horribly wrong. His list was long, and with each month that passed in his memory, Jack could hardly stand to be inside his own flesh.
"Danny," he whispered, touching the hinges of Daniel's glasses. "God..."
One confession after another, a gathering of personal failures, of professional deficiencies, of faults, of dereliction of friendship, passed his lips in hushed, repentant words. One after another, until his throat ached, his head throbbed, and he was too numb to feel anymore. Until the evening slipped into night, and yet the white room remained burning white, steadfast in its harboring of the day's unforgivable malfeasance.
So it was that at 2132, ten hours after he and the rest forced Daniel Jackson to open his soul to them, expose his greatest pain for the official record, Jack O'Neill gathered his jacket, his hat and Daniel's glasses, and shuffled out of the room, ostensibly to go on stand down.
The halls were quiet, and Jack realized he had never been in Mental Health past visiting hours. He wondered how far down the hall he'd be able to go before one of the nurses or physicians would gently ask him to leave. Each face he passed nodded to him, spoke his title or addressed him in respect. Each person seemed to understand that the colonel was authorized to walk the corridors of their facility, knowing his journey would end quietly enough at the end of the hall, at the end of a confession. They seemed to realize that which Jack could not—that he had one more stop before he could leave, before he could move on.
When Jack reached Daniel's room, it almost came as a shock to him. He looked back down the hall and wondered when he had passed the exit door. Jack ran a hand through his hair and closed his eyes, pondered the unfathomable question which had propelled him—how did it all go so wrong?
He'd just check on him, Jack decided. Sneak inside, probably find him asleep, and maybe even steal a touch to Daniel's arm, hope that in that otherworldly place, Daniel would know that Jack had been there. That Jack, oh, hell—that Jack cared for him. Always would. He hoped Daniel would understand this, at least someday. And that he was sorry.
Jack pushed the silent door open just enough to pass through, and when he did, he found Daniel sitting on the edge of his bed, hunched over his legs, the muscles in his back under the taut shirt jumping. Jack tossed his hat and jacket on the chair, Daniel's glasses, too, and took one step closer, leaned over to get a better look, took another step and said, "Daniel?"
Without leaving his position, Daniel quietly said, "Hi, Jack."
Jack was relieved to hear Daniel's voice, tired and hoarse, but even. "Hey," he said, stepping closer. "What are you doin'?"
"Tying my shoes," Daniel said, pulling up hard on his laces. "I guess Doctor Sebastian figured I was drugged enough that I wouldn't try anything…desperate with the shoelaces. It took some negotiations, but I was able to convince her to let me keep my shoes on." Daniel crossed the laces, and yanked them tight across his foot. "It's funny, you know, but I can't seem to get them tight enough."
"Yeah," Jack said, lowering himself into the chair in front of Daniel while he watched in sad confusion. "I bet."
One loop, wrapped by the other end, loop through the hole, tighten. Onto the next. "Did Davis go back to DC?"
"Yeah. Couple hours ago," Jack told him, looking on as Daniel's scoured fingers dug at the laces of the right shoe, pulling each intersection up and free.
"He wasn't ready for that," Daniel said, starting at the bottom of the holes, tightening each, pulling up, moving on to the next. "It wasn't his fault. He was just following orders." And then Daniel was looking at Jack from his hunched position, his lips pressed together, his eyes sliding across Jack's face—embarrassed that he was absolving Paul Davis of sins that, had Daniel committed on their last mission, would have changed the course of events almost a year past. He was sure Jack understood the paradox, so Daniel resumed his work.
"How can I help, Daniel?" Jack asked, amazed that he was even able to make himself heard over his thumping heartbeat.
"You can't," Daniel told him, crossing the laces, yanking them tight across his foot. One loop, wrapped by the other end, loop through the hole, tighten. Onto the next.
"My job has always been to find languages in the middle of noise." Daniel grabbed the perfectly symmetrical ends of his tied laces and slowly pulled until the loops closed in on themselves, leaving only a knot. "There are certain patterns in languages, certain grammatical structures. They just…I guess they just make sense to me." One by one, Daniel loosened the crossed laces, until the shoe was opened, gaping and accessible. "Even with the Goa'uld, I was able to understand their language, and the very act of analysis was a way to…to…to objectify it." Starting at the lowest point, Daniel hooked his fingers under the laces and tugged at them until the sides of the shoe pulled together. "It took away the color of the language and left only words to figure out. But these people, the…the…" Daniel stopped, the laces wrapped around his hands.
Jack cleared his throat and croaked out, "Verlocs."
"Right. Verlocs." Cross the laces, through the hole. One loop, wrapped by the other end, loop through the hole, tighten. Onto the next. Jack pressed his elbows into his knees and rubbed his aching eyes. It was too much. It was too damn much.
"Anyhow, the Verlocs, they didn't have an oral language, at least not one I could hear or see. There wasn't any way for me to hide behind analysis, or the minutia of analysis." Daniel watched the precisely tied bow on his shoe fade as he pulled the free ends. "For all my education and knowledge, it didn't mean a thing. I tried to communicate with them—it didn't help. See, they took my only weapon—my words." Daniel opened the shoe, the laces undone. He sat up and opened his hands, draped lazily in his lap. "And you know why, Jack? You know why they muted me?"
Jack forced himself to lift his eyes to Daniel, be witness to his soft, awful words. "No."
Daniel stopped, gathered his will to speak the rancorous truth -shameful and emasculating. He lifted his brow and sighed. "Because they didn't want to hear me scream."
Jack tried not to give any outward appearance that he was crumbling, but even so, he felt his shoulders slump. He could hear himself whispering pointless apologies, hard obscenities. He didn't know if those whispers were only in his head, or if he had spoken them aloud. He could hear nothing but the furious pounding of his heart, the rage at Daniel's captor thrumming in his head
Daniel shrugged his shoulders, oblivious to the effect his words had had on Jack. He leaned over his knees, started at the last set of crossed, flaccid laces and began again. "I couldn't even scream. And see, the humor of this whole story, the really dark, sinister irony of it is this: I've never had confidence in my body, only my voice. I guess 62,000 mead says I need to rethink my life." Daniel wrapped the laces around his hands, red and raw from the continuous work, and pulled up even harder. With a sudden pop, his hand flew up in the air, almost punching him in the eye. In his palm was a broken shoelace, the tattered end swinging below his fist. Daniel stared at it, stared at Jack, stared at the lace, horrified. "What do I do now? What do I do now? What…how am I gonna tie my shoes now, Jack?"
Jack held up his hands. "Okay. Just…hold on." Frantic, he leaned forward and began to take the laces out of his shoe, but realized they'd be too short for Daniel's shoe. He glanced up at Daniel and found him breathing in short pants, beginning to shake, transfixed by the broken lace dangling from his clenched hand.
"Here," Jack said, pulling his shoe off and offering it to Daniel. "Here, Daniel."
Daniel's jaw slung open, a cry edging toward the opening. Tears slid unobstructed across the taut skin. Jack held his shoe open for Daniel and waited for Daniel to make the next move. When it seemed that Daniel was too overcome to think, Jack knelt down in front of Daniel, reached for Daniel's foot, slowly and with the utmost care. He loosened the broken lace and slipped the brown oxford from Daniel's foot.
"I'm gonna put this on you, okay?" Jack asked, holding open his dress shoe, his shined and polished black dress shoe. It was very difficult for Daniel to allow people to touch him, made even more difficult when that person was Jack, but his hands shook so, and he was crippled with fear. And he needed that shoe on his foot, right away, so he put aside his fear in favor of his desperation, and let Jack slide the regulation dress shoe onto his foot.
"Okay?" Jack whispered.
Daniel looked at the watery sight, blinking, trying to understand, and nodded. One brown shoe, one black. One black shoe that needed to be tied. He leaned over his knees, never letting go of the severed lace, and tried to hook the new laces with fingers that were barely under his control. Still he tried, unable to grasp the waxed laces.
Jack offered his assistance to the heartrending act, passing his unwavering, steady hands over Daniel's trembling fingers. "Let me, Danny." Daniel pulled his hands away and nodded, while tears, silent as clouds, dripped onto Jack's hands, onto the highly polished surface of the leather like raindrops. Jack pulled the throat of the shoe together, one crossed pair of laces at a time, until he reached the top. He made the initial tie, yanked it twice and then finished it with a bow.
"How's that? Okay?" Jack asked, holding the top of Daniel's foot, trying to determine if it was snug enough on his foot. Daniel bobbed his head and began to snake his arms around his body, shivering and faltering. Jack stood up and sat on the edge of the bed next to Daniel, close enough to hear his whispers, but not too close to frighten Daniel.
Daniel stared at the mismatched shoes, and had to keep blinking away the tears in order to see them better, which upset him further. Jack took a chance and slid an arm across Daniel's back, waited for him to pull away.
Daniel didn't move, nor did he so as much as flinch. He just shook his head and tried to find his voice. "I thought I was smarter than you, Jack," he whispered, feeling as burned and raw as his hands. "I thought I knew better. I…I…" Daniel held out his abraded hands, the detached lace wrapped around his palm, and let both hands drop into his lap, depleted and destroyed. "I thought I was smarter than everybody, and for my arrogance I was raped." And then his hands were clasped together, the fingers knotting and tightening around each other and over the useless shoelace. "But it wasn't my body," he stated, glancing at Jack and then at the hand on his arm, consoling him. "They raped my mind. Over and over and over and…They took everything from me, Jack. And I could…God, Jack, I could never understand why." Daniel glanced at Jack's hand, rubbing up and down on his arm, and he couldn't comprehend whose hand it was or why he couldn't feel it. "It's just, I couldn't…I couldn't…Why did they…do…"
With one gentle motion, Jack gathered Daniel into his arms, rocked his sobbing body against his chest and stroked away the heat pouring off his face. Jack held him and dipped his face against Daniel's hair, conjoining Daniel's grief with his own. Jack smoothed the tremulous muscles in Daniel's arm, swayed gently back and forth, quieting him, and whispering utterances of useless promises. "It's all right now, Danny. It's gonna be all right."
Daniel sobbed-husky, coarse exhalations of anguish-which tore through Jack. Daniel cried and shook and leaned against Jack, and Jack laid his head against Daniel's, kissed him, wished there was something, anything he could do to take the pain away. Knowing there wasn't, Jack closed his eyes and listened to Daniel's torturous cries.
After a while the sobs quieted and the heat emanating from Daniel's skin dialed down, and when he spoke again, Daniel's voice was quiet and almost even, and it crushed Jack.
"They took everything from me, Jack," Daniel cried, staring into a room that was split between memory and presence. "Everything." Daniel fingered the tattered lace in his hand, pinched it between his stinging fingers, as if it were the tangible remainder of his existence, a thing without value, without use. He grasped it and held it to his chest. Jack cradled Daniel in his arms, let him weep, let him dissolve. Jack cradled him, wiped his tears away, and found some of his own.
"What am I worth now, Jack?"
Jack had no answer.
Jack tucked the thick gathering of files under his arm and zipped up his jacket. Although it was a comfortable seventy degrees down inside the mountain, once he hit the surface, the cold Rocky Mountain air would meet him. The weather reports indicated they were in for snow, possibly a Christmas blizzard. Good, he thought. It'll be a nice change. Completely cover the ground, make every last bit of the earth pure white. Erase any lingering vestiges of summer and fall.
The elevator doors were just sliding open when Jack heard two heavily booted feet bounding down the corridor to catch him.
Jack stepped inside the elevator and tried to will the doors to close before Sam Carter could get there.
"Sir," she called, ramming her hand between the closing doors.
Jack rolled his eyes—his clean get-away aborted. "Carter," he said, feigning that he hadn't heard her calling him, "where'd you come from?"
"I've been trying to catch up with you since you left level 24," she said.
"No kidding? Huh," Jack uttered, not even pretending that he was lying.
Sam glanced at him sidelong, but then went on. "You're going to Daniel's, right?"
"Yes, Carter, I am," Jack said, crossing his feet, propping himself up in the corner of the elevator.
"Could you do me a favor?"
"I won't give him a kiss for you, Carter," Jack said.
"Well, actually, sir—"
"Because then I'd have to give him a kiss from Doc, from the nursing staff. And you know how jealous Siler gets," Jack droned on. "Teal'c…"
"Yes, sir. That's very…um…Anyhow," Sam interjected, pressing one hand into her back pockets, the other holding the door open, "I was wondering if you could remind him that we're meeting at The Blarney Stone for dinner tonight."
"Ah, Carter," Jack said, wrapping his arms across the files he held against his chest, "you know what he'll say: 'I'm not up to it,' or, 'I have too much work to do,' or whatever the excuse is for the week."
"Yeah, I know, but…"
"But I'll tell him," Jack said, nodding. "Who knows? One of these days, he may run out of excuses."
"That's what I'm hoping," Sam said. She let go of the elevator door and smiled at Jack.
"Anything else, Carter?" Jack asked.
The doors began to slide shut, so Sam smiled and quickly rattled off, "One kiss, sir. It'll be our secret."
"Nice, Carter," Jack said, watching the doors close on Carter and a very confused junior officer passing behind her. Jack almost wished he could have seen his 21C explain that one. With a whir and draw, the elevator began its ascent, up from the depths of the SGC on its way to the surface.
Snow for Christmas, he thought. How nice that would be. Let it snow, and put an end to the worst six months he'd had to suffer through in years. A summer he had characterized as being on constant "turbo suck," and a fall he refused to name. It had been six months of heartbreak and anger. Six months that had started with him finding his friend; six months that had dragged on while his friend tried to find himself, and when the six months had ended, Daniel was still wandering, searching for a way back, and all Jack and the rest could do was wait for him, try to light the way.
Daniel no longer resided at Mental Health, but he hadn't been able to come back to the SGC, either. They had tried, once. They got as far as his lab on 19 before Daniel started to hyperventilate. It was agreed then that maybe other arrangements could be made. For now. That's what they had all said. "We'll just have you work at the Academy for now. Until you get your bearings."
That had been nine weeks earlier. It was starting to feel more like forever.
Jack trudged out of the mouth of the tunnel and pulled his collar up around his ears, holding the files close to his body. Once a week, when his schedule permitted it, Jack would gather up notes and data, reports and files, and take them to Daniel's new office on the grounds of the Academy. It was the best accommodations possible for the situation, and proved to be a very workable condition. The material that Jack brought for Daniel to translate was highly classified, and being on the grounds of the Air Force Academy more than met the security requirements. Plus, Daniel's office was close enough to Doctor Sebastian's office that if he ever felt like he needed someone to talk to, well…
Not that he ever did. He still had his weekly appointments with her, but he only begrudgingly attended those.
And so they worried about him, as a parent worries for their child about to walk to school all by himself. They knew it was vitally important for Daniel to break loose of his reliance on Doctor Sebastian, on anybody, for that matter. They knew he needed to be able to take care of himself, and he was trying, he really was. But…
Jack flipped the switch on his heater, blasted the inside of his truck with cold air while he drove away from the mountain. He quickly checked the files he had gathered, and made sure there were the pictures that SG8 had brought back from their mission. Pretty easy stuff for Daniel to translate, but there was an unspoken collusion around the SGC to provide Doctor Jackson with a constant stream of work so that no one would ever be able to deem his position "unnecessary." No one like Kinsey.
The son of a bitch had a hard on when it came to Daniel, Jack cursed, unzipping his coat as the cold air slowly turned warm. It probably didn't help that, for some unknown reason, Kinsey's hard drive melted moments after he tried to open Daniel's file. Damnedest thing. Jacob Carter even came to town to see what could be done. It was, after all, a Tok'ra program that had reformatted the original information. Jacob was extremely repentant when he looked at the hard drive and found it infected by an insidious virus.
"I am very sorry, Senator," Jacob had said, shaking his head, rubbing his brow, "we thought we had quarantined the virus. Apparently, changing the format reactivated the strain. You didn't…you didn't touch the disk for a prolonged period, did you?"
Jack smirked remembering how Kinsey had rushed out of the room, screaming expletives, desperate to find some Clorox with which to wash his hands. Jack and Jacob took that moment to leave the senator's office, but not before shaking hands with Paul Davis and wishing him well.
Turning onto the expressway, Jack decided there had been a few good things to have come out of it all: the SGC had acquired Paul Davis, and Senator Kinsey was making weekly trips to his internist, convinced with every twinge and rash that he had some alien disease.
The absolute clincher was that Kinsey had a new-found fear of handling any information that reached him from the SGC, made even worse by the fact that Jack himself had convinced Kinsey's office intern to wear haz-mat gloves ("For your own protection, ma'am") when she delivered the last report. Jack guessed that the sight of an ashen Gen-Xer wearing bright yellow rubber gloves might possibly push the good senator over the edge.
The last Jack checked, Senator Kinsey was doing a lot of golfing in Florida, or so his office said…
When Jack reached the main entrance to the Air Force Academy, he flashed his ID, the carriage of his truck was checked for explosives, and he was waved through. The snow had just begun to fall when he drove past the turn off for Mental Health. A quarter mile ahead, Jack turned off into the administrative buildings, where Jack parked, gathered all the files, and readied himself for the bitter cold.
"Colonel," a cadet saluted, passing Jack on his way to the building. Jack saluted back and pressed on through the bitingly cold wind and needling snow.
They had become accustomed to the colonel at the front desk, nevertheless, Jack showed them his ID before trudging down the hall, rubbing the snow out of his hair.
Except for the number next to the steel casing, it was an unmarked, closed door. Jack tried the knob out of curiosity. Locked. It was always locked. When they had decided he could work from a satellite location outside the SCG, one of the stipulations Daniel had demanded was an office with a door he could lock from the inside. No one questioned him. They were just relieved that he wanted to get back to work.
One afternoon, though, it became clear why Daniel wanted to be able control who came in and out of his office. Jack had been sitting in the chaotically disorganized office, waiting quietly for Daniel to finish a translation when the door swung open.
It was a vision that continued to haunt Jack, that of watching Daniel bolt from his desk and jam himself in between the wall and a bookcase, grasping at the wall, shaking.
"Get out!" he had screamed at the unsuspecting cadet delivering mail. "Get out! Now!"
The flustered young woman scrambled to leave the mail and the office as quickly as possible.
When the door slammed behind her, Jack crouched down in front of Daniel and simply waited for him to calm down.
It took a while for him to disentangle his fingers from his hair, but when he did, Daniel stared at Jack, pulled his shaking hand across his mouth and shrugged.
"I, uh, I don't…" Daniel stammered, drilling his frightened stare into Jack. "I don't want anyone…to just…"
"You want the door locked at all times," Jack said, finishing for his rattled friend.
Daniel nodded, and the door was never left ajar again.
Standing outside Daniel's door, a clutch of files under his arm, Jack softly knocked on the ecru colored hollow steel.
"Yes?" came the tight voice a moment later.
"Daniel, it's me," Jack called out. He turned his ear toward the door and heard rustling, something falling to the ground, Daniel swearing, and finally the door swung open.
"I, um…" Daniel began, never meeting Jack's eye, turning to clean up his mess of strewn books and papers.
Jack tossed the new files on Daniel's couch and said, "Nice to see you, too, Daniel." When he saw how flustered his friend was, Jack wished he had checked his sarcasm at the door.
Daniel shuffled the papers into a ragged pile and stood up with them, searching his desk for a place to put them. He turned toward the lab table, but found only more piles.
Jack thought he'd give Daniel a hand, and pushed a heap of books together, clearing a space for Daniel. "Go ahead and put them down there."
Daniel's eyes darted across the desk, embarrassed that he was so undone by the confusion. He laid the pile of papers—dog eared and crumpled—on the corner of the table and turned to pick up the books. When he knelt down, he grabbed the edge of his desk and pressed one hand into his eye.
"You all right?" Jack asked.
"I'm fine," Daniel said, though the pitch and graininess of his timbre spoke otherwise.
"Come on," Jack said, pulling Daniel's desk chair to him. "Why don't you sit down?"
Daniel disregarded Jack's offer for a moment, choosing to remain crouched while the pain in his skull eased. When he thought he could probably move without his head exploding, Daniel raised himself into his seat.
"Headache?" Jack asked, dropping himself down onto the couch and quickly removing a highlighting pen from underneath him.
Daniel swiveled into his desk shaking his head. He made an attempt to look busy and preoccupied. He sorted through papers, moved a book from one side of his desk to the other, and said, "I'm okay." Three pencils were placed in the top drawer of his desk.
"Daniel," Jack said, riding a precarious line between supportive friendship and concerned friend, "how've you been feeling?"
"Fine," Daniel told him, his voice dripping with condescension. "You?"
"You know how it is," Jack started, crossing his arms behind his head. "If it's not the back it's the knees, and if I'm lucky it's both."
Daniel rose from his seat and paced until his attention settled on his bookshelf and another stack of haphazardly piled papers. "I, uh, the translation for SG…" Daniel turned the top page upside down and read the recipient's name, "SG3. I didn't quite finish it. I will. It's taking more…time than I thought it would, but I…I'll get around to it."
"No problem," Jack said.
"It's, um, um, a dialect of…um, I think…Welsh," he said, becoming lost in the words. Daniel reached for a pencil that at one time during the day was behind his ear, and when he found it missing, he ground his hand into his eye again, tossed the pile back on the shelf.
Standing silent and still for a moment, Daniel felt the hollow pain ebb just enough to keep moving. "How's Sam?"
"She's good," Jack said, sitting up on the edge of the couch. "She sends her best, wanted me to remind you about dinner tonight."
"Tonight?" Daniel asked, taking short, choppy steps around the clutter and stacks of books. "I…I think I forgot."
"Well, now you remember," Jack said, watching Daniel with a concerned eye.
Daniel stopped, picked up a pencil from his lab table and held it in a tight fist. Frowning, he said, "I can't."
"Any particular reason?" Jack asked.
Daniel shot him a quick glance, tossed the pencil onto his crowded desk, and pulled a file off the top of an overloaded cabinet. "I finished the translation from P78-24…whatever. It was simple," he said, handing the file to Jack.
"Good," Jack said, lifting himself from the couch and accepting the file. The translated documents were tossed on the pile of new documents that Jack wasn't at all sure Daniel needed to see. "So, you…were going to tell me why you can't come out tonight."
Daniel busied his hands with a dry erase marker while he prodded himself to come up with a better excuse than the one he had given Jack. The truth was, though, he couldn't. He couldn't sit in a room with that much noise. He couldn't tolerate being touched by happy, oblivious people accidentally jostling him as they passed by with a dripping beer in hand. No, it was too much. He couldn't do it. He tapped the marker against the writing on the board and tried to change the subject. "This, um, this…I'm not sure, but…"
Turning the blue marker in his hand, Daniel felt himself edging close to tears and didn't know why. Daniel ground his teeth together, crushing his emotions into submission, but he realized a long time ago that he had little control over anything, much less his mind, his memories. He pulled off the top the marker and began writing navy blue words above the blood-red hieroglyphics while his eyes filled with tears, and all the while Jack watched him, wishing he didn't know the signs that Daniel was off his medication.
"Hey," Jack quietly spoke, coming to stand next to Daniel at the white board, "what's goin' on?"
Daniel continued to write out the words above the pictorials. He shook his head to Jack's question and soldiered on, refused to acknowledge his unnamed sorrow.
"I know it's none of my business, but…" Jack stopped and watched Daniel's hand shake, the pen skitter against the surface. "Daniel, you still taking your meds?"
Daniel paused, the marker faintly tapping against the board. "You're right," Daniel said, erasing what he had written, "it's none of your business."
Jack let it go, but he thought he might make a quick trip to Mental Health, casually mention to Sebastian that he thought she might want to check in on her patient, you know, maybe. "Okay," he said.
Daniel stepped back from the board, pointed to it and found that he wasn't quite ready to produce sound yet, at least not one that didn't sound choked. So he pointed at the board again, erased a word with the side of his hand and rewrote it. Daniel nodded, his chest a tight ball of strain, and said, "I've been conjugating verbs incorrectly. I…I don't know why."
"It's okay," Jack assured him.
"Maybe it's the, uh…aphasia."
"Is that possible?" Jack asked, a new set of concerns bounding into his mind.
"I don't know."
Dropping his chin to his breastbone, Daniel said, "It makes me tired."
Jack looked around the room, confused. "Conjugal verbs or aphasia?"
"No," was all Daniel offered. If Jack couldn't figure it out from that, well, Daniel wasn't going to waste his energy to explain it.
Jack took a deep breath, scratched his forehead and understood they were talking about Daniel's anti-depressants. They'd had that conversation before, and if it wasn't that they made him tired, it was that they made him gain weight. Jack thought they had put the conversation to bed, but apparently not. "Yeah, but…it's kind of a got-to, right?"
"You've never had to take them," Daniel said, keeping his blurred focus on the board. "You don't know what it's like."
"You're right, but you could help me understand," Jack said. As he watched his friend ride yet another wave of bruising emotion, Jack tried to remember that he wasn't there to fix things for Daniel, nor was he there to protect Daniel. He was there because he was Daniel's friend. He'd had to learn a lot about what it was to be a friend in the last six months, and the most important thing Jack had learned, especially where Daniel was concerned, was listening was much more important than speaking. So he listened and waited for Daniel to help him understand.
Daniel wanted Jack to understand, but he didn't want to explain. He just wanted it, all of it, to go away. He wanted to rest, and he wanted to be himself again, whoever that was, when he woke. "I need to finish this," Daniel said, though barely loud enough to be heard.
Jack slowly reached out his hand and took the pen from Daniel, capped it, and laid it in the trough at the bottom of the board. "Come on. Sit down."
Daniel dug his hands in his pockets and tried to concentrate on the translation hastily written out on his board. If he could just lose himself in the words and not have to think about his own problems, things would be so much easier.
"I think this should…should say 'freedom from oppression,' not 'freedom for oppressed,'" he said, clearing his throat.
"Daniel," Jack whispered, laying a hand on Daniel's back.
Too many wounds, too many scars. Too many months spent losing and hiding and wondering and crying. Too many images in which to find his place, to come to accept his actions. There were too many ways he needed to come to forgive his innocence, but there was never enough redemption. Not a moment's peace. No comfort in the arms of what should have been home.
"Daniel," Jack said again, giving Daniel's shoulder a gentle squeeze, "let's talk."
"This needs to be finished," he managed to say, pressing the cuff of his shirt to his eye.
"It can wait." Jack turned Daniel's chair to him, prodding him to sit down.
Daniel glanced at the hardwood chair, the scratched seat, and then back to the board. He swallowed hard to dissolve the tightness in his throat.
"Daniel," Jack said again, more gently, touching Daniel's elbow.
"I think it's…I think it's coming back," Daniel whispered, never turning to face Jack.
Jack sidled up next to Daniel and guided him to the chair, which Daniel willingly allowed.
"Here," Jack said, keeping his hand on Daniel's shoulder until he was seated, "just sit down and talk to me."
Daniel sat down, propped his heels against the legs of the chair and his elbows into his knees. He yanked off his glasses, let them dangle from his fingers and covered his face with his trembling hands, hiding his wet eyes.
Jack took a seat next to Daniel, rubbed his back while he worked to collect himself, and when the stuttering breaths ceased, Daniel pulled his hands away from his face and let them hang between his knees, his head slung limp between his shoulders.
"I know it makes you tired," Jack said, venturing onto thin ice, "but I gotta think that feeling tired is a whole lot better than feeling like this." Daniel didn't answer, but he didn't bite back, either. Jack's hand slid to the nape of Daniel's neck and gave it a gentle squeeze. Some progress had been made, he thought. Daniel no longer winced when Jack touched him. That was progress. Some. "Come on, Daniel. Talk to me."
From his angle, Jack could see the tight muscles in Daniel's jaw contract and relax, contract and relax. The tears had stopped, but still his skin was blotchy and red.
"Sometimes, I think…I'm afraid it's happening again," he said in a voice Jack was becoming far too accustomed to—thick and heavy with tears.
"I'm afraid I'm losing my…words." Daniel tossed his glasses onto his desk and then struggled to find a place for his hands.
"What do you mean?"
Daniel spooled his arms around his body, pressing his cold hands under his arms. "This should be easy for me. The translations…I mean they aren't difficult, but I…I can't seem to…"
"Come on," Jack whispered, drawing his hand across Daniel's trembling back. "Calm down, Danny." Jack searched Daniel's desk for a glass of water, a tissue, anything that he could offer Daniel. What he found was a mug of cold coffee. "Here. Calm down."
Daniel's hand eased out from under his arm and took the mug. Jack stood up and walked to Daniel's coffee maker. "Is it possible," he began, returning with the carafe of sludge-like fluid, "that this is all part of you not taking your meds?" Jack warmed up Daniel's tepid mug with fresh, day-old coffee that was at the very least hot. "Is it possible that your…brain chemistry is out of whack, and it's affecting your ability to speak?"
Daniel pressed both hands against the warm mug while Jack replaced the carafe on the hot pad. "Maybe."
Jack took his seat next to Daniel again, his folding hands across his chest. "Well, there you go. Pop a few Paxil, and be on your merry way."
"It's Zoloft, and it's a little more complicated than that," Daniel said, feeling his emotions coming back on line.
"How much more?"
Daniel looked into his mug, fished out a floating coffee ground, and shook his head. He sniffed away the remaining tears, pressed his lips together in a tight grimace and shrugged his shoulders.
"Okay, so," Jack said, patting him on the back, "you'll start taking your drugs again?"
Daniel nodded, and Jack forced back the overwhelming desire to ask Daniel to take them while he was watching. No, he'd have to give Daniel this leeway, this trust. Nevertheless, Jack made a mental note that a stop to see Sebastian was at the top of his to-do list.
"How's Andy working out?" Daniel asked suddenly.
"Who? Packard?" Jack asked. "Yeah, Packard. He's, uh,…You know, it turns out, Packard's an idiot."
"He's not an idiot," Daniel said, the smallest amount of satisfaction entering his voice. He kept his eyes focused on his lightly swirling coffee and tried not to smile. "He just…"
"No, he's certifiable," Jack said, hooking his hand onto Daniel's shoulder, thumbing the rigid musculature of his neck. "Teal'c's even been known to call him a mook."
"A…A mook?" Daniel asked, blinking.
"'The Sopranos,'" Jack explained. "Teal'c is fascinated by Tony, the lead character. Mob boss. We've…we've had to talk about the language." Jack wrinkled his nose and waved his hand—it was over. No big woo. Just a six-foot-four-inch Jaffa rumbling murderous epithets to those who would yank his chain…
"Yes, I'm sure that would be…um…" Daniel wiped his hand across his mouth trying to erase his smile.
"How you sleepin' these days?" Jack asked.
Daniel shook his head and brought the mug to his lips.
"Why don't you take Carter up on her offer?"
"I don't know…"
"Look, you can stay with me, but I'll bet you dollars to donuts her bathrooms are cleaner," Jack told him, playfully squeezing his neck.
Daniel was silent while he thought about the offer. Since leaving the hospital, he had been adamant that he could go it alone, live independently again. But his apartment was so quiet and so full of unexplainable sounds, all at the same time. He began working later and later, even bringing files home with him so that he'd fall asleep, exhaustion winning over fear.
And then there were the nightmares, and the moments of absolute panic when he'd find himself staring into the face of a monster, only to realize it was a death mask from the Ivory Coast, a Goh mask from Japan. Two of many such masks he had collected over the years and had for some stupid reason hung on his bedroom wall, the grotesque faces leering down at him in his bed, wooden and carved substitutes for Levan and the nameless others. Tearing them off his wall one night, smashing the priceless art on his bedroom floor, Daniel wondered why he had ever collected such gruesome artifacts.
"Maybe I'll come over for the night," Daniel said, nodding.
"Good. We'll eat like kings," Jack said, rising to his feet, lightly patting the back of Daniel's head. "I have two big ol' boxes of Cap'n Crunch in the pantry. How's that sound?"
"With or without berries?" Daniel asked, placing his coffee on his desk.
"Gotta have berries, otherwise it's not a complete meal on that triangle thing of nutrition." Jack leaned over the couch and picked up the files—all of them. "So, you want me to come pick you up, or…"
"I can drive," Daniel said, keeping his eyes lowered.
"Okay, but don't work too late," Jack warned him. "The roads are getting bad out there, and I'm not hauling my ass out onto the road with my truck just to tow you out of some ditch."
"Hopefully, it won't come to that."
Jack placed the files on the one empty corner of Daniel's lab table while he pulled on his coat, zipped it up to the top and buttoned the collar across his neck. "Okay, then, we got ourselves a plan." Jack gave Daniel one last look. "You okay now?"
Daniel nodded, furrowed his brow and pawed at his hair. "I guess."
He closed his eyes and was met by the rooms, the assorted figures, and waited for the lurking figure to peek out at him. Daniel patiently waited, glanced across the room in his mind's eye, past the chairs and watched as the once furtive and ensconced image stepped out from the shadows.
Into the light of his psyche the skulking figure stepped, and Daniel recognized him immediately. He was tall, unbowed by shame and trauma. His hair was brown, not shot through with premature gray. His crystal blue eyes were clear, bright with knowledge and curiosity, instead of clouded with things best not remembered, with pain still too near the surface. His voice was confident, assured, not stunted and stifled by fear. And as he stepped closer into focus, Daniel saw that this man and what he represented was the man Daniel had once been.
"Hello," the man whispered to Daniel, nodding, his eyes riveted to his counterpoint, telling him not to worry, not to be afraid.
"Hi. Where've you been?"
"I've been here all the time."
"I thought you were gone."
"No. Not entirely." The man, strong, vital and assured, frowned at him, and said, "I can't stay."
He tipped his head, saddened by the words he must speak. "You're not ready yet."
His heart racing, Daniel asked, "Ready for what?"
And while he stared at the figure of the man who carried with him all that Daniel had lost, the man maintained his compassionate hold on Daniel. Issuing forth his cupped hands, hands that contained swirls of cinders and ash, of sorrow and loss, this being offered Daniel a glimpse at those things that had been torn away and sullied. The man quietly exposed his pain at having to stand by and watch while his own body had been violated, while his spirit had been shattered. The burden was enormous, penetrating and cold.
Barring his eyes from seeing any more, Daniel cried, "It's too much."
"I know," he whispered.
"I don't want to think about it."
"I know." The man nodded, closing his hands. "You don't have to. I'll take care of it until you're ready."
Putting it all away, back in those dusty, abandoned sections of his mind, Daniel asked, "Until then, what do I do?"
"Do what you need to do. Take care of yourself."
"Daniel?" Jack said, peering at him. "You all right?"
Daniel took a deep breath, opened his eyes and saw the crowded office once more for what it was. The man was gone, but his quiet message resonated in Daniel's mind. Daniel would take care of himself. He would take care of himself in the only way he knew how. Box it up. Close it off. He would forget.
"Daniel, what's going on?" Jack asked.
And when Daniel spoke, his words were replete with the scrapings of a dignity left to expire. "It wasn't all bad."
"What's that?" Jack asked, his hand on the door handle.
"Back there," Daniel went on. "It wasn't all bad back there. I didn't have to…to think."
A chill raced through Jack's body. "Daniel—"
"I didn't have to…I didn't have to try to understand anything. I didn't have to worry about anything other than doing what I was told. I didn't have…I didn't have to…think." Daniel closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of his chair. "It wasn't all bad."
Jack stood motionless and unable to feel his limbs. He gritted his teeth together and tried to bring some moisture to his suddenly parched mouth.
"Sometimes," Daniel continued, his voice soft and resigned, "sometimes I miss it."
Jack couldn't breathe; he couldn't form words. If he didn't know better, he'd have thought someone had just pummeled him across the back with a bat. He stared helplessly at Daniel, shocked that once again, the depth of his friend's pain ran so deep. A panic rose in Jack as he peered at his friend, struggled against wanting to rush the man, grab him by the lapels and jerk him out of his irrational thoughts. What the hell are you talking about? he wanted to demand.
Daniel kept his hazy focus somewhere between his office and a silent room in a cold building, on a distant world, at the end of a wormhole. He thought about what he had said to Jack, how he missed it, but not the place. No. He missed the strange freedom of submission. Sometimes, it was easier to not have to think. To have every decision made for you. Sometimes, he thought, it was easier to let your spirit be subdued and let someone else take the responsibility. Sometimes, it was simply easier to let go of your spirit all together.
Daniel took a deep breath and looked at Jack, wondered at the shocked expression on his friend's face. Wondered why Jack's normally tanned complexion was bleached ashen
Jack blindly grasped for the door handle from which his tremulous fingers had somehow fallen away. "I'll, uh…" he said, and realized he could hardly hear himself. "I'll pick you up after work. The roads are…bad."
"Okay, well," Jack mumbled, pulling open the door. "Okay…"
Jack stepped outside the door, made sure it was locked, and grasped the metal casing around it. He felt his breath coming in gasps, his heart crashing against his ribs.
"Holy God," he whispered, precariously close to becoming sick. His hands slid to the middle of the door, his forehead coming to rest between them. He remembered he had forgotten the files inside the room, but there was no way he could go back in. No way.
"Oh, God," he said to no one, so quiet he didn't even think the one he had intoned could hear.
And while his body sizzled with fear, while his heart pounded with a white-hot panic, Jack listened for any sounds coming from inside the chaotic office that would help him understand. He listened for crying, for yelling, for the sounds of papers rustling—anything.
There was only silence. From outside Daniel's office door, Jack strained to listen for his friend's life beyond the barricade. He strained, he yearned to hear a continuation of spirit, of vocation, of independence.
But there was only strange, ubiquitous, endless silence.
And in that silence, Jack heard the fission of his own heart.