Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

In Retrospect

by Charli Booker




IN RETROSPECT

 

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” - Nelson Mandela, ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’

 

* * * * *

 

Much to the chagrin of Jack O’Neill, it really wasn’t Daniel Jackson’s fault.  Not this time.  This time, he had no one but himself to blame.

 

* * * * *

 

“Tell him, Carter.”

 

“Sorry, Daniel, but I’m going to have to side with the Colonel on this one.”

 

“Oh, come on, Sam.”

 

Looking slightly offended, Jack glanced back at his second in command.  “You’re apologizing for taking my side?”  He shook his head and then, without slowing down, pulled off his cap and wiped sweat from his forehead.  “Damn, it must be a hundred degrees out here.”

 

“So, you don’t think I could take it?” Daniel glanced at Sam as he spoke.

 

Her eyes hidden behind her dark sunglasses, Sam smiled at him.  “It’s not a matter of what I think.  It’s what I know.  You’d end up with serious brain damage.”

 

“Well,” Daniel smirked at the back of Jack’s head, “that explains a lot.”

 

Without turning, Jack lifted a hand and flipped Daniel the finger.

 

Daniel smiled and, ignoring the insult, looked back at Teal’c.  “You got an opinion on this?”

 

“I do not, Daniel Jackson.”

 

Daniel watched Jack, who was walking approximately ten feet ahead of them.  The man had started the conversation, talking about G forces and bragging about how he was a member of the exclusive 9G Club.  When Daniel had commented that it didn’t sound like a big deal, Jack had laughed.  However, despite his nasty tone, Daniel knew that Jack wasn’t really offended.  It was merely an act - a performance for the team’s benefit; a classic O’Neill diversionary tactic meant to help pass the time.  Daniel smiled to himself.  Let it not be said that he stood in the way of Jack’s little diversions.  “Well, I think you’re both full of crap.  What do you say, when we get back, I prove you wrong?”

 

Jack glanced back over his shoulder and shot Daniel a brief, crooked grin.  “Sure, that’ll happen.  Just give me a few minutes to rustle up a Tomcat or a B-2 Bomber.  Better yet . . . Carter, we’ll strap him in a Raptor.”

 

Sam snorted softly.

 

“What’s a Raptor?” Daniel adjusted his pack and squinted.  In the distance, he thought he saw the structure they’d been looking for.

 

“Your tax dollars at work,” Jack mumbled.

 

“It’s an F/A-22 fighter jet.”  At Daniel’s blank stare, Sam added, “Just picture the X-302 without the interstellar capabilities and inertial dampeners.”

 

Daniel looked away.  Oh, yeah, that cleared things right up.

 

“Teal’c.”  Jack had stopped.  His quiet voice silenced his team and brought the Jaffa striding up from behind them.

 

Daniel watched as the two warriors surveyed their surroundings.  They stood like sturdy, weathered sentinels in the breech between him and Sam, and any possible danger.  In an odd moment of clarity, Daniel realized that he was probably safer off-world in the company of Jack and Teal’c than he was alone in his own living room.

 

“What do you think, T?”

 

Teal’c took a moment to carefully study the large, weed-ridden, mostly-dead garden area that surrounded the small building.  “It appears to be uninhabited.  However, I believe it would be wise to circle the structure before entering.”

 

Jack looked at the building, carefully eyed the area around it, and then glanced back at Daniel and Sam before agreeing.  “Yeah, okay.  You take left.  I’ll go right.  Carter, Daniel, wait here and keep your eyes open.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

As the two warriors moved off, Daniel realized that at some point he’d automatically released the safety catch on his weapon.  He wasn’t sure what that said about him, nor was he sure that he liked it.  But things had changed.  He’d changed, ever since his ‘descent’ to human form.  At first, his memory still hazy and unpredictable, he hadn’t known whether he was changed or not, but as his mind had cleared, he’d noticed definite differences in himself.  For one thing, as evidenced by the current circumstances, he’d become more aggressive.  He was also a lot less naive and much more skilled in the art of deception.  But perhaps most disturbing, he’d lost his sweet tooth.

 

Standing next to Sam, scanning the horizon as Jack and Teal’c disappeared in the shadows behind the structure, Daniel once again pondered the full extent of his transformation.  Acquaintances and co-workers were still commenting to him about how physically buffed he was compared to before his ‘sabbatical.’  Daniel knew that he was; he could feel the change in himself without needing to verify it in a mirror or by looking at old photographs.  He felt more powerful, tighter, more . . . aware.  This heightened awareness vaguely reminded him of how he’d felt when he’d been thrown into the body of Machello, except this time there was an energy throbbing through his corporeal form that had never, ever been there before, and he was beginning to think the effect was permanent.  Lately, he found himself watching Jack and Teal’c, studying how the men moved - comfortably and with a grace and speed that defied their size and age - and he wondered if this was how they felt inside.  After a lot of thought, Daniel had come to the conclusion that the physical form he had assumed upon his return was nothing more than a reflection of internal mutations - not vice versa.

 

Other things, events since his descension, had brought about more changes.  For instance, Janet.  Daniel frowned and turned his back to Sam, studying the barren terrain across which they had hiked for the last nine hours.  Janet’s death was still fresh and raw, a wound that refused to fully heal and which threatened to fester at the strangest times.  Daniel was saddled with doubt.  He knew the uselessness of ‘what ifs.’  They served no purpose.  Still . . . he couldn’t help but think that if Jack had been there instead of him, Janet would be alive today.  Jack would never have laid down his weapon to pick up the camera.  Jack would have seen the enemy preparing to fire and would have shot first or, failing that, would have thrown himself between Janet and death.

 

“Daniel, you okay?”

 

He looked at Sam, who nodded towards the building where Jack stood, waving them forward.  Smiling, Daniel once again shifted the weight of the pack on his back.  “Yeah.  Sure.”

 

They began walking towards the building that Daniel was fairly certain was a temple.

 

“Sam, what’s going on at the SGC?”

 

She glanced at him, then away.  “I . . . I’m not sure.”  They were halfway to their destination before she spoke again.  “Why?”

 

“Just something Jack said.”

 

“What?”

 

Daniel smiled.  “Oh, you know Jack, something cryptic.  This morning in the locker room, he mentioned that I should try not to bother him too much with all my chatter and that I should promise not to touch anything because this might be SG-1's last hoorah.”

 

“He actually said that?”

 

Sam sounded shocked, which surprised Daniel.  He had assumed that being military, she would know what was going on.  He saw her study their CO, who was kicking at an Ionic-style column like he was checking the tires on his truck.

 

“You don’t think the Colonel’s leaving, do you?”

 

He shrugged.  “Seems to me like he would have mentioned it.”

 

“Daniel, we’re talking about Colonel O’Neill here.”

 

“Oh.  Right.  Still, I don’t think he’d do something that drastic without talking to us first.”

 

“Well, you’re right about one thing:  something’s going on.”

 

Daniel nodded.  “Jack, stop it!  This temple has been here for thousands of years and you’re single-handedly going to destroy it before I even get a chance to take a look inside.”

 

Aiming what was meant to be an evil glare at Daniel, Jack gave the column a final, defiant kick before stepping aside.  “I know I’ve said this before, but why is it always a religious thing with you?  Did you ever stop and think that maybe this was a brothel?  Or an all-night convenience store?”

 

Daniel frowned, but inside he felt an almost overwhelming surge of warmth for this man who was his boss, his protector, his friend, and the constant thorn in his side.  Hiding his smile from Jack, Daniel ran a hand over one of the columns on the front of the temple, comforted by the thought that no matter how things changed, Jack O’Neill remained Jack O’Neill.

 

* * * * *

 

Jack sat on the floor just inside the open doorway of Daniel’s temple.  Outside, he caught periodic glimpses of Carter and Teal’c patrolling the general vicinity.  Across the darkening expanse of the room, Daniel had been reading the same wall for the last hour and a half.  Bored and tired of pacing, Jack had sat down, unsnapping his P90 and leaning back with a sigh.

 

“Daniel?”

 

“Just a little while longer, Jack.  I’ve almost got it.”

 

“Of course, you do,” he mumbled to himself.  It was the fifth time in the last hour that Daniel had said those very words.  In a daze, he stared at Daniel’s back as the man worked.  After all these years, after all the things that Daniel had seen, how could he become so absorbed, so fascinated, with a bunch of writing on a wall?  Didn’t he ever get tired of reading everyone’s take on how the world was formed and how the gods came into power?  On the whole, Jack tuned out the vast majority of the things Daniel said, taking away only a bare synopsis of the stark facts.  Even then, he managed to be bored by it, let alone if he had to spend hours deciphering it in the first place.

 

As he watched, Daniel scooted to the left, running a calloused finger over glyphs that covered an entire wall.  God, if he touched something again. . . .

 

“Yeah.  Okay.  Then. . . .” Daniel mumbled to himself, his fingers busily brushing the raised, alien letters.

 

Jack smiled and sighed, turning his head to glance out at the bleak landscape.  The sun was lowering in the sky, casting a purplish, almost Earth-like quality to the sand dunes as the sun went down.  The garden that was dead in the harsh light of day could have been alive in the dim light of an alien dusk.  He reached for his radio.

 

“Carter?”

 

“Go ahead, sir.”

 

“Major, start setting up camp.  Teal’c, give her a hand.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Very well, O’Neill.”

 

He should have issued the order an hour ago.  He glanced back at Daniel, who was still intent on his work.  He had pulled a large book from his pack and was tracing the wall with one finger and a page of the book with another.  Should Jack stop him?  Remind him that he wasn’t supposed to touch anything?  Would this be the last chance Jack would have to remind his errant archeologist of the unwritten ‘lookee but no touchee’ Jack O’Neill code of conduct?

 

God.  Jack rubbed his eyes.  He’d been distracted all day, now he was turning maudlin?  What was next?  So what if Hammond was talking about accepting an assignment in Washington?  So what if Kinsey was wielding more power and sporting a bigger asshole than ever before?  So what?  They had Daniel back.  Jonas was settled on his home world.  SG-1 was together.  Yeah, George was hinting of promotions and asking Jack to think about trading in his BDU’s for dress blues.  So what?  Change was good, right?

 

Jack shifted, grunting softly at the ache in his stiff knees and in his weary back muscles.  Yeah, right.  Change was good.  Aging bad - change good.  Fraiser was going to give him hell if he came back from this mission with the slightest-

 

He felt the impact like a punch in the gut.

 

Doc was gone.  Another one lost to the enemy.  One that should never have been out there in the first place.  His stomach roiling, Jack forced himself onto his feet.

 

“Daniel, how many times do I have to tell you to keep your hands off the damn-”

 

“Jack, I’ve got it!”

 

Even as he spoke, even as Jack hefted his P90 and crossed the cold, stone floor to stand behind him, the wall on which Daniel had been concentrating slid away, disappearing into a deep crack in the outer wall with the loud grating noise of stone on stone.

 

“What the hell. . . .”  Jack reflexively took a single step back and tightened his grip on his weapon.

 

As Daniel struggled to his feet, the two men gaped at the vastness of the room suddenly revealed to them.  It wasn’t deep, less than fifteen feet of floor space lay between the spot where the wall had been and the back of the room.  But it was tall, taller than the inside of the temple itself, and wide, extending well beyond the perimeters of the room in which they stood.

 

Jack stepped across the threshold and stared up at the back wall.  It was at least four stories high and a hundred feet wide.  The entire wall was divided into tiles approximately two feet square.  Frowning, he stepped closer and examined one of the squares without touching it.  There was a handle in the middle of each tile.

 

“Daniel?”  Jack was vaguely aware that Daniel had stepped forward and was squinting at the tiny writing carved beneath the handle.  “What is this place?”

 

“Oh my God.  I was wrong.”

 

Jack flinched and brought up the barrel of the rifle.  “What do you mean?  What?”

 

Finally, Daniel looked at him.  “It’s not a temple.  It’s a mausoleum.”

 

Jack opened his mouth to say ‘what,’ but nothing came out.  He glanced up again, noting for the first time that most of the squares had necklace thingies hanging from the handles.  Glancing at Daniel, he reached up to the nearest square and tentatively touched the dangling pendant.  It resembled a coin with strange writing on it.  A hole had been drilled in the edge of the coin, and it had been threaded onto a silver chain which was looped around the handle.  He felt Daniel step up behind him, reading over his shoulder.

 

“Kwee . . . kwee-la . . . something.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“I think it’s a name,” Daniel answered, but he sounded unsure.

 

“Really?  Kwee-la?  What kind of name is that?”

 

“It’s an alien name, Jack.”

 

“So what, this is a dogtag?”

 

“Well,” Daniel snickered softly, “yeah.  I guess.”

 

Jack studied the pendant closely.  “Looks like a number, too.  Serial number?”

 

“Um,” Daniel grasped one of the handles, “maybe.”

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Well, I . . .,” but before he’d finished answering, he’d pulled on the handle.

 

Shouting at him, Jack grabbed Daniel and shoved him away from the drawer, which slid open with a pneumatic hiss.  Daniel hit the floor hard and Jack landed on top of him, forcing a grunt of air past Daniel’s lips.  Breathless, they lay there, anticipating a disaster that didn’t happen.  Finally, Jack groaned and eased himself up onto his knees.

 

“How many times do I have to tell you . . . don’t do that.”

 

“Sorry.”  The two men stood, peeking at the open drawer without moving closer.  “But it’s okay.  Nothing happened.”

 

Jack made a face at him.  “Uh, yeah, unless these people died of the bubonic plague or something.  In which case, we won’t know anything happened until after we infect everyone we come in contact with.  Oh, yeah, and die.”

 

“Well, I doubt that will happen.  There’d be warnings posted or something.”

Jack nodded sagely.  “Oh, really?  You mean, in this temple?”

 

“Okay.  So I made a little mistake.  It’s not a temple.”

 

“Well,” Jack shook his head and stepped up to the drawer, “too late now.  What’s done is done.”  He stared into the stone receptacle.  “Uh, Daniel.”

 

“What?”

 

“Your dead guy looks . . . well, I don’t mean to sound cold and unfeeling, but he looks . . . well, cold and unfeeling.”

 

Daniel stepped up beside Jack.  “Why do you say . . . oh.  What the. . . .”

 

“Temple.  Mausoleum.  Want to take another stab at it?  I hear third time is a charm.”

 

The men stared down at what looked like a small, cylindrical computer.  The outside consisted of a polished steel-like substance, and small wires emerged from one end and disappeared into small outlets at the back and sides of the drawer.  Large, flashing, blue lights formed a ring around the center of the housing.

 

“I think we’ve found Carter’s homeland.”  At Daniel’s questioning stare, Jack smiled rather proudly.  “Well, it obviously has her brains and if I’m not mistaken, it has her eyes as well.”

 

Daniel shook his head.  “I don’t understand, Jack.  I was sure this was a mausoleum.”

 

“Yeah, well, at least he didn’t die from the plague.”

 

“Maybe it was a computer virus,” Daniel dead-panned.

 

Jack laughed dryly.  “Yeah.  Probably the green worm thingy.”  He glanced around at the fading light.  “Okay.  Let’s wrap this up for the night.  We’ll let Carter check this out maZana.  Maybe she can,” he waved towards the open drawer, “you know, do an autopsy on Microchip Man here.  Figure out if there’s anything of value.”

 

Looking confused, Daniel shoved the drawer closed.  “Sure.”

 

* * * * *

 

Jack was laying on his back, a cup of coffee resting on his chest.  As Carter and Daniel quietly discussed the possibilities awaiting them inside the ancient building, Jack studied the stars.  It was a cool evening, but not cold, and the sky overhead was clear and bright; perfect for star-gazing.  Too bad he didn’t have his new telescope.  Just last month he’d gotten a deal on an Orion Atlas Reflector.  The thing weighed roughly sixty pounds and had been a royal pain in the ass to haul onto the roof, but man-oh-man, what a sweet ride.

 

“Do you recognize anything, O’Neill.”  Teal’c eased himself down beside his commanding officer.

 

Jack yawned and wrapped a hand around the warm mug balanced on his chest.  “It’s hard to say.”  He studied the stars a moment, then pointed.  “Do you see that odd shaped formation?  The one that looks kind of like Picasso’s version of a skinny cow?”

 

Teal’c followed the pointing finger, studying the night sky.  “I do not.”

 

“Okay.  Let’s find something easier.”  Jack lay there a few moments, patiently searching the darkness.  He used to do this all the time for Sara and later, for Charlie.  The first time Jack had taken his boy star-gazing, Charlie was nine weeks old and had been far more interested in trying to feed at his father’s chest than he’d been in looking at the sky.  The last time had been when Charlie was ten, going on twenty.  Jack could still see him stretched out on his back in the grass, his striped t-shirt and his eyes like his mother’s luminescent in the reflection of the stars overhead.  Just home after five months away on a mission, Jack had watched his son watch the sky and had listened as Charlie patiently explained how he was going to manage becoming an astronaut without having to do his math homework.

 

‘Why do I need math anyway?  I just want to do stuff like you.  You know, the cool stuff.’

 

Jack had cringed at the thought of his child following in his footsteps.  ‘You will,’ he’d assured his boy.

 

‘Dad, sometimes, I think I’ll never grow up.’  Charlie had turned his head and stared over at Jack, his expression serious.  ‘It’s taking forever.’

 

Studying the changes that five months had made in Charlie’s face, Jack had smiled.

 

Less than eight days later, Charlie had been dead.

 

Clearing his throat, Jack pushed back the memories of his son and pointed skyward again.  “How about there, Teal’c?  Do you see those four stars?  They form a little square.  Just a little to the left of and beneath that really bright star.”

 

Teal’c gazed upward.  It was a full minute before he replied, “Yes.  I see it.”

 

“Well, if I’m right, that little square is a constellation called Corvus, or the Crow.  And that large constellation above it is Virgo.  The bright star on the bottom edge of Virgo there is called Spica.  Spica is one of the brightest stars in the sky, T.  The fourteenth brightest, I think.  I’m pretty sure anyway.”

 

“How do you remember all that, Jack?”

 

He smiled over at Daniel.  Jack had been studying astronomy since his eleventh birthday, when he’d gotten his first telescope from his Granddad.  “Practice, Daniel.  Lots of practice.”

 

“So which one’s Earth, Colonel?”

 

“You can’t see it from here, Carter.  It’s on the other side of the galaxy.  Literally.”

 

“You can tell that just by looking?” Daniel poured himself another cup of coffee and sat down on the other side of Jack, opposite Teal’c and away from the firelight.

 

“Yeah.  Everything is backwards.”

 

“Really?”  Carter moved over and stretched out at his, Teal’c’s and Daniel’s feet.  “So where’s Canis Major?  That’s the only one I know for sure.”

 

“And you’re in the Air Force?  Sam, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

 

In response to Daniel’s comment, Carter kicked his legs as Jack quietly studied the sky.

 

“Over there.”  He pointed to the western sky.  “Sirius, or the Dog Star.  It’s the brightest star in the sky, our sun excluded, of course.”

 

Daniel sipped his coffee.  “Once when I was on a dig in Egypt, Sarah and I spent the entire night outside on the ground watching a meteor shower.  It was pretty cool.”

 

“Meteor showers on Chulak were rare and were considered to be omens of great significance.”

 

“That’s common in a lot of cultures, Teal’c.  We have records of meteor showers from China and Europe going back over twenty-five hundred years.  In our own culture, the Native Americans kept detailed records of them.  Some of the records covered a span of fifty years.”

 

“Wow,” Carter sounded impressed, “I didn’t know that.”

 

“You mean I finally found something you didn’t know?  Did you hear that, Jack?  Jack?”

 

The only response was soft, deep, steady breathing.

 

“Well, Daniel,” Carter whispered, “I always knew your little lectures were good for something.”

 

No one moved or spoke for nearly five minutes.  Jack dozed as his teammates quietly stared up at the sky, thinking of the familiar world that lay on the far side of the galaxy.  It was weird how with all four of them here, home didn’t seem that distant.  Finally, Teal’c rose and gently removed the cup of cool coffee from its precarious perch on Jack’s lean chest.

 

“I shall take first watch, Major Carter.”

 

“Thanks, Teal’c.  I’ll take second.”

 

“Third.”  Daniel yawned then looked over at the grey-haired man sleeping beside him.  “Last watch, Jack,” he announced, and wondered if it would be.

 

* * * * *

 

“I don’t know.  Maybe we should go with this one.”

 

“Daniel, we can only carry one.  We have to decide.”

 

Carter and Daniel had examined at least two dozen of the hundreds of computers stored in the rows of drawers.  As Jack watched, Carter closed one drawer and pulled open another.  Daniel studied one of the tags which dangled from one of the handles.  Between the two of them, they had finally decided that the pendants were markers or identification tags of some kind.  Well, d’uh.  Jack could have told them that over breakfast.

 

Already weary of their exuberance, he rubbed his eyes and bit his lip.  Something else had obviously escaped his techno-geeks’ combined powers of observation: their commanding officer was nearing the end of his patience and had set the ten minute timer - Jack glanced at his watch - eight minutes ago.

 

Daniel glanced over at Carter.  “What if the names and numbers are indicative of software?”

 

Carter looked up from her study of the latest in a long line of apparently identical computers.  “You mean, program identifiers?”  Her eyes roamed over the vast number of drawers as she seemed to consider Daniel’s suggestion.  “Maybe.”

 

Jack heard Teal’c sigh deeply.  Teal’c never sighed.  Okay, one minute left on the clock, but enough was enough.

 

“That’s it.”  He strode across the room and laid a hand on one of the drawers.

 

“Colonel?”

 

“Jack?”

 

“You’ve been trying to choose between curtains number one and two for over four hours.”  Daniel and Carter looked at each other, then at Jack, as if shocked at his audacity.  “Let’s make a deal.  I’m thinking of a number between one and five.”

 

“Sir?”

 

Jack shook his head and yelled over towards the door just outside of which Teal’c stood guard, “Teal’c, give me a number between one and five!”

 

“Three.”

 

“Thank you.”  He removed his hand from the front of the small cubicle on which it was resting and began counting, three drawers over and three drawers down.

 

“Jack, what are you doing?”

 

“Here you go, kids.”  Grabbing the handle, Jack yanked open the drawer.  “Merry Christmas!  Teal’c, get that stretcher in here.”

 

“Colonel, you can’t just-”

 

“What?  I can’t just what?  Make a decision?”

 

“But it could be . . . well, anything.  How do we know which-”

 

“We don’t, Major.  We never will.  So we do the next best thing: we make a decision and we stick with it.”

 

Carter opened her mouth to argue but decided against it.  “Yes, sir.”

 

As Teal’c arrived with the stretcher he had jury-rigged, Jack stepped back out of the way.  “Load her up, kids, we need to get a move on.”

 

“Here, Jack.”  Daniel tossed him the chain and pendant from the front of the drawer.  “Hang onto this.  It might be important.”

 

Carter began disconnecting the small computer from its housing as Jack wandered over to the open doorway, studying the small coin in the light of midday.  Listening to his team grunting and groaning as they loaded the computer onto the stretcher, Jack turned the coin over in his palm.  He supposed Daniel would know what it said, but it looked like gobblety-gook to him.  Hen scratches.

 

“Colonel,” Carter’s voice was strained, “can you give us a hand?”

 

Jack turned to find his teammates struggling to balance the computer on the stretcher.  Without a second thought, he slipped the chain around his neck, let the pendant settle next to his dogtags, and rushed to grab one end of the stretcher.

 

* * * * *

 

With dusk looming, they were still over three hours from the Gate.  The four of them had been pairing up, taking turns at hauling the stretcher.  Jack and Carter, and Daniel and Teal’c.  The computer core, while no bigger than a two gallon jug, had to weigh close to 90 pounds.  It wasn’t heavy enough to prevent the task of manually hauling it to the Gate, but it was enough to make the trip miserable and awkward and slow.

 

Jack was exhausted and sore, and with the possible exception of Teal’c, he was sure his teammates felt the same.  Covering his team’s six, he watched Daniel and Teal’c struggle their way up the side of a small sand dune, following in Carter’s wake.  Daniel was sweating profusely and both men were grunting softly under the strain.

 

“Okay, guys, I’m calling it.  As soon as we find a level spot, we’re stopping for the night.”

 

Daniel was gasping for breath.  “No arguments . . . from me.”

 

Carter looked back over her shoulder.  “There’s a place just ahead, Colonel.”

 

Daniel, who was holding onto the rear of the stretcher, stumbled slightly and Jack reached out a steadying hand to the younger man’s elbow.  “Easy there, big fella.”

 

“I’ve . . . got it. . . . Thanks.”

 

As they reached the flat area that Carter had indicated, Jack stepped up beside the stretcher, looking around at the general area.  The sound of Daniel’s heavy breathing was loud in a place where the only things that thrived were fallowness and silence.

 

“This looks good.  Why don’t you guys put Roscoe down and take a breather.  Carter and I’ll get camp set up.”

 

“Roscoe?”  Despite the effort, Daniel laughed softly and bent to lower his end of the stretcher.  The slight movement caught Teal’c off-guard and his grip on the stretcher slipped.

 

Jack saw it happen in slow motion.  The stretcher dipped to the left, towards him, and he instantly realized that the computer they’d been toting and sweating over for the past eight hours was going to hit hard.  He dove, reaching out with both hands to cradle the heavy machine and break its fall.

 

As soon as he touched it, he knew it hadn’t been one of his smarter moves.  The cool, smooth feel of the metal was immediately followed by a deep, fierce burning sensation.  Bright, blinding light flashed in his eyes and a tremendous force impacted his chest, encasing his torso in an agonizing band of heat.

 

“Colonel!”

 

His shoulder hit the sand hard and he actually heard the air being driven from his lungs more than he felt it.

 

“O’Neill!”

 

He rolled onto his back, his vision fading.  Daniel’s pale face loomed over him.

 

“Jack?  Answer me!  Jack!”

 

“Dan-”

 

* * * * *

 

“. . . but I don’t want to.  I want to go with Mamo Teerny.  She said I could.”

 

“Neesha, no arguments.  Dahdee said no.  You can’t go.  Not this time.”

 

“But-”

 

Dimly aware of the strange voices, Jack stared down at a plate of food.  What the-

 

He dropped the fork that was in his hand and shoved back from the table, knocking over the chair in which he was sitting and falling back against the wall.

 

“Kian!”  A young woman jumped up from the opposite side of the table and rushed towards him as he slid to the floor in a boneless heap.  “Kian, what’s wrong?”

 

“Stay back!”  His heart racing, Jack held out a warning hand.

 

Ignoring his protest, she knelt beside him, reaching for him.  “Are you all right?”

 

He fumbled for his weapon . . . any weapon, but he was unarmed.  “No!  Get away!”

 

The woman gasped and froze.  “What is it?”

 

Jack looked over at the table.  A dark-haired boy of about five years old gaped at him, a spoonful of something poised halfway between his plate and his mouth.  “Who are you?”  Confused and frightened, Jack looked back at the woman.  “Where am I?”

 

“Kian,” she smiled, forced a soft laugh, “don’t joke.  This isn’t funny.”

 

Jack was panting, his heart thrumming dangerously fast in his chest.  “Who the hell are you?  What have you done with my team?”

 

The woman’s face grew serious.

 

“Dahdee?”  The little boy lowered his spoon.

 

The woman bit her bottom lip then, not taking her eyes off of Jack, she spoke to the boy.  “Neesha, run next door.  Fetch Pawdric.  Tell him to come straight away.”  As the little boy clambered off his chair and as Jack tried to melt into the wall, the woman finally glanced at the child.  “And stay there, Neesha.  Don’t return until I send for you.”

 

“Yes, Mahmee,” the boy cried out as he ran from the room.

 

The woman turned back to Jack.  “Don’t worry, Kian.  All will be well, I promise you.”

 

Jack strained to hear her voice as the room began to spin and darken.

 

* * * * *

 

He awoke to the sound of hushed voices - a man’s and a woman’s.  He was laying on his back on something soft.  Slowly, experimentally, he moved his legs, groaning at the resulting ache in his head.

 

“Pawdric, he is waking,” the woman quietly announced.

 

Jack opened his eyes.  He was in a dimly lit room, the only source of light being a small lamp with a thin piece of fabric draped over it to soften the glare.  The woman from earlier was sitting beside him, one hand gently brushing his forehead and the other resting familiarly on his hip.  At her words, a man came into view, leaning over the bed and looking down at him.  Jack knew he should be worried but, instead, he felt oddly removed from everything, danger included.  It took a moment for him to realize that he had probably been drugged.

 

The man smiled.  “How are you feeling?”

 

Jack licked his lips.  “Who are you?”

 

His smile firmly in place, the man glanced over at the woman, then back at Jack.  “It is I, Pawdric.  Don’t tell me you have forgotten, old friend.  It is because you owe me a week’s wages, yes?”  When Jack didn’t answer, the man continued, “If I promise to forego the debt, will you remember me then?”

 

Jack swallowed.  “My head hurts.”

 

“Yes.”  The man grew serious.  “But the drugs will help.  Kian, you should have told me the pain had returned.  Perhaps we could have stopped-”

 

“Who’s Kian?”

 

The woman wiped at her eyes.  Jack looked at her, surprised to find that she was silently crying.

 

“You were here . . . before.  Who are you?”

 

“Kian . . .”

 

The man called Pawdric reached over and gently rested a hand on the woman’s arm.  She stopped and looked at him, then tucked a long strand of auburn hair behind one ear and forced a tight smile in Jack’s direction.

 

“I am Aylish.  I am your wife.”

 

Despite the drugs and the migraine, Jack was stunned.  She didn’t look crazy.  In fact, she looked quite normal, and was even pretty with her dark hair, green eyes and pale complexion.  Jack tried to sit up, but Pawdric easily held him down.

 

“No, my friend, don’t try to get up.”

 

“I’m not your friend.”  Jack weakly struggled.  “I don’t know what you did, but take me back to my team.  Now.  I,” he gasped and dropped back onto the bed, feeling drained, “I need to see them.”

 

“Stop it!”  The woman was crying again.  “There is no ‘team.’  You are my husband and you are ill.”

 

“No.”  He pushed her away, battling sleep and the drugs in his system.  “No.  My name is Jack.  Colonel Jack O’Neill.  I don’t know you.”

 

“Kian, calm down.  Aylish is right.  You were injured in a fall two days ago.  You have been unwell.”  The man held up his hands as if to prove that he meant no harm.  “Please.  Calm down.

 

Panting, Jack blinked up at them and slowly shook his head.  “O’Neill, Jonathon J., Colonel, United States Air Force.  Serial number 66-789-7876-324.”

 

The woman sobbed and Jack squeezed his eyes closed.

 

“O’Neill, Jonathon J., Colonel . . . .”

 

* * * * *

 

“Are you feeling better?”

 

Jack opened his eyes.  The man, Pawdric, was sitting in a chair beside his bed.  Jack looked around the darkened room.  They were alone.

 

“I sent Aylish to bed.  She was exhausted.”

 

Groaning softly, Jack pushed himself into a sitting position, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.  Pawdric tensed but otherwise made no move to help him.

 

“Where am I?”  His mouth was dry and his voice ragged.  Tentatively, Jack accepted the glass of water that the stranger held out to him.

 

“You are in your home.”  At Jack’s blank look, Pawdric continued.  “In the village of Ultan, in the Northwestern Province of BenMhir.”

 

Jack drained the glass and set it on the table by the bed, pressing a hand to his temple.

 

“Your head still hurts?”

 

He frowned, then glanced up at the man who claimed to be his friend.  “I don’t understand what happened.  I was with my team and we-”

 

“Your team?”

 

“Yeah,” he started to nod, then stopped as the pain swelled.  “Yeah, Carter and Daniel and Teal’c.  We were . . . we were,” but his memory failed him at the crucial moment.  “We were on some planet and we were hauling something home.  It was heavy.  I remember that.”

 

“Kian, you were dreaming.”

 

“Don’t call me that.”

 

“It is your name.  What else should I call you?”

 

“My name is Jack.”

 

Pawdric smiled slightly in response.

 

“I’m telling you the truth.  I’m Jack O’Neill.  I’m an officer in the United States Air Force.”

 

Pawdric raised an eyebrow in a gesture that reminded Jack of Teal’c.  “What is this ‘Force’?”

 

“It’s a military organization.  One of the armed services.”

 

Pawdric chuckled softly.  “Military?  You?”

 

“What?  What’s so funny?”

 

Pawdric stood up and walked across the room, digging in a small case and returning with something in his hand.  “You are a doctor.  Like me.  You detest anything to do with the Administration and have certainly never been a part of the military.”

 

“A doctor?”  Jack scrubbed his hands through his hair, then rested his head in his hands.  It felt like his brain was trying to beat its way out of his skull and he was nauseated.  “Trust me.  I’m no doctor.”  He felt a tap on his shoulder.  When he looked up, Pawdric was holding out something to him.  Jack took it, turned it over in his hand.

 

“Kian, what is that?”

 

Jack glanced at the slightly overweight man, then returned the piece of equipment to him.  “It’s a sphygmomanometer.”

 

Pawdric grinned.  “Is that what all soldiers call it?”  Pawdric set aside the blood pressure gauge and offered another piece of equipment in its place.  “And this?”

 

“A stethoscope.  Everyone knows that.”  Jack frowned.  How had he known what the blood pressure thingy was called?

 

“Read the inscription.”

 

Squinting, Jack held the stethoscope closer to the lamp.  “To Kian, from Aylish.  Forever.”  He tossed the stethoscope back to Pawdric.  “So.  That means nothing.”

 

Pawdric dropped the stethoscope onto the bed and leaned close.  He reached for Jack’s shirt, then stopped, requesting permission with his eyes before proceeding.  Jack looked down, watching as Pawdric unbuttoned his shirt.  For the first time, he realized that he wasn’t wearing his BDU’s.  Instead, he was dressed in a soft, muslin-like cloth.  Dark brown pants and a light blue shirt, and he was barefoot.  Pawdric reached inside Jack’s shirt and pulled out a chain.

 

Now they were getting somewhere.  “My dogtags.”  When Pawdric grunted, Jack looked up at him.  “They’re just used to verify my identity.  All service people wear them.”

 

Pawdric smiled.  “Yes, but they’re called markers and they’re issued to everyone, not just the military.  To civilians, to women and children.”  When Jack didn’t respond, Pawdric held up the chain for him to look at.

 

Feeling a slight chill, Jack took the chain from Pawdric’s grasp and stared at the small, engraved coin.  “Kian Shosaf Shay,” he read.  The name was followed by a number.

 

“Now do you believe me?”

 

Jack looked over at the man who had demonstrated nothing but kindness and patience.  He dropped the chain and instead, clutched at the bedding as if he could hang onto a world that he sensed was slipping away.  “No,” he said harshly.  “I don’t.”

 

* * * * *

 

Jack opened his eyes.  He was laying on the bed on his right side, facing an open doorway.  Natural light was streaming down the hallway outside the room, and from somewhere in the house, he could hear the soft laughter of a young child.  If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that it was Charlie.  Charlie, and not some stranger’s child.  Some stranger’s wife.

 

The spell broken, he opened his eyes and eased himself into a sitting position.  His head felt better.  He was still shaky and weak, but the pounding had settled into something manageable.  He glanced around the room and saw a door leading to what he hoped was a bathroom.  Barefoot, he made his way across the room like a blind man, one hand trailing along the wall to maintain his balance.

 

The bathroom was familiar, yet different.  The fixtures were utilitarian, and the only decoration was a row of plants on a small shelf.  There was no shower, only a large tub made of hammered metal.  He would have liked a quick rinse to wipe away the remnants of the drugged stupor, but he didn’t want to take the time to draw a bath.  He used the toilet, washed his face and hands in the sink, and rinsed out his mouth.  The soap smelled funny and the water left a slightly bitter aftertaste.  Frowning, he looked up at his reflection in the small mirror over the sink.

 

God, he looked like death warmed over.  But, at least he looked like himself - the same spiky, grey hair, and brown eyes.  Although . . . he could use a shave, and he seemed to have developed some serious dark circles under his eyes.

 

“Shit.”

 

He straightened, fighting off a wave of dizziness at the sudden movement, then wandered out of the bedroom and down the hallway.  He had to figure out what had happened, where he was.  He had to find his team.  And his clothes.

 

The little boy was sitting on the floor beside the dining room table playing with a skinny pup.  The animal growled and grabbed the boy’s pant leg in his teeth and began to tug.  The child burst out in infectious laughter and despite the circumstances, Jack found himself smiling.  The youngster was nearly pulled over by the tiny dog and when he fell back on an elbow, he spied Jack.

 

“Dahdee!”  Prying the dog off of his pants, the boy struggled to his feet and launched himself towards Jack, throwing stubby arms around Jack’s thighs.  “Are you better?  Mahmee said you were sick and that I should let you sleep, even though you promised to take me to the fair before midday.  Can I go with Mamo Teerny instead?  Can I, please?”

 

Jack stared down at the boy, not touching him.  It was amazing how the child resembled Charlie when he was that age.  The mouth and the eyes were nearly identical.  Only this boy’s coloring was off - he had darker skin and his hair was a dark shade of brown.

 

The woman had entered the room and was watching them.  “Neesha, leave Dahdee alone.  He’s not well.”

 

The boy looked at her.  “Yes, he is.”  Neesha glanced back up at Jack, still tightly clinging to his legs.  “Aren’t you?  So, can I go?  There will be jesters and Daithi saw a magic show with birds and everything.”

 

Jack smiled at the woman.  “Does he always talk this much?”

 

She gave him a bittersweet smile and nodded.  “Neesha, take Fayl outside before he makes another mess for me to clean.”

 

“But, Mah-”

 

“Neesha!”

 

Mumbling to himself, the child released his grip on Jack and picked up the wiggling pup, disappearing into the other room.

 

“Cute kid.”

 

She winced as if he’d struck her, and belatedly Jack realized why.  “You still do not remember,” she whispered.

 

He cleared his throat.  He did remember.  He remembered Carter and Daniel and Teal’c, but he didn’t remember this place or these people.  “Listen . . . Aylish, right?”  She nodded.  “I should go.  If you’ll just fetch my clothes. . . .”

 

“What?”  Her already fair skin paled further and she moved closer.  “Kian, you can’t go.”

 

Jack sighed.  “I don’t belong here.”  She was standing so close that he could smell something sweet on her breath and could see her trembling.  “I have to find my people.”

 

“But this is your home and we are your people.”

 

“Ma’am, please.  I understand that-”

 

Like the boy had earlier, she launched herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck.  “No!  Kian, you’re not well.”  Pulling back, she clutched his face in both hands, crying and planting light, chaste kisses on his mouth.  “Please.  Don’t leave us.”

 

Jack grabbed her wrists, pulling her hands from him.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what’s happened, but I’m not who you think I am.”

 

She was openly sobbing now, and Jack held her as her knees gave way.  Outside, he could hear the pup yipping and the boy laughing.  His own head spinning, overcome with weakness, Jack lowered her to the floor and knelt beside her.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

She clung to him.  “What will we do if you leave us?  What will I tell Neesha?  Kian, he’s just a child.”

 

She pressed her face into his chest, clinging to his shirt.  Jack held her.  He felt sorry for her, but he didn’t know what to do.  He had to get home.  He had to find the Stargate.  He had to locate his team.

 

“Kian, what if Pawdric goes with you?”

 

“What?”

 

“If you insist on searching for these . . . these people, let Pawdric help you.  Please.  Look at yourself.  You can hardly walk from one room to the other and you are confused, hurt.  You cannot go out alone.  And when you don’t . . . if you don’t find what you’re seeking, he can see you home.”

 

Lowering his forehead to rest on her soft hair, Jack sighed.  She was right about one thing:  he wasn’t well.  He was beginning to shake nearly as much as she was.  Besides, this Pawdric guy had seemed on the up and up.  So did Aylish, for that matter.  Maybe they could help him find the others.  Otherwise, he had no idea where to even begin looking.

 

Sensing his hesitation, Aylish pulled away from him, studying his face.  “Kian, please.  For me and for Neesha.”

 

Jack stared into vibrant green eyes.  Finally, he nodded.  “Okay.  Yeah.”

 

* * * * *

 

“Roscoe?”  Daniel laughed softly and started to lower his end of the stretcher.  Too late, he realized that Teal’c’s grip on the stretcher was slipping.

 

Jack reacted before anyone else had a chance to fully realize what was happening. Releasing his one-handed grip on his P90, he fell forward, reaching out with both hands to cradle and protect the computer housing that they’d so carefully disconnected and hauled for eight hours across the arid landscape.

 

From his vantage point, Daniel saw a flash of light as Jack’s hands made contact with the polished metal and he heard the man grunt softly.

 

“Colonel!”

 

As Sam rushed towards him, Jack hit the sand hard, the impact forcing the air from his lungs with an audible rush.

 

“O’Neill!”  Teal’c dropped onto his knees beside him as his commanding officer groaned and rolled onto his back.

 

Daniel forced himself to move, kneeling over his friend. “Jack?  Answer me!  Jack!”

 

“Dan-,” it was a breathless whisper which was silenced when Jack’s eyes rolled up into his head.  One hand still trapped beneath the heavy machine, Jack lay sprawled limp and lifeless across the sand.

 

“Oh, God.  Colonel!”  Sam fumbled for a pulse.  The three of them stared down at him in silence until Sam sighed.  “He’s got a pulse, but it’s too fast, and erratic.”

 

Leaning closer, Daniel patted Jack’s slack cheeks.  “Jack, can you hear me?”  Grasping his shoulders, he gently shook him.  “Jack, wake up!”

 

“Did anyone see what happened?”

 

Still clutching Jack’s broad shoulders, Daniel forced his eyes off Jack’s inanimate form and looked at Sam.  “I did.  There was some kind of flash when he touched it.”

 

“What?”  She glanced at the Colonel’s hand which was still in contact with the computer.  “Then we should-”

 

Before she could finish, Teal’c had rolled away the computer, breaking any contact between Jack and the machine.  Again Sam felt for a pulse and lifted Jack’s eyelids.

 

“Sir, can you hear me?”  Other than his rapid, shallow breathing, Jack didn’t move.  “Colonel!”  Nothing.

 

As the sun began to sink over the horizon, Daniel leaned back on his heels.  “Sam, what are we going to do?  We’re hours from the Gate.”

 

One hand still resting on Jack’s neck, she looked up at him.  “I don’t know, Daniel.”

 

* * * * *

 

Sighing, Jack sank down onto the lounge chair.  Unbuttoning his collar and kicking off his shoes, he leaned back and stared up at the evening sky.  Day thirty-eight and he was no closer to finding his way home than he had been on day one.  Despite spending every single day searching, there was no sign of his team and no evidence that a Stargate had ever even existed here.

 

Rubbing a hand over his tired eyes, he wondered what he was missing.  What had he overlooked?  He’d tried everything he could think of.  He’d even tried thinking like Carter - or as close to thinking like her as he could get, which in all likelihood wasn’t close at all.  Nothing.  Then he’d tried approaching it from Daniel’s point of view, and Teal’c’s.  Still, nothing.

 

Over a month and he was more familiar with the town of Ultan than he was with Colorado Springs.  He also knew more about the geography of BenMhir and this particular Province than did most of its native residents.  As near as he could determine, the Northwestern Province was approximately the size of the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado combined.

 

At first, with Pawdric’s help, he’d physically searched the town itself along with a large portion of the surrounding countryside.  No one had seen his team or anything even remotely resembling a Gate.  There was no sign of humans from Earth or of an artifact.  Finally, after two weeks, Pawdric’s patience and finances had waned, forcing him to withdraw from the hunt, and Jack had begun searching on his own.  He’d hit every museum and library throughout the sprawling city.  Sometimes he was gone for a single day, sometimes for four or five at a time, but he always returned to this place - to Aylish and to Neesha and to a pup named Fayl.  He had nowhere else to go.

 

Today, he’d spent the entire day at one of the local universities, speaking with some of the history professors and visiting the university library.  Nothing.  Exhausted, Jack stared up at the Dog Star.  It was the closest thing to proof that he had.  The constellations, reversed as they were, provided a constant reminder of just how far he was from his home and from that last night spent with his team.

 

“Kian?”

 

He grunted and looked over at Aylish, who had slipped outside and was padding barefoot across the paving stones.  She knelt down beside him and planted a kiss on his cheek.  Despite his lack of response, she kissed him every morning and night, and she continued to care for him as if he were the husband she’d always known.  Jack couldn’t help but feel a wave of affection and pity for her.  She was a good woman and a good mother, and he could only suppose that she had been a good wife, as well.

 

“Hey.”

 

“You are tired.  You push yourself too much.”  When he didn’t respond, she gave him a kind smile.  “You did not find what you were seeking.”

 

“No.”  She sighed at his answer, and Jack wondered if it was because she feared that he might or because she knew that he wouldn’t.  “Where’s Neesha?”

 

“He is finishing his school work.”  She hesitated before continuing.  “You used to help him.  He misses that.  He is . . . confused.”

 

Tentatively, Jack reached over and pushed back a long strand of her hair, tucking it behind her ear.  “Like us, then.”

 

Aylish leaned her head against his arm.  “Some things have not changed.”

 

“Really?  Like what?”

 

“Like this.  You have always sought comfort in the stars.”

 

“What else?”

 

“Your kindness.  To me and to Neesha.”

 

“And I like dogs.”  When Aylish giggled, he nudged her.  “What?”

 

“You have always threatened to sell Fayl to the highest bidder because he insists on relieving himself on the floor beside your bed.”

 

“Is that why I keep stepping in a wet spot?”

 

She laughed again softly.

 

“Aylish . . . I’m sorry.”

 

She raised her head, studying his face in the darkness.  “For what?”

 

“For putting you through all this.  You and Neesha and Pawdric.  None of this is your fault.”

 

“Nor is it yours.  You were injured.  Pawdric says it is not uncommon for someone with a head injury to endure these things.  I only wish-”

 

“What?”

 

She shook her head.  “It is nothing.”

 

He started to pursue her unspoken thought, then changed his mind and turned to gaze up at the sky once more.  Aylish settled back against his arm, her touch strangely comforting.  He was nearly asleep when she finally spoke.

 

“Kian, will you soon be returning to your practice?”

 

Jack stared at the Dog Star, then turned to look at Aylish’s face in the dim light of the night sky.  He’d been so focused on his own problems, on finding his way back, that he’d neglected to think about the situation in which he was putting her and the boy.  Aware of his stare, Aylish smiled and met his gaze.

 

“Pawdric says your patients ask after you.”

 

God, how could he have overlooked the obvious?  Here, in this world, he was supposedly a family man, with a wife and son to support.  He’d been sleeping under her roof and eating her food for over a month, and had contributed nothing in return.  “We need money.”

 

She shook her head gently.  “No.  We will be fine for some time.  There is the money your father left you and the money from your investments.  But . . . Pawdric cannot continue to handle all of the patients on his own.  Besides, I think . . .”

 

“What?”

 

“You have not found what you are searching for.”  When he turned away, she laid a soft hand on his arm.  “Perhaps you seek something that is not there.”

 

“But it is.  It is there.  They’re there.  Teal’c and Carter and-”

 

“Kian.”  She touched his cheek, forcing his eyes on her.  “This is your home.  Neesha and I, we are your family.”

 

“But I . . . I have a life there.”

 

“You have a life here.  Now.”  She smiled and ran a hand over his face.  “Neesha misses his father, and I miss my husband.”

 

When Jack didn’t respond, she stood up and slipped silently back inside, leaving him alone with the stars.  Finally, sighing, he stared back up at the sky.  He couldn’t even see Earth from here.  It was on the far side of the galaxy.  Beyond his reach.

 

* * * * *

 

Jack pushed open the door and peered inside.  A lamp was burning on the bedside table.  Neesha was sitting in the middle of the bed, thumbing through a book, and the pup was sleeping on the foot of the bed.

 

“Hey,” Jack crossed the threshold into the boy’s bedroom, “what’re you doing?”

 

Neesha looked up at him, his small face suddenly beaming.  “Dahdee!”  Fayl didn’t even bother to raise his head; the exhausted animal merely looked at Jack, wagged his tail, and immediately went back to sleep.

 

Jack wandered over to the boy’s dresser, studying the objects which had been haphazardly tossed on top of it.  It looked much like Charlie’s had - rocks, some sort of ball, a tangled mass of string, what looked like an old key and . . . Jack grimaced.  A dead frog-like creature.  Well, it looked dead, at any rate. He cautiously prodded it with a finger to be sure, then glanced over at the boy who was watching his every move.

 

“Does your mother know about this thing?”

 

In answer, Neesha smiled crookedly.

 

“Okay.  Well,” Jack wiped his hand on his pant leg and approached the bed, “I guess what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”

 

Neesha giggled, then patted the book spread open on the bed.  “Will you read to me?”

 

“Um, sure.  Why not?”  Jack sat down next to the boy and scooting back against the headboard, he picked up the book.  Neesha crawled across the bed, throwing one arm across Jack’s legs and using his lap for a pillow.  Jack held the book in the light of the lamp and began to read about the adventures of Ean, a hairy-looking duck according to the illustrations, and his run-in with Rua, a long-legged turtle thingy.

 

“Do the voices, Dahdee,” Neesha mumbled sleepily, then giggled when Jack made Ean talk like Donald Duck.

 

Of course, the kid had never even heard of Donald or Daisy or the three little nephews, Jack thought, as he turned the page.  When he glanced down, the boy was already asleep, a smile still curling his lips.  Curious, Jack continued to read.  The story reminded him a little of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.

 

When he was finished, Jack laid the book aside and studied Neesha’s face.  God, the kid looked so much like Charlie, it was frightening.  He brushed a strand of dark hair off of Neesha’s cheek and switched off the lamp.  Sitting there in the dark, he could almost imagine that it was years ago, that he was home, on Earth, in his old house, with his own son.

 

He must have dozed because he opened his eyes to discover that the dog had crawled up the bed and was curled on Neesha’s pillow, and that his butt had gone numb.  Very gently, he eased the boy off his lap and pushing Fayl out of the way, tucked the child in bed.  Without giving it a second thought, he kissed Neesha’s smooth forehead and made his way to the bedroom he shared with Aylish.

 

Exhausted, he didn’t bother turning on the light, but sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked off his shoes.  He unbuttoned his shirt and then, sighing, he leaned back across the bed, still fully clothed.  He could hear Aylish in the kitchen, puttering around, probably getting a head start on Neesha’s school lunch tomorrow.

 

Jack shut his eyes.  It had been a long time since he’d lived with someone.  He’d forgotten how comforting it could be just to hear life beyond the sound of your own breathing.  There was the sound of running water, the patter of four little paws, and Aylish’s soft voice.  Apparently, Fayl had awakened in time to scrounge for scraps.

 

Jack smiled.  Then, without warning, he was consumed with an overwhelming sense of loneliness.  He gasped softly as he felt anew the loss of everything familiar.  He missed his home and his job.  He missed the traffic and the smog, and the damned summertime road construction that was a constant thorn in a Colorado commuter’s life.  He missed the smell of Charlie’s baseball glove which was stashed in the top drawer of his dresser, and the way the light shone through his living room windows in the evening.

 

He lay there in the dark on a stranger’s bed and made a mental list of the things he wished he could have brought with him:  Photos, of course - of Charlie, of his folks, of his team.  His favorite mug - the first one he’d thrown on the pottery wheel, with the bent handle and the lopsided bottom that wobbled.  Boxer shorts and socks.  Toothpaste that didn’t taste and smell like Windex.  Beer.  The complete works of Charles Dickens and Stephen King.  His National Geographics - well, the ones he hadn’t been able to part with.  His Santana, Cream and Andrea Bocelli CD’s.  Old Spice . . . go figure.  Teal’c, Daniel and Carter.

 

“Kian?”

 

He started at the soft sound of her voice, and opened his eyes.  She was standing beside the bed, nearly touching his knees, with the light from the hallway forming a soft halo around her.

 

“What?”

 

She stood there without speaking.  He couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was watching him.  Then, in what seemed like slow motion, she began undressing.  He should have stopped her, but he didn’t.  Instead, when she knelt next to him on the bed, he sat up, allowing her to undress him as if he were a helpless child.  When she lowered herself over him, took him inside herself, he clung to her and accepted what she offered.  And when he found his release, he called out her name in the darkness - in apology, in gratitude and in desperation.

 

* * * * *

 

When he stepped up beside the dining table, Aylish and Neesha stopped eating and stared at him.  He was dressed in what he had come to realize passed for a business suit here in Ultan - white linen slacks and coat, and a pale yellow shirt.  It was an odd feeling to rifle through a stranger’s closet and find that everything there was a perfect fit, especially when the clothes looked like a bad version of Miami Vice.

 

Jack blushed and looked down at himself.  “Uh . . . is this okay?”

 

Aylish smiled and rose to kiss him on the cheek.  “You look wonderful.”  She ran a hand through his hopelessly messy hair.  “Would my handsome husband like some breakfast?”

 

“Just something to drink.”  He put a hand on his stomach and sat down at the table.  “I’m a little nervous.”

 

Neesha shoved what looked like a biscuit into his mouth and spoke around it.  “You’re going to work, Dahdee?”

 

“Yes, and don’t talk with your mouth full.”

 

The boy swallowed before continuing.  “Why are you going to work?”

 

“Dahdee’s patients need him there,” Aylish answered for him, setting a glass of something red in front of him.  “Neesha, quit feeding Fayl and finish your breakfast.”

 

Jack sniffed the drink and took a cautious sip.  It tasted like grapes . . . very sweet grapes.  He took another drink and stared at Aylish as she spread something that resembled butter on something that resembled bread and started to take a bite.  When she caught him watching her, she smiled and offered him the food.

 

“Here.  You should eat something.  It will help settle your stomach.”

 

He shook his head.  “I should get going.”

 

“You’re early.”

 

“Yeah, but I need some time before my . . .,” he struggled with the word, “patients get there.”  Jack didn’t want to worry her with the details, but he was going to have to find his way around his office and then figure out what he was supposed to be doing there before the first of his . . . patients arrived.  God, what the hell was he doing?  Despite what he’d been told, he was no doctor.  He’d probably end up killing someone before lunchtime.  Then again, maybe he’d luck out and discover that he was a dermatologist or a podiatrist.  He could probably manage to treat a few zits or examine a few toenails without doing too much damage.  Oh, God!  What if he was a gynecologist?  He thought about asking Aylish, but was too afraid of the answer.  Instead, his stomach roiling dangerously, he finished off the juice and stood up.  “I’d better go.”

 

As Neesha yelled out a good-bye, Aylish followed him to the door.  “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

 

“Huh?”  When he turned, she was holding out a small valise.  “Oh.  Oh, yeah.”  His doctor thingies.  Might come in handy if he wanted to pop a pimple or clip a pesky nail or slit his wrist.  As he took it from her, Aylish reached up and hugged him around the neck.

 

“It’s your first day back, Kian.  Promise me you won’t overdo it.”

 

Jack could feel every nuance of her slim body pressed against every nuance of his own.  Tentatively, he rested a hand against her low back.  He’d made love to this woman last night, but she was still a stranger.  He leaned down for his usual kiss on the cheek and was momentarily surprised when her lips met his.  Despite his nervousness, he found himself responding to her warm mouth and velvety tongue.  She pulled away abruptly, leaving him gasping.

 

“I’ll see you tonight.”  She smiled seductively.

 

“Um . . . yeah.”  He cleared his throat and she giggled at his obvious discomfort.  “Tonight.  Um . . .,” he fumbled the door open, then looked back at her, “later then.”

 

* * * * *

 

Jack had known Feeona Gobbnatt for less than an hour, but already he liked her.  She reminded him of his Grandmother Pearl.  Feeona came in a small package.  At just over five feet tall and a hundred pounds, Jack knew she would have given the Goa’uld a run for their money.  Arm her with a staff weapon and she’d soon have them eradicated.  She could be on his team any day of the week.  At the thought of his team, he cleared his throat and nervously fingered the marker through the thin fabric of his shirt.

 

“Doctor Shay?”

 

Dropping the marker, he looked over at her.  “Mrs. Gobbnatt, how many times have I lectured you on your calcium intake?”

 

Not realizing the true nature of his question, she snorted softly.  “So, you’re off on that again, are you?”

 

Jack smiled.  It had been like this all day.  A patient came in, Jack looked at the file, listened to the complaints, and somehow just . . . knew.  He couldn’t explain it and as much as it was a relief to know that he’d probably make it through the day without killing anyone, it was seriously scaring the shit out of him.  Every correct diagnosis, every treatment that came immediately to mind, merely confirmed what Aylish and Pawdric had been telling him for over a month: this was where he belonged.

 

“I’ve pulled a muscle in my back, that’s all.  I told Fhelim that, but he insisted I check with you.”

 

“Well, you’re both right.”

 

“So,” she gave him a smug grin, “it is a strain.”

 

“Yes, but,” Jack glanced up at her as he continued to scribble on a small notepad, “Fhelim was right to insist you come in.  You’ve heard of osteoporosis?”  When she didn’t answer, he stopped writing and concentrated on her.  “I know you have because I’ve explained it to you myself numerous times, haven’t I?”  She wouldn’t meet his eyes, which in itself was an answer.  “Right.  Okay.  So, here’s the deal.”  He tore off the small sheet of paper and handed it to her.  She read it, her face screwing up as she prepared to argue.  “Calcium supplements and vitamins.  We discussed this during each of your last three visits.”

 

“I don’t think-,” she began.

 

“You’ve already been diagnosed with osteopenia.  If you don’t want to take calcium supplements and vitamins now, then next year when you break your first bone, I’ll have no choice but to-”

 

“Okay, okay!  I’ll take the damned things!”  She glared at him from behind her glasses, then eased off the end of the exam bed.  When he stepped forward to offer her his hand, she latched onto it.  “Doctor, since when did you get to be so bossy?”

 

Not knowing if she was serious, Jack wasn’t sure how to answer.  Finally, she squeezed his hand and smiled.

 

“And since when did you take to calling me 'Mrs. Gobbnatt'?  It’s been Feeona for over ten years.”  She eyed him closely, studying his face.  “Fhelim and I were worried about you.  Dr. Fearghail said you were quite ill.”

 

Embarrassed by this stranger’s concern, Jack smiled.  “Pawdric exaggerates.”

 

“Does he?”  She let go of his hand and gently patted his cheek.  “You are too young to be so old, and too handsome for your own good.”  She tucked the slip of paper into a pocket on her dress and grinned.  “Your wife is a lucky woman.”

 

Jack ducked his head at a brief, vivid memory of last night’s activities and Feeona giggled as if reading his mind.

 

“So,” suddenly serious, she sighed, “calcium supplements and vitamins.  But, it is just a sprain?”

 

This time.”

 

She nodded.  “Well, you’re the doctor.”

 

“Yes.  I suppose I am.”

 

Six hours later, he stared up at the stars, still thinking about her words.  ‘You’re the doctor.’  So, was he?  Pawdric and Aylish and everything that had happened to him today said that he was.  So why did he still feel like Jack O’Neill?  The Colonel.  He held the marker in his fingers, tracing the outline.  Round instead of rectangular.  As different and as wrong as everything else here.

 

He wondered what Teal’c was doing.  Right now.  At this very moment.  And Carter.  Was she in her lab, trying to find a way to bring him home?  Again.  And what about Daniel?  They’d just gotten Daniel back.  He was finally more or less himself - the old friend Jack had once known - and now Jack had lost him again.  Of course, that was assuming that his team had made it home.  He had to believe that they had.  The alternative was too much to bear.

 

Quietly, he spoke each of their names out loud.

 

“Kian?”

 

He flinched, unaware that Aylish was standing close to his chair.  How long had she been there?

 

She knelt down beside him, sitting on the cool stones of the patio and holding out a steaming cup of something that barely passed for coffee.  He took the cup from her, resting it on his chest.

 

“What were you saying, Kian?  You were whispering something.”

 

As she gently brushed his forehead with her warm fingertips, he stared back up at the stars.  “Nothing.  Just names . . . of constellations.”

 

She made a soft noise and leaned her forehead against his temple.  “You spend so much time out here.  You should have been a scientist.  Perhaps if you had been, we would be traveling in space by now.”

 

Jack couldn’t help but smile, wondering how many scientists were rolling over in their laboratories back on Earth at the very thought of Jack O’Neill being one of them.  “Oh, I don’t think I’m exactly scientist material.”

 

“Mmm.  You’re probably right.  You were meant to be a doctor.”  Suddenly, she eased onto the edge of the lounge chair.  “I’m cold.”

 

Jack scooted over, making room for her.  She stretched out beside him, curling up against his side with one arm resting on his chest.  He hesitated only slightly before wrapping his arm around her.

 

“Feeona Gobbnatt rang earlier.”

 

He tensed.  “Is she all right?”

 

Aylish patted his chest with her hand.  “Yes.  She’s fine.  She just wanted me to know that she’s glad you’re back.  She missed you.”  She snuggled closer.  “I think she has a little crush on you.”

 

“Feeona Gobbnatt is twice my age and half my size.  Well . . . nearly.”

 

Aylish giggled as Jack leaned up to sip the warm drink.  Sighing, he settled back.

 

“Do you see that star?”  Carefully, he balanced the cup on his chest and pointed.  Aylish turned to follow his finger.  “That one.  There.”

 

“The really bright one?  Yes.  What is it?”

 

“Sirius.  The Dog Star.  You can even see it . . .,” he stopped.  He’d been going to say that you could even see it from Earth.  “You can see it so well because it’s the brightest star in the sky.”

 

“It looks cold, and lonely.”  She stared up at it for a few moments, then settled back against him.  “I heard you reading to Neesha again.  He loves that, you know.”

 

“Yeah, well, the kid needs to expand his horizons.  I can see that the adventures of Ean and Rua are going to grow old very quickly.”

 

“It’s his favorite.”

 

“We’ll find him a new favorite.”  Jack shut his eyes, beginning to feel the effects of his first day as a doctor.

 

“Kian,” Aylish’s voice was soft, tentative, “are you happy?”

 

Keeping his eyes closed, Jack forced his breathing to remain slow and steady.  Finally, she gently eased herself out of his embrace and stood up.  He felt her breath on his face a second before warm lips brushed his cheek.

 

“Don’t stay out here all night.  You’ll catch your death.”  She lifted the cup from his chest and left him alone under the alien stars.

 

* * * * *

 

“Sam, what are we going to do?  We’re hours from the Gate.”

 

One hand on Jack’s neck, she looked up at Daniel.  “I don’t know.”  Sam was obviously frightened, her blue eyes huge in the dying daylight.  She leaned over Jack again, her ear pressed close to his mouth.  “He’s breathing, but it sounds funny.”

 

“In what way?”  Even Teal’c seemed shook-up as he knelt beside their unconscious commander.

 

“It’s too fast, too shallow.”

 

“Was he electrocuted?”  It was the only thing Daniel could think of.  “Maybe he was electrocuted.  Maybe there’s some voltage coming off that thing.”  He nodded towards the computer, laying a few feet away in the sand.

 

“Maybe.  We should check for burns.”  Together they unbuttoned Jack’s shirt and managed to get his t-shirt pulled up.  “Daniel, get a flashlight.”

 

He pulled the flashlight from his pack and shone the light on Jack’s abdomen and chest.  “I don’t see anything.  Do you?”

 

Sam shoved Jack’s dogtags and the pendant out of the way, examining him closely.  “No.  Teal’c, help me roll him.  Let’s check his back.”

 

There was nothing - no marks, no red spots, no bruising.  Sam even checked the palms of his hands, but like the rest of him, there were no apparent injuries.  Pulling his shirt back down, they left him laying on his side in the recovery position.  Throughout their examination, Jack remained completely unresponsive.

 

“Okay,” Sam frowned and Daniel could almost hear the gears turning in her mind, “we need to get him back to Janet as quickly as possible.”

 

Daniel’s stomach tightened at Sam’s slip, but he couldn’t bring himself to correct her.  Not now.  They had more pressing concerns than the loss of Janet Fraiser.  “Is it safe to travel at night?”

 

Sam looked at him, but Teal’c spoke.  “There is nothing between us and the Stargate but sand dunes, Daniel Jackson.”

 

“It’ll be slower, but it won’t be a problem.”  So saying, Sam pulled her compass from a pocket of her BDU’s.  “I’ll lead us there; you guys carry him.”

 

Teal’c’s only response was to lean over and scoop up Jack in a fireman’s carry.

 

“Sam, what about the computer?”

 

“Leave it.  We’ll send a team to retrieve it.”

 

* * * * *

 

Relieved that the evening was finally drawing to a close, Jack joined the others in clapping, then rose stiffly from his seat and helped Aylish to her feet.

 

She stood on her tiptoes, whispering in his ear.  “I have to use the bathroom.  Would you find Neesha?”

 

“Sure.  I’ll meet you in the lobby.”  He watched as she made her way up the aisle through the throng of theatre-goers, then he began searching for Neesha.  Inching his way through the crowd, he looked for the familiar dark head of hair, smiling and nodding at the people who greeted him by name.

 

“Doctor Shay.”  An elderly gentlemen that Jack couldn’t name grasped his arm in greeting.  “A wonderful play, yes?”

 

“Yes.  It was.”  Wonderful . . . and boring as hell.

 

Someone tugged on his jacket.  “Dad.”  Jack pulled his arm from the man’s grasp as Neesha slipped around to stand in front of him.  “Can I go home with Irla?  His Mawhir says I can.  She says I can spend the night.  Can I?”

 

“I don’t care about Irla’s mother.  Did you ask yours?”  Jack grinned when Neesha frowned and squirmed.

 

“She’ll say no.”

 

Jack pulled the boy closer, out of the steady stream of people leaving the theatre.  “Not without reason.”

 

“But, Dad, the competition isn’t until late.”

 

“Neesha-”

 

“I promise I’ll come home early.  I’ll practice for hours and hours.  Really.  I promise.  Please.”  As the youngster began to bounce with excitement, Jack couldn’t help but smile.  How many times had he had similar conversations with Charlie?

 

He leaned down to whisper in Neesha’s ear, “Okay, but be home by midday.  And let me handle your mother.”

 

Neesha threw his arms around Jack’s waist in a brief but fierce hug.  “Thank you, thank you.”

 

Laughing, Jack planted a dry kiss on top of the boy’s head.  “Enough already.  Go before I change my mind.”

 

When he straightened, the elderly man was still standing there, watching him and smiling.  “I take it that was your boy, Doctor Shay.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“A fine looking lad.”

 

“Thanks.”  Suddenly, the man’s name came to him and Jack clasped the gentleman’s arm in farewell.  “Please give Mrs. Morran my best.”

 

“I will.  I will.”

 

As the crowd began to thin, Jack made his way to the lobby.  Aylish was standing by the door, waiting for him.

 

“Hey.  You ready?”

 

She looked around.  “Where’s Neesha?  Didn’t you find him?”

 

“Yeah, I found him.  I thought maybe he could spend the night with Irla.”

 

“What?  But Kian-”

 

“Listen,” he put a hand on her elbow, guiding her towards the door, “this may be our last chance to go out for a while.  I thought we could have dinner.  Alone.”

 

“But-”

 

“I know he has the competition tomorrow, but it isn’t until late and I promise he’ll be home in plenty of time to practice.”

 

Still being guided outside, Aylish stared at him, then giggled.  “You are as bad as your son.  Worse.  You do know that?”

 

Jack smiled and shrugged.

 

“Kian Shosaf Shay, if your son is not prepared tomorrow, it is on your head.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“I mean it.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Stop it,” she swatted gently at his arm.  “Now, take me to dinner.”

 

Jack smiled.  “Yes, ma’am.”  He wrapped her hand around his arm and held it there, his long fingers curled around her shorter ones as they walked down the street.

 

Almost everyone walked almost everywhere in Ultan.  In fact, the same was true throughout all of the cities in BenMhir.  The only other means of transport, both within and outside of the city, was a system of rail cars.  But Jack didn’t mind.  He liked walking.  Always had . . . even before the Stargate program.  In fact, despite the fact that he walked almost everywhere, he missed those long, seemingly endless hikes with his team - the ones where he’d tirelessly complained about pine trees and his knees and the pesky Jaffa.  It had been over thirteen months since he had awakened here, and still, his longing for home was a raw wound that refused to heal.  The pain seemed to have settled into a permanent, dull throb in his chest just beneath where his marker rested . . . the place where his dogtags used to hang.

 

“Aylish, I need to go away for a few days.”

 

The dainty hand resting on his arm tensed slightly.  “How long?”

 

He nodded at a passing stranger.  “Four days, maybe five.”

 

She didn’t protest, as Jack had known she wouldn’t.  Thirteen months and Aylish had yet to argue with him about anything.  Sure, they joked around a little, but in the end she never disputed anything he said.  Not anything that mattered.  The closest she had come was that first day, when he’d said he was leaving.  Even then, it hadn’t been a protest so much as pathetic begging.  Of all the things about this place, what he most hated was the fact that women were not only treated as second class citizens, but that they seemed to thrive as such.  Not that they were abused, not technically anyway.  But wasn’t apathy a form of neglect?  And wasn’t neglect a form of abuse?

 

As fond as he had grown of Aylish, he sometimes craved a good row - an old-fashioned yelling match, followed by an old-fashioned make-out session, complete with the adrenalin rush of anger mixed with passion, and the accompanying breathlessness and excitement that led to the loss of a few good buttons and maybe even a zipper.  Yeah, the kind of row that he and Sara had engaged in from time to time.  But, Aylish refused.  And God knows she’d had ample opportunity, especially in the beginning when Jack had done everything imaginable to force her hand.  But she wouldn’t fold.  She had too many generations of ingrained subservience on her side; it hadn’t even been a close contest.  Jack sighed.  He never had liked The Stepford Wives and certainly had never imagined that he’d have one of his own.

 

Carter would hate this place.

 

“So what is it this time?  Another astronomy seminar or more of your medical research?”  Jack glanced at her, feeling a brief surge of pride and surprise at the tone in her voice, then she ruined it by ducking her head and blushing as if she’d gone too far.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t apologize.”  He squeezed her hand to make up for the harshness with which he said it.  If anyone should apologize, it should be him . . . for lying to her.  “There’s a research facility up at Liatrom.  I’ve corresponded with a scientist there who’s expressed an interest in developing the sound spectrogram I told you about.”

 

Well, it wasn’t a total lie.  For over a year, Jack had been simultaneously baffled and horrified at the amount of resources being thrown into computer research when research into helping those for whom the computers were intended was almost nonexistent.  Advancements in the medical field bordered on the archaic compared to other areas of the society here.  Jack was determined to change things.  It also provided him a good excuse to make periodic jaunts away from Ultan.

 

Two days previous, he’d read on the news service about an archaeological dig taking place just a few hours outside of Liatrom.  Rumor had it that a large artifact was in the process of being uncovered.  Jack had to get there.  He glanced at Aylish.  And if it was a Stargate?  What then?

 

“Kian,” she looked and sounded frightened, “we’ll be fine.”

 

“Hey,” he stopped, stepping in front of her and resting his hands on her shoulders, “if you don’t want me to go, I won’t.”

 

“No, Mawhir will help me if I need anything.”  She forced a smile.  “You should go.”

 

He pulled her close, her burgeoning stomach forming a bridge between them.  “I’ll be back before the baby comes.”

 

Her smile turned genuine.  “Promise?”

 

“I swear.  Scout’s honor.”

 

Aylish frowned at the strange reference, then stretched up to kiss him lightly.  “Then go.  We’ll wait here for you.”

 

He wrapped long arms around her.  As Jack planted a chaste kiss on her forehead, the baby kicked.  He smiled against its mother’s soft skin and shut his eyes, savoring the bittersweet feel of the life he was making here . . . the life he wasn’t sure he wanted and wasn’t sure he could leave behind.

 

“It will be a girl,” Aylish whispered.

 

“How can you be so sure?”

 

She shrugged in response.

 

“You know, if I can get backing for the sound spectrogram . . .”

 

“Yes, I know.  Someday, we will be able to predict the sex of a child before it is born.”

 

“Not predict, Aylish.  It’s not some crazy form of magic.  We’ll know.  We’ll be able to see right into the mother’s womb.”

 

“And this will matter how, Kian?  Will you love it any more or less in the knowing?”

 

“Of course not.  But we’ll be able to detect birth defects.  We’ll be able to fix certain things before a baby is even born.”

 

Aylish leaned back and stared up at him, studying his face.  Finally, she smiled and shook her head slightly.

 

“What?”

 

“It is nothing,” she replied, still smiling.

 

“If it’s nothing, then tell me.”

 

She hesitated.  “It’s just . . . you are a dear, sweet, funny man and I love you very much.”

 

Jack smiled.  “Granted.  But what were you really thinking?”

 

“That perhaps Pawdric is right.”  When he only stared down at her, she shrugged.  “You should at least consider it.”

 

Once again, Jack took her arm to resume their walk down the street.  “May I assume we’re talking about the Council?”

 

They stepped across the small set of rails that filled the narrow street.

 

“He says you would be perfect for it.”

 

“And I say Pawdric should have gone into proctology.”  As they came to the small restaurant, Jack held open the door for her and smiled grimly.  “He could call himself Doctor Butt-in-ski.”

 

“Kian!”

 

“Sorry.”  Jack nodded at the young waitress who approached them.  “Two for dinner, please.”

 

* * * * *

 

Jack closed his eyes, smiling, and let his mind drift.  For a few, brief minutes he could almost imagine that he was back home . . . sitting on his deck, CD player cranking out the soothing sounds of a guitar concerto.  Maybe Vivaldi.  Possibly some Tarrega.  He listened to the soothing strains of the music, grasping at the familiar, trying not to notice the slight difference in the tones of the strange instrument.

 

Without question, this had been one of the most delightful discoveries he’d made during his time here . . . the absolute love of music.  Unbelievably, sporting events took a second seat to concerts.  Even more unbelievable, at least it would have been to those who had thought they’d known him, was the fact that Jack was content with the arrangement.  Then again, the ones who’d really known him probably wouldn’t have been so surprised after all.

 

Jack sighed, wishing Teal’c could hear this.  And to think it was his kid up there.  Jack opened his eyes, watching in something akin to awe as Neesha, not yet seven years old, held the large audience completely captive.  His kid . . . a musical genius - as far as Jack was concerned anyway - competing against men Jack’s own age.  His kid . . . his kid. . . .

 

Jack frowned and closed his eyes, trying to recapture the moment - the moment when he could believe that this was all a dream and that other life was the real one.  Not the other way around.  It couldn’t all have been in his mind.  Carter, Daniel, Teal’c, his mother and father, grandparents, cousins.  Growing up in the Midwest.  The cabin by the lake . . . the lake with no pesky fish.  Sara.  Charlie.  He didn’t dream it; those people were not a figment of his imagination.  He refused to believe it was possible.  Somewhere out there was a Stargate.  Somewhere out there was a way home.

 

Liatrom beckoned.

 

As if she sensed his unease, he felt Aylish’s hand on his arm, squeezing gently.  Eyes still shut, he forced a smile and reached blindly, resting his hand on her swollen stomach.  Through the thin layers of linen and flesh, Jack felt his unborn child move, brushing subtly against his palm while wreaking havoc on her mother’s bladder.

 

Neesha’s melody stroked his skin; his daughter strained against his touch; Aylish rested a delicate hand on his forearm; and Liatrom beckoned.  Jack opened his mouth, breathing shallowly as he struggled against the forces which threatened to pull him apart.

 

“Kian?”

 

Quietly gasping, Jack forced open his eyes and looked at the woman who was supposed to be his wife, the woman who would soon give birth to his child.  His chest ached.

 

Frowning, Aylish leaned close, whispering in his ear and squeezing his arm.  “Are you all right?”

 

He studied her face in the dim light of the auditorium and wondered when she would become familiar to him.  When would he look at her and not expect to see someone else beside him?  When would he hear Pawdric’s soft laughter and not be reminded of Daniel?  Would he ever close his eyes, brush a hand through his son’s hair, and not see a grinning, freckle-faced boy with light brown hair?

 

“Kian?”

 

His chest tight with the unspeakable, Jack forced a smile and nodded.  “Yeah.  Fine.”

 

* * * * *

 

After the competition, they gathered at home, in the living room:  Aylish and Neesha; Pawdric, his wife, Eevan, and their son, Torrin; and Aylish’s mother, Ledawn.  Neesha had taken second place behind a young woman who was three times his age.  Personally, Jack felt the boy should have won.  Sitting on the sofa with his bare feet propped on the table in front of him, only vaguely aware of the others laughing and talking just a few feet away, Jack watched Neesha playing.  In the fashion of all six-year olds, his son appeared to have forgotten the evening’s excitement in lieu of wrestling his good friend and teasing his dog.

 

“You’ve gone quiet tonight.”

 

Jack glanced up at his mother-in-law’s voice, then accepted the steaming mug of coffee she held out to him and made room for her beside him on the sofa.  “Have I?”

 

Settling down next to him, Ledawn nodded and studied her grandson with a smile.  “He is a wonderful boy.  I’m very proud of him.”

 

Jack smiled and sipped his drink, feeling her eyes shift to focus on him.

 

“Aylish says you are going away again.”  When he didn’t answer, she brushed an invisible piece of lint from the knee of his trousers.  “And if she has the child while you are away?”

 

His eyes were riveted on the boys.  “She won’t.”  Ledawn grunted softly and Jack looked at her, searching her face.

 

She met his gaze, frowning slightly.  “What?”  Her voice was soft, full of concern.  “What is it?”

 

Jack was suddenly, briefly, inundated with a feeling of deja vu.  “I . . .,” but he shook his head and looked away, remembering a long-forgotten conversation with his mother . . . the real one, from that other life.  Once, years ago, she had asked him that very same question when he was twenty and home on leave.  Then, like now, he had sat in his home and suffered an overpowering sense of homesickness - something so strong and so powerful that it hit with all the force of a bad case of the flu.

 

Without realizing that he’d actually made the decision, Jack suddenly knew that the trip to Liatrom would be his last.  Sadly, he shook his head again.  “It’s nothing.”

 

Ledawn patted his hand.  “Well, if you must go, then you must.  Don’t worry yourself.  I’ll watch over her.”

 

He covered her hand with his own, holding it tightly, desperately missing his mother.  “Thank you.”

 

* * * * *

 

Spooned up against Aylish’s back, Jack watched the pale light slowly advancing down the hallway.  His arm draped around her thick waist, he could feel the hard nub of her belly button beneath the sheet.  He still awoke at 0500 hours . . . old habits and all that.  Besides, his trip to Liatrom, while still three days away, had him restless to leave.

 

Gently, he eased his arm off of his wife and sat up on the edge of the bed.  Pulling on a pair of loose fitting trousers, he padded barefoot to the bathroom and then down the hall to the kitchen.  Fayl soon joined him, begging for a breakfast that had yet to be made.

 

“You’re pathetic.  Come on, you’re going out.”  Jack held open the door.  Fayl stared at him.  “Out!”  Shaking his head at the glare the animal threw him on his way outside, Jack began brewing coffee on the small stove.  While he was growing accustomed to the local version of java, he’d still give a month’s salary for a can of Maxwell House.

 

At a soft ‘woof’ outside the door, Jack let Fayl back inside and pulled a small bowl of leftover stew from the fridge.  Sniffing it, he set it on the floor.  “You tell her I did that and we’re both sleeping outside.  Got it?”  He could almost swear the dog smiled.

 

Grabbing a steaming mug of the dark brew, Jack went to the small room he’d claimed for an office and flipped on the computer.  As he’d done every morning for the last year, he read through the day’s news service, looking for anything that might hint of a Stargate or aliens or Earth.  He paid particular attention to the news out of the Departments of Science and Research.  He also looked for anything hinting of hidden agendas by the Administration or the military.  Finding nothing new, he sipped his coffee and moved on to his notes from yesterday’s office visits.

 

Still licking his chops, Fayl trotted into the room and leaned up against Jack’s leg.  Jack reached down and scratched the animal’s neck as he read through his patients’ files.  Blinking back a growing headache, Jack added a few comments while things were fresh in his mind.  Next, he moved on to the household budget.  He paid the bills, then sent a quick message to the researcher at Liatrom, reminding him of their upcoming meeting to discuss Jack’s theory for a sound spectrogram - a sonogram.  Fraiser would have been proud of him, maybe even a little surprised that he understood the theory behind the instrument.

 

Wincing at the thought of Fraiser, and wondering how Cassie had adjusted to the loss of her mother, Jack rubbed his neck and opened his journal.  He read through the last entry and finished off his coffee before typing.

 

‘Teal’c, I was telling you about Neesha.  I wish you could meet him.  He reminds me a little of Ry’ac.  Well, he’s nothing like him, really, still . . . there’s something there that makes me think of you and your boy.  Maybe it’s just because I used to love watching the two of you together.  It always made me miss Charlie, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop . . . watching you, that is.  You’re a great dad.  I don’t think I ever told you that.  I wish I had.

 

‘Anyway, Neesha’s a good kid.  Of course, I can’t take any credit for that.  I’d have to give that to Aylish.  She’s a good mom.  I know she’s going to be great to our kid, too.  Can you believe I’m going to be a dad again?  I can’t.  I mean, I know it’s mine and everything, but it still doesn’t seem real.  I’ve watched Aylish’s pregnancy, I’ve seen and felt this baby move, and I still can’t believe this is happening.

 

‘I’m going to be a dad again.

 

‘I’m going to be a dad.  Again.

 

‘Maybe if I say it often enough, it’ll seem real.  Nah . . . doubt it.  If it’s like the first time, it won’t even seem real when the kid’s here . . . which is only a few weeks away now.  Aylish says it’s a girl.  I have no idea how she knows that, but for some reason, I think she’s right.  That’s fine with me.  I think maybe a boy would just be too . . . weird.

 

‘Speaking of weird, have I mentioned that I’m a doctor here?  I know I have, but I just can’t get over it.  Me: A damn pill pusher.  A needle poker.  Me!  Janet Fraiser is probably looking down, laughing her ass off.

 

‘Do you think she can see me?  I mean, do you think one heaven looks down over all galaxies or is there a separate heaven for each one?  I’m not sure, but I’ve given it a lot of thought and it seems to me that there’d only be one.  It just makes sense:  One God . . . one heaven.  But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

 

‘Speaking of wishful . . . I keep thinking that you guys are going to show up to fetch me.  Any day now would be nice.  Sometimes I daydream about it.  I imagine that I’ll be in my office and you guys will just knock on the door or there’ll be this flash of light and my old buddy Thor will zap me out of here.  My luck, I’ll be in the middle of performing some rectal exam or something.

 

‘I’m going to bring Aylish and Neesha with me.  I can’t leave them here.  I’ll bring Ledawn, too, if she wants to come.  She’s pretty decent as mother-in-laws go.  Besides, it’d break Aylish’s heart to leave her behind.  Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for at Liatrom.  Maybe the Stargate will be there.  I don’t know how it got covered or how I got here, but hopefully my trip there will solve everything.  I pray it does.

 

‘If not, I hope you guys come soon.  But mostly, I just hope you’re all okay.

 

‘P.S. - I’ve decided to name the baby Marayd.  It means ‘pearl.’  Pearl was my grandmother’s name.

 

Sighing, Jack turned off the computer and stood up.

 

“Woah.”  He grabbed at the desk as his vision spun wildly.  Fayl stepped back, looking up at him.  Breathing deeply, wondering if he’d picked up the flu from one of his patients, Jack waited until he was steady on his feet, then picked up his empty cup and headed for the kitchen.

 

Halfway across the living room, a stabbing pain shot through his chest.  Groaning, he dropped to his knees.  The cup slipped from his hand, shattering and sending small shards of pottery skittering across the hard tiles.

 

“Oh God.”  The pain was intense.  The doctor in him suspected he was having a heart attack; the man in him tried to deny it.  He lowered one hand to the floor and placed the other on his chest, over his heart . . . trying to push back the pain.

 

“Kian, is that you?”  Aylish’s voice drifted out of the kitchen.  “What’s-”

 

Jack squinted up at the vague, rounded form of his wife.  “Ayl-,” but a groan cut off his words.

 

Awkwardly, she ran to him and dropped to the floor beside him.  “Kian, what’s wrong?  What is it?”

 

He moaned loudly, doubling over as unrelenting pain encased his chest.  “Get . . . Pawdric.”

 

Aylish gasped, and her trembling hands darted over him like skittish birds too frightened to settle.

 

“Hurry,” he told her.

 

Jack sank to the floor, unaware of the sharp bits of pottery piercing his skin.  Panting, his limbs beginning to spasm, he was vaguely aware of Aylish’s bare feet running for the front door.  From a distance, he saw her struggle to open it, and then she was rushing out into the new day, one hand pressed against her swollen womb . . . resting on his daughter . . . his Pearl.

 

His vision darkened and his body painfully convulsed.  In his brief, final moment of consciousness, he heard his own pitiful moans and wondered if he died would he see Janet and Charlie.

 

* * * * *

 

They had gone less than a few hundred feet when Teal’c stopped.  “Major Carter!”

 

Sam swung around, the flashlight beam dancing across the sand to land on Teal’c, who was already lowering a convulsing Jack to the ground.  “Crap.”  She ran back to help him and Daniel, aiming her flashlight to help them see.

 

Feeling as if he were back in Ba’al’s prison, Daniel watched helplessly, and grimaced at the spasming limbs and the face contorted in apparent agony.  Jack was grunting softly with each convulsion.  To Daniel’s dismay, he watched as frothy drool leaked from the corners of Jack’s mouth.

 

“God, Sam.”

 

“Turn him!”

 

Together, they managed to roll Jack onto his side and keep him there.  The minutes dragged on, and there was no end in sight.  Jack’s rigid body continued to jerk and twitch.  He groaned, and wet, gurgling noises emanated from his throat.

 

“Is he choking?”

 

The beam of the flashlight wavering in her shaking hands, Sam leaned in and looked closely at Jack.  “No.  He’s breathing.  Just . . . we need to keep him on his side.”

 

As one, his three teammates held Jack in place - Sam at his head, Teal’c at his legs, and Daniel resting a hand on Jack’s heaving side.   They were all, including Jack, panting and sweating.  In the eerie glow of the flashlight, Daniel could see the dial of his watch.  Six minutes passed and the convulsions showed no signs of relenting.

 

“Sam, how long can he keep this up?”

 

Meeting Daniel’s eyes, Sam shook her head.

 

“Listen.”

 

Daniel looked at Teal’c who had a firm grip on Jack’s legs.  He had cocked his head, obviously hearing something that Daniel didn’t.

 

“What?  What is it, Teal’c?”

 

“Do you not hear that?”

 

All Daniel could hear was Jack’s labored breathing and the wet grunts as his body desperately struggled against itself.  “No.”

 

Without warning, the Jaffa jumped to his feet and disappeared into the darkness, back towards the mausoleum.

 

“Teal’c!”

 

The only answer was a heart-wrenching groan from Jack.  Mere seconds later, Jack’s convulsions stopped as immediately as they had begun.  Moments after that, Teal’c dropped down beside them, straining under the weight of the small computer in his arms.

 

Easing her grip on Jack’s head, Sam looked up at the Jaffa.  “Teal’c?”

 

“The machine was emitting a humming noise, and numerous lights on it were flashing.”

 

“But, what . . .,” Daniel glanced at Sam, “what’s that mean?”

 

Looking puzzled, Sam touched her fingers to the Colonel’s neck, feeling for his pulse.  As her fingers brushed the chain for his dogtags, she frowned.

 

“Sam?”

 

She fumbled at the neck of Jack’s shirt and pulled out the pendant.  “Oh, God.”

 

* * * * *

 

‘Carter, I woke up this morning and realized two things: First, I’ve forgotten what you look like.  I mean, I remember blonde hair, blue eyes and this huge smile, but I can’t seem to get the fragments properly arranged.  It’s like you’re a jigsaw puzzle that I’m trying to piece together, but there’s no picture for me to go by.  I’m working in the dark.

 

‘Guess that’s apropos, huh?  You always were a bit of a mystery to me.  I mean, there you were, this skinny little kid - hey, don’t get pissy.  I can’t help it.  That’s how you looked to me when you walked in the door of the briefing room that first day.  Anyway, you were this cute young thing and yet you were spouting off the kind of stuff that should only come out of the mouth of someone wearing a pocket protector and well-worn Fruit-of-the-Looms.  Yeah, I know that sounds totally sexist.  Deal with it.

 

‘Speaking of which . . . you would so not fit in here.  You’d be way too restricted.  Then again, maybe if you were here, things would change.

 

‘I’ve managed to make a few changes myself.  Good ones, I think.  I finally got the sonogram up and running.  It hasn’t totally caught on yet, but it will.  There’s a young scientist at the University who is interested in working with me on more of my ideas.  So, things are looking up.

 

‘Get this . . . I ran for the Council and won a seat in our District.  Me, a politician.  If Kinsey’s in his grave, which I kind of hope he is, then he’s probably rolling over in it as we speak.  Serves him right, the ass.

 

‘Oh, the other thing I realized: I think I left the ceiling fan on in my bedroom.  I distinctly remember waking up at about 0200 hours the night before our last mission.  I was burning up.  Sweating.  Probably from a friggin’ nightmare again.  Anyway, I remember switching the fan on but I have absolutely no memory of turning it off.  You should probably check it for me.

 

‘Oh, well, guess it’s a little too late to worry about it now.’

 

“Dahdee, tell Neesha that I can too read.”

 

Jack grinned and switching off the computer, turned around and scooped up his daughter, setting her on his lap.   “What’s this?”

 

Marayd giggled and squirmed.  “Neesha says that I can’t read, but I can.”

 

“Of course, you can.”  Jack leaned back in his chair, his arms wrapped around his very own four-year old tyrant.  He pressed his chin to the top of her head, loving the feel of her clean, silky hair against his skin.  There was a sharp pinch on his arm.  “Ow!  Stop it.”

 

Small fingers danced across his skin.  There was a brief pause and then a pinch as she tugged at the hair on his forearm.  Growling, he grabbed her by the waist and held her up in the air.  Marayd laughed.  It was a sound that made Jack’s heart nearly stop.  Every time.  Groaning under her growing weight, he stood up and balanced her precariously on one hip as he walked out of his office and down the hall.

 

“Shay for sale!” he called.  “Blue light special.  Anyone want a little Shay?  Go-ing.”

 

“Dahdee!” Marayd squealed and tried to wriggle free.

 

“Go-ing.”

 

“What are you two up to now?”  Aylish stepped into the living room, a tired smile on her face.

 

“Gone!”  Jack made as if to throw the girl across the room to her mother.  Marayd screamed with laughter and Aylish shook her head as Jack caught his daughter at the last minute and set her down safely on the floor.

 

“Kian, you’ll wake the boys.”

 

Gently swatting Marayd on the butt, Jack pushed the little girl towards the door.  “Outside, young lady.  I order you to play.  This instant.”  As she dashed off, still laughing, Jack walked over and put his arms around Aylish, kissing her forehead.  “You look exhausted.”

 

She sank into his embrace.  “I am exhausted.  It’s your fault, you know.”

 

“Mine?”

 

“All these babies.”

 

“They’re beauties, huh?”

 

Aylish grinned, then frowned and began to pull away from him at the soft, muted cry of a baby.  Jack squeezed her closer, chuckling softly.

 

“You were right . . . as usual.  Apparently, I’ve disrupted his highness’s sleep.”  He planted a final kiss on her hair.  “Go take a nap or visit your mother or something.  I’ll take care of them.”

 

Before she could protest, before she could insist that taking care of the children was her job, Jack disappeared down the hallway to his youngest son’s room.  When he cracked open the door, Sorsha was sitting up in his crib, crying.  Jack slipped inside and picked him up, cradling the six-month-old infant against his chest.

 

“Hey, Georgie Boy.”

 

“Why do you call him that?”

 

Jack flinched at Aylish’s soft voice coming from directly behind him.  He brushed damp, brown strands of hair away from Sorsha’s face thinking that, unfortunately, it seemed the boy had inherited his father’s unruly locks. “I don’t know.  It’s just a nickname.”

 

“You call them all by nicknames.  Except for me and for Neesha.”

 

Avoiding meeting Aylish’s eyes, Jack looked down at the flushed face of the half-dozing baby.  He’d never really thought about it, but she was right.  There was Marayd - whom he called Pearl, and Donal - his little Danny, and now Sorsha.  How could he tell her that he’d named his children after people that she still refused to believe had ever existed?  If it were possible, he’d keep fathering babies and they’d every one carry the name of someone he needed to remember.

 

When he didn’t respond, Aylish reached over and stroked the baby’s head.  “I think I will go over to visit Mahmee for a while.  Do you mind?”

 

“Hmm.”  He gently bounced Sorsha and finally glanced at his wife.  “Take your time.”

 

“Are you sure?  Donal will be up from his nap soon.”

 

Donal . . . named after Daniel, he looked like Aylish and, God help them, acted like Jack himself must have acted at three years old.  “We’ll be fine.”  He was pretty sure they would be anyway.

 

* * * * *

 

Jack handed Pawdric a cold glass of an herbal tea that tasted faintly of licorice, then sat down next to his friend.

 

Pawdric gently placed Sorsha on the patio near his feet and sipped his drink.  “So, you’ll be going to Meeath for the National Convention?”

 

“The Council members have asked me to represent them there.”  His friend gave Jack a cocky smile.  “What?”

 

“Didn’t I always say you would be a success on the Council?”  Pawdric sighed and settled back in his chair.  “They respect you, Kian, and rightly so.  You do well by those in your District.”

 

Embarrassed, Jack didn’t respond.  He contented himself with quietly watching his children at play, already dreading being away from them for an entire week.

 

Marayd and Donal were chasing the dog, Fayl, and one another, both screaming with laughter at something Jack could only imagine.  Sorsha, sitting at Pawdric’s feet, slapped the patio with chubby hands and grinned up at Jack.  Pawdric’s son, Torrin, and Neesha sat at the far end of the patio, trying desperately to ignore the younger children.  Torrin was holding Neesha’s guitar as Neesha placed his friend’s fingers on the strings.  Torrin strummed the instrument, creating a grating, screeching noise that sounded like Fayl with his tail caught in the door.  Speaking of which, the dog flinched at the racket, tucking his scrawny tail between his legs.

 

Jack smiled as Neesha kindly instructed his younger siblings to quit laughing, then spoke softly to his friend and once more positioned Torrin’s short, stubby fingers.  Neesha . . . so different from the others.  At ten years old, he possessed qualities that left Jack in awe of the boy.  Neesha was more patient and more determined than any adult Jack had ever known, except perhaps for Teal’c.  In fact, there was a presence about him that at the most unusual times reminded Jack of the gentle Jaffa.  He observed the way Neesha was with his siblings and with his friends, and knew his son would make a wonderful teacher.  Neesha had an easygoing way about him, and a knack for encouraging others through their failures.  But his eldest had other ideas, and Jack would not discourage him.  The boy was obviously gifted and was slated to start studying under one of the master guitarists at the University beginning in the fall.  In the evenings, as Jack sat on his patio and stared up at the backwards sky, he relaxed to the soft, hypnotic sounds emanating from Neesha’s room.  Looking over at the boy now, Jack was once again convinced that Neesha was somehow, impossibly, his own . . . the youngster continued to bear an uncanny resemblance to Charlie.  As the years passed, it would be both interesting and heartbreaking to watch this living shadow of his dead son grow into maturity.

 

Neesha possessed musical talent; Marayd was the smart one.  At four, she was already an avid reader and against Aylish’s wishes, Jack had her enrolled to begin primary classes in a month.  As yet, he couldn’t decide whether his daughter’s brains were a blessing or a curse.  This world would not be an easy place for an intelligent woman with the spark of independence that was already flaming within the young girl.  But, the world be damned . . . Jack was determined that his little Pearl would be well educated.  Who knew, perhaps she would someday carve the way for others.

 

The baby giggled and Jack looked down just in time to stop him from putting a rock in his mouth.  Sorsha . . . it was too soon to tell where Georgie Boy’s interests and talents would lie.  Tossing the rock away and pulling the infant’s identification marker from inside his shirt, Jack put the small pendant in Sorsha’s hands.  He watched as the baby frowned at the round metal object.  Jack could commiserate with him.  It had been nearly five and a half years since his arrival here and still when he reached for the chain around his neck, he was surprised to find the smooth, round tag.

 

“No!  Fayl, stand still.”

 

Jack looked over at Donal.  The boy had lined up his sister and his dog, and was trying to force them to stand at attention.  Only the animal was a willing participant.  Marayd fidgeted and tossed small clumps of grass at Fayl and at her brother when he wasn’t looking.

 

“Follow me.”  With that order, Donal stepped across the lawn towards the back of the yard.  With a wag of his tail and a goofy dog-grin, Fayl took off after his young master.  Marayd sat down.  Donal went at least twenty paces before realizing that his sister was defying him.  When the boy turned around and discovered the insubordinance, his little face flushed.  “You dummy!  You’re supposed to follow me!”

 

“Hey!”  Jack shot off his chair and pointed at his middle son.  “Inside.”  Donal paled and froze.  “Now.”

 

Hesitantly, Donal trooped towards the house, aiming a desperate look at Pawdric, who hid a smile.  Once inside, Jack shut the door and knelt down in front of the boy.

 

“Now, what was that?”

 

“She has to follow.  I’m the boss.”

 

“You are not the boss of your sister.”

 

“But-”

 

“What did I just say?”  Jack rested a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “What else?”  Donal lowered his gaze, studying the floor.  “She is not stupid.  Am I right?”

 

The youngster nodded and mumbled, “Yes, sir.”

 

“What have I told you about being bossy, especially with your sister?”

 

“But Unkil Pawdric bosses Aunteen Eevan.”

 

“I don’t care what Pawdric does.  If I catch you bossing your sister or your mother, or any girl for that matter, I’ll tan your hide quicker than you can say ‘quarkles ambidextrious alladoshous frackling.’”

 

Donal giggled.  “I’m sorry, Dahdee.”

 

“I know.  Come here.”  Jack pulled the boy close and planted a kiss on his hair.  “You smell like a dog.”

 

“It’s Fayl.  He licked my hair.”

 

“Yecht!”  Jack made a face, then smiled at the son who was too much like his Father.  “Go outside and tell your sister you’re sorry.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Laughing softly to himself, Jack watched as the boy ran outside and sat down on the grass in front of his sister.  He wasn’t sure what Donal said to her, but Marayd cocked her head, stuck out her tongue and gave her brother a little smile.  Then, they were off again . . . two tiny, gorgeous O’Neill’s, followed closely by an ugly mutt.

 

He wished his parents could meet their grandchildren.

 

* * * * *

 

It had just turned dark, time for Marayd and Donal to go to bed.  Aylish would be home soon and if Jack knew what was good for him, he’d have them tucked in before she arrived.  Instead, he was sitting on the sofa, studying Sorsha’s sleeping face.  The infant was cradled against his chest, one small hand clutching Jack’s shirt as his tiny mouth made sucking motions in his sleep.  Jack touched a finger to the baby’s cheek, marveling at the smoothness of the fair skin.

 

“Dahdee,” Marayd climbed up on the sofa next to him, followed by her younger brother, “will you tell us a story?”

 

Jack slipped his free arm around his daughter’s shoulders and pulled her close.  Carefully avoiding the sleeping baby, he uncrossed his legs so that Donal could squeeze onto his lap.

 

“Dad,” Neesha joined them, sitting on the floor in front of his Father, “will you tell us about when you were a little boy?”

 

“In Minnisotie,” Donal supplied.

 

Ah.  Well, that explained Neesha’s presence.  The boy usually thought he was far too old for stories.  Apparently, they were taking advantage of their mother’s absence.  Jack solemnly studied their faces.

 

Marayd snuggled closer.  “Please.”

 

Jack shifted Sorsha in his arms.  “Well, if I do . . .”

 

“We know.  We can’t tell Mawhir.”  Neesha smiled.  “We won’t.  Promise.”

 

“But why can’t we tell Mahmee?”  Marayd was holding Jack’s hand in one of hers and was pulling at the hairs on his arm with the other.

 

“Pearl, stop it.  And you know why we can’t tell your mother.”

 

“Mawhir doesn’t like the stories,” Neesha quietly instructed his sister.

 

“Is Mahmee scared of Minnisotie?”

 

Jack smiled at Donal’s question.  “Yes.  It’s very cold there.”

 

Marayd grinned and shivered dramatically.  “Is it colder than Fayl’s nose?”

 

“Much colder.”

 

“Why is it cold there?”  Donal frowned and toyed with Sorsha’s limp foot.

 

Neesha sighed.  “Because of something called snow, silly.  Now, let Dad tell the story.”

 

“Let’s see.”  Jack thought of all the stories he’d shared with his kids.  “Have I ever told you about how I broke my arm when I was twelve?”

 

Marayd petted his arm.  “This one?”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“What happened, Dad?”

 

Jack smiled and proceeded to tell his children about skating on ponds and the basics of hockey.  They listened in rapt attention, asking endless questions which Jack patiently answered.  His eyes growing heavy, Donal inched his way across Jack’s lap until he finally fell asleep with one arm draped across his infant brother.  After his story drew to an end, Marayd continued to hold Jack’s hand, gently patting his arm periodically as if in sympathy to the once broken limb.

 

“Dad?”

 

Feeling a bit tired himself, Jack smiled at Neesha over the heads of his youngest sons.  “What?”

 

You miss your Mawhir, don’t you?”

 

When Jack didn’t answer, Marayd squeezed his hand.  “I look like Mamo O’Neill.  Isn’t that right, Dahdee?”

 

Jack swallowed and closed his eyes for just a moment.  There was a small tug on his hand.  “Yes.  That’s right.”

 

Neesha rested his chin on his knees and hugged his legs.  “Will you tell us about the Jaffa called Teal’c?”

 

“And Unkil Donal and Aunteen Carter?”

 

Jack suddenly felt drained.  It had been a long day and he had a headache building.  Searching his memories, he leaned back against the sofa and spoke aloud of a Stargate and a place deep in the heart of a mountain, a magical place inhabited by a man called Daniel Jackson, a pretty, fair-haired Samantha Carter, and a regal Jaffa named Teal’c.

 

* * * * *

 

Jack sat on the edge of the bed, staring into the darkness of the small bedroom.  Behind him, Aylish breathed softly, rhythmically.  Down the hall, his children dreamed.  Across the street, Pawdric, Eevan and Torrin slept.  It felt as though the world had come to a standstill around him, peacefully slumbering while he held vigil.  As if to confirm his theory, he heard the soft, dreamy yips of Fayl from his bed near the doorway.

 

Absently, Jack rubbed his leg.

 

What time was it at home?  On Earth?

 

His knee ached.

 

What month was it there?  November?  February?  July?  Oh, God.  He’d lost track.

 

He rubbed his leg harder.

 

What if his team was dead?  What if the same thing that had so abruptly delivered him here, had killed Teal’c or Daniel or Carter?  What if one or all of them had been dead for years and he’d gone on, living in oblivion?  He’d worked, made plans, rebuilt his life and made babies, all while their unmourned corpses decomposed.  Oh, God.  Oh, God.

 

He panted softly, feeling oddly panicked.

 

Neesha was right: he missed his mother.  His mother and so much more.

 

“Kian?”

 

He grunted and stopped rubbing his knee.

 

“Kian?” she quietly repeated.

 

“What?”

 

“Are you all right?”  He felt the bed shift under her weight.  A hand brushed his shoulder.  “Are you ill?”

 

“I . . . I’m fine.”

 

He squeezed his eyes closed, concentrating on the deep, burning pain in his swollen joint.  He’d had bad knees back there, too.

 

“Then, what is it?”

 

His back to her, he opened his eyes to darkness.  “Why don’t I remember them?” he whispered.

 

“What?”  She shifted closer, pressing herself against his back.  “Remember who?”

 

He so wanted to believe that that other life was a dream.  That only this was real.  It would be so much easier if he knew for a fact that it was all in his head.  So many things pointed to that . . . Aylish’s vehement denials, Pawdric’s assurances, the fact that he was a doctor, Neesha’s physical resemblance to him.  So many things.  But still . . .

 

Jack swallowed, the sound loud in the quiet room.  “My parents.  Why can’t I remember them?”  If this really was where he was from, why didn’t he remember parents?  Growing up here?  Anything from ‘before’?

 

A soft arm wrapped around his waist and she laid her face against him, her breath warm on his naked spine.  “You couldn’t possibly remember.  You were just a child when they died.  Younger than Donal.  Besides . . .”

 

He leaned forward, away from her, the marker swinging heavily at the end of the chain around his neck.  That didn’t explain the other missing years.  It didn’t explain why he couldn’t remember how he and Aylish had met.  Or attending medical school.  Or the birth of his oldest son.

 

“Kian,” she tugged on his arm, trying to make him turn towards her.  When he refused, she put her hands on his cheeks, forcing him to face her despite the darkness.  “I know what you’re thinking.  Do you hear me?  I know what thoughts are going through your mind.  Pawdric-”

 

Jack reached for her hands, wanting her to let go of him, but she clutched at him in desperation.

 

“Pawdric has explained this.  Your memories are gone because of the injury.  The same injury that caused you to suffer the seizures.  You’re a doctor.  You know he is right.  Tell me you know this.”  When he didn’t respond, she shook him gently.  “We are real . . . me, your children, this house.  You are Doctor Kian Shosaf Shay.  You have never been anyone else.”

 

“But-”

 

“No!”  For the first time since he’d known her, she shouted at him, her voice angry and scared.  “I do not want to hear about the others.  About the place where you say you belong, the people who knew you.  It is not true and I will not listen to it.”

 

He opened his mouth, wanting to argue.  Wanting to tell her that it was true.  That they did exist.  Or had.  And he had been their leader.  He had watched out for them and taken care of them.  He wanted to tell her, but he couldn’t.  Because he didn’t know any more.  He didn’t know if it was true.  Maybe, as Aylish claimed, it really had been nothing more than a dream.

 

The only things he knew for sure were that he felt homesick and that he was afraid he was going to forget them.  Forget his team, his kids.

 

Oh, God.

 

Jack blinked back tears and looked into the frightened eyes of his wife.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  I guess I’m just tired.”  He forced a grim smile and gently pulled her hands away from his face.  “I’m sorry I woke you.  Go back to sleep.”

 

He didn’t resist when she placed a kiss on his lips and when she lay back down, he pulled the covers up around her.

 

“Please come to bed.”

 

He dropped a hand onto her hair, feeling a little sorry for them both.  “In a while.  I’m just going to read for a bit.”

 

* * * * *

 

Daniel looked at Sam, who was still holding the pendant in her hand.  “What?  What is it?”

 

“God, Daniel, what if this . . .,” but instead of finishing, she began pulling the pendant from Jack’s neck.  Immediately, the computer began a soft, pulsing noise.

 

“Major Carter!”

 

Sam flinched at Teal’c’s sharp tone and at Jack’s sudden, single convulsion before she lowered the pendant back around his neck.

 

“What the hell?”  She shook her head, obviously confused.  “Think, Samantha, think,” she muttered quietly.

 

Daniel eyed Teal’c in the gleam of a single flashlight.

 

“Okay.”  Sam sat down on the sand and looked over at them.  “He touched the computer when it was falling and lost consciousness.  But that’s all.  Then, when we moved him away from the immediate vicinity of the computer, he began to convulse.”  She studied each of them and when they didn’t argue, she continued.  “When I tried to remove the pendant from around his neck, he convulsed. So, what does that tell us?”

 

“That we should not remove the pendant or the computer,” Teal’c matter-of-factly replied.

 

Sam smiled.  “Right.  What else?”

 

Daniel stared down at his friend.  Jack’s features were slack, and if it weren’t for the fact that they couldn’t wake him, he might have been sleeping.  Daniel reached out and roughly shook the man’s shoulder.  “Jack!  Wakey, wakey.”  Nothing.  Daniel looked up at Sam.  “There has to be some connection between the pendant and the computer.”

 

“And the Colonel.”

 

Daniel nodded.  “And Jack.  But what?”

 

“I don’t know.”  She chewed her lip then seemed to come to a decision.  “Which would be quicker:  hauling him and the computer to the Gate, or one of us going back for help?”

 

Teal’c cocked his head.  “I can quickly return to the Stargate; however, gathering a rescue team will take time.  I believe carrying both to the Stargate would be quicker.”

 

“I agree.”  Daniel was already scrambling to his feet, as were Sam and Teal’c.

 

“Fine.  Teal’c, you carry the computer.  Daniel and I will take the Colonel.”

 

Ten minutes later, Teal’c had retrieved the stretcher that they’d been using for the computer and together, they rolled Jack’s limp form onto it.  Grunting softly, Daniel lifted one end of the stretcher and Sam lifted the other.  Teal’c got a firm grip on the small computer then, with a slight nod of his head, he turned and led the way to the Gate.  Struggling through the deep sand in Teal’c’s wake, all Daniel could think about was getting Jack back to the SGC and wishing that Janet were still alive to meet them there.

 

* * * * *

 

There was soft, feminine laughter behind him.  Jack leaned forward, peering into the mirror, and spied Marayd standing in the open doorway of the bedroom, watching him.

 

“Papa, what have you done?”

 

Jack frowned and looked at his own reflection.  “I’m not exactly sure.”

 

His daughter crossed the room and took the hairbrush from his hand.  Smiling and shaking her head, she reached up and ran the brush through his hair.  Finally, she stepped back and looked at him.  “Well, that’s a little better.”

 

He checked the mirror and grunted softly.  “You sure about that?”

 

“No,” she laughed.

 

“What’s so funny?”

 

“You.”  She threw slender arms around his waist and joined him in looking in the mirror.

 

He wrapped an arm around her and kissed her forehead.  “Good lord, when did you get so tall?”

 

“Last month, when you weren’t looking.”

 

Jack glanced one last time at his hair.  Solid white, age had done nothing to tame it and it was sticking up in all directions.  “Hmm.”  He frowned, then turned to face his daughter.  Clasping her shoulders in his hands, he held her away from him, studying her.

 

She smiled, her dark eyes sparkling.  “What?  What are you looking at?”

 

“First, your brother.  Next thing I know, it’ll be you getting married.”

 

Her face flushed with embarrassment.  “I seriously doubt that.”

 

He arched his eyebrows.  “Oh, really?  I’ve seen how Murish eyes you.  Speaking of which, perhaps I should have a talk with the young man.”

 

“Papa!”  Marayd blushed further and pulled away from him, sitting on the edge of the bed and concentrating on smoothing her skirt.

 

At fifteen, it was obvious that his daughter was going to be a stunning woman.  When he looked at her, he was amazed that he’d had a part in creating the dark-haired, fair-skinned beauty.  But there it was, in flesh and bone, a combination of the best that he and Aylish had to offer.

 

“Sweet Pearl, you have no idea how beautiful you are”

 

She glanced up at him, smiling shyly.  “You haven’t called me that for ages.”

Jack grinned.  “Well, I seem to recall a certain twelve-year old telling me that she was far too old for silly pet names.  Seems I proved an embarrassment in front of her friends.”

 

“You were never an embarrassment, Papa.  I’m sorry if I said that you were.  You were the only one to ever call me Pearl, and I’ve missed it.”

 

“Then we shall remedy that.  Immediately.  Now, Pearl,” he turned back to the mirror, “what am I going to do about my hair?  Should I cut it?”

 

“Two hours before the wedding?”  She laughed softly.  “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

 

“No?”

 

“No.  Besides, when you cut it, it sticks out even more.  You should let it grow.”

 

Jack frowned, turning his head from side to side and trying to envision himself with long, white locks.  “I’m not sure what your mother would have to say about that.”

 

Marayd mumbled something under her breath.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

She hesitated before answering.  “I can’t be like her.  I’m sorry.”

 

Jack turned back to his daughter, all thoughts of his hair forgotten.  Slowly, he sat down next to her.  Their legs touching, he waited.

 

“Do you remember when you used to tell us the stories?”

 

He looked down at his hands.

 

“You used to make up these wonderful stories about places you’d visited.  They were always filled with lots of adventures and strange characters.  A giant who was very kind.  A young man who was handsome and funny and,” she laughed softly, “annoying.  I can’t remember their names, but I remember the woman’s.  Her name was Carter.  She was very smart, and she fought alongside the giant and the handsome man.  They were a team.”  Marayd dropped a hand onto his knee.  “Your team.  You took care of them and always lead them back home, to a place with a funny name.”

 

“Colorado,” he softly supplied.

 

“Yes.  That was it.  It was inside a mountain called Colorado.  Anyway, I always wanted to be like her.  Like Carter.  I wanted to be smart and brave and fight alongside you and your team.”

 

Without thinking, Jack ran a hand through his hair, destroying her handiwork.

 

“Papa, I spoke with Professor Burgin.  He thinks it might be possible for . . .,” Marayd sighed heavily, then stiffened slightly.  “I want to go to University.  I know it would be difficult.  I know there’s a good chance they won’t even let me in, but I thought you might talk to them for me.  I can do the work, Papa.  I know I can.  I-”

 

Jack grabbed her hand, squeezing it tightly.  “Don’t.  You don’t have to explain.”  He smiled at her.  “You’ll get in.  I’ll see to it.”  If he had to start a friggin’ university of his very own, his daughter would have the education she wanted and deserved.

 

“Really?”

 

Jack nodded and was nearly thrown off balance when she grabbed him in a fierce hug.  She pulled back, her eyes brimming with tears.

 

“But what about Mawhir?”

 

He felt her fingers dance familiarly along his arms, playing with the hair there, and he smiled.  “You let me worry about your mother.”

 

Marayd leaned close, kissing him on the cheek.  “I love you, Papa.  So much.  Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome.  Now, go tell your brother-the-groom that his aging father needs to speak to him.”

 

“Yes, sir.”  Still smiling, Marayd crossed the room, stopping in the doorway and looking back at him.  “We never told her, you know.”

 

“Told who what?”

 

“Mawhir.  We never told her about the stories.”

 

Jack smiled and realized that Marayd had been granted her wish.  She was more like Carter than she’d ever know . . . smart, beautiful and brave.

 

* * * * *

 

‘Daniel, Feeona Gobbnatt died four days ago, the day of Neesha’s wedding ceremony.  She was 86.  I didn’t find out until today when her husband, Fhelim, stopped by my office.  He wanted to let me know in person.  He said Feeona had always been a bit taken with me, and he knew she’d want him to tell me in person.  He said it had been sudden, that there was nothing I could have done.  Turns out, he and Feeona had known about Neesha’s wedding, and Fhelim had asked the hospital not to bother me.

 

‘I very calmly offered him my condolences and told him to let me know if there was anything I could do.  Then, after he left, I went back into my office, shut the door, and did something I haven’t done for as long as I can remember.  I cried like a damn baby.

‘God, how could I not have known?  I was throwing a damned party while she was dying of a stroke.

 

‘Four days!  Four days and I never had a fucking clue.  Not a single hint that anything was wrong . . . missing.

 

‘I know I don’t have Carter’s brains, but I’m not exactly stupid.  I’m pretty sure this is for keeps - my being here, living this life.  And, Daniel, deep down, I’ve known that for years.  But, today, when Fhelim Gobbnatt sat across from me and quietly told me that his wife had only been gone for four days and that he already missed seeing her face, it hit me.  The finality of it - of this.

 

‘It’s been over sixteen years since I’ve seen any of you.  Sixteen years since I waved a hasty salute at Hammond and stepped through the Stargate for the last time.  Sixteen years since I’ve watched a hockey game or had a beer or a good cup of coffee.

 

‘Sixteen years. . . .

 

‘If you’re still alive, I’m probably nothing more than a vague memory.  Someone you might talk about when you and Sam and Teal’c get together for a drink.  You’ll never know my kids, and they’ll only know you as characters in a fairy tale.  You’ll never read these letters I’ve written to each of you over the years.  Not even the ones that simply read, ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Birthday, Daniel.’  I was never really sure I had the dates right here, but I wrote the messages just the same . . . every year for sixteen years.

 

‘Today, I finally admitted to myself that we’ll go to our respective graves never knowing what happened to the other.  Never knowing when it happened.

 

‘Today, it hit me that the last thing you said to me will be the last thing you’ll ever say to me . . . my name.  That’s the last thing I remember - you calling out my name. 

 

‘Daniel, it’s been sixteen years since anyone has called me that.  Today, I realized that no one ever will again.’

 

* * * * *

 

“Jack O’Neill,” he whispered.  “Colonel Jonathon J. O’Neill.  Teal’c, from Chulak, former first prime to Apophis, father to Ry’ak.  Doctor Daniel Jackson, archaeologist, linguist, pain in the ass.  Major Doctor Samantha Carter, daughter of Jacob, doctor of physics, brave, beautiful and smart.  Too smart sometimes.”  He leaned up to sip his coffee and then laid back down, carefully balancing his cup on his chest.  He watched it wobble as he took a deep breath but when it didn’t topple, he stared back up at the stars.  Chewing his lip, he continued, “I worked out of Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I was born and raised in Minnesota.  I was married to Sara.  We had a son, Charlie.  When he was-”

 

“Dad?”

 

Jack glanced over towards the backdoor and his middle son.  “What?”

 

“Mawhir says you shouldn’t stay out here too long.”

 

“Come here.”

 

Donal frowned and groaned softly, but did as he was told.  Shoving his hands in his pockets, he strolled across the patio, stopping a few feet away.

 

“Sit down.”

 

“Dad-”

 

“Sit.”

 

The boy heaved a deep sigh and Jack had to fight back a smile.  In the dark, the silhouette could have been his own.  Reluctantly, Donal lowered himself to the patio beside Jack’s chair.  He studied his son’s obstinate profile for a moment, then turned back to the stars.  Rain and clouds were rare here and as usual, it was a clear night.  Jack found comfort in the constancy above him.  It brought him a small measure of peace.

 

“Uh, Dad . . .”

 

Jack studied Virgo, concentrating on Spica, the star which seemed to anchor the constellation in place.

 

“. . . did you want something?”

 

“Just some company, Donal.  That’s all.”

 

He listened to the soft rustling that signified Donal’s fidgeting.  Jack sighed at the boy’s impatience.

 

“So, what do you think about your brother being a married man?”

 

“Huh?”  He sensed more than saw Donal’s shrug of indifference.  “I don’t know.  It’s kind of creepy, I guess.”

 

“Creepy.”  Jack smiled to himself.  “What would you like?”

 

“Well, can I go over to-”

 

“Not, what would you like tonight.  What would you like to do with your life?”

 

“Oh.”  His son grunted what could only have been ‘I don’t know’ or something equally well thought out.

 

“How old are you now?”

 

“Dad . . .,” Donal’s sigh echoed Jack’s own.  “Fourteen.”

 

Ah, Jack remembered fourteen:  hockey; baseball; dreaming of girls and cars.  Fourteen was a wasteland located somewhere between childhood and adulthood.  Fourteen was populated by hormones and homework . . . ugh.  “You should think about what you want to be when you’re grown.”

 

“I don’t want to go to University, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

 

“I was thinking no such thing.  I want to know what you want.  I want to know what would make you happy.”  Jack looked over at him, then stretched out a hand and tugged on his son’s sleeve, urging him closer.

 

“What?” but despite his protest, Donal inched nearer.

 

Jack studied the boy’s face, then patted his son on the shoulder and looked him in the eyes.  “You can be anything you want.  Stretch your imagination.  You don’t have to go to the University.  But you do have to decide.”

 

“I don’t know what I want to do.”

 

“You have time, son, but think about it.  Remember, not making a decision is . . .”

 

“‘A decision in and of itself,’” Donal quoted.  “I know, I know.”

 

Jack turned back to the stars, silently granting the boy permission to leave.  Surprisingly, Donal remained, making himself more comfortable by taking the chair next to Jack’s.  The two of them stared up at the stars, Jack occasionally sipping his coffee.

 

“Dad, can I ask you something?”

 

“Sure.”

 

There was a pause so lengthy that Jack had begun to think that Donal had changed his mind or perhaps fallen asleep.  When his son finally did speak, his voice was soft and hesitant.

 

“Why are you so sad sometimes?”

 

Jack’s hand tightened around his cup.  His first instinct was to deny it, but that wasn’t fair.  Not to himself, certainly not to his son.

 

“It’s just, Mawhir says you used to be different . . . happy, before me and Marayd and Sorsha were born.”

 

Jack frowned, suddenly concerned.  “What are you asking me?”

 

“Well . . . is it because of us?  Because you didn’t want so many kids or something?”

 

Oh, God.  Jack felt his stomach roil and he sat up, spilling his coffee and knocking his cup to the patio, where it shattered.  “Donal?  Oh God, is that what you think?”  When his son didn’t answer, Jack moved from his chair, dropping onto his knees in front of the silent teenager.

 

“Donal?”  Jack grasped the boy’s arms, feeling the muscles tense under his hands.  In the darkness, he could just make out what looked like tears glistening on Donal’s cheeks.  “Dammit.”  He jerked his son forward and wrapped long arms around him.  “No.  No.”

 

Jack pulled back, placing a hand on each side of the youngster’s face.  “Listen to me.  You’re wrong.  Do you hear me?  You’re wrong.  What I feel, it has nothing to do with you.  Not you or your brothers or your sister.  Do you understand?”

 

The boy was openly crying now, his tears wetting Jack’s hands, scorching curved paths along his wrists.  “But when I asked Mawhir, she said that you used to be happy.  And she said I shouldn’t ask you about it.  That she didn’t want me to upset you.”

 

Jack was angry . . . at himself, at his wife.  “She shouldn’t have said that.  You should have come to me.  She . . .,” Jack shook his head in frustration.  “Something happened, an accident, before Marayd was born.  And it . . . I can’t explain it.  It changed me.  Or, at least, I think it did.  The only things I know about my life before the accident are what your mother and Pawdric and others tell me.  But the way I am now, it has nothing to do with you kids.  God, you’re the only good thing to come out of this.”  Jack hugged him close again, pressing his face against Donal’s head.  “You’re what saved me.  You’re still saving me.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I swear.”  Despite the fact that it probably wasn’t acceptable behavior to a fourteen-year old boy, Jack kissed Donal’s face.  “I love you.  Whatever happens, whatever you do with your life, always remember that.”

 

Jack groaned as his son’s arms went around his neck.  “I love you, too, Dad.”

 

* * * * *

 

“Teal’c,” Daniel spoke between gasps, “we need to take a break.”  He had watched as the strain seemed to weigh down Sam’s shoulders, loosening her grip on the stretcher.  Although she’d never admit to weakness, the truth was she needed a rest.  They all did.

 

Puffing softly, Daniel eased the stretcher down onto the sand and leaned over his friend, studying Jack’s face.  He pressed fingers against the steady pulse in Jack’s neck and glanced over at Sam.  Still panting, she was kneeling in the deep sand at the foot of the stretcher watching his every move.

 

“Any change?”

 

Daniel shook his head.

 

“Shit.”  Taking a deep breath, she leaned back, staring up at the sky.  “Teal’c, how much farther?”

 

Teal’c considered the question a moment.  “I believe it is no more than two miles to the Gate.”

 

“Thank God.”  Daniel wiped a layer of sweat from his forehead and stared up at the clear night sky.  It felt like it should be morning already, but in fact only a few hours had passed since Jack had collapsed.  For that matter, only twenty-four hours had passed since Jack had given them an impromptu astronomy lesson.  It seemed like Jack had been unconscious forever.

 

Daniel leaned close to Jack once more, his mouth pressed near his friend’s ear.  “Jack, if you can hear me, hang in there, buddy.  We’re going to get you some help.  You’re going to be fine.”

 

It was so soft that at first Daniel thought he’d imagined the moan.  He pulled back and hurriedly switched on his flashlight, pointing it directly at Jack’s face.

 

Teal’c stepped closer.  “What is it?”

 

“I don’t know.  I thought-”

 

Jack’s mouth moved.  Just barely, but it moved.

 

“Did you see that?”  Daniel dropped the flashlight and grabbed Jack’s shoulders, shaking him.  “Jack!  Jack, wake up!”  When there was no response, Daniel shook him harder.

 

“Daniel, stop it.  You’ll hurt him.”

 

It wasn’t until he felt Teal’c’s hand on his shoulder that Daniel stopped, and only then did he realize that Sam had been talking to him.  Panting, he stared up at Teal’c, then over at Sam.

 

“I . . . I thought he said something.  I thought he was waking up.”

 

Sam gave him a soft smile.  “I don’t think so.”  She reached over and patted him on the arm.  “Come on, let’s get him home.”

 

* * * * *

 

“Hello, old friend.  May I join you?”

 

Jack looked over at the sound of the familiar voice and nodded before turning back to watch the three children playing near his feet.  With a soft grunt, Pawdric dropped next to him onto the sofa.  For several minutes the men sat without speaking, listening to the inane chatter of the toddlers.

 

“You’re a lucky man, Kian.”

 

Jack glanced at his longtime colleague, then back at his grandchildren.  “Yes, I am.”

 

“It’s too bad they won’t remember their Mamo Aylish.  She dearly loved them.”  When Jack didn’t respond, Pawdric quietly added, “You miss her.”

 

Jack smiled at Awnlee, who at two and a half was the oldest of his grandchildren.  Awnlee was the spitting image of his Uncle Donal at the same age, and thus of Jack himself.  The youngster crawled over his younger brother and cousin in order to place a small, plastic tool in Jack’s hand.  Jack accepted it, then reached over and tousled the boy’s auburn curls, a gift from the grandmother he would never know.

 

“Yes, I miss her.”  Aylish had been gone for four months and Jack still awoke expecting her to be curled against him.  As Awnlee resumed playing, Jack’s fingers busied themselves with the toy.  “I didn’t love her, you know.  Not . . . not like I should have.  Like she deserved.”

 

“You cared for her, Kian.  Very much.  She knew that.”

 

“It’s not the same.”

 

“No, perhaps it isn’t.”  Pawdric chuckled softly as Awnlee brought him a tool to match the one that Jack was holding.  “But you treated her well and she was happy.  In the end, that’s what matters.”

 

Jack disagreed.  What mattered most sat playing on the floor at his feet.  As if she’d read his mind, thirteen-month old Renny, the daughter of his daughter, smiled up at him and shouted out what could have been Dado - grandpa - or perhaps it was diaper and she just needed a change.  Hoping for the former, Jack smiled and waved the toy at her.

 

“You are a sucker for children.  You do know that.”

 

Jack chuckled.  “I always have been.  Even when I was one myself.”

 

Pawdric frowned and shifted his weight, but said nothing.

 

“What?”

 

He stared at Jack, then shook his head slightly.  “I’ve known you since we were boys, Kian, and that . . . that’s just not true.”

 

Jack helped Renny to her feet.  Hugging his leg with a chubby hand, she grabbed onto the toy with the other.  “When did I change, Pawdric?”

 

There was no response.  Jack smiled down at his granddaughter.  She reminded him of a cherub, rosy cheeked and innocent and beautiful.  He leaned forward and pressed a kiss in her hair.  It seemed only weeks ago that Marayd was this age.

 

“It was after the accident, wasn’t it?”  When Pawdric didn’t answer, Jack turned to him.  “Wasn’t it?”

 

“Yes.”  It was admitted reluctantly.

 

Distantly, Jack watched Renny use the plastic, hammer-like tool on his left kneecap.  She jabbered incessantly as she worked.

 

“Kian, do you . . .,” Pawdric stopped and Jack heard him swallow dryly.  “You still believe you were brought here, don’t you?  From somewhere else?”  This time it was Jack who avoided answering.  “You think you don’t belong here.”

 

“No.”  Jack winced as Renny found a tender spot on his bad knee and he picked her up, settling her on his lap.  “Despite whatever else I may think, this is my home.”  He brushed fine hair off his granddaughter’s pudgy cheeks.  “It’s where I belong.”

 

* * * * *

 

Hours later, Jack was sprawled in his favorite spot - his lounge chair on the back patio.  He was star-gazing and half asleep when his friend, who quietly lounged a few feet away, belched.  Loudly.  Jack chuckled, bracing his coffee cup with one hand.

 

“Nice one, Danny.”  He was greeted with a silence so profound that he turned and squinted over at the dark silhouette stretched out in the chair beside his own.  “You okay?”

 

“You called me Danny.”

 

He had?  Jack frowned and turned back to the sky.  “Did not.”

 

“You did.”

 

“Not . . .,” Jack’s voice trailed off and he ran a hand over his face, rousing himself from a strange sense of deja vu.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine.  Fine.”  But he wasn’t.  He hadn’t been for weeks . . . months maybe.

 

It had started gradually, even before Aylish’s sickness.  The first time it had happened, it had scared the crap out of him.  Recently retired, bored out of his skull, he’d been walking back from having lunch with Sorsha when suddenly, just a few blocks from home, he couldn’t remember the way.  He’d stopped and looked around, seeing nothing but miles and miles of city-scape.  The strange thing was, he’d been expecting mountains.  Mountains that should have been familiar.  One mountain in particular.  The episode had lasted only seconds but, however brief, it had frightened him and he’d never mentioned it to anyone.  It had been the first episode of many.

 

“Kian, what is it?”

 

Jack shook his head, then realized his friend couldn’t see it in the darkness.  “Nothing.  It’s just . . . I’m getting old, Pawdric.  We both are.  And I don’t know about you, but I still have things I need to do.”

 

“Like?”

 

He pictured Awnlee and Cahal, and their cousin, Renny.  “My grandkids.  I want to watch them grow up.”

 

“You will.”

 

“And Sorsha, he’s still trying to convince my patients that he really is old enough to be a doctor.  I want to help him, if I can.  I want to see him succeed.  And Neesha with his musical career, and Marayd.”

 

Pawdric laughed softly.  “What is it you call her?  Your rocket scientist.”

 

“Don’t laugh.  If I can help her raise the funds, she’ll get a space program up and running.”

 

“I think you’re right.”  Pawdric sighed.  “Then there’s Donal.  Your son . . . an officer in the military.”

 

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

 

“No, not a bad thing, Kian.  Just surprising, that’s all.”

 

“Of all the things my children have done, why does that surprise you the most?”

 

“Because I know you.  Because you are a gentle man, and it’s hard to imagine that a child you fathered could be so . . . deadly.”

 

Jack smiled to himself.  “I’ve done things you can’t even imagine.”

 

Pawdric’s only response was a grunt of disbelief.

 

Jack checked on Spica, making sure the star was still in its appointed place, before slowly sitting up.  “I’m tired.  I’m going to turn in.  Take first watch, would you?”

 

With an effort, Pawdric forced his ample frame up and out of the lounge chair, and stared over at his friend.  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

 

“Yeah.”  Jack smiled and opened the backdoor.  “Goodnight.”

 

* * * * *

 

‘Teal’c, I’ve neglected my journal for months now, since long before my retirement and before Aylish became ill and died.  I feel ashamed - I used to write to you guys every day.

 

‘Marayd and her husband, Murish, and beautiful little Renny are moving in with me.  They’ve been slowly trying to insinuate themselves into my home ever since Aylish died.  Staying a night or two here, bringing over more and more of Renny’s things.  I think Marayd has been secretly plotting this with the help of her brothers.  I’ve suspected it for a few months now.  But, honestly, I don’t mind.  In fact, I welcome it.  This house is too big and too quiet.  When I’m alone, I think too much.

 

‘Last night, Murish came right out and asked if it would be all right if they moved in permanently.  He and Marayd tried to pretend that I’d be doing them a favor, that they need someone to help with Renny while Marayd is at work.  But we all know it’s because they think I need them here.  And maybe I do.

 

‘I’m getting old, Teal’c.  Not as old as you were when I knew you, but older than I ever thought I’d live to be.

 

‘I sat down this morning and tried to figure up exactly how long it’s been since the last time I saw you.  Or think I saw you . . . if you really are nothing more than a figment of my mind like everyone says.  Anyway, you know what I came up with?  Closest I can figure, I’ve been here twenty-five years, three months and a day.  That’s nine thousand two hundred and forty-six days, if you’re interested.  Two hundred twenty-one thousand nine hundred and four hours.  In other words, a long, long time, my friend.

 

‘Do you know what can happen in that length of time?  A lifetime can come and go.  Several lifetimes.  I’ve raised four children.  I’ve had a successful career as a doctor; I’ve turned into a bona fide politician - if there is such a thing; and I’ve started a medical research department at the local University.  I’ve become a grandfather three times over and last week I learned there’s a fourth on the way.  I’ve had a wife and lost her to cancer.  Cancer . . . it thrives here, too.

 

‘Lately, you and the others have returned to haunt my dreams once more.  And you know what?  I’m tired, Teal’c.  I’m tired of trying to defend your existence, even if only to myself.  I’m tired of trying to decide if I had that other life, if I had a wife named Sara and a son named Charlie.  I’m tired of trying to understand how a man who kills for a living can wake up a healer.  I’m tired of trying to remember the sound of your voice, and the exact color of Carter’s eyes, and how Daniel was a cheap drunk but a priceless friend.

 

‘You are all were, you know.   Good friends.  But ‘were’ is the operative word.

 

‘Do your old friend one last favor, T:  Leave me alone, okay?  Let me sleep.  I’m an old man who needs his rest.’

 

* * * * *

 

“Papa?”

 

Jack rolled over onto his side, facing the doorway.  Marayd was backlit by the light in the hallway, an aura surrounding her.  Seeing him move, she entered the room and sat down on the bed next to him.  A soft hand brushed hair from his eyes, then dropped to his arm.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

He forced a tired smile for her benefit.  “Nothing.”

 

“Why aren’t you outside looking at the stars?”  When he didn’t answer, she chuckled softly.  “Without you there to guide them, how will they know where to hang?”

 

“Do you remember why I named you Marayd?”

 

“Because it means ‘pearl.’”

 

“And?”

 

“Because it was your grandmother’s name.”  Gently, she rubbed his arm.  “You never talk about them any more - your family.”

 

“Your mother didn’t like it.”

 

“She’s gone now.  You can talk about them all you like.”  Marayd settled herself more comfortably.  “You used to tell us the most remarkable stories.  About your team, about growing up in snow, and fishing, and the games you played.”

 

“Hockey,” Jack mumbled.  “I played hockey every day in the winter until after it got dark and Momma would have to fetch me.  She’d act angry, but she wasn’t.  Not really.  She always had hot chocolate waiting for me at home.”  He glanced up at his daughter.  “She wouldn’t have done that if she was mad.”

 

Marayd smiled.  “Where do you come up with such things?”

 

Jack lifted a trembling, age-spotted hand and rested it on his daughter’s knee.  “Did you know that in every human eye there’s a blind spot?  It’s where the optic nerve attaches to the back of the retina.  There are no photoreceptors in the nerve head so it can’t respond to light stimulation.  But, you don’t realize it because your brain analyzes everything around the spot and thinks, ‘Hmm, lovely Marayd is looking at a tree.  I’ve seen a tree before and I know this black spot should be green leaves.’  So, you’re not even aware that you’re actually looking at an incomplete picture because your brain colors it in from memory.”

 

Without thinking, Marayd began tugging at the hairs on his arm.  Jack felt warmth rush through him at the familiar pinch on his skin.

 

“The mind is an amazing thing, child.  It fills in the parts that are missing.  It enhances what it deems essential, and what it lacks, it creates.”  He frowned as pain settled deep inside his chest.

 

“Papa?”  Marayd’s hand stopped its tugging.  “You’re not well.  Let me get Sorsha.”

 

“Call me Jack,” he whispered.

 

“What?”  She sounded frightened.  “Why?”

 

“Please.”  Rousing, he smiled up at her.  “Humor your papa.  Call me Jack.”

 

Frowning, Marayd studied his face.  “Jack,” she said softly.

 

He closed his eyes.  “Again.”

 

She did.

 

He gasped, an old hurt consuming him.  “I wish I could have told them good-bye.”

 

“Papa, you’re scaring me.”  She started to stand up, but Jack grabbed her wrist, stopping her.

 

“No.  Stay with me.”  He patted her hand, trying to comfort her.  “What’s your favorite memory?”  When she didn’t answer, he nudged her.  “Come on.  Out of everything, what’s your favorite?”

 

Slowly, Marayd relaxed, then smiled.

 

“What?”

 

She ducked her head and he thought for a moment that she wouldn’t answer, but she did.  “It’s silly.”

 

“Silly’s good.”

 

She laughed softly, sounding like the child he’d helped raise so many years ago.  “I was ten and we were at Mamo Teerny’s.  There was a party and we stayed very late, after everyone else had gone home.  All of us kids were piled across Mamo’s sofa sleeping.”  Jack smiled as if waiting for the punch line.  “Mawhir was cleaning up the kitchen, and you and Mamo were sitting across the room from us, talking.  Do you remember?”

 

“No.”

 

“When I woke up, Mamo was talking about us.  She wasn’t being mean exactly, but she was telling you that you had better get a handle on Donal and me.  She said she thought Neesha was going to turn out to be a fine man, but she was worried about the rest of us.  She thought you were too easy on us.”

 

Jack frowned, a vague memory niggling at the back of his mind.

 

Marayd leaned closer, her voice lowering intimately.  “You said nothing for a few minutes and I remember feeling bad that we must have embarrassed you.  Just as I was thinking about what all I was going to do to make it up to you, you started listing good things about each one of us.  I remember you said that Donal might seem bossy, but that just meant he was going to make a great leader.  And you told her that I was more than just the most beautiful child you’d ever seen; you said that I was smart and independent, and that you couldn’t be more proud of me and that you didn’t want me any other way.”  Marayd reached down and ran a hand through Jack’s hair.  “And then you very calmly told her that you would do anything in the world for her, you would continue to support her financially, you would care for her and for her daughter, but she was never, ever to talk about your children like that.  And you said that if she ever tried to change who we were, you’d see to it that she never saw us again.”

 

Jack was glad for the darkness.  A flush of old shame rose in his cheeks.  “She made me angry.  I shouldn’t have said those things to her.”

 

Marayd brushed a soft kiss against Jack’s forehead.  “I couldn’t have asked for a better father.”

 

Something inside him clenched.  Of all the things he had ever been, of all the things she could have said, that was the one thing that meant the most to him.  “Thank you,” he whispered.

 

“Don’t thank me, Papa.  Those were the last words Mamo Teerny ever said to me: ‘You couldn’t have asked for a better father.’  And she was right.”

 

Jack took a deep, shaky breath and curled tighter.  Pressing his hands against the burning in his chest, he felt the shape of the ever-present marker through the thin fabric of his shirt.

 

“Papa?”

 

He frowned at her.

 

“Papa, what is it?”  She shook him gently. 

 

“It’s cloudy tonight, Aylish,” he whispered, “I can’t see the stars.”

 

“No.  Oh, no,” Marayd moaned softly and glanced towards the hallway.  “Murish!  Murish, help me!”

 

Jack wanted to tell her not to worry.  He wanted to touch her face one last time.  But the words and his hands failed him.

 

“Papa, please,” Marayd sobbed.  “Please, don’t do this.”

 

Sensing others gathering in the room, Jack smiled up at the darkness.

 

* * * * *

 

As Sam began to dial the DHD, Daniel sat on the ground at the foot of the stretcher which held his friend.  Even though they were nearly home, he took the time to drink from his canteen.  Clipping it back onto his belt, he glanced at Teal’c.  To a stranger, the Jaffa would have looked as calm and self-possessed as ever, but Daniel knew better.  Like himself and Sam, Teal’c was worried.

 

After all, Jack was much more than their commanding officer.  He was without a doubt the best friend Daniel had ever had; a cross between an annoying older brother and a treasured confidante.  And, although he wasn’t privy to what passed between them in private, he was pretty sure that Sam had similar feelings for Jack.  He knew for a fact that historically, when things went sour in Sam’s personal life, she had confided in Janet, but had then sought out Jack’s company.  The man was a steadfast rock when you felt buffeted by the crap life routinely dealt out; he could be as comforting as he could be irritating.

 

But, Daniel thought that perhaps Teal’c’s feelings for their friend went far deeper than anything either he or Sam could imagine.  It was because of Jack that Teal’c had abandoned everything - even his family - to follow in Jack’s wake, to fight for his cause.  Daniel supposed that in his own way, Teal’c worshipped Jack O’Neill much as he had once worshipped Apophis, and if Jack ever figured that out, he would be simultaneously humbled and appalled.

 

As the third chevron locked with a metallic grinding of gears, he saw Jack flinch.  Holding his breath, Daniel stared at the unconscious man as he listened to the grating of the fourth chevron.  Jack frowned, his head rolling slightly to the side.

 

“Sam!  Teal’c!”  Daniel scrambled to his friend’s side.  “Jack?  Oh, God.  Jack?”

 

His teammates dropped down beside him.

 

“Daniel, what is it?”

 

“He moved, Sam.  He moved.”

 

“Daniel-,” but Jack’s loud groan silenced her.

 

Daniel renewed his cries and Sam joined in.

 

“Colonel, can you hear us?”

 

Finally, hesitantly, Jack’s eyes opened.

 

“O’Neill.”

 

Daniel heard the relief in the single word that issued from Teal’c’s mouth.  Jack must have heard it, too.  He glanced up at his team, blinking tiredly.  Daniel knew that all of them, including Teal’c, were smiling down at him like stupid fools.

 

“Jack,” he squeezed his friend’s shoulder, “how do you feel?”

 

The only response was a frown, then Jack looked around and tried, and failed, to sit up.  “Marayd!”

 

“Colonel, it’s okay.  It’s us.  You’re going to be fine.”

 

“Marayd.”  His eyes glazed and his voice pleading, Jack locked a firm hand onto Daniel’s wrist.  “An féidir le héinne cuidiú liom?”

 

Daniel gasped.

 

Sam looked at him, wide-eyed.  “What?  What’s he saying?”

 

“I . . .,” Daniel frowned, “I’m not sure.  I-”

 

“An féidir le héinne cuidiú liom, más é do thoil é?”  As they watched, Jack’s features went slack and he slumped back onto the stretcher.

 

“Daniel?”

 

“It was a form of Gaelic.”

 

“What did he say?”

 

Feeling like he’d been punched in the gut, Daniel stared over at her.  “I think he was begging us to help him.”

 

* * * * *

 

Sam was the first through the Gate, followed by Daniel who was struggling under the weight of the computer.  As he stumbled onto the ramp, he heard Hammond commenting that they were early.

 

“Sir, there’s been a problem.  The Colonel needs medical attention.”

 

As Sam began explaining what had happened, Daniel set down the machinery and turned to see Teal’c emerge from the event horizon carrying Jack, who had awakened again and was moaning and struggling.  Grunting from the effort of dodging the hard fists, Teal’c lowered his charge to the ramp as Daniel and a team of medics rushed to help him.  Together, they held Jack down while a physician Daniel didn’t recognize was attempting, without much success, to examine him.

 

“Somebody tell me what happened to this man?”

 

Suppressing an urge to inform the strange doctor that ‘this man’ had a name, Daniel latched onto a flailing arm and listened as Teal’c explained how Jack had touched a machine, had gone deeply unconscious, and had only recently awakened.

 

Nearly breathless, Jack continued to struggle, shouting a string of words that Daniel didn’t recognize.  Jack repeatedly yelled the word ‘Marayd,’ whatever that was.  Grunting against his friend’s wiry strength, Daniel wracked his brain for any Gaelic he knew that might prove to be of use.  As the doctor shoved a syringe into a straining arm, it came to him.

 

“Cara,” he mumbled.  “Cara!”  As the doctor pulled the needle clear, Daniel dared to let go of the arm he’d been holding and grasped his friend’s face in both hands.  “Jack, cara!”

 

Panting, his eyes wild, Jack locked eyes with him.

 

Daniel smiled.  “Cara,” he repeated.  ‘Friend.’

 

Whether it was the calm reassurance or the drug racing through his veins, or a combination of both, he felt the tension slowly ebb from Jack’s limbs.

 

“Cara?” Jack mumbled, his eyes growing heavy.

 

“Yes,” Daniel nodded.  “Friend.  We’re your friends.”  He felt the muscles tense momentarily and Jack mumbled something.  Daniel patted Jack’s cheek.  “It’s okay.  Everything’s going to be fine.”  But the man was already unconscious.

 

* * * * *

 

Jack floundered towards consciousness, both wanting it and fearing it.  Strange sounds penetrated the blackness which enveloped him.  Strange sounds, but not unfamiliar.  Promising both comfort and cruelty.

 

Voices, too, snuck inside the woolen barrier which cushioned his mind from coherency - strained, hushed, questioning, comforting voices.  He searched for the voices of his children but didn’t find them.

 

“O’Neill.”

 

The single, softly spoken word caused him to gasp and open his eyes.  A dark brown face stared down at him, the features kind and alien.  The face of a giant.  Without moving, Jack glanced around at what he could see of the small room.

 

“You are at the SGC.”

 

Jack blinked up at the giant.

 

“Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter have been summoned.  They will be here soon.”

 

He flinched as a man in a white coat appeared at the dark man’s side.  “Colonel, how are you feeling?”

 

Jack frowned as the man began tugging on the clear tubing coming out of the back of Jack’s left hand.

 

“O’Neill.”

 

Pulling his gaze from the stranger’s hands, Jack looked again at the giant with the kind voice.

 

“There is no reason to be concerned.  You are among friends.”

 

Jack studied the face.  The golden tattoo was smaller than he remembered.  “I dreamt you,” he whispered.

 

The giant tilted his head.  “Perhaps.  But you are awake now.”

 

Jack shook his head.  He couldn’t be awake.  This was a dream.  Marayd was sitting on the side of his bed, and he was dreaming.  As if to confirm his suspicions, the other two from his dreams entered the room and took their places on the opposite side of the bed, smiling over at the giant then down at Jack.  The handsome, annoying man, and Marayd’s heroine.

 

Jack swallowed, remembering their names:  Teal’c and Daniel and Carter.  No.  This couldn’t be.

 

The man, Daniel, rested his forearms on the bed rail and studied Jack’s face.  “How’re you doing, Jack?”

 

“Sir,” the woman named Carter grinned broadly.

 

“Colonel O’Neill,” the man in the white coat leaned close, partially blocking Jack’s view of the others, “I’m Doctor Shaw.  Do you remember me?”

 

Where was Marayd?  Sorsha?  Donal and Neesha?  His grandkids?

 

“Do you remember me speaking with you earlier?  Introducing myself?”  When Jack made no effort to respond, the man picked up a chart and began leafing through it.  “Colonel, do you know what year this is?”

 

His heart racing, Jack licked his lips.  “Seventeen dash five two.”

 

Doctor Shaw looked at him, then at the others.  “And can you tell us where you’re at?”

 

He looked at each of them before whispering, “In my bed.  Dreaming.”

 

“No, Jack,” the man named Daniel forced a smile.  “You’re-,” but the Doctor held up a hand, silencing him.

 

“Wait, Doctor Jackson.  Let’s give him a few minutes.”  Doctor Shaw made a note on the chart, then closed it and smiled at Jack.  “You’re just a little confused right now, Colonel.”

 

“Doctor,” he softly informed them.  He was a doctor, not a colonel.

 

“Yes, that’s right.  I’m a doctor.”  Shaw smiled as if Jack were a genius.

 

Jack shut his eyes, too exhausted to clear up the misunderstanding.  “My kids,” he whispered.  He needed his kids.

 

“Your team is right here, Colonel.”

 

Dammit, no!  But instead of arguing, Jack felt himself drifting again, floating towards unconsciousness.

 

“Colonel?”

 

There was a brief pause and when Jack didn’t respond, he sensed them leaving the side of his bed.  Almost immediately, their hushed voices deflected his sleep.

 

“Doctor, what’s wrong with him?  Why is he like that?”  It was the voice of the woman - Carter, the one Marayd had always wanted to be like.

 

“It’s most likely a combination of things - the sedative, lingering effects of that machine, whatever it was.  However, it could also be a result of the seizures.”

 

“The seizures?”

 

“Major, you described a lengthy grande mal seizure.”

 

“So . . .,” Daniel prompted.

 

“Well, there’s the possibility that . . . .”

 

“Oh, God.”  It was Carter again.  “You’re saying he has brain damage?”

 

“No, I didn’t say that.  It’s just . . . it’s a possibility.  Hopefully, he’ll come around on his own.”

 

“And if he does not, Doctor Shaw?”

 

“Well, Teal’c, let’s just wait and see, shall we?”

 

There was a long pause and Jack dropped closer to the brink of blessed darkness.

 

“I shall remain with him,” Teal’c softly announced.

 

* * * * *

 

Jack had been staring at the top of Daniel’s head for nearly five minutes before the young man looked up and noticed.

 

“Oh!”  Smiling, he laid aside the book he’d been reading and came to stand next to Jack’s bed.  “You’re awake.  How are you feeling?”

 

Jack was surprised at how real everything seemed, from the question Daniel was asking to the red mark on his left cheek where he’d been resting his head on his fist.  His heart beginning to race, Jack slowly raised a hand.  Daniel smiled but otherwise didn’t move as Jack reached up and tentatively brushed his fingertips against the flushed skin.  Pulling his hand away, Jack frowned.  It felt real, but this couldn’t be happening.  What was going on?

 

“Jack?”

 

He had to be hallucinating.  He had to be.  If this were real, these people would be old, like him.  Instead, they were as young as he remembered them.

 

“Do you know who I am?”  When Jack didn’t respond, Daniel leaned closer.  “Can you understand what I’m saying?”

 

Hesitantly, Jack nodded.  “Your name is Daniel.”

 

A kind smile lighting up his face, Daniel nodded.  “Yes.  Yes, I’m Daniel.”

 

“And I’m . . .”

 

Daniel’s smile faltered only briefly before he spoke that seldom-heard name.  “And you’re Jack.”

 

His hands fumbled towards his chest, groping for the marker under the hospital gown.  Finding nothing, Jack frowned.

 

“Oh, they removed your dogtags.  Here,” Daniel reached in the drawer of the night stand and pulled out a chain with two rectangular, metal tags.  He held them out to Jack, who merely stared at them.  “Do you want them?”

 

Oh, God.  Jack struggled to sit up.

 

“Jack, lie still.  What are you doing?”

 

“Where’s Marayd?  Where’s Donal?”

 

“What?”

 

“Sorsha!” Jack yelled for his son, the doctor.  He’d know what to do.  Or Pawdric.

 

“Who-”

 

Fighting Daniel, who was trying to hold him down, Jack felt a surge of pure panic.  “My children?  Where are they?  What have you done with them?  With Renny?”

 

“Your children?  Jack-”

 

Gasping from his efforts, Jack suddenly found himself flat on his back on the bed, his arms held firmly over his head.

 

“Jack, calm down.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

On the verge of tears, Jack squeezed his eyes closed.  “No.  No.”  This couldn’t be happening.  All those years he’d defended these people’s very existence, this ‘other’ life, and now he was being ripped from his real life, from his family, and forced into this one - this fantasy!  No!  He started to struggle again, but immediately stopped when he felt the futility of it.  He looked up at Daniel, vaguely aware of others rushing into the room as he suddenly saw his own, too-young face staring back at him from the lenses of Daniel’s glasses.  “I don’t want this.  Please, send me back.”

 

“Send you back where?  Jack, everything’s going to be fine.  You’re home.  You’re safe now.”

 

“Please.”

 

“I can’t do what you’re asking.  I . . . I don’t know what you want.”

 

It was his own fault.  He’d brought this on himself.  All those years of longing for something he couldn’t have, all those years spent dwelling on something that had never really been his, and all that time everything he’d ever wanted had been his, everything he’d needed had been there for the taking.  And now it was gone.

 

He screamed as he watched the doctor slide the needle into the IV tubing.

 

* * * * *

 

Daniel smiled at whatever Sam had said and swallowed a bite of something that could have been mashed potatoes or chocolate pudding.  He noticed neither food nor conversation.  His attention was riveted on Jack.

 

Although there was nothing physically wrong with him, Jack had yet to be discharged from the infirmary.  Today, five days since their return to Earth, MacKenzie had suggested that the team take Jack on a little field trip, and Doctor Shaw had agreed.  The doctors felt that getting him out of the confines of his room, and forcing him to confront the familiar hallways and the familiar faces might bring Jack out of the strange fugue in which he seemed to be immersed.  So, they’d brought him to the mess hall for lunch.  You couldn’t get much more confrontational than cafeteria food.

 

Now, staring at Jack, Daniel had to admit that MacKenzie’s plan was . . . failing miserably.

 

Jack looked absolutely miserable.  Dressed in blue BDU’s, he sat ramrod straight in a chair next to Teal’c’s.  One hand resting on the table, fingers clenched around a spoon that had yet to be used, the other hand drifted between tugging on the collar of his shirt and disappearing beneath the edge of the table.  Curious, Daniel had finally managed to drop his napkin and had watched stunned as that once powerful hand had rested on Jack’s left leg, trembling violently, before darting up to tug again at the annoying clothing.  Sitting back up, Daniel had stared into the face of the stranger before him, marveling at the utter calmness that seemed to reside in the tired features.  It was as if all the tension in the room was filtering out through the tips of that single hand.

 

Clearing his throat, Daniel sipped his iced tea and wished once again that he could rid his friend of his misery.  He would do anything to help, if he only knew what the hell it was that Jack needed.  All Daniel knew for sure was that the man before him was a mere shadow of the self-assured, often silly guy who had historically lead his team directly into the face of trouble, be it off-world or on.

 

“What do you think, Daniel?”

 

“Hmm?”  He gave Sam only a cursory glance then resumed watching Jack, who was staring at his bowl just as he had been for the last five minutes.  “So, Colonel, how’s the stew?”

 

It was deliberate, calling Jack by his title, and it produced the effect Daniel had expected:  nothing.  Daniel had noticed that his friend’s response to his name was sluggish, at best, but he had yet to respond to his title.

 

Sitting beside him, Sam nudged him with a sharp elbow.  “What are you doing?”

 

Daniel looked at her, then slipped off his glasses and laid them on the table, sighing.  “I don’t know, Sam.  I just . . . we have to do something.”  He glanced at Teal’c as if for confirmation.

 

Teal’c studied him closely, seemingly gauging his intentions, then nodded his head.  “I agree.”

 

Rubbing his eyes with one hand, Daniel picked up his glasses and slid them back on.  Jack hadn’t moved and seemed oblivious to the fact that he was the subject of conversation.  Chewing his lip, carefully considering what he was getting ready to do and the ramifications if he was wrong . . . or right, Daniel reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the pendant.  He’d had days, long hours, to think about Jack’s strange words and his even stranger behavior since regaining consciousness.  While Doctor Shaw was still discussing the possibility of minor brain damage from the seizures, Daniel had somewhat hesitantly drawn another conclusion.

 

Palming the pendant, he quietly read aloud the words printed on its surface.  “Kian Shosaf Shay.”

 

Immediately, Jack looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time in days.  Mere seconds later, the brown eyes focused on the pendant dangling from Daniel’s fingers.  Jack said nothing, not even when Daniel held out the pendant like an offering.  The hand around the spoon tightened as the free hand cautiously reached out and, trembling, clasped the chain.  Jack looked down at the small metal object and finally dropping the spoon, he pulled the chain over his head and let the pendant settle around his neck.  He fingered it briefly before looking up at Daniel.

 

“Thank you,” he whispered.

 

Daniel nodded.  “You’re welcome.”  He was glad he could bring Jack even that small measure of peace.  “Who was it?”

 

Jack stared back at him, met his gaze.

 

“Daniel?”  Sam sounded nervous.

 

He reached over and rested a hand on her leg, quieting her, but he didn’t look away from those troubled eyes.  “Kian Shosaf Shay.  It’s a name, Sam.”  He smiled at Jack.  “Isn’t it?”

 

Jack blinked, and seemed to think about the question.  Even though he was expecting it, Daniel was surprised when Jack simply answered, “Yes.”

 

“Back there, on that planet, you dreamt about him.  Didn’t you?”  But Jack didn’t answer, only watched him.  “You did.  Somehow that,” he motioned to the pendant, “that thing triggered a dream or a memory or something.”

 

Sam straightened, frowning.  “Are you saying those computers contain human memories?  I don’t see how that’s possible.”

 

Daniel smiled.  “Memories, a program.  Hell, maybe it’s a computer game of some kind.  I don’t know, Sam.  All I know is that Jack woke up speaking a foreign language and remembering this man’s children.  Things that . . .,” he stopped when he saw his friend flinch, almost as though Daniel had physically struck him.  “I’m right, aren’t I?”

 

Jack shook his head and stood up, knocking over his chair.

 

“O’Neill?”  Teal’c rose, a large hand gently cupping Jack’s elbow.

 

“I have to go back.”

 

Daniel, Sam, even Teal’c, had been over this before, many times during the past five days.  “Jack-”

 

“Dammit, you don’t understand!  Please.”

 

Daniel tried to remember if he’d ever seen Jack O’Neill even come close to begging.  He had a vague recollection of Jack strapped into a cryogenic chamber, and of visiting Jack in a cell at Ba’al’s palace.  It was hard to remember the details, but he thought that perhaps he’d seen a look of desperation on Jack’s face those times that was similar to the look he was seeing now.

 

His eyes watery with unshed tears, Jack stared at each of them, ending with Teal’c.  “Please.  You have to send me back.”

 

Teal’c looked as if he would cry himself when he glanced over at Daniel in a silent plea of his own.  Ignoring the stares they were drawing from the other occupants of the mess hall, Daniel walked around the table and took Jack by the arm.

 

“Come on, let’s get out of here.”

 

They ended up in Teal’c’s quarters. Quietly sitting on the edge of the bed, Jack looked small and lost.  As Sam pulled up two chairs and Teal’c sat down next to Jack, Daniel poured a glass of water and handed it to Jack before sitting down in one of the chairs.  Facing his friend, so close their knees were touching, Daniel felt his insides tighten.  The old Jack wouldn’t have stood for this; he would have laughed and accused them of conducting an ‘intervention,’ all the while hating what they were trying to do, and then he would have made his escape.  But this Jack acquiesced and to Daniel, his very silence was a desperate scream for help.

 

“Who was he?”  Daniel kept his voice soft.

 

Buttressed by the three of them, Jack stared down at the glass of water then looked up at Daniel.  “I don’t . . .”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m not sure I can explain it.”

 

“Then don’t.”  All three looked at Sam, who smiled softly.  “Don’t try to explain it, Colonel.  Just . . . just tell us what you can.”

 

“You’ll think I’m crazy.”

 

Teal’c leaned slightly toward the man he called his brother.  “We will not.”

 

Jack blinked up at Teal’c, then nodded slightly.  “Okay.”  Slowly, he sipped the water, then set the glass down on the night stand and clasped the pendant in one hand, seeming to gather his thoughts.  “Kian Shosaf Shay.  He was a doctor.  A physician.  He was married to Aylish and when I first . . .,” Jack blushed slightly.  “When I met him, they had one child, a boy called Neesha.  And a dog named Fayl.”

 

“Wolf,” Daniel quietly supplied.

 

Jack smiled, looking more like himself than he had since their return.  “Yes.  Wolf.  Ugliest damn mutt I ever saw, but he was good with the children.  He lived to be fourteen and everyone cried when he died, even me.  The kids had a funeral for him, complete with music - courtesy of Neesha, and then we buried him in the backyard in the shade of the flower garden he was constantly digging up.”

 

“Kids?  What kids, sir?”

 

Shifting uncomfortably, Jack released the pendant and folded his hands in his lap.  “Kian and Aylish had three more children after Neesha: Marayd . . .”

 

“Pearl.”

 

Jack looked at Daniel.  “Donal . . .”

 

“Daniel.”

 

“And Sorsha.”

 

“George.”

 

Jack’s face softened and he seemed to be lost in thought.  “They were so smart and beautiful.  God, they were beautiful.  Every damn one of them.  And they grew into remarkable adults.  I’m so proud of them.”

 

“And Kian and Aylish?”

 

Blinking, rousing himself, Jack looked at Daniel.  “Aylish died of cancer less than a year ago.  She was a good woman.  She deserved better.”

 

“And Kian?”

 

“Kian.”  Jack’s gaze dropped to his hands.  “Like I said, he was a doctor.  He was responsible for a number of developments in the field of medicine and later, he even tried his hand at politics.”

 

“He sounds like an amazing guy.”

 

Jack smiled, but continued to study his hands.  “Not really.  Kian was . . . a difficult man to live with.  He was moody and dissatisfied.  He was always . . . searching for something.”

 

“For what?”  Waiting for an answer, Daniel shifted his weight.  When his knee bumped Jack’s, the older man looked up and Daniel caught a fleeting glimpse of something familiar in the brown eyes.  Daniel had seen that look before.  Years ago.  During that first trip to Abydos.  “Jack, how do you know all this?  Did someone tell you?  Did you see it or dream it or something?”

 

Jack closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and slowly.  “I lived it.”

 

“You lived it.”  Daniel shook his head.  “I don’t understand.”

 

“Neither do I,” Jack whispered and then he opened his eyes, and Daniel was shocked at the pure grief reflected there.  “I am Kian Shosaf Shay,” Jack breathed.

 

“But, Jack, you’re . . .,” Daniel frowned.  “You’re Jack.  Colonel Jack O’Neill.”

 

Jack shook his head.  “No.  I used to be him.  At least, I thought I was . . . once.  But that was a long time ago.”

 

Sam cleared her throat.  “How long ago, sir?”

 

Rubbing a shaky hand over his eyes, Jack thought about the question.  “Almost twenty-six years.”  Sighing deeply, he looked at her.  “Now do you understand why I have to go back?”

 

* * * * *

 

Jack took another small sip of beer and grimaced slightly.  It was bitter.  More bitter than he remembered.  But it was cold and despite its harshness, maybe because of it, it tasted good.  It was strange, yet oddly familiar.  Swallowing, he held the plastic cup close to his nose, inhaling the heady scent before setting it down on the cement between his feet.  He tugged his cap lower and squinted out across the heads of the crowd and down onto the baseball diamond.  It had been a long time since he’d watched a professional game.  Over a quarter of a century.  At home, music had been more popular than sports.

 

“Sir, you doing okay?”

 

Jack automatically smiled over at his second in command and was once again taken aback at her obvious youth.  He’d been here a month and still, without warning, he would look at them and be surprised at how young they all were.  After all, he had lived a lifetime and they hadn’t aged a day.  Then again . . .

 

He looked down at his own smooth, tanned hand, then back up at Carter.  “Yeah.  I’m fine.  This is . . . nice.”

 

“It was Teal’c’s idea,” Carter smiled.

 

Jack nodded, glancing past her at Teal’c’s profile.  Jack wished he knew what was going through the Jaffa’s mind, but like so many other things, the man remained a mystery.

 

As if she sensed that the brief conversation was over, Carter gave him a tight smile and turned back to watch the game.  One more mystery . . . the strange looks she gave him.  Jack stared back down at the field and wondered if he was losing his mind.

 

He stood up.

 

“Colonel?”

 

Carter sounded frightened, and Teal’c was looking at him with that raised eyebrow.  Suddenly, Jack wished he was anywhere but here.  Maybe he should have gone with Daniel to that damn archaeological convention.  At least there he’d have an inkling as to what was going on.  At least there everyone would be concentrating on the past - not just himself.

 

“Little boy’s room, Carter.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Do you wish me to accompany you, O’Neill?”

 

Jack stared at them a moment, then forced a grin as he told himself again, for the countless time, that they had only his best interests at heart.  “I can manage.  Thanks.”

 

Marching stiffly up the wide steps toward the exit, their eyes on his back, Jack wondered if he’d ever grow accustomed to this: their scrutiny and their obvious concern.  It was bothersome and disconcerting.  Aylish had always respected his solitary nature and had required no explanations for his absences or his moods.  He supposed he was spoiled, but he rather liked going to the bathroom without having to submit an itinerary first.

 

It took a while to find the men’s room, and by the time he’d finished and washed up, Jack was feeling bad about resenting what was merely his team’s concern for his well-being.  Thinking maybe he could buy them off with a little treat, he got in line at the refreshment stand.  After all, none of this was their fault.  In fact, he wasn’t sure whose fault it was.  Hell, he wasn’t even sure what was going on, but whatever it was, his team had nothing to do with it.  If it was anyone, it was himself.

 

Shuffling forward in the slow-moving line, Jack stared blankly at the television screen mounted on the concrete wall over the refreshment stand.  He’d been staring blankly at a lot of things lately, television screens being one of them.  Back home, there’d been no television.  Funny, he remembered he’d missed it at first.  Now, he wondered what he’d ever seen in it.

 

Frowning, Jack rubbed a hand over his forehead.  Thinking about it made his head hurt and no matter what he told the others to the contrary, he thought about it constantly.  What was real?  Here or there?  Now or then?  Here and now, where he had nothing but a job, some co-workers, and an empty house?  Or there and then, where he had kids, grandkids, friends, a life?  Where what he did mattered?  Why did he remember both when they couldn’t both be real?

 

“Daddy!”

 

Jack flinched and looked around at the child’s cry.

 

“Daddy!”

 

She wasn’t much more than a baby.  Three years old at the most.  She had dark hair and fair skin like his daughter’s.

 

“Marayd?” Jack whispered.

 

He stepped out of the line, pushing his way through the crowd towards the crying girl.  As she screamed in protest, a young woman scooped her up and began walking away.

 

“No!” she screamed.  “I want Daddy!”

 

“Marayd.”  Jack hurried to follow, his heart racing as he watched the woman and child receding into the crowd.  “Marayd!”

 

“Watch it, asshole!”  A man in blue jeans and a baseball jersey shoved Jack out of the way.

 

Stumbling, ignoring the man who was still cussing him, Jack stood on the balls of his feet, trying to see the woman over the crowd.  He could no longer hear the baby crying.

 

“Marayd!”

 

He turned.  Nothing.  Scrambling to the nearest entrance to the bleachers, he ran to the top of the stairs and craned his neck.  Shit.

 

And then he saw them.  The mother and the little girl.  The little girl giggling and reaching out for her daddy.  Her daddy.

 

Groaning, Jack leaned back against the railing, oblivious to the people who were shoving their way around him, giving him angry looks.  He stared at the young family and he knew what he had to do.  What they had to do - SG-1.  Somehow, he had to convince them.  Lie to them.  Do whatever it took.  But they had to go back.

 

He had to go back.

 

* * * * *

 

Jack poured a glass of water and held it out to the General, who shook his head and waved him away.  Taking the glass for himself, Jack sat down in his usual chair at the briefing table.  It was with studied indifference that he turned his back to the window, to the Gate, to his only way home.  He sipped his water and stared down at the folder in front of him.

 

“I’m not convinced.”  The General frowned over at Carter.  “What could possibly come of it?”

 

Daniel fidgeted and spoke for his teammate.  “General, suppose we can access more of these memories.  Then-”

 

“If that’s what they are,” Hammond interjected.

 

Daniel ducked his head, conceding the point.  “If that’s what they are.  But if that is what they are, then think of the possibilities.  I mean, we would have access to the knowledge of an entire civilization.”

 

Carter leaned her elbows on the table, gearing up to do battle.  “Including knowledge of their technology.  General, these computers are highly advanced.  If these people had the ability to create machines that can house what is, essentially, the memories of an entire lifetime, then it’s safe to assume that they could also develop other technology far beyond our own - medical, weaponry, industrial.”

 

Knowing he was being watched, Jack sniffed and glanced up at the General, met those unreadable blue eyes.  He had to play it cool.  If he blew it now, all bets were off.

 

“Colonel?”

 

Jack shrugged.  “I guess it’s possible, sir.”

 

No one flinched.  In fact, he was pretty sure that by now, his team had forgotten who had even broached the possibility of returning to the planet in the first place.

 

Jack idly turned the glass of cool water with one hand.  “If Carter and Daniel think there might be something to be gained . . . .”  He smiled over at the General and saw a flash of something in the man’s eyes.  “Teal’c,” Jack turned to the quiet man at the end of the table, “what do you think?”

 

In the periphery of his vision, Jack saw Hammond slowly move his gaze from Jack and onto the Jaffa.

 

It didn’t take long for Teal’c to consider the question.  “I believe if we do not come into simultaneous contact with the markers and the computer cores, no harm will come to us.”

 

Jack wanted to smile, but didn’t.  Instead, he glanced over at the General and once more shrugged, pretending that this wasn’t the single biggest moment of his life.  Hammond studied him closely, glanced down at his own folder, then seemed to come to some decision.  Frowning, he stood up.

 

“You have a go.  You’ll leave tomorrow at 0800.”

 

Jack swallowed a sigh of relief and instead, lifted the glass with a shaky hand and took a drink.

 

* * * * *

 

They say you can’t go home again.  As Jack studied the impoverished soil surrounding the mausoleum, he prayed they were wrong.  He didn’t remember this place.  Not really.  He stared at the building and noted nothing more than a strange sense of deja vu.  Hanging back, he allowed the others to enter first.

 

By the time his eyes had adjusted to the muted light, Carter was already pulling open a drawer, and Daniel was randomly glancing at some of the dangling markers on the drawer fronts.  Teal’c wandered the perimeter of the room, but Jack couldn’t help noticing that the Jaffa was studying him more than their surroundings.  As Jack looked around the room, hoping for something familiar and not finding it, he spied an open drawer.  When he approached it, Daniel spoke up.

 

“That’s the one where . . . that’s the one we removed when we were here last.”

 

Jack studied Daniel’s face, then glanced down at the empty drawer.  With a tentative hand, he caressed the handle then gently closed the drawer.  Trying to hide his desperation, he began to read the markers on the nearby drawers.  Only one of the names was even vaguely familiar, and even then he wasn’t sure why.  The only thing that really mattered was that none of the names were his wife’s or his children’s.  He tried to tell himself that that was a good thing.

 

“Sir, I’d like to run some diagnostics while we’re here.”

 

Jack stared blankly over at his second in command.  Maybe Carter and Daniel were wrong about these things.  Maybe the computers didn’t house memories after all.  Maybe they were transporters of some kind.  Maybe each was programmed for a specific address - a mental Gate of some kind.

 

“Colonel?

 

He blinked.  “Yeah, Carter.  Have at it.”

 

“Jack?”

 

He couldn’t think.  Now that he was here, he wasn’t sure what to do.  He needed time to think.

 

“Jack?”

 

“What?” he barked.

 

Daniel looked at him, stunned.  “I thought . . . I thought I should start with translating the glyphs on the walls, instead of concentrating on the names on the drawers.”

 

Jack stared at him.  “Well?  Then what are you waiting for?  Do it!”

 

“Sure.  Okay, Jack.”  Throwing a quick glance at Carter and Teal’c, Daniel grabbed a notepad and pencil out of his pack and wandered to the far wall.

 

His heart racing, Jack looked at them.  Only Teal’c met his gaze.  The other two were pointedly ignoring him.  Propping his P90 against the wall near the outer door, Jack shrugged out of his pack and vest, and walked to the back wall.  Staring up into the vastness of the cavern, he wondered how he would ever be able to check all of the markers.  He would need a couple of days and a very tall ladder, at the very least.

 

“O’Neill.”

 

Wishing the man would go away . . . that they would all just go away, Jack began with the lower right hand corner of the wall.  He tilted the first marker to the light, read it, and moved on to the next.

 

“For what are you searching?”

 

He couldn’t believe the Jaffa would even ask him that.  He glared up at Teal’c, then moved to the next marker in the line.

 

“Perhaps you should allow Major Carter, Daniel Jackson, or myself to perform this task.”

 

“Go outside and check the perimeter.”  Jack was aware of Carter stopping her work and watching them.

 

“O’Neill, I believe it would be-”

 

“I said, check the perimeter!”

 

Jack heard Daniel’s pencil drag to a stop.  There was a brief silence, during which he strained to read the blurry engraving on the marker dangling against his palm.  Please, please, please . . . .

 

“Very well.”

 

Jack blinked and studied the marker until the name came into focus, then he dropped it and moved to the next one.  Daniel’s pencil scratched noisily against the paper, and Carter picked up a small, handheld computer gadget and began walking the outer edges of the room.  He read the next stranger’s name.  And the next.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

The voice startled him.  Daniel had moved and was standing so close that Jack could feel the warmth radiating from his body.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

“Jack, please.”  Daniel squatted down beside him, blocking Jack’s progress down the line of drawers.  “I lost my parents, a wife; Sam lost her mother; Teal’c’s lost his wife.  We want to help.”

 

“You have no idea what I’m going through.  Don’t pretend you do.”

 

“You’re right.  We can only imagine what you’re going through, but we’re not stupid.  You think you’ve lost your entire family, for God’s sake.  You can’t be fine, Jack, and you know it.”

 

“Daniel-”

 

“We just want to help.  Teal’c wants to help.”

 

Jack swallowed hot acid that rose in the back of his throat.  “I can’t talk about this right now.”  He reached for the next marker, trying not to look at Daniel, trying not to brush against him.

 

“Jack-”

 

“No.”  Finally, he met the younger man’s gaze and held it.  “Daniel, I’m about to lose it here.  Honest to God.”  In a silent plea for understanding, he stared at the man who’d been his friend so many years ago.  “Please.”

 

Blue eyes probed his, but finally, Daniel nodded and Jack had to bite back a moan of gratitude and grief.  Without another word the younger man stood and Jack stretched out a hand, grasping the next marker in a seemingly endless row of markers.

 

* * * * *

 

It was funny how the words would slip out when he least expected it, especially when he was tired.

 

“What’d you say, Jack?”

 

Jack blinked at Daniel from across the campfire, only then realizing that he’d spoken in his native tongue - the tongue he was quickly forgetting.  Carter had commented that she wasn’t sure the mausoleum held the answers they needed.  Automatically, Jack had responded with, ‘B’fhéidir go bhfuil an ceart agat.’

 

Frowning, Jack mumbled, “I said, maybe she’s right.”

 

Laying on the cold, hard ground, Jack stared up at a familiar sky.  He had a vague recollection of laying here once before, surrounded by these same people.  On Earth, the stars looked different, alien.  He could recognize them, but only after remembering that they were transposed.  At least he had a great telescope - that had been one of the few things about his new home that was a plus.  That, and the coffee.  The coffee was great, even better than he’d remembered . . . as were these people - his team.

 

Slowly, he felt himself warming to them as they continued to gather around him in a protective huddle despite his own reserve.  Over the weeks since waking up in the infirmary, these three people, as well as General Hammond, were the only constancy amidst upheaval.  Everywhere he turned, one or more of them were there - checking on him, helping him, reminding him, putting up with his moodiness.  At first, he’d found their presence annoying, suffocating.  Now, it was a comfort.  Still, he would give them up without the slightest hesitation if he could have just one of his children returned to him.

 

He could live without everything else in his life on Earth, as well.  Except maybe the photographs.  The photographs were difficult.  They were the proof that he wanted to refute, but couldn’t.  He looked at photographs of himself and was disturbed that he could remember them being taken; he looked at photographs of Charlie, and was wracked with the grief of two worlds - one in which a young boy died and another in which a young boy didn’t.

 

“I have located the Crow and the Dog Star.”

 

Jack accepted the cup of coffee that Carter held out to him, sipped it, then looked over at Teal’c.  The Jaffa smiled at him.

 

“However, I am still unable to identify ‘Picasso’s skinny cow,’ as you called it.”

 

Jack couldn’t help but smile back at the big guy.  “Don’t worry about it, Teal’c.  It’s a hard one.  I’ll draw it out for you on a star chart when we get home, so you can-”  Jack stopped, suddenly realizing what he’d said.  ‘Home.’

 

Where was that exactly?  Here?  Earth?

 

Jack took another sip of coffee then set his cup on the ground near his feet and stood up.  “I’ll take first watch.”  Before anyone could argue, he disappeared into the darkness.

 

* * * * *

 

“Ta-da!”

 

Daniel flinched at Carter’s victory call and the simultaneous hum and flicker of artificial lighting.  “What the-”

 

“I found a power source.”  Sam was grinning for the first time in days.

 

Daniel squinted up at the ceiling, unable to locate the exact point of origin of the light.  To be honest, he was so accustomed to working in dusty tombs that he hadn’t even noticed how dark it was until it wasn’t any more.  Blinking away the spots dancing across his vision, Daniel glanced around for Jack.

 

The Colonel was standing several feet away, slightly canted, staring at the tall, wide wall of drawers.  He had barely taken his eyes off it since they’d arrived, as if he thought that if he looked away, it would magically disappear.  Daniel grimaced as he realized that might be exactly what Jack was thinking.

 

From this angle, in the harsh light, Daniel could accept the possibility that this man was not the same man with whom he’d spent the last seven years bonding.  This Jack looked defeated and vulnerable; the Jack O’Neill he knew was neither of those things.  As if sensing Daniel’s thoughts, Jack turned and stared back at him, then forced a tired smile.

 

“Daniel, maybe we sh-” Jack stopped and his gaze shifted, settling at a point just above Daniel’s head.  “What is that?”

 

“What?”  Still sitting on the floor, Daniel swivelled around.

 

Jack brushed past him and stopped in front of the wall where Daniel had been working for the last two hours.  “That.”  A tanned, calloused hand reached out and softly skimmed the peculiar, raised symbols on a row of glyphs chest high.

 

Frowning, Daniel stood.  When Jack dropped his hand, Daniel reached up and pressed on the protruding symbols.

 

“Daniel!”

 

The fact that the warning came from Sam and not Jack merely reinforced the notion that he was in the company of a stranger.  When a loud grating noise echoed around the room and the wall began to slide back, Daniel was disappointed to find that of them all, only Jack remained unarmed.  Eyes wide, his commanding officer merely stared at the room that was slowly revealed to them.

 

When the grating ceased and the door was fully open, Jack moved to step into the room.  It was with a profound sense of irony that Daniel stopped him, grabbing Jack’s arm with one hand and holding his pistol in the other as he warned Jack to stay back.  Daniel slowly entered the small room, closely followed by Teal’c and Sam.  Jack stood for a moment on the threshold, merely studying the desk and the dusty tomes that were stacked in what appeared to be haphazard piles on the floor.

 

Holstering his weapon, Daniel felt his pulse quicken as he realized what they’d found.  “An office.”

 

“What?”

 

Smiling, Daniel turned to Sam and the others.  “An office, Sam.  It’s an office.”  Not waiting for a response, Daniel gently eased open the closest book.  Dust rose, giving birth to a sneeze.

 

“Bless,” Jack mumbled, seemingly unaware that he’d even spoken.

 

Daniel flipped through the first couple of pages, then closed the book and smiled over at the others, his speculation confirmed.  “These are records.”

 

“Of what, Daniel Jackson?”

 

“Well . . . of this place, I suppose.  Of course,” he waved a hand indicating the cramped room, “it’ll take a while to go through everything.”  Looking around at what amounted to a veritable treasure trove of information, for a moment Daniel forgot where they were, why they were here.  “I may have to send for more-,” and then he saw Jack’s face.

 

The man was absolutely still, closely watching Daniel’s every move, his body language screaming ‘get me out of here.’  Daniel was suddenly consumed with guilt at his excitement while his friend was suffering.  Here, at their fingertips, might rest the solution to the mystery which haunted Jack: where was his family and how could he get them back.  But, the ultimate question was: could Jack live with the answers they found.

 

“Jack,” Daniel stepped in front of the older man, effectively blocking his view of the room, “maybe you should let me do this.  Sam can help me.  We can-”

 

The lights flickered, dimmed ominously, and came back on.  Jack blinked as if awakening from a deep sleep.

 

“Daniel’s right, sir.  You’re exhausted.  Why don’t-”

 

“Someone should check out the surrounding area.”  Although Jack's voice was soft, it was firm, silencing Carter.

 

Daniel sensed that Jack was searching for a reason, any reason, to get away from here.  At least for a while.  They all looked up as the lights dimmed again, then Jack seemed to rouse himself when the power surged once more.  He stared over at Sam.

 

“We didn’t do that when we were here last time, did we?  Check around?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“O’Neill, perhaps it would be wise to leave Doctor Jackson and Major Carter here while you and I scout the area around the mausoleum.”

 

Glancing past Daniel at the stacks of books, Jack seemed to think it over.  “Yeah.  Okay.”

 

Teal’c quietly exited the room and Jack turned to follow him, then stopped.  “Daniel,” he glanced back over his shoulder, “you’ll . . . .”

 

“I’ll let you know if I find out anything.”

 

Jack forced a smile, then nodded.  “Don’t let him touch anything, Carter,” he added in quiet imitation of the man he once was.

 

Sam nodded and watched her commander walk away.  Finally, too late for him to hear, she whispered, “Yes, sir.”

 

* * * * *

 

“Do you not see the irony, O’Neill?”

 

“Um,” Jack had to stop and think.  What had Teal’c been saying?  Oh.  “Yeah,” he smiled.  “Yeah.  I see the irony all right.”  And he did.

 

“The humans are unable to distinguish between the two.”

 

Stumbling slightly on the rocky slope, Jack waved off Teal’c’s help.

 

“However, to the aliens, the difference is,” Teal’c stepped around a large boulder, “insurmountable.”

 

Jack frowned at the rugged landscape.  Less than two miles from the mausoleum, the terrain had changed dramatically.  The sand dunes had been replaced with hard-packed, rocky soil.  Nothing lived here, not even a breeze to stir the dust.  He glanced behind him at the way they had come.  The building had disappeared from sight over the horizon an hour ago.  He wondered how Daniel and Carter were getting along and thought about radioing them, then decided they’d call if they found something.

 

Feeling eyes on him, Jack glanced at the Jaffa.  Teal’c was watching him closely.  He knew what Teal’c was doing - distracting him.  And, while he appreciated the sentiment, Teal’c’s endless prattle was giving Jack a headache.  Funny thing - everyone thought Teal’c was so quiet and wise, but get him alone and you couldn’t shut him up.  Heaven forbid you should give him a Pepsi or anything else with caffeine.  Teal’c cocked an eyebrow and despite his better judgment, Jack found himself asking, “What?”

 

“I do not believe you truly appreciate the subtleness and the . . . irony of the situation.  All of the aliens were black on one side and white on the other, but on one alien the colors were reversed.”

 

“I get it.  I really do.  It’s just-”

 

“Perhaps when we return to Earth, you and I should watch it together.”

 

“That won’t be necessary.”

 

Teal’c scrambled up the steep slope ahead of Jack.  Reaching a somewhat level spot, he turned and waited.  “We will watch it.”

 

Panting, Jack caught up with him.  “I was never a fan, Teal’c, but thanks, just the same.”

 

“Not even of the episode involving the Tribbles?”

 

Jack grunted softly and sat down, facing the way they’d come and catching his breath.  “Not even the Tribbles.”  Pulling off his cap, he wiped sweat from his face with his sleeve and put his cap back on.  It was hot here.  Inside the building it had been cool, but here it was uncomfortable.  Jack drank from his canteen, studying the alien horizon.  There was a hazy row of mountains in the distance.

 

“I’ve lost them, haven’t I, Teal'c?”

 

“You do not know that for certain, O’Neill.”

 

Jack took another swig of the tepid water and blinked against the harsh sunlight.  Absently, he hefted the weight of the P90.  It was becoming more and more familiar.  Everything was.  It was all coming back - the memories of that first life.  It was filling him up, more and more every day.  It was inexorably pushing aside other, more important things.

 

Standing up, Jack wiped his hands on his trousers and, knocking away the grit, he smiled tiredly at Teal’c.  “I think I do.”

 

Jack led the way up the rocky hill.  As they neared the crest, he could hear Teal’c panting softly behind him.

 

“Kirk or Picard?” the Jaffa pondered aloud.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Do you prefer Captain Kirk or Captain Picard?”

 

Jack started to protest, then decided the effort would be futile.  Instead, he reached forward, pulling himself up to the top using his hands, his feet and the last of his energy.  “Picard.”  With a final heave, he was standing on the ridge.

 

Teal’c grunted and pulled himself up beside Jack.  “For what reason?”

 

Jack was staring down at the valley laid out before them, all thoughts of starship captains gone from his mind.  “Teal’c . . . .”

 

“I see it, O’Neill.”

 

“My God.”

 

Whatever had happened here had happened quickly.  The devastation was absolute. Miles and miles of destruction.  The shabby remains of an ancient city.  Rubble upon rubble; brick upon brick.  Jack was able to make out a few crumbling walls where houses and office buildings had once stood.  Those few walls were the only stubborn remnants of life clinging to an otherwise desolate world.

 

The two men worked their way down to the edge of the city.  They didn’t speak.  The atmosphere cried out for reverence.  Besides, no words could stand in the presence of such almighty death.

 

As brick and stone crunched beneath his boots, Jack studied the destruction.  It reminded him of every bad movie he’d ever seen involving a global holocaust.  Ash coated everything, including his own shoes.  Taking a shallow breath, he even imagined he could taste it in the air, feel it settling on his tongue.  He looked at the ground, turning in a circle, trying to comprehend what he was seeing.  In a city this size, there had to have been thousands of inhabitants, hundreds of thousands, perhaps more.

 

He watched as Teal’c stepped over a steel girder and reached down to pick up something.  When the Jaffa turned, he was holding the twisted carcass of a pair of eyeglasses in his hand.  With a frown at Jack, he tossed the frames aside, raising a cloud of ancient ash where they landed.

 

Something shiny caught Jack’s eye and he squatted down.  His P90 pressing against his chest, he leaned over and brushed ash from the gleaming object.  A belt buckle - bent, twisted, it had melted into the bricks upon which it lay.  Rubbing his fingers together, trying to rid his skin of the greasy feel of the ash, Jack stood and wished he were back in the mausoleum.  He wished he had never seen this.

 

As if on cue, his radio hissed.

 

“Colonel?”

 

Glancing at Teal’c, Jack cleared his throat and pressed the button on his radio.  “Yeah, Carter, what is it?”

 

“Sir, you should get back here.”  There was a slight pause filled with a static hiss.  “Daniel’s found something.”

 

* * * * *

 

They were submerged in semi-darkness again.  Relieved to be back, Jack stepped inside the  building and hollered at Carter, asking what had happened to the lights.

 

From across the room, he saw her pale face turn towards him.  “There was a huge power surge shortly after you left.  We lost power completely, and I haven’t been able to get it back on.”

 

Jack stepped close to his second in command and watched as she fussed with wiring that she’d pulled from inside a large panel on one of the walls.  “Blew a fuse, did you?”

 

Startled by his response, Sam looked up at him and grinned.  “Something like that.” Then, biting her lip in concentration, she turned back to wrapping two wires together.  “Did you find anything?”

 

Jack glanced at Teal’c.  “Unfortunately.”  When Carter frowned at him, Jack merely shrugged.  “So what’s this big discovery of Daniel’s?”

 

“You might want to sit down for this one, Jack.”

 

Jack flinched and swung around to face the younger man.  Holding a large, dusty book, one finger marking his place in it, Daniel stared back at him through the dim light.  Demonstrating more bravado than he felt, Jack smiled tightly.  “Oh, I think I’ll take this one standing, thanks.”  Daniel was uncharacteristically quiet.  That more than anything worried Jack.  “Come on, Jackson, out with it.”

 

Sighing softly, Daniel sat cross-legged on the floor near Carter and opened the book to the page he’d marked.  Taking one last look up at Jack, he pulled a small flashlight from his back pocket and shone it on the page.

 

“This is a rough translation.”  Running his finger and the flashlight across the page, Daniel found the spot he wanted.  “‘And so in the year seventeen dash eighty-one, as we take leave of our homeland, we leave behind us this memorial.  It is erected in honor of those who dedicated their lives to helping others and who contributed their best efforts to our society.  Here, in this place, we as a people have attempted to capture the essence not only of their lives, but of our lives as a whole.  It is our hope that, someday, our descendants may return to their homeland and as they bear witness to the heroes of their past, may the pride in what their forefathers accomplished outweigh any mistakes we have made.’”

 

Daniel paused and stared up at Jack.  “That’s what this is, Jack.  It’s not a mausoleum.  It’s a memorial.  It was built to honor the memories of their heroes.”

 

Jack didn’t answer; he couldn’t.  He merely wrapped his hands tightly around the P90 strapped to his chest, clinging to it in order to anchor himself here.

 

Finally, Daniel looked back down and flipped several pages of the book.  Clearing his throat, he continued reading aloud.  “‘Receptacle three hundred and two:  Kian Shosaf Shay.  Born in sixteen dash seventy-six, died in seventeen dash fifty-two, making his age seventy-six years.  A physician, Doctor Shay devoted his life to not only the care of his patients, but to research and to the advancement of medical technology.  Some of the inventions for which he was directly responsible include the sound spectrogram, the magnetic resonance scanner, and the computerized axial tomography scanner, among others.  In addition, he was single-handedly responsible for the establishment of the Medical Research Institute, a branch of BenMhir University.  Doctor Shay also served as Councilman for the Village of Ultan for a period of twelve years, followed by a six-year term as Chairman of the Directorship of the entire Northwestern Province of BenMhir.’”  Daniel took a deep breath.  “‘Doctor Shay’s personal life was no less noteworthy.’”

 

Sensing what was coming, Jack suddenly felt the air being sucked from the room.  Trying to remain calm, he forced his hands to relinquish their grip on his weapon and he turned, walking towards the nearest wall.  With studied indifference, he stared at the glyphs there.  Yesterday, he could read half of them.  Today, he recognized only a few.  Before he knew it, all remnants of his old life would be ripped from him.

 

“‘Doctor Shay was married to Aylish Teerny.  He fathered three sons and a daughter.  His oldest son, Neesha Shay, was a popular musician; his youngest son, Sorsha Shay, followed in his father’s footsteps, taking over his father’s private medical practice upon the elder Doctor Shay’s retirement; and his middle son, Donal Shay, was the famed General Shay who, later in life, became the Governor of the Northwestern Province.’”

 

His gaze focused on the alien wall, Jack smiled.  His son - the young boy who’d force marched his sister and their dog in the backyard had become the leader of his people.  Jack felt a surge of bittersweet pride.

 

“Colonel, are you all right?”

 

Jack suddenly realized that it had grown quiet.  Daniel had stopped reading.  “I’m fine.  Go on.”

 

When Daniel didn’t continue, Jack turned and looked at him.  Sitting on the floor, staring up at him, Daniel looked young and vulnerable.  “Jack-”

 

“Finish it,” Jack quietly ordered.

 

Daniel grimaced and looked down at the book.  In the small beam of the flashlight, Jack saw the finger tracing the text tremble slightly and he braced himself.

 

“‘It is perhaps a wry twist of fate that Doctor Shay also fathered Marayd Shay Konnor.  The wife of Murish Konnor, Marayd Konnor was a renowned scientist.  Inheriting her father’s thirst for knowledge and his gift for research, Doctor Konnor, with her father’s backing, established the Shay Center.  There, surrounding herself with an elite group of scientists and engineers, she led her people’s first campaign into space.  An unfortunate result of her facility’s research into nuclear power lead to the Great Civil War and later, to the ultimate destruction of the entire Northwestern Province when warheads were launched on the last day of the year of seventeen dash seventy-seven.  Vehemently opposed to the Center’s development of weapons, Doctor Konnor officially ended her involvement with the Center a year before the launching of the warheads.  In speaking of her rift with the Center’s Directors, she was quoted in the Provincial News Service as saying that she viewed the Center’s involvement in weapons development as her greatest shame and regret.’”

 

Afraid to move, terrified of shattering the fragile mask of indifference he wore, Jack merely watched as Daniel turned the page.

 

“It goes on to tell about how the Great Circle that was found near a place called Liatrom in seventeen dash sixty-eight was finally activated the same year the bombs were detonated.”  Daniel glanced up at Jack, then over at Sam and Teal’c.  “Apparently, as the effects of the nuclear war spread, the decision was made to send the remaining population through the ‘Gate.”

 

His eyes focused on the small beam of Daniel’s flashlight, Jack could feel them watching him, waiting for a reaction.  He, too, waited.  But, all he felt was the weight of an alien world on his shoulders.  All he saw were the ashes of a destruction that he had fathered.  Marayd - his Pearl, his gifted daughter, the author of these ruins.  It had been his stories that had spawned her dreams of space travel; it had been his pride that had encouraged her to live out her dreams.

 

“Does it say where they went?”

 

At Carter’s question, Jack blinked and saw his second in command staring at Daniel, who shook his head.

 

“No, not here anyway.  Maybe it’s . . .,” he waved a hand toward the small office full of books.  His face full of worry, Daniel looked up at Jack.

 

“Is-,” but Jack’s voice failed him and he was forced to clear his throat.  His hands had once again found their way around his weapon and he pried them away, casually wiping them on his pants and refusing to look at any of the others.  “Is that all?”

 

The pause was too long, but finally Jack sensed Daniel turning back to the words on the page.  “‘Only two descendants of Doctor Shay were noted in the census taken before the Great Exodus: Renny Konnor Usheen and her son, Kian Murish Usheen.  As with the remaining inhabitants of the Province, all unnamed members of the Shay family are presumed dead.’”

 

That was it then.  They were gone.  All of them - his sons, his daughter, their babies - they were long dead.  Laughing, giggling Marayd, whose favorite toy was Papa’s fuzzy arms; curly-haired Awnlee and his bossy Uncle Donal; little Cahal and his gifted father, Neesha; Sorsha, with the gentlest heart Jack had ever known; the unborn child that Marayd had been carrying when Jack had last seen her; and who knew how many others that had come after.  Even little Renny, the rosy cheeked cherub who’d lived to bear a son of her own, would have died a thousand years ago.  Maybe more.  They were reduced to nothing more than ashes and memories that were slipping away from him even as he stood here surrounded by the air they had once breathed.

 

He walked towards the open door.

 

“Jack.”

 

Dazed, he stopped at Daniel’s call, but kept his back to his team.

 

“Jack, where are you going?”

 

He wasn’t sure.  He knew only that he needed to be away from here, away from them.  It was growing late, but he had a sudden urge to see the remains of the city one more time before they left.  He needed to search for familiarity in the residue.

 

Without answering, Jack walked outside.  Behind him he heard someone, more than likely Daniel, scrambling to their feet.  Dimly, he was also aware of Teal’c’s soft admonishment to ‘leave him be.’

 

* * * * *

 

Not surprisingly, it was Daniel who arrived to bring him back.  Not back in the sense of returning from another planet, but back as in ‘becoming Jack O’Neill.’  It was, after all, only fitting:  Daniel had only just returned from a journey of his own.  If anyone knew how to fall back down to Earth, it was Doctor Jackson.

 

Jack was staring out the window of the makeshift office in his spare bedroom, surprised to see the flowers growing along the split rail fence in the backyard, when he heard Daniel let himself in the front door.  As he listened to his friend softly calling for him, Jack felt like he had been away forever.  At the very least, it felt like several seasons had passed since he’d awakened in the infirmary to find family and friends missing from two realities.

 

“Jack?”

 

He swivelled his chair and saw Daniel standing in the doorway.

 

“Am I interrupting something?”

 

Jack smiled.  “Not really.”

 

“Sorry.  I shouldn’t have barged in, but I tried calling and knocking. . . .”

 

“It’s okay, Daniel.  Really.”

 

“You sure?”

 

Jack nodded.

 

Slowly, as if he feared retaliation, Daniel made his way into the room and sat down on the futon shoved up against the opposite wall.  “So . . .,” and suddenly, the resident linguist was at a complete loss for words.

 

Leaning back in his chair, Jack crossed his arms and studied his friend.  The guy hadn’t looked this worried in a long time.  “I’m fine.”

 

In response, Daniel frowned.

 

“Really, I am.”

 

“You’re fine.”  Daniel leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.  “You just lost your entire family, Jack.  Hell . . . your entire world.”

 

“No, I didn’t, Daniel.  A man named Kian Shay did.  A few thousand years ago.”  That’s what he’d been told to tell himself anyway.

 

Daniel’s face reddened and Jack saw a vein on the man’s temple throb incessantly.  “MacKenzie’s a quack.”

 

“No, he isn’t.”  Jack was as surprised as Daniel to realize he meant what he said.  “Not this time.  This time, he’s right.  It wasn’t me.  Not really.”

 

“You were there for over twenty-five years, Jack.”

 

“I was never there.  I dreamed it all in, what . . . the space of a few hours?”

 

“You’re going to sit here and tell me it didn’t feel real to you?”

 

“No.”  Jack shook his head.  “I’m not going to lie to you, Daniel.  It felt real.  It felt very real.  But the fact of the matter is, it wasn’t.”

 

“It was more than a dream.”

 

His pulse quickening, Jack was instantly angry.  “Daniel Jackson . . . a fucking genius,” he whispered.

 

“Jack-”

 

“No, Daniel.  You’re absolutely right.”  Jack stood up, the chair rolling back and banging into the desk.  “It was more than a dream.  It was a fucking computer program!”  He stormed from the room.

 

“Jack!”

 

He ended up in the kitchen, leaning against a counter and swigging down a cold beer.  Not because he wanted it, but because it was bitter and still new to him, and because he knew if he drank enough, quickly enough, it would numb things.  At least for a little while.  God, what the hell was Daniel doing?

 

And then, like a damn dog with a bone, he was there - standing across the room from Jack, blocking the exit.

 

“Jack-”

 

“Daniel, just shut up.”

 

“I know what MacKenzie told you.  I know he said to forget about what happened, to get on with your life.”

 

“I want you to leave.”

 

“He said the same thing to me when I came back.”  Daniel was inching his way closer.  “He’s just trying to slap a band-aid on it, Jack.  Don’t you see that?”

 

Breathless, Jack tightened his grip on the cold bottle.  “I want you out of my house.”

 

“He’s sticking a fucking band-aid over the hole where your heart was ripped out.”

 

“Daniel . . . please.”  Please, please, please . . . just shut up!

 

Three feet away, an arm’s length, Daniel stopped, staring at him.  His glasses glowing in the fluorescent lighting of the kitchen, Daniel studied him, then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a chain and a marker.

 

Oh, God.  Jack felt the bottle slip from his hand, but he was deaf to its impact.  He didn’t feel the cold liquid and the shards of glass on his bare feet.  Everything in him was riveted to that thing in Daniel’s hand, and to his own marker - Kian’s marker - that even now was hanging next to his ever-present dogtags.

 

“We found one of them, Jack.”  Daniel held out the marker.  Jack made no move to reach for it.  “We found one of your kids.”

 

He licked his lips.  “They’re dead,” he whispered.

 

Daniel seemed to think before responding.  “Yeah, they are.  But they weren’t.  Not when you knew them.  And you did know them, didn’t you, Jack?”

 

Finally, he looked at his friend.  Daniel was smiling, offering him the marker.  Slowly, Jack nodded and took the prize.  His hands shaking, he pulled it to him.  He couldn't read it.  The words, the language, none of it belonged to him now.

 

“It says 'Donal Shosaf Shay,'" Daniel provided.  "He was one of their heroes, Jack.  A General.  Their Governor.”

 

Somehow, his knees gave out.  His crotchety old knees finally gave up the ghost and he discovered that he was sitting on the floor.  He smelled of beer and he had small cuts on his feet and one on his palm, and Daniel was kneeling in front of him.

 

“He was . . . bossy,” Jack grinned, “and stubborn, but he was a great kid.  He was tough, but he was always fair and honest, and he drove me nuts sometimes.”

 

Daniel laughed softly.  “He sounds a lot like you.”

 

“Daniel . . . what do I do?”  Alone, in the sanctity of Carter’s lab, he’d tried reactivating the computer, the one with Kian’s memories.  Apparently, it was a one time deal.  None of the other computers worked either.  Carter thought they’d been damaged by the power surge.  It was all there, so close, but out of reach.  “I don’t know what to do.”

 

For the first time in a long time, Daniel reached out and touched him, clasping a solid hand onto his shoulder.  “I wish I knew what to tell you, Jack.  I really do.  But I don’t.  All I know is, you can’t let MacKenzie turn you back into the man you were.  The one who went to Abydos with me that first time.  You can’t shove this aside, hide it away somewhere.  It’s too damn big.”

 

Staring down at the marker, at the meager proof of his son’s existence, Jack knew that Daniel was right.  Somehow, he was going to have to find a way to deal with this.  Maybe he couldn’t walk away free and clear like MacKenzie said, but maybe, like with Charlie, he could drag this along behind him.  Eventually, he knew, he’d get used to the weight of it.

 

“Jack, I think maybe I should go.”

 

He nodded.  “Yeah.”

 

“You going to be okay?  I can stay if you’d like.”

 

“No.”  Suddenly tired and feeling a bit stupid sitting in a puddle of beer, Jack smiled.  “I’ll be fine, Daniel.  Really.”  And this time, he thought he meant it.

 

* * * * *

 

“Colonel, they’re ready for us.”

 

His hands still on the keyboard, Jack glanced up from his computer.  “I’ll be there in a minute, Carter.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

As she disappeared down the hallway, Jack turned back to the monitor and continued to type.

 

‘Guess we’ll have to continue this some other time.  Duty calls.  Apparently, Daniel - and he really is annoying by the way - believes he’s found that meaning of life stuff.  Again.  Another one of those face sucker thingies at any rate.

 

Don’t forget what I said:  It wasn’t your mama’s fault.  If anybody’s to blame, it’s me.  She was just doing what she thought best.  You can’t be responsible for everyone else’s actions, and it’s not always possible to stop things from happening.  Trust me on this one, Renny.

 

Well, I’m off.  I’ll keep my eye out for a brown-eyed beauty, or maybe a boy with messy hair and your smile.  Don’t forget I love you, baby.  Slán go fóill.1

 

GrandPapa

 

P.S.: I need a fourteen-letter word for ‘label.’  Any help would be greatly appreciated.

 

<finis>

 

______

1 Translation: ‘Bye for now.’